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The God Who Hears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do we do with this ancient story today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMEN.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we see in this passage that:

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

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

 

 

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

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In the Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wycliffe’s translation of Genesis 1:3 reads:

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

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

God’s will is done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Ascension Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke starts out by saying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus tells his disciples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scripture Readings

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

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

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

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

 

To An Unknown God

Today we’re going to talk about a love story… and a rather unusual love story at that.

Lots of our favorite movies and books are about love stories: two people meet, fall in love, overcome challenges, grow stronger together, and live happily ever after. Or not, as the case may be.

But the love story we’re looking at today is a very rare kind of love story. It’s a love story where the one who’s loved doesn’t know it. It’s a love unknown.

An old hymn-writer back in the 1600s in England captured this kind of love when he wrote:

“My song is love unknown
My Saviour’s love for me;
Love to the loveless shown
That they might lovely be…”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We’re going to be looking today at Acts 17:22-31, but first I want to touch briefly on our reading from John 14:15-21.

John is relating a conversation that takes place between Jesus and the disciples during the last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus is teaching the disciples what they’ll need to know when he’s no longer with them on a daily basis.  And the disciples are not catching on very well.  Jesus is saying the Messiah (himself) is going to die – which goes against everything the disciples have ever believed about the Messiah – and then after three days he will rise again, and then ascend into heaven, and then he will send the Holy Spirit.  And – Jesus says – when all this happens, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. Whoever loves me will keep my commandments and will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

This passage tells us there is a love yet to be revealed by Jesus. A love unknown.  Bookmark that thought – we’ll come back to it.

Turning to our reading from Acts, the reading for today starts in the middle of the chapter, which means we are coming in on the middle of the story, so we need to back up and start at the beginning.

Paul and Silas were traveling through the part of the Roman Empire that was occupied Greece.  And as they traveled, they would stop at the local synagogues and share the gospel – because for people who attended synagogue, the gospel was not entirely unknown. It might be unexpected, but the Old Testament was taught in the synagogues, and the Old Testament included prophecies about the Messiah, so their listeners at least had the background to understand the gospel message.

First Paul and Silas arrived in Thessalonica. They went into the synagogue and taught and preached for a few weeks, giving evidence from the Old Testament that the Messiah had to suffer and then rise from the dead, and proving that Jesus met the criteria.  And some of the Jews believed, along with a large number of Gentile Greeks.

The synagogue rulers were jealous to see so many Gentiles responding to Paul’s message.  So they went out and stirred up a mob who went and grabbed these new believers and had them arrested.  Of course having no charges the people were released, but Paul and Silas (for their own safety) were sent on to the next city.

So they travelled to a town called Berea, about 45 miles away.  When they got there, again they went to the local synagogue and started preaching. And this time the good news about Jesus was well-received.  Verse 11 says: “they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.”  And many of them became believers, both Jews and Greeks.

Now the synagogue rulers in Thessalonica heard about this, and they were so ticked off they walked 45 miles to Berea stir up trouble for Paul and Silas. (45 miles is roughly the distance from Pittsburgh to Uniontown!  Have you ever been so ticked off at somebody that you would walk to Uniontown just to bother them?)

Anyway for safety’s sake the Bereans suggested Paul and Silas move on, and they accompanied them as far as Athens (about 150 miles from Berea – at which point the Thessalonians gave up).

So Paul and Silas arrived in Athens.  During Paul’s lifetime, and for about 400 years before he was born, Athens was one of the greatest educational centers of the world.  Aristotle had taught there, and Socrates, and Plato; Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine (you’ve heard of the Hippocratic oath).  Athens was the birthplace of democracy – the first place democracy was thought of, and the first place it was ever tried.  Life in the United States in the 21st century would not exist as we know it, if not for Athens back then.

Even the Romans appreciated Athens.  Though they conquered all of Greece, they considered Athens a ‘free city’ so that it’s teaching and its arts and culture would continue uninterrupted.

Paul and Silas, when they got to Athens, had a lot to see, and a lot to take in as they walked around the city.  But what Paul noticed more than anything was that it was “a city full of idols”.  Verse 16 says he was deeply troubled at this; because the message Paul had to share was a love story – a story about a love unknown.  As Paul and Silas walked around the city, they saw people who did not know they were loved by God, people who were being led astray to worship idols and to serve what was not God.  And this moved Paul’s heart very deeply.

Paul started out, as usual, in the local synagogue. And he had a little success there.  But then he went to the marketplace – the Agora as it was called (you remember that name from high school social studies?). The Agora was a place where people would buy and sell, but it was also the central public space in the city – a place for events, a place where political speeches would be made, and where religious and philosophical debates happened.

