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The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. […] When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. – Jonah 3:1-5, 10
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Now after John [the Baptist] was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. – Mark 1:14-20

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Welcome to Week Two of our series on The Wesley Challenge!  In case anybody missed the first message of our series last week, let me just say The Wesley Challenge is not just for Sunday mornings but is meant to be dug into more deeply in small groups.  To that end, there are three small groups meeting in the Partnership: one at Hill Top on Monday nights, one at Spencer on Thursday nights, and one at Carnegie on Wednesday nights, all of these meeting at 7:00PM.  If you haven’t already done so, make plans to join one of these groups.  And if you aren’t able to come out at night, meet up with us on Facebook, on the Wesley Challenge South Hills Partnership Facebook page.

The main reason we’re getting together on weeknights is because The Wesley Challenge is not just about “learning stuff”.  It’s about taking what John Wesley did 350 years ago and adapting it to our own time; and in order to do that, we need to put our heads together and discuss.

I also wanted to lead off with a few comments I shared with Fairhaven and Spencer last week, just by way of background.  I started out last week by quoting page one of the book, in which Adam Hamilton writes in the Foreword that the intention of The Wesley Challenge is “to shape the souls of the participants so that their everyday lives are changed…”.

The longer I live, the more I think the word “change” should be a four-letter word!

I never used to feel that way.  And in some ways I still don’t – I mean, variety IS the spice of life.  But, like, for example, I used to work in an office typing on a computer all day. And every now and then I’d come in, in the morning, and discover… my computer had been changed! Overnight the tech guys snuck in and installed an upgrade, and left the employees a note saying why this change was a good thing… and all it meant to us, was it was going to take us twice as long to get our work done! Change meant major frustrations and missed deadlines.

And then about ten years ago I ran for tax collector in Carnegie. So I went door to door talking to people and I campaigned on a platform of ‘change’ and why change was needed in our town – until I realized every time I said the word ‘change’ people’s eyes would glaze over! Because we’ve heard it too many times. Politicians promise change, but if they ever deliver it, they do it badly.

So when Adam Hamilton writes in the foreword of our book that the intention of The Wesley Challenge is to inspire change, I wonder if he’s wise to tell us that!

And yet at the same time he’s speaking the truth, and we know change is needed.  We know without change, the future of our churches is uncertain at best.

I also want to say – the kind of change The Wesley Challenge is talking about is NOT one more program, one more meeting to go to, one more thing on the to-do list. The Wesley Challenge is not that.

When John Wesley began leading his first group, the Church of England and the nation of England were at a low point, morally speaking.  Church attendance was down, people who were spiritual were held up to ridicule, and the nation itself was leading the world in the slave trade… while on the home front people in prisons were suffering horribly – many of whom were in prison simply because they were in debt or mentally ill, not because they were criminals.

Wesley believed that, as the apostle Paul said, faith without works is dead. So with that in mind, Wesley’s group met to read God’s word together, to pray together, to encourage each other in the Christian life, and to find ways of loving God and others.  And in the process they came up with a list of questions they would ask each other, to help each other grow in the faith, which became the Wesleyan ‘method’ – from which we get ‘Method-ism’.

Wesley knew that meaningful change starts in the hearts of individuals, when people’s hearts get close to God. Wesley also knew when people’s hearts are filled with God’s love, that love spills over into daily life. So Wesley’s goal was, basically, to change the nation, one person at a time, by bringing God’s love into everyday life.  Wesley was not so much teaching people about God as he was helping people to discover a life with God.

And even though people in Wesley’s time made fun of the “Holy Club” (as they called it) they began to see Wesley’s group serving the poor, and giving to the needy, and visiting prisoners, and praying together… and the Christian faith began to look real to them, and to look attractive.  Wesley’s ‘Holy Club’ was one of the foundations of a revival that spread across all of England in the 1700s.

So the goal of this book is to begin to bring Wesley’s practice into our own time.  America today, like England in Wesley’s day, is in moral crisis. Church attendance is down, people of faith are held up to ridicule, and the nation is being rocked by one scandal after another. We may have ended slavery in this country, but race relations are still far from what they should be, and our prisons still contain many people who are simply in debt or mentally ill.  And people across the nation are angry and afraid.  We need a course of action.  And that’s what John Wesley gives us.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the change brought on by taking part in the Wesley Challenge is not a huge effort on our part.  Change happens because we get close to God. Whenever people get close to God, change happens. That’s the nature of a relationship with God.

I’m reminded of the story of the young grape who wanted very much to grow up and turn purple and be made into grape juice. But as a young grape, he was hard and green and not very juicy.  So what did the little grape do?  Did he work himself up and say “Turn purple! Turn purple!”?  Of course not.  The grape naturally gets bigger and turns purple over time, so long as he stays connected to the vine.

We are like that grape. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me… and you will bear fruit.”  If we stay connected to Jesus, change happens naturally, the way it’s meant to. Our part is just to show up and be a part of the life of the vine.

So with that in mind, the authors of The Wesley Challenge took the questions John Wesley asked his people, and organized them into three categories: questions having to do with our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves, and our relationship with others.

So last week Pastor Deb talked about our relationship with God.  This week our focus is on part two – our relationship with self. And having given all this background, let’s take a look at our scriptures for today.

The first scripture reading, from Jonah, is a small part of a larger and very familiar story.  Jonah was called and sent by God to preach to the people of Nineveh. And Jonah didn’t want to go – in fact he took a boat and went in the opposite direction.  But after some persuasion from God, involving a large fish, Jonah decided to do what God asked him to do.  And the message God told him to preach was a simple one: “In 40 days the city of Nineveh will be overthrown!”  And Jonah went all through Nineveh proclaiming this message.

Of course Jonah doesn’t have an army to overthrow the city.  He just had God’s message, which was really a call to change, to repentance, which was exactly the way the Ninevites took it.  “…they proclaimed a fast, and… put on sackcloth.”  Everybody in the city did this, great and small, even the king.

