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“No matter who we are, rich or poor, famous or obscure, brilliant or a tad below average, we all need Jesus.”

By Pastor Mark Nieting

We’re in a major transition here this morning, and it’s not about Lent. If you haven’t been reading your chapters of The STORY, this morning’s music was the clue. We’re celebrating Christmas this morning. It’s the transition between the Old Testament and the New Testament in the STORY. In other words, we finally get to talk about JESUS! The first 21 chapters have been all about getting us TO this Sunday, all about getting us TO the time when Jesus came into the world. And now, we’re there!

To get a bit more perspective on this, can you begin to imagine talking about the birth, life and passion of Jesus without the having the background and the necessity that the Old Testament provides? That would be a very incomplete story, to say the least. And to have the Old Testament without ever arriving at Jesus? The way I see it, there would be no hope in that whatsoever!

So over the last 21 weeks we’ve looked back all the way back to the Creation in Genesis. Then we worked though the times of the patriarchs, the time in Egypt, the Exodus, the Judges, the Kings, the captivity in Babylon and last week, the Inter-testamental period. We’ve applied several thousand years of hindsight and I think we have all wondered:

- Why God’s people did what they did?
- Why they created and believed in idols, even idols of wood and stone?
- Why they worshiped other gods and ignored THEIR God, when it never went well for them when they did that?
- Why they were so unfaithful?

And, having worked through all of that, you know what we’ve said, or at least thought to ourselves? WE would never be like that!

Right……. By God’s grace, or shall we say with God applying a good amount of Holy Spirit-driven honesty to our introspection, we realize that their story is our story too.

I know we haven’t done this in a while, so this may be the perfect time. Please turn to the person next to you and say “You’ve got problems!” Go!

The stories of all those Old Testament people are stories about people with “sin-problems.” They are, or I should say, they “were” people who couldn’t and didn’t find ways to be perfect before God who IS perfect. God didn’t point this out to be mean or hurtful, it’s just that the Old Covenant was set up this way: God said “I will be your God and you will be my people, and the closer you are to me, the better things will be……and the farther away from me that you are, the worse things will be!”

And despite the Ten Commandments being carved into stone, and despite the very presence of God visible by fire and smoke from the Holy of Holies, and despite the patriarchs, the prophets, the judges and an occasional angel, the people of the Old Covenant rarely really got it right.

That’s why the entire Old Testament points to a NEW COVENANT, not one of laws and rules and ceremonies and regulations, all of which are external, but a Covenant based on a relationship, which is an INTERNAL thing…….a relationship with Jesus!

Who is the New Covenant about? Say it out loud! (JESUS!) Right. 21 chapters (the real Old Testament has 929 chapters), thousands of years, and all of it points to Jesus!

The Jews came back from Persia in 537, rebuilt the temple, restarted the sacrificial system, eventually rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and by 444 BC, everything was ready for the Messiah. Then……for over 400 years…..nothing happened. No prophets came out to speak. No angels brought messages. No miracles delivered them from invading armies, of which there were plenty. No books of the Bible were written. Nothing, unless you count going from bad to worse. They were ruled by the Persians, the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Greeks and the iron fist of the Romans; talk about a progression going from bad to worse, from the light of freedom to total DARKNESS!

When my kids were little I remember sitting in the park on the 4th of July waiting for fireworks to start. We would sit on the blanket and wait as the sun went down and the sky got darker and the kids making us crazy with “when is it going to start???” And just when you were about ready to lose it, that first rocket went up and WHAM, it blew up the darkness with a huge burst of light! In his Gospel, that’s how John described Christ’s coming into the world…….light came into darkness. It doesn’t take much light to break through darkness…..a tiny penlight will do the job because light always wins. Look what happened that first Christmas: the angels in heaven show up singing the praises of the new-born Messiah! If there’s ANY chapter in the Bible that everyone knows, it’s Luke 2: Mary and Joseph and the baby in the manger, shepherds and angels. Even the littlest kids in Sunday School get it!

I’m going to pause us for a moment and reflect on just “who showed up” from the perspective of the world. Who showed up? Shepherds. How long did they stay? Not long. The world around us, the non-believing world looks at that and thinks to itself: shepherds…..not the sharpest knives in the drawer, and little children. That’s who Christmas is for: an evening’s entertainment away from the drudgery of shepherding and, little kids (who also believe in Santa), who eventually will “know better.”

Pagan society looks at Christmas and Christians like that: check your brains at the door if you’re going to believe all the stuff they teach in Sunday School. That’s a sore spot for me: the “we must be pretty ignorant to believe all that stuff” mentality that floats around our society. But from the very beginning God also combated that attitude and here’s how: look who ELSE showed up for Jesus. The Magi. The Wise Men.

They weren’t kings and there probably were more like a dozen of them, and they probably took a year to get to Bethlehem, but look who they were. They weren’t lowly shepherds; they were astrologers and astronomers, scientists and the intelligentsia of their day. They were people of high social status, the crème-de-la-crème of Persia, wealthy beyond anything Mary and Joseph could imagine….who else could afford the gifts they brought and the journey they made? They weren’t “in it” for a one-evening distraction or a mere curiosity; these guys were in it for the long haul. They followed the Star and the followed the Holy Spirit and they found Jesus and WORSHIPED Him. The word for their worship (proskenuow) is even far richer than the word for ours: they fell down on their faces, their foreheads to the ground!

And their gifts? Gold, fit for a king! Frankincense, like a priest would use to offer prayers to God. And myrrh? That’s only good for embalming dead people…….a gift for a Savior who would die. So how did they KNOW all this about this little child Jesus?

God told them! They listened to what God whispered into their hearts! They knew that there was more to life than stars, sand and camels. They knew science didn’t have all the answers. Don’t get me wrong, we are blessed by science, we all are. Where would we be without medical science, just to name one area? I love science. I spent 13 years teaching science. Science can show us the “how” and “what” about stuff around us, but it can’t come close to even scratching the surface of questions like “who” and “why.” It can’t tell us why we are here; it can’t even ask “what is the meaning of life?” That’s the stuff of God, the stuff of faith! It’s the “big picture” of God and HIS STORY!

2000 years ago, the shepherds needed Jesus. The inn-keeper needed Jesus. The Magi needed Jesus. Israel needed Jesus. So did the Romans. And the same holds true today. No matter who we are, rich or poor, famous or obscure, brilliant or a tad below average, we all need Jesus. We need Him so that through Him we can come back into a relationship with God who created us, loves us, and wants us to be in His presence, forever. That’s why we are here. That’s why YOU are here, right? Because of JESUS!

There’s one more part to chapter 22. It happened when Jesus was 12 years old. It was time for Passover, so the entire town of Nazareth packed up for the 3 day journey to Jerusalem. It wasn’t Jesus’ first Passover, but 12 was a special year for a Jewish boy; His ‘bar-mitzvah.’ So Jesus, Mary and Joseph (no, I’m not swearing) went off and when it was all done, they headed north again……but this time, they discovered, Jesus wasn’t with them. He wasn’t with the other 12 year old boys. You know where He was when they found Him 3 days later……..in the temple, with the scribes and Pharisees and all the rabbis. What was He doing? The word used is eperonton, which means Jesus was ‘asking them questions, from a position of authority.’ Like the judge in his courtroom, Jesus “owned” that room, a room that had been filled with the best and the brightest Israel had to offer.

