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11-29 - Detangling

            We have now entered the Christmas season.  Despite COVID-19 virus, the social distancing regulations, and the color-coded zones established by NY State, the calendar relentlessly churns forward toward Christmas Day.  Interestingly enough, Christmas day is celebrated by the overwhelming majority of countries across the world.  Of the 195 countries in the world, 160 countries have some form of Christmas celebration. Among those nations there are some common traditions and some uncommon practices.  A few of the uncommon practices include one from Caracas, Venezuela, where it is the custom to travel to church on Christmas Eve wearing roller skates.  In the Ukraine, people add artificial spider webs to their tree decorations. In Spain, it is customary to wear red underwear on Christmas Eve.  This is just a sampling of the unusual ways Christmas is celebrated across the world.

            A common tradition is putting lights on the Christmas tree.  For many of us, putting up the lights can be a stressful event.  I read an article about reducing the stress of lighting the tree. A British company, Tesco, a British supermarket company, posted an ad for a new job—a Christmas Light Untangler. The job involved 36-hour-a-week with the principle duty being to staff and manage the Christmas Lights Detangling stand. Detangling Christmas lights seems like a great service.

            It would also be a good service to the Christian community if we detangled the Biblical story of Jesus from the traditions, customs, and folklore about Jesus birth.  Detangling the story of Jesus’ birth helps us understand the true message of Christ from the glitter, tinsel, and wrapping paper that symbolizes Christmas. 

I would like us to begin our work at the detangling stand by reading from today’s New Testament reading found in  Chapter 1 of the Gospel of Matthew.  The Bible says, “16 Jacob [was] the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah” (Matthew 1:16).  Then Matthew wrote, “18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about” (Matthew 1:18a).  The first truth we learn from Matthew was that Jesus was the Messiah.  What did Messiah mean to the people of Israel?

The Messiah had been promised to Israel by God through the prophets.  The Messiah was believed to be a coming king of Israel anointed by God. There were two schools of thought about the Messiah.  One group believed the Messiah “king” would be a political leader; a ruler, visible and powerful, and victorious for Israel.  On the other hand, there were those who hoped the Messiah would be sent from heaven, part human, part divine, who would establish God’s kingdom on earth. Both groups believed that when the Messiah came, it was the beginning of the end of times.

The promise of a Messiah was found in passages from the Books of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, Zechariah, and Malachi, just to name a few.  It had been over 400 years since God spoke about the Messiah making the Messiah’s coming long expected.  Even the Romans wrote of an expectation of a king coming from Judea.  People were waiting for their version of the king to come.

As we untangle Christmas then, we should see the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, as the answer to prayer and the answer to promises made by God.  We should also see Jesus as king, not as a political leader, but as one who invites us to be led by him into God’s kingdom.  Christmas Day then should be a celebration of our place in God’s kingdom.

As we look further in verse 16, we notice that Jesus’ mother was Mary, but the name of Jesus’ father was omitted.  Matthew was signaling to his readers that Jesus did not have an earthly biological father.  Matthew would explain the truth about Jesus’ father a little later but he wanted his readers to wonder, who is the Dad?  The second thing we learn was that Jesus was born.  Jesus was not created out of thin air.  He did not descend from heaven in bodily form.  Matthew wrote Jesus was born of Mary.  This means Jesus, the Messiah, the king, was fully human. Jesus had the customary ten fingers and ten toes evenly divided over two hands and two feet.  Jesus was physically helpless and as dependent upon his mother as any other infant.  Jesus’ mother would have wrapped him tight with cloths much in the same way mother’s today wrap their newborn babies in a receiving blanket.  But as we detangle Jesus’ birth from Christmas traditions, we need to bear in mind that there was no halo encircling Jesus’ head.  Jesus did not have blond hair, blue eyes, and a light complexion as is often depicted in paintings and nativity sets.  Jesus would have had dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark complexion.  Jesus was a king and a human being.

So in our detangling of Jesus’ life from Christmas tradition, we should celebrate Jesus was as human as we are.  Jesus understood the human experience firsthand because he lived it. 

            Matthew then wrote, “His [Jesus’] mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18).  Mary’s family had arranged her marriage to this man Joseph, but the wedding ceremony had not yet happened.  Marriage happened early in life, so Mary was only a teenager.  Mary was legally bound to Joseph but still lived in her father’s house.  The wedding would occur when Mary’s father decided the time was right.  When he decided, then Mary and her family would travel to Joseph’s house for the wedding.  Joseph needed to be ready.

            Matthew said that Mary was pregnant through the Holy Spirit, meaning that Jesus’ father was not human but was God himself.  The apostle John would later record these words from Jesus.  “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6).  Jesus was therefore, human because flesh, Mary, gave birth to flesh.  And Jesus was divine, God, because Spirit gave birth to Spirit.  This means Jesus had the will of God, the divine and the will of Jesus, the human.  Jesus had two wills in one being and yet his two wills were never in conflict.  Jesus always wanted whatever his father wanted. Jesus came as king to lead, human to live our experience, and was God who would get things right.

