Tag Archives: Christian lifestyle

Have you noticed the changes?

Special note:  Thank you for the patience needed before this posting.  We have had a vacation, a guest speaker, and a funeral all in the last three weeks–not to mention our church’s annual fair concession over the weekend.  Thank you, too, for following the blog.  I appreciate your notes and hope that it speaks to you.

 

given on Sunday, September 3, 2017

Scripture connections: 

Opening: Galatians 1:15-20, NLT

     15 But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him 16 to reveal his Son to me[e] so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles.

When this happened, I did not rush out to consult with any human being.[f]17 Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was. Instead, I went away into Arabia, and later I returned to the city of Damascus.

     18 Then three years later I went to Jerusalem to get to know Peter,[g] and I stayed with him for fifteen days. 19 The only other apostle I met at that time was James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I declare before God that what I am writing to you is not a lie. 

Sermon support: Galatians 3:23-29, NLT

23 Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed.

24 Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. 25 And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian.

26 For you are all children[a] of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes.[b] 28 There is no longer Jew or Gentile,[c] slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children[d] of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you.

Closing: Galatians 3:29, NLT

29 And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children[p] of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you.

Reflection: Have you noticed the change?

Driving back and forth into town this week, the seasonal changes have become evident. Monday on the way to Peters Market, we noticed the super dark caterpillars were crossing the roads not just one at a time, but several at a time. The folklore says that super dark color means we are in for a severe winter—the first reminder of the seasonal change.

Additional reminders that the seasons are changing include the temperatures and the color of the trees. With the cooler evenings and all the excess moisture from this summer, the evenings are damp and cool. The trees have lost the glossy look of summer. I even notice some of the leaves are curling and actually changing color. Summer is winding down,

This brings the season discussion to today, the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend, the cultural mark that summer is over. In our community, even the fair is over and everybody is worn out. The summer push is done and now it is time to move into harvest and prepare for the winter.

Seasonal shifts are just part of the life cycle and it is easy to forget that all lives develop a pattern of changes. This week we lost one of church’s matriarchs. Her 92 years were filled with seasons of change, yet her faith supported each phase of her life. She heard God’s voice in music, and she spoke God’s love through the music she played. Her special gifts shared God’s message with all who listened.

Yet, her earthly season ended and she moved to the next season with God. She never doubted that the season would change and she never seemed to fear that change. We know that life seasons are going to change; yet we may dread those changes. What we do not know can cause us to freeze up and refuse to prepare.

But let’s go back to understanding the folklore behind the caterpillars. An internet search can provide some insight into the legends:

  • The color of the “woolly bear” caterpillars develops along 15 segments of the body. The color develops through molting and on how well it feeds during the summer. The better the food source, the browner the segments.
  • The darker the color, the older and more prepared the caterpillar is to cool down in preparation for the winter hibernation. (I had no idea they hibernated.) As the temperatures drop, the body freezes bit by bit. The fur called setae allows for the slow production of antifreeze known as glycerol. They can literally survive in temperatures as low as -90 degrees F.
  • Caterpillars’ crossing the roads is an indication that they are looking for a good place to hibernate for the winter. Good places include under bark, a rock, or a fallen log. [Accessed on September 2, 2017 at https://www.weather.gov/arx/woollybear]

 

Maybe the folklore of the caterpillar seems disconnected to our faith, but I suggest that it is once again evidence of how our cultures look at living our faith. Our church also has seasons and as we struggle to continue sharing God’s message. We can retreat into behavior patterns that follow growth cycles that inevitably end in death.

Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatian church, the church was retreating to the customs and traditions of the Jewish law rather than openly accepting all people (Gentiles) regardless of their understanding of the old law. Paul had heard of the conflict developing in the church over the necessity of following the old law for those who were not of the Jewish heritage:

23 Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed.

Paul was showing the Galatians that the season had changed with the life and death of Jesus Christ. The old law was replaced:

24 Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. 25 And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian.

Churches today are facing the shift in seasons. We can look at the how things have always been done, and we can try to force fit them into today’s culture. The result often creates dissension, frustration, and ultimately death. Today’s churches are struggling to understand how to adapt their old law to a new season in God’s church.

The old timers know that there is some base of truth to the folklore of predicting weather, but it is not always scientifically sound. Sometimes it is necessary to let go of the well-seasoned practices and look for new practices that can be successful. The science behind the folklore of the caterpillars reminds me that good feeding and healthy living creates the woolly bear caterpillar with a dark coat of fur that can weather the worst winter conditions.

Today’s churches must consider what makes God’s message more than folklore and really the most successful lifestyle to manage the stressful seasons of earthly living. The Bible provides the timeless messages of how faith sustains us in all the challenges of life. Paul personally experienced the shift from the old law to the new law and became passionate about sharing the message. We need his wise words to guide us in the seasons of our own lives as well as the life of our church.

Reading Galatians is like an internet search. As Paul heard of the church’s problems, he wrote the letter with a loving but firm scolding. He wanted the message Jesus Christ demonstrated to become the guiding principle that moved the Jewish faithful to be the loving, flexible, openly accepting Christians. He wanted them to remember that the old law could prevent others, Gentiles especially, from God’s all inclusive love:

26 For you are all children[a] of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes.[b] 28 There is no longer Jew or Gentile,[c] slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children[d] of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you.

By writing to the Galatians, Paul was assuring the young church that loving one another was the only law needed as the season changed from the old timers’ culture to the post-Jesus Christ culture. Today’s churches need that honest reprimand, too. The only law that matters is that we love one another as we want to be loved.

The old ways may be how we developed in our faith journey, but the seasonal change means we need to re-evaluate our personal faith journeys and make sure that we are not clinging to the old ways so tightly that we are failing to prepare for the seasonal changes of the future.

Christianity is not folklore, it is a lifestyle that survives the challenges of cultures, of lifestyle fads, of drought years, of flooding, of boiling hot summers, and frigid winter nights. Christianity is a lifestyle that places God above all the other challenges in our lives and keeps us grounded, always preparing for the next storm, and ultimately life everlasting alongside of Jesus Christ who prepared the path for us.

Having been raised on the farm, I know that as summer moves into fall and the harvest is completed, there is a need for rest and renewal. The winter months become a time to hibernate in one sense, but also to prepare. As a church, we need the same—a time to rest, renew and prepare. Let’s continue to listen to Paul’s words and find the message of how to keep the church truly open minded, open hearted and opened doors.

