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, May 22, 2015

Recognizing the Spirit’s Whispers

Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27; 16:4b -15
May 24, 2015
© 2015
The Day of Pentecost
Mark Hewitt

This is my last sermon as I conclude my interim ministry with Highlands Christian Church in Dallas. I hope to have another interim pastorate, but as yet do not have one in place. Thus, this will be the last sermon script posted here until I am serving another congregation. I will post notice of that on Facebook and Twitter when the time comes. Thanks to all who have read and encouraged my ministry.

In Jesus’ farewell message to his disciples he warned them they would be hated (John 15:18-26) but promised them the coming of the Holy Spirit in John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15. For me this brought together Pentecost Sunday with my last Sunday as your interim pastor. Listen to Jesus’ farewell message to his disciples to recognize and follow the Holy Spirit’s whispers.
“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. … I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. 12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
To whom are you listening when the Spirit whispers?
Jesus called the Spirit “the Advocate” in 15:26; 16:7. The Greek word is Paraclete which means defense attorney or legal counsel. Jesus envisioned a courtroom in which accusations would be hurled against his followers, and the Holy Spirit stands by them to defend them.
The Holy Spirit is the opposite of the prosecuting attorney called hasatan in Job 1:6-2:7 and Zechariah 3:1-2, from which the New Testament gets the name Satan, whom Revelation 12:10 calls the accuser.
Jesus also called the Holy Spirit the Spirit of truth in 15:26; 16:13. The Spirit is the one who gives true testimony on behalf of Jesus and us when we are accused.
For what are you listening when the Spirit whispers?
Jesus said the Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness and judgment (16:8-11). When the accusations seem too much to bear, the Spirit becomes judge of the ruler of this world, handling the condemnation of our accuser. The Spirit whispers truth freeing us from shame.
The Spirit testifies on behalf (15:26) of and glorifies (16:14) Jesus, so when affirming Jesus wells up in you, recognize as the Spirit’s whisper and let it out knowing the Spirit speaks in and through you.
Jesus said that all the Father has is his, and the Spirit declares all that belongs to Jesus to us. (16:14-15) Thus the Spirit whispers that you have complete and free access to all of the spiritual resources of the Father in Jesus.
So, in the cacophony of not just a noisy world but an often noisy church, how do you discern the Spirit’s whispers?
Scripture is the starting place, not just informational knowledge but absorbing it into your whole being as your body absorbs nutrition from food. To change the image, keep filling the reservoir of your heart with Scripture so the Spirit can bring relevant truth to the surface at the exact moment you know your resources are inadequate.
Though Jesus said the Spirit “speaks,” I have intentionally said the Spirit whispers. Noisy, cluttered minds tend to drown out the Spirit’s whispers. Even our prayers can be chatter. We don’t let God get a word in edgewise. One thing to pray for is to recognize the Spirit’s whispers and then be quiet long enough to listen for them.
The Pentecost story in Acts 2 says that they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, not each one. Yes, we each have the Spirit indwelling us, but it is together as we listen to each other that we recognize the voice of the Spirit in someone else’s words. When the Spirit speaks to and through the church, all sense a confirmation of having heard from God. I know the Search and Call Committee experienced that when they discerned God called Jonathan as the next pastor for Highlands Christian Church.
Though his disciples couldn’t grasp it at the time, Jesus assured them that it was to their advantage for him to go away so that the Holy Spirit could come. I am certainly not Jesus, nor is Jonathan the Holy Spirit, but it is definitely to your advantage for me to go away and Jonathan to come to you.
As the Lone Ranger said to Tonto at the end of every episode, and Mary Poppins said when she left the Banks family, “My work here is done now.” Between what you have accomplished on this interim journey and with Jonathan starting on as your pastor this week, mixing in some Star Trek, you are poised to follow the Holy Spirit into a mission frontier to explore new ways to bring the Gospel of Jesus to new people, to boldly go where Highlands Christian Church has never gone before.
During these last 9 months, I’d like to think God has conveyed some wisdom, experience, insight and stability to you through Candy and me. To boldly go where God is leading you, it is to your advantage for God to send you energy and imagination through Jonathan.
I have mentioned before how impressed Candy and I have been with the spiritual tenor of this congregation. Just as the Holy Spirit came to propel the early church into their mission, recognizing and following the whispers of the Holy Spirit is essential for you to boldly go into the mission frontier God is opening ahead of you. It doesn’t happen magically with the right pastor or the right programs, it happens when you listen to the Spirit’s whispers together. If what you think you are hearing is really from the Spirit others will confirm it. And if the Spirit is leading you into unfamiliar territory, the Spirit will also equip you with all the know-how, energy, ideas, resources, courage and people you need.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Power Blessing

