Posted in Acts, Captivity, Captured, Christ, Free, Freedom, Healing, Holy Spirit, Human Choice, Johnny Cash, Jurgen Moltmann, Kairos, paul, Prisoner, Relationship, Salvation, Silas, The Son, worry

Freedom

May 29th – 7th Sunday of Easter – Freedom – Acts 16:16-34

This sermon’s titled “Freedom.”  It’s a loaded word.  Songs about freedom from Jon Baptiste “to move your body just like this” to the old school “Freedom” chorus a la George Michael.  Who can ever forget William Wallace yelling, “Freedom” in Braveheart?  Freedom.  Hot button and divisive issues like the freedom to choose and the freedom to bear AK 47’s are taken from our living rooms to social media to protests.  Freedom.  This weekend, as we celebrate the brave men and women who have died in active military service, choosing to fight for this country’s freedom.  As we look at the Ukrainians who actively fight for the freedom of their country right now.  Freedom is defined as the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.  Jurgen Moltmann argues that the greatest mystery of human existence is not the reality of evil, or injustice, or hatred. Rather, the greatest mystery in the universe is human freedom — the freedom that God has chosen to give you and me that enables us to order our lives in any way we see fit. We are free to become a Mother Teresa or an Adolph Hitler. We are free to give our lives to God, or free to be the crowd that crucified Jesus.  As we close out this five-part series on the Power of the Holy Spirit displayed in Acts, we get an up close personal look at people in bondage and the glorious freedom in Jesus’ name.

Acts 16:16-34

16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

35 When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” 36 And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” 37 But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” 38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; 39 so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40 After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.

Who is actually free?

The slave girl isn’t.  She cries out about Paul and Silas, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  They are free to choose to spend their time proclaiming the way to true freedom. 

The slave girl’s owners are bitter that Paul lost them their money maker and are imprisoned by their evil ways of earning a living.  They certainly are not free of their greediness.

When the owners drag them before the crowd – they’re suckered in by the mob spirit that makes them look like villagers with pitchforks and torches.  They are certainly not free of their assumptions, rush to judgment, mass anger and group think and they begin attacking them.

Then the magistrates who are supposed to maintain order, strip them of their clothing and order them to be beaten with rods.  They are imprisoned by punitive rules that compel them to pronounce a harsh sentence on two people who are simply preaching love and kindness.  The magistrates could have shown mercy, but their pridefulness and holding onto their power, certainly wouldn’t have freed them.

They threw them into prison after giving them a severe flogging.  Although the jailer wears a ring of keys that open any door in the place, the jailer is just as confined as the prisoners. He’s imprisoned by his fear — by a terror so great that he would sooner impale himself on his sword than face the wrath of his superior officers. 

Then the other prisoners themselves.  Who knows what they could have done to end up here.  They are certainly not free of their crimes.

Paul and Silas are the only ones that are truly free.  Surely, they had heard how Jesus told the Jews that believed in him in John 8:31-36, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever.  So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” 

If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.  They are free because of the Spirit of Christ that dwells within them — the Spirit which gives them courage to sing and pray, even with their legs immobilized in the stocks.

What do you think the other prisoners thought?  When they heard Paul and Silas battered, bruised and naked praying and singing hymns? 

In Walk the Line (2005), Johnny Cash, who is played by Joaquin Phoenix, is talking to the prison warden.

The Warden: “Mr. Cash? The record company asks that you not play any songs that would remind the prisoners that they are in jail.”

Johnny Cash: “Do you think they forgot?”

In the same film, this is an exchange between Johnny Cash and a record company executive.

Record Company Executive: “Your fans are church folk, Johnny. Christians. They don’t wanna hear you singing to a bunch of murderers and rapists, tryin’ to cheer ’em up.”

Johnny Cash: [pause] “Well, they’re not Christians, then.”

The text doesn’t say whether Paul was a tenor and Silas a bass. It doesn’t mention guitars or other instruments.  The text says: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” The other prisoners were listening to Paul and Silas pray and sing hymns.  The text doesn’t say what the prisoners were guilty of, it only says when there was a massive earthquake all the prisoners’ chains were unfastened and the prison doors were wide open, but none of them left.  None of them left.  When we’re singing in the rain, people are going to stop and take notice.  When we’re singing even through our adversity, when we’re trudging through the valley of the shadow of death, people are going to stop and take notice. 

God acts through the form of an earthquake that effectively removes the chains of all the prisoners, and opens all the doors, while, miraculously, not harming a single person.  I’m always curious what happened to the prisoners after the story leaves them.  I wonder if it was a Kairos ministry moment.  Kairos Ministries brings the life-changing message of Christ’s love and forgiveness to incarcerated individuals.  It is an ecumenical, lay-led ministry that relies on 20,000 volunteers per year to carry out its mission.

“I’m glad I got caught because if I hadn’t been caught and sentenced and sent to this place, I might never have met Jesus Christ, never have known God is real,” says one of the 170,000 incarcerated men and women who have experienced Kairos Prison Ministry International, since it began in 1976.

The impact of Kairos is immeasurable. Whereas an estimated 30 to 70 percent of released inmates will return to prison, Colorado’s Department of Corrections found that only 10 percent of incarcerated individuals who had experienced Kairos ministry returned to prison. Lives are changed and when these individuals are released from prison they are better able to be the kind of spouse, parent and employee they want to be. Many even become volunteers themselves.

One inmate sums it up this way, “I came full of hate and resentment. I’m going out with love, a new Spirit … Christ within me.” 

A new Spirit is what the jailer wanted too.  When we’ve tried everything the world has offered and we’re desperate for an answer that completely satisfies us, we cry out to Jesus.  I can imagine the heartbreaking sincerity in his voice as he asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities contains a famous character known as Dr. Manette. Imprisoned for 20 years by the king, the doctor is finally freed by the revolution. Through his long imprisonment, the doctor has taken on a new trade, that of cobbler. In the gloom of his prison cell, he has lived out his days tapping shoes with a hammer.

Finally, the day comes when Dr. Manette is led out into the sunlight, but the light of day terrifies him. The good doctor has lived too long in the shadowy recesses of his cell. The only way he is happy, it turns out, is for a servant to lock him at night in a tiny attic room. There he spends his time tap, tap, tapping on the shoes, just as he did for so many years.

Dr. Manette’s story  it’s not so uncommon as you may think. How many have been led time and again to an open door through which can be glimpsed the bright sunlight of God’s freedom? Yet how many of us, when faced by such a beautiful scene, have shielded our eyes from the light, and have turned back into the shadows of our cells, retreating into the same destructive habits time and again?

Richard Rohr writes in “Restorative Justice,” “Step Five of the Twelve Steps – “We admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

“As any good therapist will tell you, you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge, and what you do not consciously acknowledge will remain in control of you from within, festering and destroying you and those around you.

Step Five fits the biblical notion of restorative justice — to restore relationships themselves, to restore integrity with myself, and to restore a sense of communion with God. Humanity needs such an honest exposure of the truth, and true accountability and responsibility for what has happened. Only then can human beings move ahead with dignity.

Only mutual apology, healing, and forgiveness offer a sustainable future for humanity. Otherwise, we are controlled by the past, individually and corporately. We all need to apologize, and we all need to forgive or this human project will surely self-destruct. No wonder that almost two-thirds of Jesus’ teaching is directly or indirectly about forgiveness. Otherwise, history winds down into the taking of sides, deep bitterness, and remembered hurts, plus the violence that inevitably follows. As others have said, “Forgiveness is to let go of our hope for a different or better past.” It is what it is, and such acceptance leads to great freedom, as long as there is also accountability and healing in the process.”

Jesus Christ offers us freedom such as the world can never know. In him is healing and wholeness and strength for the living of these days.

The opposite of freedom is captivity.  And aren’t we captured by our fears?  Yes!  They are like old worn, comfy pajamas.  They keep us captured, I mean safe.  Here’s what God’s word says about fear:

Joshua 1:9 (NRSV)

9 I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

John 14:27 (NRSV)

27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

Philippians 4:6-7 (NRSV)

6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Psalm 34:4 (NRSV)

4 I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.

Romans 8:38-39 (NRSV)

38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

“Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.  It’s that simple.  Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Lay down all the fears.  Lay down all the heaviness this world has put upon you and take on the light of Christ.  Shout a big whopping “Freedom” like Braveheart because if the Son makes you free, you WILL be free indeed.

Posted in Acts, Holy Spirit, Jesus, peter, Sermon

A Mighty Woman

I heard a DJ ask people to call in and share their mother’s best advice.  

“Whatever you’re doing, make the place better than you found it.”

“The world is full of people all too eager to put you down. Don’t join the chorus and say bad things about yourself, to yourself. Your heart is listening.” 

