Sunday Sermon: Hope That Comes With Us

There are some things that frustrate me. You know what I mean? Things just that just make me want to groan in agony.

You want to know what frustrates me? That we spend so much of our time belittling someone, because they do not look like us or share our same opinions, or they go about things in a different way than we would like. That frustrates me.

When I look at all the violence that exists in our world. When I think about the violence that exists in our streets. That frustrates me.

When I think about the drug problem in our Commonwealth. When I think about the struggles families experience trying to make ends meet or get out of debt. When I think about how families spend so much time in the rat race of schedules. That frustrates me.

When I think about the state of the church and the statistics that show the decline of Christianity in the United States. When I think about the fact that for someone to be considered an average attender in worship that they only need to be in church two times a month. When I think about the fact that people think they no longer need God or church. That frustrates me. Continue reading

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Never Thirst Again

When I make my way into the kitchen, every morning, to start the day one of the first things I do is to go to the refrigerator. It is there I begin my quest to find the energy to make it through the day by grabbing a nice, cold, refreshing Diet Coke. While some may need the warmth of a cup of coffee to get through the morning, I need the sweet and calorie free taste of a Diet Coke to get things going. It is “Just for the taste of it,” right?”

To be honest, it’s not just in the mornings when I grab a Diet Coke. It seems like I always have a Diet Coke by my side. Come to the office, see me on Sunday mornings before worship, or see me moments before a meeting and chances are I am sipping on a Diet Coke or Diet Dr Pepper. In my mind, I need the caffeine from Diet Coke to get through the day, which ultimately leads me to having more soft drinks than a person should consume in one 24-hour period.

If we were honest with ourselves we all have things that we turn to in order to provide energy or momentum through the day. It could be a morning cup of coffee. It might be a favorite snack in the middle of the day. It might even be a favorite song or album that we listen to through the day. All these things, and many others, we turn to in order to “get us through the day.” Continue reading

Living With a Promise

This morning, I must admit something to you all. As I looked back over the themes of the sermons from the last few weeks, I admit that what we have talked about in this series has been very challenging.

I know that it has been challenging for me and I am sure it has also been challenging for each of you. They have been challenging in that each of these sermons have asked us, in a way, to look at where we are, where we are going, and what Christ desires of us today and tomorrow.

Perhaps it is not ideal to preach a series of challenging sermons as the boxes are mounting at the house. It would easy to blame the lectionary for its selection of Easter season passages for this year, but that would not be fair to anyone. To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of fluff. In my journalism days, I cringed at assignments that seemed to be space fillers, such as covering a local fair, before moving on to something else. I believe the Good News of Jesus Christ desires us all to be challenged to grow daily in our faith and what it means to be the church today. Continue reading

Acts 2:1-12: A Spirit-Enabled Life

Acts 2 is a familiar passage. It is Luke’s telling of what took place when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in the Upper Room. The Spirit came like a violent wind that looked like tongues of fire. Luke paints the picture of something revolutionary taking place that would lead the disciples to do some amazing things.

Truly, that day of Pentecost was something revolutionary. It was the day when the church began and the mission of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ was initiated. The Holy Spirit came and serves as the guide leading the church to being the witness of Christ in the world.

The Holy Spirit’s work doesn’t just involve the church. It also involves each of us. Just as the Holy Spirit came to enable the mission of the church, so did the Spirit come to enable our lives for holy living and faithful discipleship. We need the Holy Spirit’s direction to guide us in our faith and lives.

When we allow the Holy Spirit to enable our lives, we will see the Spirit teaching us, guiding us, leading us, shaping us, and moving us in new and powerful ways. We become the people God has called us to be. The Holy Spirit is the power that leads to transformative discipleship in our lives.

What would it look like if every day we sought to live lives that were enabled by the Holy Spirit? Could you imagine how different our lives would be? Could you imagine how much stronger our faith and witness would be?

Sunday’s Sermon: So Much More to Be Said

“There is so much more that I want to say to you.”

These words from Jesus, as he continues his farewell address to his disciples, hit me hard this week. Hard enough that I called a “pastoral audible” and switched from my desired preaching text of Proverbs 8 to this short passage from John 16. What hit me the most about this word is that I can relate to it. There is so much that is left to be said and could be done, yet such a short time to do it in.

