Sermon: The Apostle’s Tale – Groaning

Note: This is, more or less, my sermon from this morning’s worship service at Shiloh UMC in Stanton, Kentucky. Last week I began a series called The Apostle’s Tale which mostly is based on readings from Romans 8. This series was designed to go along with readings from the Revised Common Lectionary from a few weeks ago but I was doing another series and began this one late. It worked out perfectly, as this sermon dealt with our responsibility as disciples in light of the suffering and evil in the world. Perfect timing. I hope you receive encouragement and food for thought.

 

Romans 8:12-25 (NIV)
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.[a] And by him we cry, “Abba,[b] Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[c] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to all ages, nations, and races?

Last week, we began this series with a backdrop of dystopia using examples from The Hunger Games and the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale. We also touched on the dystopia all around us, a world where there is much fear and violence, always an “us” versus “them” mentality. We talked about people being oppressed and some people having while others go without simply because of issues such as social class, race, and any number of factors. At least to some extent, dystopia is all around us and, unfortunately, is not just the stuff of books and movies.

We have been seeing some of this play out over the last few days. The North Korean government has made threats of a nuclear strike against Guam and on the mainland of the United States.Kim Jong Un claims that his government is working on specific plans and once it’s completed he will sign off on it and that will be all that’s needed to launch a strike. Allegedly a nuclear warhead can be rocketed toward Guam and be there in 14 minutes. Because of these threats, there has been much anxiety and fear in Guam and elsewhere, mainly at not knowing whether North Korea is truly capable of launching such an attack or if they would actually have the moxy to make such attempt. And, “What if they do and they do it?” Fear. Dystopia.

Yesterday we saw a little piece of dystopia play out with the racial unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in what I feel is a true expression of evil. Violence irrupted and a few people have even lost their lives, ultimately because of racism. Neo-nazis gathered to protest the removal of Civil War monuments and also rallied against the acceptance of other races other than white. Let me very clear: Racism is evil. Violence with racism as the root cause is evil. Racism is incompatible with Christian teaching and should not be tolerated within the church. And yet, so many of these groups claim to be Christians, they claim that they are doing work for God, and they claim that the Bible endorses the enslavement of blacks and calls them evil. Their views are contrary to scripture – scripture does not say any of that. Their actions and words, while they may have the right to hold their opinions, are evil. It’s dystopia playing out on the news.

As Christians, we often feel that we should somehow be exempt from having to experience the evils of the world. Evil is really hard to avoid but we try anyway. We hide ourselves with whatever we think will shield us and we try to pretend that it isn’t there. This really is the complete opposite of what we should do. We can lament and say, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to me because I have Jesus and therefore I don’t have to endure it.” But we see that Paul tells is that part of being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ means that we don’t look away from the suffering going on in the world. We simply can’t. We must acknowledge it and call it what it is. We must confront the sufferings head on.

So how do we do this? How do we keep our eyes on Christ and yet make sure that we see the evils which are happening in the world for what they truly are, something that simply should not being ignored? We do this by joining in God’s sorrow over the state of this world. We join in and take our place in the chorus of all of God’s creation as it groans. The groans are caused by the long pains of labor as God’s promised kingdom is birthed.

I remember a particular call when I ran when I was an EMT. I was working in Mississippi and had not yet enrolled in paramedic school. In fact, I had not been an EMT for very long at all. When the dispatcher called us she was obviously very upset when normally she was calm and professional. I won’t go into the details of the call for a lot of reasons but I will say that it was… gruesome. The patient was in terrible shape and severely disfigured. It was difficult to look at him but I had to force myself to. I had to care for him. I had to look at him and his injuries. Thankfully this was toward the end of my shift but the rest of it was spent in a daze. The sight that I had to force myself to observe was completely overwhelming. When I got home, I was physically and mentally exhausted. I simply had nothing left to give and I ended up sleeping most of the day… Well, when I couldn’t see his face in a dream. That was the price I had to pay but I had no choice. I had to force myself to take it all in and provide the best care I could for him.

Life is like that sometimes. Sometimes the reality that we simply must force ourselves to take it and to not ignore is so overwhelming that it takes all of our energy and we simply have nothing left to give.

Those of us who claim Jesus as Lord must pay attention to the goings-on in the world but we also need to make sure that we acknowledge the suffering and evil as well. We may want to ignore it and try to shield ourselves from it but we shouldn’t and, let’s be honest, we can’t. We can’t turn out backs on the suffering of our neighbors. We can’t turn our backs on heroin and opiate addicts. We can’t turn our backs on the homeless. We can’t turn our backs on the poor. We can’t turn our backs on racists and other bigots. We can’t turn away from threats from North Korea and other entities who seek to do our country harm. And we can’t turn our backs on people within our own borders who wish to do harm to our country. We must acknowledge. We must look. And we must act, even if that action is simply praying for God’s guidance and wisdom.

Paul tells us this – he tells us that we must look upon and acknowledge those places where the most pain and the most groaning by all of creation is happening. But here’s the tricky part, the part that we don’t tend to like: We must join in the suffering. We have to take the pain of others on ourselves and bear it. And even when we don’t see hope, we must never, never, never give up. When the enemy tries to drag us away and distract us from the suffering of the world, we have to dig our heels in deeper and stand our ground. We must be patient, we must remember that God is good and God is working to bring about his kingdom and that day will be here sooner than we think!

It’s natural to wonder where all of this evil and suffering comes from. A common question is “where did all of this come from? How did it start?” It seems to be counterintuitive to God’s intention for the world. And, really, that’s because it is counterintuitive to God’s original plan.

John Wesley talked about this in one of his sermons. He wrestles with the question of how it can be that God provides for all of creation and yet there is suffering.

Ultimately, he chalks it up to original sin. He begins by noting that God created human beings in God’s own image of perfect righteousness and love and gave humans dominion over all of creation, especially those lesser animals, or “brutes” as Wesley names the non-human animal kingdom. The difference between humans and brutes, for Wesley, is that humans alone were endowed with the capacity to obey their creator. Thus endowed, God’s original intent was that humans would ensure that no beasts under their care suffered: “All the blessings of God in paradise flowed through man to the inferior creatures, as man was the great channel of communication between the Creator and the whole brute creation,’ Wesley writes.

Unfortunately, as we all know, human beings messed up the transmission of those blessings in an irreversible way. This has affected not only all humans, but all the creatures under humanity’s care. Wesley laments that there is no way to know what suffering creation has endured because of original sin. All we know is that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; not only creation but we ourselves”

This is why we have evil. The downside of free will is that one is free to commit evil acts if we so choose – that is, if the enemy can fool us into thinking that we should do these things. This is why the neo-nazis and the dictators of the world are allowed to make their threats, shout their vulgar racial slurs, and to drive their cars into groups of innocent people.

Christians are not people of isolation. We simply can not and should not hide ourselves from the suffering of the world and simply remain in our bubbles. Maybe you’ve seen the movie, about the boy who was so sick that he could have absolutely no contact with the outside world? He literally had to live in the bubble. I feel that we Christians often hide ourselves in our bubbles to try and ignore the evil of the world but Paul tells us that we simply can’t do that. Christians are not bubble people! We can’t ignore evil and hope that it will go away because, at least until Christ returns, evil isn’t going anywhere. We must acknowledge it. We must name it. We must feel pain with each other and with our neighbors. We must join in the collective groaning of the world rather than ignoring it.

