Top Posts of 2010


Here are my top posts for 2010 as of December 26, 2010:

  1. The Chemistry of Bowling – July 26, 2008
  2. Why Do We Celebrate Palm Sunday? – March 13, 2008
  3. John Wooden – A Review of “A Game Plan for Life – the power of Mentoring” by John Wooden and Don Yager– October 9, 2009
  4. A Collection of Sayings – January 17, 2008
  5. Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch – November 18, 2009
  6. The Dilemma of Modern Christianity – April 18, 2009
  7. Thoughts on the Nature of Teaching Science in the 21st Century – August 30, 2009
  8. Pledges and Loyalty Oaths – March 27, 2008
  9. A Cake Without Baking Powder – August 25, 2009
  10. Hearing God Call – January 7, 2009
  11. What Does It Mean To Be Called? – August 30, 2008
  12. The Right Place and the Right Time – February 6, 2010
  13. Who Cuts The Barber’s Hair? – September 15, 2009
  14. What is a part per million? – February 19, 2010
  15. The Difference Between Football in the North and South – October 8, 2006
  16. A Scout is Reverent – February 2, 2010
  17. The Message Is Clear – January 21, 2007
  18. “How Can I?” – The Meaning of Advent – November 27, 2009
  19. “Where Were You on April 4, 1968?” – April 4, 2007
  20. “Where Do We Go From Here?” – January 26, 2008

Obviously, 2010 was not a very good year for what I posted.  But I did have two posts (“Should We Explain This?” – May 16, 2010 and “Time Has Come Today” – 24 November 2010) chosen as “Best of the Methoblogosphere.”

All time:

  1. The Chemistry of Bowling
  2. Why Do We Celebrate Palm Sunday?
  3. A Collection of Sayings
  4. John Wooden – A Review of “A Game Plan for Life – the power of Mentoring” by John Wooden and Don Yager
  5. The Lost Generation – October 13, 2007

I thank you all for visiting my site this year and keeping it alive and growing.  Let us hope that it will continue to do so in 2011.

“The True Gift of Christmas”


I am preaching at the Dover Plains UMC (Location of church) this 1st Sunday after Christmas (26 December 2010); service starts at 11 and all are welcome.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 63: 7 – 9, Hebrews 2: 10 – 18, and Matthew 2: 13 – 23.

————————————————————————

Merry Christmas!

————————————————————————

Several years ago at one of the churches that I am associated with, someone took home their Christmas poinsettia after the Christmas week services. Now, in and of itself that would not be a big deal; after all, if you paid for it and you hadn’t made prior arrangements to have it delivered to a shut-in or to one of the nursing homes or hospitals in the area, it is yours to take.

Now, as it happened, this individual came to us a couple of weeks later and told us how great their poinsettia was doing. It had been a month after Christmas and it was still in bloom and none of the flowers had wilted or turned brown or anything like that. And suddenly, one of the great Christmas mysteries was cleared up.

You see, as we shifted from the Advent and Christmas season to the season after Christmas and Epiphany and began to put things away, we had discovered that someone had taken one of our “fake” plants and that we had some extra live plants. It became clear to us that this individual had taken one of the fake plants and thought it was a real one.

For almost a month, this individual had carefully watered and cared for a plant that needed no care. And sadly, all of the live ones had been given away so we had no real one to give in exchange.

Sadly, as well, is the fact that too many people today seek gifts and materials like that fake plant. They want the appearance of something good without having to take care of it. And Christmas, instead of being a season or a time of thought, is reduced to a single day with few references to what actually took place and why we even pause so briefly to mark it on our calendar.

Our society tells us that gift-giving is important but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of having some meaning in our lives or expressing some thought of thanks and joy, our giving gifts is meant to show our patriotism and economic good-sense. That we gave gifts means that we bought something and that we went somewhere and spent money to support the economy. I would hate to think what the political and economic commentators might say about someone who made all of their own gifts instead of buying them.

And the Spirit of Christmas as an economic force now seems spread over most of the fall, starting long before Halloween and the one day when we are supposed to think of our loved ones. It zipped through Thanksgiving in the blink of an eye with barely a pause to give thanks before we rushed blindly to the malls on “Black Friday” and sat at our computer keyboards on “Cyber Monday.” Did we even remember that there were things to give thanks for this year?

And then we zoomed right into our real Christmas shopping. Advent, it would seem, was more a preparation for the madness of the parking lot and finding last minute bargains than it was for preparing to welcome the Christ Child into the world. It is a good thing that we are a Biblically illiterate society or we might find a way to merchandise and market the days between Christmas and the Epiphany (the day that the Magi are said to have come and visited the Holy Family) into twelve purposeful days of shopping and economic indulgence.

Now, Epiphany Sunday is next Sunday and we will properly and correctly examine that visit at that time (no sense getting ahead of ourselves more than we are going to do). On this Sunday, we look at the Holy Family, of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, as they have been told that there is a threat on the baby’s life. Gifts, no matter how big or small were hardly on their minds that night when the angel came and told them to leave immediately for Egypt.

It had to be hard enough to make the travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, even harder when they got there and found no room in the inn. A birth in those days was hard enough; under the conditions that Mary and Joseph traveled and stayed, it had to be even harder.

And now, as they pondered the events of that night, of the visit by the shepherds and the Magi, the angel comes to tell them that they must flee for their lives. The gifts that the Magi brought, the gold, the frankincense and myrrh hardly seemed important under those circumstances. But the tradition of the church from probably its creation is that the gifts that the Magi brought, the gold, the frankincense, and myrrh were used to finance the trip to Egypt and the family’s stay there until it was safe to return.

What is interesting is that the Magi brought their gifts out of a societal obligation. They had seen the signs, they knew the prophecies, they knew that somewhere to the East of their homeland a person was being born and that person was going to have an impact on the future of the world. They saw this person as a king and they brought gifts for a king. They will not understand until they too are visited by an angel that the child they had come to see was more than a child who would be king; He would be God Incarnate in human form.

