Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Happy Labor Day weekend! It’s a strange year in which to celebrate Labor Day. Some of us have been working so hard we need more than three days off, while others would love to have even three days of work. For people who work full-time, we spend about a third of our lives at work; and one of the most difficult things to deal with in life is if we work in a difficult environment: a job where we share workspace with a bully, or have a boss who harasses people, or when we work for an organization that cuts corners and winks at shoddy workmanship.

(Fanfare for the Common Man – in honor of Labor Day)

Work is supposed to be a joy. The fact that so many people find it isn’t, is one more way we know we live in a fallen world.

As followers of Jesus we know what we do with our time matters.  We don’t work our way into heaven of course – it’s Jesus who brings us into God’s kingdom – but what we do matters to God. God has given every one of us gifts and talents to share with others. And God meant work to be a good thing.

In the Bible we see God working – and we also see human beings, created in God’s image, working just as our heavenly parent does. The fact that we can work is one of the ways in which we are like God!

This week I wanted to explore what Scripture has to say about work. One of the ways we pastors figure out what’s important to God is by counting the number of times God talks about something in the Bible. This is partly because God, like any good parent, knows that His children need to hear things more than once; and partly because in ancient literature the more an idea is repeated, the more important it is. Some of you might remember the old Monty Python skit: “thou shalt thou count to three… Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three…”  This is a great example of the way God repeats things in the Bible. So the more often God says something, the more important it is.

So I did some word counting.

The word labor appears 109 times in the Bible and the word work appears 414 times.

Just to compare: the word faith appears 275 times and the word love 586 times. So love is more important than work; and faith is more important than labor; but there’s some question about the relationship between faith and work – which seems to be an ongoing theological issue throughout the centuries!

Work is all through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and if I read every verse we’d be here all day! So I’d like to share just a few of the verses where God talks about work.

The first thing we see in the Bible, in the book of Genesis, is God working. God is creating the universe and the earth and everything in them. God accomplishes all this in six days – however long a ‘day’ was back then – and then on the seventh day God rests. Genesis 2:1-3 says:

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it…”

This tells us that not only do human beings imitate God when we work, but we also need to imitate God and rest. Which means the idea behind Labor Day weekend is Biblical!

The next thing God did after the Sabbath was to give Adam a job. Genesis 2:8 says: “and the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed…” And a few verses later “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Gen 2:15) and then a few verses later, “out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” (Gen 2:19)

So the job of the first human being was to tend the garden and name all the animals. And human beings today are still doing that – farmers, and scientists, and explorers, still raising crops and still naming animals, all over the world. This planet was given to us by God to care for and to look after. That was our job from the beginning.

But after the fall, work became a curse: “by the sweat of your brow” we will live, God says. And in the book of Exodus it becomes something even worse: it becomes slavery. But God doesn’t abandon His people there.  In Exodus 5 we read:

“Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go…’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go.” (Ex 5:1-2)

We all know how that worked out for Pharaoh! Later on in Exodus, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, and one of those commandments is about work. God says: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work…” (Ex 20:9) God is seeing to it that the kind of slavery the people suffered in Egypt would never happen again. And at the same time, in the Sabbath God gives the people a picture of heavenly rest, of God’s kingdom to come.

In the Old Testament, God called and gifted people to work to build the tabernacle and then the temple and all that was in them. God called and gifted people to make the plans, to build the structures, to make the furnishings, all the work. God also gave the people of Israel festivals three times a year in addition to Sabbath, in which they worship and do no work.

Also in the Old Testament, God’s people begin to discover a variety of careers. And God appreciates some but not others. Throughout the Old Testament God comments on the work the Israelites are doing. In Deuteronomy, God’s blessing on work is related to peoples’ willingness to be generous. God says: “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work…” (Deut 15:10)

In the book of Kings the Israelites anger God by creating idols and worshipping the work of their hands. God says:

Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods… they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched.” (II Kings 22:17)

In Psalms, David speaks about God’s work and ours. He says in Psalm 77: “I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old. I will meditate on all your work… Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?” (Ps 77:11-13) And in Psalm 90 he prays: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands…” (Ps 90:17)

The book of Proverbs offers this advice: “Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established.” (Prov 16:3) and notes: “Honest balances and scales are the LORD’s…” (Prov 16:11)

The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that work can sometimes be a royal pain: “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” (Eccles 2:22-23)  The writer goes on: “Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (Eccles 4:4)

Meanwhile the prophets continue to grieve the fact that the people are worshipping idols and living unjustly. Jeremiah writes: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.” (Jer 22:13) And God says: “do not go after other gods to serve and worship them, and do not provoke me to anger with the work of your hands.” (Jer 25:6) …for goldsmiths are all put to shame by their idols; for their images are false, and there is no breath in them. They are worthless, a work of delusion; at the time of their punishment they shall perish.” (Jer 51:17-18)

As we come to the end of the Old Testament, God is still working, preparing to bring his son Jesus into the world. And Jesus also teaches us about work. He says things like:

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matt 21:28-31)  (Jesus said this to the Pharisees to show how much what we do with our lives matters.)

Later on in Matthew Jesus says: “Blessed is that servant whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and he begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know.” (Matt 24:46-50)

And in Mark, Jesus says, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mk 13:33)

In the book of Acts the “work” of God is done by the disciples and the apostles as they spread the word about Jesus to all the known world. And Paul talks about work in almost every letter he writes. Just to give one example he says: “no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire..” (I Cor 3:11-15)  And Paul adds: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion [on] the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1:6)

Finally in the last chapter of the last book, Revelation, Jesus says: “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy. See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.” (Rev 22:11-12)

I can’t add anything to all this, other than to say there are a lot more verses about work where these came from. If you ever have the inclination, run a computer search for the word ‘work’ in the Bible, and check it out for yourself.

In the meantime I hope this has been a blessing on this day when we celebrate – and rest from – our labors. AMEN.


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“Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” – although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized – he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

“A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

“Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

“Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

“Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.””John 4:1-42


For the past few weeks we’ve been looking at what Jesus had to say about the end times. Today we’re going to return to our plan of weekly scriptures. Every week the No Walls Faith Community Facebook Group posts scripture readings for the week, and when I follow this I find there’s always one passage that grabs my attention. This week it was John chapter four. [Getting Started readers – if you’d like to join the No Walls Facebook Group leave your Facebook name in the comments below and I’ll send an invitation.]

Whenever I read this passage in John it’s a blessing, and I pray it will be for you today too.

As the story opens today, Jesus and the disciples are traveling from Jerusalem in southern Israel to the region of Galilee in northern Israel. This would be a walk of around 80 miles – not quite as far as from Philadelphia to New York, but that gives us an idea. On the way they had to pass through a mountainous region called Samaria, and when they got there Jesus sat down by a well and sent the disciples into a nearby city to get food.

The well where Jesus sat down was a very historic spot. It reminds me of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia – it’s that kind of classic history. And like Jesus, when my family visited Philly we were getting hungry. Someone told us there was a tavern nearby where we could not only eat where Ben Franklin and George Washington ate, we could also eat the same food they ate, because the menu was all recipes from the 1770s. There were some unusual things on that menu, like corn chowder and venison with leeks, but it was very good. And it was an amazing thing to be sitting where the founders of our country sat and eating what they ate.

Jesus may have had a similar feeling sitting by that well, because this was the well dug by Jacob, grandson of Abraham: a well Jacob dug for his son Joseph, the same Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt and ended up being Pharaoh’s right-hand man and saving the family of Israel – and Egypt as well – during a famine. Joseph and Jacob never did make it back home to use that well, but on this day the Messiah, the one God promised Abraham would be a blessing to all nations, brought the story full circle and was sitting by this historic well.

…and then along comes a Samaritan woman to get some water from the well. Jesus, being tired and thirsty, asks her for a drink. She answers him:

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?”

(The apostle John inserts the comment that Jews don’t share things with Samaritans. The two groups of people consider each other unclean so they don’t eat from the same dishes.)

You and I, if we had been flies on the wall, probably couldn’t have told the difference between the Jews and the Samaritans. Jesus and this woman both would have looked to us like Middle Easterners, and their languages would have sounded the same to our ears. That these two groups of people hated each other would have struck us as silly, because we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference – which by the way is pretty much the way all prejudice looks from the outside.

What had happened between the Jews and Samaritans wasn’t even really their fault. The trouble between them started hundreds of years before when Israel was conquered and her people were taken into captivity. The northerners were captured by the Assyrians and the southerners were captured by the Babylonians. The Babylonians eventually allowed the southerners – that’s the Jews – to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple and worship there. The Assyrians forced the northerners to intermarry among nonbelievers, which had the result of compromising their faith as it was handed down from generation to generation – which was exactly what the Assyrians intended to do: they believed if you destroyed the faith of a people, you destroyed what holds them together, which means they’re conquered forever, and they’ll never rise up in rebellion. A word of warning for our time, is it not?

