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Reading: 2 Samuel 6:1-5 and 12-19 at end of post

Back in 1992 the Queen of England looked back over a year in which Prince Charles and Diana, Prince Andrew and Fergie, and Princess Anne and Mark Philips all separated and headed for divorce. And the Queen described it as an “annus horribilus” – a horrible year.

This past week has been a horrible week.

Last Sunday morning the members of our sister church, Fairhaven United Methodist, woke up to the news that their choir director Ricardo Tobia had been murdered.  As we put our heads and hearts together, all we really knew at that point was that neighbors had called in a wellness check early Saturday morning, and the police had gone in and found the bodies of a man and a dog, and they were saying it was a homicide. They hadn’t released any names yet.

And that’s all we knew. A few folks were holding on to the hope that maybe it wasn’t Ricardo. But as the news continued to unfold on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday, the worst was confirmed. And the description of the crime scene given in the press is too gruesome to talk about, or even to think about for more than a few seconds at a time.

This morning Ricardo was supposed to have been the lay reader at Fairhaven, and I was looking forward to serving with him again and hoping he might even have a solo for us. I can’t imagine never hearing his voice again… or debating with him over the relative merits of this hymn vs that hymn… or never hearing his students again, who he used to invite to come and sing and share their gifts. Ricardo and his students had a mutual love for each other, and the tributes on Facebook bring tears to the eyes. So many of his students say things like “he believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself.” There’s no higher tribute a student can give a teacher.

At a time like this the question that keeps coming back is: WHY??? Why did this have to happen? How could anyone do such a thing? I mean, yes, we understand that the man who has been arrested has a history of mental illness… but that doesn’t really answer to the question, not really.

And then a few days after that, another news story broke, about a Pittsburgh musician who lost his life in the rip tides off the coast of New Jersey.  That young man was Gabriel D’Abruzzo. Gabe was a piano student of mine when he was a kid and we stayed friends over the years. He grew up to be an amazing musician.  And there’s a connection between Gabe and our sister church Hill Top United Methodist: Gabe was a friend and accompanist to Erin Ehrlich when she was studying at Duquesne; and Gabe’s family is originally from the Allentown neighborhood. In fact his grandparents owned the Micromart & Deli that used to be next door to Barry Funeral Home, across from the church. Gabe was the kindest, most generous person you’d want to know. And he was only 42.

Over the weeks and months ahead we will be coming to terms with these losses, or at the very least comforting those who are grieving. And the question of why do these things happen – why do horrible things happen to good people – is one of the toughest things in life to deal with. Books upon books have been written to trying to answer these questions, and I don’t know that any of them give an answer that really satisfies.

So this week I was looking at our scripture reading for today, about the Ark of the Covenant, and as I read, I found it actually spoke to me about these questions and about what we’re going through this week.  Because when I find myself asking the question ‘why?’ or ‘Where is God in all this?’ – what I really want is assurance that God is still there and still cares about the people I love.

In the Old Testament the Ark of the Covenant represented the presence of God.  As the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness after being set free from Egypt, the Ark was always in the middle of the people. When they set up camp, the Ark was in the middle of the camp, with three tribes on each side, north, south, east and west.

OldArk

But today’s passage doesn’t take place during that wilderness time. It takes place at a time when the Ark had actually been lost, and Israel was wondering if God was still with them.  The people of Israel had gone to war against the Philistines, and because they wanted God on their side, they took the Ark into battle with them. And they lost the battle. When it was all over, Eli the priest was dead, Eli’s sons were dead, the Ark was captured by the enemy, and Eli’s daughter-in-law, who saw the Ark being carried off as she was dying in childbirth, named her son ‘Ichabod’ – which means ‘the glory of God has departed’.

The Israelites had made the mistake of thinking the Ark had some kind of magical power that could be used and manipulated in battle, as if God could be forced to be on their side. It’s kind of like in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.  You may remember the end of that movie, when the Nazis dressed up like Jewish priests and opened the Ark believing they would find invincibility and maybe even immortality, and in the end they end up essentially being cremated alive.

But the Ark was just a box covered with gold, with angels on top… very pretty, but it wasn’t God, and it wasn’t magic. What made the Ark a sign of God’s presence was not what was on the outside, but what was on the inside: the Ten Commandments, the original stones on which the finger of God had written; the rod of Aaron, used in witnessing to Pharaoh; and a jar of manna, the ‘bread of heaven’ which the people had eaten in the wilderness. Or to put it another way, what was inside the Ark represented: the law, the prophets, and the bread of life.

At times like these, God is still with us in these ways. We have God’s word, and we have God’s promises, and we have the Bread of Heaven, and we have the Body of Christ. We are not alone. And we can take comfort in knowing that God is also present with Ricardo and with Gabe.  Much as we miss them and wish they were still here, they are still with God in a place where they will never again experience pain or sorrow.

In the days of ancient Israel, the Ark of the Covenant used to sit inside the holy of holies in the tabernacle, separated from the worshipers by a curtain. But when Jesus died, scripture tells us “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matt 27:51) – removing the barrier between the people and the Ark.  So no longer is God’s presence hidden.

