Posted in Fellowship, Follow, God's Voice, Jesus, Jesus is Lord, Sermon

The Voice of the Lord

The Voice of the Lord

Scripture:  Psalm 29

1 Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,

    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;

    worship the Lord in holy splendor.

3 The voice of the Lord is over the waters;

    the God of glory thunders,

    the Lord, over mighty waters.

4 The voice of the Lord is powerful;

    the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;

    the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,

    and Sirion like a young wild ox.

7 The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.

8 The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;

    the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

9 The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,

    and strips the forest bare;

    and in his temple all say, “Glory!”

10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;

    the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.

11 May the Lord give strength to his people!

    May the Lord bless his people with peace!

Whose voice are you listening to?  We need to listen to the voice of the Lord.  But, how do we do that?

Tune in to Jesus.

Make Jesus Lord of your life.

Follow Jesus with your lives.

Whose voice are you listening to?

There are SO MANY voices swirling around in our heads and our lives.  Telling us what we need, competing voices telling us what we should believe, and peddling easy answers and quick fixes to our every desire.  Y’all know by now, I think of things first in song.  Three come to mind.  First, Casting Crown’s “Voice of Truth” 

But the voice of truth tells me a different story

The voice of truth says, “Do not be afraid!”

The voice of truth says, “This is for My glory”

Out of all the voices calling out to me

I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth

And that Voice of Truth is named Jesus.  Second, Lauren Daigle’s “You Say”  

I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I’m not enough

Every single lie that tells me I will never measure up

Am I more than just the sum of every high and every low

Remind me once again just who I am because I need to know

You say I am loved when I can’t feel a thing

You say I am strong when I think I am weak

And you say I am held when I am falling short

And when I don’t belong, oh You say I am Yours

And I believe  

What You say of me 

I believe

Jesus says you are LOVED.  The world wants to turn you inside out and wants to make you doubt yourself.  And lastly, an oldie but a goody, particularly this week, “When the storms of life are raging, Stand By Me.”  

When the storms of life are raging,

stand by me; (stand by me)

when the storms of life are raging,

stand by me. (stand by me)

When the world is tossing me

like a ship upon the sea,

thou who rulest wind and water,

stand by me. (stand by me)

When the storms of life are raging, we need to listen to the word of the Lord.

We need to tune in to the voice of Jesus.  Erle Stanley Gardner, the famous mystery writer and creator of Perry Mason, was a lawyer himself. In his trial work, he had a partner with a rather remarkable skill. This lawyer could detect critical information in cross examination simply by listening to a person’s voice. This was information that went unnoticed by virtually everyone else. In an article in Vogue magazine, Gardner noted that in the years that this man was his partner, when they were in court together, this lawyer made it a point not to look at the witness on the stand. Instead he kept his eyes fixed on a piece of paper, sometimes taking down what the witness was saying in shorthand, sometimes simply doodling, but always listening to the voice of the witness.

At some stage in the examination, said Gardner, his partner would nudge him with his elbow. Invariably that meant that the witness was either lying at that point in the testimony, or was trying to cover up something. Gardner said his own untrained ears were never able to detect these subtle changes of voice and tempo, but his partner could spot them with a startling accuracy. 

We need to tune into that Voice of Truth.  As was illustrated with the songs, there’s all these voices going on in stereo inside our heads.  We don’t want to give in to the lies of the Enemy.  We need the wisdom and discernment to tune in to the voice of our Savior, Christ the Lord.

Remember Elijah in the wilderness. Fleeing from Queen Jezebel. Despondent, certain that God had forsaken him, hiding in a cave. Then suddenly there is a mighty wind, so mighty that it splits mountains and breaks rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still, small voice. (1 Kings 19:12) But that voice found Elijah out there in the wilderness, turned his life around and made him a mighty voice for God.

There’s a story of a young man who lost his job and didn’t know which way to turn. So he went to see his pastor. Pacing about the preacher’s study, the young man ranted about his problem. Finally he clenched his fist and shouted, “I’ve begged God to say something to help me. Tell me, pastor, why doesn’t God answer?”

The older man, who sat across the room, spoke something in reply–something so hushed it was indistinguishable.

The young man stepped across the room. “What did you say?” he asked.

The pastor repeated himself, but again in a tone as soft as a whisper. So the young man moved closer until he was leaning on the pastor’s chair. “Sorry,” he said. “I still didn’t hear you.”

With their heads bent together, the old minister spoke once more: “God sometimes whispers,” he said, “so we will move closer to hear Him.”

This time the young man heard and he understood.

Draw near to God. Hear God speak to your deepest need. Hear God affirm your life. God’s voice. Is there any deeper need in our lives right now than to hear God speak words of healing and hope? Listen quietly. Listen closely. Hear Jesus speak your name today.

We need to tune in to the voice of Jesus, no matter the noise of the crowd, no matter the situation.  We need to block out the noise and FOCUS on the voice of truth.

If we are going to tune in to Jesus, then what follows or precedes is to make him Lord of our lives.  Remember Saul of Tarsus. He was known to persecute people of The Way until he was struck blind on the Road to Damascus. Then he heard a voice, in Acts 9:4-5, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

And Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?”

And the voice said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” 

Saul who was transformed into Paul because he made Jesus the Lord of his life.  Paul was transformed from a man of violence to one who wrote in 1 Corinthians 13,  “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing . . .”  He underwent imprisonment, torture, shipwreck and he writes in Romans 14:8-9, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.  For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”  Paul had been transformed and he understood that we are the Lord’s.

Everyone that wants to become a pastor in the United Methodist Church is asked in our provisional paperwork, how do we interpret the statement Jesus Christ as Lord?  Jesus is the Lord of our lives.  We kneel and swear fealty to him as the knights of old to the King.  We are loyal, acting not in our best interest, but in the Lord’s who created heaven and earth and all that is within it.  We are not our own; we’ve been bought with a price.  And that’s not restrictive, it’s freeing.

Thomas Merton, monk and theologian, writes in “The Road Ahead,”  “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”  I want the Lord of the heavens and the earth, to be my Lord like that.  The Lord over every inch of my heart and my life.

If we tune into Jesus and make him the Lord of our lives, what naturally flows is following Jesus with our lives.

Our modern day example in walking the walk and talking the talk is Billy Graham.  Joseph Stowell, author of the book “Simply Jesus” once asked Billy Graham what had been the best experience of his entire ministry. It seems like a difficult question for the world’s most famous evangelist. Graham has preached in front of millions of people, traveled around the world many times, counseled presidents and kings. But Graham didn’t have to hesitate in his answer. He replied, “By far the greatest joy of my life has been my fellowship with Jesus. Hearing Him speak to me, having Him guide me, sensing His presence with me and His power through me. This has been the highest pleasure of my life!” 

Hearing Jesus speak to me.

Having Jesus guide me.

Sensing Jesus’ presence with me and Jesus’ power through me.

It’s not about our own power; it’s about the power of the Holy Spirit within us, igniting in us a passion that is not squelched by mere circumstance and situation, but it is a solid ever-present flame that the world is drawn to. If we tune in to Jesus and make him Lord of our lives then he will never leave nor forsake us and he will be an ever-present help in times of trouble.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders . . . The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness . . . The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl. . . But hear what’s at the end:  11May the Lord give strength to his people!  May the Lord bless his people with peace!”

I know this has been a difficult week and I know this has been a difficult year, but our Lord promises strength to his people and the Psalmist asks for the Lord to bless his people with peace.  If we stay rooted in Christ, we’ll have that peace that the Psalmist’s asking for.  We will have Jesus’s peace that transcends all understanding.  As it says in John 14:17, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”  If we tune into Jesus, make him Lord of our lives, and follow him we will be accepting his call of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20.  “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  His calling and his promise is clear.  We just have to listen to the voice of the Lord.

Posted in Darkness, Epiphany, Isaiah, Light, Sermon

Arise, shine; for your light has come! – January 2nd

It’s beginning to not look like Christmas.  How many of you have put away your Christmas decorations?  We haven’t even begun to.  I’m not going to technically feel bad about it because it’s not Epiphany yet.  You see, not only do we observe Christmas, but the Christian calendar gives us twelve days of Christmas to span the time between Christ’s birth and the wise men coming to witness the birth not just of Israel’s deliverer, but of the whole world.  

These words from Isaiah were spoken to a specific people coming home from exile, but the words of Isaiah are quoted all through the New Testament in multiple ways to speak to all types of situations and the beauty with all scripture – it has a way of speaking to us afresh and anew if we let it.  The Word is open and alive for each of us.

Isaiah 60:1-6

1 Arise, shine; for your light has come,

    and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth,

    and thick darkness the peoples;

but the Lord will arise upon you,

    and his glory will appear over you.

Nations shall come to your light,

    and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around;

    they all gather together, they come to you;

your sons shall come from far away,

    and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

Then you shall see and be radiant;

    your heart shall thrill and rejoice,

because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,

    the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

A multitude of camels shall cover you,

    the young camels of Midian and Ephah;

    all those from Sheba shall come.

They shall bring gold and frankincense,

    and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

An epiphany is a sudden manifestation or perception of the meaning of something or an intuitive grasp of reality through something usually simple and striking.  My simplified explanation is it’s an ah-hah moment.  Well, I’ll give you the three epiphanies or ah-hah moments or take-aways and lo and behold, they’re all 3 about Jesus.

Jesus dispels the darkness.

Jesus shines in our hearts.