I think about all the things I have wanted to express to you in our time together. I think of ideas of how to go out and be a blessing to others. As well, I think about the missed opportunities to express God’s grace with the people around us everyday. There is so much that is left to be said and could be done, yet such a short time to do it in.

With only four weeks until we say those difficult words of “goodbye,” there is not a lot of time to focus on the missional aspect of ministry. Much of the work of connecting with the community in new ways, sharing God’s love to the least of these, and engineering ways we can be a blessing to others is not work I can do right now. Setting out on new ministries is certainly not ideal, right now. It will be up to your new pastor, Elad, to lead you in what it means to reach out into our communities. This is not an attitude of “giving up,” but a recognition that the mission of the church does not exist with one pastor or a selected few favorite ones. The mission of the church continues as we, both clergy and laity, work together in our task of  making disciples in the name of Jesus Christ.

There is not much I can do about reaching out and encouraging us to do so. I recognize this. While I may not be able to focus on the things left undone, I can certainly focus on the things that have been unsaid. I believe our remaining time together allows an opportunity to focus on some things I would like to say to you before leaving for Covington. Over the course of these “final four” sermons, my prayer is this time will launch us into this new season with hope and a desire to serve God and others. As well, I hope these words do not reflect me so much as they reflect a life that is found in attaching ourselves to the Christ-like journey. Ministry is not about one person, but about all of us participating in the mission of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.

As we reflect on John 16:12-15 what I want to say to you is perhaps more of a reminder. That is I hope we never miss an opportunity to hear the Holy Spirit teaching us what it means to follow God’s word.

This message is at the heart of Jesus’ words. He is preparing his disciples for his departure and tells them there is much he wants to say. Of course, Jesus also says that they could not “bear it now” if he told them any more. This is not reflective of anything about the disciples’ lack of understanding, but, perhaps, a recognition that for three years they had been drinking from a water hydrant of deep engagement with the Lord. What more could they take in?

Jesus likely knew this and says their eyes would be opened when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost. We talked about about this last week about how the Holy Spirit comes as a guide that shows us the way of following the Lord’s desires and helps us to interact with our world. Here, Jesus tells us when the Spirit comes he will be focused on teaching and guiding us to knowledge of all truth.

On this Trinity Sunday, the day we recognize how the Father, Son, and Spirit work in a relationship as one, we are reminded of truth’s origins. Ultimate truth is found in God’s character and holiness. It is the wisdom that comes from God. The Holy Spirit cannot teach anything that does not come from God. The Spirit cannot create truth, but only share it with each of us. The Spirit shows us the meaning of God’s wisdom and love in ways that gives glory to the Son.

It is important for us to remember that the Holy Spirit is always at work. The Spirit never stops pointing us to the fact that God’s truth is everywhere. We can see it throughout creation. Our Old Testament reading from Proverbs 8 connects us to the idea that God’s wisdom can be found in the world. This is the image we get from the roadside and gate imagery, which, for the original reader, would have brought to mind an image of centers of activity. In big and small ways, the Holy Spirit uses the things of this world to remind us of God’s truth and love.

For example, have you ever watched a movie or a television program and have been reminded of a Scripture story or an aspect of God’s love? Just last night, a friend of mine mentioned a scene from the classic show “The West Wing” where one character narrates a story that reminds you of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Holy Spirit uses things that may seem less than holy in order to bring us to a deeper dependence and understanding of who God is.

To hear the Spirit’s teaching, though, we must be willing to close out the distractions and to be attentive to God’s small voice. It is difficult. I admit this. Yet, when we turn out the voices of this world, the distractions of our day, and focus on trying to seek God in the moment, we might find that the Spirit of the Living God is present and has never stopped teaching us.

Of course, when we do hear the Spirit teaching us God’s truth we may find that this truth is more challenging and difficult than we expected. It is not the work of the Holy Spirit to water down God’s truth to make it more tolerable for all. To help us to articulate God’s love in ways that reaches people in appropriate ways, yes, but the Spirit is not interested in removing aspects of God’s truth so that it would be easier to hear. The Holy Spirit challenges what we perceive to be true and right and calls us to a deeper level of hope, truth, faith, and dependence upon God.

