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.

Friday, February 22, 2013

God Meets Us in the Spaces Between … Previous and Next

Genesis 15:1-12; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35
February 24, 2013
© 2013


I.                Listen to this quote and think about who might have written it and when. “Our earth is degenerate in the latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common. Children no longer obey their parents. Everyone wants to write a book, and the end of the world is evidently approaching.” Does this sound like some Christian doomsday prophecy preachers? Every few years another one writes a book. Or maybe a commentary on the Mayan Calendar. We know that Socrates and others made similar observations about the impending collapse of Greek and Roman culture over 2,000 years ago. This was quoted in the Chicago Tribune on December 9, 2012 from an Assyrian clay tablet dated to 2800 BCE, 4800 years ago – closer to Abraham than to us. (Christian Century, January 9, 2013, p. 9)

A.           Rather than dismissing our present anxieties by comparing them to ancient anxieties, I want to ask, how can we keep believing God has a redemptive plan when generation after generation sees so much doom?

B.            Whom do you trust when the dark spaces in life seem interminable?

C.            What do you hear when you listen for God in the dark, interminable spaces of life?

II.            When you heard the story in Genesis 15, did you think, “That’s strange?” At that time, when two nomadic chieftains made a treaty, they each brought an animal which they cut in two and holding bloody hands walked between the halves of the animals before offering half of each animal as a sacrifice to each of their patron gods. When our English translations of the Hebrew Scriptures say “made a covenant,” the literal translation would usually be “cut a covenant.”

A.           You may remember back in August and January I mentioned that fire and smoke are often signs of God’s presence. Here the smoking fire pot and flaming torch that pass between the halves of the animals signify that God alone is responsible for keeping the covenant with Abram.

B.            Though Abram does nothing to show he was responsible for the covenant, verse 6 says, “He believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This may be the most important single line in the entire Bible.

1.              About 1400 years after Abram, the prophet Habakkuk (2:4) made it the core of God’s expectations of all people, “The righteous will live by their faith.” The New Testament traces the Gospel to this seed in Romans 1:17; 4:3; Galatians 3:6,11; Hebrews 10:38; James 2:23.

2.              The usual English translations say Abram “believed the Lord.” We tend to use “believe” to mean agreeing that something is true. So we speak of believing in God as meaning we believe God is real. But Genesis makes an entirely different point that could probably be better translated “Abram trusted the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

C.            Abram trusted God’s covenant promise of descendants and land, even though both seemed impossible. Abram and Sari were well beyond childbearing years. They were landless nomads among hostile people who were not about to give them any land. The rest of Genesis records how Abram and his immediate descendants repeatedly do things that seem to interfere with the covenant, but God fulfills it anyway with Isaac’s birth and Joshua leading Israel into the Promised Land five centuries later.

1.              God reminded Abram that God brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give him the land where he was then an alien (v. 7). He had to live in the space between Ur and Canaan. The Ten Commandments open (Exodus 20:2) with God reminding Israel that God had brought them out of Egypt and slavery to bring them into the Promised Land and freedom. For 40 years in the wilderness they lived in the space between Egypt and Canaan, between slavery and freedom.

2.              Hebrews 11:9-11 explains that Abraham could live in this in between space because he looked forward to a city with foundations whose architect and builder is God, much as Philippians 3:20 reminds us that our citizenship is in heaven.

III.       During Lent we follow Jesus in the space between his ministry in Galilee and his crucifixion in Jerusalem. Luke 13:31-35 comes as Jesus had been going through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”32He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

A.           We compare a destructive person in charge of something vulnerable to a fox in the hen house. Jesus gives the fox and the hen a surprising, distinctly Hebrew twist. To call someone a fox was not so much about their cunning but a contemptuous way of saying they were unimportant and insignificant. So Jesus was saying that Herod, whose interest was immediate power was not significant enough to keep him from his long-term mission in Jerusalem.

B.            Then Jesus compared himself to a hen gathering her brood to protect them, but the chicks of Jerusalem insisted on exposing themselves to danger. Like prophets before him, Jesus did not waver from going to Jerusalem and the cross. What seemed like defeat was the path to ultimate victory. Herod the fox lost, and Jesus the hen won.

