Worship with the Lion Facing Temptation? Look for God’s Escape Route

by Rev. Doug Gray

Welcome back to Narnia! Last week, our adventures in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe found four children—Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter—staying in a mysterious mansion owned by a professor. Lucy found a magic wardrobe and went through it into the magical realm of Narnia. This week, Lucy’s older brother, Edmund, follows Lucy into the wardrobe but has a different kind of adventure. Very different! Over the course of Edmund’s story we learn about temptation, addiction and brokenness. Underneath Edmund’s story, we find some really interesting ideas from the Bible about how to face all of these.

Edmund’s story begins as he’s looking for Lucy, and meets the Queen of Narnia, the one who makes it so it is always winter, but never Christmas. In truth, she is the White Witch, with a magic wand that can turn creatures and people to stone.

The first thing we notice about evil is that it can come off as impressive. C.S. Lewis writes of the White Witch, “[she was] a great lady, taller than any woman that Edmund had ever seen. She also was covered in white fur up to her throat and held a long straight golden wand in her right hand and wore a golden crown on her head.”(p. 33) She rides in a sleigh pulled by snow-white reindeer, and driven by a dwarf. Perhaps evil likes to impress because it can intimidate or bully people into getting its way. Perhaps evil likes to think it has a right to the crown on its head or to be prideful of its accomplishments. Think of the villains of lots of movies—from James Bond to Star Wars, and from the Wizard of Oz to the Avengers—they all share this pride and ability to impress. Evil likes to impress and bully.

The second thing we notice is that evil can use addiction/temptation to ensnare us. The White Witch asks Edmund what he would most like to eat, and he says, “Turkish Delight!” So I brought some today so those who want to can try some. C.S. Lewis writes, “At first Edmund tried to remember that it is rude to speak with one’s mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat, and he never asked himself why the Queen should be so inquisitive…The Queen knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.” (pp. 38–39) The White Witch uses Edmund’s desire for Turkish Delight to manipulate him into betraying his family.

The third thing we notice is that Edmund has choices along the way where he could avoid the trouble, but he chooses the path into darkness and betrayal. So what are some places where Edmund could have made a different choice?

[take responses from the congregation]

In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth, he writes, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” So the question, when we are tempted, is not whether we will have the strength to endure temptation, or a way out, but whether we want to endure, whether we want a way out. A couple of years ago, I told the story of a mother who told her son not to go swimming. However, when he came into the house his mother noticed that his hair and bathing suit were wet. “Jacob,” his mother scolded, “I told you not to go swimming.” “I couldn’t help it, Mom,” he defended himself. “The water looked so good.” “But why did you take your bathing suit with you?” “In case I was tempted.” If we are tempted to go swimming, the first step is not bringing the bathing suit!

The other day I heard a great story that summarizes some of this. “A woman arrived at the Pearly Gates of heaven. “Welcome to Heaven,” said St. Peter. “Before you get settled in though, it seems we have a problem. You see, strangely enough, we’ve never once had an executive make it this far and we’re not really sure what to do with you.”

“No problem. Just let me in,” said the woman. “Well, I’d like to,” said St. Peter, “but I have higher orders. What we’re going to do is let you have a day in Hell and a day in Heaven and then you can choose whichever one you want to spend an eternity in.”

“Actually, I think I’ve made up my mind. I prefer to stay in Heaven,” said the woman.

“Sorry, we have rules...”

And with that St. Peter put the executive in an elevator and it went down to hell. The doors opened and she found herself stepping out onto the putting green of a beautiful golf course. In the distance was a country club and standing in front of her were lots of her friends and they were all dressed in fine evening wear and cheering for her. They ran up and kissed her on both cheeks and they talked about old times.

They played an excellent round of golf and at night went to the country club where she enjoyed an excellent steak and lobster dinner. She met the Devil, who was actually a really nice guy and she had a great time telling jokes and dancing.

She was having such a good time that before she knew it, it was time to leave. Everybody shook her hand and waved good-bye as she got on the elevator.

The elevator took the executive back up to the Pearly Gates and found St. Peter. “Now it’s time to spend a day in heaven,” he said.

So she spent the next 24 hours lounging around on clouds and playing the harp and singing. She had a great time and before she knew it her 24 hours were up and St. Peter came and got her.

“So, you’ve spent a day in hell and you’ve spent a day in heaven. Now you must choose your eternity,” he said.

The woman paused for a second and then replied, “Well, I never thought I’d say this, I mean, Heaven has been really great and all, but I think I had a better time in Hell.”

So St. Peter escorted her to the elevator and again she went back to Hell.

When the doors of the elevator opened she found herself standing in a desolate wasteland covered in garbage and filth. She saw her friends were dressed in rags and were picking up the garbage and putting it in sacks. The Devil came up to her and put his arm around her.

“I don’t understand,” stammered the woman, “yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and a country club and we ate lobster and we danced and had a great time. Now all there is a wasteland of garbage and all my friends look miserable.” The Devil looked at her and smiled. “Yesterday we were recruiting you. Today, you’re staff.”

What tempts us may seem better, more impressive, more prideful, more delicious, but the real question is what it will be like in the long-term. Edmund is flattered by the White Witch’s attention, impressed with her trappings, ensnared by her Turkish Delight, and jumped at a chance to turn his brother and sisters into inferiors. If he is going to be King, then he will need courtiers and servants. Ah, but the gift of a throne for Edmund is not really the Witch’s to give. In fact, the only legitimate way to the throne is through the true King. In the same way, lots of temptations will look good on the face of it, but cannot give us what we truly want or need. Fortunately, when we face temptation, God is with us. All we have to do is ask for God’s help, and it is there, with a power more than equal to our temptation. But when we ask God for help, we have to live as if that help has already come. That’s the real key! God’s strength ready for us, filling us, armoring us, giving us the strength and wisdom we need to find and take the escape route.

Worship with the Lion 1 Into the Wardrobe: Why We Like “Magic Thinking”

by Rev. Doug Gray

Welcome to Narnia! Narnia is a magic place with animals that talk and a story that draws us in. Narnia is a place where it feels like anything can happen. It’s a fabulous thought—isn’t it?—that we might open a wardrobe and find ourselves in a place like Narnia. It fires our imagination. We begin to think, “What if?” Perhaps we begin to let go of the rules of our world, to try to understand the way this other world works. If the author is a good one, by the time she or he is done, we will understand ourselves and our world a bit better. Magic is just one tool for C.S. Lewis to help us understand there are different rules.

The Bible makes a very clear distinction between faith-thinking and magic-thinking. Faith-thinking is about a relationship with God through Jesus. Because of their trust-relationship with God, some people discover they have power beyond what people in this world expect. I have met some people who have been healed in ways that shouldn’t have happened. One of my grandfathers talked about praying that God would take away his craving for nicotine, and it was gone…and never came back. Faith trusts that God listens when we ask, and will give us what we need. It’s not magic. It’s faith.

Magic-thinking in this world is the idea that someone can make the universe do what they want with a motion or a word. When I was a boy, I remember being really bored sitting at stop lights. I thought I could make the light change. I would wind up and throw my hand at the light and say, “Change!” Or I would really want the elevator to come, and I would try to predict which door would open. It didn’t really work for me. The lights were on timers and the elevators came when they were ready. That’s the way Simon Magus is thinking in our passage for today—he tries to buy the power of the Holy Spirit so that he can make money giving people the power of God. He thinks the Holy Spirit is magic, and he’s wrong. This kind of magic-thinking believes we can tell the universe, to tell God what to do.

Some people try to use that kind of thinking in the guise of faith. If you say this special prayer, then you’ll get whatever you want. If you start this program in your church, then you will have an amazing Sunday School. If you read this book, then you will unlock the power of God. It’s really just another way to try to make God do what we want God to do. We like magic-thinking because we like the idea of being in control.

Faith recognizes that God is in control. Faith understands that we can’t make God do anything, but that when we walk with God, good things will come. Growing in faith is learning to trust that Jesus is who he says he is, and can change things in ways we will find amazing. But we can’t make it happen—only be in the place with the One who can make it happen. In fact, the challenge of Impact Squantum and the visioning process we have been working together is that we are having to learn about our life with God, having to learn more how to really trust God with the very practical pieces of our lives. It’s one thing to say, “I believe in God,” and it’s another to trust God with our finances.

Some people think of the Bible as another fantasy book, in which things happen that don’t happen in the real world. To this way of thinking, Simon Magus and Simon Peter would both be demented—Simon Magus thinking that there’s magic, and Simon Peter that there’s a Holy Spirit. Magic doesn’t work, not really. But we are drawn to worlds of imagination like Narnia, because we are seeking something more—the possibility of relationship beyond what we can see and touch, and yet somehow part of them too. What if Jesus didn’t just die long ago, but lives with us all the time? If only we could imagine the reality of Jesus that could change all of reality… Not magic…faith.

Knowing the Good Shepherd

by Rev. Doug Gray

Several guys are in the locker room of the country club. When a cell phone on a bench rings, a man puts the call on the hands-free speaker and begins to talk.

MAN: “Hello”

WOMAN: “Honey, it’s me. Are you at the club?”

MAN: “Yes.”

WOMAN: “I’m at the mall and found a beautiful leather coat. It’s $1,000. Can I buy it?”

MAN: “OK, go ahead if you like it that much.”

WOMAN: “I also stopped by the Mercedes dealership and saw the 2020 models. I saw one I really liked.”

MAN: “How much?”

WOMAN: $80,000.

MAN: “For that price I want it with all the options.”

WOMAN: “Great! One more thing. ... The house we wanted last year is back on the market. They’re only asking $650,000.”

MAN: “Well, then go ahead and buy it but just offer $620,000.”

WOMAN: “OK. I’ll see you later! I love you!”

MAN: “Bye, I love you too.”

The man hangs up. The other guys in the locker room are looking at him in astonishment. Then he asks: “Anyone know who this phone belongs to?”

 It’s getting harder to tell whom to trust. Everyone to give us an answer. The infomercials all have broadly smiling people who are happy to tell us how we can all be as happy as they are. On-line, we are told we are just one click away from happiness. So how can we tell whom we can trust? In our passage today, Jesus offers three clear insights into how to tell whom to trust with all we are, and in the process points the only way to real, lasting, fulfilling joy.

