Change: Growing Young

Change: Time
A Message on 1 Timothy 4:11-16
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
May 3, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

1 Timothy 4:11-16 (NRSV)

These are the things you must insist on and teach. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders. Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.

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This was supposed to be Confirmation Sunday. We were supposed to have some young folks that are in our confirmation class leading us in worship. The 15 of them (yes, it’s a large class for us this year) would have spent the last 12 weeks meeting with me once a week, meeting with their adult mentors once a week, and have gone through a confirmation book that delves into the various aspects and topics of Christianity and particularly what it means to be a United Methodist.

As you can see that is not happening. We were several weeks into the classes when COVID-19 forced us to stop meeting. When it became apparent that we would not be able to meet during the rest of the spring school year, we made the decision to move Confirmation Sunday to the fall. We will start classes after we are able to meet together and will celebrate their great accomplishments sometime this fall.

Because of all this I started to change the scriptures for today. We are in the midst of a sermon series titled “Change” dealing with the things in our lives–and in the church–that change. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that we should leave it alone and go ahead and explore this scripture from 1 Timothy because I think it can apply to all of us, regardless of our age.

The book of 1 Timothy is considered one of the “Pauline Epistles,” which is a fancy way of saying it is one of the letters written by the apostle Paul. He is writing to his young protege named Timothy and it is chock full o’ advice and wisdom that Paul is passing down.

The first sentence of the passage that we read today says this, “These are the things you must insist on and teach.” Okay, so what things are those?

If we back up a bit we find out. If we go all the way back to the first chapter we see Paul warning about false teachers and how important it is to express gratitude for the mercy God extends us through Jesus Christ.

In chapter 2 he discusses prayer and the often debated advice that women should remain silent and not teach or “have authority” over a man. (That is another sermon for another day.)

In chapter 3 Paul tells Timothy of the qualifications for bishops and deacons. He finishes the chapter by talking about the mystery of our religion.

In chapter 4 he speaks against false asceticism (severe self-discipline and avoidance of all forms of indulgence). He tells Timothy to not get involved in myths and “wives tales” but to “train yourself in godliness.” Then we get to the scripture we read today.

So Paul is giving Timothy advice just as our confirmation mentors give advice to their confirmands.

One of the pieces of advice he gives is to not let people dismiss you just because you are young.

I remember back when I was young. Yes, it was a long time ago and my kids think I have always been an old man, but I was young. I can remember adults not taking me seriously because I was young. Now I’m the old man that wants to yell, “Get off my yard!”

It’s a common phenomena. With age comes wisdom, and so as a result many of us… ahem… older folks believe that our age and experience make us wiser. And while I believe that is certainly true to an extent, we can also be quick to dismiss something that those of us much younger than us might believe.

Aging is an interesting thing. It is part of our world that changes. Our bodies age a little every day. It may be almost imperceptible to us as the days go by one after another, but it does happen.

During the first part of our lives, when we are kids, we want to be older. We can’t wait to be tall enough to ride the “big rides” at Six Flags (“You must be this tall to ride this ride.”) or to be able to ride a bicycle without training wheels. We can’t wait to be old enough to get our drivers license (although that is often not the case today), to graduate from high school, to be able to vote, to turn 21 (for some strange reason), to meet the love of our life, and to have a stable, nice income.

And then ironically in our older years we wish we were younger. We wish we didn’t have what I call Rice Krispies knees (they snap, crackle, and pop), that we didn’t get out breath so easily, that our eyes and ears worked the way they used to, and that we would again dream dreams and look forward to the future.

We change when we age, both physically and emotionally. I think we change spiritually as well.

It has been said by others much more intelligent than I that when it comes to our faith we are either moving toward being more like Jesus or moving away from that. There is no staying the same. It contradicts one of those laws of physics that says an object going up will stop momentarily before coming back down. Our faith is in perpetual motion, either going toward Christ or away from him.

As we discussed a couple of weeks ago when we talked about “time,” the concept of time is pretty much a human construct. We base time on the rotation of the earth and the earth around the sun. And yet God transcends time and space. There never was a time when God was not.

Getting old is a human condition. We age. Most of the cells in our body regenerate but eventually for a variety of reasons that regeneration starts to break down. Our skin loses its elasticity and we get things that we call “wrinkles.” Our eyes lose their flexibility to focus and our lenses can become clouded, what we call “cataracts.” The cells in our brain change and we don’t remember things as well as we used to.

