Beatitudes: Blessed are those who are persecuted

The Beatitudes: Those Who Are Persecuted
A Message on Matthew 5:10-12
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Feb. 27, 2022
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Matthew 5:10-11 (NRSV)

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

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Today we conclude our sermon series on the Beatitudes by looking at the last one: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Now remember that Jesus gives us the beatitudes as part of what is known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus goes to the top of a mountain and begins to teach his disciples.

As part of those teachings, he gives what are known as beatitudes, so named because of the Latin name for the beginning of each teaching that starts as “blessed.” The word can also mean “happy” or even “rich.”

Let’s review all eight beatitudes:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

And then we get to the one we are exploring today: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

This one, the last one, breaks the pattern. All the other beatitudes follow the simple format of “Blessed are,” followed by “for…” But with the eighth one, we get an additional paragraph that we know as verse 11: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Now some scholars believe that verse 11 is a beatitude in itself, but I don’t ascribe to that. I think it is a continuation of the “persecuted” beatitude, and I believe that because of the language. The words “revile,” “persecution,” and “utter all kinds of evil against you” are forms of persecution if you ask me.

So why is this one different from the others? I believe it is because Jesus is wanting to emphasize the importance of this beatitude. And this beatitude about being persecuted is very important.

If you look at the beatitudes they seem to become more impactful as they go from beginning to end. And unlike many of the Old Testament laws, which give a rule and then a punishment if that rule is violated, the beatitudes are more positive, more encouraging, more about giving hope during the tough times and choosing to do the right thing even when it’s the tougher thing to do.

The beatitudes are more about love than condemnation.

The one we are focusing on today, about persecution, does that as well.

So what is persecution? Well, it’s when people are mistreated by other people, often with hostility and even physical violence.

A good example is Hitler’s treatment of the Jews in World War II. Hitler persecuted the Jewish people horribly, sending millions to their death just because of their religion.

And in our country we remember those who were persecuted by the color of their skin. The Civil Rights movement sought to correct that by protecting the rights of people regardless of their skin color.

We may mistakenly think that persecution is something that happened in the past and that it is not something that happens in the modern world. But we would be wrong.

I think part of the challenge of being Christian in the United States is that we develop a very narrow world view in which we assume that other parts of the world work the same way our country does. But that is not true. Not at all.

There are many places in the world where it is dangerous to be a Christian. We don’t hear about it much, but that is very much the truth.

There are web sites that have information about things like this. Christianity Today has an annual ranking of the countries in the world that are the most dangerous for Christians. And that data is not very encouraging.

According to their statistics, 1,000 more Christians were killed because of their faith last year than in 2020. One thousand more were detained than the year before. Six hundred more churches were either attacked or destroyed than the previous year.

Those aren’t totals, folks. Those are just the increases.

Based on data from September 2020 to October 2021 compiled by a group named Open Doors, Afghanistan overtook North Korea in the list of countries where it’s hardest to be a Christian. Here is the list.

  1. Afghanistan
  2. North Korea
  3. Somalia
  4. Libya
  5. Yemen
  6. Eritrea
  7. Nigeria
  8. Pakistan
  9. Iran
  10. India

Here is the list of places where Christians face the most violence:

  1. Nigeria
  2. Pakistan
  3. India
  4. Central African Republic
  5. Democratic Republic of Congo
  6. Mozambique
  7. Cameroon
  8. Afghanistan
  9. Mali
  10. South Sudan

And here’s a list of the countries where the most Christians were martyred last year with the estimated number of Christians killed:

  1. Nigeria: 4,650
  2. Pakistan: 620
  3. Name withheld: 100*
  4. Burkina Faso 100*
  5. Democratic Republic of Congo: 100*
  6. Mozambique: 100*
  7. Central African Republic: 29
  8. Cameroon: 27
  9. Tanzania: 25
  10. Indonesia: 15
    *estimated

Source: https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2022/january/christian-persecution-2022-countries-killed-world-list.html

So as you can see, there are places in the world where Christians are being persecuted.

We have a church member here who really knows about persecution, because she is from one of those Countries. Okwa Inyamuwa is from Nigeria and is a student at the Baptist seminary here in Jacksonville. I had a good conversation with her about this, and she says that it is true that Christians are indeed being persecuted in Nigeria, especially in the northern part of the country. There are kidnappings, killings, attacks on churches during services, and even job descrimination based on being a Christian.

I asked her if she was planning to go back to Nigeria after her studies, and she said she is willing to go wherever the Lord leads her. And if the Lord leads her to Nigeria or some other dangerous place, she will be obedient and go. Wow.

Here’s the ironic thing: In many of the areas of the world where Christians are being persecuted, like Nigeria, the church is growing.

One of those places we heard about this past week as the news covered Russia invading the country of Ukraine. Lord, in your mercy…

Do you know what the major religion is in Ukraine? It’s Christianity. Statistics show 71 percent of the people living in Ukraine are Christian. That’s pretty impressive. To put that in perspective, here in the US 65 percent claim to be Christian. Yeah. Ukraine has a higher percentage of Christians than the United States.

But unlike the US, the percentage of believers in Ukraine has been increasing. In 2000, the percentage of believers was 57.8 percent. Today it is 71 percent.

And now the Christians living in Ukraine fear that if Russia takes over their country, they will be persecuted. I pray they are wrong, but I fear they may be right.

And in the midst of this, we read the words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Like the rest of the beatitudes, it just doesn’t seem to make sense to us. Such thinking seems to fly in the face of logic. It seems contrary to wisdom.

But is it? Let’s look at what the Bible has to say about it.

In 2 Timothy 3:12 the Apostle Paul writes, “Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Notice that it doesn’t say “might be persecuted” or “perhaps may be persecuted.” No. “…all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Romans 12:14 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

Here is John 15:18, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”

And listen to these words that Peter, the rock of the church, wrote in 1 Peter 4:12-14, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.”

And once again the words of Paul, from 2 Corinthians 12:10: “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Being a Christian doesn’t work like a vaccination designed to protect us and keep bad things from happening to us. If anything it is just the opposite. Being a Christian is about making hard choices to do the right thing even if–and especially when–it hurts. It is putting the needs of others before our own, it is about sacrifice, it is about fulfilling the oath we make when we join the church to support it with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.

When we live our lives as Christ, when we become the hands and feet of Jesus to our world, we will get ridiculed. We will get picked on. We will be persecuted.

But there are positive things about it as well, even though it’s hard to believe. One positive is knowing that what we are doing really matters. It may not seem to if we evaluate it based on what the world says is important, but it does matter to Jesus.

In John 14:27 Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

As Christians we are to respond to a higher calling. We are to do the righteous things, the right things. Because we have free will we can choose to do the right things or not. The easier path is to not. Choosing to live as Christ is always the more difficult path, and in choosing Jesus we will be persecuted.

But even so we will be blessed. We will be blessed so that we can be a blessing to others, knowing that no matter how horribly we are persecuted in this world, we have the hope, the promise, that something better is coming. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection our lives are not limited by this world or by the seeming finality of death. We are a resurrection people. This world is not our home, we’re only passing through.

So my challenge to you this week is to live your life like Jesus, knowing that in doing so you will be persecuted. It goes with the territory. But you will also be blessed, blessed by the grace of God that is given to us through the love of Jesus Christ.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

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

Blessed are the pure in heart…

The Beatitudes: The Pure in Heart
A Message on Matthew 5:8
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Feb. 13, 2022
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Matthew 5:8 (NRSV)

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

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As you probably know I like to look up weird things on the Internet. The other night as a way of procrastinating writing this sermon under the guise of doing research I came across a Reddit thread that posed the question, “What is the purest element that most people will encounter in their daily lives?” [https://www.reddit.com/r/askscience/comments/r7nm0/what_is_the_purest_element_that_most_people_will/]

I was fascinated by the answers.

One person wrote that it was probably liquid helium because nothing else can be liquid at that low of a temperature. And we’re talking cold, as in −269.85 °C (or -453.73°F ) for Helium 3. (Not quite as much for Helium 4, apparently.)

