He is Coming – Like it or Not – 4 December 2022

Pastor Bryan Niebanck

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

Matthew 3:3

Have you ever had a visitor who tells you that they are coming over to your house, and you basically have no say in the matter?  Perhaps they only give you a five-minute warning.  Maybe they are even kind enough to give you a thirty-minute warning.  Perhaps there was a time when a child gave you a warning that their friend was coming over, like it or not, or maybe you did not find out until they were at the door.  Regardless, does having a warning that you have a visitor coming whether you like it or not make you stressfully try to get the house ready?  Do you feel that you can welcome that visitor in kind?

When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, he proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.  This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Matt. 3:2-3).  John the Baptist has told the people of Israel that someone is coming after him, of whom John is not even worthy to carry his sandals (Matt. 3:11).  This person is coming whether the people are ready for him or not.  So, John says, prepare.  Prepare the way of the Lord.  Get yourselves ready to welcome him.  Whether you are ready for Christmas to come or not, Christmas is coming.  We are celebrating Christmas yet again.  And Advent is the season where you can prepare the way for Christ to enter your hearts.  It is where you can forge the way of peace.

How many of you feel that you are in a wilderness?  You may not be sure of where to turn, or perhaps you look at the way other Christians pray or show their faith and think, “I will never be like them,” or, “I can never do what preacher is asking me to do, so I guess I am just out of luck.”  The good news is that, in preparing the way for the Lord, we do not need to reach a certain level of faith or be better than the person next to us in our devotion.  We just need to be better than we were yesterday.  When we find a way to selflessly serve, for example, we are better than we were yesterday.  It is not about how long you pray, or the form of your prayer, or what you can take away from prayer.  It is not about whether you can hear God speaking to you or if you just hear silence.  There are many different ways to communicate with God and improve our devotion towards God.  Sometimes we can sit at a prayer fountain and spend hours in that moment, and have a meaningful interaction.  Other times we can think about God for a moment while we are waiting for a train, and have just as meaningful of an experience.  On Friday, as I was waiting for the train to get into Hogue’s to relieve Dena of the bell ringing, I was forced to stop for a minute.  Sometimes we just need to stop and breathe.  We need to take in the present for a minute.  How can you selflessly serve God this week?  How can you selflessly serve your neighbor, when the only thing you gain from your tireless hours is the knowledge that someone else’s life was brightened because of what you did?  If you are in a wilderness – maybe you do not feel close to God, maybe you do not feel peace or joy – then think about one step that you can make that brings you closer to God.  Even if you just take one step all Advent, or all year, it is one step closer to God.  This much we can do for God.  We can show God that He is a priority in our lives.  We can show God that we will take a few moments to prepare the way into our hearts and lives this year.

I am not going to list out a whole bunch of steps and directions this time because it really is different for each one of us.  I may want to start more days journaling in the morning in 2023.  One of my goals is to wake a little earlier, go on a morning run, and start the day with some devotions.  We’ll see if it works out; I bet I’ll fail sometimes, but if I do better at it next year than I did this year, something good has happened.  Whatever you do to seek God more is absolutely your choice.  But Jesus is coming.  Jesus will knock, and we want to have room in our inn.  We want to make room in our hearts.  Remember how we began the year?  I challenged you to pick one in 2022: Praise, Prayer, Listen, Share.  Which have you improved on the most this year?  What will be your goals in 2023?

When John the Baptist challenged the people with the coming of the Messiah, he called them to repent.  That is, he called them to turn away from their comfortable life.  He called them to make a change.  This may mean that you have to do something outside your comfort zone.  If you have to repent from a wrongdoing – if that has been holding you back from God – do so; if you have to take a bold step that you may have been afraid to take, try that.  For some, it may be getting up in front of people to light a candle, or reading, or even doing the children’s story.  For others, it may be welcoming someone into our lives who we have been afraid to face.  It may be going on a mission trip even though you are not sure right now how you can help.  You trust that if God has called you to something, God can use you.  Being with God requires a bold step.  Preparing the way for God requires us to take a bold step.

The motto of the United Church of Christ is this: “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”  We know all too well that people in the days before Jesus would not welcome everyone; sometimes there is just no room, and sometimes someone may turn out to be a robber.  We have the same barriers today, and they are legitimate barriers.  But can we welcome one another into the space that is our hearts and our church?  When we meet someone, can we make them feel loved?  Regardless of where they or we are on controversial issues, in politics, on LGBTQ, we are called to love our neighbor.  We do not have to affirm the belief of our neighbor, but we should accept them and create a welcoming space.  As Paul encouraged us in Romans 15: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:5-7).  Acceptance makes someone feel loved.  Forgiveness makes someone feel loved.  Encouragement makes someone feel loved.  They all make someone feel welcome.  How can we be more accepting, more forgiving, and more encouraging to not only prepare the way for God in our own lives, but prepare the way for God in another’s life?

Last week, we started our Advent series with a call to reflect.  I called you to reflect on our Advent hope, to not be afraid because we have that hope, and because we hope, we can trust in the Lord and live honorably while we wait for what is to come.  As we wait for salvation and peace in our hope, let us live honorably.  Today, I call you to surrender.  Surrender yourself to God by giving what you can of yourself for the kingdom of God.  Surrender some of your time to spend more time with God.  Surrender your love to others who may not have expected to receive that love.  Surrendering to God is depending on God.  When we depend on God, we are giving ourselves over to God, because He is coming and we trust and know that this is good.  The shepherds came without question to the stable to lay their eyes on the newborn Christ child.  The mother Mary surrendered to God when she told the angel Gabriel, “Let it be to me as I have been told.”  The father Joseph surrendered his reputation in his hometown by going to be with Mary despite the talk around Nazareth.  He surrendered to the will of God, since the angel appeared to him in a dream.  The Lord will win, so there is no sense in fighting a call of God.  Whatever time we offer, God will use that time.

God loves us.  God loves us so much that God wants us to be a part of his work.  As we take a bold step to further that work, and give to others, we find that it is more blessed to give than to receive.  And that can give us an overwhelming sense of peace this Christmas.  Bring love to someone else this Christmas.  Bring God back into the world.  Be peace to your neighbor.  Whatever brings you peace, forge the way of peace.  That is how God will enter the world, in peace, in love, and in glory, adored by all who come to Him.  May all glory and honor be to God.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 11:1-10
11:1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
11:2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
11:3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;
11:4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
11:5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
11:6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
11:7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
11:8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
11:9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
11:10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
72:1 Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
72:2 May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
72:3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
72:4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.
72:5 May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
72:6 May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.
72:7 In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
72:18 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.
72:19 Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.

Romans 15:4-13
15:4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.
15:5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus,
15:6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
15:7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
15:8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,
15:9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”;
15:10 and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;
15:11 and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”;
15:12 and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 3:1-12
3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
3:3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”
3:4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
3:5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,
3:6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
3:8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
3:9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
3:10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
3:11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The Unexpected Visit – 27 November 2022

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

let us live honorably

Romans 13:13

Whenever we go to a wedding or a funeral, there is nearly always a guest book.  Guests write their names in the book, and perhaps a brief message of support, and this provides a lasting memory of all those who came from near and far.  Our church has a guest book too.  When we have guests, we encourage them to sign the guest book, telling us what town or what state they are from, so that we can celebrate how God brought us together in this present moment.  Perhaps we have crossed paths for only a moment, or perhaps we have crossed paths for only the first of many times.  Guest books celebrate the occasion of being brought together.  Any occasion where friends and family are brought together into one place is a reason to celebrate.  That moment can be used for ministry, for encouragement, and reconciliation.  It can be used to strengthen one another.  Our work can pay the bills.  But the people in our lives is why we are here.  We minister to everyone we meet.  We minister to our guests, and we minister to those we see all the time.  Anyone who seeks to help another seek God is a minister in Christ.

If every encounter is an opportunity to minister, should we not always be joyful when someone comes into our lives?  Is there ever a time when you are not joyful?  You are working in your cubicle trying to cram together a presentation that is in just over an hour.  Suddenly an unexpected guest comes and wants to talk to you.  “Not now,” you grimace as you smile and greet the person, hoping it is a quick interaction.  Have you ever done this?  Or, it is twenty minutes until break time, and you know that a conversation with this fellow can consume half of your break.  Or, the telephone rings and you say to yourself, “This better be quick, the Ohio State game is on in ten minutes!”  There are certain times that we are just not in the mood for talking to someone else.  What about the times when you have responded graciously?  What are some good things that have come from that visit?  For me, some of the unexpected visits, such as when someone comes over to the church, known or unknown, are some of the most rewarding moments of my day.  I try to remind myself that it is okay if the to-do list is not quite finished to the best of my ability yet.  God will guide this conversation and God will guide the moments to come, even if this conversation makes me less prepared for something.  What are some of the good forms of an unexpected visit?  When you show up to visit someone in a nursing home, you are often unexpected, but the resident is thrilled to see you.  At a restaurant I have witnessed numerous chance encounters with people who know each other, and they are thrilled to have that unexpected visit with each other.  When we begin to see other people in our lives as opportunities to minister, and not distractions to our schedules, we are beginning to love more like God.  Does God set times with us, or make us make an appointment?  Did Jesus refuse to tend to those who tugged on his robes, when he was on the way to see someone else?  We are often God’s unexpected visitor, and God loves it.  God loves it when we make time for God, and God loves it even more so when we make time for God that was not first planned into our day.

