What the Needy Need

I love the story of a hotel who was holding two conventions at the same time. One of the conventions salesmen. The other convention was ministers. When dinner came the kitchen had to work at top speed. For dessert, the salesmen were having spiked watermelon. But the chef discovered that it was being served to the ministers by mistake. “Quick!” he commanded a waiter. “Bring it back!” The waiter returned, reporting that it was too late. The ministers were already eating the liquor-spiced treat. “Did they like it?” asked the chef. “I believe they did,” replied the waiter. “They are putting the seeds in their pockets.” Today’s message is not about ministers, those who are divinely called into Christian leadership. Today’s message is about ministry, responding to human need in the name of Jesus. That takes us to our scripture reading.

We find ourselves today in the first chapter of Mark. Our reading for today followings the reading from last week. According to the text, Jesus and his followers, Peter, Andrew, James, and John are in Capernaum, the hometown of Peter. Jesus used Peter’s home as a base of operation when he was in Galilee. On the Sabbath, Saturday, Jesus went to the local synagogue to worship. During that time, the synagogue was also used to teach the sacred scriptures. Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher, so he taught. Jesus’s lesson was effective, and he impressed everyone who was present. Verse 22 says, he taught with authority. Everyone is happy, except one. A single individual was not impressed with Jesus. He was intimidated by Jesus. The author, Mark, explains why. The man was demon possessed. The demon spoke through the man and the demon inquired about Jesus’s intentions. He asked, “What do you want from us?” Notice, it is one demon speaking for many. In the end, the demon is exorcised, and the man is liberated. The congregation is impressed and spreads the good news about Jesus. The eyewitnesses of the event cannot help but to tell their world. It is an amazing story. However, I hope you look at this old story in a new way. Do not just think of the man as a demon possessed man. Think of the man as an individual in need. Once you do, the story becomes relevant. How many needy people exist in our world?

How many needy people do you know? Today, I am not talking about world issues, like hunger, illiteracy, or political corruption. I am talking about individuals in your life who are struggling. There is no shortage. How many people do you how are struggling with a physical problem? How many people do you know are struggling with cancer? How many people do you know are struggling with the coronavirus? How many people do you know are struggling with a condition with no solution? How many people do you know are dealing with a broken relationship? Their brother lives around the corner, but they have not spoken for years. Does anyone know someone with a financial problem? Do you know someone who is facing bankruptcy? How many people do you know are filing for bankruptcy for a second time? How many people do you know are struggling with their parents? It maybe their health. It maybe their driving? You know Dad should not be driving but you just cannot take the keys. After all, he is your dad. Do you know of anyone who is struggling with their children? They are approaching forty and they still cannot live with you. They just cannot find the on ramp to the highway called life. Do you know of someone with a legal problem? Do I have to go on? Do I really have to go on? There are so many people with so many problems. We are surrounded by needy people. I do not know anyone who does not know someone, who is in need. The question is not if they have problems. The question is, how do you respond to those problems?

A select few are called to be ministers, but God expects all believers to minister, to serve Him in this world. We are surrounded by the needy. How comfortable are you responding to the needy? If not very, I hope this message helps you. Jesus models for us how to respond to the needy. The needy need our attention.

In the 1950s, Stanley Arnold was asked to develop a marketing campaign for men’s shavers’ manufacturer, Remington. It was considered one of the most conservation companies in America. The project intimated Arnold at first but then came up with a magnificent idea. He went to the New York offices of Merrill and Lynch and placed the ultimate odd-lot order: “I want to purchase,” he told the broker, “one share of every single stock listed on the New York Stock Exchange.” It came to more than $42,000 for one share in each of the 1098 companies listed at the time. Arnold took his diversified portfolio into a meeting of Remington’s board of directors, where he argued passionately for a sweepstakes campaign with the top prize called “A Share in America.” The conservative old gentlemen shifted around in their seats and discussed the idea for a while. “But Mr. Arnold,” said one, “we are not in the securities business. We are in the shaver business.” “I agree that you are not in the securities business,” said Arnold, “but I think you also ought to realize that you are not in the shaver business either. You are in the people business.” He was right!

May we never forget we are in the people business. We are not in the restaurant business. We are not in the building maintenance business. We are not in the education business. We are not in the music business. We are not in the keeping traditions alive business. Those things are not bad, but they are not our business. We are in the people business because Jesus was in the people business. Jesus came into the world to be the bridge between God and man. We are to help people find that bridge. The people who have helped me the most during my time of need did not just give me a check or can of tuna. The people who helped me the most gave me some attention. Jesus spoke to the man directly and gave him his attention. How much attention are you giving the needy in your world?The needy need our attention. However, the needy do not just need our attention. They also need our respect.

Consider this simple fact with me, most of the time the Bible does not report Jesus’s planned and formal teachings. Rather, the Bible talks about the interruptions that came along as Jesus traveled. That is what happened in this story. Jesus goes to the synagogue to worship and teach. Mark does not tell us the topic of his lecture, but Mark does tell us about the interruption caused by the demonic. An exorcism was not on the agenda. However, there is no sign in the text, Jesus was upset about the interruption. The most important thing to Jesus was people. This is not the only place. In the eighth chapter of Luke, Jesus came down from the mountainside and was interrupted by a leper. In the end, Jesus heals the man. In the same chapter, a centurion came to Jesus begging for his servant. His quality of life is near zero, but in the end, Jesus heals him. In the story of Zacchaeus, Luke 19, Jesus enters Jericho and is welcomed by a big crowd. However, a small man, Zacchaeus, stops the whole parade. Once again, Jesus is interrupted and, once again, Jesus does not care. Time and time again, Jesus was interrupted, and time and time again, Jesus treated those interruptions with respect because people are more important than agendas or plans. Jesus respected everyone.

Let us be honest, life is hard. There are many who feel like they do not matter. The world is constantly telling us we do not matter. We do not matter because we are too old, or young. We do not matter because we do not have a vast portfolio. We do not matter because we do not have the right connections. We do not matter because of the color of our skin, our sexual identity, or our educational level. The world is always telling us we do not matter, but we do matter. When you treat someone with respect, you are telling them they matter. Jesus showed the leper he mattered. When Jesus healed the centurion’s servant, he told him he mattered. When Jesus stopped the parade for Zacchaeus, he was telling him he mattered. When Jesus healed the demonic in the synagogue, he was telling him me mattered. When you help the needy you are telling them, they matter, and you matter too. Everyone matters because everyone is loved by God. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.The needy need our attention. The needy need our respect. The needy need our honesty.

The other day, I was at home watching one of those morning shows. The segment was about eating healthy. They had a skinny bald man on who was making healthy smoothies you could eat for breakfast. It started off with a frozen banana and some buckwheat, followed by kale. Then, he added seeds and bran flakes. He finished it off by throwing in a tumble weed and an acorn, for flavor. He hit the button on the blender and the final product was poured into a glass. Can I be honest with you? It looked disgusting. The interviewer drank his and told the world it was delicious. Then, they went back to the studio and the other announcers said they were jealous because it looked great. There must have been six back at the studio, but only one was honest. Carson Daily said, that looks disgusting. Make me a donut smoothy. Everyone else was shocked by his response, but I thought it was great because he was simply being honest.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” The needy need our honesty. Sometimes are honesty is affirming. “You aren’t that bad.” “Do not be so hard of yourself.” “You are a good person.” “You are not stupid.” Sometimes, our honesty sounds critical. You do not want to hurt them, but they need to learn. Respect them enough to tell them the truth. Does someone in your life need to hear they are a financial disaster because they need to get a job. Does someone in your life need to hear they are lonely because they are selfish? Does someone in your life need to hear you have done nothing with their life because you lack ambition and drive. Does someone in your life need to hear their health is poor because they have unhealthy habits. They eat too much. They exercise too little. They smoke. Does someone in your life do poor in school and says the teachers are poor and do not like them. Respect them enough to be honest. They are lazy, not unliked or stupid. Does someone in your life need honesty? Do not tell them those things because you want to hurt them. Be honest with them because you care about them and want to help them. Jesus was honest with the demonic. He had a spiritual problem. The needy need honesty. The needy need our attention, respect, and honesty. Let me end with this old preaching story.

An elderly widow, restricted in her activities, was eager to serve Christ. After praying about this, she realized that she could bring blessing to others by playing her piano. The next day she placed this small ad in the Oakland Tribune: “Pianist will play hymns by phone daily for those who are sick and despondent–the service is free.” The notice included the number to dial. When people called, she would ask, “What hymn would you like to hear?” Within a few months her playing had brought cheer to several hundred people. Many of them freely poured out their hearts to her, and she was able to help and encourage them. Her ministry had touched the lives of many! That simple story illustrates a simple point.

We are surrounded by needy people. It can be overwhelming but remember these three points. The needy need our attention. The needy need our respect. The needy need, and deserve, our honesty. We are surrounded by a needy world. How are you going to respond?

Follow Me!

In None of These Diseases S.I. McMillen tells a story of a young woman who wanted to go to college. However, her heart sank when she read the question on the application, “Are you a leader?” Being both honest and conscientious, she wrote, “No,” and returned the application, expecting the worst. To her surprise, she received this letter of acceptance from the college:

          Dear Applicant:

A study of the application forms reveals that this year our college will have 1,452 new leaders. We are accepting you because we feel it is imperative that they have at        least one follower.

Welcome!

I must ask you this question. Do you consider yourself a leader or do you consider yourself a follower? Jesus is looking for followers. That takes us to our Gospel lesson for today.

We find ourselves today in the first chapter of Mark. It is early in Jesus’s ministry.

