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A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Yea, 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 runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever. – Psalm 23
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[Jesus said] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.  For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it 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 10:11-18

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Our reading from the gospel of John today starts right in the middle of one of Jesus’ parables, which actually begins at the first verse of the tenth chapter; and the parable is told in response to events that happen in chapter nine. So we need to back up a little bit in order to understand what Jesus is replying to.

In chapter nine, Jesus heals a man who was born blind; and the Pharisees and the synagogue leaders want to know how this happened. More specifically, they want to know how someone they believe to be a sinner – someone who has broken the law of Moses by doing work on the Sabbath – could possibly work a miracle.  So the formerly blind man is questioned in great detail by the religious leaders, who are debating among themselves whether Jesus is a prophet or a sinner.

In getting caught up in their legalistic attitudes, the Pharisees miss the whole point: that someone who was blind can now see. In fact a number of them are having a hard time believing it’s true this man was born blind in the first place. They think this healing is ‘fake news’ – at least until they call in witnesses who testify to the fact that the man was indeed born blind.

I don’t know about you, but if I knew somebody born blind who suddenly one day could just see, I would be thrilled for that person and I’d be dying to hear the story of how it happened.  The Pharisees, though, show no joy in the miracle, zero interest in the human story. The only thing that mattered to them was this miracle didn’t fit into their theology.

So after a long and heated debate, the man who had been healed finally says to the religious council, “Look. Never since the world began has anybody born blind ever been made to see. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:32-33, paraphrased)  And they answer him, “‘You were born in sin, and you are trying to teach us?” And they threw him out of the synagogue. (John 9:34, paraphrased)

As chapter nine closes, Jesus finds the man and asks him, “do you believe in the Son of Man?” and after a short conversation the healed man says “yes, I believe”.  And Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” (John 9:39)

So in Chapter Ten, Jesus takes the Pharisees and synagogue leaders to task for their hard-heartedness and their failure to do the job God gave them to do. And he does this by telling a parable about shepherds and sheep. Jesus draws a contrast between himself as the Good Shepherd and the religious leaders who are just hired hands.

Before I get into the parable, just a few brief words about sheep.  I’ve never worked with sheep, I’ve never been around sheep much, but from what I’ve read, (1) sheep are intelligent; (2) shepherds say they are cute as a button when they’re young but that doesn’t last long; (3) sheep run from what frightens them; (4) sheep follow each other, mostly; if one starts moving in a direction the others move in that direction too; (5) sheep band together in flocks naturally, for protection. Sheep are social animals; however, like people, they maintain a ‘safe zone’ between themselves and others – kind of like our ‘personal space’.  And in times of stress and danger the distance between sheep – that ‘safe zone’ – increases. (Does that sound at all like our society today?)  (6) Lastly, sheep really do respond only to the shepherd’s voice, and won’t follow anyone else.

The job of the shepherd is to take care of the sheep, to feed them, to keep predators away, and to protect their health and well-being.

So in John chapter ten, Jesus contrasts the good shepherd with the hired hands, and I see five specific contrasts Jesus makes in this passage:

First, the Good Shepherd sees the sheep as his own. Not that he owns them, although God as creator could make that claim on us because He made us. But this is more like words of love: “you are my own, my beloved” – or – “I am yours and you are mine”.  The hired hands, the synagogue rulers, on the other hand, don’t see the sheep as ‘their own’ in any sense of the word – either by rights or by love.

I have to say at this point, as a pastor, Jesus’ words are troubling. Because when it comes down to it, I’m one of the hired hands, and so is every other ordained minister. I don’t think Jesus is saying here that all religious leaders, all pastors, or all prophets, are like the Pharisees.  Jesus is making a point about a specific group.  But I do think all of us hired hands need to be careful not to become like the Pharisees.  And I must acknowledge that even the very best of human pastors doesn’t love the sheep the way Jesus does.

My old pastor used to say to us, “don’t follow me, follow Jesus.”  He wasn’t trying to get out of his responsibilities – far from it – but he was letting us know (as Jesus says in this passage) that sheep only get into the sheep pen through the gate, and Jesus is the gate.  There is no other gate, no other way in.  The way to tell the difference between a hired hand who cares about the sheep and a hired hand who doesn’t, is whether they lead you in Jesus’ direction, and keep on leading you in Jesus’ direction.

