Tuesday, December 25, 2007

What Can We Believe About Christmas? Does Jesus Match the Prophetic Fingerprint?

Did Jesus offer credible credentials to back up his divine claims? Yes!

Miracles: John 10:37 told John to look for his miracles. Isaiah said Miracles would be one way the Messiah would authenticate himself.

  • Power over nature: walking on water
  • Power over sickness: healing leprosy & blindness
  • Power over death: raising Lazarus

Jesus’ opponents never denied his miracles. Even the Talmud admits miracles, and Mohammed, the founder of Islam, admits Jesus’ miracles and his virgin birth.

Character – often the closer we get to others, the more we see their flaws, but the opposite happened with Jesus!

John & Peter saw him up close and personal: their assessment:
1 John 3:5 – in Him is no sin
1 Peter 2:22 – committed no sin, no deceit was in him.

Who can have the same said about them?

The way he fit the fingerprint of divine prophecy.
Only the Messiah could fit this fingerprint:

He was:

  • Born of a virgin
  • Of the seed of Abraham
  • Of the tribe of Judah
  • Of the house of David
  • Born in Bethlehem
  • Heralded by angels
  • He cleansed the Temple
  • Rejected by the religious leaders

The Old Testament contains a description of Jesus being crucified 100s of years before crucifixion was implemented as a means of execution by the Romans. Could Jesus have intentionally maneuvered his life to fulfill these predictions? i.e., as he was going into Jerusalem, telling his disciples to go get him a donkey because Zechariah 9:9 says he is going to ride a donkey into Jerusalem, and he’s anxious for people to think he’s the messiah so they will torture him to death.

There’s no way Jesus could have maneuvered himself to intentionally fulfill all these prophecies: how could he arrange his place of birth? His ancestry? How he was betrayed for a specific amount? How his bones were unbroken on the cross unlike the others on the cross?

Mathematical odds of any human being fulfilling just 48 of these prophecies: 1 chance in one hundred million billion! Or one chance in a (say trillion 13 times). Have a blindfolded person find an atom out of a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, billion universes the size of ours.

Odds are astronomical, but Jesus came to fulfill them.
Luke 24:44 – all writings must be fulfilled.

All through history, the only one to fulfill all these prophecies is the baby in the Manger.

This message was derived from Lee Strobel's The Case for Christmas. Click on the title for more information.

Monday, December 17, 2007

What Can We Believe About Christmas? Weighing the Evidence, pt. 2

If an atheist told you that Jesus’ bones had been found, would you still be a Christian?

How about if, instead of an atheist, it was someone at Main Street who told you; would you repudiate your Christianity?

What if I, as your pastor came and told you, and Pastor Dave, Mitch Arnold, and Dave Hunt came in to back me up; would you still be a Christian?

How about if you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that someone had found the bones of Jesus Christ, proving that He hadn’t resurrected, would that do anything to your faith?

If it doesn’t change anything for you, then I would encourage you to figure out what the basis for your belief is, because it might be based more on wishful thinking than in fact. The truth is that nobody is going to find Jesus’ bones, because He rose from the grave. But this underscores the importance of the evidence we have that helps to prove what we believe is true.

Nazareth, Bethlehem, December 25th, Quirinius, a Roman census, no room in the inn, a baby born in a stable to a virgin mother… can we really be expected to believe any of this stuff?

When we evaluate truth claims, it’s important to first figure out what the claims are. What I mean by that is, it’s important that we actually look at what the Bible says, rather than simply relying on tradition. For example, what would you say if someone from the Way argued that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25. It’s obvious that He was, isn’t it?

You know what I would say? "Yeah, so what?"

Let’s see, where is that in the Bible? Ummm, Matthew doesn’t say anything about the timing, other than that wise men came during King Herod’s reign. Luke is a little more helpful, telling us it was while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Neither Mark nor John say anything at all on the subject. In fact, around 200 AD, scholars concluded that Jesus was born on May 20. Others argued for dates in April and March. It wasn’t a major issue, because early Christians emphasized the Epiphany on January 6, marking Christ’s baptism, rather than His birth. It wasn’t until AD 385 that Pope Julius I declared December 25 as the day to celebrate Christ’s birth. One reason he chose that date was to challenge the pagan celebration of the Roman god Saturn, a celebration which was characterized by immorality and social disorder.

Does it make a big difference whether we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25 or May 20? Well, it doesn’t seem to bother us too badly to celebrate Presidents’ Day on a Monday or Mothers’ Day on a Sunday, even though the date changes yearly. And it wasn’t as if Christmas was just integrated into the pagan celebration – it was meant to replace it.

So what are some other critical questions that are asked about Christmas? Some question Luke’s account, wondering if archeology supports or undermines his statements. Why is that important? Well, think about this: Mormonism hinges upon the acceptance that Joseph Smith found some golden plates with special writing on them, that an angel named Moroni translated them for him, and that the angel then took the plates with him. Historically, Mormonism holds that long ago, a man named Lehi migrated from Jerusalem to Central America, and that within 30 years, they built a copy of Solomon's Temple. Then the people challenged the authority of Nephi (one of the first generation Central Americans from Jerusalem), so God cursed them, changing their skin color.

There is no evidence whatsoever that supports these claims, and indeed, there is evidence that shows that Joseph Smith’s version of history didn’t happen. So then, are we supposed to believe these things just because a Mormon holy book says them?

When we deal with skeptics, they will not accept "because the Bible says so" as proof. You and I accept the Bible as God’s Word, but the outside world does not – they need outside proof that of its credibility.

So what about Luke’s claims? Do they hurt or help his credibility? For years, scholars claimed that Luke didn’t know what he was talking about, in part because in Luke 3:1, he referred to Lysanias being tetrarch of Abilene in about 27 AD, but everyone knew that Lysanias was not a tetrarch, but rather the ruler of Chalcis some fifty years earlier! This is where archaeology came in; archaeologists found an inscription from the time of Tiberius, from AD 14-37, which names Lysanias as tetrarch of Abila near Damascus – just as Luke had written. It turned out that there were two people named Lysanias!

So how about the census? Can we really believe that the government would force its citizens all to their hometowns to be counted? Well, a Roman government order was found from AD 104 which says the following: Gaius Vibius Maximus, Prefect of Egypt [says]: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments.

Another papyrus from 48 AD indicates that the entire family was involved in the census.
So what about the people involved? Herod the Great died in 4 BC, and Quirinius didn’t begin ruling Syria until 6 AD. The math just doesn’t make sense! Except that an archaeologist named Jerry Vardaman found a coin with the name Quirinius on it in a special kind of writing, a kind that places Quirinius as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC until after the death of Herod. Meaning that there were two people named Quirinius.

How about Nazareth? In his article Where Jesus Never Walked, atheist Frank Zindler notes that Nazareth isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament or by Paul or even by first-century Jewish historian Josephus. In fact, no ancient historian even mentions Nazareth until the fourth century. How can we believe it even existed?

Well, after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, priests were sent to various locations, and archaeologists have found a list, written in Aramaic, of where the priests and their families were sent. Guess where one of them was sent? The small town of Nazareth… Archaeologists have found first-century tombs in the vicinity of Nazareth as well, and thus are able to outline its boundaries – they determined that it was a strongly Jewish settlement in the Roman period, a place of only about sixty acres and a maximum population of about 480 at the beginning of the first century. No wonder people grumbled, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"

The fact is that even by relying on ancient non-Christian sources, we would still be able to know the following facts:

  1. Jesus was a Jewish teacher.
  2. Many people believed that He performed healings and exorcisms.
  3. Some people believed that He was the Messiah.
  4. He was rejected by the Jewish leaders.
  5. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.
  6. Despite His shameful death, His followers, who believed He was still alive, spread beyond Palestine so there were multitudes of them in Rome by AD 64
  7. All kinds of people from the cities and countryside – men and women – worshiped Him as God.

With this in mind, what can we believe about Christmas? We can believe that the historical Jesus Christ was born just as Scriptures report, and that many people believed in Him. So the question we need to wrestle with is this: was Jesus really the Messiah?

Note: my main source for the archaeological facts in this sermon is Lee Strobel's book The Case for Christmas. The "bones of Jesus" proposition came from a lecture by Dr. Jerrry Walls in Introduction to Christian Philosophy. The Mormonism material came from Ruth A. Tucker's book Another Gospel.

