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!

Friday, December 29, 2017

A Birthday Celebration (Luke 2:1-15) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A father writes: “For two months before her third birthday, our daughter Sandie said, ‘I'm going to have a party,’ countless times a day.  When her birthday was over, she then told people, ‘I had a party’ and repeated it constantly. Finally, we told her not to talk about the party any more.  For one whole day, she didn’t mention it.  But as I tucked her into bed that night she prayed, ‘Dear God, I can't talk about it, but thank you for my birthday party.  Amen!’”  Yes, birthdays are special.

A 5 year old girl was singing carols all the time during Christmas.  Her mother asked:  “Honey why are you singing so much?” She answered:  “Mom, its Jesus’ birthday and I just have to sing.

In the Gospel of Luke the angel announces: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”  Christmas is about joyful news for all people. Scripture says: “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of woman.”

We don’t know the precise date of Jesus’ birth.  Christmas was first observed by the Roman Church around A.D. 325 or later.  St. Chrysostom says that Pope Julius I of Rome appointed the date, December 25, as the birth date of Jesus.

Prior to that, a Roman pagan festival had been held on that very date to celebrate the Winter Solstice.  In a bold action, the Church replaced a pagan festival with a Christian one.  From that time to today, December 25th has honored the birthday of the Son of God.

Now some Christians have argued that since the roots of the Christmas date, December 25 are pagan, with symbols and trappings still attached to it, like feasts and trees and lights and ornaments representing creation, stars and planets, we should not celebrate it.  The star of course, does not simply refer to stars in the sky, but the star that led the Wiseman to Bethlehem.

Other Christians have countered that argument by saying that the church was being faithful to Jesus’ great commission, to go forth and make disciples of all nations, to convert the world, to win the world for Christ.  So it was a good thing to turn a pagan festival into a Christian holy day.  They argue that symbols like trees, stars or ornaments for planets are good, God the creator made them.  Lights on the tree are good, God created light; Jesus is the light of the world.  Carols, singing songs of Jesus’ birth are good, the angels sang; giving gifts is good, the Magi brought gifts to Jesus.  So you decide which argument you agree with.

Why are birthdays special?  Birthdays say: “We’re happy you were born.  We are glad you lived for another year. We are happy you have a new year ahead of you.  You count and we want to honor you.”   We don’t commiserate with someone on their birthday.  We don’t look at them with sad eyes and dress in black clothing and say: “Oh no, don’t tell me you’ve had another birthday, I’m so sorry for you, I feel terrible for you.  No, we say Happy Birthday!”  And likewise, we say: “Merry Christmas in honor of Jesus’ birthday.”

Children can’t wait for their birthdays.  When asked how old they are they often say: “I’m 5 & 1/2,” they love sounding older.  Children know the significance of birthdays.   “A 5- year old boy was showing his Christmas presents to his grandma.  She asked him if he got everything he wanted for Christmas.  The little guy thought and said no grandma, but it’s not my birthday.”

Christmas celebrates that God entered this world and became a human being, one of us, one among us and one with us.  Christmas announces that this one who entered is Jesus the Savior of the world. There are some spectacular Christmas celebrations of Jesus around the world in cities like San Juan, Rome, and Rio de Janero. What about at your home?  Jesus’ birth was one of historical and cosmic significance.

Other holidays recognize but one day; Christmas is celebrated for 12 days.   That sounds right to me, for such an occasion as the coming of the Savior of the world.   We celebrate the good news of the angel’s announcement to the shepherds.  It’s good news, no matter who you are or where you are or what you have done.  It’s good news, not for a select few, but for all people.  It’s good news, in my view, for both political parties, who can’t seem to find much to agree on these days.

What is the heart of the good news of Christmas?  It's not –“Whew, I made it through another year,” or “I'm celebrating that I've finished all my shopping.”   It’s about Emmanuel, God is with you, God is for you, and God loves you.  God saw that because of sin and evil, the world needed a savior and God sent one.

Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback church writes: “Christmas reminds us that God is not mad at you.   God is mad about you.”  Scripture says: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world.”

