Friday, February 16, 2018

The First Rule is Love (Matt. 22:34-40) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

On Valentine’s Day, a group of children were asked, "What does 'love' mean?" Here are some answers:
·         Rebekah, 8, said, "When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore.  So my grandfather does it for her all the time—even when his hands got arthritis, too. That's love."
·         Bobby, 7, says, "Love is what's in the room at Christmas, if you stop opening presents and listen."
·         Nikka, 6, says, "If you want to learn to love better, you should start with someone you hate."
·         Tommy, 6, says, "Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well."
·         Cindy, 8, says, "During my piano recital, I was on a stage, and I was scared. I looked at all the people watching me and I saw my daddy waving and smiling. He was the only one doing that. And I wasn't scared anymore."
·         Jessica, 8, says, "You really shouldn't say 'I love you' unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot."

Life in the ultimate sense or in the most fundamental sense is about love.  According to our Christian faith, according to the Bible, what matters most in life is love.  Why, because God is loving, because God created us to love, because God sent Jesus to show the model of love, and to atone for our sins by his sacrificial death on the cross, because God commanded us to love, because God wants us to learn the greatest lesson in the short time we spend on earth, how to love.

Jesus commands us to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Why?  Because we strengthen our love for God when we love our neighbor and we strengthen our love for neighbor when we love God.  We love because God first loved us.  Love is not an isolated act; it’s interconnected, intertwined.  When we love others, God’s love flows in and through us in a free and powerful way.  When we love God in worship and prayer, we are inspired and motivated to love others.  We live a holistic life, when we share our lives with others.  Living a life of love is life-enhancing and enriching, inspiring and rewarding. Living a loving life achieves the purpose for which God made you and God made me.  Scripture says faith, hope and love, these three remain, but the greatest of these is love.

Of course we know loving others doesn’t come naturally, it’s something we learn.  It takes time to learn to love.  Where do we learn it?  Where have you learned to love? From people who have loved us.  We learn from Jesus himself.  We learn from the indwelling Spirit who teaches and guides us in life.  It is not an easy task, because it runs counter to our self-centered nature.  God gives us a lifetime to learn to love.  Jesus never promised that following Him would be easy. This is especially true when other persons hold different values or different ideas.

Today is an extremely challenging time.  One example today is our intense political differences.  The challenge appears to be nearly impossible for democrats and republicans, liberals and conservatives, to listen to one another, to agree to disagree, to care for, to compromise, to respect one another, to work together for the nation’s good. There are constant personal attacks, rather than a robust debate on the merits of the ideas.   We see and hear such contempt, heated rhetoric, distrust, charges and distain for one another, but rarely much love.  I have never seen America more polarized than today.  I pray, like you do, for this nation.

Jesus sets the highest standard and one that is daunting for anyone who strives to follow Jesus.  Jesus says: “If you only love people who love you what is your reward?  Anyone, even tax collectors are capable of that.  If you greet and welcome only your brothers and sisters, how hard is that?  Even Gentiles do the same.

True, loving others is complicated; if it was easy everyone would be doing it.  Loving someone can evolve into enabling their bad behavior.  You find yourself being manipulated, being used, becoming a co-dependent. Forgiveness is an expression of love.  But so is setting boundaries, ground rules, ultimatums, and tough love.  Tolerating bad behavior is not love.  Allowing yourself to be bullied is not love.  Saying no, not helping someone in the way they expect, can be the most loving response, it can be just the thing to change another’s bad behavior.  Spoiling a child or abusing a child is not love.  There are of course no cookie-cutter models for loving a family member, a friend, a child, a colleague.  It’s case by case. That we are to love is indisputable, but how we are to love is the question, and is open to debate and discussion.  That's why we must rely upon God for courage and wisdom, a deep and abiding wisdom.

Loving others is never learned by thinking alone; it is only learned by doing, which as you have probably experienced is sometimes learned by trial and error.  Loving your children as parents, at least in our experience, involved a lot of trial and error.  Loving grandchildren is much simpler.  Simple acts of love can have a tremendous impact.

A student sent a note to one of his former teachers.  He received this reply: “Dear William:  I can't tell you how much your note meant to me.  I am in my eighties, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely and in poor health.  I taught school for 50 years and yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received.  It came on a blue, cold morning and it cheered me up in a way you can never know.  Thank you with all my heart.   Bringing consolation to the lonely, a meal to a neighbor, comfort to the grieving are ways of ministering to those who are hurting.

Scripture says that loving others is the primary witness to the world for Christians.  Jesus said:  Your love for others will prove to the world that you are my disciples.  I’ve had nurses in hospitals and staff in nursing homes say: “We are so impressed with the many caring visits by the people of your congregation.  You have a caring congregation.  Loving others is a powerful witness to Jesus Christ.

Scripture says that life without love is really useless.  Why?  Because we were created to be used by God.  Relationships must be a top priority in our lives.   Scripture says:  No matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.  We talk about finding time for our children or making time for people in our lives.  God says relationships are what life is all about.  The 10 commandments include four in our relationship with God and 6 in in our relationships with people.  But all are about relationships.  We learn to love God in worship and prayer and we learn to love others by actions and doing.  Busyness is the enemy of relationships.  Yes, accomplishments, achievements, reaching goals are important.  But relationships, loving others, trumps these things.

Scripture says love leaves an invaluable legacy.  How you treated other people, how you encouraged, how you opened doors of opportunities for others, how you listened, how you taught and trained others, how you shared your time, talents and treasure with others, how you supported others is a powerful legacy.  Love is the secret of a lasting heritage.  Like one writer said:  I’ve observed that when people are in their final moments of life, they don’t ask to be surrounded with objects, their trophies, and diplomas, and symbols of their accomplishments and successes, they want to be surrounded by people they love and who love them.  Don’t wait until you are on your deathbed to discover this important truth – relationships matter most.

