Lent: The Grand Entry

Lent: The Grand Entry
A Message on Matthew 21:1-11
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
April 5, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV)

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

5 “Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

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How many of you have been to a small-town rodeo? Raise your hand.

I have, and I sure am glad.

Now you’ll know if you’ve been to a small town rodeo that one of the first things that happens is an event called the “Grand Entry.” And if you haven’t been to a small town rodeo and seen a Grand Entry, you are missing out.

Back when I was growing up in Cooper and Delta County we had great rodeos that I was blessed to attend. The Grand Entries were really grand at those rodeos. Usually the Delta Roping club members would ride into the arena on their horses and space out evenly to serve as “posts” for the Grand Entry. The American and Texas flags were the first to enter, on horseback, of course, and they would go to the center of the arena where they would post up.

Then a long line of competitors and just local folks would ride in on their horses, making a serpentine pattern through the arena, before riding out. I liked this part the best because I could see my friends and schoolmates riding their horses, along with other people in the community that I knew.

Most people would get all dressed up in western gear and their horses would be nice and clean, and some would even braid their horses’ manes (the long hair on the top of the horses neck). It was quite the spectacle, and we even rode our horses in it a time or two. Many of them had great, majestic horses that were so beautiful. And a few of them had taught them special canters and it was very impressive to watch.

I remember one time when I was about 10 or 11 years old my dad got the idea for us to go to the rodeo in Ladonia, Texas and take our horses and ride in the Grand Entry. If you don’t know where Ladonia is it is a bustling metropolis over in Fannin County northwest of Cooper. (It’s actually a very small town. I think the population is around 600 people now.) My dad was a country doctor and he had an office in Ladonia and so we knew folks there, so we loaded up the horses and went.

My horse was a Shetland pony named Dixie. I don’t remember who dad bought her from, but when we got her she came with the name. And it wasn’t long before I realized they had misnamed that horse. Her name should have been Jezebel. Even though she was small, she was mean. I’m talking extremely mean.

I would ride her when we were working cattle and she had the innate ability to know where the closest locust tree was. (Locust trees, for those who may not know, have long, sharp thorns on them.) She would head to that tree, in spite of me turning her head sideways with the reins, and try to rub by the tree and scrape me off of her. That’s just how mean she was.

Well we loaded up Dixie along with my dad’s horse, Daisy, which was a full grown quarterhorse who wasn’t mean but she was crazy (we never had any “normal” horses), and we went to Ladonia. We joined the line of horses outside the arena getting ready for the Grand Entry and then rode our horses into the arena. Now my dad’s horse always liked to gallop, to run. Always. And my mean ol’ Shetland pony was just the opposite. She liked to walk real slow and hated to gallop.

As we entered the arena and the pace picked up I couldn’t get Dixie to speed up for anything. I didn’t have spurs but I was using the heels of my boots to spur her to try to get her to speed up. Nothing doing. I took the ends of the reins and whipped her on her flanks, still nothing. My dad and his horse were long gone, and the horses behind us just started going around me and my lazy, slow, Jezebel Shetland pony.

Eventually the entire line of riders passed me and exited the arena. It was just me and my stubborn pony left in the arena with me trying to get it to hurry up and get out of there.

The rodeo announcer, of course, who are true artists in their own right, started talking about me and my horse over the PA system. He was goodheartedly making fun of me and my horse, and I turned even a darker shade of red as I tried my hardest to get that horse to speed up and heard the laughter from the audience.

I finally made it out to thunderous applause, with me looking for a rock to hide under. My dad laughed and said not to worry about it, that it had been very entertaining to the crowd.

Grand Entries are great, aren’t they, even when it may be something other than a rodeo. Back when we had circuses there were grand entries with the performers and animals parading in front of everybody.

Even musicians have grand entrances. In my opinion the musician that had the best grand entrance was Elvis. His band and orchestra would start playing the theme from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with the brass playing the magical 1-3-5 triad, “Dah, dah, dah! Da Dahhh!” and then the tympani going “bom bom bom bom, bom bom bom bom.” And then they would open the curtain and Elvis in his glittery white jumpsuit would come out and the band would go straight into “CC Rider.” If you young folks haven’t seen that you need to go to YouTube and see it. It’s awesome. (“Thank ya. Thank ya vury much.”)

There was also a grand entry several thousands of years ago. We read about it today in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem.

Now this is an important part of the Holy Week narrative. Jesus and the disciples are travelling to Jerusalem and when they get to Bethphage Jesus stops. They were just traveling right along, and then at Bethphage, which is about two miles from Jerusalem, Jesus says, “Whoa!” and they stop.

He tells two of the disciples (it doesn’t mention who they were) to go into the village ahead of them (the name of the village isn’t mentioned but we know it wasn’t Jerusalem, because that was a big city) and that they will find a female donkey and her colt. He instructs them to untie the donkey and bring them both to him.

Now a lot has been made about the fact that it is a donkey and a colt that they bring to Jesus. One professor at Perkins School of Theology became famous for demonstrating how Jesus could ride both a donkey and a colt at the same time. He jumped up on top of two desks, with a foot on each one, yelling something like, “This is how!”

Uh, no. Being a farm boy I don’t believe that. While there are trick riders who can do that with two horses, those horses are the same size. A colt would be much smaller than its mother, and their backs are much smaller. Now Jesus, being the miracle worker, could have performed a miracle, but I don’t think so.

Here’s what I think. For the Jewish people of the time there was great theological meaning in beasts of burden that had not been worked, that had never had a yoke on them. We find it in Numbers 19 which states that in order to make the water of purification a red heifer who has never been yoked is to be sacrificed and burned and the ashes used to make the water of purification.

We find it in Deuteronomy 21 which gives instructions for what to do if a dead body is found between towns. (They are to measure which town it is closest to, by the way, and those people will be responsible for performing the rites.)

But I also think the colt serves as symbolism for a new beginning. We don’t know how young the colt is, but the colt represents a new generation, a new birth, and may reference the being “born again” that Jesus tells Nicodemus about. Plus being a colt it had never been ridden or carried a load so there is purity implied as well.

There is great symbolism in the fact that it is a donkey that Jesus asks for. Now first let’s get our equine terms correct. A donkey is also known as a burro. They are small members of the equine family that are used primarily as beasts of burden, for carrying things.

Now donkeys aren’t to be confused with mules. A mule is a cross between a donkey and a horse. They are larger than donkeys but have longer ears than a horse. If you remember the character Festus from the TV show Gunsmoke, he rode a mule. Here’s a trivia question for you: What was Festus’ mule’s name? It was Ruth, and ironically it was a male mule. Go figure.

Now while attending rodeos I have seen mules ridden in the Grand Entry, but not donkeys. And yet for his Grand Entry Jesus chooses to ride a donkey. Why?

I mean wouldn’t it have made more sense to ride in on a horse, a huge white stallion war horse, displaying the power and might of God?

I think that was what most of the people at the time thought the messiah would ride. The Jewish people at the time were living under the authoritarian rule of the Roman government, who had seized control of the area through its military might. Surely the messiah would overthrow the Romans, right, and the only way to do that was with a larger military might. So the messiah riding around on a massive, muscled up horse made sense, right?

And yet Jesus chooses the humble donkey, a small beast that lived its life serving others. Not a war horse, but a work donkey.

There is a breed of donkeys that are called Jerusalem donkeys, and the reason they are called that is that is because on their backs their fur is colored in the shape of a cross. Here, I’ll show you one. The legend has it that after they carried Jesus in the Jerusalem, where he would go to the cross, the donkeys had crosses on their backs in remembrance of Palm Sunday.

But Jesus didn’t choose a donkey just for symbolism reasons. He also did it to fulfill Old Testament prophecies.

In Zechariah 9:9 we read,

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” — Zechariah 9:9

So Jesus rode a donkey in the Grand Entry to Jerusalem, not a powerful war horse.

One thing we find out from Matthew’s gospel about Jesus’ Grand Entry into Jerusalem is that people started laying things in the road in Jesus’ path, including their cloaks and tree branches.

These things were a sign of royalty and prestige, kind of like a red carpet is for us today.

But this was also from the Old Testament. In the ninth chapter of 2 Kings we find the prophet Elisha (not to be confused with Elijah) sending a group of prophets to Ramoth-gilead with a flask of oil to anoint Jehu as king. After they do so, they leave, and the men serving with Jehu find out what took place. Then this happens:

“Then hurriedly they all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.’” — 2 Kings 9:13

And we need to remember the significance of spreading cloaks in that day. One of the most important and valuable possessions people had at that time was their cloak. It provided protection from the elements and served as a blanket at night to keep people warm. It was so valuable that the scriptures tell us that if one was to hold a cloak as collateral for a loan then it was required to return the cloak before dark so as not to deprive someone of the protection of their cloak at night.

So they are taking these valuable cloaks and laying them on the road for the donkeys to walk on. This is a really big deal!

Now, about the palm branches. Although the scripture we read today doesn’t specifically say palm branches it does say tree branches. And in Jerusalem there are palm trees, so we can make that connection.

But there is also an Old Testament connection to using palm and other tree branches in celebration. In the 23rd chapter of Leviticus we find instructions for celebrating the “Festival of Booths” which recreates the living conditions of the Hebrew people in the desert after fleeing Egypt. Here’s what it says:

“On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.” — Leviticus 23:40

So waving palm and tree branches is a way of rejoicing before the Lord, and was way before Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem.

Palm Sunday reminds us of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. To me there is something holy about seeing the children of this church marching into the sanctuary and up and down the isles waving palm branches and singing, “Hosanna, loud hosanna the little children sang…” And I have to admit I have the best seat in the house as I get to see a clear view of their faces as they do it.

And then, after Palm Sunday service, we always have a lunch in Waller Hall before having an Easter Egg hunt out on the lawn behind Waller Hall. It’s always such a great and joyous day.

Even though we don’t get to do any of those things now, or even connect with God and each other through the Lord’s Supper, we have to remember it’s still a great and joyous day.

