Grace Episcopal Church

Reaching the world for Jesus Christ beginning in Casanova

3/5/2017     MATTHEW 4:1-11

Have you ever faced temptation in your life?  Of course you have!  Each and every one of us has faced life’s temptations more than once, and we are always faced with the issue of how we are going to respond to them.  Even Jesus was tempted, as we have heard in today’s Gospel reading.  We can be tempted at any and every stage in life.  Do we fight temptation or give in to it?  Today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel gives us some idea of how we as Christians may deal with temptation.

The Gospel reading from Matthew 4:1-11 takes place shortly after Jesus’ baptism - a baptism that included the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus from heaven.  Now, the Holy Spirit has led Jesus to a place in the wilderness where the devil waited to tempt him.  In this we see the Scripture lived out, “He was tempted in every way as we are yet without sin.” Our own wilderness experiences are an important aspect of our spiritual walk because they test us and teach us.  We can look temptation in the face because Jesus has entered our desert experience and come out triumphant.

Jesus’ wilderness experience with temptation came at a spiritually significant time in His life, and so it often is for us as well.  Temptation is an active force today.  If God calls us, we will be tempted.  And by calls us, I don’t mean to some special ministry – I mean calls us to be with Him – to follow Him.  We are often persuaded to see evil as the product of social problems such as poverty, racism or ignorance. However, evil exists.  Period.  The Genesis reading tells us that, “The Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”  You see it’s not that evil didn’t exist before Adam and Eve ate the fruit and sinned.  Evil was there already, they just did not know what it was nor had they experienced it. Now, for us all, evil is a personal, spiritual and sociological issue that lives in both our hearts and our communities.

Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread to satisfy his physical hunger, just like some of you might be tempted in a few minutes at coffee hour to eat something you “shouldn’t” be eating.  Junk food, snack food lots of foods satisfy our physical hunger for a short period of time, but in the long run too much “junk” is not good for us.  The same is true of our spiritual hunger.  We need spiritual nourishment as well as physical nourishment.  God will provide us with the spiritual nourishment that we need.  As long as we stay close to him, we will overflow with blessings and joy.  We saw this recently in our class on the 23rd Psalm.

God has much to give us to feed our spiritual hunger, but today we are distracted from receiving His word.  Things such as shopping malls, shopping online, by catalogs and TV shopping channels distract us with things we really don’t need but want.  Men’s and women’s’ magazines, home improvement and decorating magazines distract us as well.  Then of course there are desktop, laptop and the handheld computers, we call cell phones, that draw us more and more into the longings of this world.  Yet only God can fulfill our longings. St. Augustine summed it up well when he wrote, “O God, Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our souls are restless, searching, until they find their rest in Thee.”  God is the hope we have when we look into the world and see so much unrest, lack of peace and just downright evil.   God is the hope we have when we look at ourselves and see our evil side.

The devil was setting a trap but Jesus wasn’t going to get caught in it.  If Jesus had given in to this first temptation, He would have temporarily satisfied His physical hunger but thoroughly denied His spiritual hunger. Thus, He would have turned His back on God.  He would have begun His ministry by following the devil’s lead rather than God’s lead. 

Next, Jesus was tempted by the devil to jump from the roof of the temple.  Even Satan uses Scripture as a weapon!  The three temptations are not incentives to do bad things.  They were invitations to be someone else, to live some life other than that of the beloved Son of God.  While the devil and his disciples quote Scripture and thereby appeal to our lower nature, their strongest appeal is to our sense of right and wrong. They try to persuade us to do not what we know is wrong, but what we think is right. The devil is much sneakier than the obvious and hides his temptations.  He will tempt us to do good deeds by using some sort of underhanded method.  He offers us shortcuts that sound so good at the time, but work out so poorly for eternity.  He will be like “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, so we must stay alert at all times and always pray for guidance.  We must not be fooled by the beautiful package that the temptation comes in, because often the contents are ugly.  They may not even be ugly, just wrong.  Look at Genesis and see.  The fruit was beautiful to the eye and good for food but nonetheless forbidden!  Temptations are everywhere and the tempter and his devils also stay close.

Finally, Jesus is tempted with all the kingdoms of the world.  However, God has already promised them to Jesus.  In reality, the devil has a stake in all the kingdoms of the world.  At one level, they are his kingdom for now and many people willingly serve him today. However few people ever sign a contract with the devil knowingly.  It is Satan’s sneaky, deceptive, half-truth way of dealing that sometimes leads us astray.  But don’t do a Flip Wilson and say, “the devil made me do it.”   He may entice you but he doesn’t make you.

Jesus fights fire with fire by quoting Scripture back at the devil at each turn in these three temptations.  Our greatest weapon in our fight against temptation is the word of God.  It is the true armor of God that Paul refers to in Ephesians chapter 6.  More about that in a minute. 

There will be times when we need his strength and guidance when we face temptations. The Book of James tells us, “Resist the devil and he will flee.”   It doesn’t say he will flee forever.  Satan will never give up. He didn’t give up on Jesus.  Luke’s version of this story ends with, “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time.”  Gethsemane.  The garden.  Judas.  THAT was a more opportune time.

