Change: Esther

Change: Esther
A Message on Esther 4:9-17
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Oct. 17, 2021, Commitment Sunday
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Esther 4:9-17 (NRSV)

Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. 10 Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, 11 “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” 12 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

I want to continue our sermon series on “Change” by exploring someone in the Bible who certainly experienced a lot of change in her life: Esther.

The story of Esther, found in the book in the Bible that bears her name, is unique among the biblical writings. For one thing, God is never mentioned. Nope. This makes it one of only two books in the Bible, the other being Song of Songs, also known as Song of Solomon, that doesn’t mention God.

The story of Esther would make a great movie, and in fact one has already been made about it. It is a Veggie Tales movie, “Esther: The Girl Who Became Queen.” I highly recommend it. And yes, they changed some of the more adult parts so it’s very safe for kids. (And still very entertaining for adults!)

The book of Esther is not very long. It is found right after Nehemiah and right before Job, which is right before Psalms. So just to the left of midway in most Bibles.

It’s difficult to explore one portion of Esther without knowing the whole story. So, here is my “Reader’s Digest” version: (for you young folks who don’t know what “Reader’s Digest” means, ask an older person.)

The time period is around BC 486-465 and the location is Persia. The king of the huge Persian empire is Ahasuerus (AHA-zer-us), who we also know as Xerses. The Jewish people have been overrun and dispersed throughout the Persian Empire.

The king has a wife named Vashti. The king throws a big party for the men and wants to show off his wife, but she refuses to go. So the king removes her as queen and the king’s officials start looking for a new queen.

So a search ensues throughout the empire for a new queen. There is a young lady named Esther who is an orphan and who is Jewish. She was cared for by a relative named Mordecai, who was either her uncle or cousin, depending on which scholars you believe.

Esther is very beautiful and through a rigorous process she is selected as the new queen.

The king has a right-hand man named Haman who is not a very nice guy. He has a big ego and uses his power to stroke that ego. He wants everyone to bow down to him–literally–and gets really ticked at Mordecai because he won’t. But Mordecai, being Jewish, can’t bow down to anyone except God. Haman doesn’t care, though, and begins to hate Mordecai and, because Mordecai is Jewish, Haman starts hating the Jews as well..

Mordecai ends up getting some recognition that Haman thinks he deserves, which adds oxygen to the fire. So Haman comes up with a plan. He convinces the king to issue an order that on a specific date all the Jewish people in the empire will be killed. And Haman chooses that date using purim, which is kinda like dice we use for games,

The king, trusting Haman, issues the order. Mordecai finds out about it and is justifiably upset. He gets word to Esther that she has to do something to stop this planned slaughter.

There’s a problem, though. Esther can’t just show up to the King and ask him to stop it. There were some sorta-strange rules back then, and one of them was that if you approached the king uninvited, you were taken off and killed. The only way to keep that from happening was if the king extended his scepter (kind of a fancy stick) toward the person, then they could live and approach the king.

Esther knew about that rule. If she approached the king to tell him about the plan against the Jews and he didn’t extend his scepter toward her, she would die. Plain and simple. Therefore she was rightfully reluctant to go talk to the king.

But Mordecai knew that was the only way to save not only Esther and himself, but the entire Jewish people in the empire. So he tried to persuade Esther to at least try.

He tells her, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Esther tells Mordecai to have all the Jewish people fast and pray for her, and then goes before the king. He points the scepter toward her, saving her life. She invites the king and Haman to a banquet, and they accept.

At the banquet, the king asks Esther what he can do for her. And she invites them to another banquet the next day.

So they come to the second banquet. And again the king asks Esther if there is anything he can do for her. She then makes the bold move to tell him about how her peoples’ lives were on the line thanks to the decree from Haman. The king gets upset at Haman and leaves the room. Haman starts begging and pleading with Esther for his life. The king comes back in and thinks Haman is getting fresh with Esther, and gets even more mad. Haman is arrested and ends up receiving the atrocity he had planned for Mordecai.

Esther asks the king to revoke the order, but there was a problem: once the king gave an order, it could not be revoked.

So Esther enlisted the help of Mordecai and sent out another decree from the king, this one saying that the Jews could defend themselves against anyone who wanted to do them harm. And that’s what happened.

The Jews celebrated that day and designated the day to be celebrated every year. And they still do today. It is known as Purim, its name derived from the dice-like method Haman used to select the date to annihilate the Jews.

“Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

The late Rich Mullins wrote a song years ago titled, “Who God Is Gonna Use,” and includes the story of Esther in the song. In those lyrics he paraphrases Esther 4:14 as, “Who knows but that you came into the world for such a time as this.”

Those ancient words of Mordecai to Esther are applicable to us today as well. Who knows but that you, each one of you, came into your place in the world for such a time as this. Who knows but that God has placed you in the fabric of time to be present here and now because he has something he wants you to do.

Today is commitment Sunday. It is one Sunday a year where we ask you to fill out a card estimating your financial support for this church for the coming year.

The reason we do that is so that we as a church can be good stewards. We prepare a budget in the fall of every year to estimate what our expenses are to operate this church for the coming year. We publish those numbers in every bulletin and newsletter so that you can see where we are financially.

Sarah, our wonderful financial secretary, goes over those numbers every month with our finance committee, and then the finance committee reports to the Church Leadership Council every month.

It is all transparent, includes levels of accountability, and ensures that we are good stewards with the gifts that God graces us with.

“Who knows but that you came into the world for such a time as this.” Who knows but that God has placed you in this church, at this time, so that as you fulfill his will for your life that his kingdom here on earth may grow.

So why give to this church? Why support it financially?

One reason is that it is part of the vows you made when you joined the church. You pledged to support the church with your prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. And we renew that pledge every time someone joins that church, like we did last week when 10 adults and two children joined.

But the most important reason to give to the church is out of gratitude. Jesus paid the ultimate price for our sins with his life. As the words to the old hymn remind us:

Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.

James reminds us that every good and perfect gift is from above. Everything we have is a gift from God. Jesus gave us the ultimate gift, a gift that we don’t deserve but which is the very best gift ever given.

I just finished reading In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park. It is a disturbing and eye-opening book about what life is like in North Korea. There are so many things we take for granted in this country that Yeonmi didn’t have growing up in North Korea, things like running water, electricity, and having enough food to eat. I found it fascinating how Yeonmi found it difficult to understand how people could take those things for granted.

We are blessed. Very blessed. But we shouldn’t take those blessings for granted. By giving to the church we fund those ministries that reach out to those in need, but even more importantly than that we offer Christ to those who don’t know him.

The grace that we receive from Jesus Christ is not something we should keep to ourselves. We should never be stingy or selfish with such extravagant love. We should share it with others. Love isn’t love until you give it away.

“Who knows but that you came into the world for such a time as this.”

So my challenge for you today is to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ that supports His church by your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Let us be like Esther and be willing to take risks in order that others may have life and have it more abundantly. Let us not only talk the talk, but let us walk the walk.

As we sing our last hymn I am going to ask you to bring your pledge cards down front and place them in the baskets on the altar rail. I want to assure you that the only person who will see these cards is our financial secretary, Sarah Hugghins. I won’t see them. No one else will see them except Sarah.

Come and make your pledge for the next year for this church.

After all,
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Change: Hosea

Change: Hosea
A Message on Hosea 3:1-5
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Oct. 10, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Hosea 3:1-5 (NRSV)

The Lord said to me again, “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.” 2 So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer of barley and a measure of wine. 3 And I said to her, “You must remain as mine for many days; you shall not play the whore, you shall not have intercourse with a man, nor I with you.” 4 For the Israelites shall remain many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or teraphim. 5 Afterward the Israelites shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king; they shall come in awe to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days.

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

If you ever wondered why preachers don’t preach from Hosea very often, you have probably figured it out after hearing the scripture readings this morning. There is some pretty… um… adult-oriented language and concepts in Hosea.

And I have to admit that I find it very uncomfortable to stand up here and use some of those words and concepts. But as we continue our sermon series on “Change,” focusing on people in the Bible who experienced significant change in their lives, I think it is important that we include Hosea, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

I found myself in a very uncomfortable position on Wednesday during Mini Methodists. Normally for Mini Methodists Bible study we take a portion of the scripture that we are going to preach on for the upcoming Sunday and talk about it. We print it out for them with a memory verse for them to take home and talk about and discuss with their parents. That way the scripture they hear on Wednesday at Mini Methodist will be the same scripture they will hear here at church on Sunday.

Well when I looked at the scripture reading for today I quickly came to the conclusion that maybe we should do a different scripture for Mini Methodists. Call me “chicken” if you want, but I sure didn’t want to wade into those uncomfortable waters of Hosea. So for the Bible study I lead I chose scriptures from the story of Jonah. Simple and safe, right? What could go wrong?

So with the first group of 2nd-4th graders I was asking them to guess what Jonah did. I told them I would give them some hints, and that Jonah was a word that started with a “P.” They made some guess and then I gave them another letter: “PR.” Again some more guesses, but none of them were correct. But they were trying, which is good. They were thinking.

I gave them another letter: “PRO.” I was looking for the word, “prophet,” of course. But all of a sudden a young girl, who will remain nameless, yelled out with confidence, “Prostitute”!

I know I had a look of panic on my face. I had worked very hard to keep from wading into those waters, but I felt like a great big wave just crashed over me and knocked me down.

I called her by name and asked, “Do you know what that word means?”

“No,” she admitted.

I was trying not to let my face show it, but I was panicking. My brain was quickly trying to think of how to respond. The only thing I could think of to say and it popped right out of my mouth: “Ask your mother.”

Hosea is a rather uncomfortable book of the Bible to read, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be ignored. The uncomfortableness of it is, in fact, a message we need to hear now just as much as the people of Israel needed to hear thousands of years ago.

In our Bible Hosea is first of the 12 “minor prophets.” He lived in the 8th Century BC in the northern kingdom of Israel, back when there was a divided kingdom. He was a prophet for an unusually long time: 60 years.