Monday, December 10, 2007

What Can We Believe About Christmas? Weighing the Evidence

Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.
Luke 1:1-4

It all sounds a bit fanciful, if you ask me. A virgin and her husband-to-be, travelling by donkey through the wintry night to Bethlehem, where they find no room in the inn. So they end up in a stable where, on December 25, in the year 1 BC, they have a baby. They wrap the baby in cloths and lay him in a manger. Then an angel appears to shepherds and they run to see the baby. They hurry to put up a Christmas tree, because there’s no tree in the stable. Martin Luther then comes to help them hang candles in the tree to mimic the sight of the light hitting the snow on the trees in the forest they came through. A star shines overhead, and that’s what helps Santa Claus find the stable to bring Jesus his presents. Then magi come from the east, bringing gold, Frankenstein, and myrrh.

Sounds pretty crazy.

What, if any of this, can we believe? Is Christmas really credible? Who ever heard of these things happening? Skeptics continue to attack the events of Christmas and the credibility of the Bible. How can we know what really happened?

In his introduction to the book of Luke, we find that Luke set out to write an orderly account from eyewitnesses about the events that took place. His goal: so that his reader (whether there was one intended reader, whose name was Theophilus, or if it was intended for a general audiences of studyers of God, which is what "Theophilus" means) could be certain of the truth of everything he had been taught.

So are you certain? What do we know is true? And why do we accept it? The first thing we have to do is determine if the accounts we have of Christmas are trustworthy. Many of us never thought to examine the trustworthiness of the Bible. It is, after all, the Bible! We just accept it at its word. Of course, that’s how we may approach it, but many outside the faith (and even some inside it) approach the Bible with a great deal of skepticism.

They raise questions like:
  • Were the Gospels really written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
  • How can the Gospels be accurate biographies, written as long as they were after Jesus’ life?
  • Weren’t the Gospel authors trying to push their own agendas?

Let’s look at authorship first. Why is this important? Did you know that all four Gospels were originally anonymous? But the unanimous testimony of the early church was that Matthew was written by Matthew, Jesus’ disciple, the tax collector (otherwise known as Levi). Mark was written by John Mark, a companion of Peter. Luke was written by Paul’s missionary partner, the physician Luke. John was written by either John the Apostle or John the Elder.

Nobody would have had cause to lie and say that these were the authors when they really weren’t. Indeed, when later "gospels" were written, they were always attributed to well-known and exemplary figures: Peter, Philip, Mary, James, Mary Magdalene, and even Thomas. Yet Mark and Luke were not even among the twelve, and Matthew, as a tax collector, would have been the least liked of the bunch (except for Judas).

Though there is some question about which "John" wrote the gospel, it is clear that he was an eyewitness to Jesus’ life. It has been accepted from a very early time that these four were the gospel authors – in 125 AD, Papius specifically affirmed Mark’s careful account of Peter’s eyewitness testimony, that he "made no mistake" and recorded "no false statements." By 180 AD, Irenaeus confirmed traditional authorship.

But why would we accept testimony so far after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection?

The accepted dating for the Gospels, even in liberal circles, has Mark in the 70s; Matthew and Luke in the 80s; and John in the 90s. These are late speculations – but here’s something to think about: the book of Acts ends apparently unfinished. It doesn’t include Paul’s death, which happened in 62 AD. So it is likely that Luke finished Acts before 62 AD, meaning that Luke would have to have a dating earlier than that, and Mark was written even earlier! Thus the gap between the events and the written account was some 30 years. To our standards, that doesn’t seem very fast, but to the standards of that time period, it was like lightning. Think about it this way: do you believe in Alexander the Great? The two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great, by Arrian and Plutarch, were written more than 400 years after Alexander died, yet historians consider them generally trustworthy. The Gospel accounts, on the other hand, were written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses!

…eyewitnesses who could challenge or correct any untrue statements!

So why doesn’t Mark, the earliest writer, even include the birth narrative? This simply demonstrates the way ancient biographers wrote. They weren’t obsessed with celebrity culture the way we are, and they didn’t write biographies simply to write them. They only wrote if they felt like people could learn something from the biographies themselves. Each of the Gospel writers came with an agenda: Matthew was writing to try to convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. Luke highlighted the poor and marginalized, and Mark to show Jesus as the suffering servant. Thus while Matthew included a genealogy to demonstrate Jesus’ Jewish lineage, Mark focused on the events leading up to Jesus’ death on the cross.

So does this mean the Gospels aren’t trustworthy, as each author had an agenda? No. All it means is that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had agendas. The current thought that news must be objective (which it isn’t – try watching the news with a critical eye, and you’ll find the agendas of the newsmakers) is new. This wasn’t the case in the Ancient Near East. And think about this: just because someone has an agenda doesn’t make them wrong or inaccurate. What is important is that we don’t have Luke trying to refute Mark or John trying to refute Matthew. Instead, they are in agreement about who Jesus was and what He did! This is very important, and it should tell you something about their validity. Especially since they were written while eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were still living to refute or correct any untrue or inaccurate statements.

As we continue looking at Christmas over the next several weeks, I want to make something clear. I started out this sermon with a mishmash of Christmas tradition, both fact and fiction. Some of it is true, and some false. Some we have evidence about, and other is just how the celebration has evolved over 2000 years.

The only reason I bring any of it up is that it doesn’t matter what is true or false if you’re not willing to accept the implications thereof. This isn’t simply an intellectual exercise to figure out fact versus fiction. It’s a serious attempt to prove that the Bible is a trustworthy witness. If it is not, then none of it matters. But if it is, then it all matters, and it should transform our lives.

Note: my main source for this sermon is Lee Strobel's book The Case for Christmas.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Mission Sunday

This week was Mission Sunday, so, instead of a sermon, there were presentations made for the following ministries:
You can click on any of the above links to find out more information about these life-changing programs to share the love of Jesus Christ with the most needy.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Living the Good Life: Generosity

Blessed are those who are generous, because they feed the poor. - Proverbs 22:9

Merchants have already quickly forgotten Thanksgiving in the rush for Christmas money. I think most of them, except for the grocers, completely forgot Thanksgiving altogether this year. In fact, I was hearing Christmas songs in the stores before I’d even lost the sugar buzz from eating my kids’ Halloween candy.

Thanksgiving just doesn’t make the stores a whole lot of money. On Thanksgiving, we give God thanks for all He has given us through the year. That sort of celebration doesn’t lend itself to retail exploitation. But on the day after Thanksgiving, the retailers breathe a sigh of relief as Americans rush out to get whatever it is that will be the huge Christmas gift this year – at all-time low prices, if you’re early enough.

For some, Thanksgiving is simply an annoyance, a detour in the endeavor to make more and more money. For others, Thanksgiving kicks off the whole season of accumulation.

In Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus told his followers “Don’t store up your treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves cannot break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.”

The secret to living the good life is generosity. As we read in Acts 20:35, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

At a church where I used to serve, they had a tradition of participating in the Appalachia Service Project doing home repair for some of the neediest families in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina. Now you have to realize that the people in my church were economically diverse from those we served – meaning that we were wealthy while they were poor. Those families were dirt poor, living in shacks, but – this always blew our kids away – they were completely content. What’s more, they were always giving. We would leave our work site feeling like we had received more than we had given, that we had been blessed.
How is it that some are able to be so completely generous, even when they have little to give? It all seems to be a matter of perspective and power.

Perspective in this: everything we have now was given to us by God, and He is the rightful owner of it all.

At this point, Pat B and I did a skit called "The Pearl Dealer" which focused on Jesus' parable about the pearl of great price to help illustrate this).

God has given us so much – we have an absolute abundance. Yet when we think of what we have, we count it our own. If someone asks for it, we immediately get defensive. “That’s MINE!” we shout, sounding like a bunch of two-year olds.

Then we wonder why none of it satisfies.

1 Timothy 6:17-21 says, “Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. By doing this they will be storing up their treasure as a good foundation for the future so that they may experience true life.”

Here’s the thing about Thanksgiving; it’s great to give thanks – we need to. But to limit it to one day, that is wrong. To move quickly past Thanksgiving into a gift-buying, materialistic frenzy, that’s wrong. Instead, we should look at what God has given to us and share it with those who need it. That is how we live the good life… because that’s the kind of life God rewards.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Thanksgiving Miracle: Thanksgiving 2007

Philippians 4:4-9 (New Living Translation)
Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon.
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.

