"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57
Sunday, December 5, 2021
Wednesday, December 1, 2021
Monday, November 29, 2021
As I’ve been preparing for our Advent series on “The Gift,” I’ve been remembering how I prepared for Christmas when I was a young kid.
For me, preparing for Christmas didn’t begin on the first Sunday of Advent. It began whenever the Christmas edition of the Sears catalogue arrived in the mail. I would open it up to the toys section and dream about all the gifts I wanted Santa to bring me for Christmas.
Toy soldiers, an electric football game, a hot wheels race track, a space ship, a nerf football, a real football, spinning tops, dart guns, a GI Joe, board games. And while lying on the floor looking at all of these toys, I would circle everything that I wanted. I did this all the time during those weeks leading up to Christmas!
Of course, I never got all the Christmas gifts I wanted or circled in that catalogue, but somehow Santa knew which of those gifts to bring to my house on Christmas Eve. And then on Christmas morning… WOW! I was able to receive some of those gifts.
In a similar kind of way, these four weeks leading up to Christmas give us the opportunity to focus on the most important Christmas gift we can ever receive which is the coming of Christ into the world.
And so during these four weeks, think of the Bible as the Sears catalogue that has just arrived in the mail. And instead of turning to the toys section, we will be turning to the pages of the Old and New Testaments and the various ways that they describe the gift that God has promised to give to us, the gift of God’s Son.
During our Advent Series on “The Gift” our focus will be on four important ways that will help prepare to receive this gift and these include, four words that all begin with “w.”
Wait, Watch, Want, and Wonder. Wait, Watch, Want, and Wonder. These are the ways that will help us receive all that God wants to give to us this Christmas.
Today, our focus is on that first “w” word, “Wait.” What does it mean for us to wait for The Gift?
For this, we open the Sears catalogue to two scripture readings and the first one that we heard read for us a little bit ago is from the Prophet, Jeremiah who lived 600 years before Jesus was born. What could this prophet who was alive several centuries before the time of Christ possibly have to say to us today in helping us to receive the gift of Christmas?
Jeremiah was encouraging the people of God to patiently wait for better days. At the time, the people were being threatened by the Babylonian Empire and their advancing army. Difficult days lie ahead for them, but Jeremiah wants them to hang in there because God will see them through this challenging time.
Jeremiah is teaching the people of God a very important life skill and one that we all need to learn as well, the skill of learning to wait. The problem is that the Prophet Jeremiah had the same problem that parents of young children have today. Even though parents know that Christmas morning will be a special time for their children and that four weeks isn’t really that long to wait for something, children have a different concept of time.
When I was a child, it always felt like Christmas would never come! I remember attending worship services during the Advent Season and watching the pastor light one of the Advent candles each week. Instead of focusing on the candle that was being lit, I always focused on the other candles that were waiting to be lit!
Why can’t we just light all of the candles at once and then we won’t have to wait at all? That’s what I wanted to say during those Advent Sundays. From my perspective as a child, the lighting of the Advent candles only made it seem that much longer to wait! Which is all the more reason that we have this tradition leading up to Christmas. The slow process of lighting one candle at a time teaches us to wait patiently for good things to come.
Psychiatrist, Scott Peck, who has written the book, “The Road Less Travelled,” talks a lot about the very important life skill that we all need to learn again and again and again, and not just children, but especially when we are adults, the life skill of waiting.
Scott Peck writes that “it’s important to know your limits and to delay gratification some of the time. This will reduce life’s pain.”
The life skill of waiting involves delaying gratification. When I was a kid, the Christmas Sears catalogue did not really help me learn this life skill. All it did was show me toys that I didn’t even know that I wanted before I received that catalogue in the mail! I couldn’t wait for Christmas to come!
So why do we need to wait? Why can’t we just go ahead and receive the gift of Christmas now?
We are all in need of some kind of healing and transformation. And healing and transformation take time. It’s not an overnight process.
In our scripture reading from I Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul says something very interesting. He writes, “And may the Lord so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all the saints.”
Isn’t it noteworthy that Paul doesn’t say that they had their act together, so all they need to do is wait for when Jesus comes again. Instead he says that you may be blameless. That’s a future tense. “That you may be blameless.”
Each one of us is a work in progress. Even on our best days, there are parts of us that are in need of healing and transformation. It’s true that when Jesus comes into our lives, we receive new life and salvation. That’s what we refer to as justification and being made right with God.
This isn’t what the Apostle Paul is referring to in I Thessalonians. When Paul says that we are to be blameless, he is referring to our life-long process of becoming holy and being the people that God has called us to be.
