text: Matthew 16:13-20

A former Navy Seal was visiting his grandson’s kindergarten class, telling them about some of the things he did as a Navy Seal.  Navy Seals are an elite group, special forces who do incredible courageous and brave things.  After his presentation the teacher asks if there are any questions.  A little hand shoots up and a small girl asks, “So, can you balance a ball at the end of your nose?  Questions!  Sometimes they throw us off!

Who is Jesus to you?  What difference has Jesus made in your life?  How are you different today because of Jesus?  Those are questions that come to mind as we contemplate our Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 16.

Jesus is a story teller.  His parables help us see past the mere surface of things and see deeper into the type of life God’s longs for us to live.  He also knows how to ask searching questions.  Questions that challenge our easy, shallow answers. Questions that penetrate beneath the surface of casual thinking.  Questions that help us discover who He is and who we are in relation to Him. 

Jesus has just finished caring for a Canaanite woman and her demon possessed daughter.  He challenged the disciples to see outsiders differently and understand our human circles that we draw are small and exclusive.  God’s circles are infinitely larger and inclusive.  We tend to be afraid and critical of those who look, think and sound differently than us.  We exclude them from God’s plan.  God includes them and us through His plan of salvation through Jesus.  

Now Jesus is returning to Jerusalem and is still in Gentile territory.   It is a turning point in His ministry.  The cross and the end goal of His sacrifice on our behalf is looming close.  How well do they (and we) know and understand His purpose and mission in life?

So He asks, “What’s the rumor mill say about Me?  What do people think about My mission as the Son of Man?”  I do not believe He is asking out of curiosity, but inviting His disciples to think for themselves; as if to say, do you recognize what is happening here and what God is doing?

They answer saying folks believe You are a prophet like one of the greats—John the Baptist, Elijah or Jeremiah.  They see You as a great teacher!

Jesus then presses them by asking what they think about Him and His mission.  

Peter blurts out, “You are God’s Anointed One, the Messiah.  You are God’s Son.”  By saying this Peter, knowingly or unknowingly recognizes that Jesus is more than just a mere man.  He is the unique Son of God,God’s Anointed Savior for the world.

Jesus erupts with joy and praises Peter for his answer.  He goes on to say that Peter did not discover this through book learning or talking to scholars and intellectuals.  This insight comes from God.  Recognizing who Jesus is and seeing His mission and purpose in life is a God thing—only God could reveal such an insight.

The Christian faith is not an accumulation of human thoughts and wisdom accrued over the years.  Knowing God through Jesus is something only that the Holy Spirit can reveal to us.  The gift of faith in Jesus is for everyone.  God’s revelation is freely offered to all people.  You do not need a diploma to believe and follow Jesus!  Just an open, receptive heart.

Jesus then shocks Peter even more.  Peter’s name up to this point is Simon, which in Hebrew means “to listen” or “hearing.”  Now Jesus changes Peter’s name to “rock.”  Jesus is saying that this man Simon who is brash and bold, and yet a coward; this man who is a fickle follower who fails to stand up for Jesus on the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest; this man who denies even knowing Jesus three times at Jesus mockery of a trial; this man Jesus calls “rock.”  

Jesus says I am building My church—the body of Christ—on you and people like you.  

Now throughout this passage “you” is second person singular, meaning Jesus is speaking specifically to Peter.  Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters understand this to mean Jesus is setting Peter up as the head authority of the Church on earth and gives Peter (and the papacy) complete authority on earth.  

Jesus is not establishing the papacy, but rather emphasizing the rock solid faith that Peter has confessed as the foundation the Church is built upon.  

Let’s take that one step further.  Jesus is saying the foundation of the Church, the building blocks of the Church are fragile, frail followers of the Lamb who certainly don’t seem qualified to carry on Christ’s mission and ministry on earth.  

Consider Peter’s track record.  Look at ours!  How qualified did Peter feel?  How qualified are we to be a part of God’s plan for changing the world?

Bold, brash Peter drew a sword to “help” Jesus at His arrest on the night of His betrayal.  But then he fled with the other disciples as Jesus was lead away under armed guard.  Then during Jesus’ mockery of a trial, while Peter was warming himself at a fire, he denied even knowing Jesus.  Three times.  After the resurrection Peter felt like quitting and decided to do what he knew how to do.  He went fishing.  Jesus then reaffirms and commissions him as a disciple—a follower of the Lamb.

We often feel inadequate.  We do not believe we should be God’s chosen ones to make Jesus and faith in Jesus known.  Yet we are the building blocks of the church.  Consider what Peter says in 1 Peter 2:5 where he calls us “living stones—built into a spiritual house…”

The Apostle Paul also reminds us that we are filled with God’s Spirit, 1 Corinthians 3:16 “Surely you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you!”

Again in 2 Corinthians 3:1 he calls us “living letters” that others can read to see and know more about who Jesus is.

You are I know we are not perfect.  “Christians are not perfect.  We are forgiven.”

Most of us would be reluctant to stand out in the crowd and say “use me as an example of what it means to be a believer and follow Jesus.”  We don’t feel qualified.  

Yet in 1 Corinthians 4:7 and following verses Paul reminds us that we are clay pots—frail, fragile and flawed, yet we hold a precious treasure because of Christ within us.  

What I believe Jesus is saying to Peter—and through this passage of Scripture to all of us—is that we are not only the body of Christ in this world, we are the building material and it is our faith and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord that becomes the foundation for the message we live out in real life and proclaim.  

So once again consider these questions:

Who is Jesus to you?  What difference has Jesus made in your life?  How are you different today because of Jesus?

Are you willing to say, “yes, I am willing to serve You Lord again today!”

In Jesus’ name.

Drawing Circles

August 16, 2020

Matthew 15:10-28

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.  May God add His blessings to our time together under the Word.  Amen.

A poem by Edwin Markham:

“He drew a circle that shut me out-

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle and took him In!”