All of this is to say that the devil will stop at nothing to tempt us into doubting God’s word and promises.  Just as the serpent did with Eve in the Garden of Eden, he will whisper words of doubt and half-truth saying the Lord can’t be trusted or what God says is not the whole truth.  We know Satan is a liar and a deceiver.  Ignore that whispering voice and listen for the voice of truth.  When God speaks even E. F. Hutton listens.  You listen too.

How should we respond to temptation? Jesus gives us a good answer in his responses to Satan’s temptations. Jesus appealed to the unchanging word of God: “It is written!” If we want to successfully overcome temptation, we must also use God’s word as our offensive weapons against an inferior foe. This means we must take time to read and study his word. We can’t go into battle each day unarmed-and yet many people today do this very thing by ignoring the Bible and the principles it contains. Going into battle unarmed is certain death.  Part of our problem in fighting temptation is that we don’t believe we’re in a battle.  In addition to the word of God, we have other ways to deal with temptation. First, we can face it for what it really is - an attempt to turn us away from God’s will.  Second, we can flee from it – and even better, stay away from situations that always tempt us or cause us to stumble.  Returning to the first temptation – don’t stand in front of the fridge and say, “I will not open it. I will not open it.”  Walk away.  We must follow the instructions Paul gave us in Ephesians chapter 6 and put on the armor of God every day, before we do battle with evil.  Don’t wait till the time comes and then put it on.  Put it on first thing.  No police officer or Sheriff’s Deputy waits till there’s shooting going on to put on their protective vest.  No, they put it on before they leave for work or in the locker room at the station.   Put on your spiritual armor as you begin your day: 1) you’re prepared and 2) you’re admitting that you may be in a battle.

Lent provides us with the training period we need to fulfill our spiritual mission. Jesus was strengthened by His wilderness experience.  We can be too.  Allow Lent to be a time to form new and improved spiritual habits in fighting temptation and preparing for battle.  Jesus left the wilderness, called His disciples and started doing God’s work. We can also leave the wilderness and do God’s work, all the time being confident that we can face temptation by relying on God’s strengths.


2/19/17          Matthew 5:38-48

Mark Twain once said this about the Bible: "I have no problem with those parts of the Bible I don't understand. It's those parts of the Bible I do understand that gives me fits." The passage that we are going to study certainly fits into that category.

This passage illustrates something I bet you may have never thought about before. One of the easiest things in the world to do is to become a Christian. It is ridiculously easy. All you have to do is confess you are a sinner, repent of your sin, believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sin and was raised from the dead, and surrender your life to Him as your Lord and Savior; and you become a Christian - immediately. There is really nothing easier thing in the world than to become a Christian.  At the same time, one of the most difficult things in the world to be is a Christian.

What Jesus says is totally antithetical to the typical attitude in America. Years ago there was a bumper sticker that became rather popular that simply said two words: "I Want." Now that tag would fit on just about every car in America. We live in the country of "I want."  I want my happiness; I want my way; I want my money; I want my rights.

Rights are considered as American as apple pie. This is a country where citizens have rights. The best known part of the Constitution is the Bill of Rights.  I'm all for the right kind of rights, but today rights often don't so much protect the innocent as they promote the guilty. If you're going to be a Christian you're going to have to give up some rights.  And that’s not very American!

Bill Walton learned that to play basketball for John Wooden you had to give up some rights. Coach Wooden had a rule against facial hair. If you played for him no facial hair was allowed. After a ten day break from school, Bill Walton came to practice wearing a beard. Coach Wooden walked up to him and said, "Bill, have you forgotten something?" Walton replied, "Coach, if you mean the beard, I think I should be allowed to wear it, it's my right." 

Coach Wooden said, "Do you really believe that?" He said, "Yes, I do, very much." Coach Wooden looked at him and said, "Bill, I have great respect for individuals who stand up for those things in which they believe. I really do. If you believe that is your right, I would die to defend that right." Bill Walton said, "Thank you, Coach." Then Wooden said, "I just want you to know the team is really going to miss you."

We've all heard the expression, "Do your duty." In this passage, Jesus takes it one step further.  He tell us both, "Do what is not your duty," and "Do more than your duty." That is going the second mile. What does this mean?

"You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you not resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also."  We read this text and think, “How horrible!” but it was intended as a safeguard for the offender.  The lex talionis – law of retaliation - ("an eye for an eye . . .") was intended to moderate vengeance and make it at proportionate to the offense.  What I mean by that is take only an eye and no more if one has endured such a loss from an enemy. 

You see, there were two things that would make any Jew mad 2,000 years ago; one would be to spit in his face, and the other would be to slap him on the right cheek.  A slap on the "right" cheek implies that it was a left-handed slap, an insult in Semitic and Arabic culture, due to a particular and specific usage of the left hand.  Even a slave would rather be struck on his back by a whip than slapped on his cheek by his master.

When somebody slaps you, what is your natural impulse—it's to slap them back? Someone insults you, the first thought is to insult them back.  That's the way we think. But Jesus said, "If you are a Christian, as hard as it may be, you should turn the other cheek.  Great in theory – not so easy in practice.  Let me emphasize that Jesus was not dealing with Christian passivism. He was talking about personal revenge, not social justice. This is not about going to war as a nation or whether or not one goes or doesn’t go to fight in such a war.  This is addressed to individuals about seeking revenge.  

