First Presbyterian Church

Celebrating 125 years of worship service.


Crop Walk

Jesus Lightens Our Load – Romans 7:15; Matthew 11:16, 25-30

No Comments

Every year at this time we remember our country’s birthday and the amazing freedoms we have that came with a price, the lives of many who fought for independence. In my family we added my brothers birthday, July 3rd to the celebration and reminded him that he got fireworks for his birthday! Our forefathers compiled the Declaration of Independence, granting us particular privileges and freedoms in our nation.

In this morning’s New Testament reading from Romans, Paul. speaks of a law that is good, granting us parameters to abide by and we have a choice to make: we can choose to follow the law or we can opt not to follow the law. If we disregard the civil laws, we pay the price for our errant ways. God’s law has an amazing, generous proviso that would not stand up in the courts of our land. If we sin against God and God’s directives, then Jesus steps in to rescue us from death to sin. Jesus paid the price for us who place our trust in him. On Judgment Day, when we stand before the Lord God Almighty, we are trusting that the judgment will be stamped “PAID” in full by the blood of Jesus. Our court system, as wonderfully designed as it was, will not allow a proxy to serve out a sentence in place of the individual convicted for wrongdoing.

We live in the best of times that can also be called the worst of times, to borrow a line from “A Tale of Two Cities.” Jesus lived in a time period in which folks were just as confused, wayward and hardened of heart with inappropriate behavior–not quite so different from our era. The people of Israel were like children playing, but could not get the other children to celebrate, even when they played music. Some of the kids played going to a funeral” as others were celebrating nearby. How is it that people can be so fickle? We grouse about how burned out we are while enjoying the highest standard of living in the world, along with all the conveniences that minimize work. Who here is unhappy about conveniences like gas/electric stoves versus wood stoves/campfires, automatic dishwashers and vacuum sweepers (I used to marvel at the carpet beater Grandma kept in the laundry room to spruce up the area rugs over the clothesline–no wall-to-wall carpet either!)? Think about the squawking we do as we sit at our desks to answer e-mail or complain that it never lets us off the job. How often can you turn the radio on in your car and hear RAP music expounding/lamenting about the meaninglessness of life and the degradation of relationships between people?

The people in Jesus’ day had their own perverse ways of living and thinking, and attitudes which permeated their religious life. Today we tend to criticize some people for being too “extreme” in their religion, and then we talk about those who appear too life affirming to be “religious.” We are certainly inconsistent nit-pickers! Jesus continued his remarks by giving thanks that his teachings are hidden from the wise and intelligent. Martin Luther, preaching on this text, once said that people in the church do things the way they want and feel that they just improve on everything God does. Jesus, using his authority, attempted to alert listeners to the sins of their times and we need to be aware of the sin in our lives. John Calvin put it this way, “Jesus tells us that the reasons why most men despise his grace, is, that they are not sensible of their poverty…Let our miseries drive us to seek Christ, let us learn, that there is no venom more deadly than the slothfulness produced in us either by earthly happiness, or by a false and deceitful opinion of our own righteousness and virtues.” In modern day “speak,” Calvin means that only when we know how sinful and twisted we are, will we appreciate grace, God’s forgiving love and our need for it.

In spite of economic hard times and poverty around us, America is still the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. Wealth cannot buy the most important things in life–inner peace and love in marriage and family life. Have you noticed people who seem intoxicated with life, rushing from day to day, and wildly plunging into supposed happiness because they do not want to admit that they are unhappy and burdened? People spend a lot of time seeking happiness and wanting to be entertained. Some can become a burden to themselves and then realize that they need a person who can be fully trusted, a person who understands, hears, and bears all things. Webster calls a “friend” a supporter or sympathizer. A friend helps us to make the burdens we encounter a little lighter.

Jesus is a real friend, the one who makes God known to us, and in a way that demands so little of us, just as true friends make few demands of their friends. A good friend once gave me a plaque that read, ” A friend is someone who likes you just the way you are.” Jesus said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” In my life experiences, I have learned that friendship is an unearned, joyful gift, a relationship in which people are free to share life in memorable ways. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that Jesus is one who thinks and lives for others. In Jesus we have a full time intimate friend who helps make us sane. With all our squawking despite the machines and tools we have to make our lives easier, our moaning when we should be rejoicing sometimes over things that warrant mourning, we need a sane friend to do some thinking for us. I think we need a friend who will exercise authority, take charge and lighten our burdens.

Besides telling us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, Jesus is reminding us that he is “gentle and humble in heart,” that in him we can find rest. Jesus wants to give us rest from our burdens. Friendship with Christ is not a burden. He makes all our burdens feel so light. It is like the hymn we sang earlier:

“What a friend we have in Jesus., All our sins and griefs to bear!…Do your friends despise, forsake you? In his arms he’ll take and shield you; you will find a solace there.”

How does Jesus make our burdens light? Jesus takes away our sin and gives us companionship as we deal with personal problems and the social issues of the day. Jesus makes life more bearable and a little more firm by giving us the Holy Spirit. Having the Holy Spirit in the trials, challenges and duties in life helps lift us up and enables us to face them. Friendship with Christ and the Holy Spirit makes life easier and more fun.

Hanging out with Jesus and the Holy Spirit makes life fun and shatters a lot of stereotypes about Christian living, but then Jesus was a fun guy. At least, that is what the gossips said in verse 19. Critics say he was a glutton and a drunk who hung with a rough crowd. He is offering to hang with folks like you and me, so maybe we should party with him–and get the word out about our friend.

“We should never be discouraged. Take it to the Lord in prayer. Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness” and loves us just the way we are.

We have the freedom to choose our friends, who are gifts from God. Happy Birthday America! Thank you for freedom of religion.


Categories: Weekly Sermon

Youth Program

No Comments

Last week’s message was done by the youth group.  Focus was on songs and the Montlure experience.  They also thanked the congregation for sending them to camp.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Sermon by Lisa Hein – Elder

No Comments

As I was getting ready for this sermon- My idea was to show God’s Faithfulness using the Israelites’ Years in the Desert, after God took them from the ruthless slave drivers in Egypt.

Scriptures say- God watched over their journey through the vast desert and HE was with them and they lacked nothing- And that is note-no praise- worthy since there were 600,000 men, not including women and children that came out of Egypt and traveled in the Desert 40 years .

Let’s see- there was Water flowing out from a Rock on more than one occasion- there was Bread from Heaven- called Manna- and for those of us who have never had Manna show up on the ground outside in the morning-.. the bible says, it was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.. Sweet ! And then for Meat- lovers- in the evening- Quail would come in and Cover the Camp, so much so- I am assuming you could step on one and make it a meal- no work involved there, except to cook it as you pleased. When I found this verse it amazed me… –“Neither the clothes on their back or the sandals on their feet wore out in 40 years”. As parents with growing children, that would be a huge savings/blessing, and that comment itself boggles my mind.

I’d say God showed himself Faithful and took good care of the Israelites.

As I felt lead to completely read Exodus which is where the story of the Israelites in Egypt begins and goes through the writing of the 10 commandments to writings of the Law.

