Archive for the ‘Kingdom’ Category

“Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” So Samuel prayed to the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.  According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt, even to this day — with which they have forsaken Me and served other gods — so they are doing to you also.  Now therefore, heed their voice. However, you shall solemnly forewarn them, and show them the behavior of the king who will reign over them.”

“So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who asked him for a king.  And he said, “This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots. He will appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties, will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants. And he will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants. And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the LORD will not hear you in that day.”

Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, “No, but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” – I Samuel 8:4-20


This past week at our Wesley Challenge study group, the author of the book we’re reading asked this question: “what Bible stories do you remember from childhood? What comes to mind when you think about Sunday School?” Most of us in the group remembered stories like Moses and the Ten Commandments, or Moses and the burning bush, or David and Goliath.

But nobody mentioned anything about Samuel.

There are two whole books in the Bible named after Samuel, but off the top of our heads it might be difficult to recall what Samuel did.  If we remember anything about him we might remember the story of Samuel as a little boy, serving in the temple. God called to him when he was sleeping, but Samuel didn’t know is was God calling, and so he ran off to the priest Eli and said, “you called me, here I am.” And Eli said, “I didn’t call you, go back to bed”. You remember the story: this happens three times and finally Eli realizes God is calling Samuel, so he tells Samuel ‘next time it happens, say to God “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.”’  And so we learned from this story about the need to listen for God’s voice and to answer as Samuel did, saying ‘speak Lord, your servant hears’.

But this story is just a small piece of a larger story, which is in turn a piece of an even larger story. And the same could be said of our scripture reading for today, which is also taken from Samuel.

Our sermon title for today – The Ways of a King – is taken from today’s reading. God says to Samuel: “warn the people: “These will be the ways of the king who will rule over you…””  But again we’re starting in the middle of a much larger story.

The really big picture story of Samuel covers 100 years of history, and is way more than we can talk about in one Sunday.  So this summer our ministry team will be preaching a sermon series on Samuel and the kings who lived during Samuel’s lifetime: Saul and David – both of them kings who Samuel anointed to be king at God’s command.

So today we begin the story of Samuel himself, laying the foundation for the rest of this summer’s messages.  So who is this man Samuel?

Hannah presents Samuel at the temple

I Samuel chapter one verse one says: “There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.”

And this man Elkanah was Samuel’s dad.

The fact that verse one takes the long way around the barn to get to Samuel is an ancient way of making a grand entrance for an important person. It’s kind of like if we started a story with the words “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”.  We know something epic is coming.

So looking at verse one: the descendants listed, if you include Samuel, tell us of seven generations – and seven is the number of perfection or completion in scripture. They also tell us Samuel is descended from Ephraim, who was a son of Joseph, who you remember saved his people from famine in Egypt.

Samuel himself doesn’t show up in the book of Samuel for another chapter and a half.  In the meantime we hear the story of Samuel’s mother, Hannah, who longed for a child, and suffered the teasing of her husband’s other wife (who had children). And so, broken-hearted, one day Hannah went to worship in the temple, and she prayed to God saying “if you’ll only give me a son, I’ll see to it that he’s raised as a nazirite” – which is a religious sect devoted to God, whose members never drink strong drink and never cut their hair.

If this sounds familiar, there is another very famous nazirite in the Old Testament who never cut his hair: you remember Samson.  His strength wasn’t really in his hair, it was in the vow that he took as a nazirite (which btw has nothing to do with Nazareth, it’s just the name of the religious order).  So Hannah is promising to make this same vow on behalf of her son, if only God will give her a son.

And God answers ‘yes’, and not too much later, Samuel is born. And Hannah keeps him with her until he is weaned, and then she brings him to Eli the priest and tells him the whole story, and gives him her son Samuel to serve God in the temple.

Samuel’s name means asked of God or heard by God, and his name is a witness to God’s faithfulness. And on the day Samuel enters God’s service, Hannah sings a song of praise: one that sounds a lot like the song Mary sings when she’s pregnant with Jesus. Hannah sings these words:

“My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.
There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.” – I Samuel 2:1-5

Compare this to the words of Mary, Jesus’ mother:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… – Luke 1:46-48
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” – Luke 1:51-53

Isn’t it something how two women who lived over 1000 years apart had very similar experiences of God? And God hasn’t changed; this God they sing about is still our God today.

Hannah’s song ends with these words:

“The LORD will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.” – I Samuel 2:10

It’s interesting that Israel doesn’t have a king at this point in time. In fact it’s Hannah’s son who will anoint the first king of Israel. So is this a prophecy of Jesus?  Or a prophecy of what her son will do one day? Perhaps both? The Bible doesn’t say, but this song tells us we should count Hannah among the prophets.

So Hannah leaves her young son Samuel to serve in the temple.  And Samuel’s early years were not easy for him. His mom comes to visit once a year, and brings him handmade clothing, made with love. But the rest of the time he is raised by the priest Eli – who was a kind man but not a very good leader – and he grew up with Eli’s two sons, who the Bible calls “scoundrels” who “had no regard for the Lord, or for the duties of priests to the people”.  In fact they stole the peoples’ sacrifices, and they took the women who volunteered at the temple and basically made them into temple prostitutes.  Eli told them to knock it off, but he didn’t force the matter, so the boys ignored him and kept on doing what they were doing.

Samuel, though, managed to hold on to what he knew was right in spite of growing up with scoundrels.

Not long after Samuel arrived at the temple, God sent a mysterious messenger to Eli to tell him that his sons are going to die if they don’t straighten up and fly right. The messenger says God will find someone else who will be faithful, and Eli’s family will fall. After the messenger goes away, Samuel has a vision at night (that’s what that whole story was about, with him getting up in the middle of the night). And the message God gives Samuel is the same: God says “I am going to punish the house of Eli because his sons were blaspheming God and he did not restrain them.” (I Samuel 3:13) And hearing this news the next morning, Eli answers: “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.” (I Sam 3:18)

Eli has given up on his sons. And God has given up on Eli.

Samuel gives Eli God’s message

Samuel grows up, and his reputation for honesty and for knowing the word of God grows with him, and he serves the people of Israel as their priest and prophet and leader for the rest of his life.  He sees the nation through a war with the Philistines, in which the Ark of the Covenant is captured and Eli’s sons are killed. He sees the return of the Ark many months later (when the Philistines find their god face-down on the floor in front of the Ark – but that’s another story for another day). But the Ark of the Covenant doesn’t return to the temple for over 20 years because of the sins of the nation of Israel.

So Samuel leads a revival. He tells the people of Israel to put away all their other ‘gods’ and worship God alone.  And they do, and peace reigns in the nation for a number of years, and finally the Ark of the Covenant returns to the temple.

