A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Monday, January 31, 2022

Sermon (January 30) by Rev. Robert McDowell


     Bible quiz show time. What is the most repeated commandment in the Bible? 

     There are a lot of bible commands like love your neighbor, love God, be thankful, but there is one that gets repeated more than any other command. If you answered, “Do not be afraid,” I have a blue ribbon to give to you. To claim your ribbon, see my after worship.

     Of all the commands that we find in the Bible and there are many, why is “do not be afraid” the most repeated one? Well, let’s look at one of those times it is repeated. We heard that command just a little bit ago during our Old Testament reading from the Book of Jeremiah.

     “Do not be afraid of them,” the Lord tells young Jeremiah.

     Young Jeremiah. I say that because when Jeremiah is called upon by God to become a prophet, he is reluctant to do so because in his words, “he’s only a boy.”

     My heart goes out to the youth of today. So much fear. So much anxiety.

     In all my years of pastoral ministry, I don’t think I’ve ever been more concerned about the anxiety and fear among youth than I do today.

     According to the National Institute of Health, 1 in 3 of all adolescents, which would include the ages of 13 to 18, will experience an anxiety disorder. 1 in 3! And this study was released just before the global pandemic started in 2019!

     The three top reasons they give for this rise in anxiety disorders are because of higher expectations and pressures to succeed, the world is becoming scarier and more threatening, and the negative consequences associated with social media platforms.

     Anxieties and fears are something in which we all struggle in varying degrees. A few years ago, a Chapman University survey was conducted which said that our biggest fears as adults are public speaking, heights, and snakes and bugs. 

     I am totally fine with speaking in public but please do not ask me to get on the roof of your house. I do not like heights. We paid someone to clean out our gutters and as I was watching this person heading to the top of our roof, I could feel the palms of my hands getting sweaty by the second. Not a fan of snakes either!

     No wonder that the command, “Do not be afraid” shows up more than any other command in the Bible. So much fear that we face in our day to day living.

     So back to Jeremiah. Why did he need to hear those words from the Lord, “Do not be afraid?”

     Short answer. The Lord called him. Whenever the Lord calls us to do something, it’s understandable that fear will set in. We often do not know if we will be able to meet the challenges ahead. We wonder if we will have what it takes to succeed. We’re afraid of letting God down. We wonder if the Lord might have gotten our email address mixed up with someone else’s.

     In our scripture reading, the Lord has spoken directly to Jeremiah so that’s not really the issue in this situation. What this text is inviting us to ponder is how will we respond when the Lord does indeed call us to a certain task?

     I actually really respect Jeremiah’s response when the Lord called him. There is a lot of humility on the part of Jeremiah. He knows that he’s young and experienced. He is also very much aware that there are probably other people who would be able to accomplish what the Lord wants him to do. But of course, the Lord responded to Jeremiah to reassure him, “no, you’re the one.”

     Here’s a thought that we sometimes forget as people of faith and today seems like a good opportunity to be reminded of it. Our baptism at whatever age that might have been, is to always remind us that the Lord has called each one of us to share in the ministry. And because of our baptism, God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower and equip us for any task we are given.

    All of those who are baptized are ministers of God. This reminds me of the sign in front of a church that reads, “Pastor – And then it has the name of the pastor.” And underneath that line, it has the words, “Ministers – Every Church Member.”

     Every person in the church is a minister. God has called each one of us to live out our faith and help to build God’s kingdom on earth.

     In our United Methodist Book of Discipline, it describes each of our callings in this way. “The heart of Christian ministry is Christ’s ministry of outreaching love. Christian ministry is the expression of the mind and mission of Christ by a community of Christians that demonstrates a common life of gratitude and devotion, witness and service, celebration and discipleship.”

     Now, listen carefully to this next part. “All Christians are called through their baptism to this ministry of servanthood in the world to the glory of God and for human fulfillment..This means that all Christians are called to ministry wherever Christ would have them serve and witness in deeds and words that heal and free.” All of the baptized are ministers and called by God to ministry and service through Jesus Christ. 

     As our benediction says in the first line, there are no exceptions, asterisks, or loopholes. God calls each one of us into ministry.

     So, this scripture from Jeremiah chapter one has particular meaning for me. If it wasn’t for this scripture, I would not be with you here today. I don’t know what I would be doing, but I would not be standing here.

     When I was in college, I attended a spiritual retreat in the mountains of Central Pennsylvania. And the leader of the retreat invited each person to take their bible and go and spend some time outside alone with God just to listen for God’s voice.