Back to the parable.  The second thing Jesus says is when the sheep are attacked – when the wolf comes – the Good Shepherd defends and protects his sheep, even to the point of sacrificing his own life to save the sheep. The hired hand, by contrast, runs away when the wolf comes, leaving the sheep unprotected.

I think it’s worth taking a moment to see how Jesus describes the wolf, that is, our enemy, and what the enemy does.  Jesus says two things: he says the wolf (1) snatches the sheep; that is, he’s involved in sheep-stealing. An enemy tries to remove God’s people from the flock. An enemy knows once a sheep is isolated and by itself, it’s easy prey.  (2) The wolf scatters the sheep. An enemy divides. An enemy encourages sheep to fear and panic, and to attack one another in their fear. An enemy destroys the unity of the flock. The Good Shepherd keeps the flock together and at peace: as Jesus says, “one flock, one shepherd”.

Third, [as we saw in the video above] Jesus says the Good Shepherd knows his sheep and his sheep know him.  The Good Shepherd also knows God the Father and is known by God.  The sheep don’t recognize the voice of a stranger and will not follow him. In fact sheep will run away from a stranger.

Fourth, the Good Shepherd voluntarily lays down his life on behalf of the sheep, and then will take it up again.  Here Jesus is predicting his death on the cross, and also predicting his resurrection. No hired hand would do this, and no hired hand could make this claim.

And fifth and last, the Good Shepherd does God’s will and receives his authority from God. The hired hand’s interests – if the hired hand is a Pharisee – are in getting paid for his job and in maintaining his position.  The Good Shepherd loves God the Father, and the Father loves him, and both of them love the sheep; and the sheep who belong to Jesus love Jesus and love the Father. So love is the mark of God’s kingdom, or of Jesus’ sheepfold.

So Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, and then takes it up again.  Jesus is the one whose voice calls us to follow. Jesus is the gate by which the sheep enter into God’s kingdom.  And love is the mark of God’s kingdom.

As I close today I’d like to return to our readings from John 10 and Psalm 23. John 10 can be understood as the song of the Good Shepherd, and Psalm 23 can be understood as the song of the sheep.  Together they make a love song.  So I’d like to read these as a duet the Good Shepherd and us, his sheep. If (Rachel, Jen, Cilia) would come up and join me… (we’re not going to sing it, we’re just going to read the lyrics)

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[Jesus begins] Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him; the sheep hear his voice. The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want

Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.  I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.

The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me;

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.  5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it 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.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever.

AMEN

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh, 4/22/18

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The following post was written by author and health care administrator F. Nicholas (Nick) Jacobs of Windber PA, who has spent his career working to make health care more humane, especially for those of us who don’t have much clue about it. He is also related to my mother-in-law which is testimonial enough right there. 🙂  His take on the healing power of kindness echoes many of the themes found in the healing miracles of Jesus. If you’d like to learn more about Mr. Jacobs’ work, check out his blog Healing Hospitals.

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Having had responsibility for administering the first rural hospice in the United States, a palliative care unit that was established in 1977, I quickly learned about the critical nature of kindness. Although many serious diseases may be life-ending, these same serious diseases are always life-changing, and kindness helps everyone involved.  In fact, Stanford University did a study that demonstrated that kind medical care can lead to faster wound healing, reduced pain and anxiety, and lower blood pressure plus shorter hospital stays.

This coincides with my own finding where, with a fully integrative hospital, we had an infection rate that never went above 1 percent (national average was 9 percent), and we had the lowest readmission rates, lowest restraint rates, and even though we had a hospice where people came to die, we had the lowest death rates of our 13 peer hospitals. When we brought in the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, and Georgia Tech to try to quantify these outcomes, there was only the ethereal connector, kindness.  Kindness seemed to be one of the root causes.

What are the keys to kindness?  They are profound, sincere listening, empathy and compassion, generous acts, timely care, gentle honesty, and support for family caregivers.

For empathetic listening, listen with minimal interruption and convey respect for the person’s self-knowledge.  As my brain surgeons used to say, “This is not rocket science.” And my rocket scientist friends used to say, “This is not brain surgery.”  It’s uncommon common sense. Nurses from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston begin their shifts by asking their patients, “What’s the most important thing we can do for you today?” And then listening to and responding to those patients.

