“Look and Live”

Gospel Lesson: John 3:14-21 (NRSV)

14 “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

On this day in the year 44 BC, as he was on his way to the Theatre of Pompey, Julius Caesar is said to have encountered a seer who had cautioned him that harm would befall him on the Ides of March.  According to the ancient Roman biographer Plutarch, Caesar, who believed that the prophecy had failed to come true, quipped that “The ides of March have come.” The seer is said to have responded by saying “Aye, Caesar; but not gone.”[i] And a short while later, Caesar is murdered by members of the Roman Senate. This assassination is said to have led to the downfall of the Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.

William Shakespeare retells this moment in history in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, giving the seer one of the most well-known lines of all time, “Beware the Ides of March!”[ii] Though few remember what the Ides of March actually are, these words have become synonymous with a call to heed the warnings we have received.  The very fact that they have remained a part of our popular culture more than four hundred years after the bard first wrote them reveals a great deal about human nature.  Our history is filled with moments when we have failed to see the signs in front of us.

Even today, as we read our Old Testament lesson from the Book of Numbers, we see yet again the human propensity to disregard signs of caution and warning.  At Mount Hor, the whole congregation of Israel mourned the passing of their priest for thirty days.  Aaron died on top of that mountain as punishment for his rebellion against God at the water of Meribah.[iii]  And yet, when they had scarcely left the mountain behind, they sinned against God once again.

The impatient people groaned against the Lord and Moses, complaining about the manna that God had provided to sustain the assembly.  In response to their complaints, the Lord sent poisonous serpents among them, killing many of the Jewish people.  The snake was a fitting punishment, given that this was the same creature that had led Adam and Eve to share in the original sin.[iv]  Having been cursed by God to leave the garden as enemies, it is fitting to see serpents set against God’s people out in the wilderness.

The “Nehushtan” has continued to stand as a symbol for healing, which is incorporated into the modern Star of Life that is frequently displayed by emergency services.

But in a demonstration that the Lord’s love and mercy exceed God’s anger, God answers Moses’ prayer on behalf of the people, who have recognized their sin and now seek to be saved from the punishment being carried out among them.  And in doing so, the Lord’s sovereignty is demonstrated when God takes the object of the people’s destruction and turns it into the means of their salvation.  From that moment on, whenever the sting of the serpent bite threatened their lives, the people had but to have faith in their God and to look to the bronze serpent on the pole, so that they might live.

This is the tale that Jesus remembers during his evening conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus.  Even as they recognized the power of Jesus, demonstrated through the “signs” that he performed, the Jewish leaders struggled to understand the message that this Rabbi had come to teach.  And so, Jesus seeks to reveal to Nicodemus the will of God in this present moment by reminding him of the history between the covenant people and their God.  If they remember the lesson of the bronze serpent, then they might come to understand the truth of Jesus’ mission.

The long-held expectation was that the Messiah would come and deliver God’s people by leading an army to victory, destroying the evil that oppressed them.  But as Jesus reveals, God’s love is for the whole world.  And the presence of the “Son of Man” in the world shows that God has once again taken a symbol of destruction and used it for salvation.  This time, the one who was to be raised up would not only offer salvation to the people of Israel, but to the people of every nation, so “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

But if we would claim to believe in Jesus, we cannot just look at Christ “lifted up” from the tomb in the glory of the Resurrection or even to the majestic Son who is “lifted up” to take his place at his Father’s right hand in the majesty of the Ascension.  No.  To believe in Jesus is to look upon our Lord “lifted up” on the cross in the humiliating moment of death.  For it is only in looking upon Christ crucified that we shall live.

Look and live.  It’s a message that we teach our children in so many ways.  We teach them to look both ways before crossing the street.  We tell our girls and boys to watch out around the stove or the ironing board so that they don’t get burned.  We caution them as they play to be aware of the dangers posed by staircases or swimming pools or strangers.  Time and again, we encourage our young ones to look around and to be aware of the danger they are in.  And yet, it never fails to amaze me how quickly children learn to ignore our warnings.

This occurred to me the other day when I was trying to get Rebecca to slow down.  During what I describe as “the witching hour” (that hour before dinner time when both of our children seem to have a burst of hyperactivity), Rebecca kept running into the kitchen where I am constantly afraid that she will slip and fall on the hard linoleum floor.

Pursuing her into the kitchen, I knelt down and caught her up in my arms.  I tried to calmly explain why it was important for her to stay in the carpeted areas while we prepare supper.  But at two years old, my daughter has already figured out that she can turn her head away and close her eyes when she doesn’t want to hear what I have to say.  And as frustrating as that moment was, I realize just how aggravated God must be when we who are God’s children do essentially the same thing when confronted by the light of Christ.

Seeing the light of God now lifted up on that pole, many would rather turn their heads away and close their eyes.  They prefer to continue in disobedience, choosing to dwell in darkness where they don’t have to face the evil in their own lives.  This is the tragic act of a people who have failed to see Christ crucified for who he truly is.  Jesus is the light whom God calls us to look upon so that we might live.

But the Good News for those who are willing to face the light of Christ is that the cross not only reveals our sinfulness, but it also shines light on the redemptive work of God that is taking place in and through us.  As we claim faith in Jesus, we reflect his light into the world.  In doing so, we ensure that there is no place that the light of Christ does not reach.

So friends, as we march onward in these final weeks of Lent, our ongoing task is to examine how we reflect that light of Christ.  Are we shining examples of God’s love and Christ’s grace?  As we meet others, do we welcome them into a more illuminating experience of belief, through which they too might not only step out of the darkness of their own lives but also look to Christ and become reflections themselves?  If we love the light that shines forth from Jesus, do we orient ourselves to that light to maximum effect?

The “mirrored microscope”, bane of many a 10th grade biology student!

It’s kind of like that microscope that I remember using in high school biology.  It was one of the older style ones that required infuriating precision in directing its little mirror.  It seemed to take forever to get the lens just right, so that I could see anything at all.  Once I was able to properly direct the light, it seemed to open up a whole world that I had never been able to see before.  And yet, it was a world that had been there all along.

That is the opportunity that we have today, Brothers and Sisters.  We may constantly work to better adjust ourselves to reflect Christ’s light.  And as we do so, the view of a whole new world becomes increasingly sharper for all who believe.  What emerges is nothing less than the true and everlasting life that has been here among us all along.  All we had to do was to look and live.

So today and everyday, let us be dedicated to looking with open eyes so that we might see the light of Christ, which shines down upon us from the cross.  May we go forward aware that there are still many in this world who stumble about in darkness, yet long to see the light.  For those people, may the words of our mouths, the prayers that fill our hearts, and the actions of our hands and feet all serve to reorient them so that they too might step into the light.  And as the light of Christ is shared with the whole world, let us give thanks for the Gospel truth that through God’s only Son, everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ we bend our knees and lift up our hearts, giving glory to God forever. Amen.

[i] From page 66 of “Julius Caesar”, one of Plutarch’s volumes in his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.

[ii] The soothsayer offers this warning to Caesar in Act 1, Scene 2.

[iii] Numbers 20:22-29

[iv] Genesis 3

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, March 15, 2015 (The Fourth Sunday in Lent).

“Pardon Our Dust”

Gospel Lesson: John 2:13-22 (NRSV)

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

The scene that John describes actually sounds an awful lot like a cliché moment featured in countless teen-focused comedies.  At some point during the movie, everyone comes together for the house party to end all parties.  Often, the bash is thrown at the home of some guy or girl whose trusting parents are conveniently out of town.  While the adults are away, their home is trashed by what must be every teenager in a twenty-mile radius.

Usually, we see the teen who lives there running around in a futile effort to put coasters under red solo cups and pick cigarette butts out of the houseplants, all while he tells the unruly partygoers that nobody is allowed upstairs.  But in our Gospel lesson, this isn’t just anyone’s house; this is the Temple of the Lord.  And Jesus isn’t about to let all of these people desecrate his Father’s house.

Coming to Jerusalem, our Lord is infuriated by what he finds there.  The Temple looks less like the holy dwelling place of the one God and more like a common bazaar.  The sanctity of the place is violated by merchants who loudly barter with pilgrims over the price for a cow or sheep or dove.  While they’ve come to make a sacrifice to the Lord, the travelers figure that there’s no reason they shouldn’t get a deal on the sin offering that they present.

A silver shekel from 66 C.E.

Meanwhile, the sound of clinking coins is amplified in the courtyard.  Because of the images that were engraved on them, Roman coins were regarded as idolatrous and thus could not be used to offer tithes or to purchase sacrificial animals.  But fortunately, the money changers would gladly exchange Imperial currency for Jewish coins, for a small fee.

