Friday, May 12, 2017

Eternal Home - John 14:1-4

John 14:1-4New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

14 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe[a] in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?[b]And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”



When I was a young teenager, I got my driver’s license.  I would get in the car and drive all over the countryside.  One day, I came across a place along US 25, somewhere in either Greenville or Greenwood County, SC.  There was a beautiful oak tree, perfectly shaped.  The power lines were on that side of the road, but when they came to that tree, the power lines crossed the road, continued for a few poles, and then the lines crossed again.  I told my Dad about it and he remembered when the power lines first went up on that road.  The owner of that property sat in a chair, shot gun in hand, and dared anyone to trim that tree – so the local utilities felt it was in everyone’s best interest, to spend a little extra money on a few extra poles and avoid damaging that beautiful tree.

It was going to be there forever. 

When the road was turned into a 4 lane road, there was a slight curve in that road.

That tree was going to be there forever.

A few years ago I found myself on that stretch of highway and was looking forward to seeing that tree.

That wonderful, beautiful tree is now nothing more than an ugly stump.

It seems that a few years ago it was struck by lightning.

It’s dead – dead as can be!

Even trees die.

Everything dies.

From time to time I can see in my telescope a bright star in a galaxy far, far away that had not previously been visible.  Such events are called Supernova!  One of the stars in that galaxy blows up. It became a supernova.  For several weeks, months even, there was one very, very bright star in that galaxy.  Then it fades, leaving only remnants of a once glorious star.

Even the stars die.

Our own star will someday die.  It won’t blow up into a supernova, because it is not massive enough to generate that sort of instability.  After all, our sun is just a tiny little thing.  But someday it will use up all of its hydrogen and will burn helium for fuel, thus becoming a red giant star, and the Earth will be sucked into the sun.  We only have 5.4 billion years left!

But – everything dies!  Even Earth!

Hmmm, mmm!  Don’t you love these uplifting sermons!

 

In the Old Testament, Isaiah 51:6, it says, “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail.”

 

 

        Well, at least there is some good news.

       

One day, I will be dead and gone.  And so will you.

 

But my soul – and I trust yours as well - the essence of what and who we are – will be in heaven.

 

Now let’s be honest, it’s one thing to talk about the eventual death of our sun in a few billion years, but to talk about our death, which could come at any moment, makes us uncomfortable.

 

Comedian Woody Allen said it best when he said, “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens to me.”

 

But beyond our moment of death – have you ever given any thought toward that?  What happens when we die and go to heaven?  What is heaven like?

 

First, Heaven is a place beyond our ability to comprehend.  What we would like is a travel brochure or a map or some photographs to show us exactly what heaven is like.  Jesus said in today’s reading, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions… I go to prepare a place for you.”  Great.  Can have a floor plan of that?  No – we don’t have that.  We cannot conceive of heaven. 

 

I can conceive of the distance of 2 or 3 miles, but I when I think of a million miles?  That’s beyond my ability to comprehend.

 

I can understand having a credit card debt of $100.  But a national debt of trillions of dollars?  Between a trillion and a billion I can’t conceive.

 

To imagine heaven?  That is impossible.  And the reason it is impossible to comprehend is because it is so much better than anything we have experienced.

 

I’ve had a good life – I can even imagine it getting a little bit better -- but Heaven is so far, far better than any of my experiences that I simply cannot conceive with my limited imagination what it is like.

 

        In recent years, with all of the progress we’ve witnessed in technological advances in medicine, people have been brought back from the brink of death.  It is not unusual for us to us to hear that someone on the operating table was dead for a short time, and then revived.  Occasionally such people recover with extra-ordinary memories about their experiences.  There is even a movie currently in the theaters about one young boy’s supposed experiences.  Perhaps some of you have had such experiences.  Those who have, often say that it is difficult to describe such events – we do not have the vocabulary with which to describe the incomprehensible. 

 

        Of course, others question such experiences and suggest that such experiences are due to nothing more than oxygen deprivation. 

        To which I would reply, so what?  We base our faith on one thing – the Word of God.

 

        Near Death Experiences may give us inspiration for our faith, but we do not base our faith on such stories alone – we base our faith on the Word of God.  And the Bible tells us what Heaven is like in I Corinthians 2:9, which says, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”

 

2.

Second, having said that Heaven is beyond comprehension, one thing we can say with certainty is that it is a place of joy.  We might not be able to fully comprehend how much joy there is, but we can say that heaven is a place of joy. 

