Monday, January 29, 2007

Sunday, January 28, 2007 Sermon: "Does God Have a Plan and Purpose for Me?"

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
ABOUT THE FAITH
FAQ #4: Does God Have a Plan and Purpose for Me?
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Jan. 28, 2007


This is what God said:
5"Before I shaped you in the womb,
I knew all about you.
Before you saw the light of day,
I had holy plans for you:
A prophet to the nations—
that's what I had in mind for you."

6But I said, "Hold it, Master God! Look at me.
I don't know anything. I'm only a boy!"

7-8God told me, "Don't say, 'I'm only a boy.'
I'll tell you where to go and you'll go there.
I'll tell you what to say and you'll say it.
Don't be afraid of a soul.
I'll be right there, looking after you."
God's Decree.

9-10God reached out, touched my mouth, and said,
"Look! I've just put my words in your mouth—hand-delivered!
See what I've done? I've given you a job to do
among nations and governments—a red-letter day!
Your job is to pull up and tear down,
take apart and demolish,
And then start over,
building and planting."

The Message, by Eugene Peterson)


A man took his son fishing one day. After a few hours in the boat with not much to do, the son started asking his father some questions. "How does the boat float?" he asked. The man thought about the question for a moment, then said, "I don't really know, son."

"Well, how do fish breathe underwater?" The man scratched his head. "I guess I don't know the answer to that one either."

"Why is the sky blue?" the boy persisted. The father replied, "I really don't know, son."

The boy started to worry that his father was getting upset at all the questions. "Do you mind me asking questions, Dad?" His father immediately reassured him. "No, of course not, son! If you don't ask questions, you'll never learn anything!"

Asking questions is one of the main ways we learn. Hopefully, we get better answers than the boy got from his father. We’ve been looking at some of the “Frequently Asked Questions About the Faith” or “FAQs” that people might have.

There are also certain fundamental questions that frame our lives as human beings. These are questions that may begin at the subconscious level, but as they rise to consciousness as we grow older, we wrestle with them in order to bring order and meaning to our lives.

These four questions are the questions of: Origin, Identity, Purpose, and Destiny.

The question of Origin asks, “Where did I come from?”
Little Rita asked her mother, “Mom, where did I come from?”
Mom stammered, but got her composure and decided it was time her daughter knew the facts of life. She tried to explain it truthfully but in a way the little girl could understand. As she spoke, little Rita’s eyes grew wider and wider. When Mom was finally done, Little Rita said, “Wow. Neat. At school, Jimmy said he came from Pennsylvania!”

We want to know where we came from, not just physically but socially – what are our roots? Alex Haley wrote a best-seller that was made into a mini-series with that title, Roots, and we learned about his ancestor, a slave named Kunta Kinte. There was a show on PBS the other night titled, “Oprah’s Roots,” tracing her ancestry in Africa and America.

The question of Identity seeks to know, “Who am I?”
This question become especially important in our teenage years. We seek to forge a fragile identity that is at the same time unique and yet not so different as to stand out from our peers whom we want so desperately to like us and whom we want to impress.

The question of Purpose inquires, “Why am I here?”
We’ll be looking more at this in one just a moment.

The question of Destiny wants to know, “Where am I going?” and especially, “Where am I going when my life here on earth is finished?”
This is a question we’ll take a look at next Sunday when we examine FAQ #5 – “What happens when I die?”

So today we’re looking at the question of purpose: “Does God have a plan and purpose for my life?” or is life just what I make of it and nothing more?

That is how some people answer the question -- negatively: No, God does not have a plan and purpose for my life or anyone else’s life or for the world or the universe in general, for that matter. The universe is just one great big cosmic accident, the result of natural forces and processes that just somehow happened and it’s useless to try to make any sense out of it or try to find any meaning or purpose. Either life has no intrinsic meaning or purpose or it has only the meaning and purpose that I decide to impose on it. There are a lot of people in the world to day who hold this worldview. They may be called “nihilists” or “existentialists” or “post-modernists” but they all essentially say either that there is no God and no objective meaning and purpose to life, or there may be a God but we can’t really know anything about God and we certainly can’t say that that all human beings have a common purpose.

That’s not how people with a biblical worldview answer the question. We have a deep and abiding faith that all of God’s creation is here for a reason and that human beings especially have a part in God’s overall Master Plan. However, we may be a little fuzzy on what that plan and purpose are and wonder how we can know it for ourselves.

People’s great interest in this question of Purpose no doubt helps account for the incredible success of the wildly popular 2002 book by Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church in California, The Purpose-Driven Life. This book has been on the New York Times Best-Seller List for over four years, it has sold over 24 million copies, and it’s been used by tens of thousands of churches in small group studies. Warren has made so much in royalties on the book that he was able to pay back 25 years of salary he had received from the church and to fund a worldwide effort to address the AIDS crisis, illiteracy, and world poverty.

