Let There Be Peace on Earth

You’ve probably heard the popular Christmas song that starts like this: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me…” The song makes no mention of Christmas, but it is most often sung this time of year when our minds are looking for peace, our hearts our longing for peace, and our bodies are aching for peace. This is when we remember the angels proclaim: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all…” (Luke 2:14).

While you may have heard sung by Vince Gill (among many others), it was actually written in 1955 by Jill Jackson, who said she wrote it after finding the “life-saving joy of God’s peace and unconditional love.” She was apparently suicidal before she wrote the song, and before God’s peace broke through to her. The song is powerful because it leads us to long for the true peace that God brings, and it also personalizes that peace. The song reminds us what is readily apparent: the only way we can have peace in our world is to start with peace in our selves.

But the problem is we’re constantly at war, both within and without. If I’m supposed to be a peace-maker, what good will I be doing if my personal anxiety is off the charts? If I’m supposed to “let it begin with me,” I better get my own act together (suddenly I’m anxious about messing up this whole peace-making gig). Maybe exercise will help, or a long walk in the woods, or a little something to take the edge off. Maybe prayer, meditation, or talking it out. Maybe helping others, or just tuning it all out. Maybe then I’ll be at peace enough with myself to have a shot at bringing peace to at least one other person? But then the kids are at each other’s throats again, and I’m flying off the handle again, and we’re back to square one.

I wonder if the shepherds in the Christmas story thought about this kind of thing. After all, times may change, but people are still people. Shepherds in those days were considered filthy, thieving, low-lifes, which would probably lead to a mindset of me-against-the-world. Not exactly “Kumbaya” around the campfire while the sheep peacefully doze off. Maybe the shepherds could relate to the war within and without. Maybe they were dying for peace too.

And suddenly the sky exploded with terrifying light. A mysterious creature from another world appeared without warning, with the glory of God all around him, proclaiming joy, glory and peace. I’m guessing the sheep either died on the spot from fright, or fled for their lives, but the shepherds had more important matters now. The angels declared the good news of joy and peace: a gift from heaven to earth, “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11).

Notice that the shepherds didn’t respond by singing “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.” No, first they received the word of peace that was given to them by God. They received it, and they believed it. They didn’t need to sing “Let there be peace on earth” because it was already here, in the form of Baby Jesus. And they didn’t need to sing “and let it begin with me” but rather: “and it has begun with Him!” They received it, they believed it, and they ran and saw the Prince of Peace with their own eyes. Whether they were looking for it or not, they became recipients and messengers of peace from that day forward: “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen…” (Luke 2:20)

The peace that they longed for, and that we all long for, had finally come, and he came as a baby. God’s plan for peace on earth is not to instantly wipe out all war and anxiety (if he did that, we’d all be instantly gone!). God’s plan for peace on earth is to enter into our sin and mess (messier than even a stable) and take it upon himself, ultimately on the cross. When we receive his gift of forgiveness by faith, we have eternal peace with God, and then we too can become agents of God’s peace. God’s plan for peace on earth began with Jesus, so we can have peace with God, peace with others, and even peace within ourselves. That’s how peace on earth is happening even now.

I don’t know about you, but I can already feel my anxiety calming, knowing that peace on earth doesn’t depend all on me. If you belong to the Prince of Peace, you too can receive and make peace on earth, because it has begun with Jesus.

What’s Your Best News?

Bad news seems to grab most of the headlines, but what about Good News? What’s the best news you’ve ever heard? For me, one that ranks pretty high is what we called “Two Pink Lines.” The pregnancy test showed one pink line for Not Pregnant, and two pink lines for Pregnant. So seeing the Two Pink Lines for the first time after a long wait was good news indeed. We even made up a silly song about it. My life would never be the same after that, and of course that culminated months later with more Good News: “Its a boy!”

But what about you? What’s the best news you’ve ever heard?