     There was no agenda. We were to just take our bible and open it to whatever scripture passage that looked interesting and read and reflect on it. 

     I opened my bible and it just so happened to open to this very scripture reading from Jeremiah. And as I read how the Lord called on Jeremiah and Jeremiah’s response to the Lord’s calling, that’s when I finally realized that the Lord was calling me into the pastoral ministry.

     Other people had told me that they thought God was calling me to become a pastor but I didn’t think that God was calling me, until that day I read this scripture at that retreat.

    I read those words silently to myself, and here is what I was mumbling, “Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

     Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak for I am only a youth.”

     That’s when I stopped reading because I said to God in that moment, “Ok, I see what you’re doing here, God. The reason you wanted me at this retreat was so that I would read this one little scripture passage.”

     “Nice try, God, but I don’t see myself as a pastor.”

     But then I kept reading, “Do not say that I am only a youth for you shall go to all to whom I send you and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

     “Ok, God, like I was trying to tell you. There’s no way that I can see myself speaking in your name week after week. Just no way. I don’t see it.”

     And then here was the clincher. I kept reading. “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, Now I have put my words in your mouth.”

     “Oh…. You mean, that you will write my sermons?” 

     Yes, I will speak through you. Do not be afraid.”

     It was in that very moment, that I finally got it through my thick skull, that God was calling me to be a pastor. Watch out for retreats. They can change the course of your life!

     And I am so thankful that the Lord spoke to me so clearly during that time away in the mountains so long ago. Like Jeremiah, all that the two of us needed to know was, will you give us the words to speak?

     Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.

     Thankfully, the Lord has continued to remind me to not be afraid. This past summer, I was meeting with other pastors about how we can equip, educate, and empower our churches to overcome the sin of racism in our communities.

     And in the course of the conversation, I said something like, “You know, I am just this white pastor who is still feeling really clumsy in how to approach this topic. I’ve become more aware of just how ignorant I am regarding black history and how pervasive racism is in our country.”

     Another pastor in the group stopped me mid-sentence and she said, “Robert, find your voice and speak God’s truth. Your perspective is important. God will use you.”

     That comment hit me like a ton of bricks. 

     Our Bishop, Gregory Palmer is known to say in his sermons, “Just get over yourself.”

     This scripture from Jeremiah, chapter one reminds me “again and again and again and again and again,” to just get over myself. Just use your voice.

     Get over yourself. You think you’re the only white pastor who feels clumsy about calling out racism? You think you’re the only one who feels ignorant and inexperienced on this topic? You think you’re the only one who is feeling fearful, anxious, humbled, scared, ill-equipped, and tongue-tied?”

     “Well, I’m hear to remind you, just in case you have forgotten. I have put my words in your mouth.”

     Do not be afraid.

Do Not Be Afraid!

Sermon Discussion Questions
Jeremiah 1:4-10 & Luke 4:21-30
January 30, 2022

There are a lot of repeated commandments in the Bible like, love your neighbor, love God, be thankful, etc. It might be a little surprising that the most often repeated commandment is, “do not be afraid.”

Why do you think that “do not be afraid” is the most repeated commandment in the Bible?

This commandment shows up in our Jeremiah scripture reading. The Lord is calling on young Jeremiah to become his prophet and the Lord reassures Jeremiah by offering this commandment, “Do not be afraid…” Jeremiah was fearful and anxious because of his youth and inexperience. A recent study in 2019 on the fear and anxiety of youth reveals that 1 in 3 adolescence will have some sort of anxiety disorder. Keep in mind that this study was conducted BEFORE the global pandemic began. Specifically, the study revealed the causes to be unrealistic expectations, increasing negativity in our world, and social media platforms. 

What are some ways that we can help youth overcome fear and anxiety?

Another study regarding adults and anxiety reveals that our top fears are public speaking, heights, and snakes and bugs!

What are some of your fears and anxieties?

The Lord reassured Jeremiah that he would not be alone and that he would put his words in his mouth to share with the people. Pastor Robert shared how this Jeremiah scripture was instrumental in leading him to respond to God’s calling to pursue pastoral ministry.

Share a time when the Lord helped you to overcome fear and anxiety when you were called upon to a certain task or ministry.

Through baptism, God calls both laity and clergy to serve in ministry by using our gifts. We are all ministers and we have all been called by God to serve by having a 1) Loving Faith, 2) Learning Faith, and a 3) Living Faith.

