Archive for the ‘End Times’ Category

[Jesus said:] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.Matthew 25:1-13

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:31-46


Today we have the last in our mini-series on the end times teachings in Matthew’s Gospel. The Bible has a lot more to say about the last days but today’s reading wraps up what Jesus said about his return in Matthew.

Whenever I read Matthew chapter 25 it always reminds me of Kenneth Branagh’s autobiography Beginning. Ken Branagh is an actor probably best known in the States for playing Professor Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but he first became famous for directing and starring in a movie production of Shakespeare’s Henry V and then writing his autobiography, all by the age of 25. The last line in his autobiography is a quote from Hamlet: “the readiness is all.” In the context of that quote, Hamlet is talking about facing death – facing the end – and the full quote is: “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.”

That’s what Jesus is saying in this chapter: “The readiness is all.” The glory of God in the kingdom of God can be ours – if we are ready. And Jesus gives us three illustrations in this chapter.

The first illustration is the parable of the ten bridesmaids. In Jesus’ day, bridesmaids would meet either at the bride’s home or the groom’s home and wait for the groom’s arrival, and then escort him and light his way to where the wedding would take place. It was not unusual in those days for the groom to be late; life back then didn’t run on clocks and schedules the way we do. The bridesmaids should have anticipated the possibility. As it turned out, this particular groom was really late, even by ancient standards – the bridesmaids fell asleep waiting for him.

Don’t we sometimes find ourselves doing the same thing? We’re so looking forward to the arrival of our bridegroom Jesus, and we wonder what’s keeping him. But sometimes we fall asleep while we’re waiting, and there’s no criticism in Matthew for doing that. The problem comes when the call is finally heard: “Behold the Bridegroom!” – and all the bridesmaids are taken by surprise, and the oil lamps have been burning so long they’re almost out of oil.

The wise bridesmaids brought extra oil with them. The not-so-wise bridesmaids didn’t do that. So they said to the wise women, “Give us some of your oil.” But the wise ones said, “If we do we’ll run out. Go to the store and get more.” And they did, and while they were away the groom came and the wedding started, and they were shut out.

So our lamps – our light, the light we have within us – is spiritual light. The question, then, is how can we keep our lamps lit? How can we stay filled spiritually? There are a few ways:

  • Reading God’s word – being in the Bible every day and talking about it with others
  • Praying – both formal prayer and just chatting with God through the day
  • Spending time with God’s people – both in church and in daily life. The book of Acts says the early disciples were always together, ‘breaking bread together’ and praising God together. We need each other, to inspire and encourage each other
  • Doing what God created us to do. And that’s what the rest of this chapter in Matthew is about.

In the scripture passages above we skipped over the Parable of the Talents, but just for a quick summary: God gives every person gifts to invest in the world, and we are responsible for investing those gifts wisely. In the parable, the person with five talents makes five more; the person with two talents makes two more. Notice the person with two talents is not expected to make five: we don’t need to compare ourselves with others. It is enough to invest what we have. But the servant with one talent is afraid and hides his talent and does nothing with it, and Jesus calls him ‘wicked and lazy’ and takes away what little he has and gives it to the one with five.

Each one of us knows better than anyone what talents we’ve been given. (BTW if you’re not sure what your gifts are – and that’s not unusual – there are tools available to help discern that. Leave me a note in the comments and I’ll send some recommendations.) But how to we use what we have for God’s kingdom and God’s glory? How do we do what Jesus is asking us to do?

Jesus answer these questions – at least in part – in the third parable. This story about the sheep and the goats is a picture of the Judgement Day. Jesus says all the people from all the nations will be assembled in front of Jesus’ throne, and Jesus will separate them like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. And he puts the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Jesus has nothing against left-handers by the way: this is just a literary device, but in this particular story the right-hand side is where you want to be.

Jesus says to the sheep on his right: “Come, blessed of my Father! Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world.” God planned all this from the get-go. From the very beginning of creation God knew you and loved you and had glorious plans for you.

King Jesus says “come blessed of my Father” because “when I was hungry, you gave me something to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me a drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.” The word ‘welcomed’ in the Greek means not just ‘you said hi’ but ‘you included me’.

Jesus says, “When I was naked, you clothed me” – again the Greek implies more. It implies protection, like putting a curtain around someone so their nakedness can’t be seen. Jesus says, “When I was sick, you cared for me” – and again, the Greek implies more than the English translation. In fact the word in Greek is the word we get Episcopal from, which is usually translated bishop, which means overseer – in other words, you saw to my health care. You took charge of it. It’s like the parable of the Good Samaritan, who takes the beaten man to a hotel and gives the manager money and says, “do whatever he needs and when I come back I’ll pay you the balance.” That’s what it means to care for the sick. And Jesus also says, “when I was in prison, you came to me.”

And the righteous will answer, “Lord, when did we ever see you like this and take care of you?” And the King will answer, “truly I tell you, as many times as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

You want to know how to build up that reserve of oil? Feed the hungry. Give water to the thirsty. Welcome the stranger. Protect the naked. Care for the sick. Spend time with prisoners.

Does this mean we’re saved by the good things we do? NO. We are saved by grace alone through faith in Jesus alone. But if you want to build up the supply of oil, this is how it’s done. Not all of us are called to do all these things; not all of us are gifted in all these things; but all of us have gifts in something. Putting those gifts to use in the service of others is what builds up the oil supply. And it takes time. That’s why you can’t just pick up oil at the last minute, or borrow it from someone else.

Today in the year 2020 we live in very uncertain times. We need to be always ready. We don’t know when Jesus will arrive, but we know someday he will, and we need to be vigilant, we need to be watching, and we need to be doing what he created us to do. As Shakespeare said: “the readiness is all.” AMEN.



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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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As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. Then he asked them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.” Matthew 24:1-14


As we head deeper and deeper into this pandemic time I’ve heard people wondering – sometimes joking, sometimes seriously – if we could be heading into the end times. (My personal opinion is ‘not yet’ but of course I could be wrong.)

Which is why I wanted to jump ahead a few chapters in Matthew to the place where the disciples ask Jesus about the end times.

In the Bible we have basically two places to go to learn about the ‘last days’: (1) Jesus’ teachings in the gospels, and (2) the book of Revelation. Revelation was written to the persecuted church after the fall of Jerusalem, after the destruction of the temple which Jesus talks about in this passage. And Revelation is written to encourage people whose lives are very difficult – because the nation has been invaded and many of them have been scattered; they’ve become refugees. The Book of Revelation is meant to comfort them with the knowledge that God is still in charge and Jesus wins in the end, in spite of how things look.

Because Revelation is meant to be an encouragement in tough times, I’m thinking it might be a good place to go when we finish Matthew. If you like that idea – or if you don’t like that idea – please leave a note in the comments. I appreciate your feedback.

In the meantime let’s look at what Jesus has to say about the end times in Matthew, keeping in mind that unlike Revelation, Jesus isn’t trying to be encouraging here. Jesus’ purpose is to warn the disciples of dangers that lie ahead and to say “be ready”.

Note this is the last major teaching Jesus gives before his death, and it goes on for a few chapters. We’ll just be looking at the first couple paragraphs this week and we’ll do more in the weeks ahead.

To set the stage: this conversation takes place during the week between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. It’s the last week of Jesus’ life before the crucifixion. Jesus has been teaching in the temple, and he has had a number of confrontations with the scribes and the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

Our passage for today opens immediately after Jesus finishes reaming out the Pharisees for being hypocrites (Matt 23:13-37). Then Matthew writes: “as Jesus came out of the temple and was going away…”

You can almost imagine the dark cloud hanging over Jesus’ head. No matter what he says to these religious leaders they don’t hear him. Jesus has tried miracles, theological arguments, posing questions from scripture, you name it, but they keep on (as Jesus says) donating 10% of their “mint and dill” to the offering plate while overlooking the big items like “justice and mercy and faith.” (Matt 23:23)

And so Jesus leaves the temple. As he does, I imagine the disciples trying to lift his spirits by pointing out the magnificent architecture of the temple. Anyone who’s ever walked into a large church or cathedral – you know it has the effect of lifting the spirits and reminding us deeply of God.

But it doesn’t work for Jesus. Instead he answers, “Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The disciples are silenced. Together they walk out the west gate of the city of Jerusalem, down the hill, across the Kidron Valley, through the Garden of Gethsemane, and up the side of the Mount of Olives. Here Jesus sits down on the hillside looking over the city of Jerusalem.

On the Mount of Olives there are a lot of olive trees (hence the name) – so the disciples probably fixed a snack which probably included olives, and olive oil (which was made there) which is great for dipping bread in. And then after awhile they returned to Jesus and ask the question that’s been on their minds all afternoon:

“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

The disciples instinctively know Jesus is talking about the end times, and their question shows that they are convinced that Jesus is the Messiah. They’re expecting Jesus to make a move, to do something to initiate the kingdom of God. And they’re right: Jesus will make a move in just a few days, but the kingdom isn’t coming the way they expect it will. They’re still expecting a Messiah who will deliver Israel from the Romans and from the Jewish leaders who have lost faith.

But they begin to understand this as soon as Jesus starts answering the question. Jesus says:

“Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Jesus packs a LOT into this one paragraph!

First and foremost Jesus says, “beware that no one leads you astray.”  Jesus actually warns against being led astray three times in his reply. When God repeats something three times, pay attention!

It raises the question how might a believer be led astray? The first thing Jesus warns against is people claiming to be the Messiah. As I was reading these words this week I thought to myself: there may be a lot of false prophets around these days, but we haven’t seen too many false messiahs lately. But then I Googled it and found out I was wrong. There’s a whole Wikipedia page full: “List of Messiah Claimants”. It includes Rev Moon of the Moonies, David Koresh of the Branch Davidians… for those of you in the UK, there’s David Icke and David Shayler… and for those of you in Australia there’s A.J. Miller. And there are a lot more world-wide. Being a false Messiah is big business these days.

And then there are false prophets. These are people who don’t claim to be the Messiah but who come to us in the name of Jesus teaching things Jesus would never teach. The apostle John writes:

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (I John 4:1)

And if that was true back then, how much more is it true now? Test the spirits always. Any teacher who speaks in the name of Jesus – including myself – hold the words up against scripture. Ask yourself: does this person give glory to God? Does this person lead you to want to know God more? Does this person love? The apostle John says:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (I John 4:7-8)

The great Bible teacher Charles Simeon wrote in his commentary on this passage: “Let us above all things cultivate a spirit of love… [and] let us ask of God the assistance of the Holy Spirit.” These are the two sure ways of avoiding false prophets and false teachers: love, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

If you listen to a false prophet or a false teacher, you won’t walk away feeling love. You may walk away feeling proud, or feeling angry at people who aren’t carrying their weight. You may walk away with some of the greatest mic-drop comments you’ve ever heard in your life. You may walk away feeling frustrated that Jesus isn’t fixing the problems in the world. You may walk away feeling like you’ve found the most amazing pastor in the world, and you’re so lucky to know him, but your focus is more on the pastor than on Jesus. I knew a pastor a few years ago who said to his congregation, “don’t follow me, follow Jesus.” That’s a real pastor, because a real pastor leads you to Jesus.

Jesus said: Beware that no-one leads you astray from God. Jesus goes on to say:

“you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

I’m over 60 years old now and I can’t remember a time when there were NOT wars and rumors of wars in the world, or when there were NOT famines and earthquakes and other disasters (of which this pandemic is yet another).  I bet if you asked an 80-year-old they’d say the same thing. All these evils in the world have been in the world as long as there’s been human history. The thing is, with world-wide instantaneous media we now know more about these disasters, and much sooner, than people did in the past. I think that may be part of why it seems like they never stop. But Jesus says this is just the beginning.

Jesus says:

“Then they will hand you over to be tortured (some translations say ‘oppressed’ or ‘afflicted’ – it may not be specifically torture) and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.”

Jesus doesn’t say this to make us paranoid. And it doesn’t mean every Christian on earth will die a violent death. It means for all of us it’s a possibility, and we need to count the cost. We need to be aware that people in the past have given their lives for the sake of the gospel, and in some countries today people still do give their lives rather than deny Christ, and we may be called to do the same.

As a result, Jesus says, “many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.” Again, Jesus’ concern is that we not be led astray. Don’t let anything come between you and Jesus. Don’t let anything in your life be more important than Jesus.

Jesus continues: “because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.”

Brothers and sisters, we live in a time of lawlessness. I don’t need to go into the details of what this means to us today. When Jesus speaks of lawlessness, he’s speaking of the Ten Commandments and he’s saying people aren’t obeying them. And many of our laws today have their roots in the Ten Commandments: thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness in court – these laws are still on the books today.

The problem with living in a time of lawlessness is it’s dangerous. Safety goes out the window and it becomes every man for himself, every woman for herself. And the bottom line result is that love grows cold, because everybody’s looking out for themselves. It’s not safe to love any more. This is the greatest tragedy that can come to any people, to lose the ability to love. God is love, and if love is too dangerous then we’ve lost God. We’ve left God behind.

And isn’t that exactly what we’re seeing going on around us during this time of pandemic? People afraid that their rights are being taken away; people afraid to go to the grocery store because others don’t love enough to put a mask on? We see young men dead in our streets, we see broken storefronts, and at our borders we see children being torn away from their parents, while our national leaders are so immobilized by the disgust they feel for each other that they can’t even work together. And the question is, where is love?

When lawlessness has the upper hand, it takes great courage to keep on following Jesus, to keeping on loving, to keep on offering hospitality to people we come in contact with, no matter who they are, no matter where they come from, in the name of Jesus.

Jesus says, “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” That is, the one who stands their ground. That’s a word of encouragement.

And Jesus also says:

“This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.”