“Never forget your umbrella.”  “My mother always used to say this. She meant it literally, and figuratively. For her, and eventually for me, it was about being prepared for whatever life decides to rain down upon your head. I say the same thing to my daughter over, and over again.” 

“It’s OK to be shy, but it’s not OK to never try.” 

“If you open it, close it. If you turn it on, turn it off. If you take it out, put it back. If you empty it, fill it. If you fill it, empty it.”

“Just because you CAN do it, doesn’t mean you should.”

“Every relationship takes compromise, but don’t push down parts of yourself to make your relationship work. It takes two equal people to be partners, not one person, and one half-person.”

“Always prepare early. Give yourself enough time so you have peace of mind and don’t have to rush.”

“We don’t even know what we don’t know.”

“Do not feed the fears.”

What say you, what advice did your mom’s or mother figures give you?

Jessica Larijani, SUCCESS director of digital content, writes, “My mom puts her whole heart into everything she does. For my sisters and me. For my family. Her friends. Even strangers. I admire her for so many things, but especially her generosity.

“I know what she’s doing right now without asking: sewing. She started as soon as there was a need and she hasn’t stopped since. She is part of a mask brigade making and donating protective wear to health care workers and first responders. She’s sewn almost 500 masks since the start of this pandemic, and I know she’ll keep going as long as there are requests.

“My mom’s mission has always been to help others, and her selfless dedication to that has shown me that nothing matters quite like giving kindness. Our actions leave an impact, and we can all make a difference in this life if we just choose to look for the opportunity to help.”

Our actions in this life leave an impact, not only on our children, but on everyone around us.

Acts 9:26-43

36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

What is grief, but love made real?  I wrote that line down when we first watched Marvel’s WandaVision.  We binged it all over again on Friday in preparation for watching Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness and I wrote it down again.  What is grief, but love made real?  Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, the account of the early stages of the Way, known today as Christianity, cites one such story about a mighty woman who had died and as Jessica from SUCCESS magazine said, Dorcas put her heart in everything she did and she was loved and cherished in return.

So what is happening in our text today?  What lessons does it have to teach us?  They carried her body to an upper room of her house.  Nowadays, the scene is often played out in a funeral home, a chapel, a sanctuary, or at a graveside.  

The grieving friends of Tabitha, or Dorcas in Greek because Luke realized this story would be told to both Jews and Gentiles, are gathered to­gether in her home. She must have died recently, for she hadn’t been buried yet.

As the sad news spreads through town, her friends and loved ones come and pay their respects. I would imagine the initial conversations at the door are all essentially the same. “I just heard the news.” “I can’t believe it!” “How did it happen?” “Was anyone with her?” “She was such a wonderful person!”  The same questions that we would ask.

My grandparents all had large families and I remember funeral homes a lot as a kid.  The whole family gathered with all the drama and hijinks that comes with whole families gathered.  It gave us a chance to see aunts, uncles, and cousins we wouldn’t see until next Thanksgiving or Christmas.  It gave us a chance to see family we don’t normally see.  It gave us a chance to see the children and the grandchildren of the people that our grandparents’ talked about.  It gave us a chance to share memorable or poignant or funny stories of loved ones and when we were younger to play hide and seek or tag in our funeral clothes until inevitably we were told to stop.  But one time something peculiar happened.  All of us in the family would each dutifully walk up to the casket, pay our respects, and make a mad dash to the couches and wing-backed chairs over in one of the side rooms.  One time, my dad and his two brothers walked out of the viewing room with quizzical looks on their faces.  They each took another pass looking at their aunt’s face.  Something was definitely wrong and they couldn’t figure it out.   I don’t know who noticed first or who said it first, but one of them said, “Aunt blah-blah-blah, is smiling!  She never smiles.”

That certainly was not the case with Tabitha.  Aunt blah-blah-blah, to protect the innocent, may have lived a life “devoted to good works and acts of charity.”  I don’t know if what my dad and uncles said was right because I was little.  However, Dorcas certainly was devoted to good works and lived love as the growing crowd of grieving friends and neighbors attest.  They reminisce together, sharing their favorite stories of Dorcas. With­out the help of videos or pictures, they have to use their own recollections of her.  They don’t have a set time for the visitation like we do now.  Instead they share for hours, telling their favorite stories, recalling their happy memories together, trading the tales of her life.

While they didn’t have slideshows of pictures to spark memories, they have something even more personal because she made it.  They have the things that Tabitha her­self had made.  For each one of them.

Evidently this saintly woman was masterful at making clothes. Not just skillful, but generous, as well. Was there a friend or a neighbor who hadn’t received something from her hands? The remi­niscing turns into a lovely sort of show-and-tell as the townspeople bring out the tokens of Tabitha’s kindness.

“She gave this to me for my last birthday,” one woman tear­fully shares, as she holds up a lovely shawl. “She was so thought­ful! She never forgot a birthday, you know.”

“She was always thinking of other people,” another chimes in.

“This robe,” says another woman, drawing attention to the one she’s wearing, “I’m sure she was making this robe for herself. But when I visited one day and commented about how pretty it was, she held it up against me and said, ‘A perfect fit! It’s yours!’ “

On and on the stories went.

You and I don’t get to hear those stories and the truth is we don’t know any of Dorcas’ backstory.  Scripture doesn’t give us a glimpse of her life up to now.  We have no record of any of her words.  If we were going to wear our historian hats – the only part of her biography that is preserved for us is this story on this one particular day; and she was dead for most of it. 

And YET, for all intents and purposes, we feel like we know her, don’t we?

We feel like we know Tabitha because we’ve all been loved by someone like her.  Perhaps it was your grandfather, your aunt, your sweet next door neighbor, a favorite Sunday school teacher, that one camp counselor who was there when you first encountered Jesus and you realized that he died for you.  All of those people who loved you into being who you are.  Those generous folks who share their love with the world, not just the rich and fancy, but ALL people.

Personally, I don’t know how many Christmas stockings that my Great Aunt Clair made when we were kids, but I know that I still have mine.  She made my mom and aunt long-sleeved denim Winthrop shirts specifically designed for each of them because she was a proud Winthrop alum.  She always gave me books that were Newbery or Caldecott Winners for Christmas.  I would read every book that I received, mostly the latest Nancy Drew, before I would read those.  Sure, they weren’t a fun whodunit mystery, but those “boring” award books taught me lessons that stick with me to this day.  I have a whole host of books and quilts and prayer shawls and cross stitch pictures and pottery and a woodworked chair that my grandfather made that I will cherish long after the Saints who have imbued their spirits of selfless goodness and love long after they have gone and I remember the people that made them.  

So it was with Tabitha. The family members, friends, and neigh­bors had all gathered together in her home, clothed and armed with the loving handiwork that she had left behind. Together they oohed and ahhed. Together they reminscised. Together they showed the symbols of her goodness and love to the apostle Peter.

Peter, the leap before he looks, the foot in his mouth, and yet, the rock on which Jesus built his church, had become a pillar of the early church and he was staying in the nearby town of Lydda. He was just a few miles from Joppa where Tabitha had lived. So the Chris­tians there sent word to Peter, urging him to come to Joppa right away.

When Peter arrived, he was taken immediately up to the room where the body of Dorcas lay. There he was surrounded by the grieving loved ones, each one with an article of clothing to show him, each one with a story to tell him. Surely Peter was moved by the stories of the mourners.  Surely his heart was touched by the good works of love she had left behind.

Then he did something unusual. Peter sent them all out of the room.  They hadn’t asked him anything.  

He abruptly told them – all who had gathered  – to leave the room.  It would have seemed strange to them, he didn’t know Tabitha.  He hadn’t heard anything about Dorcas until he came to her house.  He’d never even laid eyes on her.  I can’t imagine what they whispered to one another as they walked down the stairs, leaving Peter alone in the viewing room.

He told the people to go because that’s what he had seen Jesus do.

Years before, when Peter and the disciples had chosen to follow Jesus along the dusty roads of Galilee, Peter had been in a similar bedroom. The twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus had died, and the house was full of mourners and Jesus sent them away. Or at least out of the room.  Accompanied only by a few disciples and the grieving parents, Jesus spoke to the little girl. And in speaking to her, he raised her to life.

So, now, the disciple followed the example that he had seen set by his Master, his Rabbi and did the same thing.  He sent the mourners out of the room, and then he spoke to the corpse. “Tabitha, get up,” Peter said, and the dead woman opened her eyes. Then she sat up. And then, Peter called all of her  friends and loved ones back into the room and you could have knocked them over like a feather.

They thought she was dead.  They are bursting with joy!  They can’t believe their eyes!  Now they get to say all those nice things TO her, instead of about her.  Their grief is turned to love made real in the flesh.  They could hug her and she could hug them back.

