Category Archives: Pastor’s Page

New Beginning

For those of you who know me, you know that I’m a book’s best friend. I recently read this thought about two journeys for the soul. One goes from place to place seeking something or someone to             satisfy. It is often disappointed and soon picks up and journeys again. The other is a journey to Jesus Christ. There one finds a peace that is lasting and a presence that satisfies and fulfills. So New Year is supremely a time for decision. By the mercies of God we have been brought and blessed with the opportunity to begin again. The New Year, however is not altogether unexplored territory. As we move through it, we shall find some well-trodden paths, and we shall see the footprints of the saints who have walked the way of God before us, the way that God himself marked out when he clothed himself in our flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.  <!–split–>

There will always be a familiar sign in front of us. “This is the way; walk ye in it.” This year let us follow that sign and we shall move toward that city whose maker and builder is God. Should we choose to ignore that sign and wander into the path of our own devising, and soon the territory of  tomorrow will take on the dreary, futile appearance of all our wasted yesterdays.

 —Pastor Stan

FROM THE DESK OF PASTOR STAN: “The Undivided Heart” (part 3) by Carolyn Moore

The people did what people mostly do.  They allowed the voice of fear to drown out the voice of potential and it cost them dearly.  That day, God turned them back from the border of promise.  He sent them out into the wilderness again where he promptly vowed that not one of their generation would see the land flowing with milk and honey.  Fear would not be woven into the DNA of his chosen people, not if God had anything to do with it.  <!–split–>

So the people got in the wilderness what they were most afraid of getting in the Promised Land.  They were destroyed by their own choice.  For 38 years they wandered like dead men walking before another generation found itself toe-to-toe with God’s purposes.

I wonder if most of that first generation even knew how close they were to greatness?  I wonder if, way down the road, some of them sat around campfires and wondered aloud, “What do you suppose would have become of us if we had listened to Joshua and Caleb?  How do you suppose it would have turned out?”  Did they even stop to think about it as they poked their fires or packed up their tents yet again or held their cups beneath water flowing from rocks?

Did they think that deeply? Did they assume, like most people, that what they had twenty or thirty years out from that decision was all there was?  Did they ever stop to imagine more than mediocrity punctuated by death?  Or did they simply go about their lives, making grocery lists, making beds, making a living, making do?

I wonder, but I can’t judge.  After all, I am an Israelite myself.  I peek over into spiritual promises and my little internal band of spies reports back, “That’ll never work for you,” and far too often I listen to those voices of fear or laziness or institutional caution and I miss out.

Who knows how long I’ve wandered, unaware of the promises I’ve turned down, while God in his mercy determines to kill of all in me that reeks of fear?

Who knows how long our denomination as a whole will wander, while God in his mercy determines to kill off all in us that reeks of fear?  What if, even now, we are wandering in a desert of our own making, unable to image more than mediocrity punctuated by death?  Friends, fear is a killer.  It kills spirits and can even thwart great moves of God.  I hope we are not hanging on to an institution simply because we are afraid of stepping into God’s vision for us.

Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly?  Not half-heartedly.  Not with your spare change and spare time.  Not only as far as your comforts will take you.   Not fearfully, but wholly to God and God’s work?  In your study and worship and fellowship and serving and in the truth you share, be passionately committed to the pursuit of wholeness so you can be in passionate pursuit of the presence of Christ.  Without that kind of vulnerable, wholehearted faith it is impossible to please God.

FROM THE DESK OF PASTOR STAN: “The Undivided Heart” (part 2) by Carolyn Moore

Paralyzing fear takes away our power to fight the enemy.  We become reactionary and prone toward survival-level decisions.  Fear makes for terrible career choices.  What spiritual work do you need to do in order to admit to and deal with the irrational and self-limiting fears in your life?  Are you resolved to do that healing work?  Resolved does not mean “only if it gets out of control” or ‘until something better comes along.”  Resolved means surrendered, submitted, committed, sacrificially obedient.  Being resolved to devote myself wholly to God means going after wholeness in my life, no matter the cost. <!–split–>

Too much of our conversation in The United Methodist Church is driven by fear.  For decades, fear has kept us from talking lovingly and honestly about our differences.  Fear is keeping congregations from frank discussions about our current crisis.  Fear has kept us in a defensive crouch.  Fear has kept us from acknowledging the depth of our divide. We have wanted to characterize it as a simple paper cut when it is in fact a gaping wound breeding infection.  By minimizing the differences, we may stifle a crisis that is actually our opportunity – if we’re bold enough to accept change as a good thing – to give clearly unique theological positions a chance to live with more integrity and to prove themselves by their fruit.

I hear echoes of angels in this moment before us, encouraging “Be not afraid.” Meanwhile, we shrink back, for fear of what we might lose if we act boldly.

Fear is the great enemy of wholeheartedness.

