Second Sunday of Christmas (A)
Sunday, January 3, 1999
The Best Gifts
John 1:10-18
By this time, the presents have been unwrapped and some Christmas toys may already have been broken while others — hardly out of the box, will be put on the shelf never to be seen again. Children begin thinking in late summer about what Santa Claus might bring them. With maturity and the onset of years, we lose our sense of anticipation about the presents under the tree and instead delight in seeing the joy that Christmas brings for different reasons. Presents are nice but the older we get, the more we realize that there are other things that are much more meaningful than a new tie or the latest best-seller or even some new power tool.
I. The Gift of Sonship
There is an age at which children understand that it is impossible for Santa Claus to visit every single home on the face of the planet and distribute toys to boys and girls. They reach an intellectual point where they come to understand that what Santa has supposedly brought them was really brought by their parents. It’s a privilege of being their parents’ child. I have been blessed by a mother who, by her own admission, enjoys going a “little overboard” in buying Christmas presents for her family. Whenever I decided on some “big” item that I really wanted for Christmas, I usually got it, though I still haven’t seen that pony.
While I was born into my my parents’ family, I became a member of God’s family when I placed my faith in Jesus Christ. The eternally pre-existent Light came into the world and I was given the grace to be able to recognize Him and respond to Him. It’s tragic that there are many people who reject the Light. Yet when we accept Jesus the Light as God the Son come in human flesh, we are adopted into God’s family.
My mother, with her imperfect love, likes to shower gifts upon her family. How much more then does a perfect Heavenly Father delight in showering His children with blessings that will result in His glory and our good?
II. The Gift of Grace
There is a definite process we had to go through in becoming the children of God. Parents who want to adopt a child have to go through rigourous examination by social workers and those who manage adoptions. In order for us to see and to know this God to Whom we are called to respond, He had to reveal Himself to us. He could have chosen a thousand different ways to reveal Himself — impress Himself upon our conscience, write His name in the stars, impart visions to prophetic oracles who would then tell us about Him. None of these would be adequate.
Instead, He chose to “pitch His tent” among us and live in human flesh as we do so that we might see Him and that He might identify with us. It was a manifestation of His grace that He would choose to allow us to see Him in that way.
III. The Gift of Revelation
John the Baptizer recognized that Jesus was the One to Whom all loyalty and worship would be due. John was temporal, Jesus was eternal. Jesus did not come merely to impart a new religion. He came to show us the grace and truth of God. It is from the fullness of the grace that God gives us one gift after another. None of us has any right to claim anything from God in and of ourselves. God graciously chooses to give us blessings — pri-marily the gift of a relationship with Himself. This relationship is possible because God, through Jesus Christ, has chosen to give us knowledge of God.
I don’t remember all of the gifts that I received for Christmas through the years. Sweaters and shirts have been outgrown. Christmas ties became stained and out of fashion. Toys and gadgets either wore out or lost their attraction. There’s one gift I’ve receive though that captures my imagination more and more every day. That is the gift of a relationship with God through the Word made Flesh. (Mark A. Johnson)
Baptism of the Lord (A)
Sunday, January 10, 1999
A Gospel for All
Acts 10:34-43
The Promise Keepers organization has nurtured a phenomenal movement. At the time of the first stadium rally, Bill McCartney hoped that once, maybe just once, they could fill the University of Colorado’s Folsom Field with 50,000 men for a time of worship and focus on what it means to be a godly man. Phenomenally, those expectations have been surpassed many times over. Promise Keepers is a movement that God is blessing for many reasons. One exciting and hopeful element in the Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper is the emphasis on racial reconciliation. Promise six says, “A Promise Keeper is committed to reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.” At the Stand in the Gap event in October 1997, each man was encouraged to come with a man of a different race.
It is interesting, if not tragic, that this is somehow seen as something new and trendy. God has been trying for a long time to persuade us that the power of the gospel can transcend any barrier.
Peter would appear to be an unlikely “poster boy” for racial reconciliation. He was not one who was disposed of his own accord to reach out to anyone who wasn’t Jewish. Yet, he had a vision and argued with God about what should be called clean and unclean and how he ought to relate to what is clean and unclean. Only grudgingly did he allow himself to be drug to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile — something he had never done before.
By the time he arrives at the home of Cornelius, he’s had time to process the vision he has seen and the visit by Cornelius’ men. Never has there been a group of people more prepared to receive the gospel message. Peter preaches essentially the same message to the household of Cornelius as he would preach to a Jewish audience, yet with a few significant alterations. He refers to Jesus Christ as Lord of all. This Jesus whom Peter loved so much is available to all who will call on His name. Surely Peter understood this when Jesus said, “You will be My witnesses in Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” Peter heard the words that day but it took some time for them to register.
If the gospel is to be taken to the ends of the earth, it must be because Jesus Christ is Lord of All. This man, Jesus, went about throughout all the region of the Galilee and He was able to bring healing of all kinds because God was with Him.
Peter explained the basic facts of the gospel. He was an eyewitness of the many miraculous and powerful things that Jesus did. He also was there when the authorities — both Roman and Jewish — nailed Him to a tree. Because He was raised from the dead, He was vindicated as God’s Messiah.
During the time after the resurrection, he appeared to many witnesses whom God had chosen. It must have been a revelation, though, for Peter to say, everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness through His name.
If we were to vote on the proposition, “The gospel is for everyone,” it would pass overwhelmingly. There would be little or no intellectual disagreement with that statement. I wonder though about our practices. Do our practices indicate that we believe the gospel is for everyone? Do our actions or our lack of intentionality in reaching out to any certain group of people — racial, ethnic, or walk of life — indicate that we don’t believe the gospel is for them? (Mark A. Johnson)
Second Sunday Of Epiphany (A)
Sunday, January 17, 1999
A Witness to the Lamb
John 1:29-42
Of the four Gospels, John presents what we call the “highest Christology.” From the outset, the Gospel of John presents Jesus as “… the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (v. 1). No mention is made of Mary and Joseph. No shepherds came from the hills to behold the baby Jesus, and no wise men came from afar to worship Him with gifts. While John recognizes the humanity of Jesus, this Gospel writer wants us to understand very clearly, “Jesus is the Logos” (Word), and this Word is God.
Yet, there is a problem with certain people’s recognizing this. We can understand the enemies of Jesus not seeing. The revelation of God seemed to make them more entrenched in the old traditions and more averse to Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. What is more complex is trying to understand why some of those who would be disposed to follow Jesus did not respond immediately to this revelation of God.
Take some of the disciples of John the Baptist. Throughout the Gospels, this John makes clear that he is the forerunner pointing to Jesus as the Lamb of God. In spite of eccentricities, John the Baptist seems to be a charismatic, captivating figure. As sometimes happens, some folks become drawn to the messenger rather than the message. “Isn’t John wonderful,” you can almost hear people say. “I know he dresses funny and eats a strange diet, but he’s so courageous and self-assured.” Without intending, John the Baptist had developed his own congregation.
This problem needed to be faced. Jesus was God. People were to follow Jesus not John the Baptist. So immediately after the prologue, the Gospel of John addresses this problem. Verses 29-42 deal with who Jesus is and through the figure of John, who we are in relation to Jesus.
In verses 29-34, John the Baptist makes dear his confession of faith. Alluding to the baptism of Jesus, John says he saw the Spirit of God descending from Heaven. Twice John points out that this Spirit “remained” on Jesus. Jesus was different from other charismatic figures. The Spirit did not make occasional appearances in the life of Jesus. The Spirit and the Son were inextricably intertwined. Picking up one of the emphases of John’s Gospel, Jesus was “abiding” in the Spirit, and the Spirit was “abiding” in Jesus. This was a strong argument for the uniqueness of Jesus. Through the revelatory event of the baptism, God had confirmed that this Jesus “… was with God and was God.” John the Baptist expresses his own deep conviction in verse 34, “And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
Vss. 35-42 continue the theme by focusing on how two of John’s followers became disciples of Jesus. John the Baptist sees Jesus walk by and exclaims, “Look, here is the Lamb of God. “With those words, these two men leave John to follow Jesus. The conversation between the two and Jesus seems a little strange. “What are you looking for?” Jesus asks them. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” me disciples respond. In other words, these two men answer the question of Jesus with their own question. “Where am I staying?” Jesus then says, “Come and see.” All we know is that after that, they spent all day with Jesus. We finally learn the two men are Andrew and Simon Peter.
What happened that day to bring them to follow Jesus is not the most important thing. What is important is they followed, and like John, they became witnesses. Andrew’s testimony to his brother is the key, “We have found the Messiah” (v 41).
People have different ways in which they have found “the Way.” The particulars of each of our stories are different. What is important is we discover the only One who can give meaning to our stones. To that “Lamb of God,” we then spend our lives as a witness. (Charles B. Bugg)
Third Sunday of Epiphany (A)
Sunday, January 24, 1999
Traveling Without a Map
Matthew 4:12-23
Several years ago a Unitarian minister in Michigan set a record for the longest sermon ever preached. He moved through the entire Bible saying a little bit about a lot of things. The sermon lasted 22 hours. Several of his parishioners braved the whole thing. One account of the story said that when he was finished, one brave soul shouted, “So what’s the point of the sermon!”
With Jesus’ preaching, nobody ever had to ask that question. In one crisp statement Jesus summarizes the thrust of his proclamation, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” When we look at these words it is important to notice several things:
I. First, to whom is the message addressed?
In a word, Jesus’ message is for everyone. Matthew uses the device of quoting Hebrew Scripture to reinforce his position: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” The good news of Jesus was not just for Israel. We are talking about the enveloping love of God for all humanity. To whom is Jesus speaking? You, me and everyone.
II. What is the message?
In v. 17, Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” The Greek verb “has come near” is in the perfect tense and may be translated “is here.” Matthew wants his readers to know Jesus’ message was here and was life-changing. In a way different from any other way before God had sliced into the middle of history, and something radically big was happening. The Gospel is not about smoothing out a few rough edges in our lives and making us nicer people. This Gospel calls us to be new people.
That is why Jesus uses the word “repent” to describe the way we should respond. Repent is a whole new orientation to life, a whole different way of viewing life. Jesus becomes our focus. The kingdom becomes our passion. Nothing is ever the same again. Past, present and future are forever altered because God is changing us in the most profound ways.
III. How does the message of Jesus change those who hear it?
In vss. 18-23 we have acted out what it means to repent and live as people of the kingdom. Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee. He sees two brothers. Simon and Andrew are fishing. Up to this part the scene is ordinary. However, Jesus transforms it quickly “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” Jesus doesn’t explain His call. In fact, according to Matthew, these two simple fishermen are given no map for the journey.
Yet, Simon and Andrew respond not reluctantly or hesitantly, but “immediately they left their nets and followed Him” (v. 20). The word “immediately” is repeated in v. 22, and the sacrifice of these two disciples is accentuated, “Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.”