I remember the way Thanksgiving used to be. From early in the morning, the family would happily start gathering together. As soon as we got in the door, everyone would quickly go to their places to do their appointed chores. From the oldest to the youngest, everyone had a job to do, and we were all so excited to be together that everyone would joyfully pitch in. When it came time for the meal, we went around the room, each giving thanks for momentous things the Lord had done for us. We were always careful to remember those who might be hungry or alone on the holiday. Then, in orderly fashion, we helped ourselves to reasonable portions of the delicious food and found our places to eat. The conversation around the table was always uplifting and edifying, not only to those present, but also regarding those who weren’t around. After the meal, we would scurry to help clean up. Finally, after a wonderful day with the family, it was time to return home.


After multiple fights on every conceivable subject (including the good old, "You’re not wearing that are you?"), we finally got in the car and headed for a boring day with the relatives. We fought the whole way there. Once we got there, the kids were given tasks. The boys were to set up tables and chairs, and the girls were to help in the kitchen where the women were already hard at work. The men sat on the couch and watched TV, even if it was just the Macy’s Parade (which they grumbled about – there should have been an early football game on so they wouldn’t have had to watch a parade). We boys would get half done with our job and go outside to fight. I mean to play football, which would degenerate into a fight. The girls and women would continue breaking their backs and scorching their arms while preparing the food, all the while getting in each other’s way, arguing about recipes, and gossiping (I mean, telling "concerned information") about relatives who weren’t there. By the time the food was finally ready (and I say finally because the big meal was never at a usual meal time, and nobody was allowed to eat anything until the big meal was served "you’ll spoil your appetite!"), everyone was grumpy and irritable. Someone said a prayer and it was always too long – meanwhile everyone was subtly jockeying for position to get to the food first. Then, with plates loaded with enough food to feed an entire third-world nation for weeks, we headed for the separate tables to chow. The conversation around the tables mostly centered on crude jokes, more gossip, or prank plans (depending on which table you sat at). After the meal, nobody could move because everyone had eaten way too much food. The men and boys retired to concentrate on the football game (though in reality, none of them cared about either team), and the women and girls had to clean up the mess. A few hours (and multiple fights) later, it was time to get back in the car and head home to the endless left-over food (that nobody wanted, and somehow you ended up with it all).

Which of these sounds most familiar?

The funny thing is I was describing the same Thanksgiving event, only from different perspective. It can be easy to remember fondly the things that might not have been so pleasant while you were experiencing them.

But here’s the deal: we have a choice in how we remember those times. Will we choose to remember the good parts, or will we dwell on the bad?

This is true not only for the past, but for the present as well. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, telling them to be full of joy in the Lord, to refrain from worry but pray about everything. To tell God what you need and thank him for what he has done. He told them to fix their thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

What makes Paul’s exhortation remarkable was that he lived this out – and not simply during family gatherings, either. Paul wrote (and lived) this from prison. His ideas weren’t simply based on nostalgic feelings that painted a picture that was better than his experiences. Rather, God transformed him right in the midst of and despite his experiences.

Too often I hear the complaints. Too often the glass is half-empty (and it might as well be cracked, too, so it can’t be filled over half). But what would happen if we all began taking Paul’s command seriously? What would it do for our Thanksgiving gatherings? What would it do for our community if we fixed our thoughts on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and admirable? What if our thoughts centered on things that are excellent and worthy of praise? What might that do to our conversations? What would our attitude be about others?

Then, what if we follow that up with Paul’s final command in this passage? The people in Philippi were supposed to act like Christians as well. This would be a Thanksgiving miracle.

Why do I say that? Thanksgiving is a day of eating. It’s my favorite meal of the year. Many of us eat until we can’t move. I know one family who would buy new sweatpants for that meal – complete with very stretchy elastic waistbands! Meanwhile, around the world, children are dying as a result of hunger-related causes at a rate of one every three seconds.

Thanksgiving is a day of conversation. Will you talk about all the blessings God has given you – too numerous to even count, or will your conversation default to unhealthy gossip?
Thanksgiving is a day of togetherness. But what about those who are outsiders? What about those whom you look down upon? What about those who don’t have the right name or pedigree?

Thanksgiving is a day of family gatherings. This area is big on family. But what about those who are alone? What about those who have lost loved ones, who are estranged from loved ones, or who are separated from those loved ones by hundreds or thousands of miles? You might be one of those people who can’t be close to your loved ones – what will your attitude be? Will you sit alone and mope, or will you fix your thoughts on things that are excellent and worthy of praise? Will you allow yourself to be mired in self-pity, or will you think about the Apostle Paul, who rejoiced even while spending his last days imprisoned?

Each of us has a choice. We can actually choose our thought life. In 2 Corinthians 10:5, Paul tells them that "we take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ." This is your assignment for Thanksgiving… and beyond. Examine your thought life. Enter into a "no complain" pact – decide that for you, Thanksgiving will be a complaint-free zone. You aren’t going to complain about anything. Or maybe you’ll extend that for the rest of the month, or through the end of 2007.

Whatever it is, do something. You’ll find God transforming you from the inside out, and that will be our Thanksgiving miracle.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Be Thankful Always

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18

When I was young, my parents taught me to write thank you notes. One of the rules of our household was that if we received a gift, that we would promptly write a thank-you note. My mom was always offended by my cousins who never wrote a thank you note. When we got older our families stopped our regular gift exchange, but that Aunt continued to send me birthday money. I’m convinced that it was at least partially because I faithfully demonstrated my thankfulness.

When I served in Columbus, we would often have panhandlers come by the church asking for a handout. We didn’t keep money on the premises, but there was a food donation box that I’d let people look through. One particular guy came in and was overjoyed to be given that food. Others were mad that I wouldn’t give them cash. One guy wouldn’t even let me pray with him… even though he had come to a church for help, and even though I’d offered him food and a coat.
Quite honestly, I’d rather give to someone who is thankful, wouldn’t you?

Do you have an attitude of gratitude?

I know people who are grateful for what seems to be the littlest things. They’re grateful that they have a roof over their heads and food on their tables. I know other people who are constantly griping about what they don’t have (or what other people have that they wish they had).

It’s all a matter of attitude, and you can choose your attitude.

Unfortunately, if you come at life with a "glass half empty" attitude, it’s hard to rise above it. What is the one thing that bugs you the most? I remember once sitting in the living room with my sister, complaining about how bored we were. We sat there talking about nothing and even suggested some things we could do, but in the end, we just sat there, bored. The funny thing was that this went on for nearly three hours! If we’d actually done anything, we could have conquered that boredom, but we choose not to.

This is the choice we have, no matter what our life circumstance is. We can choose to live a grateful life of thanksgiving, or we can choose to live a spiteful life of "gimme."

Why is it, in this country of prosperity, that nobody is satisfied? In our monthly meeting, our assistant DS asked clergy what we were doing to combat materialism. Why does that question even have to be asked? Quite honestly, it goes back to something Jesus said. He said that nobody could serve two masters; we can either serve God or money.

Money is a useful tool, but it makes a cruel master. There’s never enough; you always want more. Many of us have accepted Jesus’ lordship over our lives but we’ve withheld our finances.

What reasons do we have to be thankful? Well, as I said, it can be easy to find things to be thankful for when things are going well, but sometimes it can be hard. You can probably come up with many times when thanksgiving was hard. Perhaps it is right now.

Maybe think of it this way: you’re at a basketball game, and the other team keeps making baskets, scoring point after point. It could seem frustrating, watching them make one lay-up after another. But how different might you feel if your team was up 100-0 and this was the fourth quarter?

Wouldn’t that change your attitude?

When the Apostle Paul tells his reader to always be thankful, it’s not simply a "mind over matter" kind of thing. He’s not telling them to turn a blind eye to suffering or pain. He’s not telling them to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that everything is all right when it really isn’t.

No, Paul’s command is within this context: Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. It’s God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus! This is not only who he is talking to, but the reason for our thankfulness.

We are on the team that’s up 100-0 – and even more! Jesus already won the game, and no matter how many point it seems that the enemy has scored, the outcome is never in doubt. For that, we can be thankful. With this mindset, we can look at our difficulties and understand that they pale in comparison to the great wonder, which is in store for us.

We read about it in Revelation 21:1-6.

You might be thinking, "I’m thankful – especially on Thanksgiving. So what?" If that’s where you are and you’re OK with that, then it could be partially my fault for preaching a scripture out of its context. You see, part of Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians included living out their sanctified life. In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul urged the Christians to live and to please God (as they were already doing), but to do so more and more. He said that they already loved each other, but they should do so more and more, and (get this) to make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before. Then people who are not Christians will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others.

