Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Testing Jesus



Have you ever put Jesus to the test? I mean really...who doesn't?

Towards the end of the book of Matthew, the gospel records instances in which the religious authorities wanted to test Jesus. He had been travelling around the region of Galilee, preaching the good news of the coming of the Kingdom of God on hillsides, dinner tables, and living rooms. He was not the first person to do this. The gospels tell of a previous prophet who preached the same thing-John the Baptist, who announced that the son of God would come. That is where Jesus is unique in his message-he claimed to be the son of God. In hindsight, Christians believe that he was right. But I wonder if we would have believed him then. 

So, they tested him. The religious authorities wanted to provide ample evidence that Jesus was rebellious towards the Roman government. Since Jesus had built a large following in his years of ministry and teaching, his claim to be the son of God was not enough to arrest him, according to the authorities. They feared that a riot would occur. But, if they could prove that he was a potentially dangerous, rebellious man, they could arrest him.


So, they tested him by asking him a simple question: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” He answered: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” He was aware of their ploy. 

Jesus knows when we put him to the test (even if we do not know it ourselves). At the end of this passage, it says "When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away." Jesus' awareness surprised them! Has Jesus ever surprised you in that way? 

Sometimes, when I struggle to find the presence of God in my life, I ask God to just give me a sign, and the discernment to know that it was God. Perhaps you have asked God something similar. Maybe that is testing God...and maybe we will be amazed by God, who is always aware of what we are doing, and sticks with us anyway...


Prayer:

His name is Wonderful 
Jesus my Lord 
He is the mighty King 
Master of ev'rything 
His name is Wonderful 
Jesus my Lord 
He's the Great Shepherd 
The rock of all ages 
Almighty God is He 
Bow down before Him 
Love and adore Him 
His name is Wonderful 
Jesus my Lord


In Christ, 

Jack

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Responding in Relief of Hurricane Harvey



Hurricane Harvey has devastated millions of people since last Friday in southeast Texas and the surrounding areas. My heart aches for those that have been it its path. Some areas have endured 40 inches of rain, and the storm is still hovering. Since last Friday, Harvey has been disastrous, pouring rain, blowing wind, sending entire cities scattering for survival, leaving their homes behind. Still others have been faced with enduring the storm head on, staying in their homes while the rains and winds slam down.

You may be thinking: what can I do to help? As always, I encourage you to pray. Right now. Pray for the victims. Pray for those providing relief. Pray for and end to the rain, the wind, the flooding, the destruction. The following is a prayer that Scott Jones, resident Bishop of the Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, has prayed. Let it guide you...


Oh God, we need your help,
We need the rain to end, the
floodwaters to recede, the damaging
winds to stop. We need fortitude to
cope with this disaster. We need love
to share with our neighbors. We need
strength to endure. Lord, we know
storms come in our world, and
we are asking for your help in getting
through it, repairing the damage and
rebuilding our lives. We pray for
ourselves, our friends, and all those
affected by Hurricane Harvey and its
aftermath. Give us the willingness
and strength to be your agents in
responding to this disaster.

Amen

May this prayer guide you to further action as well. At times like this, I am so very thankful for our United Methodist connection. UMCOR, the disaster relief branch of the denomination, often provide some of the first relief efforts in the world to disasters such as this. A donation now would be timely, you can do so here: UMCOR Hurricane Harvery Disaster Reponse.

UMCOR has also encouraged us to respond in other ways here: 5 Things You Can Do

As the Lord guides you in your response, may we ban together as brothers and sisters during this extremely difficult time.


In Christ,

Jack

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Encountering God

Yesterday, the United States experienced a beautiful natural phenomenon: a total solar eclipse. Millions gathered in their yards, in public parks, beaches, lakes, and other places outdoors, to look through solar-filtered lenses on  glasses and telescopes, towards the sky. I myself watched from the top of a parking garage here at a local school where there were powerful telescopes capturing this awe-striking event. Tallahassee experienced about 87% totality. It was cloudy, too, so we did not experience a true total solar eclipse, but what I saw still took my breath away.

On top of the deck at Tallahassee Community College, the excitement began to rush through my veins as I waited in line for my solar glasses. I finally got up to the front, put them on, looked up, and was amazed at what I saw. I quickly got in another line, as the clouds rolled by, to look at the sun and moon collide through a telescope. In the line, a fellow observer and I struck up a conversation, and they said to me "We needed a day like today." I looked through the telescope as the words echoed through my eardrums.