Share how you are responding to God’s calling in your life in one or more of these three areas of ministry.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Online Worship (January 30) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
January 30
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, January 24, 2022

Sermon (January 23) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Hi everyone. There’s someone I’d like you to meet who goes by the name of God. 

     Actually, this is what I feel should be on my business card. My job is to introduce people to God. 

     “God, this is Bill. Bill, this is God.” “Jane, this is God, God this is Jane.” 

     Our call to worship responsive reading which begins our worship service is kind of like our weekly introduction or re-introduction to God. One of the many psalmists get to do this each week for us. 

     Today, the psalmist from Psalm 19 introduces us to God. The first thing that this psalmist wants us to know about God is that God can be experienced through creation.

     “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork,” the Psalmist tells us.

     Do you want to know who God is? Just look around at the breathtaking beauty from sunrises to sunsets, to mountain peaks, to green valleys, to waterfalls, to vivid rainbows.

     Our smart TV comes with screen saver photos which are displayed when the TV goes into sleep mode. They are photos of breath-taking scenes of creation. 

     I’ve always thought it would be funny if I would show these same images to someone and say, “Hey, what do your think of our recent vacation photos that I took?”

     Yeah, I was taking a walk one day and thought this might be a nice picture…

      Yeah, this one turned out OK when I stumbled upon this waterfall during a hike…

     I don’t know if this was the best lighting, but this picture turned out OK…


     I’ve seen more colorful plants than this, but I took this picture anyway…

     I know that these are just a bunch of rocks, but not bad, I guess…

     Now, our TV does offer us the choice to put up our photos instead of these stock photos, but there’s just no way that my vacation pictures can compete with their photos, although, although, I do love these two pictures that I have taken while on vacation. I just caught these moments at just the right time while walking on two different occasions in the same park.

     Today’s psalmist is doing something similar to introduce us to God. This Psalmist is saying, “Just look around you because the heavens are telling the glory of God.”

     Theologians call this approach to introducing people to God as “general revelation.” We can know God in a general way through a beautiful sunrise and sunset, through the Milky Way blazing a bright trail across the dark sky, through the sound of a babbling brook or a rushing waterfall, through falling autumn leaves, and in the sound of crashing ocean waves.

     In the first five verses of Psalm 19, the Psalmist taps into two of our five senses – sight and sound. And then in verse 6, the psalmist taps into a third sense – touch. We are told  how nothing escapes the sun’s heat which of course includes us who can feel its rays on our skin. We not only can see God’s handiwork, we can also feel it!

     Every year when I was growing up, my dad loved to go deer hunting in the Central Pennsylvania mountains. He often brought home a deer, but later in his life, he decided to not shoot anymore because it was just as satisfying for him to to be out in the woods and the beauty and quiet of nature.

     Penny and I love spending time on our deck because of the woods that surround our back yard. We love watching the leaves change with the seasons. During the warmer months, we enjoy listening to the many different birds sing a concert for us. It’s amazing how that time outside can take off the edge of a busy and stressful day.  

     We get to know God through the beauty of God’s creation.

     But the Psalmist also wants us to know about another very important way that God’s presence is revealed to us. In addition to general revelation, God also is introduced to us through what theologians refer to as “special revelation.”

     In verse 7, the psalmist shifts from “general revelation” to “special revelation.” Special revelation refers primarily to how God is revealed to us through the scriptures. The psalmist doesn’t use the word, “scripture” but does refer to other words like instruction, law, regulations, commands, and judgements which all are included in what we know as scripture, the Bible. 

     While those descriptive words might sound a little intimidating, the Psalmist goes on to offer these positive phrases in describing what scripture can do for us. In verse 7, the Psalmist speaks of scripture as “reviving one’s being” and then in verse 8 as “gladdening one’s heart” and “giving light to our eyes.”

     Jesus who came on the scene centuries after this Psalm was written began his ministry by opening the scriptures to the Book of Isaiah that speak about God’s good news in freeing people from oppression and bringing sight to the blind.

     The psalmist knows that while creation tells us of God and even identifies God’s glorious nature, scripture gives specificity to who God is. This in turn gives specificity to who we are in relation to God, particularly when it comes to how we are to live and conduct ourselves under God’s desire to make this world new again.

     I know that there are many negative stereotypes that churches are overly judgmental and restrictive, but this Psalmist sees scripture very differently. Scripture is life-giving and life-transforming. This is why a third of our church’s ministries here at Athens First include opportunities to learn and study the scriptures together through classes and bible studies.

     To be introduced to God is to be introduced to both God’s general revelation through the beauty of creation as well as through special revelation, the holy scriptures.

