Sermon: John’s Continuous Message

John’s Continuous Message
Mark 1:1-8
RUMC January 14, 2018
Pastor Paul R. O’Neil

There is a fable about a young woman who was expelled from heaven. Before she left, she was told she would be readmitted to heaven only if she brought back the one gift that God valued the most. So she began her search.

  1. She brought back drops of blood from a dying martyr of the faith.
  2. She collected coins that were given by a widow who always helped the poor.
  3. She brought back a Bible used by a famous preacher
  4. She even found dust from the shoes of a dedicated missionary.

She returned to heaven again and again with other things, but was repeatedly turned back. Then she saw a small boy playing by a water fountain, when all of a sudden she saw a man ride up on a horse, dismount and take a drink. When the man saw the boy at play, he thought of his own childhood innocence. As he looked into the water of the fountain, he saw a reflection of his hardened face. Overcome by the sin in his life, he wept tears of repentance. The young woman who witnessed this event, took one of those tears back to heaven. And that was the gift God accepted. She was readmitted into heaven with great joy.

Repentance, forgiveness of sins, and a changed life all go hand in hand. That was the message of John the Baptist, and as we look at some of the words of this mighty prophet, may we be touched by them as well.
My text is Mark 1: 1-8.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Every year in the second week of the new year, we are reintroduced to John the Baptist. From what we know of him, it seemed John did not fit in. Everything about him was odd. In contrast to the flowing robes religious leaders wore, he wore clothes made of camel’s hair. He ate a strange diet of grasshoppers and wild honey. His area of ministry was not in the temple or in the synagogue, but the desert. I suppose if he were alive today, John the Baptist would have done well on the “Survivor” television series, but he would have been the first to be voted off.

John wasn’t the one to use warm and fuzzy words such as caring, sharing and holiday cheer. He used hard words such as repentance, judgment and right living. To most observers, he wasn’t a salesman or a politician, but a breath of fresh air; his message penetrated people’s hearts. As Christian believers, his words should resonate with us if we truly turn our hearts to the Lord.

When the Prophet Isaiah spoke of a person who would prepare the way of the Lord, he was telling the world that John and his ministry was to point us to Jesus.

Now I know I am dating myself, but do you remember the Tonight Show that featured Johnny Carson? Mr. Carson ‘s moderator, Ed McMahon, opened each show every night with the following: “From Hollywood, the Tonight show starring Johnny Carson. This is Ed McMahon along with the NBC orchestra inviting you to join Johnny and his guests. And now here’s ….Johnny.” Remember that?

Ed McMahon’s role was to introduce Johnny. That was what John the Baptist had done. John was not the main event, but he was the one who pointed others to Jesus.

Now John went a step further. He called people everywhere to get their hearts right, and we do that with a term called repentance. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. Meta =change. Noia=mind=changed mind. The image that I have of what we need to do in the spiritual realm is the U Turn traffic symbol.

I suppose the message of John could resonate with the story of a girl who had a conversion experience in a church. All the kids in the school were talking about it, and someone asked her, “What are you now?” She answered, “A sinner.” They asked, “What’s the difference?” She answered, “Before I was a sinner running after sin, but now I’m a sinner running from sin.”

I think that was a pretty good image. When we encounter the Lord, then we run in the correct direction.

Along these lines, there was one particular woman who had been sick and hospitalized. Tests revealed she had a damaged liver, and her condition was serious. This woman was angry at God and determined to get to the hospital chapel to tell him off. Strong enough to get out of bed, she took the elevator to the first floor where she slowly made her way to the chapel. As she walked, she determined that she was going to tell the Lord that he was a fraud who passed himself off as loving and kind, and that anytime that anyone began to get happy, he would pull out the rug. As this woman stepped over the chapel threshold, she tripped and fell. As she looked up from the floor, the only thing she could see was the wooden altar with these carved words, “Lord be merciful to me, a sinner.” When she saw that, she knew the Lord was speaking. She lowered her head onto the carpet and repeated over and over, “Lord be merciful to me a sinner.” Right then and there on the carpet floor of the hospital chapel she surrendered to God. As weak as she was, she managed to get back on to her feet and made it back to her hospital room. The next day, she had more tests. At the end of the day, the doctor informed her that her liver appeared to be normal but he didn’t know how. The woman thought in her heart, “I know, oh but I know. God has brought me to the brink of disaster, just to get me to turn my life over to him.”

