Be Prepared

We find ourselves in the third chapter of Luke. The main character is the son of Zachariah and Elizabeth, John the Baptist. According to the text the word of God came to him, while he was living in the desert. He began preaching a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His entire life revolved around that message. Matthew tells us, John wore camel’s hair and ate locust, both a sign of repentance. Luke aligns John with the prophet Isaiah. He quotes Isaiah 40:35. It says:

          3 A voice of one calling:
          “In the desert prepare
          the way for the LORD;
          make straight in the wilderness
          a highway for our God.

          4 Every valley shall be raised up,
          every mountain and hill made low;
          the rough ground shall become level,
          the rugged places a plain.

          5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
          and all mankind together will see it.
          For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Those words sound strange to us but to John’s generation the message was clear. In those days when conquering armies attacked, the land was prepared for their attack. The number of attacking soldiers was massive. The sheer numbers made it necessary to straighten the roads and level the ground. The work of the engineers was as important as the work of the solders. Without the engineers there would be no battle.

That is what John says we must do before Jesus arrives, prepare for Jesus’ attack. Let me say this clearly.

This is not the only place in the Bible where the Second Coming of Christ is mentioned. Did you know there are 1,845 references to Christ’s second coming in the Old Testament, where 17 books give it prominence? Did you know there are 260 chapters in the New Testament, where there are 318 references to the second advent of Christ? Did you know twenty-three of the 27 New Testament books refer to this great event? Did you know one out of every out 30 verses in the New Testament deals with Christ ‘s return?  For every prophecy in the Bible concerning Christ’s first advent, there are 8 which look forward to His second coming! It is impossible to read the Bible and ignore the Second Coming of Jesus. Yet, there is one more thing about the Second Coming you can’t ignore.

The actual date of his return is a great mystery. It is one of the great mysteries in the Bible. Luke 12:40 says, “You must always be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you least expect him.” That fact reveals the genius of God. That means we must always be prepared. Like taking a pop quiz in school, you must always be prepared. According to the Pew Research group, 41% of all Americans believe Christ will return before the year 2050. Do you believe Jesus will return? This is a better question. Are you prepared for the second coming of Christ? Today, I want to give you three pieces of pastoral advice, so you will be prepared for his return.

First, make God your top priority. In a Berlin art gallery, there is a painting by German painter Adolf Menzel (1815-1905). It is only partially finished. It was intended to show Fredrick the Great speaking with some of his generals. Menzel painted the generals and the background. However, he only outlined of Fredrick in charcoal. He intended to paint in Frederick later, but he died before the portrait’s completion. That is the story of countless lives. How many people do you know focus in on the minor issues and characters and forget the most important thing in life, God! You must answer the next question. Does God play a major role in your life or have the minor characters in your life taken over? This is the point. First, if you want to be prepared for the Second Coming of Jesus, then you must make God your top priority.What is your top priority? Someday Jesus will return!

Second, purify your witness. According to the book, Life of Francis d’ Assisi, Francis once invited a young monk to join him on a trip to town to preach. Honored to be given the invitation, the monk readily accepted. All day long he and Francis walked through the streets, byways, and alleys, and even into the suburbs. They rubbed shoulders with hundreds of people. At day’s end, the two headed back home. Not even once had Francis addressed a crowd, nor had he talked to anyone about the gospel. Greatly disappointed, his young companion said, “I thought we were going into town to preach.” Francis responded, “My son, we have preached. We were preaching while we were walking. We were seen by many and our behavior was closely watched. It is of no use to walk anywhere to preach unless we preach everywhere as we walk!” What was Saint Francis trying to say? He was saying that our lives are our greatest witnesses. Second, if you want to be prepared for the Second Coming of Jesus, then you must purify your witness.What non-Christian behavior in your life do you need to eliminate?  Someday Jesus will return!

Third, perceive your Savor. It was one of the greatest moments in my ministry. In 2008, We hosted Mill Creek Workcamp. We teamed up with a group from Loveland, Colorado and welcomed over four hundred young people from seven different states come to Youngstown to work on forty-nine homes. Every night at worship they would report on seeing God in numerous ways in our community. They call those events “God Sightings.” One night, a work crew reported seeing God in the neighbor of their resident. God was well disguised. On Monday morning, when the crew arrived at their work site, the neighbor opened his door and welcomed the workers with some ugly language. (He may have mentioned our Savior’s name.) However, on Thursday morning the same neighbor opened his door and told the workers that he had tools. They could use them, if they wished. The neighbor’s transformation was shocking. It had to be God. Those “God Sightings” are important because they remind us that God is active in our world. Those “God Sightings” are important because they remind us that God is active in our community. Third, if you want to be prepared for Jesus’s Second Coming then you must be able to perceive our Savior.When was the last time you saw God active in your life? Someday Jesus will return!

William Miller (1782-1849) was a Baptist preacher in the nineteenth century. He was preoccupied with the second coming of Christ. After fourteen years of Bible study, he was convinced that Jesus would return on April 3, 1843. His followers, the Millerites, believed him. Some of his disciples went to mountaintops, hoping for a head start to heaven. Others went to graveyards, planning to ascend with their departed loved ones. It was even reported, Philadelphia society ladies clustered together outside town to avoid entering God’s kingdom amid the common herd. There was great excitement as the date approached. The Millerites were disappointed. April 3 came and went, but Jesus didn’t return. William Miller may have been disillusioned, but he did not give up. He went back to the Bible and recalculated his figures. He admitted the April 3 date was wrong and announced that the real date for Christ’s return would be March 22, 1844. The problem was March 22, 1844 came and went without the appearance of Jesus. Once again, William Miller was disillusioned. There was more Bible study and calculations. Then, he announced a third date, October 22, 1844. That date came and went without Jesus. Do you sense a pattern?

I don’t want to sound critical of William Miller. I am convinced he was sincere. However, after all that Bible study is missed Luke 12:40. The Second Coming of Christ is a mystery. Not even Jesus knew that date he would return. That means we must always be prepared and lived everyday like it is our last one. The great evangelist Billy Graham (1918-2018) once said, “The second coming of Christ will be so revolutionary that it will change every aspect of life on the planet. Man will live as it was originally intended.”