Someone else suggested semiconductor-grade silicon was the purest element that most people will encounter in their daily lives. Semiconductor-grade silicon is the kind that is used to make computer chips.

Someone asked just exactly how pure it was, and the expert responded by saying it was 11N pure. I had no idea what that meant until I continued reading to find out that it means eleven nines pure. In other words, 99.999999999% pure. She/he then explained the chemical processes they use to get to that level, but it was so technologically and scientifically dense that I felt like I was out in my backyard watching a commercial airliner flying over at 30,000 feet. (It was that much over my head.)

I remember the old Ivory soap commercials that used to proclaim that the soap was 99 and 44 one-hundredths percent pure. Country singer Eddie Rabbit even took that slogan and wrote a song about it called “Pure Love” that was recorded by Ronnie Milsap which became a number one song in 1974.

I used to think that as pretty dad-gum pure, until I found out about semiconductor grade silicon. Now it’s got me worried what that .56 percent in Ivory soap is. Especially since I had to wash out my mouth with it more than once when I was a kid. (Hint: it doesn’t taste good.)

Another item mentioned was distilled water. It seems the process for making distilled water is to boil it and then to collect the condensed steam. The impurities are removed during that process and the water collected from the steam is nice and pure.

Well all this talk of pureness is to give us a good background for exploring today’s Beatitude that Jesus teaches his disciples during his “Sermon on the Mount” found in Matthew’s gospel: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

But what does it mean to be “pure in heart”? What does Jesus mean by this phrase?

We can get answers from scripture. In Psalm 51:10 we find, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (NIV)

Psalm 24:3-5 tells us, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.”

Being pure in heart has to do with sin. No matter how much we try, sin can contaminate our heart.

Humans have been given the gift of free will. We are presented with choices in our lives.

The Bible tells us that God is love. God doesn’t force us to love him, though, because love that is forced is not love, is it? Love is a choice, and in order for us to have a choice to love we have to have free will.

God gives us that free will. God grants us the ability to choose. And it’s in those choices we make that we find the purity of our heart.

God is pure. We had some great discussion in confirmation class Wednesday night as we explored the nature of God. We were talking about there is nothing that God cannot do, when one of the confirmands spoke up and said, “Yes there is.”

I have to admit I was taken aback for a bit. I replied, “What? You think there is something that God can’t do? God who is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and a bunch of other “omnis? What is it you think that God can’t do?”

“Lie,” the student responded. “God cannot lie.”

Boom. All that money and time spent on seminary. And the student was right. God is pure. God cannot lie.

God wants us to choose to be like him, but that is a decision we must make. For example, if God can’t lie, then we shouldn’t lie either. We should make decisions that are favorable to God.

Paul explains it real well in Ephesians 5:1, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

As Christians we are to strive to be pure in heart. But how do we do that?

There are two things I want to focus on today. The first is to keep our heart pure, to do everything we can to keep it from being contaminated.

Just like it is easier to prevent a mess than it is to clean up after one is made, preventing sin from entering our hearts to begin with is better than trying to remove it later. The old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is applicable here.

The best way to kick a bad habit is to never let it get started. Avoidance of sin is always a good way to keep sin from entering our hearts.

The world throws temptation at us every day. You know what I’m talking about. Advertisements bombard us every day to put ourselves first. Just as the sirens in Homer’s Odyssey lured sailors to destruction with their song, there are so many things in our world that sing sweet songs into our ears. If you don’t believe me just get on the Internet or social media.

We are called to resist temptations that seek to move us away from God, and we are subject to such temptations multiple times each day. Again free will comes into play. We can choose to resist those temptations through the power of the Holy Spirit, or we can choose to give in to those temptations. We rationalize our decisions, thinking we are only dipping a toe in the shallow water, only to find ourselves drowning in the deep end before long.

Once there, we realize–too late–that we should have avoided the temptation altogether.

The second thing I want to explore about pure hearts today is to explore what to do when we know our hearts are not clean.

While it is a noble goal to live our lives in ways that produce a pure heart, we have to realize that as humans we make mistakes, we mess up, we sin.

It’s important to remember that everyone sins. Everyone. And one of the most difficult things to do is to acknowledge those sins, to admit them, and to repent of them.

That’s where an accountability group can help. I meet weekly online with two of my friends in an accountability group. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called them bands.

We follow an outline put out by Seedbed that seems to work real well. We start out with prayer, and then each one of us takes turns responding to these questions:

How is it with your soul?
What are your struggles and successes?
How might the Spirit and Scriptures be speaking in your life?
Do you have any sin that you want to confess?
Are there any secrets or hidden things you would like to share?

To be honest, the first three of those questions are a lot more comfortable to answer than those last two. Yeah. Did I tell you about the confidentiality? Yeah, that’s a big thing. But I will also tell you that admitting sins and secrets has a couple of positive effects.

The first deals with the first point we talked about today. When I find myself with a temptation during the week and find myself wavering, often the deciding factor to do the right thing is thinking, “Man, I don’t want to have to admit this to the guys this week!”

The second thing is the healing that comes after an admission of sin. It’s hard to explain, but admitting sin out loud not only acknowledges it, but also begins the healing process.

God does heal. The Bible tells us that when we confess our sins, when we truly and heartily confess and are sorry for them, that God not only forgives us, but forgets our sins. In Hebrews 8:11 we read, “For I [God] will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”

Jesus Christ’s death on the cross atones for our sins. Jesus pays the cost that we, as imperfect humans, are incapable of paying. God creates a way to take our unclean hearts and make them clean. He takes an impure heart and, through his wonderful grace, makes it a pure heart.

And those with pure hearts will see God, according to the words of Jesus from the beatitudes that we read today. When we experience God’s grace and love, we see God. And when our earthly journeys are over, we will see our savior face to face in a place that is perfect, a place that doesn’t even need the sun or moon or lights because the presence of God provides light all the time. We really will see God, and not metaphorically.

So my challenge to you this week is to seek being pure in heart. Let us do everything in our power to be pure in heart, and then when we experience those times when we sin and our hearts are no longer pure, let us confess our sins to God and experience the clean hearts he gives us through his grace. Then we will truly be pure.

Even more so than liquid helium, ivory soap, distilled water, and yes, even semiconductor-grade silicon.

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

Beatitudes: “Blessed are the Merciful”

The Beatitudes: The Merciful
A Message on Matthew 5:7
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Feb. 6, 2022
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Matthew 5:7 (NRSV)

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

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When I was in junior high we used to play one of those games that junior high kids love and parents and teachers hated. We called the game “mercy.”

It was a very simple game. Two people would interlock fingers like this [show], and then attempt to bend the other person’s fingers back, creating pain until the person said, “Mercy.”

Here, I’ll demonstrate it. I need a junior high student to help me out, though. [Get junior high student, illustrate the game, and make sure they win.]

Yeah. It was junior high, remember? I didn’t say it was a brilliant game or intellectually stimulating. Junior high things often aren’t.

But it does illustrate a very important point that I want to explore today. As we continue our sermon series on the Beatitudes we come to the fifth one: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

Mercy is about power. One person has power over another person. In this game the stronger person, who can bend the other person’s fingers back, has power while the other person, whose fingers are being bent back does not. The person hurting has to rely on the other person to stop. In the game, saying the word “mercy” signals to the victor “I relinquish. You win.”

The person who asks for mercy is completely dependent on the person who is winning to give them mercy and to stop bending their fingers back. If the one winning doesn’t want to show mercy, then they are in a position to continue to cause pain.

One of the unwritten rules of the game, though, was that it wasn’t cool if somebody asked for mercy and you didn’t give it to them. Yeah, that was a big no-no that got you berated by your peers who loudly voiced how that was “uncool.” And in junior high nobody wants to be “uncool.”

As Christians we are to show mercy during those times we might have some power over others. Matthew tells us that if we show mercy to others, then we will receive mercy when those times come where we are in need of it.

I think one the best illustrations of how God wants us to be merciful happens in Matthew 18:23-35 with the parable of the unforgiving servant.

Jesus tells the parable of a king who calls in the people that owe him money. One of his servants owes him 10,000 talents, and a talent was about the working wage for a year. So we are talking about a big chunk of money!

