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“With Unveiled Faces”

Scripture Readings: Exodus 34:29-35, II Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, one of the lesser-known holidays in the church. It’s a day when we remember the events we read in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus took a few of his disciples and went up a mountain and was transformed right in front of them. We’re going to take a look at what that event means for us today. But before we do I also wanted to mention…

Today is the last Sunday before Lent begins. Lent starts this Wednesday, and of course that means on Tuesday we will be celebrating Mardi Gras and filling up on pastries and sweets before starting on those Lenten diets, right? It’s funny, I never used to pay much attention to Lent when I was a kid. I was raised Presbyterian, and we didn’t ‘do Lent’. I could never figure out why someone would want to give up something they liked for Lent. But when I got older I began to understand: these forty days of Lent are days when we remember all the things Jesus gave up for us. Jesus gave up heaven to be with us, so if we give up something for Lent it’s like an act of solidarity with Jesus. We don’t have to… but then Jesus didn’t have to either.

But we’re not in Lent yet. Today, being Transfiguration, is a day that prepares us – and we see Jesus being prepared as well – for the cross that is coming. Luke says that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus on that mountaintop about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” That is, they were talking about Jesus’ death, about how he was going to depart this life.

One of the questions Jesus was probably asking them was ‘is there any other way for me to do this?’. On Good Friday every year we hear Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:39) Jesus did not want to be crucified. He had seen people being crucified before. Crucifixon was a common form of capital punishment in the Roman Empire, and it was horrifying. Jesus had no martyr complex. He loved people and loved life and he did not want to go through that kind of pain. What Moses and Elijah said to Jesus on that mountain assured him there was no other way.

Moses represented the Old Testament, the Law. And the Law taught that sin brings death. If a person sinned, they needed to offer an animal as a sacrifice in their place. That’s why Jesus is sometimes called the “Lamb of God”. Jesus was to become the sacrifice for sin, once for all. After Jesus, animal sacrifices would no longer be needed. And Elijah represented the prophets. He would have reminded Jesus of all the prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament, including the words of Isaiah who said the Messiah would be:

“…wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities… by his [stripes] we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5-6)

Jesus is the one the Old Testament looks forward to. Jesus is the Messiah who would suffer for his people. And Jesus knew this, even before his conversation with Moses and Elijah. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says:

“I am the good shepherd… And I lay down my life for the sheep. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10:14-18 edited)

So Jesus knew what was coming. But I think, being human, being faced with the horror of the cross, he needed confirmation, he needed encouragement, he needed to be sure.

Anybody who has ever gone through major surgery can understand where Jesus was coming from. When you go to the doctor and he says, “you need to have an operation” at first you don’t want to hear it. You can know all the facts, you can know what needs to be done, but you won’t want to do it, you don’t want to go through something you know is going to be painful. And most of us won’t set the surgery date until we’ve had the chance to talk it over with someone who loves us, who can assure us: ‘this is the right course of action. And I’ll be there with you.’ That’s what Jesus needed to hear on the mountain top.

So today is a day that remembers one of the pivot points of all of human history. Because today is the day Jesus’ decision was made, to do what needed to be done. Scripture says he ‘set his face’ toward Jerusalem and the cross.

But as dark and as ‘heavy’ as this thought is, today is not a day of darkness. The Transfiguration is a day of light. It’s a day of shining faces, of seeing God’s glory.

Let’s go back to today’s readings for a moment. In the Old Testament we heard about Moses’ face ‘shining’ when he met with God and received the Ten Commandments. His face was shining so brightly from having met God that the people were afraid to look at him. Moses had to put a veil over his face so he could talk to the people without scaring them.

And in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus went up on the mountain, he was shining with the glory of God too. The disciples – at first they started to fall asleep. Which is the same thing that happened in the Garden of Gethsemane; there must be something about being that close to eternity that’s more than human beings can bear, so they slept. But on the mountain they woke up just before the cloud came, and they were terrified, Luke says. Just like the Israelites were terrified of Moses.

Faces that shine with God’s glory frighten us. But they’re not like faces in a scary movie. They frighten us in the sense that they’re too beautiful to bear. They’re too much for us to take in. They are a taste of heaven, a glimpse of eternity. Something we can only begin to imagine suddenly becoming real.

The glow on Moses’ face was from the outside, a reflection of God’s glory. But the glow on Jesus’ face was from the inside – it showed Jesus’ true self, the same self that – after his resurrection – walked through locked doors into rooms where the disciples were gathered. Jesus is living proof that there is another life, another reality, and that he is the way there. And it’s too much for the disciples to take in. But the good news is that the disciples will someday also shine with this kind of glory. Which is why when we see old stained glass windows the saints have halos over their heads –they represent the glow of God’s glory.

And someday we will shine like that too. That’s what Paul was talking about in the passage from II Corinthians. Paul says “if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets” – referring to Moses and the Ten Commandments – which, Paul says, could only show us our sin but couldn’t save us – if this ministry “came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face… how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?” In other words, our salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice, and our faith in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, brings us into glory. Someday we will shine like Jesus. But for right now the reality of this, if we could actually see it, we would be terrified.

I was trying to think of a way to describe how the disciples must have felt when they saw Jesus shining with God’s glory. Because there’s so little in this life we can compare it to. But try this on for size. A few weeks from now the Academy Awards are going to be on TV. Think about how would you feel if you had to get up on stage and give a speech in front of all those famous people and all those TV cameras? We’d be terrified, right? But we will see people giving speeches on the Oscars, cool as cucumbers. The difference between them and us is the people on the Oscars have had time to grow into it. They have studied, and worked at becoming better actors, they have given interviews, they’ve been on TV before, so when it comes time to give a speech at the Oscars they’re ready for it and they can do it without being terrified.

Right now the idea of being transformed into something… otherworldly… is scary. Someday we will stand in God’s glory without being terrified. We will grow into it. But for today, we stand with the disciples in speechless awe.

So what does all of this mean for us? Four things.

First, when we look at Jesus – glowing with the glory that was his from the beginning of time – we realize what Jesus gave up for us. Scripture tells us before he was born, Jesus was in heaven with God. In fact Jesus is God. We don’t worship two gods, we worship one God. Jesus was with God and was God. All the universe, everything we see, everything we can’t see, was created by him and through him and belongs to him. Jesus is the King of it all. And Jesus gave that up to come into our world, to be born like one of us: into a smelly stable, into a poor family, into the oppression that was Roman Empire occupation. How much does Jesus love us to give up who and where he was to be with us?

