Are You Born Again?

We find ourselves in the third chapter of John, verses one through eight. The storyline of John is different than the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They have Jesus cleansing the temple at the end of his ministry; it is part of the climax. John is different. He has Jesus cleansing the temple at the beginning of his ministry (John 2). That fact is important to us for only one reason; Jesus had the attention of some very powerful influential people from the very beginning. If you want to get someone’s attention, then touch their money. It is still true today.

One of those powerful influential people was Nicodemus. According to the second half of verse one, he was a member of the Jewish ruling council. That means he had climbed to the very top of his profession. It is safe to say Nicodemus spent his days answering the questions of others. This story is unique because he is the one with the question. With everything that has been written about this passage through the ages, one thing is important to remember. This story is nothing more than a private discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus. It is John, the author and editor, who promotes this private discussion to the public’s attention.

According to verse two, Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. There is some debate about that fact. Some say Nicodemus went at night so the darkness could help hide his identity. How would it look for a trusted member of society to go to Jesus, a man with no credentials? Others say he went to Jesus at night so the two could talk privately. There was time to talk. The business of the day was done. Maybe it is a combination of the two? However, this point is crystal clear. Nicodemus went to Jesus because he was impressed by the Master. No ordinary man could have performed such miracles; he must have come from God. Jesus hears through these kind words and knows the real topic, salvation! That takes us to the key verse in the reading.

Jesus says in verse three, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born again. Two thousand years later, the world is still wrestling with those words, so we should not be surprised that Nicodemus wrestled with them that night. Nicodemus thinks Jesus is speaking of physical birth, reentering your mother’s womb. That sounds painful for everyone involved. However, Jesus is speaking of spiritual birth. The two are as different as night and day. This is the plain truth. From the moment you were physically born, you struggled to survive. Babies cry to fill their lungs with oxygen. The goal of life is survival, so the most important person in your universe is you. Spiritual rebirth is different. From the moment you are reborn, the most important person is God. Spiritually immature people live for themselves; spiritually mature people live for God. Which is more important to you? Are you the center of your universe, or is God the center of your universe?

Let me take you a little deeper. One of our primary understandings of God is that God practices free will. In other words, God may be directing history, but you are directing your own life. The choices you make are yours, so the burden of responsibility rests on you. So many things in life distill down to a choice. It has been reported the average person makes 35,000 choices in a single day. That figure seems high to me. (I know that figure is true because it came from the internet.) Some of our choices are simple choices. What are you going to have for lunch? Some of choices are harder? They will affect the rest of your life. Some choices have eternal consequences. That is what we find in the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus is telling Nicodemus he must be born again. So, this is the question of the day.

Are you born again? Do not answer too quickly. Your answer has eternal consequences. If you are born again then Jesus should be affecting every corner of your life. Remember, those who have experienced a physical birth live for themselves. Those who have experienced a second spiritual birth live for God. To answer the question of the day correctly, let me ask you three secondary questions. This is question number one.

Is God pleased with the way you are spending your time?  

One of the great stories in the Bible is the story of Mary and Martha. It is found in Luke 10:38-42. You know the story. Mary and Martha were sisters of Lazarus, the one who Jesus resurrected from the dead. The Master stops there on his way home to Jerusalem. For you see, their town, Bethany, was only two miles from the Golden City. When Jesus arrives, Mary sat at Jesus’s feet and hung on every word he spoke. Martha, on the other hand, slaved away doing the necessary duties, cooking and entertaining. That was the traditional role of women at that time. In time, Martha resents doing all the work and goes to Jesus to enlist some help. Instead of a helping hand, she receives some divine truth. Do you remember that divine truth? Jesus applauds Mary for her priorities. Martha filled her time doing good things, cooking, cleaning, entertaining. Mary filled her time with the best thing in life, Jesus. How do you fill your time?

Is God pleased with the way you are spending your time? I am not talking about spending your time in sinister ways, selling drugs or embezzling funds. However, I am talking about spending your time just doing good things, work, family, friends, church committees and fundraisers? How much time do you spend on the best thing, Jesus? That question challenges your priorities. Perhaps, this is a better question. How are you spending your time? Is God pleased with the way you are spending your time? If you are born again then God is the center of your universe. Are you born again? This is question number two.

Is God pleased with the way you are spending your money?

In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos (1917-1989) was elected President of the Philippines, which made his wife, Imelda (born 1929), first lady. They held those posts until 1986, when the entire family fled to Hawaii. The international news was fascinated with what was left behind. After having ruled a poor country for decades, the inventory was impressive: 15 mink coats, 508 gowns, 1,000 handbags and approximately 7,500 pairs of shoes. (However, Time magazine reported she only owned 1,060 pairs of shoes.) For your information, I only own four pairs of shoes; one is an old pair of sneakers for when I work on the lawn. Within a short time, Imelda Marcos was labeled the most selfish person in the world. One can only imagine how the world would have benefitted had she shared her wealth. Do the people in your world consider you selfish? In 2018, Imelda Marcos at age 89 was sentenced to forty-two years in prison for corruption.

Is God pleased with the way you are spending your money? Money is limited, so we only spend our money on things that are important to us. So, money is revealing. How much money do you spend on yourself? How much money do you spend on your family? How much money do you spend supporting the ministry of the church, the bride of Christ? How much money do you spend responding to human need? Imelda Marcos spent a fortune on shoes because shoes were important to her. What is important to you? Is God pleased with the way you are spending your money? If you are born again then God is the center of your universe. Are you born again? This is question number three.

Is God pleased with your personal witness?

We are only in this world for a short time. How will you be remembered? Will you be remembered as a kind person? Will you be remembered as a generous person? Will you be remembered as a loving person? Will you be remembered as a selfish person? Will you be remembered as a person who was passionate about your favorite team? Will you be remembered as a person who was passionate for God? Imelda Marcos owned 7,500 pairs of shoes. How do you think she will be remembered? How will you be remembered? Is God pleased with your personal witness? If you are born again then God is the center of your universe. Are you born again, or do you have some work to do?

It is like watching history. On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin (born 1952) announced in a prerecorded television broadcast he had ordered a special military action inside of Ukraine. It was not a complete surprise. I am not an expert on Eastern European history, but there has been tension between Moscow and Kiev for years. Some believe it can be traced back to the Bolshevik Revolution (1917-1923). The Ukrainians did not support Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) and the Bolsheviks. The Ukrainians were punished for their lack of support. The Soviets starved the Ukrainians. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Ukraine became an independent nation. Russia has been trying to reclaim that land sense. In 2005, the Ukrainians expelled their Russian backed President because he failed to keep a campaign promise and join NATO. In 2014, the Russians took Crimea without a shot being fired. The latest military action is not as much a surprise as a continuation. Like Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) expected quick victories in the Second World War, Putin expected a quick victory, but it is not happening. The Ukrainians are fighting back. The west has responded with severe economic sanctions. The fragile Russian economy is crumbling, but the Ukrainians are suffering. The United Nations has reported more than 1,000,000 Ukrainians have left their country. That figure may jump to 5,000,000.

Nightly, I watch reports on those refugees. It is heartbreaking. Mothers/wives are taking their children to safety. Husbands/fathers are staying in Ukraine to support or serve in the Ukrainian army. Those men are willing to sacrifice everything, to change everything about their lives because they love their wives, children and country. There is no doubt about it. Love is the most powerful force in the world. We are not afraid to sacrifice and change for those that we love.

It is the story of the Christian faith; how much do you love God? How much are you willing to sacrifice for God? How much are you willing to change for God? The time has come to change the way you spend your time. The time has come to change the way you spend your money. The time has come to change your witness. Are you the center of your universe or is God the center of your universe? It is the question that will not go away. Are you born again?

Following Jesus

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a novelist, poet, lecturer, and Christian apologist. He held academic posts at both Oxford and Cambridge for decades. He was a blessing to both the academic and nonacademic worlds. His Christian faith can be seen in his classic literary works. Perhaps, you have read or heard of one of these: The Screwtape Letters, The Chronical of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, Mere Christianity, Miracles and The Problem with Pain. It is interesting to note that there was a long period in his life when he believed in nothing at all. In his memoir, Surprised by Joy, Lewis told how he was baptized in the Church of Ireland, but the sacrament had no influence on him. He walked away from the faith and didn’t come back until he was 32 years old. He thanked his friends, including J. R. Tolkien, for his spiritual wakening. Who do you credit for your spiritual awakening?

We find ourselves in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. It is obviously early in Jesus’s ministry. It is so early in Jesus’s ministry that Jesus doesn’t have a single disciple. That is about to change. According to the text, John the Baptist was with his disciples, when Jesus passed them. John the Baptist, who always was pointing toward Jesus and away from his own earthly success, identified Jesus as the Lamb of God. With this endorsement, two of John’s disciples leave him and follow Jesus. The Bible identifies one of the disciples as Andrew, tradition identifies the other disciple as John, the author of this Gospel. Seconds later, Jesus notices that they are following him and asks them, “Why?” It is an excellent question because no one likes to be stocked. They answer Jesus’s question with another question, “Where are you staying?” Jesus answered that question with an invitation, “Come and you will see.” They accepted the invitation and stayed with him. They must have been impressed. They stayed with Jesus until about 4:00 in the afternoon. At that time, the two temporary left Jesus and told others about him. Andrew told his brother Peter, who decided to follow Jesus too. In this story, three people decided to follow Jesus. In each case their lives wouldn’t be the same again. Can I be honest with you?