Scripture says that we will be evaluated by God in the final judgment on our loving of God and others during our lifetime.  Recall Matthew 25.   Jesus says: “Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you, for I was hungry, and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me something to drink, naked and you clothed me, sick and you to care of me, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it unto me.  In our text, John says: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refused help? Let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

A woman whose husband had died years earlier and who raised her teenage children alone, tells how difficult it was when her children had all grown and left home.  She writes:  I felt so lonely and the house was so empty.  I didn’t know what to do, where to turn.  I felt worthless and confused; my life didn’t seem to have any value, because I was no longer focused on raising my children.   When I was away from the house I didn’t want to return home and when I was in the house I could hardly stand the thought of leaving.  I felt like I was living in a cocoon.   So I began to pray, as I had done throughout my life.  And as the days passed, I began to feel some stirrings inside of me, a kind of inner restlessness. I began to see in my mind options for my life, people I could help, that I had never before considered and for the first time since the children had gone, I began to look ahead with some anticipation.  I didn’t know what was to happen, but I sensed God’s Spirit leading me and calling me out of myself, and I knew that I was about to break out of the cocoon I’d been living in and begin a new and meaningful chapter in my life.

It’s true that time, time for relationships, always seems to be in short supply.  We are always pressed for time.  I wish I had more time.  Are we victims of time?  Are we helpless to change that?  Pray to God to help you manage and prioritize your time.  Pastor Rick Warren writes: “The best expression of love is time.  Relationships take time. Investing in relationships takes time and effort.  Words alone, about how important relationships are, are empty.  The best way to spell love is T-I-M-E and the best time to love is now.  Amen!

Friday, February 9, 2018

Come to Me (Matthew 11:28-30) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A young man forgot to notify his grandmother of a change in his cell phone number.  Wanda Dench texted a number that had originally been her grandson's, inviting him over for dinner.  Instead of her grandson, the text went to 19 year old Jamal Hinton.  The two figured out the mistake quickly, but Hinton, a lonely college student, far from home, asked if it was still possible to "come over for dinner.”  In grandmotherly fashion, Dench responded, "Of course you can. That's what grandmas do."  When asked about the dinner, the young man said, "I'm thankful for all the nice people in the world.   I’d never met her and she welcomed me into her house, so that shows how great of a person she is."

Receiving a personal invitation from someone is one of the joys of life, whether it’s being invited to someone’s home for dinner, to an anniversary party, out to the theatre or to a rock concert.  The only exception I can think of is being invited to a meeting with the IRS.   In this morning's text, Jesus extends a personal invitation -“Come to me!   Jesus extended this invitation to his disciples, and as the Risen Lord Jesus has extended it to His followers down through the centuries and he extends this invitation to you and me this morning – “Come to me!

How will you respond?   In times of trial, in times of stress, in times of exhaustion, in all times, Jesus’ words are like a song to our soul, like cold water to a parched tongue. They are the most welcome and comforting words in the world.  Come to me!

Jesus says:  All who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens!” To be human is to carry burdens, we understand that well.   The question is not if you are carrying burdens but what burdens are you carrying?   Burdens of broken relationships, of guilt or shame, of unrealized dreams, of stress, of pain, or fear, of failure, financial burdens, burdens of grief, loneliness, jealousy or anger, burdens of poor health.   Are you carrying a burden this morning?

Sometimes, even religion becomes a burden.  This was the context in which Jesus spoke to the people.  From the time the Law was given to Moses in the 13th century B.C, where the fourth commandment instructed the Jews to remember the Sabbath and rest from work on the seventh day, over centuries Jewish teachers had added rules regarding Sabbath observance – the time between sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.  The Hebrew word Sabbath means rest.

It was difficult to rest when you were worried about breaking the religious rules of the day.  For example, you were prohibited from working on the Sabbath, but how was work defined?  You couldn’t carry anything, you could only walk a certain number of steps, you couldn't cook, you couldn't talk about business, and you could only help people or rescue animals, if their lives were in danger, because in all these things you were working, you were exerting energy and violating the command to rest.   Yes, anything, even religion, can become a burden.

Jesus continues: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart."   Jesus is gentle and humble and offers us the opportunity to take on his yoke and to learn from him.   Do you find it surprising that Jesus offers burdened people a yoke?  When we are burdened we need an escape, a party, a day at the beach, a walk in the park, not a yoke.

What is Jesus saying here?  He offers to share our burden, to shoulder our load, to be our burden-bearer.  No one else can do that like Christ because he is portrayed in the New Testament as the supreme burden-bearer.  Jesus bore our burden of sin by His sacrificial death on the cross.  Scripture says: "Behold the Lamb of God who bears our sins away."

Jesus offers us a new kind of yoke.  Jesus compares the crowds he is addressing to oxen struggling under a heavy load.  He is borrowing an image from the agriculture of his day.  A yoke is the piece of farm equipment that binds the ox to the plow.  Whenever a young ox needed to be trained, he would be attached to the yoke of an older ox. The older ox would pull the yoke and the younger ox would follow in his footsteps and learn all the steps, even though he wasn't actually pulling any of the load.

