Do Not Worry

They tell me along the rural paths in India, there are shoulder-high posts with a shelf on top. They call these posts a Soma Tonga, which means “resting place.” Travelers on foot often carry heavy loads. When travelers come upon one of these posts, they place their heavy loads on the shelf to rest. When Christianity spread to India, the new converts started calling Jesus, “My Soma Tonga.” Jesus was the one who gave them rest. Jesus was the one who shared their load. Jesus was the one who gave them strength. I like that simple illustration because that is my story.

We find ourselves in the twelfth chapter of Luke, verses twenty-two through thirty-four. This section of Luke begins in the previous chapter. It is a busy section of scripture because the author clusters various teachings of Jesus together. The teaching on worry is just one of many topics the Master covers. However, Jesus’s teaching on worrying grabbed our attention because everyone worries about something. You are not alone. Can I make a confession? I have spent many hours in the middle of the night worrying. Worry is one of those topics that unites the entire world. Our is not the first generation and ours will not be the last. That leads us to an interesting question.

What are you worried about today? Are you worried your health? There is an imperfection in your complexion, and you are afraid it is skin cancer. Or are you worried about your age? You are now the exact age your father was when he died. Are you afraid you are going to die in the next 365 days? Or are you worried about your left knee? It hurts and you don’t want to have that operation, because you don’t want to go to a rehabilitation center. They are creepy and smell bad. Are you worried about your finances? You live on a fixed income and life seems to be getting more expensive. Or you are a college graduate, but your degree is useless. Are worried about your children?  They are now in high school, and you haven’t started saving for college yet. Is anyone here worried about the weather? My sister-in-law is preoccupied with the weather. They say the heavy rain in California is caused by “Global Warming.” Do you know of anyone who is worried about global warming? Are you worried about the future? The world can only support so much population. Are you worried about the future of America? The face of America is changing. Caucasian Americans will soon be a minority. Does that fact make you anxious? Are you worried about the future of our world? There are so many hot spots and complex situations. Our society is filled with worried and anxious people. Study after study tells us, it is true.

According to the people at quickcountry.com these are our greatest worries:

  1. Health issues
  2. Memory issues
  3. Independence issues, nursing homes
  4. Sight issues
  5. Hearing issues
  6. Financial issues
  7. Being a burden to others, living with loved ones
  8. Their mind failing but their body staying fit

Research from the APM Research Lab, tells us 84% of Americans feel extremely or very worried. So, when Jesus says not to worry, his words fall on deaf ears. Worrying is one of the things we do naturally.

Verse 22 is the perfect example of why you must read the Bible in context. It says, Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear.” What is Jesus really trying to say? Jesus knows it is impossible to eliminate our worries, but he also knows it is possible to control our worries. Jesus wants us to control our worries for one reason. He wants you to enjoy every day of life. Psalm 118:24 says, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” The next time you are overcome with worries, remember three things.

First, the next time you are overcome by worries, remember you are valuable to God. You are so valuable God came into the world to have a relationship with you. That is why we celebrate Christmas. It is a time to stand in awe of the Incarnation. God became one of us. It is obvious, but Jesus said it. You are more valuable than a raven. You are more valuable than a lily. You are so valuable to God that Jesus, the Incarnation of God, died on the cross so God could spend eternity with you! Never forget it. You are valuable to God!

Second, the next time you are overcome by worries, remember to seek the Kingdom of God first. In the tenth chapter of Luke, Jesus visits Mary and Martha. Prior to his arrival, there are a million things to do, so Mary and Martha are working hard. The problem begins when Jesus arrives. There are those last-second things that must be done. Martha continues to work hard but Mary stops working to listen to Jesus. Martha goes to Jesus to express her frustration, but her words fall on deaf ears. He reprimands Martha for her poor priorities and praises Mary. That story teaches us one major point. Filling your life with good things isn’t good enough. The driving force in your life must be the best thing, Jesus!

It is easy to fill our lives with good things. I see it all the time. There is nothing wrong with celebrating birthdays. There is nothing wrong with spending time with family and friends. There is nothing wrong with looking fashionable. There is nothing wrong with eating a delicious dinner. There is nothing wrong with watching football or baseball. There is nothing wrong with reading a good book or listening to your favorite tunes. There is nothing wrong with any of those things. The problem is those things are only good. They will not sustain you during life’s worries. They are not the best thing. The best thing is God, who never fails. Jesus is our Soma Tonga. That is why Jesus said to seek the kingdom of God first! We need rest from our worries. The next time you are filled with worry, remember you are valuable to God and to seek the kingdom of God first.

Third, the next time you are overcome by worries, remember to live life one day at a time. Looking ahead and guessing about the future can be overwhelming. You know it is true.Most of the things we worry about never happen. Most of the things we worry about are out of our control. Don’t let tomorrow’s worries rob you of today’s joy. Live one day at a time.

When my children were young, we ate dinner together every night. It didn’t seem like a big deal then, but it does now. It has been years since the four of us ate together. The menu changed but it was the same every night; we talked about the various things that happened throughout the day. Everyone talked. The girls talked about their friends. They talked about their teachers. They talked about what they wanted for their birthdays and Christmas. Often, they would talk about their worries. They spent a great deal of time worrying about things that might happen. If I said it once, I said it a million times, 90% of the things we worry about never happen. I don’t know where I came up with that wise advice, but it is true. Just think about it. Most of the things you worry about don’t happen. The best you can do is the best you can do. Your worries don’t change anything. The next time you are filled with worry, remember you are valuable to God and to seek the kingdom of God first. In the end, the best thing you can do with your worries is trust God.

My wife Kathryn is a proud graduate of Vanderbilt University. I am extremely proud she is a Vanderbilt graduate. It is an outstanding academic institution. Her days in Nashville were filled with all kinds of wonderful memories. She tells the story of being in a history of Methodism class. Like all classes at the Harvard of the South, it was demanding. The only saving grace in that class was the announced quizzes. Periodically, the professor announced there would be a quiz on a certain day, covering a certain amount of material. There were numerous quizzes throughout the semester. One day, the professor announced a quiz would be issued during the next class. Only a fool wouldn’t study that material for the next class. Kathryn isn’t a fool, so she planned on studying the night before the quiz.

Just as she opened the book to study the assigned material, a friend called and needed to talk. She was a young woman by the name of Marion, but everyone called her by a nickname, Mimi. Kathryn said to come and thought she would only stay a few minutes. She had to study for a quiz. When Mimi arrived, she began to talk and a short time later, her words became emotional. Mimi talked about her boyfriend. Mimi talked about their relationship. Mimi talked about their physical relationship. Mimi, it pains me to say it and I never met her, talked about her abortion. Mimi talked about her grief. Mimi talked about her shame. Mimi talked about her regrets. Mimi talked, and Kathryn actively listened. She listened for a long time. After all the words, tears and emotions, Mimi left. Kathryn was exhausted. She looked at the clock, and the hour was late. It was too late to study for the quiz. She was too emotionally spent to study for the quiz. She went to bed and tried not to worry about the quiz. She tried not to worry, but not worrying was impossible. With no other option, she prayed for help.

When she got to the history of Methodism class, she was sick with worry. Then, the miraculous happened. The professor walked in and announced to the class there would be no quiz that day. He simply changed his mind. According to Kathryn, it was the greatest announcement in the history of Vanderbilt University. That leads me to an interesting question.

When was the last time you worried about something that never happened? The only thing that matters are those things that matter in one hundred years. The only thing that is going to matter to you in one hundred years is Jesus. Your worries really do not matter. However, worrying is a part of life. Our worries are part of the human experience. We can’t stop worrying, but our worries can be controlled. Never forget it. In the end, God is in control. American author Leo Buscaglia (1924-1998) once said, “Worry will never rob tomorrow of its sorrow, it can only sap today of its joy.” Jesus said it best, do not worry.

Take Down the Curtain

One of the great preachers of our time was a man by the name of Fred Craddock (1928-2015). He taught homiletics at the Chandler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. No one has influenced my preaching more than him. The reason is simple. No one can tell a story like Fred Craddock. Let me give you one example.

Craddock tells the story about going back to his hometown in rural north Georgia. He decided to eat breakfast at a café run by one of the members of his church. It was a restaurant in what’s called a “shotgun house” – a long slender room with a door at each end. In this case one door opened onto the front street. The other door, the back door, opened onto the alley. The owner of the restaurant was a man by the name of George. When Fred walked in George looked at Fred and said, “Let’s go for a cup of coffee.” Craddock was surprised. “You don’t have coffee?” But George insisted. They went to a nearby fast-food restaurant and sat down. “You know the curtain?” George asked. “Yes,” said Craddock. The curtain George referred to was stretched out across the middle of his café, between the two doors of the shotgun house. It was there to segregate. White folks entered the restaurant by the front door from the main street. Black folks entered from the alley. “The curtain’s got to come down,” George said. “Then take it down,” replied Craddock. “But if I take it down there’s a lot of folks who won’t like it,” said George. “Then leave it up,” said Craddock. “If I take it down, I may lose my business,” said George. “But if I leave it up, I lose my soul.” Sometimes the world can be an ugly place.