            We then read that Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant and not by him.  Matthew wrote, “19 Because Joseph her [Mary’s] husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he [Joseph] had in mind to divorce her [Mary] quietly” (Matthew 1:19).  God waited to act through Mary until she was engaged to Joseph and before they were married.  Mary was part of God’s plan, and so too was Joseph.  An unmarried pregnant young woman was at risk.  Her father could have her put out of his home or he could pursue the law and have Mary killed for fornication, sex before marriage.  God would use these circumstances to show the character of righteous men through Joseph. When Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph felt he had two choices: demand Mary be punished under the law with a cry for justice or divorce her as quietly as possible as an act of mercy.  Joseph could see no other alternatives.  As we detangle the emotions of the moment, we discover that Joseph loved mercy more than justice.

            From Joseph’s posture of mercy, Matthew picked up the story again.  Matthew wrote, “20 But after he (Joseph) had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him (Joseph) in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’). 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Matthew 1:20-24).  We detangle the next layer of emotions and discover that God helped Joseph see more options were available to a righteous man.  God asked Joseph to be obedience to God even over Joseph’s own sense of mercy.  In listening to God and being willing to be led by God, Joseph came to see that Mary, the baby Jesus, and he, Joseph, were part of God’s plan to fulfill his promises. Joseph came to see that God is not a God of chance or improper timing.  Nothing about Jesus’ birth was a coincidence and certainly was not a surprise to God.  Each person, including Joseph, had been hand-picked by God for a purpose.

            So when we detangle Jesus’ birth from the traditions of Christmas Day we realize that God has a plan and that plan includes you and me.  In God’s plan, He has a desire for us to be obedient to Him and in doing so we can display God’s righteousness through our lives. As important as Joseph was to the story of Jesus, there is not one sentence recording his words.  Joseph showed God’s righteousness by his behavior. 

            For nearly 400 years, the Jewish people waited for a messenger from God, the Messiah, to lead them as king.  Now, in Joseph’s life, God was finally acting.  The bitterness Joseph felt in believing Mary had betrayed him was removed and replaced with the joy of doing what God wanted him to do.  There was no need for justice or even mercy.  The only thing that God required of Joseph was obedience.  Matthew wrote, “24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Matthew 1:24). Joseph conformed his will to the will of God.  That is what obedience means, conforming two wills into one.

            When we think of Christmas Day, we see that God was detangling the idea of Messiah.  The Messiah had come as a king.  But Jesus did not come to command and demand allegiance by the power of political forces or military might.  Jesus came in the flesh to walk with people and talk with them and to love them. Jesus came as God to heal the sick and give hope to those who were lost.  Matthew wrote that Jesus came to save people from their sins, sins that would destroy not just their bodies but their souls.  Jesus came to fulfill God’s promises.

            As we detangle Jesus’ story from Christmas Day traditions, we might ask ourselves some questions in the format commonly used in youth groups with each question beginning with the word, “Would you rather?”  Try these questions:

  • Would you rather live this life on your own or with a God who loves you?  Jesus came because God loves you.  Christmas is not about packages wrapped in pretty paper. It is about God’s plan to love the world.
  • Would you rather live your life where promises are often broken or in a kingdom of God where promises are always kept?  God kept his promise of sending His Messiah.  Christmas is not about ornaments hung on a tree.  It is about holding tightly to the promises of God that will be kept.
  • Would you rather wonder what your life is all about or know that you are part of God’s plan?  God sent Jesus that you and I would follow Him and fulfill a wonderful purpose. Christmas is not about chance as to what gift may be in our stocking.  It is about knowing that God wants to gift us with an abundant life.

We could go on with this list for quite some time. The point is that we need to detangle Jesus’ birth from Christmas Day traditions.  When we separate the two, we discover Jesus came to lead us into the kingdom of God. Jesus came to walk with us through the good and the challenging human experiences.  Jesus came to reveal the power of God.  Jesus came to reveal the plans of God.  And Jesus came to invite us to show God’s righteousness through our lives.  We will not find any of these wonderful and inspiring realities in our wearing roller skates to church, putting spiderwebs on our Christmas trees, or even wearing red underwear.  We can only find the essence of Christmas when we put such things aside and come into the presence of God through Jesus Christ.  This year, I encourage you to spend some time at the detangling station and pull from all the Christmas Day traditions the essence of Jesus birth.  Amen and Amen.

11-22 - Worship

            This Thursday we will celebrate Thanksgiving Day.  Traditionally, we know this day as a day of feasting and gathering our families, friends, and neighbors.  It is a time of sharing with closeness.  We know this year will be different.  Our gatherings will be small, if at all.  Very few will invite neighbors or folks they do not know to join them for dinner.  We will not invite the relatives from out of state.  Afterall they might have to stay with us for 14 days!  Thanksgiving will feel different.  Undoubtedly, we will feel some sadness over what or who is not present on Thursday.  But on the other hand, perhaps, the changes in the day will give us space to consider more fully the essential elements of Thanksgiving.