It is interesting to see that the book of Exodus starts with the end of Joseph’s story-, the son of Jacob, the one with the coat of many colors- who was sold by his envious brothers and ended up in Egypt, where he became 2nd in power with the King of Egypt. God had put Joseph in that position, so that he would be able to provide for all of his family, the sons of Israel who numbered 70 in all when a 7 year famine hit the world and God was faithful to provide for all their needs and there they stayed.… THEN many years later, the Israelites were “fruitful and multiplied” greatly, becoming exceedingly numerous so that the land was filled with them.. I guess they outnumbered the Egyptians so much, that it freaked them out, thinking if Israel got it in their heads, they could fight against them and leave the country- which would devastate it. So they dealt shrewdly with them, put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, dealing harshly with them, and made their lives bitter with hard labor ruthlessly… wow- that got pretty ugly and then to top it off, the king decided they needed some serious birth control, so he made a law that said to kill all of the Israelite boy babies- Enter Moses- Mom- who believed in God and put Moses afloat down the River Nile, where the Pharaoh’s Daughter came upon him and adopted him for her own. He must have grown up knowing he was an Israelite, because when he was older, he went for a walk, down to where his people were working- He saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite, and got so upset that he killed the Egyptian. He thought no one had seen him, but when Pharaoh found out- he tried to kill Moses and Moses had to run for his life, so there you have it- Moses’s first experience with a King of Egypt, trying to help the Israelites- and it didn’t turn out so well…

Fast forward some years- Moses is married with children… He leading his sheep- he came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There he saw a bush that was on fire- but it didn’t burn up.. amazed, he went over to the bush and God spoke to him from within that bush…As the story goes- God Calls to Moses- and tells him that He is GOD and what he wants him to do-

The Lord Said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land into a good and spacious land, flowing with milk and honey… ??This is note-worthy- this land flowing with milk and honey was a land promised by God to Moses’ ancestors- Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Again further discussions of God’s Faithfulness

Pretty cool of God- makes the first move- came down to earth, spoke to Moses- telling him he heard Israel’s cries and wants to deliver them out of Egypt and into a great place… pretty well laid out plan, with a happy ending!

Moses conversation with God starts out ok, with- Here I am! But when God says-“So I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites out of Egypt.” Moses showed some reluctance by saying … Who am I, that I should do this thing? ..Wonder if they don’t believe me?,…Wonder if they don’t know who YOU are and what YOUR name is?… You think Moses is having flashbacks to his failed attempt to help Israel and deal with a King of Egypt.. think he is scared? You know when you are scared to do something, just having someone there with you- helps give you courage… and that is what God told him- that God, himself will be with Moses and go with him. Then He encourages Moses more by sharing about Himself as the dependable and faithful God, that Moses can trust-

God even gave him a cool staff-snake “trick” so Moses could do miraculous signs, proving to the people and Pharaoh what he was saying was True and from GOD. Do you think Moses believed God?  When he says – O Lord, I have never been eloquent in speech, I am slow of speech and tongue, Oh please send someone else.,, No, I think he is still scared and not trusting God… but God knows Moses and even though he is angry with him, God still looks out for Moses, and tells him, that his brother, Aaron, who he knows can speak well, is on his way to see him. God said He will help both of them speak and will teach them what to do and say. …So if you consider that God is employing these two to do this “Exodus job”-then you can see, that God is not one of those “employers” that tell you what to do, but give you not help to do it. God had a plan, was working it out and said he would be right there with them, helping and training- What a Patient Faithful God!!!

The chapter continues and is well worth reading, with Israel watching, still being slaves, while Moses and Aaron go to the Pharaoh to say everything the Lord tells them to say- mainly that God Says- TO Let My People Go! But God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and though He did multiply miraculous signs and wonder in Egypt, Pharaoh would not listen or believe that he was God the Lord.

These are the things that the Israelites saw-

The water of the River Nile- it turned to blood- so that all the fish in the river died –and then Moses outstretched his staff and all the ponds, streams, canals, buckets and jars were all turned to blood, all unsuitable to drink. Think of it- Blood everywhere- with no water to drink.

Then here were Frogs came up from the waters and were all over the place, then died and stunk everything up again

Then there were the Gnats, pesky little things all over the people and animals.

Then the swarms of flies- but with that- the Lord said he would show Pharaoh that he makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel- where the flies will be everywhere, EXCEPT in the land of Goshen where his people live, the Israelites. And it that is the way it happened until the last Plague.

Then the plague on Livestock- all of the Egyptian’s livestock died, but none of the Israelites… The plague of the Boils on Man and Beast, The Plague of Hail- God even warned Egypt ahead of time, but only some believed and put their people/possessions inside. .. With Moses stretched out staff toward the sky, the Lord sent thunder, hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground. Throughout Egypt hail struck everything in the fields—both men and animals; it beat down everything growing in the fields and stripped every tree. The Worse Storm Ever Seen by Egyptians and Israelites Alike. The only place it did not hail was the land of Goshen where the Israelites lived.

The plague of locust – ate everything that was left after the hail- Then the plague of darkness- where the Egyptians couldn’t see anyone else or leave his place for three days- Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived… I am not sure that that would have been a plague for me- as I don’t think I would have wanted to see the devastation that was outside my house after all that had happened.. 

Then the last- the Plague on the Firstborn- where all the firstborn sons in Egypt will die from the Pharaoh who sits on the throne to the slave girl- there will be loud wailing –AGAIN THE worse there has ever been or ever will be again.

Right before it hits- God gets the Israelites ready to leave…He tells Moses- I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh/Egypt. After that he will let you go from here and he will drive you out completely. I will make the Egyptians favorable disposed toward you so that when you leave Egypt, you will not go empty handed, and every man and woman are to ask the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and clothing, so as to plunder the Egyptians –now God has made the Egyptians WANT to give them gold and silver and clothes – to get them out of their country- which is the opposite of how this chapter started!! ! This shows the Power of God in matters of Man.

The Plague of the Firstborn hit Egypt- All the people tell the Israelites- GET OUT NOW- So all the Israelites left and God lead them in an incredible way… ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud nor the pillar of fire left its place in front of the people. …Is it bad to say- God provided the first flashlight of sorts?

So there they are having been away from Egypt only a few days- when they see Pharaoh coming with all his chariots and army with him… and of course, they are terrified and cry out to the Lord… They say to Moses- Wa..wa..wa…. It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!! Really?? What a thing to say- after all they saw happen to Egypt to get them out! But Moses answered- do not be afraid, Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today… The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still… I would like to repeat this again for our sakes…

Do Not Be Afraid… Stand Firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you… The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still….. In Psalms it says- Be still and know that I am God… Stand Firm in the Promises of God- and in your believing that he will deliver you and fight for you! He will not leave you nor forsake you! Whatever it is = you are going through… and I know there is a lot of things we all are going through…don’t look at what you see- look at what God says.

So now the story of the parting of the Red Sea- where Moses raised his staff and stretched out his hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites could walk through the sea on DRY Ground…that’s right Dry ground

What I found Awesome is that the pillar of cloud that was traveling in front of them, now moved and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.  And yes those arrogant Egyptians did pursue the Israelites into the Sea, thinking they could catch them. When it was time- the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion, He made the wheels of their chariots come off so that they had difficulty driving.. the Egyptians said- let’s get away from them, the Lord is fighting for them against us- But too late- the Lord told Moses to stretch his hand over the sea so that the waters flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen. Not one of them survived. … and then it says here- finally- when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant…

Really- just now they are putting their trust in the Lord and believing what Moses is saying??

Well I guess that is right- because the next chapter says they got all giddy and started singing … I will Sing to the Lord for his is highly exalted… majestic in power… he hurled horse and its rider into the sea….woo hoo!!

