Together

Matthew 3:13-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

REAFFIRMATION OF BAPTISM         

 The Lord be with you.

and also with you.

Let us pray.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember your baptism and be thankful. Amen.

Prayer reaffirming the Baptismal Covenant:

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

 

 

Journal Entries: The Slaughter of the Innocents

Isaiah 63:7-9

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

God’s Mercy Remembered

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

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

Hear now the word of God.

Matthew 2:13-23

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Escape to Egypt

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

The Massacre of the Infants

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

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

The Return from Egypt

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

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

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

Journal Entry 1

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

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

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

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

Journal Entry 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journal Entry 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

John 3:16-18 —

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

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

Let us pray….

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

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

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Emmanuel Changes Us

Isaiah 9:2-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Mary’s Magnificat

Are you tired of the 24 hour news cycle or do you stayed glued to CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC?  Do you read your news online?  It’s can make you depressed because inevitably they cover more tragedy than celebration.  I’ve had journalists tell me what I already know, most people prefer the bad news.  It’s like schadenfreude.  Our fascination with others misfortune.  How many times have you been stuck in traffic on an interstate for an accident with the accident on the other side of the road?  We have rubber neck syndrome.  We want to be in the know.  If we’re praying people than we know how to pray for the world, our nation, our community from news sources.  Do we live in our own personal bubbles or are we in the world, but not of it – speaking prophetically, praying intercessory prayers, being informed so we can stand against tyranny on the side of the poor and oppressed.

People often say to veteran broadcaster, Paul Harvey, “Paul, why don’t journalists and broadcasters emphasize more good news instead of tragedy, destruction, discord and dissent?” Harvey’s own network once tried broadcasting a program devoted solely to good news. The program survived 13 weeks. We say we want good news, but we won’t buy it. In Sacramento, California, a tabloid called Good News Paper printed nothing else. It lasted 36 months before it went bankrupt. A similar Indiana tabloid fared even worse — the publishers had to GIVE IT AWAY. Evidently, the positive news people say they want is news they just won’t buy.  The tabloids full of scandals or In Touch or US sale off the shelves.

Listen to any broadcast, Paul Harvey suggests, or pick up any newspaper. You’ll learn that records are crashing, it is the worst wind or the worst fire or flood or earthquake or whatever — because NOISE makes news. For example,

* On August 31, 1997, Chicago Tribune sales soared 40 percent due to coverage of a crash that killed a princess.

* The very next issue of People made it the lead story and sold more than a million copies.

* Newsweek and Time broke sales records when they did the same in the following weeks.

* For an entire month after the crash, Britain’s biggest newspapers gave 35 percent of their total news coverage to the death of Princess Di. Not even the end of World War II got that much ink.

I actually stayed up with friends to watch Princess Diana’s funeral and when Mother Teresa died a few months later, she didn’t get near the publicity.  As Harvey suggests, noise makes news — and one gunshot makes more noise than a thousand prayers. That doesn’t mean it is more important — just that it sells more newspapers. The heads of all the major television networks understand this basic fact, and they make sure that news broadcasts are full of noise. 

That’s why the weather report does not stop with simply announcing that today’s winter temperature fell to 0 degrees. How boring is that?! No, the forecaster goes on to say that the “chill factor” is 40 degrees below! That’s news!

Here, then, is the question du jour: Could the same be true of our lack of enthusiasm for the Christmas story? Let’s face it: Good news can be boring. God is love. Mary is his favored one. Joseph is a righteous man. Jesus is such a sweet little baby. We’ve heard the story so often, and we’ve seen the pageant so many times. It just doesn’t get the adrenaline flowing any more. 

But hold on: There’s a surprise to be found in today’s Scripture, the “Magnificat” from the first chapter of Luke. This passage is an explosion of free verse by Mary — a young woman who could have thought she was getting some bad news when the angel arrived.  I asked the children’s Sunday School last week, what angels look like because anytime they appear, they immediately say, “Do not be afraid.” Gabriel’s announcement to Mary was a mixed bag of good news and bad news.  When she heard Elizabeth’s proclamation, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  When she realized how truly awesome Gabriel’s message was, she began to make some soulful noise, and that’s where the Magnificat comes in.  She does her part to make sure it sells — she does it by itemizing the noisy good news about her Good News God.