A readings for today force me to ask some tough questions:  Who do you let into your inner circle?  Who makes you feel safe?  Who makes you feel unsafe?  Who is “clean,” acceptable?  And one more, who has a clean heart?  How do we get a clean heart?

Our Gospel reading is divided into two part.  The first is where Jesus seems to question and criticize the Pharisees for their tradition of washing their hands before they eat.  This washing is a ceremonial washing that focused on “clean and unclean” thinking.  Once you have gone to the market that is filled with all kinds of different folk these conservative religious followers insisted on washing off the ceremonial uncleanliness.

Our culture has insisted on the washing of hands for the sake of preventing the spreading of germs.  The COVID or “coronavirus” has certainly increased our awareness of the importance of frequently washing our hands.

Jesus is not against washing hands before a meal.  Jesus really isn’t criticizing the Jewish ceremonial washing of hands either.  He is a Jew Himself and probably practiced such customs.  What He is questioning and criticizing is the empty ritual that forgets the principle behind the custom.  If we are really concerned about purity—having a clean heart, soul, mind and body—we need to hear what Jesus is saying.

What you put into your mouth—eat—doesn’t make you unclean.  It is what comes out of your mouth from your mind and heart that makes you unclean.  That is where all the judgmental thoughts, the greedy and selfish thoughts, the jealous and hurtful thoughts, etc. come from.  

Ceremonial uncleanliness is not the concern.  The concern is how clean is your heart?  How clean is your mind?

That is the first part of our Gospel text.  The following passage is a great illustration of that principle.  It is one that makes many of us uncomfortable.  And, I believe, that is the Holy Spirit’s intent.  Cause us to question our assumptions, question how we view and treat people that we view as unclean and unholy.

This is the story of a Canaanite woman who has a demon possessed daughter.  An interesting point of the story that is oftentimes missed is the setting.  It is in the area of Tyre and Sidon, a town deep into Gentile territory, about 50 miles from where Jesus has last been in Galilee.  Another interesting point is after this encounter Jesus again returns to Galilee.  

Did Jesus get lost?  Did His GPS misdirect Him?  Did He intentionally go out of His way to encounter this desperate mom?  We don’t know, but it is important to know that Jesus takes a 100 mile round trip out of His way, has this uncomfortable encounter with this Canaanite woman and then returns to Galilee.

It is uncomfortable because the woman is bold, brash and unstoppable.  She is an aggressive woman, motivated by her daughter’s condition.  Most of us even today get uncomfortable with an aggressive female.  Guys we expect to be aggressive.  Gals, not so much.  She is a momma bear caring her child.  And she does not give up.  The Greek language implies she is very persistent.  

It is also uncomfortable because Jesus ignores this woman, calls her an outsider (she isn’t a Jew), and insults her and her daughter by calling them dogs.

The disciples are beside themselves.  It is a very uncomfortable situation.  First, because of the woman herself.  Not only is she a woman who should not talk to a Jewish man in public, she is an Canaanite woman. She is a descendent of the original people that inhabited the land before the Jews took possession.  She is not Jewish, and her religious affiliation is unclear.  That two strikes right from the start! Plus she is so unrelentingly aggressive.  What a turn off.

And then Jesus!  What do you think when He ignores her?  Is that the way you picture Him?  How would you feel if He treated us/you that way?  Then after she persists and the disciples ask Jesus to send her away, Jesus very clearly says, He has come only to care for “the lost sheep of Israel.” She doesn’t have a membership card.  He says that out loud so everyone could her.  

Is that true?  Remember Jonah and Nineveh? God has always been concerned about the larger picture.  God is not merely the God of the Jews.  Jesus is the Savior of the world, not of one small group of humans.  Remember John 3:16, “for God so loved the world…”  

Jesus is saying this to rattle His disciples and our unquestioned thinking, to challenge our biases and assumptions.  I picture Jesus glancing at this woman and catching her eye, with a glint in His eye.  He knows her.  He knows she is spunky.  He shows her faith to be genuine and praise worthy.  “Great is your faith.  Your daughter is well.”  Jesus only says that two other times.  

Jesus does not side step tough issues.  He is like—bring it on!  He clarifies kingdom values and kingdom principles.  It is not human traditions and ceremonial cleansing that matters, but rather how we value and treat each other.  Including how we treat others that are strangers and different.  

How welcoming are we?  Whom do we exclude and defend ourselves in doing so?  How small minded and narrow are we in our circle drawing?

“He drew a circle that shut me out-

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle and took him In!”

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Fear or Faith

Fear or Faith?

Text: Matthew 14:22-33

John Ortberg in his book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, tells the story of a balloon party.  John and his wife are joined by another couple for a hot air balloon ride.  The pilot is a young man.

Ortberg says the balloon basket is different than he expected, coming only to their knees.  Any jolt or sudden movement could cause them to fall out and plummet to the ground.  So they hold on tightly as they rise up into air.

Pastor Ortberg strikes up a conversation with the young pilot by asking how he got into piloting hot air balloons.  “Dude,” says the young man, “it’s like this…”  The young man was a surfer and got into ballooning because of an accident.  He was driving a pickup truck and had too much to drink.  He crashed the truck and badly injured his brother.  While his brother was recuperating and not able to do much they started watching hot air balloons.  

Then the young pilot said something like, “By the way don’t be surprised if things get choppy on the way down.  I’ve never flown this particular balloon before and I am not sure how to handle the descent!”

That is when Ortberg’s wife glares at him and says, “You mean to tell me we are a thousand feet up in the air with an unemployed surfer who started flying hot air balloons because he got drunk, crashed his pickup, injured his brother, and has never flown this balloon before?  And he doesn’t even know how to get us down?!!”

The wife of the other couple looks at John and says, “You are a pastor.  Do something religious!”  

“So…I took up an offering!”

Ah, fortunately it is a joke!  An old one, but good.  

Fear.  It has a way of grabbing our attention, stealing our focus, blinding us.  Fear can paralyze us, imprison us, weaken our thinking and destroy our faith.  

