Sunday’s sermon: Send Who? Me?

God is calling

Texts used – Isaiah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

  • There’s a book that I used to read with my mom when I was a little kid. It’s called The Do-Something Day by Joe Lasker.[1]
    • Story about a little boy named Bernie
      • Bernie = excited because “It was a sparkly, sunny, do-something day,” and all he wants to do is help the people he loves
        • Tries to help his dad → Dad’s too busy
        • Tries to help his mom → Mom’s too busy
        • Tries to help his older brother → brother’s too busy
      • Not surprisingly, in the face of all of one “no” after another, Bernie gets discouraged. The sparkle and excitement that started his day disappear pretty quickly, and Bernie decides that, if no one needs him, he’s just going to run away from home. So he leaves his house and starts walking down the street.
    • Fortunately, the story doesn’t stop there … though we’re going to pause there for now. We’re going to pause there because we’ve all had our moments like Bernie, haven’t we? Moments when, despite our best efforts and our purest intentions, the sparkle wears quickly off our day … our week … our moment … our experience, and we are left simply feeling undervalued, underappreciated, and under qualified.
      • Moments like this leave us torn
        • Part of us still wants to do more – be helpful, be courageous, be useful (the “Bernie” part of us)
        • Other part worries that we actually can’t do it – aren’t capable, aren’t equipped, aren’t “the right person” for the job
  • Something about being called by God that makes us feel that uncertainty even more
    • REMINDER: God calls each and every one of us to something
      • Called to a particular career or vocation
      • Called to a role in life (parent, organized person, creative person, roles in local groups, kids’ sport coaches, etc.)
      • Called to a relationship
      • Called to a mission (local mission to international mission)
      • There are lots of different ways that God can call us in our lives. So there’s no pointing fingers this morning. There’s no hearing this message and saying, “She must be talking to the person next to me, because God hasn’t called me.” Wrong. God calls everyone. The question is: What has God called you to?
    • But what is it about that special call from God that makes us so hesitant? That makes us so uncertain and doubtful – doubtful of ourselves, doubtful of the call, even sometimes doubtful of our faith?
      • Maybe because we can’t outwardly and explicitly hear God calling us → With a few exceptions, we don’t actually hear God’s voice. We don’t pick up the phone one day and find God on the other end. Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we did?!
      • Maybe because it’s God calling → makes us feel like we have to be a certain way or act a certain way or think a certain way before we’re “worthy” to answer the call – we don’t think we’re good enough or smart enough or “holy” enough to answer that call
        • Story of when I first started experiencing my call → wasn’t particularly connected to my pastor at the time, and I felt like my call might just be me thinking I could do a better job (recognized that wasn’t a good reason to consider being a pastor)
      • Maybe because at least some of the time (most of the time?), God calls us to things that aren’t necessarily easy
      • Maybe a completely different reason altogether – something that has to do with a personal barrier in your own life
      • Whatever the reason, we often feel like little Bernie when it comes to God’s call in our lives. We want to help … but there are voices – either voices around us or voices inside us – telling us that we can’t do it.
  • And in that, friends, believe it or not, we are in good company. – Scripture readings this morning = just a small sample of those in the Bible who have been called by God and felt wholly unready and unworthy of that call
    • OT reading – prophet Isaiah
      • Called by God to speak words of hope and love as well as words of conviction and admonition to people who had been forcibly removed from their homeland and taken to Babylon → Now, I don’t know about you, but none of that sounds like a fun call to me! Some of Isaiah’s words throughout the book are words of reassurance and promise … but they are still words spoken in a time of great sorrow and pain and cultural isolation. And some of Isaiah’s words are downright harsh – laying bare the sins of the nation of Israel, again in a time of great sorrow and upheaval. So I think it’s safe to say we can understand Isaiah’s reluctance when we read his call story this morning. – text: In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. They shouted to each other, saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke. I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the LORD of heavenly forces!”[2]
        • GRANTED: Isaiah’s call story is a bit more dramatic than most I know, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on that one!
        • in this passage is interesting, especially in Isaiah’s response – “I’m ruined” = odd, sort of nebulous word with lots of different meanings: lost, destroyed, cut off, be silent → all ways for Isaiah to declare his unworthiness, why he shouldn’t be useful to God
          • Goes on to explain that he’s “a man of unclean lips” living among “a people with unclean lips” – scholar: Isaiah’s insistence on his unworthiness is not elicited by God’s appointment of him as a prophet, but anticipates That is, Isaiah’s uncertainty comes not as a response to the invitation to be a prophet but as a reaction to a prefatory display of divine power. Isaiah’s doubt does not seem to be rooted in feelings of inadequacy so much as in guilt.[3]
    • Similar to Paul’s sentiment expressed in our NT passage – text: I’m the least important of the apostles. I don’t deserve to be called an apostle, because I harassed God’s church.[4]
      • Reminder of Paul’s backstory: started life out as Saul, a Pharisee who made it his mission in life to persecute and even kill Jesus’ followers in the early days of the church → had a conversion experience that left him temporarily blind → was baptized and became probably the most prolific early church leader in terms of spreading the gospel, both by word of mouth in his extensive travels (10,000+ miles ON FOOT as far west as Syria and Damascus and as far east as Italy and possibly even Spain) and by the written word in his many letters (which make up a good portion of the NT)
      • And yet despite all the good work that he’s already done for the gospel by the time he writes this first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is obviously still bothered by his actions before his conversion. “I’m the least important … I don’t deserve to be called an apostle.”
        • Acknowledging guilt
        • Acknowledging feelings that that guilt should negate him from serving God
  • And yet despite these feelings of brokenness … of unpreparedness … of imperfection … of unworthiness, both Paul and Isaiah shared God’s word with those who desperately needed to hear it.
    • Paul: Brothers and sisters, I want to call your attention to the good news that I preached to you, which you also received and in which you stand. You are being saved through it if you hold on to the message I preached to you, unless somehow you believed it for nothing. … I am what I am by God’s grace, and God’s grace hasn’t been for nothing. In fact, I have worked harder than all the others—that is, it wasn’t me but the grace of God that is with me. So then, whether you heard the message from me or them, this is what we preach and this is what you have believed.[5]
      • Line from “Here I Am, Lord”[6] (SING): I will give my light to them. Whom shall I send? Here I am, Lord.
    • Is text: Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.” Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “I’m here; send me.”[7]
      • Line from “Here I Am, Lord”[8] (SING): I will speak my word to them. Whom shall I send? Here I am, Lord.
    • Scholar: The divine longing is for someone to speak God’s word to the world. Has God been calling all along? … Set free from sin and guilt, Isaiah shows us what freedom is for: for listening, for hearing the divine voice of longing for the world, and for responding. In freedom, we go into the world to seek and to serve God’s glory, which is all around.[9]
  • So how do we do that? How do we open our hands and our hearts to release our clenched grip on our own feelings of guilt, unworthiness, inadequacy to seek and to serve God’s glory?
    • Return to Bernie’s story in The Do-Something Day: Bernie heads off down the street near his home and encounters a number of business owners who do, in fact, need his help → every time he helps them, they give him something in return
      • Carl at the auto garage gives him a map
      • Dimple at the delicatessen gives him a salami and a sour pickle
      • Bertha at the bakery gives him rye bread and cookies
      • Pfeffer with the produce cart gives him some grapes
      • Tom at the shoe repair shop gives him a pair of high-button shoes
      • Finally, Mrs. Byrd at the pet shop gives him a puppy
      • Finally, when he sits down to rest, Bernie realizes that he has been useful after all. People needed him. They needed his help, and they were grateful for it. Glowing with the satisfaction of this realization, Bernie decides to head home again. → returns home to discover that all of the things the shop owners had given him for his help out were exactly what his family needed as well
    • So it’s in and through community that Bernie is reminded of his giftedness, his worthiness. It’s through the people around him that Bernie is reminded that he is needed and helpful and valued. The truth of the world is that we all come across times when we are unsure of our call – unsure of where God is calling us, unsure of how God is calling us, unsure of whether God is even calling us at all! But when we surround ourselves with Christian community – other followers of Christ who are seeking to serve God’s glory in this world just like we are – often, that community can be our reminder, our sounding board, and our blessed reassurance.
      • Workshop with John Pavlovitz last weekend about avoiding compassion burnout → one of the key elements in remaining steadfast and energized and assured in your call – whatever that call may be! – is participation in a faith community of some kind (church, small group, etc.)
      • Scholar: As the gospel is shared, it becomes incarnate in the particular life of each new believer. The gospel today is the same word of salvation that Paul proclaimed, but it may be expressed in fresh ways as it becomes embodied in other lives. The gospel has a way of letting the light of Christ shine in unique ways through each believer.[10] → So if no one has said it to you lately, friends, let me say it to you: You are indeed gifted. You are indeed worthy. You are indeed valued. And you are indeed called by God to do great and powerful work in this world. Pastor and author Mark Batterson said, “God does not call the qualified, God qualifies the called.” You have something that only you can do … say … share … be in this world, and God is indeed calling you to it. Send who? Me? Yes. Here we are, Lord. Send us! Amen.