It was not Peter’s strength that brought about her healing, but by the Spirit of Jesus working within him and through him and for him.  He saw his rabbi do it and he had faith and trust that the Spirit of the Lord would do it again.

Peter stays with Simon, the tanner, but he soon goes on his way, on to the next place where he will stay, where he will preach, where he will heal. He leaves Tabitha, alive and well, in Joppa. She is among the good love works that Peter leaves behind.

Earlier, we caught a glimpse of the good love works that Tabitha had left behind. Tunics, cloaks, robes, shawls. But Peter has his own profound collection. Healed bodies, lives transformed in Christ, and a living Tabitha — these are among the good works that Peter leaves behind.

Peter’s example and Tabitha’s example challenge us. We see what each left behind, and we ask, “What is it that I leave? What is the impact and effect you or I having been in a community, a church, a school, a workplace, a family?  What is the good, the love, the mercy we leave behind?  A life well-lived?”

Where Tabitha had been, she left behind symbols of love and generosity, tokens of caring and love. Where Peter had been, he left behind life and health, gladness and rejoicing.

We don’t have to be an artisan to leave an impact, but as Mary Oliver asks “Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Are you going to live love or are you going to live in fear, anger, and let the root the bitterness creep in?

We consider the example of Tabitha, and we observe that the good works she left behind remind us of her Lord.  Afterall, he is the original artist and he gifted her with the creativity and skill with which she made everything.  He modeled for  her the love and the generosity that she shared with all of the people in her community. 

We consider Peter and we see that the works he left behind also remind us of his Lord. When we look at Peter, we remember Jesus who sent his followers out in Matthew 10 “to proclaim the good news … Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”  We remember Peter who went about doing good in Acts 10:38 and when Jesus told Peter and the rest of the disciples in John 14 that they would do the works he had done and even greater works.  The Holy Spirit was with Peter.  And with Tabitha/Dorcas.  And it can be alive in us.  Helping us leave behind good love works.  Giving us the strength, perseverance in the darkness of this world, and the Mighty will to do it, we can point people to our one and only Savior in whom all of our good works are inspired and are from.  That’s the best advice of all.  We point people to our Savior by our good love works so they can see, feel and know Jesus.  Amen.

Posted in Acts, Ananias, Holy Spirit, Jesus, paul, Transformation

Ultimate Transformation

The next five weeks are going to take a deeper look at the Holy Spirit at work in the book of Acts.  Last week’s lectionary reading was the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples in a locked room and breathing on them the Holy Spirit, the ruach, the very breath of God that ignites, sustains and transforms.  Call this a 5 week special feature:  Ultimate Transformation with Saul and Ananias, A Mighty Woman with Tabitha/Dorcas and Peter, God’s People Expanded with Peter and the Gentile expansion pack, Dreams not Beans with Paul and Lydia, and finally Freedom with Paul and Silas.  All leading us toward Pentecost which for all intents and purposes IS the Holy Spirit’s day.  Blow, Spirit, blow!

You know that we have access to the Holy Spirit right here and right now.  The Holy Spirit is our advocate and comforter, interceding for us when we don’t have the words to cry out, intervening as a hedge of protection, guiding and leading us to where we should go and even giving us the words to say. 

I preached last week upstairs that we serve a show and tell God.  God shows us the ultimate transformation when Saul becomes Paul.  Saul is high on the hog, a big man on campus, a titan of Wall Street, a superstar of the Jewish faith when he meets Jesus on the road to Damascus.  The Lord revealed his plans to a hesitant Ananias who says, yes, Lord, and he gets a firsthand look at what our Lord Jesus can do.  The practical point for today is two-fold – if we think we’re too far gone, irredeemable, not worthy or good enough our Jesus loves home improvement projects and if the triune God is telling you do something, no matter how crazy it sounds, we as members of the Way should hop to it!  If we follow the Spirit’s leading everything that was lost will be found in the sweet name of Jesus.

Acts 9:1-20

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 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; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

If we think we’re too far gone, irredeemable, not worthy or good enough our Jesus loves home improvement projects.

Extreme Makeover Home Edition first made the big home reno transformation scene with, “Move that bus!  Move that bus!”  Now it’s common place with Fixer Upper, Home Town, Zombie Houses, Love it or List it, and the list goes on.  We often get sucked into watching those shows because we want to see the great big transformation – the huge reveal at the end.  It’s rare that we see a transformation from sinner to saint as dramatic as that of Saul to Paul.  We know that there are stories out there, however and here is one such story. The story of Cain Lackey from Patrick County, Virginia.

Cain Lackey was known as the Meanest Man in Patrick County. He was rough and tough.  The year was 1892 and Patrick County, Virginia, was a place of dirt fields and mud roads. There wasn’t always enough food. People died because there were no doctors. Some places were almost impossible to get to because of the roads.

For all that, it was still very beautiful. There were the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains, and the music of winding rivers racing over the boulders in their streambeds. In the western part of the county were rich fields and long grasses. There were dairy farms, and orchards so plentiful that the smell of the fruit was like perfume.

Two ministers, Brother Dove and Brother Elgin, were standing at the edge of a swamp.  Down below, a tough, wiry man was digging a ditch. Brother Dove was a revival preacher, new in town, and Brother Elgin warned him about the man who was digging: Cain Lackey, the Meanest Man in four counties.

Brother Elgin proceeded to tell Brother Dove about Cain Lackey, how he could carry a railroad tie the way most men carried a two-by-four, how he could out-wrestle and out-fight anyone else who’d ever passed through. And he told him about the famous fight against a man known as Champion Ben, who he’d laid flat with a single punch, and how it had required twelve men to pull Cain Lackey off the former champion.

Brother Elgin also told him about the man’s father, who kept him from school, worked him from dawn to dusk, made him sleep outdoors all summer long, and how Cain had built a working mill by himself at the age of ten.

No one could level another man with his fist like Cain. No one was stronger or meaner.  “Well, he certainly looks like the strongest man in the county,” Brother Dove said, watching the way Cain Lackey thrust his shovel into the swamp, and sent great clouds of mud into the air behind him.

“I’m going to invite him to the revival,” Brother Dove said suddenly.

“He’ll never come,” Brother Elgin said.

“He’ll definitely never come if we don’t ask him,” Brother Dove replied.

Brother Elgin watched as the Brethren minister descended into the swamp. Brother Elgin could see Brother Dove step first ankle deep, then knee deep into the swamp, getting mud and gunk all over him. He watched as Brother Dove stuck out his hand to Cain Lackey. After a moment, Cain took the hand.

A few moments later Brother Dove was walking back to Brother Elgin. Mud clung to his boots and pants.

“What did he say?” Brother Elgin asked. Cain Lackey had already returned to digging. Not much seemed to keep him from work.  “He said he’d come. Is he as good as his word?”

“Yes.  If he tells you he’ll come he’ll be there. He’s just that way. He’ll do what he tells you. But if he tells you he’ll give you a whipping, he’ll do that, too.”

That night at the revival, the church was full. People had come from miles around to hear Brother Dove. There were young people and old people. There were children and mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, and plenty of babies. All the windows were open, and still it was hot, very hot inside, yet no one left. No one wanted to leave, because when someone like Brother Dove came to preach revival it was something special, very special.

The songs were the sorts of songs that everyone already knew. A sweaty man in the front of the church moved his arms up and down, right and left, to direct the singing, but everyone already knew the songs.

Brother Dove looked out over the congregation, and then he saw, in the doorway of the church, a big man standing. It was Cain Lackey, all right, and he had a child in his arms.  He hadn’t thought about it, but he now knew that Cain Lackey was married, and had children. There was a beautiful child in his arms. There was no room for anyone else in the church, but when Cain came in the door, people were afraid of him and made room for him to sit down.

Opening his Bible, Brother Dove began to read, and to talk. It got hotter and hotter in the building, and Brother Dove was dripping with sweat, and so was everyone else. It had gotten dark outside, and it was getting dark in the church as well. He could barely see into the back row, and he wondered, what did Cain Lackey, the Meanest Man in Patrick County, think about what he was saying?

When it was time for the closing song, some were crying in the church, and some were squeezing forward so that Brother Dove and Brother Elgin and all the other Brethren ministers could pray for them.  Many people were coming forward.

Brother Dove could see a dark shadow, a silhouette of a man, standing at the back of the church. Cain Lackey was standing, but he could see there was no way Cain Lackey could come forward, even if he wanted to. The church was too packed.

And then he saw something that surprised him. Cain Lackey was standing on top of a church bench. He was holding a little girl in his arms, and she was fast asleep. This person who was supposed to be the worst person in Patrick County had a little girl asleep in his arms, and he was coming forward by walking on top of the church benches.