We give gifts in much the same way as the Magi did so many years ago; we give them out of obligation or expectation, a quid pro quo so to speak. But we were given a gift that night in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago and it was given without obligation or expectation.

God’s gifts to us were given in love and purpose. They were given in person, not in proxy. They were given, as the writer of Hebrews noted, for the people, not the angels.

When Joseph, Mary and Jesus left for Egypt that night, they left behind a world of hatred, anger, and violence. Sad to say, when we woke up this morning, it was to a world filled with hatred, anger, and violence. The people of Israel some two thousands years ago had let their own selfish nature compromise their relationship with God and it is probably no different today.

We do not have the luxury of escaping to Egypt or some faraway land. Nor, do we have the luxury of hiding within the walls of the church sanctuary and hoping that God will protect us from what’s outside those walls. We have allowed our own selfish interests to dictate what gifts we have been given from God.

So it is now that Christmas has passed and so many people want to focus on the “real” world that we look at what we have been given. God has given us a vision for the future and more importantly, he has given us the wisdom and the ability to make that vision a reality.

Christmas represents more than a single day in a year of single days. It is a day that reminds us that we have been given a new hope and a promise for tomorrows. But we have to break free of the world in which we live, in which gifts are given out of expectation and obligation and give to the world our gifts, our talents, our presence and to do so in love and with Christ.

Christ did not have to come to Bethlehem and be born as a child. He did not have to grow up in this world. But He did, so that He would know what our lives were like. And so we would know how much we were loved.

The True Gift of Christmas is the love, hope, and promise found in that Bethlehem manager. Our gift has to be that we make sure that the love, hope, and promise is given to the world.

“This Isn’t What We Expected!”


Here are my (belated) thoughts for the 4th Sunday in Advent (19 December 2010). The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 7: 10 – 16, Romans 1: 1 – 7, and Matthew 1: 18 – 25.

As I noted in my piece for the 3rd Sunday in Advent (“But Where Will we go?”) I am preaching next Sunday (26 December 2010) at Dover Plains UMC (Location of church); the title of the message will be “The True Gift of Christmas” instead of what I had previously announced. Service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.

There has been a constant discussion in our house lately about what it means to be a Christian. Is it enough to come on Sunday morning and nod appreciatively at what the pastor says? Or do you actually have to do something?

Lately, I have found myself doing more and listening less. The laws of physics still dictate that you cannot be in two places at the same time and we haven’t worked it out at my home church so that I can hear the Sunday morning services in the community room while I am serving breakfast. (As you know from early posts, my wife has started a feeding ministry on Saturdays and Sundays for the local children. On Sunday mornings, we hold the breakfast in the community room and anyone may have a breakfast, even if they are not a child. Because my wife teaches Sunday School, I get the task of watching the food and serving it. But it means that I don’t get to attend the first service and listen to the pastor; I do get to hear her message during the second service but I like hearing it twice when I can.)

But what I heard from one of the congregation who does attend the second service and had come early one Sunday morning bothered me. She asked if the food I was serving was for the “poor” people. My reply was that it was for all the people and there were no distinctions at this table. But her question/comment was atypical of many other comments that have been made about the viability of letting such people into our church.

Yes, we have had some visitors who have come and then stolen something. And we learned from those instances. We have also communicated to the people of the neighborhood and surrounding area that when these things happen, the attitude and air of trust has been broken. And it takes awhile to repair that trust.

I just wish the same could be said for those who call themselves Christians but then look upon others as not worthy of the same blessing they believe they have claimed. And it isn’t just in my church that I perceive this attitude.

I know of too many people who find solace and comfort in the words and preaching of Joel Osteen, Bennie Hinn, and all the other big-name, big-time, television-based preachers. They all preach a gospel of prosperity and dominion. They all imply in their words and actions that being a Christian is something special and that you will receive bountiful blessings from simply saying that you are a Christian.

We all know (or should know) that what they preach is a Gospel of the self and not the soul. It is a gospel that tells us Jesus will be a regal and royal king born in castle to people of privilege, not the son of a carpenter born in a stable. They expect Jesus to bring forth a kingdom where they have all the power and the ability to exclude those they feel are not worthy. Never mind where or how Jesus was born; they want a gospel message that doesn’t really exist.

Oh, they will get a king alright! Just like those who heard Isaiah’s word, they will receive a king but it will be the leader of an army that will destroy their world, not preserve it.

Ahaz was told that he could have just about anything that he wanted but he knew that one didn’t make demands like that on God. But the people today are quite willing to expect that God will give them anything they want, even if it is without reason or purpose. But why shouldn’t people believe this?

It isn’t just the television ministers that have done it; it is (and will continue to be) an outgrowth of what has been preached for some many years in the mainline and/or traditional churches. It is a message that was preached with and received with an attitude of “that’s fine for Sunday but don’t make me do it on Monday.” The people do not want to know that a child will be born who will lead them; the people do not want to know that a child will, as was stated in The Message, be able to make moral decisions for the people by the time he is twelve.

The people want the status quo, even when it means no hope, no promise for the future. And as they look around, in the darkness of this season of winter and Advent, all they see is darkness. There are no longer bright, smiling faces of the young to tell them there is a future. Those who would be the future of the church have left for other places, other venues where the message can be heard and told.

They know that the message of the present church is not the true message; they know that those who preach those words today are often time hypocrites in their own actions. This missing generation of church goers is willing to do the things that too many actual church goers do not want to even think about.

And when push comes to shove (or whatever euphemism you want to use), the modern day church member doesn’t do a thing. And one day, they look around and wonder what happened? They look around and exclaim that this isn’t what we expected. And they wonder what will happen next.

The story of Joseph as the husband-to-be of Mary is there for one reason. If Joseph had been left to his own choice, he could have abandoned Mary and no one would have though ill of him for doing so. But when it was explained to him what was to take place, he changed his course of action and stood by Mary. There isn’t a lot written about Joseph but he did what was expected of him and that should be enough for our story.

