“We Would See Jesus”

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.  They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”  Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.  Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. – John 12:20-33


The story has been told of a young pastor who stepped into the pulpit in an English church one Sunday morning and found a brass plaque on the inside of the lectern. It read, quoting today’s scripture, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” This story must have gotten around because today quite a few churches have pulpits with that saying on the inside.

And isn’t that really what we come to church for?  To be lifted out of the mundane world and for a moment touch eternity and spend some time with God and with Jesus, who loves us so much?

As I was reflecting on this, this past week, I thought back to a time a long time ago when I was maybe 13 or 14 years old, and I came to church wanting more than anything to catch a glimpse of Jesus.  This was back in the early 1970s, and those of us who were around back then remember the things that were going on in the world.  Our country’s nuclear arms talks with Russia had stalled out because of a disagreement over the shape of table where the delegates would sit; the Vietnam War was dragging on, and anti-war protests were building; and people who were keeping an eye on the news were beginning to hear rumors that something might have happened in an office complex called Watergate.  At the same time many churches, including the Presbyterian church I grew up in, were studying a recent book by English bishop John Robinson called Honest to God in which he introduced concepts of ‘secular theology’ and ‘situational ethics’, and called into question what many people understood about God and faith.

Our church was full of talk and deep concern over these things, and understandably so. The world back then was complex and troubling – much like it is today. But as I came to church looking for Jesus with all of the idealism and naivete of a young teenager, and I was disappointed… because with everything that was going on, the one thing I couldn’t find was Jesus.

I can remember going home, discouraged, and putting on the new George Harrison record (yes, vinyl) Living in the Material World. After the breakup of the Beatles, Harrison had gone very public about his commitment to Hinduism, and he was being ridiculed in the press for it. What captured my attention on the album was the last song, called That Is All, and the lyrics went like this:

“Times I find it hard to say with useless words getting in my way
Silence often says much more than trying to say what’s been said before
And that is all I want to do – to give my love to you
That is all I’m living for – to try to love you more
And that is all”

This wasn’t a love song to a lady; it was a love song to his god. Harrison was putting all the fame of a Beatle and all the fortune of a Beatle on the line for his faith.  And I prayed that God would lead me to people who could teach me to love Jesus the way Harrison loved Krishna.

God never fails to answer prayers like that!  And isn’t it really what we’re all here for today? To see Jesus, and to know him more and to love him more, and to be loved and be known by him?

As I’ve been studying baptismal vows this Lent I think that’s really what these vows are all about. For example, this week’s question [from the Methodist Book of Order] “According to the grace given you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?”

This question is not about signing one’s name to a church register and then signing up for volunteer time. (It might include that!) But mostly it’s about helping people to see Jesus – according to the grace he’s given us. And grace isn’t something we can get for ourselves, or stir up inside ourselves. Grace is by definition a gift from God, who loves us.

Having been loved and forgiven by God through the cross of Christ, and being guided by the Holy Spirit, we are able to be faithful members of the family of God: the living community of God’s faithful people around the world, representing every nation and language and people group, and stretching across the millennia.

Serving as Christ’s representatives in the world is a HUGE order, a huge responsibility. For people outside the church, how we live our daily lives, and how we treat one another, may be all they ever see of how the Christian faith is lived.  We live in a fishbowl!  Or, as Jesus puts it, who would light a lamp and put it under a basket?  “You are the light of the world,” he said.

What we do in even the smallest and most private of moments matters.  What we say when we think no one is listening matters.  We are called at all times and in all places to reflect the love of Jesus and the truth of Jesus’ words in the way we live. And more than that, we are called to be ambassadors for the Kingdom of God – ambassadors to a world that is in rebellion against God, a world that is passing away, and from which God wants to rescue as many as are willing.

Our reading from the gospel of John today speaks to all of this, so I’d like to spend some time with it.

As the scene opens, Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem, along with a large number of people, both Jews and Gentiles, because the Passover is about to begin. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we celebrate next week on Palm Sunday, happened a couple days ago in this passage. And a few days before that, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead – which is partly what inspired the events of Palm Sunday – after which the Pharisees conspired to kill Lazarus (completely missing the irony of attempting to kill someone who has just been raised from the dead and could be brought back again). And the Pharisees are saying to each other, “Look, the whole world has gone after him!”

And the arrival of a group of Greeks proves their point.  These unnamed Gentiles came to the temple during the week of Passover and said “we want to see Jesus”.

The Greeks talk to Philip because they understand Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and back then there was sort of an invisible line between Jews and Gentiles; but they are encouraged by Jesus’ actions a few days before, when he tossed the merchants and money-changers out of the temple. All those tables had been set up in the part of the temple reserved for the Gentiles, so they understood Jesus’ actions as being sympathetic to Gentiles – which, in part, they were. But Philip’s not quite sure what to do so he goes and tells Andrew and together they give Jesus the message: “there are some Greeks who would like to see you.”

And the arrival of the Gentiles fulfills the ancient prophecies that the Messiah would be “a light to the Gentiles” as well as “the glory of his people Israel”.  And so Jesus, answering Philip and Andrew, says, “the hour has come. Now will the Son of Man be glorified.”

And he explains: just like a grain of wheat has to fall into the ground and die in order to sprout and bear fruit, likewise he must die in order to enter glory.

And what’s more, Jesus’ disciples need to be willing to put their lives on the line too: those who try to hold onto their lives will lose out, but those who lose their lives will find them. The servants must follow the master; and Jesus says “whoever serves me the Father will honor.”

Imagine for a moment what it will be like to be honored by God.  We talk a lot in church about beliefs and duties, but I think it’s good sometimes to stop and think about God’s promises.  The King of the universe, the creator who spoke galaxies into existence, knows your name, and has a crown with your name on it, waiting for you.

“He who honors me, I will honor.” These words were first spoken by God in the book of I Samuel (2:30).  They were also quoted in the movie Chariots of Fire. Some of you may remember the scene. Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner from Scotland back in 1924, had risked everything (including defying the king of England) by refusing to run in a heat on Sunday, the Lord’s day. His refusal meant rescheduling all the runners on the English Olympic team, and also meant Liddell would not run in the race he was most qualified for. This caused a stir in the papers… but on the day of the race, as the race was about to begin, Liddell was handed a note quoting the verse “he who honors me I will honor”. He ended up winning the race and setting a world record.

After the Olympics, Eric Liddell served in the mission field in China, and died at the age of 43 in a Chinese internment camp. His last words, talking about living life for God, were, “it’s complete surrender.”

