Wesley Covenant Prayer: Treasure

Chris Clayton (left), my wife Pam’s sister, and James Donham, their father.

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: “Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing.”
A Message on Matthew 6:19-21
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 31, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

Matthew 6:19-21 (NRSV)

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

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Today we are going to be talking about treasures as we continue our sermon series based on the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer. But first, I’d like to do what we have every Sunday of this sermon series (except the one Sunday that I forgot), and that is to stand (if you are able to) and let’s 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.

The verse of that prayer that we will be exploring today is “Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing.”

The scripture we will be using to guide us is from the sixth chapter of Matthew where Jesus tells his disciples–and us–that where our treasures are so are our hearts. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Now the word “treasure” is an interesting one in our language today. On Wednesday during Mini Methodist Bible study I asked the kids to describe treasure. One of them said “You know, that kind of money that is round and made out of metal.” “Coins?” I asked. “Yeah! Coins!”

Another said gold, one said a video game console, one said parents, one said family, and several said Jesus and “God.” (Which many of them think is the answer to any question I ask, and hey, a lot of times they are right.)

Of course they also brought up pirates, right? Pirates look for buried treasure. By the way, a pirate’s favorite letter isn’t “Arrrrrrrrrrr.” Nope. I looked it up. It’s X. That’s because X marks the spot of the buried treasure.

And algebra teachers are actually pirates. Yep. They always have you looking for X but it’s only because they are pirates and want you to lead them to the buried treasure. (By the way, they never found it by my work…)

Treasures. We have treasures today. It may be a house or houses. It may be automobiles. It may be a status or position. It may be money. It may be jewelry. It may be fame. It may be physical beauty. And it may actually be that money that is made out of metal. You get the idea.

As humans it’s easy to get caught up in a quest for treasures. Just as years ago pirates traveled great lengths and took great risks in their quest for treasure, today it’s easy for us to get caught up in a quest for treasures, isn’t it?

And yet we are reminded by scripture, and my John Wesley’s prayer, that maybe we are looking for treasure in all the wrong places. “Let me have all things, let me have nothing.”

To truly pray this part of Wesley’s prayer takes a lot of courage. I think one of the reasons for that is that as humans we have a passion for “things.”

This past week Pam’s sister, Chris, and her dad, James, came to Jacksonville and visited with us. Chris made it her quest this week to help us clean out our garage so that we can actually park cars in them. (Shocking, I know.)

You see the problem is that I am a pack rat. And Pam is a pack rat (although not as bad as I am). So between the two of us we find it hard to get rid of things. So we tend to just put them in the garage and… well… forget about them.

The result was a huge mess in our garage as things just stacked up and stacked up out there. If we bought something that came in a box, chances are we still had that box… in the garage. I am pretty good at rationalizing that behavior, too. Here’s how I do it: “If that item broke or quit working, we might have to return it, and they might not let us exchange it or give us our money back if it’s not in the original box, right? So just in case we better keep that cardboard box… for like… I dunno… six years or more.” Sigh…

Chris was truly heroic as she and Pam sorted and cleaned an unbelievable amount of “stuff.” They got rid of so many “things,” including an embarrassing amount of cardboard boxes, packing materials, and just plain ol’ junk.

Pam and my quest for “things” resulted in a garage so cluttered that we couldn’t even use the garage to protect some of the most materially valuable things that we own: our automobiles. Yep. Our cars (which are certainly not expensive but rank close to the top of the list of things we have of monetary value) sat out in the weather. Ironically just a few feet away in the dry protection of the garage sat “things” (mostly junk) protected by enough empty cardboard boxes to absorb the kinetic energy of the impact of a fast-moving, heavily-loaded freight train.

I think that as humans we can fall into a similar trap with our priorities. We give priority to things of the earth that never seem to fully satisfy us. Oh they may for a while, but before long something else comes along that seems to be newer and better and so we put the old thing into the garage of our heart along with all the packaging that came with it. And before long we have so many earthly “things” in our heart that they clutter and junk it up, forcing us to keep the truly important things, the things that last forever, outside in the weather.

This isn’t a new problem, either. In the first Century Jesus cautioned people against placing too much importance in the things of this world. Even though the people then lived much more of a subsistent existence than most of us do now, there was still a temptation to place the things of the world over the things of heaven.

Here is The Message paraphrase of the scripture we read today from Matthew’s gospel: “Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

Next door to the west of here at Autry’s Funeral Home they have a real nice hearse. And if you examine it closely you will see that there are no luggage racks on top of it. There’s not a trailer hitch on the back of it, either. The old saying is true, “You can’t take it with you when you go.”

The apostle Paul knew what it was like to have lots of earthly “things” and what it was like to not have those things. In Philippians he writes, “…for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:11b-13

Jesus knew the temptation of the world. Remember how he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness? He knows the power of worldly temptations. And he knows that those temptations can be overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit. (He quoted three different scriptures from the book of Deuteronomy to the devil during the temptation.)

John Wesley also was tempted by the world. He became relatively wealthy in his lifetime, mainly from the sale of his books, so like Paul he knew what it was to have plenty. And also like Paul, he knew what it was like to have little. Wesley was so self disciplined (and an argument can be made for being so spiritually disciplined) that he pretty much gave away all that he earned. (I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a garage full of “things.”)

What Wesley did teach was to earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. We like the first one, earning all your can; we do so-so with regards to saving all we can, and most of us are reticent and reluctant to do the last of those three: give all we can.

At the heart of it all is the… well… heart. Jesus tells us “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Of course he’s not talking about our physical heart, but instead is referring to our attitude toward those things that we value as important. Whatever we view as “treasure,” then that’s where our heart, our desire, our belonging (and I believe in some ways our souls as well), will be as well.

Now there is an important caveat to this. Things in themselves are not what we are talking about. Having nice things is not what we are talking about. It is about our desire for things, what priority the pursuit of earthly things has in our lives.

It’s okay to have nice things. It’s okay to have a nice house, a nice car, nice jewelry, or a nice bass boat. But if those things dominate our thinking and we become almost obsessed with them, if those things are at the top of our priority list, then that’s where we have a problem. It becomes idolatry, which as you probably know, is one of those Big 10 sins.

“Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.”

Wesley’s point is that regardless of how many or how few earthly possessions we might have, we should put serving Jesus Christ at the top of our priority list. We should love Jesus and serve him the same if we are flat broke and have nothing, or if we are extremely wealthy and have many things. Our attitude about Jesus Christ should be the same.

Jesus, who was/is God and put on flesh and dwelled on earth among us. This one, the Messiah, God’s only son, who never sinned, went to the cross and died so that we, the sinful ones, could be forgiven and reconciled to God.

What were Jesus’ treasures? Nothing earthly. The scriptures don’t tell us of any possessions he owned other than the clothes he wore. He didn’t have a house, didn’t own livestock, had just enough money to pay his taxes (remember Peter finding a coin in a fish’s mouth?), and walked everywhere he went. His treasure was not on the things of this earth, but of things in heaven. We should be like Jesus.