The law and the prophets and the Bread of Heaven are with us always – by the power of the Spirit, inside us. As God promised in the words of Jeremiah, “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.” (Jer. 31:33)

And Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17)  So the law of Moses and the writings of the prophets are fulfilled in Jesus, who is the bread of heaven. And Jesus said: “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)

At times of tragedy like this, we can’t help but ask the question “why?” – even if the answers God gives don’t start with “because…”. Instead God’s answers start with: “I am here. I am present with you. I am with those you love, and those you love are with me.” In such a horrible week, Jesus stands with us, and weeps with us.

For the time being our job is to stay here, and to be like the Ark in this world. Because we have, written on our hearts, the law and the prophets, and the Bread of Heaven, we become like the Ark for others who need to know God’s presence. And just like David rejoiced in the presence of God, we also rejoice in God’s presence… even through our tears.

May those we love who are no longer with us rest in peace and rise in glory. AMEN.

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David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand.  2 David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim.  3 They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart  4 with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark.  5 David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the LORD with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.

It was told King David, “The LORD has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing;  13 and when those who bore the ark of the LORD had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling.  14 David danced before the LORD with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod.  15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.

 16 As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.  17 They brought in the ark of the LORD, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the LORD.  18 When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD of hosts,  19 and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes. – 2 Samuel 6:1-5 and 12-19

 

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 Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 7/15/18

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“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!” And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.  So I said: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; Your iniquity is taken away, And your sin purged.” Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: “Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”” – Isaiah 6:1-8

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Psalm 29:1-11  (A Psalm of David)

Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.
The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!

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We’ve been having a lot of “two-fer” Sundays recently. A couple weeks ago it was Mother’s Day and Ascension on the same day.  Then last week it was Pentecost and Communion.

And this Sunday it’s Trinity Sunday and Memorial Day, which is kind of a weird mix.

Trinity Sunday is an odd holiday to begin with, because it’s one of the more recent additions to our list of church holidays so there’s not a whole lot of tradition built up around how to celebrate it. It’s also odd because the word Trinity doesn’t actually appear in the Bible.  The idea of one God in three “persons” (for lack of a better term) came into being over hundreds of years of people studying what God has revealed in scripture. And what Scripture tells us is the God of Israel – the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus – is one God: Scripture says, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One.”

And yet scripture also speaks of:

  • God as Creator, called the Father (although there are also a few “mother” references in the Bible);
  • God as Redeemer, called Jesus (because he will save his people from their sins. And, as the apostle John says “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and “All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made” – so Jesus was present at Creation as well as in Israel 2000 years ago);
  • God as Comforter and Advocate, called the Holy Spirit: that part of God that bonds with human spirits who are open to God and who love God.

So that’s what Trinity is about. And today we remember and celebrate all that God has done for us in creation, and in saving us on the cross, and in living among us through the Holy Spirit.

And we also have Memorial Day, which of course is the day when we as Americans remember and honor those men and women who gave their lives for our country. And it is right and proper that we should remember them and honor them before God, because they have followed in Jesus’ footsteps by showing their love for us by making the ultimate sacrifice. Their sacrifice, and the sacrifices of their surviving families, goes beyond the power of words to honor. We have to live it. We need to show our appreciation by living well.

Seeing these two holidays together on the same day makes me wish, as a Christian, that we had a holiday to remember our martyrs, Christian martyrs – like a Memorial Day for those who, in answering God’s call, have died in the service of others and of the Gospel.

I’m not saying we should replace one holiday with the other: I totally want to have both. But I’d like to see a day when we could remember those who have given their lives so that we could hear the good news of Jesus’ love and salvation.

This Christian holiday would include remembering people like Paul, whose letters make up much of the New Testament, and who was beheaded rather than deny Jesus; and Peter, who was crucified upside down because he said he didn’t deserve the honor of dying like Jesus. It might also include people like John Wycliffe, who was persecuted for daring to translate the Bible from Latin into English so everyday people could understand it. Or Bishops Latimer and Ridley who were burned at the stake in Oxford, England, whose teachings laid the foundation for John Wesley’s ministry at Oxford. And it would include the thousands today around the world, whose names we don’t know, but whose faithfulness to Jesus puts their lives in danger, and whose courage is inspiring record numbers of conversions to Christianity, particularly among Muslims.

So with all of these thoughts in mind, I’d like to take this sermon in a slightly different direction than originally planned. I’d like to replace the sermon title for today – “The Voice of the Lord” – and make it instead “The Ultimate Royal Wedding”.

I’m sure I’m not the only person here who watched the Royal Wedding a couple weekends ago. As royal weddings go, this one was unique in a number of ways. It’s the first time a gospel choir has ever sung at a royal wedding. It’s the first time an American has ever preached at a royal wedding.  And it’s the first time in over 100 years that a foreigner has married into the royal family.