Luke 1:46-55

46 And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’
Is this really “noisy” good news? Yes, it is. We should shout and sing because Mary makes a racket for all of us. There is nothing meek and mild about the song that Mary sings. Check out these headlines:

GOD TAPS NAZARETH NOBODY. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” rejoices  Mary, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (1:46-48). It is truly surprising and newsworthy that God chose a poor Galilean girl to become the mother of Jesus the Christ and the most significant woman in all of Holy Scripture.

“Mother of God,” “Heavenly nurse,” “Help of the helpless,” and “Dispensatrix of all grace” are just some of her names. She became an unbreakable link between Jewish and Christian history.  Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan sees her as the inspiration for the great abbesses of medieval times — the most powerful women in an age of powerful men — and today as the driving force behind people engaged in struggles for social justice around the world.

Not bad for a nobody from Nazareth. Her selection by God should give hope to any of us who are feeling trapped in our everyday existence.  Feeling like we’re not making much of a difference to anybody.  The great truth of Mary’s story is that God uses the small to lead the big, the weak to teach the strong, and the ordinary to carry out the extraordinary. All we need to do is to remember that it is availability and not ability that is key, and to say, along with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1:38).

But there’s more: LORD BUMPS WALL STREET, LIFTS LITTLE GUY. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,” says the Magnificat, “and lifted up the lowly” (1:52). From tech giants to the world’s biggest oil companies, those who run the economy agree on one thing — bigger is better. But what’s wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with it is that God is working to bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly. God is concerned more about the common good than about corporate greed. “Can anybody seriously suggest that bigger, more powerful, and more profitable corporations will help to protect the interests of workers, consumers, the environment, local communities, and the forgotten poor?” asks Jim Wallis in Sojourners magazine. “Is it right that the casino economy of Wall Street profits when the real economy of workers and their families suffers? Is it fair that the people who do the firing get a raise, while the people fired can only fear for the future of their families?” Christians who follow the Good News God of the “Magnificat” are called to look for the common good for all people.

And here’s some more noisy news: 2000-YEAR-OLD PROMISE KEPT. “He has helped his servant Israel,” Mary notes, “in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (1:54-55).

God kept his promises to Israel, from the time of Abraham to the time of Mary, and he keeps his promises today. The greatest sign of his promise-keeping was the birth of his son Jesus Christ: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,” said God through the prophet Isaiah, “and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (11:1-2). He’ll grow up to judge the poor with righteousness and kill the wicked with the breath of his lips. His kingdom will be a peaceful one, marked by righteousness and faithfulness and the knowledge of the Lord.

This is news — news of surprising selections, unexpected elevations and the preservation of ancient promises. It’s noisy news, awesome news, but better yet … it’s Good News. It’s the Good news that God has come to earth in Jesus Christ, to call us to himself and to point us toward his just and everlasting kingdom.

The sermons I’ve been doing for Advent have had a definite apocalyptic or eschatological lean, “Keep Awake,” “Repent for the One is coming”, and this one will is no different.  “Joy WILL come in the morning.”  Many places Mary is depicted as meek and mild-mannered, Saint-like with a golden halo around her head, pondering things in her heart.  To answer Margaret’s song that she sang beautifully, I think Mary DID know.  She knew just like her foremothers knew, Esther, for such a time as this, Ruth, your people will be my people, your God, my God, and now Mary, the peasant girl who utters this powerful prophecy, the first of Luke’s New Testament.  It is powerful.  A total reversal of the world order.  But do we live that?

I was “over hearing” a conversation on facebook between some FSU Wesley students last week.  One was preaching a sermon on Advent that night and asked, “Talk with me about Advent. Is this season purely about remembering the birth of Christ, or is there more to it?  (I have my thoughts, I want to hear yours)”  I had so much fun reading their comments.  Here’s some of them.  “mary’s song and a lot of the old testament passages that prophesy about the coming of Jesus talk about how he will essentially turn society upside down. the lion will lie with the lamb, he’s brought down the powerful from their throne and lifted up the lowly, etc. These texts demonstrate that Jesus is not just coming to save souls but to radically transform how our society functions, for the better of the poor and the oppressed. for me, advent is a time to remember that God came to save everything (individuals, political systems, economies, etc) and to challenge ourselves to put that belief into action.”
“I think Advent represents a thrill of hope for all weary people. The birth of Jesus didn’t necessarily omit weariness from the world, but it gave us the tools to build a table at which we can all share a meal and rest.”