Perhaps it was when you heard or said “Yes” to the long-awaited marriage proposal. For us I remember hiking together on the side of our favorite mountain during a beautiful sunset, and stopping at the edge overlooking the valley. I stumbled through some now-forgotten but heartfelt words, popped the question, popped open the ring box, and quickly snapped it shut (so the ring wouldn’t go flying off the edge of the cliff). We couldn’t wait to share the news of our happiness with everyone. Actually, in my excitement leading up to that night, I couldn’t help but divulge the news to anyone I would run across, so she was nearly the last to know.

There’s all kinds of possibilities for good news. Maybe your best news was when the doctor gave the all-clear, giving you a new lease on life. When once there was only darkness and the threat of death ahead, now the light breaks through to new possibilities. Suffering had finally given way to health and strength. I’ve known this kind of Good News too, and it was indeed life-changing.

Perhaps your best news was when the war was finally over, and the troops were sent home. When once death and destruction were constant threats, now peace reigned and families were reunited. Those who served and gave the ultimate sacrifice made it all possible.

Or perhaps you heard those magic words: “You’re Hired!” All your hopes and dreams of a fulfilling career had finally come to pass, and things were looking up like never before. The purpose and passion of your life was becoming a reality.

Maybe for you it was when the judge declared “Not Guilty” and you or your loved-one was finally set free. Somehow, some way, by some miracle of justice or mercy or both, incarceration gave way to freedom.

So what’s the best news you’ve ever heard? The best news that I know of is all of these things rolled into one: the gospel of Jesus: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8).

The word “gospel” simply means “good news,” and if you stop and think about it, this really must be the Best News Ever. Just like the good news of pregnancy and new life is thrilling, so the good news of new spiritual life is eternally life-changing. The culmination of human love in a marriage is good news indeed, and yet God’s perfect love for you is even better. The personal resurrection found in a terminal illness being cured is like nothing else, except the eternal spiritual resurrection that God offers you in the gospel. The news of a peace treaty can change history, and the good news of Jesus achieving peace between you and God changes your eternity. The good news of new job opportunities can set you on a new path, and yet the best news of God’s love and forgiveness sets you on the path to God himself. And the good news of being declared innocent and set free is indeed liberating: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

If you don’t agree that the gospel of Jesus Christ is truly the best news ever, then perhaps you haven’t understood it yet. There’s lots of confusion and misunderstanding about the true gospel out there, but in its essence it is quite simple. If you would like to learn more, ask questions, or receive this Best News for yourself, I would be honored to help. Please stop by the church, join us for a Sunday morning worship service (10:30am) or call us at 802-442-2105 and it would be a great joy to talk and pray together.

May the Good News of Jesus’s love for you be the Best News you’ve ever heard.

The Spittin’ Image of God

The other day I met someone who knows my son, but hadn’t met me yet. It went something like this: “Oh, I know whose dad you must be!” and “Wow, your son looks exactly like you!” My usual response: “Yeah, I know. Poor kid.”

Why does my kid look like me? Of course genetics has a lot to do with it. We’ve also spent 14 years together, so for better or worse, he’s picked up quite a few of my mannerisms, habits, phrases, and quirks, not to mention an outstanding sense of style. He is, as they say, my spittin’ image.

Did you know that YOU are made in God’s “spittin’ image”? In the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, you’ll find an astounding affirmation of the dignity and worth of every human being: “God created humankind in his own image…” (Genesis 1:27). Take a moment and think of the best of humanity and the ultimate in human achievement, and perhaps you’ll be approaching what it means to be made in the image of God. Who do you think of? Perhaps a humanitarian, an athlete, an artist, or perhaps someone unknown but beloved. That person was made in the image of God.

And yet take a moment to think of the worst of humanity, the depths of depravity and human evil. Who do you think of? Perhaps an infamous criminal, dictator, or terrorist, or perhaps someone obscure that has done unspeakable harm to you. That person too was made in the image of God. How can this be?