The disciples in our gospel reading our overcome with fear.  They have just witnessed Jesus feeding five thousand men, plus women and children with a lunch of five loaves and two fish.  Miraculous!  Stunning! mind-bending! Unbelievable!  

Then Jesus immediately sends the disciples, by boat, to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  He dismisses the crowds, stays behind by Himself and spends time alone in prayer.  Meanwhile, the disciples encounter strong head winds that impede their progress.  In vain, they are fighting waves tossed up by the wind.  After hours of torment and struggle they have moved the boat about a mile and still have a long ways to go.  Their lives are not in danger.  But, they are tired, weary, frustrated, grumpy and ready to quit.  But they can’t.  So they struggle on.  Then in the darkness—it is about 4 O’Clock in the morning—they see a figure walking toward them on the water.  They jumped to the only logical conclusion they could!  They were seeing a ghost and it was coming their way.  Why are we so afraid of ghosts?  Hmm.  

They panic and cry out in terror. They have been fighting wind and waves for hours.  They are worn out and discouraged.  They are easy prey for superstition and irrational thinking.  Fear seemed to be the best response to their situation.  That’s is when Jesus—immediately—calms them and shouts out above the sound of wind and waves, “Take heart.  It’s Me! Don’t be afraid.”

Then Peter—bold, brash and bodacious Peter—says something unbelievable and shocking.  “If it is You, Master, command me to come to You.”  

Jesus’ response is simple, “Come!”

And, again, unbelievably, bold and brash Peter leaves his comfort zone, climbs out of the boat, steps tenaciously onto the water and begins his journey to meet Jesus on the turbulent wind tossed waves.  And he is doing it!  At least until he takes his eyes of Jesus and properly assesses his situation.  The roar of the wind in his ears and the wind tossed waves capture his focus and he caves into fear.  

Fear has a way of taking over.  It robs us of faith.  It destroys our confidence in God and God’s ability to care for us.  Peter sinks into the water, and as he goes under he cries out, “Lord, save me!”

Just like that Jesus is right there, above Peter.  He reaches down and grabs Peter’s wrist and pulls him up above water.  Together they make their way to the boat walking on water.  When they get into the boat the wind calms and the waves smooth out.  

Then our text says the disciples look in amazed wonder at Jesus and worship Him, saying, “You really are God—the Son of God.”  As if to say, there is way more to You Jesus then meets the eye.  

What are you afraid of today?  What are you looking at?  Is fear or faith governing and guiding your life and decisions?  The focus of our faith should not be on the things of life that alarm us.  Our world is crazy right now.  It has always been so, but we don’t always see it.  Health concerns and the virus dominate the news.  Economic distress and social unrest and protests fill the news.  Election concerns cause us to cringe.  

So, where should our focus be?  What should we  be looking at?  God who is still in control.  When we see Jesus this way, we can be like bold, brash and bodacious Peter—we can leave the safety of the boat and follow Jesus where He leads us.  We can trust Him.  We can yield to His leading.  We can care about justice and lend a hand in making a positive difference in our world.  That is better than giving into weariness and slumping down in our troubled boats, giving in to suspicion, superstition and fear.  

So, are you with me?  Let’s keep our eyes on Jesus and follow Him. 

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Pastor Bruce

Finding Rest and Peace Today

If you are looking for peace don’t follow the crowd!

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

The above Gospel reading from Matthew 11 includes the well known verses for those who are weary and worn out.  

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” 

Have you ever noticed what this encouraging, comforting passage follows?  Have you read it in context?  

Jesus has just finished scolding the religious crowds listening to Him.  Many of them rejected the message of John the Baptizer because he was too conservative—too austere.  He never took part in their eating and drinking.  His style and approach to ministry was as coarse as his camelhair robe and diet. He ate honey and bugs!

The religious crowds also rejected Jesus. He was too liberal—He mixed with those whose life styles and morality were questionable.  

John and Jesus confronted these would be religious folk with a picture of themselves that they didn’t like.  Both Jesus and John confronted them with the reality of sin—such as, how they treated people, what their values and priorities were—and their need for repentance and turning back to God.

Jesus’ goal was not to be popular and a part of the in-crowd. Jesus was not and is not a crowd pleaser.  He did not try to get people to like Him. He came to be our Savior, not to win a popularity contest.  John was not a people pleaser either.  Jesus and John would never make it as Time’s Person of the Year.  

How different it is for most of us.  We are consumed by our fear of criticism and the rejection of others. We are so concerned about what others think of us we shape and modify our message.  We adjust our personality (as much as we can). We hide who we really are.  We try to fit in, be part of the in group.  We say and do what we hope will please the crowd.  

And that wears us out.  It makes us dishonest.  It makes us tired.  

Jesus did not do that.  He was (and is) more concerned with truth than saying what we want to believe and hear.  He confronted His listeners then with being fickle and not trusting God’s message of turning their lives around.  He calls us to be honest with ourselves and God too.

Knowing God and knowing the peace of God does not come through our creative efforts and imaginative thinking.  Knowing God is a gift that we receive by divine revelation.  

“No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (v. 27).  That does not make Christianity an exclusive club where we can judge who is in and who is out. Salvation is a gift from God.  Period.  

We cannot judge who has received that gift and who has not. Faith is a personal thing.  God, through His Word, calls us to examine ourselves and our relationship with God—not to judge others in their spiritual walk. We cannot judge others.  Nor should we make ourselves slaves to the approval of others in our relationship with God.   Following Jesus means letting go of being a people pleaser.  

It makes complete sense then that after confronting the fickle public and reminding them that truth cannot be compromised that Jesus shows us where rest and relief is to be found.  Where? Through coming to Him.  

Do you want to know you are approved and accepted by God?  Don’t submit to the craziness of trying to gain the approval and acceptance of others.  Go right to the source.  Jesus says, “Come to Me!”  Don’t go anywhere else.  Others might mislead you.  Others—even religious folk—may try and fill you with all kinds of rules and “teachings” that do not fit and are not from God.

