Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Are You Fulfilled?

Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23
December 29, 2013
© 2013

Follow up the sermon with conversation.
  1. When have you been enriched by getting to know someone new by either giving or receiving hospitality?
  2. When have you walked through pain or suffering by giving comfort or receiving consolation?
  3. How were you fulfilled by giving or receiving affirmation with someone?

Merry Christmas on this Fifth Day of Christmas! Anyone get or give five golden rings today? I didn’t think so.
Singing O Come, All Ye Faithful seems appropriate on the Sundays of Christmastide when you who are faithful are the ones in worship.
We are not quite half way through Christmastide, yet most of us have returned from the festivities to the routine responsibilities of life, leaving some room for New Year’s frivolity and football.
In 1914, the first Christmas of World War I, all along the Western Front, Christmas songs and symbols drew soldiers out of the trenches to exchange greetings, share food and small gifts, play games, eat and sing together. It came to be known as The Christmas Truce and has inspired stories, songs, art and movies, including the 2005 French opera Joyeux Noël, which was shown on Public Television this month. Though not entirely successful, military leaders on both sides took strong measures to insure that didn’t happen again as the war dragged on through three more Christmases, ending in November 1918. Yes, after their Christmas celebrations, the soldiers returned to their trenches to fight each other. 23 year old Private Ronald MacKinnon described the Christmas Truce in a letter home. “I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line. We had a truce on Christmas Day, and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded gifts. Christmas was tray bon, very good.” Private MacKinnon was then killed at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. (Wikipedia)
I assume some quirky history explains why the liturgical calendar observes Herod’s massacre of the “Holy Innocents” on December 28 but does not celebrate Epiphany with the visit of the Magi until January 6. Perhaps this helps us cope with our sense of time out of joint. Matthew 2:13-23 tells how Herod the Great brutally disrupted the first Christmas. Exuding from this troubling story are insights for sustaining the joy of Christmas as we return to our daily challenges in our fractured world. Here is a drama in three acts.
Now after [the wise men] had left [Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus], an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
Herod the Great was a paranoid megalomaniac. He insured that the birth of the Prince of Peace, the Savior of the World brought neither instant peace nor salvation. Keeping the five Herods mentioned in the New Testament straight is not easy. Herod the Great is the one in this story. His son Archelaus who ruled Judea for about ten years is the one Joseph feared. Another son, Antipas, ruled in Galilee and is the one who executed John the Baptist and whom Pilate involved in Jesus’ trial. In succeeding generations, two named Agrippa ruled Judea and are in the Book of Acts in the time of the apostles.
The prophecy from Jeremiah 31:15 about Rachel weeping for her children comes in the middle of a great song of hope. Over 500 years before Jesus’ birth, the people of Judah were being led into captivity in Babylon. Their forced march took them by the tradition site of Rachel’s grave, and they wept. But Jeremiah gave this word from God that they would return. Out of tragedy, God would bring joy. So Matthew quotes Jeremiah in this dark tragedy to affirm that though the world is still broken, God’s redemptive plan is moving forward. The Redeemer and Messiah had been protected and escaped Herod.
Matthew repeatedly said that Jesus fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophets. We tend to think of prophecy as predicting the future. Yet, if we look at the words of the prophets, we would have a hard time predicting the way Jesus fulfilled what they spoke. Matthew did not point out how Jesus fulfilled what the prophets had spoken to convince unbelievers to trust in Jesus. Rather, Matthew was trying to help those who were Jesus’ disciples understand who Jesus is and how he fit into God’s great redemptive plan.
The three specific prophecies in this story tell us just how deeply Jesus identified himself with us and our broken, human condition – just how fully he is Emmanuel, God with us.
Hosea 11:1 about God calling His son out of Egypt refers directly to the Exodus under Moses and alludes to a number of times since the time of Abraham Hebrew people sought refuge in Egypt in times of trouble. Still today the Coptic and Orthodox Christians of Egypt celebrate the grace that their ancestors hosted the Holy Family. Egyptian Pope Shenouda said, “As Egypt opened its heart to the Holy Family, so we should open our hearts to God. What is the benefit if God comes for all Egypt, but does not come into your house?” (Christianity Today, December 3, 2001)