Jesus calls us to take on his yoke: to submit to his authority, to commit ourselves to him through faith, to follow his teaching, to ask for his peace, to obey his word, to seek his strength, to surrender our hearts and minds to him, to turn to him in prayer.  Jesus is saying: “Yoke yourself to me.  Let me help you carry your load and I will lead you and teach you how to live."  "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Jesus concludes his invitation with these words: “I will give you rest.  You will find rest for your souls.  What a comforting word, rest.   Jesus here uses the Greek word anapauo, which means “to cease from any activity or labor in order to recover and collect one's strength.  It’s a time to be renewed, to be refreshed, to be re-energized, in order to prepare to return to work. The Hebrew word Sabbath means rest.  Does that word resonate with you?  Do you ever get tired - physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually and you simply need a time to rest?  Take a Sabbath. Spend quiet time alone with God.

So you ask why do I feel tired?  Here’s why.   In the last 24 hours your heart beat 103,680 times?  Your blood traveled 168,000 miles.  You breathed 23,040 times.  You inhaled 438 cubic feet of air.  You gave off 85.6 degrees in heat.  You turned in your sleep 25-35 times.  You spoke 4,800 words.  You moved 750 major muscles.  You walked 10K steps.  You exercised 7,000,000 brain cells.    Is fatigue beginning to set in?

In 2013 the news reported that many orthopedic surgeons had noticed a disturbing trend—a serious spike in debilitating knee injuries among teenaged athletes.  Dr. Frank Cordasco called it "an epidemic."   Cordasco said that he and his team were operating on 200 to 300 kids a year, unheard of a decade before.  Doctors reported also on an increase in serious shoulder and elbow injuries among young baseball and softball players.

What's causing this epidemic of reconstructive joint surgeries?  The article put the blame on one factor; the lack of rest.   The current emphasis on playing one sport all year long leaves virtually no time for muscles and joints to recover from the micro-trauma that occurs during practice and play.

Our bodies, our minds, our emotions can go on overload.   They weren’t designed by God to go 24 – 7.   We need time to recover from the "micro-traumas" of life.   Jesus invites us to find rest for our souls.   Jesus makes a promise: “If you accept my invitation and come to me; you will have a respite.  You will experience spiritual renewal, relief, refreshment, a time of peace.

Will you accept Jesus invitation?  Will you say: "Yes, Jesus, I need your strength and your peace.  I will go to you.   Take a Sabbath.  Spend some quiet time alone with God.

I close with Jesus word's from the Message, a contemporary paraphrase of the Bible: “Come to me.  Get away with me and you'll recover your life.  I'll show you how to take a real rest.  Walk with me and work with me, watch how I do it.  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.  I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.  Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.

Jesus' personally invites you to come to His table.  The Lord’s Supper is one place where Jesus promises that we will find rest.   Let us prepare our hearts to come to the table of the Lord.  Amen!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Worry, Who Me? (Matthew 6:25-34) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A father passed by his teenage son's bedroom and was dumbfounded to see the bed nicely made up and everything neat and tidy.  He saw an envelope propped up on the pillow.  He picked it up and started reading.

Dear Dad:
I decided to elope with my new girlfriend because I wanted to avoid a scene with you and Mom.  I've been finding real passion with Joan, and she is so nice.  Even though I never told you and mom about her, I knew you would not approve of her because of all her piercings, tattoos, tight motorcycle clothes, prison record and the fact that she is so much older than I am.  She really gets to me.  She says I’m old for my age and that we are going to be very happy. She owns a trailer in the woods and has a stack of firewood—just enough for the whole winter.  We share a dream of having many children.

Please don't worry, Dad. I'm 15 now and I know how to take care of myself.  I'm sure we'll be back to visit someday so you can get to know your grandchildren.  Your loving son.  P.S. None of the above is true.  I'm over at Tommy's house.  I just wanted to remind you that there are worse things in life to worry about than my report card which you will find in my desk drawer.  I love you Dad!

So do you ever worry about things?   Worry, Who Me?   Someone said: “There are three kinds of people in world – those who worry about little things, those who worry about big things, and those who worry about everything.”   Which category do you fit into?

Why do we worry?   I'll tell you why, because there is a plethora of things to worry about in this life.  We worry about our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, our health, the flu, aging, our jobs, our finances, our education, college tuition, social security, Medicare, government shut-downs, disease, illness, crime, floods, fires, earthquakes, environmental threats, the economy, global warming, terrorism, nuclear war, and the Padres winning.  If you weren’t worried when you came into church this morning you are now.

We worry about things we can control and about things we can't control and often are confused about which is which.  We worry about things that might happen, that have rarely happened, and that have never happened.

Worry appears to be intrinsic to human nature.  It reflects our basic insecurity as humans about the world that we inhabit.   So if this is true, is worry a trivial subject?   Isn’t life is worrisome?   Jesus thought so.  Jesus included the subject of worry when he preached the Sermon on the Mount to the crowds.   It was a real issue, a genuine concern for Jesus as he listened to the crowds.  Jesus says: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.”

Why is worrying about things a problem?  It saps our strength and drains us of energy, joy, and hope.   We know it’s detrimental to our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.   Worry can paralyze us with fear.

Now think about what Jesus is NOT saying in these words.  He is not saying: “Life doesn't have any troubles or problems, it's just your imagination.”  He is not saying: “Life is always fair.”   He is not saying: “Everything always turns out all right.”    Jesus is not saying: “It's OK to make irresponsible decisions and to lead a reckless life.”  He is not saying: “Poor choices don’t have consequences.”   He is not saying: “You don't have to work hard; you can get by on your charm or good looks.”  He is not saying: “Don’t plan things out for the future.”  Jesus isn't saying any of these things.  What is Jesus saying?

First, the Greek word Jesus uses is merimnan; it means to “worry anxiously.”  Jesus is not speaking about our daily normal passing worries and concerns.   Rather, a good translation of the Greek is: “Anxiety, anxious-worry, fearful, fretful, vexing worry.”  It’s the kind of worry that plagues you, that haunts your every waking moment, that negatively affects your spirit and health, that can harm relationships, that confounds your thinking, that wakes you up at night.  It’s the kind of burdensome, tormented, and all-consuming anxiety that sucks the joy out of you.