A key element needed to provide actual empathy is the avoidance of judgment. Hate the disease, but don’t judge the person.  Don’t give your unwanted opinions or interrupt with your personal solutions. Simply listen with empathy.  Another is the ability to recognize the emotion that is present and then genuinely respond to it in a caring way.

Generous acts do not have to be limited to healthcare activities.   I’ve had patients who have proclaimed that hugs from nurses or physicians literally saved their lives, and that is not an exaggeration.

Kindness

My career path took a very circuitous route to where I am today.  I started as a professional trumpet player and school band director, became an arts organization executive, and later founder of two genomic research institutes.  But in my thirties, before I entered health care administration, when I was serving as the president of the Laurel Highlands Convention and Visitors Bureau, I learned about customer service.

In that scenario, timeliness is always a problem. When I got into healthcare, I’d ask why it was I could stay in a nice hotel and in 15 minutes have two or three employees bumping into each other to take care of me for less than $200 a night, but for $2500 a night, after ringing my call bell for 45 minutes, I couldn’t get a bedpan in a hospital? That all changed very rapidly.

The next challenge is carefully administered gentle honesty. A physician friend told me the story of his first year of practice when he told a congestive heart failure patient to get his things in order because what he had was not reversible. This patient had at least 18 months or more to live, but the physician didn’t mention that.  The patient’s wife called the next morning and told my friend that her husband had died that night. Words are powerful.  Use them very carefully.

Finally, it’s imperative that we treat not only the patient but also their family members by considering their daily needs and providing emotional support.  I can honestly tell you that more healing took place in my hospice than in any other department in the hospital: family healing.

That’s the magic of kind care.

Nick Jacobs of Windber PA is a Partner with SunStone Management Resources and author of the blog healinghospitals.com.

 

 

 

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Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.  They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”  Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.  Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. – John 12:20-33

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The story has been told of a young pastor who stepped into the pulpit in an English church one Sunday morning and found a brass plaque on the inside of the lectern. It read, quoting today’s scripture, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” This story must have gotten around because today quite a few churches have pulpits with that saying on the inside.

And isn’t that really what we come to church for?  To be lifted out of the mundane world and for a moment touch eternity and spend some time with God and with Jesus, who loves us so much?

As I was reflecting on this, this past week, I thought back to a time a long time ago when I was maybe 13 or 14 years old, and I came to church wanting more than anything to catch a glimpse of Jesus.  This was back in the early 1970s, and those of us who were around back then remember the things that were going on in the world.  Our country’s nuclear arms talks with Russia had stalled out because of a disagreement over the shape of table where the delegates would sit; the Vietnam War was dragging on, and anti-war protests were building; and people who were keeping an eye on the news were beginning to hear rumors that something might have happened in an office complex called Watergate.  At the same time many churches, including the Presbyterian church I grew up in, were studying a recent book by English bishop John Robinson called Honest to God in which he introduced concepts of ‘secular theology’ and ‘situational ethics’, and called into question what many people understood about God and faith.

Our church was full of talk and deep concern over these things, and understandably so. The world back then was complex and troubling – much like it is today. But as I came to church looking for Jesus with all of the idealism and naivete of a young teenager, and I was disappointed… because with everything that was going on, the one thing I couldn’t find was Jesus.

I can remember going home, discouraged, and putting on the new George Harrison record (yes, vinyl) Living in the Material World. After the breakup of the Beatles, Harrison had gone very public about his commitment to Hinduism, and he was being ridiculed in the press for it. What captured my attention on the album was the last song, called That Is All, and the lyrics went like this:

“Times I find it hard to say with useless words getting in my way
Silence often says much more than trying to say what’s been said before
And that is all I want to do – to give my love to you
That is all I’m living for – to try to love you more
And that is all”

This wasn’t a love song to a lady; it was a love song to his god. Harrison was putting all the fame of a Beatle and all the fortune of a Beatle on the line for his faith.  And I prayed that God would lead me to people who could teach me to love Jesus the way Harrison loved Krishna.

God never fails to answer prayers like that!  And isn’t it really what we’re all here for today? To see Jesus, and to know him more and to love him more, and to be loved and be known by him?

As I’ve been studying baptismal vows this Lent I think that’s really what these vows are all about. For example, this week’s question [from the Methodist Book of Order] “According to the grace given you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?”

