Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Land of the Shadow of Death

The wilderness, the land of the shadow of death, the unknown, temptation, sin, and darkness all these pull at our souls trying to get us to turn our backs on God.
Sometimes we resist and win. Sometimes we resist and then give in. And sometimes we just give in. Then we feel rotten because we’ve failed to live as believers of Jesus Christ.
In times of temptation it doesn’t always help to know that Jesus was tempted and didn’t give in. Even when we remember that he fasted for 40 days before he was tempted it doesn’t help.
Jesus was God and God was stronger than anything Satan could bring to the table. But we aren’t. Therefore, sometimes, we give in to temptation.
Think back to one of the stories from Genesis. Think back to the time when the world was so evil, so bad, so wicked that God wanted to destroy it. But he didn’t destroy all humankind. Noah found favor in his sight. He and his family survived the devastation of the flood.
There was a movie about Noah starring Russell Crowe. In the movie Noah went and walked about the city and when he returned he said to his wife, “The wickedness is not just in them, it’s in all of us. I saw it.”
You won’t find that in the Bible but you have to admit that this statement makes a powerful point. There’s quite a few places in the Bible where we can discover that none of us are perfect or sinless.
In John’s first letter he wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Paul bemoaned the fact that even though he knew what was right and that it was wrong to not do the right thing, still he did what he knew wasn’t right. And we know Jesus was tempted.
In the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ” based on a book written by Nokos Kazantzakis the film showed Jesus on the cross imagining, as he hung on the cross, what it would have been like if he been granted his wish that the cup would pass from him and he wouldn’t have had to endure the agony of the cross. He imagined being married with children.
There were many folks who called this blasphemous. But, if he was in such anguish as he prayed in Gethsemane and sweat like drops of blood as he prayed, to me, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine these thoughts passing through his conscience as he was dying on the cross. After all he was human, he felt pain, he was just like us.
So, what do you think Matthew’s point was in telling us about Jesus’ time in the wilderness fasting and being tempted by the Evil One? Part of the reason he did what he did was to point out that what Jesus did was a fulfillment of Scripture. After all he tells us this many times in his gospel.
The other reason may have been to show that Jesus wasn’t anything like any of the other teachers or rabbis. He wouldn’t and didn’t give in to the power that was available to him. He really did only do what the God, the Father, told him.
So, what do we do? How are we tempted today? What temptations bombard us today, power, ambition, pride, wealth, fame? Are these things good or bad or maybe a little of both?
Could it be that our own attitudes may determine goodness or badness? Could it be that our values might change how we look at these temptations? We all know that these temptations are nothing new. They’ve always been here and will continue to be here.
It may be a help to look back at how Jesus dealt with these temptations. How did he answer the Tempter? He looked back in the past and pulled up in his memory the stories he’d learned. It’s a good possibility that if they gave Jesus what he needed to resist temptation that they’d also help us.
Maybe that’s how some of you already cope with temptation. I wonder what Scriptures or stories you lean on when tempted. Myself, I think of the psalms, the valley of the shadow of death, the hills where my help comes from, there’s no place that God isn’t.
Paul’s words to the churches about praying all the time, giving thanks for all things, looking/focusing on the prize at the end.
All these give me hope and keep me focused when all around things are falling apart and the world seems to be going the wrong direction and nothing seems to be turning it around.
Friends, look around at the folks here today. They’re our friends, our family and there’s things they do that we like and appreciate, that we value in them. Today might be a good day to write a note to them telling them what a gift they have been to you. Let them know how they’ve helped you be more like Jesus.

Friends, remember that God loves you and so do I. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Journeying with Jesus into the Unknown