But Samuel’s sons turn out to be a bit of a disappointment. So when Samuel is old, the people come to him and say, ‘look, you’re old. And your sons aren’t like you. Give us a king, like all the other nations have.’

Can you imagine what Samuel felt, after all his years of service, to be told “you’re old, your kids are worthless, give us a king”?

At a time like this, Samuel does what people of faith do: he brings his broken heart to God.  And God says something surprising: he says “do as they say – give them a king – because they’ve not rejected you, they’ve rejected Me. They’re treating you the way they treat Me. They’ve been this way ever since I brought them out of Egypt,” God says. “They have forsaken me and they serve other gods. So do what they tell you – but warn them.  Warn them what a king will be like. Tell them what a king will do.”

So Samuel goes back and gives the people God’s message. “Here’s what a king will do,” he says. “He’ll take some of your sons for his army, and force the other sons to farm for him and raise food for him. He’ll take your daughters to cook and bake and make perfume for him. He’ll take your crops – the very best of them – your grain and your wine and your olives, and feed them to his servants. He’ll claim your servants for his own, and he’ll take your farm animals too. He’ll take a tenth of everything you own, and you will live your life serving him. And you will cry out because of the burden of it, but God won’t hear you, because this is what you asked for.”

And the people said, “we don’t care. We want a king so we can be like all the other nations.”

Now God had called Israel – the children of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob – to be God’s chosen people, set apart among all the nations to reveal God’s glory to the whole world. And they said ‘no thanks. We’d rather be like everybody else.’

If we ever find ourselves tempted to wonder ‘why do God’s people have to be different?’ – it’s because we’re supposed to be. For those who love God – both Jews and Gentiles – it is God’s plan to show God’s glory (and righteousness and justice and kindness and all those wonderful characteristics of God) – to show God’s glory through God’s people. Through us.

When we feed children here at church, we are showing people just a little bit of what God’s kingdom is like. When we pray for our community and then follow up with action, we are showing the community just a little bit of what God’s kingdom is like.

And in spite of the fact Israel asked for a king, God’s plan to make them his chosen people was not changed.  In spite of the fact they sinned, God’s plans were moving forward. God always intended to give them a king – just not the kind of king they had in mind.  God knew one day there would be a King of kings and a Lord of lords. And giving the nation a human king would help people understand what a kingdom is like, even if human kings aren’t perfect.

And this juxtaposition of heavenly kingdom and earthly kingdom will continue throughout the rest of scripture. We will see it again, for example, when Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you a king?” and Jesus answers, “my kingdom is not of this world.”  We see this encounter of an earthly ruler (Pilate) face to face with the king of heaven, asking the question ‘what is truth?’ when he’s looking directly in the face of truth.

As we move into our summer series on Samuel, keep an eye out for this contrast between God’s kingdom and earthly rulers. We don’t have kings any more, but we still have powerful people running countries, putting our young people in the armed forces or in civil service, and taking way more than 10% of everything we earn. And people today still cry out because of legalized oppression, from race relations to immigration policies to programs designed to keep poor people in poverty.

God’s kingdom, on the other hand, is marked not only by justice and compassion, but by abundance and beauty. God says to the hungry ‘come and eat’ and to the brokenhearted scripture says, ‘a bruised reed he will not break, and a sputtering wick he will not snuff out’.

As we explore the life of Samuel this summer, listen for that juxtaposition of kingdoms. Listen for how we can reflect the kingdom of God rather than the kingdoms of men. And listen for the ways in which God uses human kings to teach us about the King of Kings… even if it’s only to see how they’re different.

Let’s pray…

“Lord Jesus,
You are the King of Glory,
You are the Lord of Lords, and King of Kings.
And we pray that your Kingdom will reign forever in our hearts and in this world.

“Lord, we pray for your Kingdom to come here now,
bringing your kingdom of justice, righteousness, hope, love,
peace, mercy and grace for all.
Lord, we ask that you rule in our hearts,
lead in this world and govern over your kingdom.

“Lord, thank you for being a different kind of King.
Thank you for your goodness and kindness in our lives.
Thank you for your generosity.
Thank you for loving us.
Thank you for your Kingdom that is unlike any
Kingdom in this world. AMEN.”

Abi, on her Long and Winding Road blog [edited]



Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 6/10/18


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“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!” And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.  So I said: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; Your iniquity is taken away, And your sin purged.” Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: “Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”” – Isaiah 6:1-8


Psalm 29:1-11  (A Psalm of David)

Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.
The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!


We’ve been having a lot of “two-fer” Sundays recently. A couple weeks ago it was Mother’s Day and Ascension on the same day.  Then last week it was Pentecost and Communion.

And this Sunday it’s Trinity Sunday and Memorial Day, which is kind of a weird mix.

Trinity Sunday is an odd holiday to begin with, because it’s one of the more recent additions to our list of church holidays so there’s not a whole lot of tradition built up around how to celebrate it. It’s also odd because the word Trinity doesn’t actually appear in the Bible.  The idea of one God in three “persons” (for lack of a better term) came into being over hundreds of years of people studying what God has revealed in scripture. And what Scripture tells us is the God of Israel – the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus – is one God: Scripture says, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One.”

And yet scripture also speaks of:

  • God as Creator, called the Father (although there are also a few “mother” references in the Bible);
  • God as Redeemer, called Jesus (because he will save his people from their sins. And, as the apostle John says “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and “All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made” – so Jesus was present at Creation as well as in Israel 2000 years ago);
  • God as Comforter and Advocate, called the Holy Spirit: that part of God that bonds with human spirits who are open to God and who love God.

So that’s what Trinity is about. And today we remember and celebrate all that God has done for us in creation, and in saving us on the cross, and in living among us through the Holy Spirit.

And we also have Memorial Day, which of course is the day when we as Americans remember and honor those men and women who gave their lives for our country. And it is right and proper that we should remember them and honor them before God, because they have followed in Jesus’ footsteps by showing their love for us by making the ultimate sacrifice. Their sacrifice, and the sacrifices of their surviving families, goes beyond the power of words to honor. We have to live it. We need to show our appreciation by living well.

Seeing these two holidays together on the same day makes me wish, as a Christian, that we had a holiday to remember our martyrs, Christian martyrs – like a Memorial Day for those who, in answering God’s call, have died in the service of others and of the Gospel.

I’m not saying we should replace one holiday with the other: I totally want to have both. But I’d like to see a day when we could remember those who have given their lives so that we could hear the good news of Jesus’ love and salvation.

