Sunday, January 29, 2017

Not Bread, But Every Word

Last Monday, as I was preparing for the teaching I do at our community children's ministry, I read the story of Jesus' temptation, from Matthew 4:1-11.  He had been in the wilderness for 40 days, with nothing to eat, and then he was tempted three times by the devil.  In the first temptation he is told to prove He is God's Son by turning some stones into bread in order to satisfy His hunger.  And to this temptation Jesus responds by saying:

"Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God."

We find it very easy to look at the teaching of Jesus, understand that what He teaches is for our good, and then begin to put it in to practice in our lives. But Jesus is more than the best of teachers, and the Bible is more than the place we might seek to find answers to all of life's problems. 

The words Jesus speaks to the devil were first written by Moses, as he was leading God's people through the wilderness and they were learning to trust in God to provide everything they needed.  And they didn’t just need the basics such as food and water, but they needed the word of God to shape them as God's people. 

And when we think about the meaning of the phrase "every word" we begin to understand that for true life we don’t merely need the rules God gives, but we desperately need the gift that He holds out for us when we fail to keep those rules.  The gift of forgiveness of sin and the restoration of peace with God is promised in the Old Testament and fully revealed in the New Testament, in the person of Jesus.

I believe that in our congregation we know this to be true.  We know that Jesus is the only way to salvation, and we have put our faith in Him.  Jesus, alone, is our Savior and our Lord. 

But…we also know that there are many people in our community who don't know the singular place of Jesus, or perhaps they have heard it but then don’t understand it.  It is really a life-and-death distinction. 

Jesus isn’t just one good teacher among many.  He isn’t just one of several different and valid paths to God.  He isn’t someone I can follow on the one hand, while also following something else on the other.  In John's gospel He says,

"I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

There are many people in our community who desperately need the hope that can only be found through faith in Jesus.  Let us be people who faithfully share the good news of Jesus with them, to God's eternal glory.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Prayer and Anxiety

I recently read something from a pastor stating that he was no longer going to make what he called "weak prayers" that people would seek from him.  For example, he wasn't going to pray for guidance for doctors and strength for families, saying doctors are trained  and families have strength when they rely on Jesus.  He would pray for healing and for God's miraculous touch to change the outcome, but not to guide the outcome.

Hmm, I thought at first.  That hardly seems pastoral.  And then I thought some more and thought that I understand, I think, at least a little of what he might have been getting at, but that perhaps there is more going on than the prayer request suggests.

I get requests related to health care often, and so I pray for healing often.  I pray for healing for things that could seem to be relatively minor, and I pray for healing for situations that are extremely difficult. 

I pray not only for healing but also for doctors, nurses and other care providers.  Even if I had never worked in health-care I would know that those highly trained, highly skilled professionals have bad days. They make mistakes.  They come to work with personal problems that can affect their job.  I recently prayed with someone who told me that her surgeon had changed the date of her surgery because he didn’t think he'd be at his best operating after a full day of travel.

And as to the pastor's other objection, i.e. that people will find strength when they rely on Jesus, I fully agree.  But something I've come to learn over the past year is there is quite a lot of anxiety floating through the people I serve among.  And it isn’t just among the occasional visitor to my back door whose anxiety is exacerbated by being intoxicated.  It is present in people who I know to be life-long Christians.  People who have shared with me powerful stories of their lives and the situations God has carried them through. 

To the best of my ability I try to preach "Christ and him crucified" each Sunday morning.  Each week, in some way, I try to point the sermon in some way to the Lord Jesus Christ and to the one thing that He did to bring salvation to all who love and have faith in Him. 

As a pastor I have learned that even though some people have that faith in Christ deep in their bones they still have moments of uncertainty and anxiety as they live day-by-day.  So instead of sending them away, perhaps with a reminder to "rely on Jesus" I pray with them.  You see, when I take a moment and lift a prayer with them to God, it is not only their faith that is being strengthened, but mine as well. 