I realize that the book has received mixed response. One man I know called it the most important book he’d ever read next to the Bible. My mother, on the other hand, read the book in her Sunday School class and she couldn’t stand it.

But regardless of what you think of the content, the question the book raises in its subtitle certainly struck a nerve among readers:

What on earth am I here for?

Why are we here? Is it, as one movie character says, to “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse?” Or is there more? Of course, we believe there’s more. Warren’s book outlines five purposes:

• To worship God;
• To be a part of God’s family, the church;
• To become like Christ in your character;
• To serve God; and
• To witness about your faith to others.

I don’t plan to spend time exploring those today, but if you want to read the book for yourself I would recommend it. I don’t disagree with those purposes. Instead, I want to explore today’s passage from Jeremiah 1 to see what it says about finding life’s purpose and plan.

Jeremiah 1 tells the story of God’s call in about 627 B.C. for Jeremiah to become one of God’s prophets when he was about twenty years old. Jeremiah was a prophet in Jerusalem at the time of the great fall of that city to the Babylonians in 586 B.C. The Temple was destroyed and many people carried away into exile. This story reminds us that God had a plan and a purpose for Jeremiah and we can learn a lot about our purpose from his experience.

First, this story reminds us that:
 We don’t choose our own purpose; it is chosen for us.

God knew Jeremiah and God chose him even before he was born:

5"Before I shaped you in the womb, I knew all about you.
Before you saw the light of day, I had holy plans for you:
A prophet to the nations— that's what I had in mind for you."


In other words, it was no accident that Jeremiah would become a prophet to kings and priests and the powerful – it had been God’s plan all along.

There is a lot about our lives that we get to choose: our friends, our college, our career, our spouse. But we don’t get to choose our purpose. That has already been decided by God. As Rick Warren says at the beginning of his book: “It’s not about you.” The meaning of life is not about finding out what makes me happy, what makes me feel fulfilled. It’s about discovering the purpose God has for me since God is the one who created me – who “formed me in the womb.”

We begin to discover the plan and purpose for our lives when we get out of the way and yield our lives to God

Second, this story tells us that:
 Our purpose is much larger than we might imagine.

When we think life is all about me, then we will dream very small. But when we realize that life is all about God and finding out what God wants – the one who is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20) – then our purpose expands dramatically.

Do you think Jeremiah would have ever thought on his own that his purpose was to be a “prophet to the nations?” Do you think that he could have ever conceived by himself that his calling was to be appointed “over nations and governments” and that he would have the power to “pull up and tear down,” “take apart and demolish,” “build and plant?”

Our purpose in life is not just to be some minor character in our own little drama. Our purpose is to be a major player in God’s Master Plan to redeem and restore his fallen creation. Paul gives us a glimpse of that Master Plan in Ephesians 1:8-14…

He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making. He set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.

It's in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.

It's in Christ that you, once you heard the truth and believed it (this Message of your salvation), found yourselves home free—signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit. This signet from God is the first installment on what's coming, a reminder that we'll get everything God has planned for us, a praising and glorious life.

The Message)

Could you have ever imagined on your own that you are an integral part of something so vast, so glorious as to bring everything, every single thing in the whole creation, together in Christ? That’s your purpose.

The third thing this story reminds us of is that:
 Resistance is natural.

At first Jeremiah resisted God’s call:

But I said, "Hold it, Master God! Look at me.
I don't know anything. I'm only a boy!"


It’s a little scary to give control of our lives over to God. It’s a lot easier to live for ourselves and our own needs. But to do that is to miss the real purpose of life.

Fear is our biggest enemy in embracing God’s plan and purpose for our lives. So, like Jeremiah, we have our excuses:
“I’m too young … too old … too busy …”

But the fourth part of this story should take away those fears. Just as God promised Jeremiah, God promises us as well:
 God will be with us.

God told me, "Don't say, 'I'm only a boy.'
I'll tell you where to go and you'll go there.
I'll tell you what to say and you'll say it.
Don't be afraid of a soul.
I'll be right there, looking after you."


We are not alone. God promises to be with us every step of the way, just as he promised Jeremiah.

The plan and purpose God has for our lives is much too grand for any of us to carry out on our own. Jeremiah knew that he would need God’s help, and so should we.

We don’t have to be afraid of a soul because God will be right there, looking after us. If I can put in a plug for the movie we’re showing tonight, Facing the Giants – I hope you’ll come see it because it’s about facing our fears. It’s about a coach and a football team that are facing obstacles much greater than any of them think they can handle. But when they face their fears head-on in prayer and faith, and learn to trust that God is with them, the God with whom “all things are possible,” the “giants” begin to fall.

Let me leave you with one verse. It’s from a sermon of Paul in Acts 13:36:

“David served God’s purpose in his generation.”