Jesus calls us to be lighthouses shining God’s glory in and for the world.  

Jesus dispels the darkness.

Darkness is never easily dispelled. The Israelites could have said, “We’ve heard that before!” At the beginning of the book of Isaiah they had heard: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them has light shined” (Isaiah 9:2). That promise seemed like a quick fix before the darkness returned; and we know the feeling. We have heard these promises at Advent and Christmas, year after year. Does anything really change?  Did Covid-19 suddenly disappear or our loneliness in isolation or did we instantly drop the 19 pounds most of us gained during the pandemic when it turned into January 1st?  Nope.  It’s never as easy as waving a magic wand.

But have we ever really listened to the promises? It says you must “lift up your eyes and look around” (v. 4a) All the light in the world is no help if you don’t lift up your eyes and take a look around.  We have to look up to see the light.  It may be a speck on the horizon, it may be the light that we look for when the world is caving in on us.   What Isaiah saw was a glorious restoration for Jerusalem, a great homecoming for the Jews, a great ingathering of the Gentiles. But the reality – the hope of a glorious return with banners waving and confetti filling the air is far from what they found.  Enormous construction tasks and apathy at best from the ones who had stayed behind were beyond discouraging.  It would have been easy for them to give up, but they clung to God’s promises as we have to do too.   

Jesus shines in our hearts.

I’ve had a quote at the end of my email since I created it in 2012.  It’s from Archbishop Desmond Tutu – “Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through Him who loves us.”  But if I don’t truly believe that Jesus dispels all the darkness in our lives, if I don’t truly believe in the promises of God, then those are just empty words on a tagline.  I’m not talking about momentary bits of doubt or discouragement, that the Lord will lead us through with a song, a piece of scripture, a call from a friend, a sunrise, we have to look up and around to see all of God’s workings in our lives. 

Isaiah 60:19

19 The sun shall no longer be

    your light by day,

nor for brightness shall the moon

    give light to you by night;

but the Lord will be your everlasting light,

    and your God will be your glory.

But the Lord will be YOUR everlasting light, and YOUR God will be your glory.  We realize, don’t we, that they and we did not choose this on our own.  This is a unilateral action on the part of God, that is available to each of us, because God sent his Son to be the light of the world.  This new identity as children of the light was given by God; not achieved by them. This new identity is also God’s free gift to us through the light of the world, Jesus Christ. Our new, God-given identity is not given by others’ perceptions. It is given by God in Jesus Christ.

As Matt Maher wrote in the song the began played, “One star burns in the darkness

Shines with the promise, Emmanuel

One child born in the stillness

Living within us, Emmanuel

We’re singing glory, glory

Let there be peace, let there be peace

Singing glory, glory

Let there be peace, let it start in me

If Jesus shines in our hearts, then we will have peace.  It may not always seem like it, but we can have God’s peace, Christ’s peace and love and joy ever in the midst in all of life’s storms.

    Jesus calls us to be lighthouses shining God’s glory in and for the world. 

One of the most prolific songwriters of the nineteenth century was Fanny Crosby. She was the daughter of John and Mercy Crosby from Putnam County, New York. Fanny was born on March 24, 1820. At age six weeks she became sick with a cold, causing inflammation of her eyes. The family doctor was out of town so a doctor unfamiliar with the Crosby family came. He recommended the use of hot poultices, which destroyed her sight. Growing up in a sightless world did not deter Fanny Crosby; she would not let anyone feel sorry for her. At the age of fifteen, she entered the New York Institution for the Blind, where she earned an excellent education. She became a teacher in the Institution in 1847 and continued her work until March 1, 1858. She taught English grammar, rhetoric, and Roman and American history. During this period of her life she began to develop a passion for songwrit­ing and poetry.

Fanny Crosby wrote over 4,000 hymns in her lifetime. She had a intimate relationship with Jesus Christ since childhood, and it shows in her hymns. She wrote the songs, “Safe In The Arms Of Jesus,” “Rescue The Perishing,” “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour,” “Jesus Keep Me Near The Cross,” “Blessed As­surance,” and more. Another of her hymns, “To God Be The Glory” is one that the prophet Isaiah could have related to very well. Sing with her words:

To God be the glory, great things he hath done!

So loved he the world that he gave us His Son,

who yielded his life an atonement for sin,

and opened the lifegate that all may go in.

O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,

to every believer, the promise of God;

The vilest offender who truly believes,

that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.

Great things he hath taught us, great things he hath done,

and great our rejoicing thru Jesus, the Son;

but purer, and higher, and greater will be

our wonder, our transport when Jesus we see!

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord;

let the earth hear His voice!

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord;

let the people rejoice!

O come to the Father thru Jesus the Son,

and give him the glory — great things he hath done!

Fanny Crosby may not have been able to see the glory of God with her eyes, but she was a lighthouse of God’s love to the world!   She was one of my lighthouses when I went through my cancer treatments and did this little art project.  (Thanks, Beth Bostrom!)

We can all shine the light of God’s love. We can all be lighthouses.  We don’t have to burn ourselves out shining everywhere, lighthouses don’t do that.  Lighthouses shine the light to guide ships home.  And as we have the opportunity to do that with others it’s only because we are a reflection of the True Light of the World.  Jesus dispels all of the darkness, shines His love into our hearts and gives us the love, grace, strength, and peace to shine God’s light in the world as God’s Lighthouses.  “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!”  Amen.

Posted in Mary Magnificat, Sermon, Waiting

4th Sunday of Advent – Waiting at the Threshold

We finally made it to the week of Christmas. 

Hallelujah!  

When we were little we gathered for Christmas at my grandparent’s house.  I remember not being able to go to sleep that night and us reading “The Night Before Christmas” in my grandmother’s house.  The house was packed with aunts, uncles, and cousins.  We would gather at Greeleyville United Methodist Church for the Christmas Eve service.  When we went to Cypress Gardens Assisted Living and were singing Christmas carols, I heard Annette Goins’ strong alto singing voice, and it brought back a wave of memories of me standing between my mom and grandmother singing alto.  I remember most of the alto parts of “Joy to the World” and “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” but that’s about it.

We were the only grandkids back then and my uncle Jim (Bubba) had this fancy new video camera.  (It was back in the 80’s.)  We had to wait on the stairs until they got the cameras set up.  It took FOREVER.  It was like a million years to a kid, but probably more like 5 minutes.  My grandfather loved to see our faces and used his principal-voice to keep us from bursting through the door.  Waiting on the threshold seems like it’s taking forever, but we’ve come so far.  Waiting all year for Santa Claus to come.  The eager anticipation.  Because you know something good is waiting for you on the other side.  In this text, we see Mary as she finds out the news from Gabriel and then she sings her song of praise.  It’s not cheesy Hallmark greeting cards or Christmas movies.  It is powerfully prophetic, muchless from a teenage girl.

Luke 1:26-38, 46-56

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Mary’s Song of Praise

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

47  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

    and holy is his name.

50 His mercy is for those who fear him

    from generation to generation.

51 He has shown strength with his arm;

    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

he has filled the hungry with good things,

    and sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

    in remembrance of his mercy,

55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

Bill Wolf wrote one of the songs we’re going to sing on Christmas Eve, “A Baby Will Come,” while he was preparing a sermon on Mary’s Magnificat.  He writes, “As I researched the social climate of Israel in the late first century B.C., I was overcome with how dire the lives of the Israelites had been. Between the brutal conquests of the Roman Empire under Caesar Augustus and the obscene taxation of Herod, King of Judea, the Israelites were enslaved once again, this time in their own backyard.

These were God’s people clinging to God’s promises, and yet life seemed to get harder and harder as the weight of oppression grew heavier and heavier. The Promised Land no longer felt like the Promised Land. Doubt began to set in.

It was into this climate that a young adolescent girl was visited by an angel of God and told that she would give birth to a baby boy. She was told His very name would be “Salvation” for her and for her people.

In a moment of joy and restraint, Mary sat down and reflected on what the angel had told her as she began to pen this poem. It is the first Christmas song ever written. It is a beautiful song; a poem that is on one hand personal and introspective, but on the other hand, charged with social and politically revolutionary language.

This was not a timid, scared little girl.

I had this phrase in my head, “The kings of the world have torn it apart. But take heart, a baby will be born.” How absurd of a thought is that? A baby? Yet that is the promise Mary was given. That is promise we have been given.”

And the baby grew to be a man that fulfilled his mother’s song.  The man whose mother, Mary burst out with a spontaneous song of praise, sets us captives free. The people of Israel waited for the promised Messiah and that promise was fulfilled in Jesus. We are waiting still, for Jesus to come again, we’re standing on the threshold for the time in Revelation 21:3-4 describes, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

I did a funeral for a 20 year old yesterday.  The chapel at Parks funeral home was packed as was the Summerville Cemetery when I did the graveside.  He was the youngest of 4 brothers.  The daughter-in-law who read the words of her mother-in-law, had experienced her own loss.  She had a son born with a heart condition.  He died a week after his first heart surgery.  How to offer comfort and peace to a grieving family who’s been through so much?  It’s a simple name.  Jesus.  Fully human and fully divine.  Because I live, you will live also.  That’s our hope, that’s our joy, that’s our peace, because of God’s abundant love, God sent Jesus to earth and Jesus took on our sins and defeated death, so we might live through him.  Hear the Good News in that?  It’s revolutionary.  Jesus flipped the script.  Evil thought it had won, but Jesus came.  A baby was born.