The only things prior to this story are the stories of John the Baptist, and the baptism and temptations of Jesus. Our scripture reading begins with the sad news, John the Baptist had been arrested. His incarceration signals the beginning of Jesus’s earthly ministry. Verse 15 is significant. Jesus, himself, says, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” The first thing Jesus does is collect a few followers. Jesus is at the Sea of Galilee. I have been there. It is a beautiful place, 14 miles long and 6 miles wide. The coast was filled with professional fishermen and it still is. Two of the professionals were Peter and his brother, Andrew. Jesus invites them to follow him. Later, he invites John and his brother, James. The four, in the end, decide to follow Jesus. Do not jump over that line too fast. The four follow Jesus. That means the four let Jesus take the lead. At this point, Jesus is not looking for them to be leaders, Jesus is looking for followers. That is an amazing concept in our time because we are always looking for leaders.

Over the past few decades my desk has been covered with a variety of workshops and continuing education events on the topic of leadership. In most cases the church has borrowed business principles to solve our leadership vacuum. Years ago, the name Peter Drucker (1909-2005) burst on the scene. He was an Austrian management consultant, educator, and author. Everyone seemed to be reading him. He tried to cultivate the leader hiding within all of us. He said a leader must trumpet the organization’s goal and hold fast to five basic qualities. These five qualities are the secret to turning you into a leader. Here is the five:

          (1) A leader works

          (2) A leader sees his assignment as responsibility, not privilege

          (3) A leader wants strong, capable, self-assured, independent associates

          (4) A leader creates human energies and vision

          (5) A leader develops followers’ trust by his own consistency and integrity

How many of those qualities do you possess in your life?

I think, it is humorous that the church had to look to Peter Drucker to teach us about leadership when we have had studying the greatest leader in the history of the world for generations, Jesus! If you do not believe me take those five qualities of leadership and apply them to Jesus.

          (1) Jesus was not afraid to work

          (2) Jesus saw his assignment as responsibility, not privilege

          (3) Jesus looked for independent associates

          (4) Jesus cast a vision

          (5) Jesus created trust because he was a person of integrity

The question for today is not, was Jesus a leader? The question is, are you a follower? Years ago, Jesus invited Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow him. They accepted the invitation and it change their lives. The problem is everyone is not comfortable following. The reason is simple. The reason is change. Some do not like change. Followers must change. Leaders do not have to change. Think about this for a moment. Many say they follow Jesus, but they refuse to change. If you do not change then you are not a follower. What is your story? So, let me ask you the questions again. Are you a follower, who will take direction from the leader? Are you a leader, who refuses to change? Jesus is looking for followers.

Today, I want to talk about three changes you must make in your life if you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ. These points are not original. The came from United Methodist preacher James W. Moore (1938-2019). He was a graduate of the Methodist Theological School of Ohio. They are worth examining.

A New Focus

I remember reading this piece of scripture when I was young. I wondered how the disciples could instantly leave everything and follow Jesus. Mark does not give us any prior history the disciples had with Jesus, they just left. At that time in my life, it did not seem logical, or responsible. However, as I have grown older, I have grown to understand why they did it. I believe, they accepted Jesus’ invitation because they needed something new in their lives. Their lives had grown stale, and they hungered for change. You can say they wanted an adventure. Time reminded them that life in this world is limited. They wanted to leave this world a better place. Jesus offers his followers a new focus. If you are going to follow Jesus, then be prepared for a new focus. The temporary is no longer vital. The eternal suddenly becomes all consuming. How important is eternity to you?

It is interesting only John died of old age. Some believe he lived to be 100. The other three, Peter, Andrew, and James, died as martyrs. Tradition tells us, Peter died in Rome. He was crucified upside down at his request. He was not worthy to die as Jesus died. Andrew was also crucified in died in day Russia. He was crucified too. James was stoned and clubbed to death in present day Syria. The other eight did not fare much better. Thomas was in India where he was pierced through the side by four solders. Philip went to North Africa and was tortured. Bartholomew was martyred in Ethiopia. Simon the Zealot traveled to Persia and was killed for not worshipping the sun god. Just think about it. Eleven of the twelve died of unnatural causes for the Gospel. Not even one complained because their eyes were fixed on eternity. They are had a new focus. Their eyes were fixed on eternity. Are you more concerned about the temporary? Are you more concerned about the eternal? Where are your eyes fixed? If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you better be prepared for a new focus. If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you better be prepared for a new future.

A New Vision

Do you have someone in your life that will not let you forget the past? It may be a mother or a father. It may be a brother or a sister? It may be a friend. Is there someone in your life you hate seeing because they are constantly reminding you of your mistakes or failures? Maybe this is a better question, how much time do you spend resenting your past?

William Glasser (1925-2013) was an American psychiatrist who made his impact on the world of psychiatry. He has developed something called “reality therapy.” His approach is a little blunt, but it sounds good to me. While most of the fields of psychiatry spend a great amount of time untangling your past. For example, why you hate your mother and why you resent your brother. Reality therapy spends time on your future. It says you have the rest of your life to live, get over your past and do something with your future. Do you spend too much time in your past? Do you have someone in your life who spends too much time living in the past? Wouldn’t you like to tell them to get over it and start living today?

Jesus may have been the first reality therapist. Have you ever noticed how little time Jesus spent talking about the past? He is much more interested in the future. When he found the woman in the adulterous relationship, he forgives her and says, “Sin no more.” (John 8:11) When Nicodemus appeared on that dark night with the question Jesus told him to move forward in life. You must be born again. (John 3:3) In the parable of the prodigal son the young brother messed up but they father accepts him back and has a party. (Luke 15:11-31) Jesus is not interested in your past. The same is true for you. He is more interested in what you are going to do in the future then what you did in the past. When you learn to completely follow Jesus you can expect a new future. If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you better be prepared for a new focus. If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you better be prepared for a new future. If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you better be prepared for a new lifestyle.

A New Lifestyle

In February of 2016 18-year-old Malachi Love-Robinson was arrested in in West Palm Beach, Florida for pretending to be a doctor. He impersonated an anesthesiologist at the St. Mary’s Medical Center. He was found guilty on 14 charges and served three and a half years in prison. I find that story interesting because the one thing people will not tolerate is a fraud. Our society values people who are genuine. It is especially true of the Christian community. Our society will not tolerate a hypocrite.

Our society is extremely critical of the church and our society is extremely critical of individual Christians. That means your world is watching you to see if you are a genuine follower of Jesus Christ. Four times in the New Testament says we are Christ’s ambassadors in this world. That means you are representing Jesus. What are you teaching your world about Jesus from your behavior? What are you teaching your world about Jesus from your attitudes or opinions? What are you teaching your world about Jesus from your words? Jesus loved everyone unconditionally. Jesus forgave everyone regularly. How are you doing serving as Christ’s ambassador in this world?

Let me ask you these two questions. You can consider them a test of your genuineness. What have you said about our new president in the last few days? What have you said about our former president in the last few days? Remember, you are an ambassador of Jesus Christ? Are you a follower who is embracing a new lifestyle, always forgiving, and always loving, or are you a leader who refuses to change? Jesus loved everyone. Jesus forgave regularly. The great reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) said it best, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.”  On this inauguration week, let me end with this patriotic story.

In 1789, an uncertain George Washington (1732-1799) was urged to seek the presidency of the United States by Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816). Morris was a man of great influence. He was a delegate from New York to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. From 1792-1794, he served as the Ambassador to France. From 1800-1803, he served as a United States Senator. He saw Washington as a natural leader. Morris wrote Washington these words: “No constitution is the same on paper and in life. The exercise of authority depends upon personal character. Your cool steady temper is needed to set the tone for a new government.”

Here is the good news for today! No one is asking you to be the president. (Aren’t you glad?) No one is even asking you to be a leader. The only thing I am going to ask you to do is be a follower. Follow Jesus and experience life as God intended from the very beginning. When you learn to follow Jesus, you will discover a new focus, a new future, and a new lifestyle. How much has the Gospel changed your life? So, let me ask you the question of the day one more time. Are you a leader? Are you a follower? Jesus is looking for followers.

Your Servant Is Listening

I love this story. Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) served as President of the United States from 1933 until 1945. He was our 32nd President. As President he was often forced to endure long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir.” It was not till the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were heard. Nonplussed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming.” I tell you that story for one reason. The simple act of listening can be a complex topic. That takes us to today’s scripture lesson.

We find ourselves in the third chapter of First Samuel, the first ten verses. According to the Greek historian Josephus, Samuel was 12 years old when God started speaking to him. That was unique because their time was like our time, the word of the Lord was rare. In the darkness of that night God called Samuel. The boy assumes the one calling him is the nearly blind Eli. He ran to Eli and discovered the truth. The priest had not called him. The scene plays out two more times. It is on the third time Eli begins to understand. He instructs the boy to go back to bed and tells him to listen for the voice. If the voice comes then respond, “Your servant is listening.” That is exactly what happened, and his life would never be the same again. Have you ever wished God would speak to you? Do not answer that question too quickly. That story is not isolated. Throughout the pages of the Bible God is communicating with people. However, it is not just true of Biblical times. It is still true today. God communicates with us in various ways.