Jeremiah’s prophecy of Rachel weeping for her children is Matthew’s way of telling us that as Redeemer and Messiah, Jesus fully shared in our human suffering and sorrow as a victim of oppression. He did not stand aloof but brought hope from within our suffering.
The third prophecy Matthew mentioned here, that he would “be called a Nazorean” is something of a puzzle. First, Matthew says “prophets” (plural), and second there is no such quote in the Hebrew Scriptures. Some have suggested a sort of pun on Nazirite, for someone who took vows (temporary or permanent) of commitment to God. Jesus was committed to God but did not adhere to Nazirite rules, so this seems unlikely. A more likely pun is on nezer for branch, referring to the branch of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). Even more probable because of the lowly reputation of the town of Nazareth and the general “prophets” rather than a specific prophet, is an overlooked and misunderstood theme through many prophets that the Messiah would be lowly and despised. So Jesus, even from his birth, came among us as a rejected outcast.
If we understand Matthew’s use of “fulfilled” as interpretive rather than specifically predictive, the prophecies about the infant Jesus become keys to understand how Jesus brings fulfillment to our lives. As much as we may discount ourselves, from birth Jesus points us to meaning and purpose in contrast to Macbeth’s lament in Shakespeare’s play. (Act 5, Scene 5)
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
As Israelites had turned to Egypt for refuge for centuries before Joseph took Jesus and Mary there, they would have been received hospitably by any number of Jewish communities, more than happy to shelter someone from the despised Herod the Great. Even in a foreign place, the Holy Family would have found familiar language, culture and faith. Our lives are also enriched with purpose by practicing hospitality and welcoming people we don’t know. Hebrews 13:2 says, by showing hospitality to strangers, we may entertain angels without knowing it.
Whether house fire or auto accident, illness or death, murder or war, the emotions of suffering seem more intense around Christmas. Yet tragedies know no season. By including Jeremiah’s prophecy of Rachel’s weeping for her children, Matthew assures us we are not alone; Jesus shares in our suffering. And we find fulfillment by coming alongside each other when suffering strikes. We may not be able to solve, life’s greatest adversities, but we can stare pain in the face without flinching and know we have helped someone else through deep distress.
Isaiah 53:3 is just one of the prophecies that tells us that the Messiah would be “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.” At some point we are all outsiders. By joining us in exile, Jesus affirms and accepts us. When we recognize that we are also “Nazoreans,” we are empowered for a ministry of affirming and accepting those who feel excluded and unworthy.
Probably best known for his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, Eugene Peterson tells how when he was eight years old, his mother determined based on Jeremiah 10:1-4 that the family would not have a Christmas tree. Eugene said, “I was embarrassed – humiliated was more like it – humiliated as only eight-year-olds can be humiliated. Abased. Mortified. I was terrified of what my friends in the neighborhood would think: They would think we were too poor to have a tree. They would think I was being punished for some unspeakable sin. … I was mostly terrified that they would discover the real reason we didn’t have a tree: that God had commanded it (at least we thought so at the time) – a religious reason! But religion was one thing that made us better than our neighbors; and now, if they were to find out our secret, it would make us worse.”
“The feelings I had that Christmas when I was eight years old may have been the most authentically Christmas feelings I have ever had, or will have: the experience of humiliation, of being misunderstood, of being an outsider. … God had commanded a strange word; the people in the story were aware, deeply aware and awesomely aware, that the event they were living was counter to the culture and issued from the Spirit’s power.” (Christianity Today, December 18, 2013, web posted December 20, 2006, first published December 11, 1987)
After all of the buildup, Christmastide can be a letdown. Not only do we go back to routine responsibilities, but we realize that displacement, suffering and exclusion persist. Seen through the eyes of the prophets, Matthew not only shows us Jesus as God with us in all of this, he lets us hear the prophets call us to ministries of hospitality, comfort and affirmation. You can join Jesus in fulfilling what was spoken through the prophets.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