C.            Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem (vv. 34-35) was inner anguished musing, not a speech to an audience. He quoted Psalm 118:26, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” connecting Israel’s ancient hope with his Triumphal Entry and his redemptive passion. In this space with Jesus, God’s redemptive plan for all humanity was suspended between anticipation and fulfillment.

IV.      What do we hear when we listen for God in the interminable, dark spaces of life?

A.           God says, “Trust me, however dark or long the space.”

B.            Philippians 4:1 tells us to stand firm on this way. God says, “Be patient when the dark path seems long.”

C.            Some time ago I watched a program on Public TV about Chinese Jade. One piece was about 4-5 feet high and 2-3 feet in diameter. It was intricately carved with scenes of people in nature in elegant details that were visible not only on the outside but through a latticework of passages and windows that went all the way through. The history of this piece was that when it was found the Emperor commissioned the premiere jade carver in China to create a work suitable for the Imperial Palace. The carver began his work, and when his son was old enough he taught him not only jade carving but also the design for this special piece. The jade carver and his son also taught his grandson. Eventually the original jade carver died, but his son and grandson passed both the skills and vision for this very special piece of jade to his great-grandson. Shortly before the original jade carver’s grandson died, he and the great-grandson presented the finished carving to the great-grandson of the Emperor who had commissioned the work. He received it with great pomp and gratitude, exclaiming, “This is exactly what we in the Palace have been expecting for four generations!”

Friday, February 15, 2013

God Meets Us in the Spaces between … Purpose and Proof

Deuteronomy 26:1-15; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
February 17, 2013
© 2013


I.                Lent is a 40 day space between recognizing Jesus as God among us after Epiphany and rejoicing in his resurrection on Easter. We seek spiritual renewal and listen for God with greater attentiveness. What is God saying in the spaces?

A.           Our nation, if not much of our world, is in an uncomfortable space between an economy of abundance and of scarcity, between the rivalries of superpowers and the decentralized threats of terrorism from many angles.

B.            Personally we are always living in the spaces between stages of family life (marriage, birth of children, school age, adolescence, adulthood, empty nest, children-in-law, grandchildren). Stages of career and job. Stages preparing for the prime of life and declining from our prime. The spaces of interruptions longer than times of stability.

C.            In this interim time, this congregation is in the space between pastors, the familiar and the unknown. The space between ministry as we’ve done it and as we will do it.

II.            Luke 4:1-13 tells how Jesus was tested by the devil in the space between his baptism and starting his ministry. The Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism so he could begin.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,2where for forty days he was tested by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

A.           The 40 days of Lent are modeled after Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Sundays are not counted, and call us back to resurrection joy. The 40 days of Lent also remind us that Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days receiving the Law, and the Israelites were 40 years in the wilderness.

B.            If you were following along in Luke 4, you may have noticed I said Jesus was “tested” not “tempted.” The word can mean “tempt” but much more often means “test.” The devil was not trying to trick Jesus into a sin as much as testing to expose him as disqualified for his redemptive ministry. I also said “since you are the Son of God” not “if you are.” The devil was not trying to get Jesus to prove he was the Son of God. He knew that. He was testing for what he would do as the Son of God. Luke used the Greek word diabolos from which we get devil. When we talked about Job in October, you may remember the Hebrew word hasatan from which we get Satan. The idea was a prosecuting attorney bringing accusations. That is what the devil was doing here. Testing to see if Jesus would take a shortcut on his mission.

C.            Jesus’ testing warns us not to take shortcuts on our journeys as his disciples.

III.       Neither Matthew nor Luke report what happened during Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, but they do describe these 3 tests that kept coming, which prepares us for the tests we expect.

A.           To turn a stone to bread was not just about satisfying Jesus’ immediate hunger but an attempt to get Jesus to use his power as a magic shortcut to his ministry of meeting human needs, such as hunger. A careful reading of all the Gospels clearly shows that Jesus typically hid his miracles and met a need rather than proved a point. The offering of the first fruits we read from Deuteronomy 26 were not a ritual to curry God’s favor but a practical way to meet the needs of the aliens, widows and orphans who were weak and poor. Instead of a magic shortcut to address the needs of people today, Jesus calls us to lifelong justice and compassionate generosity as his disciples.

