“Seeing The Future”


A Meditation for 3 January 2016, the 2nd Sunday after Christmas (Year C), or (Epiphany of the Lord) based on Jeremiah 31: 7 – 14 (Sirach 24: 1 – 12), Ephesians 1: 3 – 14, and John 1: (1 – 9), 10 – 18

I think that it is rather obligatory to start with some predictions about the future. You know, things like Bill Gates announcing in 1991 that 640 K was enough memory for computer usage or Ken Olson, founder and president of Digital Equipment Company stating in 1997 that there was no reason anyone would want a computer in their home. Of course, everyone does have a computer of some sort in their home and the memory on even the simplest of those devices exceeds the capacity that Bill Gates thought would be the limit.

What we have to understand is that such pronouncements about the future are always based on what we know today; to truly see the future, to see around the corner and over the horizon, requires that we somehow “break” away from the limits of the future. But how do you do that; how do you see around the corner or over the horizon at what is coming when one is tied to the present, whether they want it or not?

The simplest answer, of course, would be to open one’s mind to new possibilities and not simply try stuff that didn’t work the first time in hopes that it will work the second time. Or at least put in the effort to try the new things; often times things are tried once with little or no perceived success and then thrown away.

If you schedule an activity on a night when another major activity is taking place and you are counting on the success of your new activity, the chances are it will fail simply because something else, well-established in the minds of the desired community, will take the people away. Also, are you doing the activity for the right reasons? What reasons are you using? What is the criteria for success? (See my notes on the 1992 Hog Roast at Grace United Methodist Church in St. Cloud, Missouri – “Simple Gifts”)

Our society’s greatest problem today is its inability to see the future in terms other than the present or the past. Society is not willing to invest in options that haven’t been tried because we, as a society, are quite unwilling to try something new. And I think our inability to try something new because we cannot envision its future makes us blind to the failures of the methods we do try.

This is especially true in the church today. So many churches are rooted in systems that haven’t changed in at least 50 years and then they wonder why the church is dying, in population and in faith.

The loudest voices seem to say that we do not follow the Bible more explicitly and that adherence to the laws of the Bible found in the Old Testament would bring us back to God. But this fails for two reasons. First, in today’s society, it would be very difficult to set up a justice system mirroring the Bible because of the injustices and inequities such a system would bring about. Some may echo the words of George Orwell in Animal Farm that some are more equal than others but society today has a sense and is demanding more equality than that. Second, a cry for an adherence to Old Testament laws ignores the presence of Christ and His pronouncement that He had come to fulfill the laws.

Those who seek such an Old Testament system today are blind to the failures of society back then, when it was believed that through the law, one could achieve salvation. I also think that those who seek this sort of system long for a day when they were completely in charge and no one questioned their authority. Again, one of the things that I believe came about from Jesus’ ministry was the notion that the system in place was wrong and needed to be fixed.

The problem with seeing the future is that one has to have the freedom to see the future. If we are tied to the present, for whatever reason, we are not free to see the future or think “outside the box”.

And what do we do to create a church that is very much alive and well in the 21st century? First, understand that we need to see Christ outside the timeline of history (which is, of course, what John was doing when he wrote the opening lines of his Gospel reading, our Gospel lesson for today). When you put Christ on the timeline, He is stuck 2100 years back in the future and cannot be present today. We must see God and Christ in this moment, free from the limits and constraints of time and space.

When you read the verses from Jeremiah for today, you get a sense that the people were joyful and things were going to change. There was something new about to happen. We know now that what Jeremiah was doing was telling his world about the birth of Christ and the new covenant.

And Paul speaks of the outcome of that new covenant, the freedom that comes from having accepted Christ as one’s own Savior. And that is, I think, the key to seeing the future. First, as I mentioned, you have to be free to see the future and not be limited by the moment or the present. And that is exactly what Christ provides, the freedom to go beyond the present, to see around the corner and over the horizon.