     Both are vitally important if we want to be properly introduced to God. I’ve heard many people say that their sanctuary is a walk through the park or a hike through the woods. And that’s fine, but nature will only take you so far in knowing about God’s saving love for the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and. The Psalmist celebrates both general revelation and special revelation.

     Our scripture reading from Nehemiah tells of how the people of Israel gathered to hear the scriptures read aloud. They were being reintroduced to the God who had saved them and who invited them to renew their relationship with God.

     I love how this scripture passage concludes. After they read the scriptures aloud for all the people to hear, Ezra and Nehemiah say, “and do not be grieved , for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” When we are introduced to God through special revelation, we experience joy and strength.

     One of my favorite preachers was the late Fred Craddock. He was from the Disciples of Christ denomination. Not only was he an extremely gifted preacher, he also wrote a book about preaching which I used when I was in seminary. I also had the privilege to hear him preach during a seminar when he was here in Ohio.

     In one of his sermons, Craddock tells the story of a young woman who approached him one day. She explained that during her first year at college, she felt like a failure. She wasn’t doing well in her classes, she couldn’t get many dates, and she didn’t have as much money as the other students did.

     Then one Sunday afternoon, she decided to end it all by taking her own life. She went to the river near the campus, climbed on on the rail, and was looking into the dark water below.

     But just before she jumped, she remembered the words of scripture that she had heard in church, “Throw all your anxiety onto him, because he cares about you.” I Peter 5:7.

     It was at that point that she climbed down from the rail and decided to not take her own life. Those words reminded that young college woman that there was a God in heaven who cared for her. Consequently, her life had meaning and purpose. 

     So, when introducing someone to God, by all means, share your best vacation photos with them, those photos of beautiful sunsets, mountain peaks, and lush meadows. That’s what the Psalmist would do. “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork,” the psalmist says.

     But also don’t forget to point them to the scriptures, God’s special revelation that offer hope, joy, forgiveness, new life, and the good news of God’s saving love for the world. This is the God I want everyone to know.

Being Introduced to God

Sermon Discussion Questions
Psalm 19 & Luke 4:14-21
January 23, 2022

The Psalmist from Psalm 19 introduces to God through both General Revelation and Special Revelation. General Revelation refers to how God is revealed to us through the beauty and majesty of creation. The psalmist begins his psalm by saying, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” This description of General Revelation continues through verse 6 of the Psalm. 

Share moments when you have experienced the beauty of creation. Do you have pictures of these moments to share?

In the middle of his psalm, the psalmist moves from General Revelation to Special Revelation in introducing us to God. For Special Revelation, the psalmist is referring to the scriptures. The psalmist uses words like “the law of the Lord,” the decrees of the Lord,” “the precepts of the Lord,” and “the commandment of the Lord” to describe how God is revealed to us.

Share moments when you have experienced the presence of the Lord through the scriptures.

Notice that when the Psalmist speaks of Special Revelation and the scriptures in how God is revealed to us, he uses positive phrases such as “reviving the soul,” rejoicing the heart,” and “enlightening the eyes,” when we are introduced to God in this way.

What other descriptive phrases come to mind when God is revealed to us through the scriptures?

Pastor Robert shared the story told by Fred Craddock of a college student who was depressed and contemplating taking her life when she remembered a scripture verse that reminded her that there was a God in heaven who loved her and would help her through her problems. This Special Revelation from the scriptures ended up saving her life. The scripture was I Peter 5:7 that says, “Throw all your anxiety onto him, because he cares about you.”

Conclude you time by offering this prayer to the God of all creation and the God of the scriptures:

God of creation, thank you for your presence with us this day. We confess that we often forget that we have been created to be in relationship with you. When we face problems and challenges in our daily lives, why is it that we neglect to allow you to guide and instruct us? Why is it that we do not turn to you, the One who cares about our every need? Why would we not seek out the One who is more than able to walk with us each day? In this time of worship, we are reminded of how blessed we are that you want to be in a relationship with us. Thank you, O God! Amen.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Online Worship (January 23) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
January 23
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, January 17, 2022

Sermon (January 16) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Friends, I just can’t let go of Christmas! The reason for this is because of our New Testament reading today from I Corinthians.

     In his letter to the Christians in Corinth, the Apostle Paul wants them to know that there are gifts that they have yet to open. Just three weeks since we celebrated Christmas, it’s like these gifts are still under the tree waiting to be unwrapped. In the first verse of our reading, he writes, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.”