[1] Joe Lasker. The Do-Something Day. (New York, NY: The Viking Press), 1982.

[2] Is 6:1-5.

[3] James Calvin Davis. “Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 6:1-8 (9-13) – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 316.

[4] 1 Cor 15:9.

[5] 1 Cor 15:1-2, 10-11

[6] Daniel L. Schutte. “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky (Here I Am, Lord)” in Glory to God. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #69.

[7] Is 6:6-8.

[8] Schutte, #69.

[9] Stacey Simpson Duke. “Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 6:1-8 (9-13) – Commentary 2: Connecting the Reading with the World” in Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship – Year C, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 227.

[10] Lewis F. Galloway. “Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 328.

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Sunday’s sermon: Speak Life

thrive

Texts used – Psalm 133; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

  • Last weekend, I was at the presbytery meeting up in the cities. The presbytery had brought in Rev. Dr. Danielle James – an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada who specializes in religious organizational leadership.
    • According to Rev. Dr. James’ own description: “Dynamic, multi-passionate, change leader … with a passion for helping leaders navigate the creative, complex and challenging territories of their personal and professional lives.”[1]
    • Presentation at presbytery: “How is Your Church Doing, Really, and How Do You Know?” → all about engagement
      • Definition: level of enthusiasm, emotional commitment, and dedication
      • Engagement = #1 accelerator of congregations that are thriving → engaged congregants care about their work as the church
      • Talked about how we often spend time focusing on the INPUTS in a congregation (number of people that come in, number of dollars that come in, etc.) → engaged congregations focus more on OUTPUTS (mission, outreach, etc.)
    • Interesting discussion to have on the presbytery level
      • Discussion for individual churches – no surprise/secret that many congregations across the presbytery (and across the country) are in phases of decline
      • Discussion for the presbytery as well – facing some fairly large and important changes on an organizational level → Just as the church cannot continue to function the same way it did back in the 1950s – or even the 1980s – neither can the presbytery. We know we are in a place and time in which we need to change, and we’re starting to explore what that change may look like. Inviting guests like Rev. Dr. James is a part of that exploration.
    • Spent time during her presentation talking in small groups about how this topic made us feel/what it made us think about → answers, as you can imagine, were wide ranging
      • Some positive: words like hopeful, excited, eager
      • Some negative: words like anxious, concerned, uncertain
    • So there I was sitting in that pew listening to the people around me talk about where their congregations were at and where they were going and where they thought they needed to go, and do you know what I was thinking? I was thinking, “Wow. You know, I’m feeling pretty darn good about our little white church on the hill. We’re doing okay. In fact, by these standards, we’re doing more than okay. We are THRIVING.”
      • Dr. James: you need at least 10-12 engaged people in your congregation in order to really get momentum going and keep it up and to thrive → And while I know our membership is small – “we are a small church with a big mission”! – I’d say we’re way beyond 10-12 engaged people. We’re way beyond 10-12 people that care enough about what we’re doing here in this place to invest their time, their talents, their resources, and, most importantly, their heart. So y’all, my basic message this morning is one of congratulations because we are indeed thriving.
  • Scripture readings this morning are all about thriving communities
    • Ps 133 = psalm celebrating the goodness and blessing of community
      • Obvious – text: How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity![2]
      • Also conveys the message in images – speaks of precious oil poured on the head and running down the beard as well as the dew of Hermon falling down Mount Zion.[3] → Both of these are images of overflowing abundance.
        • Anointing the head with precious oil = way of extending hospitality to someone when they entered your house as well as the way to consecrate new priests and kings
          • Mark of honor
          • Mark of welcome
          • Mark that you were valued/treasured
        • Dew = blessing of the morning – refreshes the world, making everything clean and revived and even sparkling (when the sun hits it just right) → How many times have you been out early in the morning – early enough that the dew hasn’t burned off for the day yet – and looked around at the quiet stillness and beauty around you, and thought, “Wow … what a blessing?” Something that small … something that simple … yet something as critical to our lives and life on earth as those tiny beads of water can convey such powerful, overwhelming feelings of blessing. Hmmm … small, simple blessings. I wonder what other blessings in our lives might be categorized as small and simple?
      • Notice no caveats/requirements listed for receiving that blessing → And that is what a blessed, thriving community does – it welcomes people in, saying, “Come! Sit with us. Be with us. Not because of what we think we can get from you, but because of who you are: treasured, valued, seen.” In her presentation at presbytery last week, Rev. Dr. James spoke of thriving communities as being REAL – Relevant, Experiential, Active, and Loving/grounded in love. Communities that are REAL engage people where they’re at – wherever they’re at – but also invite them to come along and discover something new … something new about the community, something new about themselves, something new about God.
        • Ways that we do that here
          • Engage with each other before, during, and after worship – sit down, have a cup of coffee, share our lives together, genuinely care about what’s happening in each other’s lives → And it doesn’t matter if you’re someone that just walked in the door this morning or someone that’s been walking through that door every Sunday for the past 52 years.
          • Engage with the community around us
            • Mission giving (locally, denominationally, globally)
            • Participating in the community (National Night Out, Gold Rush)
            • Home base for the Food Shelf → welcoming volunteers from this congregation and the wider community into our midst
    • NT reading this morning is all about what that REAL – Relevant, Experiential, Active, and Loving – community is grounded is
      • Familiar passage, I’m sure – read most often at weddings → And yes, it’s certainly an appropriate wedding passage because it speaks of the power and potency of love … obviously something that you want in a marriage. But a marriage is just a category of relationships, and these words that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth are just as applicable to other categories of relationships as they are to a marriage.
        • Text: If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.[4] → It’s about being REAL – Relevant, Experiential, Active, and Loving – in your actions. It’s about being REAL – Relevant, Experiential, Active, and Loving – in your faith. It’s all about being grounded in love – love for each other and love for God.
          • Scripture: One of [the Pharisees], a legal expert, tested [Jesus]. “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” [Jesus] replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as yourself.”[5] → Engaged community. REAL – Relevant, Experiential, Active, and Loving – community. Straight from the mouth of Jesus.
      • May not always know where exactly we’re going in this relationship together, but that’s okay. GOD KNOWS. – text: For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.[6] → It’s not about the knowing. It’s about the believing. It’s about the trusting. It’s about being engaged for the sake of what’s happening right now and what we hope it will become.
        • Text: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.[7]
  • Today is our annual meeting day, friends. We spend time looking at the year that we’ve had and planning ahead for the year that lies in front of us. There are a lot of technical bits to today – committee reports, financial statistics, budgets, and so on. But we do all of this procedural work of the church in the midst of worship to remind ourselves that even the most tedious church business is still part of the mission that God has placed before us: to spread the good news of the gospel. And as this congregation – this little white church on the hill – in this mission and in our lives together, we are indeed thriving. And to that I say, “Well done, good and faithful servants.” Alleluia! Amen.

