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“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.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 
– Matthew 5:1-12

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Our scripture reading for today is one of the best-known and best-loved passages in the Bible.  It is also probably one of the most misinterpreted, mis-used and/or completely ignored passages in the Bible.  So I’d like to spend some time with it today, really digging into the meaning of Jesus’ words. I want to start out taking a look at the context of Jesus’ teaching, and then look at what these words might mean to us personally, and finally what they might mean to the church as the body of Christ.

So starting with context.  The Beatitudes, as these verses are called, are part of a much longer teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount, and the entire sermon is found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  So it’s a pretty long teaching. The Beatitudes are the opening section of that teaching.

In terms of location, Jesus taught these words on a mountainside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

beat6These photos show what the mountain looks like today.  Of course back in Jesus’ day the top of the mountain would not have been flattened, and there would be no church there.

beat4But you can still get a feel for what it was like.  It’s a breathtakingly beautiful spot.  I mention this because so many Bible movies show Jesus and the disciples trudging over brown landscape, rocks, and dust, and there are parts of southern Israel that look like that, but not Galilee.  The region of Galilee is one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth.

beat3So this is where Jesus and the disciples went – surrounded by beauty.  In a way this would have been for them kind of like going on a retreat to Jumonville would be for us, a way of getting away from the everyday and spending some time – I was going to say ‘in the word’, but with the Word in this case.

Matthew says very specifically “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain” where the disciples came to him. So Matthew seems to imply that Jesus was speaking mostly to the disciples, probably not just the Twelve, but to people who were already following him.  As the Sermon on the Mount progresses, a crowd builds, so by the end of the sermon in chapter 7 Matthew says “a large crowd” was astonished at Jesus’ teaching.  And then at the beginning of chapter 8 Jesus goes back down the mountain, and Matthew says even larger crowds (plural) were at the foot of the mountain waiting for Jesus.

I’m going to come back to the significance of these crowds in a moment, but for now I’d like to dig into the text.  One side note first on the Beatitudes, especially for those of us who have heard teaching on this passage before. There’s a common pitfall, I think, with the Beatitudes, and that is to take the characteristics Jesus describes as “blessed” and make them into personal goals. We are not supposed to try to make ourselves mournful, or meek, or poor in spirit, and so on.  What Jesus is saying here is if you find yourself  in these situations, if you hunger for righteousness, if you are grieving (and so on), then count yourself blessed. Not go try to make yourself blessed.

So having said that, let’s dig into these Beatitudes.

First off Jesus repeats the word “blessed” at the beginning of every sentence. In Hebrew literature, this kind of repetition is meant to build, one upon the other. Not that there are levels of blessedness, but that taken together as a whole the blessing becomes magnified. And the Greek word here for blessing goes beyond mere happiness and implies transcendent joy.

So the first group of people Jesus calls ‘blessed’ are the poor in spirit.  This has absolutely nothing to do with economic poverty.  The phrase ‘poor in spirit’ is a concept in Greek that is not directly translatable into English. In Greek the phrase refers to a person who is humble about his or her own abilities, someone who recognizes their need for other people. The exact opposite of poor in spirit is illustrated in just about every Clint Eastwood movie I’ve ever seen.  You know, at the end of the movie, after killing the bad guys and saving the town, Clint rides off into the sunset alone.  He leaves the town behind, he leaves the woman behind, he leaves the cute little kid behind. He doesn’t need anybody. His entire life is bootstrapped. This is the total opposite of what it means to be poor in spirit. A person who is poor in spirit knows they need others, and knows they need God.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says – because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Next Jesus says “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”.  The word for comfort here in Greek is parakaleo.  If you were here last week you’ll remember this is the same word Paul uses in I Corinthians 10 when he says, “I appeal to you brothers and sisters that there be no divisions among you…” The word translated “I appeal to you…” is parakaleo. The literal translation is ‘to call alongside’ or ‘to draw (a person) to one’s side’.  So if you mourn, if you are grieving, Jesus says you are blessed, because God will draw you to His side.

Next Jesus says blessed are the meek – the gentle, the considerate. This does not mean weak but rather strong with flexibility. Jesus says the meek are blessed because they will inherit the earth.

Next Jesus says blessed are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In other words, people who long for and deeply desire righteousness. The word ‘righteousness’ has kind of gotten a bad rep in recent years, so we could substitute the word ‘justice’, if we define justice as an attribute of God, not as something we see on Law & Order. Jesus says those who hunger and thirst for what God says is right are blessed because they will be completely and totally satisfied by God.

Next Jesus says blessed are the merciful – people who are compassionate, who have empathy – because they will themselves receive mercy.

Next Jesus says blessed are the pure in heart – again, a difficult phrase to translate, but – literally, free from dirt; figuratively, free from wrong. Impurity and evil cannot exist where God is – just like darkness cannot exist where light is. So blessed are the pure in heart because they will be able to stand in God’s presence; “they shall see God”.

Next Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers. Literal translation peace-maker.  Someone who is able and willing to build friendly relationships between people. (Try that on Facebook!)  Jesus says peacemakers will be called children of God – because God himself makes peace between fallen humanity and heaven, so when we make peace we are being like God.  We are being God’s children.

Next Jesus says blessed are those who are persecuted – expelled, harassed, oppressed – for doing what God requires. Not for doing something wrong, but for doing what is right.  I’ve seen this kind of thing a lot in workplace politics – where standing up for what’s right can sometimes even cost a person their job.  Blessed are you, Jesus says, when people shut you out for doing what God has asked you to do; yours is the kingdom of heaven.

And last, Jesus says blessed are you when others reproach you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely because of your loyalty to Jesus. Jesus says “rejoice and exult! For your reward is great in heaven” because they treated the prophets the same way.

So if we find ourselves in any of these situations, we are blessed. God knows what we are living through, and God will bless each of us beyond our ability to describe.

The Beatitudes are words of comfort for each of us.  But they’re also more than that.  There’s also what Jesus’ words have to say to us as a church, as the local body of believers in Jesus Christ in this community.

Remember a moment ago I mentioned I would come back to the question of who Jesus was talking to on the mountain.  Usually when Jesus went up a mountain it was to get away from the crowds. His public teaching was usually – not always, but usually – either in the cities and towns, or near shore of the Sea of Galilee, where there are natural ampitheaters.  Even so, after Jesus went up the mountain, a crowd managed to find him, and by the end of the sermon “a large crowd” had gathered.  But in chapter 5, where we began, Jesus is clearly speaking to ‘his disciples’, that is, his followers – not just the twelve, but a group of people who already believed in Jesus and were following him.

So as Jesus begins to speak the different blessings, he does not actually say ‘blessed are you’ when these things happen. He says, ‘blessed are they’.  Of course these blessings do apply to us, to the disciples, to believers – but in the moment Jesus is pointing the disciples’ attention away from themselves and onto others.  And I think what Jesus is doing, at least in part, is describing to the disciples what kinds of people will make up God’s kingdom – the kinds of people the disciples are to go look for as they go out into the world in Jesus’ name. Charles Simeon, the great British preacher and contemporary of John Wesley, said this in his introduction to the Sermon on the Mount: “[Jesus’] design in this sermon was to open to [the disciples] the nature of that kingdom which he had… announced as about to be established, and to rescue the moral law from [the] false glosses which the Pharisees had put [on] it.” (Expository Outlines, Vol 11)

Or to put it another way, the Sermon on the Mount is to be the church’s game plan.

