Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

All My Hope on God Is Founded
Words: Joachim Neander (1650-1680)
Music: Herbert Howells (1892-1983)

All my hope on God is founded;
He doth all my trust renew,
Me through change and chance He guideth,
Only good and only true.
God unknown, He alone
Calls my heart to be His own.

Pride of man and earthly glory,
Sword and crown betray his trust;
What with care and toil be buildeth
Tower and temple fall to dust.
But God’s power, hour by hour,
Is my temple and my tower.

God’s great goodness aye endureth,
Deep His wisdom, passing thought:
Splendor, light, and life attend Him,
Beauty springeth out of naught.
Love doth stand at His hand;
Joy doth wait on His command.

Still from man to God eternal
Sacrifice of praise be done,
High above all praises praising
For the gift of Christ His Son.
Christ doth call one and all:
Ye who follow shall not fall.

We sang this little-known-in-America hymn in church yesterday and it reminded me how much I love it – both the music and the text.  There is a grandeur in the sound and a passion in the words that are hard to match.  I wondered aloud to the senior pastor and one of our choir members: “what inspired this song?” None of us had heard of Joachim Neander or knew why his life was so tragically short: he died at only 30 years of age.

Neander, originally from the city of Bremen, is probably best known for the hymn Praise To The Lord, The Almighty, The King Of Creation.  Like many upper-middle-class men of his time, Neander studied theology at university but wasn’t exactly on fire about his faith at first.  Hymnary.org writes: “German student life in the 17th century was anything but refined, and Neander seems to have been as riotous and as fond of questionable pleasures as most of his fellows…

“In July 1670, Theodore Under-Eyck came to Bremen as pastor of St. Martin’s Church… a Pietist and holder of conventicles. Not long after Neander, with two like-minded comrades, went to service there one Sunday, in order to criticize and find matter of amusement. But the earnest words of Under-Eyck touched his heart; and this, [and] subsequent conversations with Under-Eyck, proved the turning-point of his spiritual life.”

As for the inspiration behind this particular hymn text, history leaves us no specifics. But Hymnary.org writes: “Many [of his hymns] are of a decidedly subjective cast, but for this the circumstances of their origin, and the fact that the author did not expect them to be used in public worship, will sufficiently account. […] But the glow and sweetness of his better hymns, their firm faith, originality, Scripturalness, variety and mastery of rhythmical forms, and genuine lyric character fully entitle them to the high place they hold.”

There’s an interesting footnote to Neander’s family history: the family name was originally Neumann (“New man” in English) but Joachim’s grandfather changed it to the Greek Neander.  Before he was given his own church to lead, Joachim, who was a nature-lover, would hold gatherings and services and preach in the valley of the Dussel River.  The word in German for “valley” being “thal”, this area became known as Neander-thal or “Neander’s Valley”.  It was in this valley, in the 1800’s, that the remains of a man were found that became known as “Neanderthal Man”.




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Today we continue in our Lenten series on Return To Me With All Your Heart, and this Sunday the emphasis is on reconciliation and new life in Christ.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always felt like Lent is a dark time of year.  It’s physically dark because it begins in the cold in winter; and it’s emotionally dark because we know at the end of the forty days we will find ourselves standing at the foot of Jesus’ cross; and it’s spiritually dark because God’s message to us is that the cross is necessary for the forgiveness of human sin.

Lent reminds us – as if we need reminding – that there is darkness in the world, around us and inside us, and as we wrestle with our flaws and our shortcomings during Lent we become convinced more than ever that God is right and we need Jesus.

But every year, right about now, right around the 4th Sunday of Lent, a ray of light begins to shine into the darkness of Lent. In spite of the fact it’s snowing today, the promise of Spring is beginning to break through; the days are getting longer; and as we listen to Jesus’ words as he draws closer to Calvary, we begin to hear the message that the crucifixion will not be the end; that there’s a light, and a new life, and a new home on the other side of the Cross. (My friends from “high church” traditions tell me this is indeed Laetare Sunday, a day of relaxation of the austerity of Lent.)

A new life and a new home: that’s what both of our scripture readings are about today. This isn’t immediately obvious though, so if you’d like to, it might be easier to see what I’m talking about if you have Joshua chapter 5 and II Corinthians chapter 5 at your fingertips.

Speaking of new homes: have you ever watched any of the home renovation shows like Fixer Upper or Trading Spaces?  The people whose homes are being worked on in those shows know at the beginning of the show that they’re going to end up with a house that looks nothing like it did before; but they don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like until the very end.  In some cases they get an absolutely gorgeous house, and in other cases, especially on Trading Spaces, mileage may vary.

Yes, that’s actual straw glued to the wall. [Trading Spaces]

No matter what happens, the process is interesting and the end result is something new, and a newly renovated house implies change. The people in the house are still the same people, but patterns of movement within the house change: people sit in new places and eat in new places. Old habits go by the wayside and new ways of living come into play.

In the Bible we see a similar thing happening.  From a very big picture point of view: in the Old Testament, God makes a covenant with Abraham that his descendants will live in the Promised Land, where they will become a great nation.  And in the New Testament, God makes a covenant with all who believe in Jesus that we will have a new home in God’s eternal kingdom. In both cases, when God’s promises come to pass, old ways will disappear and new ways of life will come into being. God’s people will always be God’s people, but everything else about life will change: how we live, what we think, how we feel about God.  We will have new points of view, new ways of seeing and understanding. And because of the nature of God’s kingdom, when we become believers in Jesus Christ, new life begins right then and there.  As my old pastor used to say, eternal life doesn’t begin when you die; it begins now and carries into the future.

So that’s the big picture behind our scripture readings for today.  In addition to this meta-story, both of our readings today tell smaller stories; and both stories talk about reconciliation with God. So let’s start with the Old Testament reading.

Our scripture reading from Joshua tells the story of what happened on the day God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled.  The covenant God made with Abraham was that his descendants would become a great nation and would live in the Promised Land after having been slaves for many years (Genesis 15:13). God had also made a covenant with Moses that he would lead the people out of slavery to the Promised Land. And now all of this has come true.  The people of Israel spent four hundred years in Egypt (a good bit of that time as slaves), and then Moses led them out, and the people spent forty more years traveling in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.  During those forty years they received the Ten Commandments, and entered into a covenant with God: that God would be their God, and they would be God’s people, and through them all the people of the earth would be blessed.

As our story opens, Moses has recently passed away, and Joshua is the new leader of the nation.  And God says to Joshua and the people: “today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And they named the place Gilgal.

There’s a lot of meaning packed into these two short sentences!  First off the Hebrew word for ‘roll away’ sounds like ‘gilgal’. They named the place Gilgal in memory of what God had done.  Secondly God chooses the words ‘roll away’: God could have said ‘taken way’ or ‘removed’ but ‘rolled away’ points to another time and another day when a stone will be rolled away from the tomb of our Savior.

Last but not least, God acknowledges and shows compassion for what the people have been through in Egypt.  Slavery is one of those horrible tragedies – like abuse or rape – where the disgrace belongs on the perpetrator but the feeling of shame too often lands on the victim.  And God acknowledges this, and says ‘today your disgrace is rolled away’.

The past is behind, and a new future is ahead.  God welcomes the people into their new home and into a new way of living. And the first thing the Israelites do in their new home is to celebrate the Passover, remembering the night they were set free from slavery. You remember the story: God told Moses ‘tonight the firstborn of every household in Egypt will die, but not in the homes of Israel. The people of Israel are to take a lamb without blemish, and eat it that night, and place some of its blood over the doorway of the house; and when the angel of death sees it he will pass over the house.’

And now, here, the people are finally home in the promised land of Canaan, and all of God’s promises have come true; and the first thing the people do is to remember God by celebrating the Passover, honoring all God has done for them.

Joshua then says on the day after the Passover, for the very first time, the people of Israel ate the produce of the promised land – which probably included things like bread made from wheat or barley, lentils, chick-peas (in other words: hummus!), figs, cucumbers, melons, dates, grapes, olives: quite a feast!

Modern-day Israeli Breakfast – with traditional foods

The day after passover, for the first time in forty years, the people of Israel no longer ate manna, the food from heaven that had kept them alive for those forty years. Joshua 5:12 says “the manna ceased” that day – and the word for ‘ceased’ in Hebrew is shabbat – the word we get ‘sabbath’ from.  This day was a day of holy rest, both for God and for God’s people.

This was a rest at the start a new beginning: a new life; a new home; new foods; and most importantly, a new way of understanding and relating to God. There had been some rough times between the people and God during those forty years in the wilderness, but now the people are no longer rebelling. They are reconciled to God, and they begin their new life by worshipping and enjoying God, and having a feast and enjoying each other.  The reading in Joshua closes with a picture of peace and joy in the Promised Land: a picture that looks forward to the feast Jesus spoke of that will take place one day in God’s Kingdom.

Israeli Hummus – Yum!

…which is where we pick up Paul’s story!  In our reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, we also hear words that speak of a new home and a new beginning.

Paul and the Corinthians have a long and ‘complicated’ story. Paul spent a year and a half living in Corinth, teaching them about Jesus and getting their church off the ground; but after he left, false teachers came in, whose words and immoral actions divided the church. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians deals with this situation and begs the people to set things right… which, with some difficulty, they did. So this second letter is a follow up to the first, where Paul expresses joy that the people have returned to God and also expresses his love for them.

In this part of the letter Paul is reminding the Corinthians that, because we now have a new home in Jesus, the way we see things by definition has changed.  We no longer understand from a human point of view. Paul says: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away and everything has become new!”

To use the Israelites’ experience as a metaphor, on a spiritual level we are no longer living in Egypt. We were once slaves to sin but like the Israelites, our shame has been rolled away, and we are set free by the blood of the spotless Passover lamb: Jesus Christ.

Paul reminds us that this is who we are.  We are new creations by the power of God through Jesus. We are reconciled to God.  Paul says: “all this is from God, who reconciles us to himself through Christ.” (II Cor 5:18)

Paul then goes on to say: “and now God has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”  Now that we are new creations, we see people differently as we look at them through the eyes of Jesus. We see that all people are made in God’s image; all people are precious in the eyes of God; and all people have the opportunity to be set free from sin through Jesus’ death and resurrection. We see that all people who put their trust in Jesus have become our family by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul says our calling is to be ambassadors to people who don’t yet know Jesus. God’s game plan is to invite them into the kingdom through us.  We have the privilege of carrying an invitation sent out by the king of kings.

Whenever I read these words I’m reminded of the British tradition regarding invitations to royal weddings.  Royal invitations – at least until recently (I don’t know if they still do it) – were traditionally delivered by hand by a royal servant who would knock on your door, personally hand you the invitation, and then stand and wait for your reply.  The messenger who delivered this invitation would not pester you, or lecture you, or quote to you from the king’s speeches; the invitation would speak for itself.

As for what our heavenly invitation says: the word Paul uses for invitation in the Greek is parakaleo, which literally translates “to call alongside.”  In other words, God’s invitation basically reads “come walk with me.” Or as Jesus said to the disciples when they asked what he was up to, “come and see.”  If the person being invited says ‘yes’ our job is to put their hand in God’s hand and then step aside.

If you’re anything like me, and you find the idea of evangelism a bit intimidating, what Paul is talking about here is very do-able; and I think it helps to remember a lot of what passes for evangelism in our world has been done very badly.  All we have to do is simply be the messenger and carry the invitation: “God says to you ‘come walk with me.’”

Paul then wraps up this part of his letter by saying, “since God is making his appeal through us… be [yourselves] reconciled to God.” God made Jesus to be sin, who knew no sin, so that we sinners might have the righteousness of Jesus.  We are now living in a new place: a new life, a new home, a new calling in Jesus.

A few verses after this Paul says: ‘now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.’  For believers, today is always the day: the day of new life, the day of the privilege of carrying God’s invitation. And if anyone here is still searching and still questioning: there is no other day. All we ever have is today.  God invites you to walk by his side, today.  What is your reply?