God calls Hosea to do a difficult thing: to be part of a living metaphor. He calls Hosea to marry a woman who practiced “the world’s oldest profession.” And the reason God did that was to emphasize Israel’s unfaithfulness to God.

When couples get married, as part of the liturgy we ask them to declare their intentions to each other, to the people gathered there, and to God. I ask them:

“I ask you now, in the presence of God and these people, to declare your intention to enter into union with each other through the grace of Jesus Christ, who calls you into union with himself as acknowledged in your baptism.”

I then ask each one of them:
“(Name) will you have (Name) to be your wife/husband, to live together in holy marriage? Will you love her/him, comfort her/him, honor and keep her/him, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, be faithful to her/him as long as you both shall live?”

Marriage is not to be entered into lightly. A while back someone posted on Facebook that they were looking for an ordained minister to conduct a wedding service the next afternoon. After not getting any responses, they kind of got snarky (in my opinion) that no ministers responded. I wrote a response saying that the United Methodist Discipline required UM pastors to meet with the couple and do premarital counseling before conducting a wedding ceremony. One guy responded that he thought that was ridiculous, but I was surprised at the number of people that responded to that comment that it was a very good thing.

It is a very, very serious commitment, to pledge to forsake all others and be faithful to another person for the rest of your life. And it is a covenant that the two people make to each other, witnessed by family and friends, and before God.

In Hosea we find the prophet marrying a prostitute to symbolize how the people of Israel had been unfaithful to God. They had the law, given to them by Moses, but they gave in to the social pressures around them and began to worship other gods and engage in religious practices that God detests.

They were unfaithful. As the Hebrew people they had pledged to worship the one and only true God and to forsake all other gods and religions, but they broke that pledge, that covenant. They were unfaithful.

There are several covenants in the Bible that God makes with his people. It is a pledge, a legal contract if you will, saying what each party will do and the responsibilities each has. And it often includes the consequences of breaking that covenant.

And in every single instance it is never God that breaks the covenant. God keeps up his end of the deal. It is humans that stray away and break the covenant, and with disastrous consequences.

The prophets were called to point out the ways the people strayed, to repent of those errors, and to return to God. And they did so in different ways.

The words of the prophet Hosea are applicable to our lives today. As Christians the world calls to us and tempts us to be unfaithful and break our covenant with Jesus Christ.

Jesus is referred to many times in the New Testament scriptures as the groom and the church as his bride. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection seals the covenant between himself and his people. It was paid for by his blood.

We enter into that covenant with our baptism. The water of our baptism washes us clean of our sins and creates a new covenant by water and the Holy Spirit. Through baptism we die to the world and are resurrected as new beings. We form a covenant with God, and God never breaks his covenant.

But unfortunately we do. We become the harlot and are unfaithful to God and forsake our covenant. We cozy up to the false idols of our world: power, greed, popularity, vanity, self-centeredness, lust, addictions, and even technology (especially our smartphones).

Oh, but we want Jesus to still keep our covenant! We want him to do his part, to forgive us when we mess up, to give us salvation so that when we die we go to heaven. But we are so quick to forsake our part of the covenant. We cheat on Jesus, but don’t want him to cheat on us.

Hosea goes to great lengths to call the kingdom of Israel to repent and turn back to the Lord. As Christians we also should repent of following the things that lead us astray and renew and keep our baptismal covenant.

Hosea kind of gets a bad rap. He is known by some as the “prophet of doom,” but I think that is misleading. We find these words of hope in the scripture we read today: “Afterward the Israelites shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king; they shall come in awe to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days.”

My challenge to you this week is to “return and seek the Lord our God,” that we we may “come in awe” to Jesus Christ. We are to turn away from playing the harlot and instead be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. We are called to repent and to keep the covenant we made with God.

We are called to be prophets, not that other word that starts with PRO…

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Change: Elisha

Change: Elisha
A Message on 2 Kings 2:1-12
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Sept. 12, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

2 Kings 2:1-12 (NRSV)

Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”

4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”

6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets[c] also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

As we continue our sermon series on “Change” and the people in the Bible that experienced change today we turn our attention to Elisha.

First let’s clear up some possible confusion. The names Elisha and Elijah sound just almost alike, and it can be easy to confuse the two prophets. Elijah came first and was the prophet that precedes Elisha.

In our first reading today from 1 Kings 19:19-21 we find Elijah going to Elisha, who was plowing a field. Elijah walks up to Elisha and puts his “mantle” on him. Now when we think about mantles we think about a structure above a fireplace in our homes, which is spelled “mantel” but is pronounced the same.

In the Bible, though, especially in the Old Testament, the mantle was an article of clothing. It was a large, outer garment similar to a robe or a coat. It was usually made of sheepskin and was usually worn by prophets to signify that they were wrapped in God’s word. If you saw somebody wearing one of these mantles then the odds were that they were a prophet.

Elijah taking his mantle and putting it on Elisha symbolized the passing of the torch from one prophet to another. It was a sign of Elisha taking Elijah’s place. And it was very significant.

That significance can be found in Elisha’s reaction. He takes the oxen he was using to plow and slaughters them as an offering to God. He takes the wooden yokes that went around the oxen’s necks that allowed them to pull the plow, broke them up into pieces, and uses that for the fire for the sacrifice.

I find this very symbolic that Elisha is making a permanent change. By burning the yoke and sacrificing the oxen, there is no going back for him. He was committed to following Elijah and becoming the next prophet.

The transference of power from the older prophet to the younger one happens in the scripture we just read from 2 Kings. Both prophets know that Elijah’s time is coming to an end. Elisha is extremely faithful to Elijah and stays with him, telling him three times, “I will not leave you.”

Then, in verse 8, Elijah takes his mantle, the same one that he had put on Elisha, rolls it up and parts the waters of the Jordan with it. This parting of the water God reminds us of the parting the waters with Moses during the exodus from Egypt, but also the parting of the Jordan when the people of God entered the promised land with Joshua leading them. It symbolizes a new beginning.

After crossing the Jordan, Elijah asks Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.”

Elisha, reminiscent of Solomon asking God for wisdom when God offered to answer his requests, asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit.

Now this sounds like a kind of strange request, but it is a good one. Elijah was well known as a prophet. Remember last week when we said that his appearance at the transfiguration of Jesus indicates that he represented all the prophets? There was no doubt that God’s spirit was upon him.

Elisha, in response, doesn’t ask for gold, for money, for power, or even a reserved parking place for his donkey. He didn’t ask for worldly things. Instead he asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Elijah replies, “You have asked a hard thing.” And indeed it was. Not for God, mind you, but for Elisha. Elijah had a very strong spirit. A double portion of it might be more than one person could handle. And yet that is what Elisha asks for. And because he saw Elijah as he was taken to heaven in the whirlwind, it was granted to him.

So what can we learn from Elisha that we can apply to our lives today?

I think the first is that when God taps us on the shoulder that we should say yes.

Now I realize that when it comes to Elisha it was Elijah, not God, and that he didn’t tap him on the shoulder but put his mantle around him, but the concept is the same. God often works through other people to communicate with us, whether it is putting a mantle on us or tapping us on the shoulder literally or figuratively.

Elisha could have looked at Elijah, said, “No, I don’t want your coat,” and gone back to plowing. He could have said, “No, I’m good right here. You’ve got the wrong person. I’m not interested. Choose somebody else.”

It’s easy for us to try to dismiss God when he taps us on the shoulder. We are very good at coming up with excuses, “I’m too busy. I don’t have time for that.” Or we try to postpone that. “Maybe after I get through with this big project for my work,” or “Maybe after my kids are grown.”

Or maybe we say, “I don’t know the Bible that well.” Or “I haven’t been a Christian for very long,” or “There are other people that are a lot more religious than I am.”

Faith means saying yes to God when he taps you on the shoulder. Like Elisha, we won’t know all the details, everything won’t be made easy for us (again, God doesn’t call us to the easy places), but we will be following God and what he has called us to do. Faith isn’t knowing how things will turn out, but having hope that God is in control. Faith is saying yes when God taps us on the shoulder.

The second is to be loyal to God. Elisha was loyal to Elijah and refused to leave his side. Where Elijah went, Elisha followed. Three times he tells Elijah, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”

Being loyal to God doesn’t mean that everything in your life will be perfect. Far from it. Being loyal to God means going through some valleys as well as having mountain-top experiences.

I am a Texas Ranger fan. I have been for years, and I consider myself to be a loyal fan. I like baseball and my three favorite teams, in order, are the Texas Rangers, the Houston Astros, and whoever is playing the New York Yankees.

I was so excited back in 2010 and 2011 when the Rangers made it to the World Series. Those were mountain-top experiences. (Although they didn’t win, it was still great.)

This year, though, it’s a valley year. I’m talking a deep, deep valley, too. Boy is it rough. As of this morning the Rangers have a record of 55 wins and 93 losses. They are dead last in their division, the American League West, trailing the division leading Houston Astros by a massive 32 games. Yes, they are horrible this year.

And yet I still am a fan. I’m loyal to them, even this year. That’s what being loyal means.

We are to be loyal to God. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors (meaning everyone) as ourselves. That means in the good times and the bad times.

Ironically, unlike sports teams, it is during the good times that we as humans tend to wander away from God. When things are great, when we are healthy, we have money in the bank, our relationships are good, then we tend to believe the devil’s myth that we don’t need God, that all of our blessings are by our own efforts and not from God.

When times get tough, like they are now with the pandemic, we find it easier to turn to God and be loyal to him. But we are called to be loyal all the time, whether good or bad. We are to say, “I will not leave you.”

Another thing that I think we can learn from Elisha is that God is with us in the midst of change.

Elijah certainly experienced a lot of change in his life. He goes from being a farmer, plowing fields with a team of oxen, to being a prophet of God, with all the challenges that come with that. (And for an Old Testament prophet, there were many, many challenges.)