What would you do? Would you take the curtain down or would you leave the curtain up? It is not just a story about a restaurant owner in north Georgia. It is our story. Daily, each one of us must decide. Are we going to stand up against the things that are wrong and lose something in this world. Or are we going to ignore those issues and lose your part of our soul? That is a question each one of us must answer. Do you take the curtain down or do you leave it up?

It even happens when you read the scriptures. We ignore and accept certain things. For example, look at the text for today, Matthew 2:1-12. The main characters in the story are the Magi. You know them because you know the hymn, We Three Kings. Sometimes they are called Wise Men. The truth is the song has taught us more about them then the Bible. I am only interested in what the Bible says.

What does the Bible say? Prior to our reading the Bible says they came from the east during the time of King Herod. They came because they had seen a star that signaled the birth of the King of the Jews. They went to the palace because they assumed a king would be born in a palace. However, their assumption was wrong. While their astrological skills were excellent; their Biblical knowledge is limited. The only thing they really accomplished that day was exciting the insecure King Herod. This is Bible. Jesus was two years old when they finally saw Jesus. They left him some expensive gifts, odd gifts for a baby. By then Joseph and Mary had left the manger and were living in a house. In a dream the Magi were told to return home by another route, by passing Herod in Jerusalem. In a dream Joseph was told to move his tiny family to Egypt, keeping Jesus safe. King Herod’s opportunity to kill this new born King of the Jews was gone and he reacts in a violent way. Verse 16 says, “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.”  I find that to be one of the most disturbing verses in the Bible. What started out as such a good thing, worshiping Jesus; Ended in a horrible way, the death of baby boys.

That is why we keep the curtain up? We try to avoid tension; We try to avoid conflict. We try to avoid anything that is ugly because those things are upsetting. We want every situation to be a win-win situation. However, sometimes people lose. The Magi fit nicely into your nativity set but there is never any room for dead baby boys. Could it be we have edited the Bible to make it agreeable to our senses? That is one of the things that disturbs me about our generation’s relationship with the Bible. We have distilled the Bible stories down to cartoon characters and have sucked the life out of each scene. The Bible was written by adults, for adults.

Could it be we have edited the world to make it agreeable to our senses? We keep the curtain up, so to speak, because it hides the truth. Every situation in our world is not a win-win situation. Sometimes people lose and the church is called upon to renounce such behavior. The church has been called, “the conscious of society.” It is those things I really wants to talk about today so don ‘t expect this blog to be easy. What are you hiding behind the curtain? If you keep the curtain up, you will make everyone happy! But if you keep the curtain up you will lose part of your soul. This is my advice for you today: TAKE THE CURTAIN DOWN! You are a disciple of Jesus Christ and God expects you to stand for what is right!

Several years ago, I found myself in the country of Belarus. It is located west of Russia and north of the Ukraine. Don’t worry if you don’t know Belarus’s location. It is one of those ugly places in the world. It is a country that really has no real future because of her past. The future of that country ended on April 26, 1986. You remember the event, Chernobyl! Today, Chernobyl is abandoned. In 1986, it was part of the Soviet Union, located in northern Ukraine. On April 26 of that year there was a nuclear accident of catastrophic proportions. Radiation poured out of the plant. On that day the wind was blowing from the south. The radiation clouds blew over Belarus and devastated a large portion of the country. One-third of her land was suddenly gone. By the time I arrived the Soviet Union was gone, and the country of Belarus was an independent state. It will be thousands of years before the radiation is gone. Until that happens Belarus has no real chance for progress. They are a poor neighbor in the world community. No one really helps her because no one really cares.

I will never forget the condition of the children when we arrived. They were pale, sick, and cold. The radiation had suppressed their immune systems. They had no heat in the orphanage because there was no money to fix the boiler. I was always taught that America was different. I was taught that America was good and cared about the poor in the world. When I asked the question how much money does America send to the country of Belarus? I was told nothing! Why? Because Belarus offers no political advantage to our country. Sick children were living in a 40-degree orphanage because they offered us no political advantage. That is just plain wrong. The story of Belarus does not stand alone. How many other world issues are were hiding behind the curtain? It is time to take the curtain down.

One of the finest people in my community is Kathleen Price (born 1950). She is an incredible person. She is the founder and director of the Mission of Love. This is the mission statement of her organization: You are not here to save the world but are to touch the hands that are within reach. She has touched many hands through the years in many locations. She has helped people in Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Peru, and the Pine Ridge Reservation. I knew of her work in parts of the Spanish speaking world, but I didn’t know she helped Americans.

The Pine Ridge Reservation is in the southeastern corner of South Dakota on the Nebraska border. It is the eighth largest Indian reservation in America, measuring nearly 3,500 square miles. That makes it larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Nearly 29,000 Americans live on the reservation today. Over the past 200 years these people have lost nearly everything, including their language. The numbers are not pretty. Up to 85% of the people on the reservation live below the poverty level. Adolescent suicide is four times higher than the national average. If you are a man, then you can expect to live to the age of 47; if you are a woman you can expect to live until you are 52. Kathleen Price and the Mission of Love go to help these people. They go to Pine Ridge because their own government has basically turned their back on these Americans because they are native Americans. It is just easier to keep the curtain up. The story of the Pine Ridge Reservation does not stand alone. How many national issues are hiding behind the curtain?

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Years ago, I talked to a member of the clergy who was in an awkward spot. A retired couple came to him with a request. The had both been widowed and were tired of living alone. They wanted him to officiate at their marriage, but there would no marriage license. Why? The reason was simple. If she legally married the man, then she would lose her deceased husband’s generous pension. They wanted a pretend wedding so they wouldn’t lose income. Do you any of anyone who is living together so they won’t lose their deceased spouse’s pension check? It is not that uncommon. Do you know of senior citizens who live together unmarried for economic reasons? Do you know of anyone of any age that lives together? I don’t want to shock you, but sometimes young people live together too.

Living together has become part of the landscape of our society. Everyone says, “The times have changed.” I know times have changed. We are very high technique. We have cellular telephones, the internet and high-definition televisions. However, living together is one of those things that is hiding behind the curtain. It is one of those things that is socially accepted but it is still morally wrong. Marriage not only protects individuals but it protects society as well. Living together does not stand alone. How many other personal issues are hiding behind the curtain?

Do you remember what the Bible said? The Bible said the Magi came to worship the newborn king. Their hearts were in the right place, but they had two flaws in their plan. First, they came too late. According to verse 16 they came two years too late. Second, they went to the wrong place. The Magi went to the palace in Jerusalem. They should have gone to the house in Bethlehem. If you combine those two mistakes, then you discover one of the most disturbing verses in the Bible. The insecure King Herod ordered the killing of every two-year-old boy and younger. Does anyone’s nativity set include dead baby boys? Of course not! It is easier just to ignore it. It is easier to keep it hidden behind the curtain.

How many things do we hide behind the curtain? What world issues do we hide behind the curtain? What national issues to we hide behind the curtain? What personal issues do we hide behind the curtain? Don’t you think it is time to take the curtain down?

Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

We find ourselves today in the first twelve verses of the second chapter of Matthew. This story is only found in Matthew. The challenge for us is ignoring all the traditional information about this story. If you want to be Biblically accurate, then you must listen to the Bible. What does the Bible say? The Bible says sometime after the birth of Jesus, Magi came to worship him. The Bible does not say they are kings. The Bible calls them Magi. Who are the Magi? Kings have political interests, but the Magi had no political interests or aspirations. They were more interested in spiritual matters. They sought God in a variety of ways. One of those ways was the stars. It is through their study of the stars they discovered a king had been born. It is at this moment they make one massive mistake. They assumed a king would be born in the palace. They went to insecure King Herod’s palace. Sadly, this wrong assumption caused the death of baby boys two years and younger. The Bible is not always kind. Devastated by their mistake, they were overjoyed when the star reappeared. When they found this newborn king among the commoners in Bethlehem, they worshipped this special child and offered him treasures.

Verse 11 says, “Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”  What kind of gifts are those to bring to a baby? You can be honest. They were not as bad as used toothbrush or second-hand clothes, but they were odd. They seem odd to us because we are not as wise as the Magi. While they were blind to the political events of their day, they fixed their eyes on eternal matters. From some unknown source they knew about Jesus’ earthly ministry. In other words, they must have known what would happen to Jesus in the next thirty-three years. Just think about it. Gold was the perfect gift for a king. Jesus was the King of Kings. Frankincense was the perfect gift for a priest. Jesus was the ultimate high priest, acting as a bridge between mankind and God. Myrrh was the perfect for someone who was going to die. It was used to embalm the dead. It is those three gifts I want to examine in this blog.

Gold was a perfect gift to a king. What is gold? Gold is a precious metal that is reserved for special people and occasions. Did you know an ounce of gold sells for approximately $1,900? How much gold do you own? It has been called the king of metals. Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) tells us that in the ancient empire of Parthia, no one approached the king without a gift of gold. It is truly the perfect gift for a king. Never forget, Jesus is the king of kings. Jesus is our friend, but Jesus is not our equal. We must always meet him on terms of submission.

History tells us Admiral Nelson always treated his defeated enemy with kindness and courtesy. After one of his naval victories, the defeated Admiral was brought to Nelson. Knowing his reputation for kindness and courtesy, he walked up to Nelson and stuck out his hand to shake it. Nelson’s hand remained at his side and said, “Your sword before your hand.” Before we can be Jesus’s friend, he must have our complete submission. Do you submit to Jesus or is he just your friend? Gold was the perfect gift for a king. Gold was the perfect gift for Jesus.