Let’s pray:  Lord, thank you for your invitation. Thank you for paying such a price to remove from us the shame of our slavery to sin.  Thank you for new life and a new home with you.  Help us, like the Israelites, to celebrate our passover with joy; and to rejoice in new creation and the promise of your kingdom coming. To your honor and glory, AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh, 3/31/19


Scripture Passages for the Day:

Joshua 5:9-12  The LORD said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.  10 While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho.  11 On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain.  12 The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21   From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;  19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.


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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.


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.


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




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“After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.  Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

“When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.  But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”  And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”” – Genesis 22:1-14

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them…” – Hamlet, Act III Scene I

These may be some of the most famous words ever written in the English language. They come from a play in which Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark, is assassinated by his brother, who then marries the King’s widow, Hamlet’s mother. In trying to take revenge on his father’s death, Hamlet accidentally kills his best friend Laertes’ father. Laertes then takes revenge on Hamlet by challenging Hamlet to a duel in which (eventually) Hamlet, Laertes, Hamlet’s mother, and his uncle the new King, all die horribly; and Laertes’s sister Ophelia, who was in love with Hamlet, has gone crazy.

Of course there’s more to the story than that, but that’s the basic plot line. Bottom line, Hamlet is a disturbing tale. There is very little light in it, very little hope. So why have people been watching this play for hundreds of years? One of the reasons is it gives a window into human nature and what motivates people to do what they do.

Today’s scripture reading from Genesis is kind of like Hamlet. It’s a disturbing tale, and we may find ourselves wondering why anyone would want to hear it, or why it was included in the Bible.

The God we know is a God of love and truth and compassion – so how can we get our minds around the events described in this reading? How can we understand a God who says to a father, “go sacrifice your son”? How can we answer the critics of religion who point to this story and say, “you actually believe in a God like that?”

But understood rightly, like Hamlet, this passage gives us a window into not only human nature but also Divine nature. It’s a rare glimpse into what it means for Abraham to be a friend of God, and a man who walks with God.

When human beings are dealing with the Almighty there are things it’s good for us to know. Things that can be seen in this passage, like:

  • God is king. God rules.
  • A God who is powerful enough to speak the universe into being is far more powerful than we are.
  • What God says goes. It’s a contradiction in terms to say, “No, Lord” – because to call someone ‘Lord’ means we’re in a position to be commanded. When you’re a private in the army, you don’t say ‘no, sergeant’. A Lord, by definition, is someone we can only say ‘yes’ to.
  • The God we are dealing with, as C.S. Lewis says in The Chronicles of Narnia, “is not a tame lion.”
  • God is not like us. We may be made in God’s image, but we are not God. God is different from us.

But given all these things about God, we still wonder why God would tell Abraham to sacrifice his son – or how Abraham, as a loving father, could possibly follow these instructions.

The key to understanding this passage is verse 5, where Abraham says to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham says he and Isaac: will go, will worship, and will come back. In all three phrases the words are plural. Abraham does not say I will come back to you; he says we will come back to you.

Abraham doesn’t know yet how this will happen; but he knows that Isaac will live. So the question then becomes: what does Abraham know that we don’t see in this passage?

  1. While it’s true Abraham lived in a time when human sacrifice was commonplace that doesn’t explain his actions, because…
  2. The God of the Bible does not require human sacrifice. God never asks for human sacrifice. In fact it’s the false gods in the surrounding nations, false gods like Ba’al and Moloch, who ‘require’ human sacrifices. God does not. Ever. And Abraham, who has walked with God for decades, knows this command is not in God’s character. So he knows something must be up. God must have something else in mind.
  3. Abraham also knows the land God is calling them to go to – which is named “Moriah” – that the name means “the Lord is my teacher”. So God has something to teach Abraham and Isaac. And Abraham loves God enough to want to know what’s on God’s mind.
  4. Abraham also knows God has promised that Abraham’s heirs will be counted through Isaac – and Isaac hasn’t had kids yet, so Isaac must survive. Somehow, Isaac will be coming back down the mountain alive.

But there are still some things Abraham doesn’t know… things that only we can see from our distance in the future, like:

  1. Abraham doesn’t know God is testing him: that God wants to show the people who will come after Abraham what real faith and trust in God looks like. The writer of Hebrews says: “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead.” (Hebrews 11:17-19)
  2. Abraham doesn’t yet know is that his actions – and Isaac’s actions – will create a living picture of what the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, will do someday. Their actions are a living prophecy, and the first-ever prophecy of the Messiah in the Bible that’s given by someone other than God.

Look at the parallels between Isaac and Jesus:

  • Isaac was Abraham’s “only son”. Jesus was God’s only Son.
  • Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son – Jesus will become the sacrifice for the human race.\
  • Abraham was told to go to ‘a mountain that God would show him’. The mountain was the same mountain King Solomon built the first temple on in Jerusalem. It was not far from Calvary, and might actually have been the same hill.
  • Abraham put the wood on Isaac’s back to carry up the mountain. God put the wood on Jesus’ back to carry up the mountain.
  • Genesis tells us “The two of them (Abraham and Isaac) walked on together” – that is, they were of one mind and one action. God and Jesus also ‘walked together’ and were of one mind and one action.
  • When Isaac asks where the lamb is, Abraham answers: “God himself will provide the lamb”. Jesus is called ‘the Lamb of God’ by John the Baptist in John chapter 1.

In the end, Isaac was not sacrificed because he is not, and cannot be, the sacrifice for human sin. But using Isaac as an example, God shared with Abraham and Isaac an incredibly intimate insight into the mind and heart and plans of God for the future of God’s people.

God then praises Abraham saying: “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” God knows we as human beings need to love God above everything else. In order to love others to the best of our abilities, God must be #1 in our lives, as hard as that sounds sometimes… and as hard as that is sometimes.

When God had provided the sacrifice, and everything was said and done, Abraham – realizing he had touched God’s heart – wanted to create a memorial of that event. So, in the tradition of his people, Abraham gave the place a name. He called it Jehovah-Jireh, which means ‘the Lord will provide’. As it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

For us here today, on the mountain of Calvary it has been provided: where the Lamb of God, God’s only Son, was sacrificed for us. Today we remember what God promised us, and what God has done for us.

God promised that there would come a Messiah who would save his people from their sin. And in fulfillment of that promise, Jesus came, sharing God’s truth and God’s love and the good news of God’s kingdom. And when the leaders of his people nailed him to a cross, on the mountain of the Lord, God raised him from the dead, so that all who believe in him “should not perish but have everlasting life”.

And Jesus, having shown us God’s heart, created for us a memorial of that event: communion. In a few moments we will come by faith, and receive what God has provided on that mountain. All who believe in Jesus and seek to live a life honoring Him are welcome to this table and this memorial. AMEN.



Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 7/2/17


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Today we’re going to talk about a love story… and a rather unusual love story at that.

Lots of our favorite movies and books are about love stories: two people meet, fall in love, overcome challenges, grow stronger together, and live happily ever after. Or not, as the case may be.

But the love story we’re looking at today is a very rare kind of love story. It’s a love story where the one who’s loved doesn’t know it. It’s a love unknown.

An old hymn-writer back in the 1600s in England captured this kind of love when he wrote:

“My song is love unknown
My Saviour’s love for me;
Love to the loveless shown
That they might lovely be…”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We’re going to be looking today at Acts 17:22-31, but first I want to touch briefly on our reading from John 14:15-21.

John is relating a conversation that takes place between Jesus and the disciples during the last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus is teaching the disciples what they’ll need to know when he’s no longer with them on a daily basis.  And the disciples are not catching on very well.  Jesus is saying the Messiah (himself) is going to die – which goes against everything the disciples have ever believed about the Messiah – and then after three days he will rise again, and then ascend into heaven, and then he will send the Holy Spirit.  And – Jesus says – when all this happens, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. Whoever loves me will keep my commandments and will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

This passage tells us there is a love yet to be revealed by Jesus. A love unknown.  Bookmark that thought – we’ll come back to it.

Turning to our reading from Acts, the reading for today starts in the middle of the chapter, which means we are coming in on the middle of the story, so we need to back up and start at the beginning.

Paul and Silas were traveling through the part of the Roman Empire that was occupied Greece.  And as they traveled, they would stop at the local synagogues and share the gospel – because for people who attended synagogue, the gospel was not entirely unknown. It might be unexpected, but the Old Testament was taught in the synagogues, and the Old Testament included prophecies about the Messiah, so their listeners at least had the background to understand the gospel message.

First Paul and Silas arrived in Thessalonica. They went into the synagogue and taught and preached for a few weeks, giving evidence from the Old Testament that the Messiah had to suffer and then rise from the dead, and proving that Jesus met the criteria.  And some of the Jews believed, along with a large number of Gentile Greeks.

The synagogue rulers were jealous to see so many Gentiles responding to Paul’s message.  So they went out and stirred up a mob who went and grabbed these new believers and had them arrested.  Of course having no charges the people were released, but Paul and Silas (for their own safety) were sent on to the next city.

So they travelled to a town called Berea, about 45 miles away.  When they got there, again they went to the local synagogue and started preaching. And this time the good news about Jesus was well-received.  Verse 11 says: “they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.”  And many of them became believers, both Jews and Greeks.

Now the synagogue rulers in Thessalonica heard about this, and they were so ticked off they walked 45 miles to Berea stir up trouble for Paul and Silas. (45 miles is roughly the distance from Pittsburgh to Uniontown!  Have you ever been so ticked off at somebody that you would walk to Uniontown just to bother them?)

Anyway for safety’s sake the Bereans suggested Paul and Silas move on, and they accompanied them as far as Athens (about 150 miles from Berea – at which point the Thessalonians gave up).

So Paul and Silas arrived in Athens.  During Paul’s lifetime, and for about 400 years before he was born, Athens was one of the greatest educational centers of the world.  Aristotle had taught there, and Socrates, and Plato; Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine (you’ve heard of the Hippocratic oath).  Athens was the birthplace of democracy – the first place democracy was thought of, and the first place it was ever tried.  Life in the United States in the 21st century would not exist as we know it, if not for Athens back then.

Even the Romans appreciated Athens.  Though they conquered all of Greece, they considered Athens a ‘free city’ so that it’s teaching and its arts and culture would continue uninterrupted.

Paul and Silas, when they got to Athens, had a lot to see, and a lot to take in as they walked around the city.  But what Paul noticed more than anything was that it was “a city full of idols”.  Verse 16 says he was deeply troubled at this; because the message Paul had to share was a love story – a story about a love unknown.  As Paul and Silas walked around the city, they saw people who did not know they were loved by God, people who were being led astray to worship idols and to serve what was not God.  And this moved Paul’s heart very deeply.

Paul started out, as usual, in the local synagogue. And he had a little success there.  But then he went to the marketplace – the Agora as it was called (you remember that name from high school social studies?). The Agora was a place where people would buy and sell, but it was also the central public space in the city – a place for events, a place where political speeches would be made, and where religious and philosophical debates happened.

So Paul joined in the debates in the Agora. Verse 18 says he got into conversations with the Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicureans belonged to a school of philosophy that taught materialism and the pursuit of happiness, and ridiculed the idea of God interfering in human affairs. The Stoics on the other hand belonged to a school of philosophy that believed the path to happiness is found in accepting what we’re given in life; and not being controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, but using our minds to understand.

Do I really need to say how much these philosophies still influence people’s thinking?  We may not call it by those names any more, but we still live in a materialistic culture, that pokes fun at religion, that pursues happiness, and that values logic over too much drama in our relationships. Things haven’t changed much in 2000 years!

Paul made enough of an impact on the Greek philosophers to be invited to speak at the Areopagus where many of the great debates were held.  So he came, and they asked him, “what are you teaching?”  And that’s where our reading for today picks up.

What Paul said to the philosophers is a wonderful example of how we can share our faith in the world around us.