No one likes to be challenged. In our time together I have preached some challenging sermons. I know this, because I have been challenged my much of what I have preached. One of my key preaching philosophies is that sermons should be both challenging and engaging. They should engage our souls, but in ways that are understandable and applicable to today’s world. I never want to preach a gospel that says the life of following Christ is easy, because there is nothing easy about denying ourselves and taking on what the Lord desires of us. I do ask your forgiveness if I have preached in a way that made it seem like the life of Christ is easy. It is not. Following Christ challenges everything we are and requires our full devotion.

When we are challenged by the Spirit and God’s truth we recognize that sometimes it is a truth we needed to hear. It may not feel like it in the moment, but God opens our eyes to the Lord’s character and holiness in ways that brings us to a closer walk with the Lord. The Holy Spirit guides us along the journey of faith so that Christ’s love becomes central to who we are and how we live in this world. This happens through allowing the Spirit to work in us to help us understand more of who God is.

None of us can claim to know all there is to know about God. We do not reach a point in our spiritual growth and stop only to say, “we’ve reached the zenith of the Christian life.” There is no end to how we can grow in Christian love. The journey of becoming perfect like our heavenly Father is perfect, to reflect the Lord’s love, is a daily life of understanding who God is and what this means for us, our lives, and how we engage the world around us. We need the Holy Spirit to continue to open our eyes to the Lord’s wisdom and truth, so that we might grow closer to the person God desires for us to be.

Every day is a moment to hear and to gain a deeper appreciation of who God is. The Holy Spirit is always at work in our lives in showing us what it means to follow the Lord in all aspects of our lives. The Holy Spirit never stops teaching, which means we should never stop listening for God’s voice to speak in our lives.

Just as the Holy Spirit never stops teaching, we must never stop listening for God’s voice and hear what the Lord is trying to say to us. I heard a pastor once say this, and I believe it to be true, that the most dangerous prayer we can ask is for the Holy Spirit to lead us each day. What if we prayed that prayer in a way that asks the Holy Spirit to speak to us in ways that shows us what God desires for us? Could you imagine if we prayed that prayer today, tomorrow, or even throughout this week?

I wonder what the Holy Spirit might say to each of you, to me, and to us this day and week. What word might God be trying to speak to us? What element of God’s love has the Lord been wanting to express to us? What work has God been trying to do in us?

There is so much God wants to open our eyes and hearts to. Let us always be open to the fact that the Spirit is at work in our lives and is pointing us to knowledge and love of all truth that comes from the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sunday’s Sermon: More Than Checking a Box

Before the 140 characters of Twitter, before the first Facebook status was updated, before the first e-mail was sent, there was the classroom note.

The classroom note was an amazing piece of communication. It offered the handwritten musings of a distracted mind in the middle of a class lecture. Girlfriends would write boyfriends long essay notes. Boyfriends would write back with a short reply. Friends would write friends. If that wasn’t enough, the note would be folded in such a way to make passing to the intended recipient easier. (Personally, I would fold notes into the shape of a paper football.)

Unless we are the sentimental type, we have perhaps thrown away many of those classroom notes that we received. Even though we no longer posses our classroom notes, we likely remember some of its common features. One such feature was the classic “check yes or no” question. The question was a shy person’s way of communicating interest in a person about going out on a date. Do you want to see a movie Friday night? Check yes or no. The recipient would receive the question, mark the appropriate box, and then send the note back.

The concept “checking of box” might be worth reflecting upon today, especially when we think of our devotion to Christ. Sometimes, we all have the tendency of simply checking the box when it comes to our faith in Christ. What do I mean by this? Checking the box is an adage that says we are all in on Sunday morning, but the life of Christ doesn’t impact who we are the rest of the week. We will say “yes” to the Lord on Sunday, but by Monday morning, we are saying yes to something else.