And yet in the midst of all that change he knew that God was with him. When Naaman, a Syrian military commander, came to Elisha to be healed of leprosy, Elisha didn’t make it about himself. He didn’t even come out and see Naaman, but sent a messenger to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan River seven times and he would be clean. After at first being angry that Elisha didn’t speak to him face to face, Naaman eventually relented and went and washed in the Jordan and was cured.

He offered Elisha silver and gifts for healing him, but Elisha refused the gifts. He knew that the healing came from God, not from himself. He knew that God was with him, and that God caused the change for Naaman.

Sometimes it’s hard for us to trust God in the midst of change. I think that’s especially true during this pandemic. Now to be clear I don’t believe that God caused this pandemic to punish the world. The world is broken and bad things happen, and God allows them to happen. This pandemic is one of those things.

But even in the midst of this pandemic, God is in control.

I want to tell you about a young lady that lives over in Carthage named Lindsey Byrd. Lindsey was a youth at Murvaul UMC when I served as pastor there many years ago. She grew up, got married, and is now a mother and school teacher.

Her husband, Preston, is young like Lindsey and works in the oil field. Well even though he is young, Preston started feeling bad a while back. Turns out he had COVID. But then that turned into COVID pneumonia. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, he started having blood clots, including DVT (deep vein thrombosis), blood clots in the major veins of the leg, which then moved to the lungs and caused several pulmonary embolisms (blood clots in the lungs).

Preston was in bad shape. We’re talking about serious, life-threatening shape. He was hospitalized and waited for an ICU bed to become available. He was put on a waiting list at some major hospitals in Dallas for an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), a heart and lung machine that serves as the heart and lungs for a patient. He was sedated, given paralytics, and was on a ventilator.

He was in extremely critical condition. And yet in the midst of this crisis Lindsey posted of her faith in God. She posted photos of Preston when he was baptized, of Preston with his children, of Preston and Lindsey. She gave daily updates, being realistic but showing a depth of faith that is not very often seen.

She even concluded one update with these words from the song, “No Longer Slaves”: “I am no longer a slave to fear, I am a child of God.”

Lindsey is proof that God is with us in the midst of change. Her life was totally upended by her husband’s health. Preston, Lindsey, and all their family are going through a very deep valley now. Preston is better and, we found out Friday morning, is no longer on the ventilator. He still has a long way to go, but as you can see from this photo his sense of humor is back. Lindsey’s faith in her darkest moment is a testimony to us that God is with us during our darkest moments.

So my challenge to you today is to be like Elisha. When God taps us on the shoulder we should say yes. We should be loyal to God at all times, the good time and bad times, the weekdays as well as the weekends. Our loyalty is in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, above everything else. And we should always remember that God is with us in the midst of change. No matter how bad things get, God is with us. The Holy Spirit dwells within us because of our faith in Jesus Christ.

Let’s be like Elisha. And as bad as they are, go Rangers.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Change: Elijah

Change: Elijah
A Message on 1 Kings 19:1-10
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Sept. 12, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

1 Kings 19:1-10 (NRSV)

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3 Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9 At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

Today we continue our sermon series on “Change” by exploring the life of someone who really knew about change. I’m talking BIG change, too, not chump change.

Elijah was a prophet who lived in the 9th century BC in the kingdom of Israel, back when the kingdom was divided as two countries: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. He lived during the time of King Ahab, a leader who found himself strongly influenced by his wife, Jezebel.

I don’t think the term is used much anymore but “back in my day” (I have become my grandfather) the term Jezebel was used to refer to a woman who was mean-spirited. You’d hear it as in, “You know ol’ so-and-so, I tell ya, she’s a Jezebel.” It was not a compliment.

Jezebel convinced her husband, King Ahab, to institute the worship of Baal, a false God. Not only that, but she also saw the Jewish God as a threat to her worship of Baal. Being the evil woman (like the one the Electric Light Orchestra sang about, “Evil woman.”) that she was, she had the Jewish religious leaders brutally persecuted and killed. Most of the Jewish priests, if not all except Elijah, were murdered as a result.

Elijah, feeling the pressure, proposed a challenge between the Jewish God Yahweh and Baal. Sarah read about that challenge during our first reading this morning from 1 Kings 18:20-40. Two bulls were slaughtered and prepared as sacrifices to be burned. The challenge was for the true gods to send down fire to burn up the sacrifices.

Well we heard how that turned out. The Baal sacrifice just sat there, in spite of their priests’ actions, including cutting themselves and mixing their blood with that of the bull on the sacrifice. (Yet another reason not to be a Baal priest, if you ask me.)

Elijah, on the other hand, douses his sacrifice with water three times (a foreshadowing of baptism in the name of the Trinity, perhaps?) The true God sends down flame that not only consumes the bull, but vaporizes all the water as well. When the crowd saw this, Elijah takes advantage of the moment to convince the people to grab the Baal priests and kill them and they do.

Well as you can imagine ol’ Jezebel wasn’t too thrilled about this so she makes a vow to kill Elijah, and Elijah has to run for his life.

Now this wasn’t the first time that Elijah had to flee for his life. If we back up and look at the 17th chapter of 1st Kings we find that Elijah confronts King Ahab and declares a drought on the land until God, through Elijah, ends it. (It lasted 3 years.) As expected, King Ahab isn’t very pleased to hear about this. Elijah has to flee for his life into the wilderness where Ravens (we call them crows) take care of him.

So Elijah has fled for his life before, and is forced to do so again after having the priests of Baal killed.

It’s important for us to remember life wasn’t easy for Old Testament prophets. They kept singing that Santana song to the people, [sing]: “You’ve got to change your evil ways.” But the people were stubborn and stiff-necked and kept singing that AC/DC song, “We’re on a highway to hell.”

As a result oftentimes the prophets had to sing that Styx song, “Oh Mama, I’m in fear for my life from the long arm of the law.”

Elijah finds himself in that situation in the scripture we read today. So he flees into the wilderness. There are very few sources of water or food in the wilderness. Elijah was in real danger of dying from thirst and/or starvation. In the words of Jackson Brown, he was “running on empty.” (I have no idea why I’m referencing so many classic rock songs…)

Angels come and give him bread and food, refreshing him and strengthening him. He then starts out on a 40 day journey to Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, where Moses were given the 10 Commandments. When he gets there, he finds a cave and settles in it.

If we keep reading the scripture after the one we read today, we read this: “He [God] said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.”

So Elijah’s life is not an easy one, for sure. But he also has some deep, profound times where he experiences the presence of God, which is pretty cool. And the reason he covers his face with his mantel (kind of like a robe) is that he knows that the scriptures tell him that no one can see the face of God and live. (Exodus 33:20) God is that holy.

Eventually Elijah trains a new group of prophets, including Elisha, who he taps to take his place.

One of the interesting things about Elijah is that in the New Testament he represents all the Old Testament prophets. In the transfiguration of Jesus, found in all three synoptic gospels, Peter, James, and John go to the top of a mountain where Jesus is transfigured before their eyes. He is surrounded by dazzling light and is seen with two other figures, identified as Moses and Elijah. Moses represents the law given by God to the Jewish people, while Elijah represents the prophets.

Another interesting thing about Elijah is that he is one of only two people in the Bible who don’t die, but instead are taken up into heaven. Enoch is the other person. Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind of fire.

So, what can we learn from Elijah that can be applied to our lives today?

I think the first is that even when it seems like the whole world is against us, God is still for us.

Elijah spent a lot of time fleeing for his life. As a result he spent a lot of time alone in desperate circumstances.

Loneliness can be a killer. One of the things that has happened as collateral damage to this COVID pandemic is that so many people are experiencing loneliness. As humans it’s not in our nature to be alone. Now I believe it’s good every now and then to be alone, but not in large segments of time. And if you think about it we use loneliness in our prisons to punish those who have committed horrible crimes. We put them in solitary confinement.

COVID has in effect placed many people in solitary confinement. I believe one of the saddest examples of this is in our hospitals. So many people are dying of COVID, which is horrible, but what makes it even sadder is that they are dying alone. Their loved ones cannot be there at their side as they take their last breath. The health care workers that are taking care of them are not only serving as caretakers, but as their connection to other human beings as well.

The elderly and those with health conditions are choosing to stay in their homes in order to keep from being exposed to the virus, and for good reason. And while these self-imposed exiles are needed to protect their physical health, it takes a toll on their emotional health.

And yet, God is still with them. God still loves them and is present with them, even if it may not feel like it. And instead of ravens or angels, God may be using us to take care of them. We can pick up grocery orders and deliver them to their front porches. We can call them on the phone or send emails or text messages. We can even go old school and write them cards or letters that they will get in the mail.

And if we are the ones who are experiencing that isolation, that loneliness, we can be comforted in knowing that with God we are never alone. Like Elijah, God will take care of us, God will provide. And we can use that isolation, that loneliness, to experience the presence of God.

The second I think we can learn from Elijah is that we shouldn’t be afraid to speak the truth. Now let me be very clear on this and emphasize that we should always speak the truth in love, not in anger. Social media and our world today has too many people speaking in anger, but as Christians we are never called to speak in anger.

We are called to speak the truth in love. Like Elijah, those in positions of power may not like what we have to say, but still we are called to speak truth into the world. Our society is moving further and further away from biblical principles and we may feel outnumbered and overwhelmed, but God calls us to hold to what is right, even when it is unpopular. And we speak the truth not only in our words but in our actions as well. Sometimes how we act speaks much louder than the words we say, and if our actions are the opposite of our words then we are doing damage to God’s Kingdom.

But again, I emphasize that we need to speak the truth in love.

The third thing I think we can learn from Elijah is that following God isn’t easy. It certainly wasn’t easy for Elijah to stand up to the King and Queen (“that ol’ Jezebel”) to tell them things he knew they didn’t want to hear. Still, he took a deep breath and did it because God called him to it and it was the right thing to do. And the results are that he had to run for his life (multiple times) and hide in the desert.

As we have said before, God doesn’t call us to the easy places. God calls us to those places where we find ourselves anxious, doubting our abilities, and even questioning God as to why he allowed us to be in those difficult positions. And yet it is in those times that our faith grows.