  • Step One, Paul begins where his listeners are. He says “I observe that you are very religious in all respects.” Paul doesn’t attack their idols; he doesn’t stand up and call the people ‘idolaters and sinners’.  He takes his observation of their idols and casts it in a good light.  He praises the fact that they’re religious. In today’s culture we might say something like, “I see that you are very spiritual.  You care about living things, you care about the planet, you believe in doing what is compassionate, and you are mindful of how you treat others.”
  • Step Two, Paul builds on where his listeners are and finds a connection to the gospel. He says, “as I went through the city and looked at the objects of your worship, I found an altar with the inscription ‘to an unknown god’.”  Paul knows about this love unknown, knows that it is a universal truth, and he connects it to their ‘unknown god’.In our own day there are still many people who call themselves agnostic – who say they don’t know who God is, or they’re not sure. Even churchgoers sometimes can be sort of functionally agnostic –knowing there’s a God and his son’s name is Jesus but not really sure what that means. The word agnostic – a Greek word – literally means to not know.
  • In Step Three, Paul zeros in on the unknown and makes it known. He says: “What you believe is unknown, this is what I proclaim to you.’ And he goes on to talk about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He says God created the world and everything in it; God does not live in temples or buildings made by hands; God is not served by people, as if God needed anything; in fact God gives us what we God sets the times and boundaries for nations and encourages people to seek God “groping around as we do, though God is not far from us” – Paul says – “for in Him we live and move and have our being”. And Paul adds, “as some of your own Greek poets have said, “we are God’s children.””

Can you imagine how people today would appreciate hearing that God does not live in buildings and is not served by people?  And that we live and move in God – and as God’s children, we are loved?

Paul does criticize the making of idols: he reminds his listeners that God isn’t made of silver or gold.  These days people don’t usually have household gods, but idolatry is still one of the most commonly practiced sins.  Today’s idols might include wealth, power, youthfulness, fame, food, sex, shopping… anything that becomes more important to us than God.

King Solomon once said: “the worship of idols… is the beginning and cause and end of every evil.” (Wisdom 14:27 edited)  In Paul’s words, idols are “a representation by the art and imagination of humanity”.  I could preach a whole sermon on just that – but for now the important concept is that idols are made up. They represent a lie.  And when people put their trust in lies, tragedy is the result.  If Paul were here today he would most likely remind us that God doesn’t need fame, or political power, or front page headlines, or a pile of money in order for God’s will to be done.

Bottom line, Paul says in verse 30: in the past God has overlooked such ignorance – overlooked our not knowing – but now God requires all people everywhere to have a change of heart, because there is a day coming in which all people will be measured by the man who walked out of the grave alive.

As soon as Paul mentions the resurrection of the dead, the philosophers in the Areopagus begin to laugh and poke fun. But some believe and want to hear more.

As for Paul himself, he’s not interested in debating for the sake of debating (which sets a very good example for those of us who hang out on Facebook).  For Paul, once he’s delivered the message, his job is done, and he’s ready to move on.  Next stop: Corinth!

But back to our love story.  We’ve been talking about an ‘unknown’ God: a God who knew us and loved us before we knew God.  Can you imagine what that’s like for God – to love us, and for us to not even know it?

You don’t see that kind of love story in movies very often. But I did see a story like it once in an old TV show.  It was a story about two soldiers – a man and a woman, Marcus and Susan. They cared about each other as comrades: they teased each other, they had each others’ backs, but their duties kept them apart most of the time, so they were friends and nothing more.  But Marcus loved Susan… and for her sake and the sake of her career he never let on.

One day in the heat of battle there was an explosion and Susan was mortally wounded. She didn’t die right away, so Marcus found her and carried her back to the medics, but there was nothing could be done.

Except this particular story takes place in the future, and in the future there’s a machine used for healing by which a healthy person can transfer health into the body of an injured person in order to heal them.  So for example, if a child scrapes their knee a parent can hook up the machine to themselves and to their child and pour healing from their own body into the child’s body.  Or if the child breaks a bone, which is a greater injury, it would require more energy from the parent, but it could still be healed.  But if the wound was fatal… using the machine would be fatal.

And for that reason the machine was made illegal. But Marcus finds one, and hooks it up, and pours his life into Susan. And just as she’s coming around, with his last breath, Marcus whispers ‘I love you’.

That’s the kind of love God has for us: a love that gives all it can give, before we even knew it was there.

The good news is that Jesus lives.

Which brings us back to the Gospel of John, where Jesus says: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; and because I live, you also will live.”  Jesus also says “If you love me, keep my commandments” – and the first and greatest commandment is love: love of God, and love of neighbor.

So the first thing we can do with all of this is to know God’s love.  Don’t let God’s love go unknown. Read about God’s love, meditate on it, immerse ourselves in it, until our souls are convinced, by the power of the Holy Spirit, of how very much we are loved.

And second, tell others about the unknown God (who is now known) and about the unknown love that’s waiting for them.

The old hymn I quoted earlier ends with these words:

“Here might I stay and sing
of him my soul adores:
never was love, dear King,
never was grief like yours.
This is my friend in whose sweet praise,
I gladly would spend all my days.”  AMEN.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) Pittsburgh, 5/21/17


[collection of video clips summarizing the story from which the illustration was taken:]

Acts 17:22-31  22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,  25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.  26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,  27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us.  28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

John 14:15-21  15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

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Psalm 119:97-104

“Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word.
I do not turn away from your ordinances, for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.”


In our Psalm for today, King David says to God, “oh how I love your law!”

Does that strike you as unusual? It does me! How often do we think in terms of loving the law?  We respect it.  We try to obey it.  Sometimes we get a chuckle out of it.  Not long ago I was driving to Philly and saw signs on the turnpike that say “Speed limit enforced by aircraft.”  I always expect to see some big claw coming down out of the sky…

But love the law?  Can you imagine walking into the local police station and proclaiming “oh how I love the law!”? They’d probably take you in for questioning!

God’s law must be a different kind of law, then. God’s law is not a book of regulations a mile thick like our federal government has.  God’s law is found in a book, but that’s where the similarity ends.

So what is David talking about when he says he loves God’s law?  Four things I’d like to look at:

  1. What exactly is God’s law? How can we define or describe it?
  2. How can human beings, mere mortals, comprehend God’s law? God is so much greater than we are – how can we grasp it?
  3. What is the purpose of God’s law? What’s it for?
  4. What’s up with loving the law? Can we come to a point of agreeing with David on loving the law?

David wrote all of Psalm 119 – all 176 verses of it – as a poem praising God’s law. That’s longer than a lot of entire books in the Bible. Where does he get his enthusiasm?

What exactly is God’s law? 

For us as Christians in the 21st century, when we think of God’s law we usually think either of the Ten Commandments or the whole Old Testament. And we would not be wrong about that.

For David, though – who was writing in approximately 1000BC – God’s law was a bit different.  It included the Ten Commandments, but it was more. There was a covenant – promises made by God to the people, and by the people to God.

The Law, especially as found in the book of Leviticus, was written in the form of a treaty. We don’t see it that way today, but in ancient times someone reading the book of Leviticus would have instantly recognized it as a treaty: the kind of treaty a conquering king would make with a nation he had just conquered.

For example, let’s say the king of Moab went out and conquered the Philistines. In order for peace to be restored between the two nations, the King of Moab would give terms in the form of a treaty. (Nations do that even today.) The treaty would start out by talking about how very great the King of Moab was, and how amazingly glorious his armies were, and how the people of the Philistines should count themselves fortunate indeed at having the opportunity to live under Moab’s national laws.  And in exchange for protection and peace, Moab would claim tribute from the Philistines:  it might be half the crops the Philistines grew, or maybe $20,000 in gold bars every year, whatever the King of Moab thought was reasonable.

This kind of treaty was called a suzerain-vassal treaty, which means basically conqueror and conquer-ee… ruler and servant.

What’s unique about Leviticus is that God – who speaks in the voice of the conquering King – did not conquer Israel; God saved Israel.  God bases the treaty with Israel on the rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And in return, the Israelites will now live under God’s protection and God’s system of laws.  Israel’s ‘tribute’ was to worship God – and God alone – and to obey the laws of the covenant: not because Israel was conquered but because Israel was redeemed: redeemed to be a witness to the nations around them of the greatness and the mercy and the wisdom of God.

If this begins to sound familiar, it should – because it’s the same covenant God has with all God’s people throughout history. In our day, we have been rescued from slavery – slavery to sin – by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, and in return we are called to worship God alone and to obey God’s word as a witness to the people around us of the greatness and the mercy and the wisdom of God.

Going back to ancient Israel, the covenant that David read and fell in love with included things like: instructions for daily living; or how a ruler can deal with law-breakers like murderers, adulterers, and thieves; or things to do (or not do) in order to live a long and happy life. The covenant included detailed instructions for the building of the Tabernacle: for the use of fine fabrics and gold furnishings and incense and oils. Worship in ancient Israel involved all the senses – it overwhelmed the worshipper with beauty, through their whole being.

So the Law as David knew it was a covenant between God and God’s people. It spoke of God’s grace and Israel’s responsibilities, which included obeying God’s commands as a living witness to the nations around them of God’s greatness.

Second – How can we understand God’s law, now in our own time?

Understanding God’s law is not easy, either then or now.  Nowadays some people say the Old Testament is “outdated” and therefore irrelevant. To me that’s like saying the movie Casablanca is ‘irrelevant’ just because it was filmed in black and white. Nonsense!

Yes, there are challenges for us, reading the ancient laws across a distance of thousands of years. We’re not Middle Eastern, we’re not Jewish, there are major cultural differences, and there are translation issues.  But in spite of all these, we have some basic tools for understanding God’s law that we can use.

The first and most important tool when reading God’s covenant is to remember we are meant to apply God’s words to ourselves, each of us individually. We are to use it for self-examination.  When we read God’s covenant, it’s like looking in a mirror, spiritually speaking. We can see our strengths, our faults, places where we can improve. And we bring all these things to God in prayer. God’s law is not meant for us to measure others by. It’s between each of us and God.

Second, we need to keep in mind that ‘the Word of God’ is Jesus. We worship Jesus, not the Bible. We worship God, not a book.  Steven Tuell, professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, recently wrote in his blog:  “[C.S. Lewis wrote:] ‘It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God.’ [Therefore] if the Bible is a means rather than an end, we cannot read it as a list of rules for life. We must rather listen carefully for the voice of the Living Word of God speaking through the words of Scripture.  We must be attentive to the “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit. As the author of Hebrews declares,

God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates […]It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions (Heb 4:12).”

The 18th century British theologian Charles Simeon said something similar: (paraphrasing from his old English) “Many people today (that is, back in the 1700s) deny the necessity of knowing God’s teaching in order to know God’s truth; [while] others ridicule those who expect to be guided by the Holy Spirit as they read.” [Things haven’t changed much in 300 years!]  [Simeon continues:] “But [in the words of Paul] “it is by the Spirit of God alone that we can know the things which are freely given to us by God.” (I Cor 2:12)

So for those of us reading the Old Testament today, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us.

And we have one other advantage, living in the 21st century: we have the New Testament. We can see in the life of Jesus a perfect illustration of perfect obedience to the law – someone we can pattern our lives on.  Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.”  And he did.  When we look at Jesus, we love him – and we love how he brings God’s law to life! When we compare the religion of the Pharisees to the faith of Jesus, we can see the difference between mere rule-keeping and truly living the spirit of God’s law.

One side note: one of the theologians I read said, “spiritual discernment is not the same thing as intellectual ability.” I think that’s an important point. He said, “A person may have vast knowledge… and yet still be under the influence of their own desires.”  I quote this because it is all too easy to read God’s law just as a historical document. Without the Holy Spirit’s insight, the true meaning will be missed.

So in terms of understanding the law, Jesus said the summary of the law is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength, and love your neighbors as yourselves.” “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Jesus said.  I find in everyday life this is a very practical summary for daily living.

Third – What is the purpose of God’s law? Why do we study it?

One theologian said: “True religion is a practical thing.”  It’s not just talk. It’s where the rubber meets the road.

  1. God’s law gives us guidance. In verse 105 of Psalm 119, David says: “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and light to my path.” God’s law gives us direction.  Who would get on board a ship where the captain refuses to look at navigation charts? God’s law gives us navigation for life.
  1. God’s law increases in us God’s likeness. Paul says, ‘when we see him face to face we will be like him’.  As we read God’s law, the words open us to God and God to us. The ‘active’ aspect of God’s word works in us to make us more like God.
  1. God’s law teaches us to hope in God. In both the Old Testament and the New, God’s people find we are not able to please God without God’s help. So we learn to rely on God – for this life and for the next. And God’s law teaches us what God’s kindgom will be like. It gives us hope for the future.
  1. God’s law teaches us what is important to God and therefore what’s worthy of our time and attention. Let’s face it: life is short. There is never enough time to do all the things we want to do. So we’re forced to prioritize, to choose some things and leave others behind.  God’s law teaches us how to put spiritual things first.  God’s law sets priorities for doing the ‘soul work’ of our inner selves, as well as our ministries and our outreach.

