Lectionary Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

Romans 8:14-17     Born Again

In the record of the life and words of Jesus written by the Apostle John, we are told of an encounter between Jesus and an influential religious leader of the day named Nicodemus. Nicodemus wants to understand Jesus’s message.  Nicodemus is a religious man but he is also a seeker of the truth. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.” (Jn. 3:3 CEB)

Jesus goes on to explain this strange statement by saying, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.” (Jn. 3:5-7 CEB)

Thus, to be born of the Spirit is to be born again.  How are we born of the Spirit?  Some believe you are born again when you pray a specific prayer or state you believe in Jesus, that he died on the cross and rose from the dead.  Others believe this new birth happens through acts of ritual that covey grace.  Some believe it happens when you speak in an unknown tongue. Human beings have the ability to all fall into all kinds of legalism. It makes us think we have some control.

Who is right and who is wrong?  How do we really know if we have been born again or not?  John Wesley struggled with this question for years.  So did Martin Luther.  So should each and every one of us if we care what our ultimate destiny, our ultimate purpose, our true relationship with God is all about. If we would be seekers of the truth.

On Pentecost, the day we remember today, the Holy Spirit came in power upon Jesus’s disciples.  Those who witnessed this event were troubled.  We are told they called out to Peter, When the crowd heard this, they were deeply troubled. They said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”

Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away– as many as the Lord our God invites.” (Acts 2:37-39 CEB)

Birth is a gift.  We do not choose to be born.  Physical life is given to us.  Being born of the Spirit is also a gift.  We cannot choose to this on our own either.  God invites us.  God gives us the opportunity, the gift of God’s grace, to experience rebirth.  Again, in Jesus’s own words, “No one can come to me unless they are drawn to me by the Father who sent me, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (Jn. 6:44 CEB)

But again, how do we know?  How can we be confident that we have been born anew through the Spirit of God?  How do we know we are children, sons and daughters of God?

Today, if there is a question of a child’s parentage, a DNA test is used.  Is there a spiritual DNA test?  In a way, yes there is.  Our passage today gives us insight into how we can test our spiritual DNA.  It gives us insight into how we can know if we are born anew.

Paul gives us insight into the first step of this process.  He tells us those who are born anew are led by the Spirit.  So, the first thing we should look for in our lives is the role God plays in how we live.   Does God direct our lives?  A good way to determine that is simply, do you want, really want to live as God desires for you to live? 

Careful here, don’t confuse self-deception with willing obedience.  This test requires a true evaluation.  If you were to set down and make a list of your last week’s activities under two columns (one named things I did for God, and things I did for myself) how would you come out? 

The next step in determining our spiritual DNA is looking at how we respond to the circumstances and situations of our lives.  Do we let fears have too much influence in our lives or are we discovering just how much we mean to God? 

A religion of rules does not produce freedom, but slavery in fear of retaliation.  Rules are used to define what we are allowed or not allowed to do.  Rules do not define who we are.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. (1 Jn. 4:18 CEB)

However, a relationship of acceptance, a relationship of adoption has the power to inspire us to desire to follow the instructions of the one who has accepted us, adopted us, to please the one who has given us this chance.

Question, do we look at forgiveness as something to avoid punishment or do we look at forgiveness as an opportunity to love God for what God has done for us? 

Sometime back, I was with my daughter and granddaughter.  My granddaughter was told no about something that she wanted.  She started to pout.  My daughter did not scream at her or say, wait till you get home, but asked her if this behavior would change anything?  She then asked her how this behavior made her mother feel after she had already been very generous toward her that day.  The behavior stopped.  I am so proud of the parent my daughter has become.  She focuses on the relationship more than the rules. 

When the relationship is right, the rules become a delight more than a duty.

Note what the passage states next.  When we are born anew through the Holy Spirit, we can cry out Abba.  What in the world does that mean?  Abba is a term of endearment.  It is being able to say to God, daddy.  It is a term for trust, dependence, need, belief, and confidence.  What it means is that we have the opportunity to get as close to God as we want. 

