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Monday, June 27, 2022

God is Great. God is Good.

When I was a kid, we would all sit around the table and eat dinner together.  We took turns saying a blessing before each meal.  So even as a young kid, I would often say the prayer.  Most often, it was the simple prayer we had memorized: “God is great.  God is good.  Let us thank Him for our food.  By His hands, we all are fed.  Give us Lord our daily bread. Amen.”

Preview Of Our VBS
That prayer so many learned as children will be the theme of Vacation Bible School here at Pleasant Grove this week.
We will pretend we’re having a Food Truck Party
and each day we will consider a statement from the old, traditional meal blessing.
Monday is “God is Great” – Ex. 18 – God sends Manna and Quail for the Hebrews…
Tuesday is “God is Good” – 1 Kings 17 – Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath
Wednesday is “Let us thank Him for our food” – Daniel 1 – Daniel and the exiles’ special diet
Thursday is “By His hands we all are fed. Give us Lord our daily bread – Matthew 14 – Jesus Feeding the 5,000

Today, I want to talk about the Elijah story.  If you read 1 Kings chapter 16, it tells a long list of kings of Israel and it says each king was a bad king.  The last king mentioned is King Ahab and it says Ahab was the worst one of all.  King Ahab led Israel to worship false god’s and even allowed child sacrifice.
Therefore, in 1 Kings 17, it tells how God punished Israel, but it also shows how God provided for Elijah and a widow and her son.

1 Kings 17:1-16
Now Elijah, who was from Tishbe in Gilead, told King Ahab, “As surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives—the God I serve—there will be no dew or rain during the next few years until I give the word!”

Then the Lord said to Elijah, “Go to the east and hide by Kerith Brook, near where it enters the Jordan River. Drink from the brook and eat what the ravens bring you, for I have commanded them to bring you food.”

So Elijah did as the Lord told him and camped beside Kerith Brook, east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat each morning and evening, and he drank from the brook. But after a while the brook dried up, for there was no rainfall anywhere in the land.

Then the Lord said to Elijah, “Go and live in the village of Zarephath, near the city of Sidon. I have instructed a widow there to feed you.”  [Zarephath was not an Israelite town. They were pagan Phoenicians who worshiped Baal and other false god's.]

10 So he went to Zarephath. As he arrived at the gates of the village, he saw a widow gathering sticks, and he asked her, “Would you please bring me a little water in a cup?” 11 As she was going to get it, he called to her, “Bring me a bite of bread, too.”

12 But she said, “I swear by the Lord your God that I don’t have a single piece of bread in the house. And I have only a handful of flour left in the jar and a little cooking oil in the bottom of the jug. I was just gathering a few sticks to cook this last meal, and then my son and I will die.”  [Notice the widow swear by Elijah's god.  She recognizes he is a foreigner and she swears by his god, not her own.]

13 But Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go ahead and do just what you’ve said, but make a little bread for me first. Then use what’s left to prepare a meal for yourself and your son. 14 For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: There will always be flour and olive oil left in your containers until the time when the Lord sends rain and the crops grow again!”

15 So she did as Elijah said, and she and Elijah and her family continued to eat for many days. 16 There was always enough flour and olive oil left in the containers, just as the Lord had promised through Elijah.

Drought and Famine
We need rain.  I haven’t had a drop of rain on my garden in three weeks.  In Elijah’s day, it hadn’t rained in 3.5 years!  Now, ancient Israel was well adapted to long periods without rain.  The ancients would dig huge cisterns in the bedrock of the land and channel rainwater into them.  Some of those cisterns are up to an acre in size--they can hold a lot of water.  And one good rain can fill up their cisterns and provide water for a long time--both for drinking and irrigation.  I've been to Israel and have seen some of those ancient cisterns.  They're quite impressive and they helped the ancient Israelites deal with the sporadic rain that is a normal part of their climate.

However, even with these cisterns, a really long drought could be deadly.  In Luke 4, Jesus said the Elijah's drought lasted three and a half years.  Let's consider how that would effect the people of ancient Israel.

The ancients had to grow all the food they ate.  If they couldn't grow enough, they went without.  So it was important to have a good harvest and to store up the surplus to get them through to the next harvest.

Drought Year 1
Let's assume the Israelites under King Ahab had a good harvest the year before Elijah's drought.  So they've got some food in storage from last year when the drought begins.  In the first year of the drought, they will have little to know harvest.  However, they still have some food stored from last year.  They could make those stores last longer by reducing their reduce daily rations.  When times are tough, you tighten your belt.

