Our Unchanging God

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “my messenger,” but we just call him Malachi. He lived approximately the year 400 BC. That means he lived 100 years after Haggai and Zechariah, the Minor Prophets we looked at the last two weeks. Time did change certain things. The reconstruction of the temple was complete. However, certain things did not change. The spiritual renewal that Haggai and Zechariah desired never happened. God’s Chosen People were stuck in a spiritual funk. The book of Malachi echoes their spiritual condition. It is a dialogue between God and His Chosen People. Malachi acts as the go between. God is concerned about the unfaithfulness of both the priests and the people, themselves. Yet, God does not give up on his people. The book ends with a word of hope. Someday the Messiah would come. Jesus would be born four hundred years later. The background is interesting, but one verse stands above the rest.

Last Sunday evening, I googled the question, what is the most important verse in Malachi. The answer did not surprise me. The answer came back, Malachi 3:6, “I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” That verse grabbed both my attention and imagination. In a world that is constantly changing, it is refreshing to find something that remains the same.

On month from today I will be in Yellowstone National Park. Due to the pandemic, Kathryn and I have not been out of the area since last October. We are going to be gone for two weeks. It will be a great trip. We start off at Mount Rushmore near Rapid City, South Dakota. Then, we travel to Billings. Montana. We will spend three days in Yellowstone, travel to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and end up in Salt Lake City. It was supposed to be a bus trip, but the company canceled the tour when the coronavirus invaded. We are renting a car and following the same route. I am excited about the trip because I have never been to that part of the country.

I am really looking forward to seeing Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. It has always fascinated me. It was named by explorers in September 1870. In the early days of the park it was used as a laundry because of the ample hot water. It erupts approximately every ninety minutes and shoots up to 8,400 gallons of hot water into the air some 150 feet. Historians tell us there are records of Old Faithful erupting 500 years ago. Old Faithful has erupted more than 1,000,000 times. It is safe to say it is as old as the earth, itself. Old Faithful is the same, but the world has changed over that period. Only a fool would say our world has not changed since Old Faithful erupted the first time!

One of my favorite places in Ohio is Johnson Island. It is located off the Marblehead Peninsula in Ottawa County. Over the last few years, the rich have come to develop it, but for many years it was rustic. On the north coast of that island is a Civil War cemetery. It is filled with former Confederate officers from the deep south. It is all that remains of a former prisoner of war camp. The Union built it there because it was so remote. The Daughters of the Confederacy maintain it. I love to take that short walk to the shore of Lake Erie. If you look out across the water, you can see Cedar Point Amusement Park. If you turn around you can see the graves. The contrast is shocking. Do you believe our world has changed since the Civil War? Would you like to be operated on using Civil War era medicine or knowledge? Only a fool would think our world has not changed since the Civil War!

How much has the world changed in your lifetime? I was born in 1957. When my parents moved to Warren, they lived in an apartment at first. When my sisters were born, they bought one of the few houses for sale in town. They paid $5,400. According to Zillow, that house is now worth $60,000. When I was very young my parents only had one car. I remember riding the bus occasionally. Our black and white television set got three stations. I remember the day we got our first color television. I remember the color nob to adjust the color from red to green. The first movie we watched in color was Alford Hitchcock’s The Birds. I remember the day they got an antenna that moved so we could watch Cleveland or Pittsburgh. We thought we were flying. I remember the day John Kennedy was shot. The announcement came out of the school’s public address system. I remember my teacher, Mr. Fuller, went to the hall and cried. I remember the day Martin Luther King getting shot and my dad wondered how the world could get any worse. It did. I remember the milk man coming to the house. He left the milk in a small silver box on the front porch. His name was Gilbert. He sold pop-cycles on the side for a nickel. How much has the world changed in your lifetime? Only a fool would think our world has not changed!

How much has our world changed in the past twenty years? The people at Insider released a list of ways our world has changed since 2000. It was only twenty years ago much has changed. This is their list of ten changes:

  1. The internet has taken over. It is no longer a novelty. It is a requirement.
  2. Landline telephones are disappearing. Everyone has a cell phone.
  3. Smoking in restaurants is history. There is no longer a smoking section.
  4. Streaming services, like Netflix, have become the rage.
  5. It is impossible to get away on vacation. The internet will find you.
  6. People now fear terrorism and mass shootings.
  7. People are more likely to text than leave a voice mail.
  8. Online dating is the norm.
  9. Airport security has redefined travel.
  10. More pictures are being taking by cellphones than cameras.

All those changes have taken place in the last twenty years. How has your life changed in the last twenty years? How will our change in the next twenty years? Only a fool would say our world has not changed!

How much has our world changed since the pandemic began? In March of this year, The Washington Post predicted the pandemic would change our world in several significant ways. This is their list:

  1. Mass gatherings are a thing of the past.
  2. Political melodrama will escalate.
  3. In person doctor’s appointment will end.
  4. Working from home will be the new normal.
  5. Handshaking is obsolete.

How much has your life changed since March? It has been reported, 99% of all Americans have experienced change due to the pandemic. I would like to meet the 1% who have not experienced change. They must not have understood the question. Only a fool would say our lives have not changed since the pandemic began. This is the point.

Our world has been changing for a long time, but God remains the same. This message is not called Our Changing World. This message is called Our Unchanging God. This message is not about volatility, it is about stability. We hear it in the Malachi reading, “I the Lord do not change.” We hear it in the ninetieth Psalm says, “From everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” This is not a new concept or discovery. It should be a foundational piece of your understanding of God.