This means that when we are weak, God will be our strength.  When we are worried, God will comfort us.  We are hurt God will hurt with us.  When we fail, God will be there to pick us up.  When we stray, God will call out to us.  When we are alone, God will be with us. 

How do we know?  God has promised.  A daddy keeps a promise.  And as we learn to cry Abba, we discover this is true.  Nothing builds confidence and assurance like experience.  Look at verse 16. 

How do you know you are in love?  Because you know.  Because of what you think, what you do and because of who the person you love is.  How do you know you are born anew?  Because of what you think, what you do, and because of who God is.

You know you are born anew not because of a creed, a prayer, or a ritual, but because of a relationship.  A relationship with incredible benefits.  A relationship without limitations.  A relationship in which we are given much, much more than we deserve. 

On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to bring the presence of Jesus to those who are willing to respond to God’s call, God’s desire, and God’s purpose for our lives. 

Jesus told us, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth. He won’t speak on his own, but will say whatever he hears and will proclaim to you what is to come. The Spirit will glorify me, because the Spirit will take what is mine and proclaim it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine. That’s why I said that the Spirit takes what is mine and will proclaim it to you.” (Jn. 16:13-15 CEB)

Now, this is the final part of the spiritual DNA test.  Do you really want this vision, this statement to be true of you?  Is there anything more important in this physical life that is greater than what we are promised here? 

The thing about a child is that they can be swayed by the desire for instant gratification.  They will settle for what they can get now rather than waiting in order to get something far better. This is a terrible temptation. It is a temptation we must flee. Such an effort God will honor.

How can we know we are born anew?  When we can say with confidence and assurance, “I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters.” (Rom. 8:18-19 CEB)

Even so, come Lord Jesus, Amen.

Lectionary Sermon for Seventh Sunday of Easter

John 17:20-26 We are loved

John chapter 17 is about a prayer, a prayer that Jesus prayed on the night before his crucifixion. It is a prayer for the disciples, but it is also a prayer for us.  

Jesus says, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Jesus knew his work would continue. Jesus knew that we would be given the same opportunity as the disciples who were with him. Jesus knew there would be those in the future who would believe.

For the last three months, I have been learning what I can about open theology. The basic premise of open theology is that God does not know the future. I cannot accept open theology. I believe it makes time the ultimate power in the universe. Open theology believes the future is about possibilities. This I agree. I believe the future has limitless possibilities and that God knows all the possible choices a human being can make, and God does work to influence our choices for our good but does not make us choose. I agree with open theology that the future is not completely set except for the ultimate intention, the prime purpose of God.

In his prayer, Jesus prays that the Father will provide what is needed to be in the world but not of the world. Jesus prays that the Father would work to bring us to unity with the One God who is three. Jesus prays that we can be one in and with the ultimate intention, the divine prime purpose of God.

Jesus lets us know that his prayer, his plan, and his purpose if for us to know the love of God and to live in the light of this love in a world that is filled with darkness. Jesus lets us know that we learn to live as we were intended as we learn more about God.

We have even a more difficult path. The disciples were present with the Lord. They saw Jesus do things that could only be explained as being done by God. They heard his words themselves. We cannot be like Thomas and feel the wounds in Jesus hands and side. We cannot be like Peter and have breakfast with Jesus. We cannot be like Mary and pour ointment on Jesus’s feet as an act of love and worship. We must trust in God’s word and to trust in the Lord to make God’s promises real to us. We must let this faith live in us without the benefit of our five senses. Jesus says we will be blessed. As it is written, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (Jn. 20:29 ESV)

Jesus also knows how hard this life will be. Jesus knows how hard it will be and wants us to know he knows what we face. Earlier in the prayer, Jesus says this, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” (Jn. 17:15 ESV) Jesus knows what we are up against. Jesus also wants us to know that we do not fight this fight alone. Jesus wants us to know that God will be with us through all we face. What we experience God experiences.