So my challenge to you today is to metaphorically clean the clutter out of your soul. If Jesus is not the top priority in your life then get rid of the stuff that is getting in the way of making that happen. Be more focused on the things of eternity: loving God and loving others, than on the things of this world. As it says in 1 John 2:17, “And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.”

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

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: Work

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: “Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee…”
A Message on John 6:22-27
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 24, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

John 6:22-27 (NRSV)

The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23 Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

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As we continue our sermon series on the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer I want to begin today by doing something that I forgot to do this past week, and that is to say the 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.

Now to understand today’s scripture from John’s gospel better we need to explore the backstory a little bit.

Back at the beginning of chapter 6 in John’s Gospel we have Jesus feeding the 5,000 with five barley loaves and two fish, donated by a young boy. (Kind of the original Hello Fresh.) The people were there because of Jesus. As he traveled around doing miracles and teaching he drew quite a following. No matter where he went, crowds followed him.

For the human side of Jesus, it must have been overwhelming. We read in verse 15, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”

He did this often, just to get away from it all and pray to God. This time when he went up the mountain the disciples didn’t follow. They got in a boat that night and started rowing to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Tiberias). After three or four miles a storm blows up and the waves get huge. This is when Jesus comes to them walking on the water, freaking them out. And as soon as he got into the boat the wind and waves calm down and they arrived at their destination.

So now Jesus and the disciples are on the northwest shore of the sea. You would think that they wouldn’t have to worry about crowds anymore, but that’s not the case. As we read in the scripture today the people find some boats and follow Jesus across the sea so that they continue to follow him.

So even though he crossed the sea he finds himself being followed by crowds once again. That’s when Jesus gives them a lesson about the important things in life, and he uses bread as a metaphor. Here is how The Message paraphrases Jesus’ words: “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free. Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.” John 6:26-27

Jesus is using bread as a metaphor, which I think is brilliant.

I love bread, especially homemade bread. Mmmmmm, there’s nothing better to eat than the crispy heel of still-warm fresh baked bread with a little butter spread on it. Oh my, it tastes so good!

But bread doesn’t stick with you long, does it? You can eat bread until you are stuffed and then not too long afterwards you find yourself hungry again. The people following him are the same people who ate the bread he made at the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. And if Jesus made the bread, can you imagine how good it must have tasted? Oh man!

So they are showing up and hoping for a second course of some tasty bread, but Jesus, knowing why they are there, turns it into a learning moment,

Earthly bread lasts only a little while. You eat it and it’s gone. Then you have to get some more. But the bread of heaven…

Jesus tells them that instead of putting their efforts into things that are temporary they should be focusing more on the things that are eternal. And in addition to bread, he uses another metaphor: work.

Now some translations say labor, but the meaning is the same. Don’t work for temporary things, work for eternal things.

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

And that’s where the line of the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer that we will be exploring today comes into play: “Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.”

Now there are two meanings to the scripture and the line of the prayer when it comes to “work” or ‘employed.” The first is the literal meaning. Most of us have jobs, employment, occupations.

If you are young and still in school your occupation, your job, is to learn, to become educated.

For older folks it’s how we make a living. We perform a particular skill or ability and in return receive remuneration for it; we get paid, in other words.

If you are a cook at Dairy Queen, for example, your skill is to prepare and cook food to eat. You have the skill and ability to determine how long to leave a hamburger patty on the grill. If you leave it on too long it will be burned and not taste good, and if you take it off too soon it might still be raw inside, and that’s not a good thing. And in return for your services in cooking you get a paycheck from the owner of the restaurant.

That’s the first meaning, the literal meaning. The second meaning is metaphorical. What work are you doing for the kingdom of God? As a follower of Christ, how are you working for the bread of eternity, to make disciples (the mandate given by Jesus at the end of the Gospel of Matthew)?

Now many Christians separate those two things and think that their work, their occupation, has nothing to do with the work they do for the kingdom of God. I want to challenge that, however. I think that both meanings can “work” together to serve the greater good.

Back in the 1600s over in France there was a man that went by the name of Lawrence. He was known as Brother Lawrence because he worked as a lay worker in a Carmelite monastery in Paris, France.

He grew up in a poor family and when he got old enough he joined the army just so he could have something to eat and a place to stay. He fought during the 30-Years War, a bloody affair in central Europe, and was wounded, making him lame. After the war he worked for a while as a footman, but the horrors of war led him to revisit the religion of his upbringing.

At the age of 26 he entered the monastery as a lay member and was given the assignment of being a cook for the people living there. He served as a cook there until his war injury forced him to do something else, at which point he became a cobbler that made sandals for the monks.

Even though he was not one of the monks, he gained a reputation as someone who developed a very close relationship with God. He offered advice to others on how to do this, and eventually a big-wig in the Catholic church, Abbé Joseph de Beaufort, came and visited with him and wrote down those sayings in a book titled, The Practice of the Presence of God.

For example, Beaufort wrote, “The most excellent method [Brother Lawrence] had found for going to God was that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing men but purely for the love of God.”

Here’s another: “We ought not weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

Okay, let’s think about this. Here’s a guy working away in a kitchen in Paris, France. But unlike the movie Ratatouie, this kitchen isn’t in a fancy restaurant but a monastery. (For some reason I think of the movie “Nacho Libre” when I think of Brother Lawrence. “Can’t we ever have like a salad or something?”) I can just picture him there peeling potatoes or parsnips or whatever in a cold, damp kitchen, day after day after day. But instead of being dismayed and depressed by it, he is content and filled with a sense of well-being because he does his work while being present with the Lord.

Paul writes in Colossians, “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.” Colossians 3:23-24

We can learn from Paul, from Brother Lawrence, from John the Disciple, and from John Wesley: no matter what our “work” is here on earth, do it to the best of our ability as if we were doing it for God.

It doesn’t matter if we are the head of a Fortune 500 company or if we pick up cans on the side of the road, or even when we are unemployed (what Wesley calls, “laid aside”) when our hearts are set on God we serve the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is honor and dignity to be had in our work. Unfortunately we sometimes tend to look down on certain jobs and the people that do them. Take the people that pick up our trash and haul it off. It’s a hard job that they have to do in all kinds of weather. Can you imagine starting out before dawn on one of our cold winter days with a drizzly rain riding on the back of the truck out in the elements, stepping up and down off the platform at the back over and over again, emptying trash cans into the back of the truck? (Kind of like the original step aerobics.)

And there’s the messiness and the smell in addition to the physical exertion. And to top it off the job doesn’t pay very well, either, with very few paid holidays.

And yet, if those people didn’t do their jobs and pick up and properly dispose of our trash, can you imagine how our lives would change? Those workers are doing honest, honorable work, work that we ourselves don’t want to do. We should respect them for that.

You get the idea? No matter what we do, we can honor God by our labors. (With the exception of some illegal and immoral jobs that don’t count. If you are a human trafficker, for example, I don’t believe you can honor God by your labors.)

Remember Jesus’ words: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

Remember John Wesley’s words: “Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee…”

So my challenge for you this week is to be present with God while you work. As you work for the “bread” that you pay your bills, also be working for heavenly bread that never goes bad. Work with your best effort, as if working for the Lord instead of for others, and while doing so praise God for all his blessings and especially for his son Jesus Christ.

