Sunday, November 30, 2003

Both of the following messages were inspired by messages presented by the pastoral staff of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minnesota and shared through their Toolkit. But they should in no way be blamed for the thoughts I present in them...

Thanksgiving: A Time to Give Up Worry
Matthew 6:33-37

[presented on Thanksgiving Eve, November 26, 2003, to the people of Friendship Church and Lutheran Church of the Resurrection]

Some of you have heard me tell about a friend of mine, an accountant, who once worked for an extremely wealthy man. My friend’s client was in on the ground floor of the Internet craze, having started one of the major Internet Service Providers, a company whose name everybody here would know. Being the accountant for such a wealthy man, my buddy’s job basically boiled down to this: finding as many loopholes and as many ways to shelter his client’s wealth as possible. The two of them had spent a long session discussing this wealthy guy’s tax situation and they were wrapping things up, just talking. “You know,” the wealthy guy said, “I used to think that if I just had money, I wouldn’t ever have another worry in the world. But I worry now more about losing money than I ever worried about not having money.”

Worry. It may be the most time-consuming activity on Planet Earth. Gerald Mann, a Baptist pastor in Austin, Texas, says that worry is the “fear of having to face suffering” and says that this fear “is often worse than actually facing it.” I think he’s right. People worry over their finances, their health, what to serve for Thanksgiving Dinner, whether Aunt Tilly and Cousin Billy Joe Bob will get into an argument over the turkey, and a score of other things not because they actually are suffering, but because they fear suffering. They play horrible games of “What if?,” not to envision good things in their lives, but to almost literally scare themselves to death.

So far as we know, human beings are the only ones of God’s creatures who can anticipate the future. And as you might expect, because of the sin that lives in us, we often choose to use that ability in a negative way. On this Thanksgiving Eve, I want to talk with you about worry. I believe that as we prepare for a day set aside for all of us to give thanks to God for His overwhelming and undeserved blessings, we need to face the issue of worry head-on.

Let me begin by telling you something personal. I am a recovering worry-holic. In fact, I come from a long line of worriers. So much so that I think if we ever designed a family crest, it would have to include the ubiquitous “nerve pill,” prescribed for many in my family tree.

Back when I was in the tenth grade, I woke up one morning overwhelmed by worry. I was convinced that I was going to get sick or faint dead away. I was sure that some dire thing was going to happen. I felt shaky all over. I was too afraid to move, but too filled with nervous energy to stay put. I would try to take walks to burn my energy. But then I would get so afraid of fainting by the side of the road that I would immediately turn back. So, if like the rest of the human race, you battle with worry, please know that I understand.

More importantly though, the God we know through Jesus Christ, understands. I’m sure that one of the reasons Jesus talked so much about worry, as He does in tonight’s Bible lesson, is that He knew the power it can exercise over us. He knew it first-hand. No one could more clearly anticipate the future than Jesus: omniscient, omnipotent God in the flesh. Clearly, in the Garden at Gethsemane on the night before He was crucified, Jesus fought and won a war with worry. This victory enabled Him to win a greater victory on the cross and in the empty tomb for all who believe in Him. Jesus refused to be immobilized by worry and fear. And in our Bible lesson and in other places in the Scripture, He shows us the way we can win over worry as well.

First: We can win over worry when we trust the God we know through Jesus Christ with our lives. Jesus doesn’t mince any words in our Bible lesson. He says that worry accomplishes nothing. He says that those who make worry their modus operandi have “little faith.”

A guru from India came to America from his mountain retreat. He found himself in Grand Central Station, surrounded by the rush of people. After observing this scene, he asked his host, “What’s wrong with these people? Is there a monster behind them?” “No,” the host replied, “There’s a dollar in front of them.”

When you think about it, worry is a form of idol worship. We make the things we worry about–including money–the object of our desire, the repository of our hope, the center of our obsessions. Jesus tells us:

“ not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will is the Gentiles [unbelieving people far from God] who strive for all these things...”

Much of our worrying evaporates when we realize that while very little in this life is under our control, everything ultimately is under the control of the God Who has already conquered sin and death.

This is the same God Who has promised believers in Jesus that He will be with us always! Instead of worrying, faith in Christ can help us pray to God with confidence and let Him overcome the things that frighten us. When we trust Jesus Christ as our always-faithful Savior, God, and Friend, He can trump our worries and give us strength for living.

Second, and this is why Thanksgiving is such a good thing: We can win over worry when we crowd it out of our lives with thankfulness. A young businessperson used to baffle his office mates. Every time he faced a disappointment or difficulty, he would thank God for the bless in the mess. This young man knew Jesus’ strangest promise of all–“in this life, you will have trouble.” But He also knew that Jesus promises to be with us always. He knew that we always have good reasons to be thankful. In the New Testament, Paul writes:

"...give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."