Well the servant cannot pay the king, so the king plans to have the servant be sold, along with all his family and all of his possessions. The servant pleaded with the king, begging for mercy, saying that if the king would only have patience he would pay all the money back.

The king was merciful toward the servant, but he also forgave all his debt. Yep. All 10,000 talents, forgiven.

So the servant leaves the presence of the king, and on the way out of the building he runs into a fellow servant who owes him 100 denari, and a denari was about the amount of a day’s worth of labor. Well the servant who was forgiven 10,000 talents grabs his fellow servant by the throat and says, “Pay me what you owe me!” The fellow servant pleads to give him more time to repay him, but the first servant was having none of it. He had his fellow servant thrown in prison until he could pay his debt.

Well some other servants witnessed this and went and told the King, who was outraged, and justifiably so. He called the servant who had the debt forgiven back in front of him, and basically chewed him out and had him locked in prison.

The reason I think this is a good example of mercy is because I believe that Jesus is telling us that we, those who because of our sin owe a debt to God that we can never repay, having received great mercy, should show mercy to others.

Jesus forgave us the debt of our sins when he took them upon himself at the cross, and because of that our debts were forgiven. That’s why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, to remind ourselves in a very physical and real way just how great God’s love is for us, and how much mercy he has bestowed upon us.

So my challenge to you this week is to remember just how much mercy we have been given. And because we have received such mercy, we should also show mercy to others.

If we don’t do that, well… we would be “uncool,” wouldn’t we?

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

Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness

The Beatitudes: Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness
A Message on Matthew 5:6
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 29, 2022
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Matthew 5:6 (NRSV)

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

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As we continue our sermon series journey through the Beatitudes we come to one today that is easy to misunderstand. This is the fourth Beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

At first glance it may appear that in this verse Jesus is teaching about the importance of offering food to those who are hungry and clean water to those who are thirsty. And as Christians, we are called to help out those who are in need of these things. After all, in Matthew 25:35 Jesus says, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”

But, I don’t think that’s what this means.

We talked about this during Bible Study in Mini Methodists this past Wednesday. I did something that… well… some of the kids said was mean and cruel.

Before Mini Methodists began I went and bought a hamburger and an iced tea, but put them here behind the communion rail where the kids couldn’t see them. We reviewed what the beatitudes were, why they are called that, and read the scripture. Then I told the kids I was hungry, sat down right there, reached around behind the communion rail, and brought out that hamburger and drink. And then I started eating the hamburger, right in front of them.

I played it up real good, telling them just how wonderful it tasted. And then I would take a drink of the good ol’ slightly sweetened iced tea and talk about how delicious and refreshing it was.

Well as you can imagine that didn’t go over very well. The kids started asking questions: “Do we get hamburgers? Did you bring some for us? (With my mouth full: “No.”) Can we have the fries? Did you get french fries? (“No. I didn’t get fries. I’m on a diet.”) Oh man, you’re making me hungry! That is cruel! That’s rude to eat that in front of us when we don’t have any!”

Now it was a junior burger. And I only ate about half of it per class. But it really did taste good!

I then asked them if seeing me eat that burger made them hungry for one. Almost every hand went up.

I then tried to explain to them that what Jesus is saying in this particular beatitude is that those who hunger and thirst for God the way they were hungry for my hamburger and thirsty for my drink will be blessed and will be filled.

Food and drink is used as a metaphor quite a bit in the Bible.

For example, here is Psalm 42:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.” – Psalm 42:1-2

And what about this from Isaiah 55:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food. – Isaiah 55:1-2

And remember when Jesus is tempted by the devil in the desert after fasting 40 days? Satan tries to convince him to turn rocks into bread.

And then when Jesus meets the “woman at the well” in John 4, he tells her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” – John 4:13-14

And what about when Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” – John 6:35

And when we participate in the Lord’s Supper, what do we do in remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice? We eat bread, “my body, broken for you,” and drink wine (grape juice, really), “my blood, shed for you.”

So eating and drinking are strongly linked with the scriptures.

It’s important to remember, though, that Jesus is using hunger and thirst as metaphors. Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst,” and just leave it there. No. He adds three very important words: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake.”

So what does this mean? What does it mean to hunger and thirst for righteousness sake?

I think a good place to start is with the root word of “righteousness”: “right.”

The word “righteous” has a good meaning. It means morally right, justifiable, virtuous, ethical. Those are all good things, right?

I use an online Bible study called Bible Gateway (biblegateway.com) and one of the things you can do is have it show you a Bible verse in all English-language translations. In case you didn’t know it, they list 62 English language translations of the Bible. (I know because I counted them.) Of those 62 English language translations, 46 of them use the word “righteousness.

The ones that don’t use “righteousness” use words like “justice,” or “goodness,” “God’s approval,” or “what God requires.”

Unfortunately the word “righteous” has somewhat of a negative connotation in our world today due to it being combined with another word to form the phrase, “self-righteous.” Being “self-righteous” means a person feels morally superior to someone, that they are better than others.

Christianity gets a negative reputation as a religion in which the adherents feel morally superior to those who aren’t Christian, and are therefore labeled–sometimes correctly–as self-righteous. And unfortunately, there are individuals (and institutions) that behave that way and further that negative reputation.

But I contend that we shouldn’t throw away the word “righteous” just because of the phrase “self-righteous.” “Righteous” is a good word, one that is… well… righteous!

When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake,” he is talking about those who want to do the right thing, who want to live their lives serving God and others.

Let me give you an example of one of those people. George Griffin died this past Monday at the age of 94. Most of you know him, and if you didn’t I wish you could have. George to me epitomized someone who hungered and was thirsty for righteousness.

George did a lot of things here at the church but to my knowledge never called attention to himself in doing so. He was an integral part of our prayer team and would come and pray not only for church members, but also for me as the pastor of this church.

George was a regular member of our “Tuesday Lunch Bunch” that used to meet at Whataburger every week. He attended Sunday school and worship every week, and if wasn’t here there had to be a real good reason.

But probably the thing that impressed me the most about George was his working with the Mini Methodist kids.

Back when we Mini Methodist included up to 6th grade we would have about 150 kids arrive at the church every Wednesday afternoon. When they arrived, they dropped their backpacks off here in the sanctuary and then went to Waller Hall where they got snacks, sometimes corny dogs, sometimes nachos, pizza, etc.

When they got their food they picked up an empty cup and took it with them to a table. Then they would raise their hand and someone would come and fill their cup with either water or pink lemonade.

George was one of the volunteers that poured the drinks for the kids. Now remember, there are over a hundred kids in Waller Hall and being kids, they weren’t quiet. They talked with their friends and laughed and it got real loud and noisy in there. It still does!

And in the midst of the chaos, the noise, and the lovely aroma of elementary kids wafting through the atmosphere, there was George, a pitcher of water in one hand, and a pitcher of pink lemonade in the other, going from table to table with a smile on his face, blessing those who were thirsty. All this from a 90+ year old man!

Now I know that there are people in the church who, when their kids are grown and gone, adopt the attitude, “I did my time volunteering for children’s and youth programs when my kids were young. I’m not doing it anymore. The parents of the kids can step up and do it like I did.”

Theologically there are so many things wrong about that kind of attitude, but I didn’t have to worry about that with George. He had suffered through the death of his son and his wife, he was retired, and he could have done whatever he wanted to do on Wednesday afternoons. But what he chose to do was to serve drinks to noisy, sometimes odiferous children.

One Wednesday George was sick and didn’t come. One of the kids was sitting at a table and motioned me over. When I got there he asked, “Where’s that guy?”

“What guy?” I asked.

“You know, that tall guy, that pours our drinks?”

“Oh, you mean Mr. George! He’s sick today and can’t be here.”

The little boy looked up to me and said, “Oh no. I miss him. Well, tell him I will be praying for him.”

That experience reminds me of Jesus’ words in Mark 9:37, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

George hungered and was thirsty for righteousness sake. He not only read the scriptures, but he lived them out in his life as well.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake, for they will be filled.”