That’s what Jesus is talking about here. He’s talking about his own complete surrender to the Father’s will.  We hear in this passage a preview of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. His soul is troubled – shaken to the core – at the horror of the cross, and Jesus wrestles with the reality of his calling. He has no desire to suffer; he has no martyr complex. Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane tells us he desperately wanted any other option. But he knows there is none, if the fallen human race is to be saved. And so he says, “it is for this reason I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

And God answers, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”

Jesus explains to the crowd: “now comes the judgement of this world. Now the ruler of this world will be ejected” – and Jesus, being nailed to the cross, will draw all people to himself.  To reject Jesus is to reject God; but at the same time “the judgement passed on this world is endured by the One whom this world murders.” And as a result Satan is dethroned and Jesus is enthroned.

This Jesus is the one we are called to represent to the world. It’s an impossible task, in our own power. That’s why we have to rely on God’s grace. As the body of believers we are called to share in Jesus’ suffering and to share in his glory.

So where does this put us today? Are we like the Greeks, saying “sir, we would see Jesus”?  If so, he’s right here: staring death in the face and saying ‘I love you this much – trust me, follow me’. There is no longer any barrier to anyone’s admission to God’s presence and God’s glory.

Are we followers of Jesus? Then as we follow him, our path will lead us into working together, and suffering together, and into glory together.  On this path we will likely run up against two roadblocks: (1) our own natural inclination to duck out of suffering, and (2) as the old pastor of Cambridge, England – Charles Simeon – put it: “the contempt and hatred of an ungodly world”. He adds: “we are not at liberty to shun the cross by relaxation of our principles or by any deviation from the path of duty.” These are hard words to hear, and hard words to speak; but Jesus does not sugar-coat. The path ahead is not easy; but our calling is to follow the Lord of Love; and in doing so bring glory to God.

So having said all of this, I’d like to end where we began: in the words of the Greek visitors, “we would see Jesus”.  I invite you to relax, close your eyes if you want to, and turn on your imaginations, and picture Jesus and the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The sun is shining, the boats are out, and the fish are biting. Jesus is teaching the crowds, and welcoming children, and blessing the children and laughing with them.  And then as he walks through the seaside town of Capernaum, people bring their loved ones who are sick, and he touches them: and they’re well again.

After a long day Jesus and the disciples climb a mountain – green and dotted with flowers – and they have dinner together and pray together. The next morning the crowd finds them again so Jesus sits down and teaches them: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted… blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy… blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God…”

Day after day, town after town, Jesus demonstrates God’s power in his miracles and God’s love in his teaching. People love him and are amazed by him and can’t get enough of him.  Jesus knows the religious establishment is envious of this and they aren’t going to put up with him for much longer. But he also knows, as C.S. Lewis said in The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, that there is an “old magic” in the world (as the character Aslan puts it):

“when a willing victim who had committed no treachery is killed in a traitors stead, the Table will crack and Death itself will start working backwards…”

Which is an allegory for the cross, on which Jesus, the willing victim who committed no treachery, was killed in the place of a rebellious human race. At which point death was not able to hold him OR have any further power over us. Our champion walked out of the grave and lives today – and in him we live, and will always live.

This is Jesus. All glory be to him and to our God forever. AMEN.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) 3/18/18



Baptismal Question “Will you nurture (these persons) in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?”


Scripture reading: Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” – John 3:1-21

So here it is the fourth Sunday of Lent, and we continue in our sermon series on baptismal vows. This week we are looking at the question, “Will you nurture (this child or these people) in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?”

This question is quite a mouthful!  It is also the first baptismal question that is asked, not of the person being baptized, but of those who are witnessing the baptism: the parents, the sponsors, and the congregation.

And how appropriate is this question for today, when we are rejoicing in the birth of Lila Joy Price!  Someday soon this young lady will be baptized. And for those of us who witness that joyous occasion, this question is the vow we will take to support her, and to be her family in Christ.

The Bible describes the church as a ‘body’ made up of living members, or like a large extended family, all of us related to each other by Jesus’ blood and by the Holy Spirit. All of us are Lila’s aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers and brothers and sisters in the faith. And as her older siblings, we are in a position to help her learn and grow, and get to know Jesus, and see us live out what it means to be the family of God. It’s a huge honor and a huge responsibility.

It’s also good to remember that when we were baptized, other people took this vow for us. And more than likely that’s why we’re here today: because somebody who made this promise taught our Sunday School class and told us about Jesus – or maybe they invited us to sing in the choir, or helped out with our vacation Bible school – or maybe they gave money so these things could happen. God’s family of believers was here for us when we were growing up.

Now that we’re older, though, we tend to think more in terms of babies being baptized, and so it’s babies we take this vow for.  But that wasn’t always the case, historically, in the church. And I’d like to submit for our consideration today the proposition that this vow still holds – for all of us!  Because who among us does not need nurturing from time to time, or guidance, or encouragement in living our Christian life?  We are still, and always will be, the family of God – always here for each other.  And just like any family we may have our spats from time to time, but when the chips are down (or even when they’re not down) we pull together and we are one.

In our Gospel reading for today Jesus gives us a beautiful example of this: of how an adult believer – in this case, Jesus – might support and encourage another adult – in this case, Nicodemus – in their life of faith. Let’s take a look.

This conversation takes place somewhere near Jerusalem, in the springtime, shortly after the Passover. We’re not sure exactly where this happened, but Jesus and the disciples often spent evenings on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, so it may have been there. As I imagine the scene, it’s night-time, and there’s a campfire going, and Jesus and the disciples are sitting on rocks, warming themselves by the fire and talking. Suddenly a Pharisee appears: Nicodemus. He’s not one of the chief priests but he’s high up enough among the Pharisees that they recognize him.

Nicodemus has something on his mind, on his heart, and he’s not sure he can trust the other Pharisees with the questions that are churning inside him. So he turns to Jesus. (Smart man!)  And because he does, he will end up living into his name. ‘Nicodemus’ in Greek is made up of two words: Nike – which means ‘victory’, and Demos – which is the root of the word ‘democracy’. So his name means ‘victory of the people’. And in coming to Jesus this night, Nicodemus will show us, the people, how to have victory in Jesus.

The question Nicodemus leads off with is:

“Rabbi, we [meaning the Pharisees] know that you are a teacher from God, because no one could do the signs you do if God were not with him.”

But that’s really only half the question. The unspoken half of Nicodemus’ question is: “help me understand. Because my brother Pharisees – if anybody says they’re your follower, they toss them out of the synagogue. But I know they know you’re God’s messenger, Jesus – because nobody can do what you do apart from God. So what’s up with this? And what can I do?”

