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[Scripture readings for today can be found at the end of this post]

At first glance our scripture readings for today appear to be completely un-related to each other.  The Old Testament lesson tells about Noah and the flood; the Gospel lesson tells about Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan; and in the New Testament lesson, Peter is declaring Jesus at the right hand of God now ruling in heaven.

So where’s the common thread? The answer to that question can be found in our passage from Peter.

The Archangel Michael

But before I dig in to these readings, I wanted to bring to memory an old, old song… a spiritual that many of us learned as children: Michael Row the Boat Ashore.  Remember the words? “Michael, row the boat ashore, alleluia!” And the verses go:

“River Jordan is deep and wide, alleluia!
Milk and honey on the other side, alleluia!
River Jordan is chilly and cold, alleluia!
Chills the body but not the soul, alleluia!”

This old slave song has a double meaning. Taken one way, it talks about freedom: taking a boat to get away from the slave-master and travel to the promised land. Taken another way, the song talks about dying and eternal life.  The River Jordan represents death, and ‘milk and honey on the other side’ represents the promised land of heaven.

The apostle Peter didn’t know the song of course, but in his letter he says many of the same things. He says that we are “saved through water.” (I Peter 3:20)  And he points to a number of illustrations.

Noah’s Ark Under Construction

In his first illustration Peter points to Noah, who along with eight other people, traveled through the great flood in the ark and they were ‘saved through water’.  When the waters had gone down, and the ark had landed, God’s word to Noah was a covenant, a promise in which God said, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant… the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature…”  (I like how God includes the animals in this covenant – both domestic and wild, God says. If we ever had any doubt that God cares about His creatures, this passage sets aside those doubts!)

In his second illustration, Peter talks about Jesus “suffering for sins once for all… in order to bring us to God”.  If we ever have any doubts that God loves us, or that Jesus wants us with him – this passage sets those doubts to rest. Jesus’ last prayer for us was “Father, forgive them.”  The love of Jesus: there’s no stopping it!

Peter goes on to say Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”  So Jesus himself has taken that boat-ride across the Jordan. He has passed through the waters of death – and not only landed safe on the other side but then came back to tell us about it.

And while he was doing that, Peter says, “Jesus went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey…” – that is, the people living in Old Testament times who had died not knowing Jesus, not knowing the hope of eternal life. Jesus made himself known to them and gave them a chance to respond to his invitation.  And so we say in the creeds Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried, he descended into hell” – not because he belonged there but because he was ministering to the spirits trapped there, to set them free.

And then Peter talks about our salvation, which is also through water. He writes, “and baptism… saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

In other words, just as Jesus descended to the dead and rose again, we descend into the waters of baptism and are raised up again. (That’s why many churches practice baptism by immersion: because it’s a living picture of being buried and being raised again.) And just as Jesus “has gone into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God” so we also will follow in his footsteps and one day be with him on the far side of the Jordan.

And God looks at Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan River and exclaims “you are my Son, my beloved, in you I am well pleased.” Because Jesus accomplishes God’s will to save us through water.

And after being baptized and tempted in the wilderness, Jesus goes to Galilee and begins his public ministry. And his message to the people – both then and now – is this: “the time is fulfilled, and kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.”

Jesus’ message is always about the Kingdom of God. Yes, he taught peace and love and justice and mercy, goodness and kindness and holiness, all these things; but the main point of his teaching and his life was the coming of God’s Kingdom. This kingdom, as he said to Pilate, “is not of this world”.

What we look forward to on the far side of the Jordan – that Promised Land – is seeing Jesus crowned as King of all creation. Under his rule the universe will be made new; what is wrong will be set right; and Jesus will be King of kings and Lord of lords and Prince of peace.

So Jesus’ message is: Change course (that’s what ‘repent’ means)—change course and believe the good news.

So what can we take away from these passages today? Apart from receiving a hope that does not disappoint; our first response is to believe. The longer I live, the more challenges to faith it seems we come up against.  So it’s time to dust off our spirits: dust off all the years of church history and all the theology we’ve heard (for better or for worse) and all the other stuff that seems to accumulate around our hearts and our souls – dust it all off and renew and refresh our relationship with the living Jesus.

