The following sermon—“When a Christian Dies, What Then?”—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, October 7. 2018. It is based on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

 

People die. It happens all the time. And sooner or later, it will happen to all of us. When it does happen, there are certain things that we normally do. We have to decide what to do with the body of the one who has died. And we have to decide how we will recognize the fact that a death has taken place.


There does not seem to be a consensus on these decisions at the present time. When Senator John McCain died after a long illness, a whole series of events unfolded which showed that this death was something truly significant. But sometimes we go to the opposite extreme. Then the goal is no fuss, no bother, because life goes on.


Whatever the decisions that are made, whatever the rituals that are observed or ignored, a death has unusual power to raise hard questions in our minds. What happens after we die? People wonder about this. If you don’t believe me, open up the obituary section of the newspaper and start reading. Quite often, there is a statement made about the current status of the person who has recently died. Where they are and what they are doing seem to be important to us.


It always has been like this. We care about people we have known and we want the best for them. Apart from the obituaries, if you ask people about what comes next, you will find that there are a lot of different opinions. Some will be so blunt as to say, you live, you die, end of story. Others will say, I don’t know but I hope for the best. Still others will have all sorts of things to say about angels and paradise and a happy reunion. But if you were bold enough to ask how we can be so sure, you might be disappointed. It may be nothing more than wishful thinking on our part.


Back in the days when the Romans ruled the world, in various places around the Empire groups began to form. They were made up of people who believed something shocking, that the true King and Savior was not Caesar but a Jew who had been crucified by the Romans, Jesus of Nazareth. They were convinced that after his crucifixion, he was raised to new life, raised bodily. That is, they believed in the resurrection of the body. They also expected that this rightful King, Jesus, will return to this world, and that those who belong to him will share in his victory. They will be participants in the resurrection themselves. These groups of Christians were filled with hope, as you can imagine.


In the Roman world, there was nothing else quite like this. It was all good until something unexpected started happening. Some members of these groups who were looking forward to sharing in Jesus’ triumph began to die, one by one. That’s not supposed to happen, they said. These are people we’ve known and loved. They concluded that when the Lord becomes present in his fullness at his royal appearing, these dear friends will not be on hand to greet him. They will miss out! So the question of what happens after we die became an urgent one. Every time a Christian succumbed to disease, it became even more pressing. Can you appreciate the need for Paul to take up this matter when he is writing to this group of Christians who know some things but are not sure about a lot of other things?


In this case, ignorance is a great enemy. True, there are mysteries in life that we can never unravel. But some things can be known and ought to be known. In that case, it’s better to become well-informed. That will make life work better. On this matter of what happens to the Christian dead, Paul does not want the church to be ignorant. Being uninformed will keep them from living with hope. So he sets out to give them good information about those who have died.


Paul knows that when we suffer a loss, we grieve. No getting around that. He says, though, that it’s possible to grieve in a different way. He puts it negatively. I don’t want you to grieve like those neighbors of yours who have no hope. He’s not saying, I don’t want you to grieve, period. That’s impossible anyway. Rather, I want you to grieve and have hope at the same time.


Paul was well aware of what life was like in the Roman empire and how people dealt with death. In the ancient world, the grief of those who had no hope was unending. They had nothing solid enough to counter their hopelessness.


Not so for those groups of Christians. Paul wants them to have hope even when there is a loss. This hope is rooted in something that has happened. This is bedrock. The Lord Jesus died and was raised. On the basis of what has happened, we know something true about the Christians who have died. They will share in the resurrection of the Lord. Paul is speaking to worries that the congregation might have concerning the well-being of those they have known. To those worries, he tells them that the dead in Christ are not forgotten. The Lord knows who they are.


They are not going to be at a disadvantage when the resurrection takes place. In fact, the dead in Christ will rise first. Paul’s bottom line for all Christians is this: We shall always be with the Lord. That includes both groups, those who have died before the Lord returns in glory, and those who are still living at the time of his royal appearance. With the Lord. Now and forever. That’s the information we need concerning those who have left us. That can be said and believed with conviction for this reason that the Lord Jesus died and rose again. We shall, says Paul, always be with the Lord.


With the Lord. That’s really the heart of the matter. When you read those obituaries, there are a lot of other things that are affirmed. But this one thing is the heart of the Christian hope in the face of death.


We’ll always be with the Lord. Death shall not separate us. Psalm 27 affirms, I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Christians agree with that, because the Lord Jesus died and rose again. Therefore, we shall always be with the Lord. If this one thing is true, that will be enough for us.


Paul’s friends who are reading these words can breathe a huge sigh of relief. They will be relieved that the Gospel pertains to them and their friends who have died. They have a new freedom, freedom to encourage one another on the basis of the good news about Jesus. We can always use a word of encouragement. Not a mere pat on the back, wishful thinking when the words may or may not be true. The encouragement we can extend to one another is more robust than that. We can tell each other the good news that because the Lord died and rose again, so shall it be for our Christian friends who have died.


Thanks be to God!

 

 

The following sermon—"How Important Are Other Christians?"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, September 23, 2018. It is based on 1 Thessalonians 3:1-13.

My sermon today takes up an important matter: our relationships.

In the Christians community, how important are our relationships to one another?

How important are other Christians?

What do you think?

In the course of life, we rub shoulders with a large number of people.

We encounter other humans through the telephone, online, and in person when we go to the store.

A lot of those encounters are strictly business.

And that’s a good thing. There isn’t enough of you to go around if you try to become intimate friends with everyone you meet.

But is that how the church works?

We just happen to be sharing the same real estate for part of a Sunday morning.

Is that all there is?

I turn to some words that Paul wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica.

He had been with them for only a short time.

It was a short time because Paul was forced to leave for the safety of all concerned.

Now he is carrying out his ministry in another locale.

Life goes on, doesn’t it? That’s what we usually say. People come, people go.

Not so for Paul!

Twice he uses a vivid phrase, so vivid it’s almost painful to hear.

"We could bear it no longer."

It drove him crazy that he could not continue the relationship in person.

He took what were for him extreme measures just to get some reliable information on how they were faring.

He sent his right-hand man to go in person as his representative. Given the time it took to make a trip in those days, not to mention the risks of travel, that was a huge sacrifice on Paul’s part and on Timothy’s part too.

Paul is willing to make a sacrifice because he has been worried sick about them.

What if they’ve abandoned the faith?

Even if they haven’t, what if they think that I don’t care about them?

What if my sudden departure is misconstrued as an act of abandonment?

Will they resent me forever?

What will be our relationship in the future?

You see, to Paul, the connection he has with other Christians is important.

How important?

Life and death important!

Thus, he makes an even more extreme comment.

This is the part that captured my attention as I was reading and rereading this passage.

"For now we live, if you stand fast in the Lord."

So caught up is Paul in their spiritual maturing that he can say that unless they are faring well, he’s not really living.

If we were asked, we would counsel him, get over it, Paul, there are other churches to love.

The Thessalonians are replaceable.

Life goes on. People come into our lives, and then they leave.

Get over it, Paul.

Paul can’t get over it, though. He’ll push back hard if you tell him to let the Thessalonians go. You see, he thinks that our relationships in the Christian community are not strictly business. It’s more like the different organs in the body. They are bound together, even intertwined. That’s how Paul looks upon the church.

But wait a minute, you say. When you talk about that level of intimacy, you get nervous. The reason is that these sorts of tight relationships are fraught with pain, real pain.

When your life is tightly bound up with someone else’s life, sooner or later someone is going to get hurt. Misunderstandings are inevitable.

Then there is the pain of separation, such as Paul is describing. On top of that, when the other party is floundering, the heartache quickly spreads from one person to another.

And that is a big reason that so many people don’t want to get close to others. It’s an enormous risk. You could get badly hurt.

Long ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, there was a duo, two men, who wrote and sang songs that spoke to the hearts of isolated, lonely youth.

One of their popular songs was called "I Am a Rock."

 

A winter’s day

In a deep and dark

December,

I am alone,

Gazing from my window to the streets below

On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.

I am a rock,

I am an island.

I’ve built walls,

A fortress deep and mighty,

That none may penetrate.

I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain.

Its laughter and its loving I disdain.

I am a rock,

I am an island.

Don’t talk of love,

Well I've heard the words before;

It’s sleeping in my memory.

I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.

If I never loved I never would have cried.

I am a rock,

I am an island.

I have my books

And my poetry to protect me,

I am shielded in my armor,

Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.

I touch no one and no one touches me.

I am a rock,

I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain,

And an island never cries.

(© 1965 Words and Music by Paul Simon)

I’m embarrassed to report that I was one of those lonely youth who embraced that song, and played it often enough to wear the record out. But, for me and for countless others throughout the years, the Gospel has changed everything. We have found that the deep bond in Christ that Paul describes is reality. A painful reality to be sure. You can get hurt. Simon and Garfunkel were right about that. But if I’m hearing Paul correctly, he would say that it’s worth the risk. The joys of Christian community are that great. In Christian life, the other Christians that you meet are more than people who happen to share the same hobby.

Paul would say that it’s a deeper relationship than that. We’re more than business associates.

When Paul says "brother" and "sister," which he often does, he is not just being nice.

That is reality. We are family.

A few decades before "I Am a Rock" was released, in the year 1938, a German pastor and scholar by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer published a short book, Life Together.

It’s the polar opposite of "I Am a Rock." He says that Christian life is life together, and that is a good thing. Not an easy thing, not at all. In fact, he has a chapter on the topic of confession because Christians sin. In our relationships there is pain. We do things that cause harm to our brothers and sisters, hence the need for confession and forgiveness.

So there is an enormous risk, but Bonhoeffer is telling us that it’s a risk worth taking.

Here are a few lines from Bonhoeffer that will give you a feel for what he is saying about Christian community:

It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. ... It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer. The believer feels no shame, as though he were still living too much in the flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.

We enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. ... We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily.

(Bonhoeffer, Life Together, quotations from Ch. 1 "Community")

So which will it be? I am a rock? Or life together? I know where the apostle Paul, who bares his heart on his sleeve in this short letter, would land. How about you? The very fact that you’re here on a Sunday morning tells me something. But I’ve found that not every professing Christians thinks that our relationships to one another are all that important.

If other Christians are nothing more than acquaintances who happen to have something in common with you, you may hang back from them. I’ve tried it both ways, and I am convinced that Paul is right. It’s time-consuming, it’s risky, sometimes painful to have brothers and sisters that you know. Yet life together also means mutual encouragement, companionship, and unexpected joy. How important are other Christians? I would say that they’re as mportant as anything there is. We can’t live, really live, without one another.That is what I think.

How about you?

 

 

The following sermon—"Show Me How"was presented at Westminster by Gale Watkins on Sunday, August 12, 2018. It is based on Ephesians 4:25-5:2.

One of the best ways to learn how to do something difficult is to watch someone else.

We say, "show me how it’s done." If you want to be a better golfer, you do well to pay close attention to the way that really good golfers grip the club and start the backswing. We do this in many realms of life. For instance, surgeons learn their craft by coming alongside experienced surgeons, watching what they do and then trying it themselves.

If we’re smart, we look for someone to imitate, someone who sets us a good example.

Still, we’re taken aback when we hear the counsel of the apostle Paul. We’re not surprised when Paul sometimes says, Watch what I’m doing and follow my lead. That makes sense. We can grow in our Christian life by replicating the moves that we see more accomplished disciples making.

But now Paul is saying something different, something unexpected: Follow God’s example. Did you hear that? Follow God’s example? Really? Impossible! I’m not God. In fact, the original sin in the Bible is putting ourselves in the place of God. That did not work out well at all!

I think most of us agree that we are not God. Consider some of God’s attributes that we do not share.

We are not eternal.

We are not omnipresent.

We are not sovereign.

We are not able to create things out of nothing. If we are different from God in all these ways and more, what on earth is Paul talking about? What is God’s example that we are supposed to follow?

The surrounding sentences suggest that God’s example that we’re given to follow is the way of love. You see, Paul immediately adds this clarification: walk in the way of love.

This makes sense. When we go to the Old Testament, we find that God is portrayed in a lot of different ways, but the way of love is prominent. For instance, Psalm 103 declares, "The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." That very phrase is repeated some eight times in the Old Testament, as if it were a line from a hymn or a creed that people learned by heart. So we might say that, though God is different from us in many ways, we are called to be like God, to follow God’s example, in this matter, the way of love.

The way of love is expressed most powerfully in what Jesus did. Paul adds this: "Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." The example that has been set before us is a love that is concrete and costly. The Lord did not merely have kind feelings toward us. He did not love us from a safe distance. He gave himself up for us.

In Christ God forgave us. It was a costly forgiveness. Such is God’s way of love.

So Paul counsels us to follow God’s example, the way of love. He tells about the way of love both positively and negatively. The way of love is something positive. It is the story of redemption. This is what God in Christ has done for us. But the way of love is also presented as a negative. You must get rid of all sorts of things that don’t fit. You follow the example of God in Christ in what you do and also what you refrain from doing. "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice."

Thus, the way of love means getting rid of some very common practices. Paul is calling for a holy ruthlessness, zero tolerance of these things. Every form of malice must be eliminated.

The way of love isalso laid out positively as the way of forgiveness. Impossible! We don’t naturally act in this way. Our first instinct is to get even. We have too many counter-examples, not to mention our own ingrained habits. I began by saying that following someone else’s example helps us learn a skill. This can be extremely valuable if the skill we’re developing is worthwhile, especially if it’s something that can be used to help other people. But the same principle holds for bad habits! If you watch other drivers making risky lane changes on the freeway, you just might find yourself following their lead. Without thinking it through, we’re imitating other people’s moves, and it may do more harm than good.

It seems to be part of human nature that we’re very good imitators. In conversation, we even pick up each other’s mannerisms and accents. So the challenge is to find a good example to be our guide. Paul gives us the ultimate good example when he says, "Follow God’s example."

But how is such a thing possible? We’re not God! It is possible only because God has already loved us. Listen carefully to the way Paul puts it. "Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children." That is the key. We are dearly loved children of God. God in Christ has transformed us. We have been forgiven. We are dearly loved children. That is our true identity.

This is not wishful thinking. Because of what God in Christ has done for us, we are now able to follow God’s example. We too can be slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. This is a better way to live. Now we can live in harmony with other people.

Our trouble is that we settle for too little. We find people to serve as examples to follow, but they may not be doing all that well themselves. Paul’s words challenge us not to be satisfied with a low-grade discipleship. Allow yourself to be drawn by God’s own example, the way of love that Jesus Christ followed. Because we are truly God’s dearly loved children, we can allow God himself to transform us and work through us. More and more, we can walk in the way of love, following God’s own example.

Thanks be to God!

 

 

The following sermon—"Real World WisdomFor Everyone"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, October 11, 2015. It is based on James 3:13-18.

"Let me make this simple for you." A doctor could say something like that, explaining that the choice is yours. You can either start taking care of yourself and get better, or you can continue down the path you’re on and get worse. Yes, medicine is a vast field and all the different systems in the human body make it complicated. But every once in a while a time comes to make it very simple. It all boils down to this decision, one way or the other. Two stark alternatives presented to us in plain language can penetrate through the fog and help us make a good decision.

Here is James, who is not a physician but rather a keen observer of life with God, telling his flock, Let me make this simple for you. Here are two different paths, two different ways of living, two alternative ways of conducting yourself in the life of the church, two kinds of wisdom. Only two, not fifty-seven. Let me make this simple for you, he says. It’s one or the other. And which one you select will make all the difference in the world.

You may be put off by this talk about wisdom. It sounds like something that isn’t for everyone but only for a few. Book-learning appeals to some, but not to all. Other people prefer to get their hands dirty. Forget the owners manual! Or you may have been turned off in the past by some smart person who really was smart but wanted the whole world to know just how smart. That sort of attitude gets old in a hurry!