B.            Though Jesus knew that God is sovereign over the universe, he did not dispute the devil’s claim to the glory and authority of the kingdoms of the world. He refused the shortcut offered by the devil. To worship was not just to kneel and say some worship words, it would have been to adopt the devil’s means of maintaining worldly glory and authority: the force and violence of political and military power. As we read in Romans 10, renouncing worldly power may feel weak, but God assures us that “no one who believes in him will be put to shame.”

C.            Central to Jesus’ mission was forming a band of disciples through whom the Holy Spirit would build the Church. The devil suggests the shortcut of a spectacular leap from the Temple pinnacle that would surely attract a crowd. Jesus knew the difference between testing God and trusting God. He refused the shortcut of instant results and stayed with the long term plan of making disciples. While they may be legitimate tools, multi-media worship with contemporary music, wiz bang advertising and electrifying preaching are not shortcuts to evangelism and church growth that build disciples. As we read in Romans 10, God’s long-range plan is for us to confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord. Word of mouth may seem slower than mass media, but it is God’s solid way.

IV.      If we are listening for the voice of God in the space of Jesus’ test between his baptism and ministry, what can we hear that will help us avoid shortcuts on our journeys as his disciples?

A.           Jesus’ answer to each test was a word from Scripture – all three of them from Deuteronomy 6, 8. Maybe you feel you don’t know enough Scripture. Count on God to give you what you need to recognize a shortcut and choose the path of discipleship. But don’t be complacent. Commit to a lifetime of continuous learning the Bible, not just the information but get so saturated with it that it changes you and becomes you. I love Abba Poeman’s image. A stone is hard and water is soft, but a stone can be shaped by repeatedly dripping water on it. Our hearts are hard and scripture is soft but by repeatedly exposing our hearts to God’s Word, they are shaped to match the heart of Jesus.

B.            The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism. He was full of the Holy Spirit when he went to the wilderness to be tested. After the testing, he was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit when he returned to Galilee to start his ministry. In January and February we focused on the Holy Spirit. Sensitivity to the nudges of the Holy Spirit will steer us away from shortcuts. Openness to the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit will give us the ability and fortitude for the journey of discipleship.

C.            When we refuse the devil’s shortcuts, we are committing to the path of patience. Instant maturity is an oxymoron, but just getting older doesn’t necessarily produce maturity. That requires awareness and discipline. Lent is an opportunity to awaken our awareness of God and renew our spiritual discipline. As I’ve said before: Bible, prayer and worship with God’s people. Whatever you have chosen for a Lenten discipline, the persistence it requires is certainly less than Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Like training camp for athletes, those 40 days were preparation for Jesus’ ministry. Our Lenten disciplines are not an end or goal in themselves but are preparation for ministry of meeting human need, building an outpost of the reign of God as a congregation, inviting people to become Jesus’ disciples by word of mouth.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Prayer Unveils God’s Glory

Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36
February 10, 2013
© 2013


I.                Twenty years ago Candy and I lived in the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario when I had a four month sabbatical. About 50 mentally handicapped “core members” lived with about 100 “assistant members.” Candy worked in the day program with some of the most disabled, and I worked in the Woodery with some who were higher functioning. I got to know Dave in the Woodery. Though he could not read, he was able to operate a couple of the power tools. He was constantly frustrated at wanting to gain new skills. Shortly after coming to Daybreak we attended community worship in which Dave helped Father Henri Nouwen celebrate communion. When he put on the alb, his face lit up. He treated the bread and wine with reverent care. He clearly knew he was handling the holy. He was beaming as he served us. After worship I said to Candy, “That must have been something of what Moses looked like after he had been with God.”

A.           Moses’ glowing face was supernatural, though he was unaware of it at first. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul concluded his commentary on Moses’ glowing face by writing that as we see the glory of God as reflected in a mirror, we are being transformed from one degree of glory to another. We may not be Moses, but when we have been close to God, we can expect God’s glory to radiate from us, just as it did from Dave.

