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Sermon for 11 March 2018

FIRST READING Numbers 21:4-9

4From Mount Hor {the Israelites} set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.


PSALM Psalm 107:1-9

1Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endures forever. 2Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe. 3He gathered them out of the lands; from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. 4Some wandered in desert wastes; they found no way to a city where they might dwell. 5They were hungry and thirsty; their spirits languished within them. 6Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. 7He put their feet on a straight path to go to a city where they might dwell. 8Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy and the wonders he does for his children. 9For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.


SECOND READING Ephesians 2:1-10

1You were dead in the trespasses and sins 2in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — 3among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.


GOSPEL John 3:14-21

14{Jesus said,} “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”



Who here today doesn’t appreciate an accolade from time to time? A genuine compliment can be vital for the soul. Like almost any subject today, there’s an app or a webpage that’s designed to give you a boost when you’re a bit low on self-esteem. “Emergencycompliment.com” is one such webpage. Just type the web address in the search bar and you’ll see brief messages that will feed your ego and boost your mood. Who wouldn’t like to be told things like “You remind everyone of kiwis–delicious and surprisingly fuzzy”? Or “Kids think you are the “cool old person”. Or, my favorite, “You are your parent’s greatest accomplishment, unless they invented the “spork”. “Emergencycompliment.com.” I guess it’s simply human nature, but we all enjoy a little “pick-me-up” from time to time. This is why today’s passage from Ephesians is so important for us.
According to St. Paul: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (2:10.) Think of that–we are God’s handiwork . . . or as one scholar has translated it, “We are God’s masterpiece . . .” (NLT) When Paul says we are God’s handiwork, he’s not saying we’re perfect. We know that sin corrupted us in the Garden of Eden. Paul doesn’t even claim that we’re better than other people. In fact, he begins this passage describing in detail what scoundrels we’ve been. He writes, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins . . .” (2:1) But then he writes, “But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ . . .” (2:4) We are God’s handiwork, because of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. And this is important for us to remember because what we become as a person, is determined, to a great extent, by how we view ourselves.
Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said, “You cannot consistently perform in a manner which is inconsistent with the way you see yourself.” And we see this played out all the time in sports. For those of you who are baseball fans, you undoubtedly remember the manager of the LA Dodgers, Tommy Lasorda. In an interview he did one time with baseball announcer Bob Costas, Lasorda confessed that in one of his first outings as a relief pitcher in the 50s, he was so overcome with anxiety about pitching to certain players, that he would deliberately try to balk. Imagine, a pitcher deliberately trying to be called for a balk. The problem was, the umpires wouldn’t call it. Lasorda was forced to face his fears and overcome them. But he learned from that experience. Fast forward a few decades.
Tommy Lasorda found himself managing pitcher Orel Hershiser in his first year and Tommy needed to improve Hershiser’s self-perception. The Dodgers were getting ready to play the Braves and Tommy told Orel, “Tomorrow when Dale Murphy comes to bat and he sees the name Orel, he’s going to laugh and then pound you deep. So, I’m going to give you a new name–Bulldog.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Orel Hershiser, or Bulldog Hershiser as Lasorda called him, became a Hall of Fame pitcher. His most successful season came in 1988, when he set a major league record by pitching 59 consecutive innings without allowing a run. He helped lead the Dodgers to a World Series championship and was named his division’s Most Valuable Player as well as the World Series MVP. That season, he also won the National League’s Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in baseball. What we become as a person is determined, to a great extent, by how we see ourselves.
One of last century’s great preachers, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick once wrote, “Hold a picture of yourself long and steadily enough in your mind’s eye and you will be drawn toward it . . . Great living starts with a picture held in your imagination of what you’d like to do or be.” It’s good advice, because learning to accept yourself and believe in yourself is one of life’s most important battles. In 1971 Nancy Miller was a shy fifth-grader in Atlanta, Georgia, with a poor self-concept. This poor self-concept came partially from the fact that she was born with only her pinkie fingers and two partial fingers on both of her hands.