1 John 5:9-13; Luke 24:44-53
May 17, 2015
© 2015

Ascension, miniature depicted in the Syriac Evangeliary of Rabbula (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, Italy)

Art commentary by Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal C. Parsons
The image of the ascension in the illustrated Rabbula Syriac Gospels is one of the earliest depictions of the scene on parchment (586 CE) and sets the iconography for centuries to come. The figure of Christ is positioned in a mandorla (almond-shaped frame) with his right hand in a blessing gesture and his left holding a scroll. Flanked by angels, he is bearded and wears a golden nimbus. There is a clear distinction between this heavenly realm and those figures who remain on earth. Center stage in the earthly realm belongs to Mary, who stands directly beneath the mandorla of Christ. Her hands are open in exaltation and direct the viewer to the angels standing beside her. While Mary is not explicitly mentioned by Luke as being present at the ascension, she is introduced immediately thereafter (Acts 1:14). Her growing importance in the theological tradition had been signaled by her designation as Theotokos, “Mother of God,” at the Synod of Ephesus in 431, and she becomes more prominent in both literary and visual presentations.
[Many Protestant scholars affirm the title Theotokos for Mary but prefer to translate it “God Bearer.”]

He Was Received Up Into Heaven, by Hanna Varghese

Art commentary Richard A. Kauffman
Hanna Varghese is a Malaysian artist who often works in batik, as she does with this image of the ascension. Varghese was born to Christian parents, and she remembers her mother taking her to a different worship service every week: “My parents encouraged me to attend different churches so that my siblings and I would appreciate the liturgy and traditions of the Christian believers of different denominations. Christians are a minority in Malaysia so we continue to struggle for our identity in a Muslim society.” The ascension reminds Christians everywhere of the coming of God’s Spirit and that the reign of God is a universal one not bounded by nation states.
When we lived in Daybreak, the Roman Catholic community for mentally handicapped adults in Ontario, on Thursdays Candy and I handled some of the supper, evening and bedtime routines with core members to give house assistants a break. I helped Michael Arnett brush his teeth, get pajamas on, set out morning clothes and get to bed. I knelt alongside Michael as said his lengthy evening prayers for people all around the world but never for himself. In one community worship, we laid hands on one of the young woman assistant members to commission her to go to the community in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. As 30 or so folk gathered around her and prayed, Michael raised his hand in the air. I thought he was having his typical muscle coordination problem finding a place to connect with his hand. When all of the prayers subsided, Michael said loudly with his halting voice, “Go for God to Antigonish!” Michael’s apostolic blessing signaled the group that the prayers were finished and they returned to their seats. Michael could not have explained an apostolic blessing, but he knew how to give one, and the whole community recognized it was his spiritual gift that he regularly gave them.
The whole Bible is replete with blessings that are anything but polite well-wishing. A blessing invokes and confers on someone God’s goodness and favor with confidence and authority.
