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The Path of Prayer

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” – Mark 8:31-38

~

“Jesus called the crowd together with his disciples and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Jesus makes it clear that following Him will not be easy. It will be painful at times. There will be times of struggle. Preachers do us a disservice when they make following Jesus sound like the path to perfect health, wealth, and happiness. Jesus never promised any such thing. Jesus did promise that he would always be with us, and that he was preparing a place for us in God’s house.

So today I’d like to take a look at discipleship from two angles. The first angle is found in our reading from Mark, and centers on what Jesus has to say about following Him. The second angle is found in our Lenten series A Disciple’s Path, on what it takes to grow and mature as a disciple of Jesus.

Looking first at the reading from Mark: Jesus talks about discipleship in terms of taking up a cross and following Him. When Peter objects, Jesus’ rebuke strikes us as odd. Surely Jesus would understand that Peter doesn’t want Him to die? And then there’s the words Jesus uses: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” What exactly is it Jesus is objecting to?

Mark’s Gospel doesn’t tell us what it was Peter said, but Matthew’s Gospel does. When Jesus says he is about to be turned over to the chief priests, Peter answers, “God forbid! This must never happen to you!”

As the authors of A Disciple’s Path point out, in order to read scripture with understanding we need to put it in context. We need to get into a 1st century mindset as much as possible. Peter and Jesus and all the disciples grew up hearing about the promised Messiah in synagogue: the Son of David, the heir to David’s throne; and one who would come to restore God’s kingdom. They also grew up under Roman occupation, watching false messiahs – people who tried to restore God’s kingdom by force – being nailed to crosses by the roadside. The Romans used crosses on a regular basis to keep the people in line.

Peter loved Jesus, and he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah. So when Jesus started talking about a cross in his future, Peter would have remembered all those false messiahs hanging on crosses and his heart cried out “Not you!! Never you!”

Peter wasn’t able to see beyond the cross to the resurrection, at least not yet. Peter didn’t understand yet that Jesus’ death on the cross would also mean the death of sin, and reconciliation between God and humanity. All Peter could hear was the end of hope and the end of the most amazing person he’d ever met.

In that moment Peter was acting more like a fan than a disciple. A fan is someone who idolizes someone from a distance; a disciple is someone who follows closely. A fan doesn’t really know or understand the object of their admiration; a disciple seeks not only to understand but also to imitate the Master.

Jesus says to his disciples, to all who follow Him: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

So how do we react to the reality of our own mortality? Do we spend the time we have on things that only satisfy for a moment? Or do we spend the time we have on behalf of God and others?

This is the call to Christian discipleship. It is a call to death and to resurrection: dying to self and living to God; dying to the world and living into God’s kingdom. This Lent we focus on discipleship in order to learn how to follow Jesus more closely.

This week the discipleship focus is on the discipline of prayer. Before I head down the path of prayer, I want to share a few introductory notes from the book A Disciple’s Path for those of you who have not been able to join the study groups yet.

A Disciple’s Path shares a great deal from the teachings of John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism back in the 1700s. The Wesleys were Anglican priests who believed in using spiritual disciplines in order to become true disciples of Jesus. There were three disciplines they focused on: (1) study of scripture; (2) daily devotions (Bible reading, meditation, and prayer); and (3) social outreach, especially to the poor, disadvantaged, children, and the imprisoned. The Wesleys were very methodical about these disciplines, which is where the word ‘Methodist’ comes from. Their ‘method’ sparked a renewal movement in the Church of England that spread like wildfire in the United States as our nation was being born.

There’s one other question that comes to mind when we talk about a path. If we are on a “Disciple’s Path”, where does this path go? Our path leads us into fellowship with God and life in the kingdom of heaven. It is a great and awesome thing getting to know the Creator of the Universe… and the bigger our concept of the universe, the bigger our God becomes. I love the contemporary praise song “God of Wonders”:

Lord of all creation
of water earth and sky
The heavens are your Tabernacle
Glory to the Lord on high

God of wonders beyond our galaxy
You are Holy, Holy
The universe declares your Majesty
And you are holy, holy
Lord of Heaven and Earth

 

This is the God Jesus is leading us to on our path.

But there’s more than that. Jesus shows us a God who is not only holy, but a God who is also the very definition of love. God is kind and gentle. Scripture says:

“a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”

When we feel like we’ve got nothing left to give, God is there, keeping the flame alive.

This is the God Jesus is leading us to on our path.

The question then becomes, how do we stay on the path, and stay as close to Jesus as possible?

John Wesley had a lot to say about that. He talked a lot about grace. Grace a tough word to define, but basically it means unmerited favor. Wesley talked about three kinds of grace. If you grew up in the Methodist Church you’ve heard these:

  • Prevenient grace – the love of God that is active in our lives before we know God.
  • Justifying grace – which we experience in conversion. Someone once called this “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”.
  • Sanctifying grace – the love of God that never quits, that catches us when we fall, forgives us and guides us into holiness.

Grace is all God’s work. There is nothing any of us can do to save ourselves. Our part as disciples is to cooperate with the process. To take our part in the relationship. Because to be a disciple is to be in relationship with God.

And essential to every relationship is communication. Which brings us to the Path of Prayer.

The authors of A Disciple’s Path lead off with an interesting factoid: when doctors tell patients to make lifestyle changes like quitting smoking or losing weight, “only one in seven patients actually makes the lifestyle changes… that could save their lives”. One in seven.

If this is true of our physical lives, how true is it of our spiritual lives? If the greatest commandment according to Jesus is to “love God will all our heart, soul, mind and strength” – how can we love someone we hardly ever talk to?

Prayer needs to be our #1 priority. John Wesley said:

“You may as well expect a child to grow without food as expect a soul to grow without private prayer.”

The problem is, many of us feel like we don’t really know how to pray. We may have been taught to say grace before meals, and we probably were taught the Lord’s Prayer when we were kids, and those are good places to start. But then what?

Prayer is basically conversation with God. I like to kind of chat with God throughout the day – while I’m doing the dishes or working in the yard. But there is a need for more structured prayer too.

John Wesley taught his family and friends to begin with reading Scripture. He said to do this daily. He said to read with the intention of knowing God better, to ask the Holy Spirit to teach us as we read, and show us how to apply what we learn.

Prayer itself can take many forms. One form of prayer that many people find helpful is outlined in your bulletins this morning: the ACTS form of prayer. The letters stand for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. Begin with Adoration – telling God what we appreciate, how wonderful God is. Then move into Confession – which includes bringing both our shortcomings and our gifts to God. Confession should always include both the negative and the positive, putting both in God’s hands. Then we move into Thanksgiving for God’s gifts, and then into Supplication – which involves bringing needs to God – our needs and the needs of others. This is where people’s prayer requests would fit in.