What Jesus is talking about is retaliation, retribution. It's what Paul said in Rom. 12:19, "Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written ‘Vengeance is Mine. I will repay,' says the Lord." In other words, you never get even by trying to get even. 

Abraham Lincoln once said, "I never give an explanation of my actions to my critics." He said the reason is simple. "My friends don't need an explanation and my enemies wouldn't believe it."

Now that is wise advice, but having said that I think it is worth noting that Jesus suggested two cheeks, not dozens of them. He was not advocating that we become a doormat to people who try to abuse us or walk all over us nor is He speaking of giving in to the use of deadly force.  Paul went on to say in that 12th chapter of Romans and verse 18, "If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men."  Sometimes that is not possible.  Sometimes, however, it is.

I heard about a small man that walked into a restaurant, sat down to eat, and a big bully sitting on a barstool got up and walked over to that little man and chopped him across the neck; knocked him flat on the floor. As the man was getting up, the big man said, "That's karate from Japan." 

Well, the smaller man rubbed his neck, sat back down and tried to eat his meal. A few minutes later the big man returned, picked the little man off the chair, threw him over his shoulder and said, "That's Judo from Japan." 

Well, the little man walked out of the restaurant with the big man laughing at him. He returned fifteen minutes later, walked up behind him, cracked him over the head and said, "That's crowbar from Sears." 

Sometimes self defense is warranted. But forgiveness, not revenge, should be our first response. 

Jesus went on and said, "And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two." (v.41) Remember that Israel was occupied territory. It was controlled by the Roman Empire. The Romans had a law that greatly embittered the Jewish people. By law a Roman soldier could compel a Jew to carry his weapons, or his knapsack, or any burden that he had, one mile. It didn't matter whether the Jewish person was working in his field or on his way to the synagogue to worship, the Roman soldier had the right to conscript this man and force him to carry his burden. Every Jewish boy had marked off one mile from his house and had memorized the exact distance. Whenever a Jewish boy or man was compelled to go that mile, he would walk that mile down to the very foot, put that burden down, and with a bitter look on his face would make the point "not one foot more."  Jesus said, “Don't go just the first mile that you have to go, go the second mile that you don't have to go, because that's real giving.” 

In preparing this sermon, I found a story that I hope will illustrate how important going the second mile can be.  The gentleman in the story wrote, I was at a gas station a couple of weeks ago after picking my son up from school. I was filling my car up and a man got out of a big truck and walked over to me and said, "Do you know this area very well?" I said, "Pretty well." He said, "Can you tell me how to get to this street?" Well I didn't recognize the street, but my car happens to have a GPS system in it, so I pulled up a map and found the street. As I began to try to tell this man how to get there, I realized it was going to be very difficult for him to find it because there were a lot of turns, both lefts and rights, and it was just not going to be very easy to get there. 

Now quite frankly, I was in a hurry and I needed to get home. I had a lot of things I needed to get done. But I could tell this man was going to have an extremely difficult time finding this place. My son, Joshua, said to me, "Dad, why don't you just drive there following your map and let him follow you?" I said, "Son, I don't have the time to do that." He said, "But, Dad, he won't find it unless we lead him."

Well the man said, "Mister, that's okay I'll just try to find it myself." But God spoke to my heart. I said, "Just follow me." So I was following my map and this man was following me. It took us about twenty minutes to get to the right place where he needed to go. As I was turning around to go back to my home, I rolled the window down and he said, "Mister, thank you for your time." I said, "Well let me ask you, in return for what I did, would you give me five minutes of your time?" He said, "Sure." I said, "Sir, do you know the Lord Jesus?" He teared up and said, "Are you a preacher?" I said, "Yes I am." He said, "Mister, I do know Jesus and I know that God brought you into my path today.  My daughter was murdered this past year and I am really struggling with that.  I just really need you to pray for me."

The preacher ended with, “All of a sudden that second mile didn't seem very long to me at all.”

You will find that when you go that second mile, you will not only be a blessing, but you may be blessed as well.  Sometimes, it is in that inconvenient second mile, that God is most able to use us for His kingdom.

With that in mind, look for a second mile opportunity coming soon to a situation near you.  


2/12/17     But . . .           Matthew 5:21-37

There is an old joke that has been told for generations.  To some it’s funny.  To some it’s not.  I’ll let you decide for yourself.  Lena says to her husband, “Oleg, why don’t you tell me you love me anymore?”  And Oleg replies, “I told you fifty years ago that I loved you, and if that ever changes, I’ll let you know.”

In two days we experience once again the day of love that some Americans have gone overboard with while others rebel against it.  I am personally somewhere in between.  If it was the only time of the year I expressed my love for Dale, ours would be a relationship in serious trouble.  Happily, I can say that we are a long way from that and express our love far more often than Oleg does to Lena.