George is no longer here to ask him, but if he were I am confident that he would say that indeed he was filled. Not in a monetary way, not in terms of attention or having the spotlight on him, but in the way of a humble servant hungering and thirsting for righteousness sake.

We should all be more like George. And that’s my challenge to you today, to hunger and thirst for righteousness like George Griffin did. Seek to live a life in the right way, seek righteousness, not for personal gain but as a servant and disciple of Jesus Christ.

If you do, George–and Jesus–will be proud of you. And I might even buy you a hamburger.

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

“Blessed Are Those Who Mourn”

The Beatitudes: Those Who Mourn
A Message on Matthew 5:4
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 16, 2022
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Matthew 5:4 (NRSV)

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

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This past September I really missed my dad.

It was my birthday and it was one of the big ones, one of the ones that ends in “0.” That in itself kinda hurt as I realized, “I’m getting old!” But another thing that hurt was that I didn’t get a phone call from my dad.

Dad had a tradition that he followed every year. On my birthday, usually early in the morning (my Dad was always an “early riser”), the phone would ring and I would answer. Dad would be on the other end and, without saying “hello,” or “good morning,” or anything, would immediately launch into song:

In the boarding house I live in, Everything was growing old;
Silver threads among the butter, And the cheese was green with mold.”

I had never heard that song other than from my dad. I had know idea how he knew it, and I still don’t. After he died I looked it up on the internet and discovered that it is an Irish folk tune titled “Mrs. Crandall’s Boarding House.” My dad had a wide variety of musical tastes, but I don’t ever remember him being into Irish folk music. Weird.

But somehow or somewhere he not only heard that song, he also memorized the lyrics and the melody. And every year, early in the morning on September 3, he would sing it to me and wish me a happy birthday.

I miss my dad. He died Feb. 17, 2018, but I still mourn for him. I still miss him. It still hurts. I think it always will.

Today I want to explore the topic of grief and mourning as we continue our journey through the beatitudes by looking at the second beatitude that Jesus gave: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

As we discussed last week, the term “beatitude” comes from the Latin word for “blessed,” “happy,” or even “rich.” Found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, the beatitudes are a group of teachings that Jesus told his followers. Last week we explored what it means to be “poor in spirit,” and this week we turn our attention to “those who mourn.”

Like most of the beatitudes the words of Jesus seem to be opposite of what we expect. How in the world can someone be blessed, happy, or even rich when they mourn? It doesn’t seem to make sense.

But in the upside down and backwards world of being a follower of Christ we find it to be the case.

To mourn means to have sorrow or hurt for the loss of someone or something. Mourning is one of the emotions we have as humans, and unless you are very young, everyone experiences it.

Let’s be honest here: mourning is not a pleasant experience. It hurts, not physically, but emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically.

As a pastor not only do I mourn personally, but I also have a front row seat to witnessing mourning pretty regularly. As I look out over your faces I see so many of you who have lost loved ones and who have mourned and are still mourning. As a pastor it’s challenging to mourn with you and yet not mourn to the point where I am incapable of doing ministry. And I can assure you, that is a difficult thing to do.

Why is mourning so painful? I believe the answer to that question is love. It sounds weird, but hear me out. We mourn because we love.

Think about it. When someone passes away we miss them because we love them. If we didn’t love anyone, we would never mourn. Someone could pass away and, because we didn’t love, our response would be something like, “So what”?

So our grief, our mourning, our sorrow, is proportionate to how much we love. If we love a lot, we mourn a lot. If we don’t love much (or, heaven forbid, none at all), then we don’t mourn much.

Mourning is painful. It really hurts. So why in the world does Jesus say, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”? That doesn’t seem to make sense.

I think it is because even in our grief, in those moments when we mourn so much that we have no more tears, when the pain seems unbearable, in those depths of darkness God provides us with a tiny sliver of light, a miniscule bit of comfort in our faith.

Now it may not be a whole bunch of comfort, but it is just enough to remind us of the hope we have through our faith in Jesus Christ.

In 1961 a book was published titled A Grief Observed. To me it is one of the best books on grief and I highly recommend it. The author was listed as N.W. Clerk, and the book chronicled his struggle through the illness and death of his wife to cancer.

What wasn’t known at the time was that N.W. Clerk was a pseudonym. The book was actually written by C.S. Lewis, who is famous even in our time for writing The Chronicles of Narnia.

C.S. married Helen Joy Davidman when he was in his 60s and she was in her 40s. At first they married so that Joy, who was American, could stay in England. Though they were friends, it was a marriage for immigration purposes. They even lived in separate houses. But then in 1957 came Joy’s diagnosis of cancer. C.S. and Joy were married in the hospital, and began living as man and wife.

Joy’s cancer went into remission, and the two passionately fell in love. For three joyful, wonderful years they lived life to the fullest with each other. And then suddenly Joy’s cancer returned and this time the doctors couldn’t stop it. She died in 1960.

In his grief, Lewis wrote this: “The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.”

In another book, titled The Problem of Pain, he points out the important role that faith plays in pain. I believe it is applicable to mourning as well.

“…when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.”

The reason “the least tincture of the love of God” helps is because it is in our pain, in our mourning, that we realize our need for God. Similar to being poor in spirit like we talked about last week, grief can bring us to our knees and to the point where we realize that we can’t do this on our own, but that we need God. We need a savior.

Now it’s important to remember that our savior, Jesus, knows about the pain of grief. He knows how much it hurts to mourn.

In the 11th chapter of John we find Jesus being told that his good friend Lazarus became ill and died. The Bible records Jesus’ response as the shortest verse in the Bible, consisting of only two words: “Jesus wept.”

Although that verse is only two words, they are very important words. Jesus responded that way all of us respond to grief: he cried.

Jesus was/is fully God and fully human. This means he has experienced all the emotions that we ourselves experience, including grief.

God is not some existentially-distanced deity observing humanity from afar, but through Jesus Christ God himself came to earth, walked among us, and experienced everything we experience, including every emotion. Jesus was like us. Jesus wept, because Jesus grieved. Jesus mourned.

And yet Jesus tells us that we are blessed when we mourn because we will be comforted. How can that be true?

I think one way we can find comfort is in the scriptures. It is through the words of God revealed in scripture that we realize that while death may separate us from our loved ones, for those that believe in Jesus Christ that separation is only temporary.

Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection not only provides a way for our sins to be forgiven and for us to be reconciled to God, but it provides victory over death itself.

Too often we quote John 3:16 without realizing the full extent of the meaning of the words. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Now this doesn’t mean that we won’t mourn at all. And it doesn’t mean that it will make the pain go away. But these words do give us hope for the future, knowing that no matter what happens in this world, even when those we love die, we can be comforted by knowing that death is not the end.

The Apostle Paul writes in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:38-39

Jesus is our comfort when we mourn. We are comforted not by what we ourselves can do, but what Jesus has already done for us. Jesus has defeated death.

So my challenge for you is to remember that Jesus promised that when we mourn we will be comforted. We will still hurt, we will still feel the pain of loss, but within that pain and hurt will be hope. We will still miss our loved ones, but we know that one day we will be reunited with those in a place where there is no more pain and no more sorrow.

And when that happens for me personally, I intend to ask my dad where he learned that silly Irish folk song.

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

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

The Beatitudes: the Poor in Spirit
A Message on Matthew 5:1-3
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 9, 2022
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Matthew 5:1-3 (NRSV)

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

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Today we are beginning a sermon series that will take us up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. This series will be on some teachings from Jesus that are called “The Beatitudes.”

The term “beatitude” comes from a Latin word, beati, which is the first word in the series of teachings. The word means “blessed,” “happy,” or even “rich.” And because it is repeated so often, these teachings have become known as the “beatitudes.”

We find the beatitudes in the 5th chapter of Matthew as part of what is known as the “Sermon on the Mount.”

Today we will be looking at the first of the beatitudes and exploring what Jesus means when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Now one of the strange things about the beatitudes is just how upside down and backwards they seem to us. Jesus says that these things, which by the world’s terms are weaknesses, are actually blessings, or good things.