This question is not about signing one’s name to a church register and then signing up for volunteer time. (It might include that!) But mostly it’s about helping people to see Jesus – according to the grace he’s given us. And grace isn’t something we can get for ourselves, or stir up inside ourselves. Grace is by definition a gift from God, who loves us.

Having been loved and forgiven by God through the cross of Christ, and being guided by the Holy Spirit, we are able to be faithful members of the family of God: the living community of God’s faithful people around the world, representing every nation and language and people group, and stretching across the millennia.

Serving as Christ’s representatives in the world is a HUGE order, a huge responsibility. For people outside the church, how we live our daily lives, and how we treat one another, may be all they ever see of how the Christian faith is lived.  We live in a fishbowl!  Or, as Jesus puts it, who would light a lamp and put it under a basket?  “You are the light of the world,” he said.

What we do in even the smallest and most private of moments matters.  What we say when we think no one is listening matters.  We are called at all times and in all places to reflect the love of Jesus and the truth of Jesus’ words in the way we live. And more than that, we are called to be ambassadors for the Kingdom of God – ambassadors to a world that is in rebellion against God, a world that is passing away, and from which God wants to rescue as many as are willing.

Our reading from the gospel of John today speaks to all of this, so I’d like to spend some time with it.

As the scene opens, Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem, along with a large number of people, both Jews and Gentiles, because the Passover is about to begin. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we celebrate next week on Palm Sunday, happened a couple days ago in this passage. And a few days before that, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead – which is partly what inspired the events of Palm Sunday – after which the Pharisees conspired to kill Lazarus (completely missing the irony of attempting to kill someone who has just been raised from the dead and could be brought back again). And the Pharisees are saying to each other, “Look, the whole world has gone after him!”

And the arrival of a group of Greeks proves their point.  These unnamed Gentiles came to the temple during the week of Passover and said “we want to see Jesus”.

The Greeks talk to Philip because they understand Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and back then there was sort of an invisible line between Jews and Gentiles; but they are encouraged by Jesus’ actions a few days before, when he tossed the merchants and money-changers out of the temple. All those tables had been set up in the part of the temple reserved for the Gentiles, so they understood Jesus’ actions as being sympathetic to Gentiles – which, in part, they were. But Philip’s not quite sure what to do so he goes and tells Andrew and together they give Jesus the message: “there are some Greeks who would like to see you.”

And the arrival of the Gentiles fulfills the ancient prophecies that the Messiah would be “a light to the Gentiles” as well as “the glory of his people Israel”.  And so Jesus, answering Philip and Andrew, says, “the hour has come. Now will the Son of Man be glorified.”

And he explains: just like a grain of wheat has to fall into the ground and die in order to sprout and bear fruit, likewise he must die in order to enter glory.

And what’s more, Jesus’ disciples need to be willing to put their lives on the line too: those who try to hold onto their lives will lose out, but those who lose their lives will find them. The servants must follow the master; and Jesus says “whoever serves me the Father will honor.”

Imagine for a moment what it will be like to be honored by God.  We talk a lot in church about beliefs and duties, but I think it’s good sometimes to stop and think about God’s promises.  The King of the universe, the creator who spoke galaxies into existence, knows your name, and has a crown with your name on it, waiting for you.

“He who honors me, I will honor.” These words were first spoken by God in the book of I Samuel (2:30).  They were also quoted in the movie Chariots of Fire. Some of you may remember the scene. Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner from Scotland back in 1924, had risked everything (including defying the king of England) by refusing to run in a heat on Sunday, the Lord’s day. His refusal meant rescheduling all the runners on the English Olympic team, and also meant Liddell would not run in the race he was most qualified for. This caused a stir in the papers… but on the day of the race, as the race was about to begin, Liddell was handed a note quoting the verse “he who honors me I will honor”. He ended up winning the race and setting a world record.

After the Olympics, Eric Liddell served in the mission field in China, and died at the age of 43 in a Chinese internment camp. His last words, talking about living life for God, were, “it’s complete surrender.”