When James uses the word wisdom, though, he is not talking so much about book-learning or having a certain IQ and certainly not having a diploma displayed prominently on your wall. The wisdom he is talking about is closer to what we call common sense. It is the basic outlook you have. It’s the direction you’re moving. It’s what is really important to you, which will show itself in your life.

So James looks out upon the church of his day, the way people are actually living. And he sees beyond all of the gray areas that it’s really quite simple. Two different kinds of wisdom are in play, only two, not fifty-seven. James proceeds to draw a picture, or rather two pictures. He makes it so clear that you can’t miss it. It’s like the doctor who tells you, "Let me make this simple for you." That’s what James does.

First there’s the wisdom we know all too well, the wisdom of this world. James knows it well and he calls its bluff. Pull back the curtain and you’ll find that it’s fueled by two strong motivators. These are bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. These two seem very different from each other. One operates from a sense of being inferior and the other from the opposite direction. But they have this in common: they both pay great attention to where we are in relation to others, even to the point of being obsessed with our position.

The result of this sort of wisdom having free rein is not pretty. James says that you will end up with disorder and every vile practice. He’s thinking especially of the Christian congregations of his day. If people in the church are operating with this sort of wisdom, driven by bitter jealousy and selfish ambition, the community will come apart. Instead of unity, there will be disorder. Every vile practice will then be taking place. That’s the picture that James paints of one kind of wisdom.

He paints a second picture, though. He says that there is another way of life, another sort of wisdom on offer. This counterpart shows itself in a good life. James is telling us that wisdom is all about the way we live. The main thing is not how much you know. Nor is it your sheer intelligence. Nor is it how many books you’ve read or how many degrees you’ve earned. It’s not even being clever and quick-witted.

The difference between the two kinds of wisdom is the difference between two ways of life. This wisdom that James likes, this wisdom that is different from the ordinary kind, produces a good life. Then James spells it out. It’s not marked by bitter jealousy and selfish ambition, but by meekness. Meekness? If you’re a wise person, you’ll live a good life, showing your deeds in the meekness of wisdom. The meekness of wisdom. That’s not something you’ll see advertised very often. No one offers a class on how not to get ahead, how to get trampled by your competition. No, we want to know how to get ahead, how to climb over the weaker members of the herd, how to finish on top. What James is recommending seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom.

I suppose that this alternative sort of wisdom wasn’t any more attractive back in the first century than it is today. James knows that even in the church, even where people at least say that they want to follow Jesus, the big draw is a way of life marked by bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. If it weren’t attractive and popular, there would have been no need for James to write about it. So he has some explaining to do.

James explains how this alternative wisdom is actually better all-around than the competition. He does this by listing seven qualities that you see in this second kind of wisdom. I think that he gives us a list of seven because that’s a number of completion. Seven days makes one week. He also selects Greek words that start with the same letter or sound alike, which may be his way of making it easy to remember. He wants his fellow Christians to internalize this teaching, so that they would not only think that this alternative wisdom is a good idea, but would actually put it into practice.

So here is his list of seven qualities that you see in this different kind of wisdom. It is pure; peaceable; gentle; open to reason; full of mercy and good fruits; without uncertainty; and without insincerity. We could spend time analyzing each of these seven qualities in detail, but I think you get the idea. When you see someone you know walking down the sidewalk in your direction, are you glad or do you quickly make plans to cross to the other side of the street? Or flip it around. When someone spots you, is your coming good news or bad news? With these seven qualities, James is drawing a picture of a person you’ll be glad

to see, someone who makes the world a better place. And the secret, he tells us, is operating by one kind of wisdom and not the other.

The two kinds of wisdom are so different from each other because they have two different sources. The one is from below. This sounds ominous, and it is. It is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. It’s driven by the value system of hell, bitter jealousy and selfish ambition without restraint. James is telling us that when we’re operating that way, we’re joining in a cosmic rebellion against God. It’s not a small thing!

The other wisdom, though, comes down from above. Earlier in his book, James said that every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights (1:17). You see that this new sort of wisdom is different from the other kind because it has a different source. Its source is God. It comes our way as a gift of God, one of the good gifts that God lavishes upon us. This outlook on life that James wants to see in the church isn’t something we can generate on our own. It comes from outside of us.

Let’s say that we’ve seen these two pictures that James paints for us, and we want to have this wisdom from above. How can we have it? Very early in the book of James, we have this: If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you (1:5). So we go to God and ask for this quality of life that is so distinct and compelling, that will create harmony among us rather than disorder. We pray for wisdom, confident that God will impart it to us as a gift.

Now we know something about giving and receiving gifts. Some gifts we receive really make a difference. But other gifts may be received with thanks but they don’t really make an impact. The recipient may not really like it, so it ends up in the back of the closet. Or even if it is appreciated, it may not have a lasting effect, like a book that never gets read.

But when we ask God for wisdom, and when God gives us what we ask for, it is not like that at all. God’s way of answering the prayer is to make us wise. God doesn’t merely drop something in our lap that we could cast to one side. Rather, the way that God answers the prayer for wisdom is by making us wise. God renovates our hearts.

Here is what happens. We trust Jesus Christ. He is the very wisdom of God. He embodies all of the qualities that James spells out. He does not operate with bitter jealousy or selfish ambition, not at all. Instead, he comes with the meekness of wisdom. The very things that James is talking about happen to be the exact way that the Lord himself works in our lives.

Jesus Christ is the embodiment of wisdom. The ideals of true wisdom that are envisioned in the book of Proverbs are made actual in Christ. Timothy Keller says, "Even though this wisdom resides in heaven, it has come down. … The Word became flesh. The wisdom behind the universe is a person." Here is good news indeed. God’s wisdom has been displayed in Christ. It’s utterly different from the wisdom that is marked by bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. Christ the wisdom of God has transformed us, so that we can live with that same wisdom in a good life that is pure and peaceable. So James is saying, as it were, "Let me make this simple for you." The alternatives before us are plain enough. Which will we choose?

 

 

 

The following sermon—"Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, June 3, 2018. This is the first of three sermons on the body. It is based on Genesis 2:4b-9; 3:17-19 and John 1:1-3, 14.

Imagine what it would be like to hover like a drone over the city of Phoenix and see all the different businesses and institutions below you at a glance. What if you could highlight and mark all of those that deal primarily with the human body? You would first notice a whole host of hospitals, medical centers, doctor’s offices, and pharmacies. A lot of real estate in this city is devoted to the healing of the body and the treatment of bodies that are diseased or wearing out. Then you would have to mark all the grocery stores and restaurants. All of them cater to the need of the body for food to fuel it. Add into the mix all the fitness centers and massage therapists. The point is that here in Phoenix a lot of land and time and money are devoted to the care of the body. Human life is, quite simply, bodily life.

If you continue to hover over the city of Phoenix, you will notice that there are also a lot of buildings devoted to worship. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are old-fashioned cathedral-style structures. Others look like warehouses. Some, like this one, are somewhere in the middle. But you would be inclined to exclude all of them when you’re taking stock of all those businesses and institutions that tend to the needs of the body. After all, aren’t churches concerned about the spirit rather than the body?

And it’s true that sometimes the church has seemed to have nothing to do with bodily life. We leave that to the doctors and massage therapists and grocers and restauranteurs. In the church, we deal with spiritual things.

But this is a distortion of the Christian faith. Christianity actually has everything to do with life in the body. Human life, all human life, is bodily life. But we’ve grown accustomed to separating the body from the spirit, as though our faith has nothing to do with what happens in the body.

Perhaps when we come here we don’t want to think about the body. After all, the body gives us a lot of trouble. Bodies have a nasty habit of wearing out or malfunctioning. Our culture gives us a lot of messages about the ideal body, its appearance and its proportions. But when we look in the mirror, we are disappointed by what we see. Many people have major problems with body image and will do all sorts of harmful things to themselves in response.

My message today is that life in the body is God’s idea. God did not make us to be pure mind or some sort of disembodied spirit. That’s obvious, you say. Everybody knows that. But not everybody knows that it’s God who formed us human beings from the earth, which adds great significance to life in the body. And not everybody knows that God has forever dignified life in the body by personally taking on true human flesh.

I want us to be more biblical in our thinking. The Bible takes the body very seriously, and so should we. When we take it seriously, we will have to say that what happens in the body is spiritually significant. The Christian faith will elevate our opinion of the body and show us how to live this bodily life.

The second and third chapters of the book of Genesis tell a story. It’s the story of the Lord God forming human beings. The Lord God is likened to a careful and skillful sculptor who shapes the piece just so. It’s the story of the Lord God’s great plan for this work of art.

And it’s the story of what went wrong. This story is important because it tells us who we are and why we are the way we are.

Lots of people could tell you that the two human characters in this story have the names Adam and Eve. But there is a detail in the story that is not so widely known. And this detail, which is really a play on words, is important because it tells us about ourselves. I’m speaking of this line: "the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground."

If we were reading this story in its original language, Hebrew, we would not miss the play on words. The Lord God formed adam of dust from the adamah. You see, Adam is not merely the name of one of the two human characters in the story. The term adam derives from the word for the ground itself, adamah. This work of art, that the Lord God has carefully formed, is made from the raw material of the earth. The Old Testament scholar Phyllis Trible thus translates adam as earth creature. That is what we are, earth creatures. We are made of the stuff of this world. From the very beginning, human life has been earthy, material, bodily. This is how God meant it to be for us.

Now you’ll want to point out that this is not the whole story. We are earth creatures, yes, but we are more than that. And sure enough, the very next thing that we are told is that the Lord God breathed into the man’s nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. So yes, we are earth creatures but there is this mysterious something more also, the breath of life. This story is showing us who we are. We are not one or the other, but both at the same time. Humans are a unified whole consisting of the body along with this something more that the Lord God has breathed into us.

Human life has been bodily life from the beginning. But there has been a disruption. The Genesis story tells how the first humans struck out on their own, how they distrusted the word of the Lord God. You might say that they wanted to take the place of God themselves. All of their relationships, to God, to one another, and to the earth itself, are negatively affected as a result of their rebellion. Thus, to the man, Adam, the Lord God says, By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. From that point on, so has it been for all of us. We are earth creatures still, and our trajectory is to return to the earth from which we have been made. As a powerful reminder of the way it is for humankind, these words have been spoken at countless gravesides, "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

However, there is something more to say that will give us a new perspective on bodily life. The Gospel of John tells another story, the story of the eternal Word of God, known to us as Jesus. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory. I suppose that John could have chosen a different word. But he chose the graphic word flesh to tell the story of what the eternal Word of God has done. He’s saying, Don’t get any notion that Jesus only appeared to be human or that he came 95% of the way into our world. The word flesh is shutting that door. It’s saying that he entered entirely into this life of ours, which we’ve seen has from the beginning been bodily life.

Jesus Christ is the Word become flesh. He lived a bodily life, as we live a bodily life. This means that Jesus got hungry and that he enjoyed that satisfaction of a good meal. And like us, he had to eliminate waste from time to time. Have you ever thought of that? Because the Word became flesh, it means that when he worked as a carpenter on a warm day, he perspired. If he got a splinter, it would hurt until it was removed. If his thumb got smacked by a wayward hammer … well, you get the idea.

The New Testament affirms that the Word became flesh and also that he lived without sin. Put these two things together and you conclude that bodily life is not inherently sinful. There is nothing wrong with being an earth creature. There is something wrong with being a sinful earth creature, but that’s a different topic. Remember what John tells us. We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. We have seen his glory as he lived this bodily life. This life in which we are formed from the ground and yet have the breath of life can be a venue for the glory of God to be seen.

There are all sorts of troubles associated with life in the body. I’m a pastor. I’ve visited people who are sick. I’ve seen people do terrible things with the different parts of the body, including the tongue! I’ve seen how bodies wear out, and I’ve seen human beings take their last breath. We can, if we like, pour contempt on the human body for all of its weaknesses and troubles. Today, though, I want to say something different. Bodily life is God’s idea. And it’s been forever dignified by the Word becoming flesh. We’ll have to come back to this in the weeks ahead, but for us as well, life in the body can be a venue for seeing the glory of God. May it be so!

 

 

The following sermon"The Hard Edge of Love"was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, May 6, 2018. Based on 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15 and Exodus 18:13-24, it is the final installment in a series on the "one another" teachings in the New Testament.

 

One day I was walking and talking with two friends in my neighborhood in San Francisco. We walked around Golden Gate Park and were headed home. Then, all of a sudden, one of my friends, Jerry Van Wieren, reached out and grabbed me. He jerked me backward, and he wasn’t gentle about it. Is that any way to treat a friend?

 

There was one thing I didn’t know. I was so intent on the conversation that I didn’t realize that I was stepping into the street, a busy street, with a Muni bus bearing down on me. My friend reached out and grabbed me, then he said, "we wouldn’t want to lose you." Of course I thanked him for his quick action, even though it wasn’t at all gentle.

 

You see, I was in trouble, and I didn’t know it. I was walking directly into mortal danger. It would be senseless for me to say, "It’s not nice to pull people backward when they aren’t expecting it. You should always let people walk where they please!" No, there is a time to step in to help. When you’re headed for trouble, a friend’s decisive action is an act of love.

 

With that picture in mind, let’s focus our attention on spiritual life. In our life with God, we can get into serious trouble. You can be as oblivious to the danger as I was on that street in San Francisco. You may be headed for disaster, and have no idea. At a time like that, you are well-served by a friend who cares enough for you to do something. I said that Jerry, the friend who grabbed me, was not gentle. He wasn’t nice about it. Had he been gentle or nice, I could have ended up under the bus! When the danger is imminent, the loving thing may not be the nice thing. There comes a time when love must have a hard edge.

 

Everything I’m saying is familiar to you, especially if you have children. If you love your child, you sometimes have to say No. You may even have to step in suddenly to prevent some disaster from taking place. All of us can agree that love has to have a hard edge. But you still don’t like it. You would rather be nice. You want people to like you. Telling someone, "you’re wrong!" isn’t a promising way to make a friend. You don’t want to violate someone’s privacy by saying, "you’re headed for trouble, and you’d better turn around." It seems like bad manners to talk like that. It doesn’t seem like love at all. After all, aren’t Christians supposed to be nice?

 

When you do point out someone’s error, or the trouble up ahead, it’s called admonishing. This is the word the New Testament uses. There are other words for the same thing, such as correct or set right. We’ve seen how the New Testament gives us many different ways treat one another. All of these are expressions of love. Admonishing one another is one form of love. There are times when admonishing is called for. There are situations that call for you to take courage, and say to a Christian friend, "you’re heading for trouble." It was a good thing for Jerry Van Wieren to pull me back to the sidewalk, and it’s a good thing in some situations for us to admonish one another.

 

In the New Testament, church leaders have a special role to play in admonishing their followers. Admonishing is linked to teaching. Teaching is aimed at the mind, and admonishing is aimed at the will. Teaching shares truth, and admonishing points out error. Leaders have to point out the danger areas. They say, as it were, "don’t go there!" Church leaders have to point out dead ends that could lead to spiritual ruin. For instance, in last week’s sermon I lifted up the danger of a bad habit, the habit of cutting yourself off from Christian community. Isolation is a grave danger in spiritual life. Don’t cut yourself off! When I said those things last week, I was admonishing.

 

Now, church leaders must admonish in the right way. Yelling at people is no guarantee that you’re admonishing in the biblical sense. It’s hard to admonish because today we hold up tolerance as the greatest virtue of all. Tolerance is a good thing, but there is a limit. When someone is about to step in front of a city bus, you don’t worry about appearing intolerant. To admonish in the right way, leaders must be discerning. It also requires courage, because you might be called intolerant or narrow or judgmental.