But did you ever stop to think what Meaghan Markle gave up in order to marry her prince? I mean, so much of this wedding looks and sounds like a fairy tale, but in the U.K. being a member of the royal family is serious business. Royals are expected to serve the country, much as someone in the military would – in fact most of them are veterans. It’s not a life of ease.

Some of the things Meaghan had to give up include:

  • Her privacy (she’ll never go anywhere without paparazzi following her ever again)
  • Her acting career. In fact all of her career up to this point, including her fashion business and her personal website and participating in social media
  • Wearing whatever clothes she wants (in Britain, royals are expected to promote British clothing designers)
  • Her home here in America

And last but not least, more than likely, she will have to give up her American citizenship. That’s not required, but if she doesn’t, the IRS would (theoretically) have the power to audit members of the royal family and I can’t see that happening.

In the meantime she’s becoming a citizen of Great Britain and she will swear allegiance to the Queen.

Meaghan gave up all that for the love of the grandson of the monarch. Can you imagine yourself in her shoes?

Her upcoming change in citizenship has been talked about widely in social media, with some wonder and concern. One person I know wrote: “Why would any free person submit to a monarch?” Of course the British are every bit as free as we are – they have a democracy like ours, in fact ours is loosely based on theirs – but it raises an important question.

Offered an opportunity to marry the child of the king (or the queen in this case), would we do it?  With all the obligations and sacrifices that go with it, would we do it?  Would we be willing to give up our jobs, our careers? (some of us may be saying ‘My job? You can have it’) Would we give up our homes, or living close to our relatives? Would we give up social media? (Again I know some of you are saying ‘no big loss there’) Would we allow others to tell us what to wear? Would we be willing to become a citizen of a foreign country?

In a sense, in a sense, God asks this of all of us. Not everyone is asked by God to do all these things, but all of us will be asked to do some.

In our passage from Isaiah today we hear the words, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up…” and in today’s psalm David writes, “the Lord sits enthroned as king forever”. When God adopts us into God’s family, we become engaged to be married, in a spiritual sense, to Christ, the son of the King. Every one of us who loves and believes in Jesus will one day be royalty! In fact, if we could only perceive it, we are royalty already: engaged, but not yet fully married.

Now being royal, as any Brit will tell you, is not an easy thing.  The expectations and the pressures and the public scrutiny (at least in part) led to the death of Princess Diana.  And before Harry and Meaghan’s wedding they were interviewed on British TV, and one of the questions asked was something along the lines of “Harry, have you told Meaghan what she’s getting into?” And he was very honest. He said: “I tried to warn [her] as much as possible… I had to have some pretty frank conversations with her about what she’s letting herself in for… it’s not easy for anybody.”

As followers of Jesus – and members of his royal family – we also live under public scrutiny (to a much lesser extent of course – we don’t have paparazzi chasing us around). Our faith is meant to be both public and shared.  As Jesus said, our city is set on a hill; our light is set on a lampstand, not under a bushel. And like Meaghan we may be asked to give up things that are precious to us for the sake of Jesus.  Jesus himself said:

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)  And “If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)

The life of a child of the king is a life of service and self-sacrifice. But it is also a life lived with the King. And as Isaiah says, he is “high and lifted up, full of majesty and glory” and our God gives the blessings of strength and peace to his people.

The voice of our King asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” As Christians we have sworn allegiance to our King, so how can we say ‘no’?  Especially with a King so worthy of our love and service?

Our response to the Son of the King, who died for us and rose again for us, is to worship him with all that we have in us: mind, body, heart, and soul. As it says in the old English wedding vows, “with my body I thee worship and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” That is our pledge to him.

And we join the seraphim in proclaiming his glory and singing “holy, holy, holy”.  We say with Isaiah ‘woe is me; I am a person of unclean lips living in the midst of a people of unclean lips’ – but we also say with Isaiah, “here am I, send me.”

If Meaghan Markle could give up so much to marry the son of an earthly king, what would we give to spend eternity with the King of Kings? Each one of us has received an invitation to that heavenly wedding. All we need to do is RSVP.

Let’s pray. Lord, we give you thanks for love and for the gift of love. We give you thanks that you loved us first and created us to be with you forever. Help us to count all things as loss for the surpassing joy of knowing you and being with you; and teach us to worship you with all that we have and all that we are. AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/27/18

 

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[The apostle John writes:] “This is He who came by water and blood — Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.

 “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for this is the witness of God which He has testified of His Son. He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; he who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed the testimony that God has given of His Son. And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.

 “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.” – I John 5:6-13

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[The apostle Luke writes:] “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.’” – Acts 1:1-11

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The Ascension of Jesus Into Heaven

This morning we have three things to celebrate on the church calendar:

  • We’re still in the season of Easter, so we’re still celebrating Jesus’ resurrection;
  • It’s Ascension Sunday – the day we celebrate Jesus’ return to heaven after his resurrection;
  • And it’s Mother’s Day.

At first glance it might seem these holidays have nothing to do with each other. But there is a common thread: the three holidays are connected by, in the words of the apostle John, “water and blood”. John writes, “This is He who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ, not only by water, but by water and blood.”