And then this- which boggles my mind- 3 Days later- just 3 days… they are in the desert of Shur and they have not found water- along the way- and when they do it was bitter… so the people GRUMBLED- What are we to drink? Does God want us to Die? And just about a month later- the whole community Grumbled against Moses and Aaron- If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt. There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death… WOW… Couldn’t they have just asked Moses to Ask God for it? God’s answer to them – Manna and Quail…

Makes me think of Matthew 7- where God says- do not worry about what you will eat or what you will drink, what you will wear- as God know you have need of them… I guess it seems we are always worrying those things.. those are ME things- we can see and feel.

This next part I see as so dramatic- Please put your” sitting in a movie theatre hat” on…. This is only the Third Month after the Israelites left Egypt- when they arrived at Mount Sinai- the place where God gives Moses the 10 commandments. Just prior to that- there is some communication between God asking and Moses and the Israelites- saying that they would put their trust in God… God wants Moses to Consecrate them, “clean them up for on the Third Day- they will meet God-… I have to read this straight from the scriptures- On the morning of the Third day- there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses Spoke and the voice of God answered him.. The 10 commandments are right here- and then the bible says … When the people saw the thunder and the lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, Speak to us yourself and we will listen.. but do not have God speak to us or we will die.

Moses said to the people do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning. Then Moses stays on top of the mountain for the rest of the Lord’s law-…

Meanwhile back at the bottom of the mountain- when the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain they gathered around Aaron and said – Come make us gods who will go before us- they had him make a Golden Calf , for crying out loud- how is that a God- that can do anything- and an Animal??? And then they say– … As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt we don’t know what has happened to him…. WHAT??? I read it again- and just didn’t get it- after all they have been through, & seen? I could not understand

You can be sure- God was not Happy- he Called them Stiff-Necked- I looked that up- it said Stubborn, Haughty and I looked up Haughty- the definition says- arrogantly superior and disrespectful.. and it showed a lot of Selfish attributes related to this..

Then I found in Ps 106- “ But they did not believe his Promises.”… and then it hit me…that was the answer… those that don’t believe, don’t care about God, who He is, how He loves them, there is no respect for Him and what he has done- created us- provided for us, every breath we take- is from the Lord… It seems the way the scriptures are laid out- that after they heard the 10 commandments – they didn’t want to believe or do what was right- they thought it wasn’t

self-fulfilling?…they thought- I don’t want to or can’t begin to live up to those laws- so I will figure out another way- MY Way- with Golden Calfs to worship… I don’t get why they still have to worship something- Could that be- that God has made a place in our hearts to worship him, so without Him, we look for something else- maybe they are really worshipping their own self –centered- ness- worshipping a God who really doesn’t have any power- makes them feel safe in what a crummy life they are willing to live.???


Through all of this- I kept seeing in the scriptures, God reaching out to the Israelites- who he calls his own people, who he has chosen, he does all of these miraculous acts to show them that He is GOD, the- I am who I am, who desires the full trust of his people– His people that he created and knows them personally. He takes our imperfections, our refusing to accept Him, to Obey Him, our sin, and keeps reaching for us- Asking us to Believe Him, Trust Him, He set the Law- the Rules of the Commandments so that we would know the right way to live-“be righteous- but that Law is what condemns us .. Just knowing what all the law is- is WORK, so not breaking that law is even more Work- Our Work, our deeds- Us, alone, trying to prove we are good enough…to be called righteous- isn’t something we really have the capacity to do- Just Look at how many times the Israelites rejected God and Sinned!

Romans says- “ Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”

“It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.”

Do you See that FAITH- He Believed- the things that God promised to him- even though he could not See it then- it was a promise for His future and about the faithfulness of God- And he still Believed it! It can be done!

God has provided a Way to be right with Him, through His Son Jesus Christ, who died that we might have life.

“This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”

Will you not Believe with Me today- The Faithfulness of God- The Love of God for Us- If you already believe in Jesus Christ- then continue to Believe God in all of His Promises and CLAIM them for yourselves- don’t look at what you ‘SEE” now, but Look to God- what His Word says, what He Promises and the Future that He holds for all of us.

If you haven’t Believed God and Faith in his Son Jesus Christ yet, then take that step today- it is easy- just say- God- I have sinned and I believe that Jesus Christ takes away the sin of the world- Show me Your Way- and He will bring Life to your Heart and give you an Eternal Life with Him in Heaven- and that is wonderful Happy Ending to Believe in! Forever!

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Always With Us – Matthew 28:16-20

No Comments

Have you ever been hard at work at something, concentrating, deep in thought, focused on a particular project and suddenly you are aware that someone, somewhere is watching you?  It is as though some sort of sixth sense kicks in and you can feel the presence of someone or something  close by.

One morning I was dozing peacefully in those moments before the alarm goes off…and suddenly, I had that feeling…like someone was there.  Close by.  I tried to convince myself that it was the haziness of a leftover dream but I could feel a hot breath on my face.  When I opened my eyes I was greeted by the furry face of our household pet, tail wagging and eyes sparkling with the pleading look of “Let’s get up, I really want to go out and then to eat breakfast!”  After jerking awake and peeling myself from the ceiling, it came to me.  “Just a few more minutes,” I said. Then I had that feeling again.  I had heard the dog leave the room and go down the hall but even with my eyes closed, it was clear that someone, somehow, was there.  Maybe this happens to you?  Today’s gospel reading tells us that Jesus will always be with us.  May father before he died said that he would always be with me.  Sometimes, in a very real way I can sense his presence, like when I am in the garage searching in my tool box for the right tool to get started on a repair project.  I always called Dad from my garage to ask his advice as to how to tackle one of those home repair challenges.  In fact, a few weeks after I had come home from his funeral, I told Nancy that I needed to call Grandpa to ask him to walk me through a home repair–he felt so near to me.  Nancy reminded me, “Good luck with that one, Mom.  You can call, but he probably won’t answer from heaven.”  I wonder if this sense of presence is the way that Jesus intended to be here?

Think about it.  Jesus gave the “Great Commission” to us all.  He said that “all authority” had been given to him.  He instructed his followers to go and create (make) disciples of all people, baptizing them in the name of God (Father), the Word(Son) and the Holy Spirit.  Then he proceeded to instruct his followers, that includes us today, to teach all new disciples to obey the Commandments that Jesus gave us.  I wonder if Jesus knew how difficult a task he was laying on us, because almost like an afterthought he said, “Don’t worry because I will be with you always…even to the end of the age.”

Remember learning to ride a two wheeled bike and the security of the training wheels?  They were great.  Mine were borrowed from a neighbor with the promise that they would be returned in two weeks when my friend was going to get a new bike for her birthday.  I could ride my bike and not have to worry for two weeks. The day came when I came out to ride my bike and Dad had removed the training wheels.  Oh no!  Where was my security now?  Dad offered to hold the bike by the seat and to run along beside me while I rode.  “Good,” I thought.  Of course, by the time I got to the end of the driveway and looked back, he was at the other end of the driveway grinning.  I had been on two wheels without him holding on and I did not realize it.  I am with you always, huh?  I don’t think so.  Dad wasn’t holding the bike, but he was there.  Not only was he there to pick me up if I fell he was really and truly there.  I could “feel” it.  Even though he was a couple of hundred feet away, I could sense his presence, watching me with a sense of satisfaction.  I knew he was there. 