So be thankful, even more and more. And if you run out of things to be thankful for, ask God to show you.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Sanctification - United Methodist Distinctives

John 17:13-21 NLT
Now I am coming to you. I told them many things while I was with them in this world so they would be filled with my joy. I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to this world any more than I do. Make them holy by your truth. Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth. I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

John 17-19 NRSV
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

I was a college freshman, and I was being treated like royalty. Everywhere I went, there was great food and all sorts of fun, and what’s more, everyone wanted to get to know me. Guys wanted to know about my hometown, my background, my interests. They made sure I knew I belonged. It wasn’t long until I had been invited to belong, and I was introduced as a new "associate member" of the fraternity. That’s what they called pledges in our house. I went through a pledge period where I learned about the fraternity, even taking weekly quizzes. Then, one night, we went through the ritual that I’m not allowed to tell you about, and I became a full-fledged fraternity member. I was now allowed to wear the fraternity letters and identify myself with the house. It was a big deal, because I finally belonged.

In a church, I believe there’s something to be said about the process of integrating an unconnected freshman into a connected fraternity member. The freshman started as an outsider. Then we invited him in to check out the house. If we approved of him, we issued a bid, giving him the opportunity to accept or reject the offer. If he accepted, we rang him in as a pledge. After learning about the house, getting to know the members, and doing some chores and so forth, he was initiated as a full member, after which time he was expected to be a good Chi Phi. But he wasn’t left to figure it all out on his own. In fact, there was an interesting ceremony in which the pledges were "adopted" by pledge fathers whose duty it was to help them along the journey.

Our Christian journey can be compared to joining the fraternity. First, we were in sin, like the unconnected college freshman, but in Prevenient Grace, the Holy Spirit invited us in. Then, just like a pledge is initiated, through God’s Justifying Grace, we are integrated into the Christian life in the Church. But as we continue on the journey, we’re not left to do it on our own, either.

The Holy Spirit continually walks the journey with us – in us – and daily transforms us more and more into Christ’s likeness.

Of all the theological words I know, it seems that sanctification is maybe the least understood. In fact, the New Living Translation, the Bible I prefer to do my devotional reading from, has eliminated the word "sanctify" from this passage, preferring to translate it "make them holy." That’s OK, because the Greek word άγιαξω means “to make holy, purify, consecrate, hallow, be holy, sanctify.”

But that doesn’t really clear anything up, does it?

Think about it this way: when God justifies you, he also changes you from what you were to something new. 2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! By grace, God set us apart from ordinary use to a sacred purpose – that’s the definition of sanctification.

The very fact that we’ve been set apart is significant. But what have we been set apart for? We’ve been set apart for perfection. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus himself tells the crowds to "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect."

Unfortunately, we often look at mediocrity, "getting by," or being "better than so-and-so" as our goal. Instead of perfection, we want OK. Instead of being God’s people sent into a lost and broken world, we are satisfied with church attendance – and not even weekly attendance, either. Instead of giving our first-fruits to God – 10% as a tithe, then additional as gifts and offerings, we are satisfied with dropping a few bucks into the plate (as long as people see me put my envelope in, I’m fine). Instead of loving our enemies, we’re satisfied with liking our friends. Instead of continuing the sin-free life that God has cleansed, we’re content to come again for forgiveness, again and again and again. Instead of forgiving others, we’re content to hold a grudge. Instead of living 24/7 for Christ, we’re satisfied with an hour or two on Sunday morning.

This is not living out your sanctification!

We have been sanctified and have been given power over outward and voluntary sin. One of the historical questions they’ve been asking Methodist Pastors as long as there’s been Methodism, is, "Are you going on to perfection?" This, however, isn’t just for pastors. It is for every Christian. Don’t sell yourself short by saying, "I’m just a sinner." If you believe that, that’s what you will be. Instead, continue to walk in the path set before you by God’s grace.

The truth is, sanctification is both instantaneous and gradual. Some have been delivered from all sorts of sin and vices immediately. For others of us, it is a journey. God’s grace continually setting us aside for His purpose gradually transforms us into Christ’s likeness.

What is left for us to do if God’s the one who sanctifies us?

We’ve already ceased from doing evil as we were justified, but we continue to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal unknown or involuntary sins that we’re guilty of and to help us overcome them. We are still required to obey God. We can’t simply ignore what God commanded and expect to become more like Jesus. This means becoming more cognizant of what God commands us – so that means we should be reading the Bible and discussing it with others to help us discern God’s will so we can be obedient to it.

Second, we do good deeds for others and works of mercy as a means of grace. God works through us to show His grace to others, and He also works, transforming us, as we do good works in His name. Jesus told his followers that they would be known for their works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and caring for orphans and widows. When we do so, we act as God’s hands and feet in a world that needs to know Him. And as we do so, we become more Christlike as well. This is sanctification, and it’s not just for a select few, but it’s expected of all Christians.

The benediction comes from 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24.

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Justification - United Methodist Distinctives

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

Ephesians 2:1-10

Last week I left you with the visual of this glass, filled with colored water representing the sin that stains our lives. Like the glass, we’re helpless to do anything about the color of the water that’s already there.

I also left you with the picture from Revelation 3:20 of Jesus standing at the door, knocking.

The first picture isn’t very comforting – it presents a rather bleak image. In fact, when I was in Russia, I had a conversation around a glass of Pepsi. My friend likened himself to the glass, saying, "I’d like to come to Jesus, but my life is like this glass – full of junk, and dirty and stained. I need to clean it up before I could come to Jesus." He was onto something, but, as I stated before, there’s nothing the glass can do. All the good deeds we can do are just like adding more water to what’s already stained.

God’s Prevenient Grace goes before us, calls us, shows us that by ourselves we cannot do anything, but that we need someone to intercede on our behalf.

This is where the picture of Jesus, standing at the door, knocking, comes in. He has already paid the price for your sin and guilt, and he’s asking if you want the forgiveness and victory that goes along with the price He paid.

When He comes in, he cleans house. Today’s scripture reminds us that this is Christ’s work, not our own. He takes our tainted lives, cleans them out – in fact, taking our sins upon Himself – and fills us with new, Living Water.

This is justification. An easy way to remember what "justification" means is that through Jesus Christ, we are made "just as if we’d never sinned."

Martin Luther called the doctrine of justification the "article by which the church stands or falls."

If it’s as easy as that, just opening the door to Jesus Christ, why doesn’t everyone just do it? Well, on one hand it is that simple, but on another hand it’s not. We get the chance to look out the door before we open it. He doesn’t trick us or sneak in, but instead waits until we ask him in.
Our invitation to Him includes our admission that we can’t do it on our own – that we’re guilty of sin and that, apart from God’s mercy, we’re stuck. Romans 6:23 explains it well: The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.

That gift leads to a real change – from sinner to clean. The passage from Romans has often been interpreted simply as dealing with the future – that justification means we’re delivered from God’s wrath in the final judgment. While this is true, it is only one aspect of justification. The other side of justification is that it is a present reality.

This has implications for us. You see, if we are presently justified, then we necessarily will behave ourselves as those who are justified. This doesn’t mean that we’re automatically free from the earthly consequences of sins we committed before we were saved. We often see someone "get faith" while they are incarcerated, but the "faith" they "got" was only for the sake of the parole board and they really just want out of the consequences of their actions. No, and some of the elements involved in opening the door to Jesus Christ are confession of our sins, requesting God’s mercy, ceasing from sin, forgiving others, and doing good works.

When we are justified, certain actions are required of us. John Wesley put it this way: we are required to act with outward expressions of our inward contrition and grace, including ceasing from evil, doing good, using the ordinances of God, and obeying God.

I find it interesting to read how John Wesley defined "Ceasing from evil" – he included the following: taking God’s name in vain, profaning the Sabbath, drunkenness, fighting, uncharitable conversation, and laying up treasures on earth. "Doing good" included works of mercy such as clothing the naked, entertaining the stranger, and visiting the sick and the imprisoned. "Using the ordinances of God" includes prayer, reading the Bible, and receiving the Lord’s Supper. He also expected that Christians would participate in the body of the church, because this is what helps us grow in grace.

Those actions do not cause us to be justified, but they flow from justification. Because we have been made clean, we behave ourselves as cleansed people would. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesis, For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Prevenient Grace - United Methodist Distinctives

1 Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. 2 This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them!

3 So Jesus told them this story: 4 “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. 6 When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!

8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.”

Last week we looked at the bad news: Though God created us in His image and in perfect relationship with Him, by Adam’s sin and by our own sin, we destroyed God’s image in us and ruined our relationship with Him. Unfortunately that bad news became the normal human condition: we are without God.

Without God, the best we can hope for is a state of sleep. Like Rip Van Winkle, we slumber on, unaware of God’s touch all around us.

