Selfishness Exposed: Only Jesus Can Give You What You Want (Romans 8:1-10)

Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent (3/31/14)

Text: Romans 8:1-10

Theme: Only Jesus Can Give You What You Want!

            The character is a familiar one, I’m sure. Even if you have only seen a few of the movies that have graced the big screen during the last half century you know the character I’m talking about. It’s that character in almost every movie and play that has their priorities mixed up, but through some traumatic experience they realize the error of their ways.

Just yesterday I sat down with my bride and watched a good old-fashioned chick flick. While You Were Sleeping was the title of this heartwarming love story from the mid-90’s. In that movie there is a character named Peter who was living a life long on success but ultimately short on meaning. He had the penthouse in Chicago, the successful career, the tall-dark-and-handsome good looks, the plastic surgery enhanced fiancé, but it wasn’t until he woke up from his near-death-fall-induced coma that he realized that though his life was full of things, it was empty of purpose. He needed to reprioritize his life. Just plain selfishness (getting and doing whatever he wanted) wasn’t cutting it.

Now stop and think about it – how many movies have a character just like Peter? How many movies have a character that needs to have his priorities reordered? How many movies have a character that needs to realize that selfishly seeking everything he wants isn’t going to give his life meaning?

I don’t have any official statistics, but I would say that almost every movie made has some character searching for meaning – some character that needs to reprioritize his life and stop being selfish. From Scrooge in A Christmas Carol to Anakin (aka Darth Vader) in Star Wars, Hollywood preaches the message that there is such a thing as too much selfishness – there is such a thing as mixed up priorities.

And in general, we love these movies. Hollywood keeps making them. We keep watching them.

I think that part of the reason we enjoy watching these selfish people become less selfish – these purposeless people find purpose – is because we can all relate. All of us have chased life down a road that we thought would give us meaning and purpose – leave us feeling fulfilled – only to realize that we needed to make some serious course corrections because the life we hoped to find wasn’t there and the peace we wanted wasn’t found.

I think we enjoy watching these movies because they give us hope that we can find purpose, a full life, and peace just like those people on the big screen.

But there’s a problem with this hope, isn’t there? The problem is that real life isn’t like the movies. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know any real people who reprioritized their lives, found true love and rode off into the sunset never to experience doubt again – perfectly happy and at peace once they started making the right life choices. Continue reading

The Light of the World Shines On You and Through You (John 9:1-7,13-17,34-39)

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent (3/23/14)

Text: John 9:1-7,13-17,34-39

Theme: The Light of the World

1) Shines On You

2) Shines Through You

            Do you know what I consider to be one of the most inconvenient aspects of being a parent? Toys… Now don’t get me wrong, I love watching my kids play, and I love playing with them. I’m glad they have toys. It just seems that no matter how often we clean, there are toys are everywhere.

Sometimes walking through my house feels more dangerous than walking barefoot across a field full of broken glass. I don’t even know where all of the toys come from. It continues to astound me how one minute all the toys can be neatly stored in their bins, and the next minute every floor in the house is covered with potential hazards – some of them soft and slippery, some of them tall and easy to trip over, some of them made with just the right amount of hard corners to inflict maximum damage when stepped on.

And this minefield of toys gets particularly dangerous at night. Before I turn off the lights and head to bed I find myself doing a quick scan of the room, looking for hazards that may jump out at me once I am blind in the dark.

What would make this nighttime minefield trip a little less harrowing? A night light! That’s the point of a night light – to provide enough light so that you can avoid the hazards of a well-played-in living room.

It’s a simple truth for all people, whether you live in a house of toddlers or not – not being able see in the dark, being blind, is a hazardous thing. That’s why there are headlights on our cars. That’s why we bring plenty of flashlights when we camp. That’s why we put nightlights in our hallways at home. We realize that trying to function blind is a hazardous thing.

Now, what would you think if a car sped past you at night without his headlights on? Or what if you saw someone walk into a thick patch of woods in the middle of a cloudy night leaving his flashlight behind – what if this guy was so intent on blindly traipsing through the woods that he put a blindfold on first, and then set off on his adventure? Well, that guy is cruising for a bruising, right?