Genesis was originally written in the Ancient Near East. The ancient kings there laid claim to their far-flung territories by setting up large statues of themselves. These statues were made in the image of the king, there to remind everyone who was in charge. This is the same idea that Moses, the author of Genesis, apparently had in mind when he first wrote those inspired words: “God created humankind in his own image…” Human beings are here on earth as God’s royal representatives. We’re not just here by accident. We’re not created out of conflict and chaos, as all the other ancient creation stories claimed. We’re here on purpose: created to create, blessed to be a blessing, made good to do good.

Every person you’ve ever met, and every person in human history, is one of God’s royal representatives here on earth. This is why we affirm the unparalleled dignity and value of every single human life, whether she or he be the tiniest of babies in a mother’s womb, or the eldest of the elderly among us, or anyone in between. There will always be some who deny the inherent dignity of others, but the downtrodden and the marginalized are made in the image of God too.

It is often hard to fathom why, or how, someone made in the image of God can do the terrible things that we are all capable of. But then we turn the page to Genesis 3. Evil entered the world when human beings rebelled against God’s good grace, and we’ve been stained and twisted ever since. So we are all a bit of a paradox: made in the image of God, but broken and twisted. We’re still made “very good,” but things quickly go very bad.

But right on the heels of our rebellion, God promised to fix it (see Genesis 3:15). He didn’t want to leave his royal representatives stained and twisted. Fast-forward thousands of years as God’s rescue plan unfolds, and the true Image of God arrives on earth: baby Jesus. We wouldn’t have guessed it, but this Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Colossians 1:15). Jesus was and is the unstained and untwisted true Image of God: his true royal representative here on earth. He came to show us how to live as people made in the image of God. He came to undo the brokenness of humanity. And he came to sacrifice his perfect life to pay the penalty of our rebellion. Jesus ultimately came to restore you to the true image of God.

So I don’t know if you’re the spittin’ image of one of your parents, but I do know that you’re gloriously made in the image of God. That alone is worth celebrating. Yet it is even more glorious to be re-made into the image of God by Jesus himself, otherwise you’re stuck in your rebellion and eternally separated from God. You too can be made new by turning from your rebellion and trusting and following Jesus, the true Image of God.

Homeless Hearts

Image result for homelessSome of my friends happen to be homeless. Perhaps you’ve seen them, or folks in similar situations, around town. I just met some folks who are finally emerging from a life of addiction. They are thankful for the local shelter and the Turning Point, but finding a long-term home seems nearly impossible, which undermines their stability and ability to find a better life. But they keep striving.

Although troubling, to say the least, physical homelessness is relatively rare and often temporary. Spiritual homelessness, however, seems to be rampant and long-lasting, and no less troubling. Most of us, in my experience, have little or no healthy connection to a spiritual home. Our bodies may be clothed, fed, and sheltered, but our souls are not. We may experience temporary human love in our homes, but our experience of God’s eternal love is minimal. I am sure we all know the longing to connect with others, to know and be known, to be safe and supported, for the place where we can be our true selves: the longing for home.

Very few of us would choose to be physically homeless, but I did meet a fellow recently who described himself as a homeless veteran who travels from town to town. While his external appearance was a bit rough, he seemed happy and healthy. After sharing a cup of coffee together, I found him to be one of the most fascinating and enjoyable people I’ve ever met, and one of the most spiritually healthy and grounded. He may not have had some of the security, safety, and comforts that I think I have, but I could tell he had true faith, hope, and love, which are gifts from God himself. What he lacked in a physical home he made up for spiritually.

