Past Sermons

Sermon: Visions and Conversions

Sermon Series on Acts:  Transformation Week Seven

By Pastor Gretchen Casey   July 23, 2017

(Isaiah 43:19, Acts 7:59-60, Acts 9:1-19, Acts 10:1-44)

This past week Scott and I had the chance to go on one of the Bangor Historical Society’s walking tours.  During the tour the guide pointed out the Zebulon Smith House, which was built in 1832 and remains in the same location as a single family dwelling to this day. The house is on Summer Street downtown, very close to the Police Department, facing the waterfront.  Have you seen it?  Scott and I were surprised to see this stately historic home on a street we have driven on many, many times for years.  It has been there for 185 years and we just this week became aware of it. Sometimes it takes a while for any of us to notice some things, whether old or new, because we are not looking, we are not paying attention. At the time of Israel’s release from captivity in Babylon, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to His people: “See, I am doing a new thing, now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19) This is a part of Israel’s history that all faithful Jews living during the time of Jesus would be familiar with.  It is also a prophecy that  pointed to the promised Savior Who was Jesus.  God’s desire is to make all things new and our Creator God is always at work in our lives.  We are invited to see, to notice, what God is up to and how He is working.  Do we see God’s work in our midst?  Do we perceive it? And are we open to the change that God is bringing into our lives in order to make all things new?

Acts Chapters 9 and 10 describe two men, Saul and Peter, who each came to see how God was doing a new thing.  We are most familiar with Peter the fisherman, who one of the first followers and disciples of Jesus, and quickly saw and accepted that Jesus was the Christ.  Despite persecution from the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling body, the Apostle Peter continued to be a bold witness for Jesus. The Sanhedrin could not see and did not believe that Jesus was the promised Savior. They had been living out their faith with a strong focus on the law for 100s of years.  In their eyes, the claim that Jesus was the Savior was a sin against God, punishable by death.  Peter had been jailed and flogged for preaching in the name of Jesus. Most of the Sanhedrin wanted to kill him, but a Pharisee named Gamaliel cautioned the other rulers to wait and see if God was behind this new movement.  Gamaliel was open to God doing a new thing.   The rest of the Sanhedrin however, was not.  Soon another believer, named Stephen, was brought before the Sanhedrin for preaching in the name of Jesus.  When Stephen accused the leaders of killing Christ they became furious and stoned him to death. Saul was a Pharisee, highly trained in God’s law and prophets.  He was a member of the Sanhedrin who was there at the stoning of Stephen, and he gave approval to Stephen’s death.  And Saul began to destroy the church, the followers of Christ.

We wonder how someone who persecuted God’s people with such murderous intent could ever change.  In his own understanding Saul could not see that God was doing a new thing, that God had brought salvation and new life through Jesus. Saul was a faithful Jew who was zealous about obeying the law of God.  Saul focused so intently on the law that he did not recognize the fulfillment of God’s promise foretold by the prophets. Saul sincerely believed that this movement was dangerous to Judaism and that he was fighting for God.  God longs to bring us all into new life and God is faithful to reveal Himself to those who seek Him. As Saul was traveling to Damascus to persecute those who belonged to Jesus, God appeared to Saul in a vision of light from heaven.  And Jesus spoke to Saul from heaven: “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting Me?” The vision blinded Saul for three days, but he finally understood and accepted the new thing that God had done in sending Jesus.  As Saul prayed He saw in another vision that the disciple Ananias would heal him.  When Ananias came Saul, he was baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit and immediately his sight was restored.

Just like many people saw the Zebulon Smith House long before Scott and I did, Peter and thousands of others saw that God had sent His promised Savior long before the Saul did.  Peter knew God’s promise and was looking for the Savior when he first saw and heard Jesus. He was ready to receive God’s revelation of Jesus as Savior. But God had to grab Saul’s attention, literally knocking Saul off the course he was on and turning his heart to Christ.  In Saul’s zeal for the law he had missed Christ, Who is the fulfillment of the Law and the appointed Judge of the living and the dead. God transformed Saul’s life from persecutor of Christ to proclaimer of Christ. God was preparing to use Saul as His chosen instrument to bring the Gospel of Christ to the Gentiles-those outside the Jewish faith.

Although Peter was quick to accept Jesus as Lord and he was faithful to follow and teach about Christ, God still had new things to reveal to him.  Up until this point the Gospel was preached to the Jews only.  The first followers of Jesus were primarily Jews that believed that the promised Savior had come.  The Jews to this point believed that Salvation through the promised Messiah was only for the Jews.  But in the passage about Cornelius and the apostle Peter we see that God is always doing a new thing.  Cornelius was not a Jew.  He was a centurion in the Roman army who was also a God-fearing man who prayed regularly. One day he had a vision of an angel who  told him to send for Peter.  Cornelius obeyed this angel-he could see that God was at work.  As his servants were on the way to find Peter, Peter also had a vision. It was a strange vision of something like a large sheet being let down to earth filled with all kinds of animals that Jewish law declared unclean and impure. A voice said to Peter to kill and eat these animals-but that was forbidden by the law!  Peter recognized God’s voice; at first he resisted this new idea-many of us are right there with Peter, aren’t we?  Many of us resist new ideas, we need convincing.  God is faithful to stick with us until we understand.  Three times Peter saw this vision and heard God’s voice:  “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”  God was not talking specifically about the animals but about people.  It was a law that Jews were not to associate with or visit a Gentile. But Peter knew God’s Word and Jesus’ example. Jesus came to fulfill the law.  Jesus demonstrated that His love and salvation were for all people:  John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not die but have eternal life.”  Whoever believes shall be saved.  Here was a Gentile who believed in God and was ready to learn more.  While Peter taught them about Jesus the Holy Spirit came on all the Gentiles who heard the message.  Saul and Peter were open to the Holy Spirit and saw that God was doing a new thing. The way was opened for all people to receive Christ as Savior.

The prophet Joel said that in the last days both men and women would see visions and dream dreams.  God is still doing a new thing now.  God is still at work changing the world by His love. Do we see and perceive it? God will reveal His plan to us.  I believe that God continues to speak to us, and give us visions and dreams, if we are paying attention. We may hear a song or message on the radio that speaks of God’s direction or encouragement for a situation we are experiencing; we may see a mother hen sheltering her chicks from the rain and be reminded that God is our shelter and protection in the storms of life.  The Holy Spirit may whisper a scripture to our heart right when we need it most. God’s voice, the visions and dreams may or may not be as dramatic as Saul’s and Peter’s. We may be slow or quick to see, we may have followed God’s ways, or fought God’s ways, we may accept a change easily or we may resist-no matter who we are, what we have done or where we are at, God can and will reveal Himself to us.  The Word teaches that Christ has one Church and one Body and we are all parts of it. Lately in this place called Grace and in this city of Bangor I have seen how God is bringing together the parts of His Body, different congregations and denominations: Methodists and Baptists, Pentacostals and Catholics, Congregationalists and Episcopalians and more are all serving together in the name of Christ here at Grace and across the city.  This is a change and God is at work in our hearts enabling us to let go of our differences and focus on our common foundation, which is Christ.   And God is bringing people who do not yet know Christ as Savior to our doors everyday.  May we prepare our hearts to see what God is up to by studying and living out God’s Word, seeking God in prayer and keeping our eyes, ears and hearts open.  God desires to do a new thing in all lives. May we be God’s instruments, ready to share the Good News that through Christ, there is hope for a new life for all.  By the power of the Holy Spirit working through us may we offer Christ’s love to others, and be the face of Christ to others so that they may, too, come to see and accept Christ as Lord and Savior.

Sermon: Celebrations and Struggles:  Christ the Foundation

Sermon Series of Acts:  Transformation Week Three

By Pastor Gretchen Casey   June 11, 2017

(1 Peter 4:12, 13; Acts 3:1-20, 4:1-22)

Have you ever noticed that when things are going well in your life and you are celebrating an event or achievement very often some kind of struggle occurs soon after?  That often a time of difficulty, resistance or, even tragedy, occurs not long after a time of celebration?  Maybe you are celebrating that you finally got that job you were seeking, or you have overcome a bad habit and started to make good choices, or you finally paid off all your bills and can get ahead and then something happens that knocks you for a loop and may even threaten all you have worked for.  We have been there, haven’t we?  In our personal lives and in our life together as a church family, celebrations are often followed by struggles, and difficulties. What is our response during times of celebration? Do we see God at work in our circumstances?  Are we able to glorify and praise God for what He has done?  When celebrations turn into struggles what is our response? Are we still able to give God praise?

The apostles also encountered this cycle of celebration followed by struggle.  The day of Pentecost became an amazing time of celebration when the apostles were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit as Jesus, the Risen Christ, had promised.  It was during Pentecost that the apostles experienced the power of the Spirit as thousands of people responded to Peter’s preaching about Jesus by being baptized and joining with the group of 120 other believers. Jesus had given His followers, the apostles, the mission to go and make disciples and be His witnesses in all nations before He ascended to Heaven. It was at Pentecost that the apostles saw how God would work through them to fulfill this mission. Jesus’ followers were now witnessing how God was daily doing miracles through the apostles, and daily adding to the fellowship of believers those who were being saved. What an amazing time of celebration it was for the Apostles! During this celebration the apostles’ whole attention was focused on what God was doing in their midst.  Because their focus was on God, their hearts were ready to respond to Holy Spirit’s work in and through them.

In the beginning of the passages from Acts chapters 3 and 4 we find two of the apostles, Peter and John, outside the temple at the time of prayer.  During this time of great celebration of all that God was doing Peter and John kept their focus on God.  They continued to join together in prayer and worship with all of God’s people, being filled anew with the Spirit of God. On this day as Peter and John were going up to the temple to pray they encountered a beggar, a man crippled from birth.  Many people ignored this man and did not stop when they heard his pleas for money. Peter and John, however, not only saw and heard this man, but they stopped and offered the man, not money, but healing.  Having experienced Christ’s love themselves, and being filled with the Holy Spirit’s power, Peter and John responded by sharing this love and power with the beggar and healed him in the name of Jesus Christ. And then they walked with him into the temple courts.  Jesus gave the disciples the example of not only healing people but also walking with them in their faith journey.  Transformation of hearts begins with the power of the Holy Spirit and it is nurtured by the love offered by fellow disciples. As others saw this life-long cripple walking, jumping, and celebrating and praising God they were amazed!  The apostles had healed the man through the power of Jesus. They stated this clearly in order to be a witness to Jesus’ work and power.  At times of celebration it is sometimes easy to give something else credit for the work of the Spirit.  The people gathered thought that it was Peter and John’s own power that healed the man. But Peter and John refused to take credit for this miracle.  Instead, they stood firmly on the foundation of Christ’s work in them and took the opportunity to teach the crowd about Jesus the Savior.  They proclaimed that it was by the man’s faith in Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit working through them, that the man was healed.  In this time of great celebration Peter and John gave glory to God. And many of the people believed.  Just as it was by the power of the Holy Spirit that the man was healed, it was by the Spirit’s power that many people came to faith and into a relationship with Christ.