This Christian holiday would include remembering people like Paul, whose letters make up much of the New Testament, and who was beheaded rather than deny Jesus; and Peter, who was crucified upside down because he said he didn’t deserve the honor of dying like Jesus. It might also include people like John Wycliffe, who was persecuted for daring to translate the Bible from Latin into English so everyday people could understand it. Or Bishops Latimer and Ridley who were burned at the stake in Oxford, England, whose teachings laid the foundation for John Wesley’s ministry at Oxford. And it would include the thousands today around the world, whose names we don’t know, but whose faithfulness to Jesus puts their lives in danger, and whose courage is inspiring record numbers of conversions to Christianity, particularly among Muslims.

So with all of these thoughts in mind, I’d like to take this sermon in a slightly different direction than originally planned. I’d like to replace the sermon title for today – “The Voice of the Lord” – and make it instead “The Ultimate Royal Wedding”.

I’m sure I’m not the only person here who watched the Royal Wedding a couple weekends ago. As royal weddings go, this one was unique in a number of ways. It’s the first time a gospel choir has ever sung at a royal wedding. It’s the first time an American has ever preached at a royal wedding.  And it’s the first time in over 100 years that a foreigner has married into the royal family.

But did you ever stop to think what Meaghan Markle gave up in order to marry her prince? I mean, so much of this wedding looks and sounds like a fairy tale, but in the U.K. being a member of the royal family is serious business. Royals are expected to serve the country, much as someone in the military would – in fact most of them are veterans. It’s not a life of ease.

Some of the things Meaghan had to give up include:

  • Her privacy (she’ll never go anywhere without paparazzi following her ever again)
  • Her acting career. In fact all of her career up to this point, including her fashion business and her personal website and participating in social media
  • Wearing whatever clothes she wants (in Britain, royals are expected to promote British clothing designers)
  • Her home here in America

And last but not least, more than likely, she will have to give up her American citizenship. That’s not required, but if she doesn’t, the IRS would (theoretically) have the power to audit members of the royal family and I can’t see that happening.

In the meantime she’s becoming a citizen of Great Britain and she will swear allegiance to the Queen.

Meaghan gave up all that for the love of the grandson of the monarch. Can you imagine yourself in her shoes?

Her upcoming change in citizenship has been talked about widely in social media, with some wonder and concern. One person I know wrote: “Why would any free person submit to a monarch?” Of course the British are every bit as free as we are – they have a democracy like ours, in fact ours is loosely based on theirs – but it raises an important question.

Offered an opportunity to marry the child of the king (or the queen in this case), would we do it?  With all the obligations and sacrifices that go with it, would we do it?  Would we be willing to give up our jobs, our careers? (some of us may be saying ‘My job? You can have it’) Would we give up our homes, or living close to our relatives? Would we give up social media? (Again I know some of you are saying ‘no big loss there’) Would we allow others to tell us what to wear? Would we be willing to become a citizen of a foreign country?

In a sense, in a sense, God asks this of all of us. Not everyone is asked by God to do all these things, but all of us will be asked to do some.

In our passage from Isaiah today we hear the words, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up…” and in today’s psalm David writes, “the Lord sits enthroned as king forever”. When God adopts us into God’s family, we become engaged to be married, in a spiritual sense, to Christ, the son of the King. Every one of us who loves and believes in Jesus will one day be royalty! In fact, if we could only perceive it, we are royalty already: engaged, but not yet fully married.

Now being royal, as any Brit will tell you, is not an easy thing.  The expectations and the pressures and the public scrutiny (at least in part) led to the death of Princess Diana.  And before Harry and Meaghan’s wedding they were interviewed on British TV, and one of the questions asked was something along the lines of “Harry, have you told Meaghan what she’s getting into?” And he was very honest. He said: “I tried to warn [her] as much as possible… I had to have some pretty frank conversations with her about what she’s letting herself in for… it’s not easy for anybody.”

As followers of Jesus – and members of his royal family – we also live under public scrutiny (to a much lesser extent of course – we don’t have paparazzi chasing us around). Our faith is meant to be both public and shared.  As Jesus said, our city is set on a hill; our light is set on a lampstand, not under a bushel. And like Meaghan we may be asked to give up things that are precious to us for the sake of Jesus.  Jesus himself said:

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)  And “If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)

The life of a child of the king is a life of service and self-sacrifice. But it is also a life lived with the King. And as Isaiah says, he is “high and lifted up, full of majesty and glory” and our God gives the blessings of strength and peace to his people.

The voice of our King asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” As Christians we have sworn allegiance to our King, so how can we say ‘no’?  Especially with a King so worthy of our love and service?

Our response to the Son of the King, who died for us and rose again for us, is to worship him with all that we have in us: mind, body, heart, and soul. As it says in the old English wedding vows, “with my body I thee worship and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” That is our pledge to him.

And we join the seraphim in proclaiming his glory and singing “holy, holy, holy”.  We say with Isaiah ‘woe is me; I am a person of unclean lips living in the midst of a people of unclean lips’ – but we also say with Isaiah, “here am I, send me.”

If Meaghan Markle could give up so much to marry the son of an earthly king, what would we give to spend eternity with the King of Kings? Each one of us has received an invitation to that heavenly wedding. All we need to do is RSVP.

Let’s pray. Lord, we give you thanks for love and for the gift of love. We give you thanks that you loved us first and created us to be with you forever. Help us to count all things as loss for the surpassing joy of knowing you and being with you; and teach us to worship you with all that we have and all that we are. AMEN.



Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/27/18



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“When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, [Jesus] sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” – Mark 11:1-11


The path down the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem

It was a day that began just like any other day. Jesus and the disciples had breakfast with friends near Bethany – perhaps with Lazarus and Mary and Martha.

After breakfast, Jesus led the disciples out in the direction of Jerusalem. They probably figured he’d be teaching in the temple again today.  It was getting more and more dangerous for Jesus to do this – the Pharisees and the chief priests were getting vocal in their criticisms, and there were rumors they wanted Jesus dead. There were rumors they wanted Lazarus dead too, because Jesus had raised him from the dead and they didn’t want living proof of Jesus’ miracles walking around.

But today, as they drew near to Bethphage, Jesus sent two of the disciples ahead to find a young donkey colt and bring it to him, one that had never been ridden before.  Jesus told them, ‘if anyone asks what you’re up to, tell them the Lord needs it and will send it back right away.’ And that’s exactly how things happened.