It may be hard to find the good these days.

“Daniel Tiger” is a PBS spin-off from the prior Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. On the show, the characters say this phrase over and over again to each other and to the young children watching: “When something seems bad, turn it around, and make something good!” 

In one episode, Daniel goes to the bakery and chooses the best birthday cake in the shape of a tiger just like him. He helps mold it until it looks stunning. He carries it home, but it gets jostled about a bit, and when he opens the box, the cake is sunken and misshapen. And his friends will be there any moment!

Daniel is devastated. His cake is ruined. But his father reminds him, “When something seems bad, turn it around, and find something good!”

“Daniel, can you find something good still in this cake?”

Daniel at first has a hard time….but then he realizes, it still tastes good! He samples it to see. No matter how it looks, it’s still a great cake, and he shares it with his friends.

I don’t know about you, but the further we get into this pandemic, my default, my resting place, is negative – tinged with bitterness.  If I were Daniel Tiger, I might have looked above and shouted, “What else can go wrong?”  We need the Holy Spirit to blow peace into our hearts, minds and lives.We all need those reality checks of God reminding us…..look further. Taste and see that the Lord is good! The Lord is faithful. As we await the gift of Christmas morning, let us eagerly anticipate Jesus’ second coming, with hearts wide open to sharing the good news that the angels sang about.  Good news of great joy for ALL people!  As we wait in the threshold, we won’t be disappointed because the gift as scripture tells us in Ephesians 3:20, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” We need to share that gift of Jesus, our Emmanuel, with everyone so they can come and know our Savior.  It’s like this Advent candle, we need to carry our lights of hope, our beacons of love, our fires of joy, and our flames of peace to a hurting world to tell them about a Savior that came down to earth, to set us free from our sin, and we can be with him, now and forevermore.  Our very lives depend on Jesus, our Emmanuel, our God with us.

Posted in Cross, Jesus, paul, restart, Sermon

Time to Restart

I started with word games, 4 different ones, so when one showed the commercial in the free version, I could go to the next one.  Evy got me into picture finds and I’ve become obsessed with them.  Every time the clock winds down, it turns red and flashing at the 30 second mark, and I have 3 or more left, I get frantic trying to find the silly little pictures.  It’s amazing how frustrated I get.  I don’t want to restart.  They give me that option every time or I could get 45 seconds, if I pay for it, and I don’t want to pay.  I inevitably have to restart.  I don’t want to.  But I have to.  I know the game gets easier, if I restart, because I’ve done it before, but something in me – does not want to.  Or how many of you have mashed the power button on a computer or copier when nothing else works?

Sometimes we HAVE to do a hard restart.  We don’t want to, we sure don’t want to, but sometimes we have to.  Sometimes our lives need a reset because we’ve worn a path pacing back and forth trying to decide whether to make a change or not.  We sometimes don’t want to move on.  We sometimes want to cling to the past like old comfy pajamas.  You know those that have small holes in them and you can’t bear to throw them out.  We dread the changes that we would have to make in our lives, all the work it’s gonna be to let go of the past.  We’re afraid to face the new realities, the new normal.  Paul knew that without God in the mix, we could never make real change on our own.  Paul knew this secret and he’s trying to teach us as well.

Philippians 3:13-14

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. 

For us to follow Paul’s example, we have to make peace with those around us, with ourselves, and with God.

Paul had a lot of stuff in his past.  Remember who he was.  Before he became Paul.  He was Saul.  Saul persecuted early Christians.  He tortured and stoned them.  He was on the way to do more destruction of followers of the Way, until he has an encounter with Jesus and is blinded for three days. He is saved by Ananias; he is transformed into Paul boldly preaching about Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the Jewish Messiah and Son of God.  Jew and Gentile alike were puzzled and perplexed by this.  On one hand you had Saul that ultimate enemy and bad guy and then you have Paul – the greatest apostle ever….

When he says, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”  He means it.

Paul definitely has baggage.  Most of us don’t have the label of murderer.  Do you think the new Christians were scared of Saul, I mean Paul.  I would not blame some of them for being apprehensive, giving him the side eye, or being wary.  Paul had to have known it.  Had to have known how people would see him.  Annanias is hesitant as he says, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”  The Jews had commissioned Paul to be the angel of death, but the Lord was teaching Paul about mercy and grace.  The Lord talked to Ananias and Ananias went to heal Paul.  Afterwards, the scripture says Paul hung out with the disciples for a few days in Damascus.  Hung out?  Hung out?  He was sent there to kill them!  God makes a way for us to have peace with others.  God makes a way for us to have lives so transformed that it is obvious for all to see.  It must be God.  God was with Paul.  God was with Ananias.  God was with the disciples.  The Holy Spirit was working all around them in that situation and throughout Paul’s life.  God doesn’t leave us as God finds us.  

God worked through Paul and God can work through you and me.  

We have to believe we are worthy of leaving the past behind.  We have to throw out those comfy, holey pajamas.  We have to stop looking at our lives through the rearview mirror and look at the big, wide open windshield in front of us.  If we constantly are looking back then we can’t move forward.  Paul, I’m sure had some guilt, but he knew what he had to do.  Keep focused on the present goal.  “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  Do you hear that?  It’s a call of God in Christ Jesus.  God still calls us even with the baggage, even with our pasts, even through our tears and shame.  We make peace with ourselves by acknowledging our past.  We make peace with ourselves when we say it out loud.  We make peace with ourselves by letting Jesus into our hearts and letting him heal us.  

One of the most powerful and visual images that I have participated in was a time at Camp Pee Dee.  There was a canoe lake and a fishing lake at Camp Pee Dee and we walked this big, giant, life-size cross to the fishing lake.  It took a lot of us kids to carry the huge thing to the lake.  As we took turns, I don’t remember if they told us to be somber or solemn or we were being rowdy camp kids, but I remember thinking about carrying this alone and no wonder Jesus fell a few times.  When we got to the lake, again I don’t remember what was said or who the minister for the week was, but they had little pieces of paper and nails and we were to nail our sins to the cross.  Just that image brings up so many emotions, we were all crying in the pool house after using a hammer to nail our sins into the cross.  That image has stuck with me.  The Triune God knows all about us, knit us together in our mothers wombs, knows when we sit and we rise, knows every thought in our heads and every action that we’ve done – and loves us anyway.  Pursues us anyway.  Died for our sins.  

MercyMe’s “Flawless” comes in to play here:

No matter the bruises

No matter the scars

Still the truth is

The cross has made

The cross has made you flawless

No matter the hurt

Or how deep the wound is

No matter the pain

Still the truth is

The cross has made

The cross has made you flawless

When we make our peace with God, God is able to use us.  What Jesus says to Ananius to get him to go to Paul in Acts 9:15-16,“But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”  We may not have the proclamation power of Paul and we certainly don’t want to suffer like Paul, but Jesus uses us as his instruments, to be his show and tell in the world.

There’s a hymn written by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette called “Christ You Offer Us Your Welcome.”

You have given us a mission — to invite our neighbors in —

and your call to love and listen is a place we can begin.

We need more than open houses; we need, first, to give our hearts.

By your Spirit, make us servants; that’s the way your welcome starts.

May we set a welcome table, may we find a common ground

where no one will feel they’re labeled, where acceptance can be found.

We don’t need to entertain there, or to do things that impress —

just to hear folks’ joy and pain there, and to love so all are blest.

In much the same way, Rachel Held Evans writes, “I had questions about science and faith, biblical interpretation and theology. I felt lonely in my doubts. And, contrary to popular belief, the fog machines and light shows at those slick evangelical conferences didn’t make things better for me. They made the whole endeavor feel shallow, forced and fake. 

“What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or pastors wearing skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”

When we take this meal, we’re following Paul’s example, making peace with those around us, ourselves and God.  But we’re also following Paul’s example because when we take this meal, it’s like a restart.  Forgetting our sins that lie behind us and pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. In this meal, we take part in this holy mystery that should forever change us if we let it.  And that’s what Jesus wants – that’s what Paul did; he was forever changed from Saul into Paul.  He proclaimed the Word made flesh and dwelt among us!  He had proclaimed hate and was a destroyer AND then HE was the biggest big mouth and planted churches and wrote several parts of the Bible.  If Jesus can transform him, what are we waiting for? 

Jesus came and saved a wretch like me and he wants us to use our gifts, talents, imperfections and peculiarities to find the lost, the lonely, the desperate, the seemingly bad guys and show them the WAY – to show them Jesus – so that he can transform their lives just like he continues to transform ours.  Jesus wants us to be the Church joined together in this common meal, in this Holy Communion, throughout all the world, all sinners, saved by grace, all broken people, put back together again, whole.  It’s time to restart and get out of our own way.  It’s time to restart and let God use us.  It’s time to restart and go ye and tell the world about Jesus!

Posted in Amazing Grace, Body of Christ, Communion, Community, Cross, Grace, Holy Week, Jesus, Palm Sunday, Resurrection, Sermon, Uncategorized

Palm Sunday – The One

Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV)

21 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd[b] spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

My mom gives Enoch and Evy all kinds of Christian books.  They have many “my first Bibles,” pre-school Bibles, and “big kids” Bibles.  We actually have two copies of My Very First Easter Story. 

IMG_7704

Oh, though it’s only 2 pages, Enoch and Evy filled in the details.  Evy said it was all about friendship.  Enoch said that it was a horse (some versions say this).  Evy said they had laid the palm branches and cloaks down because they didn’t want Jesus to walk in the mud.