 

In addition to the sermon, we used tobyMac’s “Speak Life” during our offering, so here it is!

[1] https://www.linkedin.com/in/the-rev-dr-danielle-ayana-james-99347029.

[2] Ps 133:1.

[3] Ps 133:2-3a.

[4] 1 Cor 13:2-3.

[5] Mt 22:35-39.

[6] 1 Cor 13:9-12.

[7] 1 Cor 13:13.

Sunday’s sermon: A Question of Credibility

bible

Texts used – Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-30

  • [hold up Bible] The Word of God … Holy Scripture … the Holy Writ … the Good Book … or one of my favorites, Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (it’s a little simplistic and theologically problematic, but you have to love a clever acronym!) There are a lot of names for the Bible, aren’t there? But whatever we call it, there’s no denying that this is a book that elicits a lot of reactions.
    • Those who are indifferent – who find it no more compelling than any work of fiction you may pull off the shelf at your local library
    • Those who reject and ridicule it
    • Those who even fear it
    • Those who love and revere these words
      • And even among Christians – even among those of us who hold this up as our sacred text – there are vastly differing opinions concerning this book.
        • Differences in translations
          • Straight translations (NRSV)
          • Paraphrases (Good News)
          • Stick close to the original languages (ESV)
          • More colloquial (The Message)
          • Amalgamation of the approaches (CEB)
        • Differences in approach/theology of Scripture
          • Inspired?
          • Inerrant?
      • Yet despite all those different approaches to this book right here, it remains the most read, most sold, and most translated book in the history of the world, with an estimated 100 million copies sold every year in 469 different languages.[1] In my office alone, you can find 12 different versions of the Bible – different translations, different formations, some study Bibles, some regular Bibles … the list goes on and on. So we cannot deny that these words are powerful, powerful words, can we? They carry weight. They carry influence. They carry inspiration.
  • No denying that God’s Word is powerful
    • In texts for today, see …
      • Captivating power → both involve large crowds who, when hear Word of God, are riveted
        • Neh: Facing the area in front of the Water Gate, [Ezra] read [the law] aloud, from early morning until the middle of the day. He read it in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand, and everyone listened attentively to the Instruction scroll.[2]
        • Lk: [Jesus] rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him.[3]
        • This is God grabbing the attention of the crowd – of the masses – through the reading of the word. I think that if you were to turn either of these passages into a scene from a movie, they’d be the kind of moment when the background music pauses and everything is silent. The camera pans slowly over a motionless crowd before focusing in on a few faces – people whose eyes are full of excitement and expectation. They don’t know what’s going to happen next, but they know it’s going to be significant.
      • Significant because of transforming power
        • Transformed the lives of the Israelites
          • Neh back story: written after people had returned from Babylonian exile – Jerusalem had been devastated; temple (God’s holiest place) had been completely obliterated; people had been separated from the heart-center of their faith and culture for hundreds of years à And it was into the midst of this weariness, this desolation, this lostness that God’s Word returned to the people in such a powerful way – a way that inspired them to repent and taught them how to rejoice and celebrate again.
        • And the passage from Lk makes it clear that we all need that powerful, transformative Word of God: speaks of the Messiah coming “to liberate the oppressed”[4] – Gr. “oppressed” = literally “the broken ones” → That’s a category we all find ourselves in sometimes, isn’t it? And there are all sorts of ways in which we can be broken: physically, emotionally, spiritually. But the good news of the gospel – that living, breathing Word that interacts with our lives – reminds us that Christ came to set us free from all of those things that break us … to restore our wholeness and to put us back together again.
    • And that brings us back to what’s so amazing about God’s Word: it truly does interact with our lives. There are no boundaries it can’t overcome. There are no situations it can’t speak to. There is no darkness it can’t brighten. So I want you to think for a minute about which Scriptures have brought you inspiration or strength or comfort. This is the Word interacting with you – God reaching down and touching your life.
  • But the Word of God requires more than just simple, passive reading. It requires engagement. The phenomenon of God’s Word being active and interacting with our lives today isn’t complete unless we react – unless we do what we can to be that Word for the world around us. And that’s where our Scripture stories diverge for this morning.
    • Response in Neh – text: They read aloud from the scroll, the Instruction from God, explaining and interpreting it so the people could understand what they heard. Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all of the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Don’t mourn or weep.” They said this because all the people wept when they heard the words of the Instruction. “Go, eat rich food, and drink something sweet,” he said to them, “and send portions of this to any who have nothing ready! This day is holy to our LORD. Don’t be sad, because the joy from the LORD is your strength!”[7] → These people are thrilled to be hearing this Word, even though, being an “Instruction scroll from Moses,” it probably sounded something like this: The LORD said to Moses: Command the Israelites to bring pure, pressed olive oil to you for the lamp, to keep a light burning constantly. Aaron will tend the lamp, which will be inside the meeting tent but outside the inner curtain of the covenant document, from evening until morning before the LORD. This is a permanent rule throughout your future generations. Aaron must continually tend the lights on the pure lampstand before the LORD.[8] It may not have been the most poetic, awe-inspiring work, but remember that these Israelites had been exiled for generations at this point. They hadn’t been able to hear the Scripture of their God in their holy place for more than a century, but here they finally were back in Jerusalem, back at the site of the temple (ruined though it still may have been), listening to the word of their God for them. And they rejoiced! Oh, how they rejoiced!
      • Rejoiced in the hearing
      • Rejoiced in the freedom to hear
      • Rejoiced in the interaction
      • Rejoiced in the ability to once again practice their faith and their culture completely unhindered and unoppressed
      • This is the type of response we want to have when we hear the word of God, isn’t it? Joyful … overflowingly joyful! Attentive. Worshipful. Abundantly thankful.
    • Contrast that reaction with the reaction we encounter in our NT story – text: He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.” Everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they by the gracious words flowing from his lips. They said, “This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it?” Then Jesus said to them, “Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.’” He said, “I assure you that no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown. …” When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff. But he passed through the crowd and went on his way.[9] → At first, the crowd is amazed by Jesus’ interpretation and teaching. They’re impressed. They’re blown away. But then they start muttering. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son? The carpenter’s boy? Who is he to interpret Scripture? He is no priest. He is no legal expert. He has no training. Who does he think he is?” And suddenly who he is has clouded their eyes and stopped their ears, keeping them from recognizing the Messiah standing right in front of them simply because they knew him – because of their preconceived notions and assumptions and shared history.
      • Jesus’ comparisons admittedly don’t help the situation
        • Prophet Elijah performing a miracle not in drought-ravaged Israel but in neighboring territory of Sidon (present day Lebanon on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea)
        • Prophet Elisha performed miraculous healing not for any of the people of Israel but for Naaman, high-ranking official in the Syrian army – rival, foreign army
        • These two examples most certainly riled up the crowd around Jesus. Did they make his point? Surely. But maybe Jesus went a bit too far with this one because before he knew it, the crowd was not only running Jesus out of town by trying to run him right off a cliff!
      • One of the most intriguing and enigmatic verses in Scripture: But he passed through the crowd and went on his way.[10]
        • No hint as to how Jesus passed through the crowd
        • Gr. “went on his way” = word that occurs often throughout Lk whenever the gospel writer is speaking specifically of Jesus’ journey to the cross → significant because from here, Jesus travels all over the countryside teaching and preaching … but never returns to his hometown
        • So already, Jesus is making his way through one difficult situation for the sole purpose of facing the most difficult one of all – crucifixion, death, and resurrection.
  • Think about the world around us today, friends. Think about the headlines. The social media storms (because, let’s face it, there’s a new one every day). The political commentators and pundits who all seem to need to get their opinion aired no matter the cost. No matter what side of the aisle you fall on, I think we can easily agree that the tone of the nation has turned quarrelsome, belligerent, and ugly.
    • Oxford English Dictionary picks a Word of the Year every year – word that reflects “the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year” → And the word that OED chose for 2018: TOXIC. Toxic. Poisonous. Corrupting. Ruinous. Deteriorating. And friends, as much as I hate to say it … as much as we don’t want to hear it … we are part of the problem. In his hometown, Jesus spoke hard but honest words, and they tried to run him off a cliff. In this day and age, how often do we try to run people out of town, off a proverbial cliff (hopefully not a literal cliff!) simply because we don’t like what they have to say? We’ve decided what they’re saying can’t be true. Can’t be credible. Can’t be important. Just because we don’t like it.
      • Scholar: [Consider] the twenty-first century, with its endless conflicts among nations, political parties, and church factions. In such times, people are quick to demonize one another, and slow to imagine they could learn from someone from another party or faction. Yet churches could be centers of respectful conversation, wellsprings of deep dialogue that leads to discernment. We could hear the Spirit’s voice in one another’s speech and see Scripture fulfilled before us. Perhaps then we would be more able to answer our call to bring and be good news.[11] → Today we heard a tale of two crowds: one that put innate credibility in the word – believed it, revered it, and called it good; the other that cast the word in suspicion, in doubt, in fear. How will we react when it’s our turn to choose? Amen.