One of the reasons you come to church is not to expound on your understanding of God. You come to church to learn about God. Churches teach about God in a variety of ways, sometimes from the pulpit, sometimes from the classroom, sometimes in our music. Hymns are not just a collection of pleasing notes. Hymns teach us theology. They teach us about the basic elements of the Christian faith. Let me give you an example. In 1867, a new hymn came out. It was called Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise. It was written by Walter C. Smith. It is a loved hymn in traditional worship. We have sung it countless times. There is a stanza in that hymn about the unchanging character of God. Do you remember it? It goes:

          We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,

          And wither and perish – but naught changieth Thee!

In other words, we change regularly, but God remains the same. God is God and God does not change. Whatever God is, God always has been, and God always will be. That is important to remember in our changing world.

Theologians call it immutability. The word is not connected to physical appearance. It does not mean God does not get gray or God does not need hip surgery. The word means the character of God does not change. Our reading for today, Malachi 3:6, is one of several verses which attests to the immutability of God. So, in what ways does God not change? This is the list.

God is:

          Always wise

          Always powerful

          Always holy

          Always just

          Always good

          Always true

          Always gracious

          Always present

          Always knowledgeable.

          Always sovereign

          Always loving

God is unchanging! Let me end with public service announcement.

It was in the newspaper last weekend. The Niles First Presbyterian Church will be hosting their last worship service tonight, August 30, 2020, at 6:00. It has been located at the corner of Robbins Avenue and Summit Street for more than sixty years. If you are interested, they are serving refreshments at the conclusion of the service. I have never attended a worship service in that church, but I find myself mourning at its closure. It is sad to see any church close. I am sure the people were nice. I am sure the congregation was committed. I am sure the building was well maintained. I am sure the pastors for the past fifty years were assigned the task to rebuild the congregation. It is hard to do in an area with a shrinking population base.

A closing church is a sign that the world is changing. I am not saying the world is getting worse or the church was bad. I am not saying the members of every closing church were not gifted. I am not saying younger generations are not spiritual or religious. All I am saying is the world is changing. That should not be a big surprise because the world has always been changing. The problem is people are reluctant to change. That is why God is so appealing to us. God never changes. Malachi knew it. He quoted God, I the Lord do not change. Isn’t that refreshing?

Living in Ohltown, Ohio

I have told this old preaching story several times. In 1982, Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982) died. He had lived his life serving his country. Vice-President George Bush went to Moscow to represent our country at his funeral. Later, Bush reported he was deeply moved by a silent protest carried out by Brezhnev’s widow, Victoria (1927-1982).

She stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed. Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Brezhnev’s wife performed an act of great courage and hope, a gesture that must surely rank as one of the most profound acts of civil disobedience ever committed: She reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest. There in the citadel of secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all hoped that her husband was wrong. She hoped that there was another life, and that that life was possible by Jesus who died on the cross. She hoped Jesus might have mercy on her dead husband. Victoria Brezhnev understand the significance of hope. I hope you do too.  

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “The Lord is my secret,” but we just call him Zephaniah. He lived in the seventh century BC. and he spoke to the people of Judah. They were not comforting words. His words told the people the day of judgement was coming. However, Judah would not be the only one judged. All the nations in that part of the world would be judged. The Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, Cushites, and Assyrians would all be judged. Their judgement will come at the hands of the Scythians. Who are the Scythians? They were invaders, who came from present day southern Russia. Their goal was to conquer Canaan. The Day of the Lord was at hand, when all those nations would fall. The first two chapters of Zephaniah deal with their destruction. They are dark heavy words.

The third chapter is different. The prophet’s words suddenly turn in a different direction. The dark words of destruction are suddenly replaced with words of hope. The words of Zephaniah 3:14-20 are optimistic. Verse 15 is like pouring suave on an open wound, “The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.”  These words are important because hope, itself, is important. Who wants to live in a world without hope? How would our world change if there was no hope? Our world would change a great deal. If you do not believe me then ask the people of Ohltown, Ohio.

Do you know the history of Ohltown? You may, it is only 8 miles for our church building. The town was founded by a man named Michael Ohl (1784 -1857). He and his wife Eva had eight children. Michael built a saw & grist mill in 1844 on the banks of the Meander Creek, operated a hotel, and was the first postmaster of the post office that ran from 1841-1902. The first church in Ohltown was built in 1838. The first school was built in 1857. The first bank came in 1868. Historians tell us, during the 1880’s the town also had about 30 houses, a blacksmith shop, two stores, a newer grist mill, and a train station on the Niles & New Lisbon Railroad. Many of the residents worked in local coal mines or at the Meander Iron Furnace. I find that to be fascinating. At one time, Ohltown was quite a place with a bright future. Then, without warning everything changed.

This all changed during the 1920s. That was the decade the Meander Creek was dammed and the community of Ohltown was flooded. Did you know the Ohltown United Methodist Church is the last surviving original building in submerged Ohltown, Ohio? I have been told by many, some of the original buildings of Ohltown still remain under the water of the Meander Reservoir, which supplies many in this area with water. If you stand on the bridge passing over the Meander Reservoir you can see the foundations of those original buildings on a clear day. I find that to be fascinating.

I have often wondered how those Ohltown residents felt on the day they were told their community had no future. With no future, there is no hope. With no hope, everything changed. There was no need to paint your house if there is no future. There was no need to repair the roads if there is no future. There was no need to elect municipal officials if there is no future. There was no need to do any of those things because they had no future. The entire community had no hope of better days. The third chapter of Zephaniah is important because it reminds us with God there is always hope. That is an important message today because so many seem to have lost hope. How many people do you know have lost hope? How many people do you know are living in submerged Ohltown, Ohio? Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) once said, “We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.”