We change. We age. We grow old. But God does not. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Earlier during the Children’s Message Natalie talked about Peter Pan, who was known as the boy who never grew old. That fact is even in the official title of the play, which is “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.”

The story and play was written by J.M. Barrie back in the early 1900s. What you may not be aware of, however, is that it is believed that Barrie based much of his character Peter Pan on his older brother, David, who died at 14 years old in an ice skating accident. Barrie and his mother thought of the deceased David as being a boy forever. (Source: Wikipedia)

Now I know that’s sad and kind of a downer, but the point I want to make is that the character of Peter Pan is upbeat and lively. He exhibits both the innocence and curiosity of a child, and yet the bravery of an adult, saying “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”

If you think about it, as Christians we should almost be growing young spiritually while we are growing old physically. Hear me out on this.

When the little kids were coming to Jesus and the disciples tried to shoo them away, Jesus told the disciples to stop it and let the kids come to him, adding, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” — Mark 10:15

In Matthew 18:1-5 it says, “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

So maybe spiritually we are to be like children? Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t mature in our faith as well, but for us to keep certain characteristics that children have in our spiritual life.

What kind of things? Things like wonder and awe, excitement and anticipation. Being able to believe without seeing. To have trust in others and to expect the best from people without judging them for their skin color, what language they speak, or where they are on the socioeconomic ladder.

To love their parents and seek wisdom from them. To know the comfort of being tucked into bed and kissed goodnight. To know who to run to when they get hurt, and to feel the care and compassion as they treat their “boo-boos.”

So maybe, just maybe, as our bodies are growing old our spirits should be growing young?

Years ago the late Rich Mullins wrote a song titled, “Growing Young,” based primarily on the parable of the prodigal son. Here are some of the lyrics:

I’ve gone so far from my home
I’ve seen the world and I have known
So many secrets
I wish now I did not know
‘Cause they have crept into my heart
They have left it cold and dark
And bleeding,
Bleeding and falling apart

And everybody used to tell me big boys don’t cry
Well I’ve been around enough to know that that was the lie
That held back the tears in the eyes of a thousand prodigal sons
Well we are children no more, we have sinned and grown old
And our Father still waits and He watches down the road
To see the crying boys come running back to His arms
And be growing young
Growing young

So what happens when our faith has those childlike characteristics? We become closer to Jesus. We live in ways pleasing to God, and draw closer to God. And we change our behavior.

As Paul tells us in the scripture we read today: “…set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”

In other words, don’t just talk the talk. Our actions, what we say, how we act, must be done in “love, in faith, in purity.”

Let me give you an example. There are groups of us United Methodist Pastors who talk to each other regularly. We have a group that meets by Zoom once a week, and I am on several Facebook groups where pastors can share concerns or seek the advice of other pastors.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak and the suspending of in-person worship services one of the big questions on everyone’s mind is, “When will we be able to worship in-person again?”

Here at JFUMC our CLC met this last week and made the decision that we would not meet in-person until June 7 at the earliest. This decision was made after hours and hours of reading reports, watching videos of experts, and prayer.

I think that date is pretty much the one that a majority of United Methodist Churches are aiming for. And as expected, there are some church members who disagree with that.

However, there’s a difference between disagreeing with something and being mean about it. Some of my colleagues have been sharing how some people in their congregation are responding to the decision to delay in-person worship, and frankly some of them aren’t very nice about it.

Now I want to say I am proud of the congregation here in Jacksonville. I know congregation members here who disagree with our decision, but they are nice and respectful about it. It is done in love. And boy, do I appreciate that!

But other pastors have shared where congregation members have disagreed in… how should I put this… “non-loving” ways. Well, really, in mean ways.

The term “mean Christians” should be an oxymoron, a phrase that contradicts itself. And if these “mean Christians” treat their pastor that way, how are they treating others they come into contact with, especially those unchurched people who don’t have a relationship with Jesus Christ? Hmmmm.

No. “Growing young” means growing in faith, growing in Christ, and living like Jesus.

So, my challenge to you this week is to be “growing young.” No matter your age, no matter the shape of your physical body, seek to grow young in your faith and in “love, in faith, in purity.” Remember the sacrifice Jesus made for you–and for everyone–on the cross, and respond to that gift of grace not with meanness, but with love.

