Category: Weekly Sermon

Recognizing the Voice of Authority Mark 1:21-28

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Message Delivered on February 1, 2015Growing up is always hard to do but even more so when a child challenges their parents by asking, “Why?” The child wants an answer that can be understood in language at their age level and more often than not, the response I received from my father was, “Because I said so.” Even when very young, I felt put off and wanted an answer that explained why my request was turned down. I felt unimportant and ignored; maybe like a second class citizen.

When the Hebrews went to the synagogue to learn and pray, the rabbis taught the scriptures and interpreted them from their individual perspectives. Varying oral traditions were woven into the explanations, which meant that the answers to questions were not always consistent. Different Pharisees could use their authority to interject their opinions about interpretations which might contradict the teaching of the local rabbis. The people were caught between the rabbis’ teaching and the legal experts, the Pharisees.

Even before stories circulated on the internet, I heard the plight of a much loved and greatly respected professor, who was called away to Washington D.C. to act as a consultant with governmental matters. He knew he would be gone two weeks and he did not want his students thinking that he was abandoning them, nor that they would not receive the necessary information for the next scheduled test. He came back from D.C. a day early and stopped by the classroom to observe the students listening to his recorded lecture. What he found was a classroom with tape recorders running on each desk–taking notes for each respective student recording from the professor’s recorded message. Sometimes when we think we have everything under control, events turn out much differently from what we have planned.

This morning we are looking at Mark’s gospel on an occasion when Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Capernaum is the home of Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John, whom Jesus called as his first disciples. All of them would have gone to the synagogue on the hill, just up the road from Peter’s house. We are told that the listeners present that day were astounded at his teaching, which was different from the teaching of the local scribes, most of whom belonged to the sect of Pharisees who relied on the teachings of the Torah, and the accumulated oral traditions down through the ages. There were so many different interpretations that the people were not always certain as to the “correct” interpretation. Jesus’ words were new and refreshing, spoken with authority. He did not quote other authorities from their perspectives. He spoke with authority and no ambiguity. It was like he believed that he had been “assigned” to speak on behalf of God.

In the midst of the synagogue service, a man with a demon, an evil power or authority, came in and asked Jesus, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God.” WOW! What an endorsement for Jesus as God–God with power and authority. Jesus’ teaching showed that the scribes were shallow and stale in their teaching while Jesus’ was deep and original, and he had authority in his real power to contact the forces of evil. Jesus was orderly, rational and believable in his teaching. The people had never seen or heard anything like this in their previous experiences in the synagogue.

There was a letter to “Dear Abby” printed in the newspaper:

Dear Abby: Last week my sister-in-law had a garage sale, and right out front was displayed the gift my husband and I had given her last Christmas. It had never been used and was sold for less than half of what we paid for it. My husband said that it was hers to do whatever she pleased with, and that I was stupid and over sensitive to give it a second thought. What do you think? Signed, Hurt.

Abby’s reply: “Dear Hurt: Your husband is right when he says the gift was hers to do with whatever she pleased.”

A true gift leaves the giver exposed. The giver is out of control. His or her defenses are down. Each day we make plans and occasionally something backfires on us.

During World War 2 the Manhattan Project was started to produce an atomic bomb. The work went on secretly in places like Chicago; Los Alamos, New Mexico; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Finally, near the end of the war, the A bomb was just about ready to be deployed. The scientists learned that Germany, weeks away from defeat, was not going to make the bomb. They questioned whether they should rush to complete their project but maybe it would not be needed to defeat the Japanese. Einstein was asked to write to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on behalf of the scientists to bring him up to date on the progress. The president never read the letter. It was found in his office after he died on April 12, 1945. The letter was passed to Harry Truman, FDR’s successor in office. A decision was made to drop the bomb first on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and then three days later, on Nagasaki. Einstein was at a cottage on Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks when he heard the news. His comment: “Oh, my God.”

One month later the scientists involved in creating the bomb signed a statement urging that a council of nations be created to control atomic weaponry. Scientists wanted something to be done to control this incredible destructive power that had been unleashed by their hands. The bomb had consequences that they had not foreseen. When the scientists began working on the project, they envisioned the potential good that could come out of their experiments, but by the close of the war they were horrified at the destruction that could come to all humankind. Advances in science and technology can be used with good and bad intentions. Even our brightest and best minds cannot keep everything under control, so we cannot expect those of us who are more ordinary people to think that we can have complete control over our lives. We have problems we cannot solve, heavy burdens, and addictions that enslave us. We have diseases we cannot heal and in the end, death that we cannot escape.

Mark spoke of evil power in Jesus’ earthly reign but he reminded us that there is also good news. There is One who is stronger than the evil we confront. Some one more powerful has come to the world and stands by our side to help us battle against evil. Will Willimon, Chaplain at Duke University, wrote an article in the Christian Century magazine in which

he used The King’s Speech” movie as a basis for speaking about the authority of preaching the gospel. King George VI, plagued with a stuttering speech impediment, worked with a speech therapist for years to be able to speak in public. Willimon contends that it is extremely difficult to teach seminarians how to preach and used King George VI as an example. The king was terrified at the prospect of being put in front of a microphone to say something important to a crowd of listeners, to dare to intrude into other people’s souls with words, to tell them the truth that they have been avoiding–is not a vocation for the faint of heart!