Most evangelists would be thrilled to get a 100% response to their preaching!  But Jonah was miserable.  A little further on in the story we see Jonah sitting under a tree waiting for God’s judgement to fall on Nineveh, and getting ticked off when it doesn’t happen.  The Ninevites were enemies of the people of Israel, and Jonah just can’t understand how God could have mercy on Ninevites and forgive them.

This story tells us that God’s salvation is not just for any one nation but for all nations… not just for one people, but for all people.  It tells us God loves every person God has created, regardless of where they live or what language they speak.

But Jonah doesn’t like that, so he sits under the tree and pouts. And that’s pretty much where the book of Jonah ends – with Jonah sitting under a tree, pouting.

The story of Jonah is proof that God can use just about anybody! So was Jonah a man of faith?  Did he ever come around to God’s point of view? Only God knows.

One thing’s for certain: Jonah could have benefitted from some of the questions Wesley asks in this book:  questions like “Do I grumble and complain?” or “Am I self-pitying or self-justifying?” Jonah could have been an even better preacher than he was, if he could have found it within himself to be happy for others when God showed them mercy.

Of course Jonah is an extreme example.  Most of us aren’t quite that grouchy! But all of us have things about ourselves that we’d like to change, or at least improve.  And before I continue with that thought, I should mention: this book is not meant to be a self-help program.  The Wesley Challenge is not about making us into the people we’ve always wanted to be.

The Challenge is about becoming the people God designed us to be.  It’s about living into what God calls us to. And that does involve change.  In scripture, inner change is often described by the word repentance: and this is what Jesus preached in our second lesson for today.  Jesus traveled around Galilee saying, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

The word repent has gotten some bad press over the years.  What the word means in Greek is to change course or change direction. It implies that we can see the course we’re on is one that’s going to have unfortunate consequences – and we want to avoid those consequences – so we turn and change direction.

So the questions Wesley asks us have to do with shining light into the dusty corners of our lives; rooting out those areas where things tend to sneak up and sabotage us.  They involve examining our attitudes, looking at how we take care of ourselves physically and emotionally, and looking at how we spend our time.

And remember as we talk about these things, God is at work – as we read the scriptures, as we pray together – God is at work, developing in us the wisdom and the character we will need as we go forward together in his service.

Our own efforts will be focused in one direction: to put God on the throne of our lives.  Jesus preached the kingdom of God – not just as a future promise, but as a present reality.  The aim of Wesley’s questions is to take our ‘selves’ off the throne of our lives and to put Jesus on the throne. That’s what the Wesley Covenant Prayer is all about: “I am no longer my own but thine; put me to what thou wilt…”

And so we are asking everyone during this Wesley Challenge to pray the Wesley Covenant prayer every day during our personal time with God.

And if you haven’t yet started having a daily time with God, where you read scripture and talk with the Lord, start now – maybe just 15 minutes a day, but start now.  Just yesterday I heard the Anglican Bishop of Pittsburgh giving a teaching on growing in the faith and he said – and I quote – “The one thing that makes the most difference (in spiritual growth) from beginning to end is daily Bible reading and reflection.”  We need to be in the word, every day, every one of us. John Wesley knew that, and that’s why he included Bible reading in the Wesley Challenge.

And where it comes to making Jesus king of our lives: as Americans, we’re not entirely comfortable with the idea of a king. Generally speaking we’re not into royalty.  It’s great for other countries, but not for us, thankyouverymuch.

The problem is, is that all we know is human royalty, and human royalty are not perfect.  But God is perfect. Jesus is the only king who, when He rules our lives, we flourish.  We become what we were meant to be.  Wesley knew this, so he taught his people to put Jesus on the throne of their lives.

And when we do that, people will notice. And our churches will become what they were always meant to be: beacons of hope in world of pain; beacons of compassion in a world that only seeks after its own.

So for those who have been with us for the Wesley Challenge already – keep on coming back.  And for those of us who haven’t been to a meeting yet – choose a night, and plan to join us.  The Wesley Challenge doesn’t work with just one person and a book.  It needs to be shared together.  Whether in person or online, join us.  Get connected to the vine, and let God work in us, together.

Let’s pray.  Lord, most of the time we don’t like change. But we want to see our church connected to you, growing in wisdom, growing in courage, and growing in our ministry to the community around us. Help us to find, as we follow John Wesley’s teaching, a closer walk with you, and with each other; and guide us in reaching out to our community with your love. For your name’s sake, AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 1/21/18

 

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[Scripture readings for the morning – I Samuel 3:1-20, John 1:43-51 – are reprinted at the end of this post.]

The longer I live, the more I think “change” should be a four-letter word. 

I never used to feel that way.  And in some ways I still don’t – I mean, variety IS the spice of life.  But… for example, I used to work in an office typing on a computer all day. And every now and then I’d come in, in the morning, and discover my computer had been changed! Overnight the tech guys snuck in and installed an upgrade, and left the employees a note saying why this change was a good thing. All it meant to us was, it was going to take us twice as long to get our work done! (At least until we learned the new software.) Change meant major frustration and missed deadlines.

And then years later when I ran for tax collector I went door to door talking to people and I campaigned on ‘change’ and why change was needed in our community – until I realized every time I said the word ‘change’ people’s eyes would glaze over. They’ve heard it too many times. Change is something politicians promise and then deliver badly, if at all.

And then there’s the change so many of us attempt at this time of year: the resolution to improve our diet and exercise. I don’t know about you but I enjoy food, and who wants be out walking in all this snow?  Diet and exercise take effort and time, and progress seems sooooo slooow. This kind of change is not pleasant.

So when Adam Hamilton writes in the foreword to The Wesley Challenge – our text for the next few weeks – on page one of the book, that the intention of the Wesley Challenge is “to shape the souls of the participants so that their everyday lives are changed…” – I wonder if he’s wise to say that!

But to say anything else would be less than honest.  Because the truth is, whenever human beings get involved with God, change happens… to us, not to God (because God doesn’t change).

Our scripture readings for today give us a couple of examples of that.  In our passage from John, we hear Nathanael say “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Which is kind of like somebody from Pittsburgh saying “can anything good come out of Cleveland?”) But after talking with Jesus for just a few moments, Nathanael finds himself saying, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Just a few words with Jesus and Nathanael’s opinion is changed!