Matthew 24 warns us to be prepared for an unexpected visit.  The writer of the gospel warns us: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (24:42).  This is a forewarning of the unexpected visit of the Son of Man for which we are unprepared.  We are in the advent of the coming of the King, in some future day that is, as yet, unknown.  We are looking forward to the glorious return of peace on earth and good will toward all people.  As we begin the Christmas season, when everyone is putting up their decorations and light to shine through the early darkness of the evenings, it almost seems possible for a moment.  We can forget about the violence of the world for just a moment, or, if not that, we can look past it into a new hope for just a moment.  We look forward to the time when justice will prevail, when all things will be made right.  But we still do not know when that day will be.

Because we do not know what day that will be, the author of the gospel warns us that we have to be ready now.  We have to do what we can now to be ready for the unexpected visit.  We should expect a visit any time.  That means that we should keep the dishes washed at our homes.  We should always keep things tidy, in case an unexpected visitor shows up.  In other words, we need to keep our lives tidy.  As we join in this advent of hope, as we hope for the better world yet to come, which we try to hope in with the magic of Christmastime every year, we need to live in the light of the Lord.  As we wait for salvation and peace in hope, let us live honorably.  Let us live lives that are honorable to the Lord.  Let us live lives that leave a legacy for God’s glory.  Let us live lives that God would be proud of us for living.  If the Master comes earlier than we expected, we want to be found working.  We want to be found seeking ways to know the Lord better.  We want to be found helping others to know the Lord better.  We want to be found doing something that is honorable to God.  We may use the opportunities for ministry that God gives us instead of pushing them aside.  We might not grumble when God sends us a change of plans; instead, may be embrace what God is using us for in this moment of our lives.  As we embrace who we are in God, we find more hope in God.  When we know God more deeply, we can more quickly affirm to ourselves and to one another that God is faithful, God is just, and God has a plan for the world that can offer us hope.

As we talk about unexpected visits, this is not an invitation to go showing up to people’s houses unannounced.  People will still want to be given some time to get those dishes washed or that laundry folded.  But Jesus will not need that preparation work done first.  All Jesus wants is for our hearts to be washed clean and to be folded neatly, carefully in tune with the Lord.  Jesus does not care what our lives look like on the outside, but what we look like on the inside.  I may not have every dish washed, every floor mopped, and every item of clothing clean at the end of the day.  But I want to end my days knowing that I did the best that I could for the Lord that day.  Can you do that?  Can you end your day asking yourself the question, “Have I done all I could do for the Lord today?”

There is a song that we sing in Scouts which is called Scout Vespers.  It goes something like this: “Softly falls the light of day as our campfire fades away.  Silently each scout should ask, “Have I done my daily task?  Have I kept my honor bright?  Can I guiltless sleep tonight?  Have I done and have I dared everything to be prepared?”  Have I done all I could to be prepared?  Have I lived my day honorably?  Have I done all I could for the Lord today?

When you ask yourself these questions, you hold yourself accountable.  And still more, you enable yourself to have more hope.  You have more hope because you are knowing the Lord more deeply through your actions.  The deeper we know the Lord, the more confidence we have in the Lord.  And confidence gives us hope for reconciliation, for a better future, and for a peaceful future.

When someone has a vision, I believe that it is said when the hope in a vision becoming a reality is lost, then all hope is lost.  We never want to reach that moment.  We want to hold onto the vision.  We want to hold on to the vision that the prophet Isaiah provided the people of Israel, even before the exile.  He looked beyond the exile; he looked beyond the worst part that was still yet to come.  Even when we know that there is a lot of trial and tribulation ahead of us, we can hold onto the vision that Isaiah proclaims so boldly: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of mountains, people shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.  O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (Isaiah 2:2, 4-5).  O house of Christ, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!  Let us live honorably.  Let us give every honor to God.  For in God is our hope and our salvation!  May all honor and glory be to God!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 2:1-5
2:1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2:2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
2:3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
2:4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
2:5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Psalm 122
122:1 I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”
122:2 Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
122:3 Jerusalem built as a city that is bound firmly together.
122:4 To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
122:5 For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David.
122:6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you.
122:7 Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”
122:8 For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.”
122:9 For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good.

Romans 13:11-14
13:11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;
13:12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;
13:13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.
13:14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Matthew 24:36-44
24:36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
24:37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
24:38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark,
24:39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
24:40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.
24:41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.
24:42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
24:43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.
24:44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Hold Together – 20 November 2022

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Colossians 1:17

A friend of mine was driving home one evening and it was completely dark.  The transmission of the vehicle he was driving started acting up about ten miles away from his destination.  Having no cell phone, there was no way he could contact anyone if he did not get home.  I could envision the prayer that may or may not have been formed like a prayer, but would have gone like this: “Hold together.  Please hold together.  Just enough to get home… just hold together until I get home.”  Thankfully, it did hold together, and he could take care of scheduling a mechanic and getting a rental car from the comfort of his home the next day.

Another couple shelters in place during a tornado.  They are entrusting their safety to the structure that they are in.  They start talking to the building: “Hold together.  You can get through this.  You can weather out this storm.”  Encouraging the building can help withstand doubt and fear in the moment of danger.  I remember driving up Interstate 55 toward Chicago in 2016 when I was visiting seminaries.  The weather was not great, to say the least, and the rain was coming down so hard that we had to pull over as we found a rest area.  Either my dad or I – I don’t remember who – said something like, “Well, at least we are in a shelter now.”  A maintenance worker looked at us as if to say, “If a tornado comes along, this place is not holding together for a second.”  Thankfully, none did, and the place held together as a shelter for the rain until the worst of it had passed.

When else have you willed something to hold together?  Perhaps you have had to use glue or duct tape to help something hold together.  I recall a couple times on Boy Scout backpacking trips where duct tape was quite handy in helping someone’s shoes stay together until the end of the trip.  I think it may have lasted through the next trip as well.  I think that we all can agree that holding together is a good thing.  We do not want things to fall apart.  We want things to hold together.

When Paul was writing to the various churches throughout Asia Minor and what later became southern Europe, he knew that many of the churches were divided against each other.  People had disagreements about how to do things.  Some members of the church were even living in what Paul would call flagrant disobedience of God’s call for our lives.  He wrote the letters to try to both hold the church accountable for what was happening and also to hold the church together, encouraging them in the name of Jesus and everything that holds them together.  He wrote in his letter to the Colossians, “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from Christ’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.  … He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:11, 12, 17).  Paul starts his letter to the Colossians reminding them of the one thing that they can all agree on.  He begins with Christ.  Jesus is the power that holds the church together, as the church seeks to know Christ more, to be more like Christ, and to spread the knowledge of Christ’s mission throughout the world.  If we can agree on one thing, Paul believes, we can be unified.  The power of Christ is that compelling.  That power of Christ is that powerful.

When you want to restore a broken relationship, how do you do it?  You could approach a person and tell them why you were angry with them and all the things that they did wrong.  But revisiting that will not restore the relationship; it will only make things worse.  Perhaps a common joy is more appropriate to start with.  It does not mean that the other person should not be accountable for what they did, but it can be addressed later.  Paul addresses concerns like these throughout his letters, but he usually starts by giving thanks for the people who he is writing to.  He starts with a positive, with something that he and the church can agree on.  What common joy can help restore a relationship, or help it to hold together?

We find in Paul’s message both Jesus the Powerful and Jesus the Reconciler.  Jesus is glorious.  He is “the image of the invisible God,” he is “before all things,” he is the “head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:15-18).  He is like the CEO.  He is the head.  But he is the CEO of all CEOs.  He is the king of kings, the lord of lords.  There is a song that sings of this glory within Handel’s Messiah.  There are countless other songs that sing of the glory of Christ.  He is exalted.  He is the Son of the Most High.  And he is.  But he is the CEO who comes down from his office to have lunch with the employees who work for him.  He is the king of kings who comes to eat with the peasants.  He does not exalt his own power.  He seeks to build bonds with others and between others.  He wants to reconcile those who have gone astray.  He does not hold what we have done against us; what matters is who we are today.  If we can agree on a few simple things, we are reconciled in the name of Christ.  We are forgiven.  If we are seeking Christ, through whatever means we can – prayer, study, conversation – we have earned favor with the glorious lord of lords.  As we read the gospel reading this morning, we saw an example of this very act.  Jesus was crucified with two criminals on either side of him, according to Luke.  When one criminal said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus extended the hand of mercy and said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).  Jesus is our merciful Savior.  That is how we can be united with all people, regardless of our background and where we have been.  Jesus does not care about the past.  He cares about the present.  He cares about how you are spending this present moment.

In our book group last week, as we were finishing up Ecclesiastes, we had a moving discussion on a section of the book that seemed to only apply to youth.  Solomon reflected, “Rejoice while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth.  … Remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 11:9, 12:1).  This section applies not only to youth, but to everyone who reads it.  You are the youngest that you will ever be.  Start with your youth at this moment, because you will never be this young again.  Use this opportunity to know God better.  What matters is not however many years are behind us.  What matters is what we are doing in the youth of this present moment in which we live.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, we can also be unified in what we are thankful for.  Many families having different political views will be brought together around one table, not separated by their differences but united by their similarities.  We are each unique and we are each meant to be unique.  We are going to have different opinions than other people.  We are even going to interpret the same words differently than another person.  We could separate on behalf of those differences if we are looking for a reason to separate.  But our challenge as Christians, and my challenge for you today is this: Do not look for the differences; look for the similarities.  This is the only way that God’s people are going to be able to hold together.  And in a world where we need encouragement instead of despair, hope instead of disappointment, we need to be able to hold together.