Second, we can reflect on the River Jordan and what it means to us: the sorrows it brings, as it has taken loved ones from us over the years; and the joys it brings as we look forward to many happy reunions. The song Michael Row the Boat Ashore has another verse that’s not as well-known as the ones quoted earlier: “gonna see my mother there, hallelujah… gonna see my papa there, hallelujah”.  We will see our loved ones, and we will see Jesus, all who have crossed the river ahead of us.

And finally, we can talk about these things among ourselves during the coming week – to encourage each other, and to inspire each other, and perhaps others may overhear our conversations and find encouragement too in Jesus’ words.

Wishing you many blessings during this holy season of Lent – AMEN.

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Genesis 9:8-17  Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him,  9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,  10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.  11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations:  13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,  15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.  16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”  17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

1 Peter 3:18-22  For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,  19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,  20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.  21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,  22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Mark 1:9-15   In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,  15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

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Preached at Fair Oaks of Pittsburgh 2/18/18

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[Scripture readings for the morning – I Samuel 3:1-20, John 1:43-51 – are reprinted at the end of this post.]

The longer I live, the more I think “change” should be a four-letter word. 

I never used to feel that way.  And in some ways I still don’t – I mean, variety IS the spice of life.  But… for example, I used to work in an office typing on a computer all day. And every now and then I’d come in, in the morning, and discover my computer had been changed! Overnight the tech guys snuck in and installed an upgrade, and left the employees a note saying why this change was a good thing. All it meant to us was, it was going to take us twice as long to get our work done! (At least until we learned the new software.) Change meant major frustration and missed deadlines.

And then years later when I ran for tax collector I went door to door talking to people and I campaigned on ‘change’ and why change was needed in our community – until I realized every time I said the word ‘change’ people’s eyes would glaze over. They’ve heard it too many times. Change is something politicians promise and then deliver badly, if at all.

And then there’s the change so many of us attempt at this time of year: the resolution to improve our diet and exercise. I don’t know about you but I enjoy food, and who wants be out walking in all this snow?  Diet and exercise take effort and time, and progress seems sooooo slooow. This kind of change is not pleasant.

So when Adam Hamilton writes in the foreword to The Wesley Challenge – our text for the next few weeks – on page one of the book, that the intention of the Wesley Challenge is “to shape the souls of the participants so that their everyday lives are changed…” – I wonder if he’s wise to say that!

But to say anything else would be less than honest.  Because the truth is, whenever human beings get involved with God, change happens… to us, not to God (because God doesn’t change).

Our scripture readings for today give us a couple of examples of that.  In our passage from John, we hear Nathanael say “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Which is kind of like somebody from Pittsburgh saying “can anything good come out of Cleveland?”) But after talking with Jesus for just a few moments, Nathanael finds himself saying, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Just a few words with Jesus and Nathanael’s opinion is changed!

Our scripture reading from I Samuel also is a story of change, though on a sadder note. At this point in Israel’s history, the prophet Samuel is a boy serving as an apprentice in the temple. God calls Samuel, and Samuel doesn’t even know enough about God to recognize God’s voice.  Finally Eli the priest explains what’s going on, and Samuel says, “speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

And God proceeds to tell Samuel that judgement is about to fall on the house of Eli, because Eli’s sons are blaspheming God, and Eli hasn’t stopped them. And the next morning Eli tells Samuel to tell him what God said – and he says “don’t leave anything out!”  So Samuel gives Eli the message.

Sadly, God’s words are not enough to inspire Eli (or his sons) to change. When human beings come in contact with God, change happens… usually.  But God never forces a person to change. God invites people into relationship, but every person has the right – the God-given right – to say ‘no’, to refuse a relationship with God. And that’s what happens with Eli and his sons.

Samuel, on the other hand, says ‘yes’ to God.  Samuel’s life changes in God’s direction, and scripture tells us his ministry was a blessing to all Israel, and God “let none of his words fall to the ground.”

So spending time with God brings change. And the kind of change God brings won’t let us down, and it doesn’t disappoint, and it isn’t a waste of time, and it isn’t a drudgery.