Frankincense was the perfect gift for a priest. What is frankincense? It is the bark from a boswellia tree. That bark was used to make a sweet perfume that was used by priests during sacrifices. Those sacrifices were used to make connection between mankind and God. The Latin word for priest means “bridge builder.” Remember, Jesus was the ultimate high priest, the ultimate bridge between mankind and God. Jesus was the incarnation of God. He just didn’t study us from afar. He became one of us.

The scriptures tell us Mary and Joseph respected the Law of Moses. In Luke 2:22-40, we learn they went to Jerusalem in accordance with that law. After the birth of a son, the law demanded two things. First, women had to wait 40 days to go to the temple to offer a sacrifice. Mary had to be purified to re-enter society. Second, Jesus had to be consecrated to the Lord. At that time, Jesus was circumcised. They went to Jerusalem to attend to those matters. It was a big day in their lives, but they didn’t have a clue what was about to happen. Like every parent, they knew their son was special. They were about to find out how special.

They meet two characters during their time at the temple. The first was a priest by the name of Simeon. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and was told he would not die until he saw the Messiah. The Holy Spirit did not lie. On that day he was in the temple courts and a young couple walked up to him. They expect him to just circumcise their son. They must have been shocked by the way the priest reacted to their baby. Simeon was overjoyed. He knew Jesus is the Messiah! The second person they met was Anna. In terms of this world, she had nothing. She was an old widow who lived her life within the temple. However, spiritually, she was rich. She was a prophetess. She is the one who announced to the crowd that Jesus will bring redemption to Israel!

I love Simeon and Anna. They model for us the importance of patience and they remind us of the uniqueness of Jesus. They knew what we often forget. Jesus was not just another good man. Jesus was not just the leader of another world religion. Jesus was different. Jesus was the son of God. Jesus was the incarnation of God. Jesus would forge a relationship between us and God that still stands today. In other words, Jesus was the great high priest! Frankincense was the perfect gift for a priest. Frankincense was the perfect gift for Jesus.

Myrrh was the perfect gift for one who was going to die. What is myrrh? It is a spice that was used to embalm the dead. I hate to say it, but Jesus did die. You remember the story. Thirty-three after Jesus’ birth, he is executed like a common criminal. The Bible tells us he did nothing wrong. As a matter of fact, he did everything right! He never committed a single sin which made him the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. That fact is only important if you admit, you are a sinner. Sinless people do not need a savior. Sinless people do not need Jesus. However, you do need Jesus because you are a sinner. What does the Bible say? It says, “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) That means anyone who has ever lived is a sinner. It means you are a sinner. Let me say this clearly. If you think you are going to heaven by your good works, then you are wrong. Jesus is and always has been your only hope of salvation. Myrrh was the perfect gift for someone who was going to die. Jesus died so we could live. Myrrh was the perfect gift for someone who was going to die. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were the perfect gifts for Jesus! Let me end with this question.

What did you get for Christmas? I hope you didn’t get one of these. Several years ago, gather magazine listed the worst Christmas gifts. This is their list:

          1. Nose hair clippers

          2. A pet rodent

          3. A vacuum cleaner

          4. Mascara

          5. Hand-me-down clothes

          6. A photograph of yourself

          7. A year’s supply of NutriSystem diet food

          8. A month gym membership

          9. Socks

According to Squidoo.com, these were the most desired gifts for Christmas.

          1. Cell phone

          2. Tablets

          3. Televisions

          4. Movies and sports streaming devises

          5. Gaming

          6. Remote control toys

          7. Cologne

          8. Docking systems

          9. Amazon gift card

          10. Unique cameras

What did you get for Christmas? Did you get any of those things for Christmas? They would have made the perfect gift. This is the bad news for today. Jesus didn’t get any of those things. The Magi showed their wisdom in their gifts. What did you get Jesus for Christmas? Never forget, Christmas is not your birthday.  

Perfect Balance

On February 24, 1584, Pope Gregory VIII (1105-1187) signed a papal decree that the Christian world would accept the new Gregorian calendar. The motivation behind the Gregorian calendar was the Julian calendar, which assumes that the earth takes 365.25 days to circle the sun. The days are divided into twelve months. The months are divided into weeks and the weeks, days. An extra day is added every four years. We call those years “Leap Year.” According to the Gregorian calendar the new year begins on the first day of January.

The new year is celebrated around the world. Can you name any other holiday that the world, in its entirety, has embraced more than New Years? Did you know Sydney, Australia celebrates the New Year by exploding 80,000 fireworks for an estimated crowd of 1.5 million at the stroke of midnight? In Valparaiso, Chile two million come to see fireworks explode. In England, everyone gathers at the London Eye to watch fireworks as Big Ben strikes midnight. In New York City, a crystal ball is dropped in a one-minute countdown in Times Square. In Rio de Janeiro two million people gather on the famous Copacabana Beach to watch a fifteen-minute fireworks display. Edinburgh, Scotland hosts the world’s largest Hogmanay events to celebrate the New Year. It lasts four days. Finally, in Central America New Year’s events are scheduled throughout the entire month of January. Can I ask you a simple question?

Why do so many people get excited about New Years? The world does not celebrate any other day on the calendar like New Year’s Day. Why January 1? Just think about it. There is nothing special about March 1. We barely notice it. No one cares about August 1. The world does not notice the coming of November 1. December 1 is lost in the Christmas season. What is it that makes January 1 so special? Why do so many people get excited about a New Year? If you surveyed the worldwide crowd, then you would discover there are several reasons why people celebrate the New Year.

Some celebrate the New Year because they will celebrate anything. This group is always ready to party. It really doesn’t matter the event. They are the same people who pretend to be Irish and celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. They are the same people who pretend to have Mexican roots and celebrate Cinco De Mayo. They are the same group that celebrates Thirsty Thursday. For this group any reason is a good reason to party, so why not celebrate New Year’s Day? Some celebrate the New Year because they will celebrate anything. Are you in this group?

Some celebrate the New Year because they are glad to see the old year end. For many, 2022 was a difficult year. It was the year you lost your job. It was the year you lost a loved one. It was the year you lost your good health. It was just a bad year, so you are glad to see it go. It is my experience every year was filled with both the good and the bad. For example, in 2021, my daughter got married and I had major surgery. Perhaps, it is just human nature, but I reflex more on the hardships of that year. Some celebrate the New Year because they are glad to see the old year end. Are you in this group?

Some celebrate the New Year because they need a new start. I am in this group. Do you feel like you need a brand-new start? I have not owned a paper calendar for years, but my wife does. Annually, she will walk in the door and show me the new calendar. Her old calendar is faded and warn but your new calendar is clear and crisp. Each day is empty and filled with possibilities. What do you want to do in 2023? What do you want to do better in 2023? We make New Year’s resolutions because we know we can do better. We know we can do better physically, so we are going to exercise and lose weight. We can do better intellectually, so we are read more and watch less television. We know we can do better with our relationships, so we are going to more time with our loved ones. We know we can do better spiritually, so we are going to spend more time with God. There is no better time to improve yourself then right now. That takes us to our scripture reading.

We are instructed today from the first nine verses from third chapter of Ecclesiastes. It was written by King Solomon. He will always be remembered as a man of wisdom. Some have questioned that because he had 700 wives. (One is enough for me!) He reminds us to live life in balance. It is true in every aspect of your life, including your spiritual life. You cannot just live alone. You must live your life with God. Solomon understood, individuals who live their lives without God are fools. Afterall, our time in this world is very short. So, this is the question.

Is your spiritual life in balance? In Matthew 4:4, Jesus quotes, Deuteronomy 8:3. It says, Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Our world has a surplus of people who are living spiritually out of balance. There is a time to do the things of this world and a time to do the things of God. How much time do you spend doing secular things? (Working, paying bills, cleaning the house) How much time do you spend with God? (Worship, devotion, prayer) King Solomon believed mankind is basically blind to God’s ways. We spend our days chasing after things that really don’t matter. How many meaningless things are going to fill your calendar in 2023? How much time are you going to give God this year?

Today, my goal is to help you live more spiritually balanced lives. I am going to do that by doing two things. First, I am going to remind you of something you must never forget. Second, I am going to challenge you to do something that maybe unique to you. Remember, our goal is to live spiritually balanced lives. There is a time for the things of this world and there is a time for God.

First, if you want to live a spiritual balanced life then I want to remind you that you are a child of God. That is easy to forget in our world. We are so busy running around; we are so busy dealing with life’s problems and challenges. Never forget, you belong to God. The Westminster Confession of Faith says, “The purpose of life is to glorify God.” In Romans 14:8 Paul says, “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” Never forget that you are a child of God. Is the way that you live bringing glory to God?

On September 3, 1967, the old television game show “What’s My Line?” went off the air. It had been a staple on CBS for seventeen years, airing 867 episodes. Do you remember What’ s My Line? If you do, then you have been watching television for fifty-five years! Do you remember how the game was played? What’s My Line was a guessing game. The panel would ask the guest ten “yes” and “no” questions. They were trying to discover their vocation. At the end of the questions the panelists would guess what the guest did for a living. In seventeen years, the country discovered there were many odd vocations and many people who did not stereotypically look like their vocation. So let me ask you the question.