The Sin of Ingratitude

Let me begin with some numbers.Did you know, according to Fortune, the average American will spend $186.05 on Thanksgiving this year? In 2018, the average Americans spent approximately $176 on Thanksgiving. In 2017, the average Americans spent approximately $165. Thanksgiving expenses can be broken down into two categories. The first category is travel. The average American will spend $33.49 to be with family and friends. That is 18% of the total. The second category is the meal, itself. The average American will spend $152.56 on the feast. That is 82% of the total. According to the National Turkey Federation, 88% of all Americans serve turkey on Thanksgiving. That means, 46 million turkeys will be consumed at an average of $1.36 per pound. However, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we understand Thanksgiving is not just about a meal. It is an attitude. Thanksgiving is not just a day. It is a lifestyle.

We find ourselves today in the seventeenth chapter of Luke. According to the text, Jesus is traveling between the border of Samaria and Galilee. As he travels, he encounters various people. Many of those encounters are long forgotten One of those encounters is remembered annually, the ten lepers. You may know their story. Leprosy was a highly contagious skin disease caused by a certain bacterium. The disease still exists in our world today. In the United States approximately 100 cases are reported annually. However, today it is treatable. In the days of Jesus, it was not. In Jesus’ day victims of leprosy were forced to live in isolation, away from family and friends, in leper colonies. This is the story of the ten men in the scripture lesson. They are living with leprosy without any hope of a cure. Death would have been a welcomed relief. Then, they hear the news that gives them hope, Jesus is coming! They have heard of his healing power and they run toward Jesus. However, they can’t invade his personal space because of their disease. They are mandated by law to keep their distance. The best they can do is yell at Jesus as he passes. This is the good news: Jesus not only heard their desperate voices, but he healed them. As was required by their law, Jesus instructs them to go to a priest for inspection. The priests had the authority to grant them permission to re-enter society. On that day ten men were healed. However, this is the sad truth: only one man returned to Jesus to say, “Thank you.” The other nine never returned; the other nine just resumed their lives. Jesus, who seemed to know everything, was shocked by their ingratitude. In verse 17 of our reading, Jesus asked, “Where are the other nine?” It is a good question.

There are many things we don’t understand about God, but there two things we do know. First, God is a jealous God. The Almighty must be the top priority in your life. Don’t just run past that statement. Think about it. If God is your top priority, then family and country aren’t your top priority. That is hard for some to accept. God is a jealous God. Second, God likes being worshipped and praised. The Bible is filled with verses that underscore this point. Let me give you just one example. Psalm 100 is about worshipping and praising God. Psalm 100:4 says, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.” God likes being worshipped and praised. In other words, just like in the Bible story, God wants us to say, “Thank you.”

When I was young, we used to spend Thanksgiving morning in church. It wasn’t just my church. We would combine with the three congregations that shared a common corner in Warren, Ohio. There was my home church, Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). There was Saint Peter and Paul Byzantine Catholic Church and the synagogue, Beth Israel Temple. For one day, Thanksgiving, we put our theological differences and thanked God for our blessings. The priest, the rabbi and the minister sat side by side, by side. It was a nice picture. I have warm memories of that service, but now it is part of history. My home church is not having a Thanksgiving service this year.

When I came here, we had a Thanksgiving service. At first, it was ecumenical. Every year, we gathered at a different church and heard a preacher. I took my turn. Every year, there was a community choir and the offering went to a local cause. Those services were held on Thanksgiving Eve. One year those services ended because no one came. Next, we gathered with other United Methodist congregations in the area. The format was the same, but we met on the Sunday evening before Thanksgiving. We hoped to pick up a few people because we didn’t want to compete with meal preparation. When those services died, because no one came, we joined with the Canfield churches. We hosted the last one. On that night, the choir was bigger than the rest of the congregation. It was embarrassing. This year there is no community Thanksgiving service, and no one seems to care. Do you see the direction I am going? Do you see the direction our society is going? Did you know Thanksgiving Eve is now one of the big party nights of the year? Our society has changed but God is still a jealous God, who loves to be worshipped and praised. Could it be we are guilty of the sin of ingratitude? This is one of my favorite Thanksgiving stories.

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) is one of the great names in American history. He made a fortune in the steel industry. However, he was also one of the great philanthropists of the late 19th century. During the last eighteen years of his life, he gave away approximately 90% of his wealth, a total of $350 million. Conservatively, that equals $65 billion today. It was a good thing to be in the Carnegie family too. He once gave a distinct relation, who he had never met, $1 million dollars as a birthday gift. That equals $17 million today. You would have thought, the family would have been thankful, but no. He complained he should have gotten more. Do you know of anyone who resembles that distant Carnegie relative? Do you know of anyone who isn’t thankful?

Mental health professionals tell us ingratitude is rooted in three things. These three things are contrary to God’s ways.

  1. Envy       It is called the green-eyed monster or simple jealousy? Do you know of anyone who walks around obsessed with other people’s advantages and possessions? They are so worried about others, they become blind to their own blessings. Proverbs 14:30 says, “a sound heart is life to the body, but envy is rottenness to the bone.” How big of a part does envy play in your life?  
  • Entitlement     Do you know of anyone who feels like they deserve certain privileges or benefits just for being themselves. They are a cut above and handle their relationships based on what they can get. When they don’t get what they think they deserve, they become angry? 2 Thessalonians 3:10 says, “If anyone is unwilling to work, then he shall not eat.” Do you feel entitled?
  • Expectations   Some expectations are normal. You can expect me to show up on Sunday morning prepared for worship. I expect to get paid every two weeks. Some expectations are unrealistic or unreasonable. You expect people to cater to your needs. You expect God to answer all your prayers with a yes! It is an important question. What do you expect? Ingratitude comes when we expect too much. Proverbs 10:28 says, “The hope of the righteous brings joy, but the expectation of the wicked will perish.” What do you expect?

