Sweetwater Presbyterian

Small in size, Big in Faith and Love


As we continue through our look at the 7 churches in the book of Revelation, we are getting bits and pieces of Jesus’ design for His church. Church is important to us. Some of you have been here in this church your whole life. You’ve put blood, sweat and tears into the work that is done here. Significant life events have happened here - baptisms, weddings, funerals… We have a sense of ownership for this place. So every now and then we need to stop and remind ourselves that this is Jesus’ church and we are simply a part of it. We need to remind ourselves that Jesus has definite expectations of what he wants his church to be . Looking at these 7 churches it is like we are getting these different pieces of a puzzle and as we put the pieces together, the whole picture of Jesus’ ideal church begins to appear. Then, we are challenged to look at this picture and see where we measure up and we see where we need to make corrections. That ideal picture helps us to allow the Holy Spirit to aid us in moving closer and closer to Christ’s design for the church.
We have looked at the church of Ephesus where we hear about the importance of holding true to correct doctrine and of how important it is for us to love one another in this congregation - or as Jesus says - How can we teach love to our community if we can’t even love one another. Smyrna was the church that held true in the face of severe persecution as a witness to their faith - so we learn that as difficult as things may get for the church, if we rely on Jesus then we will hold together regardless of what problems we may encounter. Last week was Pergamum - the church that again was complimented for holding it together when some of the members had been martyred. But Jesus reminds them he requires the church to be holy - meaning ‘different’ than the unchurched community around them. Jesus tells them that the choices within the church must reflect Jesus’ teachings rather than what culture holds important.
We have learned to be loving, holding true to doctrine, relying on the Holy Spirit to hold us together in times of difficulty, staying apart from the culture - and now on to church #4 - the church at Thyatira. Unlike the here previous cities, Thyatira was a pretty nondescript sort of place. It was a lot smaller and a lot more insignificant than the other cities. It had no fantastic buildings, no huge temples and no real political status. All it really had in its favor was that it prospered as a trading center.
We have no idea how the church here came into being but as Jesus’ talks about this church in Revelation he does so with glowing terms. The section of Revelation directed to Thyatira is actually the longest of all the letters written to the churches. Jesus says, “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance.” He goes on to say that the church is now doing more in the way of service and deeds than they have ever done before. The church of Thyatira was living as Christ wanted to his church to be - they cared for one another, they were active in mission in the community, they had a strong and hearty faith. The church is growing and they are able to do more and more mission. The church stood in the community as a witness to the faith, hope and love of Jesus. The church understood that the Christian life is a life of continual growth - not growth in the terms of numbers but growth in the knowledge and understanding of Christ’s teaching. It reflected the movement we in the church today call the principle of “Deep and Wide”. - you have to grow your church deep in its faith and knowledge of the things of God before you can really grow your church wide - in bringing in new members.
But this is the situation - Thyatira was known for its trade guilds. There were guilds for carpenters, dyers, sellers of goods, tanners, weavers, tent makers and such. These trade guilds were similar to what we know as trade unions. It was very difficult for the tradesmen to make a living unless they were a part of one of these guilds. All work was contracted through the guild so if you were not a member of it, you would get little if any work. Now these guilds were different from our unions is that they were linked with the worship of pagan gods. Each guild had its particular guardian god and as a member you would be expected to attend all its functions and participate in its activities which included worship of the pagan gods with offerings, feasts and immoral activities.