I want to remind us about the words that we heard last week after we confessed our sins just before having Holy Communion last week: “Hear the Good News! Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. This proves God’s love for us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” And we celebrate that because of Christ, we have been set free from the law of sin and death.

This IS the good news of Jesus Christ! As the women would say in The Handmaid’s Tale, “Praise Be!”

But being saved from eternal suffering does not give us a pass to avoid the suffering of God’s creation. Rather, we are called to join with Christ in his suffering, just as we will also join in Christ’s glory.

I want to read the baptismal vows one more time. I want you to ponder them one more time. Are you all in and do you truly affirm these vows or are they just words?

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to all ages, nations, and races?

If you do, say “amen.”

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Sermon: Love One Another

Here is the sermon I preached this evening at an ecumenical Holy Week service here in Stanton.

Love One Another
A Sermon Preached at Grace Fellowship Church – Stanton, KY (PCMA Holy Week Maundy Thursday Service)
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
April 13, 2017

John 13:1-7, 12-17, 31-35 (NLT)
Before the Passover celebration, Jesus knew that his hour had come to leave this world and return to his Father. He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth, and now he loved them to the very end.[a] 2 It was time for supper, and the devil had already prompted Judas,[b] son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. 4 So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, 5 and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him.

12 After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. 14 And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. 16 I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. 17 Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.

31 As soon as Judas left the room, Jesus said, “The time has come for the Son of Man[a] to enter into his glory, and God will be glorified because of him. 32 And since God receives glory because of the Son,[b] he will give his own glory to the Son, and he will do so at once. 33 Dear children, I will be with you only a little longer. And as I told the Jewish leaders, you will search for me, but you can’t come where I am going. 34 So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. 35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

There is an old legend that after his death Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit. For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent he looked up and saw, way, way up, a tiny glimmer of light. After he had contemplated it for another thousand years or so, he began to try to climb up towards it. The walls of the pit were dank and slimy, and he kept slipping back down. Finally, after great effort, he neared the top, and then he slipped and fell all the way back down. It took him many years to recover, all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance, and then he started to climb up again. After many more falls and efforts and failures, he reached the top and dragged himself into an upper room with twelve people seated around a table. “We’ve been waiting for you, Judas,” Jesus said. “We couldn’t begin till you came.”.

On the traditional church calendar, today is Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday is where the church traditionally remembers the last supper in the Upper Room just before Jesus was betrayed by Judas. In addition, we remember that Jesus came not to be served but to serve. He demonstrated this by humbling himself and washing the feet of his best friends. In doing this, Jesus demonstrated what it means to truly show someone love. It was after he washed their feet that he revealed that it was by the way we love one another and how we love the entire world that people will know that we are his disciples. Love is the first and most visible fruit that a Christian can and should display.

Last night at Shiloh we concluded a study of a book called Final Words From the Cross by a pastor and theologian named Adam Hamilton. During last night’s lesson, we discussed metaphors and how much metaphorical language was used in Jesus’ teaching and ministry. A metaphor is a figure of speech. If you were to look at me and say, “He’s as big as an ox!” Well, I am big but I’m not as big as an ox. I don’t think my wife, Jessica, would allow oxen in her bed. But my point is, to compare me to an ox is a metaphor for my perceived large size.

A lot of what is contained in scripture is metaphorical in nature but not all of it. I’m a student at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore and there is a coffee shop just off campus called Solomon’s Porch. I go there between my morning and afternoon classes. Being in Wilmore, there is almost always a discussion about the Bible going on. One day I overheard two people talking and one of them made a statement like this: “I think everything in the bible should be taken literally, just as it was written.” The other person said, “Well what about where Jesus said to love everyone, including our enemies?” The first party thought for a moment and said, “Well, I think that was just a metaphor. Jesus couldn’t have possibly meant to love everyone.” I couldn’t help but laugh. It seems funny that people feel this way. They believe everything in the bible and believe it should be followed to the letter… Until they come to a part they either don’t like or don’t agree with, suddenly it’s open to interpretation. Yes, some things are metaphorical in nature and are there to illustrate a point, but the overall message of scripture is sound.

Either you believe that the message of the whole Bible is true, or you don’t. You either believe the entire spectrum of the teachings of Christ or you don’t. And put your steel toes on because now I might step on your toes: This includes the teachings that you don’t particularly like. Did Jesus often use metaphors in his teaching? Of course. But when he says things like “they will know you are my disciples by your love,” he meant just that, full stop.

I happen to believe that one of those things that is far from being a metaphor and that is part of the very message of the gospel is contained right here in John 13. Jesus made it clear to me that we, as Christians, are to love one another and to love all of the beloved of God – hint: It’s everyone! – and that is far from being a metaphor. Jesus said himself after he washed the feet of the twelve: “I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.” The example that Jesus gave is one of ultimate sacrifice on the part of putting aside our pride and even casting aside what society considers to be normal in order to truly love someone. Just as Jesus humbled himself, we are expected to do likewise.

Now, for us, showing love to someone may not actually include washing someone’s feet. Don’t touch mine, believe me, you don’t want to anyway. But what Jesus did was put on a seminar about how to wash feet but he demonstrated the kind of love that we are to show to all people and by not only saying that we are willing to do this, but by actually doing it, we are proclaiming His love to a world that no longer knows how to love with true sacrifice. The kind of Jesus that Jesus demonstrates and wants us to show to others does involve sacrifice, being willing to show a radical form of hospitality even to a stranger. In order to fully understand this, it may be helpful to know the significance of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

In the New Testament times, there were no planes, trains, or automobiles. The only way to get from one place to another was to either beat feet or to get there by donkey or camel. There were no paved roads back then, either. The roads were dusty, dirty, and even had animal droppings on them. And if you stepped in it, well, you just stepped in it. It was because of these dusty conditions that it was expected hospitality for a host to provide water so that a guest could wash their feet off. Actually loosening a person’s sandals and personally washing their feet was considered the work of servants, or submissive wives or children. In other words, it was something that was not done by proper people if you will. Jesus actually wrapping a towel around himself and bending down to wash the feet of his disciples was a big deal because this just was not done. It was a scandal in Jerusalem for him to serve the people who respected him the most. This was a big deal because Jesus was actually foreshadowing the nature of his coming death: He was the suffering servant.

Even those of us who think ourselves to be above certain things should remember that as disciples of Jesus Christ we are to count ourselves as servants first. Jesus laid out the example of how we should treat others by being willing to humble ourselves and show people the most powerful love that we can muster. Jesus being so willing to humble himself is an example for us to follow. Can you show someone love so radical that it could even harm your reputation? Such would have done that in Jesus’ day because social rank was important and a person of high stature just did not wash someone’s feet. And yet, Jesus did. What does this tell us?

Here’s something else to chew on: Jesus did not give us a choice this matter. It is not optional for a Christian to love someone. Let me say that again: It is not optional for a true Christian, a committed follower, and disciple, to love others. It is a must. Jesus reinforced this by using such strong language in verse 34 when he said, “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.” The usage of the word “commandment” gave his words all the much more authority. The Greek word that is translated “commandment” can also mean “orders.” Jesus has given us our orders and those orders from the table at the last supper are to go love as I have loved you and that is how people will know that you are my disciples. It’s not by who you vote for, by what bumper stickers you have on your car, how much of the Bible you can quote, or even by how much you pray. Jesus has said, “your orders are to love. Love is your mark, your signature stance as a Christian.”

