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Showing posts with label Hope. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hope. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Jesus' Power Gives Us Hope

Vacation Bible School is a fun time for kids (and adults) to learn about the Bible and Christian faith.  As my church prepares for Vacation Bible School, July 12-16, we are studying the themes and passages from each day of VBS.  The title of our VBS is the Rocky Railway.   We will pretend to be riding through VBS on a train.  Our theme is “Jesus’ Power Pulls Us Through!” A train locomotive is a powerful engine that pulls a long train of cars filled with tons and tons of cargo or passengers.  Jesus is the powerful Son of God who can pull us through anything.

Last week, we learned:  Jesus Power Helps Us Do Hard Things.
Today, we learn:  Jesus Power Gives Us Hope!    

Background for the Story
Last week I shared the story of Saul and Ananias.  Saul was an enemy of Christians, going from town to town having them arrested, tortured, and even killed.  Jesus appeared to Saul and (with Ananias' help) Saul converted to Christianity.  Jesus changed Saul's life so drastically, he changed his name to Paul.

Paul went from town to town preaching the Gospel Truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died on the cross to pay the price for our sins so we can be reconciled to God through grace when we put our faith in Christ.  Paul was a great evangelist and so many people turned to Jesus because of his missionary work. 

However, many of Paul's former friends who opposed Christianity were very upset that Paul was now a Christian.  They feared his message would change their way of life in ways they did not want.  In Jerusalem, Paul's enemies started a riot destroying property and causing civil unrest.  They falsely accuse Paul of teaching lies and causing the trouble.  Paul was arrested and put in prison and endured a broken justice system.  If you think the American justice system has problems today, you can't imagine the way it was in Paul's day.  You couldn't get a fair trial.  You weren't presumed innocent until proven guilty.  And the authorities would often hold you until you paid bribes--so that inocent people were often punished while guilty people with money went free.

Finally, Paul was granted a hearing before Caesar in Rome (which would kind of be like going before the Supreme Court for us).  But in order to appear before Caesar, Paul has to travel on a ship from Israel to Rome, Italy.  It is a long and treacherous trip across the Mediterranean Sea.

Acts 27:20-44
20 The terrible storm raged for many days, blotting out the sun and the stars, until at last all hope was gone.
21 No one had eaten for a long time. Finally, Paul called the crew together and said, “Men, you should have listened to me in the first place and not left Crete. You would have avoided all this damage and loss. 22 But take courage! None of you will lose your lives, even though the ship will go down. 23 For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me, 24 and he said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Paul, for you will surely stand trial before Caesar! What’s more, God in his goodness has granted safety to everyone sailing with you.’ 25 So take courage! For I believe God. It will be just as he said. 26 But we will be shipwrecked on an island.”

27 About midnight on the fourteenth night of the storm, as we were being driven across the Sea of Adria, the sailors sensed land was near. 28 They dropped a weighted line and found that the water was 120 feet deep. But a little later they measured again and found it was only 90 feet deep. 29 At this rate they were afraid we would soon be driven against the rocks along the shore, so they threw out four anchors from the back of the ship and prayed for daylight.
30 Then the sailors tried to abandon the ship; they lowered the lifeboat as though they were going to put out anchors from the front of the ship. 31 But Paul said to the commanding officer and the soldiers, “You will all die unless the sailors stay aboard.” 32 So the soldiers cut the ropes to the lifeboat and let it drift away.
33 Just as day was dawning, Paul urged everyone to eat. “You have been so worried that you haven’t touched food for two weeks,” he said. 34 “Please eat something now for your own good. For not a hair of your heads will perish.” 35 Then he took some bread, gave thanks to God before them all, and broke off a piece and ate it. 36 Then everyone was encouraged and began to eat— 37 all 276 of us who were on board. 38 After eating, the crew lightened the ship further by throwing the cargo of wheat overboard.
39 When morning dawned, they didn’t recognize the coastline, but they saw a bay with a beach and wondered if they could get to shore by running the ship aground. 40 So they cut off the anchors and left them in the sea. Then they lowered the rudders, raised the foresail, and headed toward shore. 41 But they hit a shoal and ran the ship aground too soon. The bow of the ship stuck fast, while the stern was repeatedly smashed by the force of the waves and began to break apart.
42 The soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners to make sure they didn’t swim ashore and escape. 43 But the commanding officer wanted to spare Paul, so he didn’t let them carry out their plan. Then he ordered all who could swim to jump overboard first and make for land. 44 The others held on to planks or debris from the broken ship. So everyone escaped safely to shore.

