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

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

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

The Archangel Michael

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

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

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

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

Noah’s Ark Under Construction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Preached at Fair Oaks of Pittsburgh 2/18/18

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[scriptures for the day are reprinted at the end of this post]

The call to worship and prayers in our service sheet today mention things like the chariot of Elijah, and God’s presence in a whirlwind… but these things kind of seem to come at us out of nowhere, so to begin to fill in the blanks, the common thread is today is Transfiguration Sunday.  This is the day when we remember Jesus meeting Moses and Elijah on a mountain-top and being transfigured in front of his disciples.

I chose On That Holy Mountain as the title of our sermon for today: the title is taken from an anthem my choir used to sing.  This particular song was one of my choir’s favorites to sing on Transfiguration Sunday.  The words go something like this:

The wolf is the guest of the lamb
On that holy mountain
The calf and the lion shall lie down
On that holy mountain
Together they shall rest with a child…
On that holy mountain of the Lord

Justice shall flower for all time
On that holy mountain
As long as the sun still can shine
On that holy mountain
Peace til the moon be no more…
On that holy mountain of the Lord

The song doesn’t actually have anything to do with the Transfiguration! But church choirs have good instincts about these things and over the years I’ve learned to respect that. The words of the song are actually taken from Isaiah chapter 11, which predicts the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah writes:

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” (Isaiah 11:1-2)

It’s a familiar passage – one we usually read during Advent as we look for the coming of the baby Jesus.  And at the end of the passage Isaiah writes:

“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain (there’s the title); for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)

“On my holy mountain,” God says.  There is something special about the tops of mountains: anyone who’s ever gone to Jumonville and walked up to the cross at the top of that mountain has felt it.  And all through scripture God chooses the tops of mountains to reveal himself to God’s people. Think about it:

  • In the Old Testament, Noah and his family, when they were in the ark: after the flood was over, the ark came to rest on top of a mountain. Noah and his family learned: God’s people are saved, through the flood waters, to a mountain-top.
  • Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel, was told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac on a mountain top, but at the last minute God provided a lamb in place of his son. And so Abraham and Isaac learned that one day God would provide a sacrifice on a mountain top, and God shared with Abraham what that would mean. Genesis 22:14 says Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide” (Jehovah-Jireh); as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
  • Many years later, when God set the people of Israel free from slavery in Egypt, just like Noah, they passed through waters and arrived at a mountain; and God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on top of that mountain.
  • Many years after that, when David became king, even though David was from Bethlehem he reigned as king in the City of David – Jerusalem – which was built on top of a mountain.
  • Years after that, when the people of Israel rebelled against God and started serving the false god Ba’al, the prophet Elijah called them back to the true faith, and afterwards Elijah saw God’s glory on top of a mountain.
  • In the New Testament, Jesus taught the disciples and gave us the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer as he preached the Sermon on the Mount.
  • And when the time was fulfilled, Jesus was crucified on top of a mountain: God’s provision for our salvation, fulfilling the prophecy God gave Abraham all those years ago.
  • At the end of Matthew’s gospel, after Jesus has risen from the dead, the disciples meet Jesus again on a mountain, where he gives them the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit
  • In the beginning of the book of Acts, Jesus ascends into heaven from the top of a mountain.
  • At the end of the book of Revelation, an angel takes the apostle John to the top of a mountain to see the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming out of heaven from God. John writes: “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Rev. 21:23)

Journeying from one mountaintop to the next, to the next, to the next, we hear the whole story of creation, and salvation, and God’s provision, and God’s love for humankind.

Viewed from this perspective it makes sense that Jesus would take his best friends up a mountain to reveal to them the purpose of his mission: to fulfill the law (represented by Moses) and to fulfill the prophets (represented by Elijah).

So for a moment let’s imagine ourselves with the disciples, seeing what they saw and hearing what they heard.

Jesus leads us up a mountain on a sunny spring day. The grass is tall and green, and insects are buzzing. As we get to the top of the mountain we look around at the beautiful view.  Suddenly our friend Jesus is changed.  The word Mark uses in his gospel is metamorphosis: the word we use to describe what happens when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.  Not just changed but transformed. The best the disciples can say is that Jesus became radiant, almost blinding, and his garments became whiter than a person could scrape them clean.

All of a sudden Jesus is talking with two other men, who have appeared out of nowhere: Elijah and Moses. The disciples (and ourselves, as we stand with them) are aware of nothing else. We see nothing else. And we’re wondering if our eyes were deceiving us.

Mark says Peter then, answering, said “it’s good we’re here – let us put up some tents for the three of you”.  (The word answering only appears in the Greek, not in the English translations, but it lets us know we don’t have the entire conversation; Mark didn’t record it.) But Mark comments ‘Peter didn’t know what to say because they were all terrified’ – which sounds about right given the circumstances. At least Peter had the presence of mind to offer their guests some hospitality, which was the proper thing to do in that culture.

But then a cloud covered the mountain-top, and a voice was heard was heard coming out of the cloud saying, “this is my son, my beloved, listen to him.”

And suddenly everything’s back to ‘normal’.