Passing the Peace is rooted in the holy kiss of the New Testament (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians  5:26; 1 Peter 5:14) and was firmly established in the Church’s worship before the 4th century. It has been questioned in our day as wasting time and making guests uncomfortable. When it is only an exchange of greetings, I agree, but when it is a real blessing in which we confer Christ’s peace on each other, it can be powerful. Similarly, the benediction is not a signal the service has ended but sends us into the challenges of a new week with God’s empowering blessing. Even casual “bless you” can be a real blessing.
To the extent that we are aware of God’s presence in us, we are all authorized to confer God’s blessing on each other. Those of us with spiritual leadership have special opportunities to bless those we lead. As Jesus blessed his disciples at his Ascension, I affirm God’s blessing on you as I conclude my interim pastorate with you.
Though the New Testament alludes to Jesus’ Ascension a few times, only Luke reports the actual event in Acts 1:6-11 and Luke 24:44-53. In the Gospel account, Luke emphasizes three powerful blessings.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
When Jesus says that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations” (v. 47), his echo of Genesis 12:2, that this was the fulfillment of God’s blessing on Abraham, so he could be a blessing, by which all the families of the earth would be blessed. On that basis, 1 John 5:13 says we may know that we have eternal life, not arrogance but as a blessing received from God.
By blessing his disciples at his Ascension, Jesus closed what was left open in Luke 1:22 when Zechariah could not pronounce the priestly blessing after the Angel Gabriel told him his wife would have a baby, John the Baptist who would prepared the way for the Messiah. Jesus likely gave the Aaronic benediction from Numbers 6:24-26, with which I will end worship today.
After Jesus blessed them, the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the Temple blessing God. They transformed the place where the religious leaders opposed Jesus into blessing God.
Jesus’ Ascension turns his farewell into a love story. Some have suggested that by naming Bethany, Luke hints that Jesus may have included his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus with the disciples when he ascended. Acts 1:14 also hints that his mother Mary may have been there as well. As Jesus blessed his disciples at his Ascension, I affirm God’s blessing on you as I conclude my interim pastorate with you.
The parallel is obvious between Jesus’ Ascension and sending the Holy Spirit to the disciples and Elijah being carried to heaven in 2 Kings 2:9-12 and his mantle signaling that Elisha had inherited Elijah’s spirit.
Jews of Jesus’ time were hazy about resurrection, which his disciples were working through when the risen Jesus met them. His Ascension was a clear demonstration that he did not descend to Sheol but to the abode of God, where he had promised they would join him.
In a Christian Century article (May 17, 2003), author Lawrence Wood wrote of his friend Carl whose wife Ruth died during Holy Week, and his daughter meant to console him by saying, “It’s especially hard to lose her this time of year.” To which Carl responded, “Are you kidding? This is the best time for my Ruthie. She’s with God now. That’s what this week is all about.”
As Jesus blessed his disciples at his Ascension, I affirm God’s blessing on you as I conclude my interim pastorate with you. So I give you these three blessings.
You are blessed to know that you have eternal life, not only affirmed in 1 John 5:13 but the purpose of John’s Gospel, so you may believe you have life in Jesus’ name.
You are blessed to know God is really among you as the Israelites did when Aaron blessed them in Leviticus 9:22-24. Paul wrote even outsiders would recognize God is really among us in 1 Corinthians 14:25.
You are blessed that God is sending you Jonathan Brink as your new pastor to lead you spiritual vigor, rigorous discipleship and fresh mission engagement.