Ben Springs is a pastor of the Good Springs Full Gospel Church in Parrish, Alabama. He says there are ten ways God speaks to us today. Maybe you have experienced one. Audible Voice – That is what happened to Samuel. Has God every spoken to you in an audible voice? Angelic Visitation – That is Mary’s story. The angel told her she would conceive a baby boy. She was to name him Jesus. People have told me they have seen, only to them, angels in this church’s sanctuary. Visions and Dreams – Joseph had a dream, and in the end saved God’s chosen people. Maybe we should start writing down our dreams and start taking them seriously? Signs – There is nothing wrong with asking God for a sign to determine his will. Weekly, I will see something, a sign, that confirms I am preaching on something that God wants you to hear. Coincidences – This is no such thing as a coincidence. They are little miracles where God wants to remain unknown. The Written Word – The Bible is the general word of God for the masses. It covers many issues that are facing our world today. God cannot speak to you through the Bible if you are not reading the Bible. The Living Word – The living word is Jesus.The Holy Spirit speaks to us personally. Remember, we believe in a triune God. Through Relationships – Eli helped Samuel recognize God’s voice. God can speak through teachers and preachers, but God can also speak through other believers, such as your spouse and friends. Each one of us needs wise counsel. Through Creation and Nature – Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork.” How many times have you been moved by the beauty of nature? Through Our Conscious – God hand-wired us with an internal awareness of what is right and what is wrong. 

That is quite a list. If you look at that the whole list, then you must admit God is constantly trying to communicate with us. We are more like Samuel than we care to admit. God is speaking to us, but we fail to recognize his voice. The question is not, why doesn’t God speak to us? The question is, are we listening? Here is a question you must answer.

Why aren’t we listening? Many have written on the topic. One is a man by the name of C. Kevin Thompson. He is an author and a member of the Christian Authors Network. He says there are five reasons we do not hear God. This is his list. I believe they have some merit.

  1.  The issue is fear. This concept involves active listening. We want God to show us what he has done, not tell us what to do. It is a not always laziness. Much of the time it is fear. Our insecurities limit our behavior. We are afraid God will push us out of our comfort zone.
  •  The issue is patience. We are not patient people. That is why we have drive-thru at fast food restaurants. Fast was not fast enough. We value speed, so we expect an answer from God immediately. However, God cares far more about having a relationship with us than us getting a single decision correct.
  •  It is the issue of identity. We are concerned with what God wants us to do; God is far more concerned with us understanding who He is. This influences His communication. While He might tell us what to do, He far more often is telling us who He is. When we understand the Who, the What takes care of itself.
  •  It is the issue of selfishness. God loves us, but we are not at the center of His world. We like to think we are. Because of our unending focus on ourselves, we can easily miss God’s communication when He fails to talk about our favorite topic–us. We need to focus more on God and less on ourselves.
  • The issue is sensationalism. I do not deny that God can speak to us through our circumstances, I just know we can never be certain if it is Him. The only certain communication we have from God is in His Word. Everything else must be seen with some skepticism. God’s Word is clearly meant for us. Everything else is questionable. It is not exciting, but you need to read the Bible!

God is speaking! The problem is we are not listening.

It must have been a week ago this past Wednesday. I was in a good mood. Kathryn’s surgery was over, and I had spoken to the doctor. Everything was going to be fine. Kathryn was fast asleep in the Intensive Care Unit, so I decided to drive to my brother-in-law’s, where I was going to spend the night. I took the long way to Bedford and drove through Garfield Heights. I have fond memories of my five years in that community. They were good to me and my family. I was in the north end of town when my cell phone rang. I did not recognize the number. I thought it was a sales call, but it was the business office of the Cleveland Clinic. The young man on the other end of the line introduced himself and asked if I would mind answering a few questions. I turned into a plaza, so I could give him my complete attention. The questions had simple answers, address, birthday, and place of employment. I told him she was retired, but she served a small membership congregation in Lowellville. He asked if I carried the hospitalization, then I told him where I work. Then, he said something that surprised me. He said, he considered going into the United Methodist ministry. I asked him why he did not. He said, he was considering the ministry to make other people happy. I said, if you are called to go into the ministry, then you will never be happy doing anything else. If you are not called to go into the ministry and go into it, you will be miserable. I know that is true because that is my story.

Looking back on my career, I can easily say God called me into the ministry from the very beginning. The problem is I did not hear God calling me from the very beginning. When I got out of college, I was afraid to pursue the ministry. I did not for two reasons. Both seemed logical. First, I was terrified of public speaking. Second, people who loved me passionately told me I was not intellectual enough. I feared they were right. For three years, I did secular work. I worked in a bank and found a sales position. Neither one satisfied me. I enrolled into seminary because I knew there had to be more. Can I be honest with you? I think it worked out. I have never really worked in the ministry. Everything came to me naturally. I discovered being social was not a detriment, but it was a bonus. No one cares about Biblical Greek. However, I do get a reaction from people when I proclaim, I own the world’s best dog. (Everyone should feel like they own the world’s best dog!) In time, public speaking did not become a problem, but it has become my addiction. In May, I was be sixty-four years old. I only have one regret about the ministry. I wish, I would have not lost those three years. This is the point. God was calling me the whole time, but I was not listening. This is the question you must answer.

Are you listening? That is an important question because God is speaking. Samuel served God daily in the temple, but he failed to understand God’s communication. Could that be your story? My prayer for you today is simple. I pray you eliminate all those things that are making your deaf to God’s communication. Eliminate the fear, the impatience, and selfishness. I hope you identify God correctly because He wants to have a long-term relationship with you! It has been said, “God remains silent until we are ready to listen.”

Discipleship 101

In 1857, John Henry Hopkins Jr. (1820-1891) wrote one of the great hymns in the history of the church, We Three Kings. At the time, Hopkins served as the rector of the Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. However, he wrote the carol for a Christmas pageant in New York City. The carol is a combination of Bible and tradition. Tradition, not Bible, tells us there were three kings. Tradition, not Bible, tells us the names of the three kings. If you picture your nativity set, Then, you can see them. Melchior was an old gray-headed man with a long white beard. He brought the gold, the gift for a king. Caspar was young and beardless. He brought the frankincense, the gift for a priest. The myrrh, the gift for one who was going to die, was brought by Balthasar, who was dark-complexioned. That is interesting, but that is not Bible. We are a Biblical church, which means we are only interested in what the Bible says about the Magi (not kings). So, what does the Bible?

In the second chapter of Matthew, 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 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. The combination of the uninvited visitors and the insecure king produced one of the greatest stories in the Bible.

The story of the Magi is rich in many ways. I preach on this text annually. I looked at my past sermons from the past decade. Through the years I have looked at this story from several different angles. Maybe you remember one of these themes. In the past, I have looked at the odd gifts they presented the toddler Jesus. They were gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In the past, I have looked at the symbolism that surrounds the Magi. They were Gentiles, non-Jews, entering a Jewish world. However, in God’s plan of salvation of the world everyone, even Gentiles, are welcomed. The Magi represent us! In the past, I have used the Magi to illustrate a cruel point. Life is hard! Why did innocent babies have to die? That fact upsets me. Today, I want to look at the Magi from a different angle.

The Magi illustrate for us the basics in discipleship. That is important because we are in the discipleship making business. Do you remember the mission statement of this church? Western Reserve will develop disciples who reflect Christ’s love through worship, fellowship, and service. The mission statement of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. So, what the Magi did to become a disciple we must do. They did three distinct things once they found Jesus. Each one is found in the story.

First, the Magi bowed down! Look at the text with me. The entire story revolves around a group of tired travelers, the Magi. Here is a question you must answer. Who are the Magi? Many have been trying to answer that question for years. It will have to suffice to say they were spiritual astrologers. By studying the stars, they had discovered that the king of the Jews had been born. Their knowledge of the stars is impressive, but their understanding of the scriptures is limited. They assumed the king would be born in the capital, Jerusalem. The scriptures tell us he would be born in Bethlehem. That single mistake ignited the insecurities of the present king, Herod. However, it is Herod who sends them in the right direction. When they arrive, we are told they bowed down and worshipped Jesus. (Verse 11) By then, Mary and Joseph are no longer staying in the4 barn or manger. They have moved to a house. However, this is a more important question. What does it mean to bow down? It means the Magi, with all their worldly influence and power, were humbling themselves before Christ. If you want to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, then you must humble yourself before him. How humble are you?

The late Dawson Trotman (1906-1956), founder of the Navigators, was visiting Taiwan on one of his overseas trips. During the visit he hiked with a Taiwanese pastor back into one of the mountain villages to meet with some of the national Christians. The roads and trails were wet, and their shoes became very muddy. Later, someone asked this Taiwanese pastor what he remembered most about Dawson Trotman. Without hesitation the man replied, “He cleaned my shoes.” So, this is my question for you. How will you be remembered? Will you be remembered as a prideful person? Will you be remembered as a humble person? If you want to be a disciple of Jesus, then you must be humble. Do the people in your life consider you humble?

Second, the Magi opened-up! Look at the text with me again. The Magi did not just bow down. They also offered him gifts. There was gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Each one of the gifts reveals something about the life that Jesus is going to live. The gold was a gift for a king. The frankincense was a gift for a priest. The myrrh was a gift for one who was going to die. The gifts reveal the Magi’s insight, but the gifts also reveal the Magi’s generosity. One of the great secrets of the Bible is, what happened to the gifts? Many believed they were sold to pay for life because life has always been expensive. The Magi gave their best. If you want to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, then you must give him your best for the business disciple making. How much of your life are you giving?

There is the 90/10 Principle. I have spoken of it in the past. I repeat it because you need to hear it. It is not a complex principle. It simply says, 90% of the work done and 90% of the money given is done and given by 10% of the people. It does not just happen here. It happens in every church. So, this is the question you must answer. Are you part of the 10% who does or gives 90% or are you part of the 90% who does or gives 90%? The answer is obvious. Are you proud of your answer or are you ashamed of your answer? The Magi were generous with their time, they looked for Jesus for years. The Magi were generous with their money, they gave expensive gifts. Do the people in your life consider you a generous person when it comes to the disciple making element of the church? The Magi bowed down. The Magi opened-up.

