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“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.”  Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” – John 3:1-17

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Nicodemus was in a quandary.

There was a new rabbi in town. His name was Jesus. He worked miracles, and the people loved to listen to him. The people were amazed by how loving he was – he loved everybody, even children and prostitutes and tax collectors.

Two weeks ago people had been saying he turned water into wine at a wedding. And last week he’d gone into the temple and turned over the tables of the money-changers, and let all the animals that were about to be sacrificed run free through the city, all the while shouting something about ‘house of prayer’ and ‘den of thieves’.

Nicodemus had to admit Jesus was right about that: those money-changers were thieves. And the temple authorities had been looking the other way far too long.

Once when Jesus was teaching in the temple, Nicodemus slipped into the crowd just to listen for a minute. He saw that Jesus taught with wisdom and with humor. Jesus understood the Law of Moses but he understood people too. And he never got caught up in any of those theological-political debates the religious types loved to indulge in.

Nicodemus admired Jesus.

He also knew most of his colleagues didn’t.  See, Nicodemus was a Pharisee. And not just any Pharisee. While he wasn’t as high up as the high priests, he was above the synagogue leaders.  He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council. (In the distant future in something called ‘the Methodist Church’, Nicodemus might have been a District Superintendent.)  He had a position of authority over the people, and he had some sway in the religious councils. And he knew a few other Pharisees admired Jesus too; he wasn’t the only one. But they were in the minority.

Nicodemus also knew that ever since that incident in the temple with the money-changers, the religious authorities were looking for ways to silence Jesus. They couldn’t have that kind of thing happening on a regular basis. Too many public scenes and the Romans would come down on the chief priests for not keeping the peace. And since the chief priests were the leaders of the nation, for the sake of the nation Jesus had to be stopped… at least that’s how they thought.

Nicodemus – I’ll call him ‘Nic’ for short – Nic didn’t know what to do. Should he take the risk of speaking up and defending Jesus in front of the Sanhedrin? Should he lay it out there and say “look, this man speaks truth and you know it”? Or should he should resign his position and join Jesus’ followers? And if he did that, what would become of his own disciples? Nic couldn’t see what was the right thing to do.

Finally one day the light bulb came on and Nicodemus said to himself: I know! I should just go talk to Jesus.  Tell him how things are.  Tell him what the Sanhedrin are saying, how they’re plotting against him. Ask him “is there anything I can do to help?”

So one day after work and after he’d had the chance to grab some dinner, Nicodemus went out looking for Jesus.  While he walked, he thought about his family and especially his parents.  His dad had given Nicodemus a name that means “victory of the people.” Nic wasn’t feeling particularly victorious that night, but he appreciated the encouragement. And it was true the people of Israel looked up to him. (In the far future people would have said Nicodemus ‘one of the 99%’ – not like the Sadducees who were the 1%. ) And besides, Nic knew he was not alone in doing what he was doing that night. There were lots of other people looking for Jesus too. Nic was very much one of the people that night.

At last Nicodemus found Jesus. And – in a totally unexpected break – Nic actually caught Jesus in a moment when there weren’t a gazillion people around him! So he introduced himself to Jesus and said “may I have a word with you?” and Jesus invited him to pull up a rock and have a seat. The disciples had a campfire going, taking an edge off the chill of the night air. There were a few men and women gathered around the fire, having conversations. The only person nearby was a young disciple named John who was listening in on their conversation quietly.

Nic started the conversation by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know (‘we’ meaning the Pharisees) – we know you are a teacher from God. Nobody could do the signs you do unless the power of God was in him.”  Of course Nic and Jesus both know that’s not what the Pharisees say in public.  What they say in public is things like “it’s only by Beelzebub that this man casts out demons.” And they tell the people not to follow Jesus.

Nicodemus is just getting ready to say “as a Pharisee I can see their hypocrisy – what do you recommend I do?”  But as the apostle Matthew says, God knows what we need even before we ask, and even before Nic had the chance to ask the question, Jesus answers: “you must be born again.”

Nic is speechless.  He had come prepared to offer Jesus an entrée into Jerusalem’s religious establishment, or to offer to stand by Jesus as he made his case to the Pharisees. But here was Jesus, caring about Nicodemus, and taking the conversation to a level Nicodemus wasn’t even aware existed.  What kind of an answer was this?

+++(change to ‘teacher voice’)+++

I need to step out of the story for a moment to say a word about Jesus’ statement ‘you must be born again’. In my lifetime (and probably in many of yours) the phrase ‘born again’ has become – depending on where you’re coming from – a cliché, an insult, a badge of honor, a word to describe a group of Christians who don’t believe in denominations, a way to describe people who preach to you on the street corners of Pittsburgh… in short, anything but what Jesus meant.

When contemporary culture has got things so twisted around that you can’t even believe the opposite of what you hear, it’s time to go back to the original language and see what Jesus actually said. “Born again” – gennao anothen in Greek. Gennao, which has the same root as genesis, which means ‘the beginning’. Literally, gennao means to be born; figuratively (and figurative meanings are valid in Greek) it means to be regenerated. Gennao is the word used to describe God’s action in Jesus’ resurrection – what God did when Jesus came back to life.