They were absolutely right. Let's be honest, life in the U.S. has been difficult lately. We endured a heated election season, and have been divided politically as sharply as I have ever experienced (I'm only 29, but I venture to guess even others would agree with me). Even in my own Christian denomination, the United Methodist Church, we are divided along issues of human sexuality, among other things. I needed a day like yesterday. A day in which nearly every American was unified in their curiosity, their amazement, their wonder, of something bigger than themselves, bigger than the things that divide us.


A total solar eclipse is a very scientific thing that happens. The sun, moon, and earth form a perfect line for this to occur. Think of the detail. Think of the perfection. This is a rare occurrence, in part, because, related to the earth's orbit around the sun, the moon's is titled. Everything must be aligned for this to happen, and it is rare. On top of that, only a portion of the inhabitants of earth get to see this event, since the moon's shadow does not cover the whole earth. And it happened for us. We needed a day like yesterday. Not to prove of some blessing, but to remind us that we are small, that we are part of something greater, and that there is far more that we have in common as a people that we let on.

I think the U.S. had a collective encounter with God yesterday. Whether you knew it or not, God showed you something yesterday. What it is for you, personally, I don't know. To look up and the sun and moon colliding in some perfect unity with earth, had to make you feel something, to experience something, to wonder...

God of the heavens and of earth,
of sun, and moon, and sky,
You have created all that we can see,
and all that we cannot see.
We gathered in common awe and amazement
to experience something beautiful, something
quite wonderful.
As millions looked skyward, we were reminded
of just how amazing you are.
May yesterday's blessing fill us today
May your love be like an eclipse in our
very heart and soul.
We may not be able to fully explain it,
but we know it, feel it, and are changed by it.
May your grace and mercy fill us once again,
bringing all together in perfect unity.
In your Son Jesus' name we pray, Amen.








         



Photos from across the U.S. and from the ISS of the eclipse yesterday, August 21st, 2017.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Women in the Bible: Encountering God





Our next 3 weeks will be exploring some stories of women in the Bible who encountered God in some way. We begin with the story of Sarah and Hagar.



Sarah and Hagar had a difficult relationship, to say the least. Read Genesis 16-18 to explore some for yourself...


Their encounters with God come on the heels of God's continuing encounter with Abraham. God promises Abraham 3 things: land, descendants, and blessing in Genesis 12, 15, and 18. Sarah and Hagar's encounters with God help to fulfill the promise of descendants, but that that's not all their story is good for! When Sarah (Sarai at that point) was barren, she suggested that Abraham (Abram at that point) have a child with Hagar, her handmaiden. The plan worked, and Ishmael was born. But God promised to Sarah that she and Abraham would have a son, too, and they did! While they were very old, Isaac was born unto them (Genesis 21).



This family, although it could be considered broken and fragmented, was a fulfillment to God's promise. In Genesis 12, a messenger of God promises Hagar that she will have a child named Ishmael, and in Genesis 18, messengers tell Sarah that she will do the same. They both heard directly from God, who spoke to them. We may not think that this type of communication happens anymore, but I believe that God speaks to us through the people and events around us. Sarah and Hagar remind me of that.

What I love most about these stories of women in the Bible is that they are so different from each other. They are not all about the opportunity to survive by having baby boys, but they are stories of family, love, faith, courage, and strength. These stories encourage me to honor my own story with God. I hope they do the same for you.

*Prayer/Response:

We've a story to tell to the nations,
that shall turn their hearts to the right,
a story of truth and mercy,
a story of peace and light,
a story of peace and light.

For the darkness shall turn to dawning,
and the dawning to noonday bright;
and Christ's great kingdom shall come on earth,
the kingdom of love and light.

*The United Methodist Hymnal, 569.

In Christ,

Jack




Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Women in the Bible: Strength

                                                Rebekah, pregnant with twins Esau and Jacob


What does it mean to show strength? In today's world, strength is often thought of as the ability to move heavy things, to be in control of people and situations, or to dominate. If you responded with these answers, of course you would be correct; it'd be hard to argue with you. In a conversation I recently had with someone struggling with a death in their family, they indicated that they "must remain strong for their family." What that meant to them was to not cry in front of them, to show some control over themselves, and even the situation. The truth is, though, that we are not in control. There are certain things we simply cannot manipulate or change. Strength, in these moments, means to trust in God and in yourself, even in the hardest of times. Strength does not always mean these things.