One of the reasons the Christian faith is unique from other world religions is because we have hope. The Apostle Paul understood that clearly. He said in Romans 15:13 says, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, we have hope because we have God.

There is a Christian blogger by the name of Kristen Wetherell. She is a writer and Bible teacher. At one time, she was the content manager of an organization called Unlocking the Bible and the coauthor of a book called Hope When It Hurts. She wrote a blog in 2014 called Five Reasons You Should Have Hope. She says there are five reasons each Christian should have hope. Each one can be found in Psalm 130. This is her list:

  1. We have hope because God hears us.        Psalm 130:1-2 says, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to the voice of pleas for mercy.” Our prayers do not fall on deaf ears. God hears our prayers and answers of prayers. God does not always answer with a yes, but God does hear our prayers. We have hope because God hears us.
  • We have hope because God has mercy on us.     Psalm 130:3-4says,If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” In other words, we are saved by grace and by grace alone. That means you can never save yourself. In Christ, God has paved the way for sinners lost in darkness to have access to him once again. There must be a time in your life when you must admit you cannot save yourself. You needed a savior. You need Jesus. Each one of us needs Jesus. We have hope because God has mercy on us.
  • We have hope because God speaks to us. Psalm 130:5 says, I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word, I put my hope.” God speaks to us through the Bible. That is why the Bible is so important. The Bible is the inspired word of God which accompanies us through life’s journey. It challenges us when life is stable, and it comforts us when life is hard. We have hope because God speaks to us.
  • We have hope because God will return for us. Psalm 130:6 says, I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.” The Bible says it clearly. Someday Jesus will return. The question is not if Jesus will return. The question is when will Jesus return. No one knows when he will return so we must always be prepared for that God day. We have hope because God will return for us.
  • We have hope because God will finish the work, he began in us. Psalm 130:7-8 says, “Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel.” Hiding inside of you is the person God intended you to be from the very beginning. That is important in this world, but this is more important. This world is not our final destination. Someday every believer will be glorified in heaven. Do you know of anyone who does not want to go to heaven? We have hope because God will finish the work, he began in us.

The book of Zephaniah had to end with a word of hope because with God there is always hope. It is impossible to live a hopeful life without God. Maybe that is why our world has become such a negative place?

Years ago, I completed a six-year term on one of our local non-profit boards. I served as the president of that board during my last two years. We met once a month to discuss the challenges and opportunities of our organization. The best part of that board was not the work. The best part of the board was the people. Each one was a fine individual. They came from various parts of this community and had various vocations. Each one had a passion for our purpose. Through the years, I got to know each one. Occasionally, I still see a former board member. I had a good relationship with each one, except one person. She was a young businesswoman, who held some sales position in the area. Her body language told me she did not care for me. At first, I thought I was intimidating her with my good looks. Over time, I discovered the real reason. One day she told me why in forceful words. She was mad at God because our world seemed out of control. She did not understand why God did not do something to help the multitude in need and she was mad at the organized church because the organized church had misused the population’s trust. Through her eyes, I represented both God and organized church. I do not want to sound critical, but I guess I am. She did not have a spiritual bone in her body. She exposed her spiritual condition at every meeting. Every word she would utter at the meeting was critical and negative. In a hundred different ways, she communicated her theme for life. Why try? Things are not going to change. Her negativity isolated her from the group.

This young businesswoman lived somewhere in the county, but she was really living in submerged Ohltown, Ohio, where there is no hope for a bright future. Her faithless soul prevented her from seeing the truth. It is not over until God says it is over. Do the people in your life consider you negative? Do you remember the quote from Franklin Roosevelt? He once said, “We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.” How hopeful are you?

God’s Mysterious Ways

Where is Jimmy Hoffa? That is one of the great mysteries in our country. The other day was the 45th anniversary of his disappearance. The teamster union leader disappeared on July 30, 1975 in Oakland County, Michigan. His involvement in organized crime is well documented. The police and forensic anthropologists have searched several sites in Detroit and Oakland County to no avail. One popular theory is that his body is under Giants Stadium in New Jersey. I think about him every time I watch a game from that location. As the years have gone on it appears Jimmy Hoffa’s body will never be found. Finding Jimmy Hoffa is one of our country’s great mysteries, but it is nothing next to understanding God’s mysterious ways.  That leads us to today’s scripture, Habakkuk 1:1-11.

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “Embrace,” but we just call him Habakkuk. He lived in the year 605 BC.  He was well rooted in the traditions of Israel, so many have concluded he lived in Jerusalem. His book does not contain any proclamation to Israel. His book, only three chapters long, is a dialogue between himself and God. Verses two through four are Habakkuk’s complaint to God. Verses rive through eleven are God’s response. The prophet is trying to understand God’s mysterious ways.

That is what we hear in the reading for today. According to verse six, God is going to use Babylon to punish Israel. The Babylonians were a mighty power at that time. Winning their independence from the Assyrians in 626 BC and destroying the Assyrian Empire in 612 BC. Those words seem benign to our generation, but to Habakkuk’s generation it seemed like shear insanity. Why would God use this evil foreign power to command his will? It is a good question. Have you ever tried to understand God’s mysterious ways? I will admit it, I have.