While our normal Palm Sunday routines won’t happen this year because of the CoronaVirus, we can lift up our heads and still celebrate because Jesus still is Lord. Jesus rode into Jerusalem and some of the same voices that yelled “Hosanna” were just a few days later yelling “Crucify him!” The grand entry led to the cross on Calvary and a terrible and painful death.

But it is through that death and resurrection of Jesus that we are promised the grandest entry of all, the entry into heaven. There is still work for us to do here on earth, that is sure, but no matter how bad things may be, no matter how bad they may get, we are promised something much, much better is coming.

So my challenge to you this week is to celebrate Palm Sunday and Jesus entry into Jerusalem. Take some leaves from a tree, or even have your kids draw some on paper and cut them out, and put them on your front door. Show the world that as Christians we are still celebrating Palm Sunday, that we are a people of hope because we are a resurrection people.

So sing out, ““Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

And if anyone wants to sell you a Shetland pony named Dixie, I wouldn’t recommend riding her in any rodeo grand entries. Just sayin’…

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

(Photo by Lou Ann Murray)

Lent: Works of Love

Lent: Works of Love
A Message on James 2:14-17
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
March 29, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

James 2:14-17 (NRSV)

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

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When I think of the book of James in the Bible I think of steel-toed boots. You know that I’m talking about? They are boots that have a steel cap inside around the toes. They were developed as a safety item for those who work around heavy items and equipment that could fall and crush toes. It is a requirement to wear them on many jobs still today.

The reason I think of steel-toed boots when I think about the book of James is that… well.. James is pretty good at stepping on toes. Yep. Real good. So if you have some steel-toed boots at home you may want to put them on. (Metaphorically speaking, of course. Although if you really want to…)

I love James in that he is direct and straightforward. He doesn’t couch things euphemistically or with long, flowery prose. He is direct, to the point, and at times, even blunt. (And thus, stepping on toes.)

The scripture we just read from the second chapter is a good example of that. The author not-too-subtly points out that if we say we have faith, but our actions don’t show us living out that faith, then we really don’t have faith after all.

Think of it like this: because of the COVID-19 virus many of us aren’t going to the grocery store that much. Sometimes when we do go we find vacant shelves instead of the things we want. As a result of this I have seen many people post on social media about baking their own bread.

We have an old breadmaker machine at our house. It’s old, dented, beat up a little bit, but it still works. Prior to COVID-19 we tried not to use it much because, let’s face it, if we have warm, freshly baked bread we can’t resist spreading a little butter on it and eating it. I’m talking like all of it, which my doctor doesn’t like. But now it has really come in handy.

To make bread, either with a breadmaker or without, you need a recipe. You need something that lists the ingredients you are going to need, as well as directions on measurements, instructions on how to mix what when, and even temperatures needed for baking the bread.

So say we want to bake some bread. We get the recipe out and read it (and maybe even memorize it). We get all the ingredients out and set them on the counter. And then we do nothing with it. Nope. Just stand there and look at it, and then walk away.

Doesn’t make sense, does it.

I think what James is saying in the scripture we read today is that if we know the Christian faith but don’t live it, if we don’t turn that faith into actions, then it doesn’t make sense. It would be like knowing the recipe for baking bread and have all the ingredients, but unless we take action, unless we mix those ingredients together, knead them, and put them in the oven, then how can we offer others the bread of life?

I like to call those actions “works of love.” It’s what we are called to do as Christians, and I believe that it is not an option.

So what are works of love? My definition is that it is acts done for others that puts the needs of others before your own needs.

One example that I gave a while back in one of my messages is my friend Pat Morchat who lives over in the bustling metropolis of Liberty City. (Okay, maybe it’s not a bustling metropolis…)

There was a man in Kilgore that was in need of a kidney transplant. The need was dire, and his life pretty much hung in the balance. Pat found out that she was a match, so she volunteered to give one of her kidneys to the man. They did the surgery, and it was successful. The man is living today because of Pat’s “work of love.”

Let me give you another example of works of love. Many years ago, when we lived in Kilgore and before I went into the ministry, I came down with severe headaches and was hospitalized for several days. It was in the spring and our yard really needed mowing, but I was in the hospital and couldn’t do it. Pam was splitting her time between being with me and taking care of the girls and she didn’t have time to mow the yard.

And then one day a guy showed up with a mower and started mowing the yard. It was our pastor at St. Luke’s UMC in Kilgore, Robert Besser.

Now you need to know something about Robert. He’s a great pastor and a very funny guy, but he is not a yard-mowing type of guy. He borrowed a mower from some friends that needed the oil and gas mixed together, but somehow he had gotten it wrong and the mower wouldn’t run. He ended up using my mower, which was a sort of a Frankenstein of a mower because I took an old but reliable engine and put it on a newer body. (And yes I had to remove all the safety mechanisms in order to do that.)

But Robert, who didn’t even mow his own yard, by the way, got out there with my Frankenstein non-self-propelled mower and mowed our yard, which was a ½ acre in size. That, my friends, is a work of love. He didn’t have to do that. I didn’t ask him to. But he did it, and for that I was–and still am– very thankful.

Now I want to pause for a moment to stress a very important point about works. It is crucial to remember that we are not saved by our works. You can’t get to heaven by good works alone. Good works are great, I’m not saying otherwise, but our salvation comes only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Thinking you can get to heaven by your works is called “works righteousness.” It fits into our human mindset that you get what you earn, but unfortunately it goes against the scriptures.

To me it’s kind of like the story of the boy scout who was determined to do a good deed one day. He put on his boy scout uniform and went out in his town searching for good deeds to do. After walking around and not finding anything he spots an elderly lady walking down the sidewalk toward a street intersection. Catching up with her, he asks if he can help her across the street.

“No, thank you young man,” she said.

“Come on, I really want to help you cross the street.”

“I thank you for your willing spirit, but again I must decline.”

The Boy Scout wouldn’t give up. “Please, please, lady! I’m begging you. Please let me help you cross the street. It would mean a great deal to me if you would.”

The woman thought for a while and said, “Well, I guess it would be okay.”

So the Boy Scout checks the traffic signals and walk signs, and then escorts the lady across the street. When they got to the other side he said, “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“Well, there is one more thing,” she replied.

“Sure, what is it?” he asked.

“You can help me back across the street.”

The Boy Scout looked puzzled. “But we just crossed the street, lady. Why do you want to go back across it?”

She answered, “Because I didn’t want to cross the street to begin with! I was turning right at the intersection but you came up to me and wanted to help me across the street so much that I didn’t want to let you down.”

Doing good works because you think it will earn you some Brownie points or spiritual merit badges with God is kind of like that Boy Scout. Works don’t lead to salvation. Salvation leads to works.

Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9,“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” — Ephesians 2:8-9

Okay, understand? Good.

Now some people in history and even today read the scripture we read today from James and think that it either teaches or implies works righteousness. The Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther was known for criticizing the book of James, calling it an “epistle of straw” because he thought it implied works righteousness.

I don’t believe it does. I think what James is talking about is what happens after salvation, that our salvation is not the end of the story. Good works should be our response to experiencing salvation, part of what Wesleyans refer to as “sanctifying grace.”

Have you ever been so happy or excited about something that you did a happy dance? You know, the kind of dance with absolutely no choreography but lots of happy movement? As Christians our works should be our “happy dance.” The source of our actions should come not from wanting the spotlight of recognition focused on us, but be motivated as a response to God’s love for us and what God has done for us.

We’re living in challenging times now, aren’t we. It’s not every day that we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, an actual true pandemic, and one in which one the hardest to find commodities is toilet paper. Not medicine or food or water but toilet paper.

I saw a neat photo on Facebook that showed a group of people around a table playing poker. What made it funny was that instead of using poker chips, they were using rolls of toilet paper. Here, I’ll show it to you. (Show photo)

We are living in interesting times. Shelter in place used to be only for tornadoes. Now it is a new and growing reality for so many people. And it’s scary, and for good reason.

And yet… as Christians our faith in God should shine through the darkness and be expressed as works of love toward others.

In the short story “The Gift of the Magi,” first published in 1905 by author O. Henry, we hear about the story of a husband and wife, Jim and Della, who didn’t have very much money. At Christmas time one year Della sneaks off to a hairdresser and sells her long, beautiful hair to a hairdresser. She then takes the money and buys Jim a platinum fob for his pocket watch. In the meantime Jim sells his watch to buy some beautiful combs for his wife’s hair. When the couple exchange gifts they realize just how much the other was willing to sacrifice for them. To me it is an excellent example of “works of love.”

As Christians we should be known for our works of love, not only for our spouses and family members but to everyone. As the song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

There are a lot of ways that we can show “works of love” to others. But in the last few weeks many of those options have been taken off the table.

Being sequestered from others presents us with a challenge. We can’t (and shouldn’t) gather as groups to meet with each other physically. To me one of the most powerful expressions of love is a good hug. I think there is something holy about a good hug. But now we can’t do that except with our loved ones that are isolated with us.

As Christians we must be creative now on how to have “works of love” without physical contact. How can we do that? Here are some ideas just off the top of my head (and off the Facebook pages of others…)

Write letters. Not emails, not text messages, but good ol’ pen and paper handwritten letters. Write to some elderly folks in our community or in our nursing homes and assisted living centers. Write to some of the men and women serving in our armed forces who may be thousands of miles away from their families. Whoever it is, write to them. Ask them how they are doing. Share with them some of the things happening in your life. Tell them of the things in your life that give them hope. Share your favorite scriptures with them, explaining to them why they are your favorite. Put a stamp on an envelope and mail it to them. (You can even buy stamps and envelopes online, so you don’t even have to go to the post office. And they have self-adhesive envelopes so that you don’t have to lick them. Please don’t lick them.)