Two years after the Israelites were delivered from their five hundred years of oppressive slavery in Egypt, they found themselves standing on the brink of the land God promised them.  To get to this place, they had seen waters part and enemies drown.  Yahweh was intimately involved with their lives.  They knew him.  They followed him.  And just two short years after packing up and moving out of bondage, there they stood on the brink of God’s best.  Yes, there were vicious armies and untamed wilds on the other side of that border, but they had the smoke and fire of God blazing their trail.

Then it happened.  Human nature kicked in.

They became more cautious than optimistic.  There at the edge of God’s plan, they sent a dozen spies into that question mark of a promise to check things out.  Then returning spies slinked back with a warning: “Don’t do it! It is great real estate, but the people are giants.  We will all die if we go over there.” The majority report was full of fear and trepidation.

The other two spies – young men named Joshua and Caleb – looked on that land and saw a future with hope.  For them, the land was more possibility than problems.  “I think we should do this,” they challenged.  “This is God’s land and God’s fight.  Let God defend us!”

FROM THE DESK OF PASTOR STAN: “The Undivided Heart” by Carolyn Moore

Most anyone who has ever held a part time position in a church will be the first to tell you there is really no such thing as “part time” in church work.  “Part-time” is a carrot they dangle so they can get you on the payroll and soak up every minute of you, but maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.  This work, however, is not meant to be carried out with our leftover time or leftover money.  Jesus never gave us that option.  He calls those who follow earnestly to take up  crosses, die to self, leave it all on the table.  We are even told that those who preach and teach are held to a higher standard.  “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers,” James warns, “because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). <!–split–>

If the only option open to us is wholeheartedness – being wholly devoted to God and his work – then how do we know we have it?  What is the litmus test for wholeheartedness?  What spiritual work must we tackle before we can give ourselves completely to this vocation of serving Jesus?  We know from both Scripture and experience that it isn’t our skill set that gets us there, nor is it our awesome connections or superior ability to do everything just right.  This business of wholeheartedness is a spiritual operation.  It is what it says it is:  heart-level wholeness.

What does it mean to become whole, by biblical standards?  Surely it begins with Paul’s advice to work out your own salvation daily with fear and trembling.  Stay in it, Paul advises, and wrestle with what it looks like in your life.  Let the daily wrestling expose the cracks and wounds.  Deal with the unholy fears that paralyze you, leaving you stranded out there in the desert, unable to make the journey into the promises of God.  Acknowledge your doubts, and dare to believe God can handle them. To become wholehearted, we must deal with our wounds and hesitations, fears and doubts, even as we develop eyes to see what God sees.

When I was a little girl, I often had nightmares. I’d wake up petrified and run for my parents’ room.  I wanted my mother’s comfort.  But it was dark, and things in the dark look ominous. If there was anything on the floor of their bedroom – clothes, bedroom shoes, anything that could be misinterpreted in the dark – I’d end up standing paralyzed in the doorway, just feet from their bed, unable to reach my mom for fear of what that thing on the floor might be.  I always assumed the worst.

Carry the remnants of those early fears into adulthood and they begin to look remarkable familiar to many of us. We allow all kinds of things to generate fear within, to stand between us and the comfort we so desperately need.  We become afraid of getting too close to others, afraid of losing control, afraid of going too far with God, maybe even afraid of succeeding (too much pressure!).  We can become paralyzed by irrational fears.  The writer of Leviticus has our number.  He describes a conversation between God and his people.  If the Israelites continue to disobey, their land will be devastated and the people will be scattered.  “And for those of you who survive, I will demoralize you in the land of your enemies.  You will live in such fear that the sound of a leaf driven by the wind will send you fleeing.  You will run as though fleeing from a sword and you will fall even when no one pursues you.  Though no one is chasing you, you will stumble over each other as though fleeing from a sword.  You will have no power to stand up against your enemies” (Leviticus 26:36-37 NLT).

(CONTINUED NEXT MONTH)

From The Desk Of Pastor Stan

This article is from the United Methodist “Good News” publication. 

I wanted to share it with you . . .

 “Outwitted by God” by James V. Heidinger II

Maxie Dunnam was reluctant to write God Outwitted Me: The Stories of my Life (Seedbed).  He feared it might appear self-serving.  And after all, he had already written some 40 books and felt that he had told the stories about his life as he was  living it.  While he was urged by many to write such a work, we are deeply indebted to his wife, Jerry, for the nudge that was “the final straw that pushed me over the edge.”  She urged him to write it if for “no other reason, for our children and grandchildren.” <!–split–>

As I write these words, I find myself wanting to thank Jerry repeatedly for that nudge.  I also thank J.D. Walt and the Seedbed team for publishing this rich, relevant, and deeply moving memoir.  The word memoir, rather than autobiography, is Maxie’s choice.  “I’m reminiscing and reflecting,” he writes.  “Some may even say I’m ‘preaching and teaching’ about my experiences.”  These are, indeed, the stories of his life, and Methodists around the world will be deeply moved, instructed, and blessed by them.  Bishops would do well to recommend it to their pastors.

