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Luke 2:1-20  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3 All went to their own towns to be registered.  4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,  14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”  16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;  18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

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Hymn Text: O Little Town of Bethlehem

1 O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

2 For Christ is born of Mary, and, gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wond’ring love.
O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth.

3 How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.

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We made it!  Christmas is here!  The busyness is over, and what’s done is done, and what’s not done is probably not going to get done at this point.

Here at Carnegie United Methodist, over the past month, we have been observing Advent by focusing on the Songs of Advent. And we have heard in these songs – and in the scriptures they were based on – how the world has been watching and waiting for the arrival of the Saviour.  How, in our dark and weary world, we long for the light and the peace that God’s Messiah will bring.

We’ve heard in these songs how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies: the promise that a Saviour would come, from the line of David, and save God’s people; and how this Saviour came to earth and was born in a manger in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. And tonight, we celebrate: the baby has arrived!

But the ancient prophecies also promised a King: and King Jesus is yet to come. So during Advent we remembered how God sent Jesus as a baby, to save us from sin; and we also remembered that Jesus will be returning one day as King, to restore the world to God’s design.

Those of us who love Jesus, who are full of joy at his coming, are citizens of that Kingdom… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Tonight I wanted to finish out our series on the Songs of Advent by taking a look at the songs of Christmas. And I wish I had time to talk about all of them! But for tonight I’m going to focus on two: the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, and the song the angels sang in our scripture reading tonight.

So starting with the carol. “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.”  These words were written shortly after the end of the Civil War by a pastor serving a church in Philadelphia. Which is cool, because so many of our carols and hymns come from Europe – it’s nice to have one we can call our own, from our own country and our own state.  The pastor, whose name was Mr. Brooks, had recently traveled to the Holy Land and had been deeply moved by seeing Bethlehem. So he wrote a poem about it, and gave it to his organist to set to music.

The organist tells us the story in a letter that he wrote to a friend. He says, in part:

“As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas Sunday-school service, and he asked me to write the tune to it. We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, ‘have you written the music yet to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”? I replied, ‘No’ but said he would have it by Sunday. On Saturday night… my brain was all confused about the tune. […]But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the melody… and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony.” He adds: “Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol… would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.”

…and here we are, still singing it, 149 years later.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.”  If we were to go to Bethlehem tonight, it would not be quiet and still.  There would be thousands of worshipers from around the world, from every church and denomination, crammed into the city, celebrating Christmas. And the city itself, being disputed territory, is surrounded by a wall topped with barbed wire and guarded by men with machine guns, who look at every passport at every checkpoint. Even when it’s not a holiday, these days, Bethlehem is not quiet.

But 2100 years ago – was it quiet back then? Probably not, actually – because Bethlehem had thousands of visitors there for the census. There were so many people there were no more rooms available in the guest houses. And of course there were always Roman soldiers around, with their swords and their armor.  And in the middle of all this a young couple arrives, with the woman clearly in labor – and quickly the midwives gather, and they clear a spot near the manger, and the baby is born and cries out, and all that doesn’t happen quietly either.

Back then, just like it is today, the world is in darkness and confusion and there is no peace.

But on the hillsides around Bethlehem it was quiet.  There were sheep on the hills and shepherds to look after them.  Far from the crowds of the city, peaceful among the tall grass and olive trees, the men watched over their flocks.

All of a sudden the peace of the night was shattered when a heavenly being appeared! The Bible never tells us exactly what angels look like, but going by how people reacted to them – they must look a bit fierce.  In the Bible, whenever an angel appears, people tremble, or fall to their knees, or sometimes faint dead away. So the first word out of the angel’s mouth is “Fear not!” Don’t be afraid. And something in the way the angel speaks gives courage to those who hear.

I think the angel’s word to us tonight is also “Fear not”.  Fear not, in the darkness. Fear not, in these violent times. Why?  Because…

“I bring you good news of great joy, which will be for all the people.”

Great joy. Joy is a word we hardly ever use any more, except at Christmas-time.  I think we may be in danger of losing the meaning of the word. Joy is not just happiness or pleasure – in fact some have said that happiness and pleasure are cheap imitations of joy.  The dictionary says joy is ‘felicity, bliss, delight’ – but it goes even beyond that.

The psalmist says in Psalm 30, “weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Ps. 30:5)  Joy can be found in that moment when our spirits soar beyond themselves, and we lose ourselves in the moment.  Joy takes us outside ourselves.  C.S. Lewis says “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”

This joy, the angel says, will be for all people. Not just the ones in charge. Not just the rich and privileged. All people.

And the angel continues: “To you is born this day in the City of David a savior, who the Messiah, the Lord.”

God’s promises, given by Abraham and Moses and David and Isaiah and all the prophets, have been fulfilled tonight. Christ is here – in Bethlehem – the anointed one, the Promised One – the Lord and ruler over all.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host” – that is, thousands of angels, rank on rank, almost like heaven’s military.  So there’s this multitude of the heavenly host – singing – “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace among those whom he favors.”  God is above all, greater than anything, more important than anything, more majestic than anything. And this child will bring peace between God and God’s people – by conquering sin and death and giving us holiness and life. Praise be to God!

When the angels went away the shepherds did the only thing they could do: they set out for Bethlehem, and they found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, lying in a manger. And they told Mary and Joseph what the angel said.  And then they went out and told the rest of the city what the angel said. They got the city so excited that rumors of what they said even reached the palace in Jerusalem, which troubled King Herod – but that’s another story for another day.  For that night, the shepherds shared their story, then returned to their flocks rejoicing and praising God for all they had seen and heard.

O Little Town of Bethlehem concludes with these words:

“So God imparts to human hearts / the blessings of his heaven
No ear may hear his coming; but in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him / still, the dear Christ enters in.”

We give gifts to each other at Christmas, in honor and in memory of the greatest gift ever given to us, on Christmas night.  And to this day, where gentle souls and open hearts make Jesus welcome, Jesus enters in, and lives with us forever.

This is the message of Christmas, and the call of Christmas.  Will we set aside all the rushing and busyness? Will we set aside the TV and the newspaper and the Facebook feed – and simply receive Jesus into our hearts?  Receive him as savior, because he will save his people from sin and death – and receive him as Lord, because he is the greatest power in the universe and the ultimate authority.

“Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”  This is my prayer for all of us tonight.

❤ Merry Christmas ❤

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Christmas Eve, 2017

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[The Prophet Isaiah writes:] “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

“For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

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Advent Hymn of the Day: Hail to the Lord’s Anointed

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Well here we are on third Sunday of Advent already, only eight days away from Christmas! Are you ready? Are you ready for the coming of the Messiah?

Our Advent hymn for this week, and our reading from Isaiah, talk about what it’s going to mean for this world when the Messiah gets here: things are going to change in a big way.

