The Bible Is…

Before I begin today, let me say this clearly. Historically, Americans have always had an appreciation of the Bible. It is not just limited to one place or generation. Consider these quotes with me:

          George Washington (1732-1799) once said, “It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible.”

Patrick Henry (1736-1799) once said, “The Bible is worth all the other books that have ever been printed.”

U.S. Grant (1822-1885) once said, “Hold fast to the Bible as the sheet-anchor of your liberties. Write its precepts in your hearts and practice them in your lives.”

Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) once said, “In all my perplexities and distresses, the Bible has never failed to give me light and strength.” 

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) once said, “A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.”

Those are some powerful quotes about the Bible. Do you believe America still holds the Bible in such esteem? After all, America has changed in many ways through the years. We have advanced in the areas of transportation, communication, and medicine. No one is traveling today by stagecoach. Very few do not have an email address, regardless of age. I have never had a parishioner, who requested heart surgery using 1860’s medical practices. America has advanced in many ways, but that is not true when it comes to the Bible. The Bible was once viewed as the word of God! Now the Bible is viewed as a curious piece of historical literature, which has truly little to offer our modern world. Our Biblical ignorance is at an all-time high.

For twenty-two years Jay Leno (born 1950) hosted The Tonight Show. Personally, I found Jay Leno to be entertaining. He had a routine of the show called Jay Walking. He would walk through the streets and ask people simple questions. Sometimes, he would ask people about current events. Sometimes, it was a about politics. One night he asked simple questions about the Bible. He asked the first person to name one of the Ten Commandments. A young man answered, “Freedom of Speech.” He then asked the person to finish the quote. Ye who is without sin _________. A middle-aged woman answered, “Has the most fun!” He then asked who in the Bible was swallowed by a great fish. An elderly gentleman answered Pinocchio. The correct answers are Honor your father and mother; cast the first stone and Jonah. If you did not know those answers than you have a problem.

The other day a friend told me, he and his wife were watching the game show Jeopardy. The final question of the show, Final Jeopardy, was a Biblical question. HE TELLS HIS SON NOT TO WORRY ABOUT THE LAMB FOR THE BURNT OFFERING – GOD WILL PROVIDE. One of the contestants answered JOB. Another answered Jacob. The third contestant answered, “This has been so much fun! Thank You! If you do not know the answer is Abraham, then you have a problem. Our Biblical ignorance is shocking, but you are not alone. I will admit I am guilty too.

When I was in seminary, a friend of mine came up to me with a book he had found in the library. It was a Bible trivia book. He asked he a few questions and I got half correct. I felt good about myself, until he showed me the title of the book, Bible Trivia for Children Ten Years Old and Younger. The copyright was in the 1870s. My friend laughed at me. Our Biblical ignorance makes us more like the man in our scripture lesson than we care to admit. If you are ready to look at the scripture reading for today say, “Amen!”

We are at the very end of the eighth chapter of Acts. We are told an angel of the Lord instructs Philip to go south to the road that runs between Jerusalem and Gaza. That angel is mentioned four times in the Book of Acts. Stephen mentioned the angel at his trial in chapter seven. The angel is mentioned twice in chapter twelve. The angel liberates Peter and strikes down Herod. This time, the angel instructs Philip to go to the desert road that runs between Gaza and Jerusalem. The distance between those two locations is fifty miles. Somewhere on that road he finds a unique traveler, an Ethiopian eunuch.

We know two things about him. First, we know his nationality. He was Ethiopian. In those days, Ethiopia was the upper Nile region. Second, we know his occupation. He was the treasurer in charge of the treasury of the queen of Ethiopians, Candace. He is a eunuch because he works with the queen and fornication will not be tolerated. Gentlemen can I ask you a question. Would you trade places with him? He has a wonderful job, but his personal life was lacking. In other words, his life is complex. No wonder he is on the side of the road studying the ancient text. His life is filled with questions. This is where the text begins to speak to us. When Philip finds the Ethiopian, he is reading the scriptures, but he does not understand the scriptures. It is one thing to read the words. It is another thing to understand the words. When was the last time you played the part of the Ethiopian? When was the last time you read the Bible but, you didn’t completely understand the words? The good news is the Ethiopian had Philip to help him. The bad news is you are stuck with me.

Today, I want to make three quick statements about the Bible. Each one of these statements is obvious. The originally came from James W. Moore (1938-2019). Each one of these statements is designed to make you think. My goal is simple. I want you to have a greater appreciation of the Bible. Reading the Bible is not optional to your faith. Reading the Bible is vital. I do not want you to be a spiritual weakling. I want you to be a spiritually-mature-Christian. So, if you are ready to begin say, “Amen!”

The Bible is Complex

This is statement number one. The Bible is complex. Only a fool would think the Bible is easy. There is nothing easy about the Bible. Sometimes, it is hard to understand the divine truth found in the Bible. There are sixty-six books in the Bible, thirty-nine in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New Testament. Have you ever read the Bible cover to cover? Have you ever stopped to consider how many kinds of literature are found in the Bible? Have you ever stopped to consider the age of each word found in the Bible? Have you ever studied the original languages of the Bible, Hebrew, and Greek, to expose some hidden meaning? The Bible is complex but what your mother told you is true. Anything worth having is worth working for. How hard are you working on your Bible skills? Spiritual weaklings do not even try to understand the Bible. If you have some work to do say, “Amen!”

The Bible is Practical

This is statement number two. The Bible is practical. Ronald Reagan once said, “Within the covers of the Bible are all the answers for all the problems man faces.” The Bible addresses a wide variety of practical topics. How would your life improve if you applied these Biblical models to your daily life? How many problems are you facing today would not exist if you would have followed the Biblical model from the very beginning? Are all your relationships healthy? Are your finances strong? Are you still worried about your salvation? The Bible covers these things because the Bible is practical. The Bible can help you with the biggest problem you are facing today! If that makes you think say, “Amen!”

The Bible is Eternal

This is statement number three. The Bible is eternal. The piece of scripture the Ethiopian is trying to understand is found in Isaiah 53, the suffering servant passage. Approximately 700 years before the birth of Christ, Isaiah was talking about Jesus. Martin Luther once said, “The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.” The great reformer understood the real meaning of the Bible. The Bible is all about Jesus, our only hope of salvation. And all of God’s people said, “Amen!”

In 1989, I was appointed to the Hathaway United Methodist Church in Garfield Heights. I have nothing negative to say about that congregation. They were good to me and we grew together. When I first arrived, I did my best to get to know everyone. I did my best to discover what kind of activities they would support. In the first few months, I took a survey to learn more about them. On the survey were a wide range of questions. One of the questions was: do you think this church should hold a regular Bible study? Ninety-eight per cent of the people said, “Yes!” So, I planned a weekly Bible study and decided to use the biggest room in the church. After all, 98% of the people said the church should hold a weekly Bible study. On the night I held the first Bible study I learned two things. First, I did not need the biggest room in the church. Second, I found out that evening I asked the wrong question. I should have asked would you attend a weekly Bible study. The survey told me 98% of the people said there should be a weekly Bible but less than 2% of the congregation came.

It has been a long time since my unsuccessful weekly Bible study. Do you know what happened to the Hathaway United Methodist Church? It pains me to say it. The church is now closed. They say it merged with other congregations, but a merger is really a closing. Hathaway did not close because the people were bad. Hathaway did not close because the people were lazy. Hathaway did not close because the people were not devoted to their church. Hathaway closed for spiritual reasons. Hathaway closed because the church was a spiritual weakling. Why would God lead people to a church that was spiritually compromised? If you want to find out if this church is a spiritual weakling, then just find out how many people attend our weekly Bible study. If it can happen there, then it can happen here. How important is the Bible to you?

How Content Are You?

Our scripture reading for today is Luke 15:11-32. Do you remember the material we recovered last week? A man had two sons. The younger son went to his father and asked for his share of the inheritance. It was an unusual request. Still today, the inheritance is not given until after death. The individual needs his or her estate to cover his or her own expenses. Yet, in the story, the father grants his son’s request. With cash in hand, he leaves home and for a short time lives life in the fast lane. He has a great time until the money runs out. So, basically, with his tail between his legs, he returns home, where his loving father celebrates his return. However, the elder son is not so welcoming.

While his younger brother was out there making memories, he was a at home working. Two-thousand years later, it does not seem fair. Anyone who has ever felt overwhelmed by responsibility can relate. Occasionally, I have uttered those words, “The next time I am going to be the irresponsible one.” Perhaps, it was the fatted calf that pushed him over the edge. Sometimes, you must take a stand. The older brother refuses to go to his younger brother’s welcome home party. Looking for family harmony, the father goes to his elder son and begs him to attend. After all, they are brothers. The elder son retaliates with a weapon I understand, sarcasm. He reminds his father of his faithfulness. He has been enslaved to him for years and has nothing to show for his loyalty. Then, he digs deeper and turns the knife. Verse 30 says, “But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” The words seem to fall on deaf ears. There is no other way to say it.

The older son is mad. He is mad at his little brother for leaving him to do all the work. He is also mad at his father because he feels underappreciated. However, he is also mad at himself. There is part of him who is envious of his brother. While his brother is out there making memories that will last a lifetime, he was working. While his brother is out there doing what he wanted to do, he was doing what other people expected him to do. There is a world of difference. There is something about his little brother he respects. Envy is defined as, a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck. In the end, he is mad at himself. That leads me to the question of the day: How content are you? Envy has the potential of robbing us of today’s joy and blinding us to today’s blessings.

