This Week at JMPC 1.12.2020

The last thing that happens at a national political party convention is the introduction of the selected candidate. After several minutes of cheers, the nominee steps to the podium and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, I accept your nomination for President of the United States.” And then there are many more minutes of cheers before the candidate launches into the acceptance speech. It is political drama at its best, though for most of my life, it has mostly been staged because the nominee was known long before the convention started. If there is support for someone who does not want to be the candidate, that person can simply say these words. “If nominated, I will not run. If elected I will not serve.” Those words are rarely heard because most folks who are supported for the nomination want to be the nominee. But still, it is a choice.
This week, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. We hear the story of Jesus coming to the Jordan River where his cousin John the Baptist is baptizing folks for the repentance of sins. This might raise two questions for you. First, why does Jesus need to be baptized and what does this have to do with politics? Well … come and hear about this on Sunday at John McMillan Presbyterian Church for either the 8:30 or 11:00 worship when Pastor Jeff preaches, “Touched by the Water” based on Matthew 3: 1-6; 13-17. We will look forward to seeing you.

This Week at JMPC 1.5.20

In Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, Alice journeys into a foreign world that is entirely unfamiliar to her. During her travels Alice meets a character called the Cheshire Cat who is sitting in a tree next to an intersection on the path upon which Alice is walking. Alice, unfamiliar with the area, asks the cat which way she should go. This is the conversation:
Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.
I love this little conversation. It is Carroll’s take on life generally. Every day we are confronted by unfamiliar circumstances that require is to make choices. Some of these choices are mundane. Some are life changing. Some might be life threatening. Regardless of the magnitude, we need a standard to use as a basis for our decision-making. That standard gives us direction. But we need to have a destination. The place we want to end up. If we don’t know where, or if we just don’t care, our choices don’t matter. We stumble along until we get … somewhere. So, where do you want to be? And do you know how to get there? If we are not sure, and we are often not sure, we need some direction. If we ask, “Which way do I go from here”, who is a good person to ask? I’ll give you a hint. We just celebrated his birth. Come and hear about it this Sunday, January 5 at 8:30 and 11 at John McMillan Presbyterian Church when Pastor Jeff preaches, “True North” based on Luke 6: 46-49. Come start the new year with us.

Advent Devotion 12.25.19

John 19: 30
“… Jesus … said, ‘It is finished’.” 
It seems a bit awkward to offer this text on the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth. It’s awkward because these are the last words Jesus speaks before he dies. Jesus’ last words. These words put a period on a life with a particular purpose. Jesus’ life. What began in Bethlehem ends here in Jerusalem. The purpose of that life was completed. It was finished.
In order to understand that, we need to understand what it was Jesus came to do. What did Jesus come to do? Jesus told Pilate.
John 18: 37b
‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’
Jesus came to tell the truth. What is the truth. Jesus told his 12 disciples.
John 14: 6-7
6 Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
You see Jesus, you see God. God is the truth. Jesus came to testify to that. So, what is God’s truth?
John 3: 16-17
16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
And at Jesus’ baptism, his cousin John the Baptist knew exactly what Jesus came to do.
John 1: 29
29 [John] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
So, we put all these things together: God so loved the world that God sent Jesus, his exact human imprint, as a gift, to save the world. Jesus came to take away the sin of the world. You see Jesus. You see God. Follow Jesus. Enter into the presence of God. Eternally.
That is why Jesus came. That is God’s gift to us on Christmas Day.

Advent Devotion 12.24.19

John 6:29
‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’
Well there it is, faith in Jesus Christ. It is Jesus that we follow, that we dedicate our lives. It is this advent season that we are reminded of the hope we have in Jesus. The most amazing part of this passage is what happens next. The people aren’t astounded or comforted by what Jesus says here, rather they ask him for a sign. They wanted a miracle so they could believe in him. They bring up some miracles of Moses, but those were long ago. These people want a miracle they can see with their own eyes.
Many of us can understand the people’s gripe. They want proof, they want Jesus to do something in front of them. They have heard the stories passed down and they want to see the proof. The problem is that Jesus offers us so much more in our life, but we want to see a sign that we ask for specifically. Jesus gives us signs and miracles every day. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to guide us, but we want to see a sign when we ask for it. Jesus gives us peace in the darkest moments in our life, but we want a parlor trick. This advent season we will get the only sign we need, a child is born, and he is Emmanuel. Amen.