Recognizing the voice of authority is the key to overcoming potential chaos, “the out of control” aspect of so much of our lives. There is only one who speaks with an authoritative voice straight from God–that is Jesus, who astounded the congregation at Capernaum and who continues to astound today as he subdues the unruly powers that seek to torment us. Praise God for Jesus’ power and authority over our lives! Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Why Has Jesus Called Us to be His Disciples? Mark 1:14-20

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After Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and the time he spent in the desert, Jesus returned to Galilee to begin his traveling ministry. Mark’s gospel recalls the selection of four common fishermen to be his disciples. Think of these every day commoners and ask yourselves, “Why did Jesus choose these ordinary men for his important work?”

Have you ever thought about the smartest people in the world and how they might make the world a better place? Ken Jennings won 74 consecutive matches on Jeopardy taking home more than $2.5 million. Garry Kasparov, 22years old, a Russian chess player, was the youngest undisputed chess player, later beaten at chess by an IBM computer. The World Genius Directory, developed by Dr. Jason Betts claims the smartest person in the world is Dr. Evangilos Katsioulis, a Greek psychologist with an IQ of 198, twice that of the average person. Access to some of these “brainiacs” might have major perks when trying to solve some of our church’s financial issues.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is in the recruitment mode, actively drafting members of his team. They are people that he knows will be given the task of igniting a spiritual movement that will eventually spread around the globe and endure for thousands of years. If you were Jesus, what criteria would you use to pick the members of this elite team? Would you hit up the World Genius Directory to find the biggest brain in Palestine and ask him/her to be in charge of logistics? Don’t forget to find someone

with an outstanding sense of humor to cheer the team on when the going gets tough. How about a strong-arm to defend the band when they meet with relentless opposition?

Oddly from our perspective, who does Jesus choose but the unqualified. Your Sunday school lessons taught you that Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John were respected fishermen in their day–but they were young men in a world where life expectancy was low and James and John, old enough to be established in a trade and to have a business of their own, were still working with their father, Zebedee, in the boat with them. The ideal career for most young Hebrews was not to be taking over the family business, but to be under the tutelage of a local rabbi. On the ancient site of Peter’s house, you can see the synagogue up the hill–the gathering place for Jews to learn and pray. The brightest boys who had shined in Hebrew school and stood out in their memorization of the Torah, would spend the next few years tagging along as disciples of the rabbi–if they made the cut! To be a man embedded in the family trade, most likely you were not the cream of the crop in Hebrew school and did not have what it takes to run with the rabbis. Those kids were the leftovers, the ones who did not get picked to play touch football or kickball or soccer.

If you have not seen “Spare Parts,” you might want to consider it. Al Heinz, longtime member and Elder here was a former principal at Carl Hayden High School. He taught shop and created the program to teach students necessary skills to work in the construction field. He built our Education Building with the help of church volunteers. “Spare Parts,” depicts kids who are considered discards, or cast offs–many illegal citizens and from poor families, determined not to have much potential in the future. A substitute teacher was hired to head up a Robotics Club that worked with four young men in whom nobody recognized their potential. Amazingly, with creativity and determination they built an underwater robot out of parts from the local hardware store and beat out the prestigious MIT team to win first place–and put Carl Hayden High School on the map.

God created each of us in his image and determined us to be perfect, equipped to do the work that he has set before us. Jesus did not pick the brightest kids from other rabbis and build a dream team. He went on a mission to draft the leftovers. Why? Jesus chose simple and unaccomplished disciples to follow him so that the love of God and the work of the kingdom would be undeniably evident in an unbelieving world. The simple, unschooled tradesmen would become living, breathing object lessons on the depths of God’s grace and the scope of God’s power. No one would be able to say that they were privileged to walk with Jesus because of their resume’s. No one could say that the growth of the kingdom would be credited to their IQ. It was all God’s doing. If you look ahead to Acts 4 and consider the post-resurrection activities of the disciples, the former fishermen are boldly championing the expansion of God’s kingdom. The Jewish authorities are blown away by the messengers and the contents of their messages. Luke wrote, “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, they perceived that they were uneducated, common men (Acts 4:13), and they were astonished.” The gospel being delivered through such unexpected messengers, elicited an even greater awe of God and even clearer evidence of Jesus’ power.

The big question for this morning is why do you think God chose you? Ultimately, it is because God loves you. Did God call you to Christ through his Word and draw you to the waters of baptism, marking you as his own and placing every promise of the cross upon your life because God saw something awesome in you? NO. God called you for the same reason he called the first twelve:

you are an example of the depths of God’s grace and the scope of God’s power;

you have a rebellious heart;

you have secret struggles;

you have a lack of faith and a long list of faults;

you know you are unworthy to tie God’s shoes, let alone be called a child of God;

God chose you so that the world might look at you and see that God is indescribably merciful and incredibly powerful.

What did the first twelve do when Jesus called them? They dropped everything and followed. So, tomorrow when my annoying neighbor’s tree continues to drop pool filter clogging pods, leaves and flowers into my pool, I should see it as a gift of grace and a chance for God’s power to shine through my weakness. When Jesus calls us to follow him into illness or to endure a burden, it is a gift of grace and an opportunity for God’s power to shine in our moments of weakness. It simply is not easy! Every day there is an opportunity to be a disciple for the world to watch in astonishment as ordinary, unscholarly, undeserving people live as examples of God’s mercy and proof of God’s power.

God did not have to choose us but God has chosen us, to use us. The end result is not just a blessing for us and those God calls us to serve. The end result is glory for God’s name.