While I wrote this from my perspective as pastor, the ability to join with a sister or brother in Christ is one that is open to any Christian.  I understand well the anxiety that may arise in yourself when that opportunity comes before you.  I felt it many times between the time of my own conversion and my becoming a pastor.  But don't let that stop you.  Like jumping into a swimming pool on a hot day, joining in prayer with another person is something that will always be the right decision.  It will bring calm to their anxiety and strengthen both of you as followers of Jesus.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Better Preparation?

In a light-hearted moment this afternoon I took a picture of a page in my Greek New Testament and shared it on Facebook.  In preparing to preach next Sunday I had read something in a commentary on the passage and so I went back to the Greek to see if the English translation I was working from accurately conveyed what it said in the Greek. 

In my Facebook post I mentioned that my New Testament Greek was pretty poor but that today I was able to read the part I was checking.  A friend from high school read my post and asked where I learned to read Greek.  And I replied that two semesters of Greek were required in seminary, noting that they were my most challenging classes, and adding that if I had any idea in high school that one day I would be a pastor then I would have done a whole lot of things differently.

I could make a detailed list of things that I passed on in high school, over 40 years ago, that would have made a difference in my current vocation today.  But, ultimately, to what end? 

If I had done those things at that time, and then gone directly to college, and then directly to seminary, what kind of pastor would I be today?  Or what kind of pastor would I have been then? 

That route would have skipped the four years I spent in the US Navy, and though I did not know it at the time the Navy prepared me for college in ways that nothing in high school ever would have.  The Navy also gave me some life experiences that have been invaluable here.

That route would have skipped the 27 years I worked at Mayo Clinic.  Much like the Navy my time at Mayo also prepared me to serve as a pastor in Dulce, again in ways that I wouldn't have seen at the time.

And I don’t serve as a pastor in Dulce on some sort of fluke.  There was a very intentional process that brought me here.  Many references were checked, several interviews were held.  Three different groups gave their endorsement.  There were many opportunities to consider my strengths and weaknesses, my experience and lack thereof, before the church in Dulce called me to serve them.

Could I have been better prepared to pastor here?  Or anywhere, for that matter?  Certainly in some ways, but perhaps at a cost that would have serious disadvantages in other ways.

The fact is that this is the place, this is the time, and I am the one called to serve here in a particular way.  I know some of my strengths, and some of my weaknesses, and I'm working in both areas.

Could I be better prepared?  Absolutely.  But that doesn't excuse me from using the gifts God has given me for this time, this place and these people to His glory.   

Those basic truths of time, place and person are true of all Christians.  And so I encourage you to use your particular gifts in the place where you are at, to God's everlasting glory.  Amen. 

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Taking A Longer View

I should know better.  I do know better. But that knowledge does not always stop what seems at the very moment I am doing something to be somewhat ill-conceived.  And what I was doing at the moment in question was taking a contrary view, in public, to an article being shared on Facebook.

My perspective drew the attention and response of another person, who disagreed fairly strongly with what I had said.  I responded to those comments, which drew some more voices into the fray.  Given that the article sparking the whole episode was shared by someone else, and who was choosing to absent himself from any subsequent discussion, I figured that it was time to keep my mouth shut.  I had said my piece, twice, and that was enough.

The initial article had to do with a news story concerning the recent US presidential election, and in specific it had to do with allegations of Russian involvement in hacking the election.  I had the nerve to say that the matter of the election being hacked was a non-issue.  Be it true or not, in the greater scheme of things it is of little or no significance.  I added that the two choices before our country as presidential candidates were, from the perspective of their respective characters, among the worst choices we could have had, and so therefore it made little difference which person won. 

Somewhere along the line I was told by my conversation partner that I "had my head in the sand" and that there was no merit to either of my points, i.e. the non-issue of Russian hacking and the relative equal lack of character in both of the presidential candidates. 

To which I would say, were I still in the original conversation, it isn’t that my head is in the sand, it's that I'm reading from a different book.

No adult alive today needs to be reminded that people today are being bombarded with information.  From every side, at nearly every moment, things are coming at us, many carrying the labels "URGENT!"  "ESSENTIAL!"  "YOU MUST TAKE A STAND ON THIS!"