I imagine the people who saw the disciples taking the donkey, and who heard them say “the Lord needs it” got the feeling something was about to happen.  I imagine some of them followed the disciples back to where Jesus was, to see what was going on. At any rate the disciples put their cloaks on the colt for Jesus, and people cut leafy branches, and all of a sudden there was a procession going on!  A crowd is gathering, and there are people in front of them and behind them shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

And with the crowd shouting these words, Jesus rode down the mountain path, from Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, down the mountainside, through the Garden of Gethsemane, across the Kidron Valley, and up the Temple Mount into Jerusalem and into the temple. The distance was about two miles all told, and the crowd kept growing as they went.

The apostle Mark, in his gospel, doesn’t add much detail to these events, but Matthew and Luke tell us a little more. They tell us the Pharisees and the chief priests and scribes were not at all happy with this turn of events.  They understood Jesus’ action as a challenge to their power, and they started making plans to do something about it.


For us as Jesus’ followers, Palm Sunday is, and always has been, a day of both celebration and gathering darkness. We begin with God’s people rejoicing in the coming of the king, predicted by the prophets of long ago. We end with the religious authorities in the temple plotting the murder of our Lord.

I’m going to come back to all this in a moment.  But this Sunday is also the last Sunday in our sermon series on baptismal vows. The sermon title listed in the bulletin – “Surround and Pray for One Another” – is not taken word-for-word from the vows, but I think it can be inferred from the words at the end of the baptismal ceremony, where the pastor says to the congregation, “Members of the household of God, I commend these persons [who have just been baptized] to your love and care. Do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.”

The events of Palm Sunday, and Holy Week, and Easter, make it possible for us to do this. Because the events of this week reveal Jesus as the king of kings. This is the week when Jesus’ power is revealed; and he chooses to share that power, that resurrection power, with us. In his power, we care and pray for each other to increase our faith, confirm our hope, and encourage love.

But again I’m getting a little ahead of myself.  It’s not Easter quite yet!  So back to Palm Sunday.

The events of Palm Sunday – the details of the things that were said and done – point clearly to the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, particularly prophecies about the kingdom of God. The ‘kingdom of God’ is not a euphemism; it’s not a metaphor; it’s a reality, and something scripture says a lot about.

For the past few hundred years, in the Western part of the world at least, we have lived mostly in democracies, and as such we’ve kind of lost touch with the concept of kingdom.  In fact we tend to resist it, because we know all too well the dangers of placing too much power in the hands of one person. And so the focus of theologians and evangelists alike has been either on ‘having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ’ or on ‘putting our faith into action’ (or a combination of the two). And these two things are important parts of Christian life, but they’re not the whole story.

We are followers of, disciples of, children of, the King; and that has all kinds of implications. If Jesus is the King, then the days of the rulers of this world are numbered. That’s what the people were celebrating all those years ago on the first Palm Sunday.

It also means we who love Jesus are invited to approach the throne of the King in prayer and to ask for what we need. I find it helpful sometimes when praying to imagine all our brothers and sisters in Christ gathered in a throne room, with Jesus on the throne, and speaking to Jesus as one of the subjects of his realm.  What might this look like?

We got a possible picture this past week when Prince William of England knighted former Beatle Ringo Starr. Did you catch any of the video?  Prince William did the honors in his grandmother’s place. Everyone present was dressed in black tie attire. And Ringo entered the throne room, and bowed to his future king, and then knelt (in front of a prince who is young enough to be his grandson!) And then taking the sword, Prince William spoke the words of honor, and a man who knelt as a commoner rose as a man with a title: Sir Richard Starkey.

(Photo by PA Images/Sipa USA)

What was remarkable about that moment was Prince William broke formality and started a conversation right in the middle of the ceremony. The two men chatted for a moment, and they were laughing and enjoying each other’s company. And then Ringo, following the protocol which says ‘never turn your back on your sovereign’, backed up, bowed, and then turned and left. Afterwards when the press asked what they talked about, Ringo said, “the Prince told me he’s always loved the Beatles, and I asked about his upcoming new baby, and he said ‘any moment now’ and I said ‘I know the feeling, I’ve got three of my own’.”  In the middle of all that ceremony, it was a very human moment.

That’s how it is with us and King Jesus. As we approach the throne to pray for one another, we acknowledge his authority and his power and his goodness. We don’t have to dress up in black tie and tails to talk to Jesus (thank goodness!) but I think it’s helpful sometimes to kneel, at least in our hearts, and remember the protocol of the throne room. We are there by God’s grace, invited to come, and as the Apostle Paul says, “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Phil 4:6)  We come before our King; and like Prince William with Ringo, Jesus breaks the formality and calls us ‘friends’ and invites us to speak what’s on our hearts.

In John’s gospel Jesus says these words:

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.  You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” (John 15:14-16)


Jesus began his public ministry preaching, “the kingdom of God is near; change course and believe the good news.”  And the people who heard Jesus speak were thrilled to hear these words, because the prophets had spoken of a time when God would establish a kingdom characterized by peace and justice and righteousness. So when they heard Jesus talking about a kingdom, they thought he meant the kingdom of Israel, and thought he was going to get rid of the Roman Empire.  And on that first Palm Sunday, it seemed like this might actually happen.  The words of the prophet Zechariah began to be fulfilled:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Zechariah 9:9-10)

So Jesus borrowed the colt of a donkey to let the people know he was the king Zechariah had spoken of. But his kingdom was going to be much larger than just Israel.  Zechariah said ‘from the river to the ends of the earth’ – and that wasn’t going to happen just yet.  So even today we live in the now-and-the-not-yet, with a prophecy that has partly come true, but the rest is yet to come.

People on that first Palm Sunday didn’t fully understand what Jesus was doing. Luke tells us in his gospel:

“As [Jesus] came near and saw [Jerusalem], he wept over it, saying, “If you… had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-42)

…because the people were looking for an earthly king.

The chief priests and scribes were making the same mistake, except they saw Jesus as a threat rather than a promise.  That’s why they were always asking Jesus, “by what authority do you do these things?” Their concern was with their job security. They felt threatened by Jesus’ popularity and by the miracles he performed.  And John reports they said to one another:

“If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (John 11:48)

When the time comes to arrest Jesus, on the night of Maundy Thursday, these religious leaders will turn Jesus over to the Roman authorities on the grounds that Jesus claimed to be a king. Without that accusation they would have had no grounds on which to ask for capital punishment. They had to prove treason. So that’s what they accused him of, in front of Pilate.

And Pilate, meeting Jesus, asked him, “are you a king?” And Jesus answered, “you say so.” But in John’s gospel we get a more detailed conversation. John writes:

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

Later on, when Jesus had been nailed to the cross, Pilate added the piece of wood above his head, which told what he was accused of: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”

“Then the chief priests… said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’”  Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”” (John 19:21-22)

This is our King. Palm Sunday begins the course of events that will show Jesus’ power to the world: power to love, power to give, power to conquer evil with good. And the power of God’s life over death.