All of these things make the Temple look less like a sanctified place to commune with the Almighty and more like a common stock exchange.  And having seen and heard more of this sacrilege than he can bear, Jesus’ temper boils over in a way that we don’t see elsewhere in the Gospel.  As he fervently drives all of the livestock out and overturns the money changers’ tables, he thoroughly disrupts the commercial market that had been profiting so well from the Temple.

And as we witness Jesus in truly rare form, the sight might make us a little nervous or even afraid.  After all, this isn’t the way we are used to thinking about our Lord.  More often, we see him as the Good Shepherd who lovingly carries the exhausted lamb on his shoulders.  But here, we are faced with the harsh reality that sometimes that same shepherd has to take up the task of violently driving away the lions.  And though Jesus’ response seems out of character with the depiction we normally have, his own disciples are reminded of the words of Psalm 69:9: “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me.”  Though the Gospel writer doesn’t mention it, the second part of this verse states that “the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”  In their offense against his Father, the money changers and the animal sellers have all personally insulted Jesus.

But the Jewish leaders believe that Jesus is out of line.  What right does this itinerant rabbi from Galilee think he has to come into the Temple and disrupt the well-maintained practices for efficiently and economically providing for the worship needs of the Jewish people?  Who does he think he is to claim the Temple as his “Father’s house?”  If he is going to make such bold demands, the leaders expect him to provide them with a sign to justify his actions.

But as he often refuses to do in John’s Gospel, Jesus does not speak plainly here.  The sign he offers is one that would only be understood by his disciples after his resurrection.  In the moment, the Jewish leaders think that Jesus is truly asking them to tear down the Temple, so that he can rebuild it in an unfathomable three days.

Many of us probably feel like we have had to endure some unending construction projects in our lives.  After a while, we just accept the traffic delay in roadwork sites as a normal part of our daily commute.  When we see those barrier walls that never seem to come down, marked with “Pardon our dust” signs, we eventually stop wondering if the construction happening on the other side will ever be completed.  But of course, at some point, the work does end and the finished project is made available for all to enjoy.

Not so with the Temple reconstruction. Having already been underway for forty-six years at the time when our Gospel lesson is recorded, the Herodian temple would never be completely rebuilt.  It was a continual work in progress up until the moment it was destroyed during the Roman sack of Jerusalem in the year 70.  Such grand construction projects, which were the hallmark of many ancient empires, required the devotion of massive amounts of time, labor, and resources.  So the suggestion that one man could rebuild such a landmark as the Temple in a mere three days was utterly preposterous.

David Roberts’ 1850 painting, “The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans”.

Yet, what Jesus is truly proposing is even more unimaginable for the Jewish leaders.  In speaking of himself as the Temple, our Lord reveals that he knows both of his coming death and of the bodily resurrection that would follow.  And though he does not reveal it here, the greatest miracle comes in the ability of Jesus to share in this resurrection with all who repent and have faith in him.

But if we are to be built up with Christ on Easter morning, we must first welcome our Lord into these broken temples of our bodies.  We must ask God to “pardon our dust” so that our old broken selves might be replaced with that which is new and incorruptible.  In this act of repentance, God comes through the Holy Spirit to cast out the iniquities that marr us in body, mind, and spirit.  Just as Jesus sought to rid the sacred temple space of that which was common, God drives from us the things common to this world, so that we each might become a dwelling place worthy of the Lord.

The end result is something so thoroughly different, it is as though God had razed us to the ground and rebuilt us completely anew.  No longer shall our devotion to the Lord share space in our hearts with our selfish desires or with the conflicting interests of the world around us.  In the temple that God erects in the faithful Christian, there shall dwell no one but the Lord alone.

But today, as we continue on this Lenten journey, we must confess that we are far from the perfect structures that we long to become.  Each of us is called in this season of penitence to come to the Lord in prayer, so that God might reveal that which may be repaired and that which is simply to be driven out.  Often, it is easier to identify the latter.

We hear the commandments of God, first spoken to Moses, and quickly identify them as the Law by which all else must be judged.  God’s word calls us to oppose that within us which would drive us to idolatry, hatred, violence, dishonesty, and covetousness.  Such things are wholly impure and have no place in God’s presence.

However, our greatest struggles often come as we try to identify the places where we need to ask God to do some renovation.  We pray for health, but we struggle to keep up a good diet, to exercise regularly, to heed the instructions of our physicians, or abstain from the vices that degrade our bodies or minds.  We pray for God to intervene on behalf of the poor and the downtrodden, but we foolishly picture ourselves relatively unempowered to serve them ourselves.  We worship God on Sunday morning, yet we are ashamed to uphold Christian values of unmitigated love for neighbor, or the unending pursuit of peace, or the call to share God’s Good News of salvation, all because we don’t want to be labeled as zealots.

In moments like these, when we are struggling to be moved from contemplation to action, we need to ask God to come in and to cleanse these temples, so that we might be filled with the same zeal that overtook our Lord Jesus.  Today, we need to come before the Lord, asking God to “pardon our dust”—to forgive us of our failures and our shortcomings.  As we do so, let us give thanks for the promise that even as we might be reduced to rubble as a consequence of our sin, God’s restoration at work through Christ means that we who believe shall be built up again.  We shall be resurrected.

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we bend our knees and lift up our hearts, giving glory to God forever. Amen.

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, March 08, 2015 (The Third Sunday in Lent).

“My Own Worst Enemy”

Gospel Lesson: Mark 8:31-38 (NRSV)

31 Then [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

While you wouldn’t know it by talking with me now, I used to dread the idea of having children.  When I was much younger, I thought of children as being these noisy, messy, needy, disruptive little creatures with whom I wanted little to do.  Even Scripture described children as being a pain for their parents from the moment they entered the world.  When I read those words in Genesis, describing the punishment that women must bear by enduring pain through childbirth, my thought was “Why would anybody want to go through this just to bring a child into the world?  Why would I want to put somebody  I love through this sort of pain?”

Of course, this was an awfully immature attitude toward children; just about as immature as Peter’s attitude toward his Lord’s revelation of what is to come.  As Jesus walks with his disciples on their way to Caesarea Philippi, he asks them, “Who do you say that I am?”  When Peter answers, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus sternly warns them not to reveal what they know.

And yet, our Teacher now believes that his pupils are ready to learn a new lesson.  As they continue on, Jesus explains what it truly meant for him to be the Messiah, God’s chosen one.  The victory that their Lord had been sent to accomplish would not be won through the defeat of Roman forces.  Rather, it would come through Jesus’ own “great suffering.”  And though he reveals to his disciples that his death is a necessary part of God’s plan for salvation, Peter isn’t willing to hear any more of this.  And so, he misses out on the really Good News, which is found in the final victory of God over death through the resurrection.

Thinking back to my juvenile attitude toward children, I recognize how preposterous it was to think that the pain of childbirth couldn’t be worth the result.  Of course, in that moment, as Kara was bringing our children into the world, I wish that I could have taken this pain away from her.  But I couldn’t.  It wasn’t within my power to do so.


The look on Kara’s face says it all, as she embraces our newborn daughter!

Thankfully, the pain is only momentary. And when it passes, life will never be the same for the parents who endured it.  If you ask a mother whether or not the suffering is worth the reward, most often you will hear an unhesitant “Yes!”

This is the same attitude that Jesus has as he faces his own walk toward the cross.  Our Lord does not deny that the path ahead is an agonizing one.  And yet, he is focused not on the temporary moment of his suffering.  Rather, he is fixed on the eternal joy that he shall experience in the new life, shared with all the faithful, when he is reborn from the tomb.

But in order for him to continue on this path, Jesus must first convince Peter to step out of the way.  The disciple’s defiance, while misguided, is ultimately an act of love and devotion.  Peter has given his life over to Jesus, and now, he would do anything to keep his Teacher from harm.  But sadly, his interference poses a much greater threat than the cross.

When Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to reprimand him, our Lord commands his pupil: “Get behind me, Satan!”  While it sounds as though Jesus is insulting someone who loves him greatly, his intention is to call the disciple to recognize the role he has taken on.  As we saw last week, Jesus has already encountered Satan and overcome the temptations that had been laid before him.  And now, Peter is taking on this same role.  But Peter is not just playing the tempter for Jesus.  Peter is tempting himself.  In this moment, though he doesn’t know it, he is his own worst enemy.

By “setting [his] mind not on divine things but on human things,” Peter has unwittingly laid a snare before his Lord.  However, Jesus is not about to be caught in this trap.  In ordering Peter to “Get behind me!” our Lord reminds his disciple of his place.  If Peter would remember what it means to be Jesus’ disciple, he will see that it is not his place to take Jesus aside or to stand in his way.  His place is to follow close behind.

And this is exactly what Jesus proclaims to his disciples and to the larger crowd.  Discipleship demands more than simply stepping aside and letting Jesus pass.  If we want to follow Jesus, we have to be willing to go where he is going and do what he is doing.  And yes, that does mean that we have to be willing to take up our own crosses, to endure suffering, rejection, ridicule, and even death.  If we are disciples of the Lord, we must be willing to follow him, even into the tomb.

