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[Jesus said] “So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat.  Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’– do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Take note, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look! He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. 

“Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. 

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”Matthew 24:15-35


Fig Tree Branch in Spring

This week we continue our mini-series on what Jesus taught about the end times in the Gospel of Matthew. The passage above follows immediately after Jesus’ warning to the disciples not to be led astray by the things they see happening around them. Jesus warns that false messiahs and false prophets will come and will lead many away from God, so he warns the disciples to keep their focus on the kingdom of God and on Jesus himself.

That’s the prelude to this passage. Turning to today’s scripture reading…

Whenever I read these words of Jesus telling people to ‘flee to the mountains’ and not turn back, it reminds me of one of my seminary classmates from Sudan. Many of you I’m sure have heard about the civil war there, or at least have heard the name Darfur and you understand the tragedy that has happened there.  Darfur is in the west of Sudan and my friend was from the south, but both groups of people were under attack by the same soldiers from the north of Sudan.  My friend was a boy of around 10 or 11 when the soldiers came to his village. He was in the fields taking care of the livestock when he saw the smoke of his village burning and heard the gunfire. He knew if he went home he’d be dead. The best thing – the only thing – he could do for his village was to run, and hope to come back another day and help the survivors. So he left everything and ran. As he ran he met up with other children who were also running from the same soldiers: they became known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan”. They traveled on foot over 300 miles to Ethiopia where they found a refugee camp.

My friend grew up and eventually made it here to the States to go to school. I remember hearing his bishop asking him once what his plans were for after graduation. He said: “My Bishop, the soldiers of North Sudan destroyed my village and my family. My plans are to go back to Sudan, and find those men, and tell them about Jesus.” And that’s exactly what he did.

In many ways this story illustrates what Jesus is saying. Jesus is describing the fall of Jerusalem, which took place in the year 70AD. The attack by the Roman army was absolutely brutal. After a huge riot in the year 66AD, in which Jewish rebels took control of the city and kicked the Romans out, the Romans came back in force to put down the rebellion. They laid siege to the city – that is, they surrounded it and didn’t let anyone in or out – and this was during Passover when the city was packed with visitors. The people inside the city walls slowly starved to death. Things got so bad that parents started cooking and eating their own children. The Romans burned the Temple with worshippers still in it. And when the city fell there were so many dead the soldiers couldn’t walk through the streets without stepping on bodies.

Today all that’s left of the Temple Mount as Jesus knew it is one wall, which we know as the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall. It’s one of the holiest places in Judaism, where people from all over the world come to pray. The Romans also left the city walls standing, so the army would have a safe place to camp, but an eyewitness to the events said that looking at the city after the Romans were done, it was hard to believe anyone had ever lived there. And “standing in the holy place” – where the holy of holies had once stood – the Roman general now stood, requiring all to worship Caesar.

Jesus knew all of this was going to happen, and he warned his followers to run. Jesus said: when you see them coming, don’t even go back into the house to get your coat. If you’re in the field (like my Sudanese friend was) don’t turn back, don’t go home for anything. Run! The followers of Jesus who were living in Jerusalem when this happened became refugees. They were scattered throughout the Roman empire, and they took the gospel with them.

So verses 15-20 describe something that happened in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. But, often happens with prophecy, this passage carries a dual meaning. It also applies to the end times. When Jesus says “for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” he’s not talking about the fall of Jerusalem, because those days weren’t cut short. There will be another crisis in the last days, and when it comes we also need to be ready.

This passage tells us there will be a significant sign just prior to Jesus’ return. Jesus calls it a “desolating sacrilege”. In Scripture this usually refers to some form of idolatry – worshiping something or someone that is not God. In our time today, I believe the greatest temptation is to idolatry. Many people are obsessed with what is not God: power, success, sex, feeling good, wealth, celebrities, fame, political beliefs – anything that captures our time and our hearts more than God is an idol.

One commentator puts it this way: the ‘desolating sacrilege’ “will involve a major affront to God played out at the expense of God’s people… [and] although we may not be able to specifically identify the sign today (he says), in the day of its revealing all believers will recognize it.” And personally I suspect Jesus’ saying about ‘where the corpse is, the vultures will gather’ will take on a fresh and specific meaning when this happens.

That ‘desolating sacrilege’ will initiate a time of great suffering, and Jesus warns us to run. What this escape will look like, we don’t know – but as the same commentator says, “don’t cross your bridges before they’re hatched.” Just remember God is in control and will not let the people of God be tested beyond our ability to endure.

So when times of trouble come, if someone says to you “here’s the Messiah” or “I know where the He is!” – don’t believe it.  Nobody knows when Jesus’ return is going to happen. Jesus says many false prophets and false messiahs will come. In the Greek it says “pseudo-prophets” and “pseudo-Christs” – we get the word ‘pseudo’ from Greek – handy word, yes? These pseudo-Messiahs will be doing great miracles, and showing great signs, so as to lead astray even God’s own people if that were possible.

Jesus says when he comes back there won’t be any doubts. There won’t be any mistaking it, and it won’t be secret knowledge. He says it will be like “lightning from the east that flashes to the west”. The whole earth will know when Jesus returns. Jesus says the sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars will fall from the sky, and all people everywhere will see him coming on the clouds in power and glory. And Jesus will gather his people from the four corners of the earth and from heaven – all of us – into his Kingdom.

Jesus says:

“from the fig tree learn this: when the branch is tender and puts out leaves, summer is near. So also when you see these things, know he is near.”

What Jesus says next about ‘this generation not passing away until all has taken place’ has caused all kinds of debates among Bible scholars. I think the best way to understand this is to understand that there are layers of interpretation. The generation of the disciples did not pass away before the fall of Jerusalem happened. When the final abomination happens, that generation also will not pass away. It’s layer upon layer. And there’s also some wiggle room in the Greek. The word ‘generation’ might also be translated ‘age’ – ‘this age will not pass away until all has taken place’. It could be many, many years. What’s important is that these words were meant both for the disciples back then and for us now. Jesus assures us that even though the world will pass away, his words will never pass away.

So what can we learn from all this? What can we take away?

First, pray. Jesus tells us to pray for pregnant women and nursing mothers during difficult times. This is something we can definitely do right now. And pray that when the end times come it won’t be in winter. If you feel – as many do – that we may be heading into the end times now, pray about that. Tell Jesus what it means to you and what your concerns are for yourself and your family and your community.

Second, be on guard against anyone who claims to know exactly when Jesus will return. The sign hasn’t been given yet. The desolating sacrilege has not happened yet. Be aware as the days grow darker the number of pseudo-teachers, pseudo-Christians, and pseudo-Messiahs will grow. Don’t give them the time of day. Test the spirits; hold up everything they say against the scriptures.

Third, live in hope. When Jesus does return, we’ll know. There won’t be any doubt. And what a day that will be: reunited at last with all the believers from our families, from our churches, from our history, from the old country, from the time of Jesus, from the time of Abraham. We’ll all be there, and Jesus will coming on the clouds with power and great glory. And you can take that to the bank. AMEN.









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Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.Matthew 16:13-20


Today I want to talk about GLORY: the glory of Jesus, the glory of God.

The dictionary says glory has to do with “high renown or honor won by great achievements” and/or has to do with “magnificence or great beauty”.

In today’s scripture we see both. That’s why I chose Non Nobis Domine as our prelude today: “not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory.” In this passage from Matthew we see the glory of Jesus and the glory of God the Father as they draw the disciples closer and further into the Kingdom.

Matthew begins the story by telling us Jesus and the disciples are in the region of Caesarea Philippi. There were lots of towns named Caesarea back in those days – it was a way of honoring Caesar, to name a town after him – so a town needed a second name so you knew which Caesarea you were talking about. Caesarea Philippi was in northern Israel near the border of Lebanon and Syria in what is today called the Golan Heights. And the town had a shrine to the Greek god Pan.

Let’s just say Jesus and the disciples were far from home, both physically and spiritually.

Jesus probably brought the disciples here to spend time with them away from the crowds, and to begin to teach them that he would need to go to Jerusalem soon and be crucified.

So in the opening verse, Jesus puts a question to the disciples. He asks: “Who do the people say I, the Son of Man, am?” Jesus frequently talks about the “Son of Man” in the Gospels – by which he means himself – but this is the only time where Jesus specifically identifies himself as the Son of Man. The title Son of Man comes from the book of Daniel where the prophet writes:

“The Ancient of Days (that is, God) gave to the one like a Son of Man ‘dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom… shall not be destroyed.’” (Daniel 7:13-14)

That’s glory for you!

In answering Jesus’ question, the disciples offered a number of possibilities. They said: some say John the Baptist come back to life. Some say Elijah. Others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.

These answers weren’t really so far off. The people believed in resurrection; and John the Baptist was fresh on their minds, having been killed only a few weeks before; in fact King Herod himself thought Jesus was John the Baptist reincarnated. So the crowds were right in sensing something in common between Jesus and these men of great faith. They sensed a glory in this son of a carpenter.

But then Jesus asked the disciples; “who do you say I am?” (and he’s asking all of them; the ‘you’ is plural).

This is an important question for us too. Every person on the planet will someday need to answer question: who do you say Jesus is?

All of a sudden the disciples fall silent. And then Peter speaks up and says: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Notice Peter says the Christ. Christ is a title, not a name. Kind of like when you say ‘Queen Elizabeth’: ‘Queen’ is the title, ‘Elizabeth’ is the name. With Jesus, ‘Christ’ is the title and ‘Jesus’ is the name.

We also get the word ‘christen’ from ‘Christ’. ‘Christen’ means to anoint; but back in those days they didn’t christen babies, they christened future kings, and they did this by pouring oil over their heads. And when God christened someone, when God anointed someone, God not only gave them a title but also gave them the ability to do that job, to fulfill that role.

Side note: Peter also calls Jesus the ‘son of the living God,’ in contrast to all the dead idols in this town devoted to Pan where they were. There are lifeless idols in our own time as well: things people worship that are not gods and have no power or life in them. They are lifeless idols; Jesus is the son of the living God.

Jesus the Christ has been christened the future king. This is why Jesus and the disciples, whenever they traveled, preached the message: “the kingdom of God is near! Change course and believe the good news!” This wasn’t theology they were preaching – the future King was really there!

“And we beheld his glory,” the apostle John says, “the glory of the one and only Son who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

So to sum up, Peter is saying that Jesus is the Crown Prince of Heaven, the Son of the Living God.

And Jesus answers: “you are blessed!” – meaning that only God could have given Peter that answer. And this is true of anyone who believes. If you know that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed King, the Son of God – then God alone has revealed this to you. How this happens is different for each one of us. Some people come to this knowledge by reading the Bible; some come through friends; some through nature; I’ve even heard of one person who came to this knowledge by trying to disprove it. But whatever happens – the moment of realization when the truth breaks over your awareness and you realize that Jesus is everything he claims to be and more – this comes from God. It comes when God’s spirit touches your own, and life is never the same from that point on. (By the way, if you’ve never experienced this certainty, pray about it – it’s a conversation God loves to take part in!)

Jesus said to Peter: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” The word ‘revealed’ in Greek is apekalupsen (sp?) – it’s the word we get ‘apocalypse’ from, and it means ‘revelation’ (which is why the last book in the Bible is called Revelation – it’s when Jesus is finally crowned as king and revealed in all his glory.)

Jesus also says to Peter: “I say to you: you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter and rock is a play on words in Greek: Petros, the name Peter, and petra, the rock. “You are Petros and on this petra I will build my church.”

We also need to look at the word church because the church as we know it didn’t exist yet, so what was Jesus talking about when he talked about church? In Greek the word is ekklesian – which is the word we get ecclesiastical from, which in our day basically means ‘having to do with the church’.  But in the Greek the word means assembly or congregation or group (of Christ-followers). In other words, in Greek the word church has to do with people not real estate.

Many of us have discovered this, or re-discovered it, especially during this strange pandemic time: the church truly is not the building; the church is the people. You are the ekklesian, by the grace of God, by the revelation of God, by the blessing of God.  Whenever you say “Jesus is the Christ” you build up and strengthen and become part of the foundation of the church. This is the rock on which the fellowship is built, and the forces of evil cannot overcome it.

Jesus then says to Peter:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

There’s been a lot of confusion and disagreement about the meaning of this verse. Let me start by saying this: when Jesus says “I will give you the keys of the kingdom…” the word ‘you’ is singular. Jesus is talking to Peter and only Peter. He’s not talking to the other disciples and he’s not talking to us in the 21st century. Just Peter.

Basically what Jesus is doing is handing off the leadership of this new Jesus movement to Peter. Just as Moses handed off leadership of the Israelites to Joshua before they crossed into the Promised Land, Jesus is handing off leadership to Peter. It’s just a few weeks before his crucifixion. Jesus knows his followers will need someone to look to, someone to help this ekklesian hang together. After Jesus’ ascension Peter gathers the believers in Jerusalem; Peter preaches on the first Pentecost; Peter becomes the lead spokesperson; and Paul defers to Peter’s leadership even though Paul has a better education and a higher social status.

After his resurrection, Jesus will tell Peter three times, “Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs.”  Jesus knows the early church will need leadership. And Jesus knows we need leadership in our time too. Pray for this. Pray, in our difficult time, that Jesus will raise up leaders for our time who will be as faithful and as blessed by God as Peter was.

And then after all this, Jesus ordered the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ!

Why would Jesus keep this a secret? This question has kept theologians busy for 2000 years… and I have nothing to add to what they’ve written. Maybe the time wasn’t right to tell the crowds. Maybe telling too many people might in some way have detoured the road to the crucifixion. Maybe, like the disciples in next week’s lesson, they weren’t ready to understand that the Messiah had to die. Peter himself suffered three days of doubt and darkness on that crucifixion weekend – and if his faith could be shaken, what would it do to other peoples’ faith? It could be any of these things, but we really don’t know.

For today the important question is: who do we say Jesus is? The answer to this question is life-changing. And when we answer, do we answer in words only, or in actions as well?

In the meantime, today we celebrate Jesus’ glory: the glory of the only Son of the Father; the glory of the coming King; the glory of the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Non nobis, domine; not to us O Lord, but to you be the glory.




