Praise You in This Storm – 22 May 2022

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us,

Psalm 67:1

“Praise You in This Storm” is a song by Casting Crowns released in 2005. 

“I was sure by now
God, You would have reached down
And wiped our tears away
Stepped in and saved the day
And once again
I say, “A-men” and it’s still rainin’

But as the thunder rolls
I barely hear Your whisper through the rain
“I’m with you”
And as Your mercy falls
I’ll raise my hands and praise the God who gives
And takes away

And I’ll praise You in this storm
And I will lift my hands
For You are who You are
No matter where I am
And every tear I’ve cried
You hold in Your hand
You never left my side
And though my heart is torn
I will praise You in this storm.”

Deuteronomy 31:6 tells us, “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”  In Psalm 18:3, we read this prayer: “I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies.”

God is worthy to be praised even when there are enemies around us.  Even when life is not perfect, God is still worthy to be praised.  God never left us.  God still protects us.  We can tell God, “You are who You are.”

During some of the most difficult trials of human history, many were given cause to doubt the goodness of God.  During the Holocaust, for example, so many people wondered why God did not act.  One survivor of Auschwitz shared his reason for praising God even through the calamity: “It never occurred to be to question God’s doings or lack of doings while I was an inmate of Auschwitz, although of course I understood others did.  … I was no more or less religious because of what the Nazi’s did to us; and I believe my faith in God was not undermined in the least.  It never occurred to me to associate the calamity we were experiencing with God, to blame Him, or to believe in Him less or cease believing in Him at all because He didn’t come to our aid.  God doesn’t owe us that, or anything.  We owe our lives to Him.  If someone believes God is responsible for the death or six million because He didn’t somehow do something to save them, he’s got his thinking reversed.  We owe God our lives for the few or many years we live, and we have the duty to worship Him and do as He commands us.  That’s what we’re here on earth for, to be in God’s service, to do God’s bidding.” (When Bad Things Happen to Good People, 95-6).

We can argue that praising God is even more important in the storm, so that we are reminded that the storm will not be the cause of defeat for us.  In fact, as we read Psalm 67, we notice three potential purposes for praise that should draw our attention.  First, the Psalmist notes that praise is extremely important, as he quotes the same phrase twice in a seven-verse song: “Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you” (Psalm 67:3, 5).  Then, he tells us that praise does three things: it helps us remember what God has done, it helps us be thankful and live a life of gratitude, and it helps us evangelize.  In verse 4, the psalmist tells us to pay attention to what God is doing: “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon the earth.”  In the song that we opened with, the artist remembers, “No matter where I am, and every tear I’ve cried, you hold in your hand.  You never left my side.”  When we praise God for what God has done, we remember that the Lord is great for His past deeds.  In verse 6, the psalmist notes that it is important to practice gratitude, for God has blessed us.  And finally, praising can be an act of evangelism for all who witness our acts of praise, telling the story of God’s presence and inviting others into God’s plan of redemption and hope.  The song that the psalmist wrote gives praise and thanksgiving, and by its very existence as a song, it evangelizes.  But it also goes one step further than that.

First, we know that we should praise God even in the storm.  It helps us remember why we worship God in the first place, it helps us practice a life of gratitude which changes our attitude and puts us in a better mindset, and it could potentially open the door for someone else to be changed as well.  That’s almost enough in itself.  But this little psalm is packed so richly that it also contains a request of God.  The second point that is being made by this psalm is that praising God gives us the confidence that we need to approach God.  It puts us in a mindset where we believe in ourselves well enough to think that we are important enough for God’s time, and to believe that God values us enough to listen to us.  What is the psalmist’s request?  “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known upon the earth, your saving power among all nations” (Psalm 67:1-2).  This is each of our prayers in one.  We pray for God to reveal Godself to us and for us, so that we might know that we are following God’s way, so that we might be confident in God, and still further that God’s way might be known by everyone who walks this earth, so that ill will and evil might be hindered or eliminated.  The request for evangelizing the world is there, but I would like to spend a few moments on the first part of that request: “May God make his face to shine upon us” (67:1).

Requesting that God’s face shine upon us is very popular in the Psalms.  In Psalm 80, we read this request three times: “Restore us, O God; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:3, 7, 19).  You may recognize this request from Numbers 6, as it is often used as a benediction: “The LORD bless you and keep you; The LORD make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The LORD lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26 NKJV).  We want to know God has blessed us.  We want to know that we are saved.  And we want to be able to know that God really is looking down on us.  These are only a few possible meanings of what asking God’s face to shine upon us could be.  Ultimately, we want to know that God is pleased with us.

