The Christmas season has begun, one of the most inspirational seasons in the church. We often call this Advent, a word that reminds us that the coming of Christ is imminent. Anticipation is one of the great energies of life and certainly Christmas.
It’s easy to become a U.S. Marine, but it’s hard to be one
If someone is relatively healthy, the right age and willing to swear allegiance to America, they should be able to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corp. But then the fun begins — boot camp, military training, a 50-mile hike with an 80 lb. pack, push-ups, sit-ups, obstacle courses, discipline, team building, and eventually that marine might find his or her way to the deserts of Afghanistan, finally fulfilling his or her new purpose. Being a marine is rewarding but hard.
It’s easy to become a Christian, but it’s hard to be one.
To become a Christian, we need to believe, confess our sins and accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. But to be a Christian, we must follow Jesus Christ, become his disciple and live our lives in a brand new way — forgiving people who hurt us, loving our God and neighbor, living a holy life, sacrificing, denying ourselves, giving, helping, serving, growing. To become a Christian, Jesus does the work on the cross and in our souls; to be a Christian, we must do the work by walking with God. Being a marine is hard, but being a Christian is the hardest thing there is.
Christianity is more than a set of beliefs. It is a way of life grounded and directed by those set of beliefs. Being a Christian, following Christ, living as a disciple of Jesus Christ, walking with God is the hardest, and yet, the most rewarding journey that exists.
Jesus tells a parable of the sowing of the seed. He tells us that the sower sows the seed. Some fall on the path where the birds snatch it up. Some fall on hard ground where the seed springs up, but there is little root, so the heat of the day dries it up. Other seeds fall among the thorns and grow for a while but then are choked out. But there is seed that drops on good ground, grows healthy and strong and bears much fruit.
If God’s love for us saves us and opens the door for our becoming a Christian, then our love for God opens the door to a life of discipleship, being a Christian.
Two additional opportunities:
- If you have yet to turn n your Estimate of Giving card for this year, I hope you will — in any worship service you attend the next few weeks, by mailing it in or bringing it by or by signing up electronically on ourwebsite.
- This Saturday we are entering a church team in the Miles for Meredith 5K at Mansfield High School. Meredith was a member of our church who was killed in a bicycle accident some years ago. This run raises money for the Meredith Hatch Foundation which helps kids and education in our community. If you want to join me and many other runners and walkers from our church, you can sign up online. Last year we had over 170 runners celebrate Meredith’s life and this important cause, our first In the City for the City event. We will have some of our In the City for the City t-shirts available at the race for those who don’t have one.
Money! Just saying the word elicits a response. Some will read it and be drawn into the rest of this thought out of curiosity. Others will say, “I figure if a preacher is talking about money, he wants some.”
What if the first word in this thought wasn’t “money” but “prayer” or “heaven” or “Spirit” or possibly “love” or “heaven” or maybe “hell” — or any other word that is connected with the Christian faith? Is there that big of a difference?
Now, what if we consider that Jesus talked more about money than he did about both heaven and hell? The only subject he talked about more than money was the kingdom of God.
Why do you think that is?
Jacob Needleman in his book, Money and the Meaning of Life, wrote this:
“How do we realize money is a brilliant piece of social technology without defining ourselves by it? Humans are two-natured beings. One is the spirit; the other is life in the real world. We need to live in both in order to correspond to both sides of our nature. Money penetrates every aspect of our worldly life. In order to deal with money and not to lose one’s soul . . .”
Do you know anyone who is not a little weird about money? God created us. We created money. We were created to worship the creator, not what we create. Yet, there are few things in our lives that we are more serious about than our money, or in some cases, lack of it.
Jesus said what Jacob Needleman wrote and what I just wrote much more simply, “You cannot serve God and mammon (money and stuff).” Jesus is smart, and Jesus is right!
John Wesley sought to bring balance to the money idea, knowing that the Methodist revival would change people’s lives in such a way that Christians would become more affluent. This worried him. He felt like they would begin to trust their resources more than they would trust God. His answer:
“Earn as much as you can, save as much as you can, give as much as you can.”
Making a good living is good, wealth is good and giving is good. It’s about balance.
The Bible addresses this from the very beginning with three of its earliest teachings that begin in Genesis, are repeated in many ways and are carried over into the New Testament.