Jesus was a marvelous teacher, but He is far more than that.
Jesus was a great example of moral living, but He is far more than that.
Jesus spoke God’s Word prophetically, but He is far more than that.
He is God, made into the flesh to be our Savior.
He is the One and the only One who can bring us the real answers to the great questions of life: What is our purpose? Where did we come from? And where will we go when it’s all done?

Merry Christmas all over again! Christ, the Savior is born!

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Joy isn’t found in chasing our desires. It’s found in living like children of God.

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Text: Nehemiah 8

We had some pretty incredible weather last week. Snow, sure. I can deal with snow. I even like a bit of snow. It covers the city in a lovely white blanket. It makes everything magically clean looking. You can make snow men and even snow angels!

But what happened to this city last week was not snow. It was white concrete that fell out of the sky. I walked out in to my backyard, and left no tracks. While that sounds pretty cool, it’s no joke when it’s time to shovel the driveway.

So I slapped on my hat and gloves, big heavy boots and big heavy coat. I grabbed the only shovel I own (a spade, if you’re curious), and set to work. I scraped and heaved shovelful after shovelful. In single digit temperatures I was sweating profusely. Dig, Crack, Heave. Dig, Crack, Heave.

And finally, when I thought I was going to collapse, I laid down my shovel and surveyed my work: a tiny winding path that only went halfway down. I felt like I had already done so much, but like it or not, there was still so much more to do.

I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for the good people of Judah trying to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Not only was it hard physical labor, but they were under the constant threat of attack. Can you imagine having to carry a load of bricks with one hand and a sword in the other? Can you imagine having to trade off watches in your own neighborhood?

So, when they finally finish the wall, you can just picture the whole nation issuing one giant sigh of a relief. At long last, we’re back. At long last, we’re safe. At long last, we’re done. Set down the shovel, catch your breath, and enjoy a Lutheran beverage, right?

All the people come together, and Ezra pulls out the Bible and starts reading it to them. And what happens next is really interesting. At first it’s hands in the air, praise and amens! And then it’s bowing down…. and then as they’re taken deeper into the word, as the preachers start explaining and applying it to their lives they start weeping.

They had worked so hard rebuilding the city, you know they had to be tired. Then here comes the laundry list of all the things that still need done. Here comes the list of all the ways they don’t measure up. Hadn’t they already done enough? You can imagine their remorse and piled on top of that a layer of discouragement.

See, when we start taking God’s word and holding up our own lives against it, pretty soon it becomes clear that we are not the righteous, godly people we like to think we are. It convicts us. It frames us as who we really are – flawed and fallible people, who never live up to our own self-image let alone God’s perfect law.

In fact, we are just beginning the season of Lent – a time to do this very kind of self-reflection, soul-searching, and repentance. A time to recognize just how much we need a loving and forgiving God. A time to recognize just how much we still need to change.

But God doesn’t want them to stew in their sadness. There is a time for weeping, but the people of God are not meant to be joyless, self-loathers. In fact, a story like this one highlights one of the dangers of Lent. It may seem very pious to focus on feeling sorry for our sins. But God isn’t nearly as interested in feeling sorry as He is in righteous living.

God doesn’t want you to be miserable. He wants you to be joyful. Now, that doesn’t mean that God wants you to do whatever makes you happy. That gets the whole things backwards. Joy isn’t found in chasing our desires. It’s found in living like children of God.

Back to Judah. As they’re reading the scriptures they find out that they are supposed to be celebrating the Festival of Booths. So they decide to do it!

Are you tracking this story? Exactly one day after the wall of Jerusalem is completed, they celebrate by living in tents for a week! Not only that, but they have to go forage for wood to make them. That means leaving those nice, safe walls they’ve been working at for a couple months.

They might have been tired. They might have felt as if they had no strength left. But Ezra’s words must have rung true for them, “This day is holy to the LORD. Don’t grieve. The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to accomplish something when you’re motivated by love rather than obligation? I don’t enjoy grocery shopping. Cooking is not my forte. Washing dishes is not a passion of mine.
But, if I’m planning a special meal for Alisha, then I shop differently… I don’t grumpily navigate the maze of people and illogically laid out aisles as quickly as possible. I smile as I gather the best looking tomatoes. There’s a spring in my step and I’m probably humming a song as I pick through the aisles. All the way, picturing what the meal is going to be like, and how Alisha is going to react.

This Lent, we can focus on our inability to keep God’s commands. We can chastise ourselves and spend 40 days being bummed out. OR we can take this opportunity to appreciate God’s love in spite of our failings. We can reorder our lives on Him, not by the strength of our own willpower (because that never really lasts), but by the strength that godly joy imparts.

You know, God never asks us to do stuff because he needs us to do it. God doesn’t need anything from us. God’s commands don’t come out of what He needs from us, but rather they come from what He wants for us.

So, this Lenten season, let’s not fall into the trap of pious-seeming sulking. Instead, let’s seek the Joy of the Lord as we turn our hearts back to Him.

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“And when it comes to the here and now, we are all at Hope for one reason: to bring the Hope of Jesus Christ to others by serving them any way we can.”

By Pastor Mark Nieting
Transfiguration Sunday

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and from Jesus Christ, who revealed Himself in all His glory to Peter, James and John on the Mount of the Transfiguration.

It’s hard to believe that a) we’re at the beginning of the Lenten season and b) we’re on chapter 20 of The Story! Are you enjoying our journey through Scripture? I think what I like the most is that from week to week we get to reflect on the BIG PICTURE of God’s plan for our salvation. I also love that each week we get to meet a new “hero” whom God has lifted up to move The Story along. There was Abraham and Joseph; Moses and Joshua; Deborah and Samson; Samuel and Rahab; David, Solomon, Josiah (my favorite king), Daniel and his buds; all of them placed and equipped by God to do just what needed to be done, how it needed to be done and when. Each and every one of these great servants of God came along not by accident, but on purpose.

You know how things have progressed over the past 20 weeks for each one of these men and women and for Israel collectively. When they focused on God….kept God on the “highest place” of their lives, things went well. And when they became self-focused and forgot about God, you know, it didn’t go well at all. In fact, it could be downright disastrous.

On January 25, as we went through chapter 17, Pastor Cofer focused us on these words of God, spoken to the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; before you were born I set you apart!” That’s how God works with ALL His people. Each of the great heroes of the Old Testament was the right person at the right time for the job God had for them. There is a cast of New Testament all-stars as well. And on it goes throughout the history of God’s Story until it includes us. I am one. So are you. None of us is here by accident. None of us exists outside of God’s will. God knew us before He made us and gave us purpose already in the wombs of our mothers.

And when it comes to the here and now, we are all at Hope for one reason: to bring the Hope of Jesus Christ to others by serving them any way we can, through our food pantry, our school, through mission trips and neighborhood conversations. When we focus on God’s word and God’s work, things go well for us too. And when we get self-focused and think this whole thing is about us…..that’s not going to work out any better for us than it did for Israel.

As you all know, this Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Two weeks after that, the Jewish folk in our communities (and around the world) will celebrate Purim, which has its genesis in this week’s chapter: the story of Esther. For us, Lent is penitential and introspective. We spend time examining ourselves, dealing with the sins in our lives that literally cost Jesus, the Son of God, His life. For the Jews, Purim is a joyful celebration of their rescue from a holocaust; this one not under Hitler, but under Xerxes in the Persian empire. They celebrate Purim by reading the Esther scroll twice, by giving to the needy and doing charitable deeds, and they end it all with a happy, over-the-top feast of victory!