This was why John Wesley, the founder of Methodism emphasized the importance of God’s sanctifying grace, God’s grace which seeks to sanctify us and lead us into a life of holiness. Sanctifying Grace is a life-long process where we are gradually shaped and molded into God’s likeness.
It’s about taking time to reflect on those areas of our lives that we would often rather not think about like what to do with our short temper, not dealing with our need to grieve, our struggle with materialism, our way too busy lives, our addictions, our unhealthy behaviors, our impulsiveness, our impatience, our prejudices and prejudices we don’t even know that we have, our lack of empathy, our co-dependencies, our insecurities… and that’s just my personal list! But we’re all in this list somewhere and there are so many things that can be added.
These four weeks of Advent remind us every year that if we want to receive the gift of Christmas, we first need to take a deep dive into the areas of our lives that are in need of transformation and healing. That’s why we have therapy. It’s why we have a prayer of confession and words of assurance every Sunday morning during worship. We need to be able to confess where we are broken and where we’ve missed the mark. It’s why the color of Advent is blue because we have blues in our lives that are in need of God’s healing love.
And the wonderful thing about this is that we don’t need to be ashamed because each and every one of us needs this long season of Advent. This is a four week journey for all of us.
Several years ago I stumbled upon a story that a preacher had shared in a sermon I heard. I sent an email to this pastor asking for his permission to use that same story in a sermon that I would be giving.
I loved his response to my email. He said, “You are always welcome to use my stories. These stories aren’t original to me. The only thing that’s original with me is original sin.”
Yes, that’s what we all have in common. Original sin. We all are broken. We live in a world that is broken. We’re all in the same boat. Advent is an important season for us to wait for the gift of Christmas because we need this time to look at those areas of our lives that need a makeover that only God can provide.
We need those Jeremiahs who remind us that God will help us get through whatever challenges or brokenness that may come our way. Sometimes, we just need to wait before we can receive the gift that God has in mind for us.
When I think of this time of waiting, I can’t help but to think of Kevin and Shelby Saulnier. Kevin and Shelby attended our church while students here at Ohio University. Shelby sang in our Chancel Choir.
I was honored when they asked me in the fall of 2019 to officiate for their wedding which was scheduled for June of 2020 and was to be held in Michigan, Shelby’s home state. We had our premarital counseling sessions and were all ready for the wedding but then the pandemic came.
I think it was two months before their June wedding when they called me to see if I would officiate for them here in Athens instead. It would just be the three of us and a photographer. After some more time to think about it, they decided to just postpone the wedding for another year.
I remember how sad they were to know that they wouldn’t be able to get married and that they would need to wait a whole year. But it was remarkable how they handled all of this. They used that year to continue to grow in their love for each other.
This past June, their wedding was held on a picture perfect day in Michigan with all of their family and friends. It was an incredible day of celebration. They were finally able to receive the gift of marriage after a long year of waiting. They used that time to become an even stronger couple.
In fact I would say that their wedding celebration was probably even more joy-filled because of that long wait.
During these four weeks of Advent, let’s use this time of waiting to prepare ourselves to receive the gift of Christmas. And as the Apostle Paul says, may this time of waiting strengthen our hearts in holiness.
Waiting for The Gift
Righteous One, your glory shines brighter than the sun. We remember your compassion and your faithful love in our time of worship today. Lift up our souls so that we will be prepared for the challenges that come our way. May your righteous branch grow within our hearts, that our lives may abound in mercy and steadfast love. And may we be found ready and waiting when the one drawing near comes with power and glory. Amen.
Sunday, November 28, 2021
Wednesday, November 24, 2021
Monday, November 22, 2021
I came across a humorous list of famous last words spoken immediately before something dreadful happened to the person who spoke those words. Let me share a few of them with you.
Famous last words:
· Oh, don’t worry, he’s probably just hibernating.
· What does this button do?
· So, you’re a cannibal. That’s interesting.
· Are you SURE the power is off?
· Yeah, I made the deciding vote on the jury, so, what of it?
· I pulled the pin but remind me what I’m supposed to count to?
· I wonder where the mother bear is.
· Trust me. These are the good kind of mushrooms.
· Ok, let it dow, but slowly.
· Don’t worry. I’ll get your toast out.
· Hey, this doesn’t taste right.
· Nice doggie.
· That’s really odd.
· Hey, that’s not a violin!
And last, but not least, probably my favorite famous last words…
· What do you mean, duck? I don’t see a duck anywhere.
Famous last words. Our Old Testament reading for today includes David’s last words. Our scripture begins with, “Now these are the last words of David.”
And since David is one of the most prominent people in the entire Old Testament, it’s worth paying attention to what his last words are to the people of Israel. This reminds us of some other noted Old Testament figures who also offered last words, people like Jacob and Moses.