I mentioned a few minutes ago that in the traditional church practice, today is known as Maundy Thursday. That seems like a very funny word and for a long time, I had absolutely no idea what it meant. I always thought it was just a funny name that some Pope or bishop or monk gave to this day hundreds of years ago because he must have liked that word for some reason. But, given the context of what we remember on this day in Holy Week, there is a very good reason why today is called Maundy Thursday. The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum.” Let me say that word again: “mandatum.” If that word sounds a little familiar, that’s because mandatum is where we get our English word “mandatory.” Mandatory refers to something that is absolutely required, like a mandatory meeting or a mandatory assignment in school. Here’s where the Latin plays into what this day is called: It’s taken from the Latin translation of verse 34 which begins with the word “mandatum.”

James said, “Faith without works is dead.” To put it in the context of Jesus’ words in John: Faith without love is dead!
For a Christian to love is not optional, it’s not something nice to do, it’s not even just a good idea. For Christians, to love as Christ loves us is mandatory! And to make the choice to not love others for any reason is

or a Christian to love is not optional, it’s not something nice to do, it’s not even just a good idea. For Christians, to love as Christ loves us is mandatory! And to make the choice to not love others for any reason is a sin. If we have hate in our heart and we are not willing to love, then we have some problems that only repentance – asking forgiveness and turning away from the desire to hate – and embracing the mandate to love will solve.

Do you have hate towards anyone? Whether their family, people who were once friends of yours… People who are different than you… Christ requires us to love them sacrificially and intentionally. Just as Judas would be welcomed back to the table as in the story I told at the beginning, so we must welcome all people to our table, no matter what, period, full stop. If we want revival to sweep across our land, and I think we all do, then it starts with us taking this new mandatory commandment that Christ has given us seriously. We don’t have a choice. We must love. Let’s pray.

Sermon: Half Truths – “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It”

mainslide-half-truthsThis is the fourth in a five week series based on Adam Hamilton’s book Half Truths. I particularly enjoyed researching this saying. I hope you will enjoy this sermon. As always, please feel free to share any feedback you may have! – Jonathan

Half Truths: God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
September 4, 2016

1 Peter 2:13-14 (NLT)

13 For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, 14 or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right.

One of the greatest things I have experienced in my career as a paramedic has been that I have been able to have some great partners. I’ve had a few that I would rather forget and many who I am grateful for and will never forget. One of those great partners was Brother Mike. Brother Mike is an ordained Southern Baptist pastor who serves a small church near my hometown. At the time he was only drawing a part time salary so he worked at the ambulance service on my shift to pay his bills. As we were both pastors we were regularly put together. We always seemed to have unique opportunities to minister to many people we would come into contact with and we also got to have many great conversations about our faith, about God himself and about the Bible. As he is Baptist and I’m Methodist, you can imagine that while we did agree on many things we had some interesting conversations about the views we held differently.

One such conversation happened when we were on our way back to town from a transfer We were talking about scripture and how to best understand it. I had just taken a workshop on the various ways we can look at the bible and one of the things the presenter covered heavily was how John Wesley used scripture itself, tradition, reason, and experience to determine if what he was hearing, reading, or believing was true. Brother Mike listened to me and said, “Well, that sounds nice but I’ve always been of the opinion that we should just take the Bible as it is, unvarnished, and as God’s word. He said it, I believe it, that settles it.” This was not the first time I had heard this expression. Being in Mississippi and growing up around a lot of Baptists, one heard this saying quite a bit. In light of what I had been learning through my own study of how to understand scripture, this was the first occasion where I can remember truly pondering the meaning of this saying.

During this series on Half Truths, we have been looking at sayings that sound biblical but really aren’t, at least not in the way we say them. I acknowledge that with you knowing how I have treated the other sayings you may be growing a little uncomfortable right now, perhaps because you think that perhaps I’m going to make a case for why we can’t trust the Bible. I assure you, that’s not what I’m out to do. But what I do want to challenge you to do today is to think about how you have understood scripture and perhaps to consider a new way to think about what we read and hear about. The point that I want to make is this: We are not meant to check our brains at the church door and just take things at face value. It’s ok to question and to wrestle with things we read in scripture. God gave us brains and I believe we should use them to our fullest ability, including when we read the Bible. To simply take the Bible at face value and chalk it up to “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” shows a very simplistic view of the Bible. We don’t truly get the message, we simply get a few grapes off the vine and call it good.

Perhaps you were raised in a similar fashion as me: If something was in the Bible, you better not dare question it. I can remember when I was growing up that I would ask someone what something in the Bible meant or why it was there and more often than not I was simply told that it’s a sin to questions something we read in the Bible because it’s God’s word. I certainly believe that the Bible is God’s inspired word. But I don’t believe this means that things we see within the pages of these books are not above being questioned, pondered and wrestled with. Think of exercise: If you want bigger muscles, you have to exercise them. When you lift weights you are pushing against a force putting resistence against your body. By pushing against this resistance you’re growing stronger and can exercise with more and more weight. The next thing you know, you’re in a great shape and can even keep going.

The same is true when we flex our spiritual muscles and push against the resistance of questions and doubt. When we wrestle with the things in the Bible that we may not understand or perhaps even make us uncomfortable, we are opening ourselves to truly hearing God’s voice and the message he wants us to receive from his word. As we continue to wrestle, to pray, ponder, and study we grow stronger in our faith and in our knowledge of God’s will and nature. It’s ok to question and wrestle. Doing such exercise is how we get in better shape.

The short passage I read out of 1 Peter 2 is one of those passages that is often wrestled with. If we take literally and completely at face value what we read in Peter’s letter we may believe that God wants us to bow down and kowtow to all of our earthly leaders no matter what, period, full stop. We can think that it’s our God-decreed responsibility to, without question, follow the commands of any earthly leader no matter who this person is or what they ask us to do. But what if the leader is a dictator like Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who starves his people to death while getting rich off of their backs. His latest shenanigans involve his education minister who fell asleep during a meeting of the Communist leadership of North Korea. Kim Jong Un was so incensed by this transgression that he executed two high level North Korean officials… with a large caliber anti-aircraft gun. If we take 1 Peter 2 literally, are we to believe that this is someone worthy of giving our undying obedience to?

The simple answer is, of course not! No tyrant should ever be given this kind of affection and God certainly wouldn’t ordain such actions. Such is the danger of taking such passages literally at face value without regard to its true meaning. Taking 1 Peter 2 literally has several dangers, including that we could in theory use it to force someone to bow down to tyranny or, perhaps even worse, to express a notion that God condones such dictators and their actions. Yes, that people like Kim Jong Un, Hitler, and all of the worst dictators throughout history were put in their positions by God and that he orchestrated their actions. This is, of course, untrue and can cast God in a poor and false light. To be clear: God does not do these things. Such is not God’s nature!