“dude. Honestly if us millennial, Christians could just build enough tables we would convert the world.”

“i’ve been thinking about not ignoring the weary people around me, and how advent makes me want to be human with other humans (“we’re all passengers on the way to the grave” sort of feeling).  Advent makes me want to take my headphones out and sit next to someone at a bus stop (advise, I don’t even ride a bus) and have a small conversation that recognizes our sameness, because we’re all waiting for things to be fully healed, and we’re all headed the same direction.”

“To me, it’s a deeper reflection on the hope that only Christ can give us; that this groaning here on Earth will eventually lead to peace and rest for anyone that puts their hope and trust in Him. And yes, to celebrate and remind us of the magical and yet simple way that he entered our world as a little baby.”

“I just thought of a late night sermon that Jimmy gave when he turned off all the lights in the worship center and preached with a headlamp on. Advent is sitting in the darkness, without being too quick to jump to the light. Like we’ve got a spoiler alert that the light will come, but sometimes we need to acknowledge the realness of the dark.”

Spoiler alert.  The light breaks in through the darkness and great joy comes in the morning.  Hear me now.  The light breaks through in the darkness and JOY comes in the morning.

What are some of our dark places? What are some dark corners of our hearts and of our worlds?

I’ve asked Mike to play the song, “A Baby Will Come.”  It was written by Bill Wolf after he read Mary’s Song in Luke. “As I was researching the social climate of that time and place, I realized just how dire the lives of the Israelites would’ve been. Between the brutal conquests of the Roman Empire under Caesar Augustus and the obscene taxation of Herod, King of Judea…they found themselves enslaved once again, but this time it was in their very own backyard.  The Promised Land no longer felt like the Promised Land.  And into that climate, a young adolescent Jewish girl was visited by an angel of God and told that she would give birth to a baby boy and His name would be “Salvation”; his very name would “Liberation” for her and her people.  In a moment of joy and restraint, Mary sat down and wrote her Magnificat; a poem that is on one hand personal and introspective, but on the other hand, charged with social and political revolutionary language.”

We need to keep awake, be prepared, and trust that joy comes in the morning.  That GOOD will triumph over evil even when all seems lost.

The kings of this world
Have torn it apart
But we can take heart
A baby will come

To the hungry and meek
To those who grieve
To the broken, in need
A baby will come

We have known pain
We’ve felt death’s sting
God, help us believe
This baby will come

The angel appeared
Said do not fear
For peace is here
A baby has come

The advent of life
Let hope arise
We’ve our King and our Christ
The Baby has come

We’ve waited so long
God, for Your mighty arm
May our doubts ever calm
For the Baby has come

The proud will be low
The humble will know
They’re valued and loved
For the Baby has come

Cause the kings of this world
Won’t have the last word
That, God, is Yours
For the Baby has come

Discipleship Takes Obedience

Last week, I invited you to “own” your discipleship. To go out in the deeper water and actually follow Jesus. This week we arrive at the very next step, which is the daily decision to keep following Jesus. This is the place where most of us stall out as disciples — somewhere between that first “yes” to Jesus, and the next dozen or hundred “yesses.” After all, at some point down the road Jesus will say, or do, or ask something that makes us slow down in our tracks. Or, we will have something else along the roadside grab our attention. Have you ever seen the movie UP with that dog being so distracted by that squirrel?  I was having dinner with two of my cousins this past week and we were people watching.  Our grandmother used to love to people watch at the State Fair, so it’s in our genes.  Ha!  We observed a couple who were sitting in front of the sunset on their phones.  It was not just a quick glance, it was a whole 5-7 minutes.  Maybe they were texting each other.  They may be texting one another.  I don’t want to judge.  But these smart phones are easy to get distracted by.  Sometimes we will just long to head back to Galilee and that ship full of fish. That would definitely be easier. It’s the struggle to keep following, to keep in step with the Lord. And the word that sums that it all up is obedience. Being in the making as a disciple takes obedience.