B.            Paul used Moses’ veil as multi-metaphor to make several points. In 2 Corinthians 3:12 he suggested Moses timidly veiled his face so people wouldn’t see the glow fading, in contrast with the boldness of the hope of the Gospel. Perhaps our timidity at proclaiming the Gospel would be remedied by being with God until we glowed.

C.            Prayer lifts the veil on God’s glory, so we may be transformed from one degree of glory to another.

II.            Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’ praying is the context for the Transfiguration in Luke 9:28-36. But it started in verse 18, when Jesus was praying and asked his disciples about who he was. When Peter answered that he was “The Messiah of God,” Jesus told them he would suffer and die and rise again. Then he said that anyone who wanted to be his disciple would have to take up a cross and follow him, and that some of them would not die before seeing the Kingdom of God.

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said.34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

A.           The Transfiguration was a crucial turning point in Jesus’ ministry. From here forward everything took him to the cross. Just as at his baptism when he started his ministry, now as he headed to the cross, the voice of the Father affirms him as the Son with the Father’s blessing.

B.            Luke told the Transfiguration with words and images that connected it with Israel’s Exodus from Egypt under Moses in the past and the hope of Christ’s appearing in the future with glory at the culmination of history.

1.              Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai. Elijah met God on Mount Horeb. Jesus will return to the Mount of Olives, and was Transfigured on “The Mountain.”

2.              The cloud of God’s glory covered Mt. Sinai. Jesus will return in the clouds, and a cloud overshadowed the Mount of Transfiguration.

3.              For 40 years in the wilderness after the Exodus, the Israelites lived in shelters such as Peter proposed for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.

4.              The Exodus was the great redemptive event of Israel’s history, and the word for “departure” that Moses and Elijah spoke about to Jesus is “exodus.” The “exodus” Jesus was to accomplish at Jerusalem was the great redemptive event for all humanity: his death and resurrection.

C.             Prayer lifts the veil on God’s glory, so we may be transformed from one degree of glory to another.

III.       Jesus’ prayers mark the beginning of two parallel sections meant to be seen together. In verses 18-27 the order is: he was identified as Messiah, he foretold his suffering and ended with coming back in glory. The order reversed in verses 28-36 for the Transfiguration. His glory was revealed while he was praying, he spoke with Moses and Elijah of his departure, and the voice of the Father identified him as the Chosen Son.

A.           Luke wanted us to be sure we knew Jesus was praying at this momentous turning point in his ministry. Since our prayers tend to be asking God to do something for us, we may assume Jesus was asking the Father for something: revelation of his glory, confirmation of his identity and mission, strength for the ordeal ahead, maybe even a precursor to his prayer in the Garden to let this cup pass from him. While these things might have been included, I think Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah about “his departure that he was about to accomplish” points in a different direction. I think Jesus was having a conversation with the Father about the significance of his death and resurrection and what it would bring to people, which continued with Moses and Elijah who had anticipated that redemption in their times and could now see it far more clearly and full of glory.

B.            God does not need our prayers to be informed and instructed about what to do. That is not to say we shouldn’t ask God to act, but if that is most or all of our prayer life, we will miss out on God’s glory. But if our prayers are a conversation with God in which we do most of the listening, glory will shine through on us and we will glow. Back in September I mentioned the definition of prayer from Dimitri of Rostov (1651-1709) which I think gives us insight into Jesus’ praying at his Transfiguration. “To pray means to stand before God with the mind, mentally to gaze unswervingly at [God], and to converse with [God] in reverent fear and hope.” (The Art of Prayer, Igumen Chariton, Faber and Faber, Boston, 1936 Russian, 1966 English; p. 50)

C.            Prayer lifts the veil on God’s glory, so we may be transformed from one degree of glory to another.

IV.      Even if only for the moment, Dave was transformed from his frustrating disability to a degree of glory when he distributed the communion bread and wine. We may not glow like Moses, but as our praying brings us into God’s presence, we will be transformed from one degree of glory to another. Like Moses, we may not notice it ourselves, but others will know when we have been with God.