Drought Year 2
After a second year of drought, there would again be no harvest.  Plus, the remaining food stores would start to runs out. People might be able to barter and trade with neighbors and foreign countries to get get somethings to help them survive, but it would not be pretty.  No one is eating well.  They are in survival mode.  People are getting weaker and are more susceptible to other illnesses.  The elderly and infirm are most susceptible of all.  People are certainly starting to die.

Drought Year 3
There is no harvest again this year.  There are only scraps of food left.  WHat people are eating are the dregs of their food stores.  This is food that is rotting, full of bugs and worms and mold.  It's not even fit for animals to eat, bit people are eating because it's all they have left, otherwise they will starve.  No one in 
neighboring towns and villages has any food left to trade either..  Everyone is starving and surviving on tiny rations.  Bread is worth more than gold.  What little water is left in the wells and cisterns is dirty and contaminated.  People have to drink this disgusting water and they are suffering from water born diseases and parasites.  Many die from these illnesses alone.  others are dying of starvation.

After 3.5 Years of Drought
At this point, everyone is about to eat their last meal and dying of starvation.  That's where we find the widow of Zarephath when Elijah finds come to her town.  However, the Bible tells us God took care of the Elijah & the widow who lived in Zarephath with her son.

The widow has a surprising amount of faith and compassion.  Even though I'm sure no one in Zarephath had much water to spare at this point, the widow doesn't argue with Elijah when he asks for some water.  I don't many people who would have been so kind to a man who was a stranger and a foreigner.  Yet, she's on the way to get Elijah that cup of water when he makes a truly absurd request:  "Can I get  a piece of bread too?"  It is at this point the widow tells Elijah she doesn't have any food to spare.

Now this widow and her son were not Israelites.  They were not “The Chosen People” (by Old Testament standards).  They were Gentiles, foreigners, outsiders.  Some in Israel at the time would have said God despised this widow and her son. Ironically, many in the town of Zarephath would have said the same thing about Elijah--he was a foreigner who didn't worship their gods.  He was not worthy to receive any compassion from the people of Zarephath; he was despised by their gods.

However, the One true God of the Bible, Yahweh, doesn’t think the way people think.  God loves all people--even those who reject Him.  God sent Elijah to be a save this foreign widow and her son and to take care of Elijah at the same time.  And while the so called “Chosen People” people in Israel were turning their back on God, worshipping idols, and sacrificing children, God had compassion on a foreigner, a gentile, because she had enough faith and compassion to give her last cup of water and piece of bread to a stranger no one else cared about.

In the New Testament, Jesus mentioned this story of the widow of Zarephath in a homecoming sermon Jesus preached in Nazareth in Luke 4.  Jesus pointed out that God loves everyone—even foreigners and social outcasts that religious people look down on.  Furthermore, Jesus taught again and again that God’s real “Chosen People” are not defined by a religion, or race, or where they or their ancestors were born.  God’s chosen people are people who choose to rely on God for every blessing while living faithfully for Him.

We have to be careful not to look down on or reject anyone.  We must love the sinner, even if we hate the sin.  This is what we do for ourselves, isn't it?  No one truly hates themselves.  I may hate the things I do sometimes.  I may say, "Why did I do or say that? I hate that I did or said that!"  But at the same time, I don't hate myself.  I love myself.  We must be sure to extend the same grace we give ourselves to others.  We may hate their bad words or bad behavior, but we must love them because they are made in the image of God and are sacred to God.  All human life is sacred.  So we must love all people--even sinners; we love the sinners and hate their sin.  This is how Jesus loves us all.  It is how he was able to eat with sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes and all kids of immoral people, but also call each of these sinners to repentance and to transform them into new creations more able to glorify God with their words and actions.

God’s Chosen People
God’s chosen people live by a simple creed expressed surprisingly well in the simple meal blessing many learned as kids.

God is great. We believe God is all powerful.  He is great enough to do anything.  He made the world.  He can control it.  He can do whatever He wants.  Now an all powerful God who is malevolent could be a ver scary, very dangerous and appalling thing.  But thankfully…

God is good.  God is not just all powerful.  He’s also a good God who does the right thing.  He cares for people—not just the good looking, strong people everybody likes. No.  God even cares for the weak, the lost, the foreigner, the outcast.  He cares for the widow who’s starving to death with her only son--even when she lives in a foreign land that worship's idols and false gods.  God cares for the orphan everyone has abandoned. So…

Let us thank Him for our food.  God’s chosen people depend on God and are thankful for every blessing He gives.  We believe, and are eternally grateful, that God provides for us.  We recognize that we rise or fall by the grace of God, not by our own efforts and abilities.  Rather…

By His hands, we all are fed.  Some people in this world think they deserve good things.  They think they deserve to be rewarded because they work hard, or live right, or they’re better than other people.  They believe they deserve a higher standard of living than the rest of the world.  They may even go so far as to believe God owes them.  After all, they think, they have earned their blessings.  However, God’s people realize they aren’t fed by their own hands.  Nope.  It is “By His hands, we all are fed.”  And so they humbly ask…

Give us, Lord, our daily bread.  God’s people realize we are completely and utterly dependent upon the Lord.  The very bread we eat is a gift from God.  God’s people willing submit to God and wish to enjoy only the blessings He provides and will decline any blessings that don’t come from God’s hand. 