If you ask the internet highway, how envy or jealousy is harmful, you will get these answers.

  1. Envy gives you a bad attitude. Envy is a negative emotion. Envy will lead you into crippling negativity.
  • Envy threatens your financial stability. Trying to live at someone else’s lifestyle is the beginning of the end, financially.
  • Envy will prevent you from being a good employee. Envy does not make you a team player at work and in the end will ruin your career.
  • Envy can lead to substance abuse. Envy produces anxiety and we cope with anxiety in negative ways, alcohol, over shopping, over-eating, etc.
  • Envy promotes self-doubt. Life is unfair. Some are born with more gifts and resources than others. Envy makes us feel like failures.
  • Envy frustrates progress. If you believe in the power of positive thinking, then the opposite is true. Negative thinking produces negative results.

Earlier this week, I had my annual one on one DS consultation with our District Superintendent, Abby Auman. We did it virtually by Zoom. I sat in my office in the church, and she sat in her home office. She had a colorful rainbow mural behind her. She asked me how I was doing. I am fine. She asked me about my plans. I really do not have any. Every day is a new adventure. I am living my dream. When my consultation was over, I found myself reviewing my time in the ministry. I have had a great ride!

I have been in the ministry nearly thirty-seven years; thirty-three years working within the United Methodist Church. I started off as a Youth Director in Frankfort, Indiana. That was when I was a student at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. I was not much of a Youth Director. When I transferred to Asbury Theological Seminary near Lexington, Kentucky, I became the pastor of the Pleasant Grove Christian Church near Lancaster, Kentucky. They were very patient with me. I transferred to the United Methodist Church when I was nearing graduation and served three small-membership churches: the Morristown Charge, including Morristown, Lloydsville and Bannock, in the old Saint Clairsville District. They were truly kind to me. When Kathryn and I got married, I served the Waltz United Methodist Church for a single year, in the old Wooster District. I felt guilty for leaving them so soon. In 1989, I was appointed the pastor of the Hathaway United Methodist Church, in Garfield Heights. I stayed there five years. During my time that church did well. That church is now closed. In 1994, I was appointed here and started my twenty-sixth year of service here in June. Of my thirty-seven years in the ministry, twenty-six have been spent here. That means, I have spent 70% of my time in the ministry here with you. Do you remember the question of the day?

How content are you with your life? In May, I turned sixty-three years old. That is a good sample size, so I feel qualified to answer the question. I am content with my life to this point. There was a time in my life when I was more ambitious. There was a time in my life when I dreamed of winning the world for Jesus Christ, the bigger the better, but no more. Now, I am just trying to survive. Yes, I have turned down opportunities to advance my career. I have said it a million times. I came here for my parents, who were aging. I stayed here for my children because this was a good place to grow up. I did not want them to become Methodist nomads. I stay here for me because I consider this place home. Each one of you is important to me. We have an odd relationship. I am not your friend and I am not your superior. I am your pastor. My only regret is that I lost years in the ministry worrying about moving, and I refuse to lose any more years worrying about retiring. Someone once told me I committed professional suicide by staying here, but that never bothered me. Why? Because, the ministry is not a career, it is a calling. In my heart of hearts, I know that God wants me here, and I trust God will tell me when it is time to go. God has been good to me. I am a blessed man because I have a contented life. The question is not if I have a contented life, the question is, do you have a contented life? How do you answer the question?

Years ago, this church had an employee by the name of Carl. He was not just the custodian; he was the most important person in the church. He had held that position for twenty-five years and everything went through Carl. Every meeting in those days ended the same way. Someone would say, “I will check with Carl.” It was Carl who gave the thumbs up or the thumbs down. Do not get me wrong, Carl was a gifted man in many ways, but he was not the ultimate authority. By the time I arrived, Carl’s performance was on the way down, but few complained, because it was Carl. No one complained until Carl never came to work, and we still paid him. (This is a good place to work.) He had his church friends doing his job. When the end finally came, it was awkward. The board voted to send him a registered letter. It was sent, and Carl was gone. However, Carl was not really gone.

A staff appreciation day was organized and everyone on staff, including Carl, was invited. Some wanted to thank Carl for his years of service. That was a nice thing to do. Everyone on staff was there. The long-time organist was there. The long-time secretary was there. The short-term choir director was invited. I was invited. Carl was invited, and Carl came. At the right moment, kind words were expressed, a prayer was uttered, and small gifts were distributed. When it was all over, I walked up to Carl and shook his hand. I said, “Carl, twenty-five years is a long time; you should be proud.” I still think about his response to that statement. He said, “I would be proud, if I was proud of what I had done.” What I heard Carl say was, he did not live up to his own expectations. He did not have a contented life, because he longed to do more. His body language told me, he felt like a failure. I felt bad for Carl because contentment was a million miles away. Can you relate to that story?

How content are you with your life? Like Carl, the elder son was not content with his life. In a certain way he felt like a failure because he did not do what he wanted to do. This is the truth. Envy must be balanced. Unchecked envy has the potential of blinding us to our daily blessings, but controlled envy has a way of calling us to do more. What do you still want to do? Do you remember the definition of envy? It is a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck. How content are you?

Harry Truman’s Demise

Volcano Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980. It was not a surprise. For two months prior to the massive blast occurred the most deadly and destructive in American history; earthquakes and volcanic activity signaled a major event was underway. Authorities had plenty of time to sound the alarm and warn those living nearby of the looming danger. Yet despite the seriousness of the threat, some people chose to disregard the warnings.

Probably the best known of those who refused to evacuate was Harry Truman. No, not Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) the 33rd president of the United States, the former president. Harry R. Truman (1896-1980) owner and caretaker at the Mount St. Helens Lodge at Spirit Lake. He had survived the sinking of his troop ship by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland during World War I, and he was not about to leave just because scientists thought there was danger. Truman told reporters, “I don’t have any idea whether it will blow. But I don’t believe it to the point that I’m going to pack up.” On May 18, 1980, Truman and his lodge were buried beneath 150 feet of mud and debris from the volcanic eruption. His body was never found. So, with that story in mind let me ask you a question.

What killed Harry Truman? Was it the eruption of Mount St. Helens? Was it Harry Truman’s arrogance who ignored the warning? To me, the answer is obvious. History will remember him not as a maverick. History will remember him as a fool. Only a fool ignores warnings. With this in mind, let us look at our primary scripture lesson.

We find ourselves today in the Gospel of Luke. It and the sequel of this Gospel, Acts, were written by Luke, a companion of Paul about the year 70. Both Luke and Acts are written to Theophilus, a lover of God. It may have been an individual named Theophilus or a group of individuals who loved God. For our use it does not really matter. The recipients of this letter were originally Gentiles, non-Jews, like us. Personally, I like Luke for one reason. I like telling stories and Luke is a master storyteller. You would not want to change a single word. Today’s story is no exception.

The story begins by introducing the main characters. “There was a man with two sons.” Then, he exposes the storyline. “The younger son came to his father and said, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’” This was a highly unusual request. Even today, the estate is not divided until after the owner’s death. The owner needs his estate to cover his own expenses. Yet, the father grants his son, taking money out of his own pocket. According to Old Testament law, Deuteronomy 21:17, the younger son received half of the amount his elder brother would receive in the future. It has been said, “A fool and his money are soon parted.” That is the story of the young son. With his cash in hand, he goes out and lives the wildlife. I will let you fill in the blanks. It is safe to say the young man had a good time, but then then good time ran out. A famine in the land and the young man had no funds. He looks for employment, but he has few options. He hits rock bottom on the day he found himself longing for the pods the pigs were eating. That is truly rock bottom for a Jew. Then, he has an idea that changes his life. He will swallow his pride and go home to ask his father for a job. His employees are eating. He does just that, but he does not just get a job. He gets a reception. Some call the parable The Parable of the Loving Father, because the father welcomes home his wayward son. The father is remembered for his love. The younger son is remembered for his sins of the flesh. We call sins of the flesh sins of commission.

So why is the story of the younger son important to you and to me? The reason is we are like the younger son in one way and unlike the younger son in another way. We are like the younger son because each one of us is a sinner. That is not not my opinion. It is Biblical. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.” That means you and I are sinners and have not lived up to God’s high standards. We are unlike the younger son because we have not confessed our sins. Many are in denial about their sinful state.

Several months ago, I was talking to a small group of people. We were talking about nothing important. I tried to spice up a boring day, so I gave everyone a hard time. In the end, I called them all sinners, and everyone laughed. Then, one woman in the group said something I have not forgotten. She said, “Russ, what is the big deal about sin? You just go to confession and keep living.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the great German theologian, called that cheap grace. In other words, it is receiving grace without repentance. Please do not take that as an anti-Catholic statement. I believe, she spoke for many in our time. It does not matter if you are Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox. It does not matter if you are a believer or a non-believe, an atheist or an agnostic. It is safe to say our generation does not take sin seriously. The question is, why? There are two reasons we do not take sin seriously. Maybe it is not one or the other. Maybe it is a combination of the two. Consider these two options with me.

This is option number one. Maybe we do not take sin seriously because of the news? We are overexposed to the harshness of this world. For years, Kathryn and I watched the news to know what was happening in the world. Several months ago, we broke that habit. I got tired of the biased reporting and the political agenda. Our national news has stopped being news. It has become an editorial. However, I also stopped watching the news because it has become so harsh. The list of nightly reports is not pleasant. There always a story about some violent crime. There is always a report about a sexual offender. There is another murderer, who was going to prison for decades. (Our country seems to have money to put people in prison, but no money to send people to college.) The list goes on, so we turned the news off. You know the truth. In comparison to that list of bad characters, we look good. How easy it is to see the sins in others. How hard it is to identify our own sins. Maybe the news is the problem. That is option number one. I believe there is some truth in that statement. Or maybe, the problem is more.