Third, the Magi changed! Look at the text with me one final time. The time came for the Magi to go home. They had experienced the king of the Jews and were ready to go home. They were prepared to go home in the same way that they came. There is no reason to believe they would have changed their itinerary, but they have a dream that warns them to go home a different way. Verse 12 says, “They returned home by another route.” Jesus had changed their normal way, and they tried a new way. How much is Jesus changing your life? Are you willing to try something new?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) called it “cheap grace.” It is when grace is experienced in your life, but there is no discipleship. It is grace without price; it is grace with cost. It is grace without change. How many people do you know proclaim to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, but they refuse to change? They expect to go to heaven, but they refuse to forgive or love unconditionally. How much has the Gospel changed your life? The Magi bowed down! The Magi opened-up! The magi changed!

I heard this week 84% of all Americans kept their New Year’s resolutions to some degree from last year. So, let me ask you the question. What is your New Year’s Resolution? I am not the first one to ask it. The people at GoSkills.com say these are the most common New Year’s resolutions:

  1. Exercise More
  2. Lose Weight
  3. Get Organized
  4. Learn a New Skill or Hobby
  5. Live Life to the Fullest
  6. Save More Money
  7. Quit Smoking
  8. Spend More Time with Family and Friends

Is any of those your New Year’s Resolution?

This is my New Year’s Resolution. This year I am going to more like the Magi. I am going to take my discipleship more seriously. I am going to humble myself. I am going to be more generous. I am going to be more open to God leading. I hope you are going to be more like the Magi too. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was an American revivalist. He once wrote, “Resolution One: I will live for God. Resolution Two: If no one else does, I still will.”

Let There Be Light!

We find ourselves in the the spiritual gospel, John. It was written about the year AD 60 by the apostle that carries its name. John’s purpose for writing this gospel was to introduce the Christian message to the Greek thinking world. The other three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, were written to the Hebrew world. For that reason, this gospel stands alone. The Greek world clearly understood our Gospel lesson. They understood that the light of which John spoke was God. In other words, God, literally, came into the world to illuminate her dark places. That is the Good News of Christmas!

This is no shortage of darkness in our world. There seems to be a surplus of darkness in our world. I do not remember a time in my life when there seems to be so many complex problems. Maybe the reason is I am a pastor and I talk about other people’s problems regularly or maybe the reason is our world has drifted off course. Our country seems to be groping in the dark when it comes to the Coronavirus. Approximately 19 million have gotten the Coronavirus. Approximately 322,000 have died from the virus. Our country is groping in the dark racially. After all the talk of unity, we are still a divided people. Our country is groping in the dark sexually. Everyone has a firm opinion. It appears the United Methodist Church will divide over his topic in the next few months. Our country is groping in the dark economically. On the one hand, Wall Street is near an all-time high. On the other hand, many are struggling to obtain the basics. Did you know the unemployment rate in Ohio is 5.2%? Did you know the unemployment rate in Mahoning County and Trumbull County is 6.6%? has an unemployment rate of 6.6%? That figure is the highest in the state of Ohio. Help from Washington has stalled. Did you know our national debt is $27.5 trillion? Our country is groping in the dark when it comes to dealing with our national health care crisis. I do not know anyone who does not want everyone to have hospitalization. The problems are what will it cost and what will be covered? Our country seems to be groping in the dark internationally. Does anyone trust Iran or North Korea? I could go on, but I will not. It is all so depressing. We are groping in the dark at so many levels. Are you tired of all the darkness in our world?

This is the problem. God do not launch a program designed for international reform on Christmas. God seems to be more interested in eternity, than our temporary problems. God decided to reform the world one soul at a time. How reformed are you? How has Jesus, the light of the world, reformed you. American televangelist John Hagee (Born 1940) once said, “The fundamental principle of Christianity is to be what God is, and he is light.” It happened in three different ways.

Jesus came to illuminate our dark past. Without Jesus there is no forgiveness. One of the great misdemeanors in America today is that you can earn your salvation. That is why volunteerism and caring for your community has become the rage. I have nothing against volunteerism or community spirit, but they will not get you into heaven. We are saved by grace and by grace alone. Never belittle the death of Jesus on the cross. His blood washed away your sins. His death made it possible for you to live. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing. When you forgive others, you are telling God you are thankful that you are forgiven.

In October 2006, the country was shocked by another school shooting. This time the shooting was extremely cruel. It happened in Nickels Mines, Pennsylvania, in a one room old order Amish schoolhouse. The shooter was a man by the name of Charles Roberts. Before taking his own life, he shot eight of the ten girls, killing five. The only light in this dark story was the reaction of the Amish community. Within hours of the shootings, the Amish showed up at the door of Robert’s widow. They did not show up demanding revenge. They showed up to offer her comfort and support. How can you question the faith of these people? Can anyone question your faith? How easy is it for you to forgive, as you have been forgiven? Jesus came to illuminate our dark past.

Jesus came to illuminate our dark present. In other words, Jesus told us how to live. The world tells the key to a happy life is making yourself the star of your life. You do that by accumulating possessions and getting a surplus of attention. There is a certain amount of logic to that philosophy. The only problem is it does not work. Michael Jackson, Elvis Pressley, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain had more money and fame then they could handle. Do you consider their lives to be happy lives? Jesus said the key to living a happy life is making someone else the star in your life. I know we need a certain amount of money to survive and I know we all need a certain amount of attention. I know that Jesus’ key to a happy life does not make logical sense, but it is true. Research tells us that people who serve others live longer happier lives.

Years ago, the Salvation Army was holding their international convention. They wanted their founder, Gen. William Booth (1829-1912), to be their keynote speaker. The problem was Booth was old and weak. He could not speak because he could not go. So, he wired the convention his speech. It was one word! The one word: “OTHERS.” Do you wish you could hear a one-word sermon? Jesus came to illuminate our dark past. Jesus came to illuminate our dark present.

Jesus came to illuminate our dark future. Without Jesus there is no hope of heaven. During this calendar year, I have officiated at 34 funerals. They have all been different, but they end the same way. I ended each one of those services with these words. Perhaps, you remember them from your sad day. Jesus was born in the normal way, but he lived an extraordinary life. He never committed a single sin, which made him the prefect sacrifice. He was executed Roman style and his body was placed in a tomb. His loved ones grieved for him. That all happened on a Friday. No one knew what would happen later that weekend. Jesus returned from the dead. That resurrection changed everything. Without the resurrection of Jesus, there is no hope of eternal life. However, with the resurrection of Jesus we have hope of eternal life. Who is the first person you want to see when you get to heaven? Jesus came to illuminate our dark past. Jesus came to illuminate our dark present. Jesus came to illuminate your dark future.

For 51 years, Bob Edens was blind. That is a long to be living in the dark, trying to experience our world with just sounds and smells. Then it happened. A skilled surgeon performed a complicated operation, and, for the first time, Bob Edens had sight. Can you imagine? He was overwhelmed. He said, “I never would have dreamed that yellow is so…yellow. Red is so red. Purple is so purple.” he exclaimed. “I can see the shape of the moon and the vapor trail of a jet.” He said, “At night, I love to look at the light of the stars.” How many people do you know are blind?

How many people do you know are spiritually blind? Optometrists tell us that light is required to see. Your eyes can work perfectly, but without light you cannot see a thing! The brightest light that has ever shined is Jesus, God incarnate. How bright is Christ’s light? It is bright enough to illuminate your dark past. There is forgiveness in Christ. It is bright enough to illuminate your dark present. The key to a happier more content life is serving others. It is bright enough to illuminate your dark future. Someday all of us of faith are going to heaven. Do you remember the quote from John Hagee? He once said, “The fundamental principle of Christianity is to be what God is, and he is light.”

The Deeper Side of Christmas

It all began in the year 336. That is the first recorded date of Christmas being on December 25, during the reign Roman Emperor Constantine, who was the first Christian Emperor. There are many different theories or traditions as to why that date was selected. This is the one that I find most interesting. The early church believed Mary conceived Jesus on March 25. (The early church also believed Jesus died on the cross on March 25.) Nine months after March 25 is December 25, Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus. That date stuck. It is safe to say the western world has embraced Christmas. Each country has their own traditions to embrace the day. America is no different. I do not know of anyone who does not love Christmas.

 Several weeks ago, I was up late and googled the question, why do we love Christmas? I came up with several thousand websites. The website I chose was called “why Christmas.” It had an article called Twelve Reasons I Love Christmas. This is their list. I cannot disagree with a one.