 

The New Testament calls for leaders to teach and admonish, but it also calls ordinary believers to admonish one another. Admonish one another. Look out for each other. When someone is in trouble, don’t just stand there. There are certain situations that call for action. Paul says, "admonish the idlers." These were people who expected the Lord to return any day, and therefore they didn’t bother with work. They expected their Christian friends to feed them. No wonder Paul wanted them to be admonished! We would all love to admonish them with a few choice words. Note that Paul wants a certain group to be admonished, not the whole church. Admonishing is for people who are going the wrong way.

 

Admonishing, then, is not for leaders only, but for every believer to practice. Yet it’s so difficult and dangerous that you may feel completely unqualified. Excuses come to mind, like "who am I to judge?" Or slogans like "live and let live." Anything to get off the hook!

 

We need some direction for something this difficult. We can find help in the stories of biblical characters who do this well. I think of the prophet Nathan who admonished a powerful king, David. After David’s grievous acts which included adultery and sending an innocent man to his death, Nathan confronted the king with these words: "you are the man." When the apostle Peter was confused in his thinking, Jesus admonished him and it wasn’t nice. Jesus told him, "get behind me, Satan!" Then there is Paul who often admonishes whole congregations in his letters.

 

But there is a lesser-known character in the Bible who was a master in the art of admonishing. His name is Jethro. Jethro was the father-in-law of Moses. He had a tough assignment. He had to approach Moses soon after Moses had had a string of successes. He had to tell Moses that what he was doing was wrong not long after he had led the people out of slavery. Moses might not be looking for free advice.

 

Jethro does a good job, though. The first thing he does is to pay attention. He watches what Moses is doing. He observes the people lining up, waiting their turn to see Moses. He listens to Moses make judgments in disputes both simple and complex. He observes that Moses is wearing himself out. He notes that the people who have to wait in line aren’t doing much better. Jethro knows what he is talking about because he pays attention. If you’re going to admonish, you have to know what you’re talking about!

 

When Jethro approaches Moses, he points out the danger. He raises questions, then he boldly says, "what you are doing is not good." He tells Moses what will happen if he doesn’t change: he will burn out. But the real gift Jethro offers Moses is another way to live. It’s a positive alternative to wearing out. Moses will have to make a change. He will have to recruit other people who can share the burden of all those disputes. To his credit, Moses was humble enough to listen to Jethro, and make the change. Disaster averted!

 

The story of Jethro and Moses is encouraging because it ends well. Admonishing worked! Jethro did the right thing in the right way, and Moses responded.

 

Admonishing is a difficult thing to do. It is a challenging part of loving one another. Sometimes we are clumsy in speaking to each other. We don’t know what to say. Or we know what to say, but we back off because we don’t want to take a chance on a bad response.

 

But take heart. There is a time for us to admonish one another. Done in the right spirit, it’s a kindness to come alongside one another to say, "what you are doing is not good." It’s also a kindness to take the next step which is to point out a better way. It’s not easy, and it’s not fun. But you never know. You could be God’s instrument in saving another person from destruction, like my friend Jerry Van Wieren who pulled me out of harm’s way. When we admonish one another, God can use us to help one another enjoy a good and fruitful life.

 

 

The following sermon—"Help for Those Who Hurt"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, April 15, 2018. Based on 2 Corinthians 1:3-7, it is part of a series on the various "one another" teachings found in the New Testament.

Life is going along smoothly. Then, all of a sudden, the bottom falls out. You suffer a devastating loss. Your life will never be the same. This is something that everybody has in common. We all suffer losses. Sooner or later it happens to everyone.

Yes, each of us is unique. We come together today with many different experiences, different styles of expressing ourselves, different preferences, and different opinions. Yet there is this one thing that binds us together. All of us have suffered, or will suffer, a devastating loss.

Losses happen to everyone, and they take many different forms. There is the loss that comes through the death of a spouse or a child or a close friend. Whether the loss is sudden or prolonged over several months, it’s still a loss. But there are other losses that can also have a dramatic impact. A miscarriage or a stillbirth or infertility are all serious losses. Divorce is a loss. It’s the loss of the dream that was present on your wedding day, now abandoned forever. There are other losses, such as losing your job, or accepting at long last that you never will realize your cherished goals.

When you suffer any sort of loss, your natural response is grief. Grief is the normal human response to any loss. It’s not limited to the loss that comes with a death in the family. People grieve over all sorts of things. And when you are grieving, what you need is comfort. This is my topic today: comfort. My precise theme is comfort one another. Comfort one another because we’ll all need it, sooner or later. We look for guidance to Paul. His second letter to the Corinthians is a book dominated by the topic of affliction and comfort. He goes deeply into the whole matter of suffering and what can be done about it.

At the very beginning of this letter, he plunges in, telling us that he has made a great discovery. He has discovered, in his own life, that God is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort. Paul begins here because this is the most important thing, the character of God. What we believe about God says a lot about us. Do you agree that God is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort? I hope you do.

Paul has known affliction. Later in the book, he lists many types of affliction that he has known. Here at the beginning he tells us that he not only knows affliction, he knows comfort too. He knows comfort in his affliction. That is, even when he isn’t delivered from devastation, he knows comfort in the very midst of it. Paul says that God "comforts us in all our affliction." If we put it up for a vote, we would want God to comfort us out of our affliction. We prefer escape, but Paul has found something different, the presence and the power of God even in the midst of trouble.

This reminds me of the twenty-third Psalm, which says, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." You are still walking through the valley. But you aren’t alone. Paul is echoing the twenty-third Psalm by praising God, who is merciful and who comes alongside us to help us when the bottom has fallen out. It is God’s nature to comfort. For instance, in the book of Isaiah, God says, "as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you" (66:13).

Paul made a second discovery through the events of his own life. He discovered that God’s comfort equipped him to comfort other people. God gave Paul something to share with

others. The comfort Paul received from God didn’t stay with him. It got spread around. Paul found that he could be the bearer of God’s mercy and comfort to other people.

It seems to go like this. You suffer a loss, and you grieve. You need help, and God comes to your side. In the midst of affliction there is help. All of this changes you. You aren’t the same person you used to be. The whole experience of loss and comfort changes your heart. You are softened by the loss and the help. Going through it makes you especially helpful to other people. They can sense that you’ve been where they are now.

It’s no accident that support groups are so popular and so effective. Parents of murdered children have suffered a blow that is beyond comprehension. But they meet together and help each other. It is a fellowship of suffering. They are all walking through the same dark valley, and they can comfort one another.

Paul recognizes that God is the God of all comfort. Comfort comes ultimately from God. But God has a way of using ordinary human beings to deliver that comfort. People, mortals like ourselves, can be instruments of God’s comfort. We can comfort one another.

The church of Jesus Christ is made up of people who have experienced devastating losses and also the comfort that God brings. We are therefore a community of sufferers. We are people who know the devastation of loss. But we also know that our God is the God of all comfort. We are uniquely equipped to comfort one another.

When you suffer a great loss, people will come to your aid. But after a couple of weeks, the general public figures that it’s time to get on with life. They would tell you to get over it. But the nature of grief is that it takes as long as it takes. A couple of weeks is inadequate. There are some losses you just don’t get over. In the church, we are able to be truthful about the devastation. We’re able to give people the time they need.

We also know that there is comfort to be found, comfort from the God of all comfort. We are able and willing to be God’s tools in sharing that comfort with hurting people. There are any number of ways to do that. Of course, there is the tried and true casserole, shared with people who have suffered a loss. A tangible expression of concern like that can speak volumes. Then there is the comfort that comes in written form, a card or a letter. Then there is the willingness to talk back and forth about the loss that has taken place. It can be hard for a sufferer to find someone to talk to about it. Everyone wants to dance around the obvious thing that has changed your life. Maybe they’re uncomfortable or they don’t want to make you cry. But in the church, we are so confident in the goodness of God that we can face difficult losses. We can do the hard work of listening. We in the church can be patient with each other. We can comfort those who mourn for as long as it takes.

One of my favorite Christian writers is Gerald Sittser. He is a man who is well-acquainted with grief. In a single auto accident, he lost his wife, his mother, and his daughter. He writes about how we in the church can comfort one another. He has good news: when the blow fell on him, his church came through. He makes these observations: "Grief of whatever kind can serve as a catalyst to unite a pluralistic church into a comforting and healing community of broken people ... we have allowed differences in the church to divide us because we have neglected to let our common experience of suffering unite us ... loss of any kind provides the church with the opportunity to become a healing community that enables grieving people to become stronger and wiser than they were before, leading them to ever higher levels of spiritual maturity ... comfort is best given and received

in the community of the church ... we may disagree strongly in matters of belief and style, but we are one in our experience of loss and pain" (Loving Across Our Differences, pp. 162, 168, 171).

The Christian community, no matter how well it functions, doesn’t give people an escape from loss. In this world, there is no escape. But we have received help in the midst of loss, help from the Father of mercies and God of all comfort. And all of us have the ability to share that help with those who hurt. There is help for those who hurt. We help by comforting one another.

 

 

The following sermon—"Sheer Encouragement"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, March 18. Its part of an ongoing series on the "one another" passages in the New Testament. This sermon draws on several portions of Pauls first letter to the Thessalonians2:11-12, 3:1-2, 4:13, 18, 5:1, 11, 14.

Have you ever read The Hobbit, or perhaps seen the three epic movies that make up The Lord of the Rings? The writer of all these stories is J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was a university professor. These stories that have now been read and loved by millions of people were something he did on the side. Writing fiction wasn’t his day job. Tolkien had a group of friends called "the Inklings." They all liked to write, and they would meet to read each other the things they had been writing recently. It was that group that first heard Tolkien’s fantasy stories.

One of the Inklings was C.S. Lewis, another professor whose own writings are more popular today than ever. Here is what Tolkien has to say about his friend C.S. Lewis: "The unpayable debt that I owe to him was not influence as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He for a long time was my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby" (quoted in Earl Palmer, The 24-Hour Christian, p. 11).

Sheer encouragement. This is what Tolkien says that Lewis gave him. What a beautiful way of putting it. What would have happened if there had been no sheer encouragement? The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings would have occupied Tolkien’s free time, but they would never have left his desk drawer. It was sheer encouragement that got Tolkien to share his writing with a larger audience. If you want proof that encouragement is a powerful force, here it is. Encouragement makes a huge difference in the way we live.

Who needs encouragement? Who doesn’t? Sooner or later, everyone needs encouragement. Some of us are more resolute, more persistent, more devoted to a great task than the average person. But even the most purposeful person on earth needs encouragement sooner or later. Read the gospels, and you find that even Jesus drew encouragement from his disciples, or at least he tried to. Since his death a few weeks ago, we’ve been hearing stories about Billy Graham.  In his autobiography, Billy Graham tells how he needed encouragement to keep going. If Billy Graham needed encouragement, it’s no shame for us to admit that we need it too.

We need encouragement to keep going on the right path. Encouragement is different from bringing someone back who has gone off course. We will get to that later, when we talk about how to stir up one another and how to admonish one another. No, today we’re talking about how to encourage one another, how to help each other when we are generally doing well. Encouragement is what we need if we’re going to keep doing well.

Encouragement is needed because, left to our own devices, we will doubt ourselves. Like Tolkien, we’ll look at what we’ve done and decide that it isn’t worth sharing. We need someone to come alongside and encourage us. Our need for encouragement varies from time to time. There are days when we are doing so well that nothing could stop us. But there are other days when, without encouragement, we would throw in the towel. And some people need more encouragement than others. They may be more fearful or more uncertain or more sensitive. Whatever the reason, there are people who need encouragement more often just to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

If you look up the word encourage in the New Testament, you’ll found that it’s used a lot. One short biblical book is full of encouragement. It’s Paul’s letter, 1 Thessalonians. This is perhaps the earliest of Paul’s letters, and it has a lot of what Tolkien would call sheer encouragement. Let’s read those parts of this letter where Paul uses the word encourage. We’ll be able to see the wide range of encouragement found here.

Paul reminds the Thessalonians of the way he conducted himself when he was with them. He likens himself to a mother, then he likens himself to a father. He says, "As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory" (2:11-12). This is one thing Paul does really well. He encourages.

Paul tells how much he has wanted to visit them, but he was not able to come. So he did the next best thing. He sent a co-worker. "Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens; and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith" (3:1-2). Paul is a great encourager, and so is Timothy. He will do for them the same thing Paul has done for them in the past.

They need encouragement just now because certain things have been troubling them. They’re worried over their fellow Christians who have died. They wonder, What is the state of those who die before the Lord returns? Are they lost? Paul answers their question. "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope [he goes on to teach them about what will happen, and then he concludes] ... Therefore encourage one another with these words" (4:13, 18). Here is something new: they can encourage one another. They don’t have to wait for Paul to arrive. They can help each other in the meantime. They help each other by reminding each other of the truth. Tell each other what you’ve learning. This will be more than a pep talk. It will be based on something solid, the promises of Christ.

The Thessalonians had another question, closely related to the first. This is a question about times and seasons. When will the Lord return? How do we carry on while we wait? Paul tells them, "Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you [even so, Paul reminds them that the Lord will come back and they ought to live as children of light, then he tells them] ... "Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing" (5:1, 11). Once more, encouragement is mutual. We encourage one another. One day, you encourage me. The next day, I encourage you. Again, this encouragement has a solid foundation. It is based on the truth of God.

Then at the end of this letter of sheer encouragement, Paul has a series of short instructions on how they are to live. He says, "And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them" (5:14). Here, encouragement is aimed at one portion of the church, those who are fainthearted. These are people who are anxious, worried, discouraged, or despondent. Of all the people in the Thessalonian church, this group especially needs to be encouraged to keep moving on the right path. Otherwise, they might give up. Paul knows that we aren’t all identical. In each season, some need to be encouraged. At any one time, there are some who are fainthearted. So he asks the others to encourage them.

From this letter of sheer encouragement, I have a few observations about how we can encourage one another. We find that we all need encouragement. We find also that we are all qualified to encourage one another. No special training or experience is needed, just willingness to encourage one another. Encouragement that is Christian is based on the gospel. Earl Palmer points out that Paul’s "encouragement is not the glad-handed ‘cheering up’ of shallow encouragement but, rather, confidence grounded in the faithfulness of God" (1 & 2 Thessalonians, p. 53).

A word in 1 Thessalonians that gets translated encourage means literally to come alongside. When you’re in the middle of a long journey, someone coming alongside can help you stay on track and keep you moving. Encouragement is coming alongside a fellow disciple.

How is encouragement practiced? There is no limit to the ways we can encourage one another. John Stott says that we can encourage "in many ways, ranging from the simplicities of a smile, a hug or a squeeze of the hand to the costliness of patient listening, sympathy and friendship" (The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, p. 115). Gerald Sittser emphasizes the way we speak: "People need and ought to be told that they are doing well, honoring God, following his will. ... Conversation has peculiar power to tear down or to build up, depending on its subject and tone" (Loving Across Our Differences, pp. 146-7).

Encouragement is a powerful force for good. It can get a bashful man like Tolkien to send his stories out into the world. It can help the Thessalonians to stand firm in the face of hard questions and intense pressure. Encouragement is a powerful way for us to love another. It can be done through letter, on the phone, in person, even by texting and e-mail! And it’s something anyone can do. Let Paul’s message to the Thessalonians be a direct word to us as well: "therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing."

 

 

 

The following sermon "Some People ..."—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, February 18, 2018. It is based on Ephesians 4:1-6 and Romans 14:1-3, 13-15, 15:1-7. This is the third sermon in a series on the "one another" passages in the New Testament.