A.           You may remember Betty Eadie book Embraced by the Light in which she told her 1973 experience of dying after surgery and coming back to tell what she had seen. Many Christians wrote her off, but recently a number of books by Christians telling their stories of coming back from death have recently become popular. While I can’t discount someone else’s experience, I must admit to being skeptical about what these experiences are and what they really tell us about what awaits beyond this life. However, they do share in common a yearning for glory.

B.            A whole constellation of ideas explain of why Moses and Elijah were the ones to talk with Jesus at his Transfiguration. Among them is that their departures from this life were singularly attended by God. God buried Moses outside Canaan. God took Elijah by a whirlwind. These may indicate that death is under God’s sovereign control and point to Jesus’ resurrection.

C.            Though I thought of Moses when I saw the radiance on Dave’s face at communion, I can’t say I’ve seen the supernatural glow of Moses. However, I have been with many people as they are dying and believe some of them have seen the glory of God absorbing them. The account of the 4th century Desert Father, Abba Sisoes rings true.

When Abba Sisoes was at the point of death, while the [Brothers] were sitting beside him, his face shone like the sun. He said to them, “Look, Abba Anthony is coming.” A little later he said, “Look, the choir of prophets is coming.” Again his countenance shown with brightness and he said, “Look the choir of apostles is coming.” His countenance increase in brightness and lo, he spoke with someone. Then the old men asked him, “With whom are you speaking, [Abba]?” He said, Look, the angels are coming to fetch me. … Once more his countenance suddenly became like the sun and they were all filled with fear. He said to them, “Look, the Lord is coming and he’s saying, ‘Bring me the vessel from the desert.’” Then there was a flash of lightning and all the house was filled with a sweet [fragrance]. (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; tr. Benedicta Ward, SLG; Cistertian Publications,1975; p. 215)

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Still More Excellent Way: Love

Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 12:31b-14:1a; Luke 4:21-30
February 3, 2013
© 2013


I.                Today we pick up where we left Jesus teaching in the Nazareth synagogue. Luke 4:21-30 is a flashing series of snapshots of the people responding to Jesus’ reading of Isaiah 61:1-2. Quite a bit more was going on than they highlighted. As was the custom, he was seated for teaching.

Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

A.           Verse 22 is difficult to translate, and the typical English rendition seems to suggest the first response to Jesus was positive. That is a possible translation but probably not the best sense of the event.

1.              “All spoke well of him” could be rendered “all bore him witness” that they realized he had stopped reading before the line “the day of vengeance of our God.” They took some offense at that because they expected God to vent wrath and retribution on all Gentiles when the Messiah came.

2.              “Gracious words” could better be translated “words about grace.” The people figured out Jesus was extending God’s grace to Gentiles, and they were perplexed and offended that someone who grew up in their town would break from common opinion.

B.            Jesus answered the proverb about the doctor’s self-cure with a proverb of prophets not being accepted in their hometowns. Jeremiah was a prime example. He was the object of an assassination attempt; he was imprisoned; he was thrown in a muddy cistern, the king burned his letter. No wonder he was reluctant to become a prophet! With this proverb, Jesus associated the people in the synagogue with those who persecuted Jeremiah and the other prophets. Jesus used the same word for accept the prophet as the Greek translation of Isaiah used for the acceptable year of the Lord, which Jesus implied they’d miss out on.

C.            As the hostility of the people’s reaction increased, Jesus did not reassure them or soften how they understood him. He purposely went on to give examples of Gentile enemies who received God’s grace. The widow of Zarephath through Elijah and Naaman the Syrian through Elisha. Jesus gave this hostile audience the same message Paul gave in 1 Corinthians 13. The most excellent way of the Holy Spirit is to empower us to love those who are hardest to love.

II.            From 1 Corinthians 12:31b to 13:3, Paul asserts the superiority of love over the power of piety. He is certainly not denigrating the gifts of the Spirit, but he is clear that love is superior.