You see, all of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) have this story.  They included different details but the same overarching story.

I have chosen to stick with the Palm Sunday text.  You see the lectionary texts for today give us the options of choosing the Palm text and the Passion text.  I normally do some mixture of the two, however, I wanted to be intentional about sticking to the text and journeying through this week with Jesus.

The hesitancy of pastors is that if people only attend on Sundays, you get the celebration of Palm Sunday back to back with the Alleluias of Easter.  High point.  Even higher point.

You miss why in just 5 days the same people that shouted “Hosanna” and waved palm branches, shouted “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  You miss Jesus ticking off the Pharisees in the temple when he turned over the tables and called them a brood of vipers.  You miss them plotting to kill him.  You miss Jesus’ teaching the disciples you have to be last to be first as they witnessed him washing their and their friends’ feet.  Their Rabbi that they had followed for three years, getting all of his radical dust on them, as he continually flipped the script.  Doing what is always least expected.  Who else would have people waving palm branches praising him and wanting to kill him less than a week later?

He was the One they had waited for.  He was the One whom the prophets foretold.  He is the One Herod was so afraid of that he slaughtered all of those innocent children.  He was the One who preached in his hometown and they said, “Who is this kid?  Is he Joseph’s boy?”  He was the One who called Peter, James and John just a bunch of fishermen and said they were the best of the best of the best as he asked them to be his disciples.  He was the One who cast out demons, healed the paralytic and the hemorrhaging woman, called Lazarus forth FROM THE GRAVE.  He was the One even the wind and the waves obeyed.  He was the One.  Not just Neo from the Matrix or Frodo from the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, but THE ONE.  And the people were PUMPED until … they realized he wasn’t a political or military conqueror.  He was not going to ride in on a float and wave and provide good sound bites.  He was not going to incite a revolt among people groups.  He was not going to be boxed in to a certain tradition.  He was not going to maintain the status quo or social norms.  He came to flip the script.  He came to set ALL people free.  He came to set us free from BOTH sin and death.  He came to set us free from all of the burdens and shackles of this world.

I spent the week talking to Donal Hook about salvation.  He was recounting what Harry said two weeks ago about Jesus wiping the slate clean and I said that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love and we’re all worthy, enough, and chosen.  He said he was like the man saying, “Help my unbelief!” I appreciated his honesty as I relate to the man and the words as well! Remember the story.  It’s immediately after the transfiguration and the disciples are in a tizzy.  In Mark 9:19-24 he says to the disciples, “19 “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.”  24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I believe; help my unbelief.  We had many discussions over the past week and a half.  Most of the time it boiled down to me saying, that’s what’s so amazing about grace!  We have faith that God’s grace is real and ever abundant to cover anything we throw at God. I brought up singing “Amazing Grace” on Sunday night when I visited him, but I was too embarrassed to sing in front of his family, some of whom I had just met, with my off-key voice, but  I ended up singing it on Tuesday with his son Michael and Michael’s wife Marlene and that became our theme song over the last couple of days.  That and Psalm 23.  I frequently have Psalm 23 rolling around in my head as I pray.  It epitomizes to me the fullness of life.  God making us lie down in green pastures, anointing our heads with oil, and as I said to Donal and praying with he and his family, Jesus is the One who walks with us even through the darkest valley of the shadow of death.  Don joined the great cloud of witnesses yesterday and he is at peace and at rest.

You skip right over that lonesome and dark valley when you go from the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday to the glory of Easter and Resurrection.  You don’t get the dark days in between of doubt, fear, frustration, anger.  You don’t get the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus asking God to take this cup from him.  You don’t see, hear, or feel his pain as he’s betrayed, denied, beaten, stripped, crucified.  You don’t get the agony and anguish or the simple humanity of it all, the muck and mire.  He was the Human One.  Not a super hero that could leap over buildings.  He took on the form of a baby, both fully divine and fully human.  He felt everything we feel and even when he was on that cross he was thinking of us as he says, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.

If you don’t journey towards the cross, you miss out on the struggle and the deep pain of what it means to have an Emmanuel – God with us – even on the darkest night of our souls.  To have a savior who suffers right along with us.  Who knows the full extent of our pain and then some…

I encourage you to read the stories this week and meditate on them.  I encourage you to walk this journey towards the cross.  On Thursday we’ll gather here with Isle of Palms UMC for a joint Maundy Thursday service where we’ll celebrate Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.  On Friday we’ll have our Good Friday Tenebrae service.  If you’ve never been to a Tenebrae service, I encourage you to do so.  The word “tenebrae” comes from the Latin meaning “darkness.” The Tenebrae is an ancient Christian Good Friday service that makes use of gradually diminishing light through the extinguishing of candles as scriptures are read of that encompass the entire fullness of Holy Week.  This increasing darkness symbolizes the approaching darkness of Jesus’ death and of the hopelessness in the world without God. The service concludes in darkness and worshipers then leave in silence to ponder the impact of Christ’s death and await the coming Resurrection.  As Bob Goff, author of Love Does says, “Darkness fell.   His friends scattered.  All hope seemed lost.  But heaven just started counting to three.”

I invite us to count to three together as a faith community as One body.  We rejoice with one another.  We weep with one another.  We share in the mountaintops and the darkest of the darkest valleys and that is why it’s so special to have shared in this Holy meal together these past Sundays of Lent.  We have gathered bread, sustenance, strength to face together whatever life throws at us.   When we feel like giving up, when we need a helping hand or an encouraging word, we are there for one another with Jesus ever in our midst.  We live, move and breathe in Christ, our Rabbi, our One with us.  The One who calls each of us worthy, enough, beloved by God.  The One we celebrate when we celebrate this Holy Sacrament of Communion….

Posted in Ash Wednesday, Diamonds, Dust, Lent, Sermon, Uncategorized

God works wonders from dust…

As we face our own mortality, it can be scary…ominous even.  But I think we need it.   In this crazy, busy culture we need 40 days to contemplate, pray, and take a step out of the routine.  It is in Ash Wednesday that we are called upon to pause and reflect.  “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” Mary Oliver says about this life “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Ash Wednesday gives us the chance to question our priorities, our motivations, and our own sinfulness.  Dust to dust.

Here’s an old, cute story:

A little boy came home from Sunday school and went into his room to change his clothes. When he emerged he asked his mother, “Is it true we come from dust?”

“Yes, sweetie,” replied his mother, a knowledgeable and deeply religious woman. “That’s absolutely right.”

“Is it true that when we die we go back to the dust?”

“Yes, dear, that’s right. Why all these questions?”

The little boy ran into his room and came out all excited.

“Mom, I just looked under my bed and there’s someone either coming or going!”

It doesn’t have to be scary.  There’s beauty in that the great God of the universe breathed us into life and then because he defeated sin and death, they no longer bind us, even if when we return to dust.  We know that we’re going to return to dust sooner or later.  It’s how we live our lives that matters.  I like how Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran priest, explains Ash Wednesday, “If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and us not knowing what the distance is between the two, well then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and then held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. With these ashes, it is as though the water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the future to meet us here today. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God. Promises which outlast our piety, outlast our efforts in self-improvement, outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”  Promises that tell us if we run fast enough, we just might outrun death.  Say no to the fancy, shiny, new, plastic things of this world and hold tight to the true promises of God.

You see Lent is a time in which we’re seeing our own mortality clearly in our failings, in our sins, but that only points us still more to the One who never fails us and scatters our sins from the east to the west.  Ann Voskamp says this about  giving things up for Lent, “I can’t seem to follow through in giving up for Lent. Which makes me want to just give up Lent.  Which makes me question Who I am following.  Which may precisely be the point of Lent.”  If you’re following Jesus that is the only thing that matters.  Hear me again, if you’re following Jesus that’s the ONLY thing that matters.  If you put your trust in yourself, in your own goodness, or in your ability to exercise self-control than you’re bound for disappointment, however, Jesus will never disappoint.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to give up something or add spiritual practices like a daily quiet time or writing things that you are thankful for or fasting one day a week.  Those are all great additions.  Giving things up like chocolate, caffeine, or social media is meant to symbolize when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days.  Adding things is just what we need before Easter and maybe they will turn into habits.  Just by being intentional this Lenten season, you are practicing a “Holy Lent.”

Jo Ann Staebler in her book “Soul Fast,” says, “In the deep stillness of prayer my soul fasts.  Fasting, at its heart, is turning away from what keeps me from God.  Two things I must leave:  the walls I build around the space that was made to be God’s dwelling; the absurdities I keep in that space, so jealously hoarded.  Taking down the wall that protects the false self I have been building, all these years…risking exposure, emptiness, loneliness.  The fast is silence, ocean-deep and prolonged.  Shard by shard, the wall begins to fall.  Inch by inch, the space clears, and Love lights the shadows.  I come unprotected, and learn that God alone is safety.  I come unaccompanied, and find that Christ alone is Friend.  I come hungry, and receive the only food that satisfies.  In letting go is abundance.  In emptying I am filled.  This is not denial, but freedom.  Fast is feast.”

It doesn’t matter to me what you do, I just want you to be intentional in this Lenten ritual.  As most things in life, what you put into it, is what you’ll get out of it.  It’s only a tool, a ritual, to draw us closer to Jesus when *WE’RE* deep in the wilderness of life.