Our God is not a distant deity. Our God is not a far-off Father. Our God loves us so much that God is willing to live in us and with us, not as a possession but as a companion.

In verses 22-23 Jesus says, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, what they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

In a time in which the world looks at us as consumers, income producers, objects for personal pleasure, beings needed to be controlled, God looks at us with love, an intention of love, a desire of love, a gift of love, and a promise of love. God does this knowing our limitations, our prejudices, our tendency toward selfishness, our being prone to violence, and our egos and still loves us.

God not only loves us but wants us to transcend our sinfulness and grow toward the goal God has for us, perfection. This perfection is not a perfectionism in which we feel we must do things just right, think in a specific perfect manner, or depends on our ability to be perfect in any way. It is the Holy Spirit who brings us to perfection in the intention, desire, and actions of God. We are made perfect in love.

Listen to what our Lord says next, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Jesus speaks not only of the reality we now live in but in the ultimate reality that God has purposed.

We did not come into existence by accident. We were created for a purpose. This is a truth revealed throughout the Scripture by the Psalm, Prophet, and Promise. The psalmist says, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” (Ps. 139:14-16 ESV) The prophet tells us, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jer. 29:11 ESV) And then there is the promise, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (Jn. 14:2-3 ESV)

We were made to be with God, to be loved by God, and to have the ability to love and enjoy God in all the glory which God wants to share with us. This is the great mystery that is experienced, not just known. God has walked with us so that we can walk with God.

Then, Jesus gives us insight into what will be beyond what is to come. Jesus says, “O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (Jn. 17:25-26 ESV)

Jesus’s mission was the revelation of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom created in which we can play an eternal part. Jesus is still revealing this truth. Jesus has revealed the very nature and desire of God. God wants us to move beyond this world of moral and spiritual failure that leads to suffering and death. Jesus wants us to know the love of God for all eternity. We are offered the opportunity to be the chosen, the redeemed, the saved, and the transformed. This is what God wants. Since it is what a loving, caring God wants, it will never be forced. It must be willingly received. This is the call to follow Jesus. Jesus makes himself known to us through love and for love. The issue then is about our acceptance or rejection of this love. This is your right, your power, your choice. What will it be?

Lectionary Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

John 14:23-29

What do we take for granted? Who do we take for granted? The foundation for taking something for granted is a belief that something does not need attention, that it is fine just as it is. It is something that we do not need to think about. We take things for granted, like breathing, until something happens that makes breathing difficult. Then it gets our attention. We can take eating for granted until there is no food. We can take relationships for granted until we lose them. We can take God for granted until we come to find out we need God.

I am afraid too many people take God for granted. I am afraid too many people do not realize that they have done this until a disaster strikes or they die and discover with horror and regret we should not have taken God for granted.

How do you avoid taking God for granted? We can avoid it by reflecting and acting on what Jesus says. Jesus gives us an important insight here. If we love Jesus, we will obey God’s commands? Ok, good, what is it that Jesus commands? Do you know?

Bible tells us of a young man who comes to Jesus and asked what is required for eternal life. Jesus replied, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’ ” (Mk. 10:19 NIV) The young man agreed and says that he has done this since he was young. At least he through he had kept them. However, Jesus tells him to give to the poor and follow him. The young man cannot do this and walks away sad.

Jesus tells us, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

The question for us in reflection is a simple one, “Have I done what God expects? Do I care what God expects? Do I simply try to ignore the spiritual requirements of life, taking them for granted and hoping everything will work?