Fortunately for us, we weren’t left without an alarm clock. The seminary word for the alarm clock, the wake-up call from God, is Prevenient Grace.

Without God’s grace, the situation would be hopeless, but fortunately we do have God’s grace. God reaches out toward us before we are even able to reach out to Him.

John 3:16, one of the most famous verses in the Bible, tells us that God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him would not perish, but would have eternal life. Though the eternal life part is contingent on our belief, Jesus’ death is not. He died for us, whether we believed in Him or not – part of our communion liturgy is this passage from Romans 5:8: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That proves God’s love for us.

Like the sheep and the coin from Jesus’ parables, we didn’t necessarily set out to become lost. In fact, it could be that the lostness had nothing to do with us. But regardless of how we became lost, we begin with several things in common with the sheep and the coin. First of all, at the beginning of the story, they were lost. It can be easy to point at certain factors to excuse someone’s lostness. They came from a bad upbringing. They had a rough life. They didn’t get enough attention. Or, on the other hand, it can be easy to point fingers at someone who "should have known better" but was lost anyway. They were brought up right. Their parents gave them everything. They came to church for so many years… Whatever the case, and however someone got lost, that is our initial state, and that brings me to the second commonality we have with the sheep and the coin. Like it or not, there’s nothing either of them can do about their lostness. The sheep can bleat, but that doesn’t do a lot of good out in the vast wilderness. A coin can’t do much of anything but lay there and wish it weren’t lost. We, in our sinfulness, can’t do anything on our own either. In sin, we’re lost and there’s nothing we can do about it.

But we also have something positive in common with the sheep and the coin. Did you notice that there’s someone searching for both of them? No matter how lost we may be, we can not stray so far that God isn’t still reaching out for us.

How, then, does God reach out to us before we even acknowledge Him? Part of how His grace works is called "moral law." This is what Paul was talking about in Romans 2:14-15, where he says, "Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and their thoughts either accuse them or tell that they are doing right."

If it was just a case of moral law letting us know that we were wrong, it would be a pretty heavy burden for us. But instead of simply telling us we’re wrong, it lets us know that there’s nothing we can do ourselves to be "right." Instead, it pushes us toward the gift that Jesus Christ gave to us through His sacrifice on the cross.

We’re a pretty individualistic, self-help-oriented society. We believe that within each of us is the ability to "pull ourselves up by the bootstraps" and to thus better ourselves, to achieve whatever it is that we set out to do. The "self made man (or woman)" is one of the ideals in our culture. On the other hand, there are also those who are for some reason unable to pick themselves up; how do we view them? There is a correct way to view them: as a whole lot more like us than we care to admit.

Did you notice the reason why Jesus told these parables? He told them because the religious elite were grumbling about the kind of losers Jesus was hanging out with. I can hear the complaints now: "He should wait until they clean up their acts before he hangs out with them!"
But He didn’t, and that’s exactly the point about His Prevenient Grace. He approaches us before we’re worthy to hang out with Him. Revelation 3:20 presents a great picture of Jesus, a picture which has been reproduced on stained glass on our east wall. "Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you and you with me."

Maybe some of you are standing just inside the door today, hearing Him knock on the door. That’s Prevenient Grace! If you are there, it’s time answer the door, to invite Him in, to do a 180 turn from your sins. Because if you don’t let Him in, if you choose to remain in sin, there’s nothing else you can do for yourself. But if you’re willing to open the door to Him, you’ve taken the first steps along the journey of salvation!

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Fall - United Methodist Distinctives

When I was a young teenager, Jehovah’s Witnesses frequently targeted our neighborhood. They would go out in pairs, knocking on doors, handing out their Watchtower magazines, trying to get new converts.

One day they rang the doorbell and my sister, who was in middle school, answered the door. They talked for a while, and soon it became apparent to them that they weren’t going to convert her. As they were leaving, one of them turned to her and said something along the lines of, "Even though we don’t agree with each other, it’s nice to talk to someone who actually knows what they believe."

So I ask the question today, "Do you know what you believe?" Could you have an intelligent discussion with Jehovah’s Witnesses or other pseudo-Christian cults? This week, we kick off a series where we will be looking at the question of what do United Methodists believe. To get to that, we need to start with the very beginning… in the Garden of Eden.

One thing I often hear is that humanity is inherently good, that, given the choice between right and wrong, just innately, humans will generally choose right. If that’s the case, if we’re inherently good, which of you was the one who taught your children to fight? Which of you taught your children how to lie and steal? You didn’t teach them that? Of course you didn’t. They picked it up naturally. But that wasn’t the plan.

Genesis 1:27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:31: God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.

Adam and Eve walked with God, speaking with him face-to-face. Genesis 2 concludes with the statement that the man and his wife were both naked and they were not ashamed. There was nothing dirty or pornographic about their nakedness – they had nothing to hide. They were completely innocent. There was no such thing as sin, and thus, there was no such thing as shame. They had no need to hide anything at all from God. This was the life we were created for – perfect relationship with our Creator.

In Genesis 2:16, God told Adam, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."

And as you probably know, the very next event recorded in Genesis has the serpent tempting Eve and she and Adam disobey God and eat from the forbidden tree. Thus ended the perfect relationship with God. Though God did not kill Adam and Eve, they were banished from the Garden of Eden, and the process of dying began.

Physically, death was the consequence of disobedience. But the spiritual consequences were far more dire. Our completely holy God does not allow sin to remain in His presence, and so that sin created a gulf between humanity and God. Though God created us in His own image, that image was completely destroyed at the moment of original sin. We often refer to this sin as "the fall."

It was through Adam and Eve that sin entered the world, and humanity grew up showing a great proclivity toward that sin. As we continue on in Genesis, we read about Adam and Eve’s son Cain killing his brother Abel, and things went even more downhill from there. In Genesis 6:5-6 we read the following description: The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. Verses 11-12 continue: Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.

Unfortunately, and in spite of some people arguing to the contrary, I don’t believe we’re any better than the people I just described. We continue to figure out new ways to sin and new technologies to allow us to sin more efficiently. Technology continues to make us more effective at murder than ever before. The internet allows unrestricted access to pornography and to illicit online romances as well as easy dissemination of hate and terrorism. More Christians have been persecuted and put to death since 1900 than in the two-thousand years previous, even in the time of the Roman persecution of the Church.

You don’t have to teach a child how to be greedy and selfish. You don’t have to teach a toddler how to lie or to fight. No, it comes quite naturally. And as adults, we don’t do a whole lot better. The Apostle Paul wrote about his struggle in the book of Romans, chapter 7, verse 15 and 22-24.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Since God will not allow sin into His presence, you might wonder why He even created us with the capability to sin. The answer is free will. He created us with the free ability to choose right or wrong. If He had simply created us without that ability, then we wouldn’t be truly free to love Him, and that wouldn’t be real love. True love is not forced – it must be chosen.

Unfortunately, in the state of sin, we can no more choose love for God than we can choose our hair color. Sure, you might be able to fool some people, but you just can’t trick God. A better analogy might be that in our natural, sinful state, we can no easier choose to love God than we can choose the content of our dreams. You see, in sin, we are in what amounts to a spiritual sleep. Like Rip Van Winkle, we slumber on, oblivious to the world around us.

This doesn’t seem very hopeful, and without the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, this would define our entire existence. However, we are not without God, so there is hope. But you’re going to have to wait until next week for the hope of Prevenient Grace.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Belonging - as a United Methodist

I am starting a series on the distinctives of United Methodism, and this is the introductory sermon.

You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honor.

And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God. As the Scriptures say,

I am placing a cornerstone in Jerusalem,chosen for great honor,and anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.
Yes, you who trust him recognize the honor God has given him. But for those who reject him,

The stone that the builders rejectedhas now become the cornerstone.

He is the stone that makes people stumble,the rock that makes them fall.

They stumble because they do not obey God’s word, and so they meet the fate that was planned for them.

But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.

Once you had no identity as a people;now you are God’s people.Once you received no mercy; now you have received God’s mercy.

Dear friends, I warn you as "temporary residents and foreigners" to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.

1 Peter 2:4-12

When I was in 8th grade, my class was given an assignment – to write letters to ourselves, letters which would be mailed shortly before high school graduation. I mostly wrote about sports, about skateboarding, and about my friends, and then I promptly forgot about the letter for the next four years. Then in May of 1990, a month before graduation, I received in the mail a curious looking envelope. I recognized the handwriting, but from where? When I opened it, I was surprised to get a letter from myself.