The prophet Isaiah said, in a verse that Jesus quoted: “The spirit of the Lord… 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… to comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1-2, edited)

King David wrote: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all.” (Psalm 34:18-19)

Throughout scripture, both Old and New Testament talk about God’s love for the hurting and the oppressed, and God commands the people of God to do the same.

Looking at this from a practical standpoint, it’s interesting to contrast the Beatitudes with today’s advice on church growth.  If you’ve ever read books on church growth, so many of them say things like “find the leaders in your community” or “create an attractive worship experience” or “take a poll to determine the community’s perceived needs”. And there are a gazillion magazine articles out there like “7 Keys to Church Growth” or “10 Church Growth Strategies”. One even said “44 Church Growth Strategies”!

All of these may contain some interesting tips; but not one church growth strategy I’ve ever seen says “go out and look for the humble, and the meek, the ones who are grieving, and the oppressed, and the ones who show mercy, and the ones who don’t compromise what they know is right, and the ones who build bridges between people, and the ones who are willing to suffer for doing God’s will. Go find these people and tell them God blesses them, and tell them God’s kingdom is at hand, and don’t bother counting how many show up on Sunday.” Sounds crazy, yes? But in the first few hundred years after Jesus, believers did these things and the faith spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

And if any of this sounds vaguely political – it is, but in not the way we expect.  As one pastor and author wrote recently, the problem with both the Christian Right and the Christian Left is that they reduce the word “Christian” to an adjective. God does not serve any worldly power.  To live as a Christian is to live under the reign and rule of Christ. And this is revolutionary, in fact (as the author put it) the only truly revolutionary politics the world has ever seen. And he adds, “The church doesn’t need to enforce this revolution, the church only needs to live it.” (Brian Zahnd, http://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/faith-and-public-life/the-jesus-revolution/)

After Jesus came back down the mountain he went out and showed the disciples how this plan works in real life.  So we see him reaching out to people like the Samaritan woman at the well – who was rejected by her own people but whose heart was open to God – or the Roman centurion with the ill slave, who wasn’t even Jewish, but who had faith like no-one else.

So this is Jesus’ game plan. Go. Find the people who are grieving, the people who are victims of injustice, the people who the world overlooks because they’re too small or too unimportant, the people who long for righteousness, the compassionate ones, the people who are looking for God’s way and don’t care what the cost is. Find them, welcome them in God’s name, and invite them to be with us.

How do we do this? Start with prayer.  The opportunities will come.  In fact if I know this church at all, some of the opportunities are already here. Pray for God’s leading and keep an eye out for the opportunities.

Each one of us here, in some way, knows what it is to be blessed by God in the places where we are weak or where we’ve been hurt. Each one of us at one time or another has found ourselves described in one (or more) of the Beatitudes. We have received God’s comfort, and now it’s our turn to offer God’s comfort to others – blessing them and welcoming them in Jesus’ name. Let’s go for it. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh, 1/29/17

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“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.  For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.  What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”  Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius,  so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.  (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)  For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. 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.” – I Corinthians 1:10-18

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“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:  “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles– the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” – Matthew 4:12-23

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In our New Testament reading for today the apostle Paul says: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you…”

How much these words needed to be heard this week!  It’s been a week when we saw Donald Trump become President, which brought hope to some and fear to others. The very next day we saw the Women’s March, protesting against the new President… which brought hope to some and fear to others. I haven’t seen our country so divided since the days of the Vietnam War.

Speaking as a history buff, I’m sure there’s a history lesson in here somewhere… but that’s not what you came to church for today. And besides, the apostle Paul is much more to the point when he says the message of the cross stands above it all.

I’m going to come back to that thought in just a moment, but first I’d like to look at our reading from Matthew, which tells the story of Jesus calling his first disciples.  This story sheds light on what it means to be a disciple because it’s how the whole Jesus-discipleship thing began.

In our reading from Matthew, Jesus calls the first four disciples. They are two sets of brothers: Peter and Andrew, and James and John. All four are fishermen and all four are at work on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus calls them.  The thing that stands out in this story is that when Jesus calls them, all four men immediately drop what they’re doing and follow Jesus.

These men are tradesmen, average men from average families, and fishing is the family business.  But they drop everything to follow Jesus. They don’t ask questions about how they’re going to make a living, or who’s going to look after the family.  In fact Matthew says James and John “left their father in the boat” and went with Jesus, just like that.

Can you imagine doing that?

But listen to the words Jesus uses to call the fishermen. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” If someone said that to you, how would you react? Would it make you curious? Would you wonder if he was joking? Would you wonder what ‘fishing for people’ might involve?

I think our English translations address the mind, but in the original Greek language, Jesus’ words have a different feel.  It’s more like: “Come! After me! I will make you fishermen of people!”  There’s a spirit of enthusiasm and invitation and adventure that is absolutely compelling.  Jesus will take something as common as fishing and give it eternal meaning.  These four fishermen, by following Jesus, will play a part in changing the history of the world. They don’t know that yet, but what they do know is the feeling, in this moment, is a feeling of deepest joy, a joy you can’t say ‘no’ to, and they want more than anything to be part of it.

This joy is something we are called to also.  In Jesus, the kingdom of God begins to break into our world, pushing back the darkness and bringing in light.  Following Jesus does have a cost, and the road to eternity does pass through Calvary.  But a large part of the essence of the Christian life is joy, because we know who we are and whose we are, and we are looking for a world, for a kingdom, in which righteousness / kindness, and justice /mercy, and greatness /humility, are no longer contradictions because they come together perfectly in Jesus Christ. We have our sights set on the joy of that kingdom.

Now contrast this feeling of joy with the feelings we had watching the election last fall. Did we feel joy? Or did we feel uncertainty? Did doubts and fears creep into our hearts? Have we been looking to human beings to provide what only God can give?

I would submit that if we fear any human being more than we fear God, we’re in trouble.  If we think any group – political or otherwise – is going to accomplish God’s will (any other way than by accident) we’re in trouble.  If there is anything more important than God in our minds or in our hearts, whatever that thing is needs to go.

After Jesus called his disciples, the message he preached was “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”.  And the Greek word ‘repent’ literally translates to perceive afterward, like we’re seeing something too late. For example, have you ever had the experience of having a conversation with someone, and then thinking of something you should have said about a half-hour after the conversation is over? That’s what the word repent means: to perceive afterwards.

In the future, when we look back on these days of division in our nation, will we regret how we’ve spent our time? Will we be sorry for things we’ve said to people? or for putting our trust in imperfect people instead of in God?  Will we be peacemakers?

How we treat each other, and what we say to each other makes no difference to the people in Washington DC – but it makes a difference to the people we see every day. And our words and actions have spiritual repercussions.

Which brings us back to Paul, and Paul’s words to the Corinthians. The Corinthian church Paul was writing to was made up mostly of new converts to the Christian faith, and most were Gentiles, not Jewish.  The new converts found themselves, to their surprise, richly gifted by the Holy Spirit with spiritual gifts like healing, speaking in tongues, hospitality, service, and many other gifts. But with so much giftedness they began to compete with each other. “My gifts are better than your gifts.” “My baptism is better than your baptism.” And so on.  Which sounds silly to us today. But think about how gifted we are as Americans. Are we enjoying our gifts and thanking God, or are we backbiting each other?

The ultimate point of Paul’s letter is found in I Corinthians 13, where he says the greatest spiritual gift of all is love. Treating others with kindness and dignity. Just the opposite of what the Corinthians were doing.

