We find ourselves in the twelfth chapter of John. It is six days before Passover and Jesus is in Bethany, near Jerusalem. Bethany was the hometown of Lazarus, the one Jesus resurrected. (You can find that story in the previous chapter.) As a way of thanking Jesus, a dinner is held in his honor. Everyone was there, but only three are mentioned. There was Martha, who is serving the crowd. She is as busy as a bee. There was Lazarus. Everyone must have asked him, what do you remember about being dead? There was Mary. Jesus has her complete attention. She is the one who does the unexpected.

According to verse 3, without warning, Mary pours a pint of expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet, wiping it with her hair. The entire house was filled with the sweet smell. Everyone must have reacted in their own way. According to the text, Judas Iscariot, the one who would soon reject Jesus, saw that act as a financial waste. Disguising his selfish motive, Judas Iscariot said the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor. It was a good point. Some must have agreed with him. However, Jesus didn’t. The Master saw Mary’s act as a sign of love and devotion. Defending her, Jesus says, “You will always have the poor, but you will not always have me”. It pains me to say it, but to date Jesus has been right. The poor are still with us, but his earthly ministry is over.

Our world is the home of many poor people. The numbers don’t lie. I came across these numbers this week. They may be dated because they came from 2017. I doubt things are getting better. They came from an organization called FINCA, The World Bank for the Poor. These numbers reminded me, I have a good life. According to them:

There are approximate 7.88 billion people in our world. Half of the world’s population lives on less than $6.85 per day. Ten percent of the world’s population in our world live on less than $2.50 a day.

In developing countries, 60% to 80% of all income is spent on food. In the United States, it is 10%.

Over 800 million people worldwide do not have enough food to eat. Three million children die annually of malnutrition.

Approximately 1.2 billion in our world live without electricity.

40 million children worldwide live without adequate shelter.

700 million in our world lack clean water.

Approximately one billion people entered the twenty-first century unable to read or write.

Jesus wasn’t wrong, Jesus was right! There are many poor people in our world. America is not excluded from poverty. Did you know, according to the United States Census, 11.6%, or 37.6 million Americans, live in poverty? Do you know of anyone who lives in poverty? Have you ever experienced poverty firsthand?However, after saying all of this about poverty, the text is not about poverty. The text is about the supremacy of Jesus. Look at the text with me one more time.

Jesus is in Bethany, the hometown of Lazarus, the man Jesus resurrected. A dinner is being held in Jesus’s honor. Mary expresses her extravagant love for Jesus by anointing him with expensive presume. Jesus does not reprimand her for her waste. He applauds her for her priorities. Jesus understood his role in God’s plan of salvation for the world. He knew his mission superseded any human need. Jesus didn’t say helping the poor was bad. However, he did know it wasn’t enough. It is not just true in Jesus’s time; it is true in our time. In the life of the church, doing good things isn’t good enough. Like Mary, our top priority must be Jesus! Nothing else in the life of the church really matters.

As I have said in the past, I am not a United Methodist by birth. I am a United Methodist by choice. I was raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I never really thought much about my Disciples roots, but that changed in an instant. A person from a local Disciple congregation joined my church, and I discovered something about myself. My Disciples roots have had great influence on my personal theology. There is a simple line from that denomination that holds great value. It goes like this: No creed but Christ. No book but the Bible. As an ordained Elder within the United Methodist Church, I hate to admit it, but that is how I feel. That is what I taught through the years. Good works aren’t good enough. We are saved by grace. (Ephesians 2:8-9) In the life of the church, nothing really matters but Jesus. If we don’t have Jesus, if we are not passionate about Jesus, then we have nothing at all. We are not a social action agency; we are the church of Jesus Christ. The organizational church must never loose their passion for him.