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

Change: Time

Change: Time
A Message on Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
April 19, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (NRSV)

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

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You know, it’s funny how things change over time. Months ago, when I was planning out sermons, I thought it might be a good idea to do a sermon series on “change.” The General Conference of the United Methodist Church was coming up in May in Minnesota and from what almost everybody was saying there would be some pretty big changes coming to the United Methodist Church. So I planned out a six-week sermon series on the topic of “change” from a biblical perspective.

Well, as you know, things… well… uh… for lack of a better term… changed. COVID-19 came along and the whole world found itself in a true pandemic. The General Conference of of the UMC has been postponed and will now occur sometime in 2021 (no specific dates have been announced to my knowledge).

So I thought about… well… changing the sermon series to something else. But then the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that preaching a sermon series on change is very appropriate for what we are going through.

I don’t know a single person whose life has not been somehow changed by this pandemic. So, for the next seven weeks (I had scheduled a youth Sunday in there that will be moved to the fall so that added a Sunday) we will be exploring different aspects of change in the Bible.

Today, we explore the topic of time.

The scripture we read today from Ecclesiastes 3 is one of the more “famous” verses of the Bible. For folks my age or so it was made “famous” by a group called “The Byrds” who sang a song titled, “Turn, turn, turn.” The group didn’t work too hard on the lyrics of the song as they went straight to the Bible.

“To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep”

That’s a lot of talk about time, but let’s back up a bit and work on a definition of time.

Time is one of those things that you know what it is but have difficulty in giving a definition. I went straight to the dictionary, Mariam Webster to be exact. There I find several definitions but the one I like the best is “b”: “a nonspatial continuum that is measured in terms of events which succeed one another from past through present to future.”

Wow! So I checked another online dictionary and found this: “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.”

Wow again! That’s pretty deep stuff, huh?

Now we usually talk of time in terms of our ability to measure it. We talk about days, hours, minutes and seconds. We call that time.

We talk about time in confirmation classes, especially in reference to God. The gears in those young minds get to whirring when we talk about how God does not have a beginning, that there never was a time when God was not. (Think about that for a while…)

And then we make it even more interesting by reading from the first chapter of John where John says “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” And then we talk about who the “Word” was, and they figure out John is talking about Jesus. And then it dawns on them that Jesus, who is God, has been with God always, from beyond the beginning of the earth. So then Jesus transcends time and space as well. Boom! Mind blown!

If you think about it our sense of time is based very much on our solar system. We know it takes 24 hours for the earth to make one rotation on its axis. We call that a “day.” We break that period of time up into 24 equal segments which we call hours. Then we take an hour and divide it up into 60 equal segments that we call “minutes.” Then we take a minute and divide it up into 60 equal segments again and we get what we call seconds.

Going the other way we count off 365 days (it is actually 365.2422 days but 365 is pretty close) that it takes the earth to travel in its orbit around the sun, and we call that a “year.”

But what if we were on another planet in another solar system? What kind of measurements would we use?

Or what if we divided days up into 10 equal parts, kinda like a decimal system of time keeping? There would be 10 hours in a day, 100 minutes in an hour, 100 seconds in a minute… you get the idea. (It would make the math much easier!)

Time is something that can be difficult to perceive. The famous genius Albert Einstein talked about time being relative in his famous “theory of relativity” (which has nothing to do with your family tree, by the way.)

Here’s an overly simple and highly inaccurate example. An hour spent doing your favorite activity, for me that would be fishing, seems to go by very quickly. It doesn’t seem to last long. But if I have a bad tooth that’s really hurting me at midnight and I have to wait until the next morning until I can go see Dr. Brad Westbrook for him to fix it, those hours will seem like they are dragging by very slowly.

For a little four-letter word time sure can make us think deeply, can’t it?

The writer of the scripture we read today was doing some deep thinking as well. Traditionally it was believed that King Solomon, known as one of the most intelligent rulers ever, was the author. A lot of modern scholars believe someone other than Solomon wrote it, perhaps another wise King.

Ecclesiastes is an interesting book in that it kind of has a pessimistic quality about it. It’s not quite as bad as Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh books, but it is not a happy clappy book.

This is from the first chapter: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” — Ecclesiastes 1:2-3

The NIV translates verse two as “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

The Message uses this language: “Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.] There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke. What’s there to show for a lifetime of work, a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?”

That reminds me of the old country song by Hoyt Axton, “Work your fingers to the bone, what do you get? Boney fingers.”

So the author of Ecclesiastes questioningly laments the purpose of one’s life, and then in the third chapter tells us there is a time for everything.