There are those of us who have the role that Joseph had, to play a part in the beginning but not necessarily the end. And sometimes we have to understand that ours is a minor role but one that is necessary for the completion of the mission. That was the role that Joseph had and one he understood.

Our role is expressed by Paul in his letter to the Romans. Not only are we to accept the gift that we will be given when Christ is born in Bethlehem, ours, like the shepherds and the wise men, is tell others what we have seen and what we have done. It may not be what we expected it to be but it is what we must do.

We can see Christmas as one day out of a year of days but then we have to ask ourselves why we have spent the last four weeks preparing for that one day. If we ignore these past four years, then Christmas will be nothing more than a single day of the year and we will get what we expected to get.

But if we take this time of preparation as it is meant to be, then we will find Christmas to be something that we didn’t expect. And it will mean all the difference in the world.

A Child Shall Lead Them


Here is the message I presented on the 1st Sunday after Christmas (26 December 2004) at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 63: 7 – 9, Hebrews 2: 10 – 18,  and  Matthew 2: 13 – 23.

—————————————————————————-

In a society where youth is emphasized over age, where the ultimate goal is youth, we tend to ignore the youth of this country. But we have always done this. Even in Jesus’ time, the children of society were second-class citizens, on par with the wild dogs that roamed the street. WhenJesus told his disciples to let the children come to him, he was going against the common perception of the role and place of children in the society.

Until John Wesley looked at the working conditions of the mines and factoriess of 18th century England, children were looked upon as just additional workers in an early industrial society. We know that children as young as ten worked the same shifts as their fathers and mothers in the mills. Though I could not find any comments about the situation, I am sure that Wesley was appalled by this situation. It was, of course, this situation that lead him to create Sunday school as a way of reaching out to adults, youth, and children and bring them a few moments of time where they might learn the Gospel. The Sunday school of John Wesley quickly became the regular school that we employ today.

Throughout our history, we have marginalized our youth and today is no exception. Despite the fact that youthfulness seems to be a necessity for success, we give very little support to the success of the youth. Compare the amount of money spent on being young today with the amount of money spent on our schools. I would suspect that there is a major difference in these two amounts and the money spent on school is not the greater amount.

Against that backdrop, look again at the Gospel reading for today. In the Gospel reading for today, we read of the wise men leaving after their visit with Jesus, Mary and Joseph; but that part of the Gospel story doesn’t occur until next week. Still, this is an important part of the Christmas story because it tells of Herod’s reaction to the birth of Christ.

The wise men told him that they had come to his country to see the newborn king. He told them that he wanted to do so as well and commanded them to come back and tell him where the new child might be found. But, even then, his intentions were less than honorable and the wise men, as the Gospel will tell us next week, were told by an angel to take a different way home. Herod’s reaction to this was to order the murder of all male infants two years or younger.

Because the newborn Christ was a threat, Herod sought to erase all signs of Christmas. I sometimes wonder if that is not what society tries to do each year. We don’t mind Christmas but we want it to be a single moment in time or at best just a short season during the year. Once it is over, we want it eliminated until we need it again.

But Christmas can never be just a single moment in time or just a few short weeks during the year. God wanted Jesus to grow up in this world so that he would know this world. In the Epistle reading from Hebrews today, it is pointed out that if Jesus is to be our Savior, he had to be a part of our life.

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says,

“I will declare your name to my brothers’ in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.”

And again,

“I will put my trust in him.”

And again he says,

Here am I, and the children God has given me.”

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil –and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

If Christ was to have impact on our lives, he must be a part of our lives. We cannot trivialize what Christmas is or what it means. We cannot ignore a child who will later grow up to lead his people.

So, before we take down the Christmas tree and put up all the trimmings until we need them again, let us look and see if there is not one more present that we might have overlooked. Christ is our gift from God, a present to us to remind us of his love and care for us.

I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord, the deeds for which he is praised, according to all the Lord has done for us – yes, the many good things he has done for the house of Israel, according to his compassion and many kindnesses.

He said, “Surely they are my people, sons who will not be false to me”; and so he became their Savior.

In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63: 7 – 9)

But unlike many presents that we get each year, this present is one that has to be used each day. But using this present means that we make Christ a part of our life. Each day we must keep in mind all that Christ is and we find that to be a very difficult task. No wonder it is much easier to only talk about Christ at Christmas.

Accepting Christ means that we regain our relationship with God and that means that we accept obedience to Him. When Christ speaks of following him, there are no alternatives.

“Man can never escape from obedience to God. A creature cannot but obey. The only choice given to me, as intelligent and free creatures, is to desire obedience or not to desire it. If a man does not desire it, he obeys nevertheless, perpetually, inasmuch as he is a thing subject to mechanical necessity. If he desire it, he is still subject to mechanical necessity, but a new necessity is added to it, a necessity constituted by laws belonging to supernatural things. Certain actions become impossible to him. Others are done by his agency, sometimes almost in spite of himself.

When we have the feeling that on some occasions that we have disobeyed God, it simply means that for a time we have ceased to desire obedience. (From Waiting For God by Simone Weil)

Joseph took his family to Egypt out of his obedience to God. Abraham took his family to the Promised Land without questioning God’s command to go. Neither one asked God what was there nor how they would survive. Our obedience to God has to be the same way. Faithful obedience to God allows him to work effectively in our lives, protecting us from dangers of which we may be unaware, and leading us into new and exciting opportunities we’ve never dreamed of.

We see Christmas as a brief moment in time, to serve as an escape from all the troubles of the world. But the problems don’t disappear. Christ came to save us from our most pressing problem – our sin. “Man’s greatest need is not for a new political or economic order. His primary problem is sin. He is alienated from God, bearing the burden of this guilt and loneliness, facing a frightening future. He needs to be liberated from the tyranny of his sins, reconciled to God, and given a hope that transcends the circumstances of his life. This is what the Gospel message is about.