Repentance is more than just a theological version of a New Year’s resolution of the do’s and the don’ts. Repentance causes us to look inward, to invite Christ in our hearts.

  • 1 John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
  • 2 Cor 5:17 “If anyone be in Christ, they are a new creation, old things have passed away. Behold all things are news.”
  • Here is a quote that I like. “True repentance is about transformation, not torture or torment.”

For me, I was not attracted by the dos and don’ts of a moral Christian life. I wanted was a personal relationship with the Lord, and that is what happened to me.

John’s call is an invitation to change the direction. For those who have walked with Christ for many years, it may not be necessary to make a complete 180 degree turn. It could be just a small course correction, but we need to be willing to do that, perhaps admit our mistakes.

When you think of John the Baptist, consider the u turn traffic symbol. And when we turn our lives in a right direction, there will be transformation.

Sermon: Here Comes the Groom

“Here Comes the Groom”
Matthew 25:1-12
RUMC 12 November 2017
Pastor Paul R. O’Neil

A traditional wedding in our culture begins when the bride makes her grand entrance down the aisle while the groom waits at the front, but it wasn’t always this way. Actually in Biblical times it was reversed.

My scripture text is a parable about a wedding where half of the bridesmaids were not ready. The message that our Lord would convey to us is one of preparedness: to make our peace with our maker and live in faithfulness to our God.

My text is Matthew 25:1-12.
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’
This is the Word of God.

From start to finish, the marriage ceremonies back in biblical times always involved the groom’s family and the bride’s family. First there were the discussions among the parents. Then it went a step further when the groom’s parents actually went with their son to a sit down meeting with the bride’s family to formally ask permission to marry the daughter. Once permission was given, the two families would then negotiate a financial settlement of what the groom would have pay for the dowry. Once that amount was agreed upon, the young man and woman were recognized as husband and wife.

However there was a catch. Although they were legally man and wife, they were required to live apart for at least a year. This was done so the groom could get their new home ready and raise the necessary funds to pay the in-laws. The bride stayed with her parents until all was completed.

When the wedding day finally arrived, the festivities began at sunset. The groom and his groomsmen would walk to the bride’s home. There they would pick up the bride, her family, and bridesmaids and they would walk in procession to the groom’s house. As they walked in the procession, many in the wedding party carried lamps to light the way. A typical lamp would burn olive oil for about 15 minutes; it was expected that those who carried the small lamps would also carry a small container of olive oil.

Now Jesus adds a dilemma to this wedding story. The groom had been delayed, and when he finally shows up, only half the bridesmaids had enough oil to make it through the procession. The others did not.

From a spiritual point of view, the oil is symbolic of our faith. The wise bridesmaids were like wise believers because they were ready. The other five overlooked or ignored what was important.

Spiritual readiness or growth does not just happen automatically; it comes as a result of habits built into one’s life. It starts when a person makes a profession of faith. This is followed by the time we spend alone with God and when we get together as a church to worship.

Now I believe most people in this church have heard of Rosa Parks. She was 92 years old when she died in 2005. The watershed event in her life took place in 1955 when she was 42 years old; that was when she refused to sit at the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Because of that action, Parks was arrested. It appeared to be one of those spur of the moment decisions, but it was not. For the previous 12 years, Rosa helped lead her local NAACP chapter, and she received specialized training in civil rights and bus boycotts. So here was a woman who was well prepared for her important mission of civil rights. If we approach our spiritual life with the same preparation that Rosa Parks did with civil rights, we would enjoy great success as Christians.

Another aspect of spiritual preparedness is that it helps us to be ready when we meet our Lord face to face.