I believe that we can know that God is pleased with us.  First, you can ask yourself if you are coming to God rather than going away.  If you are, ask if you have received the Holy Spirit.  Jesus told his disciples, because he knew they were troubled with these things, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27).  They wanted to know that they were doing the right thing, and they were not sure how they would manage to know this when their teacher will no longer be by their side.  They had not yet learned how to be confident in the storm.  And Jesus did not expect them to have to fend for themselves.  He told them, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).  Who here needs to be reminded of things that someone told them once?  The disciples did too.  We are promised that an Advocate will be with us to help us through the storms, and will help us on our mission to tend God’s sheep, which is what Jesus asked Peter to do when he appeared to the disciples on the beach for the final recorded time.  We know that God is pleased with us if we allow the Holy Spirit to help us tend the sheep.

To tend these sheep, we need to be able to make it through these storms.  We need to praise God in the storms.  We may falter every now and again, which is expected, and then we lean on a Christian neighbor to help us regain our strength.  (If we do not do that then we will keep faltering and not make it back to where God wants us to be.)  First, we go back to praising God so that we remember God’s goodness and greatness, so that we live in a grateful mindset, and so that we share God’s goodness through that mindset and our confidence in God.  Second, we use our restored confidence to make requests of God that will better God’s kingdom and our own ability to fulfill God’s will and his commands.  If our heart is in the right place, I believe that God will fulfill these requests, just as the Lord fulfilled Solomon’s request for wisdom when he wanted to lead the people in God’s way (1 Kings 3).

Jesus said in John 21:17 “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  To be a sent person means being sent into the storm, but also into God’s embrace.  It means struggling with doubt, but also living in peace.  It means that we have a teachable spirit, because we cannot do this Christian life without that teacher.  It would be impossible.  Very few of us if any taught ourselves long division, or how to ride a bicycle.  We all had a guide.  And that guide is our Holy Spirit.  In the weeks following Easter, the disciples heard this promise, and they may have been comforted.  They may not have been sure exactly what to expect.  But they knew that Jesus was not leaving them to the wolves.  They knew that even in the deepest trials, where leaders were seeking their arrest and perhaps even their lives, they could sing these words:

“And I’ll praise You in this storm
And I will lift my hands
For You are who You are
No matter where I am
And every tear I’ve cried
You hold in Your hand
You never left my side
And though my heart is torn
I will praise You in this storm.”

Praise God.  Make requests of God.  USE the Advocate by having a teachable spirit.  Just as the disciples were encouraged when they were told, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” may you also come to believe.  May you also come to expect that because your face is turned toward God, God’s face will indeed shine upon you, and you will have your small role in making God’s way known throughout the earth.  The call to be a Christian is not to give in to the pain and the fear and the struggle that we all face.  It is to stand up and praise God in the storm, even when our bodies and the tragedies we see scream against it.  Stand up, and praise God in this storm.  May all glory and honor be to God!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Acts 16:9-15
16:9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
16:10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
16:11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis,
16:12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.
16:13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.
16:14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.
16:15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Psalm 67
67:1 May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us,
67:2 that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.
67:3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
67:4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.
67:5 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
67:6 The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.
67:7 May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him.

John 14:23-29
14:23 Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.
14:24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
14:25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you.
14:26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
14:27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
14:28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.
14:29 And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

Sticking Together – 1 May 2022

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

Psalm 30:5

You are walking through a busy city.  There are tons of people and lots of things going on every way you look.  Have you ever heard or said the words “Stick together,” said by a parent or group leader who does not want to lose anyone?  If you do not stick together, it is easy to lose the people you know in such a big crowd.

Or maybe you are on a hiking trip.  Some in your group are relatively fast hikers.  Others are a bit slower.  Would you allow the fast hikers to go out in front and have the slowest ones take up the rear?  Most of the time, it will be best for the group to stick together.  The slowest person leads the pack so that no one gets separated.  On occasion, if you have a large enough group, you can form two groups, but generally, you want to know where everyone is at all times and the best way to do that is to stick together.  Then you won’t end up taking two distinct but different forks in the road somewhere up the trail, like what happened on one of my college mission trips.  As we were driving down Interstate 87 from Albany, New York, we had to merge onto Interstate 95 to drive south toward North Carolina.  Well, we were in two cars, and one car thought you had to go north on I-95 to get to North Carolina.  The car I was in went south.  After we had been waiting at our next check in point for a half hour with no sign of the other car, we thought that there might be something up.  Had we been in sight of each other, that mistake likely would not have been made.