I’m going to come back to this verse in a moment – but I’d like to start with Mother’s Day.  Every mother here today, and everyone who’s ever witnessed the birth of a child (even if it’s only on TV) knows that giving birth is a messy event!  Water and blood are present in abundance. Every one of us arrived in this world covered in the stuff. One of the first things the medical staff does is clean all that off, and then hand the baby to Mom.  But water and blood kept the baby alive for nine months leading up to the birth.

And then comes the moment the newborn child is placed in its mother’s arms.  Looking into the eyes of a newborn baby is an experience like no other. I don’t know any other words to describe it than to say ‘there’s a reflection of eternity in the child’s eyes’.  Even the most hardened of unbelievers has to admit that the birth of a baby is a miracle. And to look into the eyes of a newborn is to catch a glimpse of eternity. That look of eternity fades all too soon, as the child gets used to being in the world (instead of being with the Lord all the time). But there was a time when every one of us was a newborn and we had that look of eternity in our eyes. And I believe we will again someday.

All too soon children learn the ways of this world and they learn to misbehave, and they learn to talk back, and… bottom line, it’s not an easy job raising children. But it is worth it.  I remember many years ago comedienne Wanda Sykes did a whole comedy routine about this, back before Wanda had kids of her own.  The routine went something like this:

“People keep telling me ‘you gotta have kids…’
And they all say the same thing: ‘they’re a lotta work, but they’re worth it…’
“But I noticed something: they never look you in the eye when they say that.
It’s always: ‘kids, they’re a lotta work, but they’re worth it.’ (glancing down)”

And she went on with that line for some time: “kids: they’re a lot of work but they’re worth it. (glancing down)”

When God looks at you and me God says, “they’re worth it” and God doesn’t look down. Even though we’ve broken God’s law and rebelled, God still looks at us and says we’re worth it.  Isaiah says of the Messiah: “he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied.”  And that’s you and me – our lives are the fruit of the travail of his soul, and he is satisfied.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Turning back now to our reading from I John: John says Jesus came, born of water and blood, just like all the rest of us. And John says this to make clear that Jesus was fully human.

There are people throughout history who have doubted this. The ancient Greek philosophers (for example) believed that a god could not, or at least would not, lower himself to become human. The heavens are high above the earth, and likewise God is high above mere mortals. And that kind of thinking has lasted, even to today.

And there is a grain of truth in it: God is greater than we are. God is higher, in the sense that God knows more than we can possibly know and understands more than we could possibly understand, and loves more purely and more deeply than we can begin to grasp. But God is not higher in the sense of being embarrassed by our physical reality.  God created the physical world; God created our bodies; God created beauty, and music and color and shape and form.

And God was not embarrassed to come into this physical world, and be born like one of us, out of a human mother, covered in water and blood. John says “the Spirit bears witness, and the Spirit is truth.” The Holy Spirit was also with Jesus, at his birth, and at his baptism. At his baptism the dove descended from heaven and lighted on Jesus, and God said, “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus was sent into the world to save a world that could not save itself – to save a people who could not save themselves.  He hung on the cross, to pay the price for our sin. And on that cross, he poured out water and blood – the same kind of water and blood through which he had been born and in which we all have been born. Jesus did this so we could be, like him, born of water and blood and of the Spirit – and have eternal life.

This is what John is talking about when he says “this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and that life is in his Son.”  John says “He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself” – that is, the Spirit of God is in us, bearing witness to the truth, bearing witness that we are redeemed by God and have become children of God.

John says “anyone who doesn’t believe God has made God out to be a liar.” and “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” In the book of Deuteronomy, God says to his people: “I set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life…” This is God’s call to all people everywhere.  For those of us who know that God speaks the truth, John comforts us with assurance that we do have eternal life and encourages us to continue to have faith in Jesus.

So we have water and blood at the birth of every human being. We have water and blood at the birth of Jesus – and at Jesus’ death on the cross. But in Jesus’ case, there’s a third element present: the Holy Spirit. And Jesus wants us to have the Holy Spirit as well.  And so we come to Ascension Day.

The Ascension took place forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, on top of a hill above the Mount of Olives and looking out over Jerusalem. In the beginning of the book of Acts the apostle Luke tells us what happened there.

Chapel of the Ascension, Israel

First Luke says, “Jesus presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs.” I imagine it must have been difficult for the disciples to believe Jesus was really alive. At the crucifixion they had witnessed a horrible thing, something that would have broken their hearts and wounded their spirits.  So over those forty days Jesus healed their wounds and talked to them about how things will be in God’s kingdom.

So the disciples ask when Jesus is going to restore the kingdom. And Jesus says:

“that’s not for you to know — BUT!!” – he says – “stay in Jerusalem” because “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” – and then “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “I want you to do this, this and this.” He says wait. Wait until the Spirit comes, and then go in the power of the Spirit. They will be witnesses, not in their own power, but in God’s power.

And having given them their mission, Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took them out of their sight.” And suddenly a couple of men in white robes were standing with the disciples – seemingly out of nowhere – asking them, “why are you staring up into heaven? Jesus… will come back in the same way as you saw him go….”

