My Light and Salvation/March 17, 2019

Second Baptist Lincoln
March 17, 2019

My Light and My Salvation

Psalm 27:1-9

The Lord is my light and my salvation—
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
    of whom shall I be afraid?

When the wicked advance against me
    to devour[
a] me,
it is my enemies and my foes
    who will stumble and fall.
Though an army besiege me,
    my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
    even then I will be confident.

One thing I ask from the Lord,
    this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
    and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
    he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the 
shelter of his sacred tent
    and set me high upon a rock.

Then my head will be exalted
    above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;
    I will sing and make music to the Lord.

Hear my voice when I call, Lord;
    be merciful to me and answer me.
My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
    Your face, Lord, I will seek.
Do not hide your face from me,
    do not turn your servant away in anger;
    you have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me,
    God my Savior.

Something happened last Sunday.  The time changed.  Some of you heard that you gained some daylight.  Others thought you lost daylight.  I know all of you lost some sleep.   Daylight savings time was originally implemented to make better use of the available daylight hours for agriculture and construction.  I think something we ALL have noticed is that our days are getting longer.  Almost immediately after the Winter Solstice, we begin to see a few extra minutes of daylight each week, until eventually we can enjoy early morning walks in the summer as well as late evening yardwork.

What really makes a difference is in the mood of people.  The lack of daylight deprives us of certain hormonal benefits that are generated by sunlight.  In the winter time, many people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder  (SAD) which causes depression during the later fall and winter and tapering off toward spring.  We need light.  Plants need light to produce certain chemicals to create green – a process we know as photosynthesis.  We need light to produce certain hormones. 

We also find numerous places in scripture that speak of the benefits of the divine light.  Jesus, the Light of the world.   The Lord God, the Light and our salvation.  This morning as part of this continuing series during Lent of looking at the Psalms, we find a very comforting and meaningful Psalm that speaks to our dependence and relationship to God as the light of our life.   Last week we looked at Psalm 91 which was a cry for help and an assurance that God will save us in our most dire circumstances.  

Today’s text is not unlike last week’s scripture.  In this case, it boldly proclaims in the first verse that “The Lord is my light and my salvation.”   Yesterday at our American Baptist Churches of Nebraska state leadership meeting held in Gibbon, I gave a devotional based upon another similar Psalm, Psalm 46 which one of our favorite cantatas was based upon.   “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble…though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the seas…though the waters roar and foam.”   Most of these Psalms have similar themes, progressions and a profound dependence upon the power and grace of God.   In today’s reading, it is difficult to determine if the writer of the Psalm is speaking about an actual battle with swords and spears and armies – or if the writer is speaking metaphorically about the battles of life, against evil, against adversity and hardship.

 For us, it IS a metaphor.  We are not in actual military battles, but we are certainly in the metaphorical battles of life.  And so we find hope in these words of the Psalmist.  I think hope is one of the greatest, and most constant need of the follower of Christ.  We are in the season of HOPE as we pass through Lent.  Our hope is in the cross and the resurrection.   Just as Advent is a time of anticipation of the coming of the savior, Lent is a time of anticipation of the fulfillment of that salvation on the cross.  Hope is a powerful thing.  G.K. Chesterton said, “There is no medicine like hope, no incentive so great, and no tonic so powerful as expectation of something better tomorrow.” Emily Dickinson said, “Hope is a thing with feathers/ that perches on the soul.”    The dictionary describes hope as “To have a wish to get or do something or for something to happen or be true, especially something that seems possible or likely.”  

 The Bible teaches us something vastly different about hope.  It doesn’t mean WISH, it means KNOW.   It isn’t “I hope tomorrow will be better.”  It is “I KNOW tomorrow will be better.”  Jeremiah 17:7 says, “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.”  Instead of the word “confidence”, the King James uses the word “Hope”.  Our hope is not a wishful thinking, it is a trust and confidence.   Ours is a trust and confidence based upon our past experience of seeing and experiencing the faithfulness and love of a God.

 David begins this Psalm by declaring his hope and confidence is in God.  God is his LIGHT and his SALVATION.  Psalm 119:105 says “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.”   The Lord goes out before us into the darkness and forges a way for us.  Whenever I hear this verse, I think of the Israelites in the wilderness after escaping from Egypt.  God provided a cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night for them to be guided through the wilderness. 

 They were never lost, because their travels depended upon trusting the cloud and the light.  The Psalmist in 119:105 says God’s word is our light, but in today’s text, it says that the Lord is our light and our salvation.   

 As light, God delivers his people from darkness.  This is a metaphor we use for all kinds of sin and bondage.  Addiction, human trafficking and prostitution, pornography, abusive behavior.  These are all wrapped in the kind of darkness referred to in scripture.

 God has called us out of the darkness and into the light of his love.  We are not intended to dwell in the darkness, yet often we choose to do so.  Often we are the victim of other people living in darkness.  When their sin affects us, we are caught up in their darkness.  But one of the reality of light, is that it is stronger than the darkness.  Light can fill a dark room, but dark can not fill a light room.  It is only the absence of light that brings darkness.    I can light a match in a room full of darkness, and it will illuminate the room enough for there to be visibility and shadows.  Darkness cannot penetrate a room full of light.   We need to allow God’s light to shine in our lives and bring us hope even when darkness begins to try and creep in.  God’s light is more powerful and present.

 Secondly, God is called “Our Salvation.”  We can be rescued in no other way than by God’s love and grace.  This was true for the Psalmist David, and it is true for us.  The psalmist David seems to be in deep distress.  The first few verses are likely to have been composed by David when he was in the midst of war.  His enemies were around him.  Also, it appears that he may have been cut off from access to the Temple, the house of the Lord.    Now, he longs for the house of the Lord where his salvation can be found.  Chances are, he is referring to a physical, military rescue when he is referring to Salvation, but it is a perfect metaphor for our own spiritual salvation when we are cut off from the house of the Lord.    We may be cut off because of our circumstances.  I think of some of our shut-ins who are unable to physically go to church because of being confined by their own physical disability.  As I’ve conversed with them, they describe to me how much they miss being here and seeing those they love, worshiping God together with other Christians.   There are others who are cut off from being here by their own choice.  They have fallen away from God or perhaps their priorities have changed.  Maybe some are kept away because of work schedules or family issues.  They have made a choice.

 In verse 4, David describes his deep desire to be in the house of the Lord and dwell there forever.  This isn’t talking about heaven, this is talking about worship in the tabernacle.   He says it in the previous chapter, 26:8  “I love the house where you live, O Lord, the place where your glory dwells.” 

 In Psalm 85:10, we find these words.  “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.”   I believe there is a connection between being present and engaged in the House of the Lord, and living in the love and protection of God.   So many people today have this disconnect between being active in worship and church life, and being connected to God.  They think they can somehow live a Christian life outside of the church fellowship.  I don’t believe it.   I think we live in God’s light by dwelling in God’s temple and corporate worship.  I think we draw our life and light from our connection here,

 Certainly, we need to have our alone time with God.  That is vital.  Absolutely God is out there on that golf course or out by that lake where we park our camper.  But those who love and support us are here.   Lifting our voices together in praise is an experience like no other.  Being at the lake alone with God is no replacement for being part of the congregation of praise. David hungered to dwell in the Lord’s house.  I hope we have that same desire to enter into worship with others.  It should have less to do with what the sermon topic is for the day.  It should have less to do with what songs we sing.  It should have everything to do with our desire to worship God in the midst of Christian fellowship with other believers.

 In Psalm 84, David even envies the little birds that make their nests around the tabernacle, because they can be near the house of the Lord all the time.   David has a desire to be where the Lord is.   Now I’m not saying that this place is the only place he Lord dwells.  We know that after Jesus died and rose from the dead, that the human body and spirit became known as the temple where God dwells.   Through the power and indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God dwells within us.  We can always spend time with God because he lives with us and we are the temple of the Holy Spirit.  Paul says in I Corinthians 6:19:  “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own”.   Still, our desire is to be in this physical presence of God with his people.  Not just to be present physically, but to be open and receptive to God moving in our lives. 

A couple weeks ago, I challenged you to add something new to your spiritual walk with God.  Do something new and enriching to add to your relationship with Christ.  It isn’t ONLY being here this morning that changes us, but also it is us opening ourselves to God’s movement in our lives.  We have many priorities in life. People at the time of the Psalmist did too. The Psalmist though declares that his primary goal is to nurture his relationship with God. Is that a goal that we share with the Psalmist?  I think many of us want to grow in our relationship with God. We want to understand more when we read the Bible and have God’s Word speak to us. We want prayer to be a vibrant, dynamic part of our lives.   We want to be able to sense God’s presence in our lies and to experience that peace that passes understanding. We want a life that is abundant and free.

We are challenged to nurture that relationship. Relationships are built on more than texts and emails. Relationships need desire—a need to experience more. Relationships also need time. The Psalmist declares that he’s going to take the time to accomplish his desire.  It is pleasing to God to have us experience such a life, also.  The Psalmist identifies such a life. In verse five, he talks about how the Lord has set him on a high rock. In other words, God has made him safe and secure. In verse six. He says that his head will be lifted up above his enemies.  Not that enemies can be eliminated, nor is there the elimination of trials and tribulations. Enemies will still be there.  God’s presence, though, brings the security and strength to overcome those difficulties.

 As we continue to spiritually walk through this Lenten season and seek to grow in our relationship with Christ, this offers us insight into the attitude and aspirations of a Psalmist (probably David) a long time ago.   In the 21st century, it brings us hope when so many people are in despair. It brings us joy and contentment when many are caught on fear and anxiety.   The Lord is my light and my salvation.  He is ight in a dark world, and salvation in a time when rescue seems impossible.   God is our hope, the resurrected Christ is our rock and assurance of life and freedom from the brokenness of sin. 


My Refuge and Strength/March 10, 2019

Second Baptist Lincoln 
March 10, 2019

My Refuge and Strength

Psalm 91:1-12

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.[
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely he will save you
    from the fowler’s snare
    and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
    nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
    ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.
You will only observe with your eyes
    and see the punishment of the wicked.

If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
    and you make the Most High your dwelling,
10 no harm will overtake you,
    no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.


This past Wednesday, churches around the world commemorated the beginning of the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday.  We don’t generally celebrate Ash Wednesday, but we do focus on the Lenten Season as a time to recommit our lives to Christ and focus upon the suffering, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.  This year, I’m doing something a little different.  I’m going to preach from the Psalms during Lent.  I’ve never done a series on the Psalms, and certainly not during Lent.   I think the Psalms are perfect for the Lenten season as they seem to deal with suffering and the anticipation of God’s help and strength during a time of suffering and death. The Psalms are filled with songs of praise for God. In the Psalms, we find comfort and assurance, but we also find some fairly violent and condemning speech.   The Psalms are written by numerous authors, not just David. 

Today, we are going to be looking at the Psalm 91. It is one of the most beautiful and uplifting of the Psalms. Psalm 91 can be broken down into 2 messages. The first 15 verses are descriptions of how God protects us, and things He will do to make sure we are safe and the enemy will not harm us. The last verse is a promise of blessings the Lord will give to those who follow Him faithfully.

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.[a]
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

This Psalm tells believers that when they have an intimate relationship with God, He will protect them. We live “in the shadow” of Almighty God and He indeed DOES cover us with His protection.   About three and a half years ago, most of you remember when I went with a group of pastors to Amsterdam and Hungary.  The very first day in Europe was in the city of Amsterdam in the section of Haarlem when the Christian heritage site of the Ten Boom House is located. 

It is a watch and Jewelry shop with a living quarters above it where Corrie, her sister Betsy and their father Casper lived during WWII.  When the Nazis began rounding up Jews and sending them to Ravensbruck, Auschwitz and other labor camps and death camps, the Ten Boom family constructed a room behind one of their bedroom walls where Jews could be hidden.  Eventually, they were caught when an acquaintance was captured and interrogated by police, and he told the police about “The Hiding Place.”

 Corrie, and Betsy were sent off to Ravensbruck and Casper, after only nine days in another camp, died at the age of 84.  Betsy eventually dies, and Corrie is eventually released.  One of her favorite passages was this Psalm 91.  Imagine as she reflected on these words of the Psalmist:

You will not fear the terror of night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
    nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
    ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.

 Knowing that she is not alone, and that God is with her at all times protecting her from enemies all around her.  Protecting her from the pestilence of fleas and lice, watching all around her as thousands are put to death in the gas chambers or worked to death in the quarries. 

None of us have experienced the horror of a Nazi death camp, but these words still ring true in all our situations.  Whatever we face, we are not walking through it alone.  Look at verse 2:  “I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”  That is truly a bold statement by the psalmist.  Are we in a position to say that God is our refuge?  I mean TRUTHFULLY say it?  Do we really depend upon God to be our rock and redeemer, our refuge, our protections, our fortress?  

 I think we are more like the prophet Elijah where one day we are boldly standing up to hundreds of prophets of Baal and calling fire down from heaven, and the next day we are running through the desert hiding from our enemies.   One moment we are brave and saying “He is my refuge and fortress” and the next minute we are saying, “What am I going to do?  I’m in big trouble?  There’s nobody to help me!”  God tells us in verse 2 that He will be our refuge and fortress of protection. Verses 3 and 4 give the image of a bird providing shelter with its wings. They will be our shield.

 Think of a mother hen and her chicks.  The mother is seasoned and mature and has the instinct of experience, and is vigilant about her surroundings.  The chicks are weak, new to the world and the environment around them. 

 The chick is fragile and vulnerable just like we are in this great big world around us, but we are under God’s protection.  There is something soft, loving and safe about the mother-bird’s wings.    As the chicks bury their heads in the downy feathers of the mother’s underbelly, with the wings covering them from the outside threat, they are happy, content and secure. He says that we will be protected from dangers that are seen and unseen. Verse 5 talks about the terror of the night and the arrow that flies by day. The night hides dangers that try to creep up on you.

I remember in the movie that depicts Corrie Ten Boom called The hiding Place (We showed it here a couple years ago.)  Corrie was lying on her hard, labor camp bunk and silently whispering Psalm 91.  I’m guessing the night dangers were very real to her, but so was the love of God.  We have no reason to fear enemies who are covered by the night or those who strike during the day. God will protect us regardless of the scheme they have.

He goes on to say we should not fear plagues like famine, natural disaster, or anything that will threaten people or livestock. He is our shield. Verse 6 also mentions “pestilence that ravages at noon.”   This seems to be so far from our daily experience.  We don’t face this level of fear and physical danger.   Then I’m reminded of those whose lives were safe and secure, but then turned upside down by foreign invaders and war.   Here the psalmist is telling us that in Him we have a safe haven from thieves, wild animals, persecutors, and sicknesses. God is our refuge!

Verses 7-10 make references to disasters of epic proportion. Even though thousands will fall at our sides to catastrophe they will not harm those who seek refuge in God. They will not harm us.  God knows man cannot defend himself without help so He gives His angels the job of coming to watch over us.

An Englishman was a prisoner in a concentration camp in WWII. One day this young man read Psalm 91 and paused especially on verse seven: “though a thousand fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand, it will not come near you.”   He cried out to God, “Lord, people are dying all around me. Will I die here too? I am young and I still want to serve Your Kingdom while on this earth!”   At that moment the Lord spoke to him and said, “Rely on what you’ve just heard, and walk to your freedom.” The Englishman walked to the first gate.   The German soldiers aimed their guns at him and said, “Where do you think you’re going?” He looked up at them and said, “I’m under the protection of the Most High.”  The soldiers instantly straightened up, saluted, and let the man pass through the gate. The Englishman then came to the outer gate and the same thing happened again.  The soldiers aimed at him and asked him where he thought he was going.  When he explained that he was under the protection of the Most High, they too, straightened up, saluted and let him leave the prison camp. 

That young man traveled the countryside and made his way back to England. He later found out that the soldiers secretly referred to Hitler as ‘the most high.’ The Englishman, though, was truly under the protection of the Most High God. He was the only prisoner to come out of that prison camp alive. 

 This Psalm is as powerful to you and me as it was to Corrie Ten Boom, the Englishman who walked out of the camp, or even the Psalmist who wrote it. We can have confidence that although we might face all kinds of trouble, God is our fortress and strength. 

It was in an apple orchard between the French villages of Saint-Lo (Sah-lo) and Cherbourg, France.  The troops spent 48 hours in foxholes or trenches after landing at Normandy.   It was in that apple orchard while pulling guard duty that Norval Jacobs felt God’s presence.  Norval and another soldier would pass each other as they jointly patrolled the parameter.  At one point, Norval found the other guard, “Whitey”, with his gun at his feet and staring blankly and unresponsive due to battle fatigue. 

 Norval was scared.  I remember him describing this to me just as he has to many of you.  He called out to God for help, and he said that suddenly God was right there with him and God’s voice assured him that he was not alone.  He said his fears were suddenly gone.  He knew everything would be ok.