There is something about this story that bothers me. Something is missing. I know God does not need my vote or approval. However, in my opinion, I find it to be innocent and unrealistic. Just think about it for a moment. Andrew and John are with John the Baptist. He identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God and they simply left and followed Jesus. A few hours later, Andrew tells Peter about Jesus, and he immediately follows Jesus too. It is all too simple. Following Jesus should not be taken lightly. There is a cost to discipleship. It is not just the story of the three disciples. It is true of anyone who has decided to follow Jesus. Let me ask you three questions that will reveal if you are taking your discipleship seriously.

Do you follow Jesus exclusively?

Our country changed forever on September 11, 2001. Where were you when you got the news? Kathryn and I were still living on West Main in Canfield. The girls were in school, and I was getting ready to stain our new deck. Kathryn stuck her head out of the door and said, “You need to watch this.” I came in and sat down. I saw our world change in front of my eyes. America was attached by terrorists in three places, western Pennsylvania, New York City and Washington DC. Our national innocence was gone, and we entered a new sinister world. The painful truth became common knowledge. America was under attack by extreme members of the Islamic faith. On September 11, those terrorists wanted the world to know that the Muslim faith was the only way. They frustrate us for many reasons. One of the reasons is their narrowness. If you are going to follow Jesus exclusively, then you are telling the world that Jesus is the only way. Some may call us narrow. That is fine with me.

In the story, Andrew and John begin as disciples of John the Baptist. Don’t forget, John the Baptist was their rabbi or teacher, Andrew and John were his disciples or students. In other words, he gave them spiritual insight and direction. When John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, they listen to him because they trusted him. This story is incredible because Andrew and John turned their backs on John the Baptist to follow Jesus. There is something cold about that fact. From that moment on, they followed Jesus exclusively. Are you following Jesus exclusively? Are you willing to tell the rest of the world they are wrong? In a politically correct world, everyone is right. Are you going to follow Jesus exclusively?

Do you follow Jesus unconditionally?

One of the great stories in the Bible can be found in the Book of Job. Everyone knows the story because everyone has played the part of Job. In the beginning he has everything, wealth, health, and relationships. Satan believes, Job’s loves for God is conditional so he begins to take things away from Job. His wealth is taken away. His health is taken away. His loved ones are taken away. His friends witness his ordeal and encourage him to curse God and die. Job refuses.

How many people do you know follow Jesus conditionally? It is easy to follow Jesus when life is good. It is easy to follow Jesus when you have a well-paying job that you enjoy. It is easy to follow Jesus when your health is good and your loved one’s health is good. It is easy to follow Jesus when all your relationships are sound. It is not so easy to follow Jesus when you are unemployed, sick and alone. It is not so easy to follow Jesus when your friends tell you to stop following Jesus. After all, we believe in an all- powerful God who resurrected Jesus from the dead. Have you ever wondered why our all-powerful God doesn’t help you? Do you follow Jesus conditionally? Do you follow Jesus unconditionally?

Do you follow Jesus passionately?

In the scripture lesson for today, three people decided to follow Jesus. There was Andrew, John and Peter. They did not have a clue how much Jesus would change their lives. They followed Jesus because they wanted to change their lives. You can’t blame them because their lives were hard. Any change seemed to be better. However, they didn’t have a clue how much their lives were going to change. They followed Jesus until the very end of their lives. Only John died of old age. Yet, he experienced the isolation of Patmos because he refused to stop following Jesus. Tradition tells us, Peter followed Paul to Roman and was crucified upside down because he wasn’t worthy to die like Jesus. Tradition tells us, Andrew was crucified on an x-shaped cross. Each one wanted changed and they got it.

How far are you willing to follow Jesus? I know many who use Jesus to promote their own ideas and beliefs. I know many use Jesus to promote their political agenda. I hope we are open to change. The reason is simple. This world is not the main event. The main event is heaven. That means, our agenda in life doesn’t really matter. The only thing that really matters is Jesus’s agenda. Are you willing to follow Jesus passionately? Perhaps those question led us to the most important of them all.

When I was in seminary, I had a friend by the name of Mike. He was a wild guy with bright red hair. He combed it ounce in the years I knew him. We lived in the same apartment complex in a community near the school. We would take turns driving. As we traveled, we shared our stories. One day, Mike decided to tell me how he decided to follow Jesus. His story included a surplus of drinking, drugs, and lose women. He said that all end in a flash. He was driving home from a party loaded. He fell asleep behind the wheel and got into a horrible traffic accident. He did not remember the accident, but he did remember being in the local emergency room. In a semi-conscious state, he heard the doctor talking to his mother. He heard the doctor say he had done all he could do. It was in God’s hands. Then, he heard something that changed his life. Mike heard his mother crying. Mike did not want to die and cause his mother more pain. It was at that moment Mike made a deal with God. Mike said if he lived then he would accept Christ and be a better man. Mike was in seminary to prove his words were sincere. That was Mike’s story. What is yours?

When did you first decide to follow Jesus? No two stories are the same. No one’s story is better or worse than another story. Your story is just that, your story. Your story may include loving parents who sacrificed for you. They took you to church every week so you could know Jesus as your own. For them, Sunday school was not an option, it was a requirement. When your heart was just right, God spoke to you in just the right way. You decided to follow Jesus. The people in your life never saw a great change and your story was not exciting. I like those none-exciting stories because it sounds so much like mine. Or maybe, your story is exciting. There was a surplus sex, drugs and rock and roll. Maybe your story included long periods away from loved ones. To the outside world you were living the life. However, you knew the truth. You were miserable and your heart was restless. You didn’t like the person you had become. When you hit the lowest, God spoke to you. It was an incredible experience. You were born again! That was a good thing because you wanted to start your life over again. The people in your life couldn’t believe the change. They had grown tired of the old you and wanted to get to know the new you. Can I tell you the truth? It doesn’t really matter how you came to follow Jesus. The only thing that matters is that you decided to follow Jesus. It is like going swimming. It does not matter if you wade in the water or jump off the high dive. All that matters is you get in the water. All that matters is that you follow Jesus. When did you first decide to follow Jesus?

I hope you did not make that choice lightly. Do you follow Jesus exclusively? Do you follow Jesus unconditionally? Do you follow Jesus passionately? The great evangelist Billy Graham (1918-2018) once said, “Make sure of your commitment to Jesus Christ and seek to follow him every day. Don’t be swayed by the false values and goals of this world but put Christ and his will first in everything you do.”

Real Christians Endure!

William Miller (1782-1849) studied his Bible for 14 years and believed he had unlocked the greatest secret in the history of the world. He announced to his followers that Christ would return on April 3, 1843. He must have been a credible man, because so many people believed him. His followers were called Millerites. Some of his disciples went to mountaintops, hoping for a head start to heaven. Others went to graveyards, planning to ascend into heaven with their departed loved ones. In Philadelphia, society ladies clustered together outside of town to avoid entering God’s kingdom amid the “common herd”. There was only one problem, Christ didn’t return. April 3, 1843, came, and April 3, 1843, went. The next day, April 4, 1843, came like every other day.

I don’t want to sound critical of Mr. Miller. However, in 14 years of Bible study I want to know why he didn’t read Mark 13:32 once? What does that verse say? Jesus had been teaching his disciples about his return and says, “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

People have been waiting for the return of Christ for a long time. The truth is, you’d better get comfortable. God has never been in a hurry. If you are going to be a real Christian, then you better endure.

We are in the fifth chapter of the epistle of James, the last chapter. We are looking at verses seven through eleven. These are his final words to his scattered congregation. He wants each word to count, so the topic he brings up the most important topic of them all, the second coming of Christ. The return of Christ is one of the greatest secrets in the history of the world. No one knows when it is going to happen. Not even Jesus knew.  The first two words of the scripture reading (Be patient) summarize all five verses. It was difficult for his generation to wait for the return of Christ. It is even more difficult for our generation to wait. Our generation is preoccupied with time. Our generation values speed. How many examples do you need?

Years ago, I walked into the Golden Arches. I ordered my fast-food meal and looked at the cash register. There was a sign on that cash register that read: we will serve you in 90 seconds or less. I took that as a challenge. I looked at my watch and discovered they served me in about 75 seconds. I ate my feast out of the Styrofoam box and had to admit it was fast! However, I don’t remember if it was good. Could it be that speed is more important to us than quality? Think about this fact. There came a point in our society when fast food wasn’t fast enough, so we created the first drive-thru so our fast food could be faster. We are always in a hurry!

One day I was driving toward the mall. I noticed a new billboard. It was promoting a local emergency room. They had one of those electronic digits on the sign that could be changed. It told me the current wait time at the emergency room was only five minutes. I have known people who have waited in an emergency room for over a day. That is fast! However, let me ask you this question. What is more important to you when you go to the emergency room, speed, or medical care? The sign is telling us speed is more important. We are always in a hurry!

Christmas shopping has changed. If you do not believe me, then visit your local mall. The shopping crowd has been thinned out. Did you know, according to the National Retail Association, 66% of holiday shoppers made at least one purchase online. Online shopping equaled 25.7% of total sales. I will admit it. I was one of the 66% who purchased something on-line this year. I purchased more than one item online. I like online shopping for two reasons. It is easy and it is fast. Instead of driving to a store and wasting the time. I just sit in front of my computer screen and hit the magic keys. Who wants human interaction during Christmas anyway? We are always in a hurry!

The great New England preacher Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) was noted for his poise and quiet manner. At times, however, even he suffered moments of frustration and irritability. One day a friend saw him feverishly pacing the floor like a caged lion. “What’s the trouble, Mr. Brooks?” he asked.  “The trouble is that I’m in a hurry, but God isn’t!” Have you ever grown impatient with God? If you are going to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, then you’d better get comfortable. This is the problem.