That’s what Jesus is talking about here. He’s talking about his own complete surrender to the Father’s will.  We hear in this passage a preview of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. His soul is troubled – shaken to the core – at the horror of the cross, and Jesus wrestles with the reality of his calling. He has no desire to suffer; he has no martyr complex. Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane tells us he desperately wanted any other option. But he knows there is none, if the fallen human race is to be saved. And so he says, “it is for this reason I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

And God answers, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”

Jesus explains to the crowd: “now comes the judgement of this world. Now the ruler of this world will be ejected” – and Jesus, being nailed to the cross, will draw all people to himself.  To reject Jesus is to reject God; but at the same time “the judgement passed on this world is endured by the One whom this world murders.” And as a result Satan is dethroned and Jesus is enthroned.

This Jesus is the one we are called to represent to the world. It’s an impossible task, in our own power. That’s why we have to rely on God’s grace. As the body of believers we are called to share in Jesus’ suffering and to share in his glory.

So where does this put us today? Are we like the Greeks, saying “sir, we would see Jesus”?  If so, he’s right here: staring death in the face and saying ‘I love you this much – trust me, follow me’. There is no longer any barrier to anyone’s admission to God’s presence and God’s glory.

Are we followers of Jesus? Then as we follow him, our path will lead us into working together, and suffering together, and into glory together.  On this path we will likely run up against two roadblocks: (1) our own natural inclination to duck out of suffering, and (2) as the old pastor of Cambridge, England – Charles Simeon – put it: “the contempt and hatred of an ungodly world”. He adds: “we are not at liberty to shun the cross by relaxation of our principles or by any deviation from the path of duty.” These are hard words to hear, and hard words to speak; but Jesus does not sugar-coat. The path ahead is not easy; but our calling is to follow the Lord of Love; and in doing so bring glory to God.

So having said all of this, I’d like to end where we began: in the words of the Greek visitors, “we would see Jesus”.  I invite you to relax, close your eyes if you want to, and turn on your imaginations, and picture Jesus and the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The sun is shining, the boats are out, and the fish are biting. Jesus is teaching the crowds, and welcoming children, and blessing the children and laughing with them.  And then as he walks through the seaside town of Capernaum, people bring their loved ones who are sick, and he touches them: and they’re well again.

After a long day Jesus and the disciples climb a mountain – green and dotted with flowers – and they have dinner together and pray together. The next morning the crowd finds them again so Jesus sits down and teaches them: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted… blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy… blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God…”

Day after day, town after town, Jesus demonstrates God’s power in his miracles and God’s love in his teaching. People love him and are amazed by him and can’t get enough of him.  Jesus knows the religious establishment is envious of this and they aren’t going to put up with him for much longer. But he also knows, as C.S. Lewis said in The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, that there is an “old magic” in the world (as the character Aslan puts it):

“when a willing victim who had committed no treachery is killed in a traitors stead, the Table will crack and Death itself will start working backwards…”

Which is an allegory for the cross, on which Jesus, the willing victim who committed no treachery, was killed in the place of a rebellious human race. At which point death was not able to hold him OR have any further power over us. Our champion walked out of the grave and lives today – and in him we live, and will always live.

This is Jesus. All glory be to him and to our God forever. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) 3/18/18

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[Scripture reading: 2 Kings 23:1-6, 21-25 reprinted at the end]

In the beginning… there were matinee idols. Errol Flynn. Clark Gable. Greta Garbo. Then there were pop idols: Elvis Presley. The Beatles. And then there was American Idol – pop stars taken from anonymity to fame for our young people to look up to.

This week in our Lenten series on “Giving Up…” things for Lent, we’ll be looking at Giving Up Idols.

Parents of teenagers have never been entirely comfortable with the younger generation’s idols, but most parents figure it’s just a phase. The kids will grow out of it, right?

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But I think this is only a tiny, tiny part of what the Bible is talking about when it talks about idols.

And the Bible does talk about idols a lot! In fact the words idols or false gods – between those two phrases – appear over 400 times in the Bible.

For most of us, when we hear the word ‘idol’, we either think of pop idols or we think of those statues people in ancient times used to worship: false gods with names like Dagon or Molech or Ba’al, idols carved out of stone or wood, and worshiped by primitive people who didn’t know any better.

But ancient people weren’t stupid. They knew these statues were just representations of things in the spirit world.  The statues represented concepts like health or fertility or wealth. And the worshipers were worshiping the spirit world, not the statues.