Some time before, Jesus had explained why it was necessary for him to return to God. The disciples might not have remembered it just at that moment, but it came back to them eventually, and John wrote down what Jesus said:

“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. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. […] When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (John 16:6-13, edited)

Apparently there was something about Jesus being here on earth that limited the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Something about Jesus’ death and resurrection broke open the heavens and made it possible for all believers to receive the Holy Spirit… but not until Jesus returned to God. Jesus’ presence at God’s right hand makes it possible for us to be born not only of water and blood but of the Spirit as well. We can have that third element, just like Jesus.

And this is what it means to be ‘born again’.  Remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus:

“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? […]”  Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:3-5 edited)

And John would add “…and the blood” – the blood of Christ on the cross.

One other note about the Ascension: remember the saying that Jesus would come again on the clouds, just as the disciples had seen him go?  This prophecy can also be found in the Old Testament in the book of Daniel.  Daniel had a vision of the end times. And in the middle of the destruction and darkness of those times, he writes:

“As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One [that is, God] and was presented before him.  14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)

…and this was written almost a thousand years before Jesus was born! Daniel’s vision is mystical and mysterious – and so are John’s writings – perhaps better understood by the Spirit than by the mind. So I recommend them to your meditation. In the meantime let’s get back on topic…

I love watching TV shows like This Old House, where people buy up an old house and fix it up and restore it to its former glory. I don’t like the ones where they modernize the house, so much as the ones where they look at the builder’s original design and restore it to what it was meant to be.

I think you and I are like those old houses. The builder (that is, God) – had glorious plans for us. But over the years, because of evil in the world and temptation in our own hearts, the houses of our lives have become run down, broken in places, leaking in others, a bit dangerous on some of those back stairways – not quite what God had in mind. And not quite what we once were, when we were first born and someone looked into our eyes and saw a reflection of eternity.

But like a master restorer, Jesus bought us with a price… and with a plan. Jesus pours over us the water of baptism and the blood of his cross – and we are reborn, through water and blood, and filled with the Spirit. And the work of restoration begins. It won’t be quite finished in this lifetime, but when we look back, if we’ve kept on walking with Jesus, and kept on trusting him, we will see progress.  And Jesus knows the Creator’s original blueprint, and he will be true to it.

John says, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know you have eternal life.” When Jesus returns, the Master Restorer’s work will be complete, and “we will be like him, for we will see him as he is”: having been born of water and blood and the Spirit.

Let’s pray.

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 5/13/18

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The following post was written by author and health care administrator F. Nicholas (Nick) Jacobs of Windber PA, who has spent his career working to make health care more humane, especially for those of us who don’t have much clue about it. He is also related to my mother-in-law which is testimonial enough right there. 🙂  His take on the healing power of kindness echoes many of the themes found in the healing miracles of Jesus. If you’d like to learn more about Mr. Jacobs’ work, check out his blog Healing Hospitals.

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Having had responsibility for administering the first rural hospice in the United States, a palliative care unit that was established in 1977, I quickly learned about the critical nature of kindness. Although many serious diseases may be life-ending, these same serious diseases are always life-changing, and kindness helps everyone involved.  In fact, Stanford University did a study that demonstrated that kind medical care can lead to faster wound healing, reduced pain and anxiety, and lower blood pressure plus shorter hospital stays.

This coincides with my own finding where, with a fully integrative hospital, we had an infection rate that never went above 1 percent (national average was 9 percent), and we had the lowest readmission rates, lowest restraint rates, and even though we had a hospice where people came to die, we had the lowest death rates of our 13 peer hospitals. When we brought in the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, and Georgia Tech to try to quantify these outcomes, there was only the ethereal connector, kindness.  Kindness seemed to be one of the root causes.

What are the keys to kindness?  They are profound, sincere listening, empathy and compassion, generous acts, timely care, gentle honesty, and support for family caregivers.

For empathetic listening, listen with minimal interruption and convey respect for the person’s self-knowledge.  As my brain surgeons used to say, “This is not rocket science.” And my rocket scientist friends used to say, “This is not brain surgery.”  It’s uncommon common sense. Nurses from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston begin their shifts by asking their patients, “What’s the most important thing we can do for you today?” And then listening to and responding to those patients.

A key element needed to provide actual empathy is the avoidance of judgment. Hate the disease, but don’t judge the person.  Don’t give your unwanted opinions or interrupt with your personal solutions. Simply listen with empathy.  Another is the ability to recognize the emotion that is present and then genuinely respond to it in a caring way.

Generous acts do not have to be limited to healthcare activities.   I’ve had patients who have proclaimed that hugs from nurses or physicians literally saved their lives, and that is not an exaggeration.

Kindness

My career path took a very circuitous route to where I am today.  I started as a professional trumpet player and school band director, became an arts organization executive, and later founder of two genomic research institutes.  But in my thirties, before I entered health care administration, when I was serving as the president of the Laurel Highlands Convention and Visitors Bureau, I learned about customer service.