It’s hard to wrap our heads around obedience to God, because in human relationships healthy obedience is so rare. How can we obey someone else if even the best make mistakes? And, at worst, human “obedience” can be totally corrupt, based in fear, coercion, control or manipulation. Think about child soldiers in Africa or abusive households. Think about the big ways in history that the people of faith have gone wrong: the Pharisees, the crusades, the inquisition, legalistic fundamentalism, the Jonestown massacre. Because of our fallen human condition, “obedience” can go horribly wrong. If we focus on the “rules” TOO MUCH, we miss the freedom Christ wants to give us. If we focus on getting everything “right,” we miss the beauty of grace. Not a cheap grace, as I said last week, but a costly grace. The grace that comes from a Savior that suffers alongside of us, Emmanuel, and was obedient unto death for you and me.

Philippians 2:5-8 says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Some of you may be thinking of course he was obedient. He was and is Jesus. The perfect one. Need I remind you of his 40 days in the wilderness, of temptation after temptation, or him praying in the Garden of Gethsemane “Take this cup from me.” It’s not easy to be obedient. Not even for Jesus, who was at the same time God and man.

If we own our discipleship and we’re growing more and more like Christ, it’s still going to be hard at times to be obedient, to walk in the way that leads to life. We have a hard time with obedience, because most of our culture rejects it. We want to take the easy way out, get out of things, or be ambivalent. My peers, the millennials and younger, look at all that broken human history and we mistrust human institutions and traditions, especially the Church. We say, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Question everything. Preserve your freedom!” And, culturally, we’ve concluded that there is ultimately only one person who is trustworthy to obey — ourselves. Let that sink in a little bit. Some say the only person you can truly depend on is your self. But the problem with that is my “self” is just as human as everyone else. I operate under the same fallen human condition. If I think obeying only myself is going to solve anything: *newsflash* how has that gone for me so far? I find, sometimes, that myself is an idiot. “I” am just as corrupt and self-centered and off-base as any institution. The Christian faith tells us that our only hope is to be guided by something that exists outside of this broken, fallen system. Something, or rather Someone, who loves us, who understands all the perfection and glory that God meant for us before the fall. Where are we going to find Someone like that? As a matter of fact, he came to find us, and his name is Jesus. It’s totally counter-intuitive, but what it means is that the only way for any of us to be truly free, or to be our truest selves, is to give ourselves over to him. We’ve got to lose our lives to save them. Jesus calls us to live counter-culturally. Obey God alone. Follow Jesus’ instructions. Go where the Spirit leads you. Trust.
I think we get a great glimpse of it in Matthew 10:5-15 today. It’s a great picture, literally, of what comes next right after the disciples have first said “Yes” to begin following Jesus. And it says a lot for proper obedience.
Matthew 10:5-15
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.
All of a sudden for basically the first time in Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples are going to leave the training wheels behind and ride the bikes. Jesus takes them aside for special instructions, and they’re being sent out. Can you put yourselves in the disciples’ shoes? It’s been a sweet deal. They’ve been little tag-alongs, watching Jesus do the fireworks, and being in awe like everybody else. Not only that, but they’re probably starting to be noticed, right? Like, fame by association since they’re his inner circle, like the tv show Entourage. If Jesus is the lead singer of this boy-band that everybody swoons over, sooner or later someone will start to notice the rest of us, his disciples. There’s the bad boy – Judas; the one with the good hair – Philip; the cute one – Bartholomew; the other cute one – Simon the Zealot, and so on. No risk, no effort, no tough decisions, all reward. Until Jesus says, now I’m sending you out, and by the way, I’m not coming with you. And, by the way, you’re still going to be responsible for carrying on my mission in just as powerful a way as you’ve seen me do it. As Scooby Doo would say, *Ruh roh*.
I, personally, may be a little freaked out with this change. Jesus is giving specific instruction about how to go about this mission, but he says he wants us to do these things AND not take practically ANYTHING with us!?!?!?! I admit, I’m a bit of a control freak. You may not fully realize this about me, but I like things a certain way. Some may call it OCD, some may call it organized, whatever. I’ve had to learn the hard lesson of not being so self-reliant and independent that it begins to becomes an idol or a mantra. “I can do it myself.” Just like a kid learning to do something for the first time shouting, “By Myself!!” Thomas Merton writes, “All the good that you do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used for God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.” We need to let go of the need to prove ourselves. We are enough. We are called to be Disciples of the Most High King. We all need not our own ways, but God’s provision for each of us. That God will pick us up and dust us off when we fall from the bike with no training wheels. We may scratch and scrape our knees, but our God works things for good for those who love God, and what is seen is only temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. We have to trust that if we risk ourselves and are obedient, he will give us the power and authority to move mountains.
One of the biggest ways we turn away from obedience is we doubt ourselves. We doubt our abilities. We aren’t comfortable with God’s call. And we, ultimately, secretly say to ourselves: he’ll just get someone else to cover this. Surely it can’t depend on me? There are 12 other disciples, there are millions of other Christians, there are so many better Christians than me. I’d rather just be the one “with the good hair.” But Jesus challenges that here. Jesus wants them to not only hear the Good News but take it to the world. Jesus not only wants them to see miracles, but perform them. Jesus wants them to seek out the lost, the last and the low, not the easy crowds that have gathered to hear a celebrity preacher or a magician. Jesus wants them to seek out the Zacchaeus in the group, the bent over woman, the Samaritan. Karl Barth writes, “The human righteousness required by God and established in obedience — the righteousness which according to Amos 5:24 should pour down as a mighty stream — has necessarily the character of a vindication of right in favor of the threatened innocent, the oppressed poor, widows, orphans, and aliens. For this reason, in the relations and events in the life of his people, God always takes his stand unconditionally and passionately on this side and on this side alone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who already enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied and deprived of it.”
What crowd do you think Jesus would hang out with today? Republicans? Democrats? Independents? Green Party? Everything in between? Police officers? Protesters? National Guard? First Responders? Anarchists? Red? Yellow? Black? White? Brown Hair? Purple Hair? Don’t Care. God gives his prevenient grace to all people. God woos us to God’s self before we’re even aware of it. We are ALL created in the image of God. Who would Jesus want to reach? All of us sinners and saints. You. Me. The person on the other side of the political divide, cultural divide, any kind of divide.
I’ll close with these words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Humanly speaking, it is possible to understand the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. But Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience — not interpreting or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his words. He does not mean for us to discuss it as an ideal. He really means for us to get on with it.”
Matthew 5:3-11,
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Chosen to love the world.