People are working on this as we speak. There’s a group called Wycliffe Bible Translators here in the US and also in the UK and Ireland who are working on translating the Bible into every language on earth. They’re aiming to have at least one book of the Bible in every language by the year 2025 – which is ambitious, but it also indicates they’re getting closer. Having the good news proclaimed throughout the world won’t take a whole lot longer.

So I’d like to end today by recapping Jesus’ advice to the disciples, because it still very much applies to us today. Beware no one leads you astray. No matter what happens, stay close to Jesus, look for his love, listen for the Spirit.

Don’t be alarmed by what you see and hear. I know that’s not easy: but be aware whatever we see on the news, God already knows, and God is still in charge. Don’t be alarmed – but also understand that as society becomes more lawless ‘the love of many will grow cold’. Don’t let your love grow cold.

As one young writer for Christianity Today wrote last week, what we listen to forms us and shapes our lives. If we listen to anger, anger will grow in us. If we listen to sarcasm, sarcasm will grow in us. If we listen to pride, pride will grow in us. If we listen to fear, fear will grow in us. But if we listen to Jesus, the Lord of Love will grow in us. Who and what do we want to be formed by?

Hold on to Jesus – the King of Kings the Lord of Lords, and the Lord of love – with confidence and with assurance, and don’t let go. 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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It’s Memorial Day weekend!  I hope you’ll have a chance to relax a bit with family and friends this weekend. Tomorrow we will remember all the men and women who served our country and gave their lives so that we could live in freedom and safety. It’s comforting on a holiday like this to hear the words we just heard from Revelation, where God says: “…he will wipe every tear from their eyes; death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more…”  We worship a God who is not ashamed to know, and to enter into, our pain and our grief; and who promises us one day all things will be made right.

I sometimes wish we Christians had a Memorial Day for the faith: a day to remember those who have given their lives so that we could have eternal life. Some of the people we would honor would include people we met in our scripture readings today: the apostles Paul and John, the disciple Timothy, and of course Jesus. All of them gave their lives so that we could know the joy of knowing God. It is fitting that we should remember them today.

What I wanted to focus on today is the vision that guided these men of faith.  All three of our scripture readings today have to do with vision (or visions), each in their own way.  In Acts, Paul has a literal vision of a man from Macedonia; in Revelation, John shares with us a vision of heaven; and in the gospel reading from John, Jesus shares a vision of God.  Today I’d like to spend a little bit of time with each of these visions, in hope they will be an inspiration to us as well.  I’ll be working chronologically backwards, starting with the vision in Revelation.

The apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 15:19: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”  In other words, if this world is all there is, and we have been following a Messiah who talks about a different world, when there really isn’t one – then we will have lived our one and only life caught up in a lie. BUT! If Jesus’ words are true, then our hope and our joy begin now, in this life, and carry into the world to come.

Revelation gives us a glimpse of that world to come.  (One of these days I’m going to preach a sermon, maybe a whole series, on the book of Revelation because there is so much good stuff in here, and so much that is relevant to our time, but for now just a glimpse.) Bear in mind Revelation was written to a church going through tough times, to encourage them and to remind them God hasn’t forgotten them.

In these verses from Revelation, John shares with us a vision of the eternal city, the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming out of heaven, prepared and decorated like a bride for her husband; and God says, “behold, God’s home is with mortals… they will be his peoples (and that word is plural: many peoples) and God will be with them.”  And he will wipe away every tear; he will make all things new. God will give to the thirsty a drink from the fountain of the water of life.

The Holy City

In John’s vision, this beautiful, radiant city is also called the wife of the Lamb. When I hear the words ‘holy city’ what I usually see in my mind’s eye is white stone skyscrapers and city walls glowing in the sunlight… but I think that’s the wrong vision. The city is people, not buildings; just like the church is people, not buildings. The wife of the Lamb is not real estate; she is a living, breathing bride, made up of all of us together.  And it will take all of us together to make a bride worthy of Jesus.  How that will all work out, I don’t know. Revelation is an allegory, it’s not meant to be read literally; but it begins to give us a vision.

John continues to share his vision, and he says: in this city, running through it, running through the middle of the main street, is the river of the water of life. The river’s source is the throne of God and the throne of the Lamb. On either side of that river is the tree of life, with twelve kinds of fruit, one fruit for each month.  And the leaves of the tree of life are to be used for “the healing of the nations”.

When you consider how much violence is done every day in our world, and how many days there have been since the world began… that’s a lot of healing to do. How great is God’s healing power! And God Himself will be the light in the city; there’s no need for lamp or sun, and God and the Lamb “will reign for ever and ever.”  But that’s not all: this scene includes the Bride – us – God’s servants, elevated to the throne as well. Or perhaps more accurately, restored to the place Adam and Eve were originally given before the fall of the human race.

What will make this city different from all others is that, as John says, “nothing accursed will be found there”.  Anyone who has denied or abandoned God – the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and liars – these will have been removed and they will no longer trouble us.  We will enjoy God’s presence, as the Bride of the Lamb, always.

This vision, this future, is a great part of what makes the Christian life worthwhile. But it’s still a ways off.  In the present, being a servant of God can sometimes mean a life full of curve balls. Paul’s vision in Acts is a great example of this.

Just before our reading in Acts, Paul was traveling and evangelizing with Silas and Timothy throughout the regions of Phrygia and Galatia, which is in the center of what is today known as Turkey. From where they were, the logical next step would have been to either turn right (north) and preach in Bithynia, or turn left (south) and preach in what is now western Turkey – both of which were highly populated areas. But scripture tells us Paul and his companions were “prevented” by the Holy Spirit from going in either direction.

This is unusual. Usually the idea, speaking as a preacher, is to preach in all the places one possibly can, so as reach as many people as possible.  I’m reminded of John Wesley (I’m reading his memoirs right now) who often preached three or four sermons in a day, in three or four different cities, and then rode on horseback to another city and did it all over again the next day! Or remember the Billy Graham crusades: would Billy Graham ever say ‘no’ to a city that asked him to preach? Not that I ever heard of.

But in this case, Paul is clearly told ‘don’t go there’.  And he sees a vision of a man from Macedonia, pleading with him and begging him to “come over to Macedonia and help us.”  This vision is not a figment of Paul’s imagination, and it’s not a dream; it is a supernatural experience, and it most likely came to Paul while he was praying. But the vision’s instructions are not detailed: how to interpret and obey the vision was up to Paul and his companions. God in His wisdom chooses to invite mere mortals to help flesh out the plans.

By the way, this is not the only time God used a vision of a messengers to communicate an outreach strategy. Paul’s story reminds me of the story of St. Patrick, who had a similar experience. Patrick had a dream in which he saw a man coming from Ireland. The man handed him a letter with the heading Vox Hiberniae – ‘the Voice of the Irish’. And as he read the letter, he heard the people he had known in Ireland (when he was younger) calling to him: “…come and walk among us once again.”

St. Patrick was British; he had been a slave in Ireland when he was young. He escaped from Ireland and made it home to Britain, where he became a priest, and then he had this vision.  I imagine St. Patrick’s first reaction must have been surprise, at the very least: God wants him to go back to the land where he had been a slave? It’s probably not what Patrick had in mind for his ministry. And Macedonia was probably not what Paul had in mind for his ministry.

Both Patrick and Paul had dreams and plans for their ministries that ended up going by the wayside because God had something else in mind. And it must have been frustrating at first. But as Patrick and Paul followed God’s lead, opportunities for ministry opened up like they’d never dreamed of. St. Patrick spent the rest of his life ministering to the people of Ireland, and he is credited with single-handedly bringing the Christian faith to Ireland. (He did have some help but he did the lion’s share of the work.)

Back in Turkey, Paul and his friends got on a boat and sailed to the region of Macedonia, to the city of Neapolis, which was the main harbor for the nearby city of Philippi.  Once in Philippi, life continued to take unexpected turns. Ministering there would eventually bring them close to the heart of the Roman Empire, because Philippi was a Roman colony. But at first, nothing happened.  They were in the city a number of days doing nothing in terms of ministry.  Then, on the Sabbath, they went to look for people who believed in the God of Israel – who (if there were any) would be gathering outside the city. And they went to the banks of the river, probably expecting to run into a Macedonian man, and instead they meet a Thyatiran woman!  Ironically, Thyatira is one of the cities God had told them not to go to when they were in Turkey.  Turns out the Thyatirans got to hear the message through her.

Lydia was not just any woman: she was “a businesswoman” and “a dealer in purple cloth”: she was a successful person with influence. Paul and his companions had come on this journey planning to give to others – which they did, preaching the good news of Jesus – but they also found themselves in the position of needing to receive: specifically, food and shelter. So after Lydia and her whole household were baptized, she urged them to come to her house and stay.  The word ‘urge’ in Greek has the same root as paraclete, which is a word used to describe the Holy Spirit: it means ‘to come alongside’ and stay alongside. Lydia didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and it’s a beautiful expression of her new-found faith.

All of this happened as a result of a vision that started out with the message, “don’t preach here – preach over there instead”. We never know where God’s vision is going to lead us.

The final vision in our readings today is in the gospel of John. In this passage Jesus gives us a vision of our amazing God.  As we read and hear this passage I think it’s important not to try to understand it literally, that is, with an analytical mind.  This passage is more like a song, and it needs to be interpreted from the same part of our hearts that music would be.

In this short passage, Jesus is (as they say on the TV show The Bachelor) “putting himself out there.”  He’s saying ‘I love you and here’s what I have to offer: will you accept me, will you be mine?’ And he’s letting us know the road ahead with him won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

Listen to Jesus’ words as he tells the disciples – and through them, us – the plans he has in mind. Jesus says:

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But [when I’m not here on earth with you any more] the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

“You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it does happen, you will know and believe.

“Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” – literally translated, ‘we will share your tent’.

I love that phrase, ‘sharing a tent’. Back in those days, tents were large and well-equipped, big enough for a family, and the words stir up images of cozy family life. It also speaks of our share in the Holy Spirit while we are here in this earthly tent. When the heavenly tent comes… well, that can only happen if Jesus goes back to the Father and gets it ready. And so we rejoice because that’s where Jesus is, and that’s what he’s doing right now: getting the tent ready.

The question then remains: Jesus has ‘put himself out there’ for us; will we ‘put ourselves out there’ for Jesus?  Loving Jesus may take us on some very unexpected paths and journeys. But do not let your hearts be troubled: His peace and his Spirit are with us.  So will we love him back? Everything in life – everything – hinges on our answer to this question.

Let’s pray.  Lord, thank you for the visions you share with us, and for the future you have promised us.  Thank you for loving us and ‘putting yourself out there’ for us.  Guide us now, as you guided Paul and John. Stir up our hearts to love, and give us a vision for the future you have in mind, to your honor and glory. AMEN.


May 26

Easter 6

Memorial Day Weekend

Acts 16:9-15

Rev 21:1-10, 22:1-5

John 14:23-29


 Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church

 Acts 16:9-15  During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.  11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis,  12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.  13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.  14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.  15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Revelation 21:1-10, 22:1-5  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.  7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.  8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

9 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”  10 And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb  2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  3 Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him;  4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

John 14:23-29  Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.  29 And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.



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My heart is full of admiration
For you my Lord, my God and King
Your excellence – my inspiration
Your words of grace have made my spirit sing

You love what’s right and hate what’s evil
Therefore your God sets you on high
And on your head pours oil of gladness
While fragrance fills your royal palaces

All the glory, honor, and power belong to you
Belong to you
Jesus, Saviour, Anointed One I worship You
I worship You 

Your throne O God will last forever
Justice will be Your royal decree
In majesty ride out victorious
For righteousness, truth, and humility


~Graham Kendrick’s paraphrase of Psalm 45~
 (“My Heart is Full of Admiration” – Graham Kendrick, © 1991)
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7Qcbl7-nxc


I’m going a little off-lectionary today for a number of reasons, partly because we’ve been in the books of Samuel and Kings all summer long, and today’s psalm follows nicely from that; and partly because Psalm 45 is one of my all-time favorite passages of scripture and I didn’t want to pass it by.

I was introduced to this psalm back in the 90s when it was paraphrased and set to music by an Englishman by the name of Graham Kendrick (see above). You may know him as the guy who wrote the song Shine Jesus Shine. Kendrick’s version of Psalm 45 is what I came down the aisle to when Neil and I were married – 18 years ago this month.

Kendrick interpreted Psalm 45 as a praise song to Jesus. But if we look at Psalm 45 (see the end of this post for the text) – we see that Jesus isn’t mentioned at all. In fact the psalm was written around 500 to 1000 years before Jesus was born, give or take a century.  But Kendrick’s interpretation works, and the reason it works is because this psalm has a double meaning.

Psalm 45 is a very unusual psalm in a number of ways. The book of Psalms was basically the hymnal of ancient Israel – it’s a collection of song lyrics for songs that were sung in worship in the temple.  However this Psalm wasn’t written for worship, and it wasn’t written for the temple. This song was written for a civic  occasion: for a royal wedding.

At the beginning of most of the Psalms we find a few comments about the psalm’s source and its use, and this psalm is no exception.  In the Bible the notes above Psalm 45 read: “Ode for a Royal Wedding. To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song.” This last comment – ‘a love song’ – gives us the title for today’s sermon.

A Royal Wedding

What these opening comments tell us is that first off this was meant for a wedding. It doesn’t say whose wedding, and historians disagree on whose wedding it was. I would love to be able to say it was for one of Solomon’s weddings, partly because we’ve been talking about Solomon lately; and partly because it would give us a glimpse into Solomon’s life without any theology involved – just a picture of ‘a day in the life’ of one of Israel’s kings.  But we don’t know for sure who this was written for. If it wasn’t written for Solomon it would have been written for one of the kings of ancient Israel or Judah before the fall of the monarchy.