While he was here on earth, Jesus shared himself with people, fed people, healed people, raised the dead… and still the leaders of the people were trying to kill him. Because they knew Jesus was the rightful king. He was there to replace them, and they didn’t want that. So they made plans to get rid of Jesus.

What these leaders didn’t know was, when the Lord of Life passes through the gates of death, sin and death are defeated forever. Moses and Elijah and Jesus on that mountaintop made plans to use the murderers’ own plans against them… and in such a way that even the murderers could be forgiven, if they were willing. Jesus makes it possible for one of the Roman soldiers who crucified him to fall to his knees at the foot of the cross and say, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Matt. 27:54)

Jesus gave up all the glory of heaven to save sinners who could not save themselves.

Second, Paul says in II Corinthians, not everyone will accept this message. Paul says, “their minds are hardened… a veil lies over their minds…” Paul is referring to the veil Moses wore to keep from frightening the people, and what Paul says is: now things are reversed. Now Jesus’ glory has been revealed, and the veil is off! Now we see Jesus “with unveiled faces” he says. And the people who don’t see it, who are unwilling or unable to hear God’s message, are the ones who now have a veil over their minds.

BUT – Paul says – “when someone turns to the Lord the veil is removed.” Paul says, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” – freedom from sin, freedom from death – freedom to be transformed into glory. If we know of people whose minds are still veiled, pray for them that the veil will be lifted.

Third, when we look at Jesus’ shining face we are looking at our own future. Paul says it’s like “looking through a glass dimly.” Remember that line from I Corinthians 13? “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face..” He’s talking about glory, and love is part of that glory. The apostle John writes in his first letter: “when Jesus is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is”. (I John 3:2) For those of us who believe in Jesus, who seek to follow him and be his disciples, we are being changed from glory to glory.

And as this happens, people can see it in our faces. People hear it in our words of kindness and compassion. They can see it in our worship and our hospitality. Our lives become a signpost pointing people to Jesus.

And lastly, when the disciples were with Jesus on that mountaintop, and Peter offered to put up tents for everybody, Jesus didn’t get on Peter’s case. Peter’s offer of hospitality was an honest one. But the thing is, Jesus did not come to earth to stay here with us. Peter was assuming Moses, Elijah, and Jesus would be staying. But Jesus came to earth not to stay with us but so we can go with him. The good news is: this world is not our home. We have a future beyond anything we can put into words. Someday ‘we will be like him.’ (I John 3:2)

So as we enter into Lent this week, be encouraged by the vision; and walk into this season of repentance without fear, knowing that our sins are forgiven, and that our future in eternity is full of glory. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 2/7/16

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The Love Chapter

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Luke 4:21-30, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Today we’re looking at the Love Chapter: I Corinthians 13. Paul’s words in this chapter are well-known and well-loved, and this is one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture too. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to talk about it today.

On the other hand this is also one of those sermons where I’m going to be preaching as much to myself as I am to you. Because love – at least the kind of love Paul talks about – is something I wish I was better at.

That said, I’d like to start today with the other two readings, from Jeremiah and Luke,  because both of these readings give us illustrations of different kinds of love.

In the reading from Luke we see a kind of love that’s more like popularity or fame. Jesus is preaching in his hometown. And people say “hey, isn’t that Joseph’s boy?” He’s the hometown hero. He’s like… Jerome Bettis. “Everybody speaks well of him,” Luke says.

But there’s a problem: Jesus is not called to limit his ministry to the hometown crowd, or even to Israel: Jesus intends to reach the whole world. And Jesus tries to get this across to them by saying, ‘look, you remember the prophet Elijah? He was called to live in Sidon rather than living in Israel. And you remember the prophet Elisha? He only healed one leper in his whole life and that was a guy from Syria, not from Israel. They were called somewhere else and so am I’. And when the message starts to sink in, the crowd turns on Jesus and tries to kill him. This is not kind of love Paul is talking about! In fact you and I wouldn’t even call it love, but the people there that day probably would have because he was ‘one of their own’. This is a celebrity kind of love, fleeting and fickle.

Jeremiah’s story is a bit different. In our reading from Jeremiah, we hear God’s call on Jeremiah’s life. God says, “You shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.” God isn’t talking about love here, but the passage as a whole feels more loving, because God makes some beautiful promises to Jeremiah. Imagine for a moment what it would have been like to be in Jeremiah’s shoes, and to hear God say to you, “before I formed you in the womb I knew you; and before you were born I consecrated you… I have appointed you to share my truth… do not say ‘I am only a boy’ or ‘I am only a girl’… do not be afraid, for I am with you…” God actually does say these things to all of us. God invites us to join the heavenly team, invites us to take our part in the coming kingdom. Isn’t that what love is like? God is love, and God’s plans for us are an expression of that love.

Most of the time though we don’t get to hear God’s plans for us directly the way Jeremiah did. Most of the time we have to make some effort to find out what God has in mind for us. We pray, we read scripture, we listen for God’s voice.

And where it comes to reading scripture, there’s a whole lot of information in there. People have been studying the Bible for 2000 years and still get confused about what we’re supposed to do. I mean, some things we get. The Ten Commandments, for example: pretty straightforward. But there is a whole lot more in scripture.

A few months ago when we had the scripture reading marathon up at Hill Top, when we read through the whole Bible, people afterwards were saying ‘wow, I never knew that was in the Bible’. And these are people who have been reading the Bible all their lives.

So I guess I’m not alone when I say I have a hard time sometimes calling to mind all the things the Bible has to say. And it’s not that I’m easily distracted, it’s just that… my hard drive is getting full, know what I mean? So where it comes to applying the Bible, and living the way God wants us to live, the Bible has so much information, I can’t grasp it all. When I find myself in a life situation, and I need to pull something from scripture on how to deal with it, sometimes my brain just goes blank. Not because there’s nothing there but because there’s too much there. I can’t sift through the data fast enough. I need something easy, something at my fingertips, that I can remember when I’m in a pinch.