The second word, anothen, can be translated ‘from above’ or ‘from top to bottom’; or figuratively, in its entirety, from the beginning, or into the future. There’s an element of time implied, which is why the word is so often translated again.

So taken together, gennao anothen as a phrase that means to experience a complete regenerative change in one’s life.  It’s far more than simply turning over a new leaf.  It is being re-created into what God designed us to be in the first place. It is to become, by the power of God and by the action of God, what we were originally intended by God to be.

And I think that’s pretty close to what Jesus meant.  But at the same time, the phrase ‘born again’ can be taken very literally. And that’s where we find Nicodemus.

+++(step back into the story)+++

Nic is puzzled by Jesus’ words. And he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” And again Jesus is a step ahead of him, answering a question that’s only halfway asked.

He says: “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born both of water and of the Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh; and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Nicodemus is reaching for it mentally.  He’s starting to track with Jesus, but he’s not quite there yet, so Jesus explains further: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Nic recognizes the play on words, because “wind” and “Spirit” are the same word in Greek. But what puzzles him is what Jesus is implying. Because if the second birth, the spiritual birth, is brought about by the Spirit of God, then… then… all the laws of Moses, and all the rules and regulations Nicodemus has lived by all his life and taught other people to live by… can’t bring a person into God’s Kingdom.

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asks. And Jesus scolds him gently: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and you don’t understand these things?”

Jesus then presses his case just a little bit further: “The things we know and the things we teach are true but you don’t receive the teaching. What you’ve heard so far is only about things on earth, and you haven’t believed it; how will you believe if I start telling you about things in heaven?”

Nic understands Jesus is speaking about the Pharisees, because the word “you” in these sentences is plural – Jesus’ comments are not aimed at Nicodemus personally. And Nic knows the Pharisees indeed haven’t been willing or able to receive Jesus’ teaching, even about the basics. Jesus is right.

But right now in the moment Nic feels Jesus’ eyes on him, looking at him personally, without accusation… in fact, with understanding and concern. Nic is beginning to see he’s got a decision to make: is he going to keep on thinking and living like a Pharisee, or is he going to start believing and trusting in Jesus? Does he really have to give up everything he’s ever believed in?

Again Jesus answers the un-asked question. He says: “The Son of Man has both ascended to heaven and descended from heaven. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. In fact, God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.”

Nic recognizes the story of the serpent in the wilderness. He knows it well. He remembers how the people of Israel, wandering in the desert, one day found their camp full of poisonous snakes, and how many people had been bitten and died. And they cried out to God, and God told Moses to put a bronze snake on the end of a pole, and whenever someone was bitten, they should look at the snake and they would not die, they would be healed.

And hearing Jesus mention the name of Moses, Nicodemus realizes: he does not have to give up everything he’d always believed in. In fact the story of the snake on the pole explains what Jesus is doing. It made perfect sense to Nic. All the things Moses had done and taught point to Jesus and find their completion in Jesus.

And that’s where the story ends. The apostle John, who has been listening in this whole time, doesn’t tell us what Nicodemus said or did next.  Did Nic experience spiritual rebirth that night? We don’t know. We do know that later on Nicodemus will stand up to the other Pharisees on Jesus’ behalf.  And he will be present at the crucifixion, and will give Jesus’ body a burial worthy of a king.

Christian tradition has it that Nicodemus did become a believer and was one of the founding fathers of the church in Jerusalem. But we don’t know for sure. I hope we get to ask him someday in God’s kingdom.

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So just a few thoughts about what this story might mean to us today.  Thinking about what Jesus said about the wind blowing where it wills, and how we never know exactly where it comes from or where it goes… and how this is like the Holy Spirit when people are born again… John Wesley once said, “it is the work of God alone to justify, to sanctify, and to glorify; [and these three things make up] the whole of salvation.” There is no way that any human being can ever create the spiritual birth or cause it to happen. Only God can do that. We can pray for someone to be born anew, we can share our faith with others, but being born from above is entirely in the hands of God.

At the same time this new birth is ours by faith.  Wesley also said, “I believe [in] justification by faith alone, as much as I believe there is a God.”  God brings the Spirit like a flame; and our faith is like the wick of a candle that God sets on fire. We need faith enough to trust that God knows what he’s doing and to look to Jesus on the cross, who is being held up before our eyes so that anyone who looks at him in faith will have eternal life.

Jesus did come not to judge but to save. He was, in the words of Charles Wesley, “born to give us second birth”.  That new birth, being born of the Spirit into God’s kingdom, is what Jesus is all about. It’s what he came to earth for. And it’s what Nicodemus came looking for, even if he wasn’t quite aware of it yet.

Today there are some people here who have been born of the Spirit and some people who have not yet been born of the Spirit. For those who have, I want to invite you to renew your commitment to Jesus today. And for those who have not yet been born of the Spirit… I invite you to take a page from Nicodemus’ book.  Be honest with Jesus. Ask the hard questions. Be upfront with him about where you are and what you feel. And then keep your eyes and ears open for Jesus’ answer.