This is option number two. Maybe we do not take sin seriously because we do not take the church, itself, seriously? You can blame the church’s self-inflicted wounds. Why listen to the church about sin if the church is filled with the biggest sinners? You can blame the church, or you can blame society. If you do not believe me than look about how church in portrayed in the media. We are portrayed as weird and out of touch. To them we are comical. So, why listen to the church about sin if the church is not seen as a creditable source? Maybe that is why we hear so much about volunteerism? This is the unspoken. In those community service hours, we are earning our salvation. That is simply wrong. We are saved by grace and by grace alone. After all, we are all sinners. Do you believe our society does not take sin seriously because of option one or option two? Or do you believe our society does not take sin serious because of a combination of the two? Regardless, it clear to me our society does not take sin seriously. Yet, this is equally true.

God does take sin seriously. The Greek word sin means “to miss the mark.” That means every time we sin; we miss the mark. We often miss the mark because God has set the standard high. God is just and God deserves our obedience. The problem is we are all sinners, so Jesus died on the cross sacrificially for our sins. However, that does not mean we should take our sins lightly. Our sins do damage in five different ways.

  1. Sins cause separation from God. Sin, itself, is an offense to God, and God cannot be in the presence of sin. Every time you sin you put distance between you and God.
  • Sins are harmful to you. God expects us to live life at his standard. The sins we commit, in the end, do damage to ourselves.
  • Sins is harmful to the people in your life. The people you love the most are forced to live with the consequences of your sins.
  • Sin are a catalyst for more sin. The word is compromise. One small sin will lead to greater sins.
  • Sin is a death sentence to unbelievers. Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death.” Believers have their sins washed away by the blood of Jesus. Non-believers go to hell because of the sins they have committed.

Those five points came from Christian blogger Derek Hill. Through the eyes of God, sinning is not a small matter. Take this warning seriously. Be like the younger brother, confess your sins and accept your father’s love.

If you have not heard there is a presidential election coming, so I am going to end with a story from another presidential election from the past. It has never been pretty. In 1884, Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) was running against James G. Blaine (1830-1893) for the presidency of the U.S. Blaine supporters discovered that Cleveland, who was a bachelor at the time, had fathered a son by Mrs. Maria Crofts Halpin, an attractive widow who had been on friendly terms with several politicians. Subsequently, Republicans tried to pin an immorality tag on Democrat Cleveland. The move, however, backfired badly. Rather than deny the story, Cleveland decided to confess and admitted he was the father. The population respected Cleveland for confessing and elected him the twenty-second president of the United States. The story reminds us confession is a good thing.

You have been warned. Only a fool does not accept a warning. Confess your sins! Are you going to be like Harry Randall Truman in Mount St. Helens or are you going to be like the younger brother who confessed and received his father’s love? What do you have to confess?

God’s Misunderstood Commandment

We find ourselves today in the twentieth chapter of Exodus. It is impossible to summarize the story in any detail. It will have to suffice to say, God made a promise to Abram that his people would become a great nation. God kept his word and generations later his descendants found themselves enslaved in Egypt. They cried for a liberator and God sends them Moses. Does any of this sound familiar? Have you seen the movie? It was a great day when God’s Chosen people left Egypt and faced the harshness of the wilderness. God watched over his people and protected them from the Egyptians. Once safe, God summons Moses to Mount Sinai. It is on Mount Sinai God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. They are written on stone tablets.

The Ten Commandments will not save you soul. We are saved by grace and by grace alone. Jesus is your only hope of salvation. However, that does not mean the Ten Commandments are worthless. We consider them guidelines for holy living. They may sound familiar. As they say, in the day they were posted in schools.

  1. You shall have no other “Gods” before me.
  2. You shall not make yourself an idol.
  3. You shall not take the name of God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and mother.
  6. Do not murder.
  7. Do not commit adultery.
  8. Do not steal.
  9. Do not lie.
  10. Do not covet.

You can categorize the ten. The first four deal with our relationship with God. The last six deal with our relationship with other people. It is number four that grabs our attention today. It is God’s misunderstood commandment.

Number four says, remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Listen to what I am about to say. God gave us the fourth commandment because he loves us. He knew we have limitations. Two things should happen on the Sabbath. They are equally important. First, on the Sabbath, we should rest physically. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) once said, “Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work, your judgment will be surer…Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller.” We need to rest physically. Second, on the Sabbath, we should recharge ourselves spiritually. Evangelical preacher and radio host Woodrow Kroll (born 1944) said, “The God who made us can also remake us.”  We need to be recharged spiritually. God knew we needed to take one day each week to rest physically and recharge ourselves spiritually. The fourth commandment is easy. It is people who have made it overly complex.

Do you know of anyone who has tried to restrict the Sabbath? That is what you find in this morning’s Gospel lesson. According to the story, Jesus and the disciples are walking through a wheat field. The text says it clearly. It is the Sabbath. As they walked, they picked some heads of grain. It is easy to visualize because nothing really happens. No one really cares, except the legal beagles. They cried, “Foul!” The disciples are not really doing anything wrong. However, the orthodox leaders of the day are right. Technically speaking, the disciples were harvesting on the Sabbath. Technically speaking, they broke the fourth commandment, remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. The leaders knew the law, but they had lost the Spirit of the law. The fourth commandment does not exist to limit our fun. It exists so we can rest physically and recharge ourselves spiritually.

The orthodox leaders of Jesus’s generation were experts at restricting the Sabbath. Did you know there were 1,521 manmade laws protecting the Sabbath during Jesus’s generation? Some, quite frankly, were impossible to keep. Some sound ridiculous to our generation. According to their manmade law, one could not cook a meal, light a fire, look in a mirror, pick up a needle or lift a baby on the Sabbath. According to the manmade law, you could not save a drowning man, shave your face, or take a bath on the Sabbath. According to the manmade law, you could not ride a horse, move a lamp, or take your medicine on the Sabbath. On the Sabbath you could save your ox that had fallen into a hole, but you could not get yourself out of the hole. I could go on, but I will not. The orthodox leaders of the faith restricted the life out of the Sabbath. The fourth commandment exists so you can physically rest and be spiritually recharged. Do you know of anyone who has restricted the Sabbath? We saw that a great deal in the past.

Years ago, I had a friend by the name of Suzanne. She was raised in a missionary family in Africa. They returned to the United States during her high school years. She would tell us how her parents were famous for restricting the Sabbath. Outside of worship, reading the Bible and prayer, the only thing she was permitted to do on Sunday was listen to the Salvation Army band. You know it is true. Generations ago, many in our land restricted the Sabbath. You could not dance on the Sabbath. You could not play cards on the Sabbath. Many were not permitted to visit friends on the Sabbath. Can I be honest with you? I am glad those days are over! The manmade rules made the Sabbath too much work. The fourth commandment exists so you can physically rest and be spiritually recharged.

Do you know of anyone who has redefined the Sabbath? The word “Sabbath” means ‘seventh day’. The seventh day of the week is Saturday. The Jewish world still observes their Sabbath on Saturday. We observe our Sabbath on Sunday because Jesus was resurrected on Sunday. We worship on Sunday morning because Jesus was resurrected on a Sunday morning. Every Sunday is designed to be a little Easter. For the Christian world, Sunday is a time for Jesus. How much time are you spending with Jesus?

Several years ago, I read an article about a company that was having a horrible problem with drugs. The problem became so great, the company began random drug testing. The CEO of the company said they would test their employees on Monday because people party on the weekend. If you are Jewish, then your Sabbath is Saturday. If you are Christian, then your Sabbath is Sunday. Think about it for just a second. It is incredibly sad. Those days were designed to be the Lord’s days, but they have become party days.

Do you know of anyone who has redefined the Sabbath? What pops into your mind when I say the word SUNDAY? If you answer church, worship, or God, then you are in the minority. Many people in our land equate Sunday with a day off. You know what I mean. It is a day to get some extra sleep. It is a day to slow down. It is a day to watch football and do what you want. There was a day when church attendance was expected. Now, church attendance is optional. Observe your neighbors next Sunday. How many of them have decided not to go to church? They deserve a day off! You really cannot blame them.

To a certain degree you cannot argue with them. They make two very good points. First, we believe in an omnipresent God. In other words, we believe you can experience God anywhere. You can experience God on the beach. You can experience God on the golf course. You can experience God walking in the woods. You can experience God in your bed. God is everywhere. If God is everywhere, then why go to church? Second, we have a surplus of ugly church stories. You have heard the stories. Some professional clergy have done some ugly things. Some lay people have done some ugly things. Every church seems to have their share of ugly politics. There is too much drama within the life of the church. One of the reasons I exist in the ministry is I try to stay away from the drama. When I am really frustrated, it seems like every church has become blind to the primary mission of the church: making disciples for Jesus Christ. However, this is equally true.

Even with all our imperfections, your best opportunity to experience God is at church. Has anyone here experienced God at the beach, at the golf course, in the woods or in your bed? I guess you could, but I do not think so. His name maybe mentioned but no one is really experiencing God. I am convinced only one kind of church will survive in the future. They are not churches that have fine-tuned their fundraising skills. They are the churches where people experience God regularly. When was the last time you experienced God? The fourth commandment exists so you can physically rest and be spiritually recharged.