Maxie Dunnam was born in deeply rural Mississippi in 1934, when the country was still feeling the seismic effects of the Great Depression.  He knew poverty and deprivation and paints vivid word pictures of the bleakness of his childhood years.  His home had no electricity or plumbing, and a pathway led down to the outdoor toilet with its memorable, pungent odors.  He recalls the 200-yard trek the family made to get water from a spring.

It was from this humble, backwoods setting that Maxie Dunnam, at age 13, responded to the Gospel he heard preached by Brother Wiley Grissom at Eastside Baptist Church.  As he went forward, his father was right behind him to profess faith in Christ.  The next Sunday, they both were baptized at nearby Thompson Creek.  I admired Maxie’s telling of Brother Grissom’s influence on his life.  Though the Baptist preacher had only a 5th grade education, Maxie showed no condescension toward the uneducated Baptist preacher who had brought him to Christ.  Maxie noted that later, while president of Asbury Theological Seminary, he often thought of Brother Grissom.  “Memory of him kept me aware of the fact that calling and anointing are as important (ultimately, maybe more important) as education.”

From this rural Mississippi setting, came a humble young man who became an effective Methodist minister, served churches faithfully, became the World Editor of the Upper Room devotional, and while there founded the church’s Walk to Emmaus program and helped launch the Academy for Spiritual Formation.  He became a leader in the World Methodist Council, served as senior pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, and then in 1994 was elected President of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.  After serving as seminary president for 10 years, Maxie, along with his wife, Jerry, returned to Christ UM Church in Memphis where he serves today on the staff as minister-at-large along with senior pastor Shane Stanford.  What an extraordinary journey! One senses in this compelling work the pivotal role that prayer has played in Maxie’s ministry, as well as the impressive reality of how Maxie and Jerry were always a team doing ministry together.

In fact, Jerry was a working partner with Maxie in the World Methodist Council.  At the 1991 World Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, Jerry envisioned each national church being asked to create in advance an artistic representation of their church in the year prior to coming to the ‘91 Conference.  In the words of Dr. Joe Hale, the late general secretary of the World Methodist Council, “The overall result was a spectacular array of color, coordinated style, and …an international artistry that was stunning.”  One day of the conference, these banners were carried “through the streets of the city in a great procession.”  Jerry’s wonderful vision of artistry has been a part of every world conference since.

Readers walk with Maxie through the incredible racial violence that existed in Mississippi in 1963.  While he was pastoring there, Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson.  The civil rights leader had been helping in James Meredith’s efforts to enroll in the University of Mississippi.  The whole nation was seething with emotion and anger.  Maxie was one of twenty-eight Methodist ministers in the Mississippi Annual Conference who gathered to present a statement.  “Born of Conviction,” to the church in Mississippi.  The statement shook Methodism to its foundations as it got wide media coverage in the state.

One feels the emotion as one of Maxie’s most active members, a doctor who had delivered both of their daughters, “stormed into my office, threw a copy of the Times-Picayune (a New Orleans newspaper) down on the desk and shouted, “What the hell is this?  I have never been so disappointed in my life!”  Maxie’s handling of this encounter is a beautiful example of how Christ was forming his mind and character in the early years of his ministry.

Maxie recalls that, “Within 18 months of the signing of the document, 18 of the 28 signers had left Mississippi, two left later, and only 8 continued their total ministry vocation in the state.” In June of 2013, on the 50th anniversary of Evers’ death, the Mississippi Annual Conference was meeting in Jackson.  The conference presented the The Emma Elzy Award, and award celebrating those who had contributed to the improvement of race relations in Mississippi, to “the 28 ministers.”  Eight of the 28 signers who were still living were present.  Maxie was invited and was there along with Keith Tonkel to    accept the award for “the 28.”  Maxie said in his acceptance remarks, “Fifty years ago some young men, now old men, signed a statement, and now this Annual Conference is saying, ‘We appreciate that.’ God outwits us.” (For a complete article about the statement and its impact, see “The Long Arc Toward Justice” by Steve Beard, Good News, July/August, 2013.)

Maxie is know and loved by Methodists around the world probably more than any living United Methodist leader.  They will be blessed and edified by his book.  Here is a pastor who has been effective in the local church, bold in addressing issues facing the nation, a visionary leader at the Upper Room, a prolific author, a seminary president, a voice for renewal (the Houston and Memphis Declarations, and a co-founder of the Confessing Movement), and a mentor to more pastors than we might imagine.