Valentine’s Day.  The details are sketchy.  Some say St. Valentine was a priest from Rome who lived in the third century AD.   Emperor Claudius II had banned marriages, believing married men made bad soldiers and St Valentine is thought to have arranged marriages in secret.  He was imprisoned and sentenced to death for this crime.  There, Valentine apparently fell in love with the jailer’s daughter.   On February 14th, the day of his execution, he sent her a love letter signed ‘from your Valentine’ as a goodbye.  And so it goes from there.

Valentine’s Day.  A day to express love, especially romantic love to one you love.  It’s a day when, sometimes, rings are given and engagements begin.  It’s a day for strengthening relationships.  And that is ultimately what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel reading.

Jesus is referring back to the 10 Commandments in what He is saying in this section of the Sermon on the Mount.  And what He does with them is takes them from just being about outer actions toward others to having to do with one’s interior – the heart.  Jesus deepens the purpose of God’s commands regarding relationships in today’s words.  You see, that’s what the 10 Commandments are really all about.

We often view them as rules to follow.  And at some level, they are.  8 of the 10 are stated in the negative.  Here is what NOT to do in relation to others.  Rules, guidelines, suggestions.  However you choose to think about them, they focus primarily on relationships.  4 relating to God and 6 to other people. 

  1. Do not follow any gods other than the true God.
  2. Do not make or worship idols.
  3. Do not take God's name in vain.
  4. Observe the Sabbath day by resting every seventh day.
  5. Honor your father and mother.
  6. Do not murder.
  7. Do not commit adultery.
  8. Do not steal.
  9. Do not lie, shorthand for do not bear false witness but it’s broader than simply lying.
  10. Do not covet what belongs to another.

Jesus takes some of the worst of these to highlight on the mountainside as He is speaking that day.  No murder, no adultery, no false witness.  We certainly get murder.  It’s universal law.  Adultery is pretty clear as well.  Betrayal.  It hurts!  Jesus takes them to the next level by saying what we do internally with anger or lust is just as bad, so beware.  But I don’t think we get the whole thing about calling someone a fool.  There was more to it then than what we may think now.  Here are a couple of examples. 

First, there is the deliberate insult.  In the original language and in many translations of scripture it is left in the Aramaic: RACA. In Aramaic, raca is a term of derision roughly comparable to "worthless one" or "empty-head" or "contemptible one" or just plain garden-variety "idiot."  The reason we find it so often not translated is that the meaning is expressed by tone of voice as anything.  It is the kind of name-calling, the kind of insult, that is designed to cause someone else pain. 

Why would Jesus come down so hard on something as seemingly trivial as name-calling?  Because name-calling is a source of pain and division between people, and such ought not to be.  “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”  That’s a lie.  A bold faced lie.

But there was more that came under the heat of Jesus' condemnation than simply mean-spirited insults.  There was that insult that would do real damage to someone, the kind of insult that injures someone's good name.  You might angrily call somebody an idiot and, painful as that might be to the person at that moment, it is unlikely that such a thing would follow them for the rest of their days.  But if you called someone a thief or a liar or immoral and someone overheard, there is every likelihood that your charge would be repeated...not your anger, your charge...doing significant damage to the victim. 

This is what Jesus was condemning when he warned against calling someone a fool.  You see, for someone who heard Him on that hillside, calling a person a fool carried more weight than it might carry for us today.  It meant more than simply that someone was acting foolishly; it had a moral tone about it.  The Psalmist spoke of "the fool [who] has said in his heart `There is no God.'"  It implies that the individual has some sinning to do and, in a moment of wishful thinking, says there will be no one to judge. Thus, to call someone a fool was to brand that one as a loose living and immoral person.  Jesus says do not do it, because the one who destroys another's good name like that is liable to the severest judgment of all - hell fire. 

Condemned for all eternity for some thoughtless words?  Really?  Does the punishment fit the crime?  Listen to that wise New Testament scholar, William Barclay: 

“All these gradations of punishment are not to be taken literally.  What Jesus is saying here is this: In the old days men condemned murder; and truly murder is forever wrong.  But I tell you that not only are a [person's] outward actions under judgment; the inmost thoughts are also under the scrutiny and the judgment of God.  Long-lasting anger is bad; contemptuous speaking is worse, and the careless or the malicious talk which destroys [someone's] good name is worst of all.”

So let us be careful about how we speak of others, how we even think of others lest we do damage to someone that can’t be undone.

Jesus makes each of these “commandments” more difficult to “achieve”.  There is real judgement in His words and the need for obedience.   And He brings up touchy subjects.  Divorce, adultery, murder.  It sounds like we’re condemned to hell if we fail at any point and that’s more than a little scary.  

So even with all of this talk of obedience and judgment, Jesus knows that we are saved by grace not works.  In chapter 20 He recounts the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Some of the workers toil away in the heat for hours. Others work half a day. Some barely break a sweat in a short hour of work. At the end of the day, they all receive the same wage from the owner of the vineyard. That is grace. We do not earn a state of salvation God by our obedience. We enter into it by God's grace through God’s gracious act in Jesus.  Nevertheless our obedience in thought, word and deed as we confess in our liturgy, is important.  