Scripture itself doesn’t say much about change directly. It tells us stories about change; but it talks more about God’s grace in offering forgiveness and salvation free of charge and without our asking. The one verse where the Bible actually uses the word ‘change’ in reference to people, is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul says that on the last day:

“The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” (I Cor 15:52-53)

So the most important change you and I will ever experience is a gift from God and not something we can do for ourselves! While we wait for that change, in gratitude, we invest our lives – as Jesus said in the story of the talents – working to invest the gifts God has given us to turn a profit (so to speak) for the kingdom of God.  And even that doesn’t take a whole lot of effort because, as Paul says in Philippians:

“…it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil 2:13)

So having said all of this about change by way of background, what kind of change is Wesley talking about in this book? What was his method, and how does it work? And what is our investment in the process?

When John Wesley began leading his first home group, the Church of England and the nation of England were at a low point, morally speaking.  Church attendance was down, serious spirituality was ridiculed, and the nation itself was leading the world in the slave trade, while at home people in prisons – many of whom were simply in debt or mentally ill – were suffering horribly.

Wesley believed that, as Paul said, faith without works is dead. So with that thought in mind, Wesley’s group met to read God’s word together, to pray together, to encourage each other in the Christian life, and to find ways of loving God and others.  And in the process they came up with a list of questions they would ask each other on a regular basis, which became the Wesleyan ‘method’, from which came the word ‘Method-ist’.

Wesley knew that meaningful change starts in the heart of individuals, when people’s hearts get close to God. Wesley also knew when people’s hearts are filled with God’s love, that love spills over into daily life. So Wesley’s goal was, basically, to change the nation – one person at a time – by bringing God’s love into everyday life and experience.  He wasn’t so much teaching people about God as he was helping people to share life with God.

And even though people in Wesley’s time made fun of the “Holy Club” (as they called it) they also began to see group members serving the poor, giving to the needy, visiting prisoners, and praying together… and the Christian faith began to look real to them. And attractive.  Wesley’s ‘Holy Club’ was one of the foundations of a nationwide revival in England in the 1700s.

So the goal of this book is to bring this into our own time.  Our country today, like England in Wesley’s day, is in moral crisis. Church attendance is down, and the nation is being rocked by one horrifying event after another, and people are angry and afraid.  How can we respond? We need a course of action.

I’m reminded of what the flight attendants tell us before a plane takes off:  If there’s trouble, and a mask drops down, put yours on first before you help someone else. Spiritually speaking, we need to put our masks on first before we can help somebody else.  The gospel of Jesus Christ, and a relationship with the living God, is the life-saving device. We need to make sure ours is secure before we help others.

That’s what the Wesley Challenge is about.  And as we head into the Wesley Challenge, I wanted to invite all of us to do a few things that will help us get the most out of Wesley’s teaching:

  • Try to be here for the next few weeks! We will be preaching on the Wesley Challenge for two more weeks, and you don’t want to miss a week.
  • If you can, get your hands on a copy of The Wesley Challenge.
  • Make the Wesley Covenant Prayer part of your daily prayer time for the next few weeks.
  • Attend a Wesley Challenge weeknight meeting of your choice. We have three that will be meeting:
    1. Monday nights – at 7:00PM at Hill Top UMC. Pastor Matt will be leading a group at the parsonage.
    2. Wednesday nights – 7:00PM at Carnegie UMC. I will be leading a group there.
    3. Thursday nights – at Spencer UMC at Beyond there will be a video series related to the book and to John Wesley’s teaching.
  • For those who can’t make it to a group meeting for whatever reason:
    1. Read the book at home
    2. Because the Wesley Challenge was meant to be done with others, in order to get the most out of Wesley’s teaching, share your thoughts with someone else in some other way.
      • Over the phone
      • On a Facebook page. There are other churches doing this at the same time we are: Carlisle UMC in PA and Grace UMC in Des Moines IA. Join one of these online groups, or if you prefer I could start a page for us, let me know.

However we approach this over the coming weeks, the change this course will bring will be mostly God’s work.  Our part is to be there and to share and to be open to what God has in store for us.

Let’s pray together. Lord, as we share your word, and as we read the words of your servant John Wesley over the next few weeks, open our hearts to yourself. Teach us to know you better. Help us understand what your Spirit is creating in us. Help us put away anything that comes between us, Lord. And help us to know how to reach out to others in your name. We give you all the glory and the praise, AMEN.

 

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 1/14/18

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 1 Samuel 3:1-20  Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room;  3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.  4 Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!”  5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.  6 The LORD called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”  7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.  8 The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy.  9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

 10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  11 Then the LORD said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.  12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.  13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.  14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

 15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.  16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.”  17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.”  18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.”