We have seen the faith and doubt of the disciples, especially in the case of doubting Thomas.  But did you notice something else spectacular about the story of the Resurrection?  Even though they were afraid, they chose to stick together.  We like to criticize them for not having a stronger faith.  But they did not end up running away to their former lives as fisherman, tax collectors, or whatever else they were.  Even though they risked being caught by the Jewish authorities, they stuck together.  This is actually a wonderful example for today’s faithful generation.  Many are all too ready to throw away a relationship if there is a bit of disagreement.  Parishioners leave a church after decades of attending because they do not like the current pastor or they had a fight with someone in the church.  In doing so, they also dispose of the positive relationships they had formed, both with God and with others in the church.  The covid-19 pandemic taught us a bit about relationships too; when the ability to meet together way taken away, we all realized how much we missed it.  We would not have had church as we know it if the disciples had not overcome their fear and stayed to figure things out.  We would not have church if they had been so quick to leave after their leader was seemingly defeated.  We would not have had church as we know it if the disciples had listened to the pressures of the world.  They believed even when all else seemed to contradict it.

They believed even when Saul, one of the most prominent persecutors of the early Christian church, came to them with Ananias in Damascus.  They stuck together and were able to do a very hard thing: “For several days Saul was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’” (Acts 9:19-20).  They forgave their mortal enemy and taught him about Jesus.  They were able to trust God because they were all still together.  When we stick together, we are stronger.  We can help each other try to understand.

Have you tried to deal with something all on your own?  Perhaps you are ashamed of it so you do not want to admit it.  Perhaps you just are convinced that you are the only one who struggles with whatever it is.  Maybe you are too occupied with it to talk about it.  Whatever the reason, all of us have done this from time to time.  We keep it to ourselves.  We try to deal with it on our own.  If we do not resolve it relatively quickly, it starts to occupy our minds.  It is often not truly resolved until you confide with a trusted person.  I am sure if the disciples started to think about everything that happened on their own terms, each one would find something to blame himself for.  But together, they can share the burden.  They can affirm each other, tell each other that they are not the only ones, and work together to figure out what is next.

First, we should stick together as Christians because we are given that example through the disciples in the Bible.  They are a model for our Christian lives, imperfect though they may be.  Second, we should remain together so that we can be stronger together, affirming one another and growing past our own self-criticisms.  Third, and most importantly, it allows us to move beyond ourselves so that we can keep doing ministry.

The book group has been studying Harold Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  Kushner has reviewed a variety of reasons why we justify God allowing suffering in the world.  You may recognize or relate to some of them: “I’ve sinned and I deserve this punishment.”  “It is not for us to question God.”  “God is teaching me something through this suffering.”  God never sends you more than you can bear.”  “He is in a better place now; God needed another angel in heaven.”  None of these are entirely comforting to the bereaved – to someone who is grieving the loss of a big part of their life.  Why would God cause or even allow some pain for one person, and prevent it in another case?  The answer is in spiritual warfare.  Maybe God does not cause or want to allow any suffering.  In the book of Job, we are told about God wrestling with a Leviathan, which is a big beast (Job 41).  Although God is ultimately the victor, God does not win easily.  The same is the case here.  God will be the ultimate victor, but Satan puts up a good fight.  God has wins and losses; those wins are the little miracles that we celebrate, but the losses are those where God grieves with us.  God is not picking and choosing because God loves us all.  Ultimately, God wants to stick with us, and to have us stick with Him.  Too often, the existence of suffering blinds people to the possibility of an existence of a just and good God.  But our very own parents can be just and good, and still not prevent us from suffering or even from tragedy befalling us.  This is not to answer for all time the problem of evil and suffering in the world, but it is to say that just like the disciples chose to stick with each other in a confusing time, and perhaps their greatest time of trial, we should stick with God through our own greatest trials – perhaps especially through them.  God cares first and foremost not how far we are away from God in our faith and our trust in Him, but what direction we are facing.  As long as we are facing God – turning to God in every circumstance – it does not matter whether our faith is the size of a mustard seed or the size of a mountain.  Even faith the side of a mustard seed can move mountains.  And further, as our Association Minister Dan Busch preached about yesterday at the annual meeting, doubt is a part of our faith journey.  It was a part of the disciples’ journey.  And it is also a part of ours.  The Easter season – those fifty days between the Resurrection and that first day where the church actually began – which we call Pentecost, is the season of moving through doubt to come to believe.  It is learning to trust God even when we do not find everything as we dreamed it would be.  That’s exactly the journey that the disciples are making.  It is why they trusted God when they were told to teach Saul, who had done nothing but persecute the church.  It is why, when Jesus told the disciples to cast the net over the boat one more time, after they had had no luck all night and they were tired and frustrated, they obliged.  It is why the Psalmist in Psalm 30 writes, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