There is, in this country today, a need for a fourth revival but this one has to be a little bit different. It will still require that people accept Christ as their personal Savior (that will never change nor should it). But it will require people to see Christ, not as a part of history but as a part of their life today and tomorrow. It will require a new understanding of the church in today’s world, not simply a building but a presence, not simply meeting on Sunday mornings but meeting and doing things during the week that take the people of the church outside the building.

It will require an understanding by all that Jesus removed the boundaries society had imposed on those outside the establishment. All will be welcome to bathe in the Glory of Christ and not be turned away by those who in the past pronounced judgment on others, doing so in the name of God even when God did not do so.

I am not saying that this is going to be an easy task. The old ways are far too entrenched in many churches today but faced with the reality that change is almost a necessity instead of a luxury, change will take place.

Within this fourth revival is a need for education, to better understand what it means when one says they are a Christian and to understand that saying that one is a Christian does not mean that one’s role in the life of a church ends at noon on Sundays. (I am beginning to see those for whom being a Christian as a 9 to 11 job on Sundays in a corporate mode; it is about punching a time clock and collecting your wages at the end of the time period; unfortunately the notion of a corporate church that dominates today’s world was never meant to be the model for the church).

Education is more than simply Bible study but understanding why it is that the verses being read are in the Bible in the first place (and why there are so many verses which were never accepted as part of the Bible).

When John the Seer concluded the Book of Revelation, it was a victory for the church. It was not a victory encased in doom and destruction, as so many people think it was. Rather it was a statement of triumph and rejoicing for all the people and that is how we need to see the future, both for ourselves individually and collectively as a church and a society.

As we start this new year, we have two choices. We can continue on the same path that we are walking on, perhaps living in the corporate Christian mode, knowing that in the end this will only lead to the death of the present time church and one’s own death.

Or will you accept Jesus as your Savior, to free you from the shackles of sin that lead to slavery and death and gives you the freedom to seek new ways in this world?

A New Year, A New Plan


This was the message I presented for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, 5 January 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 31: 7 – 14, Ephesians 1: 3 – 14, and John 1: (1 – 9), 10 – 18.

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It is interesting that we start off each year in January. Now, that may seem like a confusing statement but consider that we start off each new school year in September; that the United States government starts its fiscal year in November and there are many companies whose fiscal year starts in July. In fact, prior to the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in the late 18th century, many western countries celebrated the New Year on April 1st. The change in the celebration from April 1st to January 1st led to the beginning of “April Fool’s Day” but that is a story more suited for that time of the year rather than today.

January is a good time to celebrate the beginning of the New Year as it gets its name from the Roman god Janus. Janus had the ability to look forwards and backwards at the same time and so was in an excellent position to see where he had been and where he was going. It is perhaps because of this that we spend much of the first days of January predicting what the New Year will bring.

But predictions can be fickle and dangerous things. We often do not want to know what the future brings because it may not be what we want to hear. If you will allow me the moment to make a personal observation, our political process is based on that very fear. There are things that must be done but no one is willing to say what must be said for the fear of being defeated in the coming election. You need only recall Walter Mondale’s statement during his acceptance speech in 1980 that taxes would have to be raised and George H. Bush’s bold statement to “read my lips” in 1992 to understand why politicians are leery of making bold statements. The firestorm that arose from each of those statements were contributing factors in both men being defeated, Mondale by Ronald Reagan and Bush by Clinton. When it comes to politicians telling the truth, the American public, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson yelling at Tom Cruise in the movie “A Few Good Men”, “We don’t want the truth!”

But lest you think that being afraid of hearing the truth is a trait limited to only our country or the 21st century, consider what happened to Jeremiah, the author of the Old Testament book from which our first reading for today was taken. Jeremiah was first summoned by God to be a prophet at a very young age but it was a task that he quickly grew to dislike, and it is easy to see why.