Let’s pray together.

Lord Jesus, you have said that no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again of the Spirit, and that the Spirit is like the wind that goes where it wills. We pray your Spirit will fill us today. Renew and refresh our hearts as we believe in you. And for any who are searching, or doubting, or who fear they may be beyond hope – we pray you will call their name right now and begin in them your new creation. For all of us, Lord, give us the courage to believe… and to be honest with you… and to see the love in your eyes… and to move with your Spirit wherever you lead. Thank you Lord for loving us and for making a place for us in your Kingdom. AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/12/17

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mountain

“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.’ So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, ‘Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.’
“Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” – Exodus 24:12-18

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
“As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ – Matthew 17:1-9
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The very best stories in the world are stories about love. Have you ever noticed that? They’re the ones that stick with you, whether it be movies, or TV, or books. The ones we go back to time and again are love stories. Not necessarily romantic stories (though they count). But take for example the Harry Potter stories – you’ve got Harry’s love for his parents, and his parents’ love for Harry, and Harry’s love for his friends, and the self-sacrificing love of Professor Dumbledore and Professor Snape, which Harry honors by naming his first child after them. Love is what makes these stories so unforgettable.

Today’s scripture readings may not look like love stories at first glance, but they are. And like most stories about love, they’re not just about love, they’re about life. And, like most love stories, “the path of true love never did run smooth”.

Our love story for today – told in two parts on two different mountains – is a love story between God and God’s people. (The beginning of the story is actually back in Genesis chapter one but we’re not going to go back that far.) For today we’ll start where most love stories start: with a meeting. Only in this case we’re not talking about a meeting between people, we’re talking about a meeting between God and a group of people who are about to become a nation.

The scene opens at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the Arabian desert. It’s been about three months since the people of Israel walked through the Red Sea on dry land. God has been leading them through the wilderness in a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of smoke by day, but the people haven’t actually met God. They’ve only heard God’s words through Moses.

But then today comes. God has called 70 of the leaders of the people to come part-way up the mountain and have a feast with God. From where they are sitting they can see up the mountain just a bit of the glory of God. They see fire and smoke and “something like a pavement of sapphire stone” it says in verse 10.

This feast is a celebration of the new partnership between God and God’s people: because back in chapter 20 God gave Moses the Ten Commandments – verbally, that is (the written version isn’t here just yet). And when Moses gives God’s words to the Israelites they answer with one voice “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 24:3)

Giving and receiving a list of commandments may not sound like much of a love story, unless we look at it as a love story between a parent and children who are deeply loved. Because God is our parent, and we are God’s children. As Jesus says, the Spirit within us cries “Abba, Father”. And just like any loving parent, our heavenly parent has some house rules. We may not understand them right away, but as members of the family we are expected to follow them. So just like our parents taught us to shut the door, and “no snacks before dinnertime”, and “wash your hands before you eat”, God also has house rules: honor God, honor your parents, keep the Sabbath, no killing, no stealing, no lying, no cheating, no wanting what somebody else has.

So Moses gives this message to the people, and the people say “sounds good to us!” – and the feast is a celebration of that agreement.

But love stories are never quite that easy. After the banquet, God asks Moses and Joshua to meet him further up the mountain so they can receive the Ten Commandments written on stone. And this is where our reading for today begins. Moses goes up with Joshua. Before he goes he tells the 70 elders “stay here, wait for us until we come to you again. If you have any problems while we’re away, talk to Aaron, he will help you out.”

So Moses and Joshua go up the mountain and they see the glory of God. Seven days later God gives Moses the Ten Commandments written on stone. And then God decides to keep Moses a bit longer. God says Israel needs a place to worship, and God gives detailed instructions on how to build a tabernacle. These instructions take up Exodus chapters 25 through 31 – six chapters! By the time God has told Moses all these things, 40 days have gone by. And that’s as far as our reading for today goes.

But we know what happens next. While Moses has been talking with God on the mountain, “the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses… we do not know what has become of him.”” (Exodus 32)

It’s only been four months since the people walked through the Red Sea, and less than a month since the people saw God’s glory on the mountain, and already they’ve forgotten what they saw and forgotten the promises they made. The creation of the golden calf breaks the First Commandment, which then leads to breaking all the other commandments.

But that’s another story for another day. For now let’s just say the path of true love never does run smooth.

One side-note: it is still true today that most of what is wrong in the world happens after the First Commandment is broken. False gods lead to ‘alternate truths’, ‘fake news’ and from there to every sin in the book. The sin of worshiping something other than God, or valuing something more highly than God – whether it be money or power or security or self-gratification, or whatever it may be – is the pressing sin of our generation.

So back to Exodus. The part of the story we read today – the part where Moses and Joshua go up the mountain and see the glory of the Lord – that’s the part we want to focus on today. And here are some things to sort of mentally bookmark before we head into Matthew.

