Sunday’s sermon: Begin at the Beginning

christian unity

Texts used – Isaiah 43:5-13; Romans 10:8-15

  • Once again, we find ourselves in the season of Lent.
    • Very often a season in which people give up something
      • Food items: chocolate, meat, soda, daily fancy coffee, etc.
      • Bad habits: complaining, negative self-talk, etc.
      • Popular one among younger generations: social media
      • Giving things up = form of fasting → purpose:
        • Symbolically mirror the fasting that Christ did as he wandered in the wilderness for 40 days/nights being tempted by Satan[1]
        • Demonstration of penance → way to turn away from distractions and turn our hearts and minds back toward God
    • But there are other ways to return to God as well. And this is what we’ll be doing with our Lenten sermon series this year. We’ll be turning back to God by taking a closer look at some of the confessional documents of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
      • Installing elders and deacon during annual mtg. last Sun. – constitutional question: Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?[2]  → Here’s the thing: I know not all of us grew up Presbyterian. In fact, more people have come to this congregation by way of at least one other denomination or tradition if not more than that. And yet here we are in the Presbyterian Church of Oronoco. There are confessional documents that are an important part of the way we understand and interpret our faith – so important that we ask everyone serving in a leadership position to affirm those confessions. So throughout Lent, we’re going to explore some of them – what they are, where they came from, and how they continue to turn our hearts and our minds back to God.
  • Necessary place to start: why the confessions are important
    • Presbyterianism = part of what’s called the “Reformed tradition”
      • Grew out of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century when Martin Luther broke from the Catholic Church
      • Reformed tradition started in Switzerland roughly a generation after Luther with a number of reformers who “desired to reform all of life, in the church and in the world, and were willing to retain only those elements of doctrine, worship, and life-style for which they believed there was a positive basis in the Scriptures.”[3]
      • Reformers’ motto: “The church reformed, always reforming.” → This means that there are always new possibilities for our faith –new things to learn, new ways to interpret – because we believe that our God is a living God who continues to work in the world and do new things. But it’s a motto that also ties us back to our history because that history shows us how we have reformed in the past.
        • Book of Heb. (NT): So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.[4]
          • “cloud of witnesses” = all those brothers and sisters of the faith, past and present and even future, who speak to our faith
          • Reformed tradition: confessions provide a voice for that “cloud of witnesses”
    • Late Jack Rogers, prominent Presbyterian scholar and theologian: If we are to be one church, we must learn to discuss theology, to say clearly what we believe. To do that, we must know where we have come from, who we are today, and where we mean to go in the future. … The Book of Order declares that the creeds and confessions of the church identify us as a community, guide us in studying Scripture, and summarize the essence of the Christian tradition. Thus, the confessions equip us for the task of proclaiming the good news.[5]
  • So that’s why Presbyterians put so much stock in the confessions. → basics:
    • 10 confessions affirmed and upheld by the PC(USA) → But fear not! We’re not going to tackle all 10 during Lent. Today, we’re going to start at the beginning with the oldest confession – the Nicene Creed. Then, starting next week, we’ll jump ahead to the confessions that were written in the 20th
      • Curious about the other confessions that we won’t be tackling? I’d be happy to loan you my Book of Confessions so you can read the rest of them.
      • Part of this series = the text of each confession will be included in your bulletin along with a space for taking notes and some questions that you can wrestle with at home  The church reformed, always reforming. 
  • Today’s confession: the Nicene Creed
    • Historical context:
      • 1st creed/confessional document ever written
      • Comes out of the work of 2 councils in the Early Church – the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE  councils = attempt by Emperor Constantine to bring unity to all parts of the Roman Empire, including the church which was incredibly divided at the time
        • Think about it. Christianity was a brand new thing at the time. There were still all sorts of people both coming up with their own theologies and perpetuating other’s theologies of who Jesus was, how he was or wasn’t the Son of God, what that meant, how the Holy Spirit factored into the equation, and so on. All of these different ideas and doctrines were making things in the Early Church pretty conflicted and divisive which, in turn, was making things pretty difficult for Emperor Constantine. So he called the councils together to sort things out – to separate the accepted doctrine from the heresies.
      • Purposes of the Nicene Creed:
        • Help the Early Church define what they believed about the Trinity – God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit  who the individual persons were, their origins, and how they were divine and worthy of worship
        • Stake their claim on the importance of the Hebrew Scripture (today: OT) and their authority in interpreting it differently than that Jews did  a way to differentiate themselves as Christians instead of just another Jewish sect, even though they were using the same Scripture
    • Today = remains the most universally accepted creed by Christians
      • Only creed affirmed by the 3 major branches of the Christian church: Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox Church
        • Affirmed by a wide number of Protestant traditions: Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Church of Christ, Methodists, Episcopalians, some Baptists, etc.
        • Not affirmed by most Pentecostal and non-denom churches
  • So how does the Nicene Creed – these words written more than 1600 years ago! – speak to our faith today?  a couple of key elements
    • Speaks to many of the key tenets of our faith
      • Declares belief in God, in Jesus as the Son of God, and in the Holy Spirit
      • Names God as creator “of all that is, seen and unseen”
      • Speaks to the death and resurrection of Christ “for us and for our salvation”
      • I think we can agree that these are all pretty important things for Christians to believe.
    • Another crucial element of the Nicene Creed = speaks to the unity of Christianity  the Church (universal) as one body, one voice, one confession
      • “We believe in the holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”  That phrase “holy catholic and apostolic Church” can be confusing. The Nicene Creed isn’t holding up the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today above any other branch of Christianity. In this context, “catholic” simply means “universal.” That’s why, if you look at that sentence, the “c” in “catholic” is lower case while the “C” in “Church” is capitalized. This creed is declaring the importance of the unity of the body.
        • Notice that everything in the Nicene Creed is “We believe …”: “We believe in one God … We believe in Jesus Christ … We believe in the Holy Spirit … We believe in the holy catholic and apostolic church …”  differs from the Apostle’s Creed in that way (Apostle’s Creed = all “I”)
  • Scripture readings this morning also speak to the crucial nature of that unity when it comes to faith
    • OT passage = all about reunification  comes out of that time of Babylonian exile when the best and brightest Israelites were captured by the Babylonians and taken from Jerusalem to live in Babylon for generations
      • Isaiah’s word from God to God’s scattered people: Don’t fear, I am with you. From the east I’ll bring your children; from the west I’ll gather you. I’ll say to the north, “Give them back!” and to the south, “Don’t detain them.” … All the nations are gathered together; the peoples are assembled.[6]   speaks reassurance of God bringing the people back together after their long and devastating separation
      • Also speaks to God’s unequivocal power and authority – reassures that God is the one who can do this incredible thing: I, I am the Lord, and there is no savior beside me. I announced, I saved, I proclaimed, not some stranger among you. You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and I am God. From the dawn of time, I am the one. No one can escape my power. I act, and who can undo it?[7]   combats those hopeless, helpless feelings that can come when we feel like things are out of our control
        • Israelites had been conquered by invading Babylonian army and were forced away from their beloved Jerusalem
          • Families were separated
          • Priests and scholars were torn from the Temple, their holiest place of worship and learning
          • Entire culture was thrown into chaos
          • And yet through the prophet Isaiah, God is reassuring the people that nothing is stronger, more powerful, more influential than God. And God will reunite the people once again.
    • NT passage
      • Speaks to the importance of one body in Christ: The scripture says, All who have faith in [Christ Jesus] won’t be put to shame. There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord is Lord of all, who gives richly to all who call on him. All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.[8]   All who have faith … all who call on the Lord’s name. There is no distinction … no matter how many barriers and dividers and qualifiers we may try to set down as broken human beings, God is the Lord of all.
        • One body, one voice, one confession
      • Also speaks to the importance of confession: The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart … Because if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation. … All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved. So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the good news.[9]   This is probably my favorite series of questions in the Bible because it just makes so much sense. “How can people call on someone if they don’t have faith? How can they have faith if they haven’t heard? How can they hear if there is no preacher? And how can there be a preacher if no one is sent?” So often, we have a tendency to complicate everything – complicate the message, how we word it, how it’s delivered, and on and on and on. But this makes things so thoroughly uncomplicated. All they need to do is hear. All we need to do is announce the good news and let God do the rest.
        • This is what the confessions do for us – announce the good news of the grace of God and the salvation we find in Christ
          • Do so from a variety of times and places and contexts throughout history
          • Do so so we can hear and have faith and return to and call on our God once again  Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13.