During this season of Epiphany, the Gospel of Matthew wants us to understand there is a costly response to the revelation of God. Some people want to see God, but Matthew says, “Think about it for a moment.” We are talking about our lives being forever different. We are called to follow the One who gives no maps for the journey and who says our primary calling now is “fishing for people.” This is discipleship that costs. But let’s understand, Matthew is saying this is the only kind of discipleship. (Charles B. Bugg)
Fourth Sunday of Epiphany (A)
January 31, 1999
What Does God Require?
Micah 6:1-8
What does God expect from us? In answering this question, it’s easy to slip over into legalism, on the one hand, and into libertinism, on the other. Legalism is the idea that there are some standards we have to meet in order to convince God to love us. Libertinism is the view that, since God’s grace is free, we have no responsibilities at all. What does God expect of us?
Legalism says, “No matter how much you try to do, it won’t be enough.” Libertinism says, “Nothing at all.” Neither of those answers is biblical. We are free, not to do as we please, but to do the will of God. Christianity is the way of responsible freedom, and grace makes responsibility possible. Grace makes us “response-able,” empowering us to live in glad obedience and joyful surrender to God.
So, it is not a retreat to legalism to ask the question, “What does God expect from us?” The question, of course, is suggested by Micah 6:1-8.
The text reads like a court transcript. God filed suit against the people of Judah, because they had not been faithful to their covenant with God.
The earth itself was summoned to jury duty: “Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.” The earth had been witness to the long history of God’s relationship with Israel; the mountains and hills had seen enough to render a fair verdict.
God’s charge against the people was lodged in the form of a question: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” God indicted the people for growing tired of faithfulness. The weak and the poor wondered what good faithfulness was doing them. The strong and rich chafed against the limits which faithfulness placed on their power and greed. The people were tired of God and God’s demands.
God was wounded by their deepening faithlessness. How could they turn their backs on a God who had done so much for them? How could they forget? “I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
The people could not avoid the verdict. They had grown forgetful of God, and the results were seen, as Micah described in the rest of his book, in oppression, greed, and corruption. The institutions of government and religion were for sale to the highest bidder. Public officials were bought off with bribes, and religious leaders said whatever the rich hired them to say.
Though the people knew they were guilty, their first response was a cynical attempt to bribe God, just as they were in the habit of bribing public officials. “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Burnt offerings of year old calves or of thousands of rams? Rivers of oil? Even a firstborn son?” None of these bribes, masquerading as sacrifices, was what God required. Micah knew that they would be a sham. Instead, he said:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Here is what God required: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Those words are likewise a good summary of what God expects from us. (Guy G. Sayles)
Fifth Sunday of the Epiphany (A)
Sunday, February 7, 1999
A Community of the Epiphany
Matthew 5:13-20
Epiphany is the season of manifestation and mission; we reflect during this season on the ways Christ is made known to the world. The church is a community of the epiphany: through our life together, Jesus is revealed.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers two metaphors for the church on mission — two ways the church can manifest his presence. The church is the “the salt of the earth” and “a city set on a hill.” As “salt of the earth,” the church is on mission by way of involvement. Salt only does its job when it is mixed in with other ingredients. The salt metaphor speaks of our “being with.” To use the terms of H. Richard Niebhur’s Christ and Culture, the salt metaphor points toward “Christ in Culture” or “Christ Transforming Culture.”
This is the way of Mother Theresa, who lived among the poor, offering her presence and her love. This is the way of the business person who lives-out his or faith with integrity in the workplace. It is the way of any Christian who is “in the world” without losing his or her distinctive identity as a follower of Jesus Christ.
In Jesus’ time, salt worked as a preservative, and the church is a preserving presence in the world. It serves to prevent the decay and deterioration of culture by sharing the healing, redemptive, and restorative gospel of Jesus Christ.
As “a city set on a hill,” the church manifests the presence and power of Jesus Christ by serving as an alternative community. It provides a contrast to the cities in the valley. It is city of light that shines in the darkness, shining with the brightness of another way. Again, to use Niebuhr’s terms, the church as a “city on a hill” presents “Christ Above Culture” or even “Christ against culture.”
This is the way of the desert monastics, the earliest fathers and mothers of the church, who withdrew from the cities of the Roman empire to the wilderness of Egypt in order to keep the faith pure and vital. It is the way of Clarence Jordan, who, in 1942, started Koinonia Farm in Americus, GA; this integrated and communal farm showed the racist south that blacks and whites could live and work together in Christian peace. It is the way of any Christian community which feels called to withdraw from the world for the sake of the world.
Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, in Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989, p. 83) have said: “The most creative social strategy we have to offer is the church. Here we show the world a manner of life the world can never achieve through social coercion or governmental action. We serve the world by showing it something that is not, namely a place where God is forming a family out of strangers.” We serve the world, by showing it what the “city of God” looks like, in contrast to the cities of human making.
By the way we live in the world and by the ways we live which set us apart from the world, the church is an epiphany, a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Guy G. Sayles)
Transfiguration Sunday (A)
Sunday, February 14, 1998
The Incomparable Christ
Matthew 17:1-9
I occasionally had nightmares when I was little. Scary things. Left me trembling and screaming until my mother would run into my bedroom to assure me that everything was alright. Sometimes it took awhile to convince me. After all, some nightmares are scarier and more realistic than others. Nightmares are not created equal. I still remember one that I found particularly terrifying. There wasn’t much to it but it was so vivid that the experience still leaves its imprint in my memory.
In the quiet dark of a summer’s night, I rolled over in my bed and there standing in the doorway was a human-like figure four or five feet tall. It had no features. From head to toe it was opaque. It was as though it was made of glass filled with smoke slowly curling and twisting. And this creature glowed as it stood there a few feet from me. With all the courage of a macho six year old boy, I screamed at the top of my lungs for my mother to save me.
I remembered that nightmare and began to reflect on the incident described in our scripture text. Imagine, Jesus and two other men glowing in the dark in front of the amazed apostles Peter, James, and John. I can’t think of the experience being anything less than frightening. A lot of unusual things took place during Jesus’ ministry on earth. But still this incident is among the strangest. What did the apostles make of this odd and awesome event? What are we to make of it?
Jesus was full of surprises. Not only did He work wonders, He claimed to have power to forgive sins, something that is the exclusive prerogative of God. Without batting an eye, Jesus told a number of men and women that their accounts were settled, the slate was wiped clean, they were absolved of guilt. And when others heard of this they would ask, “Who is this man who can do such a thing?”
The question of Jesus’ identity was not always voiced by admirers. Some people were scandalized by Jesus’ behavior and in their mouths the question was, “Who does this guy think He is? By what right does He offend us?” Speculation abounded. Some detractors said Jesus was a blasphemer, or worse. Others thought of Him as a great prophet. Six days before the event described in our scripture text Jesus asked the apostle Peter who he thought our Lord was. Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus commended Peter for His answer.
But then He did something Peter never expected: He began to teach the apostles about His impending suffering, death and resurrection. This appalled Peter. Rejection, execution, these matters did not fit into His scheme of things. When Jesus insisted that His own destiny was inseparable from suffering, a monkey wrench of sorts was thrown into Peter’s confident answer about Jesus’ identity. Maybe He’s not the Son of God after all.
Six days after Peter confessed His faith in Jesus as the Christ, the strange event took place high on the mountain. As the scripture puts it, “Jesus was transfigured … and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as light. And, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Him. This brilliant vision declared the presence of God with Jesus. The fact that the great lawgiver Moses and the mightiest of the prophets Elijah appeared, served to show that Jesus’ work was in harmony with the law and the prophets. Jesus was the culmination, not as His enemies contended, a contradiction to those people of God who went before Him.
That’s not all that happened. A bright cloud appeared and a voice spoke, the voice of God saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to Him.” Words of assurance to bolster the faltering faith of those following Jesus who struggled with the idea of a suffering Son of God. Words of truth for those who were perplexed by the confusing voices which came front all around them in the world, each claiming to be right. When the apostles heard this, they were overcome by holy dread; they fell to the ground and hid their faces. And when they finally looked up, Jesus alone stood before them.
In this spectacular event, God answered the question, “Who is this man?” The answer is that He is beyond comparison. There is none like Him. He alone is the final and ultimate embodiment of the truth of God, worthy of our utter, unqualified devotion. He is God’s beloved Son. “Listen to Him.” Amen. (Craig M. Watts)
Lent 1 (A)
Sunday, February 21, 1999
God’s Word and Temptation
Genesis 2:15-17
I can offer you an anti-crime program that will be 100% effective if it is implemented. The abolition of crime could take place without spending a dollar more on for more police or bigger jails. The problem of crime can be dealt with by means of a fairly simple solution. Rescind all laws. Where there are no laws there can be no crimes. Law is crime’s prerequisite.
Likewise without a divine commandment there can be no sin. Sin can exist only if God restricts or directs God’s subjects. But as soon as God says “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not” the stage is set for sin. Of course, sin does not necessarily follow from a divine commandment. Obedience is as possible as disobedience. Between obedience and disobedience is temptation.
Every relationship has its expectations, its limits, its rules. This is true of husband and wife, student and teacher, employer and employee or friend and friend. When the expectations’ limits or rules are violated, it is not a matter of legal infraction so much as an offense against the relationship itself. The very structure of the relationships makes it possible for it to go right or wrong. Paul Tillich once wrote, “Possibility is itself temptation.” In fact, it is only forbidden possibility that opens the door for temptation. It was not the possibility of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that created the occasion for temptation. Rather it was the fact at God had spoken, forbidding the eating of the fruit of that one tree.
If all acts are equal there is no opportunity to live faithfully or sinfully. The threat of rebellion is abolished with the absence of all law. But so is the joy of fidelity. There would be no way to distinguish our desires from God’s will without a guiding word from God. In issuing a command God allows us to see what is good for us. At the same time God allows us to reject that good. That is the nature of temptation.
The fruit was the object of temptation for Adam and Eve. There are things “out there” in the world that help trigger the desires but the seat of temptation is within. My longings for pleasure, my fear of suffering, my desire for power, myself at the center. Without that nothing outside has the least bit of power to entice us.
The fruit of the tree and the divine Word forbidding the eating of the fruit left the first couple fantasizing about the secret pleasures the fruit contained. They could look upon the fruit and fondle the thought, “What if?” “What if?” Martin Buber remarked that the human heart “designs images of the possible, which could be made into the real.” Temptation calls us down the road toward the wrong reality, a false reality full of promise but empty of lasting satisfaction.
There is a Hasidic Tale that describes temptation as being like a man who raves about the world always teasingly holding out a closed hand. He captures the imagination of people by seductively asking, “What do you suppose I have in my hand?” And every person thinks that the closed hand contains the one thing that he or she most wants. And so everyone runs after temptation. But when he finally opens his hand, it is empty. Unfortunately we deceive ourselves into believing it is God who has the empty hands and so we must seek our satisfaction elsewhere.