So by the time Jesus was born, the relationship between Jews and Samaritans had deteriorated to the point where they barely spoke to each other. And instead of reaching out to their northern cousins, and helping restore their faith, the southerners persecuted them and shut them out.

And now here’s Jesus – a man from Galilee, which gives this woman a little bit of hope (Galileans were northerners and were sometimes a little nicer to Samaritans than southerners) – but then he’s also been hanging out in Jerusalem so that’s not a good thing. Let’s just say she didn’t trust him. So she asks him how it is that a Jew asks a Samaritan for a drink.

Jesus answers by saying:

“If you knew who was talking to you and asking you, you would have asked him for a drink, and he would have given you living water.”

Living water: water that’s moving. Water that, unlike well water, hasn’t been sitting around collecting bugs. It’s fresh, it’s clean, it usually tastes better. But there is no living water in this semi-desert area. So what is Jesus talking about? “Where do you get this living water?” – that’s what she asks him. And then she reminds him of who he’s talking to: a descendant of Jacob, whose well this is.

Jesus answers:

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water I will give will never be thirsty. The water I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

From where we sit in the 21st century we know Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit. But for this woman the concept was completely new. She realized very quickly she was talking to a holy man, and this conversation was about faith, not water, but beyond that she’s not quite sure what he’s getting at. But she does as he suggests: she asks him for living water. “Sir” she says – using the Greek word Kyrie, or Lord (as we would say today, ‘kyrie eleison’ which means ‘lord have mercy’). She is using a term of respect. “Kyrie, give me this water.”

Jesus answers, “Go call your husband and come back.”

Ouch! Here she thought she was talking to a nice young man about God and faith, and all of a sudden he hits her where it hurts the most. She says, “I have no husband” – and she leaves out the ‘kyrie’ this time.

Even today, two thousand years later, our society is still unkind to women who are unmarried or childless. It doesn’t matter if she’s never been married, or has divorced, or is widowed. It doesn’t matter if God has called her to be single. The apostle Paul teaches very clearly that it’s easier to follow Jesus single than it is married; and yet how many times in churches have we heard things like “ooh, she’s going off to the mission field by herself? If only God would send her a husband!” And I hear similar stories from single friends even outside the church – about how hard it is to be valued as an unmarried person. God honors women who are alone in life, even if society doesn’t. The prophetess Anna is just one example. She was a widow, and spent most of her life ministering in the Temple, and she was chosen to bless the baby Jesus when he was brought into the Temple.

Here at the well also, we see God honoring a woman who is unmarried. In this case, she’s got a triple whammy in society’s eyes: (1) she has had many men, (2) the man she’s with now isn’t her husband, and (3) she’s a foreigner to the Jews. Three strikes you’re out? Not with Jesus! Jesus is about to make this woman the world’s first Christian evangelist.

Jesus says to her: “Well said. You have had five husbands and the man you have now is not your husband. You speak the truth.”

And she answers, “Kyrie, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you [Jews] say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”

That’s a sticking point for the Samaritans. It’s at the heart of their pain where it comes to the Jews: for some reason in their eyes Samaritan worship is never good enough.

Jesus answers:

“Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Jesus doesn’t water down the truth: worship as handed down from Moses is only found in Jerusalem. But that’s about to change. Because salvation is from the Jews – in fact salvation is from one particular Jew who is sitting right in front of her at this moment. The time has come to worship God, wherever we are, and wherever we’re from, in spirit and in truth.

The woman ventures a thought. She says: “I know Messiah is coming and when he comes he will tell us everything…”  And Jesus answers, “I am he.”  Or more accurately:

“I am”

which is the name of God.


And the woman runs off – forgetting all about her water jar – and goes to the city and tells everyone she meets:

“Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done! He can’t be the Messiah can he?” And the people of the city follow her as she leads them to Jesus.

Meanwhile the disciples are urging Jesus to eat, and Jesus is saying, “my food is to do the will of him who sent me,” and “look around, the field is ripe for harvest!” as the people of the town approach the well.

The apostle John says, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.” And they ask Jesus to stay, and Jesus stays for two days – in a place where no Jew would stay. Jesus was not in any way put off by the fact that these people were Samaritans, or foreigners, or people who had never worshipped a day in the temple. In fact they received him much more warmly than the priests in the temple ever did.

So what can we take away from this passage today?

  • God uses unexpected people to do God’s work in the world. If any of us here think we can’t possibly be useful to God, think again. This Samaritan woman, who had five husbands and was now living illegally with a sixth man, was so low in the eyes of her neighbors that she came to draw water at noon (instead of first thing in the morning when it was cool) in order to avoid the catty looks and comments from the ‘proper’ women in town. She was the lowest of the low – but she was exactly what Jesus was looking for, because she was a woman who had faith and spoke truth.
  • Jesus shares with this woman God’s plan for the world: Salvation comes from the Jews, through the Messiah, but from now on the location of worship is in the Spirit – the Holy Spirit. Faith finds its source, its expression, and its destination in the Messiah: not in what people do in temple, not in a set of words or prayers, not in believing the right stuff, but in faith in God’s Son and in sharing the truth with others.
  • As we grow in faith we will find, as Jesus did, that our spiritual food – what sustains us – is to do the will of the One who made us. God designed each one of us for a purpose, and discovering and living into that purpose is the most fulfilling thing we can do in life. Anything else will disappoint. When we do God’s will we are investing in our eternal future. And if we invest for retirement in this life, shouldn’t we be investing for our future in eternity? And when we invest, we work with others, “for the saying holds true, ‘one sows and another reaps.’” We stand on a long line of very broad shoulders, and we need to be broad shoulders for the next generation.
  • Rejoice in God’s goodness! We have a God who chooses the lonely, the foreigner, and the outcast, and makes them the center of the plan for salvation for entire communities. Share in the joy of this Samaritan woman, and in the joy of her townspeople who came to know Jesus because she was a woman of faith and truth. AMEN.

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

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

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

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

How true is this still in our own time?

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

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

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

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

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

It’s complicated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When you’re dealing with modern-day Pharisees:

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

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

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

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


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Scripture Reading:  Matthew 28

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.  For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.  But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.  Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The Lord is risen indeed, hallelujah!

This, by the way, is one of the few things all the disciples agree on.  When we read the Gospels we often see Jesus’ disciples disagreeing with each other, and it’s not unusual for the gospels themselves to give different versions of the same story. This only assures us the disciples were human —  imperfect people like all the rest of us. But after the resurrection the disciples were willing to stand in front of religious leaders and rulers and put their lives on the line to say “Jesus is alive”. The disciples went to their graves rather than deny what their eyes had seen and what their ears had heard.

Here in Matthew’s gospel, Matthew highlights three things:

  1. The two Marys meet an angel
  2. The guards are given a story
  3. Jesus is reunited with the disciples

According to the other gospels, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were bringing spices to the tomb for the burial of Jesus. They were stunned by the events they’d witnessed on Friday and they’re grieving. And then the earth moves – literally! – as an earthquake shakes the ground and an angel appears and rolls back the stone in front of the tomb.

Angels are not cute little fluffy things we see in decorations. Matthew says, seeing the angel, the guards trembled and passed out cold. The women were probably about to do the same when the angel called them by name and told them, “don’t be afraid. You’re looking for Jesus who was crucified. He’s not here! He has risen, as he said he would. Come and see!” The angel invites them to check out the empty tomb. Now they’re really scared.

The angel says “go quickly and tell his disciples! And tell them Jesus said he’ll meet them in Galilee.”

Just so we don’t miss it, in saying this, God is changing the way things are done. In ancient times women were not allowed to give testimony. The testimony of two men could convict someone in a court of law, but not the testimony of women. On this day, on this first Easter Day, in the power of Jesus’ resurrection – God appoints two women to give testimony to the disciples and to the world: the Messiah, God’s savior, is alive.

As the women were on their way to the disciples, they run into Jesus Himself, and fall at his feet, and worship him. And he lifts them up gently and says “don’t be afraid, go tell my brothers the good news. I’ll see them in Galilee.”

The second thing that happened is: the religious leadership of Jerusalem heard the testimony the guards gave. They heard about the angel and the earthquake and Jesus walking out of his grave. Of all the people in this Easter story, it seems like they’re the only ones who aren’t surprised. Inconvenienced, maybe… but not surprised. Jesus himself had said “they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31b)

It’s not that the religious authorities didn’t know who Jesus was. They did. Nicodemus, the Pharisee, admitted this when he came to see Jesus in John chapter 3. He said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:2) Nicodemus became a believer. In fact Matthew tells us he helped Joseph of Arimathea take care of Jesus’ body after the crucifixion.

So the religious leaders knew – but they would never allow it to be spoken. They gave the guards a bribe. Under ancient law, a guard who failed in his duty was supposed to receive the punishment that the person he was guarding was going to get. So for example if the prisoner was on death row, if the prisoner escaped, the guards themselves would be killed. What would happen to a guard who allowed a dead man to escape – I don’t think they had a law for that one! But the religious authorities gave the guards a generous bribe and said, “tell people you fell asleep and his disciples stole the body while you were sleeping… and if the governor asks any questions we’ll cover for you.” And that’s what they did.