Maxie believes his most significant contribution to the cause of Christianity and the Christian Church was The Workbook of Living Prayer.  It was first published in 1974 and is still in print.  The publisher estimates that more than one million copies have been printed, and it is available in at least six different languages.  These numbers are utterly stunning! Maxie reports having received “thousands of letters from people who have used it” and many have testified “that their lives were transformed, and many others mark their commitment to full-time Christian ministry to the use of the workbook.”

This is a story that needed to be told.  It is a book that needs to be read.  For those who read it, they will find it far more rewarding than they might have imagined.

In the foreword to the book, the Rev. J.D. Walt, Seedbed’s Publisher, tells of having the task of introducing Maxie to a large group of folks gathered for a weekend of preaching and teaching.  He struggled as he stood before the group and asked, “How does one introduce a hero?”  With those words, he broke down and began to weep.  He could only motion for Maxie to come to the stage, and he sat down.  I think I understand.  Maxie has been a great Christian leader of our day, is a man of genuine humility, of Christlikeness, of impeccable integrity, of seasoned wisdom, and a leader grounded in biblical truth and prayer.  J.D., you are right.  He is worthy of being our “hero.”  May the Lord give us more like him.

From The Desk Of Pastor Stan

The past year has been one of the most enjoyable years of my 40 years of Ministry. Since becoming the Pastor here at Bethel Wesley, I have been blessed to shepherd some of the most wonderful people in Methodism. The warmth and acceptance has made it easy for me to adjust in so many ways. I thank all of you and I am constantly praying for each of you to grow spiritually and continue to be the loving and caring congregation that you are. <!–split–>

As we embark upon a new conference year, let’s all continue to support the programs, ministries and outreach efforts that Bethel Wesley is currently engaged in. I am excited to see which direction God is going to take us this year.

I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul’s letter of encouragement to the church at Philippi. Paul’s advice to his friends at Philippi, I believe, proves uniquely relevant for us today. Strange events are taking place in the world. A temptation exists for Christians to panic on one hand or go off on a tangent on the other hand. Some people even claim to have a key to future events and capitalize on their so-called knowledge by exploiting gullible people who follow them blindly. Yet, there are others who have become frustrated with the seeming hopelessness of the world and the condition that it is in. There are also those who have become emotionally incapable of normal Christian living and service.

What will wise Christians do? May I suggest that we follow Paul’s simple yet profound advice to the Christians at Philippi?  Whether God is about to wrap up history or not, we should serve him faithfully now. If God is ready to take us to heaven, we should be ready to go. If, however God wants us to continue to live in this perplexed world, we need to be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. Why, of one thing we can be certain – our work, no matter how small it may seem, will not be useless nor fruitless if we are serving our Savior!

From the desk of Pastor Stan – The Lord Is My Shepherd, PSALM 23

A Shepherd To Individuals

“The LORD is my shepherd ….” Who can make this claim? Israel, certainly. Yes, Moses, too. David? God was surely David’s shepherd. When no one, absolutely no one, took the stripling David remotely seriously as the one who would wrest the throne from Saul, the LORD raised up Samuel to anoint him king, selecting him over his brothers who were far more likely contenders. David, himself a shepherd, traditionally thought to be the author of this psalm — surely he can make the claim, “The LORD is my shepherd.” <!–split–>

Yes, when we think of it, there are many scattered throughout what we call the Old Testament who could pray this psalm and mean it: “The LORD is my shepherd.” We have what the letter to the Hebrews calls a great cloud of witnesses who, when they were reduced to nothing, were led, shepherded, provided for by the LORD. Deborah and Barak, Gideon, laying out his fleece, all guided to take on the mighty Philistine charioteers — and prevail. Ruth, clinging to the skirt of her mother-in-law, like Abraham leaving her country and her kindred and her parents’ house. The prophets: Isaiah. Jeremiah, no more than a child, yet speaking the truth to power, and being imprisoned in a dry well for his trouble, brought out again by the intervention of those who had ears to hear God speaking through him.

And finally, David’s direct descendant, the one we call Lord: Jesus Christ — yes, certainly he can pray this prayer, as he prayed, on the cross, the lament contained in the psalm immediately preceding this one. The LORD delivered him out of the very jaws of death.

This psalm and its promises are surely accessible to all of these. Even in the New Testament, those first apostles could surely lay claim to this statement, “The LORD is my shepherd.” When they could do nothing but cower in a locked room, suddenly, the Lord, the risen Lord, Jesus — the Good Shepherd — was there among them, showing them his hands and his side, sending them forth to proclaim the Good News to a world hungry for it. Saul, later Paul, yanked off his horse by the Good Shepherd’s staff as he made his way to Damascus to give those first Christians reason to cry out, “The Lord is my shepherd!” — Paul, persecuted, beaten with rods, given the 40 lashes minus one, and going on to raise up churches throughout that Empire that thought it ruled the world; certainly he had as much claim to the words, “the LORD is my shepherd” as any in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Our Shepherd, Too

But what about us? What about me? Can we be so bold as to make this claim, “The LORD is my shepherd?” Can we move beyond reciting, yet barely daring to believe, these verses as words we were required to memorize as children? How, when, do these words, “The LORD is my shepherd,” become, not just words in the Bible, but our words, even my words? How do I lay claim to these words and make them mine? May I be so bold …?