“The initial story in the John reading might remind us of numerous invitations to “launch out into the deep” and not to give up “when you’ve toiled all night and caught nothing.” … But Jesus is not done. The summons to try again isn’t just for the fish in the sea. We rally at the possibility of Jesus coming through when we have tried and fallen short, but what is to be said when we have left the work unfinished? How many “good Christian soldiers” have received the initial call, only to be assaulted by life and circumstances and to go AWOL?”  ~ Kiki Barnes, Christian Century (AWOL: Absent from where one should be but without intent to desert)

What is to be said is that, Jesus tells us to try again.  Cast the nets over another time.  Trust that God is still our helper.  And when you are discouraged, take it to God.  Take it to each other.  Stick together.  For God fights for us.  God loves us.  And God grieves with us when it does not go right.  May all glory and honor be to God!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
9:1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest
9:2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
9:3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
9:4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
9:5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
9:6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
9:7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.
9:8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
9:9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
9:10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
9:11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying,
9:12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”
9:13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem;
9:14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”
9:15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel;
9:16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
9:17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
9:18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized,
9:19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,
9:20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

Psalm 30
30:1 I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
30:2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
30:3 O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
30:4 Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.
30:5 For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
30:6 As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”
30:7 By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.
30:8 To you, O LORD, I cried, and to the LORD I made supplication:
30:9 “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
30:10 Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper!”
30:11 You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
30:12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

John 21:1-19
21:1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.
21:2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.
21:3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
21:4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
21:5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”
21:6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.
21:7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.
21:8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
21:9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.
21:10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”
21:11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.
21:12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.
21:13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.
21:14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
21:15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
21:16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
21:17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
21:18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”
21:19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

To Be a Shepherd

Fourth Sunday of Easter – 25 April 2021

Pastor Bryan Niebanck

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me. ~Psalm 23:4

L.P. Jones, a Presbyterian pastor and author, wrote of a professor who told a class of doctoral students that they already had an A in his class.  The challenge was to keep it.  1 John 3 begins by praising the love of God for calling us children of God, we who are not yet complete in God’s sight (1 John 3:1).  John then notes that no one is free of the sin which brings disorder and lawlessness (1 John 3:4).  But, Jesus came to take away sins, and “no one who abides in him sins” (1 John 3:5-6).  We all seek to abide in him, but we know while we are on this earth, we cannot escape from sin.  We cannot escape from the presence of sin.  But we can escape from the power of sin.  Jesus promises to have a voice in the chaos that we live in today, giving us the knowledge that the sins we commit today will not have the last word on our souls.  Can we keep the A?  Perhaps not, but we will have a fresh start if we only take the next step.  It is like the moment that my freshman high school class was told on our first day that we had a clean slate.  Middle school or Junior High got us to where we were, but whether we had an A or C did not matter anymore.  We were at a new place and started with a clean slate.  That is what it is like when we go to Heaven.  We may have had a C average or worse down here, but if we take the next step and are not too disheartened to continue on to the big-kid school, we start with that fresh A.  Yet if we want to reach there, we still need to keep doing the work down here.

Have you taken in some of the stain glass windows in our church recently?  There are plenty of beautiful scenes, but the one at the front of the sanctuary for all to see is that of Jesus as a Shepherd.  Jesus is holding a sheep in one arm and a staff in the other, leading those who may feel lost and troubled.  Well, can sheep feel troubled, you may ask?  I am not sure of that, and some may say that sheep do not feel much of anything.  I am reminded of the children’s story where the sheep that Jonathan Toomey was carving for a manger set was not right because it was supposed to look “proud because it was with the baby Jesus.”  I am sure that in a farming community I will learn more about sheep than I ever knew before.  But what I do know now is that, whether they knew it or not, someone cared for them.  Someone had their best interests in mind, even if they were going astray.