Closing prayer:

Dear Loving God,

As we come in your sanctuary with weary bodies,

Help us to hear your words of guidance.

Guide us to accept the reality of life’s seasons

But teach us the ways to share the reality of your love.

Be with us as we step into a new season

Seeking rest and renewal to prepare for the next season.

Let us keep our minds open, our hearts open, and our doors open

As we work together in loving one another as we want to be loved.

In your name, your son’s name and with the Holy Spirit, amen.

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Why is simple complicated?

given on Sunday, July 16, 2017

Scripture connections:

Opening: Romans 5:10-11, NLT

10 For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. 11 So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.

 Sermon scriptures:

Romans 11:3-6, NLT

Elijah the prophet complained to God about the people of Israel and said, “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.”[a]

And do you remember God’s reply? He said, “No, I have 7,000 others who have never bowed down to Baal!”[b]

It is the same today, for a few of the people of Israel[c] have remained faithful because of God’s grace—his undeserved kindness in choosing them. And since it is through God’s kindness, then it is not by their good works. For in that case, God’s grace would not be what it really is—free and undeserved.

Romans 12:1-2, NLT

And so, dear brothers and sisters,[a] I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.[b] Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Romans 12:9-18, NLT

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. 10 Love each other with genuine affection,[a] and take delight in honoring each other. 11 Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically.[b]12 Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. 13 When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them.15 Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!

17 Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. 18 Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

Closing: Romans 16:17-20, NLT

17 And now I make one more appeal, my dear brothers and sisters. Watch out for people who cause divisions and upset people’s faith by teaching things contrary to what you have been taught. Stay away from them. 18 Such people are not serving Christ our Lord; they are serving their own personal interests. By smooth talk and glowing words they deceive innocent people. 19 But everyone knows that you are obedient to the Lord. This makes me very happy. I want you to be wise in doing right and to stay innocent of any wrong. 20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. May the grace of our Lord Jesus[a] be with you.

 Reflection: Why is simple complicated?

One of my favorite cookies is a ‘no-bake’ cookie. Not only does it have all the chocolate one could possibly want, but also it does not include the extra work of baking them, especially on hot summer days. The no-bake cookie is simple, right? Well, the name of the cookie may be somewhat misleading.

In a similar manner being a Christian is really simple, too. How difficult is it to remember the new law versus the Ten Commandments of the old law? Surely being Christian is simple. Love God. Love one another.

When God decided to send Jesus with a much less complicated law, those who were faithful may have understood the Ten Commandments; but religious leaders had continued to add layers of rules to their lifestyle that complicated faithful living and could have lead one to breaking a law that they may not have even known existed.

Being faithful was not simple.

Jesus delivered a simple way to be faithful: Love God first, then love one another as you want to be loved. How simple can it get? Yet we tend to complicate even the new law. Paul knew the complicated law of the Jewish faith, so when he began his work sharing the new law delivered by Jesus, he wrote letters to keep encouraging the young churches.

Paul referred back to the ancient prophet Elijah about how God had not forgotten his people even though it may have felt like it. God does not forget the faithful Jewish people; he just tried to simplify their laws by sending Jesus to demonstrate how to live a faithful life. Paul’s letter goes into detail about the personal responsibility of all new disciples—whether Jew or Gentile:

  • 12:1 give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you.
  • 12:2 let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.
  • 12:3 Don’t think you are better than you really are.

 

Being a Christian should be simple, but we tend to complicate lives by what we do and do not do.

Paul continues to explain to the Roman church that God has given us each gifts to use: prophecy to speak out with faith; gift of serving; the gift of teaching, gifts of encouraging, giving, and showing kindness. The list is not complete, it simply lists a few of the skills God gives us to use in our lives, but we tend to complicate our lives with some very negative behaviors as Paul goes on to explain:

  • 12:9 Don’t just pretend to love others.. . . Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good.
  • 12:10 Love. . with genuine affection and . . .honor each other.
  • 12:11 Never be lazy. . .
  • 12:12 . . . be ready to help . . . eager to practice hospitality.

 

The list details the simple law of loving one another. Sadly, though we can be criticized for what we do, but living simply means ignoring those who “persecute you” and as Paul says in 12:16-17:

 

Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all! Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

 

Just like no-bake cookies. The name makes the cookie sound easy, but the instructions do not always include the difficult tweaks that good cooks know make the cookie so scrumptious or how to make them extra special with secret ingredients.

Paul listed the special instructions so the Gentiles could live in community with the Jews who had generations of instruction in living faithfully. The Jewish faithful had to have the special instructions so they could adjust to a simpler lifestyle and not judge the Gentiles. We, too, need to read through Paul’s letters to remember how to live faithfully, also.

Ask the best cooks you know what the secret is to their no-bake cookies and you will get a list of suggestions just as Paul’s letters provide a range of suggestions to the various churches. In Romans, he begins wrapping up his letters with a few other points:

  • Chapter 13: “Respect for authority”
  • Chapter 14: “The Danger of Criticism”
  • Chapter 15: “Living to Please Others

 

And then he concludes the letter with personal notes and plans. These last chapters are like the special notes the experienced cooks write in the margins of their recipes—some even dating when they made the recipe and for whom it was made.

My no-bake cookies are seldom the same any two times. Why? I tweak the recipe based on what ingredients I have available, who the eaters are, and even the time I spend on making them. And what are the notes along my recipe card? The most critical one is to let it boil at least 3 minutes. My favorite tweak is peanut butter added to the recipe. I have even changed it to a non-chocolate no-bake cookie, but it is not greeted as favorably as a dark chocolate version is.

Being a faithful Christian should be easy with God’s new law delivered by Jesus Christ. Why, then, do we seem to make it so difficult? Paul knew personally the extent of the law’s change, and he did whatever he could to encourage the new church to live simply. In our personal lives, we must spend some time evaluating our own practices. Are we living faithfully? Are we respecting each other? Are we demonstrating our gifts in all the ways that we can to love one another?

The recipe may sound easy since it says “no-bake cookies,” but the more we develop our discipleship as Christians, we learn how to tweak the law to make the best Christians we can of ourselves. We need to work to be better. We also need to work together to be the church God asks us to be. When we fail, then we need to reread the recipe and try again. The result will be worth the reward.

Closing prayer

Dear God,

You have delivered us a message, a recipe for faithfulness.

Generations have preserved the simple instructions,

But we look for ways to make them even easier to follow.