The guilds would hold common meals which were in the temple of ‘their god’. The meal would begin and end with a formal sacrifice to the god. The meat then served during the meal would be the meat that had just been sacrificed to the god. The meeting would then degenerate into consorting with the women who worked at the temple. Now remember that even though this is far from our understanding of what worship is - this was their tradition for worship of their god. They felt they honored their god because this is what the god required of them - eating, drinking and having relations with the women.
The members of the church in Thyatira were torn between making a living on the one hand, which meant having to be a part of the guilds and participate in their worship and on the other hand staying faithful to Christ and his standards.
Now there appears there was a leader in the church that Jesus labels “Jezebel” - not because their real name was ‘Jezebel’ but because this person was acting like the Old Testament character Jezebel. The Old Testament Jezebel was was a woman who was not a part of God’s people, but from the nation of Sidon and she was a pagan worshipper. King Ahab of Israel, who was a part of God’s people, married her for political reasons and brought her to live with him in the palace in Israel. Now in a perfect world, Ahab would have converted Jezebel to become a worshipper of the one true God - but instead told her she could worship whomever she wanted which then caused her to convert Ahab to the worship of the pagan god Baal and then proceeded to convert the entire nation of Israel to Baal worship. Within a very short period of time because of the influence of Jezebel, God’s people had abandoned him for the fake god Baal. Jezebel was simply just an evil woman. We read the story of Naboth’s vineyard earlier in the service just to show what a self-serving, conniving woman she was. Jezebel represents someone who purposely deludes people into thinking they are right when they are clearly doing something wrong.
This is what this leader of the church at Thyatira was doing. This leader was encouraging the members of the church to continue in these trade guilds - even if it meant they participated in worship of the pagan gods and participated in the immoral acts associated with these gods. “It really doesn’t matter”, this Jezebel taught, “God is a God of grace and he will forgive whatever you do. It’s OK. Don’t worry. You can pretty well do whatever you want….” But in this letter Jesus says, “No!” This is not right and he tells the church that they are being led astray by this false teacher. He tells them they need to ‘repent’ quickly - to turn away from these trade guilds and their practices. In other words, Jesus was telling these members that they were going to have to take an economic risk to stand for what they believed in.
We do have a modern day example of what Jesus is telling these church members to do - and that is the Hobby Lobby lawsuit. Now whether or not you agree with them, the issue is that the owners of the company were willing to risk financial loss in order to stand firm in their Christian faith and what they believed. And honestly, biblically, the Hobby Lobby owners are are on pretty solid biblical ground in what they have decided to stand for. Or we could look at Chick-Fil-A who is willing to do without commerce one day a week because they practice the Biblical directive to honor the Sabbath.
So Jesus is fussing at Thyatira because they were not willing to take a stand, but are more than willing to allow this false teacher to lead them astray. It is certainly a deep challenge to us to consider if we have the confidence in what Jesus’ teaches to stand firm in our faith and not to compromise - even when it starts to cost us something.
And how do we get that confidence? By reading and studying and learning what scripture has to say. We have all the information we need if we will just use it. That was the same instructions given to the church in Pergamum - learn what scripture teaches then your decisions become easier to make.
Just like that passage from Matthew where Jesus tells us we can either build our house on rock or on sand. Rock meaning the word of God found in the Bible - sand being ‘what we think’ or ‘what we have heard someone else say’ or ‘what we have learned from popular TV preachers’ or wherever other than the Bible itself we have ‘heard’ that the Bible says this or that. Your conviction can stand firm on the rock, but the house on the sand will collapse quickly.
Jesus tells his church - know what I have really said so that you can stand firm in the face of false teachers.