When in and all around us things are changing it can be pretty disruptive. It’s a little like what happens when we receive 6 inches of rain in a couple hours and the creeks and rivers overflow threatening to flood our basements and our homes. We become anxious and scared and worry about what we’re going to do and how we’re going to survive.
What’s our typical reaction to change? How do we react when change comes that we’ve not really prepared ourselves for? Do we welcome it? Do we just ride out the change trusting in whatever God brings our way?
Have you noticed stones and rocks in a stream? Have you noticed how all the edges are round and smooth? Have you noticed how the bigger stones just sit there on the bottom, not moving, as the water flows over them?
Perhaps we can take a lesson from the stones and the rocks in those streams and let the sharp edges of our lives be worn away. Perhaps we should let God’s Spirit help us find the reason for living in these challenges that come to us. Perhaps we should be like a river that is continually changing its direction as it flows toward the ocean.
In this new year, this new season, this new journey we should ask ourselves, “How do I live?” Do I live as a person who has been set free or do I live as one chained to all the things life puts on my shoulders? That’s a heavy question and not easily answered.
I’ve been thinking about all this as I’m fast approaching my last Sunday as a pastor. There are people and things that have given my life a purpose. It’s hard to let them all go because they’ve provided a sense of security.
And now I wonder how I’m going to live after…I’ve always lived my life knowing that it was my responsibility to love and care and protect my family. And as a follower of the Way of Jesus I’ve felt the call to share my gifts of time and talents.
But there have been times that the darkness has crept in and I have felt overwhelmed.  It’s then that I realize that I’ve given in to the demands of the world and I haven’t relied on God and his peace and his love.
This darkness hasn’t always been a bad thing when I stop and sit and think and let God show me there is nothing to fear since He’s never left my side. Sometimes the darkness is just the shadow cast by God’s light.
Sometimes the darkness is my own fear of being set free to become someone I’ve never been. Change makes us feel insecure, shaky, like the people in Texas probably felt this past week with the earthquakes. Change is kind of like looking in a mirror and not recognizing the person looking back at you.
Friends, we are all on a journey. Your journey and my journey are probably different but one thing is the same. We are both called to be changed into whomever and whatever God wills.
What an exciting time this next year is going to be for all of us. May God give us the strength, and the wisdom, to get acquainted with this new person, this stranger who will do and say and live in ways that we’ve never imagined. May we know that we all are being created in God’s image in ways that we’ve never realized before.
It’s a frightening thing, change, transformation, freedom. But what a gift. May God give all of us the opportunity to hold it tight, live in it fully, and enjoy it to the fullest, right now.
Thanks be to God for his unimagined grace. Amen.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Time for Get Up and Go...

A new year is here and all around us things are changing. People are changing jobs, people are changing houses, people are moving to new places, everywhere we look people are moving, people are changing.
I remember as a young boy playing hide and seek with my friends when we’d get together. One person would be ‘it’ and the rest of us would run away to hide. The person who was ‘it’ would cover their eyes and count to 100. Then they’d shout, “Ready or not, here I come!”
Everyone would stay very still, not moving, not saying a word, hoping that they’d get the chance to race toward home and touch the tree or pole so that they’d be ‘safe.’
If the person who was ‘it’ touched you or caught you between your hiding place and the ‘base’ then you would be ‘it’ next. Never once when they caught you did they try to take your life, never.
But, that’s exactly what King Herod did when he sent soldiers to Bethlehem looking for the new born king the Magi had come asking about. When they didn’t return and let him know where Jesus was he was in a rage. He sent soldiers there to kill all the boy babies up to two years old.
We’d like to think that wouldn’t or doesn’t happen anymore, but it does. Children are being killed with rockets, guns, by starvation, and by disease all over the world.
On that day when the soldiers marched into Bethlehem no one ever expected their children to be in danger. Can you imagine the grief and the tears and the wailing? Can you imagine the pain in those parent’s hearts?
We all know there are children in danger today. We all know, but they are so far removed from us that we don’t think there’s anything we can do…or we ignore it.
Right now in our communities there are children who haven’t received a flu shot and they’re in danger of coming down with influenza and dying. In our communities there are children who are hungry, there are children who are being abused, there are children who are cold, and there are children without any parents whatsoever…in our communities and in the cities not too far away.
It’s a new year, a new day is dawning, and we can do something to help. We can buy cans of food and give them to the food pantry. We can buy a pair of gloves or a hat and give them to our churches to deliver to the Open Door Mission or Micah House or the Family Crisis Center. We can advocate for those children who have no one to speak up for them. We can volunteer in the schools and in the day cares and in our churches to make sure that no child has to suffer.
This a new day and it’s time for us to get up and go to work for Jesus. As long as we have breath in our bodies God still has something for us to do…and we should be doing it. There’s no early retirement from serving the Lord.
So, as we prepare to leave this sanctuary and go back to our homes let’s begin a new thing as we seek to live our lives more like Jesus and follow our Lord wherever he leads us.