Remember that God’s son, Jesus Christ, worked as a carpenter and also for his heavenly father. We should also.

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

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: Suffering

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: “Put me to doing, put me to suffering.”
A Message on James 1:2-4
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 17, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

James 1:2-4 (NRSV)

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

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The book of James in the Bible can be a difficult book to read. It’s not necessarily because of big, sesquipedalian words or deep theological concepts, but because James doesn’t mess around with the information he wants to get across.

He just kind of hits you in the face with it. For example, he warns us that the tongue is like a fire, one that cannot be tamed, and that it is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8b). Gee, James. Tell us what you really think, would ya?

The scripture we read today from the first chapter of James, right at the beginning of the book, he does that as well. He says something that seems to be counterintuitive and… well… wrong.

“…whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy…”

I beg your pardon? Say what? Be joyful when we have trials? What kind of logic is that? It doesn’t make sense. When we’re having troubles, when we’re suffering, and we’re supposed to be joyful? You gotta be kidding…

And yet… that is what James is saying. Here’s The Message paraphrase: “Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.”

I think that the line of the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer that we are studying today, “Put me to doing, put me to suffering,” echoes what James is saying in his scriptures.

The apostle Paul, who became an expert on suffering after choosing to follow Jesus, tells us that “…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Romans 5:3b-5

King David, who was known as the man after God’s own heart, also went through periods of suffering (especially when King Saul was trying to kill him). David wrote in Psalm 34, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.”

Peter, the disciple also known as Simon, who Jesus told would become the rock that the church would be built upon, wrote “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” 1 Peter 5:10

Paul wrote this in the book we know as Philippians : “For he [God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…” Philippians 1:29

Back in 1940 C.S. Lewis wrote a book titled, The Problem with Pain. (I highly recommend it, by the way.) In it he talks about why he believes God allows humans to suffer. “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

I agree with him. I don’t believe God causes suffering, but I do believe he allows it. And I think that suffering is one way that God uses to get our attention.

When everything in our lives is going good, when we are healthy, have loving relationships, and maybe even have some money in the bank, then we tend to forget about God. He gets bumped down our priority list, pushed to the back of the cupboard and covered up with other things.

Oh, we still believe in God, but in the back of our minds we start to believe that we don’t need God. Things are going great, God. I got this.

But suffering refocuses us on God. We painfully come to the realization that we do, indeed, need God. Suffering moves God to the top of our priority list, moves him from the back of the cupboard to being out on the counter. Pain reminds that we are a broken people, that we aren’t as strong as we think we are, and that we need a savior. We need help.

Although thankfully it is rare, there is a medical condition that some people have that prevents them from feeling pain. Known as “Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (CIP),” or congenital analgesia, these people simply can’t feel pain. They can’t even describe it because they don’t feel it.

I have to admit that having such a condition sounds appealing at times, especially those times when we are hurting. But the reality is that CIP is life threatening. People die because of this.

For example, say a child has a cavity which causes a toothache. A normal child would feel the pain that creates and alert the parent, who would get the child to a dentist and have it taken care of. But if a child has CIP then he/she does not feel the pain and thus doesn’t know about the cavity. That cavity can get infected but again, not feeling pain, the child isn’t aware of it. And then that infection can spread to the point that it kills the child. Not a pretty picture.

I think that can be a good metaphor for our spiritual lives. If we don’t feel pain, if we don’t suffer, then we don’t turn to God.

Food tastes better when we’re hungry than when we’re full and not hungry, doesn’t it? A glass of ice water is much more refreshing when you are thirsty, isn’t it? A roaring fire in a fireplace feels much better when it’s cold outside, doesn’t it?

Suffering reminds us that we need a savior.

Now don’t misunderstand me and think that I am saying that suffering is a good thing. No. What I am saying is that because we live in a fallen world, each person will experience suffering in their life. Even Jesus tells us that “In this world you will have trouble.” My point is that when we as Christians do suffer, it is an opportunity for us to grow closer to God and to glorify God in our suffering.

“…whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy…”

“Put me to doing, put me to suffering.”

John Wesley knew about suffering. As a matter of fact, his best selling book, Primitive Physic, was a book of home remedies for various ailments.

But his lifestyle also included self discipline almost to the point of suffering. For example, he tried to eat no more than six ounces of meat per day. That’s not much. If you’ve ever been to a restaurant and ordered at 6-ounce steak, what they bring to you is not very much. And for Wesley, that was per DAY, not per meal.

He fasted twice a week. He took cold baths (and in England that meant REAL cold) not only because they were therapeutic but because he could give to the poor the money he would have spent on coal used to heat the water. He wore simple, plain clothing, didn’t believe in having lots of fancy furniture, and pretty much gave away all his money.

He got up at 4 a.m. every morning and went to bed at 9:30. He wrote letters, wrote sermons, had conversation with others, met with small groups, prayed, preached twice each day, read voraciously, and travelled a lot.

Many years ago Samuel J. Rogal wrote about Wesley’s daily activities and how much he traveled. It is estimated that between 1748 and 1790, John traveled a total of 225,000 miles and preached more than 40,000 sermons. Now 225,000 miles is a lot of miles, but when we remember that most of that was on horseback it makes it even more impressive. (I don’t think I would have wanted to buy a used horse off the man because the odds are that it would be pretty much worn out.)

Even in his 80s he kept a rigorous schedule, even though his body was starting to show the strain. He wrote in his journal, when he was close to being 87, a self-assessment of being “an old man, decayed head to foot. My eyes are dim; my right hand shakes much; my mouth is hot and dry every morning; I have a lingering fever almost every day; my motion is weak and slow. However, blessed by God, I do not slack my labour. I can preach and write still.”

Many of the places where Wesley preached he caused so much anger towards him that he was forbidden from preaching there again. Mobs ran him out of many of the places he preached and tried to cause him physical harm.

He had failed relationships with women and also marriage, with he and his wife never divorcing but living separately from each other.

And yet as part of his covenant prayer, he wrote, “Put me to doing, put me to suffering.”

Are you willing to suffer for Christ? Are you willing to continue to proclaim God’s glory when your life is falling apart around you, or you are seriously ill, or emotionally spent? When you are suffering or having a hard time, are you willing to “consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing”?

That is my challenge to you this week. Praise God in your sufferings. In this world we will have trouble. Jesus tells us that. But the troubles don’t have to win. Endure hardships with optimism, knowing that Jesus died for our sins and that no matter what this world throws at us, as believers in Christ and children of God we are promised that something better is coming.

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

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: Acts 15:36-40

Paul and Barnabas at Lystra on their 1st missionary journey—Jacob Jordaens, 1593-1678

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer
A Message on Acts 15:36-40
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 10, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

Acts 15:36-40 (NRSV)

After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. 39 The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. 40 But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord.

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To start off with today let us come together and say the Wesleyan Covenant 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.”