We are not people called to check our brains at the church house door and leave them there. Christians are called to use our intellect to figure these things out and, yes, this even applies to when we come to worship and when we study the Bible. We have all sorts of tools for doing this, from commentaries to study Bibles and so much more. When I prepare for a sermon I not only study over the scripture itself extensively but I also take time to pray over it to ask God’s revelation for it. I also consult multiple commentaries, dictionaries, handbooks, and often look at Greek or Hebrew interlinear Bibles, which show the English and original languages in order to flesh it all out. My sermons may seem long but believe it or not they only average about 20 minutes or so. In order to prepare for that 20 minute sermon, I spend many hours per week in study.

If we were even intended to look at scripture through the lens of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” then me spending all that time in prayer, preparation and writing in order to be standing up here preaching about God’s word would be a waste of time for both me and you. All we would have to do is read our Bibles and just let that be that. It’s really wrestling with scripture and trying to figure out the true message that draws us closer to God. Grappling and meditating on God’s word is the stuff that helps us to grow in our faith and in our understanding about God. It’s also in the course of this exercise that we become better equipped as disciples who will go from this place to make other disciples.

If we want to believe in terms of scripture that God said it then we totally remove the human equation from scripture. In other words, we remove the humanity of the authors who wrote down these words under divine inspiration. We have to remember that these were human beings who were inspired by God to write and to tell of things they were feeling in their very souls. To believe that this is God always speaking through them is to believe that God was dictating a message to robotic secretaries in this world and I just do not see how that could be true. Scripture itself does not indicate that this is the case. There are certainly a lot of places where the writer indicates that the words are from God but the vast majority of the time the authors make it clear that they are writing their own thoughts and ideas about what God’s will is for mankind. Even Paul never claimed that he and God were of one mind, Paul in several places very plainly states that the words written are his and his alone. To state that “God said it” means we totally remove humanity from scripture.

Yes, God inspired scripture. God is sometimes quoted in scripture. But did God dictate every word of the Bible? Not very likely. To simply say that “God said it” when it comes to any given piece of scripture just is not usually true and oversimplifies the message that scripture contains.

A similar thing happens when we say “That settles it.” We oversimplify the work that it takes to really get at the heart of what scripture is saying to us. It takes away the important work which has been done in translating from the original languages and trying to figure out what the author intended for the reader to understand. Let’s take a look at John 3:16, which I’m sure every single one of us can at least paraphrase. In the verse where perish is rendered, the Greek word is apollumi and it can indeed mean perish. But it can also mean to die, to be destroyed, to be lost, killed, or ruined. Each one of those possibilities can make the message of the verse slightly different depending on which translation one decides is most appropriate given the context and other factors.

Even Jesus at times did not agree with the traditional rendering of texts in the ancient Jewish tradition. How often in the gospels is it recorded him saying something like, “You have heard it said… But I tell you…?” Jesus was doing a type of push back against traditional interpretation called midrash, where rabbis would attempt to explain what a text was talking about. As the apostles studied and debated about the meaning of scripture, they also realized that the authors of these writings were, at the end of the day, humans. Even under the inspiration of God they were not immune from bringing their own experiences and circumstances into their writings. If we were in the room with them and simply said, “Well God said it, I believe it, that settles it” they may well look at us as if we’re crazy. They simply did not subscribe to that notion. The same goes for the majority of the early church fathers.

We can all sit around all day and debate how to best determine what a passage of scripture is saying and how we should apply it to our lives. Even when we disagree about these methods, I believe we can all agree on one thing. Jesus gave us the best lens through which we can weigh out what scripture is saying when he gave us the greatest commandment, to love God with all our soul, mind, body, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Does the way we interpret a passage line up to that? Does the way in which we feel we are called to apply the scripture to our way of living line up with loving God and loving our neighbor? If the answers are no then we still have some work to do. We need to get some more exercise. Let’s make a new commitment to stretch and strengthen our spiritual muscles. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – Amen.

Sermon – Half Truths: God Won’t Give You More than You Can Handle

Continuing the series based on Adam Hamilton’s Half Truths, today I talked about the popular platitude that suggests that God will shield us from more life drama than we can handle. Anyone who has ever had a nervous breakdown knows that this isn’t true. While I didn’t outright address it in the course of the sermon, mental health issues are often looked at as a lack of faith or a sign of sin in one’s life. I want to emphasize that this is not true! Our problems don’t come from God. I hope you will receive a blessing from this sermon and know the way that 1 Corinthians 10:13 is often understood is not quite accurate. A note: I spend some time talking about my battle with anxiety and depression so be warned.

Half Truths: God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
August 28h, 2016

1 Corinthians 10:1-14 (NLT)
I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. All of them were guided by a cloud that moved ahead of them, and all of them walked through the sea on dry ground. 2 In the cloud and in the sea, all of them were baptized as followers of Moses. 3 All of them ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all of them drank the same spiritual water. For they drank from the spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Yet God was not pleased with most of them, and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

6 These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, 7 or worship idols as some of them did. As the Scriptures say, “The people celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged in pagan revelry.” 8 And we must not engage in sexual immorality as some of them did, causing 23,000 of them to die in one day.

9 Nor should we put Christ  to the test, as some of them did and then died from snakebites. 10 And don’t grumble as some of them did, and then were destroyed by the angel of death. 11 These things happened to them as examples for us. They were written down to warn us who live at the end of the age.

12 If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall. 13 The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.

14 So, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols.

“God won’t give you more than you can handle.” I have heard this statement many times and I’m sure we have all said this statement at some point in our lives. One of the times I can recall most vividly hearing this phrase was about ten years ago. I was living in Fort Wayne, Indiana where I was working for one of the radio stations in town. The station wasn’t doing great. Advertising was down and some tough decisions had to be made by the management of the company that owned the station. Unfortunately, the status of my employment was one of the hard decisions which was made. I went home and tried to process everything that had occurred. I had lost a job that I mostly loved, lost the opportunity to work with people who I considered my family away from home and I was also faced with the reality that I had bills to pay. Obviously I was uncertain and upset.

I finally reached out to the leader of the small group that I was part of through the church I was attending at the time. Mike was fairly wise and I trusted him to give me advice. I left a voicemail and eventually he called me back to hear the story. After he offered to pray for me and my situation, which he did. And as he was about to hang up he sprang the Half Truth on me: “Remember that God will never give you more than you can handle.” I tried to remember Mike’s words as things progressed. I soon found another job and eventually I ended up moving back to Mississippi where I was so stressed by a lot of things that I had a mental breakdown. I was overloaded and simply could not cope. When this occurred Mike’s words seemed like utter hogwash.

Obviously these words are said with good intent. But in that instance, I found out the hard way that this Half Truth simply did not stand up to the practical test. I had more on my plate than I could handle. My ability to cope with everything going on at the time, both tangibly and mentally, were just too much for me to handle and I hit my psychological and spiritual rock bottom. There was a part of me that blamed God because I felt like He was punishing me because, in my mind, he had broken a promise made in scripture. I had more than I could handle and it took me a while to recover from my issues, my anger, and my crisis of faith which happened on top of everything else. I was a mess, a hot mess at that.

We want to think that nothing bad will ever happen to us or that we will never have more stress on us than we could conceivably handle. To state it simply, the idea that God will shield us from more trouble, stress, or drama than we can handle just is not true. 1 Corinthians 10:13 is often cited as the basis for the idea that God will somehow not allow us to be stressed out beyond what we can cope with. A plain reading of the scripture, however, does not reveal such a saying. This passage is not even dealing with everyday stress – more on on that in a moment. I will daresay that 1 Corinthians 10:13 is one of the most misquoted and misunderstood verses in the entire Bible. It’s one of those verses that we might think says one thing but really says another. This is also an example of how cherry picking scripture without regard to context is simply a poor way to read God’s word.