As we all got those letters, we started sharing them with one another. One thing we all seemed to have in common was that we wrote down who our friends were. Now, my high school, like many, was full of cliques, but one thing that I found interesting was that everyone seemed to have included me as a part of their group of friends. It was nice to belong!

I know people who have turned to the internet for belonging. Social networking sites are the most recent craze. If you aren’t internet savvy, social networking sites go by names like MySpace and Facebook, and they are a way to keep in touch with people you know or to meet new people. One feature of these sites is the ability to name people as your "friends." You can generally tell how old someone is on Facebook or MySpace by how many "friends" they have – the younger the person, the more friends they have. You can put anyone on your list of friends, and it’s not uncommon to see pages with listsl of hundreds, even thousands of so-called friends..
Belonging seems to be one of our top needs. Whether it is belonging to a group of friends, to a sports team, to an organization, or to a church, it’s important to us to belong.

In the Bible there are all sorts of scriptures relating to belonging. In John 8:31, Jesus said, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples." In John 15:19, Jesus tells his disciples that "I have chosen you out of the world." In Romans 1:6, Paul writes to Gentile believers, who he refers to as those "who are called to belong to Jesus Christ." But when we get to 1 Peter 2, we read that we are "a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession."

This is our identity as Christians. But why are we United Methodists? Over the next several weeks, we will be examining some of what makes the United Methodist Church unique.
We could spend weeks just looking at the Book of Discipline and the Book of Worship – not the most riveting of subjects. But although our rules and liturgies are contained in those books, that’s not our soul. From its inception, Methodism was always a practical movement – concerned primarily with salvation.

This is why, when someone joins the United Methodist Church, we have a full page of belief statements concerning our Christian beliefs, but the practical questions come when we pledge to join the local congregation. We vow that we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, presence, gifts, and services. Meaning that we will pray for one another and the church as a whole, we will show up for services, we will give our tithes and offerings, and we will serve in areas of our giftedness.

Did you know that the term "Methodist" wasn’t meant to be a kind term? When John and Charles Wesley and several of their friends began their "Holy Club," their goal was (obviously) holiness. They did everything they could to promote holiness – both personal and corporate. They realized that if they had a specific plan and worked steadily on it, that they would have a better chance of reaching their goal.

In today’s scripture, we read Peter’s comments about our identity: you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.

"Once you had no identity as a people;now you are God’s people.Once you received no mercy;now you have received God’s mercy."

This is our belonging – as God’s chosen people, as royal priests, as a holy nation, as God’s own possession. Did you note why God chose us? So we can show others God’s goodness. This is a big part of what United Methodism is all about.

You see, there are two sides of holiness, and, just as you cannot separate a coin from its two sides, neither can you do so with holiness. One side of holiness is personal holiness; the other side is social holiness.

We have that identity: we know who we are. That identity, however, comes with a warning as well.

Dear friends, I warn you as "temporary residents and foreigners" to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.

The early Methodists rose up within the Church of England because the Church of England represented dead religion. It encouraged neither personal nor social holiness. A true, living relationship with Jesus Christ encourages, even demands both. We, as United Methodists, as Christians, are called to live this life as temporary residents of this earth, not as lifetime members of a church or a town.

Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors, which will give honor and glory to God.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

When God Calls Your Name: Jerusalem, Jerusalem

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. And now, look, your house is abandoned and desolate. For I tell you this, you will never see me again until you say, "Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!"

Matthew 23:37-39

You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker as many times as I have – maybe you even have one on your car. Across the sticker, in the background is the familiar red, white, and blue of our flag, blowing in a breeze. In the foreground is the slogan, "God bless America."

There’s something that kind of bothers me about that slogan. I wonder about the particular use of the word "bless" that is used there. Hasn’t God already blessed us? We are one of the wealthiest nations, both financially and materially. God has blessed us over and over. But why?
Some would make a case that the United States of America is God’s new "chosen people." Our country, after all, was founded under Christian principles. We have doubtlessly been blessed – even Americans living in impoverished conditions have more than our counterparts in other parts of the world, and that’s just material and financial. We enjoy freedoms that many people don’t even dream of. God has blessed us.

God had blessed Jerusalem as well. Though I have serious reservations about claiming America as "God’s chosen people," I have no such reservations when talking that way about Jerusalem in Jesus’ time. Israel was indeed God’s chosen people, a people with a special blessing from God, a blessing that dated back to their ancestor Abraham. Do you remember the special blessing God gave Abraham? In Genesis 12, God told Abram to, "Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to a land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous…"

But God didn’t stop there. He went on to say, "… and you will be a blessing to others." He finished up by saying, "All the families on earth will be blessed through you."
Jerusalem had the first part down. Under the leadership of great people like Moses, Joshua, King Saul, King David, and King Solomon, they became a great nation. They were famous. But they never quite latched onto the second part of the blessing – that they were blessed specifically to be a blessing to others.

Instead, they turned inward, focusing on themselves. If you read all of Matthew 23, Jesus is extremely critical of Jerusalem’s leadership, accusing them of hypocrisy, of loving attention, of loving money, of neglecting justice, mercy, and faith, of deception and murder. Thus he makes his statement about Jerusalem.

I wonder if the same comments would be appropriate for us as a nation. I believe we are headed in the same direction as Europe, which used to be a Christian continent, but is now completely secular. When I was in college, one Sunday in church we had a missionary speaker from India. Now, I was used to a certain kind of missionary – the American ones who went to far-away places like India to share the Good News. This missionary was somewhat different: he was a Christian from India, and his mission field… was the United States. It completely changed my thinking – we as Americans don’t have the Christianity market cornered.

God’s chosen people? To be honest, I still believe we are. But we’re only a small part of God’s chosen people. But I believe Jesus grieves over us like He did over Jerusalem. He says, "How I’d love to gather them together as a mother hen protects her chicks under her wings, but they won’t let me."

You see, God doesn’t force His will on us, not as individuals, and not as a nation. He wants us to freely follow Him.

In Amos 8:11, the prophet speaks these words from God: "The time is surely coming when I will send a famine on the land – not a famine of bread or water, but of hearing the words of the Lord." Much of our nation is gripped by this famine – but it’s a self-inflicted famine. We have Bibles readily available, but when we don’t read them, we are starving ourselves. We have a direct connection to God through prayer, but when we don’t pray, we are starving ourselves.

Think of it this way: I know many of you farm. Imagine that this year provides a bumper crop. Your fields are completely full of crops. You have all the equipment to harvest them, but for some reason or another, you don’t do it. You’ve got all kinds of other commitments – your other job, your family, your kids’ or grandkids’ activities, and by the time you get home, you’re exhausted. So you never get the crops out of the fields. What would happen? You wouldn’t have to go too long until someone from the bank came to foreclose on something, whether it’s your farming equipment or even the farm itself.

Let’s take this a little further: suppose it’s not just you individually who neglect to take your crops out of the field, but all the others as well. Now the effect is far more pervasive. Think about those who were counting on those crops to eat! Now not only are farms being foreclosed on, but people are starving.

When we neglect to hear God’s Word and to be obedient to His will, we are willingly putting ourselves into famine conditions. But it does not only effect us; it affects others, too, and they starve if we haven’t done our part.

The unfortunate thing? We can live our entire lives never seeing how the other half lives. We can be so sheltered in our own little worlds so much that we never know what goes on elsewhere. We can miss out on the fact that in many parts of the world, children die, one every three seconds, for want of one dollar a day. We can miss out on the fact that we’re living in a post-Christian nation. Even right here in town, almost ⅓ of the entire community claims no religious affiliation whatsoever. These are people you know and love. These are your family members, your friends, and your co-workers.

God has indeed blessed America. Each of us is a recipient of that blessing. But just as Jesus grieved over Jerusalem, His people who had squandered His blessing, so too I believe He grieves over us. We are meant to use that blessing to be a blessing to the world.

So what do we do next? Our first step is to examine our hearts and determine what we’ve done with our blessing. Have we acknowledged the blessing God has given us? Have we shared it?

Our second step is to pray. Pray for those you might share with – that God will show them to you and will give you the boldness to speak. Pray that God will show you new people to pray for, that He will lay new situations on your heart that you can pray over. If you watch the news, pray over each news story. If you read the newspaper, pray over each story. Pray that we can ease damages that have been caused by the church and can give people a taste of the Living Water that comes from the Holy Spirit.