We are known. Maybe that’s why I hate calls from telemarketers. I feel like I am just another statistic in their quest for the next sale. They don’t care—they’re not paid to care. They are paid to make as many calls as they can, trusting that statistically they will happen on one or two out of every hundred who will buy what they’re selling. Jesus says, 14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…” We are more than a number to God. We are infinitely precious in His sight, so precious that God knows each of us to the very core—our wants and needs, our hurts and deepest desires—because God has known us from the beginning. We can trust the One who truly knows and loves us.

We are the goal. Danny Dutton lived in Chula Vista, California. At the immense age of 8, had a homework assignment to “Explain God.” Here’s some of what he wrote:

 If you don’t believe in God, besides being an atheist, you will be very lonely, because your parents can’t go everywhere with you, like to camp, but God can. It is good to know He’s around you when you’re scared in the dark or when you can’t swim very good and you get thrown into real deep water by big kids. But you shouldn’t just always think of what God can do for you. I figure God put me here and He can take me back anytime He pleases. And that’s why I believe in God.

 I think Danny is really onto something here. If you want to find out who your friends are, see who sticks with you when your life is caving in, who will stand by you when you’re scared and hold you when you are hurting. All the false gods will give you up when it gets tough. They’re in it for themselves, not you. But God is in it for you! You are not only important enough to know by name, you are important enough that Jesus was willing to lay his life down for yours. Only put your whole self in the care of those for whom you are the goal.

Jesus guides us to what we most need. I was a camp counselor at a wilderness camp for a few years. My co-counselor and I had 12 boys we would take on one- and two-day hikes. The camp had several different trails, and you would go to the trailhead and on a tree would be a spray-painted symbol, called a trail blaze. If you stood next to the tree with that blaze, and looked ahead on the trail, you would find another tree with the same colored symbol. Then you would go to that tree and look for the next blaze and so on until you got to your destination. In the same way, Jesus has blazed the trail for us to follow, as Christians and as a fellowship. Jesus knows what it means to follow God with His whole heart and He has marked the path for us to follow. On this path, we will find all that we need—food, water, shelter, purpose and fulfillment—and on it we will also find a cross. Because Jesus knows that the only way to really gain our life is to offer it up for something and someone bigger than we are. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who guides us to what we most need.

We are surrounded by voices clamoring for our trust. If only we will make our lives revolve around their program, their store, their vitamin, their technology, then we will have real happiness. The voices that worry me the most are the ones like the guy on the cell phone in our opening story that say you can have whatever you want. But the only one who truly knows us—knows us better than we do ourselves—is God…and He still loves us! And as we look around for someone or something willing to make us their goal, we turn and see a guy who beckons to us with nail-scarred hands. These scars were ones He chose because He knew how hard it is to do what’s right, and wanted to give us a chance to become more than we ever thought possible. At their best, the people who mother us love like Jesus, the Good Shepherd. The ones who mother us best know us through and through—sometimes better than we know ourselves, and still we are loved. The best love of a mother wants us to become the whole, happy, capable, purposeful, loving people God has made us to be, and like Jesus, they help us on the road to our best, most loving selves. Of course, the thing is that all of us—even moms—can listen to these other voices and go down unhealthy paths, only to find nothing but dead ends. (Even in those dead ends, Jesus is with us!) I’d like to say lots of paths lead to true happiness, but I haven’t found any except one—the guy with the nail-scarred hands who beckons to us down his trail. Jesus understood that only someone who came from God could be the way to real happiness. Only someone willing to lay down his life to ransom the souls of many could have a chance to take that life up again. Sure, Jesus is the good, noble, beautiful shepherd. But Jesus also says, “9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” I have tried lots of God-replacements and watched others try a lot more, and Jesus is the only sure way to the truly abundant life, where we reach the fullness of what we are meant to be. And the best part is that Jesus is not just the way, the truth and the light, but that He is the good shepherd. Jesus is the One who knows us, the One who loves enough to make us the goal, the One who guides us into a great future, then we, too, can enjoy the refreshing, challenging, growing, abundant life.

Letting Jesus into the Messiness

by Rev. Doug Gray

As long as I can remember, having family come visit always meant hours—even days—of cleaning. The ordinary, “lived in” house just won’t do when family is coming, especially if it’s mom. Once, Cynthia’s mom was coming to visit and things were crazy. The kids were sick. Things were blowing up at work for both Cynthia and me. With hours to spare, we gave up on “Queen of England” clean. With minutes to spare, we gave up on family clean. I can’t speak for Cynthia, but I was really stressed just because of what was going on, and then to not have the house clean for Karen? I love my mother-in-law and it’s not how I wanted things to be for her. In fact, I am getting teary about it even now—embarrassed and even a little ashamed. At times, I have felt like that with God too. I want God to come into my life, so I start a life-cleaning project—trying to change old habits, trying to be more thoughtful of my family, volunteering to help someone out, read the Bible more, find some solitude for prayer. But things get crazy and all of a sudden, I look up and God is coming, and I need God…and my life is really messy. And I’m not sure I want to let God in to see that. Our passage has some advice for us if we’re feeling that way.

First, Jesus comes into the messiness. I’m not sure why the two disciples left Jerusalem, but they are obviously depressed about Jesus’ death on the cross. Are they trying to leave the hard facts of death behind as they head out of town? In the midst of their confusion and sadness, Jesus comes. Jesus doesn’t wait until these disciples are organized and ready, and Jesus doesn’t wait until our lives are neat and orderly. Jesus comes into the messiness.

Second, Jesus cares about what’s going on inside. You’ll notice that Jesus asks these disciples what they are talking about, and truly listens to their response. Jesus knows what is going on for them, knows what has upset them, but there is something about really telling someone what is on our hearts that helps us. Jesus cares enough about what’s going on inside of us to truly listen.

Finally, Jesus explains to the disciples why it had to be. In his book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, Thomas Bergler describes how in America, we have become satisfied with a nice God who wants us to be nice, and who helps us on the road to self-development. But this empties the Cross of its power, because we forget that we can worship and experience the power of God in our suffering as well as our good times. Bergler writes, “We must be vigilant and creatively compensate for what gets lost in translation when we use the language of [the world]. For example, if we sing songs that highlight the emotional consolations of the faith, what can we do to help…people also embrace the sufferings that come with following Jesus?”[1] Indeed, Paul experienced God saying, “My grace is sufficient for you and my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) On the road to Emmaus, Jesus explains God’s plan to the disciples—why the Son of God was willing to suffer—and it made their hearts burn with joy and passion.

When my mother-in-law came to the door, we were so happy to see her, and so ashamed at the messiness of our house. She didn’t bat an eye. In fact, she rolled up her sleeves and helped us make things better. What a blessing! One of the reasons I love this story of the Road to Emmaus is that just as Jesus comes to those disciples in the middle of their messed up lives, Jesus comes into the messiness of our lives and really listens to us—what are we thinking, what are we sad and upset about. No need to feel embarrassed or ashamed—Jesus loves us! Then, if we will listen, Jesus tells us of the never-failing, sacrificial love of God, of the way Jesus put God’s Will first, and how the Cross (a symbol of death) releases the power of forgiveness and healing. Jesus is with us, though it may be Jesus will use someone from our family or our church or a complete stranger to explain it to us. When we worship, God takes us, and blesses us and breaks us and gives us to each other and the world. Then our eyes will be opened, the eyes of everyone will be opened, and we will see Jesus Christ is indeed with us in a way that fills our hearts with passion and our limbs with energy to tell the Good News! He is risen! Hallelujah!

[1]Thomas Bergler, “When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity,” Christianity Today, June 2012, Vol. 56:6, pp18ff.

Fruitfulness on the Front Lines: The Better Tomorrow Starts Today

by Rev. Doug Gray

Since before I can remember, I have loved Easter Egg hunts. Was that a tradition at your house when you were growing up? Or is it something you’ve seen other folks do? If it’s a new tradition for you, you might check out our kids while they are doing the Easter Egg hunt. Watch their faces as they hunt. Watch the littlest ones. Sometimes they find an egg, and then they’re happy. When you open it and there is something inside—the delight on their faces. Watch the older ones, and they are more into finding the eggs. Candy, stickers, prizes? Ok, fine, but there’s work to do! We have to find the eggs! It’s why we do our Easter Egg hunt in two waves, because the way the two groups approach the process is so different—the littlest ones really don’t stand a chance if the older ones are in on it from the beginning. You know, it’s funny, but I think that the adult search for Easter and the Risen Christ is a lot like that too.

Some of us are like the littlest ones hunting Easter eggs—totally happy to find there is a day for joy! Like the women standing in an empty tomb wondering what the heck is going on…and then finding joy, we may not be really sure what to think about the whole resurrection thing, but it’s great to celebrate what God is doing! To open the day, and find a prize—some sweet music, a cool message, some good prayer—who’s not up for that? If you are here for the joy and beauty, then you’re in luck! We have lots of joy and beauty in today!

Some of us are more like the older kids hunting eggs—we are in it to win it! Open the eggs? Are you kidding? We are into the hunt! For us, we want to understand this whole resurrection thing. What do you mean raised from the dead? What if Jesus was really a ghost? Was Jesus actually raised from the dead? Why are there differences between the four gospel accounts of the resurrection? The best explanation for the different accounts of Jesus on Easter Sunday is to think of Jesus rising from the grave like a televised football game. There are lots of cameras at the game—some look down on the plays on the field from above, some look at the same plays from the ground level, some are looking at the fan response in the stands, some look at it from the quarterback’s point of view. All the cameras are looking at the same game, but we see different things from each one. All the cameras agree on the main features—who won the game, maybe some of the key plays, maybe the crazy woman with the Viking hat who decided to jump the fence and was ushered out—and they all add important perspectives to understand the game. When we look at Easter Sunday, all the accounts agree on some things:

  • It was the third day after Jesus died on the cross. The Romans were pros at execution. No way Jesus makes it out of that alive. Jesus was really dead.

  • Women were the first to go to the tomb, hoping to anoint Jesus with aromatic spices so that when the other people came to visit, it wouldn’t smell so bad. In a patriarchal society, someone making up the story would have had men as the first witnesses.