In times of temptation there is no way to win without reasserting our trust in God’s Word, though that Word opened the door to temptation, faithfully cling to that Word can keep us from going through the door that leads to our destruction. When Jesus faced the tempter in the wilderness, his greatest defense came in recalling God’s Word. Temptation reveals our own weakness and our need for God’s strength. And for us, God’s strength is found in God’s Word. (Craig M. Watts)
Lent 2 (A)
Sunday, February 28, 1999
To Be a Blessing
Genesis 12:1-4
In the list of significant scriptures, nearly everyone can quote John 3:16 (God so loved the world …), Romans 8:28 (All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose), and Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd …). Those are scriptures that bring hope, comfort and an understanding of the gospel in a nutshell. Is there a scripture that is foundational to all of these others though? I would submit that we are looking at it in this passage about the call of Abram. I could well be said that the rest of the Bible is the playing out of this promise that God made to Abram and the obedient faithful response of Abram and his seed.
I. A Call to Follow
Abram lived the life of a nomad. There have been some attempts to say that there was nothing extraordinary in Abram leaving one place to go and live in another. That belies the fact that Abram did what he did in response to a call from God. God thought so much of Abram’s lifestyle of obedience which began with this initial call that He called Abram, “my friend.” He is also called “the father of the faithful.” He was called to leave everything familiar and go to a land that God would show him.
That may be okay for someone who is a “young buck,” full of energy and dreams for the future. Abram was a 75 year old man, though. At an age when most settle down, Abram was beginning a new, unprecedented venture.
It would be interesting to know how Abram had sensed God’s direction that it was time for him to leave Ur of the Chaldees to move up the fertile crescent to Haran. Then how he knew God was calling to leave his family and his familiar surroundings to go to some mysterious unknown destination. It’s fun to speculate about how that call may have come but it is sufficient to say, Abram knew and trusted God’s voice and followed Him. The motto of his life became “Tent and Altar.”
II. A Call to Be Blessed
God’s first purpose for Abram was to bless him. It’s interesting the shape that blessing takes sometimes. There were promises to him and to his descendants. As we trace out the rest of Abram’s life, we notice that the majority of the promises were confirmed to his descendants. What he may have lacked in his lifetime was more than made up for in the lives of his descendants.
God said, “Abram, I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you.” Further, He says, “Whoever blesses you, I will bless.” God’s blessing usually is seen in human prosperity and well-being — not to be confused with a “health, wealth gospel.” Long life, wealth, peace, good harvests, and children are items that figure most frequently in lists of blessing. Is there any higher blessing though than the presence of God walking with His people? There was a price to be paid, though. Abram would have to leave all that was familiar and trust God to give him the unknown land. He would have to live off of the promises of God.
III. A Call to be a Blessing
Abram was to be a blessing. In today’s term we may think of that as sharing our prosperity with those less fortunate. Indeed, that is a noble cause. Abram’s primary blessing would be a legacy of faith. Because of his trust, he was the integral figure in God’s plan. Out of the chaos of sin and rebellion that characterized the first 11 chapters of Genesis, God found a man in a place called Ur who would follow Him. Because of that, he became known as the “father of the faithful” and the “friend of God.” His obedient example has been a source of blessing to all who have followed after him.
Abram never received the things that were promised. He only welcomed them from a distance. The epitaph of his life reads though, “God is not ashamed to be called his God, for He has prepared a city for them.” (Mark A. Johnson)
Sermon Briefs for this issue have been prepared by Mark A. Johnson, Managing Editor, Preaching, Jackson, TN; Guy Sayles, Pastor, Kirkwood Baptist Church, Kirkwood, MO; Charles B. Bugg, Professor of Preaching, Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Richmond, VA; Craig M. Watts, Pastor, First Christian Church, Louisville, KY.

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Second Sunday After Christmas
January 5, 1997
Where In The World Is God?
John 1:10-18
In these powerful passages John proclaims to the world the vision and purpose of God. Nowhere in scripture is the case of God’s intentions regarding the world more boldly or beautifully expressed than in these passages. The context for the pericope under consideration is God’s original activity as creator, redeemer, and sustainer. The first ten verses of this passage identify who God is and what God has done, is doing, and will do in relationship with the world. The drama captures with all honesty the God who loves, who is at work, and who seeks to establish a relationship of love with God’s people.
The author does not shy away from the reality of sin and the brokenness of God’s people. What is thematic in these passages is the covenant love of God that continues to be alive and lived out regardless and sometimes even in spite of who the world chooses to be and how the world chooses to respond.
On the heels of the Christmas proclamation we now hear John as he seeks to identify for us who this Jesus is. In the process he also helps us to see who we are and invites us to a new way of living and relating by receiving and accepting this Word that saves, empowers, forgives, and heals us. John helps us to see in these passages that Jesus has a claim on us. Through our acceptance of His acceptance of us we have the right to become the children of God. In Christ we come not only to be offered acceptance and a birthright, we come to see what God is like.
In these passages we hear the reality of a new Kingdom being introduced and offered to a broken and fragmented world.
There’s a story about two young men on a battlefield in World War II. They have made it to the safety of a foxhole in the midst of enemy fire. As they look out before them across the battlefield they perceive the horror of dead and dying men. Twisted barbed wire, the earth scarred with deep holes left by cannon fire. Men lifeless, others crying out for help. Finally one of the men cries out, “where in the hell is God?” As they continue to watch and listen soon they notice two medics, identified by the red cross on their arms and their helmets, carefully making their way across that perilous scene. As they watch, the medics stop and begin to load a wounded soldier on to their stretcher. Once loaded they begin to work their way to safety. As the scene unfolds before them, the other soldier now boldly answers the honest, but piercing question of his friend, “There is God! There is God!”
The church needs to be reminded, on the heels of Christmas, that the baby became a man who has come to save us from the loneliness and horror of a world gone mad. On this second Sunday of Christmas we continue boldly to proclaim that God is here, that the best news of all is not only that the Word was in the world, the Word is here and the Word is now! Popular author, Thomas Moore, identifies our culture as a soulless society. John seeks to offer to such a society the opportunity to be born of God. (v. 13) That birth is possible because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
The church can never forget that its life is discovered in the experience of such grace and truth. The church discovers who it is as it seeks to live out of that experience in such a way that others come to know it as well.
“Where in the world is God?” John says God is here in Christ.
Christ has come among us to show us who God is and what God is like in a way that transforms and renews us all. Maybe the better question is, “where are people?” (Travis Franklin)
Baptism of the Lord
January 12, 1997
A Man With a Message
Mark 1:4-11
He had no pulpit, pews, lighting or even a building. He was an outcast, and an undesirable fellow, even if he were a dynamic preacher. If there were a preachers’ meeting, no one would have sat beside him or talked with him — he was shunned. Maybe it was his long hair, or perhaps the beard, possibly his dietary habits, or his neighborhood that offended the establishment. No, it wasn’t any of these, but it was the Message. His message called for repentance, a change of lifestyle, habits and attitudes. It was a new Godly direction that he proposed. He stated that the laws and regulations were only avenues for faith. The establishment did not like that idea either, even though it was the truth.
The people had not heard old fashioned preaching about a religious experience since the days of Elijah, Isaiah, or Malachi. God pricked their hearts and they responded positively to John the Baptist’s plea for authentic faith in God.
John’s message to the crowds in those pre-Messiah days strikes a note for today’s post-Christian crowds.
I. John announced that God was again coming to lead His people and overcome obstacles of faith.
Isaiah had predicted Israel’s return from Babylonian captivity to their homeland. After Israel obtained their release a revamping of the old city would have to occur due to decay and disrepair. Obstacles would have to be overcome by bridge work, leveling hills, repair of walls and buildings. If the obstacles of debris were removed it would have to be the result of deliberate attempt..
Obstacles from our old life must be removed by a total heart and head change. When Jesus enters through our invitation, he gives us a new direction to overcome the obstacles that hampered our spiritual success. Obstacles of faith might include:
A Materialism
B. Fear of losing something significant in life
C. Lack of Trust
D. Pride
E. Self-justification
F. People
What obstacles must be overcome in your life? Do you realize God has the power to destroy all obstacles if you let Him?
II. John announced an effective remedy for sin.
John’s message was effective because the people because they realized in their hearts they were sinners. He brought them what they sought in the depths of their souls.
A. He spoke to their guilt-ridden consciences. When he summoned the people to repentance, he confronted them with a choice between right and wrong that they realized must be made.
B. John’s magnetic message from God held the people’s attention. They knew that for 300 years the voices of prophecy and authenticity were silent. John verbalized God’s message.
C. John spoke boldly, but humbly. He said he was not fit to unlatch the buckle of the sandals for the One who was the Messiah. John asked nothing for himself but everything for the coming Savior. John’s obvious yieldedness and self-effacement compelled the Israelites to listen intently to his message.
As God’s messengers we speak boldly, but humbly about the Savior.
III. John announced the coming of the Messiah and recognized the Savior.
Not only did John get to talk about the Messiah, he was able to meet him personally. He even had the honor of baptizing the Lord. Why? What made him different? The messenger recognized the Savior of life.
When placing a telephone call, a delay may bring an operator to say, “I’m trying to connect you.” When the connection is made, the operator fades out to direct contact with the person who was called.
John’s aim was to connect people to One who was greater than himself. Our goal should be the same. John got to baptize Jesus personally. We can personally know Jesus! (Derl Keefer)
Second Sunday After Epiphany
January 19, 1997
“Are We Listening?”
I Samuel 3:1-10
The unforgettable story of Samuel’s call to be God’s prophet to Israel helps us to celebrate this season of Epiphany whereby the church explores who God is in God’s manifestation of God among God’s people. The focus of this great story is Yahweh’s determined expression to renew and to begin again. Eli, as the spiritual leader of Israel is old. Eli’s family has brought shame to him and to God’s people. It is time for God to speak a fresh, new word. It is time for God to renew and empower once again God’s revelation as to direction, hope, and leadership for the people. This story illustrates for the church the meaning and power of who God is among God’s people as God seeks to lead, direct, and share through the manifestation of God’s will and God’s way.
So often the church loses its sense of who God is and of where God seeks to lead. Like Israel, many times we too need desperately a new sense of who God is. Like Israel, the church seeks out who God is and what God is seeking to do. Like Israel, the church must be vitally in touch with the ongoing paradigm shifts of its life, of the life of the culture it seeks to influence. This story powerfully illustrates for the church in this season of Epiphany our desperate need to be open and receptive to the revelations of God as they manifest themselves in the midst of life. When we as God’s people lose our sensitivity to God’s ongoing manifesting nature both individually and corporately we lose our sense of who and whose we are. What a tragedy it is to watch people and churches who have no sense of God’s leadership, no sense of God’s purpose, little, if any sense of what God is saying to them in the midst of life. The word of hope this story seeks to reveal on the heels of the Christmas proclamation is that God is speaking. God has a relevant and empowering word for us today, as he did for Israel and Samuel in their day.