- Sabbath: This day is made for us. We need time to turn our hearts to God and rest.
- Worship: We must worship God. We are made to do this. Worship God only, and serve him only (the First Commandment).
- Tithe: Giving 10% and living on 90% is the Bible’s prescription to our temptation to trust and worship our stuff
It is amazing what just a commitment to these three principles will do in the life of the disciple of Jesus Christ.
I also want to offer two opportunities. If you are part of the First Family, I hope you will turn in your Estimate of Giving Card this weekend if you have not already. Think about 10%. Second, you are probably aware of the devastating typhoon that hit the Philippines recently, but you might not be aware that the Methodist Church is growing rapidly in that country. If you would like to help, there is no better way than giving to the United Methodist Committee on Relief, www.umcor.org. If you go to this site, you will discover on the first page how you can give directly. Know that 100% of your gift will go directly to this cause, Advance Special 982450.
I have $80,000 sitting in a drawer in my office. Now before you question my sanity or come asking for a loan, they are old dollars from Zimbabwe. When I brought them back six years ago, they were worth about 50 cents, and today they are worth nothing. Why? Because they are not backed up by any Federal Reserve, strong economy, gold stores, secure government or anything else. They are worthless. So I keep them as souvenirs of that trip.
I think one of the most important questions we can ask is, “What is of real value, real worth?”
The Bible records for us in Hebrews 12:2, “For the joy set before him endured the shame of the cross.” Jesus saw something of value in you and me that led him to make the ultimate sacrifice for us. Jesus was the decision maker about the value of each of us, and this decision carried him through one of the most horrific moments in human history, a perfect God giving his life for a sinful world.
Knowing who and what we believe in, what really matters, what we really care about, what we really value is one of the most important things any of us can do. I occasionally take time to write the things down that matter to me the most, to record the things I really believe. It helps me stay focused so that I know how to pray, what to choose, how I spend my money, how I live. In this chaotic world, it is easy to get lost if we don’t know the way. Jesus came to be “the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6) It’s easy to think that worthless things have value and to overlook or throw away the things that are of value.
My faith, my wife, my family, my ministry, my church . . . for the joy set before me, this is what I sacrifice for.
Two additional opportunities:
- First, on December 14, we will celebrate our second Christmas Spectacular in the MISD Center for the Performing Arts. Last year we had almost 5,000 in attendance at this community event. We partner with other churches, Main Stage Classic Theatre and community businesses to present this special musical and dramatic telling of Christ’s birth. It’s the only event of its kind in our area. One of the ways we make this work is by having businesses partner with us by being sponsors. There are small sponsorships and large sponsorships available. At this point, we are halfway to our goal of $15,000. If you would like to help by being a sponsor, or if you want to know more, just respond to this email, and I will connect you with our Leslie Waldson who is leading this important part of a very important Christmas moment for our area. Our bulletin for the two performances will have our sponsors’ ads and listings.
- Second, one of our yearly fundraisers for ZOE ministry, our Giving Hope orphan adoption program in Rwanda and Zimbabwe, is Miles for Hope. We have many in our church who choose to run either a half marathon or a full one and look for support for the run with the proceeds all going to ZOE. If you would like to help sponsor one of our runners, go to www.hoperunners.org. There you can make your contribution to whichever runner you want to support. Note that I will be running a half marathon this Saturday, and you can certainly make your contribution in my name as well. You can also check out Facebook where the run will be posted as I run the 13+ miles. It’s for the kids.
When I was a baby, my Mom and Dad had my brother and I baptized at Day Memorial Methodist Church in San Angelo, Texas, just before my Dad headed off to Korea. That was 60 years ago. Forty years ago last week I began a personal relationship with Jesus Christ when I committed my life to him and accepted the amazing grace salvation God had so freely offered. I am now in my 36th year as a United Methodist pastor and my 19th year as the pastor of First Mansfield. I am a 1978 graduate of Central Bible College and a 1983 graduate of Brite Divinity School. This may or may not be interesting to you, but I tell you this so you might think I know what I am talking about with my next two phrases.
You have to live a life that God can bless.
A church has to be a community that God can bless.