Jesus calls his followers to go and create disciples.  We are not to make, coerce, judge, manipulate or threaten people to follow Jesus.  As partners with God, we are to create disciples in much the same way that God fashioned the world.  God created, shaped and formed the world out of love.  We are to create new disciples with love; to grow them, to nourish and lift them up gently, fully, wholly.  The days of standing in the street and screaming about the end being near or whacking someone over the head (they have been hit by the Word of God) with a Bible as though you have some superior start in life over him/her.  I actually observed these practices on the streets of downtown Detroit as I waited for the city bus to get me on the last leg of my morning bus journey to school.  Nonetheless, the call is real and true.  We are to go out and create disciples.

How do you feel about your responsibility as a Christian to go out and preach the gospel to those who have not heard it?  How do you feel about asking/inviting people to come to church on Sunday, to invite them into your life, your faith community, into the transforming and healing love of God in Jesus Christ? It seems to me that many people are uncomfortable about it.  Sometimes I feel like I could be on display or appear as a “goody two shoes” if I want to divert a person from a potentially harmful activity.  I do not want to push my point of view too far and have people think I am aggressive or offensive.  Why is it that we can go through a whole week without telling someone about the love we have experienced through God’s work in our church?  Why do we go through a whole week without sharing the acceptance we have gained in the love of Jesus?

First, people do not like to be “E”vangelized.  They stoned Stephan, beat Paul and even threw him into prison multiple times.  This offering of God’s love can be risky business.  People are so used to the pain and craziness of the world that they think it is “normal.”  Anyone who suggests it can be different is considered a little bit crazy.  That is why Jesus said, “I’ll be with you, even to the end of the age.”  Does that mean now?  Absolutely!  Wherever we are, Jesus is present.  You might become aware of it in the way I sensed the dog staring at me in my sleep.  You may experience it like an unseen hand guiding you down the driveway.  You may encounter the presence of the living Christ in a totally different and unique way, belonging to you alone, or you may have yet to experience that sense of presence.

I am here to say that as we examine the challenge to share the love we have in God, we need to know that love accompanies us wherever we go.  It is real and we can share it with others humbly and gently by our actions and in our words.  We are called to move forward, offering Christ to others.  I have met people who declare they are atheists and do not need God.  Most of them have not had experiences in life where they have been down and out in crisis.  What they do not believe in is the Church as an institution.  They reject the polity and hierarchical structure.  It is not the church we are called to believe in.  We are called to believe–to trust–in God’s love as it has been brought to us through Jesus Christ–and we learn about this love through the body of Christ–the Church and by worshiping and studying Scripture together.  We need to claim anew the Great Commission, to reject manipulation and coercion, the evangelism of guilt and shame and to cast upon the waters of life new bread, new hope, new offers of gentleness and love–given to us by Jesus.  We need to share the Christ we know in a loving faith community, to embrace ministries of compassion and justice with the Christ who holds us close and walks every step of the way–even to the cross to set us free from our sin.  I challenge you, I double dare you to:  “Go and create disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father/Creator, the Son/Word, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them about the love of God in Jesus Christ.  “Don’t worry, Jesus will be with you every step of the way, forever, even to the end of the age.



Categories: Weekly Sermon

Pentecost – Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

No Comments

Have you ever asked yourself “Where would I look to find the Holy Spirit?  How would I know if I am in the Spirit’s presence?”

In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit is called “ruach” and likened to the power of blowing wind, blowing exactly where it wants, sometimes gently and at other times with gale force winds.  Ask anyone this time of year, the storm season, if they are eager to see a storm blow in from the Gulf Coast or off the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.  When I was seven, I lived in Florida with my grandparents.  The biggest hurricane that had ever come inland raced across the state, moving the lake that could be seen from Grandpa’s back porch 600 yards, right up to the back door.  When the storm was over, an alligator had sought refuge on the back porch step and other creatures could be found in places I did not want to find them.  I was not allowed to go into the garage or laundry room until Grandpa checked them for displaced snakes.

In our search for the Holy Spirit, the life force within each person takes us deep within ourselves and beyond.  The Spirit is a force to be reckoned with.  It is concerned about the way we communicate with each other.  Paul describes the Holy Spirit as a catalyst within us motivating us to use our God’ given gifts.

At the Confirmation service last week, I prayed for God’s Spirit to watch over and to guide Kyle and Kylee all the days of their lives.  Even though we want God to work in us, do we want God’s Spirit to be disruptive, blow through us, stirring and unsettling us?  Is God’s Spirit unsafe at times, but good?  In the way that the Holy Spirit can move us in directions we are not sure we want to experience, maybe the stirring can be a step in creating new possibilities.  Pentecost marks the descent of the Holy Spirit of God.  It is the hurricane like wind that, if we have the courage to plan and act together, it will rearrange us into people who can be more than we are and to do more than we do–not just for ourselves, but for others.  It is the earth shaking the blast that motivates with power to choose love instead of hate and acceptance over judgment.


The past week 54 youth and teens, plus a whole crew of adult volunteers to direct crafts, recreation, snacks, discovery time, music, Bible stories and all kinds of lively activities was evidence that God’s Spirit was on “overdrive.”  Workshop of Wonders was the overall theme in which the kids learned to Imagine, Build, Grow, Work and Walk with God.  We all learned that God is with us to motivate us to be in relationship with God and the people around us in our community; whether it be in our neighborhood or in our faith community where we worship and study about God.  God works with us to help us to stretch and grow in our understanding of God at work in our lives.  It would be a mistake to assume that God’s Spirit is only disruptive, seeking to move us out of complacency.That is the wind part when it blows with hurricane intensity.  But then comes the breath part which lives deep within you and me.  The breath part says to us, “In the midst of all that is swirling around you, be still. Go to the place inside you where you find your core strength and goodness.”  This is the Spirit’s gift when we feel overwhelmed or overcome by what is happening around us, when life conspires to disconnect us from our core truth and keeps us on focus on the things that matter least in life, rather than on what matters most.

The Holy Spirit, Jesus told his disciples, “Lies within you.”  Writer Anne Lamott speaks at commencements and tells new graduates, “Your spiritual identity is something to feel best when you are not doing much–when you are in nature, when you are very quiet, or when you listen to music.  Music is the voice of the heart. When you listen to music, you can feel the Spirit and hear it in the music you love, in the bass line (boom-it-t-boom), in the harmonies, in the silence between the notes.  We can feel the Spirit if we pay attention to our breath–breathing in and out, allowing our minds to calm down so that we can listen from the core–where the Spirit lives and speaks most profoundly.

How can we sort out the Spirit’s voice from our own?  How can the Spirit speak to us to get our attention, to point us toward God”  It is the Spirit’s presence that buoys up my internal anxiety, with the assurance that when we are worried, things will turn out okay.  The Holy Spirit shifts our perception of another person or situation, giving us the capacity to be kind when we are hurt, non-defensive when we are challenged, accepting when we are disappointed and forgiving when we would rather exhibit anger.

Friends are another place where we can encounter the Holy Spirit in relationship to one another, by working and walking with God to take care of the poor and hungry, to lift up the hearts of those who are poor in spirit, are worried or have given up hope.  When we are willing to allow others to deal with their imperfections and to simply offer help, the Holy Spirit will meet us more than halfway.  When we take the time to be kind to one another, to meet the needs of annoying, sometimes neurotic folks, that’s where we see the Holy Spirit most brightly.