I like the one Pharisee who came to Jesus and asked, “what’s the greatest commandment?” Now there’s a man I can relate to. I imagine he’s the kind of guy who finally came to the conclusion it’s impossible to keep all the laws the Pharisees were supposed to keep. So he wants to know what ONE he needs to know, what ONE law he needs to keep. And Jesus answered him:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39)

And Jesus said this one law sums up all the other laws and the prophets. For those of us whose hard drives are full, this is something we can remember. Love God, love neighbor, love yourself. We can do this!

But there’s a catch: how do we define LOVE? People talk about love all the time. ‘Love is a many splendored thing, love is in the air, love is strange, love is all you need.’ I can remember being around ten years old and asking my mother, “What is love? What’s it like falling in love?” She said, “Oh I really can’t put it into words.” “How will I know when I’m in love?” “Oh you’ll know!” (This is not helpful!)

Besides, what Paul is talking about in I Corinthians 13 is not romantic love. Not even remotely (in spite of the fact we hear it at so many weddings). Paul is actually talking about spiritual gifts. The Corinthian church had some people in it who were bragging about their spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues for example. Have you ever had someone tell you if you don’t speak in tongues you can’t really be a Christian? There are people even today who believe that. And while the spiritual gift of tongues still exists, that doesn’t mean every Christian is supposed to have it. Paul corrects that kind of thinking in I Corinthians chapter 12. Paul talks about the fact that there is a variety of spiritual gifts, he says the gifts were meant to build up the body, not to compete with each other. Paul says:

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord… To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit…” (I Corinthians 12:4-9)

…and Paul ends the chapter by saying “Strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a more excellent way… If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels but have not love I am nothing…” Love, he says, is the greatest spiritual gift. And Paul says to strive for it. The writer of Hebrews says “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:24)

But what is love? I remember one time when my old pastor was given this passage to preach on. He’s an inspiring preacher, so I couldn’t wait to hear him preach on this one. That Sunday he preached for 45 minutes… on… obeying God. I was sorely disappointed, and I’m not going to do that to you today. But he had a point. Jesus said, “If you love me keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) The first letter of John says: “the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” (I John 5:3)

There is a direct connection between love and obeying God. Which kind of makes sense. If God is love, then it makes sense that doing what God commands is the loving thing to do. When God says things like “do not kill” and “do not steal” and “do not commit adultery” and “honor your father and mother” God is giving us commandments, yes; but God is also giving us examples of what is and is not loving behavior. Living life God’s way is a loving thing to do.

But there’s a problem with defining love just as ‘obeying God’. The problem is we live in an imperfect world. There are times when two of God’s commandments seem to come in conflict with one other. In a perfect world that would never happen. In a perfect world, the right thing to do and the loving thing to do would always be the same thing. But in an imperfect world that’s not always the case.

Here’s an example: let’s say a friend comes to you and says “I want to tell you a secret. Promise you won’t repeat this to anybody.” And you promise you won’t tell anyone. And then what your friend tells you leads you to believe another person you know might be in danger. What’s the right thing to do? Keep your word? Or break a promise and warn a friend?

In a perfect world we would never be faced with these kinds of dilemmas. But in an imperfect world it happens far too often. And when it does, I come back to I Corinthians 13 and ask “what is the loving thing to do?”

There’s a danger in solving problems this way, and that is people tend to confuse what’s loving with what’s nice. Here’s an example: Let’s say your 17-year-old son comes bouncing into the house one day all excited and says, “I’m moving in with my girlfriend!” Do you say “that’s great honey!” Or do you say, “son I’m glad you’ve found a wonderful young lady but I’m not sure you’re ready for that yet”? The first response is nice. The second is more loving.

So what is love? I Corinthians 13 gives us a working definition (and this is paraphrased from the Greek). Paul says: Words spoken without love are nothing more than noise. Prophecy and knowledge and faith have no meaning without love. Even giving away everything we own and dying a martyr’s death gains us nothing without love.

Love is patient, kind, and merciful. Love is not jealous, it doesn’t brag or boast, it doesn’t go around all puffed up or with its nose in the air. Love is gracious, doesn’t insist on its own way, is not easily provoked, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love does not find joy in wrong but in truth. Love bears up through it all, has faith through it all, holds onto hope through it all, and lasts through it all.

That last verse is usually translated “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” – but I paraphrased it this way for us today because I think sometimes people hear this verse as saying “love puts up with all things” and that is NOT Paul’s meaning.

Paul’s next sentence pulls it together. He says: “Love never ends.” Some translations say “love never fails”. The actual literal translation is “love never falls”. As in, it never crumbles, never topples over, is never corrupted (like rust corrupts or like sin corrupts). In other words, love has structural integrity. And in that sense love never fails.

This past week was the 35th anniversary of the tragedy of the space shuttle Challenger. And that tragedy happened because an O-ring lost its structural integrity. It gave way at a critical moment during launch, and the result was death.

Love will never do that. Love has structural integrity. Love never fails.

This kind of love that Paul is talking about is not a feeling. It’s a choice. It’s a decision. It’s a course of action. Someday, Paul says, prophecy will end. Someday all tongues will be silent. Right now we are like children, and our future in heaven is an enigma. In the end we will know completely, even as we are completely known. But that’s tomorrow. Today we have three things to hold onto: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest is love.

Jesus once said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, edited)

Most of us hear those words as saying ‘you can’t take it with you’. But when Jesus tells us to ‘store up treasure in heaven’ there must be a way to do it. I think ‘faith, hope, and love’ are heaven’s bronze, silver, and gold. This is the wealth of heaven. When we love we are building up treasure in heaven.

Just one more thing. In I Corinthians 13 love is defined as a spiritual gift. The ability to love like this is not something we can do in our own power. Trust me I have tried. The attempt is good practice. But at the end of the day, this kind of love only comes through God’s spirit. Love is a gift to be prayed for, and as Paul says, to strive for.