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The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away. 

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread.  Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.Matthew 16:1-12

There’s an old saying about predicting the weather: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.” In our reading today Jesus says something along these lines to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He says:

“When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’  And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”

How true is this still in our own time?

Today’s reading from Matthew centers around two competing parties: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Life in Jesus’ time was different from ours in a lot of ways, but one thing we have in common with the people back then: religious and political differences could get nasty. And the Pharisees and the Sadducees were the two parties to choose from back then. (Actually there was a third party, the Essenes, but they got about as much press in the Bible as our third parties do in the news today.)

Since we find ourselves today being torn apart by party politics, this passage is very relevant to us – and we can learn much from how Jesus handled the situation.

The first thing we notice is that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees missed the point of Jesus’ ministry completely. In fact, opposing Jesus was just about the only thing the two groups agreed on! So they got together and confronted Jesus by demanding that he show them a sign from heaven.

Now Jesus had just spent three days healing people, and feeding over 4000 men (plus women and children) with seven loaves of bread and two fish. What more sign did they want?  Truth is, they really didn’t want to see a sign; they were testing Jesus to see how he would react under pressure.

So what was it that made the Pharisees and Sadducees oppose each other?

It’s complicated.

But like most arguments of this kind, there were a few issues that kept bubbling up to the surface.

For starters, the Sadducees were stuck on the letter of the law. Whatever the issue at hand was, if it wasn’t written down in the books of Moses (that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, or Numbers) – if it wasn’t in one of those five books they didn’t believe it. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in an “oral tradition.” In other words, when God gave Moses the law, not everything was written down. God also spoke to Moses, and these words were passed down to the priests and the prophets by word of mouth.

Included in these oral teachings was the concept of the afterlife. The Sadducees did not see anything about life after death in the books of Moses, so they didn’t believe in resurrection. They believed when you died that was it. The Pharisees disagreed.

Jesus, by the way, took the Pharisees’ side on this issue. In a debate with the Sadducees, Jesus quoted the book of Exodus saying:

“Concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what God said to you: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (Matt 22:31-32)

The other really big difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees was cultural in nature – and these issues are still with us today.  The Sadducees were the “One Percent” of their day. They were the richest, best educated, most powerful people in the country. In a world where there was no ‘separation of church and state’ the Sadducees held both religious and political power. (However unlike the “one percent” of our day, the Sadducees were not business tycoons. There were no Bill Gates-es or Mark Zuckerberg’s back then. Their power was strictly in politics and religion.)

The Pharisees on the other hand, while they tended to be well-educated, tended to also have sort of blue-collar backgrounds. They were smart, and they worked hard, and they studied hard, and they achieved success through real effort. And for these reasons they were popular among the people. But because the Pharisees had an oral tradition of interpreting scripture, and there was more than one oral tradition, their theological debates could get really deep, and could easily veer off-course.

Jesus spoke some of his hardest words against the Pharisees, even though he agreed with them more often than He did the Pharisees. Maybe that’s because the Pharisees’ mistakes were more dangerous. Think of it this way: If something is half-true and half-lie, most people will say, “that just doesn’t sound right.”

But if something is 95% true and 5% lie, people will often swallow the lie along with the truth. (This is the real danger of “fake news”.) The Pharisees got it mostly right most of the time. This is why Jesus said “do what they say but not what they do.” With the Pharisees things could get just a little bit twisted sometimes and end up in a place that God never intended.

One other important difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees: the Sadducees, in spite of the fact that they were closely tied to the temple – you could almost think of them as being like the College of Cardinals in the Vatican (not that they were Catholics – these men were very Jewish!) – but the Sadducees served in the temple in the same way that Cardinals serve in the Vatican. They were officials whose job it was to lead or assist in worship.

In spite of these temple duties, in spite of their close proximity to the things of God, the Sadducees were head over heels in love with Greek philosophy. In Jesus’ day, the teachings of the Epicureans and the Stoics were the ‘in thing’; Socrates and Plato were a few hundred years before, and still had some influence but not as much. Anyway, the Sadducees were far more influenced by Greek philosophers than they were by the scriptures. The Sadducees thought Greek philosophy was the height of sophistication and intellectual achievement. It was classy… brilliant… exclusive… the crème de la crème, befitting the minds and lives of the “one percent”. It didn’t matter to them that Greek philosophy was in no way related to what Moses wrote or what God commanded – and in some ways was opposed to both.

The Pharisees saw the Sadducees’ love of Greek philosophy basically as turning their backs on God’s word. And Jesus and the early disciples – particularly the apostle Paul – tended take the Pharisees’ side on this one.

So in Jesus’ day the Jewish people were being encouraged to divide and attack each other along these party lines – much as we are being encouraged to attack each other today.

Because of this, Jesus’ words to his disciples are as important to us today as they were to the disciples back then. When Jesus has a moment alone with them, he said to the disciples: “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Notice Jesus does not take sides. And he doesn’t waste time sifting through their various arguments. He warns the disciples to stay away from both.

Jesus doesn’t explain the yeast remark, but I suspect it has to do with the possibility that mastering these complex teachings puts a person at risk of puffing up with knowledge the way yeast puffs up bread. At any rate the bottom line is: Beware of it. Steer clear of it.

So a few thoughts on how to do that in our time:

When you’re dealing with modern-day Sadducees – the “one percent”:

  • Be aware that the world’s philosophies may be attractive and may contain some truth, but their source is not God and at some point you’ll probably have to part company with them in order to be true to Jesus.
  • Be aware that anyone who loves church because it’s in a beautiful building – or who loves worship because it is a dramatic presentation that catches the emotions – is completely missing the point. The church is God’s people and worship is how we express our love for God.
  • Be aware that the Sadducees were wrong in thinking this life is all there is. The God of the Old and the New Testaments promises eternal life to all God’s children.

When you’re dealing with modern-day Pharisees:

  • Be aware that centuries-old traditions handed down from generation to generation may be meaningful, but they’re not on the same level as God’s word. And think of all the traditions that have been handed down for hundreds of years that we’re having to fix in our generation: hundreds of years of tradition in which black people and women were not allowed to pray or speak out loud in church. Hundreds of years tradition in which people thought forgiveness only comes through a priest and not directly from Jesus. Hundreds of years of tradition in which people thought that if you’re rich it’s a sign that God likes you, and if you’re poor it’s because you’ve offended God. Hundreds of years of tradition in which people thought all you have to do is believe and you’ll be saved – and it doesn’t matter how you live after that. Beware of traditions that cause harm to God’s people.
  • Watch out for hypocrisy. Do religious teachers practice what they preach? Do they preach peace and then go out and attack people who disagree with them? Do they preach giving but never give themselves? Do they preach sexual purity and then go off and have an affair? Do they preach God as the Creator of the world and then don’t care about the environment? I could go on…

All these things to watch out for cut across party lines: they did in Jesus’ day and they do today. Jesus never fits into anybody’s box, praise God. He’s not supposed to.

Our job, as people who love Jesus, is to listen to him and follow him as best we can.  And wherever the various parties of our day turn away from God’s goodness and the truth of our Lord Jesus, our job, if we can, as we can, is to help steer things back on course.

Our job is to be God’s people, first and always. No apologies and no compromises.


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Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”  He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” – Matthew 15:1-20


Today’s reading from the book of Matthew begins with the word “Then…” – which means we’re starting in the middle of the story. It begs the question, ‘what happened before then?’

What happened before then was Jesus was having a very rough week. A few days earlier, John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus and told him that his cousin had just been murdered by King Herod. John the Baptist was beheaded, and his head was presented to Herod’s stepdaughter as a gift in exchange for her dancing for his dinner guests.

When Jesus heard this news he wanted to be alone for a while. He needed time with his Father God. I think all of us can relate to this: there are times when the world is just too much and we need to be alone with God.  I think that’s why the song In the Garden means so much to so many people: it captures the feeling of being alone with God.

So Jesus got in a boat and went away from the crowds, towards a lonely wilderness on the other side of the lake. But the crowds followed Jesus on foot, skirting the shore of the sea of Galilee, so that when Jesus got to the far shore they were waiting for him. And Jesus looked at them, and he had compassion on them, and healed the sick. And then, because they were in the middle of nowhere and getting hungry, Jesus and the disciples collected up five loaves and two fish, and Jesus blessed the food, and Matthew says they fed at least 5000 men, not counting women and children.

When they’d all had enough to eat, Jesus blessed the crowd and sent them home, and told the disciples to get in the boat and leave Jesus there so he could be alone to pray. Jesus finally got that alone-time with his Father.

After night-fall, Jesus walked across the water and joined the disciples in the boat – which is a whole other story – and the next day they landed at Gennesaret, where Jesus was soon recognized and more sick people were brought to him for healing.

All these things happened in a span of just a few days! And in spite of everything, Jesus was still on his feet, still ministering, and still loving people in the name of God the Father. Then…

Then the Pharisees came, with the scribes. Side note on these two groups of people: In spite of what we read in Scripture, the Pharisees were actually popular in the day. They were the peoples’ pastors. They opposed the Sadducees, who were the elite, the “one percent” of their day, and many of the Pharisees’ teachings became the foundation of modern-day Judaism. The reason we tend to see Pharisees in a negative light is because Jesus often took them to task for being legalistic and for being hypocritical… and as we read in the Gospels, Jesus was right. But this wasn’t true of all the Pharisees all the time; some of them actually ended up becoming Christian believers.

The Scribes were essentially lawyers who specialized in the Law of Moses – that is, they specialized in the Ten Commandments and all that’s written in the first five books of the Bible. Back in those days there was no separation between church and state, so these experts in religious law could also draft contracts and give legal advice.

So the Scribes and Pharisees, Matthew tells us, arrived in Gennesaret from Jerusalem. They walked approximately 75 miles just to ask Jesus a question. And the question they asked sounds like something a nasty person would have written on Jesus’ Facebook page. They asked:

“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”

They walked 75 miles to ask this?

In the Greek it’s clear the Pharisees are accusing the disciples of transgression. They’re referring to a religious tradition, handed down for generations, that all decent Jewish people wash their hands before eating bread. This is not hand-washing as we think of it, to remove dirt and germs. This is a brief religious ceremony requiring clean water and a silver cup and a short ritual of words and motions. It would have been impossible for those 5000 men, women and children Jesus had just fed, to come up with enough silver cups and clean water for everyone to wash their hands. And the Pharisees (as they so often did in scripture) completely missed the miracle and fixated on obedience to the letter of the law – or in this case, the letter of the tradition.

Two things I want to draw attention to here:

(1) the disciples were accused of breaking religious tradition. And it was true – they had. I want to ask this: have any of us ever broken a church tradition? I know I have. One Sunday shortly after being ordained I wore the wrong color stole – I wore a purple one when I should have worn a pink one. Priests are supposed to know better! But if you ever trip over a tradition like that, trust me, You.Will.Hear.About.It.  In my case, I didn’t hear about it from the people but from the other priests.


We all had a good laugh about it. But how many people, I wonder, have been put off by the church because they’ve been attacked for something silly like this? Or how many won’t go into a church because they don’t know how to ‘do church’? They say to themselves: “I don’t know how to pray. And when do I sit, stand, or kneel?” So I put this question to all of us: How can we make our churches welcoming and easy to get to know? How can we keep tradition in its place and not let it be a hindrance to people who are seeking God?

(2) The Pharisees are keeping the letter of the law – well, the letter of the tradition – but they’re completely missing the spirit of it. The point is to be clean before God. Washing hands doesn’t accomplish that.

By the way, Jesus never taught his disciples not to wash their hands. (And neither would I in this pandemic time – keep on washing your hands!)

But the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of allowing his disciples to break religious tradition. Jesus doesn’t answer this. He doesn’t waste time trying to help the Pharisees understand where he’s coming from. Instead, Jesus answers by saying the Pharisees commit greater transgressions – they transgress God’s commands – with their traditions.

And Jesus gives an example. He says: One of the Ten Commandments says “honor your father and your mother”. But the tradition of the Pharisees and scribes says that a child can say to an aging parent “any help you might have had from me is given to God” – that is, given to the temple or the synagogue – and then that person need not take care of their father or mother. Honoring one’s parents in the Old Testament began with providing for their physical needs and went from there. So Jesus says: “you revoke the word of God for the sake of your human tradition.”

Jesus then turns to the crowd and says:

hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of it.”

The disciples pull Jesus aside and say, “do you know the Pharisees were scandalized by what you said?” And Jesus answers, “every plant my father has not planted will be uprooted.” This echoes the passage we read last week, the parable of the wheat and the weeds – that pictures God as a farmer who plants good seed, and then an enemy comes along and plants weed seeds. And they grow up together for now so that the good plants don’t get pulled up with the weeds. But – as Jesus says – every plant the Father has not planted will be uprooted.

Jesus says: Let them go. Give it up. They are blind guides; and if the blind lead the blind they will both fall into a pit. This is a hard word from Jesus. He’s basically saying, “Don’t even try with them.” How sad is that, when Jesus says about somebody, ‘don’t even try’?

Peter says “Lord I don’t understand” – which is a great prayer to pray when you’re feeling confused. So Jesus explains: what goes into one’s mouth enters the stomach, passes through the intestines, and is dropped into the latrine. (That’s literally what the Greek says.) But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and that’s what defiles a person, because out of the mouth comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false testimony, blasphemy and abusive language.

You’ll notice Jesus doesn’t rank these sins. He says all of them equally begin with evil thoughts, or as the Greek says, in the inner dialogue we have within ourselves. The things we say to ourselves when we’re alone with our own thoughts – that’s where all sins begin.