[2] Book of Occasional Services: A Liturgical Resource Supplementing the Book of Common Worship, 1993. (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 1999), 24 (emphasis added).

[3] Jack Rogers. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 20.

[4] Heb 12:1-2a.

[5] Rogers, 19, 23.

[6] Is 43:5-6a, 9a.

[7] Is 43:11-13.

[8] Rom 10:11-13.

[9] Rom 10:8b, 9-10, 13-15.


Sunday’s sermon: Exposed and Changed


Texts used – 2 Kings 2:1-14; Mark 9:2-9

This past Sunday was our congregational annual meeting. We incorporate the elements of the meeting in with our worship to remind us that even the technical (and sometimes tedious-feeling) work that we do as the church is all for the glory of God. Yesterday was especially special because, in addition to electing and installing a new deacon and 2 new ruling elders, we also welcomed 4 new members into our congregation! 

  • Over the last six weeks, we’ve been talking about the mystery of Jesus’ identity as he began his ministry.
    • May remember: began with a revelation at Jesus’ baptism
      • Holy Spirit coming down in the form of a dove
      • God’s words: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”[1]
      • But this revelation, at least according to Mark’s gospel as we read it, was private. It was a revelation for Jesus’ eyes and ears alone. So despite this incredible revelation that we as readers of Scripture are privy to, Jesus’ secret was still safe.
    • Today’s Scripture reading brings it all full circle → another, very similar revelation … but this one’s not-so-private
      • Text: Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them, and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!”[2]  → If you’re Peter, James, or John, this is not the kind of interaction you’re going to forget! Your teacher’s face and clothes are glowing a brilliant white. A couple of dead Fathers of the Faith suddenly appear with you. And you hear the voice of God emanating from the clouds, declaring your teacher as God’s Son and directing you to listen to him. Yeah … this revelation brings things around full circle and fully exposing Jesus’ secret at the same time.
        • Have to wonder what Jesus thought when he heard God speak those words – words that were almost exactly the same as the words he heard at his baptism
          • Nostalgic and heartwarming?
          • Reassuring and bolstering – sort of a boost in the midst of his ministry?
          • Frustrating because they unequivocally revealed the identity he had worked so hard to keep under wraps?
        • Whatever Jesus’ response may have been, we know how Peter, James, and John were feeling – text: Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified. → And can we blame them?! Whatever Peter, James, and John expected when they followed Jesus up that mountain, this encounter with Moses and Elijah and God almost certainly wasn’t it! And yet they found themselves there in that moment of powerful transformation.
  • Transfiguration Sunday = all about transformation
    • NT reading
      • Physical transformation of Jesus – glowing face and robes
      • Transformation in their own understanding – unmitigated confirmation of Jesus’ identity as God’s Son → not the first time they’d heard such a pronouncement, but definitely the most authoritative and unambiguous (literally straight from God’s mouth to their ears!)
    • OT reading – one of the most sensational stories in the Bible (and frankly, that’s saying something)
      • Dramatic transformation of Elijah → taken up into heaven in a whirlwind by a chariot and horses of fire! – text: They were walking along, talking, when suddenly a fiery chariot and fiery horses appeared and separated the two of them. Then Elijah went to heaven in a windstorm. Elisha was watching, and he cried out, “Oh, my father, my father! Israel’s chariots and its riders!”[3]
        • Reminders about Elijah
          • Elijah = powerful prophet in southern kingdom of Judea, one of the real heavy-hitters in the OT → brought God’s word time and time again to evil King Ahaz and his wife, Jezebel (did horrible things, worshipped other gods, ignored God) → time and time again had to run from them for fear of his life after delivering that word
      • Powerful transformation of Elisha, Elijah’s chosen successor – text: When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “What do you want me to do for you before I’m taken away from you?” Elisha said, “Let me have twice your spirit.” Elijah said, “You’ve made a difficult request. If you can see me when I’m taken from you, then it will be yours. If you don’t see me, it won’t happen.” … When he could no longer see him, Elisha took hold of his clothes and ripped them in two. Then Elisha picked up the coat that had fallen from Elijah. He went back and stood beside the banks of the Jordan River. He took the coat that had fallen from Elijah and hit the water. He said, “Where is the LORD, Elijah’s God?” And when he hit the water, it divided in two! Then Elisha crossed over.[4]  → transformation of Elisha from watcher to doer, from follower to leader, from disciple to prophet
    • And that’s why it’s so fitting that our annual meeting this year falls on Transfiguration Sunday. Friends, we have had an incredibly transformative year as a congregation. We took a leap of faith in deciding to dissolve our 50-yr. yoke relationship and try this “life in ministry” thing on our own. Despite the added expenses and worries that came with that decision, we remained committed to doing what God calls us to do and being what God calls us to be in this community, in the surrounding area, and in the world. We continue to give to missions. We continue to welcome people into our midst. We continue to gather on Sunday mornings for worship. And this year, we have seen ourselves transformed: in spirit and attitude, in engagement and idea-sharing, in dedication to who we are as the Presbyterian Church of Oronoco, and even in numbers (both attendance and financially).
      • Celebrating and welcoming new members today
      • Installing new deacon and elders
      • Discussing budget that, while not perfect, has been in the black more often than not in the last 6 mos. → more than any other time in my entire 5 yrs. here so far!
    • Like Peter, James, and John and like Elisha, we don’t know what lies around the corner following this transformation, and frankly, I don’t think our transformation is even complete yet! But we cannot deny that God is doing great things in us and through us because we were willing to take that leap of faith – to follow God into the unknown, to expose and submit ourselves fully and tenaciously to the call of God, and to not only expect but desire to be changed. And we do this, not alone, but together.
      • Scholar: At Jesus’ transfiguration, he is surrounded by those past and present: Peter, James, John, as well as Moses and Elijah. We too are surrounded and do not journey alone. We carry with us the cloud of witnesses who have lived before us. We carry with us our friends, family, colleagues, and strangers in our midst. Together we are transformed. Together we are a beacon of light to others, inviting them to join on the walk as we circle back to the One who created us, loves us, and calls us to follow him.[5]  → And so, friends, as we continue to review the year we’ve had as a congregation, let us also continue to move forward in hope and joy and faith. Because God is not done with us yet. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Mk 1:11.