A.           His dissertation on spiritual gifts ends with “I will show you a still more excellent way.” Many translations use the comparative “more.” Some use the superlative “most.” Exclamative: “Most Excellent!” Living love is great!

B.            This paragraph suggests that the power for great communication, great understanding, great action and even great self-sacrifice can all be done without love. We may think we’re working by the power of the Holy Spirit, but if it doesn’t grow out of and extend love, it’s useless.

C.            Paul did not stop writing about the Holy Spirit between chapters 12 and 13. They are connected with the “Most Excellent Way!” Love is the culmination of the work of the Holy Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit can radiate God’s love to the people around us. Our human love is inadequate. Some people are just too difficult to love on our own. The most excellent way of the Holy Spirit is to empower us to love those who are hardest to love.

III.       Couples who are about to get married describe why they love each other like this: “She makes me feel secure.” “He makes me laugh.” “She brings out the best in me.” “He helps me grow.” Romantic love is measured by what the lovers get from each other. You may know that the New Testament uses the Greek word agape for God’s love. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 describes love that gives without needing to receive.

A.           These verses sound ideal when read at a wedding. They also need to be heard in the hospital and the courtroom, in the unemployment line and in the in-laws’ house. This paragraph says that love is specifically for when hard times come: when someone is injured or in trouble, when someone is discouraged, when someone has hurt you.

B.            God’s love is always about the one being loved. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:8, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” That is the model for the love the Holy Spirit generates and radiates from within us. That is the love of Mother Teresa cradling the dying in the gutters of Calcutta with no expectation of even a thank you.

C.            That kind of love calls for a strength none of us have. In July 1962 Martin Luther King used two weeks in jail to assemble a collection of his sermons that became the book Strength to Love. In those sermons he spoke about praying for the strength to love the people who opposed him, who mocked him, who beat him, who arrested him. I think he would even have asked God for the strength to love James Earl Ray who was convicted of assassinating him. In any case, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 describes how the most excellent way of the Holy Spirit is to empower us to love those who are hardest to love.

IV.      In the concluding paragraph of his lyrical treatise on love, 1 Corinthians 13:8-14:1a, Paul explains that love is the more excellent way than all the spiritual gifts because the time will come when the gifts will cease because they will no longer be necessary, but love endures eternally. Because God is love!

A.           We all know that this interim time between pastors is temporary. Sometime this year you expect to have a new “permanent” pastor, and I expect to help another church through their transition. However, even if your next pastor stays with you for 25 years as Les Brown did, that is not forever. There will be other pastors to come further into the future. If you don’t believe it, just look at the portraits in the office hallway. But we do have a longing for permanence. That why most of us resist change. I believe that is a yearning for God’s eternal Kingdom, but to try to hang onto something that is not God’s eternal Kingdom heads us toward idolatry. That’s why Paul wrote that even the gifts the Holy Spirit gives the church are temporary. They are to help us on our journey to the eternal. Thus the godly love that we just barely sample now draws us deeper into God’s eternal love.

B.            Love is not an abstract character quality. Love requires relationships. Relationships are dynamic and growing. So love is the journey of God’s relationship with us. Now we only know God partially, but love is drawing us to know God fully, just as God already knows us fully. Teenagers and even adults snicker when the Hebrew Scriptures describe sexual intimacy as a husband and wife “knowing” each other. Yet, when that human relationship is at its best, it does point us to the complete intimacy with God into which God’s love is drawing us.

C.            The artificial chapter breaks in the Bible can make us miss some important connections. So we started with 12:31b “I will show you a still more excellent way.” We also have to include 14:1a to get the full impact of 1 Corinthians 13. “Now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. Pursue love.” The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put these three in the context of our transitory lives.

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.

Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.

“Pursue love,” Paul concludes. Love is the path through the temporary to the eternal, to know God as fully as God knows us. On that journey, conveying God’s love to others takes priority over even our spiritual accomplishments. On that journey, by God’s love we have the Holy Spirit’s strength to absorb abuse and disappointment from those we love. On that journey, passing God’s love to others guides us unerringly toward face to face intimacy with God. The most excellent way of the Holy Spirit is to empower us to love those who are hardest to love.