  1.  Christmas Decorations: I like looking at Christmas decorations. According to the National Retail Association, the average American spent $60 on Christmas decorations this year. That is up $20 from last year.
  •  Hot Chocolate: I like drinking hot chocolate. The problem is the average cup of hot chocolate is 194 calories. The characters in Hallmark movies are always drinking hot chocolate, but they are thin.
  •  Snow: I like snow. I just do not like shoveling it. Did you the chance of a white Christmas in Ohio is less than 25%, according to the Weather Channel? This will not be a white Christmas.
  •  Christmas Movies: I like Christmas movies. My favorite Christmas movie is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I am not the only one. Did the know that movie, which was made $27 million, has made $73 million worldwide. Do you know anyone like Cousin Eddie?
  •  Receiving Christmas Gifts: I like getting Christmas gifts, but they made me uncomfortable because they make me feel guilty. I have good life, but there are many who live in poverty. Maybe my gift money should go to them? Did you know 700 million people in our world live on less than $1.90 a day?
  •  Spending Time with Loved Ones: I like spending time with loved ones. Life is short. Christmas is a great excuse to get together. There is an excellent chance you will see the people you love the most in the next 24 hours.
  •  The Food: I do not want to shock you, but I like food. Tomorrow afternoon I will eat my fill. I will not be able to eat another bite, and I will announce I will never eat again. A few hours later I will have a piece of pie.
  • Giving Back: I do not mind giving back. It comes in two forms. You can volunteer or you can make a financial donation. Did you know as a rule of thumb 25% of church contributions are given during the month of December?
  • Giving Gifts to Others: I like giving gifts. I cannot wait to see if my loved ones like what was purchased for them. I cannot wait to see my granddaughter open her gift from us.
  • The Christmas Tree: I like Christmas tree. Do you like a live Christmas tree or an artificial tree? Did you know the average American spent $78 on a Christmas tree? I am not proud of this, but I spent $2 more than the national average. It was worth every cent. We have a great tree this year.
  • Opening Gifts: I like opening presents? Do you open your presents on Christmas Eve or do you open your presents on Christmas morning? My family has always gotten up on early on Christmas morning to open gifts. Did you know, according to the National Retail Association, the average American will spend $998 on Christmas presents?
  • The Christmas Spirit:  I try to have the Christmas spirit, because I do not want to look like Scrooge. Have you ever been called a Scrooge?

Each one of those things are fun, but to those who believe, there is a deeper side of Christmas. There is the incarnation. That takes us to the scripture lesson for today.

 We find ourselves in the second chapter of Luke. Caesar Augustus, who sat on the throne of the Roman Empire from 31 B.C. to A.D. 14, issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. It happened when Quirinius was governor over Syria. That makes the date between A.D. 6 and 9. (Remember, the calendar was adjusted sometime in the past.) It will suffice to say, it was a long time ago. However, some things do not change. The census was taken for two reasons. The first was military serve. The Jews were excluded. The second was taxation. The Jews, like everyone else, were expected to pay. That meant Joseph went to Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, his hometown. He did not travel alone, he traveled with a young pregnant teenager by the name of Mary. This is where the story gets deep. They had never known each other intimately, yet they were legally bound. The child she carried was the son of God and the time was drawing near for her to give birth. Timing is everything. The young couple must have worried the child would come during the journey, but the child waited until they arrived in Bethlehem. Any Sunday school child will tell you were the child was born. The baby, the son of God, the long-awaited Messiah, was born in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn. They named the baby Jesus as directed by God. The name Jesus means “Savior.” I guess names do matter.

 It really is quite a story. It is unique to the Christian faith. Did you know, according to the United Nations, approximately 250 babies are born each minute in the world. That comes out to be 130 million in a year. That is a lot of babies in the history of the world. Each baby is special, but one was utterly unique. The infant Jesus changed everything. The deeper side of Christmas revolves around the incarnation of God. The Almighty came into the world to save us because mankind needed, and needs, saved. It has been written, “If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator; If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist; If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist; If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer; But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.” Those words still hold true. May we never forget Christmas is a Christian holiday.

Located in Yorktown, Indiana is the New Life Presbyterian Church. The Senior Pastor of that church is a man by the name of Bob O’Bannon. He is a blogger. He says the incarnation is important for three especially important reasons. I will be brief.

  1.  The incarnation affirms the goodness of the physical existence. Many devalue the physical and glorify the spiritual. The fact that God came into our world and took a physical form tells us our physical forms are important. Our physical state is equally important to the spiritual realm. 1 John 4:2 says, “By this we know the spirit of God: every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” That is number one. This is number two.
  •  The incarnation means God is involved. It is easy to sit back and complain about something. It is something completely different to get involved and to help fix the problem. God did not just complain. God came into the world to become the solution. John 1:9 says, The true light, which gives everyone light, was coming into the world. That was number two. This is number three.
  •  The incarnation makes it possible for sins to be covered. May we never forget we are sinners. I quote nearly week Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.” We are saved by grace and by grace alone. If Jesus had never have been born then your final destination would be hell, but Jesus was born, and everything changed. You know the story. Thirty-three later Jesus died on the cross giving us hope of eternal life. The question is do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior, or are you going to hell?

It is the deeper side of Christmas, the incarnation of God. How can you question God’s love? He came for us.

 My childhood home had three bedrooms. One for my parents. One for my sisters and one for me. That was fine until company came. Usually, the company was my grandparents from Brooklyn. When they came, I was expelled from my bedroom and relocated to the landing leading up to the house’s attic. It was not so bad. My father set up cot and my mother handed me a sleeping bag. I was young, so I enjoyed it. The best part was the window by my cot. It was high and I could survey the whole neighborhood.

One Christmas Eve, I must have been about six years old, I was laying sleepless on my cot. The excitement of Christmas Eve had overwhelmed me. I thought about everything that had happened that evening and I thought about my presents the next morning. My mother warned me we would not be opening presents super early. We had to wait for my paternal grandparents to come. They were going to spend Christmas morning with us. They lived about an hour away. I think I must have woken up every fifteen minutes. Each time looking out the window. The time just could not go fast enough. It must have been about 5:00 when the exhaustion overtook me. When I woke up at 7:00 the sun was just starting to appear. When I looked out the window this time, I got a wonderful surprise. My grandparents were sitting in our driveway, so there would be no more waiting. They had been there quite some time because I thin layer of snow covered their car. I told my mother they had arrived, and she hustled down the stairs to let them in. When they walked in my mother confessed, she did not expect them so early. I can still hear my grandfather’s response. He said, “We had to come early because we did not want Russell to have to wait to open his presents.” Those words enforced what I already knew. My grandfather loved me. How do you question the love of someone who came just for you?

It is not just true of a small boy and his grandfather. It is also of God and mankind. How can you question God’s love? He came for you. Christmas is not just about presents and trees. It is not about decorations or food. There is a deeper side. There is the true meaning of Christmas, the incarnation.  In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis said, “The Son of God became man to enable men to become sons of God.”

Imperfect Christmas

It was Christmas Eve 1969. I was twelve years old. My family was returning home from the 11:00 Candlelight Christmas Eve service. Our family car was small, so everyone was packed in like sardines. My father was driving. He took us the same route that evening he took every Sunday morning. Everyone was excited about the next day. Without warning, our excitement was replaced with curiosity. We were a block from our home when we noticed something unusual. The air was thick with smoke and the sky was filled with color. There was a yellow haze around the area, only interrupted by the red lights of emergency vehicles. The police routed us around the block as we tried to see what was happening. It was not until the next morning that we got the sad news. A house on the parallel street had caught on fire and had burned to the ground. The loss of property is hard; the loss of lives is unbearable.

The family that died on that Christmas Eve was the Campbell family. The only one who survived was their daughter. She was a friend of my sisters. The investigation revealed Maggie caused the fire. She was the one who lit the candle and left it unguarded. That tiny flame sparked an inferno. Years later, it is still emotional to say. On that Christmas Eve, she lost her entire family, her parents, and a brother. Her brother did not have to die. At first, he had escaped the flames because his bedroom was on the first floor. He returned to the house to save his parents, but he did not return. He was a high school student, who was trying to do the right thing. Memories are such a powerful thing. It has been over fifty years since that tragic night but every Christmas Eve I think about Maggie Campbell. I do not have a clue where she is today but every year on Christmas Eve, I take a second and pray for her. How do you live the rest of your life knowing you caused your family death? The Campbell’s story reminds us that Christmas is not always merry. 

Can anyone here relate to that story? Christmas is not always perfect. How perfect is your Christmas going to be this year? Maybe the perfect Christmas is not possible because the pandemic has forced you to change your traditional Christmas plans? Maybe the perfection Christmas is not impossible because you are grieving? The loss of a loved one is never easy. Maybe the perfect Christmas is not possible because some relationship in your life is broken? People file for divorce twelve months a year. People ignore their siblings twelve months a year. People refuse to forgive twelve months a year. Maybe the perfect Christmas is not possible because you are consumed with worry. How are you going to pay for all those student loans? How are you going to get out of debt? The mole on your back is changing. Maybe the perfect Christmas is not possible because your time is running out? You have not lived out any of your youthful dreams. You feel like you have not done anything! Does anyone here feel like they are letting the next generation down? This is the truth. The world demands we have a perfect Christmas. The problem is none of our lives are perfect. All our lives have imperfections. Perhaps, this is the best piece of pastoral advice I can give you. This Christmas give up on perfect. Let us look at our scripture lesson, Luke 1:26-43.

This morning’s text is about a young woman who was living an imperfect life. Her name was Mary, and she was the one God chose to be the mother of Jesus. I would encourage you to forget everything you think you know about her and simply look at the words of the story. Do not think of her as a saint or some spiritual superhero. Just think of her as a person. The words tell us she is going through an incredibly difficult time. She is more like us then you can imagine. Because of this similarity between us and her, she models for us how to survive in our world. She illustrates three things about life, itself. First, she illustrates for us that life is hard. There is nothing easy about life. Second, she illustrates for us that sometimes we need others. She went to her cousin, Elizabeth. Third and finally, she illustrates for us that we always need God.

