Some of the most desirable things in life are peace, comfort, and happiness. Oh, if only we could wake up each morning and feel at ease and go to bed at night without a care in the world. However, you know as well as I that life is a mix of joy with pain, peace mixed with hostility. But we would like to get rid of the pain and the tension, wouldn't we? In fact, watch T.V. for an hour and almost every ad is targeted towards lessening your pain or boosting your happiness. Take anything from arthritis to acid reflux and you will see products marketed to remedy your pain. Or if you are looking for a little more excitement in your life maybe you should consider buying any one of the dozens of shiny new pick-up trucks they advertise every hour during the game. Whether it's pillows, pills, or pizza, trucks, toothpaste, or taxes...There are products and services marketed to us to to make life better, easier, to lessen our pain or benefit our general sense of happiness and well-being.
It is amazing what we as humans have invented and fabricated to make life better. I dare you to try and find a product or service that isn't marketed for the purposes of making your life better. Oh wait! I just thought of one. There is one such "product" in the passage for this week in Matthew 16:21-28 and that product is the cross. Jesus' marketing strategy is quite antithetical to modern marketing strategies. He didn't try and con people into "Christianity" by telling them that if they followed him then their earthly lives would be filled with peace and prosperity. When people were interested in buying into the kingdom of Heaven Jesus had a very different sales pitch. He'd teach that to buy into the kingdom of Heaven meant to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." That doesn't sound easy or painless...And in the episode for this week Jesus taught his disciples that following Him meant you had to take up your cross.
Jesus looked at his followers and said, "Whoever wants to be my disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it." Deny myself? Deny what I want and trade that in for what Jesus wants for me? Forfeit my life and my dreams for the sake of Jesus? Forsake my happiness for the sake of living for God? I have to give up everything? WHAT KIND OF A SALES PITCH IS THAT! Jesus sells his disciples on the cross, the way that leads to suffering. The cross was a device used to torture criminals in the Roman culture. To the disciples this would have been a bizarre concept but one that they would have understood immediately. They would have realized that to follow Jesus meant to anticipate and endure suffering and shame for the sake of living for God. It meant to expect hardship in this life.
You see everyone wants Heaven without heartache. Everyone wants eternity without enduring hardship. Everyone wants the blessings of God but no one wants to face any barriers or hurdles in life. Now, please don't take this as a cue to go into your prayer closet and beg God to fill your life with suffering. All I am saying is that as followers of Jesus, if we are truly followers we shouldn't be too surprised when we face trouble. If you have really committed to following Jesus, you will face all sorts of trials. We also shouldn't become so sidetracked by such hardships that we stop following Jesus. Sure, our culture may try and steal us away from discipleship as it tries to sell us on the world's version of happiness and joy. But what Jesus offers to us after a life of following Him and enduring trials is so much greater than anything the world has to offer. We can't even grasp the blessings and benefits of life in Heaven. If only we could have a little taste of Heaven then we probably wouldn't be so swept away by our earthly dreams of pure bliss and happiness.
Many of you know that we are expecting a little baby any day now. Norma's due date was yesterday but still no baby. Teddy's birthday is December 1st so it's possible that this new baby and Teddy will share a birthday. Speaking of babies, we are in the Advent season now and so I am actually looking forward to celebrating the birth of two babies, the baby Jesus and our own baby. Now, our first two children were born a little north of Boston, in the busyness of the bustling suburbs. But Norma is excited that this 3rd baby will be born in her rural home-state of Vermont. This new baby will actually have something in common with Jesus because Jesus was born in a remote, rural place as well called Bethlehem. Some historians have done extensive research on the population of Bethlehem during the birth of Jesus and estimate it was a mere 300 hundred people or so.
We have plenty of towns like this in our area of Vermont. Have you ever driven through one of those remote Vermont towns? Like if you head east from Derby through Norton, you see houses sparsely spread out and you begin to wonder, "what do the people here do for work? How can you make a living way out here in the boondocks?" There’s plenty of towns like this in Vermont, places you might call the boonies, the boondocks, the sticks, the hinterland, the backwoods, the middle of nowhere. You might even be from the boondocks or you may have lived in the boondocks. If you are from the boondocks then you have a unique thing in common with Jesus!