God is not preoccupied with time or speed. That is what the ninetieth Psalm tells us. We are different from God in many ways. One of those ways is the way we look at time. The second verse says, “From everlasting to everlasting thou art God.” What does that mean. It means, God always been present. God was there before the beginning of time. God will be there once time is complete. God always has been, and God will always be. God is immortal. We are mortal. In other words, we are preoccupied with time because we feel like our time is running out. Time is a major factor in our lives. We marvel at the age of our adult children. Times goes fast. We marvel at our age because we have grown old. We judge what is fair and what is not so fair, on the basis, of time. That is why we struggle with the death of a young person. Like it or not, we are preoccupied with time. However, God is not preoccupied with time because God transcends time. God is limitless. If you are going to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, then you better get comfortable. God is never in a hurry.

In the second chapter of Luke, we find two wonderful stories. We looked at them several weeks ago. The first occurred when Jesus was eight days old. It was on that day Jesus was circumcised and given his name. Never forget, Jesus was Jewish, and Mary and Joseph followed the various laws. The second occurred when Jesus was forty days old. For it was on that day the Old Testament law, Leviticus 12:2-8, demanded that Mary go to the temple. All women who gave birth to a boy had to go to the temple to offer a sacrifice of purification. She made the sacrifice the poorest always made, two doves. Everything was scripted. The only thing that made those stories unique were the people they met in the temple. The first was a man named Simeon. (Luke 2:25-35) He is described in scriptures as righteous and devout. For years, he had seen babies come and go. However, he knew from the very first glimpse that Jesus was different. The Holy Spirit was upon him. He knew that Jesus was the Messiah! The second person was a woman named Anna (Luke 2:36-38).  She was a prophetess. The scriptures tell us that at the age of 84, she lived in the temple. She too had seen babies come and go. When she saw Jesus, she knew Jesus was no common baby. She too knew Jesus was the Messiah! Simeon and Anna must have talked. They must have wondered why they had to wait so long for God to act. Listen to the next line. Both characters, Simeon, and Anna, had waited a lifetime for that single moment because God has never been in a hurry. God is everlasting! If you are going to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, then you better get comfortable. Real Christians endure! If that divine truth makes you uncomfortable, say, “Amen!” This is the question you must answer.

Why is patience an important part of Christianity? This is the answer. Patience helps us grow and become stronger in our faith during trials. Our patience pleases God and results in His blessing. If that is true, then this is also true. A lack of patience is a sign of spiritual immaturity because it is rooted in arrogance. Let me take it one step farther.

Michael Kelley is a Christian author for Lifeway in Nashville, Tennessee. He says patience is important in our spiritual maturity for three reasons.

Patience is an act of humility. When we become impatient, we are telling God we know best. Our impatience shows our short-sighted vision and wisdom.

Patience is an act of service. When we become impatient, we are putting our desires first. Our world is filled with needy people. To the patient, inconvenience is not an annoyance. It is an opportunity to serve.

Patience is an act of faith. When we become impatient, we are refusing to let God control our lives. If you believe God is truly sovereign, then you will follow him at his appointed time.

Patience is important to your spiritual maturity because patience is a sign of love. How much do you love God? The question is not when God will act. The question is what are you going to do while you wait for God to act? James said, “Be patient!”

Several years ago, I was on call for a local colleague. He was vacationing in Florida. I stayed in the Mahoning Valley. I was happy to help him out. I only had to visit three people during his time away. I visited a woman by the name of Ruth once, who had her knee replaced. I visited a woman by the name of Dawn once, who had a bad reaction to her chemotherapy.

I visited a woman by the name of Lois eleven times. She had a long list of medical problems. She spent most of my tenure in the Intensive Care Unit. I never heard Lois’ voice. She was in some form of a medical coma. Every visit was about the same. Lois lay in her bed hooked up to the various machines. Something was always flashing or beeping. Her husband, Bud, was always sitting next to her side. In my eleven visits, there was never a time when Bud was not there. He was always there patiently waiting for his wife to show some sign of life. In eleven visits, I got to know a great deal about Bud. I learned his son lived in Connecticut. I learned his daughter lived in southwestern Ohio. I learned about his working career. I learned he was really frustrated with the Cleveland Browns. I learned about his church. However, what I really learned was that Lois was the love of his life. They have been married for 62 years. He was ready to sign up for 62 more. He longed to take her home. In a world filled with many exciting destinations, Bud could not leave her side. He just sat there patiently. How could I not respect this man? Each visit ended the same way. Each time he would take Lois’ hand and looked at Lois’ face and would say, “Sweetheart, Pastor Russ is going to pray for you.” In the face of complete hopelessness, Bud never lost hope. How could you question his love for his wife?

It has been said: Waiting is a true sign of love and patience. Anyone can say I love you, but not everyone can wait and prove it is true. Can people question our love for Christ as we wait for his return? James said it for the ages, be patient. Remember, real Christians endure!

Real Christians Tame the Tongue

It must have been the fall of 1967. I was ten years old, and my music teacher asked who would be interested in playing a musical instrument. In my family, it was not really an invitation. It was a demand. My father had a great passion for music, which he passed on to my sisters, who played the flute and the French horn into college. I decided my instrument was going to be the trumpet. I chose that brass instrument for one reason. My father played the trumpet. I always felt a distance from my father and longed for his approval.

At first, I really worked at it. Without threats, I practiced. I thought I was making some progress and I felt good about the whole thing. I knew my father would be proud of me. One day, my father came down the basement stairs as I was practicing. He looked at me and said, “Do you need some help?” I was thrilled because I thought we would have a breakthrough in our relationship. For an awkward couple of minutes, he listened to me play. Without saying a word, he got up and walked upstairs. He closed the door behind him, looked at my mother and said loud enough for me to hear, “Well, he is loud, but he is no damn good!” Those words cut my heart. I placed the trumpet back in the case and never practiced again. It was on that day I discovered, I was like my mother, who had no music appreciation or talent. At best she tolerated music because she loved my father. For years to come, I seized every opportunity to communicate to him how much I hated music. It was my opportunity to hurt him, like his words had hurt me. At ten years old, I learned that words are important.

We begin today in the eleventh chapter of Genesis, verses one through nine. That chapter ends the pre-historical period in the Bible. The next chapter begins the story of Abraham. The first eleven chapters of Genesis give us the origin of many things in the world today. The first chapter explains how the world was created. The story of Adam and Eve explains the origin of sin. The story of the Tower of Babel, in the eleventh chapter, explains why there are so many languages in the world today. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are important.

According to the story, at one time everyone spoke the same language. Using this common language, mankind decided to build a city with a massive tower. It would be permanent structures made of brick and mortar. The goal was to make a bridge between earth and heaven. It was a project that was rooted in human arrogance. When God came down from heaven and saw the tower, he knew something had to be done. It is at that moment God decided to scatter mankind around the world and give each group a different language. When God does something, he does it well.

Did you know:

  • there are approximately 6,500 languages in the world today?
  • approximately 2,000 of those languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers.
  • approximately 3,000 languages spoken in the world today will be extinct by the     end of this century.
  • the most common language spoken in the world today is Mandarin Chinese,   1,213,000,000 speakers. The second most common language in the world is

  Spanish, 406,000,000 speakers. The third most common language in the world    is English, 375,000,000 speakers.

  • the English language has 1,013,913 words. That number has doubled over the past 100 years.
  • the average American woman speaks about 20,000 words a day.
  • the average American man speaks 7,000 words a day.

Let me state the obvious. Words are important! That takes us to the Epistle of James.

We find ourselves in the third chapter of James, verses one through twelve. James also recognizes that words are important too, but James also admits words can be destructive. There is a world of difference between constructive words and destructive words. Verse nine is haunting. It reminds us, the tongue is fickle. It says, “With our tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.” Verse ten underscores that thought, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brother and sisters, this should not be.” Can I be honest with you? I hate that piece of scripture because it is so true. In the life of the church, we are much more comfortable talking about people, then we are talking to people.

When I was in the Cleveland area, I served the Hathaway United Methodist Church. It pains me to say it, but it is now closed. I had a wonderful experience with that parish. I had a good relationship with the choir because I was not my predecessor. The choir hated my predecessor for one reason. She couldn’t talk to them. Every Thursday evening, they would gather for practice. They would walk in with a cup of coffee, or bottle of pop or a bag of chips. They should have known better, but they left their waste behind.

Every Friday morning, the custodian would come in and clean up the mess. He complained to the Trustees, who could not talk to the choir. They assigned the job to my predecessor. She could not talk to the choir either, so she sent them a letter. Every choir member received a letter in the mail about a week before Christmas. The letter was read, copied, and passed around the church. Soon, it was passed around the community. It was not pretty. That letter was a spark that torched that whole ministry. The whole situation could have been eliminated if someone could have talked to the choir. I would have said, “the custodian would appreciate it if you would clean up after yourselves. I am confident they would have done it. They were good people. This is the point. We are better at talking about each other than we are talking to each other.

Several years ago, I went to a chili cook-off in one of the community churches. Their youth were raising money to go on their mission trip. I went because I wanted to support them, and I like chili. I sat there alone eating my chili. It was nice not being responsible. A woman came up to me and asked how I liked it? I said, “It is great”, because it was. She asked, “Are you a preacher?” I said “Yes,” and identified myself. She said, “Can I ask you for a favor? Can you tell the cooks the chili is too spicy? My gastroenterologist says I should not eat spicy food. You are a minister, and they will listen to you.” I thought, why would you go to a chili dinner if you can’t eat spicy food? I said, “I am just a visitor. Why don’t you tell them?” She walked away frustrated. We are better at talking about each other than we are to each other. Do I have to go on? Do I really have to go on? You know it is true; we are better at talking about each other than we are to each other. However, this is equally true.