Let God’s Spirit blow all around you, gently or fiercely, and pay attention to what the powerful Holy Spirit might be saying: go deep within yourself, breathe deeply and pay attention.  Celebrate the beautiful children in our midst and their families who present them for baptism to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit to pray God will watch over them and protect them from worldly dangers, that goodness will prevail and the Kingdom of God will become a reality.  Pay attention to the ways you might be part of the blessing they are seeking.  The Holy Spirit is around, between and in us, a force to reckon with and God’s greatest gift to those who are open to receive it.  Image, Build, Grow, Work and Walk with God as we work together, to make the world be the place God intends it to be.  Utilize the power of God’s Holy Spirit. “May the force be with you.”  



Categories: Weekly Sermon

The Misplaced Christ – John 20:1-18

Each of the gospel accounts of the first Easter are similar, but there are also some interesting and significant differences in them. John’s gospel, instead of mentioning that several women went to Jesus’ tomb on the first day of the week, individualizes the account and centers it around one woman, Mary Magdalene.

Mary is one we would have expected to come to Jesus’ tomb on an errand of love. She had ample reason to love Jesus, because he had done something for her that had radically transformed her life. We are not sure about the specifics of her condition, but we are told that Jesus cast out seven evil spirits/demons from her and healed her infirmities. In those times evil spirits were associated with physical ailments and moral and spiritual defects. Shame would have most likely been associated with her condition. Jesus had given her wholeness of body and spirit, and restored a sense of dignity and value, which gave her a new purpose for living. It is not a surprise that she chose to go early in the morning to Jesus’ tomb (for privacy).

I cannot imagine how shocked Mary must have been when she did not find Jesus’ body in the tomb! She had witnessed his crucifixion along with Jesus’ mother and other women. Mary lingered outside the empty tomb crying tears of distress and occasionally looking inside the tomb, hoping that she is mistaken. Through tears, Mary sees heavenly messengers who ask her why she is weeping and she tells them that Jesus’ body is missing. She turns around and sees someone she presumes is the gardener and asks if he, perhaps, has carried him to another location. If you remember, Jesus was hastily laid in a borrowed tomb before it got dark–before the Sabbath began at sundown, according to Jewish tradition. Women were not considered credible witnesses, so she went to find Peter and John and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him. ” If he was not in the tomb where he had been carefully placed, then his body, logically, must have been moved to another location.

Mary’s searching was misdirected. She was looking for Jesus in the place where she thought he should be. She expected him to stay where he had been placed but he did not. Do we deal with the same expectation today? We must remember that we are not dealing with a dead body. We may presume that Christ will not move around too much. We want to keep him located where we can easily find him, whether it be in a secluded garden tomb or in the thick of our common life.

Twenty years ago I was invited to preach on Good Friday in a Roman Catholic Church. I was “allowed” to do so because Jesus is proclaimed dead on Good Friday and the mass in which Christ’s body is offered to the people cannot be served as the host. But I KNOW that Christ does not stay put. He has broken the bonds of death and sin and cannot be confined to particular places.

Mary’s search for Jesus was focused on the past. Jesus had redeemed her and she cared enough to tend to his lifeless body. Fortunately, we know the rest of the “story.” The Resurrection tells us that Christ cannot be confined. He is our eternal contemporary. Jesus keeps bursting out of the grave clothes of the dead past to confront us as a living presence. To look for Jesus only in the past, is to be misdirected in our current searching process.

It is said that if you do not expect anything, you will not be disappointed. At times, in part because of our past disappointments, we may allow a spirit of unexpectedness to settle down over our lives, and Christ may be close at hand without our recognizing him. Mary’s preoccupation with her past experiences with Jesus may have contributed to the delay in her recognition of Jesus. She was so preoccupied in her search for a dead body or a misplaced Christ, that she could not recognize the living Christ. There are many things in life with which we may become preoccupied: our problems, our regrets, our guilt, our dreams, ambitions, pleasures, making a living, getting an education, succeeding, surviving, and on and on.

The gospel point of the matchless story of Mary’s search for the misplaced Christ is that in the end, it was not Mary who found Christ, but Christ who found Mary. Mary had been searching for him to no avail; then she discovered that he was seeking her and she was found by him. Jesus’ search for us always precedes our search for him, and when we finally deduce that, we have found him, we discover that we are the ones who have been found. God’s amazing grace: ” I once was lost, but now I am found.”

The good news is that if you are astray from God, you can be certain that God is not far from you. When you think you have lost contact with God, accept the fact that God has not gone off somewhere and left you alone. To Mary, Jesus was the misplaced Christ and sometimes it might feel like that for us, as well. We long for his fellowship, but struggle to find him. If we expect Jesus to stay where we put him while he is busy bursting the bonds we try to wrap around him, then we may be focusing on the past while Jesus wants to be a living presence with us.

We need to go back to John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection and Mary’s joy when she realizes that Jesus is alive in her midst. Jesus can arise in the midst of any death that may surround us. If we have ears to hear, we may hear him call our name. Jesus comes to each of us who are willing to welcome his love, forgiveness, joy and strength. That is the Easter Good News, Jesus LIVES and is available to us all, all the time! Hallelujah!


Categories: Weekly Sermon

Shake, Rattle and Roll – Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45

On this fifth Sunday of Lent, our scripture passages explore the dimensions of death and affirm the ways that God empowers life. The dramatic oracle (vision) in Ezekiel vividly evokes the image of a battle scene, with dead bodies of the defeated lying grotesquely on the ground. All that remains of the bodies are the dry bones, with no possibility of life. In poignant, unforgettable words, the dead bones receive all of the tissue they need, and the breath of life. The oracle assures the dejected, devastated community that God can restore them to vitality.

In 586 B.C. the Israelites had been exiled to Babylon (modern Iraq) before and after the complete destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Many of the exiles’ family members were killed, wounded or missing. They wondered if God had abandoned them forever? Would they cease to exist as a people so far from home? Would they ever be able to go home? How could they survive in a strange land?

The Lord, directly or through a vision, set Ezekiel down in a valley of dry bones. It was as though a vast army had been slaughtered, their armor and clothing stripped, and their bodies left unburied for scavenger birds and animals to pick clean and scatter, and for the winds to scour and the sun to bleach the bones. Ezekiel must have shuddered when God asked him if the bones would live. An astonished Ezekiel must have responded, “How should I know, Lord? Only you could possibly know that.” God told Ezekiel to speak to the bones on God’s behalf and God would cause the wind of the Spirit to blow and enter them; to breathe life into them. Ezekiel did as he was told and rattling, rumbling and shaking of seismic proportion could be heard like an earthquake. The bones came together with muscles and skin, and Ezekiel prophesied that the breath of God should animate them, and they lived. The bones are identified with the whole house of Israel and reminded them of the covenantal relationship they had with God, who had put his spirit within them to give them life. He calls them “my people.”

This account in Ezekiel has been fodder for many years, inspiring thrill rides at theme parks like Denver’s Elitch Garden Water Park, with rides like the Tower of Doom, the Mind Eraser, the Half Pipe ride and others. Sixty years ago a singer named Big Joe Turner gathered with a group of rhythm-and-blues musicians in New York City. In the offices of Atlantic Records, they pushed the furniture to the walls, and recorded a song called “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” which was quickly picked up and recorded by Bill Haley and the Comets, and then by Elvis Presley to become an international rock ‘n’ roll hit. It was Bill Haley’s first gold record and best seller for Decca in 1954. Even earlier, James Weldon Johnson, credentialed as a lawyer in 1894 worked on Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, was appointed as U.S. Consul in Venezuela, and later, Nicaragua. He became an early civil-rights activist and served as head of the NAACP. He is best remembered for his poetry and song writing ability creating “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” His most widely known composition was inspired by Ezekiel 37: “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones (3 times). Now hear the word of the Lord.” When my brother was seven years old, my mother was a Cub Scout den mother and we had eight little boys in our basement meeting every week. The Scout Pack had a talent show and I remember my mother coming up with costumes and an act for the boys. They wore jeans, white t-shirts, my Dad’s sailor hats and their faces were blackened for their vaudeville rendition of “Dem Bones.” They sang and danced and won first place. I do not know if my brother remembers that event, but I can still see it in my mind.