  • Jesus was not in the tomb. Most likely, some of the women encountered Jesus too. They knew what ghosts were, and this Jesus was not a ghost. They could touch him, he was living and breathing.

  • The women are freaked out and unbelievably happy at the same time, which is a hard set of emotions to have at the same time.

  • They go and tell the other disciples—none of whom believe them at first.

If you are hunting for Easter, full of questions and doubts, and maybe a curious mix of wonder, fear, and joy, you are in luck—we have plenty of questions, doubts and mixed emotions. We are always looking for more of Easter too.

Of course, the thing about Easter is that it’s more than hunting eggs. The story is told of a boy named Philip who never felt like he belonged. In his Sunday school class before Easter, Phillip’s teacher introduced a special project. He gave every member a plastic “egg”—the kind pantyhose used to come in. He explained that each child was to go outside, find a symbol for new life and put it into the egg. The class really got into it. Back in the classroom the eggs were opened one at a time. In the first egg was a pretty flower. In the next a beautiful butterfly. Green grass was in a third. The children “oohed” and “aahed” over all the ideas. Finally, the last egg was opened—there was nothing. “That’s stupid,” said one child. Another grumbled, “Someone didn’t do it right!” The teacher felt a tug on his shirt. It was Phillip, who said, “That’s mine, and I did do it right! It’s empty, ‘cause the tomb was empty.” There was an unusual, thoughtful silence. And strangely, from that time on, Phillip was accepted as part of the group. Phillip struggled with many physical problems. That summer he picked up an infection which most children would easily have shaken off. But Philip’s weak body couldn’t, and a few weeks later, he died. At his funeral nine eight-year-olds with their teacher brought their symbol of remembrance and placed it near his coffin. Their unusual gift of love to Phillip wasn’t flowers. It was an empty egg—now a symbol to them of new life and hope.[1] The fearful disciples who locked their doors before Jesus’ resurrection would, in a few short weeks, become bold and fearless ambassadors for the Jesus who was not in the tomb. The empty egg and the empty tomb are not simply empty, they are paradoxically full of hope and power. Richard Foster wrote of this group of Easter hunters, “These are the ones who can envision a new future, a future of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. They are being taken over by a holy power to do the right. They are being brought out of bondage to human beings. They cannot be bribed or manipulated or flattered. They love their enemies and pray for those who despise them. In time their very presence and actions will bring down those structures that are sustained by greed and pride and fear.”[2] The hunters for Easter know that they are not really hunting for the event—what happened long ago; they are hunting for a person who lives with us today, and whose presence transforms people. So we hunters for Easter can know that the better tomorrow starts with Jesus rising to be with us today. Uncertainty, wonder, and joy! He is risen!

[1]Preaching Today.

[2]Foster, Prayer, p. 246

Two Mary’s Make Us Merry

by Rev. Doug Gray

One of the things I get to do each month is to lead worship down at the Marina Bay Skilled Nursing Facility and across the way at The Atria. Mary Thompson, this sweet woman with penetrating blue eyes, is often there. Mary was in the paper not long ago because she turned 102 and has led an amazing life. Just about every week, Mary re-introduces herself to me, but one week she said, “I’m Mary. Just another Mary.” That made me think of the first Easter Sunday, when we see Mary Magdalene and the other Mary going to the tomb…Mary, and the other Mary.

When you were growing up, did any of the other kids have the same first name as you? My first-grade class had 3 Bob’s in it. So the teacher was forever getting them mixed up. All three Bob’s used to roll their eyes with embarrassment when she got them mixed up, but the rest of the class used to snicker. Jesus seemed to have a lot of Mary’s hanging around. Mary Magdalene, Mary His mother, and the other Mary. I wonder, did they feel very ordinary, like the 3 Bob’s in my third-grade class? So on this first Easter Sunday, two Mary’s were at the tomb, felt the earthquake, saw and heard the angel, and two Mary’s carried the news back to the other disciples. Did you hear what their emotions are as they run to the disciples? With fear and great joy. Just Mary and the other Mary. On the way, Jesus steps up to them and says, “Greetings! Rejoice!” and then Jesus adds, “Do not be afraid!” Ordinary Mary’s with extraordinary news, meeting an extraordinary Jesus, and their fear is taken away.

So when I think of Mary Thompson at 102, saying, “I’m just another Mary,” and I think about her amazing life, I am struck that for God there is no such thing as “just another Mary” or just another you. God made each of us and knows each of us like we are the only one. And Jesus knows all our fears, flaws and foibles and still we are loved—even ordinary folks like you and me can have extraordinary news of Jesus rising again in us. Even ordinary folks like you and me can meet this extraordinary Jesus because of Easter. Because of Jesus rising again, our fear can give way to great joy. He is risen! He is risen indeed!

Fruitfulness on the Frontlines: Love Doesn’t Have to, But Love Does Anyway

by Rev. Doug Gray


All this Lent, we are spending time thinking about our frontlines. What’s a frontline? Our frontline is the edge of our lives where we are meeting people who need grace—where we work, where we play, at the store, at school, with our family, at the doctor’s office, hanging out while our kids are in an activity, going for a walk in the neighborhood—wherever we spend time with people can be a frontline. Our frontline is where we are stretched, and where we have a chance to make a difference. All this Lent, we are exploring ways to be fruitful on our frontlines.It’s one of those phrases that drives a parent nuts. When I was a kid, my parents would ask me to take out the garbage…they asked me to take out the garbage, so I said, “No.” Then they told me to take out the garbage, and I used the phrase, “Do I have to?” When my parents asked me to spend part of a beautiful, sunny Saturday mowing the lawn, I would ask, “Do I have to?” When they would ask me if I would go with them to party where I didn’t have any friends, I would ask, “Do I have to?” Now I don’t know—maybe you have said that phrase yourself, or maybe you have heard it from your kids—but in our passages for today, we find God has answers to the question, “Do I have to?”

First, the short answer is always “No!” A poor widow comes to the prophet Elisha and pleads her case. A woman of substance invites the prophet Elisha to stop by for a meal. In the second story, Jesus reminds us that there are people who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, without clothes, sick and in prison. In the face of their need, we may ask, “Do I have to?” And the answer is always, “No!” We don’t have to.

Second, need calls us to action. We don’t have to, but we could. The poor widow’s financial need activates Elisha’s compassion. Perhaps the woman of substance is lonely, or just wants a chance to be a blessing. Whatever it is, Elisha comes by her house for dinner whenever he is in the neighborhood. Or is it that this great woman sees Elisha’s need for some good home-cooking and a quiet space? Jesus makes it clear that those who see need and do something about it—those are the people who know Jesus best. Jesus says, “…just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The needs are really simple and straightforward, aren’t they? Financial need, loneliness, hunger, thirst, sickness…We don’t have to, but we choose to. Need calls us to action.

Third, God wants to rewire us for compassion. We don’t have to, but we want to. Whether it’s Elisha or the woman of substance or Jesus, the compassion leads us. In fact, Jesus talks about people who are so wired to show compassion, that they didn’t even know they were doing it. Breathtakingly, they discover from Jesus, that they were taking care of Him, not just caring for the hungry, thirsty, sick and lonely. They were just doing it, but there was something more going on. When we show compassion, God rewires us to be more compassionate.

In his book, Fruitfulness on the Frontlines:  Making a Difference Where You Are, Mark Greene tells the story of David that seems to catch all of these ideas..


David’s frontline was his office….One Monday, one of his colleagues, James, failed to turn up to work.

No one thought much about it—probably just had a spectacular weekend—but when [James] didn’t turn up the following day, David called him, even though he wasn’t a particular friend of his.

‘Are you ok?’

‘No, I’m feeling terrible. I haven’t been able to get out of bed for three days.’

‘Is anyone looking after you?’

No, I live alone and my family are miles away.’

‘Have you got the right medicine?’

‘I haven’t even got any food.’

… David went…to see James that evening, got him into the shower, changed his [bedding], took him to the doctor, got the medicine, bought food and went to see him every evening for a week. During that week, James never asked David a single question about why he was doing all he was doing for him.

However, within a week of James’ return to work, David found…[he had lots of opportunities to explain]. James had told everyone what David had done. And people stopped [David] on the [elevator], in the halls, in the cafeteria; his colleagues simply couldn’t understand why he’d done it. As [David’s pastor] put it, ‘David replied carefully and humbly to all who asked, “It is nothing I did… I think what I did is the kind of thing [Jesus] would have done. I don’t do it very well, but I do my best.”’[1]


What I love about this story, is that in one sense David’s loving choices are completely unexpected—when we ask ourselves what would Jesus do, we don’t expect to be taking care of one of our co-workers in a very personal, dedicated way. James’ needs awakened David to action, and he did a beautifully compassionate thing. In another sense, David’s loving choices are totally expected—it’s how we would want the story to go if we were James, and perhaps we know that’s the kind of radical compassion that Jesus lived and taught and died to show us.

When we are kids, often we are self-focused. As I got older, I began to realize that when I asked my parents “Do I have to?” it was like telling them that I didn’t want to. So I started taking out the garbage when I saw it was full. I started making space in my weekend to mow the lawn and found that mowing the lawn was very meditative. I even began to think of my parents’ parties as a way of being with them and giving them joy. I was learning to think with grace. Mark Greene writes, “Grace and love go beyond the acceptable minimum or the way things are usually done—the homeless person is not just given a meal, but a really great meal. Indeed, there is more to ministering grace and love than kindness. Love is about wanting and seeking the best for someone else.” Isn’t it what we want for our children? In a sense, that’s what we hope to grow into, isn’t it? That we would have more grace and love, that we would become people who show love not because they have to, but because they want to. But in another sense, what we hope for most, is that God would rewire us, so that we not only want to, it’s the only way we are.

[1]Mark Greene, Fruitfulness on the Frontline:  Making a difference where you are (Nottingham, UK:  Inter-Varsity Press, 2014), pp. 109–111.