Our scripture from Isaiah puts me in mind of some friends I knew back in seminary, who moved to Troy, NY, after graduation to serve in the inner city.  Troy is near Albany, a couple hours north of New York City, but the place is like Pittsburgh in that it has an industrial past that died out in the 1970s. But unlike Pittsburgh, Troy is only now beginning to come back from the loss of its industry.

So my friends moved to Troy, found some inexpensive housing, and then started prayer-walking the neighborhood. They met people and talked to them and listened to their hopes and their fears. People who lived there thought my friends were just a little crazy. Didn’t they know this was a dangerous place? Didn’t they know you don’t just walk up to strangers and start conversations? But my friends prayed, and listened, and shared scriptures when they could, and when they didn’t give up, and it became clear they weren’t going to move out, people started to listen to the Good News.

My friends started a Bible study group among the people they met on the streets. And they did things like organize candle-light Christmas caroling on the streets of the city, or offering a free hot dog night in the park. They took over an abandoned café and started holding church services there. They started an after-school safe-place for the kids. And then they added an “open-mic night” for budding musicians. They provided food, and friendship, and they taught the kids about God’s love… and the kids went home and told their parents about God. And now, in the inner city of Troy, a church is growing, and faith is growing, and hope is growing.

My friends named the church “Oaks of Righteousness” taken from the words of Isaiah in our scripture reading today (Isaiah 61:3). Isaiah says:

“to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.”

Isaiah chapter 61 also tells us why God is sending the Messiah.  In fact, Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 in his very first sermon, which is in Luke chapter 4.  Jesus says:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. […] Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)

So Jesus got up in the synagogue one Saturday, read a passage that everyone knew was about the Messiah, and then sat down and said, “Here I am!”  Luke says “the people were amazed…”  (By the end of Jesus’ sermon they were also about ready to throw him off a cliff, but that’s another story for another day.)

So according to Isaiah, God is sending the Messiah to:

  • bring good news to the oppressed
  • To bind up the brokenhearted
  • To proclaim liberty to captives
  • To proclaim release to prisoners
  • To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance for God
  • To comfort all who mourn, to give them:
    • flowers instead of ashes
    • oil of gladness instead of mourning
    • a garment of praise instead of a faint spirit

It’s tempting to hear these words and start thinking politics: it was tempting in Isaiah’s day, it was tempting in Jesus’ day, and it is now.  But if we try to fit God’s words into human institutions, there’s not enough room. God’s thoughts are too big for the organizations of mere mortals.  God’s words go beyond justice, to righteousness and mercy. They go beyond a fair legal system, to liberty.  They go beyond mere peace, to gladness and praise.

So to anyone who is oppressed: God says, “Good news! The time of the oppressors is over.”  To anyone who grieves, God says, “Your broken heart will be mended.”  To anyone who is in prison or in bondage God says, “You are free!”

And then Isaiah says something that may sound a little scary: “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance for our God.” We don’t like to think of God in terms of vengeance. But scripture makes clear the ‘day of the Lord’ will not be a pleasant day; it will be violent and dark. But fear not.  For those of us who have faith, who trust in God, Isaiah proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor.  And for those who don’t care what God thinks, and who oppress others and use others and do violence to others: the day of reckoning has come.

And then, Isaiah says, God’s people:

  • will be called oaks of righteousness
  • will build up the ancient ruins
  • will raise up the former devastations
  • will repair the ruined cities
  • will be called priests of the Lord, ministers of our God

‘Building up ruins’ and ‘repairing ruined cities’ in many cases may start with re-establishing the church – but it doesn’t stop there. It reaches out to rebuild the community as well.  The communities our Partnership churches find themselves in have all seen better days.  All are scarred by abandoned homes and boarded-up buildings, to say nothing of neglected families, in neighborhoods where family used to be the most important thing.  Isaiah says, in the year of the Lord’s favor, God’s people will build up the ancient ruins, repair the ruined cities; they will be called ministers of God, oaks of righteousness, and in God’s hands the fruit of their labors will bring righteousness and praise where there has been evil and despair.

The writer of our Advent hymn for today – Hail to the Lord’s Anointed – a man by the name of James Montgomery – knew this passage in Isaiah very well.  In fact he used it to encourage missions and outreach.

Montgomery was born shortly after the Revolutionary War and died shortly before the Civil War, although he probably didn’t think of it that way as he was born in Scotland.  He was a Moravian – which is related to the Brethren Church – and son of a Moravian minister. He was editor of a newspaper in England for many years.  During that time he wrote and published over 400 hymns, including a couple we still sing today: Go To Dark Gethsemane and the Christmas carol Angels from the Realms of Glory.

Montgomery was also one of the founders of the missionary movement in England in the 1800s; and it was during a missionary meeting in a Methodist church in Liverpool, England, that this poem (which became our hymn for today) was first read in public. Follow with me in the hymnal (#203)…

Montgomery writes:

“Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, great David’s greater son…”

In the Old Testament, the promised Messiah was called ‘the son of David’, and Jesus is known as the ‘son of David’ because he descended from David’s lineage. And so the first line of the hymn identifies Jesus as the one who all the nations have been waiting for.

“Hail, in the time appointed, his reign on earth begun!”

Begun is the key word here.  We live in the “now and the not yet”.  Jesus has come and is on the throne, but the mopping-up operation still continues. Jesus’ reign on earth has begun… and during Advent we are reminded Jesus will come back to finish what he started.

“He comes to break oppression, to set the captive free,
To take away transgression, and rule in equity.”

…quoting straight from Isaiah. And then the songwriter assures us the good news of the Messiah is for all people everywhere: the rich and the poor, the sick and the healthy, the weak and the strong.

“He comes with succor speedy to those who suffer wrong
To help the poor and needy, and bid the weak be strong;
To give them songs for sighing, their darkness turn to light;
Whose souls, condemned and dying are precious in his sight.”

Jesus brings more than mere justice – He brings healing and loving-kindness. He brings help and encouragement. And for those who have not yet heard the good news of Jesus, who are caught and enslaved by sin, Jesus brings complete and total forgiveness and freedom and eternal life.

“He shall come down like showers upon the fruitful earth,
Love, joy, and hope, like flowers, spring in his path to birth.
Before him, on the mountains, shall peace, the herald, go
And righteousness, in fountains, from hill to valley flow.”

This third verse is mostly just praising Jesus – and it’s the right thing to do after the first two verses.  In this verse peace is described as a ‘herald’ who goes ahead of King Jesus and proclaims his arrival; and righteousness – which means not just ‘right’ but sin-free and whole in every way – righteousness will flow out over the whole earth.

Verse four…

“To him shall prayer unceasing and daily vows ascend
His kingdom still increasing, a kingdom without end”

There’s a preacher over in England these days by the name of N.T. Wright who says God’s kingdom – and Jesus as the king – is THE central message of the Christian faith.  He says it’s not so much ‘believe in Jesus so we can go to heaven’ as it is ‘believe in Jesus so we can become citizens of God’s Kingdom both in this life AND the next. And I think that’s what our hymn-writer sees too. A kingdom without end, to which we pledge our loyalty as citizens. We pray to our king for what we need, and we praise our king for who he is and what he has done.