Evangelist Billy Graham was friends with President Dwight D. Eisenhower for a number of years. Just before the former president died in 1969, Graham went to visit him at Walter Reed Army Hospital. When Graham entered the hospital room, the former President knew he didn’t have long to live. After thirty minutes of reminiscing, the President said, “Billy, I want you to tell me again how can I be sure my sins are forgiven and that I am going to heaven, because nothing else matters now.” Graham took his New Testament and read some Biblical passages on eternal life. He even pointed out that we do not go to heaven because of the good things we do in the community or the money we have given to the church. We get to heaven on the basis of what Christ did on the cross and our response to ask Christ into our hearts. After prayer, the former President said, “Thank you, I’m ready.” Even in that final hour, Eisenhower made sure he was prepared for the other side of eternal life.

This parable reminds me of sky diving. Everyone has to wear their own parachute. No one can wear one for another person. Each person needs their own.

In this parable, five of the bridesmaids saw they did not have enough oil and asked others to loan them some. But the spiritual message is that another person’s faith will not cover us. If Christ were to come in our life time or if it is our time to die and meet Him, we can’t borrow from someone’s experience of sins forgiven and grace given. We cannot borrow faith from our family, our friends or the minister. It must be our own. Each of us must have our own oil for our own lamp.

Let me close. This parable is an attention getter because the Christian life is to be lived out to the fullest extent possible. So I would encourage all of us to make peace with our maker. Make that profession of faith and live in active faithfulness to our God. Develop your spiritual niche.

Sermon: Worship the Ascended King

Worship the Ascended King
Luke 24:44-53
RUMC May 28, 2017

On this the seventh and final Sunday of Easter, our focus this morning will be on the Ascension of Jesus, the time when Jesus returned to his Father in heaven. While Christ directs his church from heaven, it is important for us to continue Christ’s mission, and, at the same time, be in a state of readiness.

My text is Luke 24:44-53.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Jesus’ ascension was the final earthly event in the life of our Lord; I realize there are different viewpoints as to what it means. There is the “Historical Jesus” interpretation where the focus is on the life of Jesus minus the supernatural.  Those who adhere to this viewpoint find their inspiration in the ethical and spiritual teachings of Christ.  And there are others, like me, who accept the supernatural aspects of Christ, which nurtures our faith.

The Ascension is a mysterious event. It is one continuous movement tied in with the resurrection.  As a result, our Lord’s glorified body now operates on a higher level without any spatial limitations.  You see, when Jesus was on earth, he could only be in one place at a time.  Now that he reigns from on high, he can be in relationship, all at once, with as many who desire to have a closer walk with the Lord.  Jesus just didn’t vanish into thin air, but the laws of gravity were suspended so he could publically take his rightful place next to his father.

When we recite the Apostle’s Creed, we do it as an affirmation–a means to express what we believe:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
the third day he rose from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. 

The spiritual message that we can take from the gospel text and the Apostle’s creed in regards to the Ascension is that Jesus is Lord and will return. But as believers we need to be watchful and do what he has called us to do.  It is like we are citizens of the Kingdom of God and of the United States; we have responsibilities towards both.

Nationally known minister, Pastor Chuck Swindoll, wrote about the time he worked at a machine shop prior to going into the ministry. He wrote about a co-worker named George.  George’s job was to sweep and clean out the metal shavings underneath the machines.  As Swindoll told it, George would sing hymns as he worked.  Many of the songs had to do with the second return of Christ such as the “Sweet Bye and Bye,” “Mansion over the Hilltop” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.”  About ten minutes to quitting time, all the men would get cleaned up and change out of their dirty clothes before they punched the clock.  One particular time Swindoll looked at George and noticed that he had on his dirty overalls.  Swindoll asked, “George, are you ready?” George answered, “Uh huh.” In Swindoll’s mind, George was not ready.  In fact he looked like he was ready to keep on working.  Then Swindoll said, “George, are you ready to go home?” And George said, “Yeah, I’m ready.” But Swindoll said, “Look at you.  You’ve gotta go clean up.”  Then George said, “Now let me show you something.”  He unzipped his coveralls and underneath were some of the neatest, cleanest clothes that you could image.”  He said, “You see, I stay ready, just like I’m ready for Jesus.”