 You will not fear the terror of night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
    nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
    ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.


Standing Boldly/March 3, 2019

Second Baptist Lincoln
March 3, 2019
Standing Boldly 

II Cor. 3:12 to 4:2

12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate[a] the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 
Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

Recently we switched internet providers because of a constant problem we had with our previous internet company.  We use live stream TV rather than cable, and quite often when we watched something (not all of the time, but quite often), we would experience a fuzziness and pixilation of the images on TV. We’re watching a show and really into the plot, and suddenly, all you see are these fuzzy images where you can hardly recognize the characters.  It’s distracting and frustrating to watch. Since we switched to a different carrier, we have not had that problem.  It is so nice to have a clear picture. 

That seems to be the Apostle Paul’s message in today’s text.  His premises is, we can come boldly and joyfully to the throne of God and live in the presence of God because the fuzziness has gone away and we can see clearly. Rather than the word “Fuzziness” (which I doubt that word exists in the New Testament Greek), we see the word “Veiled”.  Look at verse 13  13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 

For just a minute of explanation, I want to take you back to the Old Testament passage Paul is referencing.  In Exodus 34:33, the concept of the “Veil” is explained. Moses had gone up to Mt. Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments from God.  Because he was in the presence of God, when he came down from the mountain with the tablets, his face was radiant. In fact, it was so radiant that it had a profound effect on the people. 

There are three significant things about Moses emanating the radiance of God: First, the sin of Israel was so profound (remember, they had been complaining and wishing they were back in Egypt, AND they had constructed a golden calf because God was not supreme enough for them). The contrast between Moses’ face and their sin was so stark that for him not to veil his face would mean their death. The second important fact is that Moses veiling his face was an act of mercy to the people. He was sparing them from immediate death.  Moreover, it was an act of Judgment.  The fact that he had to veil his face to spare them from death means that they were condemned and their sin was a serious factor. 

So from the very beginning of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, their sin was so serious that they were essentially SEPARATED from the very God who was saving them from slavery and death in Egypt. So that is the meaning of “veiled” in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  He is essentially telling the Corinthians (And this is meaning of my message this morning), that WE CAN COME BOLDLY BEFORE THE THRONE OF GOD, BECAUSE UNLIKE THE ISRAELITES, WE ARE REDEEMED BY THE BLOOD OF CHRIST.

Paul shares in Romans 8 “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[b] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The Israelites were condemned by their sin and their separation from God.  The Christ-follower has been set free from sin through the power of Christ – and no veil is necessary. With Christ as our mediator, we can stand boldly before God. 

We have to keep something in mind here.  Paul is dealing in part with the very same people Moses dealt with centuries earlier.  Moses was dealing with hard-hearted people who did not accept the worship and the covenant of God as sufficient. Paul is also dealing with Jewish people in the Roman world who continue to reject the covenant – this time the New Covenant. For centuries, Jewish prophets told of a Messiah who would come and issue a new covenant, a newfound freedom from sin. Like those who stood before Moses with their hardened heart, Paul also faced this same hard-hearted rejection by the Jews of his day.  In fact, it wasn’t long before, that PAUL was SAUL who went around persecuting the followers of Jesus.  He was one of the hard-hearted people who rejected the Messiah.

We live in an age where hardness of heart is prevalent.  People in our age tend to reject the gospel, are suspicious of the church, and downplay the miraculous.  Like in the time of Moses and Paul, the people of our culture are veiled from the things of God because of the stark contrast between their sin and God’s righteousness. The only reason we as followers of Christ can stand in the presence of a holy and righteous God is because Christ is our mediator.  Christ removes the veil so that we can stand in God’s presence.  

It doesn’t mean we understand all the things of God.  There is much that remains veiled to us.  I Corinthians 13 is the “Love Chapter”.  Toward the end of that passage in verse 12, it says, “Now we see but a poor reflection in a mirror, then I shall see face to face.  Now, I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

The disciples of Jesus, as they sat around the table at Passover, first thought that they were simply celebrating the age-old ritual feast of commemorating the Exodus from Egypt. But then Jesus began to gradually reveal to them the reality of his ministry and destiny.  “Take and eat, this is MY body.  Take and drink, this is MY blood.”  That night, the veil was lifted a little more as Jesus was taken into custody.   The next day, reality sank in completely as they saw him nailed to a cross.

And still, the veil was lifted more revealing the resurrection and the empty tomb.   He had eluded to it earlier in the week as he talked about the Temple being built up after three days – but that didn’t make much sense.  It did now. And still, the veil is being lifted a little more as he ascended into heaven leaving them behind.  A little more was revealed as the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost empowering them to be the church.

And those of us who now carry the torch or apostleship and ministry are somewhat behind a veil when we wonder and question when Christ will return to take his bride, the church. But even as the veil still hides some of what we don’t know – we can be assured that we can come boldly before his throne as Sons and daughters of God.   We belong to him and we are the result of his grace and redemptive power.   Let’s prepare our hearts for the table.   Amen.

The Voice of the Messenger

Luke 1:26-35      
Third Sunday in Advent   
  Dec. 16, 2018

 The Voice of the Messenger

2In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid,Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God.

Over the past few months, we have been studying about Angels in our Wednesday Bible studies.  The Bible describes several types of angels.  There are those that provide and protect, there are others who wage war on our spiritual enemies.

Yet there is one particular type of angel that is most popular and renown.  The MESSENGER.  The angel that went to Zechariah (Gabriel), the angel that went to both Mary and Joseph in separate instances.  And of course – the Angels who appeared to the shepherds on the outskirts of Bethlehem singing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and good will to men.” They announced that a baby had been born and that the shepherds should hurry to see this one who was born.  The presence of angels has become a major theme and symbol of Christmas.   

The voices of the angels hold such a prominent place, that I’ve includes them in this Advent Series of “Voices”.  Two weeks ago I focused on the ancient voices of the prophets the announced the need for salvation of all people. Last week, I talked about the “Voice of Creation” that cried out with groans, desiring to be renewed and redeemed after the Great Fall it took in Genesis chapter 3 when Adam and Eve sinned.  This morning, we bring it into the present – that is the present tense of the biblical narrative of Christ’s birth.  Into the lives of a carpenter and a maiden from Nazareth who were pledged to be married.  To each of them, appeared the angel.

The first encounter with the angel Gabriel comes in the passage we read this morning. There, Gabriel appears to Mary. We pick up the story in verse 26: In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

I like what the New Living Translation says about Mary next. In verse 29, it says: “Confused and disturbed (NO KIDDING!), Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.”  She was probably thinking, “Who are you and why are you here?” The angel Gabriel speaks to her again, and says, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” 

“Do not be afraid,” Gabriel said. Mary may have been frightened by the sighting of an angel, but there is probably more to it than that.  These words were preparing Mary for what was to follow—the announcement that God was calling her to do something that was completely out of the ordinary, something that would de-rail her life, possibly create a scandal, and leave her homeless and destitute. The fear lay in the dreams of a life about to be shattered by the call of God.  We might know that same feeling.  The feeling I had when God called me, and God called Grace.  Our plans were derailed.

Don’t be afraid when God calls you out of the ordinary circumstances of your life. Don’t be afraid for God to choose to use you to do something great to impact the world. Don’t be afraid because where God calls, God provides—God provides the resources we need.

The SECOND appearance of an angel appears in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 1. An unnamed angel appears to Joseph in a dream. Joseph has already gotten the news of Mary’s pregnancy, and he’s considering all the options. He can “put her away privately” (break up with her) or he could continue their relationship and risk the shame it might bring. As Joseph sleeps, the angel comes and says, “Do not be afraid to go ahead with your marriage to Mary.” Don’t be afraid. I can imagine as Joseph pondered the situation that things just appeared hopeless, but the angel’s announcement was a reminder that there was no reason for hopelessness. The angel reminded Joseph that what was happening was simply a fulfillment of God’s Word as found in the prophet Isaiah: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and he will be called Immanuel (meaning God is with us). It was the angel’s way of saying, “You’re right where God wants you to be. You may not like it, but this is God at work, revealing himself to this world.” The angel shared a message of encouragement. 

I am reminded that there is no such thing as a hopeless situation, there are only hopeless people. God can redeem any situation that life throws at us, and life can be pretty mean and unfair. You heard this last week, and you will hear it again.  Why?  Because we can’t talk about Advent without considering that it is about the redemption of a broken world. Guess what? Life is not fair. Because of sin, there are some things in life that are unjust. That doesn’t mean we don’t work to correct the injustice of life, but some things are just beyond our control. When life seems to be out of control, we need encouragement. We need to hear that we’re not alone, that we’re not forgotten, that God cares.

One day two people were out distributing loaves of bread in a low-income housing complex. They came to an apartment where they heard arguing through the door, but they decided to knock anyway. A man opened the door and asked what they wanted. One of the visitors said, "We don't want anything. We just wondered if you know anyone who could use some loaves of bread?" "Why are you doing that?" the man asked.  "Just to let people know that God loves them."  "What did you just say?" the man asked, rather anxiously.  "We're just handing out loaves of bread to let people know that God loves them.. The man stared and said, "I can't believe this. We just buried our three-week-old son yesterday, and now here you are at our door." The visitors offered to pray with them, and the couple accepted their offer. As they were leaving, and the door was being closed, they heard the husband say to his wife, "See, honey? I told you God cares. We thought he wasn't paying attention to us, but he sent those people here to make sure we knew."

The encouragement of God’s presence can transform our fear into hope.   Like a visit from an angel to Mary and then Joseph, God often makes visits to unsuspecting people through our presence. When we make ourselves available to God, he will place us where we need to be.  How can we say no when God puts us in certain situations? 

This past Monday morning, I dropped by The Bridge Behavioral Health center. We have been ministry partners with them for about 5 years.  We provide transportation for their clients to medical appointments every week. We (Bob Howe and I) have been doing Bible study there every Monday night for the past three months.  The attendance has been poor and many nights, nobody shows up.  I called Tammy (The director of The Bridge) and asked if we could put up posters on the bulletin board to promote the Bible Study.  So I walked in to hand her a few posters. As I entered the lobby, Tammy was having a conversation with one of the staff.  The staff person said, “But we don’t want to serve them ‘Jail Food’”  I had no idea what they were talking about.  I was minding my own business. As I was waiting for the elevator door to open so I could exit their conversation gracefully, Tammy turned to me and said, “Pastor Steve, what we are talking about is that we get our food from the Lancaster Detention Center.  We just believe on the holidays, it would be nice to serve them something a little more special.  We’re thinking maybe ordering out for Pizza.”

As I stepped onto the elevator, I knew right away that my family – and maybe Second Baptist Church would be serving Christmas Dinner to the Bridge this year.  I had thought that maybe I was interrupting the conversation of these two women.  I realized that God was interrupting the conversation.  I felt so strongly that there was a reason for me stepping off that elevator to hand those posters to Tammy at just that moment.  So at 12:00 noon on Christmas Day, we will be serving a meal to the clients at the Bridge.  Tammy and her family will help serve, too.If you are interested in preparing one of the dishes for the meal, please talk to me.

Like Mary and Joseph, we really don’t know when God is going to step into our world and call on us to extend ourselves beyond the comfortable.  There are MANY stories of people being surprised by God.  This Advent season, let Christ be born in us in new ways. Let Christ be born through us as we sing of God’s salvation, offering God’s encouragement and extending God’s grace to all who live bound by the fears of this life. We are the instruments of Grace in the lives of people around us – whether it is weak and struggling family members, or clients at The Bridge – God uses us to reveal himself to others.

If we don’t sing the song of the angels, no one else will. I really don’t see myself as an angel, and I’m sure not many other people do, but that doesn’t change the fact that I have a song to sing, and it is the angels song.  How will we be messengers bearing Good News?  How will God use us to be his mouthpiece of peace on earth, and goodwill to all humankind?  AMEN

Gains and Losses/October 7, 2018

Second Baptist Oct. 7, 2018
Gains and Losses 

Philippians 3:1-11

Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence.If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

I belong to an investment club.  That doesn’t mean I have any money to invest, but it is a joint venture of anywhere from a dozen to twenty people who pool their money into investments, meet once a month for lunch, and generally have a good time seeing what their money is or isn’t doing. The gist of our conversation each month is about “Gains and losses.”  Sometimes we have pretty good months, other times we see our bottom line shrink.  Nobody gets terribly worked up over it, in fact, it is quite common for us to laugh and joke about investing in a certain company figuring we will do so until we go broke.

The truth of it is, life is made up of gains and losses.  How many times have I heard people say something like, “My grandson was born the same year my husband died.  It seems that that is the way it happens.  Life comes and it goes.”   We have gains and losses in our day-to-day lives. The loss of a job might bring opportunity for something new and exciting.  As Christians, we sometimes recognize that God closes one door of ministry opportunity, but then opens another door.  Gains and losses.   We are surrounded by them.

In today’s text, it is no different.  Paul recognizes that in his own life, there needs to be some losses in order for there to be gains.  However, Paul puts a little different twist on it.  He states in verses 7-8:  But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.  He is talking about priorities.  All the things the world thinks are important is rubbish compared to the matchless grace of Christ.   He is talking about his reputation as a good Jewish Pharisee adept at interpreting the law – All RUBBISH.  His status as being from the tribe of Benjamin – ALL RUBBISH.   A zealous persecutor of Christians – all rubbish.

Let’s put this in context.  Paul begins this section of his letter to Philippi by warning them not to be swayed by those who would deceive them into believing that they had to go back to their former system of Jewish belief.  Circumcision and dietary laws were the way to be a good Jew. 

Paul should know.  Look at his words here: “If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews….”   He goes on to say that he was a Pharisee.  Nobody keeps the law like a Pharisee.   However, he then takes us back to the central focus of the gospel.  It’s not keeping all the “dos and don’t”.  Here it  says, But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.”

We can apply this to today’s church as well.  Is serving the poor important?  YES, but not without the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ. Is our church building important?  Yes, but not without the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ. Paul is basically saying, if you leave the centrality of Christ out of anything we do as a congregation or as an individual, it is nothing but rubbish.  It becomes meaningless, worthless, trash.  

Today is World Communion Sunday.  I always commemorate this day which is Celebrated annually on the first Sunday of October.  It is exciting to me to think that all over the world on this Sunday, Christians of every language, every continent, and every ethnicity is gathered at the table to celebrate the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ.

 This table represents exactly what Paul is talking about, which is regarding Jesus Christ who came down from heaven and entered the world as a human being.  This table represents his sacrifice and death, and his universal offer of redemption to those who would believe.  This table represents the unity of those from around the world who worship, speak and live differently – but are focused on the surpassing worth of Jesus Christ. This thought gives me goosebumps.  Christians around the world are doing the same thing with the same purpose in mind, to honor and worship Christ.  People all over the world are gathering at the table in a spirit of agape love. For these moments, we put aside everything else as “Rubbish”, and Jesus Christ is our central focus and primary day-to-day pursuit.   Amen


Finding Joy in Suffering/August 26, 2018

Second Baptist Church
Aug. 26, 2018
(Wow!  My 9th Anniv. of being here!)

Finding Joy in Suffering

Philippians 1:12-26

12 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters,[a] that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard[b] and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.
15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.[c20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.

There was a girl in our youth group when I was growing up who fancied herself as a gifted evangelist.  She would carry her Bible and get in people’s faces at some rather strange and odd times.  At a sporting event.  In a store on main street. She was perceived to be a pest and rather pushy and intrusive.  People did not respond well to her aggressive behavior.  They got away from her, and sometimes even told her off.  She lost friends.  Adults avoided her. She would sometimes say, “People are persecuting me for the sake of Christ.  But I’m content and happy.”  And I kept thinking to myself as she was saying that, “No, you are not being persecuted, you are being obnoxious to people and they are pushing back.”

As we enter the second week of this study on Philippians, we once again read about Paul’s deep feelings for this favorite church.  He is talking about his witness and sharing his faith with those with whom he encounters. Some Bible Scholars believe that there is much more to these words than Paul describes.  Secure jail cells were not common.  Sometimes a prisoner like Paul would be thrown into a pit and it covered with some kind of wooden cage. Other times, it may have been a cave with simple steel bars across the front.  Probably in every case, there was a Roman soldier or guard posted. In some cases, there was no confinement at all.  No bars, no walls, but the prisoner was chained to a guard, essentially making them both a prisoner.