More recently, “Schindler’s List” was a movie of a true story about World War II, focusing on the heroism and self-sacrifice of Oskar Schindler, a Christian from Krakow, Poland. Schindler went from being a wanton war profiteer to a conspirator who worked at freeing condemned prisoners from Hitler’s concentration camps. I was reminded of his life-saving work when I got on an elevator in Israel with the name of a prominent elevator company stamped over the control panel. It was not OTIS, no. The name was Schindler. In one scene of the movie, Jews were herded like cattle onto freight trains, hungry, hot, and very thirsty. The train was destined to various death camps. The German soldiers were lolling about and enjoying the suffering they were witnessing. Schindler appeared in a white suit (the “Good Guy” suit, like The Lone Ranger, riding up on his horse) and the Colonel offered him a refreshing drink. Schindler had a bright idea. “Let’s hose down the cars!” He convinced the Colonel to give him a soldier to man the hose, and they began spraying the cars. The captives entrapped in the cars could drink and be cooled. Schindler pretended to be having so much fun with the fire hose, he even got the Colonel to order another length of hose to be able to reach the last car. The prisoners were squealing and reaching for the much needed water and the Colonel said, “Oh, Oskar, you are too cruel! You are giving them hope.” In that scene people on the trains were condemned to certain death, and had no hope, while Oskar desperately wanted to save them and to give them as much hope as he could (not unlike a prophet trying to bring hope to God’s people).

Ezekiel was a temple priest carried off to Babylon in 586 B.C. and called by God to prophesy in great mystic visions to the people of the Exile. He wrote to those back home about God’s judgment, and of restorations and promise. Ezekiel asked God if the bones could live and God proves, “Yes, the bones can live.” Asking if bones can live is like reaching the point of the rebirth of faith –or the birth of a new faith. It is out of the death of hope that the hope of life springs. Hope and joy can spring from loss and pain–it only takes a willingness to step away from the apparent loss and grow with the situation. Ezekiel’s message brings hope for people who have lost all grounds of hope. There is a God who can achieve the impossible. The human end of it is to continue in the knowledge of that God.

The account of Lazarus’ resurrection to life in Bethany sets the scene for Jesus’ coming resurrection at Easter. Martha was distraught that Jesus had not come running to prevent her ailing brother from dying–he purposely arrived days later to call him out of the tomb, so that new life could be breathed into him. Imagine the testimony (not mentioned in Scripture) that Lazarus would have given to any and all who would have listened about the power of God to give life, hope and joy. We live in faith that we have eternal life. Life is lived here and now, and we have eternal life here and now. That is the truth that makes us free. The most amazing thing about eternal life in the here and now is that we can live each day in faith, no longer in fear of dying. In the midst of the uncertainties of life, the Christian has one great certainty: God loves you, whomever you are. God has shown the depth of his love by giving his Son for you, whatever you have done. The greatest act of God lies not in the creation of the world, but in the giving and raising of his Son as the Savior of the fallen, sinful world.

Ezekiel has his eyes opened by the knowledge of God. We have the grave opened by the knowledge of Jesus Christ. In him we know the grace of God,” God’s answer to the tragedies of life. That is our hope. Can these bones live? Shake, rattle and roll. Easter is the best answer we can have!


Categories: Weekly Sermon

Thirst No More – Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42

The biblical scholars in their wisdom have tied the Old and New Testament readings together quite well. As the Israelites traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land via the Desert of Sin, they camped at Rephidim, but there was no water to drink, so they got angry with Moses and tested the LORD. A frustrated Moses implored God to help him before the people stoned him. God ordered him to take the same staff he had used to divide the Red Sea and to strike a rock at Horeb to get water for the people to drink–take elders of Israel with you to do this task (to act as witnesses to God’s power). The fact that the Israelites doubted God’s willingness to provide for them, even when they did not deserve it, does not stop God from giving people what they need (justification by grace and providence).

Growing up in the dry, rocky land of Israel, Jesus knew firsthand that water was a precious resource. He must have seen his mother and other women spend hours of their days hauling water for cooking, drinking and cleaning. When he met the Samaritan woman at the well in the hot noonday sun, he knew how hard she had to work to meet the needs of her family. Water is heavy. Remember the old adage, “A pint is a pound the world around?” So, a five gallon bucket of water weighs at least forty pounds, plus the weight of the bucket or water jar. Imagine having to carry water several times a day to meet the needs of a family and often it was at least a mile to the source of potable water. My Grandma had an old EZ washer (there is an oxymoron for you!) and there was nothing easy about washing and rinsing clothes with that machine. My brother and I carried two 2 1/2 gallon buckets in two different trips from the lake (one trip for wash water and another for rinse water) because the well water to the house had excessive tannic acid in it and it would turn the clothes orange. Do you know what a clothesline of orange underwear looks like? If Grandma decided to have an extra rinse (for either white or really dirty work clothes) to insure that the clothes were clean, we had to made a third trip to the lake 600 yards away from the house. We understand how hard it must have been to do laundry for a family without a washing machine and having to walk long distances for the necessary water.

Have you been a bit thirstier than usual this time of year? It is 10+ degrees warmer and the humidity was only 4% yesterday, adding to our thirst. Jesus knew that he needed to overcome his thirst in the heat and asked the woman to give him a drink but male Jews did not talk to women in public and Jews did NOT talk to Samaritans. In spite of the gender and cultural differences, Jesus asks because she can meet his need. Jesus has an “a-ah, relief” moment on the way. Water is necessary for survival and we in Arizona already know that but do we ever think about our spiritual survival and the living water Jesus offers through the Holy Spirit? The Samaritan woman has her “a-ah” moment coming soon.

The narrative never tells us if Jesus gets the cup of cold water he requested but there is something much more important going on. We do not know if this unnamed woman took the time to draw water for Jesus. She does stop what she is doing, because she is amazed that Jesus is speaking to her at all. By merely noticing her, Jesus has opened up a world of new possibilities to a woman weighed down by guilt and shame. Jesus has not come into her life to demand something that he needs. Surely, Jesus was thirsty, but he knows that the woman at the well is carrying a far heavier burden. He wants to give her much more than just a cup of water, he wants to offer her water that will remove her thirst forever.

·Jesus knows who the woman is and can see the painful secrets in her heart.
·Jesus recognizes her thirst for forgiveness and acceptance.
·Jesus offers what she needs even before she knows enough to ask for help.

Unlike Jesus, the woman does not even have to voice her request, “I can give you living water,” he says, “Water that can heal your spirit and ease the pain in your heart.” This water is truly refreshing.

The woman is so consumed with the daily task of hauling heavy buckets of water that she cannot grasp the magnitude of the wondrous gift Jesus is offering. She is eager to end the back-breaking work that defines her life. When Jesus tells her that he has water that will forever cure her thirst, she replies, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (v.15). Jesus is offering to open up all of eternity to her, and she is focused on making fewer trips to the village well.