Last week, we heard the story of Peter and John going out to the temple and healing a lame beggar.  It happened to attract quite a lot of attention.  In fact, Peter and John, who had finally worked up the courage to emerge from behind their locked doors, suddenly found themselves under house arrest after the first miracle that they had performed in Jesus’ name!  Further, Peter is now faced with giving a defense against many of the very same council members of the high priest that had convicted Jesus just a short time before.  The people who were amazed at the miracle had started listening to what Peter had to tell them about the resurrection of the dead, and this is what led the Sadducees to make the arrest (Acts 4:2).  The Sadducees believed this to be a false teaching, which was not permitted in the temple.  It was especially concerning because about five thousand of those who heard Peter believed him (Acts 4:4).  Barbara Brown Taylor writes that the Sadducees are “among those whom the Romans hold responsible for keeping such crowds from forming,” and thus Peter and John are not just theologically wrong, but they are “dangerous to the peace of Jerusalem and, more than that, to the Pax Romana, the peace guaranteed by Rome” (Feasting on the Word, B.2.433).  The Sadducees are afraid because they want to do whatever it takes to keep the peace in the Holy City.  Yet it must have been discouraging to Peter and John, to finally have overcome their fear, and to end up being arrested.  Perhaps they had to remind themselves of the true source of power.

Psalm 23 is a psalm very near and dear to so many Christians.  It is a psalm of comfort in times of distress.  It is a reminder that God walks with us, even when we are walking through very dark times.  Even when we are arrested and tried, or even when it seems like we have the worst luck in the world, God is with us.  One reflection that I read on Psalm 23 called us to imagine Jesus praying the words found in Psalm 23.  Read it as Jesus’ own prayer in the face of his suffering, and we can then pray it as we are in Christ.  Jesus suffered worse than any of us can imagine, so that we might have less suffering of our own, or, so that our suffering need not be permanent.  God is with us, regardless of whether we are able to recognize that God is.  Even when it seems like God is letting us walk alone, God still comforts us. God still loves us.  God still cares for us deeply.  We do not have to fear any evil.  It may be easier said than done.  The psalm does not promise that we will not have enemies, though.  It says that we celebrate God’s table being with us in the presence of our enemies (Psalm 23:5).  Again, we are not saved from the presence of sin in this life.  But we are saved from the power of sin; that is, we can be confident that the evil and sin in this world do not have to control the way we think, or the way we act, and it does not have to instill fear in us to block out our confidence in God’s power.

A baby bird in a nest may not know much of anything either.  But they expect that their mother will come back to the nest to feed them and to comfort them.  We have a robin’s nest that was made in our Easter cross this spring, and we are hoping that the mother is able to take care of them and we will be able to watch the process unfold.  Are you able to expect that God will be walking with you and taking care of you, even in the face of the unknown?  Can we trust that God is on our side and that God is here for us?  I hope that we can.  For once we hear this lesson and gain confidence in it, we are called to go out into the community and help others in God’s name.

Throughout this Easter season, we have wondered what is next.  When the tomb was empty, the disciples wondered what they were to do next.  When Jesus told them to have the courage to go out and continue doing the same ministry that they had done before, they eventually worked up the courage to do just that.  Now they are arrested.  What is next?  What is next is to renew your trust in God.  Even in the most trying times, God is walking with you.  Even when it seems you have lost your strength, God gives you new strength.  As Jesus said, “And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15).  We may not want to be compared to sheep, as we see them as lesser creatures than us.  Jesus told us, in fact, that we are worth more than many sparrows (Matthew 10:31).  We are worth more than the animals around us.  But Jesus compares us to sheep here so that we understand the nature of Jesus’ relationship to us.  We do not know what is in store for us, but we do know that there is always someone nearby who has our best interests at heart.  What is next is to trust that God will not lead you into something that you will never make it out of.  Jesus does not leave us to be scattered by the wolf.  We have a shepherd.  Sheep are never afraid when a shepherd is nearby.

William L. Self, Senior Pastor of Johns Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, writes about 1 John 3: “Because we know we are God’s, because we love what is right, and because we love God’s people despite our failures in performance, we have all the earmarks of belonging to Christ. … We have the acceptance of God when we live by the principles of love and righteousness, there is evidence of rewarding prayer in our lives, we possess the will to obey, and we are possessed by the Spirit” (Feasting on the Word B.2.445-7).  Do we know that we are God’s?  We trust in the promises we find in Psalm 23.  Do we love what is right?  We love to see people who are good get rewarded.  Do we love God’s people?  We are a shepherd to them of sorts; we care for one another and we help to build each other up when we become discouraged.  Then, we are children of God.  We learn to trust God by nurturing our own relationship with God, by living by the word, by praying regularly, by obeying what you feel that God is calling you to do, and by receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is the same Spirit that led “ordinary men” and women to preach God’s message to those who needed to hear it (Acts 4:13).  We do not need to be capable on our own to share God with others.  We need to only lean on God.