You could do like Robert Besser did and mow someone’s yard. It can be someone you know or it can be a total stranger. (I really like the total stranger idea.) Drive around town and look for a yard that needs mowing, and then knock on the door and ask them (standing 6 feet away, of course) if you can mow their yard for free. When they ask you why you would do that, blame it on me. “That crazy preacher at the Methodist church challenged us to do “acts of love” and he said it’s a good way to let you know that God loves you.”

We talked about bread earlier. If you know how to bake bread and have the ingredients, bake up some fresh, homemade bread and share with your neighbors, people that you know might live alone, or even complete strangers.

And if you are one of those individuals who hoarded hundreds of rolls of toilet paper (and you know who you are) you first need to repent of your sin and ask God for forgiveness, and then after that you can post on social media that you have toilet paper that you would like to give to those who are out or running low.

You get the idea.

And that’s my challenge to you this week: Show “works of love” to others. Be creative but be safe. This COVID-19 is serious, folks. Remember James’ words that faith without works is dead. Live out your faith. Think ways to show “works of love” to others, not to earn browning points with God, but as an expression of gratitude for the grace you have received from God.

After all, the greatest “work of love’ was God’s only son, Jesus Christ, going to the cross bearing the weight of our sins. Jesus, who was perfect, died for us, who are not. The holy died in place of sinners, so that we can be reconciled to God. How can we just sit still and not do anything after receiving that kind of grace? We can’t. We are to be active in “works of love.”

And if you need Robert Besser to come mow your yard, just let me know. I have his cell number.

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

Lent: Bible Reading

Lent: Bible Reading
A Message on 2 Timothy 3:10-17
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
March 22, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

2 Timothy 3:10-17 (NRSV)

Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. 12 Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 13 But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

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I planned this sermon series for Lent back before Lent began on Feb. 26. I thought it would be good to focus on some of the spiritual practices that Christians should practice during this time of preparation before Easter.

At that time I had not heard of the corona virus, or COVID-19 as it is known. But God works in mysterious ways, as you know, and the topic today is certainly applicable to our current situation. This is an excellent time to read the Word of God.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, certainly read the Bible and believed it was an integral part of being a Christian. Here’s what he said about the Bible: “I want to know one thing, – the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri (‘a man of one book’).”

As United Methodists we have specific beliefs about the Bible. Here’s what the UMC web page has to say about the Bible: “We say that God speaks to us through the Bible and that it contains all things necessary for salvation. This authority derives from three sources:

  1. We hold that the writers of the Bible were inspired by God, that they were filled with God’s Spirit as they wrote the truth to the best of their knowledge.
  2. We hold that God was at work in the process of canonization, during which only the most faithful and useful books were adopted as Scripture.
  3. We hold that the Holy Spirit works today in our thoughtful study of the Scriptures, especially as we study them together, seeking to relate the old words to life’s present realities.”

I think I’m safe in saying that the Bible is integral to Christians regardless of denomination. The scriptures are the bedrock of our faith. I dare say you can’t be a Christian without the Bible. It is more than a collection of stories and biography of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. No. The Bible is more than a book. It is a living entity, God-inspired words that are just as applicable to us in the 21st Century as they were when they were written.

I like the way the late musician Rich Mullins described the Bible: “The Bible is not a book for the faint of heart — it is a book full of all the greed and glory and violence and tenderness and sex and betrayal that benefits mankind. It is not the collection of pretty little anecdotes mouthed by pious little church mice — it does not so much nibble at our shoe leather as it cuts to the heart and splits the marrow from the bone. It does not give us answers fitted to our small-minded questions, but truth that goes beyond what we even know to ask.”

He also said this: “We were given the Scriptures to humble us into realizing that God is right, and the rest of us are just guessing.”

Christians should read the Bible. That should go without saying, but you would be surprised how many don’t. And that’s a shame.

It has been said that the Bible is the best selling book of all time. Raise your hand if you have a Bible in the room you are watching this service in? (Pretend to notice hands being raised.) Yeah, I see that. Uh huh. Yes, I see you there in the back.

Okay, next question. Raise your hand if you have read from that Bible, or any Bible (including electronic Bibles), within the last week. Hmmmm. I only see a few hands raised, but not as many as there were before. Tell the truth, now, and shame the devil. (Actually I’m just guessing. I really can’t see… but God can!)

In the scripture we read today from the letter that Paul wrote to his young protege Timothy (what we know as 2 Timothy), Paul is encouraging Timothy as he walks as a follower of Jesus Christ, telling him that he is going to go through tough times (“persecutions,” actually) and to keep the faith during those tough times.

Then Paul gives Timothy, and us, some great advice about the Holy Scriptures. Here is The Message paraphrase of verses 14-17: “There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.”

Let’s unpack what Paul is saying in those few sentences. First let’s explore what he means when he says, “… how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

Now we have to remember that at the time Paul wrote this they didn’t have the Bible as we know it. Most written material of the day was on scrolls that were made of velum, which is dried animal skins. Velum was very valuable as it was a very long, labor intensive process to produce it. There were no printing presses in that time. Everything had to be copied by hand, which was also a long, labor intensive process.

But even though the written word was scarce among the general public we shouldn’t assume that people didn’t know the scriptures, especially the scriptures we know as the Old Testament. Jewish children were taught both in schools and home about the heroes of the Bible, about Abraham, Moses, David, and Ruth.

And at the time Paul wrote this there probably were a few scrolls of copies of some of the gospels being passed around by believers, so they would have those as scriptures as well.

So as a child Timothy would have been taught the scriptures, the Old Testament promises of a coming messiah, and the circulated copies of the gospels testifying that Jesus is the messiah. Paul reminds Timothy that the scriptures are there to “instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

The Bible does indeed contain everything we need to know for salvation. Praise God!

Next Paul tells Timothy (and us, of course) ways in which we should use the Bible. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

So the Bible is not just for salvation, but also for, using The Message paraphrase, “showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way.”

The Bible does show us the truth. Now I know in this day and age many people believe that truth is relative, meaning what is true for me may not be true for you. I don’t buy into that. I still believe there are absolute truths, and many of those are in the Bible. For example, God loves you. Period. Now he may be disappointed in some of the choices you make, or do a facepalm when he hears some of the things you say, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you.

1 John 4:8 says, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” God is love. This I know for the Bible tells me so. The Bible does show us the truth.” — 1 John 4:8

Next Paul writes that the scriptures should be used for “for reproof.” The NIV says “for rebuking,” and the CEB says “for showing mistakes.”

The trouble with “reproofing” and “rebuking” is that our humanness makes us think of others and how we can use the scriptures to correct them. We want to be the “reproof-er,” not the “reproof-ee.” We hand pick scriptures and load them like bullets into our gun of judgement ready to fire them at others we see doing wrong. But here’s the rub: maybe we are the ones who need “reproofing” and “rebuking.” Hmmmmm.

Eugene Peterson certainly implies that in his paraphrase of that passage that we find in The Message. He calls it, “exposing our rebellion.” Ouch. But I think he may be right. And the reason I think that is because of the next thing Paul tells us the scriptures are useful for: correction.

Now there is a difference between “reproof” and “correction.” Reproof means to reprimand, while correct means to make or set right. While I think of reproof in terms of God reproofing me, I think of “correction” as things I can do to help set others right.

Now here’s the danger of correcting others. It’s easy to slip from correcting to judgement. It’s easy and somewhat thrilling to correct others, isn’t it? It gives us a sense of power, a sense of being right, doesn’t it?

Here’s a confession: I have a strong desire to correct grammatical errors that I find in posts on Facebook. It’s not just misspellings, it’s noun-verb usage, structure, and punctuation. (I think run-on, stream-of-consciousness sentences with no punctuation bother me the most.)

Take the importance of commas, for example. The sentence that is written, “Let’s eat, Grandpa,” with the comma, means something different than “Let’s eat Grandpa,” right? Punctuation can save lives, folks.

But if I stop and think about it I have to admit that true grammarians could tear apart every one of my sermons or Facebook messages that I write. Seriously. (See, I just wrote a one word sentence. Oohhhh, I bet they hate that one.)

The scriptures themselves tell us the proper way to correct others. “My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.” — Galatians 6:1

Correction should be done with love. After all, you know, God is love.

The fourth thing Paul tells us the scriptures are useful for is “for training in righteousness.”

There is so much that the Bible can teach us!

I recently watched a video on YouTube on how to grow potatoes in a 5-gallon bucket. Need to know how to change the brake pads on your vehicle? Look it up on YouTube. In search of how to make the perfect pie crust? Look it up on YouTube. Want to know how to butcher and process a hog? Look it up on YouTube. Want to learn how to crochet? Look it up on YouTube. Want to improve your golf game? Look it up on YouTube.

YouTube has become a home to so many instructional videos. It really is amazing what you can learn to do just by watching videos on YouTube.

But as good as YouTube is, the Bible is even better when it comes to training for righteousness. Want to have a better prayer life? Read the Bible. Want a deeper understanding of Jesus and how he is fully God and fully human? Read the Bible. Want to know how to better walk in the footsteps of Jesus, living your life the way he lived his? Read the Bible.

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

So my challenge to you this week is to read your Bible.

Now one of the questions I often get asked is, “Which translation of the Bible is the best.” My response is usually, “The one you read.”

So read it! Use this period of self isolation to read the Bible. If you don’t have a printed copy where you are sequestered then use your computer or phone or tablet or Kindle to read it. (I suggest biblegateway.com.) Use this time during the season of Lent to read the scriptures as we travel toward Easter. Draw closer to God’s word and see the difference it will make in your life.

And if you want to know how to grow potatoes in a 5-gallon bucket, just let me know. I know where there’s a video that teaches you how.

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

Lent: Prayer

Lent: Prayer
A Message on James 5:13-18
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
March 8, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

James 5:13-18 (NRSV)

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

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In his book Blueprint for Discipleship Kevin Watson (who spoke at the District Leadership Summit a week ago) tells the story of going to Mexico with a group to do some mission work. They drove down with a trailer full of lumber and construction materials. The trailer also held an old, beat up bicycle. A church member had shown up with the bike right before they left, and although they had been reluctant to take it, they threw it in the trailer anyway, not wanting to hurt the donor’s feelings.