Years ago, Kathryn and I sold our cottage at Lakeside on Marblehead peninsula. There was a time when the cottage was the focal point of my family life; however, the time came to sell it. Our lives had gone in different directions. I would like to say I miss it, but I do not. I am not going to break commandment number nine, do not lie. I never caught the magic of Lakeside. I miss absolutely nothing about it. I always felt like an outsider. I do not miss the gate fee. (It is now over $25 to get into Lakeside, plus your car pass. I am confident the dog pass is coming.) I do not miss my neighbors (they were odd, not cool like me.) I do not miss the annual repairs. (It was built in 1883 and I am not a handy man.)

The only thing I miss about Lakeside is my annual trip to the cottage to close it up for the winter. I do miss those trips. It was like a twenty-four-hour retreat. I was alone and all my neighbors were gone. The place was empty. There is nothing better than Ohio in October. It is simply beautiful, full of color. For once, I did what I wanted to do. After the work was done, I would walk through those historic streets, walk along the lake front, take a nap and work on my next sermon. In the evening, I drove to the Confederate Cemetery on Johnson Island, ate at my favorite restaurant, where I ate my favorite meal. It was great being ignored. At dusk, I would drive to the Marblehead lighthouse and watch the sun go down. If I close my eyes, I can remember everything. The air was cool, and the water was a steel gray and calm. There were boats in every direction. The sun was brilliant. As it drew closer to the horizon, it generated a million shades of red, orange and gold. I would sit on the rocks in silence until that luminous ball disappeared.

Have you ever thought about a sunset? No two are the same. Every time, I thought about the timelessness of that sunset. It has been setting long before I was born. It will set long past my death. That made me feel small. I felt even smaller when I thought about God, who placed that sun in the sky. I felt humbled when I thought about the vastness of God. Why would he care so much for me? Why would he call me, with all my imperfections, into the ministry? Every time I made that trip to the lighthouse and experienced one more sunset, I was completely at peace with God. I hope I did not break the rules. I had my Sabbath in the middle of the week. I miss those trips. I physically rested and I experienced God. When was the last time you observed a Sabbath? Exodus 20:8 says, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” 

Our Unchanging God

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “my messenger,” but we just call him Malachi. He lived approximately the year 400 BC. That means he lived 100 years after Haggai and Zechariah, the Minor Prophets we looked at the last two weeks. Time did change certain things. The reconstruction of the temple was complete. However, certain things did not change. The spiritual renewal that Haggai and Zechariah desired never happened. God’s Chosen People were stuck in a spiritual funk. The book of Malachi echoes their spiritual condition. It is a dialogue between God and His Chosen People. Malachi acts as the go between. God is concerned about the unfaithfulness of both the priests and the people, themselves. Yet, God does not give up on his people. The book ends with a word of hope. Someday the Messiah would come. Jesus would be born four hundred years later. The background is interesting, but one verse stands above the rest.

Last Sunday evening, I googled the question, what is the most important verse in Malachi. The answer did not surprise me. The answer came back, Malachi 3:6, “I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” That verse grabbed both my attention and imagination. In a world that is constantly changing, it is refreshing to find something that remains the same.

On month from today I will be in Yellowstone National Park. Due to the pandemic, Kathryn and I have not been out of the area since last October. We are going to be gone for two weeks. It will be a great trip. We start off at Mount Rushmore near Rapid City, South Dakota. Then, we travel to Billings. Montana. We will spend three days in Yellowstone, travel to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and end up in Salt Lake City. It was supposed to be a bus trip, but the company canceled the tour when the coronavirus invaded. We are renting a car and following the same route. I am excited about the trip because I have never been to that part of the country.

I am really looking forward to seeing Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. It has always fascinated me. It was named by explorers in September 1870. In the early days of the park it was used as a laundry because of the ample hot water. It erupts approximately every ninety minutes and shoots up to 8,400 gallons of hot water into the air some 150 feet. Historians tell us there are records of Old Faithful erupting 500 years ago. Old Faithful has erupted more than 1,000,000 times. It is safe to say it is as old as the earth, itself. Old Faithful is the same, but the world has changed over that period. Only a fool would say our world has not changed since Old Faithful erupted the first time!

One of my favorite places in Ohio is Johnson Island. It is located off the Marblehead Peninsula in Ottawa County. Over the last few years, the rich have come to develop it, but for many years it was rustic. On the north coast of that island is a Civil War cemetery. It is filled with former Confederate officers from the deep south. It is all that remains of a former prisoner of war camp. The Union built it there because it was so remote. The Daughters of the Confederacy maintain it. I love to take that short walk to the shore of Lake Erie. If you look out across the water, you can see Cedar Point Amusement Park. If you turn around you can see the graves. The contrast is shocking. Do you believe our world has changed since the Civil War? Would you like to be operated on using Civil War era medicine or knowledge? Only a fool would think our world has not changed since the Civil War!

How much has the world changed in your lifetime? I was born in 1957. When my parents moved to Warren, they lived in an apartment at first. When my sisters were born, they bought one of the few houses for sale in town. They paid $5,400. According to Zillow, that house is now worth $60,000. When I was very young my parents only had one car. I remember riding the bus occasionally. Our black and white television set got three stations. I remember the day we got our first color television. I remember the color nob to adjust the color from red to green. The first movie we watched in color was Alford Hitchcock’s The Birds. I remember the day they got an antenna that moved so we could watch Cleveland or Pittsburgh. We thought we were flying. I remember the day John Kennedy was shot. The announcement came out of the school’s public address system. I remember my teacher, Mr. Fuller, went to the hall and cried. I remember the day Martin Luther King getting shot and my dad wondered how the world could get any worse. It did. I remember the milk man coming to the house. He left the milk in a small silver box on the front porch. His name was Gilbert. He sold pop-cycles on the side for a nickel. How much has the world changed in your lifetime? Only a fool would think our world has not changed!

How much has our world changed in the past twenty years? The people at Insider released a list of ways our world has changed since 2000. It was only twenty years ago much has changed. This is their list of ten changes:

  1. The internet has taken over. It is no longer a novelty. It is a requirement.
  2. Landline telephones are disappearing. Everyone has a cell phone.
  3. Smoking in restaurants is history. There is no longer a smoking section.
  4. Streaming services, like Netflix, have become the rage.
  5. It is impossible to get away on vacation. The internet will find you.
  6. People now fear terrorism and mass shootings.
  7. People are more likely to text than leave a voice mail.
  8. Online dating is the norm.
  9. Airport security has redefined travel.
  10. More pictures are being taking by cellphones than cameras.

All those changes have taken place in the last twenty years. How has your life changed in the last twenty years? How will our change in the next twenty years? Only a fool would say our world has not changed!

How much has our world changed since the pandemic began? In March of this year, The Washington Post predicted the pandemic would change our world in several significant ways. This is their list:

  1. Mass gatherings are a thing of the past.
  2. Political melodrama will escalate.
  3. In person doctor’s appointment will end.
  4. Working from home will be the new normal.
  5. Handshaking is obsolete.

How much has your life changed since March? It has been reported, 99% of all Americans have experienced change due to the pandemic. I would like to meet the 1% who have not experienced change. They must not have understood the question. Only a fool would say our lives have not changed since the pandemic began. This is the point.

Our world has been changing for a long time, but God remains the same. This message is not called Our Changing World. This message is called Our Unchanging God. This message is not about volatility, it is about stability. We hear it in the Malachi reading, “I the Lord do not change.” We hear it in the ninetieth Psalm says, “From everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” This is not a new concept or discovery. It should be a foundational piece of your understanding of God.

One of the reasons you come to church is not to expound on your understanding of God. You come to church to learn about God. Churches teach about God in a variety of ways, sometimes from the pulpit, sometimes from the classroom, sometimes in our music. Hymns are not just a collection of pleasing notes. Hymns teach us theology. They teach us about the basic elements of the Christian faith. Let me give you an example. In 1867, a new hymn came out. It was called Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise. It was written by Walter C. Smith. It is a loved hymn in traditional worship. We have sung it countless times. There is a stanza in that hymn about the unchanging character of God. Do you remember it? It goes:

          We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,

          And wither and perish – but naught changieth Thee!

In other words, we change regularly, but God remains the same. God is God and God does not change. Whatever God is, God always has been, and God always will be. That is important to remember in our changing world.

Theologians call it immutability. The word is not connected to physical appearance. It does not mean God does not get gray or God does not need hip surgery. The word means the character of God does not change. Our reading for today, Malachi 3:6, is one of several verses which attests to the immutability of God. So, in what ways does God not change? This is the list.

God is:

          Always wise

          Always powerful

          Always holy

          Always just

          Always good

          Always true

          Always gracious

          Always present

          Always knowledgeable.

          Always sovereign

          Always loving

God is unchanging! Let me end with public service announcement.

It was in the newspaper last weekend. The Niles First Presbyterian Church will be hosting their last worship service tonight, August 30, 2020, at 6:00. It has been located at the corner of Robbins Avenue and Summit Street for more than sixty years. If you are interested, they are serving refreshments at the conclusion of the service. I have never attended a worship service in that church, but I find myself mourning at its closure. It is sad to see any church close. I am sure the people were nice. I am sure the congregation was committed. I am sure the building was well maintained. I am sure the pastors for the past fifty years were assigned the task to rebuild the congregation. It is hard to do in an area with a shrinking population base.