Sometimes, we just need to put up with one another.  But sometimes, that seems too hard for us.  Will Willimon, author and theologian, reflects on this in a way that we can understand: “It’s so much easier to leave a congregation than to put up with one another in love.  Easier to rally around your cherished cause or huddle with folks who share your values than to obey Christ and put up with one another even as Christ has time and again put up with us.”  Yet if we are truly to be the church, we are called into unity.  We are called to celebrate the sovereignty of Christ on this day that we celebrate Christ as king over all that we know, on Christ the King Sunday.  We celebrate that Christ will someday return and show His power over all the creation, reconciling all and making things right.  We wait for this day, but we believe in it.  We show our belief by doing our part to hold ourselves together until this glorious day.  We want to be found working when the master comes.  And in addition to praising the sovereignty of Christ in worship and prayer, we are also the church at its best when we seek reconciliation with our neighbor, not matter our differences and what may divide us.  My prayer for the church is this: “Hold together.  Encourage one another.  Be together.  Hold together until the storms of this life pass, so that we remain protected in this, the house of the Lord.  Please hold together… hold together until we get home.”  As we pray for the church to hold together, I know that we will witness more than merely holding together.  Holding together is surviving.  Being together is thriving.  May all honor and glory be to God.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings

Jeremiah 23:1-6
23:1 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.
23:2 Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.
23:3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.
23:4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.
23:5 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
23:6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

Luke 1:68-79
1:68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
1:69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
1:70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
1:71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
1:72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,
1:73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us
1:74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear,
1:75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
1:76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
1:77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
1:78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
1:79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Colossians 1:11-20
1:11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully
1:12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.
1:13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,
1:14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
1:16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him.
1:17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
1:18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
1:19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
1:20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Luke 23:33-43
23:33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
23:34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.
23:35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”
23:36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine,
23:37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
23:38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
23:39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
23:40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?
23:41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
23:42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
23:43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

More Than Loving Jesus – 13 November 2022

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Luke 21:19

What do you do when you love something?  When I go to Backroads Diner in Attica, I seem to always order the Beef Hot Spot.  Why?  Well, I like that meal a lot; why should I order anything else?  When I go to Fatheads in Republic, I order the steak sub.  When you find something that you like, you stick to it.  I love something; I am not going to deviate from it to potentially find something that I love less.

When I love a team sport, why would I deviate from that either?  Who here loves Ohio State football?  Is it because you attended Ohio State?  Maybe it is just because you live in Ohio.  However we have come to love a team, once we love it, we are not going to stop loving it.  We call those people who only love a team when they are winning not really true fans.  They get on the bandwagon.  While I am not a fan of Ohio State like many of you, I was as much a fan of the 7-9 Philadelphia Eagles as I am the 8-0 Eagles.

When we love something, we pay attention to it.  When you love a child, you make time for him or her.  You want to be the grandparent who is never too busy for a grandchild.  Certain things come first.

We all love Jesus.  We all strive to love Jesus as best we can.  We love prayer, we love book group, and we love talking about our faith together so that we can rise above our struggles.  We recognize that experiencing faith is more than loving Jesus.  To nurture our faith, we need to experience our faith with one another.

In Isaiah 65, we read about God’s promise to create new things: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating” (Isaiah 65:17-18).  To be glad and rejoice forever, we need to believe in what God is creating.  When I have engaged in conversations with friends who could care less about God, and we have talked about faith, they have asked questions like, “If God has promised all these good things to come, then why doesn’t God just start now?  We need God to come in like a whirlwind and fix things.”  They don’t believe in God because they think that if God existed, God would be the fixer of everything wrong.  But we don’t believe in a fixer God.  We believe in a God who comforts us in times of distress, who is a friend in our sorrow, and who celebrates our joys.  God is better than the fixer; we do not have to wait on hold with the technician for over an hour whenever something goes wrong.  We have immediate and unlimited access to God as our comforting friend.

How are we to believe in what God is creating?  First, we should be open to experiencing God.  Just like you seek something out when you love something, God seeks us out because God loves us.  When we are open to allowing God into our space, when we take down the walls we may not even have known that we built, we can experience God.  Experiencing God as a friend can give us comfort amid the promises as we wait for them to unfold.  Second, we can open ourselves to expecting the promise to be fulfilled.  We can respond as if the promise has already been fulfilled.  Do you ever read emails or something that ask you to do something, and they say at the bottom, “Thank you in advance,” assuming that by asking you, it is basically already done?  While we may not mind it at times, God never minds it.  In Isaiah 12, following a prophecy of destruction before the time of the exile had even started, there is a psalm of hope: “You will say in that day, I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me” (Isaiah 12:1).  The prophet Isaiah tells the Israelites what they will sing following the exile because God’s anger had turned away, even though they still had significant torment and trial ahead of them in the land to come.  Today, the church still has torment and trial.  Divisions are still being formed, which is the opposite of what we want for the church.  Hard times are still ahead.  Yet can we still say confidently, “In that day, O God, I will give thanks to you, for you comforted me.”  It is time to expect God’s revelation in our lives.  This is how we can be the church in the present: “Look ahead to the good times to come instead of focusing on the vanity of the present time.”  Looking ahead gives us hope.  We know what is to come.  We believe in what God is creating.  We can praise God for a rescue that has not yet occurred.

Third Isaiah, in which Isaiah 65 is included, was written at the same time as the prophet Haggai, which we read last week.  The Israelites had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon, but the temple was not yet restored.  The people got together and saw the finished product that would result from their work together.  They had to come together instead of all focusing on restoring their own homes and properties.  Many Christians, too, naturally go to restoring their own homes and properties rather than coming together.  They feel that they do not need church, because they can know Jesus just as well by staying home and reading the Bible.  Is this true?  You can get some solid work done by yourself.  You can build yourself a good home on a good, solid foundation.  But if you do not come together with other people, you are missing out on most of what church is.  God’s surprises come when we help our neighbor, when we love someone who did not expect love, and when we encourage someone who was ready to give up.  Being a Christian is more than loving Jesus.  It cannot be a solitary thing; it must be done together.  It is too difficult to do by ourselves.

Will Willimon, author of his book on hope, Don’t Look Back, reflects on his personal development through the years which formed and molded him: “How would I have grown and matured in my faith without the jostling and insight that I received from pesky preachers, contentious congregants, and quarrelsome colleagues whom God used to say things to me that I didn’t want to hear?”  I would be willing to bet that we have all had something that we did not want to hear eventually improve the person we are today.  Just this week, I did not want to hear that the New Haven Association, where I am working on becoming ordained, would not accept the forty-page paper that I had worked hard on because it was too long.  But when I finally gathered the motivation to take an outsiders view and cut parts that dove too deep into theology, I ended up with a thirty-page paper that I believe was much more clear and easier to follow than the previous longer paper.  I did not want to hear that it was too long, but I am glad that they forced me into changing it.  We learn and grow from others around us, some of whom tell us things that we did not want to hear, but that we needed to hear.  This is how we learn and grow.

I can bring our book group into this discussion as well.  I can study books like Ecclesiastes and Corinthians and Job on my own.  But I cannot have a discussion on my own.  There have been times in the group where I have been caught writing down my own notes so that I do not forget some of the points that were brought up in the discussion.  I want to remember our discussion.  I would never have had these revelations in my own reflection time.  We learn more and experience God more richly when we explore our faith with others.

“Ask Jesus’ first disciples.  They’ll surely testify that following Jesus is too difficult and demanding to be done solo.  We need help from our friends.  We cannot follow Jesus without being in relationship with his best friends.  As John Wesley put it, ‘Christianity is a social religion.  To turn it into a solitary thing is to destroy it’” (Willimon).

When you love something, you stick with it.  You do not abandon it.  Whether it be food or whether it be hope through Christ, as Christians, we are called to hold on.  We try to trust and believe in the new Creation that God has promised us.  God has given us plenty of reasons to hope, and plenty of ways to hope.  But we cannot grow in our hope and faith effectively if we keep to ourselves.  We do not learn the same way and we do not learn as much by ourselves.  As a closing prayer, I give you the words of Jesus as the villagers were talking about the same Jerusalem temple, and its beauty.  It encourages me today, and I pray that it encourages you: “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.  I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.  By your endurance, you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:9, 15, 19).

May all honor and glory be to God!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 65:17-25
65:17 For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
65:18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
65:19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.
65:20 No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
65:21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
65:22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
65:23 They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well.
65:24 Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.
65:25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent–its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.

Isaiah 12
12:1 You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.
12:2 Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
12:3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
12:4 And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.
12:5 Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.
12:6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
3:6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.
3:7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you,
3:8 and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.
3:9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate.
3:10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.
3:11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.
3:12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
3:13 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Luke 21:5-19
21:5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said,
21:6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
21:7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”
21:8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
21:9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”
21:10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom;
21:11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
21:12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.
21:13 This will give you an opportunity to testify.
21:14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance;
21:15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.
21:16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.
21:17 You will be hated by all because of my name.
21:18 But not a hair of your head will perish.
21:19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.