When they got to where they were going in Mexico they put the bicycle in the room they were staying in and then forgot about it as they started working on their mission projects.

As they were nearing the end of their time there they began discussing what to do with the bike. They didn’t want to take it back but didn’t know who would want it in Mexico. Kevin remembered a young boy named Zacharias who had shown up every day at their work site, talking to the Americans, curious about them. One day Kevin noticed that Zacharias was wearing a cross necklace and complimented him on it. Without hesitating the boy took the necklace off and gave it to Kevin. Surprised, Kevin received the gift.

Remembering that exchange, Kevin suggested they offer the bicycle to Zacharias, if he wanted it, of course. After all, it was a beat up ol’ bike. The others agreed and they offered the bike to the young boy. He smiled, didn’t say anything, but then raced off with the bike.

The next morning Zacharias showed up early, begging the Americans to go to his house and talk to his mother. If they didn’t, he explained, he would have to return the bicycle. Curious as to what was going on, the Americans followed Zacharias to his house. There they talked to his mother, who they found out was a widow trying to make ends meet for Zacharias and his siblings.

She explained that Zacharias wanted to get a job in the next town over to help out financially, and had been bugging her to get him a bicycle so that he could ride it back and forth to the job. Not having the money, she had told him to pray for a bicycle.

Her problem, she explained, was that he hadn’t been praying for a bicycle for very long. She was worried that he had stolen it instead of praying and waiting for it. The Americans explained that they had indeed given the bike to Zacharias, that he had not stolen it. Then in talking to the mom they found out that he had started praying for it just the night before they had given the bike to him. And the Americans knew that it wasn’t coincidence that they had given the bike to Zacharias, but the hand of God at work.

Today we are continuing our sermon series on Lent: by looking at an important aspect of Lenten discipleship: prayer.

In the scripture we read today from James, we find Jesus’ brother saying, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

I believe the story I just told you of Zacharias is an example of that.

Now the danger of that story is that we might come away from hearing it thinking that prayer is simply asking God for things that we want and that God will give them to us. Sort of like a spiritual Santa Claus.

No. Prayer is much more than asking God for things. It is much deeper, much more personal, much more… well… holy.

Prayer is conversation with God.

A simple but effective way to pray is to use the acrostic ACTS. A is for adoration, c is for confession, t is for thanksgiving, and s is for supplication. ACTS. This is a great outline to follow during prayer time especially if you find it difficult or uncomfortable to pray.

Start with adoration of God, follow that with a time of confession, where we confess the times and situations where we have sinned. Then a time of thanksgiving, thanking God for who he is and the gifts and graces he offers us. And then finish with supplication, asking God to provide our needs (and not forgetting that our needs and wants are two different things).

Some people don’t pray because they say they don’t know how to pray. I used to believe that. As a teenager in church I can remember listening to the preacher praying. He used such big words and phrases that I didn’t understand but I figured they must be like super holy because he was using them. I remember thinking that I couldn’t pray because I didn’t know the right words.

Max Lucado points out the error in that thinking. “Our prayers may be awkward. Our attempts may be feeble. But since the power of prayer is in the one who hears it and not in the one who says it, our prayers do make a difference.” – Max Lucado

Lysa TerKeurst points out another fact about prayer: “The reality is, my prayers don’t change God. But, I am convinced prayer changes me. Praying boldly boots me out of that stale place of religious habit into authentic connection with God Himself.” – Lysa TerKeurst

Prayer is an important part of every Christian’s spiritual life. Martin Luther said, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”

And we pray because Jesus prayed. A lot.

Prayer is emphasized at Lent because the season remembers Jesus 40 days spent in the wilderness where he fasted and was tempted by Satan. And if you go 40 days without food and get tempted by the devil you better know prayer was involved!

But that wasn’t the only time Jesus prayed. He would often go off by himself and pray. A lot. Matthew 14:13 is just one of many examples: “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.”

He taught his disciples to pray by saying the prayer the we call the Lord’s Prayer. And remember that this was at their request. They had observed Jesus praying, and asked that he teach them how to pray as well. Jesus’ response was the Lord’s Prayer.

I want to make a distinction about the scripture we read today from James. He writes, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Note that he doesn’t say, “All prayers are powerful and effective.” No. He specifically says “The prayer of the righteous…”

Let’s look at another scripture about prayer, this one from 1 John 5:14, “And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” Did you catch that part, “…according to his will…”

I can pray for a bass boat. I can be specific and pray for a 20 foot Skeeter bass boat with dual power poles, a Minn Kota Spot Lock trolling motor, and state of the art fish finders. There is nothing preventing me from praying for that. But if I am not righteous, if it is not “according to his will,” then the odds of me receiving a boat like this are very small.

Prayer is not the currency for a spiritual vending machine, where you look at the broad selection of items, figure out which one you want to pray for, and then expect God to crank the metal spiral rods to have it drop from heaven and into your life. No.

That’s the problem with the prosperity Gospel, which preaches that God will reward you financially for doing certain things. Now don’t get me wrong, God certainly has the power to do whatever he wants, but expecting a financial windfall because you “name it and claim it” negates the “according to his will” part of the scripture we read from 1 John.

In order for prayer to be effective it has to be about the will of God.

Let me give you another example. It’s baseball season soon. Say that a batter gets up to bat with the bases loaded, top of the ninth inning, two outs. What if the pitcher prays to God, saying, “God, just let me get this batter out.” And the batter is praying, “God, just let me get a hit.” Which prayer will God answer? The person who is most righteous? Hmmm.

Now I have heard before that the scripture that we read from James today is not true, that someone prayed for a loved one who was very ill, and instead of God healing them they passed away.

My response is to look at verse 15 again. “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.”

God heals in many different ways. Sometimes God heals even through death. James’ scripture doesn’t say God will save them from dying, only that the “prayer of faith will save the sick,” and that “the Lord will raise them up.” This can mean resurrection, not necessarily physical healing, although I have seen that happen as well.

God responds to prayers in his own time and in his own way, not ours. For example, praying “God give me patience, and give it to me now!” my not result in instance patience, but opportunities to use and grow that patience in order to deepen your use and understanding of patience.

So my challenge to you this week (and all of Lent, actually) is to pray. Set aside specific times to pray, but also pray while you are driving (but keep your eyes open), pray at work or at play, pray as Paul admonishes us to, “without ceasing.” Have conversations with God regularly throughout your day, knowing that the “prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

We’re going to give you an opportunity for you to put that into practice. The altar is available and we’re going to create some time for you to come forward now and to kneel and pray. Stay as long as you want. If you don’t know what to pray remember ACTS: acclamation, confession, thanks, and supplication.

After everyone is through we will combine our voices and our souls in the Lord’s prayer, praying the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples.

Believe in the power of prayer. Pray regularly. Pray earnestly. Pray. Pray. Pray.

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

Lent: Fasting

Lent: Fasting
A Message on Matthew 4:1-11
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
March 1, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

Matthew 4:1-11 (NRSV)

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

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Today is the first Sunday in Lent, the Christian season of preparation before Easter. It is not a joyous celebratory type of season, but one that is pensive, reflective, and a time for repentance.

In the scripture we read today we find Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. Right before the scripture we read today Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. As soon as that happens then Jesus goes into the desert or wilderness where he fasts for 40 days and nights and is tempted by the devil.

One of the spiritual disciplines that many people practice during Lent is fasting, and they do this because Jesus himself fasted.

But what is fasting? Why do it?

A simple definition of fasting is to willfully refrain from eating for a period of time. Pretty basic, right?

But there are different types of fasts. There is fasting from food during the day, fasting from particular types of foods, fasting from solid foods but allowing liquids like fruit juice, fasting from meat (although fish is okay because it is not considered meat, which I still don’t understand), and fasting from everything but water.

We even call the morning meal “breakfast” because we are breaking a fast from not eating at night.

Today there is even a health trend for intermittent fasting that is supposed to help you lose weight, feel better, and be healthier.

While there are debates for and against the health benefits of fasting, I want to focus today on the spiritual aspects of fasting.

First, a caveat: check with your doctor before fasting from food. Seriously. Make sure you are healthy enough to do it.

Okay, so what does abstaining from food have to do with religion? Why do it?

The way I think about fasting is to use something earthly as an opportunity to focus on something heavenly. When we fast from food we take something earthly, hunger, and use it to focus on something heavenly, like prayer.

Dr. Kevin Watson spoke at the Northwest District Leadership Summit yesterday about discipleship. He was talking about means of grace and mentioned fasting and how fasting helps to remind us to pray. I like the way he put it: “It’s easy to forget to pray, but it’s hard to forget you are hungry.”

The point of fasting is to help us to focus on God.

Now there is an important part of fasting I haven’t mentioned yet. In order for a fast to be effective, you need to fast from something that you consider to be good or valuable.

Someone told me they were fasting from kale. I asked them if they liked kale. They said no, that’s why they were fasting from it.

While that may meet the technical definition of a fast it doesn’t meet the spirit of a fast. A fast should be from something you enjoy, you like, that you view positively.

I think it’s okay to fast from other things than food, especially if you have medical conditions that would make it unsafe for you to fast.

This is the kind of fast that people often talk about when they say they are “giving up” something for lent. This category of “fasts” can be very broad. People give up things like social media, chocolate, soft drinks, shopping, sweets or desserts, cussing, alcohol, driving like a maniac… the list can go on and on.

Again, those are good if it helps you focus on God instead of the things you like or crave.

Fasting doesn’t have to be limited to Lent, by the way. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, fasted twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, the entire year. And he also believed in eating only six ounces of meat per day, by the way.

Something that can go hand in hand with fasting during Lent is to add things. Bible reading, specified prayer times, meditation, acts of mercy or compassion, giving alms… all these things are great additions to the personal sacrifices of fasting.

Jesus fasted in the desert before beginning his ministry. He used that time to pray, to meditate, to reflect, and to prepare for the incredible task ahead of him.