For David’s last words, the writer of II Samuel builds the suspense by saying and I’ll use The Message translation for this,
“The voice of the son of Jesse, the voice of the man God took to the top, whom the God of Jacob made king, and Israel’s most popular singer! God’s Spirit spoke through me, his words took shape on my tongue. The God of Israel spoke to me, Israel’s Rock-Mountain said, ‘Whoever governs fairly and well, who rules in the Fear of God, is like the first light at daybreak without a cloud in the sky, like green grass carpeting earth, glistening under fresh rain.’”
We’ll pause here for a moment because I want to point out how poetic these last words of David are. David’s last words are painting a picture of what it means to be someone who has lived his life as God’s spokesperson on behalf of God’s people.
The poetry of this first portion of his last words is so beautiful. David is telling us that whenever we are open to allowing God to speak through us, it is like that first light at daybreak that allows the green grass to glisten.
A couple of months ago, a friend of mine had taken an early morning picture of the sunrise that reminds me of David’s poetic way of describing what it’s like to hear and share God’s words with God’s people. Under that beautiful photo she had taken, my friend had the words, “I like mornings.”
This is what David is describing in what it has meant to communicate God’s goodness and faithfulness to God’s people. It is as refreshing as waking up to a beautiful sunrise.
David’s last words to us remind us of just how important it is for us to share God’s word of hope and new life with those we encounter. Do our words help brighten someone’s day? Do we convey the glistening rays of God’s light of grace with those around us? In his last words, David is celebrating how God has used him to shine a little of God’s light to the people who were entrusted to his care.
During this week of Thanksgiving, I am especially thankful for the many ways that you shine God’s light of love with each other and with people in our community. You do this whenever you share with someone how you have experienced God’s presence in your life. When we share our stories of faith with others, it reminds us of God’s goodness and presence in our lives.
A couple of months ago, Penny and I helped to move our son into his new apartment. We had rented a U-haul and spent two days carrying heavy furniture up and down stairs. We were exhausted, sweaty, and sore from all the moving.
But as we we were leaving his house to walk toward our car and come back to Athens, an older couple who live just a few doors down from our son’s new apartment were taking their dogs for a walk out on his front sidewalk. And they stopped just to welcome our son into the neighborhood.
They were so nice and even though we were all really, really tired from a long day of moving furniture and setting up his apartment, those very kind words of his new neighbor felt like the first light at daybreak that allows the green grass to glisten.
When we speak God’s words of welcome, hope, and new life to those around us, it lifts us up and can make all the difference in the world. It’s interesting that this first part of David’s last words is all about the importance of sharing God’s words of grace with others.
And then we have these last few verses of David’s last words. David says and again, I’ll be using “The Message” Translation…
“And this is just how my regime has been, for God guaranteed his covenant with me, spelled it out plainly and kept every promised word - my entire salvation, my every desire.”
And this last part of David’s last words focus on God’s covenant and faithfulness. I do like how the New Revised Standard Version puts it.
“For God has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and secure.”
David’s last of his last words focus on God’s covenant and God’s faithfulness that will continue on even after David is gone. Kings come and go. Pastors come and go. People come and go. But God’s covenant faithfulness will continue on and on and on.
This celebration of God’s eternal faithfulness is at the heart of our Christian faith. It’s important for us to remember that David, as great as he was in being the King of Israel, also had many faults and failings throughout his life. David could have spent most, if not all of his last words lamenting all of his past mistakes and sins, but instead he knew that it was important to focus on God’s eternal faithfulness.
One of the reasons that we baptism infants before they are able to make their own decision about being a child of God, is because baptism is primarily about what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.
In baptism, God first makes a promise to us and claims us as children of God. And from there, we live in response to God’s faithfulness in our lives. And when we fall short in living out who God has called us to be which we all do from time to time, it’s important for us to remember that God’s faithfulness to us never changes.
God’s claim on our lives is steadfast. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us any less.
God’s love is an everlasting love.
These are David’s famous last words that he spoke to the people. Remember that we are all called to speak God’s words of grace and hope to the people around us and always remember that God’s love is an everlasting love.
As I’ve been thinking about David’s last words, I was reminded of the last words of John Wesley, the 18th century founder of what we know today as the United Methodist Church.
[John Wesley’s Last Words, 1791]
An Anglican Priest, Wesley lived to be 87 years old. These words come from his personal journal which will serve as the conclusion for today’s sermon.
Listen to these last words of John Wesley from March 1st, 1791, London, England.