Annually, as a United Methodist, I observed Charge Conference. It is the highest administrative body within a United Methodist congregation. It is our annual business meeting. Charge Conference is not exciting, but several things do happen. The pastor’s salary is set for next year. Officers are elected. Goals are set and reports are given. Annually, I wrote a Pastor’s Report. Six years ago, I called my Pastor’s Report, The Secret to Our Success. That had been a good year in the life of my church. I would have matched our numbers with any United Methodist congregation in our area. While most United Methodist congregations are struggling, we had seen some growth. The secret to our success has nothing to do with me. It has nothing to do with congregation. It has nothing to do with what we have done or own. The secret to our success is Jesus. I have understood it for a long time. In the life of the church, nothing really matters but Jesus. If we don’t have Jesus, if we are not passionate about Jesus, then we have nothing at all. This is one paragraph from my report:

I am always amazed how easily distracted we are in the life of the church. We are supposed to be developing disciples for Jesus Christ, but we are lost in a sea of good works. It is one of the things that makes any appointment challenging. It is not a lack of passion or energy. People are passionate about many things. People are passionate about the next fundraiser. People are passionate about the building. People are passionate about the cleanliness of our church. People are passionate about the happiness of their friends. People are passionate about their opinions and their voice being heard. At the general church level, they are passionate about issues and heritage. Many have become passionate about sexuality. Those things really don’t matter if we are not passionate about Jesus. I refuse to be trapped by the good works and understand my role to simply promote Jesus. In the life of the church nothing matters but Jesus.

How passionate are you about Jesus? Every Christian, and congregation, must be passionate about Jesus! Nothing else matters. Let me end with this story.  

Years ago, I was involved in a pulpit exchange. You know the pulpit exchange. It is held on the third Sunday of January. All the ministers go to another church for one Sunday. Everyone likes it. The churches like it because they get to meet a new minister. The ministers like it because they can preach something old. I do not remember who came to my church, but I do remember I went to a church in the community. That church only had one service.

The word must have gotten out. It was pulpit exchange Sunday, and I was coming. The attendance was a little low. I didn’t count heads, but there were maybe forty people. The lay leader worked his way through the order of worship and pointed to me when it was time to preach. I do not want to sound critical, but the crowd didn’t seem impressed by my presence. After a word of welcome, I read the scripture and said a prayer. Two minutes into my sermon a man suddenly appeared in the back. He sat next to another man. The newcomer said something to the other man, and he sprang to life. Together, they ran out. A minute later they grabbed another man, and he ran out. Next, one of them came back and told his wife something. She grabbed a friend and they left. Three nosy people, who no one talked to, got up to see what was happening. In about ten minutes, I lost about half the crowd. I will be honest with you. As I preached, I began to wonder what was happening. Maybe someone had a heart attack. That would explain their sudden exit. Those who were left behind must had wondered too because they keep looking around. I couldn’t take it anymore. I shortened my sermon, only sang one verse of the final hymn, and sped through the benediction. I wanted to see the emergency. I wanted to help. When I walked to the back of the sanctuary, I looked for the escapees. I walked toward them to see what was happening. When I found the source of the commotion, I was relieved to find the emergency wasn’t a person. It was a thing. The toilet was clogged, and everyone was looking for the guilty party. On that day, in that unidentified church, they were more interested in a clogged toilet than in Jesus Christ. In the life of the church the only thing that really matters is Jesus. When you go to church is Jesus your top priority?

Have you ever gone to church and missed Jesus? Have you ever gone to church, and something became more important than Jesus? Let me say it again. In the life of the church there is nothing more important than Jesus. If we don’t have Jesus, then we have nothing at all. The great American evangelist Billy Graham (1918-2018) once said, “Make sure of your commitment to Jesus Christ, and seek to follow Him every day. Don’t be swayed by the values and goals of this world but put Christ and His will in everything you do.”

Are You Born Again?