But soon after the celebration of God’s healing of the beggar, Peter and John found themselves in a time of struggle.  The apostles, the man who was healed and many of the people in the crowd responded to God’s work by celebrating and giving glory to God.  But the Sanhedrin did not enter into the celebration.  The Sanhedrin was the council of Jewish rulers made up of the priests, the captain of the temple guard, and the Sadducees- a religious sect that did not believe in resurrection of the dead.  The rulers were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching and proclaiming Christ’s power and resurrection.  The Sanhedrin saw that these apostles were unschooled, not trained in the ways of God, and they were acting and speaking in the name of Jesus, proclaiming that He was the Savior, and that it was by their hands Jesus had been killed.  The apostles had healed a man by the power of Jesus.  According to the laws of the Sanhedrin anyone who was somehow broken, who was not whole in body and mind, was prevented from entering the temple.  The Holy Spirit was shaking up the status quo and the rulers were threatened.  And so they arrested the apostles and put them in jail.  The apostles’ celebration of God’s in and through them was followed by a struggle with the Sanhedrin.  The apostles now faced resistance and opposition because of their boldness in proclaiming their faith in Christ.  All of us have experienced this pattern of celebration followed by struggle.  When we face struggles we have a choice of how to respond.  I confess that I have too often focused on the struggle, wondering how things went so wrong. But this does not bring glory to God. It does nothing to witness to Christ’s power and love given to and alive in us.  Regardless of the struggle we face we can follow the apostles’ example of how to respond when struggles, difficulties, and resistance occur.  The apostles did not give in to the temptation to focus on their circumstances.  Instead, they focused on the foundation of their faith:  Jesus Christ, whom God raised from the dead.  By the power of the Holy Spirit Peter spoke these truths to the Sanhedrin as they stood on trial.  Salvation is found only in the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus died for our sakes and God the Father raised Him to new life so that we may have forgiveness of sins and new life in Jesus. Christ’s resurrection is the final and eternal celebration that brought new life and victory for all people of all time.  When celebrations turn to struggles this is the truth, the hope and foundation that all of Jesus’ followers-then and now-can hold onto. It is not easy, but it is possible to turn our focus to Christ our foundation as we rely on the love and power of the Holy Spirit working in us. We may need to cry out to God in frustration, doubt or anger at first.  God is big enough to handle it.  We may not get the answer we hope to hear, but when we turn to Christ our foundation the Holy Spirit will remind us of Christ’s sacrifice, suffering.  When we suffer we participate in the sufferings of Christ.  And Christ’s sufferings led to victory and new life. Even in the midst of struggle we can praise God for this truth.  We have a choice: do we hold onto and put our focus on Christ our foundation, or do we give in to the struggle?

It is easy to ignore the needs around us.  It is easy to shy away from speaking of God’s power and love for others because it is not politically correct. In celebration or struggle we must hold on to Christ our foundation and source of new life and victory.  We must witness to Jesus’ work in and around us. We must rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to follow Christ’s example of walking with one another in faith.  We must rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives, bringing healing and wholeness to ourselves and others. Peter and John were released by the Sanhedrin with the warning not to speak of Jesus any longer.  They recognized the opposition they would face if they disobeyed this warning.  But they could not disobey God’s command to proclaim His Son, Jesus Christ. To fulfill Christ’s mission to make disciples we must follow the apostles’ example of responding to the leading of the Holy Spirit and sharing the love of Christ with others in times of celebration or times of struggle.  And the Holy Spirit working through us will bring people into relationship with Christ.  It is God Who will add to our number daily, those who are being saved. To God be the glory!

Sermon: So What Do We Celebrate on Easter?

Easter Sunday

By Pastor Gretchen Casey   April 16, 2017

(Luke 24:5b-8; John 20:1-18; 1 Peter 2:24, Acts 10:34:43)

 

On Monday of this Holy Week I was speaking to someone I know and I wished her a blessed Easter celebration. It is customary to share holiday greetings with one another no matter what holiday it is; and most holidays are celebrations.  Most of the time we respond with a wish for a happy holiday for them as well.    The word holiday comes from the Old English word for holy day.   The Easter holiday is a holy day of celebration.  I was expecting to hear my friend respond with “Happy Easter to you too.” But I was surprised when instead she asked, “So what do we celebrate on Easter, anyway?” Do we know what we are celebrating on each holiday? Fourth of July?  Memorial Day? Christmas? New Year’s?  St. Patrick’s Day?  Do we really understand the full meaning of each holiday we celebrate? With her question God had given me an opening to share what we celebrate on Easter; which is the very core of our Christian faith.  Do we know what we celebrate on Easter and are we ready to share this with others?

Today’s scripture from John recounts the events on the first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ followers, went to the tomb where Jesus was buried.  Jesus had been brutally crucified on a cross 3 days before, and because the next day was the Jewish Sabbath day of rest she had not been able to attend properly to the body until now.  When Mary arrived she found the tomb open and the body was gone.  She immediately ran to tell the other disciples, Simon Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” who was John, the author of this gospel.  They came at once and entered the tomb.  And John believed.  Knowing what we are celebrating on this Holy day of Easter and having belief in that knowledge is the very essence of our Christian faith.

After the disciples left the tomb and went home Mary stayed behind, standing outside the tomb, crying.  As she wept, she bent to look into the tomb-and sitting there, where Jesus’ body should have been, were two angels!  John records them as asking her, “…why are you crying?” But the gospel of Luke records the angels as saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; He has risen!”  Jesus who died on a cross had risen to new life.  John records Mary soon finding the Risen Lord in the garden. Her mourning was turned to rejoicing! Can you imagine the celebration?  On Easter we celebrate the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  He was dead and now He lives!  It is cause for celebration.

When I was new to the faith I believed this miracle of God and I celebrated.  But as I grew in my faith I began to wonder.  I sensed that the question of what we celebrate on Easter had only been partially answered.  So I dug deeper into the Bible, God’s Word for us.

As I studied, I found out that Jesus’ resurrection is part of God’s plan for our salvation. Jesus’ taking on flesh as God’s Son and living among us to teach us about the Kingdom of God was the beginning of God’s plan.  But it is between these 2 events, Jesus’ birth and His resurrection, that the central aspect of God’s plan for our salvation lies: Jesus’ death on a cross. Jesus died at the hands of religious leaders who did not believe that He was the Son of God.  Do we believe that Jesus is the Son of God?

The day Jesus died is called “Good Friday” and it is part of what we celebrate on Easter.  We usually do not think of death as “good” but Jesus’ death was indeed good.  1st Peter chapter 2 tells us that Jesus committed no sin- Jesus bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.  And 2nd Corinthians 5:21 says that God “made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” On Easter we celebrate Jesus’ new life after dying for our sins.  This means that Jesus took the judgement and penalty that we deserved.  God is a holy judge.  God judges our sin because His holiness cannot abide sin.  Holiness and sin cannot exist together.  As a Holy Judge a penalty must be paid for sin.  Because God is holy and God is love, God cannot ignore sin.  Sin separates us from God.  So God sent Jesus who was without sin to bear our sins on the cross and suffer God’s judgment.    Jesus paid the penalty for our sin and took our place on the cross so that we may be forgiven and cleansed of our sin and have eternal life with God.  This is the amazing love, the amazing grace and mercy of God that continues, because in Christ’s resurrection, God has given us victory over sin and death. Because Christ was raised to new life, we too will be raised to new life in Him. “For God so loved the world that whoever believes in Him shall not die but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Christ did not come to save just some people but all people.  Christ is risen and all may enter into new life with Jesus!   This is what we celebrate on Easter.

On the first Easter morning Mary Magdalene did not celebrate Jesus’ resurrection at first. She had experienced His death first hand, standing at the foot of the cross. In her grief she did not remember all that Jesus had told her about the purpose of His death and the promise of His resurrection and new life for all. In times of grief and stress it is easy to forget God’s promises.  But notice that Jesus came to Mary in her grief.  Our Lord had compassion on her.  She did not recognize Him at first but when Jesus spoke her name, she knew.  It was Christ the Lord, Her Savior and Teacher!  And she rejoiced!  The disciple John had remembered what Jesus had said and believed immediately when He saw the empty tomb.  He had not only listened to Jesus and heard what would happen, but John had experienced Jesus’ love, faithfulness and power first hand as he followed Jesus.  Hearing and experiencing Christ makes it easier to remember what we celebrate on Easter.  Have we heard the Good News?  Do we struggle to remember all we have been told, either because of pain and struggles in our life, or because of lack of experience with walking with Christ?  Know that Jesus is with you and He is eager to extend comfort and compassion to you.  And know that it is never too late to draw close to Jesus through prayer, worship, Bible Study, obedience to God’s word and fellowship.  When we draw close to Christ, He draws close to us.  This, too, is what we celebrate on Easter.

Easter is a holy celebration of Christ’s victory over sin and death for our sakes so that all who believe may have new life eternally with Christ.    When Mary encountered the Risen Lord she immediately went to tell the others and invited them to come and do the same.  May we encounter the living Lord and follow Him with our whole hearts. May we remember His teachings and promises so that in good and bad times we will believe.  And may we be ready to share the Good News of what we celebrate on Easter so that all may know of His love and enter into the new life that He offers. Let us celebrate: Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed!

Sermon: A Holy Journey with Jesus

Palm Sunday

By Pastor Gretchen Casey   April 9, 2017

(Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11; Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11)

Today is Palm Sunday.  It marks the first day of the last week of Lent:  Holy Week.  We, God’s people in this place called Grace, have journeyed through these many weeks of Lent considering together our Baptismal calling.  During our Lenten Journey this year we have been considering how we are living out our baptismal vows. It is through baptism that we are initiated into Christ’s Holy Church, incorporated into God’s acts of salvation and given new life through the Spirit.  As believers in Christ we make a commitment to live the abundant life that God calls us to by the grace and power that He gives us at our baptism.  Over the previous weeks we have considered how we are living into the vows and covenant of baptism:  renouncing  and rejecting the spiritual forces of wickedness and evil powers of this world, and repenting of our sin; accepting the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice and oppression in this world; confessing Jesus Christ as Savior, putting our whole trust in His grace, serving Him faithfully in His Church that is open to all people, and committing to serving as Christ’s representatives in the world.   At baptism we also make a commitment to hold one another accountable as disciples of Jesus Christ who believe that Jesus is indeed the Savior of the world, Who cleanses us from our sins, offering forgiveness and new life to all.  We are nearing the end of our Lenten journey… and as is true of many journeys in life, the last leg of our Lenten journey is the hardest. Today we will consider Jesus’ last days before He died for us, and how we can enter in to this Holy journey with Jesus, not only in the coming week, but throughout our lives. We will consider how those who were there with Jesus during the last days before His death responded to Jesus and what their responses might mean for our journeys with Jesus.     

For three years Jesus traveled through the towns and cities with His disciples teaching people about the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth. Jesus demonstrated God’s great love for all people by healing the sick and disabled, feeding the hungry, and fighting for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. 

Matthew 21 tells us of Palm Sunday-the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first day of Passover.  The Passover commemorated God’s mighty act of freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt many centuries before.  The Israelites were again struggling under the oppression of a foreign nation and they were looking for a Savior. As Jesus and His disciples entered the city Jesus was greeted by the throngs of people who had come from all around to celebrate the Passover.  Many people who were gathered that day had come to believe that this Jesus of Galilee was indeed God’s Son, the promised Messiah and Savior of the world.  They believed that Jesus would deliver them from their oppressors- the Roman soldiers and leaders, who had conquered and occupied the nation of Israel.  Jesus would save them from the Romans!  The crowds and the disciples had heard Jesus teach, they had seen him heal- and they had even seen Him raise the dead.  They believed He would soon put an end to the oppression and suffering at the hands of the Romans. So when they saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and her colt they laid their cloaks and branches on the road ahead of Jesus, crying out, “Hosanna!” as they waved palm branches in celebration.  This exclamation of praise is a Hebrew word meaning “God saves.” Here is their Savior and Messiah promised by God long ago. The crowd seems to be saying and expecting that their troubles will soon be over-Jesus will soon conquer their enemies.  Would we be in this crowd crying out “Hosanna!” Do we know of Christ’s great power and love?  Or would we be asking, like some in the crowd, “Who is this?”  Would we be celebrating and expecting a quick resolution to our troubles because Jesus had arrived?  The Israelites had endured Roman oppression long enough…are there struggles in our lives that we have endured long enough, that we want to conquer now? Can we name in our hearts a particular struggle that we long for Christ to resolve now –or yesterday?  Do we believe that Jesus can and will save us?