What if we did the same thing? What if we fasted either from food or other things to create opportunities for us to focus on prayer, meditation, reflection, and to prepare for our commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ?

Now it won’t be easy. The devil tempted Jesus when he was fasting, and the devil will tempt us as well.

Jesus responded to the devil by quoting Deuteronomy to him, a different scripture for each temptation. We can do the same thing by studying the scriptures so we will be able to quote them back to the devil. The desires from our fasts can refocus us to God, to the treasures that last forever and which can never be stolen from us.

Jesus didn’t willingly go to the cross so that we can live selfish and self-serving lives. He gave himself for us, that we could be reconciled to God, something we aren’t able to do by ourselves. It was his grace that gives us forgiveness of our sins. That is why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, to remind us of the sacrifice Jesus made and just how great God’s love for us is.

So my challenge to you on this first Sunday of Lent is to encourage you to fast, either with food or in other ways. Use earthly desires to focus on heavenly things. Let us remember Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, and how he quoted scripture to the devil. Let us focus less on ourselves and more on others and God.

And remember, it doesn’t count to fast from kale if you don’t like kale.

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

Brand New: Song

Brand New: Song
A Message on Colossians 3:12-17
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Feb. 9, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

Colossians 3:12-17 (NRSV)

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

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I suffered a big disappointment this past Wednesday. And no, it did NOT have anything to do with politics. (Although I am disappointed how politicians ON BOTH SIDES are acting these days…)

In preparing for this sermon I became aware that the song, “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” is not in the United Methodist Hymnal. Nope, it’s not there. I double checked. In the back of the hymnal there is an index of hymns listed by both title and first lines of the hymn. It wasn’t there. I even looked under authors. Nope. Nada.

So I grabbed a trusty ol’ Cokesbury Hymnal, and sure enough, beautifully printed on page 231, is “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.”

And then it made me realize that a person (or several persons) sat around a table while working on the “new” UMC Hymnal (which came out in 1989 by the way) and made the decision, “Nah, let’s don’t include ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’ in the new hymnal. Let’s leave it out.”

If I had been in that room I would have… let me be careful how I phrase this… vehemently protested. Actually, I would have had a conniption fit. I might have yelled, “Now let me get this straight. You want to remove ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow” but you want to put in a hymn titled, ‘Jaya Ho’ that starts out with ‘Jaya Ho, Jaya Ho, Jaya Ho, Jaya Ho…’ What’s wrong with you people!”

(And that’s why I’m not on the hymnal revision committee.)

To me the hymn “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” is a beautiful, wonderful hymn. I especially like the chorus:

(get guitar and sing)
I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
For his eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me

I bring up that hymn because today as we continue our sermon series on “Brand New” we are going to look at the subject of “song.” In the scripture we read today the apostle Paul writing to the believers in Colossae and encouraging them not to give in to worldly thinking.

Back then, as now, some of the people calling themselves Christians were finding themselves facing different beliefs and teachers.

The followers of Jesus were still trying to figure out what it meant to be a follower of Christ. They had a few writings, but didn’t have the guidance of the entire Bible like we do today. (Which means we should be doing better than they did back then, right? Hmmmmm.)

But in Chapter 3 of Colossians he starts talking about the “new life in Christ, saying “set your mind on things above…” and “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly…”

In this midst of his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes this: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” — Colossians 3:16

I want to focus today on the last part of that sentence: “…with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”

Have you ever been so excited about something that you just have to make some sort of vocalization or shout something out? I have. And I sometimes still do!

A lot of my exuberant guttural vocalizations occur when I am kayak fishing, and it’s probably a good thing because usually there aren’t many people around to witness it. But if I catch a decent size fish that really puts up a good fight, and I get it to the boat without it getting unhooked, I get so pumped up that I’ll let out a loud, “Wooooooo hooooooooooo!” Or maybe, “YESSSSSSS!”

I get so excited that I just have to let it out. If I try to keep it in I feel like I will explode.

That’s the kind of excitement that Paul wants us to have about being a follower of Jesus.

One of the ways we can “let out” the excitement of being a Christian is through music. We sing songs that express the way we feel both through the lyrics and music.

If you think about it, we use music to express things that are difficult to express just in words. Take love for example. How many songs are there that have been written about love? I dare say millions!

Check out the charts. Nearly every song is about love, about relationships. I would play and sing some of them but in checking the lyrics of the top 40 songs many of them have some language that I’m reluctant to use in church. Well, I won’t use that kind of language outside of church as well.

Something mysterious happens when we put words to music. When they are combined they become something unique, something that speaks to and from our souls. It expresses our joy, our pain, our emotions in a very unique way.

We as Christians we should be so full of the love of Jesus that we sing about it as well!

Our Bible contains a hymnal, by the way. It’s called the Psalms. These are words written to be sung with music. Unfortunately there was no way back then of saving melodies or music when they were written, so we don’t have the music part of them, but the psalms are the lyrics to that music.

John and Charles Wesley discovered the power music has to spread the Gospel. They took the tunes of some songs sung in the taverns and bars of that day and put different lyrics to them. People in the bars were familiar with the music, and before long they were singing the religious lyrics other than the ribald ones.

Here’s a somewhat modern example of what that might look like. How many of you are familiar with the song “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” written by Steve Goodman and sung by David Allen Coe? It’s also known as the “You don’t have to call me darlin’, darlin” song. Some of you my age and older may remember it.

But if we do the Wesley thing with it it might sound something like this: (Get guitar and sing to the tune of “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”)

Well I was lost until I found my savior Jesus
My life was filled with strife, sin and pain
But when I turned to Christ, I hit my knees and said, “Save me, Lord!”
Then I started living a brand new way

So I’ll love you, and I’ll sing my praises to you
Cause Jesus, your love makes me want to sing
Oooooh thank you God, for sending your only son, Jesus
My life will never ever
No my life will never ever
My life will never ever be the same

“…with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”

The Bible has many verses that talk about singing.

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.” Psalm 100:1-2

“Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.” Psalm 147:1

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” James 5:13

“O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!” Psalm 95:1

“What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.” 1 Corinthians 14:15

And those are but a tiny fraction of the verses in the Bible that talk about singing.

So we should sing! That’s what I want us to do right now. And I really want you to sing out. Our Chancel Choir is awesome and we have great singers in it, but I want you to sing so that they can hear you. I want you to sing in celebration of what Jesus Christ has done in your life. I want you to sing as a way of worshipping our God, who sent his only son to die for each one of us, to redeem us. I want you to sing with excitement and with joy! (Get guitar and lead songs)

O for a thousand tongues to sing
my great Redeemer’s praise,
the glories of my God and King,
the triumphs of his grace!

All creatures of our God and king
Lift up your voice and with us sing,
O praise ye! Alleluia!

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee;
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!
Then sings my soul my Savior God, to Thee;
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

Sing the wondrous love of Jesus
Sing his mercy and his grace
In the mansions bright and blessed
He’ll prepare for us a place

When we all get to heaven
What a day of rejoicing that will be
When we all see Jesus
We’ll sing and shout the victory

So my challenge to you this week is to sing! Sing songs of God’s love for you and your love for God. Sing with music and voice, but also by behavior and deed. Let the whole world know that:

(Sing) I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
For his eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me

And if you have the chance to recommend me for the hymnal revision committee, I’d really appreciate it.

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

Brand New: Strengthened

Brand New: Strengthened

A Message on Isaiah 40:28-31

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

Jan. 19, 2020

By Doug Wintermute


Isaiah 40:28-31 (NRSV)

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

    the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary;

    his understanding is unsearchable.

He gives power to the faint,

    and strengthens the powerless.

Even youths will faint and be weary,

    and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

    they shall walk and not faint.

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How many of you ever watched “The World’s Strongest Man” competition on TV? I can remember watching them when I was in junior high school and I was impressed. They would pull buses and pick up these huge rocks and throw things (they were beer kegs I found out later) and I was impressed. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be strong.

The trouble with that was that I was short and skinny. Now looking at my tall, pudgy figure now you may not believe it,but it was true. Very true. When I started high school I weighed 80 pounds. It’s hard to be a strong man when you weigh 80 pounds as a high school freshman.

I remember reading comic books (my generation’s version of an iPad) and seeing ads for the Charles Atlas fitness system. It showed a small, skinny guy getting sand kicked on him at the beach, but after he used the system he was all muscled up and buff and nobody messed with him. That’s how I wanted to be.

One day in junior high we went to the field house where the high school football boys worked out. They let us lowly junior high boys lift the weights and use the strength training equipment. As expected I didn’t do too well with the weights, which was very disappointing to me. I worked hauling hay in the summers and I had pretty good strength in my legs, but not my upper body. Everybody was lifting more than I could. Everybody. I was embarrassed.

During our rotations we came to one piece of equipment devised to increase grip strength. It had two handles, one on each side, and you squeezed one side and then the other. There was an adjustment in the middle which could be adjusted to increase or decrease the resistance.

I expected I would perform miserably at this machine as well. My time came and I started gripping, and then tightening the resistance, and then doing it again.

I ended up doing the top level of it, as high of a resistance as it could go. My classmates gathered around, not believing what they were seeing. I had trouble believing what I was seeing! Here’s this scrawny, small kid (who was still years away from needing to shave) who couldn’t bench press his own weight and he was squeezing this contraption at a setting the other boys (some of whom were shaving) couldn’t move.

It didn’t take me long to figure out why. See my dad believed in farm to table way before it was popular. We raised and processed our own beef. We had a big garden and canned vegetables. And we had a milk cow, named Brownie, and my job was to milk her by hand, twice a day, every day.

We drank raw, unpasteurized, unhomogenized milk. Dad believed that pasteurizing and homogenizing the milk took all the “good stuff” out of it, so we a milk cow and had fresh milk to drink.

That day in the weight room I realized that all those days of milking Brownie had done something to my body. It happened very slowly over a long period of time, but day by day, even though I wasn’t aware of it, it strengthened the muscles in my forearms and made my grip strong. Very strong.