Hear these powerful words from the artist and poet, Jan Richardson, in her poem “Blessing the Dust,”

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

God can work wonders from dust.  God made you in your mother’s womb.  Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look up at your skies, at what your fingers made — the moon and the stars that you set firmly in place — what are human beings that you think about them . . . that you pay attention to them?”

God can do mighty things through us.  Our Rabbi Jesus can lead us to do some crazy, awesome things as we follow his teachings.  The Holy Spirit can fan the fire to make diamonds out of dust.  God can take your one, wild and precious life and work wonders out of it.

I will say while putting ashes on your forehead.

“God can work wonders with dust.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return. Amen.”

 

  •  I read many commentaries, blogs, articles to gather these quotes including this one not directly quoted:  http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2015/2/18/ash-wednesday-meditation.
Posted in Dust, Grace, Jesus, Rabbi, Sermon, Students, Uncategorized, Yoke

Something is Different about this Rabbi

Matthew 4:12-23

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

 

Did you notice how Matthew made reference to the prophet Isaiah?  Matthew’s gospel in particular is geared towards a Jewish audience.  The other gospel authors don’t reference the prophet Isaiah in this passage, but Matthew wants to create a compelling case for his people that this man, Jesus, is whom the prophets foretold.  This is the person we have waited for.  In verse 16, “16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  People in darkness crave the light with an unquenchable thirst and he’s letting the world know that the Light has come – by his use of prophets and stories and parables and miracles.  He’s making a case that Jesus is the Messiah.

People sometimes wonder why God chose to come to earth when Jesus did. Do you ever wonder what was special about that time and that place? Was it a dark time in history?  Did they have massive amounts of turmoil in all the world?  What was so special about first-century Palestine that made for the perfect time for the in-breaking of the Light of the world? There are all sorts of great answers in hindsight. For one, the world was primed for the spread of the Gospel. The Greek and then Roman Empires had built an infrastructure that spread across continents. There were established roads and trade routes and seafaring technology, common languages and schools, military protection and the rule of law. These Empires persecuted the Church, yes, but the Church was also able to kind of harness the systems in place to spread the Good News guerrilla-style.

There are lots of other interesting facts in the first century that made it a prime time for Jesus’ ministry, but the one that particularly interests us today, and for the next several weeks of our series together, is something that was a central piece in the Jewish culture. I’m talking about the role or the office of the rabbi. The Rabbi. Now, up front, I want you to know that this isn’t a focus and function sermon.  What is the text saying and what does that call us to do as Christians? Rather, it’s about following a sort of trail that will lead us into our “At the Feet of the Rabbi” sermon series. Not a rabbit trail, but a rabbi trail. HA! No, but seriously, if this is the main role that Jesus lived out of in his culture, it can tell us much about what he was doing, teaching, and living and what it means to actually follow him.

To unpack this, we start our trail in the childhood of the average Jewish kid in Jesus’ day. For the ancient Jews, much like us, a person’s introduction to God and faith started as early as possible. Not only that, but the Jews believed that teaching their kids the Word of God was their first priority in life. They believed that you had to really embed Scripture deep in the bones of the next generation, because if you didn’t, you were only a generation away from being extinct as a people. For example, Dr. Thomas Thangaraj was one of my favorite professors at Candler.  He helped shape immensely the inter-religious ministry I took part in during my Contextual Education with Religious Life at Emory.  He is a 7th generation Indian Christian from Nazareth, India.  The disciple Thomas of Doubting Thomas fame was said to have visited all over the coast of India and he comes from a town that was discipled by the Apostle Thomas.  He did most of his work on training Christians to talk with people of other faiths, specifically Hindu, and he wrote The Crucified Guru.  He shared this personal story during one of our class times, as he studied Hindu more and more, his father urged him, begged him not “to mess this up” because their family had been Christians for 7 generations.  How much more so, would it have been for God’s chosen people, Israel?  This wasn’t overblown anxiety, it was real. It was their heritage.  Where they came from.  Remember, Israel’s history was one of persecution, battle, exile and enslavement.  They were in a continuous spin cycle all throughout the Old Testament where they disobeyed God’s laws, God sent them a prophet, they didn’t listen, and they were conquered, exiled, and nearly wiped out completely. It was the real deal for them, saying “Our children HAVE to KNOW who our people are, and who God is, and what God commands.” The children of Israel needed to know their rich culture, deep heritage, the oral history of their past, present and future story.

So, they started early. One teacher gave this advice:  “Under the age of six we do not receive a child as a pupil; from six upwards accept him and stuff him (with Torah) like an ox.” Ha. Awesome, right? This was taken very seriously. There were three phases of education for Jewish kids, and the first one, kind of like elementary school, was called Bet Sefer. Repeat after me: Bet Sefer. It means “House of the Book” and in Bet Sefer, kids ages 6-10 were tasked to learn the Torah, the first five books of our Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. And when I say learned, I mean really they had to memorize it. All of it.  If we had to memorize the begats or all of the laws in Leviticus, could we? Could our kids hack it?  Well, as Rob Bell said in his NOOMA video, it’s not that we don’t have the mental capacity for this anymore – how many of you know every single word to the albums you played over and over in high school? How many of you can recite every line from your favorite movies?  Mike and I were stunned when we heard the song “Peaches” that I knew all the words.  I don’t know which brother had the tape, but I remember it was an orange tape and we listened to it over Christmas when we were trying to create a hangout place in the shed in our back yard.  What a ridiculous song to know.  So we have the capacity, it’s a determination of what’s important to us and if we want to do it.

Just to instill how important God’s Word was, in that first phase of education, even on the first day of class, the Rabbi would take honey and cover the slate or desk of the students. Now, honey was incredibly exotic and valuable and seen as the most pleasurable thing to eat, like Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  After covering everything the Rabbi would say, “Now, lick it all off.” And as they went to town licking it all off, he would say, “May the words of Scripture be like this to you” – exotic and valuable and pleasurable.  Words that you treasure.   Powerful, right?  That was Bet Sefer.

Now, the second phase of education was even tougher. This was like middle school, and it was rarer for kids to make it this far. Only those who passed Bet Sefer advanced to Bet Talmud, which means “House of Learning.” It was for kids 10-14. In Bet Talmud, the students were tasked with memorizing all the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, through Malachi. Not only that, but they started to really dig into the text and use the art of question and answer. For instance, our Western style of education says, “here’s the exam, spit out the info.” The test says, “2+2=___.” But the Rabbi’s method was to ask something like, “What is 2+2?” and he expected to be answered by a question, “Well, what is 16 divided by 4?” Tricky, right? They were creating this working knowledge. One of the scriptures my mom made us memorize as kids was Luke 2:52, “Jesus grew in wisdom and knowledge, and in favor of God and man.”  Remember Jesus at the age 12 was in the temple, is there among the wise men, and we get the sense that this is what was happening. Bet Talmud.

Finally, for those who passed middle school, there came phase three, like high school and an Ivy League college combined. It was called Bet Midrash, meaning “House of Study.” These kids were the best of the best of the best. At age 13 or 14, they would apply and hope to be invited by a Rabbi to go into apprenticeship.

Late one evening, a rabbi is sitting out with his students, watching the stars appear in the heavens one by one. “Tell me this,” asks the teacher: “how can we know when the night is ended and the day has begun?”

One eager young man jumps right in. “You know the night is over and the day has begun when you look off across the pasture and can tell which animal is a dog and which is a sheep.”

The teacher says nothing, gazing off into the distance.

“Is this the right answer?” the young man asks, after a time.

“It is a good answer, but not the answer I am looking for,” replies the teacher.

“Let me try,” says another student. “You know the night is over and the day has begun when the light falls on the leaves, and you can tell if it is a palm tree or a fig tree you’re looking at.”

“That too is a fine answer, but not the one I am looking for.”

“Then, what is the right answer?” demand the students. “Rebbe, answer your own question!”

The teacher looks out over the eager young crowd of disciples and replies, “When you look into the eyes of a human being and see a brother or sister, you know that it is morning. If you cannot see a sister or brother, you know that it will always be night.”

In this phase, it wasn’t just about knowing Scripture. Your Rabbi would teach you everything he knew. Everything he had learned from his Rabbi. Everything he knew about other Rabbi teachings. As well as, his own unique interpretation of it all. This special kind of course of study was known as the Rabbi’s “yoke.” The Rabbi hoped to have a strong school of apprentices, because one day when the Rabbi was no more, he wanted to be sure the yoke was passed on. Some yokes were about perfectionism and rigid rule-following. Others were about pride and being well-known. Some Rabbis were incredibly selective because they wanted their yoke to be the most rare and unattainable. Others were interested in having the biggest following. Whatever the case, this was like making the NBA or NFL for Jewish children. So many of them didn’t make the cut. And when a kid was told they weren’t good enough at some point, the Rabbi would come to them and say, “I’m sorry, now it’s time for you to return home and learn the family trade. Go and have many children and if God blesses you maybe one of them will one day be a Rabbi.”

Do we start to hear just how much the office of the Rabbi was revered?  The word Rabbi itself actually comes in two parts. The first half is rab. Repeat after me. Rab. It means, great in every way: much, many, big, strong, powerful. You might even say “yuge.” Rab. The second half is the little sound i. In Hebrew, adding the sound i to the end of a word made it personal and possessive. It could be translated as “my.” In other words, the Rabbi was “MY great one”  — the best of the best of the best, who was also the personal one that I’d chosen for myself, or who had chosen me.

Y’all, all of that makes up the backdrop of understanding who Jesus was and is.