Moses and Elijah are gone and Jesus is back to his usual self. I imagine the disciples are standing there in stunned disbelief, wondering if they just saw what they saw.  As if to assure them it really happened, Jesus tells them not to talk about what they’ve seen until after he rises from the dead. And, lacking any other handle on the events of the day, the disciples start to talk among themselves trying to figure out what Jesus means by ‘rising from the dead’.

And that’s it.

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus talked about with Moses and Elijah. But Luke does. In his gospel, Luke tells us they were talking about “Jesus’ departure, which would take place at Jerusalem”.  That’s all Luke says; but it makes sense Jesus would find comfort and encouragement talking with two prophets who understood God’s plan for the salvation of the world and how events needed to unfold.

In the 2000+ years that have passed since then, people have debated what this vision means, and I’m not going to step into those debates. My gut instinct, for what it’s worth, is that this is a sneak preview of what the next life – what eternal life – will be like. It makes sense that our bodies will go through a metamorphosis similar to what Jesus’ body did.  It makes sense that in God’s kingdom we will see and talk to people who have already passed, who (as scripture says) are always alive to God. It’s too much for us mere mortals to take in; but someday, like Noah, like Israel, we will pass through the waters and arrive at the mountain-top in God’s eternal kingdom.

Until that day comes, God’s message to the disciples on the mountain is the one we need to take with us: Jesus is God’s son, deeply loved by God, and our job is to listen to him.

Like the disciples, we’re still trying to figure things out.  We’re still trying to make sense of what happened.  We hear Jesus’ words, but we don’t fully understand.  And that’s OK.  Our understanding is in part, for now. Jesus doesn’t scold the disciples for not getting it all right away.  Understanding will come. For now, the best we can do is listen to him, and follow.

With that in mind, we leave the mountaintop of Transfiguration and head down the mountain – into Lent,  and Good Friday… and Easter. Over these next 40 days, listen to him, and follow. AMEN.

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2 Kings 2:1-12  Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.  2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.  3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”

 4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho.  5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”

 6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on.  7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan.  8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

 9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”  10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”  11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.  12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

Mark 9:2-9  Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them,  3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.  5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.  7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.  9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 2/12/18

 

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1 Corinthians 8:1-13  Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  2 Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge;  3 but anyone who loves God is known by him.
4 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.”  5 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth– as in fact there are many gods and many lords–  6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
7 It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.  8 “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.  9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.  10 For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols?  11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.  12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.  13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

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Mark 1:21-28  They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.  22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.  23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit,  24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”  26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.  27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”  28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

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Welcome to the third and final week of our Wesley Challenge sermon series!  The Wesley Challenge groups are still meeting for the next few weeks so if you haven’t made a meeting yet, do come. And for any who can’t make the meetings, we have a South Hills Partnership Wesley Challenge Facebook page set up for discussion.

So the last couple weeks we’ve looked at (1) our relationship with God, and (2) our relationship with ourselves, and this week we are on the third and final chapter, which is about our relationship with others.

There’s a lot of information in this chapter – more than we could possibly cover this morning – so I thought I’d start with a few insights from the book, and then take a look at what our scriptures for today have to say about those insights.

The author of our book, Chris Folmsbee, starts out by saying ‘how we treat others is how we treat Jesus’.  The foundation of this statement can be found in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 25, in the parable of the judgement day, where Jesus says, “just as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers or sisters, you did it to me.”

So with that in mind, John Wesley’s questions that have been gathered in chapter three are designed to root out those things in our lives that might cause pain to other people.  And the first question in this category is “Do I thank God that I’m not like others?”

This question is based in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, where the two men go into the temple to pray, and the Pharisee prays “God I thank you I’m not like other people… even this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I give a tenth of all my income.” While the tax collector, who knows he’s no saint, stands far off, grieving over his sins, and says “God be merciful to me a sinner!” Jesus comments that the tax collector went home justified, rather than the Pharisee, because: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14 paraphrased)

In addition, as the book points out, comparing ourselves to other people is never helpful anyway.  If we think we’re better than others, that will damage our relationships; and if we think we’re worse than others that will damage our relationships.  It’s not good to compare ourselves with others at all.

There is a side-issue I should mention, and that is, it’s OK to say we’re good at something. Not ‘better than’, but good. For example, I enjoy playing the piano.  It would not be helpful for me to compare myself to other piano players: that would get me nowhere.  But it’s also not good for me to hide my gift just because not everybody plays the piano. God has given all of us different gifts and different abilities, and those gifts are meant to benefit the whole church family.

And it’s OK to enjoy our God-given gifts!  I’m reminded of the story of the Olympic athlete Eric Liddel in the movie Chariots of Fire.  When he decided to delay going into the mission field in order to run in the Olympics, his sister reminded him of God’s call on his life.  He answered, “I believe God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

When we do what God has designed us to do, we feel God’s pleasure. And that’s a good thing. Not comparing ourselves with others, but appreciating and enjoying what God has done, and is doing, in us.

So getting back to the Wesley Challenge questions – a number of the other questions in chapter three deal with honesty in one way or another. Questions like: “do I create the impression that I’m better than I am?” -or- “am I a hypocrite?” -or- “do I share secrets that are told to me in confidence?” -or- “am I honest, or do I exaggerate?”