Rick Warren says that one verse, just seven words, changed the whole direction of his life, and I believe it can do the same for us. We can have no greater calling than to serve the purpose of God in our generation, which is to love God and to love and serve our neighbors and share the good news of God’s love for us in his Son Jesus Christ. That is the greatest epitaph we could ever hope for:

He/She served God’s purpose in his/her generation.

Amen.

Monday, January 22, 2007

January 21, 2007 Sermon: "What Are Spiritual Gifts and Do I Have Any?"

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
ABOUT THE FAITH
FAQ #3: What Are Spiritual Gifts and Do I Have Any?
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Jan. 21, 2007


For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.


We’ve all probably heard the expression, “a square peg in a round hole.” If you played with a toy like this as a child, you have a clear understanding of what that means. Each peg will only fit in its matching hole. If you try to force the wrong peg in the wrong hole, you’ll have a problem.

In the real world we use that expression to describe someone who’s in a place, a job, a position, a situation where they just don’t fit – they’re like a square peg in a round hole. Have you ever felt that way? I know I have.

Several years ago some friends took Suzanne and me to a very fancy, very expensive restaurant in Dallas. I couldn’t even pronounce most of the items on the menu. I’m afraid I probably didn’t fully appreciate the food we ate. I have more of a chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes palate. I felt like a square peg in a round hole.

What does this have to do with today’s “FAQ” or “Frequently Asked Question” about the faith:

“What are spiritual gifts and do I have any?"

Let me try to explain.

Needs- vs. Gifts-Based Model for Ministry
For the longest time in the church, we operated out of a “needs-based” model for ministry. The church had certain needs – things it needed done, positions it needed to fill – and we found people to meet those needs. Sometimes it was a good match and worked out well, but sometimes we forced people into certain “slots” for ministry just because we had a need that had to be filled, regardless of whether it was a good match or not. We appealed to people’s guilt, their sense of duty, our desperation – “If you don’t teach Sunday School we don’t know what we’ll do.”

That approach wasn’t good for the church and it wasn’t good for the person forced into the slot. The person would often feel like a square peg in a round hole, but they would stay there because they felt guilty or out of a sense of obligation. The church often suffered because the person didn’t really want to be in that place of ministry so they didn’t really give it their best effort and things would fall through the cracks. We asked people to do things that were good for the church but not necessarily good for them.

But in recent years – I first became aware of this approach about 15 years ago – the church has begun to move away from the needs-based model to a gifts-based model. Rather than just seeing slots to be filled or jobs that need to be done, we have learned the wisdom of helping people discover their spiritual gifts so that not only will ministry get done, but people will be fulfilled and feel satisfied in doing it. I read a quote from Frederick Buechner a long time ago that I’ve always liked:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

The gifts-based approach moves away from ministry as meeting a need and toward ministry as a calling, a vocation. God has shaped each one of us as God’s children for ministry and given us spiritual gifts for those ministries. How much better it is when we feed one of the world’s deep hungers and at the same time feel deep gladness in doing it because we are using the gifts God has given us. A gifts-based approach helps us do things that are both good for the church and good for us.

This approach may be kind of new to you. I know it was for me when I first started learning about it. It wasn’t something that they taught us in seminary. It really came to my attention the first time I taught the Disciple I Bible study. The next to last session of this excellent study explores spiritual gifts and helps class members discern their unique gifts and commit to using those gifts to serve God. So if you aren’t familiar with spiritual gifts, let me begin by trying to answer the question…

What Are Spiritual Gifts?
Spiritual gifts are mentioned several times in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s letters. 1 Corinthians 12 begins…

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.

Romans 12:6 says…

We each have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us…

In Ephesians 4, Paul says that these gifts have been given…

…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…

1 Corinthians 12:11 says…

All these [gifts] are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

And at the end of today’s reading, Paul mentions several spiritual gifts and then closes…

But strive for the greater gifts...

…which he goes on in chapter 13 to identify as the gifts of faith, hope, and love.

To keep it simple, we might say that spiritual gifts are just that – they are gifts and they come from the Holy Spirit.

In her popular book Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh makes a telling point about the freedom that surrounds a real gift. She speaks of a time when someone gave her an especially rare and beautiful seashell. She wrote:

"This shell was a gift; I did not find it. It was handed to me by a friend … It is unusual; yet it was given to me freely. People are like that here. Strangers smile at you on the beach, come up and offer you a shell, for no reason, lightly, and then go by and leave you alone again. Nothing is demanded of you in payment, no social rite is expected, no tie established. It was a gift, freely offered, freely taken, in mutual trust."

It is God who gives us these gifts, through the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and there is nothing we can do to earn or deserve them. They are gifts of God’s grace.

Spiritual gifts are not exactly the same as skills or talents that we are born with or that we develop and hone through hours or years of practice. God gives each one of us gifts at our baptism so that we can help meet the hungers and hurts and needs of the world.