In that scenario, timeliness is always a problem. When I got into healthcare, I’d ask why it was I could stay in a nice hotel and in 15 minutes have two or three employees bumping into each other to take care of me for less than $200 a night, but for $2500 a night, after ringing my call bell for 45 minutes, I couldn’t get a bedpan in a hospital? That all changed very rapidly.

The next challenge is carefully administered gentle honesty. A physician friend told me the story of his first year of practice when he told a congestive heart failure patient to get his things in order because what he had was not reversible. This patient had at least 18 months or more to live, but the physician didn’t mention that.  The patient’s wife called the next morning and told my friend that her husband had died that night. Words are powerful.  Use them very carefully.

Finally, it’s imperative that we treat not only the patient but also their family members by considering their daily needs and providing emotional support.  I can honestly tell you that more healing took place in my hospice than in any other department in the hospital: family healing.

That’s the magic of kind care.

Nick Jacobs of Windber PA is a Partner with SunStone Management Resources and author of the blog healinghospitals.com.

 

 

 

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“When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, [Jesus] sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” – Mark 11:1-11

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The path down the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem

It was a day that began just like any other day. Jesus and the disciples had breakfast with friends near Bethany – perhaps with Lazarus and Mary and Martha.

After breakfast, Jesus led the disciples out in the direction of Jerusalem. They probably figured he’d be teaching in the temple again today.  It was getting more and more dangerous for Jesus to do this – the Pharisees and the chief priests were getting vocal in their criticisms, and there were rumors they wanted Jesus dead. There were rumors they wanted Lazarus dead too, because Jesus had raised him from the dead and they didn’t want living proof of Jesus’ miracles walking around.

But today, as they drew near to Bethphage, Jesus sent two of the disciples ahead to find a young donkey colt and bring it to him, one that had never been ridden before.  Jesus told them, ‘if anyone asks what you’re up to, tell them the Lord needs it and will send it back right away.’ And that’s exactly how things happened.

I imagine the people who saw the disciples taking the donkey, and who heard them say “the Lord needs it” got the feeling something was about to happen.  I imagine some of them followed the disciples back to where Jesus was, to see what was going on. At any rate the disciples put their cloaks on the colt for Jesus, and people cut leafy branches, and all of a sudden there was a procession going on!  A crowd is gathering, and there are people in front of them and behind them shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

And with the crowd shouting these words, Jesus rode down the mountain path, from Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, down the mountainside, through the Garden of Gethsemane, across the Kidron Valley, and up the Temple Mount into Jerusalem and into the temple. The distance was about two miles all told, and the crowd kept growing as they went.

The apostle Mark, in his gospel, doesn’t add much detail to these events, but Matthew and Luke tell us a little more. They tell us the Pharisees and the chief priests and scribes were not at all happy with this turn of events.  They understood Jesus’ action as a challenge to their power, and they started making plans to do something about it.

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For us as Jesus’ followers, Palm Sunday is, and always has been, a day of both celebration and gathering darkness. We begin with God’s people rejoicing in the coming of the king, predicted by the prophets of long ago. We end with the religious authorities in the temple plotting the murder of our Lord.

I’m going to come back to all this in a moment.  But this Sunday is also the last Sunday in our sermon series on baptismal vows. The sermon title listed in the bulletin – “Surround and Pray for One Another” – is not taken word-for-word from the vows, but I think it can be inferred from the words at the end of the baptismal ceremony, where the pastor says to the congregation, “Members of the household of God, I commend these persons [who have just been baptized] to your love and care. Do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.”

The events of Palm Sunday, and Holy Week, and Easter, make it possible for us to do this. Because the events of this week reveal Jesus as the king of kings. This is the week when Jesus’ power is revealed; and he chooses to share that power, that resurrection power, with us. In his power, we care and pray for each other to increase our faith, confirm our hope, and encourage love.

But again I’m getting a little ahead of myself.  It’s not Easter quite yet!  So back to Palm Sunday.

The events of Palm Sunday – the details of the things that were said and done – point clearly to the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, particularly prophecies about the kingdom of God. The ‘kingdom of God’ is not a euphemism; it’s not a metaphor; it’s a reality, and something scripture says a lot about.

For the past few hundred years, in the Western part of the world at least, we have lived mostly in democracies, and as such we’ve kind of lost touch with the concept of kingdom.  In fact we tend to resist it, because we know all too well the dangers of placing too much power in the hands of one person. And so the focus of theologians and evangelists alike has been either on ‘having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ’ or on ‘putting our faith into action’ (or a combination of the two). And these two things are important parts of Christian life, but they’re not the whole story.

We are followers of, disciples of, children of, the King; and that has all kinds of implications. If Jesus is the King, then the days of the rulers of this world are numbered. That’s what the people were celebrating all those years ago on the first Palm Sunday.

It also means we who love Jesus are invited to approach the throne of the King in prayer and to ask for what we need. I find it helpful sometimes when praying to imagine all our brothers and sisters in Christ gathered in a throne room, with Jesus on the throne, and speaking to Jesus as one of the subjects of his realm.  What might this look like?