Most of us are just the opposite, myself included. If my immediate physical needs are taken care of, I tend to think I’m all set, and too often ignore my deeper, eternal needs. Multiplied out for a lifetime, I’m lulled and lured into spiritual homelessness. A nice pot of chili fills me up on a cold rainy day, but ultimately only masks my spiritual hunger. Meanwhile, Jesus says: “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). A refreshing beverage may take the edge off after mowing the lawn, but ultimately only masks my spiritual thirst. But Jesus says: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37). A warm bed and a toasty wood stove provides the physical rest I need after a long, cold day, but really only masks my need for spiritual rest. Again, Jesus says: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). A place to call home here in town may satisfy a lot of my earthly needs, but it can’t fulfill my true need: to find my forever home in God himself.

Jesus said in John 14: “In my Father’s house are many rooms…I go and prepare a place for you.” A paraphrase of 1 Peter 2:11 says it like this: “Friends, this world is not your home, so don’t make yourselves cozy in it.” And a very loose paraphrase of St. Augustine might go like this: “My heart is homeless until it finds its home in God.” Though on our own we are spiritually homeless, God has provided our eternal home with him, and the way into that home is Jesus himself who said, “I am the door.” And right after Jesus promised to go prepare a place for his followers, he told us how to get there: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

We come home to God only through Jesus, but we don’t come alone. None of us can make it far alone, so we have each other: fellow pilgrims for the journey in our local church families. So whether your local church home is Methodist, Pentecostal, Assembly of God, Alliance, Baptist, Presbyterian or whatever, if you hear God calling you, let’s head toward home arm in arm. Together we follow Jesus: celebrating, enjoying, and serving God with our whole hearts. Together we love our neighbors and serve our community with the power of God’s Spirit. Together we enjoy the support, security, and encouragement our spiritual home on earth as we look forward to our eternal home together with God.

Perhaps you’ve never been physically homeless, but there’s a good chance you’ve found yourself feeling spiritually homeless. Hear the gentle invitation of the old hymn chorus: “Come home, come home; You who are weary come home; Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling; Calling, O sinner, come home.”

Bob Wiegers is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington, who invites you and yours to join us on the journey home.

The Knight and the Princess

What do you think of when you hear the word “gospel”? Perhaps you think of a type of music, like the once-famous song “Turn Your Radio On” (I’ll give you a minute to YouTube that one. Check out Roy Acuff’s version). Or maybe you think of a zealous street preacher, televangelist, or someone like Billy Graham. Or maybe you happen to know that the first books of the New Testament are known as the “gospels.” But really it is much simpler than all that. The word “gospel” simply means “good news.”

What is the gospel? Christians believe that the gospel is this: the knight has come to slay the dragon and rescue the princess. You’ll have to forgive me for borrowing the language of the old fairy tales, but then again many of the great stories through the ages involve the hero rescuing the helpless from great harm. So please hear me out as I channel the imagination of my kids, who loved knights and dragons. Yet this is not child’s play. I am convinced that this is the very meaning of life.

So when I say Christians believe that the knight has come to slay the dragon and rescue the princess, here is what I mean. The dragon is all the evil in this world. Evil that we see on the evening news. Evil down the street. Evil in our homes. Evil on our lips and in our hearts. Evil now pervades the world, which God made good. We call this evil “sin” which results in spiritual, and physical death.

The princess is the helpless, hopeless, yet beloved people that are surrounded on every side, within and without, by the forces of evil. We can’t rescue ourselves. We are caught in, and take part in, evil. We are in fact as good as dead. We need a rescuer.

The knight of course is God himself. The one true God who made the universe and everything in it, came down to earth as Jesus, to conquer evil, to defeat sin and death, and rescue his people and give them true life. How did Jesus defeat evil? By the most unexpected way possible. He took on all the evil in the world, and died a sacrificial death on a cross. For 3 long days it appeared that the dragon had won. But then he was raised to life, and has defeated the power of death for his beloved people. He has slayed the dragon to rescue his people, and offers us true life and true joy.