[1] http://ingcointernational.com/the-20-most-translated-texts-in-history/

[2] Neh 8:3 (emphasis added).

[3] Lk 4:20 (emphasis added).

[4] Lk 4:18.

[5] Ps 139:4.

[6] Ps 139:14.

[7] Neh 8:8-10.

[8] Lev 24:1-4.

[9] Lk 4:21-24, 28-30.

[10] Lk 4:30.

[11] Ruth C. Duck. “Luke 4:21-30 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Luke, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 106.

Sunday’s sermon: Quenching an Unknown Thirst

water to wine

Texts used – Psalm 36:1-10; John 2:1-11

  • “Don’t talk to strangers” … “Your face is going to freeze like that” … “Money doesn’t grow on trees” … “You can’t judge a book by its cover” … “Wait an hour after eating before you swim” … “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt” … and my personal favorite, “Don’t take wooden nickels.” I mean, really … what is a wooden nickel, anyway?! *sigh* All those lovely, endearing little bits of advice we’ve gotten from parents or parental figures throughout the years. Some of them carry a grain of truth. Others … well, less so. (In all my years, I’ve never, ever met someone whose face did, in fact, “freeze that way.”)
    • One nugget that has been proven more truthful than we may have expected in recent years = old adage “Don’t go grocery shopping on an empty stomach”[1]
      • Study done through the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management
        • 2 groups, neither of which had eaten in at least 4 hrs.
        • Groups both asked to take a survey on binder clips → told they could request as many samples of clips as they wanted
        • Before the survey, group A was given a blind taste test → fed cake before they were asked about binder clips
        • Those in group B (the hungry, non-cake group) asked for 70% more binder clips than the group who had eaten
      • Another study surveyed consumers who had just shopped at a large department store → those who were hungry spent 64% more money than those who were less hungry
      • Most interesting part of these studies = much of the shopping had nothing to do with the actual need → much of the shopping was not food shopping: finding: “Being hungry amps up your desire to acquire things” → So put more broadly, when we feel that empty feeling inside ourselves, we’re more likely to try to fill it with whatever we can – whatever’s easy, whatever’s close at hand, whatever’s convenient, whatever’s popular. But plenty of times, the things we choose actually have nothing to do with satisfying our actual bodily hunger. We try to fill it with entirely the wrong thing.
        • Even applies if we’re in a grocery store – shopping hungry rarely results in a cart full of health food, right? → Feeling that primal, elemental need deep within ourselves has a tendency to override our rational brain. The need to be filled takes over and we begin wandering from one aisle to the next, mindlessly grabbing whatever tickles our fancy and tantalizes our tastebuds until we find ourselves at home with 15 grocery bags to put away, none of which contain what we went to the store for in the first place. Right?
    • Hmmm … filling an emptiness … fulfilling a need. I wonder what our Scriptures may have to say about that this morning.
  • Let’s take a look at that strangle little story from John’s gospel first.
    • Background
      • Beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of John
      • Prior to this = John the Baptist’s witness/testimony to the One coming, Jesus’ baptism, Jesus calling his disciples
      • Today’s story = 1st of seven “signs” in the gospel of John
        • “miracles” in other gospels = “signs” in John → Remember that John was written much later than the rest of the gospels – 30-40 years after Matthew, Mark, and Luke and at least 60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. In all that time, the early church had the opportunity to develop a good deal of theology and theological language surrounding who Jesus was, his purpose and mission as the Son of God, and how his coming related to various passages of the Hebrew Scriptures (or what we call the Old Testament). Part of that theological development included naming those miracles that Jesus performed “signs” – signs that he was, indeed the Son of God, the Messiah for whom they had waited.
          • Other signs: 3 healings, Jesus walking on water, feeding the 5000, and raising Lazarus from the dead
          • Some sources include an 8th sign – miraculous catch of fish when Jesus appears to the disciples after his death and resurrection at the end of the gospel
    • Today’s story = such an interesting gospel story for so many reasons
      • 1st: could probably be subtitled “The Miracle of the Reluctant Savior” → Jesus has to be persuaded (dare we say “goaded”?) by his mother into performing this first and crucial sign – text: When the wine ran out, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They don’t have any wine.” Jesus replied, “Woman, what does that have to do with me? My time hasn’t come yet.” His mother told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”[2]
        • Interesting because in all the stories in all the other gospels (including all the other stories in Jn), Jesus appears to be the driver, the one calling the shots and progressing his ministry forward → But in today’s story, it’s not Jesus who initiates the ministry. Not really. It’s his mother, Mary. She was invited to this wedding, and Jesus and the disciples came along as her “plus one” (and then some!). During the celebration, she somehow found out that the wine was gone, and despite his initial protestations, she encourages Jesus to do something.
        • Also interesting because of the way Mary goes about this → She doesn’t tell Jesus what to do. She doesn’t lay out a plan. She simply says to the servants at the wedding, “Do whatever he tells you.”
          • “whatever” = not one specific word in Gr. but a combination of small words that are all sort of contingent on each other – meaning = “all the things” → So Mary is basically telling to the servants to do something, anything, everything … whatever Jesus says. And in doing this, she’s encouraging them into discipleship. It may be more of a situational discipleship than the life-devoting discipleship of those closest to Jesus. But by listening to Jesus and carrying out his instructions, the wedding servants become temporary disciples nonetheless.