The other ministers stood back as if they were shocked, but Brother Dove welcomed Cain Lackey, and hugged him very tightly, him and his daughter. Then Brother Dove invited Cain Lackey to kneel while they prayed together. All along, the singing continued. Then a cool breeze blew in the window, a breeze that brought relief and comfort.

When he was through praying, Brother Dove raised his hands and suddenly everyone was quiet. No one was singing. No one was crying. Everyone was listening.

“Today you have seen a miracle of grace,” he said. “God has called this man to do great things. You will be the ones who will see these things. Welcome this man into our church!”

Cain Lackey went on to learn to read and write. He became a minister and built many churches. He was elected to public office and spent tax money to build roads to improve access to rural areas even though it made him unpopular. He worked to provide social services for poor people who had been ignored by other politicians. He smashed stills where he found them. He changed lives. Most of all, he lived a life of grace and service to Jesus Christ.  A life transformed.

Saul, much like Cain Lackey, had a reputation of being a very bad man, a big bully like I said in the children’s sermon.  Saul was a man to be feared.  Saul was very zealous in the Jewish faith.  He called himself a Hebrew among Hebrews, so fervent in the faith and traditions of his own people that he stood by and watched over the cloaks of the mob that dragged Stephen off and stoned him to death.   Paul himself recalls elsewhere how he was fervent in persecution, determined to eradicate the Jesus movement by any means possible. In Galatians 1:13 he says that he “violently” laid hands on Christians. It was an overall empty life.

Saul’s conversion is the greatest act of transformation in the New Testament. It’s one of those “if he can change I guess I can change” stories that we need to prove that our gospel truly transforms lives.

If the triune God is telling you to do something, no matter how crazy it sounds, we as members of the Way should hop to it!

God uses Ananias, an ordinary Christian disciple to heal Saul.  This is the only time this particular Ananias is mentioned in scripture except when Paul is giving his testimony in Acts 22:12,  “A certain Ananias, who was a devout man according to the law and well-spoken of by all the Jews living [in Damascus].”  When the Lord called to Ananias in a vision, he answered, “Here I am, Lord.”  After he’s given his instructions, Ananias vocalizes his fears and hesitations.   Word on the street was that Saul was evil and he had authority from the Chief Priests in Jerusalem to bind anyone invoke the name of Jesus. 

Every call from God is a personal call. God’s call comes to us person-to-person. It is not a conference call. Some of us respond by putting God on hold. Others of us use call-waiting and take other calls first. Then there are those of us who try to return the call collect – making God pay for calling us.  And yet Ananias answered Jesus.  He trusted Jesus, even if he may have harbored doubts and fears, and it is to Ananias, not Saul, that the purpose and plan for the new apostle’s life is first revealed. 

Ananias follows Jesus’ instructions.  The text doesn’t say if he had doubts or hesitancies, but the only way I “out” myself to Saul as a member of the Way with his reputation was to hear a voice from the Lord.  And even then…Ananias must have his own real transformation from righteous and respected Jew to faithful follower of the Way.  His was a transformation not recorded within the Bible, but he had to have one because he addresses this fearful enemy of his people as “Brother Saul” — demonstrating with his words his trust in the Lord’s transformative abilities. I would love an insight into Ananias thought process as he does the unthinkable. Outing himself as a follower of the Way and being the Jesus’ instrument bringing Saul healing. And while the vision’s words does not make the source of Ananias’ healing ability clear, Ananias himself knows better than to take credit for such a miracle. The Holy Spirit, Jesus’ presence here on earth, is the source of this healing. Saul is no longer an outsider persecuting the church; he is now a true brother in Christ.

“Here I am, Lord.”  Ananias’ behavior in this story gives us a game plan for what we should do. God wants Ananias, an ordinary man, a simple disciple, in an act of courage to lay hands on Saul – essentially to make a pastoral call on this terrorist. Here is Ananias’ reaction. Step 1: He answered. Step 2: He confirmed the assignment. Step 3: He went. Step 4: He laid his hands on Saul.  Step 5: He affirmed his new family member, when he called him “Brother.”  

Ananias understood and lived as a good Jew, who was now a follower of Jesus, a disciple of the Way. Proverbs 3:5-6 which says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  He embodied the hymn “Trust and Obey.”

When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word

What a glory He sheds on our way!

While we do His good will, He abides with us still

And with all who will trust and obey

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way

To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey

If we follow the Spirit’s leading, everything that was lost will be found in the sweet name of Jesus.

Lee Strobel once knew the emptiness and lack of direction of living without the Triune God – God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit – in his life. Though he was a successful journalist, by his own account he was not a happy man. He describes himself at that stage in his life as “profane and angry.” To prove his point he cites a time when he came home one night and kicked a hole in the living room wall just out of anger with his life. Can you imagine the impression his conduct made on his five-year-old daughter? But Jesus Christ came into Lee Strobel’s life and changed his life radically. He says that five months after he gave his life to Christ, his little girl went to her mother and said, “Mommy, I want God to do for me what he’s done for Daddy.” Strobel says that God changed not only him, God changed his family and changed his world. When true God-given transformation happens it leaves nothing untouched and changes your whole wide world.

It was hard to argue with a testimony like that.  The scales had fallen off Lee Strobel’s eyes and he could now see both physically and spiritually.  Just like Saul.  The text says, “Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.”  It was quite the transformation!  A week before he had given himself the task with the Chief Priests blessing to round up believers of the Way and today he’s preaching in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.  What blasphemy! To those Jewish ears.  But what a transformation!  A testimony!  Saul could sing quite literally, “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”

He who was lost, is found, indeed and he’s ready to preach Jesus’ transforming power far and wide.  Saul was not irredeemable.  Ananias trusts in God’s leading.  The result is revival then and now if we show and tell the world as the Spirit leads in the sweet, sweet name of Jesus – the One who has the power to transform our lives.

Posted in Abundant Life, Cross, Easter, God's love, Good News, Grace, Hope, Mary Magdalene

Easter Sunday

These plants have been with me for years.  This bamboo was given to two of my students Tyler and Austin when they did an internship at Georgia Tech Wesley.  Steve Fazenbaker, the campus minister there, gave it to them as a welcome gift as they had started attending that summer and he gave one to them for me.  It was the summer of my second brain surgery and it’s a great reminder for me of how good our Savior is.  The other plant, I got at the Walmart in Mt. Pleasant.  I used to say it had a face on it – see!  It has the plastic rock that says, “Hope.”  I’ve always loved the South Carolina motto – Dum Spiro Spero – While I breathe, I hope and it was that hope that we carried with us as we moved back to South Carolina.  They’re both still alive – against all odds – my brown thumb, the tightness of the original containers, everything.  What does Jeff Goldblum say in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.”  Well life certainly found a way on Easter morning.  

I watched Rogue One on Good Friday morning. I believe it’s one of the best, or the best Star Wars movie.  It’s a precursor to A New Hope and in it three different characters, “Rebellions are built on hope.”  Oh, Jesus, sparked the greatest rebellion the world had ever seen and they crucified him for it.  He took a ragtag group of tax collectors, fisherman, prostitutes, misfits and prodigals and armed them not with weapons, but with the word of truth, that they even they were children of the most high God.  That they, even they, were loved by their Beloved God.  Their Yahweh.  That they, even they, were worthy and enough.

He had told them several, several times that this would happen like this – betrayed, beaten, crucified, buried, then resurrected.  But when the Romans pair up with the Religious Elites, all bets are off in their human understanding.  Some of them were denying, some were hiding, and some witnessed the crucifixion.  Hoping beyond hope that this was all a bad dream.  They were all grieving.   As Bob Goff so adequately put it, “Darkness fell. His friends scattered. All hope seemed lost. But heaven just started counting to three.”

John 20:1-18 NRSV

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

For Mary, Easter morning begins not with Easter eggs and “He is Risen!”, but with exhaustion, weariness and grief.  And yet, she went for help, she heard his voice, and she was the first to bear witness to the Gospel – “I have seen the Lord” and spread it.

First, she went for help.  The text doesn’t record her thoughts and questions that I’m sure are rolling around her head.  Were they grave robbers?  How many people did it take to move that heavy stone?  Are the Chief Priests involved?  Did the Romans desecrate the tomb?  It all comes out a jumbled rush, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  Simon Peter and the other disciple took off running!

Two gas company servicemen, a senior training supervisor and a young trainee were out checking meters in a suburban neighborhood. They parked their truck at the end of the street and worked their way to the other end. At the last house a woman looking out her kitchen window watched the two men as they checked her gas meter. Finishing the meter check, the senior supervisor challenged his younger coworker to a foot race down the street back to the truck, to prove that an older guy could outrun a younger one.

As they came running up to the truck, they realized that the lady from the last house was huffing and puffing right behind them. They stopped and asked her what was wrong.