In heaven there will be no disappointment or pain. Death will be no more. Sorrow and sighing will flee away.  We are told this in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. (Isaiah 51:11).  

The Bible teaches us time and again about the joy of heaven, and no where is this more clearly stated than in Revelation, when it is said that God will “wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).


3

But this is not to say that heaven will be a dull place.  Heaven will be interesting and exciting because we will never stop growing spiritually and intellectually. We will understand things in new ways, for Paul in I Corinthians says this:  “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

 

4

What is heaven like? Heaven is a place of fellowship. Many people have expressed concern to me about whether they will know their loved ones in heaven. Everything in Scripture points to the reality that we will know each other, and even know each other better than we do now.

 

        In the Old Testament book of Genesis, chapter 25, verse 8, it says, “Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life; and he was gathered to his people.”

Now, you might say that “gathered to his people” meant that his corpse was put in the family cemetery, but take a look later in the Old Testament.   King David is facing the illness of his son.  He prays for God to heal his son, but when the son dies, David gets up and goes about his business, accepting the child’s death with uncommon strength. (In 2 Samuel 12:23), the people worry about David.  Perhaps he is in denial.  But no.  David says confidently that the child will never return to David, but he goes onto say, “Someday I shall go to be with him.”  David expected to see the child again. 

 

I know that when I die I will see my sisters, my parents, my grandparents, my friends who died before me. 

 

5

The final point about Heaven is that we should not be anxious about it.  We should have faith and trust in God.  Death is a difficult process, filled with fear of pain and the unknown, but for the faithful, these fears should not be related to whether or not there is a heaven or about what heaven is like.

 

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going. . . . I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:1-6).



And now unto God the Father,

God the Son,

And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.

Copyright 2017. 

Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh

All rights reserved

 

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.

 

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The God Who Is With Us - Psalm 22, Luke 24:1-35




New Testament Lesson                                                                Luke 24:13-35

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.[b] 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth,[c] who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.[d] Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah[e]should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us[f] while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.




I was in a grocery store one day.  I have to admit I was looking rather grungy.  I had been working in the yard all day, and I was a bit dirty, but I wanted to go to the store to buy some bread for lunch, and in the store I saw someone I knew.  It was a church member.  I went up to say hello, and I could tell she did not recognize me, and that she was even a bit nervous with me speaking to her.  I quickly said, “It’s me.  Maynard.  Your pastor.”

She admitted that she didn’t recognize me without my pulpit robe.


Sometimes we recognize people, and sometimes we don’t.


This text from the New Testament is a strange text. 

Jesus Christ is in the midst of these folks who are walking along the road.  They are talking about the events of Jesus’ death and the report of his resurrection.

They all chat together, and they do not recognize him.

This story is interesting on several levels.  On one level it is a dramatic presentation of what the world is like today.

So many people are on a journey through life, and even with Jesus in their midst, they do not recognize him.

There are times when we all feel like the Lord has left us.

We struggle with cancer, and the days are dark.  There is pain and despair.  Bills pile high.  And it seems Jesus has deserted us.

We go into work one day, only to learn that we’ve been fired.  We feel overwhelmed, wondering how we will make ends meet.  We feel our self confidence sag.  And it seems Jesus is nowhere near us.

Our spouse dies.  We feel alone.  We are confused.  And it seems that Jesus is nowhere near us.

Part of the wonder of this New Testament reading is that these people who are walking along the way are in deep grief.  They had hope that Jesus was the Messiah, and now he is dead.  Even though they have heard some news about a possible resurrection, their grief is overwhelming.  And it seems to them that Jesus is nowhere near them.  Jesus is distant.  Jesus is absent.

And yet, in this story, Jesus is there all along!

We often think that Mother Teresa was a great saint who never had any doubts at all.  She walked with God and lived a life of such sacrifice and devotion.

And yet, for nearly the last half century of her life, she felt absolutely nothing of the presence of God.  In letters that she wrote to some of her spiritual leaders and mentors, she confessed that she often felt God as absent.  This began when she began tending to the poor and the sick of Calcutta.  It continued for the rest of her life, except for a brief period in 1959.  Imagine – she remained faithful to God and obedient to God even though she did not feel the presence of God in her life. 

That is a tremendous faith. 
It was faith that was NOT dependent on feeling.  It was a faith that was dependent on God alone.

What she felt was not unusual. 