So two things I’d like to take from this passage today:

  1. Let’s pray – for ourselves and for others – that God will cleanse our hearts and sweeten our words. That God would make what comes out of our mouths worth being heard, helpful to others, kind, loving, and just. Pray for that.
  2. Remembering the Pharisees – and how their hypocrisy often made God’s people feel like they didn’t belong in the synagogue – for those of us who are still in the church, let’s give some thought to the questions: what traditions do we have that might invalidate a command of God? What doctrines do our churches teach that are man-made and not God-made? For example, does the church’s tradition of holding up marriage and children as the Christian ideal have the effect of minimizing the involvement of single people? Divorced people? Widows and widowers? Does it make childless people feel like second-class citizens in God’s kingdom? That’s just one example of how a church tradition might get out of hand.  And where it comes to doctrines – nowhere in the Bible does it say Lent must be purple and Pentecost must be red. That’s all human-made. Having the “wrong color” is not a sin.

That’s just for starters. As Jesus says, the real issue is in the heart. Our work on our hearts will be life-long, but thank God we don’t have to do the work by ourselves. We have a Father who loves us, we have Jesus who died for us, and we have the Holy Spirit to guide us. And we have Christian brothers and sisters to help. So let’s ask the tough questions, and welcome the outsider, in the name of our Lord Jesus. AMEN.


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A Reading from the Law: Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25a, 26-29
So the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied…

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

A Reading from the Prophets: Jeremiah 31: 31-34
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,  says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

A Reading from the New Testament: The Story of the First Pentecost: Acts 2:1-21, 37-39
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know — this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him,

‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover my flesh will live in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

 “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,

‘He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.’

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers,  what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”


That’s a lot of scripture this morning! But sometimes I think it’s good for a preacher to just step back and let God speak.

Pentecost is often called the birthday of the Church, not in the sense of religious institutions, but in the sense that this is the day when God’s promise to make Israel a blessing to every nation and people group came true. This is the day when people everywhere, no matter where in the world they came from, no matter where they’ve been, are invited to believe in Jesus the Messiah and to be baptized into the family of faith.

The readings we heard from the Old Testament – the Law and the Prophets – talk about God’s longing to have spiritual unity with God’s people. In the reading from Numbers, we see Moses choosing seventy elders to help lead the nation. God says: “I will take some of the spirit that is on you (meaning Moses) and put it on them.”

And when that happened, the seventy elders prophesied. But Joshua, who was Moses’ right-hand man, was jealous for Moses’ sake. Moses, on the other hand, was overjoyed to see God’s spirit being poured out on others, and he says, “would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”  I think Moses’ words reflect what is in God’s heart. It IS God’s plan that one day the Lord’s spirit would be poured out on all the Lord’s people.

Then we hear the words of Jeremiah, who was prophet during a time when Israel’s rebellion against God reached its peak. Jeremiah was the prophet who witnessed the fall of Jerusalem and the captivity of the people in Babylon. In his book of Lamentations he pours out his tears at the fate of his people. But in today’s reading we hear words of hope for a future still far off. God says through Jeremiah: “I will make a new covenant with my people… not like the covenant I made before, which they broke.”

The ‘covenant’ here refers to the treaty between God and Israel, which is summed up in the Ten Commandments. God says to Israel through Jeremiah “you broke the treaty. You haven’t lived up to your side of the bargain” – things they agreed to do like having no other gods, honoring their parents, treating neighbors and foreigners and the poor with compassion. God says, “you haven’t done these things” – BUT! There will come a time, “says the Lord, when I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts… no longer will they… say to each other, ‘know the Lord’ for they shall all know me…”

This was God’s plan from the very beginning. Moses spoke about it; Jeremiah spoke about it; and finally, over 3000 years after Moses, Pentecost happened. God had Pentecost in the works for a long time.

So what does this mean for us today?  For us, Peter’s words are still true. These are the ‘last days’ – not in the sense that the book of Revelation talks about last days, but in the sense that we’re a lot closer to the end of time than Moses was, or than Jeremiah was. These are the ‘last days’ Peter is talking about in which God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh. Both men and women prophesy; young and old see visions and dream dreams; from the highest to the lowest God pours out his Spirit and the people will prophesy.

The word ‘prophesy’ basically means to speak God’s truth in God’s way, or to speak God’s truth into a given situation. One person I know who has a particularly strong prophetic gift can tell when a person is lying by listening to God’s spirit, and the he corrects that person gently and speaks the truth. (And if that doesn’t prove to a person that God exists…!) The gift of prophecy is not about predicting the future but it’s about serving God and serving people by speaking God’s word.

All of this is possible by the power of the Spirit after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.

When Peter said all these things to the people in the book of Acts, they were “cut to the heart” and asked “what should we do?” And the answer Peter gave is still true for us today: “repent” – that is, change course or change direction – “and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Anyone who is reading this today who believes in Jesus but has never been baptized, please send me a note by private message. Baptism is a gift God wants you to have, and you don’t want to miss out on it.

And for anyone who is reading today who, like myself, was baptized as a baby – we were too young to remember our baptisms. Often times we feel uncertain about the gift of the Holy Spirit, which in the Bible usually comes with baptism. We don’t remember what happened that day, and that can make talking about the Holy Spirit confusing when we become adults. That’s why some churches – like Pentecostal churches – teach a second baptism, a ‘baptism in the Spirit’. That’s also why some churches don’t baptize babies, but rather wait until a person is old enough to confess Jesus Christ as Lord before baptizing them.

I’m not going to get into all these debates between the churches. What I can tell you is this: the Holy Spirit is real. The Holy Spirit is not a ghost. The Spirit is the “third person of the Trinity” (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). We’ll talk more about the Trinity next Sunday on Trinity Sunday. The Holy Spirit is that aspect of God that is able to enter into human beings, to become part of our awareness, to help direct our thoughts and actions, to teach us what the scriptures mean. The Spirit also gives us spiritual gifts, and the apostle Paul talks about these in his letters to the Corinthians, the Romans, and the Ephesians. The Spirit gives different gifts to different people; we don’t all get the same spiritual gifts, but we all get some.

What I can also tell you is: God wants us to have and use these spiritual gifts. So if you’re not sure how the Holy Spirit works in your life, pray about it, and keep praying until you get answers. And if you find yourself sort of feeling ‘stuck’, it may help to have someone pray for you or with you.

Where it comes to receiving the Holy Spirit in your life, don’t be afraid or ashamed because of whatever tradition you grew up in. If you have questions about the Holy Spirit, or about how the Spirit moves in your life, don’t let them go unanswered. Ask your pastor, ask a friend, ask me if you like. But don’t miss out on all that God has to give you, and through the Spirit, all that you have to give the world. AMEN.




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In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 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. 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; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 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.”

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (Acts 1:1-14)


This Sunday is both Memorial Day weekend and Ascension Sunday. It’s not unusual for these two holidays to land on the same weekend, which I’ve always thought was kind of appropriate: partly because I think we Christians should have a Memorial Day of our own, in which we remember those who have given their lives so that we could hear the good news of Jesus and His kingdom; and because Ascension Sunday is a remembrance of the completed work of our Lord Jesus: his death, and his resurrection, and the time he spent with the disciples afterward. Jesus’ work on earth is complete now, and it’s time for Him to go home to God his Father.

We can barely begin to imagine what this means for Jesus. Meanwhile I wonder if the disciples were thinking: Why doesn’t Jesus stay here? Why doesn’t he confront the people who put him to death and say “Look! It didn’t work. I’m still here.”?

But as Jesus once said, “‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:31) And where it comes to the Ascension, as Jesus once said to the disciples in John’s gospel, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7) For some reason the Holy Spirit can’t come to God’s people while Jesus is still on earth. I don’t understand how that works but I take Jesus’ word for it. So at the Ascension Jesus returns home to God. And next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ departure is the beginning of the church and the church’s mission.

Taking a look then at our passage from Acts chapter 1: Luke begins with the words “In the first book” which refers to Luke’s gospel. Luke has a way of describing events that makes you feel like you were actually there, so I’m glad he gave us two books. Luke continues the story he started in his Gospel, writing the book of Acts to tell us what happened with the disciples after Jesus went home to God.

Before Jesus departs, he gives the disciples some last instructions. He says to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the promise: “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit in just a few days.”

The disciples respond by asking:

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

This question is a very human question, but it’s also proof that after all this time the disciples still don’t get it. They believed – as most of the nation of Israel believed at that time – that the Messiah would restore the throne of David. The Messiah would get rid of the Romans and put a Jewish king back on the throne of Israel to restore the glory that was once the kingdom of Israel.  There was a time in Israel, long past, when the military might of King David and the wisdom of his son King Solomon were legend throughout the then-known world. Israel was prosperous, secure, and blessed.  It was a golden age, and they believed the Messiah would bring back that glory.

Jesus’ reply doesn’t really answer the question the disciples are asking, and yet at the same time it does.  The kingdom of which Jesus is king is not of this world. Jesus is the heir of David – he was born into the family of David, and Matthew goes to great lengths in his Gospel to prove this. But at Jesus’s trial when Pilate asked, “are you a king?” Jesus answered:

“My kingdom is not of this world. If [it were] my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over… But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36)

The disciples knew this intellectually but it hadn’t quite sunk in to their hearts yet. They were still looking for someone to rescue the nation, to restore justice to its politics, and glory to its reputation.

People ever since have made the same mistake. As one commentator writes: “Others have gone into excruciating detail in mapping out the [periods], based on Daniel or Revelation or the Trinity… We’ve seen no end of regimes, theologies, churches, and governments claiming history on their side… flip-flopping between messianic hopes and Armageddon panic.”

Even in our own day, in this coronavirus time, the internet and Facebook and Twitter are full of rumors that this virus marks the beginning of the end times and that Jesus’ return is close at hand.

Just like the disciples on Ascension Day, people miss the point: Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. As Jesus said to the disciples, ‘it is not for us to know the times or periods God has set by God’s own authority’. Only God knows the timetable. Jesus said in the book of Matthew: “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matt 24:36)

Jesus does however give the disciples one very important piece of information: their job is to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And that assignment is ours as well: to be witnesses in our towns, in our regions, and world-wide. We are to carry the good news that Jesus is King to every people and tribe and nation.

Every person on this planet was made by God, redeemed by God, and is loved by God. So our job is to share with our next-door neighbors; with people from New Jersey, Ohio, Louisiana, and California; and with people from Africa and Mexico and the Ukraine and Russia and China. God loves them all. God loves us all. Jesus’ cross, and resurrection, and ascension are God’s expression of love for us. So if we know Jesus, our assignment is to be a witness. To live in faith, and not in fear. To live generously, not holding back. To lift up hope when the world feels hopeless; and where the world sees only darkness, to bear witness to the light.

Jesus promises us that one day God’s justice will be brought to bear on all sin and evil; that God’s mercy will be poured out, and God’s people will be raised to new life in a city where no lamp is needed because God is its light.

For now, our witness begins when the Holy Spirit comes. So in this moment, we see the disciples returning to Jerusalem, to an upper room, together with the women, including Jesus’ mother Mary and Jesus’ brothers. And they spend time in prayer. Luke says “they devoted themselves to prayer.” Because in prayer they could keep on being with Jesus.

And so can we. The Holy Spirit is about to come. Pentecost is next Sunday. Someday Jesus will return to earth the same way he left. For today it’s enough to pray, and to know with confidence our Lord and Savior – and our best friend – sits on the throne in the kingdom of God. AMEN.


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This coming Wednesday, February 26, is Ash Wednesday.

For some of us who follow Jesus, this is a day we observe every year: a day to attend worship and receive ashes and be reminded that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

For some of us who follow Jesus, Ash Wednesday is an odd tradition that some churches observe “but we don’t, because faith isn’t about observing special days, it’s about loving Jesus every day.”

For some people Ash Wednesday is simply the beginning of Lent: the time of the year when we “give up” something in honor of what Jesus gave up for us.

But where does Ash Wednesday really come from, why did it start, and what does it mean to believers today?

Ash Wednesday dates back to early in Christianity’s history, when Lent was a time for new believers to give up their old ways and learn how to live as Christians, and for those who had walked away from the faith to return to it. The forty days of Lent was a time to grieve over wrongs done with prayer and fasting and receiving ashes.

But the practice of putting ashes on oneself as a sign of mourning dates back before Jesus. In the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel wanted to ask God why the people of Israel were still captive in Babylon. Daniel writes: “Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” (Daniel 9:3)

And in the New Testament, Jesus reproached people who witnessed his miracles and refused to believe: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” (Matthew 11:21)

So Lent is a time to grieve over our sins and discover new ways of walking by faith. And Ash Wednesday, which begins Lent, is a solemn reminder of our mortality and our need to be reconciled with God.

So how do believers today observe Ash Wednesday? In the churches that observe it, the tradition is to fast (refrain from eating) until sundown, attend worship, and receive ashes on one’s forehead in the shape of a cross. (Some churches no longer practice fasting because of health issues.)

In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is an obligatory day of fasting and abstinence; Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Moravian, and other Protestant churches hold services but don’t necessarily require attendance or fasting. (Eastern Orthodox churches begin Lent on a Monday and so don’t observe Ash Wednesday.)

For me, I think the most poignant and meaningful word in the Bible about fasting – and one that brings me to repentance –is this passage from Isaiah, where God says:

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?  Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…” (Isaiah 58:5-8)

So how do you observe Ash Wednesday? Or how would you like to? Feel free to share a few thoughts.

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In Psalm 15, King David asks God a question I think a lot of people are curious about. The question is: how do I get to heaven?

King David doesn’t actually put the question that way. What he asks is: “Lord, who can stay in your tent?”


I like the mental picture that gives: Lord, who can move in with you? Who can sit around the campfire with you? It brings to mind what families do together – which is appropriate when we think about God.  The Bible says in the beginning, God made human beings in God’s image, so we were made to be in a family relationship with each other and God.

But things went wrong in the Garden of Eden, and they haven’t been right since then.  And that’s the focus of today’s reading from the prophet Micah, which will be our main scripture for today. (See complete scripture readings below.)

The other scriptures for today are related.  Micah presents a problem. In the passage from Matthew, Jesus presents the solution to the problem. And in the passage from I Corinthians, Paul explains how Jesus’ solution works. So all these readings speak to each other.

For the sake of time I’m not going to cover all three in detail. Briefly, in I Corinthians, what Paul says about the solution is that it makes no sense! Paul says: “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” (I Corinthians 1:18) He says, “Jews demand signs and Greeks (that’s the rest of us) desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (v 22-23)  “BUT!” Paul says, “To those who are called… Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (v 24)  That’s Paul’s two cents.