Listen to how the Gospel writer John speaks of Christmas:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Christmas announces that God the creator condescended, bent down to earth, came down from the heavens and decided to get his hands dirty.  The immortal God took on human mortality.  God showed up in our neighborhood. Christian music like Handel’s Messiah and carols like Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing, and Christian art like Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi honor the greatest birth the world has ever known.

Christmas celebrates God’s love. God loved us so much, God loved the world so much, that in Jesus Christ God came to earth as a human. Christmas celebrates God’s revelation, in Jesus we see who God is and what God is like and come to know him and trust him and follow him and worship him and love him.  Christmas celebrates God’s purpose.  God sent Jesus as the Savior to bring salvation to the world, to save us from our sins, to call us to worship, witnessing and service, to give us new life and hope for today and forever.

Christmas declares the truth that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human, fully God and fully human. It is truth expressed in the language of paradox. In Jesus, God and humanity are uniquely united in one personal existence. That is a theological way of that Jesus was born of a virgin.  Being born accents Jesus’ humanity and being born of a virgin accents his divinity.

Christmas says:  “You are seeing God in Jesus.”  No, not everything about God, there is still lots of mystery, but in Jesus we see God in a greater way than ever before in history, we see God’s nature, God’s purpose and God’s motivation.  Christmas says: “Look at what God has done to get to know you personally and for you to get to know God personally.”  Christmas is an invitation from God – the invitation says: “See I’ve come near to you, now draw near to me.”

May all who do not know Jesus Christ, may those here this morning and around the world, open their hearts and minds this Christmas and receive by faith the one who out of love came to bring salvation.

I close with this poem by Ann Weems: “You should lead the celebration.  Run through the streets and ring the bells and sing the loudest.  Fling the tinsel on the tree and open your house to your neighbors and call them into dance.  For it’s to you above all others to know the joy of Christmas.  It is unto you that a Savior has been born this day.  One who comes to lift the burden from your shoulders, one who comes to wipe the tears from your eyes.  You are not alone, for He is born this day to you.  Amen!

Friday, December 15, 2017

God Has Spoken by His Son (Hebrews 1:1-4) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

One Christmas, a mother listened as her 4-year-old daughter sang one of the carols.  The mother was a little surprised when she heard her daughter sing: “While shepherds washed their socks by night.”  I mean who knows, shepherds had to do something to pass the time as they were watching their flocks at night.

Christmas calls to mind a question which has haunted human beings since the beginning of time – “Am I alone in this universe?”  Christmas dares to shout forth an answer: “No, you are not alone.

Christmas announces glorious news, God, out of love for His creation, entered our history, our life adventure, our journey, to be near us, among us, one of us and one with us. God slipped into our time zone and has never left it.

Why did God enter the world as Jesus?  It was out of love for His creation, out of love for humanity.  If God had wanted to relate to trees, he would have become a tree; if God had wanted to relate to birds, he would have become a bird; if God had wanted to relate to computers, he would have become a computer; but God wanted to relate to and communicate with and bring salvation to human beings, so God became one of us.  We could not rise to God, so God stooped down to come to us.

Christmas declares that an eternal light has broken into the darkness of the world.  The Gospel writer John says: “In Christ was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”   In Jesus, God has made his character, his heart, his mind, his voice, his will, his nature known to the world.

Christmas is about a young Jewish peasant couple, Mary and Joseph, who experience the miraculous in their life.  She is with child, an angel reveals, a child conceived by the Holy Spirit.  The prophet Isaiah says:  “The Lord himself will give you a sign:  The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

Christmas is about the unique nature of Jesus.  It announces that Jesus is truly God, very God, fully God.  In the Gospel of John we read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.”  The letter of Colossians says it succinctly: “In Jesus Christ, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”  The Letter of Hebrews states: “In these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”  

Born in Bethlehem, Jesus' is God’s revelation, God’s incarnation, God’s anointed one, Immanuel, God is one with us.  Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God.

But paradoxically Christmas also declares the exact opposite, Jesus was a human being.  Jesus was truly human, very human, fully human.   The sovereign God entered the world as a helpless baby.  The letter of Hebrews says: “Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus likewise shared the same things.   For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect was tested as we are, yet without sin.”  Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary.  Jesus was human, born of a woman like you and I are born.  He experienced the joys and sorrows of life, yet he was without sin.  Christmas declares this unique, one of a kind birth.  No other world religions speak of incarnation in their faith.