When the world says, “You deserve to enjoy this or that pleasure.  Why not indulge yourself?”  God’s people say, “I don’t deserve anything.  But God is good and takes care of me anyway.  And I will only enjoy the blessings God gives me and I will abstain from anything God does not allow.”

When the world says, “Your crazy!  Why would you hold to such old-fashioned ideas?”  I will say:

God is great.  God is good.  
I will trust Jesus.  Am I understood?
I turn my back on worldly gain. 
This world won’t last.  Let me explain.
You think wealth, and pleasure are great. 
It all turns to dust at Heaven’s eternal gate.
You can’t take it with you, not a thing whatsoever. 
I have something that lasts forever.
I live for Jesus, because He died for me. 
Heaven’s my Kingdom. And Jesus is my King.

I invite you to chose Jesus today.
Choose to rely on Christ for every blessing
and live faithfully for Him every day.
He will take care of you
And you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Faith For Our Times - Trusting Biblical Authority to Lead Us Through Troubled Times

Happy Father's Day!  I talked with my Dad recently about his challenges of living in the 60s when there was so much turmoil in our world with politics, the Vietnam war, civil rights, and the cultural revolution.  He was in the Army from 1962-1964, as soldiers were training and ramping up to go over to fight.  

I guess every generation faces challenging times in different ways.  We live in very challenging times today.  You can't help but see all the things happening in the news and be concerned.  Today, I want to share about how the Christian faith can help us through these dark days.  

Paul, a seasoned Christian leader, wrote to his son in the faith, Timothy, to give him an important warning and advice to encourage and guide him through the difficulties of his day.  I believe Paul's words to Timothy can guide us too.

2 Timothy 3:1-5
You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. 4 They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!

[Having warned Timothy what he is facing, Paul now gives his son in the faith some important advice about how to navigate the treacherous dangers of an ungodly world.]

2 Timothy 3:14-17
But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you. 15 You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. 17 God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.

Our Times
Is there any doubt we live in crazy times?  On top of the hyperinflation, wars and civil unrest, we are seeing sweeping changes in societies morals and rampant mass shootings in schools, hospitals, and even churches.  What kind of world are we living in.  It sounds so much like the "difficult days" Paul described to Timothy, doesn't it?

As crazy as it may sound, we may not be living in times as crazy as what Paul and Timothy faced.  They were a tiny religious minority living in a overwhelmingly pagan world.  At least most people today (even if they aren't Christian) accept many of the universal values Christianity has instilled in our world over the last 2,000 years.  Paul and Timothy did not have that advantage.  Yet still, our times are crazy enough. How can we get through them?

I believe Paul's words to Timothy give us many clues.

Paul said, "Remain faithful to the things you were taught."
Timothy was raised in a spiritual home. He was taught the Holy Scriptures by trusted family members. Paul says, "You know what they taught you is true. You can trust those who taught you."

Perhaps you grew up in a Christian family.  Perhaps your father or mother or grandparents taught you some important lessons--maybe even the Christian faith.  Or maybe it wasn't your biological family, but a spiritual family.  (Remember, Paul was not Timothy’s biological father, but  a spiritual father to him.)  Have you had someone who was an important Christian mentor for you?  Can you trust what they said?

Our world today is blessed with 2,000 years of Christian heritage--Christians who faithfully followed Christ and helped transform our world for the better.  We have much Christian tradition to draw from to help guide us.  

The most reliable Christian tradition and teachings are firmly founded upon the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  

The Authority of the Bible
2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.”

Scripture is inspired by God.  These aren’t merely human words.  God gave Scripture to His people and preserved them to guide us today.  Scripture corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.  

However, to truly be guided by Scripture, we have to humble ourselves under Scripture.  There is a way we sometimes approach the Bible where we have already decided what we believe.  We may come to the Bible merely looking for texts that will prove what we already believe.  So we can say, "Look!  See!  The Bible says this!  That proves my argument!"  That will never do.