You will find different lists and groupings of spiritual gifts, but basically, twenty spiritual gifts are mentioned in the Bible. They are:
• Teaching
• Evangelism
• Administration
• Leadership
• Giving
• Wisdom
• Faith
• Prophecy
• Servanthood
• Healing
• Discernment
• Compassion
• Shepherding
• Miracles
• Exhortation
• Tongues and their interpretation
• Apostleship
• Helping
• Knowledge

There are a number of excellent resources that will help you explore each one of these gifts in a lot more depth, including the UMC website at www.umc.org.

Why Are Spiritual Gifts Important?
You might wonder, if spiritual gifts are so important, why haven’t I heard more about them in the church? There could be several reasons.

Some people connect “spiritual gifts” only with controversial gifts like speaking in tongues and faith healing, and United Methodists have typically shied away from such unfamiliar displays.

Others argue that spiritual gifts were limited to the times of the New Testament and ceased after the early church period.

Many people mistakenly believe that spiritual gifts are limited to only a few people, like ministers or full-time church leaders, so they don’t think they apply to the ordinary person in the pew.

But we are rediscovering the biblical idea of spiritual gifts to the great benefit of ourselves, the church, and the world.

Scripture is clear that the Holy Spirit has given all followers of Jesus Christ gifts and graces for ministry so that we can help meet the world’s deep needs and feed the world’s deep hungers. As Paul says in Eph. 4, these gifts are given for the “building up of the body of Christ” so that in turn we can strengthen the community of faith and reach out to the world.

Each spiritual gift has been designed by God by God to meet a need of God’s people. And the way God chooses to meet these needs is through us, God’s people. That’s really amazing when you stop to think about it. God could do everything by himself – teach, lead, heal, help, give – but instead God chooses to call, gift, equip, and send us, God’s people, into the world to meet the world’s needs. And God trusts us enough that if we don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. Woh! Did you hear that? If we don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.

How Do I Discover My Spiritual Gifts?
So I’ve answered the FAQ: Spiritual Gifts are gifts for ministry that God gives his people through the Holy Spirit to meet the world’s deep needs and to experience deep joy in the process; and yes, you do have spiritual gifts – all baptized believers have been given one or more spiritual gifts at their baptism.

But I can’t leave it there quite yet. Some of you may have discovered or uncovered your spiritual gifts a long time ago and have happily been using them in service of God for a long time. But I imagine there are many of you for whom this is a new concept and you’re asking, “How do I discover my spiritual gifts?”

I just have time left today to point you in the right direction and offer a few suggestions. There is not just one way to discover spiritual gifts. Some people discover theirs through prayer. Others are helped by conversation with people who are skilled in the spiritual disciplines. It certainly helps to read the Bible, especially Paul’s words about spiritual gifts in 1 Cor. 12 and 13, Rom. 12, and Eph. 4. As I mentioned there are a number of excellent books on the topic. Here are a couple I have:
Gifts Believers Seek by James A. Christopher
Rediscovering Our Spiritual Gifts by Charles V. Bryant (it comes with a Spiritual Gifts Inventory)

I would still like to offer a group study of spiritual gifts using a resource like this one: Discovering God’s Vision for Your Life by Kenneth Haugk. Perhaps we will before too long for those who are interested. If you have a chance to take Disciple I you will be introduced to spiritual gifts.

And as I mentioned, there are online resources, including one at the UMC website: www.umc.org, that includes some good video examples of people who have discovered their gifts.

Let me close with just a few examples of people I know who were helped to discover their spiritual gifts and then put them into practice. That’s important – the gift isn’t really complete until we start using it to serve God.

Jeff discovered he had the gift of helping, so he committed to put that to use through the church’s Scout troop and on church work days.

Brenda discovered she had the gift of teaching, so she signed up to be a substitute Sunday School teacher.

Terry identified a gift of prophecy, so he committed to help start a local group of Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the high school.

Carol found she had a gift of exhortation, which led her to get involved in mentoring new church members.

Do you see how much better this approach is than trying to force a square peg into a round hole?

I encourage you to discover your spiritual gifts and put them to use. Like Paul, I do not want you to be “uninformed” concerning spiritual gifts, because they can open up to you whole new worlds in your walk with Christ. Amen.

Monday, January 15, 2007

January 14, 2007 Sermon: "Is the Bible True, or Is It Just Stories?"

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
ABOUT THE FAITH
FAQ #2: Is the Bible True, or Is It Just Stories?
John 2:1-11
Jan. 14, 2007



2 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.


Jesus and his friends, along with his mother, are attending a wedding. When the wine runs out, it is a potentially embarrassing predicament for the host; therefore, Jesus’ mother calls it to Jesus’ attention and instructs the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. Well, Jesus tells them to fill the special water jars with water. And lo and behold, the water becomes fine wine.