Make your relationship with God through Jesus your top priority.  Do not compromise it by being a people pleaser.  Don’t acquiesce to peer pressure.  It is by knowing we are okay and accepted by God through Christ Jesus—it is by resting in His love and grace—that we are accepted.  Find genuine rest and peace through Jesus’ forgiveness. Let His presence fill your soul. 

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Say Yes to God

Lenten Signs — Yield Elim March 15 2020 \ bwk

Say Yes to God

  • Psalm 40 Messiah Jesus offers Himself to God for the sake of God’s people
  • Philippians 2:5-11 Jesus empties Himself and becomes a servant for our sake
  • Luke 22:39-46 v 42 “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet, not My will but Yours be done.”

This message is what we would have shared had we met on March 15.

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.  May God add His blessings to our time under the Word this morning!

Back to the Middle Ages Pope Gregory and King Henry IV of Germany had a confrontation. Pope Gregory had excommunicated King Henry IV when the king insisted on divorcing his wife Bertha of Savoy. This barred King Henry not only from heaven, but it also made him ineligible to sit on the throne of Germany.

The king took all this to heart and came to Rome to do penance and to seek absolution. Arriving at Rome he discovered the pope was away in the mountains. Not to be dissuaded, King Henry IV and his servants made a long and dangerous journey through the snowy mountains of northern Italy to meet with the Pope. This was during the harsh winter of 1077.  King Henry finally found the Pope in a small town called Canossa in the mountains of northern Italy.

When Henry and his retinue arrived, the pope refused to meet with him and forced him to wait in the bitter cold for three days. Finally he agreed to see the dejected and humiliated king. When Henry was finally permitted to enter the gates, he walked barefoot through the snow and knelt at the feet of the pope to beg forgiveness. Then the Pope granted him absolution.

You and I do not have to do anything like that to gain forgiveness.  We do not have to make a long journey to a foreign country.  We don’t have to stand in the cold for days and then walk barefooted through snow and frozen ground to beg forgiveness.  We don’t have to beg to be forgiven and fearfully await the stern look and words that convey forgiveness.  

We do not, and in fact cannot, make the journey to God.  God Himself makes the journey to us.   The Christmas story we celebrated just a couple of months ago leads us now to Jesus, God-in-human-flesh, who has come to us bringing us forgiveness through His life and death on the cross. Jesus brings us hope and heaven as a gift.  We cannot find our way to God, so God-in-Christ comes to us.

The journey of salvation is not our journey but Christ’s. He is the pilgrim—the pioneer, as the writer of Hebrews put it. It is He who walked the Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering. It is by His initiative that we are saved, not our own. 

Our Lenten Road Sign for today is YIELD.  Our Scripture readings focus on Jesus’ yielding to the Father’s will.  His humility and obedience “even to death on the cross.” 

Our readings today show us Jesus’ heart in agreement with God the Father’s heart.  They echo the words of John 3:16 (for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life) reminding us that God’s love brought Jesus into the world as one with us in our humanity in order to make us one with Him and bring us life and salvation.  His purpose and call in life was to live and die on our behalf, and to be raised on our behalf giving us life, forgiveness, freedom, a restored relationship with God and the promise of heaven.  

Our key passage that we focus on today is Luke 22, verse 24 “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet, not My will but Yours be done.”

Jesus is not arguing with God.  He is not trying to dissuade God from the plan of salvation that had been put into motion even before time began.  Rather, our text shows the utter agony He suffered on our behalf.  There was no other way for our forgiveness to be won.  

This was not a contest between God and Satan, a wrestling match with humanity as the prize to the strongest arm.  No.  It was God, through the cross, fixing the brokenness we had brought on the world.  

Jesus’ death on the cross was not a payment to the devil as a ransom to set us free.  Nor was His death an attempt to appease an angry God who demanded justice no matter what.  Jesus in yielding to the cross is God coming to us, God freeing us from our own brokenness and captivity to sin and death.  

Jesus is God’s yes to us.  Jesus is God’s yes for us.  All that is left for us to do is to say yes to God.  

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

The Gift of Love

1 Corinthians 13, John 13:34-35 & 15:12-13

Happy Valentine’s Day—Happy Valentines’ Sunday!

Our readings and our focus this morning is love.  Not romantic love, though oftentimes Valentines’ Day has that focus.  All of us have stories and experiences of love, good and bad.  I hope we all know what it is like to have experienced love and acceptance.  We all know what it is like to not be loved and accepted.  Unrequited love is painful.  Being overlooked is too.  Rejection is painful. 

One of the dangers of Valentines’ is to focus on how unloved we are, or how lonely we might be, wishing we had someone in our lives that would help us feel significant and important.  That someone special!

Some years back, on a conservative college campus an announcement was made.  In short it read, “On this campus there is to be absolutely no physical contact of any kind between male and female students.  There is only one legitimate exception to this rule.  If a male student happens to see a female student about to fall to the ground, it is permissible to touch her to break her fall.  However, we shall not tolerate any young woman making a practice of falling.”

Both the Apostles John and Paul, the authors of our readings this morning knew a little about love.  They learned it from the Master.  They knew how to define love; how to recognize it in action.  They had experienced it themselves and knew how to express and share genuine love.

1 Corinthians 13 is known as the “love chapter.”  It says some incredibly amazing things about love, but it never talks about how it feels to be loved.  It describes what love looks like when we live it out.  

If we put ourselves to the test and used this chapter as a means for measuring how loving we are, how would we do?  No matter how generous or noble we are, if we do not love we do not measure up.  Period.

There are many in our country today that consider themselves fine examples of what it means to be a Christian—a follower of Jesus—yet they themselves do not love the way Jesus loves.  They hate, discriminate others even in Jesus’ name. Whenever we make excuses for ourselves and justify hating anyone or any group of people, we are not loving the way Jesus loves.  