A closing church is a sign that the world is changing. I am not saying the world is getting worse or the church was bad. I am not saying the members of every closing church were not gifted. I am not saying younger generations are not spiritual or religious. All I am saying is the world is changing. That should not be a big surprise because the world has always been changing. The problem is people are reluctant to change. That is why God is so appealing to us. God never changes. Malachi knew it. He quoted God, I the Lord do not change. Isn’t that refreshing?

Promises, Promises

One of the great names in American history is Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924). A Democrat from New Jersey and former president of Princeton University, he served as the 28th president of the United States from 1913-1921. In 1912, he ran against Bull Moose candidate Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and Republican William Taft (1857-1930). In 1916, he ran against Republican Charles Evans Hughes (1862-1948). Many credited his victory to a promise summarized in a single phrase, HE KEPT US OUT OF WAR! Isolationism was the rage at the time in America.The country did not want to get involved in World War I because it was a European war. He broke that promise. Twenty-nine days after being sworn into office for the second time, Wilson asked a joint session of Congress for a Declaration of War against Germany. It was granted two days later. History has judged Wilson harshly for that move. Many believe he lied to the country. They say, he never intended to stay out of the war. Making a promise you never intend to keep is called a criminal promise.

I would like to say Woodrow Wilson is the only one who ever broke a campaign promise, but I am not going to lie to you. I would like to say Politian’s are the only ones to break promises, but I am not going to lie to you. Sadly, we all know people who make empty promises. They make promises they never intend to keep for personal gain. Within the life of the church, there is no room for criminal promises. We follow the example of God, Himself, who always keeps his promises. It has been said, people with good intentions make promises. People with good character keep them.” That leads us to our scripture lesson.

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “the Lord has remembered,” but we just call him Zechariah. He lived approximately 500 before the birth of Christ and he spoke to the postexilic Jews who were living in Judah. In other words, he spoke to Jews who had returned home after the exile. Like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, he was a member of a priestly family. He was a contemporary of last week’s Minor Prophet, Haggai, so the historical background may sound familiar.

Those were complex times. The conqueror of Babylon, Cyrus of Persia, issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Approximately 50,000 Jews did just that. Two years later, the foundation was done, which caused political unrest in the area. They were seen by their neighbors as a new political force. Construction was halted to calm their neighbor’s fears. The construction did not begin again until a new king sat on the throne, Dairus. He was interested in the religious traditions of his empire and encouraged the reconstruction. Haggai and Zechariah began to preach during his reign. Both prophets longed for spiritual renewal. Both prophets encouraged the people to reconstruct the temple. However, the messages of the two prophets are different. Haggai blamed the people, themselves, for their inactivity. The problem was not a lack of construction equipment. The problem was their mixed-up priorities. Zechariah told the people if they returned to God, then God would return to them. Zechariah speaks more of the about the coming Messiah than any other Minor Prophet. That is what we hear in the scripture reading for today, Zechariah 9:9-11.

In our reading are two great promises. Verse nine speaks of his first coming. The words may sound familiar. We read them annually on Palm Sunday. Verse nine says, “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” If you use your sanctified imagination you can see Jesus riding into Jerusalem in front of a great crowd. The crowd cheered for Jesus because they had grown tired of foreign rule. They wanted a political revolution. The problem was Jesus came for a spiritual revolution. He sacrificed himself in the next few days for the sins of the world. It looked bad on Friday but on Sunday he would be resurrected. It is the greatest moment in the history of the world. God promised a Messiah would come.

In verse ten, God makes a second promise, the Messiah will come a second time and unite the world, “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” When Jesus returns, he will unite our fractured world. Many believe Jesus is returning soon. They may be right, but the time of his return is unknown. Not even Jesus knew when he would return.

Both verses stand side by side as a tag team duo offering hope for the generations to come. Our generation stands in the middle of these two great promises. We celebrate Jesus’ first coming annually on Christmas Eve, but we are forced to wait patiently for his second coming. They are two great promises and we celebrate because God keeps his promises. These is not the only promises made in the Bible. I read this week God has made 5467 promises in the Bible.

The people at the Spiritual Café say you can break the promises of God down into seven different categories. This is their list:

  1. God promises to be with us
  2. God promises to protect us
  3. God promises to be our strength
  4. God promises to answer our prayers
  5. God promises to provide for us.
  6. God promises us peace
  7. God promises to love us

I like that list of seven. Perhaps, I will turn them, or a version of them, into a sermon series in the next few months. It is important to study God’s promises because God does not break his promises. There are times we are like God. We make promises we intend to keep. Those are the promises we make we are committed to keep, like the promise you made to your spouse at your wedding to be faithful. We call those completely committed promises strong promises. If you have ever made a strong promise say, “Amen!” Sadly, not all the promises we have made are strong promises.

The problem is sometimes we break our promise because the situation changes. We call those soft promises. We are all guilty. I am guilty of making soft promises.

Several years ago, I was at Annual Conference at Lakeside, Ohio. I will admit it, I have been critical of Annual Conference through the years. It is part of my routine. However, it is more than a business meeting. It is also a revival and a reunion. For me that is the best part. I enjoy seeing people who served with me in the past. One-night, I went for a walk. I was walking on the dock on the shore of Lake Erie. I was on the other side of the bell tower when I saw an old friend. We came to this district the same year, but he retired several years later. We both smiled and shook hands. (You were permitted to shake hands at that time. They were pre-pandemic days.) He got me caught up on his retired life and asked me what was new. I said nothing because there was nothing new.  He asked me how long I had been at here at Western Reserve. I gave him the answer at that time. It was fifteen or twenty years. He asked me what so many have asked me, “Why did you get to stay at Western Reserve? We are supposed to be itinerant?” Itineracy is when the Bishop moves you to a new church and you do not have a voice in the matter. I gave him my canned answer, “They are just trying to limit the damage to one spot.” I laughed but he did not. He said, “Russ, you broke the promise you made at your ordination. You promised to be itinerant. You promised to go where where the Bishop sent you.” Can I be honest with you? He was right.

I broke my promise to be itinerant. I have been told I have been black balled because I broke that promise. I really do not care. I broke my promise because the situation changed. It is easy to make that promise when you are young and single. It was easy to make that promise when you owned nothing and have no one. This is my twenty-sixth year here and I am glad I broke that promise. I have missed nothing by not moving. I have gained so much by staying. Many of my peers are retired because of the hardships they experienced because they moved. I do not see how damaging my family, making them move like Methodist gypsies, can bring glory to God. I am clueless how changing pastor’s regularly is healthy for any congregation. It is like if your mom brought a different dad home every five years. Just look around and see then damage that has been done. However, I really broke my promise for one reason and one reason only. I believe in my heart of hearts this is where God has called me. On the night I was ordained, I promise to be itinerant, but the situation changed. I thought I was making a strong promise. I guess it was a soft promise. Experience has taught me our strong promises come from deep within our hearts.

March 25, 1990 was a Sunday. I am confident of that because that was the day my daughter, Anna, was born. My wife, her mother, Kathryn had a busy day. In the morning, she led worship, preached, and baptized a baby. We went out to lunch with my in-laws and went home to lay down. When she got up, she announced she needed to go to the hospital. When we arrived at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cleveland, we were told what Kathy already knew. The baby was coming. The anxiety grew as the day passed. In time, they were taking her to the delivery room. They handed me a gown and a cap. They told me to sit on stool near Kathryn’s head to keep me out of the way. I studied every detail of that room and listened to ever word spoken by the staff. Then, it happened. Anna was born and before long a nurse handed her to me. As I sat on that stool, I examined every inch of her. She was perfect! For once in my life I did not worry about time. It was just me and her. That was a red-letter day in my life, and I knew it. Our entire world was waiting to hear Anna had arrived, but I did not care. I selfishly held her and made her a promise. I said, “I promise as long as possible I will be there for you.” I made that promise thirty years ago. I believe, Anna would tell you I have kept my promise. I have always been there for her and, if possible, I always will.

If you want to discover your strong promises just look inside your heart. That is where God makes His promises. That is why God keeps his promises. It is not just true in Zechariah’s generation five hundred years before the birth of Christ. It is true still stay. God keeps his promises. Do you remember the old saying? People with good intentions make promises. People with good character keep them.” How can you question God’s character?

Great Expectations

Let me begin this blog not with a story but with a question. Do you like apricots? You did not hear me wrong. I am asking you about the small yellowish-orange fruit with a single pit. Some love apricots. Others hate apricots. What is your answer? Do you like apricots?

Years ago, I read a story about a psychology student who tried an experiment. He was serving in the Army and had drawn kitchen duty. His job was to pass out the apricots at the end of the line. He asked the first few soldiers that came by, “You don’t want any apricots, do you?” Ninety percent said “No.” Then he tried the positive approach: “You do want apricots, don’t you?” About half answered, “Uh, yeah. I’ll take some.” Then he tried a third test, based on the fundamental either/or selling technique. This time he asked, “One dish of apricots or two?” And although soldiers do not like Army apricots, 40 percent took two and 50 percent took one! I tell you that story for one reason. We are not as independent as we think. The expectations placed on our lives influence our behavior. That young psychology student learned the power of expectations. What expectations are influencing your behavior? That takes us to our scripture lesson, Haggai 1:1-8.

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “festival,” because he must have been born during one of the three great festivals on the Hebrew calendar, Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. However, we just call him Haggai. He lived in the sixth century BC. He spoke to the postexilic Jews who were living in Judah. In other words, he spoke to Jews who had returned home after the exile.