Well, no.  I don't.

Take the issue of Russian hacking the US election, for example.  I could get all worked up over it and whatever the implications might be.  But what really is the issue?  The United States has been around since 1776, or 241 years.  Modern Russia has existed in one form or another since Peter the Great, roughly 1690, or 327 years.  While they are both powerful countries and both have long histories neither one of them will last forever.  And it isn’t a matter of who goes first and who remains.  One day they will each pass away.

I don’t draw that conclusion as a student of either politics or history, but as a student of the Bible.  There seems to be no limit to the storylines filling our news/newsfeed and the ways in which they could unfold.  But they do so in conformity to the over-arching storyline of God, revealed in the Bible. 

We can, and should, work for justice.  We can, and should, work for good, even in the face of great evil  But we shouldn't fall into the belief that justice will always prevail over injustice, or that good will always prevail over evil. 

The words and imagery of the Revelation of John can be confusing and difficult to interpret but I think they make two things clear.  First, is that as history moves towards its culmination, things will get worse.  Christians and non-Christians will experience hardship that will be difficult to comprehend.  And second, is that the King is coming.  This is the longer view.  It is the point to be continually mindful as we interpret and respond to the news of our day. 

So listen to the news.  Look at the needs of your family and your community, and respond as God leads you.  But do so mindful of a different book, one with a longer view than the next 24 hours.  For one day this is what will be seen:

"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God."


Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

"…for His name's sake…"

I've had a busy last two weeks.  In addition to preaching Christmas Eve and Christmas and New Year's Days, both of which were Sundays, I've made several hospital and nursing home visits and preached three funerals.  At the most recent of those funerals it occurred to me that I used either Psalm 23 or Psalm 46 at one or the other of every one of those visits and funerals.  I read Psalm 46 twice and Psalm 23 the four other times.

It is my practice before any worship service to go over the service out loud sometime that morning.  That way I'm not caught by surprise later in speaking words that somehow seem different from when I was reading them silently to myself.  It is a good practice, which I think I stumbled on rather than it being something I was taught.  There are still occasional surprises, but of a different nature.  Such as last Monday morning. 

Last Monday I preached a funeral, from Matthew 5:4.  As part of the service Psalm 23 was included, and so I read it aloud, for perhaps at least the sixth time in two weeks.  In the second part of verse three, David writes:

"He leads me in paths of
     for his names sake."

I've inserted the verse above in the layout as used in my Bible.  When I read it in worship it comes out like this:

"He leads me in paths of righteousness, for his name's sake."

Psalm 23 gives a powerful image of God as a shepherd, a shepherd who cares for His sheep in all circumstances.  This includes providing for the day-to-day needs of the sheep, as well as protecting them in times of danger.  For those reasons alone this Psalm is good to read and pray over when people are going through hard times in their lives.

But the part that grabbed my attention Monday morning had to do with being lead in paths of righteousness.  I might ordinarily think of something along the lines of, "Yeah God, show me the way to go and I'll come right along behind you."  No problem with that. It's good to follow God, and doing so will work out well for me.  Right?   

Maybe so, but maybe not.  Paths of righteousness may not be the way I really want to go.  There might be some other way I'd rather go that really isn’t godly at all, but which I seek to enjoy even though I know it’s the wrong path.  Or maybe His path is just too hard.  Too many rocks and thorns.  Sure, I'll follow God but I wish I could do it without stumbling and getting scraped up.  Or maybe I follow but I continually tell Him that there is a more direct, easier route.  In those cases my following God may be a bit reluctant, to say the least.

Following God's path is good, but only if it leads to my good.  Right?

No.  Not right.  Not at all.

Verse three reminds us that following God isn't about us at all.  It's about Him.  He leads me, or you, in paths of righteousness for His name's sake.  Following His paths is about giving honor and glory to Him.

And that is as it should be.  He is God and we are not.  He leads us in ways that are always for the best, which while being good for us, whether we realize it at the time or not, always shows the world how magnificent He is. 

May this new year of 2017 be one in which, day-by-day, you follow God's path, for God's glory.  Amen.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.