So how do you become a part of his people? How do you become a Christian? According to Jesus, it requires just two steps: First, turn from the evil that pervades not only this world, but your own heart and life. Jesus says “repent.” Second, turn to Jesus, listen to him speak through the Bible, trust that He is indeed the one true God of the universe, that he did indeed rescue you from sin, and he is indeed worth praising and worshiping, and he is indeed worth giving your very life. Jesus says “believe.” Repent and believe.

Jesus Christ, our good knight, came to slay the dragon of sin, death and evil, to rescue all who will repent and believe in him. That’s the gospel.

A well-known Bible verse says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Repent and believe in Jesus today, and receive eternal life now and forever. This is the good news of the gospel. This is the story of the Bible. This is the story of Christianity. This can be your story too.

Do you hear God calling you? Do you believe the gospel of Jesus but aren’t sure what to do next? As one who was once in the firm and deadly grip of the dragon, it would be my joy to introduce (or reintroduce) you to Jesus, the only one who can truly rescue.

Bob Wiegers is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington. As one of your community pastors, I would be very happy to listen and pray with you any time.

The Blind Leading the Blind

I don’t know how many Bible stories you’ve heard, but do you think you could name someone in the Bible who had great faith, abundant courage, and truly followed God? Perhaps you’d think of Abraham, Moses, or David. Maybe the Apostles, Mary, or Jesus himself? All of these would be true, but I like the obscure stories and characters, since I’m an obscure person from an obscure corner of the world too.

Did you know there’s a Bart in the Bible? His story is briefly told in Mark 10:46-52. Of course the most famous Bart these days is probably the Springfield kid with oddly yellow skin, spiked hair, and a donut-loving dad. The Bart from the Bible is really named is Bartimaeus, but that’s awfully hard to spell and write, so I hope he doesn’t mind I’m going with Bart.

Bart was a blind beggar. He was literally sidelined and marginalized, begging by the side of the road in a time and place that had little or no help for those on hard times. But the funny thing about Blind Bart is that he could see better than most, because he had spiritual sight when almost everyone around him was spiritually blind. He was truly the blind leading the blind.

One day Jesus was coming through Bart’s town, and it was a big ruckus. I don’t know if the visually impaired in ancient times hung out together, but Bart must have heard about Jesus somehow. After all, Jesus had a habit of healing blind folks. It is clear that when Bart found out who Jesus was and what he could do, he believed. When he figured out Jesus was coming by, he didn’t hesitate, throwing decorum to the wind, screaming at the top of his lungs: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Imagine the scene if your favorite politician was solemnly parading through Bennington with a great crowd, and as they approached the Four Corners, a panhandler started screaming at the top of his lungs: “Have mercy on me!” If you were in the crowd, you’d probably do what they did to this crazy blind guy–you’d probably tell him to shut up. Repeatedly. Someone might even rough him up a bit, or call the police over. We simply don’t have time for obnoxious low-lifes.

But Jesus stopped in his tracks: he has all the time in the world for so-called low-lifes. When everyone around Bart was shouting him down, getting in his way instead of helping him out, his courageous and persistent faith in Jesus prevailed. Of course the crowd flips quicker than you can say “spiritually blind,” suddenly encouraging Bart: “Take heart. Get up. He’s calling you.”

When they come face-to-face, Jesus asks Bart a profound yet simple question: “What do you want me to do for you?” It may seem painfully obvious what Bart wants, but Jesus asks anyway, showing him the respect perhaps no one else has. Besides, Jesus just recently asked this exact same question to James and John, two of his closest followers, and they botched it, requesting power and control for themselves, like the spiritually blind men they were (at the time). Instead of asking for his own glory, Bart simply asks for his sight back. He just wants to be who God made him to be. And of course Jesus does what God does: he gives sight to the blind. This man now has 20/20 vision both spiritually and physically: he can see Jesus with both the eyes of his heart and his body.