Young Danny was praying at Mother’s knee. “If I should die before I wake … If I should die.…”

“Go on Danny, go on,” said his mother. “You know the rest of the prayer.”

“Wait a minute,” he said.  Scrambling to his feet, he hurried downstairs.  In a short time, he was back.  Dropping to his knees once again, he took up the petition where he had left off.

Finally his mother questioned him about the episode and issued a loving rebuke.  Danny explained: “Mom, I did think about what I was saying, but I had to stop and put all of Ted’s wooden soldiers on their feet. I had turned them on their heads just to see how mad he’d be in the morning.  If I should die before I wake, I wouldn’t want him to find them like that.  Lots of things seem fun if you are gonna keep on living, but you don’t want them that way if you should die before you wake.”

“You’re right, dear,” said his mother with a quiver in her voice.  She thought of herself and many other grown-ups who should have stopped in the middle of their prayers to undo some wrong against another before proceeding.  Danny, at his young age, gets it.  Folks, it’s all about relationships.

Jesus points this out in a startling way: there is a relationship between our getting along with each other and our getting along with God.  Listen to what Jesus says: "When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift."  The message is that God is very, very, very concerned about human relationships, concerned enough to let us know that getting those relationships straight takes priority over participating in the Eucharist.

That’s where the Peace comes from.  It was that time in the early church’s worship life, where before the celebration of Eucharist, people went and made right any brokenness in a relationship.  It wasn’t happy glad handing.  It was reconciliation.  And if it wasn’t right, you didn’t come forward.

Bet you didn’t expect to be here when we started out with Valentine’s Day did you?  The 10 Commandments, the summary of the law in 2 commandments and Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount all boil down to love in relationship.   It’s more than just being civil by following the “rules.”  It’s about being and remaining in relationship by living inside out.  Little Danny gets it.  I hope you will too.


1/22/17   GET INVOLVED IN WHAT GOD IS DOING     Matthew 4:12-23

Comedian Garry Shandling once commented on the phenomenon of wake-up calls in hotels. He says: “Here’s a little tip from me to you as an experienced traveler: Wake-up calls--one of the worst ways to wake up. The phone rings; it’s loud; you can’t turn it down.” Then with impeccable timing Shandling adds, “I leave the number of the room next to me, and then it just rings kind of quietly, and you hear a guy yell, ‘What are you calling me for?’ Then you get up and take a shower. It’s great.”[i]

True story. A man had fallen away from his church. A friend of his decided to give him a call about a tennis match they were scheduling later that week. The friend called from the phone at Christ the Lord Lutheran Church where the friend was attending a meeting. His friend looked at his Caller I.D. and it said, “Christ the Lord.” He thought Jesus was calling which turned out to be something of a wake-up call for him.

Has anyone here seen the remarkable film that came out several years ago called Amazing Grace?  It was the story of William Wilberforce.  Wilberforce was a British politician who, after his conversion to Christianity, became England’s greatest anti-slavery advocate.  It was through his tireless efforts that England eventually outlawed slavery and paved the way for the end of the slave trade in the Western world.

But William Wilberforce almost missed his calling. After his conversion, Wilberforce considered leaving politics for the ministry.  He wasn’t sure how a Christian could live out his faith in “the world.”  Fortunately, Wilberforce turned to a man named John Newton for guidance.  This is the same Newton who authored the lyrics of the much-loved hymn, “Amazing Grace.”  Newton was a former slave trader who had renounced the trade after his conversion.  Newton convinced Wilberforce that God had called him to remain in politics and exert a Christian influence there.  It was John Newton that gave William Wilberforce the wake-up call that kept him championing the cause of freedom for Britain’s slaves.[ii]

Four men, fishermen by trade, were toiling at the nets beside the Sea of Galilee when they received a wake-up call from Jesus.  And in that moment, their world was changed.How did it happen that these four men made such a radical change in their vocations--from being fishermen to being disciples, and then apostles?  And what can we learn from them?

First of all, they had an encounter with Jesus.  They didn’t attend a seminar on how to find a better job, though such seminars can be helpful.  They didn’t read, What Color is Your Parachute? though that might also have been helpful if it had been written two millennia ago.  No, they encountered Jesus, and it changed their lives and even changed their vocations.

I hope and pray that our church, Grace Church, can be/ will be/ is/ a place where people encounter Jesus.  I don’t want us to be just another social organization, a club, a fraternity.  They have a place in society, but the church ought to be something different, something more.  This ought to be, this needs to be a place where people meet God.  

Most of you are probably not familiar with a man named John Wimber.  Wimber, who died from cancer several years ago, was an extraordinary church leader who influenced many people in their faith walk. When Wimber was first introduced to the Christian faith, he became a voracious Bible reader. The Scriptures excited him. Finally, after weeks of reading about life‑transforming miracles in the Bible yet attending boring church services, John was frustrated. He expected great things to happen, but nothing ever did. Finally he asked one of the leaders at his church, “When do we get to do the stuff?”

“What stuff?” asked the leader.

“You know, the stuff in the Bible” Wimber said.  “You know, multiplying loaves and fishes and feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising people from the dead, and giving the blind sight. That sort of stuff!”