The Most Vulnerable People
I think this story is really going to resonate with the kids at VBS.  It’s a story that really resonates with the most vulnerable people.  You can’t get much more vulnerable than being on a boat in the middle of a terrible storm in the 1st century.  The used sail boats made out of wood and ropes that were at the mercy of the wind and were very fragile in rough seas.  (And there was no coast guard to come save you!)

How would you feel to be on a flimsy sailing vessel in the middle of a storm that lasted two weeks and the boat is about to sink?  How would you feel to be Paul—to be on that boat, but to also be in chains?  How would you feel to be surrounded by Roman soldiers who had orders not to let any prisoner escape.  It was said that if a prisoner escaped, the soldiers guarding them had to take the prisoner’s place!  So Paul is in chains on a boat that’s about to sink with frightened soldiers standing around him with swords debating whether they should kill him so he can’t escape!  He was totally helpless, but God was on Paul’s side and that gave Paul hope.  Paul shared that hope with everyone--even the ones who wanted to kill him.

Now, think about the kids that will be at our VBS.  They’re the most vulnerable people of all.  There’s a lot of dangerous, scary things happening in our world.  But they are also kids.  They are the most vulnerable people in the world.  They have very little choice in what happens to them.  Kind of like Paul, who was a prisoner who had to do whatever his captures told him, kids have to do what they’re told to do.  Their parents and teachers tell them what to do and they have to do it—even if it’s scary or hurts or they don’t want to do it.

Do you ever feel vulnerable like that?  Do you ever feel like everyone else is telling you what to do and you just feel like you have to do it even if you don’t like it or don’t agree?  Do you feel helpless and vulnerable?  If that's you, I hope you hear the message of this story from God's Word.

Jesus’ Power Gives Us Hope
Jesus had a purpose for Paul – to preach the Good News about Jesus everywhere and eventually in Rome.  If the Gospel could be preached in Rome, the hope of Christ could spread all over the world.  Nothing was going to stop this from happening. Jesus sent an angel to reassure Paul.

Jesus has a purpose for the kids who will attend our VBS. We have the privilege to help them discover their purpose as children of God--to know that God loves them, to learn that Jesus saves and they can have a life of meaning and purpose, and ultimately eternal life when this life is over.

Jesus has a purpose for your life too. Jesus is not going to let anything stop you from fulfilling your purpose. Take courage! Even when your purpose in this life is over, Jesus offers you eternal life with God the Father where there will be no more sickness or death or suffering or injustice.  Jesus loves you so much he died for you. If Jesus cared enough to die for you on the cross, he’s not going to abandon you now. Trust him and put your hope in Jesus!  Psalm 31:24 says, "So be strong and courageous, all you who put your hope in the Lord!"  Are you putting your hope in the Lord today?

Prayer from Philippians 1:9-11
Jesus, I pray for the kids who will be coming to our VBS.  Watch over them and prepare them for the blessings You have for them this summer.  And help us all to overflow with love more and more.  Help us to keep growing in knowledge and understanding. Lord, I want everyone reading this to understand what really matters, so that they may live pure and blameless lives until the day You return. I know you will return in our lifetimes--whether you come for us all at once in the clouds or whether you come for us individually when we die.  Help us to be ready.  Fill us with the fruit of salvation—the righteous character you want to produce in each of us—for this will bring much glory and praise to God.  Jesus, I also pray all the volunteers who will be helping with VBS this year.  Please guide us to teach them well, and help them to have eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart full of love.  Amen.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Good Friday & Holy Saturday - Between Two Theives

Everybody Has Trash
            I had the privileged of visiting many unique places--Guatemala, El Salvador, and even Israel. When you travel, you usually want to visit the most interesting, notable places in a region--the Grand Canyon, the Eiffel Tower, etc. Nobody I know makes a point to visit the cities landfill. And yet, every place in the world--and this is true for people from all places and times--have a place where people take their trash. Even archaeologists studying pre-historic people often find the villages trash pile (which can be quite a find, with significant historic value). It doesn't matter who you are or where you live, we all have trash we just want to get rid of.
            And it is in just such a place that the religious leaders of Jesus' day, with the help of the Romans, took Jesus, the Son of God, the savior of the world, the Lord of lords and king of kings, to be crucified--discarded as unwanted, useless junk. They just wanted to get rid of him. And this was the ultimate insult. It was as if they said, you are no more to us than useless waste, trash to be thrown away on the garbage heap. And he was crucified between 2 criminals.