This psalm has been used in connection with weddings on and off over the years, throughout Israel’s history and throughout church history, sort of in cycles – which leads me to suspect that this is one of those wedding songs that was so popular it got overdone and then was forgotten, and then was re-discovered, and then forgotten again, and then remembered again, kind of like “Here Comes the Bride” in our day. Every few generations the beauty of Psalm 45 is rediscovered, and I think we’re due for a rediscovery.

So continuing with the directions at the beginning of the psalm, it says: “to the leader, according to Lilies.” So this song is to be given to the choir director to be set to music. And Lilies was probably a musical reference of some kind, possibly the tune, possibly the choice of instruments (it might mean “add a string quartet”) – we don’t know for sure. “Of the Korahites” means it was written by the professional temple musicians, which was a group of priests who specialized in writing and performing music for worship. (I have always found it interesting, as a musician, that the position of ‘church musician’ in ancient Israel was an ordained position – theological training required.  I don’t draw any conclusions from that but I note it.)

And then it says “a maskil, a love song”.  The exact meaning of the word “maskil” has also been lost, but it is believed to have something to do with genre. The root of the word ‘maskil’ is related to the Hebrew word for wisdom or understanding. So this is a song that should inspire or teach a truth about God, in spite of the fact the song is not written for worship.

Another reason I love this psalm is because it goes a long way to answering a question I used to pester members of the clergy with when I was young, specifically: ‘where are we going?’  And by that I didn’t mean location.

What I meant was, ‘I hear a lot of talk about God and about heaven, but what is God really like and what is heaven really like? And how does the church help us get there? What is the goal of living life in a Christian way? How can we (as Jesus put it) ‘store up treasure in heaven’ if we don’t know what kind of treasure is going to be needed in heaven? Where are we going with all this religion stuff?’

These aren’t questions with instant answers, and the answers don’t really lie in the realm of reason. Philosophers and theologians have filled volumes trying to answer questions like these. But God’s reality is broader and more complex – and yet in some ways more simple – than anything our minds can hold. The answer to the question ‘where are we going?’ can’t always fully be described in words. The answer may be found more often in the realm of poetry or music…

…which Psalm 45 gives us.  Psalm 45 is about the Messiah and his Bride – that is, Jesus and the Church. Jesus, in whom all the fullness of God dwells; and the Church, in whom all the fullness of God’s people dwell (not the institution, but the human community); these two coming together as partners – in love and in eternity.

Now this is not the only interpretation of the psalm, and it is not the original meaning. And I say this because people have sometimes gone way too far in digging for Christian meanings in this psalm. Some interpreters have seen historical events, some have seen references to the Mother Mary, some interpreters come off sounding like people who are trying to figure out Nostradamus. Let’s not go crazy with this!

I like how one Bible scholar (Peter Craigie) puts it. He says:

“In its original sense and context [Psalm 45] is not in any sense a messianic psalm. And yet within the context of early Christianity (and in Judaism before that) it becomes a messianic psalm par excellence.”

For Christians the tie-in can be found in the book of Hebrews where God says of Jesus:

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever;
A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness;
Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You
With the oil of gladness more than Your companions.”  (Hebrews 1:8-9)

…which is a direct quote from Psalm 45:6-7.

And if, as scripture teaches, the church is to be the bride of Christ, then this is our wedding song! This is will be our love song in heaven. This is our destiny. You want to know where we’re going? We’re right here, stepping right into Psalm 45.

So let’s step into it!  The songwriter starts by declaring his purpose: he says, “I address my verses to the king.”  In ancient times this would have been a standard introduction to a formal event in the royal court. And it reinforces the fact that this psalm was not originally written for the temple or for worship.

Then the songwriter praises the groom, the King. He says the King is “the most handsome of men” but then goes on to describe, not the King’s good looks – he says nothing about hair or eyes or build – but he describes what makes the king inwardly handsome: grace, glory, majesty, and victory in the cause of justice and righteousness.

The military imagery in verse five (“your arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; the peoples fall under you”) may be disturbing for some of us, especially as we try to apply it to Jesus, the Prince of Peace. I like 19th-century preacher Charles Spurgeon’s interpretation: that Jesus’ “arrows” were his words. As Spurgeon puts it, they were “arrows of conviction, of justice, of mercy, of consolation; aimed at the heart and never failing to find their target.”

These are all qualities that a human king may strive for, but none have ever achieved perfectly. But our wedding song, if it’s going to be true, must be about someone who can and does embody all these qualities perfectly; and so we enter into a prophecy of the Messiah.

In the psalm our king stands front and center, dressed in royal robes, smelling of myrrh and aloe and cassia – all three perfumes that are taken from plants that can also be used for healing; which brings to mind the words of Revelation, where the apostle John describes heaven: “on either side of the river was the tree of life… and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev 22:2)  Our king brings healing when he comes.

We enter then into the palace, which is decorated in expensive items made of ivory. As we read verse eight some of us may be reminded of the old hymn Ivory Palaces: “out of the ivory palaces/into a world of woe/only his great eternal love/made my Savior go.”  The lyrics of this hymn speak of how Jesus left this beautiful scene in Psalm 45 to enter into our wounded world, so that we could someday be with him in the ivory palaces.

And in this beautiful palace, brightly lit and smelling of perfume, we begin to hear the music of stringed instruments. The queen and ladies in waiting stand to one side as the bridal procession begins.  And the psalmist says to the bride: forget your people and your father’s house, for the king desires your beauty and he is your lord. From now on the richest of people and nations will seek your favor.  And the bride enters, dressed in robes of many colors (that’s us!) inter-woven with gold. And her bridesmaids follow as she is led to the king.

So Psalm 45 was originally written for a human king in a particular time and place. But it is also a song of the Messiah.  And if all of this sounds too much like mythology, three thoughts:

  1. In Judaism, and in the Eastern Orthodox church, it has become tradition to address a bride and groom as royalty. If you ever go to an Orthodox wedding, you’ll see the bride and groom given crowns to wear during the ceremony. Even though Psalm 45 was written for a secular event, there is a rich spiritual meaning in it.
  2. In verse six where the psalmist writes “Your throne O God endures forever” – this cannot refer to a human king because no human king has lived forever. This line was interpreted as referring to the Messiah long before Jesus was born.
  3. CS Lewis writes that if the Christian story sounds like a myth of some kind, he says the meaning of the word myth “contrary to popular usage, is not simply a story that isn’t true. A myth is truth communicated in story-form.” And he adds, “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as other myths [do], but with [a] tremendous difference… it really happened.”

Psalm 45 gives us a truth, in myth-form, in poem form, so that it can address and satisfy our hearts as well as our minds; our imaginations as well as our sight. This is a work of art designed to address and delight our whole selves.

So as we apply it to ourselves, and try to answer the questions “where are we going?” and “what is heaven all about?” a few final thoughts:

  • Just as the bride in verse ten is called to leave her people and her father’s house, we also are called to leave our home, this earth, behind. The bride is told: “the king desires your beauty” – and our focus needs to be on the King: on Jesus. Not looking back but looking forward. As the apostle Paul says: “forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead,  I press on toward the goal…” (Phil. 3:13-14a)  Jesus is our goal. Jesus is the King of heaven, who rules over the Promised Land that we’re going to.
  • There’s another scripture passage that speaks of our future in terms of marriage, and that’s Isaiah 62:4-5, where the prophet writes: “You shall no more be called Forsaken, and your land shall no more be called Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”This is our future. This is the answer to the question ‘where are we going?’
  • To quote CS Lewis again: “This is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight…”

‘Where we are going’ is a place of joy and delight. We go to a King beautiful beyond the power of words to describe. How then can we prepare for this?  Anything we can do in the meantime to increase in our hearts the capacity for holy delight; anything we can do to introduce others to our king, so they can share in our joy; anything that we can do to bring our King’s qualities of grace and justice and righteousness into our world; these things will help prepare us for where we’re going.

And if you get a chance this week, make this psalm your prayer to Jesus. AMEN.


Psalm 45
Ode for a Royal Wedding
To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song.

My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
I address my verses to the king;
my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

You are the most handsome of men;
grace is poured upon your lips;
therefore God has blessed you forever.
Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one,
in your glory and majesty.

In your majesty ride on victoriously
for the cause of truth and to defend the right;
let your right hand teach you dread deeds.
Your arrows are sharp
in the heart of the king’s enemies;
the peoples fall under you.

Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.
Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;
    you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;
    your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.
From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad;
    daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor;
at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

10 Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear;
forget your people and your father’s house,
11     and the king will desire your beauty.
Since he is your lord, bow to him;
12     the people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts,
the richest of the people 13 with all kinds of wealth.

The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes;
14     in many-colored robes she is led to the king;
behind her the virgins, her companions, follow.
15 With joy and gladness they are led along
as they enter the palace of the king.

16 In the place of ancestors you, O king, shall have sons;
you will make them princes in all the earth.
17 I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations;
therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh, 9/2/18



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[The Prophet Isaiah writes:] “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; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 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. 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.

“For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11


Advent Hymn of the Day: Hail to the Lord’s Anointed


Well here we are on third Sunday of Advent already, only eight days away from Christmas! Are you ready? Are you ready for the coming of the Messiah?

Our Advent hymn for this week, and our reading from Isaiah, talk about what it’s going to mean for this world when the Messiah gets here: things are going to change in a big way.

Our scripture from Isaiah puts me in mind of some friends I knew back in seminary, who moved to Troy, NY, after graduation to serve in the inner city.  Troy is near Albany, a couple hours north of New York City, but the place is like Pittsburgh in that it has an industrial past that died out in the 1970s. But unlike Pittsburgh, Troy is only now beginning to come back from the loss of its industry.

So my friends moved to Troy, found some inexpensive housing, and then started prayer-walking the neighborhood. They met people and talked to them and listened to their hopes and their fears. People who lived there thought my friends were just a little crazy. Didn’t they know this was a dangerous place? Didn’t they know you don’t just walk up to strangers and start conversations? But my friends prayed, and listened, and shared scriptures when they could, and when they didn’t give up, and it became clear they weren’t going to move out, people started to listen to the Good News.

My friends started a Bible study group among the people they met on the streets. And they did things like organize candle-light Christmas caroling on the streets of the city, or offering a free hot dog night in the park. They took over an abandoned café and started holding church services there. They started an after-school safe-place for the kids. And then they added an “open-mic night” for budding musicians. They provided food, and friendship, and they taught the kids about God’s love… and the kids went home and told their parents about God. And now, in the inner city of Troy, a church is growing, and faith is growing, and hope is growing.

My friends named the church “Oaks of Righteousness” taken from the words of Isaiah in our scripture reading today (Isaiah 61:3). Isaiah says:

“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.”

Isaiah chapter 61 also tells us why God is sending the Messiah.  In fact, Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 in his very first sermon, which is in Luke chapter 4.  Jesus says:

“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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. […] Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)

So Jesus got up in the synagogue one Saturday, read a passage that everyone knew was about the Messiah, and then sat down and said, “Here I am!”  Luke says “the people were amazed…”  (By the end of Jesus’ sermon they were also about ready to throw him off a cliff, but that’s another story for another day.)

So according to Isaiah, God is sending the Messiah to:

  • bring good news to the oppressed
  • To bind up the brokenhearted
  • To proclaim liberty to captives
  • To proclaim release to prisoners
  • To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance for God
  • To comfort all who mourn, to give them:
    • flowers instead of ashes
    • oil of gladness instead of mourning
    • a garment of praise instead of a faint spirit

It’s tempting to hear these words and start thinking politics: it was tempting in Isaiah’s day, it was tempting in Jesus’ day, and it is now.  But if we try to fit God’s words into human institutions, there’s not enough room. God’s thoughts are too big for the organizations of mere mortals.  God’s words go beyond justice, to righteousness and mercy. They go beyond a fair legal system, to liberty.  They go beyond mere peace, to gladness and praise.

So to anyone who is oppressed: God says, “Good news! The time of the oppressors is over.”  To anyone who grieves, God says, “Your broken heart will be mended.”  To anyone who is in prison or in bondage God says, “You are free!”

And then Isaiah says something that may sound a little scary: “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance for our God.” We don’t like to think of God in terms of vengeance. But scripture makes clear the ‘day of the Lord’ will not be a pleasant day; it will be violent and dark. But fear not.  For those of us who have faith, who trust in God, Isaiah proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor.  And for those who don’t care what God thinks, and who oppress others and use others and do violence to others: the day of reckoning has come.

And then, Isaiah says, God’s people:

  • will be called oaks of righteousness
  • will build up the ancient ruins
  • will raise up the former devastations
  • will repair the ruined cities
  • will be called priests of the Lord, ministers of our God

‘Building up ruins’ and ‘repairing ruined cities’ in many cases may start with re-establishing the church – but it doesn’t stop there. It reaches out to rebuild the community as well.  The communities our Partnership churches find themselves in have all seen better days.  All are scarred by abandoned homes and boarded-up buildings, to say nothing of neglected families, in neighborhoods where family used to be the most important thing.  Isaiah says, in the year of the Lord’s favor, God’s people will build up the ancient ruins, repair the ruined cities; they will be called ministers of God, oaks of righteousness, and in God’s hands the fruit of their labors will bring righteousness and praise where there has been evil and despair.

The writer of our Advent hymn for today – Hail to the Lord’s Anointed – a man by the name of James Montgomery – knew this passage in Isaiah very well.  In fact he used it to encourage missions and outreach.