For one, why were the disciples in Matthew 4 by the sea fishing? Because they hadn’t made the cut at some point. They were “didn’t make its.” Not only that, but why did they abandon everything, and their dad, and just jet off after Jesus? Because when a Rabbi said, “Follow me,” this was your chance. Why did Jesus say things like, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light?” Because his yoke, his teaching, wasn’t weighed down with human nonsense or empty rules…his was built on his own sacrifice and grace. But to understand him as Rabbi also lends a lot more weight to statements like, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Because following a Rabbi wasn’t just sitting in a classroom with a teacher, it was physically and emotionally and spiritually, full-bodied following. Going where they went, learning what they taught, doing as they did.  It was more than rules; it was embodying how Jesus lived.

I once saw a Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown says to Violet: “Just think of it: the dirt and dust of far-off lands blowing over here and settling on ‘Pig-Pen.'”

“It staggers the imagination!” Charlie continues. “He may be carrying soil that was trod upon by Solomon or Nebuchadnezzar or Genghis Khan!”

Pig-Pen: “That’s true, isn’t it?”

In the next frame he’s saying with unaccustomed pride: “Sometimes I feel like royalty!”

We should feel like royalty too, because if we follow our Rabbi, we really follow Jesus.  We will have his dust all over us.  What it means, y’all, is that when we listen to the Sermon on the Mount the next few weeks, we aren’t just hearing words or teaching like any old sermon. We are joining the people in sitting at the feet of a Rabbi. Our Rabbi. And that makes us more than just students or listeners, but disciples, actively walking in his ways.  People charged with taking up his unique yoke, living it, and passing it on.

 

Posted in Baptism, Body of Christ, Bonheoffer, Book of Worship, God's love, Harry Potter, Jesus, Love, Peter Rollins, real love, Sanctifying Grace, Sermon, Uncategorized, Wesley

Together

Matthew 3:13-17

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

I often hear James Earl Jones booming voice or Morgan Freeman’s distinctive voice when I read that part.  Jesus’ baptism ushers in a new baptism. Not just with voice and the dove.  Christian baptism is not just a washing away of sin as John’s baptism was; but it is the baptism that brings the power of the Holy Spirit and a special relationship with God.  The Gospel writers all 4 tell the story of Jesus’ baptism. As usual John has his own way of saying things, Matthew adds the part about John the Baptist preventing him and then questioning his validity to baptize Jesus, Luke cuts to the chase and has the shortest account, but Mark’s Gospel is different.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, where it says the heavens are opened, Mark writes that as Jesus “was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and a dove descending.”  His word for ‘torn apart’ is schizo, and it means “to cleave, to cleave asunder, to rend.” It’s a strangely violent word to describe such a happy occasion.  The way we tend to talk about baptism, it would have made more sense if Mark had talked about the dove, gently cooing, or perhaps fluttering over the surface of the water. But that is not how he talks about it.

Instead, Mark talks about the heavens, schizotorn apart. It’s the word Matthew, Mark and Luke all use to describe that moment on Good Friday when the curtain of the temple is torn in two. It’s the word John uses when the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross determine not to tear Jesus’ garment and divide it between them, but to cast lots for it, instead. It’s a word with resonances in the prophecies of Isaiah, also, particularly when Isaiah says to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” (Isaiah 63:19).

Mark understands very clearly that in Jesus, this is exactly what has happened. God has torn open the heavens and come down.  It is in the waters of baptism that the heavens are torn apart and a voice from heaven claims Jesus as God’s son. Although we rarely think of it as having such a dramatic flourish, baptism today still serves as a time when we recognize our being claimed as children of God.  And this is why, in the Gospel writers’ judgment, the baptism of Jesus is a radical act. In Jesus, God has committed the act of breaking and entering the world, and they want the world to know.

Sometimes, I wish it were harder to join the church, to come to communion, to be baptized.  I mean, honestly, sometimes I think it’s harder to get a membership to Sam’s Club than it is to become a Christian.

Sometimes we cheapen grace.  It’s like the membership vows of the church are in the fine print or it feels like a medical commercial saying, you’ll feel better if you do this whole Jesus thing, you’ll be happier, while the people on the screen are running through a field of flowers or jumping on a trampoline or flying a kite with what seems to be a bright, smiling, happy family.  They’re still showing the pictures of all the smiling people and let’s throw in a pet for good measure, as they read quick like the micro machine man the hazards.  Baptism is terrific but please plan on attending worship, Bible studies, service projects, fellowship events, and don’t forget covenant discipleship groups.  Christmas and Easter only come once a year, but Narcie throws in enough grace to last all year round.  She may make you experience some discomfort and conviction, but that’s at minimum only once or twice a sermon. Following Jesus may cost you.  Putting his teachings into practice may turn your life upside down……

Who can blame people for just tuning that part out?  And not understanding what following Jesus means?  What a big, awesome commitment that is?

We’re involved in a bait and switch.  You may, say hold on a second, I do no such thing.  I would challenge that back to you.  Can those around you, tell you are a Christian?  What makes you different from all of the other do gooders?  What makes this different than any other civic organization?

Peter Rollins, Northern Ireland writer, speaker, philosopher, and theologian writes, “Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

However, there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”

If you want to actively follow Christ.  It’s going to be hard.  It’s going to be the greatest joy and sacrifice of your life.  Don’t merely get baptized for fire insurance, because you want to flee the wrath of hell, but because you want your life transformed, you want to do more than honor Jesus’ sacrifice.  You seek to live as a changed person walking the way of life, trying to grow more like Jesus every day, and when you mess up, as you inevitably will, God gives you God’s abundant grace, God’s sanctifying grace.  God doesn’t leave us on our own in the mire and the muck.  God begins the mighty work of transforming us.

We’re not going to change overnight into the perfect Christian.  We need to hone our spiritual disciplines:  prayer, scripture reading, daily times alone with God, discerning God’s will for our lives, and not just things we  do alone.  Tenth Avenue North sings in the song No Man is Island,“We’re not meant to live this life alone.”  We are stronger together.  Iron sharpens iron after all.  The kids asked to watch Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on Friday’s Family Movie Night.  Mike says I should use “spoiler alert” even the book came out more than 5 years ago.  At the end of the movie, Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, dies and it looks like darkness has won.  He was Harry’s protector and the only one Voldemort was afraid of.  When he dies, the students and staff are mourning him and it seems like all hope is lost, Madame Pomfrey holds her wand in the air, Professor McGonagall joins her, and the students and faculty do the same.  When they do that together, it lights up the night sky.  Together in their sorrow.  Together in their hope that the light will pierce the darkness.  Mike told Enoch and Evy, the darkness doesn’t win and I joined him in saying, when all hope seems lost, even if it looks like the darkness has won, the light will always, always, always eventually conquer the dark.  I want them to be prepared to fight for the light in their choices and to continue fighting even when it feels like it’s not making a difference, even when it seems they are fighting an uphill battle, even in the darkest night of their souls.  Good will triumph.  Spoiler Alert.  The grave didn’t hold him down.

See baptism is an individual sacrament, but it’s also a communal one also.  Whole families were baptized in the New Testament.  The church agrees to love, support, grow and strengthen those baptized persons.  Dietrich Bonheoffer, German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, believed that a community of love is one which focuses its attention on Jesus and then expects everything else to fall into place. When the people of God come together to share their lives openly and freely, accepting each other with a kind of unconditional positive regard, there is a sort of social-spiritual “chemistry” that emerges, and those who come together experience a delightful cohesion and sense of belonging.  Bonhoeffer’s central idea is that the Church as the fellowship of Christ centers on Christ rather than being a mere association of people with a common purpose. Human love and actions are related to a desire for human community. Christian love, spiritual love, comes from Christ and goes out to the other person, not directly, but through Christ. Christ “stands between me and others”. The most direct way to another is found in prayer to Christ whose influence is greater.  The unity of the community is in Christ, “Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another.”

The Book of Mormon Broadway Musical has a song called Mostly Me.  In it the missionary says he’s doing all of this “good” stuff altruistically, but he’s actually doing it for himself.  This is not just a “but mostly me” but something that if we are to survive, if we are to be a stronger, healthier, more grounded body – we’ve got to be supporters, advocates, confidants, friends to each other.  Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship writes, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”  We have to trust each other enough to share our lives together, with no fear of judgment, that’s the only way we get to the Light of Christ.

How do we push through the fear, the doubt, the awkwardness, the ego, and move towards real community?  We have to really love each other, pray for each other, root for one another, weep one another, encourage one another, be CHURCH with each other.  As Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  I want us to be a deep, Christ-centered community whether it be as Friday morning Men’s Group, an adult Sunday School Class, the Choir, the Thursday morning Women’s Bible Study, the Somerby Bible Study or one of the other communities we will create this year.  I want us to make as our theme this year to Love God and Love Neighbor.  I want us to make the main thing, the main thing.  Our focus shall be to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in Park West, in North Mount Pleasant and across the Earth.   We can only legitimately do that if we abide in Christ and seek his leading for our lives, for the call he has put on our lives, for the call he has put on this church to be the hands and feet of Christ at this time and in this place and if we look to Christ – boy, what could happen?  Could you imagine?