God does want us to understand that while grace is free and that God loves us unconditionally, God does not force love or obedience. We do not have to choose God. We can choose our own will if we want. We had just better not make the mistake of taking God for granted and believe there will be no consequences for doing so. We cannot take our eternal state or our relationship with Jesus for granted. Relationships are a two-way affair. Yes, God gives and gives and gives. Yes, God is forgiving, merciful, and loving. But God will not force us. If we know God, love God, and desire to honor God we must keep God’s desires first and foremost in our minds. To not do so is to take them for granted. The Christian faith is not about cheap grace. It is a faith of relational connection and relational responsibility. It is not a take-it-for-granted relationship. If we understood the opposition to the true faith, the deceptions, delusions, and diabolical lies we will face we would not take our faith for granted.

Jesus gives us insight into the challenge we face, “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matt. 22:14 NIV) And, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matt. 7:13-14 NIV) Jesus tried to make it clear, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” (Lk. 12:5 NIV)

We are continually struggling whether we know it or not against not only our own willfulness to choose the way we want but also, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12 NIV)

Jesus knows how difficult our spiritual struggle is. Jesus knows that we can easily fall victim. Jesus knows how we can be used by evil. Jesus knows how we often willingly follow lies. Jesus came to show and teach humanity how easily we can be deceived. Jesus wants the disciples to know this. Jesus wants us to know this.

Jesus then tells the disciples, “All this I have spoken while still with you.”

Jesus was aware that even in his death, the enemy would not give up. The enemy wants to lead every human being astray. The enemy wants to see us suffer and die. The enemy wants us in hell and will do whatever it can to destroy us. Jesus will not leave us to fight this fight by ourselves. Jesus wants to give us a helper, a comforter, an advocate, and the very presence of God in our lives to stand with us, strengthen us, and empower us. This help is going to be the Holy Spirit.

This is what Jesus tells his disciples, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

A relationship with Jesus is always about faith. Jesus did not come to bring certainty but an opportunity to believe and trust based on the revelation God gives to us. Then. The disciples could see Jesus but that was going to change. Jesus became one of us because faith had descended into legalism and ritual without relationship. Jesus gave us an understanding of God that transcends certainty and instead gives us a connection to the mystery that is much deeper and far more real than certainty. Death is a certainty. The promises of God go beyond death to all of eternity. Jesus was God with us, and he still is God with us, not by sight but by faith. It is the Holy Spirit that enables faith and sustains faith. It is the Holy Spirit that comes and dwells with us when we turn to faith in Jesus. It is the Holy Spirit that works in us to make us more like our Lord and to give us assurance and hope beyond certainty.

To confirm what Jesus says, Jesus tells his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. Jesus then goes on to say, “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. (Jn. 14:28-29 NIV)

Jesus says he will come back. Jesus keeps his word. Our faith believes in this promise. Jesus will return.

Jesus has left us as far as his incarnate presence as a human being on Earth. We are the ones who now must fully live by faith and trust. In this, we are blessed. For Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (Jn. 20:29 NIV)

Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Pet. 1:8-9 NIV)

It is a dangerous thing to take God for granted. It is a positive thing to seek the assurance Jesus offers us. How often do we cheat ourselves from the blessing because we are not active in our faith and belief? We too often choose the path of the world rather than the way of the Lord. I hope each of us takes time to reflect, repent, and return to seeking to do the will of God in all things.

Lectionary Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 13:31-35 The Path to Glory

The disciples had joined Jesus for what would be his last supper on earth. It was a time of celebration, but there was a cloud, a darkness, an uncertainty that seemed to blanket the time. Jesus had done some strange things. He had washed their feet. This particularly bothered Peter. Then Jesus said some strange things about the bread and wine comparing them to his body and blood. Jesus had told them one of them would betray him. And then Jesus said to Judas, go do what you must do. Judas had just left to go and betray Jesus.  Now Jesus turns to the other disciples and says, “Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him.” What does Jesus mean? The disciples did not have a clue.

What does it mean to glorify someone? The word translated glorify is a word meaning putting into a position of power and great honor, especially in the future life glorify. Jesus was about to be betrayed, abused, falsely accused, beaten, mocked, spat on, tortured, and then executed on a cross made of wood. This was going to be an extremely painful death. How does this glorify him?