Revelation - The Church at Pergamum - Temptation

Revelation: The Church of Ephesus - “Learning to Love One Another”

Two weeks ago we looked at the book of Revelation and last week we talked about Jesus’ concept of church. We know that the book of Revelation is actually a letter written by John the Apostle at the direction of Jesus to Christians being persecuted in the area known as Asia Minor. In this letter, Jesus addresses 7 churches, pointing out how they are each living up to the being what Jesus calls them to be….. and how each of them fall short, Each Sunday for the next 7 weeks we will look at these churches to help us as the church see how we can better be the church Jesus calls us to be; how we can better live up to the the call of God to the work he has laid out before us - and to see how we are doing a good job of being the church of Jesus Christ.
It has been pointed out that more than seven churches existed in Asia at the time Revelation was written. Seven church addressed is hardly a coincidence, but rather a clue to the purpose of Jesus in helping us understand what he is saying. Throughout Revelation are not only 7 churches, but seven seals, seven trumpets, seven different images of people and angels, seven bowl, seven dooms, and finally seven new things. Seven, in Revelation, stands for completeness, meaning that even though seven churches are mentioned, what is said about them is complete - these letters to the seven churches represent all churches. Each of the seven churches has its unique strengths and weaknesses so that there is a distinct message given to each. However, the problems addressed in chapters 2 & 3 are those which have characterized the church throughout its history. The church world-wide of today would provide ample illustration of the same issues found in these seven churches of Revelation. Indeed, in any local church most, if not all, of the problems described here could be found among those in the congregation. By divine design, then, the Holy Spirit has not only spoken to the ancient church, but also to us as well. This is why the reader is urged to take seriously the Lord's words to the churches - to us: ’He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’. In other words, Jesus is saying to us today, “Pay attention to my words in these letters because here you will find yourself.”
It is not that Jesus is wagging his finger at us and saying “Shame on you” - These letters are not designed to make us feel bad but it is Jesus saying - “I love you” and I want you to be the best you can be. The idea is to encourage us to learn and grow and adapt to the purpose God has for us as the church.
It is appropriate that the church at Ephesus is addressed first. Ephesus was the largest city of the Roman province of Asia. By the time the gospel was preached here it had a population of more than a quarter of a million people. Located at the mouth of a major river and also on a gulf of the Aegean Sea, it was a flourishing commercial and export center for Asia. Ephesus was also the end for the great road from the Euphrates, as well as a cross roads for many of the major cities in Europe and Asia. It was truly a breath-taking city: The traveler from Rome landing at Ephesus would proceed up a magnificent avenue thirty-five feet wide and lined with columns which led from the harbor to the center of the city. It boasted a major stadium, marketplace, and theater. The latter was built overlooking the harbor, and seated some 25,000 people.
Ephesus was also a prominent religious center: Temples were built to Roman leaders Claudius, Hadrian, and Severus whom the people worshipped as gods. The major religious attraction, however, was the Temple of Artemis (Diana in Latin), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. About four times the size of the Parthenon, it was adorned by the work of many great artists. The dimensions of the temple as 425 feet long, 220 feet wide, and sixty feet high. There were 127 pillars of Parian marble, with thirty-six of them overlaid with gold and jewels. We know a good deal about the Ephesian church from the New Testament. Paul's first visit to Ephesus was very brief. Paul’s disciple Apollos was there as well and had an effective ministry. When Paul returned to Ephesus, he stayed for three months, teaching in the synagogue at Ephesus, followed by two years of teaching in the school of Tyrannus. The result was that many came to believe in the gospel. Many of the new converts wished to make a complete break with the magic of their pagan past and burned their books publicly, books which were worth 50,000 pieces of silver. As a result, the gospel flourished in Ephesus. Jesus always begins his letter to each of these churches talking about the things the churches are doing right. Two things are commended in the Ephesian church, their persistence and their purity, their diligence and their doctrine. Jesus congratulates the Ephesians on the persistence of the church members in

their personal commitment to obedience and ministry, even in the face of difficulty and opposition. Doctrinal purity was