First, Mary illustrates for us: life is hard. Life has always been hard. If you do not believe me then look at the Nativity, itself. Do not glamorize the story. Do not get sucked into the tradition. I will say it again. Just read the words. Every single person in the story was in a difficult situation. Mary was in a difficult situation. In a time that valued morals, Mary was an unwed pregnant woman. Joseph was in a difficult situation. There was really was no right answer. On the one hand, he has every right to divorce Mary and walk away. The problem is Mary would have been found guilty of adultery. That means she could be stoned to death. How could he live with her death on his hands? On the other hand, if he takes Mary as his own then he brings shame on himself. He is saying he has broken the abstinence law during the engagement. Zachariah and Elizabeth are in a difficult situation. They had no children, and their society demanded many children. They believed the more the children the greater God’s blessings. The fewer the children the fewer the blessings. They had no children, so they had no blessings. If you turn to the second chapter of Matthew, then you find the story of the Magi. They were in a difficult situation. All they wanted to do was worship the newborn king. Do you remember what happened? Their sincere actions lead to the death of two-year-old baby boys and younger. How many mothers blamed them for their son’s death? Do I have to go on? Each one of the characters reminds us that life is hard. Do you know of anyone who has a hard life? Could it be you have a hard life? Do you know of anyone who has ever said, “Life is much easier than I ever expected!” No! Life is hard!

Second, Mary illustrates for us: sometimes we need others. Look at the story one more time with me. Mary was from the town of Nazareth. In her time, Nazareth had a population of between 100 and 400 people. Have you ever lived in a small town? Have you ever worshipped in a small membership church? Everyone knows everyone else. Everyone knows everyone’s business. Mary is single and pregnant in a small town. Everyone in her life is talking about her pregnancy. She is the hot topic at the well. The story says she went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. Biblical scholars believe she went for two reasons. First, she goes to Elizabeth to escape the people in her life. Second, she goes to Elizabeth receive some unconditional love. Has there ever been a time in your life when you needed the counsel of someone else? Have you ever been the counsel for someone else? Sometimes we need people. Mary went to Elizabeth. Where do you go? Have you ever gone to visit a relative? Have you ever gone to visit a friend? Have you ever traveled to a counselor or a support group? Do not feel guilty! Sometimes we need people. Life is hard. Sometimes we need people. 

Third and finally, Mary illustrates for us: we always need God. Look at the text with me one final time. The angel goes to Mary and tells her she is going to have a baby. Mary knows it is biologically impossible. She has never been intimate with a man. The angel tells her the Holy Spirit will come upon her and she will conceive. What does that mean? It means that Mary’s personal agenda for her life must be discarded. Her personal will means nothing. God’s will for her means everything. Verse 38 is an incredible verse. It says, “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”  She sacrificed her dreams and desires for her life for God’s will. Generations later, she reminds us that we always need God. How much of your will are you willing to surrender to God?

One of my favorite Christmas movies is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. You must have seen it because it seems like it has been on every night. It stars Chevy Chase who plays the part of Clark Griswold. (However, I love Randy Quaid, who plays the part of Cousin Eddie. He is such a jerk!)  Clark is a good man who wants to bring his family the perfect Christmas. He tries everything but everything seems to go wrong. The Christmas lights do not work. The turkey looks great, but it is dry. The neighbors are annoying. The relatives are weird. How many times have you seen Christmas Vacation? (If you have never watched it then cancel your afternoon plans and watch it. It is on my “A” list, five stars!) Do you know why we love Christmas Vacation so much? The reason is every December we play the part of Clark Griswold. We do our best to give our family the perfect Christmas. The problem is we live in an imperfect world.

In a few days we will celebrate our twenty-sixth Christmas together. I genuinely enjoy spending Christmas Eve with you. Can I be honest with you? There was a time when I ruined Christmas for myself because I was consumed by all the details of the holiday. My attitude about Christmas changed in a single moment. It happened during a 7:00 Christmas Eve service. We were just about to take up the Christmas offering.The ushers came forward and I passed out the offering plate. One of the ushers on that evening was Chic Baber. How many of you remember Chic? I always appreciated Chic because he was such an optimist. I still miss him. On that evening I handed him the offering plates and he dropped one. It hit the prayer rail and it sounded like cymbals crashing. I was frustrated because I was striving for perfection. Chic ruined my perfect service. I was preoccupied by that moment for the rest of the service and was still venting about it the next morning. It was at that moment the person I respect the most I the world saved my Christmas forever. My wife Kathryn said to me, “Russ, it is Christmas. It comes once a year. Enjoy it. Things happen.” And she gave me a kiss and said, “Merry Christmas!”

 I am not going to give you a kiss but maybe those are the words you need to hear? Forget about perfection. It only comes once a year. Enjoy it. Things happen. Why don’t we forget about perfection this Christmas and just remember Jesus? David Jeremiah (born 1941) once said, “All the Christmas presents in the world are worth nothing without the presence of Christ.”

The Magnificat

The first two chapters of Luke are sacred to us. For it is in these chapters we find the divine events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Those familiar words comfort us at the most challenging of times. Within those stories are four songs. There is Zechariah’s songs, Luke 1:67-79, at the birth of his son, John the Baptist. There is the song the angels sang to the shepherds, Luke 2:13-14, when Jesus was born. There is Simeon’s song, Luke 2:29-32, when he cast his eyes on the infant Jesus. There is Mary’s song,Luke 1:46-56, when she is told she is going to be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah. That song is called The Magnificat. It comes from the translates from the Latin translation for Glorify. It is Mary’s song that grabs our attention today. This is the question you must answer.

Who is Mary? Through the eyes of the world, she is nothing special. Prior to our reading we are told, she lived in the town of Nazareth. As the crow flies, it is about sixty miles north of Jerusalem. At the time, Nazareth was a small town with a population of only several hundred people. We also learned from the prior reading she is betrothed to a man named Joseph. There is no reason to believe their marriage was not arranged. He is from the town of Bethlehem, located several miles south of Nazareth. They are not just engaged, they are betrothed, which means they are legally bound. The only thing Mary desired for her life was to be a respectable Jewish wife and mother. Her story was not much different than many young Jewish women of that time. Through the eyes of the world, Mary is nothing special.

Through the eyes of God, however, she is quite spectacular. Have you ever wondered how many women have been born in the history of the world? I am not just talking about Mary’s generation. I am taking about the beginning of the world. According to the United Nations, there were 7.8 billion people in the world today. 49.6% of the world’s population are women. That means, approximately 3.9 billion women in the world today. There are some outstanding women in the world. I have known some and I married one. Yet, 3.9 billion is tiny next to all the women who have ever lived. I have no clue, how many women have ever lived, but I do know God chose one to be the mother of the Messiah, Mary. She was nothing special through the eyes of this world. However, she was spectacle through the eyes of God.

Who is Mary? If you close your eyes and picture Mary, using your sanctified imagination, what do you see? If you imagine Mary to in her mid-thirties with blond hair and blue eyes with a master’s degree and a bright future, then you could not be more wrong. Mary was fourteen or fifteen. Life began early at that time because life ended early. Yet, God chose this teenage girl and God chose correctly. The Magnificat shows us Mary was advanced for her years. She both trusted God and understood God. Her trust in the Almighty is obvious. Her understanding is hidden.

The words of Mary’s song remind us of Mary’s understanding. It is her understanding that grabs our attention. At a young age she understands God and gives us six attributes or characteristics of God in the Magnificat. Today, I will look at those six attributes. I will be brief with the first five and take my time with the last one. After all, this is Advent. It is the time to marvel at the incarnation of God. These points are not original. They came from P.G. Matthew, who is the Senior Minister at the Grace Valley Christian Center in Davis, California.

God is mighty! The first attribute Mary speaks of is the might and power of God. In Luke 1:49 she sings, “For the Mighty One has done great things for me.” Mary’s God was a God Almighty, the Creator of the universe. There is no one mightier than her God. He alone is able, and with him alone nothing is impossible. Here is are questions you must answer. How mighty is your God? How weak are you? Like Mary, there is no need to fear our mighty God because we are his people. Never forget, God is mighty.

God is holy! The second attribute Mary speaks of is the holiness of God. In verse 49, Mary declared, “For the mighty one has done great things for me – holy is his name.” This is not an isolated piece of scripture. The Bible tells us repeatedly that God is holy.” For example, in Exodus 19 God says to Moses, “Be holy, as I am holy.” In Isaiah 6:1-5, the great prophet finds himself in heaven and sees two winged creatures covering God. They are calling to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty.” Let me state the obvious. We are not like God. God is holy, but we are sinners. Never forget, God is holy.

God is judge! The third attribute Mary speaks is the judgement of God. In verse 52 and 53, Mary proclaims, “He has brought down the mighty rulers from their thrones. He has sent the rich empty away.” God hates arrogance. Someday you will stand before God and be judged. God will not be looking for innocence, because each one of us is guilty. God will be looking humility. Are you open to God’s leading in your life? Never forget, God is judge.

God is merciful! The fourth attribute Mary speaks is mercy.Verse 54 says,“He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful.” That verse reminds us how God’s Chosen People were enslaved in Egypt. They cried to God for help and God heard their prays. He had mercy on them and sent them a liberator, Moses. God hears our cries for help because God is a God of mercy. Never forget, God is merciful.

God is Faithful! The fifth attribute of Mary speaks is faithfulness. Verse 55 says, “To Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised his ancestors.” In other words, God keeps his promises, but it may take some time. Mary lived 2,000 after Abraham. God does things in God’s time, so you better be patient. Do you consider yourself a patient person? I hope you are. Never forget, God is faithful.

God is Our Savior! The sixth, and final, attribute of Mary speaks of being our Savor. The Magnificat begins in verse 47. Mary says, “My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” I saved this attribute for last, because during this time of years, we ponder the incarnation of God. In other words, God left the perfection of heaven to slum it with us. It is hard to fathom. It has been said, the incarnation is beyond all human understanding.