Today we continue our sermon series on the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer by exploring the second line of the prayer, “Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.” Or, to phrase it in modern English, “Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.”

My version is something like, “Give me the work that you want me to do, and connect me with the people you want me to work with.”

Now this can be an uncomfortable prayer if you pray it earnestly, which I hope you do. I have often said that it is very, very rare for God to lead us to the easy places. I think there is a reason for that, too. We don’t spiritually grow in the easy places. It’s only in those difficult, uncomfortable situations, those places that really stretch our faith, that we spiritually grow.

I’m not sure where it came from, but there seems to be a myth that if we follow Jesus, if we are nice to others and obey the 10 commandments and stuff like that, then God will reward us by making our lives easier, more comfortable, and, if you believe in the “Prosperity Gospel” (and I pray that you don’t), financially blessed.

But that is a myth. God doesn’t work that way. And how do we know? Just look at Jesus’ followers in the Bible.

In the scripture we read today from the book of Acts we find Paul preparing to go on what is known as his second missionary journey. He had already completed one (called, of course, his first missionary journey) in which he went with Barnabas as well as John, also called Mark, which we call John Mark.

But while on this first missionary journey John Mark left Paul and Barnabas when they were in the area of Pamphylia and went back to Jerusalem. We don’t know why (although there is plenty of speculation), but John Mark left and went back to Jerusalem.

It is thought Paul’s first missionary journey lasted two to three years, the last part of it minus John Mark, then Paul and Barnabus returned to Jerusalem.

The scripture we read today happens after that as Paul is preparing for his second missionary journey. He wants Barnabas to go with him, and Barnabas is willing to, but he wants John Mark to go as well. And there’s the problem.

Paul doesn’t want John Mark going with them. In the scripture we read today from the NRSV translation we find that Paul feels that John Mark “deserted” them by leaving during their first journey. Other translations use words like “departed” and even “withdrawn.” John Mark left, and went back to Jerusalem.

Apparently Paul still has a problem with John Mark’s decision to leave them, and puts his foot down in spite of Barnabas’ pleas and refuses to let John Mark go on the trip. The scriptures tell us “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company.”

Wow! Okay, now let me get this straight. These are both followers of Jesus Christ, people who have traveled all over their known world starting churches and spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ and the power of his redeeming grace, and even performing miracles, and now they get into a tiff over who can come with them?

Yep, that’s the case. It gets to the point where Barnabas says, “Oh yeah? Well, if you are gonna be a stubborn-head and won’t let John Mark go then you go on your own, buddy. I’ll go with John Mark and we’ll do our own thing! So there!” (Or something similar to that, I imagine.)

It almost sounds like a couple of elementary kids arguing on the playground instead of the leaders of the Christian movement as it began.

So that’s what happens. They go their separate ways. Barnabas and John Mark get on a boat and travel northwest to the island of Cyprus, while and Paul, who chooses Silas to go with him, heads north overland to Syria and Cilicia, located in present day Turkey.

The good news is that they later reconciled, so they didn’t stay mad at each other the rest of their lives. (Again, kind of like elementary kids.)

Now I bring this scripture up today because it brings us back to the second line of the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: “Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.” Or my version, “Give me the work that you want me to do, and connect me with the people you want me to work with.”

Just as we have a false expectation of our lives being worry free after deciding to follow Jesus, I think that we also have an expectation that God will call us to work all by ourselves for his kingdom, or that if he does want us to work with others that those people will be just like us. And yes, that sometimes does happen, but my experience is more often than not God places people into our lives who we are to work with but that… well… we may not like them very well.

I thought about that this past week as I read about what was happening in our nation’s capital. (I refused to watch the national TV news. It offends my journalism degree.)

The two parties are supposed to work together to represent the American people, right? The Democrats and Republicans, even though they may disagree on many things, are supposed to work together and compromise with each other so that our country as a whole benefits, right? That isn’t happening and hasn’t happened in a while.

What if we as Christians behave in the same manner? Think God will be pleased? Hmmmmm. I think that answer would be “no.”

Back to the scripture we read today, it’s interesting that the writer of Acts, who we believe to be Luke, includes this disagreement in his writing. It’s almost like airing the apostles’ dirty laundry, isn’t it? Why not just skip it or edit it out?

Here’s what I think. I think the fact that the disagreement is included proves that it really happened.

Think about it: If you were going to make up a religion, if you were going to fictionalize a religion, everybody would agree with everything, right? You would only have one story line and everyone would agree with it. You wouldn’t have four different gospels that have differences between them, and you wouldn’t have the leaders of that religion disagreeing with each other.

But Luke does include this disagreement. And I think that proves that it is the truth, that it really happened.

So what can we learn from this? How can we apply this to our lives today?

I think it shows us that sometimes God may change the people he wants us to work with.

Years ago I was watching a broadcast on TV of a Madea play featuring Tyler Perry. In the play Madea was consoling a young man named Sonny whose girlfriend had broken up with him. Madea tells the young man that sometimes it’s best to let people go. He says, “Some people’ll come in your life for a lifetime, and some’ll come for a season. You got to know which is which.”

I remember when I heard that it really struck me as sort of profound. (You can tell I’m a deep thinker when the things I think are profound are things that Madea says.) And I still think there is a lot of truth in that.

I believe that sometimes God puts people in our lives for a lifetime, and sometimes it’s for a season. And we need to seek God’s guidance to discern which is which.

Paul and Barnabas were together for a season. They separated and Paul set out with Silas while Barnabas and John Mark go off together in a different direction. But by doing this, they double their efforts. Instead of two people going out, four people went out. The Good News was multiplied.

We are called to go out as well. Maybe not to Cyprus or Turkey (although you can never tell…), but we are all called to go out and make disciples of Jesus Christ. That goes for every Christian. Not just preachers, but every Christian. If we call ourselves Christians, then we are to share the Good News. No exceptions.

Wesley’s prayer asks God “place me with whom thou will.” Are you willing to pray that same prayer? Are you willing to be “placed” with whom God wants you to work with, even if it’s someone you may not like?

That’s my challenge to you this week. Be willing to let God place you with individuals to work together to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Whether it’s for a lifetime or a season, be willing to say, “Yes, Lord, send me.” Be willing to work with others for the Kingdom of God.

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

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: Galatians 2:20-21

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer
A Message on Galatians 2:20-21
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 3, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

Galatians 2:20-21 (NRSV)

…and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

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Today we are going to start the New Year with a new sermon series that is based on what is officially known as “A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition.” I like to just call it the “Wesleyan Covenant Prayer.”

If you have been here the first Sunday in January for the past six years you know that we always recite this covenant prayer during our worship service. It’s a great way to start the year by reaffirming our covenant with God.

Let’s go ahead and do that right now. Stand as you are able, and as we pray 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.”

Well this year I wanted to go further than just reciting the covenant prayer one time in one service. (After all, it should be something we live, not just recite.) So today and for the next six weeks we will be exploring this covenant prayer by having a sermon series that looks at the scriptures that form the foundation of this prayer.

So each week as we gather both in-person and online we will delve into one part of the prayer, dividing it into seven sections and looking at those sections each Sunday until Ash Wednesday when the season of Lent begins.