We got a possible picture this past week when Prince William of England knighted former Beatle Ringo Starr. Did you catch any of the video?  Prince William did the honors in his grandmother’s place. Everyone present was dressed in black tie attire. And Ringo entered the throne room, and bowed to his future king, and then knelt (in front of a prince who is young enough to be his grandson!) And then taking the sword, Prince William spoke the words of honor, and a man who knelt as a commoner rose as a man with a title: Sir Richard Starkey.

(Photo by PA Images/Sipa USA)

What was remarkable about that moment was Prince William broke formality and started a conversation right in the middle of the ceremony. The two men chatted for a moment, and they were laughing and enjoying each other’s company. And then Ringo, following the protocol which says ‘never turn your back on your sovereign’, backed up, bowed, and then turned and left. Afterwards when the press asked what they talked about, Ringo said, “the Prince told me he’s always loved the Beatles, and I asked about his upcoming new baby, and he said ‘any moment now’ and I said ‘I know the feeling, I’ve got three of my own’.”  In the middle of all that ceremony, it was a very human moment.

That’s how it is with us and King Jesus. As we approach the throne to pray for one another, we acknowledge his authority and his power and his goodness. We don’t have to dress up in black tie and tails to talk to Jesus (thank goodness!) but I think it’s helpful sometimes to kneel, at least in our hearts, and remember the protocol of the throne room. We are there by God’s grace, invited to come, and as the Apostle Paul says, “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Phil 4:6)  We come before our King; and like Prince William with Ringo, Jesus breaks the formality and calls us ‘friends’ and invites us to speak what’s on our hearts.

In John’s gospel Jesus says these words:

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.  You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” (John 15:14-16)

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Jesus began his public ministry preaching, “the kingdom of God is near; change course and believe the good news.”  And the people who heard Jesus speak were thrilled to hear these words, because the prophets had spoken of a time when God would establish a kingdom characterized by peace and justice and righteousness. So when they heard Jesus talking about a kingdom, they thought he meant the kingdom of Israel, and thought he was going to get rid of the Roman Empire.  And on that first Palm Sunday, it seemed like this might actually happen.  The words of the prophet Zechariah began to be fulfilled:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Zechariah 9:9-10)

So Jesus borrowed the colt of a donkey to let the people know he was the king Zechariah had spoken of. But his kingdom was going to be much larger than just Israel.  Zechariah said ‘from the river to the ends of the earth’ – and that wasn’t going to happen just yet.  So even today we live in the now-and-the-not-yet, with a prophecy that has partly come true, but the rest is yet to come.

People on that first Palm Sunday didn’t fully understand what Jesus was doing. Luke tells us in his gospel:

“As [Jesus] came near and saw [Jerusalem], he wept over it, saying, “If you… had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-42)

…because the people were looking for an earthly king.

The chief priests and scribes were making the same mistake, except they saw Jesus as a threat rather than a promise.  That’s why they were always asking Jesus, “by what authority do you do these things?” Their concern was with their job security. They felt threatened by Jesus’ popularity and by the miracles he performed.  And John reports they said to one another:

“If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (John 11:48)

When the time comes to arrest Jesus, on the night of Maundy Thursday, these religious leaders will turn Jesus over to the Roman authorities on the grounds that Jesus claimed to be a king. Without that accusation they would have had no grounds on which to ask for capital punishment. They had to prove treason. So that’s what they accused him of, in front of Pilate.

And Pilate, meeting Jesus, asked him, “are you a king?” And Jesus answered, “you say so.” But in John’s gospel we get a more detailed conversation. John writes:

“Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”  Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”  Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him.” (John 18:33-38)

Later on, when Jesus had been nailed to the cross, Pilate added the piece of wood above his head, which told what he was accused of: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”

“Then the chief priests… said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’”  Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”” (John 19:21-22)

This is our King. Palm Sunday begins the course of events that will show Jesus’ power to the world: power to love, power to give, power to conquer evil with good. And the power of God’s life over death.

As we enter into the most solemn week of the year, and approach the day when our king gave his life for us, in his name, and by his command, and following his kingly example, we care for one another, and share our faith and our hope and our love with one another.  AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, Palm Sunday 2018

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[Scripture reading: 2 Kings 23:1-6, 21-25 reprinted at the end]

In the beginning… there were matinee idols. Errol Flynn. Clark Gable. Greta Garbo. Then there were pop idols: Elvis Presley. The Beatles. And then there was American Idol – pop stars taken from anonymity to fame for our young people to look up to.

This week in our Lenten series on “Giving Up…” things for Lent, we’ll be looking at Giving Up Idols.

Parents of teenagers have never been entirely comfortable with the younger generation’s idols, but most parents figure it’s just a phase. The kids will grow out of it, right?

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But I think this is only a tiny, tiny part of what the Bible is talking about when it talks about idols.

And the Bible does talk about idols a lot! In fact the words idols or false gods – between those two phrases – appear over 400 times in the Bible.