Because the ACTS format is so easy to remember and use, A Disciple’s Path recommends it for your daily use this Lent, and so does your pastoral staff.

For those of you who have already used ACTS in the past and may be looking to try something a little bit different, there is another form of prayer that the Wesleys used that’s mentioned on page 28 of A Disciple’s Path. It’s an ancient form called a Collect. I like this form because it’s easy to remember and work with. A Collect is made up of four parts:

  1. The address – that is, who you’re praying to
  2. A characteristic of God that you appreciate and need to depend on
  3. A request based on the characteristic of God that you pointed out in part 2
  4. Bring it back to God

This is an example of a well-known Collect:

“Almighty God,
To you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid;
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name;
Through Christ our Lord, AMEN.”

But a Collect can be very simple too, something like this:

  1. Dear Lord,
  2. When you walked on this earth you healed the people your disciples brought to you
  3. We your disciples bring to you now our friend (name) who needs your healing.
  4. We ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.

I like this format because it begins and ends with God, and bases our requests on the character of God. It helps keep us focused on Who we’re talking to, and it helps prevent us asking for things that are not in the character of God.

So there you are: the Collect. If you like it, use it!

A Disciple’s Path also recommends keeping our prayers written down (or on the computer if you like.) Keeping a written list helps bring to memory the many things God has done for us.

So this week, as we walk the Disciples’ Path, let’s focus on getting to know God better by reading Scripture and talking with God in prayer. And as you see God moving in your life, share what you see with one other person – a pastor, or a friend, or someone who isn’t a Christian yet – share what God is doing in your life.

May God bless us this week – and may we bless God – as we walk the disciple’s path toward eternity with Jesus. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/1/15

~

The Transfiguration

Welcome members of Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church!

Below are the scripture readings and sermon for Sunday February 15.

Sorry I won’t see you tomorrow morning but I hope everyone’s staying warm! ~ Peg

Scripture Readings

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

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

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

9  When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.

12  Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

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

Sermon

“And he led them up a high mountain… and Jesus was transfigured before them.”

What must it have been like to be there with Peter, James and John on that mountain? To see someone you know, someone you’ve been friends with and traveled with, suddenly change before your eyes into something beyond human understanding of reality? To see important people from history standing in front of you alive and talking? To hear God’s voice speaking out loud?

The transfiguration is a one-of-a-kind thing. There’s nothing else exactly like it in recorded history. People sometimes see visions, but not quite like this. People sometimes hear voices, but not quite like this. People sometimes, when they’re nearing death, see the faces of loved ones who have gone before, but not people they’ve never met, let alone historical figures from thousands of years ago. Mark tells us Peter and the disciples were “terrified” at what they saw, which sounds like a very reasonable reaction! How do we go about getting a handle on what Mark is telling us?

You’ve probably heard the phrase “mountaintop experience” before. Most of us have had one at one time or another. A ‘mountaintop experience’ is a high point in life, a time when we get away from everyday life and spend quality time with God. It may or may not take place on a mountain, but often it does. It might be a retreat with the whole church family. One of my favorite places to go when I need a ‘mountaintop experience’ is Jumonville. Many of you have been there too. I love to walk around the woods up there, and to the top of the mountain where I stand at the foot of the cross. The beauty of nature and the kindness of the people who work there really help me to feel close to God.

A ‘mountaintop experience’ is a good place to begin to get a handle on what’s going on in Mark’s story. Like our own experiences, the disciples are getting away from the world and away from the crowds and spending some quality time with God. But that’s just a start.

Mountaintop experiences also have to do with vision. I don’t know about you but I do some of my best thinking when I’m sitting on a mountaintop. I planned a business once sitting on a mountain-top, a long time ago. My husband and I had our first date on a mountain-top. It was a weekend a lot like this one, snow everywhere, and it was quite a hike. We like to joke that we walked up the mountain friends and came back down dating. The day I went to talk to my pastor about maybe going to seminary, that was on a mountain-top too. Mountain-tops are great for getting fresh perspective, getting the big picture, surveying the horizon, or getting someone else’s insights on the big issues.

When we think about the experience Jesus had on that mountain it brings to mind one other mountain-top experience: the one Moses had toward the end of his life, when God told him to climb a mountain and be the first to look out over the Promised Land. In a way Jesus is doing the same thing. Jesus was physically transformed, for a moment, into his future self… or, to put it another way, Jesus’ true self became visible for a moment… as it says in the book of Revelation:

I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire… (Rev. 1:13-14)

The disciples were seeing Jesus – the real Jesus – for the first time.

The Bible doesn’t tell us what Jesus talked about with Moses and Elijah that day. But we do know, after this meeting, Jesus started talking to his disciples a lot about his death. He started preparing them (as much as they were able to receive it) for the events about to unfold.

So I imagine at least part of the conversation would have been Jesus getting input from Moses and Elijah on exactly how His ministry should unfold from that point on. Did Jesus know the Cross was coming? Most likely yes. The Old Testament scriptures point to it. Did Jesus want to go there? No; Jesus asked God in the Garden of Gethsemane many times to take the cup from him. He was probably double- and triple- checking the Old Testament for other options, getting the advice and input of two men who knew a lot about God’s master plan for salvation.

Of all the people who had ever lived, it made sense for Jesus to talk to Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the Prophets). Moses was the only person in history who had ever talked to God face to face and lived to tell about it. The book of Exodus tells us “the skin of his face was shining” after he talked to God (Exodus 34:30) so much so that Moses had to wear a veil over his face in order not to frighten the Israelites. Moses knew what it was like to shine like Jesus shined.

And Elijah was the one prophet in the Old Testament who never died. He was taken into heaven alive, as we read in the Old Testament reading today. Elijah was one of the first prophets in Israel, and he was best known for taking a stand against the worship of false gods. (Talk about a message that is relevant to our own day!) In the book of Kings, when King Ahab and his wife Jezebel tried to turn God’s people away from God, Elijah confronted them and said to the people:

“How long will you go limping along between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Ba’al, then follow him.” (I Kings 18:21)

Elijah succeeded in turning the hearts of the people, at least some of them, back to God. Turning peoples’ hearts back to God was Jesus’ mission as well, so the two of them would have had plenty to talk about.

Moses was the man who received the Law, and would have been able to talk about why God commanded the sacrifice of a lamb for the guilt offering, and what it might mean to be the Lamb of God.