Several weeks ago, I attended an Emmaus event. It is a group that is committed to their spiritual development. Each time they gather, they sing a few songs, pray, and someone stands up and shares something for their heart. On that night, the person who led the group grabbed my attention. I really was not surprised because I have a great deal of respect for him as a disciple. I knew, he would not waste my time, and he did not. I think about the story he told often during the month of December. The story widens both my understanding and appreciation of the incarnation. I hope it does the same for you. This is the story.

There was once a man who did not believe in the incarnation or the spiritual meaning of Christmas. The truth be told, he was skeptical about God. He and his family lived in a farming community. His wife was a devout believer and diligently raised their children in her faith. He mocked her religious observance of Christmas. One snowy Christmas Eve she was taking the kids to the Christmas Eve service at church. She pleaded with him to come, but he steadfastly refused. He ridiculed the idea of the incarnation and dismissed it as nonsense. “Why would God lower himself and become a human like us?! It’s such a ridiculous story!” he said. So, she and the children left for church while he stayed home.

After they had left, the winds grew stronger and the snow turned into a blinding snowstorm. He sat down to relax before the fire for the evening. Then he heard a loud thump, something hitting against the window. And another thump. He looked outside but could not see. So, he ventured outside to see. In the field near his house he saw, of all the strangest things, a flock of geese! They were apparently flying to look for a warmer area down south, but they had been caught in the snowstorm. The storm had become too blinding and violent for the geese to fly or see their way. They were stranded on his farm, with no food or shelter, unable to do more than flutter their wings and fly in aimless circles.

He had compassion for them and wanted to help them. He thought to himself, “The barn would be a great place for them to stay! It’s warm and safe; surely they could spend the night and wait out the storm.” So, he opened the barn doors for them. He waited, watching them, hoping they would notice the open barn and go inside. But they did not notice the barn or realize what it could mean for them.

He moved closer toward them to get their attention, but they just moved away from him out of fear. He went into the house and came back out with some bread, broke it up, and made a bread trail to the barn. They still did not catch on. Starting to get frustrated, he went over and tried to shoo them toward the barn. They panicked and scattered into every direction except toward the barn. Nothing he did could get them to go into the barn where there was warmth, safety, and shelter.

Feeling totally frustrated, he exclaimed, “Why don’t they follow me? Can’t they see this is the only place where they can survive the storm? How can I possibly get them into the one place to save them?” He thought for a moment and realized that they just would not follow a human. He said to himself, “How can I possibly save them? The only way would be for me to become like those geese. If only I could become like one of them! Then I could save them! They would follow me, and I would lead them to safety.”

At that moment, he stopped and considered what he had said. The words reverberated in his mind: “If only I could become like one of them- then I could save them.” And then, at last, he understood God’s heart towards mankind, and he fell on his knees in the snow and worshipped Him.

Mankind is like the geese — blind, gone astray, perishing. God became like us so He could show us the way and make a way available to save us. That is the meaning of Christmas, he realized in his heart. As the winds and blinding snow abated, his heart became quiet and pondered this epiphany. He understood what Christmas was all about. He knew why Christ had to come. Suddenly the years of doubt and disbelief were shattered, as he humbly and tearfully bowed down in the snow, and he embraced the true meaning of Christmas. Mary was not wrong. Never forget, God is mighty, holy, our judge, merciful, faithful, and our Savior.

Repent!

We found ourselves in the first chapter of Mark. According to the text, the year is approximately 25 A.D., which makes John approximately 30 years old. He moved out of the city of Jerusalem and lived in the wilderness. Constantly on the move, he covers the country around the Jordan and delivers one message, repent! He wore clothes made from camel’s hair and a leather belt, to underscore his message, like the prophets of old. He ate locust and honey, to underscore his message. He was a visual sign against self-indulgence. His ministry consumed his life. Yet, he also understood he was not the main character in God’s plan of salvation for the world. There would be another one coming who was much greater. His name was Jesus. John told his generation to repent because Jesus was coming. Somethings do not change. Our generation should repent for the same reason. Did you know repentance is referred to 6,735 times in the Bible? Repentance is one of the major themes in the Bible.

Do you remember the story of Hosea? It is a story of repentance. He lived in the middle of the eighth century BC, during the tragic days of the end of the northern tribe. He was a prophet of God, who got an unusual assignment. He was told by God to go out and marry an adulterous woman. In other words, she was a prostitute. She sold her body to men for sex. Her name was Gomer. In time, Hosea and Gomer had three children in their marriage. The first was a boy, who name means “God scatters.” The second was a girl, who name means “I will no longer love you.” Their third child was a second boy, who name means “I am not your God.” Let me ask you three questions. Do you think those children liked their names? Why did God tell Hosea to marry a prostitute? Why did he have him name his children those names? Because, every day Hosea played the part of God, and every day Gomer played the part of Israel. God continued to love, and Gomer continued to be unfaithful. As the drama played out, God was confident that the people would get the message, but they did not. They failed to repent.

Do you remember the story of Jonah? It is a story of repentance. God told him to go to Nineveh. That was in the Middle East. The reluctant prophet does not want to go to Nineveh for one reason. He does not like them. He is afraid to go to Nineveh because the people might listen and repent. You know the story. Jonah runs in the opposite direction and heads toward Tarshish, Spain. This is the problem. You cannot run from God. In the end, he goes to Nineveh and his great fear happens. The people of that great city repent. The last time we saw Jonah, he was sitting under a tree having a pity party. Why is it we have such a hard time with mercy when the recipients are not like us? Repentance is not just found in the Bible. It is found in our world.

I was driving through downtown Youngstown, and someone told me I needed to repent. It was the day after the war in Iraq started. Everything was normal. The traffic was moving through the metropolis. The only thing abnormal about that day was a man standing in the middle of the divide. He was a wild un-groomed character holding a homemade sign. He yelled at me to read his sign. Written in large black print on a white poster board were these words: REPENT! THE END IS NEAR! Let us just be honest. There is nothing original about the topic of repentance. John was not the first and he was not the last to deliver that message. When was the last time someone told you, you need to repent? This is the problem.

Very few understand Biblical repentance. It is not just words, “Forgive me!” Repentance is an inward response. Genuine repentance pleads with God to forgive and deliver from the burden of sin and the fear of judgment and hell. It is seen in the story of the tax collector in Luke 18. Afraid to look toward heaven he beat his chest and cried, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Repentance is not just reformed behavior. True repentance involves a changed heart. It is illustrated in this old preaching story.

Rodney “Gipsy” Smith (1860-1947) was a British evangelist. He preached for over 70 years. In his book, The Bible Friend, tells the story of an experience he had in South Africa. According to the story, a Dutchman came to one of his services and was convicted of his sin. The next morning that same Dutchman got up and went to the home of an acquaintance, carrying an old watch. When the two met, he handed the old watch over and asked, “Do you recognize this?” “Why, yes,” answered the other. “Those are my initials; that is my watch. I lost it eight years ago. How did you get it, and how long have you had it?” “I stole it,” was the reply. “What made you bring it back now?” “I was converted last night,” was the answer, “and I had to bring it back.” There is nothing easy about true repentance. It is extremely difficult. Consider these three statements with me:

It is easy to see the sins in others! Her name is Sarah. She is not a member here. She has never worshipped here. However, she has both visited and called the church countless times. She is not the most attractive woman. She could lose a few pounds. She could wash her hair and her body. She smells like a cigarette, which explains why her breathing is labored. Her stories are always different, yet her story is the same. I have heard countless versions of her hardship stories through the years. She wants one thing, HELP! In other words, she wants money. The first time she came, she told me she did not have any money because she had just gotten out of the hospital. She had not eaten in several days. I was really touched by her story. No one should be hungry. I gave her some time. I gave her a gift certificate. I prayed with her and walked her to the door. I treated her with dignity and respect. Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. As we stood at the door, she thanked me one more time with a tear in her eyes. She was hungry. From the door I watched her walk toward her ancient SUV. I felt good I had helped someone. Then I looked inside of her vehicle. I was surprised to see other people. Maybe I should have given her a larger certificate? Maybe they were hungry too? However, do you know what surprised me the most? One of the people inside the van threw a bag out of the window from a fast-food restaurant. As Sarah drove off with my gift certificate, I went out to pick up the trash. They had run for the border. They were not hungry. There were half eaten tacos spread though out the parking lot. There is no other way to say it. Sarah had lied to me. They had been eating! One of them had order a volcano taco. I felt like a fool and I labeled her a sinner. I will never help her again because I feel like I am part of her problem. Sarah reminds me that it is easy to identify the sins of others. That leads us to statement number two.

It is hard to identify yourself as a sinner! John Lennon (1940-1980) died forty years ago this Tuesday. He was shot by Mark David Chapman (born 1955) on December 8, 1980. He was entering his apartment building, The Dakota, in New York City. When the news was announced a crowd of people assembled on that spot to remember him. Lennon was dead and Chapman was sent to Attica. He is still in prison today at the Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, New York. Though the years journalists have interviewed him. One of them asked Chapman what he regrets most about the whole event. He responded, “I am saddened that people seem to misunderstand me. I am not a bad person. I only killed one person.” How difficult it is to identify yourself as a sinner. Never forget, Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.” That means you are a sinner. That leads us to statement number three. Here is the good news.

God solved our sin problem!  Romans 6:23 begins, “For the wages of sin is death.” That means the sin in your life is damaging your relationship with God. In other words, you are dying spiritually. However, that is only the first half of that verse. Romans 6:23 ends, “But the gift of God is eternal life through in Jesus Christ our Lord.” In other words, the only way to have a relationship with God is through Jesus. And it all begins with repentance. In Biblical repentance everything changes, because your heart is changed. Billy Graham (1918-2018) once said, “The wonderful news is that Lord is a God of mercy, and he responds to repentance.”