diligently preserved by the Ephesian church - in other words, the church was willing to stick by what was taught in the message of Jesus Christ instead of allowing themselves to be influenced by what is popular, or current. Because Ephesus was located on commercial sea and land routes, many Christian travelers passed through, some of whom were teachers who were teaching false information about living as the people of God. These travelers actively promoted their false doctrines. The warning of the apostle Paul had been taken very seriously by the Ephesian church. They had not allowed false doctrine to corrupt their congregation, even though some false apostles had attempted to do so. For this the Ephesian church was sincerely praised. But Jesus said there was a very serious problem in the church,: 'But I have this against you, that you have left your first love’. When the church in Ephesians was first formed, the Apostle Paul had commended them on their love for one another. But even though the church was strong in their faith and their holding to the truth of the gospel, they lost their love of one another. The Ephesian Christians were caught completely off guard by this charge, for the simple reason that they had almost unconsciously forgotten the priority Jesus taught in loving one another. In the passage Jesus says that because they have lost their call to love each other, their lampstand would be removed. What this refers to is the lampstand which illuminated the Holy Place in the temple. The lampstand then became a symbol of the illumination to the world of Jesus Christ through the church. Remember Jesus’ passage at the end of the Beatitudes which said to let our light shine - you don’t put your light under a basket, but you let it shine so that the world will see the love and grace of Jesus Christ. According to Jesus, one of the chief ways we show the love of Jesus, is to show the community around us that even though we are a collection of different people, because we share the love of Jesus, we can truly love one another as different as we are. This letter to the Ephesians says that if we lose that love of each other, we will lose our witness to the world and therefore the purpose God has given us.
So what does that mean practically for us as a church - it means to love one another even when someone annoys us, or someone disagrees with us, or because we know something about a persons past, or maybe even their present, or because a person hurts us, or does something we disapprove of, or because a person is not part of our ‘circle’ of friends or part of our family. It means that we truly believe that everyone in this congregation is here because God placed them here and we are all one in the eyes of God - even if we don’t like someone or who they are or what they have done or who they support or which political party they are a member of……
Remember Jesus’ words, in John 13 - “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” What Jesus is saying is that we can do all the good deeds we can and give loads of money to good causes and serve people in the community and live pious and obedient lives, but we don’t love each other, we don’t love
everyone who is part of this church, then all that good stuff is worthless. What Jesus is saying is that the best witness we can have for the community is to show the people around us that we can love each other - different and imperfect as we are. “How can you go to church with so and so, didn’t you know that they did whatever” and the response is, “Because we come together in the love of Jesus and because he can love everyone, we can to.” And those who are unloved in our community begin to think, “If Jesus can love so and so, then maybe he can love me as well. If that church can love and embrace so and so, then maybe they can love and accept me as well….” What a powerful witness we can be simply by being willing to allow the love of Jesus to teach us that we can not only love ourselves, love everyone here…. It is not that we can neglect sticking to proper doctrine and continuing in our mission regardless of what form it may take, but that we remember that of all the things we do, the greatest thing is to love.

Revelation: The Church at Ephesus.