And if we are honest with ourselves, aren’t we already there?  If we look at the world around us—filled with so much anger and hate, so much needless suffering and pain, so much death—is it really that hard to see that death is already here among the living?  Even if it hasn’t claimed our lives yet, death has certainly laid claim to the world.  So, why are we fighting so hard to hold onto this deathly existence?

Perhaps like Peter, we struggle to see the promise of the resurrection through the darkness of the tomb.  Perhaps we have been in this darkness for so long that we have actually become comfortable with it.  Why risk the unknown of the resurrection life when we can become quite prosperous in this deathly existence?

Like Peter, we each become our own worst enemies. When we question the value of the pain that Jesus is willing to endure, we actually become the heavy stone that is rolled across the doorway; we are the ones who hold ourselves captive in this tomb.  When we choose to pursue the temptations of this world, we accept a lesser vision than the one that God has in the plan of redemption.

A view from the inside of a garden tomb at Bethpage. The large stone to the right would be rolled in front of the entryway to serve as a door.

But today, Jesus invites us to hear the Gospel and to give up this life for the sake of this good news: we are being called to come out of this tomb and to take our places at this table.  At this table, all who come unashamed are nourished through the body that is broken and the blood that is poured out.  Here, we remember that even when faced with the temptation to step away, Jesus steps forward.  And here, he invites us to step forward with him.

So now, let us take our place behind the Teacher.  As he leads us out along the path to the cross, let us follow in faith.  May his path lead us through lands where we might join him in sharing the Good News, witnessing through acts of love and compassion.  As others witness us on our journey, may they be come to learn of the Good News, so they too might stop being their own worst enemies, standing in the way.  And as we march on, may we who would follow Jesus take up our crosses in the assurance that the one who shall save us from these devices of death leads the procession into everlasting life.

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ we bend our knees and lift up our hearts, giving glory to God forever. Amen. (Philippians 2:9-11)

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, March 01, 2015 (The Second Sunday in Lent).

“Right Place, Right Time”

Gospel Lesson: Mark 1:9-15 (NRSV)

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear from President Brian Blount of Union Presbyterian Seminary as he delivered the keynote for the annual gathering of Presbyterian Christian educators.  As he spoke with our group, he made the point that our memories of the past are often seen through the rose-tinted glasses that we call nostalgia.  According to President Blount, “If it wasn’t for nostalgia, nobody would ever go back to Disney World!”

As somebody who grew up in Florida as a young child, this gave me a good laugh because I knew exactly what he was talking about.  My family and I had spent countless hours at the Magic Kingdom…and I had boxes of pictures to prove it!  My parents had given me an inexpensive 35 mm camera with which to capture our experiences.

One of the dozens of “Kodak Picture Spot” signs that were once found throughout the Magic Kingdom.

Of course, if we weren’t sure which memories we wanted to immortalize on film, the Disney folks (along with their sponsors from Kodak) seemed more than willing to help us out.  Throughout the park, signs had been installed to help us find the perfect place to capture our “Magical Memories.”  Of course, these signs usually meant that we had to wait in line, just so that we could take the same shot as dozens of other tourists.  But at least when we got back home, I wouldn’t be the only kid in class who hadn’t gotten a picture in front of the teacups!

Thankfully, the photos only captured those joyful, artificial memories.  They don’t show the monotony of waiting in line after endless line for countless hours all for a few minutes of entertainment.  They don’t capture the breakdown into tears when my sister and I had become exhausted mid-afternoon from the heat and the frantic pace that we had been keeping up all day trying to fit everything into this magical experience.  And they don’t remember the utter disappointment on our faces when we would have to seek shelter from the torrential downpours that strike central Florida with such frequency that you’re left wondering what fool ever nicknamed this place the “Sunshine State!”  No.  They don’t retain those moments.  Our photographs only reinforce the idea that this truly was the “Happiest Place on Earth.”

But as I think back on our family vacation, I am at least experiencing nostalgia for some place that I have actually been.  What truly amazes me is my ability to have a nostalgic memory of an event when I wasn’t even present there to begin with!  Take the baptism of our Lord.

When I picture this moment in Scripture, I usually see Jesus being dipped into the serene blue waters of the mighty Jordan river and emerging in shimmering light all while a dove descends in gorgeous slow motion and, from out of nowhere, triumphant horns proclaim a hymn of coronation.  Years of viewing classic paintings and big screen theater depictions have left this indelible image in my mind. However, the reality is that the true setting for Jesus’ baptism was a far sight from the idyllic scenes that we hold in mind.

When you see it as it truly is, one of the first things you might notice is that the Jordan River is not a large water feature.  In fact, when looking at it, you might think that it would be more accurate to name it the Jordan Creek.  For the most part, it is a shallow, narrow waterway, which takes little time to cross.  Probably the only thing less impressive than the river’s size is the appearance of the water itself.  While we imagine an endless flow of crystal clear water, which reflects the bright blue skies overhead, the real Jordan’s waters appear a dingy brown that makes it look less like a baptismal pool and more like a drainage ditch.  If these were the waters where people were coming to be made clean, you can just imagine how dirty with sin they must have felt.

The “mighty” Jordan River.

Of course, part of my false memory is the sight of our Lord Jesus confidently arising from the water in his bright white robe.  But more likely, his clothes might have actually been stained with the sediment of the river.  Shivering from his dip in the cold, murky water, Jesus probably couldn’t wait to get out of the Jordan…to move on from this place.

But if nostalgia has left us with a false sense of serenity at our Lord’s baptism, our minds make no effort to improve the next scene in our Gospel tale.  The Spirit that only moments ago had softly descended upon our Lord now drives him out into the wilderness.  While the River had its drawbacks, at least it was a communal place.  But now, Jesus finds himself in a place of absence.  Here, there is no food, there is no water, not even a muddy puddle the likes of the Jordan.  Here, there is nobody else to keep him company.  Well, almost nobody else.

While we might be hard pressed to think that there is a right place and a right time to encounter Satan, we can certainly say that this isn’t it.  For forty days and forty nights, Jesus’ experience in the wilderness allows him to embody the experience of Noah in the ark and of the Israelites wandering for forty years before entering the Promised Land.  As he relies on the angels of his Father to provide for his sustenance, Jesus is tempted by Satan to reject God. But Jesus remains faithful.  And at the end of his fast, he is prepared to begin a ministry that will lead him to the cross and the tomb.

Every year as we enter into Lent, it seems like we see everyone lining up to create the same memories of penitence.  Everyone is pledging to give up chocolate, or television, or Facebook.  On Ash Wednesday, we piously share pictures of the gray cross that is marked on our foreheads as though it is a sign of honor.  We do all the things that signal to the rest of the world that now is the right time and this is the right place for us to come to God with penitent hearts.

And God does indeed welcome us to turn back to the ways of the Lord.  But as we make this turn, God wants us to know something very important.  Despite the way we might remember things, God is always  with us.  When we look back to discover that so much of our nostalgia masks the grimmer truth of our past, one thing holds true.  God was there.  When we look at our present walk through this time of repentance, God is here.  And as we look ahead to the ministry that awaits us, as we too approach the cross and the tomb, we must go forward to proclaim the Good News, carrying with us the assurance that God will be here.

Friends, throughout our own Lenten journeys, I encourage each of us to recognize that this is the right place and the right time to turn to God.  In the midst of the joys in our lives, as we celebrate a successful day at work, a good grade on that school project, or a joyful family event, may we turn to God and give thanks.  As we are faced with health setbacks, financial struggles, peer pressure, and family dysfunction, may we turn to God and seek guidance.  And as we experience all of the other moments along the way, may we turn to God who is ever with us.  Wherever we go in these forty days, may we know that there is nowhere that we are cut off from God.  For by the covenant of grace, established through our Lord Jesus, God is with us in every time and place.

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ we bend our knees and lift up our hearts, giving glory to God forever. Amen.

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, February 22, 2015 (The First Sunday in Lent).

“A Sight for Sore Eyes”

Gospel Lesson: Mark 9:2-9 (NRSV)

2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Well, the Gospel writers certainly have their work cut out for them this time, don’t they?  It was already difficult enough to describe the scene when Jesus walks across water or uses a few fish and loaves to feed the multitudes.  But now, the writers face one of their greatest struggles.  They seek to place us there alongside Peter, James, and John, who themselves must have had great difficulty describing this bizarre experience once they were released from their order to remain silent.

And even that order—“tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead”— is a strange order, in and of itself.  The trio must have wondered if they would ever be able to share the news of all they had seen on that mountaintop.  And even if they did, how could they hope to describe it?