In this morning’s reading, in I Corinthians 1:10, Paul writes: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

“I appeal to you” Paul says. In Greek this phrase is one word, parakaleo – it’s a compound word made up of para (“alongside” – the word we get parallel from) and kaleo (“to call”).  This word is translated – depending on your version of the Bible – “I appeal” or “I urge” or “I exhort”. But the actual shading of the word implies not one who is pushing us (“I urge you”), but one who comes alongside and draws us.

Para-kaleo – to call alongside. Like Jesus calling his disciples, Paul’s words are an invitation to join him in a new way of life and in great joy.

Parakaleo, brothers and sisters” – be united in mind and purpose.  Have no schismata (no schisms, no rending of fellowship). And Paul makes his appeal in the name of Jesus, the same name by which the lame get up and walk, and the same name by which the sick are healed.

Is Paul saying all Christians should think the same, vote the same, be members of the same political party? Of course not.  What Paul is saying is, the divisions among us – whether in the church or in society in general – are caused by people who feel they’re better than others, or at least that their leaders are better than others.  So Paul is asking: Are some people better educated than others? Are some people more gifted than others? Are some people richer than others? Is it better to be baptized by Paul or by Peter? Do we follow Paul or do we follow Apollos? (And we could insert any number of names of politicians, celebrities, or media personalities in these questions.)

Paul replies: “Did I die for you? Was Apollos crucified for you? Has Christ been divided?”

In the world, among unbelievers, differences in education and wealth and giftedness cause division.  But among believers, among followers of Jesus, this should not be so. John Wesley said: “Though we may not think alike, may we not all love alike?”  That’s the essence of Christian joy and Christian unity.

There will never be permanent, meaningful, un-forced justice or peace in this life.  This doesn’t mean we stop working for these things. It just means we know any justice or peace we find in this world is temporary. It’s a foretaste of things to come, not a permanent thing here on earth.

Paul says:  “Christ sent me not to baptize but to proclaim the Gospel, and not with fancy words.” Paul doesn’t want to risk emptying the cross of its power.

And the power of the cross is this: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the source and giver of all life and all joy, died in our place and three days later walked out of the grave alive, opening the door to God’s kingdom for us sinful human beings.

Paul says this is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  As we look at the cross, the power is this: out of unfairness comes justice. Out of despair comes hope. Out of injury comes wholeness. Out of betrayal comes trust. Out of death comes life. Out of sacrifice comes Joy.

The powers of this world cannot accomplish these things. They never will. And if they say otherwise they’re lying. Only our Lord Jesus can bring life out of death.

In the book of Galatians Paul says, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  And he says, “for freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Slavery happens whenever any thing, or any person, or any cause, becomes more important or more desirable to us than Jesus.

The message of the Cross is the love of Jesus and the power of God for forgiveness and redemption. It is liberation. It is freedom. It is new life. It is Joy. And it is unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ – not sameness – but unity in purpose, one in direction and one in destination.

Jesus calls us, as he called those fishermen long ago, to leave behind our former life and follow him into the kingdom of God.  Paul encourages us to be united in that vision, and help each other along the way to the kingdom.  Will we answer yes?

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 1/22/19

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

In the book of Romans Paul writes, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17)  And this is true.  But in our reading from the book of John this morning, Jesus says to John the Baptist’s disciples, “come and see”.  And it occurred to me there’s a difference, spiritually speaking, between hearing and seeing, and I wanted to spend some time with that thought today.

The Bible does not anywhere say ‘seeing is believing’; but it also does not say ‘believe what you hear and ignore what you see’.  We are designed to learn about God with every sense we have. But as I look through Scripture, as a whole, a pattern seems to emerge: the relationships people have with God – both people individually and as groups – tend to begin with hearing, and mature with sight.

Here’s what I mean.  The thought came to me while I was driving out to Philadelphia on the turnpike this week to visit my brother. As many of you know my brother had open-heart surgery this past Tuesday – by the way, thank you for your prayers, it went very well.  This surgery came up on us very quickly though, even though it’s been a long time coming.  It was one of those things where the doctors said to my brother, “we can’t operate until it gets bad enough, but if we wait too long you won’t be strong enough to survive the surgery.” So a week and a half ago the doctors said “NOW!” and four days later my brother was in surgery.  It happened so fast I wasn’t able to get there before he was in the hospital.  He was being operated on while I was driving across the state.

Somewhere around the Sideling Hill rest stop – and if you know the turnpike you know that’s about halfway to Philly – I got a phone call from my sister who said our brother’s out of surgery, everything went well, he’s doing well.

And faith comes by hearing, right? I knew right then my brother would be fine.  So theoretically I could have turned the car around and come back home to Pittsburgh. But of course I didn’t do that!  I kept on driving. And when I got to Philly my sister called again and said “they’re keeping him under for the night, he won’t wake up until tomorrow, just go to your hotel. We’ll visit in the morning.”  And again… faith comes by hearing.  And the next morning I took the train into the city and by the time I got there my brother was awake.

And that’s when faith became sight.  Now I could see how my brother was doing. Now I could see what the doctors and nurses were doing. Now I could enter into the story and become a part of it. Now there are relationships happening. Now I was present and available to do some good if anything needed doing.

This pattern of hearing, and then believing, and then seeing, and then being in relationship… I see this same pattern throughout the Bible and in the history of Israel’s relationship with God.  Follow with me:

In the beginning, in Genesis, God is in relationship with human beings.  In the very beginning, before the serpent came along, there was face-to-face relationship. Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden. After the serpent, people hid from God – didn’t want to be seen – and from that point on God is only heard, not seen. The relationship between God and humanity has been damaged. And the rest of the book of Genesis describes human society as it moves further and further away from God. It becomes harder and harder for people to hear God’s voice.

So God chooses Abraham, and promises to work through him and his descendants to reach the people of the world. In Exodus, Abraham’s descendants are led by Moses out of Egypt, and they are given the Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses which is known as the Covenant or Testament.  And the people learn about God by hearing. Exodus 24:7 says “Then [Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people.”

Later on, when King Josiah, a descendant of David, wanted to reform the nation and bring the people back to God, the book of Kings tells us, “The king went up to the house of the LORD… [and] he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant…” (II Kings 23:2)

When the prophet Nehemiah went to rebuild Jerusalem, on the day the temple was rededicated, scripture says “On that day they read from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people…” (Nehemiah 13:1a)

And even in the New Testament people begin their faith journey with hearing. When Paul preaches in Corinth, the book of Acts says, “On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 19:5)

And when Jesus preached, in the book of Luke it says, “he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down… [and said], “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:20-21) Jesus could have said “in your sight” because he was right there – the Son of God, visible to all the people – but he said “in your hearing”.

Faith begins with hearing.  But relationship grows with sight.  In scripture seeing is the necessary step in relationship-building.

In Exodus God says to Moses, “The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.” (Exodus 3:9)  God is making plans to rescue Israel based on what he has seen.

In the beginning of the book of Nehemiah, the prophet says, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins… Come, let us rebuild…” (Nehemiah 2:17) – which is an invitation to relationship, and to hope for the future.

In the New Testament, after Jesus is raised from the dead, the angel says to the women at the tomb, “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…” (Matt 28:6-7)

As for ourselves, we also we hear and believe.  Faith comes by hearing, even for us.  Someone, somewhere, told us that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he lived a perfect life, and taught us how to live, and that he died for our sins on the cross, and walked out of the grave alive, to prove that neither God nor love will ever pass away, and to open the door for us into God’s kingdom. Someone, somewhere told us this and we heard it and believed it. And that was the beginning of faith for us.