A colleague of mine has a phone message that ends, “God doesn’t call the qualified, God qualifies the called.” Go out and be a blessing to others to the glory of God.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Jesus of the Gaps

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Luke 2:22-40

In between Christmas and New Year’s is a period into which we cram celebrations that generally incorporate years of family traditions.  Some years we simply add new traditions to satisfy our current whims.  When I look back on the season of Advent, it is only four weeks long, I realize that they represent hundreds of years of tradition in preparation for the arrival of the Promised Messiah.  After all the preparations come to fruition, Christmas is over in 24 hours and then the liturgical calendar points us to Jesus’ dedication in the temple as a young child. According to Matthew’s gospel Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to Egypt right after the birth to escape Herod’s wrath.  Luke’s account tells us that on the eighth day after Jesus’ birth, the family went to the temple in Jerusalem to fulfill Jewish Law and to dedicate Jesus to the Lord.  So, I wonder, how long was the family in Egypt and how old was Jesus when they went there for asylum?  When did they come back or did they go to Egypt after Jesus was dedicated in the temple?  Simeon, a righteous man, who had spent his entire lifetime anticipating the restoration of Israel, saw Jesus and believed that he represented God’s fulfillment of a promise—in the flesh.  Jesus was salvation come to the earth for all people.  Simeon said to Jesus’ mother, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition.”

Looking at an innocent baby, how can we perceive opposition and imagine all the hardships sprinkled between blessings that might come to them in their earthly lifetime?  Simeon told Mary that “a sword would pierce her innermost being.” That could be misconstrued to be a curse upon an innocent child.  To add to the emotional words of Simeon, the 84year old widow, Anna, a prophetess and representative of the tribe of Asher, approached Mary and Joseph and began to praise God, speaking about Jesus to everyone in the temple—looking forward to the redemption of Israel.  After meeting all the traditional obligations, Mary, Joseph and Jesus went to Nazareth where Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, having God’s favor upon him all the time.  At what point did Joseph and Mary take Jesus to Nazareth to raise him as the carpenter’s son?

Just after today’s reading, Jesus returns to the temple at twelve years old to challenge the authorities there.  We do not know anything more about him until he is baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, after which he goes into the desert to be tempted by Satan, and then begins a three year ministry of love, hope, healing and forgiveness.  Some of us would like to know more about what Jesus did during those “silent years” of his life.  That is probably not going to happen.  Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I cannot understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”  We can extrapolate that to say, “Is is not the missing parts of Jesus’ story that bother me, it is the parts that are not missing.

Maybe the missing parts are intentional on God’s part.  Maybe it is because the New Testament narratives were purposefully constructed to present only such information regarding Jesus as was relevant to the unfolding plan of redemption. What is reported is that two pious Israelites, steeped in Holy Scriptures, recognized Jesus to be the presence of the Lord’s Messiah.  When Simeon takes Jesus into his arms, he realizes that he is literally holding God’s “salvation”.  Anna recognizes that she is looking at the “redemption” of Jerusalem.

We are not current day Israelites, but heirs by faith.  Like the ancient Israelites, we need to be saved from the things that separate us from God and others.  If we cannot literally hold salvation in our arms, we can hold it in our hearts.  If we are not looking for the redemption of Jerusalem per se, we are looking for the redemption of the parts of our lives that are not working.  Jesus, the Bible tells us, is salvation and redemption for us.

The gaps in Jesus’ story leave room for our imaginations to work.  The imagination, according to theologian Ignatius Loyola, can be a channel through which we interact with the living Christ.  We can enter into the vision of God to see things from God’s perspective as God looks upon our turbulent world and to imagine God’s concern for us.  Then—picture God, intervening by sending Jesus to us!

As we read the gospel accounts, we can picture Jesus speaking to folks of all stations in life:  walking long distances on dusty roads, hungry and thirsty just like the people he served.  We need to imagine the way he walks, his gestures, the look in his eyes and the expression on his face.  We read the words he spoke and can hear them in our minds.  All of our imaginings help fill in the scriptural gaps. Like the popular Christian recording, “I Can Only Imagine,” a completed world filled with peace and joy.

Jesus interacted with others and made life-changing decisions as he ministered to their needs.  By reading these accounts, we can project ourselves into Jesus’ midst and have him spiritually fill our senses; to have the desire to walk in his footsteps.  The person of Christ penetrates into place that the intellect does not touch.  Jesus comes into our heads and engages our feelings, motivating us to action.

Whenever we ask ourselves, What Would Jesus Do? We might be applying our imagination to Jesus for purposes of deciding a course of action, rather than for experiencing him per se, but to reach a decision, we need to picture Jesus in our own setting.  We are still looking for Jesus in the gaps.

As we begin a new calendar year, what will the year ahead hold in store for us? We have the saying that we need to walk a mile in someone’s shoes before we can draw some conclusions about their lifestyle and values.  What would happen in the future if Jesus came to earth to walk in our shoes?  We stand here at the end of a year, ready to start the next calendar.  What will the year ahead be like? We cannot know in advance, but we can imagine already how Jesus will be with us in our ongoing story—even in its gaps.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Message Delivered on Christmas Eve, 2014

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Isaiah 9:2-7

Years ago the wife of a poor merchant died, leaving him with five children ages 6-15.  The older ones cooked, cleaned and helped younger siblings.  When the merchant came home at night, he brought a bag of food for the next day.  After he set the bag on the table, he hugged each child.  Before they ate, the father read to them from the Bible and the family prayed.  Many nights before bed the kids begged their father to sing with them.  He played his guitar and sang quiet folk tunes.