So Paul joined in the debates in the Agora. Verse 18 says he got into conversations with the Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicureans belonged to a school of philosophy that taught materialism and the pursuit of happiness, and ridiculed the idea of God interfering in human affairs. The Stoics on the other hand belonged to a school of philosophy that believed the path to happiness is found in accepting what we’re given in life; and not being controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, but using our minds to understand.

Do I really need to say how much these philosophies still influence people’s thinking?  We may not call it by those names any more, but we still live in a materialistic culture, that pokes fun at religion, that pursues happiness, and that values logic over too much drama in our relationships. Things haven’t changed much in 2000 years!

Paul made enough of an impact on the Greek philosophers to be invited to speak at the Areopagus where many of the great debates were held.  So he came, and they asked him, “what are you teaching?”  And that’s where our reading for today picks up.

What Paul said to the philosophers is a wonderful example of how we can share our faith in the world around us.

  • Step One, Paul begins where his listeners are. He says “I observe that you are very religious in all respects.” Paul doesn’t attack their idols; he doesn’t stand up and call the people ‘idolaters and sinners’.  He takes his observation of their idols and casts it in a good light.  He praises the fact that they’re religious. In today’s culture we might say something like, “I see that you are very spiritual.  You care about living things, you care about the planet, you believe in doing what is compassionate, and you are mindful of how you treat others.”
  • Step Two, Paul builds on where his listeners are and finds a connection to the gospel. He says, “as I went through the city and looked at the objects of your worship, I found an altar with the inscription ‘to an unknown god’.”  Paul knows about this love unknown, knows that it is a universal truth, and he connects it to their ‘unknown god’.In our own day there are still many people who call themselves agnostic – who say they don’t know who God is, or they’re not sure. Even churchgoers sometimes can be sort of functionally agnostic –knowing there’s a God and his son’s name is Jesus but not really sure what that means. The word agnostic – a Greek word – literally means to not know.
  • In Step Three, Paul zeros in on the unknown and makes it known. He says: “What you believe is unknown, this is what I proclaim to you.’ And he goes on to talk about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He says God created the world and everything in it; God does not live in temples or buildings made by hands; God is not served by people, as if God needed anything; in fact God gives us what we God sets the times and boundaries for nations and encourages people to seek God “groping around as we do, though God is not far from us” – Paul says – “for in Him we live and move and have our being”. And Paul adds, “as some of your own Greek poets have said, “we are God’s children.””

Can you imagine how people today would appreciate hearing that God does not live in buildings and is not served by people?  And that we live and move in God – and as God’s children, we are loved?

Paul does criticize the making of idols: he reminds his listeners that God isn’t made of silver or gold.  These days people don’t usually have household gods, but idolatry is still one of the most commonly practiced sins.  Today’s idols might include wealth, power, youthfulness, fame, food, sex, shopping… anything that becomes more important to us than God.

King Solomon once said: “the worship of idols… is the beginning and cause and end of every evil.” (Wisdom 14:27 edited)  In Paul’s words, idols are “a representation by the art and imagination of humanity”.  I could preach a whole sermon on just that – but for now the important concept is that idols are made up. They represent a lie.  And when people put their trust in lies, tragedy is the result.  If Paul were here today he would most likely remind us that God doesn’t need fame, or political power, or front page headlines, or a pile of money in order for God’s will to be done.

Bottom line, Paul says in verse 30: in the past God has overlooked such ignorance – overlooked our not knowing – but now God requires all people everywhere to have a change of heart, because there is a day coming in which all people will be measured by the man who walked out of the grave alive.

As soon as Paul mentions the resurrection of the dead, the philosophers in the Areopagus begin to laugh and poke fun. But some believe and want to hear more.

As for Paul himself, he’s not interested in debating for the sake of debating (which sets a very good example for those of us who hang out on Facebook).  For Paul, once he’s delivered the message, his job is done, and he’s ready to move on.  Next stop: Corinth!

But back to our love story.  We’ve been talking about an ‘unknown’ God: a God who knew us and loved us before we knew God.  Can you imagine what that’s like for God – to love us, and for us to not even know it?

You don’t see that kind of love story in movies very often. But I did see a story like it once in an old TV show.  It was a story about two soldiers – a man and a woman, Marcus and Susan. They cared about each other as comrades: they teased each other, they had each others’ backs, but their duties kept them apart most of the time, so they were friends and nothing more.  But Marcus loved Susan… and for her sake and the sake of her career he never let on.