 

Just like excellent cooks know, the simplest recipes

Need practice to reach perfection.

Guide us in following your words so we too may reach perfection.

 

Help us to toss out what has not worked

And to try again to find the best ways to love one another

And to carry your message to others in our community.

 

Open our hearts so we can love freely.

Open our minds so we can learn from our mistakes.

Open our doors to all your children who seek

life now and life eternal

with you, our father,

with Jesus Christ your son,

and with the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

 

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Jew or Gentile?

sermon given on Sunday, July 9, 2017

Scripture connections:

Opening: Romans 9:21-24, NLT

21 When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? 22 In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. 23 He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory. 24 And we are among those whom he selected, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles.

 

Sermon: Romans 9:25, 31-32, NLT

25 Concerning the Gentiles, God says in the prophecy of Hosea,

“Those who were not my people,
I will now call my people.
And I will love those
whom I did not love before.”

 

31 But the people of Israel, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded. 32 Why not? Because they were trying to get right with God by keeping the law[a] instead of by trusting in him. They stumbled over the great rock in their path.

 

Closing: Romans 10:9-13, 16-18a, NLT

If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. 11 As the Scriptures tell us, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.”[a] 12 Jew and Gentile[b] are the same in this respect. They have the same Lord, who gives generously to all who call on him. 13 For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” . . .

 

. . . 16 But not everyone welcomes the Good News, for Isaiah the prophet said, “Lord, who has believed our message?”[a] 17 So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ. 18 But I ask, have the people of Israel actually heard the message? . . .

 

Reflection: Jew or Gentile?

Have you ever wondered what it was like to live in a different time? Over the holiday weekend Ancestry.com offered free access to certain records and I started looking at them. Of course I could not remember my sign in but I did discover a World War I draft notice for my grandfather was listed. I was surprised and really should have gotten up to investigate more closely, but did not because I know he never served in the military. But now I want to know more.

Then another question came to mind: If I were living in Jesus’ time, would I have been a Jew or a Gentile? I suppose I could even ask if I would have been a pagan, but that seems a bit too unlikely. This question started my mind spinning and I started putting my thoughts together:

  • Was I born into a religious family?
  • Did I grow up following the religious law or the civil law?
  • Was my dad or my mom the driving force?
  • Was my church strictly structured around The Law?
  • Did church come first or did civil matters?
  • Was my community centered around the church or on business?

 

As you can tell, deciding whether I would have been a Jew or a Gentile lead to many other considerations other than just my personal faith.

Reading Romans, one can get a different perspective of the cultural shift that must have occurred for Paul, but also for other new Christians.   Paul certainly was Jewish before his conversion. Raised in the Jewish faith, having served in the Jewish leadership, his life was immersed in The Law. He knew it so well, he was actively involved in administering justice—or at least that was the Saul of Tarsus as he was first introduced in Biblical literature.

Paul prosecuted the earliest disciples of Christ. Paul was a Jew and the first Christians who were Jewish must have felt confused as they believed Jesus Christ was simply the fulfillment of their own religious foundation. How difficult it must have been to be firmly rooted in a faith and then be prosecuted by your own religious leaders for believing the prophecies had indeed been fulfilled!

With that thought, I wonder again whether I would have been a Jew or a Gentile during those ancient times. I think it is possible to compare my own upbringing and belief system to the Jewish culture. As I look over my history I can see the similarities:

  • I was born into a faith-centered home environment.
  • We attended Sunday school and worship every Sunday.
  • We actively participated in all the age-appropriate activities—choir being the most obvious other than Sunday school.
  • We offered a table grace at all three meals in our home.
  • Dad appeared to be the faith leader because he said the grace.
  • Mom was in charge of the household including the education both after school and for Sunday school.
  • Dad served on the various Administrative Board committees and even as a lay leader.
  • Mom was a soloist and even evolved into the closest thing in our community to an activist for social justice.
  • We attended the carry-in dinners and social functions at church but seldom social events outside of the church.

 

Certainly, in my 20th century life, I was following the social profile that would have been a Jew during Christ’s lifetime.

Now, though, for comparison purposes consider the ancient Gentile. Here was an individual whose life hinged around the daily grind of life. Making a living, providing for the family, and managing to live in the ruling culture of the time. Reading Romans, the first century after Jesus was born, the Roman Empire dominated the Euro-Asian region. No state religion, but the Greek and Latin gods were worshiped. The pagan laws were not as severe as the Law of Moses was in the Jewish culture. For Roman citizens, the law was the ruling emperor’s law.

Today’s Gentiles may be more difficult to identify. Or maybe not because I suspect that today’s Gentiles profile might be like so many of our friends and neighbors, even family members. I believe the Gentiles are all those who have been raised with much of the same expectations as those in church-attending, church-centered families. The difference is they may not see a connection to living one’s faith in relation to their role in today’s world.

Consider how many in our community, maybe even in our church, who live a “good” life, not breaking any laws, working hard to make a living, and doing all the things our society deems appropriate—raising kids, going to sporting events, taking vacations, staying in style, and the list just keeps growing. There may be some curiosity about God and faith, but their lives are ok, maybe even extremely successful by all outward signs. Maybe they go to church occasionally, at least on Christmas and Easter, because they say they believe.

In today’s culture, I believe it is more difficult to see a distinction between the Jews and the Gentile labels that were evident during ancient days of Christ. Yet I believe it is also evident that there is a defined line between those who are living a faith-filled, Christ-centered life and those who are simply living in a spiritual void with all the outward appearances but no conviction of their faith in God.

Paul’s letter to the Romans was a logical argument for Christianity, written to an audience with whom he was not personally connected. Today we can read the letters Paul wrote and evaluate them against the experiences of Christians for over 2,000 years. We can even check ourselves to determine whether we are living the very principles Jesus demonstrated and Paul reinforced in his letters.

Romans is an introduction to Christian living whether one was raised a Jew or a Gentile; whether one was raised in a religious setting or not; or even if one has never had any simply unchurched. Paul assures us that salvation is available to any one who accepts that Jesus Christ lived, died and arose so that we are saved by the grace of God.

Paul’s letter goes on to explain that God genuinely loves us and that we are all equipped with spiritual gifts. We are to use those gifts living as good citizens in our communities. We are to accept all those who believe in Christ regardless of their previous beliefs—another words whether they were Jew, Gentile or pagan. We are to live in Christian unity with one another because God’s mercy is available to everyone.