It Takes All of Us – 6 November 2022

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?

Haggai 2:3

It takes all of us.  I have been watching the World Series this week, and one of the common things that players say at the end of the game is, “It takes all of us.”  Maybe one person’s home run won the game that day, but the home run would not have made a difference if it were not for good pitching, or for the guy getting on base before you, or the batters working up the pitch count ahead of you.  It takes the whole team to win.  You need both the defense and the offense to perform well.  Sometimes, even when the whole team puts in all the work, you still don’t win.  There are 29 unsatisfied teams at the end of every baseball season.

Today, we recognize All Saints Day.  We know that it takes all of us to create a church.  We all do different things around the church.  For the church to perform well, we all need to do our own little things well.  We can invite someone to church.  We can serve on the consistory.  We can minister to the children.  Whatever you bring to church, and to the community, you are making it better.  You can make someone smile every time they see you.  We take a few moments today to think about the impact that the saints in our lives have had on us.  They made us smile and laugh.  They brightened up our lives.  They gave us something to look forward to.  And still yet, they gave us a legacy that we can learn from and take with us.

Every time I go through my coin collection, I think of those who have helped me to assemble my current collection.  I think of my grandparents, especially my mother’s dad who loved collecting coins.  I did not have the opportunity to talk to him much about coins, and I wish I could now.  But I can thank him for inspiring me to continue to collect even well after he is no longer with us.  On All Saints Day I also think of my friend who passed on to me the love for writing letters.  She is no longer with us, but because of her, I love writing letters to this day.  Those who have gone before us inspire us.  They motivate us to keep on going, even when the going gets tough.  Their lives encourage us and still amaze us to this day.

Did you know that Jesus often prayed for his disciples?  In John 17:21, Jesus prayed, “I pray that they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.”  Jesus prays for all of us to be one.  What does it mean for all of us to be one?  Are we one body?  We are one body in Christ.  Are we one people?  We are one people because we follow Christ.  Christ does not want us to form divisions among us.  Even among people who do not follow Christ, I believe that he wants unity among all people.  We are to treat everyone we meet with kindness and hospitality, because in doing so it spreads kindness and good will throughout the world.  It takes all of us to create a kind culture.  It takes all of us to create a sustained hope.

We read a selection from the prophet Haggai today.  Haggai, as with many of the other minor prophets, speak in a time following the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile.  The temple still lay in ruins.  It was not something that the people had the time or resources to focus on right away.  The people returned to Jerusalem around 537 BCE, but the second temple was not completed until about 516 BCE, twenty years after their return.  It is in this context that the prophet Haggai asks, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?” (Haggai 1:3).  516 is 71 years after the exile to Babylon.  In these days, it was a rarity to live to be that old.  Not many people were old enough to remember what it had been like before, except for what had been described in the law.  Yet, dreaming of its former glory, and hoping for its restoration, eventually spurred on the completion of the project so that the second temple ended up having more splendor even than the first, according to God’s promise: “I will fill this house with splendor” (Hag. 2:7).  The people got together, knowing that it would take all of them to fulfill God’s promise of restoration.

What do we need to restore today?  Is there something in your life that needs restoration?  What about in the world?  If you do not have an answer to the first, I congratulate you on living a perfect life; that is very hard to do!  Is there a relationship that needs restoring?  Perhaps a relationship with a sibling, a parent, a child?  Perhaps your relationship with God needs to be rekindled?  What in your life could use some restoration in this moment?  Do you think it will take a lot of energy and commitment?  It will probably take all of you.

Just this past month, I realized that I had not talked to certain friends in quite a while.  I began feeling a desire to restore some of these connections so that I do not lose them completely, even if it is long-distance.  When I was in the Albany area last month, I called up one of my college roommates to meet him, even if it was only for a brief moment.  I have tried to be more intentional about calling or texting some of my old friends as well.  I recalled that I had a friend in high school who was a big Eagles fan.  I sent him a text this week and I found out that he was at the Eagles-Steelers game last weekend.  We sent a few texts back and forth.  The point is that it is so easy to get lost into our own lives and forget that we wanted to stay in touch with certain people.  We have to make an intentional effort to do so.  It takes all of us to be successful at it.  It takes our mind, soul, heart, and strength to do it well.  I have to think about it (mind), I have to care about it (soul), I have to love doing it (heart), and I have to have cared for myself to have the energy to do something about it (strength).

The theme of being church is that we do these things together.  Jesus prayed for us as one, together.  We can do more when we are together.  Christ has assembled each one of us to be here and make a difference in someone else’s life.  Our being together was Christ’s idea before it was ours.  We are called to follow Christ together even if our oneness is only unified by Christ.  Even if we have no other similarities, we find ourselves together as one body that is called church.  For together we can do more things than by ourselves.  As a group we can do much more than individually.  This is why we have been brought together to this place.  Remember how the people got together to build the second temple because God brought them together in that place.  They knew that it would take all of them to fulfill God’s promise of restoration.

Our world needs restoration today.  Some churches call it revival.  We can call it restoration.  Others can call it renewal.  Whatever we call it, we need it.  The world needs it.  We need to bring hope to a hurting world.  And to bring a culture of kindness, it takes all of us.  It takes all the saints in our lives who have taught us how to be in this moment.  It takes all the lessons that we have learned.  It takes you; it takes me.  Division is easy.  Togetherness is hard.  But, again, Jesus wants us to be together.  Jesus needs us to love one another.  In John 13:35, Jesus tells the disciples this very commandment: “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other” (John 13:35).  Through our love toward one another as the church, no matter our difference, no matter our belief, we create the church.  We create the community of God in today’s world.  We create a culture where God is present.  The more of us who make an effort to restore God’s love in this world, the greater God’s glory will be found to be.  Jesus prayed for oneness.  Let us be one, together with those who are alive, and together with all those who have gone before.  May all honor and glory be to God!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Haggai 1:15b-2:9
2:1 In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying:
2:2 Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say,
2:3 Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?
2:4 Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts,
2:5 according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.
2:6 For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land;
2:7 and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts.
2:8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts.
2:9 The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
2:1 As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters,
2:2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.
2:3 Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.
2:4 He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.
2:5 Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?
2:13 But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.
2:14 For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2:15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
2:16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope,
2:17 comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

Luke 20:27-38
20:27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him
20:28 and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.
20:29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless;
20:30 then the second
20:31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless.
20:32 Finally the woman also died.
20:33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
20:34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage;
20:35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.
20:36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.
20:37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.
20:38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Be the Church: Sinners in the hands of God – 30 October 2022

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”

Luke 19:7

Catholic spiritual writer Edward Hays recounts a story from the desert where a young man goes to visit a wise hermit.  He finds the monk sitting outside his cave, enjoying the sun, his dog laying lazily at his side.  The seeker asks, “Why is it, Abba, that some who seek God come to the desert and are zealous in prayer, but leave after a year or so, while others, like you, remain faithful to the quest for a lifetime?”

The old man responds, “One day my dog and I were sitting here quietly in the sun, as we are now.  Suddenly, a large white rabbit ran across in front of us.  Well, my dog jumped up, barking loudly, and took off after that big rabbit.  He chased the rabbit over the hills with a passion.  Soon, other dogs joined him, attracted by his barking.  What a sight it was, as the pack of dogs ran barking across the creek, up stony embankments, and through thickets and thorns!  Gradually, however, one by one, the other dogs dropped out of the pursuit, discouraged by the course and frustrated by the chase.  Only my dog continued to hotly pursue the white rabbit.”

Confused, the young man asks, “What is the connection between the rabbit chase and the quest for God?”

The hermit replies, “Why didn’t the other dogs continue the chase?  They had not seen the rabbit.”  They were only attracted by the barking of the dog.  But once you see the rabbit, you will never give up the chase.  Once our heart’s eye has seen God, if only for a moment, with “the eyes of our heart enlightened,” (Eph. 1:18) – we are drawn to seek God forever. (Pamela Cooper-White FOTW C.4.244; Edward Hays, In Pursuit of the Great White Rabbit: Reflections on a Practical Spirituality (1990), 10-11).  How do we remain faithful in this world?  When you have seen God act in your life, you are always going to be called to find God again.

In the next four weeks, we are studying how we should be the church as we await the coming of Christ.  This last part of the church year, the four weeks before Advent, we reflect on the period of waiting for the second coming, as the apostles did for all their lives after Jesus ascended into Heaven after the first Easter and as the church still does today.  We are still waiting for the day of Judgement when Jesus will return and all will be made right in the world.  And we are, of course, told that we will not know the day or the hour that this will be.  Yet here we are, called to continue the church that Jesus and Peter and Paul left us with, so that our lives could be enriched with the blessing of the Lord.

As we wait for the inevitable, it will be difficult to continue the chase if we have not actually seen the rabbit.  Thus, my advice to you is, Seek the rabbit.  Seek the opportunities to see God in our midst.  God is all around us, but we will not see God if we are not looking.  Do not just wait for the Lord to come to you; seek the Lord.