So, what is your line? You can earn money in many ways. You may be a teacher, preacher, librarian, engineer, secretary, or a person of business. Those are ways to earn money, but they are not your primary purpose in life. Your job is only a part that you play in this world. It is how you pay the bills. However, what you really are is a child of God. If you are going to live a balanced life, both secularly and spiritually, then never forget your true purpose, to glorify God. Does your life bring glory to God? Or do you have some work to do?

Second, if you want to live a balanced spiritual life then I challenge you to develop a plan to help you grow spiritually. In other words, I want you to schedule God into your life. I hope you make God a real priority in your life. There should be a time for service and a time for the spiritual disciplines. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) once said, “It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan?” What is your plan to grow spiritually in 2022?

Years ago, I preached through the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. Do you remember his story? He went back to the city of Jerusalem. The city at that point in history laid in ruins. Nehemiah dreamed of building a wall around the city so he could rebuild it. Along the way we learned that he was both a visionary and a leader. We learned he was detail oriented. Do you remember? He had a plan. He knew the length of the completed wall. He knew the height of the completed wall. He knew the thickness of the completed wall. Based on those facts he knew the resources he needed to complete the wall. Having a plan does mean you don’t trust God. Having a plan simply means you going to do your best for God.

What is your plan to grow spiritually in 2023? Maybe one of the reasons you aren’t growing in the faith is that you don’t have a plan? How much time are you planning on giving God this year? Are you going to read the Bible more? Are you going to pray more this year? Are you going to mediate more this year? Have you scheduled God into your life, or doesn’t God fit into your plans for this year? What is your plan to grow spiritually in 2023? Let me end with these random facts.

Did you know the first electric light was so dim that a candle was needed to see its socket? Did you know the first steamboat took 32 hours to chug its way from New York to Albany, 150 miles? Did you know Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first airplane flight lasted only 12 seconds? Did you know the first automobiles traveled 2 to 4 miles per hour and broke down often? Carriages would pass them with their passengers shouting, “Get a horse!” What do those stories teach us? They teach us one thing. How you begin really doesn’t matter. What matters more is how you end.

How are going to end 2023? Are you going to be closer to God then you are at this moment? The great wise one, Solomon, said mankind is basically blind to God’s meaning for man’s existence. We spend our days chasing after things that really don’t matter. Life is meant to be lived in perfect balance! Is your life in perfect balance between the secular and the spiritual? Or do you have some work to do. Now is the time to begin.

It’s A Wonderful Life

In my last several blogs I have mentioned the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. The background should sound familiar. It was directed by Frank Capra (1897-1991) and released in 1946. It has become a holiday classic, seen by many. The storyline revolves around George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997). He wants to see the world but is shackled by responsibility to his hometown, Bedford Falls. George doesn’t have a clue the difference he has made to the people in his life. You know the scene.

Absent minded Uncle Billy has lost $8,000 of the Bailey Building and Loan’s money. On cue, the bank examiner shows up and George beings to panic. Without success, George looks everywhere. With his shattered dreams in his hands, he decides to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. He is saved by his guardian angel, angel second class, Clarence Oddbody, played by Henry Travis (1874-1965). He is the one who grants George’s wish. He shows George what his world would be like if he had never been born. The picture is not pretty. His wife, played by Donna Reed (1921-1986), never married so his children were never born. His mother struggles to survive. His brother, Harry, drowns so others he saved during the war also die. Uncle Billy, played by Thomas Mitchell (1892-1962) is institutionalized. His town, Bedford Falls, was run by his enemy, Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954). It is renamed Potterville. Considering, this new information George begins to realize the difference he has made on his world. With nowhere else to go he returns to the bridge. George begins to pray and asks for his old life back. His request is granted. He happily returns home knowing he is going to be arrested. All this sets up the final scene.

When he returns home, he has a new appreciation for his old life. He embraces his children and looks for his wife, Mary. She is the one who saves the day. Mary has told the whole town George is in trouble. They respond by showing up at the Bailey home. Each one brings cash and openly expresses what George means to them. Brother Harry has the line that summarizes the whole movie. He lifts his glass and says, “To George Bailey, the richest man in town!” This is the question I must ask you on this Christmas Eve. How rich are you?

Can you relate to George Bailey? When you were young you had dreams of seeing the world. You longed for fame and fortune. Over the years, your dreams of greatness were replaced by a heavy dose of reality. People became dependent on you and your money was limited. You long to do the right thing, but the right thing seems unclear. One day you woke up and your youth was gone, replaced by disappointments and regret. You watch the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, and you find yourself relating to George Bailey, who failed to see the impact he had on others. How close am I? Your name is not George Bailey, but you are George Bailey? Do you have a few regrets? What part of your life do you take for granted?

In this blog, I want to give you some pastoral advice. I would encourage you to appreciate everything thing about your life. You have been blessed in many ways. You have a good life. Don’t be like George Bailey, who took his good life for granted. Embrace everything about your life. Appreciate your relationships. Appreciate your opportunities. Most of all, appreciate your Savior. It is those three things I want examine in this blog.

Never take your relationships for granted! How would your life change if one of your loved one was suddenly gone? There are people in Idaho who are forced to answer that question. You know the story. In the early hours of November 13, 2022, four University of Idaho students were stabbed to death in their off-campus housing. The murder of still at large and the community of Moscow is in shock. The investigation continues and everyone is hoping to solve the crime. I have found myself praying for the parents of the four slain students. My heart goes out to everyone involved, including the parents. If this story has taught us anything, then it has taught us to appreciate all the relationships in their lives. How are those parents going to celebrate Christmas without their young? How are they ever going to celebrate Christmas again?

We spend Christmas with the most important people in our lives. How would your life change if one of them was suddenly gone? Never take your relationships for granted!

Never take your opportunities for granted! I have always been thankful I was born in America. It is still the land of opportunity. If you can’t make it here, then you can’t make it anywhere. How would your life change if you were forced to live in another country? The answer is a great deal. Years ago, I had to opportunity to travel to Haiti. I was part of a mission team who observed the work of a mission project, who was attempting to reforest part of that nation. That trip changed me. I have never been to a place that had less opportunity, then Haiti. It is only a two-hour flight between Miami and Port-au-Prince. However, it is like I was on two different planets. The contrast was shocking. Did you know Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere? According to Statista, the average Haitian makes $1420 annually. That is $3.90 a day. How do you survive on a $3.90 a day? The Haitian people were great. They were gracious and hard working. Their children pierced my heart. I like to think they have a bright future, but I can’t. They live in a country of no. There is no public school system. There is no postal system because there are no addresses. There is no form of health care. There is no electricity and no clean water to drink. There are no jobs. I really don’t know what happened to all the money after the earthquake in 2010, but I know there is no opportunity in Haiti for a better life.

To my American readers let me ask, have you ever wondered why you were born in the United States of America? Did we win the eternal power ball? You could have been born in Haiti. You could have been born a legless Russian orphan. You could have been born in North Korea. You could have been born in Africa or you could have been born in Syria. You know it is true. America has her issues. We have some work to do. This is not a perfect place, but it is still the land of opportunity. Don’t ever take your American citizenship for granted. Don’t take your relationships for granted! Never take your opportunities for granted!

Never take your take your Savior for granted! How would your life change if Jesus had never been born? This is the good news. Jesus was born. You know the story. A census was taken every fourteen years by the Romans. The population was counted for two reasons. The first was military service. The second was taxation. Every male was required to return to their hometown. Joseph returned to Bethlehem, the House of Bread. It would have taken him ten days to make that eighty miles trip between Nazareth and Bethlehem. You can drive it easily in two hours. In Joseph’s case, it must have taken him longer. He was traveling with a young pregnant woman, Mary. When they finally arrived, they saw nothing but “No Vacancy” signs. They best they can do is accept an offer to sleep in the barn. Surrounded by animals, the baby is born. Everyone is surprised they didn’t name him Joseph. Instead, they name him Jesus. The name is important because it summarizes his entire life. Jesus means “God is Salvation.” You know how the story ends. Thirty-three years later Jesus would be executed. It is upsetting, but it was all part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world. Jesus lived the perfect life, so he was the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. Never take Jesus for granted. Without Jesus, there is no hope of salvation.

When you have Jesus, you have three things. First, when you Jesus you have forgiveness. We are all sinners. Second, when you have Jesus, you have hope. You have hope for a better world and the hope of heaven, itself. Third, when you have Jesus, you have purpose. You are more than a consumer. You are more than some point on some demographic chart. You are a child of God. Never take your Savior for granted.

Are you like George Bailey? Are you taking your life for granted? Are you taking their life for granted? I hope the answer is no! I hope you appreciate everything about your life. I would encourage you to never take your relationships for granted. How would your life change if one of your loved ones was suddenly gone? I would encourage you to never take your opportunities for granted. We live in a great country. America is still a land of opportunity. I would encourage you to never take your Savior for granted. He is our only hope of salvation. The angels said it best: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. May God bless you during this sacred season.

