I AM the Light of the World

Jesus makes the extraordinary claim that he is the light of the world. This claim is rooted in Old Testament texts and is made in conjunction with the Jewish Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles).

When Jesus promises that whoever follows him will not walk in darkness, what did he mean? That his followers will never experience uncertainty? If not, what could it mean? And is this remarkable promise unconditionally guaranteed or is there something we must do to take advantage of it?

These are the questions we look at in this sermon, where we discover that the light of the world is not stationary! The implications of this truth are enormously important. If you can, open your Bible to John 7 and 8 as you listen!

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What if You Were Going to Live Forever?

In the 1980s, the denomination I served encouraged me to attend a conference on evangelism presented by Evangelism Explosion (known familiarly as EE). This enormously popular approach to personal evangelism was pioneered in the 1960s by D. James Kennedy, the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, and was and is used throughout the world.

It was hard for a shy introvert like me to strike up conversations with people I didn’t know. It was even harder to strike up conversations about spiritual matters with people I assumed didn’t care. EE was designed to help people start and guide conversations to a particular end: the acceptance of receive Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior.

At the EE conference, attendees were taught to ask people two questions, designed to coordinate with one another, and both including the prepositional phrase, “if you were to die tonight.” Both questions also included the idea of going to heaven.

There were things about the training I appreciated and things that made me uncomfortable. The discomfort came largely from the similarity between the EE program and programs that teach sales techniques. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea that I was selling Jesus the way the kid at the front door sells vacuum cleaners. It seemed to me that, in both cases, the immediate goal was to get the person on the other side of the door to say yes to something they might not really want and probably didn’t understand.

Today, my approach to evangelism has changed. I don’t try to sell Jesus after dangling the promise of heaven (or the threat of hell) in front of someone’s eyes. Don’t get me wrong: I think heaven and hell are real possibilities for each of us; I just don’t see Jesus or his apostles doing evangelism that way. I have not found such an approach to be effective, nor does it prepare people to live the authentic and rewarding life of a Jesus-follower now.

I’ve come to think it better to ask people a different question, one the philosopher Dallas Willard suggested. Instead of asking, “If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven?” we might ask, “If you were to live forever, what would you do? What kind of person would you become if you continued on the trajectory you are now following? Would you love being that person forever – or would you hate it? Would living forever with you – as you – be more like heaven or hell?”

I’m afraid we’ve tailored our evangelistic message to people who think about the fact they are going to die, while Jesus tailored his message to people who were going to live—forever. That alone is enough to make us reconsider our approach, but add to that the fact that we live a culture that is in denial about death. People are not thinking about dying. They distract themselves throughout their waking hours to prevent themselves from thinking about death – and pretty much everything else.

What would evangelism look if we started using Jesus’s approach? His invitation was not, “Say ‘Yes,’ and you can go heaven when you die.” It was, “Join me in the kingdom of God now.” Heaven someday? Yes, of course, but also a transformational life on earth now; a life that transforms both the person and his or her world. Jesus invited people to a radically different kind of life now, not just after they died.

Willard defined a human being as “a never ceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.” That way of putting it is certainly in sync with the biblical understanding of human nature. That I will live forever is a given; that I will I’ll enjoy living forever is not. Living forever is a great thing—if I am an everlasting blessing to myself, to others, and to God. Otherwise, it is a curse.

To become an everlasting blessing, or even to avoid being an everlasting pain, requires a good deal of transformation. Jesus understood how to guide his students into that transformation. He knew how to live – and to live well – forever, and he can help others do the same.

First published in Gatehouse Media

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Finally. I Jumped out of that Perfectly Good Airplane

The Four

On Sunday, I jumped (more like tumbled) out of an airplane at an altitude of 14,000 feet – that’s more than 2-1/2 miles up. I told you I’d let you know what that was like, and I will try to describe it for you, but it’s one of those “you had to be there” things.

First, the rush. Not the rush of jumping, but the rush of getting to the jump site. For me, that meant leaving church as soon as possible, changing clothes, and hurrying to the airport, which is more than an hour from home. We went through a MacDonald’s drive-through – slowest MacDonald’s ever – had to stop for gas, and I was worried everyone would be waiting for me.

They were not. When I arrived, the place was packed. All the people whose jumps had been postponed – ours was postponed because of weather on three straight Sundays – were there, waiting. And waiting. I waited about four hours.

When our group was finally called, we went inside to put on jumpsuits and get our instructions. On a large mat, we watched as three full-time parachute packers worked non-stop to prepare the chutes for the next round of jumps. It was interesting to watch these young people work. They talked and laughed with each other as they worked and I wanted to say, “Would you please concentrate on your work?” (Well, not really. But I could see how someone might feel that way.)