The need to be ready for Jesus should affect the way we live. Paul the Apostle wrote in Romans 14:10 “For we shall all stand before God’s judgment seat.” Knowing that I will have to give an account of my life is enough motivation to do what is right.

There was once a man named Henry Himmer who was in failing health. Henry was disappointed he couldn’t get to hear a dynamic evangelist named Charles Fuller who was to preach at Henry’s church on the subject of heaven, so Henry wrote this letter:

“Dear Rev. Fuller, I would like so much to be in church Sunday night, to hear your sermon on the subject of heaven. But my physical condition will not allow me to be there.  The reason I would like to be there is because I have great interest in that place.
I own a piece of land with a clear deed and title in that wonderful place that you are going to be talking about. I didn’t buy it.  It was given to me without price and without money, although the One who gave it to me purchased it at great cost.
I don’t have it as an idle investment, but I have been busy sending materials to the master architect for more than 50 years and he is building for me a house of my dreams. It will never have to be painted or remodeled because it is being made just for me.  Termites will never eat away at its foundation because it is built on the Rock of Ages.
Fire will never destroy it. Winds will never blow it away.  There will be no locks on its door because no evil people will ever live in that blessed land.  Between me and my home, there is a valley, a dark valley.
And I must cross it. I am not afraid, because the One has gone before.  And He will lead the way.  I am ready to take his hand.  My house is almost finished.  I would like to hear your sermon on heaven because I have a great interest in that land.”

It sounds like Henry was more than ready to meet his maker; may we be the same.

This coming week, our country will observe Memorial Day. One of the positive attributes of the American military is their state of readiness.  When I was on active duty, the mission of the US Army was drummed into us so much that I still remember it to this day: “to deploy anywhere, anytime, either by air, land or sea and conduct combat or peace time operations.” Translated: to be ready to go, anywhere, anytime, to do what needs to be done.  I see a similarity to today’s message.  We need to be in that state of readiness and do those things Christ would have us to do.

At the Ascension:

  • Jesus left here for everywhere.
  • He left time for the eternal.
  • He left the first century for all the centuries.

When you get a chance, look for the YouTube video of “The Hallelujah Chorus” performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. As you watch, you will see the words on the screen that G.F. Handel wrote. I want you to pay particular attention to the words from Revelation 11:15 which says “The Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ and He shall reign forever. King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” This was made possible through the Ascension and this is the Jesus we worship.

Sermon: Dressed for Action

Dressed For Action
Luke 12:32-40
7 August 2016

In ancient times, the kings and queens were accustomed to having a person known as a court jester to entertain them. Many years ago there lived a king who himself thought he was funny and gave his court jester, a scepter and told him that if he found someone more foolish than himself, that he, the jester was to give that person the king’s scepter.

Well, a few years went by and the king had become seriously ill. As the jester went in to visit his lord, the king told the jester, “I fear that I am about to embark on a long journey.” The jester then asked, “And when will you return? In a month?”  The king replied, “No.” In a year?” The king said, “No, my beloved jester, I am never going to return.” The jester then said, “Well then, what preparations has my majesty made for this long journey?” “None” replied the king. Then the jester said, “Your majesty is dying, going away forever and has made no preparation for your departure? Please take this scepter, for I would never do such a foolish thing.”

In our scripture for today, Jesus tells us that we need to be ready for our “long journey” that we have before us; we need to be prepared for when he comes back. This is a parable that speaks of God’s people being alert and prepared.

My scripture text is Luke 12:32-40.
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

In this parable, Jesus told of a situation where the master of the house was about to attend a wedding reception. Before he left, he gave his workers final instructions; they were to do their work, keep everything in good order and watch for his return.  After some delay, the master returned to find everything as he had instructed.  He was glad to find everything in order and rewarded the servants for their faithfulness.