Fruitfulness on the Frontline: Fruitfulness in Belonging to God

by Rev. Doug Gray

Being a parent is the most important job in the world, and it’s one of those jobs you can never really know how to do until you’re a parent. When our oldest, Morgan, was born, the best sound in the world was the sound of her crying, because I knew that crying meant her lungs were working. It was so glorious and I was so relieved—and incidentally, so exhausted—that I almost cried myself. I would discover that Morgan crying and our exhaustion would go together a lot. When it came time to leave the hospital, and Cynthia carried Morgan, and I was the Sherpa carrying a yak’s worth of stuff that we got at the hospital. We couldn’t believe that anyone would let us walk out of the hospital with this baby. What the heck do we really know about being parents anyway? It’s “on the job training,” right?

Another thing they don’t tell you about parenting is that there’s going to be pressure. If you don’t think there’s pressure in parenting, then you have never looked for your child’s stuffed animal as if your life depended on it—because it does. Oh yes, there’s pressure! Our children add unexpected things to our lives, and suddenly we are under pressure. When Morgan was just a few months old, the Congregational church in Quincy, IL was looking for an Associate Pastor, and so Cynthia and Morgan joined me as I was going to meet the congregation for the first time. Sunday morning comes, and we are talking with the little old ladies of the congregation before worship as they’re sitting around the Parlor. While we talk, we’re playing “Pass the Baby” because everyone wanted to see this adorable child—which I am very cool with since they aren’t asking me thorny theological questions. Being the loving, chill child Morgan is, she is going with it. And the little old ladies are loving it, and bouncing her on their knees and making goo-goo eyes…and then Morgan gets really still on a lady with the bright pink dress. Suddenly, the scent of doom is in the air, so Cynthia and I whisk Morgan into the Nursery, and yep—diaper blow out. Great! Perfect! Fortunately, we have a change of clothes and clean diapers, so we undo Morgan’s diaper and start getting her undressed, when she dips her heel in the—stuff—and before we can blink, Morgan is covered head to toe in—stuff. And Cynthia starts to chuckle, and I start to giggle, and pretty soon we are laughing our backsides off because we cannot imagine how this could get any worse. Then we learn that the poor woman’s bright pink dress is ruined…and she is ushering that day…and she is the Moderator of the church…and she is leading the Congregational Meeting after worship where the congregation is voting on whether or not to call me. The funniest part was that the congregation did vote to call me as their Associate Pastor, and the Moderator, Pat, became one of our best friends. Did I say there is pressure in parenting?

There are all kinds of pressure at work, though, aren’t there? How many of you have ever had a job with weird people? My friend, Vera, used to work at Walmart in our small city in Wisconsin. She worked in jewelry and she had the weirdest things happen, people being mean to her, people stealing stupid stuff—oh no, I didn’t take that!—and the people she worked with were a pretty tough, not very understanding bunch. Every Monday night, Vera would come to Bible Study with a new story about how bizarre people were and how toxic a work environment could be—some of the stories were funny, but most of them were sad. One Monday night, Vera came and told us that a woman had come in for a watchband, and spent 20 minutes telling Vera all about how her house was being foreclosed on, and she was trying to figure out what to do to feed and clothe her family. When she was done telling us, Vera said, “When I came out from behind the counter and hugged that woman and told her I’d pray for her, I knew why God put me at Walmart.”

We have lots of places where we experience pressure—family, friends, work, school, neighborhood—so the question is not whether we will experience pressure, but what we are going to do with it. One of my mentors called it “being in the fire,” that there are times when the pressure just rises and rises—sometimes from different areas at the same time. How can we handle being in the fire? Paul says, “since we are made right by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand…” In the midst of the fire—and the heat just gets hotter—we who are trying to follow Jesus have a peace that makes us fireproof: we know that we will get through this with God’s help. But Paul says something even more incredible will happen if we are willing to stay in the fire with Jesus—our sufferings, troubles, and pressure, “produce endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” Somehow, when we love during the pressure, troubles, and suffering, people begin to see that God’s love is real—real enough to stake their lives on…because we have staked our lives on that love.

We can never really be prepared for what it means to be a parent until we are in the thick of it. Even if we know how to do a job, that doesn’t mean we are prepared for what it’s like to work with other people until we are there. So much of life is just learning while we do it. When we are under pressure, do we keep trying to do the loving thing? When we are in the fire, do we hold out a hand of compassion to our co-worker to help them with their troubles? When we are suffering, do we stay cool and keep doing what Jesus would do? Wherever God has planted us, whoever is in our lives today, God has put each of us there for a reason. Our frontlines are where things can get messy, where the pressure can rise, and the heat can get hotter. Our frontlines are where God is growing and stretching us, shaping our character for even greater times ahead. In Lent—more than any other season of the Church—people often invite God to grow them with the pressure by giving something up or adding something in. Remembering how Jesus was tested in the wilderness, on our frontlines we too will be tested. How will we make it through? By trying to get closer to God. The psalmist writes,


Happy are those…[whose] delight is in the law of the LORD,

                  and on his Law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees

                  planted by streams of water,

         which yield their fruit in its season,

                  and their leaves do not wither.

     In all that they do, they prosper.


This Lent, let us be fruitful on our frontlines with God and so come closer to the Lord who saves!

Becoming Radiant

by Rev. Doug Gray

To start us out, I would like you to take a few moments to answer two questions. If you would like to write the answers down, there is some blank space in your bulletins for you to do so.

 1.  Name two of the most important things that have made you who you are.

2.  What have they contributed to who you are?

 Go ahead. If you don’t want to write, or if (like me) sometimes you can’t read your own handwriting, just think of the answers in your head. Alright?

 (pause so folks can reflect)

 In our lives, we have only a few basic ways of becoming, and they all have to do with taking things in. When we eat and drink, we take food and liquid in and it becomes part of who we are. How many of you listed any meal you ate or anything you drank as one of your two most important things that made you who you are? Yes, this is one way we become who we are, but not the most significant. When we breathe, we take in the air around us, and the oxygen and other things affect us. How many of you listed a smell or something you smoked as one of your two most important things that make you who you are? Another way we become who we are, but again, not the most significant. Do you see where this pattern is going? What other ways do we take things in?

 Hear, see, feel, experience, act, choose (the things that combine all these are strongest for us)

 God is interested in who you are becoming. In fact, God made you to become…but become what? We can become lots of things in life—some require more work than others. For a while I was becoming a slob…it’s a remarkably easy goal in life. For a while I was becoming a volleyball player…that took a lot more practice, but after a few years, I started to get pretty good and enjoyed it tremendously. When I was a teenager, I realized that the only way my life made sense was if I was living it for God. Gradually, I came to realize that if I wanted to live my life for God, I needed to learn how to want what God wanted for me. In his book, The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren writes, “God’s ultimate goal for your life on earth is not comfort, but character development. He wants you to grow up spiritually and become like Christ. Becoming like Christ does not mean losing your personality or becoming a mindless clone. God created your uniqueness, so he certainly doesn’t want to destroy it. Christlikeness is all about transforming your character, not your personality.”

When we think about the things that have had the biggest impact on who we are, most of us list things that are outside of us—parents, friends, bosses, and maybe events. For Paul, the biggest impact comes from the inside, when we “recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete.” With the Spirit’s help, we begin to choose to do what helps us become. The things people hate about religion—that probably we all hate about religion—are truly empty, because what God wants is not religion, but relationship. In that relationship, we become…kinder, more thoughtful, more courageous, gentler, truer, more hopeful, more beautiful, like Jesus. Most of all what God wants is that we would become radiant, that the light of Jesus would shine in all we do. Let us not veil the wonder and beauty, the love and joy of being servants of the One King, of becoming the image of His Son, but let that so shine in us that others may see our good works and be drawn to the One whom we serve. “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Amen.

The Key to More Than We Expect

by Rev. Doug Gray

I am generally a pretty easy-going guy. I tend to assume the best of people, and I generally find that people treat me well. I always figured I could pretty much get along with everyone until I met Gregory. Beginning in 9th grade, Gregory was a pain in my back side. He walked around school with a self-satisfied smirk on his face, but when he saw me, he would grin and something malicious would sparkle in his eyes. He delighted in saying nasty things, and if he could rip on me, so much the better. His favorite thing was to get me into trouble with teachers who, inexplicably, trusted him. Those of you who have read the Harry Potter books will understand when I say that Gregory was my Draco Malfoy. All this would have been fine, except that while I was in high school I read today’s passage. I thought Jesus was crazy:  Love Gregory? Is he kidding? Who are some of the kinds of people you find it hardest to love? [Take responses from the congregation.] Is Jesus kidding? Are we really to love even our enemies? Martin Luther King Jr. wrote,

 “Now let me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this command; he wasn’t playing. He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies. He realized that it’s difficult to love those persons who seek to defeat you, those persons who say evil things about you. He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard. But he wasn’t playing…This is a basic philosophy of all that we hear coming from the lips of our Master…We have the Christian and moral responsibility to seek to discover the meaning of these words, and to discover how we can live out this command, and why we should live by this command.”*

 How can we learn to love everyone, particularly our enemies?

First, we learn to love everyone by looking at ourselves. We like to think of ourselves as lovable. We’re pretty lovable, right? But have never hurt someone—physically, verbally, emotionally? Have we never once fallen short of the way we believe God wants us to be? Jesus said, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? Whenever we examine ourselves, if we are honest, we will recognize that they are not perfect…and neither are we. Examining ourselves with a clear eye, knowing the good and the bad in ourselves, will keep us humble.

Second, we learn to love our everyone by looking for the good in them. In each of us there is a battle rages. The great German poet, Johann Goethe wrote, “There is enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue.” He echoes Paul who wrote in Romans 7:19, “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” Isn’t it true that we all struggle at least from time to time to do what is good and right? Martin Luther King wrote, within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God,” you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never slough off. Discover the element of good in your enemy.

 If we can find that good, then we can begin to love them for that—not for the evil they do, but for the good that is there too. If we pray for them, we can pray for the good that is at work in them, for the image of God trying to shine from them.

Third, we learn to love everyone by looking for opportunities for kindness. Our opportunity for kindness may come by refusing to humiliate someone who opposes us. At some point, even our enemy will find themselves in our power, and we will have a chance to hurt or humiliate, even crush our enemy. But if we are followers of the way of love, we must not do it. A person who is made in the image of God—and we all are—is never our enemy so much as the forces, institutions and systems they represent are our enemy. We can and sometimes must fight the forces, institutions and systems that are evil, but we are called to love our enemy. Our opportunity for kindness may come with an opportunity to show grace for someone who has no right or reason to expect it of us. We learn to love everyone by looking for opportunities for kindness.

