Sermon: He Took Our Place

He Took Our Place
John 3:1-17
RUMC 11 March 2018
Pastor Paul R. O’Neil

Ronald Rand, the founder of Up Building Ministries, told a story about this unusual family: A man named Michael would take his family out each week to see a movie or some sports event. Afterwards, the family would gather together at the home, to put logs in the fireplace and pop some popcorn.
During one of those family get-togethers, little Billy made a real pest of himself on the ride home, so he was punished with a time out and had to sit in his bedroom while the rest of the family sat around the fire and ate popcorn. Then Michael the father did something unheard of; he went into Billy’s room and said, “You go out with the others. I’ll stay here and take your punishment.” What the father had done was a vivid example of what Jesus did when he took our punishment for our sins when he died on the cross.

My text is John 3: 1-17; it is the story about when Nicodemus talked to Jesus about the New Birth.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
This is the Word of God.

Nicodemus came to Jesus in the evening so he could talk privately. As an influential member of the Jewish ruling council, or Sanhedrin, Nicodemus had to be careful because Jesus had many enemies. But at the same time he was spiritually hungry, and it was important that he see our Lord. Although he was outwardly religious, apparently there was no inner satisfaction.

I think many of us at one time or another can identify with Nicodemus; we too had looked for answers to life or tried to find inner satisfaction of our souls. But when we found Christ and invited him into our hearts, we were made complete and the search was over.

Our scripture text focuses on faith and belief. On individual merit, our righteousness or individual morality is not good enough and does not meet God’s standards. However Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross for us was enough to pay the debt.

Dr. Samuel Weinstein, a surgeon of the Children’s Hospital section at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, is an example of someone who acted on behalf of another. In 2007, Dr. Weinstein went to the country of El Salvador with a group called Heart Care International to provide lifesaving operations for the poor children of El Salvador.
In one surgical operation, 8 year old Francisco Fernandez was the patient. After 12 hours in the operating room, Francisco began to experience internal bleeding. Unfortunately, the hospitals in El Salvador didn’t have the medicines to stop the bleeding, nor did they have extra blood for a transfusion. Complicating matters even further, Francisco’s blood type was a rare B negative, which is found in only 2 percent of the population.
Fortunately, Dr. Weinstein had the same blood type. So the 45 year old doctor set aside his scalpel, took off his gloves, washed his hands and forearm, and had his blood drawn. When he had given his pint of blood, Dr. Weinstein drank some bottled water and ate a pop tart. After twenty minutes, he rejoined his colleagues and together they watched the newly donated B negative blood flow into the boy’s small veins. Francisco made a full recovery.

Back in Biblical times, if someone had sinned, they would go to the temple with a lamb, or purchase one, and offer a blood sacrifice. The priest would have to kill that innocent animal and place it on the altar where it was later burned. The blood from that sacrifice was God’s way of symbolically covering a person’s sins and making us righteous in His sight.

Hebrews 9:22 tells us: “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin.”

In the grand scheme of salvation history, God offered his own lamb, Jesus, and animal sacrifices were no longer needed. The equivalent in a courtroom would be if someone paid the fine for another person who was found guilty of a misdemeanor. Very rarely does that ever happen. However in the spiritual realm, that is what Jesus had done. In return all God asks is for us to accept what he has done as the payment for our sin and place our trust in him.

Another example of someone who paid the debt for another was Maximillian Kolbe during World War II in a Nazi Concentration Camp. Maximilian was a Roman Catholic priest in Poland when he was arrested in February 1941 and sent to Auschwitz. The life expectancy for a priest in that prison was about 30 days. During his imprisonment at Auschwitz a prisoner escaped, which meant everyone in Father Kolbe’s barracks was punished.
The first punishment the Commandant set was to make all the prisoners of Barracks 14 stand at attention the entire day. Many passed out; but Father Kolbe endured. At the evening roll call, the Commandant then changed the terms of the sentence: ten men were selected at random to die in the starvation bunker.
One man selected cried out, “My poor wife. My poor children. What will they do?” It was at that point that Father Kolbe broke ranks and said, “I would like to die in place of one of the men you have condemned.” He was permitted to die for prisoner 5659. Father Kolbe was taken away, stripped of his clothes, and marched with the other nine into the hot and dark starvation bunker.
In that basement, the prisoners were given no food or water. As the days passed, the usual screams of starvation were not heard; instead the guards heard the faint sounds of prisoners singing praises to God. Fourteen days later, Father Kolbe was still alive. He looked like a living skeleton, but it was said that he had a slight smile on his lips with his eyes wide open as though they were fixed on some faraway vision. The guards grew impatient and finally gave him a lethal injection.

Father Kolbe was a type of Christ when he took the place of a condemned prisoner. He did it so that man could be with his family. On the cross; Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves.

There is another word we hear in church circles: grace. Grace is when God takes the initiative and restores a broken relationship. AW Tozer once said, God will take nine steps toward us, but he will not take the tenth. He will incline us to repent, but he will not do it for us.