Thanks be to God for his grace. Amen.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


When you’re on a hunt for something of value, a treasure hunt, how do you feel? What are you experiencing emotionally?
I know that when I’m on the hunt for something of value there’s a sense of excitement, maybe some anxiety too because I might not find what I’m looking for.
Just picture yourself as one of the Magi. Think about how they must have felt when they discovered the star and in their research found that it meant a new king had been born.
Think about the talks they must have had planning, arguing, negotiating what to take, what not to take, what route to take, how many servants, all that they’d need for a journey that they had no idea how long it was or how much time it would take.
And think about all the different people and characters they’d meet. Some would be helpful and some, I’m sure, would make you fear for your life.
Think of all the people they had to trust, even King Herod. Kings can be kind of hard to read, especially Herod and his reputation for killing people he thought might be in his way.
So, we’re on a journey called life. As Christians we’re also seeking the Savior, Jesus. Sometimes it’s not so easy to find Him.
We talk to folks, we ask questions of religious people, we read books, we read the Bible, we pray, we seek, we hope.
Where do we find Jesus? Can we find him in this building? Is he out there in our community? Or…is he inside us, gently, and sometimes not so gently, pushing us to get on with the work and get out of our comfort zones? Is Jesus the one who leads us to those chance encounters with some very strange people and is he the one who turns those encounters into blessings?
If we’re on the wrong road is he the one who shows us a different way? Maybe we need to tune our hearing so that we can hear his voice as he speaks to our hearts helping us to understand and trust in him.
Maybe that’s why at this time of the season, winter, that we celebrate the birth of the Savior, to discover the real riches that Christ and Christmas brings to us. It’s a good time of the year to just be and let time and light and love penetrate the darkness and show us the way home.

Thanks be to God for his grace. Amen.

Monday, December 22, 2014

God’s Vision for the World

Over the last couple weeks we have seen the vision God had for the world. In Habakkuk we were urged to write God’s message clearly so all people could read it. In Esther we heard the story of God’s love and vision for the whole community. Today as we heard the lessons read we get the idea God’s vision has grown and is meant to encompass all, Jews and Gentiles, people of faith and people without faith, all people.
The Good News is for all people, and we find that the vision spoken by Isaiah was written and delivered to those who were the least in society.  God’s vision wasn’t, and isn’t, just for the chosen ones, the wealthy and rich, but for the poor, the prisoners, the nations that are downtrodden. It is in fact a vision for all God’s people everywhere.
We hear this passage from Isaiah and immediately think that it’s about the coming of the Messiah. That’s who we think the ‘Suffering Servant’ refers to. It could be that the message wasn’t so much to point the people toward a Messiah but to point the listeners to themselves, the people of Israel. This vision of God’s blessing brings with it a responsibility to work at bringing God’s vision into reality right where we are.
If we look at Isaiah’s message in that way, thinking about us as the Church, and understand that the message isn’t about the Messiah being responsible for telling the Good News but the community of the Church is responsible for interpreting and delivering the message of Good News to our communities and the world. What would our communities look and feel like if the people of the Church were actively working to bring about God’s vision of justice for all?
As our scriptures tell us this ‘light’ has been given to the people of God to light the way for others. So, the question for us is this, “If we are to light the way for others, how are we living this out in our communities and how is it being experienced by those we encounter?” Is this light of God’s incarnation in the world helping people to see and understand God’s vision of justice for all?
God’s vision is for all people. Through the Spirit of God, God’s servants are, and will be, a light to the nations, bringing justice, healing, wholeness, and release to the prisoners. The people of faith, you and me, are God’s servants; our church communities are God’s servants. My hope and prayers is that we don’t think of this passage as someone else’s responsibility to undertake and bring about God’s vision of justice. It isn’t about someone else, it’s about us.
As it’s written in the book of Esther, “For such a time as this” God’s servants are called to work for justice…each and every one of us are called.

Thanks be to God for his gift of grace and faith. Amen.