Seek the Lord, as Zacchaeus sought the Lord.  He could not see the Lord because of the crowds, so he ran ahead and climbed a tree so that he might be able to view him.  Luke 19:4 tells us, “So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.”  Jesus probably saw him because of the earnest way that he was seeking.  He probably saw the joy on his face when he was able to catch a glimpse of Jesus.  Maybe this story will inspire you to start practicing climbing trees in case Jesus comes this way.  But if not that, use his example.  Do you do everything that is in your power to see Jesus?  And when you do see Jesus in your midst, when you talk about Jesus to others, do you experience joy?  Do you experience a happiness that is greater than any other when you think of our Creator and Savior?  This is how Zacchaeus felt.  All of a sudden, when Jesus recognized him, he lost the joy that he found in his money and wanted to give it away to right his previous wrongs, as he had cheated many in his profession of being a chief tax collector.  Instead, he found joy in giving to those in need.  He took an about face. 

We cannot blame the disgruntled audience who mumbled, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner” (Luke 19:7).  We can see that he was not a good guy at heart, at least originally.  Being a chief tax collector, he supervised the capital gain that tax collectors were known to take for themselves.  He was the rich man who was made rich by making everyone else poor.  Everyone knew he was rich and why he was rich, so no one liked him.  This is why they don’t like the fact that Jesus chose to stay at his house.  But in doing so, Jesus sends a very important message.  Jesus has come for the sinners – for those who need to be saved.  Jesus is not necessarily here for those who are already pious and truthful.  Luke 19:10 concludes this story aptly: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”  Ask yourself this:  Are you Zacchaeus, who knows he was in the wrong and goes all in to seeking God and trying to fix his wrongs, or are you the crowd, who dissociates from those who have done wrong?  Would you be upset if Jesus came back and chose to preach at a prison rather than the church?  What if Jesus spent the night with that guy no one has heard from in years?  Would we question his decision?

As we develop our identity as the Church, with a capital C, we must seek out the rabbit – God, we must exhibit joy when we experience our breakthrough with God, and we should create a welcoming place for the lost.  When hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees were flooding into our borders, many churches elected to temporarily house some of them until organizations could help find more permanent solutions.  This is welcoming the lost.  When the Transformation Life Center opened as a homeless shelter in Tiffin this past winter, they were – and are – making a commitment to help the lost, who have hit a hard moment in their lives.  When a stranger sits down with a homeless man on the street, just to talk, that is making the lost feel welcome.  Part of being the church is loving someone even if they are different, whether they are at a different point of life, are down on their luck, or not even sure where they are going.  They are people too, after all.  I enjoy staying connected with my non-religious friends.  For one, it challenges me.  Second, it keeps my eyes open to their perspective.  And finally, it gives me a chance to love someone.  As a church, we are called to embrace diversity.  We embrace diversity when we are willing to welcome all, whether they be of a different belief, whether they have done more bad things than you, and even whether they are as open to others as you.  If someone walked into the church who does not look like us, or act like us, I would hope that we would give them the same greeting we would give anybody else.  If Jesus can invite Zacchaeus into his family, we also can invite in someone like Zacchaeus.  Church is a challenge because Jesus Christ will not let us choose with whom we will be church.  Assembling sinners, and only sinners, is bound to assemble a sometimes hard-to-get-along-crowd.  Society today has taught us that someone different could be someone dangerous.  Yet, where fear grips our hearts, let love prevail.

In Second Thessalonians, the author recognizes that the people in the church of Thessalonica are doing a good job growing the identity of the church.  He notes three specific traits that were important in this early church: First, “the love of every one of you for one another is increasing,” second, “your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions” is to be boasted of, and third, “We always pray for you” (2 Thess. 1:3, 4, 11).  It does not matter what the others are saying; we want to increase our love for one another and be able to persist in our faith.  We want to be able to have the strength to never give up chasing the rabbit.  Those who were being persecuted, and still are in many countries today – may we pray for them – are able to persist in their faith because they have seen the Lord act in their lives.  But despite that, no matter how strong we may feel, we still need people praying for us on our behalf.  Paul models this very well through what he says in this letter.  Pray for one another.

‘Words from a prayer declare, “As fear grips our country, let us choose love.” It is love’s power that can REFORM hatred into care and compassion. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to change our ways by the working of the God’s Spirit in us, RE-FORMED into the image of Christ as persons of love through us in word and deed. Never forget that we are part of God’s family, accepted by God, RE-FORMED through God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. REFORMATION is in every moment of life. BLESSINGS ALWAYS.’ (Dan Busch, Association Minister, NWOA).  May all honor and glory be to God! Thanks be to God! Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
1:1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
1:2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?
1:3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
1:4 So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous– therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
2:1 I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
2:2 Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.
2:3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.
2:4 Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
1:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
1:3 We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing.
1:4 Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.
1:11 To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith,
1:12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Luke 19:1-10
19:1 He entered Jericho and was passing through it.
19:2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.
19:3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.
19:4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.
19:5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
19:6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.
19:7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
19:8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
19:9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.
19:10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Persistent Prayer – 23 October 2022

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,

2 Timothy 3:14

“A year from now, will you be able to say that we spent more time with God than we did in the previous year?”  (Woerner, Prayer, 237).  This is why we are here.  We come to learn about God.  Yet even more than that, we come to be with God.  Can we start placing more emphasis on time with God than we do on learning about God?  This is a question that we have asked together in our book group as we finished up our discussion on Valerie Woerner’s book on prayer last week.  And this is also the question I want to focus on in our last message within the prayer series that we have been focusing on much of the year.  How are we to learn how to be persistent in prayer so that we can spend that time with God?  It is more than reading the Bible.  It is more than studying theology.  It is more than going to church.  Persistent prayer takes it to the step beyond, where things can really start to make a difference.

Last week, I had the privilege of listening to a sermon at the church I used to attend in Albany, New York.  There’s something special about listening to someone else’s sermon in person, when you do not get the opportunity very often.  For me, it is always an opportunity to grow.  Rev. Charles Rogers also talked about prayer, and how it is very difficult to keep praying when it does not seem that it is making a difference.  Lord, I prayed for many to be healed, and they did not.  Lord, I prayed for you to fix this situation, and it did not happen.  For what reason should I go on praying?  If nothing else, he says, it gives us a means to be with God.  It gives us an opportunity to share our grievances face to face, if that is what we want.  And secondly, it gives us an opportunity to love someone else through our prayer and be more deeply connected to them.  Prayer is an opportunity to love someone anonymously.  When you pray for someone, you are giving your whole heart to them.  God never wants us to give up praying for a situation because it connects us!  It connects us with Him, it connects us with the world, and it connects us with our neighbor.

Rev. Rogers also talked about keeping a journal.  It touched me that he did what I am also trying to do.  Your prayers for situations and for others do not need to be with folded hands and bended knees spoken aloud at the altar.  It can be in the form of writing in a journal.  He also noted that someday, perhaps his kids and grandchildren could look back at them and say, “Wow, he prayed for me;” “Wow, he had difficult times too, but it didn’t keep him from praying;” “Wow, he prayed for that person even though that person hated him.”  Our persistent prayers can be moving to someone else too.  Never give up praying for a situation.  It connects us to God, the world, and our neighbor in a way that nothing else can.

The books of Timothy are focused on helping a young Christian leader stay close to God.  Paul writes letters to Timothy; again, it helps to point out the power that a letter can have.  It can still have a profound impact on us today as we look to be God-reliant leaders in the world in which we live.  Paul tells Timothy, who has a general knowledge of the faith but who struggles like all of us, “Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, … be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.  For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth” (2 Timothy 3:14, 4:2-4).  Friends, that time is here.  That time has been here.  Many, even with whom we are connected, look to teachers to suit their own desires and do not want to hear a word about the sound doctrine that we call truth.  In a world such as this, we need encouragement to “continue in what [we] have learned and firmly believed” and trying to be persistent.  People will want to turn away; people will turn away, but, Paul persists, YOU are to continue to carry out your ministry fully.  Do not lose sight of your call because people turn away.

If you have not yet made it your goal to spend more time with God than you did in the previous year, I urge you to consider some of the benefits of persistent prayer that Woerner makes clear to us in her book.  They are extravagant benefits.  Here are just a few of them (Woerner, Prayer, 2021. 243):

  1. More focused prayer time.  The more we discipline our minds to pray, the more focus and depth we will experience in our prayers.
  2. A bigger passion for prayer.  The more we experience focused prayer over time, the deeper our passion for prayer will get because we’ll begin to see what’s possible.
  3. Less anxiety and more faith.  When our eyes are fixed on Jesus and our minds are stayed on God, we find perfect peace (Isa. 26:3).
  4. A deeper joy.  Even in the mundane moments, when we are in the presence of the Lord, we get to experience the fullness of joy (Ps. 16:11)
  5. Recognizing answered prayers.  When we’re praying consistently, we will see God answer prayers.  Looking back on these inspires us to keep praying with confidence.
  6. Living at the center of God’s will.  Through praying consistently, we’ll hear more from God and we will be better able to align our actions with what we hear.  And when we’re praying over a particular situation, like a job or a move, and receive direction from him, we will have hearts that are willing to obey.
  7. Deeper friendships with others.  As prayer becomes a bigger part of our lives, it naturally becomes a bigger part of our conversations and relationships too.  And friendships that are based on prayer are often deep and rich.
  8. Being a part of God’s kingdom work.  The more time we spend in prayer, the more we are available for God to use us for purposes bigger than ourselves, such as people’s hearts being turned toward God, justice and peace spreading in the world, and acts of mercy.
  9. Knowing God.  There are thousands of things we won’t know this side of heaven, but through a deeper prayer life, we can learn about God and experience him.  Knowing him is what we were created to do and where we’ll find the greatest fulfillment.