Jesus was born in the boonies, in Bethlehem of all places. Jesus was a boondocks kid. The prophet Micah writes about Bethlehem, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient time.” What is striking to me is that God had such big plans for such a small place as Bethlehem. Bethlehem would go down in the history books as one the of the world's most remarkable and famous of places. We may be tempted to look upon our small Vermont towns and think, "surely, nothing significant can happen here." But what I see from the Christmas story is that God indeed has big plans for small places.Also, going forward in the Christmas story we will see that God has big plans for small people. How could this be? Because when God is present, whether in a large city or in the boondocks of Vermont, big things happen. God's hands reach even to the boondocks. This really excites me as we get into the Advent season. Imagine all of the opportunities we have to share Jesus with others this Christmas season with the light of Jesus shining through us! If you think God cannot use you in a significant way to share Jesus with others, you are simply misled. The Christmas story will prove that small people from small places have a significant part to play in bringing glory to God.
Stephen Covey is famous for the motto, "the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." This quote is from his best selling business and self-help book titled, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Now it's been years since I flipped the pages of this book but that one quote of Covey's is engraved in my mind. I would argue that keeping the main thing the main thing is also a habit of highly effective Jesus followers. The main thing, as we discussed in the sermon last week, is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and with all your mind..." and likewise "to love your neighbor as yourself." (Matt. 22:37-39) Now in the passage for this week, Matthew 12:9-14, it is the Sabbath, which is the traditional day of rest as instituted by God for his people. Originally God set up the Sabbath to be a day to bless his people with rest. However, the Pharisees and Rabbi's of the Jewish people made 39 subsequent laws for how to observe the Sabbath. These were laws about what you could or could not do on the Sabbath. Therefore the Sabbath, which was supposed to be a day of rest and blessing, became a day of burdensome rules and regulations. Now in Matthew 12 it was a Sabbath day and Jesus was in the synagogue and man with a crippled hand came before him. It was unlawful, according to the Pharisees, to heal someone on the Sabbath. It is ironic because healing the man would result it one of the most incredible blessings the crippled man had ever received. After all, wasn't the Sabbath created as a day of blessing? So what does Jesus, the creator of the Sabbath, do? He heals the man. The Pharisees' hearts were so cold that they began to plot to kill Jesus for forsaking the man-made rules of the Sabbath. Yet Jesus exclaims, "it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath."
We might think, "surely I am nothing like a Pharisee!" You might think, "I would never let anything get in the way of helping others." However, let me ask a few questions for reflection: Has your schedule or routine ever gotten in the way of you going and helping someone? Have you ever had the opportunity to help someone in need and quipped, "if they can't help themselves, why should I help them?" How many people have you mindlessly walked by and never even stopped to think about and how they might need a friend? Have you ever neglected helping someone because the game or your favorite TV program was on? Now, I have to stop here and remind you, as I often do, that I am no better than any of you. Allow me to confess to my own shortcomings. Yesterday afternoon I was at home after running around all day, just trying to peck away at the pile of work I have to do. Of course, soon after getting home the phone rings. The person on the other end of the phone shared with me that there was yet another person in need, a homeless runaway. I would LOVE to share with you that my immediate reaction was, "Yes, I would love to help him!!!" However, my flesh caused me to think in my mind, "Why isn't there someone else that can help?" I had just spent all week helping people and I was in a rush to get things done before our church's annual meeting and in that moment as I was on the phone my heart grew cold and I thought solely of myself and my needs and my desires. Meanwhile, alone in a hotel room was this young, lost, hurting, homeless man. God convicted me and I committed to helping.