The first Christmas after his wife died, Dad said, “There is not enough money to buy presents, so draw names and make a present for a brother or sister.  My gift to you will be a fine Christmas meal and a special song that I am writing.  We will learn it and sing it at church on Christmas Eve.”  The dad wrote a joyful song and began to teach it to his children.  They sang with gusto and volume.

A rich man who hated Christmas and lived above the family, was annoyed by the singing night after night.  He developed a plan to stop the singing.  Several days before Christmas, he knocked on the door and said, “I have come to make you an offer.  I will give you 100 gold coins if you promise not to sing for three months.” The father looked at the kids and said, “That is more than I can make in two years.  We will be able to buy presents for the entire family.”  The kids cheered as their father accepted the bag of money.

That night they each silently planned on how to spend the money.  Over the next few evenings they ate, sat quietly and thought.  On the fourth night a child said, “I would rather have music than any stupid present.”  One by one, each child agreed.  The father walked into the bedroom and retrieved the sack of money and took it upstairs to return it to its owner.  He told the man, “We have discovered that there is something more important than money.  I am sorry our singing annoys you but it fills us with joy.  Our family cannot imagine Christmas or life itself without music.  When we sing, we celebrate the best news that has ever been given to poor people, that God so loved the world that he became one of us, living as a human being.

The merchant went back downstairs to his children and said, “We will learn to sing with greater feeling and less volume so as not to irritate our neighbor.  What do you say?”  The oldest child spoke up, “Let the music begin.”  The poor family did not have excessive material good but they were rich in hope.  Music brought them joy.  Tonight our Advent journey has reached its goal:  we celebrate the incarnation of Jesus, God becoming human in Jesus Christ.  It is a day of joy, bringing hope that something greater and more permanent is possible.  Jesus, the light of the world, has come to dispel darkness in our personal lies and that of our world.

The hope was proclaimed by Isaiah, sent by God to people of God in the southern kingdom of Judah because God was displeased with them.  The Hebrew rulers had chosen the world over God—they opted for darkness instead of light.  Isaiah told them that days of oppression and war were over.  Great light had come to dispel sin and darkness.  Rejoice!  The prophecy also said that a person rich in authority, who would bring peace, was coming: called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  A new kingdom would be established where justice and righteousness would prevail.

Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy.  His light brings the light of faith and hope and peace.  Temporary satisfaction cannot sustain people.  God’s unconditional love and gift of the Savior, Jesus Christ, cause us to rejoice, to overcome spiritual darkness.  God heard the cries of his people (he still does) and transforms us into the image of Christ.  What gift can we give to the newborn king in gratitude: ourselves.  We need to work at being the people God wants us to be.

The gift we bring to God does not have a monetary value.  It may cost a lot in spiritual sense as Jesus wants our hearts.  We are called to welcome the light and hope Jesus’ birth brings and to bear hope and joy to others in our world.  Let us take up the challenge, dispel the darkness and welcome the light.  May the Christmas mystery of the incarnation change us forever.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

God Comes to Us

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I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 28

Have you ever experienced a life threatening crisis in your life and wondered if God would get to you in time to rescue you?  When I was seven, I was sitting on my grandpa’s dock as my brother waved a shovel back and forth in the water, attracting a curious cotton mouthed moccasin.  I knew it was a poisonous viper and told my brother to remove his shovel and stay still while I yelled for Grandpa.  As we waited for help, the snake’s mate climbed up the dock piling next to where I was standing.  I remember praying and seeing Grandpa running toward us with his gun.  Grandpa told us to close our eyes and stay still.  We heard two gun shots.  My World War I and World War II veteran sniper, marksman grandfather had shot the heads off  both snakes as they poised to strike. Grandpa proclaimed, “Thank God, you are both okay.

In our culture in which many have chosen to set aside God from their everyday activities, many are asking, “Will help come to save people in desperate need?” Isaiah says that we have a God who comes to us, who aids us and helps us in our desperation.  Six hundred years after Isaiah, John the Baptist stood on the banks of the Jordan River quoting Isaiah and said, “We have a God who comes to us, and I am the ‘voice in the wilderness’ to prepare the way of the Lord’s coming.” In prophetic tradition John says:

  1. We have a God who comes to us in creation, “Do you not know, have you not heard , were you not told long ago, have you not perceived ever since the world began that God sits eternal…He stretches out the skies like a curtain…Lift up your eyes to the heavens; consider who created it all, led out their host one by one and called them all by their names.Through his great might, his might and power, not one is missing” Isaiah 40:21, 22, 26.  By the word of God’s power, all is brought into being and sustained.  By faithfulness of the created world, by its order and pattern, seasons and cycles, seed-time and harvest, by the miracle of conception and birth, God is coming to us, sustaining and helping us.
  2. Isaiah saw the coming of God in the international political events of his time.The Babylonian Empire had conquered Judah and carried her inhabitants into exile.  After Babylon’s king, Nebuchadnezzar died, Cyrus defeated the Medes and Lydians and pressed on to overwhelm Babylon.  As Cyrus rose to power, he became the one to set the captives free and allowed them to return to their established homeland, encouraging them to set up their own government, to reestablish their economy, to rebuild their temple and to revitalize their religion. God came to them in a world leader not of their nation or religion.  If God has come to us in history, will God come to us in our materialistically stuffed but spiritually starved culture?  Will God say to a despairing world, “I have not forsaken you, I will raise up new Cyruses, I will renew the power of my living Christ in the world, and I will not leave you alone?  Is God working among us in peace negotiations, in new treaties, in disarmament talks, in new and better trade agreements?  In this Advent season, could God be saying to us in Isaiah’s words:  You who bring Zion good news, up with you to the mountaintop; lift up your voice and shout, you who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift it up fearlessly; cry to the cities of Judah.  “Your God is here.”  God will tend the flocks like a shepherd and gather them together with his arm, carry them and lead them to water (Isaiah 40:9-11).  We have a God who comes to us in the movements and events of history, who takes us in our weaknesses and sweeps us along in overwhelming streams of love and spirit outside our power and control.  God makes God’s purpose known defeating despair.  God enters into and breaks up stuffy religion, weak commitment and anemic devotion.  God executes judgment on institutions that are more concerned with their own preservation than with the people they are supposed to serve.  Look for a God whose Spirit is brooding over the depths of human wretchedness, whose seeing eye points out the rape and waste of the earth, whose penetrating word cuts into corporations and professions, exposing deceit, uncovering deception, executing judgment and whose heart cries out for victims of injustice like young children who are being beheaded by evil men.  God has eyes to see what is happening in our time.  He who has ears to hear, let him hear.  We have a God who comes to us.
  3. We have a God who is a deliverer and leader.In Jesus, we see God coming to us in humility.  We anticipate majesty and discover a servant.  We look for royalty and find someone close to peasantry.  We hope for grandeur and experience grace.  We desire the power for vengeance and are forgiven.  We long for a world leader who would lead us to world domination, and we find a world leader who leads us to world service.  Expecting his leadership in a war to end all wars, we hear the call to beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks–farming implements to be used productively to sustain life.  Craving a conqueror to crush the opposition, we find a mighty counselor, and an advocate for peace.  We are boldly called to love our enemies.  Wishing a victor to vanquish the foe, we discover a victim who suffers in behalf of the foe. Anticipating violence, we find powerful love.  Expecting brutal force on God’s behalf, we are wrapped in the arms of forgiveness, acceptance, and inclusion.

We have a God who comes to u in Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.  In Jesus, all our theories, philosophies and wonderings about God are grounded and given concrete reality.  In Jesus, the word became flesh and dwelt among us.  With Jesus, God is not an ethereal dream or esoteric vapor, but a God who came to earth to put his body where his convictions are.  Jesus put his life on the line in obedience to God and service to humankind.  The very life and light of God shines through Jesus, illuminating and revitalizing all who are willing to come near him. In this time of Advent we celebrate and announce that we have a God who comes to us through Jesus.  Is God coming to you?  Will you recognize God in yoru presence?

Advent can be like a divine checkup with the Great Physician, who wants to keep us in continuing good health.  Advent proposes repentance, a change of loyalties and habits, a new openness to God’s presence in our midst.  God comes to us when we open ourselves to receive his care.  Our God encourages us to rejoice, to give thanks in every situation because God is our Advocate–right there to guide and protect us.  We wait for Christ to come again to intervene on our behalf.

Philips Brooks, author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” wrote:  “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given!  So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.  No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in.”  God, come to us in Jesus this Advent season.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Standing There

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Mark 13:24-37

Remember back to the days of your youth when dates for Friday and/or Saturday nights were really important?  On those occasions when you were feeling unusually bold and adventuresome, you might have even agreed to go on a blind date.  You gave your phone number and waited for the call.  When you received the call from mister or miss “right”, you set a date, time and place for the “big date”.  As you waited, you hoped that your date would arrive on time at the designated place.  Were you ever left waiting…just standing there?  Stood up?  It is an awful feeling of abandonment.

I can imagine followers of Jesus waiting patiently for him to return as he promised.  They knew that the Son of Man would come back and that all had better keep alert and be prepared for his arrival.  Scripture tells us that there will be signs to announce Jesus’ coming:  neither the sun or moon will offer light, all normal conditions will be suspended, angels will be sent out to gather the “elect” or chosen ones and they will be gathered from every corner of the universe. Jesus said that we cannot know exactly when the Son of Man will burst on the scene, but that we can watch for the telltale signs of his approach.  I do not know how many of you have ever had a fig tree in your yard, but a friend of Nancy’s used to have one outside her back door.  In the spring it would begin to bud and send forth new shoots.  As summer approached, the figs began to appear–like clockwork, every year.  The closest I had ever come to a fig tree was to eat Fig Newtons! I was delighted to discover how tasty figs really are when I tried some. All the gardener has to do is to remove the dried up branches and leaves, cultivate the plant, water and maybe fertilize it. It only takes a little attentiveness and common sense.  We are all capable of standing prepared, waiting for God to appear.  No one is privy to the Father’s timetable.  Jesus’ key advice to us remains constant—“Watch!”  Expect the unexpected while you wait.

How much time do we get, exactly? Will we know when our time of watching and waiting has just about expired, or will it sneak up on us, surprising us from behind, like a “thief in the night?”  When we hear people talking about the “end of the world,” what do they mean?  Did you wish that your absent date would meet his/her waterloo for not showing up?