Let’s look at what comes after the psalmist makes his claim, “The LORD is my shepherd.” I will, the psalmist says, lie down in green pastures. I will surely find myself beside, not troubled waters, but still waters. My soul shall be restored. I will discover right paths, and even in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for the LORD, who is indeed my shepherd, will lead me.

Surely the psalmist makes a bold claim in the first verse: “The LORD is my shepherd.” But then the bold claims, by necessity, stop. Yes, I will find myself lying in green pastures — but they will not be pastures I will have sought out or constructed; it is the LORD who will lead me to them. I will rest beside still waters — yet it is the LORD who will take me there. I myself, in my own wisdom, haven’t a clue where they are or how to find them. I cannot find my way to them any more than sheep — let’s face it, notoriously stupid animals — can find their own way to adequate pastures and watering holes.

In making the bold claim, the LORD is my shepherd, the psalmist must move immediately to the understanding that if the LORD is the shepherd — then I must be the sheep. And herein lies the proverbial rub for us denizens of this postmodern world, this self-sufficient, independent culture. We would rather wander in the wilderness than admit that we even need a shepherd. We hold in contempt the very idea that any God worthy of the name — worthy of us — would stoop to be something so lowly as a shepherd. We don’t want a “shepherd,” anyway; we want a warrior king to turn us into a triumphant army of which we will be co-commanders.

 Our Need For God

If we would lay claim to this claim, made by so many throughout the centuries, we need also to lay claim to our need for God. If I would pray, The LORD is my shepherd, I have to relinquish my claim that I will find my own way forward. If I would have the LORD as my shepherd, if we would call the LORD our shepherd, we have to let go of our expectation that we will find pastures for ourselves, that we with our technology and our “can-do” spirit will wrest water for ourselves from whatever rock dares stand in our way.

Would we claim the LORD as our shepherd? Then we need to let go. We need simply to rest in the presence of the LORD, seek the LORD’s guidance in prayer, both personal and  collective, let go and let the LORD lead. If we would have the LORD as our shepherd — let us first off acknowledge that the LORD is our shepherd.

And then — may the LORD lead us forward, to green  pastures, still waters. May the LORD take us down our right path. Even if our right path takes us into the very Valley of the Shadow of Death — we in our humility will be bold, in that we will fear no evil, for we will know our shepherd, and we will know that the shepherd — our shepherd — will be with us  always.

From the desk of Pastor Stan – The Lord Is My Shepherd, PSALM 23

I wanted to share this message with you because I think it’s a reminder of why we are so important to God. It also reminds me that I, we are also the apple of God’s eye. I pray that the messages that I preach are always thought provoking and uplifting. Be encouraged! Pastor Stan

SUMMARY

If we would be so bold as to make the claim, the LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Creator of the Universe, is our shepherd, we first need to relinquish our claims of self-sufficiency and acknowledge our need of a shepherd. <!–split–>

 What more can be said about the 23rd Psalm? How many of us were — thankfully — required to memorize it when we were yet barely able to read? How often have we heard it? How often have we recited it? How often have we thrown it up unto the Lord our God, frantically, as our own personal cry of the heart, when (and only when) it seemed as if all else had failed and we could not see the way before us?

Really, what promises this psalm puts forward! It is good for us to return to it often, savoring, pondering each line, rather than thoughtlessly repeating it as an exercise we have been required to commit to memory. Returning to it, even as adults, brings much in the way of rewards. Why has this psalm been commended to legions of youth over the centuries of the church’s life? Simply because it promises so much.

“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want ….” This is quite a claim, after all! Who would dare make such a bold statement, a claim bordering on spiritual pride, even arrogance — the LORD, God, the Creator of the Universe, the God of the Exodus, is my shepherd; mine! Who is speaking, here? David? Jesus? Israel? Me? Us? Who could make such a claim?

The Shepherd Of Israel

Israel could, to be sure. The LORD was indeed Israel’s shepherd, as Israel made its collective way out of Egypt, out of slavery, and onto the land promised to them forever, with the LORD, yes, shepherding them with mighty acts of salvation. When Israel was in the wilderness, Israel “wanted” nothing; Israel lacked nothing. The LORD provided what Israel needed: manna for food, water out of a rock, leadership from Moses, correction when straying off to golden calves and to political rebellion. The clothes on their backs did not wear out; the sandals on their feet did not rot away. Surely God shepherded Israel; God provided for Israel as a shepherd provides for sheep.