We have a hard problem seeing the child Jesus as the grownup Jesus. But then we also have a problem relating to what the grownup Jesus will ask of us. But we know this. A group of shepherds had their lives changed because of an encounter with the baby in the manger; a group of wise men had their lives changed because of their encounter with an infant Jesus. Perhaps, our lives will change because we let a child lead us from Christmas to Easter and the ultimate gift of life.



“What Did You Get For Christmas?”


This is the message that I gave at Pleasant Grove UMC, Brighton, TN for the 1st Sunday after Christmas (27 December 1998).  I came home to Memphis from Kentucky for Christmas and took the opportunity to go back to one of the two Memphis area churches I was a part of before I moved to Kentucky.

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 63: 7 – 9, Hebrews 2: 10 – 18, and Matthew 2: 13 – 23.

—————————————————–

Well, Christmas is over. The family has all gone home; the unused wrapping paper has been put in the closet with the unused wrapping paper you stored away last year so that you wouldn’t have to buy any paper this year; and, the presents that haven’t been broken have been carefully been put away, never to be seen again. Sometime today or later this week we are going to take the lights off the tree and put it away until next year or throw it outside for the garbage collector to pick up.

Pretty soon all the signs of Christmas will be gone and life will return to normal. Then we will be wondering what happened to the hopes and dreams for peace and good will to all man kind.

I wonder what it was like for Mary and Joseph back then at the first Christmas. After all, at that very first Christmas, the shepherds came to visit them that night and then the wise men came a few days later. Then it was all over and life as a family began.

Of course, the life of the family took a turn that no one would have expected. When Herod found out that the wise men had lied to him, he sought vengeance. After all, to him the birth of this new King was not God’s promise to us but a threat to his own worldly kingdom. As the Gospel reading tells us,

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Because the newborn Christ was a threat, Herod sought to erase all signs of Christmas. I sometimes wonder if that is not what society tries to do each year. We don’t mind Christmas but we want it to be a single moment in time or at best just a short season during the year. Once it is over, we want it eliminated until we need it again.

But Christmas can never be just a single moment in time or just a few short weeks during the year. God wanted Jesus to grow up in this world so that he would know this world. In the Epistle reading from Hebrews today, it is pointed out that if Jesus is to be our Savior, he had to be a part of our life.

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says,

“I will declare your name to my brothers’ in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.”

And again,

“I will put my trust in him.”

And again he says,

Here am I, and the children God has given me.”

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil –and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made likes his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

So, before we take down the Christmas tree and put up all the trimmings until we need them again, let us look and see if there is not one more present that we might have overlooked. Christ is our gift from God, a present to us to remind us of his love and care for us.

I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord, the deeds for which he is praised, according to all the Lord has done for us – yes, the many good things he has done for the house of Israel, according to his compassion and many kindnesses.

He said, “Surely they are my people, sons who will not be false to me”; and so he became their Savior.

In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63: 7 – 9)

But unlike many presents that we get each year, this present is one that has to be used each day. But using this present means that we make Christ a part of our life. Each day we must keep in mind all that Christ is and we find that to be a very difficult task. No wonder it is much easier to only talk about Christ at Christmas.

Accepting Christ means that we regain our relationship with God and that means that we accept obedience to Him. When Christ speaks of following him, there are no alternatives.

“Man can never escape from obedience to God. A creature cannot but obey. The only choice given to me, as intelligent and free creatures, is to desire obedience or not to desire it. If a man does not desire it, he obeys nevertheless, perpetually, inasmuch as he is a thing subject to mechanical necessity. If he desire it, he is still subject to mechanical necessity, but a new necessity is added to it, a necessity constituted by laws belonging to supernatural things. Certain actions become impossible to him. Others are done by his agency, sometimes almost in spite of himself.

When we have the feeling that on some occasions that we have disobeyed God, it simply means that for a time we have ceased to desire obedience. (From Waiting For God by Simone Weil)

Joseph took his family to Egypt out of his obedience to God. Abraham took his family to the Promised Land without questioning God’s command to go. Neither one asked God what was there nor how they would survive. Our obedience to God has to be the same way. Faithful obedience to God allows him to work effectively in our lives, protecting us from dangers of which we may be unaware, and leading us into new and exciting opportunities we’ve never dreamed of.

We see Christmas as a brief moment in time, to serve as an escape from all the troubles of the world. But the problems don’t disappear. Christ came to save us from our most pressing problem – our sin. “Man’s greatest need is not for a new political or economic order. His primary problem is sin. He is alienated from God, bearing the burden of this guilt and loneliness, facing a frightening future. He needs to be liberated from the tyranny of his sins, reconciled to God, and given a hope that transcends the circumstances of his life. This is what the Gospel message is about.

What presents did you get for Christmas? Did you open the present that God gave you or is it still under the tree?



The One Gift


This is the message I gave on Christmas Eve (24 December 2001) at Walker Valley UMC.  The Scriptures that I used were Isaiah 9: 2 – 7, Titus 2: 11 – 14, and Luke 2: 1 – 20.

—————————————————————–

The three most dreaded phrases of today’s society are probably:

  1. "One size fits all."
  2. "Batteries not included."
  3. "Some assembly required."

Giving gifts at Christmas may be one of the hardest things to do; for though we know what we want to give, sometimes the technology gets in the way. Sometimes, in the process of giving a gift, we forget why the gift was given.

The people of Isaiah’s time were looking for a new king, someone to bring them out of slavery and despair. The Israelites of that time were about to be enslaved by the Assyrians and they desperately wanted a king to lead them to victory. But the promise of the prophecy was not for a king but rather a child. Granted this child would hold all the authority in the world, as the titles that were to be given so indicated. But it was still a child and no child could ever hope to lead a kingdom.