Luke 23:32-43
32 Two others, both criminals, were led out to be executed with him. 33 When they came to a place called The Skull, they nailed him to the cross. And the criminals were also crucified—one on his right and one on his left.
34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And the soldiers gambled for his clothes by throwing dice.

35 The crowd watched and the leaders scoffed. “He saved others,” they said, “let him save himself if he is really God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” 36 The soldiers mocked him, too, by offering him a drink of sour wine. 37 They called out to him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 A sign was fastened above him with these words: “This is the King of the Jews.”

39 One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!”

40 But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? 41 We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

43 And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Joseph, the Old Testament Connection
            There is another story from way back in Genesis that has some striking parallels to the crucifixion of Christ. The whole story is in Genesis 40.  Let me summarize it.  There was a Hebrew man named Jacob who had twelve sons.  His favorite was named Joseph and his favoritism made all his other sons extremely jealous.  When he gave his son a very nice, multi-colored coat, it was the last straw for Joseph's brothers.  When they got the chance, they beat him up, stole his coat, and sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt.  Joseph became a slave in a man named Potiphar's house.  And since Joseph was a bright young man and had the favor of God, Joseph did well in Potiphar's house and soon earned his trust and a high position in the household.  But Potiphar's wife was very attracted to Joseph.  She kept hitting on him, even though Joseph--because of his integrity--never gave into her advances.  One day, frustrated yet again by Joseph's refusing to sleep with her, Potiphar's wife accused Joseph of trying to rape her.  Potiphar was livid and had Joseph thrown in the dungeon.
            In prison, Joseph lived with two criminals.  One was Pharaoh's former cupbearer.  The other was Pharaoh's former chief baker.  The baker and the cupbearer was very disturbed one morning because they'd both had weird dreams.  Since Joseph had the gift of God to interpret dreams he listened and then explained what they meant.  To the cupbearer he said, "In three days, you will be brought before Pharaoh and he will forgive you and restore you to your former position."  To the baker he said, "You will also be brought before Pharaoh on the third day, but he will condemn and execute you."  And it happened just as Joseph predicted.
            Is there some connection here between the bread and the wine of holy communion (Jesus body and blood) and these two figures from the Joseph story in Genesis chapter 40?  A cup bearer carries a cup of wine and the chief Baker makes bread?
            There are many similarities between these two stories.  Joseph lived in prison with these two criminals. Jesus hung on a cross between two criminals.  Joseph was to become the savior of Egypt saving them from a devastating famine.  Jesus was the Savior of the world. saving us from sin and death for eternal life.  Joseph is famous for his fabulous coat of many colors.  Jesus also had a famous robe that had no seams, but was one continues piece of fabric.  It was so precious, the soldiers didn't want to cut it in pieces, so they gambled to see who would win the whole thing in one piece.  Perhaps most striking:  both the cup bearer and the chief baker found out their fates on the third day.  Jesus also rose from the grave on the third day.            One of the criminals on the cross beside Jesus mocks him.  We never sense any remorse for his crimes.  On the contrary, he wants to make a bargain to manipulate the Son of God (if that is indeed what Jesus is) to get him out of facing the consequences of his sins.  Presumably, this unrepentant criminal reaped the eternal punishment he deserved--similar to the fate of the chief baker in Joseph's story.  The other criminal on a cross beside Jesus was remorseful.  He didn't try to get out of his fate--as terrible and painful as it was.  Instead, he simply said to Jesus in verse 42, “...remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”  And Jesus replied (in verse 43), “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” 