But the priests of the false gods demanded sacrifices: sometimes even human sacrifices. And so these ancient religions brought death to their worshipers, not life, partly because following the so-called ‘gods’ made people to do unholy things; and partly because they were worshiping a lie. And as the apostle Paul says, these gods don’t exist anyway.

No wonder the one true and living God, who loves all he has created, objects to people worshiping what isn’t real and following lies that will destroy them.

But what about us today?  We don’t talk much about ‘idolatry’ much any more – the word has gone out of fashion kind of like the word ‘repent’.  But idols are still very much with us, and their lies are still very much with us. “Fake news,” for example, puts lies in the mouths of celebrities who never said any such thing; or may put forward propaganda in a way that people are tempted to believe it.  Perpetrators of fake news are counting on the fact people have idols and can be led astray by them.

Idols can also be things we spend too much time or money on. Buying stuff. Having the best. Tucking money away. Spending too much time with the TV (or Facebook). We even make idols out of God’s blessings sometimes: good gifts like careers or friends or family or food or exercise.

Anything that becomes more important to us than God, or that gets in the way of God being the Lord of our lives, is an idol. And God knows that idols eventually lead us into death.  And what’s more, idols steer our love and loyalty away from the people around us who need what God has given us to share.

I saw a quote the other day that speaks to this. Given that idols are objects of our praise, the quote said: “Biblical praise – is always both praise of the true Lord, and praise against all false lords – human and nonhuman – who seek to set themselves up in God’s place… prais[ing God] not only evokes a world, it also undoes, it deconstructs, all other worlds.”

Once we become convinced that only God is worthy of our worship, and we decide to get rid of our idols (whatever they may be) we may find it difficult to get rid of them. They’re not easy to shake.

The temptation is to try to tear our idols down. We’ve had them up on a pedestal and it’s so easy when we’ve put something on a pedestal to throw it down and break it. Think of how many famous people – even in the news recently – have been on pedestals for years and then their reputations all of a sudden are smashed on the ground. The problem is, throwing things off pedestals is just the flip side of building them up.  We are still relating to the idol. Our attention is still on it.

But throughout scripture, when God confronts idolatry, God’s words are always “put it away”.  Not ‘tear it down’.  ‘Put it away’ – like a parent telling a child to put a toy back in its box. Leave it where it is, God says, and let’s you and me do something else.

All through scripture God says to His people ‘put it away’.

  • In Genesis (35:2) God says to Jacob’s family, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you…”
  • When the Israelites were entering the Promised Land, God says, (Joshua 24:14) “put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt.”
  • When the prophet Ezekiel was comforting a nation in exile God said, (Ezekiel 43:9) “let them put away their idolatry… and I will reside among them forever.”
  • And even at the end of the book of Revelation, as God’s judgement is being poured out on the earth at the end of time, people still have not given up their idols. The apostle John writes: (Revelation 9:20) “…they did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols …”

From Genesis to Revelation God has been saying to his people “put them away”.

So this Lent, let’s put away anything that comes between us and God: anything that is more important to us than God.  And for those people and things in our lives who we love and that are important to us – place them in God’s hands, for God’s blessing. By doing this, we will love them even better, because we’ve set them free to be who they are in the Lord.

So let’s free ourselves of serving anything that can’t save or satisfy. Let’s put away all idols and live our lives as God intended – free to serve the Lord of Love. AMEN.

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2 Kings 23:1-6, 21-25  Then the king [Josiah] directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him.  2 The king went up to the house of the LORD, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the LORD.  3 The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the LORD, to follow the LORD, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.

 4 The king commanded the high priest Hilkiah, the priests of the second order, and the guardians of the threshold, to bring out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel.  5 He deposed the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to make offerings in the high places at the cities of Judah and around Jerusalem; those also who made offerings to Baal, to the sun, the moon, the constellations, and all the host of the heavens.  6 He brought out the image of Asherah from the house of the LORD, outside Jerusalem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people.

The king commanded all the people, “Keep the Passover to the LORD your God as prescribed in this book of the covenant.”  22 No such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah;  23 but in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem.

 24 Moreover Josiah put away the mediums, wizards, teraphim, idols, and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, so that he established the words of the law that were written in the book that the priest Hilkiah had found in the house of the LORD.  25 Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.

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Preached at Wednesday Lenten Lunch Series, Carnegie Ministerium, St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2/21/18

 

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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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