The hymn concludes:

“The tide of time shall never his covenant remove
His name shall stand forever; that name to us is love.”

It says in the Bible “God is love,” and Jesus taught us that to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength – and to love our neighbors as ourselves – is to fulfill all the law and the prophets.  Love is God’s nature, and we find the perfect expression of that love, in Jesus.

And so in this Advent season we watch and wait, not just for the baby, but also for the King. The King of Love. And while we wait, we praise God, and we do our part in the mopping-up operation, wherever we can, as God leads us.

May the remainder of your Advent be blessed, and may you have a wonderful Christmas. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), 12/17/17

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Advent Hymn: Toda la Tierra (All Earth is Waiting) – Alberto Taule

  1. All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
    and open furrows await the seed of God.
    All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
    it cries out for justice and searches for the truth.

    2. Thus says the prophet to those of Israel:
    ‘A virgin mother will bear Emmanuel,’
    one whose name is ‘God with us’ our Saviour shall be;
    with him hope will blossom once more within our hearts.

    3. Mountains and valleys will have to be made plain;
    open new highways, new highways for the Lord.
    He is now coming closer, so come all and see,
    and open the doorways as wide as wide can be.

    4. In lowly stable the Promised One appeared;
    yet feel his presence throughout the earth today,
    for he lives in all Christians and is with us now;
    again, with his coming he brings us liberty.

 Scripture Reading: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.  3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”  6 A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.  7 The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass.  8 The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.  9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”  10 Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” – Isaiah 40:1-11

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In the darkest days of the Civil War, a poet had a son who was serving in the army.  The poet, whose name was Longfellow, wrote a poem that later became a Christmas carol. Some of you may know it:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth good will to men

And in despair I bowed my head: “there is no peace on earth” I said
“For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth good will to men”

Then pealed the bells more wild and sweet: “God is not dead nor does he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth good will to men”

Our Advent hymn for today is called All the Earth is Waiting – and it has roots in a similar kind of background.  Where Longfellow’s carol has a backdrop of the Civil War, our Advent hymn has a backdrop of World War II and the civil unrest in South America in the 1960s and 1970s.  All the Earth is Waiting was written by a Catholic priest named Taulè, who lived in Spain but was educated in Italy just after WWII.  So he lived through WWII, and he had personal experience of life during wartime. For those of us who have parents or grandparents who lived through WWII (and some here may still remember WWII) you know it became a defining moment for that generation. It effected their lives from that point forward. And the same is true of these poets.

Neither Longfellow nor Taulè were personally involved in the wars, but they had deep relationships with those who were.  And in both cases the poets, in their songs, grieve the evil they see in the world: the hate, wrongdoing, mockery of good, violence, injustice, bondage, and despair.  And in both cases the poets find their hope in God.

Sounds like songs for our time, don’t they?

Taulè takes many of the ideas in his hymn from Isaiah 40, which is our lectionary reading for this morning. And Isaiah’s words are exactly what the poets were longing to hear in those violent days. Isaiah writes:

“Comfort, comfort my people” says your God. “Speak comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, her iniquity is pardoned.” A voice cries in the wilderness: “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.

And when the mouth of the Lord speaks, things happen. Remember Genesis: God says, “Let there be light” and light happens.

This is what the hearts of our poets are crying out for. And is this not the message our world needs to hear, and longs to hear?

Isaiah continues:

A voice says: “Cry!” and I answer, “what shall I cry?”  All flesh is grass and all its goodness like the flower of the field. The grass dries, the flower falls, because the spirit of the Lord blows on it. Surely the people are grass. The grass dries, the flower falls, but the word of the Lord stands forever.

Go up onto a high mountain, O Zion, bringing good tidings; lift your voice without fear and say to the cities of Judah: “Behold your God!”  Behold – the Lord God comes with a strong arm to rule. His wages are with him and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom; and gently lead those with young.”

This passage in Isaiah is not all sweetness and light. It speaks of the end of the world as we know it. It speaks of a time when people will be rewarded for what they have done, for good or for evil. And then the new world begins, where God will ‘gather the lambs in his arms’.

So the coming of the Christ Child is the beginning of the end for the powers of this world. And the powers of this world know it. That’s why, when Jesus was born, King Herod wanted so badly to put an end to this baby in the manger – why, when the wise men returned to their country without telling Herod where Jesus was, Herod ordered the slaughter of all baby boys under the age of two. The powers of this world don’t like being told they’re only temporary and their replacement has arrived!

With this prophecy in mind, then, we turn to our song for today. Verse one opens with the words: “All the earth is waiting” – and it sure is. As Paul writes in Romans:

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;  23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves… while we wait for adoption…” (Rom. 8:22-23)

All the earth is waiting. This is the definition of Advent: waiting for the Christ Child to arrive, and waiting for King Jesus to return. Advent looks forward to both the birth of the baby and the return of the King.

“…waiting to see the Promised One…”  “Open furrows await the seed of God”

The poet takes his word-pictures from the farmlands of Spain and South America, as well as from Jesus’ parable about the seed and the various types of soil it might land in. The seed is the Word of God – that is, Jesus. The open furrows are the hearts of people who prepare for the arrival of Jesus by waiting and watching and praying.

The song continues:

“All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
It cries out for justice and searches for truth”

If these words sound like something from the protests of the late 1960s – they are.  But we can still find meaning in these words for our own time.  Our world is indeed struggling. We see this on the news every day, even on Facebook.  Our world is bound – as Pastor Matt said in his letter this month, when he wrote: “all around us we see folks in slavery to greed, to lust, to pride, to violence, to anxiety, to alcohol or other drugs, and most sadly, to despair.”  With the poet our hearts long for freedom and a better world.

And so we go on to verse two. “The prophet says to those of Israel” – that is, to God’s people – “a virgin will bear Emmanuel” – which means, ‘God with us’.  This verse is a direct quote from Isaiah 7:14 where Isaiah says:

“the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”

In verse three the songwriter turns back to Isaiah 40, where he writes:

“Mountains and valleys will have to be made plain;
open new highways, new highways for the Lord”

This is a quotation from both Isaiah 40:3-5 and from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  For example, in Matthew 3:1-3 Matthew writes:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,  2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

So Matthew quotes Isaiah 40, and so do Mark and Luke. What these passages make clear is that John the Baptist’s ministry is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: John is the one Isaiah predicted whose voice would cry out in the wilderness. And the raising of valleys and the lowering of mountains is a metaphor that stands for repentance.