Scholars can’t agree on exactly where the prayer comes from. (But do scholars ever agree on anything? Right?) As its name implies it comes from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism who lived in England in the 1700s. The man himself attributed the English puritan Alleine as the source of inspiration for the prayer, but other people (mainly those pesky scholars) want to give credit to a German pietistic movement and even the “high church” tradition of the Church of England, of which Wesley was a priest.

The first documented printed version that we have is from 1780 when ol’ John published in a pamphlet titled, “Directions for Renewing our Covenant with God.”

Wesley wrote the prayer with the expectation that the people called Methodists would recite this prayer at the beginning of each year. It was designed as a New Year’s prayer, and as such, I think it’s spot on. And after the year we had in 2020, I think it becomes even more important. (And if you haven’t eaten your blackeyed peas for good luck this year, please do so as soon as we get through here! Apparently lots of people failed to do that this past year.)

Today we focus on the first line of Wesley’s prayer, “I am no longer my own, but thine.”

This is an important aspect of being a Christian. When we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior we rearrange our priorities. Instead of a worldly view where we put ourselves first, we put loving God and loving others first. We change our perspective. It is not only a spiritual shift, but an attitudinal one as well.

“I am no longer my own, but thine.”

In the scripture we read today from Galatians we find Paul emphasizing this point.

“and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

I like the way the late Eugene Peterson paraphrases the scripture we read today: “I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not ‘mine,’ but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.”

Wow. Did you catch that one sentence, “My ego is no longer central.” Ouch.

That’s completely opposite the teachings of the world, isn’t it? The world teaches us every day through advertisements and messages that we are the center of the universe and that everything should revolve around us. It’s all about self satisfaction and building up our ego as to how important we are. It’s all about “me.”

I have known many people that are like that, and you have too, I’m sure. It’s all about them. And yes, although it is painful to say, if we are honest there are people like that in this church.

It’s easy to fall into that kind of thinking though. Our world bombards us with advertisements that make us think that if we only had that product our lives would be so much better and we would find happiness and contentment.

And while there is nothing wrong with having things, including nice things, if we look to “things” for happiness and contentment we will always, always, be disappointed. It is a matter of priorities.

While I was working on this message I was receiving messages on Facebook messenger about some clergy friends who were very, very ill with COVID. As I checked these messages the Facebook page came up and this was one of the ads from Nikon.

The ad says, “Go ahead. You deserve it,” The ad was showing a new model of camera that Nikon has out. I clicked on it (after all, it said I deserved it…) and I will admit that it’s a pretty cool camera. (Can you say, “covet”?) And after searching the site I finally found, in very small print, the cost of the camera: $1,999.95. (Why don’t they just add a nickel and call it $2,000 even?)

So, for two grand I could get that camera and I would be the best photographer ever. It would be a big boost to my ego and I would feel so much better about myself and I would be completely happy. My wife would love me more and I’m sure it would even improve my looks.

Except that it won’t. That’s faulty thinking and bad psychology. And really bad theology.

The Bible tells us that if we want to feel good about ourselves the key is not focusing more on ourselves, but less on ourselves. Yep. We are to focus more on God and others. Less of “me,” and more of “thee.”

“…it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

That’s why Wesley starts off his prayer with “I am no longer my own, but thine.”

So my challenge to you today, this first Sunday of 2021, is to think less of yourself this year and more of others. Make a New Year’s resolution to focus on God and others and less on yourself. Remember Paul’s words, “…it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives.

Begin every day with the first line of the Wesleyan Covenant prayer: “I am no longer my own, but thine.”

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

Glory to God!

Glory to God!
A Message on Luke 2:8-20
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Dec. 27, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

Luke 2:8-20 (NRSV)

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

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How many of you are disappointed that Christmas is over? Raise your hand if you are disappointed because it’s 363 days until Christmas?

As a kid I remember experiencing the reality of a post-Christmas letdown. It wasn’t a sadness, but just missing the anticipation and excitement that I had been having for the last couple of months. Christmas day came, it was great, and then the day after Christmas, even though I had new toys to play with, there was kind of a void where that anticipation and excitement had been.

Well if you are kind of feeling that way I have good news for you: It’s still Christmas!

Yes, indeed! The church calendar lists this time as “Christmastide.” It’s a short season, only lasting until Epiphany on Jan. 6, but it’s an important season nonetheless!

You know the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? (I love Jeff Foxworthy’s Redneck version. “… and some parts to a Mustang GT.”) Well it is not about the 12 days before Christmas, but the 12 days after Christmas. Yes. So we are in Christmastide and can continue to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, Jesus.

The scripture we read today from the Gospel of Luke tells us of the first people to learn about the miraculous event that happened that we now call Christmas: the shepherds!

We have to remember that in the First Century the people had an agrarian based economy. People’s survival depended on the crops they grew and the livestock they raised. We also have to remember that barbed wire was still 1,867 years from being invented, so what very few fences they did have were made of rocks and maybe some timber.

If you raised livestock in those days you had many challenges. You had to find something for your livestock to eat. You couldn’t go to Attwoods and pick up some sacks of horse and mule feed (which I am convinced is where we get granola). Most of the livestock diet consisted of forage, of grasses and plants growing naturally that the animals could graze on.

We also have to remember they didn’t have mechanized farm machinery. If you wanted hay you had to cut it by hand with a scythe, bundle it and tie it together by hand, haul it to wherever you were going to store it, and then feed it to your livestock during the winter.

So the livestock were semi-free-range, and even in the winter time their survival depended on roaming the countryside and looking for forage for the animals to graze on.

While cattle were an important livestock for the people at the time (because they provided not only meat but also milk, leather, and were used as draft animals), sheep and goats were more important to the economy for several reasons.

First, they required less land to raise. On average, according to those who know such things, it takes one to two to 25 acres of land to raise a cow, while sheep and goats require only one-half an acre per animal.

One of the reasons for that is that they aren’t as picky eaters as cattle. Sheep, and especially goats, will eat almost any kind of plant that will grow. When they bite off the grass, they do so closer to the ground than cattle. (Fun fact: None of these three ruminants have any top front teeth to graze with. They only have bottom incisors. They have a tough pad on top that the teeth press against to bite grasses in two, but no top incisors like we do. If you want to play a practical joke on someone ask them to check a cow/sheep/goat’s top teeth. It’s great fun.)

And because there was no refrigeration back then, when an animal was slaughtered for food that meat had to be eaten before it went bad. There were a few forms of preservation, like drying the meat to make jerky or salting, but that was pretty much it. Sheep and goats, being much smaller, made more sense for a people without refrigeration.

I tell you all of this because I think it’s important background information to know about when we talk about the shepherds that the angel appears to on Christmas night.

The shepherds were out in the fields that night because, well, it’s what they normally did. At the end of the day they would gather the sheep up (sheep normally stay together anyway) and find a place to speed the night. It was usually on the top of a little hill for several reasons: 1. It provided better line of sight for the shepherds to watch out for nocturnal carnivores hoping to have a late-night snack of mutton. 2. In case such critters did show up, it was better to fight them with gravity on your side than having to fight them and gravity both. 3. In the winter time it would be a few degrees warmer than at the bottom of the hills since cold air sinks.