One day in the heat of battle there was an explosion and Susan was mortally wounded. She didn’t die right away, so Marcus found her and carried her back to the medics, but there was nothing could be done.

Except this particular story takes place in the future, and in the future there’s a machine used for healing by which a healthy person can transfer health into the body of an injured person in order to heal them.  So for example, if a child scrapes their knee a parent can hook up the machine to themselves and to their child and pour healing from their own body into the child’s body.  Or if the child breaks a bone, which is a greater injury, it would require more energy from the parent, but it could still be healed.  But if the wound was fatal… using the machine would be fatal.

And for that reason the machine was made illegal. But Marcus finds one, and hooks it up, and pours his life into Susan. And just as she’s coming around, with his last breath, Marcus whispers ‘I love you’.

That’s the kind of love God has for us: a love that gives all it can give, before we even knew it was there.

The good news is that Jesus lives.

Which brings us back to the Gospel of John, where Jesus says: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; and because I live, you also will live.”  Jesus also says “If you love me, keep my commandments” – and the first and greatest commandment is love: love of God, and love of neighbor.

So the first thing we can do with all of this is to know God’s love.  Don’t let God’s love go unknown. Read about God’s love, meditate on it, immerse ourselves in it, until our souls are convinced, by the power of the Holy Spirit, of how very much we are loved.

And second, tell others about the unknown God (who is now known) and about the unknown love that’s waiting for them.

The old hymn I quoted earlier ends with these words:

“Here might I stay and sing
of him my soul adores:
never was love, dear King,
never was grief like yours.
This is my friend in whose sweet praise,
I gladly would spend all my days.”  AMEN.

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) Pittsburgh, 5/21/17

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[collection of video clips summarizing the story from which the illustration was taken:]

Acts 17:22-31  22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,  25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.  26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,  27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us.  28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

John 14:15-21  15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Drug Naming Rules

While we think about the concerns raised in my previous post, here’s a satiric public-service announcement concerning the naming of new drugs (in case you’re planning on bringing a few to market).  Here in the second decade of the 21st century, drug names MUST:

  • contain three syllables, no more, no less
  • the first syllable may be made up of any randomly-chosen letters. If those letters sound vaguely like something that has something to do with the disease being treated, so much the better, but this is not necessary.
  • the second syllable must contain a hard consonant sound such as “K”, “X”, “CK”, “P”, “T”, or “Q” in order to make the medicine sound strong and effective.
  • the third syllable must end on a soft vowel or vowel-like sound in order to make it sound like it’s gentle on your system.

And the required list of possible side-effects — which may actually be worse than the disease — must be read at the end of the commercial by a summa cum laude graduate of the local auctioneering school.

Herewith are some examples of drug names and their uses, which (not having been copyrighted) are available to any pharmaceutical entrepreneurs:

  • Smelecksa – Temporarily turns off your nose while you carry the trash out
  • Furexie – Prevents cat hair from sticking to your work clothes
  • Notaulska – Prevents strangers from babbling your ear off on the bus or train
  • Denozno – Take before visiting homes with dogs, to keep Fido’s nose a respectable distance away
  • Dorstepo – Prevents salesmen and Jehovah’s Witnesses coming up on your porch
  • Peptoka – I can’t stand the taste of Pepto-Bismol but I need SOMETHING right now!
  • Bunoyza – Stops the car making that weird noise
  • Drugova – Blocks all those annoying drug ads

Feel free to add new drug suggestions of your own!

 

 

 

In the past year or so I’ve noticed a sharp spike in new drugs being advertised, unlike anything I’ve seen since I was growing up in the early-to-mid 1960s.

Back then a spate of legal mood-altering drugs hit the market, originally designed to help people suffering from psychoses, neuroses, depression, and other legitimate conditions, but which were soon being prescribed for just about anything from nervousness to a hangnail.

Methamphetamines and barbiturates were legal back then, but the problem was very few people really knew what these drugs did, and many were highly addictive.  Stories of overdoses of “uppers” and “downers” began to hit the news on a regular basis.

And many of the drugs were particularly popular among suburban housewives – so much so they inspired a Top 40 hit for the Rolling Stones in 1966 – Mother’s Little Helper:

“Kids are different today, I hear every mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she’s not really ill, there’s a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day…”

I can’t help but wonder if having so many drug commercials on TV is seen as ‘permission’ by recreational drug users to continue to experiment with their bodies – and often lose their lives doing it.

And I can’t help but wonder if many of the drugs hitting the market today will, 50 years from now, be known as amazingly dangerous in the eyes of our great-grandchildren as the uppers and downers of past years seem to us.