And then finally Jesus is reunited with his disciples, in Galilee. Matthew says “they worshiped him, but some doubted.” Was Matthew speaking of “Doubting” Thomas? Maybe… but I don’t think Thomas was the only one.  I find it comforting, though, that even the people who knew Jesus best had a hard time wrapping their minds everything Easter means. Wrapping their minds around life after such a horrific death… wrapping their minds around Jesus dying for our sins and then walking out of the grave alive. If we have doubts from time to time we’re in good company. And it doesn’t disqualify us from being followers of Jesus.

Jesus’ words to the disciples back then are for us as well: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This is our resurrected Lord. This is his word to us, and this is our joy. Happy Easter!


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Does this sound at all familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Scriptures of the Day were:


Micah 6:1-8

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

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

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

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


I Corinthians 1:18-31

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

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

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

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


Matthew 5:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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“One of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray…”

Lord’s Prayer in English



Twenty-eight years ago, a woman from Washington DC caused an international scandal when she greeted Queen Elizabeth of England (who was visiting the U.S. at the time) with a hug. Some of you may remember this: the Queen was visiting a new U.S. government project with then-first-lady Barbara Bush. The story, as it was reported in the London Telegraph, read: “Mrs. Alice Frazier, 67, threw protocol to the breeze and greeted the Queen with a rib-crunching bear hug.” And the Brits were not happy about this: not at all.

Generally speaking, we Americans aren’t used to meeting royalty.  We don’t know what the proper protocol is. (The Brits do not accept lack of experience as an excuse.) So just in case any of us should ever meet the Queen, here are a few of the things you need to know – and this is the Readers Digest Condensed version:

One should address the Queen as “Your Majesty” and then “Ma’am” after that. When you’re introduced, either bow or curtsy. Never touch Her Majesty, and only shake hands if she offers. Do not speak until spoken to; do not sit until the Queen sits; if there’s food present, do not eat until the Queen takes a bite.

As Americans, this kind of thinking is truly foreign to us. Which makes us fairly unique in the course of human history. In most countries, in most times and places, there were rules for meeting Kings, Tsars, Emperors, Pharaohs, and so on.

So what the disciples are asking Jesus in our gospel reading for today is: what are the rules when you’re talking to the King of the Universe? If we observe protocol when we meet governors and Caesars – what do we do when we meet with God?

What a great question!

The answer Jesus gives them is what we know today as The Lord’s Prayer. And I’d like to look at this prayer fresh, in its royal context. Because in our time – particularly here in the States, but to some degree around the world – the Lord’s Prayer has become cheapened.  At best, it’s something we say in church on Sunday; at worst, in popular culture, it’s like a cross between a good luck charm and a magic spell.

Lord’s Prayer in Spanish

Here’s what I mean by that: The Lord’s Prayer is one of the few passages of Scripture people outside the church know, mostly from TV and movies. A few years ago a pastor made a study of how the Lord’s Prayer is used in movies. He found, in the vast majority of cases, in movies like Shane, The Deer Hunter, or Master & Commander, the Lord’s Prayer is portrayed being read at funerals – at the gravesite, as someone is being buried.  The second most common use of the Lord’s Prayer is in horror films like The Omen, where the Prayer is used as protection against satanic forces.

So for people who don’t attend church, who never hear the Lord’s Prayer in any context other than movies, the Lord’s Prayer is associated mostly with either death, or the occult and demonic possession.

How far is this from God’s Royal Courts! This prayer, which ushers us into the presence of the King of All Creation, brings life (not death) and light (not darkness).

So let’s step now into Luke’s gospel, and into God’s royal courts.

Luke doesn’t say what time of day this event takes place, but Jesus often prayed outdoors, on a mountain-side, either late at night or early in the morning. Luke says the disciples approached Jesus while he was praying. As Jesus says “Amen” the disciples step up and say, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Before I get to Jesus’ answer, I should mention there are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament. The version we pray every Sunday is found in Matthew’s gospel; it’s part of the Sermon on the Mount. The version here in Luke is shortened. It covers much of the same ground and it may have been a summary of the Sermon on the Mount version.

Lord’s Prayer in Russian

I should also mention the Lord’s Prayer is not just a prayer to be repeated from memory (although that’s one way to pray it). It can also be a starting point for our own personal prayers. We are welcome – and indeed invited – to respectfully weave our own thoughts and requests into the fabric of this prayer.

So having said this, let’s look at Jesus’ answer.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Whenever you pray, say, ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.’”

All of eternity is summed up in these two sentences! And did you catch the royal protocol? Instead of ‘Your Majesty’ the title is ‘Father’.

Let that sink in for a moment: the one to whom we pray – the King of Creation – is ‘Father’.  This is not a parable; it’s not a fable, or a myth, or an allegory. We are God’s children because, as believers in Jesus, God’s Holy Spirit can be found in us. And even if we’re not believers yet, we are still created by God, made in God’s image, and in that sense we are all God’s children.

The apostle Paul says in Romans 8:14, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”  And Paul also says to the Greeks in Acts 17:28, “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’”

The opening of the Lord’s Prayer is also very similar to the opening of many Jewish prayers, which start with the words “Blessed art Thou, O LORD our God, King of the universe…”  Over the past few years I have grown to appreciate these words, because they put God where God belongs and put us where we belong: God, our Father, King of the universe, and we His children. In this confidence, we can pray in faith.

The first request made of God in this prayer is: hallowed be your name.  Another way to translate this might be “may your name be reverenced”.  Rowan Williams, retired Archbishop of Canterbury, says here we are asking God “that [all people] will look upon God’s name as holy, as something that inspires awe… and that they may not trivialize it by making God a tool for their purposes… when you’re talking about God (he says)… this is the most wonderful and frightening reality we can imagine.”

The second request follows quickly on the first: your kingdom come.  In Greek the word translated from basileia means both kingdom and kingship. There is no distinction in Greek between realm and ruler. “Your kingdom/kingship come.” For thousands of years, Planet Earth has been in rebellion against its creator, against its king. “Your kingdom come” is a request that the world be set right – which will happen when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on Earth as it is in the rest of creation.

Lord’s Prayer in Greek

The third request in the prayer is that God would give us our daily bread.  This request may seem strange to us, because if we want bread we just run down to Giant Eagle. But for those of us who had parents or grandparents who lived through the Depression, we know better than to take this for granted. While I don’t remember the Depression myself, I was in Russia during the days of Perestroika, back in 1990, and I remember the grocery stores with empty shelves; and what little was in the stores was so expensive people couldn’t afford it. People were so desperate, the Russian ‘black market’ sold food, not drugs or guns.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not wishing for a return of hard times. I’m just saying life holds no guarantees; and for the vast majority of human history, for most people, daily bread was something to pray for and struggle for; it was not (and is not) a given.

There’s another meaning for ‘daily bread’ too, an Old Testament meaning. In the Jewish faith, the central event of their history is the Exodus – the people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. During their time in the wilderness, traveling between Egypt and the Promised Land, the Israelites ate manna. You may remember this: bread from heaven that appeared on the ground every morning, and had to be gathered and eaten the same day because if you kept it overnight it would go bad. And of course some of the Israelites didn’t listen to God when God said this, and they tried keeping it overnight, and when they got up the next morning they found maggots in the manna. God provided what was needed for each day, day by day, for forty years in the wilderness.

When we pray for our daily bread, we are praying for manna. We are praying for what we need for the day – nothing more, and nothing less. Manna makes God part of our lives on a daily basis. Manna teaches us that God will do what God has promised to do. And so we pray: Lord, provide what you know we need for this day.

The fourth request in the prayer is that God would forgive our sins. And this is needed because God is perfect and we’re not. God never makes mistakes, but we do. God has given us the law – the Ten Commandments – but we can’t keep them perfectly. And so we ask God’s forgiveness.

This request is similar to the request for manna: just like we need bread every day, we also need forgiveness every day.  And the apostle Paul assures us in our reading from Colossians that “when we were dead in trespasses… God made us alive together with Christ… erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col 2:13-14 edited)

But this fourth request doesn’t stop there. It continues: “forgive our sins, for we ourselves forgive all who are indebted to us.”  This is a tough request! And it’s easy to get discouraged by it, or to misunderstand it.  This request is not God shaking his finger at us and saying ‘you better forgive if you want to be forgiven.’

Rather, I think the best explanation I’ve heard is this: our hands need to be open in order to receive God’s forgiveness.  But if we’re holding on to something someone else has done, our hands aren’t open to receive.

And I’d like to add one more thought to that: In this part of the prayer, we are practicing being like God. God forgives; and as God’s children we need to learn to forgive.  It’s kind of like trying on our parents’ shoes – did you ever do that when you were a kid? I can remember being around four years old and slipping into my mother’s high heels, and wondering how on earth anybody stayed upright with these things on.