My instructor Dom had me get into a harness and then explained what I would be required to do. I would need to lower my head to get through the small door on the plane. I would then place my feet on the four-inch-wide step outside the door and hold my head up. When we jumped, I was to pull my feet back and hips out, while holding the harness straps along my chest. Then, when he tapped my shoulder, I was to release the straps and hold my hands out and up, rather like signalling a touchdown. We went through the procedure a couple of times. Then we headed out to wait for the plane.

Here we go!

We got on the place with two other tandem jumpers and five solo jumpers. The tandem jumpers and some of the solo jumpers straddled the two benches and, while on the bench, our instructors hooked themselves to our harnesses, tightened them down, and got us ready. We were pretty much sitting in our instructor’s laps, and I had a solo diver sitting on mine. The space was very tight.

The skydiver in front of me was trying to reach a strap of some sort, and my foot was tangled in it. Because I was hooked to my instructor, I couldn’t lean forward to help him. He fumbled around for two minutes, trying to release his strap from around my size 17 shoes, while I tried to lift my foot and help. I didn’t know it – assume he didn’t either – but he untied my shoe in the process. When I landed, I still had the shoe. My son joked that if my big shoe had fallen off at 14,000 feet, it might have killed someone.

Going…
Going…
Gone!

After the jump, my wife Karen asked me if I felt like I was falling or floating. I said, “Neither. I felt like I was skydiving. It is its own thing.” I was hoping it would feel like flying, as a long-time diver once told me, but it didn’t. I think it might feel that way for a solo diver, but when you are strapped to someone else who is controlling the dive, you’re more like a passenger than a pilot.

I can see your house from here!

Still, it is quite an experience to be at 14,000 feet without a mountain or an airplane under your feet. From up there, I could see lakes and houses and farm fields; golf courses and housing developments. I was surprised there were so many people living in such a rural setting.

I could see that some lakes were crowded with houses and there were still boats at their docks. Others were too shallow for boating and there were no houses alongside them. As I was looking this way and that, trying to take it all in, the chute deployed. I wasn’t prepared for that! I was not cognizant of the speed with which we were hurtling to earth until the chute opened. I felt like we were jerked roughly back into the sky, though of course we merely slowed our fall.

Whoa, there!

After the chute opened, my instructor began steering us toward the airfield. He performed a couple of spins but, for the most part, just took me on a nice, smooth ride. A couple of times we seemed to drop at an accelerated rate and, when we turned, we keeled over a little, like a sailboat.

As we neared our landing site, Dom told me to lift my legs. I had seen others land on their feet, but I am 6’4″ and probably five or six inches taller than Dom, so he wanted to slide in on our backsides. The landing was soft and all was good. A photographer said something to me, but my ears were completely plugged and I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I suppose it was, “Smile!”

There was a lot to smile about. It was fun. It was unlike anything I’d ever done before. Would I do it again? Maybe. What I’d like to do is solo dive from 14,000 feet, but that takes time, instruction, and money! But I’m not ruling out another tandem dive.

Were there negatives? A couple. The first is that I rushed like crazy to get there, not realizing I would then need to wait four hours for the jump. If I had familiarized myself with how skydiving works, I would have realized that from the outset, and would have been more relaxed about about getting there on time.

The other negative: sinus pressure. I’ve always had trouble flying because my ears would hurt and, before I had surgery to correct a Z-like septum, I used to get a stabbing pain in my eye on descent. The pain would last for 20 or 30 seconds, but it was bad – like having an ice pick stuck in your eye. The last time I flew, I had that pain again, after a reprieve of several years. I was hoping that wouldn’t happen on the dive and it didn’t, but I was pretty deaf afterwords and had a headache right behind my forehead. That got worse as the evening wore on, becoming very painful before getting any relief from the acetaminophen I took.

When I knew I was going to jump, I decided to use the event as a fundraiser for a wonderful non-profit, Beginnings Care for Life. They regularly make a difference in people’s lives and in the community – and they do it by hard work and genuine love. I wanted to support their efforts. If you would like to know more about what Beginnings does, check out their website, http://www.beginningscare.com/. If you would like to help them to carry on their important work by making a financial gift, go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/jumping-for-beginnings-care. I support Beginnings with confidence – you can too.

If you’d like to see a video of my jump, go to https://skydive.shredvideo.com/f/rTsNHEokR4 (viewing time 3:39).