Revelation and the Church

Last week we talked about the book of the Revelation of John. We are going to spend the next several weeks looking at the church and Jesus’ vision of what he wanted his church to be. So today, we are going to look at the church in general, and how these churches in Asia Minor came to be.
There is no concept of ‘church’ in the way we think of church in the Old Testament. God gathered his people and they worked and traveled and worshipped all as one people. After God’s people made it to the promised land, God did send priests to live out among his people, but worship took place exclusively in the Temple in Jerusalem. Eventually there were synagogues in different locations among the people which became a center for the people to gather for study and activities, but worship was still only in the temple in Jerusalem.
When Jesus came and began to teach the people, he began to teach this concept of ‘church’ was not a place of worship, but Jesus’ taught ‘church’ was the idea of God’s people working together to do the work God had asked them to do - I
n Matthew 25 Jesus says: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, "I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” Jesus was concerned the idea of ‘proper worship’ and worrying about conducting worship ‘in the right way’ had taken precedence over doing the work God had called the church to do. For Jesus corporate worship was important, but he also wanted to make sure the church worked together to bring about God’s love and grace to the community.
Pretty familiar are Jesus’ words to the Apostle Peter, also in the book of Matthew, ‘to you I will give the ‘keys to the kingdom’; ‘the kingdom’ being God’s people whom Jesus envisioned to be gathered together in ‘churches’ - not buildings but in groups who gathered together to study, break bread (which was their term for what we call communion) and to do care for one another.
After Jesus’ ascension and the gospel message began to spread out from Jerusalem, people gathered together and they called the local congregations ‘church’ but there were no buildings, just groups of people who began to be called ‘Christians’. We have recorded several of the Apostles who left Jerusalem and began to travel various places, teach about Jesus and form those who became believers into groups. However the most prolific founder of churches was the Apostle Paul.
Paul was called by Jesus on the road to Damascus and given the responsibility of teaching Gentiles about Jesus. Paul was commissioned to do this work interestingly enough by the follower of Jesus in Antioch. The people in the church there decided the mission of their church would be to finance Paul’s mission to spread the gospel of Jesus to the people living in what we would call Greece and Turkey today - back then it was known as Asia Minor. So we have recorded in Acts the actual ‘sending’ of Paul to do this work God has called him to do.
But there was much resistance to this Gospel message both by the Romans and by the Jews.
Becoming a follower of Jesus in this territory called for Jesus’ followers to be very courageous and very brave. It would have been impossible to have a ‘church building’ because these followers had to work and worship in secret.
You’ve probably heard a lot about the persecution of these Christians and it is hard for us to even conceive of what it would have been like to made the decision to hear Paul teach the message of Jesus and then decide you are going to give you life to him and become a ‘Christian’. And then you had to hide it………
Except being a ‘Christian’ meant you were to then change your life and do the things Jesus taught you should do - you were to gather together with other believers and you were to care for those in society who were in need - and those who made the decision to follow Jesus took this calling very seriously. They were constantly putting their lives on the line to do what they were called to do…….. To gather and to care for the poor and the widows and the orphans and the prisoners and all in need.
Much of the mission of Paul as he traveled was to stop by the congregations he had formed and take up an offering that he then took to those who were in need. We have recorded how those within the church would sell their possessions to raise money to help others who were in need.
So Paul would travel, he would form ‘churches’ - which were groups of people who gathered in various locations, usually homes, and would study (altho remember there were no Bibles for them to read so they would recall and discuss the stories Paul had taught them), would share in communion and would work to help others. But people are people and whenever they would encounter a problem, cause groups of people, even ‘Christian people’, encounter problems, would contact Paul and he would write a letter to them to help them work through their issues. Some of these letters we have as most of the New Testament - Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, for example.
Then John, the Apostle, was sent to the Island of Patmos and Jesus himself decided he, himself, needed to address these seven churches in Asia Minor. So Jesus tells John to write down Jesus’ words as he addresses the issues that are going on these specific churches in Asia Minor. These churches were founded by the Apostle Paul and we don’t really know exactly why these particular churches were targeted by Jesus although many biblical scholars think it is mainly because of their closeness geographically and it would be easy for this circular letter to be distributed between them - and also because these churches and their good and bad practices could easily represent any and all churches and the issues that pop up as congregations throughout history struggle to work and worship as God’s people.
The biggest difference between our experience today and the experience of those in the seven churches of Revelation would be the society in which we live. These groups of Christians met in houses - although they had to be very discrete about it so that the members would not be arrested, tortured and killed. And as hard as they tried to keep themselves of the Roman and Jewish radar screen, people in the congregations were still discovered and taken by the Jewish leaders and by the Romans.
What we need to think about as we freely worship and work together, is to think about how difficult it is for us to try and live up to Christ’s call to the church, and imagine how hard it was to live up to the Christ’s expectations and be persecuted at the same time.
This letter of Revelation is Jesus’ words to these people, who are trying to remain faithful during this time of persecution. Jesus encourages them by reminding them why they part of Christ’s church and about the ‘great reward’ if they can remain faithful in the midst of the severe persecution they experienced and admonishes them them to remember they are still to ‘be God’s people’ - to usher God’s kingdom into the world where people worship God in spirit and truth and where God’s people spread God’s love as they care for those who are in need.
As we hear Jesus’ words to these churches through John’s writings in Revelation, we are to think about ourselves - where do we see ourselves in this church? What are we doing right and where does Jesus see room for improvement in our work and worship?

We are the people of God; we are gathered into congregations put together by God - blessed and loved and charged to be the arms and legs and feet of Jesus in this community.