As we enter into the most solemn week of the year, and approach the day when our king gave his life for us, in his name, and by his command, and following his kingly example, we care for one another, and share our faith and our hope and our love with one another.  AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, Palm Sunday 2018


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Baptismal Question “Will you nurture (these persons) in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?”


Scripture reading: 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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” – John 3:1-21

So here it is the fourth Sunday of Lent, and we continue in our sermon series on baptismal vows. This week we are looking at the question, “Will you nurture (this child or these people) in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?”

This question is quite a mouthful!  It is also the first baptismal question that is asked, not of the person being baptized, but of those who are witnessing the baptism: the parents, the sponsors, and the congregation.

And how appropriate is this question for today, when we are rejoicing in the birth of Lila Joy Price!  Someday soon this young lady will be baptized. And for those of us who witness that joyous occasion, this question is the vow we will take to support her, and to be her family in Christ.

The Bible describes the church as a ‘body’ made up of living members, or like a large extended family, all of us related to each other by Jesus’ blood and by the Holy Spirit. All of us are Lila’s aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers and brothers and sisters in the faith. And as her older siblings, we are in a position to help her learn and grow, and get to know Jesus, and see us live out what it means to be the family of God. It’s a huge honor and a huge responsibility.

It’s also good to remember that when we were baptized, other people took this vow for us. And more than likely that’s why we’re here today: because somebody who made this promise taught our Sunday School class and told us about Jesus – or maybe they invited us to sing in the choir, or helped out with our vacation Bible school – or maybe they gave money so these things could happen. God’s family of believers was here for us when we were growing up.

Now that we’re older, though, we tend to think more in terms of babies being baptized, and so it’s babies we take this vow for.  But that wasn’t always the case, historically, in the church. And I’d like to submit for our consideration today the proposition that this vow still holds – for all of us!  Because who among us does not need nurturing from time to time, or guidance, or encouragement in living our Christian life?  We are still, and always will be, the family of God – always here for each other.  And just like any family we may have our spats from time to time, but when the chips are down (or even when they’re not down) we pull together and we are one.

In our Gospel reading for today Jesus gives us a beautiful example of this: of how an adult believer – in this case, Jesus – might support and encourage another adult – in this case, Nicodemus – in their life of faith. Let’s take a look.

This conversation takes place somewhere near Jerusalem, in the springtime, shortly after the Passover. We’re not sure exactly where this happened, but Jesus and the disciples often spent evenings on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, so it may have been there. As I imagine the scene, it’s night-time, and there’s a campfire going, and Jesus and the disciples are sitting on rocks, warming themselves by the fire and talking. Suddenly a Pharisee appears: Nicodemus. He’s not one of the chief priests but he’s high up enough among the Pharisees that they recognize him.

Nicodemus has something on his mind, on his heart, and he’s not sure he can trust the other Pharisees with the questions that are churning inside him. So he turns to Jesus. (Smart man!)  And because he does, he will end up living into his name. ‘Nicodemus’ in Greek is made up of two words: Nike – which means ‘victory’, and Demos – which is the root of the word ‘democracy’. So his name means ‘victory of the people’. And in coming to Jesus this night, Nicodemus will show us, the people, how to have victory in Jesus.

The question Nicodemus leads off with is:

“Rabbi, we [meaning the Pharisees] know that you are a teacher from God, because no one could do the signs you do if God were not with him.”

But that’s really only half the question. The unspoken half of Nicodemus’ question is: “help me understand. Because my brother Pharisees – if anybody says they’re your follower, they toss them out of the synagogue. But I know they know you’re God’s messenger, Jesus – because nobody can do what you do apart from God. So what’s up with this? And what can I do?”

Now Jesus could have said, “here’s what you do. Gather together all the other Pharisees who believe what you believe, who believe in me, and take over leadership of the Pharisees. You have enough leadership experience, Nicodemus, to run the organization. And once you’re in charge you can require your people to listen to my message and share it with the chief priests. And our movement will grow and spread and eventually we’ll break the chains of the Roman Empire…”

Isn’t that usually how worldly power goes? But Jesus doesn’t operate on a worldly level. Jesus is God’s man, and he does things God’s way. And in God’s kingdom, Nicodemus’ heart and soul are more important than leading a movement.

So Jesus gives Nicodemus the answer he needs… though maybe not the answer he’s expecting.  Jesus explains why Nicodemus can see the truth where his fellow Pharisees can’t.  Jesus says: “With the greatest certainty I say to you, unless one is begotten from above, one is not able to perceive the kingdom of God.”

I need to stop here for a moment because this verse is so familiar. It’s usually translated something like: “Very truly I tell you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” But the phrase ‘born again’ has been so over-used in the 20th and 21st centuries, we have completely lost the meaning of it.  So I went back to the Greek and translated it fresh, and here’s what I found.

Jesus starts with the words “Amen, amen” – meaning “this is absolutely true and I affirm it”. And then he says, “Unless one is begotten from above…” – because ‘born again’ sounds like something we do.  Like, I was born in January – I am the do-er of this action. But if someone is begotten – we can’t beget ourselves. We are begotten by someone else, by our parents – or by God.  And Jesus emphasizes this by saying ‘begotten from above’. This is what John Wesley meant by prevenient grace. Before all time, and before we were aware, we were begotten by God and loved by God – and we had nothing to do with it!

Jesus says ‘unless one is begotten from above, one is not able to perceive the Kingdom of God.’  In other words, the ability to grasp that there is a reality beyond this worldly existence is a gift of God. One must have understanding given by the Holy Spirit in order to perceive the things of God. That’s why Nicodemus can see so clearly that Jesus is from God, while the other Pharisees keep denying it.  They have closed their minds and hearts to God’s Spirit, and they’re not able to see God’s truth.

Nicodemus doesn’t quite grasp what Jesus is saying right away, so he asks how it’s possible for an old man to be begotten: is he going to climb back into his mother’s belly a second time? The tone of Nicodemus’ question is slightly sarcastic but not overwhelmingly so; he doesn’t doubt Jesus’ sincerity, just the content of his answer.

Jesus answers, “with the greatest certainty I tell you, if one is not born of water and the Spirit one cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Being born of water: that’s human birth, and all of us here on this planet have done that. Being born of the Spirit: that’s godly birth. And that’s why we refer to the Holy Spirit as being God. In the Trinity, God the Father creates… God the Son saves… and God the Spirit begets spiritual children. Jesus explains this, saying, “what is begotten of the flesh is flesh; and what is begotten of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I say to you, ‘you must be begotten from above’.

