I Am the Good Shepherd

We find ourselves in the tenth chapter of John. The author is not specific about the crowd. Jesus’ words were meant for the general public. Jesus addresses a topic that is familiar to the crowd, a sheep pen. At that time, it was a court surrounded by steep walls open to the sky. The only easy way into the pen, or out of the pen, was through a common gate. Only thieves would attempt to enter through the steep walls. Inside of the pen, the sheep found security and rest. Their predators were outside of the pen. Outside of the pen, they experienced the pastures and enjoyment. Generally, the sheep lived their lives running in and out of the pen. The only way in, and out, of the pen was through the gate. Rob Fuquay in his book, The God We Can Know: Exploring the “I Am” Sayings of Jesus, says we are much like the sheep. We spend our lives running from the familiar and comfortable to the unknown and the exciting. I think he is right. Have you ever sat at home dreaming of your next vacation, only to miss home after a few days away on vacation? This is the key line:

The only one who controlled the gate of the sheep pen was the shepherd. He protected the sheep inside of the pen and watched them outside of the pen. Do you see the connection between this Gospel reading and our lives? Jesus creates two “I Am” sayings from this one tranquil scene. Jesus said at one point, “I am the gate”. Later, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” Good shepherds cared about their sheep, because they loved their sheep. Unlike the hired hand who ran away when danger came, the good shepherd was not afraid to lay down his life. What is Jesus trying to say? Jesus is saying, he loves us. He was not afraid to lay down his life for us sheep. Can I state the obvious?

Love is a complex topic. In the English language we have one word for love: love! I have mentioned this in the past. We use the same word, love, to express our feelings for a variety of things and relationships. We love America. We love pizza. We love warm weather. We love our favorite song. We love our mothers. That means we use the same word to express our feelings for our mothers and hot dogs. The English language is sloppy when it comes to the word love. In other languages, there is more than one word to explain different kinds of love.

When I was in school, I studied Biblical Greek. In Biblical Greek there are three words for love. The first word is the word EROS, which gives us the word “erotic”. It is sensual love. It is the kind of love that involves a box of candy, a fistful of flowers, and boxer shorts. The second word is the word PHILIA, which gives us the word “philanthropist” (lover of people). It is a social love. For example, Andrew Carnegie was a philanthropist. He wanted to improve communities, so he gave a fortune to establish libraries in both the United States and Canada. The third word is AGAPE. That is the word that is used in the New Testament for God’s sacrificial love, which we see in Jesus. That is the kind of love Jesus expresses when he says he is the good shepherd. It is this Greek word for love that John uses in John 3:16, for God so loved the world.

James W. Moore (born 1938) is a retired United Methodist pastor. He served in the state of Texas for many years. Many of his sermons have been published. I find some value in them. In one of his sermons, he talks of love. He said John 3:16 holds the key to our understanding of God’s sacrificial love. He may be right. Jesus is the good shepherd, who was willing to lay down his life for his sheep (John 10:11). Never forget it. Jesus is the good shepherd!

John 3:16 tells us, God’s love is wide!  John 3:16 begins: For God so loved the world. In other words, it talks about the width of God’s love. Just think about that phrase for a moment. God loves the world! God’s love is not selective. God loves everyone. He loves all nations. He loves people regardless of their language. He loves all denominations. He loves people, regardless of their salvation systems. He loves the attractive and the not so attractive. He loves the rich and the poor. God loves everyone! How do I know this divine truth? Because, John 3:16 begins, “For God so loved the world.”  That means God even loves you! Jesus is the good shepherd!

John 3:16 tells us, God’s love is deep! John 3:16 continues, …he gave his one and only son. In other words, it talks about the depth of God’s love. God loves us, but he didn’t show up with a fistful of flowers and a box of candy, wearing boxer shorts. He wasn’t interested in a one-night stand. God demonstrated his love for us by entering this world to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. That is what makes Good Friday so bad for Jesus, but so good for us. Jesus, the incarnation of God, died on the cross to atone for your sins. That is a heavy thought. Jesus’ death made eternal life possible for you and me! Never question the depth of God’s love.Jesus is the good shepherd!

John 3:16 tells us, God’s love is powerful! John 3:16 ends,…that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Does anyone here want to go to heaven? If you do, then there is only one option. You must accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. You must believe in Jesus, and your hope of salvation will become a reality. It is the greatest gift you will ever receive. It is too good to be true, but it is true. You can live the rest of your life not worrying about death. It is so liberating. However, it will change you. You will spend the rest of your life trying to find a way to thank God for saving your sin-sick soul. The love of God is powerful. Jesus is the good shepherd!

In the book, Becoming a Whole Person in a Broken World, Ron Lee Davis tells the story of Marie. She was a little girl who had a horrible life. Marie was raised in an abusive home. When she was twelve years old, her parents were drunk, and they began to fight. They began to struggle over a gun. The gun went off, and Marie saw her father shot to death. In every way, Marie shattered, and ended up in a European mental hospital. She lived in a padded cell and acted out in violent ways. The doctors decided to treat her by using something called catharsis. In other words, they were going to let her vent her rage on someone. The nurse who volunteered to be the victim was a woman by the name of Olga. Daily, Olga walked into Marie’s padded cell and was attacked. Marie would kick her. Marie would scream at her. Marie would hit her. Marie spit on her, and Marie scratched her. The scene was ugly. However, after an hour, Marie was exhausted and would sit in the corner of her ceil and cry. It was at that moment Olga completed the treatment. She would go over to Marie and hold her. She would whisper in her ears those little life changing words, “I love you.” Little by little, the message got through. In time, Marie got better. She became a whole person. It may be Marie’s story, but it is the story of all mankind. Like Marie, we need to be reminded we are loved.

Jesus suffered and died so we could live. Isaiah 53:5 says, “He (Jesus) was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”  How can you question God’s love for you? Jesus truly was the good shepherd. C. S. Lewis once said, “Though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not.”