In much the same way, spiritually speaking, we slip our feet into God’s shoes and attempt to forgive using God as our example: not because we can, but because we’ll grow into it someday. The danger is in getting discouraged and giving up. Someday we will be like our heavenly Father, and meanwhile we can trust in God’s forgiveness.

The fifth and final request is do not bring us to the time of trial.  This is another easily misunderstood verse.  God does not deliberately bring hardships or trials into our lives. God does not wish anything bad on us. God does allow times of testing – as Jesus experienced when he was tempted in the wilderness. So what this prayer means, basically, is “Lord, keep us so close to you that when tough times come, we won’t be tempted to rebel against you.”

There are a couple of things I want to mention about the Lord’s prayer in general:

(1) In this prayer all the pronouns are plural.  Give us each day… forgive us our sins.  This is a prayer that’s meant to be prayed with others.  Of course it’s OK to pray it alone as well, and to make the prayer our own. But the big picture in Luke is one of praying together with one’s own tribe. This prayer… this is us.

(2) Building on that thought, in the words of Fuller Seminary professor Clayton Schmit, “there is a sense of solidarity in knowing that Christians around the world are praying together.”  This prayer unites us with Christian believers in every nation, and in every time. This truly is us.

Lord’s Prayer in French

The rest of the passage in Luke focuses on God’s relationship with us as God’s children. Jesus says: if our neighbor wakes us up and asks to borrow something at midnight, we as imperfect people might grumble about it but we’ll get up and get it. How much more will our Heavenly Father help us when we ask?  Or if our children ask us for food, who would ever give them something poisonous to eat? How much more will God give us good things when we ask?

So, having been invited to enter God’s royal court, we as God’s children now have the proper protocol to accept the invitation: the Lord’s Prayer.  I’d like to challenge each of us to pray this prayer every day for the next 30 days – either here or at home. As we pray we can add our own thoughts and petitions: things we’re thankful for, people to forgive, reasons we praise God. Make this prayer our prayer, for 30 days… and let’s see where God leads us. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 7/28/19


Scripture Readings for Today:

Colossians 2:6-19  6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him,  7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

8  See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.  9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,  10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.  11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ;  12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.  13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses,  14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.  15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.  17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.  18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking,  19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.


Luke 11:1-13  He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.  3 Give us each day our daily bread.  4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;  6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’  7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’  8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.  9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?  12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?  13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”


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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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Welcome to the second week of Easter!  (In traditional churches, including the Methodist and Anglican churches, the Easter season lasts until Pentecost – so we can keep on celebrating!) And rightfully so!  How often do we get to rejoice over somebody walking out of the grave?  There will come a time when people walking out of graves won’t be an unusual thing, but for right now, it’s a marvel, and it’s a taste of things to come.

My theme for today is Filled with Joy – which fits the Easter season.  Our scripture readings from Revelation and from John both talk about joy-full things.  In Revelation we hear about God’s all-encompassing love for us; and in John we hear about the gentle love of Jesus even for those of us who doubt sometimes.

And these two passages go together like donuts and crème filling: the gospel of John is like the sweet creamy filling, and Revelation is like the donut that wraps around it. So we have a double helping of joy today.

Boston Creme Donut

Let’s start with Revelation.  The book of Revelation was written to churches facing persecution, in order to encourage them; and given the persecution Christians and people of other faiths are suffering today in various parts of the world, these words are as good for our time as they were back then.

The author of Revelation begins with the words “grace to you and peace”.   Grace and peace are two words we hear frequently in scripture so often we’re tempted to brush right past them and move on to the next idea. But these two common words have uncommon meanings.  Grace: a gift of God, related to the Hebrew concept of hesed which speaks of God’s overflowing lovingkindness, mercy, and faithfulness toward us. And with that – peace, which relates to the Hebrew word shalom – which goes beyond lack of conflict and speaks of the health and well-being that comes from God’s image being restored in us.

So all of that is included in those two words grace and peace – to you! – from the one who is and who was and who is to come, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness.

And again the author packs so much into these few words.  “The one who is” – literally, “from the I AM” – that is, using God’s name – AND who was, AND who is to come.  God covers all the bases.  There is no time in which God does not exist. There is no place in which God does not exist. We are surrounded by God both in time and in space. As scripture says, “in Him we live and move and have our being.”

The writer continues: “…and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth.”  The kings of the earth may not realize this yet, but there is a King of kings and a Lord of lords they will answer to one day. This Jesus is the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood.

The king of kings – the Lord of all creation – loves you and me. Present tense. Right now. And he freed us from bondage to sin and death – past tense – that is, the work is done, and nothing more needs to happen. We have been freed, like slaves being set free. It puts me in mind of an old spiritual called O Mary Don’t You Weep. It was recorded by Bruce Springsteen not too long ago and I recommend it.  It’s an African-American song of freedom: a song of slaves whose chains have been broken, and it draws a parallel between resurrection and Moses leading the people out of Egypt. This is our song too because all of us have been slaves to sin and death… but Jesus, who loves us, has set us free, and the work is done.

And there’s more!  Not only are we free, but Jesus has also made us priests in the service of his God and Father. All of us are priests, not just the ones with collars on, and this begins now, not in the next life.

So what do we do as priests?  In our world today, when you say the word ‘priest’ most people think of Roman Catholic clergy, or people wearing collars, but that’s not what John is talking about here.  (In the early church there were no priests: they had bishops and deacons, and these were not as formal a thing as they are today.) But John is talking about people who will teach others about God’s glory and kingdom and power, and invite others into a saving relationship with God, and set an example of what it means to be a holy people, to live lives pleasing to God.  These priests are called from every nation and race and tribe and tongue around the world – anyone who loves Jesus.

So the joy of Revelation is that Jesus, who has set us free from sin and death, sends us grace and peace and love, and gives us the privilege and honor of calling us into God’s service.  That’s the donut. Here’s the filling:

In the Gospel of John, we read the story of what happened the evening of Easter day.  Earlier that day, in the morning, Mary Magdalene had seen the risen Jesus, and had told the disciples he was alive, but they didn’t believe her.

So that night the disciples were gathered together, indoors, with the doors locked because they were afraid: John’s gospel says ‘for fear of the Jews,’ but of course the disciples were Jewish as well; what John means is they were afraid of the Jewish religious authorities – the ones who had arrested Jesus and would be more than happy to arrest Jesus’ followers as well.

And then suddenly Jesus walks in… right through a locked door!  Apparently resurrection bodies are different than the bodies we have now.  Luke tells us in his gospel that the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost; and seeing Jesus walk through those doors might make a person think that.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus asks the disciples for something to eat, and sits down to a fish dinner, which is proof that he’s not a ghost, because ghosts can’t eat (so they tell me).

John writes: Jesus stood among them and said, “Peace be with you” and he showed them the scars in his hands and in his side.  And the disciples were filled with joy.

We all have experienced the joy of being reunited with a loved one. It pales by comparison to seeing someone who was dead, alive again.  The disciples had believed with all their hearts that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, but then they’d seen him beaten, tortured, and murdered. The loss of Jesus was a loss of faith, a loss of hope. They had seen him taken down from the cross. They had heard the laughter of the religious leaders.  And as they banded together for safety and for friendship, suddenly… there was Jesus, alive!  Talking with them, eating with them, showing them the scars. Faith is restored, and hope is alive again.

And then Jesus gives them an assignment. He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  And he adds: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

This verse has gotten the church in a lot of trouble over the years so I’d like to clarify it a little.  Many people when they hear these words think of the Roman Catholic practice of going to confession, but that’s a limited understanding, and not particularly helpful in this passage.  We need to keep Jesus’ words in context.  Jesus is commissioning the disciples into God’s service – all of the disciples being laypeople at this point.

Their mission is to make more disciples; to spread the good news. So the forgiveness of sins Jesus is talking about has to do with bringing people into God’s kingdom.  In other words, ‘sin’ in this verse is defined as rejecting Jesus.  So basically what Jesus is saying is, ‘if you recognize a person as a fellow believer, then they are. And if you believe someone doesn’t really know me yet, then they don’t’. This is not as subjective as it may sound, because Jesus has given the disciples the ability to discern, through the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, where people stand. However this is still a HUGE responsibility, not one to be taken lightly. I could preach a whole other sermon on just this one verse, but for today it’s enough to say this gift of forgiveness of sins has to do with preaching the gospel and making disciples and bringing people into the fellowship of believers and into God’s kingdom.

Meanwhile, while all this was going on, someone was missing: Thomas, one of the twelve disciples.  When he returned from wherever he’d been the other disciples immediately shared the good news, but Thomas doubted.  Thomas didn’t come right out and say “I don’t believe you”; but he made his belief conditional. He said, essentially, “IF I see the mark of the nails and put my hand in his side, THEN I will believe.” (One theologian jokes that he should be called ‘conditional Thomas’.)