You’ll notice that Jesus did not call us to like our enemy. We are not called to like everyone. Liking someone is a feeling. Martin Luther King writes, “There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like.” We are not called to be fond of everyone. We are called to love. Love is not a feeling. Love is a choice we make to seek someone’s good. That is why when the opportunity comes to bless someone, especially our enemy, we must take it if we are to love.

All of this leads us to ask, “Why?” Why should we love everyone? Why should I love that lousy Gregory? Why should we pray for those who are gunning for us? Because in Gandhi’s words, “An eye for an eye only makes the whole blind.” When we hate, we only make the forces of hate stronger in this world. Anyone can hate. King would add, “The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate…and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.” Why should we love everyone? Because when we hate, it twists and warps us into something less than human. When we hate, we vandalize the image of God in us. Martin Luther King writes:  “We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates…So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.” Why should we love everyone? Because only in love is there a power from God to bring people to a new place. Only love can lead us to wholeness, to real joy and hope. Just as hate can scar and ruin our souls, so love can heal and restore relationships. Force breeds force, and hate breeds hate…but love yields love. Again, MLK:  “We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make [people] better. Love is the only way. Jesus discovered that. “One day as Napoleon came toward the end of his career and looked back across the years—the great Napoleon that at a very early age had all but conquered the world. He was not stopped until…he moved out to the battle of Leipzig and then to Waterloo. But that same Napoleon one day stood back and looked across the years, and said: ‘Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have built great empires. But upon what did they depend? They depended upon force.’ But long ago, Jesus started an empire that depended on love, and even to this day millions will die for him.” And what about you…what about me? Are we willing to be like Jesus, to love those who don’t love us?

*The quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr are taken from his sermon, “Loving Your Enemies” delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on 17 November 1957. This sermon is part of a collection entitled, A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The book (and audio!) is available through The King Center and can be found online at http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/publications/sermons/571117.002_Loving_Your_Enemies.html

Leaving the Ashes for Deep Waters

Study Notes

Context: Luke is the only gospel writer who was not Jewish. He was a Greek, perhaps a physician, who likely traveled with Paul. Luke takes pains, therefore, to make it clear that Jesus came first for the Jews, but then for the Gentiles. In Luke, Gentiles often display amazing faith. Luke’s gospel is a very demanding gospel with discipleship as a major theme. Luke is also often thought of as the Gospel of the Marginalized—the poor, the lost, least and left out—who sometimes receive Jesus with greater joy and commitment than the wealthy, found, great and “in” people. In chapter 3, Jesus is baptized, and in chapter 4, Jesus is tempted, and begins his ministry in Nazareth (where he finds a poor reception for his teaching and healing ministries). Jesus moves down to the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum, where he begins casting out demons and healing the sick and injured. As yet, he has no disciples. Nevertheless, Jesus and Simon have met before today’s passage:  Jesus stayed with Simon and even healed Simon’s mother-in-law!

1       Lake of Gennesaret. Another name for the Sea of Galilee. people crowding around him. Jesus has had a ministry in Capernaum for some time before this passage. His reputation as a powerful teacher and healer is a big draw for people in the region.

2       two boats. These boats were approx. 20 feet in length with a single, squarish sail. washing their nets. The nets caught more than fish—trash, weeds, etc. These would have to be cleaned every day so these non-fish catches would not interfere with their livelihood.

3       one belonging to Simon. It seems Simon and Andrew were in partnership with the sons of Zebedee. Simon. According to one source, Simon means “sinking sand.” taught the people from the boat. Sound carries wonderfully over the water.

4–5  Jesus finishes teaching the crowd and turns to Peter, the one he wants to become a disciple. Jesus, the carpenter, tells Peter, the fisherman, how to fish. Peter is confused or even non-plussed by the command, yet he complies.

6–7  Jesus offers Peter, Andrew, James and John a “Wow” experience that totally hooks them—a carpenter directs them to the catch of a lifetime. The boats are so full they begin to experience catastrophic success!

8–9  Peter recognizes the outrageousness of what he has seen and experienced, and he recognizes that Jesus somehow knew or planned what happened. He believes he is in danger—a sinful man in a holy presence.

10    Don’t be afraid. These are almost always the first words out of the mouth of angels when they come to a mortal. you will catch men. Lit., you will catch men alive. The people will not come out of the net dead…and it is “catch and release” right?

11    They left behind family and business to follow Jesus.


In every area of life, there are key things to know. If you want to be a good sailor, you have to know about wind and water and navigation. If you want to be a good basketball player you have to know about shooting, passing and teamwork. And if you want to be a good follower of Jesus, there are some key things you have to know to be a healthy, growing person, so you can make a healthy growing church. These values help us think about what God might want us to be, and what it means to follow Jesus Christ. One of the greatest of these qualities is the state of being out of control, partly because it flies in the face of everything we are taught. We are taught to stay in control, to keep everything under control. So this one is a shocker: wonderful things happen when we move beyond what we can control.

What could be healthy about being out of control? When we are going our comfortable way according to plan, we think we are the ones making it happen. Now if we stop to think about it, we realize nothing much is in our control, that God is the one who is really in charge, but because our efforts seem to be working, we think we are in control. When I was in college, one semester I did something really silly and overloaded on my classes and extra-curriculars. I was playing on the volleyball team, had a very challenging class load, was tutoring, and had the opportunity to co-lead our college’s new student week. I got to the end of the semester and I literally had nothing left. I had no energy. I couldn’t stay awake. I had no idea what to study. I remember two days before the final exams sitting down in the coffee shop, putting my head in my hands and weeping. Somewhere my weeping turned to praying:  “God I have done everything I know how to do. I have been trying my hardest to do everything you want me to. But I’m done.” I remember having a sense almost of someone tapping me on the shoulder, and a sense of God saying to me, “I was wondering when you were going to let me lend a hand. Why don’t you leave the rest to me?” And I did. To this day, I cannot tell you how I finished that semester, but I can tell you that I don’t deserve any of the credit for it. I was in deep water well over my head, and God used it to teach me a lesson in trust that I have never forgotten. One reason being out of control is healthy is that helps us see more clearly that God really is in charge.

Surprisingly, the real problem comes if we are always in our comfort zone. If we never take risks, if we only stay in easy, familiar territory, we will never have the chance to see what God can really do. We are limiting God’s dreams for us. In our passage for today, Jesus asks Simon Peter, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Think about this for a moment:  Jesus was trained as a carpenter. So Peter is being rather gentle when he answers, “Master we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.” What he probably wanted to say was something like, “Hello?! Like swinging a hammer really qualifies you for fishing! I tell you what, next time, you fish all night and see if you do better.” And if Peter had stopped there, he would never have known what Jesus planned, but to his credit, Peter said, “…but because you say so, I will let down the nets.” And Peter caught more fish than he had dreamed he could catch, so many he had to call another boat!

If we always live in easy, familiar territory, then we will only have human-sized dreams. But God has bigger plans. In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes:

 Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself…

 Giving up our dreams for being “a decent little cottage” hurts. But unless we put all we are and all we dream before God, unless we realize we cannot “outdream” or “outachieve” God, unless we can come to the edge of what we know and trust God for the rest, we can never realize the God-sized dreams that can make our hearts hammer and give our lives enormous power and purpose.

One of the hallmarks of the Pilgrims, for example, is that they looked for God-sized dreams. They looked for the edge of what they could handle and then stepped out again. They dreamed of living in the wilderness with God, of learning how to trust God for their health and their food, for their worship and their safety. They had no idea what coming to the New World would mean except that they were following God and they believed they could change the world in that wilderness with God. So they landed where it looked good to them, and found the one place for hundreds of miles where they could land safely because the locals had been wiped out by smallpox. They desperately needed help and advice, but lived in fear of the local Native Americans. Who should they meet walking up the beach, but a Native American, named Squanto, who greeted them in English he learned when he was held captive in Europe. When the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgivings, it was because they realized how much God had blessed, guided and provided for them when they lived on the “deep waters.” Where God guides, God will provide.

Today, this fellowship stands on the edge of some exciting times. Today, Jesus invites us to put out into deep water to make a catch. Some of us are not sure God really knows what He’s talking about. Some of us are looking at the deep waters and thinking they look a little dark, a little rough and a little scary. But unless we seek the God-sized dreams that will take us into areas where only God can help us, we will never experience the full abundance, the heart-racing excitement and the deepest fulfillment that God has in mind for us. When we live right on the edge of what we know, staring out into what lies beyond, and say, like Peter, “But if you say so, we will let down our nets,” we put ourselves entirely into God’s hands. We will be out of control, but we will also be supremely safe for they are God’s hands. And we will be exactly where God wants us to be…in deep waters where the deep learning, spiritual growth and greatest abundance are. The best fishing is in deep waters.

Excuse Me, Please!

I. Introduction

Have you heard any good excuses lately? I’ve got a few for you, courtesy of Richard Lederer and his book, Anguished English. These are actual excuses parents have written to schools to explain why their child was absent.

  • Teacher, please excuse Mary for being absent. She was sick and I had her shot. Mary’s Mom.

  • My son is under doctor’s care and should not take P.E. today. Please execute him.

  • Please excuse my son’s tardiness. I forgot to wake him up and did not find him until I started making the beds.

  • Please excuse Ray from school. He has very loose vowels.

  • Please excuse Jimmy for being. It was his father’s fault.

  • Please excuse Fred for being absent. He had a cold and could not breed well.

  • Please excuse Gloria from Jim today. She is administrating.

 We all make excuses sometimes for lots of reasons. In our Old Testament passage, for example, Jeremiah, has a couple of excuses for why he can’t answer God’s call to serve. In fact, making excuses is still so common that we almost expect it. Why do we make excuses and how can God help us past our excuses to a deeper, more abundant life in Jesus Christ?

 II. Why Do We Make Excuses?

First, why do people make excuses? What do you think?

 [Take responses from the congregation.]

 Sure, and we could probably add more reasons to that list. But underneath all of these is fear and most of the time we use excuses as a way we try to control Life if we are afraid the consequences will be more than we can bear.