What about you, where is your heart at when it comes to keeping the main thing the main thing? Have you drifted like the Pharisees and grown cold to helping others? Has your routine or your schedule become more important to you than people? Have your hobbies and past times gotten in the way of serving the Lord? Have you ever exclaimed, "Why me, Lord? Can't someone else help?" Let us never forget that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. And the main thing is loving and serving Jesus and loving and serving others.
I have been enjoying the Red Sox playoffs this October mainly due to the fact that the Red Sox keep on winning. You know I am not afraid to say it, a few of the Umpire's calls have definitely gone in the favor of the Red Sox. There was one specific play earlier this week in which José Altuvé of the Houston Astros was at bat, there were two on base already and he hit the ball out into deep right field. Mookie Betts of the Red Sox ran back, back, back, jumped high in the air, as the ball was going over the wall he got his glove within inches and just barely missed the catch. The Astros fans began to roar with cheer...but then the Umpire made one of the most controversial calls of his career. Upon review of the play video showed that a couple of fans in the stands interfered with the play and due to the interference the would be home run was called a catch by outfielder Mookie Betts. Red Sox fans were thrilled but Astros fans were very irritated with the call. The home run would have tied the game and given the Astros a better chance to win.
Now, the rules of the game are in place to benefit the players and the game. The Umpire's make the call that they feel is the best, most accurate call. However, one team ends up feeling cheated while the other celebrates. This is similar in the passage for this week, Matthew 12:1-8. Jesus, the maker of the rules, the creator of all the biblical guidelines, the Lord of the universe made a call that some people did not like. Here's what happened, it was the Sabbath, the traditional day of rest for the Jewish people as instituted by God himself. But as Jesus and his disciples were traveling the disciples were hungry. A group of Pharisees who were standing by (and not by accident) watch closely as Jesus allows the disciples to pick some grain to eat. Now, according to the Pharisees it was unlawful to pick grain, or harvest anything for that matter, on the Sabbath day of rest. The Pharisees were making what they believed was the right call, however their hearts were in the wrong place. So what do the Pharisees do? They charge the mound so to say, they confront Jesus and declare that he has made the wrong call for allowing his disciples to pick grain to eat. How does Jesus respond? He stands by his call. You know, Jesus is the author of the rules, the ruler of the rules as I like to say. Who are we to say Jesus made the wrong call? Also, when God set up the rules for his people he did so to benefit them and help them, not to burden them, not to force them to starve. The Sabbath was especially set up to benefit the people and was presented not as a burden but as an expression of God's mercy to give the people rest. In this passage Jesus shows that the meaning of the Sabbath was to help the people, not to burden and starve them. My question for us is this: Are we looking upon the the rules and guidelines of the bible as a burden? As something we feel restricted and irritated by? Or are we realizing how God's word and following Jesus is to our ultimate benefit? This is what Jesus desires for us, that from the guidelines of Scripture we would find peace and rest and a way of life that would lead us to rejoice in God's guidance in our life.
In Matthew 11:25-30 Jesus is talking about one of the major differences between adults and children. One thing about children is that they are honest about what they think and feel. I saw some funny and honest notes written by young children recently. One reads, "Dear God, thank you for the baby brother...but what I prayed for was a puppy..." Here's another note written from one classmate to another, "Dear Brody, Ms. P. made me write you this note, all I want to say sorry for is not being sorry cause I tried to feel sorry but I don't." Kids are very transparent and honest with how they are feeling. Obviously, kids have to learn how to process their thoughts in ways that are respectful, but hey, at least they are honest.
In Matthew 11:25-30 Jesus talks about two types of people, "the wise and learned" and the "little children." Jesus praises the Father for the little children because they are not trying to keep up appearances and make themselves look like they have life all perfectly figured out. Children are real, they are down to earth, they are honest about themselves. However, the "wise and learned" adults seem to have no need for Jesus because they are doing just fine. They are more preoccupied with keeping up appearances than being honest about their sin, fears and flaws.