1 John 3:16-24

16We know love by this that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 23And this is his commandment that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

We are Chosen to love the world.

Leviticus 19:18 says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s what God said to Moses and the people of Israel.

As far as formulas go, it’s great.  The golden rule.  I was telling Enoch yesterday, treat people like you like to be treated.

There’s nothing secret about this formula. Even Jesus endorsed it when in Matthew 22 he made it a part of his great commandment. “Love the Lord your God,” said Jesus, and “love your neighbor as yourself.”

But surprisingly, in the first of his New Testament letters, the apostle John offers a new recipe: “this is [God’s] commandment that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (v. 23).

Believe in Jesus. Love one another.

Not the same old formula.

In recent years, companies have learned how dangerous it is to change the ingredients of a successful brand. A little over 30 years ago, in April, 1985, Coca-Cola changed its formula and introduced a product called “New Coke.” The response was overwhelmingly negative, and within three months the original formula was back on the market.

Just how bad was it? The company hotline received 1,500 calls a day, almost four times what they usually logged. Psychiatrists listened in on calls and heard people talking as though they were grieving the death of a family member.

Southerners saw the change through the lens of the Civil War, describing it as yet another surrender to the Yankees. Even Fidel Castro despised New Coke, reportedly calling it “a sign of American capitalist decadence.”

Bottom line: Be careful when you change a successful formula.

So what is the apostle John up to? For starters, he wants to put a human face on the commandment to love one another — the face of Jesus Christ. Verse 16 says, “We know love by this,” he says to his brothers and sisters in Christ, “that he laid down his life for us.” John knows that the problem with the love commandment is that it can easily become sacrinny sweet like sweet and low, with people enjoying the pleasant taste of warm, fuzzy emotions and charitable thoughts. So he changes the formula to include the bitter sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

• Most of us find it easier to formulate our arguments in our head without real dialogue, real conversation, so much so that we demonize the other “side” than to love them.  1 John 4:7-10 says, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”  Mother Teresa who becomes a Saint today says much about love. “When you know how much God is in love with you then you can only live your life radiating that love.”  “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

• Most of us find it so much simpler to define our Christianity in terms of attending church, rather than doing the complicated and challenging work of feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.  As Billy Sunday said, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.”