All the things that are soon to happen to Jesus seem so negative, so victimizing. Yet Jesus is going to use them to bring about the life-giving resurrection and ascension. Jesus is glorified, given the most exalted position any human being could ever be given, Savior of humanity for all eternity. Jesus is glorified by the Father and by the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’s death, there is life. In Jesus’s suffering, there is love, love for us that is unconditional. This is the glory of Jesus.

There are some things we need to remember. Jesus, the Son of God, God in Trinity, became a human being knowing this is where the incarnation would lead. Human beings die, Human beings do violence to one another. In Jesus, deity became humanity. To me, the act of leaving the prefect presence of the Triune unity to become human is beyond comprehension. To know one is about to rejoin that blessed community would certainly be a reason for expecting glory, even if the path was certainly going to be the way of suffering.

“If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.” Jesus knew this is true. Jesus knew this was the plan and purpose of the Father and the Holy Spirit.

We, today, have the gift of reflection concerning this event. We read the Gospel and so know what Jesus is going to go through. We know that Jesus surrenders himself completely to what was coming his way. We do not have to live with questions about what was going to happen. We are allowed to know how things turn out.

These next words, “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.”

Wow, such powerful words of endearment, ‘my children come from Jesus. Clearly, Jesus cares about the disciples. He knows it is going to be hard on them. Jesus knows his time is short. Jesus is the only person who can go where he is going. Jesus is going to die a horrible death and then descend into hell itself. Jesus would return and then ascend to the Father. No other human being would ever be able to do this on their own. Through death, Jesus takes those of us who are his into the eternal Kingdom. Those who go to hell will not come back. This is the eternal danger every human being faces. As the Scripture says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Rom. 3:23 NIV) and the consequences of sin separate us from God. Only Jesus can breach that divide. We cannot go where Jesus goes but we can listen to his voice as he calls us to the flock of God.

Then Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment. Jesus gives us the summary of all the commandments, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

The word translated love is a subjunctive. The subjunctive is generally used when talking about something that may or may not happen; it could be something that the speaker wants, hopes for, expects, or imagines. Jesus deeply desires this for his disciples, but it must be their choice. They can reject this commandment. To do so however, would be to reject Jesus. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn. 14:15 ESV) If you love Jesus you will seek to do what Jesus expects of us. However, Jesus will not force us to love. You cannot force love.

I hope you are aware that the word love can be one of the most misused words in the English language. It is used to justify lust. It is used to manipulate and control, to hurt and deceive, and distract and possess. This is not the love that is the very nature of God.

The love commandment Jesus gives is one that calls his disciples to be servants of one another, of being willing to lie down one’s life, and of living out of the depth of compassion that Jesus did. This kind of love Jesus tells us will identify us as true believers, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn. 13:31-35 NIV)

As I look back over my 40 years of ministry in churches, I served I must say I saw very little of this kind of love. If asked if I will see the people who attended these churches in heaven, I must honestly say I only know a few. I have seen people play at being good and then do some of the most unlove acts I have ever known. I think the pandemic has shown how little people care for others in how they responded to masks and vaccines. I believe the church’s involvement in politics has shown the lack of love and the abundance of hate. I believe churches today are not known for their love but for their marketing, entertainment, and fundraising.

I believe Jesus knew how hard this would be. I have no doubt Jesus understood that the road to love is narrow, rocky, steep, and hard. The way of the world is wide, deceptive, and seemingly easy. The road of love abandons judgment while the way of the world is always judging.

There is an exercise we can do to help us stay on track and live up to Jesus’s expectations. And what is this exercise? It is an examination of the actions in our lives as to whether we are loving others or are a stumbling block to others. We need to examine our relationships. How am I at loving others? How am I Jesus to others? How is the Holy Spirit guiding me to love others? After doing this then reflect on those who have not been loving toward. Who have I not listened to? Who have I not shown care? And perhaps the most important reflection of all, “Will I see the people I come into contact with in heaven?” 