We adults sure like to make ourselves look like we are doing well. We try really hard to make it seem like our lives are successful, like we are put together, like we are happy and fulfilled in life. But the truth is that we have become masters of fooling everyone. Our outward appearances are deceptive because on the inside our minds are often swirling with worry and anxiety. Our relationships could be falling apart. We smile though we are depressed and hurting. We could be angry with someone yet hide all that anger behind a facade of politeness.That's what adults do, anyway. Children on the other hand? They don't lie about how they are feeling, they tell you exactly how they are doing. Kids haven't gotten sucked into the culture of keeping up appearances yet, they just tell you how it is. What Jesus wants is to take away from us that burden of keeping up appearances. He desires for us to be more childlike in our relationship with him. When Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" He is inviting us to stop trying to act all put together and perfect. He simply wants us to come to him as a little child would, freely expressing our emotions, our confusion, our fears, our worries, etc... He wants to relieve us from the burden of keeping up appearances so we can just be ourselves in his presence.
I saw a church sign recently that read, "What if you woke up today with only the things you thanked God for yesterday?" It really makes you think, doesn't it? What have I actually been thankful for lately? What have I taken for granted? I think we take a lot for granted. I am sure you have all realized this by now, but I love to go out into the wilderness. I went out with a friend on my day off earlier this week, we were exploring this 9,000 acre forest maintained by the state of Vermont. We were doing some hiking and scouting and hunting, I even got my first partridge! It was fun, but the one thing I could not get over was God's creation. I kept saying to my friend, "isn't this time of year just incredible in Vermont?" We have the luxury of living in the middle of God's most spectacular canvas. He paints the landscape each fall with amazing rusty, reddish, yellow colors. It's like one giant reminder that we have a spectacular and beautifully creative God. But again, even with all of these obvious indications of God's presence surrounding us, we take God and his goodness for granted.
The passage for this week is Matthew 11:20-24, Jesus is talking to the people of the region of Galilee. He has performed countless miracles and expressed the immense love and grace of God all over the various towns and villages of that region. Yet, the people took Jesus for granted. They had very obvious indications that God himself was present and active among them but they were sadly unmoved. We will take a deeper look at the passage on Sunday, but essentially the people had every opportunity to turn to God and praise and worship Him and show gratitude for sending His son Jesus to the earth. Yet, they took him for granted.
You know, this passage is not just for those Galileans 2000 years ago. It is for us as well. I am realizing more and more just how much I have to be thankful for, just how good God has been to me and just how much I have taken Him for granted. So again, a question for reflection as we prepare to go deeper this Sunday, "What if you woke up tomorrow with only the things you thanked God for today?"
I spend a fair amount of time in the wilderness of Vermont, walking trails, fishing rivers, hiking mountains, and so on. It is my favorite past-time to be out in the woods, off the beaten path. A lot of times it will be dead quiet as I walk along, nothing but the sounds of distant birds. But then some nearby leaves crackle, footsteps, somewhere behind you on the trail and the hairs on the back of your neck perk up and you slowly turn around...only to catch a glimpse of a little red squirrel. A squirrel is a welcome sight in the woods. You know, sometimes those crackling leaves make me think, "is it a moose or black bear?" But I have yet to stumble upon one in the wild. I have been thinking, though, what if I were to jump a bull moose in the woods? Did you know you are more likely to be attacked by a moose than a bear? It's true, there are more reported injuries related to moose than to bears. So I have thought, what would be the best strategy when approached by a wild moose?
Should I say,"Hey moose! It's so good to see you! Want a cookie?"
Or should I snarl and yell, "Hey moose, you better not come any closer or you're gonna get it!"
Whether you try to celebrate the moose or scare the moose, chances are it may feel threatened by your presence. There's really no safe way to approach a moose, your best bet is to keep your distance. You know, as I think of it, some people are kind of like wild moose. No matter how you approach them, the outcome never seems that great.