I Am the Light of the World

In the ninth chapter of John, Jesus came upon a man who had been blind since birth. (John 9:1-7) He had only known darkness. He must have been a familiar character. The disciples recognized him, and they knew his story. They asked Jesus the question every generation has asked: Why do good people have to suffer? In their generation, it was a common belief that sin caused suffering. The man was suffering, so who sinned? Did the blind man sin in the womb, causing his suffering? (They believed the unborn could sin.) Or, did the blind man’s parents cause his suffering? They waited for Jesus’s answer, but it never came. Instead, Jesus exposes a bigger issue. Jesus begins to speak of his own Messiahship. The scene is crude. Jesus spat on the ground and made mud from his own saliva. He took that mud and rubbed it into the man’s eyes. (I wouldn’t recommend this practice at home. I am sure it is not endorsed by the American Medical Association.) Then, Jesus instructs the man to go and wash his eyes in a near-by pool. When he did, the man could suddenly see, for the first time in his life. His dark days were over. There are two things you need to know. First, of all the miracles Jesus performed, restoring someone’s sight was the most popular. Second, giving sight to the blind was a sign of Messiahship. In verse five he says it clearly, I am the light of the world. The darkness of this man’s life was relieved by the light of Jesus. Without Jesus, the man would have lived the rest of his life hopeless and in the dark. With Jesus, there is always hope.

In many ways we play the part of the blind man. There is a surplus of darkness in our world. I am not just talking about complex international issues, like North Korea, poverty, or climate change. I am not talking about our complex national problems, like racism, healthcare, or Washington DC. I am talking about the darkness in our personal lives. They remind us of a simple truth. Life is hard! You know it is true. You don’t have to be a minister listening to the hard lives of the people within this church. You have ears; just listen to the sad stories of the people in your life. How many people do you know right now that are dealing with a health problem? It isn’t just cancer. Every day we seem to be introduced to a new disease and condition. Sometimes there is a cure and sometimes there is not. Sometimes our health problems lead to financial problems. The number one reason people declare bankruptcy is unpaid medical bills. How many people do you know who are struggling with their personal finances? There just doesn’t seem to be enough money. How many people do you know who are struggling with a broken relationship? Your brother lives a mile away, but you feel a million miles apart. You haven’t spoken to him in years. How many lonely people do you know? I could go on, but I won’t. You get the point. Life is hard! In many ways we are like the blind man sitting on the side of the road with dead eyes. We are living in the dark with no hope of relief. When Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” we listen because we are tired of living in the dark without hope.

It was last Saturday night. I came back to the church to lock up. The birthday party for the one-year-old was over, and the family was finished cleaning up. For a few minutes, I stood in the fellowship hall and talked to the family. They were both excited and tired. When the moment came to say good-bye, the mother walked to the light switch and said, “Russ, do you want me to turn the lights off?” I said, “Sure!” The baby’s grandmother said, “Russ has been here so long he can find his way in the dark.” When the lights went off, they left, and I maneuvered in the dark. I headed to the kitchen. When I got to the kitchen, I made a right hand turn and headed toward my office. The problem is, I turned too sharp, and I hit my thigh on the counter. I won’t show it to you, but I have a bruise on my thigh. It is not fatal, but I wished I had turned the light on. It is much easier to maneuver in the light!

There is a Christian blog by the name of Unlocking the Bible. It is written by a woman named Kristen Wetherell. On October 14, 2014, she posted an article called Five Reasons You Should have Hope. The five reasons are found in Psalm 130. I would encourage you to claim Psalm 130 the next time you are in a dark place. I think the five reasons have some merit. Each one is enhanced by the light of the world, Jesus. This is the first one.

Always have hope because God hears you! Psalm 130:1-2 says, “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.”  In the seventeenth chapter of Matthew (Matthew 17:14-18) there is another healing story. Jesus healed a boy from violent seizures. The seizures were so violent the boy had fallen into fires and water. What always grabs me about that story is the boy’s father. The man fought through a big crowd to get to Jesus. However, that also means Jesus heard the father through the great crowd. That is important for one reason. Our world is calling out to God for help, but God hears our individual prayers. God can isolate the individual voice in the crowd of desperate voices. Always have hope, because God hears you! Jesus is the light of the world.

Always have hope because God has mercy on you. Psalm 130:3-4 says, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, therefor you are revered.”  In the seventh and eighth chapters of John, there is the story of the adulterous woman (John 7:53-8:11). You know the story. It is early in the morning and Jesus is teaching the people who had gathered. Suddenly, the teachers of the law appeared with a sinner. No one questions the fact she is guilty of adultery. She is alone; there is no mention of her partner. The teachers use the woman to trap Jesus with his own words, but Jesus saw through the scheme. The crowd is ready to stone the woman, but it never happens. The Master reminded the crowd they were all sinners. In the end, it is just Jesus and the woman. Jesus looks at the woman and challenges her to live a better life. Jesus didn’t belittle the woman; he had compassion on the woman. God does not look at your past mistakes, he looks at your future potential. God treats us in our darkest hour with mercy. Always have hope, because God has mercy on you! Jesus is the light of the world.

Always have hope because God speaks to you. Psalm 130:5 says, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word, I put my hope.”  In the sixteenth chapter of Luke, there is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. You know the story. In this world the rich man had everything, and the poor man, Lazarus, had nothing. In death, their roles are reversed. The rich man is in hell and he wants to spare his loved ones the same fate. He suggests Lazarus return to earth to warn them. Abraham refuses and says, they have the Bible and the Bible is enough. We have the Bible and the Bible is enough. In your darkest hour, cling to your Bible. It has a way of satisfying your parched soul. Always have hope because God speaks to you. Jesus is the light of the world.

Always have hope because God will return to you. Psalm 130:6 says, “My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.”  In the fourteenth chapter of John, the disciples are wrestling with the fact that Jesus is going to be leaving them (John 14:1-4). Everyone in every generation hates change. The disciples hated the fact their lives were going to change once Jesus was gone. They were upset and Jesus tried to comfort them. Do you remember what Jesus said to comfort them? Jesus speaks of heaven and tells the disciples that he will return for them. The Second Coming of Christ is one of Jesus’ great promises. Always have hope, because Jesus will return. Jesus is the light of the world.