People should be able to see Christ in us, just as the song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”  Wesley’s General Rules provide an extensive list of the marks of the Christian life that could be summarized by do no harm, do good, and attend upon all the ordinances of God or as Wesley said,

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

These rules take into account and respond to the great command to love God and neighbor. In our baptism, similar things happen to us as happened to Jesus when he was baptized: 1) The Spirit of God comes into us and remains in us. 2) We are declared to be a child of God. 3) We hear that God is well pleased with us. God’s grace washes away our sin and angst and doubt and we are made clean in the waters of baptism.  We’ve been washed by the water and are set free to live an abundant, thriving life.  Jesus doesn’t say it will be easy, but as Paul writes in Philippians 4, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.”  The Spirit of God opens up the Heavens to give us a taste of the Living God, Emmanuel, one with us, Jesus who was, is, and is to come.  As we journey with our stars and seek God’s personal will for our lives and as we journey as a church to know God’s communal will for this body of Christ and the part God wants each of us to play in that, God’s wonders and mercies are new every day and at every step of the Christian journey, God will be faithful.

I’ll ask you to come to the baptismal waters as you reaffirm your baptism, as you reaffirm that you are a new creation, as you reaffirm your commitment to this body of Christ, to walk with each other in love and grace, spurring each other on to right action and to seek the will of God.

“We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
They will know we are Christians by our love.”

 

REAFFIRMATION OF BAPTISM         

 The Lord be with you.

and also with you.

Let us pray.

Eternal God: When nothing existed but chaos, you swept across the dark waters and brought forth light. In the days of Noah you saved those on the ark through water. After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow. When you saw your people as slaves in Egypt, you led them to freedom through the sea. Their children you brought through the Jordan to the land which you promised.

Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Tell of God’s mercy each day.

In the fullness of time you sent Jesus, nurtured in the water of a womb. He was baptized by John and anointed by your Spirit. He called his disciples to share in the baptism of his death and resurrection and to make disciples of all nations.

 Declare Christ’s works to the nations, his glory among all the people.

 Pour out your Holy Spirit, and by this gift of water call to our remembrance the grace declared to us in our baptism. For you have washed away our sins, and you clothe us with righteousness throughout our lives, that dying and rising with Christ we may share in his final victory.

All praise to you, Eternal God, through your Son Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns for ever. Amen.

Come as you feel led to the baptismal waters as we reaffirm our baptisms.  As you come forward and touch the water, I will say, “Remember your baptism and be thankful” and you respond “Amen.”  You can touch the water and make a sign of the cross on your forehead or you can scoop the water and let fall back into the bowl.

Remember your baptism and be thankful. Amen.

Prayer reaffirming the Baptismal Covenant:

The Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born through water and the Spirit, you may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

 

Posted in Grief, Loss, Sermon, Slaughter of the Innocents, Uncategorized

Journal Entries: The Slaughter of the Innocents

Isaiah 63:7-9

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

God’s Mercy Remembered

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became their savior
    in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Most pastors avoid this text I’m about to read you like the plague.  It’s even called the Holy Innocents or Martyrs in the Lectionary.  Most people don’t know it’s even part of the Christmas story, and Lord knows we wouldn’t want it depicted in any way.  But my friend and colleague the Rev. Paul Shultz, had a way of wading into texts that still made you uncomfortable, still did not give you all the answers and didn’t tie up the loose ends.  He would act like he relished making you uncomfortable, but he let slip one too many times, his care for people.  He died from flu complications in January 2014.  We texted on New Year’s when he first started coming down with something.  He was only 50 years old and had three kids and a fiancé Jana.  His life and example challenges me even now.  He walked Micah 6:8 with a very crass sense of humor and we all loved him for it.  He didn’t hesitate to expose the dark side of the Gospel because there is a dark side.  A very twisty side.  It’s not all sunshine and roses, otherwise we wouldn’t need a Savior that comes into the darkness of this world and bring light to it.

Hear now the word of God.

Matthew 2:13-23

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Escape to Egypt

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

The Massacre of the Infants

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

The Return from Egypt

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.

So how do you deal with the implications of an angel warning Mary and Joseph to flee with baby Jesus while hundreds of children, 2 years old and younger, were slaughtered?  This is my attempt to not gloss over and fast forward the verses, but to deal with them, realizing that I have a limited understanding of what it’s like to lose a child.

This is the journal book of Divorah, daughter of Amos, of Beyt-Lechem.

Journal Entry 1

I am a young woman today, full of strength and life, and I’ve been blessed by God.  I am from, well, not a wealthy family, but a good one.  I have a good name, something that, among my people, is priceless.  The Lord led me to my love, my husband, Yoseph, and we have had three full years of joy together.  We have good lands that flourish with wheat and barley and honey, and I have praised God daily for it.  God even favored us enough to give us a child, a daughter, whom we’ve named Hannah.  She has been the most precious thing I have ever known.  Every movement, every sound, every new thing she learns or discovers – it has been overwhelming the amount of unconditional love I feel.  Her father and I would commission someone to paint her life, one day at a time, if we could.  That is how this journal came to be.  Yesterday, on Hannah’s first birthday, we bought this book of memories, with as many blank pages as we could afford, to begin to record her life.  And all of that, taken together, is an overflowing cup for any person.

But that was yesterday.  And today let no talk pass my lips of the Lord’s favor.  Let no one speak his name before me.  May no prayer to this “god” pass my lips or those of anyone in my household as long as I live.

Yesterday morning my Hannah turned a year old, and yesterday evening a Roman detachment arrived in town under Herod’s orders.  Yoseph and I could hear the crowds and shouting from here, and in only minutes they had come to our door.  They didn’t ask for the tax, or if we were harboring a fugitive, or if my husband was a member of the latest insurrection.  They demanded, of all things, our little girl.

And I cannot tell you how bitterly I fought them, four armed soldiers.  My husband was clubbed nearly to death, and these men murdered my Hannah.  Yoseph couldn’t protect her.  And no matter how loudly I screamed and scratched and hit, the soldiers just pushed me to the side.  They killed my sweet, precious Hannah and they might as well have killed me as well.   My husband keeps shaking me, asking me if I need anything, anything at all.  Doesn’t he know I can’t bear to go on?  Doesn’t he know that it’s all I can do to record every last thing I can remember in this journal?  For her short and brief life.  What made her smile and giggle, made her light up……I can’t bear it.

Journal Entry 2

Almost thirty years to the day, I open up these pages again.  I’ll confess that I’ve read and re-read those last words many, many times since that day.  No birthday of my Hannah’s ever passes that I don’t come back here to remember.  On more than one occasion I even thought to record my feelings, to write to her, to tell her things I would’ve told her at 8 or 12 or 20 years old.  But it seemed wrong to change this book.  It seemed like moving on from her.  I can’t bring her back, no matter how many mornings I’ve woken up thinking that it was a nightmare.

Nevertheless, I write today because new facts have come to light with regard to the history of Hannah’s life.  My husband and I’ve met again a young man named Yohanan, John, son of Zebediyah the fisherman from the Galilee.  John’s mother is my cousin, and he spent some time here on the farm as a boy.

Anyway, in the city, John had been invited to teach.  I thought it strange for the son of a fisherman, but the local Rabbi seemed to wish to almost interrogate him about the happenings of another wandering Rabbi that John has taken up with, one named Yeshua, or Jesus.  So my husband and I attended, and if I’m honest I was shocked and moved by John’s wisdom, and the “spirit” that was upon him.  We greeted him afterwards and he invited us to lunch and started to open up his heart to us.  And it was he who mentioned Hannah’s name to me.

He explained that this Jesus, whom he takes the foolish risk of calling “lord,” is none other than the Messiah.  And I told him that I’d heard all of that talk before but that I no longer have time for any of God’s Messiahs.  But he went on to say that it was because of this Jesus that the soldiers were sent to our village so many years ago, that it was this Jesus who threatened the evil rule of men like Herod, that it was this Jesus who is God’s great savior.  He spoke of the boy’s birth to a man and wife from Nazareth who had traveled to Bethlehem; he told me about Herod’s schemes and the appearance of angels in visions and dreams to deliver the child and his parents.  He started to describe the kingdom of God coming, and an age where even grief like mine would be no more.

Now that I think of it I can still remember the Roman census that year, and the rumors that were circulating in town at the time – a king was to come from the city of David, after all.  It was only a few months later that I became pregnant with Hannah, so we had taken it all as a good omen!  Our daughter, growing up to see the reign of Israel’s great king!

But that is when I remembered myself.  That is when I remembered the kind of faith that had left my home unguarded on that bloody night.  I remembered the kind of hope that naïve children cling to before they’ve grown up to see what life is like here and now, on earth.  I asked John why it is that our great God, the Lord of heaven and earth, had his son born to peasants in unsecured and unknown towns; or why this God speaks in fables and dreams while men like Herod give orders to armed legions?  Or why was it only God’s son who was warned to escape Bethlehem while Hannah was left alone to die?  And hundreds more with her?  Why a God like that left hundreds of innocent people to suffer like me?

I cannot even remember John’s reply, but my husband Yoseph had a few choice words for John that he had the audacity to bring up that terrible night as if this Jesus could EVER be enough to……    As Yoseph regained his temper, he thanked him for the lunch and sent him on his way without another word.  He wished him luck that he and his Jesus might somehow survive either Herod Antipas or Caesar or the Chief Priest, for that matter, but I feel none the better for our conversation.   There’s no way this Jesus being born could justify my Hannah being taken from me.  Here I sit, and thirty years have passed, but no words and no anger will bring Hannah to me.  I no longer know who I am or how to live.  I write, only, to keep record of what I now know of her story.