God is love, and God has created us to become like Him. We are God’s kids. This is what we were made to be. I Corinthians 13 is a pattern we can follow; a goal we can aim for; a glimpse of eternity. When we strive to love the way Paul describes love, we are like children putting our feet into our heavenly parents’ shoes and clomping around the house. Our feet will grow into them eventually. In the meantime, keep on walkin’. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District (Pittsburgh) 1/31/16

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“Do Whatever He Tells You”

Scripture readings: Isaiah 62:1-5, I Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

The scene is a wedding reception. The bride and the groom are dancing, families and friends are celebrating, tables are piled high with food, cups are full of drink, music is playing, people are laughing, children and servants are running in every direction At one of the tables Jesus and his mother Mary sit with the disciples joining in the festivities.

All of a sudden Mary notices something’s not quite right. The servants are whispering among each other. Mary overhears one of them and turns to Jesus and says, “they’re out of wine”.

Even in our own day, running out of beverages at a wedding is not a good thing. But in Jesus’ day, it would have been scandalous. Hospitality was a way of life. You may remember stories from the Bible about Abraham entertaining people who just walked up the road past his tent; or the disciples traveling from town to town preaching, and staying with total strangers. Hospitality was expected in that culture, and to fall short would have been a public disgrace for the whole family.

So Mary mentions it to Jesus. I’m not sure what she had in mind for him to do. He couldn’r really nip down to the state store. But Jesus answers, “what is that to you and me?” which almost sounds like he’s saying, “not our wedding, not our problem” except he follows up with the comment: “my hour has not yet come”.

There will be a time, a few years in the future, when Jesus will hold up another cup of wine and say, “this is the new covenant in my blood.” But that hour has not yet come. And Mary probably has no clue what he’s talking about. But she knows something’s up. So Mary turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Most of us here today, myself included, were raised in churches that don’t talk a lot about Mary. Unlike our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, we don’t usually have pictures of Mary in the church, for example. And I wouldn’t want to change that. But Mary was the human mother of Jesus, the Lord and Saviour we love, and she had some unique insights that are worth spending some time with.

Mary is the one who had the trust and the courage to say ‘yes’ to the angel who said ‘you’re going to have a baby’. Mary is the one who, as a teenager, understood that God choosing a peasant girl to give birth to the Messiah would by definition turn the world’s values upside down. Mary is the one who said to her relative Elizabeth, “[The Lord] 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.” (Luke 1:52-53} Mary is the one who without fear and without hesitation married Joseph and then left her home and everything she knew to travel to Bethlehem (where she gave birth) and then to Jerusalem (where Jesus was presented in the temple), and then to Egypt to keep the baby Jesus safe from Herod. Imagine what it was like moving around that much, first pregnant and then with an infant. Many women in that season of life have an overwhelming desire to ‘nest’, to make a safe place for their child, but Mary had no permanent home during those first couple of years. Mary was a woman of amazing faith.

And now as we visit this wedding, we hear Mary giving the servants a piece of rich wisdom. “Do whatever he tells you.”

I double-checked the Greek here to be sure I had the meaning right. The Greek phrase is translated exactly into our English Bibles, it’s a very simple phrase. The words imply action. It’s not ‘whatever he tells you, agree with it’ but ‘whatever he says to you, do it’.

This advice can be both liberating and frightening. Liberating, because Somebody wiser than us is calling the shots. But frightening because we like to think of ourselves as the masters of our own destinies. Frank Sinatra sang about ‘I did it my way’. And this past week when David Bowie passed, his record producer eulogized him by saying “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way…”

The world hears these words as high praise. But as a Christian, these words haunt me, because they speak of a profound existential loneliness. The life of faith, by contrast, is a life lived in community with other believers and with God. As Christians we are never alone, and we are assured that our lives have meaning and purpose and direction, because we are designed by a God who is far greater, and wiser, and more loving than we are.

Jesus said to his disciples a few chapters later, “If you love me, keep my commandments,” (John 14:15) and Jesus promises when we do this, our lives will be guided by the Holy Spirit of God. The question then becomes, how can we hear God’s voice? How can we hear what the Spirit is saying?

For general knowledge we have God’s word, the Bible. We have the Ten Commandments, and we have Jesus’ command to ‘love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love others as we love ourselves’. Other parts of scripture tell us that God wants us to help the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the stranger, to speak for those who have no voice, and to take care of God’s creation. And we sense God’s pleasure when we do these things.

We can hear God’s voice through prayer: either on our own, or praying together. When we go to God in prayer we are open to God’s Spirit. There are moments in prayer when questions become answers and seeking becomes finding.

We can hear God’s voice is by looking at the gifts and talents God has given us. God creates each one of us with a purpose in mind, and we have been designed to fulfill that purpose, so it makes sense if we look at the design in us it will tell us something about what the designer had in mind.

In a similar way what God is saying to a congregation can be discovered by looking at the gifts and talents within the congregation. Some church families are gifted at hospitality, for example; or at outreach; or working with children; or teaching or coaching. When we are working within God’s design the Holy Spirit guides and provides.

We may hear God’s voice in the advice of long-time Christians: people who have been living lives of faith longer than we have, and have been listening for God’s voice longer than we have. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from a long-time Christian in his late 70s. When I came to him for career counseling, one of the things he said was: “whatever the Lord has put on your heart to do, begin where you are with whatever you’ve got, and get started doing it.” In other words, don’t wait till everything looks perfect, till all the ducks are in a row. If God has put something on your heart, get started doing it. He almost sounds like Mary doesn’t he? “Whatever he tells you, do it.”

Another way we can hear God’s voice is through odd things that happen – that seem like coincidences – except you know whatever it is couldn’t happen by chance. An old friend of mine used to call these ‘God-incidences’. So watch for God-incidences in your life, especially if you’ve been praying recently.

A couple other things I should mention. First, it’s impossible for imperfect human beings to do God’s will perfectly. Hearing God’s voice and doing what God says to do takes persistance and practice. We need to keep trying and not get discouraged, and remember that we are God’s children, and we’re still learning.

The second is to stay focused on who it is we’re listening to. There are a lot of distracting voices in the world, voices that tempt us to anger and fear. Sometimes there are people in our lives who don’t treat us the way they should, who bully us or abuse us. We are under no obligation to listen to these voices. We listen instead for God’s voice. We need to take direction from the voice that says to us (in the words of Isaiah) “you shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord…”. This is the voice that reveals God’s glory in our lives.

Doing things God’s way is not always easy. But it is worth it. At the end of it all, we will hear Jesus saying, “well done, good and faithful servant”. So I want to encourage all of us on our faith journey with the words of Jesus’ mother: “Do whatever he tells you.” AMEN.