      • Could also be subtitled “Miracle of Ludicrous Abundance” – text: Nearby were six stone water jars used for the Jewish cleansing ritual, each able to hold about twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water,” and they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some from them and take it to the headwaiter,” and they did. The headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine. He didn’t know where it came from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. The headwaiter called the groom and said, “Everyone serves the good wine first. They bring out the second-rater wine only when the guests are drinking freely. You kept the good wine until now.”[3]
        • Need was clearly there: the wine had run out
        • After being prompted by his mother, Jesus fills that need → But he doesn’t just fill the need. If he was simply filling the need to the most basic, bare-minimum parameters, Jesus would have made the wine mediocre. Or he would have filled only one 20-30 gallon jar. Or he would have skipped the massive jars altogether and simply had the servants fill a few empty wine skins – just enough to get by. But instead, Jesus has them fill six empty jars with 20-30 gallons each and turns that water into the finest wine – even finer than what had already been served. Even before most of the guests know that the wine is out … even before most of them are aware of their need … Jesus fills that need with radical abundance.
          • Scholar: It is a miracle of abundance, of extravagance, of transformation and new possibilities. … The extravagance of Jesus’ act, the superabundance of wine, suggests the unlimited gifts that Jesus makes available. … The story invites the reader to see what the disciples see, that in the abundance and graciousness of Jesus’ gift, one catches a glimpse of the identity and character of God.[4]
          • Hansen: Glory shines when the presence of the Word turns the basic into the sublime. … That overwhelmingly generous gift, the equivalent of 605 bottles of the very best wine, is the way the Word made flesh honors human celebration itself. Because Jesus is present, God is present. Because God is present, let the good times roll.[5]
  • Identity and character of a God of radical abundance = what we see played out in OT reading this morning, too
    • 2nd half of the ps = all about the over-abundant goodness and mercy of God – text: But your loyal love, Lord, extends to the skies; your faithfulness reaches the clouds. Your righteousness is like the strongest mountains; your justice is like the deepest sea. … Your faithful love is priceless, God! Humanity finds refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the bounty of your house; you let them drink from your river of pure joy. Within you is the spring of life. In your light, we see light. Extend your faithful love to those who know you; extend your righteousness to those whose heart is right.[6] → The psalmist speaks of God’s blessing – grace, faithfulness, loyal love, light, joy. And these blessings are not in short supply. God doesn’t meter them out cautiously, stingily, making sure each person gets a miniscule apportionment and no more. No. “Your loyal love, Lord, extends to the skies; your faithfulness reaches the clouds. Your righteousness is like the strongest mountains; your justice is like the deepest sea.” There is no halfway for God. There is no partial blessing. There is no holding back. God’s blessing is abundant – bigger, wider, more vast and more all-encompassing than we can even begin to imagine.
      • Reminds me of that Sunday school song: “Deep and wide / Deep and wide / There’s a fountain flowing deep and wide”[7]
      • This is the overflowing, abundant God that Jesus knew. This is the overflowing, abundant God whose love was so vast and extravagant that it could wash over everything – even the horror and pain and darkness of the cross – just to get to us. This is the overflowing, abundant God that turns water not into a bottle or two of mediocre wine but gallons upon gallons of the richest, best wine.
        • Hansen: This scene from the Word’s incarnate life reveals things about what God is like that are hard to find so clearly elsewhere. Jesus is earthy, humble, and generous. God in flesh is ready to care for others, both up close and at a distance. He gives really quirky gifts. Jesus, the incarnate Word, affirms the very human, the ordinary, and the mundane. There’s glory for you.[8]
  • So what about us?
    • 17th century mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made know through Jesus Christ.”
      • Often misquoted: “There is a God-shaped hole,” not vacuum
      • But there’s something more powerful, something truer about a God-shaped vacuum, isn’t there? A hole is a stagnant, lifeless thing. It doesn’t do anything. It simply exists. But a vacuum is active. It has strength. It has pull. It consumes. And there are plenty of times in our lives when we keenly feel the emptiness left behind by that vacuum, aren’t there? Times when we try to fill that void with anything and everything else: relationships, food, drink, busyness/activity, money, material items, homes, cars … the list could go on and on. But like the study that we talked about earlier – like making the mistake of going shopping on an empty stomach – all of those other things that we try to use to fill that God-shaped vacuum will not do. Only God can fill that space, that longing, that emptiness. And as we see in our Scripture readings this morning, friends, God is ready and waiting to radically and abundantly fill it, not with the things we think we want, but with the things God knows we need: grace, love, mercy, joy, and hope. “In your light, we see light. Extend your faithful love to those who know you; extend your righteousness to those whose heart is right.”[9] “He revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”[10] And so do we. Alleluia, and amen.