So what does that mean? I think it means that in our lives we can expect both ups and downs, highs and lows, joys and sorrows. Things change. Time and change are interrelated.

As humans we don’t like change very much, do we. Oh we may say that we do, but our actions often betray that attitude.

Back before the Coronavirus when we would go see Emily at College Station we almost always ate at a restaurant called “Wings and More.” I just love their chicken wings. And I always order the same thing. They have a pretty wide selection of items on their menu, but I always order the same thing: 10 wings with medium sauce with extra celery and blue cheese dressing.

How many of you drive the same way to work? Have the same thing for dinner on a specific night. Watch the same programs on tv on the same days.

Routines make us comfortable. They are known and participating in them brings us a sense of safety. And when change comes it makes us uncomfortable.

Since we are talking about time just think about the time changes. We “spring forward” one hour in the spring to implement daylight saving time and “fall back” one hour in the fall to go back to “regular time.”

I’m not a fan of the time change. I never have been. My mom kept a copy of a handwritten letter I sent to the President of the United States when I was about 10 years old, complaining of the implementation of daylight saving time because our milk cow, which I had to milk twice a day, didn’t understand or observe the time change.

I like the illustration about the Native American who said “Only the government would believe that if you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket, sew it to the bottom, and have a longer blanket.”

Even worse than time change, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world of time upside down. The kids no longer have to get up and go to school. Many people are working from home instead of driving to an office. My brother that lives in Trophy Club said he has gained an additional hour a day by not having to make his 30-minute commute through traffic to get to work.

If you think about it, though, time is somewhat of an equalizer. Everybody gets the same amount of time everyday. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, good looking and beautiful or… well… not. Everybody gets 24 hours each day, no more, no less.

As Christians, it is how we let our faith shape how we use that time that matters.

Steven Curtis Chapman sang a song several years ago titled, “Next 5 Minutes.” Some of the lyrics are:

Every moment God is giving is precious
Every heartbeat; every breath I take;
We’ll never have them back once they’ve left us.
There will never be another right now
So right now

I’m living the next 5 minutes
Like these are my last 5 minutes,
‘Cause I know the next 5 minutes
May be all I have
And after the next 5 minutes
Turn into the last 5 minutes,
I’m taking the next 5 minutes
And starting all over again

Now there is a belief that our lives are put on a predetermined timer by God, and when it’s my time to go there’s nothing we can do about that. The problem with that is that it overrules free will that is given to us by God. We can’t engage in life-risking behaviors and then blame God if we lose our life. We can’t step out in front of a fast moving truck and say, “Well, if it’s my time, it’s my time.” No. God doesn’t work like that.

Now that’s not to say that God doesn’t have control over our lives. I believe he does, but he also leaves room for our free will to play a role.

Our first reading today, from Psalm 31, reads

But I trust in you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love. — Psalm 31:14-16

Time changes things. Our bodies get older and start to not function properly. We find that we can no longer do what we used to be able to do. The world in which we live changes with time.

But God never changes. He can change his mind, that is illustrated in the Bible, but his nature never changes. It transcends time and space. And his love for us never changes. We experience that on Easter and every Sunday as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And we can find comfort in knowing that our savior, Jesus Christ, transcends time and space. His death on the cross and resurrection has redeemed us, has given us the gift of transcending time and space after our time on this earth is through. Jesus offers us eternity, which is a really, really long time.

So my challenge to you this week is to not worry so much about time. Put your time to good use, especially during this pandemic when our routines are turned upside down and inside out. Put your trust in the creator of time, the one who transcends it, the one that has always been and always will be.

The times, as Bob Dylan once sang, they may be changing, but God’s love for you through Jesus Christ does not.

There is a time for everything, but there is a love that is even bigger than time. Live in that love, embrace it, accept it, knowing how great is the Father’s love for us.

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

Easter: He Is Risen!

Easter: He Is Risen
A Message on Matthew 28:1-10
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
April 12, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

Matthew 28:1-10 (NRSV)

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

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The resurrection of Jesus is the integral center of the Christian Faith. It is essential to who we are as a people, as followers of Jesus Christ, and as United Methodists.

We can have theological discussions about the two sacraments of the United Methodist Church: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We can have theological discussions on the three expressions of Wesleyan grace: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying. We can get into very specific debates about church membership and what rights and responsibilities membership includes.

But there is very little theological debate about the resurrection of Jesus. It is not a metaphor or simile. It is not a parable. It is not a tall tale or a fable that is a fictional account meant to teach a moral lesson. It is truth. It happened. No ifs, ands, or buts.