The lesson that our Lord would have us glean from this parable is the need to be ready for the return of the bridegroom, the Son of God. Be prepared for his return, to meet him in death when our time comes, and for the opportunities that come our way to share his love.  This parable also shows that rewards will be given to those who do God’s will.

To illustrate the importance of readiness consider this: Long before the internet and modern technology, a group of applicants who wanted a job as a wireless operator sat in a room waiting to be interviewed.  While they sat talking with each other, they paid little attention to the sound of the dots and dashes of a Morse code message that come over the office loud speakers.  Suddenly without warning, one of the applicants jumped up and rushed into the employer’s office.  Soon he returned with a big smile and said.  “I got the job!” The other group of applicants looked up and asked, “How did you get ahead of us?”  The young man explained that while all of them sat and talked, the office manager sent this Morse code message: “The person that I need must always be on the alert. The first person who interprets this and comes directly into my private office will be hired.”  When the young man heard the message, he responded and was given the job.

From a spiritual standpoint, we need to be tuned in. To know God’s Word so we too can have a personal relationship with Jesus.  When we actively live for Christ, part of the package is that we live in expectation.

British author CS Lewis once said, “The greatest thing is to be found at one’s post, having each day as though it were our last, but planning as though our world might last a hundred years.”

Back in the day when I was a young lieutenant in a Calvary Squadron, long before I became a chaplain, I served as the Assistant Adjutant and became the rear detachment commander for this one particular field exercise. My duties were to take care of all the administrative functions for the colonel while he was away.  It was a fun job; for two weeks I would come in at 9am, take care of what needed to be done, and go home at 5pm.  On the day the squadron was scheduled to return from the field, it was expected that all the vehicles, tanks, armored personnel carriers and soldiers would arrive sometime after midnight.  While other rear detachment personnel decided to go home at the regular time, I decided I better stay up and wait for the colonel to come in.  I knew the minute he walked through the door, he would want to be briefed on everything that had taken place in his absence, even at a late hour.  So when the squadron commander walked in the office, at 1:30 in the morning, he looked at me in disbelief, checked his watch and asked why I was there.  I forgot exactly what I said, but I didn’t get home until after 3am.  About a year later when the colonel was transferred to a position with more responsibility, he invited me to become part of his new staff, which I did.

In this parable, Jesus also relates his second coming to a house break-in. Verse 39 and 40 says:

“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  Again, this speaks of watchful expectation.  When someone is robbed, it is very much unexpected and sudden.  But if a homeowner were given some inside information, they could take precautions, such as have an alarm system installed, get a dog or house sitter; in most cases, that is enough to deter a thief.

When Janet and I go away for an extended period of time, we will ask our neighbors to get our mail, have them park their car in our driveway or put the trash barrels away to make it look like we are home. Inside we have timed lights that come on, all in hopes of deterring a thief.  In a sense that is being proactive and alert.

Using this parable, Jesus alerts us that his Coming will have the same shock and effect as a burglar. Being spiritually unprepared at the time of our death could also have the same effect.

A good retirement is when a person or couple can enjoy a comfortable standard of living, to be able to travel, to do all the things we have wanted to do. But to get there, it requires prior planning, sound financial decisions, wise investments, and systematic savings.  That thought process is similar to the Kingdom of God.  Some day we will see the Lord and we will need to be prepared prior to our meeting.

Philippians 2:11 “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

We shouldn’t have the attitude, “We will find out when we get there.”The philosophy of wait and see doesn’t work very well in career development or retirement.So why take a chance with our eternity?

Earlier in our United Methodist Communion service, we all repeated this phrase, “Christ has died. Christ has risen.  Christ will come again.”  Some day we will see our Lord, and we should do everything on our part to be prepared and make it a happy occasion.

Remember how the court jester was surprised by the foolishness of the king. It was because the king had not made any preparation for his final journey.

So I would encourage all, to make a profession of faith, read God’s word, be consistent in worship and live in expectation.