That’s where we’ll start today. It’s about 490 BC and thanks to Cyrus the Great, the Persian emperor, many of the Jews had gone back to Judea. Nehemiah and Ezra started rebuilding the temple and the city. But many of the Jews didn’t GO back. I think those of us who move around a lot get why: a lot of the Jews had sunk roots into the communities into which they had settled. Some were farmers. Some were merchants. They had homes and they were a generation or even two in their new land. So going home…..for some, not going to happen.

Let’s get into chapter 20. The fourth Persian emperor, Xerxes, held a “Persia is Great” event that lasted 180 days! He invited the military leaders of all 127 provinces to plan the invasion of Greece. At the end, there was a 7 day long mega-party. After drinking his fill, and being rather “full of himself,” Xerxes comes up with the bright idea to demand that his queen, Vashti, come to dance for all the men wearing her crown. She responds by saying “over my dead body,” and Xerxes, disrespected in front of all these leaders, says “that can be arranged.”

Later, missing his queen, they go searching for a replacement. They fill the harem with young girls from all over the empire and, short ending to a long process, a lovely young Jewish girl named Esther ends up as the new queen. Through it all, coached by her cousin Mordecai, who is always at the right place at the right time, she keeps her heritage a secret.

(Interjection: Isn’t it interesting that of all the cultures of the ancient world, it’s God’s people who are blessed with a whole series of strong women. It’s not just Abraham….it’s Abraham and Sarah. It’s Moses and Miriam. Then there’s Ruth, Rahab, and Deborah, just to name a few. In most culture, the women were objectified, but not so with God’s people!)

MEANWHILE (and here, if we had a musical score it would shift to an ominous tone), the anti-Semitic Haman was named prime minister of Persia. We’re going to learn something new here: as the Jews read the Esther scroll during Purim, every time Haman’s name is read, they all stomp their feet and boo. So let’s try it: “Haman!” (stomp your feet and boo). Good… we can go on. Mordecai refused to bow down and honor Haman (boo). This wasn’t a 1st commandment issue: it was because Haman (boo) was an Amalekite, a nation at war with the Jews since the time of the Exodus. The Amalekites hated the Jews and Haman (boo) seemed to get a big dose of this hatred, especially since Mordecai wouldn’t bow to him. So Haman (boo) set up a scheme to have all the Jews in Persia slaughtered. They even held a lottery to determine the day!

Xerxes signed the law: the holocaust was to happen on the 13th day of the 12th month. Every Jew in the empire knew he or she had 11 months to live. It was a terrible time for them.

Mordecai went into action. He set up a meeting with Esther and asked her to intervene on behalf of all the Jews of the empire. Esther was terrified…..she remembered what happened to Vashti. Then Mordecai plays his trump card. It’s our text for today, from Esther 4: 13ff: (Esther) do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?
“For such a time as this!” Hasn’t that been true of every one of the Great Heroes we’ve been studying since the beginning of the Story?

Esther could have kept her mouth shut. She could have been satisfied living as queen of the land in the palace with the finest of everything Persia had to offer. She could have adopted the philosophy of so many: eat, drink and be merry….for tomorrow you die.

Instead, Mordecai’s words touched her heart. She asked him to have all the Jews in the city fast (and pray) for 3 days. Then she invited Xerxes and Haman (boo) to a huge banquet. Haman (boo) went home with his ego flying high…..until he walked by Mordecai, who again wouldn’t bow down. Haman (boo) ordered a huge gallows built just for the hanging of Mordecai.

The next day, at Esther’s second banquet….when Haman (boo) expected to be honored in wonderful ways, Esther reveals her true identity as a Jew and pleads for the salvation of her people who were under the threat of annihilation. Xerxes was furious that his dear queen would be in danger and asked who was behind the plot. In the end, Haman (boo) was hanged on his own gallows along with all ten of his sons and, instead of being killed, the Jews were able to kill all those who were out to kill them!

The chapter and the story of Esther ends with the Jews across the entire Persian empire giving thanks to God for His deliverance not only from Haman (our last boo), but finally and completely from the Amelikites. On the 13th day of the 12th month, the day in which they were to be slaughtered, they began a feast of celebration that continues to this day; and all of it because young Queen Esther remembered that she was “where she was and when she was and who she was” for such a time as this.

I am sure that Queen Esther was tempted to slink back into her chambers with her maids, her makeup, her fancy meals and her pampered lifestyle. After all, she knew what happened to Vashti when SHE spoke up. She could have argued that this was what life was all about: being entertained and staying happy. But Esther, like Jeremiah and all those great heroes before her, realized that life was and still is far more than that. She realized she was made by God for such a time as this. She knew she had a mission. She knew she had a purpose.

You may never be in a position where obeying God is a matter of life and death. I hope you never are! Probably the worst thing that could happen to most of us today is a little ridicule…..someone making fun of us because we obey God and because we love Jesus. People may think we’re fanatics just because we have a pro-life bumper sticker on our cars or because we keep a Bible on our desk or we refuse to do soccer practice on Ash Wednesday. You may even think it’s crazy to wake up in the middle of the night worrying about a friend and wondering if YOU are the one who should talk to him or her.

Those are our “Esther moments.” We….as God’s people…..were baptized and called by God for such a time as this. Imagine what our world….our city….or our street would be like if every one of us would adopt Esther’s commitment as our own: Because I am born for such a time as this, I will go to the king, or the friend, or the co-worker, or the neighbor….and if I perish, I perish!

Esther was willing to take her chances because she knew WHO was in charge. Are you?

Let us pray: Lord, I may not be a great hero in Your Story, but I can make a difference. Help me do so!

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“It isn’t about how much you’re giving to God. It’s about whether you trust God to provide for you.”

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Haggai 1:2-12

After about 70 years as a broken and scattered people, Judah was at last allowed to return to Jerusalem. Imagine the excitement… The grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who were hauled off in chains were going back to their homeland. They were going to rebuild, to put their lives back together.

How would you feel if for 70 years we had been forbidden to set foot in a church? For 70 years we hadn’t been able to share the Lord’s Supper, or hear the Word of God read aloud. And then, one day, the doors are thrown open and we’re allowed back in.

That’s what it was like for Judah. It’s not just that they were driven from their homes – but with the temple in ruins their whole religious life was in exile too. But now, at long last they were going home to set it right again.

And they started off strongly. They put the altar together. They laid the foundation of the temple. And then… well… it got hard. Their neighbors harassed and frustrated their efforts until finally the people of Judah gave up. They decided to wait it out, and invest in their own houses first.

Maybe when they got their own houses in order…. maybe when life wasn’t so chaotic… maybe then they could focus in on building the temple. But, as it turns out, there is always a little more work that the house needs. And when the harvest comes around, you find out you’re not going to have as much as you had hoped this year. And that ideal time you’ve been waiting on never seems to come.

So the Word of the Lord comes to Judah, “Is it time for you yourselves to be living in paneled houses, while [My] house remains in ruins?” Now, you and I both know that God doesn’t need a house to live in. The issue isn’t that God is homeless. The issue is that the people of God are more focused on their needs than on what God deserves.

It’s an easy thing to happen because our needs are right in our face, demanding our attention. But, ironically, focusing on our needs usually just leads to dissatisfaction. God goes on to say, “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.” Anyone ever feel like that?

The thing is, if we wait until we “level out” or “get to a better place” before we give to God, we will probably never do it. Expenses will always grow. Schedules will always get tighter. Life is going to stay crazy.