Several weeks ago, my wife, Kathryn, came home from her weekly Bible study. The group is not just made up of her church members. They have joined forces with another small membership church in that community. She and the other pastor share the leadership. On that night, the other pastor was leading the discussion and made two big mistakes. First, he opened the door and let politics be discussed. No one comes to church to hear political opinions. People come to church to hear about Jesus. Second, he exposed his political opinions. In a moment filled with emotions, in a room filled with patriotic Americans, he called America “a crappy country.” According to my wife, the room grow silent and his credibility was lost. She wondered how many wouldn’t return the next week. Someone said later, “I don’t know what he is, but he isn’t a pastor. If America is so bad, he needs to get out” That pastor is not alone. There are many who are blind to their blessings. Did you know 48% of all Americans fail to express their gratitude daily? Don’t be one of them. Be one of the 52% of Americans who express their gratitude daily. Alice Walker (born 1944) is an American author, short story writer, poet and social activist. She once said, “’Thank you’ is the best prayer anyone can say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.”

How Generous Are You?

Alexander the Great (356 BC–323 BC) is one of the great names in Western Civilization. One day, a beggar laid on the side of the road as Alexander the Great passed. The beggar asked the Emperor for money. He gave the man several gold coins. A courtier was astonished at his generosity and commented, “Sir, copper coins would adequately meet the beggar’s need. Why give him gold?” Alexander responded in royal fashion, “Cooper coins would suit the beggar’s need, but gold coins suit Alexander’s giving.” That is a story about generosity. That leads us to the question of the day. How generous are you?

We find ourselves today in the twenty-first chapter of Luke. It is important that you know it is late in Jesus’s earthly ministry. By this chapter, Jesus has already entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and cleansed the temple. It is Holy Wednesday. The events of Thursday and Friday are hours away. In other words, Jesus’s time is running out. Every word counts. Of all the things Jesus could have mentioned, he mentions money. Did you know Jesus spoke more about money than any other topic, including love, forgiveness and heaven? Did you know the topic of money is brought up 2,350 times in the Bible? That means money is important.

The story is a familiar one. Jesus is standing near the temple, as people gave their offering. In our time the offering plate is passed, and the offering is hidden in a white envelope. To ensure privacy, most envelopes are turned upside-down. In Jesus’s day, the offering was more public. There were thirteen large cone-shaped boxes in which to place your donation. Each box went to a different line item in the budget, one for the poor, one for temple maintenance, etc. There were no secrets. Everyone knew how much was given. In other places in the world and in another time in America, supporting the church was a public matter. That is not tolerated today. Our giving is a private matter. However, somethings don’t change. Every generation assumes, the rich give the largest amounts, the poorest give the smallest. That assumption is often wrong. Sometimes the rich are rich because they spend or give reluctantly. Through human eyes, the biggest givers give the most money. Through the eyes of God, the biggest givers are those who sacrifice the most. There is a world of difference between the two. That is the case of the woman in the text. Through the eyes of mankind, she gave next to nothing, two copper coins. It is a smaller amount than two pennies; it is more like two Russian rubles. Do you know what two Russian rubles are worth? It comes out to be three-tenths of a single cent. How many bills can you pay with three-tenths of a cent? The answer is, none. Through human eyes, she gave nothing. However, through the eyes of God, she gave the most because she gave all she had. In verse four, Jesus said she gave all she had. No one can question her devotion. This is the truth. That line fills me with shame; I always keep some for myself. How does this nameless woman make you feel?

There are three things you need to notice in this story. Each one makes us a little uncomfortable.

  1. Jesus watches what we do. The gospel of Mark tells the same story. It is found in Mark 12:41-44. Verse 41 says, “Jesus…watched the crowd.” The Greek word Mark uses for watch means to look with a discerning eye. God sees what you do. It is not just true of our personal finances. It is true of every activity in our lives. I have said it a million times. There has never been a moment in your life when you were ever orphaned. God has always been with you and He always be. It is impossible to hide some part of your life from God. Number one is Jesus watches what we do.
  • Jesus knows what we give. In the story, it is a public offering. Some gave more than other. Some gave less. The widow gave next to nothing. It isn’t just true of the Bible story. It is also true for us. God knows what you give too. Is Jesus disappointed by the amount you give to the church, or is Jesus proud of the amount you give to the church? Number two is Jesus knows what we give.
  • Jesus knows why we give. Some in the Bible story gave large amounts to impress their peers. Many still financially support the church for wrong reasons. Your financial support of the church should not be your way of expressing your approval or disapproval. Your financial support is your way of drawing near to God. It is your way of expressing your love for God. Number three is Jesus knows why we give.

Can I make a confession? I have never been comfortable handling my personal finances. It started at the very beginning. I was raised by a depression mentality person. That means I am not comfortable with debt and would like to pay for everything in cash. Even now, I often pay a bill off before it arrives. When I got out of school money was a challenge, because I owed so much in student loans. My total indebtedness doesn’t sound like much today, but it was in those days. My monthly payment sounds small today, but so was my income. It would be impossible to survive on that amount today. In addition, there were no government programs to help my generation. When Kathryn and I got married, I owned nothing. We never dreamed we would own our own home, so we bought a cottage in Lakeside. It seemed like a responsible thing to do at the time. We wanted to build equity in something. Then, life threw us a wonderful curve ball. We got to buy our own home here, so I paid two mortgages on a preacher’s salary for years. That was difficult. We kept the cottage for one reason. Someone in my family, not naming names, loved the cottage and Lakeside. I never caught the magic. As my children grew there was always a demand for more money. I paid a fortune in dance lessons. I paid a fortune in music lessons. I paid for braces. I bought a variety of homecoming dresses and prom dresses which were only worn once. For years, they hung proudly in my attic. Then came college tuition. Now, I am preparing to pay for a wedding. Did I mention all those mission trips to Eastern Europe? To be completely honest with you, I can’t tell you how I paid for all those things, but I paid for all those things. For years, I shouldered that responsibility alone. Then, I made a great discovery. It wasn’t me it was God. God has been taking care of me the whole time. Something always seemed to happen financially that kept me afloat. I know God has always taken care of us and I am confident He always will.

As I prepared for this message, I came across a sermon I wish I would have read years ago. It was written by a man named Rick Ezill (born 1963). He is he Senior Pastor of the Naperville Baptist Church in Naperville, Illinois.  Like this message, his message was based on the story of the widow’s mite. He called his sermon The Heart of Generosity. In that message he challenges us to handle our money in a Godly way. He challenges us to remember three things as we handle our personal finances. The three spoke to me.