Some people ... When you say those words, you’re usually good and mad. A car cuts you off, and you say, Some people ... Or a customer where you work makes outrageous demands, and you say, Some people ... Some people are hard to put up with. Some people push all your buttons due to their beliefs, their habits, their personalities, or all of the above! It’s not easy to get along with some people.

Let’s turn back the clock. For the first generation of Christians, getting along wasn’t always easy. Sure, they were brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. But there are many different people. And the Lord seems to attract all types. There were significant differences among that first generation of Christians. While they all held to the one true faith, having the most important thing in common, there were still differences among them that made it hard to get along.

There were the usual personality clashes. Some people click when they get to know each other. But sometimes people don’t click. They clash. They don’t like each other. There was some of that going on. But there were also differences in spiritual matters. They came to the Lord from different backgrounds. Some were well-versed in the Jewish tradition. They knew the Bible well, and had a long pattern of living uprightly before God. Others had been converted out of a pagan background. They didn’t even know the difference between Genesis and Exodus. Some of them had a hard time kicking their old habits. While they shared the same faith, this first generation of Christians didn’t have an easy time getting along. In spite of their common faith and direction in life, there were real differences that made it hard to be together. Some people!

There was one particular matter that was dividing the Christian community in Rome. Paul has to address it at length. There were two groups there that had very different outlooks on how to live out their faith. The two groups were known as the strong and the weak. Those names must have been coined by the strong. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to be called weak. But the names stuck, and so Paul talks about them as two known quantities.

What is the difference between the strong and the weak? I’m drawing here from New Testament scholar C.E.B. Cranfield. The difference, he says, was over literal obedience to the ceremonial part of the Old Testament law (Romans, 694). The so-called weak were Christians of Jewish background who "felt strongly that a continuing concern with the literal obedience to the ceremonial law was an integral element of their response of faith to Jesus Christ" (697). These are true Christians whose weakness was not "in basic Christian faith but weakness in assurance that one’s faith permits one to do certain things" (700).

Who, then, were the strong? These are Christians who have the assurance that they are free in Christ to eat foods that are not prepared according to the Jewish law. They have no scruples about eating whatever they please, whether it’s kosher or not.

The problem was the way the two groups treated each other. The strong despised the weak as not worth taking seriously, and the weak adopted a judgmental attitude toward those who ate non-kosher food. You can imagine the tension you would feel in the room when the church gathered. People would glare at each other. They would mutter under their breath, Some people … If they tried to hold a pot-luck dinner, it would be a disaster. One group didn’t dare eat the other group’s food. So there it is, trouble in the church. You couldn’t ignore the fact that there were two groups, one despising the other, who in turn judged them as spiritually inferior.

So there were differences in the church in the first generation, and there are differences in the church today. It’s not always easy to get along! In the church, you find people who support the political candidates you can’t stand. In the church, you find people who tell the wrong kind of jokes and wear the wrong kind of shoes. You also find people whose take on the Christian faith isn’t exactly the same as yours. They have had different experiences, and they have different ways of describing them. They have very different preferences. People don’t all like the same kind of music, and that can produce tension and conflict.

But a lot of the trouble in getting along has nothing to do with issues. It’s just that some people are tough to handle. With some people, you click, and with others you clash. It’s hard to predict how that will work out. It’s hard to admit that there are some people you just won’t like, and there are some people who just won’t like you.

The dangerous temptation is to do what the strong and the weak were doing in Rome, which was to write each other off as worthless. You would then feel justified in gossiping about them to your heart’s content. No matter what they do, they can’t possibly be sincere. So there you are. Trouble in the church then and now.

Paul writes to the church in Rome and he shows them another way, a better way. His basic message is, Welcome one another. He wants the strong to quit despising the weak. And he wants the weak to quit judging the strong. The odd thing is that he doesn’t ask either group to change their basic stance. He doesn’t instruct the strong to start keeping all the food laws. He doesn’t tell the weak to stop keeping the laws. The two groups are allowed to be different. What is not allowed is the terrible way they’ve been treating each other. Paul wants them instead to welcome one another.

The best thing here, I think, is the reason he gives them for welcoming each other. Jesus Christ is the foundation! Welcome one another, he says, just as Christ has welcomed you (Romans 15:7). He doesn’t merely tell them to be nice. No doubt, someone had already tried that, with no success. Rather, Paul holds up Jesus Christ as the motivating force for change.

For instance, he tells the strong not to wound the conscience of the weak by eating non-kosher foods in their presence with these words: "do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died" (14:15). The point is to see the other person in the light of Christ. How can you write off someone whom the Lord values so highly?

Paul also reminds them that they are all accountable to God. God is the one judge of all. This means that none of us is the judge. None of us stands over others, making the final decision about them.

What Paul envisions, then, is a church whose people are able to bear with one another across their differences. Both the strong and the weak will still be there. Neither group will be absorbed into the other. The church has a lot of room, room enough for both the strong and the weak.

There is a word for the quality of life Paul wants to see in the church in Rome, and in Phoenix too: forbearance. That word forbearance is a close cousin to the word patience. God shows us forbearance by putting up with us. The Bible tells us that God forbears us. For instance, Psalm 78 says, "[God], being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; often he restrained his anger, and did not stir up all his wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not come again" (verses 38-39). God is patient with us. God puts up with a lot from us. God is just, but gives us opportunity to turn around. God holds back on judging us. That is God’s forbearance at work.

God forbears us. We are also called to forbear one another, to bear with one another. That is, put up with some people! Gerald Sittser says, "God calls us to imitate him in forbearing one another. He commands us to give each other the slack that he has given us. Forbearance thus requires that we give people room" (Loving Across Our Differences, 64).

Give people room. This is exactly what the strong and the weak in Rome had to start doing. Giving people room requires us to let them be the way they are. Yes, there are times when people cross the line, when we have to speak a word of correction. But that’s not what we are talking about today. Forbearance is a basic stance you take toward people, people whose experience, preferences, style, and even beliefs may be significantly different from yours.

Forbearance has always been important in the Presbyterian Church. Our Book of Order includes this historic principle from 1788, that "we … believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other" (F-3.0105). There you have it: mutual forbearance.

Gerald Sittser says that mutual forbearance requires a sense of humor. He says, "we must learn to chuckle at inexperience, to laugh at flubs, to smile at foolish mistakes" (70). You might reply, "Yes, but you don’t know the people I have to put up with!" Even so, a little humor can go a long way in developing the skill of forbearance.

Forbearing one another, which is putting up with people and giving them room, may not seem all that important. But when you notice how often people in our world judge each other and despise each other, you realize that forbearance is crucial to getting along. It’s not an easy thing to practice. We often take our own preferences and most cherished beliefs so seriously that we dismiss other people as unworthy. But God can change us, so that we can truly bear with one another.

When the Christian church practices forbearance in the name of Christ, we will stand out as a positive alternative. In the church, we can handle people who are different. We can bear with people who have rough edges. By the grace of God, we will welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us.

 

 

 

January 7, 2018  "Prayer Between FriendsGenesis 18:16-33  John 15:12-17

 

It’s a new year, 2018. How are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions? Perhaps you’re still hoping to adopt a new habit or to improve on an old habit. How about the habit of prayer? What if 2018 could be a year for us to pray, even to grow in the art of prayer? How does that sound?

 

Most people would agree that prayer is important. But they would add that they haven’t gotten very far in learning how to pray. Maybe we resign ourselves to being lifelong beginners in the art of prayer. We respect and admire people who are so-called prayer warriors. But we’ve long ago given up on being like them.

 

I suggest that prayer is like a lot of other important practices in life. I mean that you can benefit from watching people who know what they’re doing. Of course, you can watch people you know, and that can be helpful. But I am proposing that we take a close look at praying people whose lives are featured in the Bible. God has seen fit to give us a book that is peopled with all sorts. In this book, we find some people to emulate. We also find some practices to avoid. In the Bible, there are people who have something to teach us about prayer. More than concepts, though, they give us practices that we can observe and then try out for ourselves.

 

So let’s go back, way back, all the way to the great patriarch Abraham. Abraham prayed. Let’s take a look at his praying and see how we can benefit.

 

Here is Abraham. He’s old now. He has walked with God for a long time. Three mysterious visitors have been with him and his wife Sarah. Abraham has been a gracious host, and now the three men are ready to leave.

 

Who is this man Abraham? At least three times, Scripture calls him "God’s friend." Abraham is the friend of God.

 

Alexander Maclaren observes, "Abraham was called the friend of God, and friends confide in each other." So we do. We say things to our friends that we don’t share with others. Abraham is God’s friend, and God confides in Abraham. God confides to him, telling him what he intends to do to the nearby city of Sodom. It is a wicked city, and God intends to destroy it totally.

 

It’s an extraordinary thing, how God is portrayed here thinking it over and deciding not to hide from Abraham what is about to happen. We don’t keep our friends in the dark. If we’re changing jobs, we let our friends know. The Lord doesn’t keep Abraham in the dark.

 

We find in this story about Abraham that prayer is conversation between friends. We confide things to God, and God confides things to us. Prayer is thus not only speaking. It is also listening. Look at Abraham! He listens to the Lord. He is taken into God’s counsel. God speaks freely to him, as to a friend.

 

Friends do speak freely to each other. Close friends can speak freely to each other, knowing that their friendship is strong enough to handle the truth. So God confides in Abraham, and Abraham for his part speaks freely. He speaks very freely!

 

Abraham doesn’t like God’s plan to destroy Sodom. Abraham has family in Sodom. He’s done business there. He knows the place, and he doesn’t want it to burn. One reason he speaks freely to God is that he has compassion for the people who will be destroyed. So Abraham dares to ask God to change his plan. His boldness is amazing. He wants God to spare the entire city on the basis of the character of a small number of its residents. It would be bold enough if he were to ask that his nephew Lot and his family could get out in time. But Abraham goes further, and asks God to spare the whole city.

 

Is Abraham bargaining with God? He starts by asking the Lord to hold back if there are fifty righteous. But then he reduces the number, over and over again, all the way down to ten. At the end, he is boldly asking God to spare a wicked city based on the character of only ten of its residents.

 

Prayer is conversation between friends. Friends can boldly ask things of each other, things you would not dare ask a stranger. If your car breaks down out in the desert, you’ll call a friend in the middle of the night. And a good friend will get up and find you. When you say, "you shouldn’t have done that," your friend will say, "that’s what friends are for!" Prayer is between friends. We can therefore speak freely and ask boldly. Abraham shows us how it’s done.

 

In speaking freely, Abraham isn’t afraid to challenge God. He says, "Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" Isn’t this amazing boldness? Abraham is holding God up to a standard of justice.

 

There is in his praying a sort of reasoning and argument. We see this not only in Abraham but in other Biblical prayers. People who pray want God to live up to his character. They remind God of what he has done before, or of promises that have been made in the past, and they hold those up before God.

 

It may sound like a young child telling a parent, "but you promised." That child wants something, and uses a previous promise to get it. In our praying, we may sometimes remind God of something, but the aim is not only getting what we want. We want God to be just, and show himself to be just. We want God to be known to everyone as just and true.

 

Prayer is between friends, but this is not an ordinary friendship. An ordinary friendship is between equals. But Abraham is not equal with God, and he knows it. He is extremely daring in his prayer, but he never forgets who God is. Each time he asks God to spare the city, he acknowledges that he is "but dust and ashes."

 

In telling you today that prayer is between friends, I don’t want you to forget that our friendship is with God. God is holy and just. There is a vast distance between ourselves and "the Judge of all the earth."

 

We see Abraham speaking freely, even boldly, but he knows that God is still the Judge of all the earth. He knows that he can be God’s friend only by God’s mercy. He knows that it is an astounding thing for a mortal to address the living God as he is doing now.

 

Abraham asks and asks, but then he stops. After God agrees to spare the city if ten righteous can be found, Abraham stops asking. We’re not told the reason, but it may be a mark of his humility before God that he knows when to be silent.

 

John White points out that Abraham prays with "a strange blend of terror and boldness." We learn a skill by watching someone who has that skill. So we learn from Abraham how to pray with that strange blend of terror and boldness.

 

Abraham is called God’s friend. He is the friend of God. In the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples, "You are my friends if you do what I command you ... I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father" (John 15:14-15). We are his friends if we do what the Lord commands. We are friends of the Lord, and as friends we have full access to the Father through him.

 

Abraham, the friend of God, prayed with boldness and humility. We can pray in the same way, because in Christ, when we pray, it is a conversation between friends. So then, in this new year, 2018, let’s make it our aim to grow more skillful in the art of prayer. We know that God really is the Judge of all the earth. We also know that his desire is that none shall perish. Since we know what God is like, we can follow the lead of Abraham. We too can pray boldly and freely because prayer is conversation between friends.

 

 

"When You Havent Got a Prayer"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, December 3, 2017 (the First Sunday of Advent). It is based on Isaiah 64:1-9.

 

 

 

What we have just read is a prayer. It’s not a very nice prayer, though. God’s people are praying. They’re crying out as a community. They are hurting. They seem to be blaming God for their troubles, though they also seem to be blaming themselves. They own up to their own part in their present miserable condition. We can call this prayer, then, a prayer of confession. But it’s more than confession. It’s a request, or rather, a demand. Dear God, do something! Do something large and dramatic, something along the lines of what you did a long time ago. We’ve heard stories about what you did in the days of Moses. That is what we have in mind for the present. O that you would once more tear open the heavens and come down, that the earth would quake at your presence!

 

This is how we pray when we’re truly desperate. It’s not a prayer of resignation to the way things are. It’s not quiet acceptance of the mysterious will of God. Rather, this is prayer as primal scream, crying out to God, why don’t you do something? This is a prayer that comes from a time of intense suffering for God’s people. It may well come from the midst of the national trauma that was Babylonian exile, when they had lost so much, their temple, their wealth, their homes. They found themselves in a strange place, where nothing was comfortable or familiar.

 

The worst part of the whole experience, though, was the spiritual trauma. It seemed to them that the Lord was nowhere to be found. They had stories about the Lord. These stories of how God had once upon a time delivered them from bondage in Egypt seemed to mock their present experience. Stories of what happened hundreds of years ago are no substitute for a lively faith rooted in the present love and power of God. The big problem is that gnawing sense of God’s absence. O God, where have you gone?

 

It’s common in a situation like that to blame God. In fact, there is some of that in this prayer. But you find something else here along with it. They look in the mirror and they realize that it’s not entirely God’s fault. We transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. This is a remarkable thing to say. Even at our best, even when we’re trying hard, even on our good days, we fall short. Everything we do is tainted by our sin. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you. All of us are in this together. None can say, Well, don’t look at me because this isn’t my fault!

 

This prayer comes from another time and place. It was uttered in a language not our own. Yet all these years later, this prayer still resonates with us. When we read the words aloud, we have to nod our heads because it sounds so familiar. The reason is that God often does seem to be far away. We hear stories about what happened long ago and far away, and it seems like another world.

 

Maybe we suspect that modern science has done away with the need for God. Who needs God when you have antibiotics to battle disease? Or maybe it’s been so long since the Lord parted the waters of the Red Sea that we begin to wonder whether there even is a God who does that sort of thing.

 

Thus, the confession found in this ancient prayer still rings true. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. If God seems to be far away, maybe we’re part of the problem.

 

Yet this prayer doesn’t give up. It owns up to the reality, the painful reality of exile. And still it dares to ask God, Do something. You did awesome deeds in the past. Do it again! And don’t be indirect or subtle about it. Tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence. For people living in the misery of exile, that is a bold prayer indeed.

 

Here is the basis for making such a demand: O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Even now? Yes, even now! The covenant that the Lord established long ago, which the people have violated, is still intact, after everything that has happened! This prayer voices a stubborn conviction that, in spite of all appearances, God is not against us, but for us.