I remember my wife Nancy telling me about taking her seat on a flight bound to California.   This woman sits down next to her, extremely agitated.   The woman said:  “I hate to fly. I just saw something extremely upsetting but I won't say what, until after we land.”  She proceeds to order drink after drink during the flight.  After the plane lands, the woman turned to Nancy and said:  “Did you know a woman was flying this plane?

Second, Jesus says that “anxious worry” is useless, futile, pointless, unproductive.  It is a colossal waste of time and energy.   Matthew 6:27 points this out.  The meaning is ambiguous.   It can mean that no one by worrying can grow taller or add a cubit or 18 inches to his height.   It can also mean that no one by worrying, can live longer or extend one’s life.  You may add time to your life by eating a healthy diet and exercise, but you won't add one day, or one hour or one minute by worrying.  Someone said that worry is like a fog bank.  Fog can blanket a city for blocks and be as much as 100 feet deep.  But if we were to take that fog and change it into water, it would only fill up a single glass.

Third, Jesus is saying remember this truth, you are of ultimate value to God, you are precious in God's sight.  “Look at the birds of the air, your heavenly Father feeds them, are you not much more valuable than them?”  Knowing this, believing this, trusting this is crucial for faith.  It is saying be assured that God gave us life and God will give us that which we need to sustain life.

One way to remember this is through prayer.  Worry is passive, prayer is active.  Pray unceasingly.  Pray for a life-giving faith.   Phil. 4:6-7 says:  “Don’t worry about anything, instead, pray about everything.  Tell God what you need and thank Him for all He has done.  If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand.  His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”  I love this verse.  Peace is one of God's greatest gifts.  You are of ultimate value to God, don't lose your humor and your joy.  Include God in the details, in the little problems, as well as in the major crises.

The letter of I Peter says: “Cast all your anxiety on God, because he cares for you.”  There is that same word again, anxious worry.  Ask God to unburden you, to free you, to deliver you from the anxious worry that is weighing you down.

Fourth, Jesus is saying that you and I are to put God first in our lives.  God is to be the center, not ourselves, not our family, not our career, not our money.  “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given you.

We are to center our lives on God.  Is God at the center or at the periphery of your life?   If we let something or someone else become our number one priority, it will eventually become our number one worry.  Concentrating upon God, upon God's kingdom, upon accepting and following God's will, will help to defeat the burden of worry that you are carrying.

Finally, Jesus is saying cultivate the art of living one day at a time.   Live each day as it comes, handle each demand as it comes, carry out each task as it appears, and don't worry about the unknown future.  “Don’t worry about tomorrow, tomorrow will bring worries of its own, today's trouble is enough for today.”   I say amen to that.   Plan for tomorrow, set goals for tomorrow, dream dreams for tomorrow, think about tomorrow, take action for tomorrow, but don't allow tomorrow to consume you with worry.

I close with this bit of Irish wisdom about worry titled “WHY WORRY  There are only two things to worry about - either you are well or you are sick.  If you are well, then there is nothing to worry about.  But if you are sick, there are two things to worry about.  Either you will get well or you will die.  If you get well, there is nothing to worry about.  If you die, there are only two things to worry about.  Either you will go to heaven or hell.  If you go to heaven hands with friends, you won’t have time to worry.  Amen!

Friday, January 26, 2018

Cracked Pots (II Corinthians 4:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I remember giving my first children’s message in a worship service.  It was at the Presbyterian Church in San Leandro, where I served as the Associate Pastor.  It was my first church out of seminary.  I was nervous.  I wanted the message to be good.  I wanted to give a good impression to the congregation.  I wanted the children to listen and learn some new biblical insights.

A large group of children were seated together on the steps in front of the congregation. I was standing in front of them with my back to the congregation.  I was telling a bible story when suddenly something jerked my neck forward and I almost lost my balance. This was before cordless mics.  The microphone was on a long cord wrapped around my neck and the cord was plugged into the floor.  I was trying to re-group when suddenly there was another pull and I again almost lost my balance.

I looked at the kids and saw one of the boys on his knees, head down, pulling on the cord with all his might.  I didn’t know what to do, so I did what any minister would do in that situation, I closed in prayer.  So even today with cordless microphones, I sit down while giving children’s messages.  It’s safer.  Yes, human beings, adults and children, are unpredictable.  They can surprise us, sometimes in positive ways and other times, well, in less than positive ways.

Some people go through life with unrealistic expectations of others.  They desire the perfect friend, the perfect mother or father, the perfect spouse, the perfect children or grandchildren, the perfect church, the perfect pastor, and the perfect neighbors.  People are often disappointing them because these people are not living up to their expectations.  Does that ring a bell with anyone?

I believe that it’s only when we honestly look in the mirror and see ourselves as we truly are, see our own faults and foibles, it’s when we admit that we don’t always measure up to other’s expectations, that we can accept both our own humanness and the humanness of others.

In our morning lesson from II Corinthians we find the apostle Paul and his co-workers being severely criticized by a group in the church of Corinth.  Maybe it’s happened to you.  The apostle Paul was being accused of using the gospel for his own for personal gain, for profit, to make a name for himself.  His reputation was being maligned.

In the face of these charges, the apostle Paul retorts that contrary to these false charges, his ministry is all about Jesus, all about the gospel.   He makes this claim: “We do not proclaim ourselves.  We refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word, but in truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone.  The god of this world, Satan, is blinding the minds of the unbelievers.  We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.  In the darkness of this world, we preach the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, who is the image of God.

