April 11, 2021 – “When It’s hard to Believe”
Grace and peace to you!
We welcome our online worshippers, as well as those here in the sanctuary at West Tulsa UMC.
Last Sunday was Easter, a day on which the only fitting call to worship was an announcement of the Resurrection, the greatest act of life-saving imaginable.
Through it God let us laugh at our death sentence by punctuating it with a living exclamation mark. On this day and in days to come may we remember that there are times when God restates the joyful resurrection proclamation.
Resurrection takes place when talents and gifts that have faded or been forgotten, are channeled toward new creativity.
Relationships once chilled by frosty misunderstanding bloom again in warm reconciliation – that’s resurrection.
Hopes that people once held are rekindled by expressions of caring – that’s resurrection.
Faith, dulled by lack of exercise, dances again to God’s everyday rhythms – that’s resurrection.
Come, let’s worship the Lord!
Let’s dedicate minds and hearts, and our worship to God through prayer before we sing our first hymn, “Easter People, Raise Your Voices.” The lyrics will be on the screens and also on page 304 of your Methodist Hymnal.
When we visited the scene of the tomb on Easter morning, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the garden to take of Jesus’ body.
Things had been done with such haste on Friday evening that there wasn’t enough time to anoint His dead body with oils and spices, and wrap it properly.
The women without even knowing how they would roll the stone away from the tomb opening…But when they got there they were astonished to see that the tomb was already open…and Jesus’ body was gone.
An angel dressed in a white robe said to them:
“Don’t be alarmed. I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here — he has been raised! Look, here is the place where they put him. Now go and give this message to his disciples, including Peter: ‘He is going to Galilee ahead of you; there you will see him, just as he told you.’”
So the women went out and ran from the tomb, distressed and terrified.
(Mark 16:6-8 GNB)
That sets the stage for the beginning of today’s Gospel reading from John, where we find Jesus’ followers huddled together and hunkered down behind locked doors.
It’s Sunday evening….Several of them had seen the resurrected Jesus early that day, but not since then…and they are all terrified that they will be hunted down, thrown in jail, or even worse.
It kind of makes you wonder how many tables and chairs they had piled up at the door…in case anyone showed up to arrest them.
This group could’ve numbered anywhere from 10 to 70 people, we don’t know. We do know the women were in the room with what was left of the original disciple group, so it’s hard to say…What isn’t hard to imagine is the fear factor.
Footsteps outside the door…or a heavy-handed knock would have sent shivers down the spines of everyone in that room.
And did the women try once again to convince people of what they had seen with their own eyes?
“Look,” Mary Magdala could’ve said, “It was HIM! He’s ALIVE!”
And a skeptical male disciple might’ve answered her, “Yeah, sure Mary. Maybe your demons have come back to haunt you…I’m just sayin’…Didn’t you first think it was the gardener?”
“I mean, it was early. None of us slept much Saturday night. How could we sleep, after witnessing the Master die on the cross? You really don’t have any idea who it was..Do you Mary?”
“NO!….It was Him” she answered…”I know His voice! He said my name! When He said my name, I knew it was Him.”
Mary defiantly marches over to Peter and John, who are busy counting ceiling tiles…They’re not sure they want to make eye-contact with ANYONE in the room, actually.
Mary puts her hands on her hips and confronts the two men: “You were there!….You came running like your pants were on fire and dashed right into the tomb! What did you see?”
A dead silence falls across the room….Crickets…….
Nothing…They saw nothing…Not what they expected they’d see…Not what they hoped to see. Now, Peter and John, even James…the captains of the disciple group are trying to figure out what they should do.
They feel responsible for all of Jesus’ followers…but their minds are as muddled as their teary-eyes are fogged.
Now they sit, comforted by nothing, afraid of everything, hoping locked doors would save them.
And then…out of the blue…Jesus makes a house call. He just simply appears and says, “Shalom.” …meaning, “Peace be with you.” Jesus shows then His wounds to prove it REALLY is Him…and they all rejoice…I’m guessing they celebrated in hushed tones…There was no need to call attention to themselves for anyone outside who might be listening.
Then (in John’s version of Pentecost) Jesus empowered them with the Holy Spirit by His divine breath and shouldered them with the responsibility of continuing His ministry.
Thomas showed up some time later…His heart was so broken that all he could think to do when Jesus’ broken body was taken off the Cross…was to run.
The only way Thomas could think of dealing with it…was to be alone.
Now, he’s come back to his friends:
“So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’”
A week goes by, and Thomas has returned again to be with Jesus’ followers.
“Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands.
Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’
Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’”
(John 20:24-29 NRSV)
Don’t we all experience “Thomas Times?” Don’t we all go through periods in which it’s hard to believe? We reach a point in which we get so busy, so worried, so stressed, tired, and broken-hearted…that it seems like God has moved to another zip code.
I have to admit, there are times when I don’t sense God’s presence…I feel at a distance from the Lord in those times and it hurts. I start to question myself, my faith, and then I get real hard on myself and start beating myself up…Because I know it could be SO MUCH better…If only I’d let Him in.
In times like that, I’m more prone to use bad judgment…I recognize that I’m not relying on the Lord to help me with every decision, every action, every thought…
Even though I study God’s Word all week long, every week…sometimes the head knowledge doesn’t translate into heart knowledge. The personal relationship suffers…It isn’t something that we WANT to happen…But we are prone to wander.