“Oh,” said the leader.  “We don’t do that in this church.  I want you to understand, though, that we believe those things and we pray about those things, but we really don’t do those things.”

“You don’t?  Well what do you do?” asked John.

“What we did this morning,” replied the man.

In frustration, John responded: “For that I gave up drugs?”

The testimony of the New Testament with its witness to the life and ministry of Jesus and the early church is not dead history.  Rather it is a picture of what God can do in individual lives.  God is here.  God is waiting and wanting to come into our lives and help us fully become who He created us to be. We should come here each week expecting a miracle, expecting God to do great things in and through our lives as He did with those first followers.

In the second place, they responded to Christ’s call. They did so immediately. They didn’t procrastinate. They didn’t make excuses.  And they didn’t ignore what was said as if it hadn’t been.  Christ said, “Follow me,” and they did just that.  Very few people actually make that kind of commitment.

The National Prayer Breakfast is an interfaith gathering: Christians, Jews and even a few Muslims are all included and given time to make remarks.  It is a bi‑partisan event that draws hundreds of politicians, clergy, and other guests each year to the White House.  In 2006, King Abdullah of Jordan was in attendance as a guest of honor.  The speaker that day was the rock star known as Bono, lead singer of the group U2.  Here is a little of what Bono had to say:

“A number of years ago, I met a wise man who changed my life. In countless ways, large and small, I was always seeking the Lord’s blessing. I was saying, you know, I have a new song, look after it . . . I have a family, please look after them . . . I have this crazy idea . . .”

“And this wise man said: “Stop!” He said, “Stop asking God to bless what you are doing. Get involved in what God is doing--because it’s already blessed.”

Get involved in what God is doing. What a radical idea. Don’t spend so much time asking God to bless what you are doing.  Rather, ask God to show you what He is doing, and join in.  Or as Jesus said in our Gospel just follow Him.

It’s winter so let me end with this.  There was a field covered with freshly fallen snow. A father and his son enter the field. As they walk across the field, you notice that the father is moving along toward where he is going.  His son, who isn’t quite sure where they’re going follows directly behind, making a special effort to step in his father’s footprints.  After the two have crossed the field, you notice that there is only one set of tracks visible in the field, although two had walked across it.  The Christian life is that way.  In our daily walk we need to be following Christ's example and going where He is going.  

It’s not something that just happens.  Just like the son, we need to pay attention and make some special effort in order to follow along the same path.  A path in the snow is pretty easy to follow but it’s not always winter.  Look around you and see what God is doing that you may participate in with Him.  What steps along that path do you need to take to follow Him and join in with what He is doing.  Look.  Watch.  See.  Ask.  Then do. Amen

[i] That’s Really Funny! (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2000), p. 163.

[ii] “What Is Your Calling?” by Os Guinness, Good News, Jul./Aug. 2002, pp. 12-13.

1/8/17     BAPTISM OF OUR LORD - BAPTISM OF WHITT BRATTEN     Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Today we will baptize Whitt Bratten.  Today’s story from Mark’s Gospel is about a baptism.  But it’s not about just any baptism.  It is the baptism of our Lord.  We return to this story year after year to remind us of this action Jesus took. Why is it important?  Because, in part, it defines what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  Every one of us who is a member of this church has been baptized.  It is the one indispensable rite of every Christian congregation.

Our Lord was baptized by John in the wilderness.  In doing so, Jesus set a precedent for every person who would follow Him.  We were baptized because Jesus was baptized.  Being baptized doesn’t mean we are perfect or have it all together or even have great theology. Being baptized doesn’t even mean that we are saved.  Little Whitt won’t be “saved” by virtue of his Baptism this morning – he is saved by the grace of God.  By his Baptism, we claim him for God this day.  For the rest of us, Baptism simply means that we acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, and we have committed ourselves to walk in his footsteps as God grants us His grace.

You know the basic story of Jesus’ baptism. All four Gospels record this momentous occasion.  Mark tells us simply, “When Jesus had been baptized, just as He came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to Him and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And a voice from heaven said: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

In another Gospel, Luke writes, “You are my Son … with You I am well pleased” which addresses Jesus.  Mark shows clearly that this voice was for those present to hear.  This is my Son … with whom I am well pleased” is in the third person, addressing others.  Wow!  Wouldn’t you love to have been there that day hearing that?  I’m glad that Mark thought to record the day for our hearing.

This event of Christ’s baptism is important to Christians for several reasons.

First of all, it reminds us of Christ’s humility.  It is an amazing truth. Christ humbled Himself and was baptized.  He didn’t need to be baptized.  He needed no sacramental cleansing from sin because He was/is perfect. We on the other hand, do!  Whereas you and I would be tempted to enjoy the perks of our relationship with God, Christ humbled Himself and became a servant. St. Francis of Assisi had that kind of humility. St. Francis wanted to be as much like Christ as possible.

In a story known as the Legend of Perugia there is a very revealing example of Francis’ humility. Hidden in a description of Francis’ practice of traveling and preaching in churches is this wonderful sentence concerning St. Francis: “He brought along a broom to clean the churches.”  I love that.  “He brought along a broom to clean the churches.”  There is much being written nowadays about “servant leadership.”  There is perhaps no better example of servant leadership than Francis of Assisi, except, of course, for Jesus.  Francis was simply seeking to emulate his Lord.