Even before that time in the wilderness, when Israel was helpless in the iron grip of an oppressor requiring them, literally, to make bricks without straw even then, God was Israel’s shepherd. The Israelites, ground down, could do nothing for themselves. God raised up Moses to lead them out from under Pharaoh’s heel — indeed, even before Moses was born, God was Moses’ shepherd. Moses, born of an unnamed Levite man and an unnamed Levite woman, was shielded from Pharaoh’s grip by the faith and the resourcefulness of his sister Miriam. And Moses, tending his flock in Midian after being driven from Egypt by faithless and ungrateful Israelites, was shepherded, against his own stubborn will, back to Egypt by a Voice calling from a burning bush.

Moses, himself shepherded by God, shepherded Israel out of Egypt. Then, during that time in the wilderness, when the Israelites could do nothing for themselves except complain, God provided food from heaven; God provided water from bare rock. God provided. God was Moses’ shepherd; God was Israel’s shepherd.

                                                        — to be continued in the June “Chimes”

Prepare For Impact

SUMMARY

Jesus Christ lived, died and was raised so that all who believe may live fully for God. Jesus’ resurrection calls all people to move past fear and doubt to embrace the mission of extending God’s offer of abundant life to the world.

Followers of Jesus Christ around the world this season are greeting one another by saying “Christ is risen,” and responding by saying “Christ is risen indeed!” Many of us may mouth these words, but inwardly we may be asking, “So what?” We have heard the story over and over, but it simply remains a story detached from life. <!–split–>

Mark Twain, the great American humorist and writer, penned a classic piece titled “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” In this yarn, Twain narrates an encounter that he had with a man named Simon Wheeler. Twain is interested in learning about a fellow named Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley. This story is ultimately a long rambling narrative about nothing. Instead of telling Twain about the Rev. Smiley, Wheeler spins a long-winded story about a certain Jim Smiley. Wheeler’s narrative goes nowhere and moves from one unrelated story to another.

As we gather today ostensibly to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, it is worth pondering its interaction with our lives:

  • Is it the center of our lives or is the story of the first Easter morning simply another detached narrative that we store along with any number of other stories that we have heard over the course of our lives?
  • Is it simply a story or is it the story?
  • What difference does it make in our day-to-day lives that Jesus was raised?
  • How has this truth changed us?

Would our lives be any different if Jesus had not been raised?

For Jesus’ earliest followers, the reality of Jesus’ resurrection changed everything. It transformed a group of frightened and doubting people into a revolutionary movement that impacted the entire Roman world. It elevated an obscure Jewish teacher into a figure worthy of universal worship. It sent common fishermen to the far reaches of the world. It can transform our lives today if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

Our scripture lesson includes two episodes in the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection and a final comment by the author. In the first, Jesus appears to his remaining disciples (except for Thomas) and breaths into them the Holy Spirit. In the second, Jesus appears to Thomas who had disbelieved his fellow disciples about Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus assuages his doubts, and Thomas recognizes Jesus in all of his fullness and triumph. Our text ends with an editorial comment by the gospel writer, which points to the overall purpose of the story about Jesus.

Embrace The Mission

Unlike Simon Wheeler in the Twain story, the writer of John’s gospel does not mince words or spin tales for the sake of hearing himself talk. The story about Jesus has a purpose. This purpose is life altering and uncompromising. The story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection points to only one conclusion: Jesus is the only true way to live the life that God created us to live.

This is crucial information. This needs to become the “word on the street.” The Gospel about Jesus Christ is not a maudlin middle-class myth — it is good news. The various stories about Jesus that circulate are not the isolated “Christian” equivalent of Aesop’s fables or like-minded stories intended to teach virtue or ethics. John has gathered these stories together for one purpose and one purpose only: to inspire a life-altering, paradigm-shifting, world-changing belief in Jesus as the long-awaited good news from God, from the God who makes it possible to enjoy life in all of its fullness forever with him.

This is good news for all people. Students of John debate the meaning of “so that you may come to believe” in verse 31. Some Bible versions translate the phrase as though John is writing for the purpose of persuading outsiders to the faith to experience a moment of conversion. Other versions translate the phrase as “so that you may continue to believe.” In this case, the gospel serves to strengthen an already present faith.

In either case, the intention of the John’s gospel and the Gospel message is clear — the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is missional. The Gospel seeks to change everyone who hears it and to shape each person into a follower of Jesus Christ. It calls to those on the outside to become part of the community and it continues to call those on the inside to live fully in light of its good news.

Have we embraced God’s mission? Have we experienced the life that God desires for us to enjoy forever? If not, what is holding us back?

Our scripture lesson suggests that there are at least two stumbling blocks to embracing fully a life-altering belief in Jesus Christ — fear and doubt.

Moving Through Fear

Fear can be paralyzing. Imagine the lives of the disciples in the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion. Their dreams had been crushed. Their movement squelched. Their very lives seemed threatened. They must have asked themselves, “Will we be next?”