When Jesus was born in Israel, he came to a nation waiting for him. They had waited for the Messiah, for the kingdom of God to come for more than a thousand years. Yet, at the point of its entry, most of the people rejected the kingdom, failing to recognize the Messiah even when he stood in their midst. Why do you think this is true?
I think it was for a number of reasons. They had an expectation of the Messiah making their lives better, helping them defeat their enemies — the Romans — restoring Israel as a nation, increasing their harvest, providing, blessings, helping, etc. In other words, they expected the kingdom to be centered in them, the religion they had so carefully constructed and the way of life they expected to be blessed.
Instead, Jesus said things like, “Love God and neighbor, become salt and light in the world, forgive your enemies, care for the poor, become fishers of people, offer mercy, believe in me, believe in God, pick up your cross and follow me, die for your friends, lay up treasures in heaven, turn the other cheek” —.not at all what they wanted to hear. Kill him, and we will wait for another.
In 40 years, Israel as Israel would cease to exist. Pharisees and Sadducees as a religious sect would disappear. The temple would be destroyed. All that would be left was the Wailing Wall and regret.
The nation God wanted so desperately to bless could not be blessed. But the good news of the Messiah Jesus Christ would continue, now with more than two billion people who turn their minds and hearts in one way or another toward the hope that is in Jesus Christ and the kingdom he brought to earth.
But the principle he taught is still true, we have to live lives and be a church that God can bless. The Bible says it even more simply, “One reaps what one sows.” (Galatians 6:7,9) I believe and have learned this is true. We live by grace, but obedience opens the door to surprising blessings and outcomes.
Christianity Today recorded this idea in this way, “The postmodern trend says, ‘Do what you like, there are no consequences.’ Blessings (in the family and in society in general) can only flow from behavior that flows with God’s flow. To go against the flow of the traffic on the highway, you may come through unscathed, but you’re more likely to have an accident.” If we believe that God’s blessings come just because — regardless of how we live — we typically will be frustrated with our faith and confused about our relationship with God.
We must live holy lives. And we must use the gifts God has given us to serve him. This is the amazing grace-based relationship that God offers us. It makes life and eternal life; choices and behavior have meaning.
I believe the more I live a life that God can bless and the more the church lives its life in a way God can bless, the more we can experience the many layers of blessings God wants to give us. The In the City for the City changing lives, growing the church and building the community comes directly from this Bible-based and Jesus-taught truth.
Life swings on the commitments we make. I have long believed that promises, vows and commitments shape our future, just as an undisciplined, free-for-all life leads into a shapeless future. Commitments are a big deal. Life swings on the commitments we make.
Forty years ago this week I gave my life to Jesus Christ. I was sitting in a Navy barracks as a 20-year-old sailor. It was around 4:00 in the morning on a night Master at Arms Watch. The commitment I made that night has shaped my life.
I made a commitment to be a part of a church family and since have attended pretty much every week for the last 40 years. Few things have shaped my life more than a weekly worship season. The commitment to serve God and worship this week was made 40 years ago.
I remember committing to tithe (giving 10% of what God had given me back to God through the church). I was sitting in a little church in Georgia and made that commitment during the service. I remember pulling two $20 bills out of my pocket and putting them in the offering. My monthly salary was $400, my first tithe. I have been tithing ever since. Now I give much more, but the commitment to give the first of October and the first of November and the first of December in 2013 was made in 1973.
I made a commitment a year later, 1974, when I married my wife Rhonda, to love, cherish and be faithful to her. That commitment made so long ago has also shaped my life and my present. The baptism of our ninth grandchild in church last Sunday, Arthur Edward, is a testimony to that shaping.
Many in our culture have difficulty with commitments, often wanting to keep their options open. Who knows what may come along that might be more appealing, easier or have more to offer? So, if we don’t make a promise or a commitment, we think we are keeping control. Actually it is just the opposite. A future that is a directed one is built on commitments — to God, to those in our lives we love, to the church we are called to — these commitments form, shape and build a future on what we believe in and care about. If we don’t make God-led commitments, our future can only be shapeless. But if we ask God to lead us in the commitments we need to make, then God’s word and Spirit shape that future.