That was the case for Paul in Rome in what was shared from chapter 1 of Philippians. In Acts  28:30-31, the very last words of the Book of Acts, we read “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.  31  Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul was in that type of “prison” where he was not confined, but rather under house arrest – but was in chains and under guard. Some scholars believe that these guards were regular Roman troops who would serve a time as a guard, but would also be sent out into the far reaches of the Roman Empire either to fight wars or to serve as an occupational force. While they were in the presence of Paul, he would preach to them.  Paul was the prisoner, but so was the guard.  Paul would share Christ and the guard would have no choice but to listen. They might have been a little like the girl in my youth group who was an annoyance to those around her.  Paul was likely intrusive and annoying to the guards, but in the end, they recognized his sincerity and his clear and logical argument. They would accept Christ, and later be transferred to an outlying area in the Empire where they would witness and share Christ as both a soldier of Rome and a soldier of the cross. Rather than being housed as a common criminal, he lived in this rented dwelling, but he was in chains.  Chains were not only a means to restrain someone, but they were also seen as an object of shame.

I remember sitting in a doctor’s office and in the door came an officer in uniform and a person in an orange jumpsuit and in hand cuffs and shackles on the ankles. The prisoner was there to see the doctor, and glanced around the room lowering his eyes as he realized people were staring.  Those restraints reminded the public that this was a person guilty of a crime and was now serving a sentence for their crime. 

But Paul seems to take great pride in his chains.  He didn’t wear the chains of a criminal, but rather he saw his chains as reminding the world that he is a bondservant of Jesus Christ.   His chains meant his devotion and complete surrender to Christ.  They were a daily reminder that his life was not his own. In fact, in verse 14, he says, “And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.” Paul saw his chains, not as a shame or embarrassment, but as a statement of boldness and passion for the gospel, so that others would be influenced and emboldened by his imprisonment. 

The gist of my message today, is that in the midst of Paul’s shame, suffering, and confinement – he is experiencing nothing but JOY and HOPE.   Most believe that he even knew that he would soon be put to death. We are also reminded in verse 13 that even the Palace Guards knew and respected him.  Paul endeared himself to many of the Roman officials.  Although his preaching was against the law and punishable by death, those who arrested him, interrogated him, and confined him also respected and appreciated his sincerity and demeanor. Paul mentions in verse 13 “It has become clear throughout the whole Palace Guard.”  The Palace Guard is the Praetorian Guard in the New American Standard Bible and a few other translations. 

The word in the gospels to describe Pontius Pilate’s building or abode.  Interestingly enough, Pilate had a real respect for Jesus the same way the Praetorian Guard respected Paul.   Jesus spoke and presented himself as one with authority and honor, and Paul behaved much the same way. While the Praetorian Guard had respect for Paul, it wasn’t always so with the people who supposedly were followers of Christ, and this hurt Paul deeply.  Apparently, some members of the Roman congregation (Not Philippi), did not like the notoriety Paul had generated. Apparently, they were jealous of his fame.  They respected his greatness so much that they wanted to be great like him, and it turn into jealousy. It seems like their jealousy became their motivation and drive to share the gospel with people.  I found this to be kind of weird, but then I thought about church leadership today.

I’ve met with a lot of pastor’s groups over the years, and the worst kind are those where the pastors sit around and compare numbers.  “Our worship attendance has blossomed to 600 in worship.  We are really having a space problem.  Might have to build.”  And then to make it sound spiritual, they conclude their boasting with “Glory to God.”  I always want to say, “No, glory to you.”   And there is envy among churches, and this envy drives the leaders to work that much harder so that they can keep out ahead of the others.

Do you know what Paul’s response to that is?  Look at verse 18.  “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,” What does it matter?  Even through their impure and jealous motives, God will be glorified.  Oh I wish I could look at it that way. I wish I could remember that it is the work of the holy spirit in people’s lives, not our weak, stumbling, ill-intentioned methods that bring the gospel into the hearts of people.

In the following section beginning in the latter part of verse 18, we get a look at Paul’s joy and contentment.  “Yes, and I will continue to rejoice...”   Verse 20 he says,  “So that now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body.” Verse 21:  “For me to live is Christ, but to die is gain.”  We cling to life with all our strength and medical knowledge.  We want to live as long as possible with an increasing quality of life as we age. We protect ourselves with every safety device and life-saving measure.  Our focus is on this earth, but it seems Paul has cast his glaze beyond this big blue ball.  Verse 21 is basically saying, “Meh,  life is something I can take or leave.  While I’m here I want to serve Christ, but what I’m really waiting for is dessert. 

After this meal is done, there is that sweet delight that awaits us. Like Fannie Crosby’s hymn Saved by Grace.

Someday the silver cord will break,
And I no more as now shall sing;
But, oh, the joy when I shall wake
Within the palace of the King!

And I shall see Him face to face,
And tell the story—Saved by grace.

The apostle wasn’t sure what he really wanted.  He says, “But what shall I choose?  I do not know!  I am torn between the two. Paul sense is impending death, and it didn’t bother him.  He was ready.  Yet he also recognized that maybe God was ready for him to make that transition from life to eternal life. He tells his readers at Philippi, “But it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”  His job wasn’t finished yet.

May we live with this kind of hope and expectation.  May we live with this kind of joy, knowing that no matter what happens to us day by day, it’s not really about this life, is it? We may not be suffering as the result of our faith, but we are suffering as the result of our aging and deterioration of these bodies.  We may be suffering because of family or work problems.  We might even feel the emotional pain of others attacking our character like those who envied Paul. Yet at the core of this existence, there is hope.  And may that hope bring joy.  AMEN.

 Second Baptist Lincoln
August 19, 2018

Great Affection

Philippians 1:1-11
1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons[a]:2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanksgiving and Prayer
3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. 8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

The Civil War documentary series by Ken Burns came out nearly 30 years ago.  One of the most moving segments was a letter written by Solomon Ballou to his wife Sarah.   It was the epitome of love letters as he seemed to have a strong sense of his impending death on the battle field. In one place, he writes, “If I do not [return], my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name. "

Most of us from other generations have written a love letter. I’m guessing that more than a few of you have received a love letter in your life.  Grace and I sent love letters back and forth when we spent a year apart back in college. That was at least a decade before the internet, and nearly as long before free long distance phone calls that come with having a mobile phone.  So at least once, often times twice a week, we would sit down and write, her in Tennessee and me in North Dakota, and express our love for one another. I wonder what love notes look like today?  “Hey Nichole, you’re awesome.  #loveyouforever.

This morning we begin a short series on the book of Philippians, one of my favorite books.  Paul writes the most flattering, affectionate, love letter to this church.   We see right away in his opening words that he has a special relationship with this church. It would be hard for you and me to be as perky and joyful as Paul was throughout this book, considering he was in prison.  Most scholars think he wrote this from a jail in Rome, but there is no way to confirm the exact location. This is an important passage of scripture because it not only gives us a window into Paul’s love for the Philippian church, but it also demonstrates to us how we should regard one another.

This is an ideal conversation that we see here.  Truly, it is a love letter of the Agape type.  Agape, meaning Christian, spirit-filled, God-inspired, ultimate and total LOVE. It is important to us, because this is our ideal type of love for this church.  Honestly, it’s what I see every day as your pastor.  It hasn’t always been this way.  There have been times of conflict and even what I would call a “negative spirit and influence.” But that is not what I see today.  When it comes to division and disunity, I can honestly say, “not anymore.”   So this greeting that Paul has for his church can truly come from my heart and your heart.

Paul did not have this same regard for other congregations.  They were dealing with some serious “stuff”.  Cult worship and disunity and even jealousy in the Corinthian church. The Ephesian church had issues with false apostles (Rev 2:2) and at some point began to lose their first love of Christ (Rev 2:41 Tim 1:5). They had regular struggles against false doctrines (1 Tim 1:31 Tim 4:11 Tim 4:71 Tim 6:3-51 Tim 6:20-212 Tim 2:16,23, ). They also (like all churches) had a number of pastoral issues to face and one of which was young widows with not enough to do who had been particularly prone to false teaching (1 Tim 5:132 Tim 3:6-7). The Galatian church was giving up the Grace of Christ and returning to their Jewish legalistic doctrine of law.  

The church at Philippi was not without struggles, but they seemed to have handled them with wisdom and grace.  They were under the severe threat of persecution, something Paul could identify with since he himself is in prison.  The did have the threat of False Teachers, but again, they seemed to deal with it with wisdom and the false teachers did not gain influence. And they even had some disunity.  Two women didn’t seeme to be able to agree on anything, so Paul addresses it in chapter 4, verse 2.   The two women were told by Paul in this letter, “I plead with Euodia and Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.”  He then asks the other members to help these women come into agreement with one another.

Let’s return to the greeting and let’s see what it says.  He addresses them as “Saints”.  We get the idea from popular culture of our day, that a saint is someone who has reached some level of “goodness”. We get the image of a “halo” above their head.  We use it in common speech saying, “He’s a real saint for taking care of her for all these years.”  That’s not the meaning of the word at all.  It simply means, “Someone who is ‘set apart’ as a follower of Christ.” I am a saint, you are a saint, and we can call each other saints.  We have been set apart for God’s use.  We are no longer people of this realm, but people of the heavenly realm, as Clay Ford talked about a few weeks ago.  

Next, Paul offers thanksgiving for the Saints at Philippi.  They have added to his life and they have enriched the work of the Kingdom of God.   We ought to be grateful for one  another in this sanctuary this morning,  Each has enriched our lives.  It would take me hours to stand up here and individually call out the people who have enriched my life over the past nine years. You may not be aware of how you have been a blessing to others, but they know it.  So Paul’s words are a general thanks to God for those who have been a blessing to him. 

And Paul also reminds them that he prays for them.  I hesitate to say this, because I’m afraid he might quit doing it if I mention it.  But every Monday morning, Craig Erickson prays for Grace and me. I love it.  I cherish it.  My grandmother used to pray for me every morning when I began ministry.  I faced every day with confidence because I knew my grandmother was praying for me.  We ought to always pray for one another. Last week, I handed out books to the parents.  I ordered some more in case some of the grandparents might want to pray for their grandchildren.  Maybe some of the middle age adults like myself, might want to pray for their young adult children. But I believe in the power of prayer and how we ought to pray for one another.

Paul says that he is in “partnership” with them.   I like the word partner.  The Greek word here, however, is not partnership, but the word “Koinonia” that I used in last week’s sermon. Now I am not a pastor that expects you to learn Greek.  My Greek skills are nearly non-existent.  But if there are two words in the Greek I would want you to know, it would be the words “Agape” and “Koinonia.”  Agape is the special kind of spirit-filled love we have for one another.   “Koinonia” is the result of that spirit-filled love.   Koinonia is the special spirit-filled FELLOWSHIP we have together. 

Paul is really feeling it.  He has experienced that “Koinonia” or “fellowship” with the people at Philippi, and he is expressing it to them.  The translators use the word “partnership” in the NIV and “Fellowship” in the King James.  The New American Standard says “participation in the gospel”. He is reminding them that they are united in their mission of sharing Christ.  They are bound together by the spirit in order to be fellowship workers.  We get the idea sometime that we come to church as an individual being. That somehow, we are a group of independent worshipers. I don’t believe that. I believe something happens when we walk through the door and gather in this place.  We become a single unit, bound together by the spirit of Christ.  We become co-laborers. 

This is not unique to the church.  When you walk into your workplace, you join with other workers to become a single workplace.  You are not an isolated person in your own family.  Your presence there helps form a family unit. Scott Frost will likely tell you, that the most devastating thing for a a football team, is to have a bunch of single individuals positioned out on that field, each one trying to gain fame and success for themselves. What he wants is to form a team, a single unit,  rather than a group of individuals.

Yet there is something unique about the unity and fellowship of a church congregation that differs from all those other units.   Koinonia implies a spiritual unity under the power and dominion of the Holy Spirit.  Charles Spurgeon, the 19th century English evangelist and pastor said, Some Christians try to go to heaven alone, in solitude. But believers are not compared to bears or lions or other animals that wander alone. Those who belong to Christ are sheep in this respect, that they love to get together. Sheep go in flocks, and so do God’s people.”

In verse 7, Paul justifies his love for the people at Philippi.  “It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart…”   This is heartfelt.  This is real.  He carries them in his heart wherever he goes. Finally, he ends with a prayer for the Philippians.  “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” This is truly a discipleship prayer.  Paul is both BEING an alongsider and showing them HOW to be an alongsider.  He is praying that they will grow into the knowledgeable and insightful followers of Jesus who will be DEPENDANT upon the Holy Spirit, but INDEPENDANTLY useful and productive in the church.

We have Bible study on Sunday mornings, Wednesday mornings and evenings, and I teach Gods word from the pulpit.   We don’t do this so that you will know more names and details about things that happened anywhere from 2000 to 6000 years ago. We teach and learn so that we can have the ability to discern decisions, behaviors, and insights in our own lives.  Abraham was faithful, so we ought to be faithful.  Moses was used by God, and we can be used by God.  Paul spoke with boldness, so we should speak with boldness.These characters are living (or at least previously living) examples of how we should. So Paul praying that the people of Philippi will have more knowledge and insight, is something we should seek.  “Lord, help us to know you more.  Lord, help us discern your will,  Lord, help us to teach others to know you..”  Amen

Second Baptist Church
August 12, 2018

As a Matter of Fact, you ARE a Missionary

Matthew 9:9-13
John 4:39-42

Matthew 9:9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’[a] For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

John 4:39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

This past Tuesday, I sat in a restaurant with a group of pastors and Gideon (Laymen).  It was a time of both thanking and showing appreciation to pastors, and also updating pastors on the ministry of the Gideons. The speaker was sharing about the ministry, and in the course of his comments, he said, “The Gideons is not about handing out Bibles.”   That got my attention.  I’ve been around Gideons since I was a child.   I thought I knew what they were all about. I remember receiving a Gideon New Testament when I was a kid.  I remember them giving their testimonials from the pulpit when my father served.   I was SURE the Gideons were about passing out Bibles. He continued, “Gideons aren’t about passing out testaments, they are  about openly sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with people everywhere.”   Of course.  The Bible isn’t the end result.  The Bible is not the act of Grace we all need.  The bible is the book, the source, the word, the message – that leads us to the point of decision and understanding, whereby we accept God’s grace.

I would like to believe that each of you here has invited Christ to come into your life.  It is my hope that along the way, you recognized a need in your life that could not be reconciled or fixed without God’s forgiveness and grace. I don’t give an invitation every Sunday, inviting you to accept Christ.  I also don’t assume that each of you have made that decision to follow Christ. 

In our texts this morning (there were two of them), you notice Jesus befriending a man and a woman.  The first was Jesus meeting Matthew the tax collector. What we know about his is very little, but enough to know that he would not have been very popular. He was the guy who was responsible for collecting taxes for the Roman occupying government.  He would likely have taken advantage of the people and charged them more than was due – just so he could keep some for himself. Let me put it in these terms so that we can understand the extent of his unpopularity.  We all remember the anti-Wall Street protests.  It was called “Occupy Wall Street.”  It began in September of 2011 in a park near the Wall Street Financial District. People pitched tents, beat drums, gave speeches and staged a sit-in that lasted for many months. Much of it was brought on by the fact that Wall Street had taken a big plunge back in 2008, it became evident that Wall Street traders and investors were benefiting off the backs of the poor.  That’s what it was in a nutshell.

So, if we could transport Matthew into modern times, he would have been the Wall Street executive with the 3-piece-suit, the car and driver, the Multi-million dollar salary and the house in the Hamptons. That was Matthew.  People disliked him because he gained off the backs of the poor and common citizens.  Yet Jesus chose him, reached out to him, and attended a gathering at HIS house. In fact, we can see this passage as Matthew’s personal testimony.  This is the story of Matthew from the Gospel of Matthew.  There was Matthew, sitting at the tax collector’s booth, and Jesus walked up to him and said, “Follow Me”.  Matthew got up and followed him.  They had dinner at Matthew’s house. Many other Wall Street executives, hedge fund managers, IRS Agents, and real estate tycoons were gathered there (Pardon my modern extraction of this passage).  There may have been some prostitutes, thieves and slave owners there, too.  We don’t know.

This did not go unnoticed by the always-attentive Pharisees who kept a vigilant eye on Jesus.  The Pharisees asked the disciples, “Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners.”I love Jesus’s response when he overheard their question. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’[a] For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” In essence: “I haven’t come to bring comfort to the good Christian by only focusing on their needs and blessings.  I have not come to occupy the church building.  I have come to bring spiritual health and life to the sinner.”

There is a second person who we will focus on in John 4.  Someone else who Jesus connected with, and demonstrated his LOVE. The woman at the well was another hated woman, at least in the eyes of the Jews. She had several marks against her.  Just as it set the Pharisee off (the Jewish religion leaders), to see Jesus have supper with Matthew, it would also bother them to see Jesus conversing with this woman.The Jews disliked the Samaritans.  It went back several centuries to the time of the divided Kingdom when Northern Kingdoms containing Samaria were separated from the Southern Kingdoms containing Judea.  Both established a religious place of worship and both thought the other was an apostasy. Furthermore, the Jews did not consider it appropriate for a man talking to a strange woman about theology and the deeper things of life. Jesus seemed to know all about her.  Her struggles, her shattered, relationships, her religious background, and even what she thought (even before she expressed it.)And in the end, Jesus offers her living water.  The water that completely satisfies, a metaphor for the saving power of Christ, eternally connecting her to God the father through the power of the Holy Spirit.