So what’s the problem that the Cross is the answer to?

The problem is that God’s people have become separated from God; and in the separation, God’s people have started to rebel against God. In the book of Micah, who was speaking to the nation of Israel, the rebellion looked like this: people were dishonest in the marketplace (that is, in business); they bribed their officials; there was corruption in the religious leadership; there was corruption in the government; and the people were worshipping things that aren’t God.

Does this sound at all familiar?

So in the passage from Micah, God speaks and says:

“My people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery…”

(This applies to us too, because we were once slaves to sin and have been redeemed into God’s kingdom through the cross of Jesus. So we know from experience what God is saying here. Micah continues, and God is saying…)

“O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
And what Balaam son of Beor answered him…”

The people of Israel would have known what Micah was talking about when God mentions Balak and Balaam, but none of US have been around quite that long.  So to recap the events God is referring to:

(this is from the book of Numbers, which takes place during the time of Moses) When the people of Israel left Egypt and were on their way to the Promised Land, they had to pass through a number of other kingdoms. Usually they sent messengers ahead to the local king, saying, “hey look, we’re just passing through, we’re not going to cause any trouble, no worries, we’re here and gone.”  And sometimes the local king would say ‘fine, no problem’ and sometimes the local king would say ‘no way, not in my back yard’ in which case Israel would either go around them or they’d have a war, depending on what God told Israel to do.

But then comes the day Israel is about to enter the Promised Land. Balak, King of Moab (the country next door) wasn’t having it. He didn’t want Israel for a next-door neighbor. And he didn’t just want Israel gone, he wanted Israel cursed.

So Balak sent for a prophet he knew from his old country, whose name was Balaam. Balaam was not Jewish, he was a prophet of other gods, but he knew about the God of Israel, and he knew how to get in touch with the God of Israel.  So he prayed to the one true and living God, and said, “Lord, the king has asked me to do such-and-such. What should I do?” And God answered him and said, “You must not curse these people, because they are blessed.” (Num 22:12) (Which, by the way, is what God says about us too.)

And Balaam sends this message back to the king: “no can do.”

King Balak figured Balaam was just holding out for more money, so he sent a committee of his royal friends to Balaam with promises of lavish gifts and the message “I really mean it, I want these people gone, come curse them for me.” Balaam told the royal committee what he’d told the king, but he said, “wait here, I’ll go double-check with Israel’s God and see if He has anything else to say.” (Num 22:19)

Balaam goes inside and prays to God again, and God gives him this answer: “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.” (Num 22:20)

So Balaam goes with them, and on the road he meets an angel and a talking donkey – which is a whole nother story – both of whom reinforce that Balaam is to speak only what God tells him to say. Finally he meets up with King Balak, and he tells Balak: “I can’t say whatever I please. I can only speak what God puts in my mouth.” (Num 22:38) So they go up a mountain and look out over the camp of Israel, and Balaam speaks God’s words – which are words of blessing!

As you can imagine King Balak is ticked off. He says, “let’s go up to a higher mountain where you can see more of Israel’s encampment and we’ll try it again.” And they try again and the same thing happens: God gives Balaam words of blessing.  King Balak says “one more time” and he offers all kinds of sacrifices to his god and then says “go for it”. And the Bible says:

“When Balaam looked out and saw Israel… the Spirit of God came on him and he spoke… ” (Num 24:2) He said:

“How beautiful are your tents, Jacob,
your dwelling places, Israel!

“Like valleys they spread out,
like gardens beside a river,
like aloes planted by the Lord,
like cedars beside the waters. […]
“May those who bless you be blessed
and those who curse you be cursed!” (Num 24: 5b, 6, 9b)

And then, still speaking in the Spirit, Balaam says:

“I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
a scepter will rise out of Israel…”  (Num 24:17)

Here we are, in the days of Moses, and a foreign prophet is blessing Israel and predicting the coming of the Messiah!

The prophet Micah reminds Israel of all this, and says to the people of Israel, speaking for God: I have caused your enemies, who wanted to destroy you, to speak blessings over you, and I am sending you a King who will reign forever.

God gives us the same promises today: there will come a day when people who consider themselves enemies of the Cross, who look down on us for being Christians and speak against us because we’re God’s people, will one day bless us.  And the promised King, the Messiah, has come – both for Israel, and for us – and is coming again.

And God says to God’s people through Micah: “What more can I do for you?”

And the people, remembering God’s great kindness, are cut to the heart, and they answer: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” (Micah 6:6)  Which echoes David’s question: “Who can stay in God’s tent?” Who is worthy of living with God?

The answer is, none of us are – which is why Jesus came: to do what we couldn’t do.

But there is something God wants us to do.  Micah puts it this way:

“What does the Lord require of you,
But to do justice, and to love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

We hear a lot these days about ‘justice and peace’. Of course justice and peace are good things; but in scripture, ‘justice’ is more often paired with either ‘righteousness’ or ‘mercy’.  Justice by itself can be a two-edged sword.

Jesus builds on this thought in his Sermon on the Mount, where he teaches us what to strive for.  Jesus says:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” – that is, those who are willing to volunteer for a lower place, or who do good things in secret. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn” – not that we want to mourn – but we are blessed when we do, because heavenly comfort will be ours.

“Blessed are the meek” – that is, the gentle in spirit. Being meek does not mean being a doormat; it means having an attitude of humility for the sake of others, and it comes from a position of strength. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” – that is, wanting to do things God’s way, wanting to see God’s will being done in the world – the person who prays ‘thy will be done’ – such a person will be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart” – not double-minded, but thinking and feeling and living in one direction, in God’s direction – for “they will see God.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers – for they will be called children of God.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” – people who are doing what’s right, who stand up for what’s right, even if it’s not popular. The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. Why? “Because in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

King David asks: “Lord, who can abide in your tent?” And the answer is, those who have followed in the Lord’s footsteps.  Those who have heard Jesus’ words and taken them to heart. Those who do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

And when we come up short sometimes, we look to the Cross to make up the difference. We look to Jesus, the power of God and the wisdom of God. Jesus stands at the door to David’s tent, and welcomes us as family. AMEN.



Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 2/2/2020

Scriptures of the Day were:


Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, [the cursing of Israel]
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?


I Corinthians 1:18-31

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”


Matthew 5:1-12

 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.



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Every Sunday morning during worship our sermon is followed by the Apostles Creed. This is a time-honored tradition, given to us not only to reinforce what we believe in, but also to engrave it in our memories.  When I go to lead worship in retirement homes, often times even people who are suffering from memory loss can recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed: if I start it, they will finish it. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, the older we get.

In the Apostles Creed one of the things we say is:

“on the third day [Jesus] rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”

That’s all one sentence; and there have been books upon books of theology written on just that one sentence. For today I’d like to point out just two things:

  1. this part of the Creed is connected to Easter. It starts out: “on the third day Jesus rose from the dead” – so this part of the Easter story; and
  2. this part of the Creed applies to us today.  We are included in the ‘quick’ – that is, people who are still alive and waiting for Jesus’ return. So this one sentence connects us directly to Jesus!

This past Thursday was a holiday we don’t usually observe in Sunday worship because it always lands on a Thursday: Ascension Day. Ascension is forty days after Easter, the day Jesus “ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of the Father” as the Creed says. Because this is such an important day in the lives of both Jesus and the disciples, I chose today to read the assigned readings for Thursday, so we can celebrate this holiday before the Easter season ends. (Today is the last Sunday of Easter, and next Sunday is Pentecost: don’t forget to wear red!)

Jesus’ Ascension is a bit of a mystery – and I’ll get to the mysterious part in a moment. Two things that stand out in our scripture readings about the Ascension:

  1. The focus on Easter
  2. The focus on outreach and mission

Jesus’ resurrection and Jesus’ final instructions to the disciples, are intimately connected. As we dig into these readings we will see Easter leading directly to Pentecost by way of the Ascension.

Starting with our reading from Acts:  Luke, the author of Acts, tells us “Jesus presented himself to [the disciples] alive by many convincing proofs.”

Does this statement strike you as odd? It does me.  Why would a person need to prove that they’re alive? Apparently something about Jesus’ resurrected body was different than his original body. In fact a lot of things were different. Jesus walked with a group of disciples on the road to Emmaus without being recognized. He walked through locked doors to meet with the disciples in an upper room. He met Peter and the other fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee without being recognized until he told them to fish on the other side of the boat and a miracle happened.

Something about Jesus was very different. On the other hand, his body also still bears the scars of the nails. And the things Jesus said and did convinced the people who knew him best that this really was him. In fact they were so convinced they were willing to die martyr’s deaths rather than change their story.

Luke tells us that Jesus removed all doubts, even for the ones who, like Thomas, doubted at first. Jesus also came with forgiveness. He forgave Thomas his doubts; he forgave Peter his denial; he forgave all the disciples for running away on that night in the Garden of Gethsemane. As he meets his friends alive again, he greets each one with the words “peace be with you” – putting their hearts and minds at rest.  The resurrected Jesus greets us also with the same forgiveness and the same words of peace.

When forty days had passed since the resurrection, Jesus called the disciples together and told them it was time for him to go home to his Father, and he gave them some final instructions.

Luke tells us Jesus’ final teaching was given in the power of the Holy Spirit. I’m sure all of Jesus’ teaching was given in the power of the Holy Spirit! What’s significant is the disciples are beginning to recognize this. The Holy Spirit is mentioned in the Old Testament, but not often; the disciples were still learning. The foundations for Pentecost are being laid.

Jesus’ final teaching included instructions to remain in Jerusalem until the disciples were baptized in the Holy Spirit. Did they understand what Jesus meant by this? Probably not, at least not completely. But they understood they needed to wait.

As an aside, it occurs to me that living for God involves a whole lot of waiting.  In the Old Testament, Joseph waited in jail for at least a decade before God’s promises came true. David waited for at least 20 years between the time he was anointed king and the day he was actually crowned king.  The people of Israel waited over 200 years for God’s promise of the Holy Land to come true.  As Christians we spend Advent waiting for Christmas, and Lent waiting for Easter, and today we are still waiting for Jesus’ return.  Waiting is so much a part of Christian life, there’s even an internet meme about it: “Until God opens the next door, praise Him in the hallway.”  I don’t know why God asks us to wait so much, but I have noticed waiting develops patience, and endurance, and faith, and hope, and love. And we can trust God’s timing.

So back to our reading from Acts. First off, Acts focuses on Easter and the proof that Jesus is alive again. The second focus of the passage is mission – not in the sense of ‘sending missionaries’ (although that might be included) but in the sense of purpose. That is, as Christians, why are we here? What are we doing? What does God want of us? The disciples ask the question this way: Is now the time that God will restore the kingdom to Israel? – implying they might help with this restoration.

Jesus’ answer to this question is mysterious: in the Greek, it reads literally, “it is not for you to know the time or the time which the Father has fixed by his own authority.” The time or the time: two ways to understand time: time, as in, by the clock or the calendar: what day is Jesus coming back? Or time, as in ‘the right time’ or ‘the proper time’: when is just the right moment for Jesus to come back?  Either way you look at time, the answer is in God’s hands, and not for us to know.

BUT! “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth.”  That’s the mission: to bear witness to what we have seen and heard, throughout the whole world.

This mission continues today.  There is a nonprofit organization called The Joshua Project whose mission it is to identify and reach all the people groups in the world who have not yet heard the Gospel. According to their research, there are still over 4,000 people groups in the world who have not yet heard about Jesus, representing just over 40% of the world’s population. So we still have a lot to do!

Another side note: the phrase “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth” has been used in some churches to help define and guide mission and outreach efforts, both in terms of how people give and in terms of what people do, and I think it can be a helpful concept. The thought goes like this: Jerusalem represents the church’s own neighborhood (in our case, Carnegie or Allentown). Judea represents the surrounding area: Pittsburgh or Allegheny County.  Samaria, further out, might represent either Pennsylvania or the nation. And the ends of the earth represent foreign mission.  The teaching goes that every church should have at least a little bit of outreach or giving in each of these four areas. It helps balance giving, and it helps our awareness, and it helps us to know how to pray for others. Of course this is not the only way to think about this verse; but I think it’s a practical and workable idea, so I share it for whatever it’s worth.

But back to the disciples in Jerusalem.  Having done and said all these things, Jesus then disappears into a cloud. Luke says “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him.”  This is a mystery.  The Greek says literally ‘cloud’ so this is not figurative speech.  But the presence of God is often represented in the Old Testament by a cloud: you remember the Israelites in the wilderness were guided by a ‘pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night’.  Isaiah, when he saw his vision, saw a cloud filling the Temple.  So the cloud represents God, the implication being that, at the ascension, Jesus returned to God.  Which is exactly what the Apostles Creed says.

Back in the temple in Jerusalem, the scribes and the high priests and the Pharisees were completely unaware of any of this. Jesus never visited the temple after his resurrection.  The priests put a story out that Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb because the disciples had stolen it.  And Jesus had once remarked in Luke’s gospel: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31) So he left them alone.

For the people in the city, it looked like one more Jewish rabbi had been crucified. People had wept, and then life simply returned to the way it had always been. But the disciples knew differently: they knew the world had changed. They knew Jesus was now enthroned with God, as king and Lord – which means Caesar and all the other powers of earth are not Lord. And that makes all the difference.

So the disciples stayed in Jerusalem as Jesus told them: eating together, praying together, going to the temple and praising God together, and waiting together… waiting for the Holy Spirit.

And today we join them in that waiting, till next Sunday, when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost.

While we wait this week, let’s think about and pray about Jesus’ call to share the good news: that He is alive, that He forgives, and that He is King. And let’s pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit – “power from on high” – in our lives, in the life of the Church, in the life of our nation, and throughout the world. AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 6/2/19


June 2 – Easter 7

Sunday after Ascension

Acts 1:1-11

Luke 24:44-53

“He Was Taken Up”

 Acts 1:1-11   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.”

Luke 24:44-53  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.