Now Jesus could have said, “here’s what you do. Gather together all the other Pharisees who believe what you believe, who believe in me, and take over leadership of the Pharisees. You have enough leadership experience, Nicodemus, to run the organization. And once you’re in charge you can require your people to listen to my message and share it with the chief priests. And our movement will grow and spread and eventually we’ll break the chains of the Roman Empire…”

Isn’t that usually how worldly power goes? But Jesus doesn’t operate on a worldly level. Jesus is God’s man, and he does things God’s way. And in God’s kingdom, Nicodemus’ heart and soul are more important than leading a movement.

So Jesus gives Nicodemus the answer he needs… though maybe not the answer he’s expecting.  Jesus explains why Nicodemus can see the truth where his fellow Pharisees can’t.  Jesus says: “With the greatest certainty I say to you, unless one is begotten from above, one is not able to perceive the kingdom of God.”

I need to stop here for a moment because this verse is so familiar. It’s usually translated something like: “Very truly I tell you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” But the phrase ‘born again’ has been so over-used in the 20th and 21st centuries, we have completely lost the meaning of it.  So I went back to the Greek and translated it fresh, and here’s what I found.

Jesus starts with the words “Amen, amen” – meaning “this is absolutely true and I affirm it”. And then he says, “Unless one is begotten from above…” – because ‘born again’ sounds like something we do.  Like, I was born in January – I am the do-er of this action. But if someone is begotten – we can’t beget ourselves. We are begotten by someone else, by our parents – or by God.  And Jesus emphasizes this by saying ‘begotten from above’. This is what John Wesley meant by prevenient grace. Before all time, and before we were aware, we were begotten by God and loved by God – and we had nothing to do with it!

Jesus says ‘unless one is begotten from above, one is not able to perceive the Kingdom of God.’  In other words, the ability to grasp that there is a reality beyond this worldly existence is a gift of God. One must have understanding given by the Holy Spirit in order to perceive the things of God. That’s why Nicodemus can see so clearly that Jesus is from God, while the other Pharisees keep denying it.  They have closed their minds and hearts to God’s Spirit, and they’re not able to see God’s truth.

Nicodemus doesn’t quite grasp what Jesus is saying right away, so he asks how it’s possible for an old man to be begotten: is he going to climb back into his mother’s belly a second time? The tone of Nicodemus’ question is slightly sarcastic but not overwhelmingly so; he doesn’t doubt Jesus’ sincerity, just the content of his answer.

Jesus answers, “with the greatest certainty I tell you, if one is not born of water and the Spirit one cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Being born of water: that’s human birth, and all of us here on this planet have done that. Being born of the Spirit: that’s godly birth. And that’s why we refer to the Holy Spirit as being God. In the Trinity, God the Father creates… God the Son saves… and God the Spirit begets spiritual children. Jesus explains this, saying, “what is begotten of the flesh is flesh; and what is begotten of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I say to you, ‘you must be begotten from above’.

Nicodemus is beginning to catch the vision Jesus is casting. He’s got a toe-hold but now he needs a handle, so he asks, “how can these things be?” And Jesus answers, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? With the greatest certainty I tell you, we speak of what we know and bear witness to what we’ve seen, but you [plural] don’t grasp our testimony.” Here Jesus is referring to the Pharisees as a group and confronting their general lack of understanding.  Jesus continues, “If I have spoken to you [plural] about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I speak to you of heavenly things?”  In other words, Jesus hasn’t even started talking about the Kingdom of God yet – he’s still talking about the things of this world. There’s so much more to come, and so much more to know!  And in saying so, Jesus broadens Nicodemus’ vision to take in so much more than he imagined when he began this conversation.

And then Jesus shares with Nicodemus God’s plan for the salvation of the world.  He says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…”  Jesus is referring here to ancient history, when Israel was traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land.  When the people of Israel sinned against God by not trusting God for their provision, God sent snakes into the camp and people started to die from snake-bites. So God told Moses to put a bronze snake on a pole and anyone who looked at the snake would live. The people had to have faith enough to take God at his word and look at the snake on the pole. In the same way people must have faith enough to take God at his word and look to Jesus on the cross.

Jesus explains further: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And Jesus adds, “those who haven’t believed are condemned already… they have loved darkness more than the light because their deeds are evil.” And he wraps up by saying, “he who practices truth comes to the light, in order that it may be seen that his deeds have been wrought by God.”

…which brings us back to where Nicodemus started when he said, “Jesus, you must be from God, because no one could do the signs you do apart from God.”

Jesus has explained patiently to Nicodemus what he needed to know. He has answered the questions, both asked and unasked.

Whether or not Nicodemus fully believed Jesus that night, the apostle John doesn’t tell us. But we can be certain he heard what Jesus was saying.  A few chapters later, in John 7, Nicodemus will stand up to the other Pharisees, defending Jesus’ right to a fair hearing – and he will be ridiculed for it. And then in John 19, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus will bring 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus was one of the men who personally wrapped Jesus’ body and laid it in the tomb.

Jesus’ kindness and patience touched Nicodemus’ heart and mind, and Nicodemus was never the same. He’s one of the few Pharisees who ‘got it’ and believed.

Our baptismal vows call us to do the same for each other. To nurture each other; to guide each other; to share what we know with each other; to encourage each other; to help each other grow in God’s grace. This is the example Jesus sets for us. And it’s the promise we make, as members of the Body of Christ, whenever someone is baptized. Looking forward to taking this vow again soon. 😊


Preached at Fairhaven  United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/11/18


Jesus: Saviour and Lord

“The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’  His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’  The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’  Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’  The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’  But he was speaking of the temple of his body.  After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. – John 2:13-22


This Lent I have been teaching and preaching in a number of places on a number of topics, and as I’ve been doing this it seems like three themes keep cropping up over and over as I read and prepare: (1) the worship of idols, (2) the coming of God’s kingdom and the Lordship of Christ, and (3) appropriately for Lent – baptismal vows.

It was the tradition in the church for many hundreds of years – and still is to some extent – for Lent to be a time of preparation for baptism: a time when new converts would be taught the basics of the faith including things like the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creeds – in preparation for baptism at the Easter Vigil, when they would be received into the church.

On that night, the vows they took included these words:

  • Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
  • I do.
  • Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
  • I do.
  • Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
  • I do.

These questions cover an immense amount of ground, both practically and spiritually – so I’d like to break them down a little and focus on two things:

  1. The questions talk about Jesus as Saviour, who offers us unmerited grace, and who we need to trust.
  2. The questions talk about Jesus as Lord, to whom we owe loyalty and obedience.

And already we can see that these baptismal vows charge the believer to do away with the worship of idols and call us to faith in, and obedience to, Jesus as Saviour and Lord. So these three themes are coming together again!