Friday, May 8, 2015

From Child to Friend

1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
May 10, 2015
© 2015

Our family enjoyed Wonder Years on TV. Brian Stoffregen, a Lutheran Pastor in California remembers one episode in which some of Kevin’s friends complained to him, and he passed on to the PE teacher, how much it hurt to be chosen last for a team in gym. The teacher made Kevin a captain, and he chose his friends rather than the best players. They lost miserably but had fun together. Even though they were the worst athletes, they were pleased to be chosen as Kevin’s friends.
Friendship in our time tends to be casual until a crisis comes. Ancient Greeks took friendship more seriously. Pythagoras called it the epitome of all virtues. Socrates viewed friendship as the most precious of all possessions.
Scripture calls Abraham God’s friend in Isaiah 41:8; 2 Chronicles 20:7 and James 2:23. Exodus 33:11 says, “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” Not just high honor for Abraham and Moses, this says something extraordinary about God.
Public response to the violence between Muslim peoples and against non-Muslims obscures the deepest theological divide between Islam and biblical faith. In Islam, God is understood as so completely other and distant he could not possibly have a Son or friends. People might serve God to avoid punishment or obtain a reward, but not out of mutual love. In John 15:9-17, we listen in on Jesus talking with his disciples as he walked with them from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you.15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
 Did you hear Jesus? He has chosen you to be his close friend to joyfully pass his love to his other friends.
To be the servant or employee of a prominent person may bring valued prestige, but you are still working at the behest of someone else. Especially on Mothers’ Day we realize how wonderful being someone’s loved child is, and we read in 1 John about being God’s children. But Jesus went far deeper when he called his disciples and us his friends. He brings us into full partnership in God’s redemptive mission for humanity, promising us all of the Father’s resources to bear abiding fruit.
Jesus continued the theme of abiding from the vine and branches metaphor to tell us that our purpose is to bear enduring fruit and share in his joy.
In his Gospel, John referred to himself as “the one Jesus loves.” By calling us his friends, Jesus loves each of us too. Catholic priest, Brennan Manning tells of an Irish priest seeing an old peasant kneeling by the side of the road. The priest said, “You must be very close to God.” The old man answered, “Yes, He’s very fond of me.”
Not only has Jesus chosen you to be his close friend to joyfully pass his love to his other friends, he has instructed and empowered you for this love.
As faithful Jews, Jesus’ disciples knew all about commandments, so Jesus built on that with a whole new way of understanding commandments. 1 John 5:3 says his commandments are not burdensome. Jesus said keeping his commandments would completely fill us with his joy. But he did not command a moral code or religious rituals. His commandment is to love all of his other friends the way he loves us.
Knowing his crucifixion was coming the next day, Jesus said the greatest love was to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, which was exactly what he was about to do. This is the quality of love he wants between all his friends.
We celebrate the extraordinary heroism of soldiers, police, medical and humanitarian servants who put their lives at risk for others, whom they often don’t even know. Those are glimpses of the quality of love Jesus empowers between his friends who keep his commandments.
Jesus has chosen you to be his close friend to joyfully pass his love to his other friends. Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner observed that friends are people you make part of your life just because you feel like it. They know your family, how you vote, your achievements and blunders, your religious convictions or lack of them, which are beside the point. Jesus commands us to love his other friends, even when we learn how they vote, their achievements and blunders, their religious convictions or lack of them, all of which may trouble us.
Such love grows out of seeing ourselves as the one who Jesus loves, with all of the ways we know we are unlike him. How differently would you view yourself if you adopted as your primary identity one whom Jesus loves?
When we shift our mentality from someone who disappoints Jesus to someone whom Jesus loves with joy, his commandment to pass his love on to his other friends is both more understandable and more possible. The word for believe in 1 John 5:1,5 is not about holding something to be true but about having faith that Jesus, the Son of God, has entered your life as your close friend.
When we function as Jesus’ loved, close friends, our mission – evangelism if you will – is not about convincing people the Bible is true or to agree with our theology or conform to our moral code. Our mission is to introduce our friends to our closest friend, Jesus, so they have the opportunity for him to become their friend too.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Pastor as Pruning Shear

1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
May 3, 2015
© 2015

We are familiar with Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and the branches. From him we learn to focus on becoming his disciples who reside in him so he can produce fruit in us.
Yet we don’t often think about the implications of Jesus telling this to his disciples as they walked from the Last Supper across the Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane where he prayed and was arrested. Walking in the dark they would have had a direct view of the Golden Vine sculpture on the fa├žade of the Temple, probably lit up with giant torches for the Passover Festival. When Jesus spoke in John 15:1-8 he may have pointed to that grand symbol of Israel as he spoke.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
The image of Israel as a grapevine in deeply rooted in Hebrew Scripture. Isaiah 5:1-7 is especially vivid.
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. … He expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!
I hope you are thinking, “That sounds a lot like one of Jesus’ parables.” He had built several teachings on it, so it was familiar to his disciples, only now he has incorporated them as the major characters of the parable.

From Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and the branches we learn to focus on becoming his disciples who reside in him so he can produce fruit in us. Our first question is: what does it mean to abide in Jesus and how do we do that?
I chose to use “reside” for “abide” to point us in the right direction. Just as Candy and I reside on Flowerdale Lane, as Jesus’ disciples, we live all of our lives in his presence with him as our constant companion. Jesus said he already abides in us, even before we abide in him. Jesus resides in us and with us, whether we notice him or not.
In what ways can we pay attention to Jesus, our constant companion? I’ve mentioned a couple of time the advice his mother gave Fr. Thomas Hopko when he was Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York. “If you want to grow as a Christian read your Bible, say your prayers and go to church.”
When we are faithfully in the Bible, prayer and worship with other Christians, our hearts will overflow with fruit. In Luke 6:45 Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Henri Nouwen once said to me, “If you want to know what is in your heart, listen to what you say when you speak before you think.” I’d add, “Or when you catch yourself before speaking.”
From Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and the branches we learn to focus on becoming his disciples who reside in him so he can produce fruit in us. Our second question is: what does it mean to bear fruit? Sometimes fruit is presented as evangelistic success, but Scripture points in a different direction.
Wine is a symbol of joy in the Hebrew Scriptures, so when Isaiah 5:7 says God looked for justice and righteousness in His vineyard, he described the fruit of joy. In Hebrew, Greek and Latin derived languages, justice and righteousness are cognate words, sometimes interchangeable. Personal piety and social justice are inseparable. They are the same single spiritual fruit.
Paul made this crystal clear in Galatians 5:22-23 when he used the singular – the fruit of the Spirit – with these qualities:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

From Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and the branches we learn to focus on becoming his disciples who reside in him so he can produce fruit in us. Our third question is: pruning sounds painful, is it necessary or productive?
We had a purple plum tree in the backyard of the house where I grew up in California. It grew rapidly to shade a large area which hurt the growth of other things. So every three or four years my Dad would prune it back to about a third size. The year before pruning the plums were at best 1½ - 2 inches, dry and fibrous. The year after pruning the plums were 4 inches or more and so juicy you bent over to eat them. Total yield for eating and jelly was double the years after pruning than the years before.
 While Jesus did warn of the consequences of not abiding in him, I think his main point was positive encouragement that by residing in him, we would do all sorts of things we know we can’t do on our own. When his words abide in us, we can ask for anything and it will be done. (v. 7) Why? Because when we are saturated with his words from Scripture, especially the Gospels, our hearts will overflow, even in our prayers, with his desire that our Father be glorified as we become Jesus’ disciples. The verb indicates we are always in the process of becoming Jesus’ disciples, not that we have somehow arrived.
The transition to a new pastor is pruning season. We started a little during the interim months I have been with you. It is a time of pruning out things that no matter how wonderful and cherished they may have been no longer contribute to the new mission opening before you. In some ways, the storm damage last fall was a kind of enforced pruning – going through storage to dispose of things no longer useful, which opened up more space. When Jonathan Brink leads you into this new era of mission, he will also lead you in discerning what to let go of so you can embrace God’s new future for you.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Good Sheep for a New Shepherd

1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
April 26, 2015
© 2015
The Good Shepherd
Lee Hedges

In the Church’s early centuries, the favorite and most common way of picturing Jesus was as the Good Shepherd. As I look at some of this early Christian art, I am struck with how young Jesus appears and with wide ethnic variation.
The Good Shepherd image is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, famously the 23rd Psalm. Let’s say it together.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The Pharisees reacted with hostility to Jesus’ healing a blind man, and he responded in John 10 with shepherding images, calling them bandits and himself the gate to the sheep fold. In John 10:11-18 he said:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