But if we stop there, we’re missing the larger part of the story.  We need to continue on and to see what God is doing. Granted we can’t actually physically see God. But we can be in God’s presence, and we can see God at work. When we pray we are in God’s presence and when prayers are answered, we see God at work.  When the Holy Spirit works through another person in our lives, we see God at work.  When the church does what God calls the church to do, we see God at work.

And I would like to suggest today, that as the South Hills Partnership churches reach out into our communities, one of the best things we can say to people is what Jesus said: “come and see”.  Because “come and see” invites people into relationship and into presence.

Jesus invited John the Baptist’s disciples to “come and see.” And a few verses later the future disciple Nathanael asks Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And Philip says, “Come and see.” (John 1:46)

When Jesus met the woman at the well, and she came to believe he was the Messiah, she ran to the people of her town and said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” (John 4:29)

When Jesus visited Mary and Martha after Lazarus died, he asked, “where have you laid him?” and they answered, “Lord, come and see”.  (John 11:34)

The words “come and see” invite others to understand and to be present.  It’s interesting that in the Greek language, the word for “see” doesn’t just mean “look” but also ‘perceive’ or to ‘have spiritual sight’.  So when God sees us, God is seeing and understanding and being present to us.  When we say, “come and see” we are also saying “come and understand… come be part of us.”

Mother Teresa understood this.  She was frequently asked about her ministry to the poor in Calcutta. People wanted to know how she did what she did. And in spite of her amazing generosity and kindness, not everybody agreed with what she was doing or how she did it.  But without fail, if someone asked what she was doing or why – no matter who the person was: a politician or a reporter or a visitor – she would always answer “come and see”.

And we can answer the same way here in our Partnership churches.  If someone asks, “what is your church doing to address the drug overdose crisis?” we can take them to the meetings Mr. Gus leads at Fairhaven and say, “come and see”.  If someone asks “what is your church doing about the poor and the hungry?” we can bring them to Hill Top and to the Allentown community meetings and say, “come and see”.  If someone asks “what is your church doing about the needs of children and youth?” we can bring them to Carnegie or to Spencer and say “come and see”.  You get the idea. And if someone asks us a question about something we don’t do… we might want to prayerfully consider doing that… or inviting that person who asked to come and do!

I’d like also to suggest when people ask us where our church stands on a hot-button issue, rather than taking the bait and diving into controversy, just say “come and see”.   Because you and I know that the church is made up of all kinds of people with all kinds of opinions, but we are united in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit – and that is a miracle. That’s God at work. Christian unity is evidence of God’s presence. When we say, “come and see” it challenges people to stop sitting on the sidelines. It challenges them to step into the sometimes messy – and often joyful – reality of relationships and community.

So to sum up, in scripture and in life, faith comes by hearing; but relationship comes by sight and by presence. And I’d like to suggest a third step. Faith comes by hearing; relationship comes by seeing; and out of both comes praise.

Which brings us, briefly, to Psalm 40. The psalmist writes:

“I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.”

Notice our progression is in this Psalm as well.  Verse 1: “he turned and heard my cry…”  Verse 3: “many will see… and put their trust in the Lord”  And as the band U2 sang back in the 1980s, then “I will sing, sing a new song…”

In verse four the psalmist says “blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.” Verse nine, “I proclaim your saving acts in the assembly…” As the psalmist is wrapped up in praise, we find ourselves back at the beginning again, back to hearing. Because someone will hear the praise, and will believe, and the progression begins again.

So faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. Relationship and community come by seeing and by presence, which come by invitation. And praise comes from all of these, and starts the whole thing over again.  So as we reach out into our communities, let’s do so speaking the word of God, and inviting others to “come and see”.  And as we do, we sing praise… to the God who sees and hears us. AMEN.

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 1/15/17

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Scriptures for the Day:

“I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.

He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog,

and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.

He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.

Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.

Happy are those who make the LORD their trust,

who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.

You have multiplied, O LORD my God,

your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;

none can compare with you.

Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.

Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,

but you have given me an open ear.

Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.

Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.

I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”

I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;

see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD.

I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,

I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;

I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.

Do not, O LORD, withhold your mercy from me;

let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.” – Psalm 40:1-11

~

“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’  I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

“The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.   When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed).  He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).” – John 1:29-42

 

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[Scripture readings are found at the end of this post.]

“Then Jesus came from Galilee…”

Matthew’s gospel for today begins with the word “then” – which of course leaves us asking, “what happened before then?”  In this particular story – the story of Jesus’ baptism – that’s an important question.

In Matthew’s gospel, after the Christmas story, Jesus appears on the banks of the Jordan River to be baptized as a full-grown adult. But what happened in between birth and baptism?

What Matthew skips over, some of the other gospels talk about.  Jesus was born the Son of God, but he was also born a human baby.  And he had to learn all the things that you and I had to learn growing up: how to eat, how to walk, how to do chores around the house.  He did all the things that kids do like playing, and learning to read, and recovering from chicken pox.

It’s important to remember the human side of Jesus.  We see Jesus as Lord and Savior – and rightfully so – but he was also human.  He lived life day to day just like we do.

Which raises the question, how much did Jesus know about himself being the Son of God when he was growing up?  His parents, Mary and Joseph, would have told him about his Father, that he was the Son of God. And they would have told him what the angels said about how the Savior had been born that night, and what the shepherds said and the gifts the wise men brought.

But Jesus would have had to grow into an understanding of what that meant.  I suspect that’s why Jesus as a 12-year-old stayed behind in the temple, asking questions of the religious teachers. He needed to know, he needed to learn, what it meant to be Messiah.  Scriptures say after that he ‘went home and was obedient to his parents’ – which I’m sure was practice for being obedient to his heavenly Father during his ministry.

And after that, Jesus worked in the family business for a while.  He was well liked in the community, and for the first 30 years of his life Jesus led a fairly unremarkable life in Nazareth.  He did not, as some people claim, travel to the far east or to Egypt to study mystical religions.  And the one thing that was a little unusual about his early life was that he did not marry or have children. Sorry, Da Vinci Code.

And then one day all that came to an end.  One day, Matthew says, “Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan”.  We don’t know why that day, other than Jesus was being led by the Holy Spirit. We have very few details.  We do know Jesus was around 30 years old, and we know the place where John was baptizing was about 60 miles southeast of Nazareth as the crow flies (not quite as far as from Pittsburgh to Morgantown WV.) And we know Jesus most likely walked to the Jordan. How long would that take? For someone in his shape – with a carpenter’s build – two or three days maybe?

And more than likely Jesus made the trip by himself.  He didn’t have family with him, and he hadn’t called any disciples yet.  But the road he was traveling on was well-traveled, and there were probably other people traveling in the same direction at the same time. And he would have walked with his fellow travelers, and chatted, and maybe shared a sandwich.  For those of you who travel, you know some of the best memories of a trip is the people you meet while you’re on the road. And I imagine these conversations were an encouragement to Jesus, a confirmation of the rightness of what he was about to do.

Where exactly where John the Baptist was baptizing has been lost to history, but most historians believe it was near Jericho or a little further south towards the Dead Sea.  So as Jesus walked, the countryside around him would have changed… from hilly and green in the north, to dusty and dry in the south.

And so at last Jesus arrived at place where John was baptizing.  And there in the wilderness, in semi-desert, on the banks of the Jordan River, a large crowd had gathered.  In the middle of the river, a man wearing camels-hair clothing was listening to people as one by one they came forward and confessed their sins, and were baptized in the water.