Gasping for breath,  she answered, “When I see two gas men running full speed away from my house, I figure I had better run, too.”

Mary was not huffing and puffing behind them.  I imagine they all were running fast.  They saw for themselves, one of them believed, but they didn’t understand the scriptures that Jesus must rise from the dead.  They saw, confirmed what Mary had seen and alerted them to, and returned to their homes.  Leaving Mary in her grief.  The text says, “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.”  Grief is most commonly defined as “deep sorrow.”  Grief takes your breath away.  More than that you don’t know if you’ll ever breathe again and you’re not sure you want to.  It’s like there’s hole of air passing through you and you won’t ever be whole again.

Looking into the tomb, she sees two angels in white and tells them she is weeping because someone has taken away her Lord. A moment later, she turns, sees a man that she assumes is the gardener, and says to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  She’s doing what she must, on autopilot.  On autopilot you make the next decision and the next.   

Secondly, Jesus called her name.  His voice broke into her thoughts.  I’ve never noticed the explanation mark included with her name, “Mary!”  It’s like he’s breaking through the fog of her grief.  Mary!  Have you ever had your kids or spouse ignore you calling out their names?  And you get louder and angrier at each shout?  And I don’t think the tone was like stopping a kid from touching a hot stove or demanding that he get out of the road when a car is coming?  I imagine it being firm but gentle, unwavering yet tender.

She turns and says, “Rabbouni!” which means “teacher.”  His voice pierced through the layers of her grief.  She had witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion.  The hours of excruciating pain that she was helpless in the face of.  His voice pierced through her guilt and pain and numbness.  

We’ve been studying the book of John in the SALT Sunday School class and last week was this text and the last couple of texts of John.  As we talked about the video and the video questions, Maggie shared an insight into the text.  She was at her great aunt’s funeral, and she heard her grandfather’s voice right behind her.  She never thought she would hear it again because he had passed away years before.  Of course Mary Magdalene never, ever thought she would hear Jesus’ voice again.  When Maggie turned around it was not her grandfather that she saw, it was her grandfather’s brother that she saw.  Ironically she went to his funeral yesterday.  When I texted her if I could share her story, she said about his death, “It’s a blessing and a burden to be the last so I know they are all back together now!”  He didn’t just die for each of our sins.  Jesus promised in John 11, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  He defeated sin and death, so if we believe in him, we have a new and abundant life here on earth and we can enjoy eternal life with Jesus.  “They’re all back together now!”  Indeed, they are, Maggie.  They answered the Voice that called them home.  And we can too.  Jesus sees you as Jesus sees me.  He celebrates what he sees because God made us and loves us, no matter what, we’re enough.  We don’t have to keep all God’s love to ourselves like it’s a limited supply.  God doesn’t play favorites – we are each a favorite child of God.  We have to share God’s love with the world because we may be the Gospel – the Good News of God’s grace and love – the absolute hope of the world, we can share.  Jesus’ resurrection hope keeps bubbling up – under the surface in our pain and grief and unspeakable joy when we realize that evil nor death has the last word.

Finally, Jesus sends Mary as he sends us.  “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” He is saying to her: Run, Mary, run, take my message and run! She goes and announces to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and she tells them what Jesus has said to her.

Mary crosses the finish line as the very first apostle, a word which literally means “one who is sent off.”  Women are the last people standing at the foot of the cross and God chooses a woman as the first witness to the resurrection. God chooses Mary Magdalene to preach the very first Easter sermon. I think God in God’s way was redeeming Eve.  Women have always been blamed for Adam’s fall because Eve tempted him, even though he too, ate the fruit.  God grants us each unique gifts and graces, but loves each equally.  God has no favorites.  Romans says we have all fallen short of the glory of God and we are all equally lovable in God’s eyes through Jesus the Christ.  Galatians 3:26-29 says, “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”  Herbert McCabe, writing in God Still Matters, says: “We do not gather at Easter to celebrate a doctrine, the doctrine of the resurrection. We come here to rejoice in the presence of one we love; in Jesus who was lost to us and has been found.”  And to whom we were lost and have been found.  

Oh, Mary Magdalene had quite a shock that Easter morning!  She went for help, heard a Voice that she thought she would never again, and she was the first to bear witness to the Gospel and spread it.  Jesus is calling us to spread his message of his resurrection hope to the world.  He wants us to tune into His Voice so he can show us the little things that he puts in our paths to give us encouragement we need at the time and the people he places in our path, he wants us to share his Gospel message of love and hope to! Just like these plants, they’ve survived moves and my brown thumb – in his resurrection power Jesus doesn’t want us to merely survive, but he wants us to thrive and bask in his love and grace for even sinners like us, to grow where he plants us.  And to that we say, “Alleluia!  He is Risen!  He is Risen, indeed!

Posted in calling, Choices, Jesus, Spirit

The Decision (Sermon on January 24th)

I hate making decisions about what restaurants to go to or what show or movie to watch.  How much time is wasted by debating over where to eat lunch or what to do today?  We have to make some decisions.  Decisions are especially layered in the pandemic.  When it comes to the simple things, I just don’t want to make another decision.

Mark 1-14

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Maybe they were bored.  Blahsday – every day the same – maybe Simon and Andrew or James and John were tired of just going through the motions…the text doesn’t say they asked any questions or offer any clues. They made a choice to follow Jesus.

Remember Luke Skywalker in New Hope making the decision whether to stay where it was familiar or go on the big adventure. The hero always looks back to what was. Anyone that stands on the precipice of change has that gut check moment.  That first step of the adventure is always hesitant and wistful because you’re leaving the safety of the known and stepping into the unknown of the future.  They dropped their nets and followed.  They made the decision not to be “rearview mirror” people, but “windshield” people.  They’re not constantly looking back, they are fully present on the journey to where Jesus would lead them.

There must have been a million little choices along the way – opportunities to say yes – these eventual twelve men – looking at Jesus, learning to listen, and following what he was teaching them.

We all have a choice – whether to follow Jesus or not?

Amy Grant back in the day in 1982 on her Age to Age album wrote this song that came back to me with the clarity of a child.

I have decided,

I’m gonna live like a believer,

Turn my back on the deceiver,

I’m gonna live what I believe.

I have decided,

Being good is just a fable,

I just can’t ’cause I’m not able.

I’m gonna leave it to the Lord.

There’s a wealth of things that I profess,

I said that I believed,

But deep inside I never changed;

I guess I’d been deceived.

’cause a voice inside kept telling me,

That I’d change by and by,

But the spirit made it clear to me,

That kind of life’s a lie.

I have decided,

I’m gonna live like a believer,

Turn my back on the deceiver,

I’m gonna live what I believe.

I have decided,

Being good is just a fable,

I just can’t ’cause I’m not able.

I’m gonna leave it to the Lord.

So forget the game of being good,

And your self-righteous pain.

’cause the only good inside your heart

Is the good that Jesus brings.

And when the world begins to see you change,

Don’t expect them to applaud.

Just keep your eyes on him and tell yourself,

I’ve become the work of God.

I have decided,

I’m gonna live like a believer,

Turn my back on the deceiver,

I’m gonna live what I believe.

I have decided,

Being good is just a fable,

I just can’t ’cause I’m not able.

I’m gonna leave it to the Lord.

We leave it to the Lord.

If we make the choice to follow Jesus, we have to leave it to the Lord.

  • The Pharisees forgot Who they were following the rules for.  Who were they really honoring?  The Lord?  Or did they want to impress their fellow Pharisees or Saducees with their dedication to the law?
  • The disciples were regular Joe’s.  They were working, going about their day, when Jesus shows up and asks them a question.  They probably knew the stringent practices of Pharisees and the Saduccees, but they were the “regular” people.  The overlooked, working stiffs.
  • So their came to be a great divide between the pious religious folk and Jane Doe’s.

Jesus seeks to ask all of us, will you come follow?

We all have things to give up or to gain, when we follow Jesus

Luke 9:23 – Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

Of course, we say, we would choose light over darkness…but the little things, the little choices add up.  The choices we make every second of every day are cumulative. 

We all have a decision to make….to saddle up our horses or keep living in complacency and apathy on the one hand, or thinking that we’re better than everyone on the other.

I’ll tell you a story, that may be an extreme example, but it points to our choices and the effects of those choices.

About 150 years ago, there was a great revival in Wales, England. As a result of this, many missionaries came from England and Germany to North-East India to spread the Gospel.  At the time, north-east India was not divided into many states as it is today. The region was known as Assam and comprised hundreds of tribes…Naturally, they were not welcomed. One Welsh missionary succeeded in converting a man, his wife, and two children. He and his family choose to follow Jesus.  This man’s faith proved contagious and many villagers began to accept Christianity. Angry, the village chief summoned all the villagers. He then called the family who had first converted to renounce their faith in public or face execution. Moved by the Holy Spirit, the man instantly composed a song which became famous down the years. He said:

“I have decided to follow Jesus.”