This first day of Passover when Jesus entered the city the people expected a conquering King.  It was a celebration- “This is the day the Lord has made!  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  (Psalm 118:24) Now that Jesus had come the crowd expected deliverance from their oppressors to come very soon.  But something seems a little off with this picture of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem; if Jesus was a conquering King, why was He riding on a colt and a donkey and not on a stately warhorse? Why did Jesus choose to enter the city on such a lowly animal?  The Messiah’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey was foretold by the prophets.  It was a sign of humility.  Jesus knew that this celebration was not the culmination of why He was here.  Jesus knew that the Roman and Jewish religious rulers were determined to kill Him-and He had shared this with His disciples.  The rulers did not believe that He was the promised Savior, and Jesus’ power, and His popularity with the people, were a threat to their rule. And yet Jesus entered Jerusalem. Would we have followed Jesus into Jerusalem as His disciples did, knowing that the rulers were seeking to kill Jesus?  Human nature tends to want to resolve struggles quickly, and avoid conflict and danger. And human nature also longs for power and resists giving up power once we have it.   Christ’s nature was to endure and persevere through struggles and He faced the threat of death head on. Riding on the colt of a donkey signified that Jesus had come to humbly serve others.  Jesus power is through love, not military conquest.  Philippians 2 tells us of the attitude of Christ:  He made Himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant… and He humbled Himself becoming obedient to death- even death on a cross. (v.5-8) On this day as He entered Jerusalem Jesus was celebrated.  But He knew He would soon be betrayed, the crowd would soon turn on Him.  He would soon journey to the cross and be killed.    Would we journey with Jesus to the cross where He would die?  Jesus knew that a military conquest of an enemy would not be enough to save people.  Jesus knew that the only way to free us from the world’s struggles, sin and death was to die to pay the penalty for the sins of all. Jesus’ attitude was eternal-He was focused on God’s purpose of salvation: freedom from sin and death for all- not just freedom from the struggles of this life. 

What is our attitude?  Do we give thanks to God only when things are going well?  When things are easy and pleasant? Are we looking for a quick solution? Do we seek to avoid conflict and difficulties, wanting things to be easy?  Or do we persevere through struggles by the grace of God, trusting that in His time and way, He will act.  Do we live in obedience to God’s Word: humbling ourselves, becoming a servant of God to help lift others up; are we willing to pick up our cross-whatever it is God calls us to bear- and follow Jesus in this Holy journey? In this world we will experience struggles, pain and suffering-but may we remember to give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His steadfast love endures forever-His love endures now in the midst of struggles, and because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for our sake, God’s love will endure forever.  May we join Jesus in a Holy Journey first to the cross, and then to new life in Him.      

 

Sermon: The Way to New Life; The Way of Christ

Maundy Thursday

By Pastor Gretchen Casey  April 13, 2017

(Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17)

Tonight we enter into the Upper Room with Jesus and His disciples, where they were gathered together to celebrate the Passover Meal-to commemorate God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt thousands of years before.  At the time of the Passover, God commanded each Israelite family to slaughter a lamb without blemish and put its blood around the door frames of their houses.  They were to eat the roasted lamb along with unleavened bread, standing and ready to leave at a moment’s notice.  It was the Lord’s Passover-on that night long ago God brought judgement on the Egyptians who had enslaved the Israelites for hundreds of years.   But all of God’s people, who were covered by the blood of the sacrificial lamb, would be spared.   God had commanded His people of all generations to continue to celebrate the Passover and God’s deliverance each year. 

Jesus knew on this night that the time had come for Him to die; He knew that the disciples would soon have to do the work of building the Kingdom of God without Him.  On this Passover night the words of John the Baptist at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry three years before must have been echoing in Jesus’ heart: “Behold, the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world!” So just before the Passover feast began,

The disciples were gathered with Jesus ready for the meal that was being served.  But instead of preparing to eat Jesus got up, wrapped a towel around His waist, poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet- feet that were filthy from walking the dirt paths to the upper room where they now waited for the meal.  Imagine the disciple’s surprise at this; here was their Teacher and Lord stooping down to do the work of a servant of the lowest rank.  Jesus could have just told the disciples his point-I, Who Am the Son of God, came to serve, not to be served.  So often in our lives we have sat in school and classes of all kinds and had teachers tell us what to do.  But Jesus showed His disciples, not only what to do, but what attitude to have.  Philippians chapter 2, verse 5 says, “Our attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus; God in the flesh took on the nature of a servant, humbling Himself…”  Jesus had spent 3 years living out this attitude of servanthood- healing the sick, feeding the hungry, teaching the people; helping lepers, and ladies, foreigners and sinners, the wealthy and the poor.  The disciples had seen and heard Jesus’ message of forgiveness and life for those who would receive it by faith.  Jesus stooping down to wash the disciples feet became the exclamation point to all that He had taught and demonstrated, they would remember this. Jesus set them an example of servanthood and called them to do as He had done to them in an attitude of humility. 

Jesus also demonstrated an attitude of humility in another way just before the meal began; scripture tells us that at this point the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus. Jesus knew this.  He knew that the one who would betray Him and lead to His arrest was at the table with them.  During this time in the Upper Room Jesus showed His disciples the full extent of His love by not only stooping to serve his faithful followers, but also the one who would soon betray Him: Judas.  The disciples would remember this act of sacrificial love. They would remember that on the night Jesus was betrayed Jesus did not cast Judas away from the table, but, before Judas left to lead the authorities to the Lord, Jesus shared the bread and cup with him. The bread and cup which pointed to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for all people, while we were yet sinners.  It was during the Passover meal that Jesus demonstrated another attitude His disciples were to take on as they led others to new life in Him: an attitude of sacrifice.  As Jesus took the bread and the cup He said, “This is my Body, this is my blood.”  Like the Passover lamb that was slain for the deliverance of God’s people, so, too, Jesus would die to deliver people from their sins.  Jesus chose to die for us, He gave His life us.  The disciples would remember the broken bread and cup of juice when they saw Jesus’ body on the cross.   The way to new life in Christ for the disciples and for all people is through the cross of Christ. 

This night that we remember Jesus’ last night with the disciples is called Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday. The word Maundy comes from the Latin word, mandatum, which means commandment.  When Jesus began His ministry He gave us the command to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  On this last night with the disciples the new commandment that Jesus gave was to love one another as Jesus has loved us.  Jesus has loved us with an attitude of humility and sacrifice.  Jesus died for us our sakes.  And Jesus calls His followers to love in the same way so that all may enter into new life with God.  The way to new life is the way of Christ through the cross.

 

Sermon: Nurture

Fourth Sunday in Lent

By Pastor Gretchen Casey   March 26, 2017

(Psalm 23, John 9:1-41)

Lent is the season that leads up to Good Friday when Christ gave His life so that we may have forgiveness and new life and to Easter morning when Christ is risen to new life and victory over sin and death.  It is a time for Christ’s followers look inward at their hearts and consider how they are living out Jesus’ commands to love God and others.  It is a time of repentance-confessing our sins and turning back to God with our whole hearts.  During our Lenten Journey this year we have been considering how we are living out our baptismal calling. It is through baptism that we are initiated into Christ’s Holy Church, incorporated into God’s acts of salvation and given new life through the Spirit.  As believers in Christ we make a commitment to live the abundant life that God calls us to by the grace and power that He gives us at our baptism.  Over the previous few weeks we have considered how we are living into the vows and covenant of baptism:  renouncing  and rejecting the spiritual forces of wickedness and evil powers of this world, and repenting of our sin; accepting the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice and oppression in this world; confessing Jesus Christ as Savior, putting our whole trust in His grace, serving Him faithfully in His Church that is open to all people and committing to serving as Christ’s representatives in the world.   At baptism we also make a commitment to hold one another accountable as disciples of Jesus Christ.  Today we will look at how we are living out our vow to nurture one another in our faith journeys- those who are new to the journey and those who have walked with Jesus for many years.  As parents, sponsors and members of the congregation our baptismal vows ask us: “Will you nurture these children (or persons) in Christ’s Holy Church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves to profess their faith openly and to lead a Christian life?”  And, “Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life, and include these persons now before you in your care?”  The purpose of these vows is to make new disciples and strengthen all disciples by the grace of God. 

After Christ rose from the dead and before He ascended to heaven He gave his disciples- including us- the task of going out and making disciples.  Christ’s purpose was to usher in the Kingdom of God and to make disciples of all people, bringing glory to God.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd:  He leads and teaches all who follow Him how to enter into new, eternal life; He restores our souls as He guides us in paths of righteousness, teaching us to live in accordance with His character, and by His Spirit enables us to choose the way of love, faithfulness, goodness and mercy.  In order to do this work Jesus relied on God the Father, seeking God in prayer and scripture.  Jesus has given us an example to follow as we seek to live into our vow to nurture one another in our faith journeys.    

In our scripture from John chapter 9 Jesus gives us another example of how to nurture and care for one another in our walks with God.  In this scripture of Jesus restoring a blind man’s sight we often focus on the miracle Jesus performed; but today we will focus on how Jesus taught others about faith in God: how He led and nurtured a man to believe in and confess Jesus as Savior and how Jesus taught His disciples and the Pharisees about the faith.  In this scripture we see Jesus living out the purpose of making and strengthening disciples. 

In the beginning of the chapter Jesus is with His disciples when they encounter a man who was blind from birth.  Upon seeing the man the disciples ask Jesus a question: “…who sinned, this man or his parents, that He was born blind?”  It was a common belief at that time that physical or mental illness or disability was a result of sin.  Jesus takes this opportunity to correct a misconception His disciples held and teach them a truth about God’s ways:  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  We are all like the disciples, no matter how long we have followed Christ.  No one has a complete understanding of God and His ways.  We all need to ask questions, to test what we have learned against what God has revealed.  We need to go to Jesus with our questions in His Word and in prayer.  And we need others who are further along in their faith journey to help us grow deeper in our understanding of God. Christ speaks to our hearts, growing our understanding, as we seek Him in the Bible and in prayer.  And Christ uses other believers to teach, nurture and encourage us as we seek to grow in faith.  Are we seeking to grow in our understanding and faith through participating in prayer and Bible Study and learning from others?  And are we fulfilling our vow to nurture and encourage others in their faith through our example and teaching?  We are called to an active faith of learning and nurturing others in learning to be disciples. In this encounter with His disciples Jesus focused on those who already believed.  But He did not just explain this truth about God’s ways but went on to show them how God’s works might be revealed:  Jesus spat on the ground, made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, commanding Him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. In doing this Jesus set an example for his disciples:  we are to share God’s love with others inside and outside of the Church, especially those who are too often overlooked and not accepted by society.  Making disciples begins with meeting basic needs and offering love and acceptance to all people we encounter.  It is not clear from the passage whether the blind man heard Jesus exchange with the disciples.  But it is clear that Jesus had given the blind man hope:  the man had not yet confessed Jesus as Lord, but he allowed Jesus to put mud on His eyes and he followed Jesus’ command to wash in the pool of Siloam.  This is the very beginning of faith.  And when the man returned, he could see!  Jesus had worked in His life and when the man returned he told others about what Jesus had done for him.  Notice that Jesus had not gone with the man to the pool and He was not there when the man returned.  The man had to choose to act on what Jesus had told him to do; Jesus did not do it for the man.  Jesus initiates contact with us and offers us the chance to be healed, to enter into relationship with Him; but He does not force us to act.  We too, are called to initiate connection with others and offer God’s love to others, but we must leave the choice to act with the person. When was the last time we initiated contact with someone to share God’s love and truth with them?  If it’s been awhile, pray for the opportunity to reach out to someone, to plant a seed of faith. 