 19 As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.  20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.

John 1:43-51   The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”  44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”  47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”  50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”  51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

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

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

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

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Hymn Text: O Little Town of Bethlehem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O Little Town of Bethlehem concludes with these words:

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

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

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

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

❤ Merry Christmas ❤

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Christmas Eve, 2017

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[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

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

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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

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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] “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;  15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.  16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.  17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.  18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.  19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.  20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’  21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’  23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;  25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’  26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.  28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.  29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” – Matthew 25:14-30

[The apostle Paul writes:] “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.  2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  3 When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!  4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief;  5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.  6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober;  7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.  8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.  9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,  10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.  11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” – I Thessalonians 5:1-11

 

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Well today is kind of a weird Sunday. We’re at the end of Fall but not quite at Christmas. Next Sunday we celebrate Christ the King and the week after that Advent starts. This week is Thanksgiving, and that’s sort of today’s theme, but there are no turkeys in Scripture, and our readings for today talk about Jesus coming back to earth at the end of time, which is usually something we hear about in Advent.

So we could consider today a sneak preview of Advent.

So at this time of year, when the days are getting shorter and the weather is getting colder, I think a message of encouragement will be a good thing. And of the two readings for today, Paul’s words in I Thessalonians are more encouraging, so I’m going to leave Paul for last, and we’ll start with the story from Matthew.

Our reading in Matthew is a familiar parable. Jesus told this story to the disciples a day or two before he died on the cross, so in a sense, these are a dying man’s last words. (There are actually three parables in Matthew 25, and together they make up Jesus’ final instructions to the disciples – and to us – on how to live a life of faith when Jesus is no longer here on earth in the flesh.)

Just to kind of fill in the rest of the chapter briefly – the first parable is the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, five of whom took extra oil with them and five of whom did not – and when the groom (who was late) finally arrived, the five who weren’t ready ran out of oil, and had to go get more, and they ended up being locked out of the wedding feast. The moral of the story being, stay awake and be prepared.

The third parable in the chapter is the story of the lambs and the goats on judgement day. The King says to the lambs on his right hand “welcome into my Father’s kingdom – for I was hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and in prison and you took care of me…”.  And then he says to the goats on his left, “depart from me, evildoers, because you didn’t do these things.”  And both the sheep and the goats reply, “when did we ever do this (or not do this) for you?”  And Jesus answers, “just as you did it to one of the least of these (or didn’t do it), you did it (or didn’t do it) to me.”

Both stories tell us that what we do with our lives matters.  Yes, we are saved by grace through faith.  Salvation is totally a gift from God; but as Martin Luther pointed out, faith without works is dead.  If we really believe, what we believe in will show up in how we live.

Today’s parable about three servants and their talents reinforces this point. So turning to the story…

There’s a rich man – a very rich man – who is going away on a long journey. While he’s away he wants his servants to take over management of what he owns. The rich man of course represents God, and the servants represent us – not just us present here today, but all people.

As for the talents – in Jesus’ day a talent was a measure of weight that was used to weigh things like gold or silver or bronze.  We don’t know exactly how much a talent was worth (depending on which book you read, a talent may have been worth anywhere from tens of thousands to 1.5 million), but the point is: each servant was given, basically, a lifetime’s wages. And that amount would be somewhat different for each person, just like it is for us.

The talents, then, represent what God has given us: our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our souls, our families, our abilities, all the things that make up who we are. These gifts are all God’s, but he hands over to our care.  He gives one servant five talents, another two talents, another one talent.

Is God playing favorites here? No. God knows each person, and gives what’s appropriate to each person.  Having more talents doesn’t make someone a better person – it just means that person has more work to earn!  And having fewer talents doesn’t mean a person’s efforts are less important. Remember the story of the widow’s mite: Jesus said the poor widow who gave two pennies gave more than anyone else because she gave all she had.  So it’s not about how many talents we have – it’s what we do with what we’ve been given.

So the first and second servant go out and trade with their master’s talents, and they double what they’ve been given: the one with five talents makes five more, and the one with two makes two more.  But the third servant… I’m going to come back to him in a moment.

Up to this point the story reminds me of Shark Tank on TV. Shark Tank is a reality show about rich investors (called “Sharks”) and average people like you and me who go to the Sharks with business proposals. And if the ideas are good a Shark will invest, giving the business owner money and advice on growing their business, and in a matter of years (or sometimes just months) an investment of a few hundred thousand dollars turns into millions. And both the Shark and the business owner are thrilled!