Again, though, I find myself wondering whether I would have been living as a Jew or a Gentile or as a Christian? As much as my faith is the faith that I was born and raised in—a cradle Methodist as we say, I wonder if I could have been the Jew openly accepted the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in those ancient days?

Today I am fortunate to have the 2,000 years of Christian history to support the arguments for Christ. I am fortunate to live in a society that allows freedom of religion. Yet, in truth I wonder whether I am a Jew or a Gentile in behavior. Am I too caught up in the legalistic structure of our faith to open my heart, my mind and my doors to others regardless of their personal history? Am I afraid I cannot preserve the church in which I am so comfortable that I fight any change? Am I able to live in unity with others regardless of where they are in their faith journey?

If I did not have my faith in God, I would not see the value in this life I do have. If I did not follow the one commandment to love others as I want to be loved, I would be hiding within my own home fearing the unknowns. If I did not believe that God has given me gifts to use in this world, I would not be able to do what all I try to do.

My challenge to each of us here is to consider just what role do you have personally or we as a full church have in reaching out to the other Jews, Gentiles, pagans or unchurched. Do we honestly open our hearts, minds and doors to all in hopes that they too can discover God’s grace and salvation through his son Jesus Christ? Do we live the very example of a Christian right here in our own community?

Our responsibility is to find ways to demonstrate the motto that the United Methodist Church adopted in 2004: Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors. Let us truly be remarkable with our efforts to make sure that our church is being Christ-centered in this community.

Closing prayer:

Dear God,

 

Open our hearts so they may be filled

With love for one another as Jesus taught.

 

Open our hearts so we may see

those in our community in need of your love.

 

Open our minds so they may be filled

With the methods and means to share your love.

 

Open our minds so we may grow

our spiritual gifts to serve and love others.

 

Open our doors so we may see

The lost, the lonely, the sick, and the hungry.

 

Open our doors so we may serve

To welcome those needing your love.

 

Only with you can we be

the Christians you call us to be.

 

In your name, dear God,

And in the name of Jesus Christ,

And the Holy Spirit, amen.

 

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In Paul’s words: We are one. We are the light.

given on Sunday, February 26, 2017–final sermon in series based on Ephesians

Scripture connection: Ephesians 4:17-31 (NLT)

Living as Children of Light

17 With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. 18 Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. 19 They have no sense of shame. They live for lustful pleasure and eagerly practice every kind of impurity.

20 But that isn’t what you learned about Christ. 21 Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, 22 throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. 23 Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. 24 Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.

25 So stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body. 26 And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.”[a] Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 for anger gives a foothold to the devil.

28 If you are a thief, quit stealing. Instead, use your hands for good hard work, and then give generously to others in need. 29 Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.

30 And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. Remember, he has identified you as his own,[b] guaranteeing that you will be saved on the day of redemption.

31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior.

Ephesians 5:6-15 (NLT)

Don’t be fooled by those who try to excuse these sins, for the anger of God will fall on all who disobey him. Don’t participate in the things these people do. For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true.

10 Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. 11 Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. 12 It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. 13 But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, 14 for the light makes everything visible. This is why it is said,

“Awake, O sleeper,
rise up from the dead,
and Christ will give you light.”

Living by the Spirit’s Power

15 So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise.

Reflection: In Paul’s words: We are one. We are the light.

Paul’s ancient world may seem awfully small compared to today’s world in which communication happens in an instant and one can travel from one side of the globe to the other side in a matter of hours.  Personal relationships could be kept private as the only means of ‘seeing’ the relationship was face-to-face since there were no myriads of cameras or a social media platform to share scuttlebutt instantly. Yet, when Paul began his missionary work, he traveled to share the good news.

Travel was a tedious process and in Paul’s case, he stopped in communities to work as he carried the Word to new communities. No mass media was available, so his very person had to be the witness to a new way of life, the Christian way. Paul’s very life had to be a visible testimony to living a Christian lifestyle.

The scripture from Ephesians talks about the earliest Christians were to live in the ‘light of the Lord’ (Eph 5:8). Literature offers a multitude of analogies that use ‘light’ as goodness, purity, cleanliness among other positive images. The significant meaning even of theatrical costumes pits good versus evil, light versus darkness, the white hat versus the black hat. The cinematographers carefully manipulate light in the scenes to identify the good versus evil themes in the stories. And music aficionados can identify tones that are light versus dark, good versus evil. Paul’s use of light means to live the Christian lifestyle with God at the center.

How does one know what that lifestyle is? Paul outlines the very behaviors God expects from his faithful. They are itemized in the scripture:

  • Eph 4:24—stop telling lies,
  • Eph 4:26—don’t let anger control you.
  • Eph 4:28—quit stealing, do good hard work, give generously,
  • Eph 4:29—don’t use foul or abusive language; be good and helpful; and offer words of encouragement, and
  • Eph 4:31—get rid of bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil.

The list applies today as much as it applied during Paul’s lifetime. The same problems and/or evil behaviors continue to thrive in our world now.

Paul’s letter was meant to encourage the young congregation to maintain the very behaviors Jesus had modeled and taught during his lifetime. The list of behaviors changes a bit in the next chapter, but again it is a clear that following God’s commandment binds all believers into one unified church. The letter continues:

  • Eph 5:6—don’t be fooled by those who try to make excuses for sin,
  • Eph 5:7—don’t participate in things sinful people do,
  • Eph 5:8—live as people of light.
  • Eph 5:11—expose evil deed, nor
  • Eph 5:12—do not even talk about the evil deeds.

Living a God-centered, Christ-centered life places one in the light. Following God’s one commandment in all relationships in our lives placed a spotlight on the evil in the world around us, too. Just take a few moments and think about the TV shows, the movies, and even the books that we read for pleasure. The fiction stories are filled with good versus evil; then place yourself into those stories and ask whether you are living in the light or living in the darkness.

Step away from the fiction, now, and look at the news reports and all the social media feeds that we see crossing our screens. Can you spot the darkness? The evil in the world fills our lives in so many different ways, but follow God’s ways to keep the light in your life and in the life of others who surround you—whether in person or in cyberspace. Let God’s light shine in all that you do and say.

In the scriptures from last week, we discussed how to keep God’s lifestyle central in our private relationships—those with our spouses and children, those of children to their parents. Living in the light keeps our relationships healthy. The same rule applies to relationships in all facets of our lives.