The words we utter about one another are often destructive. You do not need illustrations because you know it is true. Sometimes we mask our critical words as a concern. I am concerned people will get upset. (That person is you and we know it.) Sometimes, we mask our critical words as a suggestion. People will come if the music would be more upbeat. Why don’t we sing something more upbeat? (Because it is Good Friday and not a party.) Sometimes, our words come out unmasked and they come out as a complaint. I am upset and I do not care who gets upset. Sometimes you must take a stand. It does not matter how foolish or selfish it makes me look. Regardless, our critical words spoken to one another are always destructive. Those words fracture the unity of the church. I am not talking to anyone else. I am talking to you. Take an inventory of the words you have uttered about your fellow church members. Are they more constructive to the ministry of the church? Are they more destructive to the ministry of the church? Mother Teresa (1910-1997) once said, Words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.  In the end, those negative words, damage the ministry of the church and expose your spiritual immaturity.

Do you remember Galatians 5:22-26? It says:

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking, and envying each other.

It is painfully obvious. We have some work to do. We have a difficult time talking to one another and we have a difficult time speaking constructive words about one another.There isno doubt about it. Words are important! May our words be constructive, benefitting the ministry.

When I was in the eighth grade, my home church received a new minister. He moved to Warren from Huntington, West Virginia. He was a tall man with a large Adam’s apple that stuck out over the knot of his tie. His name was Dr. Jim Cox. On his first Sunday, the church was full of life. Everyone wanted to get a good look at him. At the close of the service, he stood at the back of the sanctuary and met his new flock. One by one, the people walked by and introduced themselves to Dr. Cox. When my parents walked by, they welcomed him and said, “We are Ron and Ruth Adams. This is our son Russell.” He smiled and went on to the next family. One week later, I was in that same line. Dr. Cox looked at my parents and said, “Ron and Ruth, good to see you.” Then Dr. Cox did something that changed my life. He looked at me and said, “Russ, how are you?” For years, I had walked through that line and the various preachers never bothered to learn my name. I cannot blame them. I was nothing special. I was just another kid. Dr. Cox did something in one week that none of his predecessors had ever done. He spoke, me into existence and made me feel included with one word, Russ. To this day, I consider him the finest pastor I have ever known because he simply spoke my name. He made me feel included. This is the truth.

I do my best to speak to everyone in this church everyone Sunday morning for one reason – Dr. Cox spoke to me. He made me feel important. He included me. This is also true. I do very little work in my office. I work at home, but I come out to the church nearly every day to talk to people. I want everyone to feel included and important. Don’t tell me words aren’t important.

Words are important. Are your words constructive words? Are you words destructive words? Are your words bringing glory to God? What are your words saying about your spiritual maturity? The wise one Solomon said it best in Proverbs 21:23 says, “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from trouble.” How tame is your tongue?

Real Christians Respond!

One of the places still on my bucket list is Halifax, Nova Scotia. With a population of approximately 400,000 people, it is the largest city on the Canadian Atlantic coast and the largest Canadian city6 east of Quebec. However, those are not the reasons I want to visit her. The reason I want to go to Halifax is trivia. Did you know Halifax is the site of the largest manmade explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons? I learned that fact on the History Channel. This is the story.

The date was December 6, 1917. A French cargo ship, the SS Mont-Blanc, loaded with wartime bombs collided with a Norwegian vessel, the SS Imo. A fire broke out on the French ship and twenty minutes later the explosion took the harbor district of the city. The explosion equaled approximately 2.9 kilotons of TNT. Approximately 2,000 people were killed in the debris, fires and collapsing buildings. Another 9,000 people were injured. I am glad that is not the end of the story.

The world was shocked by the explosion. Some tried to respond. The people of Boston did respond. The authorities in Boston learned about the explosion by telegraph. Within twelve hours a train filled with supplies and volunteers was headed toward Halifax. That train would not be the last. The people of Boston continued to respond, and a bond was forged to between those two northern cities. That bond still exists today. Annually, the city of Halifax sends the city a Boston a Christmas tree to thank them for their help over one hundred years ago.That tree is the official Christmas tree of Boston, which stands proudly in the Boston Commons. If you have ever found yourself in need then you know it is true. Responding to human need is important. That takes us to our scripture reading.

Once again, we find ourselves in the second chapter of James. It is the third week in a row we have looked at this text, so I hope this sounds familiar. I hope this paragraph sounds familiar because it is the now the third time you have heard it. We are at the end of the second chapter of James. The topic is authenticity. James reminds us how important it is for us to be genuine in our faith. We find genuine faith when we combined the right words with the right deeds. In other words, you are supposed to be able to tell people what Jesus means to you. You are supposed to be able to tell people what Jesus has done for you. You are supposed to be acting in a way that demonstrates to the world your appreciation for this great gift of salvation. James says simple words are not enough. After all, talk is cheap. James also says good behavior is not enough. After all, you can’t earn your salvation. James says we should respond to human needs. Words and deeds must go hand in hand. Verse 14 is key. It says it clearly, what good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?”

This is not an isolated case in the Bible. Jesus, himself, told us we are to respond to basic human need. That is what he is saying in the parable of the sheep and the goats. You know the story. It is found in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. That chapter contains three great parables. The first is the parable of the ten virgins. The second is the parable of the talents. The third is the parable of the sheep and the goats. The thing that unites those three parables is the theme, judgment! The parable of the sheep and the goats is the most pointed. It is a scene that comes from their rural society. According to the Master the righteous and the unrighteous will be separated, like a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats. The son of man will only welcome the sheep into heaven. Who are the sheep? They are the righteous. During their lives they responded to human need. They gave food to those who were hungry. They gave drink to those who were thirsty. They welcomed the lonely. They gave clothes to those who needed them. They visited the sick and the incarcerated. These acts were not unique to them. They were part of their normal activities. They didn’t know they were really caring for Jesus. The point of the parable is clear. You don’t need an advanced degree. Human need should be one of the great preoccupations of your life. Human need should be one of the great preoccupations of our church.

The founder of the great Methodist movement John Wesley (1703-1791) saw the importance of responding to human need. Do you remember his famous quote? Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all people you can, as long as ever you can.” Wesley lived these words. As a college student, Wesley stopped getting his hair cut to save money to give to the poor. How much do you spend on your hair? How much do you give to the poor?

The history of the church is filled with Christian people responding to human need. I have no clue how many hospitals have been started by the church to help the sick and the maimed. I have no clue how many schools the church has started to educate the uneducated. I have no clue how many meals the church has prepared to feed the hungry. I have no clue how many homes the church has started to care for the aged. I have no clue how many homeless shelters the church has started to help the homeless. I have no clue how much money has been given away to help strangers. I have no clue how many prayers the church has uttered to support the down and out. This is the point. We stand in the middle of a great tradition which has always responded to human need. We have no other option because cares about the needy and the forgotten. Psalm 140:8 says, “The LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.” We must continue to respond to human need!

The problem is after all our work human need has not been eliminated. In fact, our world seems to be growing more desperate. We no longer have the option of ignoring the suffering in our world. Modern transportation and communication have made our world exceedingly small. We see the pictures and hear the stories regularly. We appear to be outnumbered and many are suggesting we do not even try. However, we must respond to the needy in our world because that is what God has called us to do. This is the question that haunts every person of faith. How much do you really care about the suffering people in our world?

In my home I have three pets, two cats and a dog. My cats are named Boris and Natasha. They are named after the old cartoon characters on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Boris is a long-haired gray and white cat. He only cares for one person in this world, my wife. He may be the world’s meanest cat! Boris wishes I would move out. If given the opportunity, Boris would take over some small Central American country. Natasha is a black cat with beautiful yellow eyes and accents. She is the only cat who has ever liked me. I get her to purr every day. The pride of the fleet is Macy, my thirteen-inch beagle. She is the world’s best dog. (Everyone should think their dog is the world’s best dog.) Macy likes everyone, except the mail man and the newspaper lady. I will admit it. She is my prized possession. I feed Macy. I walk Macy. I give her a bath and I play with Macy. Every day I tell her she is the best. She likes everyone but I am her favorite. She is always by my side, and she has a good life. No, she has a great life. When I was sick, Macy walked me every day. She played a major role in my recovery.

Years ago, Macy was sitting in my lap as I was watching the news. The human-interest story at the end of the broadcast was about a woman, who had a great passion for dogs. She was concerned about the number of stray dogs in her community, so she spent a fortune to help them. She opened a dog resort. Her guests only got the best. The problem is caring for so many dogs is expensive. The news reporter told us she sold her own jewelry to help the dogs. The estimated value of the jewelry was $10.5 million. That will buy a great deal of dog food. I petted Macy and thought that is good thing. Dogs are the best!

Then, I read the scripture lesson for today and began to wonder about my priorities. How many needy people could be helped for $10.5 million? The word is priority. While dogs are living in comfort, we have people in our world living in the cold streets. While dogs are living in comfort, we have people in our world dying because they did not get vaccinated from a variety of diseases. While we have dogs living in comfort, we have people in our world starving to death. Someone in our world dies from starvation every seven seconds. While we have dogs living in comfort, we have people searching for clean drinking water. While we have dogs living in comfort, we have people in our world who are not able to read or write. Do not get me wrong. I love dogs, but God is more concerned with people. How much money do you spend keeping your pet comfortable? How much money do you give away to eliminate human suffering? It is a question of priority. What are your priorities?

Do you remember James’s words for us today? Verses fourteen through seventeen says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” How dead is your faith?

