Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The New Church Year

The Christian year has two cycles. The first looks like this: Advent-Christmas-Epiphany. The second is: Lent-Easter-Pentecost. Each of the cycles is similar in that each has a season of preparation, a season of celebration, and a season of growth. We started the Season of Advent last Sunday as we prepare for the coming of Christ.

As always the first Sunday of Advent assigns the Gospel about what we call the Second Coming of Christ. Here we are thinking about Christmas and…It was November 1 when I got in my car and turned the radio to one of the stations in Greenville to which I listen. The singer sang: “Have a holly, jolly Christmas…” Mercy. I turned the channel as quickly as I could so as not to be corrupted by the secular season which gets longer every year.

When I was a boy, we at least had to wait until after Thanksgiving to see Christmas decorations to up in the stores. Now, we’re barely past Halloween when it starts up.

I certainly understand the practicality of it. Most of the money made by merchants in our economy comes in at Christmas, during the Christmas season. Every year we are encouraged to spend knowing that at the end of it all we will not have spent enough to keep things going. I understand that stores sell things that people have made, and that they employ people who in turn spend money on things. I understand how it works. And the notion is, of course, that maybe we need to expand the Christmas season so as to make it more profitable for all.

In the midst of this, here’s the church trying to hold everybody back. The church has always known that a part of being all-in at Christmas is about the preparation, spiritually. So, Advent (coming) invites us not just to prepare for Christmas, though we do. Advent invites us to prepare for the coming of Christ.

So, the church throws everything up against the background of Matthew 24: 36-44. The end is coming; the kingdom of God has come near. It will all come down, a block at a time. Jesus will return in a cosmic event. All will be stirred by it. It will bring, as it brought with Jesus’ first coming, tension and redemptive judgment. It will cause a clash of powers and values and commitments. But, then, in God’s good time, the kingdom will come in all its fullness and God will finally make all things right.

Advent calls us to prepare for this coming of Christ, to get ready with prayer and worship and giving.

Don’t worry about when. Jesus doesn’t even know when. No, pay attention to the signs, the changes, the movements. God is coming in Christ again. You’d better get ready.

Get ready so that when he does come at night or at noonday you will not miss him this time.

We yearn for that time when it will all come together. In God’s good time, everything will finally be made right. In the meantime, we watch and wait and pray and serve that kingdom and that Christ.

See you in Church!
Dave Nichols

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

With Our Gifts

Last Sunday we came to the last in the discipleship series on “Blessed to Be a Blessing”. Remember that we have been working our way through the membership vows of Methodists. We promise to uphold the church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. I have tried to say in this series that these five things are marks of discipleship for us. We are blessed with the privilege and sent to bless others with these commitments.

Last Sunday we worked on upholding the church with our gifts. It was Consecration Sunday and we brought out pledges for 2011 to the altar as a church. It was, as always, a moving service as everyone moved forward toward the altar to leave their gift.

I made four points. First, I said that God owns everything. I pointed out that one scholar I know defines sin as “strutting around as if we owned the place.” God owns everything because he made everything and everybody. God is our benefactor, our creator. But, we forget that. Deuteronomy 8 says that Moses called all the children of Israel together as they were getting ready to enter the Promised Land and said: “when you live in fine houses, when you silver and gold are multiplies, when your livestock are multiplied, be careful and don’t forget God who gave you the power to get wealth in the first place…” God owns everything and gives everything away.

Second, giving is a pleasure. We love to give gifts to those we love. Nothing gives us more pleasure than to give a gift to someone. Why do people give to the church? A survey said that we give because giving is a part of worship, and we give because it is a pleasure to share. We also give, the survey says, because it makes us feel good.

Third, giving is a requirement for Christians. Since we have been given so much, we are expected to give. The Old Testament principle is the Tithe, which is 10% of our income. And, if we do we are promised that God will open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing. The children of Israel brought what they had to the tent; they made a sacrifice in response to God’s choice of them as his people. A widow in the New Testament throws in two copper coins. She gave all she had. It’s not the amount. It’s the trust and faith that God will provide.

Fourth, Jesus is King. Consecration Sunday was also Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church’s year. Jesus is exalted. The text was from Luke 23. Jesus is crucified between two thieves. Over Jesus on the cross were the words: “The King of the Jews”. It was meant to mock Jesus. But, Luke wants us to see that Jesus is a different kind of king. He is King of Love.
Just recently, I was introduced to a wonderful hymn in our hymnal written by Fred Pratt Green, a British Methodist preacher who died in 2000. He wrote:

To mock your reign, O dearest Lord,
They made a crown of thorns.
Set you with taunts along that road
From which no one returns.
They did not know, as we do now,
That glorious is your crown.
That thorns would flower upon your brow
Your sorrows heal our own.