We have shifted from the post-resurrection experiences of the disciples to the nature of God’s work in this world.  The disciples have been called to continue ministering.  Thomas Long, a Professor of Preaching, notes, “In the face of God’s deeds of mercy all around us, we are summoned not merely to say “How Wonderful!” but to turn around, to repent, to change our citizenship, and to become a faithful part of God’s work in the world” (FoW, B.2.410).  How can we do this?  We participate in the ministry of God by participating in the wider works of the church, such as collecting donations for the disaster relief buckets, which are due today.  We care for one another as the church.  We are the work of the church.  We reach well outside the borders of our church with our special offerings.  Love is known not only by words and speech, but in truth and action (1 John 3:18).  Jesus misunderstood by nearly everyone around him; as Christians, we expect the same (FoW, B.2.418).  But we do our work anyway.  We trust God.  God will guide us through.  After we have seen the word, and we have taught the word, we are called to live the word.  Jesus is our comforter and our strength.  We can take the risk to speak to the stranger in the pew, to build the bonds that make our community as a church, according to whatever our gifts are.  If you have received the Spirit, you do have a gift that will build up our community.  God works in us.  God works for us.  Together, we are making a better world.  As the disciples feared no evil, we also face no evil when we face those who are against us, and those forces that try to break us!  They may knock us down, but God helps us back up.  We are the church.  Only together can we be the church.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Acts 4:1-12
4:1-4: While Peter and Johnwere speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.

4:5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem,
4:6 with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.
4:7 When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”
4:8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders,
4:9 if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed,
4:10 let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.
4:11 This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’
4:12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
Psalm 23
23:1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
23:2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
23:3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
23:4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.
23:5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

1 John 3:16-24
3:16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
3:17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
3:18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
3:19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him
3:20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
3:21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God;
3:22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
3:23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.
3:24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

John 10:11-18

10:7ab: So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you
10:11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
10:12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away–and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
10:13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
10:14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
10:15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.
10:16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
10:17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
10:18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

The Last Five

Third Sunday of Easter – 18 April 2021

Written by Pastor Bryan Niebanck

He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? ~Luke 24:38

Country singer Scotty McCreery published a song called “Five More Minutes” in 2018.  He paints the picture of various moments in life where we wanted another five minutes to enjoy the present.  At eight years old, when he down by the creek with a friend,  “Lines in the water watchin’ those bobbers, seein’ that red sun sink; Mama’s on the porch yellin’, “Supper’s hot, y’all come and get it.” We yelled, “Five more minutes.”  At eighteen, turned my helmet in and walked to the fifty-yard line. Just the coach and me after we lost eighteen to nine.  And I cried, “Man, next time to get in here, I’ll have to buy a ticket.  Can’t you give me five more minutes?” At eighty-six my grandpa said, “There’s angels in the room.” All the family gathered ’round, knew the time was comin’ soon. With so much left to say I prayed, Lord, I ain’t finished.  Just give us five more minutes.”  But as he writes in the refrain, the clock does not stop, time keeps rolling on, and we do not have a pause button.

Mission trips have been a key part of my church life.  I went on four mission trips with my church in high school and three more through my Christian college through 2017 to have seven straight years of mission trips.  At the beginning of each of those weeks, we were embarking together with many of us being strangers to one another.  Yet at the end of those weeks, we had formed a bond with one another that was so deep that we wanted to stay together.  Of course, when the week ended, we went our separate ways and never connected in the same way again.  Many of us would be wishing that we could have five more minutes, or if we are honest, five more weeks.  I have saved many of the cards that we wrote to each other at the end of those weeks, even though I have not been able to stay connected with the people who wrote them to me.

When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples were scattered and did not know what was next.  As suddenly as Jesus had come into their lives, Jesus was gone.  They had learned so much from Jesus about the proper way to live one’s life, called to love others and spread nothing but kindness to others.  I can imagine some of the disciples knowing that there was much more for them to learn, wishing that they could spend another five minutes listening to Jesus.  Despite all the time that we had, it never seemed like enough.  This is how Zoom break out rooms work as well; when we are forced back in to the main session, we are all typically left wishing that we had more time to talk things over.  If you have been on a timed zoom meeting, you know what I mean, as you watch that timer tick down whether you are done with your conversation or not.  If you have not, you may have had a timed thirty minute visit at a nursing home, or only a certain amount of time in a class, and you may have wished for that five more minutes to finish your thoughts.