Revelation and the Church


Back when I was young and newly married and didn’t have any children, I began working on a Masters Degree in Genetics. It was fascinating but the down side to this program was in order to finish the program I had to take a class in statistics. Understanding statistics is pretty key to being able to work in Genetics but the process and the charts and graphs and the numbers about did me in. I did finish the statistics class, but it was a struggle.
Later on when I began working on a Masters in Education, statistics was also a requirement for that program as well - I thought that since I had taken it before maybe I could count that first course for the statistics credit, but no - they decided since I had Statistics part one I would need to take Statistics part 2 which had more charts and graphs and more numbers and I was a wreck by the time I made it through that class…..
Statistics are all around us right now. You cannot watch or listen to or read any news that isn’t full of statistics - COVID statistics. We are at 8% now and we need to get to 5%. 4% of the people who are exposed end up in the hospital. There is a 92% recovery rate except if you are part of the 30% of the population who are of A+ blood or over 65 and on and on. And each day there are new statistics and different statistics and we end up looking for ourselves in those statistics and where we fit in….
What this social distancing and this bombardment of statistics has done for us is to make us feel like we have been reduced to a number. We look at the charts and graphs and try to see where we are and this creates anxiety if we are in one of the categories where the statistics done’t look so good…… Those who are spouting these statistics seem like they forget that these are not just numbers and percentages, but they are real people…. Those are not just numbers, they are Moms and Dads and Grandparents and Sons and Daughters and friends and colleagues……..
And we begin to feel less like a person, we begin to believe that we are nothing more than a number……. And our anxiety and our worry grows……
We do have reason to be anxious. Decisions we took for granted before now were simple - I’m going to jump into the car and run to the grocery store. But now that decision is much harder - simple tasks like going to the grocery have become real life and death decisions - we have to think about what the statistics are on going into the store……
And you cry out to God to just make it all go away and when you wake up in the morning and COVID is still there and you still have to think twice before you do just about anything you wonder if God even heard you…
That is where the Hebrew people found themselves. They had been living in slavery, times were hard and they cried out to God who sent them Moses to free them - and he did……. They packed up and headed out - they were on their way to their own land; they were going to be free. And then they looked back and Pharaoh had changed his mind and now the Egyptian army was baring down on them to recapture them and take them back to slavery - and right in front of the them was the Red Sea. They had no boats; it was too wide to swim across - there truly was no where to go. They yelled at Moses - what have you done to us… you got our hopes up and we thought we were going to be free and now we are going to die! There is no where to go. Either the Egyptians will get us or we are going to drown….
We all kind of felt that way when we first thought this COVID was going to be gone in a couple months and Phase One came and went and we went into Phase 2 and we thought there was light at the end of the tunnel - only to have Phase 2 extended again, and again and we see those statistics which proclaim doom and we begin to feel like the Hebrews who are on the bank of the Red Sea and the Egyptians are bearing down on us and we begin to lose hope.

And then the Hebrews see the big cloud that has led them away from their captivity rise up from in front of them and move to behind them to hide them from the Egyptians - and then God opens the sea and leads them to safety…..
We are God’s people and we can never give up hope….. God knows exactly what is going on and no he doesn’t often clue us in on what he is doing but he keeps trying to assure us that if we just have faith, if we just trust, if we just wait…. if instead of reacting in fear or anger we remember how God shows us in his word how he always is working…..
But we can relate to those Hebrew people - they thought everything was going to be OK. They thought they were home free, they had a moment to take a deep breath and think everything was going to be fine and then they found themselves between the Egyptians and the Red Sea….
And right now in the midst of all this we just want God to somehow open up the world again like he did the Red Sea cause this waiting and not knowing and this wondering and this feeling of being reduced to a statistic just weighs heavy on us. We are tired of making real life life and death decisions….
We are all suffering in our own way. From isolation, from things going on in our lives that are unrelated to COVID but still affected by this pandemic, from having to work in situations where we are concerned we might be exposed, from trying to decide what to do with our children….
But you know, if we are certain of anything, we are certain that Jesus understands. Think about Jesus on the cross who calls out “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
Are there not moments where that is how you feel? And Jesus lets us know that is OK…..
for a moment. We can’t stay there… God didn’t allow the Hebrew people to stay between the Egyptians and the Red Sea. Jesus may have felt abandoned the cross, but he rose from the dead.
While God says it is OK to cry out in moments of weariness and weakness, we see that Jesus isn’t alone in his suffering. There are two others with Jesus when he is on the cross. There is one person on each side of Jesus and these 2 people are there because each of these ‘thieves’ on the cross show us the choices we can make when we feel like we are between the Egyptians and the Red Sea….
The one criminal lashed out at Jesus in anger - If you really are the Messiah, you have the power to end this right now! You can get us all off these crosses and save our lives! He was saying to Jesus - if you want me to believe you are the Messiah then prove it to me by doing what I want…. by stopping this suffering right now!
But the criminal on the other side of Jesus says to the one talking - ‘What’s wrong with you? Why are you angry at the only person who can help us? Why are you disrespectful to the one who can save us? And this thief looks at Jesus and doesn’t say - ‘End this suffering right now’ - but “Have mercy on me. I know you are the Messiah - you are our only hope.” And Jesus looks at this theif and says, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’.
Now I want you to notice something important - the cross didn’t go away. The suffering of having to die on that cross didn’t go away. But the thief knew now that he wasn’t alone. The thief knew that Jesus was hanging on that cross right with him - the paradise the thief received was not relief from the suffering - but the peace of knowing that Jesus was right there; that Jesus knew precisely what the cross was like…..
We can react to this COVID in anger and anxiousness and fear and wondering why God isn’t ‘fixing’ everything, or we can reach out to Jesus and ask him to be with us and to help us through and live in the assurance that Jesus can give us something no one else can; that Jesus can give us peace in the midst of however we may be suffering through this time…..
As the Hebrew people continued their journey it wasn’t easy. There were problems, their were issues, there were anxious moments and sometimes they reacted in anger and sometimes they cried out for mercy…. and God continually says to them: The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.
As we continue forward, always remember that. Even though the current situation doesn’t go away remember:;
The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” You are going to have moments - of anger, of fear, of discouragement, of feeling weighed down of wondering why circumstances don’t change… But don’t let that be where you stay….. reach out and Jesus is there and Jesus will bring you peace…. Amen.