God Is With Us

Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
December 22, 2013
© 2013

Amid all the contradictions and distractions of Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus persists as a witness to the incarnation. Sentimentality about a mother and a baby isn’t enough for such a holiday. This mother and baby are special, unique. Even for those without faith, somehow the baby Jesus is Immanuel: God with us as we read in Isaiah 7:14.
The baby whose birth Isaiah announced was a sign to doubting King Ahaz that God was still present and active in Judah when they were threatened.
Taking our cue from Matthew, the church has understood the name Emmanuel as pointing to Jesus, not just as a sign that God is still with us but as the very person by whom God is with us.
In his 2011 Christmas Article (rejected by The New York Times), spiritual writer Frederick Buechner asked, “Who is this God? How is [this God] with us? That’s where the problem lies.”
The birth of Jesus is also a sign to us. It signifies God's love, mercy, power, and grace. Sometimes it takes a sign to convince us of these realities, just as it did for Ahaz. For the main character in the movie It's a Wonderful Life, it took an angel to convince him of his worth. For Dickens's Scrooge it took a vivid nightmare. For the characters on the "Peanuts" Christmas special, it took Linus's recitation of the story of Jesus' birth.
We are very familiar with Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and the visit of the shepherds. We know that Matthew told of the visit of the Magi, but we have neglected the account of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1:18-25.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
 “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 
22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 
23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 
24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Luke obviously interviewed Mary for his Gospel, and she and many women are prominent throughout it. Matthew only briefly mentioned Mary at Jesus’ birth and death, and critics spoke of her in 13:55. Matthew focused on Joseph.
Luke reported angels from heaven speaking to the shepherds, but the Magi in Matthew only heard from angels in dreams. The star the Magi saw in Matthew is not mentioned in Luke. Neither of them said anything about Mary on a donkey or the Magi with camels.
Neither said anything about Joseph and Mary searching for a place to stay. The word translated “inn” is really the same word as “guest room” such as the upper room for the Last Supper or where Elijah stayed with the widow (1 Kings 17:19 LXX). Nor did they say anything about a stable, which is distinctly European. The manger would have been by the kitchen where food scraps supplemented the feed of a few animals that stayed in a place below the house floor.
I mention these things, not to debunk familiar images, but to encourage us to read carefully and appreciate the power of the Gospels.
Matthew uses a very short passage to describe Jesus’ birth. The pageantry is gone and we are kind of left with the cold hard truth. Yet that leaves us to also to focus on the way God weaves in and out of the lives of everyone involved. Sometimes I would like to have been a fly in the room. Can you imagine the tension and anxiety that Mary and Joseph both felt? Yet God comes to Joseph in a dream and weaves another part of the picture.
Matthew’s focus on Joseph opens a window into answering Frederick Buechner’s question, “Who is this God? How is [this God] with us?”
I have come to appreciate and gain insight from some Eastern Orthodox icons. In Nativity icons, Joseph is typically shown in the lower left-hand corner being tempted by a demon figure to doubt Mary’s story of Jesus conception and the injustice of God asking him to raise a child not his own. Matthew gives us a rather different picture of Joseph.
Mathew makes a point of saying that Joseph gave Jesus his name. (v. 25) In that culture, that was Joseph claiming this child as his own by adoption. That gave Jesus legal right to the throne of David. It made Joseph his “real” father. Sometimes adopted children are asked about their “real” parents, meaning their biological parents, but they know that those who raised them are their “real” parents. So, yes, Matthew (and Luke) agree that Jesus was conceived in Mary by the creative power of the Holy Spirit, but Joseph was still Jesus’ “real” father.
Joseph could have easily thrown up his hands and let things be. God took a lot of risk to trust that Joseph would be faithful and obedient. He loved with God’s love. Joseph gave himself away to make room for Jesus. He took seriously his dream that God was still active and would be active in the world. He lived beyond what the world told him was the truth. He was responsive.
Joseph sets aside law, custom and tradition-everything he has studied and believed and practiced-in order to follow this word from God.
How can we learn from Joseph how to respond when we suddenly discover that God is with us?
Perhaps you know Leo Tolstoy’s story of Martin the Cobbler whose Advent prayers led him to believe Christ would come to him on Christmas Eve. All day he watched people go by his shop, and he helped several of them. He shared a bowl of soup with an old man. He gave a warm coat to a young woman with a baby. He reconciled a woman who was selling apples and a boy who stole one, paying for the apple. As he read the Gospel and prayed that evening, he was disappointed that Christ hadn’t come to him. Then from the dark corners of his room he heard a voice, “Martin, it is I,” and one by one he people he had helped through the day appeared and vanished. When he turned again to the Gospel he read in Matthew 25:40, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

Bob Cornwall, who is a Disciples pastor, says that the message to Joseph, the righteous man, is to accept the messiness of this birth, accept that it is within the work of the Holy Spirit, and that it is important that he accept not only this message but Mary and her child, as a sign that God is with us. We, who now read this word from Matthew, have our own choice to make.  Will we receive as Joseph did the word of encouragement and hope, that no matter what the case – God is with us?  God has been with us, is with us, and will be with us – without end.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