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I Am the Bread of Life (pt. 2)

In C.S. Lewis’s space novel, Out of the Silent Planet, a language expert named Ransom is abducted and taken to another planet where alien creatures reside. Ransom escapes his captors and flees into the vast, mysterious landscape.  He doesn’t know where he is going; he just knows he doesn’t want to go with the men who kidnapped him.

He successfully eludes his enemies but quickly realizes he has other problems – for one, how he can avoid starvation? There is plenty of flora (the idea of fauna worries him) but how does he know what is edible? Perhaps nothing on this planet is edible to a human. Is he surrounded by delicious and nourishing food or by revolting and poisonous plants – he doesn’t know. He eventually tries eating some vegetation and finds it nourishing, but even when he makes the decision to try it, he is not sure how to eat it. (Rather like me and a lobster.)

Jesus might be the source of a new and transformative life and energy but if we don’t know how to approach him – to take him in – we might still starve. This week’s message is about the how of our relationship with Jesus. Read John 6:35-65 so you can get the most out of it. If you missed last week, you might want to go online to www.lockwoodchurch.org/media and listen to part one of the message I AM the Bread of Life from 9/29.

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Man Forgives His Brother’s Killer

Dallas has been in turmoil. A little over a year ago, police officer Amber Guyger left work after a 13.5-hour shift and drove to her apartment building. She was on the phone with a fellow officer with whom she was having a relationship when she pulled into the parking garage. She left her car and went to her apartment. Only it was not her apartment.

Officer Guyger had parked on the wrong floor of the garage. She entered her apartment building on the fourth instead of the third floor, where she lived. She found the door unlocked and, according to some reports, ajar. She entered to find a man sitting on the sofa, watching TV. She drew her service weapon and yelled, “Hands!” The man on the couch – his own couch, as it turned out – Botham Jean, said, “Hey! Hey!” and Ms. Guyger fired two shots, one through the heart.

Mr. Jean was black and Officer Guyger was white. Communities of color in Dallas were outraged by yet another killing of a black man by a white police officer. Protests were called, including one that temporarily ended a Dallas City Council meeting when dozens of protestors entered and began chanting, “No justice, no peace.” The mayor abruptly called for a recess.

The death of an unarmed black man at the hands of the police has happened so frequently that the nation is in danger of becoming inured to it. While blacks make up 13 percent of the population, 25 percent of the time a person dies in an encounter with police, it is a black man. In some cities, police have killed black men at a higher rate than the U.S. murder rate. So when white police officer Amber Guyger entered Botham Jean’s apartment and fatally shot him, people were rightfully outraged.

The case finally went to court and Amber Guyger was sentenced to ten years in prison. Many in the Dallas community are angry that Ms. Guyger will spend no more than ten years behind bars and will be eligible for parole in just five years, even though she killed an innocent man in his own apartment. But that is not all people are angry about. Some are angry at the victim’s brother because he publicly forgave Ms. Guyger.

I listened to National Public Radio today as a reporter recounted the remarkable scene in the courtroom. Brandt Jean, the murder victim’s 18-year-old brother, took the stand to present a victim’s statement in which he told Ms. Guyger he forgave her. He said, “I think giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want for you. I love you as a person, and I don’t wish anything bad on you.”

He then asked the judge, “Can I give her a hug, please? Please.” When the judge gave him permission, he left the stand, met his brother’s killer in front of the court, and hugged her.

As a way of explaining Brandt Jean’s act of forgiveness, the reporter pointed out that Jean was from the Caribbean Island country of St. Lucia where racial relations are quite different than in the U.S. He believed the extraordinary act of forgiveness had a “cultural” explanation.

It may be that culture plays a part, though in light of the fact that St. Lucia police have been suspected of carrying out extrajudicial killings, it is doubtful. The truth is, the reporter discounted Mr. Jean’s own words. Jesus taught his people to forgive and Mr. Jean is one of his people.

The reporter’s “cultural” explanation also fails to explain similar acts of forgiveness. Who can forget the forgiveness offered by Emanuel AME Church in Charleston to the white supremacist killer Dylan Roof? Then there was the multi-colored Jamrowski family in El Paso who forgave the man who went to Walmart to kill Latinos. And some of us remember Corrie Ten Boom, who forgave her Nazi guard after the deaths of her sister and parents and her own terrible mistreatment in Ravensbrück.

People don’t understand it – this remarkable forgiveness. Some are angered by it. But sooner or later people will come to recognize it. It is the mark of the forgiven people of Jesus.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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I AM the Bread of Life

Have you ever said about someone, maybe a bad driver or a person who cut in line at the store, “Who does he think he is?” Would it surprise you to know that people said the same thing about Jesus?