  1.          Many are worried about leaving an inheritance. The reason people want to leave an inheritance is because they want to be remembered. Stop worrying about your inheritance and start worrying about your legacy. Why wait until you die? The woman in the Bible story left behind a legacy of generosity. How will you be remembered? Leave a legacy!
  • Be a giver!       From the beginning of time people have wanted something from God: His guidance, His grace, His peace, His mercy, His forgiveness. What do you want to from God? Why not give something to God? The woman in the story could have easily been a taker. He could have shown up at the temple looking for money. She could have gone to the temple looking for food. She could have gone to the temple looking for clothes. She could have done those things, but she didn’t. She showed up at the temple to give. She was a giver. Be a giver!
  • Make a difference!    People make a living by what they earn. People make a difference by what they give. The woman in the Bible story made a difference by giving those two copper coins. She modeled for generations to come the importance of sacrificial giver. Are you just making a living or are you making a difference? Make a difference!

Let me end with a simple question. Who is the most generous person in the world? According to Forbes, the two names who head the list are Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. In his lifetime, Bill Gates has given away $27 billion. In his lifetime, Warren Buffet has given away $21.5 billion. I am not being critical. You can’t question their generosity. However, Bill Gates may have given away $27 billion, but his next worth is $84 billion. That means Bill Gates saved $57 billion for himself. Warren Buffet kept $39.5 billion. Could you survive on $57 billion? Could you survive on $39.5 billion? Just like the rich at the temple on that day, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s giving is impressive, but there isn’t much sacrificial giving.

Who is the most generous person in the world? Jesus would have pointed to the poor widow at that the temple.  She didn’t give out of her surplus. She gave sacrificially. Do you give out of your surplus, or do you give sacrificially? That leads us back to our question of the day. How generous are you?  Andy Stanley (born 1958) is the Senior Pastor of the North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia. He once said, “Greed is not a financial issue. It’s an issue of the heart.”  He couldn’t be more correct.

Running On Empty

We find ourselves today in the seventh chapter of Mark. According to the text, Jesus was in Decapolis. In other words, Jesus was outside of Galilee, where he was less popular. Decapolis was not a city, but a league of cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. Yet, even there, Jesus was known as a miracle worker. Many came to Jesus to be healed. Others brought their loved ones to Jesus to be healed. That is what happened in the scripture reading for today. People brought a man to Jesus who was deaf and could hardly speak. In the end the man is healed, but the details of the healing are hard to accept. The Master put his fingers into the man’s ears, and he touched the man’s tongue. The healing of the man is interesting, but the compassion in the story is magnetic. If there would have been no compassion in the story, then there would have been no healing. The man got to Jesus because the people in his life had compassion for him. Compassion is what brought Jesus to the man to be healed. Compassion is one of the great characteristics of the Christian faith. Compassion is important but it is also exhausting. That is why verse 36 of our reading is so important. Verse 36 says, “Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.

It is called the Messianic Secret. This is not the only place Jesus requests silence about a miracle. That request is heard many times in the Gospels. Why would Jesus want to keep his miracles a secret? I can answer that question with one word, protection. Jesus wanted to protect the ministry. We live in a bigger is better world, but not so with Jesus. Jesus was never interested in the crowd. Jesus was only interested in the committed. The crowd was problematic for Jesus. The crowd was stifling to Jesus’ mobile ministry. Jesus said, don’t tell anyone about the healings because he was protecting the ministry. However, Jesus was also protecting himself. It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t want to heal everyone. The problem is Jesus couldn’t heal everyone for emotional reasons. Never forget, Jesus was fully human. With every healing came a story and with every story a little of Jesus’s energy eroded away. Jesus didn’t come to be a healer. Jesus came to establish the Kingdom of God. Jesus requested silence about the miracles because he was protecting himself. If it is true of Jesus, then it is true of us too. Can I be completely honest with you?

Church work is exhausting, because church work is a marathon. I am not just talking about professional clergy. I am talking about anyone who is activity involved in the life of the church. The reason is the church is so personal and we want to give our best to God. No one wants to disappoint God. That leads us to a problem. I have spoken of it in the past. Within the life of every church is the 90/10 Principle. It plays out in every congregation, regardless of church size. The principle says, 90% of the work that is done and 90% of the money that is donated or generated within the life of the church happens because of 10% of the people. So, let me ask you this question. Are you part of the 90% or are you part of the 10%? If you are part of the 90% who are doing next to nothing, then do something. The 10% need your help. If you are part of the 10%, then be careful. Church work is exhausting, and fatigue is a reality. This is the truth. I am always humbled by how hard the 10% work and I am concerned they will burn out. Have you ever experienced church fatigue? Have you ever experienced church burn out?

There is a website called One Love. In one of their posts, they listed five signs of compassion fatigue. I believe, they relate to church fatigue. This is their list.

  1. Apathy: Have you ever been apathetic about your church? It isn’t hard to do. People love to promote church’s shortcomings and mistakes. People love to retell church horror stories from years ago. If you take those stories personally and feel powerless to solve the problem, then you will naturally pull away and become apathetic. Have you ever been apathetic about your church? Apathy is a sign of fatigue.
  • Anger: Have you ever gotten angry at your church? It may be at a person or a group of people who frustrate you. Staying calm sometimes takes energy. However, you have no energy. It may, or may not, be the issue at hand. It may be something that happened years ago, and you festered on it, until it came out in anger. Have you ever gotten angry at church? Anger in a sign of fatigue.
  • Isolation: Have you ever isolated yourself? Have you ever avoided a fellow church member? You are afraid that person, or that group of people, will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. You don’t want to explode. Your greatest desire is just to be left alone. Have you ever avoided a fellow church member? Have you ever avoided a fellow church member? Isolation is a sign of fatigue.
  • Negativity: Have you become a pessimist? Are you exhilarating or exhausting? Are people happier when they see you come or see you go? Is everything out of your mouth negative? Do you have an easier time complementing or criticizing? Negativity is a sign of fatigue.
  • Fatigue: Fatigue is a sign of fatigue. You just always tired. It is not a matter of a lack of sleep. It is a matter of lack of interest. Fatigue is a sign of fatigue.