  • Most of us find it easier to point out the splinter in another’s eye, while we live with the plank in our own. For example, if you don’t want to gossip or cut down or talk trash or judge harshly or go on a road that’s a dark and twisty path to the dark side, BE THE CHANGE. Be the change, not just wish for it, BE the change – even the slightest movement, if you are resting in God’s love, puts more love in the universe.

    Such a change of ingredients can actually change our behavior. “We ought to lay down our lives for one another,” insists John, following the example of Jesus (v. 16). Under this new formula, sacrificial living becomes a central part of the Christian life, one that simply cannot be denied. John asks his followers, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (v. 17).

    Love is seen in action, not in words.  The greatest poet ever known can wax eloquent about love, but it is all flowery speech and frills, if it is not backed up.

    John summarizes his new formula with the words “Believe in the name of [God’s] Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (v. 23). He links belief in Jesus with love for one another, knowing that the clearest example of love is the sacrificial life and death of Christ. The result of this new formula is a close connection to God, one in which “all who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them” (v. 24). John says that we’ll know that God lives in us “by the Spirit that he has given us” (v. 24).

    The new link between belief and love can and will create a new kind of life for us.

    Throughout the gospel of John, we hear the promise of life. In fact, the gospel was written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life” (John 20:31). The gospel begins with the Word of God taking the human form of Jesus, and we’re promised that “what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3-4).

    Belief. Life. Light. Put these ingredients together, and you can see that a new formula is beginning to emerge.  John goes on to tell us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

    So now love is in the mix. As well a kind of life that extends beyond the grave — eternal life.

    Describing himself, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

    – Life in Jesus.

    – Eternal life.

    – The light of life.

    – Abundant life.

    – The way, the truth and the life.

    – Life, life, life.

    Christ Life — not the same old formula. It’s a new one based on believing in Jesus and loving one another.

Clarence Jordan captured the concreteness of this everyday love and compassionate assistance when he translated in his Cotton Patch Version of 1 John 3:18 back in 1973: “My little ones, let’s not talk about love. Let’s not sing about love. Let’s put love into action and make it real.”

Our world is in desperate need of a church that puts love into action and makes it real. Like customers looking for a good, cheap haircut or a calculator for their big test, there are people all around us who are searching desperately for a community that actually practices what it preaches. Over 100 years ago, the Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard made the point that Jesus was looking for followers, not admirers — he wanted people who would walk with him, do his work, and serve in his name.

One of Kierkegaard’s own parables told of a man who was walking down a city street when he saw a big sign in a window that said, “Pants pressed here.” Delighted to see the sign, he went home and gathered up all of his wrinkled laundry. He carried it into the shop and put it on the counter.

“What are you doing?” the shopkeeper demanded.

“I brought my clothes here to be pressed,” said the man, “just like your sign said.”

“Oh, you’ve got it all wrong,” the owner said. “We don’t actually do that here. We’re in the business of making signs.” We don’t do these things, he was saying. We’re in the business of talking about them.

And that, said Søren Kierkegaard, is often the problem in the church. We advertise ourselves as a place that is showing Christ’s love and doing Christ’s work. But when people show up looking for real love and real Christian action, they don’t see it. “Oh, no, we don’t love people here. We just talk about loving people here.”

When Christ is our life, we live and move and breathe in the Spirit and we do what Jesus wants us to do.  This means helping a brother or sister in need, and loving one another in truth and in action. It means focusing on activities that really show the love of God to people who might be feeling quite unloved and unlovable. That also means BOLDNESS.  We boldly approach the throne of grace with confidence.  Not just giving people fake, plastered on smiles, but telling them about Christ.  Showing with our lives the greatest show and tell in the world.  We need signs that God is LIVING in us!  I love the tv show Friday Night Lights, maybe because I went to High School in two big football towns – Cheraw and Rock Hill.  The team’s motto, “Clear Eyes.  Full Hearts.  Can’t Lose.” Clear Eyes on the cross, focused on Jesus’ sacrifice for each of us.  Full hearts of the love of God for the world.  The unconditional, agape love of God in ACTION in and through us.  Can’t lose.  We are more than conquerors through him who first loved us and nothing in all of creation will make us lose that, not even the monster in the Upside Down, nothing.

For those who dare to sip this new flavor, abundant life awaits. Believing in Jesus and loving one another draws us closer to God and one another, and allows us actually to abide in God. To abide is to live or to dwell in something — to accept, observe and follow a particular path. So when we believe in Jesus and love one another, we abide in God and God abides in us. “And by this we know that he abides in us,” says John, “by the Spirit that he has given us” (v. 24).