Today, many years later, my grip strength is probably only normal or maybe a little below normal. My grip strength didn’t last once I stopped milking a cow. I do still have the strength, however, to hold a fishing pole, drumsticks, and chicken wings, so I’m good.

Today I want us to explore the topic of strength as we continue our sermon series on being “Brand New” in Jesus Christ.

Now the scripture I just read come to us from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. You may remember that Isaiah was a prophet somewhere around the 8th century BC. As most prophets did, he tried to convince the Jewish people to turn from their evil ways and follow the one true God. In the words of the modern-day sorta-prophet musical group Santana, “You got to change your evil ways, baby…”

The book of Isaiah is filled with political references as well, dealing with kingdoms and power and nations fighting each other. Through it the prophet tells the Jewish people that their true loyalty lies with God, not with human forms of government. (Hmmmm. Not a bad reminder for us today, either, if you ask me.)

Isaiah also gives prophecies about the Messiah that was to come. One such prophecy (actually a series of four poems), known as the “Suffering Servant” prophecy, talks about how the Messiah will suffer at the hands of men before ushering in God’s kingdom.

The 40th chapter of Isaiah starts off offering comfort to God’s people. It reads,

Comfort, O comfort my people,

    says your God.

  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

    and cry to her

that she has served her term,

    that her penalty is paid,

that she has received from the Lord’s hand

    double for all her sins.

But towards the end of the chapter the prophet again chastises the people of Israel for thinking they can do things that they believe God doesn’t see.

Why do you say, O Jacob,

    and speak, O Israel,

“My way is hidden from the Lord,

    and my right is disregarded by my God”?

   Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

    the Creator of the ends of the earth.

And then we come to the end of the 40th chapter and Isaiah offers encouragement and hope for a people that have gone through difficult times.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I often choose the scripture I read today to read to those that are in the hospital recovering from hip and knee surgeries. I choose it because I think it’s good for them to hear that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

I really like what Isaiah does here. He uses the image of physical strength and uses it as a metaphor for spiritual strength.

The people of Israel had been beat up pretty well in the time of Isaiah. In about 740 BC or so Israel is invaded by the Neo-Assyrian Empire and were oppressed under their rule. It was tough times for God’s people.

Looking at that metaphor of physical strength representing spiritual strength I think it’s important for us to hear today. The world we live in also shows that God’s people, Christians, are also going through tough times, perhaps not physically (although unfortunately in many parts of the world it is true), but spiritually.

Our society in the US is becoming more and more anti-Christian. On some college campuses Christian groups are labeled as “hate groups.” The media and entertainment industry portrays Christians as uneducated buffoons that believe in superstitions and who are hateful and judgemental. We get beat up pretty bad as Christians nowadays, maybe not physically, but emotionally and spiritually we take some pretty serious blows.

Our own denomination is causing angst and worries among those who call themselves United Methodists. The special called General Conference last year was supposed to decide the sexuality issue once and for all. It didn’t. Now the proposals coming forward for the upcoming General Conference in May all talk about separation, about splitting the church.

We live in troubling times, and our spiritual strength is taking a beating.

Often times when I visit congregation members in the hospital I will read to them the scripture we read from Isaiah. I like to point out that the scripture says, “…those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.”

It’s hard to wait for the Lord, isn’t it? We live in an instant gratification society. We want what we want and we want it now! You can order almost anything from Amazon and have it on your doorstep in two days for less. Remember the days when you would order something off of tv and it always said something like (use announcer voice) “please allow 6-8 weeks for delivery”?

We want instant gratification in our spiritual lives as well. For example we pray something like, “Dear Lord, give me patience, and give it to me NOW!” And we find that instead of God giving us patience, he provides us with opportunities to practice patience.

And it is in using those spiritual muscles regularly over and over we find that over time we are strengthened, that we are able to practice patience easier than we used to.

“…those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength…”

On Wednesdays at 10:30 we have chapel time with our Readiness School. It’s one of the highlights of my week because I get to bring my guitar into this sanctuary and lead more than 100 kids from birth through 4-years-old in singing some songs.

Some of the kids think my name is Chapel. Yep. My first name is Chapel and my last name is Time. I will be walking by the playground while they are out playing and they will run up to the fence and yell to me, “Chapel Time! Chapel Time!”

Did you know that there are a lot of children’s songs that talk about strength. For example, Jesus Loves Me.

Jesus loves me this I know

For the Bible tells me so

Little ones to him belong

They are weak but he is strong

And you have to show your muscles like this when you sing “strong,” right? Here, show me your muscles!

And how about this one:

My God is so big, so strong and so mighty

There’s nothing my God cannot do (clap, clap)

See, we teach kids about the strength of God, a strength that is not necessarily physical, but a spiritual strength.

We we become Christians, when we make the choice to follow Jesus, one of the most powerful things we have to overcome is to come to terms with is how our weakness is made strong in Jesus Christ.

The Apostle Paul understood this. He writes about it in the 12th chapter of 2 Corinthians. He writes:

“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

 — 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10

For Christians finding strength in our human weaknesses is a part of the upside-down and backwards world of following Jesus.

When we go through tough things in our lives it exercises our spiritual muscles, sometimes even without us realizing it. Like when I was milking a cow, going through those tough time slowly, over time, builds up those spiritual muscles. We may not be aware of it, and just with physical exercise it takes time, but day by day we become spiritually stronger. It may not feel that way consciously, but it is happening.

And then when something happens in our lives we often find that we are stronger than we think we are. We discover that by patiently waiting on the Lord, by walking through the tough times with Jesus at our side, we have renewed our strength. We can start out walking and not faint, we can run and not grow weary, and before long we find ourselves soaring on wings like eagles.

One thing to remember about this is that it is important to remember the source of that strength. It doesn’t come from ourselves, but from God.

During the past five years here I have witnessed many of you going through some incredibly difficult things in your lives. Some of the things no human should ever have to go through. It breaks my heart to see good people going through such incredibly painful experiences.

I have attempted to minister to many of you going through those tough times, but often as I get in my car and head back to the office or home, I wonder just who ministered to whom. I leave feeling that I have just been in the presence of someone holy, someone who, even though they were distraught and in horrible emotional pain, kept going. They put one foot in front of the other, sometimes taking baby steps. And they got through it. Not over it, but through it, little by little, tiny step by tiny step.

Those people are my heroes. I feel that way because I have witnessed them living beyond the strength they themselves had. I am convinced they were able to get through it only by the strength of God. I have no other explanation other than the intervention of God’s strength.

These individuals are probably not aware of it at the time, but through their weaknesses, through their mourning, through their hurt and pain and sorrow, God has strengthened them. They have walked without fainting, run without growing weak, and will, at some point, soar on wings like eagles.

So my challenge to all of us this week is to look to God for our strength instead of trying to be strong by ourselves. God sent his son Jesus Christ to earth, and it is through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that we receive true strength that enables us to do things not humanly possible.

We may not be aware of the changes slowly taking place in us, but as new creations in Christ over time we become spiritually stronger. We strengthen our spiritual muscles through reading the scriptures, Bible study, prayer, fasting, regular worship attendance, acts of mercy, and by sacrificial giving of our “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.” And in doing so, we strengthen our spiritual muscles and are prepared no matter what life throws at us.

Our God is so big, so strong and so mighty

There’s nothing my God cannot do (clap, clap)

Oh, and if you want to increase your grip strength, I highly recommend getting a milk cow. Plus you get some great milk!

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

Advent: Get Set

Advent: Get Set
A Message on Luke 2:1-7
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Dec. 15, 2019
By Doug Wintermute

Luke 2:1-7 (NRSV)

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

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In track and field competitions, each race begins with the person called the starter giving three announcements. The first is “Runners to your marks.” There actually are marks on the track for the runners to line up behind. Then the starter says, “Get set,” or just “Set.” And then the third announcement isn’t actually an announcement, but the firing of a starter’s pistol (which shoots blanks, of course).

When we would go to track meets when I was in Junior High I always thought it would be funny to be in the infield right before a race begins, and when the starter pistol goes off clutch my chest and fall to the ground. Luckily, I never did that. Doesn’t sound as funny now that I’m an adult.

As kids we used to shorten that process by saying, “Ready, set, go!”

This advent season we will be looking at the scriptures through that mindset of “Ready, set, go.” Two weeks ago we looked at the first chapter of Luke and explored what it means to “get ready” for the birth of Jesus during the season of Advent. Today we will look at the second chapter of Luke and what it means to “Get Set,” and then on Christmas Eve we will get ready to “go.”

Now in track terminology the term “get set” means for the runners to be still, to be prepared for the next thing, which is to “go.” During “get set,” there is no moving around, no more stretching, no more warming up. It’s time to be still.

Likewise during this period of Advent in our modern world it is important for us to take time to be still, to listen to the still, small voice of God, to escape from the hustle and bustle to remind ourselves the real reason for the season.

In the scripture we read today Mary and Joseph are trying to get still, but having a hard time doing so. Word comes out about a census that is to be taken. This came from the Roman government that occupied the area.

Now when we hear the word “census” we think about that time that happens once every ten years when we get paperwork to fill out that asks all kinds of questions. We think about census workers, some of whose jobs is to go door-to-door getting information on the people that live in the houses. Some of you may have even worked for the census bureau.

But for the Jews in the first century a census meant something that was much different. First of all the Jews considered it against their laws. Also add to that the fact that it was also a method of taxation by the Romans. Each person not only had to be registered but had to pay a tax of sorts as well. This was a way the Roman government got funds to rule over the area.

There was also a rule that each male (sorry women) had to go to the “hometown” of sorts of his family’s lineage so he and his family could not only be counted but also would pay the census tax.

In the scripture we read today we find that the census being called causes difficulties for Joseph and Mary. They are living in Nazareth, way up north in the region of Galilee. But since Joseph is a descendent of the lineage of King David (remember David, the one who gave Goliath a splitting headache?), he is required to travel to a small town south of Jerusalem called Bethlehem. David was born there, and so that’s where he has to go.