Some people grumbled about Jesus because of the things he said about himself. There was the woman Jesus met at Jacob’s Well. Her response to Jesus was something like, “What? Do you think you’re greater than the patriarch Jacob?” In John 8, people who were angry with him asked him who he thought he was. The people in his hometown said, “This is just the carpenter’s son. Mary is his mom. His brothers are James, Joseph, Judas and Simon. Aren’t his sisters here with us?” Once again, the idea is: “Who does this guy think he is?”

Who does this guy think he is?” That’s the question we are answering in the sermon series, Allow Me to Introduce Myself…Jesus. The question was put to Jesus on a number of occasions and he answered it in a variety of ways, each time with a self-introduction that began with the words, “I am…”

In this sermon, we see Jesus introduce himself as “the Bread of Life.” What did he mean by that and what does that mean for us? What should we do about it? Let’s think think together about those things. (http://lockwoodchurch.org/media)

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God and the “Do Not Call Registry”

YAY Images

People in our church received phone calls, reputedly from the IRS or law enforcement, to inform them they would be arrested within the next few hours because of their tax debt. After setting their hair on fire with threats of arrest, the caller offered to put the fire out. They could avoid arrest and jail time by making the minimum payment required by the IRS. A means for delivery of payment was detailed.

Those calls are, of course, a scam. The receiver’s Caller ID has been “spoofed” and the number of the real caller hidden. A fake, and frequently local, number appears on the caller ID. I’ve even received a call the phone display indicated was coming from me.

The FCC encourages Americans to hang up as soon as they realize they’ve answered an unwanted call. Even better, they recommend not taking the call at all, unless one recognizes the number on the Caller ID.

I registered our phone on the “National Do Not Call Registry,” thinking that would give me some leverage with telemarketers, but we still receive numerous calls each day, often from spoofed Caller ID numbers. I used to stay on the line, wait for a real person, and then tell them that I am on the ‘Do Not Call” registry and politely ask that my name be removed from their database.

That used to work. Not anymore. The last few times I’ve waited for a real person to whom I could make my request, the caller hung up as soon as he heard the words, “I’m on the …” I didn’t even get the chance to finish the sentence. A lot of good it did to get on the registry.

They just keep on calling, sometimes from the same number, often from rotating numbers. I used to block each call, but that just seems to encourage them to call back from a different number. They are unrelenting, tireless, importunate.

It should be said that not all telemarketers are scammers. Their calls don’t all originate from the Hades area code. However, these days my default position is that the person on the other end of the line is out to relieve me of my money.

So, imagine you receive a call from someone claiming to be an attorney, representing the estate of William Rogers Hammond, your mother’s second cousin. You’ve never heard of William Rogers Hammond, so you tell him he has the wrong number and hang up.

The next day you get the same call. You hang up. The next day you get a call from a different number. A different “attorney” launches into the same spiel, and you hang up again. Then you get an email. Then a registered letter. Each time you are promised an inheritance you didn’t know was coming, and each time you ignore the message and try to block the caller.

Imagine further that the law firm is legit and the inheritance is real. If you were the attorney, how would you feel? Would you think, “What is wrong with this guy? I’m trying to help him more than he can imagine, but he won’t take my calls?”

Something like this, I think, happens to us, only the caller is God and the promised inheritance is what the Bible refers to as eternal life, which is not simply unending life but a different quality of life which begins concurrently with this life.

The Bible has a great deal to say about the “calling God.” Because he placed, as the author of Ecclesiastes put it, “eternity in our hearts” (how clever is that?), his call doesn’t just come from “out there” but from “in here.” Our name is on the caller ID.

That means we can’t escape it. We can try to block it, but God will just keep calling with the promise of life. The call to life – more life, richer life, “abundant life,” as Jesus put it – may seem to us to be coming from work or friends or hobbies or nature, but it doesn’t come from them. It comes through them. The caller is God and it would be to our advantage to talk to him, sooner rather than later.

Published by Gatehouse Media

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Allow Me to Introduce Myself: Jesus (I Am Messiah)

General Eisenhower announced his candidacy for President of the United States at his boyhood home in Abilene, Kansas. Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy from a presidential-looking room in New York City. Bill Clinton chose Little Rock for his announcement. Both John and Robert Kennedy announced their candidacies from the Senate Caucus Room. Richard Nixon made his announcement in the early primary state of New Hampshire. Candidates pick their spot because they want to have the biggest impact, strongest appeal, and most sympathetic response possible from the people that can help them succeed.

Compare that to Jesus when he first announced not his candidacy but his status as Messiah the King. He wasn’t even in his own country! He was in Samaria, which would be like a U.S. Presidential candidate going to Iran or North Korea to make his announcement. And the first person he told was a woman – a Samaritan woman, at that – a persona non grata.