As I think about this passage I am reminded about a woman I visited in the local nursing home where I was serving as pastor. She, at the time, was 96 years old and was full of faith and life. On one of my visits she shared with me how concerned her children were with her failing eyesight. As she shared their concern with me she ended the story by proclaiming to me and to them that maybe she couldn’t see that well, but that she could still hear! This is the issue this passage seeks to draw our attention to in this season of God’s manifesting presence. How well are we hearing these days? How well are we seeing?
God is calling us today no less so than God did Samuel and the people of Israel in their day. In this midst of the hustle and bustle of life have we become so preoccupied with schedules and noise that we have neither the time nor the sensitivity to hear. And, if we are listening, once we do hear, who is helping us to interpret what we are hearing.
A leader in a church I served had her Bible Study group begin each day of prayer by praying, “I belong to God.” Samuel belonged to God, as do we all. Eli, the wise old servant of God mentored the young Samuel as to the ways of God. Eli knew the time had come for a fresh new face and voice. Eli, unselfishly mentored the young man of God so that the day would soon come when Samuel would not only hear the voice of God, but could interpret it as such. Hearing involves not only listening, but interpretation as well. As the paradigms of our culture continue to shift, God speaks God’s word. That word calls to each of us. That word lays claim to all that we are and all that we have. The truth of this passage is that the epiphany of God is breaking in on us. That epiphany brings to us the word of life, hope, love, direction, grace, healing, and empowerment. The issue for us, in this season is, are we listening! Are we listening? (Travis Franklin)
Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 26, 1996
A Call to Discipleship
Mark 1:14-20
Jesus heard His Father’s call. Accomplishing his mission was a matter of waiting for God’s time. In the meantime, he had responsibilities at home that could have claimed his attention. He worked in the carpenter shop. He wasn’t rich, but he had a settled lifestyle. Jesus may have been tempted to stay put, not to take a risk, and be with his family. It would have been understandable if he had. He knew someone had to care for his mother, but that was not the ministry God had given him.
The ministry of John the Baptizer was a sign that it was time for Jesus to begin his public ministry. After baptizing Jesus, John is put in prison. After Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness, he knows the time is right for him to begin his ministry.
John said, “One will come.” Mark wrote, “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee.” Now Jesus returns to Galilee — the place where he grew up. Where people knew him. He had a message of good news about God. It’s sometimes easy to forget the message of God is good news. It’s about how to have life, how to find forgiveness, how to find meaning and purpose. Jesus came preaching good news.
The time has come — the opportune time. Conditions are now right. The way has been prepared for God’s Messiah to fulfill his ministry. It is time for God’s rule and reign to be realized — in the social order and in our lives. God’s kingdom cannot fully come until I allow that kingdom to come into my life.
There is also a connection between repentance and belief. Jesus says, “Repent and believe the Good news.” Those are essential elements in becoming a Christian. Place your faith in Jesus and repent of your sin. Jesus places a link between repentance and our ability to believe. Sin has a way of distorting our vision so we can’t see what’s really important. Sin blinds us to the truth. A story is told in preaching classes about “hokey” sermon outlines. One is from the story of Samson — sin binds, sin blinds, sin grinds. If you repent though, you find new ability to believe. Jesus came preaching, “The kingdom of God is near. It’s the opportune time for you to align your life with God’s plan.”
As Jesus came preaching, he needed followers around him who would be able to finish the work he had started. Jesus saw something in these men that you and I don’t see. I wonder if Jesus knew Peter before his wilderness experience. As I read verse 16, I sense that it wasn’t the first time Jesus had seen Peter. He may have walked by the lake several times and seen Peter. Peter probably knew something about Jesus as well. After all, John’s gospel records the account of Andrew coming and telling Peter that he had found the Messiah. John records that Andrew had initiated a conversation with Jesus and was one of John’s disciples. Andrew had followed John for a while. John had been thrown into prison. It may have been with a sense of bewilderment and wondering “Where do I turn now?” that Andrew went back to the fishing business. Jesus said to Simon and Andrew, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”
Jesus though went seeking after such as would follow him. When the disciples attached themselves to a rabbi, they would study the law of God. Jesus was the fulfillment of that law. He did not say that the law was unimportant. He said, “Come follow me and we’ll join in going after people and lifting them up out of their circumstances.” That idea was appealing enough to Simon and Andrew that they immediately left their nets and went after Jesus.
Jesus called them to be fishers of men and of women. Churches can be like some fishing clubs. They learn about all of the ins and outs of fishing, but never actually get around to fishing. We are all witnesses. For all of us who know Christ, there was a time in our life when he issued his call to us and we took him up on it and when we signed on as his disciples, he promised to make us fishers of men and women. What we need is to have an experience with Jesus that is real and to be sensitive to opportune moments to tell people what Jesus Christ means to us.
After Jesus called Simon and Andrew he saw James and John. They were fishermen but Jesus called them and asked them to give their life to following him. They left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired help so they could follow Jesus. That business may have been in their family for generations. There would have been pressure on them to maintain that business. But Jesus says, “If you do not hate your mother, your father, your sisters and your brothers, you can’t be my disciple.” Discipleship will often involve a choice between the good and the best.
A survey was recently taken of Americans over 90 years of age. They were asked, “If you had your life to live over again, what would you do differently?” Their answers were,” I would reflect more, I would risk more, and I would invest in more things that would outlive me.” Peter and Andrew, James and John, took a risk in following Jesus. Jesus risked their rejection. To what deeper dimension of discipleship is Jesus calling you? If you take that risk you will make a major investment in something that will outlive you. (Mark A. Johnson)
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
February 2, 1997
Overcoming Evil
Mark 1:21-28
Jesus and His disciples entered the synagogue to worship with their brothers and sisters. They made their way toward the front and positioned themselves to hear from God. As the service started, the synagogue ruler asked the chazzan to read from the scrolls of the Old Testament. After reading the Scripture and prayer the Ruler turned to Rabbi Jesus to ask for his comment. As Jesus began speaking and teaching, the congregation sensed that this Rabbi had an authority they had not experienced in their lifetime. The content was authoritative and relevant.
As the sermon closed a man at the back of the synagogue began to shout. At first his words were garbled but the more he yelled the clearer his meaning, “What have we to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — you are the Holy One of God.”
This ordinary man was filled with the gross evil of demons. He met Jesus the conqueror of all evil. Everyone is called to meet evil and overcome.
I. When we meet evil we need Jesus
Evil comes in all sizes. It is stored in pill bottles to liquid containers, from attitudes to actions, from battlefields to minefields. Jesus steps into all arenas ready to fight the good fight of faith against an evil world, an evil society, evil person, and the Evil One. Christ wants to stand alongside anyone who desires to fight evil on or off its own turf. Paul wrote to Timothy, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and self-discipline” (I Timothy 1:7).
Bob Hodges, a Presbyterian minister, describes duck hunting with a friend in East Tennessee. His pal Riley was a recent convert to Christianity. While on a hunting trip, he quizzed Hodges over his difficulty in remaining true to the faith. Riley’s old friends were making it hard for him to remain consistent in his commitment to Jesus. They seemed to take special pleasure in trying to get him to backslide into his old lifestyle. They even ridiculed him for spending so much time with “the preacher.” Riley asked, “Why am I having so much trouble?”
Bob Hodges counseled him out in the duck blind, “I’ll tell you why, Riley. A couple of ducks fly over and you shoot. You kill one and injure the other. They both fall into the lake. What do you do? First thing you get out of the boat and go over and pick up the ducks but which one do you go after first?” “Well that’s easy,” replied Riley. “I go after the injured one first. The dead one ain’t goin’ nowhere!”
Hodges said, “And that’s the way it is with the devil. He goes after injured Christians. He’s not going to bother with the man dead in his sin. But the minute you give your life to Christ, you had better get ready; the devil is going to come after you. He will chase you; and make it hard.”1
Satan may bring evil into your life, but all you need to do is run, not walk, to Jesus and He will come immediately to your aid!
II. When we meet evil we need the church.
Jesus and his followers regularly attended worship services. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christians huddled together in small groups that became the church. God’s people must band together to fight evil in all of its ugliness. The church can band together to overcome the strength of the evil one!
III. When we meet evil we need to be ready!
The whole purpose of Satan is to deceive and destroy humankind. He will do it by diverting worship to him, by commissioning his demons actively to engage believers and trick non-believers, by spiritism and occultism. The devil will overtly and subtly try to destroy. He will try to ruin marriages, cause children to rebel, cause conflicts with the saints, lie to the public, and condemn the honest. He will try to destroy.
Today you will probably come up against evil. Recognize what and who you are dealing with and go to the Word of God, pray, get help from other Christians, attend church, go to a small group Bible study. A defense in the Lord against ever present evil. (Derl Keefer)
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 9, 1996
The Revelation of Miracles!
Mark 1:29-39
The miracles of the Bible are guideposts that point beyond themselves to some greater fact. Miracles are addressed to needy hearts waiting for a boost from God. Peter, James, Andrew and John were witnesses to miracles that would touch their hearts and lives. They observed a demon possessed man healed at a synagogue in Capernaum. Later Peter’s mother-in-law needed a healing touch from Jesus to release a fever and it happened. Then they watched a whole town turn out for a Saturday night healing service! The healings indicated some particular characteristics.
I. The Miracles Reveal the Character of the Lord.
The compassion, tenderness, and sympathy that Jesus displayed came from a heart of divine love. It was a love that went beyond mere words and resulted in action.
James Hewett tells that during the time of Oliver Cromwell in England a young English soldier was tried in a military court and sentenced to death. He was to face the firing squad at the “ringing of the curfew bell.” He was engaged to a beautiful young woman who loved him deeply. When she heard the sentence she made a conscientious decision to do something to save him. After thinking it through she climbed into the bell tower several hours before curfew time and tied herself to the bell’s huge clapper.
At curfew as the bell swung only muted sounds were heard out of the bell tower. Cromwell demanded to know why there was no ringing sound. His soldiers climbed the bell tower and found the young woman cut and bleeding from being knocked back and forth against the great bell. She was carried down to Cromwell. He was so impressed with her willingness to suffer in this way for her fiancee because of her love that he released the soldier saying, “Curfew shall not ring tonight.”
Christ’s loving compassion released the prisoners from suffering pain and demons with the news that, “Curfew shall not ring tonight.” There is coming a day when all who have been awaiting a release from their physical bondage will hear those words.