Always have hope because God will finish the work God began in you. Psalm 130:7-8 says, “O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is unfailing love and with him there is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.”  The twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew is is the home of my favorite parable, the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). It is a judgement parable. People who ignore human suffering will go to hell. People who respond to human suffering will go to heaven. Are you a sheep or a goat? Are you striving to be a better person, or are you content with your present state? It is Wesleyan to the core. Never be satisfied. We are striving for perfection. Always have hope, because God will finish the work God began in you. Just ask the blind man and he will tell you, there is always hope with Jesus, the light of the world.

The other day, I officiated at a funeral for a man named Billy. He did not have a church home, so I was called. Everyone told me he was a great guy. He was just beginning a new chapter in his life. He was sixty-six years old, and he had just retired. He and his wife decided to move to Florida to escape the Ohio winters. They bought a house in the sunshine state and were excited about their new adventure. She went down a few weeks earlier to set up their home. He stayed behind to wrap up some details. When everything was done, he bought a ticket to Florida to reunite with his wife. As he waited for his flight at the Canton-Akron Regional Airport, the unthinkable happened. He had a heart attack and was gone before he hit the floor. When his wife, Holly, got the news, she was shocked and hid in bed for four days. She had excellent vision, but on that day, she was a blind woman, living in darkness. On the night before the funeral, I sat with her next to her husband’s casket. There is no other way to say it. She was a broken person, groping for survival in this dark world. I offered to pray with her, and she accepted. When I was done praying, there was both a smile on her face and tears in her eyes. She wiped away the tears and said to me, “Thank you. Everything is going to be fine. I can do this now.” It wasn’t the words of my prayer that made the difference. It was the light of Jesus. With Jesus, there is always hope.

In the darkest moments in your life, don’t forget the truth. God cares for you. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t wrong. He once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”  Jesus is the light of the world. That is a good thing, because our world can be a dark place.

I Am the Bread of Life

Her real name was Katherine Brosnahan (1962-2018), but the world knew her by her professional name, Kate Spade. She was an American fashion designer and businesswoman. She seemed to have it all. After working in the accessories department at the fashion magazine Mademoiselle, she and her husband, Andy, identified a market for quality handbags in 1993. They began to manufacture handbags to fill that void. Those handbags grew in popularity and became a symbol of sophistication in New York City in the 1990s. Those handbags sold for approximately $500 apiece. How successful was Kate Spade? Her business today is worth $2.4 billion. She seemed to have it all. She was rich and was respected by her peers. That was what made the news so shocking. On June 5, 2018, at the age of 55 years old, Kate Spade committed suicide. She hung herself in her Manhattan apartment. Why would someone with so much to live for take their own life? There is no easy answer, because life can be complex. However, her sad death makes a clear point. There is more to life than the things of this world. Are you chasing after fullness, or are you looking for satisfaction? That question takes us to today’s scripture lesson.

We find ourselves today in the Gospel of John. It was written by the apostle, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” approximately the year 85 AD. Prior to our reading in the sixth chapter, Jesus has fed the five thousand, with five barley loaves and two small fish. It is one of the great miracles in the Bible. How great was the miracle? The story is found in all four Gospels. There is no way of overstating Jesus’s popularity. The crowd was wild about Jesus and they followed him to the other side of the sea. Their question for Jesus was how he got there, but Jesus saw the real issue. The crowd was consumed with the issue of food. There is only one problem with food. Food, and the feeling of fullness, doesn’t last very long. Have you ever eaten a big meal and pushed yourself away from table proclaiming, “I will never eat again!”, only to find yourself hours later standing in front of your refrigerator looking for something to eat? Jesus has nothing against food, but he knows there is more to life than food. The crowd wanted more loaves and fish, but Jesus offers himself, the bread of life. There is more than this temporary world; there is the eternal. Don’t miss the next line. In many ways we play the part of the crowd. Many pursue fullness, not satisfaction. The things of this world may fill us up, but they won’t satisfy. How many people do you know who are pursuing fullness?

In the fifth century, a man named Arenius was determined to live a holy life. So he abandoned the comforts of Egyptian society to follow an austere lifestyle in the desert. Yet, whenever he visited the great city of Alexandria, he spent time wandering through its bazaars. Asked why, he explained that his heart rejoiced at the sight of all the things he didn’t need.

There are many in our society who need to ponder those words. We live in a society flooded with goods and gadgets. Each one promises fullness. They are things we can live without, but we must have them. This is the problem: Very few can afford everything. That is one of the reasons credit card debt has become a national problem. How many credit cards do you own? How much credit card debt do you carry? Did you know the average American holds three credit cards? Did you know the average American is $5700 in credit debt? On average, Americans pay 16.46% in credit card interest. Americans owe a total of $1.04 trillion in credit card debt.  (Those statistics came from Business Insider.) Don’t expect it to get better. Our televisions, radios, mailboxes and newspapers are filled with advertisements or suggestions on what to buy. Each one promises to make you and your loved ones happier. Like the crowd in the Bible story, many buy to make themselves full. Can I ask you a question? How long does your purchase keep you happy? Just like the crowd in the Bible story, there is nothing wrong with buying things. But, don’t expect those things to make you satisfied. They are all temporary, not eternal. Our society is chasing fullness, not satisfaction. So, what do the experts tell us is the source of true contentment?

As I researched that question this week, I found a variety of lists. They were all different, but they were all the same. I decided to condense those lists into my own list. Here are four things personally satisfied people do:

          Personally satisfied people keep investing. I am not talking about financial investing, I am talking about investing in relationships. Sometimes those relationships are family members. Sometimes those relationships are friends. Research tells us, if you have a friend from a different generation from yours, it is a bonus. Our friendships keep us mentally and physically strong. Our friendships help us weather the bad times in our lives. Our friends help us improve the quality of our lives. God never designed us to live in isolation. We are social animals. One of the great fears in our lives is loneliness, so go out and spend time with people. Personally satisfied people invest their lives in other people. If you have one good friend, then you are a rich person.