Tuesday, March 1, after a very restless night (though, when asked whether he was in pain, he generally answered "No," and never complained through his whole illness, except once, when he said that he felt a pain in his left breast when he drew his breath), he began singing:
“All glory to God in the sky, And peace upon earth be restored.”
[Having sung two verses] his strength failed, but after lying still awhile he called on Mr. Bradford to give him a pen and ink; he brought them, but the right hand had well nigh forgot its cunning, and those active fingers which had been the blessed instruments of spiritual consolation and pleasing instruction to thousands, could no longer perform their office.
Some time after, he said to me, "I want to write": I brought him a pen and ink, and on putting the pen into his hand and holding the paper before him, he said, "I cannot." I replied, "Let me write for you, sir; tell me what you would say." "Nothing," returned he, “but that God is with us."
In the forenoon he said, “I will get up." While his things were getting ready, he broke out in a manner which, considering his extreme weakness, astonished us all, in these blessed words:
I'll praise my Maker while I've breath,
And when my voice is lost in death,
Praise shall employ my nobler pow'rs;
My days of praise shall ne'er be past,
While life, and thought, and being last,
Or immortality endures.
Here his voice failed him, and after gasping for breath, he said, "Now we have done--let us all go." We were obliged to lay him down on the bed from which he rose no more: but after lying still, and sleeping a little, he called me to him and said, "Betsy, you Mr. Bradford, and the others pray and praise." We knelt down, and truly our hearts were filled with the Divine Presence; the room seemed to be filled with God.
A little after, Mr. Horton coming in, we hoped that if he had anything of moment on his mind, which he wished to communicate, he would again try to tell us what it was, and that either Mr. Horton, or some of those who were most used to hear our dear Father's dying voice would be able to interpret his meaning; but though he strove to speak, we were still unsuccessful.
Finding we could not understand what he said, he paused a little, and then with all the remaining strength he had, cried out, "The best of all is, God is with us"; and then, as if to assert the faithfulness of our promise-keeping Jehovah and comfort the hearts of his weeping friends, lifting up his dying arm in token of victory and raising his feeble voice with a holy triumph not to be expressed, again repeated the heart-reviving, words, "The best of all is, God is with us!"
Famous Last Words
Sunday, November 21, 2021
Wednesday, November 17, 2021
Monday, November 15, 2021
Many years ago, I saw a comic strip that showed this very athletic and muscular male diver standing on a high dive platform. In the next panel, this man is impressively taking the first step on that diving board. His head is looking straight ahead, he is standing tall, and he is focused on the dive that he is about to make.
Each panel shows him confidently and very impressively, getting ready to make this dive, but just as he reaches the last few inches of the diving board, this impressive looking diver chickens out. The last panel shows him crying and holding onto the end of that diving board for dear life.
That little comic strip has stayed with me for all these many years, because I can relate to that diver! It took me a long time to build up the confidence to even just jump off the high dive at our local pool let alone dive in head first. Even though that man in the comic strip looked the part of a very confident diver, inside, he was the exact opposite, scared, unsure, and not confident at all.
Whether we try to appear that we are confident on the outside or if we don’t even bother to hide our insecurities, a lack of confidence can keep us from experiencing all that God has in mind for us. I read a news report that said that 85% of people struggle with a lack of confidence. 85% of us!
If you are part of the 15% who do not struggle with confidence, please be patient with the 85% of us who struggle in this area. And maybe today’s worship focus will lead to a positive impact on us on what it means for us to have a confident faith.
What does it mean to have a confident faith and what difference can it make in our lives if we have confidence in how we live out our faith?
I know that for me, depending on my sermon topic, my confidence can definitely waver before I get up to preach. When I was in seminary, I served as a part-time pastor. It was my first experience in preaching. Penny will vouch for me on this. Every Saturday night, I would get an upset stomach because I knew that I would be preaching the next morning.
But over time, and as I gained more and more experience, my confidence grew to the point where I could actually enjoy my Saturday evenings! And even today, I feel some of those butterflies in my stomach when I get up to preach, but for most Sundays, they now fly in formation. I think it’s good that I still get a little nervous because there can be a fine line between confidence and over-confidence.
That little bit of insecurity helps to remind me to not rely on my own abilities but to depend on the Holy Spirit to speak through me. Having a confident faith doesn’t mean that those insecurities completely go away. It just means that those insecurities do not get the best of us.
Some other times that I can feel anxious and and unsure in my faith are when I begin a new ministry and I wonder if it will make any difference. I also tend to feel a lack of confidence when I’m in a situation where I feel uncomfortable for whatever reason.
I’m sure we all to varying degrees struggle with confidence from time to time. And this is why today’s Hebrews scripture reading can be so important. It talks a lot about confidence and assurance in our faith.