 

Such boldness in prayer is not rooted in any sort of self-confidence of their own. They’ve come to realize that, even at their best, they don’t measure up. They have no claim on the Lord’s kindness due to their own merit. Rather, they draw upon what they’ve heard about God’s power and love and faithfulness. On that basis alone, they can summon the nerve to ask, O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.

 

What can we do with this prayer today? God answered that prayer, but it was hard for people to recognize it when it happened. It was a partial answer when the exile came to an end, and the people of God returned to their land and rebuilt the temple that had been torn down. But a fuller answer to that prayer, a more complete answer, came hundreds of years later.

 

God has truly torn open the heavens and come down. We Christians believe that this is exactly what has happened in the coming of Jesus Christ. At the very point of our complaining about the absence of God, God has drawn near in an unprecedented way. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Though the coming of the Lord was a decisive act of breaking through every barrier, it wasn’t the dramatic, even violent, event that this prayer leads us to expect.

 

Even so, the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ into our world is a clear demonstration of what this prayer of God’s people dares to believe, that God is for us. God is faithful to the covenant in spite of our unfaithfulness. From our vantage point as Christians, we can look back thankfully to that decisive point in time when the Lord did tear open the heavens and come down.

 

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! Can this also be a Christian prayer? When you consider what is going on in this world, and maybe even in your own life, isn’t that what we need more than anything else? We long for the Lord to tear open the heavens and come down, to once more do saving things in this broken world.

 

So the pattern continues. We find ourselves in trouble. We fall into the habit of blaming God for our situation. We once more look in the mirror and are forced to own up to our own spiritual bankruptcy. As it was for God’s people in exile, so it is for us. Our hope is in God alone, not in ourselves. It is truly good news that God is still at work in our day, still tearing open the heavens, still coming down to do saving things in this broken world. For this reason, we can continue to make this prayer our own. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!

 

 

The following sermon—"Dont Waste Your Life!"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, November 19, 2017.

It is based on Jesus’ parable of the talents, found in Matthew 25:14-30.

 

Don’t waste your life! Last month, Grand Canyon University hosted a well-known preacher and author, John Piper. The title of his first session was Don’t waste your life. I like that title. Don’t waste your life. We’ve all received a great gift, our life, and it’s not to be squandered. Don’t waste your life.

Jesus’ parable, directed to his disciples, people like ourselves, is quite disturbing because it tells of a man who does just that. He wastes his life. It does happen. People waste their lives. Can we keep it from happening to ourselves? I surely hope so.

The man in Jesus’ parable is given a great treasure, one talent. When you hear the word talent, what comes to mind is perhaps the talent to play a musical instrument or the talent to dribble a basketball, talent as the uncanny skill to do something well. But in Jesus’ parable, the word talent is something different. A talent is a unit of money, a lot of money. A talent weighs seventy-five pounds. Seventy-five pounds of silver is worth a lot.

You would have to work fifteen years to earn the amount of money that this man is given. Well, not exactly given. He’s not the actual owner. But he is given great freedom over the use of that money. He’s in charge of it, he’s a money manager. It’s a great responsibility but it’s also a great opportunity. Can you imagine what it would be like to be entrusted with seventy-five pounds of silver?

The man who placed that talent at his disposal must be some kind of happy-go-lucky tycoon! After all, this man has given even greater sums to two other employees. But here’s the problem with the man who is given one talent to take care of. He believes that the one who gave it to him is some kind of monster. He thinks that his master is a ruthless, heartless criminal.

As a result of his distorted thinking, when the wealthy source of all that money goes away, this man is shaking in his boots. He is not able to play with this vast fortune. Not at all. He doesn’t even take it to the bank to earn a little bit of interest. He is given a great privilege and a great responsibility, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something fun and worthwhile, and he ducks. He’s too scared. So he digs a big hole in the back yard, big enough to handle seventy-five pounds of silver. Down it goes into the hole. So the man, entrusted with such a vast sum of money, settles in for a long wait, until the dreaded day of reckoning arrives. And when that day finally does arrive, it is bad, even worse than he had imagined. He mutters something about how he was afraid, afraid because his master is really a heartless brute. This does not go over well. Not well at all. He ends up being tossed out completely. It is a terrible ending for him. It didn’t have to be this way, but it was.

This parable is Jesus’ word to his disciples, people like us. Here we are with time on our hands. Our Master has ascended to the Father’s right hand, and we’re awaiting his return. But we’re not empty-handed, not at all. A great treasure has been entrusted to us, the gift of salvation, life itself. And what’s more, we who have been welcomed into the kingdom are given resources to use, the gift of time and all sorts of interests and skills to fill that time. Each week we’re given one hundred sixty-eight hours. What a gift! And every one of us receives it. True, though we’re equal in the sense that we’ve all received the gift of life and the same number of hours, the exact resources at hand vary from person to person. We’re not identical. Jesus’ parable recognizes that these servants have abilities that differ. Thus, one is given five talents, one is given two, and another one talent. But they’re all entrusted with treasure, and they’re all given great control over what they’ll do with it.

Phillip Cary makes some pointed comments about the amazing position we’re in. "The talents become an image of all the abilities and resources God has put into our hands, which we are responsible to use for his glory. … We are stewards of our talents and we have no right to surrender our stewardship until the Lord returns" (Good News for Anxious Christians, pages 40-1). It’s a great honor to be entrusted with such a treasure, but it’s a great responsibility to manage it well.

Jesus’ parable doesn’t end well for the servant who was so fearful that he wasted his life. But it ends very well for the other two servants. Let’s take a closer look at these two. 

They do not waste their lives. They take the treasure that is in their care, and they play with it. And look what happens. It grows. They’re not afraid. They’re not worried about how harsh their master might be. They aren’t paralyzed by fear. They take and use the resources they’ve been given while their master is away.

When the master returns, they don’t have any need to cower in fear. They give a simple, matter-of-fact account of what has been happening during his absence. Then they both hear these all-important words, Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master. The one who added five talents and the one who added two talents heard the exact same words, because the amount of money isn’t the most important thing. I want to dwell on two words they both hear from their master: faithful and joy.

Well done, good and faithful servant. There is a lot going on in life over which we have no control. Sometimes the good and faithful servant is wildly successful, but not always. Robert Roberts imagines a different sort of ending for the servant who is given one talent. Listen to this and see what you think:

Imagine the third servant in a different scenario. He takes the one talent and works his fingers to the bone with it, so as to please the master, and everything is going swimmingly until the sweet potato crop fails and he loses all he’s gained, and the original talent to boot. Now the master calls for a reckoning, and the servant comes to him empty-handed. If the master is the Lord he won’t say, "You wicked and useless servant. You lost my money. If you’d been more conservative and invested with the bankers, I’d still have my money. Go to Hell." No, he won’t say that. He’ll say, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Your heart was with me, both in the joy of your early success and in

your sorrow about the failure of the sweet potato crop. You have been faithful in a little, and I want you to continue to be my servant. Take one of the

talents earned by the servant with five talents, and give it to this boy so he can get started again. Enter into the joy of your master." (Spiritual Emotions, page 127).

I like this imaginative alternative ending of the story because it brings out the crucial thing, which is to be faithful. Faithfulness means not wasting your life but doing something with it, hoping for good results but knowing that sometimes it doesn’t work out as planned.

Then there is the joy. The master tells his faithful servants that they will enter into his joy. In Christian life, we are promised joy. We enter into our Lord’s own joy. When does this joy begin? In the story, you might get the sense that it’s all drudgery until the master returns from his journey, and then, at long last, the faithful servants get joy as a reward.

But let’s think about this. If you’re one of those servants who have been given such a treasure to manage, and if you are convinced that your master is really kind and generous, won’t you have some enjoyment all the way through? There is a cookbook called The Joy of Cooking. The idea is that it’s not only the joy of eating, but there is also a lot of joy in the activity itself, the cooking you do before you eat. Likewise, in Christian life, our joy comes not only at the very end, but even now while we’re putting the treasure to work.

It all depends on our view of God. I’m afraid that a lot of people have an inaccurate view of God, and that shapes the way that they live. If you think that God is unfair or harsh or stingy, that will make you miserable all the time. But if God is something like the man in the story, who is extremely generous and who gives real responsibility to his servants, then we can enjoy what we’re doing while we’re doing it.

We’ve been given a great treasure, more valuable than a bag full of silver. We have

received salvation, life itself, and time to serve

the Lord. We can be faithful now. We can have joy now. Hear the message of Jesus’ parable of the talents: Don’t waste your life!

 

 

 

The following sermon, "Giving Back," was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, October 22, 2017. It is based on Matthew 22:15-22.

 

Life is dangerous enough all by itself that you surely don’t somebody else to trip you up or set you up for a trap. But Jesus has a whole collection of people who are eager to push him off a cliff. They have the perfect hot-button issue, disguised as a serious and respectful question. All the Jews have to pay tribute to Rome, a tax, and they hate it. So, Jesus, what do you think?

 

Sometimes the leader of a kingdom-of-God movement will come along and urge his followers to stop paying the tax. By refusing to cooperate, they express their desire to be free from the Roman oppressor. When this happens, Rome is not amused. Jesus and his contemporaries can remember occasions when such leaders were crucified by the Romans.

 

So Jesus is put on the spot. What do you think? He responds by asking them, Do any of you happen to have one of those special coins that Rome has minted for this tax? As a matter of fact, they do have one, a denarius, which they produce for Jesus. This tells you a lot about these highly respected religious leaders. By carrying such a coin around with them, they show that they have decided to play ball with Rome. On this hot-button issue, they’ve compromised. Jesus exposes them by getting them to produce that coin.

 

But there is more. Jesus asks them about that coin, two closely related questions. First, Whose image? Then, Whose inscription? The answer to both questions is the same: Caesar. His image is on the coin, which was highly offensive to the Jews. Coins minted by Jews didn’t have images because that would be a violation of the commandment forbidding graven images. And the inscription on that Roman denarius is equally offensive. Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus. Jews knew better than to say something like that. There is only one God. The claim that the Romans made for their emperors is an outrage, and it’s right there on those hated coins.

 

Now Jesus has their attention. So he gives them some clear teaching while he’s at it. That coin that you have in your hands, that highly offensive object, with Caesar’s image and his outlandish claim? Well, let him have it! Jesus doesn’t tell the onlookers to stop paying tribute, but he does let them know what he thinks of anyone who claims divine status.

 

He says, Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s. There is a really subtle play on words here that I want you to appreciate. The common Greek word for give can have the sense of paying up, paying your rent, paying the tax. And Jesus’ opponents use that word. Is it lawful to give, or pay, this particular tax? But when Jesus replies, he throws them a curve. He comes back with a variation on that common word, the original word with a little preposition attached to the front of it. This slightly different word has a slightly different sense. It means repay, pay back what you owe, give to someone else what rightfully belongs to that person. The New International Version translates it give back. In other words, it’s his coin. He minted it. Let him have it. So render Caesar his due. Let him have what belongs to him.

 

That’s Jesus’ first point. Then there is a second point. Give back to God what is God’s. It sounds at first like a 50/50 split. Caesar gets a share, and God gets a share. But hold on. Let’s see what Jesus is getting at. Caesar’s image and inscription are found on that coin. Where will you find God’s image? The first chapter of the first book of the Bible declares that human beings are bearers of God’s image. This means that we belong to God. Give back to God what belongs to God, namely, yourself!

 

So Jesus is not dividing the pie in half with Caesar and God on equal footing, as if there is Caesar’s half, and then there is God’s half. No, Jesus is teaching that God trumps Caesar because we human beings bear the image of God. It’s like the inscription on that coin. It’s as though, written on each of us are the words, This is God’s property. We belong to God.SoJesus’ opponents are getting more than they bargained for. They brought him a question that was really a surefire trap that would put Jesus in his place. Now they’re on the hot seat.

 

In this confrontation, Jesus is doing more than escaping their clever trap. He is also showing them what is important and where they have gone wrong. He’s telling us that we are God’s. We belong to God. The fitting way for us to live is to give back what is God’s, our whole life.

 

But it’s hard for us because we like the idea of a division of labor between Caesar and God. This piece of the pie is mine. This other part is God’s. Jesus’ teaching challenges any such division. We belong to God. Everything we are, everything we have, our money, our time, our passions, our work, our relationships, it all belongs to God.

 

Even more important than the hot-button question of payment or non-payment of the hated tax is our relationship to God. Jesus is bringing near a kingdom where God is central. For us to enter this kingdom, we must give ourselves wholeheartedly to God. We give back to God what belongs to God, namely ourselves.

 

We belong to God in a unique way. We have been created in the image of God. Yes, Caesar has a claim. There is something to render to Caesar. But we render our allegiance to God in a way that we do not render our allegiance to Caesar or to anyone else. Those special coins had an inscription: Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus. You see here that Caesar will try to claim more than is rightfully his. He will declare that he is divine. He will demand our ultimate loyalty. But we have been created in the image of God. We must learn to draw the line, saying No to Caesar’s idolatrous boasting.

 

In his conflict with those who came to him with a surefire trap, Jesus gives them more than they bargained for. His words go far beyond an escape from a cleverly-prepared trap. This is more than Jesus exposing the hypocrisy of his opponents. In this story, he presents us with important teaching on spiritual life. He shows us our high calling as those who have been created in the image of God.

 

Our high calling is to freely and gladly render or give back to God what is God’s by right. We belong to God because we have been created in the image of God. We Christians have another reason to add. We belong to God also because we have been redeemed from sin, bought with a price. We belong to God because we bear God’s image. We also belong to God because we have been redeemed. As the Heidelberg Catechism says, I am not my own, but belongbody and soul, in life and in deathto my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

The following sermon—"A Church Split That Didnt Happen"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, September 10, 2017 (Scripture reading: Acts 6:1-7). This is the first in a series of sermons based on passages from the book of Acts that speak to the topic of race.

 

This is a series of sermons on a difficult topic: race.

There is a lot going on these days concerning race, racism, white privilege, protests, counter-protests, and violence.

Jim Wallis calls racism "America’s original sin."

The current issue of Christianity Today has a cover story on America’s history in which some 4000 black people were lynched from 1877 to the 1950s.

It’s part of our history, as much as we would like to forget it.

Race, racism, white privilege … these are all difficult matters to talk about. It’s appealing to avoid them altogether, to try to keep the church a safe haven from the troubles of the world.

In my preaching, I surely don’t want to sow discord in the body of Christ!

However, there are times when we need to face tough and painful issues, even when we don’t have all the answers, even when we run the risk of misunderstanding and discomfort.

Concerning race, there is a great need to think and speak in a constructive Christian way.

I want our thinking and our actions to be shaped by our book, the Bible.

But what part of the Bible shall we consult? I considered a lot of possibilities, then finally settled on a single part of the New Testament, the book of Acts. The book of Acts is a great help on the matters before us.

 

Acts 1:8 is a sort of agenda for everything that follows. Jesus tells his disciples, You will be my witnesses … to the end of the earth.

The flow of the book is the outward movement of the Gospel.

This book tells the story of how the Spirit of God worked powerfully so that the Gospel traveled from Jerusalem outward, how it gained a foothold in many different places inhabited by people of many races.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing! There was major conflict along the way.

Difficult matters involving race had to be faced and resolved.

There is a lot for us here in the book of Acts.

My plan for today is to start easy with a story that is "in-house" and that ends well!

The situation: First Church Jerusalem had a problem.

There are all sorts of problems that churches then and now encounter. Theirs was a good problem to have! The church was growing like a weed.

There are a lot of people, thousands of new believers.

We find that the Christian community is looking out for the welfare of women who have lost their husbands and are at risk. This is great news!

However, there is a problem: some say that they are being neglected in the daily distribution.

We find, then, that even when the church is thriving, there is conflict in the church. This is normal!