The third world countries of today are similar to Jesus’ day. Ignorance, superstition, slavery, disease, hatred, death filled the thoughts of the average person. A hopeless condition dominated their lives. When Christ arrived on the scene, a sense of hope glimmered. The people who gathered around for healing seldom sought the permanent love that Jesus offered, but simply for a temporary “fix” for their maladies. He desired to give so much more to them..
III. The Miracles Reveal the Character of God.
Jesus experienced pressure-packed days that drained him. Exhaustion could easily overcome Him. Hardly a minute passed that someone didn’t want Him, pull at him, cry out for help. His quiet moments were sparse.
Today such moments are rare in our rat race. Activities surge like hurricane tides over us. We hardly have time for ourselves, much less for God. Jesus realized that if He didn’t get away to talk with the Father he would be drowned in the mountain of tide water.
Prayer is an appeal of the spirit to God. Jesus understood the vital need to speak with God, then to listen to Him. The miracle is that God does listen when we speak. Another miracle of prayer is that He will respond if we will listen! Have you discovered the privilege of talking with the God who created the universe?
Lloyd Ogilvie wrote in his book Life Without Limits, “The Messiah who moved immediately into human need whenever he found it and released the immediacy of divine power is with us now as the resurrected, living Lord, This passage in Mark is to quicken our faith so that we can dare to believe that what he did then he is more than able to do now.” He can! (Derl Keefer)
First Sunday in Lent
February 16, 1997
Deciding For Life
Mark 1:9-15
An extremely excited woman called an insurance agent asking, “Can I get my house insured?” The agent replied that she certainly could if she made an appointment.” She quizzed, “Can I do it over the phone?” He answered, “No, I’m sorry but I have to see the house first.” “Then you’d better hurry and get here right away,” the woman exclaimed, “because the place is on fire!”
When we reflect on the ministry of Jesus we realize that He only had three years to minister. It doesn’t seem like much time when realize the world was headed for the eternal fires of Hell!
During His life He had several decisions to make with little to consider them. This text reveals three of his time decisions.
I. A Time to Identify, v. 9-11
Standing at the back of the crowd, Jesus listened intently as John the Baptist proclaimed a message of repentance. He also heard him say, “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus realized it was time to make the choice to identify with this movement of the people back to God as well as to identify His own Divine mission. He announced his goal by allowing John to baptize him. His decision would determine His eternal destiny. The spiritual lives of an entire world hinged on His choice at that moment. He made the right choice for humankind! The Messiah’s accomplishments stem out of His choice to identify with the people in His divine mission. Because of the choice He was anointed with holy power.
Today God calls people to identify by choice with the Messiah’s mission.
II. A Time for Testing. v. 12-13.
Coming out of the restaurant in Jericho, I followed my tour group to a spot directly across from a desolate jagged mountain range with no vegetation. Our Jewish tour guide told us this was the range of mountains where Jesus was driven by the Spirit after his baptism. I stood there focused on the difference a few feet makes. As I turned my head, there was the fertile land with abundant trees, orchards, grass and vegetation. Turning my eyes back toward the mountain, I thought how lonely Jesus must have been for a month continually tempted by Satan.
The Adversary of life hounded Jesus, tempting Him to give up this foolish mission he had undertaken for humanity. The devil slandered humankind by telling Jesus that they were thoughtless and cared nothing for God. So why should Jesus love them? Jesus had to choose between God’s desire to win the world by love and Satan’s plan to set up a dictatorship of force by blasting humans. Jesus chose God’s way.
Mark notes that “the wild animals and angels attended Him”. William Barclay comments, “It may be that here we see a picture in which the beasts recognized, before men did, their friend and their king. The angels were helping Him. There are divine reinforcements in the hour of trial.”
It’s a comforting thought that Jesus was not left alone in His hours of temptation — and neither are we! God has now given us His Holy Spirit to comfort and cheer just when we need him most!
III. A Time to Proclaim. v.14-15.
All of the preceding led to the main event, Jesus’ proclamation, “The time has come, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Jesus had come to liberate humankind from the penalty of sin and to escape eternal damnation. He also came to offer power to live a holy life victorious over sin. Our part is to repent, to be genuinely sorry for sin and to begin a lifelong journey of absolute hatred for sin in any form. This occurs by belief in the good news that Jesus’ mission was to become the ultimate sacrifice for sin in this world. Anyone who believes that and accepts Him as the eternal sacrifice will be saved!
It is your choice and your time! (Derl Keefer)
Second Sunday in Lent
February 23, 1997
What Do You Say?
Mark 8:31-38
Mark says a lot about the blindness of Jesus’ disciples. They are so slow to pick up on what Jesus is doing. One thing Jesus is doing is opening the eyes of the blind. We see that in the healing of the man of Bethsaida. The healing at Bethsaida closes the first half of Mark’s gospel. The second touch that healed the man of his blindness is a good prelude to the opening of the understanding of the disciples. For all of the blindness of the disciples, there is something remarkable happening here as Jesus asks them, “Who do the people say I am?” He then asks them, “What do you say?” Incredibly, the disciples get it right.
The disciples saw Jesus walk on the water, feed the multitudes, and continually deal with requests for healings. He never turned anyone away. He had the compassion, power, and forcefulness in his teaching that could only come from God.
With his remarkable sense of riming, Jesus knew when it was his time and when it was not his time. It is now a critical time. Jesus moves with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. His ministry in the Galilee is over and it is time to turn his face to Jerusalem. Jesus lived in Galilee but he died in Jerusalem. It is at Caesarea Philippi that Peter’s confession allows Jesus to reveal his full identity to his disciples. That will be a significant backdrop to what will take place next.
Caesarea Philippi is at the northern-most point of Israel where there had once been a shrine to the god Pan. At 1150 feet above sea level, it overlooks the northern end of the Jordan valley. After the development of a city there dedicated to the worship of Pan, the Romans built a city there to honor the Caesar. Every idol that could exalt itself against the knowledge of God was honored at Caesarea Philippi.
That’s why it is not insignificant that Jesus would bring his disciples to this place to ask them what he wants to ask them. They are standing at the base of Mt. Hermon in one of the most fertile regions in Israel. They can see the pagan shrines carved into the rock face of the mountain. As they were on the way to this place, Jesus asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
The disciples were closer to the crowds than Jesus was. They could overhear people’s comments.
“Some folks think you’re John the Baptist. He’s come back from the dead and his soul has reappeared in you.”
“Some folks say you’re Elijah. Malachi says God will send his prophet (Elijah before the day of the Lord comes. So to their way of thinking it’s entirely conceivable that you could be Elijah.” “Some folks say, ‘He’s one of the prophets.’ They’re not sure about you, Jesus. God’s hand is on you but they’re not quite sure how.” It’s interesting to notice that the demons had acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah but none of the crowds could see that yet.
Jesus did something that was very unusual for a Rabbi. Usually, the disciples asked questions of the Rabbi. In this instance, Jesus asked the disciples the all important question. “Who do you say I am?” Peter was the first one to speak and this time, he gets it right.
“You are the Christ.” After all Peter has seen, he acknowledges Jesus as God’s Messiah. Christ is not Jesus’ last name. It is a title that is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew word for “Messiah.” That’s why I sometimes cringe when we use Jesus and Christ interchangeably. We speak of Jesus when we talk about the historic Jesus of Nazareth but call him Christ when we talk about his function as the Messiah — the Christ.
If you’re going to be a conquering hero — as the disciples had hoped — you don’t talk about your own death. But Jesus did. He told his disciples that he would suffer many things, he would be rejected by the religous establishment and he would be killed and would rise again after three days. This was all foreign to the disciples. They heard Jesus talk about his death but missed the point about his resurrection entirely. Jesus begins now plainly to tell his disciples just what his messiahship will mean. Peter couldn’t keep his good record in tact for long. He rebuked Jesus openly.
It’s interesting the way Jesus chose to respond. I’m of the opinion that a leader earns the respect of his followers by refusing to embarrass them. Only praise your staff in the presence of others. Deal with any problems behind closed doors. I guess Jesus missed that course in seminary. He rebuked Peter in full view of all of the other disciples. He even went so far as to call him Satan. He accused him of not having in mind the things of God but the things of man. This was such a serious threat to the disciples’ understanding of Jesus’ mission that he had to let Peter and the disciples know he didn’t need them trying to derail him from the mission God had sent him to do. This is the temptation story in Mark.
Mark tells us about Jesus going out into the wilderness but doesn’t go into detail. Matthew and Luke talk about the stones to bread, jumping off the pinnacle of the temple and the temptation to worship the devil. Mark tells the story this way so that we will recognize that the enduring temptation of Jesus’ life was to resist the cross, to use his charisma to muster enough political clout to become what the crowds wanted him to become. When Peter, one of his most trusted comrades says, “Don’t do it Lord!,” Jesus wanted everyone to know that such a temptation could only come from the devil himself.
Jesus begins to let his disciples know that his Messiahship doesn’t come with the delusions of grandeur dancing around in the disciples’ heads. Instead, it comes with the cross looming before him constantly. Jesus let the disciples know that following him would mean a cross for them as well. Jesus said, “If you will come after me, take up your cross, deny yourself and follow me.”
People have different ideas about what the cross means. Some people think that it’s the hardships that we sometimes have to bear. Inconveniences are just that, inconveniences. The cross represents the choice that we make daily to place God’s will above our own. In Jesus’ day, the cross was an instrument of death. The disciples were aware of convicted criminals carrying their cross to the place of execution. Jesus says, “Following me means being willing to place my life, my priorities above your own, dying to yourself, and being willing to come after me even unto the point of death. The one who does that, I will gladly confess before my father. But if you deny me here, I will be ashamed of you when you stand before me.” (Mark A. Johnson)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Derl G. Keefer, Pastor, Three Rivers (MI) Church of the Nazarene; Travis Franklin, Chaplain, Methodist Children’s Home, Waco, TX; Mark Johnson, Managing Editor, Preaching.

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August 2, 1992
Content with Mediocrity
(2 Kings 13:14-20a)
The old prophet was on his death-bed. His ministry of fifty years was now behind him. Only one more prophetic act lay ahead of him. Soon Joash the king of Israel would come to say good-bye to the aging prophet. Elisha wondered if Joash would have the necessary determination and fortitude to lead Israel against the vastly superior armies of Syria (Aram). The Lord would provide the victory if Joash could provide the leadership required of him. How could he encourage Joash while testing his character?
As Joash approached the feeble old prophet, he was shocked at the physical deterioration which had occurred since their last visit. He wept as he thought of the once vibrant prophet who had stood as Israel’s protector and guide. The prophet had led Israel’s chariots and horsemen in the battle against their enemies. He recalled the times that Elisha had fought for Israel with a spiritual power few could imagine. Now as the prophet lay dying, Joash would have to assume leadership for his people.