Nicodemus is beginning to catch the vision Jesus is casting. He’s got a toe-hold but now he needs a handle, so he asks, “how can these things be?” And Jesus answers, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? With the greatest certainty I tell you, we speak of what we know and bear witness to what we’ve seen, but you [plural] don’t grasp our testimony.” Here Jesus is referring to the Pharisees as a group and confronting their general lack of understanding.  Jesus continues, “If I have spoken to you [plural] about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I speak to you of heavenly things?”  In other words, Jesus hasn’t even started talking about the Kingdom of God yet – he’s still talking about the things of this world. There’s so much more to come, and so much more to know!  And in saying so, Jesus broadens Nicodemus’ vision to take in so much more than he imagined when he began this conversation.

And then Jesus shares with Nicodemus God’s plan for the salvation of the world.  He says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…”  Jesus is referring here to ancient history, when Israel was traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land.  When the people of Israel sinned against God by not trusting God for their provision, God sent snakes into the camp and people started to die from snake-bites. So God told Moses to put a bronze snake on a pole and anyone who looked at the snake would live. The people had to have faith enough to take God at his word and look at the snake on the pole. In the same way people must have faith enough to take God at his word and look to Jesus on the cross.

Jesus explains further: “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. Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And Jesus adds, “those who haven’t believed are condemned already… they have loved darkness more than the light because their deeds are evil.” And he wraps up by saying, “he who practices truth comes to the light, in order that it may be seen that his deeds have been wrought by God.”

…which brings us back to where Nicodemus started when he said, “Jesus, you must be from God, because no one could do the signs you do apart from God.”

Jesus has explained patiently to Nicodemus what he needed to know. He has answered the questions, both asked and unasked.

Whether or not Nicodemus fully believed Jesus that night, the apostle John doesn’t tell us. But we can be certain he heard what Jesus was saying.  A few chapters later, in John 7, Nicodemus will stand up to the other Pharisees, defending Jesus’ right to a fair hearing – and he will be ridiculed for it. And then in John 19, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus will bring 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus was one of the men who personally wrapped Jesus’ body and laid it in the tomb.

Jesus’ kindness and patience touched Nicodemus’ heart and mind, and Nicodemus was never the same. He’s one of the few Pharisees who ‘got it’ and believed.

Our baptismal vows call us to do the same for each other. To nurture each other; to guide each other; to share what we know with each other; to encourage each other; to help each other grow in God’s grace. This is the example Jesus sets for us. And it’s the promise we make, as members of the Body of Christ, whenever someone is baptized. Looking forward to taking this vow again soon. 😊


Preached at Fairhaven  United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/11/18


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“The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’  His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’  The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’  Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’  The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’  But he was speaking of the temple of his body.  After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. – John 2:13-22


This Lent I have been teaching and preaching in a number of places on a number of topics, and as I’ve been doing this it seems like three themes keep cropping up over and over as I read and prepare: (1) the worship of idols, (2) the coming of God’s kingdom and the Lordship of Christ, and (3) appropriately for Lent – baptismal vows.

It was the tradition in the church for many hundreds of years – and still is to some extent – for Lent to be a time of preparation for baptism: a time when new converts would be taught the basics of the faith including things like the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creeds – in preparation for baptism at the Easter Vigil, when they would be received into the church.

On that night, the vows they took included these words:

  • Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
  • I do.
  • Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
  • I do.
  • Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
  • I do.

These questions cover an immense amount of ground, both practically and spiritually – so I’d like to break them down a little and focus on two things:

  1. The questions talk about Jesus as Saviour, who offers us unmerited grace, and who we need to trust.
  2. The questions talk about Jesus as Lord, to whom we owe loyalty and obedience.

And already we can see that these baptismal vows charge the believer to do away with the worship of idols and call us to faith in, and obedience to, Jesus as Saviour and Lord. So these three themes are coming together again!

Each one of these three things is worthy of its own sermon! But for today I’m just going to focus on Jesus as Saviour and Lord.  It’s interesting that Jesus is both – because the combination of the two is extremely rare. There are a number of lords in the world: people who are powerful, people who run countries or cities or corporations. And there are a few saviors in the world: people who do things like pulling people out of burning buildings (as happened just a few nights ago in Carnegie when there was a fire at Papa J’s). But it’s rare to find someone who is both a savior and a lord. And where it comes to saving souls – or saving the world for that matter – there is only one person who can claim to be Saviour and Lord.

These days in our culture we usually tend to think of Jesus mostly as Saviour. He saves us from our sins, saves us from death by opening the door to heaven.  When I was growing up the opening line in many evangelistic presentations was “are you saved?”  But I’ve never heard anyone start with the question “Is Jesus your Lord?”

In God’s kingdom, Jesus is the King.  Isaiah calls him the “Prince of Peace”.  King David sang, “Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.” (Psalm 24:7)

The coming of the Kingdom is what Jesus came to proclaim. It was the main message he preached, in all four gospels. Jesus said, over and over again, “The Kingdom of heaven has come near! Change course and believe the good news!”

And the coming of God’s kingdom IS good news because it means the world will finally be set right. There will be no more shooting of children in schools. There will be no more world leaders rattling sabers at each other. There will be no more bosses cheating workers out of pensions. No more people without homes. No more poverty or want. Instead we will live in a world with peace, wholeness, good health, security, surrounded by God’s beauty that’s almost too much to bear. Jesus came to proclaim the initiation of this kingdom, which at this point in time is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ – it has begun but it’s not completed yet.  Or as Jesus would say, his kingdom is not of this world. And that’s another sermon for another day.

For now, for those of us who are followers of Jesus, Jesus is our King. And what that means for us is that we are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.  And if Jesus is our King, and we are citizens of God’s kingdom, then Jesus’ word is our command.  Jesus himself says in scripture: “If you love me, keep my commandments.”  (John 4:15)

The idea of having a king is of course a foreign concept to most Americans.  We’ve never had royalty in this country – at least not for long.  And sometimes it comes as a surprise to us to discover that God’s kingdom is not a democracy. We didn’t vote for Jesus, and we can’t vote him out (not that we’d want to!) In a kingdom, what the king says goes. Our freedom (such as it is) is the freedom to choose whether or not we want to be citizens of his kingdom. Once we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, we enter his service and are subject to his command. And by the same token, once we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, Jesus as king promises to care for us, protect us, provide for us, and guide us. So it’s not all just taking orders; God’s kingdom is a two-way street.

Still, as Americans, unlike our British cousins, we kind of have to get used to the idea of having a king. Maybe it would help to think in terms of who we work for.  Our bosses, for example, have the right to give us tasks to do, to give us directions and deadlines. And in many ways our standing in society is measured by who we work for.  If you are an employee of Microsoft, for example, that’s a very prestigious thing. If you work for a local contractor, that’s seen as good honest work, but not necessarily a lot of prestige. If you work for ALCOSAN… eh… not a lot of prestige there.