We find ourselves in the third chapter of John, verses one through eight. The storyline of John is different than the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They have Jesus cleansing the temple at the end of his ministry; it is part of the climax. John is different. He has Jesus cleansing the temple at the beginning of his ministry (John 2). That fact is important to us for only one reason; Jesus had the attention of some very powerful influential people from the very beginning. If you want to get someone’s attention, then touch their money. It is still true today.

One of those powerful influential people was Nicodemus. According to the second half of verse one, he was a member of the Jewish ruling council. That means he had climbed to the very top of his profession. It is safe to say Nicodemus spent his days answering the questions of others. This story is unique because he is the one with the question. With everything that has been written about this passage through the ages, one thing is important to remember. This story is nothing more than a private discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus. It is John, the author and editor, who promotes this private discussion to the public’s attention.

According to verse two, Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. There is some debate about that fact. Some say Nicodemus went at night so the darkness could help hide his identity. How would it look for a trusted member of society to go to Jesus, a man with no credentials? Others say he went to Jesus at night so the two could talk privately. There was time to talk. The business of the day was done. Maybe it is a combination of the two? However, this point is crystal clear. Nicodemus went to Jesus because he was impressed by the Master. No ordinary man could have performed such miracles; he must have come from God. Jesus hears through these kind words and knows the real topic, salvation! That takes us to the key verse in the reading.

Jesus says in verse three, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born again. Two thousand years later, the world is still wrestling with those words, so we should not be surprised that Nicodemus wrestled with them that night. Nicodemus thinks Jesus is speaking of physical birth, reentering your mother’s womb. That sounds painful for everyone involved. However, Jesus is speaking of spiritual birth. The two are as different as night and day. This is the plain truth. From the moment you were physically born, you struggled to survive. Babies cry to fill their lungs with oxygen. The goal of life is survival, so the most important person in your universe is you. Spiritual rebirth is different. From the moment you are reborn, the most important person is God. Spiritually immature people live for themselves; spiritually mature people live for God. Which is more important to you? Are you the center of your universe, or is God the center of your universe?

Let me take you a little deeper. One of our primary understandings of God is that God practices free will. In other words, God may be directing history, but you are directing your own life. The choices you make are yours, so the burden of responsibility rests on you. So many things in life distill down to a choice. It has been reported the average person makes 35,000 choices in a single day. That figure seems high to me. (I know that figure is true because it came from the internet.) Some of our choices are simple choices. What are you going to have for lunch? Some of choices are harder? They will affect the rest of your life. Some choices have eternal consequences. That is what we find in the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus is telling Nicodemus he must be born again. So, this is the question of the day.

Are you born again? Do not answer too quickly. Your answer has eternal consequences. If you are born again then Jesus should be affecting every corner of your life. Remember, those who have experienced a physical birth live for themselves. Those who have experienced a second spiritual birth live for God. To answer the question of the day correctly, let me ask you three secondary questions. This is question number one.

Is God pleased with the way you are spending your time?  

One of the great stories in the Bible is the story of Mary and Martha. It is found in Luke 10:38-42. You know the story. Mary and Martha were sisters of Lazarus, the one who Jesus resurrected from the dead. The Master stops there on his way home to Jerusalem. For you see, their town, Bethany, was only two miles from the Golden City. When Jesus arrives, Mary sat at Jesus’s feet and hung on every word he spoke. Martha, on the other hand, slaved away doing the necessary duties, cooking and entertaining. That was the traditional role of women at that time. In time, Martha resents doing all the work and goes to Jesus to enlist some help. Instead of a helping hand, she receives some divine truth. Do you remember that divine truth? Jesus applauds Mary for her priorities. Martha filled her time doing good things, cooking, cleaning, entertaining. Mary filled her time with the best thing in life, Jesus. How do you fill your time?

Is God pleased with the way you are spending your time? I am not talking about spending your time in sinister ways, selling drugs or embezzling funds. However, I am talking about spending your time just doing good things, work, family, friends, church committees and fundraisers? How much time do you spend on the best thing, Jesus? That question challenges your priorities. Perhaps, this is a better question. How are you spending your time? Is God pleased with the way you are spending your time? If you are born again then God is the center of your universe. Are you born again? This is question number two.