We must come to the Scriptures with humiliy, with a heart open to hear what God wants to say and not what we want it to say for us.  We must be willing to obey God’s Word in Scripture, even if it's not what we wanted to hear.  And we must be sure the Church's beliefs and actions are firmly founded upon the Bible.

The Bible Is An Anchor
Just because all faithful Christians base our beliefs and practices on the Bible, doesn't mean all Christians always interpret the Bible the same way.  Honest people can come to different conclusions about non-essential elements of the Christian faith.  That is why we have different denominations--Methodists and Baptists and Presbyterians and Pentecostals, etc.

A good analogy of how Scripture works is a ship on the ocean attached to an anchor.  The Bible is an anchor that keeps the ship from floating away.  The Bible doesn't change.  It says what it says and God's Word in it hasn't changed in thousands of years.  However, the Bible allows room for different interpretations. The interpretations are the ship floating on the surface of the water.  The shift may drift this way or that way, but it doesn't drift off into oblivion.  It stays attached to the unmoving anchor even as it may move around a bit.

So, in terms of Biblical Christian churches, Methodists may interpret the Bible one way and Baptists another, but we are attached to the same Holy Book and we do not simply make up our beliefs to be whatever we want.  The Bible keeps us anchored.  And in humility, we recognizes our interpretation of Scripture could be wrong and another's could be right.  So we don't have to fight about it.  Let those who believe the Baptist interpretation be Baptist and let Methodists be Methodists.  There is freedom to allow different interpretations. 

However, what happens if you cut the line to anchor?  If you cut the anchor, the ship will drift off wherever the wind and waves push it or wherever the captain drives the ship.  In terms of the Christian faith, if you cut away your reliance on the Bible then people will  make their religion whatever they want it to be--even if it has no real connection to Christ and His teachings at all.  And unfortunately, the human heart is such that it can and will justify anything it wants--especially without Scripture to restrain it.

Furthermore, there the winds and waves of cultural whims and  evil influences and dark spiritual forces constantly pushing people here and there.  Without the firm foundation of Holy Scripture, people are driven before the storms of their times and may easily have their faith shipwrecked.

The UMC in the News
At annual conference in Georgia this year, 70 United Methodist Churches disaffiliated from the UMC.  News outlets reported these churches disaffiliated over the issue of homosexuality. 
This is misleading and inaccurate.  Secular news doesn't understand or take the time to dig down to the real issues--nor is the general non-Christian, non-Methodist public capable of understanding the deeper roots of the disagreement.  

The real issue is not homosexuality.  The real issue is biblical authority.  Seventy churches broke away from the United Methodist Church because the UMC wants to disregard God’s clear teaching in the Bible.  Seventy churches in our annual conference do not want to be part of a denomination that has cut the anchor to Scripture.  I believe many more churches will disaffiliate from the UMC in the coming year because faithful Christians still believe the Bible is the essential, firm foundation of a true Christian Church.

Homosexuality only enters the current debate in the UMC because the Bible clearly teaches homosexuality is not God’s plan for His people.  The same Scriptures that forbid gay sex also forbid idolatry, stealing, greed, drunkenness, abuse, and cheating.  Progressives in The United Methodist Church have no problem calling out a long list of sins, but it is very unpopular in the world right now to say homosexuality a sin.  Many progressives in the UMC would rather follow the world than follow God’s Word.  So, they say, “Well, Scripture is wrong about homosexuality.” 

You need to understand the division in the UMC is not about homosexuality, it’s about the Bible.  Is the Bible still authoritative for Christians in the 21st century?  This is the real issue at hand.

If you abandon Scripture on the issue of homosexuality (as these progressives in the UMC want to do) then where do you stop?  Why not turn away from Scripture when it teaches Jesus is the Son of God?  That he died and rose again?  Or other essential Christian doctrines.

There are some progressive United Methodist clergy who now teach that Jesus was not really born of a virgin or that he literally rose from the grave.[i]  Other progressive United Methodist pastors are actively denying biblical truths such the reality of sin, the necessity of being born again, salvation through Christ alone, heaven and hell, or an afterlife.[ii]  If you are not anchored to Scripture, then you can drive off (or float off or be driven off) into an oblivion of teachings, beliefs, and actions that have no connection to Christ or the historic Christian faith whatsoever. 