Each one of these three things is worthy of its own sermon! But for today I’m just going to focus on Jesus as Saviour and Lord.  It’s interesting that Jesus is both – because the combination of the two is extremely rare. There are a number of lords in the world: people who are powerful, people who run countries or cities or corporations. And there are a few saviors in the world: people who do things like pulling people out of burning buildings (as happened just a few nights ago in Carnegie when there was a fire at Papa J’s). But it’s rare to find someone who is both a savior and a lord. And where it comes to saving souls – or saving the world for that matter – there is only one person who can claim to be Saviour and Lord.

These days in our culture we usually tend to think of Jesus mostly as Saviour. He saves us from our sins, saves us from death by opening the door to heaven.  When I was growing up the opening line in many evangelistic presentations was “are you saved?”  But I’ve never heard anyone start with the question “Is Jesus your Lord?”

In God’s kingdom, Jesus is the King.  Isaiah calls him the “Prince of Peace”.  King David sang, “Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.” (Psalm 24:7)

The coming of the Kingdom is what Jesus came to proclaim. It was the main message he preached, in all four gospels. Jesus said, over and over again, “The Kingdom of heaven has come near! Change course and believe the good news!”

And the coming of God’s kingdom IS good news because it means the world will finally be set right. There will be no more shooting of children in schools. There will be no more world leaders rattling sabers at each other. There will be no more bosses cheating workers out of pensions. No more people without homes. No more poverty or want. Instead we will live in a world with peace, wholeness, good health, security, surrounded by God’s beauty that’s almost too much to bear. Jesus came to proclaim the initiation of this kingdom, which at this point in time is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ – it has begun but it’s not completed yet.  Or as Jesus would say, his kingdom is not of this world. And that’s another sermon for another day.

For now, for those of us who are followers of Jesus, Jesus is our King. And what that means for us is that we are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.  And if Jesus is our King, and we are citizens of God’s kingdom, then Jesus’ word is our command.  Jesus himself says in scripture: “If you love me, keep my commandments.”  (John 4:15)

The idea of having a king is of course a foreign concept to most Americans.  We’ve never had royalty in this country – at least not for long.  And sometimes it comes as a surprise to us to discover that God’s kingdom is not a democracy. We didn’t vote for Jesus, and we can’t vote him out (not that we’d want to!) In a kingdom, what the king says goes. Our freedom (such as it is) is the freedom to choose whether or not we want to be citizens of his kingdom. Once we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, we enter his service and are subject to his command. And by the same token, once we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, Jesus as king promises to care for us, protect us, provide for us, and guide us. So it’s not all just taking orders; God’s kingdom is a two-way street.

Still, as Americans, unlike our British cousins, we kind of have to get used to the idea of having a king. Maybe it would help to think in terms of who we work for.  Our bosses, for example, have the right to give us tasks to do, to give us directions and deadlines. And in many ways our standing in society is measured by who we work for.  If you are an employee of Microsoft, for example, that’s a very prestigious thing. If you work for a local contractor, that’s seen as good honest work, but not necessarily a lot of prestige. If you work for ALCOSAN… eh… not a lot of prestige there.

In the same way, over in Great Britain, where they have royalty, prestige can be measured by who you serve. If you serve the royal family, that’s a huge honor.  If you serve a duke or a duchess, that’s pretty high honor too. If you serve the grandkid of the ex-wife of a baron, eh… not so much.

You and I have been called to serve the King of kings and the Lord of lords. There is no higher honor than that. And in God’s kingdom there are many ways we may be called to serve. Some of us serve through our careers – some of us serve through our families – many of us serve by providing for the needs of others.

And all of us are called to serve as ambassadors of God’s kingdom. Our primary citizenship, our forever-citizenship, is in God’s kingdom; we are Americans only temporarily. And that’s true of believers from every country. We are all called to be ambassadors of God’s kingdom, and to continue to spread the good news Jesus taught – that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and people need to change course and believe.

So that’s Jesus as Lord.  Before I talk about Jesus as Saviour, I’d like to take a look at our Gospel reading for today. In this passage from John’s gospel, we see Jesus confronting the sellers and the money-changers in the temple.  We may have a hard time imagining Jesus, the one who loves sinners so deeply, with a whip in his hand, making a mess of the temple. It’s clear from this passage that Jesus is really, really angry.  His disciples are put in mind of the Old Testament saying “Zeal for your house will consume me”. Honor and respect for God’s house is a burning fire in Jesus’ heart.

What makes him so angry is that people took God’s house – which should be a house of welcome and prayer and peace for all people – and basically turned it into a shoping mall (the Greek word is ‘emporium’ – a word we still use today). And worse still, this mall is filled with corrupt businesses.

The reason the animals and doves are being sold there is so people can sacrifice them in the temple.  People could bring their own animals from back home on the farm, but the Law of Moses says only flawless animals can be sacrificed; and there are animal inspectors in the temple area. So if you bring your own animal, guaranteed they will find a flaw. So your animal can’t be sacrificed. So you have to buy one of the approved animals they’re selling in the temple courtyard.  Oh – and you’re not allowed to buy them with coins that have Caesar’s face on them, because Caesar claims to be god, and he’s a false god, and you can’t have that in the temple. So you have to use temple coins. That’s where the moneychangers come in. And you can be guaranteed they take a healthy cut from every exchange (just like moneychangers do today).

So people who came to worship God were being cheated – twice! – for the privilege of making a sacrifice before God and having their sins declared ‘forgiven’.  That’s what made Jesus so angry! These sellers and money-changers were coming between the people and God, either preventing them from worshipping, or cheating them blind – and Jesus cries out from the depths of his soul at this injustice, and he says, “this is supposed to be a house of prayer!” God loves these people, and God longs to welcome them into his house. And Jesus, being the King of God’s Kingdom, takes a stand for God.

Notice the reaction of the temple authorities: they ask, “what sign do you show us for doing these things?” Or, as it says in the gospel of Luke, “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things!” To which Jesus answers, “Let me ask you a question: Did the baptism of John [the Baptist] come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And the scribes and Pharisees say to themselves, “if we say ‘from heaven’ he’ll say ‘why didn’t you believe him?’ but if we say ‘from human origin’ – we can’t say that because the people all believe he was a prophet” So they answer Jesus “we don’t know.” And Jesus replies, “neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

But you and I know. From where we stand in the 21st century… well, actually, in many places this debate is still going on in the 21st century. But for those who know and love Jesus, we know the source of his authority. We know he was more than just a good teacher. We know he is the King of kings and Lord of lords.

And this is where the “saviour” part of the baptismal vows comes into play. Jesus’ kingly authority is not an authority based in power or brute force. Jesus’ kingly authority has its foundations in sacrifice.  Isaiah writes of the coming Messiah: “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors…” (Isaiah 53:11-12a)

Jesus came not only to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom, but also to give his life, so that we could be forgiven; and then to rise from the dead.  John comments at the end of our gospel lesson, “Therefore when he was raised from the dead, the disciples remembered that he had said this and they believed the scriptures” (that is, the Old Testament predictions) “and the word Jesus had said.”