So two personalities – a man and a woman – who came in contact with Jesus.  Jesus didn’t know them before.   This wasn’t a set-up.  It was a chance encounter that led to a deeper encounter.  Jesus took someone who was an outsider and made them an insider.  They were outside societies idea of a moral and good person.  They were outside of Jesus’ circle of acquaintances.  By loving and accepting them, they were drawn in to the inner circle of relationship.  They became an insider.

This final installment in this study of the alongsider concludes with the concept of making insiders. The early church knew how to do this, but something has gone terribly wrong.In the early church, they met in homes.  Often it was in the courtyard of a wealthier member.  The Christian household were extended family, often with slaves or servants (Acts 1:31-34). Christianity was outlawed and Christians were frequently put to death.  So public places of worship didn’t exist.   This made for something the Bible describes as “Koinonia”, a Greek word that means intimate fellowship.  They shared their possessions.  The groups were composed of both rich and poor, converted Jews and gentiles. In Judea, the early church met in the Temple court.  It was a place of prayer and community.

What are some ways that our congregation can practice community and love among lost people?   That is a question that we should be constantly praying about. Our questions and prayers should not  be about “Lord, how can we maintain this congregation?  Lord, how can we make the people of this church happy?    Lord, how can I get people to come through our door and worship with us?”   There is nothing biblical about those three questions. They do not in any way reflect the kingdom message that Jesus left us with.  He did not say COME, he said GO.  Go into all the world.  Expecting the world to come to us is not what Jesus had in mind. 

The mission is to become “insiders” with people.  Become their friend.  Get to know their heart.  Listen. It’s what Jesus did, and it’s how people knew they were loved and valued. A man hated by all for his reputation as a tax collector.  A woman despised by the culture around.  Both were expecting Jesus to shun them, curse them, revile them. Instead, he shared a meal with the man, and offered living water to the women, knowing she would never thirst again for the things she always wanted.  AMEN.


Deep Involvement/July 8, 2018

Second Baptist Church Lincoln
July 8, 2018
Deep Involvement  

John 13:5-17
5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

Recently, we held our State Convention here in our church building.  It was a fun event and we had some excellent speakers. Prior to the convention, the pastors had a one-day seminar with Lee Spitzer.  He spoke on an area of relationships that I suspect he also spoke about at First Baptist years ago when he pastored there. He spoke on friendships.  He broke it down into various levels of friendship.  He asked the group to evaluate their own friendships, and he asked the question, “How many would you include in your closest circle of friends.?”  I thought about it a while, and it was very hard to evaluate how close some of the relationships really are.
I was hard-pressed to come up with even a small list, based upon the level of friendship Lee was describing.  Someone I would share my deepest thoughts.  Someone I would share what is really important to me.  Someone with whom I would confide over my greatest struggles. As I looked around the room, I realized I wasn’t alone.  

If I were to ask you the same questions Lee asked that morning, I think I would get a similar response.  Most of us do fine when it comes to casual friendship and what we would call “Acquaintances.”    It is safe to keep people at an arm’s length.  If something happens to jeopardize the friendship, there is a much easier exit from a casual friendship.  So we end up having many more casual relationships, and very few (if any) deep, rich, and abiding relationships.  

You will recall that we are in the midst of a sermon series on “Becoming an Alongside.”  It comes from the book, “The Ways of the Alongsider” by Bill Mowry. We are on point number six of becoming an alongsider, and today’s sermon is about “going deep” into a friendship. Three of the six lessons have been about relationships.  That shows how important relationships are in this whole process. For the sake of review, an alongsider is “a growing Christian who comes long side a newer or weak Christian to help bring them into a deeper and closer relationship with Christ.” Today, we are looking at the importance of relationships moving to a deeper level.  
Most often, we talk about relationships moving to a deeper level when it comes to romantic love such as marital relationships. However,  this is also true of the Agape love (Love that comes from God.)  It too, needs to move to a deeper level. Let’s look what is happening in the 13th chapter of John.  Jesus has just gathered  in the upper room with his disciples.  He strips off his outer garment and kneels down and begins to wash his disciples feet. In that culture, this is the act of a servant toward the master of the house or any guests that enter.  The disciples were clearly confused by his actions.  Peter said, “Lord, I will never let you wash my feet.”  And Jesus replied, “Then you will have no part of me.”

What Jesus is doing here, is teaching them to be a servant.  They are probably under the impression, that Jesus is this great healer, great teacher, great ruler, and is clearly the Son of God.  So if that’s the case, and they are his immediate followers (his inner circle), That they carry with them a pretty high status.  They have a pretty good position of power being this close to the almighty. And Jesus takes them down a few notches as he demonstrates what a real master is  -- he’s a servant.  He takes on the role of a common household slave. And just in case they missed it, he does a little debriefing session. He asks them, “Do you know what it is that I have done here?” He wants to know if they really caught it. “You call me master and Lord, let’s see if you are willing to follow my example.  Now wash each other’s feet.”

The University of Sioux Falls has a path for their student body that includes being a servant.  Service is taught in the classroom through the curriculum, it is taught on the athletic field through sportsmanship.  It is taught through the various disciplines and career choices. So in the middle of campus, is this statue. Jesus washing his disciple’s feet.  It stands as a reminder to the students as they walk from class-to-class what their role in life is.  To be a servant. Be a servant to others. Being an alongsider to others is not assuming a position of power and influence over them by being their superior. It is coming alongside someone and becoming their servant, so that as he mature into a disciple of Jesus,  he will have witnessed real humility and service.  He will then be prepared to offer his life as a sacrifice of service to others. 

There’s a couple things we need to know about the relationships of being an alongside. First, it is RISKY.  When we enter into the AGAPE love of spiritual friendship, there is a closeness that entails honesty and transparency. We may reveal things about ourselves that is humiliating and private, making us vulnerable.  Yet when we build trust, it often requires us to be this vulnerable.  Sometimes that trust is broken. So essentially, we are confiding and providing information to someone who may or may not break our trust.  That is why being an alongsider is risky.  

The second thing we need to know about being an alongsider is that we need to be an excellent listener.  Close our mouths and open our ears. Bill Mowry gives an acronym C-A-R-E as a guide to understand how to converse and listen to someone else.  Here it is:  C is for Be Concerned.   Imagine if we tried to have a relationship with someone we were indifferent about.  We really didn’t care about them all that much.Their outcome and success was irrelevant to us.  We had no feelings for them one way or another.   Imagine it was that way in the course of a spiritual relationship.  We don’t really care whether they believe Christ is Lord.  We feel like their decision to follow Jesus is no business of ours. It would be hard to be an alongsider with that level of apathy.  Concern only happens when we put aside our own self-interest and focus on someone else.   

The second one is “A” for Ask questions.  Concern starts when we are curious and want to know more about another person.  It is the opposite of apathy to ask questions and delve deeper into the life of another person. Sometimes we think we are being intrusive and nosy to ask those questions.  But mostly, asking questions is a sign that we are deeply interested and care about someone else.  Those questions also draw us into a deeper relationship with that person.

Thirdly is “R”.  Remember what is said in a conversation.  When we remember what is important to that other person, it shows we really care, and it gives us perspective about who they are.  Why ask a question, only to immediately forget what the person tells us. If they share prayer request, a funny story, an important detail of their past, or details of his or her family background – this all helps us to deepen the relationship and form a stronger agape bond.

Finally, “E”.  Engage in action.  You know that old saying, “Talk is cheap?”   Well, if we really care about someone, we are willing to step up and help them where it is most needed. It might be helping financially, help with a home project, a text message or email letting them know you care and inquiring how things are going.

I’ve thrown a lot of things at you today, but it all comes back to deepening the relationships so that there is a strong bond of Christ between you and that other person. Keep in mind, that Jesus didn’t appear to sit around and talk about the weather.  When he talked with the Woman at the Well, he went to deeper levels of conversation.  Today’s scripture is the beginning of a long dialogue between Jesus and his disciples that lasts for several chapters.  It was the night before his crucifixion and he knew that his time was limited.  He had a lot to say and they had a lot to learn.  Those are good examples of the depth of a relationship and what it takes to form a bond of deep and caring love.  AMEN

Nothing Without Prayer/June 24, 2018


Second Baptist Church
Week FOUR in the Way of the Alongside
June 24, 2018

Nothing Without Prayer

Mark 1:35-39     
35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”

38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

How is your prayer Life? How often do you pray?  Why do you pray?  Questions like these force us to examine our prayer life. If you are like most people you wish you could be better at communicating with God. Prayer is one of God’s greatest gifts to his people yet it is often reduced to blessings at meals and praying for our health and the health of our family and friends. Someone has said, “Many people pray as if God were a big aspirin pill; they come only when they hurt.” God wants our prayers to be so much more than prayer for our food and health. Prayer is more than mere communication.  It is our spiritual connection to our creator and redeemer.  Prayer has played a vital role in the lives of people.  It carried Abraham Lincoln through the darkest period in American history.  He said, “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had absolutely no other place to go.” Martin Luther King Jr; “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” What are people praying for today?  Many of us are praying for the situation down on the southern border and the children and adults it affects.  Others of you are praying for weather, health, family problems, finances, jobs, and various other concerns that occupy our minds.

So how did Jesus pray?   According to his prayer in John 17, he didn’t pray like we pray.  He did not pray for anyone’s health.  He did not pray for his disciple’s happiness.   He did not pray for finances.  He did not pray for success. Here is what he prayed for:
a.      That I may glorify you
b.     That others may know you.
c.      Now glorify me
d.     For the believers
e.      The father and son are one
f.       I’m coming to you
g.      Protection from the evil ones
h.     Truth of the word.
i.       Those who will believe
j.       That all will believe

His prayer was a lot different than mine.  Mine is about helping me get through the week.  Helping me with my soar muscles.  Helping my family.  No, I don’t pray like Jesus.  But maybe that should change.

This morning’s message is the fourth in a series about becoming “An Alongsider.”  It is the fourth in a 10-part series. I shared in the  Midweek this week that the ministry of the Alongsider is derived from the Greek concept of paraclesis, meaning, "a calling to one's side, and active helper or counselor."  The Holy Spirit (Paraclete) is the ultimate Alongsider, but so are we called to come alongside others to help them become a disciple of Jesus. It is the act of discipleship.  So this series of messages is about making disciples.

The first sermon was about how Jesus called amateurs to serve him in making disciples.  All of us here are qualified to come alongside someone else and help them grow in their faith. The second sermon was about keeping the first commandment and exercising real, genuine agape love as we lead others on a path of growth. The third, last week, was about the importance of being intentional in leading others on a path of growth.  We don’t sit back and wait, but we identify and seek a relationship with another person and help them grow in their faith. Today’s lesson on becoming an alongsider reminds us of the very important role prayer has in making disciples. 

If there was some order of importance, today’s theme should have been first, but I don’t think they were arranged in order of important and priority. So this morning, I want to talk about prayer and how it is important in this process of becoming an alongsider.  It seems we have strayed when it comes to understanding the purpose, value and power of prayer. As the Hebrew writer said, Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, so that we will not grow weary and lose heart.  I believe we grow weary when we do not pray as we should.

 In Mark’s gospel, Jesus teaches us two important principles regarding prayer. In our passage this morning, we see that “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” Jesus’ prayer life was intentional.  Just like I said last week about becoming an alongsider and how we need to be intentional about. Jesus did not pray by accident, no Jesus prayed intentionally.

Mark goes into great detail to describe the intentional prayer life of Jesus. He set aside time to pray.  I think Jesus awoke before daybreak because He wanted to avoid the distractions that would come from people, events and duties. Jesus understood the value of time therefore he arose early – making it a priority to spend time in prayer. Don’t get me wrong.  Jesus is not setting forth a command to rise early in the morning to pray, however he is demonstrating a wise principle of being intentional with our prayer life.

Jesus set apart a place to pray.   Not only did he wake up early for the purpose of prayer, Jesus made it a point to find a place to pray. Mark says he left the house and went off to a solitary place.   The amplified Bible calls it a deserted place – the implication it was a place where Jesus could go to avoid the distractions of the stuff of life. Closing out the distractions is the key to communication with God. Unfortunately it is becoming more and more difficult to do this in our hi-tech culture. TV offers us 24 hour programming, the internet offers us constant information and our cell phones give us instant access to everyone who has a phone. While Jesus faced the demands of people in public, we face the demands of people with constant communication. With so much access it is no wonder we cannot hear from God today. To develop a prayer life like Jesus, we all need a solitary place where we can meet God. A private place gives us access to God and helps us to be accountable to our prayer time. When we go to that place we hold ourselves and others accountable to our prayer time.

The Early African converts to Christianity were serious about private devotions. Each one reportedly had a separate spot in the thicket where he would pour out his heart to God. Over time the paths to these places became well worn. As a result, if one of these believers began to neglect prayer, it was soon apparent to the others in the village. They would kindly remind the negligent one, "Brother, the grass grows on your path." May we all have a place to go for prayer that is worn because we have been there often. 

We also find that Jesus’ prayer life gave him clarity.  Note in Mark 1:36-39 “Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: "Everyone is looking for you!"  Jesus replied, "Let us go somewhere else, to the nearby villages, so I can preach there also. That is why I have come." So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. Jesus quickly tells them he has other plans - "Let us go somewhere else, to the nearby villages, so I can preach there also. That is why I have come." To the disciples it was about being with the people, but to Jesus it was about being with the father. The father set the mission, not the disciples. When you spend time with the father you will have clarity about what is important and what is urgent. Jesus knew the only way to find the source of direction, inspiration and courage to do what is essential is from close communion times with the Lord. This was his priority.

Are you seeing a pattern here?  Last week I illustrated how Jesus was more of an alongsider than he was a preacher to groups.  He walked alongside and ministered to Zacchaeus, Mary Magdalene, the Woman at the well, the disciples. But he also knew that he needed an alongsider.  He turned to his heavenly father on a regular basis to receive love, support and power.   He could then turn around and offer love, support and power to others. That is the gist of being an alongside.  If prayer is not our first act toward becoming an alongsider, then we will be weak and ineffective. The disciples thought it was urgent to meet the needs of the people, but Jesus knew it was important to spend time with the father.

We can have clarity in knowing that we OUGHT to become an alongsider, however to discover how to do so, and who to walking alongside, it begins with prayer. The prayer life of Jesus was intentional. He awoke early in the morning, he left the house he went to a place – there he met God. When he met God his prayer life was marked with clarity. Jesus knew his mission, because he knew his Father. 

How are we to develop a prayer life like Jesus?  First, we commit to finding a place to be alone with God. Secondly, we make it a private place where we are not disturbed.  I think it was my wife who told me about women from days gone by who had a house full of children.  They would lift their apron over heir heads and spend time alone with God.  Adapt.  Thirdly, If you have family tell them this is your private place.  If you choose not to pray in the early morning, let your family know when you go to your private place you are not to be disturbed. 

Here’s another important element of prayer.  Use Scripture as part of your prayer routine.  I would recommend you read from the book of Psalm when you pray. The Psalms was and is the worship hymnal for God’s people. With 150 psalms to choose from, I am sure you will find words of comfort and words to assist you as you pray. You might want to consider the practice of using a journal.  I’m bad at it so I don’t do it.  But many people record their prayers.  You can look back and see the progress. This is especially true if you are seeking to be an alongsider.  You will be amazed at the progress from where you start and where you end up as you walk alongside another person.

The key thing to know is, that we can’t become an alongsider alone or by ourselves.  We need God’s help, and we need his mercy and grace when we fail.  We will always fail at being an alongsider because we are human. So when we don’t only pray for God’s help in being an alongsider, but we run to his loving arms when we fail.  We are then able to find his grace so that we can pick up and start again.   Amen.

The Way of Love/June 10, 2018

Second Baptist Lincoln
June 10, 2018

I John 4:7-16
 7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.


Love is a very popular idea in today’s world, it’s on everyone’s lips. Songs are sung, books are written, and films are made all about love. But, we often forget that love is a truly Christian idea. It is seen in its fullness only in Christ. Love originated in the mind of God, John says that “God IS love”. But what the world calls love is extremely different from what God in Christ revealed love to be. Love is used 180 times in the New Testament so it must be an important topic, it must be something that God wants us to grasp.