I know these five signs are true because I have experienced them in my life. So let me ask you the question again. Have you ever experienced fatigue in the life of the church? Let me say it again. It is important to take care of yourself. I have said it a million times to a million people, “If it is no longer fun, quit!”

On July 1, 2018, a new pastor was appointed to a church within this district. She was bright and passionate about Jesus. She loved her congregation and wanted to get involved in that community. She got off to a fast start. She visited everyone, and I mean everyone. In addition to preparing for Sunday morning, she visited her sick and her shut ins. Every visit came with a story, or two, of someone in their lives who were struggling. She visited them too. Everyone within her congregation loved her which made the announcement so painful to hear. She was leaving her church effective September 1. The reason she resigned was burnout. She was just as bright and passionate, but she was tired. She had burned out. She ran the marathon of the ministry like it was a 100-yard dash. She was a victim of church fatigue. It is important to take care of yourself, so you can take care of others.

Several years ago, I attended a retirement celebration for a man who had served the same church for thirty-eight years. It was his only United Methodist appointment. A great deal was made about his longevity, I was more impressed by his effectiveness. He was known for his compassion. It was about that time he took me to the side and gave me some advice. I listened to his words because I both liked and respected him. His words were straight forward. He said, “Russ, take care of yourself. Take all your days off. Take all you vacation. Take all those leaves. I didn’t and now I’m burned out. No church deserves a pastor who can only give 70 percent. If I would have taken care of myself, then I may have lasted longer.” I heard those word and have tried to apply them. It isn’t just true of clergy. It is true of devoted laity too. I hope you take care of yourself.

Several weeks ago, Kathryn and I made a fast get away. We left town on Monday morning and were home by Friday afternoon. We made a 376 trip to Lexington, Virginia. I was my first trip there. I was ready to go. This job has a million details. We stayed across the road from the Natural Bridge. However, we never saw it. Instead, we went into Lexington, itself. It is not a big place, only a town of 7,000 people. However, it is filled with history. It is the home of the Virginia Military Institute, which we toured. It was the home of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, who taught at VMI prior to the war. We visited his grave and saw the lemons people had left behind. Lexington is also the home of Washington and Lee College, where Robert E. Lee served as president after the war. His grave is in the basement of the chapel. Just outside the door is his horse’s grave, Traveler. We took a carriage ride around the town, as the guide gave us the highlights. We drove about an hour and visited Appomattox Courthouse, where Lee surrendered to Grant, ending the Civil War. I found it fascinating. Do you know the best part of my trip to Lexington, Virginia? Kathryn and I were alone. No one knew us. We walked through the streets and talked about nothing. We ate in local restaurants uninterrupted. We drove in the car and reminisced. I would get up early and sit in the lobby. I drank a cup of coffee as I read the local paper. This was the best part. Everyone ignored me. It was great but by Friday morning, I was ready to go home and reclaim my purpose. I started to miss my job and my routine. I started to miss the people in my life. I drove home rested and ready to go. Listen to what I am trying to say. I am not saying everyone must travel. However, I am saying everyone must do something to take care of themselves.

In our scripture reading for today, Jesus ordered silence. Don’t tell anyone about my healing, because I have enough people. The Master needed to rest, and he needed to take care of himself. What do you do to care for yourself? Jack Kornfield (born 1945) is a best-selling American author. He once said, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”

The Living Dead

We find ourselves in the fifth chapter of Mark. Jesus is in Galilee, so his popularity is extremely high. That means, the crowd is thick. Everybody wants something from the Master. One of the faces in the crowd was a man by the name of Jairus. He was the ruler of the local synagogue. In some cases that position was paid, in other cases the position was volunteer. In all cases, the position was respected by the congregation and demanding. He oversaw both building maintenance and worship. He came to Jesus not with a problem within the local synagogue, he came to Jesus with a personal problem. His daughter is dying, and he knows Jesus has the power to heal her. In the mind of Jairus, time is important. He tries to get Jesus to his daughter before time runs out. In other words, he tries to get Jesus to his daughter before she dies. This is the problem. The man is not alone. Others went to Jesus that day with their problems. One of those people was a woman with a gynecological problem. That means, she was considered unclean by her society. The good news is she is healed simply by touching Jesus’s robe. The bad news is her healing prevented Jesus from getting to Jairus’s daughter in time. It is a tragic story. The girl dies, just as her life was beginning. When Jesus arrived the crowd is grieving, because all hope is lost. It is at this moment; Jesus does the unexpected. He resurrects the girl and returns her to her parents. That story resonates in our society because death is, and always will be, shocking. It does matter if death comes after a long illness or in an instant, death is shocking. No one wants to see death invade their personal space. The problem is death is a part of life. How many loved ones have you lost?

Years ago, I was introduced to a book written by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, On Death and Dying. If you have never read it, I would encourage you to do so. It has helped many grieving people through the years. It has help me in my time of grieving. The concept is simple. When death invades our personal space, we naturally go through five stages. You know the truth. Grieving is a complex topic for several reasons. First, everyone grieves differently. In other words, you do not grieve the same as the person sitting next to you. Second, the same individual will grieve differently every time because every relationship in our lives is different.  You will grieve differently for your spouse of many years, then you will for a high school friend you haven’t seen in years. However, everyone does have one thing in common. Everyone passes through these five stages of grief. Some rush through a stage, others stay at a stage for a while. However, it is important for you to get through all five to resume your life. If you do not pass through each stage, then you stop living on the day your loved one died. So, what are the five stages of grief?