As the Good Shepherd’s sheep of the Highlands Christian Church fold, welcome Jonathan Brink as Jesus’ appointed shepherd and not as your hired hand.
As the Good Shepherd, Jesus contrasted himself with the hired hands, who most understood as the religious leaders.
The word John used for “good” does not just mean one who does a good job but means the beautiful, handsome, model, ideal, noble shepherd.
The Hebrew prophets referred to God as the shepherd of Israel a number of times.
Isaiah 40:11 “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” Ezekiel 34:11-12 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered.” Jeremiah 23:3-4Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”

The New Testament picked up on this idea of God raising up new shepherds and applied it to pastoral leadership.
In John 21:15-19, when Peter assures the risen Jesus that he loves him, Jesus tells him to tend his sheep. In Acts 20:28 when Paul bids the Ephesian Elders farewell he said, “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God.” 1 Peter 5:2-3 tells the leaders “to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, (and) be examples to the flock.”

In that tradition, God has appointed Jonathan Brink to be the next shepherd of Jesus’ sheep in the Highlands Christian Church fold. He is not your hired hand.
You might think a sermon about the Good Shepherd should be preached to Jonathan, but we know not all sheep are good; some are bullies, not just bullying pastors but other sheep too.
The Hebrew prophets, again, described bully sheep as those who throw their weight around to get their own way regardless of how it affects the other sheep.
Ezekiel 34:17-22 “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

Jesus referred to Gentiles as other sheep that did not belong to this fold (v. 10), but this also pointed ahead to a call for Christian unity, recognizing other Christians as our sisters and brothers when we come together from different ecclesiastical and theological traditions.
Jesus said he must bring other sheep who would listen to his voice. People around Highlands Christian Church are aching to listen to the voice of Jesus. Jonathan Brink is not your hired hand, but the shepherd God has appointed so that people can listen to the voice of Jesus in you.
Both of today’s passages speak of laying down our lives for others as the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep.
To lay down our lives for others is the exact opposite of the bully sheep who insist on getting their own way regardless of who else gets hurt.

In John 10:10 Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” 1 John 3:19-21 explains that this abundant life is free of self-condemnation. It encourages us to have boldness before God because He is greater than our hearts when our hearts condemn us. This is the joy of the Gospel; by laying down his life for us, God puts the shame, guilt and condemnation of our brokenness behind us. When we want to please God more than anything else, we can boldly ask Him for whatever it takes to do that. Thomas Merton expressed it well in this prayer from his book Thoughts in Solitude (page 83).
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

When we look at the example of Jesus, we may think of laying down our lives for each other as an heroic act, but 1 John 3:17 puts it in the context of sharing our worldly goods with someone who has an ordinary need, which may be harder to practice than improbable heroics. So when Jonathan Brink comes as God’s appointed shepherd for you, and not your hired hand, you will be called on to let go of hoped for heroics and lay your life down for each other and the people of Lake Highlands in very ordinary and mundane ways.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Too Good to Be True