The reason I bring this up is because I can’t help but see the Pharisees doing the exact same thing this morning. I look at the Pharisees and I see people willingly living in blind darkness. I look at the Pharisees this morning and I see people intent on finding heaven without Jesus, and I can’t help but be dumbfounded at their stubbornness. In essence these guys are looking at Jesus and saying, “No thanks, I can see fine, I’ll find my own way to heaven.” Continue reading

You Are Exactly Whom God Wants! (John 4:5-26)

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent (3/16/14)

Theme: You Are Exactly Whom God Wants!

Text: John 4:5-26

            I’m sure you’ve all heard the phrase before. Chances are, you have said (or at the very least thought) the phrase on more than one occasion. You heard it when your friend got engaged to that guy who didn’t have his act together yet. You thought it when your boss hired someone that you personally knew wasn’t going to be a good fit for the position he was given… you could have done better. If only your friend hadn’t been so eager to marry the first guy who came along – she could have done so much better. If only your boss had done his homework a little more before hiring this guy – he could have done better.

It’s that little phrase that slips between our lips so easily when we see someone get something we don’t think they deserve… you could have done better.

It’s that little judgmental phrase that leads to clicks, even in a church. It’s that little phrase that leads you to treat someone differently because their accent is a little thick, they work a different job, or have no job, they look, they dress, they smell, or they sound different than what you are comfortable with – you could do better… your time, your energy, your love could better be spent elsewhere. You could do better.

Maybe you would never admit it. You probably would never say it out loud in front of me because you recognize how silly it sounds, but I know it’s there, because it’s the only thing that can explain why you treat some people better than other people.

And this little judgmental phrase that we throw out there so often because someone fails to live up to our standards is nothing new. It’s certainly what everyone in Jesus’ day would have thought if they read what we just did in John 4. It’s certainly what the disciples were thinking when they came back and found Jesus talking to this unnamed Samaritan woman. The very next verse that we didn’t read says, “Just then the disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’”

They didn’t say it, but they all were thinking it… Jesus, you could have done better.

“Can’t you see this is a woman? Don’t you know that no teacher worth his salt speaks to a woman in public?” said every social norm of the day.

“Can’t you see this is a Samaritan? Can’t you tell by her accent and the way she looks that she is one of those Samaritans, one of those ‘half-breeds?’ Half Jew, half Gentile, half worshiper of the true God, half worshiper of pagan gods. Don’t you know that no self-respecting Jew talks with a Samaritan? Don’t you know it’s against the law to even share a cup of water with one of these no good half-breeds?“ said every social norm of the day.

“Didn’t you notice she is down here by herself in the heat of the day drawing water? Don’t you know that any respectable person gets water from the well in the cool of the morning? Don’t you know that the very fact that she is here now  by herself means that she has been rejected by her own half-breed people, probably for some awful immorality, some terrible sin?” said every social norm of the day.

Jesus, you could have done better. You could have done better than talk to this immoral Samaritan woman. You could have asked any one of your disciples for a drink and they would have gladly gotten it and you wouldn’t have had to soil yourself in this way. You wouldn’t have even had to recognize that this woman existed! You could have done better.

And yet here he is… Jesus certainly knew better than the disciples did all the reasons why this immoral Samaritan woman should have no right to talk to him, the Son of God. We know that because with a simple request Jesus cuts right to the heart of her immorality. When Jesus said to the woman, “Go, call your husband and come back,” he already knew that this was going to be a problem for this woman.

The question that begs to be asked is: Why? Why would Jesus abandon the social norms? Why would Jesus talk to this woman? And why did he have this account recorded for us?

When you ask that question it becomes clear that he did this so that he could teach his disciples something – he did it to teach us something. He did it to get the disciples to start questioning the social norms that tell us that some people are better than others. He did it to help us see things from his perspective.

With one simple request Jesus awoke well-deserved guilt and shame in this Samaritan woman. With one simple request Jesus proved that this woman deserved nothing from him. What do you think the chances are that he could have done the same for the disciples – with one request cut to the heart of their shameful sins? What do you think the chances are that he could do the same to you? What do you think the chances are he could look at you and with a simple request cut through all the layers to the sins that reign in your heart?