Montgomery was born shortly after the Revolutionary War and died shortly before the Civil War, although he probably didn’t think of it that way as he was born in Scotland.  He was a Moravian – which is related to the Brethren Church – and son of a Moravian minister. He was editor of a newspaper in England for many years.  During that time he wrote and published over 400 hymns, including a couple we still sing today: Go To Dark Gethsemane and the Christmas carol Angels from the Realms of Glory.

Montgomery was also one of the founders of the missionary movement in England in the 1800s; and it was during a missionary meeting in a Methodist church in Liverpool, England, that this poem (which became our hymn for today) was first read in public. Follow with me in the hymnal (#203)…

Montgomery writes:

“Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, great David’s greater son…”

In the Old Testament, the promised Messiah was called ‘the son of David’, and Jesus is known as the ‘son of David’ because he descended from David’s lineage. And so the first line of the hymn identifies Jesus as the one who all the nations have been waiting for.

“Hail, in the time appointed, his reign on earth begun!”

Begun is the key word here.  We live in the “now and the not yet”.  Jesus has come and is on the throne, but the mopping-up operation still continues. Jesus’ reign on earth has begun… and during Advent we are reminded Jesus will come back to finish what he started.

“He comes to break oppression, to set the captive free,
To take away transgression, and rule in equity.”

…quoting straight from Isaiah. And then the songwriter assures us the good news of the Messiah is for all people everywhere: the rich and the poor, the sick and the healthy, the weak and the strong.

“He comes with succor speedy to those who suffer wrong
To help the poor and needy, and bid the weak be strong;
To give them songs for sighing, their darkness turn to light;
Whose souls, condemned and dying are precious in his sight.”

Jesus brings more than mere justice – He brings healing and loving-kindness. He brings help and encouragement. And for those who have not yet heard the good news of Jesus, who are caught and enslaved by sin, Jesus brings complete and total forgiveness and freedom and eternal life.

“He shall come down like showers upon the fruitful earth,
Love, joy, and hope, like flowers, spring in his path to birth.
Before him, on the mountains, shall peace, the herald, go
And righteousness, in fountains, from hill to valley flow.”

This third verse is mostly just praising Jesus – and it’s the right thing to do after the first two verses.  In this verse peace is described as a ‘herald’ who goes ahead of King Jesus and proclaims his arrival; and righteousness – which means not just ‘right’ but sin-free and whole in every way – righteousness will flow out over the whole earth.

Verse four…

“To him shall prayer unceasing and daily vows ascend
His kingdom still increasing, a kingdom without end”

There’s a preacher over in England these days by the name of N.T. Wright who says God’s kingdom – and Jesus as the king – is THE central message of the Christian faith.  He says it’s not so much ‘believe in Jesus so we can go to heaven’ as it is ‘believe in Jesus so we can become citizens of God’s Kingdom both in this life AND the next. And I think that’s what our hymn-writer sees too. A kingdom without end, to which we pledge our loyalty as citizens. We pray to our king for what we need, and we praise our king for who he is and what he has done.

The hymn concludes:

“The tide of time shall never his covenant remove
His name shall stand forever; that name to us is love.”

It says in the Bible “God is love,” and Jesus taught us that to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength – and to love our neighbors as ourselves – is to fulfill all the law and the prophets.  Love is God’s nature, and we find the perfect expression of that love, in Jesus.

And so in this Advent season we watch and wait, not just for the baby, but also for the King. The King of Love. And while we wait, we praise God, and we do our part in the mopping-up operation, wherever we can, as God leads us.

May the remainder of your Advent be blessed, and may you have a wonderful Christmas. AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), 12/17/17



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Advent Hymn: Toda la Tierra (All Earth is Waiting) – Alberto Taule

  1. All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
    and open furrows await the seed of God.
    All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
    it cries out for justice and searches for the truth.

    2. Thus says the prophet to those of Israel:
    ‘A virgin mother will bear Emmanuel,’
    one whose name is ‘God with us’ our Saviour shall be;
    with him hope will blossom once more within our hearts.

    3. Mountains and valleys will have to be made plain;
    open new highways, new highways for the Lord.
    He is now coming closer, so come all and see,
    and open the doorways as wide as wide can be.

    4. In lowly stable the Promised One appeared;
    yet feel his presence throughout the earth today,
    for he lives in all Christians and is with us now;
    again, with his coming he brings us liberty.

 Scripture Reading: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.  3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”  6 A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.  7 The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass.  8 The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.  9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”  10 Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” – Isaiah 40:1-11


In the darkest days of the Civil War, a poet had a son who was serving in the army.  The poet, whose name was Longfellow, wrote a poem that later became a Christmas carol. Some of you may know it:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth good will to men

And in despair I bowed my head: “there is no peace on earth” I said
“For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth good will to men”

Then pealed the bells more wild and sweet: “God is not dead nor does he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth good will to men”

Our Advent hymn for today is called All the Earth is Waiting – and it has roots in a similar kind of background.  Where Longfellow’s carol has a backdrop of the Civil War, our Advent hymn has a backdrop of World War II and the civil unrest in South America in the 1960s and 1970s.  All the Earth is Waiting was written by a Catholic priest named Taulè, who lived in Spain but was educated in Italy just after WWII.  So he lived through WWII, and he had personal experience of life during wartime. For those of us who have parents or grandparents who lived through WWII (and some here may still remember WWII) you know it became a defining moment for that generation. It effected their lives from that point forward. And the same is true of these poets.

Neither Longfellow nor Taulè were personally involved in the wars, but they had deep relationships with those who were.  And in both cases the poets, in their songs, grieve the evil they see in the world: the hate, wrongdoing, mockery of good, violence, injustice, bondage, and despair.  And in both cases the poets find their hope in God.

Sounds like songs for our time, don’t they?

Taulè takes many of the ideas in his hymn from Isaiah 40, which is our lectionary reading for this morning. And Isaiah’s words are exactly what the poets were longing to hear in those violent days. Isaiah writes:

“Comfort, comfort my people” says your God. “Speak comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, her iniquity is pardoned.” A voice cries in the wilderness: “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.

And when the mouth of the Lord speaks, things happen. Remember Genesis: God says, “Let there be light” and light happens.

This is what the hearts of our poets are crying out for. And is this not the message our world needs to hear, and longs to hear?

Isaiah continues:

A voice says: “Cry!” and I answer, “what shall I cry?”  All flesh is grass and all its goodness like the flower of the field. The grass dries, the flower falls, because the spirit of the Lord blows on it. Surely the people are grass. The grass dries, the flower falls, but the word of the Lord stands forever.

Go up onto a high mountain, O Zion, bringing good tidings; lift your voice without fear and say to the cities of Judah: “Behold your God!”  Behold – the Lord God comes with a strong arm to rule. His wages are with him and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom; and gently lead those with young.”

This passage in Isaiah is not all sweetness and light. It speaks of the end of the world as we know it. It speaks of a time when people will be rewarded for what they have done, for good or for evil. And then the new world begins, where God will ‘gather the lambs in his arms’.

So the coming of the Christ Child is the beginning of the end for the powers of this world. And the powers of this world know it. That’s why, when Jesus was born, King Herod wanted so badly to put an end to this baby in the manger – why, when the wise men returned to their country without telling Herod where Jesus was, Herod ordered the slaughter of all baby boys under the age of two. The powers of this world don’t like being told they’re only temporary and their replacement has arrived!

With this prophecy in mind, then, we turn to our song for today. Verse one opens with the words: “All the earth is waiting” – and it sure is. As Paul writes in Romans:

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;  23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves… while we wait for adoption…” (Rom. 8:22-23)

All the earth is waiting. This is the definition of Advent: waiting for the Christ Child to arrive, and waiting for King Jesus to return. Advent looks forward to both the birth of the baby and the return of the King.

“…waiting to see the Promised One…”  “Open furrows await the seed of God”

The poet takes his word-pictures from the farmlands of Spain and South America, as well as from Jesus’ parable about the seed and the various types of soil it might land in. The seed is the Word of God – that is, Jesus. The open furrows are the hearts of people who prepare for the arrival of Jesus by waiting and watching and praying.

The song continues:

“All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
It cries out for justice and searches for truth”

If these words sound like something from the protests of the late 1960s – they are.  But we can still find meaning in these words for our own time.  Our world is indeed struggling. We see this on the news every day, even on Facebook.  Our world is bound – as Pastor Matt said in his letter this month, when he wrote: “all around us we see folks in slavery to greed, to lust, to pride, to violence, to anxiety, to alcohol or other drugs, and most sadly, to despair.”  With the poet our hearts long for freedom and a better world.

And so we go on to verse two. “The prophet says to those of Israel” – that is, to God’s people – “a virgin will bear Emmanuel” – which means, ‘God with us’.  This verse is a direct quote from Isaiah 7:14 where Isaiah says:

“the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”

In verse three the songwriter turns back to Isaiah 40, where he writes:

“Mountains and valleys will have to be made plain;
open new highways, new highways for the Lord”

This is a quotation from both Isaiah 40:3-5 and from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  For example, in Matthew 3:1-3 Matthew writes:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,  2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

So Matthew quotes Isaiah 40, and so do Mark and Luke. What these passages make clear is that John the Baptist’s ministry is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: John is the one Isaiah predicted whose voice would cry out in the wilderness. And the raising of valleys and the lowering of mountains is a metaphor that stands for repentance.

Jesus’ mother, Mary, sings about the same thing in Luke 1 in the Magnificat, when she says:

“he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)

There’s a double meaning here.  If we look at John the Baptist’s message, which is a message of repentance – he says “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” – this is a spiritual interpretation of valleys being lifted and the mountains being lowered.  Those who know they are sinners, who are ‘lowly of heart’ as Isaiah would say, who are ‘meek’ and ‘poor in spirit’ as Jesus would say – will repent of the sins of self-reproach and fear, and will be forgiven and will be lifted up.  And those who know they are sinners, who have been puffed up or proud or rude, will confess their sins and will be forgiven, and will be permitted to return to their proper place. (And the ground becomes level.)

The second meaning of the double meaning is found in Mary’s message: and that is repentance in society. The needs of the poor will one day be filled; and wealth of the great ones will one day come to nothing. (And the ground becomes level)

I do want to warn against one mistake that crops up sometimes in the interpretation of this hymn. The wording the songwriter uses in verse three – for example, “Mountains and valleys will have to be made plain…” – may lead people to believe we need to get busy lowering mountains and raising valleys. But it is not our job to usher in the second coming of Christ.

This error in thinking began in the middle of the previous century, where there were two equal and opposite social movements, one on the left and one on the right (echoes of which are still with us today), that made this mistake.  Both were built on what were originally Biblical principles, but both became movements that were willing to use political power and force if necessary to achieve their goals. Both are mistaken because they try to bring in God’s kingdom through human power. In other words, they believed if we properly set the stage by the perfection of our society, then Jesus will have to return. And that is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches this world will continue to be a mess until Jesus comes back. God’s kingdom will arrive in God’s timing, by God’s power, in God’s way. It’s not our job to remake the mountains and the valleys.

That said, Isaiah’s words still stand. There will come a time when the high will be lowered and the low lifted up and the crooked made straight and the rough made smooth, and the glory of the Lord will be revealed.

Which takes us back to our hymn, in verse four: “In a lowly stable the Promised One appeared” – this is the heart of Christmas! God so loved the world that he gave us his Son. Jesus left the glories of heaven to become one of us, to live and die just like us, to experience all the joys and sorrows of life here on earth, God with us, and we still feel his power and presence in the world today.

And as the song says, God lives in all Christians through the power of the Holy Spirit.  But that’s almost beside the point, because it’s not primarily through us that God sets the world free. We have the privilege of sharing in the work of heaven: we do our part to care for others and set people free, because as children of God, we are learning to become more and more like our heavenly Parent. But Jesus is the one who sets us free from captivity to sin and death.

Our Advent song for today is not an easy song to sing. It talks about hardship and heartbreak, captivity and injustice, and it reminds us that our world is a world of great need.  It calls us to work to meet those needs. But I think the songwriter’s hope in writing this hymn was that we would find in it a sense of expectation, that we would look forward to the Promised One who is ‘God with us’ – who comes in the virgin’s womb, who comes in the stable, who comes on earth today, who comes in all Christians, and who is with us now; and that we would see Jesus as a bringer of liberty, and justice, and truth. “God is not dead, nor does He sleep.”

So during this season of Advent, let’s prepare for the coming of our Lord Jesus by repenting of sin – and not ours only, but also the sins we see in the world around us. When we read the newspaper, or watch TV, we can bring what we see to God in prayer, and pray for the day when the world will be set free from captivity to sin.

We live in the ‘now and the not yet’. Jesus has come, Jesus has won the victory, and we are set free, but the mopping-up operation isn’t over yet.  So be watchful while we wait. Thank God for what He has already done, and thank God for what is yet to come… and keep watch, because the King is coming. AMEN.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/10/17


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[Jesus said] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.  2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;  4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.  5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’  7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.  8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’  9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’  10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.  11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’  12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’  13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” – Matthew 25:1-13


Artwork: The Parable of the Ten Virgins (section) by Phoebe Traquair, Mansfield Traquair Church, Edinburgh


Today’s parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids is a familiar story for clergy and congregations alike. It is – or at least seems to be – a straightforward story with a simple message, which is: “be ready.” Or “be prepared” as the Boy Scouts would say.

But as I was looking at this parable this week, I realized it’s not quite that simple.  Being prepared is only part of Jesus’ point.  The main point is in the last sentence following the word therefore: “Therefore keep awake for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (And some translations add, “in which the Son of Man comes.”)

So Jesus is talking about his return at the end of the age, and his main point is nobody knows when he’s coming back.