Those were complex times. The conqueror of Babylon, Cyrus of Persia, issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Approximately 50,000 Jews did just that. Two years later, the foundation was done, which caused political unrest in the area. They were seen by their neighbors as a new political force. Construction was halted to calm their neighbor’s fears. The construction did not begin again until a new king sat on the throne. That king, Dairus, was interested in the religious traditions of his empire and encouraged the reconstruction. Haggai began to preach during this time. He encouraged the people to reconstruct the temple too, but his message takes it one step farther. He blamed the people, themselves, for their inactivity. The problem was not a lack of construction equipment. The problem was their mixed-up priorities. According to our reading for today, they were living in fine homes, while the temple laid in ruins. Their own homes were symbolic of their mixed-up priorities. So, let me ask you this question. How influential is God on the way you live your life?

In America, we celebrate the fact that we are free. Within each one of us is a rebel. We were raised with the idea we were captain of our own ship and no one can tell you what to say or do. The pandemic exposed our limitations, but it is still generally true. This is painfully true. We are surrounded by expectations that curb our words and behavior. Just think about it for a minute. We are influenced by societal expectations. Let me give you an example.

May 24, 2012 the St. Louis Cardinals were hosting the Philadelphia Phillies. At that time there were fans in the stand and not cardboard cutouts. The game was competitive, and the crowd was enjoying themselves. In the crowd was twenty-two-year-old Collin Grundstrom was having a super time. Just as the seventh inning was about to begin, a beer fueled Grundstrom decided to take his fun to a new level. He decided to slip into his birthday suit and streak onto the field. At first no one could believe their eyes. It hit everyone at the same time. The police were not amused. They ran after him. In time, they caught him, and body slammed him. He was charged with public nudity. This is the point.

Our society is filled with expectations. There are things our society will tolerate and things our society will not tolerate. One of the things society expects is for you to keep your clothes on. However, that is not the only societal expectation.

Consider these societal expectations. They are in no order.

1. Giving Christmas presents

2. Leaving a tip for a waiter (At least 15%)

3. Saying please and thank-you

4. Avoid burping in public

5. Chewing gum with no sound

6. Chewing food with your mouth closed.

7. Showering

8. Brushing your teeth.

9. Opening the door for a lady

10. Surrendering your seat to an elderly person.

There are others, but I will not go on. Do I have to go on?

There are certain things our society expects. It is true of our generation and it was true of Haggai’s generation as well. From the moment Haggai entered this world his culture was telling him how to act. From the moment you entered this world our culture was tell us the proper way to act. Is anyone here ready to slip into your birthday suit and go for a run? I hope not, because our society does not tolerate such behavior. There are societal expectations that influence us. There are also family expectations that influence us.

This is a big weekend for my family. It is my youngest daughter Anna’s bridal shower. She is one of the many brides around the world who have been frustrated by the coronavirus. She planned on getting married on May 30, but she has rescheduled her wedding for April 10. The hard part should be finding someone to marry you not getting married. 

I am proud of Anna for many reasons. She is a good person who has worked hard for a bright future. She is a school psychologist in the Canton area. She got her master’s degree from Youngstown State and her bachelor’s degree from Mount Union. That impresses me because I went to Mount Union. As a matter of fact, her Major is the same as my Major, Business Administration with a minor in Marketing. In several classes we had the same professors thirty-four years apart. My father never told me two things. He never said to me, “I loved you.” He never said to me, “I am proud of you.” Now, it is too late. I did not want to make that same mistake, so I have told Anna countless times. She is tired of hearing it. I told her on the day she graduated from Mount Union. Anna responded, “Dad, I don’t know why you are so impressed. I thought we were expected to go to college. I did not know there was another option.” I guess she was right. It was what Kathryn and I expected from our children. What does your family expect from you?

Recently, I baptized a little boy named Matthew. Kathryn officiated at his parent’s wedding years ago. I baptized his older sister three and a half years ago. They consider me their pastor, but they have never attended worship at this church. In infant baptism, we recognize the influence others have on the child. The parents, families, and church promise in infant baptism to do all in their power to raise the child in the Christian faith. Is there anyone here whose parents were not Christian? I would be surprised. Parents are very influential on their children. When I ask couples getting married, “Whose relationship to you admire the most?” They never say Harry and Megan. They tell me their parents. Like it or not, you are influenced by your family. How are you influencing the spiritual life of the youngest in your family? We are influenced by societal expectations. We are influenced by family expectations. Haggai reminds we must be influenced by God. There are divine expectations What does God expect from you?

Someone asked Jesus the question, “What is the greatest commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:36) Jesus answered the question, “You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37) That means you are to love God completely. In other words, God is to be the top priority in your life. That is what God expects. Mark Twain (1835-1910) once said, “To change your life, you must change your priorities.” How influential is God on the way you live?

In 2012, Forbes announced the happiest countries in the world. They looked at 184 different counties and examined a wide variety of facts. According to Forbes, Norway is the happiest country in the world, followed Denmark, Australia, and New Zealand. The unhappiest country in the world is the Central African Republic. I think that fact is interesting. Did you know Forbes reported the United States is the eleventh happiest country in the world? Many were surprised by our low international ranking.

Many have tried to explain our low ranking. Some believe our low international ranking is economic based, the soaring national debt or declining world influence. Those factors are not helping our national state of mind, but I do not think they are the real reason. If money can buy happiness, then we should be deleterious. The United States still owns 60% of the world’s wealth.

I believe the reason is spiritual. We are number eleven because God is no longer a priority in our society. We are no longer preoccupied with our divine purpose. Today, we are preoccupied with our comforts. As a nation, we are spiritually out of balance. I hear it from ever generation. The young are studying subjects that do not enjoy but will assure them a big income after graduation. The aged are living together unmarried, missing traditional Christian morals, for financial gain. Just like the postexilic Jews who lived in fine homes, while the temple sat in ruins, it is a question of priorities. How influential is God on the way you live your life? The purpose of life is not to be comfortable. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the purpose of life is to glorify God.

One of the great missionaries in history was William Carey (1761-1838). He spent many years serving in India and made God his top priority. He was married three times. Death ended each marriage. He had four children in those four marriages. One of his sons, Felix, also a believer, was appointed ambassador to Burma by the British government. Everyone was impressed but not Carey. He requested prayer for Felix. He said, “Pray for Felix. He has degenerated into an ambassador of the British government when he should be serving the King of kings.” That is a story about priorities. What is your greatest priority? Do you remember the Mark Twain quote? The great writer once said, “To change your life, you must change your priorities.” How influential is God on the way you live?

Living in Ohltown, Ohio

I have told this old preaching story several times. In 1982, Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982) died. He had lived his life serving his country. Vice-President George Bush went to Moscow to represent our country at his funeral. Later, Bush reported he was deeply moved by a silent protest carried out by Brezhnev’s widow, Victoria (1927-1982).

She stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed. Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Brezhnev’s wife performed an act of great courage and hope, a gesture that must surely rank as one of the most profound acts of civil disobedience ever committed: She reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest. There in the citadel of secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all hoped that her husband was wrong. She hoped that there was another life, and that that life was possible by Jesus who died on the cross. She hoped Jesus might have mercy on her dead husband. Victoria Brezhnev understand the significance of hope. I hope you do too.  

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “The Lord is my secret,” but we just call him Zephaniah. He lived in the seventh century BC. and he spoke to the people of Judah. They were not comforting words. His words told the people the day of judgement was coming. However, Judah would not be the only one judged. All the nations in that part of the world would be judged. The Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, Cushites, and Assyrians would all be judged. Their judgement will come at the hands of the Scythians. Who are the Scythians? They were invaders, who came from present day southern Russia. Their goal was to conquer Canaan. The Day of the Lord was at hand, when all those nations would fall. The first two chapters of Zephaniah deal with their destruction. They are dark heavy words.

The third chapter is different. The prophet’s words suddenly turn in a different direction. The dark words of destruction are suddenly replaced with words of hope. The words of Zephaniah 3:14-20 are optimistic. Verse 15 is like pouring suave on an open wound, “The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.”  These words are important because hope, itself, is important. Who wants to live in a world without hope? How would our world change if there was no hope? Our world would change a great deal. If you do not believe me then ask the people of Ohltown, Ohio.

Do you know the history of Ohltown? You may, it is only 8 miles for our church building. The town was founded by a man named Michael Ohl (1784 -1857). He and his wife Eva had eight children. Michael built a saw & grist mill in 1844 on the banks of the Meander Creek, operated a hotel, and was the first postmaster of the post office that ran from 1841-1902. The first church in Ohltown was built in 1838. The first school was built in 1857. The first bank came in 1868. Historians tell us, during the 1880’s the town also had about 30 houses, a blacksmith shop, two stores, a newer grist mill, and a train station on the Niles & New Lisbon Railroad. Many of the residents worked in local coal mines or at the Meander Iron Furnace. I find that to be fascinating. At one time, Ohltown was quite a place with a bright future. Then, without warning everything changed.

This all changed during the 1920s. That was the decade the Meander Creek was dammed and the community of Ohltown was flooded. Did you know the Ohltown United Methodist Church is the last surviving original building in submerged Ohltown, Ohio? I have been told by many, some of the original buildings of Ohltown still remain under the water of the Meander Reservoir, which supplies many in this area with water. If you stand on the bridge passing over the Meander Reservoir you can see the foundations of those original buildings on a clear day. I find that to be fascinating.