  1. Denial – Even when death is expected, it is a shock. It is a numbness. You just can’t believe the person is gone. You thought they would always be there, but you were wrong. About a year ago, I worked with a woman who continued to text her deceased fiancé. She wondered why he didn’t respond. She was in denial. Have you ever been in denial when a loved one died? You are not the only one. Everyone does it.
  • Anger – At some point the emotions kick in, and the person becomes angry. Powerlessness is pointed outward and someone must be blamed. How many examples do you need? The doctor made a fatal mistake. The pharmacist gave him the wrong pill. The hospital is incompetent, or the family was inattentive. I wonder how any hospitals have been sued in the last year. I wonder how many doctors have been sued in the last year. People sue for many reasons. One of those reasons is anger. Have you ever been angry when a loved one dies? You are not the only one. Everyone does it.
  • Bargaining – Sometimes, before death comes, we bargain with God. If my loved one is healed, I will spend the rest of my life serving you. Sometimes, after death comes, we bargain with God. We find bargaining in those “if only” statements. If only they would have found the tumor earlier. If only we would have recognized the illness earlier. If only he would have driven down a different road, then the accident would never have happened. Do you hear what you are trying to do? We want life to return to what it was; we want our loved one restored. Have you ever found yourself bargaining when a loved one dies? You are not the only one. Everyone does it.
  • Depression – When the bargaining ends, the depression begins. In this case, depression is not a mental illness, it is an appropriate response to a great loss. In many ways, we withdraw from life. There are many who stayed depressed after a death. In many ways they stop living. Have you ever felt depressed when a loved one dies? You are not the only one. Everyone does it.
  • Acceptance – I explain it this way: We never really get over the death of a loved one, but we do adjust. Things will never be as they were, but you will find a new normal. Maybe acceptance isn’t the right word? Maybe surrender is? How many times in your life have you been forced to accept the death of a loved one? You are not the only one. Everyone does it.

In the Christian faith, there is a sixth stage to grief. The sixth stage of grief is hope. In the Gospel lesson for today, Jairus and the people in his life were devastated. I am sure some were at stage one, denial. Some must have been at stage two, anger. Jairus, himself, must have been at stage three, bargaining. If Jesus would have arrived earlier, then his daughter would not have died. Jesus’s attendance is not a requirement for the healing. When Jesus resurrects the lifeless girl, he gives everyone hope. Only the Christian faith offers real hope in the face of death.

Since January, I have officiated at twenty-three funerals. Each one of those funerals ended with these words. Perhaps, you remember them on your sad day. They are words of hope.

Jesus was born in the ordinary way, yet he lived an extraordinary life. He never committed a single sin. He deserved to live an extra-long life, but it didn’t happen. He was executed as a young man. It was a Roman form of death. Jesus was crucified. His corpse was placed in a tomb. Once dead, Jesus’ friends came to pay their final respects. Those who came early in the morning, to get the horrible job done, made the great discovery. The tomb was empty! Somehow, Jesus had come back to life. I have never been able to explain how the resurrection happened, because I can’t explain a miracle. However, I do know the resurrection of Jesus changed everything. It is the cornerstone of our faith, and it changed the way you are experiencing today. Without the resurrection of Jesus, it is over with the benediction or the lunch. However, with the resurrection, there is so much more.

When I was young, my mother always told me to tell the truth. She knew I wasn’t too bright, and she knew it would be hard for me to remember all the lies. She said, telling the truth is easier. For this reason, I have always told the truth, even if the truth is hard to hear. Someone once asked me the question, what do you look forward to in your own death? I don’t think about my death too often, but I gave them an honest answer. My answer is your answer. When I die, I look forward to seeing all those people who have gone on ahead of me. I think the person was disappointed in my answer. They wanted me to say, “singing in the choir”. There is no way. They wanted me to say, “standing at the throne”. The problem is, I am too hyperactive. When I get to heaven, I long to see the people who have passed ahead of me, people I have missed for a long time. Can I ask you a question? Who do you want to see when you get to heaven? Who is the first person you want to see when you get to heaven? It going to be a great reunion, thanks to our resurrected Lord and Savior, Jesus!

Our Gospel lesson for today began in sadness. A little girl, the daughter of a good man, was dying. Then, the sad moment came. She died. Everyone grieved but the grieving did not last long. Jesus resurrected her, and the reunion began. Norman Cousins (1915-1990) was an American political journalist, author, professor and world peace advocate. He once said, “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” 

What is Halloween?

His name is Kolya. He was the second of three boys who came to our area for prosthetic legs from Dimtrov, Russia, which is northeast of Moscow. His story was truly a miracle. He came in a wheelchair and he left walking on his new legs. That did not happen in an instant. It took time and, during that period, he stayed at my house. Waiting for the next doctor’s appointment took patience. It was a challenge to find things for him to do. One of the things he did was visit American schools in the area. Local teachers were open to his visits. One of the schools he visited was celebrating Halloween. He showed up just in time for the party. The students, and teachers, were dressed in costume. There was a mummy and a ghost. There was a vampire and a zombie. There was a monster and a boy covered in blood holding a plastic ax. The teacher was dressed like a witch. We thought Kolya would love it, but we were wrong. It was one of those cultural problems. Americans love Halloween, but that is not true of the Orthodox world, including Russia. Did you know only 5% of Russians observe Halloween? I tried to explain Halloween, but he didn’t understand. His non-verbal communication asked the question, what is Halloween? That is not an easy question to answer. Consider these three sides of Halloween with me.

Halloween is a holiday! The history of Halloween can be traced back 2,000 years to ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts believed the dead could walk among the living one day annually, October 31. They would wear ghoulish masks so the unwanted visitors could not distinguish between the living and the dead. In North America, where there was a surplus of pumpkins, they carved them with scary faces to ward off spirits. Others offered sweets to appease the spirits. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, witches and zombies have long been associated with the evil world. Halloween is a holiday.

Halloween is a big holiday in America. Did you know, according to the National Retail Federation, 68% of all Americans plan on celebrating Halloween? The average American will spend $86.27 on Halloween. As a country we will spend $3.2 billion on costumes, $2.6 billion on candy, $2.7 billion on decorations and $390 million on greeting cards. 22% of all Americans are planning on visiting a haunted house and 44% of all Americans will carve a pumpkin. It is safe to say, in America, Halloween is not just a holiday. Halloween is a big holiday. Do you know anyone who doesn’t pass out candy? Halloween is a big holiday in America.What is Halloween?