Our scripture reading from I Samuel also is a story of change, though on a sadder note. At this point in Israel’s history, the prophet Samuel is a boy serving as an apprentice in the temple. God calls Samuel, and Samuel doesn’t even know enough about God to recognize God’s voice.  Finally Eli the priest explains what’s going on, and Samuel says, “speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

And God proceeds to tell Samuel that judgement is about to fall on the house of Eli, because Eli’s sons are blaspheming God, and Eli hasn’t stopped them. And the next morning Eli tells Samuel to tell him what God said – and he says “don’t leave anything out!”  So Samuel gives Eli the message.

Sadly, God’s words are not enough to inspire Eli (or his sons) to change. When human beings come in contact with God, change happens… usually.  But God never forces a person to change. God invites people into relationship, but every person has the right – the God-given right – to say ‘no’, to refuse a relationship with God. And that’s what happens with Eli and his sons.

Samuel, on the other hand, says ‘yes’ to God.  Samuel’s life changes in God’s direction, and scripture tells us his ministry was a blessing to all Israel, and God “let none of his words fall to the ground.”

So spending time with God brings change. And the kind of change God brings won’t let us down, and it doesn’t disappoint, and it isn’t a waste of time, and it isn’t a drudgery.

Scripture itself doesn’t say much about change directly. It tells us stories about change; but it talks more about God’s grace in offering forgiveness and salvation free of charge and without our asking. The one verse where the Bible actually uses the word ‘change’ in reference to people, is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul says that on the last day:

“The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” (I Cor 15:52-53)

So the most important change you and I will ever experience is a gift from God and not something we can do for ourselves! While we wait for that change, in gratitude, we invest our lives – as Jesus said in the story of the talents – working to invest the gifts God has given us to turn a profit (so to speak) for the kingdom of God.  And even that doesn’t take a whole lot of effort because, as Paul says in Philippians:

“…it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil 2:13)

So having said all of this about change by way of background, what kind of change is Wesley talking about in this book? What was his method, and how does it work? And what is our investment in the process?

When John Wesley began leading his first home group, the Church of England and the nation of England were at a low point, morally speaking.  Church attendance was down, serious spirituality was ridiculed, and the nation itself was leading the world in the slave trade, while at home people in prisons – many of whom were simply in debt or mentally ill – were suffering horribly.

Wesley believed that, as Paul said, faith without works is dead. So with that thought in mind, Wesley’s group met to read God’s word together, to pray together, to encourage each other in the Christian life, and to find ways of loving God and others.  And in the process they came up with a list of questions they would ask each other on a regular basis, which became the Wesleyan ‘method’, from which came the word ‘Method-ist’.

Wesley knew that meaningful change starts in the heart of individuals, when people’s hearts get close to God. Wesley also knew when people’s hearts are filled with God’s love, that love spills over into daily life. So Wesley’s goal was, basically, to change the nation – one person at a time – by bringing God’s love into everyday life and experience.  He wasn’t so much teaching people about God as he was helping people to share life with God.

And even though people in Wesley’s time made fun of the “Holy Club” (as they called it) they also began to see group members serving the poor, giving to the needy, visiting prisoners, and praying together… and the Christian faith began to look real to them. And attractive.  Wesley’s ‘Holy Club’ was one of the foundations of a nationwide revival in England in the 1700s.

So the goal of this book is to bring this into our own time.  Our country today, like England in Wesley’s day, is in moral crisis. Church attendance is down, and the nation is being rocked by one horrifying event after another, and people are angry and afraid.  How can we respond? We need a course of action.

I’m reminded of what the flight attendants tell us before a plane takes off:  If there’s trouble, and a mask drops down, put yours on first before you help someone else. Spiritually speaking, we need to put our masks on first before we can help somebody else.  The gospel of Jesus Christ, and a relationship with the living God, is the life-saving device. We need to make sure ours is secure before we help others.

That’s what the Wesley Challenge is about.  And as we head into the Wesley Challenge, I wanted to invite all of us to do a few things that will help us get the most out of Wesley’s teaching:

  • Try to be here for the next few weeks! We will be preaching on the Wesley Challenge for two more weeks, and you don’t want to miss a week.
  • If you can, get your hands on a copy of The Wesley Challenge.
  • Make the Wesley Covenant Prayer part of your daily prayer time for the next few weeks.
  • Attend a Wesley Challenge weeknight meeting of your choice. We have three that will be meeting:
    1. Monday nights – at 7:00PM at Hill Top UMC. Pastor Matt will be leading a group at the parsonage.
    2. Wednesday nights – 7:00PM at Carnegie UMC. I will be leading a group there.
    3. Thursday nights – at Spencer UMC at Beyond there will be a video series related to the book and to John Wesley’s teaching.
  • For those who can’t make it to a group meeting for whatever reason:
    1. Read the book at home
    2. Because the Wesley Challenge was meant to be done with others, in order to get the most out of Wesley’s teaching, share your thoughts with someone else in some other way.
      • Over the phone
      • On a Facebook page. There are other churches doing this at the same time we are: Carlisle UMC in PA and Grace UMC in Des Moines IA. Join one of these online groups, or if you prefer I could start a page for us, let me know.

However we approach this over the coming weeks, the change this course will bring will be mostly God’s work.  Our part is to be there and to share and to be open to what God has in store for us.

Let’s pray together. Lord, as we share your word, and as we read the words of your servant John Wesley over the next few weeks, open our hearts to yourself. Teach us to know you better. Help us understand what your Spirit is creating in us. Help us put away anything that comes between us, Lord. And help us to know how to reach out to others in your name. We give you all the glory and the praise, AMEN.

 

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 1/14/18

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 1 Samuel 3:1-20  Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room;  3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.  4 Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!”  5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.  6 The LORD called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”  7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.  8 The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy.  9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

 10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  11 Then the LORD said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.  12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.  13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.  14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

 15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.  16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.”  17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.”  18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.”