The trouble is that Bethlehem is about 70 miles away as the crow flies. That’s not that big a deal for us for us today with automobiles, but that was a long way to walk in the First Century. It is especially a long way to travel if you are pregnant.

Not only that but the Jewish people at the time didn’t travel as the crow flies. Living between Nazareth and Jerusalem were the dreaded and hated Samaritans. (Everybody say “boooooo!) There was such bad blood between the Jews and Samaritans that the Jews would travel out of the way just to keep from having to travel through Samaria. So this added an additional 20 miles to the trip, making it a 90 mile journey one way.

Guesses are that they probably only traveled about 10 miles a day, since Mary was with child. Unless my math is wrong that makes it a 9-day trip. And there were no Dairy Queens, or Buccee’s travel stops on the way. They had to carry all their food and water with them (although they probably replenished their water on the way).

Here’s some Advent trivia for you: nowhere in the Bible does it say anything about Mary riding a donkey. Nope. It only says that Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Now donkeys were common beasts of burden at the time, and the scriptures do not exclude the possibility of Mary riding a donkey, but they don’t specifically say it either. If you are like me and appreciate the aches, pains, swelling, and the need for frequent bathroom stops that pregnant women experience, then maybe we want to believe there was a donkey rather than think of Mary walking the entire distance.

I often wonder if Joseph felt like the world was against him. He finds out his to-be wife is “with child” and that he isn’t the father, he has givev up his work so he can travel a long distance on foot, with his pregnant wife, only to have to pay money once he gets to his destination.

It kind of reminds me of that scene from the movie “Young Frankenstein” when Igor (pronounced “EYE-gore”), after experiencing a series of misfortunes with his employer, Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced “FRAHKEN-stine”) , turns to his boss and says, “It could be worse.” “How?” the doctor responds. Igor responds, “It could be raining.” And just as he finishes saying it, you see a flash of lightning and hear a peal of thunder and, of course, it starts raining.

Joseph was probably thinking things couldn’t get worse, but they did. Odds are that it did, indeed rain on them, according to many scholars to point out that their route often has rain along it during that time of year. And then they finally get to Bethlehem and wouldn’t you know it, they don’t have a place to stay.

The Gospel of Luke is the only gospel to tell of the census and the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Luke is also the only gospel to talk about not having any room in the inn. Matthew just says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, nothing about the journey or the inn being full.

Mark and John tell us nothing about the birth of Jesus.

Luke gives us the most information about the original Christmas. Luke gives us the scripture we read today about the journey to Bethlehem and Jesus being born, not in a house, but in a stable, a barn, a place for livestock.

Advent has double meaning. It is a period of preparation, a time for us to prepare our hearts and souls for the birth of the Christ child. But it is also a time to prepare our hearts and souls for Jesus second coming, when heaven comes to earth and Jesus returns in glory.

What are you doing to “get set” not only for Christmas, but the triumphant return of Jesus?

Bethlehem connects with Calvary. The cradle connects with the cross. One leads to the other.

Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem. It wasn’t a straight path, it wasn’t an easy path. It took time, patience, and perseverance, and hope.

Joseph and Mary’s trip reminds me of what Paul wrote in the fifth chapter of Romans: “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Our journey through life is metaphorically similar to Mary and Joseph’s. I don’t know of anyone who has had a straight path in life. Everyone has difficulties at different periods that keep it from being an easy path. Everyone has to, at some point, take a detour.

It may be physical health. It may be mental health. It may be the death of a loved one. It may be financial difficulties. It may be broken relationships. It may be job or career related. It may be trying to find your identity or trying to find your place in the world.

Raise your hand if you have had a straight and easy path as you have journeyed through your life. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

I didn’t think so.

Journeying through life takes patience, perseverance, and hope. It takes faith, knowing that even though you can’t see the future you have the assurance that everything will be okay. Even when we have to detour, even when those plans we make and dream of aren’t what comes to pass, it will still be okay. And it will be okay, because of Jesus.

Jesus birth was extraordinary for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that God puts on skin and comes and lives among us. And God arrives not in a fancy palace, but in a humble stable.

And then that person that is fully God and fully human grows up and gives his life on the cross, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And he does so out of love. And it is that love, that grace, that reminds us that no matter what happens to us in this world, something better is coming.

Christmas is coming. And Jesus’ return is coming.

So my challenge to you today, this third Sunday of Advent, is to prepare not only for the birth of the Christ child, but for Jesus return. Don’t become discouraged by life’s detours, but with faith continue to persevere, knowing that indeed, something better is coming.

Get ready. Get set.

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

Advent: Get Ready!

Advent: Get Ready
A Message on Luke 1:26-38
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Dec. 1, 2019
By Doug Wintermute

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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Today marks the beginning of the Christian season of Advent, which is the first season of the Christian calendar. So, Happy Christian Calendar Year! Who’s got the blackeyed peas, collard greens, and corn bread? Let’s celebrate!

And yet we don’t think of Advent as being the beginning of a year, but it is. The word “Advent” comes from the Latin term adventus, which is the Greek translation of the word parousia, which roughly means “coming.”

For Christians Advent is a season of preparation, a period of looking forward, of anticipating and getting ready for the birth of the Christ Child.

In the scripture we read today from Luke we find the angel Gabriel telling Mary about what is going to happen. Mary is shocked, to say the least, and tries to point out the biological impossibility of what Gabriel is saying, but ends up accepting her role and being willing to serve God in a very unique way. She knows she and Joseph have some preparing to do.

I believe it is very unfortunate in our society that we have lost sight of the fact that Christmas is a religious holiday. Instead we are bombarded and overwhelmed with advertisements to shop and to buy. The only message we get in preparing for Christmas is to rush and make sure we buy the perfect presents for our loved ones. The message distorts and misrepresents love, convincing us that people will love us if we buy presents for them. And it’s a lie. A big fat lie. Fake news, if you will. But we believe it.

We believe it so much that we go deep into debt trying to make it happen. According to the InCharge Debt Solutions website it is anticipated that Americans will spend $730 billion (with a “b”) buying presents this Christmas season (based on information from the National Retail Federation). The average American will spend about $925 on gifts, and three out of four people will use credit cards to pay for some or all of those bills.

Say someone spends that $925 on gifts this year. If they make the minimum 2 percent payment on that amount that debt will be paid off in 2026, seven years from now. Not only that, but in addition to the original $925 they will be paying an additional $610 in interest costs, bringing the final total to $1,535! [Source: https://www.incharge.org/blog/how-to-avoid-debt-this-christmas/]

Bah humbug!

No. Advent isn’t about presents. It’s about Jesus. It’s about preparing our hearts and souls for the coming of the Christ child.

Now the liturgical colors we use for Advent is blue, but that is a relatively new development. Prior to that the color was purple, and purple is still acceptable to use. Purple is the color of preparation. Purple is the color of Lent, that period of time before Easter which is also a season of preparation.

Advent is not a time to shop but a time to get ready. People get ready.

If Jesus was coming to your house, what would you do? I’m guessing that you would do some cleaning. You would vacuum the carpet and mop the hard floors. You would fold and put up the clean laundry that has been in the basket in your laundry room that you have been using out of until it’s all gone and that’s when you know to do laundry again.

You would empty the dishwasher of the clean dishes, which you have also been using out of, and then load it with the dirty ones that have been stacked up high in the sink. You would clean the bathrooms real well, scrubbing until that ring in the toilet is gone. You would put out the nice towels, not the ol’ ratty everyday ones with holes in them.

You would go to the grocery store and stock up on food, and you would buy the name-brand green beans, not the generic ones.

You get the idea.

Advent, in a way, is a time for us to clean the house of our souls for the coming of Jesus. We need to repent of our sins and throw them out with the trash. We need to sweep the floors of our habits and scrub clean those habits that move us further away from God instead of moving us toward him. We need to clean the cobwebs of our mind to get rid of those things that make us focus on ourselves instead of others. We need to dust our souls to remove the layers of dirt and grime our society subtly places there day after day, and we need to polish the image that God gives us as his children.

We need to get ready. God comes to earth at Christmas not with great fanfare and publicity, but as a baby child born in an out-of-the-way place to a common, ordinary couple.

Jesus, being God, comes to earth not for selfish reasons, but to put on flesh and walk among us to teach us, to love us, and to die for us. We need to remember that. We need to always be mindful that the birth of Jesus at Christmas leads to the cross at Easter. The prophets of old said it would be, and it came into being at Christmas.

My challenge to you this Advent season is to prepare your heart and soul with the same effort and intensity you would use to prepare your house if Jesus was going to stop by. Respond like Mary, saying “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Let us get ready during this season of preparation by reading the Bible, by daily devotionals, and by keeping the main thing the main thing.

Happy Advent, everybody.

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

Meeting Jesus: The Gerasene Demoniac

Meeting Jesus: The Gerasene Demoniac
A Message on Mark 5:1-20
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Nov. 17, 2019
By Doug Wintermute

Mark 5:1-20 (NRSV)

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3 He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4 for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7 and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17 Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

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Today’s scripture from the Gospel of Mark is somewhat troubling. It portrays a man in a very bad state: mental illness and/or demon possession.

Now in the United Methodist Church we don’t talk about demonic possession very much. And there are some United Methodists that don’t believe that it is real, that it’s only mental illness.

I’m not one of those. I believe that though it is rare, there is such a thing as being demon possessed. I believe that there is evil in this world, and I believe evil forces such as demons exist as well.

Part of the problem is how we define evil and demons. Just yesterday I read an article on Facebook about surgeons performing a double lung transplant on a 17-year-old young man whose lungs were destroyed by vaping. In the article Dr. Hassan Nemeh, the surgeon who led the team of doctors, said this: “What I saw in his lungs is like nothing I’ve seen before, and I’ve been doing lung transplants for 20 years. This is an evil I haven’t faced before.”