Christians declare this truth: in Jesus of Nazareth, God and humanity, the divine and human are united in one personal existence.  This truth is a mystery.  Ultimately, comprehending it lies beyond our mind's ability to fully grasp it.  Rather the truth lies in God’s revealing it to our minds and hearts.  We then can accept it by faith or reject it.

Yes, for some today it’s a scandalous claim.  Jews consider it blasphemy and idolatry, an offense to God because God is Spirit, not flesh and blood and because we are to worship God alone, not human beings.  For others Christmas is a fairytale, with angels, animals, shepherds and kings, like the brothers’ Grimm fairy tales, Snow White, Rapunzel, the Frog Prince.  For others it’s about Santa Claus and getting and giving gifts.  Some see the Christmas story of a peasant family giving birth as a metaphor for poor people all over the world giving birth in humble circumstances.  Some see Christmas as a time for family reunions and food and celebrations and traditions.  The one thing they all have in common is that these understandings have nothing to do with Jesus’ birth.

The Christian faith announces that Christmas is founded upon a historical event.  It is based upon a unique and humble birth of Jesus, a baby born in Bethlehem, in a world of Caesar's and Herod’s and Pilates, and a Jewish people under subjugation by the Roman Empire.

Why did God enter into the world in Jesus?  To fulfill the prophecies of a coming Messiah from Jewish prophets like Micah, Zechariah and Isaiah: “For unto us a child has been born, a son given to us, authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and this coming messiah, God's anointed one, would bring salvation from our sins and establish his kingdom with justice and righteousness forevermore.”

The distinguished 5th century Church Father St. Augustine said: “God became a man for this purpose.  Since you, a human being could not reach God, but you can reach other humans, God became a human so that following a human, something you are able to do, you might reach God.”

I recall when Police Chief Charles Moose, back in 2003, first made national news when he was police chief in Portland, Oregon.  Chief Moose and his wife, Sandy, went house hunting. They could have afforded to live in any of the city's best neighborhoods. Instead, they bought an 83-year-old wood-frame house in the King neighborhood, which had one of the highest crime rates in Portland. Chief Moose, who was 41 at the time, was the country's only police chief to live in a crime plagued dangerous neighborhood.

With his move to the King neighborhood, Chief Moose was hoping to get people feeling better about their community, to improve their quality of life and build trust with the police.  He said: "If someone can say, 'I live in the same neighborhood as the chief' instead of ‘I live in the neighborhood where the shooting happened or in a high crime area, "I will have achieved my goal."

The chief moved into the King neighborhood.  God in Jesus moved into our neighborhood.   That's the Christmas message. That is the greatest compliment that God could possibly pay us.  This is the good news of Immanuel, God with us.

Christmas declares that God is at work everywhere in the midst of the world’s darkness and in the most reluctant and hardened of hearts.   God is on the premises and suffers with those who suffer and judges those who perpetrate evil.  God in Jesus seeks those in whom love can be born and peace can be won.   God came to redeem the world and to reach out and find us and being found sends us out to let Christ’s love shine in us as light against the darkness and hope against hopelessness.  The incarnation confronts us with the truth about who Jesus is and challenges us to become who God created us to be.  God has spoken by His son.

What is our response?  Some of course dismiss Christmas, “Bah, humbug.”  Other people approach Christmas with the mind, with the intellect and critically analyze its message.   That is certainly one response and is not without merit.  Some find this approach quite helpful.  Some have met Jesus on the intellectual path.   Another approach is that of awe and wonder and mystery, where we receive the message of Christmas in humility on our knees.   Some have received the message through Christmas music, like carols like:  “Oh come let us adore him, Oh come let us adore him” and “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king.”