As I mentioned earlier, God and God’s people are just getting to know each other at this point. In the book of Genesis, God’s relationship was mostly with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – the patriarchs and their immediate families. But now, 300 years after Joseph, Jacob’s descendants have grown into a huge group of people. And God has plans to make them into a holy nation.

So God is introducing himself, and God is making himself known to the people. The whole point of this scene of glory on the mountaintop is God communicating who God is. The fire and the smoke are not God, but they are an expression of God’s greatness and power. And the commandments are not God, but they are a reflection of the holy character of God, as well as instructions for the children of God.

But above all, God is a God of love. And it is the nature of love to want to share oneself with the beloved. And so God makes himself known. It is also the nature of love to hope to be loved back. And in order for the people to love back, they need to know who they’re loving, because it’s impossible to love someone you don’t know.

We tried when we were younger though, didn’t we? Do you remember your first crush? ‘Some enchanted evening’ we looked across a crowded room, and… there that person was! A crush might feel like love, but if the other person isn’t involved we’re just in love with the thought of being in love.

The same is true in our relationship with God. We may worship God from a distance, but ‘from a distance’ we don’t really know God. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like that song “God is Watching Us From a Distance” – because it’s not true. If God is at a distance, we can’t know God. We can’t know what psychologists call The Other. And God wants us to know, God wants to be known.

As we get to know God, one of the first things we notice about God is God’s glory. God’s glory has to do with beauty and majesty and holiness and weightiness (in the sense that it’s not something to be taken lightly). In Exodus, God’s glory is represented by fire and cloud. But a little further on in Exodus, Moses asks to see God’s glory specifically. And God answers:

“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’… But… you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” God’s glory, taken straight on, is more than mere human beings can bear. So God says, “There is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by…” (Exodus 33:18-23)

So God makes provision for Moses by hiding him in a cleft of the rock. Which reminds me of that old gospel song:

“He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock
That shadows a dry, thirsty land;
He hideth my life in the depths of His love,
And covers me there with His hand…”

God shelters us, just like God sheltered Moses, in the cleft of the Rock. And the name of that Rock is Jesus.

Which brings us to the second mountain.

Matthew starts out his passage by saying “six days later” – which tells us we need to look back to see what happened six days before. Six days before, the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus demanding a sign from heaven. And although they didn’t say exactly what they were looking for, what they probably meant was a sign to prove Jesus is the Son of God. And Jesus didn’t give them one.

But later Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am, and who do you say that I am?” – and Peter says, “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. And Jesus answers, “God has revealed this to you… and on this rock” – that is, on the rock of knowing who Jesus really is – “on this rock I will build my church”.

And then Jesus starts to talk about being killed by the chief priests and the scribes, and rising from the dead three days later. And he tells the disciples, “you also must take up your cross and follow me.”

So six days after these conversations, Jesus takes Peter and James and John and leads them up a tall mountain. And when they get to the top, Jesus is transfigured – the Greek word here is “metamorphosis”. (Isn’t it wonderful when Greek actually makes sense?) And suddenly Jesus’ face is shining like the sun, and his clothes are dazzling white.

And suddenly Jesus is in conversation with Moses and Elijah. Moses and Elijah are there representing the Old Testament: the Law and the Prophets. And Jesus is consulting with them. While the Bible doesn’t say what they were talking about, my guess is Jesus was talking with them about his death and resurrection. (Who else could Jesus talk to about things like that?)

While this conversation is going on, Peter offers to set up some tents, which would have been appropriate hospitality back then. But while he is speaking, a bright cloud comes over them – similar to the one in Exodus, I imagine – and a voice speaks out of the cloud saying “this is my Son, my beloved… listen to him”.

And the disciples are overcome with fear. (One version says “…and they were sore afraid.”) But Jesus says, “get up, do not be afraid.” And when they look up the vision is gone and they are alone with Jesus and things are back to ‘normal’.

Here on this mountain, just like on Moses’ mountain, God is making Himself known. What the disciples saw when they looked at Jesus, shining like the sun, is a glimpse of Jesus as he really is – the King of kings and Lord of lords. It’s as if Jesus is saying “know me for who I really am, so that you can trust me and love me for who I really am.” Jesus already knows us, and loves us. Now we need to know Jesus.

At the same time the disciples learn something about God’s power. When God speaks to the disciples directly they fall to the ground in fear. When Jesus says “don’t be afraid” – this is not an expression of sympathy, it’s a command, spoken by the same voice that once said “let there be light”.

With a word Jesus takes away our fears, because it’s impossible to love someone we’re afraid of, and Jesus knows that. He makes it possible for us to stand in God’s presence.

In this moment we are touching God’s Kingdom. Because it will be the same way on that great resurrection day. It will be a fearful day, but Jesus will have the word of command to make it possible for us to stand. Jesus will make us what we need to be… and what we long to be. By the power of his word and by the power of his death and resurrection, Jesus makes us into children of God.

These two mountaintops give us the opportunity to know the God who loves us, and who invites us into a relationship of love that will last for an eternity.

In Exodus we learn about God’s mercy and God’s character. In Matthew, we learn about Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, and about his glory and his word of command. These two mountains lift us out of the everyday. They help us to remember who we really are as children of God. They help us to grow into a mature love for God – knowing who we love, and loving without fear. And while all this is going on, we are being remade into God’s likeness.