Today as we take communion we remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us. We see before us a picture of his body broken and his blood poured out.  Isaiah writes: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

The cross is absolutely essential to our salvation. On it Jesus pays the price for our sins. But if we stop there – if Jesus was not raised from the dead – then we’re wasting our time here. The apostle Paul writes: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” (I Corinthians 15:13-14)

But the good news is Jesus HAS been raised, and we have been forgiven. Jesus is King – and we are citizens of his kingdom – which is partly ‘now’ and partly ‘not yet’.

So today, as we remember the vows we took (or that were taken for us) at baptism, we renew our trust in Jesus as Saviour – in his mercy and grace, which is given to us through his death and resurrection. And we renew our commitment to Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as his servants, as his ambassadors – and as his friends, because Jesus has called us friends. As we come forward for communion today, let’s be aware of meeting with our King, and receiving what he gives us to make us His children. AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), 3/4/18



Accept Freedom, Resist Evil

Baptismal Question: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

 Mark 8:31-38  Then [Jesus] began to teach [the disciples] that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?  38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”


Welcome to Week Two of our sermon series on our baptismal vows.  The baptismal question we’re looking at this week is: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Pastor Matt’s pastoral letter for this month speaks to this very question, and I recommend it to your reading. In it he expresses a strong Christian desire to oppose evil and injustice in the world, because we find ourselves today in a world where it seems like evil and injustice and oppression are getting the upper hand on a regular basis. And it breaks our hearts.

But did you ever notice, the minute you take a stand for anything, all the critics seem to come out of the woodwork? One person will be telling you you’re dead wrong, while another person is telling you your protests are not loud enough.

When we step back from the issues though, and silence the rhetoric for a moment, one question rises to the top, and that is the problem of evil. How does one define ‘evil’? What is evil? If we’re taking a stand against evil, what exactly is it we’re taking a stand against?

At first glance the answer to this question seems obvious: killing is evil, for example. Violence is evil. Things that cause poverty are evil. Injustice is evil.  On these things most people would agree. Beyond that, though, how one defines ‘evil’ in the world very much depends on one’s point of view, on what one’s life experiences have been.  What one person calls ‘evil’ another person calls ‘good’ and vice versa.

And the world has been that way for a long time.  The prophet Isaiah wrote, over 2500 years ago:

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness… Who justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away justice from the righteous person!” (Isaiah 5:20, 23)

For those of us who love Jesus, we need to know what God has to say about evil.  And as I look at scripture I see the word ‘evil’ appears in the Bible over 500 times – and over 100 of those times God is saying to God’s people, “depart from evil and do good”.

The other 400 verses tell us what evil is and does. Among other things, evil is the absence of good, the absence of peace, and the absence of truth. Evil includes things like violence, lying, perversity, vanity (in the sense of feeling like everything in life is vain or pointless – which echoes strongly in our society today, where suicide is one of the top three leading causes of death in people under 25. The feeling that life is in vain is where evil leads people). Evil results in pain, suffering, and death.

In the Old Testament, in ancient Israel, evil was something to be “purged” from society, according to scripture.  Disobeying God was a capital crime – not because God doesn’t forgive, but because it is the nature of evil to spread, like a cancer – so God said ‘nip it in the bud’.

Evil is also defined in scripture as wanting a king or a ruler other than God, other than Jesus. Chasing after false gods, for example, or worshipping idols; any time something becomes more important to us than God, we’ve got an idol on our hands. And if we’re not worshipping the one true and living God then we’re worshipping a lie – which leads to destruction and death.

So now that we have a working definition of evil, how might we go about using our God-given freedom and power to resist evil?

Let’s take a look at Jesus’ example in our scripture reading for this morning.  Jesus is always a perfect example of how to live for good, how to live life as citizens of God’s kingdom.

Mark starts off by saying:

“Then [Jesus] began to teach [the disciples] that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly.” (Mark 8:31-32)

So breaking it down: First, Jesus began to teach them – this phrase, I think, hints that the teaching took place over time, not all at once. Any good teacher knows that you don’t throw all the facts at students all at once – you break it down into manageable pieces, leading people into knowledge. And Jesus is and was the very best of teachers.

Second, Jesus is teaching a hard truth – He gives them the bad news first. He says that he, the Son of Man, the Messiah, the promised one of God, would be rejected by the religious leaders and be killed.

If the Old Testament makes anything clear, it is that rejecting God is the root of all evil (see the First Commandment – “you shall have no other gods but me”. The Old Testament also teaches that killing is evil (that’s Commandment #7). So Jesus is teaching them that (1) the nation’s religious leaders have been overcome by evil, and (2) they are going to kill him.

Third, Jesus is teaching good news – “after three days I will rise again”.  Jesus will overcome evil with good. He will overcome death with life. The good news is, evil and good are not equal opposites. Evil is always the lesser. Evil is always a twisting of something good. Evil can’t exist without something good to destroy. But when evil tries to destroy perfection – in the person of Jesus – evil undoes itself. And Jesus walks away alive.

Jesus says all of this openly, Mark tells us. He doesn’t hide what he’s doing and saying (unlike the scribes and Pharisees). That’s another difference between evil and good: evil tries to hide. Good doesn’t need to.

But Peter took Jesus aside and started to rebuke him. The Greek says Peter “took hold of Jesus” and “led him aside”.  As we picture the action we can see Jesus’ friend Peter trying to take charge of him and guide him, as though Jesus has gone a little too far this time, and he’s talking crazy talk.

But Jesus rebukes Peter back – and the phrase he uses is translated “get behind me Satan!” This has always felt not-quite-right to me, so I took a look at the Greek.  I think Jesus’ words should be taken to mean that Peter was playing into Satan’s hands. I don’t think Jesus meant to say Peter was possessed or anything like that.  The Greek translates more like a combination of ‘go away’, and ‘get it under control’.  Or for any Beatles fans, “get back to where you once belonged”.  In other words, Jesus is saying to Peter, get a grip, Peter, you’re out of line. Remember who’s in charge here, and don’t take the part of my enemy. That’s basically what Jesus is getting at.

And then summoning the crowd, along with the disciples, Jesus said to them, “If anyone desires to follow after me, let him deny himself” – that is, deny any claim to his own life – “and take up his cross and follow me.”

So not only is Peter not in charge of Jesus, but anyone who wants to follow Jesus doesn’t even have the right to be in charge of ourselves!  “Not my will but yours be done” is Jesus’ prayer, and it needs to become our prayer as well.