In the Old Testament, Job was a man who lost so much.  He lost his property, his financial resources, his family and even his children.  In chapter 23 of the Old Testament Book of Job, it says,

If I go forward, God is not there;
If I go backward, I cannot perceive him;
If I go left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
    I turn
to the right, but I cannot see him.

    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night, but find no rest.

The psalmist felt the absence of God.  In the 22nd Psalm the writer cried out in desperate prayer,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

It is this very psalm that Jesus quoted from the cross as he hung there in pain and agony, close to death, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Every week we stand and recite the Apostles’ Creed, and in that confession of faith there is this great line – perhaps the most important line about what we believe about Christ.

“He descended into hell.” 

In Ephesians, chapter 4, the writer talks about how Christ both descended into the lower realms, AND that he ascended into heaven.  We like to remember Christ ascending into heaven, but we don’t often give much thought to his descent into hell.

If we give any thought at all to Christ’s descent into hell, we might consider what St. Peter said in his first New Testament book, chapter 3, in which there is an explanation as to why Christ went into hell, which was to minister and preach the Gospel to those who died before his earthly ministry, and therefore had never known about the salvation offered by Christ.

Now those passages alone make the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell important, but what makes this line so very meaningful in the Apostles’ Creed is to stop and consider what hell is.

Traditionally, hell is defined as the absence of God.

Of course, hell is not literally the absence of God because there is no place that can exist without the presence of God.  But it is the perceived absence of God.

And the Apostles Creed, when it says that we believe that Jesus descended into hell, it is a reminder that Christ descended into the place of absolute perceived absence of God.

When he hung on the cross and cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” he was in hell at that moment.

So remember – when you are in the your pain of cancer treatments,

When you are in your darkness of grieving over a loved one,

When you are struggling with divorce,

When walk out of your work place after being told you have been fired…

When you feel that God is not present in your life and that he has disappeared from your world, remember, Christ has been there.  He has descended into hell and felt the total absence of God.

You are not alone, although you may feel that you are.

And in this text from the Gospel, these folks are going about their journey.  They are grieving and hurting.  Christ died on Friday, and now it is the evening of the third day, and while they have heard that Christ has risen, they don’t really know what to make of it.

They feel alone and isolated from God.

And yet, there is Jesus Christ, right there in their midst.

They do not feel the divine presence, but the divine presence is not dependent on what WE feel – it is dependent on the promise of God.

Now, in this Scripture lesson, they get to the point at which they become aware of God.

Open eyes! 

That is the way the Scripture puts it.  “Their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”

So how did that happen?  How did they have these open eyes so they could see the Lord was with them?

Three things happened.

First, they listen to the Word.

Luke says that as they walked on the road, Jesus, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

If you don’t feel God in your life, start reading the Bible.  Listen to God’s Word.

Second, in their time of despair, they came together.  When you feel God is absent, do not make the mistake of isolating yourself from others.  You need others in your life.  You need the company of family and friends and the church.  That is what they did in Luke.  They walked together.  They ate together.  They stayed together, and that helped them sense the presence of the Lord.

Third, worship.  In Luke they ate together, but it was more than a simple meal.  Listen to how Luke describes it.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them,
he took bread,
 blessed
and broke it,
and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.

What does that sound like?  He took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them.  That’s Communion.  That’s the Lord’s Supper.  That’s worship.

So when we feel God has left us, we don’t leave God.  Because God has NOT deserted us.  God is still with us, so whether we feel God’s presence or not, we continue to come to God in worship.

So these three things help us when we feel the absence of God. 

Listening to the Word of God in Scripture.

Keeping fellowship with other Christians.

And continuing to Worship.

In Hebrews 13:5 there is a powerful promise.  “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

The presence of God is not dependent on whether we feel it or  not – it is dependent on the faithfulness of God.




And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.
Copyright 2017. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.


Thursday, March 30, 2017

Reviving Our Hope - Ezekiel 37:1-14

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath[a] to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath[b] in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath:[c] Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath,[d] and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

        Several years ago, my son was playing on a baseball game, and like my high school football team, they simply couldn't find a way to win.  They'd lost every game that year.  Finally it was the day of their last game.  The dug out was like a funeral home.  Not a single kid was cheering the other kids as they went to bat.  They were just waiting for the game to be over so they could go home.

        I stuck my head in the dug out and told these 7 year olds, "Hey guys, you can win this game.  After all, you're only 25 runs behind."