In the same way, over in Great Britain, where they have royalty, prestige can be measured by who you serve. If you serve the royal family, that’s a huge honor.  If you serve a duke or a duchess, that’s pretty high honor too. If you serve the grandkid of the ex-wife of a baron, eh… not so much.

You and I have been called to serve the King of kings and the Lord of lords. There is no higher honor than that. And in God’s kingdom there are many ways we may be called to serve. Some of us serve through our careers – some of us serve through our families – many of us serve by providing for the needs of others.

And all of us are called to serve as ambassadors of God’s kingdom. Our primary citizenship, our forever-citizenship, is in God’s kingdom; we are Americans only temporarily. And that’s true of believers from every country. We are all called to be ambassadors of God’s kingdom, and to continue to spread the good news Jesus taught – that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and people need to change course and believe.

So that’s Jesus as Lord.  Before I talk about Jesus as Saviour, I’d like to take a look at our Gospel reading for today. In this passage from John’s gospel, we see Jesus confronting the sellers and the money-changers in the temple.  We may have a hard time imagining Jesus, the one who loves sinners so deeply, with a whip in his hand, making a mess of the temple. It’s clear from this passage that Jesus is really, really angry.  His disciples are put in mind of the Old Testament saying “Zeal for your house will consume me”. Honor and respect for God’s house is a burning fire in Jesus’ heart.

What makes him so angry is that people took God’s house – which should be a house of welcome and prayer and peace for all people – and basically turned it into a shoping mall (the Greek word is ‘emporium’ – a word we still use today). And worse still, this mall is filled with corrupt businesses.

The reason the animals and doves are being sold there is so people can sacrifice them in the temple.  People could bring their own animals from back home on the farm, but the Law of Moses says only flawless animals can be sacrificed; and there are animal inspectors in the temple area. So if you bring your own animal, guaranteed they will find a flaw. So your animal can’t be sacrificed. So you have to buy one of the approved animals they’re selling in the temple courtyard.  Oh – and you’re not allowed to buy them with coins that have Caesar’s face on them, because Caesar claims to be god, and he’s a false god, and you can’t have that in the temple. So you have to use temple coins. That’s where the moneychangers come in. And you can be guaranteed they take a healthy cut from every exchange (just like moneychangers do today).

So people who came to worship God were being cheated – twice! – for the privilege of making a sacrifice before God and having their sins declared ‘forgiven’.  That’s what made Jesus so angry! These sellers and money-changers were coming between the people and God, either preventing them from worshipping, or cheating them blind – and Jesus cries out from the depths of his soul at this injustice, and he says, “this is supposed to be a house of prayer!” God loves these people, and God longs to welcome them into his house. And Jesus, being the King of God’s Kingdom, takes a stand for God.

Notice the reaction of the temple authorities: they ask, “what sign do you show us for doing these things?” Or, as it says in the gospel of Luke, “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things!” To which Jesus answers, “Let me ask you a question: Did the baptism of John [the Baptist] come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And the scribes and Pharisees say to themselves, “if we say ‘from heaven’ he’ll say ‘why didn’t you believe him?’ but if we say ‘from human origin’ – we can’t say that because the people all believe he was a prophet” So they answer Jesus “we don’t know.” And Jesus replies, “neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

But you and I know. From where we stand in the 21st century… well, actually, in many places this debate is still going on in the 21st century. But for those who know and love Jesus, we know the source of his authority. We know he was more than just a good teacher. We know he is the King of kings and Lord of lords.

And this is where the “saviour” part of the baptismal vows comes into play. Jesus’ kingly authority is not an authority based in power or brute force. Jesus’ kingly authority has its foundations in sacrifice.  Isaiah writes of the coming Messiah: “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors…” (Isaiah 53:11-12a)

Jesus came not only to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom, but also to give his life, so that we could be forgiven; and then to rise from the dead.  John comments at the end of our gospel lesson, “Therefore when he was raised from the dead, the disciples remembered that he had said this and they believed the scriptures” (that is, the Old Testament predictions) “and the word Jesus had said.”

Today as we take communion we remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us. We see before us a picture of his body broken and his blood poured out.  Isaiah writes: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

The cross is absolutely essential to our salvation. On it Jesus pays the price for our sins. But if we stop there – if Jesus was not raised from the dead – then we’re wasting our time here. The apostle Paul writes: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” (I Corinthians 15:13-14)

But the good news is Jesus HAS been raised, and we have been forgiven. Jesus is King – and we are citizens of his kingdom – which is partly ‘now’ and partly ‘not yet’.

So today, as we remember the vows we took (or that were taken for us) at baptism, we renew our trust in Jesus as Saviour – in his mercy and grace, which is given to us through his death and resurrection. And we renew our commitment to Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as his servants, as his ambassadors – and as his friends, because Jesus has called us friends. As we come forward for communion today, let’s be aware of meeting with our King, and receiving what he gives us to make us His children. AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), 3/4/18



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Baptismal Question: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

 Mark 8:31-38  Then [Jesus] began to teach [the disciples] that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?  38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”


Welcome to Week Two of our sermon series on our baptismal vows.  The baptismal question we’re looking at this week is: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Pastor Matt’s pastoral letter for this month speaks to this very question, and I recommend it to your reading. In it he expresses a strong Christian desire to oppose evil and injustice in the world, because we find ourselves today in a world where it seems like evil and injustice and oppression are getting the upper hand on a regular basis. And it breaks our hearts.

But did you ever notice, the minute you take a stand for anything, all the critics seem to come out of the woodwork? One person will be telling you you’re dead wrong, while another person is telling you your protests are not loud enough.

When we step back from the issues though, and silence the rhetoric for a moment, one question rises to the top, and that is the problem of evil. How does one define ‘evil’? What is evil? If we’re taking a stand against evil, what exactly is it we’re taking a stand against?

At first glance the answer to this question seems obvious: killing is evil, for example. Violence is evil. Things that cause poverty are evil. Injustice is evil.  On these things most people would agree. Beyond that, though, how one defines ‘evil’ in the world very much depends on one’s point of view, on what one’s life experiences have been.  What one person calls ‘evil’ another person calls ‘good’ and vice versa.

And the world has been that way for a long time.  The prophet Isaiah wrote, over 2500 years ago:

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness… Who justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away justice from the righteous person!” (Isaiah 5:20, 23)

For those of us who love Jesus, we need to know what God has to say about evil.  And as I look at scripture I see the word ‘evil’ appears in the Bible over 500 times – and over 100 of those times God is saying to God’s people, “depart from evil and do good”.