And like the elders of Israel, we have been invited to a feast. It’s a banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven, prepared for us by a God of infinite love. Our response (hopefully!) is to say “yes!” to the invitation… and then to share the invitation with others, telling them what we have seen and heard.

This is a love story. Like all love stories, the road has not always run straight – not even in each of our lives. There has been pain and struggle and hope and fear… but through it all there has been God’s faithful love.

And on these mountaintops – for a moment – we can see where this love story leads. And in the distance, bathed in brilliant light, we see the happiest of endings.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 2/26/17
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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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[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?

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(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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“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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Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.  He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.  Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.  And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.  By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” – Luke 1:67-79

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Well here we are in Advent again!  Doesn’t it seem like the years go by faster every year?  It seems like only yesterday I was doing Christmas shopping – for last Christmas!

It can be a challenge to keep Christmas feeling fresh and new every year. One of the ways I’ve found to do this is to make Advent special, because Advent has a focus on the future – it builds anticipation.

With this in mind, we’re doing an Advent series called The Songs of Christmas.  I’m glad we’re doing this because the songs of Christmas focus our minds and our hearts, like nothing else, on who and what we are waiting for during this Advent season.

Today’s song is the Song of Zechariah, found in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke.  Feel free to grab a Bible and follow along with me.

Before I begin, just a little bit of background on Zechariah himself.  Luke tells us Zechariah was a Levite, which gives us information about both his tribe and his career.  Zechariah was descended from the patriarch Jacob’s son Levi, which means he was of the tribe of Levi.  And the law of Moses tells us in Deut 18:5:

“…the LORD… has chosen Levi out of all your tribes, to stand and minister in the name of the LORD, he and his sons for all time.” 

 So Zechariah was born into the priestly tribe of Levi.

Luke also tells us that Zechariah was descended from “the priestly order of Abijah”.  II Chronicles 6:28 tells us Abijah was one of the grandsons of Levi, and he was assigned to “minister with song before the tabernacle.”  In other words, Zechariah’s family were essentially church musicians.

Back in ancient Israel, anyone who worked in the temple – preaching, teaching, making music, even doing maintenance – had to be trained in ministry. So in addition to whatever work they normally did, Chronicles tells us they also “had as their appointed duty in their service to enter the house of the LORD according to the procedure established for them by their ancestor Aaron…” (1 Chronicles 24:19) who was the high priest.  So they did priestly work on top of whatever else they did.

So what we see happening in the first chapter of Luke is exactly that: Zechariah has been called up out of the choir (so to speak) and into his priestly duties.

As a side note, Luke also tells us Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth was “a descendant of Aaron” – which was the order of high priests. So Elizabeth’s priestly pedigree is actually higher than Zechariah’s. By ancestry, she is qualified to be a prophet. And Elizabeth actually becomes a prophet later on in Luke chapter 1.  Since her song is not included in our Songs of Christmas series I’d like to share it now. Elizabeth sang this song when she was pregnant with John the Baptist, and Mary (who was pregnant with Jesus) came to visit her. Luke writes:

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:41-45)

And I would add this: Even today, blessed are those who believe there will be a fulfillment of what has been spoken by the Lord.

But we’re getting a little bit ahead of ourselves in the story-line.  So backing up a few verses, Luke says in chapter 1 verse 6 both Zechariah and Elizabeth were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”

That’s no small feat. But Luke makes this point because of what he says in the next verse:  Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless.  In those days having no children was considered a sign of God’s disapproval, or of sin in a person’s life. So Luke makes it clear their childlessness is not through any fault of their own. Zechariah and Elizabeth have been doing everything right.  This doesn’t mean they’re perfect – just that they had kept the law of Moses to the best of their ability.

So in Luke 1:8 Zechariah is serving in the temple, because this was his time of ‘appointed duty in service’ in the house of the Lord.  Luke says “he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.” (Luke 1:9)

Considering the number of Levites living in Israel at that time, this duty might have come around only once or twice in a lifetime.  And the lot just happened to land on Zechariah that year? This is no coincidence! This is God’s hand reaching into human history.

So Zechariah is supposed to do two things: (1) enter the sanctuary, that is, the holy of holies, where only priests were allowed to go; and (2) offer incense, which represents the prayers of the people. In those days priests were go-betweens between the people and God.  The people would give prayers to priests to take to God, and God would give messages to the priests to give to the people. And the holy of holies was hidden behind a heavy curtain. The people could never see, with their own eyes, what was going on back there.

But this system of worship would soon come to an end. When Jesus died on the cross, that curtain was torn in two from top to bottom – and people, from that point on, had direct access to God through the blood of Jesus Christ. Priests were no longer needed because people could pray directly to God and hear directly from God.