The history of the Church shows again and again that the Church always makes the world a better place when it is faithful to God’s Word in the Bible.  So many of the important values our modern world cherishes as were not always universally appreciated--values even non-Christians see as essential.  For example almost everyone today believes in the sanctity of all human life.  Prior to Christianity, it was not so.  Children, handicapped adults, the elderly or infirm could be and were routinely discarded by society and even their families if they were deemed not valuable or productive.  Christians came along and challenged the pagan world on this issue.  Christians taught that every person is made in the image of God and of sacred worth regardless of their potential or abilities or productivity.  2,000 year ago a pagan world thought those Christians fight for the sanctity of all human life were crazy and their ideas were pure foolishness.  Yet those Christians saints stuck by their beliefs because of what the Bible says and they eventually won the pagan world over. That's why almost all people today agree that every human life is valuable.

The list of virtues and justices Christians brought to the world through their faithful Scriptural Christianity are long and include such things as women’s rights, the abolishment of slavery, civil right, equal opportunities for all people, hospitals, orphanages, etc.  

On the other hand, the church has also done terrible evil in our world whenever it has strayed from the clear teachings of Scripture.  For when you break free from the restraints of the Bible, you can make religion whatever you want and can justify anything.  Thus, unbiblical, counterfeit Christianity has justified the selling of indulgences, the oppressions of the poor, the inquisition, colonialism, and even the killing of Jews in Nazi German.  

Stay Anchored to Jesus in the Bible
It is essential that we stay anchored to Jesus in the Bible.  We must make sure our congregation remains a church firmly faithful to the Scriptures.  As individuals, we must also listen to God’s Word in Scripture.  We must read and study and know our Bible.  We must humble ourselves before it.  We must let it correct us when we are wrong, teach us what is right, and change us to be more like Christ.  We must be faithful to what the Bible teaches—even if it conflicts with the prevailing views of our world.



Monday, June 13, 2022

Essential Teaching of the Church

It has been the tradition of the Christian Church for over a thousand years to follow a cycle of seasons that recall the life of Christ.  So we begin in winter with Advent—preparing for the birth of Christ, which comes at Christmas.  Then we have Epiphany, followed by Lent, where we prepare for the death and ressurection of Christ on Easter Sunday.  Last Sunday, we celebrated Pentecost Sunday—where the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Church.  The Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday—where we celebrate the Triune God, God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 28:18-20
Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

In the Name of…
Jesus, having died on the cross and miraculously resurrected, came to His disciples and proclaimed, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.” Well, yeah!  If a man can die and rise again, I think you better listen to Him!

Then Jesus uses His absolute authority to command His followers (and that includes us), “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

There was a lot of different kinds of baptisms going on at the time Jesus gave this command.  Jews had a purification rite that used water and after coming back from the Babylonian exile, converts to Judaism had to be immersed in water (very similar to Christian batism). 

The John the Baptist started baptizing people in the Jordan River to prepare them to receive the Messiah.  John said in Mark 1:8 – “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!”

There are many religions that celebrate religious ceremonies that are similar to baptism.  Jesus didn't want His followers to be confused with any of these other groups.  Therefore, Jesus commanded His followers to baptize into a specific name. He said baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Why not just use the name of God or Jesus?  Jesus used these three specific names because the God Jesus represents in One God in three persons--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

God is One God  in Three Persons
There are two facts that are very clear from Scripture.  First of all, there is One God.  Although people through the world have often worshiped many gods, the sun, moon, stars, and animals.  The God of the Holy Bible always calls people to recognize there is only one God.  Deuteronomy 6:4 is the clarion call of our monotheistic God, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

Yet it is also fascinating that the Bible reveals the One True God in three persons.  In the very first verse, we read Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Yet the Hebrew word used for God here is plurals.  It is "Elohiym", which literal translates Gods.  And in the same chapter, in Genesis 1:26, it says "Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us.”  Again, we see this is a plural form.  There is One God, but He is a plurality.

Then, in Genesis 18:1 it says, “The Lord appeared again to Abraham near the oak grove belonging to Mamre. One day Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent during the hottest part of the day. He looked up and noticed three men standing nearby.”  So when the Lord appeared to Abraham, Abraham saw three men.

All three persons of the Trinity are mentioned in Old Testament.  Malachi 2:10 referes to God as father, “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?”  Isaiah 9:6 refers to the son and calls him Mighty God.  “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Isaiah 63:10 mentions the Holy Spirit.  “But they rebelled against him and grieved his Holy Spirit.”

All three persons of the Trinity were present when Jesus was baptized in Matthew 3:21-22, “Jesus himself was baptized. As he was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form, descended on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.”  The Father speaks from heaven; the Holy Spirit descends; Jesus is the Son who is baptized.