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We continue this week in our Easter season readings from the New Testament, and I’m going be focusing mostly on Acts today with a little bit of input from the other two readings.

As I was looking over our passage from Acts this week, it occurred to me that the cultural and religious issues Peter runs into in this reading are not something most Americans have first-hand experience with.  We as Americans think of ourselves and speak of ourselves as living in a “melting pot”.  We come from hundreds of different countries and dozens of religious backgrounds; and while the different groups don’t always get along, and in spite of some lingering prejudices, on the whole all these different people share life together pretty well. We love our families, we work together, we get along with our neighbors (most of the time), and we don’t always have to agree with each other in order to care for each other.

That said, for some people groups in America there are certain rules and expectations that don’t go along with the majority culture. If you go to Squirrel Hill, for example, you may see men wearing yarmulkes on any day of the week. And if you look closely, you may see what looks like fishing lines over some of the streets, which extends the boundaries of peoples’ homes so they can carry things outdoors on the Sabbath. For conservative Muslims, women wear a hijab (or scarf) to express devotion to God, as well as for modesty and self-respect. In their culture, to go without a hijab is to be a loose woman, and it brings shame on the family.

To set aside any of these beliefs, or to disrespect them, would cause major problems within a family or within friendships. These examples begin to give us an idea of what Peter was up against in our reading from Acts.

In Israel of Jesus’ day, Jewish people lived apart from the other cultures. They believed the surrounding Roman and Greek cultures were blind to the one True God, that is, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If a Roman or a Greek person wanted to get to know God, they would have to become Jewish: attend synagogue, learn the law of Moses, and if you were a man, be circumcised.

Side note: all through Israel’s history, God’s intention was that the Jewish people would be a witness to God to the other people groups around them.  The purpose of the law of Moses was to show God’s wisdom and greatness. But throughout the Old Testament, Israel failed to bear witness to God – particularly their religious leaders, who turned God’s law (which was a thing of glory) into a legalistic burden for the people. It wasn’t until Jesus came along that the law and God’s glory found common ground again.  As Jesus said: “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.”

So at the very beginning of Christianity, by force of habit if nothing else, the first Christians (who were all Jewish) continued to follow the Jewish laws and Jewish traditions.  The first believers continued to meet in synagogues, and they kept the Law of Moses, and if a Gentile wanted to become a Christian they would basically have to become Jewish first.

The early disciples hadn’t quite yet grasped the full meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection and what it had done for the world. They didn’t quite yet grasp what Jesus meant when he said things like:

  • Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. (John 3:36)
  • This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:40)
  • God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

It’s interesting all these verses are found in the gospel of John. John, who was the “disciple who Jesus loved,” seems to be the only one of the twelve who caught on to the idea of salvation by faith right from the very beginning. Maybe it’s because John was the youngest of the group: he was only a teenager when he met Jesus, so he wasn’t as steeped in tradition as the others: not quite as committed to “the way things have always been.”

Whatever the reason, the rest of the disciples didn’t quite get it yet.  But as John writes in Revelation, God is making all things new!  The old is passing away: not just the old faith or the old synagogue (both of which are still with us) but the old earth is passing away, along with all the things that come with a fallen world: mourning and crying and pain and death – all the ‘first things’ are passing away. The requirements of the Law of Moses have been fulfilled in Jesus, and something new has begun.  You and I live in a time where the old is passing, and the new is phasing in – it’s kind of like the ‘now and not yet’ – we’re in that in-between time where we can see both the old and the new but we’re not quite at home in either.

So as this new thing called Christianity got off the ground, Peter – being essentially the lead disciple in the new movement – needed to be brought up to speed.  And that’s where we begin today.

So I’ve taken as our sermon title for today A Light to the Gentiles – which are words from a prophecy spoken over the baby Jesus when he was presented in the temple. A wise elderly man named Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and praised God and said:

“Lord, now dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word,
For my eyes have seen your salvation
Which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples
A light for revelation to the Gentiles
And glory for your people Israel.” (Luke 2:28-32, my translation)

The arrival of the Messiah was meant, from the very beginning, to unite the Gentiles and the Jews into one family of faith in God.  Now, here in Acts, it’s time for that plan to bear fruit.

The reading we heard from Acts today comes from chapter 11, but to get the full story we need to back up to chapter 10.  In Acts chapter 10, Peter was living in Joppa and had been visited by some servants of a Roman centurion named Cornelius.  Cornelius had seen a vision of an angel, who told him his prayers and generosity have been noticed by God, and the angel said, “send to Joppa for a man named Peter: he has an important message for you.”

Peter in the home of Cornelius

At the same time, God showed Peter through a vision that Peter should not consider ‘unclean’ what God had made ‘clean’.  And just as the heavenly vision disappeared, the messengers from Cornelius arrived at the house where Peter was staying, and ask Peter to come with them. Peter went, and shared the gospel of Jesus with Cornelius and his family, and while Peter was still speaking the Holy Spirit fell on the whole extended family, who started speaking in tongues and praising God.

Peter said to the believers who came with him, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) So Peter baptized them and welcomed them into the family of God. And Peter stayed with Cornelius and his family for a number of days before returning home.

Without Cornelius and his family you and I would not be here today: like them, we are Gentiles who believe in the Jewish Messiah.  These are our ancestors in the faith – and they should be remembered and honored.

But there was a problem.  For the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, there were some things that simply shouldn’t be done, and eating with Gentiles was one of them. Word of what Peter had done got to Jerusalem before Peter did. (You don’t need a computer to get the old gossip mill going!). News spread all over the city: Gentiles have become believers! And Peter went and ate with them!!

These folks were more focused on what Peter did than they were on what God was doing in the lives of the Gentiles. God’s salvation had come to a family of Romans! Eternal life is now open to every person in the world!  But they missed it.

The next time Peter goes to visit Jerusalem, the believers there start throwing accusations at him, saying, “you went to men who still have their foreskins on and you ate with them!”  That’s the literal translation. It’s as rough in the original language as it sounds in English.

What’s more, people who were speaking politely back then would have started the conversation in the form of a question – kind of like on Jeopardy!  You see examples of this all through scripture. In fact, in many of the English translations of this verse it is translated as a question, because it’s how it would normally have been spoken. But there is no question in the original Greek. This is an accusation, plain and simple.

Peter knew there were going to be objections: he saw that going in. Wisely, he brought a half-dozen witnesses with him to Cornelius’ house, who could back up his story, and they came with him to Jerusalem.  Peter then explained what happened, fact by fact, without getting emotional, without getting sidetracked, without throwing around his God-given authority as an apostle. He told them what happened: what God said, what Cornelius said, how an angel visited Cornelius’ house, how the Holy Spirit came over Cornelius and his whole family, and how the whole family had been baptized in the name of Jesus. Peter reminded them of God’s words: “what God has cleansed, you must not call common.” And Peter – politely – ends his defense in the form of a question. He asks: “If an equal gift was given to them by God that was given to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus, who am I that I would have the power to hinder God?”

I wonder sometimes how many differences and debates in our world today, and even within our churches, might be de-fused by approaching them as questions; and particularly with this question.  Peter was faced with a long-standing tradition that was meant to protect peoples’ holiness, and to protect their relationship with God, but which was now driving a wedge between the people and God.  How many of our disputes and debates could be resolved, or at least brought down a few notches in volume, by asking the question “if God has done such-and-such, who am I to stand in God’s way?”

In this case, the people hearing Peter – the Christians in Jerusalem – were soft-hearted toward God and they were able to be guided by God’s word. At first they received Peter’s news quietly, thinking it over; and then they broke out in joy, praising God and saying, “God has given to the Gentiles the repentance that gives life!”  What a glorious thing, when God’s people allow God’s love to overcome prejudices and outdated traditions!  So they celebrated this new thing God was doing: adding people from the nations to the family of God.

It would be nice to be able to say that from that point on, everything was smooth sailing between the Jewish and non-Jewish believers, but it wasn’t.  Long-held beliefs are hard to change.  We read later on in Acts (Acts 6) about Gentiles sometimes being overlooked in the daily distribution of food, and complaining about it.  (This led to the appointment of the church’s first deacons.)  We read in Paul’s letters about certain Judaizers who went around teaching Paul’s Gentile converts they needed to be circumcised in order to be ‘real’ Christians. Paul responded to this with a comment I won’t translate, but the bottom line was, as Paul explained: salvation comes from believing in the right person – Jesus – not by doing the right things.

Paul basically said: Yes, Christians are supposed to live differently than the rest of the world; but personal holiness is not found in keeping a list of laws. Salvation is by faith; and the life of faith is in relationship with Jesus. Jesus says: “I give you a new commandment… as I have loved you, so love one another. In this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

That’s what sets Christians apart. Not our missions, not our good works – as important as those things are. Love is what sets us apart. The way we love Jesus, the way we love each other, and the way we care for the people we work with, and live with in our neighborhoods. Christian faith and Christian life is about being personally involved, and taking risks for the sake of others, as a reflection of God’s love.

John Wesley spoke of this when he said things like:

“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? Though we are not of one opinion, may we not be of one heart?”

As the apostle Paul would have said, we are all part of one body: a hand is not a foot, an eye is not an ear, but we all need each other and we need to work together in unity, and it’s love that holds the body together.

So today we remember with joy the day when we, as Gentiles, were welcomed into the family of faith: remembering it is our faith alone in Jesus alone that keeps us in God’s kingdom. Our way of saying ‘thank you’ to God is to care for ourselves and care for each other and care for the people God has placed in our world.  Today let’s rededicate ourselves to this truth, and to welcoming others in love. AMEN


“A Light to the Gentiles” Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/19/18


Acts 11:1-18  Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.  2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him,  3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”  4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying,  5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me.  6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.  7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’  8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’  9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’  10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.  11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were.  12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.  13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter;  14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’  15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.  16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’  17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”  18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Revelation 21:1-6  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;  4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”  5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

John 13:31-35  When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.  32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.  33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’  34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”




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Have you ever felt like somebody owes you an apology? Somebody let you down, or did something they knew you wouldn’t like, and you feel like, if they were really your friend, they’d say “sorry”?

If Google is anything to go by, this is a common frustration, and a huge issue, for all kinds of people: psychologists, psychiatrists, team-building experts, diplomats, and everyday people from all walks of life – we all wrestle with this issue.

And if the mistake or the offense is a really big one it might be hard for the other person to face you, let alone admit what they’ve done.

In our scripture readings today we heard the stories of two men who hurt Jesus deeply – and who owed him more than just an apology: men who needed a change of mind and a change of heart before their relationships with Jesus could be set right.

The first person we meet is Saul, who later became the apostle Paul. Saul was a Pharisee who believed Jesus was a false teacher and the Christian movement was heretical and needed to be stopped.  So with the blessing of the religious hierarchy, Saul was arresting Jesus’ followers, and in some cases even approving of their murders.

The second man we meet, Peter, had been one of Jesus’ best friends; but on the night of Jesus’ arrest he denied knowing Jesus three times.

These two men became two of the greatest evangelists the church has ever known. So what brought about the change?

I’d like to focus today on Peter’s story. (Paul’s story is worth spending time with too, but we can only dig into one passage today, so today it will be Peter’s.)  Peter’s story takes place probably two or three weeks after Jesus’ resurrection.  The disciples – including Peter – have already seen Jesus alive a couple of times in Jerusalem; but ever since the resurrection Jesus has been coming and going.  He hasn’t been with the disciples every day like he had been in the past, so the disciples decided to head home to Galilee.  As our story opens, Peter and some of the disciples are on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, which is another name for the Sea of Galilee.

As we enter into this story today, I’d like all of us to imagine ourselves there, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Imagine yourself actually in the story, as one of the disciples: maybe as Peter, maybe as Thomas, maybe as James or John or one of the others.

Imagine the sights, the sounds, the smells. Picture yourself there with them. The beach is surrounded by gentle hills, green with grass; the sun is warm and you can hear the water lapping on the shore. It feels good to be away from Jerusalem, out of the spotlight, out of the public eye, away from the Pharisees and Sadducees. It’s good to be home. It’s good to be back where family and former co-workers are nearby, it’s good to be with friends.

At the same time, everyone on the beach is feeling a little out-of-place, because the future is murky. After three years of traveling with Jesus, life can’t go back to the way it was; but how does one find a way forward?  Jesus had said to meet him in Galilee, but he hasn’t arrived yet, so… now what?

Suddenly Peter says, “I’m going fishing!” And everybody else says “we’ll go with you!”  And the whole gang climbs into a boat and launches out onto the lake.  (I’m thinking the boat was probably owned by Zebedee, James’ and John’s father… they didn’t just hijack a boat.)

After fishing all night, not a single fish was caught.  And as dawn begins to break, and the boat heads for the shore, there’s a man on the beach! He calls out, “children, don’t you have any fish?”  (I should mention the word ‘children’ is a somewhat misleading translation. It’s technically correct; but in ancient Greece the word paidia (the word we get pediatrics from) was used by blue-collar workers to address each other – kind of like saying ‘hey lads’ or ‘hey boys’.) Jesus is addressing his friends with casual camaraderie.

In answer to Jesus’ question “don’t you have any fish?” the disciples answer “no”. ☹  And Jesus says, “cast the net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”

At this point you would think the disciples might be getting a feeling of déjà vu because they’ve been here before. They have been in this boat, on this lake, in the morning, after a night with no fish, with a stranger on the shore telling them “let the nets down one more time” – they’ve been here before.  But if that memory came to mind none of the disciples says anything about it.

So they let down the net. And they can’t haul it back into the boat for all the fish!  And at last the penny drops, at least for John, who turns to Peter and says, “it’s the Lord!” And hearing this, Peter puts on his street clothes and leaps into the water so he’ll be the first to get to Jesus. Of course, in his enthusiasm, he has left everyone else behind to wrangle all the fish to shore, but John points out the shore is only about 100 yards away at this point, which is a mercy.