Thomas sounds to me like the kind of person who (1) is deeply aware of the human capacity for wishful thinking, and (2) has had some experience with fake news. Which, by the way, made me wonder if indeed Thomas was familiar with fake news.  So I did a little digging and found out the ancient Romans were the inventors of newspapers.  Granted their newspapers weren’t on paper: sometimes they were on papyrus, sometimes on a thin piece of metal or stone.  But around 100 years before Jesus was born, the Romans began publication of the Acta Diurna, or “Daily Events” of the empire, which were posted in public areas like marketplaces and public baths.  And they kept people informed on things like weddings, births, deaths, criminal trials, gossip about the Imperial family, love stories of the rich and famous, results of the gladiator contests, and of course military and political news.

Things haven’t changed much in 2000 years! And of course the emperors knew how to use these communications to manipulate public opinion; in fact it’s said Julius Caesar was a master at it.  So yes – Thomas would have been all too familiar with propaganda. So skepticism was a very reasonable reaction.

A week later, the disciples were again hiding behind locked doors. (Even though they had seen Jesus alive they still weren’t feeling very courageous.) But this time Thomas was with them.  And again Jesus walks through locked doors.  And he says to Thomas the exact same thing he said to the other disciples: “put your finger here and see my hands; reach out your hand and put in my side.”

And Thomas exclaims: “My Lord and My God!”

There is no joy greater than the moment we see Jesus as he is, and know that he is who he said he is, the Son of God, the one who loves us with his life. It’s the greatest joy in the universe.  And the second is like it: the joy of sharing this experience. And so Jesus commissions us to share his joy as priests of God the Father.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” As people who fit this description, we may wonder why Jesus says our place is more blessed than Thomas’.  I think all of us would love to meet Jesus face to face on this side of eternity.  But scripture tells us – all through the Old and New Testaments – that faith comes not by sight, but by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

Earlier this week I was reading Ezekiel and came across the story of the dry bones. You remember the story: God shows Ezekiel a valley full of dry bones, and asks Ezekiel “can these bones live?”  And Ezekiel answers “Lord only you know.”  And God says, “prophesy to the bones.” And Ezekiel does, and the bones come alive.

This valley of dry bones represents all the people in the world whose lives are spiritually dry and dead: who sense a lack of purpose, a lack of meaning, a lack of vision or inspiration… who lack life.  As priests of our God, our commission is to speak God’s words to dry bones.  God’s words carry within them the power of life, kind of the same way seeds carry within them the life of a plant.  In Genesis chapter one when God said “let there be birds, let there be animals” – living things appeared on the earth.  God’s words have life in them. And as we speak God’s words we share in that life-giving ministry.

And so, like Thomas, we are filled with joy at Jesus’ resurrection. We are filled with joy that no power in heaven or on earth can stop Jesus, not even death itself; and we are filled with joy that we are called into God’s kingdom and God’s service. Let us share that joy with those around us. And may God’s grace and peace be with us as we go. AMEN


“Filled With Joy” – Preached at Fairhaven, Spencer, and Incarnation, 4/28/19


Revelation 1:4-8  John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,  5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood,  6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.  7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.  8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

John 20:19-31  When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.



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Today we have a couple of very interesting scripture lessons in Genesis and Philippians!  Our reading in Genesis features the patriarch Abram slaughtering animals and then keeping the birds off the carcasses, and our reading in Philippians features Paul talking about people whose god is their belly and whose end is destruction. And our focus this week is on the Lenten discipline of imitating our spiritual forefathers. Good luck y’all!

Seriously, what we’re seeing in these two passages are men of faith, who are suffering for what they believe in, not because they’ve done anything wrong but because life is difficult sometimes.  But their suffering draws them closer to God and, as it does, it gives us an example to follow.  In addition to that, while God doesn’t take the troubles away (at least not right away), their experience of God in this time of trouble gives them great joy – which can inspire us as well.

Let’s look at Genesis first.  This passage of scripture describes a world that is foreign to us.  I think generally speaking, people have not changed all that much across the centuries: we are still concerned about the same things, like marriage and family and kids and friends and having enough to eat and having a safe and comfortable place to sleep.  But cultures have changed a great deal. People in Abram’s time, for example, didn’t vote; they didn’t binge-watch anything (except maybe the campfire); and back then a ‘night out’ meant out of the tent and under the stars! We need to remember this story from Genesis comes to us from over 4000 years ago and from a middle-eastern culture that is still in many ways foreign to us today.

We’re also entering into Abram’s story in the middle: a good bit has already happened in Abram’s life. He has grown up and married; he has received God’s promise that God will make a great nation of him; he has left his home and has become a wandering shepherd at God’s command; and this includes having spent some time in Egypt.  But at this point in his life, Abram is still going by the name Abram (which means “exalted father”).  God has not yet given him the name “Abraham” (which means “father of a multitude”).

At this point in the story God has chosen Abram to be a friend of God; and God says to Abram, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

But Abram longs to be father; he’s grieving over his childlessness.  Abram sees no purpose in the wealth and material success God has given him if he has no children to share it with, and has to leave his estate to a servant who isn’t even related to him.

And I think Abram’s feelings reflect God’s heart, because God also longs to share all the good things of heaven with us, God’s children. In God’s eyes, heaven isn’t complete without us. And on a purely human level, anyone who has ever longed to be a parent knows what Abram is feeling.

But God assures Abram that he will have children of his own, and that his descendants will be as numerous and un-countable as the stars. And when we think about all the descendants of Abraham alive in the world today, we know God has been faithful to that promise.

But as this story is unfolding, Abram doesn’t see all this yet.  Abram just sees himself, and Sarai his wife, getting older and not being able to have kids.  But Genesis tells us that when God speaks to Abram about his future and all his descendants, Abram believed God and “God reckoned it to him as righteousness”.  And this verse is the foundation of the concept of salvation by faith we still believe today.  Don’t ever let anybody tell you that in the Old Testament people were saved by keeping the law. The Law of Moses was given to let people know what God’s standards are, and where we’ve gone wrong, and to convince us we need God’s mercy and forgiveness. But salvation has always come by faith in God, and the Bible teaches no other way – from Genesis to Revelation.

So God gives Abram this promise; but God doesn’t leave Abram there.  God, who knows us and loves us better than we know and love ourselves, reaches out to Abram in mercy to speak to Abram exactly where he is.  Back in Abram’s time, when business deals were made or when treaties were agreed on, they didn’t have written contracts (or lawyers for that matter.)  In those days, treaties and contracts between two parties were ratified by killing animals, and cutting them in half, and laying the parts opposite each other with a path between them; and a representative of each of the parties in the agreement would walk between the halves of the animals. It was a way of saying “if I break this treaty, if I break this agreement, let happen to me what has happened to these animals.”

Here in the Genesis story, God does the same, but he adds a twist: God alone walks between the animals. Abram does not.  In other words, God is saying “It’s all on Me. The responsibility for fulfilling this covenant is all on Me.”  God is represented in this passage by smoke from a fire pot and flame from a torch – much as God will one day appear to the Israelites when God leads them out of Egypt in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

And in fact God makes this connection for Abram, the connection between his own experience and the experience of the people in Exodus, by letting Abram know (in vss 13-16) that his descendants would one day be aliens in a foreign land, but that God would lead the people out with great wealth, and return them to the Promised Land.

So in Genesis, Abram brings to God his sorrow at being childless; and God in response gives Abram a promise beyond anything he can imagine: a promise that includes a multitude of descendants.

And in this passage we, here, today, are invited to imitate Abram in hearing God’s word and believing, which gives us righteousness in God’s eyes – and then by doing what God directs us to do.

Turning then to our passage from Philippians: in Paul’s case, the source of his sorrow is that he knows he will probably be executed soon, and he doesn’t want to leave the people he loves behind.  The family of God at Philippi has a special place in Paul’s heart.  For an evangelist like Paul, there is no greater joy than witnessing people coming to know Jesus as Lord and Savior. This joy is rooted in the knowledge that the grandeur God has created in each human being, each human soul, is greater than the grandeur in any symphony or the grandeur of a summertime sunset, because human beings bear the image of God: we were made in God’s image. And to see that image – which has been battered by the world – restored to its original glory is the deepest and greatest joy for an evangelist.

When Paul looks at the Philippians, that’s what he sees.  And so he calls them “brothers and sisters,” “my beloved,” “my joy and crown” – the crown being a reference to the wreath of victory the ancient Olympic athletes used to win. The Philippians are the result of Paul’s life work, everything that he has suffered, and all the self-discipline he has endured.  For Paul, heaven wouldn’t be heaven without his Philippian friends; and he wants to be sure that he will see them again in the Kingdom of God.

The sorrow Paul is feeling is not because he’s looking death in the face (he’s done that many times before) but because he may be parted from friends he doesn’t want to leave behind.  And of course the Philippians don’t want Paul to die either. So Paul writes to let them know he’s ready to go home, and not to be afraid for him, much as he would love to stay with them.

Paul is looking forward to the day when they will be reunited in heaven. And so he pleads with the people he loves to follow the examples of their teachers in the faith. He says to them: don’t be like the people who are enemies of the cross of Christ.