In Rebekah's story, found in Genesis 24-27 (I invite you to read it...), she shows a different kind of strength. Her's is not a dominating or controlling kind of strength, but one that showed love. When you read the story, though, you can see that the love that she showed towards Jacob caused some major complications for the family. Jacob and Esau were twins, born of Rebekah and Isaac.



                                                    Esau and Jacob, wrestling


In the ancient near east, the custom was that the firstborn son was to inherit the family's wealth. You can see why having twins would complicate things. This inheritance, this "blessing," was very fickle. The text even says that Jacob and Esau grappled in the womb, tugging and pushing each other back so that one could be born first. To complicate things even more, Isaac and Rebekah favored each of the boys: Isaac initially followed custom and planned to give his "blessing" to Esau, who was technically born first.

                                                                    Esau sells birthright
                                                                    Isaac blesses Jacob
                                                         Jacob receives Isaac's blessing after tricking him

                                  Jacob, prompted by Rebekah, tricks Isaac into giving him the birthright


Rebekah, though, favored Jacob. Jacob ended up "stealing" Esau's birthright and his blessing. Talk about a family feud. They both jockeyed for power and strength. The point is not that Rebekah was really the strong one, it is that showing strength does not mean that there will not be trials, heartache, confusion, and fear. She was strong in the midst of those things. After the theft of his birthright and blessing, Esau planned to kill his brother Jacob. Rebekah then told Jacob: "Now therefore, my son, obey my voice; flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away— until your brother’s anger against you turns away, and he forgets what you have done to him; then I will send, and bring you back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?” (Gen, 27: 43-45). Her strength provided her hope that one day the twins would be reconciled (they were, eventually). Her strength provided her the courage to continue loving and protecting Jacob. It didn't clean up the mess, it didn't make things perfect, but her strength was a, unwavering trust and hope for the future.

*Prayer:

God of great and God of small,
God of one and God of all,
God of weak and God of strong,
God to whom all things belong: alleluia, alleluia, praise be to your name.

*God of Great and God of Small, Worship and Song, 3033



In Christ,

Jack





Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Women in the Bible: Justice

Continuing our summer sermon series "women in the Bible," this week we explore the theme of justice with Rizpah and the Queen of Sheba. Rizpah's story can be found in 2 Samuel 3: 6-11 and 21: 1-14, and the Queen of Sheba's in 1 Kings 10: 1-13 (2 Chronicles 9:1-12 provides a parallel telling of her story). Both of these women, in very different ways, sought justice.

One of the reasons I love this sermon series so much is that I am becoming familiar with powerful and inspirational characters in the Bible that I believe we can relate with on some level. Initially, I am struck with frustration that I did not learn much about these women growing up in church. When I get past that feeling, I am freed up to soak in the wonderful stories. 

Rizpah and the Queen of Sheba are a few of these characters. These women were not part of my religious upbringing; I did not learn about them until seminary, and really until this sermon series. I am thankful for this opportunity to do that with you! 



I invite you to read the story of Rizpah, which is cited above...(really, go ahead, read it...)



So, she was a concubine of Saul's. Not much power, not much voice, not much influence in her world. This is an ongoing theme not only for women, but throughout scripture. God uses people like this to show us something quite often, if we would only have the courage and open mind to listen to their story. Rizpah does not even speak in these passages. She has no words. She is simply a political pawn without power, status, or significance. But, she faces her grief with such courage for justice, that even king David takes notice. Both of the men that were in positions to protect and provide for Rizpah died. She was left alone. Later on, as David was rising in power, he had to atone for the sins of Saul to the Gibeonites, who asked for the slaughter of some of Saul's relatives. Among them were 2 of Rizpah's sons. He showed no signs of concern for Rizpah at all, and simply handed them over to be killed. How devastating is that? Heartbroken, Rizpah could have felt helpless, that there was nothing for her to do. She had lost any hope for security and protection now. And now she was faced with the desecration of her son's bodies. But she had other ideas; she would not allow that to happen. She was not allowed to move them or bury them, but she tried her best to protect them. So, she went to the place the bodies were kept, put a cloth over them, and stayed there. Imagine her protecting them from vultures, predators, putting herself in danger to protect them. This was a vigil, and a risky one at that. No matter how dangerous and gruesome this vigil was, she held it.She honored her sons and protected them from further humiliation. Eventually, David heard of this, and granted these sons a decent burial. This was all against a backdrop of a devastating famine. When David did this, the famine was over, signaling God's desire for mercy over vengeance.