 19 As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.  20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.

John 1:43-51   The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”  44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”  47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”  50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”  51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

~

 

The Wesley Covenant Prayer

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

John Wesley

The Baptism of Jesus

“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”” – Mark 1:4-11

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“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;  3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.  4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.  5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:  6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,  7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.  8 I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.  9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” – Isaiah 42:1-9

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The apostle Mark is a man of few words – and today’s Gospel reading is a prime example.  In these eight short verses, there is little detail, little context; if we didn’t have the other three gospels we would know very little about what’s going on, here on the banks of the Jordan River.

And yet, in these eight verses, everything is here: the gospel message in a nutshell.

But we really do need some context in order to uncover all the gems Mark has tucked away into this text.

We need to begin by saying, first off – last week, we were still celebrating Christmas and Jesus was a baby-in-arms.  This week, Jesus is a grown man, roughly 30 years old, about to start his public ministry.  (For those of us who are grandparents, it does seem like they grow up that fast doesn’t it?)

Mark gives us a little bit of background on John the Baptist.  He tells us that John was ministering on the banks of the River Jordan; and that he was dressed like the prophets of old, and ate locusts and wild honey – which were the foods of the poor and of travelers.  He tells us John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins.

Other gospel writers give us more detail: John is Jesus’ cousin, son of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, born in their old age – a miracle baby whose birth was announced by an angel, and who told Zechariah, John would be “great in the sight of the Lord… filled with the Holy Spirit from before his birth… (and he would) make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

So that’s John’s background. But have you ever wondered how John got his start? I know I have. Think about it: did he just one day head out into the wilderness wearing camel’s hair and start preaching by the riverside? If so, how did people know to go hear him?

Luke suggests a little bit of an answer when he writes:

Luke 3:3-4  [John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,  4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…”

So it sounds like John started out as an itinerant preacher, preaching a message of repentance, and inviting people to be baptized in the Jordan. And after a while, as his message spread, he was able to stay in one place, in the wilderness by the riverside, as people came out to him. Matthew’s gospel seems to support this scenario. He writes:

Matthew 3:5-6  “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea [which is the southern half of Israel], and all the region along the Jordan [which runs the length of Israel, north to south] were going out to [John],  6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

What the gospel writers don’t tell us – because they probably didn’t need to when speaking to their contemporaries – is that John the Baptist’s message and baptism were quite out of the ordinary.  Baptism itself was familiar to the ancient Jewish people, but not as a means of repentance or of making peace with God – repentance and peace with God came by means of animal sacrifices in the temple.

Baptism – or the symbolic act of immersion – goes back as far as Moses, who led the people of Israel through the water of the Red Sea out of slavery and into freedom. But generally speaking, baptism in the Old Testament had to do with ritual purification: for example, after contact with a dead body.  Or if a person was about to enter into God’s service, such as a priest, or the men of Qumran who copied the ancient scrolls – they would immerse in water before taking on their duties. Or if a Gentile converted to Judaism, immersion might be part of the ritual of acceptance into the Jewish faith. So in the Old Testament, baptism was a symbolic action, something a person did in order to be ritually clean.

But in the Old Testament, forgiveness of sins was not involved, except symbolically. As one ancient Jewish authority writes: “Just as a mikveh (that is, immersion in water) purifies the contaminated, so does the Holy One, blessed be he, purify Israel.”

This symbolic interpretation was the only one that was known – until John came along. John’s task was to prepare the people of Israel to meet their Messiah – to meet God!  So he preached a message of repentance: telling the people to change course, change direction. He told soldiers not to extort money but to be content with their wages. He said the same to tax collectors. He told people with extra clothing or extra food to share with those who did not have enough. In other words, he preached justice and compassion as a way of life.

And people came from all over to hear John, and to stand in line for hours, to confess their sins out loud in front of everybody – as an act of change, of a new beginning, and then to be baptized full-body in the Jordan River. Nothing like this had ever been done before.

And on top of all this, John was saying that someone was going to come after him, greater than himself, more powerful than himself, who would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit.  This could mean nothing else but that the Messiah was coming.

And then one day, Jesus arrived at the riverside.  Picture the scene: Jesus is standing knee-deep in the water, next to his cousin John. We don’t know if the two had ever met before (post-birth, that is – John had recognized Jesus while in the womb); but they know who each other is.  And Jesus steps up to be baptized, and he confesses… nothing! He has nothing to confess.  And John says to Jesus in Matthew’s gospel:

Matthew 3:14-15  “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

And in saying this, Jesus steps up and takes our place. He becomes one with his people, symbolically taking on our sins so that they can be washed away: a prophetic action that foreshadows the Cross.

And immediately after John baptizes Jesus, the heavens are torn open and the Holy Spirit lights on Jesus like a dove; and a voice from heaven is heard saying:

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)

I can’t even begin to imagine what this moment was like – for John, for Jesus, for the crowd watching on the banks of the river.  But I hear three things in God’s words:

  • “You are my Son” – confirming Jesus is in every way, spiritually and literally, God’s Son
  • “The Beloved” – some versions of the Bible translate the opening phrase, “you are my beloved son” and some translate “you are my Son, the Beloved”. Both translations may be considered correct from the Greek; but I like the latter better because it puts the emphasis on God’s love. It’s like God is saying, “I love you so much – I cherish you.” And Jesus is going to need to know this because in the very next verse he’ll be out in the wilderness for 40 days being tempted by the devil. He needs to know God the Father is with him 100%.
    The other reason I like the translation ‘the beloved’ is because ‘beloved’ is the English translation of the Hebrew name ‘David’. It’s like God is giving us a double-meaning, pointing to Jesus as the Son of David that Israel has been waiting for, for so long.
  • “With you I am well pleased” – The longings of God the Father’s heart are completely satisfied in Jesus. And our Old Testament reading gives us the opportunity to begin to ‘count the ways’. Let’s take a look.  God says through Isaiah:

Isaiah 42:1  “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights…”

Why? Because (v 1) he will bring forth justice; (v 3) he will faithfully bring forth justice; (v 4) he will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.