I want to stop on that phrase for a moment – “enemies of the cross of Christ” – because it’s such an unusual phrase. I mean, we all know atheists, and agnostics, and people who follow other religions, and many of them are not enemies of the Cross! One of the best TV shows on the subject of Christianity I’ve ever seen was written by an atheist.  As Jesus once said, whoever’s not against us is for us.

Enemies of the cross of Christ would be, for example, the people who made fun of Jesus while he was dying. Or the people who take a gun and shoot up a worship service, whether it be in a church or a synagogue or a mosque.  Or the people who deny that it takes something as powerful as the death of the Son of God to cure the evils of this world. Paul describes the enemies of the Cross well. He says: their end is destruction; the things they glory in are shameful; they worship only what they can consume; and their minds are set completely on earthly things, on things that are passing away.

Paul begs his beloved friends to avoid this at all costs, because if they do, they will remain citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.  And from that kingdom Jesus will one day come and transform our earthly bodies to be like his glorious body, like what the disciples saw on the mountain of the transfiguration.

The Lord Jesus will transform us.  For anyone who’s into science and technology, this one’s for you. The Greek word here is metaschematazo… almost like meta-schematics. In computer technology, schematics has to do with the plan or diagram for an electronic circuit – in other words, what makes a computer work.  And meta-schematics? That’s the big picture plan.

So in other words, God knows every detail of our design: body, mind, and soul. God has our blueprint, so to speak: and God has already designed what we will become, and knows how to get us from Point A (where we are right now) to Point B (glorified bodies in the Kingdom of Heaven).  When Paul says “God will transform our humble bodies and conform them to the likeness of his glorious body” this is what he’s talking about.

Therefore, Paul says, my brothers and sisters whom I love… my joy and my crown… stand firm in the Lord! Don’t let anything shake you, my beloved.

And we, today, are invited to imitate Paul in his love for the people of God; and in his life, which is oriented toward God’s Kingdom and not the false gods of this world that consume and destroy. We are invited to imitate Paul’s faith that this life and this body are not the end – that there’s a glorious body and a glorious Kingdom in our future.

Therefore, brothers and sisters: imitate Abram; imitate Paul; hold on to God’s word; hold on to faith; hold on to the cross; stand firm; and hold on to glory.  AMEN.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Strip District, Pittsburgh, 3/17/19


Genesis 15:1-12  After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”  4 But the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.”  5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”  6 And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

7 Then he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.”  8 But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”  9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”  10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.  11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

[13 Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years;  14 but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.  15 As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.  16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”]

 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.  18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…”

Philippians 3:17 – 4:1   Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.  18 For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears.  19 Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.  20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.  21 He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.


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“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea;
There is kindness in His justice which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Saviour; there is healing in His blood.” – hymn by Frederick William Faber
O Lord inspire our hearts today to know you and to trust you more, to your honor and glory. AMEN.

Heads up: Today’s sermon is going to be a little dark.  It kind of fits the weather today. And besides, we’re only a few weeks away from Lent, and this sermon goes well with Lent.

We’ll be looking today mostly at the reading from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:5-10) which leads off with the words: “Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength…”

Jeremiah is speaking to the rulers of Israel, and through them to the people of Israel, during Israel’s darkest days: dark, because the nation was in complete and total rebellion against God.  Jeremiah’s task was to warn them that if they didn’t turn back to God, the kingdom would fall and the people would go into exile – which is exactly what happened not long afterwards.  Jeremiah’s listeners responded by making fun of him and persecuting him and saying “can’t you ever say anything positive???”

That’s the context of today’s reading. But today I don’t want to focus so much on ancient history as I want to talk about now, recent history, and present day, in a sermon called “Parched or Planted?”

Parched or Planted?

Jeremiah, sharing God’s word and God’s heart, tells the people ‘you have a choice.’ Your life can either be like a shriveled up little shrub trying to squeeze water out of what’s essentially a lava-field or desert sand, or your life can be like a tree planted near a fresh-water stream, never dry and always producing fruit.  And God says through Jeremiah what makes the difference between the two, is what direction the heart is pointed in: the dried-up shrub has a heart that is turned away from God; the fruitful tree has a heart that trusts God.

The President of Jewish Theological Seminary, Behar Behukkotai, recently pointed out that in the Hebrew language and in Jewish thought, God’s curses are related to drought and dryness and a failure of crops. He writes that the Law of Moses teaches us to live by faith in this regard.  The law says “Do not sow seed in the seventh year, as you do the other six.” Be confident that God will take care of your needs that year and the next. Buy and sell property knowing that, in the jubilee year, all property will revert to its original owners. Walk through the land… tak[ing] responsibility for its stewardship… follow[ing] God’s commands, and subordinat[ing] your will to God.”

Behukkotai sees a parallel between disobedience to these commands and idolatry.  And when he talks about “being confident that God will take care of our needs” in the sabbath year – this is the definition of what Jeremiah is talking about when he says “trust in the Lord”. This kind of trust is not just an intellectual thing; it means to rest in, to feel completely safe. And so the question comes to us today: are we trusting in human power, or are we trusting the Lord? Are we parched, or are we planted?

The answer to these questions may not be as easy as we think.  At the end of our passage in Jeremiah, God comments: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” This is not a change of subject; it’s a continuation of the earlier thoughts.  So in case we start thinking, “I know which direction my heart is pointed in,” God confronts us with the fact that we don’t even know our own hearts.

And this is where the message begins to get dark.

Even psychologists will tell us that we don’t really know ourselves; that all of us have at least some mild neuroses; and, as the saying goes, “‘Normal’ is only a setting on the dryer.”  In some ways we can only know ourselves by getting feedback from others, and that’s why intimate relationships and friendships with faithful people are so important. The apostle Paul tells us to “encourage one another and build up each other” (I Thess 5:11) and we can do this for each other because we are able to see things from different perspectives and help each other fill in some of the missing information.

But then we have to take into account that other people aren’t perfect either, and the fact is, we often hurt each other without meaning to. You may remember the old song “You Always Hurt the One You Love”. This is not some sado-masochistic theme song, it’s reality: only the people closest to us are in a position to hurt us deeply. And I know, for myself, my prayers of confession are incomplete; there are a lot of sins I’ve forgotten already, a lot of memories that have faded over the years, and a lot of things I’ve done that I can’t begin to explain. We really don’t know our own hearts.

By way of illustration: Over the past few months I’ve been reading a couple of books that bring the depth of our human lack of self-knowledge into brilliant focus. The first book was a best-seller back in the 1960s called Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer, who was one of Adolf Hitler’s closest friends.  The second book is written by prize-winning European journalist Gitta Sereny, called Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth.

I should explain I was drawn to these two books by many conversations I’ve had recently with people who are afraid that Nazi-ism is on the rise in America today, and in the world in general. I think there’s a great deal that 21st-century people can learn from these two books, and I recommend both.

Speer’s book

Speer’s book is a memoir: an inside view of Nazi Germany, which he wrote while serving 20 years in prison for war crimes.  He tries to be as detailed with his memories as he can be, and he brings to life all the major characters of the Nazi hierarchy. The first thing that struck me as I was reading this book was that he is talking about people.  Today we make Nazis into monsters, which is a natural thing to do knowing what they did, and remembering all millions who died; but putting a human face on the perpetrators is necessary if we are going to say “never again” and make it stick. Because if the Nazis were not human, then Nazi Germany was just a fluke, and it never will happen again.  But if these people were human then we must remember, and we must keep watch, and we must say “never again” and make it stick, because the possibility is always there.

Speer as Hitler’s Architect

So Speer’s book is the confessions of one man who realized what he’d fallen into – but too late. He had served Hitler first as an architect, and then as Minister of Armaments, he provided all the materials the army needed for the war. He was convicted of war crimes at Nuremburg because some of the factories he controlled made illegal use of prisoners of war and other forced labor.  But Speer is known to history as the only Nazi who ever said “I’m sorry.” Towards the end of the war, when they knew the war was lost, and Hitler was descending into suicidal madness and ordering a “scorched earth” policy for Germany, Speer traveled the country countermanding Hitler’s orders and telling the people “when the Allies get here, for God’s sake surrender. Don’t blow up the factories, don’t blow up the bridges, leave something standing for the next generation.”  And then… he risked his life to return to Berlin and tell Hitler what he’d done, and to say ‘goodbye’. There was something in Speer that could not let go of the charisma of this madman. And Speer can’t explain this; he finds that he doesn’t even understand himself.

Gitta Sereny’s book

So the second book I read is titled well: “Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth”. Gitta Sereny spent 12 years of her life researching this book, including three years of interviews with Speer himself in which she becomes the most brilliant psychologist I’ve ever read, holding her own self out of the picture, and asking him questions that slowly tease the truth out of his memories, for 700 pages.