This doesn’t mean we go and seek out suffering. As one theologian put it, “No healthy Christian ever chooses suffering; he chooses God’s will, as Jesus did, whether it means suffering or not.” (Oswald Chambers)

But we need to set aside all worldly things: put away our idols, put away anything that may come between us and God, and say ‘yes’ to God. This is God’s definition of ‘good’.

God’s definition of ‘good’ is not how the world defines ‘good’.  In fact the world will try to tell us we’re crazy, we’re passé, that God doesn’t exist and we’re out of our minds. But who would it benefit if we bought into that lie? Certainly not us.

The world will never agree that God’s will is good.  As Jesus put it, this is an ‘adulterous and sinful generation’. That’s the definition of the human condition. And that is what Jesus came to die for, to set right and to redeem.

Jesus asks: what can we give in exchange for our lives? Whoever is ashamed of Him, whoever is embarrassed by Him, whoever doesn’t have the courage to stand up for Him – Jesus will be ashamed of that person when he comes in glory with the Father and the holy angels.

Those are hard words to hear, and they’re hard words to say. Many times I know I haven’t said or done things I should have said or done. When that happens I remember Peter, and how the Lord forgave him, and I remember the amazing, awesome mercy of our Lord.

Jesus will one day be crowned king of all creation. What are we willing to give to be there by His side on that day?

So coming back to our baptismal question:

  • The ‘freedom’ the question talks about is the freedom to give up our lives for Jesus and for the good news.
  • The ‘power’ the question talks about is the power to lay down our lives for Jesus, knowing that one day He will raise us up, and we will live in His presence, and we will be like Him.
  • The ‘evil’ we fight against is, at its roots, a denial of God – rebelling against God, hating God, and wanting any ruler other than God. All violence, injustice, and oppression are the direct result of refusing God’s will and God’s word – disobeying or ignoring what we’ve been taught in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.

Where it comes to evil in the world, we can work on symptoms till the cows come home, but the ultimate cure is in the hands of God, either directly or working through lives that have been placed in His hands.

And I thank God for the examples we’ve been given to follow, and particularly this month the examples of Martin Luther King Jr and of Billy Graham – two men who gave all they had for Jesus, and set a course for us to follow.

So this Lent, let’s put away anything that comes between us and God. Let’s renew our baptismal promise to put our lives and our times in Jesus’ hands – by the power of prayer, bringing all things to Him – and then confront evil in the world in Jesus’ resurrection power, as he leads us. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 2/25/18





Giving Up Idols

[Scripture reading: 2 Kings 23:1-6, 21-25 reprinted at the end]

In the beginning… there were matinee idols. Errol Flynn. Clark Gable. Greta Garbo. Then there were pop idols: Elvis Presley. The Beatles. And then there was American Idol – pop stars taken from anonymity to fame for our young people to look up to.

This week in our Lenten series on “Giving Up…” things for Lent, we’ll be looking at Giving Up Idols.

Parents of teenagers have never been entirely comfortable with the younger generation’s idols, but most parents figure it’s just a phase. The kids will grow out of it, right?

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But I think this is only a tiny, tiny part of what the Bible is talking about when it talks about idols.

And the Bible does talk about idols a lot! In fact the words idols or false gods – between those two phrases – appear over 400 times in the Bible.

For most of us, when we hear the word ‘idol’, we either think of pop idols or we think of those statues people in ancient times used to worship: false gods with names like Dagon or Molech or Ba’al, idols carved out of stone or wood, and worshiped by primitive people who didn’t know any better.

But ancient people weren’t stupid. They knew these statues were just representations of things in the spirit world.  The statues represented concepts like health or fertility or wealth. And the worshipers were worshiping the spirit world, not the statues.

But the priests of the false gods demanded sacrifices: sometimes even human sacrifices. And so these ancient religions brought death to their worshipers, not life, partly because following the so-called ‘gods’ made people to do unholy things; and partly because they were worshiping a lie. And as the apostle Paul says, these gods don’t exist anyway.

No wonder the one true and living God, who loves all he has created, objects to people worshiping what isn’t real and following lies that will destroy them.

But what about us today?  We don’t talk much about ‘idolatry’ much any more – the word has gone out of fashion kind of like the word ‘repent’.  But idols are still very much with us, and their lies are still very much with us. “Fake news,” for example, puts lies in the mouths of celebrities who never said any such thing; or may put forward propaganda in a way that people are tempted to believe it.  Perpetrators of fake news are counting on the fact people have idols and can be led astray by them.

Idols can also be things we spend too much time or money on. Buying stuff. Having the best. Tucking money away. Spending too much time with the TV (or Facebook). We even make idols out of God’s blessings sometimes: good gifts like careers or friends or family or food or exercise.

Anything that becomes more important to us than God, or that gets in the way of God being the Lord of our lives, is an idol. And God knows that idols eventually lead us into death.  And what’s more, idols steer our love and loyalty away from the people around us who need what God has given us to share.

I saw a quote the other day that speaks to this. Given that idols are objects of our praise, the quote said: “Biblical praise – is always both praise of the true Lord, and praise against all false lords – human and nonhuman – who seek to set themselves up in God’s place… prais[ing God] not only evokes a world, it also undoes, it deconstructs, all other worlds.”

Once we become convinced that only God is worthy of our worship, and we decide to get rid of our idols (whatever they may be) we may find it difficult to get rid of them. They’re not easy to shake.

The temptation is to try to tear our idols down. We’ve had them up on a pedestal and it’s so easy when we’ve put something on a pedestal to throw it down and break it. Think of how many famous people – even in the news recently – have been on pedestals for years and then their reputations all of a sudden are smashed on the ground. The problem is, throwing things off pedestals is just the flip side of building them up.  We are still relating to the idol. Our attention is still on it.

But throughout scripture, when God confronts idolatry, God’s words are always “put it away”.  Not ‘tear it down’.  ‘Put it away’ – like a parent telling a child to put a toy back in its box. Leave it where it is, God says, and let’s you and me do something else.

All through scripture God says to His people ‘put it away’.

  • In Genesis (35:2) God says to Jacob’s family, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you…”
  • When the Israelites were entering the Promised Land, God says, (Joshua 24:14) “put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt.”
  • When the prophet Ezekiel was comforting a nation in exile God said, (Ezekiel 43:9) “let them put away their idolatry… and I will reside among them forever.”
  • And even at the end of the book of Revelation, as God’s judgement is being poured out on the earth at the end of time, people still have not given up their idols. The apostle John writes: (Revelation 9:20) “…they did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols …”

From Genesis to Revelation God has been saying to his people “put them away”.

So this Lent, let’s put away anything that comes between us and God: anything that is more important to us than God.  And for those people and things in our lives who we love and that are important to us – place them in God’s hands, for God’s blessing. By doing this, we will love them even better, because we’ve set them free to be who they are in the Lord.