Unintentionally, and yes maybe intentionally, we tell ourselves it is okay to hate and/or exclude others that act, think, look or believe differently than we do.  But we should not.  We cannot.  Not if we are truly going to love others the way Jesus loves us!

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another!”

This is not optional.  We cannot say we will love only those who meet our criteria.  If they look like me, think like me, act like me, believe like me…then I will try and love them.  No.  Unconditionally God calls us to love all others.  No questions.  No excuses.

Greater love has no one that this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends…if you do what I command you!

A good way to understand this type of love is to put others before ourselves.  Put “you” before “me.”  Think us and not them.  We and not me!

A young man named Doug Nichols went to India as a missionary.  It was 1967 when he had just begin to learn the local dialect when he became infected with tuberculosis.  He was put in a sanitarium to recuperate.  This was not like a health clinic we might find here in the states.

He tried unsuccessfully to share his faith with other patients.  He had Gospel tracts and pamphlets with him, but no one was interested or wanted to know anything about him or Jesus.

One night, about 2 a.m. Doug woke up coughing.  Across the aisle, he noticed an old man trying to get up.  But he was too weak to stand.  He tried several times and each time fell back into bed, crying and exhausted.  Early the next morning this same old man again tried to get up but was too weak and sick to do so.  Later that morning the smell that filled the room made it obvious what the problem was.  He had been trying to get to the bathroom, but was unable to do so.  The other patients made fun of him.  The nurses who came to clean him up were disgusted with him.  They slapped him in the face and yelled at him.  

The next night the same thing began to happen.  The old man tried in vain to get to his feet.  This time something different happened.  Doug, even though he was very weak and ill himself, forced himself up.  He hobbled over to the old man, placed one arm around the old man’s neck and the other under his legs.  With great effort Doug was able to lift the sick man up, carry him to the filthy, stench-filled latrine and hold him while he did his business.  Then he carried him back to his bed.  Doug was placing the sick old man into his bed when the man turned and kissed his cheek and whispered in his language, “thank you!”  

The next morning as Doug was waking up, one of the Indian patients was waiting with a cup of hot tea for him.  After he served Doug the cup of tea, he motioned for one of Doug’s tracts.  

Doug wrote that all through the day people kept coming to him asking for more Gospel tracts—including nurses, hospital interns, and doctors.  By the end of the day everyone in that little hospital had a tract, booklet or the Gospel of John.  Over the next several days several came to him and told him they had come to trust Jesus as their Savior as a result of reading the material he had given them.  

Doug writes that it all was simply because he had taken an old weak man to the bathroom in the middle of the night, when he though no one was watching.  It was a simple act of love that anyone could have done.  

They will never care how much we know, until they know how much we care!”  “The love in your heart was not put their to stay.  Love is not love until you give it away!”

One more quote for this Valentines’ Sunday:  “What the world needs now is love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there is just too little of…”  (Dionne Warwick, 1998).

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Jesus Lights Our Darkness

Psalm 27, Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23

A little boy named Bobby entered his first science fair in second grade. His Mom had a green thumb, so they decided to experiment with the growth of plants. He took two small green plants and placed one on a sunny windowsill and the other in a cardboard box. He compared their progress.  The one on the windowsill grew a couple of inches. It was green with vibrant leaves. The one in the box grew only a little bit. It’s coloring was pale—almost whitish.  It leaves were limp and droopy.

Next Bobby cut a hole in one side of the box. He set the box, close to the window with the hole facing the light.

The plant began to improve right away and even grew out through the hole! It grew toward the light and even blossomed! The plant that had been in gloomy darkness. It was all but dead.  But then it saw a great light and that changed everything. (modified and used by permission from

Light.  God created us with a natural need and longing for sunshine. All nature is drawn toward light.  We need light.  We need sunlight. This is the darkest time of year, the season in which we have the least amount of daylight.  During this time of year many of us suffer from “seasonal affective disorder” — SAD.  It’s symptoms include sadness, low energy, struggles with focusing, and sometimes even suicide!   We need light. Simply recognizing that can help!

Darkness can be defined as the partial or total absence of light.  The darkness cannot win.  Daylight and spring will come again.  John’s Gospel tells us in chapter 1, verse 5 “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  And again in John 8:12 Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

We celebrate Jesus coming into our world as the baby of Bethlehem just after the winter solstice—the darkest time of the year! We are now in the season of Epiphany—the season of the growing light and our readings focus on our growing understanding of who Jesus is as our Lord and Savior of the world.

We are often afraid of the dark and unknown.  God is not.  In Psalm 139:12 the psalmist reminds us that darkness is not dark to God; that the night is as bright as the day to Him.  Jesus lights our darkness!

Our opening dialog this morning is from Psalm 27.  Note verse one again:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid.

We need God’s light and love in our lives.  

Our reading from Isaiah 9 also focuses on the light and darkness theme.  Verse 2 reads:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in the land of the shadow of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

Our Gospel reading this morning shows how Jesus fulfilled that prophecy as He begins His ministry in Galilee of the Gentiles, the very area prophetically spoken of by Isaiah, pointing to the coming of Christ Jesus.

A couple of quick thoughts regarding our Gospel reading.  John’s ministry of announcing Jesus is complete.  John is imprisoned.   Jesus formally starts His ministry.  But where?  It is significant that Jesus chooses to begin His ministry not in Jerusalem, but in the land of darkness—not Jerusalem, the center of Judaism.  

God’s comes to us to the darkest corners of our lives.  You and I know God is always present; always with us.  Yet it is in the times when things go all wrong, when we struggle with issues that overwhelm us and flood our souls with chaos, depression, confusion and worry…those are the times we need to deliberately see and sense God with us.  Remember Jesus’ title from Isaiah that we have just used during our Christmas season—Immanuel—GOD WITH US!  Jesus lights our darkness!

Jesus lights our darkness.  Know that.  Believe that.  Count on it.  Trust Him!  