As you might recall, last week I began a new 10-week series on Discipleship based upon the book “The Ways of the Alongsider.” As you learned initially, an “Alongsider” is a growing Christian who comes long side a newer or weak Christian to help bring them into a deeper and closer relationship with Christ. We also learned last week this is intended to be done by “amateurs.”.  The apostles were amateurs who Jesus trained.  What was funny, is that that 24 hours after I emphasized that Jesus trained amateurs to preach the gospel, Jae Stockton, our missionary speaker last Monday noon, said exactly the same thing. She said, “I’m a missionary, but so are each one of you.  You are a missionary.  We are missionaries every day of our lives.”   
This week, I want to talk about “LOVE” and how vital love is to the concept of being an alongsider. It is so important, that John says in his epistle,  “He who does not love does not know God.”   If you don’t love, you aren’t a Christian.  You have no connection to God if you are not a person of love.That’s pretty black and white.  That’s pretty harsh. So WHAT IS LOVE?   Look at Verse 7 & 8 – here we find the origin of love.  John begins by telling us that Love comes from God, and the person who doesn’t love, does not know God. It is difficult to understand this statement until love is defined. So, what is love? Webster’s dictionary, defines love as a “strong liking for someone or something, or a passionate affection for another person”. Verse 7 though says that love is from God. This is not a Dr. Phil or Oprah definition of love.  This is not love as defined in a Harlequin romance novel.  It is not a love defined by Beyonce or Taylor Swift in whatever music they sing.  

So right away we see that the problem is evident, love is from God, and therefore a human definition is not sufficient enough to describe love.  In modern English, love is one word that has many meanings but if we look at the original New Testament Greek we can see what type of love John is talking about. In Biblical Greek, words for love include philia, eros and agape. Phileo is friendship and it means brotherliness or companionship. – This is the love that we would have between best friends. Eros (not found in the New Testament) means sexual desire, this is where we get the word erotic from. Agape is godly love, unconditional and totally unselfish.  The way it plays out in relationships, is that Eros is all take, phileo is give and take, Agape is all give. All through this section the word for love that John uses is agape. It’s not sentimental love, it’s not sexual, and it’s not social love. It is a supernatural love that the Holy Spirit can put in our hearts, and only the Spirit of God can make it real to us. In other words it’s the love of God. 

So what we find in the Bible is that we are always to love one another.  We find in both the Old and the New Testament. Lev 19:18 says “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the LORD.” However Jesus then put a different slant on this commandment and said in John 13:34 “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” And God loved us FIRST.  He didn’t wait until we loved him to pour out his love for us.  He loved us before we were formed in our mother’s womb. We certainly give Him plenty of reasons not to love us! But, He showed the greatest act of love there could ever be. Look at Verse 9: Christ’s death on the cross for you and me is the greatest love that anyone can have.

So HOW ARE WE TO LOVE?  What is this love supposed to look like?  Do you want to see love acted out? Then look at 1 Corinthians 13, the "Love Chapter" of the Bible. Those beautiful, familiar words are practical words, too. Because what Paul is saying is, "This is how "agape" love acts. This is how it behaves.  Paul says, Love is patient. That means that I don’t get into a hurry with you if you don’t do things the way I would like for you to do them. I’ll wait. I’ll wait for things to change. I’ll wait for those edges to be knocked off, and I hope that you’ll wait for me in return. I don’t always do well at this.  I want people to meet my expectations.  People don’t always grow at the rate I would like to see them grow. "Love is kind." I wouldn’t say anything unkind to you because you are the object of my love, and the important part of my love is to make sure that you feel loved.  I don’t always do that very well. It doesn’t envy. I won’t boast about myself. I won’t become proud, because I am more concerned about you than I am about myself, I am not easily angered, I won’t keep any record of wrongs. We should all tear up our lists and throw them away and start anew with each other. Love doesn’t delight in evil, but it rejoices in truth. Love always hopes, and  it always perseveres.  Most people who pass out heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, who give roses, who send valentines and expressions of love have no idea what real love, GOD’S LOVE, is all about.

But if we are to become an Alongsider, love is at the very heart of what we do.  Why?
Because God is love.  Why?  Because “love is of God and every one who loves is born of God and knows God.” Here is why Love is such a vital and important commodity in being an alongsider.  If you take away LOVE, there is only indifference.  If you take away love, we simply don’t care. I mean that in both the horizontal and vertical sense.  If we do not have love (Like John Says), we don’t care about God.  This vertical relationship with the heavenly father is non-existent without love. This is also true of the horizontal relationship.  If there is not love, then why should we care whether another person grows in their relationship with Christ, or not.  

The way of the alongside is precluded of the fact that we love and care about other people.  If we do not love, then we are handicapped and unequipped to be an alongsider. Love is our chief motivator.  I want others to know of God’s love.  I love others enough to care whether they know of God’s love.  That is the whole basis for becoming an alongsider. Love is more than words; it’s our actions more than our emotions. John says that, “We ought also to love one another” he is not talking about some cheap sentiment. Jesus said, “If you love me keep my commandments” (John 14:15).  That is that vertical love.  Loving God.  Loving Jesus and keeping his commandments.

John takes it even farther in his text.  1 John 4:20 “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”  There is one more reason that love is vital to the alongsider, and that is because of our own witness.  Do people see enough love in us to know that we’re the real deal?  The song we close with every Sunday says “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Will they really?   If we are to be an alongsider that comes alongside other people and guides them toward a deeper relationship, then they must first be able to detect the love of Christ in us.

Much of this is dependent upon spiritual disciplines.  Most of us do not love others naturally. You might think love is a natural response because of how a mother loves her newborn baby and how a baby loves the mother in return. But that is more because of biological and emotional bonding.  Get that same child at age two in the middle of a Target store checkout line when that child is in need of nap, and the child is suddenly melting down in a heaping pile of emotional tantrum, and you can see that love is not always a natural response.  Love takes work.  Love is built over time.  And certain spiritual disciplines lead to real love.  The first is a quiet time or devotional habit of spending time with God.  What kind of relationship would a father and son have if they never spent time together.  Our love for the Father grows when we have quality time together. The writer of the book “The Ways of the Alongsider” spends nearly the whole chapter talking about quiet time with God.  He believes that real love for God and others flows out of quality time with God. The second discipline is to absorb God’s word.  You’ve heard me say it many time and I will say it again.  Time in Bible study is the most quality time you will spend with God and with others. It’s how we truly begin to understand the mind and heart of God.

So it is clear that LOVE is a key element in becoming a person who comes alongside someone else to guide them toward a life in Christ. Keep in mind that we never truly convince someone or even “sell” someone on the idea of following Christ.  The Holy Spirit reveals Christ to people.  But our example, our words, and our actions are key tools of the Holy Spirit in accomplishing this miraculous task.Love is at the core of that process.  The irresistible love of God is what brings people to Christ, but that love is seen in those who call themselves Christians.  May God help us experience his love and reveal his love to others. Amen. 

Light the Flame Again/May 20, 2018

Pentecost Sunday
May 20, 2018

Light the Flame Again

   Acts 2:2-21
Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. [3] They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. [4] All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. [5] Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. [6] When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. [7] Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? [8] Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? [9] Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, [10] Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome [11] (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs--we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" [12] Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?"[13] Some, however, made fun of them and said, "They have had too much wine."

 Pentecost has become a Sacred Holy-day on the church calendar.  Of course, Pentecost has always been a holiday. A celebration of the harvest.   For Israel, it was a harvest of grain.  For the Church, Pentecost is a great harvest of the Spirit. Is there any reason Pentecost should be any less of an outpouring than it was in the time of Peter and John? Pentecost should not merely be a remembrance of something long ago like celebrating Independence Day 229 years after it occurred. 

Pentecost ought instead to be a rekindling.  A refilling.  A day of seeking God to empower the church again.  To empower the individual person again with the power of the Holy Spirit.  Power to be a witness.  Learn to live in the presence of God. Because of Pentecost, His power is abundantly available to us that believe.   We are not a Pentecostal Church, but neither do we believe it was the intent that only Pentecostal churches be the beneficiaries of the Holy Spirit.This means that like the disciples of Jesus, we identify and seek the fullness of the Spirit, just as they did in the days following Christ’s ascension into heaven.   I believe that we need a surge of the Spirit of God in our lives once again. As The church we cannot afford to remain the same, we need to be transformed.  As His Children We cannot afford to ignore His immediate presence.  As a church we need that Pentecostal power once again.

This morning will be a different kind of sermon.  I want to give you ample opportunity to enter the presence of God.  We are here to worship.  We are not here to learn something, although we do.  We are not here to fellowship, although we do.  We are not here to fulfill an obligation of religion.  We are here to enter into the presence of the Holy God. Just because you are here this morning does not mean you are worshiping.  Just because you pray or sing or listen does not mean you are worshiping.  We come with a lot of stuff on our minds that are preoccupying us and keeping us from and encounter with God.Worship is when you come with an expectancy that God will receive you into his presence.  Just because I preach and lead worship does not mean that I have entered into the presence of God with that expectancy. This morning, we are going to spend time in prayer because I want you to have opportunity to worship the Lord and listen to his voice. 

Pentecost:  A waiting place.
When Jesus met with his disciples along the shore of the lake, he told them to “Feed his lambs.”  Shortly after that, they went up on a hill and he ascended into heaven to be with his heavenly father. As they stood there watching and looking up into heaven, two men dressed in white – Angels --, asked them, “  Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?  This same Jesus, who has been taken into heaven, will come back in the same way you seen him go into heaven.” In Acts chapter 1:12, it says that the disciples then went into Jerusalem and went into an upper room and joined in constant prayer. As you pause to pray right now, I want you to ask yourself if you are standing looking in the sky waiting for Jesus to come or are you in constant prayer asking how God can use you?

Pentecost:  The Outpouring of the Spirit.
Finally in God’s good time, the Holy Spirit was poured out on the people. The following statement from the pen of Dr. Jerry Vines (FBC Jacksonville, former Pres. SBC) “The Average Christian and The average church are somewhere bogged down between Calvary and Pentecost. They have been to Calvary for pardon, but they have not been to Pentecost for Power.  (Slide 6)Bethlehem is about “God being with us”. Calvary is about “God being for us.” But Pentecost is “God in us.”

Those statements transformed my understanding of the person and the work of the Holy Spirit. I believe that the average Christian is much like the believers at Ephesus when the Apostle Paul came to them in Acts 19:2 and said to them - Did You Receive The Holy Spirit When You Believed? They replied that they didn’t even know that there was a Holy Spirit. Many Christians do not understand the role of the Holy Spirit and they have not appropriated the power of the Holy Spirit in their own personal lives.

J. B. Phillips, who gave us the familiar paraphrase of the New Testament, wrote something like this a few years ago. He said that “churches today are fat and out of breath through prosperity. They are muscle-bound through over-organization. What we need today is again the wind and the flame of Pentecost.”   He said that in 1955.  Imagine what it is today? I think all of us would agree that this is true. We need to recapture the power, which was experienced in such a mighty way when the church met together in the upper room, and the day of Pentecost occurred.

But we read in the last section of today’s scripture these words:  “In the last days, God says, “I will pour out my spirit on all people.” Two things stand out in the short phrase.  First of all GOD will be the one who will pour it out.  It is not a tap that we can turn on and off and control.  God is the one who dispenses the Spirit. Secondly, it is done in God’s timing.  The disciples waited and prayed.  God’s spirit came upon them.  I still believe to this day that God will empower Second Baptist Church when the Lord sees that we are ready.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I think we are under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  However, I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet. 

I think when we are ready, there will be an outpouring that is like nothing we have seen.  I anticipate that and look forward to the ways God will use us.  However, it means that we need to submit and move aside so that God can do the work of preparation. Like the disciples in Jerusalem, we are to wait upon the Lord, praying continuously and God will pour out his spirit on us.  We are not without Power.  God has given us the power of the Holy Spirit.  But the empowerment we await is that which has vision and focus on being servants of God for specific tasks. We have been praying, “Lord, how do you want to use us?  What do you want us to do?”  I believe God will reveal that as we are ready.  God knows when we are ready for the task.  Let’s pray now that God will reveal his vision and purpose to our congregation.  Furthermore, during your prayer, I want to ask you to pray for me that God will reveal how Second Baptist can be used in new and productive ways in God’s kingdom.

The Mission Field
Before Jesus left this earth, he gave several sets of instructions for the church by way of the disciples.  His final instructions are found in Matthew 28:19-20 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, [20] and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Make disciples.  That is what we are called to do.  It is a combination of leading people to repentance followed by leading them in the practice of spiritual disciplines so that they can make more disciples. The early church ignited because it set out to make disciples.  The church in China today is ignited because they are making disciples.  The church in America is dying because we have forgotten how to make disciples.

Part of the reasons disciples are not being created in the American church is because we left out the next part of the great commission.  “Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” We don’t want to be obedient to Christ.  We want to be happy.  We want to have a religious experience.  We want to feel good about ourselves.  We want to be prosperous. But we don’t want to obey. I want to take the next few minutes to spend in CONFESSION.  Ask God to forgive us for doing our own thing rather than what God has called us to do.

 Pentecost is not over.  The Holy Spirit is still at work saving people and revitalizing churches.  God has not give up on his church. He wants a church that is energized and obedient.  He wants a church that is willing to shed their agenda to take on the plan that God has for his people.  Amen. 

Encouraging Hope (May 13, 2018)

Second Baptist
Lincoln May 13, 2018

 Encouraging Hope

Romans 8:31-39
 What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? [32] He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? [33] Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. [34] Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. [35] Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? [36] As it is written:"For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." [37] No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. [38] For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, [39] neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

At the core of every human being is the desire to be accepted and approved of – to be liked. We often develop  self esteem based upon the opinions others have of us. Why is it that so many of us feel so badly about ourselves? Is it because deep down we have a sense that we have failed in some way – failed either to please those around us, ourselves – or failed to please our God?

The Apostle Paul, in fact, seems almost to fortify our own notions of failure through the first seven chapters of Romans – we realize that whatever shred of self reliance, self sufficiency, or self justification we have mustered up is utterly useless in the quest for acceptance. In my flesh, that is in my old nature, Paul tells me, there dwells no good thing. In fact, when we try to do good we do bad, and when good needs to be done, we do not do it. Paul sums it up at the end of chapter 7 by saying: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Then, he answers his own question in the same breath: “Thanks be to God-through Jesus Christ our Lord!” So is not through our own efforts, through our family line, through our associations or deeds that we receive acceptance – but it is through the efforts of Jesus Christ on our behalf that we are rescued, cleansed, and loved – then empowered and changed.

In Romans 8:1, Paul states where we are in relationship with God.  Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…The “Therefore” in this is like a gear change from Paul pointing out that we are failures under the law to the fact that we are dearly loved and valued by God because of his grace for us.Chapter eight is the answer to the first seven chapters that tells us that humanity is corrupt and we are all sinners.  But now he tells us we are NOT CONDEMNED. Imagine that!! NO CONDEMNATION.  Imagine if you were convicted of a crime.  The jury was convinced of your guilt and the press was reporting it in all the papers.  But in the course of the trial, you apologized to the victim and expressed your remorse. Upon hearing your remorse, the judge pardons you and sets you free.  That is what happened to us.  There is no condemnation because God set us free.  Nobody else has the moral authority to condemn us.  God is the ultimate moral authority. 

Verse 31 where we begin today, expresses it this way:
(v. 31) What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? The Greek construction is better translated “SINCE God is for Us.”    The Implication here is that if anyone were able to rob us of salvation they would have to be greater that God Himself, because He is both the giver and the sustainer of Salvation.  

We get various snapshots of the power and love of God in the Old Testament. David declared with unreserved confidence, in Psalm 27:1 The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defense of my life; Whom shall I dread? Psalm 46:1-3 God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble. [2] Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea; [3] Though its waters roar and foam, Though the mountains quake at its swelling pride. He concludes it with (Psalm 46:11) The Lord of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our stronghold. Selah.

When you take the evident power of God and combine those characteristics with the abiding love of God, we get a glimpse of the relationship that God desires to have with us. That familiar verse in Jeremiah 29:  For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ’plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11

God has our absolute best interest at heart.   Could there be any question of God’s love for us?  Well, apparently there may have been some question regarding God’s love. Paul uses a form of rhetoric here that presents a series of questions.  He asks his initial question, “Who can separate us from the love of God?”  Rather than simply saying “NOTHING!”, he instead asks several more questions so that the reader might contemplate the depth of God’s love. 

It’s like you and me.  If someone say, “Nothing is worse than a hail storm.”  We might tend to agree, until we put it into perspective.  What if we were to continue the questions by asking, “Is cancer worse than a hail storm?” (well, YES).  “Is terrorism worse than a hail storm?”  (of course). Paul is doing this with his argument.  Because when we factor in human nature to the whole subject of God’s love, we tend to forget the effects of his love. 

Who can separate us from the love of God?  Can a non-believing spouse who objects to our going to church.  No, God’s love is far greater than an unbelieving spouse. Can the loss of a job separate us from the love of God?  No, God’s love is far greater.  Can the loss of a child separate us from the love of God.  NO. No, No.  Can a rebellious child who is running wild separate us from the love of God?  No.  God’s love is what will help us survive those times.