Three times God speaks of his servant bringing justice – not the imperfect justice of human courts but the compassionate justice of the kingdom of heaven.

God says in (v 2) a bruised reed he will not break; a dimly burning wick he will not quench; (v 4) he will teach (v 6) he will be a covenant to the people and a light to the nations; (v 7) he will give sight to the blind, he will give release for the prisoners and for those who sit in darkness.

This is God’s champion! This is the One who will do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven! This is the one in whom God’s soul delights!

So what does Mark’s brief vignette mean for us today?  Where do we find ourselves in this story? As we picture the scene of Jesus’ baptism in our minds: Are we one of the ones in line to confess our sins and be baptized? Are we one of the ones standing on the shoreline observing? Are we craning our necks to look up into heaven, when the dove comes down, to try to see what’s up there? Are we one of the ones maybe standing a little too close to the ‘brood of vipers’?

I think two things would have been clear to anyone who was there that day: (1) Both John the Baptist and God are telling us that Jesus is The One – this is the Messiah we’ve been waiting for; and (2) John’s ministry – and now Jesus’ ministry – are on a collision course with the Pharisees and Sadducees and the powers of this world.  And every observer present will need to decide for himself or herself which side we’re on. What we decide will make all the difference, in this world and the next.

Almost as an aside, I should mention baptism briefly, because today is an appropriate day to do so.  If anyone here today is a believer in Jesus but has not yet been baptized, or isn’t sure if they’ve been baptized, please see either Fr. Paul or myself after service. Because this is one way all of us follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus, and it’s a joy to do so.  And if anyone here has been baptized, but feels a need for further repentance – it is not necessary to be baptized a second time, but it is a healthy habit of growing Christians to confess sin and ask God for forgiveness. Here at Incarnation we do offer the sacrament of confession, for those who want it, and we can also offer suggestions for prayers of confession to use in one’s own private prayer life.

But coming back to the main point: Most of all I think the take-away from this passage is simply to take in – to soak in – God’s words “this is my Son, the Beloved, in you I am well pleased” – and to join the Father in being well-pleased with Jesus. To join John the Baptist in looking at Jesus and saying “the thong of whose sandals I am unworthy to untie”: this Jesus, who identified with our human weakness and set us free from the prison of sin and darkness. This Jesus, whose arrival tells us the former things are passing away, and behold, the new has come.  Be well-pleased with Jesus. AMEN.

 

Preached at Incarnation Church (Anglican), Strip District, Pittsburgh, 1/7/18

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The Baby Jesus in the Temple

“When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”  Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.  It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.  Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed– and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” – Luke 2:22-40

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This past week a couple acquaintances of mine got into a heated discussion on Facebook. Before I dive in to this story I want to assure everyone: I am careful not to repeat things people say to me from the pulpit. But if somebody puts something on Facebook, which is a permanent, public record that can be read and quoted by anybody in the world – I consider that fair game.

So the argument went something like this. (Keep in mind these are two theologians talking.) One friend was saying basically: “I’m so glad that God is a loving God, so people who don’t have their theology perfect can still be brothers and sisters in Christ. They may slip into…” (and here she named a couple of strands of ancient theology that were debunked a long time ago but are making a comeback in recent years). She said, “they may stray across the borders of these theologies, but they love God and love spending time with God, and in God’s mercy they can still be counted among God’s people even though their theology isn’t what the church considers acceptable.”  The other friend was saying, “but if people really have a relationship with God their theology wouldn’t stray outside of correct beliefs because God wouldn’t lead them there.”

Of course their argument misses two things: (1) no human being has perfect theology, and (2) no human being understands God perfectly. So whether we approach the faith from an intellectual standpoint or from the standpoint of religious experience, either way our human understanding is imperfect, or at the very least incomplete.

In more practical terms what their argument boiled down to was the difference between living by the letter of the law (which has the tendency to become a bit Pharisee-like), or being led by the spirit into religious experiences (which appeal to the heart but have the tendency to get a little flaky intellectually). So many of the arguments and divisions and rumors of divisions, within the realm of the Christian faith, really come down to this.  Even within our own selves sometimes, we debate between doing what our minds say is right vs. doing what our hearts say the Spirit is leading us to do.

Our scripture reading for today gives an answer to this debate by satisfying both sides. Let’s take a look.

The scene is in the temple in Jerusalem. The time is eight days after Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ parents, have brought Jesus to the temple – as the law of Moses commands – to be circumcised, and as the firstborn male, to be redeemed. They bring two sacrifices: one pigeon for Mary’s rite of purification and one pigeon for Jesus’ redemption. These gifts tell us that Mary and Joseph are not rich; because Moses actually commanded one bird and one sheep – but he said “if they can’t afford a sheep a second bird will do.”

All of this was an experience common to every Jewish family, so there was nothing really remarkable about all this… until Mary and Joseph were approached by an elderly stranger. A man by the name of Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God, saying God had promised him he would not die until he saw the Messiah – and now he can die in peace because God’s word is fulfilled.

And then another prophet, Anna, recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, and starts to praise God and tell everyone in the temple who this child is!

Mary and Joseph are dumbfounded by all this. They take it all in; but then they just sort of carry on with what they’re doing.  They don’t ask questions; they don’t start passing baby Jesus around the temple or anything like that; they just finish the sacrifices and return home to Nazareth, where Jesus grows up, and grows strong and wise, with God’s favor resting on him.

But Mary and Joseph do store up all these words in their hearts. Most likely when Luke wrote his gospel he visited Nazareth and interviewed Mary, and she told him what was said about Jesus when he was a baby.

As we start to dig into this passage, looking at the text, we notice the phrase “the law of the Lord” appears five times in this short reading; and the Holy Spirit – or being led or guided by the Spirit – is mentioned three or four times depending on which edition of the Greek New Testament you’re using.

So basically the Law and the Spirit are on equal footing in this passage.