Real Christians Sacrifice

Years ago, Millard Fuller (1935-2009), the founder of Habitat for Humanity, was addressing a gathering of 200 pastors at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The assembled pastors quickly pointed toward greed and selfishness as the reason the church never had enough money to accomplish its mission in the world. Millard then asked this seemingly innocent question: “Is it possible for a person to build a house so large that it’s sinful in the eyes of God? Raise your hand if you think so.” All 200 pastors raised their hands. “Okay,” said Millard, “then can you tell me at exactly what size, the precise square footage, a certain house becomes sinful to occupy?” No one responded but everyone looked down. You could have heard a pin drop. Finally, a small, quiet voice spoke up from the back of the room, “When it is bigger than mine.” Can anyone here relate to that story? This is the question. How much are you willing to sacrifice for God?

Once again, we find ourselves in the closing verses of the second chapter of James. These words will sound familiar because last week’s scripture and today’s scripture are the same. The topic is authenticity. James reminds us how important it is for us to be genuine in our faith. We find genuine faith when we combined the right words with the right deeds. In other words, you are supposed to be able to tell people what Jesus means to you. You are supposed to be able to tell people what Jesus has done for you. You are supposed to be acting in a way that demonstrates to the world your appreciation for this great gift of salvation. James says simple words are not enough. After all, talk is cheap. James says good behavior is not enough. After all, you can’t earn your salvation. Words and deeds must go hand in hand. Verse 14 says it clearly, what good is it, my brothers, and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?

Let me repeat my opening words. James underscores this point with three examples. In verses fifteen through seventeen we are told authentic Christian faith responds to basic human need. We will look at that next week. In verses twenty-five and twenty-six we are told authentic Christianity involves an occasional risk. We looked at that last week. Today, we are going to look at verses twenty-one through twenty-four. In those verses we are told authentic Christianity requires a certain amount of sacrifice. We understand the basic concept of sacrifice because sacrificing it part of life. Not only do we understand sacrificing but we respect people who are not afraid to sacrifice it all.

In the winter of 1943, the SS Dorchester was the temporary home of 904 soldiers and 4 chaplains. World War II was in full bloom. The Dorchester was crossing the North Atlantic. Those were dangerous waters because it was filled with German U-boats. At 12:00 on the morning of February 3, a German torpedo ripped into the ship. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the Dorchester would sink. Each one grabbed their lifejacket. A young GI crept up to one of the chaplains. “I’ve lost my life jacket,” he said. “Take this,” the chaplain said, handing the soldier his jacket. Before the ship sank, each one of the chaplains gave their lifejacket to another man. The heroic chaplains then linked arms and lifted their voices in prayer as the Dorchester went down. There is no happy ending. Each one of the chaplains died. For their sacrifice they were awarded posthumously the Distinguished Service Cross. I challenge you to tell me that both words and deeds do not matter. It is a true sign of real Christianity. How much are you willing to sacrifice for God? The Bible is filled with people who were forced to answer that question. Some found it easier to sacrifice. Some found it difficult to sacrifice. Do you remember these stories?

Do you remember the story of Abraham and Isaac in the 12th chapter of Genesis? In those days his name was Abram. It means the father of many. God promises Abram he is going to be the father of a great nation. The problem is the father of many has no children. He has no children through his wife, Sarai, when God changes his name to Abraham, the father of the multitude. It seemed like a cruel joke, until Sarah gave birth to their first child, Isaac. That name means “one who laughs” or “one who rejoices.” You must tip your hat to Abraham. He was 100 years old when Isaac was born. (Genesis 21:5) You must tip your hat to Sarah. She was 90 years old when Isaac was born. (Genesis 17:17) It is safe to say that Abraham and Sarah cherished their son. He brightened every dark corner of their lives. There was going to be a happy ending then it happened. In the twenty-second chapter God calls Abraham to sacrifice his Isaac. It was a test we would have failed but Abraham passed. In the original Hebrew the point is clear. Abraham has already said, “Good-bye” to Isaac. When all hope is gone, God supplies another sacrifice, ram. It is a difficult story for our modern ears to understand but the point is clear. He was willing to sacrifice his most cherished possession at God’s request. Abraham was willing to sacrifice it all to God. How much are you willing to sacrifice for God?

Do you remember the story of the rich, young ruler? It is found in three places. The nineteenth chapter of Matthew, the tenth chapter of Mark, and the eighteenth chapter of Luke. If you combined the three, then you get the whole story. The title of the story says it all. He has no earthly limitations. He is a man, so he is not limited by his gender. His was a time of great sexism. He is not limited economically. He is rich so he can buy anything he desires. What would you buy if you were not economically limited? He is not limited by age. He is young so he is not limited by health issues. What is your greatest health concern? He is not limited by power because he has influence. He is ruler. Who is the most influential person you know? It appears on the surface he has everything yet at closer examination he has nothing. He lacks the one thing money can’t buy, salvation! He goes to Jesus and asks him the question we have all asked, “What must I do inherit eternal life?” After discovering the man is a good man, Jesus gets to the topic of sacrifice. Jesus said to him, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  The rich young ruler exits the scene depressed because he can’t do it. There are limits to what he would sacrifice. I have never liked that Bible story because the rich young ruler looks so much like me. We struggle with the story of Abraham and Isaac because Abraham would sacrifice anything for God. We relate to the rich young ruler because we too have limits on what we will sacrifice. Is it harder for you to sacrifice your relationships or your possessions? How much are you willing to sacrifice for God?

Anyone who has ever taken a leadership position in the life of the church knows the simple truth that people limit how much they will sacrifice for God. If you have ever tried to organize Vacation Bible School, you know it is true. The children cannot come because a family member is visiting. If you have ever tried to help the needy in the inner city, then you know it is true. I cannot help because they smell bad. If you have ever tried to find a reader at a worship service, then you know it is true. I am afraid to stand up in of people. If you have ever tried to organize a musical program you know it is true. I do not really care for that kind of music. If you have every worked on the annual stewardship drive, then you know it is true. I do not care how many facts we give. I do not care how many charts you show. They give the same amount for the last twenty-five years. I do not want to be negative, but it is painfully obvious. People have limits on how much they will sacrifice for God. We are much more like the rich young ruler than we care to admit. It has been that way for a long time.

Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) saw the problem in his time. He once wrote I went into church and sat on the velvet pew. I watched as the sun came shining through the stained-glass windows. The minister dressed in a velvet robe opened the golden gilded Bible, marked it with a silk bookmark and said, “If any man will be my disciple, said Jesus, let him deny himself, take up his cross, sell what he has, give it to the poor, and follow me.” This is the problem, real Christians sacrifice.  How much are you willing to sacrifice for God?

In 2014, Barack Obama (born 1961) was President of the United States. During his State of the Union Address, the crowd was divided. Some were always standing up and cheering at his words. Others were always sitting on their hands. It was easy to identify the red people from the blue people. It was easy to identify the liberals from the conservatives. The President was unable to unite the crowd, but one man did, Army Ranger Cory Remsburg (born 1984).He sat next to the First Lady. I don’t know how anyone could have missed him. The thirty-year-old man needed help standing up. The wounds he received in Afghanistan will never completely heal. He sacrificed so much for our country. I am glad to report, he is still alive. How can we question his patriotism? How can we question the patriotism of the people who sacrificed their lives serving our country? Listen to what I am about to say.

Someday you are going to be standing. You will not be standing in front of the eyes of country. You will be standing before God on judgement day and God, who sees everything, will be looking at you. Do not take this as a warning. Take this as a reminder. He will be looking at how much you have sacrificed. Remember, real Christians sacrifice. Indian education Sadhu Vaswani (1879-1966) once said, “True love is selfless. It is prepared to sacrifice.” How much do you love God? How much are you willing to sacrifice? Real Christians sacrifice!

Real Christians Risk!

Harry Houdini (1874-1926) He was one of those great characters in American history, yet his story began in Hungary. He was born in Budapest in 1874. The family moved to America when Harry was young. At first, his father was the Rabbi in Appleton, Wisconsin. A few years later, the family moved again to New York City.  It was in the Big Apple that Harry tried show business. At first, he tried being a professional magician, with little success. Then, he tried escape acts. We know his name because of those acts. For a twenty-year period, Houdini performed with great success in the United States. He freed himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope in sight of street audiences.

His most famous stunt came on July 7, 1912. Houdini was taken to the middle of New York’s East River. Once in position, he was locked in handcuffs and leg-irons, then nailed into the crate which was roped and weighed down with two hundred pounds of lead. The crate was then lowered into the water. Houdini escaped in fifty-seven seconds. When the crate was pulled to the surface it was found still to be intact, with the manacles inside. It is a mystery to me. Can I ask you a question? Would anyone here consider doing that stunt? (I don’t even want to get into New York’s East River!) Harry Houdini was a daredevil. Do the people in your life consider you a daredevil? Do the people in your life consider you a risk taker? Do the people in your life consider you a coward? That takes us the scripture lesson for today.

We find ourselves at the end of the second chapter of James, verses fourteen through twenty-six. The topic for today is authenticity. He reminds us how important it is to be genuine in our faith. True discipleship must contain both words and the deeds. In other words, you are supposed to be able to tell people what Jesus means to you. You are supposed to be able to tell people what Jesus has done for you. You are supposed to be acting in a way that demonstrates to the world your appreciation for this great gift of salvation. James says simple words are not enough. After all, talk is cheap. James says simple good behavior is not enough. After all, you cannot earn your salvation. Words and deeds must go hand in hand. They are in perfect balance. Verse 14 says it clearly, what good is it, my brothers, and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?