Nancy was too embarrassed to learn square dancing because she didn’t think the boys would want to hold her hands. But through the encouragement of her P.E. teacher, who chose Nancy as his partner, she learned to accept herself and believe in herself. Today, Nancy Miller is a mother of four who plays the piano and types 65 words per minute–all because of a teacher who was there for her. Here’s another example.
William Dorfman is a dentist to the stars in Los Angeles, California. He also donates his skills to a local women’s shelter, where he fixes the teeth of homeless women, prostitutes, abused women and children. One benefit of his work at the shelter is seeing the women develop a new sense of self-confidence once the work has been done on their teeth. As Dr. Dorfman says of his patients, “She becomes a new person because she sees a new person.” Dr. Dorfman donates his time because studies have shown that women have a more difficult time with self-esteem then men.
According to these studies, the reason women have a more difficult time then men is that starting in about the fourth grade, boys tend to overestimate their school performance compared to how their teachers rate them; girls, on the other hand, tend to underestimate their performance. The studies can’t seem to explain why this is the case, but it’s true none-the-less. Furthermore, boys tend to attribute their failures to back luck, the difficulty of the tasks, or not trying hard enough. Girls tend to attribute their failures to personal incompetence. This may help to explain why girls are more prone to depression.
Researchers note that “believing you’re competent can be highly motivating, even when it’s not true. Conversely, believing that you are incompetent can undermine your motivation, even when it’s not true.” Proverbs tells us, “As a person thinks in his heart, so is he” (23:7.) As a society, I do believe we’re trying to do a better job in helping not just women, but other groups of people value themselves; but, we still have room for improvement. Some of you may know author Betty Friedan. Betty shocked the whole country into seriously examining the role of women in American society in her book The Feminine Mystique.
Women, Friedan explained, need to view themselves as people, not just extensions of their husbands or children. They need to be productive and creative, to develop a sense of self-respect about who they are. “Some people think I am saying: Women of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your men,” said Friedan. “It isn’t true. You have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaner,” she continued. Now I, for one, am not sure I agree with Betty Friedan. I think our problem is still one of self-centeredness. No one wants to give up control. Those in power want to stay in power, those without power want to take it away.
When God created us in the beginning, He created us to work together in an orderly way. God ultimately has all the power, not us, and we want to take it from Him. This is our sin. It’s been our downfall from the beginning. This is why the story in Genesis of the tower of Babel is important to read (11:1-9.) When will we learn that when we honor God first, place Him first in our lives and respect each other, then most of our societal problems will disappear. However, many are trying, and as long as we keep striving toward getting our priorities right and respecting others, then things will continue to get better. But there are still struggles and things that are difficult to explain.
As you know, one of the mysteries in our society right now is the increase in suicides among middle-aged males. Middle-aged men, ages 45 to 60, experienced a 43 percent increase in suicide deaths from 1997 to 2014, and the rise has been even sharper since 2005. What does that say about our society? What challenges does this particular demographic group face that would make them decide that this is their only option? One particular hurdle is, that our self-image is determined at a very early age, and it’s very difficult to undo. The law of primacy proves this. The law of primacy says, “unlearning something is always harder than learning the right way in the first place.”
Years ago, Parade magazine featured an interview with comedian Steve Allen and his wife, Jayne Meadows, on their many years together in marriage. Much of the article focused on Steve’s unstable and dysfunctional family background. In a final comment about his childhood, Jayne said, “We are who we are, because of where we’ve been.” Experts say this is true. Psychologists tell us that by the time we reach two years of age, 50 percent of what we ever believe about ourselves has been formed. As parents and grandparents, we need to pay close attention to this. By age two, 50 percent of what we ever believe about ourselves has been formed. Think of the importance of those first two years of life.
By the age of six, 60 percent of our self belief has been established, and by the age of eight, about 80 percent. By the time we reach the age of fourteen, over 99 percent of us have a well developed sense, either correctly or incorrectly, of who we are. This is why a strong and healthy church family is so vitally important. As a church family, we help in establishing our children’s positive self-belief. When we, as a loving church community assist in showing our children that God loves them and that we love and value them too, we’re helping our children establish a positive self-image. We share in that responsibility, and we need to take it seriously. And the same can be said for those who suffer from low self-esteem. This church community can be proud of the part we play. I know I’m blessed to have a small part in it. Thank you for allowing me that privilege!