 III.    God Speaks into Our Fear

Into our fear and worries, God speaks. Jeremiah says, “I don’t know how to speak and I’m just a kid,” and God says, “Don’t be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.” For those of us who are learning to follow Jesus, excuses don’t work because there are no consequences we can’t bear with God’s help. Paul adds in the Love Chapter, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” If God is love, then when we walk with God in love, then we can bear, believe, hope and endure all things. Into our fear and worries, God says, “Don’t worry! I’ll be with you and will rescue you.” God’s love for us can overcome our fears and help us let go of our anxieties.

 IV. What Might We Do

Our fears and excuses can make it really hard to walk with God. When God asks us to do something, many of us can come up with reasons we can’t. Jeremiah did. Fortunately, God’s response to Jeremiah is also His response to us when we try to tell Him we can’t: “You are the one I want to do this. Don’t worry I’ll be with you and will keep you safe.” When we let God manage our fears and anxieties, then we can let go of our stress and embrace the deeper, more abundant life we can have in Jesus. “Don’t worry! I’ll be with you and will keep you safe.”

How to Get Closer to God

When you were a kid, did your parents ever introduce you to people you didn’t know? What did you think of that?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

 Was there ever a time when you had been away from your hometown for a while, and you came back? What were the kinds of things people said to you?

 [Take responses from the congregation.]


In our passage for today, Jesus comes back to His hometown after doing some pretty amazing things in other towns. In the course of the story, we learn from Jesus how to get closer to God.

First, getting closer to God means freedom. Can you look with me at verses 18 and 19?

 18          “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

              because he has anointed me

                       to bring good news to the poor.

     He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

              and recovery of sight to the blind,

                       to let the oppressed go free,

19          to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 Instead of bad news that about one more thing they can’t afford, Jesus says, “I’ve got some good news.” Where people are held captive by a job, or a habit, or a rut in a relationship, Jesus says, “I’ve broken your chains.” For those who can’t see hope, or who are blinded by selfishness, Jesus says, “I can help you see and feel again.” Instead of the world weighing us down—our bosses, our politics, our teachers—instead of injustice putting up a stop sign, instead of the incredible weight of our guilt, Jesus says, “I love you! You are forgiven.” And to know that we are forgiven—that’s pure freedom! To be close to God means freedom.

Second, getting closer to God means grace gets bigger. My junior year of college, I had the chance to study the conflict in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. I was staying in the Old City in Jerusalem, but I really wanted to have the chance to experience Jewish life. One week, Julie and I dressed up nicely, went down to the Western Wall and put our names on a list for Shabbat. A very kindly man collected us. He had a full beard—black with streaks of gray—and dark eyes with laugh lines at the corners. Family and extended family were in his apartment—with us maybe 10 around the table—and everyone was eager to see if we had any friends in common from the States. We were eager for them to tell us about their lives and what they were thinking about. Julie and I enjoyed ourselves tremendously, and I tried to steer the conversation around to try and understand how they felt about Palestinians and did they know any Palestinians. Within a couple of heartbeats, this kind and learned man went into a spitting rage. His response shocked me to the core and I quickly asked his forgiveness and we went on to speak of other things. I realize now that I didn’t have the right to ask that set of questions, and for another, had I thought about it, I would have realized he might have a reason for hating the other side—perhaps a loss or an experience. Nevertheless, the rage of this man of God as he dehumanized Palestinians, and how his compassion seemed reserved only for people on his side, still shocks me. In our passage, Jesus calls his neighbors out by reminding them of the times God’s grace was big enough to include a poor widow from Lebanon, and a foreigner from Syria, and Jesus’ neighbors respond with rage as if to say, “How dare they be included!”

Third, getting closer to God means grace melts fear. I recognize that perhaps it’s easy for me—privileged white, straight guy—to talk. But I have suffered when other Christians told me I wasn’t good enough to be a Christian, and I have recoiled in horror when I saw Christians use God’s Name to justify hatred and bigotry. The roots of hatred and bigotry lie in fear, fear that the other side won’t treat us well, fear of loss, fear that we are wrong, fear there won’t be enough jobs or wealth or power or love to go around. As the famous philosopher, Yoda, said in The Phantom Menace, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” John writes in his first letter, “God is love…Perfect love casts out fear.” The closer we get to God, the more we can relax and let God’s grace take over.

The closer I get to Jesus, the more I realize how boundless God’s grace is. It’s a scandal how big God’s grace gets as we get closer to God. None of the things we think can keep us away from God are barriers:

·      We don’t have to have money—Jesus brings Good News to the poor.

·      We don’t have to be born into the right family—Jesus makes us part of His.

·      We don’t have to have our life together—Jesus frees people who are still in bondage.

·      We can be completely clueless—Jesus brings sight to the blind.

·      We can be oppressed and overwhelmed, weighed down and broken up—Jesus forgives us and says this year is the year we can start over and be right with God.

 Getting closer to God means we are freed to start over. Getting closer to God means grace can be bigger. Getting closer to God doesn’t mean getting things our way. Getting closer to God means learning to trust in God’s way.

From Thimbles to Vats

Funny Things That Happen at Weddings. Sometimes things happen that are not so funny at the time, but later are hilarious. As you were listening/reading the story, who did you have a feeling for? Why did you feel for that person?

Since this is Jesus’ first miracle or “sign,” why does Mary come to him? What is Jesus’ response? How do you think Jesus was feeling here? How about Mary? What are some possibilities?

 In John, Jesus’ miracles are called “signs” — meaning they point to something. If this is the first of Jesus’ signs, to what do you think it’s pointing?

 Are your jars empty? If Jesus were to refill your jars, how much would you have—a little or a lot? I guess that would depend on the size of your jar! How big is your jar?


Week-long celebration — Wedding, Reception and Honeymoon all-in-one

Steward — Wedding planner, maître di, master of ceremonies

Hour has not yet come

2:4 — My hour has not yet come

7:30 — People try to arrest Jesus but his hour had not yet come.

8:20 — Not arrested because his hour had not yet come

12:23 — “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

13:1 — Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

17:1 — Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you,


Imagine Church Transforming Our Ordinary Activities

I’d say we are pretty savvy people here. I’d like to play a game with you called, “Name That Outfit.” I am betting that if I give you an occasion, you can tell me what to wear that would be appropriate. For example, if I said “Bedtime in the winter,” you might say “flannel pajamas.” Alright? So let’s play a couple rounds

1.    Warm summer day at the beach.

2.    Cool, drizzly day in the spring.

3.    Work in the garden on a sunny day.

4.    Going out to dinner with some friends to a very nice restaurant.

5.    Funeral.

6.    Wedding.

So that was fun! If you’re like me, as I was thinking of the occasion, I could actually see the clothes from my closet that I would pick. One of the fascinating things about our passage for today, is that Paul uses the metaphor of clothes to talk about living life with Jesus. How do clothes help us think about walking with Jesus?

First, wearing the new wardrobe. Did you ever watch the show, “What Not to Wear”? It’s on Amazon Prime Video now. It featured Clinton Kelly and Stacy London, two fashionistas who help people who are hopeless dressers. The first thing they would do is talk with the hopeless dresser about why they needed help, and then they would take away all the awful clothes. What I loved about the show was that as they are talking about clothes, often people confessed that they wore these awful clothes because they didn’t think they were beautiful or because they couldn’t find anything that fit. Clinton and Stacy would help the person learn how to put together an outfit that would look fabulous, even help the person learn how to shop for clothes. At the end, each individual wore their clothes with confidence and an inward sense of their own beauty that really showed. Paul says our old life—full of selfishness, self-indulgence and deceit—is like a set of clothes so filthy, so awful, that the only thing to do is throw them away. When we really want Jesus to be part of our lives, we lay all the clothes of our lives before Him, and we hear God say, “I love you! You’re beautiful in my eyes! I have something better for you.” Maybe a couple pieces of our life wardrobe are in good shape—but the rest? It’s all gotta go! God is giving us a brand-new wardrobe that fits our new identity in Him—loved and beautiful, powerful for peace. None of the brand labels the world looks for matter—just the “Made by God” one on our hearts. Once we have worn this new wardrobe, the old ways just don’t fit anymore.

Second, the new wardrobe goes with us everywhere. Unlike some of our clothes that are only good on certain occasions, the new wardrobe fits all occasions. When I was in college, I hadn’t figured out where God wanted me to go or be, but I remember I was copying some articles in the library, when Gregg Swope came up and said hi. Gregg was a seminary student at the seminary next to campus, and he was one of those people who is just cool—he was a marathon runner and played the guitar. But he also had this aura about him, and when he talked with me, I felt peace, as if the warmth of God’s love had come close to me. I felt like I could share my freshman stress with him, could share anything with him. As we walked back across campus, and said, “Goodbye!” I knew I had walked with Jesus. I’m pretty sure that Gregg was just saying hi, and pretty sure he had no idea that being with him that day affected me like that, but he was wearing Christ well that day. Compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline, forgiveness, contentment, love—whenever we go, wherever we go, people will know—even if they can’t quite put their finger on it—that we are wearing Christ.

Lots of people think of church as a place where we go apart like this


Living in the Mystery

I have always loved mysteries. Anyone else here enjoy mysteries—either reading or watching them? Scooby Doo is one of my favorites—“And I would’ve gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for those meddling kids and their dog.” I was an X-Files fan for a while. I loved the slogan, “The Truth Is Out There.” I super love the new Sherlock Holmes with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. I wonder if what we like best about mysteries is that we feel like we could solve any mystery if only we had the right clues, had the right information and put all the pieces together. In our society, we usually see mysteries as something we solve, like a puzzle, and then get on to the next mystery. Today I want to talk about a different kind of mystery and how experiencing mystery can help us live with more power.

When we talk about the mysteries of the universe, we begin to have a sense of this other kind of mystery. What are some of the mysteries of the universe? [Take suggestions from the congregation.] One of my favorite books awhile back was The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science, written by Marcus Du Sautoy from Cambridge. The ones he picks out are:

1.    Chaos — there is a paradoxical order to the chaotic systems around us, and sometimes order comes out of chaos. Is there free will?

2.    Matter — The nature of it, how it’s put together, how something that is mostly space in between atoms or molecules can feel solid to us. What is dark matter?