Elisha comforted him in his grief. “Bring your bow and arrows to me.” Following Elisha’s instructions, Joash opened the window to the east and brought the bow to Elisha. As the two men placed their hands on the bow, they shot an arrow toward the east. “This is the Lord’s arrow of victory over Syria,” Elisha proclaimed. The prophetic symbolic act announced God’s word of encouragement. God wished to bring complete victory over Syria.
Now it was time for the test. God wanted to bring victory. Was Joash prepared to provide the leadership required? Elisha instructed Joash to strike the ground with the arrows. Joash obediently takes the arrows, strikes the ground three times, and stops. Elisha angrily rebukes Joash, “You should have struck the ground five or six times, then you would have struck Syria until you destroyed them. As it is, you shall strike them only three times.” Joash failed the test of aggressiveness.
There is a part of me that wants to run to Joash’s defense. He had followed the orders of Elisha, who had not specified the number of times that he was to strike the ground. Why is Elisha so hard on him? Give him a break! He’s grieving the loss of his guardian angel and the babbling old man is reprimanding him for not striking the ground enough with those silly arrows. Is there more to this event than I’m seeing? Is it fair to use this instance as the defining event in Joash’s life?
From Elisha’s perspective this event is characteristic of Joash. He was satisfied with humoring the old man without sharing his convictions or intensity. Joash did what he was told to do, what he was supposed to do, what was expected of him. But he did not have the faith to believe in the power of the symbolic act, nor did he have the determination to provide Israel with complete victory over Syria.
Perhaps the reason I am sympathetic toward Joash is my lack of commitment. Sometimes I am content with following the rules and doing what I am expected to do. Perhaps legalistic rituals and rules can be followed perfunctorily, but God is not content with such half-hearted devotion! God requires the kind of commitment, which Jesus called for, which warned potential followers, “No person who keeps looking back after he has put his hand to the plow is fit for the kingdom of God.” May God give us single-minded devotion to the kingdom. (WTP)
August 9, 1992
Living Life As Seems Best To Him
(Jeremiah 18:1-6)
Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet” and he had every reason to cry. For forty years, he had preached and pleaded with the people of God but they had not listened to his message. He had begged them to hear what God wanted them to know for their lives. Every time he gave the invitation, they checked their watches, shuffled in their seats, put on their coats and went home as indifferent to God as they had been when they came in.
Finally, Jeremiah had had it. Even the best of preachers have days when they want to quit. Jeremiah said to God, “I have poured my life into these people. I have tried to get them to listen to your voice through mine. I have tried to get them to come back to you and it seems that every time I speak, nobody is really listening.” It was quitting time for the prophet Jeremiah.
“Jeremiah,” God said, “it is time for you to stop preaching and to start listening to a sermon.” Not bad advice for those of us who are in the calling of preaching — ofttimes we find ourselves spinning out words without listening sensitively to God. So God said, “It is time, Jeremiah, for you to sit and for me to preach the sermon.” The scripture text is the sermon God preaches to Jeremiah.
It is a simple sermon. Jeremiah was depressed and discouraged. When someone is this discouraged and depressed in the darkness of life, you don’t give them complicated instructions. It is a simple sermon but it is a sermon which is filled with power for life.
“Jeremiah,” God said, “It is time for you to listen to a sermon rather than to preach one. I want to say some things to you which can bring strength in the storms of your life.” This is the sermon I need and maybe some of you also need it for your lives. In a world filled with perplexity, pain and puzzling things, in a world of difficulties, disillusionments and depressing things — where do we find strength for the living of our days and our nights?
The first thing God said was, “Jeremiah, I am still at work in this world.” “So I went down to the potter’s house,” Jeremiah said, “and I saw the potter working at the wheel.”
This sounds very simple — something Jeremiah saw every day of his life but it was God’s way of saying to him, “Jeremiah, this sermon in pictures I’m going to give you, the first thing I want you to understand as you look at the potter working at the wheel is God is still at work at the wheel of life and history. In this world where there are many things we don’t understand and many things we can’t explain, I want you to know I’m still at work.”
To me as pastor, those who came to listen to the sermon, Sunday after Sunday, were not coming there with the question, “Is there a God?” but they were really asking, “Where is God in my life?” I was looking into the faces of people who were asking, “Where is God in the pain of my life? Where is God when the dreams of my life have been smashed? Where is God in the midst of my life?” God said to Jeremiah, “Go to the potter’s house” and behold the potter is still at work at the wheel.
One of the first songs I learned as a little boy in church was, “God is so high, you can’t get over Him; God is so low, you can’t get under Him; God is so wide, you can’t get around Him.” I liked the song because there were movements with it. As we sang, “God is so high, you can’t get over Him” we stood on tiptoes and put our hands as high as we could. As we sang, “God is so low, you can’t get under Him” we knelt down as far as we could. As we sang, “God is so wide, you can’t get around Him” we stretched our arms as wide as possible to show God was so wide there was no way to get around Him in life. I didn’t understand the theology as I sang it as a little boy but it has powerful theology: the God we worship, serve and in whom we live, move and have our being, we don’t understand everything which happens in this world but “Jeremiah, I want you to go down to the potter’s house and see He is still at work at the wheel of life.”
In a world of dashed dreams, where is God? In a world of divorce and disease, where is God? In a world where little children get sick and we can’t explain it, where is God? In a world where sensitive prophets like Jeremiah poured their hearts into the lives of people and nobody seems to change, where is God? “Go down to the potter’s house, Jeremiah, and remember God is still at work.” What we need in life are not easy or pat answers. What we need is the presence of God.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.” Those words from the 23rd Psalm have come to mean a great deal to me in my life. There have been days literally when I have felt myself hanging on to that affirmation. Not because I understand the valley or can explain it or know the dimensions of darkness but because there is One who is always with us. “For thou art with me.”
The second thing in God’s sermon to Jeremiah was the potter was shaping marred clay. “But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands.” Of course, when Jeremiah looked at that he would have seen the simple message — what God works with is not perfect people but He works with the failures, mistakes and sins of my and your life. This is so simple to affirm but so difficult to receive many of us probably believe what God is looking for is perfection in our lives.
God says to Jeremiah, “Don’t you understand, what I shape is marred clay.” Jeremiah needed to hear that. Jeremiah, as he began his preaching ministry, probably was the kind of preacher who had the feeling, “I’m going to change this world. Everybody is going to respond to me.” Once in a while I have a young student like this in a class — he is going to change the world. I like this because the church ought to demand the very best investment of ourselves in it. But somewhere along the way we have to learn we are marred clay.
I had every intention of being the best pastor in the world — of being a perfect pastor — in that little church in southern Indiana, where I was a student pastor. The people probably thought, “Here is another seminary student we have to introduce to the real world.” I was going to be the perfect husband but in the first week of marriage, Diane and I had a disagreement about the curtains in our apartment. Before I became a parent, I was going to be a perfect parent. The very best sermons I have on being a father were all written and preached before I became one.
Jeremiah said, “I’m going to give up. I’m going to the desert. They don’t seem to get at what I’m trying to say.” God said to Jeremiah, “Don’t you understand, what I want in your life is not success; I want faithfulness. What I want is for you to put the clay of your life, marred as it is, into my hands.” It is so easy for me to say this to you but is so difficult to do in my life.
“So the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.” Jeremiah was saying, “This is the way I would shape life if I could do it.” God was saying, “Jeremiah, you don’t design life; you put life in my hands and I design it.” So many times, I want to tell God what to do with life, how to shape it, where to go, what to be, how to be it, and God says, “Jeremiah, don’t you understand I want you to put your life in my hands and let me shape it as seems best to me.”
The potter can take the clay and shape it. The difference is, God the potter waits for you and me to come and give our lives — the clay of our lives — to Him. God will not force you to put your life in His hands. You have to come and put the clay of your life in His hands. (CB)
August 16, 1992
Why?
(Jeremiah 20:7-13)
Our Old Testament text for today is one of the more troubling texts in scripture. It is a deeply painful cry of complaint against God. Jeremiah is honest — painfully honest — as he vents his frustration and anger with God. Jeremiah accuses God of deceit, entrapment, manipulation, and seduction. Are you not surprised that God let him get away with that? I thought that we were to treat God with respect, honor, and reverence.
Jeremiah is not just complaining about his circumstances, he is questioning the character of God. Why would the creator of the universe tolerate such accusations? Perhaps we can find some insights as we look at Jeremiah more carefully.
Jeremiah’s call as a prophet is recorded in the first chapter of this book. While just a youth, Jeremiah hears the call of God to be the proclaimer of God’s message to Judah. When he calls attention to his youth and inexperience, God assured him that He would provide the message to be delivered. We are not given much insight into Jeremiah’s assumptions about the life and ministry of a prophet. I’m fairly certain, however, that his life turned out different than he had anticipated.
Jeremiah faithfully delivered the Word of God as it came to him. Unfortunately, his hearers did not appreciate his ministry or message. As he called Judah to repentance and forecasted the destruction which was impending, his hearers accused him of treason and questioned his patriotism. Jeremiah was beaten and put into stocks. His friends deserted him and the persons passing by mocked him and his message. As Jeremiah reflected on his call and the way his life was turning out, his anger and frustration with God began to mount. Why had God set him up for such disappointment? Where was God when He was needed?
There have been times when I wondered about God’s faithfulness. I remember the Sunday morning my wife found that our infant daughter had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome during the night. As young adults we were active in our church. I was preparing for vocational ministry. Why had God not protected us? I thought that God was watching over us, protecting us from harm. I tried to find comfort in the promises of Romans 8, but “knowing” that all things work together for good did not seem to answer my longing to make sense of my loss.
This week I assisted in the funeral of an Alzheimer’s sufferer. As I talked to her daughter, she shared with me a lament she had written during the early stages of her mother’s illness. As her mother lost the capacity to recognize loved ones or to think clearly, Clara cried out to God in her pain. As I read her lament, my mind returned to Jeremiah and this troubling passage.
Perhaps the reason this passage has been so troubling to me is my reluctance to confront God with my pain and questions. Somewhere in my pilgrimage I picked up the assumption that since God is in control, I am not to question God. I am to quietly accept the blows of life without complaining or second-guessing God. This passage is causing me to question my assumptions about responding to disappointment and anger.
Jeremiah’s complaint is very similar to some of the “lament” psalms. It contains his cry of anger and disappointment with God. While there are other places in scripture where God’s actions were questioned, Jeremiah accused God of deception and seduction. God took advantage of his naivete and enticed him into a life full of reproach. If he tried to forsake his calling, the word of God became as a fire in his heart which overpowered him. Trapped by the claims of God on his life, he turned to God with his cry. He honestly owns his frustration, he challenges God’s integrity, he admits his pain.