Jesus questions the assumptions that people can know anything about the timing of the world’s finish.  He stated that he did not even know.  No one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not the Son, only the Father.  While Jesus doubted those who answer questions about end times saying, “Here!” he seems to confirm those who say, “Near!” declaring flatly that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

It has been many generations since Jesus’ time.  Anyone who has waited for a missing date or at the train station for two thousand years for a train that has not arrived, may be reasonably certain that it is not coming, at least not in the way we imagined it.  The Bible describes a world very different from our own world today, a world in which God is in command, despite all appearances to the contrary.  It is a world in which the completion of God’s creation will become apparent in God’s own time.  The kingdom Jesus came to proclaim is near in spite of the powerlessness, the disillusionment we may feel with our governing authorities, with processes like filling the United States Cabinet, or with the ascendance of world powers at odds with our own. In spite of all the anxieties we experience close to home, when a pelting rainstorm with hail or a blizzard down the road cancels our travel plans, when we stand by as our newly licensed child drives into the distance on their own behind the wheel for the first time, when the lab report arrives and confirms that we have cancer, God is still Lord of the universe, still God of his own creation, and still near to his people.

Jesus reminds us that just when things seem lost and out of our control, that is when we know that God is truly near to us.  The Kingdom of God is near–close at hand.  This is not a threat, but a promise; not an added cause for anxiety, but as an assurance that the outcome of all we do is ultimately NOT up to us.

The Greeks had two words for time: chronos (from which we derive chronology), the counting up of one day, one year after another, holding a myriad of possibilities.  The end of chronos  is of little concern to the biblical writers who cared not so much how the world began or will wind up as why.  We must look for the meaning of time in its kairos, in its decisiveness and our response to opportunities to decide.  Paul said, “at the right time Jesus died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:16).  He did not mean at that particular hour on that particular day in a particular year.  He meant that God’s mysterious plan for who we are and what we may be had moved to the decisive point when “Word made flesh” also made sense.

Because of Jesus’ ministry, we are spiritual people, out of time, living over and above and beyond clock-bound time, and as such, we are near the Kingdom of God, eternal time.  Near but not yet here because we live in two worlds at once. We are not fully in the kingdom of heaven as yet.  We have a way to go but we know it is real, as real as the world we live in every day of our lives.  We know about deadlines, schedules and time frames.  We know that we are at home beyond time, in kingdom time, in the eternity for which Christ fits us.  Are we standing there waiting for a date with our redeemer or are we working to bring the Kingdom of God close to reality?  We are still standing there waiting for God to appear.  Advent is the time of waiting for Christ to come again..in our hearts or in the flesh.  We wait.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Guest Speaker

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November 23, 2014 Velda King from Eve’s Place came to speak about the

work being done by that organization.  Each year the Presbyterian Women (PW) of First Presbyterian Church of Peoria invite a speaker to come and address a need in the community.  The church supports Eve’s Place as one of its missions and we were pleased to have Velda come and explain to us how our money, clothing items and various household items are given to help victims of abuse get a new start in life.  The programs of Eve’s Place assist victims of abuse (both women and men) reshape their lives and break the cycle of abuse.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Ready or Not?

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Matthew 25:1-13

Remember as a little kid that you used to play hide and seek, generally just before dark?  You depended on the fact that you would be partially covered by shadows and hoped that you would get home “free,” and nobody would catch you!  I read a little piece this week: “Absolute knowledge I have none, but my aunt’s washer woman’s sister’s son heard a policeman on his beat say to a laborer on the street that he had a letter just last week written in finest classical Greek, from a Chinese coolie in Timbuktu who said the Negroes in Cuba knew of a man in a Texas town who got it straight from a circus clown, that a man in the Klondike heard the news from a gang of South American Jews, about somebody in Borneo who heard a man claim to know of a well-digger named Jake, whose mother-in-law will undertake to prove that her seventh husband’s sister’s niece had stated in a printed piece that she had a son who has a friend who knows when the world is going to end.”  Whew!  What a sentence.  Really, now, will the game end favorably and will the world as we know it come to an end anytime soon?  What if Jesus were to return today?  Would any of us be ready?

Today’s text in Matthew 25 is a parable that Jesus told about a group of women who ran out of oil for their lamps.  What can that possibly mean to us today?  The parable speaks of wedding preparations.  Any of you who have planned a wedding or attended one recently know that there are a lot of preparations that need to be tended to before the wedding takes place.

There were no streetlights in Jesus’ time and ten ladies were chosen to be light bearers, to hold their lamps to light the way/path to the wedding and party to follow.  It was an honor to be asked to perform such a task.  Bridesmaids today do not have to worry about such menial details.

Jonah was asked to take his lamp and put it in a dark place called Ninevah. Amos, a shepherd, was asked to leave his quiet rural life and to get involved in the tumultuous affairs of prophecy and politics.  Mary, a young teen was asked to give birth to a son.  Saul, a Jewish rabbi and tentmaker, was asked to take the gospel to Europe.  God is still involving people in his work.  God asks us to take our lights and to put them in dark places.  The preschool class loves to sing “This Little Light of Mine” when they come to chapel.

God does not usually ask us to do important work alone.  In the text, ten women were asked to provide light.  God’s work today is still a community project.  We are called together to be light to the world.  All ten ladies agreed to serve and they even showed up for their task.  All were dressed alike and all had oil for their lamps.  The bridegroom was late and all succumbed to sleep after the busyness of their preparations.  Five used their preparation time to get extra oil–just in case…five did not.  Noah did not wait for rain to start building the ark.  David did not fight Goliath as his first foe, but had practiced for years on animals that threatened his flock.  We each are given resources and time to prepare for our tasks.