Will Jesus Really Remember?
            It is this last exchange that really caught my attention the most.  “Jesus, remember me…”  That’s exactly what Joseph said to the cup bearer when he was released from prison:  “Please remember me and mention me to Pharaoh…”  You will remember that the cupbearer in Joseph's story forgot all about Joseph.  For two years, he forgot about Joseph until Pharaoh had a strange dream and needed someone to interpret it.            Well, these are all fascinating connections, but I'm a pastor and I love studying God's Word. You can call me a Bible nerd or a church nerd.  Of course I love these neat little tidbits.  But do they make any difference at all to you, to your life? Is there any significance for practical life? Yes! I think there's quite a bit of significance.  You see, we are very much like the criminals on the cross!
            Some among us want to make a bargain with Jesus.   If he is who he really says he is, why doesn’t he do something? I mean there are things in this life that just plain suck. Please forgive my language.  There is suffering and death.  People get depressed and kill themselves (or they go crazy and shoot up some school full of kids).
            A good friend of mine, only 56, a United Methodist pastor, Gene Sheffield, got cancer four years ago.  He died last Sunday.  He leaves behind a wife, a daughter, a son, a mother, and many friends and people like me who loved him.  What's worse, I can't be at his funeral because it's at the exact same time as my church's Easter Egg hunt (of which I'm in charge).  And it's not that I don't want to be at the Easter Egg hunt; I do.  I love seeing all the kids have fun and learn about Jesus.  And I love that it's one of the big outreach events we do for our community.  But I'd also like to be at Gene's memorial service--to remember and honor him and be there for his family and my other friends who knew and loved Gene.  But I can't be in two places at once.  So I had to choose.  And I chose the Easter Egg hunt.  And I wish I didn't have to choose.  Really, I wish friends and fathers and husbands didn't have to die too early because of cancer.  But that's the messed up world we live in.
            In a figurative way, we're all hanging on a cross suffering.  And sometimes I want to look over at Jesus cry out, "So you're the Son of God right? You have the power to save us and yourself. Why don't you do something?"             Or maybe, with God's help, we realize it's not his fault.  All this mess is our fault.   Jesus is innocent.  It's not God's fault this mess we're in.  God created the world perfect and us in it.  And in the Garden of Eden, Genesis tells us we walked and talked with God in perfect harmony.  And God gave us only one rule to prove our love was true--don't eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And Adam and Eve ate it.  And we are all guilty.  For if we're honest, we've all done things we should not do or we have not done things we should.  That is sin.  And that is what makes our world broken.  We’re the ones who sinned and Jesus is innocent.  And maybe, with God's help, were able to say, “Your innocent and we're guilty and just getting what we deserve…”  And maybe, with God's help, we fall on her knees before God and say, “Lord forgive me! Jesus please remember me when you come into your Kingdom!”            This is what the remorseful criminal did as he cried out to Jesus from his cross. “Jesus remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”  It wasn't long after that that Jesus died.   It doesn't tell us how much longer the thieves lived, but we know they lived on after Jesus died because the story says the soldiers cam to break the condemned legs so they would die faster.  They found Jesus was already dead.  They drove a spear in his side to make sure.  They found he was dead and they didn't need to break his legs.  But then they broke the other criminal's legs because they were still alive.  Breaking their legs prevented them from being able to push up on their nail pierced feet so as to pull more air into their lungs.  And so they would suffocate from the weight of their bodies hanging on the cross faster.  Death (mercifully, I suppose) would come faster.
            This is the situation we find ourselves in, most of us, if we believe in Jesus Christ. He promised he would remember us before his father, but we're still here hanging on a cross waiting… (OK, maybe that's a little dramatic, but do you see the figurative connection?)
            And we sometimes wonder, is Jesus like the cupbearer from Joseph's story?  Will he forget us when he comes into his Kingdom
There is Hope on Good Friday

            When you feel like you're in prison, alone and forgotten, remember:  Jesus hasn't forgotten!  When your sin makes you feel like you’re hanging on a cross and everyone’s mocking you, remember:  Jesus hasn't forgotten!  He is before the throne of God, pleading your case!  When you feel like all that’s left for you is a grave, remember: Jesus hasen't forgotten you.  Jesus rose on the Third Day, the first fruit of the resurrection.  He's the first fruit.  That means there's a second and a third and a fourth...  And we are the fruits yet to spring forth!
            Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Son of God, and he died on the cross for youHe’s not like the cup bearer who forgot Joseph in the Old Testament.  Jesus would never forget you.  He’s in his Kingdom right now, thinking of you, telling His father how much He loves you and forgives you.  