A word of caution: handle these questions carefully, especially in the context of our small group discussions, because it’s easy to hurt someone with these questions without even being aware we’re doing it. Many people struggle with self-doubt and self-criticism, and these questions can sometimes lead people into dark places. Handle them with care.

For those who are sharing Wesley’s questions in small group discussions, two other things to keep in mind:

  • Anything said in a small group needs to stay in the small group. Like, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, know what I’m saying? Not that we’re sharing great big deep dark secrets; but we need to be able to trust each other as we talk about these things.
  • As we examine our lives in light of these questions, remember nobody is worthy of God. God is the one who gives us our worth. God says, “you are my son, you are my daughter.” God values us. So if we struggle with self-doubt or self-esteem – remember we are God’s handiwork. It’s not our own goodness we’re supposed to trust in – it’s God’s goodness.

With this truth in our minds and hearts, we can then have the courage to face our flaws, and name them, and share them with someone we trust. As the author says, it’s good to have someone who knows the ‘real you’.  Sharing the truth is about freedom – because once our secrets are out they lose their power, and we are set free.

There’s a lot more to the questions in chapter three and nowhere near enough time to go into all of them, but there’s one more I’d like to look at: “Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold resentment toward, or disregard?”

I imagine most of us would say ‘yes’ to at least one of these at one time or another! Generally speaking, as scripture says, we want to esteem others more highly than ourselves.  And our author rightly points out that all people are made in the image of God, and that we are commanded to love all people. So if there’s anyone we’re holding grudges against, we need to let them go.

There’s just one fly in the ointment: If it’s true, as the author says, there are people in this world who ‘rub us the wrong way’, being told to ‘love them anyway’ can be an exercise in frustration. How are we supposed to love people we don’t like when what we really want to do is get away from them?

Here are some thoughts: Start by praying for that person (in private – don’t tell them you’re doing it!)  Lift them up to God, ask God to bless them. And then ask God ‘why does this person get on my nerves?’  In my experience this is a prayer God loves to answer, and the answers usually come pretty quickly. Sometimes I learn something about the other person I didn’t know, that helps me to care for them more. Sometimes I learn something about myself – sometimes I find out I do the same thing they do that bothers me, and I need to correct my own behavior.  And sometimes I learn I need to set a healthy boundary somewhere – that the other person is not respecting me, and I need to do something about that.

The one thing this chapter doesn’t mention – and I’m not faulting the author, you can only put so much in one book – is the issue of dealing with people who are physically or emotionally dangerous: abusive people, violent people, people who are actively addicted to something (and by ‘addicted’ I mean drugs, drink, pornography, over-spending, gambling, hoarding, any kind of addiction). People like this are not healthy to be around. Yes, we love them, and yes we pray for them; but for most of us this means ‘from a safe distance’.  People who are abusive, violent, manipulative, addictive – there are people who specialize in working with these folks, and in helping them. For most of us, we need to be guided by the people who are trained in the field.

The reason I bring this up is: Too often I’ve heard people say things like (for example) “God hates divorce (which it does say in scripture), therefore stay with your abuser and try to work things out.” NO!  Or if someone is high and lying through their teeth in order to get their next fix, and someone says “hey, it’s OK, they’re entitled to their opinion, let’s hear them out.” NO!  Love does not mean putting yourself in danger, putting others in danger, or listening to lies.

An example of this can be found in today’s reading from Mark.  Jesus has been teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, and his listeners are astounded by the authority of his teaching.  All of a sudden a man with an unclean spirit arrives. What they called an ‘unclean spirit’ in those days, is kind of a foreign concept to our Western minds, but maybe ‘evil’ would be a better word. Evil in the sense that – for example, people who shoot children in schools are possessed by evil. This man had something in him that was destroying God’s image in him and in the people around him.

Jesus does not try to ‘relate’ to this man, or to see things from his point of view. Jesus immediately says: “Be silent and come out of him!”

And Mark says the evil spirit cried out and came out of the man.

Jesus knows how to deal with what goes wrong in the human psyche. And by confronting the evil he sets the man free – and that’s love.

This kind of ministry calls for discernment that only the Holy Spirit can give – it cannot be done effectively in human power – which is why the people who witnessed this event said “what’s this? A new teaching!” There’s nothing new about evil in the world, but dealing with it the way Jesus did – that was new.

Our reading from I Corinthians is actually sort of along the same lines, though it may not appear that way at first glance.

Paul is talking to the Corinthians about food sacrificed to idols, which was a major controversy in his day,  but it also touches on the nature of evil.  In this case the evil Paul is addressing is when people exercise their freedom in a way that damages other people.

Paul starts out by saying “we all have knowledge” (that is, knowledge about what’s right in God’s eyes and what isn’t) “but knowledge puffs up, while love builds up” – literally, in the Greek “love builds a house” or “builds a home”.

And Paul goes on to give an example. He says: if I, knowing that idols don’t exist and that false gods don’t exist, should go with a friend to the temple of a god that doesn’t exist – let’s say Zeus or somebody like that – and I recline at table with my friend and eat meat that’s been sacrificed to Zeus, it’s no big deal because Zeus doesn’t exist. I know that, and you know that.

But if someone, maybe a recent convert who used to worship Zeus, sees me in the temple of Zeus eating meat sacrificed to Zeus, he may say to himself, “Look! I can be a Christian AND worship Zeus at the same time! I don’t have to give up my old god in order to worship the new god!”