Is God pleased with the way you are spending your money?

In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos (1917-1989) was elected President of the Philippines, which made his wife, Imelda (born 1929), first lady. They held those posts until 1986, when the entire family fled to Hawaii. The international news was fascinated with what was left behind. After having ruled a poor country for decades, the inventory was impressive: 15 mink coats, 508 gowns, 1,000 handbags and approximately 7,500 pairs of shoes. (However, Time magazine reported she only owned 1,060 pairs of shoes.) For your information, I only own four pairs of shoes; one is an old pair of sneakers for when I work on the lawn. Within a short time, Imelda Marcos was labeled the most selfish person in the world. One can only imagine how the world would have benefitted had she shared her wealth. Do the people in your world consider you selfish? In 2018, Imelda Marcos at age 89 was sentenced to forty-two years in prison for corruption.

Is God pleased with the way you are spending your money? Money is limited, so we only spend our money on things that are important to us. So, money is revealing. How much money do you spend on yourself? How much money do you spend on your family? How much money do you spend supporting the ministry of the church, the bride of Christ? How much money do you spend responding to human need? Imelda Marcos spent a fortune on shoes because shoes were important to her. What is important to you? Is God pleased with the way you are spending your money? If you are born again then God is the center of your universe. Are you born again? This is question number three.

Is God pleased with your personal witness?

We are only in this world for a short time. How will you be remembered? Will you be remembered as a kind person? Will you be remembered as a generous person? Will you be remembered as a loving person? Will you be remembered as a selfish person? Will you be remembered as a person who was passionate about your favorite team? Will you be remembered as a person who was passionate for God? Imelda Marcos owned 7,500 pairs of shoes. How do you think she will be remembered? How will you be remembered? Is God pleased with your personal witness? If you are born again then God is the center of your universe. Are you born again, or do you have some work to do?

It is like watching history. On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin (born 1952) announced in a prerecorded television broadcast he had ordered a special military action inside of Ukraine. It was not a complete surprise. I am not an expert on Eastern European history, but there has been tension between Moscow and Kiev for years. Some believe it can be traced back to the Bolshevik Revolution (1917-1923). The Ukrainians did not support Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) and the Bolsheviks. The Ukrainians were punished for their lack of support. The Soviets starved the Ukrainians. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Ukraine became an independent nation. Russia has been trying to reclaim that land sense. In 2005, the Ukrainians expelled their Russian backed President because he failed to keep a campaign promise and join NATO. In 2014, the Russians took Crimea without a shot being fired. The latest military action is not as much a surprise as a continuation. Like Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) expected quick victories in the Second World War, Putin expected a quick victory, but it is not happening. The Ukrainians are fighting back. The west has responded with severe economic sanctions. The fragile Russian economy is crumbling, but the Ukrainians are suffering. The United Nations has reported more than 1,000,000 Ukrainians have left their country. That figure may jump to 5,000,000.

Nightly, I watch reports on those refugees. It is heartbreaking. Mothers/wives are taking their children to safety. Husbands/fathers are staying in Ukraine to support or serve in the Ukrainian army. Those men are willing to sacrifice everything, to change everything about their lives because they love their wives, children and country. There is no doubt about it. Love is the most powerful force in the world. We are not afraid to sacrifice and change for those that we love.

It is the story of the Christian faith; how much do you love God? How much are you willing to sacrifice for God? How much are you willing to change for God? The time has come to change the way you spend your time. The time has come to change the way you spend your money. The time has come to change your witness. Are you the center of your universe or is God the center of your universe? It is the question that will not go away. Are you born again?

Great Expectations

Let me begin this blog not with a story but with a question. Do you like apricots? You did not hear me wrong. I am asking you about the small yellowish-orange fruit with a single pit. Some love apricots. Others hate apricots. What is your answer? Do you like apricots?