We know Jesus was dead. Roman soldiers were the ones who crucified Jesus and the two thieves, and they were well versed in crucifixions. Ancient sources other than the Bible, such as the ancient historian Josephus, tell us that crucifixions were common in that part of the world at that time. Thousands of people were crucified to death before Jesus was crucified. Sometimes up to 500 people a day were crucified in olive orchards, nailed to the trees. It was brutal, and it was horrible.

The soldiers were experienced and, for lack of a better description, “good” at crucifixion. They were professionals. They knew what they were doing, and they did it… “well.”

One of the theories skeptics will pose about Jesus’ resurrection was that he wasn’t really dead, just unconscious, or passed out. When they put him in the tomb he revived and was able to move the stone and walk away.

Uh, no. Jesus was dead. The soldiers knew when someone was dead and when they were just unconscious. Their job was killing, and they knew when someone was dead. And in the 19th chapter of the Gospel of John we read that one of the soldiers thrust a spear into Jesus’ side to ensure he was dead.

Jesus was dead. There is no doubt about that. No pulse. No breath. Dead. Period.

His lifeless body was taken from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. They hastily put spices on the body and wrapped him in linen, working against the timeline of sundown when the Sabbath would begin. They then placed Jesus in a tomb carved out of solid rock, and rolled a huge stone in front of it, sealing it shut.

It stayed that way all that night and the next day and night. Roman soldiers stood guard at the tomb, having been given strict orders to make sure no one disturbed it, making sure none of the rumors about Jesus rising from the dead were true.

Before dawn on the first day of the week, the day we call Sunday, some women went to the tomb with the intention of putting spices and cloth on the body, finishing what was started on Friday afternoon.

But when they arrive they are surprised. The spices and cloth won’t be needed after all. Instead, according to Matthew’s gospel, there is an earthquake and they encounter an angel who rolls the stone away and sits on it. The guards are so shocked they shake and “become like dead men.” To me that sounds like they passed out from fear.

The angel tells them that Jesus isn’t there, that he had been raised from the dead, as he said he would. They decided to run and tell the others when suddenly they encounter the resurrected Jesus. He tells them to go and tell the disciples to go to Galilee and that he will meet them there.

Now there are differing accounts of what happens at the tomb that early Easter morning. In the Gospel of Mark we find two Marys, Mary Magdalene and Mary mother of James, and a woman named Salome headed to the tomb when they encounter a “young man” in a white robe sitting in the tomb, tell them that Jesus has risen.

In the Gospel of Luke we find that the women are not named, but upon arriving at the tomb they encounter two men in dazzling clothes inside the tomb that tell them that Jesus is risen.

In the Gospel of John we find Mary Magdalene going to the tomb alone, finding the stone rolled away, and then she runs and finds Peter and another disciple (who is not named) and then they all three go to the tomb. They enter it and look around but don’t see anything but the linen wrappings. Peter and the other disciple leave, and while Mary is crying she sees two angels that appear in the tomb where Jesus was. They tell her that Jesus is resurrected. She turns around and see someone and starts talking to him, only to find out that it is Jesus himself.

So in all four gospels we see variations in how Jesus’ resurrection is announced, but one thing is common in all four gospels: Jesus is no longer dead! He has been resurrected from the dead!

Now there is quite a bit of speculation as to just how Jesus was resurrected from the dead, what kind of process it involved and the science behind it. Interestingly none of the four gospels say. They don’t describe the how, but that indeed it has happened!

My belief is that it really doesn’t matter how it happened. After all, God’s ways are higher than the ways of humans, and his understanding no one can fathom. We don’t have to know how it happened, but only have faith and assurance that it did happen!

Jesus’ resurrection changes everything. Absolutely everything!

Now there are different religions in the world. Almost every religion seeks to provide answers for three questions: 1. Where did we come from? 2. What is our purpose? And 3. What happens to us after we die?

Some religions espouse reincarnation, that after we die we come back as an animal or some other creature. Some think that if you live a holy life or die for a holy cause then when you die you go to paradise.

But only Christianity has God coming to earth as a human, living among us, and then dying at the hands of men. It really is a very unique religion, in many ways upside down and backwards from the world.

If you think about it, Christianity really doesn’t make a lot of sense from a human logic point of view, does it? God, who created everything, decides to put on human form and come to earth. He does so in a very humble way, being born in a small village in a remote location to a mother who was just a common, ordinary person.