They did not know as we do now that glorious is your crown. Looking up to this king, we cannot help but give our best.

See you in Church!
Dave Nichols

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

With My Service

We are moving rapidly through the covenant marks of our discipleship. As Methodists we promise to uphold the church and the marks of our upholding the church are found in prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. This past Sunday we looked a moment at service as that great big movement that we make that we make into action.

It was interesting to me that the lectionary Gospel for that Sunday was Luke 21: 7-19. It is the “little apocalypse”. It is a picture of the end of the age, the destruction of the temple, Israel’s center. It is place where we end every church year- in judgment- waiting for God’s great conclusion when Jesus returns. We live on that edge, waiting on God to make everything right. We call that the Kingdom of God.

So, what does this have to do with service? It has to do with service as everything has to do with service in scripture. In the face of God’s great coming to us in Jesus Christ, in the face of Easter, in anticipation of Christ’s coming again, we all ask rightly: “How shall we then live?”

We certainly don’t go out to the mountainside and wait on Christ to return. People in Paul’s day did that and were admonished to return to work. Paul said: “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” Some do focus all their energy on trying to predict the end times. A quick look at the internet gives you all kinds of attempts to name the end and the date of the end. I am amazed that anybody engages in that kind of waste of time.

No, we don’t sit around and wait. We go to work and wait; we pray and wait. Martin Luther was asked: “If you knew that the end was coming tomorrow what would you do?” He said: “I would still plant my apple tree.”

Not only was Luther acknowledging the nonsense of predictions, he was also saying that Christians go on living and serving as they are in the world. The end is up to God. So, we ask: “How then should we live.”

And, Christians live as servants of Christ in the world, up to the end. So, I gave three quick points:

1. Every person is a minister. Each church is led by ministers, yes, but it doesn’t let other Christians off the hook. You don’t become part of the Body of Christ, the church, only to be ministered to, though you get that. You are called, saved, to be of use to somebody else. Every Christian is a minister. As a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, you are a human being who is part of a story of redemption. And, you reach out to bring others into that redemptive story. What we do is part of God’s doing for others in the world. Paul says that Christ makes his appeal to the world through us.

2. Every Christian has gifts. And, we are called to use those gifts for others. I asked leaders of Spartanburg what the three major needs are in this city. They said: 1. Literacy, 2. Teenage Pregnancy, 3. Financial Management (for those who have little). Is there a way that God is calling us to respond to the needs here in our city. Your calling is where you gifts meet the needs of the world.

3. One way to look at service is to think of your “holy discontent”. Bill Hybels says that it’s like the Popeye cartoon. Popeye takes all he can take and then blows his stack and says: “I can’t stands no more…” What is it that bugs you, that makes you say “I can’t stand no more…” That’s God calling you to do something about it.

I will uphold the church…with my service. Romans 12 says: “I beseech you, my brother and sisters, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice….”

See you in Church!
Dave Nichols

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veteran's Celebration at Bethel

Tuesday, Nov. 9, was our Veteran’s Day celebration at Bethel. Sr. Adult Ministry every year does this to honor our veterans. A bulletin board in the hallway shows pictures and letters from veterans and celebrates their service. Maxine Reynolds is responsible for that. You should check it out. Dr. Paul W. Harmon, our Spartanburg District Superintendent, United Methodist Church, was our speaker and gave a wonderful talk, sharing with us about his own grandmother who sat and prayed over her four boys all of whom were at war. And, they all came home. He talked about the sacrifices that veterans make but also the sacrifice of family and others who wait and pray. Quoting the poem “Flanders Field” he reminded us of the great commitments of those who serve their country.

He read Psalm 27 to remind us in whose sight we all serve.

The picture above tells the story. What a great group.

See you in Church!
Dave Nichols

With My Witness

As I have said previously, United Methodists define discipleship by promising to uphold the church with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. Last Sunday, it was All Saints Sunday; so, we looked at upholding the church with our witness. This was certainly appropriate as we honored those who have died since last year. I offered three points:

1. Every Christian is a witness. Remember the song: “Can I get a witness?” Every believer is a witness. We may not say a word or do anything out of the ordinary, but we are still witnesses to Christ. Now, I know that this is a difficult subject for Methodists and other main-line Protestants. We did a study with Natural Church Development to determine what our church’s lowest factor was. Turns out we were lowest in Need-Based Evangelism. So, we asked for feedback from the congregation. Why is evangelism so low on our scales of measurement? We said things like: 1. we don’t see it as a priority; 2. we don’t know what it means; 3. we aren’t going from door to door. Informally, some shared with me that evangelism is so distorted by many around us that it is difficult to know how to do it with love. For instance, a particular, University sends their students over to Wofford to accost the students. Often Wofford students are yelled at: “Are you saved?”