And so, Paul says, in exercising my freedom in Christ, I have destroyed the faith of a person Christ died for.  And Paul says, “I would rather never eat meat again for the rest of my life than cause another person to miss out on Jesus.”  That is Christian love.

So in any church controversy, or argument, or even a little spat – if exercising your freedom means someone else’s faith (or fellowship in the church) will be damaged – it’s better to do without than to cause another person to stumble.

This kind of self-sacrificing love is the goal of Wesley’s teaching and it’s the reason he asked the questions he asked. This love is the goal of every Christian in every generation, which is why Wesley’s teaching is still so relevant today.

Jesus said that each one of us needs to take up our cross and follow Him, and I think this is part of what he meant.  I’m not going to end today tying this up with a neat little ribbon. This is not easy stuff. Dealing with sin and evil is hard, and it’s a constant battle. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!  So keep on working at it ‘one day at a time,’ and ‘keep on coming back,’ because we’re stronger together than on our own. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 1/28/18

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The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. […] When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. – Jonah 3:1-5, 10
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Now after John [the Baptist] was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. – Mark 1:14-20

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Welcome to Week Two of our series on The Wesley Challenge!  In case anybody missed the first message of our series last week, let me just say The Wesley Challenge is not just for Sunday mornings but is meant to be dug into more deeply in small groups.  To that end, there are three small groups meeting in the Partnership: one at Hill Top on Monday nights, one at Spencer on Thursday nights, and one at Carnegie on Wednesday nights, all of these meeting at 7:00PM.  If you haven’t already done so, make plans to join one of these groups.  And if you aren’t able to come out at night, meet up with us on Facebook, on the Wesley Challenge South Hills Partnership Facebook page.

The main reason we’re getting together on weeknights is because The Wesley Challenge is not just about “learning stuff”.  It’s about taking what John Wesley did 350 years ago and adapting it to our own time; and in order to do that, we need to put our heads together and discuss.

I also wanted to lead off with a few comments I shared with Fairhaven and Spencer last week, just by way of background.  I started out last week by quoting page one of the book, in which Adam Hamilton writes in the Foreword that the intention of The Wesley Challenge is “to shape the souls of the participants so that their everyday lives are changed…”.

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

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

And then about ten years ago I ran for tax collector in Carnegie. So I went door to door talking to people and I campaigned on a platform of ‘change’ and why change was needed in our town – until I realized every time I said the word ‘change’ people’s eyes would glaze over! Because we’ve heard it too many times. Politicians promise change, but if they ever deliver it, they do it badly.

So when Adam Hamilton writes in the foreword of our book that the intention of The Wesley Challenge is to inspire change, I wonder if he’s wise to tell us that!

And yet at the same time he’s speaking the truth, and we know change is needed.  We know without change, the future of our churches is uncertain at best.

I also want to say – the kind of change The Wesley Challenge is talking about is NOT one more program, one more meeting to go to, one more thing on the to-do list. The Wesley Challenge is not that.

When John Wesley began leading his first group, the Church of England and the nation of England were at a low point, morally speaking.  Church attendance was down, people who were spiritual were held up to ridicule, and the nation itself was leading the world in the slave trade… while on the home front people in prisons were suffering horribly – many of whom were in prison simply because they were in debt or mentally ill, not because they were criminals.

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

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

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

So the goal of this book is to begin to bring Wesley’s practice into our own time.  America today, like England in Wesley’s day, is in moral crisis. Church attendance is down, people of faith are held up to ridicule, and the nation is being rocked by one scandal after another. We may have ended slavery in this country, but race relations are still far from what they should be, and our prisons still contain many people who are simply in debt or mentally ill.  And people across the nation are angry and afraid.  We need a course of action.  And that’s what John Wesley gives us.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the change brought on by taking part in the Wesley Challenge is not a huge effort on our part.  Change happens because we get close to God. Whenever people get close to God, change happens. That’s the nature of a relationship with God.

I’m reminded of the story of the young grape who wanted very much to grow up and turn purple and be made into grape juice. But as a young grape, he was hard and green and not very juicy.  So what did the little grape do?  Did he work himself up and say “Turn purple! Turn purple!”?  Of course not.  The grape naturally gets bigger and turns purple over time, so long as he stays connected to the vine.

We are like that grape. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me… and you will bear fruit.”  If we stay connected to Jesus, change happens naturally, the way it’s meant to. Our part is just to show up and be a part of the life of the vine.

So with that in mind, the authors of The Wesley Challenge took the questions John Wesley asked his people, and organized them into three categories: questions having to do with our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves, and our relationship with others.

So last week Pastor Deb talked about our relationship with God.  This week our focus is on part two – our relationship with self. And having given all this background, let’s take a look at our scriptures for today.

The first scripture reading, from Jonah, is a small part of a larger and very familiar story.  Jonah was called and sent by God to preach to the people of Nineveh. And Jonah didn’t want to go – in fact he took a boat and went in the opposite direction.  But after some persuasion from God, involving a large fish, Jonah decided to do what God asked him to do.  And the message God told him to preach was a simple one: “In 40 days the city of Nineveh will be overthrown!”  And Jonah went all through Nineveh proclaiming this message.