And when the prophecy came true, with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, it didn’t seem quite right. Though Bethlehem was the city of David and this child was of David’s lineage and thus heir to the throne, what king is born in a stable.

But the kingdom that was to come through Jesus was not the earthly kingdom that so many desired. Rather it was the kingdom of heaven that Jesus sought to bring. It was a kingdom that could only come if the child was born to and among the people, not in some royal nursery. It would not have been possible for Jesus to achieve his kingdom any other way.

We should always note that shepherds were the first of the community to be told of Jesus’ birth. This was a sign that this new kingdom was not to be like other kingdoms. For shepherds were among the lowest in society and so to tell them first was a sign that things were not going to be the same. The child was a king, as the angels proclaimed, but he was king among the people, not above them.

And Paul reminds Titus, in the passage that we read this evening, that Jesus came to this world, not simply to lead us but to show us how to live. How not to just speak of a world of peace and justice but lead lives which would bring about the peace and justice that is needed in this world.

Isaiah spoke of the removal of the yoke that would come with the new king. Paul reminds us that by giving himself on the cross, we were redeemed from all iniquity; that our future was secured by his actions and sacrifice.

At a time when the world is at its darkest, both literally and figuratively, we are reminded that Jesus was born into this world so that we would live. The one gift that comes this evening comes when we come to the table, celebrating not only his birth but also his triumph over sin and death through his resurrection.

On a night when a child was born among a middle class family in a small Middle Eastern town, there was a celebration of the birth of a new King. Perhaps they did not realize at the time what the significance of the gift was that they received that night. But tonight in a small New York village church, as we again celebrate that birth we have come to realize that we were the recipients of the greatest gift of all. As we come to the table, we renew the presence of Christ and the gift of everlasting life in our lives; as we leave tonight we carry with us the light of Christ, no longer a people in darkness but a people who, as Isaiah wrote, now walk in the light.

“Signs of the Times”


This was the message I gave for the 4th Sunday in Advent (19 December 2004) at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 7: 10 – 16, Romans 1: 1 – 7, and Matthew 1: 18 – 25.

——————————————————————————————

And the Lord will give you a sign." These are the words of God to King Ahaz through Isaiah in response to King Ahaz refusing to ask God for a sign. Israel is about to be overrun by outside armies and the king refuses to trust in God. So He responded by giving the people of Israel a sign, a sign for the future. But this does bode well for that moment in time and the threat of destruction that will once again come to the Promised Land.

In the recent District newsletter, Reverend Bassinger-Ishii notes how the liturgy for Advent is very much apocalyptic and how she didn’t want to preach in this mode. Now, I can understand this; we cannot nor do we want to see the coming of Christ at Christmas in the same vein as the coming of Christ in the Book of Revelation. The Christ in the Book of Revelation is a vengeful Lord; intent on destroying all those whom would oppose Him. The Christ that comes to us at Christmas is a peaceful child, full of hope and promise in a world darkened by despair and destruction. (Adapted from "Reflections from the District Superintendent" by Jeanette Bassinger-Ishii, District Superintendent of the Connecticut/New York and Delaware/Hudson Districts of the New York Annual Conference in the December 2004 issue of CONNYECTION.)

But how can we not see the second Christ as the one that is coming today, December 19, 2004? We wake up to hear of atrocities in Missouri or the destruction of trust in a New York City classroom. We wake up to hear of more deaths in Iraq, more corruption among our political leaders. As the days to Christmas count down, there is no discussion or description of the birth of our Savior but how the consumer must save the American economy. The meaning of Christmas has been lost in a sea of dollar bills and loose change.

And the churches of this country seem to be determined to push this country towards that apocalypse. It is my firm belief that the recent events of this country will drive people away from, not bring them into the church. Those who seek to lead the various denominations of Christianity, and I include many in the United Methodist Church, seem to desire a rigid, inflexible system of religion that can only destroy the church, not build it. And this rigidity, this inflexibility will reach beyond the walls of the sanctuary as those who feel they are the true preachers of God’s word seek to define morality in their own terms. These "true" preachers will find ways to control how we live our daily lives and what we will think and learn. Anyone who dares speak out against such modern day Pharisees will soon find themselves paying the harshest of penalties.

But these views, however harsh they are, need not be the case. We need not see the signs around us as the end of the world, for God did truly send us a sign. Against the distrust and disbelief, God promised His people that there would be someone born to set the people free. God told Joseph, bound by the traditions of his people to treat Mary as a pariah instead of as his bride, what this unborn child would become.

This child, like all children, is the embodiment of hope and promise. And the fact that he was born to Mary and Joseph, common folk, rather than royalty, tells us that this hope and promise is for us. That the birth of Jesus as our Savior was first told to the shepherds is a reminder that this promise, this hope for the future was given to us, not to the royalty and power-brokers of the day. This is a time of possibility, not destruction, even if destruction seems to be the most likely outcome.

Isaiah’s prophecy is a prophetic vision of hope that things will be different under a king who brings a rule of peace, a kingdom free of oppression, and an everlasting reign of justice. Maybe things will change in this day and age. The shepherds who heard the angels singing and went to see Jesus in the manger could only think that would be the case.

Maybe the birth of Jesus will bring people out of the oppression of dictators and governments. Maybe governments will rule by justice and with justice. Maybe the outcasts of society, the second-class citizens, the poor, the sick, the old, the infirmed will be welcomed into society. Maybe it is just possible that God came to this world as an indefensible, powerless infant who would grow up and save this world.

We might choose to ignore the news in tomorrow’s New York Times, we might choose to ignore the rising death toll in the Iraqi conflict as we have ignored the rising death toll of countless civil wars currently going on. Maybe we will hope that there will be good news and this good news will triumph and change will happen. But if we ignore the world around us, we will not hear of or see the birth of Christ in a manger two thousand years ago. And the apocalypse will come true. (Adapted from "We are a people of possibility" by Andrew J. Hoeksema, printed in Sojourners, 15 December 2004.)