One of his first sermons scoffed at the bogus, superficial religiosity of the people who deluded themselves by believing that merely ambling about the Temple insured God’s blessing. (Jeremiah 7: 2 – 15)  He then denounced the king’s lavish spending when the people had nothing. (Jeremiah 22: 13 – 19)  And when the powers that be tried to silence him, he dictated a thundering indictment, a reading that was interrupted when the king seized the scroll, shredded it with his knife and threw it in the fire. (Jeremiah 36: 4 – 32)  Then when the Babylonian army surrounded the city of Jerusalem, Jeremiah had the gall to announce, in a speech wholly lacking in patriotism, that the Babylonian army was a pawn of God, instruments of God’s judgement on the unrepentant city. (Jeremiah 38: 1 – 6)  For this, in what amounted to the proverbial final straw, Jeremiah barely escaped with his life and was thrown into a cistern. For telling the truth, Jeremiah was rewarded with a prison sentence.

If we are not afraid to look into the future, we are still limited by what we know. Any vision that we have of the future is based on what we know about things today. Consider if you will the following predictions:

  1. Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859 — “Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy.”
  2. Western Union internal memo, 1876 — “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
  3. David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920’s — “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
  4. 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard’s revolutionary rocket work — “Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”
  5. H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927 — “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
  6. Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in “Gone With The Wind” — “I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper.”
  7. Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943 — “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
  8. Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949 –“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”
  9. Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962 — “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
  10. A Yale Univ. management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service, “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.” Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.
  11. “So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.'” — Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and H-P interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer

Each of those statements was made and based on what the individual knew at that time and how they saw that information being utilized. But there have been visions of the future that have proven to be successful. Jules Verne’s visions of men walking on the moon or traveling under the oceans came about because he chose to think beyond the capabilities of his time. We can only wonder and perhaps hope that the world that Gene Roddenberry outlined in Star Trek is an accurate description of the future. But we know for those visions to be the ones that come true we must think in a different way. Consider if you will the following statements:

“If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do this.” — Spencer Silver on work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M “Post-It” Notepads

So it is that we look to the future. We dare not speak what we feel is the truth because it is something that people will not accept, especially if the truth is negative in nature. We cannot begin to think about the future because we don’t know what resources might be available or what technologies might be there that aren’t here today.

But we have the words of John written some two thousand years ago. John makes it very clear in today’s Gospel reading that Jesus was a part of this world long before we ever were and he will be a part of this world long after we have departed. We have been given through Christ, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, a gift, and a chance to understand beyond what the world can give us.

Paul also speaks of what the future holds for us. But we must also know that the future as Paul describes will be of no value unless we act upon it here on earth. Being a Christian is about being different, setting out on an adventure of discipleship, holiness, service and love. Jesus did not come to a town with a simple three-step message that invited people to be saved; his preaching focused on whom you invited to dinner, being a family, turning the other cheek. His preaching looked at what you did for others.

Jeremiah was not simply a prophet of gloom and doom. The things that he spoke about were the things that cause God to question the validity of the people’s beliefs. He challenged people to hear the words of God and put them into practice.

The words we read in this morning’s first reading were words of hope and promise for the future. Jeremiah was the only prophet who spoke and wrote of the promise of Jesus as the hope and promise for the future. But for the future to come true we must not only hear the words of God, we must act upon them.

As we begin this New Year, we must look to the future. We cannot spend time looking back at past and wondering what if had we done this or not done that. That wastes our time and results in nothing.

I hope that you received the questionnaire that was given out last week at church or through the mail this week. We would like to have them back next week so that the results can be looked at and examined. What is your vision of the church for the coming years? How will we make that vision come true? When Robert Kennedy ran for President in 1968, he was fond of quoting George Bernard Shaw, “You see things; and say `why? ` But I dream of things that never were and say `why not? `”

Our congregational hymn for this morning tells us that not only has God been our help in ages past but that he is also our hope for years to come. We have the chance to put into actions the words and hopes that have been expressed in the Gospels and through the prophets of the past. Knowing that God will be with us as we begin this New Year, it becomes easy to decide and develop the new plan that will help us to make the hope and promise more than just words.

 


This Journey of Ours


This was the message I presented for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, 2 January 2000, at Walker Valley UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 31: 7 – 14, Ephesians 1: 3 – 14, and John 1: (1 – 9), 10 – 18.