Of course Jonah doesn’t have an army to overthrow the city.  He just had God’s message, which was really a call to change, to repentance, which was exactly the way the Ninevites took it.  “…they proclaimed a fast, and… put on sackcloth.”  Everybody in the city did this, great and small, even the king.

Most evangelists would be thrilled to get a 100% response to their preaching!  But Jonah was miserable.  A little further on in the story we see Jonah sitting under a tree waiting for God’s judgement to fall on Nineveh, and getting ticked off when it doesn’t happen.  The Ninevites were enemies of the people of Israel, and Jonah just can’t understand how God could have mercy on Ninevites and forgive them.

This story tells us that God’s salvation is not just for any one nation but for all nations… not just for one people, but for all people.  It tells us God loves every person God has created, regardless of where they live or what language they speak.

But Jonah doesn’t like that, so he sits under the tree and pouts. And that’s pretty much where the book of Jonah ends – with Jonah sitting under a tree, pouting.

The story of Jonah is proof that God can use just about anybody! So was Jonah a man of faith?  Did he ever come around to God’s point of view? Only God knows.

One thing’s for certain: Jonah could have benefitted from some of the questions Wesley asks in this book:  questions like “Do I grumble and complain?” or “Am I self-pitying or self-justifying?” Jonah could have been an even better preacher than he was, if he could have found it within himself to be happy for others when God showed them mercy.

Of course Jonah is an extreme example.  Most of us aren’t quite that grouchy! But all of us have things about ourselves that we’d like to change, or at least improve.  And before I continue with that thought, I should mention: this book is not meant to be a self-help program.  The Wesley Challenge is not about making us into the people we’ve always wanted to be.

The Challenge is about becoming the people God designed us to be.  It’s about living into what God calls us to. And that does involve change.  In scripture, inner change is often described by the word repentance: and this is what Jesus preached in our second lesson for today.  Jesus traveled around Galilee saying, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

The word repent has gotten some bad press over the years.  What the word means in Greek is to change course or change direction. It implies that we can see the course we’re on is one that’s going to have unfortunate consequences – and we want to avoid those consequences – so we turn and change direction.

So the questions Wesley asks us have to do with shining light into the dusty corners of our lives; rooting out those areas where things tend to sneak up and sabotage us.  They involve examining our attitudes, looking at how we take care of ourselves physically and emotionally, and looking at how we spend our time.

And remember as we talk about these things, God is at work – as we read the scriptures, as we pray together – God is at work, developing in us the wisdom and the character we will need as we go forward together in his service.

Our own efforts will be focused in one direction: to put God on the throne of our lives.  Jesus preached the kingdom of God – not just as a future promise, but as a present reality.  The aim of Wesley’s questions is to take our ‘selves’ off the throne of our lives and to put Jesus on the throne. That’s what the Wesley Covenant Prayer is all about: “I am no longer my own but thine; put me to what thou wilt…”

And so we are asking everyone during this Wesley Challenge to pray the Wesley Covenant prayer every day during our personal time with God.

And if you haven’t yet started having a daily time with God, where you read scripture and talk with the Lord, start now – maybe just 15 minutes a day, but start now.  Just yesterday I heard the Anglican Bishop of Pittsburgh giving a teaching on growing in the faith and he said – and I quote – “The one thing that makes the most difference (in spiritual growth) from beginning to end is daily Bible reading and reflection.”  We need to be in the word, every day, every one of us. John Wesley knew that, and that’s why he included Bible reading in the Wesley Challenge.

And where it comes to making Jesus king of our lives: as Americans, we’re not entirely comfortable with the idea of a king. Generally speaking we’re not into royalty.  It’s great for other countries, but not for us, thankyouverymuch.

The problem is, is that all we know is human royalty, and human royalty are not perfect.  But God is perfect. Jesus is the only king who, when He rules our lives, we flourish.  We become what we were meant to be.  Wesley knew this, so he taught his people to put Jesus on the throne of their lives.

And when we do that, people will notice. And our churches will become what they were always meant to be: beacons of hope in world of pain; beacons of compassion in a world that only seeks after its own.

So for those who have been with us for the Wesley Challenge already – keep on coming back.  And for those of us who haven’t been to a meeting yet – choose a night, and plan to join us.  The Wesley Challenge doesn’t work with just one person and a book.  It needs to be shared together.  Whether in person or online, join us.  Get connected to the vine, and let God work in us, together.

Let’s pray.  Lord, most of the time we don’t like change. But we want to see our church connected to you, growing in wisdom, growing in courage, and growing in our ministry to the community around us. Help us to find, as we follow John Wesley’s teaching, a closer walk with you, and with each other; and guide us in reaching out to our community with your love. For your name’s sake, AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 1/21/18

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  9 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.”” – Mark 1:4-11

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“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.  2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;  3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.  4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.  5 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:  6 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,  7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.  8 I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.  9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” – Isaiah 42:1-9

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The apostle Mark is a man of few words – and today’s Gospel reading is a prime example.  In these eight short verses, there is little detail, little context; if we didn’t have the other three gospels we would know very little about what’s going on, here on the banks of the Jordan River.