But Paul tells us that we have received the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We received this grace, not because we ignored the story or looked elsewhere, but rather because we chose not to ignore the story and because, as the Christmas hymn, told us, we looked east, to a small town in a troubled land to hear a baby’s cry.

But the hope that comes from Christ’s birth can only be realized when we do something. It is interesting to note that in 1969 Richard Nixon was planning to escalate the war in Viet Nam. But two weeks before this was to be implemented there was a nationwide day of protest, the Moratorium when millions of Americans joined in local protest demonstration, vigils, church services, petition drives and other forms of opposition. The next month, more than half-a-million marched in Washington, D. C.. While an administration spokesperson announced that none of this would have any effect on the policies of the government, Richard Nixon concluded that this volume of protest was so loud and so much in opposition that he couldn’t carry out his plans. We may have felt that our opposition to apartheid was meaningless and that the white South African government would maintain its brutal oppression no matter what the cost. But in the end, apartheid could not last and many long oppressed gained their freedom. (Adapted from "The impossible will take a little while´by Paul Rogat Loeb, printed in Sojourners, 15 December 2004.)

So the signs of the times can be frightening. The signs around us can say that the world is coming to an end. But there was a birth, seemingly insignificant that changed all that. There was a birth that brought about a change. But we have to see the signs in order to make the change. We have to celebrate Christ’s birth and then help others to do so as well. We have to celebrate Christ’s birth, not solely as a day of the year but as a part of our lives each day. And when we do that, others will see the signs as well.



Signs of the Times


These are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday in Advent.  I will be publishing some thoughts from Christmas Day.  May the blessings of the season be given to you and your family.

—————————————————————————————–

This has been edited since it was first posted on 22 December 2007.

—————————————————————————————–

A number of years ago, I referred to the song “Signs” by the Five Man Electric Band in one of my sermons. As I was driving up to where I was to preach, I would pass a number of churches with signs in the front yard telling the title of the sermon that the pastor was giving. It was always interesting to see what other pastors were doing with what was probably the same set of lectionary readings.

While it is the last verse of the song “Signs” that I most enjoy, it is the second verse that seems appropriate this time. The second verse goes “And the sign said anyone caught trespassing would be shot on sight. So I jumped on the fence and yelled at the house, ‘Hey! What gives you the right to put up a fence to keep me out or to keep Mother Nature in? If God were here, He’d tell you to your face, man, you’re some kind of sinner.” (http://www.fivemanelectricalband.ca/signslyrics.html)

We see all sorts of signs in our daily lives. Unfortunately, they are signs that take us away from the meaning of the season. We see and hear that our businesses cry that we must buy their goods or they will go out of business. Instead of saving our souls, we are to save our economy through the gifts that we buy. It used to be that there was only “Black Friday”, the day after Thanksgiving, when shopping was impossible. But apparently not enough people have gone shopping and business are make pleas for consumers to buy and buy more or the economy will be in ruins.

We see and hear advertisements that speak of what we are to get, not what we are to give. We see and hear people cry that our civilization and society are coming apart. People say that these are the days of ruin and destruction that mark the end times. We must be vigilant and strong; we must deny people the right to exist if they do not believe what we tell them to believe. We demand that God set right this world in a way that only the so-called most righteous of society deemed appropriate.

In today’s Old Testament reading (Isaiah 7: 10 – 16) the Lord asks Ahaz to ask for a sign from God. But Ahaz said that he would not ask nor would he test the Lord. And Isaiah warns the House of David that they are testing the Lord. Not only are they causing discomfort amongst their own people, but they are giving grief to God and causing Him to be weary of them as well. If we are to believed the most righteous in today’s society, God’s weariness for this nation and this society would be remedied by a thunderbolt from the sky that would wipe all the sinners off the map. But who would be left behind? Those who speak of the Second Coming of Christ in apocalyptic terms are often the very ones who cry out against society but are indifferent to the problems of society. They may talk the talk but they do not walk the walk and too many people see them for the hypocrites that they truly are.

Time and time again, Jesus spoke out against the false dichotomies of His times. How many times did he begin by saying, “You have heard it said, but I say”? What you think God wants is not necessarily what God wants and the standard by which righteousness is measured is replaced by the reality of a new consciousness, the Kingdom of Heaven. (Adapted from Why the Christian Right Is Wrong by Robin Meyers)

Ahaz would not test the Lord, even if the implication is that he has the right to and it is all together possible that God will respond in the most authoritative manner possible. But Ahaz, who has lead his nation away from God, could not do so because his words would ring hollow.

But God chooses not to do that, which I am sure must disappointed many of that society’s counterparts to our “watchdogs” and “guardians” of our morals. Rather, Isaiah tells us that God will send us a sign in the manner of a young child. That this child will eat curds and honey by the time that he is old enough to choose good over evil is a sign of where he will be born. He will not be born to a rich or upper class family but rather to a simple family. God’s sign to His people is truly apocalyptic but not in the manner that the people desire. Instead of God’s wrath and destruction, it will be God’s love and grace through His Son.

The Gospel message from Matthew for today (Matthew 1: 18 – 25) completes the prophecy of Isaiah. In giving Jesus the additional name of Emmanuel (which means “God is among us”), we are being told that Jesus will be like us; he will be neither rich nor powerful. Jesus will be like us and our relationship with God will change.

Paul’s words to the Romans for today (Romans 1: 1 – 7) are a reminder to us that this gift, first told in Isaiah and given to us in Matthew, is all, not just the people of Israel or the world of Paul’s day and time.

It is a sign that there is a new world, a world in which the things around us have changed. We can, of course, ignore the signs and continue this season as we have been doing, living inn a consumer-oriented world more concerned about the stuff we get or we can change what we are doing and how we are thinking and become more concerned about the people around us.