We’ll take a look at the ‘law’ side first. Luke begins by saying “when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses”.  He’s referring to Leviticus chapter 12, which describes the religious rite:

“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:  2 Speak to the people of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days… 3 On the eighth day the flesh of [the male child’s] foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Leviticus 12:1-3)

A few verses later Moses details this saying:

“When the days of her purification are completed [that is, after the seven days] whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb… for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. […] 8 If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.” (Leviticus 12:6, 8)

There was also atonement for the child that was spoken of in Exodus.  God commanded the people in the book of Exodus through Moses saying,

“The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.” (Ex. 22:29-30)

So the firstborn of any person or animal was claimed by God. The reason God gives for this law was because God gave the firstborn of the Egyptians for the life of Israel.  God explains this further in the book of Numbers when he says through Moses:

“all the firstborn are mine; when I killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both human and animal; they shall be mine. I am the LORD.” (Numbers 3:13)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve often wondered about ancient Egypt and the story of the Exodus. I’ve wondered: didn’t God care for the Egyptians? God had a legitimate grievance with Pharaoh, but all those plagues God sent hurt the people just as much as they hurt the king.

In this passage it becomes clear God cared very deeply for the Egyptians. And God wanted Israel to remember that and not forget it. So he claimed the firstborn of people and animals as his own. But in his mercy God allowed the people of Israel to redeem a firstborn child by sacrificing a lamb in his place.

Does this sound familiar?

The irony is that Jesus, being the Lamb of God, didn’t need to be redeemed. But as Jesus himself explained later on in his life:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt 5:17-18)

And later on in Jesus’ ministry the apostle Matthew records this story:

The collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?”  25 He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?”  26 When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free.  27 However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.” (Matthew 17:24-27)

Jesus in this passage declares himself exempt from the temple tax because he is the Son of the God who is being worshipped in the temple!  But he submits to the law anyway so as not to offend.

Coming back to our story of Jesus being presented in the temple, we see the law of Moses being fulfilled.  But the fulfillment of the law is not all that happened. People experienced God’s grace as well.

While Mary and Joseph were there, Simeon – whose name in Hebrew means “he who hears” – a righteous and devout man – came and spoke to them. And Luke says ‘the Holy Spirit rested on him’.  In other words he had a relationship with God, rooted in deep love, and he had been gifted with the gift of prophecy.

God told Simeon through the Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah with his own eyes. Guided by that same spirit, Simeon takes the baby Jesus in his arms, looks into the eyes of God with love, and says, “Lord, you have fulfilled your word; now let your servant depart in peace, for with my own eyes I have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people; a light to reveal you to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Simeon knew the Messiah would bring revelation – revealing God to the Gentiles, revealing God’s word and God’s heart to the Jewish people, and revealing the inner thoughts of all people who met him.

Simeon also knew that Mary would bear a heavy cost. He said to her, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel… and a sword (and the Greek here is more like ‘javelin’) – a sword will pierce your own soul also.”

Simeon’s vision and prophecy had their foundations in the experience of the Holy Spirit, and of walking with God for a lifetime.

During the same visit in the temple, the widow and prophetess Anna also recognized Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit and praised God for the coming of the Messiah. She went around telling everyone she knew that the Messiah was here!  In the ears of the priests and Pharisees her words must have sounded a bit crazy. But she spoke by the Spirit, rooted in her long relationship with God, and she praised God continually for the arrival of Jesus.

So we see in this story the law of God being obeyed and fulfilled, as well as the Spirit of God leading people to share the good news with any who will listen.

What this means for us today is that the commandments of God and the sense of being led by the Spirit of God are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they go together, they belong together: mind and heart; knowledge and passion; truth and praise.

So for those of us who love to experience God, who revel in the joy of knowing God’s presence: don’t be afraid of God’s law.  As the Psalmist says, God’s law is good.  God requires truth and holiness in the inward being, and our joy will increase as we know God better.

And for those of us who love to know God, who love to explore the heavenly logic and laws that help us understand God’s awesome mind: don’t be afraid to experience God’s heart. Welcome the Spirit, place control of your life in God’s hands. Because God is love, and those of us who love God have nothing to fear.

And for all of us: let us join with Simeon and Anna in thanking God for God’s faithfulness and for the birth of this holy child, the light to the Gentiles, who has come to save his people. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 12/31/17

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Luke 2:1-20  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3 All went to their own towns to be registered.  4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,  14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”  16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;  18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

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Hymn Text: O Little Town of Bethlehem

1 O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

2 For Christ is born of Mary, and, gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wond’ring love.
O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth.

3 How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.

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We made it!  Christmas is here!  The busyness is over, and what’s done is done, and what’s not done is probably not going to get done at this point.

Here at Carnegie United Methodist, over the past month, we have been observing Advent by focusing on the Songs of Advent. And we have heard in these songs – and in the scriptures they were based on – how the world has been watching and waiting for the arrival of the Saviour.  How, in our dark and weary world, we long for the light and the peace that God’s Messiah will bring.

We’ve heard in these songs how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies: the promise that a Saviour would come, from the line of David, and save God’s people; and how this Saviour came to earth and was born in a manger in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. And tonight, we celebrate: the baby has arrived!

But the ancient prophecies also promised a King: and King Jesus is yet to come. So during Advent we remembered how God sent Jesus as a baby, to save us from sin; and we also remembered that Jesus will be returning one day as King, to restore the world to God’s design.

Those of us who love Jesus, who are full of joy at his coming, are citizens of that Kingdom… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Tonight I wanted to finish out our series on the Songs of Advent by taking a look at the songs of Christmas. And I wish I had time to talk about all of them! But for tonight I’m going to focus on two: the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, and the song the angels sang in our scripture reading tonight.

So starting with the carol. “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.”  These words were written shortly after the end of the Civil War by a pastor serving a church in Philadelphia. Which is cool, because so many of our carols and hymns come from Europe – it’s nice to have one we can call our own, from our own country and our own state.  The pastor, whose name was Mr. Brooks, had recently traveled to the Holy Land and had been deeply moved by seeing Bethlehem. So he wrote a poem about it, and gave it to his organist to set to music.