What will your response be to the Christmas story this year?    Amen.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Hope of Sharing in God’s Glory (Romans 5:1-5, 8:24-25) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

When NASA posted a job opening for a "Planetary Protection Officer," a position responsible for the microbial footprint of humans during interplanetary exploration, word about the "coolest job ever" spread widely in the media.   The stringent requirements didn't stop 9 -year old Jack Davis from submitting a handwritten note to NASA.  Jack has big dreams and high hopess about his future.

He wrote:  "I may be nine but I think I would be fit for the job."   "One of the reasons is my sister says I am an alien.  Also, I have seen almost all the space movies and alien movies I can see."  "I am young, so I can learn to think like an alien.   Please consider me.”  The Director of Planetary Science wrote back: "We are always looking for bright future scientists and engineers to help us, so I hope you will study hard and do well in school.  We hope to see you here at NASA one of these days."

What is hope?  It is a mode of anticipating the future.  We are expectant, optimistic.  Our outlook is positive.   We look for good things to happen or good things to come.  Of course there are also other modes of anticipating the future, like worry, anxiety and fear.   Without hope, I believe life loses all meaning and joy.

Hope is both active and passive.    Passive hope is like waiting for a package from Amazon.  There seems to be a lot of that these days.   Hope is active when we are doing something, like planning and organizing, praying and working toward some future goal.

Like the story of three store owners who shared adjacent storefronts in the same building.  As retailers, they had competed for years.  Times were now tough.  Sales were down.  In hopes of picking up sales, the owner of the shop at one end of the building put a sign over his front entrance – “YEAR-END CLEARANCE!”   At the other end of the building, another owner responded with his own sign: “ANNUAL CLOSE-OUT.”  The owner of the store in the middle knew he had to act fast or lose his business.   He hung a huge lit sign over his front door: “MAIN ENTRANCE.”  Hope is sometimes active.

Hope also has enemies.  The greatest enemy is gloom, despair, discouragement.   All we see in the future is a wall, a dead-end, a black hole.  We can’t see a way out.  We can’t find another way.  We feel trapped.  We believe there is nothing left to hope for or to work toward or even to live for.  The light of life burns out.   Our zest and enthusiasm vanishes.

What is the basis for hope?  I believe there are basically two world-views, two belief systems which are the ground of hope.  The first is secularism.  Secularism is pessimistic about God but optimistic about humanity.    The secular basis of hope is not in the heavens but on earth.  Its hope lies not in God which is a false belief because God doesn’t exist, because God is a fantasy, but its hope lies in humanity.   Humans alone can save themselves.  There is no god to save us.   We humans can save the world and preserve the future.  We can rely upon reason, science, technology, and good will.  We depend upon human determination, imagination, curiosity, brain power, and vision.

Together humans can work to create a just society, achieve world peace and save the environment.   There will be disagreements, but humanity will find solutions and transform the world.  We can save ourselves.  We don’t need a supernatural being.  Why – because we are on our own.  That’s secularism.

The second basis for hope is religion.  Christianity is pessimistic about humanity but optimistic about God.   The basis of our hope is God, who revealed himself to the world in Jesus Christ.  The ground of our hope is in the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world.  In Scripture and faith hope literally means confident expectation.

Christianity is pessimistic about humanity because of human sin and moral evil which emanates from sin.  It is optimistic about God because God is the creator and ruler of the world, because God is powerful, just, merciful, loving, because God is leading the world toward its divine fulfillment.  Our hope is based upon our faith that God holds the future, that the future lies in God’s hands, that God is in control, that the future is secure.  Hope is a firm assurance that that which is hidden, unknown, or confusing today will be unveiled by God in the future.   Our Christian hope means that you and I can trust God to keep his promises.

To be more specific, the Christian hope for the future is two-fold.   First, our hope is personal, individual.  It is hope with your name on it.  Our faith inspires hope today.  By faith God’s hope lives within us.  The letter of Romans says: “By God’s grace, through faith, we boast in the hope of sharing the glory of God.”  Character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts and we have the gift of the Holy Spirit within us, who deepens our faith and hope.

We have Jesus’ promise to us personally of eternal life, everlasting life, resurrection of the body.  Jesus speaks about God’s house with many rooms, and promises: “I have prepared a place for you and I will come back to take you to myself, so that you will be where I am.”  Jesus’ wonderful promise is that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love today and forever.  Our Christian hope is of sharing in the glory of God.