Our world seems to be broken. I am not just talking about the coronavirus. Our world seemed broken before the pandemic. Our world was and is facing some massive problems. Things like world hunger, climate change, violence, inequality, poverty, and corruption. Our denominational, the United Methodist Church, was on the verge of splitting over the LGBTQ debate. Both sides are filled with arrogance. What a mess! Then, the co-vid 19 entered our world and the simplest things got complicated. It is difficult to do anything. It is a hard time to have surgery. It is a hard time to get married. It is a hard time die. It is a hard to time travel. It is a hard time to own a business and be a preacher. It is a hard time to be a teacher or educator. It is a hard time to be with loved anyone because everyone has a different opinion, and everyone listens to different people. The rules keep changing. We have never seen anything like this, and we thought things could not get worse. Then, things got worse. George Floyd died, and racism grabbed the front page. Race riots and protests are common and not a single rioter was wearing a face mask. Statues have been torn down because some are trying to rewrite history. I was taught we were to learn from history, not worship history. Do not forget the national election is coming. Both sides will do anything to win. They are passionate about their candidate, but no one seems to care about what is best for the country. It is obvious to me. Our world is broken. We are not much different from Habakkuk’s generation. His world was broken too. We believe God is in charge, but his ways are a mystery to us.

Freddy Fritz has been the minister of the Tampa Bay Presbyterian Church for many years. In 2006, he wrote a sermon called Understanding Today’s News. In that sermon, he says there are several reasons we do not understand God mysterious ways. Each one is found in this morning’s reading. Consider these three things with me.

  1. God ways seem mysterious to us because God’s inactivity is frustrating to us. Verse one quotes Habakkuk. He says, How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?”  Have you ever wondered why God does not do something? We are not patient people. We want problems solved instantly, but God never seems to be in a hurry. God’s inactivity bothers us.
  • God’s ways seem mysterious to us because of God’s unexpected providence confuses us. Verse 5 quotes God. The Almighty says, Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.”  We do not like surprises. We try to be organized and we like agendas. God often answers our prayers in unexpected ways. God’s unexpected providence confuses us.
  • God’s ways seem mysterious to us because of God’s unusual instruments. Once again God is quoted in Verse 6. He says, “I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own.” The unwilling are often part of God’s plan. The disliked are often part of God’s plan. God use of unusual instruments baffles us.

I hope you do not feel special. You are not the first one to be confused by God and ours will not the last. Habakkuk, himself, was confused by God. It is important to remember God is not accountable to us. However, we are accountable to God. It is equally important for you to remember it is not necessary for you to understand God’s ways. It is only important that you trust God. It has been said: FAITH IS TRUSTING IN GOD EVEN WHEN YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND HIS PLAN. How far do you trust God? That is an important question to answer in our broken world. It has always been important to answer that question.

Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse (1895-1960) was pastor of the famous Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA from 1927 until 1960. In 1939, he was invited to preach at two preaching conferences in Britain. The first was in Edinburgh, Scotland. The second was in Belfast, Ireland. There was a week off between the two, so he decided to visit his family, who were staying in Normandy, France.

As he set out for France from Edinburgh officials urged him not to travel to France. Europe was in political turmoil because Hitler had just signed his nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union and was threatening to march into Danzig, Poland. Barnhouse did not listen. War seemed to be remote. As he traveled there was a frenzy of military activity. Nevertheless, he was able to join his family in Normandy on Sunday evening. Most of the time was spent on the beach, though the atmosphere was tense with uncertain anticipation for what was about to happen.

On Thursday morning word came that there would be no more flights to England. Dr. Barnhouse took a train to Paris and a boat to England. When Dr. Barnhouse arrived I England, he caught a train to London. From there he caught another train to the coast of Scotland, from where he was to take a boat over to Ireland. He spent all day on Saturday traveling, along with thousands of frightened children who were being taken out of London and harm’s way. Dr. Barnhouse finally arrived in the train station in Belfast at about three o’clock on Sunday morning. The committee that had arranged the Belfast preaching conference met him at the train station. After a short prayer they took him to his hotel. It was four o’clock in the morning and worship began to eleven o’clock. In parting, one of the men said to Dr. Barnhouse, “I hope you have a good sermon. It may well be the last sermon that some of the men will ever hear. The Prime Minister is declaring war on Germany tomorrow morning.”

When Barnhouse arrived at the church, he expected it to be empty. He was wrong. The church was full. Barnhouse knew that was a historic moment. Just moments earlier Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany. It was September 3, 1939. He read Matthew 24:6. Jesus said, “You will hear of war and the rumors of war: Do not be troubled.” Dr. Barnhouse then recounted the series of experiences that he had had on his way to Belfast. After each account he repeated his text: Do not be troubled! He told of the church bells sounding: Do not be troubled! He told of the mobilization of soldiers: Do not be troubled! He told of the frightened children: Do not be troubled! He told of the millions of homes that would be destroyed: Do not be troubled! The tension was mounting in the sanctuary, but then Barnhouse suddenly stopped. A minute later he said, “These words are either the words of a madman or they are the words of God.” But then, after a long pause, came the answer.

There are no troubles because Jesus Christ is God. Jesus Christ is the Lord of history. Jesus Christ is the God of our broken world. Jesus Christ has always been the Lord of our broken world. Jesus Christ is the God of every detail. Nothing has ever happened that did not flow in the channel that God has dug for it. No event has ever astonished, bewildered, or confused him. He is our God and he is in control. It is a lesson for the ages. That is what God taught Habakkuk years ago. That is what God is trying to teach us today. The question is how far do you trust God? Do you remember the slogan? FAITH IS TRUSTING IN GOD EVEN WHEN YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND HIS PLAN.