I think it’s safe to say that every single one of us have experienced times in our lives when we felt that the world was caving in all around us. We have all experienced times when we could not handle one more thing on our plates or we might just snap. I have some good news for you if you have ever felt that way: You’re not alone. Life teaches us that things are going to come at us, sometimes one thing after another, and that we will indeed, at some point, have more on us than we can handle. Such is part of the human condition. As I have mentioned before our troubles do not come from God. Let me say that again: The bad stuff in life, whether we’re talking about a major tragedy or even the everyday stresses of life, do not come from God. God does not give us troubles. But what he does is be present in those moments, ready to comfort, provide mercy, and healing to our souls. He loves us that much and he wants us to cling to him.

So what is it that Paul is talking about and what is the truth behind this Half Truth? Borrowing heavily from Adam Hamilton’s book Half Truths in addition to my own study, I will explore that.

The short version of the story is this: Paul is talking about temptation to sin, not about sparing us from stress. Paul was on one of his missionary journeys when he established Christianity in the Roman city of Corinth around 51 AD. Today we call Las Vegas “Sin City” but I would argue that Corinth is the original sin city. If you were a citizen of Corinth during this time and you went to buy meat, you may likely be eating meat from an animal which was sacrificed at one of the numerous pagan temples around the city. While some cities have a gas station or a Starbucks on every corner, Corinth had pagan temples on every corner. Within the walls of the temples occurred pagan worship. What we would call sexual immorality was one of the ways in which the Corinthian pagans worshiped and this even occurred within the walls of the temples. The reputation of the Corinthians was so pervasive that if someone was considered to be fast and loose with their morals they were said to be “living like a Corinthian.”

The new Christians of Corinth were trying to overcome these old habits but, as the old saying goes, old habits die hard. The temptation to give in to these pagan ways were literally everywhere they went. The could not escape the pagan temples because there were so many. They could not escape the temptations of the pagan ways because this was also all around them. By using the struggle of the ancient Israelites as an example, Paul was reminding the Corinthian Christians that their giving in to these temptations had spiritual and moral consequences. And then he states in verse 13, “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.”

Paul was giving the Corinthians encouragement and a good reminder that sin has consequences. He gave them an example of their spiritual ancestors (remember that he was dealing with mostly Gentiles). He was also reminding them that when God sees that we are tempted to commit some kind of sinful act, he will give us a way out even if it’s reminding us of who we are and whose we are. Do we always make the choice to take the way out and therefore not sin? Of course not! But it’s there and God provides it.

Paul was not saying that God tempts us but only a little bit, he was saying that God provides us a way out of the situation when we are tempted. But here’s what we really need to know about this verse of scripture: Paul was also not saying that God will not allow us to have more stress, chaos, and tragedy than we can handle. Unfortunately, these things will happen. But here is what we can count on from God: He will be present in the stress, chaos, and tragedy. He will be ready to provide relief. He will be with us through the storm. One of the things Paul is emphasizing here is not our human will prevailing but instead of God’s faithfulness. God is faithful to us in the midst of life.

Dr. Ben Witherington, a prolific author, theologian, and professor of New Testament at Asbury uses this phrase a lot and, as I like it, I do too: “A text without a context is merely a pretext for whatever you want it to be.” This is the case in 1 Corinthians 10:13. When we pick and choose bible verses and try to make them fit an idea that we have about God or perhaps just an idea that we like because it sounds nice, we miss the greater message of God’s word. We really do a disservice to ourselves and to our discipleship when we take what we consider to be the best parts and leave the rest. The result is a Half Truth.

Unfortunately, God does not promise that he won’t allow us to have more from life than we can handle. God does, however, promise that he is with us. When someone is struggling, I want us to remember that God is with them and us. Perhaps next time we want to use this Half Truth we can say something like, “God has not give this trouble to you but he is with you and loves you. And so do I.” Let’s turn this Half Truth into a whole truth. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… Amen.

Sermon – Half Truths: “God Helps Those who Help Themselves”

Here is part two in the Half Truths series. Yesterday we looked at this popular saying, which many people are convinced is in the Bible. Spoiler alert: It isn’t! But, this does not mean that it doesn’t have an element of truth. As you will see, we are called to take some responsibility for our lives and not to just simply wait around for God to do something. Often God does things through us and through other people. Christians are people of action, not of sitting around and waiting for something to happen. I hope you gain some meaningful insight from this sermon. As always, feel free to leave any feedback you would like. A note: There is a portion where I quote from a scene from “The Help.” I chose to play the clip of the scene for the congregation. If you would like to watch it for yourself, you may click here. – Jonathan

Half Truths: “God Helps Those who Help Themselves”
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
August 21, 2016

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 (NLT)
And now, dear brothers and sisters, we give you this command in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Stay away from all believers[c] who live idle lives and don’t follow the tradition they received[d] from us. 7 For you know that you ought to imitate us. We were not idle when we were with you. 8 We never accepted food from anyone without paying for it. We worked hard day and night so we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 We certainly had the right to ask you to feed us, but we wanted to give you an example to follow. 10 Even while we were with you, we gave you this command: “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.”

11 Yet we hear that some of you are living idle lives, refusing to work and meddling in other people’s business. 12 We command such people and urge them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and work to earn their own living. 13 As for the rest of you, dear brothers and sisters, never get tired of doing good.

A while back I was watching one of the TV news shows and they were polling people about things that are in the Bible. They would read something that either was or was not in the Bible and the person had to answer true if it was in the Bible and false if it was not. Out of five people the interviewer read “God helps those who help themselves” to, four answered true, indicating they believed it was in the Bible. Let’s do a show of hands: If you believe this saying is in the Bible, raise your hand… Ok, now if it’s not in the Bible, raise your hand.

If you guessed that “God helps those who help themselves” is not in the Bible, you’re correct. To say that this saying is in the bible is completely false because it appears nowhere in the scriptures. It does sound kind of biblical though, doesn’t it? It’s not unusual that when we hear a saying like this and especially when it catches on and becomes popular, we like to think it has some authority behind it. This is exactly what happened with this saying. The Greek philosopher Aesop was the one who coined, “The gods help those who help themselves.” About 2300 years later, Benjamin Franklin appropriated it and changed it “God helps those who helps themselves” when he published Poor Richard’s Almanac. The expression became widely popular and eventually people began believing that it was found in scripture.

While the saying is not found anywhere in scripture, this is one of the sayings that we will look at which I believe does have some truth to it. Let’s explore some ways that this saying does have some truth to it:

Adam Hamilton gives several examples in his book Half Truths: Hamilton states when he says grace before a meal he thanks God for giving us a planet where such bounty can grow and survive, he thanks God for the farmers who grew the vegetables or raised the animals, the people who harvested and processed it, and even the truck drivers who delivered it to the store. If one of those components was not there, we would not be able to go to the store and buy our food. Because they did their part and we did ours by obtaining money with which to go buy food and actually took the time to go to the store and cooked it, we’re able to eat a delicious meal.