[1] Kate Ashford. “Shopping Hungry? You’ll Spend More (Even If You’re Not Buying Food)” from Forbes online, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kateashford/2015/02/25/shopping-hungry/#24befbf919dd. Posted Feb. 25, 2015, accessed Jan. 19, 2019.

[2] Jn 2:3-5.

[3] Jn 2:6-10.

[4] Gail R. O’Day. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 9. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 540.

[5] Gary Neal Hansen. “John 2:1-12 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 46, 48.

[6] Ps 36:5-6a, 7-10.

[7] “Deep and Wide” from http://childbiblesongs.com/song-11-deep-and-wide.shtml.

[8] Hansen, 48.

[9] Ps 36:9b-10.

[10] Jn 2:11b.

Sunday’s sermon: Look Around

star of bethlehem

Texts used – Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

  • Yesterday, Peter and I took our kids to the Children’s Theater up in Minneapolis. As our Christmas gift, Peter’s mom gave us tickets to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and yesterday was the big day.
    • Tickets ended up on the main floor basically in the middle – seats 14-17 in a row of nearly 50 seats
    • Most of the row was empty except the seats right next to us → family with 2 parents and 2 young boys
    • During the intermission, the family next to us got up and moved around like pretty much everyone else, and they were just starting to come back as the house lights went down for the 2nd half of the performance. So there they were, trying to get back to their seats in the awkward way that you have to walk when you’re trying to get to seats in the middle of a row … and it’s suddenly pitch black. The performance hadn’t quite resumed yet. The stage lights hadn’t come up yet. It was just plain dark – so dark I couldn’t even see Luke sitting next to me.
      • What did the mom do? Took out her phone and used the flashlight feature (that’s built into pretty much every smartphone nowadays) to easily see their way back to their seats → sat down just in time as Whos down in Whoville came out for the 2nd half of the performance
  • As they sat down, I could see on that mom’s face just how grateful she was for that little flashlight feature. And that whole experience got me thinking about just how easy it is for us to access light today, even in times and places when simply flipping on a light switch isn’t an option. We can use our phones. We can use any number of flashlights or lanterns, from little pen lights to those giant Maglights that basically double as baseball bats. Many of us even have tiny little lights that hang from our keychains. With a little bit of pressure, we get a light that’s bright enough that you don’t really want to be looking at the little diode when it lights up! In this day and age in which light is so readily available – literally at our fingertips 24/7 – I think it’s easy for us to forget just how dark the darkness can be and just how precious light truly is.
    • Today on the church calendar = Epiphany
      • Day to celebrate the coming of the magi
      • Day to celebrate the coming of the light
      • Today is the day for the Star of Bethlehem to really, truly shine. You see, even though we talk about the star throughout Advent and on Christmas Eve … it doesn’t actually appear in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth. Luke’s version has angels and shepherds and an inn and a manger … but no star. It’s only in Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ birth that we find the Star of Bethlehem lending its light. – today’s text: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” … When they heard [King Herod], they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.[1] → So as we mark this day of Epiphany together – the Star of Bethlehem and the coming of the magi – we’re going to talk about how the Light can open our eyes and give us the chance to really, truly look around us.
        • Call to “look around” is one we hear directly out of our OT passage this morning – Is: Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the Lord’s glory has shone upon you. Though darkness covers the earth and the gloom the nations, the Lord will shine upon you; God’s glory will appear over you. Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance. Lift up your eyes and look all around.[2] → It is none other than the dawning of the light that gives us the opportunity to look around, to lift up our eyes – to open them wide! – and see all that is around us. And that is indeed what we must do, friends, because God has much to show us and teach us.
  • Open our eyes to the blessings around us
    • Continuation of the Is passage: Lift up your eyes and look all around you: they are all gathered; they have come to you. Your sons will come from far away, and your daughters on caregivers’ hips. Then you will see and be radiant; your heart will tremble and open wide, because the sea’s abundance will be turned over to you; the nations’ wealth will come to you. Countless camels will cover your land, young camels from Midian and Ephah. They will all come from Sheba, carrying gold and incense, proclaiming the Lord’s praises.[3] → This text is full of blessings! “Your sons will come from far away, and your daughters on caregivers’ hips … The sea’s abundance … the nation’s wealth … countless camels … gold and incense.” All of these are ways that we can be blessed – by the presence of others, by the provision for our needs and maybe even some of our wants, and by the presence of God in and through us.
      • Is reminds readers/hearers of those blessings in the midst of a time when blessings seemed scarce at best → context of Is = prophet during the Babylonian Exile
      • Is = providing that Light in the darkness for the people → words of hope and reassurance and blessing in a time of deep heartache and struggle and despair
        • Light of God’s love and promise opening Isaiah’s eyes so that Isaiah himself could help open the eyes of those to whom he prophesied
        • Scholar: The prophet Isaiah gives a spectacular view of untarnished hope after the dark season of Persian rule. God’s glory is revealed. God’s light bursts through and dispels the prevailing darkness. The prophet begins by telling the people to “arise” and “shine” because hope and light now radiate from God Almighty for all who wish to see.[4]
    • This time of year, starting around Thanksgiving and continuing on through the New Year, we’re often encouraged to “count our blessings” (instead of sheep, as Bing Crosby might tell us). Sometimes it can be hard to do – counting blessings – because things in our life aren’t going the way we planned.
      • Career
      • Relationships
      • Personal goals/achievements
      • But let me ask you this: How many of you watched “It’s a Wonderful Life”[5] this Christmas? How many of you watch it every Christmas? That treasured and timeless story of George Bailey and his little Savings and Loan – a man who, when he thinks he has nothing left and the world would be better off without him, is shown that the blessings in his life are rich and abundant and right before his eyes.
        • “It’s a Wonderful Life” = sort of the modern twist on Isaiah’s words for this morning
  • But there is a flip side to every coin, friends. When our eyes are opened to the incredible blessings around us – no matter what those blessings might be – our eyes are also opened to places of hurt and darkness and desperation in this world … places of great need. God’s Light shines in and on those places, too.
    • Shining of the light = call to action → Isaiah makes it clear that lifting up our eyes and looking around is a blessing. He says, “Then you will see and be radiant; your heart will tremble and open wide.” But we also know that God does not desire our hearts to be opened wide just for our own needs and desires. It’s easy to care about and work for the things that you yourself need. It can be much more challenging to care about and work for the needs of others. And yet the passage itself begins with a call to action rooted in the presence of the light. “Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the Lord’s glory has shone upon you.” Isaiah makes it perfectly clear that, once we have been touched by the Light – once we have opened our eyes and looked around – we cannot go back to living in the dark. We cannot go back to living disconnectedly. We cannot go back to living dispassionately. We cannot go back to ways of disinterest and apathy and self-concern.
      • Scholar: “Arise! Shine!” This is not an invitation. It is a command. … Those who are privileged to stand in the light have a responsibility not just to receive the light, but also to respond to it. “Arise! Shine!” cries Isaiah. “You have the light … now show it! Get into that darkness and start shining.”[6]
    • Perfect e.g. of this in the magi visiting the Christ-child
      • Magi come to King Herod (ruler of the southern kingdom of Judea in which Bethlehem is located) because being astrologers, they have read the signs in the stars and seen the birth of the new king → unaware of just how ruthless and violent Herod could be
      • Herod confirms Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Christ child through his own chief priests and legal experts (foreshadowing side note: these are the Pharisees and Sadducees – same group of people who will try to kill Jesus when he grows up) → tries to get the magi to do his dirty work for him – text: Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”[7]
        • Herod’s true plan = kill the child whom he believes to be a threat to his power before the baby can even grow up
          • Precursor to the passage we often call “The Slaughter of the Innocents” when Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt with Jesus just in time to escape Herod’s decree that all baby boys under 2 years old be killed
        • Magi follow the star and find the Christ child with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem – text: They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. They opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.[8]
        • But instead of returning to Herod as the king had requested, the magi are warned in a dream not to return. God shines the light on them to open their eyes – open their eyes to the situation in which they have found themselves, open their eyes to the true nature of King Herod and his devious request, open their eyes to the danger. And in the light of that knowledge and awareness, the magi choose to act. They choose to arise and shine – to act in good faith on the tug that God placed on their hearts. They choose to do the right thing – evading Herod’s court on their way back east and keeping their knowledge of the Christ child and his family to themselves – instead of doing the easy thing – returning to the evil king and betraying Jesus and his family, offering them up to Herod’s jealousy, wrath, and malicious intentions.
  • In this world in which light is so readily available at our fingertips, it’s easy to forget just how powerful, just how life-giving a single light can be. A light in the darkness can brighten the way. It can lift the spirit. It can encourage the heart. And that baby in that manger – that Christ-child who birth was heralded by Light itself – brings the light of God’s love and hope to our lives anew each and every day. Through the grace of God, Jesus brings that light to us, and by the good news of the gospel, we are called to take it out into a dark and weary world. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Mt 2:1-2, 9-10.

[2] Is 60:1-4a (emphasis added).

[3] Is 60:4-6.

[4] Terriel R. Byrd. “Epiphany of Jesus – Isaiah 60:1-6” from Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 51.

[5] “It’s a Wonderful Life,” released Jan. 7, 1947 by Liberty Films.

[6] Karen Pidcock-Lester. “Epiphany of the Lord – Isaiah 60:1-6, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 198.

[7] Mt 2:7-8.

[8] Mt 2:11.