     One of the joys of the Christian faith is that God always has more gifts for us to open. The psalmist for today in Psalm 36 says about God, “For with you is the fountain of life.” Fountains are a continuous flow of life-giving water.  I love this image that reminds us that God’s blessings and gifts do not end on Christmas Day, but continue to be offered to us again and again.

     And so, what are these gifts that the Corinthian Christians have yet to open. Paul refers to these as spiritual gifts. He doesn’t give us the entire list here. It’s more of giving us a few examples.

     For whatever reason, Paul offers these particular gifts in his list: The gift of the utterance of wisdom, the gift of the utterance of knowledge, the gift of faith, the gift of healing, the gift of the working of miracles, the gift of prophecy, and the gifts of speaking of tongues and the interpretation of tongues.

     There are several references to spiritual gifts in the Bible. If you would combine all of those different lists, there are approximately twenty or so spiritual gifts in total. So here’s the combined lists of spiritual gifts in alphabetical order:

     Administration which is the wonderful ability to organize and care for the details that help people to flourish and grow in their ministries. 

     And the next two spiritual gifts are under the title of Craftmanship and these include Craftmanship as it relates to being an artist and then Craftmanship as it relates to being able to repair and fix things.

     Another spiritual gift is evangelism where you are inclined to share the good news of Jesus with others. There’s the gift of exhortation and this is the ability to encourage people in their relationship with Christ.

     Faith is another gift which Paul mentions in his short list. Faith is the ability to trust God especially when facing challenges and obstacles.

     Giving is a spiritual gift where you are always looking for ways to generously share your resources to help build the kingdom of God here on earth.

     The gift of helps is a gift that enables people to get things done behind the scenes.

     Hospitality is a spiritual gift where people feel at ease and comfortable in your presence.

     Knowledge is a gift that Paul mentions in his short list. This is a gift in which you enjoy taking in information about the faith.

     Leadership is a gift where you are good at helping people to move together toward a common purpose and vision.

     The gift of mercy is where you have a great deal of empathy for the pain and struggles of others.

     The gift of music is broken down into two gifts. There is the gift of vocal music where your voice blesses others and the other music gift is the gift of playing an instrument that also blesses others in a pleasing and inspiring way.

     Prayer is a spiritual gift where people are inclined to pray for the needs of others. They are known to be in constant prayer throughout the week lifting up joys and concerns as well as offering prayers of confession and prayers of praise and thanksgiving.

     Serving is a gift in not only seeing a need but being able to meet that need. 

     Shepherding is a gift where you have the ability to help people be drawn closer to God and with one another in caring and authentic ways.

     Teaching relates to being able to help others to know more about their Christian faith and encouraging people to know that there’s always more to know about being a follower of Jesus.

     The gift of speaking in tongues and the gift of interpreting the speaking of tongues are two gifts that Paul mentions in the I Corinthians scripture reading. Sometimes the Holy Spirit speaks to us in words that are beyond our own language and there are some who are able to hear what God is saying through them when they speak in tongues.

     Wisdom is a gift that Paul includes in his abbreviated list and this involves the ability in knowing how to approach various situations from a faith perspective.

     And last but not least is the gift of writing. This is a spiritual gift in which you are able to express yourself through the writing down of thoughts and ideas about your faith in a way that is creative and inspiring.

     So if we add up all these gifts that we find in various lists throughout the Bible including the list that Paul gives us in our I Corinthians reading that gives us approximately twenty spiritual gifts.

     Paul doesn’t want the Corinthian Christians to be uninformed that each one of us has been given at least one or more of these spiritual gifts that we are to use as he writes in verse seven, “for the common good.”

     Paul’s deepest desire as an apostle was to help the church to go forth and spread into all the world. He wanted others to come to know and experience the depth of God’s love in Jesus. 

     And he knew that if everyone opens up their particular gift or gifts and uses these gifts for the benefit of others and the building up of the church, that more and more people would be able to be drawn into a relationship with Jesus and grow in their faith through the love, encouragement and support of the church.

     Notice that the Apostle Paul also emphasizes that the Spirit has given us these gifts. These gifts are a result of our new life in Christ. I also love how Paul uses the word “activate” twice in our passage of scripture.

     He says in verse 6, “It is the same God who activates all of the in everyone.” And then in verse 11, Paul says, “All these gifts are activated by one and the same Spirit.”

     This reminds me of computer language where we are often prompted to type in an activation code to open an online account. The Spirit of God is the one who prompts us to activate or to open the gifts that God has given to us. 