Maybe for you it would be the exact same request, “Go, call your husband and come back.” “Oh no, not today Jesus. You see I have already chewed through five husbands, and the man I am with now is not my husband.”

Maybe for you the request would sound a little different. “Go, bring me your Bible.” “Oh, not today Jesus. Because truth be told, my Bible still looks pretty brand new. The crisp, white pages would reveal how little time I spend in your word.”

Maybe for you it would be Jesus saying, “Go, bring me your checkbook.” “Oh, not today Jesus. I couldn’t do that, because then you would know just how little I have thanked you for everything you have given me.”

Maybe for you it would be Jesus saying, “Go, bring me your calendar.” “Oh, not today Jesus. I couldn’t do that, because then you would see how full my calendar is with time spent on me, and how little time I have set aside for you.”

Can you see the problem with this little phrase? It’s not just the Samaritan woman that’s not good enough for Jesus… From God’s perspective it’s you, and it’s me because we all harbor sins that make us not good enough for Jesus.

“Could have done better,” is what the disciples thought. “Could have done better,” is what we think in our arrogant moments. But realize that from Jesus’ perspective, we are all in the same boat as that Samaritan woman.

But did you notice that we never once heard Jesus think or say that? Never once does Jesus give the impression that he is too good for this woman.

That’s because, from Jesus perspective, he couldn’t have done any better. He couldn’t have found a better target for his love than this adulterous Samaritan woman. The message that Jesus wanted to preach that day is crystal clear. The water of life, heaven –  it’s a gift. And a gift isn’t something you earn by being the right race, the right gender, or living the right way.

That’s why Jesus walked through Samaria this day. He could have walked around Samaria (as was the custom of many Jews). That’s why they made a pit stop at this little Samaritan town. That’s why he let the disciples go ahead of him into town. He did it all so that he could meet this woman and give her a gift.

You see, when Jesus looked at this woman he didn’t just see a adulterous Samaritan woman. He didn’t think, “This woman isn’t good enough for me.” He thought, “This woman needs me.” He looked at this woman and he saw someone who was thirsty, caught in the arid, dry downward spiral of her own sinfulness and he didn’t dwell on the fact that he deserved better, he dwelt on the fact that this woman was the very reason he was here on this earth in the first place.

Jesus stopped at Jacob’s well so that he could offer the free water of life to a woman who was desperately thirsty. Jesus stopped at Jacob’s well that day so that he could take someone who didn’t deserve him and treat her as if she did. Jesus stopped at Jacob’s well that day so that he could make clear to his disciples – so that he could make clear to you and me – that he couldn’t find anyone better, because he came to save sinners, and that’s exactly what this woman was, which means she’s exactly what Jesus wanted.

Which means that Jesus stopped at Jacob’s well so that he could make clear to you that you are exactly the kind of person he wants. Look at the conversation between this woman and Jesus today and realize that everything he is offering to her, he is offering to you.  Realize that Jesus came to give the water of life to sinners, which means he came to give the water of life to you and to me.

Jesus stopped at this well so that he could make clear that the water of life, heaven, is his gift – a gift bought and paid for at the cross – a gift he offers completely free of charge to sinners, each and every one of them. A gift we receive simply by trusting him when he says that this water he is giving us will make us never know thirst again and will bring us eternal life.

This gift comes simply by faith – faith like Abraham, the man who simply trusted that God would take him from what he was (a barren 75 year old man) and turn him into something he wasn’t (a great nation).

It’s faith that makes a person worthy of the water of life, not race, not language, not works. Its faith in the promise of God that he wants to take people and make them what they are not – worthy of heaven. When Jesus looks at you he doesn’t see just a hell bound sinner. He doesn’t think, “I could do better.” He thinks, “You need me. You are why I am here. I couldn’t do any better than you because I came to save sinners, which means I came to save you.”