Speer being interviewed by Sereny

If you want to know her conclusions you’ll have to read the book. Or you could save yourself some time and read Jeremiah.  “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals…”  Nazi Germany was taken in by one particularly evil mortal, but any mortal will do to prove the truth of this verse. If our trust is in political leaders, economic leaders, even religious leaders, we’re going to find ourselves in some very parched places.

But! Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.  They shall not fear when drought comes; they will be like trees that stay green; they will not cease to bear fruit.

And Gitta Sereny’s book gives a brilliant example of this.

After spending 20 years in prison, from 1946 to 1966 – think about how much the world changed in those two decades – Speer was released and was faced with rebuilding his life. And one day he received a letter from a Jewish rabbi by the name of Aba Geis, a man who trusted in the Lord. He wrote:

Sehr geehrter Herr Speer,

In 1963 I read G.M. Gilbert’s Nuremburg Diary, and after that I thought of you time and again. You were different from the others accused at the Nuremburg trial and I found the sentence you were given too severe…

Not long ago I saw parts of two of your TV interviews and was again impressed by you. You will have to go on bearing your lot, as I and the survivors must bear ours. But I did want to tell you that even where I don’t understand you, I respect you.  But even more than that, as a devout Jew, I feel that there has to be forgiveness, and I am profoundly convinced that you are under the star of this forgiveness, for you are today an honest man.  I haven’t read your book yet, but… I didn’t want to delay until then sending you these few words.

With warm greetings, Raphael Geis

Speer commented to Sereny, “I think the day I received that letter was one of the most important days of my life.”  The two men became friends and remained friends until Geis’s death.

This letter contains the words of a man who is a tree planted by water; who knows the truth of human hearts, and who places his trust in the Lord. And with his trust in God, he turned the heart of a former Nazi.

Sereny quotes one other letter from Geis in her book that I think speaks very clearly to life in the 21st century, as well as illustrating the words of Jeremiah. Geis writes to Speer:

“When I was a young rabbi in Munich, at the beginning of the Third Reich, I couldn’t allow myself tears, because I had to be strong for the confused and frightened Jews in my care. That is how I survived Buchenwald… [and the passing of] my sister and her family at Auschwitz. Why do I write you this? Certainly not in order to open up a mercifully drawn curtain, but to tell you that my own fate in the Third Reich… taught me that one cannot categorize human beings. I knew, for instance, high-ranking Nazis whose helpfulness was exemplary, and I knew of Jews who denounced me to the Gestapo. I always understood about the quality of the world’s so-called compassion… Without the cowardly silence of the great powers, Hitler would never have become the awful reaper of death he became. And in the subsequent years? Vietnam, Greece, Spain, South America, South Africa… If one does not wish to despair and if one recognizes that the battle is on many fronts, then one knows that the first victory is to say time and time again “Yes” to individual human beings. I can look upon you as a comrade because I sense you to be true…”

This is a foretaste of life in God’s kingdom: this is a place where living waters flow; where there is nothing to fear, and nothing is lacking. As Jeremiah says, God searches human hearts: to understand, and to bring truth: but ‘searching’ a wound is also the beginning of healing. And so we see in Luke, Jesus comes as the great healer. Luke says: “Power came out from him and healed them all” – that is, all who were following Jesus. Jesus didn’t heal everybody in Israel that day, but he healed all who were there… everyone who put their trust in him.

BTW there’s a lovely postscript to the story these books tell: just last month, Albert Speer’s daughter received the Obermayer German Jewish History Award, presented on Holocaust Remembrance Day (2019), for work she has done creating a foundation to support Jewish women artists. And they remark that she also has welcomed refugees from Syria and Afghanistan to live her own home.

Parched or planted: the decision is ours.  We live in a world that is dying of thirst, and yet continues to put its faith in mere mortals; a world that trusts in human power, in spite of the fact that human power has led to tragedy over and over and over.

Will we live like dried-up shrubs in the desert? Or will we live like fruit trees planted by the stream? And the fruit we bear – what will it help others to become? As we turn our hearts to the Lord in trust – resting in God’s goodness and mercy – Jesus brings healing and the hope of rich blessings to come. In a world of uncertainty, this we can trust. AMEN.




Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh 2/17/19


Jeremiah 17:5-10  Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD.  6 They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.  7 Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.  8 They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.  9 The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse– who can understand it?  10 I the LORD test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.

Luke 6:17-26   He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.

 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

 20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”


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Specifically, “Are Nazis really on the rise again, here in America? And if so, what can people do to work against the trend?”

And another haunting question, perhaps seemingly unrelated at first: “Does the current worldwide refugee crisis — and our response to it — contain echoes of World War II that we ignore at our own spiritual peril?”

How does one begin to answer questions like this without falling into a quagmire of pop-culture politics, without being lost in the noise of morally bankrupt mantras of the major political parties and media pundits?

My instincts say: Seek out original sources contemporary to WWII.

A few months ago as I was mulling over these thoughts I discovered a book on my shelves I didn’t even know I owned: Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer.

I’d never heard of the book, or of Speer, even though both were on the best-seller lists in the 1960’s. For those who are as in the dark as I was, Speer was an architect hired by Adolf Hitler to design many of the government buildings and civic projects that were built during the early (mostly pre-war) years of the Nazi regime.  When WWII got under way Hitler promoted Speer to Minister of Armaments, where he had responsibility to manufacture everything Germany needed for the war. Speer was also one of Hitler’s closest personal associates — personally overwhelmed by Hitler’s personal charisma and yet professionally with a mind sharp enough to navigate the bizarre political waters that were the upper echelons of the Nazi party.  When it became clear Germany was not going to win the war, and that Hitler was determined to take Germany down with him in his suicidal mania, the scales fell from Speer’s eyes, but it was essentially too late. Speer was convicted of war crimes at Nuremburg and spent 20 years in Spandau Prison, where he wrote these memoirs.

What better source to give insight into what the Nazis were really like behind the scenes, and to draw any parallels to 21st century life?

The book surprised me on many levels; probably the biggest surprise being how brilliant and engaging Speer’s mind was. Could a man like this really have been a cold-blooded Nazi? I discovered many people before me have asked the same question.

Speer’s text shed a great deal of light on both my questions. I recommend it highly to anyone who wants to give serious thought to our current political climate.

On the first question, “are the Nazis on the rise again?” — I discovered quite a few parallels between German politics of the 1930s and American politics of the 21st century.  The parallels seem to be just about evenly split between the two major parties at this point, but in the long run I’m not sure it makes much difference: a general atmosphere of prejudice, bullying, and scapegoating combined with unrelenting group-think never bodes well for a nation.

But as I read further in Speer’s book I began to doubt him a little: even in this tell-all book it felt like he wasn’t quite telling all. A quick Google search led me to another book called Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth by award-winning European journalist Gitta Sereny.

Mrs. Sereny spent 12 years combing through Speer’s documents, interviewing Speer himself and his family, co-workers and contemporaries. Her work is amazingly deep and rich, both historically and psychologically, not an easy read, but very worth the effort. She fills in the missing pieces and more, and I recommend it to anyone who reads Speer’s book, as a balance — it gives a far more complete picture, both of the man himself and of the inner workings of the Nazi party. What emerges from her pages is a portrait of a deeply and tragically flawed human being, about whom there is yet much to admire.

As to my second question: is there a connection between the refugee crisis of today and the millions of displaced persons during WWII?

To my great joy I discovered today: Speer’s daughter, Hilde Schramm, who has suffered much because of the things her father has done, considers this question a no-brainer.

She has hosted Syrian refugees in her own home.


PS – I would love to hear from others who have read one or both of these books. They’ve left quite an impression….






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We have three Scripture readings for today, one from II Samuel, one from the Gospel of John, and one from Revelation.

II Samuel 23:1-7: Now these are the last words of David: The oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel: “The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.  The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: ‘One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.’  Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire? But the godless are all like thorns that are thrown away; for they cannot be picked up with the hand; to touch them one uses an iron bar or the shaft of a spear. And they are entirely consumed in fire on the spot.”

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

Revelation 1:4-8  John, to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.


Today is the last Sunday of “Ordinary Time” – that is, the last Sunday before all the holidays begin. Next Sunday we begin Advent, followed very quickly by Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost – and by that time Spring will be here and we’ll be back out in our gardens again!

This Sunday is also Christ the King Sunday – or “The Feast of Christ the King,” which means it’s a day to celebrate.  ‘Christ the King’ is one of the newest holidays on our church calendar. Most other holidays, like Christmas or Pentecost, have been around almost as long as the church has been around. But the Feast of Christ the King is not even 100 years old.

So I was curious as to why this holiday was created.  Turns out it was created in the Catholic church and then quickly spread through all the major Protestant denominations. And whenever all the churches agree on something, that gets my attention!

This is the back story: the Feast of Christ the King was created in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.  In 1925, Europe was still picking up the pieces after World War I: it was a difficult time.  And in reaction to those difficulties, there was a steep rise in two things: secularism and nationalism.  And the combination of these two trends led to an increasing number of dictatorships, including Stalin in Russia (who came to power in 1922), Mussolini in Italy (also 1922), Hitler in Germany (who came to power in 1933 but was a rising star in the 20s), Franco in Spain (1936, also rising through the 20s).