[2] Mk 9:2-7.

[3] 2 Kgs 2:11-12a.

[4] 2 Kgs 2:9-10, 12b-14.

[5] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Transfiguration Sunday: Exposed” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 100.

Sunday’s sermon: Secrets, Secrets, Secrets


Texts used – Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39

  • Everyone has secrets – secret stories, secret passions, secret fears, secret wishes, secret struggles. And secrets are a funny thing because when we have a secret, we are both driven to keep it to ourselves (for this is, indeed, the nature of a secret – “something not known or not meant to be known by others”) … we are both driven to keep that secret to ourselves and to share the burden of that secret with someone else – to lighten our own load, even if just by the smallest margin – by sharing our secret with another.
    • Quote from Italian poet and essayist Fausto Cercignani: “A secret remains a secret until you make someone promise never to reveal it.”
    • PostSecret Project[1]
      • Started as a community art project by Frank Warren in 2005 à handed out 300 blank, self-addressed postcards to people on the streets of Washington, D.C. and invited people to anonymously send him a secret
        • Also invited them to decorate the front of the postcards
      • Featured on CBS Sunday Morning a number of years ago
      • Has received over a MILLION postcards from people all around the world
      • Created PostSecret Community
        • Blog – new mailed-in secrets shared every Sunday
        • 6 PostSecret books, all of which have hit the NY Times Best Seller list
        • Traveling interactive theater production – “PostSecret: The Show”
        • Raised over $1,000,000 for suicide prevention
      • The beauty and the intrigue of the PostSecret project is the wide variety of secrets that people send in.
        • Some are raw: “I’m jealous that my sister got to donate her kidney to our Dad!!”
        • Some are sweet: “I have been sending uplifting anonymous cards to random people in the phonebook. I hope they have helped in some small way.”
        • Some are painful: “I can’t pay my bills anymore. My credit card made a nice postcard. I wish I wasn’t in debt.”
        • Some are ordinary: “It’s cold outside. And I wonder what I’m doing in a place like this.”
        • Some are humorous – most common (according to Frank): “I pee in the shower.”
      • All of these postcards are ways for people to anonymously relieve the burden of their secrets … because even though we all have them, that’s what secrets often become: a burden.
        • Created to be a relational people – to build and strengthen our bonds with others and to grow and thrive off those bonds → part of building and strengthening those bonds is sharing with one another … but the nature of secrets hinders that sharing, that bonding. Secrets can often isolate us and even imprison us in our own thoughts and struggles.
    • Over the last few weeks – talking about Jesus, Man of Mystery: how Jesus continues to insist on maintaining secrecy about his identity (mostly in Gospel of Mark) and yet continues to reveal who he is through his actions → Today’s passage is about Jesus and his secret, but it’s also ultimately about the secrets of those whom Jesus heals and how he sets them free of the prisons that their secrets have created.
  • [READ GOSPEL PASSAGE] → Once again throughout this text, Jesus is both trying to maintain the secrecy of his identity and at the same time, revealing his true nature through his actions – healing, casting out demons, teaching in synagogues. And people are obviously starting to take notice.
    • Dichotomy illustrated pretty succinctly in our text: That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed. The whole town gathered near the door. He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him.[2]  → This is exactly it. In his actions, Jesus is revealing more and more about his nature as the Son of God, about the goodness of the Kingdom of God, and about his mission and purpose among the people. And yet, he continues to refuse to let anyone spread the word.
      • Spent quite a bit of time throughout this sermon series talking about Jesus and his secrecy as well as that sense of urgency/immediacy that is so prominent in Mk’s Gospel → today’s passage is no different
        • Scholar: We feel that urgency in the swift healing of Simon’s mother-in-law and in the pressing of the crowds. Jesus’ time is limited, and yet the Gospel repeatedly tells us that not even the people closest to Jesus really know who Jesus is.[3]
  • So today, instead of focusing on Jesus, we’re going to take a closer look at those whom he has healed – those whom he has set free – and how that interaction with Mark’s Jesus – a Secretly Urgent Man, as it were – changes their lives.
    • Something incredibly important and incredibly telling about the first person that Jesus chooses to heal in today’s passage: Simon Peter’s mother-in-law
      • Woman without a name
      • Woman without another mention anywhere in Scripture
      • Most pointedly: a woman → We have to remember that in Jesus’ time, women were regarded as property. First, as the property of their fathers or, if their fathers died before they came of marrying age, the property of an older male relative – a brother, an uncle, etc. Once they had reached marrying age and indeed were bartered into marriage (always arranged and little more than sold for some cattle or a parcel of land), they were the property of their husbands. And if their husband should pass away before them, they either became the responsibility of another male relative (again, a brother or perhaps, if they were lucky, a son) or they were forced to live lives of destitution on the street, begging for whatever they could get to help them survive and harvesting the leftover grain from the fields once the fieldworkers had completed their task.
        • All to say that women held no status whatsoever – no importance, no significance, no power → And yet we see Jesus choose to heal this woman. Again and again, we see Jesus choose the women – for healing, for teaching, for disciplining. Women play a more prominent role in Jesus’ ministry than they ever have before, and in Mark’s Gospel, that role starts with Jesus healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law.
      • Her response to that significant encounter = service
        • Scholar: Now that her healing is complete, she arises and begins serving. She demonstrates for those disciples present and for millennia of future disciples the proper response to an encounter with Jesus’ gospel. We respond to the gospel by sharing it. We respond through ministry. The woman’s ailment robbed her of an important ministry role – that of showing hospitality to friends and strangers.[4]  → Through his healing, Jesus allows Simon Peter’s mother-in-law to once again live freely – free from burdens, free from illness, free from whatever limitations her mysterious ailment imposed.
    • But Jesus doesn’t stop there – text: That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed. The whole town gathered near the door. He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him.[5]  → Again and again and again, people brought their friends and loved ones literally to Jesus’ doorstep for healing. And while we aren’t told much about the diseases that were presented to him, we know that according to Jewish custom, most if not all of those brought before Jesus would have been considered unclean … untouchable … unwelcome in “normal society.” And that is to say nothing of those who were presented as demon-possessed – those who were most likely suffering from a wide variety of both physical and mental illnesses that we have names for today: epilepsy, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and so on.
      • People who had to live their lives and struggle with their illnesses in secret – forced to the fringes of society, to live on the margins → secrets of their darkest days caused them to be incredibly isolated and trapped
        • Isolated from all who knew and loved them for fear of making others unclean
        • Trapped in a cycle of unhealthiness – in mind or in body – that they were powerless to escape on their own
      • But then came Jesus’ healing.
        • Freed their afflicted bodies
        • Freed their troubled minds
        • Freed their broken spirits
        • Instead of condemning and shunning them because of their infirmities, their imperfections, their inabilities, Jesus acknowledges them … touches them (possibly the first touch many of them had felt in a long, long time) … and sets them free.
  • Friends, we know well that there are all sorts of things in our lives that hold us captive: illnesses, injuries, prejudices, fears, compulsions, addictions, obsessions, relationships, grief, pain, brokenness, distrust, contempt, apathy. We all have something that holds us back from living our lives to the fullest – something that makes us hesitate, something that pulls us away, that makes us want to hide ourselves away, that tries to convince us that even the love and grace of God are not powerful enough to heal our brokenness and set us free.
    • OT Scripture this morning reminds us just how all-encompassing and all-reaching the love and grace of God can be – text: Why do you say, Jacob, and declare, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, my God ignores my predicament?” Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary. His understanding is beyond human reach, giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted.[6]  → Even in the face of the deepest, darkest struggle … the most painful grief … the most appalling secret … the most isolating inner dialogue, God is greater. God is stronger. God is understanding. God is loving.
      • Scholar: What secrets are keeping you from living fully? Is shame keeping you in the shadows? Jesus understands and can bring healing. Freed from all that holds us back, we can connect to one another and live fully in community and openness.[7]  → This is why, in a few moments, we’ll come together at Christ’s table – a table that offers wholeness in the face of whatever brokenness you bring to it, not because we have earned that wholeness by coming but simply because we come seeking it.
        • Table that reminds us that Jesus died to set us free – free to live in loving relationship with our God
        • Table of healing
        • Table of abundance
        • Table of grace
        • And so we come to the table, bringing our whole selves – all that we are, all that we’ve been, all that we’ve done, all that we hide – into the Light of Christ. Alleluia. Amen.