One relationship that can challenge a Christian is that found in the work place. Yet, living one’s faith on the job is another means of testifying for God. Treating the fellow worker, the customer and the boss as you want to be treated develops more positive work experiences even work environments. When others are bad mouthing the boss, another worker, or the customer, the setting becomes cancerous. When the work forces one into a position that challenges beliefs, then the resulting conflict sickens the soul and can lead to health problems. What does one do in such cases?

No easy answer, but God wants us to be the light in the world. Stop joining in on idol conversations that promote negative attitudes. Do your best to ask others to stop, too. If the job places you into an ethical dilemma, which does happen, the choice is more complicated.

The job is income and meets the need of the family. The job uses your training and natural gifts. Yet even if you like the work and do it well, if the boss asks you to do something unethical you are then asked to go against your standards, your Christian beliefs. The conflict that develops makes it difficult to live in God’s light much less to shine as his light.

I confronted this issue within a year after leaving college with a journalism degree. My goal in life to save the world as a journalist ran into the issue of right and wrong. In journalism, the circulation sets the value of advertising. Circulation is reported to a national database that determines that cost. Self-reporting is done with an affidavit that the figures are accurate. The publisher told me to sign the figures. I knew the figures were inflated and it forced me to make a decision—I quit. I signed it, yes; but I quit and went back to college to get a teaching certificate. I had to make a life changing decision, but I knew it was the right thing to do.

These decisions reflect who we are as Christians. No one wants to be forced into a decision that risks one’s livelihood or forces a change that could be financially devastating. Being trained in one job and then looking for a new job does not always mean the transition is smooth or that you may have to be retrained. Yet, God has give us the instructions on how to live our lives. He sent Jesus to show us, and then Paul tells us in his letters, too.

Our relationships in this world develop the community in which we live. We are not challenged in our country to live a secret life nor are we persecuted for living a Christian life. Our lives are defined by our decisions even in our civic responsibility to vote. As a voter, we create a relationship with elected officials. The election’s outcome, any election, reflects the belief system of the populace. If we vote using God’s viewpoint, we continue to maintain our personal principles. If the outcome does not match what our vote, then we must align ourselves with that decision. That does not mean that we give up our Christian principles, instead the election may place us in a position to be more vocal or active in demonstrating the Christian principles we live.

Living a Christian lifestyle does not simplify our lives in the secular world, but God knows our positions. He does not task us in a way that we cannot manage. He is beside us as we confront the conflicts in our life. He gives us the strength needed to stand firm in our relationships. He provides us the gifts to use and the words to share to make our relationships into beacons of light for others, too.

This February we may face the darkness even in the bright sunshine. The darkness makes us unsettled and causes us to feel heavy as we watch the latest news reports and hear the latest talk in town. Where is the light? The light is our responsibility. Paul tells the Ephesians and us that we are to live as ‘Children of the Light.’

As God’s faithful today, we have as much responsibility of sharing the good news/God’s message as any of the ancient disciples did. There is no excuse for us to act as though we do not know God. There is no excuse for us to casually ignore the evil around us. There is no excuse for us to be passive in a world where evil is aggressive.

Take up God’s commission to share the Word and to make disciples of Christ, but also stand up to evil. If others are sharing dark messages on Facebook, then do not share them. In fact, hit that button and remove them from your own feed. Make a comment on postings that you find offensive so others may see God’s light in your life. Post some positive words so others might see God’s light in them.

As you watch and/or listen to the latest news, use prayer. Do not whine and complain. Do not let the ‘fake’ news pass on to others through words spoken as though you agree. Instead, listen with God’s ears. Is there another viewpoint to consider despite the words presented? Could there be a positive to the report that is being overlooked? Do you need to speak out? Maybe you need to contact your representative or other elected official. Maybe you need to write a letter to the editor. Maybe you need to research an answer on your own, easier to do with the internet offering so many options or a library close to our homes.

Being God’s light is not easy. There is no quick fix to the problems that evil causes. But, in our world, we have a responsibility to live as beacons for God. We must say no to evil in any way that we can at all the times that we can in any way that we can. We must do good in any way that we can in all the ways that we can at any time that we can.

Paul reminded the Ephesians that all who believe in God and who accept Jesus Christ as their savior are also baptized by the Holy Spirit to serve as God’s light in this world. You may not think you can do anything, but the Holy Spirit is alive within you and you can do something. You are a beacon and the light shines in the life you live—as long as you reflect God’s love.

Abraham Lincoln is quoted, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or we can rejoice that thorn bushes have roses.” I chose to see thorn bushes have roses, just like I see the glass as half full not half empty. I chose to see good whenever I can, too. I chose to follow God and pray that he guides me in all relationships to be the light in the darkness for others to see his love.

Closing prayer:

Dear God,

 

Paul’s letter serves as a beacon of light

in a world darkened by evil.

Guide us in using our own words

to serve as rays of light around us.

Paul’s words encourage us

to strengthen our relationships.

Guide us to see our relationships

in your light and to love one another.

 

Today we hear you speak

in the words of scripture and hymn.

Fill our hearts with love for one another

so our world shines brightly.

Give us the words to build up relationships

that will enrich our lives, our world.

Armor us so we resist evil influences

and lead others to your light. –Amen.

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Curling Up with The Good Book: Lifestyle Lesson from a Furnace

given on Sunday, January 29, 2017

 

Scripture connection: Daniel 3 (NLT)

3 King Nebuchadnezzar made a gold statue ninety feet tall and nine feet wide[a] and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. Then he sent messages to the high officers, officials, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and all the provincial officials to come to the dedication of the statue he had set up. So all these officials[b] came and stood before the statue King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

Then a herald shouted out, “People of all races and nations and languages, listen to the king’s command! When you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes, and other musical instruments,[c] bow to the ground to worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s gold statue. Anyone who refuses to obey will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”

So at the sound of the musical instruments,[d] all the people, whatever their race or nation or language, bowed to the ground and worshiped the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

But some of the astrologers[e] went to the king and informed on the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “Long live the king! 10 You issued a decree requiring all the people to bow down and worship the gold statue when they hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes, and other musical instruments. 11 That decree also states that those who refuse to obey must be thrown into a blazing furnace. 12 But there are some Jews—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—whom you have put in charge of the province of Babylon. They pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They refuse to serve your gods and do not worship the gold statue you have set up.”