Mary, Jacob, and George

In 1946, Frank Capra (1897-1991) released his movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. It was nominated for five Oscars. It has become a holiday classic, seen by many. The storyline revolves around George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997). He wants to see the world but is shackled by responsibility to his hometown, Bedford Falls. George doesn’t have a clue the difference he has made to the people in his life.

I love the scene where absent-minded Uncle Billy, played by Thomas Mitchell (1892-1962) lost $8,000 of Bailey Building and Loan’s money. That would be like losing approximately $122,000 today. On clue, the bank examiner suddenly arrives, played by Charles Halton (1876-1959) and George begins to panic. Without success, George looks everywhere for the money. With his shattered dreams in his hands, he decides to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. He decides life is not worth living. So, to speak, he is wrestling with God and wished he had never been born.

He is saved by his guardian angel, angel second class, Clarence Oddbody, played by Henry Travers (1874-1965). He is the one who grants George’s wish. He shows George what his world would be like if he had never been born. The picture is not pretty. His wife, Mary, play by Donna Reed (1921-1986), never married so his children were never born. His mother struggles for survival. His brother, Harry, drowns, so others he had saved died. His Uncle Billy was institutionalized. His town, Bedford Falls, was run by his enemy, Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954). It is now called Potterville, where life is dark. Considering this new information, George begins to realize the difference he has made on his world. With nowhere else to go, he returns to the bridge and asks for his old life back. He wants to live again! George is a changed man, and the transformation is complete. The life that seemed so pointless suddenly has meaning. That leads us to two questions. How do you feel about your life? How would your world change if you had never have been born? That takes us to our scripture reading.

We find ourselves in the first chapter of Luke, verses forty-seven through fifty-five. The main character in the scene is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Forget about everything you think you know about her. She was not a blond attractive woman in her mid-twenties. She was a dark complicated Middle Eastern girl between the age of thirteen and sixteen years of age. That was common in her age. Her and Joseph’s marriage was an arranged marriage He may have been thirty. The scriptures tell us they were betrothed. In other words, they were not legally married, but they were legally bound. They acted like they were married in every way but one, sex. That fact is important because Mary was pregnant. Did you hear what I said? Mary was pregnant without the need of a man. Jesus’ birth was a virgin birth. Mary was pregnant, but she was sexually innocent. Read the next line slowly so you comprehend it completely.

The story of Christmas began with an unwanted pregnancy. It is not comfortable, but it is true. Annually, I read this passage and wonder why God put Mary in such a horrible position. Surely, there must have been another way. This pregnancy complicated Mary’s life. On the one hand, it was the best thing that ever happened to Mary. Just think about it for a minute. With all the women that have ever lived in this world, God only chose one to be the mother of his son. As Protestant’s we don’t want to look too Catholic, so we are uncomfortable saying it. We both admire and respect Mary. She completely trusted God. On the other hand, this pregnancy was the worst thing that ever happened to her. Unlike our time, she lived in high moral times. Her personal reputation was ruined, and she was a black sheep in the family. She cried tears of joy at the birth of Jesus; she cried tears of sorrow at his execution. This unwanted pregnancy changed everything. Yet, in the face of all this uncertainty, she trusts and praises God.

Our scripture reading is Mary’s response to this unwanted pregnancy. It has been called the Magnificat, which means “glorifies.” It comes from the first verse of the passage, “My soul glorifies the Lord.” It is a great piece of scripture because it reveals Mary’s faith in God. We do not have that kind of faith. With her eyes fixed on eternity, she surrendered her life to God. We are near sighted and demand our way. This is the question you must answer. How far do you trust God? No one has ever trusted God as much as Mary.

Most of the time we are more like Jacob from the Old Testament. His story is found in Genesis twenty-five through fifty. After a period of living in a foreign land, Jacob returned home. It was not just a matter of personal choice. It was all part of the divine plan. At first, Jacob was open to the idea. He was tired of eating foreign food in a foreign land. He longed for what was comfortable; He longed for what was familiar. With every step he takes, he is closer to home. That was the problem. It was the same life he ran from years earlier. An encounter with his red hairy brother, Esau, was inevitable. It would not be a pleasant reunion. After all, Jacob had taken everything from Esau. Jacob dreaded their reunion. He dreaded their reunion to the point Jacob wrestled with an angel (Genes 32:22-32). Jacob knew their reunion was part of the divine plan, but he resisted. Unlike Mary, he did not trust God. Have you ever wrestled with God? Have you ever known what God wants you to do but you resist. At those moments you are more like Jacob than you care to admit. That is what makes Mary so amazing. She didn’t wrestle with God. She simply surrendered to God’s will. What part of your life are you willing to surrender to God?

How much of your personal agenda are you willing to sacrifice to serve God?

Mary accepted this unwanted pregnancy and surrendered her agenda. Answer this question. What would have happened to Mary if God would have chosen another woman to birth his son? This is the answer. Mary would have done what Mary wanted to do. In other words, she would have made her choices within her society’s expectations. It is safe to say, Mary would have married Joseph and birthed only his children. Mary’s name would not be found within the pages of the Bible. She would have lived a common life. That would have been fine with Mary because that was all she wanted. This unwanted pregnancy changed everything. How has Jesus altered your agenda?

I served the Western Reserve United Methodist Church in Canfield, Ohio for twenty-eight years. It was not a megachurch, but it was a healthy midsize church. My longevity surprised many because Methodists are known for their short-term pastorates. I never dreamed I would stay so long. There was a time when I wanted to move on and serve a large membership church to make a name for myself. However, my life did not unfold that way. Through the years, I played the part of Jacob, wrestling with God. There were years during the appointment season, I wanted that call. However, when the call came, I fought to stay here. There were many days l was frustrated by my own lack of success. Through the world’s eyes, I was not a success, but I live at peace with my career, because God wanted me at Western Reserve. At some point I forgot about my agenda and surrendered to God’s agenda. That took me years to accomplish, but Mary did it in an instant. How much of your personal agenda are you willing to sacrifice to serve God? Mary trusted God and surrender her agenda.

Are you willing to sacrifice your social standing to serve God? Mary accepted this unwanted pregnancy and surrendered her social standing. For the rest of her life, she was identified as the woman who had this child out of wedlock. She was the topic of many gossipy conversations. Her reputation was destroyed, and she was an embarrassment to her family. This unwanted pregnancy changed everything. How has Jesus changed your social standing?

You know it is true. There is a stigma that comes along with being a minister. I cannot count the number of times, I have sat at a table, and someone says, “We better behave! We have a preacher sitting with us!” Everyone laughs, but I just smiled. Do you know how many times I have heard that line? Do you know how sick I am of that line? People just don’t know how cool ministers are. It is not just true of ministers; it is true of Christians. Mentioning Jesus will change the way people look at you. Mary trusted God and accepted this unwanted pregnancy, surrendering her social standing. How important is your social standing?

How much of your money are you willing to sacrifice to serve God? Mary accepted this unwanted pregnancy and surrendered her money. On the night Jesus was born, Mary’s heart was filled with joy. Two years later, Magi appeared from the east to worship him. They brought gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. (Matthew 2:1-12) That was the only financial compensation she would ever receive. Jesus was no different from any other child. With his birth came extra expenses. The Brookings Institute reported it costs $310,605 to raise a child to eighteen years old. That is approximately $17,000 a year. That does not include college expenses. This unwanted pregnancy changed everything. How much is Jesus costing you?

Years ago, I officiated at a wedding in the Cleveland area. After the service, the photographer began taking pictures. I sat in the back and watched. A gentleman came up to me and introduced himself as the groom’s uncle. We began to talk. He pointed out one of the ushers. He was another nephew. He told me about the young man. He was bright and full of potential. He said, “You will never guess what he wants to do with his life?” I just looked at him. I didn’t have a clue. He said, “He wants to be a preacher.” I thought, “That is great!” He said, “What a waste! He could do anything and make big money, but he wants to be a preacher.” That gentleman spoke for many in our society. Money is the driving force for many.

Jesus spoke more about money than any other topic because money is revealing. We only spend our money on things that are important to us. If you are going to follow Jesus, then it is going to cost you. I don’t just mean ministers. I mean true disciples. If you are going to follow Jesus, then how are you going to ignore the financial needs of your church? If you are going to follow Jesus, then how are you going to ignore the needs of your community, country, and world? How much of your money are you willing to sacrifice to serve God? Mary trusted God and sacrificed her money.

That takes us back to the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey stood on the bridge. It was the same bridge he had visited in the past. At that time, he was going to end his life. This time he was praying. He had learned a few things about his life. His life wasn’t pointless. His life had meaning. It was unfolding just as God planned. He surrendered to God and embraced every day. That is what the movie teaches us. Like Mary, we need to trust God and let God be our guide. Evangelical Christian Bruce Wilkinson (born 1940) once said, “Dependence upon God makes heroes of ordinary people like you and me!”

Imperfect Christmas

One of my favorite Christmas movies is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It was released 33 years ago and is a Christmas classic. It seems to be on television nightly. It stars Chevy Chase (born 1943) who plays the part of Clark Griswold. (However, I love Randy Quaid (born 1950), 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. The squirrel gets in the house. The cat gets electrocuted. It is a fun movie to watch. How many times have you seen Christmas Vacation?

