“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.

Change: Paul, Part II

Change: Paul, Part II
A Message on Acts 9:19b-25
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Oct. 31, 2021, Commitment Sunday
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Acts 9:19b-25 (NRSV)

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” 22 Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.

23 After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.

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Last week we continued our sermon series on “Change” by exploring Paul’s conversion, how he went from persecuting Christians to being one.

This week we will continue to explore Paul and what his life was like after his conversion. (Hint: It wasn’t all roses and sunshine.)

In the scripture we read today from the 9th chapter of Acts we find that Paul has a trust problem… and with good reason!

Last week we learned that Paul was on the way to Damascus when he was struck blind on the road to Damascus, where he was going to arrest more followers of Jesus. Jesus asks Paul why he was persecuting him, Paul’s heart gets changed, and three days later a very nervous Annanias laid hands on Paul, giving Paul back his vision and filling him with the Holy Spirit.

So Paul does a complete 180 degree turn. He goes from persecuting Christians to being a Christian. He becomes the very thing he hated.

I’ve been trying to come up with a modern metaphor to help us understand just how profound a change that Paul had. I thought about comparing it to someone who is a Republican becoming a Democrat or someone who is a Democrat becoming a Republican, and while those are certainly significant changes I don’t think it ranks on the level of change Paul experienced.

As you know I am a fan of the Texas Rangers baseball team (which means I got to experience much suffering this past season). I wondered if becoming, say a New York Yankees fan (the MLB team I dislike the most) would be a modern metaphor, but again I think it falls short of the significance of Paul’s change. (Even though I really, really dislike the Yankees…)

It really is hard for us to comprehend how massive it was for Paul to change.

As humans we really like ‘rags to riches” stories, tales about people who come from an impoverished background who, through hard work and determination, become successful not only in business but also socially as well.

The story of Paul is just the opposite. It’s a “riches to rags” story.

Jesus got ahold of him and shook things up. And things changed for Paul, and changed dramatically. He went from having it all to pretty much having nothing. He went from being a person respected by the Jewish people to a person that the Jewish people considered a traitor and wanted to kill.

In Mini Methodists Bible study this past Wednesday we tried to illustrate just how big a change Paul experienced. I picked two teams of four or five people each and separated them here at the front of the sanctuary. One team was the “red” team, and the other was the “blue” team. Each team selected a leader to represent them. That leader was then asked to persuade the rest of the class (that weren’t on team) why their team was the best and why they should join them.

We have two Bible study classes, and one of the red team leaders made a very convincing argument for her team. “We are the red team, and Jesus’ blood was red, so that’s why we’re the better team.”

Wow. I hadn’t expected that. I was surprised and thought, “That’s pretty deep for an elementary kid.”

The leader of the blue team was not intimated, though, responding with this: “But the blood is actually blue before it gets to the capillaries and becomes oxygenated, which represents the change we experience when we accept Jesus as our savior. That’s why the blue team is better.”

Wow. Big wow. I don’t who is teaching these kids, but man, they are doing a great job!

After being blown away by their biological and theological astuteness I took the leader from one team, led them across to the other team, and then told both teams that this person was now the leader of that team. The leader of the blue team became the leader of the red team.

As expected, the kids on both teams loudly voiced their displeasure with this development. The blue team was crying out that I had stolen their leader away from them, and calling that person a traitor.

The red team was also in turmoil. They didn’t like that they had a new leader, especially someone from the blue team. They were very skeptical of the deal and thought that the leader might be a spy from the blue team that was trying to use trickery to take over their team.

The kids were very vocal about these things. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.

That’s when I pointed out to them that what we had done was what happened to Paul. He was a leader of the Jews and so hated the Christians that he hunted them down and threw them in prison, and even was complicit in killing them (i.e. the stoning of Stephen). Because of this the Christians didn’t trust him.

But the Jewish people, the other side, didn’t like Paul either. They considered him a traitor for going over to the other side and becoming a follower of Jesus.

Paul found himself a man with no home. Slowly, though, over time the Christians began to trust him. They accepted him as one of their own

We find that in the scripture we read today from the book of Acts, written by Luke.

We find Saul (same as Paul, remember) having to literally run for his life. The Jewish people were so upset with him, so mad, that they wanted to kill him. So they made a plan and were getting ready to put that plan in place.

Every city back then had walls that surrounded it. Damascus was no different. It had a wall that circled around it. Within that wall were gates, which allowed people and animals to enter into and out of the city. The plan was to wait and watch for Paul at these gates, and then when they found him, grab him and kill him.

Well some of the Christians found out about it and went and spread the word among their fellow Christians. So the Christians came up with their own plan. Under the cover of darkness they put Paul in a basket with some ropes tied to it and lower him through a window in the wall so he could escape.

The plan works, and Paul lives to see another day. But they are often not pleasant days.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth that we know as 2 Corinthians we find him describing some of the difficulties he has gone through.

“Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” — 2 Corinthians 11:24-27

On Wednesday I explained to the Mini Methodist kids the “forty lashes minus one.” This was a part of the Jewish law that was a very specific punishment. If someone was judged guilty the punishment could be up to forty lashes with a whip. But 40 was the maximum. In Deuteronomy 25:3 we read, “Forty lashes may be given but not more; if more lashes than these are given, your neighbor will be degraded in your sight.”