Back to our story, Zechariah goes into the holy of holies and offers the incense and the prayers. And while he’s there the angel Gabriel appears, and says, “you’re going to have a son, and you will name him John.”  And Gabriel says: “even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God…[he will] make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:15-17, edited)

Now Zechariah thought about this, and thought about how old he was, and how old Elizabeth was, and he doubted Gabriel’s word.  He said, “How can that even be possible?” So Gabriel gave him a sign: Zechariah would be unable to speak until the prophecy came true. When the baby is born, Zechariah writes on a tablet “His name is John” – and he is able to speak again.

After almost a year of being unable to say anything, Zechariah’s first words are:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.  He has raised up a mighty savior…”

Zechariah’s song is all about praising God.

I was reminded of this passage yesterday when some of us went to the Messiah Sing-Along at Calvary United Methodist on the North Side. At the end of the concert over 500 people stood and sang the famous words of the 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!”

And the whole congregation broke into cheers like at a Steelers game!

 

(Here’s the Royal Choral Society at the Royal Albert Hall with the Hallelujah Chorus)

When God opens a mouth, praise is what comes out. And so Zechariah praises God.  First he praises God for the Old Testament prophecies that are coming true. He says, God has ‘remembered his covenant’.

It’s interesting that Zechariah’s name, in Hebrew, means “God remembers”. And this remembering is not just ‘bringing the past to mind’ but thinking about, paying attention to, and caring for, God’s people. Zechariah says:

  • God has looked favorably on his people
    • As spoken through God’s holy prophets of old
  • God has remembered his holy covenant
    • Which he swore to our ancestor Abraham

All the promises made to Abraham nearly 2000 years before, and all the promises made to King David and King Solomon nearly 1000 years before, and all the promises made to Nebuchadnezzar and to Daniel and to all the prophets – everything focuses in on this one point in history.  So Zechariah praises God.

Secondly Zechariah praises God for the blessings that come to the human race through Jesus. He lists six blessings in particular:

  1. We will be rescued from our enemies
  2. We will be able to serve God without fear
  3. We will be able to serve God in holiness and righteousness
  4. Jesus will be a light to those walking in darkness and in the shadow of death
  5. Jesus will bring the dawn of God’s mercy to God’s people
  6. John the Baptist will prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming

Let’s take a brief look at each one of these.

First, we will be rescued from the hands of our enemies. Some of us may say, “but I don’t have any enemies. I try to live at peace with everybody.” And that may be true as far as it goes. But not everyone in the world loves Jesus, and some people may choose to make themselves our enemies because we bear Jesus’ name.  And even if we escape that, we still have enemies: illness, injury, the suffering of loved ones, death. Jesus has overcome all of these, and rescues us even in the middle of our troubles and trials.

Secondly, we will be able to serve God without fear. Zechariah’s words here contain an echo of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. When Moses went to Pharaoh he didn’t just say ‘let my people go’.  He said (as God told him to say), ‘let my people go into the wilderness to worship and serve the Lord’.  This set up a contest of wills – a contest of loyalties – between Pharaoh and God.  And the same contest of wills between worldly powers and God still goes on today. Zechariah praises God that with the coming of the Messiah, God’s people will be set free to serve God without fear.

Third, along with that, Zechariah says we will be able to serve God in holiness and righteousness. As one theologian put it, “heaven would not be heaven to an unholy soul.”  In the power of Christ we are set free from spiritual enemies and therefore we are set free to serve God in holiness and righteousness.

Fourth, Zechariah says Jesus will be a light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.  It’s not hard to see how much our world is in darkness.  Think of all the things we’ve experienced as a nation in this past year alone.  All of the divisions, all of the hurt.  Our world longs for peace… but it wants a peace that doesn’t involve giving up sin.  And like the old saying goes, ‘no justice, no peace’ – or maybe more accurately, ‘no god-likeness, no peace’. Jesus comes to break through this darkness.

Fifth, Zechariah says Jesus comes to bring God’s mercy for God’s people: salvation through the forgiveness of sins. This Saviour will be a very personal savior. Yes, Jesus comes to save the world; yes, he comes to save the people; but where the rubber meets the road, Jesus saves one person at a time. Jesus touches and shows mercy on one life at a time. Jesus forgives us, one past at a time… and heals us one heart at a time.

And lastly, Zechariah says that his son, John the Baptist, will prepare the way for Jesus by preaching this salvation through the forgiveness of sins.

So for those of us listening in on Zechariah’s song, what does this mean for all of us?

First and foremost – we are invited to join in the rejoicing!  Sing! Celebrate! Not with material things like the world does, but with spiritual joy in the coming of the light of the world.

Secondly, take this song of Zechariah into the coming week with us. Maybe put it up on the refrigerator. Or try praying the words this week. Use Zechariah’s words as a part of our joy.

Third, as a wise man once said, “Don’t be satisfied with captivity when Jesus is proclaiming ‘liberty to the captives’.” In other words, if there’s anything that holds us captive – a bad habit, an addiction, a relationship – anything that keeps us from being who God created us to be – bring it to the foot of the cross, and be free. Jesus proclaims liberty to the captives, and that’s a promise good for every one of us.

Fourth, if there’s anyone who feels like they’re wandering around in a world of darkness these days: Jesus is the light of the world – keep eyes on him.