Many years ago, there was a book about a special character named Bunker Bean. Bunker Bean was orphaned at a young age, and he grew up in different foster homes. Consequently, Bunker had no self-esteem. One day, a spiritual medium, a huckster, moved into Bunker’s boarding house. The medium claimed that Bunker had been Napoleon Bonaparte in another life. Wow! Bunker thought: Napoleon Bonaparte was powerful, intelligent, self-confident–the absolute opposite of Bunker Bean. So Bunker began studying everything he could about Napoleon.
As he studied, he began to take on some of his hero’s positive characteristics. He became more self-confident, powerful, decisive, even intelligent. One day, this medium who had inspired Bunker was revealed to be an absolute fraud. But that didn’t matter to Bunker. By then, he had become the kind of person the medium had told him he could become. Our self-image is determined at a very early age and it’s difficult to undo. But, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
The truth is, it’s never too late to change our self-image. Now there may be some here who are thinking, “pastor, that’s all well and good, but the truth is I’ve had my struggles and I have little worth. At my age, it’s too late for me to change.” I’m here to tell you that’s simply not true. God created you, God sent Jesus to redeem you and God loves you. All you have to do is learn to accept that. I know that this is sometimes easier said then done. But God can, if you’ll let Him. Each of us is precious in God’s eyes. Valuable enough for Jesus to come and die.
For those who struggle with self-esteem issues, there is hope. Remember Harry Emerson Fosdick’s great statement, “Hold a picture of yourself long and steadily enough in your mind’s eye and you will be drawn toward it . . . I’m not saying I want you to become conceited. What I’m saying to anyone who may be struggling with low self-esteem, is to imagine seeing yourself through God’s loving eyes. Great living starts with a picture held in your imagination of what you would like to do or be, as God intended. Furthermore, might I suggest another picture be added to those already in your mind. It’s a picture of Christ holding a lamb. That lamb is you.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, wants to take us in His arms and let us know how special we are to Him. Additionally, St. John in Revelation reminds us that Jesus stands at a door knocking (3:20.) That door where He’s knocking is our heart. He wants to come in and make us a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17.) As long as we’re living on this earth, it’s never too late, by the grace of God, to change the way we think of ourselves.
Virginia Mollenkott, a professor of English and a theologian, wrote that she loved to watch students come alive in her classes. “One of the courses I teach is freshman English, and that’s a place where you can empower people. They often come to you beaten down . . . Before I pass back their first graded paper, I give them a little speech: ‘This grade is not for you. This grade is for a piece of work you turned in.’ Then I ask them if they want to know what I think of them, and usually they do. So, I continue, ‘I think you’re made in the image of God and of immeasurable worth . . .’ She then adds: “For me, the meaning of life is to share with people the wonderful news that we are the daughters and sons of God.”
St. Paul writes: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works . . .” All we have to do is believe that this is what He’s telling each and everyone of us. It doesn’t matter who you are. It makes no difference what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter how many strikes are against us. We are God’s masterpiece. When we trust God, He can take our brokenness and make it whole; we can be the art work God created and intended us to be.
Christian philosopher and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a poem, just one month before he was executed: “Who am I? They often tell me I would step from my cell’s confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house. Who am I? They also tell me I would bear the days of misfortune calmly, smilingly, proudly, like one accustomed to win. Am I really then all that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I know of myself, restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath . . . weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, faint, and ready to say farewell to it all? Who am I? This, or the other? . . . They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine.” That’s the ultimate answer to a poor self-image. To pray, to trust and believe that, “Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine.”
Learning to accept ourselves and believe in ourselves as God sees and intends, is one of life’s most important battles. The problem is, our self-image is determined at a very young age and it’s very difficult to undo. This is why being good, supportive parents and grandparents is so vitally important. This is why the church family is so necessary. However, for those who didn’t have the support and nurturing they needed, it’s never too late to change. Your new life begins when you accept and trust that you are God’s handiwork–His masterpiece–and that He has a plan for your life. When that happens, you’ll be on the path to being all He intends for you to be.

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