To see its true paralyzing nature, we need to set the fear of the disciples in its context. In the first two-thirds of John 20, we learn that Jesus’ tomb is empty. Peter and John race to check it out. They find an empty tomb but they are unable to make sense of it. They return home. Only Mary remains at the grave. She encounters Jesus. Jesus sends her to share the good news with the disciples. She returns to the disciples and announces, “I have seen the Lord.”1

Apparently, this eyewitness report from a trusted friend of Jesus did not lessen the fear of the disciples one iota. They remain locked in their house.

How many of us do not fully embrace the mission of Jesus out of fear? Yet there is a great irony at work. The Gospel claims that God has conquered even the power of death. Yet fear at its roots concerns itself with self-preservation. If God has indeed raised Jesus from the dead, what is left to fear?

The words of Martin Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress in Our God,” come to mind: “The body they may kill. God’s truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever!”

Jesus appears to his frightened disciples and breathes the Holy Spirit on them. The Spirit empowers them to overcome fear and embrace the mission of Jesus. Jesus authorizes them to serve a high calling — the extending of forgiveness to others on behalf of God. The life to which God calls us is one that gives life to others. Back in John 10:10, Jesus promised an abundant life. This life begins with the restoration of relationship with God through forgiveness. When we move through fear to embrace life, God’s Spirit empowers us to participate in God’s mission.

What are we afraid of this day? What is keeping us from embracing the life that God created us to live? If Jesus is alive, how can fear keep us from true life? What would it take to move us past our fear?

Moving Through Doubt

Doubt is a second great stumbling block to the life that God desires for us. Thomas, forever remembered in the annals of Christendom as “Doubting Thomas,” is unable to believe that Jesus is alive. Even after his fellow disciples proclaim, “We have seen the Lord,” he remains in disbelief. Doubt is as paralyzing as fear. If fear keeps us from committing ourselves fully out of self-interest, doubt prevents us from fully embracing an idea or movement because of the fact that we might be wrong.

Many of us today are able to grasp the idea of Jesus’ resurrection. Many of us are even able to recognize the incredible power that such an event would have. But many of us doubt. This is understandable. Thomas doubted and he was much closer to the events than any of us ever will be.

But doubt cannot keep us from Jesus Christ. Christian faith is neither naïve nor wrong-headed. It is based on the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. The gospel of John deals with Thomas’ doubt by reporting that Jesus met him face to face. In other words, John concedes that Thomas doubted, but Thomas did not remain in doubt. Something happened — Jesus the risen Lord appeared to him. Thomas was transformed from a doubter to one of the most zealous disciples in terms of mission. Thomas is alleged to have carried the Gospel personally as far east as India before his death.

The gospels include other scenes of doubt in the face of Jesus’ resurrection,2 but nowhere does doubt thwart a life-changing faith. There are simply too many eyewitness accounts to be frozen by doubt.

Throughout the centuries, many women and men have had their doubts about Jesus, but time and time again, careful investigation ultimately leads to a life-changing faith. If any of us sit here this morning trapped in a prison of doubt, do not give up. Seek after the truth and it will set you free.

Meeting God During Lent

It’s my sincere prayer and hope that during this season of Lent that we will draw closer to God and seek to do His will.

Here we are: It’s the season of Lent, and I’m wondering if I should tell you the truth about it. Most of us pastors agree that this is the most important season of the church year, seven weeks that come to a grand climax with Easter Sunday. Church attendance is traditionally at its best in this season. The most loyal believers look for ways to deepen their faith, and even those out on the periphery often acknowledge that during this period  they hope to do better than they’ve been doing. But as we gather on this Sunday, I keep asking myself if I should tell you the truth about it all. <!–split–>

Perhaps I should begin by telling you where Lent comes from. For many hundreds of years, Christians have set aside 40 days before Easter as a time of preparation for Easter. These 40 days have been counted in a variety of ways, but for many centuries they have been the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, except for the Sundays.

Why 40? Because through the Bible, 40 has been the number for testing, or in some cases, the solitude that provides a setting for testing. Thus, Moses was alone with God for 40 days as he received the Ten Commandments, and the prophet Elijah traveled for 40 days and nights without food to reach Horeb, the mount of God.

But the number 40 came to its highest significance in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the story in our Scripture lesson of the day. Jesus had just been baptized by John. It was an electric moment, for as Jesus was coming out of the water, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Into The Wilderness          

Then, the very Holy Spirit that had so signally recognized Jesus led him “into the wilderness,” where he was tempted by the devil. There he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. It must have been a time of very intense seeking of God. Some of us know what it is to fast for a meal or for a day. Once, long ago, I fasted for three days. But 40 days! I can’t even imagine it. More than that, they were days of utter solitude. In such a wilderness, the sounds of human life are lost in silence, and in the subtle, usually unheard, voices of nature.