And the longer things go like that…the worse things get.
It might make you uncomfortable to hear that your pastor experiences a disconnect from God once in a while…But I just think the life of faith can be like that. I’m admitting it so that you know you’re not alone.
We KNOW that Jesus’ original followers were totally devoted to Him…But then Friday and Saturday happened…And they began to question everything.
The problem is, the farther away we get, the harder it is to find our way back, and it becomes more difficult to reconnect.
It’s like my old metaphor concerning cell phone reception. It seems like there are cell towers everywhere now and we can have clear reception just about wherever we travel.
But not that long ago, a person could drive out of coverage. The bars showing signal strength could go from full to nothing at all, in a matter of miles.
So…Did the cell tower move? No…The cell phone moved far enough away from the tower that reception became bad, then worse, and then there’s no signal at all.
When that happens we’ve moved too far from the tower to send or receive a clear signal.
That’s what I’m talking about when I say that there are times that we put such a distance between ourselves and the Lord…That we aren’t hearing God clearly.
We can go from strong belief…To weak belief when we stray too far from God.
Jesus’ disciple Thomas was in a similar situation. He was so hurt over the death of his teacher that he went off by himself. We don’t know why. Did he want to grieve or sulk alone? Did he decide he’d better distance himself from the others, for his own safety?
Fear is the best explanation. The Bible says that Jesus’ followers were distressed and terrified. Thomas felt his head swimming and he was stunned. All he could think was, “How could this happen? WHY did this happen?”
Thomas thought the days of clear reception were over…He probably thought Jerusalem Telephone & Telegraph (JT&T) had canceled his cellphone contract.
And then, of course, his tower…Jesus…was nowhere to be seen.
The thing is, we don’t have to be able to SEE a cell tower to be connected to it. We don’t have to SEE the electromagnetic waves that our phone uses to communicate with the tower, and ultimately with someone else over the phone.
We can’t SEE it, but we believe it, because within seconds of dialing a friend’s number…we’re able to hear their voice.
We all experience difficulty hearing the Lord’s voice at times. Maybe we forgot to recharge our phone battery. Maybe we pretend that all we can hear is static…
Maybe we accidentally pushed the mute button. Maybe we forgot the right number to call. Maybe we just don’t take the time to be still and listen. Maybe we’re so focused on ourself that we don’t want to talk to anyone…
After all we are awfully busy.
When we have difficulty hearing the Lord’s voice in our inner being…It’s our OWN fault…It is NOT God’s fault. The cell tower didn’t move farther away from us…We moved too far from the cell tower.
So yes, we all know where the problem lies when we feel at a distance from God. The blame falls squarely on our own shoulders…
Unfortunately, the guilty feeling that develop tends to make us more resistant to returning the call…In fact, it makes us fearful of listening to our voicemail.
But, we can only hide in the bushes with Adam and Eve so long.
Sooner or later, the Lord God calls out, “Where are you?” (As if He didn’t know!)
Maybe God asks, “Where are you?” so that we’ll stop to think about where we are.
Are we hiding behind locked doors? Are we hiding behind a bush? Are we supposed to realize that on our own and ask ourselves, “What am I doing here?”
That’s basically what the Prodigal Son asked, “What am I doing here?” When he realized what a pig-sty he’d made of his life, he decided that he’d better put his tail between his legs and go back home.
WE are the ones who run away. WE are the ones who change like shifting sand. WE are the ones who let circumstances toss us this way and that.
HOWEVER, the Good News for all of us Adam and Eve’s, all of us Thomases’, and all of us prodigal sons and daughters is that:
“Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
There is hope! The Lord says:
“I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go…”
The Lord also says:
My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Apostle Paul wrote:
“If God is for us, who can be against us?”
The psalmist praises God, singing:
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows,
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life…”
And Jesus said:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.”
The Lord is our constant companion and provider. We will never run out of minutes to talk with Him in our plan. God always honors a contract…He calls it a covenant.
There is no question of whether or not God is with us. The real question is whether or not we are with Him.
When we feel far from God, all we have to do is whisper His name. It’s a free call.
Open your heart with a child-like faith to the presence of the Lord.
Be like Thomas, cry out:
“My Lord and my God!”
When you do this, prepare yourself to receive His love.
Truly I so to you: Jesus invested His very life in us.
His love is a love that flows eternally from the cross.
So it brings great joy to the Lord when we open ourselves to His loving presence.
Jesus said, “How happily-blessed are those who believe without seeing me!”
That’s you and me that Jesus is talking about…It’s every person down through the ages…Maybe He said that because He wanted to spare us the false security of locked doors.
Maybe Jesus wanted us to be open enough to see Him in our midst.
He did say, “Whatever you do for the least of these who are members of my family, you do for me.” (Matt. 25:40)
Maybe He wanted us to see the grace and forgiveness that is poured out on us, even when we are confused and afraid. Even when we run away, even when we deny that we know Him.
He told us to be ready for His return:
“Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.”
Jesus doesn’t care for locked doors. He stands and knocks…He’s persistent, He keeps coming.
And in our hour of darkness, He is standing right in front of us. Speaking words of wisdom, “Peace be with you…Peace be with you.”
John 20:19-23 NRSV
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
John 20:24-29 NRSV
But Thomas (who was called the Twin ), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”