Steve Blow told this story in his Thursday column in the Dallas Morning News:

A Baptist minister sat next to a Presbyterian minister on an airplane. They chatted amiably about their callings – till the Presbyterian ordered a cocktail. Then the Baptist turned frosty. “I can see you disapprove,” the Presbyterian said. “But I guess you know Jesus used his first miracle to turn water into wine.” “Yes,” said the Baptist preacher, “and we would have thought a lot more of him if he hadn’t.”
(My apologies to our Baptist friends. I’m sure they tell stories about Methodists!)

The story of water into wine raises several questions, apart from whether or not church people should drink alcohol. One of these questions relates to an "FAQ." As I said last Sunday, an FAQ is a "frequently asked question." For the next few Sundays, I’m going to deal with FAQ’s—frequently asked questions, asked especially by new Christians, but also by veterans.

Today’s FAQ #2: "Is the Bible true, or is it just stories?"

Is this tale about Jesus at the wedding at Cana just an interesting story or is it the truth?

This FAQ reminds me of a Dennis the Menace cartoon. His Sunday school teacher says to him, "Dennis, tell me some of the things that are in the Bible." Quickly, he answers, "There’s a baby picture of me, a dried-up flower, an’ a piece of bacon I was saving." Is that what’s in the Bible? Is there any truth in the Bible, or is it just a bunch of stories?

Actually, the answer is “Yes” to both questions. Yes, the Bible is a book of stories. And yes, the Bible does tell the truth. To fully answer this FAQ, we will have to explore both the nature of stories and the nature of truth that we find in the Bible.

Obviously, the Bible is a book of many stories, but we shouldn’t think of the word STORY in this sense as tales told purely for the sake of entertainment. The stories in the Bible record God’s moving in the midst of and guiding generations of people on their life’s paths.

Stories are one of the primary ways we tell truths about the meaning and essence of life.

Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest from India who collected stories from all over the world, tells about a teacher whose frustrated students said to him one day, “Master, we ask to hear the truth and all you tell us are stories.” The Master smiled and replied, “The shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.” I think Jesus would have agreed. Sometimes Jesus told stories to get across a truth – we call them “parables.” Sometimes he lived those stories, as in today’s passage about the turning of water into wine. All his stories conveyed truth.

My uncle Norval was my dad’s oldest brother and my favorite uncle. He and my aunt Carrie lived in southern Indiana and when I was a kid I loved to go visit them. Norval was a character. He was mostly retired by the time I got to know him but he had been a blacksmith by trade and he still had a blacksmith shop next to his house where he just sort of fooled around, doing enough work to keep him busy. Norval always wore overalls and he chewed tobacco. He kept a coffee can in his car that he spat into. I think he must have known everyone in the town of two or three thousand where they lived. I would sometimes visit for a week or so, and every day we’d go into town. He had to stop by the drugstore and catch up on the latest news or go to the grocery store to buy some “loafer’s bread” as he called it. When I got older, I learned that sometimes he snuck into the bar for a beer while I waited in the car – that had to be kept a secret from my aunt Carrie.

One time when I visited he was recovering from a broken back he’d suffered in a fall. They’d put a hospital bed in the living room and Norval had to stay in bed, so I just lay beside him in the bed most of the time, letting him entertain me with his stories.

Uncle Norval was many things, but most of all, he was a storyteller. He would tell me stories about the history of the area – Corydon, the town they lived in, had been the original state capital of Indiana. He would tell me stories about his days in the blacksmith business; about the time he got bit by a copperhead snake; about people he knew – you name it, Norval could tell a story about it.

Now, I never knew if Norval’s stories were true down to every last detail – he probably did embellish the truth a little – but I was certain that they contained the truth. He told the truth about family, about work, about community, about neighborliness, about life in all its joys, sorrows, struggles, and frustrations.

The Bible, you see, is not primarily a history book or a scientific manual written as we would write a book today. It is a book of spiritual truth told through many stories of God’s interaction with humanity. It tells us who God is and who God created us to be and what life is meant to be.

Down through the centuries, God revealed those truths to persons, and they recorded them in the Bible. And many of those truths come to us through the stories of the Bible. Stories are the vehicles carrying truth to us.

They include the stories of the astounding life of Jesus Christ, who ministered for only a few short years before being tragically crucified. Yet the stories of his ministry, illuminating God where he walked, speaking when he spoke, touching when he touched, and loving as he loved, have changed human lives by the untold millions. Stories are the vehicle by which we understand who we are and how we got to this point. And once we know the stories of those journeys, we have a clearer picture of where to go from here.

Take the wedding story in John 2 for an example of the power biblical stories have to convey the truth. If this story is a vehicle bringing a truth to us, what might that truth be? Actually, the story teaches us several truths.

The story of the wedding at Cana tells these truths…

• God blesses the institution of marriage.