The other 400 verses tell us what evil is and does. Among other things, evil is the absence of good, the absence of peace, and the absence of truth. Evil includes things like violence, lying, perversity, vanity (in the sense of feeling like everything in life is vain or pointless – which echoes strongly in our society today, where suicide is one of the top three leading causes of death in people under 25. The feeling that life is in vain is where evil leads people). Evil results in pain, suffering, and death.

In the Old Testament, in ancient Israel, evil was something to be “purged” from society, according to scripture.  Disobeying God was a capital crime – not because God doesn’t forgive, but because it is the nature of evil to spread, like a cancer – so God said ‘nip it in the bud’.

Evil is also defined in scripture as wanting a king or a ruler other than God, other than Jesus. Chasing after false gods, for example, or worshipping idols; any time something becomes more important to us than God, we’ve got an idol on our hands. And if we’re not worshipping the one true and living God then we’re worshipping a lie – which leads to destruction and death.

So now that we have a working definition of evil, how might we go about using our God-given freedom and power to resist evil?

Let’s take a look at Jesus’ example in our scripture reading for this morning.  Jesus is always a perfect example of how to live for good, how to live life as citizens of God’s kingdom.

Mark starts off by saying:

“Then [Jesus] began to teach [the disciples] that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly.” (Mark 8:31-32)

So breaking it down: First, Jesus began to teach them – this phrase, I think, hints that the teaching took place over time, not all at once. Any good teacher knows that you don’t throw all the facts at students all at once – you break it down into manageable pieces, leading people into knowledge. And Jesus is and was the very best of teachers.

Second, Jesus is teaching a hard truth – He gives them the bad news first. He says that he, the Son of Man, the Messiah, the promised one of God, would be rejected by the religious leaders and be killed.

If the Old Testament makes anything clear, it is that rejecting God is the root of all evil (see the First Commandment – “you shall have no other gods but me”. The Old Testament also teaches that killing is evil (that’s Commandment #7). So Jesus is teaching them that (1) the nation’s religious leaders have been overcome by evil, and (2) they are going to kill him.

Third, Jesus is teaching good news – “after three days I will rise again”.  Jesus will overcome evil with good. He will overcome death with life. The good news is, evil and good are not equal opposites. Evil is always the lesser. Evil is always a twisting of something good. Evil can’t exist without something good to destroy. But when evil tries to destroy perfection – in the person of Jesus – evil undoes itself. And Jesus walks away alive.

Jesus says all of this openly, Mark tells us. He doesn’t hide what he’s doing and saying (unlike the scribes and Pharisees). That’s another difference between evil and good: evil tries to hide. Good doesn’t need to.

But Peter took Jesus aside and started to rebuke him. The Greek says Peter “took hold of Jesus” and “led him aside”.  As we picture the action we can see Jesus’ friend Peter trying to take charge of him and guide him, as though Jesus has gone a little too far this time, and he’s talking crazy talk.

But Jesus rebukes Peter back – and the phrase he uses is translated “get behind me Satan!” This has always felt not-quite-right to me, so I took a look at the Greek.  I think Jesus’ words should be taken to mean that Peter was playing into Satan’s hands. I don’t think Jesus meant to say Peter was possessed or anything like that.  The Greek translates more like a combination of ‘go away’, and ‘get it under control’.  Or for any Beatles fans, “get back to where you once belonged”.  In other words, Jesus is saying to Peter, get a grip, Peter, you’re out of line. Remember who’s in charge here, and don’t take the part of my enemy. That’s basically what Jesus is getting at.

And then summoning the crowd, along with the disciples, Jesus said to them, “If anyone desires to follow after me, let him deny himself” – that is, deny any claim to his own life – “and take up his cross and follow me.”

So not only is Peter not in charge of Jesus, but anyone who wants to follow Jesus doesn’t even have the right to be in charge of ourselves!  “Not my will but yours be done” is Jesus’ prayer, and it needs to become our prayer as well.

This doesn’t mean we go and seek out suffering. As one theologian put it, “No healthy Christian ever chooses suffering; he chooses God’s will, as Jesus did, whether it means suffering or not.” (Oswald Chambers)

But we need to set aside all worldly things: put away our idols, put away anything that may come between us and God, and say ‘yes’ to God. This is God’s definition of ‘good’.

God’s definition of ‘good’ is not how the world defines ‘good’.  In fact the world will try to tell us we’re crazy, we’re passé, that God doesn’t exist and we’re out of our minds. But who would it benefit if we bought into that lie? Certainly not us.

The world will never agree that God’s will is good.  As Jesus put it, this is an ‘adulterous and sinful generation’. That’s the definition of the human condition. And that is what Jesus came to die for, to set right and to redeem.

Jesus asks: what can we give in exchange for our lives? Whoever is ashamed of Him, whoever is embarrassed by Him, whoever doesn’t have the courage to stand up for Him – Jesus will be ashamed of that person when he comes in glory with the Father and the holy angels.

Those are hard words to hear, and they’re hard words to say. Many times I know I haven’t said or done things I should have said or done. When that happens I remember Peter, and how the Lord forgave him, and I remember the amazing, awesome mercy of our Lord.

Jesus will one day be crowned king of all creation. What are we willing to give to be there by His side on that day?

So coming back to our baptismal question:

  • The ‘freedom’ the question talks about is the freedom to give up our lives for Jesus and for the good news.
  • The ‘power’ the question talks about is the power to lay down our lives for Jesus, knowing that one day He will raise us up, and we will live in His presence, and we will be like Him.
  • The ‘evil’ we fight against is, at its roots, a denial of God – rebelling against God, hating God, and wanting any ruler other than God. All violence, injustice, and oppression are the direct result of refusing God’s will and God’s word – disobeying or ignoring what we’ve been taught in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.

Where it comes to evil in the world, we can work on symptoms till the cows come home, but the ultimate cure is in the hands of God, either directly or working through lives that have been placed in His hands.

And I thank God for the examples we’ve been given to follow, and particularly this month the examples of Martin Luther King Jr and of Billy Graham – two men who gave all they had for Jesus, and set a course for us to follow.

So this Lent, let’s put away anything that comes between us and God. Let’s renew our baptismal promise to put our lives and our times in Jesus’ hands – by the power of prayer, bringing all things to Him – and then confront evil in the world in Jesus’ resurrection power, as he leads us. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 2/25/18





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

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

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

The Archangel Michael

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

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

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

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

Noah’s Ark Under Construction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Preached at Fair Oaks of Pittsburgh 2/18/18


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