Halloween is sinister! This is the very sad truth. Halloween is not all fun and games. There is a very dark side to Halloween. Halloween is the most sacred day on the Satanic calendar. Satanism has been part of our world for centuries. However, the source of modern-day Satanism can be traced back to one man, Anton LaVey (1930-1997). He authored several books to promote his dark world, The Satanic Bible, The Satanic Rituals, The Satanic Witch, The Devil’s Notebook and Satan Speaks! I checked several years ago and at that time, those books were found within the county library system.Those books were vital in the creation of his new church, The Church of Satan.

The best way to explain The Church of Satan is that it runs contrary to the church of Jesus Christ. It is like a parallel universe where everything is opposite. Our congregations are called churches; their congregations are called covens. In churches, we strive to know and accept everyone. In covens, fellow members are unknown because their identity is hidden. In churches, we worship in public. In covens, they worship in private. Churches worship during the day. In covens, they worship in the middle of the night. In church, we talk about our eternal reward. In covens, they talk about temporary gain. In church, we sacrifice for strangers. In covens, they sacrifice and misuse strangers and those who are weaker. In church, we encourage and love. In covens, they intimidate and hate. In church, we worship Jesus. In covens, they worship Satan. Satanism is a sinister parallel universe. If you get nothing else out of this message, then accept this fact. Satanism is real and countless people are regularly being victimized. On Halloween, the holiest day on the Satanic calendar, Satan desires a human sacrifice. I believe, that is where some of those missing children have gone. There is a sinister side to Halloween. That dark fact upsets many. What is Halloween?

That takes us to our Gospel reading for today. In find ourselves today in the seventh chapter of Mark. Jesus is in the vicinity of Tyre. That community is in present day Lebanon, north of Galilee. That fact is important for one reason. Jesus was extremely popular in Galilee, not so in other places. The smaller crowds gave Jesus an opportunity to teach the disciples. Demographically, the population seemed to be less Jewish and more Gentile. That is the case with the woman in the story. The author tells us she was Greek, born in Syria Phoenicia. She had heard of Jesus miraculous powers and knew this was an opportunity to save her daughter. Verse 25 says she was possessed by an evil spirit. She locates Jesus and begs the Master to save her daughter. In other words, she begs Jesus for an exorcism. At first, Jesus refuses to heal the daughter because the woman is a Gentile. In the end, Jesus exorcises the demon because of her great faith. Do you believe in demon possession?

The world struggles with this story and all other Biblical stories which deal with demon possession. The reason is we try to read the Bible like a science book. It is a book of faith. How do you translate demon possession in our modern world?  Some say demon possession in the Bible is untreated seizures. Some say demon possession in the Bible is untreated anxiety. Some say demon possession in the Bible is untreated depression. Some say demon possession in the Bible is some other untreated mental illness. Some say demon possession is just that, demon possession. I believe demon possession does exist. Sometimes, there is no other explanation. How do you understand demon possession in our modern world? However, demon possession in the Bible is more. Demon possession in the Bible is a reminder that our world is filled with sad people, who look to Jesus for help. Our world has a dark side where Satan is alive and well. What is Halloween? Halloween is a reminder!

On the last Sunday of October 2018, I preached a sermon called The Dark Side of Halloween. In that sermon I talked about a young woman I tried to help when I was in the Cleveland area. You may remember her story. Her name was Pat and she lived her life as a victim. As a child she would go to Canada for the annual family vacation. Her parents, both alcoholics, were drunk the entire trip. They entrusted her to an uncle. He wasn’t an alcoholic, but he was a Satan worshipper. He exposed Pat to the worst things this world had to offer. She was raped countless times by a variety of men. She was photographed and was subject of child pornography. Years later, he would send those pictures to her in the mail, just to intimidate her. One night, she was even buried alive in a casket, with a small oxygen tube to keep her breathing. She told me on one occasion she saw Satan, himself. The outcome was predictable. Pat fractured in every possible way. She had six or seven different personalities. She came to me by way of her psychologist, who asked me to help her fix her Christian theology. Do you know what I did? Through the years, I went through the confirmation material seven times to help each personality. It was Pat who taught me about the dark side of Halloween. It has been over twenty-five years since I met with Pat, but I still find myself praying for her. I double up my prayers for Pat on Halloween, because Halloween is the holiest day on the Satanic calendar. On that day, they look for a human sacrifice and Pat didn’t want to be the victim. Every Halloween she would hide in the Cleveland Mero Park system, alone in the woods.

I closed that message with a challenge, and I will challenge you again, to pray not just for Pat, but for all the victims in our society who are suffering silently, due to Satanism. It is a secret world that seldom gets exposed. It is a secret world, but it exists. I woman came to Jesus and begged for help. Her daughter was demon possessed and without Jesus there was no help. Somethings don’t change. Countless victims are living in the dark world of Satanism. Without Jesus, they will remain in the dark. With Jesus, there is hope. 1 John 1:5 says, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.”

Who Is Jesus?

We find ourselves today in the fourth chapter of Mark. Jesus and the disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Their boat is surrounded by other boats. That body of water was infamous for sudden storms and that is exactly what happened. Without warning, the wind began to blow, and the boat, (with low sides perfect for the nets), begins to fill with water. The disciples begin to panic, but Jesus is fast asleep. The contrast between the disciples and Jesus is shocking. They awake Jesus to tell him he is about to die. Jesus is surprised by their emotional state. He comments on their lack of faith and calms the storm. The disciples who had been traveling with Jesus thought they knew him, but their understanding of him was incomplete. They ask a question the world has been trying to answer for generations. “Who is this?” In other words, they asked the question, who is Jesus? How do you answer the question, who is Jesus? The answer you receive will depend on the person you ask.

If you would have asked Jesus’ cynical generation the question, who is Jesus, they would have given you same basic information about him. Jesus was a carpenter. He was the biological son of a woman by the name of Mary. Some believed, Jesus was the biological son of Joseph. Some had questions about his true father. Some didn’t even care enough to answer the question, because he came from Nazareth. Have you ever lived in a town the whole world looked down upon? That was the case with Nazareth. Jesus’ entire world looked down on Nazareth. Even one of his own disciples, Nathaniel, before following Jesus, looked down on Nazareth. Do you remember John 1:46? It says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” If you asked Jesus’ cynical generation, who is Jesus, their answer is incomplete. Who is Jesus?