We are living in difficult times. Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks on our country. And after 20 years of our military men and women fighting in Afghanistan as a result of those attacks, with 3,586 American and allied troops giving their lives for the cause, the country is now under the control of the same political group as it was when the terrorist attacks in the US happened 20 years ago.

COVID has reared its ugly head with the Delta variant, and our hospitals and healthcare system is trying to treat a record high number of patients. Many businesses have had to close because of the pandemic, many people have lost their jobs, and yet there are some businesses that can’t find enough people willing to work. Many items are in short supply, and parts for repair are hard to find. Many people are finding themselves with less income while facing higher prices.

But it is in difficult times such as this that God’s Kingdom can grow. Twenty years ago, the Sunday after 9-11, most churches in the US saw record attendance. People turned to God for the answers to how something so terrible could have happened.

I think the soil for God’s Kingdom is fertile and ready to be worked and seeds to be planted. The world really, really needs to hear the Good News today. There is so much negative news that it can drag people down in their souls. But the Grace of God as expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ empowers us as Christians through the Holy Spirit to lift those spirits, to enjoy life freely without fear, declaring “I know who holds tomorrow, and I know who holds my hand. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” Let us devote ourselves to being those workers.

So my challenge for you this week is to be like Elijah. Remember that when the whole world seems like it may be against us that God is for us. God loves us and will never, ever leave us. Even when we are alone God is with us.

And let us remember to speak the truth in love, even if it’s unpopular. We are called to live for God, not for others, so let us resist the siren songs of the world and instead look to God’s word for direction and guidance. Let us proclaim the Gospel of love in love, so that others may be able to experience it for themselves.

And let us remember that following God isn’t easy. There will be obstacles, there will be resistance, and at times it may seem like we aren’t making a difference. But don’t give up. Keep planting those seeds, especially in the tough times. In the difficult times people really need to hear the Good News, so let us be willing to share it with them

No matter how our world changes, let us be like Elijah and have the faith to do the right thing.

In the words of Tom Petty,

Well, I won’t back down
No, I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Change: The Roman Jailer

Change: The Roman Jailer
A Message on Acts 16:25-34
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Sept. 5, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Acts 16:25-34 (NRSV)

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

As we continue our sermon series on “Change,” today, we will explore a man who is not named but who has a HUGE life change after an encounter with Paul and Silas: the Roman jailer, also known as the Philippian jailer.

Here’s the situation: Paul and some of the disciples are traveling around and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. Their travels bring them to the region of Macedonia and specifically to the city of Philippi. Once there they meet a slave girl that was a fortune teller, and Paul orders the spirit allowing her to tell fortunes to come out of her, and it does.

Well the owners of this girl aren’t very happy about it. They had been using her to make money, and now their source of income was gone. So these bad guys seize Paul and Silas and take them before the officials and convince them that Paul and Silas are causing trouble. So the officials have Paul and Silas beaten severely with rods. After that the two apostles are thrown into prison and the jailer is ordered to “keep them securely.” The jailer, taking no chances, puts them in the innermost cell of the prison and secures their feet in stocks.

It’s here where we pick up the story today. Now I don’t know about you, but if I had just been beaten severely with sticks and then had my feet placed in stocks in a 1st century prison I would not have been a happy camper. But Paul and Silas were! They were singing hymns and praising God!

It’s important to remember what prisons were like then. When we see them portrayed in movies it’s usually a stone structure that has some fresh hay or straw on the floor. I think that’s a visually nice image but is not accurate of the reality of 1st Century prisons.

We have to remember that there was very limited running water in that day. They didn’t let the prisoners go to a nice, clean restroom with those machines that blow air on your hands to dry them. No. Prisons were dirty, stinky, nasty places to be. We would be appalled.

The person who was in charge of the jail didn’t have an easy job. The responsibility of those prisoners rested on his shoulders. If one of the prisoners got sick and died, well that wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But if one or more of the prisoners escaped, boy oh boy would the jailer be in trouble. He would become a prisoner himself if he wasn’t beaten and killed outright. It was brutal, but that’s the way it was.

Now we need to appreciate the irony in this scripture. Remember that prior to meeting the risen Christ Paul was a pharisee (a Jewish religious leader) who hunted down and persecuted those who followed Jesus Christ. And he was good at it, too. Paul was all about getting Christians arrested and thrown in prison, or even killed. (Remember, he held the cloaks of the people who stoned Stephen to death.)

Then, after experiencing Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul changes from hunting down Christians to being one. He becomes one of the leaders of those who follow Jesus Christ. And what happens when he does that? He gets beaten, arrested, and thrown in jail, receiving the same treatment that he used to dish out to others. Ironic, huh?

Now let’s focus on the Roman jailer. The Romans were the occupying force in the Holy Land in the First Century. They were the big dogs of that area of the world primarily because of their army. They had the most superior fighting force of the time, and they weren’t shy about flexing those military muscles if people got out of hand and started trouble.

Theologically the Romans were like the Greeks in that they were polytheists, believing in multiple gods instead of just one god. The Greeks developed their system of Gods about 1,000 years before the Romans, but the peer pressure got to the Romans and they developed their own gods.

For example: The Greeks had the god Zeus while the Romans had the god Jupiter. The Greeks had Poseidon while the Romans countered with Neptune. (Note: All the planets in our solar system, with the exception of earth, were named after Roman Gods. So if you are ever on a game show and get asked to name Roman gods just start naming the planets.)

The Roman jailer, being Roman, would in all probability have had this polytheistic (multiple gods) view.

And he would have been a company man as well. Probably a member of the Roman military, he wouldn’t have been a high ranking officer but instead was appointed to be a jailer and in charge of prisoners. Some scholars believe that retired Roman soldiers often served as jail guards.

It wouldn’t have been a very glamorous job. Earlier we talked about the living conditions in the jails and how yucky that environment must have been. The jails didn’t have individual rooms for the prisoners, but several large open rooms with chains and stocks used to restrain the prisoners. The jailer would have been responsible for feeding the prisoners, making sure they had water, and protecting them from not only each other but angry mobs who wanted to take justice in their own hands.

He would have lived right next door or even in a part of the same building. (Not exactly a great place for the wife and kids, huh?)

And he would have been large and in charge of the facility. If a prisoner made him mad he could beat them or deny them food and water. He could move that prisoner to the inner part of the jail, which was the worst and most secure part, into more brutal conditions. He had power over the prisoners, and he probably wasn’t afraid to use it. He was in charge. The prisoners were not.

But then the earthquake happens and the prisoners are set free.

First of all, an earthquake in itself is a very scary thing. In the first century they were often viewed as God (or the gods) punishing humans for some they did wrong. The earth moves, buildings collapse, and it seems the world is ending. (Watch some videos on YouTube of earthquakes if you want to see what it looks like.)

This earthquake happened at night a little after midnight. With the darkness and the dust created by earthquakes the jailer thought all the prisoners had their shackles broken and had skedaddled. That was bad news for the jailer. Like VERY bad news. He knew that those in authority above him would hold him responsible for the prisoners’ escape and that the punishment would be horribly brutal.

Not only that, but as a Roman soldier it was about pride as well. He had let down the emperor and the only “honorable” thing to do was to take his own life. (Note: It is never an honorable thing to take your own life. If you are considering that please get help or call me so I can get you help. Seriously.)

The Roman jailer was desperate and thought that was the only solution to the problem. For him, life was no longer going to be worth living.

But before he could carry out his plan something happened. Paul called out to him and told him not to do it, that all the prisoners were still there.

Then something miraculous happens: the jailer wants to become a follower of Christ. He talks to Paul and Silas, takes them into his house and doctors the wounds on their back, and then he and his whole family are baptized and become followers of Jesus Christ.

This scripture is one of several that we as United Methodists point to in support of why we do infant baptisms. The jailer and his whole family were baptized. It doesn’t say “the adult members of his family.” No. It says, “he and his entire family.” Entire means everybody. And if you take the time to research the Greek word that is used it indeed means everybody: men, women, and children.

We don’t know what happens to the jailer after he becomes a follower of Jesus. The Bible doesn’t tell us. But we know his life was changed completely and dramatically.

Prior to his conversion he was a loyal subject to his military superiors and the emperor. After Paul and Silas got through with him his loyalty switched to Jesus Christ and following him. He probably lost his job. He probably suffered from public ostracism for his choice and the chances of him being jailed for his belief are very high.

There are several things this scripture teaches us that we can apply to our lives today. The first is to not repay evil with evil. Can you imagine being severely beaten and then shackled by your feet in a dirty, nasty prison, and then having the opportunity for revenge against your oppressors and not taking it, but instead showing love and compassion?

It boggles the mind. Yet that is what Paul and Silas did. And that is what we should do as well. Now I know it doesn’t make sense. Psychologically we think that revenge will be sweet and make us feel better, but that is a lie. We won’t feel better. Responding to being wronged with love instead of revenge is much, much harder, but it is the right, and Christian, thing to do.

1 Peter 3:9 says, “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing.”

Another thing it teaches us is that nobody is beyond the reach of the gospel. That’s just how powerful the Good News is. Think of a person that you very strongly dislike. You can’t stand them. They are mean, self-centered, egotistical, and all those other things that you detest.

Now think about sharing the Good News with them. Yeah, it doesn’t feel right, does it? And yet God calls us to those uncomfortable and very difficult places, not because he can’t do it himself, but because in doing so we will be humbled ourselves and our faith will grow.

If Paul and Silas can extend that grace to the Roman jailer, then we can extend grace even to those people we can’t stand. When you find that difficult to do, remember that God, through Jesus, did the difficult thing of extending that grace to us sinners who also don’t deserve it.

And yet another thing this scripture can teach us is that sometimes when change seems bad it can actually be good. The Roman jailer was so full of despair he was going to take his own life because of the change he experienced, and yet that change turned out to be a good thing, perhaps not so much in terms of worldly standards such as power over others or occupation, but in terms of his soul and a relationship with Jesus Christ.