13 Then Nebuchadnezzar flew into a rage and ordered that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought before him. When they were brought in, 14 Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you refuse to serve my gods or to worship the gold statue I have set up? 15 I will give you one more chance to bow down and worship the statue I have made when you hear the sound of the musical instruments.[f] But if you refuse, you will be thrown immediately into the blazing furnace. And then what god will be able to rescue you from my power?”

16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. 18 But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.”

The Blazing Furnace

19 Nebuchadnezzar was so furious with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face became distorted with rage. He commanded that the furnace be heated seven times hotter than usual. 20 Then he ordered some of the strongest men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. 21 So they tied them up and threw them into the furnace, fully dressed in their pants, turbans, robes, and other garments. 22 And because the king, in his anger, had demanded such a hot fire in the furnace, the flames killed the soldiers as they threw the three men in. 23 So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, securely tied, fell into the roaring flames.

24 But suddenly, Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in amazement and exclaimed to his advisers, “Didn’t we tie up three men and throw them into the furnace?”

“Yes, Your Majesty, we certainly did,” they replied.

25 “Look!” Nebuchadnezzar shouted. “I see four men, unbound, walking around in the fire unharmed! And the fourth looks like a god[g]!”

26 Then Nebuchadnezzar came as close as he could to the door of the flaming furnace and shouted: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!”

So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stepped out of the fire. 27 Then the high officers, officials, governors, and advisers crowded around them and saw that the fire had not touched them. Not a hair on their heads was singed, and their clothing was not scorched. They didn’t even smell of smoke!

28 Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! He sent his angel to rescue his servants who trusted in him. They defied the king’s command and were willing to die rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore, I make this decree: If any people, whatever their race or nation or language, speak a word against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, they will be torn limb from limb, and their houses will be turned into heaps of rubble. There is no other god who can rescue like this!”

30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to even higher positions in the province of Babylon.

Reflection: Life Lessons from a Furnace

Let’s begin with the kids chat . . .

  • Tell the story of Mom naming the cats
  • Curious about the story from the Bible
  • The names: Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego
  • The situation: Life lessons
  • Faith & Friends: Held on to their belief in God and as friends they were able to withstand the pressure around them

[Share video of Louis Armstrong singing “Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego”]

Now for the reflection . . .

Last week the names of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego surfaced in my brain and I could not figure out why. Granted I have been thinking about what stories from the Bible I could read and share during these weeks between Christmas and Lent, but why in the world would I wake up and have those names running through my memory.

How often do we wake up with a memory of a dream or some thought that makes no sense to us? Last week I was still working on the sermon about Jesus and the Wilderness, so I have no explanation why I would wake up thinking about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. I could not even remember where in the Old Testament the story was recorded so had to do some googling to find it.

Daniel. That is the where I found the story, so I began reading. This was a time that the Babylonians defeated the Israelites; Daniel and his three friends were taken captive. They became slaves of King Nebuchadnezzar and forced to live in Babylon.

Remember that in ancient times, when one country defeated another, the people were faced with death or slavery. Being taken captive was the best option. Daniel was one of the captives who taken as a slave and became a favorite of King Nebuchadnezzar especially when he could tell the King about his dreams and their meanings.

Daniel and his three friends chose to continue practicing their faith even in captivity. Now living as a slave in an entirely new country/culture, one is expected to follow the rules of the king. They did not. In fact, they challenged the king’s demands. The first story in Daniel tells us that they were given food that was not part of their traditional diet. They refused to eat it.

The sect that Daniel and his three friends believed in eating vegetables, fruits and grains. Even though they were deemed to be worthy enough to be fed the king’s foods, they did not want to go against the traditions of their faith. The two-week challenge proved that they could be healthier than the others who did eat the king’s diet.

Remaining faithful to a lifestyle that keeps God at the center is a life lesson for us today. We may not be slaves to a king, but our culture has a way of challenging us to move away from God. We become separated from God by all the different influences that fill our day through the media, especially.

We are all tested daily to remain faithful to God. We have friends who support us and share our values, but we also have friends or neighbors who want us to try something new or do something we are not sure we should. We all are subject to the commercials and ads that seem to be ever present on the TV, on the internet, in the magazines and on the radio. There does not seem to be any defense from them.

When King Nebuchadnezzar built the golden idol and demanded that all pay homage to him, bowing down and worshiping him, Daniel’s friends refused. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego relied on God rather than give in to a demand that would separate them from God. Instead of allowing them to refuse, the king had to carry out his threat to throw them into the furnace.

All too often we find it easier to give in to the demands of the job, of friends, or even of family when we know we should not. The life lesson here is that if you are asked to do something that separates you from God and the faithful lifestyle he expect from you, do not do it.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego surely could not imagine coming out of the furnace alive, but they were so confident that God would protect them, that death would be better than living a life separated from God. The strength of faith certainly must have been helped by the strength of friendship among themselves, too.

This is another life lesson. Choose to surround yourself with those who share the same value system that you do. These three friends, and Daniel, too, remained loyal to God together. They also remained loyal to each other. With so many people interacting with you whether in the neighborhood, at school, at work, or even in the store aisles, our choice to maintain a Christian lifestyle helps us to connect to others with the same foundation.

As we look back over our personal life stories, we can reflect on the most challenging times and consider whether or not we have remained God-centered or not. I certainly can see times in my own life when giving in to another’s pressure separated me from God. Those were times when I was the unhappiest. I knew things were not right, but I failed to stay God-centered.

My fire may not have been a fiery furnace, but I got burned. During the challenges in my life that I remained God-centered, I have found happiness despite the circumstances. Living with God allows us to manage challenges and to find true happiness even in the middle of a storm—or a fiery furnace.

King Nebuchadnezzar witnessed the three friends in the furnace, but he saw a fourth figure. When the three stepped out of the furnace untouched by the fire, the fourth figure disappeared. The king knew what he saw and believed it was an angel of the God they worshiped.

God is with us at all times. He is in a relationship with us as long as we remain in a relationship with him. It is our decision to stay in the relationship. Even if we do not literally see an angel standing beside us, others see God in our lives. We are responsible for maintaining our relationship with God.

God is the fourth figure in the furnace. We must have the confidence that our faith will sustain us through the challenges in this earthly life we are living. All of us seeking to remain in relationship with God can be assured he is with us at all times, whether in a furnace or right here beside us right now.