[2] Mk 1:32-34.

[3] Marianne Blickenstaff. “Mark 1:29-34 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 40.

[4] David Michael Bender. “Mark 1:29-34 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospel: Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 40.

[5] Mk 1:32-34.

[6] Is 40:27-29.

[7] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Fifth Sunday after Epiphany: Secrets, Secrets, Secrets” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 99.

Sunday’s sermon: The Worst-Kept Secret in Galilee


Texts used – Deuteronomy 18:15-22; Mark 1:21-28

  • There’s a phrase that has snuck its way into our common lexicon, seeming to grow exponentially in popularity and usage with the explosion of social media over the past decade.
    • Phrase = “spoiler alert”: a warning that an important detail of the plot development of a movie, book, TV show, etc. is about to be revealed
    • Phrase that apparently originated back in Apr. 1971 with an article by Doug Kenney in a publication called National Lampoon[1]
      • Article entitled “Spoiled”
      • Purpose of the tongue-in-cheek article was to give away the endings for an entire lifetime’s worth of reading and movie watching → included critical plot points for thing like Citizen Kane, Psycho, all the Agatha Christie novels (among many others)
      • Presented (sarcastically) by author as a public service to “save time and money”
    • Phrase that has grown in popularity ever since but has exploded with the insertion of social media into our everyday lives → frequently see posts on Facebook from someone who’s just been to a popular new movie (for e.g., the newest Star Wars movie that came out about 5 weeks ago) who wants to talk about some crazy plot twist but doesn’t want to ruin it for others
      • “SPOILER ALERT” → big giant space underneath (gives people a chance to avoid reading if they so desire) → begin discussion
    • Shows up in lots and lots of media now as well, especially online articles, blog posts, etc.
      • Maelstrom of articles and blog posts that began with this phrase when the last book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was finally released in July 2007
  • Now, for the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about Jesus as a Man of Mystery in the gospel of Mark – about how Jesus continues to reveal more and more about himself while insisting that those around him remain silent about his true identity as the Son of God. And up until now, with the exception of the localized pronouncements of John the Baptist, maintaining that secrecy has been a fairly easy task for Jesus. But today is different. Today is Spoiler Alert Sunday. Today is the first big step in Jesus’ identity becoming the worst-kept secret in Galilee.
    • Gospel text this morning begins innocently enough: Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum. Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching.[2]  → While it wasn’t necessarily common for random people to enter the synagogue on the Sabbath and start teaching, it wasn’t unheard of either.
      • Travelers
      • Visiting rabbis and other experts in the law (Pharisees, etc.)
      • Scripture does give us slight inkling that there is already something different about Jesus’ teaching: The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts.[3]
        • Gr. “authority” = an interesting word – wrapped up in layers of meaning: freedom of choice/right to act or decide, capability, official power (that exercised by political rulers by virtue of their office) → This is the way that Jesus taught that day – with command and knowledge but also with a freedom and an ease that the people hadn’t seen before. So already, Jesus is starting to get noticed.
    • But then, there’s a disturbance, a commotion. – text: Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit screamed, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God.”[4]
      • Spoiler alert! Jesus’ secret identity has been screamed out in the middle of the synagogue
      • Sort of like all those times in all those superhero movies when someone has that momentary flash of recognition
        • Clark Kent is Superman?!
        • Peter Parker is Spiderman?!
        • Bruce Wayne is Batman?!
        • This Jesus guy is “the holy one from God”?!
    • Now, in all fairness, Jesus could have sidestepped this incident. He could have laughed it off as some guy spouting off – not any kind of situation to be taken seriously. But instead, Jesus reacts: “Silence!” Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. “Come out of him!” The unclean spirit shook him and screamed, then it came out. Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves. “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” Right away (immediately!) the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.[5]  → And there it is – the crucial tipping point.
      • The action – the possessed man calling Jesus out in front of the crowd
      • The reaction – Jesus casts the demon out → This is one of those places that we lose a little bit in the English translation, all. Our text describes Jesus as “speaking harshly to the demon.” But Jesus is doing more than just shouting at the man.
        • Gr. “harsh” carries the promise of action behind the words = rebuke, censure, warn → Because of the word that is used, all those who heard Jesus’ admonition would have understand that this was not an empty declaration.
      • “And immediately the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.”
        • Belief of the people rested not just on Jesus’ words but on his actions as well → surely would have triggered the warning from our OT text this morning for them: The Lord your God will raise up a prophet like me from your community, from your fellow Israelites. He’s the one you must listen to. … Now, you might be wondering, How will we know which word God hasn’t spoken? Here’s the answer: The prophet who speaks in the Lord’s name and the thing doesn’t happen or come about – that’s the word the Lord hasn’t spoken. That prophet spoke arrogantly. Don’t be afraid of him.[6]  → And on the flip side, any prophet that speaks in the Lord’s name and the thing does happen in acting and speaking on behalf of God. This is a Scripture that the people in the synagogue that morning surely would have heard before – something that would have stuck in their minds. And there it was playing out before them. Jesus spoke. The demon was cast out. He must truly be “the holy one of God.”
        • Scholar: [Jesus’] teaching and healing both cause the people around him to react in astonishment and respond with the same type of urgency and authority to spread the news of who Jesus is. His actions reveal a key element of Jesus’ identity: he is one with authority.[7]
        • Sort of like an anti-bullying activity that’s popular with schools and youth groups today – [EXPLAIN TOOTHPASTE ACTIVITY] → Once those words were out of Jesus’ mouth, they couldn’t be unspoken. Things had been set into motion.
          • Maybe it was intentional – this was the right time and the right place to begin to unveil Jesus’ true identity and purpose
          • Maybe it was Jesus being so wrapped up in the work of the Kingdom that his actions spoke before his brain could stop him
  • Either way, Jesus was acting with urgency and authority for the work of God’s Kingdom on earth, and that, friends, is where we find our inspiration – our call – for today. Jesus acts, not thinking about his own self-preservation or how to make things easiest for himself, but as one who immediately wants to do the most amount of good in the lives of the people around him. And he does this, not to garner that honor and attention for himself, but strictly for God’s glory.
    • Sounds like our OT text this morning – text is all about one who would come speaking and acting on behalf of God: I’ll raise up a prophet for them from among their fellow Israelites – one just like you. I’ll put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him.[8]
      • The command is God’s command
      • The words are God’s words
      • The message is God’s message
      • It’s not about making life easier. It’s not about making life safer or cushier or more luxurious. It’s not a message about getting a higher return on what you give or about lifting up those who are already in power. It’s a message of hope in unexpected places. It’s a message of strength in the most weakening circumstances. It’s a message of sight for the blind and healing for those who are suffering – in body, mind, or spirit. It’s a message that spoke to people the minute Jesus said it 2000 years ago, and it’s message that continues to speak to us today – to spur us on in God’s mission the way it spurred Jesus on, despite whatever challenges may arise because of that sacred word. It truly is a message meant to change lives, the lives of those who speak it and the lives of all those with ears to hear. It is a message to change the world.
        • Scholar: Jesus spends much of his ministry teaching, healing, loving, and speaking truth in a way that creates space for people to wonder alternative possibilities for their life than what is dictated to them with rules, laws, and commandments. People are compelled to follow to see if they can figure out for themselves who Jesus is. People are open to believing the impossible because they see the impossible happen before their eyes.[9]
  • But what about when we’re not good with words? What if we’re less like the verbally acrobatic Paul and more like Moses at the burning bush, saying to God, “I’ve never been able to speak well, not yesterday, not the day before, and certainly not now since you’ve been talking to your servant. I have a slow mouth and a thick tongue.”[10]  → story from the gospel this morning is less about words and more about immediate action
    • Yes, Jesus’ actions are precipitated by the words he speaks, but it is the action itself – the driving out of the demon, the healing of the man – that causes those around him to marvel and begin to spread word about this “holy one of God” like wildfire.
      • Not about being able to explain the event
      • Not about being able to explain the intricacies of exactly who Jesus is
      • Not about finding the right words or the right turn of phrase
      • All of these are reactions that we tend to prize in our society today. If you can’t explain it … if you can’t put it into the exact right words … if you can’t defend your point eloquently and effectively … if you don’t have “proof” to back up your point … if you can’t convince me in 60 seconds or less, then when you have to say must not be valid. But in Mark’s gospel of immediacy, in this story in which Jesus reveals more than he may have wanted to about himself for the sake of healing a man in need, it’s not about words. It’s about actions. Not as a way to earn God’s favor or grace. Not as a way to somehow secure our salvation.
        • Paul in Eph: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.[11]
        • Actions for the sake of embodying that message of grace in a way that can truly affect and change people’s lives
        • “How do our actions reveal who Christ is to the world, not by shouting explanations of Christ’s identity, but instead by acting in a ways that creates space, compels, and opens others to believe the impossible?”[12]  How do our actions reveal that Christ? Amen.