So in my mind these shepherds are on the top of a hill outside Bethlehem. One or more of them are awake and on watch against the aforementioned carnivores, and others would have been sleeping on the ground with their big cloaks over them, keeping them warm.

And then suddenly the darkness of the night is pierced by the blinding light of the angel showing up with the “glory of the Lord” shining all around them. The scriptures tell us, “And they were terrified.” Well, yeah! Who wouldn’t be!

Then the angel says what angels usually say when they appear before humans: “Do not be afraid.” Yeah, easy for you to say. Man, I’d be shaking so hard and be so scared I would pass out!

And then, as the shepherds quit freaking out and no longer feel like they are going to pass out, the angel tells them what is happening in Bethlehem.

This is how it is paraphrased in The Message translation: “I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”

Now for the shepherds those last two sentences would have seemed like an oxymoron, a phrase that contradicts itself. Being Jewish, they would have known the scriptures that prophesied about the messiah coming, but for the messiah to be a baby and, most shocking of all, to be lying in a manger!

Now we have romanticized the manger so much that we have forgotten what its primary purpose was. We see nice replicas in manger scenes and come to see it almost as a piece of furniture. But its real purpose was to hold hay or feed for livestock. That’s it.

To help us understand how the shepherds would have perceived it, let me add a little East Texas to it. “…you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a feed trough.” Not as romantic, huh?

The shepherds would have all known what a manger was, and how it was used. So for them to hear that the messiah, the hoped-for savior of the Jewish people, was a baby in a feed trough, it had to be confusing for them.

Now here’s what I think is an important aspect to the scripture we read today: The angel doesn’t tell them to go visit the baby Jesus. The angel tells them what had happened, and where Jesus was, but did not say, “Therefore, go with haste to see the babe.” Nope. The shepherds decided to go see Jesus on their own.

I think that’s a good metaphor for our understanding of evangelism. We can’t force someone to come to Jesus. We can, and should, tell them. We can, and should, share with them the difference Jesus has made in our lives. But we shouldn’t command them. We shouldn’t tell them, “You better find Jesus or you’re going to burn in hell.” No. Please don’t exclusively represent Jesus as fire insurance.

So the shepherds talk it over and decide to go to Bethlehem. So they do.

Now here’s something that my brain wonders about. Did they just leave all their sheep out there and go to Bethlehem? I guess they could have taken the sheep with them to Bethlehem, but I kinda doubt they did this. That would have been very difficult to do, especially in the dark.

I think they did something like leave the youngest or whoever was lowest on the shepherd pecking order behind to watch the sheep. They may have drawn straws to see who would stay behind to watch the sheep. We just don’t know.

But we do know that they went. They went and saw the baby Jesus.

Now it is also important what they did after finding baby Jesus. They didn’t just show up, see the baby, and then go back to tending sheep. No. Here’s what the scriptures tell us: “…they made known what had been told them about this child.”

They told others. They told everyone they met. They spread the good news!

That’s what we are to do as Christians still today. We are to “make known” to others just how life changing Jesus is. The Good News isn’t something to keep to ourselves, but something to share.

The Great Commission, found at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, tells us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” We are to go and tell people about Jesus Christ!

Christmas isn’t over! We may take our trees down and put the decorations away, but Christmas needs to live on in our hearts. We are to share the Good News of how Jesus came to earth in a very humble way, how he grew up to perform miracles and teach us about God and how to live. And we need to share how Jesus willingly went to the cross to pay the price for our sins that we could not pay ourselves. And because of that, because of God’s great love for us, our sins are forgiven and we are promised life everlasting. That is the greatest gift, ever!

So my challenge to you during this Christmastide is to not put Christmas away with the decorations. Let the joy of the birth of Jesus be present in your mind, in your words, and in your actions. Like the shepherds, tell others about Jesus.

After all, Christmas isn’t over.

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

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Advent 2020: Conclusion

Continuing the journey.

Christmas 2020 is now in our rearview mirror. It’s the day after, the joy all spent, and now clean up begins. Memories will remain, some a short while and some lifelong, depending on our experiences.

As we wrap up our time with John Piper in Joy to the World, let’s consider what we will remember beyond Advent 2020.

Read Conclusion: My Favorite Christmas Text

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

What is your takeaway from the Conclusion of Joy to the World?

We are called to join Jesus in this conscious self-humbling and servanthood.

John Piper, Joy to the World

Jesus made Himself nothing to serve others. He made a way to set us free from sin and death.

With pure freedom and joy, Believers lay down all illusion of independence and pride to follow Him.

As we leave Advent 2020 behind, let us consider continuing the spiritual journey we began in Joy to the World. Because the truth is, we live life in a season of Advent, a season of waiting. We are waiting for Christ’s return, His Second-Coming when He will make all things right.

Practicing the steps we learned this Advent is a means to help us prepare our hearts and spirits for Jesus’s return: Meditate. Examine. Build. Be.

Meditate, think about, contemplate your need for Jesus in community and personally. Consider all the ways you depend on the blessings He pours out each day and the hope you have in His promises. Ask God to remind you of your need.

Examine, check, inspect your heart and attitude toward Jesus. Look for signs of joy in Jesus and willingness to serve humbly. Consider how much of your life is also Christ’s life. Ask God to show you what you cannot see in yourself.

Build, fashion, construct habits to form an attitude of anticipation and excitement for His return. If you are not looking forward to His coming back, consider the underlying reasons. Ask God to reveal barriers in your heart. Sometimes construction projects begin with clearing out and tearing down obstructions. Cooperate with God as He works to change your attitude.

Be and live in the Word of God. Make it a daily priority in your life. Learn all you can about Jesus, from Genesis to Revelation. He is not only the Reason for Christmas but all creation and beyond. Get to know your Savior and find joy in your current waiting. Ask God to guide you to the specific Scriptures you need in each season of life and open yourself to His teaching by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Today consider how you can establish these steps as a foundation for your spiritual journey.

Do you envision a daily, weekly, or monthly time to walk through these steps?

Who can you invite to join you on the journey for encouragement in the current waiting?

Ask God for the inspiration and faith to continue preparing physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally for Jesus’s return. Ask Him to guide you to light, truth, and joy, joy, joy!

For thus says the Lord… You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.
Jeremiah 29:10, 13 ESV

Photo by Anthony Garand on Unsplash

Blessings for the new year and beyond.

Grow Team

[Feature Image Photo by Max Beck on Unsplash]

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Advent 2020: Christmas Presents

The gifts of God through Jesus.

Merry Christmas! As you celebrate with gifts and games, family and friends, however you spend the day, take a moment to consider your Advent journey.

Sense your level of adoration for Jesus as Savior and King, Creator and Redeemer. Think about what you learned from the spiritual discipline of Advent.

Rejoice in the Lord! Your Savior was born this day!