As the days get longer and the winter darkness fades away, we can still curl up and read the stories of the Old and New Testament to learn life lessons. Each time we read the stories, we find life lessons. The Good Book helps us learn how a relationship with God equips us to handle the negative as well as the positive experiences we have.

Closing prayer:

Dear God, our protector and our friend,

 

Thank you for the story of Daniel and his three friends,

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

 

We read the story of their captivity in a foreign land

And discover that life’s challenges hold us captive, too.

We learn that Daniel and his three friends

Remained faithful to you despite their enslavement.

 

Guide us through the words of the Good Book

As we work to strengthen our relationship with you.

And just as in the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego

Help us to find those who help us remain faithful, too.

 

May we, then, discover how our relationship with you

Frees us from the captivity of life’s challenges.

Keep us surrounded by others, too, who know your love

And will be with us should we be thrown into a fiery furnace. –Amen.

 

 

 

As we prepare to leave today, we can hear the story of the Fourth Man that King Nebuchadnezzar witnessed in the fiery furnace. Johnny Cash weathered many personal challenges, yet he has provided his listeners a testimony of how a relationship with God transforms one’s life:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXF7rG_H0II&list=PLFlOzfWR7LMU37ycMS2ghgPq-WmzfqVII&index=1

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Curling Up with The Good Book: Lessons from the Beatitudes

given on Sunday, January 8, 2017

Scripture base: Matthew 5:1-9 (NLT)

The Sermon on the Mount

5 One day as he saw the crowds gathering, Jesus went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples gathered around him, and he began to teach them.

The Beatitudes

“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,[a]
for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
God blesses those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
God blesses those who are humble,
for they will inherit the whole earth.
God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,[b]
for they will be satisfied.
God blesses those who are merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
God blesses those whose hearts are pure,
for they will see God.
God blesses those who work for peace,
for they will be called the children of God.

 

Reflection:

 

January: New Year. Resolutions. Reorganizing. Cold. How in the world does a person move from one of the busiest times in the year to the deep winter ushered in afterwards?

This week we have hit that winter wall that turns us into recluses. Oh I know that we still have to get out and about when we need groceries or run to the Post Office or keep appointments, but when the temperatures plummet and the forecast starts including words like ICE, SNOW, WIND CHILL, and FRIGID, only the hardiest venture out.

As a winter recluse, the activity of choice might include curling up with a good book and a hot drink as the winter-clad world marches on by. What better book to chose than The Bible. The range of topics is so broad that it can cover one’s favorite type of reading. There is romance, war, history, poetry, irony, political controversy, self-help, and mystery. There is something for everybody’s personal interest.

Of course reading the Bible does take some effort on the reader’s part. The language can create problems, the setting may be difficult to understand, and even the physical product might be a challenge with the tiny print and thin pages. But curling up with The Good Book is an answer to the winter doldrums.

Since it is so early in January, why not consider reading for self-improvement. The Beatitudes located in Matthew 5 is the first portion of the Sermon on the Mount. The setting itself might help us escape the cold, snowy images that surround us.

The Sermon on the Mount is one of the first images of Jesus as a dramatic figure walking around the region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea fed by the Jordan River. The region was arid and mountainous—more like the coastal mountains located along the Pacific Ocean between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The region was a shipping and trading hub, so the towns along the Mediterranean Sea was filled with people of all cultures. Walking the streets one could hear different languages and see all types of diverse cultures. And in the rural area, the images shift to shepherds and the flocks of sheep, the grain fields being hand tilled and harvested.

And in the midst of daily life, Jesus emerges walking along the road with a group of followers. Even though Jesus seems to be focused on the twelve men, he cannot ignore the crowds that keep growing around him. The side of the mountain became a convenient amphitheater to stop and deliver the Good News.

Undoubtedly these cold winter days do not match the setting of Jesus delivering the messages, but the message is no different today than it was when it was first delivered. One of the advantages of reading The Bible today is that we can locate a translation that we enjoy reading and can understand on our own. So when curling up to read, make sure that the translation you read is one that fits you.

Reading a study Bible is helpful for me because it helps me to understand the setting, the audience, the author, and the language. The Life Application Bible adds in a wide range of aids to help understand the deeper meanings and the interrelationships with other passages in the Bible.

The Beatitudes seemed like a good place to begin this week. It was not part of the lectionary, which is a three-year sequence of readings that covers the entire Bible. Instead, I found myself thinking about how resolutions are made each January and it occurred to me that the Beatitudes themselves could be resolutions.

So, I curled up with my Bible and re-read them. Then I read the study notes. Then I read through them again. They sound good, almost like a poem when you hear them read aloud. But some of the words make them sound like riddles. Thank goodness the study notes were available.

Curling up with a Bible like the Life Application Study Bible, easily takes one away from the wintery view outside the window, but the reading opens up the mind. The Beatitudes were delivered to teach the new followers a lifestyle that was life changing just as much today as it was for the first listeners on the mountainside.

Today we need to read and to renew our determination to live the lifestyle outlined in the Beatitudes. The result brings peace to our own lives but can also radiate outward to others who acknowledge what a difference God makes in our lives and decide they, too, want to find the same peace in their lives.

Look back over these eight Beatitudes and consider the impact the lifestyle can make on your own life, but also on the others who come into contact with you. In each verse, there are words that refocus priorities:

  1. . . . realize their need for him:
  2. . . . who mourn . . . will be comforted
  3. . . . humble . . . inherit the whole earth
  4. . . . hunger and thirst for justice
  5. . . . merciful . . . shown mercy
  6. . . . pure hearts . . . see God
  7. . . . peace [workers] . . . will be children of God
  8. . . . doing right [earns] Kingdom of Heaven

[Refer to chart from Life Application Study Bible.]

Not once in these Beatitudes does Jesus mention money or stuff. It is a lifestyle of living for the good of others that receives the reward of eternal life.

The wonder of Christmas found in God’s promise to us is recorded in the words of the New Testament. God’s promise that accepting Jesus as our savior and living the lifestyle outlined in the Beatitudes results in a life filled with peace, joy, harmony and love. Even more importantly God’s promise is that he is with us now and forever.

Curling up with the Good Book may be ideal for this wintery season, but it is always a good activity to include in your daily life. Whether you read a small devotional like the Upper Room or Daily Word or Guideposts, or you simply pick up the Bible and open it randomly, the stories and the lessons inside those pages will make a difference in your life.