It is safe to say, Jesus is the most influential person who has ever lived. His teachings and the retelling of his story has influenced the lives of billions, even Non-Christians. Perhaps, that is why other world religions have been forced to answer the question, who is Jesus? Consider these things with me. Buddhism values Jesus. Some Buddhist scholars are emphasizing the similarities between the life and teachings of Buddha and Jesus. Scientology values Jesus. You can find the teachings of Jesus in the earliest forms of their religious beliefs. In 1974, the religion of Rael was created. It is a UFO religion. Today, they have a following of approximately 100,000. They believe the world was created by species of humanoid extraterrestrials. I believe their theology is a little off but, they too value Jesus. They consider Jesus a prophet. Who is Jesus?

The Bahai Faith values Jesus. Established in 1863, in Persia and parts of the Middle East, the Bahai faith looks for values in each of the world religions. They strive for a new world order, where a balance is struck between the beliefs of all world religions. They consider Jesus to be a manifestation of God. However, they believe Jesus is just one of a series of manifestations of God. Jesus is not the first manifestation of God and Jesus will not be the last manifestation of God. The Bahai Faith may be politically correct, but the Bahai Faith is wrong. Their answer to the question, who is Jesus, is incomplete. Who is Jesus?

Islam values Jesus. Did you know in the Quran, the sacred text of that religion, Jesus is mentioned twenty-five times? That is more often than Muhammad, himself. Jesus is portrayed as being both moral and pious. His generous ways caught the eyes of God, who selected him to be a divine messenger. They also believe Jesus’s original message was lost and altered by first century Christians. Muslims believe, Jesus was not the incarnation of God. As a matter of fact, Muslim reject the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Muslims answer to the question, who is Jesus, is also incomplete. Who is Jesus?

The Hebrew faith values Jesus. They believe Jesus was an historical figure. They believe Jesus was a good man and teacher. They reject the concept that Jesus is part of the trinity and the reject the idea Jesus was the Messiah. The reason is simple. He did not fulfill the Messianic prophecies. Conservative Jews believe the last word from God came through the prophet Malachi, who lived approximately 400 before the birth of Jesus. They believe, any Jew who believes Jesus was the Messiah has crossed the line and has left the Jewish community. In other words, the Jews answer to the question, who is Jesus, is also incomplete. Who is Jesus?

In the Christian faith, the answer to the question, who is Jesus, is not simple. It is complex. It has been said the word became flesh and theologians turned it back into words. That may be true. Consider what the Christian theologians tells us. We believe, Jesus was the incarnation of God. In other words, Jesus was God, who was active at the creation of the world. His love for us can never be questioned. We celebrate Christmas, because we stand in awe of the fact, Jesus left the perfection of heaven to enter our sinful world to save us from sin. He was both fully God and fully human. For a three-year period, he taught the world about the Kingdom of God, preforming miracles to emphasize his message. Yet, his message was more than this world could handle. The religious leaders of his day decided to eliminate Jesus. Their plan worked to perfection. Jesus was arrested during the Passover. Jesus had two trials, one in front of his own people and the other in front of the Roman authorities. He didn’t have a chance. In the end, Jesus was found guilty and executed. He died Roman style, crucified. The few who saw Jesus die on that day witnessed the depth of God’s love for mankind. On a Friday, the day before the Sabbath, they placed his corpse in a tomb and cried themselves to sleep. On the following Sunday, the tears of his followers were replaced by cheers. A few women made the great discovery. Jesus had somehow conquered death. Every Easter we celebrate the resurrection, because it changed everything. Your belief in the resurrection is not optional it is indispensable. If you believe in the resurrection of Jesus, then you will be saved. If you don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus, then you are lost. (Romans 10:9) Jesus’s resurrection was a bodily resurrection, he was not a ghost. For forty days he walked this world in his resurrected state, proving to all, he had returned. Once that forty-day period was complete, Jesus ascended into heaven. Ten days later, on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, his divine mission was completed. The Holy Spirit came and filled the hearts of all believers. The question sounds simple, who is Jesus? The answer is very complex. Who is Jesus?

When I was in seminary, I had a friend by the name of Mike. He was a wild guy with long red hair and a good heart. He was from the Illinois side of the Mississippi River in the St. Louis area. We lived in the same apartment complex, so we would ride to school together. As we traveled those few miles, we talked and share our stories. Of all the stories Mike told me, this is the one I remember.

He freely admitted, when he got of college, he was a non-believer. The last thing he worried about was Jesus. That all changed one Friday night. He was out drinking and being wild with his friends. Completely drunk, he decided to drive home. He didn’t remember much, but he was driving fast. The expected happened, and Mike got into an accident. He didn’t remember getting cut out of his car and he didn’t remember being taken to the hospital. He did remember being in the hospital’s emergency room. In an unconscious state, he heard his mother talking to the doctor. She began sobbing when the doctor told her, it didn’t look good. The doctor wasn’t a miracle worker, but she promised to do her best, but she wouldn’t make any promises. There was an excellent chance Mike was going to die. Mike didn’t want to die, so, in that unconscious state he promised God, he would do better. As a matter of fact, he promised God to service Him the rest of his life, if God would save him. Mike pulled his shirt open to show me the large ugly scares on his chest from the accident. Mike was good to his word. Once he recovered, he accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior. In time, he heard God calling him into the ministry and enrolled in seminary. The last time I heard from Mike, he was serving a church in Illinois. Ask Mike the question, who is Jesus, and he will give you the best answer. Jesus is his Lord and Savior. That is the only correct answer.

How do you answer the question, who is Jesus? There is only one truly correct answer. Jesus must be your Lord and Savior. He is your only hope of salvation. The disciples sat in the boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. A storm began to rage, and they thought they were going to die. They woke Jesus to tell him he is going to die too. No one died that day. Jesus calmed the storm and showed the disciples he had the ability to control nature, itself. The disciples are blown away, and they asked themselves the question people for generations have been trying to answer, who is this? Who is Jesus? Later, Jesus would give them the answer, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14:6)