Of course God doesn’t need money, but God is an investor.  God invests in us!  And our job is like those business owners on Shark Tank: to take the talents God gives us, and the guidance God gives us, and make a profit with it.

So what would a profit look like in the kingdom of God?  It could take on many forms. Winning souls for Jesus, perhaps. Providing food and clothing to people after hurricanes. Building friendships between people from different countries. Bringing justice into an unjust situation. Welcoming strangers. Could be any number of things. Through prayer God guides us in investing the talents we have been given.

And imagine the joy of standing before God on that day and saying, “Look, you gave me these gifts and I made more!” And hearing God say, “well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master!”  No matter how many talents we’ve been given, the reward is the same: “Well done!”

So what’s up with the guy with the one talent? I could never figure out where he’s coming from.  Look at the things he says to God: “Master, I knew that you were a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” (Matt 25:24-25)

Where does he get this? How does his brain get to the point of saying to God, “you’re a hard man” when God is neither hard nor a man?

For those of us who know God, this guy sounds completely out in left field. So where are his words coming from?  One theologian makes a good point when he says (paraphrasing) “one way or another, every stubborn sinner ends up blaming his sins on God.” In other words, what the man is saying is what psychologists would call denial and projection: looking at someone else and seeing a reflection of himself instead of what’s really in front of him.

So servant number three blames God for his own shortcomings, insults and falsely accuses God to his face, and then hands him one lousy coin covered with dirt. Is it any surprise the master says, “you wicked and lazy servant! The least you could have done was earn some interest! Take away his talent and give it to the one with ten, and throw him out into the darkness!”

Bottom line, we do not want to be this guy. We want to see God as God is: the loving Lord, the gracious God, the source of all good things, who wants us to do well and wants us to enter into the joy of our master.

And at this point, then, we turn to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.  Paul and his hearers would likely have been familiar with this story Jesus told here.  And Paul picks up the theme, saying, “you know the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”  Paul writes, “When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them” (I Thess 5:3).  (I think the “they” Paul is talking about are those guys with the one talent. “They” are false prophets.)

Paul continues: “But you, beloved, are not in darkness” (I Thess 5:4)  Darkness may represent lostness, confusion, lack of direction, lack of meaning, lack of purpose, lack of knowledge, lack of connectedness with God. Darkness is where people hide when they don’t want to be seen.  And darkness is where the guy with one talent ends up living.

But Paul says, “you belong to the day.”( v. 8)  Therefore, he says, “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (I Thess 5:8)

Look at that equipment for a moment: faith and love, as a breastplate, to protect our hearts… and the hope of salvation as a helmet to protect our minds. And faith, hope, and love, these three (the greatest of which is love) which will direct us in investing our talents.

Paul adds, “so awake or asleep we may live with him.” (I Thess 5:10)

Therefore encourage each other. Encourage each other to good works, to investing talents wisely, to investing ourselves in God’s kingdom.  And likewise encourage the church to good works, and to faith and hope and love.

And I would add, when you see something, say something.  If you see someone using their talents, or see the church using its talents, say so.  Spread the good news! Give thanks to God, and give thanks to the people involved.

See… I knew we’d get around to Thanksgiving somehow.  Thanks be to God, who gives us the talents, and who gives us the hope and the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip, 11/19/17

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“The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs.  You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.  This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the LORD.  For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.  The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.  This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” – Exodus 12:1-14

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Next week our Partnership will be starting a new sermon series in Philippians, so we’ll be spending a good bit of time with the apostle Paul over the next month or so.  But before we go there, there’s one last lesson in the Old Testament that I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss.

This summer we’ve been studying the book of Genesis, and Genesis provides a firm foundation for both the Old and New Testaments.  But there’s one last story in the Old Testament that is central to both the Jewish and the Christian faiths, and is also key to understanding Paul’s teachings – and that’s the story of Moses and the Passover.

When we left off a couple weeks ago in Genesis, the people of Israel – that is, Joseph’s family – had moved to Egypt to escape a famine, and they settled in Egypt. As time went on, and Joseph and his brothers passed away, their descendants became part of Egyptian society – and they were there for about 350 years or so.