I couldn’t tell you 40 years ago what my life would look like today. I am balder than I thought I would be. I lead a much larger church than I imagined. And I have more grandchildren than I expected to have at this season of my life. But Jesus is still central, I still tithe, and I still love my wife. Those decisions were made in the form of commitments 40 years ago, and every day I celebrate the grace and Spirit God has given me to keep those commitments.
I also want to add that this coming weekend is Breast Cancer Awareness weekend for First Methodist Church. We will have available pink God Is Big Enough wristbands in each service. What a special gift to give a friend who is struggling with breast cancer or who might have lost a loved one. Small blessings often make the biggest impact. God is big enough for cancer.
I believe we live in a culture dedicated to creating discontent. It does so by bombarding us with images — in movies, television, online, magazines — images that are both created as pictures and also in storylines, images that tell us what we should look like, act like, own, experience, what we should drive, where we should live, how we should act, what we should wear and who we should look like (sometimes “Photoshopped”), images that seek to define our values, what is important to us, our relationships and what we live and look for.
Most often these images are designed to impact our behavior, to make us buy something, change something, be something and behave in a way that either benefits the image maker or simply creates a behavior that the image maker approves of. It’s a big deal in our culture, and something that impacts us more than we might imagine.
In a culture and society that seems dedicated to creating discontent and, therefore, directing our behavior, 1 Timothy 6:6 records these words:
“Godliness with contentment is great gain.”
Think with me about how refocusing the goals of life around “godliness,” and adding contentment with this goal, might direct and change the heart and, therefore, the life. Much of the stress and anxiety of life comes from discontent. If we believe the images of the culture, then stress, anxiety, discontent and unhappiness will always mark our way because we can never live up to the images we see, images that even if approached will not live up to the promise they make. But if we choose godliness as our goal — not just doing stuff for God or accomplishing stuff for God but simply walking with God — peace comes. And yes, we will serve God, find cars to buy, places to live and wear clothes at least somewhat in style (don’t ask me what’s in style, I’m clueless), but the core value will be “God is in my life, and I’m good.”
Faithfulness to God is its own reward.
Government shutdown, debt ceiling deadline, the Affordable Care Act — all seemingly impacted by a dysfunctional congress/government. Every American is impacted in one way or another, some more than others. So, we hear about it, we talk about it, we wonder about it, we try to make sense out of it and we have a tendency to complain about it and those we might think responsible. Some think Democrats are to blame, some think Republicans, some think the president and some think this party or that group. But the question might not be about being able to answer who is to blame but “what do I do?”
I think that is often the right question and one overlooked when we find ourselves worried or obsessed by things in life that we have little control over — which is probably all of the above (though we might find ourselves influenced when the next election comes around).
In the world of Jesus’ time, it was much worse than anything in our time. Israel was occupied by the powerful Roman Empire. The legalism of the Jews was surrounded by the paganism and immorality of the Roman culture. Poverty and fear were the mark of the majority of the people, all the while, a few rich, religious and political leaders had seeming control of the nation. In those circumstances, Jesus gave some advice that still stands the test of time, words we have since called the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
How do I respond to the world I live in? Jesus said to be “salt and light,” to somehow influence the world by how we raise our families, serve our church, shape our communities, reflect the good news and truth of biblical faith in all our relationships, to be “in the city for the city.” I find my level of frustration with the things I can’t control dissipates when I engage the things I can control. I can love my children and grandchildren. I can serve my neighbor. Right now, my wife Rhonda and many others are preparing for a Kairos Ministry event in a Texas prison. Feed by Grace Homeless Ministry is about to happen. We send mentors to Alice Ponder almost daily. ESL is going full blast. The Wesley Mission Center changes people’s lives every day. First Methodist influences our community in uncountable ways every day. We recently met with community leaders of every sort in a season of prayer. The Harvest Community Food Bank was just dedicated that will serve thousands, a ministry made possible by many people from our church family, including the builder and Mansfield Cares. The tenth Mansfield Habitat for Humanity house is about to begin (First Methodist is the only church that has been a part of all 10). We have 700 or so in Financial Peace classes learning how to handle money biblically. Children, youth, adults, families experience God’s grace in worship, studies and activities weekly. As many people wait for the good to filter from the top to finally get to them, maybe the plan is for churches and Christians to live God’s way and have it filter up to the top.