In those days in Israel baptism was mostly a thing done for ritual purity, that is, to cleanse oneself after doing something nasty like burying a dead body.  But John taught a different meaning to baptism, a meaning that was taught at the community at Qumran at the time, which was that baptism represents inner cleansing – a way of preparing oneself for the coming of the Lord.

So people came to John and confessed their sins and were dunked, whole body, into the river, and raised out again.  In the meantime, at a slight distance, there were observers: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the political elite from Jerusalem.  They came, not to be baptized, but to ask awkward questions and cast doubts on what John was doing.  One theologian I came across said: Remember at the time of John the Baptist, the ‘rulers of the nation… rejected the counsel of God… by refusing John’s baptism’ while the tax collectors and sinners received it.  He said, “we should prefer entering heaven with publicans and harlots over being excluded… with the great and mighty of the earth.” (Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines)

So on the banks of the Jordan River, Jesus, after standing in line with everyone else, Jesus enters the water and approaches John.

Now John and Jesus were related, as we heard a couple weeks ago in the Christmas story. But they grew up far apart from each other: Jesus lived in the north in Galilee, and John lived in the south near Jerusalem.  Whether or not they ever met after birth is unknown.  But we do know that by the power of the Holy Spirit, John recognized the Messiah.

(As a side note, I think it’s comforting to know that even John the Baptist – who as baby leaped in his mother’s womb when Jesus’ pregnant mother walked into the room – even John had questions and doubts sometimes.  In Luke 7:20 we read, “John the Baptist [sent messengers to Jesus] to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Even for John the shape of Jesus ministry was unexpected. And it’s interesting that Jesus answered “go and tell John… what you see and what you hear”.  Faith comes by hearing, not by sight as we might expect.)

So back to the Jordan.  John sees Jesus, recognizes him as the Messiah, and objects to Jesus being baptized.  He says, “I need to be baptized by you! And you come to me?”  John knows himself to be an imperfect person, as much in need of baptism as the people he’s ministering to.  (Which is true of all of us in ministry.)  And so John confronts Jesus, not saying ‘no’, but asking a question, and giving Jesus the opportunity to respond.

Which Jesus does. He says, “Let it be so now” – and Jesus speaks this as a command, but gently – “for it is fitting that we fulfill all righteousness.”  Notice how Jesus includes John in this: ‘It is fitting that we fulfill.’ Jesus is – from the very beginning of his public ministry – looking for people to work with him.

And so Jesus is baptized by John. And as he comes up out of the water the heavens open and the Spirit like a dove lights on him.  Can you imagine what that looked like? ‘The heavens opened’ – and a voice was heard saying “this is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

John, and all those who witnessed it, knew they were seeing a once-in-the-history-of-the-world event. The Messiah, the savior of the world, the Son of God, come to earth in the flesh, was revealed this day by the very voice of God.

…and then, Jesus was immediately led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days, where he was tempted by the devil. Does this strike you as odd? It does me. I mean, Jesus has finally made himself known – and God has given witness that Jesus is the Messiah – and no sooner is this made public that Jesus is sent into the wilderness for over a month.  This is not the way people usually roll out a new ministry!

But God’s ways are not our ways. And Jesus’ time in the wilderness was necessary, because even though Jesus knew he was the Son of God, there were still some things he needed to grow into.  And I suspect the depth of the meaning of his baptism was one of those things – because Christian baptism is not just about confession and forgiveness, it also represents dying to sin and being raised again.

From this point on, Jesus’s future is set.  The goal of his life is the cross, and the resurrection beyond it.  The temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness were temptations that called his goal into question… that tempted Jesus to find some other way to achieve his purpose, to find some short cut around the cross.  Praise God it didn’t work.  Jesus was, and always has been, completely faithful.

So I’d like to wrap up with two thoughts.

The first is just how astounding this event is. After 4000 years of waiting for promises to come true, Messiah is finally here!  God says: “my son, my beloved with whom I am well pleased.”  In his baptism Jesus is identified and his arrival is announced to the world.

This won’t necessarily mean what people think it means.  In Jesus’ day, many people believed the savior would save the nation from the Romans, and return control of Israel to the Jewish people, but they were mistaken about that.  And today there are people who make a similar mistake, thinking Jesus has come to create a Christian nation here on earth.  Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Jesus is our Savior because he saves us from our sins – which makes it possible for us to become citizens of the kingdom of heaven – which is a whole new ballgame.  The majority of Jesus’ teaching will be about the kingdom of heaven: what the kingdom is like, how much the kingdom is worth, the things we can do here on earth to take with us to the kingdom. This is the heart and soul of Jesus’ teaching.

Which leads us to the second thought, summed up in Jesus’ words to John: “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

John the Baptist objected to baptizing Jesus because Jesus had no sins to confess, no uncleanness to be washed from.  John’s objection was rooted in an honest, perceptive, and loving heart.  And Jesus does not argue with him or find fault with his theology.  Rather Jesus overrides John with a higher calling.

Jesus is not in need of baptism, but we are, and Jesus came to take our place in every way.  Jesus does not come to earth to judge us or to make demands of us. Jesus comes to identify with us, to become one of us, in order to raise us out of sinfulness and into holiness, out of death and into eternal life.  The Word put on flesh and – as the Message Bible says – “moved into the neighborhood”. (John 1:14)

It’s an astounding thing to take in, that God would become one of us.  It’s not quite what the Jewish people expected in a Messiah.  And the non-Jews – the Romans and Greeks – were offended by it. They considered it shocking that a god would lower himself to put on flesh.  Greek philosophy taught that human flesh was corrupt, and spirit is our higher nature: so much so that some of the early Greek converts to Christianity started to teach that Jesus didn’t really come in the flesh at all, but only appeared to.

I point this out because our society today, without being aware of it, is very much influenced by this thinking. There are many today who try to separate body from spirit, flesh from spirituality, as if what a person does in the body has no effect on the spirit and vice versa.  As if only the spirit is eternal.  The Bible does not teach this.  As we say in the Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body…” and that’s not just Jesus’ body, we believe in the resurrection of our bodies too.

In Jesus, God has become flesh and blood in order to bring us – body and spirit – into God’s kingdom.  Jesus is born into our world to stand in our place, and to do for us what we could not do for ourselves: by his death destroying death and by his resurrection opening the door for us into God’s kingdom.

And all of this is foreshadowed by Jesus’ baptism.

So Jesus says to John: “let us fulfill all righteousness”  And Jesus invites all of us to take part with him in the ministry of reconciling the world to God and God to the world.  How will we respond?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

(In the Methodist Church the sermon on the First Sunday After Epiphany is immediately followed by a ceremony of renewal of baptismal covenant. See Baptismal Covenant IV on this page for the text of the ceremony.  This Sunday we segued into the renewal ceremony with the following comments: )

One of the ways we can respond is by remembering our own baptism.  For some of us, who were baptized as children, we were welcomed into the family of faith even before we can remember.  For others, baptism may have come later in life.  And some of us may not even know if we were baptized.

In the New Testament, baptism is not just for repentance and forgiveness but is also the sign a person has come to faith in Jesus.  Over and over in the New Testament we hear the words, “they believed and were baptized.”  Most of the time in scripture these were adults being baptized, or adults along with their children.

Today we usually baptize our children very young as a sign of their being received into the family of God.  Before we come forward today, we will remember the promises we made, or that were made on our behalf, and recommit ourselves to those promises.