But as time passed, and as Pharaohs came and went, the leadership of Egypt began to forget Joseph and all the good things he did for Egypt, how he saved them from the famine… and they began to make slaves out of the Israelites.

Our scripture reading today talks about the last night of Israel’s slavery in Egypt, and the beginning of their liberation.  This story is the turning point in the Old Testament – the defining moment.  It’s the moment when God begins to fulfill the promises he made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, to give them a land of their own.  This moment is the touchstone of the Jewish faith – and it’s the event God’s people look back to and remember whenever we talk about God saving us and setting us free.

And for us Christians it also looks forward to the Last Supper, which was a celebration of the Passover night.

As we dig into the reading. I’d like to focus on three things: first the human aspect of the story – what it might have been like to be living in Egypt back then as a Jewish person.  Then we’ll take a look at what God told the people of Israel to do – how to prepare for their freedom. And finally we’ll bring all of this together into the teachings of Jesus, to see how it applies to us today.

So imagine yourself living in ancient Egypt.  You are living in one of the most advanced and wealthy civilizations of the ancient world.  The culture is sophisticated, very well educated, and there are plenty of goods and services to be had.  There are perfumers, jewelry-makers, and traders in cloth and in spices – every luxury you can imagine.

But you and I don’t see much of that because we’re descendants of Israel – and we’re slaves.  We are looked down on, prejudiced against, subject to injustice… and our people have been down for so long we sometimes wonder if God even notices any more.

The memory of Joseph – who saved Egypt from famine – is kept alive by our people. But most of the rest of the Egyptians have forgotten Joseph. They’re more worried about the growing tension and violence in their nation. There have been rebellions, assassinations, a few coup attempts, and the current Pharaoh seems to enjoy leading by intimidation rather than by negotiation.  He rules in a spirit of fear.

Just to give an example of how he rules with fear:  In the first chapter of Exodus, Pharaoh says to his people:

“Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we [are].  Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. (Exodus 1:9-11)

What Pharaoh says about the people of Israel being more numerous and more powerful isn’t true – at least not yet.  At this point in time they’re the least powerful in Egypt. The more they’re oppressed the more they will become numerous and powerful.

As a side-note, this is an irony that repeats throughout history whenever leaders try to rule in a spirit of fear.  Where leaders rule with fear, government policies fail, people suffer, and the result is usually the opposite of what was intended. As an example we see this in the Russian Revolution of the early 1900s – which promised a ‘workers paradise’ but resulted in the deaths of millions.  Or in the Nazi movement, which promised a ‘master race’ but resulted in the deaths of millions and in the near-destruction of the German nation.  The spirit of fear is the opposite of the spirit of faith to which we are called by God.

So God, through Moses and Aaron, confronts Pharaoh. He says ‘let my people go so they may worship me’.  God is letting Pharaoh know that Pharaoh is not the biggest man on campus.  And God sends plagues to prove his point; and time after time Pharaoh says “OK, OK, you’re right, you win – take away the plagues and I’ll let your people go” but as soon as the plagues are gone, Pharaoh changes his mind and says “sorry, no, the people can’t go.”

As we look at this series of plagues from a 21st century point of view, all these plagues don’t seem quite fair to the everyday Egyptians, that they have to suffer for Pharaoh’s bad judgement. But it’s true to life.  Ungodly leadership – whether in government, or in business, or wherever leadership happens – always leads to suffering for average everyday people.  God has promised to set that right someday.  God’s kingdom will come and God’s perfect will, will be done one day.

But for today, what God is concerned about – God’s whole point in this passage from Exodus – is found at the end of the reading where God says: “on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD.”  (Exodus 12:12)

With God, the main issue is always ‘who or what is being worshiped’?  Are people worshipping Pharaoh? Are they worshipping power or wealth? Are they worshipping idols? Are they worshipping their taskmasters? Or are they worshipping the one true and living God?

The people of Israel know – as we know – God is the one true God.  There is no other. And Pharaoh has been confronted, again and again, with this truth, but he still refuses to bow the knee.  He still insists on ruling in fear, as a tyrant.

So at this point God stops speaking to Pharaoh (who isn’t listening anyway) and God starts talking to Israel.  And God’s message is “get ready! It’s time to go. It’s time to move. Here’s what I need you to do.”