3.    Quantum Physics — How the way the smallest things in the universe interact seem to defy our usual thinking

4.    Universe — How big is it? What shape is it? Do we really live in a multiverse? Is the speed of light an unbreakable barrier? Is there anyone else out there?

5.    Time — When did it begin? You’re supposed to laugh! Why does it only seem to run in one direction for us when the math says it goes both directions?

6.    Consciousness — What is a mind? How does it begin? Where does it come from? Where is it in our brain? Are animals conscious? Are we in charge of anything?

7.    Infinity —Can we make sense of things beyond us?With each of these mysteries, if we study or explore the mystery more, do we solve the mystery? Usually I think we just go deeper into the mystery—the more answers we find the more questions we have. It’s just as mysterious as before!

Take for example the mystery of Jesus that Paul talks about in our passage. For thousands of years, God had an exclusive relationship with the Hebrew people who later were called Jews. Nobody else received God’s promises, only the Jews. And then Jesus comes and as Paul writes in verse 6: “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” Why would God change, seemingly overnight, to offer the whole world (including us) the Good News of God’s love? It’s a mystery!

Paul talks about another mystery in verse 10, “God’s intent was that now, through the church, the many-splendored wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms…” It’s a mystery because sometimes we in the church can be really flawed, but the power of sacrifice can change us.

 In The Christian Leader, Don Ratzlaff retells a story from Ernest Gordon’s Miracle on the River Kwai, set in World War II. The Scottish soldiers, forced by their Japanese captors to labor on a jungle railroad, had degenerated to barbarous behavior, but one afternoon something happened:

A shovel was missing. The officer in charge became enraged. He demanded that the missing shovel be produced, or else. When nobody in the squadron budged, the officer got his gun and threatened to kill them all on the spot….It was obvious the officer meant what he had said. Then, finally, one man stepped forward. The officer put away his gun, picked up a shovel, and beat the man to death. When it was over, the survivors picked up the [body] and carried it with them to the second tool check. This time, no shovel was missing. Indeed, there had been a miscount at the first check point.

The word spread like wildfire through the whole camp. An innocent man had been willing to die to save the others!...The incident had a profound effect….The men began to treat each other like brothers.

When the victorious Allies swept in,  the survivors, human skeletons, lined up in front of their captors…(and instead of attacking their captors) insisted:  “No more hatred. No more killing. Now what we need is forgiveness.”

 For me, this points to the mystery that I found so shattering. Why would Jesus die for me? I know me pretty well, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t do it. But Jesus knows each of us—all the ways we fall short—and He still loves us, is still willing to go to the cross for us. As Max Lucado put it, “What makes a Christian a Christian is not perfection, but forgiveness.” This experience of forgiveness and sacrifice that we find in Jesus has the power to not just change us, but to change the world.

 These are all mysteries—and we will never solve them. But God can reveal insights to us as we try to experience these mysteries in all their fullness. What does it mean for God to change His mind to include people who had no claim on Him? We can experience that mystery as we welcome people who have no reason to expect a welcome. When we help someone we do not know or invite someone who thinks they don’t belong, we experience this mystery of God. What does it mean that God reveals His many-splendored power and wisdom through us the church? We can experience this mystery by caring for others who may not be able to return the favor. We experience this mystery as we invest our talents, gifts and passions in the loving of others, so they might experience the same love, grace and forgiveness we have experienced. Where do we find the time and the energy? How can we possibly love the way Jesus loved? My friends, that too is a mystery. But I can promise you that as we live with the same kind of sacrificial love, the same kind of offering up of ourselves because we can—that mystery comes alive in us, comes alive with power. And so miraculously, we become part of the mystery as we live with Christ’s power in and through us. Other people will look at us and, not understanding how we can love like that, they begin to catch a glimpse of how Jesus might love them like that too.

The Wonder of a Manger

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One of the things that makes me laugh about nativity sets is that they seem to make a stable and a manger very pretty. But sometimes things get so different.

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From left to right: the shepherd has used his cell phone for directions to the stable, his (non-GMO) sheep is wearing a sweater (probably hand-knit and, probably made from sustainably-gathered wool), there are solar panels on the roof of the stable, the cow is stamped "100% organic, Joseph is taking a selfie (of course), Mary has a Starbucks coffee container in her hand, the cow's feed is marked "gluten-free" (not visible in this pic), there's a drone on the roof of the stable - probably representing either an angel or the star, the three wise men have arrived on Segways, carrying Amazon boxes. But of all the versions of the manger that I have seen, one has really captured my attention today. As you will see, it’s very different.

 After the fall of the Iron Curtain, and Western travelers could get more access, some of the Soviet Union’s environmental and humanitarian tragedies became more evident. In 1994, Will Fish was one of the Americans who answered an invitation from the Russian Department of Education to teach morals and ethics (based on biblical principles) in the public schools. They were invited to teach at prisons, businesses, the fire and police departments and a large orphanage. About 100 boys and girls who had been abandoned, abused, and left in the care of a government-run program were in the orphanage. Here’s how Will tells the story:

 It was nearing the holiday season, 1994, time for our orphans to hear for the first time the traditional story of Christmas. We told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem. Finding no room in the inn, the couple went to a stable, where the baby Jesus was born and placed in a manger. Throughout the story, the children and orphanage staff sat in amazement as they listened. Some sat on the edges of their stools, trying to grasp every word.

Completing the story, we gave the children three small pieces of cardboard to make a crude manger. Each child was given a small paper square cut from yellow napkins I had brought with me. No colored paper was available in the city.

Following instructions, the children tore the paper and carefully laid strips in the manger for straw. Small squares of flannel, cut from a worn-out nightgown an American lady was throwing away as she left Russia, were used for the baby’s blanket. A doll-like baby was cut from tan felt we had brought from the United States.

The orphans were busy assembling their manger as I walked among them to see if they needed any help. All went well until I got to one table where little Misha sat—he looked to be about six years old and had finished his project. As I looked at the little boy’s manger, I was startled to see not one, but two babies in the manger.

Quickly I called for the translator to ask the lad why there were two babies in the manger. Crossing his arms in front of him and looking at his completed manger scene, the child began to repeat the story very seriously. For such a young boy who had only heard the Christmas story once, he related the happenings accurately—until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger.

Then Misha started to ad lib. He made up his own ending to the story as he said, “And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no mamma and I have no papa, so I don’t have any place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn’t, because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everybody else did. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much so I thought maybe if I kept him warm that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, “If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?” And Jesus told me, “If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.” So I got into the manger and then Jesus looked at me and told me I could stay with him—for always.”

As little Misha finished his story, his eyes brimmed full of tears that splashed down his little cheeks. Putting his hand over his face, his head dropped to the table and his shoulders shook as he sobbed and sobbed. The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon nor abuse him, someone who would stay with him—for always.[1]

 That’s the wonder of a manger—an almighty God who comes as a baby, born in stable instead of a palace, lying in feeding trough instead of a cradle. That’s the wonder of a manger—to have this little one look at us from the straw and tell us we can stay with him for always. That’s the wonder of a manger.


The Wonder of a Name

by Rev. Doug Gray

When I was in high school, listening to another mind-numbing lecture, I looked over at the girl sitting next to me. She was writing her name over and over again. I thought that was odd—but hey, whatever it takes to stay awake you know. Then I looked closer, and noticed that she was writing her first name, and then the last name of her boyfriend. She tried all kinds of combinations first name, and a hyphenated last name with hers and her boyfriends’. I think part of it for her seemed to be daydreaming about what her future life might be like with her boyfriend. Some people like the idea of changing their names after getting married—others not so much. Marriage is a big deal in people’s lives, and that’s part of why we think about a name change around that event. The interesting thing is the same thing was true in the Bible—names matter, and if you see a name change, something big is happening.

In Genesis, when God is making promises to them, Abram goes from ‘high father’ to Abraham, ‘father of a multitude,’ and Sarai becomes Sarah, ‘princess.’ Abraham and Sarah’s grandson was named Jacob, which means ‘usurper’ or ‘one who takes over.’ After many years and many changes, God wrestles with Jacob and when Jacob says, “I won’t let go unless you bless me,” God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, which means ‘one who wrestles with God.” In the New Testament, Jesus has fun with names. He calls James and John, the “Sons of Thunder.” Don’t you wish you could meet them and find out how they got that nickname? Another disciple went from Simon, which means “sinking sand” to Peter, which means “the rock.” In our passage for today, Moses changes someone’s name—did you notice? Hoshea means “salvation,” and Moses changes Hoshea’s name to Yehoshua, which means “God saves.” Of course, we shorten that to Joshua. I believe Hoshea gets a name change for at least three reasons

First, Joshua recognized the good before him. How many of you have ever read a book—and really liked it—and then gone to see the movie and hated it? It happens all the time for me! Part of it is probably just that what we see on the screen isn’t how we saw things in our heads when we were reading it. But what if you hadn’t read the book? Would you like the movie more because you didn’t have that set of expectations? I wonder. What I find interesting about Joshua is that he saw the negatives that the other spies did, but he also saw the good—it’s a land flowing with milk and honey.

Second, Joshua recognized that God was greater than the problems they faced. Everybody else is focused on the giants, the fortified walls of the cities, and how big the cities were—how hard this is going to be. Caleb says, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it,” and later Joshua adds, “If the LORD is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us. Only, do not rebel against the LORD; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them.” For Joshua, the giants and fortified cities are “no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us.”

Hoshea’s ability to recognize the good before him and to know that God is greater than all the problems they faced—that’s what got him a name change! He knew that the God who had sent the plagues on Egypt, protected their people from the angel of death, parted the Red Sea and met them at Mount Sinai—that same God could certainly help them cross a river, stand up to giants and help them capture fortified cities. How? God would take care of that if people would only go with God with their whole heart. Joshua means “The Lord saves!” And eventually, when Joshua was an old man, the people would leave the futility of wandering in the desert, grasp their purpose as God’s people, and enter the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey.