Paul names those things. (Romans 8:35)  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? That way it causes people to consider specific hardships to realize the complete and perfect love of God.  Now why do I emphasize this?  Simple: How many times do we feel defeated and broken?  How many times do we feel like we are at the end of our rope and we’ve just tied a knot just to hang on. When we get caught up in the adversity and despair, we tend to forget that we are not in this battle alone.  We are not defeated. Furthermore, when we feel like we are separated from God, the fact remains – we are NOT. As if the first list is not enough, Paul adds a second list in verses 38-39.  Romans 8:38-39. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, [39] neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

After reading that list, can you see anything that can separate God’s love from you?  It covers it all. We can be hard on ourselves.  We can think of a million reasons why God shouldn’t love us.  We can think of all the things we did and all the mistakes we made. We can very quickly lock ourselves into a box of despair with no hope of getting out.  But God’s love is the key to opening that box and releasing us from our pain and misery and hopelessness.   

It was that ultimate act of his love that we find in verse 32 that serves as the key that releases us.  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? So he not only gave us salvation from sin, but he also promises to provide for us.  He saves us and sustains us.  His love extends beyond the cross as God takes an active interest in our lives, Jesus sacrifice on the cross not only is the foundation of our salvation but also of our security.  Because the Father loved us so much while we were still under condemnation.

This passage brings us genuine hope.  When we face doubts about our own faith or we experience difficulties in our everyday lives, we can return to this truth that we are securely locked in God’s love. Knowing God’s love draws us into a relationship with the heavenly father that leads us toward a life of obedience.  When we love someone, we are committed to them and we exercise obedience. Being a disciple of Jesus involves us responding to the love of God by giving ourselves in obedience to the one who loves us.

If you get nothing out of this message today, know that you are loved by God and you are securely connected in relationship to the king of kings and lord of lords.Nothing can separate you from the love of God.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, [39] neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. 


He's Alive! We're Alive!/April 1, 2018

Second Baptist Church
Easter Sunday Worship  April 1, 2018
He’s Alive!  We’re Alive

Col. 3:1-4
    Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. [2] Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. [3] For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. [4] When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. 

Most of you woke up this morning with two questions as you looked out the window.  1.)  Is this actually Easter?  2.)  Is this weather some kind of April Fools joke? Today is April 1, which creates a bit of a metaphor for Easter.  Because when Jesus arose from the tomb and appeared to his disciples, it may have appeared to those disciples to be an unbelievable incident akin to our April Fool's jokes.  

I remember as a kid my father standing at the window looking out and saying, “Wow, there is an elephant trotting down our street.  It must have escaped from the circus.”  And we kids would go running to the window, and my Dad would say, “April Fools.”  Maybe that’s why I have trust issues.Nothing could have prepared the women and the disciples for what they saw that morning.  A dead man walking out of tomb.  They saw his body taken down from the cross.  They may have even seen the tomb sealed. It’s like the most fantastic, unbelievable April Fools joke coming true and instead of shouting “April Fools,” we can instead shout, “He is Risen!”

Easter is also a reminder of the hope that exists within people of God for better things ahead. The women went to the tomb on the dawn of that Sunday 20 centuries ago.  They went with faces downcast, grieving, mourning the death of their Lord. But when they went away from the tomb, they were running, leaping, shouting for joy at the sight of the empty tomb.  Christ was risen!

We celebrate Easter every year as the high holy day of the Christian calendar.  Why?  Because all of our identity, all of our hope, all of our life is wrapped up in the simple truth that Christ arose. Paul wrote in I Cor. 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”  Just as we are all sinners because sin came into the world through Adam, we are all made alive (the living and the dead) because Christ arose.” Since Christ was raised from the dead, our hope and confidence is that we too shall be raised.  It is the hope of the Christian, the centerpiece of our faith, the prescription for the problem of sin and death.For whatever reason you may be here today, I’m here to worship the risen Christ.  I am here because Jesus lives!  And because he lives, I too will live for eternity.  

Paul is essentially saying this to the Colossian Christians.  Apparently, there were some false teachings being generated in the Colossian church.  Human ideas had taken precedent over the ideas of the Gospel.  Perhaps a sort of rationalism had set in. Even today, rationalism is most often a foe of the resurrection scenario.  Rationalism that would say that once a person is crucified, pronounced dead, and placed in a tomb, it would be impossible for them to be raised. Rationalism that says that we can only really trust and believe in that which we can see.  Like Thomas the disciple, who said I will only believe if I can place my hand in the nail prints of his hand.To many people in society, the resurrection story is considered a religious fable, perhaps a hoax attempted by the early disciples to pacify the other followers. But these same disciples all died torturous deaths, unwilling to renounce the story they told of resurrection. Even Thomas who was the rationalist, the skeptic of the group, reportedly later preached in Parthia and India – and was martyred by the local pagan priests by being run through with a spear.

Paul tells the Corinthian church in I Cor. 15:17-19: And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. [18] Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. [19] If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. Now here in Colossians, Paul assumed that the resurrection is a given fact in the minds and hearts of the believers.  “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. (v. 1)

The point of our text today is to “live the resurrection.”  We are people of the Resurrection so like Christ who was raised and ascended into heaven, our focus, our thoughts, our actions should be on heaven and the things of God. Since we have been raised from death through the power of the cross, then let’s set our hearts on things above.  We don’t have to live in the gutter.  We don’t have to live hopeless lives.  We don’t have to live with faces downcast like the women who went to the tomb before they realized he was alive. We are post-resurrection people.  We know he is alive.  Our lives can be filled with victory rather than despair.  Notice that Paul does not say “You will be raised like Christ.”  He says, “…You have been raised with Christ.” Thus, Christ's resurrection is the active dynamic which resurrects all believers (past, present, future). God the Father did not raise Christ from the dead in isolation: rather the power of Christ's resurrection brought life to all his people, those who have lived and will live.

A Presbyterian pastor, Rev. G.I. Williamson was greeting his congregation following the morning service in Fall River, MA. In this cordial atmosphere, a number of Christian ladies approached Rev. Williamson and asked him when he had been saved? In other words, when was his personal experience in coming to know Jesus Christ? Before Rev. Williamson could respond, a five-year old girl standing beside them spurted out: "I was saved two thousand years ago." What a wonderful response.  Yes, we must invite Jesus into our lives to be saved, but it is the resurrected Christ who died and arose for us that saves us.The title of the message today is “He’s Alive, We’re Alive.”  The resurrection is not some remote historical event that doesn’t concern us.  It is all about us.  The resurrection is everything to us.

So since we know that we are already raised with Christ, what else?  V. 1 continues by telling us to look up to the heavenly realms. This is not some way to escape the realities of this world.  It doesn’t mean we should sit around dreaming of heaven.  What it is saying is that we should live well. We ought to live in the spirit provided for us as Jesus promised. Setting our hearts on things above is to live life to the fullest as children of God.  As people of the resurrection, this whole passage identifies us with Christ.  Let’s take a quick look: 
a.    V. 1  Where Christ is seated.  He is seated at the right hand of the father.  It is a place of honor.  We will enter into the presence of God not only as the guest of honor of Christ, but as heirs of the throne.  We have been made to be sons and daughter – inheriting eternal life.
b.    V. 3  For you died and your life is hidden in Christ.   This means because of your death to sin, your life is new and alive and connected eternally with Christ.  It’s like in John 15 in the passage about the vine and the branches.  Jesus repeats the words over and over again, “I’m in you and you are in me.”  We become inseparable in our relationship with Christ. 
c.    V. 4 “Christ is your life”.  “Appear with him in Glory.”  Not only are we inseparable, Christ and the ways of Christ become the very model and pattern of our lives.  Like I said, WE ARE EASTER PEOPLE.  WE ARE PEOPLE OF THE RESURRECTION.

We can go through this life chasing after the things of this world.  Work.  Pleasure, money, family.  But nothing is complete without entering into the family of God.  Resurrected life.
A life that is about hope and joy.  A life that is not searching for fulfillment, because it is already fulfilled. May Christ enter your life this Easter so that you will be part of his resurrected people.

Lincoln Second Baptist Church
 March 18, 2018  

Prelude to An Empty Tomb

John 11:17-26  
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. "Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" 

The message of this story is pretty clear: Jesus has power over the grave. He’s the resurrection and the life. He’s the conqueror of death.  But what exactly does this mean for our lives today? What does it mean for the young couple whose 5 year old son has just died of Leukemia? 
What does it mean for an older woman whose husband has been gone for 15 years, but she still hurts as if it happened last week? What does it mean for the 13 year old kid in the youth group who for some reason is absolutely terrified at the thought of dying? If Jesus really has power over the grave, how can knowing this make any difference in our world?

We see that a man named Lazarus was sick. And that he is from Bethany, about 2 miles east of Jerusalem. We also find out that Mary and Martha are his sisters. You may remember them from Luke 10. Martha was the one running all over the house trying to get things done. And Mary was the one sitting at the Lord’s feet, learning as much as she could. And Martha got mad because she wasn’t helping with the housework. This is the same family. And in verse three, we’re told that ’the sisters sent a word to Jesus saying, "Lord, the one you love is sick." Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it." This doesn’t mean that Lazarus isn’t going to die. Because we find out in verse 14 that he DID die! What Jesus is saying is that death is not going to be the end of this story. This story won’t end until Jesus Christ gets the glory and God the Father is glorified.  

The same thing is true with our lives. If you’re a Christian, death does not have the last word. Jesus Christ will have the last word when he says, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master’s presence." At Billy Graham’s funeral a couple weeks ago, he was quoted by one of his children.  “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”Jesus knew very well that for him, and those who followed him, life and death would always be hanging in the balance.  

In verses 5 and 6, we’re told that Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. The question is "If Jesus really loves this family, then why did he stay where he was for two more days? God wanted to teach us something about the power of Christ over the grave. So in verse seven, two days after hearing about Lazarus being sick, Jesus said, "Let us go back to Judea."Jesus makes the comment, “Lazaras has fallen asleep and I’m going to go over and wake him up.”The disciples said, "Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better." But Jesus said, "I’m not talking about natural sleep! I’m talking about waking Lazarus up from the sleep of death. And for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him."And in verse 16, Thomas said to the rest of the disciples, "Let us go, that we may die with him." He’s willing to cross back over the river with Jesus to a dangerous neck of the woods. And so they went on their way. And by the time they get to Bethany, Lazarus had already been in the tomb for 4 days. So even if Jesus had left right away, Lazarus would have been dead by the time they got there anyway.  If you do the math, Lazarus probably died just after the messenger left to find Jesus.
And so in verse 20, Martha hears that Jesus is coming. And she went out to meet him. While Mary stayed at home and watched the house. And she said, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." I don’t think she’s angry with the Lord. But she’s upset about her brother’s death. She’s confused. She loved her brother. It’s not too hard to imagine how she might be feeling at this moment.  

So many times when death comes, it leaves people angry with God.  “God, if you had been here, my wife would not have died.”   While it may sound like quite an indictment against God, those are words of faith.  The person recognizes that God is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-present.  It is saying God is capable. But Martha never lost her faith in Christ. Watch what she says in verse 22: "But I know that even now, God will give you whatever you ask."   She is saying, “I don’t understand why my brother had to die. But I believe with all my heart that you are in control.” Sometimes, Christians today look down on Martha. We remember her as the stressed out woman who yelled at her sister. The woman who would rather clean the house than sit at the feet of Christ. But Martha plays an important role in this story. Jesus told Martha, "Your brother will rise again."   And Martha said, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day."  But Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." In other words, ’You don’t have to be afraid of dying. You don’t have to wait until the end of eternity to experience resurrection power. You can have that power right now! Because I’m the resurrection! 

So often, this verse is quoted and used at funerals.  "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."  But it stops short of popping the question.  Pastors like myself often leave off a very important part of verse 26.  The question, one that can be posed to all people whether those present with Jesus 2000 years ago, or those seeking the truth today.  The words:  “Do you believer this?” Whoever puts their faith in Jesus will live on after death forever and ever! "Do you believe this?" And Martha said, "Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."

I wonder how people without faith in a loving God make it through a funeral. How could they? They have no hope of a life beyond this life. They have no hope of ever seeing their loved ones again. They have no hope of ever discovering their ultimate purpose for being alive.But if you have faith in Christ, you have the greatest gift in the world. Faith in Christ gives a lonely widow the confidence that her husband is in a much better place. Faith in Christ gives a grieving young couple the assurance that their child is safe and sound and with the Lord. Faith in Christ gives a 13 year old girl the freedom to live her life without the fear of death being a factor for her. And it gave Martha the strength to hold herself together in the face of her brother’s death.

When Jesus reached the sister Mary, she also cried out to him: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."  And when Jesus saw her tears, his heart went out to her. And he said, "Where is the tomb?" And the company of mourners led Jesus to the tomb. Jewish law (Shibah) says that you need to spend 7 days mourning for the dead. And you need to hire 3 professional people to help you mourn. Two people to play the flute. And one person to do the wailing.  And so they led Jesus to the tomb. And then in verse 35, we’re told that Jesus wept. Not because the situation was hopeless, but because he was feeling what they were feeling.

One of the wonderful things about the Christian faith is that Jesus DOES care about our feelings. And then the Jews who were there said, "see how he loved him!" But others were saying, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"  
But Jesus ignored these passing comments. And in verse 38, he approached the entrance to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. And Jesus said, "Take away the stone." And Martha said, "But Lord, it’s been 4 days! By now, the odor coming from the tomb will be terrible!" This is significant because the Mishnah teaches that the soul stays near the body for three days. And on the fourth day, the soul would finally face reality and depart. The fact that Lazarus has been in the tomb four days means that in the eyes of the Jews, it was hopeless. The soul has departed. There’s no way Jesus could do a miracle now. But Jesus said to Martha, "Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God? Didn’t I tell you that I was the resurrection and the life?" And so they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up to heaven and said, "Father, I thank you that you heard my prayer. I thank you for this opportunity to show the world that I am your servant. Amen." And then he said, "Lazarus, come forth!" And in verse 44, it says that "the dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face." And Jesus said to them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go."  

So what does this miracle mean for us today? It means that death is nothing to be afraid of. That there’s life beyond the tomb for everyone who believes in Jesus. That we serve a Savior who has power over the grave. That someday, we will all be together again. Jesus's words “I am the resurrection and the life” are words of hope that have been preached at funeral services, etched in tombstones, and been the topic of many books.  Why?  Because it is the source of the hope that lives in us. In just 2 weeks we celebrate Easter.  The sanctuary will be decorated with flowers and we will have our best attendance of the year. But more than that, we will be celebrating the event in history that sealed our own salvation.  

The phrase that Jesus uttered at the tomb of Lazarus was fulfilled by his own empty tomb Because Christ overcame death, you and I will live.  Death can not be contained.  Death has been subdued by the Son of the living God. Amen. 

For the Glory of God/March 11, 2018

March 11, 2018
Second Baptist Lincoln
For the Glory of God 

John 9:1-12

    As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. [2] His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"  [3] "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. [4] As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. [5] While I am in the world, I am the light of the world." [6] Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man's eyes. [7] "Go," he told him, "wash in the Pool of Siloam" (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing. [8] His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, "Isn't this the same man who used to sit and beg?" [9] Some claimed that he was. Others said, "No, he only looks like him." But he himself insisted, "I am the man." [10] "How then were your eyes opened?" they demanded.  [11] He replied, "The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see." [12] "Where is this man?" they asked him. "I don't know," he said.

God calls us to work alongside him to do the work of the Kingdom of God that we might declare that we know Him, love him and serve him. There are so many perceptions of God by people around the world. Many world religions operate on the principle that man is there to appease and pacify and angry, aggressive, violent God. Maybe some see God like this. A wise, gentle grandfatherly figure with a deep resonant voice, basically Morgan Freeman. However, in the Bible, we see God portrayed as the supreme being and creator who desires to have a deep and abiding relationship with his people. He demonstrated it with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and many other Old Testament persons.   He demonstrated it to people under a NEW Covenant whereby his son’s death on the cross satisfied the debt of sin that had condemned humanity to spiritual death.

Yet even in the time of Christ, there were people who perceived that God inflicted people with pain and sickness because of their sin or even the sins of their parents. In this passage, the disciples see a man born blind. They assume v.2 that someone has sinned, either he or his parents for him to be born this way. They don’t stop for a moment to consider other options – like that it may have been a genetic flaw or a physiological malady (Something that they had no knowledge of at that time in history.) They instead believed it had to be related to human behavior, a sin, or a bad omen. Jesus contradicts everything that they have been taught. He leads them to consider that maybe someone’s challenge and hardship is actually an opportunity that God is providing to display the light of Christ in the darkness of the world.

Consider the fact that everyone here has faced some hardship or challenge – some more than others.  Can we really say that we didn’t learn valuable lessons and strategies about ourselves and about God during those darkest hours? Do we not recognize that while we were retreating and licking our wounds – that God was not out front providing a new path for us to walk? Can we truly say that God was not glorified through our hardship? Two kinds of healing takes place in this story. There is the physical healing where the man receives his sight.  And there is the spiritual healing where the man sees the light of the world, Jesus. 