Focus for a bit on Psalm 27 again.  Verse 1 is well worth memorizing and reviewing often.  I challenge you this week to write it down on an index card.  Commit it to memory.  Think about it.  Turn it into a prayer and read it at least seven times through the day, and then again before you go to sleep.  

God-in-Christ lights our darkness.  Jesus says of Himself, “I am the light of the world” John 8:12.  When we know and believe that fear cannot rule over us.  He is our fortress and stronghold.  He is strength in our weakness, hope in our despair.  This precious Psalm is a song of intimate trust in God’s care and presence.  It is well worth reading and knowing. 

Look at verses 4:  

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple.

In all of life, what if you longed for and desired to know God better?  The psalmist says, He is the chief thing in life that I long for more than anything else.  Consider that as your prayer.  Focus on Jesus and ask God to help you know and trust Him more and more, even in the darkest times of your life.  Dwelling in His house and inquiring in His temple as the psalmist prays does not mean living at church, but rather, practicing an awareness of God’s presence in our lives.  Consciously and intentionally recognize God with you, right here, right now, every moment, every hour, every day of your life.

Look at verse 5:

As the psalmist considers that he goes on to remind himself that God hides us in His shelter in the day of trouble.  He will conceal me under the cover of His tent; He will set me high on a rock.

The word “tent” pictures the tabernacle God instructed the Israels to construct and use in their wilderness wonderings.  It was the place where sinful and frail people could come before a holy and righteous God.  Rather than it being a fearful place, it was a place of hope and comfort; a place for safety and security in the storms of life.  

John 1:14 tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  A literal translation reads “the Word became flesh and tented among us.”  The tabernacle that symbolized God’s presence among His people in the Old Testament and the Temple that Solomon built in Jerusalem both point to Jesus and His Incarnation—God’s presence among us in this world.  When you read the Lord is my light and salvation in Psalm 27 think Jesus!  Jesus lights our darkness!

He is our shelter in the storm.  The storm will not last.  God’s love and care for you will.  He is our Rock of Ages.  He is our light and our salvation.  An evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in yours and my life, is our being drawn to that light.  

Remember that.  Celebrate that.  Trust and believe it.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Epiphany Moments

Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12 & Matthew 2:1-12

God speaking through the prophet Isaiah tells His children to “Rise and shine!  Your light has come!” even though at that time Messiah had not yet come and they still were enveloped in darkness.  

In our Gospel reading we read that Jesus is born in dark times.  Don’t skip over the line of our Gospel, “In the time of King Herod…” Herod was a cruel king who killed innocent children and others at will.  His was an oppressive reign of terror.

Yet mystically and magically men—foreign dignitaries who studied the stars—travel countless miles to find Jesus.  They come saying, “We observed His star at its rising…”  In the darkness God was at work.  Amidst the political, social, personal horror of a world gone awry God enters the scene.

Matthew says when the magi find the place where Jesus is born they were thrilled with excitement. “When they saw that the star had stopped they were overwhelmed with great joy” (Matthew 2:10).

In this crazy world God shouts through the prophet Isaiah:  Rise and shine, people of God, your light has come!  

God has come to us in the here and now.  We have questions about the future.  We are concerned about politics and security.  There are many things we don’t know.  We are growing older.  We have problems that mount to the sky.  Our eye sight is failing.  Our hearing is waining.  Our finances are stretched thin.  Our health is gone.  Our bodies are imperfect and aging.  

We struggle with insecurity, loneliness, depression, longings that we cannot put names to, what-not-all.  And God’s light is penetrating the darkness.  Here are some stories to illustrate:

Lori Ann’s doctor led her into the X-ray room.  “If we are lucky, it’s pneumonia.”  

It was not pneumonia.  The following months were filled with tests, surgeries, heart catheters, stays in intensive care units, emergency flights to the hospital…and learning about end-stage heart failure.  

Lori Ann was healthy.  Her blood pressure was great, her cholesterol level perfect, her health pristine.  Her family history showed no risk factors for heart disease.  

“A crevice opened up beneath me as I read, ‘high risk of sudden cardiac arrest’ on my medical record” she writes in the January 2020 issue of Christian Century.  

Darkness.  Doom.  Bad news.  Yet she writes that God was at work.  Her faith community surrounded her with prayers, food and loving support.  

Then she was hospitalized for an emergency appendectomy.  The doctors discussed her precarious condition and the risk of surgery because of her weak heart.  They ordered an echocardiogram and discovered her heart function had somewhat, inexplicably, become normal!  

Lori Ann writes, “God had used those months to bind my faith into something stronger than it could ever have been in perfect health.  I guess you could say I was lucky it wasn’t pneumonia.” 

God shining in the darkness.  An incredible epiphany moment.  

Mary, in the same Christian Century journal writes about her time in the darkness.  Her husband had just recently retired when he was diagnosed with tongue cancer.  Twenty years earlier he had battled his first bout with cancer.  Surgeries, drug therapies and tube feedings saved him.  But, now, cancer again?!

The doctors recommended removing his tongue and replacing it with a new tongue from a thigh tissue graft.  Could he speak afterwards?  How would his swallowing be affected?  And never being able to taste food again!  Would he survive?  The doctor said, maybe better than a 50/50 chance, but no promises.  

Then in her devotional readings Mary re-read the story of Jesus turning the water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana in John 2.  She read the phrase, “the wine gave out.”  She also read Jesus’ mother’s response, “do what ever He tells you.”  

Tears streaming down her face, Mary cries out to God “Do something!  We are out of wine here!”  

“With God’s help, 12 difficult weeks after my husband’s surgery, we are rising each day with no small amount of joy, despite the ongoing struggles.  We are more aware than ever of the preciousness and potential in each moment, taking nothing for granted.  Trusting God to help us live fully and lovingly, we inhabit the life we have, a life overflowing with care from family and friends, and with opportunities care for others and for creation.  The new vintage of wine offered us has notes of creativity, heart, vulnerability, grace, and grit.”