Jesus is still with us. The Holy Spirit is constantly trying to lead us to love. We must respond. It is a choice. How will we choose?

A Confession and Hope

I have written about my suicide before but I feel compelled to do so again. I do not remember the gun going off. I do not remember what it felt like as the bullet ripped through my tongue and teeth. I do not remember it destroying my left eye. I do not remember when the bullet, now separating into fragments, entered my brain. In fact, all I can really remember is saying to myself, “There is no hope,” as I put the barrel of the gun under my chin and pulled the trigger. I do remember floating over my dead body as I was being transported to the hospital. I was told that I passed out due to a lack of blood. This caused my heart to fail. I vaguely remember the emergency personnel bringing me back to life only to slip away again. This time, I was taken to a place where I was with others who had died. Strangely, I was not afraid.

I remember there was an accuser, I do not know if it were the demon who had tormented me for two years or whether Satan was there to accuse me. I remember that the evil entity, whoever it was, said, “He killed himself. Church law says that he now belongs to me.” Then another voice spoke up. Was it an angel of was it the Lord, I am not sure, however, the angel, or the Lord, said to the evil presence, “God grace trumps Church law, he belongs to us. His price has been paid.”

Then the one speaking turned to me and asked, “Do you want to go back?” I knew I had a choice, but I also knew I needed to say yes. I was aware there were others there as well. Some of them were in a state of being beyond horror, terror, pain, and fear. They reflected the hopelessness and true suffering of a regret that will never go away. There were others who seemed to be in a state of bliss that was far greater than happiness, pleasure, joy, and peace. However, once I said yes, I awoke in the intensive care unit. I had been unconscious for eleven days, hooked up to a ventilator, feeding tube, monitors, wires, and tubes. I was alive.

At first, I did not know what had happened. While I was being moved from intensive care to a room I asked the nurse, “What happened to me?” The nurse replied, “You were shot.” I then asked, “Who shot me?” The nurse replied, “Do you know who shot you?” I answered no. The nurse then told me, “I have been told the shot was self-inflicted.” My mind took this bit of information and began racing. “What was the caliber of the gun?” I asked. In my mind, I wonder if it had been an accident. If I had been shot with the 9mm then I could believe it was an accident. If it was the .45 then I knew I had decided to kill myself. The nurse did not know. It took two days to find out that it was the .45. Yes, I had intended to kill myself.

Why, why did I do this? What finally brought me to seek to end my life? I had lost hope. I felt that I was a total failure. I had been pushed out of a church, forced to retire, and had done irreparable damage to my lower back. I was in constant, chronic pain. I had just moved from a small town to a larger city. Covid had struck and I could not get a job. I had turned to self-medicating to try and ease my physical pain. This did not really help. Mentally and emotionally, I was a wreck. I had no friends to support me. My dear wife tried her best to help me, but I resisted her and felt I had been abandoned by God. In my insanity, I believed my only choice was to die. And so, in a drug-induced state in total despair I killed myself. I did not think of what I was going to say to God, or how I was going to try and rationalize what I had done. Selfish, that is what I was selfish.

My poor wife was in the next room when I pulled the trigger. Selfishly I did not think of what my actions might do to her. I did not think of my daughters, grandchildren, or anyone. I did not think of what I was about to do to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I just wanted to end the pain. It was a very selfish act. I am sure the Lord wondered watched me with sadness. Why could I not depend on God to help? Why had I become so willful?

It has been two years since the event. I lost my left eye and most of my teeth. My vocal cords were damaged. The amount of brain damage has not been too extensive as far as we can tell. Mostly I cannot remember how to do some of the physical things I had participated in and taught. I cannot tolerate a lot of stress. I have panic attacks when I am in a situation that is stressful. I use a cane to help with balance issues.