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, we had summer revival meetings in the elementary school gymnasium in Stanley, North Dakota where I grew up.  Lyle Thorpe from Williston had assembled an evangelistic team complete with a variety of music. One of the singers was an Indian man from Poplar, MT names Ernie Yuzicapi.  Ernie had been blind since he was a young person – probably from drinking wood alcohol.  He sang and played a variety of Country and western songs. Having been blind for many years, it always struck me when he sang the Hank Williams song, “I Saw the Light." Ernie was unable to see even a shadow in front of him, but he could clearly see the light of the world.  He sang and shared his testimony and others came to see the light of the world as well.

Notice the question that the disciples asked him in the beginning.  They had been taught that illness could somehow be blamed on sin.  They could only see it one way. But Jesus showed them another way to look at it. “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed.”  We have to be careful how we read this.  At first glance we interpret this to mean that God caused this man’s blindness to glorify himself. It’s as if God sentenced this man to a cruel fate so that God himself could be glorified.  Read it again…."but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”  The blindness did not occur so that God could be glorified, rather, the healing took place so that God could be glorified. God did not make the person blind in order to show his  glory, God sent his son Jesus to do works of healing in order to show his glory. I don’t even pretend to know why people get sick.  Why does God allow it?  I don’t know.  But I do know that when we are at our lowest, God can intervene with his hand of healing and demonstrate to family and friends the power of healing. Sometimes God heals and sometimes he chooses not to heal --  for whatever reason.

So in this scene, Jesus bends down and takes some dirt, spits in it and mixes a little poultice to put on the man’s eyes.  It might seem strange (even gross) to us that Jesus would use spit.  Actually, he didn’t need to use anything.  He could have touched his eyes, he would have just commanded him to be healed. In ancient times, spit was often thought to have medicinal power.  There was enormous superstition about the spittle of a renown person, especially someone who was known as a healer – as Jesus was. Two others times in the book of Mark Jesus used spit to bring healing. After he does this, he tells the blind man to go and bathe in the pool of Siloam. John indicates in parenthesis that Siloam means “SENT”. Jesus is described numerous times in the Bible that he is the one who was sent from the Father.  So the blind man was being sent to wash in the place called SENT by the one who was SENT by God. Secondly, the pool had special significance.  Remember last week when I talked about the importance of “Living Water” or water that was flowing in either a river or from a spring.  Spring water was especially good, and this pool was fed by the only active spring in the city. It had important religious and ceremonial significance. 

The healing of this man must have made a significant stir among the people of the community, family and friends. Sure, there were people who went around trying to demonstrate power of healing.  But when Jesus actually healed a man they all knew, it got their attention. It certainly did get the attention of the religious leaders. He healed the man on the Sabbath which was forbidden. They decided then that Jesus must be a sinner since he violated the law.  Never mind that he healed a man who had been blind from birth.  He must be a sinner. 

Do you see another form of blindness here?  Just as the man had been blind and unable to see the physical features around him, the Pharisees who were supposed to be the spiritual leaders – were completely spiritually blind, unable to see the spiritual features of Christ. They did not recognize that the healing of the man was an act of compassion.  They could not accept the fact that Jesus demonstrated love and goodness on the Sabbath. When they suggested to the formerly blind man that Jesus was a sinner, he responded with some amazing words.  Words that ought to flow from our lips as well. He said in verse 25,  “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!"

We think we have to be theologically brilliant and eloquent in order to share our faith with a friend or neighbor. This man wasn’t even completely sure who Jesus is.  But it doesn’t matter.  His testimony is powerful.  "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!" That testimony can come from each one of us.  Once we were blinded by the objects, trends and priorities of our culture.  We are born into sin and ultimately we are all sinners and blind to the things of God.  We are separated from God until Christ comes along and opens our eyes. His purpose is to glorify the Father in heaven through opening the eyes of the sinner and redeeming them from their sin and bringing them into the family of God.

May your eyes be open and your heart transformed.  AMEN.


The Wages of Sin/February 4, 2018

Lincoln Second Baptist
Feb. 4, 2018

The Wages of Sin

2 Samuel 12:1-10 (NIV)
1  The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, "There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor.
2  The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle,
3  but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.
4  "Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him."
5  David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, "As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die!
6  He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity."
7  Then Nathan said to David, "You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul.
8  I gave your master's house to you, and your master's wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.
9  Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.
10  Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.'

Recently, on Wednesday mornings and evenings, we have been engaged in a Bible study on the book of Romans.  The gist of the study is that God has taken us from bad news to good news through his infinite grace and mercy. Paul, the writer of that book, walks a very narrow tightrope between the devastation of sin, and the mercy and forgiveness of grace.  For some participating in that study, it might be hard to fathom the words of Paul as he speaks of the destruction and the effects of sin on human life and existence.  Because those people might have the idea that God’s grace means leniency and apathy on the part of God.  They may believe, that because God loves us so much, then he probably doesn’t care that much that we sin.  Like a lenient parent, God should just look the other way when we sin against his laws and precepts.

The study might be difficult for people on the other side who say that God is a god of wrath and he isn’t going to put up with sin, no matter what.  Bad people should just pack their bags and head straight to hell.  I used an example on Wednesday of Manuel Noriega.  Remember him?  Once a U.S. ally and CIA asset, he became a brutally repressive dictator in the years before he was ousted from power, accused of ordering the murder of his opponents and turning Panama into a haven for drug cartels.  In 1990, while in prison, he accepted Christ.  He was baptized in a courthouse surrounded by a dozen guards.The media speculated that he may have had this public conversion in order to gain public sympathy and further distance himself from the drug cartels that were after him.  I’ve heard Christians make the same kind of comments about notorious converts.

So I just illustrated two extremes.  Those who see God as permissive and ok with our sin, and those who want bad people to die and go to hell.  The gospel is neither of these.  Neither of these are good news.  We see that illustrated in Today’s text.   King David is the ultimate hero of modern Israel, just as he was in the time of Christ and the time of ancient Israel.  David ruled about 1000 B.C. in a time known as the Golden Age of Israel.  He is such a significant biblical person that 62 chapters of the Old Testament are devoted to telling his story.  And not only that, there are more than 50 references to him in the New Testament, by far more than any other biblical character, except Jesus.

There are stories of how he was chosen as a boy tending his father’s sheep.  We see tales of slaying the giant Goliath with a slingshot.   Then there are heart wrenching stories of being pursued by King Saul and nearly killed when Saul tried to pin him against the wall with a spear.   We see the wonderful story about returning from battle with the Ark of the Covenant, and as they entered the city, he stripped down to his undergarments or maybe he was naked, and he danced with joy for the Lord.

Nevertheless, this great man after God’s own heart committed a series of terrible sins that led to terrible consequences.  David was home from battle and was walking on the rooftop of his palace late at night, and he looked down and saw below him, a lovely woman bathing on a rooftop. 

He wanted her.  As the king, he easily justified his actions and he took her to be his mistress.   But he wanted to keep her.  Before he could do that, he needed to get rid of her husband, so he called upon her husband Uriah the Hittite to take up a position on the front lines of battle where his fight would likely be death.  As he had hoped, Uriah was killed and that paved the way for Bathsheba to become David’s wife.  

We ask the question, “How could the man after God’s own heart, go down this path of evil?”   Several things happened in David’s mind.   First, he was bored and idle.  It customary for a king to go into battle with his troops.  David stayed behind.  Maybe he was tired.  Maybe he was resting on his greatness as the king.  Maybe he was becoming lax in his leadership and leaving it to his generals. It was during that time of hiatus that he looked down and saw Bathsheba.  Idleness will often put us in a position of weakness and moral failure. 

Several years ago, I was at a pastor’s conference where the speaker introduced us to the problem of pornography.  The speaker used an acronym of HALT.  People are most susceptible to pornography and other addictions when they are experiencing these four scenarios.   HUNGRY.  ANGRY.  LONELY.  TIRED.

See, those are the times where we are our weakest, and most susceptible to temptation.  The hunger may not be just food.  We may be hungry for companionship or recognition.  We might be feeling left out and insecure. 

We know that when we are angry, we aren’t always rational.  In fact, when we are angry or hurt, we quite often justify our actions thinking, “I’m so angry, I need some kind of release.  I deserve it.”  So the alcoholic goes for a bottle.  The drug addict goes for a crack pipe or syringe.  The pornography addict goes for the computer screen. 

David may have been in that sort of state, but I think there are at least three things that brought him to that place of weakness.  The first problem I have already mentioned, and that is his IDLENESS.  He was bored.  So he saw Bathsheba as something to fill his temporary need in his idleness.

The second is that David felt ENTITLED.  Feelings of entitlement are almost always a recipe for disaster.  When you say, “I deserve a new wardrobe”, then your credit card will suffer.  When you say, “I deserve a special meal”, if we say it often enough, it affects the waistline. 

Feeling entitled will often get us into trouble.  Dave Ramsey, the financial Peace University guru answers his callers on the radio show when they ask, “How are you?”, he replies, “Better than I deserve.”  I like that response.

In reality, we don’t want what we really deserve.  However, we have this delusional thought that we deserve a lot more than we do.  It usually gets us into trouble.  David thought, “I’m the king and I lead this great nation, I deserve that woman.”  

The third thing he did was to demand GRATIFICATION.  Hollywood and the music industry are full of people who expect gratification because they feel they are special and deserving of gratification.  Now, after several months of accusations, firings, sexual assault charges and running away in shame – we can see the real results of this expectation of immediate gratification.David went as far as to have her husband killed in battle so that he could have what he wanted.  So after all this happened, God sends a prophet to have a chat with David.   Nathan tells David a story. 
1 "There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor.
2  The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle,
3  but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.
4  "Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him."

This story really upset David.  “Who would do such a thing?”  David said the man who did this should die.  He said the poor man should have been paid back four times the value of that lamp. Nathan very calmly responded to David:  “You are the man.” How many times in our own sin, we are busy pointing at other people’s sin.  How many times do we fail to see our own transgressions because we are so focused on someone else’s sin that we think is far worse than our own.

 How many times do the words of Nathan echo in our own conscience when we are busy condemning someone else? We also find that in any story of a downward spiral into sin followed by God’s redemptive grace – it is going to be a story of bad news and good news.  We rarely come out of those situations unscathed.  David paid dearly for his sin.  Bathsheba became pregnant and that baby died in infancy.  Nathan the prophet not only predicted that, but he predicted that Israel would always be in a state of war throughout David’s reign.   Nathan predicted that their own wives will be raped in broad daylight.  Nathan said, “What you did in secret, I will do before Israel.”  And Tamar was raped by Amnon.   Nathan also told him that his family would rise up against him.   

What a price to pay!  Sin has consequences.  So often, people caught in poverty got there because of a series of sins and mistakes made over one, two and three generations.  In this story of David’s sin, we also see God’s grace at work.  There was a high price to pay, but David was fully forgiven by God . 

We wonder, “why do people have to suffer, even though they have been forgiven.”    Think of the ongoing suffering of the loss that Uriah’s family had to face.  Think of the boundaries that were crossed by David that affected the whole nation and how there are bound to be consequences.  In the midst of that, God meets us where we are and he restores us, just as he did David. 

As we go to the table today, we see another cause and affect brought on by sin.  Because of our sin -- yours and mine – God released his only son to come to earth and die like a common thief on a cruel cross.  There was a price to be paid for sin in David’s time, and there was the ultimate price to be paid when God’s own son was nailed to the cross.   Let’s reflect on that today as we go to the table.  AMEN

Leaving It Behind

January 21, 2018
Second Baptist Lincoln

Leaving It Behind 

Luke 22:39-46
Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. [40] On reaching the place, he said to them, "Pray that you will not fall into temptation." [41] He withdrew about a stone's throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, [42] "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." [43] An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. [44] And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground [45] When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. [46] "Why are you sleeping?" he asked them. "Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation."

Last week, I began a short series on the idea of letting go of the things that hinder us.  It’s similar to what the writer of Hebrews says in Hebrews 12:1.  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us”

From time to time, we hear of commercial airplanes running into trouble while inflight.  A sudden loss of cabin pressure, trouble with hydraulics, or the loss of an engine means potential trouble for the hundreds of passengers on board. There are certain procedures a pilot must follow when faced with the need to make an emergency landing.  That is, the need to dump fuel.  Airplane fuel is expensive and when a pilot is forced to make an emergency landing, this expensive jet fuel is drained from the tanks into the air where it is mostly evaporated.  Why is this necessary?  It is necessary to dump fuel because there is a tremendous difference between the safe required weight of a plane on takeoff, and the safe weight of a plan on landing. The idea is that when a plane leaves Omaha for Orlando, by the time it reaches Orlando, it has burned up enough fuel to make a safe landing.  The plane has become light enough.  But if they have to make an emergency landing in Kansas City, then the Pilot must get rid of fuel. It is because the plane is only structurally built to accommodate certain weight on landing.  Fuel is dumped to preserve the integrity of the plane and the lives of the passengers.

Shedding.  That’s what I want to talk with you about this morning.  As a Christian, we are also called to do a certain amount of shedding. As members of Second Baptist Church, we too must adhere to that natural act of shedding.  As we look to the future and ask the always important question, “Lord, what would you have us do?”, we are reminded that we first must take time to discern what may not be effective in doing God’s will. Worn and tired exercises of the church that are comfortable and familiar, but aren’t necessarily what God is wishing for us to do.

There are literally hundreds of examples in scripture of people shedding the old to make room for the new that God has prepared for them. Last week, I mentioned both Abraham and Jonah, who had to shed their preconceived ideas in order to venture out in a new direction. Think of the many others found in scripture.  Peter sinking in the waves and he had to shed his own fear and look into the face of Christ in order to be rescued.

Paul was bent on destroying Christians and was on his way to do so when he was struck down off his horse, blinded and sent to become the greatest Christian missionary of the past 20 centuries.  He had to shed his own will, his own preconceived ideas about God and embrace Christ. Noah had to shed the temptation of popular culture of his day.  When God said build an ark, he had to fight the urge to say, “Why do we need such a big boat?”  The prophets had to shed their own ideas of what God wanted in order to embrace what God ACTUALLY wanted. This shedding is a natural and vital process.

This morning, I want to focus on a scripture that reminds us that not only do all humans have to shed their own will, but so did Christ. For centuries, it has been debated by theologians whether Jesus was mostly human or mostly God.  Was he controlled by his human nature or by his divine nature. I don’t want to debate that this morning, only to say that Jesus went from being seated at the right hand of his father in heaven, to inhabiting human flesh in the form of a baby.  He became human.  He became flesh.  He shed his deity in order to walk among us. We know that at the beginning of his ministry, he was led into the wilderness where he was tempted.  Temptation is a human experience. To be human is to be tempted.  So I think we can say that he was certainly human.

More evidence of this is found in today’s text.  Jesus had just experienced several hours of intimate conversation in the upper room at what we call the “Last Supper.” After that, the bible says he went out to the Mount of Olives.  There he asked the disciples who were with him to remain behind a few yard and he went on ahead to a place where he was alone.  He knelt and prayed.  We don’t know what all he prayed.  He may have prayed those words recorded in John 17 but we really don’t know the full extent of his prayer.

What we do know is that he prayed these words:  "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done."  We could not find a more human statement than this.  It’s as if one of us were praying, “Lord, if it be your will, take this cup of cancer from me.  Take this cup of pain from me.  Take this cup of brokenness and divorce from me.”This was a moment of desperation as he faced the daunting future of the next 24 hours, facing the agony of the cross.The real human details and character of this passage is that Jesus had to face a shedding process of his own.  He had to let go of two very important elements.

When Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem, it was not a local or even international event.  It was a universal event.  It affected all of creation and all of the heavenly realms. God chose to become a man and live among us.  Jesus Christ, the second person of the trinity (Father SON and holy Spirit), came to earth in human skin to live among us.It is no wonder that as he walked the earth and performed miracles, demons shuttered and nature obeyed his commands. Jesus shed his place in heaven, left his place of prominence to enter human form.  It meant going from a palace to a hut, wealth to poverty.  He went from being king to being a servant.By doing so, he demonstrated to us that we too are joint heirs with Christ, heirs to the throne – but humility is the path of human growth.

Jesus not only shed his place of divine residence to come to earth, but he had to shed something that night in the garden of Gethsemane. As his human nature demanded justice and fairness, his duty demanded that he go through with what the Father required.  “Lord, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me.” But then we see the words that make it all make sense.  We then see His relationship to destiny.  yet not my will, but yours be done."  He was bending to the authority of his father and also doing what creation demanded. How many of you like to bend to authority?  How many of you like to be under the thumb of a higher command?  Think of when you were a teenager and how you looked forward to being out from under the authority of your parents?  When you were in the military, and you were discharged from service and no longer had to be under the command of an officer.