So let’s free ourselves of serving anything that can’t save or satisfy. Let’s put away all idols and live our lives as God intended – free to serve the Lord of Love. AMEN.


2 Kings 23:1-6, 21-25  Then the king [Josiah] directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him.  2 The king went up to the house of the LORD, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the LORD.  3 The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the LORD, to follow the LORD, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.

 4 The king commanded the high priest Hilkiah, the priests of the second order, and the guardians of the threshold, to bring out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel.  5 He deposed the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to make offerings in the high places at the cities of Judah and around Jerusalem; those also who made offerings to Baal, to the sun, the moon, the constellations, and all the host of the heavens.  6 He brought out the image of Asherah from the house of the LORD, outside Jerusalem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people.

The king commanded all the people, “Keep the Passover to the LORD your God as prescribed in this book of the covenant.”  22 No such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah;  23 but in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem.

 24 Moreover Josiah put away the mediums, wizards, teraphim, idols, and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, so that he established the words of the law that were written in the book that the priest Hilkiah had found in the house of the LORD.  25 Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.

Preached at Wednesday Lenten Lunch Series, Carnegie Ministerium, St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2/21/18


Saved Through the Water

[Scripture readings for today can be found at the end of this post]

At first glance our scripture readings for today appear to be completely un-related to each other.  The Old Testament lesson tells about Noah and the flood; the Gospel lesson tells about Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan; and in the New Testament lesson, Peter is declaring Jesus at the right hand of God now ruling in heaven.

So where’s the common thread? The answer to that question can be found in our passage from Peter.

The Archangel Michael

But before I dig in to these readings, I wanted to bring to memory an old, old song… a spiritual that many of us learned as children: Michael Row the Boat Ashore.  Remember the words? “Michael, row the boat ashore, alleluia!” And the verses go:

“River Jordan is deep and wide, alleluia!
Milk and honey on the other side, alleluia!
River Jordan is chilly and cold, alleluia!
Chills the body but not the soul, alleluia!”

This old slave song has a double meaning. Taken one way, it talks about freedom: taking a boat to get away from the slave-master and travel to the promised land. Taken another way, the song talks about dying and eternal life.  The River Jordan represents death, and ‘milk and honey on the other side’ represents the promised land of heaven.

The apostle Peter didn’t know the song of course, but in his letter he says many of the same things. He says that we are “saved through water.” (I Peter 3:20)  And he points to a number of illustrations.

Noah’s Ark Under Construction

In his first illustration Peter points to Noah, who along with eight other people, traveled through the great flood in the ark and they were ‘saved through water’.  When the waters had gone down, and the ark had landed, God’s word to Noah was a covenant, a promise in which God said, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant… the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature…”  (I like how God includes the animals in this covenant – both domestic and wild, God says. If we ever had any doubt that God cares about His creatures, this passage sets aside those doubts!)

In his second illustration, Peter talks about Jesus “suffering for sins once for all… in order to bring us to God”.  If we ever have any doubts that God loves us, or that Jesus wants us with him – this passage sets those doubts to rest. Jesus’ last prayer for us was “Father, forgive them.”  The love of Jesus: there’s no stopping it!

Peter goes on to say Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”  So Jesus himself has taken that boat-ride across the Jordan. He has passed through the waters of death – and not only landed safe on the other side but then came back to tell us about it.

And while he was doing that, Peter says, “Jesus went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey…” – that is, the people living in Old Testament times who had died not knowing Jesus, not knowing the hope of eternal life. Jesus made himself known to them and gave them a chance to respond to his invitation.  And so we say in the creeds Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried, he descended into hell” – not because he belonged there but because he was ministering to the spirits trapped there, to set them free.

And then Peter talks about our salvation, which is also through water. He writes, “and baptism… saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

In other words, just as Jesus descended to the dead and rose again, we descend into the waters of baptism and are raised up again. (That’s why many churches practice baptism by immersion: because it’s a living picture of being buried and being raised again.) And just as Jesus “has gone into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God” so we also will follow in his footsteps and one day be with him on the far side of the Jordan.

And God looks at Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan River and exclaims “you are my Son, my beloved, in you I am well pleased.” Because Jesus accomplishes God’s will to save us through water.

And after being baptized and tempted in the wilderness, Jesus goes to Galilee and begins his public ministry. And his message to the people – both then and now – is this: “the time is fulfilled, and kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.”

Jesus’ message is always about the Kingdom of God. Yes, he taught peace and love and justice and mercy, goodness and kindness and holiness, all these things; but the main point of his teaching and his life was the coming of God’s Kingdom. This kingdom, as he said to Pilate, “is not of this world”.

What we look forward to on the far side of the Jordan – that Promised Land – is seeing Jesus crowned as King of all creation. Under his rule the universe will be made new; what is wrong will be set right; and Jesus will be King of kings and Lord of lords and Prince of peace.

So Jesus’ message is: Change course (that’s what ‘repent’ means)—change course and believe the good news.

So what can we take away from these passages today? Apart from receiving a hope that does not disappoint; our first response is to believe. The longer I live, the more challenges to faith it seems we come up against.  So it’s time to dust off our spirits: dust off all the years of church history and all the theology we’ve heard (for better or for worse) and all the other stuff that seems to accumulate around our hearts and our souls – dust it all off and renew and refresh our relationship with the living Jesus.

Second, we can reflect on the River Jordan and what it means to us: the sorrows it brings, as it has taken loved ones from us over the years; and the joys it brings as we look forward to many happy reunions. The song Michael Row the Boat Ashore has another verse that’s not as well-known as the ones quoted earlier: “gonna see my mother there, hallelujah… gonna see my papa there, hallelujah”.  We will see our loved ones, and we will see Jesus, all who have crossed the river ahead of us.

And finally, we can talk about these things among ourselves during the coming week – to encourage each other, and to inspire each other, and perhaps others may overhear our conversations and find encouragement too in Jesus’ words.

Wishing you many blessings during this holy season of Lent – AMEN.


Genesis 9:8-17  Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him,  9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,  10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.  11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations:  13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,  15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.  16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”  17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

1 Peter 3:18-22  For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,  19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,  20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.  21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,  22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Mark 1:9-15   In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,  15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”


Preached at Fair Oaks of Pittsburgh 2/18/18


On That Holy Mountain

[scriptures for the day are reprinted at the end of this post]

The call to worship and prayers in our service sheet today mention things like the chariot of Elijah, and God’s presence in a whirlwind… but these things kind of seem to come at us out of nowhere, so to begin to fill in the blanks, the common thread is today is Transfiguration Sunday.  This is the day when we remember Jesus meeting Moses and Elijah on a mountain-top and being transfigured in front of his disciples.