I have often wondered how those Ohltown residents felt on the day they were told their community had no future. With no future, there is no hope. With no hope, everything changed. There was no need to paint your house if there is no future. There was no need to repair the roads if there is no future. There was no need to elect municipal officials if there is no future. There was no need to do any of those things because they had no future. The entire community had no hope of better days. The third chapter of Zephaniah is important because it reminds us with God there is always hope. That is an important message today because so many seem to have lost hope. How many people do you know have lost hope? How many people do you know are living in submerged Ohltown, Ohio? Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) once said, “We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.”

One of the reasons the Christian faith is unique from other world religions is because we have hope. The Apostle Paul understood that clearly. He said in Romans 15:13 says, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, we have hope because we have God.

There is a Christian blogger by the name of Kristen Wetherell. She is a writer and Bible teacher. At one time, she was the content manager of an organization called Unlocking the Bible and the coauthor of a book called Hope When It Hurts. She wrote a blog in 2014 called Five Reasons You Should Have Hope. She says there are five reasons each Christian should have hope. Each one can be found in Psalm 130. This is her list:

  1. We have hope because God hears us.        Psalm 130:1-2 says, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to the voice of pleas for mercy.” Our prayers do not fall on deaf ears. God hears our prayers and answers of prayers. God does not always answer with a yes, but God does hear our prayers. We have hope because God hears us.
  • We have hope because God has mercy on us.     Psalm 130:3-4says,If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” In other words, we are saved by grace and by grace alone. That means you can never save yourself. In Christ, God has paved the way for sinners lost in darkness to have access to him once again. There must be a time in your life when you must admit you cannot save yourself. You needed a savior. You need Jesus. Each one of us needs Jesus. We have hope because God has mercy on us.
  • We have hope because God speaks to us. Psalm 130:5 says, I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word, I put my hope.” God speaks to us through the Bible. That is why the Bible is so important. The Bible is the inspired word of God which accompanies us through life’s journey. It challenges us when life is stable, and it comforts us when life is hard. We have hope because God speaks to us.
  • We have hope because God will return for us. Psalm 130:6 says, I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.” The Bible says it clearly. Someday Jesus will return. The question is not if Jesus will return. The question is when will Jesus return. No one knows when he will return so we must always be prepared for that God day. We have hope because God will return for us.
  • We have hope because God will finish the work, he began in us. Psalm 130:7-8 says, “Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel.” Hiding inside of you is the person God intended you to be from the very beginning. That is important in this world, but this is more important. This world is not our final destination. Someday every believer will be glorified in heaven. Do you know of anyone who does not want to go to heaven? We have hope because God will finish the work, he began in us.

The book of Zephaniah had to end with a word of hope because with God there is always hope. It is impossible to live a hopeful life without God. Maybe that is why our world has become such a negative place?

Years ago, I completed a six-year term on one of our local non-profit boards. I served as the president of that board during my last two years. We met once a month to discuss the challenges and opportunities of our organization. The best part of that board was not the work. The best part of the board was the people. Each one was a fine individual. They came from various parts of this community and had various vocations. Each one had a passion for our purpose. Through the years, I got to know each one. Occasionally, I still see a former board member. I had a good relationship with each one, except one person. She was a young businesswoman, who held some sales position in the area. Her body language told me she did not care for me. At first, I thought I was intimidating her with my good looks. Over time, I discovered the real reason. One day she told me why in forceful words. She was mad at God because our world seemed out of control. She did not understand why God did not do something to help the multitude in need and she was mad at the organized church because the organized church had misused the population’s trust. Through her eyes, I represented both God and organized church. I do not want to sound critical, but I guess I am. She did not have a spiritual bone in her body. She exposed her spiritual condition at every meeting. Every word she would utter at the meeting was critical and negative. In a hundred different ways, she communicated her theme for life. Why try? Things are not going to change. Her negativity isolated her from the group.

This young businesswoman lived somewhere in the county, but she was really living in submerged Ohltown, Ohio, where there is no hope for a bright future. Her faithless soul prevented her from seeing the truth. It is not over until God says it is over. Do the people in your life consider you negative? Do you remember the quote from Franklin Roosevelt? He once said, “We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.” How hopeful are you?

God’s Mysterious Ways

Where is Jimmy Hoffa? That is one of the great mysteries in our country. The other day was the 45th anniversary of his disappearance. The teamster union leader disappeared on July 30, 1975 in Oakland County, Michigan. His involvement in organized crime is well documented. The police and forensic anthropologists have searched several sites in Detroit and Oakland County to no avail. One popular theory is that his body is under Giants Stadium in New Jersey. I think about him every time I watch a game from that location. As the years have gone on it appears Jimmy Hoffa’s body will never be found. Finding Jimmy Hoffa is one of our country’s great mysteries, but it is nothing next to understanding God’s mysterious ways.  That leads us to today’s scripture, Habakkuk 1:1-11.

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “Embrace,” but we just call him Habakkuk. He lived in the year 605 BC.  He was well rooted in the traditions of Israel, so many have concluded he lived in Jerusalem. His book does not contain any proclamation to Israel. His book, only three chapters long, is a dialogue between himself and God. Verses two through four are Habakkuk’s complaint to God. Verses rive through eleven are God’s response. The prophet is trying to understand God’s mysterious ways.

That is what we hear in the reading for today. According to verse six, God is going to use Babylon to punish Israel. The Babylonians were a mighty power at that time. Winning their independence from the Assyrians in 626 BC and destroying the Assyrian Empire in 612 BC. Those words seem benign to our generation, but to Habakkuk’s generation it seemed like shear insanity. Why would God use this evil foreign power to command his will? It is a good question. Have you ever tried to understand God’s mysterious ways? I will admit it, I have.

Our world seems to be broken. I am not just talking about the coronavirus. Our world seemed broken before the pandemic. Our world was and is facing some massive problems. Things like world hunger, climate change, violence, inequality, poverty, and corruption. Our denominational, the United Methodist Church, was on the verge of splitting over the LGBTQ debate. Both sides are filled with arrogance. What a mess! Then, the co-vid 19 entered our world and the simplest things got complicated. It is difficult to do anything. It is a hard time to have surgery. It is a hard time to get married. It is a hard time die. It is a hard to time travel. It is a hard time to own a business and be a preacher. It is a hard time to be a teacher or educator. It is a hard time to be with loved anyone because everyone has a different opinion, and everyone listens to different people. The rules keep changing. We have never seen anything like this, and we thought things could not get worse. Then, things got worse. George Floyd died, and racism grabbed the front page. Race riots and protests are common and not a single rioter was wearing a face mask. Statues have been torn down because some are trying to rewrite history. I was taught we were to learn from history, not worship history. Do not forget the national election is coming. Both sides will do anything to win. They are passionate about their candidate, but no one seems to care about what is best for the country. It is obvious to me. Our world is broken. We are not much different from Habakkuk’s generation. His world was broken too. We believe God is in charge, but his ways are a mystery to us.

Freddy Fritz has been the minister of the Tampa Bay Presbyterian Church for many years. In 2006, he wrote a sermon called Understanding Today’s News. In that sermon, he says there are several reasons we do not understand God mysterious ways. Each one is found in this morning’s reading. Consider these three things with me.

  1. God ways seem mysterious to us because God’s inactivity is frustrating to us. Verse one quotes Habakkuk. He says, How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?”  Have you ever wondered why God does not do something? We are not patient people. We want problems solved instantly, but God never seems to be in a hurry. God’s inactivity bothers us.
  • God’s ways seem mysterious to us because of God’s unexpected providence confuses us. Verse 5 quotes God. The Almighty says, Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.”  We do not like surprises. We try to be organized and we like agendas. God often answers our prayers in unexpected ways. God’s unexpected providence confuses us.
  • God’s ways seem mysterious to us because of God’s unusual instruments. Once again God is quoted in Verse 6. He says, “I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own.” The unwilling are often part of God’s plan. The disliked are often part of God’s plan. God use of unusual instruments baffles us.

I hope you do not feel special. You are not the first one to be confused by God and ours will not the last. Habakkuk, himself, was confused by God. It is important to remember God is not accountable to us. However, we are accountable to God. It is equally important for you to remember it is not necessary for you to understand God’s ways. It is only important that you trust God. It has been said: FAITH IS TRUSTING IN GOD EVEN WHEN YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND HIS PLAN. How far do you trust God? That is an important question to answer in our broken world. It has always been important to answer that question.

Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse (1895-1960) was pastor of the famous Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA from 1927 until 1960. In 1939, he was invited to preach at two preaching conferences in Britain. The first was in Edinburgh, Scotland. The second was in Belfast, Ireland. There was a week off between the two, so he decided to visit his family, who were staying in Normandy, France.

As he set out for France from Edinburgh officials urged him not to travel to France. Europe was in political turmoil because Hitler had just signed his nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union and was threatening to march into Danzig, Poland. Barnhouse did not listen. War seemed to be remote. As he traveled there was a frenzy of military activity. Nevertheless, he was able to join his family in Normandy on Sunday evening. Most of the time was spent on the beach, though the atmosphere was tense with uncertain anticipation for what was about to happen.

On Thursday morning word came that there would be no more flights to England. Dr. Barnhouse took a train to Paris and a boat to England. When Dr. Barnhouse arrived I England, he caught a train to London. From there he caught another train to the coast of Scotland, from where he was to take a boat over to Ireland. He spent all day on Saturday traveling, along with thousands of frightened children who were being taken out of London and harm’s way. Dr. Barnhouse finally arrived in the train station in Belfast at about three o’clock on Sunday morning. The committee that had arranged the Belfast preaching conference met him at the train station. After a short prayer they took him to his hotel. It was four o’clock in the morning and worship began to eleven o’clock. In parting, one of the men said to Dr. Barnhouse, “I hope you have a good sermon. It may well be the last sermon that some of the men will ever hear. The Prime Minister is declaring war on Germany tomorrow morning.”