So when major changes happen in our lives, and there is a lot of change happening right now in our world, don’t despair but look for God in the change. No matter how much our lives change, Jesus is there for us. That’s why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper every month. Not only is it to remind us of the sacrifice Jesus made out of love for us, but it also reminds us that that grace and love never changes. And as it says in Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

So my challenge to you today is to remember the Roman jailer when faced with change. Never repay evil with evil. Remember that no one is beyond the reach of the Gospel. And remember that when things look bleak and bad, having a relationship with Jesus Christ can turn things around and turn sorrow into joy.

“…what must I do to be saved?”

“Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Change: Joshua

Change: Joshua
A Message on Joshua 1:1-9
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Aug. 15, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Joshua 1:1-9 (NRSV)

After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, 2 “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. 3 Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses. 4 From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory. 5 No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. 6 Be strong and courageous; for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them. 7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful. 9 I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

School starts this week. That in itself can cause some anxiety not only among the students, but also for the teachers, school staff, and even parents. But then you throw in a world-wide pandemic rearing its ugly head up again with a new variant that is much more contagious, and it’s like adding oxygen to a fire already being fueled by anxiety.

We don’t know what’s going to happen. Nobody does. Will schools operate for a while and then be forced by the virus to shut back down and go virtual only again, like last year? How far behind academically will the students be after a year of virtual learning? How can the students who were already struggling academically before the pandemic catch up?

So many questions, and so few answers. No wonder there is a lot of anxiety. It’s like leaving to go on a trip without Google maps or even an old fashioned paper map to go by.

Today as we continue our sermon series on “Change” we will look at someone who certainly faced a lot of anxiousness and uncertainty in his life: Joshua.

Joshua was with Moses during the time Moses led the Isarelites out of Egypt. He was a great leader and became kind of an assistant to Moses.

When the people came to the promised land Joshua was one of the 12 men selected to go into the promised land as spies to check it out and see if it was any good. The 12 did and discovered that yes, indeed, it was good land. But they also discovered that the people that were already living there were strong and had some pretty good defences in place.

Ten of the 12 spies told the people the people inhabiting the land were too strong for the Israelites to be able to overpower. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, had the faith that the Israelites would be successful because God was on their side. Unfortunately they got outvoted and overruled. God got angry and said because of the people’s lack of faith none of those living at the time the spies brought back their report would enter the promised land with two exceptions: Joshua and Caleb.

So Joshua and Caleb wander with the people in the desert for 40 years until everyone too scared to enter the promised land dies, including Moses. Before Moses dies, though, he places his hands on Joshua and anoints him as leader of the Israelites. Thus Joshua becomes the leader of the Hebrew people and led them as they forced out the inhabitants of the promised land and settled the land.

In the scripture we read today we hear Joshua receiving instructions from God prior to starting the journey into the land that God had promised to give the Israelites. It wasn’t going to be easy as people who have been living in a land aren’t very willing to just turn it over to someone else. No. The people were going to have to be forced from the land by brute force.

But that’s what God commands Joshua and the Israelites to do. But he also reminds them that they won’t be alone. He says in verse 5, “No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.”

So Joshua faced a choice: either boldly go where God directed them, or choose not to and continue wandering in the desert. Now remember that Joshua was one of the 12 spies that had scouted out the land 40 years earlier, so he knew the land was good and capable of raising good livestock and crops. He had been there. And he also saw the people and defensive fortifications that all but himself and Caleb thought could not be overcome.

In the scripture we read today where God gives Joshua the instructions for going into the promised land we find one phrase that is repeated several times. Three times, to be specific. That phrase is: “Be strong and courageous.” This phrase is found in verses 6, 7, and 9. (Technically in verse 7 it says “be strong and very courageous” but for our purposes this morning it’s close enough, I think.)

Be strong. Be courageous. Joshua was starting on a journey with people whose parents were described by both Moses and God as stiff-necked. He did not have a specific plan with timelines and flowcharts. He didn’t know all the details of how it was going to work. He just had faith, trusted in God, and made the first step toward doing it.

God’s words to Joshua are good for everyone starting a new school to hear. Well, actually good for everyone to hear.

School can be tough. I was blessed with some superb teachers during my 12 years at Cooper Independent School District. (There was no kindergarten when I started.) They not only taught me things, but more importantly taught me to love learning new things.

I was also blessed with some great classmates. I think there were 52 of us in our graduating class (we were a large class, you know…) But even in the best schools there will be problems, things like bullying.

I know that today teachers and administrators really try to prevent it from happening. They did back in my day as well, but sometimes it happened anyway.

I can remember one kid in school who was a couple of years younger than me. Let’s call him Adam, since we didn’t have a Adam in the class. He was a big kid, much bigger than most of his classmates, and from a family that didn’t have much money. Somehow it was discovered that if you started picking on him he was pretty quick to start crying. For junior high and high school aged boys any weakness is exploited and sure enough, boys started picking on this kid.

Now I know it’s hard to believe but back when I was in junior high (and even most of the time I was in high school) I was a short, skinny kid. I experienced bullying myself, but not to the extent that Adam got bullied.

I can vividly remember being present one time when a group of boys started picking on Adam. I did not participate in the bullying, but I didn’t do anything to stop it, either. I just sat back and watched it happen.

I knew it was wrong. I knew that the right thing to do was to step up and intervene on Adam’s behalf and tell the boys to stop it. But the boys doing the bullying were much bigger than me, and I was afraid that if it did step up and tell them to cut it out they would then turn their bullying on me. And that scared me. A lot.

So I did nothing. I watched the bullying happen and did nothing. I didn’t try to stop it, I didn’t go tell a teacher, I didn’t speak up. I did nothing.

Now all these years later, that is one of the biggest regrets of my school years. Fear won out over action. I was scared and fearful.

I realize that I should have taken to heart what God told Joshua: Be strong and courageous. I wish I had remembered those words from a sermon or from Sunday School. But I didn’t, and as a result I was neither strong nor courageous.

God calls each of us to be strong and courageous. Whether it’s preventing bullying, fighting racism, or even dealing with a pandemic, we are called to be strong and courageous. We are called to overcome fear and be strong and courageous.

We are to stand up for what’s right when we see something wrong happening. Not in a physically violent way (“I’m gonna whup you!!!), but in a Jesus-like way. Don’t let fear keep you from doing the right thing, but overcome fear with the faith and hope that comes from Jesus Christ.

So students, I have a special challenge for you today. As you begin the school year be strong and courageous. With this pandemic once again getting worse no one knows what will happen this school year. But don’t be afraid because of that. Be strong and courageous no matter what changes may or may not take place in the weeks and months to come.

Also be a friend to everyone at your school. Eat lunch with that one kid that seems to be by themselves that nobody seems to like. Don’t bully others, and be strong and courageous to stand up for those that are being bullied (unlike me when I was your age).

Remember that you are at school to learn. So learn! And not only learn, but develop a love of learning. With all the incredible technology today available to you, have an inquisitive mind and use that massive amount of technology to find the answers to your questions.

If you are participating in athletics, be strong and courageous. Don’t be a prima dona saying, “Look at me!” Instead, live by the sportsman’s creed to “Live clean, play hard. Play for the love of the game. Win without boasting, lose without excuses, and never quit.”

If you are in band, choir, drama, ag, or any other extracurricular activity, be strong and courageous. Help those who are perhaps not as good as you in those areas. Be kind and a friend to all. Do your very best. Be a great team member. Learn as much as you can. Practice. Appreciate the sacrifices your parents and family make so that you can participate in those things. Be like Jesus. Always.

If you are in the lower grades that don’t have those kinds of activities I still urge you to be strong and courageous. Respect and listen to your teachers. Be fair and honest. Don’t participate in gossip or drama (which often go hand-in-hand, you know). Be a friend to everyone, especially those who seem like they don’t have any friends.

And for the teachers, administrators, and school employees, be strong and courageous. You are under an incredible amount of pressure and I think it will get worse before it gets better. Remember your call to teach and that you are a role model, for better or worse. Don’t let the paperwork and all the administrative tasks quench your passion for teaching, and don’t worry about the state-mandated tests and the hoops you have to jump through. Remember that God has called you to be a teacher, so work diligently for God and not for human constructs.

For the parents of students, be strong and courageous. Remember that the root of learning begins at home and that you are a teacher as well. Talk to your kids and listen to them. Remember that you are called to be their parent, not their friend. Model the behavior you want to see in them. Emphasize to them the importance of education and to appreciate schools and teachers.

For those who don’t have kids in schools, be strong and courageous. Lift up students, teachers, and school employees in prayer. Volunteer to help if you are able. (Our Mini Methodists after school program is a great place to volunteer, hint, hint…) Show up and support our students in their various activities. Step outside your comfort zone to help out.

And for everyone, be strong and courageous. Just as Joshua followed God’s calling, let us do the same as followers of Jesus Christ. May we remember that God doesn’t call us to do things that are easy, but like Joshua to those difficult things that move us out of our comfort zones.

It is because of our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior that we can be brave and courageous. Let us remember the overwhelming love God has for us, that he gave his one and only son so that we can be reconciled to God. Jesus died because of his love for you.

So let’s have a great school year! And remember, (say it with me), “Be strong and courageous.”

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Change: Timothy

Change: Timothy
A Message on 2 Timothy 4:1-5
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Aug. 8, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

2 Timothy 4:1-5 (NRSV)

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5 As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

As we continue our sermon series on “Change,” today we will be looking at a person that was very instrumental in the early church: Timothy.

Timothy was a young protege of the Apostle Paul and worked closely with Paul during his missionary journeys. It is believed that Timothy grew up in Lystra, which is in what is nowadays Turkey. Lystra was on a main road that went through the cities of Ephesus, Sardis, Antioch, Iconium (modern day Konya, Turkey) and then to Lystra.

According to those that study these things, it is believed that Paul met Timothy when he stopped in Lystra on his second missionary journey. Paul stopped in the town on his first journey and helped establish a church there of people who followed Jesus Christ. And his second time through he meets Timothy, hears lots of good things about him from the local people, and then takes Timothy under his wing to become his protege and help establish churches.