            Good Friday is for all of us who are still hanging on the cross dying and wondering if Jesus will indeed remember us. It's a test of our faith as we wait for Easter Sunday.  What situation, what problem, what agony are you suffering right now?  You've begged Jesus to remember you and you're trusting that he will, but in the meantime you still have to hang out here and wait. Will Easter Sunday indeed come? Will the tomb really open? Will you come up out of it into glory as Christ promised?
What do you think?

Yes. You. Will!
Yes!  It’s dark right now.  Yes! The light is fading.Yes!  We blow out the Christ candle at the end of our Good Friday service.
But that’s where faith kicks in! 
That’s where we begin to walk by faith and not by sight!
That’s where we find God’s strength is sufficient in our weakness!
That’s why we call this Friday “Good”!  Because Death cannot conquer our Savior!
“Where, O Death, is your victory?  Where, O Death, is your sting?”
Jesus is going into the grave this Friday, but He’s coming out on Sunday.

You’ll go into “graves” in this life too,
      you might hang on some crosses,
             you might even get locked in some prisons                    BUT LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING:
                        This very day, Jesus remembers you in His Kingdom!

And when the Day of the Lord comes,
        Just like Jesus,
                Your’re gonna get up out of that grave!
                       You’re gonna come down off of your cross!
                               You’re gonna walk right out of that prison!
                                        And you’re gonna be with the Lord in Paradise!
Amen?  Amen!


Monday, December 4, 2017

Real Hope

            It's never easy to wait, but waiting implies you have hope.  Over the Thanksgiving break, I found I was waiting with hopeful anticipation for my son to make it home from college in Huntsville.  I was looking forward to seeing and spending time with him.  It was a similar feeling we had with each of our children as we waited for them to be born.  The pregnancies were a long wait--nine months--but they were full of an expectant hope.  We knew they would result in great joy when the waiting is over.
            Advent--the four weeks leading up to Christmas--are a season of waiting as we prepare for the celebration of Christ's birth.  However, Advent is also a reminder that we are waiting for Christ's second coming and that we are to prepare so we will be ready when he comes.  As we wait, as we prepare, let's consider if our waiting includes real hope.
 Luke 2:25-35 25 At that time there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was righteous and devout and was eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel. The Holy Spirit was upon him 26 and had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 That day the Spirit led him to the Temple. So when Mary and Joseph came to present the baby Jesus to the Lord as the law required, 28 Simeon was there. He took the child in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 “Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace,
    as you have promised.
30 I have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared for all people.
32 He is a light to reveal God to the nations,
    and he is the glory of your people Israel!”

33 Jesus’ parents were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them, and he said to Mary, the baby’s mother, “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. 35 As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” 

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory
            As I read that passage about Simeon meeting the baby Jesus, a song comes to mind that we often sing--not at Christmas--but at patriotic times.  It goes, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”  The song is the Battle Hymn of the Republic and it speaks of the second coming of the Lord, but it also echoes Simeon's sentiments as he held baby Jesus in the Temple.
            Simeon was a man of hope.  When he looked around, he saw a broken world.  However, Simeon believed God would not leave the world a broken mess.  Simeon hoped for a Savior and the Holy Spirit ensured Simeon he would not die until the Messiah came. Simeon believed.  His hopeful words to Mary and Joseph reveal the kind of Savior Messiah Jesus is.
            Simeon said the Savior Messiah was "...prepared for all people" and "a light to reveal God to all nations."  Simeon was a Jew, a child of Abraham, God's chosen people.  However, Simeon testified that the Messiah was not just for the Jews; He came to give light to all people from every nation and race.
            Simeon said the Messiah Savior was "the glory of Israel".  Many religious people today like to say the Israelites are "God's chosen people."  But what were they chose for?  Was it simply to enjoy God's special treatment at the expense of others?  Were they chosen to get a pass to do whatever they like?  No.  Israel was chosen to be a light that reveals God to all nations.  Jesus is the glory of Israel because he is the fulfillment of their purpose.  Jesus is THE LIGHT that reveals God perfectly to all nations.
            Jesus was born and lived a perfect life to show us the way.  Jesus died on the cross to atone for our sins.  Jesus rose from the grave to conquer the power of sin and death.  Jesus ascended to Heaven to sit at the right hand of God to rule in glory.  However, the story doesn't end there.  We believe Jesus will come again. 
            As the Disciples watched Jesus ascend to Heaven in the first chapter of Acts, a man robed in white appeared before them and proclaimed they would see Jesus return in the clouds just as they had seen him ascend.  Christians profess our faith in this second coming even in the 21st century as we recite the Apostles' Creed.  We say: "...He will come again to judge the living and the dead."
           The second coming of Christ will occur in two senses.  First, Jesus will come in a communal sense.  As he ascended in the clouds, so he will descend again for the whole world to see.  This will be his final second coming and it will be for the whole world all at once.  We don't know when Jesus will come again in this way.  We wait with expectant hope for Jesus to come and finally fix all that is broken in our world, but we don't know if it will happen in our lifetime.  We have been already been waiting some 2,000 years and it has not happened yet.  It could be another 2,000 years before he comes; however, it could also be within the next few moments.  "No one knows," as Jesus said in Matthew 24:36, "the day or hour these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows."
            However, we can also think of Jesus coming in another sense, in a personal sense.  Jesus also comes for each of us personally.  His personal coming happens many times and each of us can be sure he will come for us individually in our lifetime--for no one lives forever.  Every person is going to have to face Jesus at some point.  Again, we don't know if this will be today, tomorrow, or years from now, but you can be sure you will not escape it any more than you can escape physical death.  Jesus is coming.  Is your heart full of hope as you wait or are you filled with dread at the thought?  Your answer depends greatly on how you prepare.