Years ago, I read a story about a psychology student who tried an experiment. He was serving in the Army and had drawn kitchen duty. His job was to pass out the apricots at the end of the line. He asked the first few soldiers that came by, “You don’t want any apricots, do you?” Ninety percent said “No.” Then he tried the positive approach: “You do want apricots, don’t you?” About half answered, “Uh, yeah. I’ll take some.” Then he tried a third test, based on the fundamental either/or selling technique. This time he asked, “One dish of apricots or two?” And although soldiers do not like Army apricots, 40 percent took two and 50 percent took one! I tell you that story for one reason. We are not as independent as we think. The expectations placed on our lives influence our behavior. That young psychology student learned the power of expectations. What expectations are influencing your behavior? That takes us to our scripture lesson, Haggai 1:1-8.

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 “festival,” because he must have been born during one of the three great festivals on the Hebrew calendar, Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. However, we just call him Haggai. He lived in the sixth century BC. He spoke to the postexilic Jews who were living in Judah. In other words, he spoke to Jews who had returned home after the exile.

Those were complex times. The conqueror of Babylon, Cyrus of Persia, issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Approximately 50,000 Jews did just that. Two years later, the foundation was done, which caused political unrest in the area. They were seen by their neighbors as a new political force. Construction was halted to calm their neighbor’s fears. The construction did not begin again until a new king sat on the throne. That king, Dairus, was interested in the religious traditions of his empire and encouraged the reconstruction. Haggai began to preach during this time. He encouraged the people to reconstruct the temple too, but his message takes it one step farther. He blamed the people, themselves, for their inactivity. The problem was not a lack of construction equipment. The problem was their mixed-up priorities. According to our reading for today, they were living in fine homes, while the temple laid in ruins. Their own homes were symbolic of their mixed-up priorities. So, let me ask you this question. How influential is God on the way you live your life?

In America, we celebrate the fact that we are free. Within each one of us is a rebel. We were raised with the idea we were captain of our own ship and no one can tell you what to say or do. The pandemic exposed our limitations, but it is still generally true. This is painfully true. We are surrounded by expectations that curb our words and behavior. Just think about it for a minute. We are influenced by societal expectations. Let me give you an example.

May 24, 2012 the St. Louis Cardinals were hosting the Philadelphia Phillies. At that time there were fans in the stand and not cardboard cutouts. The game was competitive, and the crowd was enjoying themselves. In the crowd was twenty-two-year-old Collin Grundstrom was having a super time. Just as the seventh inning was about to begin, a beer fueled Grundstrom decided to take his fun to a new level. He decided to slip into his birthday suit and streak onto the field. At first no one could believe their eyes. It hit everyone at the same time. The police were not amused. They ran after him. In time, they caught him, and body slammed him. He was charged with public nudity. This is the point.

Our society is filled with expectations. There are things our society will tolerate and things our society will not tolerate. One of the things society expects is for you to keep your clothes on. However, that is not the only societal expectation.

Consider these societal expectations. They are in no order.

1. Giving Christmas presents

2. Leaving a tip for a waiter (At least 15%)

3. Saying please and thank-you

4. Avoid burping in public

5. Chewing gum with no sound

6. Chewing food with your mouth closed.

7. Showering

8. Brushing your teeth.

9. Opening the door for a lady

10. Surrendering your seat to an elderly person.

There are others, but I will not go on. Do I have to go on?

There are certain things our society expects. It is true of our generation and it was true of Haggai’s generation as well. From the moment Haggai entered this world his culture was telling him how to act. From the moment you entered this world our culture was tell us the proper way to act. Is anyone here ready to slip into your birthday suit and go for a run? I hope not, because our society does not tolerate such behavior. There are societal expectations that influence us. There are also family expectations that influence us.