A Feeling of Peace

Where Do You Want To Go?

I don’t know of anyone who right now is not lamenting life in 2019. 2020 came in with a bang and changed everyone’s life. There is no one who has not been impacted by Coronavirus and social distancing and wearing masks and staying home. Most of us think about how things were before the world turned upside down and our very existence is something new and strange. if it were possible for us to do a do-over for this year I’m sure we would choose to do that - a do-over where 2020 happened and everything was the same as it were before.
But when we think back to last year, do you have a tendency to think about how much better things were and forget the issues that were going on. When we think back do we only think about the good - gathering together whenever and however we wanted, normal shopping, going to restaurants, school as it always was, worship and church activities as we were use to; do we think about the problems we were having then; issues we were dealing with, bills we needed to pay, decisions we needed to make….
The Hebrew people were dealing with the same conundrum. They didn’t care that life really wasn’t all that good back in Egypt, but they were ready to go back. Let’s remember the story. God began his people with Abraham, who had Isaac, who had Jacob. Then Jacob has 12 sons and through a series of events Jacob and his 12 sons and their families end up in Egypt. For about 400 years, the descendants of Jacob lived and flourished in Egypt and by then they were more Egyptian than they were Hebrew. They walked like an Egyptian, they talked, ate and even thought like an Egyptian. They dressed like Egyptian and as we see later in the desert they even became familiar with the Egyptian gods. Culturally they were Egyptian. Their other benefit was that when God established Jacob and his family in Egypt, he gave them the best land there. It was lush and green and the perfect valley to life and thrive. Until time passed and the Egyptians were in need of people to build storage houses for them and they see all these people living in the land of Goshen and the Egyptians seized them and made them slaves; slaves whose job was to build Egypt’s many storage buildings. It was a long hard struggle. They worked during the day and then had to care for themselves - care for their sheep, grow their crops, carry their water at night. Even the women were forced into slavery helping to make the bricks and the mortar while the men build the buildings. Elderly, young, everyone was made to work - 7 days a week of hard, hard work - there was no rest. They cried out to God for help and God sends them Moses, who made Pharaoh angry and that increased the work the Hebrews had to do. Now they had to provide their own straw to make the bricks - growing, harvesting, processing it to be usable. They were building, they are making bricks, they were trying to raise their sheep and their food and carry their own water and now grow and process hay for the bricks. Finally, Moses is able to free them from slavery and they are taken out into the desert where God promises them he is going to take them to a land of ‘milk and honey’ - the promised land.
But the way to the promised land was not easy. They were no longer in the lush valley of Goshen, but in a dry desert. There was no quick access to water or food. Even though they were hardy people from working as slaves, this desert experience was new and they didn’t have a clear vision of where they were going - only that God - a god they didn’t know very well and Moses, a leader they didn’t know very well - kept telling them that this land of milk and honey would be wonderful… And after a while of this new way of life - this life as a nomad, moving, pitching tents, eating this stuff that fell from the sky and depending on water holes that were few and far between…. It is not that they weren’t use to hard work, it is just that this wasn’t the kind of life they had been use to. It was different and they weren’t real fond of the change. Even though here in the desert they truly had everything they needed; everything was provided for them; there were no Egyptian taskmasters whipping them; forcing them to work harder and harder……