Second, our Christian hope is universal.  We find it in the biblical concept of the Kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God is the reign of God, the rule of God.  It is represented in the promise of Christ’s final coming in glory and the final judgment of the world when God will establish His Kingdom forever.

It speaks to God’s universal purpose.  God’s plan is not only to save individuals but to save and transform the world into His kingdom.  God’s ultimate purpose is both individual salvation and world salvation.

The book of Revelation pictures this beautifully: “See the home of God is among mortals.  God will dwell with them as their God, they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes, death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will cease.

As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we are to place our ultimate hope not in people, not politics, not government, not riches, not in hedonism, not even in reason, but God whom we know in Jesus Christ.

The question for the Advent season is this:  Where have you placed your ultimate hope - in man or in God?” Amen!

Friday, December 1, 2017

True Friendship (Luke 5:17-26) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In an article on the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Ginsburg fondly recalled her closest friend, Justice Scalia.   He always gave her roses on her birthday and shared her reverence for the law.  She said that Justice Scalia was once asked how they could be such dear friends with such different views. Justice Scalia answered, "I attack ideas. I don't attack people. Some very good people have some very bad ideas. If you can't separate the two, you'd better get another job."   Not a bad friendship.  Not a bad concept.

Think about your friends. Who are your friends? Writer Mark Twain said: “I don’t like to commit myself about heaven and hell—you see I have friends in both places.” There was a sitcom in the 1990's titled Friends and the theme song was “I'll be there for you.”

The debate continues today about whether social media actually makes new friends and expands genuine friendships or whether it is an illusion which creates virtual and superficial friendships.  It certainly raises interesting questions. An article in Hemisphere magazine explored a number of sites that are dedicated to helping you find online "friends." For instance, on the site you can buy 500 friends for $30.00.  Sounds like a bargain.

An interesting article discussed the overall decline of friendship in our society.  It stated that fewer people have authentic friends and described a growing phenomenon about loneliness and mistrust.  Do you agree?  The article particularly addressed the issue of friendship as it related to men.  It pointed to studies and surveys which show that men are less likely to have meaningful relationships than women do.  Men have fewer friends, first of all, and the friends they do have are not nearly as close.  What do you think?

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I didn’t find my friends, the good Lord gave them to me.”   Yes, when we think about our friends, old and new, past and present, we too are moved to say: “I didn’t find them, God gave them to me.”   One of the sad realities of life is losing our friends to death as we age, as I mentioned last week about my childhood friend Bill Frost who died recently.  I have had many conversations with people over the years who have talked about the difficulty of seeing their circle of friends shrink as they age and how they miss them.  I have likewise had many conversations about the challenges of making new friends.

I thank God for my wife Nancy, my best friend (who else would put up with me) and our two sons who now as adults, are our friends.    That thing about being parents to your children as they are growing up and then transitioning to becoming friends when they reach adulthood can get a little complicated.  We knew we weren’t our sons Best Friends Forever when they were teenagers.   I am grateful for the new friends we have made here during our over eleven years at PBPC and in San Diego.

God made us with the need for relationships, friendships and community.  The late Dr. Norman Cousins wrote: “The highest expression of civilization is not its art, but the supreme tenderness that people feel and show toward one another.  If our civilization is breaking down, it is not because we lack the brainpower to meet its demands, but because our feelings have been dulled.

Someone said, “You can always tell a real friend because when you’ve made a fool of yourself he or she doesn’t feel you’ve done a permanent job.”  The Bible is filled with inspiring stories about friendships.   Biblically speaking, friendships are far different than acquaintances.  One can have many acquaintances, but few true friendships.  Becoming a friend is a choice.   Becoming a friend is also a surprise, a gift.  Becoming a friend requires dedication and commitment.   Jesus says:  “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  Perhaps this is the ultimate definition of friendship.  A friend is someone you are willing to die for or who is willing to die for you.   It’s been said that friendships are like investments; you get what you put into them and they take time to mature.  But the dividends are worth it.