Read December 25: Three Christmas Presents

Photo by Hert Niks on Unsplash

What did John Piper give to you through today’s devotional?

Believe Jesus and love others. That is your purpose. …
Let the freedom to fail give you hope to fight. …
Christ will help overcome sin in you. …

John Piper, Joy to the World

Purpose. Forgiveness. Help. According to John Piper, these are the three presents Jesus gives us through Christmas. Gifts to help us persevere on our faith journeys.

Which of these Christmas presents means the most to you? Why?

Does one stir your heart with more joy and adoration for Jesus than the others? Explain.

Do you see the need for all of these gifts of grace in your life? How?

Ask God to bless you with the faith to open each of these Christmas presents in your life and use them to the fullest. Let Jesus define your purpose, forgive your failures, and help you move ever closer to Him.

May the Lord lead your hearts into a full understanding and expression of the love of God and the patient endurance that comes from Christ.
2Thessalonians 3:5 NLT

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

[Feature Image Photo by Max Beck on Unsplash]

Jesus is born!

Merry Christmas! Here are the messages given for the Christmas Eve services at Jacksonville First United Methodist Church.

The first message was given at our 5 p.m. service, aimed primary at children. The second was given at our 7 p.m. traditional service.

Advent 2020: The Lord Is With You
A Message on Luke 2:1-7
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
5 p.m. Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

Luke 2:1-7 (NRSV)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

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I’m so excited for us to be together tonight, Christmas Eve! Santa Claus is coming tonight! Wooo hoooo! I know I’ll have trouble going to sleep because I will be so excited. I just hope I’ve been good this year! I think I have but Pam, my wife, told me she’s not so sure.

Christmas is a great time to gather together and share memories with family and friends. And even though “The ‘Rona” is preventing some of that from happening, we can still gather, even if it’s virtually, and share the stories that remind us who we are and whose we are.

There’s a guy named Andrew Peterson who wrote and recorded a whole album called, “Behold the Lamb of God.” The subtitle of the album is, “The True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ.”

And while this story sounds like a tall tale, one that is exaggerated and is a myth and not true, Andrew is correct in saying that it is the “TRUE Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ.”

Do you like stories? I do! I love stories! And I really like the stories in the Bible! Because they are true!

And I really, REALLY like the story of Christmas, the celebration of baby Jesus coming to the earth.

In the scripture we read today, written by a guy named Luke, we hear about a man with the kinda strange name of Emperor Augustus. Now that first word, Emperor, isn’t really a name but it’s a title, a word that tells what someone does. And this guy named Augustus was the emperor, the leader of that part of the world. Kinda like our president, but different.

Anyway, because this guy named August was the leader he got to make the rules. One of the rules he made was that everybody had to go back to the town their family was from. Once that got there the rule was they had to write their name down and then give some money to the emperor’s people. (They didn’t like that part. It was yucky.)

So there was this guy named Joseph, and he lived in a town called Nazareth which was way up north in Galilee. But his family was from Bethlehem, which was a little bitty town (much smaller than Jacksonville) which was not quite 6 miles south of the big city of Jerusalem. So he had to go to Bethlehem because David was one of his relatives. (He was Joseph’s great x 23 grandfather.)

And they didn’t have cars back then, either! Nope! No airplanes, either. No buses, no computers, and not even telephones! Can you believe it!

And here’s the amazing thing: they walked everywhere they went! Yep! If they wanted to go somewhere, they walked. And it was a long way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. A long, long way if you’re walking!

So Joseph had a girlfriend, and her name was Mary! Joseph really liked her and had asked her to marry him and be his wife, but they hadn’t had the wedding yet so they weren’t really married.

Well while they were still in Nazareth, an angel from God came down and talked to Mary. Angels can be kinda scary because they have this bright light all around them and they sorta fly, and Mary was kinda freaked out when this angel named Gabriel showed up to talk to her. But Mary was very brave and asked the angel, “What’s happening?”

Then the angel told Mary that she was going to have a baby! Oh wow! But the angel also said that the baby wasn’t going to be just an ordinary baby, but a special one. A real special one! This baby was going to be the son of God! Yes! God!

As you might imagine Mary was confused by all of this and asked, “What? How can this happen? I don’t understand?” And after the angel explained some more she said, “Okay, I still don’t understand it all, but I’m okay with it. I trust that God knows what he is doing and I’m willing to do whatever he needs me to do.” Isn’t that awesome!

So some time passes and sure enough, Mary has a baby in her tummy! And it grows a little bit each day until her tummy stuck out and she walked kinda funny.

It was getting kinda close to time for Mary to have her baby when BOOM, Joseph gets the word that he has to go to Bethlehem because the Emperor said so. He doesn’t want to, because he knew walking hurts Mary’s back, but they don’t have much of a choice so pack up some things and leave their home to go to Bethlehem.

Now we don’t know this for sure, but a lot of people think that because Mary had a baby in her tummy that Joseph found a donkey for her to ride on. He walked and led the donkey, and Mary rode the donkey and they started traveling. I sure hope that was the case!

We don’t know for sure, but we think it took Mary and Joseph somewhere between a whole week and 10 days of walking just to get to Bethlehem! That’s a long time! And a lot of walking! Each night they would either camp out or find somebody who would let them stay at their house, and they walked and walked and walked.

Finally, FINALLY, they got to Bethlehem. When they got there Joseph started looking for a hotel for them to stay in, but because lots of people were coming to Bethlehem all the rooms were full. They couldn’t find a place to stay at all! Then, when they couldn’t figure out what to do, someone told them about a kind of a barn, called a stable. It’s where animals like sheep, goats, cows, and probably some chickens stayed. Mary and Joseph were disappointed that they couldn’t find a room, but they figured a barn was better than nothing, so they settled down to stay in the stable with the animals.

But did things settle down for them, then! No way! Mary started having her baby! They didn’t even have hospitals back then, so when she started having her baby there was no place to take her. So guess what? She had her baby right there in the stable. Yep. That’s where she had it.

After he was born Mary and Joseph took some pieces of cloth that they had and they wrapped up little baby Jesus to keep him warm.

So there they were in a barn, Joseph, Mary, and little baby Jesus.

Now the reason this is important, the reason we have Christmas, is because that baby would grow up, being 100 percent God and 100 percent human, and perform miracles, teach people how God wants them to live, and prove to us just how much God loves us.

Jesus, when he was about 33 years old (which is old, I know), he let some mean people beat him up without even fighting back. Not only did they beat him up, but they put him up on a cross and left him there until he was dead.

It sounds like a sad story, doesn’t it. But the story doesn’t end there! No, not at all! It has a happy ending! Because three days after he died he came back to life! Yes, he did! And Jesus did all that so that when we do something wrong, whether we do it on purpose or by accident, God doesn’t hold it against us. God still loves us. Not only that but because of Jesus, God also forgets the things we do wrong.

And, there’s more! God promises us that we will live forever with him in heaven! Which is really awesome!

That’s why we celebrate Christmas! Jesus comes to the world as a little baby born in a small town in a stable. Yes, we have Santa Claus, who is named after someone named Saint Nicholas who went around and gave people who were poor things for Christmas. And we have Christmas Trees and special songs that we sing and presents that we open, but ALL of those things we do as ways of celebrating Jesus’ birthday.

