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God’s House

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place– and I did not know it!”  And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”  So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.  He called that place Bethel. – Genesis 28:10-19a

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How many people watch home repair shows on TV?  Addicting, aren’t they? Me, I’m always watching Flip or Flop or Fixer Upper. I love seeing people take run-down houses and make them livable again: saving the classic features of an old home and adding contemporary comforts. It inspires me.

God is also in the house-building and house-repair business, though it’s a different kind of house. Yes, we have the house of God, the church building. But when the Bible talks about someone’s house it usually means someone’s descendants, as in ‘the House of Windsor’. God’s ‘house’ is God’s family – the family of believers, here and around the world, throughout history.

So the title for our sermon today is “God’s House”. And there are three big-picture ideas I want to focus on today:

  1. Building God’s house takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight.
  2. Blessing is the reason God is building the house. To be a blessing to us and to others.
  3. The blueprints of God are not changed by our mistakes or our shortcomings. The fact that we mess up sometimes does not alter God’s plans.

At this point some of you may be thinking, “Aren’t we doing a sermon series on the Old Testament? Isn’t today’s story about Jacob and his ladder?” Yes and yes!

The title for today’s sermon – God’s House – is taken from the last word in today’s reading about Jacob. In the story, after dreaming about the ladder with the angels, and after hearing God’s promises, Jacob wakes up, and sets up a memorial stone, and names the place Bethel.  The word Bethel in Hebrew means house of God. (Side note for those of you who enjoy languages: the prefix “Beth” in Hebrew means “house”. So, for example, Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’ – which is where Jesus, the bread of life, was born. Coincidence? I think not. Keep an eye out for that word ‘beth’ in the scriptures – it almost always leads to something interesting.)

One other odd thing about today’s reading is: it ends in mid-sentence and mid-paragraph. Drives me nuts when the lectionary does that!  So I want to back up and review the story, and add the ending back in. As we listen to this story, try to hold in mind the big picture: God is in the process of building God’s house.

In our time and place in history, the family of God’s faithful people stretches around the globe and numbers in the billions. But in the time of today’s Old Testament reading, the number of people on earth who believed in the one true and living God was probably less than 500 (that we know of). God laid the foundation of God’s house with the patriarch Abraham, and with Abraham’s son Isaac, and with their households. And now comes the third generation: Jacob and Esau.

When their mother Rachel was pregnant, Jacob and Esau wrestled in her womb – so much that it troubled her. So she asked God what it meant, and God said the two boys would become two nations, and the elder would serve the younger – that is, Esau would serve Jacob.

God’s plan is to continue building his house through Jacob, the younger son: Abraham à Isaac à Jacob. And God made this clear to the whole family. But some of the family members were not crazy about God’s plan. Isaac and his favorite son Esau tried to ignore God’s prophecy and make Esau Isaac’s heir anyway.  And Rachel and her favorite son Jacob were anxious to secure the inheritance for Jacob, and went about getting it in some very underhanded ways.  First Jacob cheated Esau out of his birthright; and then (at Rachel’s prompting) Jacob cheated Esau out of Isaac’s blessing by dressing up as Esau – including putting hairy goatskins on himself because Esau was a hairy guy – and taking advantage of his elderly father’s blindness, pretending to be Esau and getting Esau’s blessing for himself.

When all was said and done, Esau was so angry at Jacob he started hatching plans to murder his brother, as soon as Isaac passed away. And Rachel heard about this, and (on the pretense of finding Jacob a proper wife) she sends Jacob off to her brother Laban in Mesopotamia.

And that’s where our reading for today begins. We see Jacob leaving home, suddenly alone in the world, cut off from his mother who loves him, cut off from everything he’s ever known, and with his one and only brother plotting to kill him.

Up till now, Jacob has always been a bit of a homebody. He never wanted to travel far from his father’s tents; but now he finds himself, by himself, in the middle of nowhere he knows. (Those of us who have ever traveled far from home understand the feeling.) The plans that Jacob and Rachel had made to build up Isaac’s house based on Jacob’s inheritance – and the lengths they went to, to make it happen – have actually delayed the prophecy, delayed Jacob’s inheritance, seems like it might be forever.

Rachel and Jacob heard God’s promise but they forgot to do things God’s way. They forgot it takes time to build God’s house, and they forgot about God’s blueprints.  And so now we see Jacob traveling alone, on foot, on a journey of about 500 miles, to a foreign country. Jacob has become – in every sense of the word – a refugee.

I find it helpful that God is honest with us about human relationships in the Bible, particularly family relationships.  Not every family is as given to intrigue and violence as Isaac’s household was (thank goodness) but the truth is family relationships can be difficult. And at one time or another just about every family experiences arguments and infighting.

Scripture doesn’t whitewash that, and neither should we. God’s glory and God’s purpose shine through the divisions, in spite of the divisions, in Isaac’s family – and God can do the same in our families.

Somewhere along Jacob’s journey, probably not too far into it, Jacob is sleeping out under the stars when he has a dream. And in the dream Jacob sees a ladder fixed to the earth, extending into the heavens… and he sees angels going up and down the ladder. Then in his dream God is standing next to Jacob and God says, “I AM the Lord.”  This is God’s self-introduction. God has never spoken directly to Jacob before. God has spoken to Abraham and Isaac, but not Jacob, till now – so it makes sense to start with an introduction. And then God says:

“I am the God of Abraham your father and of Isaac. The land on which you are lying I give to you and your offspring; and your offspring will be as numerous as the dust of the earth, spreading out to the east and the west and the north and the south.  Every family of the earth will be blessed in your offspring.”

So God’s purpose in building this house is to be a blessing.  God plans to bless Jacob, and to bless Jacob’s children, and to bless Jacob’s children’s-children’s-children, and to bless every nation on earth through Jacob. Does Jacob have to be perfect before this happens? No – Jacob just has to be willing.

And God goes on to say:

“I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; I will not leave you until I have done all I promised.”

And Jacob wakes up – amazed – and he says, “how awesome is this place! This is the house of God, the gate of heaven!” and so he names the place ‘house of God’ – or Bethel. And he took the stone he’d been sleeping on, and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on it as an act of worship. And Jacob made a promise to God:

“If God will be with me, and will keep me in the way I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God; and this stone I have set up… shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will give a tenth to you.”

If this sounds like Jacob is bargaining with God – he is! Jacob was a bargainer. He was like that all his life, always angling for the next big deal. And now he’s haggling with God. (He is BTW also following in the footsteps of his grandfather Abraham who also used to haggle with God. I get the feeling God enjoys being haggled with, so long as we keep in mind Who we’re talking to.)

And yet in this dialogue Jacob shows where his heart really is. He says: “if I can come again to my father’s house in peace…”. That’s what Jacob really wants: to be able to go home in peace.

It will be 20 years of hard labor before Jacob will be able to go home in peace. 20 years before Jacob really begins to know God as his loving father. This building of God’s house takes time. As an African friend of mine likes to say: “little by little, slowly by slowly”. That’s how God’s house is built. In fact that’s how a lot of God’s work is done: Little by little, slowly by slowly.

In our world today we’re tempted to fall into the trap of thinking “life is short, you’ve got to move fast.” And it’s true, life is short. But moving fast won’t lengthen it – in fact it might just do the opposite.

Jesus once said, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matt 6:27)  And of course the answer is ‘no’.

Building God’s house takes time. One reason it takes so much time is because God sometimes needs to work around our human foibles. In the software industry – where I worked before going to seminary – when a computer program does something it wasn’t designed to do, we don’t call that a mistake; we call it an ‘undocumented feature’. We as human beings also have ‘undocumented features’. And God needs to work around those sometimes… or through them sometimes.