But God doesn’t ask us to give to Him “when it’s convenient” or “when we’re ready.” And the reason why is, He
doesn’t actually need your money. We don’t give to pay bills, or make the church run. If that was why we gave, then the “wait until you have it” mentality would be just fine.

No, God asks us to give Him the first fruits of our income because it is the most basic and concrete act of trust you can do. This is why Jesus makes such a fuss about the Widow’s Mite. “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

It isn’t about how much you’re giving to God. It’s about whether you trust God to provide for you. It’s easy to say, but it isn’t trust until it makes it from your lips to your wallet.

That’s why God asks for first fruits. If He’s paid out of “whatever is left,” it doesn’t require trust. And, in my experience at least, your expenses will always grow to match your income. If we aren’t giving to God off the top, it becomes harder and harder to do.

Today is Grow One Sunday. Today is a day when you can take a step forward in trusting God to provide for you.

The ushers are handing out pledge cards. We’re going to take a few moments to look these over and fill them out.
If you are a visitor with us today, please don’t feel pressured to fill out one of these cards. This is something that our members do once a year.

Of course, it isn’t required of anyone, but let me encourage you with a few thoughts. I know many people feel like their giving is between them and God. I totally agree. If you don’t want to write down the amount you are giving, that is absolutely fine. But please consider checking one of the STEP UP boxes.

This is a way of making a concrete promise between you and God. Sometimes when I have something in my mind, it’s easy to second guess myself, or just plain forget. Putting your commitment on paper takes it “outside of you,” and moves it from being a thought to being a fact.

So let’s take a few moments to make our commitments to trust God.

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“You don’t have to know what to say ahead of time. You just have to trust that when the moment comes, God will give you the words.”

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Jeremiah 1: 1-8

We’ve been reading about prophets these last few chapters. These guys seem like pretty serious spiritual heavy-hitters… And we might be tempted to kind of lump them together as sort of an elite. But they weren’t a special class of people. They were just people like you and me. They were people with the same fears and insecurities as us.

The fact is this: being a prophet isn’t something you’re trained for. It’s something you’re called to, and there are no prerequisites other than listening to God.

And while we’ve spent the last several weeks looking at the Story from an epic scale – watching kingdoms rise and fall, seeing incredible miracles performed – this week we’re going to focus on a very narrow, very personal moment. This week we’re going to focus on the private conversation between God and Jeremiah, the prophet.

Jeremiah lived in a critical time for God’s people. Judah had an on-again-off-again relationship with God – mostly depending on who was king at the time. Jeremiah’s king, Josiah, was doing what he could to call the people to faithfulness. But as soon as he died, the people went back to their old idolatries.

As you can imagine, Jeremiah was called into a difficult context… many of the people he served were nominally God fearing. They had heard God’s word, but it didn’t remain central to their lives. They had the freedom to worship God, but they didn’t know (or maybe didn’t care) that they were just a breath away from losing it. I wonder if we can relate?

So when God approaches Jeremiah, He comes to him with both a tenderness of heart and firmness of purpose. “From before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. From before you were born, I set you apart.”

You know, those words aren’t just for Jeremiah. They are true for every one of us. And some of us need to hear those words today. Are you feeling lost or purposeless? Are you feeling misunderstood? From before you were born, God knew you. You are not an accident. You are not a mistake. God had you in mind since before your great grandparents met.

That also means that He has been waiting for the right time and the right place to put you. He chose you for right here and right now. Your neighborhood, your social circles, your workplace – God was waiting for them all to line up just right so he could put you in them. Shouldn’t that fact transform how we look at our daily routines?

Of course, Jeremiah offers up every good excuse he can think of not to be God’s messenger. “I don’t know how to speak!” How many of us have said or thought the same thing about sharing the Gospel? “I don’t have that training,” “I don’t have that gift,” “I don’t know what I would say.” You know, it seems a lot of God’s prophets say that kind of thing… guys like Moses and Elijah. Does that stop God?

Or, here’s another excuse: “I’m too young.” Which is to say, “Why would people listen to me? I’m nobody special. I have no experience. I’m not well respected. I’m not an expert. Even if I am the right guy, I’m not ready yet.”

Was God persuaded? “You’re right Jeremiah… I’ll come back when you’re better qualified. Actually, better still, I’ll find someone else.” Of course God didn’t say those things.

Instead, His response was essentially, “Don’t worry about that stuff. Just do what I ask you to do. Don’t be afraid, I am with you.”
You know, I think a lot of the fear and hesitation we have in sharing our faith with others comes directly from the fact that we’re concerned about how well we’ll do it and what others might think of us for trying. Those questions are non-issues for God. He talked through a flaming shrub and a donkey. He can use you at least as well as the local flora and fauna.

This is why God reaches out and touches Jeremiah on the lips and says, “I have put my words in your mouth.” You don’t have to be brilliant or charming or whatever. You don’t have to know what to say ahead of time. You just have to trust that when the moment comes, God will give you the words.

This phenomenon is not restricted to some bygone time of prophecy. This is how it works to this day. Jesus himself promises, “Do not worry about how you will defend yourself or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” God isn’t looking for you to have a well-polished and rehearsed sales pitch. He is looking for willingness to speak and trust that he will take care of it.

And when those opportunities come up, you may go out on a limb and share God with someone else – and it may not go well. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you did it wrong. Think about how many people Jesus spoke to. Sometimes people were moved to repentance and joy. Other times they pick up rocks to stone him.

Jeremiah himself preached and preached and preached and the people of his day did not listen. Does that mean he did it wrong? Does that make him a failure? Of course not. He was faithful to God’s calling, and that’s the only true measure of success a prophet has. But, having said that, think about this: those words he spoke weren’t empty. They didn’t die with his generation. God has and still is using those words to bring hope and truth to people even today.

That’s the amazing thing about God putting words in your mouth… His words are eternal and make an eternal difference. It’s not about your ability; it’s about His words. There isn’t even the pressure of “Getting results.” Results are God’s business.

It’s just about being faithful.

God has chosen you for this time and place, and he is sending you out to bring His life-saving word to folks you already know.

Don’t worry about what you’ll say when you get there… He’ll supply the words. He is just asking to use your mouth.

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Question: how does a little lamb get lost? Does it decide one day to wander off? No, it simply nibbles here and nibbles there, wherever the grass seems greenest and longest, until one day it’s far from where it started and far from where it should be.

Pastor Mark Nieting

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, on this the Sunday when we recognize 18 years of youth ministry by Linda Muth…..AND the Sunday when Christopher Kern is being confirmed. Praise God for all that!

We’re also on chapter 16 of The STORY, which…..and this has nothing to do with Linda’s retirement….. is titled “The Beginning of the End (for the Kingdom of Israel).” So we have the pleasure of delivering one message with three parts:

-Thank God for His faithful Prophet and Servant, Linda…aka “Momma” Muth!
-Thank God that Christopher Kern is putting God first in his life;
-Be very aware of who or what occupies the “high places” in our lives.

Let’s start with chapter 16. The northern 10 tribes of God’s people….ISRAEL….under King Jeroboam had left the southern 2 tribes, Judah, led by King Rehoboam. Jeroboam, who had been a Godly young man, had put his own ego ahead of his God. He had set up two golden calves for his people to worship. He allowed altars to false gods to be built on all the “high places” of Israel. (Building altars on hill-tops was supposed to assure that their gods could hear them better, which obviously didn’t happen in the case of Elijah vs the 450 Prophets of Baal!) Israel moved away from God and began to worship false gods and sacred stones and who knows what else! Despite what was written in God’s Word, their bad behavior did not end. It kept getting worse as they kept getting farther and farther from God!