How often are we ready to settle for less than what God wants to offer us? How often do we hesitate to ask for anything from our generous God who is prepared to let love and blessing and forgiveness flow over us like an ever-flowing stream?

There is no way that the woman could visualize how refreshing this water is. Jesus is not suggesting a better way to do her chore. He is NOT proposing to create a better work environment for her. He is offering to ease the burden of her troubled soul and to release her from the pain of guilt. This woman is living with a past that makes her an outcast in her own village-and she has been married multiple times, and even worse for her day, age and culture, she is now living with a man who is not her husband. She carries a burden of guilt, shame and rejection–a far weightier burden than the water she hauls every day. Jesus does not want to ease the burden of her hands and back, he wants to ease the burden of her heart–to remove the pain of isolation and disgrace. Jesus is offering the gift of God’s life-giving Spirit, water that wells “up to eternal life” to God’s people (v. 14). The Samaritan woman has exactly what Jesus needs in that moment–water–and he has just what she needs, even if she does not realize it: grace, forgiveness and the promise of new life. WOW! How refreshing! Not a bad trade for a cup of water.

In all probability Jesus will be thirsty again after he drinks the water from the woman. His living water will meet a deep need inside her. Even if we do not know for certain that Jesus received water from this woman, we get to “see” Jesus’ transforming love when it is given and received. Jesus tells her that he is the Messiah, the One that they all have been waiting and hoping for .

Jesus tells her that the time has come for true worshipers to worship the Father in spirit and truth, for God seeks such as these to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth” (vv.24-25). Jesus offered this tired, thirsty woman a chance to be transformed. She can be made clean with only one drink of the water he is offering her. The woman has been through a lot in her life and when she finally understands what Jesus is telling her, she rejoices and wants to share this gift of new life and hope with everyone she knows. The sins of the woman’s past are behind her and she takes the “living water” and runs back to her town to tell the good news to others. Every one she approaches, she tells, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. He cannot be the Messiah, can he? They left the town and were on their way to him” (vv.29-30).

Are we thirsting for someone who knows us as completely as Jesus does and still loves us anyway? Are we looking for forgiveness and a new start? Are we looking for understanding, rest, renewal and peace? Are we willing to acknowledge the mistakes we have made, to cast off the burden of guilt and the weight of regret? Jesus offers us all these and more if we are willing to accept the “Living Water.” I invite you to take a sip of this water and say, “A-ah!”


Categories: Weekly Sermon

Nicodemus and Jesus Face-off: Checkmate! – John 3:1-17

Through the years as I have talked with worshipers, I have heard some interesting, thought provoking responses like every Sunday is the “same old,” same message, the order of worship gets monotonous, or I come to church to clear my slate, get my batteries re-charged and start fresh for a new week.  It seems like two opposite sides of the chess board are at work; similar to the feeling I get in a room of theologians who all have differing rationales for interpreting the gospels, especially the message as presented in John’s gospel for today.

In the on-going game of “Life,” we are surrounded by people who are like pawns on a chess board, with the goal of moving in one direction, but are constantly challenged by folks moving in multiple directions all around us. As Christians, our goal is to ultimately meet God face-to-face but our journey is arduous, and we are constantly learning to deal with everyday obstacles to accomplish our mission.  Today’s gospel reading tells us about a Pharisee called Nicodemus, who has been struggling with the message (and interpretation of Scripture) of Jesus and the way Jesus, a rabbi, lives his life:  healing, accepting, forgiving and loving people from all stations in life–even those unacceptable by the standards set by the Pharisees and their interpretation of God’s Laws.  He is in a real quandary trying to sort out what moves Jesus makes, and the Scriptures he quotes in his teaching that are directly related to everything he has been taught as a Pharisee–but why does Jesus keep breaking the Law, and speaking about the Kingdom of God; that is already here and yet, not completed–the match is not over yet!  Nicodemus, afraid to meet with Jesus in the daylight, comes to him under cover of darkness to attempt to meet his match. Checkmate!  I have often referred to Nicodemus as “Nic at Night,” a take-off on the children’s program from Nickelodeon, which sends a message to our children and is often aired at night.  Is there a subliminal message here?

Jesus’ words in John 3:3 declare that one must be born again to enter into the Kingdom of God.  In Greek that means “from above” and “again new.”  Just as the kingdom is often referred to as both now and yet to come, entering into this kingdom requires one to come into a new lifestyle and a new identity–to be born “from above,” the heavenly place the kingdom generates from. Both the Kingdom of God and being born anew have spatial and temporal components.  Jesus’ tone grows perceptively crisper as he continues to make the requirements of the kingdom clear to Nicodemus.  By v. 7 he is warning Nicodemus, “Do not be astonished…” and cautions his nighttime visitor that he cannot restrict the approaching pneuma/Spirit.  Nicodemus’ frustrated comeback to Jesus’ response is “How can these things be?”  Checkmate?  Nicodemus has met his match. His old way of interpreting Scripture as a Pharisee is about to be changed, re-focused on the message and interpretation Jesus gives to him.  Jesus seems to be resigned to the lack of understanding and stubborn refusal of his listener and proceeds to use Nicodemus as one example of the kind of attitude that will ultimately lead to the cross.  Only the “Son of Man” voluntarily descends from heaven so that he might be lifted up in sacrifice.  In one last attempt to draw Nicodemus into understanding him this great moment of revelation, Jesus used the familiar Old Testament image of Moses in the desert, of lifting up the bronze serpent on a pole in the desert–to describe what will be the work of the cross.  By being lifted up, offering his own life as a sacrifice, the Son makes new life “from above” possible for “whomever believes.”

My travels to the Holy Lands prepared my heart and mind in so many ways for this season of Lent.  Walking the places Jesus walked and visualizing the terrain, showed me many physical obstacles that made it tough for Jesus to meet people on their own turf and to try and show by personal example the intense love God had for all of them and for all of us at this time, in this place.  Standing on Mt. Nebo where Moses viewed the “Promised Land,” the destination he had been seeking for forty years, I saw a huge staff erected with a serpent entwined as a reminder of the obstacles experienced by God’s people in the desert when they refused to believe and trust God (Numbers 21:5-9).

Nicodemus was one of six thousand Pharisees, the religious elite and one of seventy that constituted the Sanhedrin, the council of authorities empowered to make judgments in Jewish religious and legal disputes.  He was not required to officiate at daily Temple services, but he had the exclusive right and duty to perform certain services:  Day of Atonement, Passover, Succoth and others.  The Pharisees worked with the consent ofthe Roman government, sharing in the rule of their country.  He was a renowned teacher, referred to for decisions requiring extra wisdom or breadth of experience, and he was master of a great fortune; yet, he walked the street, covering his face in his robe, which served for more than sheltering himself from the cold weather–the possible cold reception of his peers for meeting with the controversial teacher, Jesus.  He battled with his conscience, what he had been taught through the years of going to temple services, studying God’s Laws and going through the familiar rituals of worship, but now he was suspicious about Jesus’ power to heal, do miraculous deeds and interpret God’s Word.  If Jesus could enlighten him in the darkness of his struggle, it was almost worth coming but that confusing statement about the wind was a definite obstacle to his faith understanding.  Nicodemus was in deep in this chess game. He had grown old physically and spiritually.  The continued Roman occupation had diminished his hope for a free Israel. Serving on the Sanhedrin, hearing endless disputes over possessions and power, had pretty much stifled his love for people.  His compassion for the less fortunate had died as his earthly fortune had grown.  His wife and mother of his children had died, and her bones were waiting in the tomb to be joined by Nicodemus.  How could he start over this late in life?  How had he missed something as important as a religious leader at the center of Israel’s law, the middle of God’s revelation to the Hebrews?  Was the Pharisee’s minute and careful observing of the Law God’s goal for everyone?  Was his life’s commitment on the trail to God’s Kingdom or had he come to a dead-end? Checkmate.  Could Jesus show him a new way?  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  Nicodemus had lost the game as he was overpowered by Jesus’ authority.  God had fulfilled his promises in this Son. Nicodemus was slow to walk, slow to change, but he left his meeting with Jesus that night, having met a greatness that was disorienting and uncompromising and sensing the certainty of God’s love.  The blowing wind of the Holy Spirit held much in store for Nicodemus.  He later defended Jesus before the Sanhedrin and helped Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus in a tomb, the place where Jesus would be set free at his glorious resurrection.  It is the same old story, presented in yet one more way to help us re-light the flame of our faith in Jesus’ saving power to set us free from our sin and to prepare us for the day we will be with God in glory, forever. Checkmate!  Can we feel the Spirit blowing amongst us in this familiar place?  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Facing Temptation – Matthew 4:1-11