Fourth – Can we love God’s law?

If someone were to walk up to me and ask, “do you love God’s law?” I’d probably hesitate to answer, because in my mind I don’t typically think of God’s covenant as being law.  But of course it is law, in the sense that it is ultimate truth.  Just like darkness can’t exist where light is, sin can’t exist where God is.  We need to know what’s possible and what’s not, what lasts and what doesn’t.

But if you put it another way and asked me, “do you love the Scriptures?” Now that’s different! I’ve spent ten years studying the scriptures, and they’ve been the happiest ten years of my life (in spite of many personal sadnesses along the way).

There is a depth and a beauty in God’s words that can’t be matched anywhere else. Nothing else is so satisfying – and I think that’s because it’s a taste of who God is – who it is we’ll be spending eternity with. It’s a taste of heaven.

Here’s what David says about God’s law:

  • How sweet your words are! Sweeter than honey!
  • It makes me smarter than my enemies.
  • It makes me wiser than my teachers.
  • [Speaking to God] You yourself have taught me.
  • I am protected from evil and falsehood

And ultimately, God’s law leads us to Jesus

  • Because Jesus fulfilled the law
  • Because Jesus died for us who are not able to keep the law. Jesus did for us what we can’t do for ourselves.

So what does all this mean for us today?  Three things.

First, don’t be shy about reading these ancient books of the Old Testament.  As you read them, even though the cultural context is different, the wisdom is still very much there.

Second, as we read, pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to teach, and correct, to improve us. Let the text hold a mirror up to us so we can learn and grow in God’s likeness.

And third and above all, love what God has given us in this covenant: God has given us (from the very beginning) ‘salvation by grace alone through faith alone’, wisdom to live in this world, and a road sign that points us to Jesus, and to His eternal Kingdom.  And that is sweet. Amen.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 10/16/16.


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 “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him,  7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.  8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.  9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,  10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.  11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,  12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.  13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,  14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.  15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.  17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.  18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,  19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” – Colossians 2:6-19


As some of you know, I just back from England a few weeks ago.  And as most of you know, a few weeks before that, I threw a disc in my back.  When that happened I almost canceled the trip, but my friend and I really wanted to go, so I gritted my teeth and got packing.

So… in the do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do department… I don’t recommend traveling with a bad back, let alone overseas!  But I also have to say I’m grateful for the people who, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, fought for the rights of handicapped people to access public places.  Because of them, the airports and hotels we visited were well-equipped to deal with my physical issues, and they made us as comfortable as possible.

My friend and I made this effort to get to England because we had signed up to take a class at Oxford under one of the leading theologians of our day: the retired Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright. He’s not as well known in the States yet as in the U.K., but he spoke at Duke when Pastor Matt was there, and both he and I are familiar with Wright and we like his teaching.  So given the chance to take a class with him, my friend and I jumped at the opportunity.  And we were not disappointed.  I’ll be sharing with you the things we learned… probably for the next year!

One of the things I came away with was N.T. Wright has this big-picture view of Scripture: a view that says everything from Old Testament, to the Psalms, to the Gospels, to the New Testament, all works together to tell a story – which is a refreshing point of view when I hear people say things like “the Old Testament so old it’s not relevant any more”.  The big-picture story makes the Old Testament relevant. And the big-picture story is the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Our scripture reading for today from Colossians is a great example of a small excerpt of scripture fitting into the big picture, because it points to Jesus’ death and resurrection and how, through it, we can enter into the Kingdom of God.

So… if Pastor Matt preached the sermon he was hoping to preach last week, he talked about Colossae, an ancient city that was in the country we now know as Turkey. It was on a major road used for trade and military travel, so there was a real mix of people who lived and worked there. And Colossae was famous for its wool trade. But it was also famous for the way its people came up with new and different ways of mixing and combining the religions of the people who lived there.  They took bits and pieces of the Jewish faith, Greek philosophy, and the Greek and Roman gods, and mixed it all together.

This mixing of religions is called syncretism.  Most religions believe syncretism is not a good thing because it waters down the message of their faith, whatever faith it may be.  In fact it tends to lead people into a kind of agnosticism, a ‘not-knowing’, because if every faith has the truth how can one be sure of any faith?  Comedian Michael Palin of Monty Python put it this way: when asked about his religious beliefs, and he said, “I’m an agnostic, but I’m not sure about that.”  This is often the result of living in a syncretistic culture – which we live in, just as the Colossians did.

The church at Colossae, however, managed to avoid this syncretism. They stayed true to Jesus and to the Gospel message. And Paul praises them for this, and he says he thanks God for the Colossians’ faith and for their love for each other.

So that’s how the book of Colossians begins.  Today we move on to the next section of Paul’s letter, in which he warns the Colossians about spiritual dangers. He points out (1) the Colossians were living in a prosperous society. They had money, and their culture was becoming powerful and worldly; and (2) because of its religious experimentation, the Colossian culture was losing its sense of direction. And Paul wanted to spare the Colossian church the troubles that might come from these things.

Paul says a lot in this chapter… far more than we can cover this morning. For now I’d like to focus on just three things:

  1. Paul warns the Colossians against being taken captive
  2. Paul lists some dangers facing the Colossian church
  3. Paul explains how the Cross sets them free in Christ

The warning against being taken captive is found in Colossians 2:8. Paul says, “see to it that no one takes you captive”.

This probably surprised the Colossians, because they probably didn’t think of themselves as in danger of being taken captive. It would probably surprise us too, if someone said to us “don’t let anybody take you captive.” We think of ourselves as living in “the land of the free and the home of the brave” – how could we be taken captive?

Truth is captivity happens every day. People fall captive to addiction, for example: alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography – they can’t break free from these things. Then there’s human trafficking – the sale of human beings – which has become the second fastest growing crime, second only to the drug trade.

When people hear ‘human trafficking’ they usually think ‘prostitution’ but that’s always not the case. I remember a few years ago when I was working at another church in Pittsburgh area, a stranger came into the church and asked to talk to the pastor. He said he’d taken a job building houses and he said the construction crew was being forced to sleep on the floor of the house they were building, without electricity, without water, without heat. He managed to escape and found our church and he was asking for help so he wouldn’t have to go back. Turns out the man came to the right place, because our pastor, in his first career, had been a lawyer, so he knew exactly what to do.

These are just some examples of how people in our society can become captives. There are other ways that don’t show as much. Some people are captive to bad habits; or captive to negative thinking; some people are captive to fear.  These things may not endanger our lives but they rob us of the joy God intends for us.

So Paul starts out by warning against captivity.  He points out that whole history of God’s relationship with God’s people is about setting God’s people free!  From the very beginning, with the ancient Israelites escaping slavery in Egypt, to the New Testament where the people of God escape slavery to sin through the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the whole Bible is about freedom… and about the power to throw off our chains, by God’s grace, and move into the Promised Land of God’s Kingdom.

Paul then goes on to warn the Colossians about specific dangers he sees in society.  Paul doesn’t list all the possible dangers but he focuses on the ones people are most likely to come up against.  And he names four specifically: philosophy; deceit; human tradition, and the elemental spirits.  Let’s take a look at each one briefly.

First, philosophy.  Most of us have not studied ancient Greek philosophy, but our modern world is more influenced by Greek philosophy than we realize. Democracy, for example, was originally a Greek idea.  And in our society, beliefs about what happens when a person dies are often more Greek than Biblical. The idea that heaven is a place up there in the sky where our spirits go after our bodies are gone is purely Greek! The Bible teaches no such thing.  Scripture teaches resurrection of the body, not separation from the body, and it teaches a new heaven and new earth. God’s Kingdom is a place where we will live in new bodies on a new earth. That’s just one example of how philosophy can change our thinking without us even being aware of it. Our hope, for this life and the next, is not found in philosophy, but in Jesus Christ.

The second thing Paul mentions is deceit. In other words, lies. Lies are a problem on a daily basis but I think Paul is talking here more about deceit on a cultural level.  Miscarriages of justice, for example. Leaders who don’t speak the truth. These things wear on our spirits, they make us angry, or sometimes afraid for the future. Paul says in Jesus Christ we have hope and we have nothing to fear.  So beware, Paul says, of being taken captive by lies and by the negative feelings that follow.

The third thing Paul mentions is human tradition.  Paul is not saying all traditions are bad – far from it. He’s just saying some traditions can get out of control sometimes, especially if we forget why the tradition is there in the first place.  Take for example the tradition of not eating meat on Fridays. Way back in the early days of Christianity, the Church taught the spiritual discipline of fasting.  Fasting can be a good thing, it can help us draw closer to God, it can help us to understand God.

And because it can be a good thing, the early Catholic Church taught people the spiritual discipline of fasting. They said to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. As time went on, this rule was relaxed and changed to just Fridays. Later still, it was relaxed again and changed to just ‘don’t eat meat on Fridays’. And so to this day some churches still teach that people shouldn’t eat meat on Fridays.

And so the original spiritual discipline of fasting – of not eating at all on a given day in order to remember the hungry – in our day has become… the tradition of having Fish Frys on Fridays!

Now don’t get me wrong – I LOVE a good fish fry! But there’s a problem (1) if eating fish on Fridays becomes a rule, something people are told God requires, because nowhere in the Bible does it say “go thou and eat fish on Friday.”  (2) Fasting in the Bible has to do with our relationship with God, not our relationship with food. It has to do with sharing the experience of the hungry, and praying for the hungry, and giving so that hungry people can eat. Fish frys don’t do this – unless we find some way to, at the same time, remember the poor and the hungry.

Bottom line, there’s a difference between human tradition and God’s commands. And we need to be careful not to get trapped by tradition and dragged off course.

The fourth thing Paul mentions is elemental spirits.  This is kind of hard to define; it has to do with the fact that there is more to the universe – and more to our world – than just what we can see and touch and measure.  The Kingdom of God, for example, is not something we can see right now, but it exists.  Generally speaking we don’t see angels, but they exist. Powers for good and powers for evil exist.  The spiritual world is real.

This is why scripture warns us not to do things like going to fortune-tellers or palm-readers, or taking part in séances or dabbling in witchcraft.  As Christians we know God is in charge.  God is who we turn to when we’re in trouble or need advice.  To turn in any other direction is to turn away from God. That’s why the First Commandment is “thou shalt have no other gods but me”.  We have one God, the true and living God, and that’s all we need.

Paul goes on to say in verse 10, “Jesus is the head of all rulers and authorities.” Jesus is not just some power or force. Jesus has disarmed the spiritual powers, Paul says, “making a show of them.” Jesus Christ is the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the Power of powers.  Paul adds, “we are together in Christ… we are made alive together with him.” “Don’t let anyone rob you of your prize!”

And with these words Paul then proclaims our freedom in Christ.   He says we have been buried together with Jesus in baptism, raised through faith in the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead.  We, who were dead in our sins, God made alive through Jesus.  “Therefore,” Paul says, “let no one pass judgement on you” with regard to traditions or spiritual practices. Let nothing take you captive. Hold onto Jesus who is above all, the head of the body, who brings all the parts of the body together.

This is Kingdom living.  We trust God, for all that we need, for all that we do, and for the life to come, because Jesus has gone before us and opened the way.

So what does this all mean to us in practical terms?  In spite of Paul’s deep theology, his conclusion is pretty straightforward: every person has a choice.  Will we invest our lives, our time and our energy, in the kingdom of this world, or in the Kingdom of God? Will we follow the powers of this world and submit to them? Or will we follow Jesus and submit to him?

Jesus said, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  No earthly power ever said that (or if they did they were lying!)