            In this country, we attribute Thanksgiving Day to the Pilgrims of Plimouth Plantation; that is what they called the original settlement in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts.  The Pilgrims were a collection of men, women, and children.  They were an odd bunch.  They originated in England, lived a time in Holland, and then set sail for America in two small sailing ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell.  They did not get far before they had to stop.  The Speedwell was sinking.  The group reassembled with as many on the Mayflower as it could accommodate. Some families were divided.  Some never to be reunited again.  They ventured across the Atlantic Ocean. Battered by storms and blown off course the ship arrived far north of their intended destination of Virginia. They came ashore in Plymouth, supposedly on what is now, Plymouth Rock.

Why had they come?  They came because they wanted something.  The spiritual leader of the group, Elder Brewster, said they came because they believed in the new world they would be able to have “The right worship of God and discipline of Christ established in the church, according to the simplicity of the gospel, without the mixture of men’s inventions, and to have and to be ruled by the laws of God’s word, dispensed in those offices, and by those officers of Pastors, Teachers, and Elders, and to do according to the Scriptures.”  The Pilgrims, from whom we get Thanksgiving, wanted only to worship God in everything they did, period.  They desired that nothing be added to the Scriptures and nothing be taken away.  And for that opportunity, they would be thankful.

Last week, we spoke about the topic of worship when we briefly spoke about Paul’s letter to the church at Rome and as we heard in our New Testament reading today.  Paul said, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1).  What is it that Paul wanted his readers to do or not do because of these words and what should we do or not do, some 2,000 years later? 

Paul’s message is a call for us to be transformed for and by worship of God.  He is seeking a renewal of our minds so that everything we do, not just everything we do when we come together on Sunday mornings, but everything we do, will worship God.  If we are honest with ourselves, what Paul is asking frightens us.  If we take his message seriously, he is asking us to first to accept Jesus unreservedly and allow Him to make us into a new person, with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God.  Then completely changed, Paul wants us to let the Spirit of God lead us into worship of God in everything we do.  This is what the Pilgrims desired; that their lives would be seen as worship of God as the Scriptures made clear.  The Pilgrims felt the restrictive government of England would not allow them to worship and live in this manner.  So, the Pilgrims moved to Holland.  There, in Holland, the Pilgrims learned that the permissive and promiscuous culture of Holland was corrupting their youth and leading them away from the faith.  And so they boarded a small ship and sailed across the ocean to find a place where worship was possible.  Nearly one-half of the Pilgrims died seeking a place to worship.

To risk one’s life to worship God frightens us almost as much as worshipping God without reservation frightens us.  To risk our lives or worship without reservation would cause us to do things we cannot imagine doing.  So, we tend to approach this Scripture and worship in the manner described by author Wilbur Rees.  He wrote with satire, “I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please.  Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don't want enough of Him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant worker. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal, just put it in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please."  

Rees’ satire points out that the idea of transformation really scares us.  We realize that with transformation comes a major overhaul of our lives and priorities. Worship though, genuine worship of God, is uncomfortable to natural man but is to be the most natural thing to do with one who has Christ within.  Because we still fight against our own nature, we tend to treat worship as an optional thing to do.  Paul understands these emotions and fears but he has one fear greater than being anxious or uncomfortable in worshipping God.  It is the fear of going astray and not worshipping God.  Paul does not want to miss an occasion to worship because in worship we acknowledge and rejoice in God’s presence among his people.  Paul is concerned that his readers will be paralyzed by fear and stay within the structure of the church itself and worship God only there.  We must not let ourselves and our church become as though we were mummies in a museum.  Paul calls us to be transformed by and for worship of God.

Let us take a look at Paul’s words from the book of Romans.  Paul began his letter this way, “1Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:1-7).  Do you get the sense of the difference in Paul’s introduction?  Do you get the sense that Paul is going to use every opportunity to worship God?  How does he do that?  Right from the opening of his letter, Paul gives an account of the Gospel story and makes clear that his salvation is a gift from God.  It also makes it clear that Paul has a purpose in life, namely, to shared gospel and he is seeking the same mission from those reading his letter. It may seem to us to be just a letter, but Paul makes it an occasion to worship God.  Now Paul does not do that just because he is trying to prove some point. He is doing it as a response to the joy of the Gospel.  He knows that in receiving Christ and his offer of salvation, he, Paul, is free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness, and loneliness.  We might find it difficult to match Paul and write a 135-word introduction to every letter, card, or email we send.  However, the point is clear, make the most of every opportunity to worship God because doing so says we are in awe of God’s creative and redemptive power. When we give away that Gospel message and invest it into other people through worship, our life grows larger. When we live our lives only for ourselves hoping to conserve our strength, we grow weaker.

From our New Testament reading today, Chapter 12, verse 1, Paul wrote, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  In saying, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” Paul challenged his readers to see their lives rich with action, movement, and flow of daily activity was an integral extension of God’s creativity.  Secondly, those holy and acceptable bodies are to be “living sacrifices.” Sacrifices of that time were animals killed for blood and burning.  Paul saying, “Make your living the sacrifice,” meaning express your worship of God through daily and routine activities of the body.  When we engage our bodies in worship outside the church, then we can bring healing to others, as Christ did, we can break injustices by our actions, as Christ did, and we promote and reinforce the dignity of life, as Christ did.  Third, Paul says, that fully acceptable body, properly engaged in life’s activities with God at the center of them is spiritual worship.  Meaning simply, you are glorifying God and showing His presence to all those around you.  This is worship.