Moses would also have known what the apostle Paul shared in the book of Galatians about the relationship between salvation by promise (that is, God’s grace) as represented by Abraham, and salvation under the Law, as represented by Moses. Paul writes:

“once a will has been ratified, no one adds to it or annuls it. 16 Now [God’s] promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; [scripture] does not say, “And to offsprings,” as of many; but it says, “And to your offspring,” that is, to one person, who is Christ. 17 …the law, which came four hundred thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. 18 For if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from the promise; but God granted it to Abraham through the promise. 19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made…”

Paul the Lawyer can be really tough to follow sometimes. To sort of translate what he said into English, what Paul is saying, and what Moses was most likely reminding Jesus of, is that Abraham was the chosen patriarch. The covenant, or the contract, or (as Paul puts it) the will, was God’s promise to Abraham. The law, on the other hand, God gave to Moses 430 years later as a means of confronting sin, of dealing with covenant-breaking on the part of God’s people. The law is meant to bring us to repentance; but it cannot bring us salvation because we can never be perfect. We can never keep it 100% perfectly. The covenant itself is not law, it is God’s promise. Or, as New Testament Christians would put it, salvation is by God’s grace received through faith, not by works, lest anyone should boast.

So Jesus is the one offspring of Abraham, the fulfillment of the Covenant, of God’s promise, as well as being the fulfillment of God’s law. Jesus is the one seed, the offspring through whom (as it says in Genesis) “all nations of the earth will be blessed”. (Genesis 22:18)

Whatever Moses and Elijah shared with Jesus that day, it certainly tied together everything that had gone before, it detailed God’s plan for salvation in the big picture view of history, and left Jesus with clarity of vision and purpose.

So where are we in this story? We’re obviously not Elijah or Moses, but their appearances – the fact that Moses comes back from the dead, and Elijah comes back from heaven – give us a glimpse of our future. Their appearance makes real the promise that this life is not all there is. There are times when the veil between this world and the next is pulled aside for a moment and we get a glimpse, too wonderful to describe in words, of the life to come. The Transfiguration is a moment like that. We can take great comfort in the appearance of these two fellow human beings who lived thousands of years ago and are still alive today.

But more clearly, we find ourselves standing with the disciples, at Jesus’ side, ready to do whatever is needed, including offering hospitality to visitors, and ready to bear witness to who Jesus is when the time is right.

We may find ourselves standing with Elisha in the Old Testament reading – loyal to the prophet Elijah and longing for a measure of his spirit. Elisha’s repeated words “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you” remind us of Ruth and her words to her mother-in-law Naomi:

Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; (Ruth 1:16)

We may resonate with Elisha’s tender-hearted passion toward God, or perhaps his desire to take up the mantle (so to speak) of the generation before us and carry on God’s work.

We certainly stand with the disciples in hearing God say, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” It seems so often we do a lot of talking but not so much listening. I don’t know about you but I’m constantly having to remind myself, when I’m praying or reading scriptures, just to be silent and let God speak.  God’s words also remind me of Mary’s words at the wedding at Cana when she says to the wine stewards, “Do whatever Jesus tells you.”

And to be certain all of us stand with the disciples in beholding a vision and getting a foretaste of glory to come. By God’s grace we have a vision that will encourage us and sustain us even if hope itself seems lost. AMEN.

 

 

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39

Have you ever had the experience of walking in on the middle of a conversation and completely getting the wrong end of the stick? I know I have. Here’s an imaginary example: I walk into a room and hear my doctor talking to my husband, and the doctor is saying, “oh… she’s in terrible shape… I don’t think she’s going to last more than another month or two.” I start to imagine the worst… when my Mr.-Fix-It husband pipes up and says he’s going to be working on the doctor’s old car.

Today’s scripture readings are like that. Both of them start in the middle of a story, and it would be really easy to get the wrong end of the stick. In both passages God comes across sounding almost like He’s scolding, like a father who’s annoyed with his children. In Isaiah it’s “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” and in Mark we see Jesus doing all he can to get away from the ever-increasing demands of the crowds.

To interpret these passages that way is to get the wrong end of the stick. The fact is both of these passages are about the comfort and confidence God’s people find in a God who is infinitely great and infinitely loving and who is the King of all creation. Both passages are about good news, not bad news.

Starting with Isaiah, for the proper meaning and context we need to back up to the beginning of chapter 40.

As you came in this morning you were given a copy of the text of Handel’s Messiah and you can refer to this if you like. The beginning of Isaiah 40 also happens to be the opening words of Handel’s Messiah.

I’m including Messiah in today’s sermon because there are some really interesting connections between this piece of music, and the scriptures for today, and the Methodist Church. For those of you who are not classical music buffs, bear with me, I need to back up and fill in some historical detail.

Messiah is probably best known today for its Hallelujah Chorus. You all know the piece: (singing) “Hallelujah!” But like the Mona Lisa, Messiah is one of those famous masterworks that everyone’s heard of but few people in our day actually know well.

Messiah was written in the early 1700s. It’s a large work for orchestra and choir, and the words the choir sings are all taken from the Bible.

The man who selected the scripture passages and strung them all together like pearls on a necklace, Charles Jennens, had a purpose in his choices. He chose the scriptures as an argument against Deism – a popular belief in the 1700s (and today as well) that God is somewhere out there, far above and far away from creation, and has nothing to do with the day-to-day functioning of the world.

In other words, Deists believe God does not get involved with the affairs of human beings. It’s the same idea as in the song “God is watching us… from a distance.” Jennens disagreed (and so did Handel) and so he compiled the scripture texts of Messiah in such a way as to present the gospel, in a way that shows God is involved in the world God created.

Jennens chose Isaiah chapter 40 as the place to begin telling the Gospel story. Let’s take a look. You may recognize these words as a passage often read at Christmas-time:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her,
that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned…
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low:
and the crooked straight, and the rough places plain:
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together:
for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

So the message of today’s reading from Isaiah is one of comfort. God’s words are meant to encourage, not offend.

There are two other meanings behind Isaiah’s words that Jennens pulls out of this passage. The first is that Isaiah is talking about Jesus. Isaiah’s words are not just about ancient Israeli history. This is also prophecy. The second meaning is the message of God’s involvement in the world. God will reveal his glory and all people will see it. The mouth of the Lord has spoken. And when God speaks, things happen.

There are a couple of footnotes to the history of Messiah that I wanted to share, not because I’m a history buff but because history tells us something about who we are, how we got where we are.

When it was first performed, Messiah caused a scandal. It was too controversial to be performed in the churches, so it was sung in opera halls, in front of nonbelievers and the ‘common rabble’ as they said back then. It scandalized people who thought scriptures should only be taught in church. But the press and the public loved it, and the concerts were sell-outs everywhere it played.

But the very first performance of Messiah was a fund-raising concert to benefit a debtor’s prison and two hospitals in Ireland. The performance sold so many tickets that 142 people had their debts paid and were released from prison and returned to their families. Even in music, the name of Jesus sets the captives free!