To underscore this single point, James gives us three examples. The first is as contemporary as this morning’s newspaper. Authentic Christianity can’t ignore basic human need, clothes and food. That is why we participate in food drives. We must respond. We must respond.The second example comes from the twenty-second chapter of Genesis. After a lifetime of waiting for a son, Abraham is in position to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at God’s request. It is not a story about child abuse. However, it is a story about having the right priorities. Let there be no doubt about it. Abraham’s top priority was God. The third example is Rahab. Do you remember her story?

It comes from the second chapter of Joshua. The Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for forty years. During that time, they experienced the very best and the absolute worst. Their lives were in a constant state of flux, and only three things remained constant. The first was God, their spiritual leader. The second was Moses, their earthly leader. The third was this great promise of a future home, the Promised Land. Then the unthinkable happened – Moses died. I find it to be one of the cruelest things in the Bible. God did not permit Moses to enter the Promised Land. He only saw it from the distance from the top of Mount Nebo.

With Moses gone, the mantle of responsibility was placed on a new leader, Joshua. Change is not easy. It would be his job to lead the people into the Promised Land. That was not as easy as it sounds. The land was occupied by other people, and they didn’t want leave. It would take a military action. Joshua seemed to be the perfect leader for them. He was as much a warrior as a priest. Being a wise military man, he desires information about his enemy. So, he sends two spies into this foreign land. They are to report back to him when they return. It sounds kind of funny, but it is Bible. As soon as the spies get into the Promised Land, they enter the house of a prostitute, Rahab. (I will let you fill in the blanks.) God has always used the oddest people to do his work. When the authorities come to arrest the spies, Rahab risks everything. She hides the spies and sends the authorities off in another direction. (Joshua 2:1-7) She could have been executed for either one of those things. History is such a funny thing. We downplay the fact the hero in the story was a prostitute. We remember Rahab as a hero. The people of Jericho remember her as a traitor. It is safe to say, Rahab saved the invasion. She risked everything for God. How big of a risk are you willing to take for God?

Years ago, a ship-wrecked off the New England coast. A young member of the coast guard rescue crew said, “We can’t go out. We’ll never get back.” The grizzled old captain replied, “We have to go out. We don’t have to come back.” Most of us can relate to that story because we are simply afraid to go. Fear often paralyzes us. How you ever noticed how many cowards there are in our world?

Several weeks ago, I was talking to a man during the coldest day of this cold winter. The temperature was well below zero, and he longed for the warmth of Florida. I said, “I wish, I could get on a plane and fly south.” He said, “Not me! Those jets come down faster than they go up! I would drive.” I said, “You know you are in more danger driving to Florida then flying to Florida.” He said, “I know. That is why I am staying home.” Fear has a way of paralyzing us! Are you afraid to fly? Have you ever noticed how many cowards there are in society?

Several years ago, I was at the Canfield Post Office. I was standing in line to buy my stamps. It is not a large lobby, so I could hear the clerk waiting on the person ahead of me. The man was charged $25 to overnight a package to downtown Youngstown. When the man left, I walked up to the clerk and said, “Did you charge that man $25 to take the package downtown? For $20, I would have driven that package downtown.” The clerk responded, “It happens all the time. People are afraid to go into Youngstown.” Bad things can happen anywhere, even the suburbs. Fear has a way of paralyzing us! Are you afraid to travel downtown? Have you ever noticed how many cowards there are in the life of the church?

The church is part of our society, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find fear within our walls. I know it is true because fear has paralyzed me. One of my few regrets in life is, I never got a D. Min., a Doctor of Ministry. It would not have helped me in my career. However, it would have filled a void in my life. My seminary years were hard, and I feel like I missed so much. There was an academic itch that needs to be scratched. There was a time I really toyed with going back to school. There was always had an excuse. I didn’t have the money. I didn’t have the time. Something was always happening here or at home. My dyslectic eyes would make it impossible. Now my excuse is, I am too old. Can I be honest with you? The reason I never got a D. Min. was fear. I know I am not the smartest person on the planet, and I was afraid I would fail. I did not want to tell you I failed. I really did not want to tell my children I failed. I was afraid of failure, so I never tried. Have you ever been paralyzed by fear? How many churches do you know that are paralyzed by fear?

I see it all the time. Every Sunday morning, I am looking out for visitors. They never sit up with me in the chancel area. They sit out with you! Sometimes they sit next to you. Later, I will talk to long-time worshippers and ask, “Did you talk to the person next to you?” Most of the time, people say, “No!” I ask, “Why?” “Because I didn’t know them. I didn’t know if they were new or not. I didn’t want to welcome him or her and find out they had been here for years. I didn’t want to look foolish, so I said nothing at all.” Fear has a way of paralyzing us! Are you afraid to talk to some you do not know?

Annually, on Good Friday, we go to Green Haven cemetery to observe the death of Christ. It is a natural place to be because it pounds home the point that Jesus really did die. As the service gets closer, I talk to people to promote the service. Every year, I get the same response. “No way!” Some tell me they are afraid of ghosts. For others, the fear is much more personal. One guy said it clearly, “Someday I am going to spend every day in that cemetery. I don’t want to go early, because I don’t want to be reminded of my own death.” Fear has a way of paralyzing us! Are you afraid of death?

For over a decade my wife, Kathryn led volunteer in mission’s trips to Eastern Europe. We have been to Russia countless times. We have been to Ukraine several times. We have been to Belarus and Estonia. I have no clue how many trips. I have no clue how many people she has taken. I have no clue how many smiles she produced on the faces of those forgotten orphans. I have no clue how many have discouraged us from going through the years. I had one man say to me, “If she was my life, I would not let her go.” I responded, “That fine because she would have married you anyway.” One of the frustrations of the pandemic is we cannot travel to Eastern Europe. Would you like to go with us? Have you ever been paralyzed by fear?

Our world has no shortage of human need. I don’t need to read you a list; you know the list. God expects us to do something to help. The problem is, we are afraid. That is why we are more comfortable with charity than we are with missions. Charity involves collecting things for strangers. Missions involves getting personally involved with people. The chances of getting the needy of this world to come to our little piece of property is slim. That is why we must go, and that will take a certain amount of risk. Are you willing to risk your personal security? Fear has a way of paralyzing us. Faith lets us free. That is why the story of Rahab is so amazing. She risked it all for God. How much are you willing to risk? That is what makes James 2:14 so disturbing. Verse 14 says it clearly, what good is it, my brothers, and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Real Christians risk.

How many of you remember Evel Knievel? He is remembered as an American Daredevil. In his career he knew many highs and many lows. (He broke 37 bones.) His stunts grabbed national attention. He got into being a daredevil for one reason, money. He was not making enough money as a motocross racer, so he decided to promote his motorcycle stunts. His first stunt was to jump over a box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions. That stunt got him a sponsor. Soon, Knievel was regularly jumping his Harley Davidson over rows of cars, trucks, and even the fountains at Caesar’s Palace. His most famous stunt came in 1974, when he attempted to jump the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-propelled motorcycle called the X-1. A malfunction caused the bike’s parachute to prematurely open and ruined the jump, but the media storm surrounding the event had already cemented Knievel’s reputation as the king of all daredevils. Would you ever jump over a box of rattlesnakes? Do you consider yourself a daredevil? In authentic Christianity, there is a certain amount of risk taking. How big of a risk are you willing to take for God? Real Christians risk!

Real Christians Love Equally

Charles Drew (1904-1950) was a brilliant medical doctor. His discovery of blood plasma resulted in saving thousands of lives in World War II, Korea, and the Vietnam War. At Pearl Harbor, for example, 96% of those who received plasma survived. Dr. Drew’s accomplishment did not go unnoticed. At the conclusion of World War II, he was named director of the National Blood Bank Program and devoted himself to teaching doctors at Howard University Medical School. That is what makes the rest of the story so cruel. On April 1, 1950, while driving some young doctors to a conference, Dr. Drew was involved in an automobile accident in Burlington, N.C. He was rushed to a hospital, where his life could have been saved by plasma. But Dr. Drew was denied admission to the hospital because his skin was black. He died at the age of 45 on the way to another hospital 26 miles away. I find that story to be very upsetting. I hope you find that story upsetting because God does too. That takes us to our scripture reading for today.

We find ourselves in the second chapter of the Epistle of James, the first thirteen verses. The topic James is addressing is favoritism. Webster defines favoritism as, the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another. Its synonyms include inequality, unfairness, discrimination, positive discrimination, and reverse discrimination. In the text it is the rich who are given favorable treatment. The rich have always received favorable treatment. That is why any American citizen can get a Corina virus vaccine for free. That is why less than 1% of Haitians have been vaccinated. The rich have always received favorable treatment. James is telling his scattered congregation favoritism will not be tolerated because God does not tolerate favoritism. It is as true today as it was in James’s time. The problem is our churches practice favoritism on a regular basis. Can I be honest with you?

I am innocent in many ways, so maybe I have missed it. I have never had a new individual, or a group join the church who felt entitled. It is my experience it is the established church membership who feel entitled. You can call it reverse-favoritism. Some long-term members feel entitle because they have quatres’ rights. They have seen preachers come and go. They have seen other members come and go. They have endured it all, so they feel entitled. They are the true members because of longevity. Could I be talking to you? Some talented members feel entitle. They have a special gift to offer the church and they believe the church cannot exist without them. You find it in various corners of the church. At first, we say we could not have done it without you and at some point, they begin to believe it. Could I be talking to you? Some generous church members feel entitled. I am not talking about money. They are generous with their time, so they believe they deserve to get what they want. Could I be talking to you? Many spend more time in this church building than me. I work from home because I get nothing done here. It is my experience newcomers are not the problem. They problem of favoritism comes from the established congregation. However, that does not mean the scripture does not speak to us. Favoritism is a danger to any church. The most effective churches are united. The least effective churches are divided. Do you think we are a united church, or do you think we are a divided church? James 2:1 says, My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.”