So give it a try. As missionary, Jim Elliot says, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” You have nothing to lose, but a new life – transformed – to gain.

Chosen to Share Salt and Light

Matthew 5:13-16 (NRSV)

Salt and Light

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

If you ever go to a Mexican restaurant with Evy be ready because she’s going to put salt on all over the chips.  She learned that bad habit from me.  I love salty foods and I’m one of those people who puts salt on everything without tasting it, much to my embarrassment on my first dinner with Mike’s granny and grandad.  It was how I grew up.  My mom never salted food enough and I learned it from my dad.  She said she learned that from Sa Sa, my dad’s mom, who she quoted, “You can always add more, but you can never take it away.”  Wise words.  My brother lived with us one semester while we were living in Atlanta.  He was a civil engineering major at Clemson and he did an internship with Brasfield and Gory and he decided to fix us sloppy joe’s one night for dinner.  I don’t know what he put in it, but it was a sodium fiesta.  None of us could eat it, and we tried.  He had a bite and had to drink a whole glass of water afterwards.  Thus, proving Mom’s point.  Salt is a powerful substance.

Salt was very important in the first-century.  Salt was not only used as currency, but actual wars were fought over it because it had so many uses.  Salt could be used to cure and store meats, to disinfect wounds and make food and pottery.  It was useful in a thousand different ways.  It’s like us, God uses us in many different forms and ways to bring salt to the world to bring in the kingdom of God.   In Florida they had “Salty Service” hours in the bulletin and you would tear that part out if you had volunteered at a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, or sorted at a food bank that week.  It was a way to track their church’s service in the community, their saltiness.

If y’all walked through the fellowship hall this morning, you will notice some of the ways that we are seeking to salt our community, our nation, and our world.  We have the opportunity to share our saltiness with the whole world through one can of food, one bag of candy, one hug, one prophetic word.  Like I was preaching about last week, we have the ability to tell people about God’s world through living lives of authenticity: the good, the bad, and the ugly, the way we admit our faults, the way we cling to Christ, love our enemies, feed the needy, strive to keep our promises and so much more.  We, who have been chosen, to share the Good News, to share the salt of Christ, have an often surprising, at least to ourselves, usefulness in this broken world when we are led by the Spirit to live life out loud, in who God created us to be, and resting in the grace, hope, love of our Savior.  They will know we are Christians by our love.

Bob Goff writes, “Being engaged is a way of doing life, a way of living and loving. It’s about going to extremes and expressing the bright hope that life offers us, a hope that makes us brave and expels darkness with light. That’s what I want my life to be all about – full of abandon, whimsy, and in love.”

I have always been a star gazer.  I remember dragging our mattresses to the big field at Camp Pee Dee as a camper and later on a college retreat to look at the stars.  I remember laying down in beds of pickup trucks in high school looking at the stars. But the stars at my grandparents in Greeleyville were the brightest I had ever seen.  In my younger years, I thought it was only there that I actually had a chance to look up and savor and enjoy and take a pause from the busy-ness of life, but when I learned that it was merely a lack of ambient light because Greeleyville was in the middle of nowhere, it didn’t make it any less special.  In Tromso, Norway, there is a period of darkness called morketida. From mid-November to mid-January, the sun does not rise above the horizon. In fact, from August until mid-November, residents can count on losing 10 to 15 minutes of light each day until the depths of the winter solstice. At best, those high above the Arctic Circle may look forward to only two or three hours of indirect or half-light around midday for nearly two months.

Yet while the stars that light the sky during this morketida period may shine for long periods, they are not enough to dispel the gloom that pervades the streets and can easily poison the soul. During our own periods of morketida, we don’t really need more stars – we need more common lights or lamps to light our everyday paths on this earth.

I’ve always loved the story about Robert Louis Stevenson growing up in Scotland. In those days, streetlamps didn’t come on automatically; people were hired to light each one individually. One evening, as the lamplighters did their work, climbing their ladders, lifting the glass lid, lighting the torch, shutting the lid, climbing down, and moving on to the next lamp, young Stevenson was enthralled. As dusk settled into night, one light would be kindled, then another, and another. He said, “Look at that man! He’s punching holes in the darkness!”