Jesus was baptized because of His obedience to His Father.  He did it to set the pattern for us.  For you see, what God desires from us more than anything else is that we might be obedient, too.  That’s what humility is all about.  God created you and me to do amazing things.  But we will never be all God created us to be until we humble ourselves and become obedient to the vision God has for our lives.  Christ’s baptism is important, first of all, because it shows His humility, His willingness to submit to His Father’s authority.

So as we see Christ’s humility, we are also introduced to His divinity.  It is surely no accident that the story of Christ’s baptism is one of the few occasions in scripture where all three persons in the Trinity are mentioned--Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Now, that may not get you all that excited.  After all, the word “Trinity” does not even appear in the Bible.  The idea of the Trinity--that God comes to us in three persons--Father, Son and Holy Spirit--wasn’t formulated by the church until a few hundred years after Christ’s resurrection.  And yet, here at Christ’s baptism, all three persons of the Godhead are present.  The Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove) descends on Jesus (the Son) and then the Father (God) expresses His love and His approval for Jesus, His Son.

This may seem boring to many, but it is vitally important. The doctrine of the Trinity solidifies the idea in the mind of Christians that when we look at the person of Jesus we are looking at an accurate picture of the character of God.  Jesus, while being a human being, is in every way a mirror image of God.  And not just a reflection, as in a mirror, but God in the flesh as we just celebrated at Christmas – God with us!

When we look at Jesus, we see all the love, grace and mercy of God right before our very eyes.  We see the power and compassion of the God who loves us more than anything we can ever imagine.

And that brings us to the final thing to be said about Jesus’ baptism: it helps us understand our real identity.

Christ’s baptism was the beginning of His earthly ministry.  He was about thirty years of age.  What had he been doing before then?  He was probably working in Joseph’s carpenter shop.  He probably took it over at Joseph’s death.  All we know about his early years, except for that time when he stayed behind in Jerusalem when Mary and Joseph made their annual pilgrimage to the Holy City, was that he was obedient to his parents and that he “grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).  But now, at His baptism, He has this amazing experience. After He is baptized and while He is praying, heaven opens and the Holy Spirit descends on Him like a dove. And a voice comes from heaven: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

Thus, when we are baptized in the name of Christ, we receive and take on that identity as a child of God.  When I mark the sign of the cross on Whitt’s forehead, it is a sign of ownership like the branding of cattle.  Only it is not a mark about property.  It is a mark of belonging.  Baptism tells us we are children of God and the way we honor that baptism is to live in obedience to the will of God as best as we are able to understand it.

Pastors Eddie Fox and George Morris once visited Bau Island, a small subset of the Fiji Islands.  While there, the chief of Bau Island showed them a small Christian church that housed a large stone with a small cleft in the top.  According to the chief, this stone held a significant place in the ancient history of the people of the island.  In ancient times, this stone was used to crush the heads of captives.  It was a prominent weapon, and a symbol of the violent culture of the island.  But once the message of Jesus reached the people of Bau Island, this rock was employed in a new way.   It became a baptismal font, and the cleft that was once filled with blood was now filled with water for baptizing the heads of small children as they were brought into the family of God.


The people of Bau Island wisely concluded that, once they were baptized, their way of life needed to change to reflect that baptism.  So it is with us.  Our lives should reflect our baptism.

In our baptism we are given our identity.  We are now children of God.  We are a part of the body of Christ.  Our words and our actions should reflect that great truth.  Just as Christ humbled Himself in obedience to the will of God, so shall we humble ourselves to live in obedience to God’s will that in all things people may see our good works and give thanks to our Father.  This is why each year during Epiphany we revisit the event of Christ’s baptism.  We see here Christ’s humility and His divinity.  And we are reminded of who we are.  We are His body at work in the world today, reminding the world that it is loved. We are the children of God, and that is how we are called to live.

Let us now do likewise and welcome Whitt.  Amen

Please stand and let us sing Hymn 296 as Whitt and his parents come forward.12/11/16     GRACE     Matthew 11:2-11, Isaiah 35:1-10

Have you ever been in a situation where you know you did the right thing, but then something happened that made you doubt, made you wonder and have second thoughts?  It happens.  Sometimes it happens to the best of us.

Take Glen for instance.  Glen had been a figurehead in the church and community for 65 years.  There were few in town who had not, at some point in their lives, been touched and strengthened by Glen.  He was a Christian's Christian, and was admired and praised.  His living room wall was covered with plaques and certificates from charitable service organizations, and even one from the governor.  Glen seemed to know full well who Jesus was, and sought to serve Him.  Then Glen became ill.

It happened when Glen was nearly 90 years old.  He had not been sick more than a few hours of those 90 years.  One day the doctor mentioned cancer.  At first Glen nodded and said that after 90 good years he had no complaints, but as days passed he grew quiet, the smile left his face, and the love left his eyes.  He worried constantly, and complained just a bit more than that.  "I've tried to do good," Glen said one morning, "but I just don't see why God would do this to me.  This isn't what I expected at all.  Maybe I've been wasting my time."  After traveling alongside him for nearly 90 years, Glen was now having second thoughts about who this Jesus really was. He expected better treatment from a Messiah.