[1] Ben Zimmer. “Spoiler Alert! Revealing the Origins of the ‘Spoiler.’” Written Oct. 14, 2014, accessed Jan. 28, 2018.

[2] Mk 1:21.

[3] Mk 1:22.

[4] Mk 1:23-24.

[5] Mk 1:25-28 (extra translation added).

[6] Deut 18:15, 21-22.

[7] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: Extra! Extra! Read All about it!” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 97.

[8] Deut 18:18.

[9] Cho, 98.

[10] Ex 4:10.

[11] Eph 2:8-9 (NRSV).

[12] Cho, 98.

Reflection: The End of an Era

LeSueur church

Yesterday, on Sunday, January 28, 2018, the church that I was raised in held it’s very last service. For years, the attendance has been declining, so the session (church board, for you non-Presbyterians) and the congregation decided it was time to close the doors. And yesterday afternoon was the very last service.

It was an incredibly difficult day. I was baptized, confirmed, and ordained in this church. So many memories of my childhood are wrapped up in this congregation – the building and the people. During the service yesterday, there were a number of former pastors participating as well as 3 women raised up by the church (myself included) who are now ordained and serving the church in various capacities. Each of us was asked to speak for 5 minutes on our memories of The Presbyterian Church of Le Sueur. I basically cried my way through my reflection, but I wanted to share the words. Because even though it’s now closed, this congregation deserves it. So here’s my reflection:

“Our lives begin before our lives.”

A friend recently posted this on Facebook as she reminisced about a beloved grandmother who had just passed away. It was her way of honoring how the life that came before her – her grandmother’s life – molded and shaped and blessed her own life.

Our lives begin before our lives.

That’s a powerful sentiment for me today as I stand in this sanctuary for the last time – a place in which my life began before my life in so many ways. My family helped build this church. The Pinneys were some of the founding members of this church way back in the 1800s. And there are pictures of my grandpa standing just out there with a shovel and his trademark hat as they broke ground on this building more than 60 years ago.

But it goes so far beyond that for me. My life quite literally began before my life because my parents met here, shared the news of their engagement here, married here, raised their family here. Were it not for this congregation – for this church that had been my dad’s home since he was born and became my mom’s home-away-from-home when she moved here – I probably would not exist today.

And of course, the life of my faith began before my life in this congregation. I was baptized, confirmed, and ordained within this beloved sanctuary. As a child, I toddled down these hallways, sang Sunday school songs (off-key) at the top of my voice, participated in all the Christmas and Easter pageants right up there, read liturgy as a layreader and counted heads as an usher. I taught Sunday school in those rooms back there and was enriched by the adult Sunday school class in ways that still influence and inform my life and my faith today. The first sermon I ever preached was in that pulpit right behind me.

As I spent 18 mos. seeking my first call, this congregation gave me a safe space – to preach, to teach, to try out all manner of crazy worship ideas! Y’all were so patient and so forgiving! In all its openness and compassion, this congregation helped me find and develop my voice – as a Christian, as a strong woman of faith, and eventually as a pastor. This congregation taught me the value of relationships in ministry, the power of the bond that is created when we work and worship and pray and praise together in true, loving, engaging community.

Our lives begin before our lives.