Look at the man!  He’s punching holes in the darkness!”

As a child, didn’t you love to sing “This little light of mine … I’m going to let it shine ….”? and all of the verses?  I love it when on Christmas Eve we light the candles.  As a child, I liked that even I got a candle, and I always noticed that the more candles that were lit the more the room grew brighter and brighter.  Jesus gives us all the power and authority we need to shine our light in the world.  The Holy Spirit fans the flame and if one of our community’s light goes out, just like on Christmas Eve, you come alongside them, and light it with your light, the light of Christ in you.  Jesus wants us to think corporately about the illuminating power he generates in each of us. The “city built on a hill” is not noticed because one lone light flickers in a window. It is the combined wattage of an array of lights, each burning in its own place, but for a common purpose, that sets the city ablaze in the midst of a dark and dreary night.

Pope Francis writes, “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey.”

God sends us sustenance for our journey as we need it.  Scriptures, devotions, songs, books, movies, poems, any way that pierces the layers of life that we hold so dear.

Remember who you are.  I was in the 8th grade when I saw it and it was the first time I remember God speaking to me through a movie.  God speaks to me often in movies, but it was the first time that the Great God of the Universe revealed Godself in this way to me.  Remember who you are.  Remember who I have created you to be.

Andrew Kramer shared this poem he wrote with me.  It’s called “I Am Man.”  Cold is the day /and dark is the night / when brown bears hibernate / and birds find respite from flight / also man with heart and soul / begin life’s long journey to / find himself whole / he searches the earth / for riches and fame / only to discover the unfair / rules of life’s game / he has met with obstacles on land and sea / but with steadfast perseverance / he culminates in me / I am man.  God wants us to be who God created us to be – healthy, fulfilled and whole and then God takes it a step farther calling us to live our lives as salt and light. Illuminating my and the world’s darkness.  Re-salinating  my and the world’s saltiness.  If it’s the past your worried about, don’t.

God doesn’t want you living in the past.  Sometimes you may be like Simba in the first clip, you have to make your way through the jungle, either of your own making or what the world has thrown at you or both.  You are fearfully and wonderfully made and bought for price.  The Savior of the world lives inside of you spurring you on to right action.  It’s not about your own effort.  None of us naturally salty and naturally effervescent, it’s all through Jesus.  It’s all about abiding in the true vine that gives us the ability to bear the fruit of the kingdom.

You punch another hole in the darkness every time you show up with joy instead of gloom on your face, with good things to say instead of griping, every time you stop for someone who’s struggling, when you consciously put someone else ahead of you, when you insist on taking the high road when it’s tempting to cut corners, every time you weep with someone who’s weeping, rejoice with someone who’s rejoicing, and reach out to someone who’s been acting pretty unloveable.

Don’t worry if you don’t do it “right” 24:7. Bob Goff writes, “Failure is just part of the process, and it’s not just okay; it’s better than okay. God doesn’t want failure to shut us down. God didn’t make it a three-strikes-and-you’re-out sort of thing. It’s more about how God helps us dust ourselves off so we can swing for the fences again. And all of this without keeping a meticulous record of our screw-ups.” Claim these verses from 1 Peter 2:9-10,

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

10 Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.

Aren’t those powerful words?  When we bear witness to those mighty acts in Jesus Christ even the gates of Hell will not prevail.  We are chosen to punch holes in the darkness.  As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through Him who loves us.”

16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

We live in a pretty dark world.  Some of us have never seen a darker time.  But it’s not a world without salt and light, unless Christians fail to stand up by living like Jesus, treating people like Jesus, handling situations and temptations like Jesus, being like Jesus.  Who did God put in your life for you to show them Jesus?  What ways can you be salt in the world?  In what ways is God calling you to remember who you are, who you are created to be, and what is God calling you to do?  You don’t have to have all the answers now.  Just merely begin asking yourselves the questions.  Begin plotting the ways you will be salt and light in the world.  In your professional life.  In your personal life.  You can light one of the candles over there.  They are for before the service, after the service, during communion, or any time you want to pray intentionally.  We all learn in different ways and we all need different sparks, ways to interact with God.  I know sometimes you are too worn to be salty and your light seems to be on the verge of snuffing out, but God will give you the strength, Jesus will give you the sustenance, and the Holy Spirit will give you the boldness and courage.  Amen.