Though we may not have had an experience quite so unusual as the Transfiguration, each of us has probably shared the struggle of the disciples and the Gospel writers: we have a story to tell, but we just can’t quite find the words with which to tell it.  Often times, when we do try to share the experience, our narrative can be met with quizzical looks from our audience.  Eventually, when all else seems to fail, we just shrug our shoulders and say, “I guess you had to be there.”

And yet, weird as this story is, the writer of Mark is determined for us to be there.  Faced with the daunting challenge of describing the indescribable, the Gospel writer focuses on one particular detail in describing Jesus’ Transfiguration.  As the disciples look upon their teacher, they see his clothes become whiter than the whitest white.  Surely, there must have been much more to this experience, but the writer boldly pushes ahead, having determined that there is no point in trying to unveil the mystery, when words simply won’t do.

But as we see, this is the sort of story where pushing past one mystery only leads right into another.  As the disciples look to their Transfigured Lord, two great figures of their faith also became visible.  The writer never explains how the disciples are able to recognize the figures talking with Jesus.  Could they have been wearing nametags saying, “Hi! My name is Moses”?  Or did they pass out business cards reading something to the effect of “Elijah: Prophet of the Most High”?  Despite our lingering questions, the Gospel writer pushes forward.

If nothing else, the unusual offer of Peter to build dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah suggests that, even in the moment, the disciples themselves are unsure what is going on.  As their eyes seek to take in the glorious scene that is revealed in the light that radiates from their Master, the disciples struggle to understand the appropriate response.  If Jesus selected the three of them to share in witnessing to this incredible event, surely he must have had a reason.  But what could it be?  How were they expected to answer?

And yet, while the disciples struggle to comprehend one experience, the Gospel writer moves us forward into yet another unusual occurrence.  From a cloud overhead, there comes a voice, which proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  At this point, we who have read or heard this story from the beginning actually have an advantage over the disciples who were not present with Jesus at his baptism.  It was there that we first encountered this voice which spoke to Jesus, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)  But now, in order to share with the disciples what we already have heard, the voice proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God.  And with this announcement, there also comes an order: “Listen to him!”  And with this, the inexplicable moment is over.  There is no more vision of the Transfiguration, no further congress with the ancient figures of their faith, no more voices coming from clouds.  Now, there is only Jesus.

So now, as we come back down from the mountain alongside the disciples, we are left wondering, “What was all of that about, anyway?”  But even as we ponder these things, our descent leads us down back into the darkness of our present reality.  With each footstep, we are brought back from the beauty of a moment that we can’t explain into the horror of the reality we cannot avoid.

In May of 2013, Kayla Mueller spoke before the Kiwanis Club of Prescott Arizona about her work with Syrian refugees.

For me, this darkness came this week as I was challenged to write about the light of Christ in the Transfiguration, while at the same time facing tragic news reports of the loss of the lives of several young adults.  After days of speculation, it was confirmed that twenty-six year old Kayla Mueller had been killed in Syria.[i]  The coverage that followed seemed to center on whether her death had come directly at the hands of her captors or as a result of an airstrike carried out by counterinsurgent forces.  While pundits debated this question, I was left with a mystery of my own.  Why is it that Kayla’s death brings us such sadness and yet the deaths of innumerable Syrian and Iraqi innocents is almost accepted as a part of the world in which we live?

But even as I struggled with this question, there was hardly time to consider an answer. There came another report much closer to home. Early on Wednesday morning, Chapel Hill police responded to a shooting in which three young adults between the ages of 19 and 23 were killed.[ii]  The victims, Deah Barakat, his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha were all students at nearby schools.  They were all also Muslim.

The preliminary assumption was that the assailant had killed them because of their faith.  And to this point, members of the victims’ families maintain that this was a religiously motivated hate crime.  However, much to the relief of many people, investigators now seem to be leaning toward the theory that the deaths of these three young people were the result of a rage-filled response to an ongoing dispute over a parking space.  And yet, I was left to wonder, why did this change in motive bring comfort to so many?  How could we be more at ease with the idea that these three lives were lost over a parking space, rather than over hatred or fear of their religious identity?

And as I’ve since thought about the deaths of these four young people, who are admittedly just a couple of the more recent high-profile examples to choose from, I came to a single conclusion.  Our eyes are sore.  Our eyes were designed by God to look upon a beautiful, bright Creation.  They were intended to reveal the majesty of the Lord’s work reflected in everyone and everything we see.

God never designed our eyes to adjust to the darkness in which we now find ourselves.  Day after day, we struggle to look at this dimly lit world and to process what we see.  The inexplicable death at the hands of one another is perhaps the most egregious example.  But there are many more sights that we can scarcely absorb.  We struggle with visions of children who are starving in a world where there is an abundance of food and images of babies dying from easily preventable diseases.

Not so far away, we see neighbors who can’t make ends meet, because they don’t have the education to get a decent-paying job or the ride to get them from home to work.  Even as we look upon ourselves, many of us have eyes that ache, seeing dark reflections of ourselves that reveal we, too, appear to be broken beyond repair.  And as our eyes painfully struggle to focus on these dim sights, we all too often find that we would rather just close them to the brokenness that we see, rather than look upon those heart-breaking images for one more second…

It is here that the Transfigured Christ appears when we need him most.  In this moment of mystery, the one thing we can see is the light does not merely illuminate our Lord.  Rather, Jesus is the light through which the world as God intended is revealed.  In that moment, shared only with the three disciples, Jesus gives them a glimpse of what is to come.  When seen by the light of Jesus, the world is going to be a very different place.  But that is a fleeting assurance for those of us whose eyes still hurt.  As we wait for the coming of our Lord in the fullness of his radiance, what are we to do?

This question probably challenges us to live into the greatest of all the mysteries of the Transfiguration.  How do we move from being mere witnesses to the Transfiguration to active members of the experience?  As the disciples come down from the mountain, they are cautioned not to tell anyone of what they have seen. The news must not be shared until Christ has completed his ministry.

But the Good News is that Christ is risen!  And now, we like Peter, James, and John are free to witness to the moment of Transfiguration.  It doesn’t mean that Creation has been restored and that the brokenness of our world is past.  Instead, it means that we can carry forth the light of Christ, which reveals the world as God intended.

Pictured from Left to Right: Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, planned to enter the UNC School of Dentistry in the fall; Deah Barakat, 23, was the husband of Yusor and a student at the UNC School of Dentistry; Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, was the sister of Yusor and a student in architecture and environmental design at North Carolina State University.

In this light, I not only see the sadness of Kayla Mueller’s death, but I also am witness to the glory revealed in the life of someone who was a bold advocate and dedicated servant for the refugees of the violence in Syria.[iii]  In Deah Barakat, I don’t just see a young man who lost his life in an act of senseless violence, I see someone who openly decried atrocities carried out in the name of any person’s religion.[iv] Even as we look at the brokenness of this world, the mystery of the Transfiguration challenges us to open our long-aching eyes and to dare to see the world as God has created it.

In this newly illuminated world, we don’t just face the dark sights of hunger and poverty, illness and ignorance, violence and separation.  Instead, by the light of Christ, we see something new happening.  We who carry this light are now able to see the way forward to a place where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, conflicts cease, and all share in the bounty of the Kingdom.  As Christ was transfigured before us, we now have been transfigured, so that we might become the light of Christ.

So Friends, today may not be the day when all of our questions are answered.  It may be a day in which we are challenged to live in the presence of mystery.  But the Good News that we must go forth to share with the world is that Jesus Christ is indeed “a sight for sore eyes!”  And as we go, may we give thanks for the continuation of this mystery.  And  may we also carry with us the certainty that the light that shines forth from him, now shines forth from each of us too!

To the Lord who speaks to us, and strengthens us, and blesses us with peace, be all glory and honor forever. Amen. (Psalm 29:1, 11)

[i] http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2015/02/10/385182490/u-s-hostage-kayla-mueller-confirmed-dead

[ii] http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/11/us/chapel-hill-shooting/

[iii] http://www.pcusa.org/news/2015/2/20/kayla-mueller-remembered/

[iv] http://mashable.com/2015/02/11/chapel-hill-shooting-victims/

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, February 15, 2015 (The Transfiguration of the Lord).

“Have You Heard the Word?”

Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 40:21-31 (NRSV)

21 Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Has it not been told you from the beginning?

Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,

and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;

who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,

and spreads them like a tent to live in;

23 who brings princes to naught,

and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,

scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,

when he blows upon them, and they wither,

and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

25 To whom then will you compare me,

or who is my equal? says the Holy One.

26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:

Who created these?

He who brings out their host and numbers them,

calling them all by name;

because he is great in strength,

mighty in power,

not one is missing.

27 Why do you say, O Jacob,

and speak, O Israel,

“My way is hidden from the Lord,

and my right is disregarded by my God”?

28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary;

his understanding is unsearchable.

29 He gives power to the faint,

and strengthens the powerless.

30 Even youths will faint and be weary,

and the young will fall exhausted;

31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint.