This past Wednesday was the official beginning of the Lenten season just before Easter, when for forty days, excluding Sundays, we remember Christ’s forty days in the wilderness.  The Arizona Republic reported that Episcopalian priests and deacons were at Phoenix transit stations to present “ashes to go” to the faithful who were too busy to get to church to participate in the ancient tradition of humbly presenting one’s self to God–a carry-over from Old Testament times when folks would wear sack cloth (burlap/gunny sack) and sit in ashes as a sign of penance for their sinful behavior.  The sign of the cross is made on the forehead in ashes made from burning the Palm Sunday palm branches from the previous Lenten season.  The primary focus of Lent is not merely giving up one or two of life’s minor pleasures, but rather on re-dedication of ourselves to the Christian life in preparation for the Easter season to come. Personal sacrifices instead of being ends in themselves, become means by which we put our whole existence under scrutiny, reject those things that have drawn us away from Christ, and refocus our lives with Christ at the center.  Lent is a time for introspection, for slowing down our helter-skelter existence and for times of quiet questioning.

The text in Matthew 4 today has been the object of much reflection and comment over the centuries.  Allusions to some of the renown figures in the Old Testament such as Moses, Elijah and Job are unmistakable.  Theological connections between Jesus’ trial in the wilderness and pivotal events in Israel’s history leap out of the narrative.  Four times Jesus’ adversary is called “the devil;” the tempter and Satan are each used once.  It is important for us to consider how Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness may have shaped his teaching on prayer, recorded in Matthew 6.

Soon after his baptism Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil which should get our attention because Scripture asserts that God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one (James 1:12-16).  Given that Jesus is God’s Son and cannot be tempted, we wonder why Jesus faced a trial with the devil.  Hebrews 4:15 tells us we have a high priest who in every respect has been tested as we are yet without sin, while he was God in the flesh.  Matthew’s account reminds us of Israel’s wandering in the desert forty years and the testing of Job.

Matthew 4:2 says that Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights.  I cannot imagine going forty hours without food or water, let alone forty days!  For Israel the number 40 triggers a host of memories:  rains fell forty days and forty nights in the Noah account; the Israelites ate manna in the wilderness for forty years; Moses was on Mt. Sinai for forty days and 40 nights where he neither ate bread nor drank water; spies were sent into the Promised Land forty days and when the Israelites’ faith faltered upon hearing the spies’ report, the Lord sentenced Israel to forty years wandering; both kings David and Solomon reigned forty years; Elijah reached Mt. Horeb after forty days and nights and Jonah gave Ninevah a forty day warning.  It is clear that the Spirit leads a vital role.  Besides leading Jesus into the wilderness, the Spirit was an active agent in Jesus’ conception and at his baptism, where the Spirit declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 1:18, 20, 3:13-17).  To mention that Jesus was famished, sets the stage for what is yet to come.

Do you think that if a single pill could suddenly, permanently make you smarter, you would take it?  So far, no such pill exists but it is under study how to increase the IQ of our yet unborn children.  Cracking the code of the human genome has opened the door to many possibilities.  The Thursday evening news showed a child crippled with a genetic  disease and in a wheelchair for ten years. After genome studies, she received medication and was able to walk the next day and surprised her entire school by walking in the door for classes within three days of medication.  Scientists are working at cracking the code for intelligence and they predict that within ten years, they will be able to boost the IQ of children by as much as twenty points.  Will having smarter kids enable them to make wiser choices?  I suspect NOT! Sometimes people, even super-smart people use their intelligence to come up with clever rationalizations to yield to temptation.

What about Paul who said, “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).  Think about Jesus.  If anyone was likely to have type-free DNA, it was the only begotten Son of God, but our text finds him in the wilderness tempted by the devil.  Whatever our IQ, temptation is part of our human condition.  I ask you, even if higher intelligence could immunize us against temptation, would that be a good thing?  In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “lead us not into temptation.”  Could Jesus have accomplished what he did without this time of struggle in the wilderness?  Could Jesus have done the will of God without confronting the tempter within?  The whole point of Jesus’ temptation experienced in the wilderness was to drive a wedge between Jesus and God.  Because Jesus did not yield to temptation, that did not happen.  “Because Jesus himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Hebrews 2:18).

Temptation can lead us to an understanding of our core being and help us to assess our limits.  It can reveal to us the strength (or lack of) our commitments and values.  Jesus resisted the devil’s command to turn stones into bread to assuage his hunger.  Jesus resisted the devil’s command to jump from the highest pinnacle of the temple because God would send angels to protect him, and he would not dash his foot against a stone.  Rather than test God as the Israelites did after being rescued from Egypt, Jesus trumped the devil by saying, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the LORD your God to the test’ ” (Deuteronomy 6:16).  Finally, when the devil shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” and offers them to Jesus if he will fall down and worship the devil, Jesus rejects the offer.  Jesus does not choose to be separated from God and responds, “Worship the LORD your God and serve only him” (Deuteronomy 6:13).

Weary after the three enticements, angels come to wait on Jesus.  He has triumphed over the devil!  Jesus later taught his disciples to pray: “Do not bring us to the time of trial [lead us not into temptation] but rescue us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13)[but deliver us from evil].

If temptation is a road, it must have forks in it.  We are forced to make decisions.  Will we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit or succumb to the opportunities offered by the devil? Sometimes the pull of temptation is so demanding that the choice of turning at a major intersection is all we can see.  At other times, it is in small choices, slight detours that lead us to ungodly destinations.  The big problem with temptation is that we do not get to make just one big correct choice and the battle is won.  In this account in Matthew, Jesus refused to yield, but later on Peter tried to get Jesus to stop saying that he was headed for suffering and death.  Jesus told him, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me” (Matthew16:23), revealing that the temptation to turn off the road God wanted him to walk on was still continuing.  We may not be tempted by the things that tempted Jesus, but we still deal with mistrusting God’s readiness to strengthen us to face our trials.  Paul told us that God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and forks in the road are good places to remember that for ourselves.  We need to ask God for grace and power not only at fork intersections, not only at the onset of a temptation, but in our regular prayer life:  “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  We know we need God’s help every day and we who are not geniuses are still learning.  We can pray every day relying on God’s help.  Thank God.  


Categories: Weekly Sermon