For most of us this will be a service of remembrance, but if anyone has never been baptized, or isn’t sure if they’ve been baptized, and would like to be, please let me know after the service.  In the meantime, all are welcome to come forward and touch the waters of baptism.  Let’s remember our baptismal covenant in the words of this ceremony….

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Scriptures for the day:

Isaiah 42:1-9  Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.  He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Matthew 3:13-17   Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.  And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh, 1/8/17

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[scriptural references are reprinted in full at the end of this post]

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Day falling on a Sunday feels a little strange.  It only happens once every six or seven years, so we only experience this around 10 times in a lifetime.  And if you’re here in church on Christmas Day more than likely it’s because you were busy last night.  You may have been traveling; you may have been working (in which case I want to say “thank you” for your service to others on Christmas Eve); you may have had house guests; you may have been volunteering here at the church and didn’t get to sit down during the Christmas Eve service. Or maybe you’re just here on Sunday morning looking for a quiet moment with God now that the holiday rush is over.

Christmas Day Sunday is, in one way or another, out of the ordinary. Last night the Christmas Eve service featured candlelight and choir songs, and extended families, and friends we hadn’t seen in a long time, and the sanctuary was warm and welcoming. The feeling was holy and mysterious as we celebrated the arrival of Emmanuel, God with us.

This morning the mood is different.  Christmas morning feels almost like any other winter morning. Outside the sky is gray and the air is cold. Inside, the lights are on, the congregation is smaller than last night, the choir is sleeping in (except for the band – thank you for being here!).  It could be disappointing – except that people who are here today are here for different reasons. We’re not here because of holiday tradition or because we’re trying to recapture the feeling of Christmases past. We’re here because we really want to start Christmas Day with the family of God, and with our newborn Savior.

Christmas Day Sunday is a ‘faith thing’.  In the eyes of the secular culture around us Christmas is over now. The radio isn’t playing carols any more. The Christmas specials have come and gone, and the stores are reminding us it’s time to start shopping for Valentine’s Day. In the eyes of the world, Christmas is done and we’re on to the next thing.  But in the eyes of faith, and in the eyes of God, the adventure of Christmas is just beginning.

This day – this ordinary day that feels almost like any other day – is exactly where Jesus chooses to meet us.  Imagine what it was like in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, the morning after Jesus was born. Imagine the Holy Family, the morning after the angels sang, and the morning after the shepherds visited. The sun came up, just like any other day. The people of the world keep on doing whatever it is they do every day, most of them unaware that the course of history changed last night.

In a few days the wise men will visit Jesus and his family.  They will refuse to tell King Herod where Jesus is, and Herod will commit one of the most infamous massacres in history, and Jesus and his family will become refugees in Egypt. For them, daily life will go on, ordinary day after ordinary day. That starry night when the angels sang will begin to recede into the distance of memory.

But for the next thirty years the song of the angels will linger in the minds of the shepherds who heard it. And the story will be told among the hill people of Judea. When John the Baptist starts his ministry, they will recognize echoes of angel-song in John’s words. And while kings and religious leaders carry on unaware that the King of Kings has arrived on the earth, the shepherds and the common people are watching for the words of the angels to come true. They will watch until Jesus finally starts his public ministry.

It is in the ordinary everyday that God’s plan unfolds.

And it is in the ordinary everyday that “The Song of Jesus” can be heard.  This Advent season we’ve been looking at the different songs associated with Christmas: the angels’ song, Zechariah’s song, and so forth.  Today I’d like to talk about Jesus’ song.  When Jesus was a baby in the manger, he had a cry rather than a song – which I think is part of his song – but if one could put into words the song Jesus sings throughout his life and ministry, throughout history, it would be “I love you… I love you… I love you.”

From the beginning of history to the end, from Genesis to Revelation, Jesus sings to us a song of love with his life.

From the very beginning of history… The apostle John says:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  2 He was in the beginning with God.  3 All things came into being through him… […]  10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  11 He came to… his own, and his own people did not accept him.  12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God….”

From the very beginning, Jesus was rejected by the people he helped to create. But Jesus still comes to us in love, giving power to become children of God to any who will receive him.

As we continue through the Biblical story, in the book of Isaiah, the prophet writes:

“Thus says the LORD, he who created you… he who formed you… Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God…your Savior.” (Isaiah 43:1-3, edited)

Here in the middle of the story God’s people still rebel against God and ignore the invitation. And the world carries on like nothing has happened.

And a little further along the story, the prophet Zephaniah gives us a vision of God’s love. He writes:

“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!  The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; […] he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing…” (Zephaniah 3:14-18, edited)

Even in the Old Testament, this is Jesus’ song. God will take away our shame. God will turn away all enemies.  And Jesus will sing… over us!

 

And all these words – from the beginning, from Isaiah, from Zephaniah – come together and become physical reality on Christmas Day.

And at the very end of the story, at the end of history, in the book of Revelation, the apostle John writes:

“I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes…” Revelation 21:3-4 (edited)

 Jesus says:

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”  Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.  Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Revelation 22:13-16)

And the apostle John adds:

“The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:17, 20)

From beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation, the song Jesus sings is a love song.  God loves you. Jesus loves you. The Spirit calls you and says “Come”.

The Advent season is the season in which we live our lives: the now and the not yet. God is with us, but Jesus’ kingdom is still coming; and the world is still doing business as usual, unaware of what’s happening in Bethlehem.

Today, Christmas Day, is not just the end of Advent. It is the beginning of the completion of God’s plan.  And above all it is Jesus’ love song to us. And so we sing love songs in reply – and for right this moment, using words written by Ray Charles:

“He is born, let us adore Him
Christ the Lord, King of Kings
Prince of Peace, for all the universe
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