But new is hard; change is hard; and having to move in a direction you weren’t planning on is hard; when you are forced into a transition you hadn’t expected - or even a transition you had expected but it wasn’t quite what you wanted it to be, the tendency is to want ‘to go back’. Back to the way things were before; back to what you were comfortable with - even if the way things were wasn’t all that great…. The past just holds this allure of comfort because it is what we were familiar with. Even if this transition is going to take you somewhere better, you are still a little skeptical.
So the Hebrews began to grumble and complain and they ‘wanted to go back’ to their life in Egypt. And as they reminisced it was the enjoyable things they remembered - the fish they ate, the cucumbers and melons, and the onions and the garlic. They remembered pots of meat and sitting around fires…. They had forgotten the lashes from the whip and the hard work from sunup to sundown - and then the extra work to provide for themselves. The good ole days were just the good times - none of the bad. “We want to go back!” They shouted. “We want things the way they use to be….”
Familiar cry for all of us. Change is hard. Moving forward is hard. And yet that is always what God is asking us to do. He is always asking us to move. There is not one story in the bible where people are told to stay put. It is always, ‘pick up and go’; or this is the new covenant; the new way. Paul reminds us that God tells us we have to grow and learn and do new things and learn new ways.
Jesus respected the fact that there were people who wanted things to stay the same; who wanted the status quo; He didn’t think that is what they should do but he respected it. That is why when approaches the cripple at the pool of Siloam Jesus asked him - “Do you want to get well?” Now we think that should be a no-brainer. Of course we would want to get well. Of course we would want to be healed. Or would we. Remember this fella has been a cripple for most of his life. This is all he knows. He lays by the pool; he begs and receives money and food from those he begs from; this is the life he is used to. If he is healed, that will all change. He will have to find employment; people will treat him differently - some will accept him but there will be those who will shun him because they will suspect that it was ‘the evil one’ who did the healing. The Pharisees were most displeased with him because he was evidence of what Jesus could do. Jesus knew that if he is healed, this is going to be a whole new life for him and not necessarily an easy one. So before he heals the paralyzed man Jesus asks - “Do you want to be healed?” Do you want your life to change? Do you want to move in a new direction? The paralyzed man said “Yes” and immediately he was healed, he picked up his bed and walked into this new life. Do we wonder if sometime in the future this healed man is going to say, “I wish I was back there by the pool. All I had to do was lie there and people gave me money and food. I want to go back to being paralyzed….”
Because that is what we are when we get stuck in remembering only the good in the past; when we are afraid of changes, of transitions, of new directions, of following where God is taking us. The Apostle Paul says to us in the passage we read from Philippians - Forget what is behind and move straight toward what is ahead.” Even like the Hebrews when you don’t know what that straight ahead might be, even if the way is difficult, even if like the paralyzed man you don’t know what your life is going to be like - we as the people of God are called to go straight ahead. Without worry, without fear, knowing God is leading us in the way we should go - even if it is new, or hard, or different, or not what we expected.…
We don’t know where the world is going. We, just like the Hebrew people in the desert are stuck in this new way of doing and of living and at looking what is around us. We can get hung up on thinking things can return to the way they were, which let’s admit it is doubtful, or we can depend on God to lead us in the new direction he has for us as the church of Jesus Christ. We are learning to worship in a new way; we are learning how to be the church in a new way, we are learning we really do need to lean on God for peace in the face of everything around us that is ‘new’.

Don’t be paralyzed; don’t be like the Hebrews who wanted to go back to ‘the way things use to be’ just because that is the familiar and the easy. Just know that no matter what change may lay before us as the church; no matter how we may have to change and adapt; whatever transition we may be forced to face, remember the words of Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plan I have for you” declares the Lord “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”