There are two identifiable groups: the Hellenists who are complaining, and the Hebrews.

Both groups are made up of followers of Jesus. Both groups are Jewish.

What is the distinction between them?

They spoke different languages. Language is important.

It’s not just the words we use. Language is more than that. Our language is an expression of our culture. In this case, one group has drunk from the wells of Greek culture more than the other group has. This other group has perhaps a deeper attachment to the land and all that that entails.

So there is really a cultural divide. Perhaps they have picked up different customs along the way. Both the Hellenists and the Hebrews are believers, members of the same church.

But something is going wrong. In the ministry to the women who have lost their husbands and are as a result economically vulnerable, one group is being treated better than the other group.

I do not think it was a deliberate attack.

Probably the leaders of the church were so engaged in their work that they did not notice what was going on.

You could say it was a little thing. Today there is a term for those little things, which might be a gesture or a seemingly innocent habit or figure of speech. They are called microaggressions. The trouble with microaggressions is that they add up.

There in First Church Jerusalem, a small thing can quickly become a big thing. How can you worship together when one part of the congregation is resenting another?

The situation could persist. What we find going on here in Acts 6 is serious enough that it threatens to stop the spread of the Gospel.

A break along linguistic and cultural lines can be devastating.

It comes to the attention of the apostles, the leaders of the church. They take it very seriously. Something has to change. Good leadership is needed. However, the apostles need to keep their focus on their unique calling.

So they propose that some others in the church, highly qualified spiritual leaders, oversee the daily distribution, to make sure that no one is neglected.

It’s not that the apostles are lazy or that they don’t thing this work matters! On the contrary, it matters so much that they insists that the church select the right people for the job.

This is what they propose to the congregation.

Here is what happens. Seven leaders are selected.

We know their names. And it turns out that all of them have Greek names. We can’t be 100% sure on this matter, but it appears that the people who were feeling slighted, who really were being slighted, now have people who are like them, in language and culture, running the program!

There was a need for highly qualified people to oversee the daily distribution. Those chosen were people from the very same group that was being neglected. That is a powerful statement. It’s a statement that we take you seriously. It’s a statement that we want there to be justice and unity in the life of the church.

The result of this move was very good. There was peace in the church, and the Gospel continued to spread. When the church was willing to face the problem, God’s blessing was evident.

I like this story. It’s a pleasant way to start talking about a difficult topic.

What can we learn from it?
We learn that the way we treat one another in the church is crucial to our witness.

We learn that it’s good to listen carefully to those who are feeling slighted.

We learn that it’s good to face up to our linguistic and cultural differences, rather than pretend that there is no problem.

Today, in matters of race, language, culture, so much has gone wrong and continues to go wrong that there is a great deal of fear and anxiety.

As a result, when we consider the diversity of the human race, we may view it as a problem only. When there is problem, especially a longstanding and complicated problem, we have a tendency to run in the other direction.

I hope we can hear this biblical story today as a gentle challenge to think differently. It would be good to be less dominated by fear of what might go wrong, and more confident that the Holy Spirit is at work in the church.

There is great hope here that the church can be healthy in dealing with difficult matters.

The church can be a beacon of hope in our culture.

God the Holy Spirit is in our midst, giving us the ability to pull off something that is very hard to do. As Psalm 133 says, How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following sermon—"A Promise Kept"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, July 23, 2017. Based on Jeremiah 31:31-34; 33:14-16 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, its the fifth installment of an eight-part series on the Christian story.

 

We Christians have a story. It’s a great story that makes sense of life as we know it. It’s the story of creation, how God has created everything there is. But something has gone terribly wrong. That would be us. We’ve gone wrong. All of us have gone astray. This is part of our story, but it’s not the end of the story because God is determined to do something about it. God has called one family, Abraham’s family. Through that family, God will reach the whole world. That’s where we were last Sunday, when we saw how God established a covenant with Abraham. From him a great nation would emerge, and through them all the families of the earth would be blessed.

 

But this great story of ours has a lot of twists and turns. It so happens that the chosen people, Israel, frequently went astray. The very people who were to be the solution to the human predicament became part of the problem. Isn’t that the way it often is? You receive a prescription for a wonder drug that is supposed to solve your medical problem. But instead, it creates problems of its own, such as an allergic reaction, so that the promised solution just adds to your troubles. So it was with the nation that came from Abraham.

 

God, however, was relentless. When Israel turned back to God, they were given an opportunity to make a fresh start. Before long, though, things went wrong again. And again, and again. God sent messengers to them, to warn them and summon them to be faithful to the covenant, so that they could fulfill their vocation.

 

One of these messengers, one of the greatest of them all, was the prophet Jeremiah. He was the Lord’s spokesman in the worst possible situation. He had the job of telling them that, if they continued on their present course, the result would be exile. And sure enough, that is exactly what happened. The chosen people were failing in their mission. Instead of being a light to the nations, they were being held captive in Babylon.

 

Jeremiah had told them that this would be their fate, and so it was. So then, will this be the end of the story? Will God’s effort to redeem creation sputter out altogether?

 

The same Jeremiah who had been the messenger of doom and gloom has a new message from God for this new situation. It is a word of hope, unexpected hope for a better tomorrow.

 

Jeremiah does not sugarcoat their present condition or the misbehavior that brought it about. He says that God’s people have broken the covenant. They have violated its terms. They have not been faithful. What, then, will happen next? The Lord, speaking through the prophet, promises that there will be a new covenant. It will be like the original covenant in some ways. The Lord will be their God and they will be the Lord’s people, just as before. But this new covenant will be written in a different place. Not on tablets of stone but on the human heart. All of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall know the Lord. This new covenant will be marked by the forgiveness of their sins. The Lord is promising here to do something even more impressive than what had come before. The people kept coming up short. Now, with the new covenant, they will not come up short because the Lord will do something to change the people themselves.

 

During that same season, when the nation was suffering so greatly, Jeremiah had another message for them, once more telling them about the future, something that would surely happen in coming days. The Lord will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David. That is, there will be a great king who will bring about justice and righteousness.

 

You see, God’s promises are made here in the book of Jeremiah and in other parts of the Old Testament. The Lord is not giving up the mission to redeem creation. If anything, the Lord is going to do a deeper and more extensive work than anyone could have imagined. Yet after the Old Testament books were written, the people were still waiting for the promises to be fulfilled. Scripture as it were is leaning forward, awaiting something that has not yet happened. You might even say that it’s a book without an ending. Promises have been made. What will happen? Will those promises be kept?

 

Now we can appreciate the power of Jesus’ words. Hundreds of years after the days of the prophet Jeremiah, Jesus tells his disciples gathered in the upper room, this cup is the new covenant in my blood. Those disciples knew their Bible. They knew that Jeremiah had spoken of a new covenant. But when would it ever come? Jesus dares to tell them that the promise is now being fulfilled in him. Yet it is the new covenant in his blood. The new covenant in which the Lord will do a deeper work to change the people’s hearts so that the law is written there, is established through Jesus’ death.

 

We Christians believe that God’s promises have been fulfilled. Jesus is the righteous Branch, the king in David’s line who was even greater than David. He has executed justice and righteousness, as promised, yet in a way that no one expected.

 

Promises are a part of ordinary human life. There is something called a promissory note. When we borrow money from a bank, we sign documents saying that we promise to make regular payments. Lovers make promises to one another, sometimes over-the-top promises that express the depth of their commitment. Candidates for public office make promises all the time. They’re called campaign promises.

 

In every one of these instances, we can think of times when promises were not kept. Sometimes the individual means well but just can’t deliver on the promise made. Other times, it seems to be worse than that. We are capable of willfully and deliberately breaking the promises we have made. We’ll even deny that we made them in the first place. Human beings have a questionable track record. Too many of us are promise breakers.

 

There are a lot of ways of telling the Christian story. It’s a big, sprawling story, with a lot going on. My series of sermon on the Christian story is five weeks and counting! But for now, I want to lift up this one thing that I hope we will never forget, that our story is the story of a promise kept. In coming weeks, we’ll take a closer look at the contours of this promise and what the fulfillment looks like. For now, though, let’s pause to appreciate this one piece of good news. The God who created us, who set in motion a plan to restore the creation after we went wrong, not only makes promises but keeps them. Our God is a promise keeper. And that’s good reason to rejoice and give thanks.

 

 

 

The following sermon—"What Has Gone Wrong?"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, July 9, 2017. Based on Genesis 3 and 1 Timothy 1:12-17, it is part of a series of sermons on the Christian story.

When a newspaper posed the question, "What’s Wrong with the World?" the Catholic thinker G.K. Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response: "Dear Sirs: I am. Sincerely Yours, G.K. Chesterton." I am what’s wrong with the world, he said. I wonder if he was the only one who came up with that answer.

What is wrong with the world? Everybody has an opinion on that question. Usually, we’re quick to blame someone else. We say, They are what is wrong with the world. It’s a serious question. In fact, every philosophy, every account of the world, every large-scale story, must give an account of the world as it is, what the problem is. What has gone wrong?

We Christians have our own story. Our story is the story the Bible tells. On the question of what has gone wrong, our story is realistic. We say, yes, something has gone wrong. We also say that we’ve gone wrong. Human rebellion is the heart of the trouble.  But the trouble has spread everywhere into every facet of life.

The Bible’s way of showing us what has gone wrong, and how life really works, is to put it in the form of a story. A story can be like a mirror. When we hear the story, we pause, then we take an honest look, and, lo and behold, we see ourselves. We hear this particular story and we recognize ourselves. What the characters in this story do, we continue to do. The consequences that swiftly follow their actions continue to mark our life in the world. This is our story too. Here is what happens. The Lord God who formed the humans placed them in a fruitful garden which the Lord God had also formed. They had the run of the place, with one exception. Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Life was good. Not boring. They did have meaningful work to do, tilling and keeping the garden.

They were also accountable to God. It was important for them to obey God’s commandment.

But there is another character that enters this story, a serpent, more crafty than any other wild animal. After a while, the humans begin to doubt God’s word. Did God really say that? Does God really have our best interests at heart? Could it be that God is not really for us, that God is holding something good back from us? They begin to think that it just might be better to go their own way. They reasoned that life could be better were they to take and eat of that one fruit that was off limits to them.

The story explores the woman’s thought process. The woman saw that the tree was good for food. That makes some sense, based on their experience with the fruit from other trees. It was a delight to the eyes. We have no reason to doubt that. Then this: the tree was desired to make one wise. Now that one seems to be a reach. A lot of us enjoy fresh fruit, but really, do we expect to go to the farmer’s market and immediately raise our IQ as a result? Can any fruit deliver on that promise? This part of the story is like a mirror. I suspect that what we’re being shown here is that when we begin to distrust God’s word, it isn’t long before we’ll fall for anything, even utter nonsense. We believe things about the alternatives that just aren’t true. And one thing you see in this story, this mirror which shows us what we also do, is that sin is not rational. It does not make sense. But we still do it. We read this story, and ask, What were they thinking? Maybe they weren’t thinking. Or at least they weren’t thinking very well. Sound familiar?

So the woman and the man eat the fruit. They do what the Lord God had told them not to do. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. How quickly their world changes. Shame and fear enter their lives.

The story is a mirror that shows us what we keep doing. It also shows us the state of relationships in the world today. The relationship between human beings and the Lord God is now marked by hiding. The relationship between the man and the woman is marked by blaming. The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate. That good relationship between the man and the woman has deteriorated into blaming one another for what has gone wrong. And now instead of harmony, there is tyranny. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. That is a far cry from "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh." The relationship between the humans and the world has also changed. It is no longer as harmonious as it had been. Now there are thorns and thistles that make work difficult and frustrating.

I’ve given you a lot of bad news today. Sometimes, though, bad news is exactly what we need to hear. We may be inclined to evade the truth if it’s embarrassing or inconvenient, but there are times when facing up to the bad news helps us move forward.

Yet even here, in this story that is so frank in telling us what is wrong with the world and with us, there are surprising hints of something else. That something else is God’s unexpected grace and God’s strategy to put things right. In the very darkest moment, when the Lord is addressing the serpent, we come upon this puzzling saying: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel." It seems that there will be ongoing conflict, ongoing struggle between good and evil. But then there is this hint that some readers have taken to be a prophecy of the work of Christ. Though the serpent strikes the heel of the woman’s offspring, he will strike the serpent’s head. He’ll do more damage to the serpent than the serpent will do to him. Could this be a prophecy of the Lord’s ultimate triumph over the enemy?

Whatever we make of it, there is another sign of God’s grace that is crystal clear. The man and the woman are overcome by shame. It doesn’t take any time at all for their disobedience to bear bitter fruit. So they try to do something about that shame. They sew fig leaves together and make loincloths for themselves.

We can see ourselves in that attempt. We’ve been trying to cover over the effects of our sin ever since. And the results have not always worked out as planned. So here is what the Lord God does. The Lord God makes garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothes them. What the Lord did for them was more radical than their effort was. It required the death of one of the animals. But it was an act of the Lord’s kindness to the humans. That act of kindness does not turn back the clock. The consequences of their rebellion are still present. Nor do the skins prevent them from being expelled from the garden. From that day forward, human life is lived out east of Eden. But those skins help them with their immediate problem, their shame. They may also be pointing forward to the distant future when Christ’s blood will be shed so that our shame can be dealt with in a lasting way.

What has gone wrong? Most people would agree that something has gone wrong, though we have a whole host of explanations.

How about the Christian story? The Christian story doesn’t evade the truth. Yes, something has gone wrong. The effects can be seen everywhere. This story shows us that it’s our own doing. It’s G.K. Chesterton all over again, admitting that he is what is wrong with the world. It’s better to face up to the truth than to pretend that there’s nothing wrong.

Even here, though, in the most tragic part of the story, we have a hint of another chapter that follows this one. We have a hint that the Lord God, who formed us out of the ground, is not done with us yet.

 

 

The following sermon—"Jesus Compassion"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, June 18, 2017. It is based on Ezekiel 34:1-6 and Matthew 9:35-10:8.

 

Last Sunday, I found myself in a crowd. Some 40,000 people made their way into University of Phoenix Stadium for Harvest America, and I was one of them. I’m glad that a lot of people were there, but while we were waiting and waiting to get into the parking lot, I wasn’t enjoying the experience so much. If I could have forcibly relocated all of those cars that were slowing our progress, I would have.

 

How do you like crowds? Perhaps you feed off of the energy of a large number of people who are anticipating some excitement. Or perhaps you can’t stand crowds. You find the other people annoying and you would just as soon stay home and read a book or watch the game on TV. When we encounter a crowd, we may become impatient and do everything we can to separate ourselves from the masses. So we sit up and take notice as we observe Jesus when he finds himself in a crowd. It’s different with him because he’s the one who drew the crowd in the first place. But the really impressive thing is his response. He sees the crowds of people and he has compassion for them. This is not the usual, Get out of my way! Not the usual critical spirit we have when we look at the way people carry themselves and the clothes they’re wearing.

 

Jesus has compassion. The Gospel of Matthew uses the same word for having compassion that’s used of our innards, our guts. The idea is that having compassion is being moved in our inner parts. It’s a strong picture of caring so much for other people that it has a profound impact on you. You’re moved within. You may even suffer along with the other person. To say the least, it’s not our usual response when we find ourselves in a crowd. But here is Jesus, responding to the crowds of people with nothing less than compassion. It reminds me of Charles Wesley’s line in one of his hymns: "Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art." With this crowd, Jesus has compassion. I propose that we take a close look and learn from Jesus about compassion. Perhaps it will rub off on us!