Do you know why we love Christmas Vacation? The reason is every December we play the part of Clark Griswold. We do our best to give our family the perfect old fashion Christmas. The problem is we live in an imperfect world. Something always seems to go wrong. We should not be surprised because we live in an imperfect world. It has always been that way. That takes us to our scripture lesson.

We find ourselves in the first chapter of Luke, verses twenty-six through forty-three. The main character is Mary. She was the one God chose to be the mother of Jesus. She is in a difficult position. 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. She is not a mature woman in her twenties. She was a teenager, who is going through an incredibly difficult time. Her life is far from perfect. 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. There are three divine truths in her story.

First, Mary reminds 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. Never forget, it all began with an unwanted pregnancy. Mary was in a difficult situation. In a time that valued morals, Mary was an unwed pregnant teenager. Joseph was in a difficult situation. There was no right answer. On the one hand, he had 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. 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 led to the death of two-year-old baby boys and younger. How many mothers blamed them for their son’s death? Outside of the nativity, 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. Do I have to go on? Their lives were hard.

For many, still today, life is hard. How perfect is your Christmas going to be this year? Maybe your perfect Christmas is not impossible because you are grieving? The loss of a loved one is never easy. Maybe your 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 your 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 your 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? 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 reminds 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 was 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 reminds 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? Life is hard. Sometimes we need others. We always need God.

This will be an odd Christmas for me. For four decades I led worship on Christmas Eve but not this year. I will not miss it, but I do have fond memories. Looking back, I enjoyed spending Christmas Eve at church. For years, I led three services on Christmas Eve. Can I be honest with you? There was a time when I ruined Christmas for myself because I was looking for the perfect Christmas Eve worship experience. My attitude about Christmas changed in a single moment. It happened during a 7:00 Christmas Eve service, the largest of the three. We were just about to take up the Christmas offering.The ushers came forward and I passed out the offering plate. Without warning, one of the ushers dropped the plate and it hit the prayer rail. It sounded like cymbals crashing. I was frustrated because I was striving for perfection. 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!”

This is the good news for today! I am not going to give you a kiss, but I am going to remind you it is Christmas. There is no such thing as the perfect Christmas, because from the very beginning it was imperfect. It all began with an unwanted pregnancy. Never forget, Christmas is not about you. Christmas is not about your family or loved ones. Christmas is about Jesus, who came to save this imperfect world. It only comes once a year. Enjoy it. David Jeremiah (born 1941) once said, “All the Christmas presents in the world are worth nothing without the presence of Christ.”

Mr. Potter’s World

In 1946, Frank Capra (1893-1991) released the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Made for approximately $3 million dollars, he both produced and directed the film. It was. The storyline revolves around George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997). He wants to see the world but is shackled by responsibility to his hometown, Bedford Falls. Today, it is one of the most loved movies in America. It is a Christmas classic that is viewed annually by many. I have watched it countless times. How many times have you watched It’s a Wonderful Life?

I love the scene in the movie when Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954), offers George a job. For years, Potter has frustrated the people of Bedford Falls for personal gain. He is the perfect villain. The scene begins with Mr. Potter offering George some thinly veiled complements. George is a young man with high potential. The only logical thing to do is increase his income by going to work for Potter. At first, George is tempted by the offer. Then, he shakes Potter’s hand and everything changes. George begins to consider the consequences of his new position. With strong words for Potter, George races out of the office. You can feel his frustration. In just a few seconds, George goes from living on the mountaintop to living in the valley. In other words, he goes from living with hope to living without hope. In the end, he does what is best for others. Have you ever felt like George Bailey? At one time you had hope, but now your hopes are dead. They died from a terminal case of responsibility.

The reason It’s a Wonderful Life is so popular is we can relate to George Bailey. We live in a Mr. Potter world, and we all play the part of George Bailey. We are trying to stay hopeful about the future, but it is hard. The news is filled with nothing but hopelessness. The theme of every story depressing. The word that is used repeatedly is strife. There is strife between the political parties. There is strife between ethnic factions and strife among nations. There is strife between the economic classes. Our world is filled with strife and hopeless, hunger, pollution, and violence. Crime seems to be spreading to every community, so our prisons are filled. Our hospitals are filled with both the physically and mentally ill. How many people do you know are addicted to drugs or alcohol? Third World Nations are hopelessly in debt to the world banks. There seems to be a shortage of hope. Hopelessness has permeated our society. The by-product of our hopeless world is negative people. How many negative people do you know? The Dalai Lama (born 1935) once said, “I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus on the brightness. I do not judge the universe.”

Maybe that is why we love Christmas? To the believer, Christmas is more than decorations, gifts, cards, and parties. It is more than community spirit, volunteerism, and family. Christmas is about the incarnation of God. American historian Kenneth Scott Latourette (1884-1968) once said, “The primary source of the appeal of Christianity is Jesus – His incarnation, His life, His crucifixion, and His Resurrection.” Without Jesus, we would be living in a hopeless Mr. Potter world. Jesus changed everything and still offers the world hope. In the blog, I want to talk about the three forms of hope Jesus offers.

In Mr. Potter’s world there is only loneliness. Since the birth of Jesus, the world has the opportunity of having a companionship with God. Jesus was more than a baby. Jesus was the incarnation of God. He left the perfection of heaven and entered our imperfect world. He left the perfection of heaven to slum it with people like us. The question that has haunted the generations is, “Why?” This is the answer. God loves us and wants to relate to the human condition. There has never been a moment in your life when you were alone. God is always present. Jesus came to offer us companionship.

In 2012, America’s northeast was hit by Hurricane Sandy. It was a category three hurricane. For years, homes and community stood in that area. In a matter of a few hours everything was destroyed. It took years to rebuild those homes and communities. Many from around the country went to the New York City area to help. Some that needed help were firefighters who went to New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the gulf coast in 2005. Some of the New Orleans firefighters traveled to the north to lend a hand and return the favor. They interviewed one of the men. He said there is a bond among fire fighters around the country. According to him, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy forged a special bond between the firefighters of New York and New Orleans. One New York fire fighter simply said, “It’s nice to know we are not alone.”  We are not alone. Jesus came to offer us companionship.

In Mr. Potter’s world there is ignorance. Since the birth of Jesus, the world can live in wisdom. In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey struggled financially, but he was a rich man when it came to relationships. The same thing can be said about Jesus. When it came to personal finances, Jesus was a failure. He only owned the clothes on his back and traveled within a small geographic area. However, when it came to relationships, he was successful. Jesus showed us how to live. The wise know the key to happiness in life comes from our relationships. How rich are you?

During my time in the ministry, I would take the summer months and look at a single Old Testament character. One summer we looked at Ruth. She was the great-grandmother to King David. Do you remember her story? There was a great famine in the land of Judah, and many were forced out of their homes. One man who was forced to leave was named Elimelech. He was married to a woman named Naomi. They had two sons. The four of them settled in Moab. It was only natural that the sons married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. You can’t blame them. You know what they say about Moabite women! In time, all the males in the story die so the women are forced to live alone. Women had no rights in those days. They had nothing, so Naomi encourages her daughters-in-law to return home. Orpah does and says, “Goodbye.” However, Ruth remains devoted to Naomi. She does not stay with her for some legalistic reason. She stays out of love. This Old Testament character teachers us a New Testament principle. The most valuable thing in our lives is our relationships. Jesus came to offer us companionship. Jesus came to offer us wisdom.

In a Mr. Potter’s world there is discord. Since the birth of Jesus, we can at peace with God. I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior in December 1974. The one emotion I felt that day was peace. Since that time, I have lived at peace with God and no longer fear death. The apostle Paul said it best in Romans 5:1, “Since we have been justified by faith, we live at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”. 

In 1555, Nicholas Ridley (1500-1555) was the Bishop of London. He was burned at the stake because for his faith. On the night before his execution, his brother offered to remain with him in the prison chamber. Nicholas declined the offer. He wanted to go to bed early because he wanted a good night’s rest. He said, “Tomorrow, I am going to meet my Savior.” Those words reveal the truth. He was completely comfortable with his death and completely at peace with God. How at peace are you with God? How did you sleep last night? Jesus came to offer us companionship. Jesus came to offer us wisdom. Jesus came to offer us peace.

Christmas is just a few weeks away. This will be the first year in forty years, I will not be leading worship on Christmas Eve. It is an odd feeling. In the past, I led as many as three worship services on Christmas Eve, but the one I enjoyed the most was the last one, the 11:00 Christmas Eve candlelight service. I looked forward to it annually. The crowds were gone, and I could relax. I was comfortable with my message because I had already preached it twice. I just listened to the words of the sacred texts, the second chapter of Luke and the first chapter of John. I have heard those words our entire life. Every time those words move me. I am so humbled God entered this world.

Between now and Christmas, I would challenge you to simply read the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth. The Christmas narrative is so large it can’t be described by one author. Each one of the writers handles it in this own way. For some reason, Mark does not even mention the birth of Jesus. He is silent on the topic. John looks at the birth of Jesus in a logical way. You remember the verse. John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was God.” Luke, the common man’s Gospel, tries to include the actions of that sacred night, including common people. He tells us about the no vacancy sign at the inn. He tells us about the manger. He tells us about the shepherds and the angels. Matthew, the Jewish Gospel, tells us about Jesus’ genealogy, the coming of the Magi and the Holy families escape to Egypt. There are so many parts to the story, so you must read all four Gospels, so you get the whole picture.