Let me close. A price had to be paid for our salvation, and Jesus was the one who satisfied that debt. Billy’s father served his son’s punishment, Dr. Weinstein gave his blood to save an 8 year old boy, and Father Kolbe exchanged places with a condemned prisoner. These are examples of what a father, a doctor, and a priest had done to help and save others. Remember what Jesus; the son of God, had done so we could have eternal life.

So in this Lenten season, this may be a time to renew our relationship with the Lord and thank him for his gift to us.

Sermon: Lenten Renewal

Lenten Renewal
Mt 6:1-6
18 Feb 2018
Pastor Paul R. O’Neil

As a global church, we are the 40 day season of Lent, a time when believers spiritually prepare themselves for Easter and give up something as a means of spiritual discipline. According to Twitter, the most common things that are sacrificed are:

  • Chocolate and sweets
  • alcohol
  • expensive type of coffee lattes
  • meat
  • certain forms of entertainment

It is believed such sacrifices will make us more attuned to God, and we will thus experience a holy and happy Easter.

However let me introduce a new concept of observing lent, suggested by guest speaker Pastor Roy Richardson at the Ash Wednesday worship service at the Crystal Lake United Methodist Church. Pastor Roy said he was not going to give up anything, but was going to add on or take on more. To me, that was so positive and affirming. Now there are lots of things we could do that would make a difference in terms of our Christian lives and service, but let me suggest one spiritual area that we could take up, add on, or perhaps improve: prayer.

“But when you pray, go to your room. Shut the door and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.”

To me prayer is like going to the gym or beginning an exercise program. We know it is good for us and we will certainly reap benefits. When we are finished, we will feel better about ourselves. But the hardest part is taking the first step. It is the same thing with prayer. Once we get focused and started, it flows. In this Lenten season, I would encourage all to set aside time, find your rhythm and establish a routine. It could be morning, noon or night. Jesus got up early in the morning and then he prayed late into the night.

But to make this work, we need to be realistic, especially if we have never really done this before. What I suggest is to make a plan.

  • Establish the occurrence of your prayer: daily, once a week, etc.
  • Find a place where you can be alone.
  • Set up a candle or place a cross on the table.

You may want to add prayer to your daily walk.

Once that is done clear your mind of any distraction. Visualize that God is present.

  • Read Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
  • Ask for guidance.
  • Ask for forgiveness
  • Ask for healing.
  • Ask for help for family members.
  • Remember the sick.
  • Thank God for your blessings.

Your time with God may last just a few moments, but it will become the best part of the day.

Reverend Hector Mendez of the Congregational Church in Stafford told a story at the Ash Wednesday Service as it related to prayer. When he was a kid, he identified with the story of Popeye the Sailorman and the effect of spinach. Whenever Popeye was in trouble, he reached out for the spinach and that saved the day. As a child, Hector could make the comparisons. Spinach=Strength; Prayer=Strength.

When we were stationed in Panama from 1993-1996, the people in Central and South America observed a several week festival which they call Carnival. During Carnival they indulge in food, drink and partying; this would all stop on Ash Wednesday

In New Orleans the people observe Mardi gras, French for Fat Tuesday, which is essentially the same thing.

Shrove Tuesday is another term which is used in churches. This is the last day of fat eating before Ash Wednesday, and some United Methodist Churches have fundraising Pancake Dinners.

But instead of bemoaning what we might be missing out, let’s make Lent 2018 different and meaningful. Instead of giving up, let’s reignite our prayer lives.

“But when you pray, go to your room. Shut the door and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.”

Sermon: Moses and the Passover

Moses and the Passover
Exodus 12:11-14
September 24, 2017
Pastor Paul R. O’Neil

Every Friday night until his death in 1973, an old man would visit a broken down pier on the southeastern coast of Florida. He always had a large bucket of shrimp, and he would feed the sea gulls.  The old man did this out of a sense of gratitude.  It all began many years before, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker’s B17 bomber had run out of fuel.  The crew was forced to ditch the plane in the South Pacific Ocean.  For many days, Rickenbacker and his crew lived in a raft where they battled salt water, the sharks, and the scorching sun.  After eight days, their rations had run out and they were desperate for a miracle.  That particular morning, the crew held a worship service in that small raft; they prayed for divine deliverance.  After the final Amen, Rickenbacker pulled his hat down over his eyes to keep out the glare of the sun and perhaps to get some sleep.  All of a sudden, something landed on his head; it was a sea gull.  In one swift motion, Rickenbacker grabbed the gull.  Its flesh provided necessary food for the crew and bait to catch fish.  The crew survived and, in time, was rescued.  However Captain Rickenbacker never forgot the sacrifice of that gull and honored its memory every Friday night when he fed shrimp to the other gulls.