Just listen to these words that we heard a little bit ago. The author of Hebrews says, “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh) and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of our faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”
So much to unpack here that can help us to have a more confident faith. So, those words I just read begin with the word, “therefore,” which means that what has been previously said is what leads to the conclusion that we can have confidence in our faith. What precedes the word, “therefore,” is this author’s reminder to us that everything we need has already been done for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Through Christ, we have been forgiven of our sins and not only that, but we also have the Holy Spirit who is with us to empower us to live out our new life in Jesus. God is always present with us. Jesus is always present with us through the power of the Holy Spirit who is enabling us to grow in being the people that God has called us to be.
The big take-away here is that it’s not all up to us. It’s about what God has already done for us through Jesus Christ and what God is continuing to do in us through the power of the Holy Spirit!
Which means, that whenever the butterflies that are flying around in my stomach… and by the way, where does this image come from??? Why do we even use this image of butterflies in our stomach in describing when we are feeling anxious and nervous?
I looked it up and it says that it was most likely used in 1943 when the magazine, “Boy’s Life” had an account of a paratrooper and former scout, Bill Gardner who said this on his very first training jump, “I landed all right and although I’ll always have butterflies in my stomach every time I go up, I’ll never experience the fear of that jump. Somehow I feel as though I’ve accomplished something worthwhile.”
I love the origin of this phrase because it remind us that it’s OK to be nervous but to always remember that the reason we are nervous might just be because we are about to accomplish something worthwhile!
We are human beings so it is very natural for us to question if we are up to the task that is before us. The author of Hebrews wants us to know that being a follower of Jesus is worthwhile but to not let our fears get in the way.
And this brings us back to that word, “therefore.” The author of Hebrews says that because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we can enter into God’s presence with confidence, and a true heart in full assurance of faith. Confidence, and a true heart in full assurance of faith.
Let me say that one more time… Confidence, and a true heart in full assurance of faith.
That little line can help the butterflies fly in formation rather than give us upset stomachs. Confidence, and a true heart in full assurance of faith.
And also important to note is that our Hebrews passage concludes with these very important words, “for he who has promised is faithful.” God is faithful. Those are good words to remember as well when we are feeling anxious and unsure of ourselves. God is faithful.
But notice that the author of Hebrews also offers this important and very practical way to help us have a confident faith. Not only do we remember what God has already done for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And not only does the author of Hebrews want us to know that the Holy Spirit is the active presence of Jesus in our lives to help us live out our faith. And not only are we to remember that God is faithful.
This author of Hebrews also wants us to know that we need each other in order to have a confident faith. The author writes, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
The author of Hebrews is referring to Christian fellowship and worship. Our faith isn’t meant to be a “me and Jesus” type of faith. Our faith is meant to be a “we and Jesus” type of faith where we encourage one another through small groups, through bible studies, through worshiping together, through serving together, through doing this thing called church side by side. We have a “we and Jesus” faith, not just a “me and Jesus” type of faith.
Whenever I look out at your smiling faces before I preach, I know that you are praying for me. I know that you are pulling for me. Whenever we step out in faith, we can know that people are praying for us. We can know that people are pulling for us. This is what it means to be the church!
It’s not just you preparing to dive off that high dive. There are people who are cheering you on and reminding you that God is faithful. The Holy Spirit is with you!
A church member who was facing a life threatening illness asked me this theological question… “Is it possible to have full assurance that I’ll go to heaven when I die?” Such a heavy question, right?
And I asked him, “Well, what does it mean for you to be a Christian?” And he said how he has placed his trust in Jesus. How he believed that Jesus died for his sins and how he loves God and the church. But then he said, “But I’m still scared.”
And so, I simply reminded him that it was OK to have doubts, but that our faith is about what God has done for us, not about what we have done or left undone. We closed our time with a prayer thanking God for sending us Jesus and for the confidence that we can have that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord, not even death.
He thanked me for our conversation and said that it helped him to feel at peace with God. He died just a few weeks after we had that conversation. And whenever I think of him, I often wonder, “Did I help him to have a more confident faith, or was it really him who helped me?”
Probably a little of both.
A Confident Faith
O God, you invite us to be holy as you are holy. You created us in your image and called us good. You have given us everything we need to be the people you have called us to be. You went so far as to send us Jesus who lived, died, and rose again for our sake. You also sent us your Holy Spirit who empowers us to do more than we can ask or imagine. You have given us everything we need to live fully for you. Forgive us when we forget who we are and who you have called us to be. Remind us that there is no need for us to be timid in our faith because you are and will always be faithful. Amen.