 

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 1/17/16

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The Baptism of Jesus

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Today is a day when we remember the baptism of Jesus, and also reaffirm our own baptismal covenant.

I’d like to start out today by looking at Jesus’ baptism in our scripture reading from Luke. Jesus’ baptism is actually talked about in all four gospels – which is unusual because the four gospel writers tended to choose different events from Jesus life to write about. So if Jesus’ baptism is important enough for all four to mention that tells us something of the importance of the event.

As our reading for today begins, Luke says “the people” – that is, the crowd who were coming to John the Baptist to be baptized – “were filled with expectation.” And they were wondering if John the Baptist is the Messiah. Other gospels mention the Pharisees asking John the Baptist whether or not he’s the Messiah, and John answering ‘no’, but only Luke mentions the crowd wondering about it. And there is an important difference: the Pharisees wanted to know because John the Baptist was a challenge to their authority. But the crowd was full of expectation.

First off, they knew about the events surrounding John the Baptist’s birth. You remember the story: John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were senior citizens and they had no children. But an angel came to Zechariah and said ‘you will have a son and name him John’; and Zechariah didn’t believe it, so the angel said, “you will not be able to speak until the day my words come true.”

Not long afterwards Elizabeth was pregnant, which got the whole neighborhood talking! You can imagine, if one of the grandmothers in our congregation suddenly turned up pregnant, how people would talk. And then when the baby was named John, and Zechariah was suddenly able to speak again, people talked even more. Luke tells us:

all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” (Luke 1:65-66)

So people were watching John like a hawk while he was growing up. And they could see that the hand of God on his life, and they wanted to see what he would turn out to be.

Another reason the crowd was ‘full of expectation’ was because John was baptizing, he wasn’t just preaching. This was unusual because in the Jewish faith, baptism was mostly for converts. In John 1:25 the Pharisees ask John “why are you baptizing if you’re not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet?” But John was inviting the Jewish people to confess their sins and be washed clean, to prepare the way for the Lord… and because of this the Pharisees were asking him what are you doing?

But the people got it. They knew something big was happening, something worth confessing and being washed clean for.

Luke also points out that John the Baptist is the man Isaiah the prophet was talking about when he talked about a ‘voice crying in the wilderness’. The phrase ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’ just kind of appears in our passage from Luke, but here’s the original context:

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned… A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’” (Isaiah 40:1-5, edited)

And when God speaks, things happen.

All four of the gospel writers mention these words from Isaiah. There was no doubt in the minds of the people God was about to do something BIG. No wonder they were in expectation!

All four gospel writers also mention that John the Baptist calls himself ‘unworthy’. Luke says, “unworthy to untie his sandals”. Untying sandals would be the job of a butler, or a personal servant, if a man was rich enough to have one. John the Baptist is saying, “I’m not worthy to be personal servant to the Son of God.”

And if we’re honest with ourselves we have to say the same thing. We’re not worthy to be God’s personal servants. Not because we’re terrible, horrible people but because God is so much greater than we are. We count ourselves blessed just to be in God’s presence. The fact that God calls us to serve – as God called John the Baptist to serve – is an honor we know we’re not worthy of (but we’re not going to say ‘no’!)

The other thing all four gospel writers mention is that John the Baptist says ‘I baptize with water, but the one who comes after me will baptize with the Holy Spirit’.

What exactly John the Baptist meant when he said ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ has been keeping theologians busy for the past 2000 years, and I’m not going to try to unravel that mystery right now. But this much we do know: Being baptized by the Holy Spirit does not mean ‘being a good person’, or ‘being raised in the church’, or ‘living a good life’. Baptism in the Holy Spirit is a spiritual reality in the same way that baptism in water is a physical reality. In baptism, something happens. When we are baptized in water we get wet… and we are welcomed into the family of God. When we are baptized in the Holy Spirit, some part of God joins with our spirits and we become children of God in a way that we weren’t before. Through the Holy Spirit touching our spirits we become able to be guided by God, and we become able to tap into the Spirit’s power to live life God’s way.

There’s a world of difference between living a good life in our own power and living God’s way in God’s power. Living a good life in our own power comes across to other people as nice, and good, and it’s something that makes sense to us and to the people around us.

Living God’s way in God’s power doesn’t always seem to make sense… to us or to the people around us. Think about it: if you were going to send a messenger to tell the world the Son of God was coming, would you dress him in camel’s hair and feed him a diet of locusts, the way God did with John the Baptist? If you wanted to save the world, would you send an Israeli carpenter to be nailed to a cross? And then raise him to life again? God’s way and God’s power don’t always make logical sense… until it becomes reality.

Until then we walk by faith and not by sight.

So today we remember Jesus’ baptism. We remember the perfect Son of God, who did not need to repent of sins, or be purified by water, or convert to the Jewish faith, or be filled by the Holy Spirit – because he already had all those things – he still came to John the Baptist to be baptized. In loving-kindness Jesus relates to us where we are and takes our part. Jesus does not ask us to go where he’s not willing to go. Jesus is not a military general who issues orders from behind the lines; Jesus is a shepherd who leads from in front and calls us to follow him.

And today we remember our own baptism. We remember that we were baptized in obedience to Jesus’ call – whether as babies born into the family of God, or whether as adults baptized into the family of God. We remember the vows we took – or that were taken on our behalf – to be faithful followers of Jesus.

As we remember our baptism we experience again the inner cleansing Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross has earned for us, and we open our hearts once more to the Holy Spirit, to God’s guidance and power to direct our lives and to make us more like Jesus.

And as we remember our baptism we proclaim the same thing God proclaimed when Jesus was baptized: that Jesus is the Son of God, and that we are well pleased with our amazing Lord Jesus. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 1/10/16

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And the Word was God

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” – John 1:1-16

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Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

I’m glad to be a part of a Christian community that celebrates Christmas for 12 days.

It’s amazing how fast the world leaves Christmas behind! It’s like “OK, check that off the list… NEXT! Valentine’s Day! C’mon, get shopping.”

I love that we celebrate Advent during Advent and Christmas during Christmas. It gives us a chance to breathe, to savor both seasons, to spend time with the mind-boggling reality of the depth of God’s love for us and the miracle that God became one of us.