Paul continues along this line in verse 2. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Paul is saying the way to get your body engaged in the right activities is to get your mind engaged on Christ.  He argues against conformance to the world, meaning do not follow the patterns of behavior of the world because they are not Christ-like, but be transformed.  The Greek word for transformed is the same Greek word that we get the English word, metamorphosis, which we use to describe the change of a caterpillar into a butterfly.  You cannot miss significance of such change.  Paul is saying that our mind must change similarly in order to know God’s will and empower our body into acts of worship.  When we take on the mind of Christ, then we are asking God to change the deepest decisions that shape the way we live.  We worship God and serve others; rather than essentially ignoring both God and those in need.

Paul provided some practical guidance over the next few verses.  He said, through grace, God gave different gifts to each believer and fitted them together as if different parts in the same body.  Every body part has a function and operates for a purpose.  In verses 6 through 8, Paul lists some of those gifts given by God’s grace and he says use them in worship of God.  If you have the gift of prophesy, then speak God’s word. If you have the gift of ministering to others through hospitality or compassion, then minister.  Do so because that is the part of the body of Christ you represent.  Extending hospitality and compassion then is your spiritual act of worship.  If you can teach, then teach in ways that worship God. If you are gifted to encourage then do not wait for someone to collapse in despair; give them a call, a card, an email, or a visit and let them know you are encouraging them in their giftedness, in their purpose of sharing God.  When you do so, you worship God.  If you are a giver of funds, then give as an act of worship to God.  If you are a leader, then lead.  That does not mean enslave others.  Leadership is about empowering others to accomplish great things for God.  However, to be transformed, you have to do this all day, every day.  This was how Christ lived, and Paul calls us to imitate Jesus.

Let me give you a couple of illustrations of transformed behavior that sets the stage to worship God in your everyday life.  Some will eat in a restaurant at some point this month?  That still happens.  Most Americans will not say a prayer before eating a meal and most Christians who do pray before meals at home will not do so in a restaurant.  When we do not say a blessing in public, we are missing an opportunity to worship God and we are conforming to the ways of the world.  So you say, “OK, Pastor, I will say grace at the next time I dine out.”  I would say wonderful, but if you want to be transformed and make it a memorable act of worship, then when your server comes and introduces themselves and says, “I’m John or Jane, I will be taking care of you today.”  You say to them, “John or Jane, nice to meet you.  We pray before we eat.  Is there something we can pray to God for you?”  That is transformational worship because you are revealing the presence of God among His people and you are inviting others to be part of that experience.

Perhaps you like to take photographs.  Look through them all and see which ones speak to you about God’s presence.  Find someone to show them to and tell them, these are some of my favorite photos because I see God in them.  Ask God what he wants you to do.  I felt Him pushing me some years ago to write something poetic.  I wrote a poem adapted to a song for a Maundy Thursday service and asked my son to sing it.  The poem and song title is Hallelujah, which translates to “Glory to the Lord.”  It was an act of worship.  Each of us is called to worship God, in and through our daily activities.

This week when we celebrate Thanksgiving and we have space now for new traditions, make Thanksgiving a worshipful event.  Instead of making the turkey and the trimmings the star of the day, make God the center point of the day.  Instead of simply saying, “What are you thankful for?”  Ask each other, “How has God been present and made you thankful?”  “What story in the Bible makes you most thankful to God?”  “What will you do to worship God this year?”  We can transform our dinner into worship.  Through that celebration, we will remember with our minds the outpouring of His grace through Jesus.  We will worship through our bodies and taste, see, touch, smell, and feel the experience of Thanksgiving to God and in doing so we worship. Let the moments at the Thanksgiving Table be a moment at the Lord’s Table and let it be a defining point in your life to transform your mind into that of Christ and worship God like never before.  Amen and Amen.


11-15 - Refined

I am nearing the completion of teaching a ten-week course on Christian Ethics.  Each Monday evening for two hours, I have had the pleasure of leading a conversation on approaches different philosophers and theologians have taken to define a system of ethics by which to live by.  Some of you are part of that class and may not find it as pleasurable as I do because it is a lot of work.  I have told the class that this course is the hardest course they will take in the series of lay study course being offered by the American Baptist Churches of New York State.  It is a hard course because it requires the attendees to think deeply about their beliefs and convictions.  This makes the course a refining process.

We all undergo refining processes in life. Sometimes that refining occurs in a school setting where we are challenged to develop greater knowledge or improve upon our skills and talents.  Sometimes refining occurs at home where expectations of communal living requires each member of the household to change their individual habits to conform to habits that serve the greatest good for the group.  In the grief counseling ministry, I have not yet met a person who did not feel they had gone through a refining process as their grieved the loss of a loved one.  In and through grief, people learned to separate the things of life that did not matter from the things that do matter.  So, when we forced to go through grief or when we voluntarily go through school, we are changed.  Whether those changes are positive or negative depends upon whether the process was a refining process that improved our character or a process that infected our life with behaviors and thinking that does not well serve us or anyone else.