Today we will examine one story from the New Testament. What are some lessons from this story?  First, friends are loyal, they stick by one another, you can count on them, even in times of adversity.   Fair weather friends are the antithesis of true friends.  Friends don’t abandon you when you need help.   Friends don’t give up on each other when the journey gets tough.  They are in for the long haul.

In the story from Luke Jesus is teaching in a house which is bursting with people.  People are literally stepping over one another to hear what Jesus has to say or to be healed.   Suddenly some men arrive carrying a paralyzed man on a bed.  We don’t know if these men were family or friends.  But in a way it doesn’t matter.  Their actions should be consistent.  These men didn’t abandon the paralyzed man, they didn’t give up on him, but instead did everything they could to get him help.    They believed in their hearts that if they could get him near Jesus, the man would be healed.  The only obstacle was in making their way through the crowd of people.

Not to be deterred, they climb up on the roof, tear open a section of the roof, which was made out of tightly bound twigs mortared together between heavy wooden beams, and start lowering the man down on his bed in front of Jesus.  Now that’s creative problem solving.  That’s dedication.  That’s ingenuity.   No obstacle is too great when it comes to helping a friend.  These men don't care if they are causing a big commotion.  They are resourceful and imaginative and they are on a mission.  They are willing to go to great lengths for their friend.  Author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “A true friend is one who multiplies joys and divides grief.” They were true friends.

Friends also support each other, encourage one another and are willing to sacrifice for one another.  Clearly these friends of the paralyzed man fit these criteria.  A friend says: “I’m here for you, and if I can’t help you, then with God’s help I will find someone who can.”  These men all exhibited this attitude.  And I believe they also either paid the owner of the house for the damage to the roof or repaired it themselves.   They were true friends.

Further, true friends are at times direct and honest with you.  They are not afraid to say what you don’t want to hear.  They speak the truth in love.  This is a characteristic of true friendship.  These friends would have been direct with the paralyzed man.  They would have told him: “We are taking you to a house where Jesus is teaching and healing.”  The man might have said: “Ah, I don’t feel like going today.”  I could hear them replying:  “It’s no use arguing, we are going there so get ready.  We are doing it because we love you.”   It sounds like an intervention.

Jesus is also direct.  He says to the paralyzed man, “Friend your sins are forgiven you.  I say to you stand up and take your bed and go to your home.”  Jesus was also frank with the Pharisees and says:  “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins I will show you,” and he performs a miracle.  Honesty, truthfulness, is a significant quality for a friendship.

Imagine going to the doctor's office for a check-up. The doctor says to you, "You are a superb physical specimen. You have the body of an Olympian.  None of my patients are as healthy as you.”  Such words alone should raise a red flag and cause us to question the doctor’s credibility.  Later that day while climbing the stairs, you suffer severe chest pains.  You find out that your arteries were so clogged, that you were one jelly doughnut away from the grim reaper.  You go back to the doctor and say, "Why didn't you tell me?" The doctor says, "Well, ah, well because if I tell people the truth, they get offended, they know it’s going to be expensive and they don’t like me.  It’s terrible for business.   I want to be a friend to my patients.”  You'd say:  “Doctor, next time, tell me the truth or I’ll find another doctor.

The story finally reminds us that true friends also care about your spiritual life.  This man is helpless.  He depends upon others.  His friends realize that his hope lay in bringing him to Jesus.  They are committed to this end.  When we are in want or in crisis, we need to go to God.  A good friend reminds us of this.

We were not created by God to make our journey alone in this life.  Friends contribute immeasurably to the richness of our lives.  Think of friends whom God has used to shape your life and faith.  Jesus was extraordinarily impressed with the faith of these friends of the paralyzed man.  “When Jesus saw their faith, he said:  Friend, your sins are forgiven you.

Thank you, God, for the gift of our friends. I close with these surprising words of Jesus from the Gospel of John in speaking to his followers, past and present: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business, instead, I have called you friends.   Amen!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Only One Gave Thanks (Luke 17:11-19) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

It was the day after Thanksgiving.  A woman caught her husband weighing himself on the scale.  He was sucking in his stomach. “That won’t help you, honey,” his wife said.  “You know that won’t help.”  Her husband replied:  “Oh, it helps a lot; it’s the only way I can see the numbers.”