The Covenant Life Church in Tampa, Florida is co-pastored by two men, Justin Perry and Drew Tucker. They planted the church in 2015 and have been extremely successful. It is part of the Evangelical Presbyterian denomination. They write a regular blog. One of their blogs is called Reasons Why God Hates Favoritism. These are the reasons:

  1. Favoritism is inconsistent with God’s character. God loves everyone. God loves the rich and the poor. God loves the educated and the uneducated. God loves both men and women. God loves everyone regardless of race. God loves liberals and conservative. God loves Americans and Non-Americans. God loves everyone equally, so God hates favoritism. Favoritism is inconsistent with God’s character.
  • God hates favoritism because God alone is the judge. When we practice favoritism, we become the judge and most of our judgements are based on superficial appearance. Our judgements are based on ignorance, not wisdom. God hates favoritism because God alone is the judge.
  • Favoritism damages the church’s witness. The secular world loves to tell ugly church stories. They love to tell those stories because they want to tell the world we are not insincere. The secular world wants the church to fail. People are must more comfortable telling critical church stories than they are affirming church stories. Favoritism damages the church’s witness.

James 2:9 says it clearly, favoritism is a sin. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” How much sinning have you done within the life of this church? When you look at someone else do you see how different they are from you, or do you see what you have in common? God sees what we have in common. Humans see how we are different and fair too often evaluate that person based on ignorance.

History tells that Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962) was one of the primary architects of the Holocaust. When he was tried for his war crimes at Nuremburg, Yehiel Dinur (1909-2001), who had survived Auschwitz, faced Eichmann for the first time since leaving the concentration camp. When he saw Eichmann, Dinur sobbed and fainted.

Years later, Mike Wallace (1918-2012) of 60 Minutes asked Dinur what happened: Was he overcome by hatred or fear or horrid memories? Dinur’s answer is stunning. He said he suddenly realized that Eichmann was not some God-like authority in a military uniform who sent thousands to their deaths. He was just an ordinary man. And then, said Dinur, “I was afraid about myself… I saw that I can do this. I am exactly like he.” Do you get the point? We are more like others than we care to admit.

Several weeks ago, Kathryn and I were in Washington DC. I love visiting Washington because it is full of energy. This trip was no different. We arrived just hours after a ten-inch snowstorm fell. The capitol was beautiful, but it was partially closed. The various museums were closed or opened late to compensate for the snow. When we arrived at the National Art Gallery, it was closed. We had to wait about an hour until it opened. It really was not an issue. We found a Starbucks for a cup of coffee. Everyone there was in a festive mood. They found the snow fun. The man in front of us in line was obviously homeless. There is no shortage of homeless in Washington DC. He wore an old coat with a Washington Redskins towel around his waist. His feet and legs were bare except for a pair of flip-flops. Did you hear what I said? His feet and legs were bare except for a pair of flip-flops. There was ten inches of snow on the ground. When he went to buy his coffee, he was $1.12 short. He debated with the barista for a few minutes, but then he surrendered and walked off to the side empty handed. When I walked up to buy my coffee, I offered to buy the bare footed man a cup. The barista responded, “It is nice of you, but he will be fine. He is a regular. His name is Jake and I bought him a cup earlier. He has money. He just doesn’t want to spend it.” I thought about Jake the rest of the day. I was frustrated with him because no one should be homeless in America. If you cannot make it in the United States of America, then you cannot make it anywhere. I thought about going back to Jake and tell him to get a job. Every business is looking for workers.

I thought about Jake the rest of that day and I thought about Jake when I went to bed that night. Jake and I were both customers at Starbucks, but we were living in two different worlds. Jake was homeless and barefooted on a cold snowy day. I was employed and warm. I will be the first to admit it. I have a good life. I was born into a stable Christian home. My parents made sure I got a good education. I found a job that did not just pay the bills but filled me with passion. My success in life was easy because all I needed to do was take advantage of the opportunity laid in front of me. I did not know Jake’s story. Perhaps, he made countless mistakes. Perhaps, he missed his opportunity. Perhaps, he had no opportunities. Then it hit me. What if I would have born into Jake’s life? I may have been standing at a Starbuck’s in Washington DC on a snowy day wearing flip-flops with a Pittsburgh Steeler towel around my waste. (No, it would not be that bad. I would wear a Cleveland Brown towel.) From my warm bed I discovered was not much different from Jake. I was not much different from a homeless man in Washington DC, and either are you. However, this is the point.

We are all the same. Your longevity does not matter. Your natural gifts do not matter. Your generosity does not matter. In the life of the church, the only thing that matters is your spiritual state. We are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. God’s expectation. It has been said: Entitlement is a delusion built on self-centeredness and laziness. How self-centered are you? How lazy are you? How entitled are you?

Real Christians Persevere

Today, we are looking at the first four verses of the Epistle of James.  In verse one we are told James is writing to the twelve scattered tribes among the nations. Who were these people? It is not as mysterious as it sounds. The answer is simple. They were members of the early church, who left Jerusalem. They didn’t leave the Golden City because they wanted to go. They left the Golden City because they had to go. You remember the story. After the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1), the rules changed. Their safety was no longer guaranteed. Their greatest fear was to end up like Stephen, dead! Everyone dreams of the perfection of heaven, but no one is in a hurry to go. They left for their own safety. Now let me state the obvious. This was not a time of advanced communication. There were no cell phones, text messages, or e-mails. When you left, you were gone. James didn’t know what was happening to his people, so he expects the worst. That is why the first topic he addresses is trials. If they were going to remain in the faith, then they had to persevere.

The world has changed a great deal in 2,000 years. In some ways, we have made some great advances. The advancement of medical knowledge and practice is impressive in the past 100 years. That is why people are living longer all the time. The advancement of communication is impressive over the past 100 years. E-mail and Skype have made our world very small. The advancement of transportation in the past 100 years is impressive. We fly commercial airliners without much thought. In certain ways, the world has changed a great deal in the past 2,000 years. However, in other ways, our world has remained the same in 2,000 years.

Two thousand years ago, being a follower of Jesus Christ meant you were in the minority. The percentage of true believers was very small. They were a minority who were not welcomed by their world. Guess what? Two thousand years later, being a follower of Jesus Christ means you are still in the minority. I am not talking about being a church member. I am talking about being a true disciple of Jesus Christ. I am talking about having a relationship with Jesus that is altering the way you live. It is altering the way you spend your time. It is altering the way you spend your money. It is altering your personal opinions. However, it is also altering the way that other people look at you and relate to you. If Jesus Christ really is altering your life, then you truly are in the minority. You know it is true. The majority is always trying to tell the minority to compromise this relationship with Jesus and conform to what the rest of the world is doing.

Verse four is vital to your spiritual development. It says, Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete.”  James is not talking about the secondary issues in the life of the church. He is not talking about a certain style of worship. He is not talking about locking the doors after a church function or washing the dishes in the kitchen. James is talking about not compromising vital pieces of the Christian faith, our core values. There are many that could be mentioned, but I will only mention three. If you are ready to begin, say, “Amen!”

First, never compromise Jesus! This letter is not just written to anyone. It is written to that small group of people who really believed. Their names and stories differed, but somewhere in their lives they experienced Jesus. The question is not, how did you come to know Jesus? The question is, have you experienced Jesus? Once you experience Jesus, everything changes. Jesus wasn’t just a good man. Jesus wasn’t just a wise man or a role model. Jesus wasn’t just an interesting man. Jesus was not just a motivational speaker. Jesus was the incarnation of God, who was the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. He is our only hope of salvation. How could you ever compromise Jesus?And all of God’s people said, “Amen!” Never compromise Jesus!

The Bible

Second, never compromise the Bible! One of my favorite Bible stories comes from the eighth chapter of Acts. You know the story. We have looked at it in the past. The main character is Philip. He was directed by an angel to go to the road that runs between Gaza and Jerusalem. Philip does what he is told and meets a foreigner. The scriptures identify him as an Ethiopian eunuch. His life is complex for a variety of reasons. When Philip meets him, he is trying to untangle the mess. With nowhere else to go, he is reading the scriptures. The problem is, he didn’t understand what he was reading. Does anyone here have a hard time understanding the Bible? The good news is, Philip helped him understand what he was reading. He was reading from the suffering servant passage, Isaiah 53. It is a chapter about Jesus.

As a matter of fact, every word in the Bible is about Jesus. The Old Testament is about everything that happened before Jesus’ birth. The Gospels are about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The book of Acts is about the Holy Spirit and the creation of Jesus’ bride, the church. The rest of the Bible is filled with testimonies about the difference that Jesus made in individual lives. Revelation is about how Jesus wins in the end. Second, we will never compromise the Bible because it is all about Jesus, our Lord and Savior. If you will never compromise the Bible, say, “Amen!” First, never compromise Jesus! Second, never compromise the Bible.

The Church

Third, never compromise the church! Job number one in every church is the resurrection of Jesus. Administrative structure really doesn’t matter. The number of small groups you have really doesn’t matter. The denominational name on the sign doesn’t really matter. What really matters? The only thing that really matters in the life of the church is the resurrection of Jesus. On the day we stop talking about the resurrection of Jesus, we will stop being the church that God intended. For this reason, we will never compromise the church.