Enraged at the refusal of the man, the chief ordered his archers to arrow down the two children. As both boys lay twitching on the floor, the chief asked, “Will you deny your faith? You have lost both your children. You will lose your wife too.”

But the man replied:

“Though no one joins me, still I will follow.”

The chief was beside himself with fury and ordered his wife to be arrowed down. In a moment she joined her two children in death. Now he asked for the last time, “I will give you one more opportunity to deny your faith and live.”  In the face of death the man said the final memorable lines:

“The cross before me, the world behind me. No turning back.”

He was shot dead like the rest of his family. But with their deaths, a miracle took place. The chief who had ordered the killings was moved by the faith of the man. He wondered, “Why should this man, his wife and two children die for a Man who lived in a far-away land on another continent some 2,000 years ago? There must be some remarkable power behind the family’s faith, and I too want to taste that faith.”

In a spontaneous confession of faith, he declared, “I too belong to Jesus Christ!” When the crowd heard this from the mouth of their chief, the whole village accepted Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

The song is based on the last words of Nokseng, a man from Garo tribe of Assam (now Meghalaya and some in Assam), India. It is today the song of the Garo people.

(Dr. P.P. Job and Indian preacher in his book “Why God Why”)

The Welsh missionaries had a choice, the man and his family had a choice, and the chief had a choice.  We all have a choice.  “Then Jesus said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  So what’s your choice?

 “I Have Decided” (The Faith We Sing, #2129)

I have decided to follow Jesus,

I have decided to follow Jesus,

I have decided to follow Jesus –

no turning back, no turning back.

Posted in Breath Prayer, Hymn, Jesus, Prayer, Surrounded, together

Surrounded by a Mighty Fortress (Friday Devotion January 22)

We recorded Michael W. Smith’s “Waymaker” on May 22, 2020.  The pandemic had gone past Easter and the kids had mostly finished up with online school, we had no idea that it would last this long.  We were frankly flipping through the channels on a Friday night and stumbled upon it.  I’ve always had a soft spot for Smitty with his singing and piano playing, and I’ll never forget hearing “I’ll Lead You Home” from Disney’s Magic Kingdom at a Night of Joy concert.  That song was crucial to bringing me back to a relationship with Jesus.  The Waymaker special featured a song called “Surrounded” that he covered in 2018.  Originally a spontaneous moment of declaration and praise, “Surrounded” is written by Elyssa Smith of Upper Room Music.

Smith wrote at the time, “The thought of doing another live worship project has been something I have processed for a while now. The question I have asked myself most is not so much what do I want to do, but what do I need to do. What do WE need to do as God’s church and as God’s children? What expression of worship does God desire from us… have we missed something? The reality is, it is not the style of our expression God is concerned with, it is the heart. God wants our honesty. God wants our vulnerability. God wants us to come to God as we are, not as we want to be. I feel God moving through God’s church and God is calling us TOGETHER…. to be one voice and one heart. One bride. Every nation, every tribe, and every tongue. Every social class. Every denomination. Let’s get together and rejoice! In what God has done, what God is doing, and what God has yet to do.”

The lyrics are really simple, like a breath prayer.  

It may look like I’m surrounded

But I’m surrounded by You

It may look like I’m surrounded

But I’m surrounded by You

This is how I fight my battles

This is how I fight my battles

This is how I fight my battles

And, most importantly, WE are not doing the FIGHTING.  The Triune God is the one.  God is the one who beats our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks.  

Our Psalter for this Sunday’s lectionary is from Psalm 62:5-8.  It reads, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.  On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.  Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.”

“A Mighty Fortress is Our God” was written by Martin Luther between 1527 and 1529 and has been translated into English at least 77 times.  He wrote the words as a paraphrase of Psalm 46.

A mighty fortress is our God,

a bulwark never failing;

our helper he amid the flood

of mortal ills prevailing.

For still our ancient foe

doth seek to work us woe;

his craft and power are great,

and armed with cruel hate,

on earth is not his equal.

That word above all earthly powers,

no thanks to them, abideth;

the Spirit and the gifts are ours,

thru him who with us sideth.

Let goods and kindred go,

this mortal life also;

the body they may kill;

God’s truth abideth still;

his kingdom is forever.

We remain secure in the truth we know God with Us, our Emmanuel is WHO we go to, when we feel betrayed, burdened and battered.  When we feel helpless or hopeless, we trust in the strong name of the Lord.

 Hear now this prayer of Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength,

    a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,

    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,

    the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;

    God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;

    he utters his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord of hosts is with us;

    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;

    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;

    he burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, and know that I am God!

    I am exalted among the nations,

    I am exalted in the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us;

    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Posted in Authority, Autopilot, Holy Spirit, Jesus, Mark, Sermons, sin, worry

What have you to do with us?

In our text today, we see Jesus preaching in the temple with authority.  He doesn’t have authority because he outranks the people like in the military, nor does he have authority because he’s the boss of people.  Jesus was a carpenter. He had no positional authority in the community. His authority came from his wisdom and knowledge and his competence at interpreting God’s Word. Even as a boy Jesus wowed people with his wisdom and his grasp of scripture.  The people in Capernaum could not possibly have known that his authority came from God.   All they knew is that they had never heard an individual teach like Jesus taught.

I’ve always imagined Jesus as one of those people whom you might not see enter the room.  He doesn’t seem like one who would ever make a grand entrance. But before long you would feel His presence. You might not even be aware of it at first because it was something subtle. But pretty soon you’d find yourself drawn to Him, like everyone else. Why? Because His words rang true. His words sprang from the heart and they resonated with power and authenticity. It was as if He had a direct line to God. And that’s what amazed His listeners.  There were no gimmicky tricks or false promises to get folks to open up their wallets to support His ministry. There was no phony manipulation. Jesus was truly concerned about everyone who came to hear Him. Jesus wanted them to understand, to know, to learn about God’s love and forgiveness and this is why this passage is so important.  Jesus has authority over everything and if we give Jesus authority over our lives then he will make us clean.

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

We’ve all faced the challenges of 2020 and its dragging into 2021.  How are we to respond in the face of so much mess?  So much in this world we can’t control.  From the tensions of our politics to loneliness and isolation.  We turn to Jesus.  He has the Authority to cast away the evil and bitterness that creeps in.  He has the Authority to cast out the complacency and apathy that we so easily fall into.  And most of all Jesus can cast away the doubt and fear that seems to plague us like a lion that’s stalking its prey.  The demons ask, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”  And we confidently and boldly answer EVERYTHING. 

We give authority to Jesus, the Lord of our lives.

First, Jesus has the Authority to cast away the evil and bitterness that creeps in.  I don’t know about you but I’m generally a positive, glass half full person.  I seek joy.  It’s been hard, y’all.  It’s like we’re horses that used to be free to roam all over the hills and the meadows, and now we’re in downtown Charleston carrying tourists on our backs with the eye guards that block our vision.  I’ve started recording the Today Show.  I watch the little bit of news at the beginning of the broadcast and fast forward to Hoda’s Morning Boost.

https://www.today.com/video/-who-can-be-quiet-the-longest-not-these-4-year-old-twins-99255365842

We are called to bring joy.  We are called to shine our light.  We are called to fix our eyes on Jesus in Hebrews 12:1-2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”  The sin that so easily entangles us.  I appreciate the word entangle as it gives us this image. 

Our sin ensnares us but if we fix our eyes of Jesus and rest in His authority and love we’re standing on solid ground, we won’t slip or fall. 

We don’t want to be arrogant, and think of ourselves better than what we are, because that also is not of God.  The elder brother was just as sinful in the prodigal son passage.  He may not have cashed in his inheritance, but he was resentful to the point of bitterness.  Hebrews 12 goes on to say in verse 15, “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”  We can’t let the negativity of the world, the gloomy days, the circumstances creep in and make us see with shrouded eyes.  Jesus is the mighty One, our Savior, and He lives within us who claim Him as Lord. Don’t ever forget: “Greater is He that is in you, than He that is in the world.”

Second, Jesus has the Authority to cast out the complacency and apathy that we so easy to fall into.

I’ve always loved Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird.  It’s based in the South and one of the main characters is a lawyer, Atticus Finch.  Atticus Finch is defending a black man in a system in which he doesn’t have a chance of winning. But he defends him anyway, because he knows that the system is unfair and evil and he feels as if he has a moral obligation to take the case. In the end he lost the case, the innocent man is convicted, and the innocent man is later shot and killed.

The lawyer’s daughter, Scout, is in the courtroom at the conclusion of the trial. She is sitting in the balcony that is segregated for blacks. There is no room on the main floor. The courtroom is packed. The verdict is given. The judge leaves. The white people downstairs all leave the courtroom. The people in the balcony remain.