But there’s something about the gospel reading for the first Sunday after Christmas that doesn’t sit comfortably. The gospel lesson for this Sunday always seems to be the first part of the first chapter of John. I’ve often wondered about that. Why this passage on this Sunday? To me the passage seems awfully ‘heavy’ for the Christmas season. The child in me would like to sing a few more carols and eat a few more Christmas cookies before getting back to slogging through deep theology.

Not only that, but the passage is dark. It talks about the rejection of the Messiah by his own people. Yes, I know we need to know this, but so soon? The baby just got here! At first glance, John comes off like a kill-joy.

But when I spend time with this passage I find John’s words immensely comforting, especially for those of us whose families aren’t perfect, for those of us whose Christmases weren’t quite as cute as all those pretty little holiday movies. (Have you ever noticed the holiday romances, how cheesy they are? If you took away the snow and the Christmas decorations we would never sit through such drivel… but I digress…)

So rather than wrestling with deep theology today let me suggest we just soak in God’s light like the Son-worshippers we are.

John begins his Gospel with a perfect working description of the Trinity: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (By the way, anybody who says Christianity is not a mystical religion needs to spend some time with the first chapter of John. But back to the text…) “In the beginning was the Word” – if interpreted as a word spoken by the ‘breath of God’, this would be the Spirit – “and the Word was with God” – referring to Jesus – “and the Word was God” – referring to the Creator. We see all of God, involved in the act of creation and salvation, one in thought, one in mighty act by one God in three… clauses… that describe one holistic reality.

John goes on to say “all things came into being through him,” that is, through Jesus. “What came into being was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Queen Elizabeth in her Christmas message this year, quoted this verse, commenting that even in years like this past one, with so many moments of deep darkness, it is still true that “the darkness has not overcome [the light].”

Speaking of England, I like the old King James translation here because it picks up on a few nuances the modern translations miss. The King James version says of this light that ‘the darkness has not comprehended it’. Not just in the sense of ‘understood’ although that’s included; but also in the sense of to come to grips with, to encompass, to surround, to embrace, or even ‘to put out’. All of the above, all at once. The darkness can do absolutely nothing to the light: can’t grasp it, and can’t stop it.

The other thing that comes to mind in this verse about light is a personal observation, speaking as someone who grew up in the 1960s. Eastern religions were popular back then. I remember former Beatle George Harrison singing songs to Krishna and talking a lot about ‘seeking the light’ and searching for ‘the inner light’. I got the sense that in Eastern religions the ultimate question is not ‘how can people be saved?’ but rather ‘how can people reach the light?’ John’s gospel answers that question: Jesus is the light! We don’t have to go searching for the light; the light has found us.

For anyone who has spent any time with Eastern religions, this comes as blessed relief, because it means it doesn’t depend on us. Jesus is not only the light coming into the world to shine in the world’s darkness; Jesus is also the inner light, shining into our inner darkness and making us new.

John continues: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

These are the lines that make me wonder why this passage needs to come so soon after Christmas. The verse hits home with me, because in a very small way I know what this feels like. I can’t hear this verse without remembering a Christmas many years ago.

That particular Christmas it was the first time in about five years I’d been able to get Christmas Day off. I called home to find out where the family gathering would be and was told Christmas would be with my mother’s family in north Jersey. So early Christmas morning I loaded up my VW Beetle and headed out from Pittsburgh – six hours east, turn left, two hours north.

Christmas morning was beautiful: sunny, no snow, no traffic at all on the turnpike in either direction. So, finding myself alone on the highway, and being a little bit bored, I decided to see just exactly what my little Volkswagen Beetle was capable of.

The policeman who pulled me over asked to see my pilot’s license.

This being Christmas Day, the policeman was kind and lowered the offense to the lowest possible charge… I could have lost my license right then and there. Soon I was on my way, at a reduced speed.

I finally arrived at my grandparents’ house around 7:00 that night. It was just starting to snow when I pulled in. Tired, hungry, and with a ticket I couldn’t afford burning a hole in my wallet, I stumbled into the house. I always loved Christmases there: my grandparents had an old Victorian house with a huge tree that filled the bay window, great food, music… my mother’s side of the family really knew how to throw a party.

But they could also be a bit hot-headed. And I walked into one of the worst instances of so-called ‘vigorous fellowship’ in our family’s history. One of my relatives (I forget who) basically said, “there’s the food, kid, help yourself” and jumped back into the fray. No greeting. No ‘how was your trip?’ No one to commiserate with me over the speeding ticket.

It’s not exactly the outright rejection Jesus experienced – my family didn’t toss me back out in the snow – but it was a small taste. And it happened for much the same reason: our world is too caught up in its own concerns and debates and issues and power struggles to pay attention to the arrival of a child.

But John has good news for us: no matter where life puts us, and no matter what happens, “To all who receive [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God….” And so each one of us always has a home – and a welcome – in Jesus and in God’s family.

John goes beyond that to say, “And the Word became flesh and” – as The Message Bible puts it – “moved into the neighborhood”. In the Greek the word ‘flesh’ is sarx – the word we get ‘sarcophagus’ from. It implies God taking on our humanity in every aspect, including our mortality.

And suddenly the sun comes out from behind the clouds. The darkness of this first chapter of John evaporates: because God, who is light, has stepped into the darkness and God’s light abolishes the darkness. God, who is life, steps into our mortality and in doing so abolishes death.

Therefore in the words of Isaiah, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…” (Is 61:10)

During this first week of Christmas, let us soak in that sunlight. Let us reflect on God’s victory over darkness and death, and let us continue the celebration of Christmas. AMEN.

 

Preached at Church of the Incarnation (Anglican), Pittsburgh PA, 12/27/15

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Advent 4 – Love

“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

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.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.” – Luke 1:39-56

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Today the lectionary has given me a choice between two beautiful, deeply moving topics to talk about: love, represented by our final Advent candle; or Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which we just heard read from the book of Luke.

The gifts of Advent – Hope, and Peace, and Joy, and Love – we need these right now. And in a very real way we are looking forward to them. When the world’s celebration of ‘Sparkle Season’ ends, our Christmas begins, because the Prince of Peace will finally be here.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! We’re still a few days away from Christmas. So today I want to take a few minutes to stop and listen to Mary’s song. I wish I could sing it for you because it’s been set to music so beautifully… but the words will have to do.