          Personally satisfied people keep learning. What do you still want to learn? The day you stop learning something new is the day you become irrelevant. Lifelong learning helps you prepare for the unexpected and expands your profile. Lifelong learning boosts your confidence and generates new ideas. Lifelong learning will change your perspective and cultivate your leadership skills. The choice is yours. You can be part of the modern world, or you can be as relevant as the Amish. Personally satisfied people keep learning. What do you still want to learn?

          Personally satisfied people keep dreaming. What do you still want to do? God never intended us to live in the past. God never intended us to worship the past. God designed us for a purpose. God expects us to embrace today and dream of a better world tomorrow. Our dreams or goals build our self-confidence, hold us accountable, and help us live our lives to the fullest. Are you living, or are you just waiting to die? What do you still want to do?

          Personally satisfied people keep trusting. How far do you trust Jesus? Go back to the scripture with me one more time. Jesus had just fed the five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish. It was a great miracle and it was a great moment in the lives of the five thousand. When they had finished eating, they couldn’t hold another bite. But, a short time later they were hungry again. They looked to Jesus to feed them again. Jesus saw the problem. The crowd was preoccupied with earthly food, but Jesus was more interested in eternal food. The crowd wanted to be full again, but Jesus wanted them to be spiritually satisfied. With this in mind, Jesus tells the crowd and us, “I am the bread of life.” In a world that is running after fullness, we long for satisfaction. That is why we will never stop trusting in Jesus. Eternal satisfaction only comes from him.

It became part of my Sunday night routine. After a busy morning and a slow afternoon, I would turn my television on to CNN at about 10:00. My wife, Kathryn was down for the day, so I would watch alone. Regularly, I would watch Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Have you ever watched it? The show won ten Primetime Emmy Awards and one Peabody Award. It is a travel and food show, but it was more. Bourdain (1956-2018) would slide in his own opinion on various human conditions around the world. I found Bourdain’s own story fascinating. It was as diverse as his show. The former cocaine, heroin, and LSD user graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. He was considered one of the most influential chefs in the world. Some of his shows were dark, but some of the shows sucked me in. I had been to some of the places he was visiting, and I longed to go to others. This is the truth: He was living the life I wanted. While I was spending most of my life in the shadows of Youngstown, Ohio, Bourdain was traveling around the world, eating wonderful food, drinking intriguing drinks, talking to bright, insightful people. Through my eyes, Anthony Bourdain seemed to have the perfect life; he had it all. That is why the news was so shocking. You remember. Three days after Kate Spade’s death, on June 8, 2018, at the age of 61, Anthony Bourdain committed suicide. He hung himself in France. I couldn’t believe it. He left behind a young, pretty wife and his only child, a daughter. I was in shock, and I think I’m still in denial. When I tried to watch the reruns after he was gone, I found myself emotionally upset. Why would a guy who had everything in this world take his own life? The answer is in our scripture lesson for this morning.

The answer is, everything in this world isn’t enough. We live in a world that is chasing after fullness. The problem is, the state of being full is only a temporary situation. Only Jesus will satisfy you for eternity. Let me end with this question: How satisfied are you?

I Am

We find ourselves in the third chapter of Exodus. It is only the third chapter, but much has already happened to Moses. He was born a slave, raised in the palace, and is now a fugitive of the law. For this reason, Moses never intended to return to Egypt, but God had a different plan for his life. You remember the story, because you have seen the movie. God’s Chosen People were enslaved in Egypt and cried out to God for help. God heard their prayers and decided to send Moses back to Egypt to liberate them. That brings us to our scripture reading. The scene begins innocently.

Moses is tending his flock in the wilderness. The tranquility of that scene is broken when Moses notices something unusual. There is a bush burning that is not being consumed by the flames. Moses draws nearer to the bush. When Moses is close enough to hear the crackling of the fire, God, Himself, speaks to him. If you distill the scene down to its basic elements, it is a conversation between God and Moses. God makes the first move. First, God tells Moses not to get any closer. Second, God tells Moses to take his sandals off, because that was holy ground. Third, God identifies himself. He is the God of Moses’ ancestors. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moses does not question God. He accepts God at his word, and that insight fills Moses with fear. The scripture says it clearly, Moses was afraid. Moses hid his face, but God continued to speak. At first, Moses must have liked what he heard. God had heard the prayers of his people. Their lives were hard, and God intended to help them. Their miserable existence will be replaced by a bright future. God will give them a new home, a promised land, which is close to perfection. Moses liked those words, but he hated the words that followed. God was sending him to liberate his people from Egyptian rule. Those were hard words for him to accept. His past came back to haunt him. After all, he was a fugitive and he had decided long ago not to return. He had built a good life away from the Egyptian authorities. His divine task seemed overwhelming. Who was he; what resources did he possess to liberate his people? Why would the Pharaoh, the master of the Egyptian Empire, listen to him, a shepherd? It is a good question, but God’s answer is not reassuring. God simply says, he will be with him. Then, Moses tries to escape his divine calling. He says, what if the people themselves don’t listen to me? Then Moses asked God a question that showed the people were being assimilated into Egyptian culture. The Egyptians believed that if you knew someone’s name, you had a certain amount of control over them. Moses said, the people will want to know your name. So, Moses asked God what his name was. And God responded, “I AM WHO I AM.” Do you know of anyone named I AM WHO I AM? Let me state the obvious.