How does this look? The Christian life is developed and strengthened by our worship of the Lord, both communal and private. On Sunday, we will worship the Lord in strong and mighty ways that give glory to God’s name. Later in the week, our memory of worship begins to fade, and we become distracted in our devotion. Other devotions, such as money, political identity, our careers, or even ourselves, begin to take control of us, shaping who we are and how we live. Instead of Christ shaping our entire being, our love of the Lord ends up only shaping this one hour we are together each week.

Christ seeks our total and true devotion. The call to follow Christ is more than simply checking a box that says we are present in the body, yet spiritually and emotionally absent. Absentee devotion to Christ is not true devotion. Jesus desires a devotion that is grounded by a desire to grow spiritually each day and allow Christ to reside within us. This occurs when our devotion to Christ is formed through hearing and doing what Christ desires.

That is the funny thing about Jesus. It is also the challenging thing. Jesus actually expects his followers to hear his teaching, to remember his words, and to apply them to our lives. Jesus’ words are not platitudes that speak of an utopian ideal. Instead, Jesus’ words are the Church’s missional guides that shows us the way to the Father. Jesus is the Word of Life who speaks to the way of an everlasting life in the Father’s arms. Thus, Jesus’ words are powerful. They are transformative. They are challenging. As well, they call us to take seriously his commands and what they mean for faithful devotion to the Lord. When Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers,” he truly means for us to reflect on what Jesus’ idea of peace looks like in a world constantly seeking revenge.

Devotion to Christ is central to our passage from John 14:23-29. Once again, we are faced with the idea of love in response to Jesus’ resurrection. Last week, we said love was a commitment to each other and the world as Christ does. We love in the ways Christ has loved us. Jesus puts our love to the test here, and asks us to see if we have truly claimed Christ’s love as our own.

In this dialogue, Jesus responds to a disciple’s question about his revelation and says that those who love him are the ones who obey his teaching. They will experience his presence. Said another way, those who are truly devoted to this life are those who seek to grow in their devotion by following the Lord’s desires. They will feel the presence of Christ at work, because, Jesus says, God will be with those who seek to follow the Lord’s teaching. The Lord will reside with them. The presence of God is found in faithful devotion and obedience to Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus says that it is not enough to say you love Christ. The words of our love must be backed up by the heart of our actions. We have spent a lot of time lately in the church saying love is all you need. If you love Christ, then everything will be all right. Unfortunately, that is only part of the equation of the life of Christ. Holiness, a desire to grow in Christ’s likeness and follow the Lord’s words, must be central to who we are and our life in Christ. Our love of Christ must be rooted in a desire to take Jesus’ words seriously and apply them to our loves and the ways we interact with the world.

Indeed, Jesus’ words are challenging and cut against many of our world views. Jesus’ words ask us to consider who we truly are devoted to and who is the root of our love. This is not an easy task. It is not something we can do alone. Jesus knew this. He knew that alone we would not be able to be fully devoted to the Lord. We need help. We need the Holy Spirit’s presence.

Jesus says the Holy Spirit comes as an Advocate at work in our lives. God’s Spirit comes and teaches us what it means to follow Christ, reminds us of God’s words, and shows us the way forward. The Holy Spirit empowers us so that our devotion to the Lord is not empty words, but a life lived for the Lord. The Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, is the presence of God at work in our lives, who brings us to a deeper walk with the Lord. Even though Jesus has departed the world in a physical sense and reigns in heaven today, we have the confidence of the divine presence of God being with us always through the life of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus never leaves us alone to figure out what it means to be devoted to the Lord. God’s presence surrounds and guides us daily into what it means to be more than simply box checkers. The Spirit is continually at work in transforming us into the people God has called us to be – people who are devoted and in love with the Lord, who seek to follow the Lord’s desires, and who impact others in the name of Christ.

The presence of the Holy Spirit gives us the confidence to take on the challenging words of Christ. We do not have to say that Jesus’ words are too difficult. We do not have to say that Christ didn’t really mean those words when he said them. What we can say is something like this, “Jesus, I love you and I want to grow more like you. Help me to follow you through the guidance of your Spirit in my life.”