The second footnote is this: The only time Messiah was ever performed in a church during Handel’s lifetime, John Wesley was there. The founder of the Methodist movement remarked he had never seen a congregation so attentive to a sermon as they were to Messiah. And John’s brother Charles, who wrote many of our hymns, said where it came to music he “preferred Handel to all the world”.

There is a deep connection – probably not fully realized at the time – between Messiah and the founding of the Methodist church. They’re both cut from the same cloth. They’re both products of the same era. And they both address many of the same issues and needs. Messiah’s words being taken from Scripture, and relying so much on scripture, is in total agreement with John Wesley’s teaching on the importance of lay people reading and studying scripture for themselves. And Messiah’s focus on the Kingdom of God, and on the message of God’s grace to all people through Jesus Christ, was absolutely central to the Wesleys’ faith and teaching.

Because of all this, I felt it would be appropriate for you to have the words of Messiah to look at, and I encourage you to do so this week. It only takes about ten minutes to read through (as opposed to listening to the music, which takes over two and a half hours… but if you’d like to hear it, click below). Guaranteed you’ve never heard the gospel presented quite like this anywhere else.

So Isaiah chapter 40 begins with comfort for God’s people, who are invited to rest in God’s power, and trust in God’s provision.

Isaiah tells us about a God who “stretches out the heavens” to create a tent for people to live in. Isaiah tells us of a God who brings down the mighty but who counts each one of us and calls us by name; a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, who is the King of Kings, and we are citizens of God’s kingdom. And Isaiah 40 ends with the promise that those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength, mount up with wings as eagles. This is good news.

Moving on to the gospel from Mark – our reading for today begins with the words “as soon as they left the synagogue…” which tells us we’re in the middle of the story again. We need to go back to the beginning for meaning and context.

In the synagogue at Capernaum, on the shores of Galilee, that day, Jesus had not only taught from scripture in a way that made people marvel at his authority, but he had also cast out a demon from a man who was suffering. Talk about what Jesus did spread all over the region like wildfire. When worship was over, Jesus and the disciples walked down the street to Peter’s mother-in-law’s house for a meal and they found her not well. Jesus heals her, and she gets up and gets a meal ready. Meanwhile a crowd starts to gather outside, so many people that Jesus spends all night healing and freeing people from unclean spirits

Before I move on to the end of the passage, one thing I’d like to point out: Peter’s mother-in-law didn’t do anything before she was healed. She didn’t ask for anything, and she didn’t offer anything. After she is healed she gets up and serves; but the healing itself was a gift, unasked-for and un-earned.

This kind of jumped off the page at me because it tied in with something else I read this past week. It was an article in the Leadership Journal by pastor John Ortberg. Ortberg was writing about a problem many of us have, in that we’re so busy trying to do good things we neglect our souls and our relationship with God. He says that while it’s true that a healthy soul is marked by generosity and service, he says, “Jesus calls those who are weary and heavy-laden and promises ‘rest for your souls’”.

He goes on to say that Jesus said, “If you abide in me and I abide in you, you will bear much fruit.” Jesus did not say, “Try to find a balance between abiding and fruit-bearing.” Jesus did not say, “Work hard to produce much kingdom fruit but try… to make your life sustainable so you don’t end up in a moral ditch.” Or, as my old pastor once put it, if Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, we don’t have to push fruit out… we just have to stay connected to the vine and fruit will happen.

Jesus said, “Abide.” We live in Jesus, and Jesus lives in us. (We tend make it more complicated than it really is!)

At the end of today’s passage from Mark, we see Jesus following His own teaching: he gets away from the crowd and spends time with God in prayer, doing some ‘abiding’ of his own, and setting an example for us. And from there Jesus goes on to continue doing what he came to earth to do. He avoids the trap of the cult of celebrity that is starting to form around him, and moves on to the next village to preach the gospel, the good news of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

And those are our stories for today: Isaiah, comforting and encouraging God’s people; and Jesus, setting people free and preaching the good news that God is king and God’s kingdom has come.

At this point in the sermon preachers usually plug in something we’re supposed to do, some way to apply the lesson of the day. But these two lessons talk about what God has done for us, and will do for us.

Which leaves us with the hardest lesson of all: To learn to be still and just receive. To rest in God’s truth; to abide in God’s love; to give up the thought that anything we do could make God love us more… or make God love us less.

It may be more blessed to give than to receive… but for many people, myself included, it’s harder to receive than it is to give. But that’s what God calls us to. To stay connected with God. To rest in God and receive all that God has to give.

How do we go about doing this? I think it’s different for everybody. It may mean prayer, or eliminating a thing or two from busy schedules to sort of carve out a Sabbath somewhere in the week. Or it may be something as simple as, saying to God, in the words of Samuel in the Old Testament, “speak Lord, for your servant is listening”. The important thing is to be connected to God, as God leads us. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 2/8/15

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Sharing the Gospel

Scripture Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, I Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20

After Jesus was raised from the dead he said to his disciples, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” Jesus added that anyone they met who believed the good news should be baptized into the family of God.

And for the past 2000 years the church in every generation has wrestled with how to go about obeying these commands.

I don’t know about you but I keep coming up against two questions: (1) what exactly is the Gospel, and (2) how does one go about preaching it? And a corollary: does this command apply only to clergy, or does it apply to everyone?

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed Jesus meant this for everyone, and that God empowers all people to share the gospel. And I’m with Mr. Wesley: Jesus’ instructions are for all of us.

As I was thinking about this, I thought back to the 1980s. There was a guy who used to carry around a “John 3:16” sign.

john316sign

He would photo-bomb sporting events (back before photo-bombing was a trend). He would do things like buy tickets in the end zone to a football game that was going to be televised, and whenever the action came to his end of the field he would stand up and hold up a sign that read “John 3:16” so the TV cameras would pick it up. “John 3:16” was all the sign said. Some people thought it was funny, some people thought it was annoying, but most of the people I talked to just wondered what on earth he was up to.

Not that I’m encouraging anyone to go out share the Gospel this way, but his actions led to a LOT of water-cooler and break-room conversations…

…like this one: Years later I was having dinner in a pool hall with a friend and his buddies and The John 3:16 Guy came up in conversation. One of the guys asked, “so what does ‘John 3:16’ stand for anyway?”

The friend I was with looked at me and said, “Well, preacher-lady?” (I was not yet a preacher-lady at that point but I think he saw it coming.)
I said, “Are you serious?”
He said, “Do you know it?”
I said, “I know it. Do you really want me to say it?”
And he said, “Yeah.”
And I said, “OK.”

And the whole table grew quiet as I quoted the familiar words:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”

The guys at the table thought for a minute, and then the guy who had asked the question said, “Cool.”
And the other guys nodded and said, “Cool.”
And the conversation moved on from there.

I have no idea if the seed planted that night ever took root. But thanks to The John 3:16 Guy four men heard the gospel who might not otherwise have heard it. And I figure if God can use The John 3:16 Guy, God can use you and me too.