The gospel of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ is a treasure.  The message of the gospel, God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ is given to the world and to you.  Receiving it by repentance and faith changes lives, saves lives, illumines lives.  It has changed me.  It has changed or could change you.  The gospel of God’s grace and power, hope and mercy has transformed billions of people’s lives.

The apostle then makes a second astounding claim: – “God has given us the treasure of the gospel in clay pots.”   God has placed this divine treasure, this priceless prize, in flawed human containers.   The Greek word here is “ostra-kainois sekusin,” which translated into English means clay pots or clay jars or earthen vessels or cracked pots.  In excavating ancient ruins, Archeologists often find ostraca--fragments of clay jars or broken pots that once held costly wine or expensive ointment.

Yes, you heard it right.  Christian believers are clay pots or cracked pots or crack pots.  Turn to your neighbor and say: “Hello crack pot!”  Scripture says human beings are sinners: flawed, fractured, fragile, marred, chipped and broken.  This truth is inescapable.  Christian believers are forgiven sinners who are being changed by the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Christ.

What are some implications of this truth about treasures and clay pots?   It means we are not to think too highly of ourselves.  Arrogance has no place in the Christian life.  On the other hand, we are not to think too lowly of ourselves either.  Feelings of inferiority or worthlessness or uselessness are totally out of tune with the heart of Christ.  Jesus rejects such feelings and thoughts and so should we.  The gospel is that God loves us in spite of our flaws.  God has entrusted this treasure to cracked pots, like you and me, to share with others.

It further means that even as clay pots, with this treasure inside us, we can accomplish great things in Christ’s name.  Like Millard and Linda Fuller, who founded Habitat for Humanity International in 1976.  They heard God’s call upon their lives to build homes for the poor.   Habitat for Humanity has built, rehabilitated and repaired nearly a million homes in 14 countries.

These words about cracked pots certainly apply to preachers.  It’s impossible to hide it.  I remember an incident at my church in Colorado.  I had seriously injured my lower back.   Nancy drove me to the ER and they gave me some drugs. I let some elders know about my injury.   I woke up Sunday morning with my back killing me.  I took some pain killers just before the service.   When I started to preach, I thought something is weird.   I looked out at the congregation and all I saw was happy faces.  I kept getting lost in my sermon, I couldn’t focus.  But I thought Alan, you are doing fine, no one is aware that your having some issues.  I wasn’t panicked at all, I was totally relaxed.  I didn’t have a care in the world.  The next day, an elder told me that someone had asked: “What’s the matter with the pastor,” and he over-heard a person say: “Oh he’s fine, he’s just on drugs.

Another implication of being cracked pots is how important it is to be able to laugh at ourselves.  One author wrote: “Laughing at ourselves gives us a more accurate sense of who we are.  It breaks down barriers between others and us.  It makes us more approachable.  Our five sense are incomplete without the sixth – a sense of humor.  If you can laugh at yourself, you are guaranteed a lifetime of chuckling.  If you doubt that God has a sense of humor, take a look in the mirror.

Yes, the astonishing and surprising news is this, God chooses us to fulfill his purposes in life anyway.  It’s essential to keep this truth in mind.  Why?  The danger is that your life as a Christian can become guilt-ridden and joyless, obsessed with your own faults and failings.  You feel like you aren’t worthy of God’s grace.  You feel God could never forgive you for things you have done.  Or your life as a Christian believer can become judgmental, hypocritical, and self-righteous.

To whom is Christ calling you to share the treasure of the gospel?    What a privilege, how humbling, how extraordinary, to be chosen and loved by God.  We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.  Amen!

Friday, January 19, 2018

Be an Encourager! (Acts 20:1-6) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Hey dad, I’m having trouble with my homework, can you help me?”  “No, not now, I’m too busy.  And I don’t know why you’re having trouble anyway.  Why, when I was your age, I didn’t get any help from my folks, and I was a good student, I worked hard, and got good grades.   I expect the same from you.

So let me ask you point blank - are you a discourager or an encourager? Let's start with some cold and all too familiar facts of life.  We live in a sinful and fallen world.  Life is far from perfect.  Life is hard.   Life is not always fair or just.  Life is worrisome and frightening.  There is disappointment and suffering.  Are you feeling encouraged yet?  This will change, praise God, when Jesus returns at His second coming in glory and God’s sovereign love visibly rules over all.  But in the meantime, we walk by faith and not by sight.

Jesus encouraged the disciples when he taught them the beatitudes:  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted; Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

The apostle Paul too was a great encourager.  Despite being persecuted during his three missionary journeys, despite his poor health, despite problems he encountered with other religious groups, as we are told in Acts, the apostle Paul, a man with a deep faith in Jesus Christ, and a conviction that God had called him to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, encouraged followers of Jesus and new believers on his journeys to Macedonia and Greece.

You may know the story about basketball great Larry Bird and his extraordinary record at Indiana State and with the Boston Celtics, and later as head coach of the Indiana Pacers.  But you may not know what he had to overcome.  He was one of six children.  His father was chronically unemployed, an alcoholic, and tragically committed suicide when Larry was in high school.  Larry’s mother worked three jobs to provide for the family.

From early on Larry’s love and talent in basketball was clear to everyone.  But he had a bad temper, he couldn’t control his anger, and his high school coach who had talked to him many times finally told him he was no longer on the team.  Larry was devastated. But the coach continued to be an important part of Larry’s life and worked and helped him to deal with his temper and refocus his energies and the next year Larry made the team again and became a star on the Spring Valley High School team.  Without that coach, basketball may have never had a Larry Bird.