Now stop and think about what that means for every day of your life, and for every interaction you have with people in this church and outside those doors. This love of God levels the playing field, and forces us to change our perspective – it helps us see that we are all sinners in the presence of a perfect God. It helps us see that we are all sinners whom God wants to save.

If God looks at every person and sees exactly whom he wants to save then that new guy at work is not just another guy – he is someone whom God wants to hear about the Bible. If God looks at every person and sees exactly whom he wants to save then that maid at your hotel is not just an unknown person speaking a different language – she is someone whom Jesus died. If God looks at every person and sees exactly whom he wants to save then those people on your tv dealing with death, disease and disaster are not just unlucky strangers– they are people that God wants to offer the water of life.

So go, see all people the way God sees people. Offer them the same water of life God has given you. Echo his thoughts when he looks at you and says, “I couldn’t find anyone better. Here take and drink and know that heaven is yours.”


The History of Salvation (Genesis 3:1-15)

Sermon for the 1st Sunday of Lent (3/9/14)

Theme: The History of Salvation

Text: Genesis 3:1-15

            One of the things that fascinates me in this world is… you. Now before you get too creeped out, allow me to explain.  For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with people – what makes people tick, what makes people excited, how different people react in different situations. I’m fascinated in getting to know people, specifically I love getting know how different two people can be from each other. Two warm blooded humans can have a lot physically similar, but be completely different when it comes to things they love and things they hate, things that get them excited and things that bore them – and these differences fascinate me.

One of the things I have noticed about myself that is certainly not unique, but at least it is different from most people I come in contact with is this: I love history. I always have. I love reading about history, thinking about history, studying history – and I have gotten to know enough people in this world to realize that this makes me different from a lot of people.

Now I suspect that this love of history, or perhaps your lack of love for history, is as much nature as it is nurture, but I also think that one of the reasons that some people dislike history is because they never had the “why” adequately explained to them.  The most common complaint I have heard when it comes to history is, “So what?” Why should I care about what happened hundreds or thousands of years ago? Why should I have to memorize all of these pointless facts? What does Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492 have to do with me and you, right? I think one of the major barriers to appreciating history has to do with understanding why history is important, and what it has to say to us today.

It is my hope that today, even if you are not a history buff, I can get you to have a little bit more appreciation for why studying history is a good thing.

I say that because the Lent is basically a 40 day study of history. Over the next weeks leading up to Easter, we are going to be reading and talking about a lot of history every time we get together in this building. And it is my hope that you would go through this Lent understanding what this history means for you today. Because this is the history of salvation.

Two of the three Bible readings we have before us today are pure history – they tell us what happened thousands of years ago. And just like any other history, it is easy to get wrapped up in the facts of the stories, but  it is the “so what” that will be the difference between being fascinated and just tolerating the history we are looking at.

Our reading from Genesis 3 is simple history. What’s more, I know that it is history that you already know. Some of you have been reading and rereading this story from the time you could read – Adam and Eve in the garden, tempted by the devil.

So, let’s ask ourselves that all-important question: So what? What does this story that took place thousands of years ago have to do with me today? Continue reading

Remember the Cleansing Power of Godly Sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:8-13a)

Sermon for Ash Wednesday (3/5/14)

Theme: Remember the Cleansing Power of Godly Sorrow

Text: 2 Corinthians 7:8-13a

            I have a letter here, it’s address to you – at least it is address to that stubbornly sinful voice inside each of you. You have it too, let’s read what it says…

Dear Members and Friends of Christ Our Savior,

Ashes to ashes… dust to dust.

If you take nothing else away from today – if you learn only one thing from this entire Lenten season – let it be this: You are going to die.

I don’t care how alive and healthy you feel right now, the moment you were conceived you started marching toward your death.

It doesn’t matter if you eat organic, or processed food. It doesn’t matter if you exercise five days a week, or zero days a week. It doesn’t matter if you take a daily multivitamin, or smoke a pack a day. It doesn’t matter if you are a daredevil, or the kind of person who washes his hands fifteen times a day. It doesn’t matter if you are white, black, young, old, male, female, tall, short, fat, skinny, smart, or dumb – you are going to die.