The fact that we are never alone is the peace of God that helps us to take on the difficult and challenging. God’s peace is comfort that helps direct our love and devotion to the Lord. It is the inner sense of calm that reminds us that God is with us. Jesus’ peace is the presence of God at work in our lives that helps us to remain committed to the Lord even when the world seeks to distract us away from Christ.

All of us have checked the box that says we love Christ and are devoted to him, only to find ourselves more connected to other desires. What if our devotion was truly centralized on seeking to follow Christ’s words and aligning ourselves more with his will than our own? I cannot promise you that this life will be without its pains or heartaches. Jesus never promises this life will be easy. Only that if we seek to be devoted to the Lord and follow in the Lord’s steps, we will find that Christ is with us, the Holy Spirit guides us, and it will be shown to what it means to take on the challenging words of Christ.

True love of Christ isn’t found in checking a box. It is found in a life daily devoted to taking on Christ’s words and making them real in our hearts. As we prepare to come to the table and share in the covenant meal of communion, now is a great time to allow the Spirit to examine our hearts. What is the measure of our devotion to the Lord? Are we simply checking a box that says we love Christ, but are not allowing that love to be fully realized in our lives each day? Are we seeking to follow the Lord’s desires with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength?

The life of Christ is more than checking a box. It is a life fully devoted to the love and desires of the Lord. What would it look like if our lives were more than checking a box, but a life completely devoted to God? What would be different? What would change? Who would we be in Christ?

Sunday’s Sermon: A Moment to Remember

Every one of us has moments we would consider to be significant in our lives.

These are moments that are important to us and have defined who we are and influenced how our lives have played out. Typically, the most significant moments are the ones where we can remember what we were doing, who we were with, and what it meant to us.

Some of these moments range the gauntlet of human experience. We would think of the day we graduated school, whether it was high school, college, or some other program as significant. The day we met our significant other and got married is a highlight. The day our children were born is another one. There are others that we could mention, such as our first job, first car, or even when we gave our life to Christ.

In each of these moments, and others, we recall what they meant to us and how they shaped our lives. The act of recalling these moments reminds us what they mean to us and how they have played a significant role in our relationship with God and others.

Of all the significant moments in our lives, I think one of the most significant – if not the most significant – is our participation in the sacrament of baptism.

When we think of baptism, we are thinking about one of the two sacraments that the church participates in. As John Wesley states, a sacrament is an “outward sign of an inward grace.” It is an outward sign that signifies what the grace of God, through the Holy Spirit, has done in our lives. The baptismal water is an outward sign of the inward cleansing that is done by the Holy Spirit in the depths of our soul. Whether by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion, when we partake in the water, we are participating in a very significant act that has a tremendous role to play in our faith. It is our act of initiation into the church and the life of Christ. Even though we are only baptized once, the act of baptism is key to understanding the New Testament and our faith in Christ.

It is also important in understanding Jesus’ ministry. If our participation in baptism is significant for our lives, then what about Christ? Luke 3:21-22 tells us of Jesus’ baptism. As others have written, it seems odd that Jesus would participate in baptism. He is without sin, so what need would there be for Jesus to be baptized? It is a good question. When we take a deeper look at Jesus’ participation in the rite of baptism, we will see that it was a very significant moment for his public ministry. Understanding the importance of why Jesus participated in baptism will help us to understand the significance of our baptism.

Jesus’ baptism did not come out of nowhere. It is his participation in an act that was quite familiar to the people of Jesus’ time. Baptism, then, was an act that was used when a Gentile wanted to convert to the Jewish faith. The baptismal water would be used to cleanse the Gentile of their sin of not being Jewish. It was John the Baptist who applied baptism to all. He said that all people – Jew and Gentile – were sinners in need of cleansing and redemption. But, the baptism that John did was void of the Holy Spirit. It was absent of the power of God, because Christ had yet to come.

This is how the people of Jesus’ time might have understood their participation in baptism. Luke, as well as the other Gospel writers, speaks of the importance of Jesus’ baptism. Unlike the other writers, John is absent from Luke’s thoughts. Fred Craddock writes that this is to move the focus from John to Jesus. Luke isn’t focusing on the act of baptism itself, but on the meaning of Jesus’ participation in the rite. He speaks of Jesus being in prayer, the heavens opening, the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus, and the words from heaven that Jesus is the Son of God and the Father is well pleased with him. Luke is trying to wrestle with the significance of this moment, just as we are this morning.