Our Old Testament reading today from the prophet Malachi promised a refining process for the people of Israel.  God promised this process because the people of Israel, particularly with the leading of the religious teachers and leaders, were infecting with harmful thinking and behaviors.  If we had read the earlier chapters of Malachi, we would discover the people of Israel doubted God’s love for them.  The people showed contempt for God, instead of respect. The people gave the scraps of life to God, instead of their best. 

God through Malachi had a particular warning for the priests, the pastors of Malachi’s day.  God said, “My covenant was with him (Levi-the priest), a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them (people) to him (Levi); this called for reverence and he (Levi) revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.  For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the Lord Almighty” (Malachi 2:5-8).  Pastors were not speaking the truth about God.  The pastors had become more interested in being admired by the people than being true to God’s Word and thus honoring God. God said, “17 You have wearied the Lord with your words.  ‘How have we wearied him?’ you ask.  By saying, ‘All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them’” (Malachi 2:17). It seems that pastors were celebrating behaviors of the people that the pastors knew were wrong in God’s eyes by saying those behaviors pleased God.  God said through the prophet Isaiah, “20 Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).  God was not happy with the pastors.

            Through Malachi, God said that a refining process was needed.  God is an orderly and just God who does not act without warning.  So, God outlined his plan for the refining process; a process to bring people back to holiness.  First, God said, “1I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3:1).  God said a similar thing, again through the prophet Isaiah.  God said he would send a messenger as, “A voice of one calling: "In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” 

Step 1 – God would send a messenger to prepare people before he arrived.  God waited 400 years between setting out this plan to Malachi to send a messenger and sending that messenger.  To us, 400 years represents 20 generations of people.  To put that in perspective, 20 generations is the time between the Pilgrims landing in 1620 and our worship service today in 2020.  For us, 400 years is a long time.  To God, 400 years is a mere blink of the eye.  When God is ready, he will act.

            All four Gospels record the story of the messenger’s arrival and his message. The Gospel of Matthew said, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’” (Matthew 3:1-3).  The messenger promised through Malachi and Isaiah had arrived. John the Baptist was announcing God’s refining process had begun.

            John began baptizing in the Jordan River those who sought to change their ways and be refined.  When John saw the priests from Jerusalem coming to be baptized, he scolded them.  John told these priests they must produce fruit of repentance.  The refining process being proclaimed by John must change them and be evident in the priests’ behavior toward God and toward people.  If that was not enough, John told the priests that an even greater refining process coming.  John said, “11 I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).

            John used language of a difficult process of separated what was of value from what was of no value.  It would be done by fire and would look and feel to some people like the process of separating wheat from the chaff.  John was speaking about Step 2 of God’s plan found in Malachi.

Step 2 - If we jumped back to Malachi, we would find these words about that part of the refining process.  God said, “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. (That is John.)  Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty” (Malachi 3:1-2).  John was saying the promised Messiah, the Lord himself, was about to appear.  This we know was the coming of Jesus.

            Jesus, the messenger of the covenant, was going to challenge the thinking of the priests and people about their understanding of God.  Jesus was going to challenge the lack of honor toward God, contempt for God rather than respect, and their lack of love for God despite God’s unwavering love for the people.  How would Jesus bring this message?  Jesus would bring the message just as Levi had done.  We recall God said the message was brought because, “True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.”  Jesus would do all of that as he would suddenly “come to his temple.”

            Shortly after this scene with John the Baptist along the Jordan River we read this account of Jesus, the messenger, in the Gospel of John.  “13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’ 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ 18 The Jews then responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’  19 Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’  20 They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ 21 But the temple he [Jesus] had spoken of was his [own] body” (John 2:13-21). There was no mistaking that Jesus had arrived in the Temple and that he was beginning the refining process that looked very much like separating wheat from the chaff.

            The refining process Jesus came to initiate was not simply to teardown what was corrupt.  It was to build up what was good and pleasing to God.  We see this as Step 3 in the refining process.

Step 3 - We return to our reading in Malachi and see that God said through the prophet, “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites [priests] and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years” (Malachi 3:2-4).  The prophesy of Jesus was that priests and people would seek to challenge him, to contest what he had to say, but ultimately they would not prevail against him.  In all cases, Jesus would work to refine those he encountered that they would come to see God.  The impurities of their lives, sin, would be removed and they would be made righteous through him.  Their offering, their lives, would become acceptable to God.  The Apostle Paul would later express this conclusion this way, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed [refined] by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1-2).

            The purpose of the refining process of Jesus was and remains to remove the impurities of our life and build us up in the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.  I think this is an important point. Jesus did not come simply to make heaven available to us and leave our life on earth unchanged.  If we think of Jesus only in these terms then we reduce Jesus’ message to something like, “You have a choice between living eternally in hell or eternally in heaven.”  When we do that then following Jesus is nothing more than concluding heaven with God seemed like a better alternative to hell. That is not the Jesus message.