It is difficult. But, it’s still true that we are witnesses. God never leaves himself without a witness. Your love, your words, your deeds, your influence are all ways in which God bears witness through you. God makes his appeal to the world through us according to 2 Corinthians.

2. You have an effect on others. Most of us don’t think our lives affect other people very much. But, your life affects a whole network of people whom you know and even acquaintances that you don’t know well. Children, grandchildren, friends, neighbors, you may not think they are watching but they are. A child walks behind his father in the snow carefully making sure to try to stretch to walk in his father’s footprints.

The survey that we took for Natural Church Development said that most of us were not friends with any people who were not Christians. Maybe so. Or, maybe we are just not looking to make friends with anyone else. You have an effect on others. Don’t forget that you have an effect on others for Christ.

3. Your witness lives on long after you. Of course, we celebrated this on All Saints Sunday. Everyone who lived among us as a follower of Christ had a lasting impact on Bethel Church, their family, and the community. They prepared the way for us. Now, we modern day witnesses take up their mantle and take responsibility for our time and place in the world. Everything that we say, everything that we do, everything that we give, everyone that we love, benefits from our witness to Jesus Christ as Lord.

How are you doing with your witness? Do you ever talk to anyone about your own faith? Do you ever think to invite someone to your church and faith who might not otherwise have been invited? Most of the people who do not attend church say they don’t because they have not been invited. Look around your neighborhood. If you believe that everyone needs Jesus Christ and salvation, then keep your eyes open and your ears unstopped. Someone out there needs you.

See you in Church!
Dave Nichols

Thursday, November 4, 2010

With My Presence

Last Sunday we looked at our second week in the series of services around the theme: “Blessed to Be a Blessing”. And, we looked at that with our commitment to uphold the church with our presence. We promise to be present in worship. We promise not because worship it is a requirement, but because worship it is a mark of Christians. Christian disciples worship; that’s what we do.

In the sermon I talked about worshiping our Awesome God. When I was young and starting out, an older pastor asked me: “David, what do you consider to be the main problem in the world today with regard to the church?” I said, and I still believe it, that we had lost our sense of “awe” and wonder. The present modern world of the enlightenment has taught us that everything can be explained, everything. If we don’t understand it yet, then we will one day understand it because human ingenuity and intelligence will make it understandable. We understand where the world came from; how we were made, etc. There is nothing in the world or in us that cannot be explained in such a world. The assumption is that if we have right information about something that we have thereby defined it, even God.

Of course, there is no god in this kind of world. If we can’t see it or think of it, it doesn’t exist. Christian faith comes into this world saying that we do not understand everything. Even if we know it’s origins, we have not defined it. The world is still full of mystery and the greatest mystery of all is God, this God who created all things and then created us. Look at the beauty and wonder, the beauty and wonder of human beings.

Worship is bringing ourselves, our lives, before this God in praise and offering. Worship is keeping an appointment that has been made for us with God. Now, certainly worship, like everything, is a choice.

Scripture tells us that we will worship. The question is: which god will we worship? When Moses came down from Sinai he found the children of Israel worshiping a golden calf. We will worship and if not the God of Christian faith, we will worship something usually that is shiny and gold or has the promise of gold.

I find our culture filled with people who are chasing a dream of wealth and teaching their children that this is what we value. You can see the results of such worship and teaching. A world filled with people who are their own god is a world filled with, well, you know, don’t you?

He is called the oldest student in the world. He lived in a village in northern Kenya. Maruge was 86 years old when the government started giving scholarships to school. Maruge, who could not read, but always wanted to learn, went to Elementary School. Pictures show Maruge in a small desk in a class full of small children. Soon, the government changed and Maruge was forced to move. But, he found another school where he did in fact learn to read. The one dream of his life was to learn to read---so that he could read his Bible for himself.

That kind of dream sounds strange to most of us. We have other dreams, but no dream is greater than the dream of worshiping and serving God.
How are you doing with your presence? Are you keeping your weekly appointment with God?

By the way, See you in church!
Dave Nichols

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