So what exactly is the Gospel then?

Gospel is an old-fashioned word meaning “good news”.

GoodNews

When Jesus preached the gospel he often said, as he says in our reading from Mark this morning, “The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news.”

When Jesus preached the gospel he preached about the kingdom of God. When the apostles preached the gospel they preached the good news of King Jesus. So the coming of Jesus and the coming of God’s Kingdom are one and the same.

When people believe the good news and follow Jesus, their lives take a new course… and that’s what it means to repent. Repentance does not mean we’re horrible, terrible people who need to wallow in guilt. It just means to change direction, to head into something new: a life inspired by God.

Getting back to today’s reading from Mark – after preaching the gospel, Jesus calls Peter and his brother Andrew, and James and his brother John, to be his disciples. Knowing they were fishermen, Jesus adds:

“Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men.”

Books upon books about what it means to be ‘fishers of men’. I’ve heard it said, for example, that when fishers fish they have to use bait, and the secret to successful fishing is using the right bait, and if we want to catch people we likewise have to use the right bait: the right kind of worship service, or the right preacher, or the right style of music. Sounds like we’re all sitting here in a boat-shaped church baiting our hooks and trying to figure out what will make the fish bite!

This is NOT Jesus’ point. It’s not even how people usually fished in Jesus’ day. Back then they used nets. Fishermen worked in teams, and they often went out at night, and when they cast their nets, they cast wide – and all kinds of things would get caught in the net. The first thing fishermen did after coming to shore with their catch was to sit down and sort out the catch, separating the fish from any other marine creatures that got into the nets.

Likewise when we share the gospel, it’s good to do it together as a team. And like the fishermen going out at night, sometimes we have to carry the gospel into dark places. And we need to cast the nets wide, and let God do the sorting later.

So to answer the first question, ‘what is the Gospel?’ – it’s about God’s kingdom, that Jesus is the king. It’s the good news that the one who loved us enough to lay down his life for us, and then walked out of the grave alive, is the king of hearts and the king of souls and his kingdom has no end. (“Grace is the beginning of glory.”)

As for the second question, ‘How does one share the Gospel?’ – we’ve already begun to answer that question. We can dig a little deeper as we look at the Old Testament lesson from Jonah.

In this reading, God tells the prophet Jonah to go preach to the city of Nineveh. The message God gave Jonah was not exactly good news; in fact it was bad news: God said the city of Nineveh was about to be overthrown, because the city was full of violence and its people were evil.

To set the scene: Nineveh was the capital of the ancient empire of Assyria, located on the opposite side of the Tigris River from what is today the city of Mosul in northern Iraq.

Nineveh

Nineveh was a very ancient city, dating to around 3000 BC, and it was the largest city in the world in Jonah’s day. Given its size and power, what army could possibly have conquered it? God could, and God intended to.

Another thing about Nineveh: Israel and Nineveh were enemies. In Jonah’s day the Assyrians had conquered the northern half of Israel, deporting its people, and had attacked the southern half including Jerusalem – which is why Jonah didn’t want God to show mercy to the Ninevites!

Nineveh’s people were also Gentiles, not Jews, and they knew nothing of Israel’s God. When we find a story like this in the Old Testament it’s a reminder that the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” is also the God of all the nations, both then and now. God’s prophets were given the same message for the nations that they were given for Israel: turn from wickedness, be people of peace; do justice to the poor; be people who are holy and loving – be God’s people.

So two things happened the day Jonah arrived: (1) Jonah spoke the message God gave him, and (2) the Ninevites believed God and changed their ways!

It’s interesting to note Jonah’s message did not include the option of repentance. In fact it offered no hope at all. “The city will be destroyed” – that’s all Jonah said. But the Ninevites said to themselves and to each other, “Who knows? Maybe God will hear us and not destroy us.” And they declared a nationwide fast, and they prayed, and they put an end to the violence in the city… and God saw and heard and spared Nineveh. Then as now, God is a God who hears prayer and sees changed hearts and changed lives. This is the gospel, and it was good news for the Ninevites.

So how does one share the gospel? By speaking God’s truth. By hearing God’s word and repeating it faithfully as God leads.

One more question then comes to mind: why share the gospel?

First, Jesus tells us to share it – that’s reason enough. Second, the gospel turns away disaster and brings salvation, as the people of Nineveh discovered – which is more than reason enough.

And beyond that, we have the reason Paul gives in our reading from I Corinthians: the time is short.

Life is short to begin with, and the older I get the more I become aware of just how short life is. Paul says, with this in mind:

“…let those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions… for the present form of this world is passing away.”

Paul does not mean this to say, ‘get rid of your spouse, don’t laugh, don’t cry, and don’t own anything’ – that’s not what he means. He’s saying this world is passing and we need to be getting ready for the next world. He’s saying ‘don’t allow anything in life to be more important than a relationship with God’. It’s like the old hymn says:

“In our joys and in our sorrows
Days of toil and hours of ease
Still he calls in cares and pleasures
‘Christian, love me more than these.’”

Jesus Calls Us (Cecil Frances Alexander, 1818-1895)

This world is passing. As the English theologian Charles Simeon put it:

“We scarcely behold the glare and glitter of this vain world,
before the enchanting prospect vanishes
and the phantom passes onward,
to astonish and delude succeeding generations.”

Or to put it another way: if the ship you’re on is sinking, don’t get attached to it. Help people into the lifeboats and GO!

When God speaks, things happen. When God said, ‘Let there be light’ light happened. When we share the gospel, God’s word is active there too. God speaks through human beings, and things happen. Cities repent. Lives are spared. Fishermen become disciples, and disciples become apostles, and apostles end up sharing a message that changes the course of history.

The kingdom of God is here, and Jesus, the Lord of love, is king. Let us join with the saints throughout history in sharing that good news. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 1/25/2015

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God’s Call

Scripture Readings:  I Samuel 3:1-20, John 1: 43-51

Back around 500 years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah wrote to the people of Israel:

“Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out… ‘I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand…’” (Isaiah 42:5-6)

Today we have two scripture readings that tell the stories of people being called by God. In the case of Samuel in the Old Testament, God’s call was to a long life of ministry as Israel’s prophet. In the case of Philip and Nathaniel, in the New Testament, even though they were life-long disciples of Jesus, they were never ‘ordained’ as we would think of it. Both of these stories have something to say to us as laypeople who are called by God.

In the Old Testament reading we see God calling the boy Samuel. The first thing I notice is Samuel is a boy – we don’t know exactly how old, but probably between the ages of six and ten – definitely pre-teen. It’s good to know we are never too young to called by God. (We are never too old to be called by God either. Or too small, or too insignificant, or too poor, or too uneducated, or too unmarried, or any of those things we think hold us back in life.) Samuel was poor, and alone, and small, and he didn’t really understand the job he had been given to do in the temple.