I don’t know when. I don’t know how. I don’t know what it will be like, or what will cause it.

I do know that it will happen. I do know that it could come at any moment. Whether that moment is today, tomorrow, next week, next year, or next decade, I know that unless Judgment Day comes first, each and every one of you will find out what it is like to die.

It probably will hurt. You probably will have to suffer before it comes. It probably will be more than a little scary. It will hurt those you left behind.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

You can try to hide from it. You can try to avoid it. You can try to delay it. You can try to forget that it is coming for you. But nothing you do will be able to keep your heart beating when death comes for you. And ignoring it doesn’t change the very real fact that death could come for you today.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Life wasn’t supposed to lead inevitably to death. That’s why, no matter how hard you try to ignore or minimize it, death scares you. Death hangs like an impending storm cloud on every person’s horizon. It’s there in you nightmares, in your depressed moments, in your deepest fears. Death is coming, and there is nothing you can do about it.

Ashes to ashes… dust to dust.

If you take nothing else away from today – if you learn only one thing from this entire Lenten season – let it be a recognition of your own mortality. You are going to die, so stop living as if death isn’t going to come. Stop living as if death is some far distant, easily ignored possibility. You are going to die, so start preparing yourself for that right now – not tomorrow, not next week, not next year – right now.

And the preparation I’m talking about isn’t a Last Will & Testament or a life insurance policy, because trust me, when you are dead, money isn’t going to be important to you.

You need to be prepared to meet your God…

So let me ask you? If you died today, would you be prepared to meet God? Would God be happy with the life you are living?

Is a life full of envy a life prepared? Is a life full of thinking that you need, and want more than you have now a life God approves of?

Is a life lived in semi-retirement a life prepared – retirement as if there is a limit to what God can expect of you in a day, retirement as if there is ever a time when serving myself becomes more important than serving others? In other words: is a life full of self-serving laziness the kind of life God approves of?

Is a life full of mixed up priorities a life prepared? Will your kids soccer skills, and social life be more important than God’s word when you die?… when they die? Will an extra hour or two free from church and God’s word a week really be important when you die? Is a life full of things placed higher on your priority list than God the kind of life God approves of?

Believe me, I could go on and on listing the sins that make us unprepared to meet our Maker. But friends, suffice it to say, this should not be. End this foolish way of living. Stop pretending as if death is not right around the corner. Stop pretending that judgment is not right around the corner. Start living in a way that will matter for eternity, not in a way that sounds good today. Do you think it is a small thing to look at your God and spit in his face? Do think it is a small thing to sin?

Ashes to ashes… dust to dust. You are going to die. Start living like it and repent. Repent and turn from your evil ways.

All the best, Pastor Hoff

So there you have it, my Ash Wednesday letter to you. How did you like it? What did that letter make you feel? What did that letter make you want to do?

I hope it hurt. I hope you actually listened and became as disgusted with your sin as I am – more importantly, as God is. I hope that this letter made you sad, not because I’m a sadistic freak who likes to see you sad, but because I, like Paul, know what a good thing sorrow can be. I, like Paul, know what a cleansing power sorrow can have.

It is my prayer that this letter, that this Ash Wednesday, and really this whole Lent will do for you what Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians did for them.

You see before the second letter to the Corinthians was written (the one we are looking at today), there was a first letter. In 1 Corinthians, Paul had some issues to tackle. You see, the Corinthians were allowing sin to rule their lives. They had lost focus. They had stopped preparing themselves daily for the death that was sure to come. They had started to act as if certain sins were ok. It was no big deal if they harbored a little sin here, or a little sin there. As long as they kept coming to church, as long as they kept faith in Jesus, what harm could a little sin cause, right?

Wrong. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in no uncertain terms, he told them to hand over to the devil anyone who willing allowed sin into their lives. I don’t care what the sin is; it is never ok to sin.

This is something that we all need to come to terms with. There is no such thing as an acceptable amount of sin in my life. There is no such thing as a minor sin.