Another example would be with employment: It’s alright to pray that God gives you guidance as to a job you should apply for. However, it’s not going to likely be very productive if you just stop there. Without building a resume, filling out applications, going to interviews, you’re going to have a hard time finding a job. God will certainly give us guidance if we ask him to but he also expects us to not just sit around and let him do all the work. We have to take some ownership of our situations and we have to take some action. Otherwise, all the prayer in the world is not going to do us any good. Prayer is certainly talking to God but it is also listening. And when we pray, we also have to be prepared to move and to act. This is God helping us.

While I do not believe that God’s help comes with strings attached, I do believe that God does not call us to simply wait on him to do a miracle. As I mentioned a moment ago, Christians are not called to just simply sit and wait for God to do something, we are called to accept some responsibility for what happens to us.

When Paul started the church at Thessalonika, he taught the converts there that they should trust Jesus and trust that he would return someday, possibly even soon. Paul eventually left but apparently some of the converts took Paul’s telling them to “trust Jesus” a little too literally. Eventually word reached Paul that many of them had actually quit their jobs with the idea that God would just provide for all of their needs without their needing to work. This is why Paul wrote the scripture we had above, because he wanted to be clear that trusting Jesus did not mean quitting our jobs and waiting for manna and money to appear out of the sky. In other words, Paul was wanting them to exercise their common sense. Yes, God will provide and he will send help. However, this does not free us from the responsibility of doing our part for securing our provision.

Perhaps you heard the story of the man who was caught in a flood. The waters were getting deeper and deeper, inching closer and closer to his house. He had ignored the pleas from the media and others to evacuate before the waters because he was convinced that God would help him. The flood waters were up to his porch and some men on a boat came by and offered to take him out of there. “No, I’m not leaving. God will help me.” They pleaded with him and he continued to refuse so they left. Soon, the water had gotten much higher and driven him to the roof of his house. A helicopter searching for victims flew overhead. The crew saw him and lowered a rope, shouting on the loudspeaker, “Grab the rope and we will pull you in!” Again, the man refused. “God will help me.” The helicopter left and soon the man was overcome by the water and died. When he appeared before God the man was upset “God, why didn’t you help me?” God looked at him and said, “Son, I sent you a boat and a helicopter with a rope dangling from it. What more did you want?”

We must help ourselves, at least to some extent. God did not call us to be robots who just wait for a push and a shove toward something or to be told to do something. God expects us to be able to idenity our needs and to accept his guidance for how he intends to provide for them. The man in the flood example was expecting God to perform some type of miracle which would save him from his plight. Perhaps the reason he did not accept the help that was given was because he had a misconception about how God works. Perhaps he wanted a solution to where God would come down in a cloud and restore everything to the way it was, his home, his stuff still intact. Instead, God sent help in the form of a boat and a helicopter with a rope which would mean that he would lost his stuff but still have his life. Because he did not help himself with the help offered to him, he lost his life.

God’s help does not always come in the form of a big miraculous spectacle that is the lead story on CNN. Often, God’s help is found in subtle ways, often in ways that we never expected. God often uses other people in order to help us and we see this time and time again in scripture with God using people in the course of his work. The biggest example I can think of is medical providers. There are some very wonderful and well meaning believers who think that God’s healing only comes from him, that doctors and other medical professionals are not necessary because God will heal. I believe that God’s healing is done through doctors, nurses, and countless other types of medical providers. The knowledge of the human body and the know how to figure out which treatments will work or others that can be tried if one fails is nothing short of astonishing. I believe God works his healing through their hands. But in order to receive it, we have to do our part and go to that clinic or to the hospital in order to be healed. In this sense, we have to help ourselves.

So far we have spent our time this morning talking about how the idea that God helps those who help themselves has some truth to it. But not I want to shift gears and talk about how this saying is untrue. To give away this part of the sermon: It’s often used to justify abuse of the poor.

Our scripture from 2 Thessalonians 3 is often used to justify not helping the poor, particularly verse 10 where Paul writes, “Even while we were with you, we gave you this command: “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.” Let’s say you’re down on your luck. You have tried all you can do. You’re starving. Your family is starving. You go to your best friend and ask for help. Instead of helping, your friend simply tells you, “No. God helps those who help themselves. And remember what Paul said about not working and not eating? That’s you.” Those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ know that this simply is not acceptable. Even in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, there was instruction for people to leave part of their fields unharvested so that the poor could glean from them for their survival. On and on in scripture we see instruction to help the poor, how the poor have a special place in God’s heart.

When we apply “God helps those who help themselves” in this manner, we are shrugging off the responsibility that we have been given to care for the poor in our midst. We are called to show compassion. I recall a scene from The Help in which Yule May is talking with the family she works for and is asking for a loan of $75 so that she can send both of her twin sons to college for the upcoming school year. The lady she works for, Hilly, is particularly mean. She listens to Yule May’s request and replies like this: “As a Christian, I’m doin’ you a favor. God doesn’t give charity to those who are well and able. You need to come up with this money on your own.” Hilly had an opportunity to show compassion and to help two young men start on a path to a better life but, instead, she invoked “God helps those who help themselves” as a way of using God as justification for not helping.

Later on in the movie, the main character Skeeter who has written a book based on the stories of the African American housekeepers working for Caucasian families in Jackson, Mississippi receives her royalty check. She chooses to split the money between all of the housekeepers in appreciation for their stories and for their help in writing her book. She did not have to do this but she chose to and the housekeepers were grateful to receive this blessing.

God does indeed help everyone. We do bear a certain responsibility for our own lives but God will show us a way. The rub is, we have to be willing to take it. And likewise, we are called to have compassion and be a blessing to those who need a little hand every now and then. Invoking “God helps those who help themselves” to justify our own stubbornness or unwillingness to help is simply false. In this world of contrasts, do you want to be the person who trusted God to help them find a job and thus applied for jobs or do you want to be like the man who had chances to get to safety and refused because he was so sure that God was going to help in another way? Likewise, do we want to be like Hilly who had an opportunity to be a blessing and chose not to or do we want to be like Skeeter who chose to be a blessing? God does help those who help themselves but he also helps those who can’t. Perhaps he will use you in this work. May it be so in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – amen.

Sermon: Half Truths – “Everything Happens for a Reason”

mainslide-half-truthsI have been intending to post this sermon for most of the week but life kept getting in the way. This is the first in a five week series of sermons inspired by Half Truths by Rev. Adam Hamilton. During this series at Shiloh, we are taking a look at a “Christian cliche” which sounds biblical but really is not. That is not to say that some of these don’t have at least some element of truth but sometimes these sayings are (1) not biblical and (2) can cause great harm. This one in particular hits home for me so I was glad to do it first. This coming Sunday we are looking at “God Helps Those who Help Themselves.” I will try to post it sooner! I hope you receive a blessing from this sermon. Please feel free to leave any feedback you would like to – Jonathan

Half Truths: Everything Happens for a Reason
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
August 14, 2016

GENESIS 50:20 (NLT) – You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.

ROMANS 8:28 (NLT) – And we know that God causes everything to work together[m] for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.

Most of you know about my daughter’s death soon after she was born. Among the many things I remember about that day was the outpouring of love and the many text messages and phone calls I got. Most I honestly don’t remember much about but I do remember a couple that stood out because of what they said. The gist of what these messages said was “so sorry to hear of what happened. It must have been God’s will. There must have been some reason why she died. It’s all part of God’s plan.