This is what Jesus is talking about in the passage for this week, Matthew 11:16-19, as he describes the current generation of his time. He teaches, "18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’" The idea here is that John the Baptist came sharing the bad news of people's sin and their need for repentance. He had a somber attitude and he shared a serious and solemn message. Then Jesus came bursting into the world to save people and to share the good news of new life! What a celebration! However, people were unmoved both by the bad news and the good news. When John shared the bad news of people's sin and their need to repent, they started to criticize and accuse John of being possessed. When Jesus came full of good news it should have been a celebration, like at a wedding, but instead people said Jesus was a drunk lunatic.
The people were like the wild moose, whether you approach them with bad news or good news, they feel threatened either way. You have people in your life like this. Whether it is a family member, a co-worker, or a "friend" its like nothing you do works. So here is what we are tempted to do, we are tempted to change ourselves in order to get them to like us. Just be careful that you never forsake your relationship with Jesus in order to please others. Just yesterday I had this exact experience with three young people, people my age, once they heard I was a pastor they began to criticize church and religion and even me...At one point I was just kindly asking general questions about their lives, to which one said, "Oh, are you judging us?" It was awkward but what was important for me is that I resisted the temptation to downplay my faith in Jesus in order to appease them..In the end, I felt better about expressing my love for Jesus than trying to hide my faith in order to please others. All this to say, when approached by "moose people" just know Jesus went through the same kind of thing in his day. Also, its important that we do not give into the temptation to downplay our love for the Lord in order please others.
This week’s sermon is on Matthew 11:1-6 and I have titled the sermon, “The Edge of Uncertainty.” In the passage John the Baptist, who is in prison, sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” This seems like doubt on the part of John and his disciples, or at least a lack of confidence. But notice how Jesus is quick to reassure John and his disciples that He is who they suspect He is. He responds with evidences of his Godly power saying, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Not only is this evidence, this is shocking evidence. People are being healed and even brought back to life! So here are the disciples of John, hanging onto the edge of uncertainty, uncertainty about who Jesus is and Jesus gives them every reassurance they need to move from a doubtful faith to a confident faith.
Speaking of confident faith, Alex Honnold is one of the world’s most daring and confident of people. He is what is called a “Free Solo Rock Climber,” which means he climbs gigantic rock faces without rope or safety harness. National Geographic made a feature film of Honnold’s most courageous and, quite frankly, most foolish climb to date. For climbers, El Capitan in Yosemite National Park is the most difficult rock face in the world. For visual proof look up El Capitan and imagine being caught halfway up without rope or harness. Alex Honnold at the young age of 32 took on said rock face on June 3rd, 2017 and completed the ascent of the mammoth boulder in 3 hours and 56 minutes. I am hoping to see the upcoming film about this event titled, “Free Solo.” It is guaranteed to be on of those “I have to keep watching but I also have to hide my face half way into my sweater at the same time”kind of films. In a recent interview about the climb Honnold was asked, “So when you’re on that wall and you’re climbing, do you ever think about falling?” Honnold replied, “I mean you have to sort of think through the whole consequences, but then once I decide that I’m ready then I’m 100% committed.” Later he was asked, “Before you do it do you write like a note to your mom or anything?” Honnold replies, “No, that seems overly dramatic…”
I think its clear that this guy has a lot of faith in his ability to successfully climb the most difficult, sheer rock faces in the world. He doesn’t even feel the need to write a “goodbye note” to his mom just in case. Now I would never suggest Alex Honnold as a role model because what he has committed his life to is bordering on insanity. But I have to say I am quite inspired by his confidence while literally dangling on the edge of uncertainty. Most of the tiny ledges he grips onto are smaller than the width of a dinner fork. As he ascends Honnold does not stop to ask, "will this next crack or ledge be enough for me to cling onto or will I fall?" He doesn't have a choice but to believe he will make it up. What about us? What is your confidence level lately? I'm talking specifically about your confidence level in Jesus Christ? You may be climbing a seemingly impossible wall right now in your life. Are you asking questions like, "Jesus, are you going to hold me up?" or "God, will you provide for me?" or "Are you really strong enough to help me endure this situation?" If you are hanging on by a thread on the edge of uncertainty, maybe its time to turn to Jesus just like the disciples of John did and be bold and honest. Ask Jesus the questions you have in prayer. Let him know you have doubts. Look how it turned out for the disciples of John: Jesus humbly answered them. He gave them every reassurance they needed. I believe that Jesus wants to do the same for you.