Where it comes to citizenship in the Kingdom of God, or citizenship in the kingdom of this world, we cannot hold dual citizenships. Either we are citizens of God’s kingdom and just visiting this world; or we are citizens of this world and just catching a glimpse of God’s kingdom from a distance. We can’t be dedicated to both at the same time.  This is what Jesus meant when he said, “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and mammon.”  (Matt 6:24)

So the bottom line of Paul’s teaching for today is that we live in a place and a time where two kingdoms are in conflict. The kingdom of this world is passing away. The Kingdom of God is about to come in.  That’s why Jesus preached, through all the gospels, “the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news!” That was his message, over and over. Change direction and head for the Kingdom of God.

So which kingdom will we choose? Which power will we serve? If anyone here has not made that decision yet: don’t wait any longer. The Kingdom of God is at hand.  And Jesus is calling you.





Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church 7/24/16


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“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 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. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.” – Luke 1:39-56


Today the lectionary has given me a choice between two beautiful, deeply moving topics to talk about: love, represented by our final Advent candle; or Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which we just heard read from the book of Luke.

The gifts of Advent – Hope, and Peace, and Joy, and Love – we need these right now. And in a very real way we are looking forward to them. When the world’s celebration of ‘Sparkle Season’ ends, our Christmas begins, because the Prince of Peace will finally be here.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! We’re still a few days away from Christmas. So today I want to take a few minutes to stop and listen to Mary’s song. I wish I could sing it for you because it’s been set to music so beautifully… but the words will have to do.

Luke tells us when Mary became pregnant with Jesus she – immediately and with great joy – traveled south from Galilee, where she and Joseph lived, to the hill country of Judea near Jerusalem to visit her relative Elizabeth. In those days that would have been a difficult journey, about 80 miles on foot, and not a very safe road. Mary probably did not travel alone but Luke doesn’t mention any other people. In fact in this entire reading Joseph and Zechariah are conspicuous by their absence. I imagine they were probably there, somewhere in the background – maybe they were working on adding a nursery to Zechariah’s house! We don’t know.

But this much seems clear: there is no way Elizabeth could have known that Mary was pregnant! There were no letters sent, no emails, no posting of sonograms on Facebook, not even word of mouth because Mary wasn’t showing yet and Joseph, if he knew about it at this point, hadn’t told anyone.

Zechariah and Elizabeth both knew their baby was a gift from God, and that he would be born to prepare the way for the Messiah – the angel of the Lord had told Zechariah that. And Mary knew about Elizabeth’s miracle pregnancy – the angel Gabriel had told Mary about that. But there’s no way Elizabeth could have known Mary was expecting, or that Mary’s baby was going to be the one her son John was preparing the way for… until Mary’s greeting made John leap for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.

Isn’t it amazing the connection between a mother and child, even in the womb? At the sound of Mary’s voice, John leaps around (“like a spring lamb” is the direct translation) and immediately Elizabeth knows. And the Holy Spirit gives her the words to say: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And she calls Mary “the mother of my Lord”. Elizabeth confirms for Mary what the angel told her – not because Mary doubts the angel’s message, but because it’s good to hear it from a second source. Mary is now no longer alone in her faith. She’s not carrying the Messiah alone any more. She has a relative who knows God’s truth and who loves her and supports her. And God knows we need that: much as we need God, we need other people too, and God provides what Mary and Elizabeth both need. Mary has Elizabeth’s support, and Elizabeth has Mary’s physical help through her last three months of pregnancy.

After Elizabeth speaks, Mary herself is filled with the Holy Spirit – which, by the way, there is a lot of Holy Spirit annointing going on in this chapter: in the first chapter of Luke alone, Zechariah and Elizabeth are filled with the Holy Spirit, and the angel foretells that John the Baptist will be filled with the Holy Spirit and that Mary will be filled with the Holy Spirit, so there’s a lot of Holy Spirit inspired stuff going on – anyway Mary, filled with the Spirit, sings a song of praise, in very simple language in the original, but with a depth of understanding that ties the Old Testament to the New Testament and a depth of perception that has confounded scholars ever since. She sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…”

The song is familiar, and the tradtional translation is a comfort to our ears and hearts. But for the sake of clarity I’d like to look at a fresh translation from The Message Bible. In it Mary says:

“I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.”

This modern translation is very accurate, and in its accuracy it tends to shine a spotlight on two things in Mary’s song: the first is the relationship of Israel to God being that of God’s child. The older translation says “servant Israel” and while that’s not wrong, the Greek word paedos is the word we get pediatric from; it speaks of a father-child relationship. So “child Israel” is closer to the intended meaning.

The second is God’s elevating the poor and the lowly and putting down the rich and the proud. A couple of comments on that:

First: as Bible Gateway online points out, “Mary’s remarks are often misinterpreted in two directions.” (a) Some read them as a reference to God’s defense of all the poor, all the hungry, as if being poor and hungry is somehow better spiritually. This misses the point Mary makes when she says “God’s mercy is on those who fear Him…”. (b) On the other hand, people sometimes water down Mary’s message and spiritualize it – interpreting her to mean the poor and hungry in spirit. This, while true, also misses the point, because Mary is talking about God’s mercy to the literal poor and the literal hungry.

Secondly, what makes Mary’s words about the poor and the rich hard to hear is they beg the question: where do we find ourselves? Where do I find myself? Are we the poor and the lowly? Or are we the rich and the powerful? Maybe we’re a little bit of both? How will God measure us? These questions bother me. And it’s comforting to know Jesus’ disciples were bothered by them too. When Jesus remarked how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven, the disciples’ immediate reaction was “who then can be saved?”

Mary’s song answers that question: “His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him.” That’s the deciding factor: not what’s in our wallets but what’s in our hearts.

Which brings to mind a poem I heard years ago. The poem is a prayer, and it compares entering the Kingdom of Heaven with visiting a playground. Let me share part of it with you:
(* the sermon left out the verses in brackets – too many ‘British-isms’ to explain that would have been offtopic)

by Adrian Plass

Oh God, I’m not anxious to snuff it,
but when the Grim Reaper reaps me,
I’ll try to rely on
my vision of Zion;
I know how I want it to be.

As soon as You greet me in Heaven,
and ask what I’d like, I shall say,
“I just want a chance
for my spirit to dance;
I want to be able to play.”

Tell the angels to build a soft playground
designed and equipped just for me.
With a vertical slide
that’s abnormally wide
and oceans of green PVC.

There’ll be reinforced netting to climb on,
and rubberized floors that will bend.
And no one can die
so I needn’t be shy
if I’m tempted to land on a friend!

[I’m gonna go mad in the soft, squashy mangle,
and balmy with balls in the swamp
colored and spherical,
I’ll be hysterical!
I’ll have a heavenly romp!]

There’ll be cushions and punch bags and tires
in purple and yellow and red,
and a mushroomy thing
that will suddenly sing
if I kick it or sit on its head.

[There’ll be fountains of squash and ribina
to feed my continual thirst,
and none of that stuff
about “You’ve had enough,”
surely heavenly bladders won’t burst.]

I suppose I might be too tall for the entrance
but Lord, chuck the rules in the bin.
If I am too large,
tell the angel in charge
to let me bow down and come in.

That is my prayer for all of us this Christmas as we approach the manger: that God will allow each one of us to ‘bow down and come in’. This is what God invites all people everywhere to do, through Mary’s song, and through the coming of Jesus into our world. AMEN.

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 12/20/15


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“So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me – that is my petition – and the lives of my people – that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.

“Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

“Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.” – Esther 7:1-6, 9-10 and 9:20-22


This past week our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrated Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) which is the highest holy day in the Jewish calendar. It’s a time of repentance and celebration of God’s forgiveness.

So it’s kind of a strange time of year to be talking about Purim, because Purim takes place in early spring. But our reading for today is from the book of Esther, and the book of Esther tells the story of how the holiday of Purim got started, so we’ll be looking at Purim today, even though it’s not quite the right time of year.

The name Purim comes from casting lots – which happens in the story, and is a form of gambling sort of like tossing dice. A “lot” in Hebrew is called pur and if you have more than one lot it’s called purim. So the name of the holiday recalls a time when the fate of the Jewish people hung on a roll of the dice.

But before we look at the story of Esther let me backtrack a little. Last week the Old Testament lesson was Proverbs 31. I know most of us here in the Partnership preach on the New Testament most of the time so you probably didn’t get a sermon on Proverbs 31 last week… but it relates to this week’s reading so bear with me and I’ll do a quick review.

Proverbs 31 is that famous chapter at the end of the book of Proverbs that talks about the “good wife” or the “worthy wife”. It describes a woman who gets up before dawn, makes clothing, buys food for her household, gives the servants work to do, buys a vineyard and plants it, and makes goods and sells them in the marketplace. Proverbs 31 often is preached like it’s a to-do list for Christian women… but in fact it was written by the Queen Mother to her son, the King of Israel, as dating advice. In other words, she’s saying ‘here’s what to look for in a queen’. Most women – then and now – don’t have the time or the financial resources to do everything the woman in Proverbs 31 does.

What Proverbs 31 does offer us is a concept of what the Hebrews called the eshet chayil – the woman of valor (and of course the corresponding esh chayil, the man of valor). Men and women of valor are people who seek God’s wisdom and live by it. Two of the greatest examples in the Old Testament are Ruth and Boaz. Ruth was a foreigner who gave up everything she had to support her mother-in-law after they both lost their husbands – she was called an eshet chayil by Boaz for the loving care she showed her mother-in-law. And Boaz, an esh chayil, rather than taking advantage of Ruth in her poverty, marries her, and together they become the great-grandparents of King David. Boaz and Ruth are two average, everyday people – a farmer and a housewife – who seek to live life God’s way, in wisdom and honor, and so Scripture calls them ‘man of valor’ and ‘woman of valor’.

Esther is another example of an eshet chayil, a woman of valor. She is orphaned as a child and is raised by her uncle, whose name is Mordecai. The two of them live, not in Israel, but in Babylon. Four generations before Esther was born, Israel was conquered and the people were carried off as captives to Babylon. Two generations before Esther was born, one of the kings of Babylon allowed the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild Jerusalem, but many chose not to go back. Jerusalem lay in ruins; life there was hard; and they had settled in to their new country and started new lives so they chose to stay.

And so the story of Esther begins in the winter capital of Babylon, the walled city of Susa, where King Xerxes of Babylon is holding a banquet.

King Xerxes was one of the most powerful rulers the world has ever known. We Westerners tend to look back to the Roman Empire, forgetting there was once an empire even greater than that. Xerxes ruled almost half the population of the planet at that time in history. His empire stretched from modern-day India in the east, to Egypt in the west (he was Pharoah of Egypt as well as Emperor of Babylon), and from Rumania and Greece in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south.

To say that King Xerxes was rich and powerful would like saying Pittsburghers think black and gold in an okay color combination. In fact, somewhere in Xerxes’ kingdom – nobody knows exactly where – were the ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Xerxes controlled unimaginable wealth. And just to remind people of this, as if they needed reminding, Xerxes held a banquet for his officials and military officers, that lasted for 180 days. They partied for half a year without stopping! And when it was all over, he held another banquet! This one was a only week long but the entire city was invited. The party went on, and the wine flowed…

One of the ancient historians wrote about the Persian empire:

“the Persians drank wine in large quantities and used it even for counsel, deliberating on important affairs when drunk, and deciding the next day, when sober, whether to act on the decision or set it aside.”

What a way to run a country!

But this is pretty much what happens in the book of Esther. At the end of the seven-day banquet, when the king and his friends were drunk, King Xerxes calls the queen to come join them so all his buddies can see how beautiful she is. The queen, who was holding a banquet of her own for all the women, refused to come. So the men started a drunken debate about what should be done to a queen who refuses to come when she’s called.

Long story short, they decided not to kill her for treason but rather to take away her crown and exile her from the king’s presence. She can never see the king again. And what’s more, the king orders all his friends to go out into his great empire and gather up the most beautiful virgins they can find and present them to the king so he can choose a new queen.

This sounds good to all the men, so they go out and start collecting up beautiful women and bringing them to the palace. And Esther, being a very beautiful young woman, is one of the hundreds of women rounded up and brought to the palace. All these women go through a year of living in the palace and being bathed in oils and perfumes before they are presented to the king. And one by one they go and spend a night with the king, and afterwards they’re sent to another part of the palace where they live with the concubines.