Real Hope Brings Peace
            Real hope in Jesus Christ brings peace.  Simeon's greatest hope was to see the Christ child before he died.  His hope was fulfilled and he was able to die in peace.  What a blessing!  Oh that we could all find a peace like Simeon’s because we place our hope in Christ.  Christ came to bring the Good News that all who trust and follow him as Lord and Savior shall not die, but have eternal life.  Jesus didn't come to condemn us, but to save us.  Everyone who has faith in him shall be saved, but those who reject Jesus have already judged themselves to be unworthy of God's grace.
            How awful it would be to achieve your life's ambition only to find it was empty and worthless and unfulfilling.  Perhaps that is the definition of hell.  There are many in our world who place their hope in all the wrong things:  money, careers, power, or people.  They strive, sacrificing their time, their families, their health, their lives, working their fingers to the bone all in the hope that their idols--their little gods--will bring them real satisfaction and fulfillment.  Some work their whole life chasing these false hopes.  Others release their dreams only to find them empty and so start to chase something else in hope that it will do the trick.  Nothing will bring real peace except a relationship with Christ.  He is the only real hope we have. 
            My hope as a minister of Jesus Christ is that everyone will realize their misdirected hope before it is too late, before they waste even one more ounce of time and effort on them.  My hope is that we will all come to Jesus and lay down your dead hopes before him.  Place your hope in Jesus and you will find peace.  Even when you come to the end of your life, you will be able to say with Simeon, "Now I can die in peace."

Real Hope Can Be Painful
            Our hope in Christ does not exclude trouble and suffering.  We still live in a broken world and Jesus said, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)  Sometimes we face resistance and trouble because we trust in Christ; the world opposes Christ and those who follow him.  Sometimes we have pain simply because life in a broken world can be hard.
            Simeon’s words to Mary are very telling.  He said at the end of verse 35:  “And a sword will pierce your very soul.”  Mary, as the mother of the Messiah Savior, was not spared suffering.  She faced perhaps the worst suffering a mother can ever face.  Even though her son was perfect in every way and did nothing but love and help people, she watched him despised, rejected, denied, betrayed, arrested, disrespected, tortured, and ultimately murdered on a cross.  No parent should ever have to witness the death of their child, let alone in such a cruel and unfair manner.  Yet Mary's greatest pain turned out to be her greatest glory--the salvation of the whole world.  Death was defeated!  Eternal life opened to all!  Jesus rose in glory!
            Sometimes real hope also includes the promise of real pain, but our hope is God will redeem all our pain and not an ounce of it will be wasted.  Our hope is that our most painful wounds will—like Mary’s—turn out to be the source of our greatest victories in the end.  So we join with the Apostle Paul's hopeful proclamation of faith, "Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later." (Romans 8:18)