Jeremiah doesn’t stop with his complaint; he also confesses. He confesses his strong reliance on God. When his reason and logic cannot make sense of his world, he clings to his steadfast faith in the God who created him, called him, and now consoles him.
Sometimes we can’t make sense of our world. Sometimes we feel that God is not holding up His end of the bargain. Take your anger and frustrations to God, talk to God, cry out to God. God is there to listen and know your pain. Jeremiah kept on believing and ministering, and so do I. (WTP)
August 23, 1992
Warnings of Jesus
(Luke 13:22-30)
Traveling along the roadways of the USA, I’ve come across all kinds of warning signs. They include signals, lights, red flags, signs, and flares, to name a few. Just as there are warning signs along life’s physical roadways there are warning signs along life’s spiritual highways.
I. Jesus Warns Us to Persevere
Our scripture background tells us that someone wanted to know if only a few people would be saved. Jesus’ response was one that still carries through to today, “The door to heaven is narrow” (Living Bible). Jesus wasn’t being sadistic or harsh. I think His tone of voice reflected an urgent plea to the inquirer, then and now.
Clarence Macartney observed that the Athenians had a race in which the runners carried lighted torches. The victors who were crowned were those who arrived at the goal with their torches still burning.
May we come to the end of life with our torches still burning brightly. The highest tribute one can receive is to have God say, “Well done faithful servant.
II. Jesus Warns Us to Unload Our Sin and Burden
Charles Childers states that a narrow gate would restrict quick entrance because it forced the traveler to unload entering the gate and the city.
If we enter the gate that leads to the city of God we cannot carry our load of sin on our spiritual backs. Jesus only can unload our sin. This narrow gate makes each one who enters equal — no color, social, financial or physical barriers. We are all sinners looking for the mercy of God, and He will not disappoint our search party! Give Him your load, today!
III. Jesus Warns Us to Be Among the Chosen
We are looking at a choice here. We can choose to be among the chosen, or we can choose not to be among the chosen. God in His great wisdom has instilled within mankind a free moral agency to use. The text has some sobering verses: “But he (the Master) will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out” (v. 27-28, NIV).
Some people have a theology that does not allow for a God of eternal judgment or discipline; rather, everyone will be saved by a God of love. This theology has not accepted the total view of Scripture. People have taken spiritual scissors and cut out whole passages of the Word in order to fit their own personal belief.
God, who is a God of love, has provided a way of escape through His Son’s death on the cross. Sinners turned to saints do so only by faith, confession and obedience to Jesus Christ. God has paid a great price for our salvation so that we can be among the “chosen.”
G. Campbell Morgan tells that a miner came to him and said he would like to be a Christian, but that he could not accept the cheapness of salvation. He said, “I would give anything to believe that God would forgive my sins, but I cannot believe that He will forgive me if I just turn to Him by faith.”
Morgan asked the miner, “Have you been working today?” He looked at him in a bit of astonishment, “Yes,” said the coal worker, “I was in the pit, as usual.” Morgan questioned him, “How did you get out from the bowels of the earth?” His reply was, “The way I normally do. I got into the cage and was pulled to the top.”
The preacher queried, “How much did you pay to come out of the pit?” “Pay? Of course I didn’t pay anything.” Morgan asked, “Were you afraid to trust yourself in that cage? Was it too cheap?” “Oh no,” he said, “it was cheap for me, but it cost the cage and other equipment to get me out of the hole.”
Without another word the truth of that admission broke upon him and he saw that if he could have salvation without money and without price it had cost the infinite God a great price to sink the shaft and rescue lost mankind!
Take God’s warnings to heart. Don’t delay — come quickly to Jesus! (DGK)
August 30, 1992
An Invitation Extended
(Luke 14:1, 7-14)
Jesus had received an invitation to join a Pharisee for dinner, and Christ never turned down any person’s invitation of hospitality. The Lord never abandoned hope for a sincere change in a sinner’s heart. He never missed an opportunity to share with someone the love of God. There are three invitations in this passage.
I. An Invitation to be Watched (v. 1)
In His heart Jesus knew why He had received an invitation to dine with the Pharisee. He was to be scrutinized, to be put under the microscope to see what flaw they could find in Him. This Pharisee and his cronies wanted to take the man of compassion and discredit Him in any possible fashion.
William Barclay wrote that it was possible the Pharisees had “planted” the man with dropsy in the house on this occasion to see what Jesus would do. Barclay continues the thought by uncovering the meaning of “watching,” for he says the Greek word here means, “interested and sinister espionage.”
Christ did what we and they expected: He healed the man on the spot after a short series of questions and illustrations.
Today our lives are being scrutinized by the people of the world with whom we live. They want to know the truth, see if our actions correspond with our words, examine the lifestyle difference between us. How are we holding up? Can the people in your world see, hear, feel and know the difference your life has made since Jesus came into your heart? Can we invite their scrutiny without fear of what they will find?
II. An Invitation to be Humble (v. 7-11)
Humility is difficult when we aspire to honor. Jesus says that humility is more important than esteem. One doesn’t go looking for humility; it must come naturally from within. Humility comes through God’s graciousness. Jesus models this for us in both His attitude and behavior.
President Faure, once president of the French republic, used to be a tanner. He was not ashamed of his humble origin, but fearful of becoming too proud he would keep his tanner’s clothes where he could see them.
Humility draws us back to our spiritual beginnings. All of us were sinners, now saved by grace. Next time you look at the alcoholic, the drug addict, the hooker, look at them with humble love, realizing that they need the same Jesus you possess!
III. An Invitation to Compassion (v. 12-14)
The main emphasis of this passage is compassion. It simply relates that all are in need of help — spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally, or financially.
Today, somebody in your sphere of influence needs you! Give companionship, a listening ear, encouragement, money, food, shelter when appropriate, stand with them in a courtroom; cry with them at the loss of a loved one; laugh and cheer them on when things are going great. “Kindness will influence more than eloquence.”
Someone was feeling blue and discouraged and a friend gave him some sage advice. He said, “there are ten rules for getting rid of the blues; go out and do something for someone else, and repeat it nine times”
Christ has extended an invitation to you. Will you accept? (DGK)
September 6, 1992
Wanted
(Philemon 1-20)
Ever linger around the post office of your community waiting in line to be assisted by the clerk? If you have, you have probably been bored to the point of looking around and thumbing through the WANTED posters. Each gives a detailed description and picture of the person who is wanted.
In Paul’s letter to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus he says there is a description of people who are WANTED.
I. Wanted — A Friend (v. 1-3)
The Elgin Courier several decades ago carried a story that the will of the late U.S. Supreme Court associate Justice Lamar had an unusual legacy. “The Testator leaves to his family not only his money and land; but also his friendships, many and numerous, in the hope that they will be cherished and continued.”
Friendships are among the most cherished and prized possessions we own. They are greater than the money and lands we possess. They often take longer to create than large estates. A fortune may be made in a day on the stock markets of the world, or on the turn of a card, as it were. Not friendships. They take time by working through misunderstandings, problems, and heartaches.
Often we see brothers and sisters grievously wounded by temptation, malice, gossip and other foes of the spirit. What do we do to help? Do we forsake the fallen? Trample underfoot the soul? As Christians we need to demonstrate compassion, patience, and love to restore the fallen to the fellowship of believers. Did you ever think that the twelve apostles of Jesus were not there to be students of theology, only? These men were to be Christ’s companions — friends!
II. Wanted — People of Faith (v. 4-7)
Phillips Brooks has given an often quoted definition about faith that has been a help to many. He said, “Faith means ‘Forsaking All I Take Him’.” Not an intellectual acceptance of what the Bible says about Jesus, but receiving Him into our life with total abandonment. When that happens Jesus saves us, guides us, and rules us.
Faith produces love. One way to get rid of grease spots on our clothes is by placing a piece of absorbent paper over the spot and press it with a warm iron. The warmth of the iron melts the grease and the paper absorbs it. In much the same way love handles bad situations. It simply absorbs it. God is the iron, and we are the absorbing paper in a friend’s life who needs love! The world — your world — needs the presence of God’s love.
Faith produces trust. Andrew Murray once wrote: “Never try to arouse faith from within. You cannot stir up faith from the depths of your heart. Leave your heart and look into the face of Christ, and listen to what He tells you about how He will keep you.”
Faith produces goodness. J. F. Clarke said, “He who believes in goodness has the essence of all faith. He is a man of cheerful yesterdays and confident tomorrows.” The act of being good touches the heart of a wicked world.
III. Wanted — A Future (v. 17-22)
When we take Christ into our lives, we have a future with Him. A surrendered life is a surrendered future.
Paul asks Philemon to welcome his runaway slave back as brother, just as he would Paul (v. 17). Paul was asking Philemon to give Onesimus back his future.
Jesus did that for us. The cross was Christ’s way of asking the Father to give you and me a future — one here on earth to live to the fullest; and one that would last for all eternity! Do you have a future? The answer is yes if you give your life to Jesus. (DGK)
September 13, 1992
The Joy of Salvation
(Luke 15:1-10)
It is easy to lose our sense of joy in life. Last Christmas I asked my mother to think about the eighty-two Christmases she had celebrated and tell our family about her most memorable ones. At the dinner table she related some sad tales and told of several joyous experiences. I asked her what was the best Christmas she could remember. We were all surprised at her answer. “I’d have to say this one.” We all wanted to know what made this one so special. She indicated, “Because this is such a happy day for me and I have so much gratitude in my heart.”
The stories in Luke 15 are stories about joy, the joy of God. Jesus knew the Pharisees and Scribes grumbled about His eating with tax collectors and other sinners. These parables, according to Luke, are in response to those thoughts. All three parables are much alike. They are about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost boy. Yet they are really about the joy of the shepherd, the joy of the housewife, and the joy of the waiting father. Jesus’ message, as related by Luke, is about God’s joy when the hearts and lives of persons are changed.
Several common threads are in all three stories. Today I want to concentrate on the first two parables as found in verses 1 through 10.
I. Something is Lost
The sheep is lost; the coin is not in its right place. Each of us know persons who are lost, misplaced, not to be found where they should be. Sometimes we ourselves are such persons. The biblical image about humankind is that although there are some folks who struggle to be in harmony with God, there are a great host who are apart from God, disinterested in God.
We have all kind of words to describe this human condition. We speak of confused, misguided, unknowing, unaware, insensitive, mistaken, thoughtless persons. The Scriptures are much more direct. People apart from God, in one thing or in many, are sinners.
Recently a friend wrote, “We will often fail, but we are never failures.” We may sin, but sinner is not all we are. We are always much more. God can always confirm our true worth and value, and create in us the miracle of a new life. The street-tough language expresses it, “I’m valuable because God don’t make no junk.”
II. Someone is Seeking
The shepherd counts the sheep, finds ninety-nine, and goes looking for the one that is not there. The smallest and the least valuable to us is valuable to God.