Lost in New York

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “Comforter,” but we just call him Nahum. His exact location is unknown, but we do know he spoke to the people of Judah prior to the year 612 BC. The ones receiving these words were the people of Nineveh. Yes, it was the same Nineveh God sent Jonah to one hundred years earlier, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, known for her cruelty, idolatry, and wickedness. The Assyrian Empire covered parts of present-day Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. This time, they were guilty of backsliding. They had repented for Jonah, but they had returned to their old ways. God has had enough and now they must pay for their sinning. Those are not just empty words. History tells us the great city of Nineveh was destroyed by a devastating fire in the year 612 BC. Nahum’s brief book, only three chapters long, reminds us sin must be taken seriously. It is as true today as it was in Nahum’s time. This is the truth.

According to Webster, a sin is an immoral act against divine law. We should take sin seriously because our sins damage our relationship with God. While we are not known for our cruelty, idolatry, and wickedness, we are all guilty of sinning. It is no secret. We know we are sinners and God knows we are sinners The Apostle Paul knew were were sinners. One of the great scriptures in the New Testament is Roman 3:23, “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.” In seminary I took three classes in Greek. In one of those classes, I studied studied the Greek word for “all.” The word for “all” in Biblical Greek means everyone. That means everyone is guilty of sinning. That means we are all sinners. That means we are more like the Ninevites than we care to admit.

James W. Moore (1938-2019) was the pastor of the 7,500 member St. Luke United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas from 1984-2006.  He received his Master of Divinity degree from the Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio. Through the years he wrote many books, which are nothing more than his printed sermons. I own several of those books. One of those books is entitled Yes, Lord, I Have Sinned, But I Have Several Excellent Excuses. In that book, he tells us our sins originate in four  sources. Three of those ways are found in two parables in the fifteen chapter of Luke.

Sometimes, we sin by being led astray. That is found in the parable of the lost coin. In that parable a coin is lost. That coin equaled a day’s wages. That means it is worth finding. The coin did not grow legs and walk away. The coin was lost because someone misplaced it. That is what happens with people. Some sin because of the influence another has on them. Parents know it is true. That is why we evaluate our children’s friends. That is why we want our children to participate in wholesome activities. Parents fear their young will be influenced by others and get into trouble. God fears we will be led astray by others too. Can I ask you a question? Who are the most influential people in your life? Sometimes we sin by being led astray.

Sometimes, we sin by running away. That was the story of the prodigal son. He could not wait for his father to die, so he went to his father for his share of the inheritance. He took his cash and ran. For a short time, he lived life in the fast lane. I will let your imagination fill in the blanks. Then, he discovered what everyone knows. Life is expensive. In a short time, he is struggling to survive. Then, as the Bible says, he came to his senses and returns to his father asking for a job. You can call it selfishness. Those are the sins we commit when we think the world revolves around us. Those are the sins we commit because we think we are God’s gift to the world. Can I ask you a question? Do the people in your life consider you selfish? Sometimes, we sin by running away because we are selfish.

Sometimes, we sin because of resentment. The parable of the prodigal son reveals two origins of sin. The first is selfishness. The second is resentment. It is found in the older son who stayed home. While his little brother was out there living the wildlife, he stayed at home. He got up early daily and went to work. You can call him responsible, but he felt foolish. He dreamed of the wild things he was missing. At first, he must have admired his brother, but in the end, he resented his little brother. It is no fun working when others are having fun. Many believe this is the greatest sin in the life of the church today. It is no fun doing church work, when so many have forgotten the church. Can I ask you a question? Who do you resent? Sometimes, we sin because of resentment.

Sometimes we sin by wandering off. That was the story of the Ninevites. One hundred years earlier, God’s reluctant prophet, Jonah, arrived and told them they must repent. The people heard his word and responded. They started acting like God wanted them to act. They became more loving. They became less judgmental. They became more accepting. They promised they would never return to their cruel, idolatrous, and wicked ways. However, as the emotion wore off, they began to backside. Before long they we known once again for their cruelty, idolatry, and wicked. The Ninevites are not much different from us. We know what God wants us to do but we refuse to do it. Can I ask you these questions? How far have you wandered away from God? Are you the person God intended at the very beginning?The excitement of that mountaintop experience began to fade away and found yourself falling into your old routine. Sometimes, we sin because we wander off. I hope that is not your story. Nahum reminds us there is a price to pay for sinning. However, this is the good news for today.

Nahum lived in Old Testament times and we live in New Testament times. The great city of Nineveh was destroyed by a fire in the year 612 BC. That was their punishment for sinning. They got what they deserved. That was the Old Testament way. We deserve to be punished for our sins, but it will never happen, because we are New Testament times. Every Sunday school child knows Jesus died on the cross for our sins. His death was not pretty because our sins our not pretty. Yet, his death handled the sin problem. How you respond to Jesus’s death is extremely important. Is it just a passing thought or is it a life changing experience? It has been said, “God’s grace is not an excuse to sin, but rather a reason to love and serve him more fully.”