The writer of our passage from Isaiah this morning certainly had his work cut out for him. While scholars are not of one mind on the topic, the predominant view in the academic community is that multiple authors composed this book. During the last century, a type of literary theory developed out of the discovery of distinctive writing styles, grammatical choices, and historical references throughout the book of Isaiah. The  theory goes that there were three primary authors who wrote sections before, during, and after the Babylonian exile.

The selection that we have read this morning is believed to come from the opening chapter of the second section.  These verses are written to the deposed community that has now seen the fulfillment of all that had been foretold in chapters one through thirty-nine.  Having been forcibly deported from the land into which the Lord their God had delivered their ancestors, the remnant of Israelites were left to wonder if all hope was lost.  If they cried out to the Lord for deliverance, would their pleas fall upon deaf ears?

An ancient relief, which depicts the Babylonians leading the Israelites into captivity.

The fear of the exiled Jewish people is one that many communities continue to struggle with: “Does anyone hear our cries for help?”  I’ve seen this fear echoed several times in recent days.  It was echoed by students, faculty, and alumni, following the murder and suicide on campus at the University of South Carolina this past Thursday.[i]  While visiting the city of Baltimore, I heard it echoed by the citizens there following a suspected gang-related shooting outside a high school basketball game on Wednesday.[ii]  I’ve even heard it echoed by the inhabitants of that land once known as Babylon, as we receive the latest report on the atrocities committed under the ISIS flag.  Over and over, the desperate cry is echoed: “How long, O Lord? How long?”

As these and so many other stories continually pour in, that question reverberates louder and louder: “How long, O Lord? How long?”  “How long, O Lord? How long?”  This cry for mercy echoes over and over until we can hear nothing else.  And at times, we wonder, like those Israelites, is there anyone left to hear our cries?  Will anyone come to our rescue?

But even as we wait for someone to answer our distress, the writer in Isaiah asks us a couple of questions of his own: “Have you not known? Have you not heard?”  In the midst of their captivity, the writer calls to people to unplug their ears and remember the story of their God…of our God.

And this emphasis on remembrance becomes even more important for us, in light of the message that we have received from the prophets in recent weeks.  From the boy Samuel, we have learned of the importance of being open to experiencing the mystery of God in a world that continually calls us to look for the certainties.  From Jonah, we have learned that God fervently desires to involve us in the work of love and that God will continually call us to participate in this work until we submit. And from Moses, we have learned that when we are called to serve the Lord, we must not take on this work timidly, but we must go boldly as those who have been given authority.

To these lessons, we add this morning the message from Isaiah, which calls us to always remember the Good News.  Like the prophet, we are called to proclaim God’s sovereignty in the world, even as we are faced with the seemingly most desperate of situations.  In fact, it is in moments precisely like these that God’s people are starving for a reminder of God’s providence—the ultimate goodness with which the Lord guides the world.

If we have heard the word, we should remember our God in the face of the evilness of this world.  As we witness the power of humans to destroy our planet through careless abuse of its resources, we should remember the goodness of our God who first entrusted to us the care of the earth and all that dwell therein.  As we witness the powers of this world treading upon the weak and boosting themselves on the backs of the defenseless, then we should remember the sovereignty of our God, whose reign will endure, even as all lesser powers wither.  As we witness heinous violence that threatens the unity of our homes and our communities, we should remember the restoration of God, which has repeatedly mended the brokenness in our relationships with the Lord and one another.

As we hear the word and know it within our hearts, we discover that God is not hidden from us, nor does the Lord ignore the cries of God’s people.  Instead, we find that God allows us to serve as the answer to our own cries.  As we wait for the great day when the Lord shall institute the everlasting reign of the Kingdom of God here on earth, we who look for the coming of our Savior Christ have been empowered to continue his work.  In the final words of our Old Testament lesson, we remember that it is God who “gives power to the faint” and “strengthens the powerless.”  When even youth falters, perseverance in the Lord shall be rewarded.  Remember: “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

One of the many bald eagles that calls Hoonah, Alaska home.

Each time I hear these words from Isaiah 40:31, a very particular memory comes back to me.  This was the theme verse for the mission trip that my youth group went on in the summer of 1999.  Our travels took us to the remote fishing village of Hoonah, Alaska.  The idea that God’s faithful would “mount up with wings like eagles” became much more real for us when we saw numerous bald eagles perched atop the jetty wall or gliding over the still waters of the bay.  Set against the backdrop of evergreen covered hills and snow-capped mountains, it was a sight that most of us had never seen outside of a National Geographic special.

And yet, this scene of tranquility was broken as soon as we turned around.  The town of Hoonah was a hodgepodge of dilapidated old buildings and trash filled streets.  It reflected well the life of many of its citizens. This was a place where the rates of teen pregnancy, substance abuse, alcoholism, and suicide all far exceeded the national averages.  If ever there was a place one might think  God had “disregarded,” it was Hoonah.

So, you might wonder, what great task could a group of high school students from South Carolina possibly perform in order to improve the lives of these people.  Well, for a part of our time, we picked up trash.  As we moved slowly up one street and down another, the work hardly felt like that which would have been given by the God who strengthens the powerless.  And at points, we questioned whether or not we had come all this way to toil in vain.  But as we sought to understand how such a menial task could possibly be the fulfillment of God’s will, our pastor Dennis Tedder encouraged us to see ourselves through the eyes of the local people.

The people of Hoonah are, in some ways, an exiled group.  They truly live separated from the rest of the world.  Some of them may never even experience life apart from their little village.  And as the jobs that once supported this village had moved elsewhere, the people had little left for which to hope.  After all, nobody seems to care about them.

But then, as you look out your window you see one, then two, then a dozen youth slowly making their way along the street.  What on earth could have driven these kids to travel thousands of miles for the experience of picking up little pieces of trash?  What have they heard about Hoonah?

What we were hearing, Dennis reminded us, is that God has not forgotten Hoonah.  If we, as people not of this community, could give witness to the Good News that God loved and cared for these people, perhaps they might remember God or come to know the Lord for the first time.  In our service, we had the opportunity to let them hear the word: “[God] is great in strength, mighty in power!”  In the tiny act of collecting refuse, we could share with them the truth that the way of Hoonah and its people was not hidden from God.

Of course, we were only there for a short while.  And when the time came to leave Hoonah, we really didn’t know if we had made a lasting difference in that moment, just as we don’t know whether or not the words of Isaiah 40 might have made a difference in the moment they were first proclaimed to the Israelites.  But I do know that both the prophets words and our own calls do make a lasting difference when we perform this work repeatedly so that the community cannot forget.

In the centuries since the words of Isaiah were first recorded, these verses have not only comforted the Jewish community in the midst of the Babylonian exile.  They have also offered reassurance as the Romans sacked Jerusalem, as Europeans targeted the Jewish people during the Inquisition, and as Nazis sought to eradicate the entire race in the implementation of their “Final Solution.”  Each time, the people have needed to hear this word again, so that they might remember that God had not abandoned them, even in the midst of the darkness that enshrouded them.

We, too, need to live as those who repeatedly hear and proclaim the Good News.  As those who have been called by God into lives of discipleship and service, we must proclaim the greatness of the Lord in the face of the world’s brokenness.  As we lift up God’s goodness, power, and love, people may not gain hope for themselves the first time they hear the word.  But if we proclaim it over and over again, the truth that echoes in their ears will be undeniable.

So friends, “Have you heard the word?”  Do you know the Good News that God is calling you to share?  In a world filled with hopeless exiles, there is a longing to hear the truth that we have received!  God alone has the power to redeem us!  Like the prophets before us, may we speak the word that God places on our tongues, calling all to receive the strength that is offered to all who have hope in the everlasting God.

To the Lord who speaks to us, and strengthens us, and blesses us with peace, be all glory and honor forever. Amen. (Psalm 29:1, 11)

[i] http://www.thestate.com/news/local/article13948286.html

[ii] http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/bs-md-fr-frederick-high-shooting-20150204-story.html

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, February 08, 2015 (The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany).

“No Unauthorized Personnel”

Old Testament Lesson: Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (NRSV)

15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16 This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” 17 Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19 Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20 But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”

Over the past couple of weeks, leading up to tonight’s big Super Bowl game, the leading stories have all seemed to share something in common.  They were all about access.  Over on the Patriots’ side, we’ve been hearing about the scandal that has been nicknamed “Deflate-gate” in the media.  An NFL investigation has led to speculation that a New England assistant may have used his access to a dozen game balls in order to make unauthorized reductions in their air pressure, thus giving his team’s offense an unfair advantage.[i]

Meanwhile, across the field, a Seattle player accomplished a rare feat by making the front page for what he didn’t say.  Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch is engaged in an ongoing battle with the league over the access that he is required to provide to reporters.  But when he was faced with a half million-dollar fine if he failed to appear at the team’s Super Bowl media day, Lynch chose to put in an appearance.[ii]  Yet, when asked a variety of questions during his press conference, he responded with the same answer twenty-nine times: “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.”  And as soon as Lynch had put in the required four and a half minutes with the now irritated members of the media, he called “Time” and left.