What to Expect at Christmas

Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
December 15, 2013
© 2013

In John Grisham’s 2001 novel Skipping Christmas (which became the 2004 movie Christmas with the Kranks), Luther Krank convinces his wife Nora to skip their usual Christmas and go on a cruise since their daughter, Blair, is in Peru with the Peace Corps. Their neighbors are outraged that they are not going to participate in the expected block decorating competition. Unexpectedly, Blair phones from the Miami airport on Christmas Eve to announce that she is bringing her Peruvian fiancé to meet them and experience their Christmas celebration. Comedy arises from the scramble to meet altered expectations. The rediscovered joy is capped by giving the cruise tickets to the Scheels, neighbors who have just learned the wife has given a 90% terminal diagnosis.
Half-way through Advent, Joyful Sunday asks us how our expectations of Christmas affect our joy.
Expectations are we would see as normally happening. Yet when those expectations aren’t met, it can bring joy too. On Thursday, I wanted a breakfast burrito so I went to a restaurant and went through the drive thru and there was a bit of a wait but I got up to the window and the employee told me that the car before me had paid for me. I expected to pay but it brought a bit of joy to learn of someone paying it forward and pushed me to do the same for someone else.
Isaiah 35 concludes with the promise of “everlasting joy” (v. 10), which is repeated in Isaiah 51:11 and 61:7. The image is of pilgrims on “the Holy Way” to celebrate God’s redemption.
We are pilgrims looking for signs of God’s redemption on our path. The more distressed we are by injustice and corruption, the more we expect God’s vengeance with terrible recompense (v. 4) and miss the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame leaping, the speechless singing (vv. 5-6).
But Advent prompts us to examine our expectations for Christmas so we can be surprised by Jesus every day.
Matthew 11:2-11 compares John the Baptist’s messianic expectations and the people’s expectations of John.
Norm: When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him,
Regina: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 
Norm: 4Jesus answered them,
Regina: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Norm: 7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John:
Regina: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
John was very radical, relentless and single-minded in his pursuit.
He lived on what some would consider last resort measures. Yet people were drawn to him and yet he always pointed to the one that came after him.
Jesus questions the people about what are they really looking for and might us to lead to what are we looking for.
 Jesus’ description of John builds on people’s expectation that he was not like Herod. John was not a fickle politician wavering with popular or powerful opinion. He was not self-indulgent in dress, diet or dwelling. They expected a word from God for a fresh start in life.
But held in Herod’s prison, John wasn’t sure what Jesus was the Messiah he expected. Where was the “vengeance with terrible recompense?” Jesus quoted the next line from Isaiah 35 to refocus the expectations on the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame leaping, the speechless singing.
Advent prompts us to examine our expectations for Christmas so we can be surprised by Jesus every day.
Isaiah 35:3-4 describes us as we wait, for Christmas and God’s redemption. When our expectations seem unfulfilled, we recognize our weak hands, fearful knees and fearful hearts.
We are deep into the journey of Advent now and there are many temptation and challenges that distract us. Like there are only nine shopping days left. But we must remain the path and remain expectantly focused. Isaiah speaks a word to the many of us that are distracted and just seem lost: Hope is on the way!
Anathea Portier-Young, Old Testament professor at Duke Divinity School, says “fearful heart” is literally “racing heart.” She asks us to consider what sets our hearts racing? Advent says to us, “God is here. Restorative justice in on its way. Expect God’s response!”
When our expectations are misplaced, our hearts race with impatience and anxiety. St. Vincent do Paul said, “Whoever is in a hurry delays the work of God.”
In January 2007 The Washington Post reported the reactions of commuters to a violinist playing at a D.C. Metro station. Thousands of commuters walked by without noticing. Some stopped to listen briefly and a few through a couple of bills in the open violin case. What they didn’t realize was this was world renowned concert violinist Joshua Bell playing his multi-million dollar Stradivarius. Without paying $100 a seat to hear him in Boston’s Symphony Hall, people didn’t expect to see Joshua Bell.
What did we all expect when we came to church this morning? What did we expect to see, feel and hear?
Did we come expecting to find Jesus?
What cues do we need to break through our expectations for Christmas to recognize Jesus?
In the Christianity Today blog her-meneutics, (December 9, 2013) Liuan Huska wrote about her expectations as she waited for the birth of her first child. “I am increasingly aware of the darkness of this world into which I am bringing my child. … My instinct is to do everything in my power to keep out of danger.  … Our God did what every mother would shudder to do. He sent his child directly into the heart of evil with no protection, save faith, hope, and extravagant love.” She quotes Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann’s book The Prophetic Imagination, “Only when we face the darkness and allow ourselves to grieve that something new can emerge.” And Christian educator Parker Palmer’s book A Hidden Wholeness, about broken, fearful, racing heart of Isaiah 35:4. “A broken heart is not necessarily a bad thing. … [It may be] something broken open, like a crack in a seed about to sprout. … My heart can break open into a greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope.”

Advent prompts us to examine our expectations for Christmas so we can be surprised by Jesus every day.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Preparing for Christmas

Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
December 8, 2013
© 2013

The Peaceable Kingdom
Edward Hicks 1780 –1849

From tree trimming and decorating, to shopping and gift wrapping, to cooking and baking, all through December we prepare for Christmas. Advent is a season of preparation: spiritual preparation, not just for the celebration of the birth of Jesus preparing ourselves for life with Jesus as our sovereign throughout the year.
I thought my normal schedule was busy but this month, I have to be careful to not double book myself.
Some of us make New Year’s resolutions perhaps Advent is a time to make new resolutions for our faith. A time to regroup and seek out new ways to grow in our faith.
We are all prone to lose spiritual energy and momentum. Advent is an annual opportunity for a spiritual tune up – to prepare ourselves to follow Jesus into the New Year with energy and enthusiasm.
Matthew 3:1-12 introduces John the Baptist as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord!” His message of spiritual preparation for Jesus’ ministry also points us to our spiritual preparation in Advent.
N: In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
R: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
N: This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
R: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
N: Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them,
R: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
There is an old story that describes a painter who thinned out his paint to save money on a job. No sooner had he finished painting than a great rainstorm hit the house and washed the watered-down paint off the walls. The voice of God thundered down from on high: “Repaint and thin no more!” While this is a funny story, it does make the point that John is calling us to change our ways.
John is described more than anyone else I can think of in the New Testament and he seems a bit odd even for that time. His presence means more than we think. In my reading this week, Jan Richardson mentions that “John’s presence, so early in the Advent lectionary, calls us to see that beneath the twinkle lights and trimmings that permeate these pre-Christmas days, there is a terrain more spare and elemental: a landscape in which we learn to turn away from what distracts us so that we can welcome the one for whom we are waiting.
Unlike Luke, Matthew wrote nothing about the birth of John the Baptist nor about Jesus’ childhood. He jumped from moving from Egypt to Nazareth John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus.
“In those days” (v. 1) is not a statement about timing but about God’s readiness for which John was preparing.
Four hundred years had passed since the last Hebrew prophets (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi). Now comes the prophet predicted in Isaiah 40:3. John’s wardrobe and diet were non-verbal signs that he was a classic Hebrew prophet. Where they pointed to a distant future, John’s message was much more immediate. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” What Isaiah saw as someday John saw now!
With the death of Nelson Mandela, we’ve heard him called a modern prophet. In 1990, when he was released after 27 years in prison, he said, “I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people.” In some ways what he said at Rice University in 1999 reflects something of a response to the message of John the Baptist. “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
Our preparations for Christmas are some combination of cleaning, decorating, shopping, wrapping, cooking, parties. John called people to prepare for the kingdom of heaven and for Jesus to start his ministry by repenting. That may not seem too festive, but positive repentance is like thorough house cleaning before decorating. It clears out accumulated debris to make room for fresh joy.
Repentance is a turning of direction. We sometimes think it is a shameful thing but it purely a spiritual practice.
Bob Eldan says, “John wants there to be an unimpeded straight path between Jesus and us.  Then with Jesus’ baptism we can feel the holy breath and be enthused, and have fire in the belly, and even walk barefoot across hot coals, the hot coals of life’s problems.  Such would be our enthusiasm.  We lose this enthusiasm, douse water on the fire, when we domesticate what Jesus offers,….”
John’s baptism was modeled after ritual bathing expected of Gentile converts to Judaism and implied that they were as impure as the Heathen and needed be cleansed for God. The good news was that those who had been ritually excluded were invited to be included.
Jesus, the one coming after John was going to purify with power, as the shoot from the stump of Jesse in Isaiah 11:3-5, or the image in Revelation 19:11-16. For any who long for peace and justice, righteousness and mercy, he was a timely hero, not a dreaded terror.
For the pious, this was a message was an unwelcome threat. For those troubled by their sin, the invitation to repent was an open door to freedom and joy.
Advent is a season of spiritual preparation to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas.
One of my good friends,  told me that his daily motto, is to be faithful to what is ahead of him today. You may not being doing anything say religious but you can be faithful and complete the day with the faith in God and recognizing God’s presence.
I just completed a program, Bethany Fellowships that gave me a dedicated day of silence. While those were needed hours, and I hope for more of those. My days now only allow me to include God in my daily activities. If we do this during Christmas, it should not be that hard to keep up with during the year.
One of the Benedictine vows is conversion of life, not turning from sin and trusting Jesus for the first time, but conversion of life is a daily expectation. We begin each day inviting the Holy Spirit to use Scripture, prayer and the Christian community to clean out old things that impede following Jesus and fill the gaps with new things that promote keeping pace with Jesus.
Step 10 of AA’s 12 Steps captures this: “Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.”
This sheds some biblical light on Nelson Mandela’s, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
I have had a 20+ year discipline of writing on a calendar a line or two of how I was most aware of God that day. It sharpens my spiritual awareness. You may want to do that for the rest of Advent, and continue through Christmastide, which ends with the visit of the Magi on Epiphany, January 6.

At just the time the world is in a frenzy, Advent puts our preparations in the context of a spiritual retreat, not what we do but doing with spiritual mindfulness. Preparing food and wrapping gifts, sending and receiving cards as prayers for those we love. Parties as opportunities to nurture relationships. Music and decorations prompt us to recognize and meditate on how Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Longing for More

Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44
December 1, 2013
© 2013

For the four Sundays of Advent, Rev. Regina Erwin, Associate Pastor of First Christian Church, Odessa, Texas, where I am currently Interim Pastor, and I will be dialog preaching. The scripts take on a different form and are a little less detailed as a result. We have outlined the basic flow, but you'll need to be there or use your imagination, as they will be more free-form  than usual. My thanks to Regina for her courageous imagination to try this and to the congregation for engaging with the conversation. Norm