In fact it’s unusual that a child was given a job in the temple in the first place. How that came about is of interest. First, his mother prayed for him. Samuel’s mom, Hannah, for a long time was not able to have kids. So she went to the temple and prayed that if God would give her a son, she would give that child back to God. Eli the priest overheard her prayer and said, “God grant you what you’ve asked for.” A few years later Hannah was back in the temple and gave the child to Eli, who became like a father to Samuel. Eli raised him, and trained him, and loved him.

There was just one down-side to this arrangement: Eli had two older sons who also worked in the temple, and they were – depending on your Bible translation – “worthless”, “scoundrels”, “sons of pestilence”, “public menaces”. They “had no regard for the Lord”. They were stealing meat from people’s temple sacrifices – not behind their backs, but to their faces, bullying them out of what the people brought to offer to God. And they were having their way with the women who helped out in the temple. And Eli wasn’t a strong enough character to keep his sons in line.

How much Samuel knew about all this, we don’t know. What we do know is that when God called Samuel, he didn’t recognize God’s voice. Samuel hadn’t been taught to know God. But God’s call cannot be thwarted by the sins of others… or by the environment we’re raised in… or by our own lack of knowledge. When Samuel thinks Eli is calling him, and Eli keeps saying, “it wasn’t me” – God calls again and again. God never gives up. Finally Eli realizes it’s God who is calling the boy and tells Samuel to respond, “speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”. That’s a great phrase to remember for our own prayer-time: ‘speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’.

That’s as far into the story as the lectionary reading takes us, to verse 10. But there’s more to the story and I hate leaving a story half-told!

Let me approach the second half from a slightly different angle. Have you ever felt nervous about the possibility that God might call you to something you don’t want to do? I know I have. There was a time when I was younger when I was afraid God might call me to be an overseas missionary. (Nowadays I would love to go but I have obligations that keep me here. Funny how things like that change!) But what Samuel was called to do is something I’m glad I’m not called to do.

God gave Samuel bad news – very bad news – to give to the man who was like a father to him. God told Samuel that a prophecy given years ago against Eli’s sons is about to come true. Eli’s family line is about to end. Samuel ends up not sleeping for the rest of the night, and in the morning, he tries to carry on as if nothing has happened. But Eli says, “What did God tell you? Tell me the whole story and don’t leave anything out.” So Samuel reluctantly tells Eli what God said. Eli doesn’t get angry; he replies with resignation… a sad end to a sad story. But the people of Israel soon realize they have in Samuel a man of God, someone who can be trusted. Samuel – this young boy with nothing to his name – was called by God and became one of the greatest prophets ancient Israel ever knew.

Over in the New Testament lesson we see Jesus calling two of his disciples: Philip and Nathaniel. These two men knew each other, they’re friends; but it’s interesting to see how Jesus calls each one of them in a way that’s appropriate to each person.

To Philip, Jesus merely says, “Follow me.” That’s it! Two words. Granted there’s a lot of meaning packed into those words. The Greek word for ‘follow’ is basically the same as our English word “acolyte”. It has religious overtones and it’s an invitation not only to follow but to be a helper and sort of a trainee. But bottom line, when God calls Philip, two words are all that are needed.

Nathaniel on the other hand is not quite so easy to convince. He says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (This could be seen as a bit of local rivalry… it’s kind of like a Pittsburgher saying “can anything good come out of Baltimore?”) Philip answers him saying, “come see.” Which is a great way to invite people into God’s kingdom. Mother Teresa used to say that a lot. So did Jesus. ‘Come see.’

Philip’s question is followed by one of the strangest bits of dialog in all of Scripture.

Jesus: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
Nathaniel: “Where did you get to know me?”
Jesus: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Nathaniel: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Jesus: “You believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these! Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

I don’t know about you, but this conversation makes no sense to me, at least not in English. Time to pull out the ol’ Greek book. Here’s an alternate translation… see if this makes more sense:

Jesus: “Amen, Amen – here is an Israelite free of deception!”
Nathaniel: “Where do you know me from?” (Nathaniel is not asking “how do you know me?” He’s asking what or who is Jesus’ source.)
Jesus: “Before Philip called you, while you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”

Jesus’ emphasis is not on when (before Philip spoke) or where (under the fig tree) but on who He saw. The phrase “I saw you” in Greek can have a double or triple meaning. The primary translation is ‘I saw you’ with my eyes, visually. But it can also mean “I noticed you” or “I became aware of you” or “on a spiritual level I perceived you.” It’s a way of saying “I immediately knew who you were.” In contemporary America we might say, “you had me at the fig tree”.

And Nathaniel responds to Jesus’ love and acceptance with the deepest faith:

Nathaniel: “you are the Son of God, the King of Israel.”
And Jesus answers, “you think that’s good? You’re going to see so much more. The Son of Man is Jacob’s ladder!”

(Jesus’ words about angels in the final quote refer to the vision of Jacob in the Old Testament known as “Jacob’s ladder” – a means of travel between earth and heaven. Jesus Himself will become the ‘ladder’, the path into heaven.)

In each of these stories, God calls each individual in a unique way. And God does the same for us. What can we find in these stories for ourselves today? Let me toss out some ideas…

  1. God’s call is usually unexpected and takes us by surprise.
  2. The message God gives us to share might be troubling at first – like it was for Samuel. But God’s word is true and it can be trusted.
  3. Sometimes God calls us directly, as with Philip (Jesus says, “follow me”); sometimes God’s call comes through a friend, as with Nathaniel (Philip says, “come see”).
  4. Most of the people God calls are not rich, famous, or powerful.
  5. The God who calls us knows us profoundly and loves us just as deeply.
  6. God chooses where and when the call happens. We can’t rush it, and we can’t delay it.
  7. Following God’s call is not easy, but it’s worth it.
  8. We may be called to different ministries – but we are all called to the same faith in the same God. The God who spoke the universe into being, the Lord Jesus Christ who died for our sins and rose again, the Holy Spirit who guides us – we are all called to follow this one God. If you haven’t answered that call yet, what are you waiting for?

I don’t know about you but I get excited when I’m called by God! To know that God sees us under our own fig trees, whatever those fig trees may be, that God says to us, both individually and as a church, “you think my love has been good so far? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” God is not done with us yet, not by a long shot.

Around 500 years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah wrote to the people of Israel: “Thus says the LORD, he who created you… he who formed you: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.’” (Isaiah 43:1)

This call is for us. May God help us to speak truth, as Samuel did. May we rejoice that God knows and loves us, as Nathaniel did; and confident in God’s truth and love, may we follow Jesus wherever He calls us. AMEN.