The seed of faith that Jesus planted in the man immediately began to grow.  When the man returned from the pool he could see-yet the crowd questioned.  “Isn’t this the beggar?”  Many did not believe-but the man insisted that he was the man who had been blind and he told them how Jesus had restored His sight.  Having experienced Jesus he immediately began to tell others.  He continued to witness to what Jesus had done even when he was brought to the Pharisees and to his family who not only refused to believe him but rejected him.  As the man told how Jesus had healed him his faith grew:  the man recognized Jesus as a prophet, and then when the Pharisees insisted that Jesus was a sinner the man recognized and confessed that a sinner could not do this.  Jesus must be from God.  For this the Pharisees- the religious leaders drove the man out.  Experiencing the love and of Jesus enabled the man to stand up to opposition and grow in his faith.  The physical gift of sight from Jesus led to the man receiving a gift of spiritual sight.  We can nurture growth in faith in others when we follow Jesus’ example of first responding to the needs of others and sharing Christ’s love with them.  Here at Grace UMC we have seen many people come to faith because someone within the Body has reached out to meet a need: offering acceptance, prayer, an encouraging word, clothing or a blanket, a hot meal or a cold drink, or a place to get out of the weather.  This is part of fulfilling our vow to nurture others in the faith. 

Notice that Jesus was not with the man when he was questioned by the crowd, his family and the Pharisees.  But Jesus did not forget the man. Jesus knew of the man’s growing faith. Jesus knew that the Pharisees had driven the man out.  So Jesus went to find the man. Jesus never forgets us.  Jesus’ Spirit is always with us.  As Jesus’ followers we are called to share God’s love with others.  And when we do we should follow Christ’s example-we are called to remember those we encounter in Jesus’ name.  We are to stay with them in Spirit by praying for them.  And like Jesus we should seek them out to continue to encourage them in their faith. By doing this we become the very hands and feet of Christ and an example of God’s love.

When Jesus found the man He asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  The man responded by asking, “Who is He?  Tell me so I may believe in Him.”  And Jesus answered, I am He.”  Then the man believed and worshipped Jesus.  This man, who had been a blind beggar who was shunned by others, experienced the love of God and became a disciple of Jesus, welcomed into the community of faith by Christ Himself.  It was Jesus who nurtured the man’s faith by healing, extending love and acceptance, teaching and encouraging so that the man came to believe in and follow Jesus. 

Part of our call to nurture people in the faith is to guide them into accepting God’s grace for themselves and professing their faith in Christ openly.  Have we followed up with those we have shared God’s love with to continue to encourage them in the faith?  Have we asked others if they believe in Jesus as Savior?  Jesus did then and still does today.  Too often, even within the Church, people see faith as a private issue.  Too often people desire to let others decide for themselves about faith-whether to believe in Christ or not by letting them discover the faith on their own.  But the faith that God calls us to is not private; it is founded in community-we need to encourage each other and build each other up in the faith.  We need to pray for one another and we need to actively share God’s love with others, extending hope, help and healing in God’s name, actively teaching about Who Jesus is and inviting others to join us in following Jesus.  We cannot force others to follow; but neither can we neglect God’s call for us to nurture and teach others about Christ, walking alongside them as they question, explore and grow; trusting that God will bring them to faith in Jesus. 

“Will you nurture these children (or persons) in Christ’s Holy Church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves to profess their faith openly and to lead a Christian life?”  And, “Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life, and include these persons now before you in your care?”  The purpose of these vows is to make new disciples and strengthen all disciples by the grace of God.  Today and in the weeks to come, let us consider how we are living out our baptismal vow to nurture others in the faith. Jesus commands us to make disciples. (Matthew 28:19) Every day God presents all of us with opportunities within and outside of the church to share God’s love, to serve as an example of the faith by following Jesus example, and to teach and encourage others so that they may become or grow as disciples of Jesus our Savior.  What opportunities has God shown each of us?    In the coming week consider and pray about how you will nurture others in the Christian faith and life, especially those who are new to the faith.    May we be faithful to live out our baptismal calling to nurture one another and others in the faith.  If you desire to reaffirm this baptismal vow I invite you to pray the vow with me now:

 

Lord with Your help, I will proclaim the Good News and live according to the example of Christ.  I will surround others, within and outside of the church, with a community of love and forgiveness that they may grow in their service to others. I will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.  In the name of Christ, Amen. 

Sermon: Accept and Confess

Third Sunday in Lent

By Pastor Gretchen Casey   March 19, 2017

(John 3:16-17, John 4:5-42)

This is the 3rd Sunday in Lent, the weeks leading up to when we remember Jesus’ death on a cross for our sakes on Good Friday and then the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning three days later.  During our Lenten journey we will be looking at how we are living out our baptismal vows. Today as we enter into worship may we consider our Baptismal vows for ourselves:   Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?  And, do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in His grace and promise to serve Him as Lord in union with the Church Christ opens to people of all ages, nations and races?  By the grace given you, will you remain a faithful member of Christ’s Holy Church and serve as Christ’s representative in the world?

During this season of Lent we have entered into a process of reflection on the baptismal vows we take as Christians when we join Christ’s Church.  For some of us, the vows were taken on our behalf when we were baptized as infants and, as we grew older, we had an opportunity to confirm these vows for ourselves.  And perhaps, for some of us gathered here today, we have not yet had the chance to consider what it means to enter into the new life that Jesus offers and calls us to.  Two weeks ago we began our Lenten Journey by considering how we are living out our first Baptismal vow to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of our sin.  Reflecting on how we are living out our faith and turning back to God when we stray is an ongoing process for all believers.  Today we will consider two more vows we made at our baptism.  First, the vow to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.  And second, the vow to confess Jesus Christ as our Savior, put our whole trust in His grace and promise to serve Him as Lord in union with the Church Christ opens to people of all ages, nations and races?  By the grace given us, will we remain faithful members of Christ’s Holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world? Our scriptures from the book of John in chapters 3 and 4 shed light on what it means to accept the freedom and power God gives us and to confess Jesus Christ as our Savior. 

Many of us can recite John 3:16.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life. (NRSV) God the Father gave Jesus His Son to us as a sacrifice so that we may not have to face the penalty for our sins. Jesus, Who was free from sin, took on our sin so that through Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection to new life Jesus won the victory over sin and death.  That is the power of God that we receive which leads to freedom from sin and eternal life when we believe.  Do we believe in Jesus Christ?  To “believe in” in this scripture does not mean solely a mental acknowledgement of Christ’s existence, but an entry into the very life obligations, character and purposes of Jesus.  Belief in Jesus is an acceptance of Who Jesus is, trusting fully in His power to save and willingness to enter into the lifestyle Jesus requires and to put our lives into Christ’s hands.  In John chapter 4 Jesus asks the woman at the well for a drink of water. The woman was shocked by this request. In Jesus’ day men did not talk to women and Jews did not talk to Samaritans.  Jesus went against the status quo of the times by not only engaging this woman in conversation, but by offering life to her.  Jesus said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and Who it is that is saying to you, Give me a drink, you would have asked Him and He would have given you living water.”  This water that Jesus gives will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life in all who accept this gift of God.  When we believe in Christ we are given the freedom and power of God to resist and defeat evil, injustice and oppression.  We are given the chance to enter into the very lifestyle of Jesus Who drove out demons, went against the status quo of the day, and fought against injustice and oppression for all who suffered. God has given us the gift of His freedom and power. Have we accepted this gift? Are we fulfilling our baptismal vow to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?  Many people believe in the existence of Jesus, but only want a warm and fuzzy version of faith.  Jesus calls us to join Him in fighting against the powers of this world so all may be free. It is not easy, but this is the life of faith that God blesses.

The story of the woman at the well in John chapter 4 gives us an example of faith development and a model of effective evangelism.  Evangelism is the spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness.  The woman at the well came to believe in Jesus, step by step, and then she became a witness who told others Who Jesus is.  Notice how the woman Jesus encountered went from not knowing Who Jesus was to believing that He was the Messiah, the promised Savior.  The woman at the well clearly had an understanding of Samaritan and Jewish theology and faith. At first she wondered if this man she was speaking to was greater than her ancestor, Jacob.  Then, when Jesus revealed her whole past to her, she understood him to be a prophet-someone who spoke for God. She knew where her people worshipped God the Father and where the Jews worshipped.  And she knew that the Messiah was coming and that He would proclaim all things to them.  Then belief began to take root. She ran back to the city, calling all to come and see this man who told her everything about her.  She wonders-and hopes-could He be the Messiah they have waited for?  She believed.  What was it like for us when we first heard about Jesus?  Did we question?  Did we test what we heard about Jesus against what we had learned about God?  The woman at the well spent time with Jesus, listening, questioning, wondering- and finally believing.  She did not believe only because He told her everything she ever did, but because He accepted who she was and offered her life.   And when she believed she became a witness- a representative of Jesus to others.  The woman confessed Jesus as Savior and shared this Good News with the people of her city.  She invited them to come and see this Jesus, come experience His love and truth as she did.  It was because of her witness that the people of the city came to believe in and confess Jesus as Savior.  Are we sharing our experience of Jesus with others?  Are we confessing our belief in Jesus as our Savior?  Or are we keeping our faith to ourselves?  Some people are afraid to share their faith because the message of Jesus is often not welcome in the work place or in the schools.  Many people in our society believe in Jesus as their Savior, but they believe faith is personal, and shouldn’t be shared with others.  It is true that Jesus does things on a personal basis- He comes to each of us, one on one, just as He came to the woman at the well.  He accepts and teaches each of us personally so that we all may come to believe and accept Him as Savior.  But God so loved the world– every person in the world- so that all who believe in Jesus may not die but have eternal life.  We are in this together, and Jesus commands us to go and tell others; to make disciples. And Jesus gives us the power to overcome any fear of sharing our faith. 

Are we living our Baptismal calling and vow by openly confessing Jesus as our Savior, putting our whole trust in His grace?  Are we faithfully serving Jesus as Lord as a part of Christ Church which is open to people of all ages, races and nations?  And are we witnessing to Jesus’ work in our lives, serving as Christ’s representative in the world in which we live and work so that others may come to know Jesus too?  Our faith in Christ is not just mere mental agreement about Who Jesus is.  Living out our faith in Christ and our baptismal vows is a committed and active lifestyle of becoming like Jesus: It is a lifestyle of drawing close to Jesus in prayer and study of God’s Word, of renouncing and rejecting the evil powers of wickedness and repenting of our sin, of accepting God’s freedom, power and grace to resist evil, injustice and oppression in this world, and sharing God’s love with all we meet so that they, too, may know the Savior of the world.  As part of our Lenten Journey may we take time this week to do 2 things:  First, may we reflect on how we are living out our baptismal vow to fight injustice and oppression in this world and identify one area where we need to act in faith. Second, may we reflect on how we are confessing Jesus as our Savior and representing Him in the world.  Then may we make a plan to witness to others about how Jesus has worked in our lives. And may God bless us as we step out in faith.

Sermon:  Renounce, Reject, Repent

First Sunday in Lent

By Pastor Gretchen Casey   March 5, 2017

(Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32, Matthew 4:1-11)

Today is the first Sunday in Lent.  The first day of the Lenten season was Ash Wednesday.  This 40 day season leads us to Christ’s Passion on the cross and final victory over sin and death with His resurrection on Easter morning. Lent was created in the early church as the final phase of intense preparation for people who had made the choice to become disciples of Christ and desired to be baptized.  Baptism is a covenant, or a holy agreement, between Christ Jesus, an individual, and a community of faith. For those who have been baptized, lent is a season of reflection, repentance, and returning to God; anticipating Easter’s rebirth.  During this Lenten Season we will be exploring and reflecting on how we are living out our baptismal calling: what it means to be part of Christ’s holy Church-the community of faith, and what it means to make a commitment to join Christ’s work in the world.

You can find the United Methodist Church Baptismal Covenant in the beginning of the UM hymnal.  When we recognize God’s call in our lives to become a disciple of Jesus, or to raise our children to follow Jesus, we make vows to God in the presence of the congregation of believers.  On this first Sunday in Lent we will consider our first baptismal vow in light of our scripture readings from Genesis, Psalm 32 and Matthew 4.

Our first baptismal vow is to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of our sin.”  We are in a spiritual battle in this life.  We do not fight flesh and blood, but the spiritual forces of this world.  To renounce something means to publicly and definitively state that you refuse to follow, obey or support someone or something; to disown them.  Reject means to refuse to accept, submit to, agree with or believe someone or something.  To repent of our sin is to acknowledge and confess that we have turned away from God, disobeying His Word, and then to turn back to God in obedience to God’s will.