The UM ritual for the Service of Christian Marriage reads, "With his presence and power Jesus graced a wedding at Cana of Galilee. ..." It’s no small matter that Jesus and his disciples accepted the invitation to that wedding in Cana and that they attended. By attending, Jesus blessed the event and the whole idea of marriage as part of God’s plan and purpose.

And notice also that in the story, the servants do what Jesus tells them to do—to fill those big jars with water. That teaches us another truth, that…

• When we do as God instructs us, Christ arrives in our lives, and we can expect miracles.

But that’s not all. The wedding story also proclaims the truth that…

• In Jesus Christ there is abundant life.

There is never a shortfall, never a scarcity where he is concerned. Those six stone jars held twenty or thirty gallons each. That’s 120 to 180 gallons of fine wine!!! At least 600 bottles! What an abundance!

So we have to be careful when we say that the Bible is “just stories.” Stories have the power to change lives, to convey the truth, to “turn the world upside down.” The stories in the Bible are living accounts of God’s people struggling to understand God’s great love for all the world and to live as people who reflect that love. Each one of us has an album of stories that can tell the world who we are.

But aside from the power of the stories of the Bible to tell the truth, the Bible has a truth of its own. Not only is the Bible true because it contains stories that tell the truth about people, about God, and about the relationship between God and people,

The Bible is true and can be trusted because…
• Of what it says about itself.
• Of evidence that confirms the Bible’s reliability.
• It is true for me.


Let’s look at each one of these for just a few moments. First…

The Bible is true because of what it says about itself.

The Bible itself claims to be true. These claims occur several times in the words of the writers.

For example, the Apostle Peter, in his second letter, says…

Therefore I intend to keep on reminding you of these things, though you know them already and are established in the truth that has come to you. (2 Peter 1:12)

Peter is making a claim for truth in the teachings that he is handing on to his readers and hearers. In 1:20-21 he says…

First of all, you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (2 Peter 1:20-21)

Scripture has the authority of truth not because of someone’s interpretation, but because it comes from God by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

So the Bible claims truth for itself. If we say that the Bible isn’t true, then we must disregard scripture’s own claims about itself.

Second…

The Bible is true and can be trusted because of evidence that confirms the Bible’s reliability.

Just stop and think for a moment. The Bible isn’t a single book, but a library of 66 books containing a rainbow of literature: history, poetry, parable, gospel, letters, apocalypse. Its authors wrote over a 2,000 year period in 3 languages. Probably all but one were Jews. But remarkably, the writers tell one, unified story.

There is the same understanding of God throughout: one God, who is creator, savior and judge; all-knowing, all-powerful, and eternal; whose character is holy, good, loving, and just.

There is the same understanding of human nature: that people were made in God’s image, capable of great good. But they are also sinful and capable of great wickedness, and their greatest need is to be reconciled to God and to each other.

And there is a common hope throughout scripture: that God will accomplish God’s purposes for creation through his Son Jesus Christ.

Biblical archeology also verifies scripture. Nelson Glueck, a renowned Jewish archeologist has said:

“It can be stated categorically that no archeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference.”

So the Bible claims trustworthiness and reliability for itself and there is reliable evidence for the truth of the Bible.

But there is one more witness, the most important of all.

The Bible is true because it is true for me.

All the evidence in the world will remain unconvincing unless and until we test the Bible and verify that it is true for us. The Bible becomes true for me when I trust it enough to live it. When I decide to “walk by faith, not by sight.” When I follow Jesus’ command to love God and love my neighbor. When I forgive not just once or twice, but seventy times seven times. When I believe God will supply all my needs. When I trust Jesus Christ for my salvation.

I will never know if the Bible is really true unless I see that it is true for me.

Speaking of stories and the truth they bring us, I recall the non-biblical one about a scientist who saw a workman in his building reading the Bible during his lunch break. "What good is that going to do you?" asked the scientist. "You don’t even know who wrote it."

The workman looked puzzled for a moment and then said, "It seems to me that you scientists working in this building make considerable use of the multiplication table in your calculations."

"Of course we do," said the scientist.

"Well, do you know who wrote it?"

"Why no, I guess I don’t."

"So, how can you trust the multiplication table when you don’t know who wrote it?" asked the workman.

"Well," the scientist said, "we trust it because . . . well, because it works."

"I read the Bible for the same reason," declared the workman. "It works."

In the end, that’s the real proof of the Bible’s truth – does it work? All I can say is that it works for me. Its stories reveal the truth for my life about myself, about God, about how God wants me to live in this world and how God wants to prepare me for eternity. And in the end, that’s all the truth that really matters.

Amen.

Monday, January 08, 2007

January 7, 2007 Sermon: "What Is So Important About Jesus?"