        One of the kids heard me and said, "Hey, that's right.  We are only 25 runs behind.  We've never been this close to winning before."

        It was as if there was an electric jolt that went through the dug out.  When the next kid at bat hit the ball right so that it rolled through the legs of the first baseman, the entire dug out was celebrating and high fiving each other.   The excitement and confidence of our team must have totally confused the other team. 

        In the bottom of the last inning, one of our players scored the winning run. 

        I remember thinking that if I had known all they needed was hope, I would have visited the dug out long before that last game.

        We need hope in our lives. 

        But we all know what it is like to feel that all hope is gone.

        In our Scripture lesson for this morning we encounter the experience of a loss of hope.

        Ezekiel stands before a great battlefield. He sees before him a valley of dry bones.  The battle is long over with.  The vultures have been there and gone and all the flesh has disappeared.  Even the armor has been stolen by the grave robbers.  All that is left is a valley of dry bones.

        God asks Ezekiel, "Can these dry bones live?"

        And with despair in his voice, Ezekiel admits, "God only knows."

        The loss of hope is a terrible experience.

        A woman walks out of a doctor's office after hearing that she has cancer.  What hope is there?

        A father hangs up the telephone after receiving a telephone call from the police and learning that his rebellious son has been arrested.  What hope is there?

        A husband or wife can't speak to each other because of the depth of their anger toward one another.  What hope is there?

        Where does one go when there is no hope?

        To the grave.  Or as someone once said, “Get busy living, or get busy dieing.”

        When there is no hope, all is finished.

        People need hope for the future.  That woman walking out of that doctor's office after hearing her diagnosis needs hope for the facing of her cancer.

        The father receiving that phone call from the police needs hope for his son's future.

        We need hope.

        The movie SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION is a great movie about hope, and it starts in total hopelessness.

        Andy is sentenced to prison, even though he is innocent of his wife’s murder.  He is sentenced to life, and he spends 19 years in the Shawshank Prison until he finally escapes.  At one point, Andy is talking with his best friend in prison about hope, but his friend, Red says, “Hope is a dangerous thing, it makes a man go insane.”

        Red says that because he has lost all hope.

        How do we find hope, when our hope has died – or maybe our hope isn’t dead, but it’s – well, shall we say – hibernating?

        First, we need to know that God is present in our lives. 


        In the Old Testament, Ezekiel looks over the battle field. He feels the hopelessness of a battle that has been lost, and a war that has failed.  But God is with him.  In Ezekiel we read, (Ezek 37:1-2), "The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry."

        Without God in our lives, we do not have a complete and sturdy hope for the facing of our lives.

        Think about why many of us have lost hope – it is because we feel that God has left us.  That God has deserted us. 

        But God is still present. 

        In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, we read, “Be strong and courageous… God will never leave you nor forsake you ." Deut 31:6


        The second thing we need is to know that we can experience the presence of God, through the Word of God. 

        In the Old Testament, Ezekiel looks out at the hopeless valley of dry bones.  Can they live again?  Of course not.  But God commands Ezekiel to preach to the dead – to speak to them the Word of God.  So Ezekiel does, and in this story, the dry bones come to life as the Word of God is spoken.

        Without the Word of God being spoken to the dry bones, the dry bones would have remained lifeless.

        The Psalmist wrote, (Ps 130:5), "I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope."

        You want hope to come alive in you again – let the Word of God dwell in you.  Listen to the Word of God.  Read the Word of God.


        Thirdly, we need to trust in God above all else.

        Hope as the world knows it is in thinking, "Give me what I want, give me what I want, give me what I want."

        Hope as the Christian knows it is in praying, "Not my will, but your will be done."

        In Ezekiel, the prophet is asked by God, "Son of man, can these bones live?" I said, "O Sovereign LORD, you alone know." And there is a trust in God.  Not a bitterness, but a leaning onto the Lord and trusting in God.

        Real hope is found in God.

        Lasting hope is found in trusting Him.

        Thinking back to the film, the Shawshank Redemption,  Andy never quite loses hope.  He holds onto it.  Even though he is an innocent man who spends 19 years in prison, he hangs onto hope.  And at one point he tells his prison buddy, Red, “Hope is a good thing.  Maybe the best of all things.  And no good thing ever dies.”
       
        Or put it another way, as St. Paul did in the New Testament book of Romans, “hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.
Copyright 2017. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.