In the church God provides us with Bibles and Bible study, fellowship, and prayers. God prepares us for future tasks as he teaches us patience, obedience, faith and steadfastness.

Does our busyness with life exhaust us so much that we do not get much out of our worship experiences?  We need to consider that if we come to church fifty times per year and learn one new fact about God each Sunday, we will learn fifty facts of God in one year and in ten years, it will be five hundred.  If you attend Sunday school or Bible study, that number can triple and ad up over the years. Isaiah said, the word of God is “Precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:10).  It is the grace of God to us who will be called upon to place lights in dark places.  We have resources from God–even oil enough and extra for our lamps.  It is time to prepare!

Travelling to the Holy Land, I learned that when someone tells you that a wedding will take place on Friday at 8pm, that means sometime between Friday at 8pm and Saturday or Sunday, or even Monday night.  Friday at 8 means “In the next few days…”

The parable reminds us that those who are prepared have extra oil and they are rewarded by going into the wedding feast to celebrate.  Those who are unprepared have the door slammed in their faces.  What if the five prepared ladies had shared their oil and all had run out before the bridegroom came? There are some things you cannot share.  You cannot share character or courage or inner peace with someone in a crisis.  There is no crash course in prayer that can make up for years of missed application.  Just as Noah did not wait for the rain to fall before building the ark, we cannot wait for a crisis to build our faith and friendships and prayer life.  When the moment of reckoning, the final judgment comes and the bridegroom, Jesus, shows up, either you are ready or not.  The day will  come but will we all be ready?  Will we have enough oil in our lamps and be invited to the great feast with Jesus at the head of the table?

Amen.

 

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Building a Wall Against Waters

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Joshua 3:7-17

People have been standing at the edge of waters for thousands of years, just wondering what to do when they have tough decisions to make.  Three years ago a massive tsunami crashed into northeast Japan, causing enormous damage and destruction.  The Japanese government is building the biggest anti-tsunami barrier in history.  Some have begun to call it the Great Wall of Japan, which will eventually span 230 miles at a cost of $8 billion .  Some fear the seventeen foot wall will ruin seaports and tourism.  People are standing at the water’s edge, wondering what to do.

Years ago the people of Israel stood on the banks of the Jordan River, and like their ancestors on the edge of the Red Sea, they wondered how they might get across.  Moses was dead, so he could not lift his hand with his staff to part the waters.  God was with them and had promised their new leader, Joshua, that he would begin to exalt Joshua as the new leader and be with him, just as he had been with Moses.

Joshua, assured of God’s presence, instructed the Israelites to build a relationship, to “Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God” (v.9).

1. Begin by listening, says Joshua.  Stand still and hear God’s words.  Fall into formation behind God, not march ahead of God.  This was demonstrated when the people set out from their tents following the priests, who bore the ark of the covenant, the symbol of the presence and power of the living God, moving ahead of the people.

We are challenged today to listen to God’s word and to follow where the living God leads us.  God wants to guide us on the path that is best for us, giving us words to maximize our health and happiness.  When Moses said to “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” that meant that working seven days is not good for ourselves, our families, or our relationship with God.

The prophet Isaiah said to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow” (1:17).  We are to care for vulnerable people around us; that is at the heart of our faith.  Jesus said to, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  In other words, destruction of rivals and opponents is unacceptable behavior for his disciples.  All of this is meant to help us, not to hurt us.  Keeping the Sabbath gives us time for rest and renewal. Caring for the poor makes our community a better place, and loving our enemies breaks the cycle of violence and revenge.  Draw near and hear the word of the Lord.

  1. Move forward one small step at a time.  Watch and wait for what God will do both for you and through you.  God’s help does not come in the form of 230 feet seawalls, rather in small acts of healing, protection and peace.  Think of the priests carrying the ark.  They just dipped their feet into the edge of the water, watching and waiting for God to act.  God’s response was to “move the waters into a heap and the people crossed over opposite Jericho” (v.6).  We dip our feet into water when we move forward one step at a time.  Martine Luther King said, “You don’t have to see the  whole staircase; just take the first step.”

In what ways are we asked to take the first step?  Maybe you have tension in a relationship with a friend or relative and need to pick up the phone to talk. Maybe a co-worker makes you uncomfortable and you could get to know them better over coffee.  Are their isolated individuals and families in your neighborhood?  God is leading you to pull people together–maybe a block party is in order.  If you take a step toward healing and peace, God will protect you.

  1. Keep your eyes on the future.  You cannot change the past, but you can be instrumental in building a future.  Just as the priests’ feet touched dry ground, the waters of the Jordan returned and overflowed its banks, as before.  God’s wall against the water was not a permanent barrier; instead, it was a temporary seawall that allowed the Israelites to cross one time.  We are challenged to look to the future:

–if we are granted a physical healing, we give thanks and move forward, not expecting to face the illness again.

–if we receive the gift of forgiveness, we give thanks and move forward.  We do not beat ourselves up for our imperfections or allow ourselves to be consumed by regrets.

–if we receive a new job or a new opportunity, we give thanks and move forward.  We should not obsess over mistakes from the past or hold ourselves to an impossibly high standard.