It is hard to believe that I began serving in the United Methodist Church nearly 35 years ago. Time goes so quickly. When I was going through the ordination process, I was required to turn in a certain amount of paperwork. One of the papers I wrote was on Ecclesiology, the study of the church. I learned something while I was writing that paper that I have never forgotten. Paul and Peter viewed the church in two different ways. Paul believed the church was visible. In other words, he believed everyone who is present today was part of the true church. Peter believed the church is invisible. He believed your attendance is only one sign that you are part of the true church. He believed that only God knows who makes up the true church. In other words, you can be a member of a church and not be part of the true church. Can be in the true church and not be a church member. The faith was never meant to be lived out in isolation. I am not sure you I believe, Peter is correct. What do you believe? Let me go a few more steps down that road.

I believe man-made denominations mean very little to God. The only thing that really matters is your belief in the resurrection. That is Biblical. Romans 10:9 says, “… if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Many believe that verse is the very first creed in the church. Your belief and witness of the resurrection is everything. That is why I have very little problem crossing denominational lines. Presbyterians and Lutherans believe in the resurrection. Those fun non-denominational and Pentecostal churches believe in the resurrection. The Roman and Byzantine Catholic Churches believe in the resurrection. The Orthodox Church believes in the resurrection. The traditions of all these churches are different. I am not saying I accept all their practices and beliefs. I don’t accept everything about the United Methodist Church. However, I do believe in the resurrection, and I am open to any group that believes in the resurrection of Jesus. Maybe the devil is in the details? Maybe instead of promoting our differences, we should promote what we have in common, the resurrection of Jesus! People promote differences. God promotes what we have in common. If you will never compromise the church, say, “Amen!” First, never compromise Jesus! Second, never compromise the Bible! Third, never compromise the church! Let me end with this story.

This is a good story on this Martin Luther King Day weekend. William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was a British Politian. He was the one who ended the slave trade in that country. It was hard work. He was often discouraged. It was his practice to read the Bible during those dark days. On one such night, he began to leaf through it. A small piece of paper fell out and fluttered to the floor. It was a letter written by John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of the great Methodist movement, shortly before his death. This is what that letter said:

Unless the divine power has raised you up… I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that (abominable practice of slavery), which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? Oh, be not weary of well-doing. Go on in the name of God, and in the power of His might.

John Wesley was reminding William Wilberforce of the same thing that James is reminding us. We are only soldiers in a great spiritual battle.It is God, Himself, who goes ahead of us. It is God, Himself, who will claim the final victory. The only thing we are required to do is persevere. If you are going to be a real Christian, then you must persevere.

Let there be no doubt about it. We are in the middle of a great spiritual battle. We are nothing more than soldiers. In our lives, we will experience both victory and defeat. However, in the end, God will win, and we will reap the benefits. All we are asked to do is persevere. We will never give up on Jesus. He is our only hope of salvation. We will never give up on the Bible. It is the inspired word of God. It is all about Jesus. We will never give up the church. The true church can’t stop talking about Jesus. The church is the bride of Christ. Who will tell the world about our risen Savior if the church fails? Scottish naturalist Walter Elliot (1842-1928) once said, Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after the other.  Never give up, persevere! And all of God people said, “Amen!”

Accepted

In the second chapter of Matthew, verses 1 through 12, we find the story of the Magi. The Bible says it happened after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Judea. So, Jesus was born five and a half miles south of Jerusalem. Matthew goes on to pinpoint the date. It was when King Herod sat on the throne. He sat on the throne for thirty-three years, from 37 – 4 B.C. He was appointed to his position by the Roman Senate. Over two thousand years later, he is still remembered for being ruthless and insecure. His insecurity led him to murder many in his family: his wife, three sons, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and uncles. In our reading for today, we learn his murderous ways extended beyond the family. You know what the Bible says.

One day, Magi, Gentile astrologers from Persia or southern Arabia, (both east of Palestine), came to visit Herod. They had been studying the stars and had discovered that God was doing something new. A baby had been born, who was called King of the Jews. They assumed the King of the Jews would be born in the palace. They assumed wrong. The infamous insecure King Herod is thrown into a tirade. His insecurity fuels the loss of more human life. The story does not have a happy ending. It pains me to say it. Using the information received from the Magi about this divine birth, he orders the death of all baby boys under the age of two. However, in the end, the Magi find the baby, now a toddler. (Jesus could have been two years old.)

I have preached this story for years, but it is only recently I discovered something new. It is something I have overlooked my entire life. It is not that Jesus was a toddler, not a newborn. It is not that they were Magi, not kings. It is not the meaning behind the gifts. My new insight was that the gifts were accepted. It is hard to see thousands of years later. Joseph and Mary received the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Think about it for moment. When you accept a gift, you are accepting the gift giver. Joseph and Mary accepted the Magi’s gifts, so they were accepting the Magi themselves. It does not sound so earthshaking now, but it was then. This Jewish couple accepted this group of three Gentiles. That rarely, if ever, happened. At the time of this story, accepting the Magi was, and is, a big deal. Just think about it for a moment.

From the time of Abraham to the time of Jesus, God had an exclusive relationship with the Jews. That covers thousands of years. The Hebrew nation took pride in the fact that they were God’s Chosen People. The purity of their race was important to them. They took pride in their heritage, and they disdained for everyone else. Either you were a Jew, or you were not. That is why genealogies were important to them. In the previous chapter, Matthew proves to the readers, Jews, that Jesus was 100% Jewish. That is why the Jews hated the Samaritans. They were almost Jewish, not good enough. Who were the Samaritans? They were the descendants of former Jews who had intermarried with Gentiles during the exile. Through Jewish eyes, they were half-breeds and hated for polluting the race. The purity of the race is extremely important to the Jews. That is what makes this story so amazing. This Jewish couple, Joseph, and Mary, accept these Gentiles, the Magi. Not only do they accept them, but they accept their gifts. Can I ask you a question? When was the last time you didn’t feel accepted? In the Bible lesson for today, the issue is racism. We understand racism because sadly, it is still part of our world.

I have never experienced the magic of Pittsburgh. Some people see it as a magical place. Some believe, heaven looks a great deal like Pittsburgh. I am not one of them. Don’t get me wrong. There are a few nice streets crowded in between the rivers and the hills. Can I confess something to you? I can never drive into Pittsburgh and not get lost. I am always going the wrong way on a one-way street. It is my experience that modern GPS is useless in Pittsburgh.

Several years ago, I was going to visit someone in one of the hospitals in Pittsburgh. Kathryn came along for company. Not to my surprise, we got lost. I break the stereotype and ask for directions when I get lost. Kathryn was driving, so I jumped out of the car. The closest place to ask for directions was a corner bar. When I walked in the place, it went silent. I do not want to sound racist, but the place went silent because I was the only person of non-color in the bar. I asked the first person I saw for directions. He was helpful. He pulled out a napkin that sat under his frosted beer mug and wrote down some directions. When I walked out, everyone started laughing. Racism is at the heart of that story and racism is at the heart of our Bible story. However, racism is not the only source of the problem. There are many reasons why we don’t accept others. Let me ask you the question again: When was the last time you didn’t feel accepted?

Several years ago, I officiated at a wedding at the Butler Museum of American Art in downtown Youngstown. To be more exact the wedding took place in the new Butler North, who was the former First Christian Church. The congregation had left, and the Holy Spirit went with them. The ceremony was stiff with canned music. My plan was to leave after the benediction, but the father of the bride asked me to stay and say at the reception in the art gallery. I was more than glad to stay, but I had stay about two hours. I called Kathryn and she agreed to meet me at the reception. However, that meant for two hours, I was on my own. I spent most of the time looking at the pieces of art. I tried to talk to people, but no one wanted to talk to me. I was identified as the minister, and no one wants to talk to the minister. I was alone in a crowd. I was not accepted. Have you ever been excluded because of your job? Let me ask you the question again: When was the last time you didn’t feel accepted? You know it is true. Sometimes, we exclude ourselves because we do not feel like we belong.

Personally, I find New Year’s Eve to be depressing, after the great day of Christmas. We always go somewhere to escape the festivities of New Year’s. One year, we went to Annapolis. It was a great trip. We toured the Naval Academy and visited some historic sites. Annapolis was the Capitol of the United States for the first eight months after the Revolution. From Annapolis it moved to Trenton, New Jersey. The last day of our trip we went into Baltimore and toured the B & O Railroad Museum.

The last thing we did was go to a mansion called Evergreen. It was the home of one the B & O CEO’s. The building was impressive, filled with priceless art and collectibles. Our guide tried to impress us with all the pieces. Everyone was impressed, except for one person in the group, me! I just didn’t appreciate the various pieces. Don’t get me wrong. I have been exposed to some of the finest things in life. I have heard some of the finest music ever composed performed by some of the world’s finest orchestras. I have seen masterpieces in some of the finest art galleries in the world. The problem is not a lack of exposure, it is a lack of appreciation. Everyone on our tour appreciated what they were experiencing, except me. Once again, I was alone in a crowd. The guide and the group did nothing wrong. The problem wasn’t them. It was me. I didn’t feel like I belonged. By the end of the tour, people were sharing what they enjoyed the most in the house. Do you know what I enjoyed most? It was a photograph of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941). I really admired his large mustache. It was obvious. I just didn’t fit in with the rest of the group. It is entirely possible to exclude yourself. Let me ask you the question one more time: When was the last time you didn’t feel accepted?

That is what makes this morning’s story so incredible. It is a story of acceptance. A Jewish couple, Joseph, and Mary accepted a group of Gentiles. They aren’t just accepting them. They are emotionally embracing them by accepting their gifts. Here is the Good News for today: You are accepted too. Jesus didn’t just come to maintain God’s special relationship with the Jews. Jesus came so everyone can have a relationship with God. Jesus came so God can have a relationship with you. Never forget it. God loves you so much, he wants to spend eternity with you! Brian Tracy (born 1944) said it best, “The greatest gift that you can give someone is the gift of unconditional love and acceptance.”