I spend most of my time now studying and seeking. I thought that the Lord was calling me back into the church as a pastor. I even tried sending out resumes. I had some responses that made me hopeful. I have been able to accept the lack of responses and the responses that were rejections without experiencing emotional or mental pain. I do not blame God. I do not blame the churches that are not interested. After all, I am a 67-year-old man who may be qualified in every sense and have experiences that could be very helpful to others, but I am not the image most churches look for in a pastor. I am okay with this. There is no person to blame for any of this except myself.

I am now seeking to be accepting of my situation. Willingness is the answer to willfulness. I am entering into the physical, economic state of poverty. I have controlled the back pain to the point of being able to do some physical work for about thirty minutes before I must sit down so I cannot find a job. I am too old to file for disability. I am dependent upon my wife to be the true breadwinner even though she is 66 years old. She truly is a servant of the Lord.

I am learning to deal with regret. I am learning to deal with my self-caused handicaps. I am constantly reading and studying spiritual direction and discernment. God is very good to me. Pray is becoming more meaningful and intimate for me. I have peace, a peace that does surpass anything the world has offered me. I am seeking about all else to live in the reality of the repetend prayer I turn to every day, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Lk. 22:42 NIV)

I have no idea, yet, of the reason, the Lord sent me back. I feel it largely had to do with the prayers of my wife and children. I do believe God has a purpose for me. I am more than willing (not willfully but willingly) to be whomever the Lord wants to shape me into being. I am amazed at how God can still love me, use me, affirm me, and bless me despite continual sinfulness and stupidity. I have come to know the hope expressed in Jesus’s parable, “”Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people– robbers, evildoers, adulterers– or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” (Lk. 18:10-13 NIV)

Another repetend prayer, “God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Lectionary Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

John 10:22-30 The Responsibility is Ours

Many, many years ago when I was a very young teenager our family moved to a city in Texas. The neighborhood we settled in has a lot of other young teens as well. This group of neighborhood teens had a special way of treating new commers. What they would do is get you into a discussion about your physical abilities. In the process of talking the subject would come up, “Who do you think you could beat in a fight?”  They would then go to the person you said you might be able to win against and tell them that you said you could beat them. This little game got me into fights on a regular basis until I figured out what was going on.

I understand how teenagers could do something like this, but sadly, some of this type of behavior follows them into adulthood. One of the places I see evidence of this is how they use social media.  I do not use major social media platforms. The reason I do not is because I see so much hostility, so much stirring the pot of controversy, and so many hurtful words that I just felt this is something that I, myself could not do without being tempted to respond. Responding would only feed the beast. Each of us must respond to how the Holy Spirit leads us in matters of life and living. The responsibility is ours.

The Festival of Dedication (we know today as Hanukkah), is the Festival of Lights. Hanukkah is celebrated during the Hebrew month of Kislev (late November or early December), beginning on day 25 of Kislev and continuing for eight days and nights. It celebrates the Maccabees’ victory over Greek oppression and the rededication of the Temple.

In the passage, we are told that some religious individuals approached Jesus and tried to manipulate him into saying something that could be used against him. It was an attempt to draw Jesus into a fight. They want Jesus to make a public declaration. They want Jesus to say he is the Messiah.

What is the big deal about this? Why does it seem so important that Jesus make this declaration public? In the days of Jesus, the term Messiah was viewed as more political than spiritual. Several charismatic rebel leaders had used the title in their revolt against Roman rule. The Romans had a way of quickly eliminating such rebels. Those who were pushing Jesus to publicly declare himself to be the Messiah were hoping the same thing would happen to him.

Jesus was on to their scheme. Jesus’s answer, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.” Jesus does not want to play their games. Jesus knows their motives and designs. Jesus sees into the depth of a human soul.

The game “who is Jesus” continues today. I have read, set through lectures, and have had conversations with individuals who still say that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah and that this was a title imposed on him by the church. Still today, they ask for evidence that plainly states Jesus was the Messiah.