One side note on this catch: Jesus tells the disciples to cast the net on the right side of the boat. There is nothing significant about the right side of the boat. What is significant, though, is the disciples’ willingness to follow Jesus’ direction. This miracle is, for them, a parable: it speaks of the missionary work they will shortly be doing, in which their success will depend on following Jesus’ lead. And the same is true for us: the success of our ministries and our outreach efforts depends on hearing and following Jesus’ direction. In addition to that, God will make use of all the skills the disciples bring to the table. Jesus tells them to make use of the net, and the boat, and their muscle power in addition to the action God takes in this miracle. The mission is a combined effort between God and the disciples. And so it is with us.

Back to our story: When everyone arrives on the beach, Jesus is already there, tending a charcoal fire, with fish on it, and bread as well.  Where Jesus found the charcoal, fire, and fish, John doesn’t tell us.  It’s enough to say ‘God provided’.  And then Jesus says, “bring some of the fish you caught” – adding the catch to what’s already there.

So Peter goes aboard and hauls the net ashore, and the disciples count 153 fish. Estimating about two pounds per fish this comes to about 300 lbs. of fish – which gives us some idea of how strong Peter was. After all the fish are counted, Jesus serves breakfast, and everyone eats together, and it’s just like old times.

Except for one thing: John writes, “no one dared ask Jesus ‘who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.”  Apparently Jesus’ appearance – his resurrected body – was different than it had been before the crucifixion.  When the disciples saw Jesus on Easter day they recognized him by his scars.  Here on the beach, they recognized him (1) by the repeated miracle of a full net after a whole night of catching no fish; (2) by the breaking of the bread; and (3) by the power of the Holy Spirit which Jesus had breathed into them in Jerusalem.  Scripture tells us the Holy Spirit leads God’s people into truth, and bears witness to us about Jesus. So John could say with certainty, “they knew it was the Lord.”

Then after breakfast, while everyone was relaxing and chatting, Jesus takes the opportunity to clear the air between himself and Peter.  And watch how gently Jesus does this, and how he sticks to his goal, which is reconciliation and a restoring of the relationship.

Remembering a few weeks before, on the night Jesus was arrested, Peter had said he would be willing to stand by Jesus even if all the other disciples deserted him; he said he would even die with Jesus.  And Jesus had warned him, “before the rooster crows in the morning you will have denied me three times.”  And that’s exactly what happened: the disciples did desert Jesus, but Peter followed at a distance. And at the very moment Peter was saying for the third time “I don’t know who he is; I don’t know what you’re talking about” – the rooster crowed, and Jesus turned and looked at Peter, and Peter ran out to a lonely place and wept. And he and Jesus hadn’t really talked since then. They’d seen each other, but they hadn’t really talked.

So now, sitting around the campfire, in the presence of the other disciples, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (indicating the other disciples).  And Peter answers, “Yes Lord you know I love you.”

“Do You Love Me?”

There’s something in the Greek here that we can’t see in English.  In Greek there are three common words for love (there are more than three words for ‘love’ in Greek, but three words commonly used in scripture): agape, philos, and erosEros is romantic love; philos is brotherly love (as in Philadelphia = “City of Brotherly Love”); and agape is a self-giving love, the highest form of love.  Jesus asks Peter “do you agape me?” and Peter answers “yes Lord I philo you.”  Peter is no longer shooting too high. His failure has humbled him, and he’s not putting himself above the others any more.  And Jesus answers, “Feed my lambs” – and in saying this, he restores Peter to his place as a disciple.

But Jesus isn’t done yet. A little while later he asks again: “Simon son of John, do you agape me?” And Peter answers the same way: “yes Lord; you know I philo you.”  And this time Jesus says, “tend my sheep” – which means a little bit more than the last command: it puts Peter in the position of a shepherd, one whose job it is to care for the sheep and lead them to pasture. Peter is now restored to leadership.

And then Jesus asks a third time: “Simon son of John, do you philo me?” And this cuts Peter’s heart. He says, “Lord, you know everything; you know I philo you.” And Jesus says, “feed my sheep.”  So the three denials have now been matched by three declarations of love. And Peter is given the opportunity to demonstrate his love for Jesus by taking care of Jesus’ sheep – that is, by caring for Jesus’ followers, his fellow believers, including you and me.

And then Jesus talks to Peter about his future. He says: “Truly I tell you, when you were young you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you get older, someone else will dress you and will lead you where you don’t want to go.”

I wonder how many of us who are getting older recognize the truth of these words?  The days when we just threw on clothes and dashed out the door are gone.  We move slower, and we can’t always go where we want to go or do what we want to do.  I think one of our greatest fears, as we age, is losing control over our lives; and having to depend on others to care for us and take us places (to which very often we’d rather not go).

John tells us Jesus said this to Peter to “indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.”  In other words, Jesus is telling Peter he will die a martyr’s death: and that when the final test comes, Peter’s courage will not fail. Peter will be faithful to the end. And as it turns out, in his old age Peter was sentenced to be crucified; and as he protested that he wasn’t worthy to die the same way his Lord did, the executioner crucified him upside-down.

After all this has been said, Jesus says to Peter, “Follow me.”  On the very same spot where, three years before, Jesus first said to Peter “follow me and I will make you fishers of men” – Jesus says “follow me” one more time. It’s a brand new beginning, starting all over.

So three take-aways for us today: (1) For those of us who may find our relationship with Jesus feeling strained, we can take hope seeing how gently Jesus restored Peter not only to friendship but to his place in God’s kingdom.  We can also give some thought to Jesus’ question “do you love me?” and how we might answer.

(2) If someone in our lives owes us an apology, we may be able to follow Jesus’ example.  Jesus leads off with questions, tailored to spark answers that will both search the heart and rebuild the relationship.

And finally, above all, we see in Peter’s story the depths of God’s love and forgiveness. There truly is nothing we can do that Jesus can’t forgive. And we can trust that with our lives. AMEN.




Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 5/5/19


Acts 9:1-6  Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest  2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.  3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

John 21:1-19   After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.  2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.  3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.  5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”  6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.  7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.  8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.  10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”  11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.  12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.  13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.  14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”  17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.  18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”  19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”




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In our gospel reading for this morning, people are beginning to talk about this new preacher by the name of Jesus. A couple of months ago he was a total unknown and he was out in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. But now… he’s back! And he is “filled with the power of the Spirit” and his preaching has people talking.

Luke tells us that as Jesus travels and teaches “a report about him spread through all the surrounding country”.  From Capernaum, to Tiberias and Galilee, to all the region of northern Israel, the word is spreading. And this in a world without text messages or Instagram or even telephones.  People were doing what my old pastor used to call “gossiping the gospel”.  They were talking about it at the grocery store and at the gym and at the pub and over the backyard fence. And everybody was saying how wonderful this new teacher was.

But fame is a fickle thing. Back then (just like today) there were (and are) people who, when they look at Jesus, see only a celebrity. They’re not seeing the Son of God, they’re just seeing a human being who happens to be famous; and every time a person is up on a pedestal there will be other people who feel a need to tear down the pedestal. Jesus will run into people like this throughout his life.

But celebrity is not what Jesus’ life is about. Jesus didn’t come to earth to be famous and start a fan club that would last for 2000 years. In fact there were many times when Jesus performed miracles and then told people “don’t tell anyone”.  There were many times when Jesus avoided the crowds, so he be alone with God or spend some time with his disciples.  Jesus was aware that, in doing what God wanted him to do – proclaiming the arrival of God’s kingdom – he would become known. But being famous for fame’s sake was never Jesus’ goal.

So in Luke’s gospel, on this particular Sabbath, after preaching for a month or two in towns in synagogues in the north of Israel, Jesus came to Nazareth where he had been raised.  And, as he usually did, he went to the synagogue in order to teach there.

Having a guest preacher was relatively common in those days, and Jesus had a good reputation as a preacher, so it’s not surprising that Jesus would be asked to read the scriptures and share a word. He was handed the scroll of Isaiah: Jesus didn’t choose it, but I don’t doubt God had a hand in the choice that was made.  The reading Jesus chose was in Isaiah chapter 61. It would have taken some time to unroll the scroll to that point, and we can imagine the anticipation building.  At last Jesus finds the place he’s looking for, and he begins to read these words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…”

We, as people hearing these words 2000 years after they were spoken, by definition will understand these words differently from the people back then.  I think to our ears what this opening line says is that Jesus has the Holy Spirit inside him for the purpose of bringing good news to the poor; and that therefore by definition those of us who have the Spirit inside us are also called to bring good news to the poor.

This is a perfectly valid interpretation as far as it goes; but from the viewpoint of 2000 years ago there’s much, much more in Isaiah’s words.  The word anointed in Hebrew is transliterated Messiah, which in Greek is Christ. So Isaiah’s words are about the coming Messiah. And in ancient Israel, anointing was a way of proclaiming a future king. You’ll remember in the Old Testament, the prophet Samuel anointed Saul to be the first king of Israel, and after him, David. In both cases Samuel poured oil over their heads as a sign of anointing. In Jesus’ case, the “oil” is spiritual; Jesus has been anointed with the Holy Spirit. But the implication is the same: Jesus’ anointing proclaims a future king.

But Jesus is going to be a different kind of king.  Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants… It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28) 

So the people back then would have heard a message about the Messiah, about a coming king; and they would also have heard that this message is good news for the poor. And they would have understood that when God speaks about the poor, God is speaking of many kinds of poverty. ‘The poor’ may be people who don’t have a lot of money; ‘the poor’ may be people who are unable to work and are forced to rely on the generosity of others. Poverty may include intellectual poverty, emotional poverty, spiritual poverty, the poverty of ill health, a poverty of power; a lack of anything; any of the kinds of poverty people may suffer from. God includes all of these when Jesus says “he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor”.

And there’s one more thing the people listening to Jesus would have heard that day.  The people in synagogue that morning knew the passage Jesus was reading. They knew it well. When Jesus got up and said “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” it would have been like someone today getting up and saying “I Have a Dream…”.  You wouldn’t have to hear the rest of the speech, because we all know it. We feel it in our bones. “I have been to the mountaintop and I have seen the Promised Land…”  That’s all we need to hear to catch Martin Luther King’s vision of equality and whole-ness in our relationships across racial lines.

In the same way, Jesus didn’t need to read the whole passage. In fact he doesn’t. He reads a sentence here and a sentence there, just enough to get everyone’s attention fixed on him.  They know exactly what he’s talking about. This is God’s promise, through Isaiah, that a king would come and restore the fortunes of Israel. A king who will put Herod and Pilate and all the Romans in their places and would take the throne as to the heir of King David.  So Jesus read a few verses, and then rolled up the scroll and sat down, and said:

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

You could have heard a pin drop.

But there was a problem.  In the verses immediately following the passage in Luke we heard this morning, we find that this Jesus is the Messiah people have been expecting. They start to say to each other: “Is this not Joseph’s son? Are not his brothers and sisters with us?” And they say to Jesus: “we heard you’ve been healing people in other cities. Do here in your hometown what you’ve done in other places.”

And Jesus answers: “truly no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town.”  And then he reminds them that in the days of the prophet Elijah there were many widows in Israel but Elijah was sent only to a widow in Sidon – a Gentile; and in the days of the prophet Elisha there were many lepers, but the only one who was cured was a Syrian – another Gentile. Jesus is implying that the Messiah’s purpose is bigger and broader and wider than they imagine: big enough to include even the Gentiles!  And the people in the synagogue are enraged.  They chase Jesus out of town, and take him to a cliff to throw him off; but he walks away, and continues his ministry in Capernaum, unable to minister in his hometown because of their lack of faith.

The story makes me wonder in what ways we today might be mistaking Jesus’ plans and purpose: how we might have a vision of God’s plan that, while it’s accurate as far as it goes, is too small, or too narrow, to hold what God has in mind?

But wherever we are, God doesn’t leave us there.  The scripture Jesus read that morning was well-known to his listeners, but it’s not quite as familiar or as evocative to us. So let’s take a moment to look at what Jesus didn’t say.

Jesus left off with the words “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…”

The second half of that sentence reads “…and the day of vengeance of our God.”

God’s vengeance in this passage is not quite what we imagine.  God is not vindictive the way humans can be. Rather this is statement that God’s justice and deliverance are about to come to pass.  And as one theologian has put it: “what is deliverance for the righteous, will be condemnation for the wicked.”

God’s message continues:

“to comfort all who mourn” – to give those who mourn “a garland [of flowers] instead of ashes; the oil of gladness instead of mourning; a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

Isaiah spoke these words to the people of Israel years after they had returned from exile in Babylon. They’d been back in the Promised Land for decades but life was still difficult. The crops weren’t doing well, and the rebuilding of the temple had stalled out, and the people were beginning to rebel again, and the promised kingdom seemed… nearly impossible. So God gave Isaiah these words to comfort and encourage the people that their hardships were not forgotten and that God was still with them.

We also, like Israel, live in a time when years and years have gone by since Jesus walked this earth, and life is difficult, and too many people go to bed hungry, and the building up of spiritual community (especially in the church) seems to have stalled out, and the promised kingdom of God seems… so very far away.

To the people of ancient Israel, as well as to us, Isaiah says: God will bring comfort to those who mourn. God will bind up the brokenhearted. God will bring justice. God’s people will be called “oaks of righteousness”, “the planting of the Lord.” Why? “To display his glory.”

And then: God’s people will “build up the ancient ruins… raise up the former devastations… repair the ruined cities…”

Every time I drive through towns like Aliquippa, or Braddock, or Tarentum (as I did yesterday) or any of our old mill towns that are still waiting for economic recovery after all these years, this verse comes to mind. God’s people will repair the ruined cities, the “devastations of many generations” as Isaiah puts it – rebuilding to God’s glory. That’s one of our callings.

So the comfort Jesus speaks of is for God’s people, as we need it (and we do need it). But it’s not just for us.  God’s people – both then and now – are to be a light to the nations. We are blessed to be a blessing; we are restored to assist in the restoration.  As people who have been saved – by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – our role is to be a channel from God to the hurting, oppressed, and hopeless people of the world.

One thing we have that the ancient Israelites did not have is the gift of the Holy Spirit, because the Spirit wasn’t given to God’s people until after Jesus’ resurrection.  Jesus said “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” and the Spirit of the Lord is upon us also, to continue Jesus’ work, as God leads, and as we are gifted.