We first see this spiritual battle and the act of disobedience to God in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis, the first book of the Bible.  This story of the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden and their choice to disobey God’s ONE rule is familiar to us.  Imagine for a minute what it must have been like to be in the Garden.  God put the man in the garden to till and keep the land and God gave the man and the woman immense freedom to eat freely of every tree in the garden except one.  Our Creator is a God of abundant provision and great freedom.   In the garden of Eden there was only one rule and boundary: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was off limits. The fruit looked good, but God knew better.  God said, “Do not eat of it.”  This law was made out of love for the Father’s children.  The intention was to protect us from the evil that leads to death. But the woman was tempted by the serpent to eat of its fruit. The serpent twisted God’s words and the woman disobeyed God.  She ate of the fruit and offered it to her husband.  All of humanity has suffered the consequences of this choice to sin against God.  We are no different from the woman.  Think for a moment.  Do we face temptations?  What are they? We are no different from the woman – everyday we are tempted by choices that twist God’s Word, we give in and are led away from God’s will.  And very often we draw others into disobeying God’s Word with us.  God calls us to renounce and reject the spiritual forces of wickedness and reject the powers of sin of this world.  But we are helpless to do this in our own power.  So God the Father sent His Son Jesus to show us the way to live as God’s children.

1 Corinthians 10:13 tells us that no temptation has seized us except what is common to man.  And God is faithful; He will not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear.  But when we are tempted He will also provide a way out so that we can stand up under it. At times it feels like we are battling temptations alone, like no one else could possibly have struggled against the temptations we face.  But that is a lie of Satan that we are to renounce and refuse to give in to.  And Jesus has shown us how.

Immediately after Jesus was baptized and was filled with the Holy Spirit He was led by that same Spirit into the desert to be tempted for 40 days.  Here is the hope that we have:  Jesus was tempted to sin just as we are tempted. Satan was testing Jesus’ commitment to God’s commission to bring about salvation for the world.  Had Jesus given in to temptation and sinned, there would be no hope for us.    But Jesus renounced and rejected the spiritual forces of wickedness and the evil powers of this world by the power of God’s Word.  Only a life without sin could be an acceptable sacrifice to pay for the sins of the world.  We have hope because Jesus was tempted in the same ways that we are and He provided a way out for us:  using God’s Word as a weapon against the temptations we face.

Jesus faced three main temptations that are common to us all.  First, Jesus had been fasting and was hungry and physically weak.  “If You are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread,” the devil said. Notice first, the devil tries to cast doubt on Jesus’ identity. This is often the first temptation we face, to doubt who we are.  But Jesus has confidence in His identity as God’s Son. He did not fall for this temptation.  Jesus replied, “It is written:  Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  Do we know our identity in Christ and do we know every word of God?  We need food to survive, but it is God’s Word  that gives us life.  Notice the tempter’s next scheme.  The devil misuses God’s Word by trying to trick Jesus into proving God’s Word by throwing Himself down from the highest point of the temple so that the angels will save Him.  But Jesus responds again with the weapon of God’s Word, “It is written, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”  In the midst of temptation to preserve Himself Jesus demonstrated humility and faith in God.  Are there times when we are tempted to test God? To see if God will come through and save us, forgive us, even when we have done something foolish and contrary to God’s will?

 

The final test for Jesus was about who He would worship. Satan showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and said they would be His if Jesus would worship Satan, instead of God.  Satan has reign over this world for a time. But God will have the final victory.  Worldly riches, power in this world, can become idols.  Jesus did not give in.  Jesus Renounced Satan:  “Away from me Satan, for it is written, Worship the Lord Your God and serve Him only.”  When confronted with the truth of God’s Word Satan fled.

 

Jesus showed us how to use God’s Word as a powerful weapon against the spiritual attacks we face. Do we pick up the weapon of God’s Word-the sword of God?  Do we know and understand it in order to use it to resist temptation?  To live out our Baptismal vows we must be committed to learning God’s Word. But because we are human, even when we are devoted to God’s Word, there will be times when we give in to the temptation to sin and turn away from God, failing to renounce and reject the spirit of wickedness and evil in this world.  When we refuse to acknowledge our sin (or “iniquities” NRSV) – we suffer and lose strength. (Psalm 32) But we are assured in Psalm 32 that when we confess our sins to God, God forgives us and leads us to happiness and joy, to abundant life with our Savior.  So when we fail, may we be quick to acknowledge our sin and repent of it.   We are not in this alone.  We have our Savior, Christ the Lord, fighting for us and we are part of Christ’s holy Church-the community of faith.  We can and must encourage and hold one another accountable to live out our faith.

During this Lenten Season may we be intentional, as Christ was intentional, in striving, by God’s grace and the power of God’s Word, to live out our baptismal calling by renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness, and rejecting the evil powers of this world. May we discover what it means to make a commitment to join Christ’s work in the world of sharing His love and making disciples.

Sermon:  Mountain Tops and Valleys

Transfiguration Sunday

By Pastor Gretchen Casey   February 26, 2017

(Exodus 24:12-18, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-23)

Have you ever had a mountain top experience… a time that you experienced something new and wonderful; a time that left you feeling excited because you had gained a new perspective on life or new things were about to happen?  Perhaps it was your wedding, the birth of a child, going on a special trip, getting a new job; or perhaps it was a overcoming an obstacle, bad habit or an addiction in your life.  Have you ever had a mountain top experience with God? A special encounter with God which changed your life in some way?  Separated by over 1,000 years Moses, and three of Jesus’ disciples, Peter, James and John, had mountain top encounters with God which changed not only their lives but the lives of God’s people.    

Exodus 24 begins with an invitation to Moses from God: “Come up to the Lord… approach the Lord.” God had chosen Moses to deliver God’s people, the Israelites, out of slavery in Egypt and they were journeying to the Promised Land.  Moses was close to God, speaking to God often in order to know God’s plan for the people.  Moses knew God, and he had reverence for God.  Responding to God’s call and entering God’s presence takes preparation, especially of the heart.  So before going to meet with the Lord on the mountain Moses made sacrifices to God for himself and all the people.  Then the Lord called Moses again to come up on the mountain to be with Him.  The disciples, too had an invitation from the Lord Jesus to follow Him up the mountain.  They, like Moses, had spent much time with the Lord, following Jesus and learning about the Kingdom of Heaven from Him.  The disciples were prepared to follow Jesus up this mountain.   Have we ever felt God call us into His presence?  Have we felt the urge to stop and pray or to go to worship or Bible Study?  Have we felt compelled to get out in nature and be alone with God, away from the distractions of everyday life?  We probably haven’t heard God’s voice calling as Moses did, but God still calls to us to come to Him in different ways.  Are we prepared to answer God’s call to follow?  Moses and the disciples were prepared.  They followed God up the mountain and experienced the glory of the Lord. 

Our God is awesome.  Imagine with me Moses’ encounter with the Lord on Mount Sinai. A cloud covered the mountain and the glory of the Lord settled on it.  To the Israelites below God’s glory looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.  And Moses entered this cloud so that he could receive God’s law and commands for the Israelites; the stone tablets that God would write His instructions for how they were to live as God’s holy and set apart people. Moses stayed on the mountain within the glory of God for 40 days and 40 nights as God spoke through the cloud the laws and commands they would need for a life of worship. Chapters 25-31 of Exodus spell out all of these laws and commands.  God had a clear plan for the Israelites and He revealed it to Moses, His chosen leader. 

And God had a plan for the disciples over a thousand years later. Peter, James and John followed Jesus up the mountain.  Suddenly Jesus was transfigured right before their eyes.  Jesus’ face “shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as the light.” (Matthew 17:2) Immediately Moses and the prophet Elijah appeared standing beside Jesus.  They represent the law of God; Jesus came to fulfill the law.  Peter wanted to set up shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah but while he was speaking a bright cloud surrounded them and they heard God’s voice from heaven: “This is my Son, whom I love, with Him I am well pleased.  Listen to Him.”  The disciples were terrified and fell facedown on the ground.  But Jesus came to them and reassured them.  Transfiguration means to change the form or appearance of, to glorify. The transfiguration was the unveiling of Jesus’ humanity to reveal His true form as God’s Son; the Word of God made flesh.     This was truly a life changing encounter for the disciples. God was commanding the disciples, and all of us today, to follow and obey Jesus, His Son.  Through Jesus the Law and the Prophets are summed up in just 2 commands:  to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.  Just a little while before they were on the mountain with Jesus Peter had proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ, the promised Savior.  Before Peter’s encounter with God on the mountain he believed intellectually –in his head- that Jesus was the Savior; after witnessing the transfiguration Peter was able to see the glory of the Savior and hear God’s confirmation of Jesus’ identity: Peter then knew in his heart that Jesus was the Christ. In my faith journey I was much like Peter; I believed in Jesus, but it took encounters with Jesus during prayer to fully understand and accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior in my heart.  I did not climb a mountain as the disciples did but I did spend time with Jesus and follow Him.  And when I first came to the realization of Jesus as my Savior I was filled with awe.  I was not on a mountain, but it was a mountain top experience.  I did not want to leave the “mountain top.”  Can you relate? 

We cannot stay on the mountain top.  God has given us work to do to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven until Christ returns in final glory and victory over sin and death.  We must descend into the valley and re-enter the world after a mountain top experience to share the glory and power that we have experienced with others who need it.  As soon as Jesus and the disciples descended from the mountain a man came to Jesus asking that Jesus heal his son of demon possession.  The disciples who had stayed in the valley could not heal the boy- they lacked the faith in God’s power to heal; they had not experienced God’s power yet. But Jesus told them that soon they would see the awesome power of God at work; Jesus would be crucified for our sins and then be resurrected.  Resurrection is the ultimate mountain top experience.   Do you know Jesus as God’s Son, as the Word made flesh, as your Savior?  Have you experienced the power of Christ in the valleys of life?  May we listen to Jesus and follow Him up the mountains and down into the valleys of this life.  May we share the love, power, grace and life that we have found in Jesus until He returns in final victory.    

On Tue, Feb 21, 2017 at 10:40 AM, Gretchen Casey <gretchenakc@gmail.com> wrote:

On Thursday at 1:30 we will be meeting for Bible Study to go over the scriptures we shared on Sunday.  God calls us to be holy as He is holy.  How do we live that out?  Hope you can join us as we gather to study God’s word and encourage each other in living it out.  May God bless you this week.  

Prayers, Pastor Gretchen 

Sermon:  Choosing Life=Choosing Holiness

7th Sunday after Epiphany

By Pastor Gretchen Casey   February 19, 2017

(Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-23, Matthew 5:38-48)

Have you ever been called a Holy Roller?  When I was about to become a pastor some people who know me were afraid that I was about to become a Holy Roller.  This wasn’t a compliment.  Many in society today use the term “Holy Roller” as a label for anyone they believe will be in your face about obeying God’s laws and who have loud, judgmental, finger-pointing messages of hell-fire and brimstone for those who disobey God’s Word.  We see this on TV sometimes; but scripture reveals a different picture of holiness. We learn in the book of Leviticus that the LORD our God is holy and our Holy God has given us a command:  “You shall be holy for I, the Lord, am holy.”  (Lev. 19:2)  God calls us to be holy. Not holy as the world often portrays holiness, but as God is holy.  Does anyone wonder, like I wonder, HOW?  How are we to be holy as God is holy?  What does it mean to be holy?