In Jacob’s life, God knows Jacob is going to do a lot of living in his uncle Laban’s household, and not all of it pleasant. But in time Jacob will become God’s man. Like the apostle Peter says in I Peter 1: “for a little while you… suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith — being more precious than gold… tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor… for you.” (I Peter 1:6-7)

So Jacob is right: He is building God’s house. Physically, Jacob has laid the foundation of what will someday be a place of worship at Bethel; and at the same time God is building God’s house using Jacob as part of the foundation. Jacob’s son Joseph will one day rule Egypt and save his people. And many centuries later, the same human family will one day give birth to Jesus, who will bless all the nations of the earth.

Building God’s house takes time. So if we ever feel discouraged, or feel like things aren’t improving fast enough, we can pray for patience and wait for God’s timing. God is in charge, and the house will be built.

God intends God’s house to be a blessing: for you and for me, and for all who will come after us.

And the blueprints of God – the plans God has for those of us who believe, will come to fruition. And if our efforts, like Jacob’s, sometimes get in the way, God can deal with that.  It won’t mess up God’s plans.

God is building a house.  God began with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – imperfect people who believed God’s promises.  God continues building the house with you and me – still imperfect people, who believe in God’s promises. The work continues, until the day it is completed.

Pray with me.

O Lord our God, You promised Jacob you would be with him and keep him and bring him back home to his land. We pray that you will do the same for us: keep us, guide us, be with us, and bring us home at the last.  Thank you Lord for your precious promises, and for your house whose building has already begun and will one day be finished. We look forward to that day, Lord. AMEN. 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 7/23/17

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Isaac and Rebekah

Scripture reading: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

This morning we continue our summer series in Genesis: today’s reading tells the story of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah.  We met Isaac last week, the son of Abraham, the great patriarch of Israel. As our story opens today, Isaac is now 40 years old; his mother Sarah has recently passed away; and his father Abraham is old and doesn’t get around much any more.

And Isaac has not yet married – which is unusual for a man his age in that culture. And it’s becoming an issue in the family – because Abraham is a very wealthy man, with a very large household (practically the size of a small town), and God has promised his son Isaac will be the father of nations.  So Abraham needs an heir, and Isaac needs children. But first, Isaac needs a wife!

Some of us can remember a similar situation back in the 1970s, when Prince Charles of Great Britain was turning 30 and hadn’t married yet. It was a HUGE issue over in the UK! One of the Prince’s royal duties is to see to it that the dynasty continues. It’s interesting to note both Prince Charles and Abraham chose to do basically the same thing: they chose their most trusted servants and sent them out quietly to look for a bride worthy of their prince. (Charles of course dated his bride-to-be a few times – it wasn’t entirely an arranged marriage, as Isaac’s was. But in both cases servants took the lead in getting the relationships started.)

These servants would not have been typical house-servants. Think Mr. Carson on Downton Abbey: He would have been hired as a young man to be the personal servant of the man who would eventually inherit the estate. This kind of servant does far more than just manage other servants: he is a close friend and confidante… one of the few people his master can count on to be absolutely loyal and absolutely trustworthy.

In our story today, Abraham’s servant has worked for Abraham for at least 60 years. Interestingly his name – Eliezer – means “God is [my] help”.  And because he is such a remarkable servant, I’d like to tell Isaac’s story from Eliezer’s point of view, the way he might have told it. I imagine him saying something like this:

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“A few days ago my master Abraham called me into his tent and gave me a very special assignment. He wants me to find a wife for his son Isaac.  My master is too old now for such a task, and I am honored that he asked me.  God has blessed my master richly: he lacks nothing, and his son Isaac is strong and handsome. But at the age of forty, Isaac needs an heir.  My master says God has promised that Isaac’s children will become nations of people… but before that happens he needs a wife!

“Of course the wife of a man like Isaac must be an exceptional woman. My master told me: ‘do not get a wife for Isaac from among the Canaanites. They don’t know God, and they would lead Isaac away from God. Go to my father’s house, to my family in Mesopotamia, and find a wife for Isaac there.’

“Of course I would do anything for Abraham… but what he asks is very difficult. Traditionally it is the father who arranges such a marriage, but Abraham is too old to travel, so I must take his part. The journey is around 500 miles, and once I get there I must find the family of Abraham’s father, and then find among them a worthy woman.  Assuming I am successful in this, I then need to negotiate a bride price, and give appropriate gifts to the bride and her family. And then the bride herself must agree to leave her home and her family and travel to a foreign land to marry a man she has never met.

“This mission may prove impossible. So I ask my master: what if the woman will not return with me? Shall I bring Isaac to her?  And my master answered ‘No. My son is NOT to go back. God took me from my father’s house and brought me here and promised this land to me and my descendants. Under no circumstances are you to take Isaac there. If the woman will not come with you, you are free of your oath.’  And my master made me swear, placing my hand under his thigh and swearing on God’s covenant, that I would be faithful to my task.

“And so we loaded up the camels with rich gifts for the bride, and gathered some men-servants to travel with me, and we set off. After a few weeks we arrived in the region where my master’s family was last known to live.  It was late in the day, and we stopped by a spring of water because my men and their camels are thirsty.

“And as we stopped, I prayed. I have often heard my master pray, and I know God talks to him, but God has never spoken to me. I don’t know if he will hear me, but I pray he will answer, not because of who I am, but because I am Abraham’s servant.

“So I pray: ‘O God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham.  I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water.  Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.’ (Genesis 24:12-14)

RebekahNServant

“Before I even finished my prayer, a beautiful young woman came up from the spring carrying a jug of water. And I ran to her and I said, ‘please let me have a sip of your water,’ and she answered, ‘drink, my lord, and I will water your camels also.’

“And I watched, astounded, as she ran with grace and strength to tend to my camels. The Lord answered my prayer so quickly – and with such a generous and kind young woman!  So I took out of my master’s treasures a gold nose-ring and two gold bracelets and presented them to her. And I asked her: ‘whose daughter are you? And is there room in your father’s house for my men and camels to stay the night?’

“She answered: ‘I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Nahor and Milcah.’ (Nahor by the way is my master Abraham’s brother!) ‘And yes,’ she says, ‘we have plenty of straw and fodder and a place to stay for the night.’ At which I bow my head and gave praise to God saying, ‘Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master […] the LORD has led me on the way to the house of my master’s kin.’ (Genesis 24:27)

“The girl ran home to tell her family all of this, and they all ran out to meet me. Her brother Laban took care of our camels, and he prepared a rich feast for us. But I would not eat until I had told them my mission.  I said to her family, ‘I am Abraham’s servant. The LORD has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, […] but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’ ’ (Gen 24:34-38)

“And I told them about my prayer, and about Rebekah being the answer to that prayer. And I said to them, ‘if you will deal faithfully with my master and me please say so, and if not please say so, so that I know what to do next.’

“Rebekah’s father and brother both said, ‘this comes from God! We can’t say otherwise. Let our sister be the wife of your master’s son.’

And at that word, Rebekah was legally married – so long as she approved. So I opened my master’s treasures and gave rich gifts to Rebekah and to her father and to her brother.  And then we sat down and had a feast!

“In the morning they called Rebekah in and asked her: ‘will you go with this man?’ and she said ‘yes’.  And she packed her things, and she and her maidservants came  home with us.  Rebekah rode on the camels alongside me most of the way, and I had the chance to get to know her. She is lively and good-natured and speaks with a twinkle in her eye.  I couldn’t wait to introduce her to Isaac.

“Before we even got home, Isaac and Rebekah saw each other from across a field, and Rebekah immediately got off the camel and wrapped her veils around her like a proper lady. And when they met, it was love at first sight. Isaac now had someone in his life to comfort him after the passing of his mother… someone who would be by his side for a lifetime.

“I give praise and glory to God for their happiness, and for God’s faithfulness to my master and to my master’s servant. That is my story.”