Closing prayer:

Dear God,

Thank you for keeping us warm these cold winter days,

Let us find extra warmth in the words of The Good Book.

Let it fuel our lives with purpose and encouragement.

Let examples of the ancient faithful followers

Teach us more about living life’s challenges.

Let Jesus’ words open our minds and hearts

About how to serve one another in love.

Let the letters of the apostles guide us

In living daily as members of God’s family

Blessing us in all that we do. –Amen

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Theology in Action: Esther’s Story

given on Sunday, September 27

Scripture reference:  Old Testament book of Esther

I met Esther this week. A delightful woman living a God-centered life despite challenges that easily could have caused her to live in self-pity. Her example of living her faith is theology in action.

Esther was orphaned as a child, but her uncle raised her in the Jewish tradition and trained her to follow God’s direction. Life circumstances did not interfere with Esther’s reliance on her uncle. She followed her training, respected her uncle, and developed a strong faith in God.

Esther’s story may not match today’s culture; but for many young people today, the parallels are there. In a sense the story is a Cinderella story, too. An orphan or a stepchild living with at least one non-birth parent is a familiar arrangement in today’s world.

Sadly, many young people are entangled in homes where God is far from the center and that makes Esther’s story different. She had a loving, faithful Jewish uncle who raised her as his own which included religious training.

Granted, Esther’s life story may not match those of our young people today, but her story reflects the culture in which she was raised.   The message, though, is the same: despite all life’s circumstances, keep God-centered above all else.

Esther’s story began around 500 years before Christ was born. The culture was so very different than it is today, yet the human nature tends to follow the same patterns. The three other primary characters in Esther’s story are her uncle Mordecai, the king Xerxes, and Haman, the number two guy in the king’s court.

Reading through the brief biographies of Mordecai and Haman, the conflict is defined primarily as a cultural clash. Mordecai was a Jew and Haman was an Amalekite. Today we might ask why that is significant, and the answer is the long-standing dislike between the two peoples. Haman despised the Jewish people. Mordecai was a Jew who still lived under the Persian rule as a captured slave.

Mordecai gained so much respect within his own community; he became a trusted leader among the Jews. When Persia took control, his leadership role continued to earn respect even from the Persian court. His faith-centered life dictated how he lived and that earned him respect and his continued leadership role.

King Xerxes is a key player in Esther’s story, but he is not part of the conflict. He is the official whose decisions lead to the story. His first queen refuses his summon, and upon counsel with his advisors, he decrees she is no longer his queen and cannot even be seen by him. A life long and non-reversible decree that once his anger subsided, he may have realized his error.

Enter Esther. Mordecia’s position and the search for a new queen placed Esther into a position to become the key to the entire Jewish people. Trained by Mordecia in the Jewish faith, to trust God above all others, and do what she was called to do. Her natural beauty and her character brought Xerxes to choose her as his next queen.

Telling Esther’s story can sound complicated but there is one simple theme to remember: We must have faith that God is in control. [from the Life Application Study Bible introduction to Esther]. Today’s culture promotes we in are charge of our own lives, so giving over control to God does not make sense. We make our own decisions.

Yes, we do make our own decisions, and that turns the focus back to Mordecai. He was a God-centered man. He followed God’s expectations to practice his faith much as John Wesley expects from us. What began as a story of a young woman being chosen to serve as a queen, changes each time we read it. The lesson in one reading seems the most important one, but a second reading adds another one.

In fact, the Life Application Study Bible, includes a chart at the end of the chapter that outlines three topics and how we can plan, pray and trust-and-obey even in today’s world. The three ways that God uses to get something done are identified as natural order (God’s creation has a normal working process), miracles (God can interrupt the natural order), and providence (God can overrule the natural order). Esther’s story provides examples of each one:

  • Natural order—God gave Esther her natural beauty and the ability to plan.
  • Miracles—God allowed Esther to speak to the king (which was not typical in the royal tradition); and the Jewish people did pray and fast for three days at Esther’s request.
  • Providence—God allowed Mordecai to overhear the plot to assassinate the king and Mordecai trusted God to accomplish the impossible.

Even today, the same processes are available for God to use in our own lives. The decisive actions we take, also outlined in the chart, are to plan or disobey, pray or demand, or trust-and-obey or despair. We have a choice to make. All decisions we make, with God at the center, will determine the quality of our life and the final judgment God makes upon our death.

Where does this leave us? We have very different culture now, but much that Esther’s story shares are echoed in some of Pope Francis’ words this week. Remember he asked that we pray for him. We are to love one another, as we want to be loved. We are to be good stewards of our earth. We cannot remain faith-centered if we do not work at putting our theology into action.

Theology is the study of God. More importantly theology in action is developing a system—or a lifestyle—that puts belief in God into practice. What you believe must be lived out loud and that allows others to see your theology in action just like we see in Esther’s story.

The results, you ask? Life that centers on the triune God–the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost/Spirit—will lead to salvation. Faith-filled lives reflect God’s glory and others are drawn to people filled with that love.

Life is not about quantity. No matter how much money or wealth or power or control one accumulates, life is about quality. We have a choice to make: Do we follow God’s law or do we presume that we have full control of our lives?

Mordecai taught Esther that following God was the answer. Her story, as well as Mordecai’s, provides us one example for us to follow. Life’s challenges will not always feel like God is present in our lives, but it is our own decision whether to trust and obey or whether to despair.

Certainly despair will not improve the quality of one’s life. Trusting and obeying God’s laws will allow us to live life with an abundance of joy. By trusting and obeying God, we will know we are saved and others will see how God-centered lives provide riches beyond human measure.

So read and study scripture, pray all the time, worship regularly, participate in communion, and fast or abstain as a practice of discipline. These are the acts of piety that will guide you to a God-centered life and salvation.

Closing prayer: This is a prayer I received from BJ and a friend Mary this week. Please join me. . .

Father,

Thank You for each and every day

You have blessed us here on earth.

Thank You for Your tender mercies.

Thank You for giving us friends and family

to share joys and sorrows with.

I ask You to bless my friends,

relatives, brothers and sisters in Christ

and those I care deeply for,

who are reading this right now.

Where there is joy, give them continued joy.

Where there is pain or sorrow,

give them your peace and mercy.

Where there is self-doubt,

release a renewed confidence.

Where there is need, fulfill their needs.

Bless their homes, families, finances,

their goings and their comings.

In Jesus’ name, amen.

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