The organist tells us the story in a letter that he wrote to a friend. He says, in part:

“As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas Sunday-school service, and he asked me to write the tune to it. We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, ‘have you written the music yet to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”? I replied, ‘No’ but said he would have it by Sunday. On Saturday night… my brain was all confused about the tune. […]But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the melody… and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony.” He adds: “Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol… would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.”

…and here we are, still singing it, 149 years later.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.”  If we were to go to Bethlehem tonight, it would not be quiet and still.  There would be thousands of worshipers from around the world, from every church and denomination, crammed into the city, celebrating Christmas. And the city itself, being disputed territory, is surrounded by a wall topped with barbed wire and guarded by men with machine guns, who look at every passport at every checkpoint. Even when it’s not a holiday, these days, Bethlehem is not quiet.

But 2100 years ago – was it quiet back then? Probably not, actually – because Bethlehem had thousands of visitors there for the census. There were so many people there were no more rooms available in the guest houses. And of course there were always Roman soldiers around, with their swords and their armor.  And in the middle of all this a young couple arrives, with the woman clearly in labor – and quickly the midwives gather, and they clear a spot near the manger, and the baby is born and cries out, and all that doesn’t happen quietly either.

Back then, just like it is today, the world is in darkness and confusion and there is no peace.

But on the hillsides around Bethlehem it was quiet.  There were sheep on the hills and shepherds to look after them.  Far from the crowds of the city, peaceful among the tall grass and olive trees, the men watched over their flocks.

All of a sudden the peace of the night was shattered when a heavenly being appeared! The Bible never tells us exactly what angels look like, but going by how people reacted to them – they must look a bit fierce.  In the Bible, whenever an angel appears, people tremble, or fall to their knees, or sometimes faint dead away. So the first word out of the angel’s mouth is “Fear not!” Don’t be afraid. And something in the way the angel speaks gives courage to those who hear.

I think the angel’s word to us tonight is also “Fear not”.  Fear not, in the darkness. Fear not, in these violent times. Why?  Because…

“I bring you good news of great joy, which will be for all the people.”

Great joy. Joy is a word we hardly ever use any more, except at Christmas-time.  I think we may be in danger of losing the meaning of the word. Joy is not just happiness or pleasure – in fact some have said that happiness and pleasure are cheap imitations of joy.  The dictionary says joy is ‘felicity, bliss, delight’ – but it goes even beyond that.

The psalmist says in Psalm 30, “weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Ps. 30:5)  Joy can be found in that moment when our spirits soar beyond themselves, and we lose ourselves in the moment.  Joy takes us outside ourselves.  C.S. Lewis says “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”

This joy, the angel says, will be for all people. Not just the ones in charge. Not just the rich and privileged. All people.

And the angel continues: “To you is born this day in the City of David a savior, who the Messiah, the Lord.”

God’s promises, given by Abraham and Moses and David and Isaiah and all the prophets, have been fulfilled tonight. Christ is here – in Bethlehem – the anointed one, the Promised One – the Lord and ruler over all.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host” – that is, thousands of angels, rank on rank, almost like heaven’s military.  So there’s this multitude of the heavenly host – singing – “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace among those whom he favors.”  God is above all, greater than anything, more important than anything, more majestic than anything. And this child will bring peace between God and God’s people – by conquering sin and death and giving us holiness and life. Praise be to God!

When the angels went away the shepherds did the only thing they could do: they set out for Bethlehem, and they found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, lying in a manger. And they told Mary and Joseph what the angel said.  And then they went out and told the rest of the city what the angel said. They got the city so excited that rumors of what they said even reached the palace in Jerusalem, which troubled King Herod – but that’s another story for another day.  For that night, the shepherds shared their story, then returned to their flocks rejoicing and praising God for all they had seen and heard.

O Little Town of Bethlehem concludes with these words:

“So God imparts to human hearts / the blessings of his heaven
No ear may hear his coming; but in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him / still, the dear Christ enters in.”

We give gifts to each other at Christmas, in honor and in memory of the greatest gift ever given to us, on Christmas night.  And to this day, where gentle souls and open hearts make Jesus welcome, Jesus enters in, and lives with us forever.

This is the message of Christmas, and the call of Christmas.  Will we set aside all the rushing and busyness? Will we set aside the TV and the newspaper and the Facebook feed – and simply receive Jesus into our hearts?  Receive him as savior, because he will save his people from sin and death – and receive him as Lord, because he is the greatest power in the universe and the ultimate authority.

“Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”  This is my prayer for all of us tonight.

❤ Merry Christmas ❤

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Christmas Eve, 2017

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“O Come O Come Emmanuel”

Luke 1:46-55   And Mary said, “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.”

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Advent Hymn: O Come O Come Emmanuel (Methodist hymnal)

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Refrain:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

2 O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show
and cause us in her ways to go. Refrain

3 O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times once gave the law
in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain

4 O come, thou root of Jesse’s tree,
an ensign of thy people be;
Before thee rulers silent fall;
all peoples on thy mercy call. Refrain

5 O come, thou Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
The captives from their prison free
and conquer death’s deep misery.
[original lyrics: Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode. Refrain]

6 O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer,
our spirits by thy justice here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Refrain

7 O come, Desire of nations, bind
all peoples in one heart and mind
From dust thou brought us forth to life;
deliver us from earthly strife. Refrain

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“Is it Christmas yet?” the kids keep asking.  Almost!  Only hours away now!

Today is the last in our series on “Songs of Advent” and it will lead us into Christmas.

In our scripture reading for this morning, though, it’s not quite Christmas yet for Jesus’ mother Mary – she is still about six months away from giving birth.  She knows she’s pregnant, and she knows she is carrying the Messiah. She knows it has been the hope of every Jewish woman down through the centuries that her son might be the one to grow up to be the Promised One, who will deliver his people. And she knows out of all the women in the long history of Israel God has chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah. She knows this child she’s carrying is literally the son of God.

Can you imagine knowing all this and not being able to tell anyone? Yes, she told Joseph, her fiancé – he didn’t believe her at first, until he was visited by an angel in a dream.  But nobody else is going to believe this story… that a poor peasant girl is pregnant, and God is the father!  And Mary needs somebody to talk to.