In addition to the big news coming from the two teams, another story about a special regulation outside of the stadium has also been in the headlines.  As a result of FAA rules put into place after 9/11, aircraft that have no transponder and no filed flight plan will not be authorized to fly anywhere within a thirty mile radius of the stadium in Phoenix during tonight’s game.[iii]  And while this was once seen as a prudent move, failure to adjust the language now means that a child piloting a radio controlled aerial drone in neighboring Scottsdale could actually face federal charges.

Among the stories making big news ahead of Super Bowl XLIX, the FAA has imposed a ban on drones over a ten mile radius around the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

And access is really just as relevant in our lives as it is to each of these stories.  Think about the topics that are likely to dominate the political speeches of the next two years.  Central to the debate over immigration is the question of whether or not those who have entered this country illegally should have access to government services.  Politicians also continue to argue over the government’s role in ensuring that its citizens have access to affordable healthcare.

Recent proposals to offer two free years of community college tuition to American students has reignited the conversation about the access that we provide for higher education in our nation.  While we are hearing that the nation’s economy is on the path to recovery, reports that the wealth gap between middle and upper class households has reached a thirty-year record high[iv] have left many to question what needs to be done to assure that American families gain access to a greater portion of the overall wealth that our nation is accumulating.  And this past week, the Koch Brothers announced their intention to spend nearly one billion dollars in the upcoming election cycle, leading many to ask whether such unlimited spending buys the donors unfair access to our leaders in government.

Of course, the discussion of who should or should not have access is certainly nothing new.  Even Moses takes up this issue in our lesson from Deuteronomy this morning.  The Israelite community found itself faced with a difficult question: “What do we do once Moses is gone?”  Of course, Moses was the hero who had led his people out of Egyptian captivity.  But he was also something more.  He enjoyed communion with God to a degree that was unparalleled among the Jewish people.  Moses was God’s prophet, through whom the Lord had spoken the Law by which they were to live.  But when Moses is gone, who would take his place?

In answer to this question, the Lord spoke through Moses, promising to raise up from among the people a prophet like Moses.  The promise of another who would have the authority of their patriarch filled the people with hope.  In fact, the promise of this prophet is one that the Jewish people still wait to see fulfilled, even to this day.  Neither Samuel nor Jonah nor Isaiah nor any of their fellow prophets were considered  the realization of this hope.

But while they wait, we know that our prophet has come.  Our Lord Jesus did indeed speak the word of God, which he received from his Father in heaven.  And we who have faith in Christ must heed this word that calls us to action.  It is the word that we remember in Christ’s Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”[v] Even as Christ establishes his supreme sovereignty, his word bestows authority on all of us who follow, granting us the power to go and make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them all that our Lord Jesus has commanded us.

Now, it only remains for us to determine how we are going to respond.  We can’t stand here staring at the door to the mission field like it has a great, big foreboding sign: “No Unauthorized Personnel!”  Friends, we are the Authorized Personnel!  Our authority is bestowed upon us at the font and table.  It is given to us by the words of Holy Scripture and the presence of Christ made real through the Holy Spirit who abides with us.  In all of these things, we are made ones with authority!

Logo_Soup_Pot_LogoThis year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Souper Bowl of Caring.  It is a program that was begun by the youth group at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, when the young disciples  decided to stand up as those who were authorized.  In 1990, they partnered with twenty-one other churches in their community to raise $5,700 for local charities.  Not bad.  And yet, this was only the beginning of their work.  In the years since the program began, churches around the country have collected more than $90 million dollars in support of the soup kitchens, community pantries, and other charitable organizations in their communities…all because these young people stood as those with authority!

It is the same way that we stood with authority yesterday when we welcomed our Brothers and Sisters in the community to come and receive the hospitality of this church through our annual Soup Supper.  But we also invited them to share in the ministry we offer through the gifts we can all bring in support of our local ministry partners.  Each year, when the event is over I am grateful to hear so many voices celebrating the hard work that this entire church puts into this project and the success of our efforts.  And each year, I wonder, “Why are we surprised?”  This is exactly what happens when we are all drawn together to exercise the combined authority that we possess as church!

The result is exhausting and time-consuming.  But it is also uplifting and exhilarating!  And it is also reassuring.  As we seek to move forward in ministry together, a moment such as this one assures me that this is an empowered congregation!  We are God’s called people!  And at this table, we are sent away, authorized to continue the Lord’s work!

So, Brothers and Sisters, let us continue to celebrate the great product of our combined efforts.  But as we do so, I pray that we won’t just sit around now and wait until next year for the chance to enjoy this feeling once again.  Let us look right now for the places where we are being called to speak with the authority of the voice of God and to act with the love of Christ through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  With courage, let us continue on in joyous service to the Lord!

To the Lord who speaks to us, and strengthens us, and blesses us with peace, be all glory and honor forever. Amen. (Psalm 29:1, 11)

[i] http://www.sbnation.com/nfl/2015/1/26/7917523/nfl-investigating-patriots-locker-room-attendant-for-deflategate

[ii] http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2344416-marshawn-lynch-at-super-bowl-media-day-im-here-so-i-wont-get-fined

[iii] http://gizmodo.com/the-faas-drone-ban-at-the-super-bowl-is-absurd-1682650957

[iv] http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-pew-wealth-gap-20141217-story.html

[v] Matthew 28:16-20

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, February 01, 2015 (The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany).

“Pesky Perseverance”

Old Testament Lesson: Jonah 3:1-10 (NRSV)

1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

“If you build it, he will come.” For Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella, this message is mysteriously spoken to him to one evening while he is walking through his cornfield.  And for us, this remains one of the best known film quotes of all time, even twenty-five years after the theatrical release of Field of Dreams.

If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the movie, the story centers on Ray’s need to build a baseball field in his cornfield, in order to fulfill a vision that he has had.  Ray seeks to do this, even while everyone around him doubts the credibility of his vision and even he himself questions the validity of his mission.  And yet, each time I watch the film, the character that truly draws me into the story is that of recluse Terrence Mann.

Portrayed by James Earl Jones, Terrence is a celebrated author in the vein of J. D. Salinger.  Having once written a book that some consider to be a masterpiece and others regard as offensive, his celebrity and infamy have driven him into a life of solitude.  But when Ray has yet another vision, he becomes determined to convince Terrence to come out of his self-imposed isolation, so that together, they might pursue Ray’s dream. Ray comes to Terrence seeking his help, but the author has no interest in helping this stranger to fulfill his ludicrous vision. Clearly this is a “fool’s errand” taken on by a man caught somewhere between nostalgia and hopeless idealism.

Reclusive author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) drives Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) out of his home after he hears the Iowa farmer’s crazy dream.

I wonder if this is perhaps where Jonah thought that God was dwelling when he received the call to go to Nineveh…between nostalgia and hopeless idealism.  The Lord knows the “wickedness” of the people of this city, just as his prophet does.  And Jonah also knows that God’s righteousness would justify the complete eradication of such a sinful population.  So why then, does God call his servant to speak words of warning?

Perhaps God looks at the people of Nineveh and sees them for who they once were.  The Lord sees in the city more than one hundred twenty thousand of His children.  These are the Sons and Daughters, whom God had fashioned.  They were the pride of God’s creation.  And when God looks upon them, even in their present, corrupted state, the Lord’s first impulse is still love.

Perhaps God looks at the people of Nineveh and sees them for who they will become.  The Lord looks in the city and sees a multitude of souls who wait for the offer of redemption.  These are the faithful servants who will turn back to their God.  They will repent  of their iniquities.  And when God looks upon them, even in their present, broken state, the Lord’s first impulse is still mercy.

But Jonah does not share God’s vision of love and mercy.  The immoral people of Nineveh deserve the Lord’s wrath, not His compassion.  God should crush them under foot, not welcome them to return with open arms.  Even as God speaks to His servant Jonah, the prophet can’t understand what the Lord is saying to him.  And in his frustration, Jonah flees in the opposite direction, on a boat bound for Tarshish.  But escaping from God isn’t that easy.

As I was thinking about Jonah’s inability to understand the command of his God, I realized this past week that I was faced with a communication breakdown of my own.  I’ve recently found myself engaged in some extended conversations with Rebecca.  There’s just one little problem: I don’t have a clue what she’s saying!

We’ve reached the point where my daughter clearly has thoughts and ideas that she is prepared to share with us.  But unfortunately, her speech development isn’t as advanced as her overall language comprehension.  And so, while I can clearly recognize that she is sharing some truly complex thoughts, I can’t  understand much of it.