The question is can you be an encourager in an imperfect world and with imperfect lives?  Of course, this is the day; now is the time. There will be no better time.  Why?  Because when God creates a brand new world devoid of evil and suffering, as the Bible promises there will be no more sin, or suffering or pain or injustice.  So now is the greatest time of all.

Look at yourself or your own circumstances.  Are you totally happy or satisfied or content?   We can always find things we don't like about ourselves or our circumstances and become discouraged and quit.  Or by God’s grace we can say - I’m down, but not out, get up, dust ourselves off and move forward.

Look at your relationships, relationships with family or friendships or at school, or at work, or in the neighborhood. Relationships are always less than ideal, they often don’t meet our expectations, and we can become discouraged and close ourselves off from people or get up, dust ourselves off and by God’s grace do the right thing which is often the hardest thing.

Or look at our government, politics; no, on second thought, I don’t think we will go there.  Some people complain:  “My life is terrible. It’s their fault, whoever they are, they caused this to happen and blame everyone around them.”  Like the man who said to the pastor: “My life is a mess Rev. there is nothing you could say or do to make me feel better, but go ahead, just try, I dare you.

The question is, if all is dark and hopeless, why are some people such great encouragers?  Think of one person who encouraged you at a critical time in your life.  Picture their face. Why do you think they were such a good encourager to you?

Here are some things I’ve observed as a pastor about encouragers.  Often, not always but quite often the people who are the best encouragers have themselves experienced pain in their lives: suffering, hurt, disappointment, and loss.  They developed an empathy for others.  When you find out about them you are stunned at what they have gone through.  In spite of these things, or despite them, they are positive, caring and supportive.

I’ve observed that such people are often thankful people, grateful people, and humble people.  They can encourage because they do so out of a heart of thankfulness, rather than bitterness or resentment.   I’ve observed that generally, not always but generally, people who have faith, a healthy spiritual life, people who trust their lives to God, people who walk with God, are there for you and with you.

I’ve observed that they are good listeners, which is I think is the number 1 quality of an encourager.  They are genuinely interested in you.   They take time and have time for you and really hear what you are saying.  Further, they have the ability to put themselves on the shelf and put you in the center.    Rather than telling you what you should do, or giving you their answer, they try to draw the answer, or solution or options out of the dialogue, out of the conversation.  They seek to let God’s Spirit work and bring a more positive perspective out of the conversation.

You can be a great encourager by listening, showing that you care, praying with someone, offering to help in some way, etc.  Sympathy, empathy, listening, caring, compassion and faith are great qualities for an encourager.  I’ve had people say:  “Pastor, she has so many problems, I don’t have any answers, I never know what to say, so I find excuses not to call or visit.”   That is totally understandable.

Sometimes there are no ready solutions, or answers, or way of making the problems disappear and an encourager helps the person learn to accept it and live with it in faith and prayer and daily turn it over to God so they can get on with life.

It is our old nature to judge, to be critical, to not care rather than to encourage?  But it is our new nature, our becoming a new person in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit that changes us and inspires us to a life of encouragement.   Think for a moment about a time when you encouraged someone?   Encouraging can change a life; encouraging can save a life.

An encourager isn’t blind to human flaws and weaknesses.  An encourager recognizes sin and shortcomings and yet seeks a constructive approach to others.  An encourager tells the truth in love to another if they are hurting themselves or others, but in a way that builds bridges rather than burns them and focuses on what is positive and possible in persons.  An encourager has patience, energy, and commits others to prayer.  An encourager can always find something to encourage others about.

Like the story about a concert which had just finished hearing a solo by a squeaky tenor.  When finished, the applause was less than enthusiastic.  One member of the audience exclaimed: “Extraordinary!   Bravo!”  “Excuse me,” said a puzzled woman sitting in the next seat. “I can claim some knowledge of the subject, and I think his voice was very poor.”  “Voice?” replied the other man.  “I wasn’t thinking of his voice.  I was praising his nerve!

As a pastor, I have worked with many families over the years, and I have seen the damage – how one’s spirit, one’s confidence, one's identity, hopes and dreams can be shattered, crushed when others have discouraged them at a critical moment.

Jesus calls each of us by His grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit to the ministry of encouragement.  And what a powerful and astonishing witness it can be.  Some of the greatest success stories of history have followed words of encouragement.

How can you become an encourager?  You decide to.  You make a decision.  You pray “Lord, I want to be an encouraging person, help me to change and become an encourager.  I am personally grateful for brothers and sisters in Christ who have encouraged me in the church.   I am grateful for Nancy who has encouraged me when I get down.   I am grateful for teachers, friends, and family members who have encouraged me.  Their words and support made all the difference.  May your walk in the Spirit be a ministry of encouragement to others so that God may use it for His glory.  Amen!

Friday, January 12, 2018

Into a New Year (Matthew 2:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A church member writes:  “While participating in my church's Christmas pageant years ago, I had the good fortune to be chosen as the narrator.  Each rehearsal went off smoothly and I was confident when it came time for the drama.  At a certain point in the drama, I said in a loud voice: ‘And we kings brought gifts to the baby Jesus, gold, Frankenstein and myrrh.’

I recall a cartoon which pictured three women standing near the manger.  The caption read: “After the three Wiseman left, three wise women arrived each presenting a gift to the baby Jesus, fresh diapers, casseroles for a week, and lots of formula.”

Which takes us to the story of the Magi, the mysterious men from the east.  A community of Jews lived in the east and Magi, astrologers, who lived among them were familiar with their beliefs, including the belief that a special star was expected that would be a sign of the birth of the Jewish Messiah.  When the Magi saw this star in the sky, they packed their suitcases, kissed their families’ good-bye, boarded their camels, embarked on their adventure and followed the star until it led them to Jerusalem, and eventually to Bethlehem.  The story captures our imagination because it's a metaphor for the journey that we all are on in life.