1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36-48
April 19 2015
© 2015

If you’ve been using email for any length of time you’ve received scams from someone in Africa asking you to help them retrieve millions of dollars that they promise to share with you. Ponzi investment schemes and even routine advertising make promises we know are too good to be true.
Though rare, a few things that seem too good to be true turn out to be true. After 46 years of marriage, I would certainly say that about my wife, Candy.
Bewildering grief is even more so when the deceased returns to life, which helps explain the confused responses and accounts of the risen Jesus appearing to his disciples.
It’s not too good to be true! The more we see the risen Jesus, the more we become like him.
We’ve looked at the accounts of Easter morning and evening in John’s Gospel. Today we get another take on Easter evening from Luke 24:36-48. In deep grief and bewildered of reports that the risen Jesus had appeared to some disciples, Cleopas and his wife Mary, I suspect (I can’t prove the connection with John 19:25. Most scholars who comment on this acknowledge Clopas and Cleopas are alternate spellings of the same name but do not think these are the same men. I am pretty sure, and several scholars do agree with this, that Cleopas' companion was his wife, not another man. In 1st century Palestine two Jewish men would not be likely to maintain a household together.), walked home to Emmaus. Jesus met them and they invited him for dinner. When he broke the bread, they recognized him, and he vanished. They rushed back to the bewildered disciples in Jerusalem.
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence. 44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.
Jesus said, “look and see,” and “touch and see.” (v. 39) Jesus wanted the disciples to see him as he really was. 1 John 3:2 says, “When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” Too good to be true!
Jesus appeared right while they were talking about the experiences different ones of them had had seeing him. If the men disciples had dismissed the reports of Mary Magdalene and the other women, now Peter had seen Jesus too. In the middle of this conversation Jesus appeared and spoke to them. It was exciting but too far out of their realm of experience to make sense of it. We might think they should have all believed at once, but they were understandably startled and terrified. It was just too good to be true. So in their joy the disciples were disbelieving and still wondering. (v. 41) We’d probably say, “pinch me so I know I’m awake and not dreaming.”
When Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures, he didn’t stop at “the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead,” but went on to say, “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” If it seems too good to be true that Jesus had risen, how much more wonderful that forgiveness was not only possible but available to all of the world’s people! You witnesses of this get to start spreading the word!
Through their witness, Jesus has been revealed to us! 1 John 3:3 says, “When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” The more we see the risen Jesus, the more we become like him. It’s not too good to be true!
1 John 3:1 invites us to see ourselves so identified with Jesus that we know we are loved by the Father and called the children of God. Everything that has come between us and God has been wiped out. It’s not too good to be true!
No matter how contaminated we feel, when we see how pure Jesus is, we have hope in him of purifying ourselves. Paul wrote that we are destined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son in Romans 8:29. And in 1 Corinthians 15:49 that we bear the image of the man of heaven. And in Ephesians 4:13 of reaching the maturity of the full stature of Christ. It’s not too good to be true!
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul wrote that Christ is the first fruit of all who will share in his resurrection. Christians have been intrigued by the appearances of the risen Jesus and speculated about what our resurrection bodies will be like: tangible but not limited by time, space or matter. I believe all these speculations are far too limited for the reality that awaits us. It’s not too good to be true!
The disciples didn’t wait around for their resurrections. They began living and proclaiming what they had witnessed: forgiveness and life. The more we see the risen Jesus, the more we become like him. It’s not too good to be true!
Playing “ain’t it awful” is all too easy when we look at the world around us: violence, power and wealth seem to run things at the expense of the weak, poor and struggling. The hope of reign of Christ’s righteousness and mercy, justice and peace will one day prevail seems too good to be true. But we who have seen the risen Jesus know a cosmic joke on the world: by resurrection power already at work though hidden, it’s not too good to be true!
Your new pastor, Jonathan Brink, met with the Elders Thursday evening. I am impressed and confident that he will focus your spiritual eyes on the risen Jesus and lead you to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in Lake Highlands. It’s not too good to be true!

Candy and I do not see our next step yet, and I will admit to moments of anxiety. Yet, we focus on the risen Jesus and believe he will lead us through the transitions of ministry, launching our son Erik, and supporting Candy’s Dad. You may feel that you cannot clearly discern the path immediately ahead of you. Fix your attention on the risen Jesus so you become like him: loved by the Father, becoming pure, hoping in resurrection. It’s not too good to be true!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Follow the Signs to Joy