 

When I’m in a crowd, I see a crowd. I see people who are in my way, blocking my view or wasting my time or obstructing my path to the parking lot. Jesus, however, sees something that we miss. He sees the people as harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. It’s the book of Ezekiel all over again. It’s like that era when the leaders were worthless, or worse. The people were sheep without a shepherd to look out for them. Now, years later, Jesus looks out on a crowd of his fellow Jews, and he sees the same thing, the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Their leaders have let them down. The people are being fleeced by the officials who should be looking out for them. Other voices, loud voices, are inviting them to choose the way of violence, which will only get them into deeper trouble. So the people who made up the crowds were in bad shape. It would be normal to view them as a nuisance. Jesus, however, looked out on the crowds and saw people who were in desperate need.

 

That is what he sees. Can anything be done to help? Jesus has a small band of disciples, a small group of them. What can such a weak and motley crew do in the face of such need? It’s an impossible situation. But Jesus gives them something to do, one thing that will have a huge impact. He tells them, Pray! What shall they pray for? Pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.

 

You see, the picture shifts from one part of the farm to another, from sheep to grain. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. So pray to the Lord of the harvest. It’s the Lord’s harvest. It’s God’s work first and foremost. Jesus looks at the crowd, and he first sees them as sheep without a shepherd. Now he sees them as an abundant crop.

 

N.T. Wright puts it like this: "Jesus looked at his contemporaries and saw them not only like sheep without a shepherd but, changing the farming imagery, like a field full of wheat with nobody to harvest it." There is work to be done. The people who make up the crowd need care. They need to be cared for and invited. But where are the workers?

 

Jesus looks at the crowd and he sees something promising, that the grain is ready to be harvested. He sees potential where most people would see none.

 

If only there were workers! So he tells the few workers he does have, Pray for the Lord to send more workers out. Ask the Lord to send laborers out to gather the harvest.

 

Can we pray like this today? Phoenix is once more the fifth largest city in this country, with approximately 1.6 million people. Now that’s a crowd! What do we see when we consider the vast number of people who surround us? Are there people out there who are like sheep without a shepherd? Like a plentiful harvest of grain that needs to be gathered in? Jesus bids his disciples to pray to the Lord of the harvest, send workers! Yes, there are a lot of Christians here in Phoenix, and more than one thousand congregations. Even so, it seems that there are people who are like sheep without a shepherd, estranged, confused, at their wits end. It seems that when we pray we ought to ask the Lord to send laborers!

 

But a strange thing happens when you pray. People who pray for something tend to get involved. When you pray, your eyes are opened and you are prompted to become part of the answer to your own prayer. You can’t remain an innocent bystander. You get involved. When we follow Jesus’ instruction, praying the Lord the harvest to send out laborers, look out! We may well be among the laborers who are sent. When you pray for something and you see an opportunity to do something about it, you get moving. This is exactly what happens with Jesus’ disciples. The very people he asks to pray are soon sent out as workers.

 

Here, then, is a pattern for us to follow. First, learn to see people as Jesus sees them. Second, pray. Third, be willing to be part of the answer to your own prayer. We’re laborers in the Lord’s service. This doesn’t mean that we’re all doing the same thing. The Lord can use a whole variety of us, with a whole variety of gifts and a whole variety of places to serve. All sorts of people doing ordinary things can join together in making a difference, so that sheep will have a shepherd and the grain will be gathered into the barn.

 

For all of this to fit together, we need to circle back to where we began, Jesus’ own compassion. Karl Barth has this to say about how Jesus has compassion for the crowd: "The suffering and sin and abandonment and peril of these men not merely went to the heart of Jesus but right into His heart, into Himself, so that their plight was now His own, and as such He saw and suffered it far more keenly than they did. … He took their misery upon Himself, taking it away from them and making it His own." Jesus has taken our misery upon himself at the cross. His death on the cross is the greatest act of compassion there is.

 

So we look back to Jesus’ life and death, and we see him having compassion for people, even the crowds. But that’s the past. What about the present?

 

Jesus continues to have compassion for people who are like sheep without a shepherd. He has sent the Holy Spirit to continue his work. Not only that. He has sent us. We who know his compassion for us find our life in him. Now we are among those laborers who are sent out into the Lord’s harvest.

 

Here is what St. Teresa of Avila, who lived in the 16th century, has to say:

 

"Christ has

 

No body now on earth but yours;

 

No hands but yours;

 

No feet but yours;

 

Yours are the eyes

 

Through which is to look out Christ’s compassion to the world;

 

Yours are the feet

 

With which he is to go about

 

Doing good;

 

Yours are the hands

 

With which he is to bless now."

 

 

 

 

The following sermon—"Who Can You Trust These Days?"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, May 7, 2017. It is based on John 10:1-10.

"Strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet." Maybe you’ve heard these words before. They come from Will Rogers. I can’t help but like someone who could think that way and have such a great attitude toward everyone. I’m sure that I would have enjoyed the company of Will Rogers.

But if you try to be a Will Rogers clone, seeing every stranger as a friend you haven’t met yet, you may run into trouble. You may find that some of those strangers aren’t friends after all. They may try to pick your pocket. They may try to take advantage of your charitable attitude and do you harm. How would Will Rogers fare when some scoundrel stole his identity and emptied his bank account?

People talk about Jesus, how he loved everybody and wouldn’t it be great if everyone could be like Jesus, then the world would be a better place. But here is Jesus speaking about the way things are, and he uses words like thief and outlaw. He is no Will Rogers! There are, Jesus says, people who are up to no good. They do not have your best interests at heart. They come along with the goal of enriching themselves at your expense.

This is a hard pill to swallow. Why does Jesus have such a negative attitude? Because he’s seen people in his day who do more harm than good. Perhaps he has some of the local religious authorities in mind. Perhaps he is thinking of some of the freedom fighters who would take up arms against the Roman menace and get themselves and others killed in the process.

Jesus is realistic. There are people you ought not to trust. But he says more than that. He says something that takes a lot of confidence and courage to put out there on the table. He says, There are thieves, and then there is me! They came to steal and kill and destroy. I came to give you life, a full life, an abundant life, the best kind of life. That is my mission. I am not here to pick your pocket. I am here to give you a good and rich life.

We’ve heard people talk like this before. They say, All those other products are worthless.

Those who came along pushing them are frauds. But you can trust me! Really? We’re not so sure. Who can you trust these days? So we sit up and take notice when Jesus says these things. Jesus must be very sure of himself in order to speak this way. But can he deliver on his promise?

To help us grasp what he is saying about himself, he paints a picture with words. This picture or analogy is a common scene in the Middle East. It’s a sheep pen. Sheep are gathered into an enclosed space for their own safety. Access to the sheep is restricted. One figure in this picture Jesus paints is the shepherd. The sheep know their shepherd’s voice and will follow him. There is a world of difference between an outlaw and a shepherd. Keep the outlaw out, but let the shepherd into the sheep pen.

So, as you might expect, Jesus likens himself to that shepherd. He too is a shepherd, a good shepherd. His sheep hear his voice and follow him. You can’t help but think of what the Bible says, how the Lord is my shepherd (Psalm 23), and how the Lord gently leads the mother sheep (Isaiah 40). People who heard Jesus speaking must have gotten the point, that he is likening himself to the Lord. What a bold claim he’s making!

Jesus is the shepherd. But he takes this picture he’s painted and he turns it sideways to say something more about himself. We of course make the connection between Jesus and the shepherd. This makes it easy for us to skip right over this other thing he says. He’s still playing with this picture of the sheep pen, but he says something that you don’t expect, and he says it twice: I am the gate of the sheep.

What? A gate is an inanimate object. We get the point that he is the shepherd of the sheep and that the sheep hear his voice. How can he also be the gate? Isn’t it one or the other? Perhaps this part of the Gospel of John is saying two different things. Jesus is the gate, and Jesus is the shepherd. Keep them separate. Why, then, does this part of the Gospel of John not keep them separate but bring them together? What does one have to do with the other? How can the same person be both the shepherd and the gate? Or can he?

Help is at hand! I found an article written by Eric Bishop ("The Door of the Sheep," The Expository Times, 1960 article) which shares a story told by Presbyterian mission worker William M. Miller in Iran. He discovered that the shepherd sleeps in the opening of the enclosure that surrounds the sheep. The shepherd is also the door! Now I get it!

No wonder these two things are side by side in Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate.

As shepherd, he leads us and guides us. For our part, we hear his voice and follow where he leads. Jesus is also the gate. Through him, we come in and we go out. He is the gate through whom we find life, abundant life.

In the picture that Jesus paints, and in the story of the shepherds in Iran, the shepherd lives dangerously. He sleeps where he does to protect the sheep. The shepherd is putting his own life on the line so that they can live.

I’m reminded of these lines from Psalm 23:

"He lets me rest in grassy meadows;

    he leads me to restful waters;

        he keeps me alive."

The Lord Jesus has paid a steep price to keep us alive. We Christians know that Jesus not only put his life on the line like that shepherd who is also the gate, but he actually gave his life so that we could live.

Jesus teaches us that he has come into this world in order to grant us life. He is no thief or outlaw. Who can you trust these days?  We can trust the One who has come to give us a full life, an abundant life.

It’s Psalm 23 all over again with its lush pastures and overflowing feast. It’s not merely squeaking by, but a rich and full life.

Yet strangely enough, people commonly decline his offer. We’re offered an abundant life, but we settle for others things. How is it that we settle for so little? C.S. Lewis wonders about this. He recognizes how important our desires are, then he make this observation: "Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. … We are far too easily pleased" (The Weight of Glory, 2).

What the Lord has in mind for us is an abundant life. Abundant life is not necessarily the health and wealth promised by some so-called prosperity teaching. Abundant life is a life with God. That is what makes it life to the fullest.

How can we have this life?  Look to Jesus who is both the shepherd and the gate. The one thing that he give us to do in this picture that he draws is to enter. He is the gate to life, true life, a rich life, abundant life. Enter!

 

 

 

The following sermon—"Blinded by the Light?"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, March 26, 2017. It is based on John 9:1-41.

 

There is a song dating back to the 1970s called "Blinded by the Light." It’s a striking title because ordinarily light does just the opposite, it helps you see, it’s anti-blindness. So this is unexpected and strange. Can you really be blinded by the light? It can and does happen when another driver is coming toward you and insists on using the car’s high beams. So yes, I suppose that you can be blinded by the light. 

 

I am thinking today of another way in which you can be blinded by the light, and not just any light but blinded by the light. Jesus declares that he is the light of the world. Not one among many but the light of the world, one of a kind. At his command, a man who had always been blind receives his sight. The giving of sight to a man who had been born blind is a sign.

It’s a sign that points to something else, something about Jesus. He is the light of the world. He is the giver of light. He makes the blind to see. 

 

So what is not to like in this story? This man is blind no more. Everyone rejoices with him and they all live happily ever after. Right? Wrong! You might say that as soon as he receives his sight, this man’s troubles begin! So much trouble that he could even wonder whether or not it was worth it. 

 

Jesus declares that he is the light of the world. As long as he is in the world, he is the light of the world and there is work to do. But though Jesus is the light of the world, and though he has shone light in this unexpected act of healing, some see the light but some do not see the light. They are in fact blinded by the light. 

 

So it’s a story about Jesus as the light of the world. It’s also a story of resistance, our resistance. You see it in those hardliners among the Pharisees, as N.T. Wright calls them. These hardliners do not rejoice. They complain. Jesus did what he did on the Sabbath. Therefore he must not be of God. Over and over, they say, We know. We know that this man cannot be from God. Do they really know? We’ve all met people who are know-it-alls. They’re sure that they know all sorts of things. But we wonder. Does arrogance keep us from seeing the light, so that instead we are blinded by the light? The story seems to be warning us. Don’t be so full of yourself that it blinds you to reality. 

 

Then there are the man’s parents. What do they do? They duck! As we say today, they threw their son under the bus. When they are put on the spot, they tell the authorities, Ask him, he is of age. So much for supporting their son in his hour of need. You see, they are afraid. They do have something to fear, excommunication from the synagogue. And that is nothing to sneeze at. It would hurt to be thrown out of the worshiping community, to be ostracized from their friends. So even though their dear son has received something he’s never had before, the ability to see, these parents are blinded by their fear. 

 

Jesus is the light of the world. He is doing things. He does saving things. But if we meet him with arrogance or fear, we just might be blinded by the light. Consider those religious hardliners and the man’s parents. We read about them and we chuckle. How can people be so thickheaded? It is a funny story but it packs a punch. What does it say about us? We find here that we can be in the presence of the light and miss out altogether! In fact, if we aren’t careful, we can become entrenched in our blindness. 

 

In this story, people don’t stay put. That’s what makes so interesting. There is movement, and I think that is one of the really important things for us to observe. Can people really change? That man who had been blind changes a lot. Receiving sight was only the beginning. At first, we find that he is happy to admit it when he does not know something. Who healed you? Where has he gone? I don’t know, he says. 

 

But as the story unfolds, he changes. Even though Jesus is nowhere to be found, the man figures things out a little bit at a time. Well, he must be a prophet. Then, he must be more than a prophet because he has done something unheard of. Finally, when Jesus does appear on the scene a second time, the man who had been blind sees even more clearly. He becomes a believer and even a worshiper. 

 

This relentless forward movement toward the light takes place in spite of all sorts of obstacles. He is questioned and threatened by powerful men. Still he proceeds to put two and two together. And as he discovers more and more, he speaks up in spite of the the threats. That takes some nerve! But he does pay a steep price. They condemn him as a sinner, blaming him for his blindness, then they excommunicate him. That’s how he’s rewarded for his insight. 

 

While the man who had been blind is moving one direction, those hardliners seem to be headed in the opposite direction. They move from questioning to threatening, even lowering the boom on this man whose chief crime was telling the truth. They become more obtuse, more resistant, more stubborn, completely blinded by the light. In this story, we observe movement in two opposite directions. One man is moving toward the light. The others are moving toward the darkness. 

 

The prayer book I’ve been using this year included a reading this week that is taken from the C.S. Lewis book, Mere Christianity. It says, "Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a Heaven creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is Heaven: that is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other" (cited in Guide for Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, 125-6). 

 

That’s a very sobering and timely word. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other. That’s what we see playing out in this story. I’ve often noticed that the really important thing, even more than your starting point, is the direction you’re headed. This poor man who lived so long in darkness had an unpromising start. On the other hand, these particular Pharisees, these hardliners, have had every conceivable advantage. They know Scripture. They have had years of instruction. They have one another. Yet when the light of the world enters the picture, what is the outcome? The healed man is progressing to one state, the heavenly one, while the others are progressing to the other. 

 

Jesus himself, at the end of the story, explains what is really going on. He says, "For judgment I came into the world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind." These are hard words. Jesus’ coming forces a choice. How will we respond? Neutrality doesn’t seem to be an option. It’s one way or the other because Jesus has come into the world for judgment. 

 

Jesus came as the light of the world. Some people came to him, attracted to the light. The man who was given sight kept moving, kept coming to the light. What a joy it was for him to be in the presence of the Lord and to bow down before him! But there were others, plenty of them, who had the opposite response. Though they too were in the Lord’s presence, though they had witnessed his power in action, an act of healing they could not deny, it did them no good. They actually ended up worse off than they had been, blinded by the light. They rejected the light of the world. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, people loved darkness rather than light (John 3:19). 

 

It’s the same story for us today. The light has come into the world. What will it be for us? What do you want? That’s the key question. How we answer it will determine the direction we go, toward the light or toward the darkness.

 

 

 

The following sermon—"What Do You Want?"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, March 12, 2017. It is based on John 3:1-21.

Have you ever gotten more than you bargained for? You ask a simple question and you get a long, rambling speech. Have you even made an innocent comment and accidentally opened up a can of worms? Have you ever wished that you had just kept your mouth shut because you got more than you bargained for?