When Esther’s turn comes, the king falls in love, and decides to make her his queen.

While all this has been going on, Esther’s uncle Mordecai has been worried about her and has been sitting outside the palace every day talking to the servants to get news about his niece. While he’s doing this he happens to overhear a couple of servants plotting to kill the king. He immediately tells Esther, Esther tells the king giving credit to Mordecai, the king’s life is saved.

Some time later the king appoints an evil man named Haman to be what’s essentially the prime minister of the country. Haman can’t stand Mordecai, because Mordecai (out of all the people in Xerxes’ kingdom) is the only person who refuses to kneel to Haman. Haman hates Mordecai so much that it’s not enough for him to make plans to kill Mordecai. He decides he’s going to wipe out all of Mordecai’s people… all the Jews in the whole Persian Empire.

(Historical side note: Nazi Germany is not the first country in history to attempt to wipe out the Jewish people. What I find interesting is Hitler hated the book of Esther and tried to have it banned. He did not allow it to be read anywhere where the Nazis were in power. I wonder if he saw himself in the character of Haman…? But back to the story…)

So Haman goes to the king and says “these people the Jews don’t obey your laws, they insist on following their own laws and their own God, they’re a trouble to the kingdom, they should be wiped out”. The king gives Haman his signet ring and says “do whatever seems good to you.” So Haman sets a date when all Babylonians are to take up arms and kill the Jews, and he sets the date by casting the purim.

Mordecai hears about this, and tells Queen Esther, and tells her to talk to the king on behalf of her people. He says to her, “who knows but that you have come to the throne for such a time as this?”

There’s just one problem: by Persian law, nobody is allowed into the king’s presence except by the king’s command. To come to the king without being called is punishable by death… unless the king holds out the scepter of mercy. So Esther sends word to Mordecai: tell the people to fast and pray for me for three days and then I will go to the king, and whatever happens, happens.

Turns out the king is very fond of Esther, so he holds out the scepter, and asks her what she wants, and she says, “please come, you and Haman, to a banquet I have prepared.” (What a great move! – she knows what he likes.) The next night, over dinner, the king asks her again, “Esther, what can I do for you?”, she says “the two of you – please come to another banquet tomorrow and then I will tell you”. Then at the second banquet, the king asks a third time, “Esther, what can I do for you? Up to half my kingdom, it’s yours.” – and the rest of the story we heard in today’s reading. Esther reveals that she is Jewish (the king didn’t know that) and that Haman’s plot would kill her as well as her people, and she begs the king for all of their lives. Haman is hung on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai, the people of God are saved, and Purim becomes a holiday that is still celebrated today.

It’s a fascinating story, but it makes you wonder why it’s included in the Bible. I mean, God is never mentioned, or the Holy Spirit, or faith-hope-and-love, or holiness… where is God in all this?

Two answers I would give to that question:

  1. The story can be read as an allegory:
    1. Haman is like Satan: evil personified. His plans are to wipe out God’s people by deceit and deception. Why? Because, like Mordecai, God’s people refuse to kneel to anyone but the true king.
    2. Some of the things Esther does foreshadow things Jesus will do: she leaves a loving home to enter into the lives of fallen people; Jesus leaves heaven to enter into our world. Esther opens her heart to Gentiles; Jesus opens God’s kingdom to Gentiles. Esther risks her life to save her people; Jesus gives his life to save his people. Esther suffers in silence for three days and three nights while Haman does his evil work; Jesus is in the grave three days and three nights while Satan does his evil work. And in the end Haman is defeated and God’s people are saved by Esther’s courageous actions; and in the end all who believe are saved by Jesus’ courage and sacrifice on the cross.
      (I’m not saying that Esther is a messiah, only that her actions parallel some of Jesus’ actions. Parallels like this happen frequently in the Old Testament and should be noted when they do.)
  2. The other way we can understand God in this story is that God is present, unseen, working behind the scenes to bring about salvation for God’s people. God puts the right people in the right places at the right time. God’s will and God’s plans will not be thwarted, not even by the richest man in the world, or the most evil man in the world.

So what does this story of ancient Babylon have to say to us in the 21st century?

First off, looking at Babylon – is our world really all that different? Do we not live in a culture that obsesses about the body, what we eat, what we drink, what we wear, how can we stop eating carbs? Do we not live in a culture that neglects spiritual needs… a world of gossip and intrigue, where false accusations lead to the arrest of the innocent? Is our time really all that different?

Secondly, one Jewish writer said of the story of Esther:

“The hedonism of the prevailing Persian culture was part of the air [the Jewish people] breathed. It dulled our senses…”

We also live in a hedonistic culture, and it dulls our senses. We need to let God wake us up… to open our eyes to perceive and our ears to hear what God would say to us.

Third, Esther and Mordecai were people of valor. They risked their lives to take a stand for what was right. If we ever find ourselves doubting that one or two ordinary, everyday people can make a difference, this story reminds us that every person matters.

Above all, the story of Esther reminds us that God is in control. God can even work through a bunch of partying royals to elevate a woman of God to the throne and bring about salvation for God’s people. No matter what happens in the world, God will save God’s people.

Whenever we see trouble in the world, we need to pray and then act (and it is in that order… pray first then act) putting everything in the trustworthy hands of the King of Kings.

The website beingjewish.com says that “Essentially, Purim is about how G-d is hidden in everything. G-d performs miracles for us, all behind the scenes.” This is the same God we serve and worship and love today. Let us be God’s people – let us be women and men of valor. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/27/15


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Scripture Readings:
Exodus 20:1-17 (The Ten Commandments)
Psalm 19:7-14
Romans 7:13-25
John 2:13-22

In Psalm 19 King David sings, “the law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, and gives wisdom to the innocent; the statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart… More to be desired are they than gold… sweeter far than honey…”

In one way or another all of our scripture readings for this morning are about the “Law of the Lord”.  The Old Testament passage is the Ten Commandments; the lesson from Romans talks about how impossible it is to keep the commandments; and in the Gospel reading John shows us a picture of God’s law in action.

I could easily spend a half hour on each reading!  For now, though, I want to focus on something King David said in the Psalm.  He describes God’s law as “sweeter than honey, and the drippings of the honeycomb.”

This description jumps out at me because when I read God’s laws – when I read the Ten Commandments – that’s not the reaction I have.  I respect God’s law.  I honor it, because it helps avoid life’s pitfalls, helps me live well. And like David, I believe the law of God is something we can depend on.  It’s a foundation to build life on.  In fact it’s the foundation of many secular laws both in America and in Europe.  If it were OK to steal, murder, cheat on one’s spouse, and make false accusations against other people in court, life would be hellish.  So God’s laws are good… but sweet is not exactly the word that comes to mind.

Another reaction I have to the Ten Commandments is a sense of familiarity.  These words are something I’ve known since I was a kid.  They’ve always been there, part of the fabric of life. So God’s laws are foundational… but again sweet is not really the word.

A third reaction I have to God’s law is a sense of failure, especially being aware of how Jesus interprets the law. Jesus said things like “You have heard it said… ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” (Matt 5:21-22).  I may never have murdered anyone, but never being angry with someone?  I’m not that good.  In our Psalm for today David prays, “who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me from my secret faults… let them not get dominion over me.”  That’s real… because the nature of sin IS to get dominion over us.  Every one of us fails to live up to God’s standards in one way or another.  And the Bible says the penalty for breaking God’s law is death.  No way is that sweet!

When we come face to face with God’s excellence, and then look at ourselves and how flawed we are, we can be tempted to despair.  But in our New Testament lesson Paul provides us with an answer to this predicament.  He writes, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25)  Or as he says in his letter to the Corinthians, “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (I Cor 15:57)  Because Paul knows, as we know, that Jesus gave his life to give us the victory over sin and death.

Jesus’ victory is sweet.  But does it make the Law sweet?  In my mind, not yet.

I would submit for your consideration that the sweetness of God’s law is not in the reading or in the understanding or even in the repenting, but in the living.  Let me offer two examples.

The first example is found in our Gospel reading for this morning.  The tale of Jesus turning over tables and throwing animal sellers out of the temple is an odd scene.  Very rarely in scripture do we see Jesus angry, and for this reason a lot of modern scholars have attempted to debunk this story, tried to take the teeth out of it.  I think they do both Jesus and us a disservice when they do this. Here’s why.

Imagine for a moment that we are an extended family living in Israel in Jesus’ day.  It’s time for the Passover, so we (along with every other Jewish family in the country) prepare to make the journey to Jerusalem. When we get there we will worship, confess our sins, sacrifice a sin offering in the temple, and then celebrate our redemption and freedom. The journey takes many days over rough terrain.  Donkeys carry the very old and the very young, and we bring extra animals with us to sacrifice. We climb up Mount Zion, singing Psalms to keep our minds off the difficulties of the journey. We finally make it to the top of the mountain and see the great city of Jerusalem.  We locate our hotel and get settled in.

The next morning we take our sacrificial animals over to the temple.  The city is packed.  We finally make it to the outer courts of the temple and we get in line to enter.  The air is hot, dry, dusty, and smelly.  The kids are nagging: “What’s taking so long? When are we going in?”

The outer court where we are standing is where the Gentiles are supposed to worship… but there’s no worship going on here!  Instead the priests and their workers have set up tables where our animals will be inspected. It says in the law of Moses that animals sacrificed to God can’t have any blemishes, so the priests inspect.  Most of the time they find blemishes.  That’s what happens to our animals.  They can’t be sacrificed.  We have to go buy unblemished animals, so we are directed to the next set of tables. Here we can buy cows, sheep or doves, depending on what we can afford.  (It’s a matter of status.)  The prices for all of them are sky-high, but we have no other options.  We have to buy one for each family.

So we pull out our sack of coins… and the man at the table says, “Wait, wait… we can’t take that kind of money.  Only temple coins can be used to buy things in the temple.  The money-changers are over there.”

So we go to the next table to change our money.  The exchange rate is outrageous – highway robbery. But we have no choice.  The sacrifice has to be made.  We are barely going to have enough money for the trip home.

Suddenly, just before we exchange the coins, Jesus of Nazareth storms into the temple courtyard.  We’ve heard about this man.  They say he works miracles – heals blind people, brings the dead back to life.  He’s shouting “My father’s house is supposed to be a house of prayer! And you have made it a den of robbers!”

And he knocks over the money-changer’s tables.  Coins are flying everywhere!  Then he shouts “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” and He goes over to where the animals are being sold, and he sets them all free!  Cows and sheep are running every which way!  Doves are filling the air!  Children are laughing, people are cheering, and at last we can all enter the temple.  We can celebrate the Passover with our families just like in the old days.

How sweet is this?  It’s an end to injustice. Freedom from oppression.  The way God meant it to be.  Jesus has made a way for people to approach God without being cheated.  And then after the sacrifice we sit down to feast with our whole extended family.  Let the celebrations begin!

God’s law, when it is lived, is sweet.

Here’s a second example from a little closer to home.  Last Sunday for the first time I took a close look at the stained glass windows in this church.  They are a message to us from the parents and grandparents and great-grandparents of this parish.

The tradition of stained glass windows began in the Middle Ages when most people couldn’t read… so the great stories of the Bible were told in pictures instead.  The founders of this church honored that tradition and these windows tell us what they believed.  Their choice of pictures – because there are many, many passages they could have chosen to illustrate – tells us what they thought it was important we should know.  It cost them a great deal to leave these stories for us but for them it was worth it.

This morning we are going to obey the commandment, “honor thy father and thy mother” by listening to what they have to say.

The windows in this church, taken together as a group, tell the story of Jesus’ life and our salvation.

The story begins in the back of the church, where we enter the building.  The first window shows the Annunciation: the angel coming to Mary and telling her “you will be the mother of God’s son”.  The angel is holding lilies over Mary’s head to indicate her purity.  In the window next to it we see that prediction coming true as Jesus is born in the manger, with Mary and Joseph and the animals at His side.

Stained glass windows

Annunciation and Birth of Jesus

The next pair of windows shows Jesus turning water into wine – his first miracle – and someone being blessed and healed in the temple.  The first miracle puts us in mind of communion, and is a foreshadowing of what is to come.  The second shows Jesus’ willingness to forgive and to heal.  In both of these windows one thing stands out: Jesus’ hands.  We have a God with hands — a God who isn’t ashamed to touch us as we are.