Let me stop right here for a moment and ask you to do me a favor: Please, never say anything like those statements to anyone who is in the midst of tragedy. Often these words are meant well and the person saying them is simply trying to provide some kind of reminder of God being present. But to me, these words provide no comfort and can do great harm to one’s soul. And not to mention, do we really want to paint God as a celestial bully who would willfully take someone’s child from them or give someone cancer? If we understand that God’s very nature and ways are only of love then we simply can not think that these things are true. Here’s the spoiler for today’s message: God is not in the business of willfully causing pain in order to prove a point or to make some kind of chain of events occur. Simply, bad things just happen. But this is not to say that God can’t or doesn’t redeem that bad thing for a good purpose.

When we use the logic that everything that happens is because God orchestrated it or that he has some purpose, we can then make an argument that everything is God’s will. If a marriage ends in divorce because one of the spouses committed adultery, did that happen because God intended for the marriage to end before it even began? When someone makes the decision to shoot elementary school students, does this mean those kids had to die by the actions of the shooter as part of a grant celestial plan that God came up with? We can even go down the line and say that God willed it for Mississippi State to lose to Ole Miss in football yet again and for UK to not make the Final Four last year.

When we say that everything happens for a reason or we make claims that something happening was simply God’s will, we are essentially passing the buck on any sort of personal responsibility that we have for our actions. Take the above events: If we simply chalk them up to just being God’s will or he having a divine purpose for making these things happen, that means we have no responsibility. That means that the spouse who cheated didn’t actually do anything wrong because they were just acting according to God’s will. This means that the shooter was merely an instrument of God used to continue his plan. This means that Mississippi State and UK have no responsibility for their not playing well enough to win the games I mentioned because God simply did not intend for them to win.

In our scriptures for today we have one from the old testament and one from the new testament which might seem like a night and day difference. These scriptures are sometimes used by people who defend that God has everything planned in advance and that we are all just players in his great drama. The reading out of Genesis 50 of toward the end of the story of Joseph. Perhaps you know the story. Joseph was beloved by his father. His brothers were jealous so they sold him into slavery to the Egyptians In spite of his being a slave he became a trusted advisor of the pharaoh and helped the Egyptians avoid the consequences of a famine which was revealed to Joseph in a dream. Joseph eventually ends up helping his brothers who sold him into slavery and they were reconciled. Hearing all of this, I can see where it would be easy to conclude that Joseph was trapped in a hole in the ground and sold to the Egyptians in order to prevent them and their neighbors from going hungry. There is a strong case to be made for this innocent man being sold into slavery being part of God’s plan. Which brings us to the new testament reading.

Paul wrote Romans when he was on his way to being put on trial in from of the emperor. Paul was no stranger to conflict, in fact his ministry is marked with it time and time again. So Paul is in the midst of one of these conflicts and pens this letter in which he states that God works all things out for the good of Himself and his people. This is another scripture in which people sometimes try to defend the notion that God has somehow planned everything. But note what Paul did not say: He did say that God has arranged everything according to his will. He did not say that God has caused him to be taken into chains and put on trial to face death. He did not say that God made him go to prison. Paul, instead, says that God works it all out in the end. This is an important difference to take note of because Paul is not placing the blame on God for his being under arrest, rather he is acknowledging that God will use it. To say it another way, God doesn’t cause innocent people to go to jail, he doesn’t cause people to die of cancer, and he does not cause people to be killed in senseless tragedies. But when these things do happen, he make the evil thing bring about good for the Kingdom of God.

Part of the reason so many of us have this notion of God is because of a theologian named John Calvin. Calvin was very much against the theology of the Catholic church and the argument could be made that almost everything they were for, he was against. His understanding of protestant theology was outlined in what is considered to be one of the classics of Christians theology called The Institutes of Christian Religion. Calvin was a proponent of a outlook called theological determinism. In a nutshell, Calvin believed that God is sovereign and has dominion over everything in the world, including everything that happens right down to the cells in our body replicating. Calvin’s argument was that if something occurred that was not God’s will then God could not be sovereign and have dominion. Calvin also believed in a principle called predestination, which meant that not only did God know everything that would happen in history but that he actually planned everything. Further, Calvin stated that this included God not knowing but actually choosing who would and would not be saved in in his presence forever. In other words, Calvin felt that God planned every single thing that would ever happen, including the fact that you’re here today at Shiloh and that God has even chosen who will and will not be forgiven of their sins. Calvin’s view is that God has picked and chosen who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had similar beliefs to Calvin in several areas. He even made a statement which said, in essence that Methodism was within a breath of Calvinism. However, Wesley disagreed with Calvin in one major area: Predestination. Wesley believed that from the very beginning humankind was given free will, or the ability to make our own choices. Wesley believed that God knows how we will decide but that he does not actually cause us to make certain decisions. While Calvin believed that a person could not choose to trust God – rather that God would in a sense force them to believe through what he called irresistible grace – Methodist belief is that we decide for ourselves to trust Christ. Instead of irresistible grace, Wesley believed that God gives us prevenient grace, or grace which comes before which God uses to reach out to us humans and enable us to say yes to his justifying and sanctifying grace. Wesley believed that we have free will instead of having our will dictated to us.

The Bible lends support to this notion from the very beginning. In Genesis we read that God made the universe, the world, and everything in it and when he had placed Adam and Eve in the garden he gave them dominion over it. This does not sound like a micromanaging, puppet string pulling God to me. Instead it sounds like that God’s intention was to be present but not to interfere in the day to day stuff. God certainly did not intend for Adam and Eve to disobey him. Why would God compel people to disobey him? The logic simply does not stand up to the test. Simply put, God is not in the business of micromanagement and he certainly is not a puppet master. God also does not cause bad things to happen.

We want to believe that everything happens for a reason, that especially when bad things happen it’s all for a greater purpose. This simply just is not true. Bad things happen for a variety of reasons but sometimes they just happen. But they do not happen because God willed it or because he wanted to prove a point. God does not give people cancer. God does not cause children to die. God does not cause any sort of tragedy. But when tragedy does strike, let us remember that God is in the midst of it and he is ready to take that evil, ugly thing and make something beautiful come out of it. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirt – amen.

Sermon: “What’s The Fuss?”

Shiloh-UMC-logo-final-webI wrote and preached this sermon last week at Shiloh as a reminder of what we celebrate on Thursday (Thanksgiving) as well as a reminder of why we will celebrate Christmas in December. It’s all about perspective. I incorporated some material from the sermon I preached at the community Thanksgiving service at Stanton Baptist Church last week. I had several people tell me that it served as a great reminder of the true purpose for the holidays as well as a means of centering in preparation for the craziness. I hope you find a blessing from reading this sermon (it’s not perfect and I did end up throwing in a couple more thoughts while I preached but, more or less, here it is).

In Christ,
Jonathan

“What’s The Fuss?”
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
November 22, 2015

John 18:33-37 (NRSV) – Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. 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.”

Today is one of the days on the church calendar called “Christ the King” Sunday, which is when we remember and celebrate the kingship of Jesus. Next week we will begin the season of Advent which is a time of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ. It is extremely easy to forget that the “stuff” of the season is not why we are celebrating. The reason we celebrate is the one who would be born in a stable and grow up to be the greatest king the world has ever known. So today, I want us to spend this time together remembering what all the fuss is about.