But Jesus bent to the authority of his heavenly Father, because our very lives and eternal destiny was at stake. All of creation was lost.  Every human born was marked with the curse of sin.  The role of Christ was and still is today, “atonement”.  His death meant our redemption.  His saying “YES”, was our salvation.I’m wondering if this request was more of a rhetorical request.  I’m not sure he was really trying to get out of going to the cross as much as he was expressing his human feelings.Whatever it was, he shed his human emotion and desire and accepted his divine destiny. If Jesus were willing to shed his divinity and then shed his own blood on our behalf, shouldn’t we be willing to lay aside our agenda and embrace his will for our lives? We have three prayer groups in our congregation.  For those of you who are in one of those three groups, I want to let you in on a secret.  A key element of prayer is “discernment.”  It means listening to God and then responding to God’s plan.  It means making a decision based upon prayer. 

This act of shedding is hard for us to do.  When we consider those famous “Seven Last Words of the Church”  WE’VE NEVER DONE IT THIS WAY BEFORE.   Those words work as a barrier, a hurdle to which we must clear in order to truly discern and listen to the will of God. What is God calling us to do as a congregation?  Certainly God has made it clear in His word what he wants us to do.  1.  He wants us to worship him.  2.  He wants us to invite others to worship him through evangelism.  3.  He wants us to love one another.  4. He wants us to live a life worthy of his calling.

But what unique, special calling does he have for this church?  I think we are still searching for what God has for us to do. But as I said earlier, God’s will is also fluid, constantly in motion, never static.  Congregations die when they stand still because they stop listening for God’s direction. They slip into a maintenance mode of operation where we go through the motions, perform the rituals of ministry, but cease responding to God’s ever-changing energy.  It becomes a spiritual COMA. We are not only reminded of Jesus’ perceived reticence about going to the cross.  We not only see his drops of sweat and blood. We have the benefit of seeing the whole picture. We not only see the death, but the resurrection.  We not only see the hammer pounding nails through his hands and feet, we see the nail prints in the risen savior. We see hope after despair.  We see daylight after the darkness.  God has promised us a new day, a new hope.  AMEN.


Touching the World/December 24, 2017

Second Baptist Lincoln
December 24, 2017

Luke 2:25-32

Embrace the World

 [25] Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. [26] It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ. [27] Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, [28] Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:


    [29] "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,

        you now dismiss your servant in peace.

    [30] For my eyes have seen your salvation,

    [31] which you have prepared in the sight of all people,

    [32] a light for revelation to the Gentiles

        and for glory to your people Israel."


Today, many of us will go to the homes of family or friends, or family and friends came to our homes. Or perhaps you may spend Christmas alone. If you spend it with family or friends, something many of you share will be a hug. Perhaps from an aunt you haven’t seen in a while or perhaps a hug just to show you care. I know you have heard me say this before, because I recently mentioned it in a sermon. We used to have a tradition in our family on holidays, and that was to wrestle. That’s right; from a family of old wrestlers, my brother and I would wrestle around and see who is the toughest. Well, after several years of adult maturity setting in, which included knowing our physical limits due to aches and pains, the wrestling matches subsided…until the following year! See, a new generation emerged. Young nephews who once wrestled each other have now grown to adult proportions. They had a new challenge in mind.  Can we beat our old man? Can we beat Uncle Steve? And so we inaugurated Grandma Katie and Grandpa Les’s downstairs and it became a wrestling arena.I think for both teenage boys and young adult and middle age men, it is a form of expression of both challenge and sport. But while guys don’t reach out and hug each other, we can throw each other around for a few minutes at a time – and in some ways, perhaps that is equivalent to a hug. I don’t know what the wrestling situation will be on Tuesday, but I can assure you that the guy with the pacemaker isn’t going to find out.


This sermon series and Advent emphasis has been about the Christmas touch. How we touch each other’s lives. Theologically, I believe there is something about an embrace that conveys a touch of grace. Jesus challenged his disciples to make their way into the world and love others the way he had loved them. Now, from the start, let me make clear that embracing the world with God’s love is not simply accomplished by giving someone a hug. But, it’s a start. The kind of friendship and acceptance symbolized by a hug signifies what it takes to win the world with love.

Let me tell you about a man who in my book is a world-class “hugger.” His parents called him Billy Frank. His wife calls him Bill. His face is drawn by gravitational pull of years. The wrinkles on his brow betray a life of hard work and stress. His legs are weak from Parkinsons. So, too, are his arms. His hands tremble involuntarily. His voice, once strong, is tired. He’s an elderly man now. For most of his life, this man has touched the world by holding before it the Christ of Christmas. Jesus knows the trembling hands that hold on to him with unflinching tenacity. He recognizes his faithful follower’s tender touch. He understands that the cause for which he came into our fallen world is the cause to which this frail man has committed his life. Since embracing Christ as a teenager, has carried in his heart a concern for all kinds of people in all kinds of places. The races of the world (whose color and accent reveals the Creator’s creativity) have been equally important to him. Since graduating from Wheaton College, this North Carolinian has walked his talk around the block and across the seas. Yes, William Franklin Graham is a living example of what it means to embrace others with the love of God. In Billy Graham, we see a nearly 100 year-old-man (but, nonetheless, enduring) hugger of humanity. 

As I think about Billy Graham, I’m reminded of that saintly senior citizen in Luke chapter 2 by the name of Simeon. Silver-haired, sun-tanned, certain of his destiny, old man Simeon lives each day for the touch of God upon his life. Although he has a predictable pattern to his routines, at his age, he is past the day of having to do certain things. But on this particular day, Simeon has no choice. He walks to the Temple, relying on his olivewood cane. Something inside has dictated his destination this day. And as he arrives in the Temple courts, his godly instincts are rewarded.

Joseph and Mary on this particular day have brought their infant son for the ancient Hebrew rite of dedication. Simeon walks toward them. Upon looking down into that infant’s face, the elderly Jew knew his decades-long wait was ended. Taking the child in his hands, Simeon hugs the infant Savior and holds him against his chest. Don’t you just love this picture? Leatherlike wrinkled skin. New pink baby skin. Flesh on flesh. Promise and fulfillment meshed. The picture you see is one that hangs in our living room year round. It is a depiction of Simeon holding and dedicating the Newborn Christ. 

Of all the people in the Christmas story, Simeon distinguishes himself as the one person who clearly understood the identity of the Christ child. Recall with me the old man’s noteworthy prayer as he cradled the newborn baby: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29–32). Lest we be confused by what he says, he repeats himself with different words. The Messiah is to be a source of light to the Gentiles as well as a source of glory to those who trace their line to Abraham. Both Jewish and non-Jewish people are included here.

In other words, everybody. Old, young. Rich, poor. The educated, the naïve. Or, in the words of the song we learned to sing in Sunday school, “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” Simeon is aware that Jesus came into the world to bear the sins of all the world. He knew what was in store. He knew what was necessary to purchase the salvation of the world. He knew the price tag was found in the manger.

A pastor and his wife were traveling in Arizona a few days before Christmas. After passing a sign that informed them that they had entered the scenic town of Sedona, they spotted a church half way up the side of a red mountain. Because the pastor enjoyed touring interesting churches, he asked his wife if she’d mind if they took a brief detour. They drove up the winding road to what turned out to be a small Episcopal chapel. It was overrun by tourists enjoying the million-dollar view they discovered from inside the sanctuary. In the basement of the church was a gift shop. The pastor followed his wife into the crowded room filled with religious art representing many nations. Together they marveled at the unique nativity sets from various cultures on the shelves. Especially attracted to one of the creches, the pastor looked in vain for the price. Upon asking the cashier, he was told that the value of each nativity set was indicated underneath the baby. Sure enough, as the couple examined the miniature figurines from around the world, the cost of each set was found under Jesus.

How appropriate, right? How much the holiday we have just enjoyed is worth is not in brightly wrapped packages, programs, or parties. It’s not in the decorations or traditions. As fascinating as the cast members of the original Christmas pageant are, you won’t find the price tag of God’s love under Mary or Joseph or the angels, shepherds, or wise men. It’s not under Zechariah or Elizabeth or even Simeon. But then again, Simeon would have been the first to tell you that. The worth of it all is found only in Jesus. He alone claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life. The way to God, the truth of God, and the only means for experiencing eternal life with God. And yet most people on earth have not heard that claim in a way they can understand. And that’s why it is essential that the worth of Jesus be disclosed in every language to every person of every age.

The trouble with the way most of us enter into and come out of the Christmas season is that we focus on the baby but overlook the reason for his birth. We think of the message sentimentally and in terms of ourselves. We love the carols. We enjoy the customs. We enjoy what the readings and rituals do to jump-start our personal worship. But for the most part, it is a very private celebration. We include family, close friends, maybe a few neighbors in our parties and gift-exchanges and act as though we are oblivious to the fact that we are those who God has charged with passing out his presence to the world.

The implications of the gospel are clear. You can reach out to a new year and face it without fear. When you’ve been touched by Christmas, you’re ready to embrace a world that remains clueless to what the stable accomplished. Amen.


A Fresh Touch from God/December 17, 2017

Second Baptist Lincoln
3rd Sunday in Advent
Dec. 17, 2017
Luke 1:5-25         

 A Fresh Touch from God

In 1963 Andy Williams released his first Christmas album which contained a song that has become one of the top ten holiday songs of all time – “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. So it’s not surprising that the song has been recorded by nearly 20 other artists ranging from Harry Connick, Jr. to Garth Brooks to Amy Grant to Chicago.But for many reasons, Christmas is not necessarily the most wonderful time of the year for everyone:

• For some, it’s the reminder of the loss of a loved one.
• For others, it’s a reminder of their broken families – perhaps as a result of a divorce or rebellious children.
• For still others, it brings attention to financial struggles that are going to be exacerbated by the money they feel pressured to spend to meet the expectations of the season.
• For many, it would more accurately be called “the most stressful time of the year”, with all the pressure to decorate, and send Christmas cards, and bake and to find just the right gift for everyone on your list combined with all the extra activities that occur this time of year.

It was a few days before Christmas on the North Dakota Prairie. Two men whose families lived next door opted to go pheasant hunting while their wives went Christmas shopping. An unexpected storm surprised the hunters.

Before long, the visibility was cut to zero, and the two had a difficult time finding their way through the tree rows. While heading toward their pickup, they had a hard time finding it. When they arrived at their pickup, they loaded their guns in the back and headed toward the main road.  At one point, their pickup slid slightly to the left and dropped into a deep ditch of snow. They were stuck. Knee-deep in snow and shoveling to free the tires and undercarriage.  Covered in snow with frosted cheeks and panting from the exertion, the one said to the other, "Sure beats Christmas shopping, doesn't it?" 

Maybe this Christmas you’re going through some trial or difficulty that is completely unrelated to Christmas – maybe a health issue or problems at work or relationship problems. So this really isn’t the most wonderful time of year for you, either. If, for any of those reasons or any others, Christmas isn’t the most wonderful time of year for you, then this morning’s message is particularly relevant for you. And even if you really love the Christmas season and things are going great for you, there are some things that all of us can learn that will be of great help in our lives and in the lives of others when the times of darkness and despair inevitably come.

For a certain couple I know of, the thought of Christmas conjured up three other words. "Where's our baby?" They knew the pain of infertility. They understood only too well why the condition from which they suffered used to be called "barren." An infertile couple knows the isolated torment of biological and emotional drought. They are familiar with the wasteland that separates the childless couple from a family-centered culture. This couple wanted children ever since they were first married. His position as a minister didn't pay extremely well, but his income was sufficient so that his wife would not have to work outside the home when children came along. But children never came along.

At first they weren't all that concerned. They had time. They were young. Besides, they had friends who hadn't been able to conceive right away but over the years got pregnant. "Sometimes it just takes time," their friends had said. But each month and each year went by with no results. They tried not to think about the fact that time was running out.  Every year had its predictable hard times. Family holidays were terrible. The aunts and uncles talking about potty training and discipline problems. The grandparents doting over the most recent grandchild. The nieces and nephews asking, "Why aren't you a mommy yet?" It was almost more than the couple could take. Well-meaning friends foisted flippant phrases their way. "Just relax." "Don't try so hard." "Take an extended vacation." "Why don't you adopt a child? You're sure to get pregnant then." "Have faith." "Just trust God." ("Oh, by the way, is there any unconfessed sin in your life that you've rationalized away?"). After a while, it got to him. He wished these well-wishers would come down with a lifelong case of laryngitis. How could so-called friends be so cruel? Like those confronted with the doctor's diagnosis of a terminal illness, the couple eventually found themselves working through a complicated emotional process. They became angry. You'd think that having a deep personal faith in God would make going through childlessness easier. Not for this godly couple. If anything, it made it worse.

The psalmist delineated the traditional biblical view of children: "Children are a reward from the Lord. Blessed is the man who has his quiver full." The Scriptures they knew so well were filled with story after story of couples like them who had not been able to have a baby and then, because of the gracious intervention of a merciful loving God, presto, they became pregnant. There was Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, Manoah and his wife, Elkanah and Hannah. And then there was that haunting reference to the faithfulness of God in Psalm 113. They knew it by heart. "Who can be compared with God enthroned on high? Far below him are the heavens and the earth; he stoops to look and lifts the poor from the dirt and the hungry from the garbage dump and sets them among princes. He gives children to the childless wife so that she becomes a happy mother."

Oh yeah? This wife was no happy mother. To denial, isolation, and anger -- ADD depression. The couple stumbled down the stairs into the emotional basement of despair. Without warning, she would just start to cry in the middle of the afternoon. The sound of children walking home from school was more than she could handle. Meanwhile the man kept his door shut at the office in hopes of not having to talk to anybody. When someone occasionally knocked, his stomach knotted up, and he refused to answer, pretending not to be there. In time, this couple embraced the last stage of their nightmare. Acceptance. No more anger. No more isolation. The dark clouds of depression had lifted. But life was not what it once had been. Now it was a series of predictable routine. It had taken years, but Zechariah had finally made peace with the fact that his wife Elizabeth was physiologically incapable of having a baby. And then the unthinkable happened.

This morning, consider the hand of God in Zechariah's life. He experienced a divine touch he had not really expected. When that touch came, it wasn't immediately obvious to him that it, in fact, was a touch from God. But in the several months of uncomfortable silence that followed, Zechariah recognized the fingerprints of God in new and unmistakable ways. In Luke 1, it is clear that Zechariah was spiritually sensitive. I believe that some people are more spiritually sensitive than others. Whether that sensitivity grew out of the painful disappointment of infertility or was already a reality when the diagnosis was clear, we don't know. But it seems fairly certain that Zechariah and Elizabeth had finally come to a point where they graciously accepted the test of faith God had allowed in their lives. They had come to terms with an empty nest syndrome that had nothing to do with kids moving out of the house. Why else would Luke make note of the fact that here were God-fearing people?  

But if Zechariah had become spiritually sensitive from the heartache and hardships he and Elizabeth had faced, then why didn't he immediately believe the incredibly good news the angel announced? Quite possibly, it's because of the ruts that had formed as the years had passed. (You know what a rut is, don't you? It's a grave with ends knocked out). Routines ruled the day. Elizabeth had her check- list of regular chores. So did Zechariah (which, in this particular instance, included doing his time at the Temple). They had grown accustomed to the predictable ways in which God involved and didn't involve himself.

You may not relate to the plight of infertility. But you most certainly relate to what it means to be a hostage to ruts and routines. When is the last time you could validate any sense of the supernatural in your day-to-day existence? Has God seemed strangely distant in relationship, as time has gone by? Do you feel worthless and useless? Barren and lifeless? I wonder if one of the lessons we might draw from this story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is God's delight in surprising us when we have given up hope. God is supremely gifted when it comes to creating what we think impossible (or recreating what we think we have screwed up for good). He's a virtuoso whose delicate touch can bring a beautiful melody out of the discord we have learned to live with. I may not be aware of the turmoil you are experiencing personally. Yet, we are all aware of the political and cultural turmoil of our nation and world. 

One of the most unusual Christmas carols is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the poem in 1863. In 1861, two years before writing this poem, Longfellow's personal peace was shaken when his second wife of 18 years, to whom he was very devoted, was tragically burned in a fire. Then in 1863, during the American Civil War, Longfellow's oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union cause as a soldier without his father's blessing. Charles soon got an appointment as a lieutenant but, in November, he was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church (in Virginia). Charles eventually recovered, but his time as a soldier was finished.Longfellow first wrote the poem on Christmas Day in 1863.  See if these two stanzas speak to you the same way they did to me. 
And in despair I bowed my head;
 "There is no peace on earth," I said;
 "For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
 Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
 Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
 "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

May we find peace and hope in our lives.  Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, may we experience the rich grace of God in the struggles of life, that we too can claim, “peace on Earth goodwill to me.” Amen.