All of that faith formation – all of that grounding in the sacred and the sustaining love of God – began before my life in the people who were pillars of faith here: the people who shared their faith through teaching, the people who shared their faith through service, the people who shared their faith through music and worship, the people who shared their faith through love and compassion. I could stand here all day naming names, but I probably wouldn’t be able to get through that list. Many of those people are gone now, but the impact of their faith remains. The impact of their faith – their legacy – has touched each and every one of us in some way or another, informing and inspiring and shaping our faith into what it is today in so many different and meaningful ways.

And that goes in the other direction as well. Even though we are preparing to go our separate ways and the rolls of this congregation will soon cease to exist, our lives and the life of faith that we have developed here will live on in many forms – in the ways that we stay connected with one another, in the ways that we connect with new congregations and church homes, in the ways that we continue to learn about and enact our faith, and in the ways that we share that faith with others. No matter what happens, the life of this congregation will live on in us long after the last key has been turned in and the doors have been locked one final time. The life of faith that began here 152 years ago will nurture and form and bless countless other lives, some of whom haven’t even been born yet, because God is a God who does not walk away, does not close doors, does not forget. God is a God of presence and purpose, in this life and the next … whatever that “next” may be.

Our lives begin before our lives, and I will be forever grateful that this congregation has played such a significant part of my life.

Sunday’s sermon: An Urgent Mission


Texts used – Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20

  • The idea and importance of “following” is engrained in us as children, isn’t it?
    • Elementary school: following in a nice, quiet, straight line from classroom to lunch … art … music … gym … everywhere you’re going
      • “Top Banana” from 2nd grade
    • Games that we play
      • Simon Says
      • Follow the Leader
      • New video games like Dance Dance Revolution and Rock Band (the better you follow what’s going on on the screen, the more points you get)
      • Progressive movement/name games: first person either says their name or does an action → 2nd person has to repeat the 1st person, then add their own name/action → 3rd person repeats what both the 1st and 2nd person said/did → And so on.
    • Also a powerful method of teaching young children things
      • “Can you use your spoon like Daddy?”
      • “Can you brush your teeth like Mommy?”
      • Imitations/following = critical tool in play therapy for things like speech correction, occupational therapy (both gross and fine motor skills), physical therapy, music therapy (think about teaching a new song or “call and response” songs)
    • From a very early age, we are taught the power of following – of modeling behavior after someone else’s example. → no different in the church
      • Called to follow Scripture – read, interpret, embody
      • Called to follow some basic tenets
        • Scriptural e.g.s – 10 commandments, Jesus’ commandments
        • Church e.g. – confessions (Apostle’s Creed, Heidelberg Catechism, Brief Statement of Faith, Confession of Belhar) → As Presbyterians, we are a confessional church. We place value in the interpretations and statements of faith of those who have come before us.
      • And, of course, we are called to follow Christ, not just in name but in thought, word, and deed. But when it comes to following Christ, how do we follow? Do we follow blindly? Do we follow half-heartedly? Do we follow enthusiastically? Do we even follow at all?
    • Today’s Scripture readings = three very different examples of ways in which to follow the call of God
  • First e.g. = Jonah → I think if we were to boil Jonah’s form of following down into one word, it would be: reluctantly.
    • Today’s reading comes from ch. 3 → literally halfway through Jonah’s story (only 4 short chapters in the OT)
    • Reminder of Jonah’s backstory
      • Jonah = rock star prophet enjoying a cushy life of notoriety and praise → abnormal because most prophets were scorned, reviled, and mistreated, even threatened
      • Out of this life, God calls Jonah to Nineveh the first time: The LORD’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”[1]
      • Jonah’s response: So Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the LORD! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.[2]  → Now, let’s put this journey in perspective a little bit. If you picture a map of Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East …
        • Joppa – city from which Jonah departed = located just 40 miles west of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean Sea.
        • Nineveh = located in what is northern Iraq today (just across the river from Mosul)
        • Tarshish – city to which Jonah was trying to flee from God’s call = all the way across the Mediterranean Sea in the southern tip of Spain.
        • So from Iraq all the way to Spain – 2641 miles. That is how far Jonah was trying to run. That is how far Jonah was willing to go to avoid following God.
      • While Jonah’s on the ship headed for Tarshish, God causes a great storm → sailors on the ship draw lots to see whose bad luck is causing the danger → lo and behold, Jonah draws the short straw! → admits that he is trying to run away from his God → sailors throw Jonah overboard → Jonah is swallowed by the giant fish → in the belly of the fish, Jonah has a change of heart → fish spits Jonah out on the shore
    • Come to today’s text: The Lord’s word came to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word.[3]  → So Jonah does indeed end up eventually following God, but he does so reluctantly. Jonah has to basically be dragged into following by God.
      • Sometimes like the way we follow God → We feel God’s pull down one path or another, but it looks hard … it looks scary … it looks intimidating. In all honesty, we want to go any way but that way!
  • Second e.g. of following = Ninevites → I think we can categorize the way that the Ninevites follow as “reminder following.”
    • Jonah’s only being called there because the Ninevites have forgotten God’s call and commandments → Remember God’s words to Jonah the first time he is called to Nineveh? “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”
      • The Ninevites know about God and all God’s commandments, but they have fallen away – distracted and corrupted by other things → So Jonah goes with the message that God sent him to deliver – text: Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”[4]
    • Ninevites response: And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant. … God saw what they were doing – that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.[5]  → So once they’ve been reminded of the way they should go – the way they should follow – the Ninevites are once again “back on track.” They acknowledge their mistake, ask for forgiveness, and turn their eyes, hearts, and lives back toward God.
      • Not so different from the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after being freed from Egypt
      • Not so different from the disciples – especially Peter – returning to Jesus after they scattered following his arrest and crucifixion
      • Not so different from the way we follow sometimes, is it? → We get distracted. We lose our way. We stumble and fall. We need to be reminded of the way that God is calling us to go.
  • Final e.g. of following today = disciples in our Gospel story → I definitely think we can categorize the disciples’ following as urgent.
    • Story comes on the heels of what we read a couple of weeks ago – Jesus’ baptism in Mk → talked a few weeks ago about the secrecy of that – how, at least according to Mk’s telling – Jesus was the only one to witness the Holy Spirit coming down like a dove and hear God’s pronouncement: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”[6]
    • Today’s scene = Jesus sort of wandering around proclaiming, “Now is he time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”[7]  → Jesus may remain secretive about the part that he will play in the coming of this Kingdom, but he is definitely not subtle in his approach!
      • Interesting scene because at this point, no one really knows who Jesus is yet! → just some random guy walking around and hollering about God and the Kingdom and repentance
    • But then Jesus comes to the seashore. And things start to happen – text: As Jesus passed along the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Right away (immediately!), they left their nets and followed him. After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s songs, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. At that very moment (immediately!) he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.[8]  → There is so much urgency in this text. Maybe not in the way Jesus in traveling – simply strolling along the beach – but Jesus is undeniably urgent in the way he calls the disciples, and they are undeniably urgent in their response to follow.
      • Andrew and Simon (who will become Peter) drop their nets – their very livelihood – the only life they’ve ever known → Remember, these men are simple fishermen. They’d never had any schooling. They probably couldn’t even read or write. They’d probably never been more than 10 miles from the home in which they were born. But they dropped all of that and started following.
        • Apprehensive? Probably.
        • Afraid? Sure.
        • Uncertain? No doubt.
        • But still, they immediately left their nets and followed.
      • James and John literally walked away from their family → father in the boat with them and hired hands mending nets, but when Jesus called (urgency being on Jesus’ part this time: “Immediately he called them”), they followed him, leaving their father behind
        • Leaving the familiar
        • Leaving the comfortable
        • Leaving the strongest tie they could possibly have – that familial, tradesman, pass-down-my-knowledge-and-my-business-to-you-when-I’m-gone kind of tie
          • Bond can be strong today but was absolutely crucial to survival back in Jesus’ time → Remember, there were no colleges or trade schools for these disciples to go to if this “Jesus thing” didn’t work out. The only way they could learn a trade was either from family or to apprentice under someone else. So abandoning their father and that business so abruptly pretty much obliterated whatever livelihood, whatever life they thought they were going to have up until that very moment.
          • Were there others they were leaving behind? Siblings? Fiancé? Wife? Children? We don’t know, but it’s certainly possible. That is how strong God’s call was for them. That is how urgent God’s call was for them. Without question, without hesitation, they followed.
    • I think this is the hardest example of following for us to relate to this morning. We are so used to weighing options, analyzing decisions, taking everything into consideration – every possible scenario and outcome, every possible pitfall and downside – before we make a decision, that’s it’s hard for us to imagine just dropping our lives and following.
      • Important point: Not about blind following but about following with a purpose
        • Scholar: From their ordinary work on the seashore, Jesus awakened the disciples to a new sense of meaning and life-changing purpose that compelled them to drop what they were doing right away and follow him. This deep sense of urgency overrode any need for full understanding of what was at stake or even a complete grasp of whom they were following. It was enough to take a step of faith.[9]
  • This intense, life-altering purpose behind the disciples following made me thing of a new therapy method for children with autism that I heard about just last week: Son-Rise Program. [10]
    • Instead of trying to correct various repetitive behaviors, Son-Rise therapy sessions based on the counselor joining the child in whatever safe, non-destructive motions/actions he or she is engaging in – spinning, pounding on something (e.g. – a table), etc.
      • Provides moments of powerful connection
      • Allows these children to be seen, and more importantly, to feel seen in a way they never have before
    • From the program website: “The Son-Rise Program is an alternative autism treatment based upon the idea that the children show us the way in, and then we show them the way out. This means that, rather than trying for force our children to conform to a world that they don’t yet understand, we join them in their world first.” → Friends, this is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. God came down to first join us in our world – a world that can be full of challenges and pain, wrong turns and frustrations, misunderstandings and dark corners – to show us the way out: a path of love, a path of forgiveness, a path of grace, a path of light and hope and life after death. God joins us in our world but asks us to follow. Will we? Amen.