The story of the Magi reminds us that people follow all kinds of things in life.   We follow celebrities, leaders, principles, ideologies, ideals, goals, dreams, feelings, the stock market, politics, current events and yes even stars. Some of these things are good, inspiring, and noble.  They help our lives to grow or others' lives to flourish.  They lead to happiness, joy and fulfillment.  These stars contribute to society, e.g. worthwhile causes, careers, family, medical research, military service to name a few.  Other people follow things that are false stars, things that are foolish, worthless, trivial or harmful like greed, materialism, radical ideologies, pleasure, addictions, exploiting others, or evil.

I remember a conversation when I was a pastor in CO with a man who had followed his love of gambling for many years.  He told me he once had a family, a job and a home.  But over the years, his addiction to gambling cost him and he lost everything.  When I met him he was on his way back from the bottom.  He had become a Christian, had broken his gambling addiction, was dating a woman, had re-connected with his children and had started a new career.

In speaking about stars I am referring to God’s leading, God’s guidance and God’s will, which occur in a variety of forms.  God’s will was that the Magi find the Messiah and worship Him.  We all have the freedom and opportunity to follow stars in life.  But not all stars are the same.  We must distinguish between them, because what we follow in life makes all the difference.  God gives us the freedom to choose, to obey and we must choose wisely.  What are you following?

The story of the Magi further reminds us that God sends stars into our lives.  I am not being literal here. Please think symbolically.  I'm not picturing a celestial body floating over your head.  God can create anything, or use anything or turn anything into a star.  God sends stars to us in order to fulfill His purpose for our lives.

I think of a pastor friend in Los Angeles who saw a star in the form of God's calling, God's vision, God’s tugging at his heart to get personally involved in the tough neighborhood around his church.  He got out of his office and started playing pick-up basketball with neighborhood youth who were involved in illegal drugs and violence.  God used this pastor's athleticism, faith, outgoing personality, and dedication to steer many young people away from trouble, or prison or death on the streets and into productive lives.  He led many to come to faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord.  Yes, God sends stars into our lives to further his purposes for us or for the world around us.  God sends stars to guide and use for His glory.

Further, the Magi story reminds us that in following stars us we must persevere.   Just because God set's a star before us, and we have a desire to follow, doesn't mean the journey will be easy or comfortable or stress-free or risk-free.

Clearly the journey the magi took across the desert involved hardship, suffering, discomfort, and struggle. But these Magi persevered; they endured the journey, battling the elements in their quest to find the promised king.

This is what’s involved in following Jesus.  It means at times we must endure hardship, and remain faithful, amid difficult circumstances, because Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is worthy of such faith and obedience and because His purposes for our lives matter.  I think of valiant people in the Bible, men and women of faith, who battled on amid adversity like Ruth, Esther, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the Apostle Paul.

Like the Magi, God calls us to persevere, to continue the journey with every fiber of our being, which includes our body, our intellect, our emotions, and our soul. For sometimes we are plagued with questions and doubts, or we are emotionally or spiritually exhausted or physically drained.  This is when we must get down on our knees and pray for strength.

Clearly in scripture and in the lives of Christians today, here and around the world, particularly the middle east, it takes perseverance, faith, determination, courage and a thankful heart to follow God’s leading in our lives.

The author Fleming Rutledge writes: “As our life of thanksgiving deepens, we discover that the more mature prayers of thanksgiving are not only those offered for obvious blessings, but those spoken in gratitude for obstacles overcome, for insights gained, for lessons learned, for increased humility, for help received in time of need, for strength to persevere, for opportunities to serve others.”

The Magi could not predict where the journey would take them, or what fortunes or challenges they would encounter, or what detours they might unwittingly take, but they trusted the star to lead them to where they could meet and worship the king.   And so with us.  You sense what God wants you to do or where God wants you to go, but you are not exactly sure how you are going to reach that destination.   That’s why it is critical to follow God’s leading, so the star you are following in your journey into the future will be the one God has set for you, and not someone else’s.

Come on now pastor, does God really send stars?  A pastor tells this story about a young woman who came to his church.  “She began:  ‘Pastor, could I talk to you for a minute?’ She looked to be in her early 20s.  I'd never seen at our church before. ‘What can I do for you?’  ‘Would you please talk with my husband?  He moved out from our home and into an apartment. I don't know what to do.’   Her name was Laura. ‘Is he a Christian?’ the pastor asked. ‘He's the one who led me to a relationship with Christ.’  ‘I'll be glad to talk with him. How can I get in touch with him?’  ‘That's the problem’ the young woman replied, ‘I can't reach him. If he wants to talk, he calls me.’  At this point there was little I could do.  I asked her to have him call me if he talked with her again.  I remember the look of despair in her eyes as she walked away.

Friday was my day off.  We were landscaping our front yard. By late afternoon, I was muddy, aching, and thoroughly tired of the whole project. I had run out of ornamental plants so I drove to the store for more.  I arrived at the store, loaded my cart and headed to the checkout.

As I waited in line, I glanced at the cashier's nametag. It looked familiar.  As he began to ring up the plants, I motioned to his nametag. ‘Is that your name?’  He looked at me blankly, ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you married to Laura?’   He looked wary. ‘Yes?’  I gave him my happiest smile. ‘God has sent me here to talk to you about your marriage.’”

The pastor continued:  “Some 300,000 people lived in the Fresno area then. Out of all of them, the first person I had talked to—other than family and staff—since Wednesday night was this husband.  At times I've really needed guidance and have prayed earnestly for it.  God has helped me. But my divinely guided trip to that husband remains my most remarkable example. Not only was I not trying to be led, I wasn't conscious of God's leading. I just wanted the yard finished.”