So, when things seem out of control in the world, it’s less “what do I think?” and more “what do I do?” The Bible says, “Be ye not hearers only of God’s word but doers.” Even though the government is still in shut down mode this morning, the church and followers of Christ are still in the ramp-up mode, offering good news in multiple ways, “in the city for the city” — changing lives, growing the church, building the community — all the while we serve our family, serve one another and serve God.
This weekend, Friday night to be specific, Rhonda and I are going to see a movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. You might be wondering why. I am more of a Saving Private Ryan kind of guy. Well, we are taking three of our grandchildren, a 7 year old, 5 year old and a 4 year old. You might still be asking why. But you know the answer. We love our grandchildren and will also be giving our kids a little Friday night break.
One of the greatest roles in my life has been as father and grandfather. This amazing relationship in many ways defines who I am, even though I would still rather eat a meatball than watch a cartoon movie about them.
Jesus tells the story of a father and son in Luke 11, a story that speaks to this and should give us absolute assurance of God’s love and care toward us.
“Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”
I give to my kids and grandkids not because of who they are but because of who I am. I am their father and grandfather. God gives to us not because of who we are but because of who he is, He is our heavenly Father. God wants good for us. God wants to be in our lives. God wants to bless us, forgive us, restore us, help us and walk with us. We don’t have to have a persuasive argument, exotic prayer or have lived especially well that day. We just have to accept by faith that we are God’s children.
I think God can be proud of us. I think God is intentional and alert to bless us. I think God can be counted on, depended on.
I think I am a pretty good father and grandfather, though certainly flawed as Jesus points out. I am certainly not as good a father as God is. The care I give my family will be multiplied many times over by the care our perfect God gives and will give us. We can trust our heavenly Father to give to us what is good.
I want to add a couple of addendums to this thought.
First, I am running a half marathon in November for Miles for Hope, an annual fundraiser for ZOE Ministry, our church’s commitment to orphans in Rwanda. If you would like to support me or any of our other runners, go to www.hoperunners.org. There you can give your gift knowing it will go to our three-year commitment of $250,000. Be aware that our Christmas Eve offering this year will also go to ZOE.
Second, we are celebrating The Freedom Project beginning in a great way, with almost 800 adults in Financial Peace classes and almost 100 youth in the youth version of Financial Peace. This is worthy of applause.
One of my favorite psalms is Psalms 27, one that calls for trust in God. For me, trust and faith go hand in hand, and together they bring peace in our hearts. I have long thought that peace is one of the greatest of all gifts. When we have peace, we really have everything. And from everything, we learn to live life the way Jesus teaches.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear?” (vs. 1)
It is hard to be afraid when we focus on God. We are continually surrounded by events and circumstances that say be afraid, be very afraid. When we take our eyes off those things and place them on God, peace comes.
“One thing I have asked from the Lord, that shall I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord.” (vs. 4)
What do we really want? Often anxiety and fear come when we are afraid we might lose what we have or not get what we want. We typically don’t like this kind of uncertainty. But when our goal is simply to walk with God, this we cannot lose and are sure to find. God is faithful to walk with those who want to walk with him. Peace
“When You said, ‘Seek My face,’ my heart said to You, ‘Your face, O Lord, I shall seek.’” (vs.
There are many things we look for in life. Some of them we find; some of them we don’t. Some of them we lose; some of them we at least think we keep. The truth is, the only thing that is for sure is that God keeps us. When we find him — seek God — we discover the peace of a God of grace and life.
“Teach me Your way, O Lord, and lead me in a level path.” (vs. 11)
One of the great fears of life is not knowing the way. For the follower of Christ, we always know the way, the Lord’s way — love your neighbor, forgive others, serve God, trust in him. In life, this is peace, because the only full way to peace is submission to our creator.
“I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” (vs. 13)
This is one of my favorite verses in one of my favorite psalms. In life, God is at work. God acts. God blesses. God helps. God answers. God strengthens. God is present.
“Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage, yes, wait for the Lord.” (vs. 14)
The evidence of faith is strength and courage. Faith comes when we wait on the Lord.
I have found these words of the Bible comforting and strengthening many times — in seasons of distress, in seasons of searching and in seasons of abundance. May you find the same comfort and strength.