So is vaping an evil, a demon? Maybe. Is mental illness an evil, a demon? Maybe.

My personal opinion is that I think that mental illness and demonic possession are two different things. Demonic possession can disguise itself as mental illness, but certainly not all mental illness is demonic in origin.

Sometimes what we think are demons really are not. Back when we were in seminary there was one time when my roommate, the esteemed theologian and all around great guy Tommy Earl Burton, thought demons were after him. Here’s what happened.

One of our other roommates, Wade Lindstrom, had bought an electronic whoopee cushion. This was a modern electronic device, complete with a remote control, that… well… made flatulence noises, if you know what I mean. (If you don’t know what I mean, talk to me later and I’ll explain it.)

One night Wade, being the trickster he is, hid the sound-producing part of the machine under Tommy Earl’s bed. The idea was to wait awhile and then, when Tommy was lying on his bed, hit to remote to make it sound like Tommy Earl was… well… you know…

Well as it turned out Tommy stayed up late working on a paper. Wade forgot about the devise and went to bed and fell asleep. That was all fine and good except this electronic whoopee cushion had a program to remind you that it was on. After a certain amount of time it would make a sound, BRRRRRRP, to remind the owner that it was still on. It did this every 15 to 20 minutes.

Well Tommy Earl finally went to bed. He would just barely be asleep when the electronic whoopee cushion would go off with the reminder that it was on, “BRRRRRP.”

Tommy Earl, in a half-asleep and half-awake state, thought the sound was the sound of demons coming after him. He would wake up and start praying fervently, “Dear Lord Jesus, protect me from evil and remove these demons from my presence…” Then he would fall asleep and then, 15 to 20 minutes later, “BRRRRRRP,” the machine would go off again and the same thing would happen.

Apparently after about the fourth or fifth time this happened Tommy was praying out loud enough to awaken me. “OH DEAR LORD JESUS PLEASE RESCUE ME FROM THESE DEMONS TORMENTING ME!” I realized what was going on and told him, “It’s Wade’s electronic whoopee cushion making that noise. He put it under your bed.”

Tommy Earl got up, found the electronic whoopee cushion, picked it up, opened the door to Wade’s bedroom, and then threw it at Wade, who was asleep.

In the scripture we read today we find Jesus coming face to face with a man who wasn’t dealing with a pesky electronic whoopee cushion, but who was truly demon possessed. I have no doubt about this. The man didn’t live a normal life, but wandered among the tombs and exhibited bizarre behavior.

Now we need to remember that from a 1st Century Jewish perspective the man would have certainly been someone to stay away from. He was considered to be “unclean.” Simply coming in contact with a dead body made one unclean, and so you can see that living and sleeping among the tombs would make him very, VERY unclean, both physically and spiritually.

And the fact that he couldn’t be restrained by shackles and chains indicates that they had actually tried to do that, without success. And it also tells us that in that society, that’s how troubled people were treated: they were chained up.

So this unclean, crazy (literally), semi-naked man comes running up to Jesus as soon as Jesus gets out of the boat. If Jesus touches him, then Jesus will be unclean. And in reality, just being around him could make Jesus unclean. And besides, no self-respecting Jewish person of the day would in any way be associated with someone like the crazy, possessed man.

To quote a Monty Python movie, “Run away! Run away!”

But Jesus doesn’t. Instead Jesus heals the man, sending the demons to a herd of pigs that are nearby.

Now I find great theological significance in what happens here. The fact that there is a herd of pigs shows that in that area was a significant population of Gentiles. As you probably know, pigs are listed among the “unclean” animals in Leviticus and practicing Jews, and also Muslims, still today do not eat pork as a result. As Christians, we have the New Testament, specifically where Peter is told in Acts 10 to get up, kill, and eat. (And thank goodness for that, because I really love bacon!)

If the people in the area were all Jewish, then it would have been useless to raise pigs. It would be kind of like being an organist at a Church of Christ.

So there is a herd of pigs, considered by the Jews to be nasty, unclean, unreligious animals, and Jesus sends the demons into the pigs. But then something interesting happens.

The pigs, about 2,000 or them, rush down a “steep bank” and into the sea, where they drowned.

Here’s the deal: pigs are actually pretty good swimmers. They really are. There’s even a place in the Bahamas known for its swimming pigs. People go there just so they can swim with the pigs. Honestly. Here’s a photo to show you I’m not making this up.

So if pigs can swim then why did they drown? I think it is because of the demons. I think the demons tormented the pigs so much that they drowned themselves in an attempt to get rid of them.

Here’s something else that is significant. Verse 14, “The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country.” The people watching the pigs, which would have been Gentiles, of course, were witnesses to the miracle that Jesus performs. And they go and tell everyone about it, which would mean both Gentile and Jewish people. Gentiles start spreading the Good News about Jesus, and people came to see Jesus, and were astonished to see the demon-possessed man sitting calmly, fully clothed, and in his right mind.

It also brings to mind the parable of the Prodigal Son mentioned in Luke’s gospel. Do you remember what the son was doing after he left home and blew all his money and became destitute? He worked feeding pigs, and the pigs were eating better than he was.

We find that Jesus often pushes against the norms of society at the time. Well, he does more than push against. He often blows them away.

Humans are good at putting people in categories. It happened in the first century and still happens in our world today. We see it in the debates about immigration. One side sees peaceful, loving families trying to enter our country to escape poverty and political oppression. The other side sees criminals and drug cartel members coming and taking advantage of our country. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle, but good luck convincing either side of that.

In Jesus’ time there was a lot of “chosen ones” and “unchosen ones” in society. The Jewish people were the “chosen ones,” as God’s people selected to live in the land of milk and honey promised to Abraham and his relatives. Anyone not Jewish, in other words, Gentile, were not chosen by God. In the view of the Jews, the Gentiles were a lower form of human life. After all, they weren’t the “chosen ones.”

We saw a similar attitude in World War II with the German view of Jewish people. The Nazis considered the Jews to be sub-human, and we know that attitude lead to the deaths of 6 million plus people.

In the 1st Century Middle East, people with mental illness were also considered to be subhuman. They were certainly ostracized. Like those with leprosy, they were shunned, pushed to the edge of society, rejected, and physically and mentally abused. The Gerasene Demoniac was one of those people. And yet when he encountered Jesus, everything changed. He was given value, a purpose.

It’s interesting to note what happens after he meets Jesus. He wants to go with Jesus, to follow him, to become one of his disciples. Jesus tells him no. Instead, Jesus has something different in mind. Jesus tells him: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

Why would Jesus do this? I think it’s because that’s where they man’s testimony would be the most effective. The people in his hometown will know and remember how he used to be. They know his history, how he has lived all these years. And, in knowing that, when they see him as “normal” it will have a greater impact for the kingdom that it would have with people who had NOT known him.

Sometimes in our lives as Christians we get fired up and want to to great big incredible things for Jesus Christ. We have in our minds what we want to do for Jesus and, if we are truthful with ourselves, sometimes our egos sneak their way into those plans. We want to do great things for the Kingdom, but we want the spotlight to shine on us as we do it. We want others to see just how good of a Christian we are. We are proclaiming, “Look at Jesus, but look at me, too!”

Ironically, the most effective things we can do for the Kingdom are usually the small, ordinary, everyday things we do. Instead of being in the spotlight and proclaiming the Kingdom as a narrative to satisfy our egos, the best thing we can do is to walk humbly with our God. We can, and should, do as Jesus tells the Gerasene Demoniac: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

I have used this illustration before but I’m going to repeat it today because it really applies to this message. There is a young boy walking along the seashore at low tide. Every now and then he comes across a starfish that got stranded on the beach by the receding tide. When he did, he would stop, pick up the starfish, and gently toss it back into the water.

A older man saw this and, after observing the young boy for several minutes, approached him. “Why are you tossing the starfish back into the ocean? There are thousands of them stranded on the beach. There’s no way you can help all of them. You can’t expect to make a difference with so many of them.”

The young boy didn’t say anything, but reached down and picked up a starfish, tossed it gently back in the water, then looked at the man and said, “I made a difference for that one.”

That’s the way we should be as Christians. We should bring the Kingdom of God to the earth one person at a time. We don’t have to have demons cast out of us or do big dramatic things in order to have an impact on this world, we simply need to bloom where we are planted.

This is a photo I took a while back. I don’t even remember where it was. I was fascinated by the scene, however, as these flowers were growing and blooming in the midst of hard pavement. The flowers bloomed where they were planted.

Likewise we should “bloom” where we are planted. We should show and share the love of Jesus Christ with the people we come into contact with on a daily or weekly basis. Little things for the Kingdom add up over time to become big things.

There is a challenge called the 365 day money challenge. It’s pretty simple. The first day you deopist a nickel, 5 cents, into your savings account. Then, you add $0.05 to your deposit on day two, making that deposit worth $0.10, bringing your total savings to $0.15.

On each subsequent day, you add a nickel to the previous day’s deposit. That means, on day 10, you deposit $0.50. On day 100, your deposit is $5.00. On the last day, number 365, your deposit is $18.40.

So $18.40 is the largest amount you will deposit. That’s as big as it gets. But all those small amounts add up at the end of the year. Any guesses how much you save if you start out with a nickel a day? The answer is $3,339.75. Now I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot of money to me!

Work for the Kingdom has the same kind of exponential multiplying affect. Little things we do for Jesus add up over time, building up lives one person at a time but having a profound effect on the Kingdom over time.

So my challenge to you this week is to do like Jesus commanded the Gerasene Demoniac: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

Create an everlasting impact on the Kingdom not by the big things you do, but by the small, everyday things. Let people cut in front of you in traffic. Hold the door open for someone. Bite your tongue instead of saying negative comments about someone. Delete that snarky social media comment instead of posting it. Tip waitstaff the way you think Jesus would tip them. Live the way Jesus lived, and love the way Jesus loved.

And if you ever buy an electronic whoopee cushion and put it under your roommate’s bed, be sure and turn it off.

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