And yet, in these eight verses, everything is here: the gospel message in a nutshell.

But we really do need some context in order to uncover all the gems Mark has tucked away into this text.

We need to begin by saying, first off – last week, we were still celebrating Christmas and Jesus was a baby-in-arms.  This week, Jesus is a grown man, roughly 30 years old, about to start his public ministry.  (For those of us who are grandparents, it does seem like they grow up that fast doesn’t it?)

Mark gives us a little bit of background on John the Baptist.  He tells us that John was ministering on the banks of the River Jordan; and that he was dressed like the prophets of old, and ate locusts and wild honey – which were the foods of the poor and of travelers.  He tells us John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins.

Other gospel writers give us more detail: John is Jesus’ cousin, son of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, born in their old age – a miracle baby whose birth was announced by an angel, and who told Zechariah, John would be “great in the sight of the Lord… filled with the Holy Spirit from before his birth… (and he would) make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

So that’s John’s background. But have you ever wondered how John got his start? I know I have. Think about it: did he just one day head out into the wilderness wearing camel’s hair and start preaching by the riverside? If so, how did people know to go hear him?

Luke suggests a little bit of an answer when he writes:

Luke 3:3-4  [John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,  4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…”

So it sounds like John started out as an itinerant preacher, preaching a message of repentance, and inviting people to be baptized in the Jordan. And after a while, as his message spread, he was able to stay in one place, in the wilderness by the riverside, as people came out to him. Matthew’s gospel seems to support this scenario. He writes:

Matthew 3:5-6  “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea [which is the southern half of Israel], and all the region along the Jordan [which runs the length of Israel, north to south] were going out to [John],  6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

What the gospel writers don’t tell us – because they probably didn’t need to when speaking to their contemporaries – is that John the Baptist’s message and baptism were quite out of the ordinary.  Baptism itself was familiar to the ancient Jewish people, but not as a means of repentance or of making peace with God – repentance and peace with God came by means of animal sacrifices in the temple.

Baptism – or the symbolic act of immersion – goes back as far as Moses, who led the people of Israel through the water of the Red Sea out of slavery and into freedom. But generally speaking, baptism in the Old Testament had to do with ritual purification: for example, after contact with a dead body.  Or if a person was about to enter into God’s service, such as a priest, or the men of Qumran who copied the ancient scrolls – they would immerse in water before taking on their duties. Or if a Gentile converted to Judaism, immersion might be part of the ritual of acceptance into the Jewish faith. So in the Old Testament, baptism was a symbolic action, something a person did in order to be ritually clean.

But in the Old Testament, forgiveness of sins was not involved, except symbolically. As one ancient Jewish authority writes: “Just as a mikveh (that is, immersion in water) purifies the contaminated, so does the Holy One, blessed be he, purify Israel.”

This symbolic interpretation was the only one that was known – until John came along. John’s task was to prepare the people of Israel to meet their Messiah – to meet God!  So he preached a message of repentance: telling the people to change course, change direction. He told soldiers not to extort money but to be content with their wages. He said the same to tax collectors. He told people with extra clothing or extra food to share with those who did not have enough. In other words, he preached justice and compassion as a way of life.

And people came from all over to hear John, and to stand in line for hours, to confess their sins out loud in front of everybody – as an act of change, of a new beginning, and then to be baptized full-body in the Jordan River. Nothing like this had ever been done before.

And on top of all this, John was saying that someone was going to come after him, greater than himself, more powerful than himself, who would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit.  This could mean nothing else but that the Messiah was coming.

And then one day, Jesus arrived at the riverside.  Picture the scene: Jesus is standing knee-deep in the water, next to his cousin John. We don’t know if the two had ever met before (post-birth, that is – John had recognized Jesus while in the womb); but they know who each other is.  And Jesus steps up to be baptized, and he confesses… nothing! He has nothing to confess.  And John says to Jesus in Matthew’s gospel:

Matthew 3:14-15  “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

And in saying this, Jesus steps up and takes our place. He becomes one with his people, symbolically taking on our sins so that they can be washed away: a prophetic action that foreshadows the Cross.

And immediately after John baptizes Jesus, the heavens are torn open and the Holy Spirit lights on Jesus like a dove; and a voice from heaven is heard saying:

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)

I can’t even begin to imagine what this moment was like – for John, for Jesus, for the crowd watching on the banks of the river.  But I hear three things in God’s words:

  • “You are my Son” – confirming Jesus is in every way, spiritually and literally, God’s Son
  • “The Beloved” – some versions of the Bible translate the opening phrase, “you are my beloved son” and some translate “you are my Son, the Beloved”. Both translations may be considered correct from the Greek; but I like the latter better because it puts the emphasis on God’s love. It’s like God is saying, “I love you so much – I cherish you.” And Jesus is going to need to know this because in the very next verse he’ll be out in the wilderness for 40 days being tempted by the devil. He needs to know God the Father is with him 100%.
    The other reason I like the translation ‘the beloved’ is because ‘beloved’ is the English translation of the Hebrew name ‘David’. It’s like God is giving us a double-meaning, pointing to Jesus as the Son of David that Israel has been waiting for, for so long.
  • “With you I am well pleased” – The longings of God the Father’s heart are completely satisfied in Jesus. And our Old Testament reading gives us the opportunity to begin to ‘count the ways’. Let’s take a look.  God says through Isaiah:

Isaiah 42:1  “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights…”

Why? Because (v 1) he will bring forth justice; (v 3) he will faithfully bring forth justice; (v 4) he will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.