I hope you’re ready for Thanksgiving.  And I’m not speaking only about the food.  Thanksgiving is such an important holiday for us as Americans and for us as Christians.  It’s a time to give thanks to God for our nation and our freedoms, which we enjoy because of the sacrifice of the men and women in our military, and to give thanks that the God we believe in is a God whom we can trust, seek strength from, worship and serve.   It is a time to think about what we have to be thankful for.   It is a day which reminds us that thankfulness and happiness, happiness and being thankful, are inseparable.

Of course, people are thankful for different things.  On Thanksgiving a mom was outside one frigid morning shoveling snow from her driveway.  A neighbor stopped by to say hi and asked her why her husband wasn’t out there helping her shovel snow.  The mom explained that one of them had to stay inside to take care of the children, so they drew straws to see who would go out and shovel.  “Sorry about your bad luck,” the neighbor said.  The mom looked up from her shoveling and said, “Oh, don’t be sorry.  I won.”

Our nation celebrates Thanksgiving Day this coming Thursday.   Thanksgiving, as an unofficial festival, began in 1622, when Governor William Bradford summoned the survivors of the Mayflower to a meal to praise God for their first harvest, the first tangible sign that their pilgrimage had divine approval.

President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, in the midst of a civil war that had torn this nation apart, issued a proclamation.  He wrote: “I invite my fellow citizens in every part of the united States to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.  And I recommend that they fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty’s hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as may be consistent with the Divine purpose to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”   What inspiring words.

The season of Thanksgiving offers us the opportunity to examine our hearts and minds and to honestly reflect on some important questions:  Do I live a thankful life?  Do I have a thankful heart?  What am I truly thankful for?   Being thankful is not natural to human nature.  It must be taught and caught.  One of the first important lessons parents teach their children is to say please and thank you.  Being thankful is an attitude, a powerful and positive attitude, that if learned, translates into enjoyment, fulfillment and appreciation.

Our Gospel story for this morning is about 10 lepers.  Lepers were the most revolting human beings of Jesus’ day.  They were repulsive to the eyes.  Their mere presence horrified people who feared they would be contaminated with the dreaded disease.  Lepers were socially ostracized, cut off from friends, banned from their homes and from the temple, and banished to live in remote valleys and caves.  They were literally the zombies, the walking dead of their day.

Luke tells us that Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem and as he approaches a village, ten lepers confront him.  One leper would be bad enough, but ten surrounding you would be terrifying. The story says: “Keeping their distance, they cried out in desperation, ‘Jesus Master, have mercy on us.’”   The law required that lepers keep their distance from people.  One authority writes that when the wind was blowing toward the healthy person, the law stated that lepers had to stand at least 50 yards away.  The law specified that if a leper saw someone approaching, they had to yell “unclean” three times to warn people and then cross the road.

These lepers knew that Jesus was no ordinary rabbi.  They call him master and appeal for Him to show mercy.  They fully believed the stories they had heard about Jesus’ power to heal.  And out of compassion and by the divine power within him, Jesus heals them.

Now if Jesus healed me of a dreaded disease, a life-threatening illness I would be overjoyed.  How about you?  I would shout aloud: “Thank you God.”   And yet though ten lepers were healed, only one turned back to give thanks.  “A Samaritan, seeing that he was healed, turned back and with a loud voice glorified God, fell down on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.”

Jesus says: “Were not ten made clean?  Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give God praise except this foreigner?”   You can hear the sadness and disappointment in Jesus’ words.   This story reminds us that all too often human beings are not thankful.  The attitude of gratitude is the exception, rather than the rule.

Why was Jesus disappointed that only one leper had returned to give thanks for his healing?   Were his feelings hurt?  I think so; Jesus was after-all fully human.  But there is something larger going on in this story than hurt feelings.  Jesus was deeply concerned about the human heart: our inner life, our interior life, the condition of our soul.  Jesus knew what a person is like whose heart is thankless.  An ungrateful heart is a cold heart, a callous heart.  Jesus knew it was a form of spiritual death.  Spiritually we might call it heart disease.   Jesus' desire was for people to have a thankful spirit, grounded in their faith in God.  Jesus was saying that gratitude should be at the core of one’s being.  Jesus healed the lepers to change their hearts so they would God the glory and praise.