Why are we talking about Joshua today? Because names matter. My wife and I had endless debates about what to name each of our children. “What if it’s a girl? What if it’s a boy? That name is too long! That doesn’t go with Gray!” An angel comes to Joseph in a dream: “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” An angel comes to Mary too: “you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Joseph and Mary didn’t have any debate over what to name this child! Here’s the kicker:  did you know that Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name, Joshua? Like Joshua, Jesus came so that we could leave the futility of wandering in a complex and arid world, so that we could find our purpose as children of God, and enter the abundant life promised to those who live with God at the center of their lives. What would it be like to live with God at the center of our lives? Abundance for sure, but like Joshua we would be able to recognize the good around us, and know that God is greater than all the problems we face. That God saves us, walks with us, lives with us. Jesus is the Name we remember at Christmas, because the gift He gave was Himself, offered up on a cross, so we would never have to fear again. He is the Christ—the One chosen by God, the King Who invites us into the Kingdom. He is Emmanuel—God with us—and the Prince of Peace—who calms our inner storms and whose love casts out all fear. He is Joshua—God saves—and He is Jesus, before whose amazing grace all will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord, born to a modest, Jewish couple, sleeping in a feeding trough. What a wonder-filled name is Jesus.

The Wonder of Christmas: The Wonder of a Star

by Rev. Doug Gray

 I am a fan of signs—they help us find our way, or warn us about something that’s coming up

  • But sometimes people get the signs wrong. (SOTP, Citizen Disposal)

  • Sometimes signs are confusing. (Crazy directions, all one way, no way)

  • Or people haven’t thought about what the sign says with what else is going

  • on around the sign. (slow shotgun, children speed bumps, car wreck)

  • Sometimes signs are just wacky. (Mosquito, 12.5 mph, Kungfu deer,

  • motorcycle wheels)

  • Sometimes signs tell the honest truth. (Cop behind sign, Bridge)

  • The trick sometimes is not just seeing the sign, but understanding what it means. (Drowning, Hell freezes)

Is there a sign that can guide us to a more wonder-filled Christmas? Yes!

The wisemen saw a star and they knew it meant a King of the Jews was going to be born. The star was in the sky for everyone to see, but only these magi, these priestly, kingly scholars understood it meant a king was going to be born and where. King Herod—whose political savvy won him a throne and kept it, and who commissioned amazing engineering feats like Caesarea Maritime with its floating concrete, Masada the impregnable fortress that would withstand a Roman siege, and of course the great Temple in Jerusalem—failed to understand the sign. Of all the world of the day, as far as we know, only these magi understood the star would show the way to a King. Every day, our lives are filled with signs—beauty all around us, people who love us, chances to make a difference—and how many do we recognize as coming from God? When we have dark times, we often are so self-focused or self-pitying that we fail to see signs God gives that we are not alone, that even there, light can break through—someone says a kind word, or helps us up when we have fallen. Another sign we are loved beyond ourselves. When we see the star in the sky, on top of a tree, on a Christmas card—will we understand the sign, that God is calling us?

The wisemen saw a star and they had the courage to follow that star. It’s really the only reason we even knew that they understood the sign. When the magi came to Jerusalem and asked where to find the King…did you notice everyone believed them? King Herod was troubled, disturbed—and all of Jerusalem with him. It’s a big deal! But only the magi went to Bethlehem. Why is that? Were they just too busy? Lives too full of distractions and plans, filled with court intrigue, trying to get ahead and make a buck. Yeah, maybe. But could it be those were just excuses? The idea of a Messiah, a King, is cool, but as Herod recognized, there’s only room for one King on the throne, and he was disturbed. Perhaps part of the reason we don’t find the wonder of Christmas isn’t so much that we are busy, but because we realize if Jesus is really God and was born a baby, it means we might have to rearrange our lives, priorities, values, even plans. Perhaps we will have to get off the throne of our lives, and let God be in charge. At Christmas, though, the star calls us to the hope of something more, but will we have the courage of the magi to follow the star to new life?

Finally, the wisemen saw a star and when they found Jesus, they bowed down and worshiped Him. These are people of substance and competence. They funded a multi-month expedition probably from somewhere around Iran. They were educated and scholarly, rocket scientists of their day. But in a modest Jewish home in Roman-occupied Palestine, these wisemen found a child and mother and something changed for them. Rob Renfroe asks, “Why did they worship? This newborn child had done nothing yet. He had no army, no subjects, no kingdom. He had not yet performed a miracle or spoken the words of a prophet. In fact, he had done nothing other than what any other newborn child would have done. And still they worshiped him. Why? The answer is that we do not worship God primarily for what God has done, but for who God is.” The something more for which they yearned, the something more that led them on an epic journey and energized them through hardship and calamity—it all came rushing in on them as they were in Jesus’ Presence, and they knew were with God. And they bowed down and worshiped.

The star is a sign of wonder, and wherever we see a star this Advent, it reminds us that Jesus is coming. The star calls us to not just see it—anyone can see a star—but to recognize it guides us to the One who has been born, King of the Jews—and who can be born in us again. The star calls us to not just see it—anyone can see a star—but to find its rays fill us with the courage to follow, even if it means letting go of worldly tradition to find God-inspired wonder. The star calls us to not just see it, but to let the wonder of baby Jesus catch us by surprise—the hope of something more, the sign of God with us. Like all good signs, the wonder of a star helps us anticipate what and who is just ahead—Jesus Christ.

The Power of God in a Fellowship

by Rev. Doug Gray

Have you ever been truly loved for who you are, just because you are? If you have, then you know how amazing grace is. The classic definition goes like this:  grace is the undeserved blessing of God. More importantly, the experience of grace is at the core of being a follower of Jesus and so grace is also what makes any church a church. The challenge is that for grace to be real, it has to change us. Our passage today talks about at least three ways that grace could change us.

First, grace is so core, that the graceless shouldn’t run the church. As some of you know, I served two years as Associate Pastor at the First Union Congregational Church in Quincy, IL. In 1968, a tornado tore off the roof and bell-tower, making the entire structure unstable. The church would have to rebuild, but how to do it? The church had two plans for the new building. One plan for the sanctuary was made to build community, with circular seating for the sanctuary that would help people worship and feel together, the acoustics were suited to speaking, and the choir was up front. The other plan was for a concert-hall—super-high ceilings, straight pews that made it hard for people to feel part of a community, the acoustics were suited for music and terrible for speaking, and the choir was in the balcony. Just as the church was getting ready to choose the community-oriented plan, a member of the church who was known for being angry and had not attended for years swept in and offered to give the church a lot of money on the condition that they choose the concert hall. Which plan do you think they chose? The concert hall! And that decision has meant that the congregation has struggled ever since. I tell this story because it reminds us that we don’t give money to control people. At our best, we give as a way to bless, to express gratitude and grace. And this also reminds us that grace has to be at the core of everything that happens in a church. In our passage, Jesus outlines how someone wrongs another, and won’t see sense or apologize even when they have been shown the problem more than once. Jesus adds, “…if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Now Jesus loved and spent time with Gentiles and tax collectors, but if someone is resisting grace, then they shouldn’t have a chance to direct the path of the church.

Second, our experience of grace has to change how we forgive others and ourselves. In our passage, Jesus tells a parable about a forgiving king and an unforgiving servant. If we have been forgiven, to not forgive others is to enter a very dark place. A little boy visiting his grandparents was given his first slingshot. He practiced in the woods, but he could never hit his target. As he came back to Grandma’s backyard, he spied her pet duck. On an impulse he took aim and let fly. The stone hit, and the duck fell dead. The boy panicked. Desperately he hid the dead duck in the woodpile, only to look up and see his sister watching. Sally had seen it all, but she said nothing. After lunch that day, Grandma said, “Sally, let’s wash the dishes.” But Sally said, “Johnny told me he wanted to help in the kitchen today. Didn’t you, Johnny?” And she whispered to him, “Remember the duck!” So Johnny did the dishes. Later Grandpa asked if the children wanted to go fishing. Grandma said, “I’m sorry, but I need Sally to help make supper.” Sally smiled and said, “That’s all taken care of. Johnny wants to do it.” Again she whispered, “Remember the duck.” Johnny stayed while Sally went fishing. After several days of Johnny doing both his chores and Sally’s, finally he couldn’t stand it. He confessed to Grandma that he’d killed the duck. “I know, Johnny,” she said, giving him a hug. “I was standing at the window and saw the whole thing. Because I love you, I forgave you. I wondered how long you would let Sally make a slave of you.”[1] How many of us have been like Johnny—having done something awful and thinking it’s unforgiveable? How many of us have been like Sally—having seen someone do something awful and never letting them forget it? Both of those experiences take us to dark, graceless places. But if we take the awful experience to God, we find it no longer controls our lives—instead grace leads us.

Finally, we want grace to change who we are. Philip Haille wrote of the little village of Le Chambon in France, a town whose people, unlike others in France, hid their Jews from the Nazis. Haille went there, wondering what sort of courageous, ethical heroes could risk all to do such an extraordinary good. He interviewed people in the village and was overwhelmed by their ordinariness. They weren’t heroes or smart, discerning people. Haille decided that the one factor that united them was their attendance, Sunday after Sunday, at their little church, where they heard the sermons of Pastor Trochme. Over time, they became by habit people who just knew what to do and did it. When it came time for them to be courageous, the day the Nazis came to town, they quietly did what was right. One old woman, who faked a heart attack when the Nazis came to search her house, later said, “Pastor always taught us that there comes a time in every life when a person is asked to do something for Jesus. When our time came, we knew what to do.”[2] The more grace we experience and show, the more it becomes just how we roll.

One reason I love Thanksgiving is that it hasn’t been completely taken over by commercialism. Thanksgiving reminds us to think about what we are thankful for. Did you do that this weekend? And when we are being thankful for, who are we actually thanking? Hmmmm. Could it be God? Imagine a holiday based on the idea of grace—remembering our experiences of it and how our lives are better because of it. For those who know the love of Jesus Christ, Thanksgiving is not just a holiday, but a way of living, and grace is the engine that drives it all—part of how we roll, helping us forgive others, guiding us in our decisions. So all of that Thanksgiving goes back to Jesus, to an innocent man willing to give up power to show love, and making it clear true love sacrifices. And whenever two or three of us gather in the Name of Jesus, Jesus is here, and His grace leads us. But for grace to be real in our lives, it has to change us. Happy Thanksgiving!

[1]Richard Hoefler, Will Daylight Come?

[2]Told in Pulpit Digest, by William H. Willimon.