Don’t read them to preach it or teach it. Read the words for the edification of your own soul. I guarantee they will move you because your soul will be enriched. Be thankful you don’t life in Mr. Potter’s hopeless world. Be thankful you live in a hopeful world dominated by Jesus Christ. Christmas reminds us of our divine companionship. Christmas reminds us to value our relationships. Christmas reminds us of our divine peace. Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) once said, “Christmas is not a time or a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.”

It’s A Secret

History tells us Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) was a polar explorer. Once while on a South Pole expedition, he left a few men on Elephant Island, promising that he would return. Later, when he tried to go back, huge icebergs blocked the way. But suddenly, as if by a miracle, an avenue opened in the ice and Shackleton was able to get through. His men, ready and waiting, quickly scrambled aboard. No sooner had the ship cleared the island than the ice crashed together behind them. Contemplating their narrow escape, the explorer said to his men, “It was fortunate you were all packed and ready to go!” They replied, “We never gave up hope. Whenever the sea was clear of ice, we rolled up our sleeping bags and reminded each other, ‘The boss may come today.'” If you can understand that simple story, then you can understand this simple blog.

Did you know there are approximately 211 million websites on the second coming of Christ? I haven’t looked at each one, but they cover a wide range of opinions. Few topics are more controversial then the second coming of Christ. If you don’t believe me then bring it up among your friends. Generally, people divide themselves into three groups. Which one of these groups do you belong?

The first group believes Christ will never return. They are the same group that dismisses the resurrection of Jesus. They dismiss the second coming because they believe it is nothing more than an old wives’ tale. In their opinion, it resonates with an uneducated portion of our society, but it has nothing to offer to our sophisticated educated world. It is like the stories of the Paul Bunyan or the Tooth Fairy. It is just a tale to be told. Do you know of anyone who dismisses the second coming of Christ?

The second group believes Christ has already returned. These people are found in the academic world. For them, the second coming has to do with having a clear understanding of the trinity. Remember, God is father, son, and Holy Spirit. They believe Christ returned during that great day of Pentecost in the form of the Holy Spirit. You remember the story. The Holy Spirit swept through the world without warning. The believers and the non-believers were divided. The believers were touched by the divine power and were united with God. They formed this new organization called the church and began to spread the Good News. The non-believers, on the other hand, remained untouched. Do you know of anyone who believes the second coming has already occurred?

The third group is still waiting for Jesus to come. Regularly, they study the signs of the end that are scattered throughout the Bible. Some believe there are as many as 26 different signs of the end. For them, every current event signals our demise. Every war, famine or earthquake is a sign of the apocalypse. The problem is our world is filled with so many wars, famines, and earthquakes. It is like trying to read a street sign through a thick fog. There is something there, but you can’t make it out. Can anyone read the signs? People have been trying to make out the signs for a long time.

In the nineteenth century there was a Baptist evangelist by the name of William Miller (1782-1849). He studied the signs and believed that Jesus would return on April 3, 1843. All over the Northeast, half million of his followers called Adventists, waited for that day. Journalists had a field day. Reportedly some disciples were on mountaintops, hoping for a head start to heaven. Others were in graveyards, planning to ascend in union with their departed loved ones. Some high society ladies clustered together outside of Philadelphia to avoid entering God’s holy kingdom amid the common herd. You know what happened. April 3, 1843, came and went. Jesus didn’t return and time moved forward. What do you believe about the second coming of Christ? I believe someday Jesus will return. However, I don’t worry about the signs. I just trust Jesus.

We find ourselves in the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew, verses 36-44. The topic is the second coming of Christ. I would encourage you to put all your opinions aside and just listen to Jesus. The Master said his second coming is the greatest secret in the history of the world. Verse 36 says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If there is one verse that everyone should memorize about the second coming it is that one. Only God knows when Jesus will return. Hollywood does not know when Jesus will return. The History Channel does not know when Jesus will return. That strange person in your life, who is always looking for signs of the end, does not know when Jesus will return. The Bible says nothing about the Mayan calendar or Rasputin (1869-1916). However, the Bible does say the second coming is a secret. The Bible does say Jesus will come without warning.

In this blog, I want to talk about the secret. This great secret is the ultimate challenge because it means you must always be prepared. If Jesus returns today, are you ready, or do you have some work to do? Do you need some self-improvement? Are there things you would still like to do? Are there things you would still like to accomplish? Are all your relationships healthy? Is your relationship with God healthy? Are you ready to die? Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior? I would encourage you to fix these things now. After all, Jesus could return at any time.

Years ago, I watched the History Channel’s series, The Men Who Built America. In the series they examined the lives of John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), Henry Ford (1863-1947), and J. P. Morgan (1837-1913). Each story was fascinating, but it was Henry Ford’s life that really caught my attention. Did you know Henry Ford was born on a farm outside of Detroit? It was his father’s dream for Henry to take over the farm, but he had different ideas. At the age of 16, Henry left the farm and began as a machinist apprentice. Then he went to work for the Edison Illuminating Company. In time, he was their chief engineer. The whole time he was working he was saving his money so he could pursue his real dream, developing a car the common man could afford. He and a partner founded the Ford Motor Company with this in mind. When he introduced the assembly line to his plant, his dream became a reality. The Model T became an instant success. Did you know half of all cars on American roads in 1918 were made by Ford? I think his story is fascinating on many levels. However, what I admire most about Ford is that his dream became a reality. Have all your dreams reached reality?

If Jesus were to return today, what regrets do you have personally? What dreams do you still have that haunt you daily? The return of Christ signals the end. It means the end of my personal aspirations. What do you still want to do with your life? What books would you still like to read? What places do you still want to travel? What hobbies do you still want to explore? What causes do you still want to aid? What people do you still want to meet? The second coming of Christ signals the end! However, he still hasn’t come so you still have time to live out your personal dreams.

One of my favorite Christmas movies is Frank Capra’s (1897-1991) It’s a Wonderful Life. If you are like me then you have seen it countless times. You know the storyline. George Bailey is a young man with dreams. He wants to see the world, but his responsibilities keep getting in the way. He is trapped in his hometown of Bedford Falls and shackled to the family business, the Bailey Building and Loan. He is living a disillusioned life when matters get worse. The bank examiner comes to town and discovers the business is short $8000! You must factor inflation into the story! That would be like losing $123,000 today. George looks everywhere for the money, but he can’t find it. Then the unexpected happens. The people, who George had known and helped for years, step forward and give him the needed funds. He wasn’t the richest man in town because he had money. He was the richest man in town because of his relationships.

If Jesus would return today, what regrets do you have socially? Is there anyone in your life you have spoken to in years? Is there anyone in your life who doesn’t deserve a second chance? Is there anyone in your life you hate? Is there anyone in your life you don’t trust? George Bailey was guilty of not believing in the people in his life. How guilty are you of selling the people in your life short? What joys are you withholding from yourself because you have cut someone out of our life? The second coming of Christ signals the end! However, he hasn’t come yet, so you still have time improve your relationships.

According to a 2011 Ipsos Research Institute study, 51% of the world’s population believes in the existence of God. They surveyed 18,000 people from 23 different countries. I don’t know if that fact makes me feel better or worse. That is one of those facts that really doesn’t matter. Believing is the existence of God is not enough. Even Satan believes in the existence of God, and he is not going to heaven. Believing in the historical Jesus doesn’t really matter. The only thing that really matters is that you have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior. If you have accepted Jesus, then you go to heaven. If you haven’t accepted Jesus, then you go to hell. If Jesus would return today, what regrets do you have spiritually? In other words, do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior? The second coming of Christ signals the end! However, he hasn’t come yet so you still have time to accept Jesus. You still have time to grab that ticket that leads to eternal life.

At the height of World War II, Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer (1906-1945) was imprisoned for taking a stand against Adolph Hitler (1889-1945). Yet, he continued to urge fellow believers to resist Nazi tyranny. A group of Christians, believing that Hitler was the Antichrist, asked Bonheoffer, “Why do you expose yourself to all this danger? Jesus will return any day, and all your work and suffering will be for nothing.” Bonheoffer 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.” It is not just the story of Dietrich Bonheoffer, it is our story as well.

Someday Christ will return! The question that has haunted the ages is, “When?” It is the greatest secret in the history of the world. Only God knows the answer. The angels in heaven do not know the answer. The Son does not know the answer. The entertainment world does not know the answer. Pastors and evangelists do not know the answer. Only God knows the answer. However, we do know the second coming of Christ signals the end. However, he has not come yet so you still have time to make some improvements. You still have time to live out your personal dreams. You still have time to fix those broken relationships. You still have time to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) once said, “A Christian is not one who never goes wrong, but one who is enabled to repent and begin over again after each stumble—because of the inner working of Christ.”

What Is Thanksgiving?

We find ourselves in the seventeenth chapter of Luke, verses eleven through seventeen. According to the text, Jesus is traveling toward Jerusalem. Chronologically, the end is near. This is chapter seventeen; Luke’s version of the Palm Sunday experience is recorded in chapter nineteen. Geographically, the Master is traveling between the border of Samaria and Galilee. As he travels, he encounters various people.