I’m told that after several days of fasting, one’s desire for feed begins to diminish. At the same time, a person’s spiritual sensitivity is greater. The barrier between the soul and God slowly fades, until at times the divine is more real than the natural. I suspect that Jesus was enjoying just such communion with his Father. Still fresh from the waters of baptism, eager to begin the ministry that was the purpose of his being, Jesus must have felt as if he would burst with the excitement of what lay ahead.

Then a discord shattered the ecstatic beauty. It was a quiet voice, but a demanding one. There was no escaping it. The voice that so long ago had intruded on the perfection of Eden now invaded Jesus’ holy solitude. “You’re hungry, aren’t you?” (He had almost forgotten that hunger existed.) “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.”

Temptation is always complex, probably because you and I are such complex creatures. There was the very real, natural fact of hunger. When one hasn’t eaten for 40 days and nights, the insistence of appetite may have diminished, but the need is crucially real. There’s a limit to how long the body can go without fuel, and now that the suggestion had been made, natural need must have come on like a flood.

But more than that, there was a challenge to Jesus’ very identity. The baptismal voice had said, 40 days earlier, “my Son, the Beloved.” Now the devil snickered, “If it’s so, prove it! Goodness knows you need bread, so put your supposed powers to some good and practical use.”

As the gospel writer tells the story, Jesus met the temptation quickly, easily, succinctly. I wonder, though, if the Master’s answer came slowly, perhaps even haltingly, out of a huge wrestling of the soul? We can never know. In any event, when he gave his answer, the enemy moved to a whole new playing field. This time the temptation had to do with the power and goodness of God. The devil reminded him of a promise in the book of Psalms, and suggested that he should leap from the pinnacle of the temple, because God’s angels will watch over those who trust him.

As temptations go, this may well be the most popular one these days. We live in a culture where people expect to get what they want, and to get it fast. So we treat God the way inconsiderate people treat a table server. “I want healing. A better job. A bigger house. A growing church.” “And why shouldn’t I ask it?” someone says. “Doesn’t God want the best for us?”

God does, indeed, want the best for us. And the truth is, in many cases if we got the things we ask for, right at the moment we request them, it would be like casting ourselves from the pinnacle of the temple; getting what we want would destroy us. The promises of God are very wonderful; so wonderful that we’re sometimes tempted to worship the promises rather than worshiping God. Our power-hungry, give-me-what-I-want age needs desperately to know that God is God and we are not, and that God can be trusted to know how our prayers are best answered.

The devil tried again. (You may have noticed that the devil is persistent.) He held out before Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor,” and offered them if only Jesus would fall down and worship him. I believe the most important thing Jesus knew about himself was this, that he had come into the world to die, and that the course he must take would lead eventually to a cross. On the surface, the devil’s offer was appealing. Jesus gave a clear, fierce answer. “Away with you Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

 Big Soul-Business

Now here’s the part I’ve hesitated to tell you. This wilderness experience ― the 40 days and nights of fasting, that concluded in such incisive temptation ― this is the basis for our Lenten season. Hundreds of years ago our Christian ancestors, led by the Holy Spirit, set aside 40 days of preparation for Easter, and they built the whole idea around Jesus in the wilderness.

Which is to say, Lent is really big business. Big soul-business. So it’s no wonder that we’re inclined to cut it down to size. We like to put easy chairs in our Lenten wilderness, with refreshment centers and frequent reminders that God will bless us for what we’re doing. I know, because that’s the way I like to go about it. We mean well, but we want a manageable wilderness. Some of us have planned to give up something for Lent, especially if by doing so we might also reduce our waistline. Others of us intend to begin, or to improve, a habit of daily devotions. Still others have promised God that they will make a special Easter offering.

And bless your hearts, all of this is good. I don’t want to discourage you from it. But I’d like so much if we would remember that the idea of Lent was born in a wilderness. I’m troubled that our culture has influenced us so to the point that the only cross some folks can imagine is one we wear as a necklace or a lapel pin. We have forgotten that Christianity is a heroic religion, one that produces spiritual giants. And it does that because some of us choose, voluntarily, to go into a wilderness of true discipline, in the hope that we might become the kind of people God intends us to be.

 Free But Not Cheap

There’s one more thing, to be honest, that I must tell you. I hesitate to do so, because it might sound as if I’m softening the hard truth I’ve just described. But it’s part of this Bible account, so here it is. Matthew tells us that after Jesus had resisted the devil, “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

This Christian life is a magnificent way. It does, indeed, include angels, and bread for life’s journey, and God’s power and glory. But these things are too real to be cheap. Mind you, they’re free, because they’re gifts of grace, but they’re not cheap. They’re most likely to be found by those of us who are ready to follow our Lord into the wilderness of a high discipline.

I invite you, this very day, to join me in that Lenten commitment.