He is reality. Jesus did claim, plainly, with his words but more so with his actions that Jesus was the Messiah promised by Scripture.

There is an old saying about arrogant and ignorant people, “Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up. These people who are being so aggressive have already made their minds up about Jesus. They are convinced he is not the type of Messiah they wanted. They were afraid of the trouble Jesus was stirring up among the masses who were beginning to believe Jesus just might be the Messiah.

This is the real issue. It is about accepting the responsibility to understand who Jesus is, what kind of Messiah he is, and what Jesus’s Messiahship means to each and every human being. Jesus was not just a Jewish Messiah; he is the Messiah for all time and space and creation and salvation. Through the words and actions of his life, Jesus proclaimed the reality of the coming Kingdom of God and that it was a Kingdom of grace, love, and reconciliation not a Messiah of nationalism.

I am very troubled about the growing attempt in recent times to try and make Jesus the Messiah of nationalism once again. America is not the Kingdom of God. Israel is not the Kingdom of God. No political entity can ever claim to be the Kingdom of God. Jesus came and preached a message of forgiveness and acceptance without any trace of racial superiority or political alignment. Just as the children’s hymn proclaims, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.

Jesus tells those who are questioning him that the reason they do not believe is because they do not recognize Jesus as the shepherd. The Messiah will lead those who listen to the reality voiced by Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd. The anointed of God, the savior of humankind is first and foremost a shepherd. He leads the sheep. He does not drive the flock but through his voice, the flock finds trust and assurance.

Jesus makes it clear. It is important to be part of Jesus’s flock. Jesus will lead to green pastures of peace. Jesus will lead to the still waters of grace. Jesus will protect and serve his own with his very life. Satan cannot claim someone who belongs to the flock of God.

How can we know if we belong to the flock of God? How can we know we are hearing Jesus’s voice? The voice of Jesus is not about power, position, profits, or possessions. The voice of Jesus is about being a servant. It is about helping and not hurting. It is about joy and not judgment. It is about freedom, not control. It is about unconditional love.

The sheep know the shepherd’s voice through experience, through a relationship. It is the shepherd who leads them to food and shelter. It is the shepherd who calls them.

 “The modern shepherd has a wonderful memory, which retains the name of every sheep. The flocks sometimes contain several hundred, and yet each one has a name, and the shepherd knows it, and calls every sheep by its proper name. [One observer] tells of watching shepherds with flocks upon the slopes of Mount Hermon: ‘Each shepherd trains his sheep to come at his call, to go in order, in twos or fours, in squares and circles; one from the outer circle in a flock of a thousand will come when its name is called.’ It is the voice of the shepherd that the sheep recognizes.

“A stranger once declared to a Syrian shepherd that the sheep knew the dress and not the voice of their master. The shepherd said it was the voice they knew. To prove this, he exchanged dresses with the stranger, who went among the sheep in the shepherd’s dress, calling the sheep in imitation of the shepherd’s voice, and tried to lead them. They knew not his voice, but when the shepherd called them, though he was disguised, the sheep ran at once at his call.”​[1]

If we want to know if we are in the flock of God the question, “How do we respond to the words of Jesus and how can we trust the word,” needs to be asked. How do we do this? By spending time with the words of the Good Shepherd. By becoming discerning in times of prayer. By seeking to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit. God does seek us. God does try to draw us. God will protect us if we are willing to trust.

Final note, Jesus moves the position of Messiah to a new level. Jesus says he and the Father are one. Jesus just states that he is one with God. It is simple logic. If a equals b, and b equals c, then a equals c. If the Father is God, and Jesus claims to be one with the Father, then Jesus states that he is God as well. If this is the truth, then the matter of whose voice we hear is critical to our eternal state. We will not live in this world forever. We do, because of Jesus have the opportunity to live in the presence and pleasure of God forever. Perhaps making sure of whose voice we are listening to is more important than we might realize.

[1] Orientalisms in Bible Lands, by E. W. Rice, pp. 159-161.