Timothy wasn’t your normal apostle for several reasons. First off, he was young.

Scholars don’t agree on exactly how old he was when he started helping Paul (scholars rarely agree on anything, right?), but most say around late teens or early 20s. In the culture of the time wisdom came with age, and because Timothy was young some people didn’t take him seriously simply because he was young.

In those days the older men (sorry about that women, but that’s the way it was) would gather at the gates of the cities and talk about things and dispense wisdom. To be one of those wise elders you had to have a lot of life experience and, of course, be older. It was a prestigious thing and generally not available to the younger men.

Paul certainly knew about the disadvantage Timothy had because of his age. If we look at the preceding book of the Bible to what we know as 1 Timothy we find Paul writing this: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12

Another thing Timothy had against him was that fact that was of mixed heritage. His mother was Jewish and his father was Greek, and that was a problem. The Jews considered themselves to be God’s people and considered anyone who wasn’t Jewish to be a Gentile. And Gentiles were frowned upon by the Jewish people. Jews were supposed to marry other Jews only.

In Deuteronomy 7:3-4 we find this written about the Hebrew people’s relationship with the people they were to drive out of the promised land, the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites: “Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.”

Timothy’s mother didn’t follow that law, though, and married a Greek man. Even though she maintained her Jewish faith before becoming a follower of Jesus, there was an asterisk by her name. Timothy’s parents were not only from two different cultures, but they also spoke two different languages and had two, completely different religions. And neither culture accepted the other, meaning Timothy grew up without a sense of culture belonging that most others of that time had. In many ways he was a persona non grata.

So Timothy has two strikes against him: he was young, and he was of mixed heritage. As a result he started out with huge obstacles to overcome as an evangelist of Jesus Christ. So because of that Timothy said to himself, “Well I might as well just give up and let other more qualified people tell people about Jesus.” Right?

No. Just the opposite. He threw himself into the work of telling others about the saving grace of Jesus Christ, devoting himself completely to spreading the Good News. He traded a relatively safe life for a life full of change and the unknown. To badly paraphrase Robert Frost, Timothy took the more difficult road, full of change and challenges.

In our world today we live in an age of specialists. Take medicine, for example. Most of you know that my dad was an old-school doctor. When I was growing up he built his own 30-bed hospital (and I mean that literally) and he was the only doctor there. He did everything. He did surgery, saw people in the emergency room, delivered babies, made rounds, and even went on house calls. He served as a primary care physician, OB/GYN, surgeon; ear, nose and throat; podiatrist, pediatrician, cardiologist, dermatologist, internal medicine, emergency medicine, oncologist, orthopedist, gastroenterologist, and probably a bunch more that I can think of right now.

We have all kinds of specialists today. Unfortunately that mindset carries over into our spiritual lives as well. We think that Christianity is only for the specialists and therefore think we don’t fit in anywhere. We say, “Well, I’m not comfortable in sharing my faith. I don’t know the Bible that well. If I try to share my faith with someone and they ask me a question I may not know the answer and I don’t want to mislead them. So I’ll just keep my faith to myself and let the specialists handle it.”

But that is just the opposite of what we are called to do as Christians. We are called to spread the good news, just as Timothy was. We all have different gifts, given to us by God, but each one of us are to use those gifts for a specific purpose: to make disciples.

Paul knew the challenges Timothy faced, but he didn’t use those challenges as excuses to keep from calling him to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ and, in doing so, making disciples.

Instead, this is what Paul tells Timothy: “I solemnly urge you: 2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”

Did you catch that first part? “I solemnly urge you…” The NIV translates that as “I give you this charge…” The King James translation begins the whole paragraph with “I charge thee.” The Contemporary English Version says, “I command you…” And The Message paraphrases it as “I can’t impress this on you too strongly.”

All of those phrases imply that Paul is not just asking Timothy nicely to do something. Paul doesn’t say, “If you want to,” or “If you feel like it.” No. There is an urgency, a much stronger language that is used.

Paul follows that up with, “proclaim the message.” In other words, tell people about Jesus Christ. When we hear that we think primarily of speaking, but I believe it means much more than that. Yes, talking is something we should do, but there are many non-verbal communication techniques that we should use as well.

There’s an old saying: “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.” (That quote is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but the truth of the matter is he didn’t say that. Bummer.) The gist of that quote is that while our words are important, if we don’t also live out the gospel then our words are meaningless.

The late author Brennan Manning says at the beginning of the DC Talk song, “What If I Stumble,” “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

Like Timothy, we are to proclaim the Good News in both word and deed. That means both. We still need to proclaim to others the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are to tell others the big changes we have experienced as followers of Jesus Christ. And we are to live as if those changes are important as well.

Next Paul says, “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” This is important.

That applies to us today as well. Back when I was a “civilian” and just a church member and not a pastor, Pam and I attended St. Luke’s UMC in Jacksonville. There was a woman that worked at the Kilgore newspaper that I worked with regularly as part of my job in public relations at Kilgore College. I invited her to church over and over and over. I did that for four years. Four. Years. And then one day she visited, and then again, and then ended up joining and becoming a faithful member.

Like Paul tells Timothy, we are to be persistent. Not in a bad or overly aggressive way, (like those robo calls about your car’s extended warranty), but what I like to call lovingly persistent. Too often today we try once or twice and then give up. When it comes to spreading the Good News, though, we are to be lovingly persistent.

Paul tells Timothy to be persistent “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” As followers of Christ we are to be ambassadors for Jesus regardless of what is happening in the world around us. When times get tough, say a world-wide pandemic, people need Jesus more than ever. But let’s not forget the good times, either, because it’s during the good times that people often forget about God and fall away.

The last phrase that Paul uses in that sentence to Timothy (and to us) is “convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”

There are some challenges to that phrase. For example, our human nature likes to rebuke. There is something in our psyche that makes us feel superior or even almost giddy to point out other people’s failures or how they messed up. There is some judgement involved. But in doing so we often overlook the log in our own eye as we point out the speck in someone else’s eye.

We are to rebuke lovingly. That doesn’t mean we can’t disagree. We can, and we should. And we should stand up for what is right and make our voices heard. But we should do so in a loving way. As Paul writes in Philippians 4:5, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”

In addition to telling Timothy (and us) to rebuke, Paul also tells him to encourage. This is one of the easiest and most effective things we can do, but often we pass up opportunities to do so every single day.

For example, if you have been out to eat at a restaurant you know that restaurants are having difficulties getting enough people to work. It really has been a challenge. Instead of complaining about it, be encouraging to the people who DO show up to work. Tell your waiter/waitress, “Thanks for working so that we can enjoy a meal here today. We really appreciate it.” And then, of course, give them a tip that says “thank you” as well.

Volunteer for our Mini Methodist program which will start next month. A lot of the kids that come to Mini Methodists don’t receive much encouragement in their lives. You can see it on their faces. You will be shockingly surprised at how an encouraging word can transform them. It is so powerful, and many of them need to hear those words so badly.

Paul finishes with, “with the utmost patience in teaching.” Oh, there’s the “p” word. Patience. Yikes. You do know that when you pray for patience God will, instead of giving you patience, provide opportunities for you to practice that patience, don’t you? Oh, it’s so difficult.

We live in an instant gratification world. We can get on Amazon and get almost anything in the world delivered to us on our front door step in two days. We can not only email with people clear on the other side of the world, but we can video chat with them in real time. It seems like we have instant everything. And yet there is a spiritual discipline to practicing patience.

That’s why I like gardening. Nothing happens instantly in gardening. Gardening is about patience and hope. And the rewards are soooooo good! (My dad said the two things in life that are the hardest to find are true love and vine ripe tomatoes.)

We should be patient with people as we share the Gospel with them. Like us, they are a work in progress. Plant those seeds of love, hope, and faith, and be patient, Keep planting those seeds, but do so with patience.

Paul finishes out the scripture we read today with these words: “…always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”

As Christians, we should live out those words. We are all evangelists whether we want to be or not. When we become Christians, we become Christ to others. For the unchurched, the only Jesus that they may ever encounter is the Jesus they see in us. It can be good, or it can be very un-Jesusy. We have that choice. Being a Christian is not a part-time responsibility. It is full time, 24-7.

My challenge to you this week is to live out Paul’s words to Timothy: “…proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”

And why should we do that? Paul tells us: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” Folks that time isn’t coming, it is here. Boy, is it here.

Therefore we should “…always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”

Jesus gave his life on the cross out of his love for us. We should live our lives like Timothy out of our love for God and for others. Plant those seeds. God will water them, the Holy Spirit will grow them, Jesus Christ will save them.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Change: Peter, Part II

Change: Peter Part II
A Message on 1 Peter 2:18-25
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Aug. 1, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

1 Peter 2:18-25 (NRSV)

18 Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. 19 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.

22 “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

As we continue our sermon series on “Change” and examine “Part II” of Peter’s life we come across this difficult and uncomfortable text.

I find it uncomfortable because it starts out talking about slavery. Just reading the word makes me sick to my stomach. The thought of one human being owning another human being is repulsive and I believe completely contrary to the gospel.

But just because a topic in the Bible is uncomfortable doesn’t mean we should just ignore it.

Slavery was the reality of the world in the first century, ugly though it was. People were aware of it and it was common. And I think it’s because of that that Peter uses it here as a metaphor.

He is encouraging followers of Christ to do the right thing even when the world seems very unfair.

As humans we know that our actions have consequences. For example, if we want to find out how hot a Carolina Reaper pepper is, and that curiosity motivates us to the point of biting into one, then the consequence of that action is that our mouths are going to be on fire and we are going to be in pain. (If you don’t believe me, get on YouTube and watch some pepper eating contests and you’ll see what I mean.)

But sometimes things happen to us that are beyond our control. If a “friend” (and I’m using that term loosely here) secretly chops up a Carolina Reaper pepper and puts it in a casserole and then serves that to you just to see your reaction (again, not a very good friend), then you will also suffer even though it wasn’t your fault. You experience suffering at no fault of your own.