When Barnhouse arrived at the church, he expected it to be empty. He was wrong. The church was full. Barnhouse knew that was a historic moment. Just moments earlier Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany. It was September 3, 1939. He read Matthew 24:6. Jesus said, “You will hear of war and the rumors of war: Do not be troubled.” Dr. Barnhouse then recounted the series of experiences that he had had on his way to Belfast. After each account he repeated his text: Do not be troubled! He told of the church bells sounding: Do not be troubled! He told of the mobilization of soldiers: Do not be troubled! He told of the frightened children: Do not be troubled! He told of the millions of homes that would be destroyed: Do not be troubled! The tension was mounting in the sanctuary, but then Barnhouse suddenly stopped. A minute later he said, “These words are either the words of a madman or they are the words of God.” But then, after a long pause, came the answer.

There are no troubles because Jesus Christ is God. Jesus Christ is the Lord of history. Jesus Christ is the God of our broken world. Jesus Christ has always been the Lord of our broken world. Jesus Christ is the God of every detail. Nothing has ever happened that did not flow in the channel that God has dug for it. No event has ever astonished, bewildered, or confused him. He is our God and he is in control. It is a lesson for the ages. That is what God taught Habakkuk years ago. That is what God is trying to teach us today. The question is how far do you trust God? Do you remember the slogan? FAITH IS TRUSTING IN GOD EVEN WHEN YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND HIS PLAN.

Lost in New York

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “Comforter,” but we just call him Nahum. His exact location is unknown, but we do know he spoke to the people of Judah prior to the year 612 BC. The ones receiving these words were the people of Nineveh. Yes, it was the same Nineveh God sent Jonah to one hundred years earlier, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, known for her cruelty, idolatry, and wickedness. The Assyrian Empire covered parts of present-day Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. This time, they were guilty of backsliding. They had repented for Jonah, but they had returned to their old ways. God has had enough and now they must pay for their sinning. Those are not just empty words. History tells us the great city of Nineveh was destroyed by a devastating fire in the year 612 BC. Nahum’s brief book, only three chapters long, reminds us sin must be taken seriously. It is as true today as it was in Nahum’s time. This is the truth.

According to Webster, a sin is an immoral act against divine law. We should take sin seriously because our sins damage our relationship with God. While we are not known for our cruelty, idolatry, and wickedness, we are all guilty of sinning. It is no secret. We know we are sinners and God knows we are sinners The Apostle Paul knew were were sinners. One of the great scriptures in the New Testament is Roman 3:23, “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.” In seminary I took three classes in Greek. In one of those classes, I studied studied the Greek word for “all.” The word for “all” in Biblical Greek means everyone. That means everyone is guilty of sinning. That means we are all sinners. That means we are more like the Ninevites than we care to admit.

James W. Moore (1938-2019) was the pastor of the 7,500 member St. Luke United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas from 1984-2006.  He received his Master of Divinity degree from the Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio. Through the years he wrote many books, which are nothing more than his printed sermons. I own several of those books. One of those books is entitled Yes, Lord, I Have Sinned, But I Have Several Excellent Excuses. In that book, he tells us our sins originate in four  sources. Three of those ways are found in two parables in the fifteen chapter of Luke.

Sometimes, we sin by being led astray. That is found in the parable of the lost coin. In that parable a coin is lost. That coin equaled a day’s wages. That means it is worth finding. The coin did not grow legs and walk away. The coin was lost because someone misplaced it. That is what happens with people. Some sin because of the influence another has on them. Parents know it is true. That is why we evaluate our children’s friends. That is why we want our children to participate in wholesome activities. Parents fear their young will be influenced by others and get into trouble. God fears we will be led astray by others too. Can I ask you a question? Who are the most influential people in your life? Sometimes we sin by being led astray.

Sometimes, we sin by running away. That was the story of the prodigal son. He could not wait for his father to die, so he went to his father for his share of the inheritance. He took his cash and ran. For a short time, he lived life in the fast lane. I will let your imagination fill in the blanks. Then, he discovered what everyone knows. Life is expensive. In a short time, he is struggling to survive. Then, as the Bible says, he came to his senses and returns to his father asking for a job. You can call it selfishness. Those are the sins we commit when we think the world revolves around us. Those are the sins we commit because we think we are God’s gift to the world. Can I ask you a question? Do the people in your life consider you selfish? Sometimes, we sin by running away because we are selfish.

Sometimes, we sin because of resentment. The parable of the prodigal son reveals two origins of sin. The first is selfishness. The second is resentment. It is found in the older son who stayed home. While his little brother was out there living the wildlife, he stayed at home. He got up early daily and went to work. You can call him responsible, but he felt foolish. He dreamed of the wild things he was missing. At first, he must have admired his brother, but in the end, he resented his little brother. It is no fun working when others are having fun. Many believe this is the greatest sin in the life of the church today. It is no fun doing church work, when so many have forgotten the church. Can I ask you a question? Who do you resent? Sometimes, we sin because of resentment.

Sometimes we sin by wandering off. That was the story of the Ninevites. One hundred years earlier, God’s reluctant prophet, Jonah, arrived and told them they must repent. The people heard his word and responded. They started acting like God wanted them to act. They became more loving. They became less judgmental. They became more accepting. They promised they would never return to their cruel, idolatrous, and wicked ways. However, as the emotion wore off, they began to backside. Before long they we known once again for their cruelty, idolatry, and wicked. The Ninevites are not much different from us. We know what God wants us to do but we refuse to do it. Can I ask you these questions? How far have you wandered away from God? Are you the person God intended at the very beginning?The excitement of that mountaintop experience began to fade away and found yourself falling into your old routine. Sometimes, we sin because we wander off. I hope that is not your story. Nahum reminds us there is a price to pay for sinning. However, this is the good news for today.

Nahum lived in Old Testament times and we live in New Testament times. The great city of Nineveh was destroyed by a fire in the year 612 BC. That was their punishment for sinning. They got what they deserved. That was the Old Testament way. We deserve to be punished for our sins, but it will never happen, because we are New Testament times. Every Sunday school child knows Jesus died on the cross for our sins. His death was not pretty because our sins our not pretty. Yet, his death handled the sin problem. How you respond to Jesus’s death is extremely important. Is it just a passing thought or is it a life changing experience? It has been said, “God’s grace is not an excuse to sin, but rather a reason to love and serve him more fully.”

The address was 202 Midwood Street. That was my grandparent’s address in Brooklyn, New York, and the address of the home that my mother was raised. We visited it annually. As a child, I remember it as a massive place. It included an outer sitting room with a player piano, an inner living room with with a modest television set, dining room and a tiny kitchen. Upstairs, there were three bedrooms and a full bath with a skylight. It seemed massive to me as a child. Recently, I researched that massive home. It was constructed in 1901 and is 1,800 square feet. The market value of that 1,800 square foot home in Brooklyn today is $1.8 million. It is hard to compare property value in Brooklyn, New York with Youngstown, Ohio. Externally, the house was not original. My mother called it a “Brown Stone.” The entire neighborhood was filled with them. Each one was identical. Each one was constructed from a tan stone, a flat roof, a bay window, and a flight of stairs leading up to the front door. The only thing that changed about each dwelling was the address. My grandparents lived at 202 Midwood Street. I will never forget that address because of an event that happened to me one day on one of my family’s visits to Brooklyn.

I was not very old. I must have been six or seven. My grandparents wanted to entertain me, so they borrowed a bicycle from a neighbor for me to ride during the visit.  The problem was there are very few places a child can ride a bicycle in the middle of Brooklyn. My only option was to ride up and down Midwood Street. I am confident my parents told me to be careful and I am confident they told me my grandparent’s address, 202 Midwood Street, because all the houses looked the same. The problem was I did not listen to them. I was more interested in trying out the bicycle. When I jumped on the bike and began to peddle. In a few seconds, I was lost in the adventure of the ride. I picked up speed fast and I imagined being in all kinds of exciting places. I was having a great time! When I snapped back to reality, I discovered the truth. I was lost in New York. All the homes were identical, and I did not know which one belonged to my grandparents. I could not remember my grandparent’s address, 202 Midwood Street. Emotionally, I went from the highest mountain to the lowest valley. Fear began flood through me. I thought I would never see my family again. How would I survive in the streets of New York alone? There was only one option, I began to cry. I know that is hard to believe because I am so manly today. I promised myself, I would never ride a bicycle again and I prayed that God we help me.

God heard my prayer. My savior came to recue me. In that emotional moment I heard comforting words. It was my mother, who had been watching me from the window the whole time. I do not remember her exact words, but I do remember the relief I felt. My mother took me by the hand, wiped my tears, and led me home. I took one last look at that horrible bicycle and walked inside. I was safe and sound. I am confident I was extra good the rest of that trip. Can I ask you another question? When was the last time you were lost?

It is not just a story about a small boy lost in a big city. It is the story of the Christian faith, itself. We are lost in sin. Everyone does it and it comes in many forms, each one damaging our relationship with God. We deserve what the people of Nineveh got, punishment. But our punishment never comes because our savior came 2,000 years ago. His name is Jesus. Grace is a wonderful thing. How do you respond to God’s grace? It has been said, “God’s grace is not an excuse to sin, but rather a reason to love and serve him more fully.”