I feel for Nicodemus. He got more than he bargained for. He had gone to some trouble to have a conversation with Jesus. He came at night. Maybe that seemed like the best way to have some quality time to talk with Jesus about things that matter. No distractions to interfere. Yet the longer he is there with Jesus, the greater the confusion. Every time Jesus says something, Nicodemus is left scratching his head. It’s one puzzling statement after another. Nicodemus has mental whiplash because the topics shift so quickly, one strange saying after another.

Sometimes it’s merely baffling. Other times, though, it seems like a personal attack.  For instance, Jesus asks him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?"

Nicodemus is not accustomed to being attacked or ridiculed. He is highly educated. He is a prominent leader. People look up to him. He has worked hard for a long time to get where he is now. No one trifles with Nicodemus. Until this night.  Jesus accuses Nicodemus of failing to believe. You’re Israel’s distinguished teacher, are you? How can it be, then, that you don’t understand how the spiritual life works? What’s the matter with you, Nicodemus?

No advanced standing for you. Your only hope is to go back to kindergarten. Better yet, back to the womb! Try being born all over again. Have you ever been in a situation where you expected someone to defer to you and it didn’t happen? When a famous pro athlete goes out on the town and is confronted by someone working security who doesn’t seem to be treating him with proper respect, he asks, Don’t you know who I am? Doesn’t Jesus know who Nicodemus is? Why, then, does he knock the great leader down to the ground, repeatedly? Is there some good purpose in what he is doing?

Perhaps there is. Nicodemus got more than he bargained for that night. But now I mean this in a good sense. Yes, Jesus does challenge him. Yes, Jesus tells him that he must start all over again. No, he doesn’t defer to Nicodemus on the basis of his prior accomplishments. But notice how Jesus does take a lot of time with Nicodemus. He is giving his nocturnal visitor a thorough explanation of God’s great purpose and how we fit in.

Jesus gives Nicodemus incredibly good news. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. Jesus is not trifling with Nicodemus but giving him the greatest treasure of all. It’s the announcement of the love of God and the offer of true life. It’s not something you have to earn. It’s not a negotiation. It’s a gift. Our part, Jesus tells Nicodemus, is to believe.

Jesus tells him further that God’s purpose in sending the Son is not to condemn but to save. This is good news indeed. But again, our part is to believe. If we do believe, we are not condemned. If we don’t believe in the name of God’s Son, we are condemned already. This is a shocking thing that Jesus is telling Nicodemus. The judgment that everyone expected to come at the end, the very end of human history, is already playing out now. And it revolves around the coming of God’s only Son. Something has happened that is so significant that it constitutes a dividing line. You are on one side or the other. It all depends on this one thing that is given us to do, which is to believe.

We don’t find life with God by performing a whole set of tasks. Nicodemus has done a lot of things in his life. But that doesn’t matter. Even he must go back to the beginning and be born from above. For him and for us all, believing is the key thing.

I’ve been saying that, when Nicodemus visited Jesus that night, he got more than he bargained for. So it is that Jesus doesn’t merely tell him that it’s important to believe. Jesus also shows him what that believing looks like, and, just as important, what not believing looks like. He shows Nicodemus the terrible danger of getting it wrong.

This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. Jesus is talking about what happened when he arrived on the scene. He’s saying something here that feels like a slap in the face. We like to think that we’re pretty good, not perfect to be sure but not all that bad either. Jesus is saying that people actually prefer darkness to light. Given the option between the two, we choose darkness.

Lest we miss the point because it’s so outrageous, he adds another comment. All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. You see, Nicodemus might have tried to tone down Jesus’ teaching. Well, yes, we can imagine him saying, we all need a little bit of improvement. Yes, we are off by a few degrees and need a course correction to get our believing on track. Jesus, however, says that the situation is worse than that, far more radical. Human beings actually hate the light. That’s the trouble. Only something drastic, like being born again, will work the needed change.

The failure to believe is rooted in something we would rather not think about or admit, that it’s possible for us to love darkness rather than light.

Jesus is saying something important to Nicodemus about our life with God. The really crucial matter, even more crucial than getting our beliefs straight, is the human heart. Even if you know a great deal, as Nicodemus surely does, if you hate the light, you will get nowhere. In fact, you will experience condemnation even now. The way forward is to love the light more than darkness.

I keep saying that Nicodemus got more than he bargained for. Jesus’ words to him go down deep. He showed up that night hoping to have a polite discussion, but he ended up having his heart examined.

I’ve just finished reading a book that helps us appreciate what Jesus is doing with Nicodemus. It is written by James K.A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, and it’s called, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. It begins like this:

"What do you want? That’s the question. It is the first, last, and most fundamental question of Christian discipleship. … We are what we want. Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our heart, the epicenter of the human person. … So discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing. Jesus’ command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with histo want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all. Jesus is a teacher who doesnt just inform our intellect but forms our very loves." (1-2)

If we love the light rather than darkness, then we will respond to Jesus by believing, since he is the true light that has come into the world. When we read the gospels, we find that many people did believe. But there are plenty of surprises. We find that some people who had every advantage got tripped up or were offended. We also find that some people that we would judge to be least likely to believe end up coming to Jesus and following him.

It’s the principle of spiritual life that we are still seeing before us today. The important thing is not your starting point. The important thing is the direction you’re moving. Are you moving toward the light because that’s what you love, that’s what you want? Or are you running in the opposite direction?

Next week, we’re going to encounter another person who had a long conversation with Jesus. She is as different from Nicodemus as anyone could be. She is a woman, she is a Samaritan, and she has a complicated and troubled history of relationships. Yet she comes to the light. Her starting point does not prevent her from responding positively to Jesus.

As for today, we find that Jesus gives Nicodemus a lot more he bargained for. He takes him out into the deep. We’re still puzzling over some of the things that Jesus told Nicodemus that night. But at the end of the day we’re left with a very simple question that is the most important of them all, a question we all have to answer: What do you want?

 

 

 

The following sermon—"The Greatest Gift of All"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Saturday, December 24, 2016, at our Christmas Eve service. It is based on John 3:16.

 

In the city of Detroit, there lived a man by the name of Haskell. He had a job that paid him well. But Haskell’s life was changed for the better, and he decided to leave that job, and do something that didn’t pay as well, but was what he really wanted to do. He loved his new work, but his finances were tight, very tight.

 

Haskell’s young son was about to have a birthday, and Haskell wanted to buy him a gift. But there was no money to spare, not even a little. The night before his son’s birthday, Haskell told his wife that he didn’t know what to do for the boy’s birthday.

 

But during the night Haskell had an idea. So, when his son got up, Haskell told him, "I wanted to buy you something for your birthday, but I didn't have any money. So here’s what I will give you. I give you myself for your birthday. I’m yours for the whole day. We’ll do whatever you want, so long as it’s free!"

 

At the end of the day, long after sunset, Haskell and his son returned. Haskell dragged himself in, and fell down on a chair. His wife asked him, "Where have you been?" Haskell replied, "Where haven’t we been? We went to every park in the city of Detroit! We tried every swing, every slide. We turned over every rock and found every frog in this whole city!"

 

I want to ask you a question: do you think that boy will ever forget the day his father couldn’t buy him anything, but instead gave him himself for a whole day?

 

We have gathered together this evening, because God has done for all of us what Haskell did for his son. God has given us himself, not only for a day, but for all time. In Jesus Christ, God has given us his very self. This is what we celebrate tonight. This is the greatest gift of all.

 

One of the best-known verses in the Bible, and rightly so, is John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

 

God loved. God gave. The gift God has given us is his own Son Jesus. This is the measure of God’s love for us. In giving this gift, God has given us, not merely good things, but his very self. That famous verse tells us that, with Jesus, God has made it possible for us to have eternal life, which is life lived in relationship to God. Eternal life is knowing God, and it begins now. The event we celebrate this evening is rooted in God’s vast love for us. What a gift! The God of the universe is telling us, "I give you myself."

 

What must we do to receive this gift? What must we do to have this new quality of life? We receive this gift by believing, by trusting God. John 3:16 tells us that this gift is for "everyone who believes." Our part is to accept this gift as meant for us. What we must do is say "yes."

 

It’s Christmas Eve. Perhaps there is a gift with your name on it waiting for you at home. Some people will open their gifts tonight, Christmas Eve. Some wait until Christmas Day. But I doubt that there will be many unwrapped gifts twenty-four hours from now.

 

So imagine this. We meet each other a week from today. I tell you, "I’ve received a great Christmas gift!" "Oh? What is it?" "I don't know. I haven't opened it yet." What would you think of that? Does it make sense to receive a gift, and never get around to opening it?

 

An unwrapped gift will do you no good, not even the most practical gift ever, unless you open it up.

 

It sounds crazy, but sometimes we’re like that with the greatest gift of all. We refuse the gift right in front of us. It is like leaving a Christmas gift unwrapped all year long. The greatest gift any of us have ever received is the one we celebrate tonight, God’s gift of himself in Jesus Christ. Eternal life is not something we earn, it is a gift. But we do have to unwrap the gift. We can benefit from the greatest gift of all by saying "yes" to God. If you’ve never said "yes" to God’s offer of life in Jesus Christ, you can do that tonight. God loves you so much that he came in person to save you from your sins. Will you unwrap this, the greatest gift of all?

 

Some of us here have unwrapped this gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ a long time ago. But you know how it is with last year’s Christmas gifts. They sometimes don’t get much use. Novelties of years past gather dust in the closet. When it comes to God’s gift of love, why not come like young children who can’t wait to tear their Christmas gifts open? Let’s gladly receive God’s gift of himself in Jesus Christ.

 

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

 

 

 

"Time to Make a Change?"Sunday, September 25, 2016. It is based on Luke 16:19-31.

A pastor and a taxi driver both died and went to heaven. St. Peter was at the pearly gates waiting for them. "Come with me," said St. Peter to the taxi driver. The taxi driver did as he was told and followed St. Peter to a mansion. It had anything you could imagine from a bowling alley to an olympic size pool. "Wow, thank you," said the taxi driver. Next, St. Peter led the pastor to a rugged old shack with a bunk bed and a little old television set. "Wait, I think you are a little mixed up," said the pastor. "Shouldn’t I be the one who gets the mansion? After all I was a pastor, went to church every day, and preached God’s word." "Yes, that’s true. But during your sermons people slept. When the taxi driver drove, everyone prayed."

Maybe you’ve heard that one before. There must be hundreds of those St. Peter at the pearly gates jokes. I’m glad to report that not all of them involve pastors. No one imagines that you can learn anything from these jokes about the geography of heaven. They’re not documentary reports. They’re imaginative, not factual.

These jokes do shed a humorous light on life on earth, on pastors, taxi drivers, husbands and wives, lawyers. On and on it goes. There is an endless supply of material.

The ancient world had something similar. People told stories that were set in the hereafter. For instance, a rich man died, and a poor man died. Then something would happen and a moral would emerge from the story. Again, these stories don’t give us a map or a timetable of what awaits us in the hereafter. Instead, they tell us something about life on earth, what is good and what is bad.

Thus, when Jesus tells one of these stories, everyone knows what he is doing. He’s telling a tale about the hereafter to shed light on what is happening here and now.

What is happening at the time when Jesus tells this story? At this time, Jesus is drawing to himself the most unlikely people, tax collectors and sinners. They’re responding positively to his teaching. They are spending time with him. They are eating together with great joy. They are entering the kingdom of God that has drawn near in Jesus.

This is unexpected. People who are looked down upon by respectable folk are being given a warm welcome by Jesus. With him, the kingdom has come, but it’s come in a surprising way. Things seem to be upside-down. It’s like the taxi driver’s fabulous reward in that St. Peter and the pearly gates joke that I told you.

So Jesus tells a story in which a previously invisible man is not only seen but is called by name, Lazarus, and he is given a warm welcome in the bosom of Abraham. What could be better than that? The one who had been in the worst possible predicament finds a home in the kingdom of God. And on the other hand, the man who was not only rich but was what we would call filthy rich and a big showoff to boot finds himself on the outside looking in. The one who was on the wrong side of the gate is now held tenderly in the bosom of Abraham, while the one who dressed to kill in this world finds himself separated from the good life by a great chasm, a heavenly version of the Grand Canyon. It’s a total reversal. Everything is upside down. Or is it right side up?

So Jesus gives us his variation of the sort of folktale that was so common in those days, like the St. Peter at the pearly gates jokes that we’ve heard so many times. But Jesus’ variation on the theme packs a punch, or actually a couple of punches.

For one thing, it drives home the teaching that we took up last week, that you cannot serve God and mammon. You see it so clearly in this man who was ridiculously rich and wanted everyone to know it. His clothes were expensive imports. He indulged himself constantly. He feasted every day! This practice forced his employees to violate the Sabbath by having to prepare a big meal seven days a week. His whole life revolved around his money and all the things that money could buy. He served mammon with a vengeance.

And look what it did to him. He was hardened to the plight of the poor man who was so desperate that he would settle for just a few scraps from the rich man’s daily indulgence. In this life Lazarus was the invisible man. A gate kept the rich man insulated from the likes of Lazarus. Only the dogs took an interest in Lazarus. So Jesus is telling this story to get the attention of his critics, who were Pharisees and scribes. They loved money. He is drawing this outrageous picture of a man who worshiped money to show them where their own lives are headed. Perhaps this tall tale will get under their skin. Perhaps it’s not too late for them to make a change.

I said that this story packs more than one punch. Here is another. The human heart can become so hardened that nothing softens it. This is a truly frightening prospect. Here in the afterlife is a man who is on the wrong side of a great chasm, and he still doesn’t get it. He still thinks that Lazarus exists only to serve his needs. That’s the reason he says to father Abraham, Send Lazarus to help me out. So he knows that this invisible man has a name, but he thinks that he can still call the shots. Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to apologize to Lazarus for failing to pay attention to him while they were both still living?

It gets worse. The man who had been rich left five brothers who are still on earth, and no matter what they’re offered, they are no more responsive than their brother who is now doing hard time in Hades. They have Moses and the prophets. No matter. What if someone were to come back from the dead, resurrected, and appeal to them? No matter. They have hearts of stone. Is it too late for them? We wonder about that.

Jesus could have ended the story with the great chasm between Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham and the formerly rich man suffering in Hades. But he adds the part about the five brothers. They are still on this earth. They are still within earshot of the gospel. They’ve been unresponsive so far, but who knows? If tax collectors and sinners can be won

over, then maybe there is hope for the five brothers.

Maybe there is hope for us. You see, Jesus tells this story, not to speculate about the afterlife, but to get through to us who are still here. He wants us to take a look at ourselves. Like those five brothers, we’ve been given a great gift, Moses and the prophets, the Word of God. And even more, we have a witness who has been raised from the dead, Jesus himself. We have been given so much. How are we handling it?

Let’s hear Jesus’ parable, then, not as a preview of the afterlife or a tall tale about a fabulously rich man who got his just desserts, but as a challenge to ourselves to hear the Word now and let it shape our lives now.

And that Word, Moses and the prophets, is clear enough about the sort of life that God has in mind for us us. Moses and the prophets have plenty to say about loving our neighbor as ourselves, especially the neighbor who is hurting. Had the rich man really heard the Word and heeded it, he would have been compassionate toward poor Lazarus in this life. Then he too would have had a place in the bosom of Abraham.

As for us, we’re the five brothers who are still here. We have the witness of Moses and the prophets. We have the Word made flesh, the Lord Jesus himself, now risen from the dead and present through the continuing work of the Holy Spirit. We have opportunity to see our neighbor and extend compassion. Even now, we are welcomed into the kingdom that Jesus has brought near. Jesus’ parable, like the stories that people told in those days and like our jokes about St. Peter at the pearly gates, is a message about life on earth, how we live today. It’s time to make a change.