Jesus isn’t telling us this parable to make us paranoid. We don’t need to be thinking, every minute of every day, “what would Jesus say if he came back right now and saw me doing this?” It’s not like the old t-shirt that says, “Jesus is coming… look busy!”

Jesus is not trying to make us unbearably self-concious.  But he is telling us to be aware of how we invest our time.  We only have so much time in this life to get to know God, and to grow up into the children of God we were born to be. So Jesus is saying “stay awake, stay on your toes!”

And yet… as we look at this story of the bridesmaids, we see that none of them stays awake!  The wise ones and foolish ones alike grow drowsy and nod off.

So if Jesus’ point is “stay awake”, and none of the bridesmaids manage to do that, then what?

Often in scripture when Jesus told parables, the disciples would pull him aside later and ask, ‘what did you mean by that?’… but in this case they didn’t. So I think our best bet is to start with what we know, and then work our way into what’s less clear. And there are at least five things that we know about this story:

First, we know this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says so in the first sentence: “the kingdom of heaven will be like this”. So the story is about the time, sometime in the future, when God will restore creation to its original glory at the end of the age.

Second, this parable is the first of three parables Jesus tells in Matthew chapter 25 about the end of the age.  The other two parables are: (1) the parable of the talents (where three men are given 10 talents, 5 talents, and 1 talent, respectively, and the first two go out and earn more, but the third man buries his talent and gives the master back only the one. Jesus says to the first two “well done good and faithful servant” but says to the last “you wicked and lazy servant”.  And then parable number (2) is the parable of the sheep and the goats on the judgement day, when Jesus says to the sheep on his right hand “come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom” but says to the goats on his left hand, “depart from me into the eternal fire”.  And both the sheep and the goats say to him, “When did we ever see you hungry or naked or in need, and help you (or not help you)?” And Jesus answers “as much as you did it (or didn’t do it) to one of the least of these, you did it (or didn’t do it) to me.”

So in all three parables in Matthew 25, the human race is being divided into two groups, based on what each person did in their lives. And one group is welcomed into the kingdom and the other group is not.

These stories make us uncomfortable: because if we truly love our fellow human beings we don’t ever want to think of anyone as being excluded from God’s kingdom.  (Which by the way is why mission and outreach are so critically important.)

On top of that it’s frightening to hear Jesus say words like “I don’t know you” and “depart from me” – because we begin to wonder if we’ve done enough in our lives… and we cry out to God for mercy (which is exactly the right thing to do, because our God is gracious and delights in showing mercy).

Third, we know that Jesus told these parables only two or three days before he went to the cross.  They are part of Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples.  In a way they’re a dying man’s last words.  Jesus is not going to be with the disciples much longer, so he’s telling them – and us – what we’re going to need to know in his absence.

Fourth, we know what some of the people and events in the parable represent.  We know the bridegroom represents Jesus, and the bridegroom’s arrival represents Jesus’ second coming. The bridesmaids in this story represent the people who follow Jesus, that is, churchgoers or Christians. (In most end-time parables in the Bible, the church is represented by the Bride. But in this particular story we don’t see the bride, and the church is represented by the bridesmaids.)

Fifth, we hear Jesus repeating himself.  In Matt. 24:36 he says “about that day and hour no one knows.” In Matt. 24:44 he says, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” and in Matt. 25:13 he says, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  When Jesus repeats himself three times – we need to be paying attention!

So with all this as background, let’s take a look at the story.

Jesus says: “the kingdom of heaven will be like this.  There were ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.”

Of course wedding traditions have changed over the years.  Back in those days, the wedding was arranged, and the couple made their promises and vows (such as they were) at the betrothal.  The groom would then go and prepare a place for his bride – build a house, furnish it, gather together whatever was needed to raise a family – and when everything was ready, the invitation to the wedding feast would go out. On that day the groom would come and claim his bride from her father’s house, and take her to the banquet, and from there they would go home to their new home together.

And when the invitation went out it didn’t read “wedding at four, reception at six” like in our day. The invitation would arrive word-of-mouth and would tell the date of the groom’s arrival, and that’s all!  Usually the groom would arrive after dark, so the job of the bridesmaids was to light the path for the groom to the banquet hall. Partly this was to make the path visible, and partly it was a beautiful thing to see, it set the mood.

So the bridesmaids have only one job: to carry lamps to provide light.

So the bridesmaids who were wise took extra oil with them, in case the groom might be delayed.  The bridesmaids who were foolish figured, “naaah, he’ll be on time” and didn’t bother to bring anything extra.

And as it happened, the groom was delayed.  In fact he was much later than expected, and all the bridesmaids, whose job was to watch and wait and light the path, fell asleep.  And then at midnight the cry came, “the groom is here! Come out to meet him!”  And the bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps and went out to light the way, but the foolish bridesmaids realized their lamps were going out.

So they said to their companions “give us some of your oil”. But the wise said, “No. If we do, we won’t have enough for ourselves. Go to the vendors and buy some.”

This may sound like a cold-hearted answer, especially after all the things Jesus has taught us about generosity and giving and sharing. Why would they say “no”? (Especially considering the oil vendors weren’t likely to be open at midnight.)

Because the wise bridesmaids are right: at a time like this, each of us must supply our own oil. Because the oil in the story represents our relationship with with God: and that’s something each one of us must do for ourselves. God has no stepchildren. Each of us individually must become children of God, believing in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to forgive our sins, and praying to receive the Holy Spirit. Nobody can do it for us.

So the story continues: the foolish bridesmaids dash off to try to find an oil vendor, and while they’re gone, the groom arrives, and the wise bridesmaids light his way to the feast, and they all go in, and the door is shut.

Some time later – probably hours later – the foolish bridesmaids return with their lamps and their oil (which are no longer needed at this point because the sun is coming up) and they say “open the door to us – we’re part of the wedding party too.” But the bridegroom says to them, “I don’t know you.”

…God forbid…

It’s tempting to take this story to mean that the things we do in our lives earn us a place at the heavenly banquet. It’s tempting to think Jesus is teaching ‘salvation by works’. But that’s not the meaning at all.  It is impossible for anyone to earn their way into heaven.

What Jesus is describing here, in the lives of these bridesmaids, are actions and habits of mind that are the result of, and the outworking of, what the people in the story truly believe. And this is true in all three of the parables in Matthew 25: whether bringing extra oil, or investing talents, or giving food and water to the hungry and thirsty, are all done because the people in the story know and believe and love God.

Jesus says, “you know neither the day nor the hour.”  When the cry goes out, “the bridegroom is here!” – it will be too late to develop the habits of mind, or to invest the talents, or to fill our lamps with the Holy Spirit’s oil.

In our parable, when all the bridesmaids sleep – while it’s not clear from the story – this may represent the sleep of death.  Because when Jesus returns, the vast majority of people who have lived on the earth, including ourselves, will most likely have passed into eternal slumber.  And it is Jesus’ voice that will call us back to life when that day comes.  It is always, always, God’s power and God’s grace that saves us.  We can’t save ourselves, any more than a dead person can raise themselves. But when Jesus calls, we will rise.

And when he calls, we will pick up our lamps and light the way to the wedding feast. And the things we have done for God in our lifetime – having faith, trusting God, receiving the Holy Spirit, obeying God’s word, loving and caring for God’s people – these things will become the oil in our lamps.

In the Greek, the ‘foolishness’ of the foolish bridesmaids is not a matter of intelligence or education.  The Greek word has shades of moral meaning. In the Greek definition, wisdom is knowing what is right and doing it.  Foolishness is knowing what is right and choosing not to do it, or to put it off.

As a side note, for those of us who have experienced setbacks in life – difficulties in careers, or in relationships, or in education – or who have had family issues, or health issues, or have faced poverty or neglect or violence – these things do not exclude us from Godly wisdom. God says in Isaiah 42:3, speaking of the Messiah: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not extinguish”. So each one of us should take whatever light we have, and go and meet the bridegroom.

But for those who say “ahhh, there’s always tomorrow” – “I’ll take care of it tomorrow” – “I’ll do what God wants eventually” – “I don’t have to deal with my bad habits today. There’s always tomorrow” – no, there isn’t always tomorrow.

I know many people here have already made the decision to follow Jesus and are already working on putting oil in their lamps.  I encourage you to keep on doing that.

If there are any here who have not yet decided to follow Jesus and would like to, please see me after the service.  And if there’s anyone here still thinking “I’ve still got tomorrow” – there’s no guarantee of that. Don’t wait.

The parable of the bridesmaids basically reminds us to stay on our toes, spiritually speaking.  To keep on with prayer; to keep on with reading scripture (both on our own and together with others), to keep on helping those in need, and to keep on staying close to our Lord Jesus. Because ultimately the oil comes from him… and only a foolish bridesmaid would look for it anywhere else.

God’s blessings as we struggle to stay awake and keep our lamps burning. AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 11/12/17



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[scripture readings for today are at the end of this post]

The lectionary that gives us our scriptures every Sunday was created about 50 years ago, and it’s based on a lectionary used by the early church, which in turn is based on a lectionary used in ancient Israel before the birth of Christ.

I say all this in order to say: there is no way the creators of our lectionary could have known that our gospel reading for today – which talks about the end of human history as we know it – would fall on the Sunday after Election Day in America in the year 2016!

That said, I’m not going to comment on the election. I don’t ever want anyone to be turned off to Jesus because of my personal political beliefs. I would willingly give up my right to vote if it meant someone finding eternal life in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

But that said, I do have one comment on the events of this past week:  Post-election, there are people who seem to think it’s now OK to harass and threaten people different from themselves: people of different races or religions, people from different countries, or even just people who voted differently than they did.  As Christians we are called by God to welcome the stranger, and to show compassion and hospitality to those in trouble. In the days ahead let’s be watching for opportunities to be peacemakers in our neighborhoods and in our places of work.

One small way to do this is something the British people did after the Brexit vote. (And you remember I was in England when the Brexit vote was taken – I’m going through this a second time now!) When British people realized the refugees and foreigners and minorities among them were feeling afraid, they put on safety pins as a way of showing solidarity. The pin basically means “you are ‘safe’ with me. If somebody gives you trouble, I will stand with you.” The pins are starting to catch on here in the States now so I brought a bunch with me today. I don’t expect everybody to take one – not everyone is physically or emotionally prepared to step into difficult situations – but if you feel you would like one, they’re on the back table, take one on your way out after church.

So having said all of that, let’s look at our scriptures for today.  We have three passages: one from Luke and two from Isaiah.  In the passage from Luke we hear Jesus talking about the final chapter of earth history. And in our passages from Isaiah, the prophet tells us about God’s kingdom that will follow the end of history, and the joy that will be ours when we see God’s salvation.

These three passages taken together create a panorama of history: past, present, and future.  In a big-picture sense they give us comfort, knowing that we are never without hope because we are never without God.

But in the short term we can expect trouble.

Let’s start with our passage from Luke.  Jesus is teaching in the temple, and it’s only a few days before the crucifixion.  As Jesus is speaking, someone in the crowd remarks how beautiful the Temple is: hand-carved stonework, votive offerings… great beauty.

And Jesus says, basically: “See all this around you? The day will come when not one stone will be left on another, everything will be thrown down.”

If Jesus was here today, He could tell us the same thing.  The day will come when the houses we live in won’t be there any more. The day will come when the places we work and the places we worship will either be repurposed or torn down. The day will come when even our country will cease to exist. That’s the lesson of history. Nothing lasts forever.

The people hearing Jesus believed this message.  They did not ask “will this really happen?” they asked, “when will this happen? What’s the sign to watch for?”

The answer Jesus gives is a little confusing at first glance because it deals with both the immediate future and the long-term future (which includes us).

Jesus starts out with answers relevant to everybody, no matter when in history we live.  Jesus says “there will be others who claim to be me, who will say the end is near. Don’t listen to them. Don’t follow them. Don’t be led astray.”

Jesus says “there will be wars… and troubles… these things have to happen. Don’t be afraid, and don’t let it surprise you when they do happen.”  In Matthew’s account of the story Jesus adds the words “all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”  It’s as if the earth is pregnant and is about to give birth to the new earth.  In fact this same picture is given in the book of Revelation – of a woman in birth pangs. So don’t be afraid. What we see happening is what’s supposed to happen.

Jesus continues saying, “Nation will rise against nation.” The Greek here is ethne, it’s the word we get ethnic from. In other words, people groups will rise up against people groups (does this sound familiar?) and kingdoms against kingdoms. And there will be earthquakes and famines and pestilences… and horrors, and signs from heaven.”

Up to this point Jesus has been describing the end of the age, and though we see at least some of it coming true already, be careful not to be misled. People in my parents’ generation thought Hitler was a sign the end was coming.  Not yet… the troubles we see right now are just a foretaste of the end.

Then Jesus switches focus and comes back to what the disciples will face. He says: “Before all this, people will lay hands on you and persecute you and hand you over to prison and lead you away to stand before kings and governors for the sake of my name.”

These prophecies begin to come true in the book of Acts, and they continued to come true for the next few hundred years, until the Roman emperor became a Christ-follower in the 4th century.

Persecution didn’t end completely though; it still happens today in some parts of the world. So Jesus’ next words are for anyone who is ever arrested or persecuted for his name’s sake. He says: “see this as an opportunity to witness.”  And the Greek word for witness is martyr. This doesn’t necessarily mean dying for the faith, but it does mean laying down one’s own interests and putting God’s interests first.  Jesus is basically saying that in bearing witness we will find our freedom. Even if we’re in chains, our freedom is found in bearing witness to Christ.  And that is as true today as it was back then.

Then Jesus says something surprising: “Therefore fix it in your heart – plan ahead and be ready – NOT to think beforehand how to answer.” We are not to defend the faith or bear witness with words planned out in advance. Jesus says, “for I will give you a mouth and wisdom that no one will be able to oppose or contradict.”