Jesus sends him on his way, but Bart has one more thing to show us about faith: he chooses to follow Jesus, all the way to the cross. Not only does he see Jesus for who he truly is (now both spiritually and physically), and not only does he have great faith in Jesus, but he does what we are all called to do: he follows Jesus. I can’t say for sure, but I’m fairly confident Bart literally followed Jesus all the way up to Jerusalem, and with his new eyes truly saw the depth and breadth of God’s love. He must have seen Jesus die on the cross, and even better, he must have seen Jesus resurrected in glory and power.

You and I can’t see Jesus right now because we are blinded by our own spiritual darkness. But Jesus is willing and able to open our spiritual eyes. That’s why he has come to town. All we have to do is follow Bart’s lead and cry out: “Jesus, have mercy on me!” Jesus always responds to our cries, stops in his tracks, calls us by name, and asks: “What do you want me to do for you?” Again, let’s follow Bart’s lead, and tell Jesus: “I just want to see you.”

Bob Wiegers is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington, where you are welcome to come sing with us: “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.”

Believing: Achieving or Receiving?

I don’t remember a whole lot about being born, do you? I don’t think anything was posted on Facebook, at least. We have a few pictures, but cameras in the 70s weren’t the same as they are today. I do remember that I was born 3 weeks late, so I’ve never, ever been small for my age. Yet I must say, despite my overly-large head, I was pretty cute. And pretty helpless. Besides cuteness–and let’s face it: not all of us get this gift in equal measure–a baby’s defining characteristic is sheer helplessness. From my observations (and I was there when each of our 4 bundles-of-joy arrived) a baby’s resume is limited to: cuteness, eating (and associated bodily functions), and crying. Babies are not high-achievers, but needy receivers.

Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind when he said: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). He said this kind of thing more than once, by the way, as similar sayings are recorded not once but twice in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (that’s 6 times, if you’re keeping score). Whenever something is repeated multiple times in the Bible, we’d better pay close attention.

Jesus’ teaching on receiving the kingdom like a child is immediately followed by a rich guy who apparently missed Jesus’ point entirely (see Mark 10:13-31). It is easy to be distracted by the man’s excitement, since he runs up to Jesus, kneels, and asks him about eternal life. A careful reader might notice this is the first person in the gospel of Mark to ask Jesus THE big question. But take a look at how he asks: “…what must I DO to inherit eternal life?” This man, although apparently eager to follow Jesus, starts off on the wrong foot. Jesus just said “receive… like a child” and the man asks “what must I do?”

Little children can only receive, yet this poor man can only wonder what he can achieve. That’s a little like me buying my kid an awesome bike for her birthday, and then she turns around and asks me how much she owes me for it. Gifts by their very nature cannot be earned or achieved, they can only be received, and so it is with God’s gift of Jesus and his kingdom: we can’t earn it, we can only receive it like a tiny child.

God knows that we try to achieve what we can only receive, and he loves us anyway. In the middle of Jesus interacting with the rich man it says Jesus looked intently at him and he loved him, and then he lowers the boom: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21). With deep love, Jesus calls on the man to let go of the one thing that is holding him back: his money. His wealth taught him that he must achieve to get ahead and stay ahead, so that’s how he approached Jesus: what can I DO to earn my way into your kingdom? But that’s not the way of Jesus, who calls us to ask: how do I receive you and your kingdom?

Maybe for us the issue isn’t money (although we are living in the most affluent culture in human history, so it might be), but the question behind all the issues is the same: what do I need to let go, so I can receive God? Pride, self-reliance, independence, self-sufficiency, achievement–it has many names and faces: “I’m a pretty good person…I’m doing my best…I’ll make my own way…I don’t really need saving…I’m doing fine, thanks.” When we say these things–and we all do one way or another–Jesus looks at us intently and loves us. He calls us to let go of what keeps us from receiving him, and lovingly says: “Come, follow me.” Will you?

Bob Wiegers is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington (601 Main Street), which gladly welcomes all to come hear the call of true spirituality: the call to follow Jesus.