     A lot of unopened gifts will be left under the tree if we don’t allow the Holy Spirit to activate them so that we can use them for the common good and for the building up of the church in living out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world.

     When the Bishop was at our church this past September to preach at a district event that we were hosting that day, he told me that he was just at a recent event where he met a church member from one of my previous churches. The event was the 4th anniversary of a new church start in Dayton, Ohio and this person who was a member of my church along with her family had decided to help this new church get started while still being members of the other church where they continue to hold their membership. 

     And the Bishop was telling me about meeting this family and he said, “that church member is really passionate about her faith. She has the gift of evangelism. That’s the kind of person that will help that new church to grow.”

     I nodded in total agreement because she helped our church to grow when I was her pastor several years ago. She loves Jesus and has the gift of sharing her faith and inviting others to church. 

     It was great to hear from the Bishop that she was still opening the spiritual gift of evangelism that the Holy Spirit had activated in her life to use for the common good.

     Pastor Chris Jones shares a story where someone with the spiritual gift of prayer wanted him to know that prayers were being lifted for him and a time that he needed them the most. And from all people, his mail carrier.

     Chris had just moved to a new area to become pastor of a church. He had only been in his new home and neighborhood for a couple of weeks when he received the news that his mother was diagnosed with a terminal disease.

     Chris says after he got home from church one day, he went to his mailbox to check for the mail and the mail carrier happened to be pulling up to his mail box. And she asked, “Are you Pastor Chris?” 

     He nodded and then she asked, “Is everything OK? You’ve been getting a lot of cards lately and in my mind, I was hoping they were birthday cards, but I had a feeling they weren’t. Chris told her that he had been receiving a lot of condolence cards because his mother recently passed away from cancer. 

     The mail carrier offered her sympathy and she said, “I just want you to know how much I’ve been praying for you because of all these cards. As a mail carrier, I can’t help but to notice what might be a sympathy card, a medical bill, overdue credit card statements and so on. You have been in my prayers each day this past week.”

     Chris says how God used an unlikely person to offer their gift of prayer on his behalf and he will always remember that incredible act of kindness by his mail carrier.

     Even though it’s been several weeks now since Christmas, we still have gifts to open. And as we open these gifts, may the Holy Spirit activate them in such a way that would lead us to be a blessing to others.

More Christmas Gifts to Open!

Sermon Discussion Questions
I Corinthians 12:1-11
January 16, 2022

Even though it’s the middle of January, our New Testament reading from I Corinthians reminds us that we have more Christmas gifts to open! The Apostle Paul writes, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uniformed…Now there are a variety of gifts…To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” - I Corinthians 12:1,4a, 7  Paul goes on to share a sampling of these spiritual gifts. There are approximately 20 gifts listed throughout the scriptures. These are listed below in alphabetical order:

     Administration - The wonderful ability to organize and care for the details that help people to flourish and grow in their ministries. 

     Craftmanship - There are two kinds of craftmanship. One kind relates to being an artist and the other to being able to repair and fix things.

     Evanglism -  Being inclined to share the good news of Jesus with others. 

     Exhortation - The ability to encourage people in their relationship with Christ.

     Faith - The ability to trust God especially when facing challenges and obstacles.

     Giving - A desire to generously share your resources to help build the kingdom of God here on earth.

     Helps - Helping to enhance the ministries of the church by getting important work done that often goes unnoticed.

     Hospitality - The ability help people feel at ease and comfortable in your presence and in the presence of others.

     Knowledge - The passion and desire to take in information about the faith.

     Leadership - Helping people to move together toward a common purpose and vision.

     Mercy - Having a great deal of empathy for the pain and struggles of others.

     Music - There are two kinds of gifts of music. The gift of vocal music and the gift of instrumental music that is shared in a way that blesses and inspires others.

     Prayer - Being inclined to pray for the needs of others and lift up joys and concerns.

     Serving - This includes not only seeing a need but finding ways to meet that need. 

     Shepherding - The ability to help people be drawn closer to God and with one another in caring and authentic ways.

     Teaching - Helping others to know more about their Christian faith and encouraging people to know that there’s always more to know about being a follower of Jesus.

     Speaking in Tongues - Allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through us that is beyond our common language.

     Interpretation of Tongues - Helping others to understand the message of those who are speaking in tongues.

     Wisdom - The ability in knowing how to approach various situations from a faith perspective by using wise discernment.

     Writing - Being able to express yourself through the writing down of thoughts and ideas about your faith in a way that is creative and inspiring.