The first thing God commands is that this night – this night of liberation, this Passover night – is to be set apart in Israel’s history as a memorial, forever.  We as Americans have days like Memorial Day, and Martin Luther King Day, and Thanksgiving Day, as memorials to important events in our history.  This Passover night will be Israel’s defining moment – the Night of nights.  So much so, God is making this night the beginning of months – in other words God is making this their new year’s eve (even though it’s actually in the spring).

Then God tells each family to take one lamb per family and set it aside on the 10th day of the month.  If the household is not big enough to eat a whole lamb, people are to go in together with their neighbors and share a lamb – the result being, no one will eat this meal alone.  And no one will miss out on eating it because they can’t afford a lamb.  Every Israelite is to be included, and nobody is to eat alone.

The lamb is to be without blemish – a year-old male, strong and healthy.  The lamb is to be kept until the 14th day of the month, when it will be slaughtered at twilight.

And then the family is to take some of the blood, and dip in a bunch of hyssop, and paint the blood on the doorposts and above the door of the house where they are eating. Once the blood is on the door they are not to go outside for the rest of the night.

The lamb is to be eaten with unleavened bread – baked quickly, no time to let it rise –  because the call to leave could come at any moment.  The lamb is also eaten with bitter herbs as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery.  The lamb is to be eaten completely, including the organs, and anything left over is to be burned.

The people are to eat fully dressed, with their sandals on… because sometime during the night the call will come, that Pharaoh wants all the Israelites out of the land. The Lord will pass through Egypt, and the firstborn of all Egyptians will die.  But any house with lamb’s blood over the door will be passed over – and from this comes the name of the holiday of Passover.

God says again: this will be a night of remembrance for you, and you will celebrate it as a festival to the Lord forever.  And to this day Jewish people celebrate Passover every spring, remembering this night.

For us as Christians this holiday has a second meaning: it is also the holiday on which the Last Supper was eaten and Jesus was crucified.  Jesus has been called “the Lamb of God” because he is for us our spotless Passover Lamb.  Jesus was sacrificed for us, so we could be free from slavery to sin.  And whenever we take communion we share a meal in celebration and remembrance of what God has done for us. We remember Jesus’ body broken for us and his blood shed for us, and we celebrate the power of his resurrection when he walked out of the grave alive three days later.

It is the blood of Jesus, spread over the doorposts of our hearts, that causes death to pass over us.  Moses said the blood is to be placed there using hyssop.  King David wrote in Psalm 51:  “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:6-7)

In ancient Israel, hyssop was often used to clean things. And at the crucifixion, it was also attached to a sponge to offer Jesus a drink. All these things are brought together in the book of Hebrews, where the writer says:

“…when every commandment had been told to all the people by Moses in accordance with the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the scroll itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you.”  […] Indeed… without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Hebrews 9:19-22 edited)

Jesus’ death and resurrection becomes our Passover, our holiness… not anything we could ever deserve, but given freely, according to God’s plan. And that plan began back in ancient Egypt when God commanded hyssop to place the blood over the doors at the first Passover.

God commanded Israel: “you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord, throughout your generations” – and that command applies to us today.  We honor God’s command whenever we have communion and remember what God has done for us.  So keep on remembering… and keep on encouraging others to remember.

I am encouraged whenever I see members of this congregation reaching out to people, who for whatever reason have not been able to be with us on Sundays.  There are people here who call and say, “we missed you”  —  “we hope you’ll be back soon” — “can I offer you a ride?”  And I want to encourage you to keep on doing this, because it is God’s wish that all of us eat this meal together, and celebrate this memorial together, as family, and that no one be left out.  Moses said ‘no one eats alone’ and that still goes today.

And if some folks have gotten a little hard to persuade – maybe try sharing today’s scripture with them. Tell them how God is concerned that no one eat alone, and that no one be left behind, and ask if they’d like to come back to the family meal.

In the meantime, as the larger picture of history continues to unfold, keep in mind: just as God’s concern and thoughts were with the people of Israel back in the days of Pharaoh, God is still concerned with everyday people today:  the people who don’t call the shots, the people who don’t have the power, the people who suffer when there’s ungodly leadership in the world. Be assured, no matter what happens, God has a plan, and the plan is unfolding. Just like Israel in Egypt, God sees our troubles, and God is on the move. We just keep our eyes on him, keep our ears open… and keep our sandals on our feet.  AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/10/17

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