Notice that Paul doesn’t say to be thankful for all circumstances, but in all circumstances. As followers of Jesus, we know that God is still present and working in even the most impossible of circumstances.

Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsy were thrown into Nazi prison camps during World War Two. When their native Holland was occupied by the Nazis, they helped their persecuted Jewish neighbors escape to freedom. Ultimately, the two of them were thrown into a horrible camp where they lived in an overcrowded and flea-infested barracks. To their amazement, the cruel prison guards didn’t interfere with their daily time of Bible-reading and prayer. They could hardly believe that the guards would allow them the hope and dignity they derived from being able to spend time with God like this each day.

During one of their Bible-reading times, they read the words from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church that I read to you just a few moments ago, the place where Paul says to give thanks in all circumstances. Corrie couldn’t imagine what the two of them had to be thankful for at that moment: imprisoned, facing probable death, suffering in a flea-riddled hole. It wasn’t until sometime later that they learned why the guards had allowed them their time of Bible reading and prayer: the guards didn’t want to be exposed to the fleas. Those fleas had turned out to be a means by which God blessed the women with His Word and with time for them to pray. There really is reason to be thankful to God in all circumstances.

Third: We can win over worry when we change what we’re aiming for in life. Tree skiers are those intrepid souls who enjoy the risk of skiing freshly-fallen snow in a stand of spruce or aspen trees. I can’t imagine ever doing that. The key to tree skiing is not hitting the trees, of course. But according to one tree-skiing enthusiast writing in Outside magazine, “...what you focus your eyes on becomes critical in the woods. Look at the spaces between the trees—the exits where you hope to be traveling.” You don’t stare at what you don’t want to hit. In our Bible lesson for tonight, Jesus tells us that to negotiate our ways through the difficulties and obstacles of life, the key is in changing our focus. That’s why He says:

“...strive first for the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

To overcome worry, we need to focus our lives on three things. We need to trust the God we know through Jesus Christ. We need to thank God in all circumstances. We need to make living under Jesus’ rule in the kingdom of God our ultimate aim.

If you’re like the rest of the human race, you won’t be able to do these three things under your own power. Human will power can never free us from worry or any other human malady. But the God we know through Jesus Christ can free us from worry and wants to free us from worry. When worry assaults you, shift the focus from your troubles to the Lord Who gives “peace that passes all understanding” to those who surrender everything to Jesus. Thanksgiving seems like a perfect time to let God take custody of our worries so that you and I can get on with the business of living.

Advent: God Gives Us a Sign
Luke 21:25-36

(shared with the people of Friendship Church, November 30, 2003)

A headline in yesterday’s Cincinnati Enquirercaught my eye. It said, “Forget to Eat? Absent-minded? You might just need a subliminal signal.” The story told about a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Richard W. DeVaul, who has developed what he calls “memory glasses.” DeVaul says that he can often work for long hours, forgetting to eat or keep appointments. His memory glasses consist of a small computer display clipped onto eyeglass frames and hooked up to a small computer that can flash little reminders to the wearer. The article says that DeVaul wants to program the “wearable computer” to send subliminal messages or images to wearers, providing unobtrusive reminders.

I suppose DeVaul thinks that we all need help in remembering not to get so caught up in the urgent matters that scream for our attention that we forget what’s important. He’s right, I think. A few signs–subliminal or otherwise–pointing us in the right direction would be really helpful!

In today’s Bible lesson, Jesus talks with us about signs, things going on around us that ought to prompt our memories and our actions in life. Specifically, Jesus talks about the signs of the end of the world. He begins by telling us:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the power of the heavens will be shaken...”

When the world goes nuts, Jesus tells us, when snipers use rifles on unsuspecting motorists on the Interstate in Columbus, when terrorists perpetrate violence on innocent people, when seemingly incurable diseases victimize family and friends, it’s easy to faint from fear and foreboding. But Jesus warns us to be on our guards,

" that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation [that’s spending time on wasted, worthless efforts] and drunkenness and the worries of this life..."

Instead, Jesus says that we should regard all of these things as signs of His return at the end of the world.

For most people, talk about the end of the world or about the ends of our own lives on earth is frightening. As Jesus says, they may faint from fear and foreboding, get caught up in meaningless activity, try anesthetizing themselves with dope or booze, or allow themselves to be overwhelmed with worry. They read the headlines and hang their heads in despair.

Jesus says that we needn’t do that. Just this past week, I read a full account about a secret trip taken by our president. Not even his wife or his mother knew that he was going away to a secret destination, right in the midst of dangerous enemies. You may think I’m talking about President Bush’s trip to Baghdad on Thanksgiving Day. But I’m talking about an account of President Roosevelt’s secret trip to Newfoundland to meet with British prime minister Winston Churchill in the summer of 1941, which I just read in John Meacham’s new book, Franklin and Winston.