AMEN.

~~~~~~~~~~~

“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!  The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.  On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.  The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.” – Zephaniah 3:14-18

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“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,  who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” – John 1:1-13

Preached at Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/25/16

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“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying,  “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. – Matthew 1:18-25

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There’s a thing in classical music called ‘songs without words’.  Composers like Schubert and Mendelssohn – who were wonderful songwriters – now and then wanted to write for violin or piano instead of voice. And sometimes they would write something that could have been sung because it was very sing-able, but it was played instead, and they called this ‘songs without words’.

This Advent we’ve been talking about the “Songs of Christmas” – Mary’s Song, Zechariah’s Song, Isaiah’s Song – and this week, we have Joseph’s Song.  The thing is, in all of scripture nobody ever wrote down anything Joseph said.  So Joseph’s song today is going to be like a ‘song without words’.

If songs without words are unusual, it’s even more unusual back in Bible times to have an important story – like the coming of the Messiah – where men do not have leading roles.  Both ancient Israel and the Roman Empire, with few exceptions, were very male-dominated societies.  But when we look at the key players in the story of Jesus’ birth, we see right away that God is “lifting up the humble and putting down the mighty” (as Mary said in her song, the Magnificat, which we heard a few weeks ago).

The people who have had something to say in Jesus’ story so far include an unmarried peasant girl (Mary), and a childless elderly couple (Zechariah and Elizabeth).  Soon to come will be an elderly man named Simeon and a poor widow named Anna.

Conspicuous by their absence are the rich, the powerful, and men in the prime of their lives.  The cast of characters in Jesus’ story tells us this story is going to turn human priorities upside down. And that’s no accident.

So Joseph is the first career-aged male we meet in Jesus’ story, and none of his words are recorded: not in Matthew, and not in any of the other gospels. I would love to have heard what Joseph had to say. He seems to have been a wise and kind man. But his silence speaks very clearly, and very powerfully.

Joseph was a man whose actions told everyone around him what he thought and what he believed.  Unlike many people who say one thing and do another, or who claim to believe in one thing but then act a different way – Joseph’s life is consistent with what he believes in. He is a man of faith, and he lives his faith.  Joseph reminds me of the words of St. Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.”  For those of us, like myself, who have often wondered how to go about preaching without words – because actions truly are a more powerful witness – Joseph is a wonderful role model.

Where it comes to getting to know Joseph the man, we really don’t have that much information about him.  We know that he was a member of the tribe of Judah: Matthew’s genealogy at the beginning of the gospel tells us that. We also know he was descended from King David and King Solomon.  Of course, for Joseph that was 1000 years in the past, and that and a buck would get him a cup of coffee.  Nonetheless Joseph had royal blood in him. And that’s why, when the Romans call for a census, Joseph and Mary travel from Galilee to Bethlehem: because Bethlehem is the City of David, Joseph’s ancestor.

These details are important because the Old Testament prophets, when they talk about the Messiah, give us clues to watch for.  The prophets said the Messiah would be called “the lion of the tribe of Judah”. He would be called the “Son of David”.  The Messiah would be from “Galilee of the Gentiles”… but at the same time the prophet Micah said “[from] you, O Bethlehem, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth [the] one who is to rule in Israel….” (Micah 5:2)

In Joseph all of these prophecies come together in one place in one time, in God’s timing, as God planned.

There’s just one problem from Joseph’s point of view: Mary is pregnant with a baby that’s not his!  Joseph is betrothed to Mary, which in those days was more than engaged but less than married. Mary turned up one day pregnant and claiming God was the father.

Joseph was no fool. He knew the facts of life, and he wasn’t buying Mary’s story.  As we watch Joseph’s song playing out, the first thing we see is how a man of God responds to personal crisis.  Matthew says Joseph was ‘a righteous man’ who did not want to publicly disgrace Mary.  Joseph would have been within his rights to accuse her publicly and to see her stoned to death. Joseph chose not to exercise his rights. He chose to let Mary go quietly without making a scene.  It was going to be hard enough for Mary and her family, who would be shamed by the arrival of a fatherless baby. He chose to have mercy and not to add to the family’s difficulties.

In Joseph we see that a righteous man is a man of compassion: a man who chooses to do no harm, when he has the choice, who chooses not to take revenge.

And having made this choice, Matthew says Joseph was still mulling over the situation, as if he was still not quite at peace with it.  There was something not quite right but he couldn’t put a finger on it.  As he slept an angel from God came to Joseph in a dream and said “don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife – the Holy Spirit is the father of this baby. She’s going to have a boy, and you will name him Jesus (which means ‘God saves’) because he will save his people from their sins. This is in fulfillment of the prophecy: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (‘God with us’).”

And Joseph woke up, and immediately did what the angel said, and married Mary.

In these events we hear three more melodies in Joseph’s song: the melody of thoughtfulness and reflection, the melody of trusting God, and the melody of doing God’s will.  Joseph was not someone who made decisions in a hurry. He thought about things. He mulled them over. He looked at things from more than one point of view.  And he had good instincts.

And when he heard God’s word, Joseph understood.  He trusted God, even though he knew he was now being called to share in Mary’s predicament. Now there would be two of them saying “God is the Father of this baby” while everybody else said ‘yeah right’.  Joseph believed the angel’s word, and trusted God. And he lost no time doing what God said to do.  He married Mary, took on the role of stepfather, and when the baby came, Joseph named him “Jesus” – which was his job as head of the household (as well as being what the angel told him to do).

Matthew tells us one other thing about Joseph, and that was he waited until after Jesus was born to consummate the marriage.  The prophecy was that a virgin was to give birth to a son – and Joseph did his part to assure the prophecy came true.  He was a man of self-control.  He didn’t complain, he didn’t talk about his ‘rights’ as a husband, he was not driven by his passions. He was willing and able to do everything in the proper time.

By the way, Matthew says Mary was “a virgin until she gave birth” – which implies after Jesus was born, Joseph and Mary had a normal everyday marriage. And the Bible talks about Jesus having younger brothers.

And that’s all our reading for today tells us about Joseph. Later on in Matthew’s gospel Joseph talks with the angel a couple more times: once when Joseph and his family have to flee to Egypt because Herod wants to kill Jesus, and a second time when Herod dies to let them know it’s safe to go back to Israel.

The only other time the Bible mentions Joseph is Luke chapter 2, when Jesus is twelve years old and he stays behind in the temple after the Passover. You recall the story: his family was on the way back to Galilee when they realized Jesus was missing, and it took them almost a week to find him. You can imagine how torn apart Mary and Joseph were! (You can also almost hear God saying “I gave you ONE job…”)  When they finally find Jesus in the temple, Mary says “why have you done this to us? We’ve been agonizing over you!”  The word she uses here is a word used to describe the fear of never seeing a loved one’s face again.  Joseph and Mary were people of great love.

And that’s all we have about Joseph.  Later on in Jesus’ life, whenever Mary is mentioned – at weddings, at events – Joseph is not there.  Most Bible scholars believe Joseph died before Jesus’ public ministry began.

But for a man who speaks no words, Joseph has said much.

  1. He has demonstrated that a righteous man is a man of compassion and mercy
  2. He has shown himself to be thoughtful, someone who weighs his actions and decisions
  3. He is a man who, when he hears God’s word, trusts it
  4. And when he hears God’s word he acts immediately to do God’s will.
  5. He is a man of self-control
  6. He is a man of great love

I can imagine how good it was for our Lord Jesus to have an earthly father like Joseph – someone to show him by his actions what it means to live God’s way as a human being here on earth.

In addition to all these things, Joseph teaches us the power of silence, of really listening.  Of thinking about what’s best for others in a given situation.  Joseph teaches us the power of doing God’s will God’s way. And he gives Mary and Jesus a loving home and family life. In just creating a normal, everyday home life for his family Joseph changes the course of history.

God’s response to a man of Joseph’s character and Joseph’s faith is honor.

  • God honors Joseph by trusting him with Jesus. Can you imagine trusting your child to someone else’s care? God trusted Joseph.
  • God honors Joseph for his mercy. Joseph does not demand what’s rightfully his – he chooses mercy, and mercy wins. And God honors this.
  • God honors Joseph’s willingness to follow God’s instructions by leading Joseph into wise decisions for his family. With God’s guidance, Joseph and his family live in safety and in peace no matter where life takes them.

God honors Joseph.  And that’s Joseph’s song: a song without words.  A song expressed in actions that speak so beautifully of the faith and love in Joseph’s heart.