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Taking back the mic now from Abraham’s servant Eliezer, just three things I’d like to say about his story:

  1. In this story – as in all of Genesis – Isaac can be understood as a type of Christ.
    In other words, the pattern of the events in Isaac’s life point to Jesus and create a kind of prophecy.Isaac, like Jesus, is the one and only heir of an extremely wealthy Father. Isaac waits for his bride in his Father’s house, preparing a place for her – just as Jesus does for us. And both Isaac and Jesus love their brides with all their hearts.
    The bride can be seen to represent us, God’s people.  Like Rebekah, Jesus’ bride is remarkable for her beauty, her generosity, and her willingness to tend to the needs of others. She is willing to leave behind her home and everything she knows in order to be with her husband.
    Jesus once said ‘anyone who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me’ – not because it’s wrong to love father and mother! – but because the bride’s heart is set on her husband. So in this love story we see a prophecy of the love story between Jesus and us.
  2. Love relationships never happen in a vacuum.
    Notice how many people were involved in bringing about this marriage!  There’s the groom, the groom’s father, the groom’s best servant, the groom’s household servants, the bride, the bride’s brother, the bride’s mother and father, the bride’s maidservants, and of course God. Love relationships involve the entire family and the entire community.
    These days it’s popular to say “relationships are just between two consenting adults”.  But the story of Isaac and Rebekah shows why this is complete nonsense. Love relationships never happen in a vacuum.  And because this is true, in the words of theologian Charles Simeon: “Let a concern for God’s honor regulate our conduct.” In other words, as we have seen in this story, whatever we do in our love relationships, let it bring honor to God.
  3. Abraham’s servant sets an example for all of us as we serve God.
    Look at how he goes about doing what Abraham has asked him to do:
  • Eliezer does not put himself forward. His goal is to bring attention to the Father and to the Son.
  • He does not travel alone; he goes with others. There is no such thing as a ‘lone ranger Christian’ – we are called to work and to serve together.
  • He has taken a vow and he works to fulfill it. We also have taken vows – either in baptism or in confirmation – and we work to fulfill those vows.
  • He is 100% loyal to his master, following his directions, listening to his concerns, and asking questions where needed.
  • He knows he can act with confidence because the mission and the resources are his Master’s. And each one of us – as God’s servants – can move with confidence because the gifts and the mission are God’s.
  • Like Abraham’s servant, we pray as we serve, seeking God’s direction as God’s plans unfold.

So Abraham’s servant gives us a model to follow as we serve.  But having said that, the closest parallel for us as the body of believers really is Rebekah.  We follow in her footsteps. We are the ones who hear the words of God’s servants, the prophets – words of love and commitment from our Lord. We are the ones who are asked: “will you go with this man, this Jesus?”

If we say ‘yes’, just as the servant clothed Rebekah and gave her rich gifts,  Jesus will clothe us with a robe of righteousness and jewels of spiritual gifts – and the Holy Spirit, which is God’s pledge, like an engagement ring. The question then is: are we willing to leave what we know, and go with him?

In Psalm 45, a song written for the wedding of a king, the psalmist says:

“Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house… the king desires your beauty…” – Psalm 45:10-11

Today we stand where Rebekah stood. The King of Kings and the Lord of Lords desires our beauty, and asks if we will go with him. Will we say ‘yes’?

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh – 7/9/17

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“Where Is the Lamb?”

“After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.  Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

“When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.  But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”  And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”” – Genesis 22:1-14

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“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them…” – Hamlet, Act III Scene I

These may be some of the most famous words ever written in the English language. They come from a play in which Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark, is assassinated by his brother, who then marries the King’s widow, Hamlet’s mother. In trying to take revenge on his father’s death, Hamlet accidentally kills his best friend Laertes’ father. Laertes then takes revenge on Hamlet by challenging Hamlet to a duel in which (eventually) Hamlet, Laertes, Hamlet’s mother, and his uncle the new King, all die horribly; and Laertes’s sister Ophelia, who was in love with Hamlet, has gone crazy.

Of course there’s more to the story than that, but that’s the basic plot line. Bottom line, Hamlet is a disturbing tale. There is very little light in it, very little hope. So why have people been watching this play for hundreds of years? One of the reasons is it gives a window into human nature and what motivates people to do what they do.

Today’s scripture reading from Genesis is kind of like Hamlet. It’s a disturbing tale, and we may find ourselves wondering why anyone would want to hear it, or why it was included in the Bible.

The God we know is a God of love and truth and compassion – so how can we get our minds around the events described in this reading? How can we understand a God who says to a father, “go sacrifice your son”? How can we answer the critics of religion who point to this story and say, “you actually believe in a God like that?”

But understood rightly, like Hamlet, this passage gives us a window into not only human nature but also Divine nature. It’s a rare glimpse into what it means for Abraham to be a friend of God, and a man who walks with God.

When human beings are dealing with the Almighty there are things it’s good for us to know. Things that can be seen in this passage, like:

  • God is king. God rules.
  • A God who is powerful enough to speak the universe into being is far more powerful than we are.
  • What God says goes. It’s a contradiction in terms to say, “No, Lord” – because to call someone ‘Lord’ means we’re in a position to be commanded. When you’re a private in the army, you don’t say ‘no, sergeant’. A Lord, by definition, is someone we can only say ‘yes’ to.
  • The God we are dealing with, as C.S. Lewis says in The Chronicles of Narnia, “is not a tame lion.”
  • God is not like us. We may be made in God’s image, but we are not God. God is different from us.

But given all these things about God, we still wonder why God would tell Abraham to sacrifice his son – or how Abraham, as a loving father, could possibly follow these instructions.

The key to understanding this passage is verse 5, where Abraham says to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham says he and Isaac: will go, will worship, and will come back. In all three phrases the words are plural. Abraham does not say I will come back to you; he says we will come back to you.

Abraham doesn’t know yet how this will happen; but he knows that Isaac will live. So the question then becomes: what does Abraham know that we don’t see in this passage?

  1. While it’s true Abraham lived in a time when human sacrifice was commonplace that doesn’t explain his actions, because…
  2. The God of the Bible does not require human sacrifice. God never asks for human sacrifice. In fact it’s the false gods in the surrounding nations, false gods like Ba’al and Moloch, who ‘require’ human sacrifices. God does not. Ever. And Abraham, who has walked with God for decades, knows this command is not in God’s character. So he knows something must be up. God must have something else in mind.
  3. Abraham also knows the land God is calling them to go to – which is named “Moriah” – that the name means “the Lord is my teacher”. So God has something to teach Abraham and Isaac. And Abraham loves God enough to want to know what’s on God’s mind.
  4. Abraham also knows God has promised that Abraham’s heirs will be counted through Isaac – and Isaac hasn’t had kids yet, so Isaac must survive. Somehow, Isaac will be coming back down the mountain alive.

But there are still some things Abraham doesn’t know… things that only we can see from our distance in the future, like:

  1. Abraham doesn’t know God is testing him: that God wants to show the people who will come after Abraham what real faith and trust in God looks like. The writer of Hebrews says: “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead.” (Hebrews 11:17-19)
  2. Abraham doesn’t yet know is that his actions – and Isaac’s actions – will create a living picture of what the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, will do someday. Their actions are a living prophecy, and the first-ever prophecy of the Messiah in the Bible that’s given by someone other than God.

Look at the parallels between Isaac and Jesus:

  • Isaac was Abraham’s “only son”. Jesus was God’s only Son.
  • Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son – Jesus will become the sacrifice for the human race.\
  • Abraham was told to go to ‘a mountain that God would show him’. The mountain was the same mountain King Solomon built the first temple on in Jerusalem. It was not far from Calvary, and might actually have been the same hill.
  • Abraham put the wood on Isaac’s back to carry up the mountain. God put the wood on Jesus’ back to carry up the mountain.
  • Genesis tells us “The two of them (Abraham and Isaac) walked on together” – that is, they were of one mind and one action. God and Jesus also ‘walked together’ and were of one mind and one action.
  • When Isaac asks where the lamb is, Abraham answers: “God himself will provide the lamb”. Jesus is called ‘the Lamb of God’ by John the Baptist in John chapter 1.