Holiness is an attribute of God.  To get a fuller understanding of God’s holiness and God’s call for us to be holy we need to look at the context of this command and at the meaning of the word holy.  Our scripture from Leviticus is God’s Word spoken to Moses, who led God’s people the Israelites out slavery in Egypt.  God promised the Israelites that He would lead them to the Promised Land and prosper them.  In chapter 19 Moses and the Israelites are in the desert after being freed from slavery.  Leviticus is God’s Word, spoken through Moses, to His chosen people.  In freeing Israel from slavery in Egypt God had set the nation apart; God had separated Israel from other “ordinary” nations and consecrated the nation to Himself.  God made Israel to be a holy nation:  a nation set apart.  The word holy means “set apart”. Holiness is not so much an attitude but a position we have in relationship with God. It is derived from Old English and Germans words meaning “blessed.”  The word holy relates to keeping the blessed (the believers) pure, whole and complete-set apart for relationship with God, and not “infected” by the ways of the world.  God said to the Israelites and God says to us today, “Be holy-be set apart-be pure, whole and complete as I am holy; as I am set apart, pure, whole and complete.  It was while the Israelites were in the desert, looking forward to new life in the Promised Land that God taught them about how to be holy; how to live a life set apart, pure, whole and complete.  If you read the beginning of the book of Leviticus you will see that God established the laws for the sacrificial system of forgiving the people’s sins.  Chapter 19 is the moral and ethical code of conduct for God’s people to follow, to instruct the Israelites on how to live as forgiven and set apart or holy people.  In Leviticus 18:3-5 God commands His people, “Do not act like the people in Egypt, where you used to live or like the people of Canaan where I am taking you.  You must obey all my regulations and be careful to keep my laws, for I the Lord, am your God.  If you obey all my regulations, you will find life in them, I am the Lord.”  God’s will is for us to conduct every aspect of daily life in conformity to God’s holy character.  God says, “You shall be holy as I am holy.”  We find, and we choose life by choosing holiness-choosing to be set apart, obeying God’s laws, not following the ways of the world.

God has revealed His will and laws to us-His moral and ethical code to follow; we are called to do the following things: leave some of the harvest for the poor and for the aliens-the immigrants and foreigners among us; we are to be honest with one another, not lying, cheating or stealing; we are to care for and extend compassion for the sick and disabled, defending those who are hurt and oppressed and not stand idly by when someone is killed; we are to fight for justice and not seek revenge.  We are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19) and even love our enemies (Matthew 5:44).  Being holy means obeying these laws.  But what about when we fail to obey God in these areas? God says we shall be holy… but when I strive to obey God in my own power I fail. I sometimes wonder, is it possible to be holy? 

We, as God’s people, fail to choose life and holiness-to be set apart from the world- either because we try to obey God on our own, in our own power; or, we choose to disobey God’s law, following the ways of the world instead. Thankfully, with God all things are possible. (Luke 1:37)  To be holy as God is holy we must desire to be with God and we must desire to learn God’s laws and His ways, as the Psalmist did.  Listen again to what the Psalmist prayed in Psalm 119:33-40… “Lord, teach me your statues (laws)… lead me on the trail of your commandments…turn my heart to your laws…make me live by Your way…”  Do we pray this prayer and exhibit this heart attitude?  It is through prayer that God molds us in His holy image.  The typical attitude of the world is put “me” first instead of God and others first. The Psalmist’s attitude is one that is set apart from the world.  Having this attitude is being God and other-focused; having this attitude is choosing life and choosing holiness.  

To be holy we must also build on the foundation of Jesus Christ.  The foundation and purpose of Jesus is to give new life to the poor, the oppressed, the broken hearted, prisoners, the blind. The foundation and purpose of Christ is to seek and fight for love, justice, humility and to serve all.  To be holy we must build on the foundation of Christ and Christ’s purpose of ushering in the Kingdom of God and offering salvation and forgiveness of sins for all.  Building on the Foundation of Christ is choosing to partner with Jesus.  It is choosing life and choosing holiness. 

God says “You shall be holy for I the Lord am holy.”  Desiring holiness, to know and do God’s law, to seek God in prayer and to build on the foundation of Jesus in order to be holy is ultimately only possible when we accept Christ as our Savior and are filled with the Holy Spirit.  Listen to God’s Word in 1 Corinthians 3:16 “Don’t you know that you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit lives in you?”  Do we know this?  Isn’t this an amazing truth?  We are God’s temple, where God’s Spirit resides.  And hear this next truth in verse 17:  “God’s temple is holy.”  We are God’s temple-so we are holy. God did this work in us.  We may fail to live a holy life because we choose to disobey God and go our own way.  Disobedience will separate us from God’s presence, it will affect our relationship with God, but it will not change who and what we are:  We are God’s temple- and we are holy.  When children disobey their parents it effects their relationship with their parents but not who they are.   

God sent Jesus to offer us new life in Him.  God invites us to choose life and calls us to be holy.  We must choose, by the power of the Holy Spirit within us, to cooperate with God in choosing life and holiness, day by day, moment by moment. It is God Who has made us holy: set apart, pure and complete. Holiness is our position in and with God.  May we be like our heavenly Father, holy and complete in showing love to everyone, so that all may come to know Jesus, our Lord and Savior.       

Sermon:  Choosing Life=Choosing Holiness

7th Sunday after Epiphany

By Pastor Gretchen Casey   February 19, 2017

(Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-23, Matthew 5:38-48)

Have you ever been called a Holy Roller?  When I was about to become a pastor some people who know me were afraid that I was about to become a Holy Roller.  This wasn’t a compliment.  Many in society today use the term “Holy Roller” as a label for anyone they believe will be in your face about obeying God’s laws and who have loud, judgmental, finger-pointing messages of hell-fire and brimstone for those who disobey God’s Word.  We see this on TV sometimes; but scripture reveals a different picture of holiness. We learn in the book of Leviticus that the LORD our God is holy and our Holy God has given us a command:  “You shall be holy for I, the Lord, am holy.”  (Lev. 19:2)  God calls us to be holy. Not holy as the world often portrays holiness, but as God is holy.  Does anyone wonder, like I wonder, HOW?  How are we to be holy as God is holy?  What does it mean to be holy?

Holiness is an attribute of God.  To get a fuller understanding of God’s holiness and God’s call for us to be holy we need to look at the context of this command and at the meaning of the word holy.  Our scripture from Leviticus is God’s Word spoken to Moses, who led God’s people the Israelites out slavery in Egypt.  God promised the Israelites that He would lead them to the Promised Land and prosper them.  In chapter 19 Moses and the Israelites are in the desert after being freed from slavery.  Leviticus is God’s Word, spoken through Moses, to His chosen people.  In freeing Israel from slavery in Egypt God had set the nation apart; God had separated Israel from other “ordinary” nations and consecrated the nation to Himself.  God made Israel to be a holy nation:  a nation set apart.  The word holy means “set apart”. Holiness is not so much an attitude but a position we have in relationship with God. It is derived from Old English and Germans words meaning “blessed.”  The word holy relates to keeping the blessed (the believers) pure, whole and complete-set apart for relationship with God, and not “infected” by the ways of the world.  God said to the Israelites and God says to us today, “Be holy-be set apart-be pure, whole and complete as I am holy; as I am set apart, pure, whole and complete.  It was while the Israelites were in the desert, looking forward to new life in the Promised Land that God taught them about how to be holy; how to live a life set apart, pure, whole and complete.  If you read the beginning of the book of Leviticus you will see that God established the laws for the sacrificial system of forgiving the people’s sins.  Chapter 19 is the moral and ethical code of conduct for God’s people to follow, to instruct the Israelites on how to live as forgiven and set apart or holy people.  In Leviticus 18:3-5 God commands His people, “Do not act like the people in Egypt, where you used to live or like the people of Canaan where I am taking you.  You must obey all my regulations and be careful to keep my laws, for I the Lord, am your God.  If you obey all my regulations, you will find life in them, I am the Lord.”  God’s will is for us to conduct every aspect of daily life in conformity to God’s holy character.  God says, “You shall be holy as I am holy.”  We find, and we choose life by choosing holiness-choosing to be set apart, obeying God’s laws, not following the ways of the world.

God has revealed His will and laws to us-His moral and ethical code to follow; we are called to do the following things: leave some of the harvest for the poor and for the aliens-the immigrants and foreigners among us; we are to be honest with one another, not lying, cheating or stealing; we are to care for and extend compassion for the sick and disabled, defending those who are hurt and oppressed and not stand idly by when someone is killed; we are to fight for justice and not seek revenge.  We are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19) and even love our enemies (Matthew 5:44).  Being holy means obeying these laws.  But what about when we fail to obey God in these areas? God says we shall be holy… but when I strive to obey God in my own power I fail. I sometimes wonder, is it possible to be holy?

We, as God’s people, fail to choose life and holiness-to be set apart from the world- either because we try to obey God on our own, in our own power; or, we choose to disobey God’s law, following the ways of the world instead. Thankfully, with God all things are possible. (Luke 1:37)  To be holy as God is holy we must desire to be with Godand we must desire to learn God’s laws and His ways, as the Psalmist did.  Listen again to what the Psalmist prayed in Psalm 119:33-40… “Lord, teach me your statues (laws)… lead me on the trail of your commandments…turn my heart to your laws…make me live by Your way…”  Do we pray this prayer and exhibit this heart attitude?  It is through prayer that God molds us in His holy image.  The typical attitude of the world is put “me” first instead of God and others first. The Psalmist’s attitude is one that is set apart from the world.  Having this attitude is being God and other-focused; having this attitude is choosing life and choosing holiness.

To be holy we must also build on the foundation of Jesus Christ.  The foundation and purpose of Jesus is to give new life to the poor, the oppressed, the broken hearted, prisoners, the blind. The foundation and purpose of Christ is to seek and fight for love, justice, humility and to serve all.  To be holy we must build on the foundation of Christ and Christ’s purpose of ushering in the Kingdom of God and offering salvation and forgiveness of sins for all.  Building on the Foundation of Christ is choosing to partner with Jesus.  It is choosing life and choosing holiness.

God says “You shall be holy for I the Lord am holy.”  Desiring holiness, to know and do God’s law, to seek God in prayer and to build on the foundation of Jesus in order to be holy is ultimately only possible when we accept Christ as our Savior and are filled with the Holy Spirit.  Listen to God’s Word in 1 Corinthians 3:16 “Don’t you know that you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit lives in you?”  Do we know this?  Isn’t this an amazing truth?  We are God’s temple, where God’s Spirit resides.  And hear this next truth in verse 17:  “God’s temple is holy.”  We are God’s temple-so we are holy. God did this work in us.  We may fail to live a holy life because we choose to disobey God and go our own way.  Disobedience will separate us from God’s presence, it will affect our relationship with God, but it will not change who and what we are:  We are God’s temple- and we are holy.  When children disobey their parents it effects their relationship with their parents but not who they are.

God sent Jesus to offer us new life in Him.  God invites us to choose life and calls us to be holy.  We must choose, by the power of the Holy Spirit within us, to cooperate with God in choosing life and holiness, day by day, moment by moment. It is God Who has made us holy: set apart, pure and complete. Holiness is our position in and with God.  May we be like our heavenly Father, holy and complete in showing love to everyone, so that all may come to know Jesus, our Lord and Savior.

Amen.

Sermon : Dreaming, Watching, Waiting

Advent Series Week Four

By Pastor Gretchen Casey   December 18, 2016

( Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Luke 2:1-20, Matthew 1:18-25 )

Preparing for Christ’s Return:  Quiet my heart in prayer; read God’s Word, the reflection questions, and message; close in prayer asking God to reveal how to apply His Word in my life.

Questions for Prayer and Reflection: Am I turning toward or away from God in my attitudes and actions?  Is there something in my life that I need to repent of and ask for God’s forgiveness? Am I watching for God’s activity around me?  Am I allowing the Holy Spirit to transform my heart and mind?  How is God active in my life and how can I share the hope, love, joy and peace with others?

This is the fourth Sunday of Advent.  Christmas day and the celebration of the arrival of the promised Savior, Jesus Christ, is just days away.  We have journeyed through this season of Advent watching and waiting, not only for the infant Jesus to arrive, but also for Jesus, the King of Kings and Prince of Peace, to come again in final victory over sin and death.  We are urged by the apostle Matthew in chapter 24 to stay alert because we do not know the day that the Lord will return.   We are to remain alert as we dream, watch and wait for the return of the Prince of Peace.