It is quite hard to sum up a series on prayer because prayer is such an integral part of our lives.  We are not done with prayer; we are only just beginning.  This focus has been to help us all realize how important prayer is in our spiritual lives.  In fact, if we do not pray, or if we do not pray frequently, we are not living up to our true potential as Christians.  We are not living the way God intends for us if we are not persistent in prayer.  We have reviewed why we pray, why we often do not pray (and how we overcome those barriers), things we can ask for in prayer (openness, equipping ourselves, search me, break me, grant me wisdom and courage, grant me listening ears), five necessary types of prayer (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication, and lament), what prayer does for us and how we know that God is the one we hear.  It is meant to help us explore prayer, understand prayer, certainly not be afraid of it, and to help us engage with it.  I hope and pray that this focus has enriched your connections with God this year, and for the years to come.  We have talked about all the tools, and you are equipped, so now do what you need to do.  Experience a deeper joy and live closer to God’s will by praying persistently.  God never wants us to give up on prayer.

Let me point out one final piece from our scripture today that is inspiring.  Right in the middle of Paul’s letter to Timothy, this is what we read: “At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me.  May it not be counted against them!” (2 Tim. 4:16).  Is that a prayer?  “May it not be counted against them!”  Paul is recounting a difficult time in his life when all who he knew deserted him.  But he prays for their well-being all the same.  And what’s more, the prayer flows off his tongue in the middle of his letter, before he goes on to talk about how the Lord stood by him and rescued him.  Not only did he not give up and leaned on the Lord for his success, which is hard enough; he also prayed for the well-being of those who basically left him for dead.  It was not a reaction a couple chapters down the line; it was an immediate reaction.  That shows his persistent dedication to prayer and the love for his neighbor that counteracted any hate that had any chance of sneaking in.  A deeper love overpowers us when we are persistent in prayer, as we continue in what we have learned and firmly believed.  Do not lose this connection to God.  Briefly, in our gospel today, we see that the tax collector surely and simply called on the name of the Lord in prayer, rather than the Pharisee who focused on things of this world.  Prayer overpowers what is of this world.  Call, and God will be in the midst of you.  Pray, and the attributes of God will be yours more and more deeply the more often you pray.  Pray, and God will pour out God’s spirit, saving all who call on the name of the Lord (Joel 2:28, 32).  The one who prays is better off than the one who does not.  And the one who prays in humility is better off than the one who does not.  God is in our midst (Joel 2:27).  We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by confidently, persistently, and frequently engaging with Him.  As we pray, we will know God more deeply, we will connect with others more richly, we will experience peace more freshly, and we will be tools for God’s kingdom work more sharply.  May all honor and glory be to God!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Joel 2:23-32
2:23 O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.
2:24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
2:25 I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.
2:26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
2:27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
2:28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.
2:29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
2:30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.
2:31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.
2:32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
3:14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,
3:15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
3:16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
3:17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
4:1 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you:
4:2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.
4:3 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,
4:4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
4:5 As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
4:6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.
4:7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
4:8 From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
4:16 At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them!
4:17 But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.
4:18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 18:9-14
18:9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:
18:10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
18:11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
18:12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’
18:13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
18:14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Seek the Welfare – 9 October 2022

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Jeremiah 29:7

We are a community who helps our neighbors.  There are always neighbors to find who can use various levels of help, from a phone call, to a simple smile, to help reconstructing their homes and their lives.  This week, we will be having mission trip information meetings about our upcoming trip to Kentucky.  If you know of anyone who is interested in joining us, they can stop by our meetings at Fireside on Tuesday at 3:00 or Thursday at 5:30.  Whenever I have sought welfare in another city through a mission trip, the response has been moving.  Those we are helping are so thankful to be receiving our time and efforts; I expect that we will experience more of the same on our trip to Kentucky to help those who were affected by the December 10th 2021 tornadoes.

Jeremiah spoke to the Israelites about the situation they found themselves in, living in a foreign land, in Babylonia.  It was not a good situation for any of them.  All of them wished to be able to return home.  But Jeremiah seems to imply that they will be staying awhile: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters, … and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf” (Jeremiah 29:5-7).  In just a few verses more, we would find one of the well-known verses of the Bible: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).  The Lord has sent them into exile, yes, but there is hope.  The Lord does have a plan to prosper them.  But they also need to listen to the Lord in order to prosper.  They have to settle into the place that is foreign to them, because they are not returning home any time soon.  They should not say, “I am not bringing any children into this dreadful situation,” because the Lord still wants them to prosper and have hope.  “Jeremiah told the Jews that rather than resisting, resenting, or rejecting their circumstances, they should put down roots and become productive” (Bruce G. Boak, FOTW C.4.150).  Even in the difficult circumstance of being ruled by a foreign enemy, they are to find hope.  We may find the same theme centuries later in Nazareth: Even though the people were under Roman rule, and they barely had money to pay the taxes, there is always hope.

Jeremiah’s vision is a reminder for us today also.  When we fear the circumstances that we find ourselves in, instead of finding faith and hope, we are not living faithfully into the future.  Lance Pape, an ordained minister in the Christian Church and an Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth, Texas, noted, “Jeremiah’s sober vision of the future invites us to pause and consider the deeper causes of our new situation, and to ask what we need to do to live faithfully into the future that is actually before us, not the one we once imagined for ourselves (NP C.201).  This is the question that we must ask ourselves: How can we faithfully live in our current circumstance?  We can find faith in any circumstance.  We can lead by hope whatever we may face.  We may do God’s work in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in.

We faithfully live in our current circumstance by being faithful to growing deeper with God, and listening to God’s call to action in the world.  We are helping the places where God has sent us, seeking the welfare of and caring for the places where we find ourselves, even when that place is imperfect and is not exactly where we want to be.  The whole world where we live is imperfect – we are almost in exile from the Promised Land right now – but we can make a difference where we are here and now.  This is what the Israelites were being called to do through the prophet Jeremiah.  They were to have families, grow their livelihood, and create a home in the foreign place.  We create our home on this earth.  We pray for the welfare of cities.  We pray for the welfare of others.  We pray for the welfare of nations.  Jeremiah said, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).  We pray for our nation’s welfare, for in its success, we find our own welfare.  When the nation suffers, we also suffer.  The Russians may have found that out when the value of the Rubel plummeted with the start of the Russia-Ukraine War.  When we pray for the welfare of other places, we in turn find our welfare.  This is not just for economic reasons; it is because we are valuing God’s kingdom over anything else, and by praying for someone, in secret, God will reward us in secret (Matthew 6:6).

We seek welfare in another city whenever we pray for them.  When we go on mission trips, we are seeking welfare for others.  When we pray for victims, such as those in Florida, and wherever disaster strikes, we are seeking their welfare.  When we check in on cities where an acquaintance lives, we are seeking their welfare.  We have Christians in nearly every city of the world and, in the grand scheme, they are all our family.  It is a good thing to pray for another’s welfare.  It is a good thing to help our neighbor.  We can find faith in any circumstance.

We can secondly live faithfully in our current circumstance by recognizing that God is right beside each of us.  Tell yourself, “God is right beside me.”  God is right beside you, in your pew.  God is right beside you, at your dinner table.  God is right beside you, as you wake up in your morning routine.  God is right beside me, in order that I might turn to God easily when I need God.  God is right beside me, in order that I might pray easily on behalf of others and other causes.  God is right beside me, in order that I might return easily to praise God and thank God for the things that have gone right.  We can more easily “give to him glorious praise” (Psalm 66:2).  When we convince ourselves that God is right beside us all the time, we convince ourselves that we have consistent and easy access to God.  Many of us Christians put God in a box far way and believe that we need prophets or special mediums to have any connection to God at all.  But this is thankfully not the case.  Each and every one of us has access to God.  God is right beside us.  There is a country song by Justin Moore: “If Heaven wasn’t so far away, I’d pack up the kids and go for the day, introduce them to their grandpa; watch them laugh at the way he talks…”  That would be nice if we could do that.  Well, we may not be able to do that for our family members, but we can do that with God.  God is not so far away.  For that we can be thankful.  We can faithfully live in our current circumstance, first, by seeking the welfare of others, and second, by having confidence in our consistent access to God!  Knowing that we have access to God, can, in turn, help us to turn to God more so that we can seek and serve the welfare of others even more efficiently.

Amy Grant wrote a song about how much Scripture means to us; it is a beautiful song called “Thy Word.”  One of the phrases in the song is “please be near me to the end.”  Especially because we live in an imperfect world, and need encouragement, we need God beside us.  Especially because we seek God’s help in making the imperfect world a little more perfect, we need God beside us.  We can pray regularly, “Please be near me to the end.”  The more that you pray prayers like this, or even write prayers like this down if you are better at writing than speaking off the cuff, the closer connection you should be able to feel with God.  And as you pray for God to be near you, you can also pray for God to be with this person or that person, this city or that city.  God is with us, beside us, as we try to lead others around us and try to set a good example.   The Lord knows we need help in doing that, because we are imperfect beings.  We rely on God’s help so that we can bring welfare to others, through God’s strength, courage, and wisdom.  Additionally, we sing, “I will not forget your love for me.”  We need to be sure that we do not forget God’s love for us.  We need to actively pursue the Lord so that we know God more deeply.  This is our Deeper Toward God series.  We want to grow deeper.  We want to know and experience God more deeply.  We must rely on knowing God more deeply if we are to have much of a chance at actively seeking the welfare of others.  We can do good things for others without God.  Yet we can do even stronger things for others with God’s help.