Names are important! Names are not just a way to identify us. If that were the case, we would be given numbers, not names. If you were the oldest of three children, then you would be number one. If you were the youngest of three children, then you would be number three. If you were the middle child, then you would be number two. If you were the youngest child in the Duggar family, then you would be number nineteen. Names are not just about identification, names are about identity. Our names are influenced by our culture. The most popular baby names in America today are Olivia and Noah, followed by Emma and Liam. The most popular baby names today in South Korea are Hayun and Doyun. Sometimes our name represents something about our family core values. My middle name is Quentin. My father’s middle name was Quentin. Why Quentin? The reason is quite simple. During the World War I, Theodore Roosevelt’s son, Quentin, was killed. My grandparents admired Theodore Roosevelt. In memory of his son, the family middle name went from Eli to Quentin. Don’t tell me names are not important. (Can someone explain to me why Michael Jackson named his son Blanket?)

Rob Fuquay is the Senior Pastor of the St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. He has written a variety of things that have been published. One of the books he has had published is called The God You Can Know: The I Am Sayings of Jesus. I would encourage you to read that book over the next few weeks. It is the primary source for this sermon series, I Am. He says that those two little words, I Am, can have a profound influence on our spiritual development. He may have a point. Just think about it for a moment. Let me ask you this question first:

What does God’s name, I Am, tell us about him? It is in the present tense. His name is not “I Was” or “I Will Be.” When God called himself, I AM WHAT I AM, he was saying he is present. God does not hide; God is always with us. God is dependable and faithful, so God can be trusted. God likes to be recognized. He walked with Adam and Eve in the garden and he had a special relationship with Abraham. Think about it for a moment. God is with us this evening! God is present. He is the great I AM! That leads me to another question.

What do the I Am sayings of Jesus tell us about him? When Jesus used the seven “I Am” phrases, he aligned himself with the God of Moses. In other words, he was saying he was God. Each one of the “I Am” phrases discloses something about his early ministry. When Jesus said…

  • I am the bread of life, he was speaking of knowing God’s satisfaction.
    • I am the light of the world, he was speaking of God’s guidance.
    • I am the good shepherd, he was speaking of God’s care.
    • I am the true vine, he was speaking of God’s power.
    • I am the way, the truth and the life, he was speaking of God’s way.
    • I am the resurrection and the life, he was speaking of God’s possibilities.

Jesus is saying people’s spiritual needs and human longings can be met by him.

When God gave Moses his name, I AM WHO I AM, he was telling him he was an ever-present, dependable God. When Jesus made the “I Am” statements, he was saying he was God, and he was telling the world about the vastness of his ministry. Those things are theological in nature and can’t be questioned. However, there is a practical side to I AM. This evening, I do not want to end this meditation with a story or a quote. I want to end this meditation with a quiz. There are only two questions to this quiz. It is a quiz about yourself. This is question number one:

          How do you complete the phrase, I Am….?

Don’t answer too quickly. Don’t get hung up on your physical appearance. Things like, I am fat, or I am short. Don’t get hung up on the role you play in this world. Thinks like, I am a teacher, nurse or an engineer. Don’t get hung up on your relationships. Things like, I am a wife or a grandfather. Don’t get hung up on your imperfections. Things like, I am stubborn, a bigot, a gossip, or homophobic. Don’t get hung up on your core values. Things like, I am patriotic or responsible. Go all the way down to your heart of hearts and ask yourself the question. There is only one correct answer. You must say, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ”. That insight should shake you at your very core. That leads us to the second question in this short quiz:

What is holding you back from a closer walk with Jesus?

The journey begins this evening and it will be completed on Easter morning. Never forget it: As a disciple of Jesus Christ you are supposed to be a little more like Jesus every day. What is holding you back from a closer walk with Jesus? Answering that question correctly will change everything.

We Believe in Heaven

We find ourselves today in the fourteenth chapter of John. It is late in Jesus’ earthly ministry. He uttered these words as he ate that last supper with the disciples. The crowd from Palm Sunday has gone home. The fig tree has been cursed. The lessons in the temple courts have been completed. It is crunch time, and the disciples can’t ignore the truth. The end is near, and Jesus is going to be leaving them. The disciples are upset, and Jesus tries to comfort them. However, this is the miracle: The words meant to comfort the disciples many years ago comfort us today. What is the topic that is comforting to everyone? Jesus talks about heaven and tells them there are many rooms in heaven. That is a good thing, because everyone wants to go to heaven. Do you know of anyone who doesn’t want to go to heaven? Let me state the obvious.

Our world has always been fascinated with the afterlife. Ours is not the first generation. You can also find that fascination in the Bible. Do you remember the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)? In this world, they lived at the opposite ends of life. The rich man had everything; the poor man, Lazarus, had nothing. The tables are turned in the afterlife. Lazarus is taken to be with Abraham, and the rich man goes to hell. It is a story about punishment and reward in the afterlife. It is a story that reminds us that every generation has been fascinated with the afterlife. It is important that you know that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is not a parable. In parables, the characters aren’t named. The story of the rich man and Lazarus is simply a story. It is a simple story that is not just isolated to the Bible. It is a traditional story that is found in various forms in several cultures and sacred writings. That fact underscores the point that our world has always been fascinated with the afterlife, and our generation is no exception. Our world is still fascinated with the afterlife. How many afterlife stories have you heard?

Have you heard Don Piper’s story? On January 18, 1989, Don Piper, a Baptist minister, was on his way home from a conference in Texas. He was crossing a bridge in his Ford Taurus, when he was struck by a semi. When the paramedics arrived, there was no sign of life and they covered him with a tarp. The medical examiner was called, and another minister who happened by prayed over his lifeless body. It is during that time, Piper says he went to heaven. He said, heaven was both amazing and beautiful. He met his great grandparents and joined a heavenly choir. He was gone for 90 minutes and when he returned, he began to tell his story. To date, he has told the story of his time in heaven to 3,000 different audiences, written a book and made a movie. It is estimated that more than 1.5 million people have heard his story. Do you believe Don Piper went to heaven for 90 minutes? We are fascinated with his story because we are fascinated with the afterlife.