[1] Jonah 1:2.

[2] Jonah 1:3.

[3] Jonah 3:1-3a.

[4] Jonah 3:4.

[5] Jonah 3:5, 10.

[6] Mk 1:11.

[7] Mk 1:15.

[8] Mk 1:16-20 (alternate translations added).

[9] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Third Sunday after Epiphany: An Urgent Mission” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 96.


Sunday’s sermon: Now You See It, Now You Don’t

illusion 2

Texts used – 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51

  • One of the most enthralling, awe-inspiring forms of magic acts performed today is illusion. Headlining names like David Copperfield and Penn and Teller make their living on elaborately and convincingly tricking your eye – and, more importantly, your brain – into believing one thing is happening while there is something else happening entirely. This technique is called the “misdirect.” The magician gets your attention focused on one specific thing – an object, an action, a sequined and smiling assistant or a cute, fuzzy rabbit in a hat, perhaps – and while your attention is focused there, the magician performs a different quick and often simple action. Voila! Magic!
    • Often part of Penn and Teller’s schtick = actually explaining the simpler parts of the trick and misdirection itself as their misdirection à keep us focused on their explanation while they perform the trick
    • Works incredibly effectively – even when we know this is what’s happening! – because our eyes and minds are initially presented with one solution which we readily accept → that “false solution” distracts us from what is really going on
      • On psychology of magic: People look for confirmation that their own theory is correct. … The false solution is, therefore, used as a distraction from the real solution. Research in problem solving shows that once we have one solution in mind, it is very difficult to consider alternatives.[1]  → In a way, it’s all about assumptions and expectations. The magician plays on our assumptions that whatever is going on with the misdirect is more important than anything else that might be going on and on our expectation that something amazing will happen … as if by magic.
  • This week, we’re going to explore a little deeper into this idea of Jesus as a Man of Mystery – the ways in which, throughout his ministry, Jesus continues to reveal more and more about himself and his mission while at the same time insisting that his identity remain a secret.
    • Spent a lot of time last week talking about the gospel of Mk because this idea of Messianic secrecy is especially prevalent in Mk → And we will re-immerse ourselves in the Gospel of Mark next week … However, this week, we’re jumping to the gospel of John – to this interesting story about expectations and assumptions about who Jesus is and what he could possibly be doing.
  • Set-up for gospel passage
    • Today’s story follows 3 other short but important stories in Jn’s gospel
      • STORY 1: John’s testimony to the Jewish leaders[2]  → John the Baptist had been stirring up all sorts of crowds and disciples with his message of baptism and repentance and a coming Messiah, so much so that the Jewish leaders were starting to get a little worried. So they sent a few of their own to question John – basically a “who do you think you are?” mission.
        • John’s response = I am NOT … the Christ, Elijah, a prophet
        • Testifies to the coming of Christ: Those sent by the Pharisees asked, “Why do you baptize if you aren’t the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered, “I baptize with water. Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize. He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps.”[3]
        • Important story because John the Baptist is basically acting as Jesus’ misdirect at this point → John’s the one creating the spectacle and all the drama. John’s the one with the huge group of disciples. John’s the one publicly (and loudly!) speaking out about God and God’s Kingdom. John is the one garnering all the attention. John is the distraction. And while he’s doing that, Jesus slips onto the scene almost completely unnoticed.
      • STORY 2: baptism of Jesus[4] (talked about this last week) → important because in this encounter as recorded in Jn’s gospel, John the Baptist verbally witnesses to Jesus’ encounter with God: John testified, “I saw the Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove, and it rested on him. Even I didn’t recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit coming down and resting is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and testified that this one is God’s Son.”[5]
        • Important because of the expectations that this lays out for the people → The Messiah was supposed to be the one to come and free them from Roman oppression, not in any sort of quiet, spiritual, grace-filled way like God and Jesus had in mind but in a mighty, warrior, overthrow-the-oppressors sort of way. The people expected a gladiator on a white horse with a sword in one hand and a scepter in the other – someone to give the Romans what for and banish them from Israel’s holy home. Instead, what they eventually got was a rabbi on a donkey with bread in one hand, a cup in the other, and nail scars to boot – someone who gave death what for and banished the power of sin and death. Not what they expected.
      • STORY 3: calling the 1st disciples[6]  → John the Baptist is standing around with a couple of his disciples and points Jesus out to them (not super subtle about it either: “Look! The Lamb of God!”), and the disciples – Andrew and Simon – decide to follow Jesus
        • Encounter in which Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter
        • Important because this is the encounter that gets the snowball rolling → First two join Jesus. Then, in today’s passage, two more. Then, later on, a few more. And a few more. And a few more. This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In a way, already here in John 1, this is the beginning of the end for Jesus.
          • Again, upending people’s expectations and assumptions about who the Messiah would be – turning those expectations on their heads with a whole new message and whole new reality
  • Idea of blown-away expectations = part of our OT text this morning, too
    • Poor little Samuel asleep in the temple à Now, remember that Samuel is sleeping in the temple and living with the priests because his mother, Hannah, has given him to God’s work.[7]
      • Hannah prayed and prayed for a child → God finally gives her Samuel → to show gratitude to God, she gives Samuel to God’s service when he is only 3 yrs. old
    • So in the middle of the night, Samuel hears his name being called. And as per his expectations and assumptions – because who else would be calling him?? – Samuel runs to the bedside of Eli, the priest, and says, “I’m here! You called me?” Eli, patient but puzzled says, “No. I didn’t call. Go back to bed.”