None of this pleased God, so He sent prophet after prophet to warn His people that they were headed in the wrong direction. Each prophet warned them that if they didn’t change, they would face destruction. Elijah, Elisha, Hosea and Amos, along with companies of other faithful prophets warned Israel for 208 years! Over that time Israel had 19 kings, and not ONE of them listened. Not one of them put God first! Every single one led God’s dear people farther away from God and deeper into idolatry until finally…..and this is where chapter 16 begins (page 219, or 2 Kings 17), in 722 BC, the Assyrians marched in and put an end to Israel. After a 3 year siege, King Schalmaneser deported most of the people to Assyria and resettled the land with folk from other parts of his kingdom. Israel was gone, forever.

Page 219 (2 Kings 17:7) tells us why: All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of Egypt from under the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They worshiped other gods. They did wicked things that aroused the Lord’s anger. They worshiped idols, though the Lord had said, You shall not do this. The Lord warned Israel AND Judah through all his prophets and seers. We’ll stop here, because I’m quite sure the point is made. After 208 years of warnings, God’s anger reached its zenith and His patience ran out.

A few miles to the south, the people of Judah watched all this happen. After Ahaz and Jezebel, who were the worst of the bunch down there, a 25 year old named Hezekiah took over Judah’s throne. Quoting from 2 Kings 18:3, He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. The Lord was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook.

Let’s summarize. Israel failed; Judah remained. What was the difference? What happened? One kingdom had nothing but ungodly kings making ungodly decisions and doing ungodly things. In the other, some faithfulness to God remained.
As you know, there’s a lot more to chapter 16, but it’s time to apply what we’ve learned to the stories of our own lives as God’s people….or, as we like to think of ourselves, as “Jesus’ little lambs.”

Question: how does a little lamb get lost? Does it decide one day to wander off? No, it simply nibbles here and nibbles there, wherever the grass seems greenest and longest, until one day it’s far from where it started and far from where it should be. That’s what sheep do. With people, it’s one bad decision after another that ultimately can lead to failure…..even spiritual failure. That isn’t what anyone wants…..that’s why we pastors do what we do and that’s why we are blessed with people like Linda Muth, who work so hard to keep our young people on the right track.

Since we’re doing our due-diligence about following the ten tribes of Israel into spiritual disaster, here are three steps, three disastrous decisions that can be followed that can GUARANTEE failure.

First, Reject God’s Covenant. Ever since He established His covenant with Abraham, and Moses, God has promised to be loyal to His People! He has promised to guide, guard, protect and SAVE His people. But Israel wasn’t loyal to God and eventually, Judah wasn’t either. They replaced God with golden calves, Baals, Asherah poles, sacred stones and strange gods……none of which can EVER take God’s place. It’s a “first-commandment” issue: God is First or God is nothing.

Second, Reject God’s Word. If you want to fail at driving, just ignore all the signs, ignore all the lanes and ignore all the rules. Don’t do the do’s and do the don’ts and the end result is guaranteed to be disastrous. The same goes for God’s Word. We ignore it at our peril. Israel did.

Third, Reject God’s Messengers. Israel, even Israel’s Kings, rejected God’s prophets and that led to disaster. God still sends messengers to His people today: pastors, parents, youth workers….”Momma Muth” isn’t here by accident; God SENT her to Hope 18 years ago as one of His messengers.

Unfortunately, it’s not hard to crash and burn in life, spiritually speaking. After all, lined up against each one of us is a formidable set of enemies: the devil, the sinful world, and our own fallen human nature…..all of them intent on destroying our relationship with God. All of them are trying to keep God from being #1 in our lives. All of them are hell-bent, so to speak, on keeping us from God….forever. What do we do? We know what’s against us….we’ve already covered that. So, that given, how do we respond? How do we succeed? What’s on OUR side?

Maybe, like good King Hezekiah, the spiritual roots of your family tree aren’t too healthy. You didn’t have friends, teachers or parents acting as God’s messengers. Maybe you’ve come to faith late in life. Could be that right now you’re wrestling with some really difficult issues…..and you’re being pulled in a dozen different directions.

Dear one, remember that God loves you! He wants you to be a part of His eternal Upper Story. All of us are going to take some advice from young King Hezekiah. He was only 25 when his reign began, and it lasted 29 years…..29 GOOD years. 29 blessed years. We read some of the description from the STORY on page 220, but here’s how he did it. It’s found in 2 Kings 18: 5: Hezekiah TRUSTED the Lord, the God of Israel. (The STORY skips this verse.)

Trust is a verb, and, this is important to remember….it’s an ACTIVE verb. It’s not passive. It’s not timid. It’s not afraid. It’s not just an encouragement to drift along……Trust is lived out. Verse 5 goes on: There was no one like (Hezekiah) among all the kings of Judah, before or after. He held FAST to the Lord and did not cease to follow Him; he kept all the commands the Lord had given Moses. (We should read this again!)

Worried about the state of today’s world? TRUST GOD. Worried about terrorism and radical Islam? Keep God first on the throne of your life! Worried about the sinking moral values of the country and what seems to be a war on Christianity? Remember the words of Elisha (from last week) as he pointed out God’s angel army in their fiery chariots: Those who are with us are more than those who are against us! Trust GOD! Remember that Isaiah the prophet came alongside Hezekiah the King when he needed him the most, just like “Momma Muth” has come alongside some of you when you needed her the most….and given you the very same advice Isaiah did: Trust GOD!

And remember that it is God who wins the victories on behalf of His faithful people!

Mrs Muth has been a faithful “prophet, teacher, counselor and friend” to the people and especially the youth of Hope for 18 years! She has helped scores, if not hundreds of “us” to remain faithful to God. She has reminded us that grace and forgiveness are found at the foot of Christ’s cross. She has been a faithful servant, teaching and leading us to trust in God and then, like good King Hezekiah, to be successful in all we do.

We thank God for her. We thank God for all who have walked and worked with her. We thank God for one He is already preparing to take her place as our youth director. We thank God for His Covenant, His Word, His Messengers, and for including US in HIS STORY.

Amen.

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Jesus isn’t really the type that can be squeezed in as “one more thing” in a busy schedule.

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Luke 1:46-56

Christmas is practically upon us, and so our minds are full of so many wonderful things. The lights are hung; the tree is trimmed. The presents are (almost) all purchased and the ones that have been wrapped are making a lovely pile under the tree. Carols are streaming out of every radio.

We’ve made our lists. We’re checking them for the second time. And we’re running back to the store again, despite the crush of last minute shoppers on the roads and in the aisles. It’s a mad scramble, because we can measure the time between today and Christmas Eve in hours. But, we have to brave the crowds, bake the cookies, wrap the presents, and all that other stuff. We have to, because we want Christmas to be perfect.

Isn’t it funny how our preparation for Christmas is not at all like Mary’s was? She wasn’t buying or baking or scrubbing anything particularly. She was spending time with her family, reflecting upon the mystery of God choosing to come to us in the form of a baby. She even wrote a song about it.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.” Such personal words… she’s talking about her innermost self. Sometimes, I’m afraid, I magnify the Lord with my mouth but my soul isn’t tuned in. But not Mary; not now. The gravity and scope of what this child will mean for the world has passed through her ears, through her mind, and taken up residence in her soul.