God’s gifts are life-saving but transient.  They are like the flow of the Jordan River that stops for a moment and then returns.  Once you are on the other side safely, move forward into the land that God has promised you.  Do not be consumed by worry or regret.  When we face raging rivers, God throws up a wall. More often than not, God does this by reconfiguring the water itself, creating a change in the environment that enables us to escape whatever dangers we encounter.  God takes the circumstances that once seemed to impede our progress and reshapes those events in such a way that we are enabled to proceed–to move forward.  When the Israelites crossed the Jordan, the water was still there, but God had taken what seemed to be a barrier and turned it into a gateway–a door that allowed passing into the future God has designed for us all.

As we remember those who took steps to pave the way for our future, we know that they were led by God.  Our ancestors carved a way in the desert, diverted rivers with God’s help, and made the desert a productive place in which we live. Let us pray for all who have gone before us, led by God, to build a future that is now entrusted to us.  (Ask for names of loved ones who have passed away this year, and pray for those saints.)

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

God’s Party

Matthew 22:1-14

Looking at the most Jewish oriented of the gospels, we see a work traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples.  This text recounts the parable of the marriage feast similar to that in Luke 14:15-24, but Matthew 22:11-14 has no parallel in any of the other gospels.

The king is holding a wedding banquet in honor of his son.  As is the custom, he sends his servants to call those who have been invited to come to the feast that is ready.  But the guests hold the king’s invitation in low regard, which symbolizes Israel’s resistance to the first servants sent by the king, the Old Testament prophets.

The king then sends out “other” servants, representatives of “the way”–the early Christians.  They too, announce the arrival of the Great Banquet: “Behold!  I have made ready my dinner…come into the marriage feast. All is ready.” (salvation language or eschatology speaking of the kingdom of God having come into reality)  The son does not appear in this parable, because the son had been killed previously in the parable of the wicked tenants.  In this parable the son is alive. The story assumes that the son has been raised from the dead.  It is in his death and resurrection that “all is ready.”  This time, the invitees are called neglectful. They did not care about the king’s dinner.  One went to his farm, another went to his business.  Both went back to preserving and expanding their economic interests.

The “other servants” are seized, mistreated, and killed.  The king retaliates by sending soldiers who destroy the murderers and burn the city.  You do not get angry, start a war, and conquer a city all before the pot roast gets cold!

The king zeroed in on an inappropriately dressed guest.  The host must have supplied the wedding garments.  How could you expect people randomly gathered off the streets to have the proper clothes for a formal affair?  You do not leave for work in the morning with a tuxedo packed in your lunchbox on the off-chance that someone might drag you to a formal wedding party later in the day.

The wedding garment represents the death and resurrection of Jesus, the bridegroom.  The Great Banquet has been made possible by Jesus.  Anything other than the wedding garment of Christ’s death and resurrection is irrelevant. How can we relate this story to our lives?  Jesus put it to the chief priests and elders about God’s invitation to Israel to attend the wedding banquet of his Son.  They offered excuses and even executed God’s messengers.  God was trying to extend salvation to all–but some were– and are unwilling to accept–even today.

Let us look at God as the “Inviter.”  God is always inviting us to come to the water, come home, come to the banquet, come to an abundant life, come to eternal life, come to worship, come to God–be in relationship with God.  In the parable God was excited about the banquet–even prepared the fatted calf, aged the wine and elegantly set the tables.  God wants everyone to come to the feast to honor the Son and his bride.

What exactly is God inviting us to?  What is in the invitation?  God’s invitation is an invitation to service (Matthew 28:19), abundant life (John 10:10), worship (Psalm 100), eternal life (John 3:16), to enjoy Jesus’ presence (Revelation 3:20), to experience rest (Matthew 11:28), to pray (Philippians 4:6), and to turn to God in times of need (Jeremiah 33:3).

The “Invitees” are the people asked to the party, but maybe they do not like to dance (How about the “chicken dance” at weddings?).  Martin Marty talked about a priest who went to visit Mexico.  As each man approached the church, he opened the door for his wife or girlfriend and then gathered outside the church with the other men, who had done likewise.  They would smoke until their loved ones emerged.  The priest asked the men why they escorted the women to mass and then waited.  “You are Catholics, right?   Why don’t you go in?”  “We are not fanatics.”  Maybe that was the problem with those invited to the king’s banquet. They did not want to be considered fanatics.  Fanatic or not, the invitation goes to all in the realm.  Some reject the invitation, treating it casually.  Can’t you hear the king saying, “You are kidding, right?  What could be more important than an invitation to this event?”  As those who have been sent out to invite others to the wedding party, we need to understand that not all will welcome us–they do not want to be seen as fanatics.  Those who were invited from the streets may have been judged to be “unworthy.”  We need to remember that it is only by God’s grace and mercy that we are included amongst God’s guest list.

Invitees need to remember that they cannot come to the party dressed in their own clothes.  There is a “dress code.”  When we stand before God we need to be dressed in the garments of righteousness that do not belong to us, but to Jesus Christ himself. Paul reminds us that righteousness comes to us through faith in Christ.  The righteousness of God is based on faith (Philippians 3:9).

Let’s summarize:

  • God invites us in spite of our background.
  • God invites us without respect to our level of education.
  • God invites us without regard to our bank account.
  • God invites us without regard to our race, gender, or any other criteria.
  • God is building a future for us and a present time.
  • God invites us to a banquet, to be present in what God is doing.

We do not want to treat such an opportunity from God casually, indifferently or even with hostility.  We want to RSVP in the most rejoicing terms possible.  We want to say, “Yes, God, I accept your invitation.”

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon