Blessed are the pure in heart…

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

Matthew 5:8 (NRSV)

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

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

I was fascinated by the answers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trinity

“The Trinity”
A Message on Romans 8:12-17
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
May 30, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

Romans 8:12-17 (NRSV)

12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

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Last week was Pentecost, where we celebrated the Holy Spirit coming on the disciples.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday when we celebrate the triune, three-in-one God.

Now at first the Trinity seems kinda simple: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But there is a lot more to it than that. A whole lot more.

Bible trivia question: Where in the Bible is the Trinity mentioned? Do you know? Well, it’s a trick question. The word “trinity” is never mentioned in the Holy Scriptures. Nope. Not one time.

The closest that I know of is at the end of Matthew’s gospel when Jesus is giving the disciples the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19-20a

You may be thinking, “Well now hold on a minute! How can we have a “Trinity Sunday” if the word is not in the Bible?” Well, that’s a very good question, and here’s an answer. While the word itself is not in the Bible, the concept of the Trinity certainly is contained in the scriptures.

So, then where did we get the word “Trinity”?

We get the word “Trinity” from a couple of Latin words. The first part of the word comes from the Latin trias, which means (as you probably guessed) “three.” The last part of the word comes from the Latin unitas, which means “unity.” So the word “Trinity” means “three unity” or “three united,” the three persons of God united in one.

Okay, so we have the word, we have the concept, we have the Sunday. Good enough, right?

Well, not really.

Here is the challenge of the Trinity: How can three be one? And why is it important that three be one?

Well it goes back to the 10 Commandments. What is the first commandment? “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:1-3

There it is. One God. To use a big word, God commands his people to be “monotheistic.” We are to have one God, and only one God. Not two, not three, but one. Single. Uno.

Among the world religions, many are polytheistic, meaning they have multiple gods. Take the Greek religion that was present in the known world at the time of Jesus. Remember Greek mythology from your high school days? (Do they teach that anymore?) The Greeks had lots of gods. They had a god for everything: Zeus was the god of lightning and thunder; Poseidon, as we know from the movie “The Little Mermaid,” was the god of the seas and water. Apollo was the God of the sun, and of course, Aphrodite was the goddess of love.

The three major religions of the world, though, share a monotheistic theology. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all belive in one God. One, singular God.

In Christianity, unlike Judaism or Islam, we believe in the Trinity, three persons who are one.

Now the simple thing would be to consider Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three equal but separate Gods. But… that violates Commandment #1, the one about having one God, and only one God.

So the Trinity is three persons in unity as one God. Three in one.

One of the big challenges of the Trinity is explaining it.

There are several attempts to explain the Trinity using analogies. For example, a three-leaf clover. Each person of the Trinity is like a leaf on a three leaf clover, separate but part of a whole. Another example is how a person can be a daughter, a sister, and a mother, and yet be one person. Another common one is how you can have ice, water, and steam, and yet it is the same H2O.

But the trouble with those analogies is that theologically speaking, they are lacking. They don’t convey the entire reality of the Trinity.

When we explore the Trinity in confirmation class I share a resource that I did not discover in seminary or in any of my theology books, but a cartoon video on YouTube. Yep. And it is the best explanation of the challenge in explaining the Trinity in analogies.

The video is a low-budget video produced by a company called “Lutheran Satire” and is called “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies.” In the video St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is asked to explain the Trinity to Donall and Conall, two Irish peasants.

Now I thought of showing the video this morning, but we stream our services and I’m pretty sure showing the video would violate some copyright thing, so here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to tell you about the video, and then post a link to it on the church’s Facebook page where you can watch it later. (Here is the link to the video: )

So Donall or Conall (I don’t know who is who) ask Patrick to tell them about this Trinity thing, but “remember that we’re simple people, without your education, and books and learning, but we’re hearing about all of this for the first time. So try to keep it simple, okay, Patrick?”

Patrick then tells them there are three persons of the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, yet there is only one God. They give him a blank stare and say, “Don’t get what you’re saying, Patrick.” Then the other says, “We’re not picking up what you’re laying down, Patrick.” Then the first says, “Could you use an analogy, Patrick?”

Patrick then tells them that the Trinity is like water, where you can find it in three different forms: liquid, ice, and vapor.

Donall (I think) looks at Patrick and says, “That’s modalism, Patrick!… An ancient heresy confessed by teachers such as Noetus and Sabellius that espouses that God is not three distinct persons, but that he merely reveals himself in three different forms. This heresy was clearly condemned in canon one at the first council of Constantinople in 381 AD and those who confess it cannot be considered a part of church catholic.”

Patrick then says the Trinity is like the sun in the sky where you have the star, and the light, and the heat.

The two peasants respond with, “Oh Patrick! Come on, Patrick, that’s Arianism!”


“Yes, Arianism, Patrick. A theology which states that Christ and the Holy Spirit are creations of the Father and not one in nature with him, exactly how heat and light are not the star itself but are merely creations of the star.”

A flustered Patrick then starts to use an analogy of a three leaf clover, but is stopped by Donnel who points out that Patrick is about to commit partialism, “… a heresy that asserts that the Father and the son and the Holy Spirit are not distinct persons of the Godhead but are different parts of God, each composing one-third of the divine.”

Patrick tries a couple of more times before finally blurting out real fast, “Fine! The Trinity is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by human reason but is understood only through faith and is best confessed in the words of the Athanasian Creed, which states that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity, not confusing the persons or dividing the substance, that we are compelled by the Christian truth to confess that each distinct person is God and Lord, and that the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, co-equal in majesty.”

The two peasants look at Patrick before one of them says, “Then why didn’t you just say that, Patrick?” The other says, “Yeah, quit beating around the bush, Patrick.”

So you see the challenge in coming up with a good explanation of the Trinity? It’s a pretty steep hill to climb.

And while we don’t see the word Trinity in the scriptures, we do find the concept of the Trinity there. Today’s scripture that we read from the 8th chapter of Romans is an example of that. Let’s look at it closer.

Paul is writing this in a letter to the church of believers in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire. As such, polytheistic religions were the common spiritual beliefs in the city. And a small but growing group of Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, were trying to figure out how to believe in one God and how to live that faith out amongst all the polytheistic folks living around them.

Paul starts out in the selection we read today by differentiating between the flesh, which is the world, and those who are led by the Spirit, meaning the Holy Spirit. We have to choose one of those. We can’t serve the true God and the world both. It’s an all or nothing proposition, and we have to choose. “…for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” Romans 8:13-14

Thus Paul talks about the Holy Spirit, one person of the Trinity, and how by its power we can become “children of God.” We are adopted in the family of God. And because we are adopted into God’s family, and are his children, then we have a special relationship to God in which we can consider him to be our father. God the father, another person of the Trinity.

Paul writes in verst 15 and 16, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…” Romans 8:15-16

So we have the Holy Spirit, and we have God. Then Paul brings in the third person of the Trinity: Jesus. “…and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Romans 8:17

So there we have the three persons of the Trinity, all in one short passage of scripture: God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three in one. Now notice that Paul doesn’t use the term “Trinity,” but the concepts of the Trinity are certainly there.

So my challenge to you, on this Trinity Sunday, is to worship the triune God. Remember that we believe in one God expressed in Trinity with three persons, all “equal in glory, co-equal in majesty.”

As Christians we believe in God, the creator of the universe, all powerful, all knowing, and eternal.

We also believe in Jesus Christ as the son of God, the Messiah, who came to earth and lived as a human, but was 100 percent God and 100 percent human; that Jesus was arrested, beaten, and crucified on a cross until he was dead. He was buried in a tomb, but on the third day he rose again, defeating death and, as the perfect sacrifice, removing the sins of those who believe in him.

And at Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, empowering them to do the work that Jesus called them (and calls us) to do. And because of Jesus and the Holy Spirit we are adopted as Children of God and co-heirs with Jesus Christ.

It’s kinda complicated. It’s a Holy Mystery, but it works. Thank God!

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

“Joy,” A Message on 1 Peter 1:1-9

A Message on 1 Peter 1:3-9
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
May 16, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

1 Peter 1:3-9 (NRSV)

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7 so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

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As Christians we should be joyful. We should be filled with joy. Not just when things are going our way, but even when–and perhaps especially when–things are tough for us. We are to be joyful in all situations.

Yeah, easier said than done, right.

I’m going to be honest here. This past week was a tough one for me. I’m not going into details but there were many things that happened that got me down. It’s just part of being a pastor, I know. It seems like 80 percent of my time is taken up by issues and challenges that are administrative more so than religious. Lots of problems, not much Jesus.

It seemed like it was all adding up. It was really getting me down. I didn’t have much joy.

At the first of every week I look to see what I will be preaching on the next Sunday. I then think and pray on that throughout the week before writing my message.

I knew the topic this week was going to be “joy.” But to be honest, I didn’t feel much joy in my heart. To use a Winnie the Pooh comparison, I wanted to be joyous like Tigger but felt much more like Eeyore.

But I kept returning to the scripture we read today from Peter, Simon Peter, the man that Jesus said would be the “rock” of the church.

In this scripture Peter doesn’t claim that followers of Christ will have easy, problem-free lives. Just the opposite.

In verse 6 he says, “even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials.”

But what is important is what he says right before then: “In this you rejoice…”

Put together, it reads, “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials.”

We find this theme of “joy in the midst of trials” in other places in the Bible. James, the half brother of Jesus, writes in the first chapter of the book that bears his name: “2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4

In the Old Testament book of Habakkuk we find these wise words written:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights. Habakkuk 3:17-19

When we are followers of Jesus Christ we are to be joyous, especially when times are tough.

Let’s try an experiment. Clear your minds. Now think of one friend that you like to be around. Not your spouse or significant other, but a friend. Someone who you enjoy spending time with. Okay, do you have someone in mind?

Now, let me ask you a question: Would you describe that person as joyful? I’ll go out on a limb and say that the odds are that the answer would be yes.

Joyful people are contagious people. (In a good way, not like COVID.) People enjoy being around joyful people.

Nobody wants to be around an old grumpy sour-faced person. People prefer Tiggers to Eeyores.

As Christians we are called to spread the “Good News.” We are to tell others about the incredible love God has for each one of us, a love that is so incredible that he allowed his own son to die a horrible, painful, and cruel death on a cross. Our joy comes from the fact that Jesus didn’t stay dead. He rose from the grave, defeating death and giving every human the opportunity not only to have their sins forgiven (which is impossible for us to do by ourselves), but to be promised an eternal life in a perfect place.

Peter sums that up this way in the scripture we read today: “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” 1 Peter 1:8-9

Faith can give us joy. Faith in Jesus Christ gives us the power of the Holy Spirit to not only persevere during tough times, but to even be joyous. And as Christians, we are called to support other Christians when they are down, to help them reach a turning point.

My turning point came this week when I met with five of my fellow clergy brothers and sisters on our weekly small group Zoom meeting. I shared with them that I was feeling down and having a tough time. You know what they did? They made me laugh. Yep. Yes, they supported me, they lifted me up and spoke words of encouragement as well, but the best thing they did was to make me laugh. They helped restore my joy.

Years ago a man named Norman Cousins was the editor of the magazine the Saturday Evening Post. Cousins suffered from ankylosing spondylitis, a very painful disease of the spine. His doctors were trying everything possible, but to no avail. Then he took things into his own hand. He locked himself in a room and watched Marx brothers movies. [Imitate Groucho and say, “Some of you will remember those…”] He sought to fill his life with as much laughter and joy as he could. As a result his condition improved.

Joy begets joy. A joyful Christian results in more joyful Christians. A grumpy Christian does not result in more grumpy Christians. It results in fewer Christians.

So my challenge to you today is to ask yourself: Am I a joyful Christian? Do I rejoice in the Lord regardless of my circumstances, and especially if I’m going through something difficult? Am I joyful because I have Jesus in my heart?

Joyful Christians result in more joyful Christians. Be joyful and make a friend. Be a joyful friend. And then be joyful as you lead a friend to Christ.

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


A Message on John 20:19-29
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
April 11, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

John 20:19-29 (NRSV)

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Jesus and Thomas
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

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Today we continue in the Gospel of John where we ended last week. If you remember (and it was Easter, so I hope you remember), Jesus, who was crucified and dead and buried, didn’t stay dead. The tomb was empty on that first Easter morning. (Praise God!)

The scripture we read today picks up right after Mary Magdalene tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

So Mary encounters the risen Jesus outside the empty tomb on the first day of the week, which is Sunday. That same day, in the evening, the disciples are gathered together trying to figure out what in the world is going on. They are confused, and they are scared. Real scared.

The scripture we read says they had the doors locked “for fear of the Jews.” Now at first this might seem kind of strange since all the disciples were Jewish. Jesus was Jewish as well. But the Jewish religious leaders had a lot of power, even though the Romans were the occupying force in that part of the world at the time.

Those Jewish leaders exhibited that power when they had Jesus arrested and then convinced the Romans to crucify him. Ironically, they didn’t want to do it themselves because it violated their religious laws, but it was perfectly okay for the Romans to do it on their behalf. Yeah.

So the disciples are gathered behind locked doors on that evening of the resurrection. They are scared, and worried, because they are afraid that the Jewish leaders will do the same thing to them as they did to Jesus. They were afraid they would be killed as well. So they locked the doors.

Even though the doors are locked, Jesus shows up among them. Poof, he’s there. I don’t know about you, but if I had been in that room I would have been going through a whole lot of emotions. Fear, because people don’t just appear out of nowhere. Joy, because Jesus was alive. Scepticism, because dead people don’t come back to life. Confusion, because how can you figure out what all this means?

So Jesus shows up and what is the first thing he says to them? “Peace be with you.” (Being United Methodist, there’s a part of me that wonders if they responded back to Jesus, “And also with you.” Probably not, though.)

“Peace be with you” was a common greeting phrase in the first century. In Luke 10 and Matthew 10 we find Jesus giving instructions to the 70 followers that he is sending out to tell others about him. In Luke 10:5-6 he says, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.”

And there are Jesus’ words in John 14:27 as well: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.”

Jesus gives a similar greeting to the disciples, “Peace be with you.” And he does it not only once, but twice at the first meeting without Thomas, but then again with the meeting with Thomas present.

In the first meeting after the greeting he shows them the scars on his hands and side. Why did he do that? If you think about it, being God he could have had the skin grow back over the scars where they were not visible at all.

But Jesus didn’t do that. Why? I think it was to prove to the disciples that he was who he said he was. But I think it was also for Thomas’ benefit.

Now Thomas kinda gets a bad rap, if you ask me. He is one of the original 12 disciples that Jesus calls to follow him. He follows Jesus, hears his teachings, sees the miracles, and is a passionate follower and believer.

If we back up to the 11th chapter of John we find Jesus finding out that his friend, Lazarus, was sick. Instead of leaving immediately, he stayed two more days where he was, and then said, “Okay, let’s go to Judea to see Lazarus.”

The disciples pointed out, rightly so, that it might not be a good idea to do that. Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, lived in Bethany, which was right outside of Jerusalem in Judea. The disciples tell Jesus they don’t think it’s a good idea to go there because the last time they were there the people tried to stone Jesus.

But Jesus tells them he’s going anyway, and he’s going there to wake Lazarus up from his sleep. Well the disciples took this literally, so much so that Jesus has to tell them that Lazarus is, indeed, already dead. He tells them, “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”

At that point Thomas, the very same person we call “Doubting Thomas,” makes a bold statement to his fellow disciples: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Now that’s a pretty bold statement, if you ask me. I don’t see much doubt there, do you?

Later, in the 14th chapter of John, Thomas makes another statement in response to something Jesus says that we use a lot at funerals. Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas speaks up once again, asking Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” John 14:5

It is then that Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

So we have two instances of Thomas speaking up, once saying that he and the other disciples are willing to risk their lives to follow Jesus, and then a question of clarification about where Jesus is going and how they can follow him if they don’t know where is going.

And yet Thomas gets stuck with the nickname, “Doubting Thomas,” all because of the scripture we read today.

Now there are some interesting things about this scripture. One question I have is this: when Jesus showed up and Thomas was present, did Thomas actually place his finger in the nail holes on Jesus hands and did he actually stick his hand in Jesus’ side?

The scripture doesn’t say that he did. Now there are faith traditions that insist that he did, but the scriptures that we read today don’t say that he did. After Jesus shows up and asks Thomas to do touch and feel his wounds, we find Thomas responding verbally.

“My Lord and my God!”

At Mini Methodists Bible study this past Wednesday we talked about this. My interpretation of this event is that Thomas did this: he dropped to his knees, bowed down before Jesus, and said, “My Lord and my God!”

Even though he had bragged to the disciples that he wouldn’t believe unless he could physically touch Jesus’ wounds with his own hands, when it came down to it he believed without touching. Seeing was enough for him. His response: “My Lord and my God,” tells me he recognizes Jesus as the Messiah.

Jesus responds by saying, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now the beauty of scripture is that more times than not when Jesus is speaking to a particular person he is also speaking to us. What Jesus says to Thomas is a great example of that.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

I find this very applicable to us today as Christians in the 21st Century.

We are a people of science, aren’t we? The scientific method is taught to us in school at a young age and is reinforced to us as adults.

Here are the principles of the Scientific Method, as stated in that source that teachers hate and everyone else loves: Wikipedia. “[The Scientific Method] involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation. It involves formulating hypotheses, via induction, based on such observations; experimental and measurement-based testing of deductions drawn from the hypotheses; and refinement (or elimination) of the hypotheses based on the experimental findings.”

Pretty fancy language there, huh? And yet those principles over time not only affect the way we see the world, but spiritual matters as well.

Many atheists say they don’t believe in God because God cannot be seen or proven. They apply the scientific method to Christianity and find that it comes up short. They want specific, scientific, irrefutable proof before they will believe in God or Jesus. They doubt, and won’t believe until those doubts are scientifically proven wrong.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like the scientific method. I like that it is applied to so many things. The vaccinations that are available now to combat the COVID-19 virus are the result of the scientific method, and I sure am glad of that.

But when it comes to religious matters I apply something other than the scientific method to battle my doubts: faith.

Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” NRSV. The NIV translates it as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The King James translations refers to it as the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And The Message paraphrases it this way “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.”

Faith is our weapon against doubt. And we do doubt. We have doubts. It’s part of our human nature. And we shouldn’t feel bad or guilty about it. Seriously, if Thomas, a disciple who knew Jesus in the flesh, who personally witnessed his miracles and heard his teachings; if Thomas had doubts, what makes us think that we won’t?

I worry much more about people who say that when it comes to their faith they have no doubts, than those who admit that they do.

To doubt is human, but to have faith is divine. Faith is believing without seeing, trusting without knowing. And it’s an important part of being a Christian.

If you think about it, if we knew everything, if we had factual data on everything in our lives, we would BE God and have no need for God. The fact that we don’t know — can’t know — everything, provides a nice fertile field for our faith to grow.

So my challenge to you today is to trust faith and don’t doubt. Don’t be a Doubting Thomas. Believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead without actually seeing the wounds on his hands and his side. Rely on your faith, and deepen your faith by practicing the spiritual disciplines, that Jesus Christ, the son of God, went to the cross voluntarily so that our sins can be forgiven and that we can be reconciled to God and are offered an eternity with him.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

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

Don’t Worry: Strength

Don’t Worry: Strength
A Message on Isaiah 40:25-31
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Oct. 4, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

Isaiah 40:25-31 (NRSV)

To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.
27 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”?
28 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.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 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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Today as we continue our sermon series titled “Don’t Worry” we are going to talk about the subject of “strength.”

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to be strong. I have friends that lift weights and they will sometimes post photos or videos of them lifting weights that look to me like they are heavier than most vehicles with a full tank of gas. But through lifting those weights their muscles become stronger and they become healthier.

It’s good to be strong and healthy and people invest a lot of money and time in gyms, workout equipment, and exercises to make themselves stronger and healthier.

Well I’m here to share with you today some exercise developed for seniors like me that don’t require fancy equipment or a gym. I found this on the Internet so it has to be true, right?

So you start out with two 5 pound potato sacks. You put one in each hand and then hold your arms straight out like this (demonstrate) and hold them there as long as you can. Then put them down, relax a while, and repeat.

What you will find is that over time you can hold your arms out longer and longer. After a few days do the same thing with 10 pound potato bags. It will be harder, but you can do it.

Then, after several days of that, step up to holding 50 pound potato bags in each hand. I know, it’s difficult, but you will find that you can do it.

Once you can hold those two 50-pound potato bags out for one minute, then you are ready to go to the next step: put a potato in each sack. Be careful, though. You don’t want to overdo it.

Today’s scripture from Isaiah tells us that when we get tired we can turn to God and he will renew our strength. At Mini Methodists this week our memory verse was Isaiah 40:31, “…those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.”

To illustrate this we did a little experiment. Now you young folks who were in Mini Methodists this past Wednesday, don’t give it away, okay?

So what I need is someone who is strong and in shape. How about Chris Bingham? He’s fit and trim and strong. Chris, would you come up here? [Wait for him to come forward.] Okay, I want you to come up here and I want you to hold these weights for me. [Hand him two 10 lb. weights.] These are small weights and they don’t weigh much, right? Ten pounds each. That’s nothing for a strong guy like you, right?

Okay, so I want to see how long you can hold these. Okay, got it? Easy, right? Oh, but I want you to hold it like this: (hold arms straight out, like in the potato sack story). Okay, let’s start timing now.

How does it feel? Oh, it’s starting to feel heavy? But you just said that it’s not a very heavy weight, right?

[To congregation:] This illustrates how as we deal with the troubles and worries of this world by ourselves they begin to get heavy. Our emotional and spiritual muscles become tired as we have to deal with the struggles of this world day after day after day.

And then this COVID pandemic comes along and that weight gets even heavier. I read an article recently that said one of the most common effects this has had on people is that they find themselves increasingly tired. No physically, but emotionally and spiritually they find that they are just worn out and tired.

Do you feel that way? If I’m honest I find myself feeling that way.

The prophet Isaiah tells us in the scriptures today that there is hope for those of us who are tired: God. Listen to what Isaiah says: “He [God] 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.” — Isaiah 40:28-31

It’s kind of like this: [walk over to Chris] When we try to handle all our difficulties by ourselves, it’s like holding this weight out by ourselves. Over time we get tired and weary, and our muscles become exhausted.

But when we turn to Jesus Christ as the source of our strength it’s like this happens. [Put hands under and help support Chris’s arms.) The cross can support what we can’t by ourselves.

[Thank Chris, ask them to return to their seat.]

Now if you notice I didn’t take the weights from Chris. He still held them. But I helped him hold them.

In the same way when we turn to Jesus it doesn’t mean our troubles will disappear. No. But it does mean he will provide us the strength to persevere, to get through them.

That’s why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, to remind us that just as just as the body needs food to function, so our emotional and spiritual bodies need the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper to remind us that we are not alone, but that through faith our strength is renewed. This isn’t from anything that we do own our own power, but it was done 2,000 years ago by the blood of Jesus Christ.

As our first reading from Philippians 4:13 tells us, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” We can do all things, not on our own, but through Christ.

So my challenge to you this week is to not worry, but depend on the strength that comes from the Lord. Soar on wings like eagles, run and don’t be weary, walk and not faint. Don’t hold your troubles by yourself. The cross of Jesus is there to help.

And don’t be afraid to put potatoes in your sack. Jesus will help you hold them.

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

John: Glory

John: Glory
A Message on John 12:36b-43
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Aug. 9, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

John 12:36b-43 (NRSV)

After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them. 37 Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him. 38 This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

“Lord, who has believed our message,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

39 And so they could not believe, because Isaiah also said,

40 “He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their heart,
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”

41 Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him. 42 Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.

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In order for us to grasp what is happening in the scripture we read today from the Gospel of John we need to back up to the beginning of the 12th Chapter.

Jesus visits at the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead, and his sisters Mary and Martha, . Martha serves him and Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume, which drive’s Judas nuts because of the cost.

After that the Jewish leaders plot to kill Lazarus because of all the people coming to see him and people believing in Jesus because of him being raised from the dead.

Then Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly on a donkey with huge crowds surrounding him and running ahead of him.

Once in Jerusalem talks about his death and says, “God, I glorify your name.” Then a voice comes from heaven that says, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

Some in the crowd thought the voice was thunder, while others thought it was an angel talking to Jesus. Jesus says, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Then the crowd starts arguing about whether he is the messiah or not, pointing out that the scriptures say the messiah will be with them forever and he is talking about being raised up.

That is when we come to today’s reading where Jesus leaves and hides from them. He has to get away from the crowds and the unbelief that so many in the crowd have about him.

The part of today’s scripture that I want to focus on today is the last paragraph: “Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him. 42 Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.”

Here is The Message paraphrase of that scripture: “Isaiah said these things after he got a glimpse of God’s cascading brightness that would pour through the Messiah. On the other hand, a considerable number from the ranks of the leaders did believe. But because of the Pharisees, they didn’t come out in the open with it. They were afraid of getting kicked out of the meeting place. When push came to shove they cared more for human approval than for God’s glory.”

First let’s talk about glory? Just what exactly is glory?

The first thing that comes to my mind is the Battle Hymn of the Republic and it’s refrain:

Glory, glory, Hallelujah! Glory, glory, Hallelujah!
Glory, glory, Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

It’s not a word we use much anymore but it is used in the Bible, 443 times to be exact (in the NRSV). In theology terms it means praise, worship, and thanksgiving given to God.

A new usage, which I didn’t know until working on this message, is that the word “glory” can also refer to the luminous ring or halo depicted in art around the head of Jesus or a saint. Hmmmm. You learn something new everyday…

Another way to think about “glory” is being “used to describe the manifestation of God’s presence as perceived by humans.” (That one is from Wikipedia, by the way.)

One of the ways I think of glory is when in the Old Testament Moses goes up on Mount Sinai to receive the 10 commandments. Here’s the way it is described in Exodus 24:13-15, “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.”

The spectacle really freaked out the Jewish people. They were fearful of God’s glory and wanted Moses to intercede for them, which he did. And when he came down the mountain his face glowed, which also freaked them out, so much so that he had to wear a veil when he was around people.

And yet after all that, after seeing all those things, the people still became stiff necked and disobeyed.

Another way I think of glory is when it comes to the tabernacle and temple the Jewish people used to worship God. We find several references in scripture where the tabernacle, the place it was believed that God resided on earth, was completed. Here is Exodus 40:34-35, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”

We find the same thing happening at the completion of the temple under the leadership of King Solomon. “… the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” 2 Chronicles 5:13b-14

So we have that concept of glory from the Old Testament scriptures, along with Moses going into a cleft of a rock for protection when the glory of the Lord passed by, because no one can see the face of the Lord and live. (Exodus 33)

With that frame of mind, let’s look at that last paragraph of today’s scripture reading. “…for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.”

In our society today we glorify people in many different ways. A superstar athlete is glorified for their athletic skills (and sometimes their scandalous actions). Movie stars are glorified for their abilities to act (and sometimes their scandalous actions). Recording artists are glorified for their music (and sometimes their scandalous actions). Successful businessmen or politicians are glorified for their leadership (and sometimes their scandalous actions).

Fame is an interesting phenomenon.

I am currently reading a biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Rob Chernow that I find to be fascinating.

First, did you know his name really wasn’t Ulysses S. Grant? It was Hiram Ulysses Grant but when he was appointed to West Point he tried to reverse his first and middle name so that his initials wouldn’t spell HUG, but the paperwork got messed up and he went with Ulysses S. Grant, contending that the “S” didn’t stand for anything.

Also I found out that he was Methodist! Yep! Several times in the book the author refers to his attending Methodist churches and how his Methodist upbringing formed his moral values.

I also learned that he had several failures before he succeeded in moving up the military ranks and leading all the Union forces during the United States Civil War.

After winning the war for the Union, Grant became a celebrity even though he really didn’t want to be. He shied away from the spotlight but was unable to after the war. Whenever accolades were heaped upon him he deflected them from himself and gave credit to the brave men who fought under his command. He didn’t want glory for himself but sought to glorify those who fought, and the thousands who died, for the Union cause.

Grant was adamantly anti-slavery and worked hard after the war to protect and give full rights, including the right to vote, to the freed slaves. He even went so far as to buck President Andrew Johnson, who as vice president became president after the assasination of Abraham Lincoln. Johnson wanted to please southern plantation owners and was very racist in his views of the freed slaves.

Now Grant wasn’t perfect. He had a weakness for alcoholic beverages, something he fought throughout his career. He was naive and trusted people, many who took advantage of him and fleeced money from him.

But throughout the book (well, the parts of it that I have read so far) I have been impressed with his desire to give glory to others other than himself.

It’s difficult not to seek human glory, isn’t it? Who doesn’t want to be admired, honored, acclaimed, celebrated, praised, and recognized? I think it’s part of human nature that we want to be liked by others, and another part of our human nature to be considered better than others.

But there is a danger in that. When we seek the praise and glory of others we are metaphorically creating a false idol that we begin to worship, instead of worshipping God.

Equally–or maybe more so–dangerous is our glorification of others. Like Dorothy and the characters in the Wizard of Oz we lift up others to the point of worship, only to find out when we look behind the curtains that they are only human, complete with human flaws, weaknesses, and mistakes.

We have to be aware of becoming like the Pharisees in today’s scripture who loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.

We need to periodically pose the question to ourselves that the Apostle Paul writes in the first chapter of Galatians: “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

So my challenge to you this week is to be conscious of seeking human glory. Instead, seek to glorify God through the words you say, the actions you take, and by how you love others. Let us not be like the Pharisees, but let us be like Jesus Christ himself, giving glory and honor to our father in heaven.

Glory, glory, Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

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

John: The Father

John: The Father
A Message on John 12:44-50
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
June 21, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

John 12:44-50 (NRSV)

Then Jesus cried aloud: “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. 46 I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. 47 I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, 49 for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.”

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Today we are continuing our sermon series exploring the Gospel of John by looking at the 12th chapter and the relationship between Jesus and the Father.

If we back up in the 12 chapter we find Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem as well as Jesus talking about his death. So Jesus’ time with the disciples is getting short, and he uses that time to continue to teach the disciples. In the NRSV version there is a subheading for the scripture we read today that describes it as a “Summary of Jesus’ Teaching.”

We’re looking at this today because today is Father’s Day, the holiday where we honor and recognize fathers.

Now I want to be clear that it is important for us to remember that even though Jesus calls God the Father that God is beyond gender assignments. God is neither male or female. God is God, not a particular gender. That being said, however, we also can’t simply ignore the words of Jesus as he describes his relationship with God.

So why does Jesus refer to God as the Father if God is neither male or female?

I think a lot of it goes back to the culture of the time. Throughout the Old Testament and even at the time of Jesus the family structure focused on the father.

In the Epic of Eden bible study that we have been doing (and are still doing) Sandra Richter goes into much detail about the family unit in the Old Testament. She points out that the basic household unit of the Israelites was called the “father’s house(hold),” which in Hebrew is called the bêt ʾāb.

In the bêt ʾāb the father was the head of the family, and not only immediate family but extended family as well. For example, if the father and his wife have sons, it was expected that when the sons married they and their brides would reside in the father’s household. If they had daughters then the daughters, when they married, would become part of their husband’s father’s bêt ʾāb.

These family units were the foundation of Israelite culture and society. The father provided shelter, protection, and sustenance (food). Fathers were very important then, and I contend that fathers are still important now.

So it would make sense for Jesus to refer to God in fatherly terms. God, our father, is our bêt ʾāb, providing us with shelter, protection, sustenance, and most importantly, unconditional love.

In verses 49 and 50 of the scripture we read today, The Message paraphrases it this way: “I’m not making any of this up on my own. The Father who sent me gave me orders, told me what to say and how to say it. And I know exactly what his command produces: real and eternal life. That’s all I have to say. What the Father told me, I tell you.” John 12:49-50

We also have to remember that in Matthew and in Luke, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he gave them what we refer to as The Lord’s Prayer. And the first words of the Lord’s prayer are, “Our Father…”

And in several places in the New Testament we find Jesus referring to God as “Abba, Father.” This term, “Abba,” does not refer to a Swedish pop music group (that’s a different Abba), but is an Aramaic term of endearment. It would be like the way we use the words “daddy,” or “Poppa,” or as Fernanda pointed out during the children’s message, “Papa” in Spanish.

It is a term used to describe a close, loving relationship. It is, indeed, a term of endearment.

Here are some other things the Bible says about fathers:

“As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” Psalm 103:13

“And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Ephesians 6:4

“Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” Psalm 68:5

It’s important for us to remember that for some people Father’s day is not a pleasant day. Some people may have had an abusive father or a father that was absent from their lives. Yet others, including me, may have had fathers who have passed away and are no longer with us, and Father’s Day is a painful reminder of their dad’s passing.

In those cases I pray they find comfort in the Heavenly Father, available to each person, regardless of their circumstances with their earthly father. And even if your earthly father let you down, I can promise you that your heavenly father will not.

One of the biggest challenges our society faces today is the number of fathers being absent from the home. Now there are a number of reasons for fathers being absent in the home, and I don’t want to make anyone feel bad or guilty if that’s the case. However, fathers in homes are important. There are a number of statistics and studies that provide that data, and the results aren’t good. As a matter of fact, they are downright scary.

As a matter of fact, there is a guy who has set up a YouTube channel aimed specifically at those who don’t have a father in their lives. Called, “Dad, How Do I…” a man named Rob Kenney gives video advice on things that many people would ask their dads in their lives. (Now this isn’t to say mom’s don’t know how to do these things, mind you, but these are things traditionally asked of dads.) Topics include how to change a car battery, how to tie a tie, how to iron a shirt, how to unclog a sink, and how to put up a shelf.

There is such a demand for this type of information that the channel has 2.3 million subscribers. That’s not viewers, but people who have subscribed to the channel. Kenney posts a new video every Thursday and teaches about tools on “Tool Tuesday.”

Kenney’s parents went through a messy divorced when he was a child and he and his siblings lived with his dad, who, he said, “didn’t really want us.”

When Kenney was 14 his dad abandoned him and his seven siblings, forcing Kenney to grow up without a dad. He remembered what that was like and pledged that if he ever had kids he would do things differently.

He did have children of his own and raised them into successful adults. Then during the quarantine this past spring he got the idea to make videos of things he wished his father had taught him. And from April to now he had 2.3 million subscribers sign up for his channel.

Fathers are important, both earthly and fatherly.

Our earthly fathers are important for the way they shape our lives.

My father was a great teacher. He wanted us six kids to know as much as possible about everything. And my dad knew a lot! He was Google before there was Google. Not only was he a country doctor, but built his own house and hospital, was a master woodworker, a rancher, a gardener, an avid reader, and had a strong philosophy in being able to repair things that were broken, no matter what they were.

Dad believed in changing the oil in our vehicles ourselves. I still remember the first time I changed the oil in a vehicle. He had me crawl under our car with a crescent wrench and a pan to catch the oil. He pointed out to me the oil drain plug and told me to put the pan under it and loosen the plug (“Lefty loosey, righty tighty.”) I was only about seven or eight at the time and it was hard to loosen the drain plug, but I finally got it to break loose. I used my fingers to finish unscrewing it and then removed it.

What Dad failed to tell me was that as the oil flowed out it wouldn’t go straight down into the pan, but would come out in an arc. And it did. Right onto my face.

I came out from under that car fast as I could, with oil all over my face. My dad laughed so hard I thought he was going to pass out. He apologized for not telling me about the oil coming out in an arc and helped me get cleaned up. And he told me that even though I was embarrassed by what happened to me that I would always remember it and therefore it would never happen to me again. And he was right. I still remember it, and although now I take my vehicles to Westbrook’s Auto Care and let them change the oil for me, I still remember how to do it. And rest assured, if I ever do it again you can bet my face will be far away when I remove the plug.

Dads teach us great life lessons. And they make us laugh. There’s even a genre of humor that is called “Dad Jokes.”

Here are some examples:
“If a child refuses to sleep during nap time, are they guilty of resisting a rest?”

“Don’t trust atoms. They make up everything!”

“What did the pirate say on his 80th birthday? AYE MATEY”

Yes, you may feel free to groan. But that’s what makes a dad joke!

We need dads that make us laugh. We need dads who protect, dads who provide, dads who teach, dads that love. But most of all, we need godly dads.

Let me show you a graph. This is a few years old, back before COVID-19, but still very relevant. This graph shows what influence the father of a family has on his children attending church. When mom and dad both attend church, then 72 percent of their children will remain faithful to God. If only the dad goes, that percentage is 55 percent. If only the mom attends and the dad does not, only 15 percent of children will remain faithful. If neither the mom nor the dad attend church, that number drops to only 6 percent.

That is a huge difference! If the dad chooses not to attend church, three is only a 15 percent chance that his children will go when they are adults. And if neither parent goes, only 6 percent will attend!

We need more people in church, we need more people following Jeus Christ, but we REALLY need more fathers in church that follow Jesus Christ.

So my challenge to you today, especially for those who are fathers, is to be godly. Believe in Jesus, the light of the world, instead of living in darkness.

And if you want me to teach you how to change the oil in your car, just let me know.

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

John: The Word

John: The Word
A Message on John 1:1-5
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
June 7, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

John 1:1-5 (NRSV)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

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Today we are starting a Summer Sermons Series based on the gospel of John. This series will last throughout the summer as travel through the Gospel of John from the beginning to the end. And today we are starting at the beginning.

There is some confusion about who wrote the gospel of John. Some people think that it was John the Baptist, but that can’t be because if you remember John the Baptist was beheaded on the command of Herod Antipas, who had popped off to his step daughter, Salome, in front of a crowd that he would give her whatever she wanted. Salome took the advice of her mother, Herodias, who didn’t like John, and asked for his head on a platter. And that’s what they did, unfortunately.

Is the author of the Gospel of John the John who wrote the book of Revelation, who is sometimes referred to as John of Patmos (which was an island where the author was stranded during persecution). Traditionally it has been thought that they are the same person but there are scholars that disagree. And most scholars agree that a different John wrote the epistles, 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John.

Many people believe that John the Apostle wrote the gospel of John. Many also believe that John is the “disciple whom Jesus loved” because it is only in the gospel of John that we find this phrase.

Now the Gospel of John is different than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Those three are known as the “synoptic” gospels, meaning from a common view. John is different in several ways and it is believed to have been written later than the three synoptic gospels.

The Gospel of John does not include a lot of the information in the synoptic gospels, things such as the temptation of Jesus, Jesus’ transfiguration, and the Lord’s supper.

It is also believed that John was the last living of the 12 disciples. Tradition has it that he was the only of the original 12 disciples to die of old age. All the others were martyred.

Here’s what I believe: I think John the Apostle wrote the gospel of John, and I think the same person wrote the book of Revelation. And I really don’t know if the same person wrote the epistles of John, and I’m okay with that. And I also reserve the right to be wrong.

Now, just who exactly was John? If we go back to before John met Jesus we find that he is a fisherman. He is one of two sons of a fisherman named Zebedee, the other older brother being James. Jesus calls James and John to stop fishing for fish and to follow him and fish for people, and they do. (I still have to think that ol’ poppa Zebedee couldn’t have been very happy about that.)

Jesus even gives the brothers James and John a nickname, calling them “Sons of Thunder.”

So John knew Jesus well. Very well.

Today we read from the very beginning of the gospel of John, and the author does something very interesting from what the other gospel writers did. Both Matthew and Luke talk about the birth of Jesus (Luke more so than Matthew) and Jesus’ family tree. Matthew’s “begats” go all the way back to Abraham, whereas Luke is the overachiever and traces Jesus’ lineage all the way back to Adam.

Mark doesn’t include any information about the birth of Jesus for unknown reasons.

But in the beginning of his gospel, John focuses on the divinity of Jesus and how he was present from the beginning. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God.”

Now let’s first explore the name John gives to Jesus: “the Word.” The greek term is “logos,” which is where we get the word “logo” from. (But not the word “Lego.” No. That comes from the Danish phrase meaning “play well.”)

The Word. Present in the beginning, with God, and was God. That’s a lot to wrap our minds around!

In our first reading today that Bonnie read from the very beginning of the Bible, we notice these words: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1

John uses similar language to begin his gospel, especially the phrase “In the beginning…”

I think he does this purposefully. He is comparing Jesus, the Word, with being a new creation, something created by God, and in the case of Jesus, actually being God.

So John does some neat things in this first paragraph of his gospel. He refers to Jesus as the Word (with a capital W), that the Word is God, that everything that came into being happened because of the Word, and then changes gears.

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

So then he refers to Jesus as being “the life,” which was then “the light” of all people, a light that cannot be overcome by darkness.

So there just in the first paragraph we have Jesus referred to as the Word, God, the life, and the light. That’s quite the literary accomplishment!

But what does that mean to us today? How does the way John begins his gospel have any effect on us today?

I think the most powerful things we can understand about this passage is twofold. The first is that Jesus IS God. The second is that Jesus is the light of the world.

Okay, so why is it important to understand that Jesus IS God? Well, it’s very important for us theologically. If we view Jesus only as God’s son, then Jesus is subordinate to God. In military terms God would be the superior officer and Jesus would be under his command. So it’s a kind of hierarchy thing.

And if Jesus is God’s subordinate then he wouldn’t really be God, would he? He would be a semi-God or a demi-god.

It’s like in the Avengers movie when the Hulk shows up and is mad at Loki (for good reason, mind you.) Loki says, “Enough! …all of you are beneath me! I am a god, you dull creature, and I will not be bullied by…” and then the Hulk grabs him and starts smashing him into the floor over and over and over, before looking down at him and saying, “Puny God.”

It is important that Jesus be fully God, not only for our Trinitarian theology but for our salvation. Jesus IS God, and his death and resurrection atones for our sin and gives us a pathway to righteousness that we could not have created on our own.

We find a lot of our support for a trinitarian view of God in John’s gospel, this being one example. Jesus and God are both God but are not two Gods, but one. God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are not three gods, but one. And since this is Trinity Sunday this is a good time for us to explore this part of our faith!

There is a pastor and professor up in Woodbridge, Virginia named David Schrock. He has researched John’s gospel and come up with a chart that shows the scriptures in the Gospel of John that support the view of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit three-in-one. Here it is: (show slide).

That’s pretty impressive if you ask me!

We have to remember that this view of the triune God at the time John’s gospel was written was quite the source of debates and even heresies such as Modalism, which stated that God was one person that was expressed in three different modes (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) at different times. And that’s just one heresy. Others were Arianism, Partialism, and several other “isms.” (Here’s a link to a cartoon video that humorously explains all this:

So John might have chosen to emphasize Jesus’ divinity at the beginning of his gospel to offset the heretical views that some people of the day were embracing. By emphasizing that Jesus IS God he defends the faith against that form of thinking. And although he never used the term “Trinity” (it is actually not found anywhere in the Bible), his gospel provides good evidence of supporting a Trinitarian belief in God.

So John had a very high Christology that Jesus was God. And thank God for that!

Now, let’s explore the second aspect of the scripture we read today: Jesus is the light of the world.

This one is close to my heart because I have a bachelor’s degree in photography, back when everything wasn’t digital and we had to use film and chemicals and paper.

Now I would venture to say when most people think in terms of darkness and light they think about paint or colored pencils or even crayons. If you are creating a painting or artwork and you want something to appear as black, you use black paint, ink, or colors. It’s something physical you can apply to the paper or canvas to create that image.

But in the photography world, and yes, even in today’s digital photography world, it is much different. Photography writes with light, the tiny charged particles of energy called photons that bounce around. These photons are focused by the lens of the camera onto a digital photosensitive surface in the cameras (or film in the old days) that is sensitive to the photons and react when they impact it.

Because these photons have different amounts of energy and are traveling at different wavelengths, the sensor (or film, again) detects that and gives us colors. All kinds of colors.

But for the black in a photograph, it is simply a void where no photons hit. Black is not a color, but simply the absence of light. It is not a “something.” It is a lack of something, a void.

I think this works well as a spiritual metaphor for us today. There seems to be a lot of darkness, a lot of voids, in the world today. We have the COVID-19 pandemic, racism resulting in death, peaceful protests as well as rioting and looting, an economic downturn, politics that seem to get nastier and meaner every day, fake news (on each side), and, perhaps worst of all, the cost of brisket has skyrocketed. (Okay, I know that’s not the worst thing but you have to admit it’s pretty bad if you love barbeque as much as I do.)

The world seems to be a dark place. And in all those instances (with perhaps the exception of the brisket) all could be made better by having the light of Christ shined on them.

Our world is in need of a savior. Our world is in need of God whose light can shine into the darkest of places and apply the greatest force in the universe to those situations: love.

I did a wedding yesterday up in Gilmer, TX for a young couple. As part of the wedding liturgy I always read 1 Corinthians 13, also known as the love chapter.

As I was reading those holy words I got to thinking about how they apply not only to weddings, but perhaps even more so to the darkness in our world.

Here is the first part of that chapter: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

“Love never ends.”

John tells us that Jesus is the light of the world, and that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” It is our job as Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, to reflect that light.

Now let’s be clear that the source of light doesn’t come from us. We aren’t the source of light, but the reflectors of it.

We are to be like the moon. The moon doesn’t produce any light on it’s own. There is no nuclear fusion going on within it to create photons that escape its gravity. No. The moon reflects the sun, and in doing so provides light in the darkness.

Likewise we are to reflect the light of Christ. In the fifth chapter of Matthew Jesus tells his disciples (and us) “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16.

My challenge to you today is to understand that Jesus IS God, and that our mission is to reflect the light of Christ to the world. We are to reflect that light into the darkest voids, the darkest places, where hatred and violence and racism exist. And the light we are to reflect is love, the love God has for each person, the love he showed us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

He is certainly not a puny god. That is for certain.

In the name of the Holy Trinity on this Trinity Sunday: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Change: The World

Change: The World
A Message on Romans 12:1-2
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
May 17, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

Romans 12:1-2 (NRSV)

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

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As we continue our journey exploring the topic of “Change” in the Bible we come to a topic that we have gained a new perspective on since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The Apostle Paul calls it the “world.” “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

What is this “world”? I like to think of it as the things that influence us.

It’s the programs we watch on television. It’s what we do for a living and the people we interact with as we make a living. It’s the conversations and interaction with our family and friends, the content of what we view on our electronic devices, the political beliefs we align our lives to, the books we read, the movies we watch, the way we take care of–or don’t take care of–our physical bodies. It’s how we spend our money and what we do “for fun.” and I contend it even involves the food we eat and the liquids we drink.

It’s all the little things–and probably a few “big” things–that so subtly over time creates in our minds an image of who we are and what our purpose on earth is. And it’s these things that largely shape our sense of self worth. We form a perception of who we are in the larger society and our role in the world.

The world is seductive. It is patient as it slowly, day by day, sends us messages specifically crafted to appeal psychologically to our egos and our sense of competitiveness. The world promises to build us up, make us better than others, to make our lives “complete.”

There’s only one problem: it’s not true.

How do we know it’s not true? The Bible tells us so.

In John 16:33 Jesus says, “In the world you face persecution [trouble]. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”

In 1 John 2:15-17 we read, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.”

James is his characteristic blunt self when he writes, “Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” — James 4:4

In John 18:36 Jesus tells us, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

And Paul tells the Christians living in Colossae, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” — Colossians 3:1-3

And listen again to the scripture we read today from Romans 12, this time from The Message paraphrase: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”

On the topic of change, most of the time we don’t like it when the world changes, do we? Our world has certainly changed this past few months, hasn’t it? Things we took for granted, even simple things like toilet paper, we no longer take for granted.

There have been some silver linings, though, with this COVID-19 pandemic. One of those silver linings has been the way the phenomenon of celebrity has been stripped of some of its mystique. We have discovered that Hollywood celebrities aren’t really as important as what we make them out to be. We have developed a better appreciation not for celebrities, but for “essential workers” such as health care workers, first responders, peace officers, and even those to deliver and stock groceries and supplies. The soaring meat prices make us more respectful of those who work in meat processing plants.

All this has shown us, if we have eyes to see, the things in our lives that are really important, separated from the things that we thought were important but are discovering really aren’t. We are discovering the difference between being “conformed” and being “transformed.”

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Have any of you wanted something so bad that you thought you couldn’t live without it? I remember when we got our first cell phone. It was one of these. [Show photo of bag phone.] Oh, I thought we were so awesome when we got that bag phone. Yep! We could call people from anywhere! (Well, anywhere there was service, which wasn’t very many places back in those days.) Yes, it was expensive, but hey, we got 30 free minutes every month! Wow! We were somebody! We were with the “in” crowd that had cell phones, or so we thought.

Looking back I can see that we were being “conformed” to the world, not “transformed.” It seems so ridiculous now.

Fashion is another area where we can see “the world” at work “conforming” us. How many of you were “big hair” people back in the 80s? I’m talking big, big hair. Here let me show you some photos! Remember these hairstyles? What was the saying, “The higher the hair, the closer to God.”? And it was both men and women! (And I hear the “mullet” hairstyle is making a comeback. I don’t know about that…)

The world, and it’s persuasion for us to be conformed to it, changes. We are trying to conform to a moving target. But God does not. And it’s only in God that we can find true meaning and truth. A relationship with God through Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is the only thing that will fill what theologian and mathematician Blaise Pascal described as the God-shaped-hole in each of us. That hole in our soul can only be filled by Jesus Christ.

Billy Graham once said, “Christianity is not a long list of restrictions. It flings open the windows to the real joy of living. The cosmos would have us believe that following Christ is nothing but ‘thou shalt nots.’ The cosmos would have us believe that Christianity is a killjoy, a stolid kind of life, unnatural and abnormal.

“But the evidence in the Bible is to the contrary. Christ said, ‘I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly’ (John 10:10). And those who have been truly converted to Jesus Christ know the meaning of abundant living.”

If we are conformed to the world, then we are not transformed by the love of God in Jesus Christ. It’s one or the other.

It’s like having one foot on the dock and the other foot in a boat that is slowly moving away. We have to decide and make a choice. If we try to keep one foot trying to conform to the world and the other foot on trying to be transformed by the love of Jesus Christ, we will end up wet and without either one.

Because we have free will, we have a choice. We choose. God will not force anyone to love him. Love that is forced is not love, after all.

So my challenge to you today is to resist being conformed to the world, but be “transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Remember that the things of this world are temporary, but a relationship with Jesus Christ has eternal rewards. Make that relationship the number one priority of your life. Why walk when you can fly?

And if this COVID-19 doesn’t let up soon you may see me sporting a mullet.

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.