Our church website has a Spiritual Gifts Inventory and a Volunteer Opportunities form that you can print out and complete. The Spiritual Gifts Inventory takes approximately 30 minutes to complete. Take time to complete these to help you identify your spiritual gifts and how to use them for the building up of the church. 

Offer this prayer as we all seek to open and activate the spiritual gifts that God has given us:

When hope runs dry, lift us out of despair, O God, and fill us with the waters of renewal. Transform our lives as you once transformed water into wine that we may flow with abundant love. Open our hearts to receive the gifts of your Spirit that you have uniquely chosen for us. Forgive us for not recognizing and using the gifts you have given us for the common good. Thank you for the many ways that others share their gifts to bless us. Amen.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Online Worship (January 16) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
January 16
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, January 10, 2022

Sermon (January 9/Baptism of Our Lord Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell

    Whenever we think of baptism, we most likely think of water. Thank you, Captain Obvious! It’s kind of hard to have a baptism without water.

     This reminds me of the joke about local church leaders who got together to do their part to conserve water in their community during a severe drought. The Baptists decided to only baptize by sprinkling. The Methodists agreed to baptize by just using wet-wipes. The Episcopalians announced they would issue rain checks. And the Catholics began to pray for the wine to turn back into water.

     That’s your religious humor for the day.

     In our Gospel reading for today, John the Baptist told the crowd, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

     So which is it. Water or Spirit? And the answer is, “yes.”

     There’s a book that is required for new pastors to read on the meaning of Holy Baptism. The title is appropriately called, “By Water and the Spirit.” This book lays out a theological understanding of the meaning of baptism.

     One of the key understandings of baptism is related to the title of that book. Baptism involves water and Spirit. It involves water because water is a symbol of being cleansed. 

     Water also reminds us of so many stories in the Bible like the water that was present when God created the world, the story of the flood and how God saved Noah and his family through the building of an ark, the story of when God freed the Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt by parting the Red Sea, God then provided them with water from a rock as they traveled for forty years in the wilderness, and then they crossed the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. Like the parting of the Red Sea, it was by crossing through the water of the Jordan River that led them to freedom and a new life as God’s people. 

      In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul talks about when someone is immersed in water, it reminds us of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are submerged into the water symbolizing when Jesus’ died on the cross and our need to die to ourselves, but then we come out of the water symbolizing Jesus’ being raised from the dead and the new life we now have through the Risen Christ. 

     And so, water is a really big deal in the Bible and when we think of baptism, we have all of these biblical stories and references in how water leads to freedom, cleansing, and new life.

     Just as water is an important part of the meaning of baptism, the Spirit is equally important.

     In almost every reference to someone being baptized in the New Testament, it also refers to the presence of the Holy Spirit.

     When Jesus was baptized with water, we are told that the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove. Water and Spirit. The scriptures emphasize how they both are essential in our understanding of baptism. They are inseparable. 

     We often only think of water when we think of baptism, but the Holy Spirit is equally important. 

     Luke’s Gospel in known for how it is very descriptive of the role of the Holy Spirit in baptism. The Greek word for Spirit that is used here is pneuma. So, when we couple water with spirit in referring to baptism, we can just as easily say that baptism is about water and wind. And just like water is an important part of the creation story in the Book of Genesis, so is wind.

     The first verse of Genesis says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was timeout form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit or wind of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

     Water and wind. Water and spirit.

     Luke who is describing baptism by coupling water and wind or spirit does so in such a very descriptive way by using the analogy of how a farmer separates grain from the stalk during harvest time. The last part of that process is winnowing in which the grain is thrown into the air by hand or by a shovel and the wind is what removes the inedible covering over the grain.

     By using this analogy, Luke is describing the role of the Holy Spirit or the wind in removing all that would keep us from being who God has called us to be. Baptism is a sign of how we are to allow God’s Spirit to blow away the sin and brokenness in our lives. The Spirit is what enables us to bear fruit for God and to live in such a way that we reflect God’s goodness and love.

     Luke is wanting us to know that the water and spirit of baptism is a powerful sign of God’s desire to cleanse us from our sins and become more like Jesus in all that we do and say. This cleansing dimension of baptism is also why we always have a prayer of confession and words of assurance during our worship services. Our baptism leads us to be cleansed by water and to allow the sin of our lives to be blown away by the Spirit.