Jesus’ mother, Mary, sings about the same thing in Luke 1 in the Magnificat, when she says:

“he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)

There’s a double meaning here.  If we look at John the Baptist’s message, which is a message of repentance – he says “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” – this is a spiritual interpretation of valleys being lifted and the mountains being lowered.  Those who know they are sinners, who are ‘lowly of heart’ as Isaiah would say, who are ‘meek’ and ‘poor in spirit’ as Jesus would say – will repent of the sins of self-reproach and fear, and will be forgiven and will be lifted up.  And those who know they are sinners, who have been puffed up or proud or rude, will confess their sins and will be forgiven, and will be permitted to return to their proper place. (And the ground becomes level.)

The second meaning of the double meaning is found in Mary’s message: and that is repentance in society. The needs of the poor will one day be filled; and wealth of the great ones will one day come to nothing. (And the ground becomes level)

I do want to warn against one mistake that crops up sometimes in the interpretation of this hymn. The wording the songwriter uses in verse three – for example, “Mountains and valleys will have to be made plain…” – may lead people to believe we need to get busy lowering mountains and raising valleys. But it is not our job to usher in the second coming of Christ.

This error in thinking began in the middle of the previous century, where there were two equal and opposite social movements, one on the left and one on the right (echoes of which are still with us today), that made this mistake.  Both were built on what were originally Biblical principles, but both became movements that were willing to use political power and force if necessary to achieve their goals. Both are mistaken because they try to bring in God’s kingdom through human power. In other words, they believed if we properly set the stage by the perfection of our society, then Jesus will have to return. And that is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches this world will continue to be a mess until Jesus comes back. God’s kingdom will arrive in God’s timing, by God’s power, in God’s way. It’s not our job to remake the mountains and the valleys.

That said, Isaiah’s words still stand. There will come a time when the high will be lowered and the low lifted up and the crooked made straight and the rough made smooth, and the glory of the Lord will be revealed.

Which takes us back to our hymn, in verse four: “In a lowly stable the Promised One appeared” – this is the heart of Christmas! God so loved the world that he gave us his Son. Jesus left the glories of heaven to become one of us, to live and die just like us, to experience all the joys and sorrows of life here on earth, God with us, and we still feel his power and presence in the world today.

And as the song says, God lives in all Christians through the power of the Holy Spirit.  But that’s almost beside the point, because it’s not primarily through us that God sets the world free. We have the privilege of sharing in the work of heaven: we do our part to care for others and set people free, because as children of God, we are learning to become more and more like our heavenly Parent. But Jesus is the one who sets us free from captivity to sin and death.

Our Advent song for today is not an easy song to sing. It talks about hardship and heartbreak, captivity and injustice, and it reminds us that our world is a world of great need.  It calls us to work to meet those needs. But I think the songwriter’s hope in writing this hymn was that we would find in it a sense of expectation, that we would look forward to the Promised One who is ‘God with us’ – who comes in the virgin’s womb, who comes in the stable, who comes on earth today, who comes in all Christians, and who is with us now; and that we would see Jesus as a bringer of liberty, and justice, and truth. “God is not dead, nor does He sleep.”

So during this season of Advent, let’s prepare for the coming of our Lord Jesus by repenting of sin – and not ours only, but also the sins we see in the world around us. When we read the newspaper, or watch TV, we can bring what we see to God in prayer, and pray for the day when the world will be set free from captivity to sin.

We live in the ‘now and the not yet’. Jesus has come, Jesus has won the victory, and we are set free, but the mopping-up operation isn’t over yet.  So be watchful while we wait. Thank God for what He has already done, and thank God for what is yet to come… and keep watch, because the King is coming. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/10/17

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Nine years ago I wrote a post called “What Is the Great Cloud of Witnesses?” that talked about the saints who have gone before us — both those whose names are known in the Bible or in history, and those whose names are known by very few.

All of them together make up the “great cloud of witnesses” — people whose lives and actions have shown us the goodness and saving power of God, people who I believe are now in God’s kingdom cheering us on.

At the end of the original post I invited readers to write the names of the people in their own cloud of witnesses (suggesting first names only for privacy).  Today, All Saints Day, I wanted to open that invitation again.  Below please share the names of the people you know who are in the Great Cloud of Witnesses in glory with God.

Thanks be to God for their prayers and their love.

 

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Paul writes: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 3:4-14

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Last weekend I had the joy of officiating at my first-ever wedding ceremony as an ordained minister. The couple who were getting married were one of those couples who you just know belong together. During our planning meetings I asked the couple to find a scripture reading that expressed their love for each other, something we could use during the ceremony.  They chose an unusual passage from the Song of Solomon:

“Hang my locket around your neck,
wear my ring on your finger.
Love is invincible facing danger and death.
Passion laughs at the terrors of hell.
The fire of love stops at nothing—
it sweeps everything before it.
Flood waters can’t drown love,
torrents of rain can’t put it out.
Love can’t be bought, love can’t be sold—
it’s not to be found in the marketplace.
If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love
It would be utterly scorned.” – Song of Solomon 8:7-8 (edited)

What a passionate passage!

In our reading from Philippians today, the apostle Paul shows the same passionate love for Jesus.  He says: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul was willing to risk everything, and lose everything life has to offer, in order to know Jesus and become more like him.

Love like this is the greatest thing life has to offer!

The world tries to offer us all kinds of cheap imitations – celebrity-worship, wealth, fame, politics, popularity, success – but like Solomon said, love is not to be found in the marketplace. In fact the kind of love Paul is talking about is very costly.

As an example: I remember back when I was in middle school, former Beatle George Harrison came out with a song called “Give Me Love”.  Some of you might remember it:

“Give me love, give me love,
Give me peace on earth,
Give me light, give me life,
Keep me free from birth
Give me hope, help me cope
With this heavy load
Trying to touch and reach you with heart and soul…”

The song is a prayer (if you have any doubts about that, take a close look at the liner notes sometime).  Back in those days, Harrison was a devout Hindu, and he took a LOT of flak for going public with his religion.  The media – especially the rock ‘n’ roll press – had nothing good to say about him, and his live concerts were shredded in the reviews (in spite of the fact the concerts were very good).

As a teenager watching all this, what I saw was a man who loved his god passionately and was willing to take all the fame and fortune of a Beatle and put it on the line for the god he loved.  As a Christian, I was wishing it was Jesus he was in love with… but even so, I was touched by the depth of commitment and passion Harrison sang about in his songs. And when I looked around at the church back then, with rare exceptions, very few people I knew were willing to put their reputations on the line for God like that.

I also learned this kind of passionate love for God is attractive (at least for some)… or scary (for others)… either way it is noticed and it holds people’s attention. When hearts are on fire with love for God, people notice.

So it became my prayer back then: to learn how to love Jesus that much. And I can’t say I’ve quite gotten there yet – I’m still working on it.  I also prayed that God would lead me to other people who love Jesus that much, who could show me how it’s done, and God has answered that prayer and still is answering it.