      • Happens a 2nd time: Samuel hears God calling → thinks it’s Eli → runs to Eli’s side → Eli says, “Nope. Wasn’t me. Go back to bed.”
      • Happens a 3rd time → And this time, Eli tumbles to what is happening. He realizes that Samuel is hearing the voice of God calling him, so he instructs Samuel to once again go back and lie down and, when he hears the voice calling yet again, to say, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”[8]
    • This is such a clear story about expectations and about how God can and often does function completely outside of what we could even begin to expect or fathom. According to our text, Samuel “didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him,”[9] and yet, that lack of knowledge, that lack of understanding did not stop God from calling him – from calling this little boy who, though he lived in the temple and served the priests, didn’t even know God yet.
      • Often expect our OT prophets and servants to be giants among people – heavy hitters like Abraham and Jacob and Elijah → people who had strong relationships with God
      • And yet in this story, God also turns our own expectations and assumptions about those Old Testament roles on their heads and calls a child. → just another illustration that God can do whatever God wants to do, call whomever God wants to call, work through whatever crazy situation God wants to work through … no matter what we may think about it.
  • Brings us back around to today’s NT story from Jn
    • Day after Jesus calls Andrew and Simon Peter, he decides to go to Galilee → finds Philip along the way → Jesus: “Follow me!” … and Philip does! But before he joins the crowd, Philip runs to get Nathanael, excitedly proclaiming to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”[10] You can almost feel Philip’s enthusiasm and passion jump off the page!
    • But let’s talk about Nathanael’s response for a minute. It’s less-than-excited to say the least. Skeptical … even rude and condescending. “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”[11]  → all kinds of layers of assumptions and expectations wrapped up in that statement
      • Assumption that Nazareth isn’t significant enough – isn’t a big enough player on the local stage
      • Assumption that Nazareth isn’t powerful enough
      • Assumption that Nazareth isn’t prestigious enough
      • Assumption that the little, paltry, inconsequential blip that is Nazareth simply isn’t good enough to produce something as worthy as the Messiah
        • Scholar: Nazareth was a village of 200-400 people. … The Hebrew Scriptures never mention Nazareth, much less associate it with messianic expectations. … In Nathanael’s view, Jesus could be nothing more than a simple new from an insignificant village in Galilee. The Messiah would certainly be of more prominent parentage and come from a more significant town.[12]
    • Friends, as someone who stands up here Sunday after Sunday preaching and praying about the love of God for all people and how grace is a gift given freely with no strings attached – including geographical strings, including racial ethnic strings – I cannot read this passage today and not address this week’s headlines. I cannot speak with you about God’s justice and mercy … I cannot claim a Savior born into the desolation and filth of a stable … I cannot honestly proclaim a Word and a table and a community for all and not denounce the words spoken and condoned by the people in power in this country this week calling Haiti and African nations a name that I won’t say in church.[13] Let’s just say “latrine countries.” First, we need to call out in no uncertain terms how truly racist and prejudiced those statements are. It is no coincidence that those “latrine countries” are all populated mostly by people with darker skin. And we need to name the assumptions being made about those countries and their contributions to the world: that they are not significant enough – not big enough players on the world stage, that they are not powerful enough, that they are not prestigious enough, that these nations and the people in them are paltry, inconsequential blips incapable of producing anything worthwhile. And in the face of those horribly unfair assumptions, we also need to recognize that everyone that Jesus chose to minister to – everyone that Jesus chose to go to in their time of need – found themselves in less-than-perfect circumstances … in “latrine” places in life: lepers cast out of their communities because of their disease, sinners shunned by their communities for their actions, women devalued by society for their gender, Gentiles reviled by Jesus’ own people for their “wrongness” – wrong thinking, wrong worship practices, wrong belief. All of these people were deemed worthless just like the people from these nations were deemed worthless by those in power this week. How often do we make assumptions walking down the street about the person who’s dressed differently than us – the man in the kaftan or the woman in the hijab? How often do we make assumptions when we hear another language being spoken in line at the grocery store or at Target? How often do we make split-second assumptions based on nothing more significant than skin color?
      • NT story today shows just how prevalent those assumptions can be when Nathanael turns them on none other than the Christ himself: “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”
      • Scholar: It seems natural that people were disillusioned with who Jesus is. Jesus was unlike anything they had encountered before. Yet, like any good illusionist, Jesus is not forthcoming with evidence or clues that give away all fo who he is. All he does is invite us to come and see. … I wonder if it is Jesus’ way of shaking us up so that we are open to the possibilities instead of distracted by our own conclusions and assumptions.[14]  → Y’all, we cannot deny that assumptions are part of our world, and that very often, just like the assumptions Nathanael made of Jesus, those assumptions are completely unfounded and wholly unfair. But Jesus came, not to reinforce those assumptions, but to obliterate them by revealing the truly grace-filled, all-encompassing nature of God’s love for all people, no matter where you’re from.
        • Find promise of hope and redemption even in the midst of our mistakes – Jesus to Nathanael: Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these!”[15]

[1] Dr. Jeremy Dean. “Psychology of Magic: 3 Critical Techniques” on PsyBlog, Published Aug. 28, 2008, accessed Jan. 14, 2018.

[2] Jn 1:19-28.

[3] Jn 1:24-27.

[4] Jn 1:29-34.

[5] Jn 1:32-34.

[6] Jn 1:35-42.

[7] 1 Sam 1.

[8] 1 Sam 1:9.

[9] 1 Sam 1:7.

[10] Jn 1:45.

[11] Jn 1:46a.

[12] Leslie J. Hoppe. “Second Sunday after the Epiphany: John 1:43-52 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 261, 263.


[14] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Second Sunday after Epiphany: Now You See It, Now You Don’t” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 95.

[15] Jn 1:50.