Most of us do, don't we?  We get this comforting idea that if we follow the Messiah life will somehow be smoother, or at least all fit together in some "good" way.  Then we run smack into the reality that the only guarantee Jesus made to us had to do with the activities that come after this life.  In fact, Jesus very clearly expected that his followers would have a harder time getting through this life than those who walked away.  But we still have these expectations of a "Savior" and when Jesus doesn't meet them we begin to wonder if He is really who we thought He was. There are thousands of empty church pews that used to be full of people who believed in Jesus Christ. But then He didn't live up to their expectations and they went home and stayed there on Sunday mornings. Their families still fought, they still had some frightening decisions to make, and they still couldn't make ends meet on a budget. They faced a divorce they didn’t anticipate, lost a loved one unexpectedly, lost a job or became ill, like Glen.  They began to wonder if they had made a mistake with Jesus.

This is where we find John in today’s Gospel reading.  John is wondering, questioning.  Did I do the right thing or was it all a big mistake?   John is in prison now and he's looking for a sign, a sign that the long-awaited Messiah has really arrived.  It’s a little ironic, if you think about it.  John is the one who first proclaimed Jesus’ coming as the Messiah. But much has happened to John since we last saw him preaching and baptizing people in the wilderness, and now he is a bit bewildered.

You'll remember John's message was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."  This message burned in John's soul.  John wasn't afraid to proclaim his message to religious leaders and royalty alike.  He wasn't even afraid to proclaim it to King Herod himself.  That was why he was in jail.

This was not the King Herod who was the ruler at the time of the birth of Jesus; this was his son, Herod Antipas, who turned out to be worse than his father.  Herod Antipas seduced and later married his brother's wife, but first he killed his brother.  The nation was in shock.  John the Baptist condemned the king's behavior and was placed in prison.  While in prison John realized that his career as a prophet would soon be ended. His life would be over as well.

There was one thing that John wanted to know before he died.  John wanted to know beyond a shadow of a doubt if Jesus was really the Messiah.  Can you blame him?  He had given everything he had including, in a matter of days, his very life.  He wanted to know, has it all been in vain?  In the wilderness John had believed Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, but in the face of certain death he is apparently having some doubts.  He wanted to know for sure.  So he sent some of his followers to find Jesus and ask him, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”  It would seem that maybe John also had some expectations, like Glen and others, and things didn’t turn out as he had expected.

Jesus and John are both students who have read, and no doubt studied, the prophet Isaiah.  They seem to know his words well and often favor them when quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures.  It is Isaiah who prophesied about the voice crying in the wilderness, which Jesus refers to today and which we know to be John.  One day, early in His ministry, Jesus reads a lesson in a local synagogue from Isaiah 61 which says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.  Then He closed the book, gave it to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him.  And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:18-21)  Jesus claims that this statement, this prophetic utterance by Isaiah is about Him.

In the chapters prior to Matthew 11, Jesus has been out doing these very things: healing the sick, making the lame walk, the blind see and the dumb, that is those unable to talk, able to speak. Marvelous things have been occurring!

So Jesus answers Johns question from Isaiah.  It’s really a resounding YES but probably not with the passage John would have preferred.  Jesus quotes from Isaiah 35 which we heard read earlier about the healing of the blind, the deaf, lame and the speechless ones.  He tells John’s disciples to go tell John these things that you see being done.  And it must have brought some reassurance to John to hear this.  (Just as an aside, if you were John, wouldn’t you rather have Jesus quote from Isaiah 61 that I read a moment ago, especially about liberty to the captives and freedom to the oppressed?  I know I would.  Probably John would too but that’s not how it went.)  Anyway, John remained faithful to God and his mission right to the end.  Even though the answer to his question didn’t come quite like he might have liked, he was strengthened by the answer to face his imprisonment and eventual death.  

I asked in the beginning if you ever been in a situation where you know you did the right thing, but then something happened that made you doubt, made you wonder and have second thoughts.  I would say that probably most of you have been in that situation before.  Maybe someone is there now.  

I also mentioned that many people who had expectations of Jesus as Messiah no longer fill pews in churches because their expectations weren’t met and so they gave up on Him.  They gave up on God.  Rest assured that God never gave up on them!  He still hasn’t.  He is still there with them though they are unable to see having been totally blinded by their disappointment.  Sometimes it’s hard for us to see that the answer we need isn’t the answer we want and so we give up.  Yet God waits patiently, lovingly for those who have turned away so they may turn back to Him again.

Whatever it is you may be looking for from God, whatever answer you may hope for – be open to that answer being God’s YES in a different way than you may have expected.  Just as Jesus’ answer to John was a resounding YES in a different way than John may have hoped for, God’s YES to you may also come in a different way.

I want to end today with this quote I saw recently.  If you don’t get anything else from what I have said today, grasp hold of this image.

“God is really keen on you - He has your picture on His fridge - don't miss out on that love.”   Amen