The leper, who was healed, turned back to Jesus to thank him, while the other nine did not.  Jesus tells the leper that his faith has made him well.  When Jesus gives us good things, are we recognizing that it is from Jesus?  This is part of our faith.  We not only recognized that something good happened; we recognize where that something good came from: God.  When we receive the gift that is Jesus, the ultimate gift that God has given to us, do we recognize the gift that is Jesus?  Nine out of the ten lepers did not.  To faithfully live in our current circumstance, we need to faithfully recognize where the source of our strength comes from.

Writer Anne Lamott says her two favorite prayers are, in the morning, “Help me.  Help me.  Help me,” and at bedtime, “Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.”  Also, our weekly ritual of standing and singing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” is a ritual where we recognize where our blessings flow from.  We are called to seek the welfare of others and pray for others to use what we are given for the good of God’s glory.  And we are made stronger to do that, to have hope and to give hope, in whatever circumstance we are in, because God is our Lord and our God, existing in our space, right beside us, ready to love us.  May all glory and honor be to God!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
29:1 These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
29:4 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
29:5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.
29:6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.
29:7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Psalm 66:1-12
66:1 Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth;
66:2 sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise.
66:3 Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you.
66:4 All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name.” Selah
66:5 Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals.
66:6 He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There we rejoiced in him,
66:7 who rules by his might forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations– let the rebellious not exalt themselves. Selah
66:8 Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard,
66:9 who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.
66:10 For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.
66:11 You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs;
66:12 you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.

Luke 17:11-19
17:11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
17:12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance,
17:13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
17:14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.
17:15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.
17:16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.
17:17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?
17:18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
17:19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Is That You? – 2 October 2022

Written by Pastor Bryan Niebanck

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end”

Lamentations 3:22

Who here has ever wondered if you are hearing God?  [raise hands?]  We might liken the idea to hearing someone walk in the door at home, when we ask, “Is that you?” to confirm that it is really who we think it is and not someone else we might not be expecting.  If you have ever asked that question, “Is that you?” when you are talking to a person, have you ever thought about using it with God?  When have you stopped what you are doing and said, “God, is that your voice?”  If we are here in church today, chances are that we all want to hear God, and when we do, we want to be sure that God is the one we hear.  We want to be able to expel all doubts that we are hearing God and not our own voice, or the voice that an evil force wants us to believe.  We have learned so far in our conversations on prayer this year that, first, we will not really hear God if we do not choose to set aside the time to spend with God, and second, we will not hear God if we are not trying to listen for God in more than one way.  But when we do these things well, and we pray and we think that we hear something back, we want to check it at the door.  As Paul once told us, “Test everything, and hold fast onto what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

I want to tell you a story about a certain Jesus fountain in Ashland.  It is in the middle of the seminary campus, and I passed by it every day while I was going to seminary.  I had a few good prayer moments sitting at that fountain.  About a month ago, I was visiting a friend in Ashland, and I decided to stop by the fountain for some renewal and clarity with the Lord.  I especially needed clarification that I should move forward in seeing one particular person whom I met back in August.  I asked God if this would be the right path for me.  After spending 45 minutes in prayer, moving back and forth between the fountain and the nearby prayer garden, I had returned to the fountain and I heard two words: “Look up.”  I told God, “The only thing I see is the sky.”  God said back, “Exactly.”  Her name happens to be Sky, and that was my answer in that moment.  God does not always answer in crystal clear terms, but He does give us what we need.

You might be wondering how I knew it was God in that moment.  I actually did too, in that moment.  I did not end my prayer immediately after I heard those two important words, because I wanted to make sure that it was God.  I stared into the eyes of Jesus in the fountain, and I felt an overwhelming sense of calm.  I felt that I knew it had to be God because I heard it while I was focused on God, and God alone.  I had cleared my mind of all other distractions.  Satan wasn’t getting into my mind very easily either, because when you spend time with God, and fill your mind with things of God, even Satan is crowded out.  When God fills your entire mind, and you hear a voice, it is likely God.  When you allow God to have all the space, God will take up all the space, because God is infinite.  There is no room for your voice, your friend’s voice, or Satan’s voice; only God’s voice.  First, we know that it is more likely God when God speaks when we are praying.  We are focused on God and not on other idols or passions.

Second, we know the Lord more intimately, and thus what the Lord says, when we do more than just what we ought to have done.  Luke 17:10 implies that we should go further than just the bare minimum when the response Jesus gave to the apostles, asking him to increase their faith, is this: “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”  We might know that God is the one we hear if we have done more than just the bare minimum to know the Lord.  We pray.  We study scripture.  We read books about the Lord.  We try to gain and understanding of the Lord from our own experiences as well as from the experiences of others.  Then we can compare the words we hear with the sense of God’s character that we have gained.  We can test the words against God’s character, which, again, Paul told us to do, so that we know whatever it is, is of God or not of God.

We can be more assured that we hear God when we know we are focused on God and God alone, such as in deep prayer, and also when we have tested what we have heard against God’s character, which we have studied and experienced.  Third, we should pay attention to what is going on around us.  As an example, Jeremiah knew that he had heard the voice of the Lord through his own hearing when, in fact, it came true: “The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel is going to come to you and say, ‘Buy my field, for the right of redemption is yours.’  Then Hanamel came to me and said, ‘Buy my field, for the right of possession and redemption is yours.’  Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord” (Jeremiah 32:6-8).  The Lord can confirm that we are hearing God by having the things actually happen.  Sometimes we just need to be sure we are actually listening to what we are hearing, and then paying attention to the world, to be able to recognize it and make the connection that Jeremiah did.  Further, God can often confirm what he is saying through a repeated verse that keeps coming up in a sermon or a book on the very topic you are struggling with.  Last week, I received an automated email which had a headline that read, “The third year is always the hardest.”  It talked about Year 3 in the same role being the hardest hurdle to get through, referencing year 3 of the pandemic in relation to year 3 of any job.  It seemed like perfect timing, since I have just begun Year 3 of serving as a pastor.  It encouraged me to spend some time reflecting and to build stronger devotions and connections with the Lord.  I truly believe that God speaks through some of these moments that are perfect timing.  A friend tells you exactly what you need to hear.  A particular sermon tells you exactly what you needed to hear in a particular moment.  God uses these moments, as long as you are listening.  This is one of many reasons why we should listen to wise counsel; not only might they have powerful tips to share with us, but God can speak to us through godly people in our lives.

On this, our World Communion Sunday, I have a bit of wise counsel that also appeared in my emails this week.  It is from our Association Minister, Rev. Dan Busch: “We, who are like the disciples with our flaws, imperfections, and shortcomings, are invited to take our places “at the TABLE.” The TABLE is a place of acceptance, love, sacrifice, reconciliation, and love where we join with Christ and the entire community of faith to be witnesses to God’s transforming power in our lives. We receive blessings of forgiveness, hope, and call to be witnesses of God’s Good News in both Word and Deed. “This is the joyful feast of the people of God. Men and women, youth and children, come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and gather about Christ’s TABLE.”  We all celebrate our union tonight at this table that we are invited to.  God invites us – all of us, around the globe – to share in Christ’s body and drink of Christ’s cup, so that we all might know God more intimately, have a closer relationship with God, hear God more, and KNOW that we ARE connected to God in a special way.

The readings from Lamentations and Psalm 137 may seem a bit off to us this week.  They may be a bit depressing, in fact.  Common themes between the two include weeping, lamenting, and grieving.  Maybe we can relate.  We want to ask God so many “why” questions.  But at the same time, the scripture lessons do not show an empty “why” question.  The emotion and expression is taken to the Lord in prayer.  When everything does not go right, as we would like it do, both for ourselves and more importantly for the expansion of God’s kingdom, we could complain and turn to our own idols, or we could turn and cry to the Lord in prayer, knowing that God is with us.  We may be able to be confident that God is shedding that tear with us, and if we listen carefully, we may realize the words that God is speaking tenderly back to us.

“The authors of Lamentations, of Habakkuk and of many psalms see trouble and cry to the Lord. Much lament rises from the interrogative mood. How long, Lord, how long? Why, Lord, why? When, Lord, when? It’s important to see that lament makes no sense if God is indifferent or off duty. Lament makes sense only if God is present, addressable and full of steadfast love.  So the author of Lamentations pauses in the middle of five chapters of lament to testify to one ray of hope: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (Lam. 3:22). The author finds hope and love because he is lamenting in good faith. Unbelief shakes its fist at God or dismisses God or tries to get an invasive God off its back. It’s faith that laments. Faith wrestles with God because trouble and enemies and terror are all anomalies in God’s world. They don’t belong there. In a world in which the King of the universe has steadfast love, these things should not happen. But they do, and so the believer points them out to God and laments them. These terrible things should not be” (Cornelius Plantinga Jr. 2013, senior research fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan).