            If we went back to Malachi, we would find that part of God sending his messenger of the covenant was that we would live a productive and pleasing life on earth.  Malachi wrote that God “5Will come to put you [those who do not fear him] on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice” (Malachi 3:5).  The message of Jesus was that our life, here on earth, will evidence the presence of God. The impurities of life will be removed and the presence of God will be evident.   

Think about that for a moment.  Jesus had the fullness of God within him.  He was the visible image of the invisible God.  Jesus, in coming to us, presents us with an opportunity to imitate him and have the visible image of the invisible God displayed through us. That is called holiness.  That is a wonderful life-giving, God-honoring, way to live that happens in our lifetime.  We can experience the life of Jesus, but we must first submit ourselves to the refining process.  We must come to Jesus and be forgiven our sin and receive the Holy Spirit to guide our steps toward making our lives a living sacrifice.  It is a beautiful and pleasing way to live and, by the way, we discover that life will never end.  It will continue with God in heaven.  Let’s walk that life together.  Amen and Amen.

11-08 At Jesus' Feet

Several years ago, I made a phone call to a friend, a man named Frank.  I no longer remember why I called him.  Frank was then in early 90’s.  Frank’s wife, Jane, then was in her late 80’s.  Frank said he was so glad I called because he and Jane were just preparing to have a scholarly discussion on the purpose of language. He wanted to know if I wanted to come over and join them.  I said to Frank, “As tempting as that sound, some other time, perhaps.” 

Language is essential to the flourishing of human life. I have shared in the past that a medieval king wanted to know the original language of humanity.  He thought it was Hebrew, Latin, or Greek.  To know for sure, he seized several newborns, kept them together, but isolated from all human interactions except for the women who cared for the infants. These women were forbidden to make any sound while caring for the infants.  The king’s idea was that in perfect isolation from human language, the babies would eventually reveal the true language of humanity.  Sadly, all the infants died not from lack of care but from lack of human communication and interaction. 

The dictionary says that language is a human system of communication consisting of words used in structured and conventional way and conveyed in speech, writing, or gesture.  A learned Christian counselor, Dr. Gary Chapman, observed that language while including words extends beyond to other means of communication.  In his book, “The 5 Love Languages”, Dr. Chapman observed that each human being has a primary language for expressing and receiving love.  Do you know what your “love language” is? If you don’t, listen carefully because there will be a quiz later.

For some people their love language does involve words; namely words that affirm their sense of dignity.  When they hear words that lift them up for whom they are, these people feel loved.  For other people, love is expressed best through gifts.  Given them a piece of jewelry or a personal poem and their spirits soar.  Yet for others they feel loved we someone does an act of service.  To have someone do some work for them is a form of language that makes such people feel loved and appreciated.  A fourth type of language is having the opportunity to spend time with their most important person.  For these folks, it is a language of quality time spent together that speaks volumes to them.  Finally, there are those who express and receive love best through the language of physical touch.  This type of language is expressed through hugs, holding hands, a pat on the shoulder and with intimate partners, with sexual relations.  The language of touch gives these folks the reassurance that there are people who love them and are willing to be close and personal with them. With COVID-19 social distancing rules, we now have a better understanding of just how much we need and desire positive physical touch with a handshake, a warm embrace, a reassuring hand on the shoulder, or arms linked with another.  So, you speak English and perhaps some other languages.  Do you now know what love language you speak?

Today, I want to talk about the love language of physical touch. Physical touch has always been important to humanity and that language played prominently in the story of Jesus Christ. Each time the Gospel writers gave an account of physical touch with Jesus, it was full of passion and powerful in meaning.  I believe they described the physical touch and said little else because the emotions of those scenes were so poignant that they would break the back of words.  Now the central, most pervasive, and most powerful expression of physical touch in Jesus’ story almost never happens anymore. Are you surprised?  People touched differently in Jesus’ day than we do now. What sort of physical touch played prominently in Jesus’ story?  It was the physical touch of the feet.  We no longer touch other people’s feet today in the physical sense and touching Jesus’ feet in the spiritual sense probably happens very infrequently.  Yet, the story of Jesus and those who knew him is expressed powerfully through the physical language of touching of the feet.  Why was it that touching of the feet played such an important role in Jesus’ story?  What might we learn for our faith journey from these interactions?

First, we learn that people came to the feet of Jesus to express the suffering and the pain in their lives. They wanted Jesus to know they were turning their lives over to him and would follow Him instead of their own ways. They shared with Jesus and would follow him not out by command to do so but rather in response to His love.