Paul is one of those people who loves Jesus that much and can show us how it’s done.  So let’s listen to what he has to say:

Paul starts out today’s passage talking about ‘having confidence in the flesh’.  To get his meaning we need to back up a few verses, where Paul says “beware of those who work evil, who mutilate the flesh, for it is we who are the circumcision.” (Phil. 3:2-3 paraphrased)

What Paul is referring to is false teachers who are trying to tell the Gentile believers they have to be circumcised in order to be saved.  Paul is saying there is nothing we can do, in or to the body, that can make us holy – because true circumcision is circumcision of the heart. We who worship, worship in spirit and in truth, and we boast in Christ, not in the flesh.

Paul goes on to say “if anyone were to have reason to be confident in the flesh, I would be above them all.”  Paul was circumcised at eight days old, he was born an Israelite in the tribe of Benjamin; he was a Pharisee and a persecutor of the church, he was absolutely blameless under the Law of Moses. Going by Old Testament righteousness, Paul was about as holy as a person could get.

But Paul says “whatever profit I had, I consider it loss because of Christ”.  Another way to translate this phrase might be “whatever gains I made, I consider them damage.”  Not just losing the profit, but actual damage.

Paul goes on to say, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish…” (the Greek translation could also be ‘offscourings’… that gross stuff that gets stuck to the bottom of the frying pan when food gets burned, that you have to scrape off) – “I consider everything as offscourings in order than I may gain Christ.”

Paul gave up his family life, hometown, native country, career, reputation, his standing in the community – he went from being a promising up-and-comer in the temple to being in jail. He gave up freedom, he gave up possessions, he lost his physical health, basically he lost everything – and he says “I regard it all as offscourings in order to know Jesus, and gain Christ, and to be found in Him, not standing in my own righteousness but in the righteousness from God…”

Not every Christian is called by God to give up all the things Paul gave up, though we may be called on to give up some of them. The point is, Jesus means so much to Paul, that he doesn’t even miss these things just so long as he can know Jesus.

And then Paul says “becoming like him in his death”. Paul is not suggesting trying to get crucified, and he is not suggesting his own death has any redeeming power.  The Greek expression here is more like “to come together with Jesus and be changed into his likeness”. Not Paul changing himself – Paul being changed by a power outside himself.

“Not that I have already received it” Paul says, “but I pursue to overtake and apprehend it, because I have been overtaken and apprehended by Jesus”. (Read that again…)

Isn’t that just like love? It’s like the old saying “he chased her until she caught him”. Paul is pursuing Jesus until Jesus catches him… and then Paul begins to change and become like Jesus.

So Paul says, “Forgetting what is behind and stretching out for what is ahead, I pursue the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

This kind of love is profoundly different from anything the world has to offer. In our culture I think people are hungering for authenticity, joy, purpose, direction — and this is where it’s to be found.  This kind of love is noticed, and it’s what attracts people to Jesus. The kind of love Paul has for Jesus is the most compelling witness there is.

Paul says “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his suffering…” – and I’d like to focus on each one of those ideas just for a moment:

“I want to know Christ…” Paul is talking about…

  • Jesus, the Son of God who came to earth as a helpless baby.
  • Who grew up in a family, just like us.
  • Jesus, who welcomed children and said “Let the little children come to me… for… to such as these the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matt 19:14)
  • Jesus, who looked in the temple and saw it full of moneychangers and dealers, and was so angry that people were being prevented coming to God that he turned over their tables and threw them out saying “it is written, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer’ but you have made it a den of thieves.”
  • Jesus, who looked at the woman caught in adultery and then looked at her accusers, and said, “whoever is without sin… cast the first stone”… and then said to her, “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
  • Jesus, who said, “come to me, you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”
  • Jesus, who said, “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Rev. 22?16)

Who could look at Jesus and not love him? Who could hear his words, and not want to be with him?  And then Paul continues: “…[I want to know] the power of Jesus’ resurrection…”

  • The power of Jesus’ resurrection begins with Jesus himself. The grave could not hold him.  The love of God is more powerful than death
  • Jesus said: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” (John 10:18)
  • Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)
  • The apostle John said: “to all who received [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12)
  • And Paul writes in I Corinthians: “I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  […] then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Cor 15:51-57)

Paul wants to know Jesus, and the power of his resurrection. AND Paul wants to share in his sufferings.  In other words, if Jesus is going to suffer, he’s not going to suffer alone.  Paul is going to stand with Jesus no matter what, and in the words of the late Tom Petty, he “won’t back down”.

Unlike Jesus’ suffering, our suffering can’t save anyone.  But we can stand with Jesus as his friends, and when we do we will share in his sufferings. Think about some of the things Jesus suffered in his lifetime:

  • Jesus and his family were refugees in Egypt when he was a child
  • Jesus suffered temptation and hunger
  • Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)
  • Jesus was rejected by the people in his own hometown.
  • Jesus was harassed by the religious leaders – the very people who should have known who he was and been on his side.
  • Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, was brutally murdered for his loyalty to Jesus.
  • Jesus was accused of serving the devil and/or being the devil. He said to his disciples, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!  So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” (Matt 10:25-26)

As Jesus’ followers, we may suffer some of these things, and when we do, Jesus says “Rejoice! For in the same way they persecuted the prophets who came before you.”

When we think about all that Jesus suffered for us, before we even knew him, how can anyone not love him?  Which brings us back to the beginning of Paul’s thought: “I want to know Jesus”.

There’s a church in the south of England where, when a preacher walks into the pulpit, they see a plaque that reads, “we would see Jesus” – a reminder to the preacher to stick to what’s important. I hope we’ve caught a glimpse of Jesus this morning.

The challenge for us, now, is to look at our lives and remember those times when we have seen Jesus working in our own lives… when Jesus’ words have touched us, when our lives have become different because we know Jesus. These things become part of our story – that we can share with others, so they can know Jesus too.