Have you heard Colton story? When he was three years old, he had an emergency appendectomy. Three months later, he began to tell people that during the operation, he went to heaven. Colton began to describe events and people that seemed impossible for him to know about. He met his unborn miscarried sister and his great-grandfather who had died thirty years earlier. He said, Jesus visited him on a rainbow-colored horse. He said he sat in Jesus’s lap and Jesus comforted him, as angels sang to him. He saw Mary kneeling before the throne of God. He told everyone, heaven is for real. Do you believe Colton went to heaven? We are fascinated with his story because we are fascinated with the afterlife.

Do you know of anyone who has an afterlife story? I do. When I served in the old St. Clairsville District, I had a parishioner by the name of Lois Barr. She was a wonderful person, who was a veteran nurse. When I met her, she was teaching nursing at a branch of Ohio University. Most of her experience came from a local emergency room. She would tell you, she had seen many die through the years. There is never a violent ending; it is a calming moment. One night, a man came in who had suffered a heart-attack. They did all they could do to save him, but he was gone. They kept working on him for several minutes, when suddenly his heart started beating again. In time, he opened his eyes and asked one question: “Why?” “Why did you bring me back here? Heaven was so beautiful.” People loved hearing Lois’s story because people are fascinated with the afterlife.

The topic of heaven is fascinating to Americans. This is the problem: Americans are fascinated with heaven, but we don’t know what the Bible teaches about heaven and how to get there. According to a 2014 Pew Research Group study, 74% of all Americans believe in the existence of heaven. The same study tells us, only 39% of Americans believe in the existence of hell. This is the saddest statistic: 54% of Americans believe good works are part of the formula for salvation. If that is the case, Jesus died in vain on the cross, because it is simply not true. Jesus is our only hope of experiencing heaven. Jesus is our only hope of salvation. Go back to the scripture one more time with me.

We are in the fourteenth chapter of John. Jesus is in the Upper Room with the disciples. The end is near. In a short time, Jesus will be arrested, tried twice and be placed on the cross to die. The Master did die, and he was placed in a tomb. Nothing happened on Saturday, but everything happened on Sunday. A few women made a discovery that changed our world. Jesus miraculously came back to life, proving to the world that he had defeated death. The resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of our faith. Either you believe in the resurrection, or you don’t. The Apostle Paul understood the significance of the resurrection. Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Perhaps, Jesus said it clearer in our Gospel lesson. Jesus said of himself, I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father but by me.”  In other words, without Jesus, your entrance into heaven is only a dream. Without Jesus, there is no salvation.

Several years ago, I was called by a local funeral home to officiate at a service for a man who had lived in the area. They called me because the man didn’t have a church home. As is my custom, I went to the calling hours the night before the service to meet the family. The man was single and left behind six children; three daughters and three sons. It was painful for them to sit there with me. The men sat on my left and the women sat on my right. For a couple of minutes we made small talk. Then, I made my move. I asked them the most generic of questions: Tell me something about your dad? On cue, they went silent and stared at their shoes. We sat there in silence for a minute, then one of the daughters looked at me and said, “There is one thing we know for sure, Dad is in heaven.” One of her brothers fired back, “If he is in heaven, then I don’t want to go. I never want to see him again” They all looked at me, and I said, “When it comes to the afterlife, there are only two options.”

Is there anyone here today who doesn’t want to go to heaven? The answer is no, because everyone wants to go to heaven. This is the truth: No one enters heaven without Jesus. Do you remember what William Barclay said? He said, “For the Christian, heaven is where Jesus is. We do not need to speculate on what heaven will be like. It is enough to know that we will forever be with him.”

We Believe in the Church

Years ago, before a civil war threatened to divide America, before Columbus discovered the New World or before Rome conquered their world, there was a man who spoke on behalf of God. His name meant “The Lord Saves,” but we simply call him “Isaiah”. He is considered the greatest of the writing prophets. His writings reveal the full dimension of God’s judgement and salvation. His ministry began in 740 BC, so he was a contemporary of the prophets Amos, Hosea and Micah. Like several other prophets, Isaiah lived in politically stormy times. The Assyrian Empire was expanding, and Israel was in decline. We know certain things about him. He was a married man with two sons, who spent most of his life in Jerusalem. Tradition also tells us he died when he was sawed in half during the reign of Manasseh.

In the sixth chapter of Isaiah is a vision. The great prophet is experiencing God Himself. The first four verses of the text try to explain what he saw when he looked at God. The Lord is seated high and exalted. God’s robe filled the temple and He is surrounded by divine creatures. Don’t get lost in the details of the text; look at the text in general terms. Isaiah is experiencing God. It is one of the great moments in his life. This is where the text begins to speak to us. One of the primary reasons we come to church is to experience God.

Recently, the Pew Research Group asked 4,729 worshipping Americans why they attend church regularly. In our world, if you worship once a month, you are considered a regular worshipper. In the past, we considered anyone who only missed one Sunday a month a regular worshipper. Each person was permitted to answer more than once. This is what those regular worshippers said:

To please their family, spouse or partner (16%)

To meet new people (19%)

They feel obligated to go (31%)

To continue their family’s religious tradition (37%)

To be part of a faith community (57%)

They find the sermons valuable (59%)

For comfort in times of troubles or sorrow (66%)

To become a better person (68%)

So their children will have a moral foundation (69%)

To become closer to God (81%)

Do you understand what I just reported? 81% of regular worshippers go to church because they want to experience God. That figure is impressive.

Did you know that only 37% of Americans worship regularly? That means that 63% of Americans don’t worship regularly. However, that does not mean they don’t want to experience God. The same research group reported that non-worshippers don’t worship because of practical or personal reasons. They cite a lack of time or a difference of opinion with church officials. Non-worshippers are also not worshipping because of theological reasons. They say they can experience God in other places. They are not wrong. You can experience God walking in the woods. You can experience God walking on the beach. You can experience God on a golf course. We believe God is omnipresent. That means God is everywhere. That is why both worshippers and non-worshippers are jealous of Isaiah. He experienced God, and we all want to experience God. Augustine (356-430) once said, “Because God has made us for Himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.”  However, our best opportunity to experience God is worshipping in church. As the spiritual leader of this church, I want to say this clearly. If you do not experience God in worship, then I have failed. This is painfully obvious: Church attendance does not guarantee a “God experience.”