He was defeated. But he was on the side of truth and righteousness and peace. So he won.  He didn’t let complacency with the status quo, nor did he let the excuse of apathy of the racial situation in the South get him down.  He stood up in truth and empathy and stepped into another person’s shoes.  We have to act with humility and live out God’s grace especially during these times of challenge. 

Jesus didn’t ignore the unclean Spirit or act like he wasn’t aware of it.  He called it to the front and rebuked it.  He wasn’t apathetic or complacent, he did something about it.  We have a responsibility to not be lulled into bobbing along on the log.  We have to STAND UP.

Mark doesn’t tell us word for word what Jesus taught, but he emphasizes the result of that teaching.  He does that throughout his Gospel.  He shows us the results that Jesus’ teaching had on others. It should be evident in our lives that we are under the authority of Jesus Christ.

Third, Jesus can cast away the doubt and fear that seems to plague us like a lion that’s stalking its prey.

Matthew West has a song out now called “Truth be told” that says:

Lie number one you’re supposed to have it all together

And when they ask how you’re doing

Just smile and tell them, “Never better”

Lie number 2 everybody’s life is perfect except yours

So keep your messes and your wounds

And your secrets safe with you behind closed doors

Truth be told

The truth is rarely told, now

I say I’m fine, yeah I’m fine oh I’m fine, hey I’m fine but I’m not

I’m broken

And when it’s out of control I say it’s under control but it’s not

And you know it

I don’t know why it’s so hard to admit it

When being honest is the only way to fix it

There’s no failure, no fall

There’s no sin you don’t already know

So let the truth be told

There’s a sign on the door, says, “Come as you are” but I doubt it

‘Cause if we lived like it was true, every Sunday morning pew would be crowded

But didn’t you say the church should look more like a hospital

A safe place for the sick, the sinner and the scarred and the prodigals

Like me

Like us. We’re so afraid to let our doubts and fears show.  We’re so afraid to set aside our masks and be honest.  Under the authority of Jesus Christ, under the Lordship of Jesus, he wants us to bring our true, honest and authentic selves to the table.  He wants our mess, not our curated lives on Instagram.  He wants the church to be the hospital the Great Physician is working through.

Singer and songwriter Gloria Gaither put it this way: “Jesus. The mere mention of His name can calm the storm, heal the broken, raise the dead . . . I’ve heard a mother softly breathe His name at the bedside of a child delirious with fever, and I’ve watched that little body grow quiet and the fevered brow cool. I’ve sat beside a dying saint, her body racked with pain, who in those final fleeting seconds summoned her last ounce of ebbing strength to whisper earth’s sweetest name Jesus, Jesus . . . Emperors have tried to destroy it; philosophers have tried to stamp it out. Tyrants have tried to wash it from the face of the earth with the very blood of those who claim it. Yet still it stands . . . Jesus . . .” Friends, that’s authority.  And we have access to that authority.

Every Sunday morning during the first block of songs, I pray that the Holy Spirit reign in this place and us gathered here and at home.  I pray that we would be renewed and refreshed in the service.  I pray that hearts will be awakened and moved.  I pray that whatever needs to be extinguished in our lives, be extinguished.  I pray that whatever needs to be lifted up, awakened, and urged forward will be.  I pray to Jesus cast anything not of You from this place and this people and bind it at the foot of your cross, covered in your precious blood in Jesus’ name.  I pray this prayer each week knowing and trusting in the authority of Jesus that he can make a way even through all of the distractions in our hearts and our heads.  All the technical difficulties.  The Holy Spirit can intercede even with my stumbling speech.  The Holy Spirit can even reach through those screens and grab you in the name of Jesus.

Jesus has an intimate interest in our lives and if we invite him, if we abide, or make a home with him as he has made with us then our lives are going to be more.   Jesus won’t take away the problems or the challenges, but Jesus will be with us to help carry the load.  As it says in Matthew 6:25-26, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”  Trust that if you’re seeking him first, you are seeking his authority over your life, then he will be faithful and good. 

Back before this pandemic when I would travel for meetings or even going on vacation, I rarely used cruise control.  I’m too much of a control freak.  It’s hard for me to sit on autopilot.  Releasing that control to the One who holds the future, the One who knows each step that is part of the Master plan, is scary for me, but freeing.  I’m not talking about an autopilot that relinquishes our free will, I’m talking about one that frees us from the bitterness, complacency, and the fear.  Jesus setting our course.  The Enemy wants to twist us up inside and Jesus offers the vaccine to that jumbled mess of our lives, that sweet, precious relief that only He can give.  As John 10:10 says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”   So when the demons ask, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”  We with a bold confidence can answer EVERYTHING. 

Posted in Arise, calling, Devotion, God, sin, strength

Rise Up – January 6th

I made a note in my notes on my iPhone when I heard this song on November 2nd.  It’s called “Rise Up (Lazarus)” by the group Cain.

In the dark and all alone, growing comfortable

Are you too scared to move and walk out of this tomb?

Buried underneath, the lies that you believed

Safe and sound, stuck in the ground

Too lost to be found

You’re just asleep and it’s time to leave

Come on and rise up, take a breath, you’re alive now

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

You’re brand new, the power of death couldn’t hold you

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

Rise up, rise up, rise up

Out from the grave like Lazarus

When He said your name, the thing that filled your veins

Was more than blood, it’s the kind of love that washes sin away

Now the door is open wide and the stones been rolled aside

The old is gone, the Light has come, so

Come on and rise up, take a breath, you’re alive now

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

You’re brand new, the power of death couldn’t hold you

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

Rise up (like Lazarus) rise up, rise up

Out from the grave like Lazarus

He’s calling us to walk out of the dark

He’s giving us new resurrected hearts, 

He’s calling us to walk out of the dark

He’s giving us new resurrected hearts,

Come on and rise up, take a breath, you’re alive now

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

You’re brand new, the power of death couldn’t hold you

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

Rise up (He’s calling you out) rise up

Get me up from the grave like Lazarus

The lead singer, Logan explains the meaning behind the song:

“It’s this triumphant song about come on and rise up. My story is one of secret. As I felt myself feeling separated from God in cycles of destructive behavior & sin, the last thing I wanted to do was rise up. The last thing on earth that I wanted to do was to stand up and do what was right. When I feel defeated it’s easy for me to recluse, to become comfortable in that place but I know that the voice of Jesus is always gonna call me to rise up. If you hold onto that truth, that voice will get loud and it will eventually get louder than the voice that’s telling you to not rise up. There is no greater feeling of being alive than when you decide that I’m gonna take the power that’s given to me by the blood that was shed on the cross and I’m going to stand on top of this thing that has held me down. When you rise up anything that felt like life before that pales in comparison.” 

Scripture tells us that God is going to go with us when we rise up.

In Micah 7:8, “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.”  When we fall, God will give us not only the strength to rise, but the Lord will be a light to me.

In Psalm 28:7, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.”  The Lord is going to be our strength and shield, an ever present help in times of trouble.  Our response is to trust him and give thanks and praise.

In Ezra 10:4,Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it.” If those are not marching words, I don’t know what is.  Rise Up, Narcie and do the tasks I’ve laid out for you.  It has a tinge of buck up, buttercup.  “Be strong and do it.”  

We can offer all kinds of excuses and reasons and justifications to why we do some things and not do others, but when God places that sin on your heart or that calling on your life, we must act.  Do I need to recount the story of Jonah to you or for that matter the Israelites of the Old Testament?  God has the uncanny way of giving us a whisper, then a nudge, then signs a la Bruce Almighty, where God gave Bruce literal billboards and flashing road signs – God makes God’s presence known and we can run away as long as we want, God’s going to still love us and draw us toward God’s relational self – the extravagant, unconditional love and truly amazing and boundless grace.  

May God show where we need to rise up out of the sins that cling so tightly and may God give us the courage and fortitude to bring love, hope, peace, and joy to a hurting world and a radically divided country. May the Holy Spirit fall afresh on each of us as we rest in God’s mercy, love and grace.

Posted in Advent, God, Joy

Deck the Halls

Deck the Halls

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

    because the Lord has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

    to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

    and release to the prisoners;

2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

    and the day of vengeance of our God;

    to comfort all who mourn;

3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

    to give them a garland instead of ashes,

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,

    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,

    they shall raise up the former devastations;

they shall repair the ruined cities,

    the devastations of many generations.

8 For I the Lord love justice,

    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;

I will faithfully give them their recompense,

    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.

9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations,

    and their offspring among the peoples;

all who see them shall acknowledge

    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,

    my whole being shall exult in my God;

for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,

    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,

as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,

    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,

    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,

so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise 

to spring up before all the nations.