I chose On That Holy Mountain as the title of our sermon for today: the title is taken from an anthem my choir used to sing.  This particular song was one of my choir’s favorites to sing on Transfiguration Sunday.  The words go something like this:

The wolf is the guest of the lamb
On that holy mountain
The calf and the lion shall lie down
On that holy mountain
Together they shall rest with a child…
On that holy mountain of the Lord

Justice shall flower for all time
On that holy mountain
As long as the sun still can shine
On that holy mountain
Peace til the moon be no more…
On that holy mountain of the Lord

The song doesn’t actually have anything to do with the Transfiguration! But church choirs have good instincts about these things and over the years I’ve learned to respect that. The words of the song are actually taken from Isaiah chapter 11, which predicts the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah writes:

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” (Isaiah 11:1-2)

It’s a familiar passage – one we usually read during Advent as we look for the coming of the baby Jesus.  And at the end of the passage Isaiah writes:

“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain (there’s the title); for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)

“On my holy mountain,” God says.  There is something special about the tops of mountains: anyone who’s ever gone to Jumonville and walked up to the cross at the top of that mountain has felt it.  And all through scripture God chooses the tops of mountains to reveal himself to God’s people. Think about it:

  • In the Old Testament, Noah and his family, when they were in the ark: after the flood was over, the ark came to rest on top of a mountain. Noah and his family learned: God’s people are saved, through the flood waters, to a mountain-top.
  • Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel, was told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac on a mountain top, but at the last minute God provided a lamb in place of his son. And so Abraham and Isaac learned that one day God would provide a sacrifice on a mountain top, and God shared with Abraham what that would mean. Genesis 22:14 says Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide” (Jehovah-Jireh); as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
  • Many years later, when God set the people of Israel free from slavery in Egypt, just like Noah, they passed through waters and arrived at a mountain; and God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on top of that mountain.
  • Many years after that, when David became king, even though David was from Bethlehem he reigned as king in the City of David – Jerusalem – which was built on top of a mountain.
  • Years after that, when the people of Israel rebelled against God and started serving the false god Ba’al, the prophet Elijah called them back to the true faith, and afterwards Elijah saw God’s glory on top of a mountain.
  • In the New Testament, Jesus taught the disciples and gave us the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer as he preached the Sermon on the Mount.
  • And when the time was fulfilled, Jesus was crucified on top of a mountain: God’s provision for our salvation, fulfilling the prophecy God gave Abraham all those years ago.
  • At the end of Matthew’s gospel, after Jesus has risen from the dead, the disciples meet Jesus again on a mountain, where he gives them the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit
  • In the beginning of the book of Acts, Jesus ascends into heaven from the top of a mountain.
  • At the end of the book of Revelation, an angel takes the apostle John to the top of a mountain to see the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming out of heaven from God. John writes: “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Rev. 21:23)

Journeying from one mountaintop to the next, to the next, to the next, we hear the whole story of creation, and salvation, and God’s provision, and God’s love for humankind.

Viewed from this perspective it makes sense that Jesus would take his best friends up a mountain to reveal to them the purpose of his mission: to fulfill the law (represented by Moses) and to fulfill the prophets (represented by Elijah).

So for a moment let’s imagine ourselves with the disciples, seeing what they saw and hearing what they heard.

Jesus leads us up a mountain on a sunny spring day. The grass is tall and green, and insects are buzzing. As we get to the top of the mountain we look around at the beautiful view.  Suddenly our friend Jesus is changed.  The word Mark uses in his gospel is metamorphosis: the word we use to describe what happens when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.  Not just changed but transformed. The best the disciples can say is that Jesus became radiant, almost blinding, and his garments became whiter than a person could scrape them clean.

All of a sudden Jesus is talking with two other men, who have appeared out of nowhere: Elijah and Moses. The disciples (and ourselves, as we stand with them) are aware of nothing else. We see nothing else. And we’re wondering if our eyes were deceiving us.

Mark says Peter then, answering, said “it’s good we’re here – let us put up some tents for the three of you”.  (The word answering only appears in the Greek, not in the English translations, but it lets us know we don’t have the entire conversation; Mark didn’t record it.) But Mark comments ‘Peter didn’t know what to say because they were all terrified’ – which sounds about right given the circumstances. At least Peter had the presence of mind to offer their guests some hospitality, which was the proper thing to do in that culture.

But then a cloud covered the mountain-top, and a voice was heard was heard coming out of the cloud saying, “this is my son, my beloved, listen to him.”

And suddenly everything’s back to ‘normal’.

Moses and Elijah are gone and Jesus is back to his usual self. I imagine the disciples are standing there in stunned disbelief, wondering if they just saw what they saw.  As if to assure them it really happened, Jesus tells them not to talk about what they’ve seen until after he rises from the dead. And, lacking any other handle on the events of the day, the disciples start to talk among themselves trying to figure out what Jesus means by ‘rising from the dead’.

And that’s it.

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus talked about with Moses and Elijah. But Luke does. In his gospel, Luke tells us they were talking about “Jesus’ departure, which would take place at Jerusalem”.  That’s all Luke says; but it makes sense Jesus would find comfort and encouragement talking with two prophets who understood God’s plan for the salvation of the world and how events needed to unfold.

In the 2000+ years that have passed since then, people have debated what this vision means, and I’m not going to step into those debates. My gut instinct, for what it’s worth, is that this is a sneak preview of what the next life – what eternal life – will be like. It makes sense that our bodies will go through a metamorphosis similar to what Jesus’ body did.  It makes sense that in God’s kingdom we will see and talk to people who have already passed, who (as scripture says) are always alive to God. It’s too much for us mere mortals to take in; but someday, like Noah, like Israel, we will pass through the waters and arrive at the mountain-top in God’s eternal kingdom.

Until that day comes, God’s message to the disciples on the mountain is the one we need to take with us: Jesus is God’s son, deeply loved by God, and our job is to listen to him.

Like the disciples, we’re still trying to figure things out.  We’re still trying to make sense of what happened.  We hear Jesus’ words, but we don’t fully understand.  And that’s OK.  Our understanding is in part, for now. Jesus doesn’t scold the disciples for not getting it all right away.  Understanding will come. For now, the best we can do is listen to him, and follow.

With that in mind, we leave the mountaintop of Transfiguration and head down the mountain – into Lent,  and Good Friday… and Easter. Over these next 40 days, listen to him, and follow. AMEN.


2 Kings 2:1-12  Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.  2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.  3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”

 4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho.  5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”

 6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on.  7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan.  8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

 9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”  10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”  11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.  12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

Mark 9:2-9  Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them,  3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.  5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.  7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.  9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 2/12/18