Jesus commands His followers to baptize specifically in these 3 names of God: Baptize them “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).  Throughout the New Testament, we find Jesus’ followers invoking the three persons of the Trinity. For instance, in 2 Corinthians 3:14, Paul blesses the church saying, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  One God.  Three Persons.  Christians have followed this essential way of naming God for 2,000 years because it is founded upon Scripture and has become the orthodox teaching of the Christian Church, going all the way back to Jesus and the Twelve Apostles.

God Creates.  People Rebel. 
The Bible teaches that God created people to know Him and worship Him.  Romans 1:20 says “Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature.”

Unfortunately, people are rebellious.  We want to do what we want to do.  We don’t want anyone (not even God) telling us what we can and cannot do.  Romans 1:23 says, “Instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.”  Today, we can add numerous other false gods people worship:  money, power, politicians, nations.  We become more sinful the further we stray from God and people can learn to justify anything they want to do.  There’s nothing off limits—no mater how sinful, shameful, or ludicrous it is. 

Romans 1:26b-28 says, “Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other.”

What do we see happening in the world today?  No matter how kind and patient and open-minded you are, Christians cannot honestly look at the craziness that’s happening in our world and believe this is right and what God wants.

Recently, I attend the North Georgia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  I was there as the clergy representing my church, which is part of this conference.  It is customary for people who need to ask a question or make a comment to come to a numbered microphone to speak on the conference floor (there are several thousand people in attendance).  When a person speaks, they start by giving their name and the church they attend and whether they are a lay or clergy delegate.  Well, this year a new set of identifiers were added.  People added their race, their choses identity (male, female, or whatever else), and their preferred pronoun (him, her, or whatever else they prefered).  Really?  This is what we've come too?

70 United Methodist congregations in my North Georgia Annual Conference are so fed up with the direction of our denomination and conferences that they went to considerable expense and effort to disaffiliate from the UMC.  Some have joined a new denomination called the Global Methodist Church (which wishes to hold to traditional, orthodox Christian doctrine in the Wesleyan tradition).  Other churches have chose to remain independent or to join other denominations.  

The church I pastor will be reviewing our own affiliation this year and I'm sure thousands of other UM congregations around the world will be doing the same.

Jesus Rescues
You might think God would abandon us when we slip so far into sin and foolishness that we can’t even figure out something as simple as male and female, but God doesn’t abandon us.  Instead, John 3:16 says, “For God loved the world so much, He gave His one and only Son, so that who ever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”

And so Jesus comes to rescue us from the mess we’ve made of our lives and our world.  Jesus loves everyone and Jesus came to rescue everyone, but how can Jesus rescue someone who doesn’t even know they need to be rescued?  Jesus’ followers have to be honest and tell the Truth. 

When our society calls evil good, we have to say, “No.  Sin is not good.  Delusion is not good.  Mental illness is not good.  Gender confusion is not good.  Sexual perversion is not good—even if you try to cloth it in a robe of “love” or “self-actualization” or “just being who God made you”.

Jesus was gentle and compassionate.  He ate with sinners and social outcasts and even prostitutes.  He was never one to shy away from rubbing elbows with people the world claimed were unclean and untouchable.  Yet Jesus also always invited sinners to be rescued from their sin.  He didn’t say, “Oh your fine.  You’re just being who you are.”  No.  Jesus said, “For the Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:15)

Furthermore, Jesus said to His followers in Matthew 28:19-20 (and this includes us), “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.”  So we can’t abandon the people of our world either—even if our society right now says what people are doing is fine and there’s nothing wrong with it.  We have to be a Church that calls a sin a sin. 

Unfortunately, the United Methodist denomination is heading down a road where it no longer wants to call a sin a sin.  Instead, the UMC wants to follow the lead of our secular culture and say people can define human sexuality to be whatever they want it to be.  If you were born as a biological man, but you don’t feel like a man inside, then you can simply identify as a woman.  Or if you’re a woman, you can identify as a man.  

Where does this end? I suppose if you don’t identify as a human, you could identify as a cat. You may laugh and say I’m just being ridiculous.  However, I read a story today about a 52-year-old man who left his wife and 7 kids and now who identifies as a 6-year-old girl (See story here.)  Just this February, a Seattle woman went on television to explain why she 'spiritually' identifies with being a wolf.  (See story here.)

You may shake your head and think these are just people living on the fringe and no one in the mainstream is doing these crazy things.  20 years ago, no one in mainstream American society seriously believed a biological man could “identify” as woman and compete against women in a women’s sport. Yet, here we are.  What will be considered mainstream 20 years from now?  Who knows.  The skies the limit when it comes to humanities ability to corrupt and pervert the Truth of God.