It may be just me, but I kind of figure that being on the receiving end of 39 lashes from a whip is pretty degrading besides being horribly painful. But that was the law. And the Jews, being the very careful people they were, stopped at 39, just in case they had miscounted. Wasn’t that nice of them? (Yes, I am being satirical here…)

Paul went through the “forty lashes minus one” not once or twice, but five times! His back had to be severely scarred from those experiences. And yet he persevered as a disciple of Jesus Christ, writing in Romans 8:18, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

So what can we learn from this scripture that we can apply to our lives?

I think one of the things we can learn from Paul is about free will.

God gives us free will. As humans we have the ability to make choices. Animals have instincts that they follow, but we have free will, the ability to decide between different choices.

Paul is a good illustration of free will. At first Paul made the decision to persecute Christians. I think he based that decision on several factors, both conscious and subconscious.

As a Pharisee, an important religious leader, Paul knew the Old Testament scriptures extremely well. Based on those he used his free will to decide that Jesus was not the messiah. And I think that is because the Jewish people had created certain criteria that the messiah must meet. They were expecting more of a military messiah that would come in and with supernatural power overthrow the occupying Roman army and free the Jewish people.

But I also think that subconsciously Paul chose to believe Jesus wasn’t the messiah because he was a threat to the status quo, the way things were. As humans we don’t like change very much. We like routines because they make us feel comfortable.

But when Jesus came he made the Pharisees and religious leaders very uncomfortable. He called them out for their hypocrisy, for following the letter of the law but without love. So I think Paul had a subconscious bias against the Jesus followers because of this.

But after his experience on the road to Damascus his perspective changed. He made the free will decision to become a Christian, the very thing he had hated. No one forced him to make this decision. The voice of Jesus didn’t say, “Follow me or I will smite thee.” Nope. Paul made the decision to follow Jesus of his own free will.

Choices have consequences, though. And Paul experienced those consequences, especially the very painful ones.

Two weeks ago yesterday, on Oct. 16, 17 Christian missionaries with Christian Aid Ministries–16 Americans and one Canadian–were kidnapped after visiting an orphanage in Haiti. It is thought that one of Haiti’s gangs kidnapped the group. The gang is demanding $1 million per person in ransom or they will kill the missionaries.

The irony of the situation is that the missionaries were from Mennonite and Amish communities, perhaps the most peaceful and pacifist Christian denominations.

Christian Aid Ministries has been asked recently why they allowed missionaries to go to Haiti, a country in crisis run by gangs. Why did they allow that group to go to a dangerous place? The group responded with this statement:

“We live in a very broken world. A world of broken relationships, broken trust, and broken political systems. It is a world of loneliness, fear, and violence. And Jesus came, not just so men could go to heaven when they die, but also to show the kind of a world God intends right here on earth.”

“God desires a world where the hungry are fed, abandoned orphans are cared for, and where lonely refugees are provided for. Jesus came to redeem this broken world, and has called His church to work with Him. We go to places like Haiti because we have found Jesus and His teachings to be the answer for our own lives and we want others to enjoy the joy, peace, and redemption we have experienced in the kingdom of God.”

Like Paul, the missionaries made the free will decision to follow Jesus Christ. The consequences of that decision has cost them their freedom, and it may cost them their lives. I pray that is not the case, but we have to be realistic and understand that it could happen.

How deep is your faith? Is it deep enough that you could be like are Mennonite and Amish brothers and sisters and willingly put yourself in harm’s way in order to reach the least and the lost? Or are we, in the words of musician Andrew Peterson, “shackled by the comfort of my couch”?

Another thing we can learn from Paul is to keep the faith through the tough times.

When I visit with people going through difficulty I often point out to them that nothing grows on the top of the mountains. Beyond the tree line every little life exists on the top of the mountains. But the valleys between the mountains are lush with growth.

When things are going good for us as Christians, when we are on the top of the mountain, our faith doesn’t grow much. It’s in the valleys of our lives, those tough times, when we understand more deeply our need for God and for a savior. And it’s in those times that our faith grows.

That’s when Paul’s faith grew. Many of the letters he wrote, which we have in our New Testament, he wrote from prison. He persevered through the tough times because of his faith in Jesus Christ.

The world is going through tough times right now. As Christians we can throw our hands up in frustration and worry, we can fuss and fume about it, or we can bow down at the feet of Jesus and use this as an opportunity to grow our faith and practice perseverance.

So my challenge to you this week is to be like Paul and persevere through the tough times. Look at difficulties not as something to avoid but as opportunities to practice perseverance and grow in our faith. Use difficulties as a catalyst to develop a deeper faith through Bible reading, prayer, silence, and worship.

Remember that God gives us free will, that we make decisions and that decisions can have consequences. But the love of God given to us through Jesus Christ is the greatest gift ever offered in the entire history of the world. Saying yes to Jesus won’t give us immunity to pain and suffering, but it does give us faith to get through the tough times.

Praise be to God.

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

Change: Esther

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

Esther 4:9-17 (NRSV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change: Hosea

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

Hosea 3:1-5 (NRSV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” she admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change: Elisha

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

2 Kings 2:1-12 (NRSV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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