I wonder if in the bustle of Christmas preparations, maybe we haven’t taken the time to really ponder the fact that the fullness of God was wrapped up in a vulnerable little child in the belly of a teenage girl. Maybe we need to take the time to really meditate on all the different ways that God is our Savior – and what it cost Him to be it.

That, of course, isn’t the end of the song… the majority of the song is actually quite surprising – revolutionary, even. In a sense, I think Mary is trying to work through the question, “Why me?” Not in a bad way, obviously, it’s just that she seems so unlikely.

So, why Mary? She wasn’t wealthy. She wasn’t powerful. She wasn’t particularly educated. She wasn’t even married.

Now, usually I’d say something like, “But God chose Mary anyway.” But if we read Mary’s song a little more carefully, I think we might come to a different conclusion. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has uplifted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.”

God didn’t choose Mary in spite of her lowly place in the world. He chose her because of her lowly place. Think about this… What if Mary was rich? What if she was powerful? Do you think God would still have chosen her?

I wonder how Mary’s hopes and dreams changed after that visit with the angel. I can imagine as a young girl that she dreamt about living in a fine house, and wearing fine clothes; being popular and respected and maybe even envied.

But God hadn’t chosen that for her. He chose her poor, lowly, and even outcast specifically because of Jesus! That was how she was best able to do what God asked of her. That was her lot, even at the same time that God was giving her the highest honor any mother could possibly receive.

Is that what we aspire to be? Humble, lowly, meek, and poor? Or deep down would we rather be rich and influential and popular?

It seems to be a pattern throughout Jesus life that He is welcome among the lowly, but the proud, the powerful, the wealthy have little patience or room for Him. Jesus isn’t really the type that can be squeezed in as “one more thing” in a busy schedule. I don’t want my life to be like an inn so full of “paying customers,” that it has no room to receive the meek and mild Christ child.

Maybe, in the few days left before Christmas, we should make a deliberate effort to be a little more humble and a little lowlier. Let’s find ways to scale down our plans. Let’s find things to cut out of our schedule. Let’s think about what is really important this Christmas, and commit to make that our priority.

Let’s make peace with doing a little less, even if our Christmas won’t be Norman Rockwell perfect. And maybe with that extra time we can make room to be in awe of God on High, creator of the Universe and King of All That Is, taking the form of a newborn baby.

Maybe we can turn off the TV, and the cellphone and the tablet, and then read the story of Jesus’ birth as a family right out of the Bible. Maybe we can sing Silent Night together. Maybe we can thank God for all that we have… most especially Jesus.
Because Mary’s song should be ours, too. God chose to give us Jesus, even though we don’t deserve it. And our hearts should rejoice in God, our Savior. Because of this Jesus, all generations will call us blessed. Not because we’re wealthy. Not because we’re powerful. But because the God of the universe has come to live inside of us as well.

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No one wakes up one morning and says, “Well, today I’m going to ruin my life! Today, I’m going to make God really, really angry at me!” It doesn’t work that way! What we jump into isn’t bubbling and steaming and boiling…..it’s usually warm and inviting, usually almost irresistible.

By Pastor Mark Nieting

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

We’ve all heard this one: put a frog in really hot water and….. it will jump out, but put a frog in tepid water, turn up the heat, and it will cook itself to death with a smile on its face! Believe it or not, the science on this one began in 1869 and it’s still going on, if they can get the frogs to hold still long enough. Whatever the science, the frog and the pot have been used as a metaphor about a wide range of things, today included!

We’re talking today about Solomon, the “wisest man who ever lived,” the topic of chapter 13 of The STORY. (Hold up your copy….let’s see who has them here.) Turn to page 175, the beginning of chapter 13 (or 1 Kings 1). The chapter begins with David. Remember the phrase we used for David? He was a “man after God’s own heart.” Despite his “king-sized sin,” David loved God and kept God first. We see his love for God all through the psalms in Scripture….who doesn’t get a glimpse of the joy David felt over the love and grace of God! Finally though, after 40 years of ruling Israel, King David was getting old. (He was in his late 60s!) He knew that it was time for him to turn over the kingdom to his son Solomon, a promise he had made to Bathsheba.

On p. 176 we can read David’s “charge” to Solomon: Be strong, act like a man and observe what the Lord your God requires. Walk in obedience to him and keep his decrees, commands, laws and regulations and, shorten it up, if you do, you will prosper.

David died and Solomon became the king of Israel. Solomon began well. He went to the great altar at Gibeon and sacrificed a thousand burnt offerings to God. While he was there, God appeared to him in a dream and said, “Solomon, ask for whatever you want me to give you and I will give it to you!”

What would YOU do if that was your dream? ANYTHING! You could ask for a million bucks! Think of what went through Solomon’s mind when he thought about God’s offer. But you already know what he requested: his words are on the top of 177: Lord, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, but I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong!

Solomon asked for wisdom and God was so impressed that He not only gave him wisdom but wealth and honor more than any other. Solomon demonstrated his wisdom almost immediately in the story of the two women, the baby and the sword.

Turn to page 178, the last paragraph, and we find this: God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. Just Solomon’s name to us means wisdom!

Solomon started writing down his God-given wisdom, eventually filling what would become three books of the Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon, books that today we call “wisdom literature.” We’ve got a few dozen of his proverbs included in our chapter of the Story, starting on page 182. How about this one: better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and nagging wife! Actually I like this one better: the glory of young men is their strength, gray hair is the splendor of the old. Or how about this one: if someone curses their father or mother their lamp will be snuffed out in pitch darkness. One more: trust in the Lord with your whole heart and lean not on your own understanding.

Solomon wrote 3000 proverbs and they are truly amazing. In fact, everything about Solomon was amazing. Everything he touched literally turned to gold. He built Israel into a great power and a wealthy nation. After four years he began building God’s temple, and it too was amazing….the most beautiful building the world had ever seen. There wasn’t a business deal where Solomon didn’t do well. His annual income was 23 TONS of gold! He wasn’t just a ‘frog,’ he was THE FROG; he was the “bull-frog” if you will, and as frogs go, he was the one that every princess was happy to kiss …..and 700 princesses did kiss him, and they all became his wives……..and that, dear friends, was the pot that cooked old Solomon.

Turn to page 188, the lower half. When the temple was completed, there was a huge festival of dedication. Late that night God appeared to Solomon again, offering him both a promise and a warning: IF you walk before me faithfully, as David your father did, and do all I command and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne……BUT IF you turn away and forsake the decrees and commands I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship then, then I will uproot Israel from my land which I have given them and I will reject this temple I have consecrated!

It would seem to be the kind of advice a WISE man would heed, would it not?

Yes it would, but there was still that “pesky pot of lukewarm water” lurking around the edges of Solomon’s life. Turn to page 191, the last word in the 3rd line from the bottom: nevertheless. It’s almost ominous by itself, and it’s worse in context: Solomon loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter- Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israel: You must not intermarry with them because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods! Then there is that word: nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love!

Whether Solomon thought he was too smart to get into trouble or whether he was simply overcome by his rather enormous libido or whatever 1,000 other reasons he may have had, as page 192 begins, his wives turned his heart after other gods and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God as his father David had been. And he did evil in the eyes of the Lord.

Solomon started life well. Solomon started strongly. He began his reign just FILLED with wisdom given by God directly. He KNEW what the pitfalls and potholes (and even pot-fulls!) could be and yet….somehow…..in the end, he blew it. It’s not a “they all lived happily ever after” ending…….. the handsome prince ended up the boiled frog.