Over the years that I’ve been pastor here I have had people say to me:  “Pastor, I was looking for a church and God led me here.  I am happy to be in this church.”  I too am personally thankful for the stars God has placed before my life, which have led me along my journey. The Magi show us the importance of being alert to, and following, God's stars in our lives.

The Book of Proverbs says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, do not rely on your own insight, in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  Amen.

Friday, January 5, 2018

My Eyes Have Seen Salvation (Luke 2:25-35) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Today, Sunday, December 31st, marks Day 7 in the Christmas season.  This day pictures Seven Swans a Swimming, in the song - The Twelve Days of Christmas.  Of course few people are relaxing at a park, in a tranquil setting, watching the swans gracefully swimming by.

This week is a time people start the big clean up from the Christmas festivities.  Family members and relatives are getting on planes or in their cars to return home.  Still others are making final preparations for the New Year. Today, December 31, is still the Christmas season and we continue to reflect upon and celebrate the birth of a baby, named Jesus, the Savior of the world.

An author writes: “A baby is God's opinion that life should go on.  A baby represents life.   Never will a time come when the most marvelous recent invention is as marvelous as a newborn baby. The finest watch, the fastest supersonic aircraft don't compare with a newborn baby.  A baby is very modern. Yet it is also the oldest of the ancients.

Our story from the Gospel of Luke is about an 8-day old baby named Jesus. He was brought to the temple by Mary and Joseph.  Simeon sees this baby.  Now is there anything more awe-inspiring, more breathtaking, more wonderful than seeing or holding a baby?  There is something extraordinary about a baby. It’s hard to put into words.  It’s a holy moment, a sacred moment.  The birth of a baby is a miracle of God.  A baby represents unrealized potential, new possibilities, new beginnings, promise.

A young couple brought their new baby to visit their elderly neighbor.  He was 89 years old and he and the couple had become very close.  After a brief conversation, the neighbor asked if he might hold the baby.  The mother carefully laid the baby in his frail arms.  He held the baby quietly, gazing intently into the baby’s face, and whispered: “I have been looking at the end of life for so long; I just wanted to look for a few moments at its beginning.

Simeon, a devout Jew, had been going to the temple, day after day, to await the coming Messiah.   Joseph and Mary come to the temple for the three customary Jewish ceremonies: the ceremony of circumcision, which required that Jewish boys be circumcised on the 8th day as a sign of the covenant between God and Israel, a ceremony of dedication to God of the first-born and a ceremony of purification or of giving offerings to God.  Being poor, the couple offer a pair of turtledoves or pigeons, the minimum requirement of Jewish Law.

Simeon was an elderly man who did not live in the past, re-living memories, but rather he concentrated on the future.  He lived daily with a sense of anticipation and expectation about tomorrow.  He was praying for and watching for and waiting for the coming Messiah.

Simeon knew upon seeing the baby Jesus, that God had fulfilled His promise to him.  Taking the baby in his arms Simeon praises God: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

Simeon predicts the hardship of Jesus’ future ministry - “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel.”  “His ministry will encounter opposition.”  “And a sword will pierce your own soul,” meaning that Mary, Jesus’ mother, would know the grief of seeing her son’s death.

Simeon saw this baby as the fulfillment of God's faithful promise of a coming Messiah.  Simeon saw the future wrapped up in this little baby.  Simeon knew God’s plan was unfolding; Jesus was the precursor of a new beginning for the world.  This baby was a symbol of the new age to come.    Simeon saw in Jesus the hope of the future not only for the Jews, but for all humanity.   You know, that’s an awful lot to see in one little baby.

This story brings an important message: look to the future with hope, dare to hope, never give up hope. Hope is a priceless jewel.  Maintaining hope in life is indispensable.  Hopelessness is one of life’s greatest enemies.

The story says: Put your hope in God, who has made himself known to us in Jesus.  The message here is: Don’t fixate on what the world owes you, but rather on what you and I owe to God.  This should be our perspective until the day we die.  Simeon knew God had chosen him to initiate Jesus into the Jewish faith and community.  He obeyed God and performed these Jewish ceremonies with excellence.

The message in this story is: Don’t get bogged down in the small things, don’t be shortsighted, don’t get caught up in trivial matters, but open your mind and eyes to see a larger purpose, a bigger picture in the events of your life, seek after and trust in what God is doing in life.  Simeon lives for one thing, to please God and to advance God’s glory.  That’s not a bad purpose.  His passion was to greet the coming Messiah.  He felt God calling him for that purpose.  He lived to see the grace, the power and mercy of God in the flesh and to fulfill his religious duties.

That’s not a bad purpose in life, living to see what God is doing, living to see God at work in life, living to see God at work in your personal life.  Seeing the Messiah was a defining moment in Simeon’s life, and so it is in our lives.

Simeon's story leads us to ask ourselves: “What am I waiting for?”  “What am I looking for in life?”  “What purpose is God calling me to fulfill?  Will you wait on the Lord?  Yes, when we look into the face of Jesus, we see our hope for this year and for every year.

Rev. Billy Graham, who is my opinion is the greatest Evangelist of all time, is 99 years old.  He wrote a book called Nearing Home.  He too is waiting for something; he is waiting to go to his heavenly home.  He says, "Growing old has been the greatest surprise of my life.  I was taught throughout my Christian life how to die.  No one taught me how to grow old."  Does that resonate with anyone?

Like Simeon at Christmas, our eyes have seen God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.  May your and my prayer be: “Lord, may I see you in my life, and seeing you, show me how I can share in your saving work in the world. Lord like Simeon, I will not lose hope, no matter what happens, for I know you are with me wherever I go.  Amen!