Both Roosevelt and Churchill took voyages by sea in waters filled with menacing German U-boats. My point is that the world was dangerous and prone to craziness sixty-two years ago. The world is dangerous and prone to craziness today. Nothing has changed. In another place in the Bible, Jesus spoke of the signs of the end of life on this planet and of His return and said that each and every one of them had already happened.

So, Jesus says, that then and now, the turmoil of the world presents us with signs that point to the inevitable fact that life on this planet will end and that our lives on this planet will end. But Jesus also says that we should see them as subliminal prompts, cuing us to adopt a different way of living. The losers of the world, most of the human race, will fall prey to worry or fear or drunkenness or dissipation. Jesus tells us not to fall into those traps. Don’t hang your heads or shake your heads, Jesus says. He tells us:

"Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

When things look bleak or scary, Jesus says, “Buck up. I’m right here! And no matter how things may look right now, I have everything under control!”

He’d been standing for three hours in the frigid Michigan winter night, trying to hitch a ride home to his wife and kids in Royal Oak. The wind howled. Snow billowed around him. He was a service man.

Originally tapped for Christmas leave, he’d gotten into a drunken brawl that got him confined to his base through the holidays. Then a buddy’s parents surprised him, traveling to be nearby for Christmas. Since it was going to be easy for him to see his folks, the buddy went to their commanding officer and volunteered to take Michigander’s place.

That raised a whole new problem. The soldier from Michigan had spent all his savings on gifts for his wife and three children, having planned on shipping them north. The only way he could get back home was to stuff the presents into a duffel bag and hitchhike. Everything had gone pretty well until that three hour wait in the snowstorm.

A single preacher in a Corvette was barreling along too quickly for the road conditions, heading home to see his parents and family, the car filled to near-capacity with goodies. He saw the forlorn soldier, looking like an abominable snowman in khaki green, hitching on the side of the road. He told himself that somebody else would pick the guy up and that if he turned around now, he’d find the soldier gone. But he felt as though God was telling him that at least on Christmas Eve, he should be willing to share Jesus’ love with a stranger.

So, begrudgingly, he turned around and though it required some packing and arranging, got the hitchhiking soldier into his car.

After the soldier had thawed out a bit, he asked the preacher, “Didn’t I see you go by earlier?” “Yes.” Why, he wondered then, had he turned back around? The preacher explained that while he hadn’t wanted to turn around and come back “it’s Jesus Who makes me do things like that,” things that He was certain Jesus would do if He were faced with the same circumstances.

The soldier explained how convicted he felt by that. He then told the story of how he had come to be hitchhiking on that frozen stretch of road on Christmas Eve. He explained that he’d planned on surprising his family. He talked about what a wonderful woman his wife was, a devoted follower of Jesus who was brokenhearted over her husband’s unwillingness to let Christ into his life. He often poked fun at his wife’s faith and her church-going. The longer he stood by the side of the road, the soldier said, the angrier he became at all the people who passed by. He became even angrier when he thought that a lot of the people zooming past were Christians. He thought of what hypocrites all Christians were, but also thought that if he were in their places, he’d probably drive on by too.

Then the soldier said:

“Let me tell you something embarrassing—I got so cold, so lonely, and so desperate that I started to pray—honest to God I did—it was so humiliating. I told God that if He would help me, I’d do better. And you know what? About that time you showed up, and you told me that came back because of Jesus—now what do you make of that?”

Thirty-five years later, John William Smith, the young pastor driving in the Corvette, wrote:

"Jesus comes to us in many ways. He came to me in the form of a freezing soldier trying to get home for Christmas. He came to a freezing soldier in the form of a young minister trying to find his way to God. Either one of us could have missed Him."

Jesus says that even before the end of time, He wants to come to us. And He doesn’t want to come to us just at Christmas time, but every moment of our lives. The turmoil of the world and the challenges of our lives can be reminders of our need to welcome Jesus to walk with us, to guide us, to be our God, to be our King.

I know that the next few weeks will be busy for us all. Last-minute shopping, travels to visit with family and friends, extra social engagements. We all have them. But these next weeks, with all their activity, are also a great time for you to do what that soldier did—ask Jesus to help you and to be with you. Use those seven habits of joyful people we talk about at Friendship—regular worship, service in Jesus’ Name, daily prayer, sharing the Good News of Jesus with others, encouraging people in their faith and life, studying God’s Word, and giving to Christ’s cause in the world—use those habits to meet Jesus where you live. Let the signs of the times prompt you to enjoy a close relationship with the God we know through Jesus Christ. That is the best way to have a merry Christmas!

[The true story of the hitch-hiking soldier appears in the book, Hugs for Christmas.]