At the beginning of this little piece today, I mentioned the song “Signs” by the Five Man Electrical Band. Though this song has often be called a one-hit wonder, its closing verse has much to say about where we are in this world today and where we are headed, “And the sign said everybody welcome, come in, kneel down and pray. But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all, I didn’t have a penny to pay, so I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign. I said thank you Lord for thinking about me, I’m alive and doing fine.” (http://www.fivemanelectricalband.ca/signslyrics.html)

At this time and in this season, it is we who should be saying,”Thank you, Lord, for thinking about me.” We see the signs of times and we can be afraid. But if we expect death and destruction to come down upon us, we are going to be sadly mistaken. There will a change in this world and if we are not careful, we might miss the most important sign.

For the past four weeks, during this season of Advent, we have been told to look for the signs of the times and to prepare for the Coming of the Lord. These signs are not in the economy; they are not in society. The signs of the times to come will be found in a manager in Bethlehem. It is the beginning of a new world. We have seen the signs; we have heard the signs. Let us not miss them this time.

“But Where Will We Go?”


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, 12 December 2010 (originally posted this as 17 December 2007 but that was because I copied the first paragraph and forgot to change it). The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 35: 1 – 10, James 5: 7 – 10, and Matthew 11: 2 – 11.

Sorry that I didn’t get this posted on time but things have been a little hectic. My post for the 4th Sunday of Advent will also probably be late as I finish up the grading for the adjunct teaching position I had this semester. I may have some thoughts about Christmas posted next Saturday and definitely will have my sermon (“The False Gift”) for 26 December up as well that day.

I am also putting together my list of top ten blogs for the year. Right now, not many of my 2010 posts are in the top ten which is understandable; it was that kind of year. If you have any favorites that you would like to nominate, let me know before the 28th. I will probably work on the list while watching the Iowa – Missouri bowl game. This is the only bowl game that I have any interest in watching and it is one of the few times where I have no interest in the outcome. As a Missouri alumnus (M. Ed. ’75) I like it when Missouri wins and as an Iowa alumnus (Ph. D. ’90), I like it when Iowa wins. So this is one game where I watch one half as a Missouri alumnus and the other half as an Iowa alumnus and simply enjoy the game. :)

—————————————————————————————–

As I was thinking about this message and reading the Scriptures for today, I began to think of a conversation between the disciples Thomas and Nathaniel Bartholomew that might have taken place sometime after Easter. Now, tradition tells us that Thomas and Nathaniel left the Galilee for the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia and India. Nathaniel would die in Georgia while Thomas would die in India.

Nathaniel and Thomas were talking about where to go now that Jesus had commissioned to go out into the world and teach everyone they meet what they themselves had been taught.

Thomas speaks first “Where do you think we should go?”

Nathaniel – “That’s sort of funny since a couple of months ago, you weren’t even sure where Jesus was going.”

“But its different now. I know where Jesus has gone and He left us with some instructions to carry out.”

“We can go anywhere we want to go. It is typical that Jesus showed us the way but then left us to continue the work.”

Why don’t we just play it safe, stay here in the Galilee, and keep on doing what we have to do.

Do you really think that the authorities will let us stay here? I think it would be best if we left this area and go somewhere else.

And so it was that two friends, bound together for three years as students of Jesus, made a decision to leave the Galilee, their home and classroom for three years and take the Gospel message out into the world, teaching all those that they met and telling all who would listen the Good News of Jesus the Christ. They left the Galilee knowing full well that it would not be an easy life and they may very well die harsh and cruel deaths. But still they went and the Word was spread.

How many times have conversations such as this imagined one actually taken place in churches around this country today? How many times has a church refused to carry out the Gospel message because of some sort of fear of the unknown?

It is only logical to be unwilling to venture beyond the walls of the church because the world is a dangerous place and can often be foreboding. After all, it is called a sanctuary after all and it does allows us to be safe when we are inside.

We look at what it might cost and say that we cannot take on a new task because it would cost too much when our expenses are already too high. Too often, our church discussion focuses on the upkeep of the building as if having the building insures that people will be there.

But if nothing is done to bring new people into the church, then one day the church will be an empty shell and people will wonder just went on inside that building. But how many times did Jesus allude to those who were exactly just that, empty shells?

There’s a part of the conversation between Nathaniel and Thomas that I didn’t record. It was that part that spoke of knowing the words of Isaiah and his prophecy of the roads straighten, the valleys filled, and the path made smooth. They, as well as the other disciples, knew that the road they walked would long and dusty, that their lives were probably in danger every minute of the day. It was not an easy world in which you were from a different town or village, let alone another country.

But they understand what Isaiah was writing in today’s Old Testament reading – they had been with Jesus and they had walked the roads. They also understood that just as John the Baptizer had prepared the way for Jesus, so too had their way been prepared by Jesus. They had been sent out before and they knew that it could be done.

It would be very easy for many people today to say that it is all fine and good but such work is for the young and eager. But to those who perhaps scoff, James offers words of encouragement, pointing out the need to stay the course, as it were.

So the words of today, which all speak of the paths that we walk, ask us “where shall we go?” And the answer may be that we should just go outside the walls of the church. We are not called to go to far away and strange lands but we are called to leave the sanctuary that we have built for the sanctuary that God has provided. We will go where we are needed and we will know where we are needed when we leave the safety of the present for the certainty of a future in Christ.

What Comes Next


This is a sermon that I gave for the 3rd Sunday in Advent on December 12, 2004 at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY). (First published on 12 April 2008).

—————————————————————-

I think you would all agree that there is something frustrating about getting a handle on a concept or a thought only to have a new concept or thought come along to replace it. And the area of church growth and how to go about it is no exception. The dominant model for church growth has been politely called the "megachurch" model and Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago has been its flagship.

But now a new model for church growth is emerging and it is known, coincidentally, as the emerging church matrix. The proposed goal of many in this movement is to provide an alternative to the "seeker-driven, big church" model that blankets the evangelical countryside like kudzu on a southern hillside. For those of you who have never encountered this ubiquitous southern weed, kudzu grows anywhere and everywhere under almost any kind of condition. It has been said that if you parked your car on the roadside next to a hill where kudzu was growing, it would be enveloped by the kudzu within twenty-four hours.