God’s call on our life may lead us into working to bind up the broken-hearted, to set captives free, to comfort those who mourn, to rebuild what has been neglected or destroyed – any of these things, in any number of ways.  Justice is God’s glory, and righteousness brings honor to God.  We are, in our own way, a bit of God’s light in the world: each of us as individuals, and all of us together.  However the Lord has called us, and however the Lord has gifted us, let our light so shine before the world that others give glory to our Father in heaven. AMEN.


Scriptures for the Day:

Luke 4:14-21  Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.  15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.  16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,  17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:  18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,  19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

[The rest of the story: Luke 4:22-30   22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'”  24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.  25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;  26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.  27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”  28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.  29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.  30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.]

The original Isaiah passage Jesus quotedIsaiah 61:1-4  The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;  2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;  3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.  4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 1/27/19


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Every year about this time, we talk about baptism, and we renew our baptismal vows, and we look forward to baptizing children and grandchildren into the family of God.

But do you ever wonder how the practice of baptism got started? I mean, who was it who first said, “Hey! I know! Let’s dunk all the converts in water!” (That’s how they baptized back in the day – putting a person’s whole body in the water.)

Baptism as we understand it was not practiced in the Jewish religion; and Christianity being rooted in Judaism, it’s unusual for us as Christians to have traditions that didn’t start somewhere in the Old Testament.  But the Old Testament doesn’t talk about baptism.

The Jewish faith had ritual cleansing, which involved getting in water, but that was more like taking a bath than being baptized, and it wasn’t something everybody had to do.  Ritual cleansing might be done, for example, by priests before they served in the temple, or by people who had taken vows of service to God.

There were also times that the law of Moses instructed people to wash – and when we look at these times with modern eyes, what we usually see is God telling the Israelites to do what’s healthy.  For example, the law of Moses says to wash after you handle a dead body, or after you’ve touched blood.  With our knowledge of modern medicine we know this just makes plain sense.

But this isn’t baptism as Christians understand it.  For Christians baptism is, among other things, the rite of initiation into the church.  But for the Jews, the rite of initiation into the Jewish faith was circumcision.

So where did baptism come from?  It seems that John the Baptist, when he began his ministry, took a familiar act – ritual cleansing – and used it to teach something new.  Where before, washing in water was something to make a person “ritually clean,” John adds the spiritual dimension of repentance, a washing away of sin. And more than that, John’s baptism was to prepare people for the arrival of the Messiah.  John said, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is coming is more powerful than I… and He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

John also says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand… to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John uses the imagery of wheat being threshed, being processed, which separates the kernel of wheat from the casing it comes in. It’s kind of like shelling a peanut: the object is to keep what’s inside and get rid of what’s outside.  And John says: this is what God is about to do with God’s people.  God is about to stir things up, and when God does, the faithful will be separated from the unfaithful.  And God’s people will be separated from the husk of sin that we come wrapped up in. So John says, “repent…” that is: come, confess your sins, and be baptized. Because these husks of sin are about to be removed and tossed into the fire.

jesus baptism

That’s John’s message.  And people came to John the Baptist in the wilderness, by the hundreds, by the thousands, confessing their sins out loud and being baptized in the Jordan River.

But even the baptism of John is not exactly Christian baptism.  It points people in Jesus’ direction, but it doesn’t take the believer the whole way.  There’s more to Christian baptism than just repentance.  Christian baptism includes repentance; but there’s more to it.  The apostle Paul talks about this in the book of Acts where we are introduced to a man named Apollos.  Scripture says about Apollos:

“…he was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, [but he only knew] the baptism of John.” (Acts 18:24-25)

So when Paul meets some of the people who had been converted by Apollos, Paul asks:

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then Paul said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied…” (Acts 19:2-6)

So the difference between John’s baptism and baptism in the name of Jesus is the presence of the Trinity, and particularly the Holy Spirit.  John’s baptism was for repentance only; Jesus’ baptism has to do with new life, which includes the Holy Spirit.

So today we remember the day Jesus was baptized, which is an example of this new kind of baptism.  When Jesus was baptized, the whole Trinity was present.  We hear God the Father saying “this is my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:17) And we see the Holy Spirit “descend on him in bodily form like a dove.” (Luke 3:22)  So all three members of the Trinity are present.

We could do an entire sermon on what it means to be baptized in the Holy Spirit, but for now I’ll just say this: baptism is a sacrament, in other words, an outward sign of an inward spiritual reality. And Christian baptism is a sign, not only of being cleansed from our sins, but of the spiritual reality that we now belong to God; we are citizens of God’s kingdom, members of God’s family and as such God gives us spiritual gifts with which to serve both God and others.

There’s a second meaning to Christian baptism that the apostle Paul talks about in Romans chapter 6. Paul says:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3-5)

I think this might make more sense to us if we still baptized people by immersion, that is, by putting the whole person into water: because in immersion, the person doing the baptizing lowers the baptizee into the water and then lifts them back out, and the picture is one of being buried and then being raised again.  I’m not saying we should actually do this, but it’s a good image to keep in mind when thinking about the meaning of baptism. Because it’s a deep and meaningful truth: in baptism, we identify with Jesus’ death, so that we can be raised to new life in Jesus: “united with him in his resurrection”.  And just as the person being baptized can’t baptize themselves (it requires trust that the minister won’t drop you!) in the same way our forgiveness and resurrection is entirely dependent on God. Like the person being baptized, our job is to trust.

That’s what Christian baptism is all about.

And then we have on top of that 2000 years of church history, which has added some more meanings to baptism – which have sparked a number of debates, none of which I’m going to get into today.

But there is one thing that church tradition has added that I do want to mention: Baptism has become the rite of initiation not only into the body of believers, but also into the church as an organization. When you are baptized here in this church, you become a member of this church.  And for that reason, baptism is done publicly, in the context of a worship service.  When someone is baptized here, that person makes a statement of faith and takes vows (or if it’s a baby being baptized, someone takes the vows on the baby’s behalf). And the congregation also takes vows to support and encourage the baptized person in their walk with God.

So baptism is not meant to be a private thing.  And I mention this because as a pastor people sometimes ask me, “would you baptize my baby? But I don’t want to involve the whole church, I just want to do it privately.”  And I have to explain to them that that’s not what baptism means. Baptism is, among other things, a ceremony of initiation into the church, in order to be supported by the church.  So you can’t really do baptism without the church…

…except in cases of emergency, or other circumstances in which the person being baptized can’t physically get to church.  People in hospital, for example, or the disabled, or people in the armed services who are away from home.  For these people there are special provisions so that no one misses out on being baptized.

But there’s no such thing as “getting a baby done” in the Christian faith. In fact, in the early years of Christianity it was only adults who were baptized.  When Jesus ministered, and when he baptized, a person would hear Jesus’ teachings; they would believe and put their trust in Jesus; and they would (1) declare their faith, and (2) be baptized.  And Jesus taught his disciples to do the same.

Over time, when churches began to meet in people’s homes, the entire household (including children) would be baptized; but it was generations later before infant baptism became the norm.

And I point this out for two reasons:

  • Baptism goes hand-in-hand with faith. As Paul says, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17) Baptism is never done in a vacuum.
  • Infant baptism does not guarantee a person will always be a Christian. It is our way of saying “this is our intention for this child – this is our hope”. But when the baby grows up they can make their own choices.

The Methodist General Board of Discipleship put it this way recently:

“Within the Methodist tradition… John Wesley… taught that in baptism a child is cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated into the covenant with God, admitted into the Church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew. He said that while baptism was neither essential to, nor sufficient for salvation, it was the “ordinary means” that God designated for applying the benefits of the work of Christ in human lives.

“On the other hand, although Wesley affirmed the regenerating grace of infant baptism, he also insisted upon the necessity of adult conversion (emphasis mine)… [because] Without personal decision and commitment to Christ, the baptismal gift is rendered ineffective.”

What this means, in layman’s terms, is that baptism alone is not enough for salvation. An adult must also believe, and be willing to say so.

The example people typically give for this (although I think it’s overkill) is Adolf Hitler – who was baptized as a child, but who turned away from the faith as an adult.  Is baptism alone enough to save Hitler’s soul? Some theologians would say ‘yes’ but that’s not what Wesley taught, and that’s not what Methodists believe. In fact that’s not what most Protestants believe.  We believe baptism is a beginning; it’s a promise that needs to be grown into and lived into, otherwise the promise dies on the vine.

So we are baptized, just as people were baptized in Jesus’ day, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and Holy Spirit. We come, repenting of our sins, but more than that, we come saying we want Jesus to be our King, and we want to be citizens of God’s kingdom. We come offering ourselves in service to our Lord. We come, following in the footsteps of Jesus, who was the first of us to be baptized. Jesus identified with us in every way, doing what he himself didn’t need to do (that is, repent and be baptized) in order to lead us where God wants us to go.

So as we come forward today to remember our baptism, we do so, declaring our faith in Jesus to save us both now and in the hour of our death. We declare ourselves as belonging to Jesus, and we rededicate our lives to living as God teaches through scripture.  And we pray for a renewing of the gift of the Holy Spirit, enabling us to do God’s work in the world in the power of God rather than in our own strength.

If we were baptized as babies, this day is almost like a renewal of wedding vows. We’re not getting ‘saved again’ any more than a person would be getting married again; but we are saying, after all these years, if we had it to do again, we would do the same thing, because Jesus is so worth it.

And for those of us who were baptized as adults, it’s a similar thing. More recent in memory, but every bit as much worth it.

In a moment you’ll be invited to come forward and touch the waters of baptism, and remember the vows you made (or that someone else made on your behalf). If you wish, I have some anointing oil here and I can anoint you with a blessing as well.

And if there’s anyone here today who has not been baptized, or who isn’t sure if you’ve been baptized, and you would like to be, or you’d like to be sure, please come forward also and let me jot down your name to give to Pastor Matt to let him know either to plan on a baptism, or do some research. And touch the water of baptism in anticipation of the future.

May this day be for each of you a blessing, and a time of recommitment, and a time of sharing love and fellowship with our Lord.  AMEN.


Scripture Readings for the Day:

“But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.  4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.  5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;  6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth–  7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”” (Isaiah 43:1-7)


As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,  16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,  22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)



Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 1/13/19


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Solomon Prays in the Temple

[Scriptures for the day are found at the end of the post]

Life is tough.  A friend of mine said that on Facebook the other day, and I’m sure he’s not the first person to say it, but it’s true. From the minute we’re born we have so much to do and to learn and to figure out.  What’s good? What’s bad? What’s right? What’s wrong? Who’s telling the truth and who’s pulling our legs? And what should I do when I grow up? (That’s a question that keeps coming back every five years or so.) And just when you think things are rolling along pretty well, life throws you a tough one. You get fired, or a good friend gets sick, or a loved one passes, and suddenly you’re left with more questions than answers.

Today’s scripture reading is about finding direction in a difficult and confusing world.

If we think life was any less difficult or confusing back in ancient Israel, not so.  King Solomon was maybe the wisest king who ever lived, and one of the richest and most powerful.  And yet he wrote, “vanity of vanities, everything is vanity and a striving after the wind.”  If that’s how the smartest man in the world feels, I don’t feel so bad!

And think about Solomon’s family life. So much of who we are and what we become is influenced by the family we’re born into.  Solomon’s mother’s first husband was murdered by his mother’s second husband (Solomon’s dad). And Solomon’s half-brother raped one of his half-sisters (and got away with it) and then another half-brother killed the first half-brother in revenge, and then led an armed rebellion against their father.

Anyone here have a family with this much drama?

Of course I say all this with tongue halfway in cheek, because King David was a great man of great faith, a man after God’s own heart. But he wasn’t perfect. And I thank God for that, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to relate to him.  Through David’s family we learn the greatness of God’s mercy and forgiveness. We see that God is willing to forgive even the so-called “BIG” sins like murder and adultery; and if that’s the case then God can forgive our sins too, when we turn to God with our whole hearts the way David did.

But life being difficult means we need a sense of direction. A guiding light. We need something like the north star to walk by. Providing a light like that is what King Solomon is up to, in our reading today. He plans to give his people something that will point them in God’s direction when life gets tough: something that will give them a guiding light.

Let’s look at the story.

As the scene opens, King David has recently passed away, and his son Solomon has been king for about four years. In those first four years of his reign, Solomon has appointed officials, written a collection of proverbs, written a collection of songs (apparently he has inherited some of his father David’s musical talent) and he has been ruling over the lands from the Euphrates River in the east to the border of Egypt in the west. Solomon’s reputation for wisdom has spread, and people come from all over the known world to ask him questions and to learn from him.

Solomon also has made alliances with his father’s friends, particularly the King of Tyre and Sidon, with whom he has made a trade agreement to supply all the cedar and cypress-wood and stone-workers for the building of a great temple. Solomon has organized work forces, and has focused the energy of the nation on this building project.  This is going to be a technological marvel as well as a thing of beauty.

The temple took seven years to build. It was built of stone dug out of a nearby quarry. The interior was lined in cedar and cypress, and had carved figures of fruit and flowers and palm trees and cherubim. It was furnished with tables and altars and utensils overlaid with gold – in fact everything was overlaid with gold, even the walls and the floors. The temple was lit by oil lamps and smelled of burning incense, and it was three stories high. Can you imagine how awesome this place would have been to walk into?

And after seven years it was finally ready.  Solomon invited the elders of Israel – that is, the leaders of all the twelve tribes – to Jerusalem, and they followed the priests who carried the Ark of the Covenant from the tent of meeting, up the hill and into the temple, and into the Holy of Holies. Solomon offered up thousands of sheep and oxen while the priests move the Ark into its place.

And scripture tells us “a cloud filled the house of the Lord” so that the priests could no longer minister.  Isaiah had a similar experience, as we recall, when as a young man he was in the temple and all of a sudden “the threshold shook… and the house filled with smoke…” and Isaiah said, “woe is me! I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the king, the Lord of hosts!” So this smoke is brought on by the glory and presence and holiness of God. And it’s too much for mere mortals.