But just for today, we join with Paul in saying “not that we have already attained it, but we press on to make it our own” so that we can know Jesus, and stand with him in his sufferings, and know the power of Jesus’ resurrection both now and in the age to come. AMEN

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 10/8/17

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“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.  Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.  Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well – since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”  – Philippians 1:21-30

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Welcome to week two of our series in Philippians.  Last week we kicked off the series by setting the scene for this letter, and this week we begin to dig into the meat of Paul’s message.  Before I do, just a quick review of the cast of characters in this correspondence. Last week we met:

The apostle Paul – the author of the letter, who also wrote probably about half the New Testament.  Paul was born and raised in Tarsus in Syria, and moved to Jerusalem as a young man to study with the Pharisee Gamaliel who was one of the greatest teachers of the time. (Gamaliel is mentioned in Acts 5 where his address to the council saves Peter’s life after he was arrested.) Eventually Paul became a Pharisee himself, and when Christianity came along, Paul persecuted the church because he believed they were teaching heresy… until the day he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Jesus called Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles, and at the time Philippians is being written, Paul is in jail awaiting trial, most likely in Rome. We also met…

Timothy – Paul’s disciple and pastor-in-training.  Timothy traveled with Paul on many of his missionary journeys. While Timothy was not arrested, he was with Paul to provide for Paul’s needs while Paul is in jail. Back in those days jails didn’t supply much so it was necessary to have a friend ‘on the outside’ who could bring in what was needed, and that’s what Timothy was doing. We also met…

“The saints in Philippi” – Philippi was the first European city where the gospel of Jesus Christ was preached – and when Paul preached there, one of the first believers was a woman named Lydia, who was a dealer in purple cloth.  She was wealthy enough to have a house big enough to host the Philippian church.  We also heard about…

The Imperial Guard – who were the elite Roman troops whose job it was to protect the Emperor and his household, and who were also guarding Paul.  So because of Paul’s imprisonment, the Imperial Guard and members of the royal household were hearing the good news of Jesus, and some were becoming believers… and Paul is thrilled with this.  It’s interesting to note the emperor at the time was the infamous character Nero… and it’s entirely possible that Nero heard about Jesus because of Paul.

Paul opens his letter by giving thanks to God for the Philippians – for their faith, and for their faithfulness in friendship, and for supporting him while he’s in jail.  Paul says he’s been praying for them that their love will continue to grow, infused with knowledge and wisdom.

And then he begins to give the Philippians an update on what’s happening in his life, because Paul knows the Philippians are concerned. They know he’s in prison, and they know prison is not a healthy place to be (dirty and disease-ridden compared to our modern prisons, and even today they’re no walk in the park). So Paul fills them in on how he’s doing, and that’s where we pick up today.

Paul is sharing that in spite of the fact he’s in jail, and trying to recover from physical injuries he suffered from shipwreck and flogging, he says he is overjoyed that his sufferings are leading to glory for Jesus and to new life for the people around him. He says he doesn’t mind being in jail when it means others will come to know Jesus. And he’s excited to see his experiences making other believers bold in sharing God’s message.

Paul then declares, “for me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” – and this is such a striking statement I had to make it our focus for today.

“For me, living is Christ” – can we relate to that? When we think about our daily lives, is Jesus so close that every moment is touched by his truth and his love? The answer to that question of course is “yes” whether we’re aware of it or not – because as scripture says, “in him we live and move and have our being”. So Jesus is always close.

But I don’t know if it’s actually possible to be consciously aware of Jesus’ presence every minute of the waking day. When we get really involved in what we’re doing – like driving or cooking or fixing the vacuum cleaner, we tend to block out everything else… and it’s probably a good thing that we’re not distracted when we do these things. But if we stop and reflect for a moment, do we find ourselves thankful for the good meal we just had, or for the skill and knowledge it takes to drive a car or to repair a vacuum? Do we sense God’s goodness with us?  Do we see God working through us, even in small ways, to make our corner of the world just a little bit better? For a Christian, living really is Christ, and many times it is the little moments that make the difference.

But then Paul goes on to say “and dying is gain” or to translate it another way, “dying is profit”. This is tougher to take in, because it seems from our point of view like death means not gain but loss. Death takes away everything we own, everyone we know, our country, our town, our home, our education, our career, even our own bodies. So how can this be gain?

On the other hand, there are times when eternal life with Jesus looks pretty good… especially during painful times.  When we’ve lost someone close to us, or when we’re suffering through a serious illness; or when we’re facing major surgery; or when we get older and realize we’ve got more years behind us than in front of us, and more friends and family already in the Kingdom than here on earth. Those of us who are trusting Jesus, who believe Jesus meant what he said when he said “today you will be with me in Paradise” – we know the truth of Paul’s words. None of us looks forward to the actual process of dying, but when we look past death we see something glorious and far better than anything this world can offer.

That’s what Paul has in his sights.  Paul has been through beatings, shipwrecks, and imprisonment, and now he lives with chronic pain. He’s very aware of his mortality: he’s in prison accused of capital crimes, and he may not get out.

But Paul tells the Philippians he believes he’s going to be released, because God has more for him to do, and because the Philippians have been praying for him. Paul says If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”  By the way, this is not Paul being egotistical – he’s not saying “I have to stay here on earth because you need me”.  It’s more like a loving parent who wants to stay alive as long as possible – even if it’s painful – to see their children grow and become the people they are becoming.

Besides that, the Philippians have been praying for Paul, and Paul says ‘I look forward to sharing in your boasting in Christ Jesus’ when Jesus answers their prayer. Paul is saying ‘When I come to visit, there will lots of answered prayers to talk about. You’ll tell me what Jesus has been doing in your life, and I’ll tell you what Jesus has been doing in my life, and we can brag on the Lord.’  It’s kind of like being in the Steelers locker room after a win.  You can hear the guys saying “Man, did you see that play? Did you see Antonio make that catch? Man he pulled that right out of the stratosphere!”

There are times when boasting is appropriate – and when Jesus has given us victory is one of those times! Granted, we need to boast appropriately. There’s a saying in the Old Testament, in the book of I Kings, that says, “One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.”  But when we get the chance to sit down after the spiritual battles and take off the armor for a little while, and share stories of what God has done, it is entirely appropriate to boast. And Paul tells the Philippians he is looking forward to “sharing abundantly” in that boasting.

In the meantime, Paul says, ‘until I can join you, live your lives in a way that brings honor to the gospel of Christ and to the name of Christ. Be one in spirit; strive side by side with one mind for the faith; and don’t be afraid of those who oppose you.’

I wish our churches today – all the denominations – would take these words to heart!  Because all the churches are struggling against divisions right now.  The mission of the church – given by God, to all believers – is to share the gospel message Jesus gave us, and that message is: “the kingdom of heaven is near: change course and believe the good news. Jesus has died and has risen and has broken the chains of sin and death. Trust in him and receive salvation.”

That’s it!  The church’s job is to be God’s ambassadors to a dying world, to save lives. So how can we allow ourselves to be pulled off course by controversies?

Paul says, “stand firm in one spirit… with one mind.”  Does this mean we all have to agree on everything? No!  What it means is we know why we’re here and we agree on the gospel message and we work together in unity to share it.

Paul says: the enemies of the gospel, hearing God’s words through us, understand the words to be the evidence of their own end. And Paul is not being snarky here, he’s telling it like it is.  For those of us who have been Christians for a long time, we tend to forget what the gospel sounds like to people who oppose it or who don’t believe it. The words sound sweet to us, but they’re convicting to people who aren’t there yet.  And Paul says, “this is God’s doing” and he leaves it at that.

So coming back to Paul’s original thought – that for him, life is Christ and death is gain, or profit… I wanted to think about the profit angle for a moment.  People who have money learn to invest, and people who have lots of money learn to make the highest possible profit from their investments.