SERIES: “FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE FAITH”
FAQ #1: What Is So Important About Jesus?
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Jan. 7, 2007



15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


There’s a new abbreviation that you see quite often on the Internet but also in brochures or leaflets that contain information about various topics. The abbreviation is “FAQ” and it stands for “Frequently Asked Questions.”

When I’m trying to find information on the web, if I see a button titled “FAQ”, I will usually click on that first because it may have the answer to the very question I am asking. Websites that get the same questions over and over try to save people time by putting all the most-asked questions together.

For example, the other day I was looking at a church’s website and it had an FAQ button, so I clicked on it. It answered questions a potential visitor to that church might have like…

• Where is your church located?
• What time are your services?
• How should we dress?
• Is there child care for younger children?
• Where do we park?
• Do you have a youth program?
• What does your church believe?

A lot of inquiring people nowadays not only have questions about churches, they have questions about the Christian faith itself. You may run into people – at school, at work, in your neighborhood – who are curious about Christianity and have questions about it. You may have some questions yourself.

That’s why I’ve prepared this series on…

“Frequently Asked Questions (or FAQs) about the Faith.”

For the next few weeks, we’re going to look at different questions that I imagine are frequently asked, both by people who may be new to the faith or just checking it out, and by people we might call veterans of the faith.

The questions we’ll be looking at in the next few weeks are:
• Is the Bible true, or is it just stories?
• What are spiritual gifts and do I have any?
• Does God have a plan and purpose for me?
• What happens when I die?
• Why do good people suffer?

Today we’re looking at…

FAQ #1: What Is So Important About Jesus?

It seems like we’re living in a celebrity-obsessed culture. Everywhere you look: on TV, on the covers of magazines at the grocery store, on the Internet – there’s the latest news about Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston; who’s dating?, who’s divorcing?, who’s seen with whom?

I wonder, What’s so important about these people that we spend so much time obsessing over their public and private lives?

For 2,000 years, many people have been asking the question, What’s so important about Jesus? I’d like to try to suggest some reasons why today.

Today is the Sunday in the church year when we remember and celebrate the baptism of Jesus. For almost 2,000 years people have been getting baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (as well as in the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit). What is so important about this man that millions of people would have water sprinkled or poured on their heads, or some would get dunked in a river, a lake, a pond, a swimming pool, or a baptistry?

Several years ago I was asked to go visit a man in the hospital who had terminal cancer. He wasn’t a member of our church, but we visited and got acquainted. He told me about his life and he shared one important regret. When he was a boy he had wanted to be baptized. One Sunday he’d heard about a church that was having a baptism on Sunday afternoon at a farm pond. He walked over to where they were doing the baptisms, but when he got there, he saw that all the church people were dressed much nicer than he was. He was embarrassed about his poor clothing, so he left and never got baptized.

Now he was almost 80 years old, near death, and he wanted to be baptized. So we had a baptism right there in his hospital room, with his family gathered around his bed. He died a few weeks later, but with no regrets, at least not about that.

What would make Jesus so important that being baptized in his name would fulfill a man’s dying wish?

Let me suggest some reasons why I believe Jesus is so important. You could probably add others that come out of your own experience and relationship with him, but let’s look at these for a start.
First, Jesus is so important because of…

1) Who he was.

When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, God left no doubt about who this very special person was. There were several unmistakable signs that tell the people that this man being baptized was important.

First, there’s the testimony of John the Baptizer himself. Luke tells us that the people who had gathered at the river that day to be baptized by John were wondering whether John himself might be the expected Messiah, the Savior. To his eternal credit, John put such speculation immediately to rest. He told the crowd that while he might baptize with water, one much more powerful was coming, one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John said this coming one was so great that he didn’t feel worthy even to untie the thong of his sandal. This coming one had the power to judge between eternal reward and eternal punishment. That’s important!

Second, there was the presence of the Holy Spirit, descending on Jesus in the form of a dove as he rose from the water. Normally, the Holy Spirit is just that – spirit – unseen, like the wind, blowing where it will. But here God wants to leave no doubt that Jesus is important, so he makes the Spirit visible to all in the form of a dove.

Third, and most convincing of all, is the very voice of God speaking from the heavens, confirming the importance of Jesus…

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. (Luke 3:22)

The angel Gabriel had told Mary before she gave birth that her son would be the Son of the Most High God. When the pregnant Mary visited her kinswoman Elizabeth, who was also expecting, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb (who grew up to be John the Baptizer) leaped for joy in the presence of the unborn Messiah. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem’s stable, the angel announced to the shepherds that he was the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord.

Here the announcement is given by God himself: this is my Beloved Son. And everyone present is privileged to hear the announcement.

Jesus is so important because of who he was. He is unique in human history. He is God in human form. This is what those who knew him in person have testified to and this is what Jesus told us about himself. Jesus is without a doubt the most important person who ever lived. We measure the years themselves according to whether they are “before Christ” or “the year of our Lord.”