Christmas Eve sermon: Silent Night, Holy Night

silent night

Texts used – Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20

  • Once upon a silent night, there was a pastor at a little white church. It was Christmas Eve. The snow fell softly and picturesquely from the sky, covering the ground, the trees, and everything for miles around in a soft, fresh blanket of white. Outside, the air was brisk and chilly. Inside, the church was just beginning to warm up for the Christmas Eve service. But there was a problem. Inside that little white church on that quiet Christmas Eve day, the organ refused to work.
    • The year: 1818
    • The church: the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria just north of Salzburg and only a few miles from the Austrian/German border
    • The pastor: Father Joseph Mohr
      • Young priest
      • Had only been at the church for about a year
      • Had a serious problem on his hands: the organ at his little country church wasn’t working (due to mice or rust, no one really knows), and there was no way it could be repaired before Christmas
      • While contemplating a particularly moving theatrical performance of the birth of Christ that he has witnessed earlier that day, Fr. Mohr decided to take a long walk that led him to the top of a hill from which he could view the whole village laid out in its silent, serene splendor. And as he gazed on that beautiful sight, Fr. Mohr remembered a poem he had written a year earlier – a poem about the night of Jesus’ birth, and the angels proclamation to the shepherds, and Jesus’ mother, Mary.[1] And in that moment, Fr. Mohr thought that his poem just might make a good carol for the Christmas Eve service.
      • Went and visited the church organist, Franz Gruber, and asked him to compose a melody to go with the poem
        • Instrument: not the organ but a simple guitar
        • Made its way around Austria and Germany via a couple of well-known family singing groups at the time
        • Authorship finally attributed to Mohr/Gruber 30+ yrs. later
    • Song that those 2 men composed that night 200 yrs. ago has become one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time: Silent Night
      • Translated into English 50 yrs. after it was written and brought to American by German Methodist immigrants
      • More than 200 versions of this song have been recorded
      • Translated into hundreds of languages around the world
      • Song that has crossed borders and boundaries far beyond what Fr. Mohr and Mr. Gruber probably envisioned that night
        • E.g. – sung simultaneously in French, German, and English on Christmas Eve 1914 by soldiers in the trenches during the Christmas truce → chosen because it was the only carol that all the soldiers on both sides knew
        • Song that has come to embody reverence, sacredness, and above all, peace
    • All inspired by another night, so silent and so holy …
  • “Silent night, holy night! All is calm, all is bright ‘round yon virgin mother and child! Holy Infant, so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” → All is calm, all is bright as Emmanuel, God-With-Us comes to this earth. All is calm, all is bright as the Almighty Creator of All That Is, Was, and Will Be breaks into human existence in a whole new way – a way that’s not powerful or commanding but vulnerable and unassuming: the Divine Extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary, the Sacred Uncommon in the most common of places.
    • Bethlehem was not a town of power or prestige
      • Small village situated far from the seat of power
      • “Nothing special,” as we would probably call it today
      • And yet into that “nothing special” came the One Who Would Change Everything: Jesus Christ, the Savior, the Lord God Almighty in human flesh.
    • Text: Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expected a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.[2] → Once upon a silent night, a man and a woman were seeking whatever shelter they could find. They had traveled long. They had traveled hard. They had finally reached their destination, and they were exhausted. But the city was too full – it was overcrowded, and there were no places for them to find even a moment alone, a moment of privacy, a moment of respite. They knocked on every door and inquired at every inn. Finally, the last innkeeper took pity on them and gave them space in the stable with the animals. And there – there in that place that was simple and humble and unassuming … there among the animals and the hay … there in a time that no one expected and a place that no one knew – there, God came to earth.
  • “Silent night, holy night! Shepherds quake at the sign; glories stream from heaven afar, heavenly hosts sing ‘Alleluia: Christ the Savior is born; Christ the Savior is born!” → Another silent night that started out so simple and ended up so holy. The shepherds were just doing what they did every other day of the year. Surely nothing seemed out-of-the-ordinary on the hillside that night as they hunkered down in the grass to catch some rest while their sheep grazed around them. Maybe they talked and laughed. Maybe they built a fire and shared a meal together. Maybe their heavy eyelids had just closed in exhaustion and comfort. I suppose they could have expected interruptions – bandits and thieves, predators, maybe a lost sheep or two. But I think it’s safe to guess that declarative angels and a multitude of the heavenly host weren’t on their list of potential nocturnal interruptions.
    • Silent night that quickly became not-so-silent – full of light and angels and voices proclaiming good news from every angle
    • Mundane night that quickly became oh-so-holy – full of promise and hope and salvation … full of Messiah
    • Most powerful part: God broke into their everyday lives!! – text: In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.[3] → God came into the ordinary and made it extraordinary. God came into the familiar and made it ineffable. God came into the settled and made it sacred.
      • Yes, that night started off silent BUT …
      • God made that night holy
  • “Silent night, holy night! Son of God, love’s pure light radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.” → That night may have started out silent, but it didn’t stay that way for long – not for the angels, not for the shepherds, and not for Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph suddenly had a newborn on their hands. The angels had news to deliver. The shepherds had a Savior to witness. And they all had a God to praise.
    • Text: So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about the child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.[4]
      • Praise for love that surely radiated from that tiny face
      • Praise for long-awaited redemption now at hand
      • Praise for hope that radiated from presence of God among them
      • The people had waited long – oh, so long! – for the coming of this Savior. – OT text from Is mentioned “the people who walked in darkness” and described a bit of that darkness – text: For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.[5] → The history through with Mary’s people, Joseph’s people, the shepherd’s people had waited was long and hard, painful and bloody, full of oppression and distress.
    • And yet in the midst of that darkness, on that dark and silent night, came God’s light – text: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined. … For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.[6] → In the midst of the darkness, on that dark and silent night, came God’s light, pure and bright, radiant and bold, full of love and hope and the promise of a long-awaited redemption. A redemption that rings out true and holy even on another silent night …
  • Once upon a silent night, there was a pastor at a little white church. It was Christmas Eve. The snow covered the ground, the trees, and everything for miles around in a blanket of white. Outside, the air was brisk and chilly. Inside, the church was just beginning to warm up for the Christmas Eve service. Inside were friends and family – those who had known each other their whole lives, those who had just met each other 5 minutes ago, and everything in between. Inside were people who came together to worship and pray, to sing and to praise, to remind each other of the sacredness of that night so long ago and to make this night sacred for each other. After all, isn’t that why we’re here?
    • Bring a moment of holiness and peace into our holiday celebrations
    • Remind ourselves and each other that there’s more to this season that all the busyness → I think that too often, we get wrapped up in the busyness of this season – in the pressure and the push to buy more, host more, decorate more, bake more, try more, do more, be more. We love the festiveness of the holiday season … and yet we are also exhausted by it.
      • Contemporary Christmas song by Amy Grant – “I Need a Silent Night”[7]

  • So on this night – this night 200 years after the birth of a treasured song and more than 2000 years after the birth of a treasured Savior – let us remind each other of the importance of silence and sacredness, holiness and hope. Let us witness again the power and majesty of angels bringing good news. Let us fall on our knees in awe together at the sight of salvation and peace wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. For a child has indeed been born for us, a son given to us. – “Silent night, holy night! Wondrous star, lend thy light; with the angels let us sing Alleluia to our King: Christ the Savior is born; Christ the Savior is born!” Amen.

[1] https://www.commdiginews.com/travel/the-story-of-silent-night-32080/.

[2] Lk 2:4-7 (NRSV).

[3] Lk 2:8-11 (NRSV).

[4] Lk 2:16-20 (NRSV).

[5] Is 9:4-5 (NRSV).

[6] Is 9:1, 6 (NRSV, emphasis added).

[7] Amy Grant and Chris Eaton. “I Need a Silent Night” from The Christmas Collection, © BMG Rights Management, 2008.