The Queen of Sheba pursues justice in a different way. Using her power and influence, she reminds King Solomon. The queen had heard of King Solomon's fame and wisdom, but had to go see for herself. So she goes and visits her and is impressed, saying “The report was true that I heard in my own land of your accomplishments and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes saw it. Not even half of the greatness of your wisdom had been told to me; you far surpass the report that I had heard. Happy are your people! Happy are these your servants, who continually attend you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on his throne as king for the Lord your God. Because your God loved Israel and would establish them forever, he has made you king over them, that you may execute justice and righteousness.” 

What a scene this must have been! The queen did not adhere to the same religion that Solomon did, but affirms his leadership through God, encouraging him to use his role for justice and righteousness. 

Whether we have power and influence or not, we always have the ability to encourage others to lead in this way, through a God that is just. 


*Prayer:

O God, our help in ages past, 
our hope for years to come, 
our shelter from the stormy blast, 
and our eternal home. 

Under the shadow of thy throne, 
still may we dwell secure; 
sufficient is thine arm alone, 
and our defense is sure. 

Before the hills in order stood, 
or earth received her frame, 
from everlasting, thou art God, 
to endless years the same. 

A thousand ages, in thy sight, 
are like an evening gone; 
short as the watch that ends the night, 
before the rising sun. 

Time, like an ever rolling stream, 
bears all who breathe away; 
they fly forgotten, as a dream 
dies at the opening day. 

O God, our help in ages past, 
our hope for years to come; 
be thou our guide while life shall last, 
and our eternal home. 

*O God, Our Help in Ages Past, United Methodist Hymnal, 117.


In Christ, 

Jack

Lynn Japinga's Preaching the Women of the Old Testament heavily influenced this blog post 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Women in the Bible: Faith



Here at Gray Memorial UMC, we are embarking on a sermon series focusing on women in the Bible. We began with the stories of Rahab (Joshua 2 and 6), Ruth and Naomi, and Esther (who each have books in the Bible devoted to their story.) These women show incredible faith and courage in God, in themselves, and in their causes for justice. We continue the theme of "faith" this week by considering some of the stories of women in the New Testament: the woman at the well (John 4), the woman who touched Jesus' cloak (Luke 8), and Mary Magdalene. Each of these women shows their faith in Jesus in their own ways.

Each of these women shows us that faith is not a quiet, pious endeavor. Rather, faith is what prompts your actions and your reactions. The woman at the well's claim that "I know the Messiah is coming" is only the beginning for her. She then took her experience and shared it with her community. She put her faith into action. It is quite meaningful how this was such a counter-cultural experience. Women were not valued in the ancient near east. Moreover, this experience crossed racial divides as Jews and Samaritans just didn't get along. On this Independence Day, I come to this story very thankful to be an American. I have freedoms and opportunities that folks across the world just don't have. But I am also reminded that my nationality is only a portion of my identity. My full identity is in Christ, as it was for this woman, whose life was changed by Jesus.

I also learn from the woman who touched Jesus' cloak. I learn from her to have hope, and to dare to reach out for Jesus, even if I might look foolish. Can you imagine watching someone reach for just a touch of someone's jacket? How weird would that be!? This woman did not care about the way she looked, but hoped that her act would in fact heal her. Nowadays, this may look like praying in a public place, or risking your image in order to pursue God in some way. This woman teaches me to have an undignified faith in the hope that Jesus offers.

Mary Magdalene also shares this kind of faith. After Jesus died and was placed in the tomb, she went there, only to find the door open and the cave empty. Mary Magdalene was the first person Jesus encountered after his resurrection, scripture says. It led Mary back into town to share with Jesus' other followers. How foolish she must have looked and sounded. To be speaking of how Jesus was raised up from the dead, after most of them just witnessed his devastating and tortuous crucifixion, must have sounded like foolishness. But Mary had the faith that led to this action, becoming the first preacher of the resurrection anyone ever heard. Millions have tried to shred her reputation by claiming, without any biblical evidence of it, that Mary was a prostitute, but her story remains one of the most powerful ones in the Bible. Her reputation may have taken a hit, but that's the type of risk that is often involved with being faithful to Jesus. Your life will change, your image will change, your actions will change. You may look foolish, people may try and discredit you, and your life will be a series of questionable decisions...but, as the apostle puts it in Galatians 5:1, "for freedom Christ has set us free."

*Prayer:

Let us plead for faith alone,
faith which by our works is shown;
God it is who justifies,
only faith the grace applies.

*United Methodist Hymnal, 385.

In Christ, Jack