History tells us the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) worshipped regularly, but he was not loved by everyone. His enemies noticed he failed to kneel at the appropriate moment during one worship service. His enemies hurried to the bishop and demanded that Dante be punished for his sacrilege. Dante defended himself by saying, “If those who accuse me had had their eyes and minds on God, as I had, they too would have failed to notice events around them, and they most certainly would not have noticed what I was doing.”  I hope that is not your story. We really come to church for one reason. We come to church to experience God!Nothing else really matters.

Have you ever noticed how many distractions exist within the life of the church? I am convinced Satan uses those distractions so that we won’t experience God. In other words, Satan promotes secondary things in the life of the church to a primary position. They are not always bad things; they can be good things. But they are not the best thing: God! Have you ever been so preoccupied during worship about some secondary thing within the life of the church that you didn’t experience God? The temperature is too low, or too high. The sound system is too loud, or too soft. The usher isn’t wearing a tie. The greeter didn’t know your name. The person next to you is annoying. The tables and chairs need to be set up for the next dinner. The preacher is too handsome 😊. I could go on, but you get the point. Satan doesn’t want you to experience God, so he promotes secondary things. How many secondary things have your attention right now? You have come to church for one reason, to experience God! Have you experienced God yet today? When was the last time you experienced God at church? Let me ask you a deeper question.

Have you ever been burned out? Within the life of the church there is a 90/10 rule. I have spoken of it in the past. It says 90% of the work within the life of the church is done by 10% of the people. You must determine whether you are part of the 90% or the 10%. If you are part of the 90% who do next to nothing, let me ask you to do something. Something is better than nothing. If you are part of the 10%, let me warn you to be careful. Maybe this is your story: You got involved in the church because you wanted to experience God. However, you also wanted to do your part. You rolled up your sleeves and went to work. You taught Sunday school. You sang in the choir. You went to every work day and worked every dinner. You have a church key in your pocket. You have served on every committee three times. There is a dangerous side to volunteering at church. It will blind you from why you went to church in the first place. All you wanted to do was experience God! Can I ask you a question? Have you ever gone to church and never even thought about God, because there was work to do? I am not telling you to quit all your jobs. This church runs on volunteers. I am warning you to protect yourself. Church burnout is a reality. I have seen it hundreds of times. The reason you came to church today was to experience God. If you are not experiencing God, then there is something truly wrong.

My first United Methodist appointment in the East Ohio Annual Conference was the Morristown Charge in the old Saint Clairsville District. My charge consisted of three small membership congregations, Morristown, Lloydsville and Bannock. I would preach at Morristown at 9:30. I would preach at Lloydsville, where I lived, at 10:30 and I would preach at Bannock at 11:30. It was an eighteen-mile loop to cover all the churches. I always thought it was unique that the three churches didn’t know one another. Like many small membership churches, Morristown and Bannock were dominated by a single extended family.

At the Lloydsville Church, the church was dominated by one person. His name was Wayne Randall. However, no one called him Wayne, everyone called him “Dub.” Honestly, he was a great guy. There is no other way to say it. Dub did everything at that church. He was the person who unlocked the door early on Sunday morning, and he locked the door early in the afternoon. He taught Sunday school and read the scripture during worship. He was the guy who mowed the lawn in the summer, and he was the one who shoveled the snow in the winter. He was the one who painted the sanctuary, and he was the head chef at the community dinners. He was the most generous person when the plate was passed, and he was the one who handed me my monthly $375 paycheck, because he was also the church’s treasurer. He did everything in the life of that church for one reason. He loved his mother. He promised his mother on her deathbed that he would not let the church close during his lifetime. He was a good man and a good son. He worked hard to keep the Lloydsville United Methodist Church open. However, Dub was not a young man. One day he pulled me to the side and told me he needed knee surgery. He needed my help to find people to do his church jobs. I did, and Dub promised me he would return in a few weeks. Dub’s surgery was more complex than expected and his knee got infected. Dub’s several weeks away turned into several months. I kept up with Dub during his absence. I visited him or called him regularly. I would always ask him the same question, when are you coming back? One day, I noticed Dub was healthy. That made me wonder. My question changed from, “When are you coming back to church,” to “Are you coming back to church?” He just smiled and said, “Russ, I want to be honest with you. I feel liberated. I loved my mother, but she is gone. I’m not coming back to church because I don’t want all those jobs. The church seems to be doing fine without me, and I’m doing better without the church.” Then, came the painful words no minister wants to hear. “It is not you, but I’m attending another church. I just want to go to church and worship God.” Dub never did return to the Lloydsville United Methodist because we had burned him out.

I hope that is not your story. If you aren’t experiencing God at church, then you really haven’t been to church. Do you remember the quote from Augustine? He once said, “Because God has made us for Himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.” And all of God’s people said, “Amen!”

We Believe in the Holy Spirit

Years ago, before a civil war threatened to divide America, before Columbus discovered the New World or before Rome conquered their world, there was a man who spoke on behalf of God. His name meant, YAHWEH is God, but we call him Joel. He is one of the Minor Prophets. He is not considered minor because his message is unimportant. He is considered minor because his book is brief. Joel lived, according to the scholars, during the ninth century B.C. Like most of the prophets, Joel’s generation was suffering. The people were experiencing both a severe drought and a plague of locusts. The people felt like victims, but Joel offers them words of hope. God has not forgotten them. They will be restored and refreshed, once they repent. Our reading for today tells us how God plans to refresh and restore his people. God’s method of choice is the Holy Spirit. Joel’s generation heard about the Holy Spirit, but they never experienced the Holy Spirit. God never seems to be in a hurry. God wouldn’t send the Holy Spirit for another 900 years. You know the story. We look at it annually.