Monday, December 8, 2014

God's Time

There’s a song that reminds us we’re given 86,400 seconds every day. That sounds like a lot of time. And it is, until we realize we’ve wasted 3,600 seconds not doing what we know deep in our souls we should be doing and maybe another 3,600 doing something else. We delay, we put it off because we’re afraid that someone will be mad or hurt or will ridicule us or one of the other million excuses we use.
Mordecai asked Esther to do something hard, to do something that could have cost her life. So, for a moment, maybe a day she hesitated until she heard from her Uncle Mordecai.
He said she may have been placed in this position as queen “for such a time as this.” Mordecai wanted her to know that God was there as their protector even when they were in exile.
So, do you know what God has for you to do? Has God been calling to you to do something you don’t want to do or you’re afraid to do? Have you been wondering why God put you here in Walnut, IA?
Well, think about this for a minute. There are homeless people in Omaha and Council Bluffs living along the river, under the viaducts, sleeping under cardboard wearing multiple layers of clothes. There are children going to homes unsure what kind of reception they’ll receive when they get there. There are children who don’t know what it’s like to be hugged or kissed or told they’re precious. These are people who don’t know what it’s like to be loved.
There are folks living in care centers who are so lonely they just want to die because they have no family to visit them. And there are folks living in homes who never have anyone checking in with them to see how they’re doing.
The Jews in Esther’s story were living in exile. They didn’t know if they’d ever get back to their homeland. Fortunately for them God knew their plight and he hadn’t abandoned them.
Mordecai and Esther were part of God’s plan to save these people. If they hadn’t answered God’s call the ending of the story would have been way different. God may have save the Jews but Mordecai and Esther may not have survived.
So, back to you and me. I believe God is calling us, you and me, to a particular work. I believe God’s been calling for a while. My call may be different from yours and then again it may be the same.  My question is, “Do you think we’ve answered God’s call to us?”
What is God calling his Church to do? If God is calling his Church to a particular work then that means God is calling you and me to a particular work since we are the church. And, if God is calling us and we’re not answering the call, who’s being hurt by that? If we don’t answer God’s call who will he call next and what will happen to us?
This is God’s time, every day, every 86,400 seconds, belong to God. One day, I believe, we’ll have to answer how we used God’s time. That scares me some because I’ve wasted a lot of the time God’s given to me. My only hope is in the forgiveness offered through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
But still, we are all here for a reason, for a particular purpose and the only way we’re going to know what God has for us to do is to take time to listen.
So, in this season of Advent, this winter time, I think it’s a perfect time to sit by our heaters, wrapped in our blankets, and let God speak to us his call. And may we have the courage Esther showed to answer the call.

Thanks be to God for his forgiving grace to us. Amen.

Friday, November 28, 2014


I’d like you to picture yourself as one of the ten lepers who called to Jesus for pity. Put on their clothes. Put on their sandals. Remember that you aren’t allowed to get too close to other people because you’re not ‘clean.’ You haven’t been ‘clean’ for quite a while.
The children of the town are always taunting you and sometimes they pick up stones to drive you away. And lately you’ve noticed that you’ve lost the feeling in your fingers and toes. You’ve had this condition for so long it’s hard to remember what it was like to have ‘clean’ skin that didn’t itch and wasn’t covered with sores.
You’ve heard about this one called Jesus. You’ve heard about his healing powers and the miracles of feeding 5,000 and raising folks from the dead and driving out demons. And today, there he was walking down the road we were on.
One the others with us began the shout, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” As he looked our way we all took up the shout, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
It was like he was looking right at me. He didn’t come near. He just said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”
That’s all. And so we began to go to the temple. That’s when I noticed that something felt different. I looked at my hands. They were healed! I could feel the tips of my fingers again! I could hardly believe it!
I stopped right there in the road. The leprosy was gone! I turned around and ran back to Jesus and fell at his feet. I was so happy I don’t remember everything I said. I know I was thanking God and thanking Jesus. What would you have done? What else could I do?
Then he spoke and said, “Weren’t there ten who were cleansed? Where are the others? How is it that only this one, a foreigner has returned?
Then he spoke to me! He said, “Get up and go. Your faith has made you well.”
I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced such joy, ever! I had to run to the priests and then I was going to go home! I hadn’t been close to my family for so long!
I’ll tell you one thing for sure! I’ll never, ever, take one day for granted anymore. Since Jesus healed me I know that every day is a blessing. I give God the glory every day.
And that Rabbi, Jesus. Some say he’s the Messiah, the Son of God. He sure could be. All I know is once I was an outcast and now I’m not.

So, good friends, don’t take your good lives for granted. Don’t be like I was. Go, find this Jesus and ask him to have pity on you! May you have the peace and joy I received when Jesus told me my faith had made me well.