The Holy Spirit Guides
Jesus said in Matthew 28:21, “be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is with us always, leading us, guiding us, encouraging us, empowering us to be His faithful witnesses.  The Disciples and early followers of Jesus lived as a tiny minority is a world that was full of sin and darkness.  People thought these Christians were crazy because they refused to accept the sin and depravity of the culture around them.  Christians stood firm on the teaching of Jesus and the Bible.  They refused to call evil good and good evil.  Even when it meant they were ridiculed, hurt them socially, cost them their livelihood, and even their lives, Christians remained faithful and loved people enough to tell them the Truth about Jesus.

The same Holy Spirit that guided them, guides us today.  And we are called to be faithful witnesses to the world in the 21st century.  So, let us pray now for courage and strength to be Jesus’ faithful witnesses—as a church and as individuals—no matter what the cost.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

The Spiritual Power We Need Today - Pentecost 2022

I’ve been looking forward to Pentecost Sunday for many months.  The Story of Pentecost comes from Acts chapter 2.  Jews celebrate a harvest festival seven weeks and one day (50 days) after Passover.  In Jesus’ day, this religious festival drew thousands of people from all over the world to the Temple in Jerusalem for a time of celebration and religious devotion.  Pentecost is also the 50th Day after Easter.  For Christians, it commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit to fill Jesus’ followers and marks the official birth of the Christian Church.  Let’s read the story.

Acts 2:1-3
On the day of Pentecost all the believers were meeting together in one place. Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting. 

Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. 

This traditional picture of Christian saints from antiquity often shows a halo around their head (like the example of saint Thomas pictured here).  This halo was an artistic representation of the Holy Spirit's radiance shining around the believer.  It hails back to this Pentecost story from Acts 2.  It might seem out of place for us to picture Christians today with halos around their heads.  However, it would not be off base.  All believers of Christ are filled with the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2:4-13
And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability.

At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. When they heard the loud noise, everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers.

They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages! Here we are—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia, 10 Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!” 12 They stood there amazed and perplexed. “What can this mean?” they asked each other.

13 But others in the crowd ridiculed them, saying, “They’re just drunk, that’s all!”

What is the Holy Spirit?
The Scripture says is verse 4, “Everyone Present was filled with the Holy Spirit…”

People might ask:  "What is the Holy Spirit?"  However, the Holy Spirit is not a What, but a Who.  The Holy Spirit is not a thing but a person.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God.  In Christianity, we believe there is One God, revealed in Three Persons – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  It is easy enough for us to think of Jesus (the God the Son) as a person because Jesus lived on earth in a body.  We might also be able to think of God the Father as a person, because God often spoke to people in the Bible (and speaking is something a person does).  Unfortunately, God the Holy Spirit, the third person in the Trinity, is harder for many peole to think of as a person.  But the Holy Spirit is a person too.  This is a mystery of the Trinitarian God is too complex to tackle in this blog.  However, lets start with the concept of the Holy Spirit as being a personhood of God.  

The Holy Spirit is God's Spirit.

The Holy Spirit of God descended upon and filled the Christians at Pentecost.

Furthermore, every Christian who believes in Jesus Christ and follows Him as Lord is filled with the same Holy Spirit.  So, Christians today are the same in this respect as the Christians we read about in Acts.  We all have access to the wisdom, guidance, and power of God's Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit empowers Christians to be witnesses for Christ.  What evidence of of the Holy Spirit’s power do we see in the believers in Acts 2:4?  The Holy Spirit empowered them to speak in other languages. 

Why did the Holy Spirit empower Christians in Acts 2 to speak in other languages?  Was it just a fancy parlor trick to show off?  No.  It had an important purpose.  The Holy Spirit empowered Christians in Acts 2 to speak other languages because there were people in Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival from all over the world—people who spoke all these different languages.  God wanted these Christians, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to share the Good News about Jesus Christ in their languages.  This was the miraculous power of God.

Now, if you've ever tried to communicate with someone who doesn't speak the same language, you know how difficult it can be.  Even if you now a few words of their language and they know some of yours, you end up using broken language and playing a game of charades to try to get them to understand.  It's exhausting.  And even if they understand your language as a second language, they may not truly hear the full heart of your message--especially if you are talking about something as deep and heartfelt as spirituality.  That's why God wanted the people gathered from all over the world in Jerusalem for Pentecost 2,000 years ago to hear the Good News that Jesus came to save the world from sin in their own native tongue.  He wanted them to here the story with their heart as well as their heads.

Speaking in Tongues
Some denominations make a whole thing out of speaking in tongues.  It is often even a regulars element of weekly worship for many Pentecostal denominations like the Assemblies of God.  It may seem weird if you've never heard someone speak in tongues in church.  It sounds like gibberish, but it relies on a tradition that sprang up early in the New Testament.