Peter talks about how doing wrong things can have negative consequences for us. But he also talks about how sometimes bad stuff happens to us even when we don’t deserve it.

Bad stuff happens to good people. It doesn’t seem fair, and that frustrates us. But Peter tells us to quit focusing on the world with a quid pro quo attitude that if we are good the world owes us something. Instead, focus on heavenly things even when things are going bad for you.

Here’s the way Eugene Peterson paraphrased part of the scripture we read today: “But if you’re treated badly for good behavior and continue in spite of it to be a good servant, that is what counts with God. This is the kind of life you’ve been invited into, the kind of life Christ lived. He suffered everything that came his way so you would know that it could be done, and also know how to do it, step-by-step.” The Message

Jesus calls us to live for heavenly things, not for earthly things. Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection frees us from being slaves to sin and death. Having that freedom, we should live, as Peter writes, “for righteousness.” And we should never forget something else Peter writes, “…by his wounds you have been healed.”

Life is not fair. Bad things happen to good people. Peter certainly knew that. As a follower of Jesus, leaving his life as a fisherman, he saw more than his share of change and of troubles. Peter was brave enough to step out of the boat and walk on water to Jesus but didn’t have enough faith to stay afloat. He was impetuous, drawing a sword and cutting off a man’s ear when a group came to arrest Jesus. And Peter was the one who denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed. Peter also flip-flopped on his view of whether Gentiles could be followers of Christ, and gets publicly rebuked by Paul in doing so. And Peter’s life ended when he was crucified upside down at his request, considering himself not worthy of being crucified like Jesus.

Peter certainly knew troubles. But he also teaches us that by focusing on Jesus and remembering that God’s grace is the greatest gift ever given to humankind, knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, we can get through whatever tough times we experience. God’s love is indeed that powerful.

So my challenge to you this week is to remember Peter’s words when tough times come your way. Remember that our faith in Jesus Christ has set us free from sin and death, giving us that liberty to live righteous lives for God’s kingdom. “…by his wounds you have been healed.”

And if you have a friend that gives you a casserole with Carolina Reaper peppers in it and doesn’t tell you about those peppers, you might want to choose better friends.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Change: Peter, Part I

Here is this week’s message written and given by Alex Howell, our College Pastoral Internship Program intern that we have had this summer.

Today is Alex’s last day with us. Blessings to you, Alex, and you continue to explore God’s call on your life!

Change: “Peter, Part I”
A Message for Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
By Alex Howell, College Pastoral Internship Program Intern
July 25, 2021

Matthew 16:13-20

“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” Matthew‬ ‭16:13-20‬ ‭NRSV‬‬

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

Well good morning everyone! If you have not yet met me, my name is Alex Howell. I am the summer intern here at Jacksonville First United Church. And I would like to once again welcome you here to our church! I am so glad you’re here, and I too am glad to be here with all of you this lovely morning.

If you’ve been with us during the last few weeks, you might have noticed that we are in a new series that is completely focused on change and how we respond to it. And the way that we have planned is that each week, we look at a new person in the Bible whose life went through a lot of change, and see how they responded to that change.

Well, this week we are going to be looking into the life of Simon Peter. Now, I will say that every once in a while, we may take an extra week to look through a given person’s life. Such as last week when we looked at the later part of Mose’s life. When it comes to the life of Peter, this will also be the case. This week we will look at one part of Peter’s life, and next week we will look at another part of it.

So, the first time we see Simon in the Bible is where we had our first scripture reading this morning. We read that as Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee, He came across two brothers, that being Simon and Andrew his brother. And as the story goes, Jesus looks at them and says to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Well, Immediately they both left everything they had and started following Jesus. So Jesus continued walking along the Sea of Galilee along with His new followers Simon and Andrew. And they came across two other brothers named James and John. And the Bible says that they immediately began to follow Jesus. Anyways, as the story goes, from there they begin traveling all throughout the land of Galilee, teaching in synagogues, and proclaiming the gospel.

Now, this story can be found within the Gospel of Matthew, but if you were to look at Luke chapter 5, you would get a little bit more detail about the story that we just heard. Well, it turns out that as Jesus was one the shore of the Sea of Galilee, He was actually preaching to a crowd of people. And as He was speaking to them, they began to press in around Him. Luckily there were two boats behind Him which belonged to the two sets of brothers we just heard about, Simon and Andrew as well as James and John, who were out washing their nets. To give Himself some space from the crowd, Jesus stepped into one of the boats and continued to preach from there.

After Jesus had finished preaching, He began talking with Simon and asked him if they could go out on the water to fish. And so, Simon responds to Jesus quite reluctantly saying that they had fished all night the night before with no luck. The story continues with the very next scene being that of them out on the water fishing. Which I think is actually quite funny. We see Simon basically complaining to Jesus saying he doesn’t want to go back out in the water. And the very next thing we read is, of course, them out on the water fishing.

Anyways, as we continue with the story, Simon lets down his net, and all of a sudden he catches a huge load of fish. So much so that it says that his net begins to break. They had to call over some James and John, who were also fishing with them in the other boat, just to help them get their catch back to shore. And the Bible says that as they were coming back to the shore, their boats were starting to sink because of the weight of the fish that they had caught. Finally, they get back onto the shore, and Simon was so amazed by what had just happened that he falls before Jesus saying, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinner.” The Bible says that of course James and John were also amazed at what had happened. And so, Jesus said to them, “Follow me, for you will be fishers of men.”

Well, between our first scripture reading this morning and our second, a lot of things happen within Jesus’ earthly ministry. Just to name a few, we have the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Healing lots of people and cast out demons, the disciple Matthew is Called, Jesus begins teaching parables, John the Baptist is beheaded, Jesus walks on water, and the feeding of the four thousand. A lot happens within Jesus’ ministry. But now, our story picks back up with a conversation between Jesus and his disciples.

You see, they had come to a certain city called Caesarea Philippi. And within that city, people were asking who Jesus really was? Some were saying that he was Elijah. Others, John the Baptist. Some even said Jeremiah or one of the other Old Testament prophets. And so, Jesus gathered His disciples and asked them a question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Well, you could imagine that it might have been a bit quiet for a while. Then, Simon answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” “Blessed are you Simon, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father in Heaven” replied Jesus. And then Jesus continues saying, “I say to you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hell will not overpower it.”

We see here that at this point in the story, Simon is given a new name by none other than God Himself. Jesus Christ the Son of the Living God. Peter or Petros, is a Greek word meaning “a stone.” Jesus continues saying to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” And here we see how Jesus makes Simon, now called Peter, a very important leader within the church. One thing is clear, Peter’s life will never be the same.

Well, Jesus continues in this important conversation with His disciples by telling them not to tell anyone what Peter had said about Jesus, that He was the Messiah and the Son of God. At that time Jesus still had a lot to do in His earthly ministry and one reason that might have told His disciples not to tell anyone is because He was not yet ready to reveal Himself as the Christ and the Son of God. Humility may also have played a role in this as well. But, Jesus nevertheless tells them not tell anyone.

And so, the conversation continues with Jesus foretelling His death and His resurrection. He Tells them that He must go to Jerusalem so that He can suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes. And that He will be killed, but that He will also raise again from the dead on the third day.

Peter did not like hearing this at all! Peter pulled Jesus aside and began to rebuke Jesus saying that, “this will never happen to You.” But then, Jesus looked at Peter and said, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.”

You can imagine how harsh this must have sounded when Peter heard Jesus call Him Satan. And remember, Peter had just gotten his new name, and then to be suddenly called Satan by Jesus had to have been hard for him to hear. Peter, who had just been given a revelation from God, now rebuked by Jesus.

Well, if you think about it. Christ’s death and resurrection upon the cross is the cornerstone of our salvation. So, if Christ never went to Calvary, where is our salvation? This is why I think Jesus rebuked Peter so heavily. Because His death and resurrection on the cross was key to God’s redemption plan of salvation for the world. But the story does not end here.

The story continues and picks back up six days after this conversation that Jesus had with His disciples. And the Bible says that Jesus gathered up Peter, James, and John. And led them up high on top of a nearby mountain. When they had reached the top, they saw Jesus. But He was not alone. He had been transfigured in divine glory, talking with Moses and Elijah. The Bible says that Jesus’ face shone like the sun and that His garments had become like a very white light.

Then, Peter looked at the three standing there talking and asked them, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three tents here, one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But as Peter was talking, a bright cloud began to overshadow them and they heard a voice from heaven saying to them, “this is My beloved Son, whom I am well pleased; listen to Him!”

After hearing the voice from heaven, the three disciples became terrified and fell down to the ground. Then, Jesus came to them saying to get up and not be afraid. But as they looked toward Jesus, He was alone. The other two figures had disappeared. So after this, the four of them. Jesus, Peter, James, and John, began to head back down the mountain. And as they were walking, Jesus commanded them not to tell what had just happened to anyone, until He had died and risen back to life again.

So just think about everything that has now happened in Peter’s life so far. It all started one day as Jesus, the Son of the Living God, came to Peter and called him to follow Himself Many others were called also, and Jesus’ earthly ministry began. Peter witnessedJesus going around all of Judaea, preaching the gospel and teaching parables to people. He witnessed people being healed by the hands of Jesus as well as demons cast out of people. He sees all of the miracles and wonderful things that Jesus does during His time here on earth. He sees the glorified Christ. And Peter gets a new name from God Himself and is called to be a leader within His new church. As we know, Peter accepts this new call on his life and continues to follow Jesus.

Well, it may be an understatement to say that Peter’s life drastically changed when Jesus came into the picture. Before Jesus came along and changed everything, Peter was but a simple fisherman. And now, he is called to be a leader in the church. Think back for a moment to when we first met Peter. He could have said no to Jesus’ call. But he instead chose to follow Him. And so, his life completely changed from that moment on.