Real Hope is Always With Us
            Our hope in Christ insures that any pain and suffering we experience in this life is infused with a sense of expectant hope.  It is like the pain of child birth.  It is said that giving birth is the most painful experience the human body can endure.  I was with my wife at the birth of each of our children and I can testify that what I saw looked intensely painful indeed!  However, the pain of giving birth is also infused with hope.  You know it will end in great joy as you meet your child for the first time face to face.  So the greatest pain of life culminates in its greatest joy.  So it is with the greatest sufferings we face in this life.  Have faith that our great suffering will culminate in the great joy of seeing Christ face to face.
             Also, have faith you do not go through any of it alone.  For Jesus said, "It is good that I go to be with the Father in Heaven.  For if I go, the Comforter (the Holy Spirit) will come and live inside you."  So the Holy Spirit of God lives inside every person who truly trusts in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  You do not walk through this life alone.  When you are facing your toughest battles, understand that Jesus is right their with you--living inside you--giving you strength to press on with real hope.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Is Your Faith For Real or For Looks?

            I'm so thankful to Frank and Kaye Fetzer, Jean Coker, and Amy Harris and the youth of Pleasant Grove UMC who came out last week to decorate our sanctuary to get it ready for Christmas.  After they got all the decorations out and on the tree, the youth made their own Christmas decorations for the youth room.  They had some clear Christmas ball ornaments that they were painting or filling with colored sand or glitter.  They made some very creative and colorful ornaments.  However, it struck me how the ornaments are so fragile and really aren't useful for anything other than decorations.  As you read this blog, I would like you to think about your faith in Jesus and ask the question:  is my faith for real or for looks? 

John 16:1-4
1 “I have told you these things so that you won’t abandon your faith. For you will be expelled from the synagogues, and the time is coming when those who kill you will think they are doing a holy service for God. This is because they have never known the Father or me. Yes, I’m telling you these things now, so that when they happen, you will remember my warning. I didn’t tell you earlier because I was going to be with you for a while longer.

The Persecution of the Early Church
            Jesus didn't want his disciples (or us) to be caught of guard when trouble and persecution came; so he warned them.  A day was coming when his followers would be expelled from the synagogues.  This also meant they would be excluded from their social connections.  Buying and selling and getting along in the world would be very difficult.  In addition, Christ's early followers could find their property being seized without cause and they would have no recourse to fight it.  Jesus never said being his disciple would make life in this world easy.  To the countrary, the early Christians faced arrest, torture, and even death simply because they claimed Jesus was the Messiah who died and rose again.  As early as the seventh chapter of Acts, we see the first Christian martyred for his faith.  Stephen was stoned to death for simply bearing testimony about Jesus death and resurrection.  Immediately after, all the Christians in (except the Apostles) were driven out of Jerusalem.  Can you imagine having your property seized and people telling you to leave town or die?

Real Faith Sustains
            Jesus said, “I have told you these things so that you won’t abandon your faith.”  Christ wants his followers to have real faith, not merely faith that looks good.  So I want to share some characteristics of real faith.  First off, real faith sustains you when troubles come.  Stephen’s real faith gave him peace and courage.  Even as he was stoned to death, he showed real faith and courage.  He looked into heaven and saw Jesus and asked God to forgive the ones who were murdering him.  Stephen's faith can encourage us even today when we face troubles.            The early Christians who were driven out of Jerusalem were not silenced; they spread Christianity everywhere they went.  Instead of whining and complaining about how they were mistreated, they were faithful to Jesus' Great Commission; they made new disciples of Christ wherever they were driven.  So the very trials they faced spurred them to grow God's Kingdom because they had a real faith that sustained them.
            Not all trouble comes from people.  American Christians do not usually face the same persecution as the early New Testament Church.  however, we face sickness and hardships and grief and other troubles.  Do you have the kind of faith that will sustain you when the troubles of life come or is it as fragile as a Christmas ornament hanging on a tree?