So Solomon leads them outside, and then, turning and facing the temple, he raises his hands to heaven and prays to God saying ‘O Lord there is none like you. You keep your promises and your covenants and your steadfast love to all who walk before you with all their heart… just as you did for my father your servant David. Therefore keep on being faithful to your servant David, keep on being faithful to your servant’s son, and let your word be confirmed.’

Side-note: when Solomon talks about God’s ‘steadfast love’ the Hebrew word is hesed. This is one of the most important words in the Old Testament.  One Bible study website says: “The word hesed is difficult to translate because it stands for a cluster of ideas—love, mercy, grace, kindness. It wraps up, in itself, all the positive attributes of God.”  It is loyal love, covenant love, never ending, never changing. Solomon is saying God has shown him this hesed, this kind of never-ending love.

So Solomon welcomes God into God’s new house. ‘And yet’ Solomon says, ‘even the highest heaven can’t contain you, much less the house I have built! But make this a place where your name dwells.’ In ancient Israel, God’s name was considered an extension of God’s being. The name is not all there is of God, but it’s the essence of God. God’s name being present means God is here.

Solomon continues his prayer saying,  ‘I ask only that your eyes and ears always be open, night and day, toward this house. Hear the prayers your servant prays; hear the prayers your people pray; hear the prayers foreigners pray when they hear of your great name and pray towards this house; hear in heaven and forgive.’

And having prayed this prayer, Solomon blesses the people and they return home.

The temple therefore becomes like a listening post for God. God stands ready to hear any prayer directed toward it: not because the building is special, but because God’s name and spirit are there. God is listening and ready to answer.  And I think this is Jesus meant when he said “my Father’s house will be called a house of prayer”.  Prayer is THE purpose of the temple. It’s a place where people can talk to God and can meet with God.

As one commentator says, “now the common people know that God welcomes them to full participation in His house… and they returned home rejoicing.” And Solomon expresses the hope that the hearts of Israel ‘would always be as they are right now’: rejoicing in God.

Of course this doesn’t happen. But the temple becomes a touch-stone for Israel to come back to again and again over the years. And for us today, Solomon’s story gives us some insights for our own temples, our own places of worship.

The first insight we see is about the nature of the temple itself.  By the time we get to the New Testament, Jesus is teaching, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23) (that is, as opposed to a specific location). And Paul says: “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…?” (I Cor 6:19a)

So thinking about these things, how are we like Solomon’s temple? We are:

  1. Beautifully crafted by God. As the psalmist says, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) God doesn’t measure beauty the way the world does, thank God. But the fact that our eyes and ears and arms and legs and internal organs all work (more or less) is a miracle, that we live in every moment of every day. And it’s a thing of beauty. We are more precious in the eyes of God than all the cedar and gold that went into Solomon’s temple.
  2. Solomon’s temple was created for prayer, and so are we. Prayer is our #1 purpose in life. It’s what we were created for, because prayer is communication and communion with God.  The psalmist says: “My soul longs for the courts of the Lord” and “a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” We were made for prayer.
  3. Solomon’s temple held only the name of God. As Solomon says, it couldn’t hold all of God. Like the temple, we also hold the name of God, and the Holy Spirit of God. We’re not big enough to hold all of God; we’re not supposed to be.
  4. The temple was meant to be a place of welcome both for God’s people and for foreigners; because we ourselves were once foreigners welcomed by God.

But there are some aspects of the Temple that we can’t parallel to ourselves, and so these aspects we may parallel to our churches:

  1. Like the temple, our church stands as a beacon, like the north star, something people around us can look to, to point them in the right direction, to point them to God. This puts a responsibility on us, as a congregation, to faithfully guide people to Jesus.  This is the primary purpose of the church; this is our calling. When someone visits, let them leave saying “I have been among God’s people; I have witnessed God’s love.”
  2. Like the temple, the grandeur and beauty of our building is meant to be a reflection of the grandeur and beauty of God. This building is a legacy, built to be a blessing for generations to come.  And we are stewards or trustees of this great gift, left to us by people who lived 150 years ago, most of whose names we don’t know any more, but whose love for God – and for us – led them to build this place. They wanted us to know what Solomon knew: that God’s steadfast love, God’s hesed, is from generation to generation for those who fear God and walk in His ways. The question before us then is: how can we use this blessing for the next generation? How will we share our faith with those who have not yet heard? These questions need our prayers and discernment of God’s will.

So we’re kind of back where we started: Life is hard, and trying to find direction in a complex and confusing world is not easy. That’s why the church is necessary. That’s why we need to have a prophetic voice in our culture. That’s why we need to be a place where people can turn, to pray and to meet God and to hear from God. Just as in Solomon’s time, the primary purpose of this place is to be a house of prayer.

Let us be true to that calling.  Let’s pray: O Lord, in the words of Solomon we pray for our church. This building is not big enough to contain you. But we ask that your name rest here. And we ask that your eyes and ears always be open, night and day, toward this place. Hear the prayers your people pray; hear the prayers strangers and foreigners pray when they hear of your great name and pray towards this house; hear in heaven and forgive. AMEN.



Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 8/26/18


Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of the city of David, which is Zion.

Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim.

And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.

Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, “O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart,  24 the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand. Therefore, O LORD, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, ‘There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.’ Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David.

 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!  Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O LORD my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.

“Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name — for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm– when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.” – I Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43


How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion. O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob!  Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.  For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. For the LORD God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the LORD withhold from those who walk uprightly. O LORD of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you. – Psalm 84:1-12


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Baptismal Question “Will you nurture (these persons) in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?”


Scripture reading: Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” – John 3:1-21

So here it is the fourth Sunday of Lent, and we continue in our sermon series on baptismal vows. This week we are looking at the question, “Will you nurture (this child or these people) in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?”

This question is quite a mouthful!  It is also the first baptismal question that is asked, not of the person being baptized, but of those who are witnessing the baptism: the parents, the sponsors, and the congregation.

And how appropriate is this question for today, when we are rejoicing in the birth of Lila Joy Price!  Someday soon this young lady will be baptized. And for those of us who witness that joyous occasion, this question is the vow we will take to support her, and to be her family in Christ.

The Bible describes the church as a ‘body’ made up of living members, or like a large extended family, all of us related to each other by Jesus’ blood and by the Holy Spirit. All of us are Lila’s aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers and brothers and sisters in the faith. And as her older siblings, we are in a position to help her learn and grow, and get to know Jesus, and see us live out what it means to be the family of God. It’s a huge honor and a huge responsibility.

It’s also good to remember that when we were baptized, other people took this vow for us. And more than likely that’s why we’re here today: because somebody who made this promise taught our Sunday School class and told us about Jesus – or maybe they invited us to sing in the choir, or helped out with our vacation Bible school – or maybe they gave money so these things could happen. God’s family of believers was here for us when we were growing up.

Now that we’re older, though, we tend to think more in terms of babies being baptized, and so it’s babies we take this vow for.  But that wasn’t always the case, historically, in the church. And I’d like to submit for our consideration today the proposition that this vow still holds – for all of us!  Because who among us does not need nurturing from time to time, or guidance, or encouragement in living our Christian life?  We are still, and always will be, the family of God – always here for each other.  And just like any family we may have our spats from time to time, but when the chips are down (or even when they’re not down) we pull together and we are one.

In our Gospel reading for today Jesus gives us a beautiful example of this: of how an adult believer – in this case, Jesus – might support and encourage another adult – in this case, Nicodemus – in their life of faith. Let’s take a look.

This conversation takes place somewhere near Jerusalem, in the springtime, shortly after the Passover. We’re not sure exactly where this happened, but Jesus and the disciples often spent evenings on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, so it may have been there. As I imagine the scene, it’s night-time, and there’s a campfire going, and Jesus and the disciples are sitting on rocks, warming themselves by the fire and talking. Suddenly a Pharisee appears: Nicodemus. He’s not one of the chief priests but he’s high up enough among the Pharisees that they recognize him.

Nicodemus has something on his mind, on his heart, and he’s not sure he can trust the other Pharisees with the questions that are churning inside him. So he turns to Jesus. (Smart man!)  And because he does, he will end up living into his name. ‘Nicodemus’ in Greek is made up of two words: Nike – which means ‘victory’, and Demos – which is the root of the word ‘democracy’. So his name means ‘victory of the people’. And in coming to Jesus this night, Nicodemus will show us, the people, how to have victory in Jesus.

The question Nicodemus leads off with is:

“Rabbi, we [meaning the Pharisees] know that you are a teacher from God, because no one could do the signs you do if God were not with him.”

But that’s really only half the question. The unspoken half of Nicodemus’ question is: “help me understand. Because my brother Pharisees – if anybody says they’re your follower, they toss them out of the synagogue. But I know they know you’re God’s messenger, Jesus – because nobody can do what you do apart from God. So what’s up with this? And what can I do?”

Now Jesus could have said, “here’s what you do. Gather together all the other Pharisees who believe what you believe, who believe in me, and take over leadership of the Pharisees. You have enough leadership experience, Nicodemus, to run the organization. And once you’re in charge you can require your people to listen to my message and share it with the chief priests. And our movement will grow and spread and eventually we’ll break the chains of the Roman Empire…”

Isn’t that usually how worldly power goes? But Jesus doesn’t operate on a worldly level. Jesus is God’s man, and he does things God’s way. And in God’s kingdom, Nicodemus’ heart and soul are more important than leading a movement.

So Jesus gives Nicodemus the answer he needs… though maybe not the answer he’s expecting.  Jesus explains why Nicodemus can see the truth where his fellow Pharisees can’t.  Jesus says: “With the greatest certainty I say to you, unless one is begotten from above, one is not able to perceive the kingdom of God.”

I need to stop here for a moment because this verse is so familiar. It’s usually translated something like: “Very truly I tell you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” But the phrase ‘born again’ has been so over-used in the 20th and 21st centuries, we have completely lost the meaning of it.  So I went back to the Greek and translated it fresh, and here’s what I found.

Jesus starts with the words “Amen, amen” – meaning “this is absolutely true and I affirm it”. And then he says, “Unless one is begotten from above…” – because ‘born again’ sounds like something we do.  Like, I was born in January – I am the do-er of this action. But if someone is begotten – we can’t beget ourselves. We are begotten by someone else, by our parents – or by God.  And Jesus emphasizes this by saying ‘begotten from above’. This is what John Wesley meant by prevenient grace. Before all time, and before we were aware, we were begotten by God and loved by God – and we had nothing to do with it!

Jesus says ‘unless one is begotten from above, one is not able to perceive the Kingdom of God.’  In other words, the ability to grasp that there is a reality beyond this worldly existence is a gift of God. One must have understanding given by the Holy Spirit in order to perceive the things of God. That’s why Nicodemus can see so clearly that Jesus is from God, while the other Pharisees keep denying it.  They have closed their minds and hearts to God’s Spirit, and they’re not able to see God’s truth.

Nicodemus doesn’t quite grasp what Jesus is saying right away, so he asks how it’s possible for an old man to be begotten: is he going to climb back into his mother’s belly a second time? The tone of Nicodemus’ question is slightly sarcastic but not overwhelmingly so; he doesn’t doubt Jesus’ sincerity, just the content of his answer.

Jesus answers, “with the greatest certainty I tell you, if one is not born of water and the Spirit one cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Being born of water: that’s human birth, and all of us here on this planet have done that. Being born of the Spirit: that’s godly birth. And that’s why we refer to the Holy Spirit as being God. In the Trinity, God the Father creates… God the Son saves… and God the Spirit begets spiritual children. Jesus explains this, saying, “what is begotten of the flesh is flesh; and what is begotten of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I say to you, ‘you must be begotten from above’.

Nicodemus is beginning to catch the vision Jesus is casting. He’s got a toe-hold but now he needs a handle, so he asks, “how can these things be?” And Jesus answers, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? With the greatest certainty I tell you, we speak of what we know and bear witness to what we’ve seen, but you [plural] don’t grasp our testimony.” Here Jesus is referring to the Pharisees as a group and confronting their general lack of understanding.  Jesus continues, “If I have spoken to you [plural] about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I speak to you of heavenly things?”  In other words, Jesus hasn’t even started talking about the Kingdom of God yet – he’s still talking about the things of this world. There’s so much more to come, and so much more to know!  And in saying so, Jesus broadens Nicodemus’ vision to take in so much more than he imagined when he began this conversation.

And then Jesus shares with Nicodemus God’s plan for the salvation of the world.  He says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…”  Jesus is referring here to ancient history, when Israel was traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land.  When the people of Israel sinned against God by not trusting God for their provision, God sent snakes into the camp and people started to die from snake-bites. So God told Moses to put a bronze snake on a pole and anyone who looked at the snake would live. The people had to have faith enough to take God at his word and look at the snake on the pole. In the same way people must have faith enough to take God at his word and look to Jesus on the cross.

Jesus explains further: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And Jesus adds, “those who haven’t believed are condemned already… they have loved darkness more than the light because their deeds are evil.” And he wraps up by saying, “he who practices truth comes to the light, in order that it may be seen that his deeds have been wrought by God.”

…which brings us back to where Nicodemus started when he said, “Jesus, you must be from God, because no one could do the signs you do apart from God.”

Jesus has explained patiently to Nicodemus what he needed to know. He has answered the questions, both asked and unasked.

Whether or not Nicodemus fully believed Jesus that night, the apostle John doesn’t tell us. But we can be certain he heard what Jesus was saying.  A few chapters later, in John 7, Nicodemus will stand up to the other Pharisees, defending Jesus’ right to a fair hearing – and he will be ridiculed for it. And then in John 19, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus will bring 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus was one of the men who personally wrapped Jesus’ body and laid it in the tomb.

Jesus’ kindness and patience touched Nicodemus’ heart and mind, and Nicodemus was never the same. He’s one of the few Pharisees who ‘got it’ and believed.

Our baptismal vows call us to do the same for each other. To nurture each other; to guide each other; to share what we know with each other; to encourage each other; to help each other grow in God’s grace. This is the example Jesus sets for us. And it’s the promise we make, as members of the Body of Christ, whenever someone is baptized. Looking forward to taking this vow again soon. 😊


Preached at Fairhaven  United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/11/18


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