The key to using that final five minutes best, however, is not to wait until there are five minutes left to get serious about getting to the real conversation that you have wanted to have.  Truthfully, we may always want more time no matter how we spend it, but if we can plan for it, we may be less anxious at the end.  One of my classmates said that if she knew how long the timer would last from the beginning, she would never need more time at the end.  But that is not true for all of us.  It is a reminder, though, that if we have thirty minutes, we want to use all of that thirty minutes as best we can.  If we have thirty years, we want to us all of those thirty years as best we can.  Most of us, however, do not know exactly how long we have to do the work that we want to do, and so it is hard to plan it out.  The point, then, is not to engage in small talk until we know the time is almost out.  The point is to do God’s work each and every day no matter how much time we have or do not have, because we will never truly know.  Even when we feel like we are at the end of our lives, there is still time on the clock.  On our high school mission trips, we did use all the time as best we could, and we were still sad when they were over, but we could be satisfied at the amazing work that had been done every minute of that week.

Now it is time to reach out to others and spread the news of Christ.  In this Easter season, we are studying how we do this.  First, see the word; we declare what we have heard and seen.  Second, teach the word; be witnesses to what Jesus taught.  Third, live the word; spread the love that Jesus shared with you.  And lastly, believe the word; accept that we and you are pardoned as one of God’s children.  This is the work of the church that we are called to do, together.  Today, we can begin to teach the word.  We teach the word by modeling what we witnessed our leader Jesus do in his lifetime.

N.T. Wright wrote about how we still do the work of the resurrection today.  He writes, “The point of the resurrection…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die…What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it…What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future.  These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether.  They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”  Just as the work that Jesus left us with has carried into God’s future, our work that is done in Jesus’ name also carries into God’s future.  We participate in the resurrection. (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, HarperOne.)

Even the disciples were tasked with the work of the church while Jesus was still with them.  They still were startled and terrified when Jesus appeared to them. They still had doubts in their hearts.  Jesus had to appear to them to remind them that their task was to proclaim repentance and forgiveness, to teach others that they could be forgiven and that they are loved.  Even if we had been one of those with Jesus himself, we probably would still have had the same doubts and fears.  We might have been found hiding behind a locked door, scared of what the world might do to us if we tried to speak out.  Do we need Jesus to appear to us to remind us why we are here?

Luke tells us what Jesus reminded the disciples: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:46-48).  Like them, we are also witnesses to what God has done in our lives.  As a community of believers, there are three things that we are called to make happen in order to preach repentance and forgiveness, for we need actions that will help us to stay connected to and trust God.

First, we need someone to help us to be freed from repeated sin.  We will always be in the presence of sin, while on this earth, but we do not have to let it have any power over us.  God is stronger than any power here on earth, and the resurrection shows us that.  When we turn to God, we are protected and saved from God.  Though life may not get easier, God is always helping us to know and believe that we are not slaves to sin.  Without other Christians in our lives to reassure us, it is easy to forget this truth.  God really is more powerful than any worry, doubt, or fear that we may find in this world.  Yet we need others to help us trust in that power.  Who needs help trusting that God is more powerful than what they are dealing with?  Can you be that friend?  Most times, it requires showing that God is more powerful, not simply telling.

Second, we need blessing.  We need to bless and to be blessed.  Blessings are given all throughout the Bible; it is a natural thing to bless another to ask that God be with that person in their travels.  When I felt like I received a true blessing from my friends at seminary, as they prayed over me, I felt like God was more present to me than ever.  It also equipped me to learn how to bless others.  Saying to someone, “You are tough; you can get through this” is not a blessing.  But telling someone, “May God guide you through this, may God hold you and comfort you, may God bless you and keep you” are needed blessings.  Even when one is not in a time of trial, blessings are used.  We had a blessing at our graduation service to send us into our callings.  Isaac blessed his son Jacob when he knew that he was about to die.  John Ortberg wrote about blessing, telling us, “Blessing is not just a word.  Blessing is the projection of good into the life of another.  We must think it, and feel it, and will it” (Soul Keeping, 153).  We do not simply say it.  We learn to mean it as well.

Third, God invites us into fellowship with God and with one another.  Jesus offers himself and gives the repeated gift of his presence following the resurrection.  He appeared to the disciples again when Thomas had his doubts.  He was patient with them.  He is patient with us too when we have our doubts.  Jesus is seeking fellowship with us, and he knows that it requires patience with us on his part.  That is not our fault; it is just who we are.  We need fellowship with God if we are to survive in a world that challenges us in every way.  It is a good thing that it is offered to us every single day.