     Speaking of baptism, I drove up to a car wash one day. It was the kind of car wash where a couple of the workers first scrub down your vehicle and then it takes your car through the rest of the car wash. Car washes always remind me of baptism. I love the look of my car after it gets baptized, especially after a week of snowy and salty roads. And like baptism, it douses us with water throughout the car wash and when you get to the end, that super powerful air blower shakes the car to get rid of the excessive water. There you have it, water and wind!

     I love how on the first sunny day after the roads have been cleared from all the snow and slush, you will often see a long, long line of cars waiting to go through the car wash. Everybody wants to get their cars baptized at the same time!

     So I drove up to this car wash to put in my credit card and I laughed because of a sign they had next to the entrance. The sign read, “No vehicles with excessive mud allowed in the car wash!”

     That’s where my analogy of a car wash and baptism breaks down. When we come to be baptized or to renew our baptism, there is no sign by the baptismal font that says, “No persons with excessive sin allowed to be baptized!”

     Luke’s description of baptism reminds us that there is no excessive mud that is too great for God’s cleansing water and Spirit to clean in our lives. We all come as we are. Broken, sinful, vulnerable, empty but open to what God wants to do in and through us.

     Baptism is not only about drawing us into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Baptism is also about being cleansed by God’s water and spirit. Both are needed to free us from our sins so that we can be the people who God has called us to be. When we go through God’s car wash, we are made new again.

     Water and Spirit. Water and Spirit.

     For the past few years, we have been including our West Ohio Conference “Light the Way” campaign as part of our special Christmas offering. To date, our church has given approximately $6,000 toward “Light the Way” which supports the creation of new church starts in our conference. One of those new churches is in Dayton, Ohio called New City Church.

     I shared this story with you two years ago during a worship service and it seems fitting to share this again on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Patrick Shannon ended up being baptized in this new church start and he shared his testimony during our West Ohio Conference session up in Lakeside, Ohio in June of 2019. 

     It’s a powerful testimony of how Patrick’s life has been transformed through his relationship with Jesus Christ. Listen to this four minute video and how Patrick describes when he was recently baptized in that church.

     I love how Patrick described his baptism by saying that “It was like all the muck and mire and nastiness was rinsed off and laid at the bottom of that pool.” 

     Wow! When we approach the baptismal font to be baptized or to renew our baptism, there is nothing that God can’t cleanse from our lives and make new again.

     In our Gospel reading, John the Baptist says, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire!”

     Water and Spirit. What a powerful combination!

Water & Spirit

Sermon Discussion Questions
Acts 8:14-17 & Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
January 9, 2022

On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, our appointed Gospel reading offers these words from John the Baptist about baptism, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…He (Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” This indicates that water and Spirit are closely connected regarding baptism.

Why do you think that Luke combined water and spirit in describing baptism?

The reference to water reminds us of the many times that water is references throughout the Bible. For example, in the Book of Genesis, water is mentioned in the creation story. The Israelites were saved from the Egyptians when they crossed over the water to begin their escape to the Promised Land. The Lord provided the Israelites with water while they were in the wilderness. 

Name some other times that water is mentioned in the Bible. 

The reference to spirit which is a word that is interchangeable with wind or breath reminds us of the many times that these words are referenced throughout the Bible. For example, in the Book of Genesis, the wind is mentioned in the creation story. God breathes upon Adam to bring about life in humanity. Pentecost is when the Spirit came upon the early disciples marking the beginning of the church.

Name some other times that spirit/wind/breath is mentioned in the Bible.

Since baptism includes both water and the spirit, based on the many scriptural references to these words, what does this say about the meaning of baptism?

When John the Baptist references Spirit in talking about baptism, he does so in the context of how wind is what blows away all that does not yield fruit in our lives. Like water provides cleansing, the spirit also enables us to be made new again. Pastor Robert likened this to a car wash that provides the water to cleanse and the powerful dryer at the end before leaving. The important point to note with this analogy is that there is no dirt or mud that is too great for God to cleanse in our lives! This brief testimony that was shown during worship is a powerful example of how baptism is a powerful sign of how God can make us new again.

Share your reflections about this person’s powerful testimony. In what ways has God cleansed and renewed your life?

Close with this prayer as you reflect on the meaning of baptism…

Spirit of the living God, descend upon us this day in a mighty way. Let your wind blow away pain, suffering, and evil. Let it blow away apathy, indifference, and ignorance. Let it blow away selfishness, insensitivity, and envy. Let it blow away hatred, bigotry, and prejudice. Let it blow away unkind thoughts, words, and actions. Spirit of the living God, let your wind blow upon us and make us new again. Amen.