Have you ever noticed how when Jesus got into arguments with the Pharisees and Sadducees, how he left them completely speechless? They walked away with nothing more to say. Jesus promises to give us the same wisdom when we are called to witness for our faith.

Jesus then continues to warn his disciples: “You will be handed over by family members… some will be put to death… you will be hated because of my name, but not a hair of your head will perish.”

And then comes the promise: “By your steadfast endurance you will gain your souls.” All we have to do is stand and endure.  Not attack, not defend, just take our stand.

So summing up this passage: Jesus warns about the destruction of Jerusalem – which happened in the year 70AD – and looks ahead to a time when everything we see will likewise be torn down. And Jesus promises if we endure – if we hang on tight to him – we will live. And that’s where our gospel lesson ends for today.

But it’s not where the story ends.  There is a Kingdom coming.  The prophet Isaiah – even though he lived 500 years or more before Jesus – takes us to God’s new beginning.

In Isaiah chapter 65 God speaks the words “Behold I create a new heavens and new earth; the former earth will not be remembered or even brought to mind. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I create…”

God’s Kingdom will be a joy forever.  And when the Bible talks about “joy” it’s not talking about mere happiness, as in, I’m happy the sun is shining or I’m happy to have mocha in my coffee. Joy is something deep, rich, satisfying, with a touch of awe – like watching a sunset over the ocean or holding a child for the very first time.

Joy like that, all the time, is more than we mere mortals can handle – which is why we need to put on immortality.  In our new life we will have the capacity to live in joy.  Someday that day will come.

God goes on to say: “I will rejoice in my people.”  God rejoices over us! The prophet Zephaniah says: “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17) Can you imagine God singing? Over us? Someday that day will come.

God goes on to say: “No more will there be an infant that lives only a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime… they shall not build and another inhabit… they shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity. […] Before they call I will answer… they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.  Someday that day will come.

Isaiah tells us that we will respond by saying: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid.” The word ‘salvation’ in Hebrew, is pronounced yeshua – the name given to Jesus.  We will say, “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known the things he has done… he has acted majestically – let the whole earth know!”  Someday that day will come.

But it’s not here yet.

There are some people who will call this kind of faith “pie in the sky when you die”. And they say “I’d rather have steak on a plate while I wait.”  But God’s kingdom is not just for the future. It’s not just for when we’re resurrected.  God’s kingdom begins at the beginning – when God said “let there be light” – and it stretches all the way to the end (of which there will not be an end). We just happen to be included in that eternity, in our little piece of history. For us, eternal life begins now and carries forward into eternity.

So what does all of this mean for us today?

From where we stand in history right now, the last days have not come yet.  This world is still standing, and God’s kingdom only breaks through into what we perceive as unexpectedly.  Right now it looks like the forces of darkness are winning. But there will come a day when everything will be thrown down and God’s kingdom will come in all its glory.

God will have mercy on God’s people, both now and in the days to come. We just need to be sure that we are with God, that we are preparing ourselves for eternity in God’s kingdom.  So I wanted to share with you a few things Scripture tells us about God’s kingdom and what life in the kingdom is like:

  • Jesus said: “the kingdom of God is near; change course, believe the good news.”
  • Jesus said: “Let the little children come to me… for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. […] whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
  • Jesus said: “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.”
  • The apostle Paul said: “the kingdom of God is… righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
  • King David wrote: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. […] The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
  • The apostle John wrote in the book of Revelation: “I saw the holy city… coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 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 people, and God himself will be with them;  he will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

Paul and Jesus also both warn us that nothing unholy can enter the Kingdom of God. We need to confess the things we’ve done wrong, and receive God’s salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.  We need to be growing in God’s likeness, and we need to live our lives in a way that bears witness to God’s truth… no matter the cost.

If anyone here has not yet made the decision to follow Jesus and to live forever in God’s kingdom, don’t wait. Do it today.

For the rest of us, preparing for life in the Kingdom is mostly inner work, spiritual work – both individually and as a church. This world is passing away and a new heavens and new earth are coming. We need to live in such a way that when people see how we live and how we love each other, they will catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom.

And if we’re not sure where to begin, the apostle Paul said: “in the end only three things will last: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.”  There’s no better place to start.

Let’s pray.

Lord, we live in fearful times. We hear angry voices around us and we see violence all around us.  Calm us Lord, with your presence.  Give us a confidence in your love that can’t be shaken. Forgive us, when we fall into sin. Give us courage and wisdom and compassion as we live and work with others who are also feeling afraid and angry. Fill us with your Spirit so we can be beacons of your love and your truth in the world. Guide us in the days ahead, O Lord. And help us to keep our eyes on the prize – eternity with you, that begins now and lasts forever. Thank you Lord for your great promises and your great salvation. May all the glory be yours. AMEN.


Isaiah 65:17-25  “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent– its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.

Isaiah 12:1-6   You will say in that day: “I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.  Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.  And you will say in that day: “Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

Luke 21:5-19   When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”  They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.  When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”

Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.  But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance;  for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.  You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.  You will be hated by all because of my name.  But not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/13/16


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[Scripture readings for the day are reprinted in full at the end of this post.]

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector – talk about a story that’s right up my alley!  At one time or another I have been both a Pharisee (of sorts) and a tax collector (literally).  And I stand before you today as living proof that God cares for both Pharisees and tax collectors. And if God cares for someone like me, then for certain God cares for you!

So looking at our Gospel reading for today (Luke 18:9-14):  Jesus tells a parable that Luke says is directed at people who trust in their own righteousness and look down on others, and Jesus uses a Pharisee as an example.  So this parable is pointed at Pharisees, but it is not necessarily just about Pharisees.  People without religious training can act like Pharisees too. In fact listening to people who are so sure of their own righteousness, while putting others down, I think is part of what’s made all of us all so sick of the upcoming election.

But getting back to the Pharisees: I have known a few in my day.  I’ve been sorely tempted to become one, (although I wouldn’t have thought of it that way at the time).  Where it comes to Pharisees this is what I’ve experienced:

  • Pharisees are motivated by fear. (both in Jesus’ day and now.) Pharisees are very keenly aware of sin, and the seriousness of sin, and of God’s judgement on sin; and they are afraid of God’s judgement and so they’re afraid of anything that might cause sin. They’re even afraid of the appearance of sin. And all this fear gets pressed down and shaken together and then sometimes explodes in the form of anger at ‘sinners’ who are seen either as sources of temptation or as the cause of the decline in society’s morals.
  • In their fear, Pharisees turn their focus inward – on the little groups they’re a part of. They lose sight of the needs in the world, and they fail to see the pain that sinners feel at their own sin. They forget (if they ever knew in the first place) (for example) that drug addicts hate the drugs they’re hooked on… that prostitutes hate their customers… that most people who are caught in sin would welcome a way out it if they could find one.  Pharisees don’t see the needs. They lack empathy, and so they judge.
  • Pharisees also, as Jesus points out, love money. Not necessarily because they actually enjoy the things money can buy, but because poverty doesn’t look good.  Plus money makes it possible for them to move in the social circles they want to move in.
  • And the sins Pharisees preach most strongly against are the very sins they’re most likely to fall into. For example, in Jesus’ day the Pharisees were all about observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy. This law had a practical, nationalistic side to it: because the Romans (who occupied Israel) didn’t observe the Sabbath; God’s people did. So Sabbath observance was the mark of a loyal Israelite. Kind of like standing up for the national anthem at a ballgame. It wasn’t so much about the object of worship (God and/or country – which often tend to get conflated in a Pharisee’s mind), as it was about conforming to expected, traditional standards of behavior. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day got on Jesus’ case about healing people on the Sabbath – but they saw nothing wrong when they themselves spent an entire Sabbath afternoon making plans to kill Jesus.  As if that was a permitted use of the Sabbath!  Pharisees are capable of the most amazing feats of hypocrisy… and they rarely if ever see it.

As for modern-day Pharisees, I’m sure we all can think of few.  Personally when I read about Pharisees in the Bible I tend to think of them as the televangelists of the ancient world.  It’s not a perfect parallel but it works on a number of levels.  Like them, the Pharisees were well known, supported by the people, highly regarded by their bands of followers, legalistic, and looked pretty clean on the outside.  For a while.

Back in the early 1980s I did some volunteer work for a ministry headed up by a man who once worked for televangelist Jimmy Bakker. Many of you here will remember the scandal Jimmy and his wife Tammy Faye fell into back then. One day I got up the nerve to ask this friend what happened – what really happened behind the scenes?  (My friend had left the Bakker ministry shortly before everything broke loose.) He said this: “it got to the point where there was only a handful of trusted people around Jimmy and Tammy Faye – only about five or six people. Nobody else could get close to them. Not their congregation, not the public, not me, and – as became obvious – not their accountant. Those of us who could have warned them something was wrong were not allowed into the inner circle.”

The problem with Pharisees – the core problem – is that they rely on human strength and human righteousness instead of on God and on the Holy Spirit.  And what a powerful illustration this is of how that works out!

As a postscript to that story, Jimmy Bakker has since renounced his former teachings. He has admitted, publicly, that the first time he ever read the Bible all the way through was in prison; and that doing so he was confronted with mistakes and false teachings he had fallen into. In the late 1990s he wrote this:

“My heart was crushed to think that I led so many people astray. I was appalled that I could have been so wrong, and I was deeply grateful that God had not struck me dead as a false prophet.”

That is true repentance.  And praise God, salvation can come to even Pharisees.  Remember that whenever you feel like you’ve made the worst mistake of your life. There’s nothing God can’t forgive, and there is no place so low that God’s mercy can’t reach.

Which brings us to our tax collector.  (I love it when Jesus talks about tax collectors!)  Speaking as a local tax collector, if you want to ‘win friends and influence people,’ becoming a tax collector is not the way to do it!  As a tax collectors I am required to uphold the law, whether I like it or not, whether I agree with it or not, whether I think it’s fair or not. I have seen the struggles of some of our senior citizens trying to keep the taxes paid on their homes.  And there have been days I’ve gone home from the tax office saying “God forgive me.”

But compared to Roman times, tax collecting today is an honorable profession. At least I know the taxes I collect will be spent on the town and in the school where the taxpayers live. In Jesus’ day, taxes were collected by and for the Romans – and there was no guarantee money collected in Galilee (for example) would stay in Galilee.  It was more likely to end up in Rome.

And tax collectors back then were basically traitors to their own people. They were Israelis who were paid by the Romans to collect taxes from their own countrymen.

As Americans we have never known what it is to pay taxes to a foreign government (except for in the 1700s when we had that little tea party in Boston Harbor).  We have never known what it is to be conquered (I pray God we never will).  We have never known what it is to have a neighbor or a friend working for the enemy and extorting money.

These tax collectors in Jesus’ day were basically collaborators. They collected more than the Romans told them to, and got rich on the backs of their families and friends. They sold themselves for money. That’s why the Bible refers to them as “tax collectors and sinners”.  They knew what they were. They knew what they were doing. They were about as low as you can go.

But one day one tax collector decided – for whatever reason – to get right with God. So he went to the temple. He didn’t raise his hands in prayer, he didn’t even look up as he prayed, but ‘beat his breast’ and said “oh God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The tax collector didn’t make excuses. He didn’t try to bargain with God. He just appealed to God’s mercy.

Our God has a heart that is quick to answer a prayer like that. God declared this man righteous. And Jesus wasn’t ashamed to be seen with tax collectors like him (even though the Pharisees criticized him for it).  It’s no surprise the tax collectors loved Jesus so much and wanted to around him all the time!.

So to sum up the parable:  The prayer of the Pharisee is full of pride, self-dependence, and self-righteousness, lacking in charity and compassion. Theologian Charles Simeon writes, “The Pharisees… were extremely diligent in the observance of outward duties: but, while they trusted in themselves that they were righteous, they were as far from the kingdom of God as if they had been openly profane.”

The tax collector, on the other hand, humbly stands at a distance, admits his faults, and trusts in God alone.  And the result was: the tax collector goes home justified by God; and the Pharisee does not.

There’s one more thing that we haven’t looked at yet in this story: context.  The context of this story – the big picture – is the kingdom of God.

In the passage from Luke we read today, in the chapter immediately before it, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God is coming. And this parable is, in part, an answer to that question – as well as a warning about something that may prevent people entering into the Kingdom of God.

Our Old Testament reading from Joel also speaks of the Kingdom, and Joel gives us the big picture back-drop against which this parable plays itself out.

The passage from Joel begins by saying to God’s people ‘be glad and rejoice in God, because the day of the Lord is finally coming’.  God says, “I will repay you for the years the locust has eaten… you shall eat and be satisfied… your God has dealt wondrously with you.” The prophecy continues, “my people shall never again be put to shame.”  Twice God says that: ‘you shall never again be put to shame’.

And then Joel’s prophecy turns very dark. It talks about how terrible and frightening the day of the Lord will be.  The Kingdom will come, he says, in darkness and in blood; and ‘those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved’ and ‘among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls’. (Notice there’s a mutual calling here: God’s people call out to Him, and God calls to His people; calling in both directions, the calls meeting each other.)

When we read Joel’s description of the coming Kingdom, and then look at the Pharisee and the tax collector, their story takes on real clarity.

First, the parable is full of shame.  The Pharisee shames the tax collector. The tax collector shames himself. To be alive in this world is to know shame.  But the prophet Joel says the day is coming when God’s people will never again be put to shame.

Second, held up against the backdrop of the darkness and destruction at the end of this world, the Pharisee’s words sound a bit ridiculous. He says: “God I thank you I’m not like other men. I fast twice a week, I gave away a tenth of all my income…”  How on earth is that going to benefit anybody when the world is ending?