At the beginning of the history of our church, as told in Acts, the disciples’ ministry started with the very people who they had been hiding from.  They had been hiding in Jerusalem behind locked doors.  But then Jesus gave them the confidence and direction that they needed to go out to the temple and heal a lame beggar.  When they were asked for alms, they said that they had no money.  The evangelist Luke tells the story: “But Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong” (Acts 3:4-7).  This is an amazing story because it tells us that Peter and John were able to break out of their fear and believe in the power of God.  Can we summon the confidence that we need to do the same?  The President of Union Theological Seminary, Serene Jones, knows that “doubt crowds out hope” (Feasting on the Word B.2.402).  They did not have hope when they were afraid that they would be questioned by the Roman authorities.  Jesus gave them that hope back by having fellowship with them and encouraging them.  Let him do the same for you.  Go into the world, encourage another, bless another, and let Jesus crowd out your doubt.  Do not wait until the last five minutes.  God is working through us now.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings

Acts 3:12-19
3:12 When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?
3:13 The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him.
3:14 But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you,
3:15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.
3:16 And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.
3:17 “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.
3:18 In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer.
3:19 Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.

Luke 24:36b-48
24:36b While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
24:37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
24:38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
24:39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
24:40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.
24:41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
24:42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish,
24:43 and he took it and ate in their presence.
24:44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you–that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
24:45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,
24:46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,
24:47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
24:48 You are witnesses of these things.

Good News!

Second Sunday of Easter – 11 April 2021

Written by Pastor Bryan Niebanck

We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. ~1 John 1:3

“I heard that Tony doesn’t like to do anything.  He just sits around and watches TV all day.”  “Oh, I heard that Maggie doesn’t like people; she just pretends she does in order to get along but always finds excuses to not come to gatherings.”  “That’s great; I also hear that Amy is going to get that promotion.  She deserves it so much!”  Do you like to spread news that you hear?  Good or bad, we capture things that we do not think others have heard yet, and we are excited to be the one to tell it.  Parents and grandmothers are probably the most likely to spread news about their children.  It is either exciting to spread the news, or we need someone to talk to about it.

The news media makes spreading news their business.  Sadly, it is often the negative news that gets passed down to those who follow the media, or at least it is the negative news that is most remembered.  What makes it more exciting to spread negative news than good news?  Perhaps because the people who hold power are always due to take the worst criticism.  Maybe people always criticize the people in power.  This is the kind of news that people seek.  Yet, it just brings most of us down.  Together, we can do our part to spread positive news, and not start spreading negative thoughts about another person unless you want your deepest mistakes publically criticized as well.  There is some news that must be heard, such as when tragedy strikes or perhaps when a promise is broken.  But we can make an equal effort to notice when something good happens, when a broken promise is restored, and when we are actually having a good day.  People are twice as likely to post on Facebook or Twitter when they are having a bad day or are upset about something as opposed to when they are having a good day or are excited about something.  We complain more than we are thankful.  Is there something that we can do about that?  Can we spread the good as much or even more than we spread the negative?  People want to see and hear this news too, and it contributes to society as a whole because it will ultimately make people more productive.

Continue reading “Good News!”

Now What?

Easter Sunday – 4 April 2021

Written by Pastor Bryan Niebanck

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid. ~Mark 16:8

Now what?  Jesus was beaten, and sentenced to death.  His disciples turned away from him in order to protect themselves.  Those who had welcomed him into Jerusalem were too afraid to speak up for Jesus on Friday morning when he was being tried in front of Pilate.  Some watched from afar as Jesus was taken to Golgotha.  As Mark writes in the passion narrative, “There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James.  These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem” (Mark 15:40-41).  The one they had followed had very suddenly been taken away from them.  They had devoted their lives to follow him.  The disciples left their lives as fisherman to travel with Jesus.  Were they now to go back to being fisherman?  What was left for them to learn?  What was left for them to do?

Have you ever asked the question, “Now what?”  You may have lost a spouse or a job that literally defined your life.  Many lost a job or were furloughed during the pandemic.  In such a change of lifestyle and a shock, what’s next?  The answer may not always be clear.  Often, it is not.  This past year, when restrictions and regulations seemed to change on a daily basis, a lot of people were heard grumbling, “Now what?!”  Some have a family member who calls them too often, and we ask to ourselves, “What do they want now?”  Today, we have turned from the grief of the crucifixion to the joy of the resurrected Christ, but is it really a joy to us?  Does the news of the resurrected Christ seem old?  We cannot force ourselves to feel joyful.  So, if you are one of those who was looking forward to Easter, but now feel that it is here and there is nothing too special about it, you may be asking, “Now what?”  The answer is to find meaning in the resurrection again.  It is to prove to ourselves that the resurrection did happen, and it is to understand our current role in light of it two thousand years later.  How do we understand our role as disciples of Jesus in a world following the resurrection?

Continue reading “Now What?”