Today we are exploring the “poor in spirit,” but the others are those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.

So let’s start by figuring out just exactly what is meant by the poor in spirit.

Now on the surface we usually think of the word “poor” as someone who has very little or none. For example, we think in terms of money, that someone who is “poor” is someone who has no or very little money. And using that thought process we might be led to think that someone who is “poor in spirit” is someone who has little–or no–faith.

But I don’t think that’s what it means here. And after doing a little research I discovered that I’m not the only one that believes that.

To be “poor in spirit” means to have an utter, complete reliance on God, to know that we are sinners unable to save ourselves. It is the acknowledgement that we need a savior.

One of the best examples of this, in my opinion, is found in the 18th chapter of Luke where Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (also called the publican).

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14

I think this is a great illustration of the poor in spirit. The Pharisees were the religious leaders of the day and at the top of the Jewish social order. They lived in the best houses, wore the nicest clothes, and ate the best food. When they walked down the street people would move aside to make way for them. They were the celebrities of the day. They were somebody, and they wanted everyone to know it.

Then you have the tax collector. These were usually Jewish people who worked for the occupying Roman forces to collect taxes for the Romans. The Jewish people viewed them as traitors for working for the Romans. They also were viewed in a very negative light because they were known for charging the Jewish people more than the Romans required, keeping the extra for themselves. So they were crooks and thieves as well.

And yet in the parable Jesus paints the Pharisee in a very negative light, but the tax collector he paints in a very positive light. This is the complete opposite of how most of society viewed them at the time. And why does Jesus do this?

It’s because of their hearts.

The Pharisee was smug in his spirituality and considered himself to be above others. He considered himself more religious and therefore more righteous than others. His heart was smug and full of himself.

The tax collector’s heart, however, was what I think of to be “poor in spirit.” He earnestly, honestly, humbly repented of his sins, saying “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

I have been re-reading The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a really, really wonderful and insightful book, written by the great German theologian that opposed Adolf Hitler and paid for it with his life. (I highly recommend you read it.)

Bonhoeffer, in a chapter titled, “The Hidden Righteousness,” discusses the danger of being religious in order to impress others. We are to live our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ in ways that are visible to the world, but if we do it for the purpose of being visible then we are no longer righteous.

“We are therefore confronted with a paradox” Bonhoeffer writes. “Our activity must be visible, but never be done for the sake of making it visible.”

He goes on to point out, “We have to take heed that we do not take heed of our own righteousness. Otherwise the ‘extraordinary’ which we achieve will not be that which comes from following Christ, but that which springs from our own will and desire.”

I am also currently reading Jesus the Stranger by Kenneth J. Collins, and he also points out the danger of having pride in our religiosity. “Indeed, the forces of self-love are so strong that even taking up a cross can be filled with a self-preoccupation (‘See what a good disciple I am! Oh, how I have suffered!’) that can become morbid in its misdirection, in its turn toward self and negativity. This, too, must die.”

I think that’s the point Jesus is talking about when he refers to the “poor in spirit.”

I think it is a matter of perception and power. If we forget that grace is unmerited favor from God given to us out of love, we somehow convince ourselves that we have a quid pro quo with God and that we can earn our way to heaven. We view God as an old-time accountant sitting up in heaven with one of those green, transparent visors on, keeping track of the good things we do and the bad things we do, and when we die if the number of marks on the “good” side of the ledger are more than on the “bad” side we get to go to heaven. No. God doesn’t work that way.

I believe we like to think that way because that perception gives us power, power to think that we have the ability to work our way to heaven, developing a sorta-smug attitude that those who aren’t as religious as me aren’t going to make it. We turn religion into a competition and we want to win. We perceive ourselves as better than others who aren’t as religious, as having power over them.

What Jesus tells us in the first beatitude on the poor in spirit, though, blows all that out of the water. God has the power, we don’t. And when we recognize that, when we see that each person, regardless of class, wealth, power, or even religious standing is a sinner in need of grace, then we are poor in spirit.

So my challenge for you today is to be poor in spirit. Now by that I don’t mean not practicing the spiritual disciplines of daily Bible reading, prayer, sacrificial giving, fasting, or any of those things. No. It is through practicing those that we come to a better understanding of our full and complete reliance on God, and actually become poor in spirit.

Jesus came to earth, walked among us, and taught us this through the first beatitude. And he believed it so much himself that he willingly went to the cross so that we can be reconciled with God, not through our own power but purely through the power of God’s love.

Be humble. Be poor in spirit. And if you do, yours is the kingdom of heaven.

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

Wise People Still Seek Him

Wise People Still Seek Him
A Message on Matthew 2:1-12
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 2, 2022
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

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Happy Epiphany! Well, it’s not quite yet Epiphany because that happens on this coming Thursday, Jan. 6, but we are going to jump the gun a little bit and celebrate today as Epiphany Sunday.

How many of your are familiar with the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? What you may not know is that the song means the days between Christmas Day and Epiphany, the 12 days after Christmas. So if you are keeping score today’s gift on the ninth day of Christmas the gift is nine ladies dancing. So now we are going to have nine ladies from our altar guild come forward and perform a liturgical dance to “We Three Kings.”

(Not really.)

Epiphany is the day that commemorates the wise men visiting the baby Jesus. We get the word from the Greek word that means manifestation or appearance.

Now there are some important things to note about Epiphany. One of the things that is important to know has to do with timing.

When we see manger scenes depicted at Christmas we often see three wise men depicted with Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and the common assortment of barn animals. Well it probably didn’t happen that way.

Most scholars believe the wise men didn’t arrive in Bethlehem until a couple of years after Jesus was born. The reason behind this belief is found in the scripture that we find later on in the second chapter of Matthew. It reads, “ When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.”

Because Herrod had put the age of 2-years-old and under for what became known as the “Massacre of the Infants” and based that age range on the time the wise men had appeared. So it is thought it could have been as long as two years after Jesus was born.

Another thing that we don’t know for sure is the number of wise men. Now we sing about three wise men and represent them in the manger scenes that way, but we really don’t know how many there were. We have assigned the number 3 to them based on the gifts brought to the Christ child: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Three gifts, three wise men.

But the Bible never really says how many they are. It’s doubtful that it was just three as they probably had an entire group of people that traveled with them. But the number three stuck, and that’s why we sing “We Three Kings.”

One more thing: the star over Bethlehem was probably a comet. Most comets appear in the eastern sky in the evenings and then each day appears to move toward the west. This correlates with the scripture we read today in verse 2 where the wise men say “we observed his star at its rising.”

Epiphany is important for more reasons other than the wise men’s visit. It is important because it is when God is revealed to the Gentiles. The wise men, coming from the East, were more than likely not Jewish. The scripture tells us they asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”

They wanted to pay him homage, which means to pay tribute to him. It does not mean worship. And yet these people who were Gentiles, which means not Jewish, show up to pay homage to the baby born king of the Jews.

This is deep with symbolism. Because Jesus, being the messiah, IS God, it means God is revealed to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews. This is huge. The Jewish people believed they were the chosen people of God, and basically they had an exclusive with God. By the wise men, Gentiles, showing up to pay homage to the messiah, the Gentiles experience a theophany, an experience where God appears to humans. (Think the burning bush with Moses.)

Here’s what I want you to remember today from the scripture we read: the wise men went to great lengths to see the baby born King of the Jews. We don’t know exactly how far they traveled, only that they came from the east. Some scholars believe it was Persia, while others think it could have been India or even China. So the distance could have been as long as 800 miles.

They left everything behind in order to seek out Jesus. They didn’t wait to hear from others but went on a physical and spiritual journey to find out more about the baby boy in Bethlehem.

We should do the same. There is a saying that “Wise men still seek him.” I think that is true in our world today that wise people still seek him.

So how can we do that? Well, we can travel to seek him. Travel to church every Sunday morning to attend Sunday School and worship. It’s not a very long trip for most of us. We will drive long distances for sporting events, concerts, and for vacations, and those are fine, but we also need to make those consistent short trips to worship Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior.