This is a big weekend for my family. It is my youngest daughter Anna’s bridal shower. She is one of the many brides around the world who have been frustrated by the coronavirus. She planned on getting married on May 30, but she has rescheduled her wedding for April 10. The hard part should be finding someone to marry you not getting married. 

I am proud of Anna for many reasons. She is a good person who has worked hard for a bright future. She is a school psychologist in the Canton area. She got her master’s degree from Youngstown State and her bachelor’s degree from Mount Union. That impresses me because I went to Mount Union. As a matter of fact, her Major is the same as my Major, Business Administration with a minor in Marketing. In several classes we had the same professors thirty-four years apart. My father never told me two things. He never said to me, “I loved you.” He never said to me, “I am proud of you.” Now, it is too late. I did not want to make that same mistake, so I have told Anna countless times. She is tired of hearing it. I told her on the day she graduated from Mount Union. Anna responded, “Dad, I don’t know why you are so impressed. I thought we were expected to go to college. I did not know there was another option.” I guess she was right. It was what Kathryn and I expected from our children. What does your family expect from you?

Recently, I baptized a little boy named Matthew. Kathryn officiated at his parent’s wedding years ago. I baptized his older sister three and a half years ago. They consider me their pastor, but they have never attended worship at this church. In infant baptism, we recognize the influence others have on the child. The parents, families, and church promise in infant baptism to do all in their power to raise the child in the Christian faith. Is there anyone here whose parents were not Christian? I would be surprised. Parents are very influential on their children. When I ask couples getting married, “Whose relationship to you admire the most?” They never say Harry and Megan. They tell me their parents. Like it or not, you are influenced by your family. How are you influencing the spiritual life of the youngest in your family? We are influenced by societal expectations. We are influenced by family expectations. Haggai reminds we must be influenced by God. There are divine expectations What does God expect from you?

Someone asked Jesus the question, “What is the greatest commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:36) Jesus answered the question, “You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37) That means you are to love God completely. In other words, God is to be the top priority in your life. That is what God expects. Mark Twain (1835-1910) once said, “To change your life, you must change your priorities.” How influential is God on the way you live?

In 2012, Forbes announced the happiest countries in the world. They looked at 184 different counties and examined a wide variety of facts. According to Forbes, Norway is the happiest country in the world, followed Denmark, Australia, and New Zealand. The unhappiest country in the world is the Central African Republic. I think that fact is interesting. Did you know Forbes reported the United States is the eleventh happiest country in the world? Many were surprised by our low international ranking.

Many have tried to explain our low ranking. Some believe our low international ranking is economic based, the soaring national debt or declining world influence. Those factors are not helping our national state of mind, but I do not think they are the real reason. If money can buy happiness, then we should be deleterious. The United States still owns 60% of the world’s wealth.

I believe the reason is spiritual. We are number eleven because God is no longer a priority in our society. We are no longer preoccupied with our divine purpose. Today, we are preoccupied with our comforts. As a nation, we are spiritually out of balance. I hear it from ever generation. The young are studying subjects that do not enjoy but will assure them a big income after graduation. The aged are living together unmarried, missing traditional Christian morals, for financial gain. Just like the postexilic Jews who lived in fine homes, while the temple sat in ruins, it is a question of priorities. How influential is God on the way you live your life? The purpose of life is not to be comfortable. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the purpose of life is to glorify God.

One of the great missionaries in history was William Carey (1761-1838). He spent many years serving in India and made God his top priority. He was married three times. Death ended each marriage. He had four children in those four marriages. One of his sons, Felix, also a believer, was appointed ambassador to Burma by the British government. Everyone was impressed but not Carey. He requested prayer for Felix. He said, “Pray for Felix. He has degenerated into an ambassador of the British government when he should be serving the King of kings.” That is a story about priorities. What is your greatest priority? Do you remember the Mark Twain quote? The great writer once said, “To change your life, you must change your priorities.” How influential is God on the way you live?