Luke tells us when Mary became pregnant with Jesus she – immediately and with great joy – traveled south from Galilee, where she and Joseph lived, to the hill country of Judea near Jerusalem to visit her relative Elizabeth. In those days that would have been a difficult journey, about 80 miles on foot, and not a very safe road. Mary probably did not travel alone but Luke doesn’t mention any other people. In fact in this entire reading Joseph and Zechariah are conspicuous by their absence. I imagine they were probably there, somewhere in the background – maybe they were working on adding a nursery to Zechariah’s house! We don’t know.

But this much seems clear: there is no way Elizabeth could have known that Mary was pregnant! There were no letters sent, no emails, no posting of sonograms on Facebook, not even word of mouth because Mary wasn’t showing yet and Joseph, if he knew about it at this point, hadn’t told anyone.

Zechariah and Elizabeth both knew their baby was a gift from God, and that he would be born to prepare the way for the Messiah – the angel of the Lord had told Zechariah that. And Mary knew about Elizabeth’s miracle pregnancy – the angel Gabriel had told Mary about that. But there’s no way Elizabeth could have known Mary was expecting, or that Mary’s baby was going to be the one her son John was preparing the way for… until Mary’s greeting made John leap for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.

Isn’t it amazing the connection between a mother and child, even in the womb? At the sound of Mary’s voice, John leaps around (“like a spring lamb” is the direct translation) and immediately Elizabeth knows. And the Holy Spirit gives her the words to say: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And she calls Mary “the mother of my Lord”. Elizabeth confirms for Mary what the angel told her – not because Mary doubts the angel’s message, but because it’s good to hear it from a second source. Mary is now no longer alone in her faith. She’s not carrying the Messiah alone any more. She has a relative who knows God’s truth and who loves her and supports her. And God knows we need that: much as we need God, we need other people too, and God provides what Mary and Elizabeth both need. Mary has Elizabeth’s support, and Elizabeth has Mary’s physical help through her last three months of pregnancy.

After Elizabeth speaks, Mary herself is filled with the Holy Spirit – which, by the way, there is a lot of Holy Spirit annointing going on in this chapter: in the first chapter of Luke alone, Zechariah and Elizabeth are filled with the Holy Spirit, and the angel foretells that John the Baptist will be filled with the Holy Spirit and that Mary will be filled with the Holy Spirit, so there’s a lot of Holy Spirit inspired stuff going on – anyway Mary, filled with the Spirit, sings a song of praise, in very simple language in the original, but with a depth of understanding that ties the Old Testament to the New Testament and a depth of perception that has confounded scholars ever since. She sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…”

The song is familiar, and the tradtional translation is a comfort to our ears and hearts. But for the sake of clarity I’d like to look at a fresh translation from The Message Bible. In it Mary says:

“I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.”

This modern translation is very accurate, and in its accuracy it tends to shine a spotlight on two things in Mary’s song: the first is the relationship of Israel to God being that of God’s child. The older translation says “servant Israel” and while that’s not wrong, the Greek word paedos is the word we get pediatric from; it speaks of a father-child relationship. So “child Israel” is closer to the intended meaning.

The second is God’s elevating the poor and the lowly and putting down the rich and the proud. A couple of comments on that:

First: as Bible Gateway online points out, “Mary’s remarks are often misinterpreted in two directions.” (a) Some read them as a reference to God’s defense of all the poor, all the hungry, as if being poor and hungry is somehow better spiritually. This misses the point Mary makes when she says “God’s mercy is on those who fear Him…”. (b) On the other hand, people sometimes water down Mary’s message and spiritualize it – interpreting her to mean the poor and hungry in spirit. This, while true, also misses the point, because Mary is talking about God’s mercy to the literal poor and the literal hungry.

Secondly, what makes Mary’s words about the poor and the rich hard to hear is they beg the question: where do we find ourselves? Where do I find myself? Are we the poor and the lowly? Or are we the rich and the powerful? Maybe we’re a little bit of both? How will God measure us? These questions bother me. And it’s comforting to know Jesus’ disciples were bothered by them too. When Jesus remarked how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven, the disciples’ immediate reaction was “who then can be saved?”

Mary’s song answers that question: “His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him.” That’s the deciding factor: not what’s in our wallets but what’s in our hearts.

Which brings to mind a poem I heard years ago. The poem is a prayer, and it compares entering the Kingdom of Heaven with visiting a playground. Let me share part of it with you:
(* the sermon left out the verses in brackets – too many ‘British-isms’ to explain that would have been offtopic)

HEAVENLY PLAYGROUND
by Adrian Plass

Oh God, I’m not anxious to snuff it,
but when the Grim Reaper reaps me,
I’ll try to rely on
my vision of Zion;
I know how I want it to be.

As soon as You greet me in Heaven,
and ask what I’d like, I shall say,
“I just want a chance
for my spirit to dance;
I want to be able to play.”

Tell the angels to build a soft playground
designed and equipped just for me.
With a vertical slide
that’s abnormally wide
and oceans of green PVC.

There’ll be reinforced netting to climb on,
and rubberized floors that will bend.
And no one can die
so I needn’t be shy
if I’m tempted to land on a friend!

[I’m gonna go mad in the soft, squashy mangle,
and balmy with balls in the swamp
colored and spherical,
I’ll be hysterical!
I’ll have a heavenly romp!]

There’ll be cushions and punch bags and tires
in purple and yellow and red,
and a mushroomy thing
that will suddenly sing
if I kick it or sit on its head.

[There’ll be fountains of squash and ribina
to feed my continual thirst,
and none of that stuff
about “You’ve had enough,”
surely heavenly bladders won’t burst.]

I suppose I might be too tall for the entrance
but Lord, chuck the rules in the bin.
If I am too large,
tell the angel in charge
to let me bow down and come in.

That is my prayer for all of us this Christmas as we approach the manger: that God will allow each one of us to ‘bow down and come in’. This is what God invites all people everywhere to do, through Mary’s song, and through the coming of Jesus into our world. AMEN.