When I was in school, I lived in a community near the seminary in Nicholasville, Kentucky. It is a good place to be from. I lived in an apartment that was not the best. I was always spraying for roaches and cleaning out the mouse traps. I only lived there for one reason. It was cheap. I was not the only student in that complex; there were others. I made some wonderful friends during that year. One of the blessings of that year was getting to know the apartment manager, Duke. He and his wife, Diana, were wonderful Christian people. Every Sunday night, they hosted us poor students for dinner. It was nothing exciting, just pizza, hot dogs, or hamburgers. The best part was listening to Duke’s wild stories from his days as a shrimper in Florida. He was not afraid to share his faith. Duke loved to share his wild past with us innocent seminary students. Every story ended with a big laugh and Duke would say, “Forgive me, Jesus!”

One night, we asked Duke how he came to know Jesus? His story began like all his stories. It was late at night and he had been drinking too much. He and Diana had gotten into a big fight and he left mad. He jumped in his truck and started driving. He had his foot to the floor and almost fell asleep. Duke said out of nowhere, he heard a voice. He was alone, so he checked his radio. It was off, and he heard a voice again. He looked over to the passenger seat and there was Jesus, himself. The Master looked at him and said, “Duke, you are going to kill yourself. You have a good heart. Pull over and do something with your life.” Duke said, “What else could I do? I pulled over. I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. And slept it off in the weeds.” When he got home the next morning, he expected another ugly scene with Diana. Instead, she told him, Jesus had come to her too. The Master said, “You have a good heart. Do something with your life.” She had accepted Jesus too! Duke ended the story with a big laugh and said, “Thank-you, Jesus!”

Why did Duke and Diana keep inviting seminary students every Sunday night? It was one way, of many ways, they thanked Jesus for saving their souls. What is your way? Do you remember the quote from Billy Graham? The great evangelist once said, “The wonderful news is that Lord is a God of mercy, and he responds to repentance.”

Are You Prepared?

At the height of World War II Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was imprisoned for taking a stand against Adolph Hitler (1934-1945). Yet, he continued to urge fellow believers to resist Nazi tyranny. A group of Christians, believing that Hitler was the Antichrist, asked Bonhoeffer, “Why do you expose yourself to all this danger? Jesus will return any day, and all your work and suffering will be for nothing.” Bonhoeffer replied, “If Jesus returns tomorrow, then tomorrow I’ll rest from my labor. But today, I have work to do. I must continue the struggle until it’s finished.” If you can understand that simple story, then you can understand this message. Let us look at our scripture reading together.

 We find ourselves today in the thirteenth chapter of Mark. Since there are only sixteen chapters in Mark, let me state the obvious. It is near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The fourteenth chapter of Mark tells us the Passover was only two days away. That would be Jesus’s final Passover. In other words, this is the beginning of the end. While Jesus could have spoken on any topic, love, forgiveness, or mercy. Jesus speaks of his return. That means the Second Coming was an important topic to Jesus. The verses prior to our reading are prophetic in nature. They are not the only ones in the Bible. The Bible is filled with signs of the end of time. Based on those signs many have tried to expose the great secret. History tells us more than 47 different groups or individuals, not all Christian, have announced dates when Christ will return. In that list is the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-1791). Six others say Christ will return in some futuristic date. For example, American self-proclaimed psychic and astrologer Jean Dixon (1904-1997) said Christ will return this year, 2020. Why not! 2020 has offered us so many surprises. Did you know the Christian, Islamic, Bahai’, and Messianic Jewish worlds are all waiting for the return of Jesus? In my life, I have known people who are convinced they have the key to unlock the great secret.

 Years ago, I received a phone call from a man. His name was John and he drove a truck for a living. He traveled from coast to coast. I thought he was calling me about his daughter’s failed marriage. Her story was not pretty. We set up a time to get together. When the hour and day came, he did not want to talk about his daughter’s unhappiness. He was calling me about the Second Coming. He said, “Russ, I was driving through the Midwest. The crops should have been in full growth, but they were not. They were stunted by the drought.” I thought about those withering plants and wondered if it was a sign that Christ is returning soon. What do you think? Do you think Christ is returning soon?” I said, “He may, but I do not know. The Bible says not even Jesus knew when he would return. I doubt if God is going to tell me ahead of time.” He is not the only one.

 When I was young, they started putting bar codes on the side of products for inventory purposes. The rumor was spread that the bar codes were a sign of the beast. Some believed people would be required to get that bar code. People have always been looking for signs of the Second Coming of Christ. When I was in high school, a Christian group reserved the auditorium of the school to show a movie. It was called A Thief in the Night. It showed what would happen on the day that Christ returned. The believers would suddenly be taken, and the none-believers would be left behind. The movie had a certain shock value. When the movie ended, a boy stood up and gave his testimony. Then he prayed and gave an alter call, reminding everyone the end was near. Many believe the end will come with a nuclear war. My wife wonders why Christ did not return during the Second World War. Things were so bad and so many were suffering. Have you ever wondered when Christ will return? People still ask me on a regular basis if Christ is returning soon. I give them the same answer I gave John. “He may, but I do not know. The Bible says not even Jesus knew when he would return. I doubt if God is going to tell me ahead of time.” Billy Graham (1918-2008) once said, “The Second Coming is the only beam of hope that shines in an ever-darkening world.” Yet, the scripture lesson for today is not about when Christ will return.

 The scripture lesson for today is not just about the Second Coming of Jesus. The scripture lesson for today is about what we should be doing until Christ returns. These are Jesus’s own words. The Master says it clearly. The exact time of his return are unknown. Not even the angels know. Not even Jesus, himself, knew what he would return. The only one who knows is God and we know two things about God. First, God can keep a secret. Second, God does things in His own time. So, you better get comfortable while you wait. The only thing we are to do is live every day like it is the last day. Verse 33 says, “Be on guard. Be alert.” He is like a homeowner who leaves his in servants in charge, not knowing when he will return. He could return in the morning. He could return in the evening. He could return mid-week, or he could return on a weekend. Any day could be the day, so they must always be ready. The same is the return of Christ. We do not know when, so we must always be prepared. So, let me ask you the question of the day: are you prepared?

Are you prepared socially for Christ’s Second Coming? One of the great Bible stories comes from the fourth chapter of Genesis. How well do you remember your family history? Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel. They came from the same biological parents but they, personally, were completely different. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. In time, both men sacrificed to God. Cain brought fruit; Abel brought meat. You can call it favoritism, but God preferred Abel’s offering, the meat. (Can you really blame him?) Cain gets his feelings hurt and positions himself to do something ugly. The story ends when Cain kills Abel. This story can teach us a variety of things. One of those things is the value of human relationships. How are all the relationships in your life? Albert Einstein once said, “physics is easy relationships are complex.”

How many broken relationships do you have in your life? Does everyone in your life respect you? How many people in your life just tolerate you? I am not just talking about your siblings. I am talking about everyone, your parents, children, neighbors, and co-workers. Are there words you would like to say to someone, but you have not had the courage? Let me give you some pastoral advice. Do not wait to mend those broken relationships. If Jesus returns today, would you be prepared socially?

Are you prepared personally for the Second Coming of Christ? In other words, what do you still want to do? The girl who led me to Christ was named Susan. I have told that story many times. I was a senior in high school. Susan had a sister by the name of Vicki. She was a strong Christian too. One evening we gathered in her parent’s basement and talked about the faith. I was hungry for the Gospel in any form. Each one of us agreed that someday Christ was going to return. Vicki said, “I know Christ is going to return, but I hope he waits a while. I still want get married and I still want to have children.” She laughed, but she made a good point. Is there anyone here today who hopes Christ does not return too soon?

What do you still want to do with your life? Is there some place you would still like to go? Is there some place you would like to go to again? Is there someone you would still like to meet? Is there some book you would still like to read? Is there some language you would still like to study? When Thomas Jefferson died, he was studying German. Let me give you some pastoral advice. Do not stop living! It is a great big world. Are you prepared personally for the Second Coming of Jesus?

Are you prepared spiritually for the Second Coming of Christ? You do not have to be a Civil War expert to know the name Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. He was respected by both friend and foe for his courage during battle. He was once asked about the source of that courage. This was his response.

 My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God (knows the) time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter where it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave.

It is interesting to note that Jackson died eight days after he uttered those words. He was shot by one of his own pickets. That shot caused him to lose his arm which lead to pneumonia. Are you prepared spiritually for the Second Coming of Christ? If you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior say, “Amen!”

 Several years ago, retired NASA engineer Edgar C. Whisenant wrote a book called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. The book, which he self-published, placed the expected date of the Rapture between September 11 and September 13 of 1988, and became a massive bestseller. By the time the end of the year was reached, more than 4.5 million copies had been sold. Whisenant was certain he had the date right. He said, “Only if the Bible is in error am I wrong; and I say that to every preacher in town. I would stake my life on Rosh Hashanah 1988.” Obviously, he was wrong.

Whisenant’s later books predicting the Rapture in 1989, 1993, and 1994 did not sell nearly as well as the first one—but he kept right on making those predictions despite the clear teaching of Scripture that we are not meant to know the date and time of Christ’s return. However, we are called to live every day as if that were the day Christ would return. Do you remember the quote from Billy Graham? The great evangelist said, Billy Graham once said, “The Second Coming is the only beam of hope that shines in an ever-darkening world.”