When faith in God is lacking, we focus primarily on ourselves: our needs, our fears, our disappointments, our resentments, our desires, our missed opportunities, with no or little appreciation of our blessings or the needs and hurts of those around us.  A cold heart doesn’t have the ability to appreciate beauty and wonder and generosity and surprises of grace.    We become blind to the love from others around us and we become blind to their needs and concerns.

We hear a lot about the attitude of entitlement today.  The greater our sense of entitlement, that we deserve the things we want in life, that we have the right to have the things we want in life, the smaller our sense of gratitude.  Like gratitude and happiness, so gratitude and humility also are inseparable.  Our entitlement mindset has led to a proliferation of lawsuits in our society, when we don't get something we want or believe we deserve, we sue somebody.

Look inside yourself for a moment.  Is your heart thankful?  If the answer is yes, ask yourself why?  Why are you a thankful person?  Since thankfulness is not intrinsic to human nature, what has formed your heart?  I suspect some important and influential role models helped to shape your heart.  How has your faith helped to develop your heart of gratitude?   I suspect a growing and maturing faith, infused by the Holy Spirit, has something to do with it.

Is your heart thankful? If the answer is no, ask yourself why?    If you have an ungrateful heart, repent, tell God you are sorry, seek God’s forgiveness and ask God to change your heart.  And God will.  True faith says thank you God for your grace.   The words of a contemporary praise song capture it well:  “Change my heart oh God Make it ever true, Change my heart oh God, May I be like You. You are the potter I am the clay, Mold me and make me, This is what I pray.  Change my heart oh God, Make it ever true, Change my heart oh God, May I be like You.”   Yes, a growing, dynamic and genuine faith in God has a way of stimulating and producing a grateful heart.  When we have changed hearts, when we are no longer ruled by pride and self-centeredness, we become more like Christ, more Christ-like.

There is always something to be thankful for.     In the darkest of times, there is always some light.  In the saddest of times, there are always lighter moments.   In times of loneliness, there is always someone you can call or someone who will surprise you.  Why?  It is because of God’s grace.

A childhood friend of mine from San Diego, Bill Frost, we called him Frosty, died a few days ago.  He lived in Flagstaff, AZ.  We had gone to Sunday School together and spent a lot of time together up in the elementary years through high school.  He was a Vietnam veteran, serving in the infantry, and the war definitely took its toll on him the rest of his life.  In these later years he developed a disease where the muscles in his legs were getting weaker, he wore braces, but knew one day he would be in a wheel chair.  We had not seen each other for over 30 years, and got reacquainted about 5 years ago.   We regularly communicated through email, texting and even telephone calls.

He often would say:  “Al, I am grateful to God for my life.  I can say this to you because as a minister you understand.  I just talked to a good friend for over an hour whom I haven’t talked to for years.  I am a happy guy.”  He talked about his good fortune to have two brothers and how close they were.  He would say: “You know Al, we are not as young as we used to be.  We don’t know how much time we have left, so we need to make the most of it and spend time with people who bring positive energy.  We need to do things we think God wants us to do.  I have just learned to appreciate the little things, the small things, the surprises in life, like getting reacquainted with old friends after years of being apart.  Yes, I have problems but they could be worse.  I thank God for so many good things in my life.”

Bill embodied the spirit in the letter of I Thessalonians 5:17 which says:  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

God's Spirit is at work in our hearts and minds through faith, working to bring hope out of hopelessness, strength out of weakness, wisdom out of foolishness, and gratitude out of ingratitude.  I can personally testify to this holy work of God in my own life over the years and yet I know I am still a work in progress.  I deeply believe there is an unbreakable bond between faith and thankfulness.  Faith in God inspires a thankful heart and a thankful heart strengthens and deepens faith.

One of them, when he saw that he was healed, gave thanks to God with a loud voice.”  My friends, let us too live lives of thankfulness.  Amen!