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 12/20/15

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Advent 3 – Tidings of Joy

“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.” – Zephaniah 3:14-20

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In a couple of weeks, at the Christmas Eve service, most likely we will hear someone read these words:

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:8-11 KJV)

Good tidings of great joy.

Speaking as a person of English heritage I come from a long line of people who are not known for being particularly emotionally expressive. We are a reserved people.

But when the Bible talks about joy, it is not talking about English reserve. The Bible comes from a culture and a people where to celebrate means to laugh and dance and sing! Joy is expressed with the entire body. Think Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

Probably the closest thing we get to it these days is a Steelers victory parade. Someday there will be an even greater victory parade when Jesus returns for his people! And Advent looks forward to that. Advent looks forward to Jesus’ birth, but that’s just the beginning of the story.

Last week we lit the Candle of Peace, which is a bold thing to do in a world that doesn’t know peace. This week we are bold again to light the Candle of Joy in a world that has no idea what joy is. The pleasures this world has to offer are nothing compared to God’s joy.

The English theologian CS Lewis once wrote:

“We [human beings] are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like… a child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Of all the gifts we as Christians are given by God, I think joy may be the most powerful witness to the truth of the Gospel because it is so foreign to this world. CS Lewis himself was converted from atheism to Christianity by his experience of joy – because he couldn’t explain it, but he also couldn’t deny it.

So what is this gift of God called “joy”?

The first thing I noticed when reading what scripture says about joy – and this just leaps off the pages – is joy is expressed in singing and dancing. Almost one out of every five passages that talks about joy also talks about music, celebration, singing, dancing, shouting. So the next question then becomes ‘what is it about joy that stirs up such passionate emotions?’

Whenever scripture talks about joy there are a few other themes or experiences that go with it, that keep cropping up over and over again. There are four in particular I’d like to take a look at today, that help explain and inspire joy.

The first – which is a little surprising, but by far the most common in scripture – is the theme of exiles returning home. Imagine for a moment what it would be like if all of the millions of refugees in Europe and the Middle East and Africa were told “it’s safe for you to go home. The people who were trying to kill you are gone. It’s OK to return.” Can you imagine the celebration?

In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were in exile for 70 years, and when they finally returned home it was with amazingly great joy. The prophet Ezra writes: “On the fourteenth day of the first month the returned exiles kept the Passover […] with joy…” (Ezra 6:19,22)

And a little bit later when they finished rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem the people of Israel had another celebration. They worshipped God and then the prophet Nehemiah said to them: “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions […] to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD… for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)

Psalm 126 says:

“When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…” (Psalm 126:1-2a)

Jesus himself picks up this theme when he says:

“…there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.” [that is, one sinner who returns home to God]

Often in these passages worship is mentioned along with joy. And rightfully so, because worship is, in a way, a week-by-week homecoming for God’s family. And along with worship, joy and the Sabbath go together. I’ve talked about the Sabbath before, about how the Sabbath laws are meant not to prevent us having fun on the Sabbath but rather to guarantee that workers had the right to rest from their labors. It’s the one day out of week when all of us have the right to say ‘no’ to other obligations and say ‘yes’ to being at home and with family and friends. So Sabbath is also a home-coming, and in its own way it is a week-by-week prophecy of the greater homecoming still to come when Jesus returns.

The second recurring theme related to joy in scripture is Salvation. No surprise there. The prophet Isaiah writes: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation… they sing for joy…” (Is 52: 7a, 8a)

The angel who announced the birth of Jesus says, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior…” Luke 2:11a).

And the apostle Peter writes to the early Christians:

“Although you have not seen [Jesus], you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (I Peter 1:8-9)

And along with salvation, as a part of salvation, there is ministry to the poor, the sick, the injured, and people who grieve. Isaiah writes, in these words we hear so often at Christmas:

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. […]And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads… and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 35:5-10)

Which leads to the third theme that recurs when the Bible talks about Joy: the theme of God’s glory and God’s coming kingdom.

Jesus, when he talked about God’s kingdom, said:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matt 13:44)

When God’s kingdom comes, God will judge and defeat the enemies of God’s people. King David says in Psalm 27:

“… my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me… I will offer in [God’s] tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.” (Psalm 27:5-6)

I heard a wise pastor say the other day it’s not really politically correct these days to talk about having enemies. We don’t use the word ‘enemy’ any more. We have ‘challenges’; we have ‘difficulties’. But (he said) the truth is people do have enemies. We have enemies that war against our souls from the inside: addictions, bad habits, insecurities, doubts, anger. And we have enemies from outside ourselves: people of violence; prejudice, fear and hatred; and even advertising does violence to our souls by making us think we can’t live without things we really don’t need. Someday all these enemies will be defeated by our God and laid to rest, and in that day we will be free and we will sing for joy.

The fourth and final theme that is related to the word “joy” in scripture is the theme of God’s own character: God’s personality – who God is. God will always be a source of Joy for God’s people. God is love; God comes in strength; God brings gladness. The author of Chronicles writes:

“…great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised… ; For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his place. Ascribe to the LORD… glory and strength. […] and let the earth rejoice, and… say among the nations, “The LORD is king!” (I Chron 16:24-31 edited)

The prophet Isaiah predicts:

“The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. For the tyrant shall be no more… (Isaiah 29:18-20)

This is the character of our God. It will be impossible not to feel joy in the presence of a God like this. And the good news is, as God’s people, we are always in the presence of a God like this.

Jesus tells his disciples:

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:9-11)

There’s one more thing about joy in scripture that should be mentioned, and that is God’s joy. Our relationship with God brings us joy, but it also brings God joy. The people of God are spoken of in Scripture as ‘the Bride of Christ’. The prophet Isaiah writes:

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be [called] Forsaken, and your land shall no more be [called] Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For… as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” (Isaiah 62:3-5)

And the prophet Zephaniah writes:

“He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing…” (Zeph 3:17)

Can you imagine what it will be like to hear God singing out loud?!? I can’t… but I can’t wait to hear it.

So during this time of Advent, let’s take time with God’s words about joy. Mull them over; think about them; talk about them with our friends. Think about how much joy we have in God, and what a wonder it is that God finds joy in us. Pray that the Holy Spirit will show God’s joy through us to a world that won’t be able to explain it… but where someone might start asking the questions that lead to faith. AMEN.

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 12/13/15

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