Clearly, Jesus operates by his own, and his Father’s, rules. He is not like everyone else. That is an important realization for all of us who want to get to know him. In this sermon, we find Jesus introducing himself as the Messiah. The text is John 4 – a great story you are going to enjoy.

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Religion Is Not a Shortcut

When religion is transformed from a response of faith in the God of heaven into an instrument for getting things done on earth, it is disfigured. It may retain the accoutrements of true religion – ritual, liturgy, personal prayer, offerings – but its essential nature has been altered. It preserves “the form of godliness,” as the Apostle Paul put it, while “denying its power.”

For as long as people have been religious – which is to say, for as along as there have been people – this has been a problem. When God ceases to be “the Beginning and the End” and becomes the means to an end, religion becomes a merely human tool.

There are illustrations of this phenomenon in the Bible itself. One particularly revealing instance happened early in the history of the nation of Israel. The Hebrews first identified as a distinct people group during the centuries they spent in Egypt. After their escape from Egyptian oppression and their migration to a suitable homeland, Israel operated under divinely given laws, summarized in what we know as the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments themselves were engraved on two stone tablets and kept in a specially made and ornately decorated box known as the Ark of the Covenant. (Think Raiders of the Lost Ark.) The ark, which was considered sacred, was only to be moved by religious professionals and was never to be directly touched.

As sometimes happens with items of treasured status, people began to think of the ark superstitiously, as if the box itself possessed inherent power. So, when Israel’s war against the Philistine kingdoms began to go poorly, someone floated the idea that the ark could be used to rally the troops, bring God’s favor, and win the war.

The immediate effect of bringing the ark into battle was everything Israel’s leaders had hoped for. Their soldiers were inspired and their enemies were intimidated. But it is dangerous to try to use God as a means to an end, no matter how important the end. The Philistine armies crushed Israel’s troops, forced them to retreat, and captured the ark.

Religion is not a way to use God to attain one’s own ends, though the attempt has often been made in Christian history. For example, in the literary cycle of the Matter of Britain, King Arthur and his knights are regularly using sacred items, the name of Jesus, and the sign of the cross as instruments for winning battles. In the stories, this succeeds. In real life, it inevitably fails.

The practice of exploiting religion to attain personal goals is hardly limited to ancient history. It happens today in Prosperity Gospel circles, where greedy televangelists appeal to greedy viewers and everyone attempts to use God to get rich.

It would, however, be a mistake to think this is only a problem with the “name it, claim it” crowd. We need look no further than the machinations of so-called Evangelical religious leaders to see religion used to attain and retain political power. In the end, that will prove about as effective as taking the Ark of the Covenant into battle.

Lest anyone think the misuse of religion to serve a cause is an exclusively conservative failing, I would suggest that this is the chief temptation faced by religious liberals. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whom President Obama once described as one of his “favorite philosophers,” wrote in Moral Man and Immoral Society: “…the most effective agents will be men who have substituted some new illusions for the abandoned ones. The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of mankind can achieve perfect justice. It is a very valuable illusion for the moment…”

It is in the context of “the social Gospel project” that Niebuhr speaks of “these illusions.” For him, the question was not whether these religious ideas were correct but whether they were “valuable,” whether they could serve the more immediate purpose of cultivating a just society.  The trouble in all these scenarios is that religion loses its power when it is repurposed to serve human desire, whether that desire is for selfish gain or a just society. Religion is not a shortcut to attaining our goals but a response to God’s self-revelation.

First published in Gatehouse Media

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“Allow Me to Introduce Myself” – Jesus

Imagine you are an actor, who has moved to Los Angeles, is sharing an apartment with four other people, working odd jobs, and waiting for your big break. One day your agent calls. A famous director is looking for someone to play a role in his new major motion picture. The audition is at 3:00.

So, you call your part-time employer, tell him you’re going to miss work today, and you go in for the audition. You’re given a script with the lines: “Don’t even think about it. Please. Please. You’ll ruin everything.”

You ask, “So what is this scene about?” and are told, “The Director isn’t telling anyone. Just do your best.”

You don’t know if your character is a scientist, working in a lab with highly explosive material or a spouse whose partner has threatened to file for divorce. How can you know how to act if you don’t know the story? That is the same kind of problem many people have in trying to live as a Jesus-follower: They don’t know what story they’re in. Our text will help us understand our story. This message is based on John 1:1-18, and is meant to open the new series, Allow Me to Introduce Myself: Jesus. Each week of the series, we will be introduced to a truth about Jesus from the Gospel of John, revealed in Jesus’s fascinating “I Am” statements.

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