This week we are in Matthew 10:40-42 and I have titled the sermon, "Willingness To Receive." I have often thought that it is much easier to give than to receive. Do you feel the same way? You know, maybe last Fall it took you a little longer than normal to get around to raking the leaves and people began to notice and they even offered to help you rake the leaves but you said reluctantly, "No thanks, I'm all set..." We've all said such phrases plenty of times, phrases like "no thanks, I've got it" or "I'll be fine" or "I can handle it on my own." Yet, most of us are pretty quick to lend a helping hand to others. We want to help other people but then when other people offer to help us we often shoot them down and deny them the joy of serving us. Believe me, I have done this plenty of times. But I am realizing more and more that when I deny someone the opportunity to serve me I am actually robbing them of the opportunity to serve Jesus himself.
Here's what Jesus says in Matt. 10:40 to his disciples before they depart on their mission, "Whoever receives you receives me." When the disciples came to a village or town the people in that place had to choose whether to reject the disciples or welcome and serve them. Those who served the disciples were in turn serving Jesus who sent them. Whether they served the disciples in a big way, like letting them stay over night, or even just offering them a cup of water, Jesus was honored. So for you and for me it seems the issue is that when we don't allow others to serve us and care for us we are actually robbing them of an opportunity to serve Jesus who we represent. Therefore, my encouragement and challenge to you this week is this: allow others to serve and care for you because in doing so you are actually giving them the opportunity to serve Jesus. Even if all they do is offer you a cup of cold water, respond to them with joy and thankfulness.
For this week's sermon we are in Matthew 10:32-42 and I have titled the message, "Social Chameleons." The chameleon is my personal favorite when it comes to reptiles. Chameleons are equipped with the ability to change color from green to brown and back. They can go completely camouflage in as little as 20 seconds! These reptiles use their color-changing capabilities to hide in plain sight. They might turn brown to blend in with a tree trunk and when an insect lands within range they ambush their pray with their incredibly long tongues.
I feel that I identify pretty well with a chameleon. No, not because I have an abnormally long tongue. I identify with this reptile because many times I like to blend in. For instance, I can blend in at church, I can speak fluent "Christianese." I can blend in with a group of rock n' roll musicians, I can talk all day about Bruce Springsteen or the Rolling Stones. If I am with a fellow fisherman I talk about all my secret methods for tricking fish onto my line. I'm a social chameleon, able to blend with my environment. Is this a bad thing? Not really. But this is the temptation I face: when I am at church I represent Jesus to the best of my abilities. I talk about Jesus. I pray to Jesus. I preach about Jesus. Right? Because that is what you do in the church setting. But what about all those other social settings?
The danger of being a highly skilled social chameleon is that it becomes too easy to blend in with your environment and leave Jesus behind. In Matthew 10, Jesus is teaching his disciples not to blend but to stick out. No matter what social setting they are in, Jesus doesn't ask them to go incognito. He commands them to share the good news of the gospel from the rooftops. He even gives further incentive to his disciples in 10:32-33 saying, "So anyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven."
You might think "well, I have never denied Jesus." But here's the thing, being an "anonymous Christian" is almost the same thing. When it comes to following Jesus we can't be social chameleons in the sense that we leave our faith at church and transform to fit into other social settings. Sure, we don't want to badger people with our faith but people desperately need to know about the saving power of Jesus Christ. If we simply blend into the environment how will they come to know Jesus? The truth is that we can be Jesus followers in any setting we find ourselves in. No matter where we are or who we are with we need to make the decision to represent Jesus well and share his love and compassion and even His story with people who desperately need to hear about Him.
Mike is the pastor of Derby Community Church in Derby, Vermont. He enjoys being outside fishing, spending time with his family, and playing guitar. Mike and his wife Norma have two young children.