We tend to picture peace as freedom from disturbance, as things being easy.  Things are peaceful if they are calm and quiet. Indeed this is the dictionary definition of peace: freedom from disturbance and a sense of calm and quiet.  We dream of peace but all too often we find the opposite of peace in our world and in our lives.  In our world we see people putting each other down, arguing, fighting; we see wars and natural disasters; we see hunger, homelessness, unemployment and oppression-those in power taking advantage of the weak.   In our lives we face health issues, the stress of juggling jobs and families, having too much month at the end of our money; the noise and constant barrage of technology, the pressure to be perfect, to do more and be more… When we look at this world and our circumstances it seems as if peace is all too often nowhere to be found.  Instead we experience anxiety, worry, fear, and we may even fall into despair at times.

 

But as Christians we know that what we see in this world and experience in this life is not the whole picture. God’s Word in the Bible points to the One Who is able to bring peace into this world and into our lives.  Consider Isaiah chapter 7 which speaks of God giving His people a sign of a virgin giving birth to a Son Who will be called Immanuel, which means, God with us.  In Matthew chapter 1 we read of Joseph who was pledged to be married to Mary.  But Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant with someone else’s child.  I imagine that Joseph was not feeling peace at this news.  And Luke chapter one tells us that when Mary first heard the news that she was about to bring the Savior into the world she was troubled- “sore afraid” as the King James version puts it.  And in Ancient Israel being pledged to be married and becoming pregnant could have resulted in

Mary being stoned to death.  Mary and Joseph were in the midst of circumstances that would provoke fear and anxiety, not feelings of peace and calm. Mary and Joseph did not dream of these circumstances when they pledged to be married.  The couple, however, were faithful Jews, who knew the scriptures about the coming Savior:  A virgin giving birth to a Son named Immanuel, “God with us.” And it is “God with us” that is the key to the dream of peace- then and now.  The birth of an infant, Who was and is Immanuel, God Incarnate-the Son of God in the flesh-turns the troubling circumstances of this world and of our lives- into moments of peace on earth.  At Christmas the Prince of Peace entered our world-into the messy, hard, overwhelming circumstances of our lives-to be our Peace in the midst of our struggles and pain.  Philippians 4:6-7 says, 6Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Often our dreams for peace in this world and in our lives seem impossible. The circumstances of our lives may seem messy, overwhelming, confusing; But with God all things are possible and God is faithful to fulfill the promise of His name.  Jesus is not only with us in the middle of our circumstances, He is also our Lord and Savior, and He is the Prince of Peace.  In this season of Advent may we recognize that, although our circumstances may be anything but peaceful, we can experience the peace that Christ gives. To experience the peace of Christ we must remain alert and watch for Jesus in the midst of our circumstances.  It is human nature to look to our circumstances to find the peace we dream of.  How often have we thought that if only this detail or that detail in our circumstances changed we would be at peace? How often have we thought along these lines:  If only we

could quit our bad habits, or if only we got that new job; if only our health was better we would have peace? The peace we dream of is not of this world.  The peace that we dream of can only come from the Prince of Peace. The peace of Christ does not make sense to our human minds-I am sure that angels appearing with messages from God did not make sense, could not be explained by, Mary and Joseph.  During this Advent season may we see Emmanuel, God with us, in the midst of the stresses of life. May we remember that Jesus was born in a stable, a stinky, messy stable. Jesus, Who’s name is Prince of Peace, was beaten and crucified, hung on a cross to pay the penalty for our sin. It is not in the circumstances of life that we find our dream of peace-it is through the power of God, through Jesus the Son, that we find peace.  May we, through prayer and thanksgiving, study of Word and by staying alert and watching see the presence of the Prince of Peace in our midst. May we see Christ in

the face of our neighbor who offers to help out when things are rough, may we recognize Christ in the voice of a friend who calls just when we are about to give up, may we feel Christ’s embrace in the hug of a child or a parent when we are lonely or sad.  May we be the hands and feet and arms and voice of Christ for others.  May we experience the presence of the Prince of Peace no matter what our circumstances are.   And may we stay alert so that we are ready to Welcome Jesus, the Prince of Peace when He returns in final victory over all circumstances of life.

 

Changed, Chosen, Empowered, Sent Out

By Pastor Gretchen Casey     May 29, 2016

(Acts 9:1-22, Galatians 1:11-24)

God’s people had waited for centuries for a Savior and when Jesus came many people believed that He was the Christ, the Savior God had promised.    With the arrival of Jesus, God’s Son, God began a new era in His plan of redeeming the world.  Jesus was the Incarnate God- God in the Flesh- Who became one of us to live like us and show us the way back to God our Father.  When Jesus walked this earth, many people believed and followed Him.  We have journeyed with the Disciples, Jesus’ followers, through Jesus’ time on earth, His death, resurrection and ascension to the Father in heaven.  We have journeyed with Jesus’ followers as they waited on and received the gift of the Holy Spirit and thousands came to faith in Christ.  Jesus came first to God’s people, the Jews.  But not all people, and not all of the Jews, believed that Jesus was the promised Savior.  The story of Saul is a story of those who did not believe that Jesus was the promised Savior confronting those who did believe that Jesus was the promised Savior. In our human perspective it is a story of “us” vs. “them.” Us- being the group of people we identify with and share the same beliefs with- and “them”- being the group of people we do not identify with and do not share the same beliefs with.   And the story of Saul is the story of how our Lord and Savior, Jesus, challenges any of our attempts to separate the world into “us” and “them.”

The book of Acts records the work of the apostles who believed in Jesus and were sent out- or commissioned- by Jesus to share the gospel, the Good News, of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.  The apostles were continuing the journey of new life that had started when they first encountered Jesus and they shared their message first with the Jews. We tend to want to think of new things as free from strife, but experience teaches us that this is usually not the case. And the apostles found this out.  The Sanhedrin, the religious leaders of the Jews, was made up of two parties, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Sanhedrin believed that the teaching of Jesus and the claim that Jesus was the Savior was heretical, they believed it was against God’s teaching. Consequently, many apostles were persecuted by the religious leaders and one apostle, Stephen, was murdered.  Saul was a Pharisee and was intent on putting an end to what was seen as a rebellion and false teaching within Judaism.  He was there when Stephen was murdered.  The persecution led to the followers of Jesus being scattered throughout Judea and Samaria, where they continued to share the Good News of salvation through Christ. They fled the persecution, but they did not hide away.  The persecution did not stop their mission of sharing the gospel but propelled it into new areas.

Meanwhile, we read in Acts chapter 9 how Saul sets out to stop this movement of Jesus followers.  Saul is intent upon stopping “them.” The ones he believes are threatening the purity of the faith. But while Saul was on the road to Damascus suddenly Jesus breaks in to stop him.  Saul was blinded by a flash of light from heaven and he heard a voice, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?”  Saul did not recognize the voice of Jesus.  Saul had been spiritually blind to the new thing God was doing; now he was physically blind.  Saul was changed by this holy encounter with Jesus, not just physically, but more importantly, Saul’s spirit was changed; it was made new.  Saul now saw the new thing God was doing.  Jesus had shattered the “us” vs. “them” attitude. Saul had encountered Jesus and now believed.

Saul was led to Damascus where he waited for God to reveal his next steps.

Have we encountered Jesus on our journey?  Have we been made new? The disciple, Ananias, encountered the Lord Jesus in a vision and he, too, was changed; he, too, was made new.  Unlike Saul, Ananias recognized the Lord’s voice.  Jesus had chosen him to go to Saul, who was praying, to restore his sight.  Ananias had faith in Jesus; but he also knew the facts about this man Jesus was commanding him to heal.  Ananias raised these concerns to Jesus:  This man Saul had harmed the Lord’s saints in Jerusalem.  And this man Saul had intentions of and the authority to arrest all the followers of Christ.  Have you ever questioned or grappled with God about what you feel He is leading you to do? It is okay to question, to grapple with, to seek clarity from God.  Saul questioned- “Who are you?” Sometimes the leading is not from God.  Ananias knew this call was from the Lord, but he still asked for clarity- there was a very real danger involved- Saul was an enemy of the church; this was an “us” the disciples, vs. “them” the religious leaders, issue- and they had more power.  Ananias needed to know how to handle the situation.  And so the Lord revealed that Saul was His chosen instrument to carry His name and the Good News of salvation to the Gentiles and the Jews.  With this revelation Jesus shattered the “us” vs. “them” attitude for the disciples, as He had for Saul.  Ananias had been chosen by God to go to Saul, and by faith, Ananias obeyed the Lord.  The encounter with Christ had given Ananias a new heart toward Saul-he addressed Saul as “Brother.”   Ananias allowed God to work through him to restore Saul’s sight and to baptize Saul.  And Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit.  God converted Saul, and made him a new creation in Christ. And God transformed the hearts of the disciples in Damascus. The disciples spent time with Saul- they surrounded this new believer and taught him.  And by the power of the Holy Spirit and the teaching of the disciples Saul was empowered and immediately moved to preach the gospel.  Rather than “us” and “them” adversaries, Saul and the disciples had become a new “us” together with a new call: to share the gospel with the Gentiles.  The old was gone, the new had come. (2 Cor. 5:17)  Saul and the disciples now had a choice: they could view the Gentiles as the new creation God was about to make, looking forward to the coming of God’s Kingdom for all people; or they could focus on the differences and their old nature and refuse to see what God desired to do.

Flashes of light and the audible voice of God from heaven is a rare occurrence, but Holy Encounters with Jesus still happen. Jesus is still speaking. Jesus is still in the business of changing hearts.  Jesus is still in the business of choosing people to reach out to new people.  The Holy Spirit is still in the business of filling hearts and empowering people to learn and go out and share His love and message of salvation with “them”- whoever is not “us”… yet.  When Jesus walked this earth He came first to the Jews but He went also went out to “them”- those who were different: the lepers, the tax collectors and sinners, the Canaanite woman, the Samaritan woman. Jesus is still in the business of shattering any “us” vs. “them” mentality we might harbor.  If we think of “us” as the church, the followers of Jesus, who do we see as “them”?   Who is missing from the table that Jesus Christ has set for all?  He longs for all to be together at the table.  Holy encounters with Jesus lead to new life in Christ for all people if we are willing to be changed.   And new life in Christ brings praise and glory to God.

Sermon: Names of God: Emmanuel, God with Us! Jesus, A Savior for All!

Christmas Eve  2015

By Pastor Gretchen Casey   December 24, 2015

(Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:26-56, Hebrews 10:5-10, Matthew 1:18-21)

 

From the beginning of time God has longed to be in a relationship with us, His children. But we, God’s children, then and now, have strayed. We have gone our own way. Sin and suffering entered the world. Although people strayed, God remained faithful; God so loved the world that He sent His One and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not die but have eternal life. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is the way back to relationship with God the Father. God spoke through the prophets of long ago, hundreds of years before Jesus was born, telling them of the coming of God’s Son, Who would be the Savior of the world. In this evening’s passage from Isaiah, the prophet announced that, “to us a Son is born!” Tonight we celebrate the birth of God’s Son, Who would be called Jesus, which means, “the Lord Saves.” Later in the book of Isaiah, the prophet announced that God’s Son will be called, Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.” Jesus, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, is God who took on flesh and dwelt among us. Prophecy was fulfilled; Jesus was born this night so long ago.

The prophet Isaiah tells us that this Child will reign on David’s throne and that this Child’s Kingdom will never end. Jesus, the Son of God, is the newborn King of the World. Luke recounts the arrival of God’s Son in chapter 2.

Jesus was born of Mary who was engaged to Joseph. This past Sunday we read the story of how Mary, a teenage, unwed, virgin said “Yes” to God’s plan to bring His Son into the world: Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. In saying “Yes” to God Mary became an unwed, pregnant, teen. In those days those who became pregnant before marriage could have been stoned. Because of her circumstances and her faith she experienced fear and ridicule and could have lost her life. But she was chosen by God and protected by God in order to bring the Savior of us all into the world. God was with her. And God is with all of us who have faced difficult circumstances, ridicule and even persecution.