Three times God speaks of his servant bringing justice – not the imperfect justice of human courts but the compassionate justice of the kingdom of heaven.

God says in (v 2) a bruised reed he will not break; a dimly burning wick he will not quench; (v 4) he will teach (v 6) he will be a covenant to the people and a light to the nations; (v 7) he will give sight to the blind, he will give release for the prisoners and for those who sit in darkness.

This is God’s champion! This is the One who will do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven! This is the one in whom God’s soul delights!

So what does Mark’s brief vignette mean for us today?  Where do we find ourselves in this story? As we picture the scene of Jesus’ baptism in our minds: Are we one of the ones in line to confess our sins and be baptized? Are we one of the ones standing on the shoreline observing? Are we craning our necks to look up into heaven, when the dove comes down, to try to see what’s up there? Are we one of the ones maybe standing a little too close to the ‘brood of vipers’?

I think two things would have been clear to anyone who was there that day: (1) Both John the Baptist and God are telling us that Jesus is The One – this is the Messiah we’ve been waiting for; and (2) John’s ministry – and now Jesus’ ministry – are on a collision course with the Pharisees and Sadducees and the powers of this world.  And every observer present will need to decide for himself or herself which side we’re on. What we decide will make all the difference, in this world and the next.

Almost as an aside, I should mention baptism briefly, because today is an appropriate day to do so.  If anyone here today is a believer in Jesus but has not yet been baptized, or isn’t sure if they’ve been baptized, please see either Fr. Paul or myself after service. Because this is one way all of us follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus, and it’s a joy to do so.  And if anyone here has been baptized, but feels a need for further repentance – it is not necessary to be baptized a second time, but it is a healthy habit of growing Christians to confess sin and ask God for forgiveness. Here at Incarnation we do offer the sacrament of confession, for those who want it, and we can also offer suggestions for prayers of confession to use in one’s own private prayer life.

But coming back to the main point: Most of all I think the take-away from this passage is simply to take in – to soak in – God’s words “this is my Son, the Beloved, in you I am well pleased” – and to join the Father in being well-pleased with Jesus. To join John the Baptist in looking at Jesus and saying “the thong of whose sandals I am unworthy to untie”: this Jesus, who identified with our human weakness and set us free from the prison of sin and darkness. This Jesus, whose arrival tells us the former things are passing away, and behold, the new has come.  Be well-pleased with Jesus. AMEN.

 

Preached at Incarnation Church (Anglican), Strip District, Pittsburgh, 1/7/18

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“When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”  Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.  It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.  Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed– and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” – Luke 2:22-40

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This past week a couple acquaintances of mine got into a heated discussion on Facebook. Before I dive in to this story I want to assure everyone: I am careful not to repeat things people say to me from the pulpit. But if somebody puts something on Facebook, which is a permanent, public record that can be read and quoted by anybody in the world – I consider that fair game.

So the argument went something like this. (Keep in mind these are two theologians talking.) One friend was saying basically: “I’m so glad that God is a loving God, so people who don’t have their theology perfect can still be brothers and sisters in Christ. They may slip into…” (and here she named a couple of strands of ancient theology that were debunked a long time ago but are making a comeback in recent years). She said, “they may stray across the borders of these theologies, but they love God and love spending time with God, and in God’s mercy they can still be counted among God’s people even though their theology isn’t what the church considers acceptable.”  The other friend was saying, “but if people really have a relationship with God their theology wouldn’t stray outside of correct beliefs because God wouldn’t lead them there.”

Of course their argument misses two things: (1) no human being has perfect theology, and (2) no human being understands God perfectly. So whether we approach the faith from an intellectual standpoint or from the standpoint of religious experience, either way our human understanding is imperfect, or at the very least incomplete.

In more practical terms what their argument boiled down to was the difference between living by the letter of the law (which has the tendency to become a bit Pharisee-like), or being led by the spirit into religious experiences (which appeal to the heart but have the tendency to get a little flaky intellectually). So many of the arguments and divisions and rumors of divisions, within the realm of the Christian faith, really come down to this.  Even within our own selves sometimes, we debate between doing what our minds say is right vs. doing what our hearts say the Spirit is leading us to do.

Our scripture reading for today gives an answer to this debate by satisfying both sides. Let’s take a look.

The scene is in the temple in Jerusalem. The time is eight days after Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ parents, have brought Jesus to the temple – as the law of Moses commands – to be circumcised, and as the firstborn male, to be redeemed. They bring two sacrifices: one pigeon for Mary’s rite of purification and one pigeon for Jesus’ redemption. These gifts tell us that Mary and Joseph are not rich; because Moses actually commanded one bird and one sheep – but he said “if they can’t afford a sheep a second bird will do.”

All of this was an experience common to every Jewish family, so there was nothing really remarkable about all this… until Mary and Joseph were approached by an elderly stranger. A man by the name of Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God, saying God had promised him he would not die until he saw the Messiah – and now he can die in peace because God’s word is fulfilled.