Journal Entry 3

Today, Hannah’s story in this book comes to a close.  Very briefly I’ll say that, through John, in the past year I’ve been able to meet Jesus in person.  To follow him in the crowds, very suspiciously at first.  Then, to eat with him and speak with him intimately a few times.  And the same wisdom and Spirit that I saw in John in that synagogue, I’ve felt in Jesus – as the source of it, like the sun sharing its light.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I first even entertained the idea that he could really be our Messiah.  It was gradual, as he answered many of my questions, and gave me new ones.  But something in his teaching, that the others usually overlooked or rebuked, started to call out to me.  He would occasionally speak of death, and of his own suffering.  He would hint at the need to shed his blood, and to tear down the Temple only to rebuild it again.  He spoke of a time of great personal sorrow to come, and of his own pain, and of his followers being prepared to carry a cross every single day.

And I don’t know what it was, but while the others murmured about these strange, off-hand comments of his, they rang true in my heart.  While the crowds asked him not to say such things, but foamed at the mouth for the triumph of Israel over the Romans and all our enemies, it sounded to me like something deeper was at work.  So, yes, just weeks ago during the Passover when he was arrested, I was stirred to draw near to Jesus like never before.  What did I have left to lose?  What could the soldiers take from me now that they haven’t already ripped from me?

As some of his crowd fled in fear or others shouted out in their disappointment for him to be killed like a criminal, I prayed for him.  As I watched what they did to him, and how he endured, as he suffered, and felt unspeakable pain, at no fault of his own, in spite of his innocence, I thought of the innocence of my 1 year old, Hannah.  And I ached for his mother Mary, to witness the unspeakable ways they were treating him.  It was this final thought that confirmed in me that this was my Lord and my God.

I, who wasn’t one to look for a Messiah, who felt like no one on this earth knew my tragedy or could possibly feel my pain – I understood the injustice and cruelty, tyranny and evil, that was upon Jesus.  And I knew for certain that this was not God’s doing, but it was the fruit of what men and women had chosen to do, that day and since the beginning.  It was sick and twisted men, like Herod, who were threatened by a baby.  Then I remembered Jesus’ words about freedom.  “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  It convicted me that, in all of the many ways that I’d hardened my heart these decades, some of his suffering was my own doing.  But Jesus’s way was to come and submit to such a thing, in order to finally set things right.  In his own words, he had become the Passover lamb for my sake and for the sake of his children, and for the sake of the man next to me that day shouting curses at him, and for the sake of his own weeping mother, and even for the sake of Pilate and Herod and Caesar.

I stayed that day until the end; I followed them out of the city, heard his final words, and watched him pass into death.  I grieved and mourned.  I wondered what could be next.  And then I received word about Jesus at my home in Bethlehem, a simple message from the believers:  “the grave could not hold him.”  And today I remember his words:  “Because I live, you shall live also.”    And though, more than 30 years ago, while his innocents were slaughtered in Bethlehem, God did not intervene in that moment to spare Hannah’s earthly life, I trust that, today, she lives also.  And I will.  So, as I said, today her story in this book comes to a close, because it continues elsewhere.

John 3:16-18 —

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

I know many people that have lost children or other loved ones and I want you to know that God didn’t cause the cancer, the car accident, whatever tragic event happened.  God mourns with you.  Jesus knows your suffering.  The Holy Spirit intercedes for you in your shouts, in your tears, in your moans.  We believe in a God that came to be one with us, so that God would know suffering and then bring about redemption.  I also believe and trust that God works things together for good.  If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be standing up here.

Let us pray….

It’s also Epiphany this Sunday, when we celebrate the gifts of the magi.  When you come forward to receive communion, you will have the opportunity to pick out of a basket a cardboard star.  It’s your Epiphany Star Gift.  The star will have a word on it, naming a gift from God; visually, nothing special, as God’s gifts are not always flashy.  Sometimes the gift is known by all to be one that you already evidence or experience in abundance.  Sometimes you will feel that it is something you’ve needed, a challenge to work on.  Often it’s something you don’t understand, or could learn more about.  It will provide you an opportunity to ponder and pray in the coming year.  Put it where you can see it.  On your bedside table, on your refrigerator, on your bathroom mirror, on the visor in your car.

No matter what word you receive, you’re invited to receive whatever comes, with the assumption that the Spirit of God has a hand in the process.  Accept the gift for what it is, a gift freely given.  Many have discovered that the gift that seemed daunting, disappointing or confusing at first turned out to be the most meaningful in actual experience.  Perhaps God has something in store that is beyond our planning and imagining.  That’s what the season of Epiphany is all about.  In remembering that night long ago when God used a star to reveal the newborn Christ to the world, to the Magi and to all of us, we each grab a hold of our own stars. Each of us will journey with that star, with that word all year long- to see where the word moves us in prayer, pushes or pulls us in faith, and how it opens our hearts to God’s call on our lives. We listen and look for them in our community. And we keep looking to the stars, all the stars, all the light, that God sends to pull us closer to Christ, at Epiphany and ALL YEAR LONG.  Remember, we don’t just follow the baby in the manger, we follow the Word in flesh that came to live among us offering the world abundant and transformative life.  Whatever our New Year’s Resolutions are or are not, may the Spirit move us where we need to be moved, may the Spirit give us courage to articulate our hopes and dreams, and may the Spirit give us the strength and perseverance to make them a REALITY.

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Posted in Advent, An Unexpected Christmas, Christmas, Frederick Buechner, Light, Sermon, Uncategorized

Emmanuel Changes Us

Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

These are familiar words that we often here at a Christmas service.  These are some of my favorite words of the Bible.  You see, we all have walked in deep darkness, the color of ink, and we have felt the light of Christ pierce that darkness.  Our darkness.  The world’s darkness.  An in-breaking of the kingdom of God in the form of the most vulnerable thing on Earth, a baby, who came to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set us free of our societal, communal, and personal bondage.  As it is written in Isaiah 9:2, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”

The Gospel of John talks about this Incarnate Light.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

This is God’s Incarnate Light and it’s available for each of us.  No one is separated from the love of God, and Bobbi’s right, it’s a “long-haul love.”  We love even when it’s difficult, even when it’s costly, even when hatred is spewed and it sadly has become the norm.  We’re called to be the light of Christ and, as Robert Louis Stevenson says, “to punch holes in the darkness.”

Later on in John 1, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” That brings us to our second scripture this morning from Matthew 1:22-23, “22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

As we’ve gotten ready for the coming of God in the form of a baby—a God who dwells among us and with us.  We also get ready for the second coming of our savior—a time when there is good news and great joy for ALL people.  This is good news not just for the pretty ones or smart ones or the ones lucky enough to be born on the right side of the tracks or in the wealthy country, but for all of God’s children.

I think of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wisemen, the angels – a mix of folks.  I think of the words of the prophet—to look to the star and that there is One who is coming who is beyond our imagining.  This story is not just one of familiar and beautiful manger scenes and it’s certainly not just a good children’s story.  These were trying times, much like today, and not even the innocent were safe, as children began to lose their lives as Herod began his search for the Christ child.

The context was not much better than the Hunger Games when Jesus arrived.  Suzanne Collins does an amazing job bringing this post-apocalyptic world to life.  She got the idea from flipping through channels on her television and seeing on one channel a reality tv competition and on the next channel war footage.  In Bethlehem they were under Roman occupation, not knowing what was going to be demanded of them next—their money, their children, their lives.  For some of us, we relate to some of these horrors.  There are hard things that we see every day whether it be children going without food or the loss of a friend or loved one or the loss of one’s job or home or when we watch the news and see the latest terrorist attacks or the horrific images of Aleppo.  Perhaps the most subversive and daring thing as we watch these images is still believe in the hope of Christmas.  Even when the night seems darkest, even when all seems lost; there’s hope in this beautiful child setting the world upside down and bringing God’s kingdom to earth.

We take comfort in what we are told very clearly, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all people.  For unto you is born this day a savior who is Christ the Lord and has name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace…”  This Prince of Peace can give us that peace that transcends all understanding whether it be as we are awaiting medical results, college acceptances, grieving lost loved ones, wondering how we will pay the bills, job changes, life decisions, no matter what.

This kind of peace can transform the world.  Nelson Mandela, said “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”  We give others the courage to do the same.  Not just people in this place, in this community, or in this land—but all the world.  It doesn’t end in Advent.  I want us to choose joy. Share hope. Live peace. Be love. We celebrate the coming of the baby, may we not be scared to follow the way of the man.

My hope over the next few days is we will take time, breathe and take in what it means to be a people who believe in this Emmanuel, a people who believe and live out this peace.  As Frederick Buechner writes, “”If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party. The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business. The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified. The world says, Drive carefully—the life you save may be your own—and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The world says, Law and order, and Jesus says, Love. The world says, Get and Jesus says, Give. In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.”

You know we can’t do any of this on our own, but through Christ’s power within us, we can do all things.  One of the verses to Go Tell it On the Mountain, is “When I was a seeker/ I sought both night and day/ I asked the Lord to help me/ And he showed me the way. Don’t forget that you’re human.  It’s okay to have a melt down and not do everything perfectly.  Just don’t unpack and live there.  Cry it out and then refocus on where God is leading you.  Because the world needs you.  Jesus will show you every step of the way.  He will light your path.  The world needs the light of Jesus reflecting in us, light punching the darkness, light brought down to earth.  The world needs you to show up – in person – just like Christ did that first Christmas.  It’s radical incarnational love.  Love came down on Christmas.  Amen.