Being in the midst of what we face does cause us to doubt that God is the one we hear.  We may think that we are only hearing what we want to hear, and/or that God may actually be absent.  Yet, may you be blessed to focus on the ray of hope that the authors of the Bible still find in the most difficult times: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (Lam. 3:22).  First, you know that God is with us, no matter what.  God’s love does not cease.  Second, knowing that God has not left us, you feel prone to pray and listen to what God tells you while you are not focused on other things.  You are patient in prayer and do not give up.  You test everything that you hear against God’s character.  And third, you listen to other ways that God may communicate with you that is not through direct prayer.  How do you know that God is the voice you hear?  Keep listening.  Do not end your prayer there.  Keep your ears and eyes open.  Pray more about it, and watch for God to confirm things in other ways.  God closes doors and opens windows, places things before you in your path especially when you need them most, and guides you in your steps.  May you be blessed to know the presence and the power of God through your persistency in prayer.  May all glory and honor be to God.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Lamentations 1:1-6
1:1 How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.
1:2 She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.
1:3 Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.
1:4 The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.
1:5 Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.
1:6 From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.

Psalm 137
137:1 By the rivers of Babylon– there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
137:2 On the willows there we hung up our harps.
137:3 For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
137:4 How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
137:5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
137:6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
137:7 Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”
137:8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
137:9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

Luke 17:5-10
17:5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
17:6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
17:7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?
17:8 Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?
17:9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?
17:10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”

Agent of Love – 25 September 2022

Written by Pastor Bryan Niebanck

Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.

Psalm 91:14

It was a privilege last week to hear from our Conference Minister, Rev. David Long-Higgins, about what the conference is doing to close the chasm between the rich and the poor.  He mentioned that following the work in Dayton, the Heartland Conference is beginning to transition to the Mayfield, Kentucky area, which was devastated last December by tornadoes.  Our church is planning to work within this context in February.  The church seeks ways to bridge the gap between first world and third world, not only in the United States, but across the world.  We have interacted with each other when we give our time and talent to help those who are in need, whether it be from disaster or inability to repair.  We interact even more when we have given of our time to be with those who need help in person.  We know what a blessing it is to receive care when we have been in times of need.  We also know what a blessing it is to be the one who gives care.  We might call these the ones whose blessing it is to be a helper.  When your calling is to help wherever needed, you know how good it feels just to be able to help someone.

We are called to lessen the chasm between the known rich and the known poor.  We may not think of ourselves as rich, but we are significantly richer than much of the world.  And Jesus does not paint the picture of the rich man being rude or evil.  Jesus paints the picture, in Luke 16:19-31, of a rich man who simply does not see the poor person at his gate.  As John Donahue points out, the problem is that all those days on earth, the rich never “see” the poor.  “One of the prime dangers of wealth is that it causes blindness” (Donahue, The Gospel in Parable; Metaphor, Narrative, and Theology in the Synoptic Gospels (1988), 171).  We do not wish to be among those who do not, or cannot, see the poor.  We do not want to be among those who are too distracted by our own lifestyles as the rich man was in the parable that Jesus told his disciples.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, many passed by the man left for dead on the side of the road before a Samaritan stopped to help him.  They either saw themselves as too busy or perhaps too important to stop and lend a hand.  When we are too busy to stop and ask someone if they are okay, are we any better than the rich man in the parable?  Are you able to slow down and ask someone on the side of the road with their flashers blinking if they need any assistance?  Are you able, as the CEO of your business, to stop and have a chat with the custodian?  We are called to be in the world, among those who are in need, rather than living our own lives by ourselves in luxury.  We want to love others, doing the work to love the people and bring love to people in the world.  The world needs an alternative to what it often sees.  We, and Christ, are that alternative.  If the CEO never has that conversation with the custodian, they would never know of the stress they may be dealing with.  If car after car does not stop to help the disabled motorists, or at least ask if they are alright, they could be stranded there for hours.  I recall one time where I asked this question, and their phone was dead with no way to call anyone.  They did not need much, except a working phone for a moment to be able to call someone they knew for help.

Many of us are here today thinking about our dear friend and matriarch of the church, Olive.  We are grieved that she is not here in church worshipping with us right now.  We look at her pew and are grieved still more.  I know that Olive almost always had a smile on her face.  She brightened up every room that she went into.  She cared about each one of us deeply.  When she would give us her time and attention, which was pretty much whenever we would give it to her, it was a blessing.  We are somewhat shaken by so many losses in our church recently.  I invite you to stay for our social hour after church today where we can talk about our grief and how we are dealing with it, or not.  We need to recognize that we are feeling the grief, and not bottle it up and store it in the basement.  We can support one another, check in with each other, and love one another as Olive loved us.  If we can be half the person that she was to another person, we are on the right track.  She left us with an example and an inspiration.  We need to help and seek out those who may be in need of an ear even at our own gates, whom we might not notice if we do not go outside and walk around a little bit.  When I called Olive a few times to see how she was doing after her friends Viola and Bonnie passed, she usually said, “Oh, I’m doing alright; and how are you doing?”  Do not let your own wealth and security blind you from another person’s need.  Find a way to serve yourself, certainly, but also find a way to serve another.  That is one reason why I like to pray for our own deepest need and also for the need of another.  We need to be doing both if we are living out Christ’s example for our actions in this world.  Is the gate to your household a barrier to keep the rest of the world out, or is it a free-swinging gate that gives off a sense of welcome?  We hope that our church doors are the latter kind of gate.  The stop-sign gates can be rather intimidating.  Some front doors are a stop-sign.  Whenever I pulled into Olive’s driveway, the front door was pretty free-swinging.

First, we are called to present a swinging gate of welcome rather than a stop-here gate that keeps people out, as the rich man did to Lazarus.  We need to break down the barrier between “us” and “them.”  We need to see the Christians across the world undergoing persecution as brothers and sisters just as we see fellow church members as brothers and sisters.  God wants to help his kids learn how to help out his other kids.  The rich man did not do this because he had created the wrong kind of gate to his household.  Financial greed and corruption only hinder the work of the church.  We do not need to cut ourselves off from the “them;” we can make a different choice.  And in addition to creating a free-swinging gate to others, we also want to have the same relationship with God.  If you have not created a boundary between yourself and others, perhaps you have created one with God.  In Revelation 3:20, we the angel speaking to the church in Laodicea, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”  If God knocks at our door, we should let him in.  God is always knocking at our door.  Thus says the Lord: “Let me in to your life!”

I know that many of you are thinking about what to do with strangers who knock at the door or bother you beyond measure.  I quickly started putting up boundaries with a man who showed up to our table when I was out to dinner with Sky at a restaurant.  He was clearly drunk and he wanted to arm wrestle.  He began getting really angry that we would not arm wrestle with him and as we both try to politely tell him no, thankfully a waitress brings him back to his table.  Is God telling us to welcome people who could potentially be dangerous into our lives?  To this, I would offer the story of Jesus approaching a leper, one who would be considered dangerous to society.  He offered his hospitality because they were receptive to it.  Give the belligerent space while he is belligerent, but then be willing to welcome him in when he is himself.

Psalm 91:14-16 offers one more word of encouragement when the Lord tells us to love and give blessing to another: “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.  When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.  With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.”  Jesus told us that when we love the least of those among us, we are loving him.  We love God by loving others.  We love God by welcoming God into our lives as well.  We love God by using tools to love God better than we did yesterday, by using written prayers when we feel stumped in our prayer, by repeating prayers that deserve repeating as Jesus repeated his own prayers, and by scheduling a regular time to be with God.  The Lord says that we are to be beings of love in the world.  Loving God more deeply is one way that we are able to have more confidence in what God is telling us to do as agents of love in the world.  And we further know that God loves us deeply because we find ourselves in God’s refuge (Psalm 91:4).  What does it mean to offer the refuge that we have found in God to someone else?

Here are the takeaways that I believe God wants all of us to remember: First, do not be content to live merely in your own secluded and privileged world; get out there and make a difference in any way you can.  Make someone else smile.  Make someone else feel loved.  Second, put your focus on God and not on the uncertainly of worldly riches: As Paul reminded Timothy, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.  But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:10-11).  And third, let God into your world so that you know you are spreading the love of God and not merely your own message.  Let God not only be your focus, but your refuge as well.  May all honor and glory be to God.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
32:1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar.
32:2 At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah,
32:3a where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.
32:6 Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came to me:
32:7 Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.”
32:8 Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD.
32:9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver.
32:10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales.
32:11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy;
32:12 and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard.
32:13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying,
32:14 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time.
32:15 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
91:1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
91:2 will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
91:3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence;
91:4 he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
91:5 You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,
91:6 or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
91:14 Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.
91:15 When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.
91:16 With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.

Luke 16:19-31
16:19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
16:20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
16:21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
16:22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
16:23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.
16:24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’
16:25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.
16:26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’
16:27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house–
16:28 for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’
16:29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’
16:30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’
16:31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

Bonus: 1 Timothy 6:6-19
6:6 Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment;
6:7 for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it;
6:8 but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.
6:9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
6:10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
6:11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.
6:12 Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
6:13 In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you
6:14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ,
6:15 which he will bring about at the right time–he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
6:16 It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
6:17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.
6:18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,
6:19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.