If "seeker services" were considered contemporary worship and looked more like a Christian version of a rock concert, then emerging church worship could be considered more like a Christian version of Starbucks with its small spaces, comfortable seating (preferably couches) and interactivity. The things that have been stripped from the contemporary worship services of the seeker service (the cross, candles, bread and win, altars) are very much a part of the scene in this new style of worship. In addition, just as in the contemporary worship service, there is a heavy emphasis on the modern technology.

What I found most interesting is the use of words such as post-conservative and post-liberal. There seems to be a discussion of the relevance of the church in a world that has been divided by the church and its adherents, both liberal and conservative. This discussion focuses on using the methods of today in conjunction with the traditions of the past to bring about a more relevant relationship with God. But for all its new style and return of old traditions, the emerging church model will fail as an alternative if it does little more that offer a newer, more hip version of the current culture. (Adapted from "The Emergent Matrix" by Scott Bader-Saye, Christian Century, November 30, 2004)

As I read about the emerging church, and knowing what the Gospel message for today was, I could not help but think of John the Baptist sitting in his jail cell and wondering what was going on outside the walls of the prison.

John was in prison because he had angered Herod. Isolated from the world outside his cell, John had no idea what was going on. Yet he was hearing rumors, rumors that disturbed him. The Coming One that he had baptized was now beginning to proclaim His ministry to the world. In his mind and knowing that he had called for a major revival in the world, John was certain that the smiting of the evildoers would soon commence. Soon God’s judgement would be pronounced in no uncertain terms. But the rumors said this wasn’t true. Jesus was saying things like "See, I send you out like sheep in the midst of wolves . . . They will hand you over to councils . . . and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next . . . Do not fear those who kill the body . . . Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet no one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father" (Matthew 10: 16 – 31, passim)

And yet, the sparrows do fall. John was soon to be among them. As he hears of Jesus’ ministry, he begins to ask himself if Jesus really is the Messiah. Was Jesus going to prove that everything John did was wrong? So he asks his friend and his cousin, "Are you the One? Or do we look for another?"

Jesus tells John’s disciples, sent to query Jesus about what is going on, to tell John what they see and what they hear, how the blind now see and lame walk, how lepers have been cleansed and the deaf regain their hearing. Tell John, Jesus says, how the dead have been raised and the poor have received good news. (From "Cellmates" by Frederick Niedner, Christian Century, 30 November 2004) Then, after they leave, Jesus tells the crowds that John’s mission to prepare the way has been accomplished.

What Jesus does not tell John’s disciples is the story of His own time in the wilderness, that time when a decision was made about how the new kingdom would be built and what kind of messiah Jesus would be. Jesus could have opened the prisons where the hungry were starving; Jesus could have overthrown the tyrants that rule the nations of the world; Jesus could have been the king of all the earth. But would any of that really been the promise of God to bring peace to this earth?

When Jesus left the wilderness and came to the River Jordan to be baptized by John the decision had been made. The stones that could have been bread remained stones. The tyrants of the world still ruled and physical death was still a part of the people’s daily life. But someone was going to have to pay for all of this that makes life so cheap. And Jesus would be the one to pay it. He would go to the cross, He would be like a sheep among wolves. And He would die, just as John would die before Him.

But in his death, we would find life. John had prepared the way for Jesus though not in the manner that perhaps John thought it would be done. What we know from Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus leads us deeper into the wilderness, deeper into a land that at times is void of hope and promise.

But it is only void of hope and promise if we are there because we are not with Jesus. If we are there because we have followed Jesus, we know that the land will grow again, that hope will return. We hear the words of the prophet Isaiah telling us that God will come and we will be saved. We hear Isaiah’s words telling us that the blind shall see again and the deaf will once again hear. We will see the lame walk again and those who cannot speak pronounce the words of God themselves. In the wilderness will be a path, a straight path that is only for those who have followed Jesus.

We are at a time when the church is struggling. You cannot help but think that there is a struggle when you read and hear about models of church growth that rely more on hype and marketing than an understanding of the Gospel. Maybe the emerging church matrix, with its attempts to bring the old ways back will do that; I do not know. What I do know is that we hear the words of James, telling us to be patient, because we know the time of revival is near.

But we have to ask, as the title of this sermon suggests, "what comes next?" How do we find patience in a world that demands immediacy? How do we find hope in a world that seems to have forgotten there is such a word?

In the sixties young people sat at lunch counters in North Carolina, only to be arrested. Other young people rode buses into the Deep South, only to be beaten and abused by angry crowds. Young children marched in Birmingham, Alabama, only to have dogs set upon them. Not one of them probably ever felt they were ready to take on the world and they all probably had some degree of fear in their souls. And they probably knew the words of Christ who told them this would be the reward they would gain for following Him.

Yes, they were all afraid, as have been the countless others before them who stood up for justice, witnessed for peace or gave their lives for freedom. But each one had heard the call, the voice inside them that said, "There’s a job for you to do." Let the Pharaohs, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the scribes of today be warned. New calls are being heard this day and they are calls for a new vision of this world.

We probably already know what we need to do but, like Moses when God called him to go see the Pharaoh holding the Israelites in captivity, we feel inadequate and overwhelmed by our weaknesses and fears. But, in the end, that is okay because we don’t have to be ready. We don’t have to have immense strength or power, we just have to hear God calling out to us, saying, "I have a job for you to do." (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)

We come to the table this day because we know that Jesus experienced those same fears. We come to the table this day because we know that Jesus was certain that he was too weak to carry out the task. We come to this table, as we will confess in a few moments, knowing that it is only because of God’s grace that we can. What comes next? It is for us to realize that, just as Jesus turned his soul over to God, so should we. As we follow Jesus deeper and deeper into the wilderness, we see life clearer and more certain.