It had been fifty days since Jesus had been resurrected. That makes it the day of Pentecost, a Hebrew festival to thank God for the harvest. As requested by Jesus, the disciples are together in Jerusalem, including Judas Iscariot’s replacement, Matthias. (Acts 1:4). After 900 years of waiting, the Holy Spirit suddenly arrived. The author of this text, Luke, tells us the Holy Spirit was evident in two ways. First, there was a violent wind. The Holy Spirit was always symbolized by wind (Ezekiel 37:9, 14, John 3:8). Second, there seemed to be tongues of fires that separated and came to rest on each one of them. Acts 2:4 says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…”  The word ALL is important because it was the first time the Holy Spirit was given to everyone. The question is not, if the Holy Spirit is available to us. The question is, have you experienced the Holy Spirit? This is the truth: Church membership or participation does not guarantee an experience with the Holy Spirit. That is painfully true. You can even find that to be the case in the Bible.

Do you remember the story of Apollos from the nineteenth chapter of Acts? Paul is on his way to Rome and stops at various communities along the way. One of the places he visits is the Ephesus. The church in Ephesus was headed by a man named Apollos. He had many gifts to offer the church. He was an educated, natural leader. His only limitation was his ignorance of the Holy Spirit. His understanding of the faith was based on moralism, not grace. Paul recognized this deficiency and corrected the situation. On the spot, Paul baptized Apollos in the name of Jesus, laying hands on him. Apollos was not the only one who had never experienced the Holy Spirit in that church. The scriptures tell us, twelve men experienced the Holy Spirit that day. So, let me ask you our question again. Have you experienced the Holy Spirit? This is a more basic question:

Who is the Holy Spirit? We believe, the Holy Spirit is a member of the trinity. What does that mean? We believe in a triune God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe there is one God with distinct manifestations. When we speak of God the Father, we are speaking of God as the creator. When we speak of God the Son, we are speaking of God the redeemer. Jesus was the incarnation of God, God in human form, who came to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. When we speak of God the Holy Spirit, we are speaking of God the life giver. We believe the Holy Spirit is accessible to all believers, and the Holy Spirit helps us do ministry. The Holy Spirit magnifies our witness, enhances our prayers, and gives us gifts to serve God. Great things happen when the Holy Spirit is present. Nothing happens when the Holy Spirit is absent. The question is not, if you understand the Holy Spirit? The question is, have you experienced the Holy Spirit? I can’t answer that question for you. I can only answer that question for myself. The answer is yes! This is my story. I hope you can relate.

I enrolled at Mount Union College in the Fall of 1975. When you go to college, everyone asks you the same two questions: Where are you from, and what is your major? I answered both questions proudly. I was from Warren, where everyone is a little smarter and better looking, and I was a religion major. However, I never earned my religion degree. My Bachelor’s Degree is in Business Administration. Do you know why I didn’t earn my Religion Degree? My answer is almost comical. I am addicted to public speaking now, but as a college student, I was terrified of public speaking. It all changed one night. I was walking alone down the side streets near the campus. I was anxious about school and was clueless about my future. As I walked, I prayed in a soft voice. I don’t remember the exact words, but it went like this: Help me! On that night, God heard my prayer. There is no other way to explain it. The Holy Spirit came over me, and I felt a wonderful calm. All my senses were heightened. It was like I was hearing for the first time. It was like I was seeing for the first time. I was filled with a new confidence and a wonderfully satisfying peace. I really didn’t know what the future held for me, but I knew everything was going to be fine. Because, God was with me. I went back to campus a changed person. On that night, I didn’t know what happened to me, but something happened. I would never be the same again. Several years later, I found out what happened. I was in a seminary classroom studying the Holy Spirit. The topic that day was sanctification. I was sanctified, set apart, for a special purpose.

I rarely speak of that night, because I don’t want to sound weird, but that night changed my life. The Holy Spirit was with me then, and I know the Holy Spirit is with me now. I do not completely understand the Holy Spirit, but I do know it is vital to my life. This is the truth: I have never struggled in the ministry. It is like the Holy Spirit goes ahead of me, helping me. The ministry comes naturally to me. There just always seems to be a good person to help me. There are many good people who overlook my shortcomings. I have survived in the ministry not because I am talented, intelligent or handsome. I have survived in the ministry because the Holy Spirit is with me, helping me along the way. Yes, I have experienced the Holy Spirit. Have you experienced the Holy Spirit?

One of the great dates in Methodist history is May 24, 1738. For it was on that date that John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism, experienced the Holy Spirit first-hand. It was his sanctification experience. It happened on Aldersgate Street in London. He never spoke much about that experience. In his journal he simply wrote, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” However, that experience changed his life. He was transformed from a “loser” into one of the great figures in church history. When he died in 1791, he had 79,000 followers in England and the United States. His movement lived beyond his life. In 1957, there were 40 million Methodists in the world. It all began in a little chapel on Aldersgate Street.

Dr. Leslie Weatherhead (1893-1976) recognized the significance of that spot and went to visit it. When he arrived, it was dark and damp. He read the single bronze plaque on the wall. It read: “On this spot, on May 24, 1738, John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed.” He read it several times, once out loud. He then retreated to the corner of the chapel and found a pew. In the silence, he thought and prayed about that moment in history. Suddenly, he heard the door open and watched a shadowy character walk in. It was an older gentleman. (He was 61😊) He walked straight toward the plaque. Thinking he was alone, he too read it out loud: “On this spot, on May 24, 1738, John Wesley’s hear was strangely warmed.” Yet, instead of sitting in silence, the older gentleman spoke. He said, “Do it again, Lord. Do it again for me!” I would add, do it again for us!

This is morning, I want to end with a challenge. I challenge you to pray that you experience the Holy Spirit. It is not enough to have an opinion about the Holy Spirit. It is not enough to know something about the Holy Spirit. You must experience the Holy Spirit, because once you experience the Holy Spirit, you will be changed. Do you remember what John Nelson Darby once said? He said, “The presence of the Holy Spirit is the keystone of all of our hopes.”