Advent Devotion 12.23.19

John 14: 6
Jesus said …, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ 
When I was in high school there was a kind of Christian revival going on. We referred to it as the “Jesus Movement”. I had several friends who were in the movement. They wore big wooden crosses around their necks and spent a good deal of time at “prayer meetings”. When describing what they believed, they would usually look up, point an index finger to the sky and say, “There’s only one way!” That little phrase comes from our text today. But what does it really mean? We need to put it in context. This is part of Jesus’ Final Discourse to his disciples. Jesus is telling them that he is leaving. This is what he says:
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. He tells them they know how to get there. Thomas (typically) says something like, “I don’t know the way!” So, Thomas is asking directions. Jesus gives Thomas (and thanks to John, us) the directions. Follow Jesus. He is the way. He is the path. He is the route. If you follow Jesus’ directions, you will find the Father’s house. Anyone can follow them.
That is one reason why Jesus came. To tell us those directions.

Advent Devotion 12.22.19

Matthew 7:12
‘So, in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.’
I believe most of us know this passage, many call it the golden rule. I probably say it in some form to my kids 5 times a day. I usually say it to my son when he hits my daughter, or takes her toys, or tries to annoy her in many different ways. I want him to sympathize with the pain he is causing, because it doesn’t feel good to him when the roles are reversed.
The interesting thing about this rule is that we usually associate it with not doing bad things. However, what if we look at it as blessing people. I think it is a call to care for others as we would want to be cared for, to love others as we want to be loved. I see this as a call to love my neighbor just how I want them to love me. The focus is not doing bad things, rather the focus is doing good things. So, go out and do to others as you want them to do to you, in the most wonderful ways possible. Amen.

Advent Devotion 12.21.19

Matthew 6: 25
‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?’ 
In 1939, the British government created a department called the Ministry of Information. Its primary function was to create morale boosting propaganda to encourage the British people faced with the outbreak of WWII. The MOI created a poster that has become a popular modern meme. The poster simply said:
“Keep Calm and Carry On.”
Now, I want you to think about that for a moment. Your country is at war with an enemy 21 miles away across the Straits of Dover. Their goal is to conquer your country. Keep calm and carry on? Good advice, perhaps, but doable? Stiff upper lip and all that? Here is a bit of trivia that might surprise you. That poster was never used. Maybe because the MOI realized that “keep calm and carry on” was contrary to human nature and really not very inspiring.
This reminded me of Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” You know how it goes.
Here’s a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note
Don’t worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy
Good advice, maybe, but doable? Like the British Ministry of Information poster, I think this song is contrary to human nature and just not very helpful. Because frankly, it’s normal and healthy to worry a bit, right? I mean worry is a word with many connotations. It includes everything from concern over a planned dinner party to an anxiety disorder that requires medication. It can cause a bit of a bad mood or it can cause major depression. And there are difficult times in our lives that we simply cannot overcome by keeping calm and being happy. So, saying things like “keep calm and carry on” or “don’t worry, be happy” might be instructive when we are concerned with the Thanksgiving menu, but are not really all that meaningful to someone facing an enemy at its shores or a personal crisis or an anxiety disorder or major depression. To tell someone who is experiencing a serious illness or job loss or some other life changing time to keep calm or be happy can be downright insulting.
But when we read today’s scripture texts, doesn’t it sound like we are being told that when faced with any of these things we are to start singing McFerrin’s song or put on our t-shirt that says, “Keep Calm and Play the Trombone”?
That would be incorrect.
To understand what Jesus is saying we need to first understand its context. Jesus is preaching his Sermon on the Mount. Just before our text, Jesus is talking about where we should store our “treasures”. His preference? In heaven, where it cannot be taken away. What is the treasure Jesus says we should not be worried about? The stuff we think we need that … well … we already have! When we read these words we are called to change the orientation of how we approach worrisome things in our lives.
It’s not “Don’t worry, be happy”.
It should be, “Don’t worry, be grateful”.