 

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 1/18/15

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“And God Said…”

Scripture Readings for January 11, 2015: Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11

This morning following the sermon we will be renewing our baptismal vows. The church invites us to do this in January every year on the day that we remember Jesus’ baptism; and our scripture reading from Mark tells the story of Jesus’ baptism.

The lectionary also gives us another reading for today – from Genesis Chapter 1 – which at first glance seems kind of out of place. I mean, what does the creation of the universe have to do with Jesus being baptized, or with us being baptized?

Baptism

There actually are a number of connections. Where Genesis talks about creation, baptism talks about our re-creation. Where Genesis sees the earth (Hebrew adam) coming out of water, baptism brings human beings (Hebrew Adam or Adama) up out of water. And of course, if Genesis had never happened then baptism would never have taken place either.

But what I’d like to focus on this morning is the phrase “and God said…” – because in both Genesis and Mark, God is speaking. We worship a God who is far from silent. God communicates with us all the time: through nature, through friends, through family, through our spirits, through the Bible, through sacraments.

I think one of the most important things to grasp about God’s word is that when God speaks, things happen. God’s word is active. God’s word is effective. I talked about this a few weeks ago when I mentioned the very first translation of Genesis 1:3 into English read “and God said ‘light be made’ and light was made.” I said I wished it was possible to come home from work at the end of the day and say ‘dinner be made’!

God’s word is like that. God says it, and it happens. Done deal. It may take some time, as human beings count time. God says “light be made” and in truth God’s light is still in the process of being made even today. Or as another example, over four thousand years ago God said to Abraham, “through your seed all the peoples of the earth will be blessed” and thousands of years later that blessing is still happening. So God’s word may take time as we understand time. But it is very active.

In Mark’s gospel reading for today, we hear God speaking again, saying to Jesus in front of everyone present, “you are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God is doing more than just being a proud parent. God is identifying Jesus as the Messiah, the unique son of God, the one God spoke about to the prophets in the Old Testament. God is speaking the reality of Jesus the Saviour into human history.

Before I delve into that, I’d like to talk about one of the objections I often hear at this point. Some of you may have heard discussions like this on Facebook, or wherever people gather. Someone will say, “yeah, but you don’t really believe all that stuff do you? About God creating the universe and all that? I mean, really, seven days? We know the universe is millions of years old! And it started with a big bang. You still believe in all that creation stuff?”

Well yeah. I do.

Granted I don’t know what kind of timeline God used for creating the universe. I do know that when it says in Genesis 1:5, “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” – that God was not talking about a 24-hour day. You can’t have a 24-hour day without the sun, and the sun hadn’t been created yet. The opening chapters of Genesis are not meant to be interpreted as an exact timeline as we human beings understand time. It’s more like the kind of explanation of creation one might give if one were talking to primitive peoples – which is what God was doing.

Having said that, there are a number of astronomers, physicists, and scientists, who have studied the ‘big bang’ and have thought about how the ‘big bang’ happened and what it might have been made of. If there was a ‘big bang’ – which is pretty much a given these days – something major happened, and very suddenly. What was it that ‘banged’? What was the bang made of?

Many scientists believe what made up the ‘big bang’ – the substance of it – was photons. For those of you who are Star Trek fans, you’ll remember “photon torpedoes”: weapons that fired bolts of light rather than physical explosives. Same idea.

And God said, ‘let there be light’.” Coincidence? I don’t think so.

So what God says, happens. In a big way.

So as we turn to Mark’s gospel, God is speaking again: speaking salvation and redemption into the world.

God promised to do this many years before, all through the Old Testament. He promised a blessing would come through Abraham. To the prophet Isaiah God said:

“The Lord looked [at the world] and was displeased that there was no justice; God saw that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation…” (Isaiah 59:15-16)

God spoke the promise of salvation to all his prophets… and now, in Mark’s gospel, God’s salvation has come. In fact God’s salvation comes walking up to John the Baptist in the river Jordan, asking to be baptized.

The thing about Jesus’ baptism is that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. In Mark 1:4 it says John the Baptist was preaching a “baptism of repentance”. People would come to John and confess their sins. These confessions were not just a matter of getting guilt off their chests. When people confessed their sins, they did it with the intention of stopping whatever wrong they were doing and leading a different life from that point forward. That’s what repentance means: to change course or to change direction. So people came to John, admitted where they had fallen short of keeping God’s law, and the people were baptized as a sign of being washed clean: a promise of a new beginning, a new direction.

But Jesus had nothing to repent of. Jesus had never broken God’s law. He needed no new beginning. With Jesus, God was well pleased. Jesus chose to be baptized anyway, in order to identify with us fully, in order to become one of us. Jesus gave up His rights as the Son of God to live as we live and to die as we die – because baptism is a symbol of burial, of dying to sin.

In John’s gospel, God says through Jesus:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live; even if they die, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25)

Baptism is a symbol of that also. Back in Jesus’ day people were baptized by being immersed in water – being brought down into the water and then being raised back out. It was a symbol not only of burial, but of resurrection – being raised again.

When we come to believe in God’s truth, when we trust God’s active word, we do so by saying, in public, that we believe. And we take vows. And following in God’s footsteps like little children, our words begin to become active. This baptismal covenant is not just words on a page. It is life-changing. These words are active, and they will work God’s will in our souls and in our lives.

So today, as we remember Jesus’ baptism, we remember our own baptisms. We remember the day a decision was made and vows were taken, either by us or by our parents on our behalf. And today, we make a concious decision to renew these vows, to renew the covenant made when we became members of the family of God. These words are not to be spoken lightly – because these words are active. They will change us. God’s word will create God’s reality in us. Prepare to be renewed.

And God said:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)

God’s word is spoken. AMEN.

[Editor’s note: Any readers who would like to renew their baptismal covenant and/or their commitment to the Lord Jesus – the Reaffirmation of Baptismal Covenant that we used following the sermon can be found on pages 17-20 of this document. If you have joined us in this reaffirmation please leave a comment below.]

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church, 1/11/2015

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“Love For All”

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
(Luke 1:26-38)

This Advent we here in the South Hills Partnership have been studying the book Advent Conspiracy. And since I haven’t been in with you for the past three weeks I’m not sure what all has been said so far, so bear with me if some of what I say today is familiar territory. I promise to get to the new stuff ASAP!

I have enjoying trying out some of the ideas in Advent Conspiracy. The book has some really good suggestions for making Christmas more… Christian, if you will. I have been delighted with the results, with the things I tried out.

For those of you who are not reading the book, and even for those who are, I wanted to share some background information about the book that I’ve shared with the other churches.