Another way we can seek him is through practicing the spiritual disciplines. Daily Bible readings, Bible study, prayer, fasting (check with your doctor first, though), giving of our time, talents, and money are all ways of seeking Jesus through the practice of spiritual disciplines.

And we can seek him through service to others. The best way for others to come to Jesus is to see us live our lives in such a way that others can see and say to themselves, “I want some of whatever they are having.”

Another way to seek Jesus is to pray the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer every day. I have us recite this prayer as a congregation each year on the first Sunday of the year to help us focus on the things that are truly important in the coming year. But it also makes a great prayer to recite daily.

I invite you now to stand as you are able and to recite this prayer together:

“I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.”

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote this prayer and I think it’s a great one to recite every day.

So my challenge for you today, on this first Sunday of 2022, is to be wise and seek Jesus. Wise people still seek him. Seek him daily in your life in what you read, what you hear, and especially in what you do.

Wise people still seek him.

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

Joseph: The Noblest of Men

Joseph

A Message on Matthew 1:18-25

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

Dec. 12, 2021

By Doug Wintermute

dwinterm@yahoo.com

Matthew 1:18-25 (NRSV)

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

    and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

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Today, the third Sunday of Advent, we are going to explore the true story of the birth of Jesus from the perspective of Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father.

Of the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, only two contain information on the birth of Jesus: Matthew and Luke. Of those two, Luke contains the most information on the birth of Jesus. Luke also focuses more on Mary, while Matthew gives us the most information about Joseph.

Today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel comes right after Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.

Matthew starts out with a genealogy list of names. He starts with Abraham, then goes all the way up to Joseph. Luke waits until his third chapter to give Jesus’ family tree, and when he does, he goes all the way back to Adam.

Andrew Peterson, one of my favorite Christian musicians, even wrote a song containing all the names that Matthew includes in his genealogical list. He titled it “Matthew Begats.” It really is a catchy tune. (I would get my guitar and sing some of it for you but I’ve been told some people don’t like it when I do that, so I won’t.)

The first verse is:

Abraham had Isaac

Isaac, he had Jacob

Jacob, he had Judah and his kin

Then Perez and Zerah

Came from Judah’s woman, Tamar

Perez, he brought Hezron up

And then came…

So why does Matthew start off with such an extensive genealogy of Jesus?

It’s because the prophets said that the messiah would come from the lineage of David. God promises David that if the Jewish people will obey his (God’s) laws, then a descendent of David will always sit on the throne as the leader of the people.

The prophets also predicted that the Messiah will be a descendent of the Davidic line. Isaiah 11:1 says, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” (Jesse was the father of David, by the way.)

Jeremiah also prophesied about the messiah’s lineage: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”  –  Jeremiah 23:5-6.

Matthew would have known this, and so he includes a genealogy of Jesus to start off his gospel.

But there was still one particular challenge that Matthew faced. Jesus’ biological father wasn’t Joseph. It was the Holy Spirit that “overshadowed” Mary (Luke 1:35), and Joseph had no relations with Mary until after she had Jesus. So how could Jesus be of the line of David if his father was the Holy Spirit?

Matthew answers this in this way: “… and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”  –  Matthew 1:16.

Or as Andrew Peterson wrote it:

“Now, listen very closely

I don’t want to sing this twice

Jacob was the father of Joseph

The husband of Mary

The mother of Christ”

Matthew points out that Joseph is the husband of Mary, but avoids the fact that he is not the father of Jesus. That puts Jesus in the bloodline of David while still emphasizing the divinity of Jesus. This is very important because Jesus is fully God while also fully human.

Matthew paints a positive picture of Joseph. In the scripture we read today we find that Joseph receives a surprise about the woman he is engaged to: she is with child. Joseph knows this shouldn’t be, that it isn’t his, and had to be upset about the situation.

The Jewish laws in this matter were in his favor, and even included the harshness of taking Mary in front of her father’s house and stoning her to death. But even though that was his legal right, Joseph doesn’t want that to happen.

Joseph was a man of compassion. Today’s scripture said he didn’t want “to expose her to public disgrace.” Instead he “planned to dismiss her quietly.” He was going to nullify the engagement, call off the wedding, and go on his way.

But then something supernatural happens: an angel appears to him in a dream and explains everything that was going on.

In his song “It Came to Pass,” Andrew Peterson succinctly describes it this way:

So it came to pass this man named Joe was with his fiance

Back when her pregnancy began to show he planned to go away

But it came to pass that in a dream an angel of the Lord

Said, “Joseph, don’t you be afraid to marry Mary for

The little baby in her womb it is the Holy Spirit’s work

You may have rеad the prophet said a virgin would give birth

Joseph awakes from the dream and does as the angel says. He is obedient to what God calls him to do. He takes Mary as his wife, even in light of the unusual circumstances, and becomes an integral figure in the birth of Christ.

As Andrew Peterson sums it up in “It Came to Pass”:

Yes, it came to pass that Joseph was the noblest of men

With a woman on a donkey on their way to Bethlehem

One of the things about Joseph that we can emulate today is the fact that he was okay being a supporting character instead of the main star. If the birth of Jesus was a movie, Joseph would not get top billing.

The focus on what was happening was on Jesus and also on Mary, but not on him. And he was okay with that.

Very rarely does God call us to have a starring role in what he calls us to do. Almost always the focus should be on Jesus and not ourselves. God calls us to have a supporting role, not the leading role.

I think one of the best things young people can be a part of in high school is band or choir. Being a part of those groups teaches a lot of great life lessons: how to work with others, self discipline, responsibility, and the importance of playing or singing your part, even if it isn’t the melody.

In music there are different parts. Not everyone plays or sings the same note at the same time. But it is these different notes that give a broadness to the music, that gives it depth, and make it pleasing to the ear.

Here’s a good illustration on the importance of a supporting role. (Introduce Mike and Alicia, playing oboe saxophone and oboe.) Now listen to this musical part. (One of them plays the harmony part, which will sound bad by itself.) Not too great, huh? Now let’s hear it again with the melody this time. (They play together).

See the difference?

Unfortunately the world we live in tries to convince each one of us that we are the most important and that we should sing our own melody and not harmony. The deceiver tells us that our song is the most important and that we should sing it out as loud as we can so that we can drown out the melodies that others are singing. The world tells us, “It’s all about me,” and the loudest voice wins.

But what if instead of singing our own melody we started singing harmony with others? What if we joined in the song sung by others and supported them in the song of their life? What beautiful music that would make!

And what if the song we joined others in was the song about Jesus, about his birth, life, death, and resurrection. It would be the ultimate song of love. And what an awesome thing to praise God with!

So my challenge to you today, this third Sunday of Advent, is to be like Joseph and be willing to play a supporting role as you follow God’s will. Christmas is not your birthday, but Jesus. May we be willing to sing wonderful harmonies to Jesus’ melody so that the world may come to know the love and grace of Jesus Christ. 

Yes, it came to pass that Joseph was the noblest of men

With a woman on a donkey on their way to Bethlehem

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

Jesus’ Birth Foretold

Jesus’ Birth Foretold
A Message on Luke 1:26-38
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Nov. 28, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Luke 1:26-38 (NRSV)

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

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Happy Liturgical New Year!

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, which means that today is the beginning of a new liturgical year in the church calendar.

Advent, like the season of Lent, is a season of preparation and expectation. Just as the season of Lent prepares our hearts and souls for the celebration of Easter, Advent prepares our hearts and souls for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, what we also call Christmas.

The word Advent, which comes from the Latin word adventus, which is that Latin translation of the Greek word parousia, which means “presence,” or “arrival.” And although it comes near the end of the calendar year, it begins the Christian year.

So Advent is the four Sundays leading up to Christmas day. As part of our Advent observance we have an Advent wreath with five candles on it. The Carroll family came and lit one of the three blue candles this morning. We will light one candle each week until we finally light the white candle in the middle, the Christ candle, on Christmas Eve. The one pink candle, which represents Jesus’ mother, Mary, we will light on the third Sunday in Advent.

Since we are starting this season of preparation today let’s look at some of the things that happened leading up to the birth of Jesus.