This god/human, whose name is Jesus, grows up as the son of a carpenter, building things with his hands. It’s not until he is 33 that he begins any ministry, and when he does he stirs up trouble with the religious leaders everywhere he goes. People get mad and want to kill him! That doesn’t sound like a God, does it? And finally at one point they actually succeed in killing him, not in a noble way but in a horribly painful, publicly humiliating method used for common criminals.

Who would want to follow a religion based on that?

The late C.S. Lewis offers what I believe to be one of the best descriptions of that dilemma: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

The resurrection of Jesus is infinitely important to Christians! It is the most important aspect of being a Christian.

There are people who call themselves Christians that say they don’t believe in the virgin birth. There are people who call themselves Christians that may not believe everything in the Bible. There are differing opinions on a lot of things about Christianity. But I contend that one cannot be a Christian if they don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.


It is that important to the Christian faith. It really is.

When we recite the Apostles Creed, we say that we believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, who was “crucified, dead, and buried, the third day he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven.”

In the Nicene Creed we say, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ… For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven…”

Even the Apostle Paul points out, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” — 1 Corinthians 15:17

As Christians, and as United Methodists, we are a resurrection people. We are a people who not only believe in Jesus Christ’s resurrection, but also believe that through our faith in Jesus Christ that we, too, will be resurrected after we die.

Because we are a resurrection people, then, we are a people of hope.

Paul points this out in the 5th chapter of Romans. “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but 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.” — Romans 5:1-5

Because we are a resurrection people we should live our lives differently. I don’t think that means we isolate ourselves from the world but that we have the power of the Holy Spirit to live in the world without being “of” the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world, hasn’t it? I know of no one on the planet that hasn’t been somehow affected by it. And of all the shortages I don’t think anyone could have dreamed that the one item hardest to find would be toilet paper.

COVID-19 has changed our “normal.” Children no longer go to schools to be educated. Those in hospitals cannot have a loved one stay with them. Handshakes no longer happen. Hugs, outside of the people we are quarantined with, don’t happen. Churches, which are usually packed full on Easter Sunday, are empty today. I cannot describe to you how disturbingly strange it is to be preaching this sermon on this Easter morning to an empty sanctuary. It is surreal.

But as Christians we are equipped to live through this pandemic with something that others may not have: hope. We are a resurrection people, therefore we have hope.

As such we should live differently. Now by that I don’t mean that we should ignore social distance recommendations or not follow isolation rules. No. But even though we can’t gather together physically to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus this Easter, we have some really great opportunities to show that the church isn’t a building, but that the church is its people.

We can show that we are resurrection people by our attitudes, by not panicking and “awfulizing” about the current situation, especially on social media.

We can show that we are a resurrection people by actions, checking on our neighbors and friends by phone, video call, or email or text.

We can show that we are a resurrection people by our generosity, helping out those who find themselves in need, those who have lost jobs or who have had to shut down their business. There are a lot of people in this situation now, and a good way to express God’s love is to give them what I call “green agape.” Do it anonymously, not expecting anything in return. Be generous, as God has been generous with us.

We can show that we are a resurrection people by being slow to anger and quick to forgive. Tempers can run short when people get stressed, when our routines are completely thrown upside down, when we feel like we have no control over our future. What better time to be slow to anger and quick to forgive?

Years ago the late musician Rich Mullins was on a tour in Ireland. He said they have a saying over there. If a group of people are in a pub and are laughing, smiling, and joyous, someone else viewing them will say, “I want what they are having!”

This pandemic gives us as Christians many opportunities to reach those who are unchurched, those who don’t have an active relationship with Jesus Christ. We can live our lives without fear, filled with love and grace and love for others, so much so that they will view our actions during this dark time in our history and say, “I want what they are having!”

That is why we are a resurrection people. Jesus died and was resurrected out of love for us. When we live as resurrection people we live for others, not ourselves. We live out of love for god and love for others, which is what Jesus calls us to do with the great commandment.

So my challenge to you this Easter is to remember we are a resurrection people! So live like it! Let us not live in a spirit of fear or anxiety, but let us live as resurrection people, full of love, grace, and indescribable joy! Yes, joy, even in the midst of a pandemic! Joy for the blessings we have been blessed with in this life, and for knowing the blessing of eternal life that is promised to those who believe.

After all, we ARE a resurrection people!

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

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 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.