There aren’t many Bible stories that are easier to apply, are there? BE CAREFUL OR YOU WILL END UP IN HOT WATER and YOU WILL BE A COOKED FROG!

It would be nice if it were that simple, right? But no one wakes up one morning and says, “Well, today I’m going to ruin my life! Today I’m going to make God really, really angry at me!” It doesn’t work that way! What we jump into isn’t bubbling and steaming and boiling…..it’s usually warm and inviting, usually almost irresistible. It looks harmless at first, but once we’re there, the heat starts going up. And then it’s not just our own lives that can be ruined, but the lives of others around us: our kids, our grandkids, even unbelievers who are watching us. We don’t want that and they don’t need that.

Let’s allow Solomon’s un-wise choices to motivate us to take some very real, practical steps for stay out of the pot. Write these 3 steps down as gifts from Solomon!

First, we must desire to “finish strong.” We should wake up every day saying “God, I thank you for my life. I thank You for my baptism. I thank You for my faith. Help me live strongly and finish strongly for the sake of Jesus, for the sake of others around me, and for the sake of living a truly blessed life!! Hear Jesus words from Revelation 2:10 “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life!” How we finish matters!

Second, we NEED to ask God for wisdom. Jesus’ brother James records God’s promise in James 1:5: If any of you lacks wisdom (anyone here believe he/she has enough?) he should ask God…….and it will be given to him. How’s that for a recommended bed-time prayer! Ask God for wisdom and He will give it! In fact, it would be great if each of us would sit down and READ Solomon’s wisdom: read Proverbs, asking God to use it to help us identify the pots of danger that might just end up cooking us!

But as we’ve learned from Solomon, wisdom isn’t always enough. If it wasn’t enough for Solomon, it’s not enough for us. There’s one more thing we need in our lives, one thing that’s extremely helpful and that’s this: we need accountability. This is the last STORY sermon before the New Year, so I’m going to suggest a New Year’s Resolution that we all make for 2015, to help each of us LIVE STRONGLY and FINISH STRONGLY. Resolve to bring someone into our lives to hold us accountable in those areas where you really struggle, whatever they are. This is a tough one, because “honestly, who likes to be so honest” as to have someone call us out when we step over lines we have asked them to help us maintain? That’s tough stuff for any of us, but it is a real blessing! In the purest sense, “that’s what friends are for!”

We learn from Solomon that it is good to live wisely, a gift that God will provide. It’s essential to finish strongly. And there’s one more thing: if we’re already “in the pot” and the water is getting hot and we’re feeling rather cooked, God is always there to reach down, pull us out (wrinkled or medium-well as we might be done) and bless us with forgiveness! After all, isn’t that why Jesus came that very first Christmas? Amen.

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“With God there are no cover-ups. With God everything is clear as day…And sin has consequences.”

By Pastor Mark Nieting

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!

Last week Pam and I were visiting my son Ben and his 2 daughters, and my daughter Reba and her 2 sons in San Diego. We met Stone, almost 3 months old now! Of course I got to help both families set up their Christmas trees and, even more exciting, get the trains running underneath them. That’s a big part of my legacy as a father and grandfather…..a train (or more) under the tree!

We were also pleasantly surprised to find that their church is also going through The Story! So, after church, and being the good father and grandfather that I try to be, I did some asking. Are you reading The Story at home? Do the kids have their own versions of The Story? I wasn’t happy with the answers to either question, so I think I know what they will get for Christmas….but that reminded me that I wanted to ask you: are YOU still reading The Story? And, for those of you with children, are you reading it to them?

One of the things we’ve repeated over the past weeks is the important role parents have in making certain that The STORY is passed on from generation to generation. It’s one thing to leave a legacy of trains or crafts or Nascar or chess-playing; but as wonderful as those things are, they won’t bless our descendents with an eternal relationship with the God of the UPPER STORY who made them and loves them and wants them to be with Him forever in heaven! Only the legacy of faith in Jesus Christ, passed on from one generation to the next will make that possible!!

Last week Chaplain Sneath introduced us to David, the “runt of the litter” shepherd boy giant-killing soon-to-be-king of Israel. In 1 Samuel 13 we can read exactly what God thought of David: he was “a man after His (God’s) own heart.” If ever there was a statement we might wish to be included in OUR legacy, wouldn’t it be that?

One of the things we love about David is his songs. We’ve got scores of them recorded for us in 2 Samuel, 1 Chronicles, and, of course, the Psalms. In good times and in bad he wrote his songs like some of you keep prayer journals: they were his conversations with God. Who can’t relate to the shepherd who later would write “the Lord is MY shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He restores my soul!” And when life gets tough, who isn’t blessed by these words: “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….I will fear no evil, for you are with me!”

David WAS a man after God’s own heart, and as you’ve read, God saw to it that David became the king after Saul’s death. Finally, after 14 very difficult years, David had arrived and things seemed to fall beautifully into place. Everything went well for David. He conquered Jerusalem and made it Israel’s capital city.

He brought the Ark of the Covenant there and began assembling materials for a temple to replace the tabernacle. He defeated the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites and the Edomites. He befriended Mephibosheth, the crippled grandson of Saul. In 2 Samuel 8:15 we read this: “David reigned over all Israel, doing what was just and right for all his people.”

Then, just when everything was going so well, David fell victim to one of the biggest lies Satan spins among God’s people: If it makes you happy, do it! It all started at the beginning of chapter 12: In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole army. But David stayed in Jerusalem.

It probably started quite innocently. One evening David was walking on the balcony of the palace and something…..someone caught his eye: a very beautiful woman taking a bath. There’s probably, and I added the word probably late in the writing, not a man in this room whose head wouldn’t turn for at least a moment…..given how we’re wired, and David’s certainly did. I’m happy to cut David a little slack here: he didn’t have his telescope aimed at Bathsheba’s bathroom window. He wasn’t surfing the internet or cruising singles bars with his wedding ring(s) in his pocket. His eyes just happened to see what he didn’t need to see.

It could have…..and it SHOULD have…..ended right there. Enough alarm bells and red flags would have been ringing and waving to derail David’s imagination, but not this time. Instead of turning away and bringing the whole story to a halt, it all blew up into an episode of DAYS OF OUR LIVES. David sent a servant to find out who this beautiful creature was; and when he found out her husband was away at war, he had her brought to the palace and then…… he slept with her.

Far too often, the sins of our lives start like the seeds of weeds…..they sprout, take root, grow and finally blossom. James, the half-brother of Jesus, writes it this way: “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death!” (James 1:14-15)

It’s so simple to say but it’s so hard to do: we must avoid sin’s conception. Sin is easiest to stop when it hasn’t gotten its roots tangled up in our lives.

The next morning Bathsheba went back home and David probably thought nothing would come of the whole affair…..until a few weeks later when she sent him a note saying she was pregnant. (2 Sam 11 is crystal clear that the child was his.) David had the makings of a full-fledged scandal in the palace. It was the right time to come clean, to “fess up” and make things right. That’s what SHOULD have happened. That’s what conscience does for us. That’s what God wants from us.

That’s not what David did. Instead of confess, David did exactly the opposite. He did what should always be avoided: he began a cover up. He ordered some R&R for Uriah, hoping a little time at home with his beautiful wife would take any suspicion off of David as the father of the child-to-be. Uriah refused to dishonor his brothers-in-arms, and so David made it worse: he ordered Uriah sent up to the front lines, where he was killed. Then David brought Bathsheba into the palace and married her, making it look like he was being the champion of the poor widow and her son……. And that’s when David probably thought he had dodged the…..sword.