We need to come to terms with this so that we can see and fully understand who we are and what we deserve. We need to understand this so that our hearts can be broken, so that we can stop making excuses and be sorry for every sin we have committed. We need to understand just how sinful we are so that we can repent – so that we can fall on our knees and cry out to God from the depths of humility, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

It’s my prayer that his letter, this Ash Wednesday, this Lent will work true sorrow and repentance in your heart and mine so that I can say to you what Paul said to the Corinthians in his second letter.

“Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it… I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended… Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.”

It is my prayer that this Lent we would stop excusing sin in our lives. It is my prayer that we would remember our own mortality, and the judgment that is to follow. It is my prayer that this true self-examination would work in us true repentance.

And what is true repentance?

It’s that tax collector on his knees, head down, humility intact, begging his God to have mercy on him.

True repentance is those Israelites, keenly aware of the punishment they deserve for their sin as the poison of the snakes pumps through their veins, looking to the only place where forgiveness and healing can be found – looking to God to save them in his mercy. For them it was a bronze snake on a pole. For us it is the Son of God on a cross. The message is the same: turn from your sins, look to God, and live.

True repentance means realizing your mortality, stopping the excuses, saying you are sorry, believing in God’s mercy, and then allowing that repentance to produce in you:

“Earnestness,   and eagerness to clear yourselves.” True repentance works in us the desire to do what is right today, not tomorrow or the next day, but today. True repentance that believes in God’s mercy wants everything I do to be a deliberate act of thanks for the forgiveness I didn’t deserve, but I have.

True repentance produces:

“Indignation, alarm, longing, concern, and readiness to see justice done.” True repentance works in us the understanding that no sin is an acceptable sin. True repentance helps us see things from God’s perspective – helping us see how disgusting every sin is.

I, like Paul, know that you already have this repentance – this sorrow over sin and the faith that God has had mercy on you. But I also know, like Paul, that this side of eternity repentance needs to be a daily thing.

It is my prayer that this letter, this Ash Wednesday, this Lent, you would remember what a cleansing power Godly sorrow has – and put it into practice every day of your life until your life on this earth is done.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

But also remember that with God there is mercy, forgiveness, and a new life in heaven. Amen.

Message from The Mount: Don’t Be Afraid (Matthew 17:1-9)

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday (3/2/14)

Theme: Message from the Mount: Don’t Be Afraid

Text: Matthew 17:1-9

            Who here knows the story of the god that the ancient Athenians would have worshiped and trusted for peace in this world? Her name was Athena (the namesake of their city), it’s an interesting story… you see there was this other god named Zeus – you may know him as that guy with the lightning bolts. Well, Zeus began having an intimate relationship with Metis, a Titan. Titans were the old generation of gods, before Zeus and those like him came around and kicked them out of power. Well, Metis conceived. This was cause for concern for Zeus because he had been told that any offspring of Metis would become greater than him. So he did the only sensible thing, he ate Metis. Naturally, Metis survived, and she ended up giving birth to a daughter, named Athena, inside of Zeus. She continued to nurture Athena inside of Zeus until he began to complain of terrible headaches. So once again Zeus did the only reasonable thing, he had his own head split open, and out popped Athena, fully armed and ready for battle!… Or so the story goes…

Crazy story, right? So crazy I have to ask: How could the Athenians actually believe such a crazy story? Why did they invest so much of their time, and their energy, and their money in the worship of this false god, whose backstory was completely beyond belief?

I think this little fable, this true history of what these people believed, actually illustrates how similar people of all time and every race really are. Because you see, whether you live in Greece in 500BC or America in 2014 you live in a scary world – scary because bad things just seem to keep on happening, crops fail, storms destroy houses, jobs disappear, and loved ones keep on dying – scary because of the responsibilities of this world that seem to be on your shoulders, and only your shoulders – responsibilities of being a parent, or an employee, or a spouse – the tremendous responsibility of staying alive and keeping those in your care alive too.

This world is a scary place, it always has been, and it always will be this side of eternity, and so this world is full of people looking for a way to find peace – to cope with the scariness of this world. Whether you live in Greece in 500BC or America in 2014, true peace in this scary would is a commodity that is hard to come by, it’s something people are desperately looking for. Continue reading