First Miracle and Healing

In the next pair we see Jesus calling disciples by the Sea of Galilee.  These are fishermen – we can see the boat in the background – probably Peter and Andrew.  In the next window we see Jesus surrounded by children.  It brings to mind Jesus’ saying “let the little children come to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven”.  In both of these windows we see that God does not show preference for the strong and the rich but rather for the average working person and for the smallest and least of people.

Calling the Disciples and Let the Children Come

On the other side of the aisle we see Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.  The Holy Spirit is above Jesus descending on him like a dove.  Baptism is something that is meant to wash away sins… so Jesus didn’t need to be baptized.  But he was willing to become one of us and identify with us in every way, so he did it anyway.  In the next window we see the Transfiguration – Jesus on the mountain talking to Moses and Elijah.  This brings to mind the words of Jesus “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them.”

Baptism of Jesus and Transfiguration

In the next pair of windows we see Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what has become known as Palm Sunday.  A few days later, we see Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He is praying while his disciples sleep, and we see the cup before him (figuratively) as he prays “let this cup pass from me, but not my will but Thine be done”.

Triumphal Entry and Garden of Gethsemane

The story continues in the window above the altar.  This window is placed in the most prominent place in the sanctuary because it is the heart and soul of the story.  We see the Last Supper, with Jesus holding the cup and the bread on the table in front of him.  Above that we see a Bishop’s mitre.  The mitre could be interpreted a number of ways, but I take it to mean Jesus has become our great high priest – the only go-between between people and God.

The Last Supper w Mitre

Above that we see Jesus on the cross, dying in our place to take away our sins.  Two women stand at the foot of the cross bearing witness.  Above that we see a Bishop’s staff – which is shaped like a shepherd’s crook – indicating Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

Crucifixion and Shepherd's Staff

And then finally the last window, tucked away above the choir. Here is the victory!  Jesus is alive!  We see the nail scars in His hand and feet, but the grave can’t hold him.


These are the things our parents and grandparents wanted us to know.  And whenever we share the story of Jesus, either here or outside the walls of the church, especially outside these walls… we obey God’s commandment to honor our fathers and our mothers.  How sweet is that?

The sweetness of God’s law is in the living.  By the power of the Holy Spirit may we live it more and more. AMEN.

Sermon given at Church of the Atonement, Carnegie, March 11 2012

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Recommended by friend and Anglican priest Christina V, this article talks about who Mary the mother of Jesus really was and what she was really like.  Not quite the way she is portrayed in many churches… not quite the kind of role model Christian women are often told to emulate.  Rather, an amazing woman of chutzpah, courageous beyond the power of words to describe: Hail Mary, Bad-Ass Queen of Heaven.  Check it out!

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Do you want to experience a truly joyful Christmas?  Would you like this holiday season to be full of meaning and good memories?

The key to celebrating a Christmas full of wonder is refusing to celebrate Christmas before it gets here.  Celebrate today the holidays that are here today.  As George Harrison once sang, “Be Here Now”.  Ignore the commercials and the chintzy store decorations and carve out time for Thanksgiving and Advent. Because it is Advent that gives meaning to Christmas, and Thanksgiving is the way to approach it.

I will be writing more on Advent in the next few weeks, but for now, being “here now”, we are leading up to Advent — preparing for a season of preparation.

At Church of the Atonement’s Wednesday afternoon healing services we have been working our way through the Wednesday readings of the Anglican Daily Office (a schedule of scripture readings designed to enable a person to read the entire Bible every two years).  For the past few months the lessons have been reviewing the history of ancient Israel: from the glory days of Kings David and Solomon, to the perverse days of Ahaz and Jezebel, to the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, to the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the temple under the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah.

Today’s scripture reading continues the history.  It is taken from the book of I Maccabees, from a portion of the Bible most Protestants never see: the Apocrypha.  Even if it doesn’t have the same “weight” as the Old and New Testaments (which some would dispute), the Apocrypha has some salient teaching moments, and this is one of them:

“Now Judas and his brothers saw that misfortunes had increased and that the forces were encamped in their territory. They also learned what the king had commanded to do to the people to cause their final destruction.  But they said to one another, “Let us repair the destruction of our people, and fight for our people and the sanctuary.”  And the congregation assembled to be ready for battle, and to pray and ask for mercy and compassion.  Jerusalem was uninhabited like a wilderness; not one of her children went in or out. The sanctuary was trampled down, and the sons of aliens held the citadel; it was a lodging place for the Gentiles. Joy was taken from Jacob; the flute and the harp ceased to play.  So they assembled and went to Mizpah, opposite Jerusalem, because Israel formerly had a place of prayer in Mizpah.  They fasted that day, put on sackcloth and sprinkled ashes on their heads, and rent their clothes.  And they opened the book of the law to inquire into those matters about which the Gentiles were consulting the images of their idols.  They also brought the garments of the priesthood and the first fruits and the tithes, and they stirred up the Nazirites who had completed their days;  and they cried aloud to Heaven, saying, “What shall we do with these? Where shall we take them?  Thy sanctuary is trampled down and profaned, and thy priests mourn in humiliation.  And behold, the Gentiles are assembled against us to destroy us; thou knowest what they plot against us.  How will we be able to withstand them, if thou dost not help us?”  Then they sounded the trumpets and gave a loud shout.  After this Judas appointed leaders of the people, in charge of thousands and hundreds and fifties and tens.  And he said to those who were building houses, or were betrothed, or were planting vineyards, or were fainthearted, that each should return to his home, according to the law.  Then the army marched out and encamped to the south of Emmaus.  And Judas said, “Gird yourselves and be valiant. Be ready early in the morning to fight with these Gentiles who have assembled against us to destroy us and our sanctuary.  59 It is better for us to die in battle than to see the misfortunes of our nation and of the sanctuary.  But as his will in heaven may be, so he will do.””
— I Maccabees 3:42-60

The Judas being written about here is not Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus, but rather Judas of the Maccabean family who led a successful revolt against the ancient Greeks. After the temple was rebuilt and the nation of Israel returned to their land, the Israelites only had peace for about another two hundred years.  Then the Persian Empire fell to Alexander the Great of Greece (332BC).  Being somewhat on the fringes of the Grecian empire, Israel was left pretty much to itself for awhile; but a few generations later Antiochian Greeks came to power in Judea and tried to wipe out the Jewish people.  This is the backdrop against which the passage above takes place.  The Maccabean rebellions were eventually successful in 167BC.  Victory was only partial though, and only lasted for another 100 years.  In 63BC Greece and everything else around the Mediterranean Sea fell to the legions of Rome.

So much for the history lesson.  Where does God come into play in all this? The passage above only speaks of God once, and then in a very fatalistic tone: “It is better for us to die in battle than to see the misfortunes of our nation and of the sanctuary.  But as his will in heaven may be, so he will do.”

Where God can be found is in the events that happen next.  First, God gives the Maccabees victory over the invaders.  Jerusalem and its temple are secured.

And then, as history continues to unfold, God uses kings and peoples who have never heard of him to bring about his plan.  Under the influence of Alexander and his successors, Greek becomes the default international language — the language in which the New Testament will be written.  Then Rome takes over and builds the greatest infrastructure the world has seen to date.  And physically, Jerusalem finds itself at the center of the known world, with major roads leading south to Egypt, east to India, and north and west to Greece, Rome, and as far as Spain.  And it is Rome whose government policies will cause a young Mary and Joseph to make the long and difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, just a stone’s throw from Jerusalem.

The stage is set.  The way is prepared for God’s Messiah to bring salvation to all the world.  And we are standing on the doorstep of Advent.

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The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

– Psalm 23 ESV, a psalm of David

“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want…”  These words – and the words that follow – have touched peoples’ hearts for over 3000 years.  Many of us learned the Shepherd’s Psalm as children and have returned to it for comfort as adults.  The words give us a feeling of being home and at rest.

As a musician I can’t hear the 23rd Psalm without hearing melody.  It’s been set to music many times… which is appropriate because the Psalter was ancient Israel’s hymnal.  And King David was one of its greatest songwriters.

I believe there’s music to be found in the context of the psalm as well.  It’s kind of unusual to talk about context in the Psalms… in fact Biblical scholars might think “there is no context in the psalms” and in a sense they’d be right.  But even in our hymnals today songs are grouped together, with Christmas songs in one place, Easter songs in another, and so on.  I think to some extent the ancient editors of the Psalter tried to do the same thing.  So I think what we’re about to see is not so much coincidence as it is ‘God-incidence’.  If you will, grab a Bible and follow with me and see if you can see what I’m seeing and hear what I’m hearing.  Beginning with Psalm 22…

But first, a little bit of background: those of you who have ever been to the symphony might have heard a concerto while you were there.  A concerto is a large work for orchestra in three sections or movements.  And the movements are usually arranged: Fast –> Slow –> Really Fast.  The first movement is usually upbeat, drawing the listener in.  The second movement is usually quiet and introspective, and the third movement is a grand conclusion that sweeps the audience to its feet.  And I think that’s basically what we have here in Psalms 22, 23, and 24: they’re like a three-movement concerto.  Only this concerto is the greatest concerto ever written: it’s the song of our salvation.

OK so… a concerto usually opens upbeat and bright.  Usually.  But every now and then a composer will open in a minor key, brooding and dark.  And when that happens it’s signal to the audience that what you’re about to hear is meant to be taken seriously and listened to carefully.

And that’s what we have here in Psalm 22.  The psalm opens with a darkness that takes our breath away: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  These words touch the depths of human sorrow.  They describe the experience of someone who has been betrayed, put to shame, and who is in pain.  And we recognize the speaker.  Jesus quoted these words from the cross, identifying himself as the person King David was writing about.

Psalm 22 goes on to describe the scene at Calvary 1000 years before it happened.  Look at verse 8: “He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, if he delights in him.”  These exact words are found in Matthew 27:43 – it’s what the chief priests and scribes said as Jesus was hanging on the cross.  Look at verse 16: “they pierce my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones”.  This describes crucifixion… something David had never witnessed.  Look at verse 17: “they divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing” – which is exactly what the Roman soldiers did in Matthew 27:35.  Our concerto of salvation begins with the death of our Lord: in darkness and pain and suffering.

Psalm 24, the third movement, ends with a rousing conclusion of victory!  Take a look at verse 7: “Lift up your heads, O gates; lift them high everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in!”  George Frederick Handel quoted these lines in his oratorio Messiah.  “Who is this King of Glory?” Who is the King of Glory?  The same suffering servant we met in Psalm 22.  God has restored his life and made him King over all creation.  And so the greatest concerto ever written ends with the greatest victory the universe has ever seen.

And in between these two movements… in between the pain and darkness and the shining victory… is a tender song, Psalm 23, the song of the shepherd.  Actually it’s a song sung by the sheep.  It is a song we sing in between the cross and the crown.  This is where we live.

Psalm 23 is a song of trust and quiet confidence. And it begins and ends with the Lord.  Verse 1, “the Lord is my shepherd” and verse 6 “the house of the Lord”.  That’s deliberate – it’s a device ancient Jewish writers used to use.  Our lives begin and end with God, and the Lord Jesus is a shepherd who knows our lives first-hand so we can trust Him to guide us through.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”.  We are confident that God will provide all we need.  This confidence is not a blind confidence: we are confident for the future because God has been faithful in the past.  King David, as he was writing this psalm, could look over the scope of Israel’s history, from the Exodus to his day, and see God’s provision in the whole thing.  And as he says in Psalm 37:25, “I have been young and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.”  Isn’t that our story too?

“He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.”  God’s provision is not only abundant, it’s good, and we eat and drink in safe places.  “He restores my soul” – at the end of a long week when we’ve had the mud of the world tramped through our souls we can come to the Good Shepherd and He will restore us.  Our souls are his masterpiece, the work of his hands, so he knows how to smooth the rough edges and clean off the dirt of the world and restore us (for lack of a better phrase) to factory specs.  Granted, being restored to factory specs is a process that will take a lifetime… but we see progress and we can trust God to finish what he has started.