Jesus was also born during a time of the Roman occupation of Judea. God’s people were oppressed by the King Ceasar Augustus and the rulers of Rome. Jesus the Savior was with His people suffering under oppression. He brought light into their darkness and offered hope. Have we today felt the weight of oppression; whether political, financial, physical, emotional or spiritual? It is Jesus Who saves us from oppression of all kinds.

Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, was born in an obscure village- Bethlehem was small and insignificant. Have we ever felt insignificant? Like nothing good could ever come to us or from us? Emmanuel is with us too. God’s power is within us, too, as it was in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.

When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem the town was crowded. There was no room in the Inn. No room and no welcome for a young pregnant woman about to give birth. No room for the newborn King. The Holy Family was sent out into the cold. Have we ever felt shut out, unwelcome? The Savior of the World, the Newborn King, has been shut out, too.

Mary gave birth to God’s Son in a stable. The stables during Jesus’ time were not as gentle and clean as the pictures on our Christmas cards today. A stable was usually in a cave, dark and dirty, full of the noise and stench of animals. The newborn Savior of the World experienced the darkness, dirt and stench of a cave. He was born to cleanse us of the darkness, the filth and stench of our sins. The Savior of the World died to pay for our sins and later emerged from a tomb- a cave- and arose to new life.

Mary had no cradle in which to lay her infant Jesus. She used a manger- a feed trough for the animals. What did the hungry animals think when they found a baby laid on the straw that they were to eat? Have we been hungry, physically or spiritually?   Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us then and now, later announced that He was the Bread of Life. Whoever ate of His body would hunger no more. The angels then appeared to the shepherds in the field, announcing the Savior’s birth. The shepherds were poor and looked down on by the well to do. They lived lives of hardship and danger as they kept watch against animal attacks and robbers. There was no shelter from the elements. Have any of us experienced hardship, and danger; the fear of being attacked, the chill and dark of night? God’s drew near to the lowly shepherds first. The Shepherds were the first to receive and honor the Newborn King, Emmanuel, God with us. And Jesus later referred to Himself as the Good Shepherd Who would know His sheep and one day lay down His life for them.

We would expect that the Savior of the World, the King of Kings Who came to reign on David’s throne and to be the Savior of the world would have been born

 

God’s people then and now would expect that the arrival of a newborn King would be met with much fanfare and celebration among the Kings and powers of the world. We would expect that the babe would be born in a prestigious city, in a castle, surrounded by servants. The Wise men and Kings would soon hear the news, Jesus would soon come to them, too.   But what we find in the birth story of Jesus is that the Newborn King came first to those who were ordinary, ridiculed, struggling, outcast, oppressed, insignificant, sin-stained, hungry, humble and hardworking. Sometimes we feel that God is out of reach, that our circumstances might prevent us from entering His presence: Who are we to kneel at the throne of the King of Kings? But God wanted the world to know, He came for ALL people regardless of our circumstances or position. What we find in the story of Jesus’ birth is Emmanuel, God with us all. What we find in the announcement by the angels is Good News of Great Joy that will be for ALL people: A Savior has been born to us all.pricelessgift

 

Our God:  The Giver of Good Gifts

Sermon by Pastor Gretchen Casey

September 13, 2015

(2 Corinthians 5:17, Romans 11:29, Gen. 1:26-31, Gen. 2: 4b-7, 19-23, 1 Corinthians 12:1, 4-11, 27-31)

Do you like to receive gifts?  When you get a gift that is wrapped what do you do with it?  You unwrap and use it. Gifts bring joy and serve all kinds of purposes.  But what if you don’t open them?  I will never forget going to my brother’s house on the day of his wedding.  My sisters and I were waiting at his house as he got ready for the ceremony and when he went to get his suit jacket for the wedding we noticed this pile of gift boxes on the floor of the closet- some of them still partially wrapped in the Christmas paper.  My brother had not truly unwrapped or used the gifts that we had given him!  Because he had left them in the closet he got no benefit from them.  We figured that at least now that he was about to be married his wife would make sure that he opened and used any future gifts he received.

In our scripture passages today we read about how God has given each of us different gifts.  The first gift that He gave us was life itself.  God breathed the breath of life into us.    God gave us companionship-we were made male and female- so that we would not be alone. The Creator gave us resources to use for food and shelter.  And God gave us responsibilities-to rule over all creation and to be fruitful and multiply.  God’s creation and gifts were good.  We were made in the image of God-we were made to reflect God’s very nature of love and goodness-what a gift! A gift to treasure.  However, instead of treasuring and protecting this gift through obedience to God, human beings chose to allow sin to enter into their lives staining God’s image.  Sin leads to death and separation from God. But God the Father loves us so much that despite our sin, He sent Jesus the Son to pay the penalty for our sin. When we believe in Jesus and accept Him as Lord of our life we are made new.  2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “if anyone is in Christ the new creation has come:  the old is gone, the new is here.”  God restores us to newness of life through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. And when we receive this life in Jesus, we also receive the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit.

The Apostle Paul wrote the first and second letters to the Corinthian Church.  This was a church facing divisions and impurity, idolatry and other kinds of sin. Paul was there to teach the people the basics of the faith. He did not want them to be ignorant-not understanding faith in Christ.  The first thing Paul taught the Corinthians was about the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Our God is an awesome God- always giving good gifts-even in the midst of our sin.  But the emphasis here is not on the giving of gifts for our own, individual pleasure or use, but on the whole Church, the Body of Christ.  In 2 Corinthians chapter 5 Paul teaches the church that God has given us the ministry of reconciliation and the building up of unity within the Body. The Body of Christ, then and now, is made up of many types of people wih a variety of backgrounds, interests, abilities, and gifts.  It is easy for differences to divide people.   And it is by the gifts of the Spirit that reconciliation and restoration of the unity we have in Christ occurs. In 1 Corinthians 12:7 Paul teaches that “to each one -to each person- the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”  God is the same yesterday, today and forever.  The Giver of Good Gifts desires unity within His church and so He gives each one of us gifts to use in building up of the Body, then and now.  The gifts we receive from the Holy Spirit are the means by which God’s image is revealed to the world. All gifts and parts of the Body are needed to fully reveal God’s image to those who are separated from God.  If any part or gift is taken away from the Body or not used, the Body becomes less effective at sharing Christ’s love and truth with the world.

Spiritual Gifts are a manifestation or evidence of the Holy Spirit dwelling within a believer.  Each believer is a part of the Body, with different Spiritual gifts.  God’s image is only revealed through all of the different gifts of the Spirit.  1 Corinthians 12 lists several of the Spiritual Gifts.  As I read the list be

thinking about which gifts God has given you for building up the Body.  The gifts listed in chapter 12 are wisdom-the ability to know how knowledge may best be applied to specific needs within the church. The second is knowledge:  being given the special ability to discern, accumulate, analyze, and clarify information and ideas which are pertinent to the well-being of the church. The gift of faith is given to all believers but the Spiritual Gift of faith spoken of here refers to having a special ability to discern with extraordinary confidence the will and purposes of God for His way.  The next gift is healing.  This gift only occurs within the limits of God’s will.  People with the gift of healing serve as human vessels through which God cures illnesses and restores health.  Prophecy is not just forecasting the future, but also the ability to receive and to communicate a message from God to His people with urgency and authority. Distinguishing between the Spirits is the ability to know with assurance whether certain behaviors are from God or not. Speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues refers to the special ability to speak to God and /or receive and communicate a message of God to His people in a language they have never learned. The gift of Helping refers to assisting those in the body in order to free others to accomplish their God-given ministries. The gift of

Administration refers to having leadership and vision that will advance the gospel. The gift of working of miracles refers to deeds of supernatural power that alter the course of nature.  The gift of apostleship is the ability to be a messenger for God, to be sent out with God’s message of love.  And the last gift mentioned in chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians is teaching.  This gift is the ability to communicate information relevant to the health and ministry of the Body and its members so that others will learn.   As I read through this list of gifts of the Holy Spirit I see an image of God that is full and amazing.  No one person can fully reveal God’s image.  All the parts of the Body with the various gifts, lived out in love, are needed to fulfill God’s command to love God, love others and make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Romans 11:29 says “for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.”  God’s gifts can never be withdrawn.  God has given each believer gifts that will build up the Body.  Have we received them?  Have we unwrapped them and tried them on?  Let’s not hide our gifts away, but take them out and use them to reflect God’s image so others may know God and experience His love.

Over the next couple of weeks we will look at all of the gifts in more detail: what the gifts are, how they are used to build up the Body and we will identify what our individual gifts are and where they might fit into the ministry and mission within our church.faithsays

Jonah Sermon by Darlene Shortt

Jonah 3: 1-10

He had every right to run – he thought.  Why should he go to that stinking city?  He hated the place.

Why should he worn the Ninevites  about God’s judgment?  After how they had treated his people, they deserved to be wiped out.  The last thing Jonah wanted was for his enemies to receive God’s blessing.     So he ran – as fast and as far as he could, away from what God wanted him to do.   But, God had other plans.

You know the story, God stirred up a storm.  Jonah bailed out of the

boat and ended up in the belly of a fish.

God gave Jonah time to think over his actions and attitudes.  For the

first time Jonah didn’t complain, he prayed.  (Probably the first time anyone

ever prayed for a fish burp)

The prayer was answered (I think God gave Jonah a little while to

think about what had happened to land him in this predicament)

Once Jonah was out of the fish, he eventually traveled to hated

Ninevah.  He preached to the people there, though his odor was not

appealing, his message was.  His message worked.  The Ninevites.

Repented.  God relented  (as Jonah knew he would)

Jonah fumed, furious over the turn of events.  He sulked.  We can be

so difficult  But God is so patient.

The book of Jonah is more than a fascinating account of one more futile attempt to run away from God.  It a story of God’s love for even the most unlovable, despicable people we can imagine, and of our responsibility to tell them the Good News.  Running away from God can’t be done.  Jonah discovered that

God’s dominion extends everywhere.  Jonah finally obeyed God and preached in Ninevah.  The people and the king responded immediately and God had compassion on them.   God’s word can have a transforming effect on

people, causing them to repent of their sins.  Violent strife and conflict have haunted the human race to one degree or another since the day Adam and Eve first chose to rebel against God.

At those times, death rides through every city and town bringing suffering and death, but sometimes, just an s suddenly, we enter a time of peace and relative calm.  Why?  Because many have listened to His message of warning and turned to Him in repentance and faith.

A good example of this is seen in God’s dealings with the people of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh.  They were an evil, pagan people who worshipped idols and often fought against God’s people.  God sent the prophet, Jonah to Nineveh to proclaim His coming judgment to them, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.  Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned: (meaning destroyed) but when the king of Nineveh heard Jonah’s message, he repented and ordered his people to repent as well.  As a result, God’s judgment was averted.

Now later on, generations after Jonah, evil increased and the people failed to repent and God’s judgment finally fell on Nineveh. (That’s a story for another time)

If you have been trying to limit God.  Stop It!  You wouldn’t try to limit the ocean.  You cannot limit the universe.  You wouldn’t be bold enough to try to change the course of the moon or to stop the earth from turning on its axis!  How everlasting more foolish it is to try to limit God who created and controls all of us.

Please stop by on Sunday at 10:00 am and be inspired. We’d be happy to get to know you and tell you about our busy schedule of activities. Thanks for stopping by. Next Sermon will come from the New Testament. Hope to see you there. We’re right at the corner of Union and Clinton Streets in Bangor.ogRfcxi29YGJo_JbWwrxfsezeASUX1YODswiqfZOiEM

 If you would like to donate to the Grace Church Food Ministry, Go Here. Spread God’s love to those who need your help.

                john wesley quotesJesus-Christ-easter