The same also happens to us when we allow God to come into our own life. After this happens, everything changes. As we begin to follow God and learn how to love Him and be more like Christ. we find ourselves changed. And changed for the better. And we see how even Peter was not perfect. Remember back to that conversation where Jesus foretold His death and resurrection, and Peter told Jesus that that will never happen. Jesus rebuked Peter calling him Satan. So we too, often make mistakes and follow our own interests instead of Gods’.

So my challenge to you this week is this; God is calling you to follow Him. That may mean finding new ways to serve Him with your time or money, that may mean making a meaningful effort to get involved more with a small group or Bible study. That may even mean doing something as simple as calling and checking in with a friend or family member who you know isn’t doing well, whatever it is that you feel God is calling you to do.

My challenge for you is that you step out in faith, just as Peter did, and follow God wherever He may lead you. Let us turn to the Lord in prayer…

Change: Moses, Part II

Change: Moses, Part II
A Message on Numbers 11:1-15
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
July 18, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Numbers 11:1-15 (NRSV)

1 Now when the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, the Lord heard it and his anger was kindled. Then the fire of the Lord burned against them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. 2 But the people cried out to Moses; and Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire abated. 3 So that place was called Taberah,[a] because the fire of the Lord burned against them.

4 The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6 but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

7 Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its color was like the color of gum resin. 8 The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. 9 When the dew fell on the camp in the night, the manna would fall with it.

10 Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the Lord became very angry, and Moses was displeased. 11 So Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12 Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child, to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors’? 13 Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ 14 I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. 15 If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.”

<> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><> ><>

Last week Pastor Sarah explored how God called Moses through the burning bush to go to Egypt and face down Pharaoh to let the Hebrew people go. Today as we continue our sermon series on change we will jump ahead in the life of Moses and look at a part of his life that was not all smiles and roses, but instead was very difficult for him.

Both of the scriptures we read today are kind of… well… depressing. They’re not the happy clappy scriptures about God loving us no matter what we do. No, they are about a man being called by God to do things that are way, WAY beyond his comfort zone and that, instead of bringing peace that passes understanding, creates more angst and anxiety in his life.

You probably know the story. The Hebrew people, God’s people, are slaves in Egypt and a treated horribly. Like kill-the-babies-if-they-are-boys bad.

This is the world that Moses is born into. And things don’t get better during his lifetime, even though Moses, being adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, grew up in the lap of luxury. Moses ends up killing a man and has to skedaddle when his nefarious deed comes to light.

The scripture we read today from the book of Numbers takes place after God has called Moses from tending sheep in the desert and after God goes before Pharaoh numerous times, telling, (sing) “Let my people go, UGH!” (If you know the song, “Pharaoh, Pharaoh,” then you’ll understand.)

The scripture we read today is after Moses leads them through the Red Sea to escape from Egypt. The Hebrews, numbering around 600,000, stopped at Mt. Sinai where Moses was given the 10 Commandments as well as other laws that we find in Exodus 20 and 21. They stay there for a little over 2 years and then, when the cloud over the tabernacle lifted, started following it.

And sure enough it’s not long into the trip before the “whiners” start complaining about things.

Many years ago Saturday Night Live (back when it was good) had a series of skits featuring a couple known as “Doug and Wendy Whiner.” As their name implies, they whined about everything. (In whining voice, “Hi, we’re Doug and Wendy Whiner…”) The skits, while funny, are also very irritating and annoying.

Well Moses had to deal with a whole bunch of whiners back when they were traveling in the desert. (A scholar with more time and brains that I have says that the Bible records 14 times the people formally came to Moses and whined about things after they left Egypt.)

Here is The Message paraphrase of one section of the scripture we read today: “Why can’t we have meat? We ate fish in Egypt—and got it free!—to say nothing of the cucumbers and melons, the leeks and onions and garlic. But nothing tastes good out here; all we get is manna, manna, manna.”

Manna, which comes from the Hebrew word for “what is it?,” was the food that God provided every morning for the Hebrew people to eat. They wanted food, and God gave them food. They wanted water, and God gave them water.

You’d think they would be thankful, right? They would say something like, “Wow, this is awesome! This manna stuff is great, and God even delivers it. And unlike Walmart pickup grocery orders there are never any substitutions. It’s so great to be free and able to be our own people without being beaten and forced to work like we were in Egypt. Man, I hated being a slave!”

That’s what you would think, but no. They whined. They complained. They griped.

Well guess what? God heard it. (God hears everything, of course, but still…) And when God heard it he got mad. Like extremely mad. Here’s what it says in verse 10: “Then the Lord became very angry…”

Back at the beginning of this reading we find God getting mad and sending fires to burn up people and possessions on the outskirts of the camps. What stops it? Moses prays to God to stop the fire, and God responds to Moses’ prayers and stops the fire.

You would think that the people would remember that, don’t you? You’d think they would be thankful to Moses. “Hey, quit your mouthing! Don’t you remember what God did a while back to all those folks who were complaining? So shut up, eat your manna, and be grateful for what you have.”

But no, they started whining again. And God got mad again. And at this Moses kinda loses it.

I think Moses by this point is physically and emotionally tired. He’s tired of trying to help people who do nothing but complain to him, people who don’t appreciate all the times he has interceded for them with God and saved them from destruction. He’s through. He’s done. No mas. He’s had it.

We discover this in verses 11-15 of the scripture we read today when Moses responds to God. Here is The Message paraphrase of his conversation with God: “Why are you treating me this way? What did I ever do to you to deserve this? Did I conceive them? Was I their mother? So why dump the responsibility of this people on me? Why tell me to carry them around like a nursing mother, carry them all the way to the land you promised to their ancestors? Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people who are whining to me, ‘Give us meat; we want meat.’ I can’t do this by myself—it’s too much, all these people. If this is how you intend to treat me, do me a favor and kill me. I’ve seen enough; I’ve had enough. Let me out of here.”

Wow! Pretty strong words, right? I think it shows just how exasperated Moses is at this point. He’s at the end of his rope and just can’t take it anymore. The pressure, the stress, has driven him to a breaking point.

Have you ever felt that way? Be honest, now. Maybe instead of asking you if you ever felt that way I should rephrase the question, “How long has it been since you felt that way”?

I think it’s safe to say if you haven’t felt that way at least once in the past year then consider yourself to be among a group of very few people. Stress happens to all of us. And yes, sometimes our imaginations can make things seem worse than they really are which causes even more stress.

But here’s the point I want to make: God is with us in our stress, during those “end-of-the-rope” times. God can help us tie a knot in the end of that rope and hang on. God is with us when we feel like we are, as my young nephew Mason Stegall once said years ago, “gonna have a come-apart.”

There is a myth about Christianity that goes something like this: If you accept Jesus as your savior then everything will go right for you all the time. You’ll be pretty or handsome, have plenty of money, your kids will behave, it will never rain on your day off, you will never have bad breath, your feet will never stink, and will have the perfect life.

While it is true that an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ will change your perspective and attitude, it will not make your life easy and perfect. As a matter of fact, it’s just the opposite.

Jesus tells the disciples (and us) in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble.” (NIV)

Not “You might have trouble,” or “You sometimes will have trouble,” or “Every now and then you will have trouble.” No. “In this world you will have trouble.” It’s not an option. It’s not avoidable. You will have trouble.

And yet in that same verse Jesus adds another sentence following that statement: “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (NIV)

Following Jesus doesn’t mean a trouble-free life. Doing what God calls us to do shouldn’t be done in a quid pro quo mindset: “If I do this for God then all my troubles will go away.” No. In fact, just the opposite will happen.

God doesn’t call us to our comfortable places. And why should he? Doing something you are comfortable with doesn’t require faith, but doing those things that are out of your comfort zone, sometimes way, WAY out of our comfort zone, now that does require faith.

We see that in the life of Moses that we read about today. You would think that after all the miracles that the people had personally experienced in gaining their freedom from the Egyptians that they would be very grateful and thankful to Moses, who led them through some tough times. But instead we find that they gripe and whine and are ready to turn on Moses.

How quickly we forget all the bad things when we get nostalgic about the past. Psychologically our minds filter out the bad things and accentuate the good things, making the past seem much better than it actually was. We remember the pots of meat cooking, all-you-can-eat fish frys, cucumbers and melons and leeks and onions and garlic, but we forget about the labor involved in being slaves. We forget about the bad when we whine for the good ol’ days.

I think there are a couple of things we should take away from this scripture we read today.

First, and I’m going to be very blunt: quit whining so much. It’s much easier to whine than it is to work to fix whatever it is you are whining about.

This age of social media has caused so many of us to turn into (whiny voice) Doug and Wendy Whiner. If something happens that we don’t like in even the littlest bit, we can post on social media how outraged we are, inviting others to join in our outrage. And if we are honest (which we should be) it has gotten to where we are competitive in how outraged we are. We try to achieve a status symbol of being more outraged than anyone else. It’s called “comparative virtue signalling.” I call it whining. No matter what you want to call it, we need to stop it, or at least give an equal amount of effort toward correcting the problem as we do whining about it.

Second point I want us to remember is that you can’t please everyone, so try to please God instead.

Moses did what God had told him to do, and even had to climb up Mt. Sinai twice because he got so mad at the people for making the golden calf while he was gone that he broke the original set of 10 Commandments tablets. He went to Pharaoh over and over and over trying to convince him to let the people go, only to be rebuked all but the last time. And as hard as Moses tried, as much preaching and talking as he did, the people still grumbled and griped about him.

Years ago there was a song called “Garden Party” that had the lyrics in the chorus, “You know you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.” As Christians I think we should say, “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please the Lord.”

Do what God says is right, knowing that there will be people who gripe and whine. Do it anyway. (Some of them are going to gripe and whine no matter what you do, anyway.)

So that is my challenge to you this week: Quit whining and do the right thing. Quit being a Doug or Wendy Whiner, putting so much energy and time into complaining about what is wrong. Instead work to make things better.

And do the right (Godly) thing, even when it isn’t popular and you know people will whine about it.

Remember that Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God, had to deal with whiners. Jesus came to earth in human form, walked and taught among us, and willingly went to the cross so that we could be reconciled to God. And people whined about it.

Do the right thing. Don’t be a whiner.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.