The address was 202 Midwood Street. That was my grandparent’s address in Brooklyn, New York, and the address of the home that my mother was raised. We visited it annually. As a child, I remember it as a massive place. It included an outer sitting room with a player piano, an inner living room with with a modest television set, dining room and a tiny kitchen. Upstairs, there were three bedrooms and a full bath with a skylight. It seemed massive to me as a child. Recently, I researched that massive home. It was constructed in 1901 and is 1,800 square feet. The market value of that 1,800 square foot home in Brooklyn today is $1.8 million. It is hard to compare property value in Brooklyn, New York with Youngstown, Ohio. Externally, the house was not original. My mother called it a “Brown Stone.” The entire neighborhood was filled with them. Each one was identical. Each one was constructed from a tan stone, a flat roof, a bay window, and a flight of stairs leading up to the front door. The only thing that changed about each dwelling was the address. My grandparents lived at 202 Midwood Street. I will never forget that address because of an event that happened to me one day on one of my family’s visits to Brooklyn.

I was not very old. I must have been six or seven. My grandparents wanted to entertain me, so they borrowed a bicycle from a neighbor for me to ride during the visit.  The problem was there are very few places a child can ride a bicycle in the middle of Brooklyn. My only option was to ride up and down Midwood Street. I am confident my parents told me to be careful and I am confident they told me my grandparent’s address, 202 Midwood Street, because all the houses looked the same. The problem was I did not listen to them. I was more interested in trying out the bicycle. When I jumped on the bike and began to peddle. In a few seconds, I was lost in the adventure of the ride. I picked up speed fast and I imagined being in all kinds of exciting places. I was having a great time! When I snapped back to reality, I discovered the truth. I was lost in New York. All the homes were identical, and I did not know which one belonged to my grandparents. I could not remember my grandparent’s address, 202 Midwood Street. Emotionally, I went from the highest mountain to the lowest valley. Fear began flood through me. I thought I would never see my family again. How would I survive in the streets of New York alone? There was only one option, I began to cry. I know that is hard to believe because I am so manly today. I promised myself, I would never ride a bicycle again and I prayed that God we help me.

God heard my prayer. My savior came to recue me. In that emotional moment I heard comforting words. It was my mother, who had been watching me from the window the whole time. I do not remember her exact words, but I do remember the relief I felt. My mother took me by the hand, wiped my tears, and led me home. I took one last look at that horrible bicycle and walked inside. I was safe and sound. I am confident I was extra good the rest of that trip. Can I ask you another question? When was the last time you were lost?

It is not just a story about a small boy lost in a big city. It is the story of the Christian faith, itself. We are lost in sin. Everyone does it and it comes in many forms, each one damaging our relationship with God. We deserve what the people of Nineveh got, punishment. But our punishment never comes because our savior came 2,000 years ago. His name is Jesus. Grace is a wonderful thing. How do you respond to God’s grace? It has been said, “God’s grace is not an excuse to sin, but rather a reason to love and serve him more fully.”

Pray for Jon Steingard

Pray for Jon Steingard. I will be the first one to admit it. I never heard of him until recently. He is not a close friend. I would not recognize him, if he walked into the room. However, I have found myself praying for him because he has made the greatest mistake in his life. He has announced to the world he is an atheist. He should have known better. He was raised in a Christian home in Canada. To make matters worse, he was a pastor’s kid. Until recently, he was the lead vocalist and guitarist for the Christian pop-punk band Hawk Nelson. I do not know why he walked away. Perhaps, he was near sighted or angry at God. He saw all the ugliness of this world and decided God could not exist. He would not be the first one. Perhaps, he walked away because he only heard about Jesus and never experienced Jesus firsthand. There is a world of difference. Regardless, I feel sorry for him. So, let me ask you again. Pray for Jon Steingard. He will regret his decision to leave the faith. How do you walk away from the greatest life that ever lived? That takes us to our scripture reading for today, Micah 5:1-4.

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “He who is like God,” but we just call him Micah. Truly little is known about him outside of this book. However, we do know he lived in southern Judah approximately 700 years before the birth of Christ. At that time, Judah was struggling. Both their present and their future seemed bleak. We can relate to them because the negativity at this time in history is suffocating. However, for the people of God there is always hope. It is still true today.

The scripture reading may so familiar because it is read every Christmas Eve. The great prophesy is read surrounded by decorated trees and poinsettias on that sacred night to big crowds. The key verse in the reading is verse two, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Ephrathah was the region in which Bethlehem was located, like Youngstown is in Ohio. Bethlehem is approximately eleven miles south of Jerusalem. The people of that small community must have been proud, but the promised ruler would not come in their lifetime. You know the truth. God transcends time. In other words, God does not grow old, so God takes his time. It took 700 years for God to act.

The long-awaited ruler was born to a common couple. They named him Jesus. His name means Savior. His biological mother was Mary. His biological father was God, Himself. That means Joseph had the awful job of being the stepfather to the son of God. How do you discipline the son of God? Seven-hundred years is a long time to wait, but it was worth every second. Let me state it clearly. Jesus was the greatest life that ever lived. Jesus would change the world and our lives. You would not recognize our world if Jesus had never been born. H. G. Wells (1866-1946) was an English writer. He said it best, “I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I confess as an historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of human history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.” That is a great quote. If you can agree Jesus had a positive influence on our world say, “Amen!”

Allendale Baptist Church is in Allendale, Michigan. It is a community of approximately 18,000 people and is less than 400 miles from here. The associate pastor at that church is a man named Tim Arndt. He claims to be the world’s tallest Filipino. However, he did not give his height. I read one of his blogs recently. He says Jesus changed our world for the better in five profound ways. I cannot disagree with one. They are listed in no particular order.