Evy doesn’t like us to decorate before her birthday, November 30th, but we talked her into decorating early because we and the world need so much joy right now.  We’ve cleaned up our mess, now we get to enjoy our decked out halls.

Why do we decorate our homes, our sanctuaries, our offices or cubicles, even our notebooks, we want the world to know who we are.  We want to invite them in.  We want to celebrate with them.  We want to put our best foot forward with a complete, clean picture.  At first glance, this Isaiah passage does that.  It’s all happy, happy, rah, rah, renewal, bridegroom decks himself with garland and the bride adorns herself with jewels, but is the whole book of Isaiah like that.  No!

Isaiah answers when he heard God say, “Whom shall I send?”  “Hear I am; send me!”  He’s what they call a major prophet.  Not just for the size of his book, but for his words and importance in the life of Israel.  He was a prophet that defended the people of Israel more than anyone and the people of Israel were in the midst of their spin cycle of sin.  You know how it is.  God is faithful, a covenant making God.  The covenant with Noah to not flood the Earth again and the covenant with Abraham to make his descendants like the dust of the earth by day and the stars of the sky by night.  The Israelites will be God’s people and Yahweh will be their God.  Hadn’t he delivered them from Egypt?  Hadn’t he provided manna and quail for them to eat?  Hadn’t Moses struck the rock and water streamed forth when they complained of being thirsty?  They follow God for what seems like a second and then turn away and disobey.  Then God sends a prophet to speak to Kings and to the people.  Sometimes the prophets break through and repentance happens but more often than not, they don’t.  Most of the book of Isaiah he’s warning them and despair and destruction are happening.  He mixes messages of hope of things to come with messages of anguish.  Like Isaiah 9:2-3, “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.”

And later on in the same chapter:

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.

God gives them hope, about One to come.  But they, like we, are easily discouraged.  Even during this pandemic, I wish I could snap my fingers and everything would be back to normal.  It’s hard crafting a new normal, a new rhythm, a new way of being.  It’s hard when all that’s around you is changed.  I watch movies now and wonder why they’re not social distancing or wearing masks, but the tv show Monk was ahead of its time.  It’s hard to not get down in the dumps or in a funk during these strange times.

It’s hard going back to a ghost town.  I used to take the scenic routes to South Carolina when I lived in Florida.  I would see these once thriving, bustling communities on the railroad route or these textile plants which have long since shut down and wonder what it was like 100 years ago.

This is nothing compared to the destruction of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was deserted. The strong walls, which had held back invading armies for years, had been pulled down. The HolyTemple, the house of God, had been desecrated and was now only a shell. The Babylonians had destroyed the city and scattered the people to a distant land.

After years in exile, the people were returning home to a land that was devastated. They were resolved to begin the task of rebuilding, but they were getting discouraged, and TIRED, just as we are.  They want to snap their fingers and go back to their normal lives.  They’ve been in exile, now they’re back.

The story is told about Betty Hutton, a former movie star and box office attraction of the late ’40s and ’50s. Hutton fell on hard times and battled alcoholism and depression. A few years ago she encountered God and invited him into her life. God turned her life around and headed her in a different direction. She started on the trail to a comeback. Hutton joined the cast of the Broadway musical Annie, playing the role of Mrs. Hannigan. Those who were in attendance at the first performance noted the extensive biographical sketches of the members of the cast. However, under the picture of Betty Hutton there was no elaborate sketch. Instead, there appeared five words which Hutton had written herself. Those words were: “I’m back. Thanks to God.”

God has Isaiah sprinkles these promises in because God doesn’t ever want us to ever want us to be discouraged and despondent; God wants us to cling to God’s promises in the dark days, in the days when doubt and despair overwhelm us.  God promises joy in our mourning.  Isaiah says,

“God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

    to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

    and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

    and the day of vengeance of our God;

    to comfort all who mourn;

to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

    to give them a garland instead of ashes,

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,

    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

It echoes Psalm 30:11, “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;

You have loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness.”

God didn’t abandon God’s people and God doesn’t abandon us.  God loved us enough to send God’s own son, Jesus to make our joy complete.  Joy is not happiness, it’s rooted in something much deeper.  It’s roots go all the way to our hearts and it is rooted to our very beings.  Sometimes its hard to imagine how we are going to feel any joy again. 

In the darkest days of my second brain surgery, my mother recounts the first time I laughed. We were sitting in the den all together and he said something, as he is want to do, and I laughed. That’s a simple thing. Even babies do it. But that was SUCH A BIG DEAL. In those dark days, when I couldn’t speak, when I had to read a paragraph at Speech Therapy in tell him what it said, and I lost my right arm and hand movement, so I couldn’t even shave my legs…things that we all take for granted, my laughter gave my mom some much-needed hope.

We have to let ourselves feel the peace, love, hope, and joy of this Advent season.  We have to start living. We have to live into the new reality of NOW. The Israelites came back to a new reality, but with God’s help they got through it and decked their halls and with God’s help we will get through whatever we’re wading through and deck our halls.  My prayer for you this season, is whenever joy comes into your life, you will cling to it, you will grasp it with both hands.  “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;”  Joy in Jesus is just foretaste to Heaven. 

Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let Earth receive her King!

Posted in Emmanuel, God's love, Jesus, Just Because, Love

Love Came Down – Wednesday Night Advent Service

1 John 4:7-12

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

Love Came Down

I would listen to Amy Grant’s Christmas albums as I decorated my Ganny’s tree and decorated her house for Christmas from my freshman year at Winthrop 1998, when she broke her back, through Evy’s first Christmas in 2008 when she was weeks old until Ganny died in September 2009.  We celebrated at her house that one last Christmas.  Ganny and I had a special relationship from our love of books and tv shows to the latest snack food.  We were kindred spirits.  We were both oldest daughters with two younger brothers and had similar tastes in everything, even our love of knick knacks.  I grew closer to my grandparents during these times of decorating and on the trips I took in college to stay with them.  They showed me their great and unconditional love.  

This scripture passage tells us much about God’s love.  God is love.  God sent God’s own son Jesus, not because of anything we did or did not do, just because.  Have you ever had a “just because” love?  No matter what, no matter what you did or you didn’t do, no matter what you were loved.  Just because….you were YOU.  You were fearfully made for God’s purpose.  God knit you together in your mother’s womb and knows every hair on your head.  My Ganny and Gandaddy loved us grandkids enough to count every hair on our heads, to kiss away our boo boos, and to show us that “just because” kind of love.  Just because we were their’s, just because we are God’s, God’s love for us knows no bounds.  Even when we frustrated the heck out of them or they were disappointed in us, we still had their unconditional love, just because.  It was never a question.  Ganny said at my Gandaddy’s visitation, “Walk around and let the people see y’all.  He talked about y’all all the time.  People talk about someone being the “apple of my eye,” well, y’all were his very eyeballs.” 

In verse 12 of our passage it says, “12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”  I saw God and God’s love, I felt God’s love, I KNEW God’s unconditional love in my Ganny and Gandaddy.  And you know what, I can see them again, because of God’s great love for us.  God sent Jesus to atone for our sins on the cross so we can live with Him for eternity.  That shows and proves God’s great love for us.  On her first Christmas album, Amy Grant wrote “Love Has Come” with Shane Keister and Michael W. Smith.  They get more and more excited as the song goes on and by the end they’re blaring out, 

“Love has come
For the world to know
As the wise men knew
Such a long time ago
And I believe that angels sang
That hope had begun
When the God of glory
Who is full of mercy
Yes, the God of glory
Sent his Son

And they throw in, “Don’t you know?”  and “I believe that!”  It was the 80’s.  It fit.

But isn’t that the point – that we show God’s love to others and they turn and show it to others and so on and so on.  It’s the biggest show and tell in history and we GET to be a part of the story.  We get to be ACTIVE participants in the Greatest Story Ever Told.  Sharing God’s love all over the place – love is baked into the desserts we make for Katie’s Krops, love inspires us to write a note of encouragement to a friend in need, love leads us to pray for the sick, the hurting, and the broken, LOVE HAS COME to DWELL AMONG US.

Our Advent verse today is from Psalm 26 verses 2-3, “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you.”  Your steadfast love is before my eyes and I walk in faithfulness to you.  The Triune God’s steadfast love is before our eyes, how can we not walk in faithfulness?  If we don’t show the world God’s great love for them, who will?  If we don’t tell them about Jesus, our Emmanuel, who came down to Earth, the Great God of the Universe, a helpless baby, Jesus came and dwelt among us, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.  He transforms everything and makes us new creations if we but put our hope and faith in him.  My grandparent’s “just because” love is just a taste of our Savior’s love.  The depth of God’s love is unfathomable and we rejoice in that when we take part in this Holy meal.  “For God so loved the world…”