And finally: following in the footsteps of Zechariah, let’s bless God with our whole hearts, and with our lives, demonstrating in our lives the mercy of God which is ours in Jesus.

Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus, thank you for this song of your relative Zechariah.  Thank you for the truth of his words, and for the joy of his words.  Thank you for your light which lightens our darkness. Help us to enter into this season of Advent with a fresh faith and joy, remembering all you have done for us, and above all remembering your love for us that never quits and never dies. We look forward to your coming, Lord. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 12/4/16

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[Scripture readings for the day may be found at the end of this post.] There’s a commercial on TV these days – have you seen this one? – where there’s a bank robbery going on, and somebody rushes up to a guy in a security guard outfit and says “DO SOMETHING!!” and the guy says “oh, I’m not a security guard, I’m just a security monitor.  I can only tell you if the bank is being robbed. The bank is being robbed.”

The ad is for identity theft insurance.  Identity theft – or ‘hacking someone’s accounts’ so to speak – is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. It involves stealing a person’s personal information and then impersonating you and buying things using your name and your good credit.

The point of the ad is there are lots of free services that will monitor your bank accounts, but they can’t do anything to protect you from hackers or fix the problems they cause.  So this company basically offers identity insurance, something that can help you replace the money and get back to the way life should be.

In a way, when we look at the Old Testament and the system of laws God gave to ancient Israel, what we’re seeing is like the monitor in that ad.  The ancient laws can tell us when something’s gone wrong, but they can’t fix the problem or set things right.  The ancient laws point to the fact that people aren’t perfect, but the human race needs something more than that to get back on the right track.

So God sent prophets and priests to teach the people about God’s ways. But that didn’t work either, because the priests themselves didn’t always keep the law.  The Old Testament is full of stories – like the sons of the prophet Samuel – who took advantage of God’s people, sometimes stealing the offerings, sometimes demanding “favors” from the worshippers.

This is what the prophet Jeremiah is talking about in our first reading for today.  Israel in the time of Jeremiah was led by priests (and kings as well) who were corrupt, who stole from the people, victimizing particularly the poor and the widows – and as a result they did not lead the people to God.  If anything they pushed people away from God.  And because of the corruption in the nation’s leadership, during Jeremiah’s lifetime the kingdom in Jerusalem fell to foreign invaders and the people were deported.

So in the opening lines of Jeremiah 23 we hear God speaking, and God is royally ticked off.  He says: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! You have scattered my flock, you have driven them away, you have not attended to them.  Therefore I will attend to you!!” There are very few things that make God more angry than people who drive God’s people away from God. (That’s why Jesus saved his sharpest criticisms for the Pharisees.)

God then says the harm these false shepherds have caused will be set right by God.  God says: “I will gather” – where you have scattered the sheep, I will gather them. “I will bring them back” – where you have driven them away, I will bring them back.  Where you have failed to attend to them, I will make them fruitful and multiply them… “and they shall not fear any longer, nor shall any be missing.”

So all of this, that I’ve said so far, is the set-up for our theme for today: as we “count our blessings” entering into Thanksgiving week, the greatest blessing of all is God’s solution to a world and a human race that has been ‘hacked’. God’s solution also addresses the problem of false shepherds, which will come in the form of the Good Shepherd.

So both of our passages for today talk about Jesus – even though neither passage mentions his name.

Starting with Jeremiah, God unfolds the plan that will undo all the harm caused by the false shepherds, and set things back the way they were meant to be.  God says: “I will raise up for David a righteous branch… and he will be called the Lord our Righteousness.”

There are two parts to this promise.  The first is “I will raise up for David a righteous branch”.  David of course was the great king of Israel under whose reign the nation of Israel was finally settled and at peace in the Promised Land.  Jesus is often referred to as “the Son of David” because David was one of his ancestors, but more than that, David was “a man after God’s own heart” and so is Jesus.

The “righteous branch” refers to Jesus being related to David, but it means more than that.  The prophet Isaiah talks about this branch in a prophecy that we often hear around Christmas-time.  Isaiah writes: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” (Is 11:1)

Jesse was David’s father.  And the ‘stump of Jesse’ refers to the fact that the line of kings descended from David appeared to be dead, like a tree stump is dead.  The kingdom had fallen, and the people were captive in Babylon.  But God had promised David, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” (II Sam 7:16)

In Jeremiah’s time it looked like God’s word had failed. But no… “there will be a shoot from that stump” – there will come a descendant of Jesse and David, who will be a man after God’s own heart like David was.

The second part of the promise in this verse is the phrase “the Lord is our righteousness”.  This sounds like Jeremiah is describing the man of God who is to come – ‘he will be righteous’ – and that’s true.  But ‘the Lord our Righteousness’ is also a name.  In the Hebrew it is ‘Yahweh-tsedek’: Yahweh (the Lord), tsedek (our Righteousness).