I used to be able to buy myself a pass with responses like, “Oh, I see” and “Is that right?”  But now, I’ve learned that such replies simply won’t do.  Rebecca doesn’t just want to talk; she wants to know that I’m listening.  And she can be pretty persistent in her attempts to make you understand!  If there’s something she wants, Rebecca will pursue from one end of the house to the other, telling you about it time and again, until you get the message.  And if that’s what it’s like dealing with the resolve of my two-year-old child, I can only imagine what it must have been like for Jonah to try to evade the perseverance of the Almighty God.

This carving, found on a sarcophagus from third century Mainz, depicts various scenes from the Book of Jonah (Vatican Museum).

God thwarts the attempted escape of His prophet by sending winds and waves against his boat.  And in his stubbornness, Jonah actually allows himself to be thrown overboard to suffer certain death, rather than simply listening to the command that the Lord God has issued.  But having determined that Jonah would be the one to carry the warning to Nineveh, God saves the prophet from the sea by sending the most unlikely of rescuers. A fish swallows up Jonah and carries him safely through the sea for three days.

During his journey, the prophet recognizes that this strange protection is the Lord’s doing.  And while Jonah remains convinced that Nineveh is irredeemable, he still confesses in prayer that “Deliverance belongs to the Lord.”  After his prayer, the fish returns Jonah to dry land.  And having rededicated himself to his vow of prophecy, he goes to the city of Nineveh when the Lord issues a second call.

As I think again about the Field of Dreams, I am reminded that even when Ray convinces Terrence to join him in fulfilling a vision by going to a game at Boston’s Fenway Park, Terrence remains skeptical.  He doesn’t want any part in this bizarre mission of Ray’s.  That is until both men experience a new vision.  After this shared revelation, Ray and Terrence are united in the work ahead.

Sadly, despite God’s efforts, we don’t know whether or not Jonah ever truly shares in the Lord’s vision for Nineveh.  Even after he fulfills his work as prophet, Jonah still laments God’s decision to spare the city.  While he acknowledges that the Lord is “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing,” Jonah’s anger leads him to a hill outside of the city, where he sits and waits, anticipating the destruction that he believes is surely coming.  But even as he waits in vain, that pesky God of his continues to come to him, inviting the prophet to share in the Lord’s vision of love.

Today, I believe that God is offering to share that same vision with all of us.  We are called, not only to return to God, but also to be a loving voice of repentance, which welcomes people to make their own turns back to the Lord.  And yet, even as we are invited to share this vision of love with our God, we are also faced with “Ninevahs” in our own lives.

These are the places and the people and the situations that we have no desire to engage.  And I know that we don’t like to admit it, but these places exist for each of us.  We look at the convict and see a man who is deserving of his sentence or worse.  But God looks with hope for one who might be rehabilitated into society.  We look at the addict and see a woman who deserves no pity for the condition she’s in after abusing her own body.  But God looks with compassion and sees a sick child who needs somebody to offer her care.  We look at the unemployed single mother and see a woman who is fittingly trapped in a situation of her own doing.  But God looks with love and sees a daughter who wants to provide for her child, just as much as the Lord wants to provide for his own.

But even as we struggle to enter Nineveh, the Good News for us is that our God is a pesky God.  The Lord is not only “abounding in steadfast love,” but God is also determined to call us to share in this love for the world!  With eternal perseverance, God is going to annoy us and irritate us and pursue us with all the love there is, calling us to share in his vision, so that we might stand in the midst of Nineveh and be God’s presence, calling people to receive God’s love and to return to God’s ways.

Friends, as we continue to seek to hear God’s call in our lives, let us acknowledge the places where we struggle to go and the Lord who calls us there anyway.  May we consciously ask whether the vision we follow is truly that of our God.  And may we trust in the Lord, who leads us to see people not as they are, in their poor, crumbling states now, but as they once were in God’s loving act of Creation…and as they shall be again in the fulfillment of God’s redemption.

To the Lord who speaks to us, and strengthens us, and blesses us with peace, be all glory and honor forever. Amen. (Psalm 29:1, 11)

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, January 25, 2015 (The Third Sunday after Epiphany).

“Meeting the Mystery”

Old Testament Lesson: 1 Samuel 3:1-20 (NRSV)

1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

19 As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

The power of storytelling never fails to amaze me.  Often, we can think that we know a story from beginning to end, and yet, when we hear it told again,we discover something new that had previously eluded us.  I had this experience in the last week as I read a story that was being shared through social media.

In an article published by online sports magazine “The Cauldron”, writer Shawn Krest tells the story of a rather bizarre press conference by Gregg Nibert, coach of the men’s basketball team at Presbyterian College.[i]  The conference came just after the PC Blue Hose had lost 113-44 to Duke in the Blue Devils’ 2014 season opener.  As Krest describes it, the PC Blue Hose were nothing more than “cannon fodder” put in the line of fire so that the nation could get its first look at the all-star lineup Duke would field this year.

And so, after he had praised the effort of his Blue Hose team and remarked on what an unforgettable night this would be, Coach Nibert collected his things and yielded the floor so that Coach K could take his podium.  But just outside the media room, it occurred to him that this here was the largest audience that he would have the opportunity to address this season.  And so, Coach Nibert turned around and walked back in, announcing to the reporters, “I have something to say.”

Gregg Nibert, Coach of the Presbyterian College Men’s Basketball Team

Coach Nibert addressed the problem of child abuse.  He pleaded for people to speak out for “voiceless” children for whom there are not enough advocates.  He decried a justice system that fails to prosecute abusers.  And he called for social service reforms that would stop returning victims to the homes where they had been hurt.

Coach Nibert’s words came from a very personal place.  Over the past eight years, he and his wife Peggy have repeatedly served as foster parents for thirty-seven babies, several of whom had been the victims of serious abuse.  Time and again they have received these children into their home, often straight from the hospital.  They come broken and battered, having been abused by the people who should have protected them from all harm.  Often, the babies they welcome have health problems or developmental issues.  And yet, no matter what their condition, Peggy and Gregg have repeatedly been there to receive these children with loving, open arms.

I’ve known this part of the story for quite some time.  The Niberts are two of the most loving, caring, and dedicated Christian servants that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, so it was no surprise to learn that they had answered God’s call to give refuge to these children in their time of greatest need.

What I didn’t know about was the struggle that the Niberts had gone through in answering this call.  According to Krest, Peggy in particular had wrestled with the idea for almost six years.  “Finally,” she said, “[God] was kind of beating me over the head with the idea.”  Peggy’s experience speaks to the persistence of God, when calling us to serve.

It’s the same sort of persistence that the Lord demonstrates in our Old Testament Lesson this morning.  As Samuel struggles to understand who is calling to him, God relentlessly comes to the boy until at last, with the guidance of Eli, he is able to answer the mysterious call being issued.  And as we reflect on the unlikely encounter between God and the boy Samuel, we might also think about the way that we meet the mystery of God, as we are called to service.

To begin, we may recognize that God often calls the most unlikely of people.  This is to say that God recognizes strengths for service that we tend to overlook in others.  Many might look at Samuel and discount him for his youth and inexperience, but God sees a servant dedicated to his work.  Many might look at the Niberts and think that the hectic life of a coaching family would make them unlikely foster parents, but God looked at Gregg and Peggy and saw two servants whose hearts were big enough to take on the additional challenge.

We even do this with ourselves.  When met with the mystery of God’s call, we question whether this voice could truly be directed at us.  We ask, “Why would God call me?”  And then, we fixate on all the things that we think make us unworthy.  Surely, God’s call is for someone who is more righteous, more dedicated, more learned.  But as we focus on all the reasons we think we shouldn’t be called, the Lord sees in us all of the reasons that we are perfect for the job. We have but only to stop making excuses for why we are the wrong person, so that we can hear the voice of the Lord assuring us that we are indeed exactly the ones whom God is seeking.

Of course, the moments that God calls to us are rarely the quiet ones that we imagine.  Samuel at least hears the voice of the Lord calling to him in the stillness of the night.  But as Peggy shared in Krest’s article, her own experience was quite different.  As she was hearing God’s call for her to receive foster children, she struggled to discern God’s voice in the midst of other life events.  Was God truly calling her to take on this new challenge, just as her own sons were about to leave home?

Like Peggy, we, too, can find that God seems to come to us at the most unlikely of times.  This is certainly nothing new either.  Think about the manner in which Jesus called several of his disciples.[ii]  As he walks along the shoreline, he doesn’t wait for them until the end of their shifts.  In the moment, Jesus calls them, saying, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people!”  And they respond by dropping their nets and leaving their boats behind.

As we meet with the mysterious God, we often struggle to understand why the Lord doesn’t call upon us at a more convenient time.  Now just isn’t good for us.  Maybe we can be God’s faithful servants a little later.  But such thinking forgets that we are called to serve, not according to our time, but according to God’s.  And while the reasoning for God’s timing may remain a mystery, we trust that God does call to us in this moment so that each of us might serve a particular role in the work of the Lord in the world.