For centuries the Jewish people longed for the appearance of the Messiah. The prophets of old had foretold of the messiah’s coming. One of those, Jeremiah, we read today as our first reading.

Here it is again from The Message paraphrase: ‘Watch“ for this: The time is coming’—God’s Decree—‘when I will keep the promise I made to the families of Israel and Judah. When that time comes, I will make a fresh and true shoot sprout from the David-Tree. He will run this country honestly and fairly. He will set things right. That’s when Judah will be secure and Jerusalem live in safety. The motto for the city will be, “God Has Set Things Right for Us.” — Jeremiah 33:14-16

Depending on who you believe, there are about 300-some prophecies in the Old Testament that refer to the coming Messiah. The Jewish people experienced the oft repeated cycle of prosperity, turning away from God during that prosperity, being invaded and conquered by foreign forces, being led off into exile, and then repenting and turning back to God in exile. It was during the that last phase, when things were bad, that they put their hope in a messiah, one who would come and make everything right.

Jeremiah is one of those examples. The prophet Jeremiah lived during the years when the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem three times, destroying buildings, including the temple, killing people, and leading the survivors off into exile.

It was some tough times for the Jewish people. But Jeremiah gave them something they were in great need of: hope. The messiah is coming. “He will set things right. That’s when Judah will be secure and Jerusalem live in safety.”

Fast forward to the 1st Century and the Jewish people again found themselves in a troublesome situation. The Romans had invaded the land and had incorporated the Holy Land into the vast and powerful Roman Empire.

Not only were the Romans the occupying military force, but they also taxed the Jewish people. The Romans hired Jewish people to be tax collectors for them, and the Jewish people had a very, very negative opinion of the tax collectors. They were considered traitors for going to work for the Romans, and many of them were unethical by overcharging and collecting on taxes, keeping the overage for themselves.

The temple, destroyed by the Babylonians, had by this time been rebuilt and the Jewish people were allowed to worship there, but there were still strong tensions between the Jews and the Romans.

It was into this world that we are introduced to Mary as we read in today’s scripture. Mary is pledged to Joseph, which is kind of like a “money down” engagement in that Joseph had already paid the dowry, but they weren’t yet man and wife in that they had not… uh… well… you know.

In the midst of this the angel Gabriel shows up and tells Mary about what is going to happen.

Now let’s think about this for a while. Anytime an angel shows up it’s a strange, supernatural, and scary moment. Just about everywhere we find angels revealing themselves to humans in the scriptures the angels start off saying the same thing: “Do not be afraid.” And the reason they say that is because it is a frightening thing!

That is no exception here. Gabriel, the angel, shows up to talk to Mary, and of course she is scared. But Gabriel tells her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” So far so good, right?

But then he tells her something that is very, VERY unexpected: she is going to have a baby. And not just any baby. No. “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Wow. That’s quite a promise, isn’t it?

It is widely believed that Mary was young, perhaps as young as 14 or 15 years old. And although at the time Jewish girls didn’t go to school and study biology, she probably knew enough about the birds and the bees to understand the basics of procreation. So she pointed out to Gabriel what she saw as a fallacy in his logic. Biologically it wasn’t possible for her to be a mother. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

Gabriel has an answer: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

Now this puts Mary in quite a predicament. I think most of us would respond to this news by saying something like, “You gotta be kidding me.” Or “This is a joke. It’s gotta be a joke.” Or if you are younger, maybe “Is this one of those reaction videos for Tik Tok?”

Mary has to have a lot of questions in her mind just from what Gabriel has told her. So many questions. She could have just kept peppering Gabriel with all the questions she had, things like, “What’s this ‘overshadow’ mean? What about Joseph? What is his role in all of this? Who’s gonna tell him? And why me? Why not someone else, somebody more important?”

And while Mary may have had all these questions going on in her mind, she didn’t voice them. No. She responded to Gabriel with a simple statement: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Seventeen words. That was her response. But what a powerful, life-giving, life-altering 17 words they were.

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary didn’t know the details. She didn’t know just exactly how God was going to make these things happen, and she was okay with that. She had hope. She had faith. And she had a servant’s heart.

How would our world change if every Christian, every person who proclaims to be a follower of Jesus Christ, responded to God in that way? What if this Advent, as we prepare our hearts and anticipate celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, what if every Christian had the attitude of Mary: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

We don’t often associate servanthood with Christmas, but we really should. I think part of the reason we don’t is because Christmas has become so commercialized. So much attention focuses on presents, implying, or outright saying, that if you get that one special gift, or if you get that one special gift for someone on your list, then your life will be full and complete.

But it won’t. It can’t. As mathematician and theologian Blaise Paschal pointed out, humans have a God-shaped hole. We try to fill that hole so many earthly things, but the only thing that can make our lives full and complete is Jesus Christ.

As Christians, Advent is a great time for us to be like Mary and practice servanthood. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Let me tell you about a group of people here in this church that are living out their servant hearts this Advent. Our youth, under the wonderful leadership of Cassie Bingham and Patrick Foster, our youth again this year are focusing on making this world a better place.

They have been collecting change for several weeks now. Their goal is to collect $2,000 that they will then use to buy for 10 children on the Angel Tree at our local Walmart. (They will actually raise more than that, which will be given to the organization.)

Our youth will actually go to Walmart and shop for those kids. They will pick out the presents, calculate the costs to make sure $200 is spent on each child, and then bring them back to the church and wrap them. The wrapped presents will then be delivered.

This has become a tradition with our youth as this is the fifth year they have done it. In the past four years they have bought for more than 38 children through the Angel Tree. It’s a great way to celebrate advent. And the youth really get excited about it.

I think this is a good example of the youth responding to God like Mary: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Let me tell you about an individual that exemplifies a servant’s heart. His name is Kirk Evatt, and he is married to Pam’s cousin, Betty. Kirk and Betty had two children, but when their daughter, Rachel, was 16 she was driving to a Christmas party at church and was in an automobile accident that took her life.

Betty and Kirk went through all the stages of grief. They could have become very bitter about things. They could have given up on God and been angry with him for letting their daughter die. But they didn’t.

Instead, the two of them kept on believing. And Kirk, specifically, developed a servant’s heart.

I know a lot of people, and Kirk has the biggest servant’s heart of anyone I know. If you visit him and Betty he will wait on you hand and foot. We were visiting there once and Emily left to go back to College Station. She stopped for gas a few miles away from Betty and Kirk’s house but couldn’t get the door to her gas cap open. Kirk dropped everything, drove to the station, and helped her get it open.

Kirk is just that way. You have to be careful about what you say around him, because if you mention something that you like, he will go to great lengths to get it for you.

Kirk epitomizes Mary’s words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

We find servanthood steeped in the traditions of Advent and Christmas. Santa Claus is based on the real life St. Nicholas, who lived in what is now the country of Turkey in the third century. Although he came from wealthy parents, he gave away pretty much everything he had. He was known to toss bags of gold through the windows of families who were very impoverished. Sometimes these bags would land in shoes or stockings hung by the window to dry, and from that we get not only the legend of Santa Claus but also stockings and gifts.

So yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

So my challenge to you as we start the season of Advent is to be like Mary. Have a servant’s heart as we prepare our hearts and anticipate the birth of Jesus Christ. May we have hope that God is in control and will work things out when we don’t know the details. May we always respond to God’s call on our lives with the response: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

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

Change: John

Change: John
A Message on John 19:25b-27
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Nov. 14, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

John 19:25b-27 (NRSV)

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

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As we continue our sermon series on Change today we take a closer look at John the Apostle.

Now there can be some confusion because the name John refers to several people in the New Testament. There is John the Baptist, an unorthodox man who lived in the desert and ate grasshoppers and wild honey, and who came proclaiming repentance and baptizing people.

The John we are talking about today is not that John. John the Baptist, if you remember, was beheaded by King Herod after his wife’s daughter asked for John’s head on a platter.

So we know John the Apostle is not John the Baptist. Two different people.

John the Apostle is one of Jesus’ disciples, a fisherman by trade before Jesus asks him and his brother James to learn how to fish for people.