In the end, Isaac was not sacrificed because he is not, and cannot be, the sacrifice for human sin. But using Isaac as an example, God shared with Abraham and Isaac an incredibly intimate insight into the mind and heart and plans of God for the future of God’s people.

God then praises Abraham saying: “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” God knows we as human beings need to love God above everything else. In order to love others to the best of our abilities, God must be #1 in our lives, as hard as that sounds sometimes… and as hard as that is sometimes.

When God had provided the sacrifice, and everything was said and done, Abraham – realizing he had touched God’s heart – wanted to create a memorial of that event. So, in the tradition of his people, Abraham gave the place a name. He called it Jehovah-Jireh, which means ‘the Lord will provide’. As it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

For us here today, on the mountain of Calvary it has been provided: where the Lamb of God, God’s only Son, was sacrificed for us. Today we remember what God promised us, and what God has done for us.

God promised that there would come a Messiah who would save his people from their sin. And in fulfillment of that promise, Jesus came, sharing God’s truth and God’s love and the good news of God’s kingdom. And when the leaders of his people nailed him to a cross, on the mountain of the Lord, God raised him from the dead, so that all who believe in him “should not perish but have everlasting life”.

And Jesus, having shown us God’s heart, created for us a memorial of that event: communion. In a few moments we will come by faith, and receive what God has provided on that mountain. All who believe in Jesus and seek to live a life honoring Him are welcome to this table and this memorial. AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 7/2/17

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The God Who Hears

“The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.  9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.  10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”  11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.  12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you.  13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”  14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

15 “When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes.  16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.  17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.  18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”  19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.  20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.  21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.” – Genesis 21:8-21   

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Today’s sermon is the second installment in our summer series on the Old Testament. And our scripture reading for today, from Genesis, tells the story of a party.

The party takes place about 4000 years ago and is given by a man named Abraham to celebrate his baby boy starting to eating solid food – which was something to celebrate back in those days because many babies didn’t survive past infancy.

But there is so much drama going on in his household, the story sounds more like a soap opera than a party.  There are cat-fights and betrayals and outrageous if not downright illegal behavior. So I’d like to subtitle this sermon The Not So Young and the Restless.

And as with any soap opera, before we can make sense of what’s happening we need to know the characters and their back-stories.

So the main character is Abraham, the patriarch of the family.  Abraham walks with God.  He has conversations with God and he has received promises from God.  In fact God changed his name from Abram (which means ‘exalted father’) to Abraham (which means ‘father of a multitude’). In Genesis Chapter 12 God says to Abraham:

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

This is the promise that has guided and defined Abraham’s life.

The second character in our soap opera is Sarah, Abraham’s wife.  Sarah was known for her beauty in her younger days, and now that she’s older she is still a handsome woman, and a formidable woman as well. She is in charge of Abraham’s household, but to her great sorrow she’s never been able to have children.

The third character in our soap opera is Hagar, Sarah’s slave-girl. She’s from Egypt and doesn’t have the same religious or cultural background as Abraham and Sarah.  But Sarah, after waiting for years and years for God’s promise of a child to arrive, gets discouraged and gives Hagar to Abraham to have children for her – which was not an unusual thing to do back in those days.

But when Hagar becomes pregnant she starts to get cocky and lords it over her mistress, and a baby-begetting rivalry begins.  Finally Sarah has enough of Hagar’s attitude and abuses her to the point where Hagar runs away. In Genesis 16 we read, “The angel of the Lord found [Hagar] by a spring of water in the wilderness… and he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarah, where have you come from and where are you going?” (Of course the angel already knows the answers to these questions.  But in the Hebrew culture questions like these are not looking for information. They are a respectful way of scolding someone… and also an opportunity for the other person to explain their actions.)

Hagar answers, “I am running away from my mistress Sarah.” – which is more of a pout than a defense.  And the angel says to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.”  In other words, ‘grow up’.

But the angel also says, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted… […] You have conceived and will bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael (which means “God hears”), for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.”  So while Hagar has a rough road ahead, she will be comforted by a son – whose name will always remind her (and everyone else around her) that God is watching over her and listening to her voice.

The angel also says Ishmael will be “a wild donkey of a man” who will “live at odds with all his kin.”  And in these words we meet the fourth character in our soap opera, Ishmael, Hagar’s son. The Bible doesn’t tell us a whole lot about Ishmael’s childhood but it does say he was circumcised along with all the other men in Abraham’s family. So Ishmael is in every way a member of Abraham’s covenant family under God.

A few years before today’s drama takes place, when Abraham is about 90 years old, God visits him and repeats his promise about Abraham’s offspring.  But Abraham, in discouragement, says, “You have given me no offspring, and a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”  But God answers, “This man shall not be your heir…” And he took him outside and said, “…count the stars… so shall your descendants be.”

And Abraham believed God, and “the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  This is the first time in scripture where righteousness is defined as believing God; where faith is defined as the key to a right relationship with God.  We can watch for that theme to repeat itself as we progress through the Bible.

Then last Sunday, on Fathers’ Day, we read about Abraham finally becoming a father.  By the time God’s promise finally came true, and the baby boy was born, Abraham was 100 years old, and Sarah was in her 90s.  And since by that time both Abraham and Sarah had laughed when God told them a child would be born to them, the baby is named “Isaac” which means “he laughs”.

And this brings us to the beginning of our soap opera for today.

The scene opens on Isaac’s weaning party, celebrating the fact that Isaac has made it through infancy and his life ahead looks good.

But for Ishmael, if he ever had dreams about being Abraham’s heir, this day pretty much puts an end to that.  And scripture says, “Sarah saw [him] playing with her son Isaac.”

This is not as innocent as it sounds.  A better translation might be ‘mocking’ or ‘picking on’ Isaac. And Ishmael, being around 14 years old at this point, should have known better.

For Sarah it’s the last straw. She says to Abraham: “[Get rid of] this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Notice Sarah doesn’t even say their names… it’s just “this slave woman” and “her son”.

Abraham is not happy about this.  He doesn’t want to get involved in a cat-fight, but he also knows this time things are not going to blow over. So God has a word with Abraham and says:

“Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring will be named for you.”  God also adds, “I will make Ishmael fruitful as well, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes will he beget, and I will make him a great nation.” (Gen 17)

So both boys will be blessed, and so Abraham’s mind is put at rest.  The next morning Abraham gives Hagar bread and a skin of water and sends her off with Ishmael.

Not knowing where to go and what to do, Hagar and Ishmael wander around in the wilderness of Beer-sheba for a while, until the bread and the water are gone. (The name Beer-sheba means ‘seven wells’ but for some reason they’re not coming across these wells in their travels.)  And as thirst grows, Ishmael becomes weak. Hagar, devastated, throws him under a bush and then goes off at a distance to wait for the inevitable. She says, “do not let me look on the death of the child” – and she breaks down and weeps.

And Genesis says, “God heard the voice of the boy (interesting it doesn’t say ‘heard the voice of his mother’ – at this point the boy’s voice would have been the weaker of the two, but God still hears it.)  And God calls to Hagar and says, “[I have] heard the voice of the boy where he is… lift him up, hold him fast, for I will make a great nation of him.” And then God opened her eyes to see a well, and she went and got water for them both.

Hagar responds to God with faith – the same kind of faith that Abraham showed when God spoke about Isaac.  Whoever she’s been in the past and whatever she’s done, Hagar now trusts God and walks with God.

And that’s where our story today ends. But there’s a lot more to the story. Over the next few weeks we will be hearing more about Isaac’s story, and his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren as they become the people of Israel.

But we won’t hear about Ishmael again in our series.  So here’s the rest of his story.  Hagar found Ishmael a wife, and the family settled in the wilderness of Paran, which is sort of a desert area. Later in life Isaac and Ishmael together will bury their father Abraham in the family cave – so the two boys don’t lose touch with each other completely.  And Ishmael will go on to have twelve sons, just as God told Abraham. And these twelve sons will lead twelve tribes, paralleling Jacob’s sons and their twelve tribes. Jacob and his sons will end up in Egypt eventually, and then to the Promised Land; Ishmael and his sons will settle in what is known today as west-central Saudi Arabia.