Our third step is action. We can be pretty good at caring for our own, and I know that some of you are or have been highly involved in mission projects, but what are we specifically doing to share the blessing? What are we doing for the world? What are we doing for the persecuted church? What are we doing for African children who are starving or dying from AIDS? What are we doing for Darfur? And when you act, don’t just do it to ease your conscience. Don’t bring a "we’re better than you" attitude along – remember, Matthew 25:31-46 tells us that whatever we do to the "least of these" we actually do to Jesus Christ. So we can take a humble, servant’s attitude, knowing that when we work for God, we’re actually doing that work to God. That He blesses us to serve Him, that by doing so, we may be a blessing to the nations and bring glory to Him.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

When God Calls Your Name: Saul, Saul

Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains.

As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?"

"Who are you, lord?" Saul asked.

And the voice replied, "I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! 6 Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."
Acts 9:1-6

What are the six hardest words to say in the English language? I pose that they are "I am sorry. I was wrong." Nobody likes to be wrong. It is part of our nature that we always want to be right – and even when we know that we aren’t, we’re unlikely to admit it. I was recently asked the question, "What is a significant political or religious idea that you’ve changed your mind on?" I had a hard time answering that question, not necessarily because I never change my mind, but because changing my mind seems to indicate that at one time or another, I was wrong. I don’t like to admit that I’ve been wrong.

When a politician admits to having been wrong, he is called a flip-flopper. But when a politician fails to admit where she was wrong, she is considered to be bullheaded and stubborn, arrogant even. There’s just no winning!

What if you happened to be wrong about something? What would it take for you to come around? In today’s scripture, we find someone who was wrong – dead wrong. Saul was a well-known persecutor of the church. His goal – to stamp out this new movement, and he had a lot of work to do. You see, the early church was growing by leaps and bounds. Thousands of people were converting at a time. Can you imagine having a service where three thousand people accepted Jesus Christ, all in one day? How about five thousand? This is how the church was exploding, and Saul wanted to do something about it.

I’ve talked before about how sometimes God speaks by 2x4 – this is definitely one of those cases. Jesus Christ showed up in a blinding light and spoke to Saul. Talk about a 2x4! God had to blind Saul in order to get Saul to hear Him. Have you ever had to lose everything in order to finally hear God’s voice? Have you had to hit rock bottom in order to realize where you’d been missing the mark?

Not only does Jesus have to blind Saul, but he also calls his name… (you guessed it) twice. Part of the problem, as I see it, was that Saul was already blinded. His problem was that he was blinded by religion. I might ruffle a few feathers here when I say this, but I believe it: religion isn’t as good a thing as some might lead you to believe. Religion is simply a belief in a divine power or the system of belief, worship, and conduct required by that belief. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s certainly not the goal. Religion is only a reaction to the divine. The only thing that makes religion good is when it is paired with relationship. Saul had no relationship, only religion, and that’s a dangerous combination. This is what fuels kooks like Osama bin Laden and the KKK. This is what fueled Saul, as well.

This is why God called Saul’s name twice – to give Saul credit, he was really trying. He really, truly thought that what he was doing was right. He never set out to be the bad guy. He was simply trying to preserve his religion and to do what he felt was his religious duty.
Because he was missing the mark so badly, God called his name twice (and blinded him as well!). Then (and I think this is neat), God gave Saul the next step. Do you remember what God told Moses when He called his name twice? God told Moses, "You will lead my people out of slavery." Can you imagine what Saul would have done if God had told him what the future held in store for him?

"Oh, yeah, Saul, you’re going to be my missionary. You’re going to be put in prison, you’re going to be whipped too many times to count, and you’re going to face death again and again. You’re going to face 39 lashes five times. You’re going to be beaten with rods three times, you’ll be stoned, you’ll be shipwrecked three times, and you’ll spend an entire night and day adrift at sea. You will be hungry and thirsty and alone and cold." This is all from Paul’s later account in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27. "Then, Saul, you’re going to be imprisoned again and eventually die in prison." What do you think Saul would have done with that? I don’t think he could have handled it all when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. So Jesus told him simply, "Now get up and go into the city, and you’ll be told what to do." Often we want Paul Harvey’s ‘the Rest of the Story’. We want to know where we’re going to end up, but God only gives it to us piece by piece.

So what is our next step? I’m convinced that religion has gotten in the way of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Many of you have heard about the couple who began to cook a Thanksgiving ham and before she put it in the oven, the wife cut both ends off. Her husband asked her why she did it, and she responded by saying, "That’s how you cook a ham." Truth was, her mother always did it that way, so she called her mom and asked her, "Why did you always cut the ends off the ham?" Her mother didn’t have a good response: "I guess I did it because my mom always cut the ends off." So they called her mom and asked her the same question. "Oh, I cut the ends off the ham because I didn’t have a big enough pot to cook the whole thing in."

Another way to see it is this: sometimes at night, I’ll be reading a bookTara to get finished reading her book so we can go to sleep. Meanwhile, she’ll be reading, waiting for me to get finished with my chapter so we can go to sleep. We both want the same thing – we both have the same goal, but neither of us does anything about it because we don’t realize the other’s intention. Then, although our intentions were good, we both end up unhappy.

When we as a church are more concerned about our habits and traditions than about the reason behind them – or, more appropriately, about the relationship behind them, then we are just cutting the ends off the ham. When we go about what we’re doing the same way we’ve always done it, even though we have good intentions, we don’t end up fulfilled and Jesus isn’t glorified.
How about seeing what Jesus wants? How about seeing the needs of the community and the world and acting upon them?
I want to close with a scripture from Isaiah 55:6-12: Seek the Lord while He may be found; call on Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil one his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him, and to our God, for He will freely pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth. It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and the trees of the field will clap their hands.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

When God Calls Your Name: Martha, Martha

As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed them into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, "Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me."

But the Lord said to her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her."

-Luke 10:38-42

Last week, we studied how God called Moses’ name twice from the burning bush. Moses was mired in a life of inactivity, not living up to his potential or even to his training. God had prepared something for him to do, and He needed to call Moses twice.

Today we look at a completely different situation; Martha is anything but inactive. In fact, she is a wonderful host. She does everything right and her parties outdid everyone’s. If she lived in today’s world, her last name would be Stewart.

Here’s the deal; Martha was not only doing all that was expected of her, but, truth be known, she was going above and beyond the call of duty. In a church setting, Martha would be the go-to woman. Have you heard the old adage: if you want something to get done, ask a busy person. That was Martha. Sometimes I’ve heard this scripture preached in such a way that it makes Martha seem like some kind of ogre, but she wasn’t. No, not at all. Martha was dependable. Martha was a fantastic host. Martha was working in the area of her giftedness. Martha did all the behind-the-scenes work that allowed other people to do what they needed to do without worry about all those things. But Martha missed the boat.

In our society, usefulness is gauged by how much someone does. We value productivity. We value Marthas. Even in the church, we are always looking for volunteers – a case in point was last week, when I asked you to step up out of inactivity into participation, to do Kingdom work. And Martha was indeed doing Kingdom work – this party would not have happened had she not stepped up to do the work.

Unfortunately, as Jesus pointed out, Martha was worried and upset about many things, but only one thing was worth being concerned about.

Maxie Dunnam was the president of Asbury Seminary when I was there, and when he spoke in chapel, you could always expect three things. First, you could expect him to say, "God is good…" expecting a response of "All the time" – then he’d continue by saying, "All the time…" to which we’d respond, "God is good." Secondly, you could expect him to quote from Charles Schultz’ comic "Peanuts." And thirdly, you could expect him to remind us to "Keep the main thing the main thing."

It’s easy to get sidetracked by important things and only later realize that you’ve missed what was most important. I’ve never heard of anyone on their deathbed whispering, "I wish I’d spent less time with the kids and more time at work."

I don’t mean to imply that the work any of you do is unimportant. No, quite the contrary, what makes this so difficult is that every job, no matter how small, is of vital importance. Add to that all of your responsibilities outside the church – responsibility to your family, to your job, to your health, and you have quite a busy slate.

If you’re in caught up in the busy-ness trap, Jesus says to you, "Only one thing is worth being concerned about."

Something has been bothering me ever since our board meeting on Monday. We spent a whole lot of time talking about us, about things that are of importance to us as a congregation or as leaders. I gave a report of my activities of the month. We got a report on our financial status. We had a report from the Trustees about the physical structure. We talked at great length about furniture and about technology. We had some very passionate discussions – we really care about what we discussed. All of these things are important, don’t get me wrong, but I think maybe we’re missing out on that one thing that is worth being concerned about.