You can disagree with him, you can disbelieve him, you can deny him – but there is no disputing that Jesus Christ has altered the course of human history like no one before or since.

Second, Jesus is so important because of…

2) How he lived.

No one else in history ever lived a life like that of Jesus Christ. As God in human form, he lived a perfect life and gave us the best picture of how a human life ought to be lived. Everything about Jesus’ life is special. His birth was special, as we have already been reminded throughout the Christmas season.

His childhood was special, even though we don’t know much about it. Jesus’ name was given to him by an angel, because it means “Savior.” When he was presented by his parents in the Temple, two older people, Simeon and Anna, recognized him as the Messiah.

Jesus’ whole life and ministry were special. He befriended those who were outcasts. He healed the lame and blind and the sick. He cast out demons. He performed miracles. He forgave those who treated him badly. He loved the unlovable. He obeyed God completely and utterly, even when it led to his own death.
Even his death was special. When he died on the cross, he wasn’t suffering for his own sins. He suffered and died for our sins and for the sins of the whole world. He took all that evil on himself because he was the only one who could. And when he died, he did so so that we could have life.

And, of course, his resurrection was special. That is the crowning victory over death that makes Jesus the most important person who ever lived. God raised Jesus from the tomb on the third day – that’s how we know we have forgiveness, hope, and eternal life.

If we ever wonder how it is that God wants us to live, we don’t have to look any further than Jesus Christ. The best thing that could ever be said about any of us who call ourselves his followers is that we were trying to become more and more like him.

Third, Jesus is so important because of …

3) What he taught.

Christians sense an authority and a truth in the teachings of Jesus that we can’t find anywhere else. It has always been so. When Jesus was teaching in the town of Capernaum, Luke records that the people…

…were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority. (Luke 4:32)

Perhaps the greatest teaching by history’s greatest and most brilliant teacher is found in Matthew 5-7, called the Sermon on the Mount. Those words continue to teach us…

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Matt. 5:8)

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matt. 5:44)

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt. 6:21)

Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matt. 6:33)

Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Matt. 7:12)

If for no other reason, Jesus would have left a lasting mark on the world because of his wise teaching. But his teaching has lasting authority because of who he was and how he lived.

If I had to summarize all of this, I would say that…

Jesus is so important because in him we can see the face of God.

Seeing this example in the flesh makes all the difference in the world for us. What is so important about Jesus? In him we can see the face of God. In biblical times and in current times, those who come in contact with Jesus are changed forever. So too are we, whenever Jesus becomes the center of our lives.

That, my friends, is why Jesus is so important.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Ski Trip That Wasn't

I didn't preach on Dec. 31, 2006. Instead, I was a chaperone on our church youth group's planned ski trip to Crested Butte, CO. We were going with the youth group from Whaley UMC, also from here in Gainesville.

We were to travel via chartered bus from Gainesville to Crested Butte, leaving on Friday, Dec. 29, and driving all night, ready to ski on Saturday, Dec. 30. Only things did not go exactly as planned.

We knew when we left on Friday that some of the highways we planned to travel to get to CB were closed due to the "Great Blizzard #2 of 2006." We hoped that they would be open on Saturday, so we made arrangements to stay at a UMC in Amarillo on Friday night. Thanks, Kingswood UMC!

Upon arriving in Amarillo, we learned that road conditions were getting worse, not better, and there was no way we could get to CB on Saturday. We found accommodations at a hotel in Amarillo (along with a lot of other stranded travelers) and waited. The youth swam in the hotel pool, and then we went to dinner at Mr. Gatti's Pizza and bowling at the Western Lanes. By the way, I scored 121, 109, 105, and 140.

Sunday didn't prove any more promising for travel. All the roads that would get us to CB were still closed due to the blizzard. We had to decide whether to chance driving back home or making the most of the trip and spending one more night in Amarillo. We decided on the latter. So some of us stayed at the hotel to watch the Cowboys-Detroit game (what a disappointment!) while most went to the local mall. We went out for a New Years Eve Dinner at the Big Texas Steak Ranch, home of the famous 72 oz. steak dinner -- eat it all in one hour and it's free. One of your youth tried to eat it, but didn't quite make it, though he kept the whole place entertained as he tried. Some went to the movies after dinner.

We left Amarillo at 7 am on Monday morning, and arrived back home in Gainesville at noon.

It was very disappointing not to get to go skiing. I'd been looking forward to it all fall, and some of our youth had never skiied before, and I felt badly for them. But at least we were safe and didn't get stranded in the snow, as at least one youth group from Flower Mound, Texas did.

All the adults on the trip did a great job of making the best of a difficult situation and the youth kept a good attitude through it all.

I wish there were some way I could go skiing over Spring Break, but that's not likely.

Next week I'm beginning a new sermon series on "Frequently Asked Questions" about the faith. I've done this before, but I will tackle some new questions this time.