On that list of people are 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 world approximately 140,000 cases are reported annually, according to Statista. In the United States approximated 100 cases are reported annually. However, today it is treatable. In the days of Jesus, it was not. In Jesus’s 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. Then, they hear the news that gave them hope. Jesus was coming! They have heard of his healing power. He is their only chance, so they want to run to Jesus. However, they can’t. 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 hears their desperate voices, but he heals them. Jesus instructs them to go to a priest for inspection. That fact is important because priests had the authority to grant them permission to re-enter society. This is the fact you can’t overlook. In the story, all ten men were healed, but only one man returned to Jesus to say, “Thank-you!” That fact is disappointing, but it is not shocking. It is not just true of Jesus’s time. Ingratitude is still part of our world. American motivational speaker and author, William Arthur Ward (1921-1994) once said, Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.Never underestimate the power of gratitude!

There are many ways to express gratitude. I came up with a list of ten ways you can express gratitude. My list is not complete. You can express gratitude in other ways. However, you may have used one of these. You can:

          1. Write a thank-you note

          2. Buy a gift card

          3. Donate to a charity or a church

          4. Write a song or poem

          5. Donate food to a food bank

          6. Make and take a meal to a shut in

          7. Give a hug

          8. Preform some random act of kindness

          9. Send flowers

          10. Pray for the person

How do you express gratitude? It really doesn’t matter how you express gratitude. Doing nothing to express appreciation is not an option. That is what makes the nine lepers so shocking. I like to think, they did something. Perhaps, one of the nine ungrateful lepers wrote Jesus a poem?

Thanksgiving in America this year is Thursday, November 24! That means it is close. So, in this blog, I want to help you discover the true spirit of gratitude. I hope to do that by asking you the question, what is Thanksgiving? I will give you three answers. Each one is correct.

First, Thanksgiving is a holiday. Did you know Thanksgiving in America did not become a national holiday until 1941? However, Americans have been observing a day of thanksgiving for generations. Historians tell us the first recorded thanksgiving took place in Jamestown, Virginia. The winter of 1610 was harsh in Jamestown. Many settlers died. The group that once totaled 409 had been reduced to 60. Tradition tells us the survivors prayed for help, without knowing when or how it might come. When help arrived, in the form of a ship filled with food and supplies from England, a prayer meeting was held to give thanks to God. There is no mention of a feast. Maybe that is why it is not the famous Thanksgiving?

The famous Thanksgiving happened in 1621. Do you remember the story? The Pilgrims left Southampton, England in 1620. They wanted religious freedom. There was trouble from the start. As they sailed around the south tip of the British Isles one of the ships, the Speedway, was ruled unseaworthy. The two ships stopped and some of the Pilgrims went home. However, some of the Speedway’s passengers boarded the second ship, the Mayflower. History tells us the trip took longer than the estimated 66 days because the ship was heavier. They had navigation problems Too. They wanted to go to Virginia, but they arrived in New England. It was November and the weather was growing harsh. There was no time to build permanent shelters, so they survived that first winter in North America in crude temporary housing and on the Mayflower. In time, disease came, and the death toll began to rise. Only 51 of the original 102 saw the spring. The dead were buried in unmarked graves so the local natives would not know how small their numbers had grown. When the spring came, they were forced to make a painful choice. The Mayflower was a rented ship and had to return to England. Would they stay in America or return to England? The decided to stay and their luck began to change. Friendly Native Americans helped them plant 30 acres of wheat and build permanent shelters. By the fall of 1621, their homes were built, and their crops were harvested. They decided to observe a day of thanksgiving to thank God for his blessings. Part of that celebration was a feast. The story doesn’t end there.

One hundred and sixty-two years after the Pilgrims, George Washington (1732-1799) declared a Thanksgiving Day in 1783. The reason was simple. The Revolution was over, and America was free.  Eighty years later, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) proclaimed the last Thursday in November 1863, as “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.” Each year afterward, for 75 years, the President formally proclaimed that Thanksgiving Day should be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. But in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) set it one week earlier. He wanted to help the struggling economy by lengthening the shopping season. There were five Thursdays that year. In 1941, Congress declared the fourth Thursday of November a national holiday, Thanksgiving! What is Thanksgiving? It is a holiday!

Second, Thanksgiving is an opportunity. Go back to the scripture lesson. The one who came back to thank Jesus seized the opportunity. The other nine missed their opportunity. They may have returned later to thank Jesus, but he was gone. They missed their opportunity. On Thanksgiving Day, you will be surrounded by the most important people in your life. Don’t be a coward; be brave! Tell them how you really feel. Thanksgiving is an opportunity.

Do you remember the story of the rich young ruler? Matthew, Mark and Luke have their own versions of the same story. If you put them together then you get the complete picture. He had it all! He was rich so he could buy what he wanted. He was young so he had his health and a future. He was a ruler, so he had influence. He had everything but he didn’t have the most important thing, salvation. So, he asked the Master, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked him if he had kept all the commandments that have to do with relationships. Had he never murdered, committed adultery, stolen, or offered false witness? He honored his parents. He kept those commandments. Then Jesus commands him to do something he could not do, sell his possessions, and give the profits to the poor. It is not a command of poverty. It is a question of priority. Jesus is saying God must be your top priority. The man left feeling bad for two reasons. First, he had to admit God wasn’t his top priority. Second, he felt like he missed his one opportunity at salvation.

I hope you don’t miss your opportunity! On Thanksgiving seize the opportunity to tell the people in your life how you really feel. Tell the oldest people in your life you love them. Tell the youngest people in your life you are proud of them. Tell that difficult person in your life you are sorry. Build a relationship with them one more time. Seize the opportunity that Thanksgiving presents. What is Thanksgiving? It is a holiday and an opportunity.

Third and finally, Thanksgiving is an attitude. The man in the story returned to Jesus in a spirit of gratitude. Verse 16 says he threw himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He demonstrated his appreciation. His attitude toward Jesus completes the story. Your attitude can make or break any situation. Do you have anyone in your life who can ruin happy gathering with a bad attitude? What is Thanksgiving? It is a holiday, an opportunity and an attitude.

My father-in-law’s name was Vern. We had a good relationship. So, I feel comfortable saying this. He would admit he had a bad attitude. He loved his bad attitude. He was a salty old guy, critical and negative. During the last several years of his life, he lived at Copeland Oaks in Sebring, Ohio with my mother-in-law. It is a wonderful place, but Vern was always so negative. I regularly made those trips to visit them. Every visit was the same. Vern complained about everything; only the topic changed.

One day he started on Copeland Oaks. He complained about the noise in the hallways because everyone was deaf. He complained about the food. Everything was tasteless and the deserts were too small. He complained about the gardening program. The residents were like slave labor. They grew the vegetables, but Copeland Oaks used them for their own purposes. He complained about the building. It was falling apart. One day, the elevator broke, and group of old goats were trapped in the elevator with a woman from the kitchen. He described her as ugly and smelly, wearing a hair net. That was Vern’s normal routine. He could ruin any happy experience with his bad attitude. However, that day was different. I really listened to him and began to wonder about Copeland Oaks. I had parishioners who lived at Copeland Oaks; I have referred people to Copeland Oaks.

I decided to check Vern’s story out by visiting a family friend, who also lived at Copeland Oaks. I had known Earl for years; he worked with my father. When I got to his apartment, he greeted me with a big smile. He gave me a big hug. I asked him, “How is life at Copeland Oaks?” He said, “It is great! I only regret is not moving here sooner.” I said, “Do you find the hallways noisy?” He said, “No! I love to hear people laughing and enjoying themselves.” I asked, “How is the food?” He said, “Look at me; I am getting fat!” I said, “I hear some of the residents have a garden.” He said, “I am a gardener. It is great! We sell the crops and give the money to various missions.” He began to pick up steam and started to tell me all the wonderful things about Copeland Oaks. I looked at my watch. It was growing late, and I had to get back. I said, “Earl, it was great to see you, but I must go. He said, “Let me tell one thing. The other day I was in the elevator with some of the guys. It stopped between floors. We were squeezed into the elevator with one of young ladies, who works in the kitchen. She is quite a looker! Her name is Debbie. She was pressed up against me!” He said, “Russ, I haven’t been that close to a young hot woman in long time. It was great! I think my heart went out of rhyme. The only problem is they fixed the elevator too fast. I could have stood there with Debbie pressed up against me for a lot longer! I like the name Debbie!”

How can it be that two people can have the same experience and experience two different things? The answer is one word, attitude! Are you going to ruin your Thanksgiving with a bad attitude? Are you going to ruin someone else’s Thanksgiving with your bad attitude? This is a better question. Do the people in your life find you exhilarating or exhausting?

What is Thanksgiving? First, Thanksgiving is a holiday. We have been celebrating Thanksgiving for over 400 years! Second, Thanksgiving is an opportunity. Don’t miss your opportunity to express your feelings about the people in your life. Don’t be a coward. Don’t miss your opportunity to say, “I am sorry.” Don’t miss your opportunity to say, “I am proud of you.” Don’t miss your opportunity to say, “I love you!” Third and finally, Thanksgiving is an attitude. Do the people in your life find you exhilarating or exhausting? What makes them happier? Are they happier when you come or are they happier when you go? There is an old Estonian Proverb you may want to remember on Thanksgiving. Who does not thank for little will not thank for much.