But listen to the words of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Isn’t that what any sane person would say when they’re witnessing the end of the world?

Third, Joel gives us the same good news Jesus preached – and it is this: “I will restore the years the locust has eaten.”  Some translations say “I will repay…” but the actual verb here is shalom… ‘I will bring peace, I will bring wholeness’. In those very places where we have been injured… in those places where the world has ridiculed us for our faith in God… in those places where we could find no answers to the question “why?” – God will restore, and will give us shalom, and will take away our shame.  Jesus himself, who was shamed with the words “The King of the Jews” nailed above his head – will at last claim his kingdom.

Phariseeism is, at its roots, a lack of courage of convictions and a lack of real faith in God.  A Pharisee fails to trust God’s heart or to grasp God’s truth. The tax collector on the other hand appeals to God’s heart, to God’s loving-kindness (his hesed). He knows that salvation, forgiveness, and mercy belong to God alone.

So our take-aways for today:

  1. For those of us who are called to minister or to leadership in God’s church – and for all people – pray that we escape the temptations of Phariseeism. Pray that God will save us from that question which has no good answer: “am I being humble yet?” Pray we stay focused on Jesus.
  2. Pray we don’t waste time comparing ourselves with others, that instead we are honest with God and trust in God’s mercy.
  3. Pray we keep our eyes on the prize. Our goal is to be with Jesus in the coming kingdom of our God. The coming of this kingdom is the Good News we share. And this goal infuses everything we say and everything we do in life with meaning and purpose.
  4. Praise Jesus for His boundless love and mercy, and thank God for God’s promise that one day we will never again be put to shame.


Joel 2:23-32  23 O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.  24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.  25 I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.  26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.  27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.  28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.  31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.  32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.

Luke 18:9-14 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) – Pittsburgh, 10/23/16



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Scripture Readings: John 14:23-29, Revelation 21:1-10, and Revelation 22:1-5.

Excerpt: 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.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 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; 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.”  – Revelation 21:1-4

(The sermon is preceded by the song The Golden City from the CD City of Gold, Phil Baggeley et al, Gold Records UK 1998. This album is a collection of songs and poems about heaven, and was very popular in the UK though never made it to the U.S. It is often particularly meaningful to people who have lost loved ones because it gives a vision of heaven and God’s future.)

When I was in school we had a professor who always used to say “Context is king!”  It became a catch-phrase among the students: What’s the difference between a nice meal at home and a nice meal at a restaurant? Context! What’s the difference between a vacation in the mountains or a vacation at the beach? Context!

The question of context is equally important when reading the Bible, and he taught us that as we read, we should ask the questions a reporter would ask: Who? What? When? Where? Why?

These questions become particularly challenging when we approach a book like Revelation.  Revelation is literally an apocalypse – a tale of the end of the world – and because of that it’s mystifying, and a bit scary in places. I don’t know about you but I can remember as a teenager having “heavy” conversations with friends about the book of Revelation and wondering what the end times would be like. Would we live to see them?  I don’t think any of us had actually read the book at that point, just a few passages that seemed to defy all logic. We used to try to figure out which country was represented by which beast: a bear? That’s got to be Russia! An eagle? That’s got to be the U.S.!

We couldn’t have known it back then, but we were way out of context.  The book of Revelation is not meant to be a road-map to the end times. Many people have mistaken it for that.  There have been many instances in history where people sold everything they had and went up a mountain to wait for Jesus to return, and it didn’t happen.  People thought they “miscalculated”.

The book of Revelation is not a timetable.  It’s a vision, and it’s a letter, written to the early church during a time of trouble.  And there are two kinds of trouble Revelation addresses: trouble from outside the church, and trouble from inside the church.

The opening chapters of Revelation deal with troubles inside the church. This is not our focus for today, but the messages to the early churches in the first few chapters contain words of encouragement and warning that are just as relevant today as they were then.  One of the most touching of these is Jesus’ challenge to the church at Ephesus:

“I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.  Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love….” (Rev 2:2-4)

These words were written over 2000 years ago but they echo down through all of history to Christians in every time and every place, challenging us to stay loyal to our first love.

But our focus for today is on the last chapters of Revelation, and we need to back up and get some of that context our professor talked about.

The book of Revelation was written by the apostle John, possibly assisted by friends, while in exile on the island of Patmos. It was probably written around 65AD give or take a few years, 30 years or more after Jesus’ resurrection.  The generation after Jesus – the Christians born and raised roughly between the years 35-70AD – were raised in a church that was for the most part free of persecution.  What little persecution there was usually came from the temple authorities in Jerusalem, not from the Romans (with a few exceptions).  The church at that time was still centered in Jerusalem; it still had Jewish leaders (Peter, Paul, and James); and evangelism to that point had been relatively local. The church spread throughout Judea in the south of Israel and Galilee in the north, as well as areas like Gaza, Samaria, and the seaside towns of Joppa and Caesarea.

It was a time of rapid growth for the church.  But as the decade of the 60s drew to a close, political unrest began to grow in Israel and in the year 70 the unrest erupted into out-and-out rebellion against Rome that would end in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, most of which were burned to the ground.  Somewhere around this time the Romans – who till now had not paid much attention to this new group called ‘Christians’ – heard a rumor (started by the Jerusalem rebels) that Christians were responsible for the uprisings, and persecution began.

Jesus predicted all of this in Luke’s gospel. He had warned the disciples:

“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.  Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; […] they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Luke 21:20-24, edited)

So the Christians living in Jerusalem ran for their lives. (The refugees we hear about today are, sadly, not new in human history.)  As a result Christians were scattered throughout the Roman Empire, and churches were founded in countries that include modern-day Egypt, Libya, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy.

So the apostles started to write letters to keep in touch with the believers throughout the Empire.  Paul wrote to the churches he visited; Peter wrote letters (I & II Peter) intending them to be shared among the churches; and John wrote his Apocalypse.  All of these written to strengthen believers who were facing troubles from outside and inside the church.

I think it would be fair to say we also are now in a church that is under pressure from both the outside and the inside.  We may not face physical persecution here in the U.S., though there is persecution happening in other parts of the world.  But for us Americans, many of us remember the 1950s and 1960s when the church in the U.S. was widely accepted by society, and it takes us by surprise when we see church attendance falling and religion getting bad press in the media.  When we were kids everybody went to weekend services: our Jewish friends went to temple on Saturday, and everyone else went to church on Sunday. It was expected, it was part of everyday life… but not any more.

What we didn’t realize, those of us who grew up in those days, is: times like these, when the church is the “in” place to be, are actually relatively rare in human history. In the 1400s Martin Luther risked his life to reform the Catholic church back when mass was said in a language people didn’t understand. Congregations back then (when they attended church) had no idea what the priest was saying.  Roughly 100 years later, John Wycliffe of England risked his life to translate the Bible into English, and while he managed to avoid being killed, many of the people who helped him paid with their lives.  Two hundred years later, also in England, just before the Wesleys came on the scene, one historian writes England was “a moral quagmire and a spiritual cesspool” filled with gambling, public executions, and the slave trade.  John and Charles Wesley risked their careers to bring a revival of faith that changed English history – and American history as well.  The revival they started resulted in many people returning to God and the founding of hundreds of churches.

There was another revival 100 years later, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when more churches were built and church attendance went up again.  This revival was the one in which our South Hills Partnership churches were built, and its roots were very much in the foundation laid by the Wesleys a century before.

So throughout history church attendance has gone up and down, and the up-swings have been very much linked to times of revival. And as one internet pastor writes: “revivals emerge during times of spiritual and moral decline.”  This same pastor also points out that, while revivals are the work of the Holy Spirit and they improve both the church and society, they are also (in his word) “messy”: revivals spark controversy, and they invite spiritual excesses, and inspire disputes among theologians (which makes seminary really interesting!).  So good times in the church, times of stability and peace, are relatively rare in church history.

So where does Revelation come into all of this? Revelation is a message to a church that finds itself in tough times.  Which, looking out over church history, is most of the time.  Revelation shares a vision of the coming of a new heaven and new earth – and comfort and encouragement for those of us who are living on the old earth in the meantime. The point of Revelation’s visions of beasts and battles and angels and horsemen can be summed up this way: the time is coming when evil will be done away with.  Jesus, the Lamb of God, the light of the world, and the lover of our souls, wins in the end.

I think Jesus had these things in mind when he spoke the words we hear in John’s gospel today:

“…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  […] If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.” (John 14:26-29)

Jesus is talking about the coming of the Holy Spirit, who will teach us the truth.  As we saw last week in the story of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit comes to those who hear the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and believe.  Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23)

The Holy Spirit is our advocate with God – the one who takes our part before the throne of grace, and the one who teaches us what God expects. The Holy Spirit never contradicts the teaching of Jesus; the Holy Spirit leads us to God’s truth, never away from it; and the Holy Spirit brings to mind words we need to say that we might never have thought of, and understanding we might never otherwise have grasped.

The Holy Spirit brings God’s peace in every situation – “not as the world gives” as Jesus says.  Does this mean we will never be upset by anything? No, of course not.  But it does mean that underneath it all we have a foundation of confidence that all things – including ourselves – are safe in God’s hands.

In John’s gospel Jesus says it is to our advantage for him to go to God the Father so that the Holy Spirit can come to us.

The Holy Spirit also gives in Revelation a word of warning to those who do not honor God. I actually like the old KJV translation here, the language is colorful: it describes evil people this way: “the fearful, and unbelieving, the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars”. The Spirit warns these will be subject to ‘the second death’ from which there will be no resurrection.

The ultimate source of all these sins is a lack of faith. Idolatry (which is on the list) is worshiping what is not God; and I believe this is the sin of our age – more than murder, more than terrorism, more than lying or cheating or stealing – because all these other sins are caused by people who desire something more than they desire God… who worship something more than they worship God. Even good things, like food and pleasure and relationships, if they become our masters, end up coming between us and God. They become idols.

So where does Revelation touch our daily lives? Primarily, it encourages us to keep on keeping the faith. And to avoid doing the evil things on that list from Revelation, and do the opposite: Do not be afraid. Do not be unfaithful; do not hate; do not murder but live at peace with others; don’t chase after cheap sex; resist the sin of sorcery, which is the temptation to play God; worship nothing but God; speak the truth.

To those who live God’s way, God promises:

“they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 22:4-5)

Why would anyone want to settle for anything less?

Shakespeare’s Henry V famously said, “the readiness is all”.  And nowhere is that more true than in the book of Revelation.  There is a new world coming and we want to be part of it. And we need to be ready. Hold on to that vision, and keep on keeping the faith.  AMEN.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/1/16



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“The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.’” – Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Psalm 45: Ode for a Royal Wedding
To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song.

My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
I address my verses to the king;
my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

You are the most handsome of men;
grace is poured upon your lips;
therefore God has blessed you forever.
Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one,
in your glory and majesty.

In your majesty ride on victoriously
for the cause of truth and to defend the right;
let your right hand teach you dread deeds.
Your arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies;
the peoples fall under you.

Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.
Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;
    you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;
    your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.
From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad;
    daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor;
at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

10 Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear;
forget your people and your father’s house,
11     and the king will desire your beauty.
Since he is your lord, bow to him;
12     the people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts,
the richest of the people 13 with all kinds of wealth.

The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes;
14     in many-colored robes she is led to the king;
behind her the virgins, her companions, follow.
15 With joy and gladness they are led along
as they enter the palace of the king.

16 In the place of ancestors you, O king, shall have sons;
you will make them princes in all the earth.
17 I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations;
therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.


When I was younger I used to love to play chess. I loved the nuances of the game, the richness of the possibilities that unfold as the game is played. But there’s one partner I used to play against who really took the wind out of my sails. He didn’t care about the richness of the game or the possibilities. He played to WIN. His moves on the board were awkward and lacked finesse, but he always won. When I pointed this out to him he said, “but that’s the point of the game, to win.”

And I had to admit he was right. The point of the game of chess is to win.

If the goal of chess is to win, what is the goal of life? What is the goal of our faith? Ultimately, where are we headed?

Towards the end of his life the apostle Paul wrote:

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day.” (II Timothy 4:7-8)

That was the goal Paul had for life – he called it ‘finishing the race, keeping the faith’.

To put it another way, our goal is eternal life. Heaven. We will be spending eternity with Jesus, the Son of God who loves us so much he gave his life for us. What will that going to be like, and how can we orient ourselves toward that goal?

Today’s scripture readings describe our life’s goal in terms of a love story. The images we read are colorful and sensual, in a Middle Eastern sort of way. The culture from which they spring is not like our Western culture which almost takes as a given a divide between body, mind, and spirit… these readings reflect a much more holistic understanding of what it means to be human, and what it means to belong to God. So as we look at these passages we need to set aside any stained-glass images we may have of our Lord and prepare to meet someone a bit more… human… and yet at the same time very much the King of Heaven.

The first passage I want to look at, from the Song of Solomon, is a love song with multiple layers of meaning. It is a love song between a prince and a young woman. It can also be interpreted, at least to some extent, as a love song between God and God’s people. It is Jesus who calls to us saying, “arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for the winter is past, and the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come… Arise, my love, my fair one, come away.”

Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us where we will never be cold again, or sick, or weary; a place of beauty, where there’s music, and singing; where we will never be lonely or afraid ever again.

The Song of Solomon describes the lover of our souls in these words: “he comes, leaping on the mountains… like a gazelle or a young stag… gazing in windows, peeking through the lattice…” He’s playful, full of life. Jesus is no dull, boring character. He’s full of energy, and you can almost see the twinkle in his eyes. He holds out his hand and says, “come away with me!”