So she turns to her cousin, Elizabeth.  Elizabeth is also pregnant, in her old age – another miracle baby, given by God to a woman past child-bearing years.  Elizabeth will understand.  So Mary went to visit her, and when Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, the baby – who would grow up to be John the Baptist – leaped in her womb for joy. And Mary responded in these words:

“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…”

These babies had been a long time coming.  From the Garden of Eden, when the first couple disobeyed God, and God promised that one day the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head – through to the exodus, and the reign of King David, and the nation’s exile into Babylon, and then their return but under Greek rule – over thousands of years the prophets kept sending God’s message: one day there would come a Messiah, a prince of peace, who would free the captives and heal the sick and bind up the broken-hearted. Thousands of years the people of Israel waited.

Our Advent hymn for today talks about waiting for the messiah, both from the perspective of the Hebrew people and from the Christian perspective of waiting for Jesus to return as King.

O Come O Come Emmanuel was first written in Latin sometime around the year 750AD – which makes it one of the oldest songs in our hymnal. It has been translated into many languages, and it’s not unusual for there to be minor differences in English translations from one hymnal to another. The song was originally a chant. In fact this was one of the first chants that became known as ‘Gregorian’ chant – so if you can imagine this song was cutting edge popular music at the time. (and people were probably talking about all this new-fangled contemporary music in church even back then…)

The writer of the words of the song used a technique that’s rare in Western poetry, but fairly common in Middle Eastern poetry: the first letters of each verse, if you string them together, create a sentence. In Latin it says ero cras which translated means “I will be with you tomorrow” – a message of faith embedded into the very structure of the song.  And each verse of O Come O Come Emmanuel is meant to illustrate one of the names of Jesus. Follow with me in the hymnal, #211…

Verse 1 cries out to God to come and save God’s people. It calls on Emmanuel – which means ‘God with us’ – to come quickly, because we grieve in his absence.  Without Jesus in the world, God’s people are held captive.  In the Old Testament, God’s people were held captive by invading armies; and in both testaments, God’s people are held captive to sin and death, and unable to free themselves.

But the refrain between each verse calls on God’s people to “Rejoice!” Rejoice, because Emmanuel is coming.

Verse 2 calls Jesus the ‘Wisdom from on high’ or ‘the wisdom of God’. This is a deep, deep wisdom – deep enough to understand and create the universe (“all things, far and nigh”). And the songwriter prays to God to show God’s people the path of wisdom so we can live our lives moving in God’s direction.

Verse 3 calls Jesus ‘the Lord of might’ – the King. The one who gave the law to Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness after freeing them from slavery in Egypt. The Ten Commandments, given on Mt. Sinai, in cloud and in fire.

Verse 4 calls Jesus ‘the root of Jesse’s tree’ – Jesse being the father of King David.  This calls to mind a confrontation Jesus had with the Pharisees. In Matthew’s gospel it says:

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question:  42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.”  43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,  44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” ’?  45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to give [Jesus] an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:41-46)

In calling Jesus ‘the root of Jesse’s tree,’ our hymnwriter explains what the Pharisees missed.

Verse 5 continues that thought by calling Jesus ‘the key of David’ who will be able to open the door to heaven for his people… to set free all who are captive to death and unable to save themselves. The Messiah would overcome death.

Verse 6 calls Jesus the ‘Dayspring’ – or in some translations ‘Daystar’ or ‘Morningstar’.  There are many, many names Jesus is given in Scripture but this is a name Jesus gives himself. In the book of Revelation Jesus says:

“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

I love this name for Jesus because when we look at the stars in the wee hours before sunrise, the “morning star” is the first star to appear in the eastern sky, before the sun’s rays begin to appear. It’s been said ‘the darkest hour is just before dawn’ – and in the darkest hour of night, the first light we see is the morning star. And isn’t that just like Jesus, in our darkest hour, in our weary world, he is the first light we see – and the promise of the day that is coming.

In verse 7 Jesus is called ‘Desire of the nations’ and the songwriter asks Jesus to unite the hearts of all people… to heal our divisions, and bring peace that will last.

How beautifully Mary’s song goes along with this Advent song!  A Jewish teenager living in Palestine 2100 years ago – and a poet living somewhere in western Europe 1400 years ago – share the same vision, and sing the same song. And today we gather on a continent on the opposite side of the world, to sing about the same Messiah.

Mary sings of her joy in God, who passed over all the princesses in their palaces and all the daughters of high priests and chose a peasant girl to be mother to the Promised One. She sings of God’s mercy and compassion for all who fear him.  She sings that the time of reckoning has come – when the rulers of this world – those who have satisfied themselves on the fat of the land – will be pulled off their thrones and the people who have been oppressed will be lifted up.  She sings, “God has thrown in his lot with his people, in remembrance of his mercy” – Emmanuel, God-with-us.

What both songs tell us today is that we are an Advent people.  We wait, as Mary waited, praying for the time when God’s will is done here on earth as it is in heaven.  We know, as Mary knew, that the time is coming. We know, as Mary knew, as our hymn-writer knew, that God loves God’s people and will have mercy on us and will be with us. We see, as Mary saw, the bright Morningstar on the horizon.

The world we live in is still dark. The night is still with us. And while we wait in the darkness there are people who need to see what we see – who need us to point to the Morningstar so they can have hope too… so they can join with us in celebrating the coming King. We know the time is coming… but it’s not here quite yet. We are an Advent people.

It won’t be long before we will be a Christmas people.  2100 years ago a baby was born in Bethlehem. He conquered sin and death on the cross, died and rose again,  the beginning of the end of the darkness.  He will come again, not as a baby, but as a King, the Ruler of Kings, the Commander of Lords. And on that day we will be a Christmas people.

Until then, we wait, and we sing O come, O come, Emmanuel. We praise God for what God has done so far. We pray for the needs we see in the world around us. And we look to the east, for the coming of the Morningstar.

Our story continues… tonight. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/24/17 AM

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