We have all been there. Let me tell you about one of the experiences of holiday craziness I witnessed. I was a teenager and we arrived at my grandmother’s house early on Thanksgiving. We actually arrived earlier than normal because my grandmother had called and said she was overwhelmed and needed some help getting the thanksgiving meal prepared. We arrived and Moo, as we called her, looked flustered. I’m don’t remember exactly what happened but she had some sort of mishap in the kitchen and also had found out that a few more people were coming than she had expected. I do remember her saying this: “I just don’t understand why I go through all this fuss.”

I remembered that incident and those words recently when I was working on an assignment for one of my classes at Asbury. The assignment was to write a column for a church newsletter about the Christmas season called “What’s The Fuss about Christmas” in which the object was to remind church members of the purpose of the holiday season, specifically why we are supposed to be celebrating Christmas. We tend to ponder that a lot as we go through all the hustle and bustle of the year. We forget about the main purpose because it gets lost in all of the stuff we are expected to do. We wonder why we should even bother with preparing a feast for Thanksgiving and why we go to the trouble of decorating for Christmas and making such a big deal out of things like the Cantata or any number of other things.

It’s obvious to state that the reason we celebrate Thanksgiving is because we want to take some time to give thanks to God for seeing us through, for providing for our needs and simply to thank him for loving us. Just as the pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock did, we give thanks. The fuss is worth it because it is a correction to our egos to remember how blessed we are and how grateful we should be for even the smallest things. For example: When was the last time you gave a quick word of thanks to the man who picks up your trash so that you can live in a safe and healthy house? When was the last time you thanked the clerk at the grocery store? When was the last time you thanked God for even the things that make us frustrated like our computers, TVs and cell phones? Giving thanks helps us to keep our priorities in line with God’s will and is an important correction to our egos.

Does anyone remember the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special? I love Charlie Brown because I can relate to him in so many ways, namely how he often undertakes things with the best of intentions but he just ends up making a mess of it. In the Thanksgiving special Peppermint Patty invites herself to Charlie Brown’s house for Thanksgiving dinner and then Lucy and Franklin are invited by Patty. Charlie Brown finds himself in a mess because he is supposed to go to his grandmother’s for a meal with his family. Linus convinces Charlie Brown that he can have two Thanksgiving meals and to prepare one for him and his friends. So Charlie Brown sets out to prepare a feast but it’s not exactly traditional. When the gang sits down for their meal, Linus leads them in a prayer and then the food service begins.

By the time it’s all said and done each kid ends up with an ice cream sundae, two slices of buttered toast, and a handful each of pretzel sticks, popcorn, and jelly beans. Peppermint Patty is not happy and has some harsh words for Charlie Brown, who leaves the table in shame. Peppermint Patty gets a reminder that she invited herself over; eventually she apologizes to Charlie Brown. All ends up well because the gang all end up being able to go to Charlie Brown’s grandmother’s house to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Does this kind of sound like what happens at your house around Thanksgiving? We prepare a meal and someone complains. Then you start to wonder why you even undertook this project in the first place. Thanksgiving is a good reminder that it’s not about us. It’s not about the turkey, the sides or the parades. Thanksgiving, at its core, is a reminder that we should be thankful to God His provision, his protection and for his love. It’s out of this love hat he came to us in the form of a baby who from his birth was the great king that had been long expected and excitedly anticipated. That’s the fuss about Thanksgiving. The fuss is we give thanks not for how we have gained but for what God has given.

Although Thanksgiving is our next holiday and I certainly believe in taking the one at a time I know we have all been thinking about our Christmas plans. As a church we have been practicing for the upcoming cantata and I have been planning our Advent sermons and some other special times of worship that you will hear more about soon. I hope that you are looking forward to Advent as we prepare for Christmas. Even more, I hope you’re looking forward to Christmas as a time that we celebrate the birth of Christ our savior. But I know that Christmas and the preparation for it causes a lot of stress. Perhaps you’re even now asking, “What’s all the fuss about Christmas and why is it worthy of my effort?”

The fuss about Christmas is something called the incarnation. Just in case you don’t know, what I’m referring to is the coming of God in the form of Jesus Christ. The incarnation is vital to our salvation story because without it, there would be no point. Without the coming of the long promised messiah there would be no need for us to celebrate Good Friday or Easter or really to have much hope because we would still be expected to keep the commandments and the other rules and such found in the Old Testament to the letter. Oh, we could repent but in order for our sins to be atoned for there has to be blood spilled. Again, we can look through the Old Testament to see all of the ways in which atonement for our sins could be achieved and none of it is pleasant or pretty. From the very beginning, God planned to do something to reveal Himself to us and to bring us once and for all His grace and mercy.

The incarnation is how God reveals himself to us. You see, Jesus was born just as any other baby was. The only difference was that this baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit and therefore was divine. He was God, yet he was also fully human. John 1:14 says, “So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.” The incarnation of Christ is vital and even is one of the central tenants of our faith.

Let me put it this way: As with anything else, certain conditions have to be met in order for something to work. In order for a light bulb to work properly, there has to be a power source, wires to transmit the electricity, a socket connected to the wires and that acts as a way for the lightbulb to, in turn, be powered by the electricity and to shine bright. A switch is also helpful so that the power can be turned on or off (and so we can sleep at night). Without any of these things, the lightbulb will not be illuminated and we are left in the dark.

Jesus works he same way. Without His being born like you and I were, without Him having lived among us, without His having taught, healed and performing miracles, without Him having been nailed to a cross, died and then being resurrected three days later, God’s work to reconcile us to Him would not have been completed. It is a wonderful thing when you really think about it. God came to the world as a human being, grew up from a tiny baby, and lived among us. He did all of this to draw us closer to Him by drawing closer to us. Without His coming and living among us as one of us, this mission would not have been fulfilled.

In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis wrote: The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this. Just as every natural event is the manifestation at a particular place and moment of Nature’s total character, so every particular Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation. There is no question in Christianity of arbitrary interferences just scattered about. It relates not a series of disconnected raids on Nature but the various steps of a strategically coherent invasion—an invasion which intends complete conquest and “occupation.” The fitness, and therefore credibility, of the particular miracles depends on their relation to the Grand Miracle; all discussion of them in isolation from it is futile.

That’s what the fuss about Christmas is all about. Jesus Christ, being born in a stable after being turned away from proper housing. A tiny baby who, at a young age, had to flee to Egypt with his human parents to see refuge from a plot to kill him. A child who would grow up to teach in the temple and overturn the stranglehold the temple elite had over the people. This divine man who would perform miracles, demonstrate mercy, and teach us the way. It’s all about Jesus who would do what no other king in history would willingly do: Lay down his life for the entire world, including people who were not even born yet. And he would go on to cement his title as the king of kings by being raised from the dead on the third day. All of this is out of God’s abundant love for us! All of this so that all who believe in him could be restored and reconciled to God as well as enjoy eternal life with him rather than suffer apart from him.

As we go through these next few busy weeks, let us remember that the fuss is ultimately about God. The fuss is about being thankful for God’s love, both in how he provides for our needs so richly and for his becoming human so that we can be healed of our sins. May we remember that the fuss is about the ultimate ruler, the King of Kings whose kingdom includes us. May we remember that the fuss we are making is a fuss to make much of Jesus.