1 John 1:1-2:3; John 20:19-31
April 12, 2015
© 2015
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio 1571-1610
I am intrigued that though many if not most commentators on Jesus' invitation to Thomas to touch his wounds do not think Thomas did it, but many painters do want to portray Thomas with his finger in Jesus' wounds. I believe John 20:27-28 is intentionally ambiguous to prompt our pondering. So what do you ponder?
The Sunday after Easter is sometimes called “Low Sunday” because the faithful core people are the ones who come. Associate pastors are assigned to preach to the small crowd. So why should we preach on “Doubting Thomas” when the most convinced are the ones who are there? Nowhere does the New Testament call Thomas a doubter, but “the Twin.” We are Thomas’ twin who believed when he saw, so we who have not seen may be blessed with the joy of life in Jesus’ name.
I will tell Thomas’ story from John 20:19-31 with a couple of variations from the usual translation that I believe are not only more accurate but more helpful.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop becoming an unbeliever and become a believer.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen me you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Thomas was no different than the other disciples. They didn’t believe Mary Magdalene when she told them, “I have seen the Lord.” (v. 18) Thomas didn’t believe when the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” (v. 25) When Jesus appeared on Easter evening, he showed the disciples his hands and his side. A week later, Jesus invited Thomas to see and touch his hands and side.
The New Testament does not call him “Doubting Thomas,” nor does any Greek word for doubt occur in this story. The verbs in verse 27 indicate movement in a direction, not a condition. “Don’t move toward becoming an unbeliever, but move toward becoming a believer.”
Jesus does not classify people as believers or doubters, rather Jesus is concerned about the direction we are headed. Even we who have believed for a long time can easily drift toward living as unbelievers without joy.
We sometimes think believing means affirming a correct understanding of God’s existence and nature. But verse 31 is clear that believing is not the goal but rather the path that takes us toward joy-filled life in the name of Jesus.
We are Thomas’ twin who believed when he saw the risen Jesus, so we who have not seen may be blessed with the joy of life in Jesus’ name.
When read as a question, verse 29 sounds like Jesus is scolding Thomas. While it could be a question, the NIV is correct that it may also be an affirming statement, “Because you have seen me, you have believed.” Read that way, Thomas has seen the risen Jesus on behalf of all of us who have not, thus we are blessed through Thomas’ seeing Jesus.
1 John 1:1 speaks of the Apostolic witness of having heard, seen and touched the word of life – the risen Jesus.
Jean Vanier is the founder of the L’Arche movement of over 100 communities of compassion for mentally handicapped folk, through whom Christ is revealed. He wrote, “Jesus invites each one of us, through Thomas, to touch not only his wounds, but those wounds in others and in ourselves, wounds that can make us hate others and ourselves and can be a sign of separation and division. These wounds will be transformed into a sign of forgiveness through the love of Jesus and will bring people together in his love. These wounds reveal that we need each other. These wounds become the place of mutual compassion, of indwelling and of thanksgiving. We, too, will show our wounds when we are with him in the Kingdom, revealing our brokenness and the healing power of Jesus.” Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John
We are Thomas’ twin who believed when he saw the risen Jesus, so we who have not seen may be blessed with the joy of life in Jesus’ name.
Jesus spoke to all of us when he said to the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” By the Holy Spirit, Jesus sends us to announce the forgiveness of sins. The first verb in each clause (forgive, retain) indicates an instantaneous action, while the second verbs indicate an enduring condition that began before the first verbs. So it is not that we create forgiveness by ourselves, but we announce the forgiveness God has already made available through Jesus.
1 John was not written as an evangelistic tract but for Christians. It assures us that when we acknowledge our struggle with sin the one who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. That is what empowers us to proclaim forgiveness to all. 1 John 1:4 promises joy for those who both announce and receive forgiveness by coming to believe in Jesus.
Jonathan Brink will soon become your pastor to announce Christ’s forgiveness to you and to lead you in proclaiming Christ’s forgiveness to your neighbors. Hebrews 13:17 encourages us to follow our spiritual leaders so that they keep watch over our souls with joy and not sighing. Making our spiritual leaders sigh is harmful to us, but we receive joy when watching over us is a joy to them.
We are Thomas’ twin who believed when he saw the risen Jesus, so we who have not seen may be blessed with the joy of life in Jesus’ name.