God’s love and grace shining in the darkness. Mind you, the darkness may not completely go away, but please be aware of God’s light and love penetrating and breaking through the darkness!  An epiphany moment indeed!

One more story, also from this January’s issue of the Christian Century.

The setting is Hawaii.  The author writes about a yellow school bus ride being interrupted.  A high school student, she was with a group of other high school students returning from a field trip to a publishing house.  The school bus is stopped.  Her pastor boards the bus, speaks to the driver, comes back to where she is sitting and simply tells her to “follow me.”

She is gripped with fear.  They enter her family home that is filled with family and friends.  You can imagine the fearful thoughts running through this young high schooler’s mind.  

“Your brother died today in a plane crash.”  He was a jet pilot.  His plane had mechanical problems and crashed.  He did not survive.  

Norma, the writer who shares this heartbreaking story says she stopped trusting God.  As a teenager she had been in church twice a week—choir practice on Wednesday and worship every Sunday.  She had prayed every night before going to sleep.  But now all that stopped.  

She was angry with God and stopped believing.  She didn’t crash and burn.  She didn’t use drugs, or become an alcoholic.  She simply stopped believing and trusting in God through Jesus.  

She became an atheist.  Other things filled her life.  Sunday mornings  were for sleeping in.  She married an engineer, lived as successful life, had children.  

“Then one summer afternoon,” she writes, “several mothers and I were with our children at a pool party.  Suddenly my son came up to me and said, ‘Mom, Anne is at the bottom of the pool.”

Her daughter Anne is rushed to the hospital emergency room.  Norma freaks out.  Who can she turn to now?!  God had let her down with her brother.  Norma’s best friend, Edna, is a member of a nearby Catholic Church.  Together they go to the church’s unlocked doors and pray.  

“I returned to the One who had brought me joy and hope as a young teenager.  I prayed desperately, ‘Oh, Lord, if You let her live, I will serve You the rest of my life!’”

Three days later this young mom walks into her daughter’s ICU room and is shocked to see her little girl pink-cheeked and smiling. “Can I go home?”

God in the darkness!  A ray of hope shining through the gloom.  Norma says her anger with God dissolved that day and she realized that even through death and sadness and loss she was wired to know and love and follow her Savior.  Jesus had not abandoned her even through her loss.  And now, He hands her back her daughter, alive.  

Neither you nor I know what 2020 holds in store.  Most of us are wired to be positive despite gloom and doom clouds in our personal lives and in our crazy world.  Some of us will experience loss.  We will taste failure and pain.  Yet we will also taste the wine of joy and gladness because our Savior Jesus will not abandon us—no matter what.  

We can not control the future. We cannot change most of the things in our lives.  But we can control where our gaze of faith focuses. We can look to Him who is the author and finisher of our faith and cling to the One who holds fast to us.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen,.

Promises! Promises!

Elim Lutheran Church, Ogden, UT 12/7/2019|bwk

Genesis 15:1-6, Romans 4:13-16 & Luke 1:46-55 

Key verse:  “…according to the promise He made to our 

ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants 

forever” (Luke 1:55)

to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.”

Joshua 21:45 “Not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made 

1 Corinthians 1:9 “God is faithful; by Him you were called into the 

fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Hebrews 13:5 “…I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

What is a promise?  

“a declaration or assurance that one will do a particular thing or that a particular thing will happen.”

A word of honor, a pledge or guarantee.

Someone’s solemn word to do something for us or with us.  

Someone’s solemn word to change their thinking and/or behavior.  

A vow to love one through all the ups and downs of life.

A vow to keep one’s word.

I promise to love you no matter what.  

I promise, I won’t let you down again.  I have quit.  I am clean and sober.  I won’t miss anymore payments.  

This time, I will keep my promise and we will go fishing; I’ll take you to the movies; we’ll have a date…

A part of our human experience is broken promises.  Ours, and that of others who have let us down.  

Our first two readings are about God’s promise to Abraham and Abraham’s trust in believing the promise—that God would keep His Word.  No matter what.  Even though there were mind-boggling obstacles that could have prevented him from trusting God.

The biggest obstacle was Abraham and Sarah’s age.  They were too old.  Yet God says, look to the stars and count them if you can.  So how many stars could Abraham see?  How many stars are there?

The internet (that infamous source of knowledge) tells us there are an estimated one hundred billion (100,000,000,000) stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, although some estimates range up to four times that many, much depending on the number of brown dwarfs and other very dim stars. A typical galaxy may contain anywhere between about ten million and one trillion stars.

Romans tells us that Abraham believed God’s promise even though science and good old fashioned common sense would have instructed him otherwise.  He believed in spite of his and Sarah being old. In fact, verse 18 of Romans 4 says, “hoping against hope he believe.”

The author of Romans (St. Paul) tells us that God didn’t count Abraham as faithful because of his obedience—how well he lived and carried himself—a trap we often fall into.  But that God counted Abraham as righteous—in good standing with God—because Abraham trusted God and believed God would keep His promise!  Wow. 

So often we say we believe.  Yet so often we measure our selves by how good or bad we believe ourselves to be.  We are not faithful enough.  We don’t pray good enough.  We are too shallow, too selfish, too sinful, etc.  We have made too many mistakes.  We have ruined our lives.  And the list goes on and on.

Abraham didn’t measure himself.  He measured God. He measured God and found God trustworthy.  

Now, consider Mary.  Young, innocent Mary.  Was she naive?  Too innocent of the realities of life?  She too trusted God in an impossible situation.  You are going to be mother to Messiah!  God’s Son, born of human flesh!  Yeah, right Gabriel!  Tell me another outlandish story!  Yet she believed God’s Word of promise through the angel Gabriel.  What’s more, she believed that her Son, Messiah Jesus, would change everything!  EVERYTHING!

The world’s order of right and wrong, where the rich and powerful control everything and the poor are victims and powerless will change because of this mystery child she will conceive.  Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is a song of praise to God about Jesus turning everything around.  