Through Advent we read from the Hebrew Prophets, as we did from Isaiah 2 this morning, about God’s promise of a new day of peace. Viewed through a New Testament lens, we see them as pointing to Jesus and celebrate them with his birth. Now 2000 years since Jesus’ birth and perhaps 2700 years since Isaiah’s prophecy, we are still waiting for peace.
How are we supposed to be in constant wait for 2700 years? I can’t barely wait for my wedding in just a few short months.
There are so many conflicts and struggles all around the world: Syria, Pakistan, Egypt. For the children of the next generation after mine, they do not know a time where we have not been involved in a war. 
Did you realize that on the Homeland Security System that there is not a place for no risk of terrorist attacks just low.
Yet we can’t help but yearn for Isaiah’s vision in our lives and those of others. The words of verse four are on a wall near the United Nations Headquarters. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Micah 4:1-3 is almost identical to Isaiah 2:1-5. They were contemporaries. Did one borrow from the other or did they both quote the same poem of hope? Joel 3:10 repeats the line about swords and plowshares, but we don’t know when he wrote.
Is it better to treat the promise of a coming peace as a feel-good message that we can all rally around, endorse, mention in a prayer and raise a glass to, or to proclaim along with our hope the reality of its long-standing absence?
In Matthew 24:36-44, Jesus said even he didn’t know when God’s hope for the future would come, but it would be a surprise.

 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 
37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 
40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 

42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 
44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

This text may seem uncomfortable for some of us. It asks us to live in readiness yet with the knowledge that the coming of Jesus will be at an unexpected time.
Jesus’ reference to the days of Noah does not mention the evil that brought God’s judgment on them but that people were engaged in ordinary daily life and were surprised by the flood.
Jesus spoke to our fear of being abandoned, We don't want to be abandoned. We want to make the cut, get the invitation, receive an acceptance letter, make the team, and be part of a family. We don't want to be abandoned.
Alyce McKenzie who teaches at Perkins School of theology at SMU tells of a grown woman who still tears up at the memory of being 7 years old on a family trip and being accidentally left behind at a gas station as the family station wagon drove off. She remembers the feeling of the concrete under her thin-soled sneakers, the smell of gasoline, the family car growing smaller and smaller in the distance, the sound of someone crying that turned out to be her. They came back as soon as they noticed she was missing, but the memory of those minutes remains. 
We have a hard time living with joyful expectancy when what we hope for seems so distant and unattainable.
We live with this constant promise. Sometimes we doubt it and other times, we know it to be the precious truth. We have the opportunity to live as Christ taught us, live as an example. We can teach those around us how to wait for that beloved promise. Church as a waiting community teaching example for culture
Jesus repeatedly urged being awake, alert, watching in readiness. How do we prepare for a promise? Promises always come as a surprise.
The surprise may be that Christ is already active among us. Part of watching is looking for the hidden signs of Christ’s present hope.
God reveals enough about the future to give us hope, but not so much that we do not have to live and walk by faith day after day.
Our society just can’t wait but starts to inundate us with holiday frenzy disguised as Christmas earlier and earlier. Advent is a counter-cultural call for waiting and anticipation. Advent is rehearsal of waiting for God’s hope.
9 year old “good fellows” Christmas
One of my favorite theologians, Walter Bruggemann summed up the season of Advent this way, “Advent invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations to consider our life afresh  in light of new gifts that God is about to give.”
Here we are on the first Sunday of Advent and we feel like the student who joked on the second day of class “I’m already 2 weeks behind.”
6th grade Christmas with Mom home from hospital.

Don’t knock yourself out trying to create the “perfect Christmas” (and be so frazzled you can’t enjoy it), but wait for God to surprise you.

Friday, November 22, 2013

What Kind of King is This?

Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
November 24, 2013
© 2013

Mark Galli the Editor of Christianity Today, writes in the November issue (p. 47) of looking across Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point (7,200 ft. elevation, 3,200 above valley floor) at Half Dome (8,800 ft. elevation, 1,600 ft. higher yet), experiencing and observing two reactions: fear and awe. People hold onto each other as they walk tentatively toward the edge. They dread falling over but want to get as close to the edge as possible.
I have been there, and even looking at a picture gives me a weak wobble in my knees. I have had a similar approach avoidance experience at Niagara Falls, especially in the tunnels behind the Canadian Falls, drawn to the power of the rushing water and feeling it pulling me in and over.
This was a profound worship experience for me. I wanted to lie face down in the tunnel and weep. Mark Galli compares this fear and fascination to being encountered by Almighty God: “We find ourselves attracted to the very thing that makes us afraid, and rather than running from it, we want to get closer.” (p. 49)
The call of Isaiah (6:1-8) expresses well this experience common in the Hebrew Scripture, which is reflected in many Psalms. But this is not limited to the Old Testament. As Hebrews 12:29 says, “Our God is a consuming fire.”
In the account of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke 23:33-43, people responded with similar contradictory reactions. At this moment of Jesus’ apparent defeat, Luke presents him as King.
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”
36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43He replied, “Truly I tell you[,] today[,] you will be with me in Paradise.”
If you remember, Luke uses “people” for those who followed Jesus positively while not yet his disciples. He wrote that “the people stood by, watching,” (v. 35) in distinct contrast to the leaders who scoffed, probably directing their ridicule at the people as much as at Jesus.
Luke gave special attention to the centrality of forgiveness in Jesus’ ministry, and his is the only Gospel that records Jesus’ prayer asking forgiveness for those who crucified him and his welcoming to Paradise one of the criminals who was crucified with him.
On this Christ the King Sunday, we pay specific attention to how Luke identified Jesus as King in his crucifixion account. The leaders and the unrepentant criminal scoffed at Jesus as Messiah. But the soldiers mocked him as King of the Jews. Pilate’s inscription “This is the King of the Jews” expressed his contempt for all the Jews, not just the charge against Jesus. “What kind of king do you have, anyway?” But the criminal asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Had he seen or heard Jesus before? Or did he recognize in Jesus’ response that Pilate’s inscription and the soldiers’ mocking were true. Jesus was King, even if they couldn’t see it?
Luke forces us to ask: What kind of King is Jesus? By holding Colossians 1:11-20 up against the way Luke presents Jesus as King at his crucifixion, we get a paradoxical picture of Jesus, to whom we respond with approach and avoidance.
Pagans often considered their kings to be gods. Egyptian Pharaohs and Roman Emperors expected to be revered as divine. But Israel never assigned divinity to her kings. Even the greatest were flawed humans. Colossians pointedly emphasizes that the fullness of God dwells in this King who is the image of the invisible God.
Colossians defines the mission of this God-King in terms of redemption and forgiveness of sins, making peace through the blood of his cross. That takes us directly to Luke’s presentation of Jesus as King at his crucifixion. What kind of King is Jesus? He is a Redeemer-King who gave himself to welcome us into his Kingdom.
Jesus welcoming the criminal Paradise is a puzzle. We may not solve the puzzle, but pondering it sheds light on Jesus as Redeemer-King. Where was Jesus, what was he doing between his death on the cross and his resurrection? Some have suggested he was in Paradise, since he told the criminal, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke did not use punctuation, so the comma in our English translations could go after “today,” as I told the passage. The Apostle’s Creed says “He descended into hell.” More recent translations say “hades” or “the dead.” Though falling out of favor in our time, one theory is that Jesus actually went to hell to take our eternal punishment in that compressed time. As our Disciples forbearers recognized The Apostle’s Creed is not Scripture but a human document. Nevertheless, twice 1 Peter says that Jesus proclaimed the Gospel to the dead in prison (3:19; 4:6) which seems to have been during the time his body was in the tomb. The Eastern Church calls this “The Harrowing of Hell” and shows it in icons as Jesus breaking down the gates of hell to liberate those held prisoner there. The details are fascinating but too complex to fit in this sermon. When Peter made his confession in Matthew 16:18, Jesus said that the gates of hell could not prevail against the Church. In Jesus’ time a city’s gates were to keep invaders out, and not for pursuing enemies.
Since Jesus broke down its gates and invaded hell, we do not need to be afraid of the gates of hell. Hell needs to be afraid of us. As Redeemer-King, Jesus sends us as his agents on his mission to liberate hell’s prisoners.
On the same day John Kennedy was shot, November 22 fifty years ago, C. S. Lewis died. Michael Ward, Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, wrote a commemorative article in this month’s Christianity Today. He wrote that C. S. Lewis is in many ways closer to our postmodern contemporaries than he was to his own. “Our challenge in this post-Christian world is not so much to prove that Christianity is true as to show that it has meaning.” (p. 41)
A little later in the 60s, Karl Barth wrote in “The Rationality of Discipleship” that Christians don’t need to argue better than atheists, they need to live better.

Perhaps you know that the arguments of the new atheists do not revolve around rational or empirical proofs but around the violence and damage perpetrated in the name of religions through the centuries. In such an environment, evangelism must radiate meaning and living, not philosophy. Shallow appeals to let Jesus solve your problems don’t cut it either. In our time, the essential ingredient of evangelism is the approach avoidance reality of our own relationships with God through Jesus in the challenges of life – individually and together. Mark Galli defined it this way. “Perhaps evangelism is not so much one hungry person telling another hungry person where to find bread, as one terrified person telling others where they can go to experience this beautiful fear.” (p. 48)

To learn more about "The Harrowing of Hell" go to

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Best is Yet to Be

Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Luke 20:27-38
November 10, 2013
© 2013