And that’s where Ishmael’s story in the Bible ends. But there’s one more postscript in history: Ishmael will spend his last years living in a city called Mecca, and he will become the ancestor of a man named Mohammed. And the family rift between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael will grow wider and wider over the centuries, always at each other – just as the angel predicted.

And this continues even to our own time. And when we think about how this rivalry between brothers plays out in today’s world, the story doesn’t look like a soap opera any more.  It’s painful and it’s violent. And we begin to understand the depth of the conflict that was going on inside Abraham’s family.

So what do we do with this ancient story today?

First, we need to try to set politics aside. Our world is SO politically charged – but this story is God’s word, and it’s God’s message we want to listen for.

Second, we see in these events a God who forgives sin. God gave Abraham and Sarah a promise, of a son. And they believed that promise, for the most part.  But did their faith slip a little? – or did they think they needed to help God out? – when they gave Hagar to Abraham? God never said anything about Abraham needing a second wife!  One commentator notes: “The bright ideas that God’s people get with good intentions to hurry the Lord’s plans along, often create more frustration and heartbreak…” than anything else. (http://www.hvcog.org/e-mails/2016e/october_20_2016.htm )

But God forgave the parents, and blessed both boys as children of Abraham. God may not remove the consequences but God redeems the circumstances.  If any of us should find ourselves in a place where we have made a doozy of a mistake: God will forgive if we turn to him. God’s plans for good in our lives are not changed or prevented by our mistakes. So be encouraged.

Third, God is as committed to blessing Ishmael as he is to blessing Isaac.  Both boys were predicted by God. Both boys were received into the covenant and were circumcised.  Only one of them can become the forefather of Jesus – and that will be Isaac – but this does not mean Ishmael is loved any less by God.

This passage shows that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam find a physical connection in Abraham. And in all three faiths God is understood as one God (as opposed to many gods, like in Hinduism) and God is a personal God (as opposed to a ‘force’ or ‘life energy’ of some kind).

But salvation is and always has been by faith in God’s promise – which ultimately is Jesus – no matter who we are or where we find ourselves.  The apostle Paul tells us there will come a time when the Jewish people will understand that Jesus is the Messiah and will believe (for more details see Romans chapters 9-11).

And for Muslims, the good news of salvation by faith alone is probably the most attractive aspect of Christianity today.  I mention this as friends and colleagues return from mission work among the refugees in Europe, where Muslims are coming to Christ by the thousands. I think for us it might be helpful to draw a parallel between the Muslims of today and the Samaritans of Jesus’ day.  Remember Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel of John – the woman began by saying to him:

“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  22 You [Samaritans] worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” – John 4:20-24

So in Jesus we see all three streams coming together, because Jesus is the completion of all three streams, received by faith and worshipped ‘in spirit and in truth’. This gives hope for those of us who reach out across religious lines to share our faith in Jesus.

Fourth and last, in this story we see a God who hears.  God hears both Sarah’s laughter and her anger. God hears Abraham’s discouragement.  God hears the pain of a pregnant slave-girl who has been abused. God hears the cries of a young man near death. And God not only hears, but God responds.

God does not remove the difficult situations; but neither is God’s blessing lost just because people have messed up.  God’s good plans to bless Abraham’s family and to bless the whole world through Abraham’s family, are still going forward, and God’s people will not just survive but thrive.

So if we find ourselves going through difficulties, we can be assured that our mistakes and our shortcomings won’t put a stop to God’s blessings. Our imperfections don’t stop God’s good plans for us and for our children.  We are not rejected just because we mess up.  God has made a road through the wilderness and through the pain and into glory.

God’s kingdom is never lost to us, and God’s love is never lost to us, so long as we stay with God. So take heart – and follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, trusting God and following God as they did: imperfectly, but faithfully.

AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 6/25/17

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“The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.  2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.  3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.  4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.  5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on — since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”  6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.”  7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.  8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

9 “They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.”  10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him.  11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.  12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”  13 The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’  14 Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”  15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”” – Genesis 18:1-15

“The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised.  2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him.  3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.  4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.  5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.  6 Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”  7 And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”” – Genesis 21:1-7

Happy Father’s Day to all the men here today – and I do want to include all the men, because whether or not you have kids, your presence here in the community of faith helps to make this church a healthy and nurturing place for children.

Father’s Day (like Mother’s Day) can sometimes be awkward, because not everyone has happy childhood memories, and not everyone was raised with two parents, and not everyone who wanted to become a parent is one.  But at the same time we do want to celebrate those men who have invested their time and their skills in helping to raise the next generation.

Before we get to today’s scripture reading I wanted to share a story about my own dad.  I don’t usually talk about people from the pulpit – I think it’s kind of like an invasion of privacy – but Dad has heard this story before, it’s been told before, so we’re good.

This story takes place when I was about four years old.  At that age I used to go to church with my parents and I’d stand on the pew between them and read the hymnal over their shoulders. And I also became fascinated with communion. I could sense there was something really special about it. There was something that drew me to it – or more accurately, someone who drew me to it.

So I told my parents, “I want to take communion.”  In the church I grew up in, they only had communion about four times a year, and it was only for adults, not kids.  So my parents told me “you have to be older.” I think twelve was around the minimum age. Now for a four-year-old, twelve sounds like forever. So I kept bugging my parents every time there was communion: “Can I take communion?” And I kept on getting the same answer.

One Sunday in spite of my shyness – and I was very shy as a child – I decided I had heard the word ‘no’ one too many times. I forget what exactly happened but the end result was Dad picked me up and carried me bodily out of the worship service, in front of the entire congregation! I was mortified.

So Dad found an old office and sat me down and said “OK young lady, just what is all this about??”  And I said, “I want to take communion.”  And he said, “You’re not old enough.”  And I said what any four-year-old would say: “Why?”

And Dad said, “Because you need to be old enough to understand what it means.”

And I said, “OK… tell me what it means.”

And Dad explained that Jesus died on the cross so our sins could be forgiven and so we could be with God in heaven forever, and when we take communion we remember what Jesus did for us on the cross and we say ‘thank you’ to Jesus. (Not bad for an engineering major…!)

So I thought about that for a moment, and what Dad said made sense to me. So said, “OK, I get it. I understand. Can I take communion now?”

And Dad laughed and shook his head and said, “you have a one-track mind.”  And I said, “but I understand it now.” And I repeated back to Dad, word for word, what he had said.

And Dad thought about it, and he said “OK, I told you Jesus died for our sins. So what’s a sin?” And I said, “I dunno.” He said, “See, you don’t really understand it.”  And I said, “So tell me!!”

And Dad said, “a sin is either when you do something you’re not supposed to do, or when you don’t do something you’re supposed to do.”

And I thought about that for a loooong minute.  And my four-year-old reasoning went something like this: As a shy and quiet kid, I didn’t get into much trouble. I *might* be able to squeak by on the bit about staying away from things you’re not supposed to do.  But where it came to getting out of things you’re supposed to do but don’t feel like doing?  Even at the age of four I was already an expert at that!  And I could see I needed God’s forgiveness. I needed what Jesus had to offer.

So I said to Dad, “I get it.”  And this time I gave it back to him in my own words. And he looked at me and said, “you really do get it!” And I said, “Yes. Can I take communion now?”

And Dad said, “I tell you what. It’s too late today, they’re already finished with communion, it’s all put away. And your mom would never agree to this (she and Dad had some differences in their church backgrounds), so just between us… whenever Mom has to be in the nursery with your little brother and it’s just you and me in church, you can take communion. Will that do?”  And I said yes.

And Dad was true to his word, and I bless him for that.  Because God really does touch the hearts of children, and Dad was smart enough to see that.  And truly the best gift a parent can give a child is to share Jesus with them.

My dad is now 86 years old by the way – slowing down a bit these days – I appreciate your prayers for him when you get the chance.

So when you get to the bottom line it’s all about faith. Finding faith, living in faith, growing in faith.

And as we turn to look at the story from Genesis today, looking at Abraham’s story, we see faith at the center of his fatherhood as well. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, a multitude of people. But then decades passed, and nothing happened.  Abraham and Sarah weren’t able to have children.

When Abraham was over 90 years old, God came to him again and repeated the promise. And Abraham answered bitterly, “but I have no son and a distant relative is my heir.”  And God said to Abraham, “look up at the stars. How many are there? That’s how many your descendants will be.”

And the Bible says, “Abraham believed God, and the God reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Abraham’s faith made him a righteous man in God’s eyes.  And the same is true today: God doesn’t ask us for perfection, God asks us to trust Him.

But still the promised child didn’t come.  And then, in our reading from this morning, as Abraham is approaching the age of 100, he receives three mysterious visitors.  Genesis says “God” visited Abraham… and we can think of these three visitors as sort of representing the Trinity.  Abraham offers them hospitality – which is something that God approves of. The book of Hebrews says, “We should not be forgetful to entertain strangers, for [in doing so] some have entertained angels unawares.”

And the three men predict that, when they come this way again in the not-so-distant future, Sarah will have had a son. And Sarah laughs – quietly, to herself – knowing full well she’s already gone through the change of life.  But the men reply, “Why do you laugh? What is too wonderful [that is, too difficult] for the Lord?”

And in Chapter 21, after all those years, after all the decades, the promised son is finally born. And they name him Isaac, which translated means “he laughs”.  And Sarah says, “God has made me laugh, and all who hear of it will laugh with me.”

Like so many spiritual truths, the truths that we see in this passage are not limited in their application to just fathers.  These words are meant for all of us.  But we see them here in Abraham’s story… as Abraham becomes a father for the first time… and I pray the message will be a blessing for the men of our congregation today.

So we see in this passage that:

  1. Abraham “believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” The same is true for all fathers. Faith is the key to making actions count.  And if and when you’re not sure about which direction to take, following God’s lead, you can’t go wrong.
  2. Just like Abraham, fathers have a special opportunity to witness to their children… to tell them about things that happened before they were born… to tell them about how their birth came to be… and how God has led the family from the very beginning up until today. Fathers have a special opportunity to speak God’s truth into their children’s lives. Moms do too, but I think kids do best when they learn about faith from both parents. Speaking as a daughter, hearing about God from my Dad made a huge difference in my life.
  3. Abraham looked for opportunities to be of service; he practiced hospitality… in our story today, hospitality to strangers. Generosity towards others shows that a man has been blessed by God and has God-given gifts that are worth sharing.
  4. Finally, a man who believes God’s promises is working with God to bring about God’s will in the world. In Abraham’s story, for example, God’s will was to create a holy nation that would bear witness to the world about God’s truth and God’s love. Abraham’s faith made the creation of that nation possible. As for our stories today… our stories are still being written. But faith is still the key to hearing God’s promises and working with God to bring God’s will about in our world.

To all men here today: thank you for the spiritual leadership you provide for your families and for this church. And be encouraged by Abraham’s story to keep on being men of God. AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 6/18/17

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In the Beginning

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,  2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.  5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”  7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.  8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

9 And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so.  10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.  11 Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so.  12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.  13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years,  15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.  16 God made the two great lights– the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night– and the stars.  17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,  18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.  19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20 And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.”  21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good.  22 God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.”  23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so.  25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.  31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.  NRS

 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.  2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.  4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” – Genesis 1:1-2:4

credit: http://jennbowers.deviantart.com/art/In-the-Beginning-173825924

As you can see in today’s bulletin insert, today the Partnership’s pastoral team is launching a summer series on the Old Testament.

As Christians we are a New Testament people.  Jesus lived in New Testament times, the Christian church begins in the New Testament, and we tend to focus on the New Testament most of the time.  But when Jesus preached, he taught the Old Testament. Jesus was raised Jewish, raised in the synagogue, and Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. So the Old Testament is the foundation on which the New Testament church is built.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matt 5:18) And when Jesus talks about the Law, he means the Old Testament, particularly the first five books – which will be the foundation of our summer series.

So today, here we are at the very beginning!  Genesis chapter 1 verse 1.

As we approach this passage I think it’s helpful to remember the old journalist’s saying that if you want to get to the bottom of something there are five questions to answer: Who, What, When, Where, and Why?  Genesis chapter 1 answers those questions about life on the planet Earth from God’s point of view.

Before we dig into this passage, a little bit of background for reading and understanding Genesis. Genesis is not meant to be read like a newspaper: journalism as we understand it did not exist back then.  Genesis is not meant to be read like a science textbook: schools hadn’t been invented back then.  And Genesis is not meant to be read like the transcript of a court case: lawyers had not been invented yet.

The first human beings, who are created in this chapter, didn’t even know how to read and write.  So the words of Genesis were compiled generations later. But the lack of science and newspapers and lawyers in the first few dozen generations of the human race did not mean ancient people were beneath us intellectually. There is knowledge and wisdom to be found here – just not quite the way it’s usually expressed in the 21st century.

Genesis tells us the story of creation from God’s point of view, metaphorically, in a way that our human understanding can grasp some meaning and apply it.

Of course I can’t talk about the first chapter of Genesis without also mentioning the debate over creationism vs evolution. People argue that either Genesis is the literal truth, or else they say it’s a total myth. Let me suggest that both of those points of view are flawed.

To those who say Genesis should be rejected – who say God had nothing to do with the earth being here – I would say this: look around you. Look at the flowers and the trees and the mountains. Better yet, look at a baby; and tell me these things happen by accident.

As a musician I can tell you a song can’t exist without a songwriter. Likewise a creation can’t exist without a creator.

To those who say Genesis must be taken literally: the choice of words God uses in Genesis chapter one tells us this is not literal.  For example, God describes the process of creation in terms of days – day one, God did this; day two God did that – but the sun wasn’t created until Day Four, and it’s impossible to measure out a day (as we understand it) without the sun.

Scripture itself says that for God, 1000 years is like a day and a day is like 1000 years. And if you want my opinion, where it comes to evolution, there’s no reason why evolution couldn’t be one of many tools in God’s toolbox.

But that’s just my opinion. Today we’re here to listen to the word of God. So let’s dig into it.

Genesis chapter 1, verse 1: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…”   That’s WHEN God created, not IF.

In the original Hebrew there’s something unusual about this first verse.  The noun for ‘God’ is plural… but the verb for ‘created’ is singular.  Mixing a plural subject with a singular verb doesn’t happen in the Hebrew language. In fact it doesn’t happen in English either. In English we would say ‘he makes’ or ‘they make’. We wouldn’t say ‘they makes’. But that’s exactly what the Hebrew says here: God (plural) created (singular).

So in the first chapter of the Bible we meet the foundation of the reality that becomes our understanding of the Trinity. And we meet the Holy Spirit in verse two. ‘The wind’ hovering over the waters can be translated ‘spirit’ – it’s the same word. And then in verse 26 we overhear a conversation among God saying: “let us make humankind in our image”.  God does not say “I’m going to make people in my image.”  And God does not say “our images”.  God says “let us make humankind in our image”. This is not a mistake in the translation.  The Trinity is in the very first chapter of the very first book.  (And it just so happens today is Trinity Sunday which makes it really appropriate that we’re looking at Genesis Chapter 1.)

So moving on to verse two: “when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless and void” – in other words, there was nothing here. Nothing at all. It was empty and dark. And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light.

My favorite translation of verse three is the very first English translation ever made. The translator was John Wycliffe and the year was 1382. (Aside: Back then copying the Bible into any language but Latin was a crime punishable by death. So Wycliffe risked his life to give us this Bible in English because he believed so strongly that people need to hear God’s word in their own language.)

Wycliffe’s translation of Genesis 1:3 reads:

“and God said ‘light be made’ and light was made.”

Isn’t that fantastic?  When God speaks, things happen. Can you imagine coming home at the end of the day and walking into the kitchen and saying ‘dinner be made!’? God says “light be made” and light is made!

God’s will is done.

“And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.”

Getting back to evolution for a minute, and the theory of the Big Bang: according to recently retired Harvard astrophysicist Professor Owen Gingerich and his colleagues, the Big Bang had to have been made out of something. In other words a bang can’t happen out of nothing. You need to have something there to go ‘bang’. Many scientists now agree that the substance, the material, the Big Bang was made out of, was light. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

But the important thing here is what God does: God separates light from darkness. God calls light ‘good’.  And from this time forward, God will be in the business of separating light from darkness, and good from evil.

Moving on a bit more quickly now… on Day Two, God separates earth from the rest of the solar system by placing an atmosphere around the planet.  On Day Three, God brings the planet’s waters together to make seas and to make dry land. On Day Three God also creates all kinds of plant life including fruit trees… and all these plants have seeds in them that will produce more plants! Life has begun. God created the earth with life in mind.

On Day Four, God creates the Sun and the Moon to give the earth light (which is something the plants are going to need) and also to mark off time: the movements of the sun and moon determine the days, and seasons, and years. The stars are also noticed for the first time but the author doesn’t say anything more about them. Was creation happening on any of the other planets out there? We don’t know, and the Bible doesn’t say, but someday that question will be answered.

On Day Five, God creates life in the ocean: things that swim. It’s interesting that the theory of evolution agrees that animal life on earth has to have begun in the ocean. God also creates birds on the fifth day, and God says to them, “be fruitful and multiply” – and they do.

On Day Six, God creates animal life: cattle, wild animals, snakes, tigers, horses, and cats of course. And then last but certainly not least, God makes human beings “in our image, according to our likeness, male and female.”  The man and the woman were equally created in God’s image; and God blesses them both and gives them both instructions for life. And these instructions still apply today. God says:

  1. “Be fruitful and multiply.” For many people this will mean having children, but not for everybody. For some it may mean teaching or mentoring – passing on knowledge from one generation to another. For some it may mean sustaining life through health care or through growing food or providing shelter or making clothing. For all of us it means taking the gifts and talents God has given us and investing them for the good of other people.
  2. “Fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over it.” This verse has been used many times in human history to excuse damage to the environment.  And the Hebrew word here for ‘have dominion’ does imply force. But the interpretation is not correct.  What’s being said here basically is: nature is wild. Tame it. Prune it.  Rule over it with care. Make the earth produce what you need… but where it’s defenseless, protect it. Be responsible for its well-being.
  3. “I have given you every plant yielding seed… and every tree with seed in its fruit… you shall have them for food.” And God says the same thing to the animals.  The eating of animals… by either people or other animals… doesn’t happen until after the Fall, until after Adam and Eve rebel against God.
    Paul writes in Romans 8: “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility… We know that the whole creation has been groaning [as] in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves…” (Romans 8:20-23 edited)  Violence between living creatures was never part of God’s original plan, and it’s one of the things that will be healed in God’s coming kingdom.  (By the way, I don’t interpret this to mean we should all stop eating meat… but I do think God’s intention merits our attention.)

And then, at the end of Day Six, when God has said and done all these things, God sits back and says, “this is good!”

And on the seventh day, God rested. The word for ‘rest’ in Hebrew is Shabbat, or Sabbath as we call it today.  It means to cease and desist.  And God blessed the seventh day, and set it apart as holy.

The Sabbath and its meaning, and God’s intention for it, needs a sermon in itself.  And I’m looking forward to writing that sermon someday! But I’m running out of time today so here’s just a sneak preview.

Keeping the Sabbath is not about following a set of rules. Many of us here can remember the days of the ‘blue laws’ when everything was closed on Sundays. And sometimes this caused problems. What happened, for example, if you needed to go to the hospital on a Sunday but your car was out of gas?

There are times when the rules need to bend.  And that’s what Jesus and the Pharisees were always arguing over where it came to the Sabbath.  Jesus said the Sabbath is made for human beings, not vice versa.

The purpose of the Sabbath is to give God’s people the right to have one day out of every seven where we cannot be required to work. One day when we cannot be required to run ourselves ragged going to every sale at the mall, or trimming every hedge in the yard, or getting all the kids to all their practices on Sundays.  The Sabbath gives us the right to say “NO”.  It’s liberating! The Sabbath is freedom. The Sabbath is a foretaste of God’s kingdom to come. And while I don’t believe in blue laws, I do believe our society’s abandonment of the Sabbath is one of the causes of many of the evils of our time: especially when people become unhinged by the pressures of life.  Human beings were not meant to work 24/7/365. We can’t do it and stay healthy. And God knows that, so God gave us the Sabbath.

More on that some other day.  For now, to sum up Genesis 1:

  1. What we read here is that you and I and all of creation are created by a good and loving and creative and powerful, Triune God.
  2. Second, we see that God’s word is active. What God says, happens. And we can take that to the bank.
  3. Third, we see that God cares very deeply for life. And related to that…
  4. Fourth, we see that nature is given to sustain life. Not us only, but all living things. Part of our job here on earth is to care for, and give back to, the earth that sustains us.
  5. Fifth, God looks around at creation and says it’s all good!
  6. And sixth, resting every seventh day is the rhythm of creation – and of eternity.

So this week, think on these things… turn them over in your minds… and apply them as God leads. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 6/11/17

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Ascension Day

On this day churches around the world are remembering Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ascension Day is not a major holiday for most folks – there are no Hallmark cards for it, and not every church in the world will be talking about it today.  But Pastor Matt and I both felt it was too important to miss.

A few years ago when my pastor led a tour of Israel, he took us to the top of the Mount of Olives, which is where the Ascension took place.

Here’s a photo of the chapel that was built on what’s believed to be the spot where the Ascension happened.  They’re not absolutely certain, but we know it’s within a few hundred yards.

You can see from the number of languages on the sign, the importance that’s given to this place.

And as you’re looking at the chapel, if you turn around you see this – looking out over Jerusalem.

As our tour group was standing here I’ll never forget what my pastor said:

“If not for the Ascension, you and I would not be standing here as Christians today. And I wish more churches taught that.”

Now I thought this was kind of an odd statement.  I could see saying something like “we wouldn’t be here without” Christmas or Good Friday or Easter. But the Ascension?  Two of the four Gospels don’t even mention it. So how could it be that important?

In our creed it says we believe in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again, and then “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty”.  If Jesus didn’t ascend – if the creed is wrong, then Jesus still has a human body – and is either impossibly old, or would have died again, and we’d be believing in nothing.

But that’s not what happened.  After Jesus’ resurrection things weren’t the same as they were before. Jesus’ body wasn’t the same as before. His resurrected body could do some really unusual things, like getting into a locked room without opening the door.

The Creator of the Universe, when he took human form, gave up a lot. Jesus entered into creation and became one of us, and lived and died like one of us, in order to open the door for us into God’s kingdom.

In Luke chapter 12 Jesus, speaking about his death and resurrection says: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!”  In other words, there were things he couldn’t do when he was one of us.  For the creator of time and space to be limited within time and space is almost beyond imagination.

But that time of limitation, for Jesus, is almost over. And our readings for today tell us about how Jesus chose to spend his last 40 days here on earth, before returning home, where he could be fully himself again.

So let’s look at these readings.  Both of our readings for today were written by the apostle Luke.  They tell the same story but in slightly different ways.  The reading from Luke comes from the end of Luke’s gospel – which is about the life of Jesus.  The reading from Acts is the story of the beginning of the church.  We’ll look mostly at the reading from Acts (for those who want to follow in pew Bibles).

In the first verses of Acts, Luke dedicates his book to “Theophilus” – which is the same dedication as in the book of Luke. Nobody knows for sure if this is a man’s name or if it’s a title, but in Greek ‘Theophilus’ means ‘lover of God’ – and I think it’s safe to say Luke’s books were written for any of us who love God.

Luke starts out by saying

“after his suffering [Jesus] presented himself alive to [the disciples] by many convincing proofs.”

Luke is using legal language here – if I were going to translate this into American English I would say Jesus ‘proved his case beyond the shadow of a doubt’ – not once, but many times over.  The disciples had absolutely no doubts that Jesus had been dead, and was now alive.

For people in the 21st century who may doubt Jesus’ resurrection – I think one of the strongest replies we can offer is that so many men and women in the book of Acts were willing to die rather than deny what they saw.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and we’ll be remembering those who gave their lives so that we could be free. Today let’s also remember those who gave their lives so that we could know the truth, so that our freedom would be something worth having. These men and women in the book of Acts were eyewitnesses to the living Jesus, who was crucified but didn’t stay dead, and they refused to say otherwise even if it cost their lives.

So having proven to the disciples that he was alive, Jesus gave them these instructions: stay in Jerusalem, and don’t leave until the promise of the Father comes.

Jesus had mentioned this before. He said: just as John baptized with water, soon you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Wait for it. He said, “Stay here… until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

And the disciples asked him, “Lord… is this when you’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

At this point a lot of theologians and commentators roll their eyes at how dense the disciples can be.  They still don’t get it that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world?  But I wouldn’t be so fast to roll eyes at the disciples – because their question about restoring the kingdom is still around today, just in different forms.

What I’m about to say here is not meant to be political – I don’t support any particular party – but looking at Acts 1:6 in the Greek, the phrase “restore the kingdom to Israel” sounds familiar. What the disciples are asking about is a return to a previous state of being: a restoration of greatness.

Their mistake is not in wanting to be ‘great again’.  Their mistake is in looking to the past rather than the future.

The thing is, the past is easier to imagine than the future, because we know the past – it’s familiar.  I was in the bank the other day, and they had on the wall an artists’ rendering of downtown Pittsburgh back in the late 60s or early 70s: streetcars, Kaufmann’s windows decorated for Christmas, the Kaufmann’s clock at the corner of 5th and Smithfield… the way things used to be… my banker and I had a ‘moment’ right there in the bank.

The past has such a strong pull on our hearts! And the future… sounds like an awful lot of work.

Of course we only ever live in the present – not the past or the future. And that’s true for the church as well as the nation.

But the kingdom Jesus is talking about is not about the past: it’s about the kingdom of God, which, to Jesus, is the present but to us feels like the future. So Jesus answers the disciples’ question by saying: the times and periods of nations are in the hands of God the Father.  YOUR job is to be my witnesses: in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  And when the Holy Spirit comes, he will give you power to do that. And the Holy Spirit is coming very soon.

Acts 1:3 tells us Jesus spent his last 40 days on earth teaching the disciples “about the kingdom of God” – giving them a vision of the kingdom.  And Luke’s gospel says  Jesus reviewed with the disciples “everything written about [him] in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms…” and “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”

This word ‘opened’ is an interesting word in the Greek. It’s word often used to describe the opening made when a woman is giving birth to her first child. It means to open completely, as far as their minds can stretch, so that they see clearly, and can bring all the parts of Jesus’ story together in a way that makes sense.

And then, having taught the disciples from the Old Testament how all these pieces come together, and having promised them that the Holy Spirit would come, Jesus blessed them and was carried up into heaven.

Luke says Jesus disappeared into a cloud, and suddenly there were two men in white standing near the disciples saying “why are you staring up into heaven? Jesus has been taken up into heaven and will come back again the same way.” And so the disciples went back to Jerusalem with great joy, and waited until the Holy Spirit came. And we’ll talk about that next week on Pentecost!

So I’d like to focus on two things from today’s readings: (1) what the ascension means to Jesus; and (2) what the ascension means to us.

What Ascension Day means to Jesus is going home.  It means Jesus’ work here on earth is done. It’s a time when heaven rejoices at the return of her King.  (You think the Steelers got a victory parade?)

It also means Jesus’ work in heaven is just beginning.  Jesus is now at God’s right hand, praying for us, forgiving us, preparing a place for us. He is our high priest in the temple of God, as Hebrews says, “entering into heaven with his own blood” for our forgiveness.

It means Jesus’ time of being limited to one time and one place is over.  Now he can send the Holy Spirit to be with every believer, everywhere, at all times.

Ascension Day for us is little different.  For us, it’s a reminder that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.  God’s kingdom is something we are saved into, redeemed into, by our Lord Jesus, not something we have to work for.

But Ascension also means the disciples will have new work to do, just like Jesus has new work to do.  Our job is to bear witness. And this work will be directed by Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Ascension means that the Holy Spirit is now available to every believer. So the disciples are told to wait until the Spirit comes, because God’s work can only be accomplished through God’s power.

Even today, we as believers need to wait and pray for the Holy Spirit, and wait for the Spirit’s direction and gifts – like the disciples waited – in order to accomplish God’s will.  This not ‘religious talk’.  There was a time when I thought it was.  I grew up in a church where the Holy Spirit was hardly ever mentioned, and in my 20s when I first saw someone ministering in the power of the Spirit my question was “What kind of power is this?” (which is pretty much how people reacted to Jesus in the Bible.)

Just in case your experience has been anything like mine: I want to assure you the Holy Spirit is real.  If Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, then the Holy Spirit is God-in-us.  And sometimes it takes awhile to grow into this.  John Wesley himself was an ordained minister for 10 years before his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ at that meeting at Aldersgate (an event whose anniversary is also remembered this week). That’s when he met the Holy Spirit. And the coming of the Spirit gave Wesley such power as a preacher – preaching not in human power but in the power of the Spirit – that God used Wesley to change the course of history.

(Not all of us are going to be called to change the course of history – but that’s an example of what the Holy Spirit can do.)

The Holy Spirit is a gift given by God, to God’s people, for the purpose of ministry.  So for us, Ascension Day gets us ready for Pentecost. It points to the coming of the Holy Spirit and to our calling to bear witness to what we know about Jesus.

Jesus tells his disciples:

“You will be my witnesses, to Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

No one believer could possibly cover all this ground! But as a group – as the Body of Christ – they did.  By the time Peter and Paul were martyred, the good news of Jesus had spread throughout the Roman Empire and into northern Africa and parts of Asia.

One of the helpful things one of our seminary professors taught us is: we can think of witnessing as being in three concentric circles: local, national, and international.

For the disciples, Jerusalem was local, it’s where they started; then they went on to preach throughout the region and nation (Judea & Samaria), and then to the rest of the known world.

So how might we define our concentric circles?  The local one would probably be Brentwood or Carrick.  The middle circle could be Allegheny County, or Pennsylvania, or the United States.  That’s a little flexible. And the outer circle is still “the whole world”.

For those of us who are involved in the ministries and missions of this church, either as groups or as individuals, I’d like to suggest reviewing our outreach programs, and praying over them, in terms of these circles.  What does God want us to do in our neighborhood? In the region or the nation? And in the world?

I’m not suggesting we run out and start throwing money in all directions. Just the opposite: I’m suggesting building – and continuing to build – personal relationships on each of these levels.  Let the Spirit guide us into those relationships. And then – as needs arise – respond to the needs. Because in the Kingdom of God, it’s Jesus who makes the difference, and it’s love that makes the difference, not money and not social programs.

Pray about it, and see where God may lead with this.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate with joy the anniversary of our Lord’s homecoming – and his promise to return for us and bring us to where he is, in the kingdom of God.  Amen.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/28/17

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Scripture Readings

“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning  2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.  4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me;  5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6 “So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” – Acts 1:1-11

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“Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”  45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,  46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,  47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  48 You are witnesses of these things.  49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50 “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.  52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;  53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” – Luke 24:44-53