Sunday’s sermon: Gifts from the Heart

from the heart

Texts used – Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:26-38

  • So here we are on the last Sunday of Advent … the last Sunday before we celebrate the birth of the Christ child … the end of our Advent journey, and the end of our Advent story.
    • Series this year: The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree by Gloria Houston[1] → story so far
      • Met Ruthie, Papa, and Mama
      • Setting: Appalachia at the end of WWI
      • Began in spring when Ruthie and her papa picked out the perfect balsam fir for the village church’s Christmas tree
      • Papa gets called away to fight in WWI → doesn’t return home with all the other village men like he said he would → left Mama and Ruthie to make ends meet in lots of different ways, including harvesting and providing the Christmas tree for the church on their own in the dead of night
      • Because it’s her family’s turn to provide the tree, Ruthie also gets the honor of being the heavenly angel in the church Christmas pageant
        • Asks Mama for a new dress with long, flowy sleeves to look like angel wings → Mama sacrifices her wedding dress and the silk stockings Papa sent her from Europe to create the dress for Ruthie as well as a little doll with a dress to match and coal-black curls, just like Ruthie’s
    • And as we’ve walked through Ruthie’s story, we’ve also talked about some Advent themes.
      • 1st week: waiting → both the challenge and blessing of waiting
        • Ruthie and Mama: waiting for Papa
        • Advent: waiting for the birth of the Christ child and for Christ’s return
      • Last week: giving → not about what we give but about the sacrifice and generosity of giving in and of itself
        • Ruthie and Mama: giving the tree to the church and Mama making the dress for Ruthie from her wedding dress
        • Advent: glorious gift of Christ
          • Hope
          • Peace
          • Salvation
    • This week, we’re going to build on that idea of giving by talking more about those gifts and where come from.
  • Start with the story → READ PP. 24-30
  • Last week – talked about the attitude of the giving
    • Generosity vs. obligation
  • Today – talk about gifts themselves → the nature of the gifts
    • Gifts in the story: perfect balsam Christmas tree, angel doll, Papa coming home → None of these gifts are big or extravagant. None of them cost a lot of money. They don’t come with gift receipts or upgrade packages or 3-year service plans. There is nothing flashy or fancy about these gifts, but that doesn’t matter. They are priceless exactly because they are what they are. They are priceless because they come from the heart.
      • Simple
      • Gifts of love
      • Gifts that make someone’s day or life better
        • Perfect Christmas tree = made everyone’s celebration that Christmas a little bit better/brighter/merrier
        • Angel doll = made Ruthie’s Christmas a little bit merrier – book: At last it was time to call the names on the presents tied to the tree. Every child in the church received a present. Everyone, that is, except Ruthie. A tear slipped down into the dimple in her cheek. Then one of the kings reached to the tip-tip-top of the perfect balsam Christmas tree. He lifted the tiny angel down. “Why, Ruthie,” said old St. Nick, “this tiny angel looks just like you.” … Ruthie hugged the tiny angel and kissed its silky cheek, which felt just like the silk stockings Papa had sent to Mama.[2]
        • Obvious one – Papa coming home
          • Certainly Mama and Ruthie couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present, even one that cost a fortune
          • Papa coming home definitely made Mama and Ruthie’s Christmas – and lives! – better
          • Ruthie’s prayer from earlier – book: Every night Mama tucked Ruthie into her little bed and listened as she said the same prayer. “Please send my papa home for Christmas,” Ruthie whispered. “And please have old St. Nicholas bring me a doll with a beautiful dress, the color of cream, all trimmed with ribbons and lace.”[3]
  • Scripture readings for this morning touch on this, too – just how powerful simplicity, love, and compassion truly are → how powerful gifts from the heart can be
    • OT passage from Micah makes it clear that the one coming – the gift of the Messiah – will not come from a flashy, prestigious, politically important place but from a little nothing of a town – text: As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you. His origin is from remote times, from ancient days. … He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. … he will become one of peace.[4]
      • Context of Micah : 8th century BCE (~mid 700s) → important because the first half of the 8th saw prosperity and relative peace for the Israelites, but the second half brought great hardships
        • Scholar: A succession of short and unsuccessful kingships, foolhardy efforts at rebellion, and the resurgence of Assyrian power in the region led to the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel and its capital city, Samaria, in 722 BCE. … Into this time of great change, when the fortunes of God’s people had already declined and promised to get even worse, Micah stepped forward to provide a theological interpretation of crucial events facing the nation and its people.[5]
      • So even in the face of that hardship and challenge, Micah makes it clear that the One coming – the Messiah – is coming for glory, yes, but God’s glory, not the Messiah’s own glory
        • Coming to be a gift of peace
        • Coming to be a gift of compassion
        • Think of it this way. Micah refers to the One Who is to Come as a shepherd. Shepherds are not exactly the picture of overpowering strength and illustrious authority. Shepherds are quiet, unassuming protectors and guides. They move their flocks from place to place and keep them safe. And yet this is the image that God gave Micah for the coming Messiah – not an all-powerful king adorned in gold and jewels upon a mighty throne, but a shepherd with a flock.
          • Does not mean that the coming Messiah will not be great – references both to Bethlehem and a shepherd in this passage harken back to King David, Israel’s most beloved king = inference that this Coming One will indeed be great
        • Speaking of Micah, Kathryn Schifferdecker, professor at Luther Seminary: The insignificant are exalted. The tables are turned, and the most unlikely of people are instruments of God’s salvation. From this insignificant little village, a young shepherd boy grows up to become the most beloved king in Israel’s history. And a descendant of that king fulfills God’s long-awaited promises of deliverance, not just for Israel, but for the whole world. It is not the way of the world, this exaltation of the lowliest. But it is the way God works, over and over and over again.[6]
    • NT passage makes 2 things abundantly clear: 1) that the gift of the Messiah is one from God’s own heart, and 2) that this gift will be utterly transformative – text: When the angel came to [Mary], he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High.”[7]
      • Gift from God’s heart → evident in Gr.
        • “favored one” = blessed, chosen
        • Gabriel: “God is honoring you,” literal transl.: “God has found honor with you” – honor = graciousness, gratitude, good will → The most common translation of this word throughout the New Testament is ‘’ So the angel Gabriel is informing Mary that God is both giving her grace and giving the world grace through her in this encounter.
      • And it is in this giving of grace that we see just how transformative this gift is and will be.
        • Transformative for Mary = kind of obvious → Babies change your life. Even ordinary babies alter your life … everything about your life: your schedule, your routines, your priorities, your traditions, your sleep cycle. But this baby that Mary is told she will be carrying is no ordinary baby. This is the Son of God. In a heartbeat, Mary goes from a typical girl engaged to be married to the Mother of Salvation Incarnate. This baby will change more than Mary’s life … more than Joseph’s life. This baby will change all our lives.
          • Karoline Lewis, another professor at Luther Seminary: In only three short verses, [Mary goes] from peasant girl to prophet, from Mary to mother of God, from to denial to discipleship. In a very real way, this is the appropriate transition from Advent to Christmas. Mary’s story moves us all from who we think we are to what God has called us to be, from observant believer to confessing apostle. Moreover, remarkably, impossibly, Mary’s story demands that we acknowledge the very transformation of God. It is no small journey to go from our comfortable perceptions of God to God in the manger, vulnerable, helpless, dependent. Yet, this is the promise of Christmas.[8]
  • This transformation is indeed the promise of Christmas – the promise of a gift that comes straight from the heart of God, a gift that will bring transformation – peace, compassion, and God’s unending grace to a world in need. In the midst of this season of decorations and lights and cookies and trees and packages and bows and all the hustle and bustle of the Christmas holiday, isn’t that our truest wish: peace, compassion, and God’s grace?
    • Last word today: “Grown-Up Christmas List”[9] → embodies our desire for those gifts from the heart – simple gifts of love and a better life – for the good of our own souls and the good of this world.

[1] Gloria Houston. The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree. (New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers), 1988.

[2] Houston, 27-28.

[3] Houston, 9.

[4] Mic 5:2, 4a, 5a.

[5] Daniel J. Simundson. “The Book of Micah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 7. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 534.

[6] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker. “Commentary on Micah 5:2-5a” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=469. Written for Dec. 20, 2009.

[7] Lk 1:28-32a.

[8] Karoline Lewis. “Commentary on Luke 1:26-38” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=469. Written for Dec. 23, 2018.

[9] Linda Thompson and David Foster. “My Grown-Up Christmas List” as performed by Kelly Clarkson and Pentatonix from Christmas Is Here! album, released 2018 by RCA Records.