And then another prophet, Anna, recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, and starts to praise God and tell everyone in the temple who this child is!

Mary and Joseph are dumbfounded by all this. They take it all in; but then they just sort of carry on with what they’re doing.  They don’t ask questions; they don’t start passing baby Jesus around the temple or anything like that; they just finish the sacrifices and return home to Nazareth, where Jesus grows up, and grows strong and wise, with God’s favor resting on him.

But Mary and Joseph do store up all these words in their hearts. Most likely when Luke wrote his gospel he visited Nazareth and interviewed Mary, and she told him what was said about Jesus when he was a baby.

As we start to dig into this passage, looking at the text, we notice the phrase “the law of the Lord” appears five times in this short reading; and the Holy Spirit – or being led or guided by the Spirit – is mentioned three or four times depending on which edition of the Greek New Testament you’re using.

So basically the Law and the Spirit are on equal footing in this passage.

We’ll take a look at the ‘law’ side first. Luke begins by saying “when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses”.  He’s referring to Leviticus chapter 12, which describes the religious rite:

“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:  2 Speak to the people of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days… 3 On the eighth day the flesh of [the male child’s] foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Leviticus 12:1-3)

A few verses later Moses details this saying:

“When the days of her purification are completed [that is, after the seven days] whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb… for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. […] 8 If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.” (Leviticus 12:6, 8)

There was also atonement for the child that was spoken of in Exodus.  God commanded the people in the book of Exodus through Moses saying,

“The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.” (Ex. 22:29-30)

So the firstborn of any person or animal was claimed by God. The reason God gives for this law was because God gave the firstborn of the Egyptians for the life of Israel.  God explains this further in the book of Numbers when he says through Moses:

“all the firstborn are mine; when I killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both human and animal; they shall be mine. I am the LORD.” (Numbers 3:13)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve often wondered about ancient Egypt and the story of the Exodus. I’ve wondered: didn’t God care for the Egyptians? God had a legitimate grievance with Pharaoh, but all those plagues God sent hurt the people just as much as they hurt the king.

In this passage it becomes clear God cared very deeply for the Egyptians. And God wanted Israel to remember that and not forget it. So he claimed the firstborn of people and animals as his own. But in his mercy God allowed the people of Israel to redeem a firstborn child by sacrificing a lamb in his place.

Does this sound familiar?

The irony is that Jesus, being the Lamb of God, didn’t need to be redeemed. But as Jesus himself explained later on in his life:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt 5:17-18)

And later on in Jesus’ ministry the apostle Matthew records this story:

The collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?”  25 He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?”  26 When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free.  27 However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.” (Matthew 17:24-27)

Jesus in this passage declares himself exempt from the temple tax because he is the Son of the God who is being worshipped in the temple!  But he submits to the law anyway so as not to offend.

Coming back to our story of Jesus being presented in the temple, we see the law of Moses being fulfilled.  But the fulfillment of the law is not all that happened. People experienced God’s grace as well.

While Mary and Joseph were there, Simeon – whose name in Hebrew means “he who hears” – a righteous and devout man – came and spoke to them. And Luke says ‘the Holy Spirit rested on him’.  In other words he had a relationship with God, rooted in deep love, and he had been gifted with the gift of prophecy.

God told Simeon through the Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah with his own eyes. Guided by that same spirit, Simeon takes the baby Jesus in his arms, looks into the eyes of God with love, and says, “Lord, you have fulfilled your word; now let your servant depart in peace, for with my own eyes I have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people; a light to reveal you to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Simeon knew the Messiah would bring revelation – revealing God to the Gentiles, revealing God’s word and God’s heart to the Jewish people, and revealing the inner thoughts of all people who met him.

Simeon also knew that Mary would bear a heavy cost. He said to her, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel… and a sword (and the Greek here is more like ‘javelin’) – a sword will pierce your own soul also.”

Simeon’s vision and prophecy had their foundations in the experience of the Holy Spirit, and of walking with God for a lifetime.

During the same visit in the temple, the widow and prophetess Anna also recognized Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit and praised God for the coming of the Messiah. She went around telling everyone she knew that the Messiah was here!  In the ears of the priests and Pharisees her words must have sounded a bit crazy. But she spoke by the Spirit, rooted in her long relationship with God, and she praised God continually for the arrival of Jesus.

So we see in this story the law of God being obeyed and fulfilled, as well as the Spirit of God leading people to share the good news with any who will listen.

What this means for us today is that the commandments of God and the sense of being led by the Spirit of God are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they go together, they belong together: mind and heart; knowledge and passion; truth and praise.

So for those of us who love to experience God, who revel in the joy of knowing God’s presence: don’t be afraid of God’s law.  As the Psalmist says, God’s law is good.  God requires truth and holiness in the inward being, and our joy will increase as we know God better.

And for those of us who love to know God, who love to explore the heavenly logic and laws that help us understand God’s awesome mind: don’t be afraid to experience God’s heart. Welcome the Spirit, place control of your life in God’s hands. Because God is love, and those of us who love God have nothing to fear.

And for all of us: let us join with Simeon and Anna in thanking God for God’s faithfulness and for the birth of this holy child, the light to the Gentiles, who has come to save his people. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 12/31/17

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