One evening, Jesus was dining in the house of Pharisee named Simon, a wealthy man who was very respected in the community.  “37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life [the life of a prostitute] learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 As she stood behind him [Jesus] at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them [his feet] with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.  39 When the Pharisee who had invited him [Jesus] saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner [prostitute].’ 40 Jesus answered him, ‘Simon, I have something to tell you.’  ‘Tell me, teacher,’ he [Simon] said.”  Just a quick pause here for a moment.  Before Jesus speaks there are no words exchanged among Jesus, the woman, and Simon.  There was only physical action occurring as the woman, a prostitute, wept and touched Jesus’ feet.  Jesus knew the woman’s reputation and the woman knew Jesus’ reputation.  When the woman came into Jesus’ presence and Jesus did not shun her or chase her away, the woman began to weep.  She wept because of the pain of her life.  She wept for the indignities of her mode of living. She wept because she suffered isolation from the community until men sought her out only later to scorn her. The woman cried out her suffering to Jesus and then expressed her willingness to love him by touching his feet; first with her tears, then with her hair, and finally with her hands as she perfumed his feet.  Simon sat motionless and silent.  Only Simon’s thoughts were revealed but not spoken.  Jesus chose to answer Simon’s unspoken thoughts.  Jesus would later respond to the woman’s unspoken thoughts.

            Jesus said, “41 ‘Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he [the moneylender] forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?’  43 Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.’  ‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said.  44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.’”  This woman suffered as she had been used by men for their pleasure.  She had been given money but not affection.  She did not know she could be loved.  Then Jesus came into town proclaiming the good news of salvation and blessing by God not just for the best but for the least as well. The message of love overwhelmed the woman and the only way to express the depth of her gratitude was through the love language of physical touch.  The woman wept as her former life began to melt away.  Her tears and her hair cleaning the dirt of life from Jesus’ feet. She had been humiliated before men in life as a prostitute and now she humbled to be in God’s presence.  Simon was unmoved by God’s presence.  C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Prostitutes are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God; the proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger.”  The woman was moved to express her love through the language of physical touch.  Simon was too proud, to wealthy, or to self-righteous to even move.

48 Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’  49 The other guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’  50 Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’” Luke 8).  The woman at the feet of Jesus was now at peace.  The other people were stunned.  The woman guilty of sin, was forgiven of her sins of her past, and at peace to pursue a new future.  Simon received no such blessing.  The woman learned forgiveness at the feet of Jesus and expressed her love for Him and his grace without saying a word.  She expressed herself by touching Jesus’ feet.  Have we come to know Jesus in such a manner? Do we allow sins of our past whether from years ago or yesterday be taken from us and replaced with a promising future?  Do we ever express gratitude for Jesus in ways that do not require words?  Do we weep over what was and what we are able to be now because of Jesus?  Or are we too proud for the feet of Jesus?

            There were others who expressed much at the feet of Jesus.  One day, on his way to Jerusalem, “11 Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him [Jesus]. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’  14 When he [Jesus] saw them, he [Jesus] said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.  15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.  17 Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19 Then he [Jesus] said to him [the healed man], ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well’” (Luke 17:16-19). 

Ten men made hopeless in life by leprosy.  All ten suffered equally the pain of the disease and the pain of separation from community.  They were isolated and only able to watch each other get worse until they died.  The ten shared their pain with Jesus and asked for him to heal them.  Jesus healed them.  The ten, now with fresh, clean, clear skin rushed to share the news of their good fortune.  They had been healed.  One, a non-Jew, changed his mind as he ran from Jesus.  This man turned around and came running back to Jesus and the threw himself at Jesus feet.  The man recognized that even if his health was restored, his life would be incomplete without the presence of God in it.  Even though the suffering and pain in his body had ended and he was glad to run and tell others he could still feel the pain of not being in God’s presence. Suffering taught him to seek God and so rather than share his good news of clear skin, the healed man wanted to share in the presence of God and do so at Jesus’ feet.  Do we see our life in this manner?  It would seem from this story that 9 out of 10 people are more concerned with the health of their body than having God in their life?  We need to ask ourselves, “Am I one of the nine who run away from God when things are good for me or the one in ten who realizes my aches and pains of life mean nothing compared to the ache of not knowing God?  Am I found running away from God or am I found at the feet of Jesus savoring the presence of God?”

             On another occasion, some women made their way to a garden to the tomb where Jesus’ body, dead from the crucifixion, was laid to rest. The women wanted to clean and care for Jesus body with spices. When the women arrived at the tomb, they found it empty. Messengers, two angels, said Jesus had arisen.  So the women hurried from the tomb with this mixture of fear and joy.  “Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’” (Matthew 28:8-10). These women had grieved the death of Jesus.  They suffered believing all hope had died with Jesus.  Unexpectedly, the women encountered Jesus, they grabbed hold of Jesus’ feet for dear life and worshiped him.  The pain and suffering of grief left them as they held Jesus feet.  They did not want to let go of him.  Touching Jesus, just his feet, was so reassuring and comforting.  The women could not help but worship him; that is they expressed unashamed joy. These women deeply desired to share the good news and be able to say Jesus’ name, to speak of his resurrection, and to know that Jesus’ words of life are true.  These women, and the disciples who would soon learn of Jesus’ resurrection, became fearless in sharing the good news of Christ.  Can we in whatever we may give find comfort in the resurrection of Christ?  Do we know the good news that death is not the end of life?  The Apostle Paul said, “21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (Philippians 1:21-24).  One of Paul’s points here was that whether he lived or died he would be with Jesus.  The pain of grief was muted by the joy of worship.  Do we feel the desire for worship of Jesus in a similar manner?  Are we able and willing to express unashamed joy at Jesus’ name?