My scripture test is Exodus 12:1-14. This is the story of how Moses and the people of Israel sacrificed the Passover Lamb and applied the blood on the door posts.  This was done so the death angel would pass over them.  This story relates to us because the Passover lamb in many respects reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross; it is important that we remember in our worship and our deeds.

The Institution of the Passover
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, 2“This month is to be your beginning of months; it will be your first month of the year. 3Tell the whole community of Israel, ‘In the tenth day of this month they each must take a lamb for themselves according to their families—a lamb for each household. 4If any household is too small for a lamb, the man and his next-door neighbor are to take a lamb according to the number of people—you will make your count for the lamb according to how much each one can eat. 5Your lamb must be perfect, a male, one year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6You must care for it until the fourteenth day of this month, and then the whole community of Israel will kill it around sundown. 7They will take some of the blood and put it on the two side posts and top of the doorframe of the houses where they will eat it. 8They will eat the meat the same night; they will eat it roasted over the fire with bread made without yeast and with bitter herbs. 9Do not eat it raw or boiled in water, but roast it over the fire with its head, its legs, and its entrails. 10You must leave nothing until morning, but you must burn with fire whatever remains of it until morning. 11This is how you are to eat it—dressed to travel, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. You are to eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover.
12I will pass through the land of Egypt in the same night, and I will attack all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both of humans and of animals, and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment. I am the Lord. 13The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, so that when I see the blood I will pass over you, and this plague will not fall on you to destroy you when I attack the land of Egypt.
14This day will become a memorial for you, and you will celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—you will celebrate it perpetually as a lasting ordinance.

The Jewish people had suffered as slaves in Egypt for almost 400 years. Because of this Moses uttered those famous words, “Let my people go.”

And every time Pharaoh refused, there was a different plague.

  • First, the Nile was turned into blood.
  • Second, frogs came up on the land.
  • Third, the Egyptians were infected with lice.
  • Fourth, swarms of flies were found everywhere.
  • Fifth, there was a deadly virus that infected Egyptian cattle.
  • Sixth, hail ravaged Egyptian crops.
  • Seventh, there was an epidemic of painful boils.
  • Eighth, hordes of locusts wiped out the rest of the vegetation.
  • Ninth, there was a violent wind storm from the desert that caused total darkness.

Then there was the 10th and final plague which was the death of the first born son in each household.  To avoid judgment, the Lord told Moses to direct each family to follow his instructions carefully:

  • Pick out a lamb.
  • Sacrifice it.
  • Collect the blood in a basin.
  • Smear the blood on the sides and top of the door posts.

When God passed his judgment in Egypt, he didn’t punish those who followed these instructions, passing over the houses in question without harm. Since that time Jews from all over the world remember the Passover sacrifice and deliverance.

For Christians, the blood that was smeared on the doorframe was a foreshadow of Jesus death on the cross. The sides of the doorframe represent the hands that were nailed to the cross.  The top signifies the head of Jesus where he wore a crown of thorns.

As Jews remember the sacrifice and deliverance at Passover or Pea-sak, we remember Christ’s death at our communion. I consecrate the elements when I say, “This is my body which is broken for you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”

We set aside times to remember great sacrifices. Several weeks ago, the Governor and the Lt. Governor of the State of Connecticut held a special 9/11 Remembrance ceremony in Westford where they remembered 161 people with ties to Connecticut. On Memorial Day, the towns of Vernon, Ellington, South Windsor and other places will remember the fallen military in parades and ceremonies.  This is done so that none of us will forget.

As people of God, part of our religious faith is to “not forget” and keep alive Christ’s name, his life, his sacrifice, and his work in our lives.

Salvation and sacrifice is similar to what happened on August 16, 1987. Northwest Airlines flight 225 crashed shortly after it took off from Detroit International airport, killing 155 people.  There was only one survivor, four year old Cecilia Crocker.  Investigators first assumed Cecilia had been a passenger in a car that had been struck by the aircraft, but when the passenger register for the flight was checked, Cecilia’s name was on it.  She survived because her mother unbuckled her own seatbelt, got down on her knees, and wrapped her arms around the little girl.  It was due to the sacrifice of her mother that Cecilia survives.  Unfortunately, she not only lost her mother, but father and brother too.  Cecilia Crocker remembers their sacrifice every day with a tattoo of an airplane on the inside of her wrist.

What Cecilia’s mom did is a picture of the mercy and love of God. Christ wrapped the sacrifice of his own body around us, to save us.

The Jewish and Christian faith is founded on sacrifice and urges its followers to remember.

Let me close:

  • Captain Eddie Rickenbacker remembered the sacrifice of the seagull when he gave shrimp to the other gulls.
  • Those of the Jewish faith remember the sacrifice of the Passover when they gather once a year to commemorate their great deliverance.
  • Christian believers remember Christ’s sacrifice when we invite him into our hearts, when we partake in communion, and when we serve in Jesus’ name.

An important part of our faith in worship is that we remember and not forget.