Jesus influenced education! Matthew 22:37 quotes Jesus, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and will all your soul and with all your mind.” Jesus was interested in the mind. Jesus is saying we are to love God with our whole being. History tells us the Bible was the first textbook for many young children. In 1860, there were 108 colleges and universities in America. 106 of the 108 was started by Christians. That list includes Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Dartmouth, and Brown. It is ironic the world has tried to portray the faith as ignorant when the faith has done more than any other group to educate the masses. Have you ever stopped to consider how the Christian faith has influenced your education? Do you know anyone who cannot read? Jesus influenced education! How would our world look today if Jesus had never been born?

Jesus influenced women’s rights! It is impossible to read the gospels and not notice the major role woman played in Jesus’s ministry. That was unique and shocking in his time. Prior to Jesus, the world did not care less about women. In the Roman world, women were property. Jesus saw woman differently. He saw woman for what they were, made in the very image of God. Jesus treated women with dignity and respect. It happened during his earthly ministry. Jesus’ friends and ministry partners were women. It happened during his after his resurrection. It was woman who made the great discovery, Jesus had been raised from the dead! It was women who were untrusted with the message which would change the world. The early church was so saturated with women that it was often criticized as “a woman’s religion.” This church and many other churches would be crippled without the work of women. Jesus values all people. That means Jesus values you. How large of a part have women played in your spiritual development? Jesus influenced education and women’s rights! How would our world look today if Jesus had never been born?

Jesus influenced human rights! Matthew 5:44 says, “But I say to you, love your enemy, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Matthew 22:39 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving and caring for others is at the very heart of Jesus’s teachings. That is why the church has always been involved in human rights. The church was a major forced in the ending of slavery in the 1860’s and the church was a major force during the civil rights of the 1960’s. The church will be a major force of the human rights issues we are facing today. If we ignore or belittle the human rights issues of today, then we are ignoring the words of Jesus, himself, love your enemy as yourself. Today, in America basic human rights are common sense. But that was not always the case. Prior to Christianity, basic human rights were rare. How are you advancing human rights? Our society is far from perfect. Jesus influenced education, women’s rights, and human rights! How would our world look today if Jesus had never been born?

Jesus influenced humanitarian aid! In Matthew 25, we find the parable of the sheep and goats. It is a judgement parable. According to the parable, on judgement day we will be separated by God like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be permitted to enter heaven because they responded to human needs. They fed the hungry. The gave drink to the thirty. They welcomed strangers. They gave clothes to the naked. They cared for the sick and the incarcerated. The goats did none of the above and were sent to hell. The parable ends with a zinger. Jesus said, when you cared for the down and out you were really caring for him. This is the point. We are responsible for the world’s basic needs. Did you know every seven seconds someone dies of starvation? What are you doing to help them? Have you ever needed some help? Jesus influenced education, women’s rights, human rights, and humanitarian aid! How would our world look today if Jesus had never been born? How would our world look today if Jesus had never been born?

Jesus influenced medicine! The miracles of Jesushave fascinated the generations. It is true in Jesus’s generation and it is still true today. Jesus got the lame to walk. Jesus got the blind to see. Jesus made the demonic whole and resurrected the dead. Those miracles are important because they proved he was the long-awaited Messiah. However, they were also important because Jesus did not want to see people suffer. He wanted them to live full lives. For this reason, many hospitals were started in the name of Jesus. The government has been involved in the medical system for the past 80 years. (How do you think they are doing?) Prior to the government, churches were involved in starting and funding hospitals. Still today, there are 726 faith-based hospitals. When was the last time you required some medical care? Jesus influenced education, women’s rights, human rights, humanitarian rights, and medicine! How would our world look today if Jesus had never been born?

Micah may have lived 700 years before the birth of Jesus, but he was right! The most influential life that would ever live was Jesus. Two-thousand years after his birth we see the influence he has had. Jesus offered us hope. Without Jesus our world is a dark hopeless place. Perhaps, H. G. Wells said it best. He once said, “I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I confess as an historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of human history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.”

How Small is Your God?

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “Dove,” but we just call him Jonah. He lived in the eighth century BC. There is no other way to say it. Jonah is a curious Old Testament book because it has a New Testament feel. Let me give you some strange coincidences. First, Jonah’s name dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.  Second, Jonah is saved not saved by a whale, but he is saved by a great fish, the symbol of the church in the early church. The church exists to save people. Third, Jonah’s call to the Ninevites, Gentiles, non-Jews, is a New Testament theme. Jonah must have been Paul’s favorite minor prophet. If you do not know the story of Jonah, then ask any Sunday school child and they will enlighten you. I do not want to sound critical, but the story reveals Jonah’s ignorance about God. Jonah’s understanding of God was too small. He failed to recognize the vastness of God. So, let me ask you the question of the day, how small is your God? Jonah’s understanding of God was deficient in several ways.

First, Jonah did not understand the presence of God. In the Christian faith, we understand God to be omnipresent, all present. That means God can be in all places all the time. God’s presence encompasses the whole universe.

The word of God came to Jonah. The Almighty directs him to go to the great city of Nineveh. The problem is he does not want to go. Instead of going to Nineveh, he goes to port city of Joppa. It is there he buys a ticket to Tarshish. Geography is important in this story. Joppa is on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and Tarshish is on the western shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Today, we call Joppa Jaffa, a suburb of Tel Aviv, Israel. Today, we call Tarshish Spain. What is Jonah trying to do? He is trying to run away from his divine task by running away from God. The prophet should have known better. You know what Jonah did not understand. There is no where you can go to escape God. There has never been a moment in your life when you have been orphaned. God is with us right now. God is all present! How small is your God?