I knew a guy in college whose goal it was to a make a million dollars by the time he was 30 (he was about 18 when he said this). I don’t know if he ever succeeded but I imagine he might have. Because to reach a goal – any goal – takes focus and energy and an unwillingness to be distracted from that goal… and he had those qualities.  I also imagine if he made that first million he probably looked around and said, “OK…what next?” Because human beings have a need for life to be about something.  When we reach a goal, we need another one.

So what if we looked at the things we do every day, and the words we speak, as investments in God’s kingdom? What if, as Jesus suggested, we spent the majority of our time building up treasure in heaven, where rust and moth cannot consume, and thieves cannot break in and steal?  The question then becomes – what can we do that invests in God’s kingdom and what might we do sometimes that might take away from that investment?

The answers to those questions are not easy as one might think. I mean, there are some things we can be sure of: when we obey the Ten Commandments we are investing in God’s kingdom. When we tell others about Jesus we are investing in God’s kingdom.  When we do the things God has asked us to do, like showing mercy, or welcoming the stranger, or providing for the poor, or feeding the hungry, we are investing in God’s kingdom.  When we do what Paul is talking about in this letter: living a life worthy of Christ without fearm living in a way that brings honor to God, we are investing in God’s kingdom.

But there are times in scripture when God is doing a new thing and God’s will doesn’t seem to be quite that clear. And in the Christian life, past experience is not always the best guide for future action. God may want to do something totally unexpected. That’s why Paul prays in verse 9 that the love of the Philippians will “overflow with knowledge and full insight”.

Paul knows, as Jesus taught, that love is the fulfillment of God’s law.  But Paul also knows human love can go off course – unless it’s guided by knowledge and has wisdom to infuse it with beauty.

So if our words and actions are rooted in love, that is guided by knowledge or truth and infused with wisdom, we can be confident what we do and what we say is an investment in God’s kingdom.

Paul ends this passage by saying if we do these things there will be times when we suffer for it. So not only is investing in the Kingdom challenging, but when we finally start to get it right, people aren’t going to be thrilled about it!  But Paul sees suffering for Jesus’ sake as a privilege. And Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matt 5:11-12)

This doesn’t mean Paul wants to be persecuted or tries to do things that will bring on suffering. There have been times in the church’s history when people have gone overboard with this idea and tried to get themselves persecuted, or even martyred, so they could get God’s blessing.  This is not sound thinking. But if we are doing God’s will, suffering will come, and Paul is honest about that. But Paul says when it comes, we share in the suffering together and we bear each other’s burdens, and God will bless us.

So the bottom line is, whether in suffering or in joy, whether in life or in death, Jesus Christ will be exalted. And no matter what happens, we will be with Jesus and Jesus will be with us. So to live is Christ; and to die is gain.  Let’s pray. 

 Lord, we are challenged by Paul’s words, and yet we are encouraged to hear about his joy and his boldness in the face of adversity.  Show us how we can invest in your Kingdom in our own time, by what we do and by what we say. Help us to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. Help us to be one in spirit and in mind as we share the faith and fulfill your commission. Help us to be faithful, as the Philippian church was faithful, bringing honor and glory to your name. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/24/17

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[Scripture reading for the day is at the end of this post.] Well, our summertime series on Genesis is officially done… but the story we began hasn’t ended yet, so let’s keep going with the Old Testament for a few more weeks!

Today’s sermon is called “The End of the Beginning” because we are at the end of the book of Genesis, and the word ‘genesis’ means ‘beginning’ – and also because we are at the beginning of the end of Israel’s time in Egypt.

For a quick recap – so far we have seen the faith of Abraham, who believed God’s promise that he would be the father of a nation. The apostle Paul says in Romans, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3) So Abraham sets an example for us as we trust God’s word to be the foundation of our lives.

We saw the same faith in Isaac. We’ve seen Isaac’s children – Esau and Jacob – fighting with each other, and cheating each other, and behaving as if they didn’t really believe God’s promises. In spite of this Jacob is blessed with two wives and 12 children and many herds and flocks. But when his beloved wife Rachel dies in childbirth, Jacob sets his heart on the two sons she gave him: Joseph and Benjamin.

And we’ve seen Joseph’s story: how his jealous brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, how he rose to power in the service of Pharaoh, and how he saved thousands of lives during the great famine – including the lives of his own family, who came to Egypt looking for food.

One thing I want to point out about Joseph before we move on to Exodus. Just like Abraham sets us an example of faith, Joseph’s life can be understood as a prophecy of the Messiah. There are parallels between the life of Joseph and the life of Jesus that gave ancient Israel – and give us – a picture of what the Messiah will look like.

Here are just a few of the parallels:

  • In Egypt, Joseph was thrown into jail when he was falsely accused by someone in his own household (Potiphar’s wife) and then turned over to a foreign legal system and a foreign prison. Jesus was thrown into jail when he was falsely accused by one of his own (Judas) and turned over to a foreign legal system and a foreign prison.
  • The formal accusation against Joseph was the very thing he did NOT do (sleeping with his master’s wife). The formal accusation against Jesus was also the very thing he did NOT do (trying to take over the throne of the Jewish nation. The charge nailed over his head on the cross read: “King of the Jews” – but Jesus said “my kingdom is not of this world”. They weren’t listening.)
  • Joseph descended into jail and ministered to people while he was there; Jesus, in between his death and resurrection, descended into hell and ministered to the people there. Both Joseph and Jesus work to set the captives free.
  • Joseph is raised from jail and made king over all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. Jesus is raised from the dead and is “seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
  • Those who sinned against Joseph – his brothers – came to him in their need and were reconciled; those who sin against God – we who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters – come to Jesus in our need and are reconciled.

So we see the Gospel message in the life of Joseph, embedded right here in the Old Testament.

With this in mind, today’s reading begins with some very significant words. It says: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph”.

It goes without saying this Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph personally. Between the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus 350 years have passed, so nobody is still alive who knew Joseph personally. But Joseph was an important figure in Egypt’s history: Joseph saved Egypt from a seven-year famine. And in the process Joseph made Pharaoh – and by extension, Egypt – exceedingly rich.

During the famine years, people spent all their money buying food, and that money went to Pharaoh. When they ran out of money, the people sold their land – and the land went to Pharaoh. When they ran out of land, the people sold – essentially themselves, that is, their labor – and the benefits of that labor went to Pharaoh. Some people became temporary servants, others became slaves – but all of them belonged to Pharaoh. So Pharaoh benefited richly from Joseph’s work.

But now 350 years have passed. In the in-between time, Egypt has seen internal unrest, assassinations, a rebellion here and there, a few Pharaohs who didn’t live more than a year or two after they took the throne. And in the process of all this, many of the people who had sold themselves into slavery under Joseph took advantage of the confusion and fled the country.