“He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” – for his name’s sake.  Not because we’ve done anything to deserve his attention, but because God is our creator, full of sympathy and mercy.  He leads us in what’s right because doing so is a part of who he is.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”  Notice David doesn’t say “if” I walk though the valley of the shadow of death.  He says “though”.  He’s already there… and so are we.  We live in the valley of the shadow of death, because everything in this world will someday die.  People, animals, plants, trees, corporations, institutions, nations… everything will someday die, including us.  That’s the reality of living in a fallen world.  What’s worse, if you think of death in terms of separation from God, we live in a world that promotes death, that revels in it.  We live in a world that says ‘god is dead’ and ‘do whatever you feel like’ and ‘my reality isn’t your reality’ and ‘here, spend more money on stuff you don’t need’.  We live in a world where addiction and abuse and prejudice and persecution have reached epidemic proportions.  It’s as if people want to die, or at least are afraid to live.  We walk through the valley of the shadow of death every day.

BUT (David says) “…I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  The shepherd’s rod in those days was a club for fighting off wild animals and the staff was the crook used to guide the sheep.  As we pass through the darkness of this world, we have nothing to fear as long as we are with the Shepherd.  It’s the Shepherd’s job to protect the sheep, even at the risk of his own life – which Jesus has done.  Notice too that David doesn’t say he’s not afraid… he says “I will fear no evil for you are with me”.  It’s a decision on David’s part to focus his attention on God instead of on his fears.  It’s like the saying, “don’t tell God how big your troubles are, tell your troubles how big your God is!”  That’s what David is doing.  “I shall fear no evil for you are with me.”

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…”  And what a what a feast that’s going to be!  Remember our reading from Isaiah this morning: (Isaiah 25:6) “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees…”  In other words, we’ll be dining in a 5-star restaurant while the fat cats of this world are outside pressing their faces against the glass like street urchins.  (Which by the way is a really good reason to pray for our enemies.  Do we really hate anyone so much that we would want to see them excluded from God’s feast?  Our enemies may end up excluding themselves, but before the feast-day comes we can at least pray they’ll change their minds.)

“You annoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”  In ancient Israel, annointing the head of dinner guests with oil or perfume was considered proper etiquette, at least among the upper classes who could afford it.  So all these things – the protection, the green pasture, the banquet, the perfume – represent that God will provide so richly for us, the cup of our joy will run over.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  One of my heroes of the faith, the English pastor Charles Simeon (1759-1836), commented about God’s goodness and mercy. He said, “‘goodness’ to supply my wants and ‘mercy’ to cover my defects.”  I like that.  Simeon goes on to ask: “are you bold enough to carry this confidence beyond the grave?”  If so (he says) “while all the rest are following after happiness and it eludes their grasp: those who believe in Jesus have happiness following after them.” [italics in the original] That is the correct translation of this verse: the words ‘shall follow me’ actually translate more like ‘shall chase after me’.  Goodness and mercy will chase after me all the days of my life.  God’s lovingkindness runs after us like the father of the Prodigal Son ran to meet his son.  As His children we couldn’t escape his goodness and mercy if we tried (not that we would want to).  And when our time on earth is done, by his goodness and mercy we will move from Psalm 23 into Psalm 24 – ascending the hill of the Lord, celebrating his victory.

So Psalm 23 is the gentle, quiet second movement in the concerto of salvation: a song of confidence and trust.  No matter what happens, no matter what we see around us, no matter who lets us down, we can trust Jesus.  The Good Shepherd has given his life for our protection, to restore our souls, and to give us a place in his house forever.  Trust Him.  AMEN.

~ Preached at Church of the Atonement, 10/9/11, 8:00AM service ~

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“And David said, “Is there still any one left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?”  Now there was a servant of the house of Saul whose name was Ziba, and they called him to David; and the king said to him, “Are you Ziba?” And he said, “Your servant is he.”  And the king said, “Is there not still some one of the house of Saul, that I may show the kindness of God to him?” Ziba said to the king, “There is still a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in his feet.”  The king said to him, “Where is he?” And Ziba said to the king, “He is in the house of Machir the son of Ammiel, at Lodebar.”  Then King David sent and brought him from the house of Machir the son of Ammiel, at Lodebar.  And Mephibosheth the son of Jonathan, son of Saul, came to David, and fell on his face and did obeisance. And David said, “Mephibosheth!” And he answered, “Behold, your servant.”  And David said to him, “Do not fear; for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan, and I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father; and you shall eat at my table always.”  And he did obeisance, and said, “What is your servant, that you should look upon a dead dog such as I?”   Then the king called Ziba, Saul’s servant, and said to him, “All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master’s son.  And you and your sons and your servants shall till the land for him, and shall bring in the produce, that your master’s son may have bread to eat; but Mephibosheth your master’s son shall always eat at my table.” Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants.   Then Ziba said to the king, “According to all that my lord the king commands his servant, so will your servant do.” So Mephibosheth ate at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons.  And Mephibosheth had a young son, whose name was Mica. And all who dwelt in Ziba’s house became Mephibosheth’s servants.  So Mephibosheth dwelt in Jerusalem; for he ate always at the king’s table. Now he was lame in both his feet.”
– II Samuel 9:1-13


This is one of my favorite stories in all the Old Testament.  It’s a kind of postscript to the great friendship between David and Jonathan.  As young men David and Jonathan were inseparable, and Jonathan saved David’s life on at least one occasion.  Jonathan’s love for David was such that “he loved him as he loved his own soul” (I Sam. 20:17) and David described this deep friendship as “passing the love of women” (II Sam. 1:26).  This is a very rare and beautiful friendship, the depths of which are rarely found in scripture or in daily life: it’s a feeling of being “twin sons of different mothers”; it is a friendship marked by generosity of spirit, a self-giving love that flies in the face of personal ambition or gain or even self-preservation.

Jonathan was killed in battle alongside his father King Saul, and David mourned him deeply.  And the story above is David’s fulfillment of his promise to take care of Jonathan’s family should anything ever happen to him.  Mephibosheth was the last surviving member of Jonathan’s family: a son, who had been dropped as a child resulting in permanent damage to both feet.

In those days it was standard practice for a newly-crowned king to locate all the remaining family members of the previous king and have them killed.  This was insurance against any temptations people might have to put the old king’s family back on the throne.  And so at this meeting David quickly tells Mephibosheth not to be afraid, while Mephibosheth describes himself as “a dead dog”.  They both know what was expected.  But David does the unexpected: he restores to Mephibosheth everything that was his father’s AND his grandfather’s (except the throne) and commands that Mephibosheth “eat at the king’s table” – a privilege usually reserved for the king’s sons.  In doing this — in taking such a risk — David shows the depth of love he felt for Jonathan, Mephibosheth’s father.

But there’s more to the story than just this.  As in so many Old Testament stories, the Hebrew names have meanings which add depth and character to the story.  The names found in the story are:

  • David – “beloved”
  • Saul – “asked for” or “prayed for” – the people asked for a king
  • Jonathan – “gift of God” – which he very much was for David
  • Ziba – “army”, “fight”, or “strength” (this meaning will become clear as the history of II Samuel continues)
  • Machir – “bartered”
  • Ammiel – “God of my people”
  • Lodebar – can mean either “no pasture” or “no word”.  The latter is more common and is a euphemism for lack of wisdom: the name of the town might be roughly translated “Clueless-ville”
  • Mephibosheth – originally named Merib-baal (opponent of Ba’al), the second name is a more generic “contends with idols”.
  • Mica – “Who is like God?” or “Who is afraid?”
  • Jerusalem – “God’s Peace”

So in our story, the ‘Beloved’ remembers ‘Gift-of-God’ and searches for his son.  The son, ‘Contends-With-Idols’, is found among God’s people, but ‘bartered’ and living in the ‘City-of-Little-Wisdom’.  As ‘Contends-With-Idols’ comes to live with the ‘Beloved’ in ‘Gods-Peace’ he brings with him ‘Who-Is-Like-God/Who-Is-Afraid?’

And this brings it all home to us where we are today.

David’s action mirrors God’s loving-kindness towards us: we, people who find ourselves bartered for less than we are worth, people who live in a world of little wisdom, people who don’t know the King except perhaps as a distant and feared name, people who — where it comes to living a holy life — are about as good as a man with two lame feet.  What would God want with us?  But like David he gives us our lives, provides for our weakness, declares his love and good intentions toward us… and then invites us to his Table.  We eat and drink as one of the King’s children.  And all of this is made possible by the ‘Gift-of-God’, Jesus Christ.

If there was every any doubt, be assured of his love and kindness.  Who is like God? Who could be afraid?

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Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple.  But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.”  As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”  And Jesus answered them, “Take heed that no one leads you astray.  For many will come in my name, saying, `I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.  And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places:  all this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.   Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.  And then many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another.  And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.  And because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold.  But he who endures to the end will be saved.  And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come.”
— Matthew 24:1-14

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

Jesus said these words as he sat on the Mount of Olives, looking out across the Kidron Valley at the Temple Mount and the city of Jerusalem, sitting in just about the same spot as the photo above was taken.  The skyline of Jerusalem has changed since then, but the city wall in the midground and some of the structures below it were there in his day.

I can imagine Jesus sitting on the side of the mountain under an olive tree, tossing small stones as he reflects on the view and talks to his disciples.

The disciples remark on the magnificence of the complex of buildings that made up the Temple.  In those days the Temple would have dominated the skyline, dwarfing everything around it; yet Jesus, rather than enjoying the impressive architecture, predicts its destruction.  (Less than a generation later, in 70AD, his prediction would come true.)

This isn’t the point of the passage, but as an aside: Jesus’ words make me think how attached we religious folks often are to the buildings in which we worship.  Feelings for our “home church” are a lot like the feelings we have for the homes in which we were raised: when the time comes (as it inevitably does) that the family homestead must be sold off, there is a great feeling of loss.  How often do we drive by a home we once lived in and find it shocking that other people now live there — as if the home would always be ours?  The churches in which we were raised evoke many of the same feelings.  Yet the loss of church homes is as inevitable as the loss of old family homes.  Nothing in this life is permanent, no matter how magnificent it is.  But I think perhaps this universal experience, this feeling of I-once-lived-here-and-part-of-me-always-will, speaks of something God has planted in us, something that longs for a forever home, something designed for eternity. [end of aside]

The disciples interpret Jesus’ prediction about the Temple to be something that belongs to “the end of the age” — that is, the end times — and when they ask about it Jesus takes the opportunity to warn them about things to come.

Jesus begins and ends with warnings about deceptive leaders and false prophets who would “lead many astray”.  He doesn’t give a direct answer to the disciples’ question of when this will all happen, but he does answer their question about signs: there will be wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes (all of these being just the beginning)… followed by worldwide persecution of faithful people and a marked increase in wickedness with a resulting chilling effect on peoples’ love for one another.  Finally, the kingdom will be preached to all nations, and then the end will come.

Ever since then, people have been trying to read the signs like tea leaves to try to predict when the end will come.

I would suggest instead that Jesus’ words speak to every generation: they are a warning to us all in all times.  Every generation needs to be on guard against leaders who deceive and false teachers in the church.  In every generation there will be wars… and rumors of wars (rumors spreading even faster via cable news than they ever have before in human history)… and famines and earthquakes that test how well we care for our fellow human beings.

And I find it interesting that the signs of the *very* end — an increase in martyrdoms, an increase in wickedness, and love growing cold — are nothing like what the end times look like in popular imagination.  Forget Hollywood.  Forget Left Behind.    The martyrs, the victims of wickedness and cruelty, the people deprived of love — how few names we know, how few of their stories are ever  heard.  But God knows.   And his time is coming…

The last sign is that the kingdom will be preached to all nations.

The preaching of the kingdom of God is the central thrust of Jesus’ message.  He himself preaches “the kingdom of heaven is near — repent and believe the good news”.  He commands his followers to preach the same message. And the preaching of the kingdom is the focus of the last events on earth.

This is the good news: that wickedness and evil will not have the last word… that wars and earthquakes and famines will come to an end… that those who kill the faithful and quench the flames of love will never win.  The kingdom of heaven is — and always has been — closer than we think.  Change course and believe the good news.

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