Nope. With God there are no cover-ups. With God everything is clear as day. In David’s case, God’s prophet Nathan confronts him with the fact that it’s not just a sin against Uriah; it’s not just a sin against Bathsheba; it’s against God! And sin has consequences.

Friends, it all started so innocently…..one glance from the rooftop. That was the seed, and it could have, and it should have ended right there. But it didn’t. It took root and bloomed into full fledged adultery. Adultery is like that. It usually starts with a smile or a look or a conversation and the seeds of “what if” get planted. God has one thing to say about adultery: No! Don’t do it. Don’t even THINK about it!

Imagine what would have happened if immediately after his “rooftop experience” God would have shown David everything that would have come to pass as a result? David, if you don’t stop this now, you will tell more lies than you’ve ever told in your life! David, if you don’t stop this now you will conceive a child out of marriage. David, you will be responsible for a murder! David, the baby will die! David, you will be driven out of Jerusalem! David, do you really think what you are doing will be worth what you think?

I wish that God would make that same prophetic vision possible for people who are headed down that same path today! Please realize what adultery will do to your kids! Please realize what it will do to your integrity! Please realize the consequences and please stop!

David was confronted with his sins and once again, there was a choice. Like Saul, he could rationalize his behavior and make up all sorts of excuses. Saul was always too proud to admit he was wrong. But thank God, this time David got it right! David accepted sin’s confrontation. God sent Nathan the prophet for a moment of face-to-face confrontation. Nathan pulled no punches and I’m sure you read David’s confession on page 163, where he said, “I have sinned against God!” But David’s heart was broken far beyond those five words. In Psalm 51 David POURED out his brokenness to God: Have mercy on me, O God. According to your unfailing love, according to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

The psalm goes on but there are two final points to be made. We must accept sin’s consequences. That’s what David had to do. Before Bathsheba, everything went David’s way. Afterwards? His baby died. His daughter was raped. His son rebelled. That son died. Another son rebelled. Sin has consequences! We may not like it, but it’s true. We see the results of that in headline news day after day, and we see it in our lives. It’s not pretty but it’s real. In fact, it can be downright brutal…..and even deadly.

But the best part of this story is yet to come. David COULD HAVE been bitter and angry at God for not stepping in and preventing all these terrible things from happening, but he wasn’t. Instead, he faced the consequences caused by HIS sins with dignity. His life went south, but he was still in love with God. In fact, David’s final prayer before the nation of Israel (2 Sam 23) is one of praise and thanksgiving to God for His mercy!

Because David owned up to his sin and accepted the consequences of his behavior, God continued to bless him in other ways. In what I think is a real ‘head-scratcher’ of a demonstration of love, David and Bathsheba had other children, including one named Solomon, who would be the next king of Israel! That’s how God works…in mysterious ways.

God would LOVE it if we would all be like the loyal, selfless Uriah or the faithful and courageous Nathan but if, like David, we make a mistake…..even a “king-sized” mistake, He still loves us and He will still use us as part of His plan to bring others to the same forgiveness we so wonderfully enjoy!

Isn’t that what a church IS? At any given point, any Christian church on earth is made up of men and women who have messed up their lives at one point or another, but who have owned up to it, who have received the enormous gift of forgiveness, who know God’s grace, mercy and love intimately and personally and who are now busy welcoming others, as they themselves have been welcomed? Maybe that’s the reason why we love David so much: if God can redeem a man who did what David did, imagine what God can do for you and me?!!!

Amen!

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“Jesus redefines what it means to be King.”

By Pastor Michael Cofer

24th Sunday of Pentecost – Christ the King

Ever done this one? You run around the house looking for your car keys. You pull the cushions out of the couch. You look under your bed. No keys. So then you look out in the yard… under the car… nothing. And then, you reach down and pat your pocket. Doh!

Or my favorite is the same scenario with glasses. You’re looking all over for your glasses, and you can’t find them… but boy your vision is sharp! Oh… you’re wearing them already.
Sometimes the thing you’re looking for is right there in front of you. If you’ve been reading along in the Story, you will see how God has fought for and provided for Israel every step of the way. He cleared the way ahead of them. He laid down just and righteous laws.

And yet Israel begged for a King. “Give us a king to lead us… We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” Exodus, Joshua, and Judges all tell the story of how God did exactly that. So, Israel begged for a King, but they already had one.

The whole exchange seems pretty foolish, when you look at it at a distance. How could they be so blind to what’s so obvious to you and me? It’s because when they looked back at what God had done, they claimed it as their own.

And sometimes we’re no better. We think we deserve our jobs. We think we’re responsible for our good health. We think we’re loved because we’re the kind of person that’s easy to love. When in truth, every good thing we have finds its source in God’s hand.

We’re all hard-wired to think this way. But our Perspective will lead to Ignorance when we don’t Give God the credit for what He has done. That is why worship is one of the cornerstones of Christian life. God commands us to have a reality check at least once a week. Observing the Sabbath means setting aside one day to reflect on what God has done… and give HIM credit for it.
And so it was with Israel. They were convinced that they were king-less – when in fact it was only that they were living as though they had no king. But they were insistent. There had to be someone better qualified. Someone tall and strong and brave. They got Saul (so 2 out of 3 ain’t bad).

Of course, God knew it wouldn’t be ideal. He knew that there was nobody in Israel or anywhere on earth who could do his job for him. A human king meant giving up their sons and daughters. It meant giving up another 10% of their wealth on top of the tithe. It meant favoritism and cronyism.

And even after hearing all of that, Israel insisted. And this should stand as a warning for us. When we insist on our way, God will sometimes grant it. So He gave Israel a king. And another, and another… There were better kings and worse kings, but none would rule the way that God had. After all, even the best kings of Israel still died.

Which brings us to today – Christ the King Sunday. The celebration of the eternal reign of the King of Kings. The celebration of God reclaiming His reign through Jesus.

Jesus redefines what it means to be King. Unlike Saul (and all the other kings), he doesn’t claim the benefits of being King. He doesn’t exercise his rule to amplify Himself. In fact, He at every turn humbles Himself.

He is pretty much the opposite of everything that earthly kings are. He doesn’t send your children to war. He certainly doesn’t ask anyone to charge ahead of him into battle! His rule isn’t marked by what He takes, but by what He brings. He is first to Give, first to Serve, and first to Offer His Life.

Jesus is a king unlike any other king. And He is very up front about this. “[The] Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Which is why so many folks don’t recognize His reign yet. It’s natural for us to think of greatness and authority as being marked by privilege and prominence. We expect important people to act important.

But in God’s kingdom, the whole equation is flipped upside. The great serve the least. No one promotes himself. No one fights to save the King… But the King willingly lays down His life for His subjects.

You know, deep down everybody wants a king. Our hopes rise and fall on election days. Our stomachs churn as we wait for results… We just wish there was someone in charge we could trust to fix it… Whatever “it” is. But nobody lives up to their campaign promises. And even if they could, someone else will come along behind them and mess it up again.

Jesus is the king our hearts long for… Even if His reign doesn’t look like we’d expect. He keeps His promises. He loves his people more than His own life. Every one of his decrees is just, his judgments are merciful and his battles all end in victory. Best of all, His reign is eternal.

Israel cried out for a king, and now He is here. Jesus Christ is our King!

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