Meanwhile what had started as a temporary economic necessity under Joseph – that is, a work-for-food program during the famine – had become an institution of slavery that Egyptians felt entitled to: slavery, which was accompanied by unspeakable cruelty and prejudice (as we have seen in our own nation’s history).

350 years have passed since Joseph. To put that into perspective for us: 350 years ago, the city of Brooklyn, New York was chartered. The first human blood transfusion was performed. Sir Isaac Newton saw an apple fall to the ground and discovered gravity. And Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles Wesley, was born.

When you put it that way, 350 years doesn’t sound all that long. Our reading says this new Pharaoh “didn’t know Joseph”. Today, if you said “this person doesn’t know Sir Isaac Newton” or “this person doesn’t know the Wesleys” you wouldn’t be saying “they never met” – you’d be saying either “this person is not very well educated” or you’d be saying “This person doesn’t care what Newton says” or “doesn’t care what the Wesleys think”.

So if this Pharaoh doesn’t know Joseph – was it a lack of education? No. Egypt was, and still is, one of the most highly-educated nations in human history. So if this Pharaoh doesn’t know Joseph, it’s because he chooses not to know.

And people who ignore history do not lead nations well. And that’s exactly what happened here. Exodus tells us:

[Pharaoh said to his people], “Look, the Israelites are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” (Exodus 1:9-10)

Pharaoh is choosing to lead his people by setting them against each other. First he divides them by national heritage. But after 350 years all the people who came to Egypt during the famine now think of themselves as Egyptians! (Our own country hasn’t even existed for 350 years yet, and all of us think of ourselves as Americans, no matter what country our families came from.)

But Pharaoh divides the people by heritage. And then speaking to the native-born Egyptians, he instills fear of the ‘other’ – that is, anyone with foreign roots. He makes the people afraid by saying ““they” are more numerous and more powerful than we are”. Is this true? No! – not yet anyway. But he says it and they believe it.

And then Pharaoh institutes a policy of legalized discrimination “or else “they” will increase”. And he rationalizes it by talking about national security: he says, “otherwise they will join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land”. (We can almost hear Pharaoh saying “we’re taking back Egypt for the Egyptians!”)

Nowhere is there any indication that the Hebrews were causing any problems or trying to leave Egypt. They were happy enough there, at least until this Pharaoh came to power. But – as we have seen in the lives of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – God is behind the scenes, advancing God’s kingdom. And in a move of great irony, God uses Pharaoh’s own plans to ‘keep the Israelites down’ to inspire the people of Israel to rise up and leave Egypt.

But we’re not there yet. For now, Pharaoh sets up taskmasters over the Israelites and puts them to hard labor, making bricks, and cutting stone, and building cities. But God is with the people in their oppression, and their numbers increase even more. Now the native-born Egyptians really are afraid, because the tactics are backfiring. Oppression only makes the people of Israel stronger.

And then we come to the birth of Moses, who will be the deliverer of Israel Background note: Moses will be 80 years old when he leads Israel out of Egypt. So the hardships described in today’s reading continued for 80 years. This downhill spiral lasted for three generations. So by the time of the Exodus, slavery will be all the younger generations have ever known. And that’s significant, because (1) they will have a hard time trusting a savior. They will have a hard time believing anybody can set them free… and (2) once set free, they won’t know quite what to do with their freedom (which helps explain things like the golden calf).

There’s a parallel to this in our own time. Human beings, all of us, are slaves to sin. In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34) and none of us is perfect yet. So all of us have been slaves all our lives, and so has every generation before us. So when the Savior Jesus comes along, we have a hard time trusting, just like the Israelites did. We have a hard time believing that freedom can actually be ours. And so often we find ourselves saying, as it says in scripture, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief”.

And like ancient Israel, when we are set free, we don’t always know quite what to do with our freedom. Most of Paul’s letters in the New Testament deal with this problem. When we are set free by faith in the Lord Jesus, the law is fulfilled, and all things become permissible. But Paul says in I Corinthians:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. […] The body is meant for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (I Corinthians 6:12-13 edited)

So whatever we do in our bodies becomes united to Christ. We are free; but we must use that freedom in harmony with the Lord who saved us. This is a hard lesson for us, and it will be a hard lesson for the children of Israel.

But we’re not to the Exodus yet… so back to our story.

So the Israelites are multiplying in Egypt and growing strong under their oppression, which makes sense, because those who survive oppression by definition will be the strong ones. So Pharaoh tells the Hebrew midwives to kill all the male babies. But the midwives feared God, and disobeyed the king’s command.

When Pharaoh questions them about their disobedience, the midwives say “the Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women: they are vigorous and they deliver before we can get there!” (Which fits neatly into the Egyptian stereotype that “the Hebrews are stronger than we are”!)

So Pharaoh changes the law: he says every boy baby must be thrown into the Nile.

I imagine at this point the decent people among the Egyptians must have known Pharaoh was wrong. When they saw those babies floating in the river their hearts must have gone out to the Hebrew people. I imagine Moses was probably not the only child pulled out of the river by Egyptians.

But there was one particular baby who caught the eye of Pharaoh’s daughter. She sees him floating in the Nile and decides to adopt him as her own son. I imagine Pharaoh was none too thrilled about being presented with a Hebrew grandbaby, but his daughter loved this child. And, guided by God, the baby’s quick-thinking sister sets it up with Pharaoh’s daughter so that his mother is paid to nurse her own child!

And Pharaoh’s daughter named the baby “Moses” because, she said, “I drew him out of the water.” The word ‘Moses’ in Hebrew means ‘to draw out’ – which is where she got the name. But in a twist of irony – and in a twist of prophecy – the form of the Hebrew word she used actually means he who draws out (not he who is drawn out). This baby will draw out his people from Egypt and out of slavery.

God’s plan continues. God is in charge of history, and that never changes.

This we can trust: God has a plan for creation. God had a plan back then and still does now. History has a goal. The human race has a destination. The destination is not “progress” as the world thinks of it. The destination of history is not a thing or a set of morals but a person – the person of Jesus Christ. God is guiding all of history to the focal point of our Lord Jesus.

No matter what the Israelites see around them – and no matter what we see around us – God doesn’t change. So as we go out into the world this week, and in the weeks ahead, fear not! – our times are in God’s hands. Our job is to be alert and aware, and to do whatever good we can, guided by the Spirit. Take Moses’ sister as an example: she watched over her brother, and when Pharaoh’s daughter found him, offered to find a nurse for her brother. Likewise we also need to be watching for opportunities… because in these difficult times, God has something for us to do.

Let’s pray… Lord, the news we see and hear is not good and seems to be getting worse by the day. Calm our fears; help us to trust and hope in you; and help us to know what you would have us do, to give help to your people and to sustain life in a world obsessed with death. Thank you Lord Jesus for being our Joseph, and our Moses. AMEN.

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Scripture Reading:
Exodus 1:8 – 2:10 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. 5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Fair Oaks Retirement Community, 8/27/17
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