There are two different kinds of speaking in tongues that we read about in the New Testament.  The first is what we read about in Acts 2.  It is where the Holy Spirit supernaturally enabled some Christians to speak in other earthly languages they had never known before for the purpose of communicating with people who needed to understand.

God Empowers You!
There is also another form of speaking in tongues in the New Testament--speaking in heavenly or angelic languages (a language that is not understood or spoken by people on earth).  Paul refers to this kind of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14.  He says that sometimes the Holy Spirit enables people to speak in tongues like this and that the same Holy Spirit will enable another person to supernaturally interpret the language so the rest of the church may be edified by it.  That is why it is customary for denominations today who practice the gift of speaking in tongues during worship will also include an interpreter who will translate what has been spoken in tongues.

I would add that there is another sense in which God's Holy Spirit can enable Christians today to speak in tongues.  God empowers you to speak to the people in your sphere of influence.  You see there are people in our world who only you can reach.  Because of the relationship you've formed with them--whether they are your friends, your relatives, your neighbors, your coworkers--they will listen to what you have to say about Jesus.  They won't listen to me--even though I am a preacher.  They don't know me.  They don't attend my church.  They may not even be a Christian and don't care what a Christian preacher says.  However, they know and trust you.  They will listen and understand what you say.

Furthermore, there are many different professions that have their own way of speaking.  Teachers have their own lingo.  So do medical professionals and construction workers and many other professions.  So if you are a teach or nurse or construction worker, etc., you know the language that may reach people in those professions.  You can speak to their hearts in ways a preacher like me may not be able to.  God has empowered you by His Holy Spirit to be a witness for Christ.

God’s Holy Spirit empowers every Christian to be a faithful witness.  You may not feel able.  You may think, "I'm not a speaker.  I'm too shy.  It's too uncomfortable to talk about my faith."  Or you may worry you might not know the Bible well enough or have concerns that you won't know the answers to people's spiritual questions.  

You know, you sound a lot like other people in the Bible who were reluctant to answer God's call.  I think about Moses when God told Moses to go tell the Egyptian Pharaoh to let the Hebrew slaves go free.  Moses complained, "I'm not a good speaker.  My tongue get's twisted.  I think You've chosen the wrong guy."

God's response to Moses is much the same as it is for us today.  He says, "Who formed the tongue in your mouth and taught it how to speak?"  If God can empower Moses speak to Pharaoh and David to defeat Goliath and Peter to preach at Pentecost, God can certainly empower you to speak about your faith to your friends, your family, or your coworkers.

God doesn’t call the equipped, He equips those He calls. 
God doesn’t need you to be able.  He just needs you to be available.
God can enable anyone to serve.  He can even make a dumb man speak. 
In one place in the Bible, God even made a donkey speak.
He can surely empower you to be His witness & to make a difference in this world for His glory!
The real question is:  Are you available?

Apathy in Our World
There's a serious problem with apathy in post-COVID America.  People just don't want to work.  How many o fyou work for a business that just can't find enough people to work?  Every restaurant and business in town has help wanted signs up in the window.  And even though employers are raising wages to new record levels, they still can't find enough labor.

And churches are struggling too.  Not only is there trouble hiring staff, we can't find enough volunteers either.  In my own local congregation, it's like pulling teeth sometimes to get people to volunteer in the nursery, or teach Sunday school, or serve dinner on Wednesday nights.  And the harsh truth is, the Church's influence will either grow or shrink based on the number and faithfulness of the volunteers we can recruit to serve.  And right  now, my church's ability to minister to people in need is shrinking because we do not have the volunteers we desperately need.

The world needs Jesus now more than ever.  Turn on your TV and what do you see?  Crazy people walking into schools and shooting innocent children and their teachers, shooting up hospitals, doctors, nurses...  It doesn't matter what gun laws you try to pass or what new politician you elect to office, this is not the real answer.  The world needs Jesus and Christians are called to share Jesus with the world.

This is no time for Christians to apathetically stay home and be silent. 
This is no time for us to shirk our responsibilities to serve wholeheartedly.  
This is no time to forget the greatest commandments to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.  And to love our neighbor as yourself.
The world needs Jesus NOW more than ever. 
Kids need Jesus NOW more than ever. 
Youth need Jesus NOW more than ever. 
Adults need Jesus NOW more than ever.
And Romans 10:14 says, “How can they hear about him unless someone tells them?”
Will you be the person who tells people about Jesus by what you say and what you do?