John is considered to be the youngest of the disciples. And while we don’t have definitive historical documentation of the fate of all 12 disciples, it is believed that John was the only one of the 12 (or 13 if you count Judas) disciples to reach old age. The others were all martyred in various ways because of their faith.

John is credited with writing the Gospel of John, the epistles of John 1, 2, and 3, and maybe Revelation. Scholars don’t agree on whether John the Apostle is John of Patmos who wrote the book of Revelation while stranded on the island of Patmos.

Regardless, John is a very important person in the faith. He was called by Jesus, traveled with Jesus, and learned from him and saw his miracles. He was a first-hand eyewitness of the life and teachings of Jesus.

In our first reading today from the beginning of the epistle of 1 John, we find John telling his readers this: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…”

John was there. He heard Jesus speak, he saw Jesus perform miracles, he touched Jesus and those he healed. He is a reliable witness.

In the second scripture reading today from the Gospel of John we find John being an eyewitness to perhaps the most difficult event John ever experienced: the crucifixion of Jesus.

Jesus has been arrested, beaten, tried, and sentenced to death on a cross. The Roman soldiers dutifully carried out their orders and have nailed Jesus to the cross and are waiting for him to painfully die.

There are three women gathered there who are looking up at Jesus as this happens, and all three of them have the name Mary. There is Mary, the mother of Jesus. There is another Mary, who is her sister (I know, I know, two sisters with the same name, but it happened…), known as Mary, the wife of Clopas (who we really don’t know much about but who is believed to be a follower of Jesus), and Mary Magdalene, which means her name is Mary and she came from the town of Magdala, a city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.

There is another person with the three Marys. He is not mentioned by name, but only by the cryptic description of “the disciple whom he [Jesus] loved.” We find that phrase used six times in the New Testament, and all of them are in the gospel of John.

There is debate over which one of the disciples this refers to. Historically it has been believed that it referred to John, the person who wrote it. Personally, that’s what I believe. But why didn’t John just use his name instead of the phrase, “the disciple whom he loved”?

My theory is he did it because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself and away from Jesus. He wanted to keep the focus on Jesus, not on himself. I think he did it as an act of humbleness.

So John is at the foot of the cross with the three Marys. This brings up the question, “Where are all the other disciples?”

The Bible doesn’t tell us, but I believe they were in hiding. And while I would like to believe that if I was in their position I wouldn’t do that, the reality is I probably would. They believed Jesus was the Son of God, the messiah, and they probably had a hard time wrapping their minds around the fact that Jesus was arrested, beaten, and crucified. And they were worried that as the followers of Jesus, the same thing might happen to them.

But the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” John, took the risk and was at the foot of the cross.

Jesus sees him there with his mother and tells his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” He then looks at John and says, “Here is your mother.”

Now it’s easy to overlook the significance of these two small sentences, but they are very important.

We have to remember that back in those days there were no programs or social agencies to take care of widows or those in need. That responsibility fell to the family members. That’s why it was so important for couples to have children back in that day. The adult children were expected to take care of their aging parents, and if the couple didn’t have any children, they were in a very tough spot.

After family, the religious institutions took on the responsibility of taking care of the elderly and widows. Both the Jewish faith and the followers of Christ emphasized taking care of the widows and orphans, simply because no one else did.

What Jesus says to his mother and John from the cross indicates to me that he knew he was dying. He knew he would not be able to take care of his mother. So he places that responsibility on John, charging him with doing so.

To me this is one of the most beautiful expressions that Jesus makes. Take care of each other. Blood doesn’t make family, but love does.

John experienced a lot of change in his life. He went from being a fisherman to being a follower of Jesus Christ and fishing for people. He witnessed some great, extraordinary things.

And then it all seemingly fell apart. Jesus is arrested, beaten, sentenced to death by crucifixion, and nailed to a cross to die. John had to be confused, angry, scared, and perplexed by the situation.

And then Jesus asks John to take care of Mary, Jesus’ mother. It was an honor, but also a burden. It was a heavy responsibility.

When we experience change in our lives we can also go through a range of emotions. We can become confused, angry, scared, and perplexed. And yet we can take comfort in the midst of all of that knowing that God is with us, and if we focus on taking care of each other.

If we back up to the 13th chapter of the Gospel of John we find Jesus preparing his disciples for what is going to happen. After the last supper, after he washes the disciples’ feet (including Judas’!), they go out into the night. Jesus gives them final instructions and teaching before he is arrested.

One of the things he tells them is to love one another. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35

We live in an increasingly anxious world. We have become a world that has become so divided, so angry, that on certain topics people no longer disagree with respect but yell, scream, and bash anyone that doesn’t believe the same as they do.

While the numbers are currently going down (thank God!) the COVID virus still creates anxiety in our world. Will there be another variant? Should children be vaccinated? Should vaccines be mandated?

There are problems in the supply chain for the things we buy. A shortage of computer chips is causing lots of problems, ships sitting in the ocean off the coast of California can’t unload for various reasons.

Inflation keeps going up, businesses are having great difficulty getting employees to work, a gallon of gas is now right at $3 a gallon, and there is expected to be spikes in energy prices this winter.

And yet in the midst of all this “gloom and doom” Jesus calls us to love one another. “Woman, here is your son.” “Here is your mother.” “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Love is the most powerful force in the universe. 1 John 4:8 tells us that “God is love.” Jesus accepted death on the cross because of his love for us, and God allowed it to happen because of his love for us.

Love is powerful. And to quote that old song, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”

Yes, as Christians we are experiencing a great deal of change in our lives now. But as followers of Jesus Christ we are to follow his command to love one another. We are to be a bright light in a world that seems to be becoming increasingly dark. We are to be joyful even when things look bad. Not in a fake way, but in a sincere way.

Back before we went into the ministry we bought a house in Kilgore. We loved that house. One of the reasons we loved it was because of our neighbor, Alta.

Alta was in her upper 80s when we moved in, and she was a hoot. Her husband had died years earlier and they had no children. The couple we had bought the house from had kind of “adopted” her as a grandmother.

For example, Alta had a washing machine but not a dryer. She was old school and dried her clothes on a clothesline (which I like to call a “passive solar evaporative clothes drying device”). The couple we bought the house from would let her come over and use their dryer to dry her clothes when the weather kept her from using her clothes line.

Soon after we moved in we looked up one day and Alta was walking through our house with a basket of wet laundry. Come to find out she had a key to the house. She asked, “Is it okay if I use your dryer?” Well, what are we going to say, right?

Our oldest daughter, Sarah, was about 3 years old when we moved in next to Alta. Sarah had trouble saying Alta’s name, and said “Alva” instead. One day I made the mistaking of correcting Sarah in front of Alta. Alta turned to me and said, “You leave her alone. She can call me whatever she likes.”

One day Sarah woke up and couldn’t find Pam. I was at work, and Pam was in the shower, but for some reason Sarah didn’t look there. She got scared and thought we had gone off and left her (that’s the way 3-year-old minds work, you know) so she opened the door, ran outside, and ran over to Alta’s house and started banging on the door.

Alta came to her door to find a crying 3-year-old saying that her momma had left her all alone. Alta assured her that was not the case, took her by the hand, and walked her back over to our house.

Pam gets out of the shower looks and there is Alta and Sarah in the bathroom with her. Alta explained what had happened, and the both of them explained to Sarah that she had not been abandoned.

Alta was not related to us. She didn’t even have kids of her own, much less grandkids. And yet she loved us as if we were her own family. She would bake cakes and bring them to us. She would give us fresh peas in the summer, or peaches, or whatever was in season. She checked on us, visited with us, and I know prayed for us. In short she loved us. And we loved her.

“Here is your son.” “Here is your mother.” “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

So my challenge to you today is to be like John. Love one another. Take care of one another. Knock down the walls that separate us that are put there by society and love extravagantly those on the other side. Go so far as to do what Jesus asks us to do and love even our enemies.

Love is the most powerful force in the universe, because God is love. God loves us. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8. Therefore let us draw near to the cross of Jesus and love one another, showing the world just how powerful the love of Jesus Christ is.

Let us be like Alta, and let us be like Jesus.

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