Second, Jonah did not understand the power of God. In the Christian faith, we understand God to be omnipotent, all powerful. God is not limited by natural law. God has power over wind, water, gravity, physics, and the rest. God’s power is unlimited.

With his ticket in hand, Jonah entered the ship and headed to Tarshish. That is about a 2200-mile trip. I have no clue how long that would take on a wooden ship. It must have been a long time and the best they could hope for was good sailing weather. It did not happen. The ship was involved in a great storm. The sailors looked for the person responsible. They draw lots and the lot fell on Jonah. They throw him into the water and the water instantly calms. The prophet would have died if not for the great fish, who swallows Jonah whole.

It has been said, a coincidence is a little miracle where God wants to remain anonymous. Do you think it was just a coincidence there was a great storm? Do you think it was just a coincidence the lot fell on Jonah? Do you think it was a coincidence the storm calmed once Jonah hit the water? Do you think it was just a coincidence a great fish just happened to be in the area? Do you think it was just a coincidence Jonah was swallowed whole? The fish could have just as easily bit down. As Jonah sat in the belly of the great fish, he must have had a new insight about God. God is all powerful. God is all present! God is all powerful! How small is your God?

Third, Jonah did not understand the knowledge of God. In the Christian faith, we understand God to be omniscience, all knowing. God is aware of what is happening in the past, present, and future. That means it is impossible to keep a secret from God.

Jonah’s escape to Tarshish was supposed to be a big secret. There is no sign in the text he told anyone. There was no going away party. He acted alone because he wanted to slip away and be forgotten. The Bible does not encourage secrets. They damage relationships and ruin community. That is exactly what happened in the story of Moses. The great lawgiver was raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter in the palace. For many years, she kept the secret he was not her biological son. To make matters worse, Moses was a Hebrew. When it is finally revealed it caused a great stir. You can hide the truth from people for a long period of time, but you cannot fool God. Psalm 44:21 says, “God knows the secret of the heart.” Jonah learned the hard way. God is all knowing. God is all present! God is all powerful! God is all knowing! How small is your God?

Fourth, Jonah did not understand the love of God. In the Christian faith, we understand God to be all loving, omnibenevolent. This is the hardest aspect of God for Jonah to understand because love is so complex. This is the question that must be answered. Why did Jonah not want to go to Nineveh? There is a political side to that answer and a moral side to that answer. Nineveh was the capital of a foreign power, Assyria. Nineveh’s sins were well known. Another minor prophet, Nahum tells us Nineveh’s sins included plotting evil against the Lord, cruelty and plunder in war, prostitution, witchcraft, and commercial exploitation. If there was one place that did not deserve God’s grace, it was Nineveh. Yet, God sends Jonah to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire because God loved them too. You cannot really blame Jonah. God’s love is not easy. Sometimes love forces us to sacrifice. Sometimes love forces us to change. Nether one comes naturally. No one is exempt.

William Gladstone (1809-1898) is one of the names in the history of Great Britain. Near the end of his life he reported the most difficult thing he had to do in service to his country was report the death of Princess Alice (1843-1878) to the House of Commons. She was thirty-five years old and the daughter of Queen Victoria (1819-1901). The story is tragic. The little daughter of the Princess was seriously ill with diphtheria. The doctors told the princess not to kiss her little daughter and endanger her life by breathing the child’s breath. That is exactly what happened. Once, when the child was struggling to breathe. It was more than Princess Alice could handle so, forgetting herself entirely, took the little one into her arms to keep her from choking to death. Rasping and struggling for her life, the child said, “Momma, kiss me!” Without thinking of herself the mother tenderly kissed her daughter. That kiss was the beginning of the end. Princess Alice got diphtheria and some days later died. That story illustrates an important point. Real love forgets self. Real love knows no danger. Real love does not count the cost. Real love is not afraid to sacrifice. However, real love also forces us to change.

Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983) was a Dutch Christian. During the Second World War she and her family helped many Jews escape the Nazis concentration camps. In time, they were caught and arrested. She was sent to Raven Bruck concentration camp. In her famous book, The Hiding Place, she told how she found hope in God while imprisoned. After the war she toured and lectured on the importance of forgiveness. At the end of one of those meetings a man approached her holding out his hand. She instantly recognized him as one of the wardens from the camp who had treated her and her family so badly. In that split second, she was faced with the reality of the choice to forgive. It is one thing to talk about forgiveness. It is another thing to forgive. She held out her hand and shook it as he quietly asked her forgiveness. She had to forgive him because God loved him too. Sometimes love forces us to change. Sometimes love forces us to sacrifice. Jonah had a hard time understanding God’s love. I hope that is not your story. Many still struggle with the depth of God’s love for us. If you do not believe me than look at the cross. How small is your God?

There is an old preaching story about a medieval monk. He announced he would be preaching next Sunday evening on “The Love of God.” As the shadows fell and the light ceased to come in through the cathedral windows, the congregation gathered. In the darkness of the altar, the monk lighted a candle and carried it to the crucifix. First, he illumined the crown of thorns, next, the two wounded hands, then the marks of the spear wound. In the hush that fell, he blew out the candle and left the chancel. There was nothing else to say. That story reminds us God did not count the cost of loving us. How can anyone question God’s love for us? Augustine (354-430) may have said it best. He once said, “God loves each of us as if there was one of us.”  God is all present! God is all powerful! God is all knowing! God is all loving! How small is your God?