We can have great finances, we can have the best technology money can buy, we can have a beautiful building, but it doesn’t mean anything if our relationship with Jesus Christ isn’t central to everything we do. The apostle Paul talks about this in Philippians 3:7-8. He goes through a list of what used to be important to him, and he concludes by saying, "I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him." That’s keeping the main thing the main thing.

Here’s where we have a problem: what is 1s this main thing that we’re supposed to be focused on? What is this one thing that we need to be concerned about? If we all filled out a survey, we’d probably all come up with different ideas of what that main thing is. I pose that it’s most important for us to be with Christ so we can be like Christ. We cannot expect to be Christ to a world that needs Him if we aren’t spending regular time at His feet, learning and growing. If we expect to do Kingdom work without spending significant time with the King, then we’re just spinning our wheels.

I think it would be neat to be a great golfer like Tiger Woods, but really, I am satisfied with having a miserable golf game, so I don’t go out and practice daily. I’d love to be an amazing guitar player like Eric Clapton, but since I am satisfied enough with my decent-enough guitar skills, I don’t spend all day and night practicing. And unfortunately, many of us are satisfied enough with the good things we are doing – so satisfied that spending time with Jesus Christ isn’t a high priority.

And we cannot expect to be like Christ if we’re not spending time with him.

This is why I’ve been stressing Bible studies over and over again – because we need that time with Jesus, and we need it desperately! The fact is, even I struggle with spending time alone with Him. Are you with me?

Let’s conclude by spending a few moments with God in silence. After we’ve had a little while with Him, join me in singing our love for the Lord.

Monday, September 10, 2007

When God Calls Your Name: Moses, Moses

note: this is the manuscript I prepared for Sunday's sermon. I delivered a bit different sermon, as I felt that God was really calling me to do so. Here's the outline of what I preached.
  1. God called Moses twice because of Moses' inactivity. He was brought up in the house of Pharaoh to be a leader, and here he was, tending sheep.
  2. God gets Moses in a place where he will hear Him. For us, times of prayer and fasting are such places where we can hear God.
  3. God calls Moses to a postition He had prepared for him. He has something prepared for you, too. God doesn't just call the equipped; He equips the called.

One day Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian. He led the flock far into the wilderness and came to Sinai, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the middle of a bush. Moses stared in amazement. Though the bush was engulfed in flames, it didn’t burn up. "This is amazing," Moses said to himself. "Why isn’t that bush burning up? I must go see it."

When the Lord saw Moses coming to take a closer look, God called to him from the middle of the bush, "Moses! Moses!"

"Here I am!" Moses replied.

"Do not come any closer," the Lord warned. "Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." When Moses heard this, he covered his face because he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord told him, "I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cries of distress because of their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and lead them out of Egypt into their own fertile and spacious land. It is a land flowing with milk and honey—the land where the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites now live. Look! The cry of the people of Israel has reached me, and I have seen how harshly the Egyptians abuse them. Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh. You must lead my people Israel out of Egypt."

Exodus 3:1-10
What do you do when God calls your name? I am a firm believer that God calls people even today – sometimes God calls people to full-time ministry, but more frequently, God calls each of us to follow Him in unique ways. Some of you might hear His voice easily, but for others of us, well, it’s more of a "call by 2x4."

Today we are starting a new sermon series called "When God Calls Your Name." We will be looking at some of the calls by 2x4 in the Bible. Specifically, we’ll look at some people who God had to call twice.
Our first subject is Moses. We find Moses living in exile, tending sheep. I love this scene. Imagine it – you’re a veteran shepherd, and all of a sudden you see a bush that’s on fire but not burning up. I can imagine Moses’ response wasn’t just a ho-hum "I must go have a look." In fact, if you think about it, I’ll bet he watered down his response when he told about it – he probably said something that we wouldn’t repeat in polite company.
Then God called Moses’ name… twice.
It wasn’t enough to have a burning bush speak to Moses, but God needed to call his name. And that wasn’t enough, so He had to call him twice.

I think God called Moses’ name twice because He really wanted to get his attention. It’s like when we call our kids by all three names. I knew my Mom really wanted to get my attention when she called me "Brian Edward Vinson." And Moses knew God wanted his attention as well.
Moses came closer, and God told him what was up – that he had a special mission for Moses.
I want to bring something to your attention. Did you notice where Moses was when God called him? This was the guy who was saved as a baby from a death decree. The Pharaoh’s daughter brought him up right in the Pharaoh’s palace. He was destined for greatness from his birth! Yet here he is, tending sheep. And why was he doing this? He was afraid of his call.

Exodus 2:11-15 tells us the story: Many years later, when Moses had grown up, he went out to visit his own people, the Hebrews, and he saw how hard they were forced to work. During his visit, he saw an Egyptian beating one of his fellow Hebrews. After looking in all directions to make sure no one was watching, Moses killed the Egyptian and hid the body in the sand.
The next day, when Moses went out to visit his people again, he saw two Hebrew men fighting. "Why are you beating up your friend?" Moses said to the one who had started the fight.
The man replied, "Who appointed you to be our prince and judge? Are you going to kill me as you killed that Egyptian yesterday?"
Then Moses was afraid, thinking, "Everyone knows what I did."
And sure enough, Pharaoh heard what had happened, and he tried to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in the land of Midian.
I believe Moses knew for a long time that he was destined to do something. Yet he was threatened with death, and he fled, not only from Egypt, but also from his call.

In my experience through seminary, through the supervised years program, and looking around the conference, I see a lot of second career pastors. Some didn’t hear God calling them until later in life. But many ignored or ran from that calling. It wasn’t until God called their name twice that they finally listened.
I want to tell you a little bit about how God called me. God didn’t first call me to the pastorate. God called me to a prayer group. It was in that prayer group that I heard God call me to Russia. And it was the Russia experience through which I heard God call me to seminary and into the ministry. Before I joined that prayer group, I was figuratively tending sheep in the desert. I was studying German in college instead of preparing for ministry. I had never led a Bible study or prayer group when I went to Russia, but when I came back, I was ready to do both.
When God called Moses, Moses didn’t think he was qualified to lead God’s people. To the outsider, this looks silly. Of course he was qualified. Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s household. He received all of the education that a son of the Pharaoh would have received. For him to be unqualified would be like me saying I was unqualified to coach soccer here because my only coaching course was given in Kentucky. Duh. But there’s a saying that’s appropriate to this conversation: God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called.
I believe we sometimes don’t hear from God because we don’t listen to God, and, like Moses, we don’t believe God when He calls us.
I’m convinced that we don’t listen to God calling us, so God has to call our names twice. I think you’re more like Moses than you may know – one thing’s for certain; when it comes to certain tasks, we’re reluctant leaders.
It’s coming time for Nominations Committee to start finding leaders for next year, and every time I’ve been a part of nominations, there are some jobs that are extremely hard to fill. How’s this for an idea: if we don’t have a leader for an area, maybe we shouldn’t work in that area. I once had someone tell me, "I can’t help in that area because it’s too important a job." Guess who I got to help in that area? Nobody. I guess it was so important that going without it was better than having someone step up and allow God to work through them. Can you imagine God letting Moses off the hook? I can’t see God saying, "You’re right, Moses, it’s too important to lead my people out of Egypt, so you go back to tending sheep."

Think about this – I’ve been trying to start up Bible studies and discipleship groups, but I’ve had a hard time finding leaders. Lots of people have told me, "I’d like to be in one," but I haven’t had anyone tell me, "I’d like to lead one."
I’ll be in a Bible study… but don’t ask me to lead it!"
By not leading one – which doesn’t mean you’ve suddenly got to be the expert, by the way – you’re in effect saying, "It’s not important enough."
Likewise with other areas of ministry. God will equip us to do mighty things, if only we agree to serve Him in whatever capacity He asks of us. Here are some specific ways you can answer God’s call.
  • I am starting a leadership study group in October. We will read through Erwin McManus’ An Unstoppable Force and will meet on Thursday evenings to discuss it with specific reference to our church and how we can better mobilize to reach our area and the world for Jesus Christ.
  • There are lots of you who want to be in a Bible study – is anyone brave enough to tell me right now that you’d like to host it? If you’ll tell me that, we can get one started this week, probably with people right here in this room. I can get materials to you.
  • Is God calling you to help in the nursery during Sunday School or Church?
  • Is God calling you to substitute teach the high school class?
  • If you aren’t serving in some way, what is one way you can work for God’s kingdom right here in this church?

Leading God’s people out of slavery was important enough for God to call Moses twice. God had already prepared Moses to lead His people out of slavery. I believe God has prepared each of you to follow Him and to answer His call. Will He have to call you twice?