We should be singing it today.  I don’t mean just in church. We should be shouting it out loud in our culture, in our world of human relationships, in our cities, our countries, our world, in our politics and all human relationships.  

Because if we really believe God’s promise to Abraham so many years ago, and God’s Word to Mary so many years ago…if we really believe God’s PROMISE we will be and speak and act differently.  We will stop trying to win God’s approval or the approval of people.  We will begin to live rightly with purpose, intent and integrity.  We will become the change we want.  

We will move and work toward God’s love and care for all people as expressed through the reality of God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  Even when others are mean and indifferent.  Even when those in power use and abuse us and/or others.  Even when it seems as if God’s Word is falling to the ground unfulfilled.  We will continue to trust God’s promise and Word.  We will believe and follow the star of God’s promise.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Why Pray?

ELC October 20 2019

Luke 18:1-8 & Genesis 32:22-31 (a persistent widow & Jacob wrestles in prayer all night long…)

Weird questions that make us smile…

· Why do doctors and lawyers call what they do practice?

· Why is abbreviation such a long word?

· Why is a boxing ring square?

· What was the best thing before sliced bread?

· How do they get the deer to cross the highway at those yellow signs?

· How did a fool and his money get together in the first place?

Now another question; why do we pray?

A toddler climbed up somehow onto the back end of a flatbed truck and could not get back down.  Sitting on the edge of the truck bed, dangling his legs, he started calling out in a matter of fact sort of voice, “will somebody help the little boy, will somebody help the little boy?”  Sometimes our prayers are that simple.  Sometimes not!

Sometimes we get ourselves caught in predicaments that we cannot work our way out of and like that little boy we cry out for help.  Sometimes we see a loved one, a son or daughter or grandchild or nephew suffering and we pray for them.  Sometimes we pray for a group of people, like immigrants or families such as those caught between a rock and hard place on our southern border, and we pray for them.  

And sometimes we feel our prayers go unheard and unanswered.  Does it do any good to pray?  Why do we pray?  

Martin Luther on prayer:

  • “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.”
  • “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”
  • “Pray, and let God worry…”
  • “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing…”
  • “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.”

Never, never, never, never give up. (Winston Churchill)

…so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.

There are so many verses that talk about prayer in Scripture.  Here are two:

1 Thessalonians 5:17 “pray without ceasing…”

Psalm 55:16-17

16 But I call to God, and the Lord will save me.

17 Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.

Prayer; it is a gift to be able to pour our hearts out to God.  He hears and cares for us in all circumstances of life.  Prayer; it is a command as well as an invitation.  Jesus taught us what we call “the Lord’s Prayer,” though it might more appropriately be called, the disciples’ prayer.  It is our connection with God, our soul’s life blood.  It helps bind us together with those for whom we pray.

Why do I pray?  Why do you pray?  What do you expect to accomplish in and through your prayers?  Do you expect to change your circumstances?  Do you think you might change God’s plans?  

Last week’s Gospel reading was about ten lepers being healed, and just one, a foreigner, a non-Jew, coming back to say thank you!  Following that reading Luke quotes Jesus as talking about being ready for the end—the Second Coming.  That is the context for Jesus’ telling us the story of the widow who persists in getting justice from a cold, heartless judge.  

He prefaces that parable by saying, we should always pray and never, ever quit; never loose heart.  Then He breaks into this parable of the unjust judge and the helpless widow.  

Parable is a Greek compound word:  para ballo.  The first word, para, means along side.  The second means to throw.  It is the basis for our word ball.  Paraballo…Parable.  To throw a spiritual concept or truth alongside something more common and earthy.  

Sometimes parables help us to know more about God and God’s love in Christ Jesus.  This parable does not teach us about God.  Rather it teaches about the importance of never giving up hope, never giving up on prayer.  

If we are honest, I think we all want to give up and throw in the towel sometimes.  Job in the book that bears his name did.  He got so miserable at one point he wanted to just die.  He felt it would have been better to never have been born.  Have you ever felt that way?

We live in a world that is filled with evil and violence.  Even when we want to be positive and see only the good, injustice and evil are inescapable and unavoidable.  There are times when it seems that bad days and bad guys outnumber the good.  Thousands and millions even are killed without justice.  Families lose run for their lives, loose family members, loose their possessions, lose their homes and freedom.  Good businesses fail.  Scoundrels and crooks succeed.  Boys of the wrong race and color are lynched with no justice or repercussion.  Girls are raped and the offender gets off scot-free.  

There is no shortage of bad news. We can grow weary and succumb to just wanting to give up!  Life on this side of heaven is hard, harsh and hellish.  

Is it any wonder that Jesus ends this little parable with the question, “when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”  It is easy to despair and yield to cynicism. 

Our parable is about a woman trying to get justice in an unjust, cruel world.  Her judge could care less about her or her situation.  He had no regard for anyone or even God.  Yet he finally gave in and helped this woman.  

His motivation?  “This woman is wearing me out with her continued battering of me.  It actually has the sense of a boxing match in a boxing ring with the continued battering and beating of the opponents upon each other.  The Greek word is hypopiahdzo.  Paul used this word in 1 Corinthians 9:27 where he says, “boxing as though beating the air.” This woman was determined and would not quit!  

The parable therefore is more about our never giving up on hope; our never giving in to bad thinking and acting; our quitting on faith and trust.  When we fail to trust the goodness of God and give in to evil thinking, speaking, living and just down right bad attitudes ourselves then evil really does win the day.  That is why Jesus ends this parable with the question:  When He (Jesus) comes again, will there be people who still believe and live in faith, trusting God’s goodness, doing God’s will?  

So whether you are like the little boy stuck on a flatbed truck, or like this woman in our text, never give up hoping.  Never stop pouring your heart out to God. Keep praying.  Keep trusting.  Keep believing.  Hit back against evil and injustice.  Keep following Jesus and living for God.  You and I are called to be different.  Let’s not give up on that call! 

In Jesus’ name, Amen.