As a takeaway for this today, I’d like to suggest this: In the week between now and Christmas, let’s look for opportunities to follow in Joseph’s footsteps, and to share the good news of Jesus – using our actions rather than words to show what we believe. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/18/16

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“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:2-7

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I received a Christmas card in the mail this week from a school in Africa where some of my colleagues have worked.  It included a poem written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during WWII – one of the few clergy who had the courage to take a stand against Hitler, and he paid for it with his life. He wrote a good deal before he died, and one of the things he wrote was a poem called The Turning Around of All Things.  The card quoted it in part:

We are talking about the birth of a child,
not the revolutionary act of a strong man,
not the breathtaking discovery of a sage,
not the pious act of a saint.
It really passes all understanding: The birth of a child
is to bring the great turning around of all things,
is to bring salvation and redemption to the whole human race.
What kings and statesmen, philosophers and artists,
founders of religions and moral teachers vainly strive for,
now comes about through a newborn child.

This is what our reading from Isaiah is all about.  Isaiah 9 is a big-picture view of God’s kingdom breaking into our world in the form of a child – “to us a child is born” – and what that will mean in our world and our lives. In just seven verses God addresses every level of human life: our selves, our relationships, the work world, and relationships between nations. All the things Jesus preached in the Gospels, all things promised by the prophets of old, all summed up in just seven verses.

To try to get a handle on something this big, I’d like to take a look at four aspects of Isaiah’s prophecy:

  1. The Personal – what do Isaiah’s words say to us?
  2. Our relationships, particularly where it comes to career or work
  3. International relationships
  4. What does it mean when we say “God’s Kingdom has entered our world”

So starting out on the personal level.  Isaiah says “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  Of course Isaiah is saying this metaphorically – he is talking about spiritual darkness. But if you’ve ever had the experience of being physically in total darkness, the parallel is a good one.  I remember one time teaching a class in the old Isaly’s building out in Oakland.  It’s part of Magee Women’s Hospital now, and it’s mostly offices, but they have classroom on the 2nd floor that used to be, at one time, the freezer that warehoused Isaly’s ice cream. So you can imagine there are no windows in this room, and the walls are very thick and insulated. Sitting in there you feel like you’re in a cave. (I was sorely tempted to bring in a can of paint and paint a window on the wall so it wouldn’t feel so closed in.)

Anyway one day I was teaching there and all of a sudden we heard a loud bang and everything went totally dark. We didn’t know it at the time but a transformer down the street had blown and all power went out in the building. And the emergency lights were way down the other end of the hall. My class and I couldn’t see a thing. (This was before everybody had flashlight apps on their cell phones.) Fortunately I knew the layout of the room and was able to guide the class out by following the sound of my voice, otherwise someone could have gotten hurt tripping over something or running into someone.

Metaphorically speaking this is how we follow Jesus. Our world is dark, spiritually, and we need to be led by the voice of the one who knows the lay of the land.  It’s no mistake the Bible says “faith comes by hearing” – not by sight. In a dark world we follow Jesus by his voice.  Jesus said “My sheep know my voice… and they follow me.”

Speaking of darkness in the world, a few years ago psychologist M. Scott Peck began his best-selling book The Road Less Travelled with these words:

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth… because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult […] then life is no longer difficult…”

With all respect to Dr. Peck, I disagree.  I mean, I agree that life is difficult.  I disagree that once we know life is difficult, it’s no longer difficult.  Knowing life is difficult may help us shift our expectations a little, so we’re not so disappointed, but that’s about it. Life is difficult from beginning to end. Being born is difficult. Growing up is difficult. Being a teenager is difficult. Having a teenager is difficult. Finding a life partner is difficult. Launching a career is difficult. Dealing with illness is difficult. Getting old is difficult. Facing death is difficult. There is nothing easy about life. And knowing that doesn’t help (much).

So on the personal level Isaiah tells us we are all walking around in a dark world.

But God doesn’t leave us there. Isaiah tells us “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”.  For those who live in a land of deep darkness, the light has shined on us.

Have you ever had the experience of walking from darkness into bright sunlight?  It takes you aback for a moment. It’s too much. When people meet Jesus for the first time we tend to have a similar reaction. Jesus is too good. His light is too bright. It takes time to adjust. But as we do – which is part of the process of sanctification – the world never looks the same again. We experience great joy. “Like people rejoice at the harvest” Isaiah says.  Most of us don’t live on farms any more, but back in the day when people had to grow their own food and so much depended on the crops doing well, bringing in the harvest was a time of great celebration. We still celebrate Thanksgiving, remembering those times.

Isaiah says there will be joy “as people exult when dividing plunder”.  Generally speaking we don’t go around plundering any more… but anyone who’s ever gone to an after-Christmas sale, and found something they’ve been wanting for years – at 80% off – knows the feeling. “Look what I found! It used to be $100 and I got it for only $20!”  That’s the joy of the plunder!

So light and joy – these make up the personal, individual aspect of Isaiah’s message.

The second aspect of Isaiah’s message deals with relationships, particularly the kinds of relationships we have during the work week. While there are exceptions, much of what we do during the week – especially for those of us who work – goes to increase the power and wealth of people who don’t necessarily honor God and who don’t necessarily treat their workers with dignity. Here in Pittsburgh, where labor unions started, I don’t need to go into detail on that. But even unions can’t guarantee proper treatment of workers 100% of the time, or control how management uses its power or spends its money.  Isaiah says: “the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.”

The ‘day of Midian’ refers to an Old Testament story of the Midianites, who came up and attacked ancient Israel, and God appointed Gideon to face that army. Remember the story – Gideon started out with a huge army, and God said “too many men” so Gideon cut the army down to 10,000. And God said “still too many” and cut the army down to a mere 300.  God then told the 300 men to take trumpets, and torches inside clay pots, and surround the Midianite army at night.  And at a signal, they were to blow the trumpets and break the pots and  wave the torches.  And they did what God said to do – and the Midianites thought they were being attacked and turned tail and ran!

God won the battle for Israel without a single sword-stroke. And when the time comes God will break the yoke of oppression and win our battle for us as well.

This doesn’t mean Christians should stop having jobs in secular society. Just the opposite – our challenge is to do our best to bring God’s values, like fairness and honesty and equality and mutual benefit, into the work world. But until the Lord comes again, the economy will never be 100% fair.  We will always have the poor with us, as Jesus said. There will always be issues.  And so Isaiah addresses this and says God has broken the rod of the oppressor.  God will one day set up a society with an economy marked by fairness and justice.

From this second aspect Isaiah then moves into the third aspect: relationships between nations. Throughout human history, relationships between different countries have been violent and bloody.  Much as we love peace, you’d never know it by looking at how nations treat each other. But there will come a time when (in the words of the old spiritual) we ‘ain’t gonna study war no more’. Isaiah says, “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

Why?

Because “to us a child is born; to us a son is given; and the government will be on his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  His authority will grow, and there will be endless peace in God’s kingdom, upheld by justice and righteousness.

Just as an aside, we hear a lot of talk about “justice and peace”, and I want to point out in Isaiah – as in many passages in the Bible – “righteousness” goes along with justice and peace.  It’s not a duality, it’s a triumvirate.  There can be no justice without peace, and there can be no peace without justice, but there can be neither justice nor peace without righteousness.  As long as sin exists in this world, justice and peace will be only ideals, not realities.  But the kingdom that is coming is a kingdom of peace, upheld (as Isaiah says) with justice and righteousness.  This righteousness is a gift given by Jesus to all who trust Him.

The kingdom of the Messiah will last forever. And as we sing in Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, “the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever, Hallelujah!”

So, so far we’ve seen three aspects of Isaiah’s message: personal, corporate, and international.  The fourth aspect is what all this means to us today.

Isaiah’s words are, for us, the ‘big picture’ of the Good News which Jesus speaks to all people: “the kingdom of God is near! Change course and believe the good news.”  Let us open our hearts to receive this message with joy, and in the words of one theologian, “let us not be content with scanty measures of joy”. Celebrate, like at harvest-time, like at the plunder. Praise God and thank God for the great promises that are ours and the great victory that is ours in Jesus Christ, in the birth of a child. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/11/16

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