Advent Devotion 12.20.19

Acts 1:8
‘You will be my witnesses’
Recent polls show that the vast majority of Christians (98%) believe they should share their faith with others. However, many people polled were unsure of how to share their faith. The most popular answer of why they struggled to share was “do not know the Bible as well as they would like”.
God calls us to be witnesses in the world. I really love the wording here witness. Certainly, we should read our Bibles and learn God’s story deeper. However, God wants us to be witnesses. Witnesses share what they have seen. God has worked in your life, God has done amazing things for you, are you sharing these stories? Are you seeing God work in the world and telling others what you see? That is what it means to be a witness, to see events happening and report them to others. Be a witness of God this advent season. Be looking for God working in the world and be ready to share, it is what God has called us to do.

This Week at JMPC 12.22.19

Since I was a boy, my family has been enamored with ice hockey. I never had an opportunity to play, but we were all big fans. My parents had season tickets to the Pittsburgh Hornets. My favorite player was Hank Basson, the goalie. Then along came the Penguins. The team was born in 1967. The promise of an NHL team in Pittsburgh was pretty awesome. Expectations were high. I remember the contest that was run to name the team. Folks mailed in their suggestions. We sent in several. “Penguins” was not one of them. When that name was announced, we moaned. “Named after flightless birds? What kind of name is that? No team named the Penguins would ever win anything.” We were prophetic. It was one of the worst franchises in the NHL. It went bankrupt in 1975, only eight years later. It was about then that I came to the conclusion that even at my young age (then 20) I would never live to see the Penguins win a Stanley Cup. But then along came the 1990-91 season. Mario Lemieux and company won the Cup! Something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime actually happened. I called my brother and we jumped up and down together via long distance! The Pens have won a few more since that time (and gone bankrupt one more time), but that day in 1991 was darn memorable.
That is the kind of thing that Simeon experienced. He was a devout man who had been promised by God that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. This must have been hard for him to believe because Israel had been waiting for Messiah for maybe a millennium. And Simeon was pretty sure he was not going to live forever. And he was getting old and maybe getting ready for his eternal rest. I am sure he was not optimistic. But then he saw Mary, Joseph and little baby Jesus. When he saw the baby, he was inspired with the knowledge that this baby was the one! The Messiah! It was then Simeon knew that he could die a happy man. So maybe Simeon’s experience of seeing Jesus was a bit more profound than mine in seeing the Pens win the Cup, but you get the idea. Come and hear about it this Sunday, the 4th and last Sunday of advent at 8:30 when Pastor Jeff preaches “The Song of Simeon” based on Luke 2: 25-35. Then hang around for the Children’s pageant at the 11:00 service. Come celebrate the season with us at JMPC!

Advent Devotion 12.19.19

Mark 7: 6
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…’
In the interests of full disclosure, my brother and I have a certain reputation in the family. It involves the rules of games we play. When we were children, my brother and I (and our friends truth be told) often got bored with our board games. To make a game more interesting we “adjusted” the rules. We did this so often that we kind of forgot what the real rules were. So, when we played these games with our kids, we would “announce” a rule that no one else knew about. These were dubbed “Tindall Rules”. My niece even bought us coffee cups that say, “Tindall Rules – The only rules you need to know”. I love that cup. Of course, its impossible to follow such rules when the rules get “adjusted” from time to time. This is kind of the context of our text today.
Let’s take a look at the entire passage.
‘Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ 6He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
Here the Pharisees question Jesus about ritual purity. Washing hands before eating was not just a matter of hygiene, it was a matter of ceremonial purity. This is all about tradition. But it was basically impossible for everyday folks to actually do it. Jesus makes the distinction between human traditions and the written law. The human tradition has no purpose but to preserve the tradition. The intent of the law is to preserve the community.
Tindall Rules preserve the tradition of the Tindall boys (of long past) while the written rules require the game to be played the way it was intended. That is why the incarnation is so important. Jesus came to challenge the traditions that were unfair, unjust or just impossible to follow. He gave us the “word” which was much simpler. Love God. Love each other. The rules of the game.