Jesus’ baptism was significant for several reasons. First, through his participation in baptism, Jesus becomes identified with the people. Luke tells us that Jesus’ baptism occurred when a group of people was being baptized, likely by John, though he is not mentioned. As one commentator suggests, Jesus’ baptism allowed him to join with the very people he came to save. He didn’t see himself as above the people or unable to be with them because of their sin. In this moment, we see Jesus’ servant nature clearly on display. He came as the one who sought not to be served, but to be obedient to the Father’s desires and to serve others.

Identification is an important aspect to why baptism is significant for us. As Ron Staples suggests, it is an outward symbol of being identified with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Notice I said it is a symbol. The work of identifying us is done by the Holy Spirit working in us. The baptismal water is an outward expression of what is and has already taken place. We are cleansed of our identification with the life of sin by the Spirit, and become identified with the life of Christ. It is truly a new birth, a second life, that baptism leads us into. A life away from the old and into our desire to live as Christ has called us to live.

This leads us to another reason that baptism was significant for Jesus. In baptism, Jesus is empowered to do the Father’s wil, through the presence of the Holy Spirit that descended upon him as he was praying following the baptism. I tend to think that, at this moment, Jesus, who is perhaps around 30 years of age at this time, is starting to get an understanding of exactly who he is. He isn’t just the son of a carpenter, but the Son of the Living God called to be the Messiah. The presence of the Holy Spirit allows Jesus to see his full nature – both human and divine – and allows him to take on the life which the Father has for him. Jesus could not participate in the Messianic calling if it were not for the presence of the Holy Spirit leading and guiding him.

The same is true for us. Baptism is our symbolic expression of being empowered by the Holy Spirit to do that which God has called us to do. We cannot do anything without the active involvement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The presence of the Holy Spirit guides us in difficult times, teaches us the way to faithful living, and shows us how we have a role to play in the life of the church in our communities and world. We become empowered by recognizing God, through the Holy Spirit, is at work in shaping us and bringing us into a new life. Being born of the water isn’t just about us being cleansed for salvation, but it is about our willingness to be used by God in ways that glorify the Father. Baptism says we will be led and directed by something powerful, wonderful, and more amazing than we could ever understand.

Truly, baptism is the beginning of our new life. It was the beginning for Jesus and the launching moment of his public ministry. Jesus’ baptism signaled that he was ready to begin his public ministry, leading the people back to the Father and inaugurating the Kingdom of God. It sets the stage for all that follows. Baptism is the opening act of a three-year ministry that would challenge the ways of the world, bring healing to the sick, and establish a new covenant between God and humanity. This was the beginning and the moment where Jesus is sent out into the world to do that which he was called to do.

Our baptism is our launching point. It is the beginning of a new life and a new journey in Christ. The moment when we begin a journey of a deep relationship with the Father, through faith in the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is not the end of our spiritual journey, but the beginning. Through our acceptance of the cleansing water, we are launched into a new life, following the ways of the Father. We’re not promised that this life will be easy – certainly there will be temptations and difficult moments along the way. What we are promised is that God will be there with us, showing us what it means for us to live for the Father, to show others the love of Christ, and to serve as Christ has called us to serve.

Truly, our baptism is something to be thankful for and remember. It is a significant moment for us to remember and recall, because it inspires us to live as Jesus has called us to live. We should remember our baptism and what Christ has done in our lives by removing the guilt of our sin. Remembering our baptism allows us to have the confidence to walk through the moments of our lives, because we are empowered by the Spirit to live and to love. We should remember our baptism, because it was the beginning of the great story of God’s love for us.

Today, we will remember our baptism by reaffirming our vows that we made with God. It is an appropriate follow-up to our Covenant Renewal last Sunday, because it is our participation in the life of Christ, through our baptisms, that allows us to live faithful lives, bring others to faith, use our gifts, and grow in our walk with Christ.

Baptism may be something that only happens once in our lives, but it is truly a significant moment that shapes and guides us to faithful living and new life in Christ.