So happy birthday, Jesus! We love you and are so glad you were born. And that, folks, is the True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ. Praise be to God!

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

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Advent 2020: The Lord Is With You
A Message on Luke 2:1-7
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

Luke 2:1-7 (NRSV)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

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In the winter of 1914 a war was raging. Known as “The War to End All Wars,” (which it didn’t, by the way), World War I began in July of that year. Along the “Western Front,” located in France and Belgium, war was being fought between the troops of Germany on one side and the French and British on the other. (The US would not fight in the war until April of 1917.)

These troops were serious about trying to kill each other. And they were doing a good job of it as the battles were brutal and the number of dead and injured was high.

But right before Christmas of 1914 something unusual happened. As Christmas day drew nearer the soldiers on both sides created and observed a truce, a period of time where they quit trying to kill one another.

Called “The Christmas Truce,” soldiers from both sides crawled out of their trenches and met and mingled with each other. In some places soldiers from both sides even met in the middle, in “no man’s land,” to exchange greetings and talk. Some even exchanged gifts, such as food, tobacco, and souvenirs such as buttons off their jackets.

There were candles, Christmas trees, and the sides joined together in Christmas Carols, both in German and English. There were even games of soccer between the two sides.

Unfortunately the truce didn’t last long, and in some places by the end of the day they again set about trying to kill each other.

The higher-ups in the military on both sides found out about it and issued orders to make sure it didn’t happen again. Why? Because it’s harder to kill the enemy if you see them as human beings rather than as the enemy.

In the First Century the Jewish people had a similar view of what the messiah would be like. They were waiting and wanting for the messiah to show up and have great military power, to be able to call on the angels of heaven to militarily defeat the occupying Roman forces, kicking them out of the holy land and restoring Jewish leaders to their rightful place.

But it didn’t happen that way. The messiah didn’t come on a large horse with a drawn sword, but as we read in the gospel of Luke Jesus comes to earth in a small livestock stable, in a small town, to a young couple, neither of which was very high up the social or political ladder, but who not only trusted God but were both willing to be obedient to God. Through this one event everything changes, because God comes to earth and dwells among us.

Instead of great military might, the messiah brought something to the world much more powerful: love.

As the hymn says, “Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, Love divine.”

Christmas is about love. And to quote another song, this one from 1965, “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love.”

It has been a difficult year on this planet, to understate the obvious. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected not only our country, but the entire world. It has had an impact financially, politically, medically, emotionally, and in many other ways. It has even had an impact on how we worship as Christians.

And yet, into this darkness and fear of the unknown comes the 25th of December, tomorrow. Christmas, the day our savior, Jesus Christ, was born. It is such an important day that we even tell time by it, using the abbreviation AD, from the Latin anno Domini, to mark the years since the birth of Jesus 2,020 years ago.

In the Northern Hemisphere the days of shortening daylight have turned around as the daylight hours get a little longer each day. This year we have even had a “conjunction” of the planets Saturn and Jupiter now as they appear to be so close to each other that they appear as a double star, and which, because of its timing, has been dubbed, “The Christmas Star.”

Light shines out in the darkness. And this year as we celebrate Christmas may our spiritual lights shine out in the darkness.

Here in just a few minutes we will observe a Christmas Eve tradition by lighting candles as we sing “Silent Night.” Our technical crew will dim the lights and this sanctuary will be filled with the light rays of hundreds of candles reflecting throughout the room. It’s one of my favorite experiences of being a pastor as I have the best seat in the house, being able to see your beautiful faces illuminated by the candlelight as we worship our Lord. Each year I want to take photos of it because it is so beautiful, but each year I don’t because it is a holy moment, one of those encounters with the almighty in which I just want to be present and experience with all my senses.

It is important for us to remember that as Christians we are called to be the light in our world. In the 5th chapter of Matthew Jesus himself tells us, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16

The baby that was born on the cold winter night 2,020 years ago grows up and tells us that we are to be the light of the world. And then he willingly goes to the cross to take our place and pay the price we can never pay ourselves. His death and resurrection give us forgiveness of our sins and eternal life, the best gifts ever. Bethlehem leads to Calvary.

So my challenge to you this year is to be the light of Christ in our world. Yes, our worlds may be turned upside down and uncertainty about the future may weigh heavy on our minds, but our faith in Christ can give us the boldness to face the future unafraid, knowing that whatever happens in this world we are not alone.

Jesus Christ is born. Emmanuel. God is with us! Praise be to God.

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

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Advent 2020: The Son of God

He disables sin.

Christmas Eve. It’s here! We’ve journeyed a long way, even though it may seem like the time flew by.

Today we celebrate the eve of the birth of the Babe in the manger, the Son of God, the Son of Man, God-Incarnate, Jesus.

As you celebrate this night before Christmas, take time to focus on the steps of the spiritual discipline of Advent. Invite those with you into the conversation.
Meditate. Share your thoughts on the need for Jesus in your life.
Examine. Ask each person present to consider what is in their hearts this Christmas Eve: Emotions. Thoughts. Desires. Invite them to speak openly.
Build. Take a survey of those with whom you gather to discover different ways to stir up excitement for Jesus at Christmas and all the other days of the year.
Be. Open up a Bible. Read a portion of Jesus’s birth story out loud. Ask God to open hearts to the joy of Christmas.

Read December 24: The Son of God Appeared

Photo by Jan Romero on Unsplash


What did you hear in today’s Joy to the World devotional?

Jesus came into the world to help us stop sinning.

John Piper, Joy to the World

Sometimes, we view the Christmas story as unconnected from the work Jesus came to do: Disable sin.

We make a big to-do of His arrival in the manger, but the reality is He quietly appeared. Hardly anyone noticed.

The Bible doesn’t tell us much about Jesus’s life as a child or young adult. The next time we hear of Him, He’s all grown up and undergoing baptism in the waters of the Jordan River. He enters ministry by fighting off temptation. Then He begins teaching, healing, and working miracles as He forms fellowship with a band of brothers.

The Babe in the manger seems far removed from the Messiah on the cross.

John Piper wants to make sure we connect the whole story and see the Babe in the same light as Christ: The Lamb of God. The Savior of the world. The King of kings.

Why do you think we need to see the incarnation of God, from baby to manhood, as an integral part of His mission on earth?

Do you tend to compartmentalize Christmas from the cross? His resurrection? His return?

Today think about how you handle the whole story of Christ. Examine your attitude toward Jesus’s birth, life, crucifixion, resurrection, and return. Are they a single epic written on your heart? Or do you view them as individual accounts?

Ask God to open your eyes and heart to the full story and purpose of Jesus. Be prepared to let go of old attitudes and make way for a fuller perspective to take hold.

Because God’s children are human beings — made of flesh and blood — the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil who had the power of death.
Hebrews 2:14 NLT

Photo by Eugene Zhyvchik on Unsplash

[Feature Image Photo by Max Beck on Unsplash]