Robert Browning began his 1864 poem Rabbi Ben Ezra with these memorable lines.
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith "A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!''
The poem was inspired by the life of twelfth century Rabbi Ben Ezra but is not his biography. Underneath the words are the love of Robert Browning and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning who had died in 1861. Theirs was one of the great love stories and marriages of literature. They did not get to grow old together as he was 49 when she died at 55. Yet his words brim with hope not grief. Candy and I are coming up on 45 years of marriage, three times as much as the Brownings enjoyed, and we can also affirm love’s improvement with age as I know many of you can as well.
Our daughter-in-law Leanne turns 40 this month. Maybe she’d rather I didn’t broadcast that. I commented to Candy that when I turned 40 I felt I had finally become a real adult, and she quipped about putting “welcome to adulthood” on Leanne’s card. Of course, we didn’t. Now that we are closer to 70 than 60, I’m feeling a certain calm and confidence of soul I had neither known nor expected.
Browning suggested “trust God,” “see all” and “be not afraid.” We are invited to grow old on our journeys accompanied by the eternal God. Aging isn’t easy, but concluding a full life is satisfying. At his 80th birthday, my Dad told his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren that he had accomplished all he had hoped in his life and had no unresolved relationships. Our son David still refers to this as “Grandpa’s nunc dimitus” from Simeon’s song in Luke 2:25-35. “Now let your servant depart in peace.” We can live each day in hope that what lies ahead outshines what is left behind.
The prophecy of Haggai we read this morning comes when the people of Judah had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon and were rebuilding the Temple. After about 70 years, some of them remembered seeing Solomon’s Temple when they were children. Not only was that much more glorious than the one being built by Zerubbabel, but I’m sure that in their childhood memories Solomon’s Temple was gigantic and spectacular. What they saw now was as nothing in their sight. (Haggai 2:3)
But Haggai delivers an amazing word of encouragement from the Lord of Hosts, “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former.” (Haggai 2:9) This suggests physical splendor, but the New Testament recasts the Temple in terms of the coming messiah and God dwelling among the community of faith. Haggai 2:6‑7 hints that the later splendor of the Temple will be unexpected, even cosmic, and come as God shakes heaven and earth, sea and land, and every nation.
I want to be careful not to allegorize Haggai or inappropriately apply his prophecy to 1st Christian Church of Odessa, but I think we can relate to the message. Remembering past decades can leave us feeling about the present, that is seems as nothing in our sight. I suggest we can claim God’s word through Haggai, “Take courage, the later splendor shall be greater than the former.” But just as then, it will come with God’s great shaking, and what emerges will be different than what we remember.
Todd is a friend of our son David and around 40. This week he posted on Face Book, “OK I know I'm old but the world was a better place without bitstrips and hashtags.” Nostalgia easily distorts our perspective on the present. We long for what was familiar and are bewildered by changes coming faster than we can assimilate them. Even when conditions deteriorate, we can trust God that we are headed toward a latter splendor that shall be greater than the former. We can live each day in hope that what lies ahead outshines what is left behind.
In Luke 20:27-40, Jesus anchors this hopeful perspective on the future in our relationship with God.
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] 28and asked him a question,
‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 
29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless.32Finally the woman also died. 
33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’
34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 
36Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.
37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ 
39Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ 40For they no longer dared to ask him another question.
As children of the God of the living, we belong to the resurrection, which means however good or bad things may seem at the moment, the best is yet to be. Though we are still living in this age, we belong to the age of the resurrection. That does not mean ignoring the present age but bringing resurrection hope to bear on daily realities.
We see our human relationship through resurrection eyes. Almost all of the young people on one high school mission trip to Syracuse, NY had a sibling in the group. Our Bible studies were about how to get along as sisters and brothers in the family and in the church. At the end of the week, my oldest son Jon, wrote a “nurture note” to me that he signed, “Jon, your son and future brother.”
As children of the resurrection, we are living into God’s future today, confident that what lies ahead outshines what is left behind. In a world of pessimism, our mission is to welcome discouraged folk into a relationship with the God of the living.
Jesus’ conversation with the Sadducees suggests both continuity and discontinuity between this age and the resurrection. I have found Paul’s analogy in 1 Corinthians 15:38, 42-44 helps me grasp this.
As for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain.
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.
If you look at a seed of any kind: a grain of wheat as Paul suggested or an acorn, you would not guess from the seed what the mature plant looks like. Yet, the DNA in every cell of the seed not only includes all the instructions for the mature plant, it is present in every cell of the mature plant. Of course, Paul did not know about DNA, but he knew wheat seeds only produced wheat, not oak trees or squash vines. God gives our mortal bodies resurrection life, which will be as much more glorious as an oak tree is more glorious than an acorn. Yet, they are intrinsically connected. So as a child of the resurrection, I am not waiting in the dark for something better but am germinating now so we can live each day in hope that what lies ahead outshines what is left behind.