Advent Conspiracy is a movement that started a few years ago and spread across the country mostly by Internet. The authors of the book were some of the founding people in the movement. The movement itself grew out of a sense of un-ease with the way we Americans celebrate Christmas in contemporary society. The book suggests that over-spending on gift-giving, going into debt to buy presents, and the idea that our economy depends so much on people going out and shopping this time of year, that holiday shopping has become almost a patriotic duty – that these things do not honor the God whose birthday we celebrate on Christmas.

I find myself agreeing in principle with what the authors say but I have one issue with it. The authors of Advent Conspiracy are young suburban West Coast couples with young children – people with good jobs and traditional families – which is wonderful! But the issue I have is that their family situations are not the same as many average church-goers here in the Partnership. I know it’s not the same as our situation. My husband and I are middle-aged, not young. My husband is a blue-collar worker, not white-collar. My husband’s children are grown, and I don’t have any kids; and my siblings and I live in three different cities. We all decided years ago, both of our families, that we were not going to spend a whole lot on Christmas.

If this congregation is a typical Western PA congregation, many of you also have grown children, or maybe no children; you may be widowed; you may be single; you may be unemployed or under-employed. You may have a huge family and have already decided to just buy gifts for the kids.

Most of the families I know around here, having lived through first the Depression and then the collapse of the steel industry, have already worked out ways of not going overboard with Christmas. We already know that what’s important is family, not spending. People from Pittsburgh get that. It’s sort of in our bones.

Which leaves me with the question: does Advent Conspiracy really have anything to say to us?

I think it does, and here’s why. I think it encourages us to review how we celebrate Christmas, and it may give us a few good creative suggestions on how to make Christmas more meaningful, both for us, and for non-Christians around us who are watching how we celebrate.

So the focus of our Advent sermons has been the four main chapters of the book Advent Conspiracy, which are: Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, and Love All. The idea is that we begin with God – with saying “thank you” to God for all He has done for us. And in that spirit, we commit to spending a little less during Advent so that we have more to give to those in need who God loves.

When Advent Conspiracy first started out (that is, the movement, not the book), the idea was to pool all the money saved from “spending less” and use it to build wells of clean drinking water for poor villages in Africa. One of the first churches to get involved, a church in Cincinnati, set a goal to raise $18,000 to build a well in Zambia. They ended up collecting $72,000 – and ended up building eight wells. Another church, in Missouri – a small church of 175 members – collected $13,000. They did that by committing to drink only water during Advent and donating what they normally would have spent on coffee and pop. Just that much was enough to build a well.

But there’s nothing that says we all have to go build wells. The idea is to be guided by God as to how our church can give in a personal way, where we see the needs. As I thought about this I thought, as examples, our Partnership churches might give to the education of children in Bethlehem – because we know someone who is doing that. It personally touches our congregations. Or we might give to help the senior citizens living in a high rise that is hosting one of our churches. Or we might give to revitalization efforts being made in each of the neighborhoods where our partnership has churches.

The idea of the book, though, is that it’s a good thing to do this as a church – as the body of Christ, working together to show God’s love in ways that are personal and meaningful to our congregation.

So that’s the background. This week, then – for the last week of Advent – our focus is on Loving All. As we worship God, and spend less, we will have more to give in order to express God’s love for all.

Just one word of caution: Without God’s leading, the money collected by an Advent Conspiracy project would quickly become just one more thing to debate over. If we decide to do something like this, it needs to be led by prayer and guided by God.

Having said all this, I’d like to consider the fact that expressing God’s love doesn’t always have to do with money – and I think that’s the other shortcoming in this book. In fact I would say most of the time expressing God’s love doesn’t have to do with money. Most of the time sharing God’s love involves our time, our talents, our expertise, our selves.

So if we take Advent Conspiracy’s suggestion to spend less and give more and apply it to how we live – we might spend less time on things like watching TV; spend less energy on what’s unimportant; and use the time we save to give more of ourselves. Bring our time and talents to God, and ask what God would have us do.

When we look at it this way, when we talk in terms of time and talents, people often say, “but I don’t have all that much to give. I don’t have a whole lot of spare time and I don’t have any special talents.”

A few weeks ago we read about the parable of the servants with the talents… how a servant with 10 talents went out and made 10 more, and the servant with 5 talents went out and made 5 more. God doesn’t ask the man with 5 talents to go out and make 10! God asks only that we use what we have… or more accurately, to allow God to use what we have.

That’s what Mary did in our reading for today. Think about it… what did she have to offer? She was just a teenage girl from a small town, engaged but not yet married, living in her father’s house… no job, no income, very little formal education (if any), no marketable skills. God asked Mary to be the mother of His child, the Messiah, and she said “yes”. That was her gift – saying “yes” to God. Believing that what God said was true. Trusting God to work out the details. Mary knew that a pregnant girl, unmarried, in her culture, would find life very difficult. (Being pregnant and unmarried is not easy in our own day. It was a lot tougher back then.) Mary never even mentioned that. She trusted God, and she was quick and willing to serve. She said, “I am the Lord’s servant; let it be with me according to your word.”

It’s amazing what God can do with one person who is pleased to be His servant… with one person who says “yes, Lord.” Look what God did with Mary’s life when she said “yes”. Imagine what God might do with our lives when we say, “yes Lord”.

After the angel left, Mary gave the world another gift: she sang a song… and it’s a song that men and women have been repeating for 2000 years. She sang this:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

This is the heart and soul of Christmas. It begins with God. We join Mary in magnifying the Lord, and in rejoicing at the arrival of the Saviour. We join Mary in declaring God’s favor towards us – the ‘lowly ones’ – we, who are not and never will be rich or famous or politically powerful, who are just average people. We join Mary in declaring God’s great and amazing mercy that reaches through the generations, that touched the lives of our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and (if we know it) our ancestors back in the old country, and even before them.

We join Mary in rejoicing in a God who puts the proud and the powerful in their rightful places, and lifts up the lowly, and feeds the hungry – a God who keeps His promises – promises made as far back as Abraham. Because it was to Abraham that God said “through you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3) Through Abraham’s descendants would come the Messiah… that was God’s promise… and now the Messiah is here.

This is what Mary had to give. And this is what all of us have to give: good news: the King of kings is here, the Son of God, the God of love. This is our good news: God’s love is for the whole world.

God’s love is not an easy love. It’s a love that encompasses both mercy and justice; both compassion and truth. God’s love is a costly love. It will cost Jesus His life. But our God is a God whose very nature is love.

Mary knew God’s love, understood the time of God’s favor. She said ‘yes’ to God, and gave the world – Jesus. We also know God’s love, and at Christmas we share peace on earth, good will to all. Let us, with Mary, say ‘yes’ to God, and be honored to be counted among God’s servants. Placing ourselves in God’s hands, who knows what gifts God will give the world through us? AMEN.

~

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 12/21/14

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