Pope Pius “hoped to combat the growing influence of absolute dictators…” so he created the Feast of Christ the King as “as a reminder…”  that “Jesus is king and there is no other.” (source: http://blogs.jwpepper.com/index.php/the-celebration-of-christ-the-king-sunday/  )

Christ the King

I think these are important words for our own time as well, and indeed every time – because throughout human history there have been people who have claimed the kind of power and loyalty that only God has a right to.  Not that secular powers are a bad thing; Scripture says they are given to us by God for our benefit.  But when secular powers forget that they answer to God, it is the duty of Christians to remind them.

Pope Pius is not the only theologian who has stressed the importance of recognizing Jesus as King. In more recent years, British theologian N.T. Wright has written extensively about the subject of Jesus as King.  In fact Wright has gone so far as to say the church’s message of salvation has had the wrong emphasis for many years.  To fill in the back-story: some churches have taught a person is saved by being baptized and joining the church; some churches have taught that a person is saved by doing good things, by living a good life; some churches have taught that a person is saved only by God’s choice, by predestination; some churches that have taught a person is saved by having a conversion experience, by being ‘born again’.

N.T. Wright says that putting the emphasis on ‘getting saved’ is missing the point of what Jesus taught in the gospels.  This may sound shocking at first, but Wright is not saying that heaven is unimportant.  What Wright is saying, is that the focus of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels is and was about the kingdom of God.  Over and over Jesus says to people “the kingdom of God is near – change course and believe the good news.”  In other words: God’s reign is within arm’s reach, so turn your hearts and your minds, and turn your actions, in God’s direction.

So is Wright right?  As it says in the Bible, whenever we hear a new teaching we should measure it against what we read in Scriptures.  And in this case, one of the ways we can do that is to count how many times Jesus talks about various subjects.  It’s fairly safe to assume the more often Jesus talks about something, the greater importance or greater emphasis it has.

So with that in mind, I went and counted the number of times Jesus spoke certain words in the gospels. (Results will vary a little depending on which version you use. And computers help with this kind of thing.)  The word I found most frequently used in connection with Jesus is the word “answered” – as in, someone asked him a question and Jesus “answered saying” (whatever he said). And I find this encouraging, because it means we can ask questions too, in confidence that Jesus will answer.

The second most common word – and the first most common Jesus spoke about – is ‘kingdom’.  Jesus uses the word ‘kingdom’ more often than he uses the words love, faith, and peace, combined. Jesus certainly taught about love, faith and peace! But Jesus talks about the ‘kingdom’ more often. In fact Jesus uses the word ‘kingdom’ more than five times more often than he uses the word ‘saved’ and more than ten times more often than he uses the word ‘repent’.

So I think N.T. Wright is onto something. We may need to shift our emphasis from getting people ‘saved’ to welcoming people into the Kingdom.

Now I should mention – in order to balance this a little bit – that the rest of the New Testament (apart from the gospels), that is, the teaching of the apostles, is weighted somewhat differently. In these books the most common words are Love, Faith, Hope, Peace, and Righteousness, in that order.  These words describe what God’s kingdom is like.  In other words, the apostles were teaching us about life in God’s kingdom, and what it means to grow into that reality.  So Jesus announces the Kingdom, and we who follow him are called to teach the kingdom and to model what it’s like to live in the kingdom.

So with this kingdom emphasis in mind, let’s take a look at what our scripture readings for today tell us about the Kingdom.

In our reading from II Samuel, the Holy Spirit gives David an oracle. And the words David speaks apply both to himself and to Jesus.  David begins by saying “The Spirit of the Lord speaks through me.”  These same words are echoed in the book of Isaiah, chapter 61, which Jesus quotes in the synagogue in Nazareth.  Isaiah is describing what the king of God’s choosing will do, and he 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…” (Isaiah 61:1-2)

And in Luke’s gospel, Jesus reads these words and adds, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)

David’s oracle continues saying: “the king rules over the people in justice” and “his coming is like the light of morning”.  In the book of Revelation Jesus says: “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Rev 22:16) So again we see a parallel between David and Jesus.

David says God’s covenant with him is everlasting; and God says to Jesus in Hebrews 5:6 “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” So the two of them share God’s promise of eternity.

Throughout scripture, Jesus is called the “Son of David” – and so all these things that David says, while they’re true of himself, are also true of Jesus.  Jesus is king, both by being descended from David, and by God’s anointing.

Moving on to our reading from John: here we see Jesus, the King of the universe, standing before Pilate, accused of being a king!

Of course back in Roman days, a person who claimed to be a king would have been guilty of treason, because there was only one king and he lived in Rome. So when the high priests and the religious authorities arrested Jesus and dragged him off to see Pilate, they knew exactly what to accuse him of to get a death sentence.

For whatever reason, Pilate chooses to question Jesus privately rather than in open court. Pilate comes straight to the point of the accusation by asking: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

We might think that the direct and honest answer would be ‘yes’, but Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. Instead he asks, “Is this your own question, or were you told this by someone else?”

Jesus is not dodging the question here; he already knows what the outcome of this trial is going to be. But Jesus is doing a couple of things (probably more than a couple, but I’ll look at two for now). First, he is putting a stop to the triangulation.  In psychology, triangulation is (quoting Wikipedia) “a manipulation tactic where one person will not communicate directly with another person, but instead uses a third person to relay communication to the second, thus forming a triangle.”  Triangulation is an unhealthy way to communicate.  So if Pilate is talking to Jesus about what the priests said, and Jesus is talking to Pilate about what other people said about him, they’ve got a triangle going.  And Jesus puts a stop to this right away by asking Pilate whether these words are his or someone else’s.

The second thing Jesus is doing is opening the door to direct and honest communication – so that Pilate can know who Jesus is, and has the opportunity to trust Jesus if he chooses to.

Pilate agrees to get rid of the triangle. He answers: “I’m not a Jew am I? Your own nation and chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Pilate’s answer is honest but it’s not very polite. First off it smacks of anti-Semitism.  Pilate looks down his nose at the chief priests and he also looks down his nose at Jesus. As far as he’s concerned they’re all alike.  On the other hand, Pilate doesn’t like being manipulated.  And as he looks at Jesus, he knows he’s not looking at a rebel. He knows the chief priests are setting Jesus up, and he wants to know why.  “What have you done?”

And this question opens the door for Jesus to present Pilate with the truth, and to give Pilate the opportunity that Jesus gives every person: to accept the truth or to reject it. So Jesus says: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were,” Jesus basically says, ‘as a king I would have an army and servants and they would be fighting for me. But as things stand, my kingdom does not come from this world and therefore I am no threat to you.’

Pilate answers, “So you ARE a king?”  Pilate is still only interested in whether or not Jesus is guilty of treason; he has no interest in the finer points of what Jesus is saying. So Jesus answers, “You say that I’m a king.” (pointing out the word ‘king’ is now Pilate’s, not his accusers’) And Jesus continues: “For this I was born… and came into this world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Jesus is now very gently questioning Pilate and saying, “I’m speaking the truth – will you hear it?”

And Pilate looks Truth in the face and says “What is truth?”

And he walks away.

Pilate wasn’t missing Jesus’ point, he just doesn’t care. He rejects the truth, and he rejects Jesus as king.

Where it came to kings, Pilate chooses Caesar over Christ. As it turned out, just two or three years later, Pilate was recalled to Rome to answer charges of harsh treatment of the Jews.  Shortly after that he committed suicide, and rumor has it he was ordered to do so by the Emperor Caligula. (What a choice between kings – Jesus or Caligula! Pilate chose poorly.)

Pilate did speak one truth: when Jesus was crucified, as was the tradition in Rome, he wrote the charge – that is, the reason he was being crucified – on a piece of wood, attached to the cross above his head.  Pilate wrote “The King of the Jews”.  Pilate meant this to be insulting, and the high priests were definitely insulted.  They asked him to change it to “this man said I am the king of the Jews”.  But Pilate answered, “what I have written, I have written” – and in his cruelty, he spoke the truth.

The king we worship today, and the king we proclaim to the world, is a king who, for our sakes, was tortured and killed on a cross.

And this brings us to our reading from Revelation, which picks up the theme and transforms it into a song of praise. The apostle John writes: “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.”

I could write a whole other sermon on what it means for us to be Jesus’ kingdom, and for us to be God’s priests.  This is our future! Priests, serving under our great high priest.

But for today I just want to close with John’s vision of our king. John writes: “behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him…  ‘I Am the Alpha and the Omega’ says the Lord God, the one who is, and the one who was, and the one who is coming, the Almighty.”

John tells us two things: (1) Jesus will return. This is a message given to a church that was under pressure from all sides. These words are as good an encouragement for us today as they were for believers back then; and (2) John is saying: God is God, and God is in charge.

So this is our King. And our king says “I come quickly.”  And so we celebrate today, Jesus, our King, to him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 11/25/18


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