The reason I point this out is there is one other place in the Old Testament where someone has a similar name, and it’s in Genesis 14.  This is a really obscure story but hang in there with me.  In Genesis 14, Abraham has just returned home from rescuing his nephew who had been taken captive.  There was a battle, and Abraham won and brought his nephew and his family home.  And on his way back home he is met by a mysterious priest-king, who seems to come out of nowhere, and is never heard from again. His name is Melchizedek.  And he blesses Abraham, and brings out bread and wine (sound familiar?), and Abraham offers him a tenth of the spoils, a tithe. The name Melchizedek – the first half of his name means ‘king’ and the second half means ‘righteousness’.

So in Jeremiah we have ‘Yahweh-tsedek’, “the Lord is our Righteousness”, and in Genesis we have Melchi-tsedek, the “King of Righteousness”. And Genesis tells us Melchizedek was the King of Salem – or in Hebrew, shalom – in other words, the Prince of Peace.

So this verse in Jeremiah connects the dots between Genesis, Psalms, Jeremiah, and the book of Hebrews: the Old Testament to Psalms to Prophets to New Testament.  Watch this!

In Genesis 14 we meet Melchizedek, King of Righteousness. In Psalm 110:4 David writes about the coming Messiah: “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” In Jeremiah 23:6 we meet a descendant of David named “the Lord our Righteousness” or Yahweh-zedek.  And finally in Hebrews the author writes, “Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”

So this coming Messiah, Jesus, is our great high priest. But more than that, he is a priest (1) forever, and (2) he is not like human priests and ministers who are flawed.  Jesus is a priest of a whole different order, the order of Melchizedek, which is Righteousness, the King of Righteousness, coming straight from heaven.

All of this is tied together by this one verse in Jeremiah!

So what can we expect from this King of Righteousness and this Prince of Peace?

Jeremiah and Paul both answer that question. In order to sort of organize the thoughts I’d like to approach it in three parts: (1) what Jesus has done, (2) who Jesus is, and (3) what Jesus will do.

Starting with what Jesus will do:  Jeremiah says Jesus will reign.  In other words, Jesus is King.  The ‘Kingdom of God’ is not a euphemism for heaven. The Kingdom of God is forever. Jesus is on the throne now and always will be. We say this in the creed every week: “seated at the right hand of God…”.

Just as a side note: we Americans are not really used to kings.  We kind of admire the Queen of England, from a distance.  It takes a little getting used to, this idea of having a king.  God’s kingdom is not a democracy. We don’t vote on who gets to be God this year.  But thank God, Jesus loves us, and loves us perfectly.  Jeremiah also says the Messiah will “deal wisely” and “execute justice and bring righteousness”.

Secondly we move to Paul and his letter to the Colossians, where Paul talks about who Jesus is.  Paul says Jesus is the head of the body, which is the church.  He is the firstborn from the dead.  Jesus has the fullness of God dwelling in him, and he reconciles all things to God.  In other words, Jesus is the ‘hacker-buster’.  When the Old Testament law wasn’t enough to fix what’s wrong in the world (or in our souls), Jesus was the one who was able and willing to set things right.

Paul then talks about what Jesus has done for us. Because of Jesus we are now able to share in the inheritance: that is, we are able to be citizens of God’s kingdom, children of the King, as we were meant to be.  He has rescued us from darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of light.

Because God created all things through Jesus and sustains all things through Jesus, Jesus knows how the whole creation works. He was there and helped to make it. The apostle John writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

And His ultimate ‘anti-hack’ was the cross.  Paul says Jesus “made peace with God through the blood of the cross.”  And so we are free.  The cross is not a monitor – it is our insurance policy, written in Jesus’ blood.

This is what was promised in the words of Jeremiah, and fulfilled in the words of Paul.

So how do we bring this to where we are today?

Paul leaves us with three things:

  • Paul says be strong in his power, that is the power of Jesus, in the Holy Spirit. Remember Kingdom living is done in Jesus’ power, not in our own. We don’t psych ourselves up for it… we just follow Jesus and rest in His power.
  • Paul says be prepared to endure with patience and with joy. This verse reminds me of the words of Scottish theologian William Barclay who said, “Jesus promised his disciples three things—that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.” Because we rest in Jesus’ strength, we are happy and we can live without fear. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be trouble – it just means somebody bigger than us will be going through the troubles with us.
  • Paul says: “give thanks!” Give thanks to God for all God has done, throughout history, from Genesis until now… preparing salvation for us from Abraham to David to Jeremiah to Jesus right down to today. Give thanks for God’s kingdom and for our place in it.  Give thanks to God who has enabled us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light… and rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus thank you. Thank you for the holiday coming up this week when we will have time to spend with family and friends. Thank you that we can count on your love and your strength throughout our lives. Thank you that you knew how to set things right and were willing to pay the price for us.  Be with us now as we prepare to celebrate again Your birth into our world… which has made all the difference.  Help us to place our worries at the foot of your cross so that we can give thanks with our whole hearts, because we can never thank you enough. Amen.

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Jeremiah 23:1-6  Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.  2 Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.  3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.  4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.

5 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

Colossians 1:11-20  May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully  12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.  13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,  14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;  16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers– all things have been created through him and for him.  17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/20/16

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