We also find that God calls to us in the most unlikely of ways.  If only it were always so easy to discern God’s will by looking for the burning bush that came to Moses or the talking donkey, such as the one who spoke to Balaam.  We might even settle for a mysterious voice calling to us over and over in the stillness of the night.  And yet, God’s call often requires dedicated discernment.

Peggy Nibert, pictured with one of the many children, for whom she has lovingly served as a foster mother.

In Peggy’s case, it took years of focused prayer.  Time and again, she asked God for clarity and trusted that the Lord’s will would ultimately be revealed to her.  And though the answer did not come quickly, Peggy did eventually gain such great understanding that she had no doubt about the work that God had planned for her and her family.

One of the truths about meeting with the mystery of God is that the encounter more often than not happens in rather ordinary ways.  Because we tend to remember those experiences like that of Paul on the Road to Damascus, we set ourselves up to expect that we will encounter God through an unmistakable blinding light and booming voice.  But if Scripture witnesses to anything, it is the truth that God speaks to the faithful through myriad ways.  And more often than not, God’s will is not made known through clashing thunder or violent wind; it is experienced in the course of a lifetime relationship one builds with the Lord.

As I think about the ways in which we meet God, it occurs to me that the greatest mystery that remains is not in the Lord’s call, but in our response.  As people of faith, we should gladly answer God just as Samuel does, saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  And some of us have.  But today, there are many of us who ask, “Could You maybe look for someone else, Lord?” “Could You maybe call me at a more convenient time?”  “Could You maybe make the call a little flashier?”

The Good News today is that even as we struggle to meet the mystery of God, the Lord is undeterred in calling.  God is calling you and me to listen closely to discern the places where we are called to be in service.  In our homes, in this church, and in our whole lives, God is calling each of us to live lives of discipleship, serving as Christ served.

And let me be clear: the future life of this congregation is dependent upon whether or not you all step forward to say, “Here I am.”  Don’t expect the church to attract new members when you aren’t going out and sharing the Good News and calling people to live into that Good News in the life of this congregation.  Don’t expect people to bring their children here to be nurtured, when you don’t show up for Sunday School and when nobody can be found to teach classes.  Don’t expect this church to have the funds to support any sort of meaningful ministry if you aren’t willing to make a true sacrifice from your own wallet or purse.

I pray that not one person will leave this sanctuary today without understanding that we face real challenges and that we are called to make true commitments if we wish to answer those challenges.  We must stop looking around, expecting that God will find someone else, or some better time to ask us.  If you haven’t yet, go and listen for the voice of God calling.  God is calling each of us to answer this day with a determined response.  And as we answer individually, I pray that as the whole church, we will be able to lift up a unified voice to God, saying, “Here I am!”

“To the LORD who speaks to us, and strengthens us, and blesses us with peace, be all glory and honor forever.” Amen. (Psalm 29:1, 11)

[i] The details of Peggy and Gregg’s story are taken from  Shawn Krest’s article, “Open House”. Updated January 14, 2015. https://medium.com/the-cauldron/open-house-100e414fac0e

[ii] Matthew 4:18-22

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, January 18, 2015 (The Second Sunday after Epiphany). The NCAA also has a video that shares the Niberts’ story as a foster family.

“Washed Away”

Gospel Lesson: Mark 1:1-11 (NRSV)

1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’ ”
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved;h with you I am well pleased.”

In the beginning there is water and the Spirit. As we read the first verses of Genesis, we are reminded that, before God speaks the first command of Creation, the wind of God moved over the waters of chaotic inexistence. In reality, water is just as much a product of God’s work as everything else. Our theology teaches us that, prior to the act of Creation, nothing (not even water) had come into being. But then why is water even mentioned?

Perhaps, for the people who first told the story of Creation, it was the best metaphor they could imagine for what came before “the beginning.” Water is a shapeless, formless substance. It is not inherently good or bad. It has the ability to preserve and to destroy. In the realm of all things created, water was perhaps the best image they could come up with for non-Creation.

Of course, we find water playing a prevalent role in our second story of beginnings today, as Jesus comes to be baptized. By the time this story is told, water carries with it the history of the interaction between the Jewish people and their God. When God sought to destroy the evil that had infested his Good Creation, the Lord used the waters of the Great Flood to purge the earth of evil. When God sought to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, he parted the waters so that they might pass, then brought them back together, so that their pursuers were cut off from God’s people. When the people complained of thirst in the wilderness, God sustained them by bringing forth water from a stone. And when God led the people out of the desert, the waters of the Jordan parted so that the people might cross into the land which the Lord God had promised to them.

The people flocking to see John in the wilderness carry all of these stories with them as they come to the water. And yet, the waters of baptism had, by no means, been established as a place to interact with the Almighty. Under Jewish law, those wishing to petition the Lord would have traditionally done so by going to the Temple in Jerusalem, so that they might make an offering to God.

But in that day, the people’s offerings had become tainted by the corruption of religious leaders, who abused their authority to pursue their own interests ahead of the relationship between God and the covenant people. And so, those people turned their backs on Jerusalem and returned to the wilderness, in the hope that they might here encounter God once again.

This act is a literal act of repentance, turning away from sin and toward God. The people confess their own sinfulness and are baptized as a symbolic mark that God has washed away all their iniquities. And yet, in all their zeal for renewal, the people have no idea just how close they are to God.

A Mosaic by Artist John August Swanson, depicting John baptizing Jesus at the Jordan.

Even John, who has dedicated his ministry to preparing the way of the Lord, is caught off guard when Jesus comes. John knows this man—this cousin of his. While there are many who need to come and seek forgiveness, Jesus is not among them. So, what is he doing here?

I heard a story of a pastor who had devoted his career to preaching God’s mercy and love and calling people to repent of their sins and to receive God’s forgiveness. But sadly, he silently struggled with one particular sin of his own, to the point that he began to doubt the truth of the Good News which he proclaimed. In time, his skepticism led him to conclude that there was simply no way that God could ever redeem him. His sin, known only to him, was simply too great for God to forgive.

But in his congregation, he was told that there was an old woman of great faith. It was said that through continual prayer and study, she had drawn herself close to God. And this woman firmly believed that Jesus spoke to her through visions. Filled with cynicism at the idea that anyone could have such a close relationship with God, the pastor met with the woman one Sunday after church and asked, “Is it true that you believe you hear Jesus speaking to you through visions?”

“Oh yes,” said the woman, “I don’t just believe it! I know it!”

“Well,” said the pastor, “the next time you talk with our Lord, do me a favor, would you? Ask him to tell you what grave sin I committed many years ago.”

Though she didn’t understand the request, the old woman agreed.

The following week, she met with her pastor again.

“So,” he asked, “Did the Lord come to you in a vision this week?”

“Yes, indeed,” she replied.

“And did you ask him about my terrible sin?”

“I did,” answered the little old woman.

“Well then, what did he say?”

“He said he forgot.”

“Huph!” the pastor laughed, satisfied that he had disproved the woman’s claim.

“Actually,” she continued, “He said that if He had forgotten it, perhaps you should too.”

So often, we struggle to forget the things that God has already chosen not to remember. We hold other’s sins against them and we even hold our own sins against ourselves. But the Lord God chooses not to remember those things, as though they had been washed away with the flowing waters of the river.

In fact this is exactly what Jesus does in coming to the River Jordan. In that moment, our Lord chooses love for God’s fallen Creations over the eternal separation that would otherwise result from our sin. In as much as Jesus chooses love for us by giving his life on the cross, he also chooses love when he allows his untarnished being to be immersed in the spiritually polluted waters of the Jordan.

And what we discover is that Jesus not only remains pure, but his righteousness washes over all those who come after him. In the generations of followers to come, baptism would not only mark a turn from sin. It would also signify one’s acceptance by God into the covenant of grace. The members of this community would receive the same Spirit that had descended upon Jesus. And just like our Lord, each of us would have the assurance that we too have been claimed as God’s beloved children, with whom God is well pleased.

Today, as we celebrate the baptism of our Lord and as we remember our own baptism through which our sins have been washed away, we should mark this as not just a moment of commemoration, but one for dedication. As baptism marks the occasion for the start of Jesus’ ministry with God’s beloved Creation, may baptism also serve as our own call to go and minister to the world.

Let us share the Good News of baptism like John before us. May we invite our Brothers and Sisters to receive God’s grace and may we extend to them our grace. Having sought forgiveness for our sins, may we not hold our iniquities against ourselves. And having been purified through the waters which Christ shares with us, may we know that our sins have been washed away, and we have been united with God and one another through the power of the Holy Spirit.

To the Lord who speaks to us, and strengthens us, and blesses us with peace, be all glory and honor forever. Amen. (Psalm 29:1, 11)

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, January 11, 2015 (The Baptism of the Lord).