The woman looks for her coin, cannot find it, sweeps and searches her house for the lost coin. One could suppose it was the only coin she had. Without it she would be desperate. It could be just as valid to assume that she had much wealth, and could have easily survived without that one coin. Some have suggested that the coin was one of ten that married women often wore, having collected them like a “hope chest” of today. Each coin in the headset was of personal value. To restore the set would be of special joy to the woman. The clear message of these two parables is that God is seeking, searching, concerned for the lost.
A great Jewish scholar has admitted that this is the one absolutely new thing which Jesus taught men about God — that God actually sought and searched for men. Such an action is the opposite of what the leaders of the Jews emphasized. One of the teachings of the Midrash was that a man should not associate with the wicked, even to bringing a wicked person to the law.
III. Recovery Brings Joy
The shepherd comforts the lost sheep, bringing it back to the fold, rejoicing. The woman laughs with delight at the discovery of the lost coin, seeking others to join in her delight. For Jesus, this is the right description of God. When the sinner responds to the seeking grace of God and is brought back into fellowship with God, God’s heart is filled with joy and delight.
The dour grumbling of the “righteous” contrasts with the response of God. Jesus teaches that all should rejoice with God in the recovery of anyone who has been lost and returns home. The parable of the Prodigal ends with the welcome home party and the dismay of the elder brother.
The simple meaning of Luke’s collection of these three parables is that God loves the world. Earle W. Ellis wrote that “God loves the world — the common, mixed up, moral-immoral, devil-may-care world.”
It may be difficult for any of us to accept those who have broken all the laws we consider sacred, overlooked all the ordinary decencies of human life, then turn to God at the last moment. In such moments we need the love and grace of God in us. We need a strength more than our own to move from dark thoughts and bitter words to a light of love and joy.
The prisoners released last year from years of captivity in Lebanon told how deep their hatreds and resentments were. But through the power of God they stopped allowing the captors to shape their responses. Instead they chose to forgive their captors and to show love toward them. It was then that they found peace and inner joy. (HCP)
September 20, 1992
The Quest for Permanence
(Hosea 11:1-9)
It’s a throw-away world, this world of ours. If you need proof, just look on the side of any road and see how much of our world is throw-away.
Or look in the supermarket. Non-returnable bottles, discardable milk cartons. Biodegradable shopping bags and disposable diapers, and don’t we all wish we could have been Dustin Hoffman — you remember, in The Graduate, when his father’s partner took him aside for a word of advice, and the advice he gave him was: plastics. Don’t we all wish we had gotten that word in time?
Up and down the aisle in every supermarket, all we see is a sea of plastic. Ours is a plastic world, a disposable world, a throw-away world. A world where there is no permanence. A world where things do not last.
And not just things. People, too, do not last. Yesterday’s stars disappear into the black hole of obscurity. Yesterday’s heroes are today’s zeroes, while “What have you done for me lately?” echoes in all our great stadiums.
Fads and fashions, trends and various blends, shows and flows, what’s hot is soon not; and our loyalties are often as variable.
We live in a world of throw-away allegiances and throw-away relationships, where loyalties are short-lived and promises are neither sacred nor permanent. And have any of us used the word commitment this week?
Relationships are not permanent, and people are not permanent, because life is not permanent — even less so happiness and wealth, and power. And whatever we would preserve, we cannot, at least not for long.
Maybe that’s why people go to the mountains — buy a piece of the mountain if they are able — to have a little bit of something that lasts, or seems to. Maybe that’s why people go to the ocean, and buy a piece of the shore if they can, and even if the lot disappears into the tide, and the house along with it, the ocean at least remains.
We are all of us still journeying, looking, hoping to find something that is permanent. Maybe we are all on a quest through this throw-away world for that which endures.
II
It is a poignant passage in Hosea that confronts us. You remember Hosea, don’t you, him and his prostitute wife Gomer? It was Hosea whose love for Gomer was greater than her adultery, so much so that he kept going after her when pride, and neighborly advice, and commonsense told him to let her go, let her have her way and her lovers. But he could not, could not let her go or give her up, so great was his love for her.
Somewhere in the midst of Hosea’s terrible anguish regarding Comer, he came to understand something of the anguish of God regarding Israel; that such agonized love as Hosea had for his wayward wife, such love and eternally more God had for His wayward children.
And can’t you hear it in this passage?
It is in this passage, full as it is of breaktakingly and heartbreakingly beautiful anthropomorphisms — God loving wayward Israel like a father, loving a first-born but prodigal son — it is in this passage where we can rightly begin to see what it is that is permanent, what it is that endures. God’s love. God’s grace.
It was Hosea, perhaps before all other Old Testament writers, who saw that love was the glue that held God to His people; that love, more than righteousness or holiness, was the mortar of the covenant; that not only was love the very essence and explanation of all God had done for Israel from the Exodus on, love was also the essence and explanation of all God would do now or in the future; that God’s love was the sole basis of any hope Israel might have for God’s continued favor in spite of their continual disobedience.
It was Hosea who first articulated this notion of divine love, love which is demonstrated and experienced as divine grace, grace which is greater than all our sin, as the old hymn goes, greater than sin’s power to rupture the relationship between God and His people.
Sin ruptures. Sin ruins. Sin is centrifugal, driving things apart. And whatever is ruptured or ruined or sundered in our world is proof enough of sin and its power.
And yet there is grace. Grace refuses sin its power, denies sin its ability to separate God and His creation. Karl Barth has written that God conquers sin not by power, but by love; not by destroying, but by forgiving.
If sin is centrifugal, driving things apart, then grace is centripetal, and reconciling, pulling things together in spite of themselves, and all on account of love.
Gomer foolishly prostitutes herself, but Hosea, more foolishly still, won’t let her go. Adam and Eve do the one thing God tells them not to do, and yet there is God in the garden again with them, teaching them to sew, helping them to be modest, to clothe their shame.
Israel proves a prodigal, and according to the Law God has every right to have them killed, or to stand aside and see the consequences of Israel’s sin exacted. If God were any other father, he just might do it. But God is not a man. He loves like a father, but as God, and God’s grace is greater than Israel’s disobedience, greater than His own wrath.
God is God, and God is graceful, and lest we miss the point, three times God tell us that anger will not have the final word, and sin will not have the final word. Love and grace will have the final word, and the future will belong to and be fashioned out of grace.
III
It’s a throw-away world we live in. There’s not much around us that’s permanent. Only God’s love and grace, which embraces us, holds us to Him with a bond stronger than any power sin has to break. And though heaven and earth pass away, God’s grace will not pass away. (TRS)
September 27, 1992
Take Hold of Life
(1 Timothy 6:6-19)
Listen to the 19th verse: “… take hold of the life which is life indeed.” Take hold of life. That sounds good doesn’t it? Wouldn’t you like to do that: “take hold of life.”
Yet taking hold of life is not easy. Someone said it was like trying to give a blood transfusion to a sieve. So often I have determined that I would discover happiness only to find that happiness was elusive. So often I have decided to experience success only to fail again. So often I have wanted to enjoy living only to be filled with gloom and despair. I am sure you have had the same experiences.
We ourselves and the people around us act like driven people, under great stresses and pressures, tyrannized by our daily fears, disillusioned because we do not get what we want or do not want what we get, confused about who we are and uncertain about where we are going. Strained relationships, distrust of one another, continuing violence seem to be everywhere. And when the pressures are too great, we collapse into numbing oblivion and the addiction of television, drugs, sleep, or “burn-out.”
In a survey conducted by USA Today, when people were asked what they wanted most they replied “peace of mind.” I think what most of them, like most of us, really wanted was not some sterile serenity, but a feeling of satisfaction, of accomplishment, of meaning and purpose. They want to get hold of life.
Do you ever feel that your life is shallow? We need a reservoir of resources to help us survive each day. Do you sense a need for more support than you have? We need a center of meaning and strength for coping with life. Do you wish that you knew what the meaning of your life was and could be? We long for an understanding of the rapid changes in our world, and the multiplicity of our choices. Do you hope for some stability and some simplicity in life? We need a kind of pacemaker for our frantic haste. Do you seek a place and a moment of serenity and peace in the midst of your constant rush? We need a sense of direction about where we are going.
When Paul wrote Timothy that he should “take hold of life that is real life,” he provided thoughts on how it could be done. Those ideas of the Apostle are still valid. The method is simple — put your hope on God, and do good to all persons. That method is still the way to take hold of real life, a way to become what we long to be.
I. Put Your Faith and Hope in God
That’s where life starts — with God. Not with things, not with possessions, not with wealth or any other kind of temporal security. Life starts with God. Life really begins when we trust God.
Trust in God has many parts to it. One part is belief. To discover life, real life, one affirms that God is, that God is good, that God is present, and God is there for me. Trust in God is words, it is thoughts, it is ideas.
Trust in God is more than the right words, however; trust in God is also depending upon Him. Life is often difficult. If you have been told that life is easy and painless, you have been misinformed. Life is difficult. Life is filled with painful experiences. You can be hurt, hurt so badly that you feel you are bleeding to death. By trusting in God, depending upon Him, allowing God to direct your life, you discover the strength to continue.
Trusting in God means associating with God’s people. That’s why worship is so important. In worship, we not only find the companionship of God, we find the support of one another.
II. Be Busy Doing Good and Helping Persons
Albert Schweitzer said, “The only persons in this world who are truly happy are those who have learned to serve.” Serving, helping, giving, providing for others give us the opportunities to take hold of life as can be done in no other way.
Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” That parable reminds us each time we think of it that our neighbor is the person who has a need.
A man in Bainbridge, Georgia, found that out. One day the man was working in his yard when he heard screams from a home nearby. He raced across the yards to discover the screams coming from an 11-year-old being terrorized by a crazed intruder with a shotgun. The neighbor started toward the boy to help, but the intruder turned and shot the man at close range in the legs and chest.
Today, after months of painful recovery, the man has learned to walk again. He speaks of the incident and says, “I will never forget the look on that boy’s face when he finally knew that I was going to help him.” He was asked if he would do it again, knowing the cost. He said, “Yes, I’d do it again. Our neighbor is the next person that we meet. No theories, no experts; just the next person we meet.”
If you desire life, real life, life filled with meaning and purpose, excitement and joy, you have to take hold of it. You have to trust God and help persons. (HCP)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: William T. Pyle, Assistant Professor of Supervised Field Ministry, Southeastern Baptist Seminary. Wake Forest, NC; Charles Bugg, Professor of Christian Preaching, Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, KY; Derl C. Keefer, Pastor, Three Rivers Church of the Nazarene, Three Rivers, MI; Harold C. Perdue, Development Officer, Texas Methodist Foundation, Round Rock, TX; and Thomas R. Steagald, Pastor, Highlands United Methodist Church, Highlands, NC.

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