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Well, it is finally the year 2000 and it would appear that everything turned over okay and that all is well. At least, it is the year 2000 for those who observe the Gregorian calendar. For those who are still on the original Julian Calendar, it is December 23, 1999 and we would be preparing for Christmas, not celebrating the New Year. The other day, I heard one commentator state that fourteen different calendars are currently in use in the world today.

Time is a man’s way of keeping track of our journey through life. As the Preacher wrote in Ecclesiastes,

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

a time to cast away stones, and time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

a time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

a time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

a time to love, and a time to hate;

a time for war, and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8)

The reason that there are so many calendars, each with their own different year, is that each culture has its own way of remembering and keeping track of the things that are important to them. So this time that we call the year 2000 is another year in another culture.

Calendars must have a starting point, a reference to when everything of importance began. But the Gospel reading from John for today makes it clear that some things existed before man began keeping track of time.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John is simply reminding us that God was here before us all. And that his presence would be here as long as time.

But life and the journey we make through life are more than simply turning the pages of a calendar. Even the Preacher, writing about the seasons of time, noted that life was meaningless without some sense of purpose. What we do over the coming days of this year will be that which determines how we remember it, how we record things in the book of time.

Sometimes the journeys taken are for specific purposes but to unknown destinations. Abraham and Sarah left their homeland for the Promised Land, not knowing where that might be but knowing that when they got there, Abraham would be the father of a great nation.

The disciples were on the road to Emmaus, not knowing that they would encounter Christ after the Resurrection. And occasionally, even when the destination is clear and the purpose well defined, as it was for Saul on the road to Damascus, things change. Saul met Christ and turned from persecuting Christians to Paul, the missionary to the world.

So, the challenge before us today is know what our purpose for this coming year is. And while there may be times that you think that the journey that you have made is one that you made alone, it never was that way. God has been with you throughout it all.

But how is one to find his true place in life? Is there any means whereby you may discover what it really is that God wishes you to do? You may feel inclined to say: “Even if it be true that God has some splendid thing that he wishes me to do, and to be, how can I possibly find out what it is?” Perhaps you may even be tempted to add: “I am a very plain, everyday sort of person; my circumstances are extremely restricted; the conditions of my life are just drab commonplace. How then can there be something wonderful, beautiful, splendid waiting me? Or, even if there were, how could I possibly get to know about it?” And the answer is Divinely simple – Already in your past life from time to time, God himself has whispered into your heart just that very wonderful thing, whatever it is, that he is wishing you to be, and to do, and to have. And that wonderful thing is nothing less that what is called Your Heart’s Desire. Nothing less than that. The most secret, scared wish that lies deep down at the bottom of your heart, the wonderful thing that you hardly dare to look at, or think about – the thing that you would rather die than have anyone else know of, because it seems so far beyond anything that you are, or have at the present time, that you fear that you would cruelly ridiculed if the mere thought of it were known – that is just the very thing that God is wishing you to do or to be for him. And the birth of that marvelous wish in your soul – the dawning of that secret dream — was the Voice of God himself telling you to arise and come up higher because he had need of you. (From Your Heart’s Desire by Emmet Fox)

Jesus came into this world so that we may know Him and to know that God was still here. Paul wrote much the same thing in his letter to Ephesians, part of which we read today. Whether we really know it or not, we have been given a great gift through Christ. It is a gift that will allow to us make the journey we undertake a lot easier.

Last week I outlined some simple goals for the church and I hope that you have outlined some goals for yourself as well. The nice thing about all of this is that even when we have the same goals, the journey that we take, the manner in which we seek to reach our goals will not be the same for everyone.

But even though how you undertake this journey may differ from others around you, it is a journey that will not be taken alone. Christ calls all to him, not just a select few. As Jeremiah told the people,

Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel. See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.

The coming year holds great promise for this church and for each one of us. We are being asked to do a lot. It may seem too much for anyone individual to do, which of course is true. But no one is asked to do more than they are capable of doing or to do it without the help of God. The old Chinese saying of a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step is very much a true saying. This journey of ours, that begins today, begins with the step of opening our hearts to Jesus and letting the Holy Spirit come in. To you, my friends, I ask if you are ready for this journey.