For most of us, when we hear the word ‘idol’, we either think of pop idols or we think of those statues people in ancient times used to worship: false gods with names like Dagon or Molech or Ba’al, idols carved out of stone or wood, and worshiped by primitive people who didn’t know any better.

But ancient people weren’t stupid. They knew these statues were just representations of things in the spirit world.  The statues represented concepts like health or fertility or wealth. And the worshipers were worshiping the spirit world, not the statues.

But the priests of the false gods demanded sacrifices: sometimes even human sacrifices. And so these ancient religions brought death to their worshipers, not life, partly because following the so-called ‘gods’ made people to do unholy things; and partly because they were worshiping a lie. And as the apostle Paul says, these gods don’t exist anyway.

No wonder the one true and living God, who loves all he has created, objects to people worshiping what isn’t real and following lies that will destroy them.

But what about us today?  We don’t talk much about ‘idolatry’ much any more – the word has gone out of fashion kind of like the word ‘repent’.  But idols are still very much with us, and their lies are still very much with us. “Fake news,” for example, puts lies in the mouths of celebrities who never said any such thing; or may put forward propaganda in a way that people are tempted to believe it.  Perpetrators of fake news are counting on the fact people have idols and can be led astray by them.

Idols can also be things we spend too much time or money on. Buying stuff. Having the best. Tucking money away. Spending too much time with the TV (or Facebook). We even make idols out of God’s blessings sometimes: good gifts like careers or friends or family or food or exercise.

Anything that becomes more important to us than God, or that gets in the way of God being the Lord of our lives, is an idol. And God knows that idols eventually lead us into death.  And what’s more, idols steer our love and loyalty away from the people around us who need what God has given us to share.

I saw a quote the other day that speaks to this. Given that idols are objects of our praise, the quote said: “Biblical praise – is always both praise of the true Lord, and praise against all false lords – human and nonhuman – who seek to set themselves up in God’s place… prais[ing God] not only evokes a world, it also undoes, it deconstructs, all other worlds.”

Once we become convinced that only God is worthy of our worship, and we decide to get rid of our idols (whatever they may be) we may find it difficult to get rid of them. They’re not easy to shake.

The temptation is to try to tear our idols down. We’ve had them up on a pedestal and it’s so easy when we’ve put something on a pedestal to throw it down and break it. Think of how many famous people – even in the news recently – have been on pedestals for years and then their reputations all of a sudden are smashed on the ground. The problem is, throwing things off pedestals is just the flip side of building them up.  We are still relating to the idol. Our attention is still on it.

But throughout scripture, when God confronts idolatry, God’s words are always “put it away”.  Not ‘tear it down’.  ‘Put it away’ – like a parent telling a child to put a toy back in its box. Leave it where it is, God says, and let’s you and me do something else.

All through scripture God says to His people ‘put it away’.

  • In Genesis (35:2) God says to Jacob’s family, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you…”
  • When the Israelites were entering the Promised Land, God says, (Joshua 24:14) “put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt.”
  • When the prophet Ezekiel was comforting a nation in exile God said, (Ezekiel 43:9) “let them put away their idolatry… and I will reside among them forever.”
  • And even at the end of the book of Revelation, as God’s judgement is being poured out on the earth at the end of time, people still have not given up their idols. The apostle John writes: (Revelation 9:20) “…they did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols …”

From Genesis to Revelation God has been saying to his people “put them away”.

So this Lent, let’s put away anything that comes between us and God: anything that is more important to us than God.  And for those people and things in our lives who we love and that are important to us – place them in God’s hands, for God’s blessing. By doing this, we will love them even better, because we’ve set them free to be who they are in the Lord.

So let’s free ourselves of serving anything that can’t save or satisfy. Let’s put away all idols and live our lives as God intended – free to serve the Lord of Love. AMEN.

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2 Kings 23:1-6, 21-25  Then the king [Josiah] directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him.  2 The king went up to the house of the LORD, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the LORD.  3 The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the LORD, to follow the LORD, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.

 4 The king commanded the high priest Hilkiah, the priests of the second order, and the guardians of the threshold, to bring out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel.  5 He deposed the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to make offerings in the high places at the cities of Judah and around Jerusalem; those also who made offerings to Baal, to the sun, the moon, the constellations, and all the host of the heavens.  6 He brought out the image of Asherah from the house of the LORD, outside Jerusalem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people.

The king commanded all the people, “Keep the Passover to the LORD your God as prescribed in this book of the covenant.”  22 No such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah;  23 but in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem.

 24 Moreover Josiah put away the mediums, wizards, teraphim, idols, and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, so that he established the words of the law that were written in the book that the priest Hilkiah had found in the house of the LORD.  25 Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.

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Preached at Wednesday Lenten Lunch Series, Carnegie Ministerium, St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2/21/18

 

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

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

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

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Hymn Text: O Little Town of Bethlehem

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

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

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

~~~~~~~~~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O Little Town of Bethlehem concludes with these words:

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

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

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

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

❤ Merry Christmas ❤

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Christmas Eve, 2017

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