Real Faith Isn’t Always Pretty
            Christmas decorations bring back some sweet memories.  I remember how my family decorated the Christmas tree when I was a child.  My poor parents had four children so their were lots of raggedy homemade Christmas ornaments on our tree.  The first year they might look decent, but as years went my our paper snowmen and macaroni creations became more and more ragged.  Yet, to throw them away would be sacrilegious!
            There are a lot of sweet sentiments we associate with Christmas time.  The secular world has embraced Christmas for some of its prettier values.  They especially like the idea of Christmas miracles, notions of peace for all mankind, and love.  However, the world's understandings of these concepts is often quite shallow.  Real faith is so much more than a sweet sentiment. 
            Consider what Christmas really commemorates.  Christmas celebrates God coming into our world to save us from our sin.  "Of course, preacher!  Everyone knows that!"  But dig a little deeper into the ramifications of that statement.  God (the Almighty who made the universe and everything that is) came into our world.  That alone is amazing.  But why did He come?  To save us.  That's great too!  But if the God of the universe had to come to save us, that means we needed saving from something very terrible.  Yes, terrible indeed.  It is sin that threatens to destroy us and our world and it lives inside our very soul. 
            So you see, this is incredibly serious stuff--so much deeper than the secular world wants to talk about.  the Good News Jesus brought includes convicting us of our sin and calling us to repent.  The world today loves the idea of the sweet baby Jesus in a manager, but most don't want to think of Jesus (or his followers) preaching about conviction of sin and repentance.  The world's ideal is to just let people be who they are and do what feels good; you know, follow your heart.  But real faith recognizes Jesus is Lord.  His way is the right way.  We need to repent of the sin of following our own heart; instead, we need to give our heart to Christ and follow Him.
            The secular world also likes the idea of peace that Christmas brings to might.  But the peace Jesus offers in not the kind of peace the world thinks of.  So often to the world, peace means just keeping everything the way it is and not upsetting anything or anyone; worldly peace avoids conflict at all costs.  That is not the same peace Jesus offers.  Jesus came to turn the whole world order on it's head.  He came to bring down the high and mighty and proud and powerful; and he came to lift up the humble, the poor, the forgotten, and the oppressed.  You see, there are many things that are not right in this world.  Jesus came to rock the boat, to tip the boat completely over, and to make everything that is wrong right.  Jesus' kind of peace is not too appealing to our broken world that wants to stay the same.  That's why they crucified him. 

Real Faith is Rooted in Christ
            Something many people asked themselves this time of year: are we going to have a real Christmas tree or a fake one. The fake trees are easier and last longer. You have to water a real tree and it might shed needles all over your floor, but a real tree looks so nice and smells so good.
            Of course, it's not really accurate to call any tree you cut down out of the forest and drag inside your a home a "real tree.  A “real” real tree is rooted in the earth and draws nourishment through its roots to stay alive.  Real faith is rooted firmly in a real relationship with Jesus Christ from which it draws nourishment to sustain it. John 15:5 – “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.”
            Is your faith firmly rooted in Christ?  Do you worship him regularly in church? Do you talk to him everyday through prayer?  Do you listen to him by reading scripture? Do you walk with him through service? Do you commune with him often though the Lord's Supper? These are the ways to have a living relationship with Christ that will nourish real faith.

Real Faith Challenges You
            Sentimental Christmas images on our Christmas cards imagine us sitting by a cozy fire, beautifully decorated for Christmas with stockings hanging on the mantle.  We sit and sing carols and a doze on our comfortable couch.
            However, real faith starts as soon as we step outside our comfort zone.  It’s hard to grow your faith from inside your own safe bubble.  Jesus said, “Go make disciple of all nations..."  Go is more an attitude for believers than a geographical location. Some will go to Vietnam, the Philippines, Africa, or El Salvador. Others will simply go next door to their neighbor or coworker or relative.  Bit we all must go, even if it is uncomfortable or awkward or scary. Going is not optional, it's a command.  How does your faith challenge you to get outside your comfort zone?

So, Is Your Faith For Looks or For Real?
            My sanctuary is all decorated.  Your homes are or will be decorated soon.  Decorations are for looks.  They are fragile and that’s ok; they don’t have to be very durable.  They’re just for looks. 
            But what about your faith?  Is your faith in Jesus just for looks or is it for real?  Will it sustain you when the troubles of life come?  Will it hold fast when people oppose you or persecute you?  Is your faith in Christ alone—even if the whole world abandons his teachings?  Is your faith rooted deeply in a real, daily, intimate relationship with the living Savior, or are you only following a dead man you’ve heard about from a book or in church.  Does your faith challenge you to step outside your comfort zone to GO where Jesus sends you and do what he asks of you—even if it’s hard?  Does your faith give you strength to obey? 
            These are the thing I challenge you to contemplate as you prepare for Christmas over the next few weeks.