This heavenly romance may sound a little unusual to our ears. But the church is spoken of in scripture as the ‘Bride of Christ’. In the words of the apostle John, in Revelation:

“…the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure.” (Revelation 19:7)

John goes on to say “the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.” (Revelation 19:8) – which tells us something about how we can prepare for the future, for meeting our bridegroom. John is saying that whenever we do God’s will, we are, in essence, sewing our own wedding garments. Investing in eternity. Eternal life as described in the Song of Solomon focuses on a relationship characterized by playfulness, love, and exuberance!

Psalm 45 continues the love story. The psalm is “a love song” as the subtitle says, written for the wedding (it is believed) of King Solomon to the daughter of Pharaoh around 3000 years ago. What’s even more remarkable than the antiquity of this poem is the fact that Jewish and Christian scholars actually agree on the meaning of the psalm. They agree it has two meanings: the first, the original meaning of the royal wedding in ancient Jerusalem; and the second, the wedding between the Messiah and God’s people.

It’s a wedding song! And who can resist a wedding? I remember when my husband and I got engaged, at just the mention of an upcoming wedding people would stop what they were doing and smile, even if they were having a lousy day, it would change their mood, and they would offer advice and share their experiences. There is something about a wedding that brings out the best in people, makes them shine.

When my husband and I got married, Psalm 45 set to music was the processional for our ceremony. These were the words I came down the aisle to. It was unforgettable, having the praise band and the choir I used to direct up at the Presbyterian church singing this text as I came down. This song was chosen not just because it’s a wedding song but because it’s a tribute the Lord Jesus who my husband and I both love.

Follow with me and let’s take a look at what this psalm tells us about the Messiah, remembering this song was written 1000 years before Jesus was born:

  1. (verse 2) Grace is on his lips. When Jesus spoke, his words were full of grace and mercy… compassion to the poor, forgiveness for the sinner.
  2. (v 2) God blesses him. We see this at Jesus’ baptism, when the Spirit comes down on him in the form of a dove and we hear the words from heaven, “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”
  3. (v 3 & 4) Jesus shines with glory and majesty. When the time comes that we meet him face to face, he will take our breath away.
  4. (v 4) Jesus defends what is right and true.
  5. (v 6) Jesus’ throne endures forever. His kingdom is not of this world because this world is passing; Jesus’ kingdom is forever because it has its foundation in a world that’s forever.
  6. (v 6 & 7) Jesus rules fairly. He loves what is right and hates what is evil. Jesus hates evil so much that he went to the cross to destroy it and to free his people from it. In Jesus, justice and mercy become one and the same.
  7. (v 8) The Messiah’s palaces are made of ivory, and are full of the sound of stringed instruments, and the smell of perfume is in the air (myrrh, aloes & cassia). Jesus’ kingdom is a place of indescribable beauty.

Then the psalmist gives the bride these words (v 10 & 11): “forget your people and your father’s house; the king desires your beauty. He is your lord.” The word “forget” here is a kind of dramatic license. It doesn’t mean we should forget our loved ones. But it encourages us to look to the future and not the past, to keep our eyes on the goal. And it also means, like at a wedding, we are to ‘forsake all others and join to our spouse’, that is Jesus… being faithful to Jesus alone.

(v 13 & 14) The psalmist talks about the bride being made ready in her chamber. In ancient times preparation for a royal wedding sometimes took a year or longer. It included oil treatments, and training in royal etiquette (including practice wearing the royal robes), and learning the ways of the palace, before the bride was presented to the king. Paul tells us in II Corinthians, when we meet Jesus, “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror… are… transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (II Corinthians 3:18) And then (v 15) the bride, finally made ready, is “led to the king in many-colored robes”.

And the ceremony begins.

Who would say “no” to a royal wedding?

And yet… and yet… in Matthew 22, Jesus tells a parable of this very thing happening. He says:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business…” (Matt 22:2-5)

The parable ends with the invited ones not attending the wedding at all, and the king going “out into the streets” and bringing in whoever he find so the wedding hall is full. (Matt 22:10)

You and I, each one of us, is personally invited to the greatest wedding in all of history. In fact, as God’s people, we are invited to be the bride of the King. Jesus has proposed, and given us the Holy Spirit as his pledge. There is no other love like this love. There is no goal for our lives greater than this. For those who love God, who receive his love and trust in Jesus as Lord, we have a royal future.

The playful lover in the Song of Solomon… and the glorious king in Psalm 45… is our bridegroom. Who would say ‘no’ to this?

Let’s pray…

Lord Jesus, thank you that we have in you both hope and a future. If there’s anyone hearing these words today who has never said ‘yes’ to you, help their hearts to say ‘yes’ to you today. Help us to keep our heavenly goal in mind as we live this life, to your honor and glory, and to our future joy, Amen.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 8/30/15 and at Incarnation Church (Anglican), Strip District, Pittsburgh, 9/6/15


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Scripture Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-24 and Matthew 25:31-46

Christ the King Sunday

Christ the King Sunday

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s the last Sunday of the church year, as a new church year begins next week with Advent. This is the Sunday when we take time to reflect on Jesus’ kingship.

It may seem a little backwards, celebrating Jesus’ return to earth as King before we’ve celebrated Jesus’ coming to earth as a baby… but this order of events helps to give Advent a strong sense of anticipation, waiting for the arrival of God in a couple of different ways.


Here at the South Hills Methodist Partnership, as in many other American churches, this Sunday is also Thanksgiving Sunday, observed with special services in which we remember all the things God has done for us throughout the year. I like that both of these holidays land on the same Sunday because it gives us a chance to express ‘thanks’ to God that ‘Jesus is our King’!

Our scripture readings for this morning, on the surface, don’t appear to have much in common with these two holiday themes… but a closer look shows they’re absolutely perfect for it. Both passages are about the kingship of God. Both talk about what will happen when Jesus returns as King. The passage from Matthew portrays Jesus on his throne judging the nations, and the passage from Ezekiel gives us a long list of reasons to be thankful to God.

And since both passages talk about sheep, both of them can leave us wondering – how can we be sure we’re in the right sheep pen? When God divides his sheep on that great judgement day, how do we know which group we’ll be in? These two readings offer some insights on these questions.

In the United Methodist Book of Worship, in the ‘Service of Death and Resurrection’ – the burial service – there is a prayer that the pastor prays for the deceased that says:

Into your hands, o merciful Savior,
we commend your servant.
Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you,
a sheep of your own fold,
a lamb of your own flock,
a sinner of your own redeeming…

Ultimately this is what we hope for, for our loved ones, and for ourselves – to be recognized by God as one of His own sheep. How does this come about?

In Matthew Jesus paints a picture of the judgement day. He says the king of glory will ‘separate the sheep from the goats’, with the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. To the sheep on his right Jesus says, “come inherit the kingdom” while to the sheep on his left Jesus says, “Go away, you that are accursed.” What makes the difference between these two groups is the way the sheep have responded to the needs of their fellow sheep. The sheep on the right show compassion to other sheep; the sheep on the left do not.

But it’s kind of odd, isn’t it, that in Jesus’ story, all of the sheep – both the ones on the right and the ones on the left – are surprised at what Jesus says to them. They don’t know their own track record. The sheep on the right say, “when did we ever do this for you?” The sheep on the left ask, “when did we ever not help?” And Jesus answers, “just as you did it (or didn’t do it) to the least of these, you did it (or didn’t do it) to me.” Jesus identifies with the least and the lowest. Jesus identifies with the hungry and the thirsty, the outsider, the sick, the naked, the prisoner. He enters into human pain and distress. He doesn’t go around repeating the cliché ‘I feel your pain’ – He shares it, He walks with us through it. And as we follow in His footsteps, we end up doing the same, even though we may not realize it.

There are a couple of things in this passage that I think are often overlooked. Most of the time when we hear this passage we hear the list of items Jesus describes, and we say, ‘we should be doing these things. We should be feeding the hungry. We should be providing clothes to those that can’t afford them. We should be volunteering in hospitals and prisons, and visiting the sick.’ And the story becomes one of social justice.

Social justice is a necessary thing, a worthy cause, something that scripture strongly supports. The feeding of the hungry and the visiting of the sick and all these things desperately need to be done. As Jesus says, pray the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers into the fields!

But that’s not the only point of this passage. Because by the time the events described by Jesus take place, the opportunities to do these things will be gone. We will either have done them or not done them.

The first thing to see here is the setting itself, in verse 31: the glory and majesty of the throne room of God. Jesus sets the scene, saying, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.” We will be standing before the King of kings and the Lord of lords, shining in his brilliance, surrounded by all his angels. In scripture, the appearance of just ONE angel is usually enough to make most people fall face-down in worship… can you imagine ALL of the angels at once? This will be an awesome, fearsome day.

The second thing is this. Jesus tells the same story twice, that is, he uses the same set of words for both groups of sheep: “you gave me food… you did not give me food…; you welcomed me… you did not welcome me…” There’s an exact parallel between the two groups of sheep. Jesus sets up a perfect one-to-one contrast. But there’s one place where the words are not the same. Verse 39 parallel to verse 44. In verse 39 the sheep on the right ask, “when was it that… we visited you?” and in verse 44 the sheep on the left ask, “when was it that… we did not take care of you?” Little variations like this always send me back to the original language to find out why. The first phrase – “We visited you” – in the Greek is ‘episcopos’ – the word we get ‘bishop’ from. The second phrase – “We did not take care of you” – in the Greek is ‘diaconos’ – the word we get ‘deacon’ from.

Jesus is not talking about church hierarchy here – church hierarchy as we know it didn’t exist at that point in time – but the difference in intensity is correct. When the sheep on the right ask, “when did we visit you?” the word visit implies ‘we tended you, we looked after you, we empathized with you, we were with you’. When the sheep on the left ask “when did we not take care of you?” the meaning is something more like ‘when did we not give to you?’ or ‘when did we not do for you?’ In the first, ‘our hearts were with you’; in the second, ‘we served’.

That’s the real difference between the sheep and the goats in this parable. The attitude of the heart… and the things our hearts then lead us to do as a result.

I don’t know about you but this parable always leaves me feeling a little unsettled. I think maybe it’s supposed to. It’s meant to make us stop and think, to examine what we feel and what we do, and to examine our motives, and how we treat people who are in trouble. Self-examination is a good thing. But once we’ve been brutally honest with ourselves, and once we’ve confessed our sins to God, then…

… then the words of Ezekiel give hope and comfort, because Ezekiel’s focus is on God’s power and God’s actions, not our own.

In the passage from Ezekiel, God makes a number of promises starting out with the phrase “I will…” As I go through these, imagine God speaking to you and me face to face with these words: “I will search for my sheep… I will seek them out… I will rescue them… I will gather them… I will bring them into their own land… I will feed them on the mountains… I will feed them with good pasture… I will be their shepherd… I will make them lie down… I will seek the lost… I will bring back the strayed… I will bind up the injured… I will strengthen the weak… the fat and the strong I will destroy… I will feed them with justice… I will judge between sheep and sheep… I will save my flock… I will set up over them one shepherd… and I will be their God.”

In the Old Testament repetition is a way of emphasizing a point. Just like we would use underlining in today’s world, in Ezekiel’s world they used repetition. And the more frequently something is repeated, the stronger the emphasis. So many times God says “I will…”. In addition, three times in this passage God says he will seek out his lost sheep. Three times God says he will feed his sheep. Three times God says he will bring his sheep out and gather them together. Three times God says he will judge between the sheep. Three times God promises all these things. And three times in this paragraph we see the words “thus says the Lord God” – and then a fourth time at the very end: “I, the Lord, have spoken.”

You can’t get any more sure of something than that! God’s word is more than just meaningful. God’s word is active. It does things. The book of Genesis tells us that God spoke the universe into being. “Let there be lights in the heavens… let there be fish in the sea and birds in the air… let us make human beings in our image…” God spoke and it happened.

I’m reminded of the very first translation of Genesis into English – back in the 1500s – the English language was a bit different back then – and the line “God said ‘let there be light’”: Back in those days it was translated, “and God said ‘light be made’. And light was made.” I would love to walk into the house at the end of a long day and walk into the kitchen and say ‘dinner be made’! I can’t do that, but God can. God’s word has that power. What God says, happens.

So take that thought and hear again what God says in Ezekiel. “I will search for my sheep… I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness… I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries…”

I got a little foretaste of this a few years ago – this gathering of the peoples. I was visiting Jerusalem, and across the valley from the Temple mount, in the Garden of Gethsemane, there is a church. There are churches all over Jerusalem, of every denomination you can imagine – but this one is different. Being located in the Garden of Gethsemane, the people who built the church felt that no one denomination should lay claim to the location. They named it “The Church of All Nations”, and the ministers there serve on rotation from different churches. When you walk in – there are no pews – but people gather around in circles, or by themselves, and they pray, or they sing… and as you walk in you hear people from every country worshipping in French and Arabic and Japanese and English and Italian and you name it, all at once. It was like a foretaste of heaven. One day, on the day of the Lord, all the national and ethnic barriers will be broken down and God will call us all, from every people group, from every nation. What a glorious day that will be!

And God says, “I will feed them with good pasture.” He also says – as Jesus says in Matthew – “I will judge between sheep and sheep” – and God has a few choice words in Ezekiel for sheep who go around stomping on everybody else’s grass, or who go around muddying the water so others can’t drink, or who head-butt the weaker animals and push them around. God says, “I will save my flock, and they will no longer be ravaged.” The Lord has spoken.

In Ezekiel, God promises that those of us who have suffered in life – whether it be from fellow sheep, or from injury or illness, or from just being lost – God will save us. God will bind up our injuries. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

This God is our King – and because we have such a King – we give thanks. AMEN.

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 11/23/14


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