                        Language is important for our understanding God and one another.  The language of love expressed toward Jesus was intimate and humble. The language of love removed the pain of the past, grief, and emptiness.  That language expressed at the feet of Jesus was met with forgiveness, healing, comfort, and hope.  It is at the feet of Jesus that we should find ourselves.  Amen and Amen.

10-11 - Salvation


During the last couple of weeks, we have spoken about baptism and we shared the Lord’s Supper.  Through these symbolic acts we see and experience the truth of the transformation, power, and goodness of God through his Son, Jesus Christ.  Today, I would like us to continue explore the truth about Jesus that lays behind the visible symbols of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. That truth is call salvation.  Now when we spoke about baptism, goodness that overcomes evil, and the Lord’s Supper, we had visible reminders to help understand what God was doing in the lives of believers.  In baptism, we heard Paul’s explanation that “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).  We visualize this transformation each time someone is baptized.  To understand goodness and overcomes evil, we had the Lord’s Supper comprised of bits of bread and a cup of juice symbolizing the body and blood of Jesus who overcame the powers of the world and displayed the goodness of God through his resurrection from the dead.  Having something visible helps us understand a truth, particularly a spiritual truth. This one reason Jesus spoke so often in parables or in story form.  Stories help us form images of an encounter or scene which aids our understanding of the message being conveyed.  In all the years since Jesus’ taught, we still learn best from stories.  In fact, if anything, we have become more adept at learning and communicating through visual representations and story.  Today, I want to begin our time together by making use of our power to learn through images, through story, so that we could explore the truth of salvation.  And so, I want to begin with these images.

The images we saw of a person trapped in a hole rescued from circumstances that may or may not have been of his own making gives us a sense of salvation.  The person had no way and no hope of changing his circumstances.  The circumstances only changed when someone intervened on his behalf by climbing down into the pit to lift him out.  This is visual depiction of salvation.  Salvation is saving a person from the confinement and constraint of sin, distress, and hopelessness.  Salvation is planting a person in a spacious environment, granting freedom, and preservation from dangers.  Salvation is granting peace, joy, praise, and faith.  Salvation is granted by grace and mercy.  Salvation requires no meritorious work, no offering of money, and no acts of repetitious prayer.  Salvation only requires a desire to receive.

            The underlying Christian belief in salvation is that salvation comes from one source, God through Jesus.  In the Gospel of John, we learn, “16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17).  Salvation comes from God and it is born out of love. God does not seek to condemn people but to save them.  Salvation is a God thing.  Let’s take a look at some of what Jesus taught about salvation and how he represented it.

            In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 5, we read a story about Jesus encountering a man who was not in his right mind.  Mark said the man was possessed by an evil spirit. Neither we, nor the disciples with Jesus, saw or could see an evil spirit.  But Jesus disciples and we could see the circumstances of the man.  Mark wrote, “3 This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. 4 For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones” (Mark 5:3-5).  The man lived among the dead in a cemetery.  The people of his town, his neighbors, had once bound him in chains to control him, but now he was too strong for them.  Night and day, he lived alone, howling and screaming. He cut himself with sharp stones and rocks.  The man was hopeless and whatever possessed him, whatever controlled his life, would not let him go.  Many people today live in a trapped existence and cry out in pain. 

If we continued reading, we would find that Mark gave a detailed account of Jesus freeing this man from his possessor.  Once freed Mark wrote, “15 When they [the local townspeople] came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind.” (Mark 5:15a).  This is a picture of salvation.  The man who was controlled by influences other than God had been transformed by his encounter with Jesus and was now peace, joy, praise, and faith.  This man had been saved.

The Apostle Paul would later explain such a picture as this in a spiritual context this way, 21 At one time you were separated from God. You were his enemies in your minds, because the evil you did was against him. 22 But now he has made you his friends again. He did this by the death Christ suffered while he was in his body. He did it so that he could present you to himself as people who are holy, blameless, and without anything that would make you guilty before him” (Colossians 1:21-22 (ERV)).

From Paul’s description we understand that salvation is an end of being separated from God.  Salvation involves a new way of thinking and a new friendship with God.  The path to this friendship was created by God through Jesus death and we need only ask to come onto the path.

Jesus asked the man in the cemetery who he saved and restored to do only one thing in return. Jesus said to the man, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).  Jesus charge on the man was simple.  Tell others what God has done for you.

Now some church folk can make salvation overly complicated and legalistic.  I have heard people ask of others, “Do you think so and so is saved?  Do you think the church they went to was a believer’s church?”  I read this week that many people in the Roman Catholic Church may not be baptized.  Apparently, you are properly baptized if the priest or deacon says, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” You are not baptized if the priest or deacon said, “We baptize you…”  Pronouns apparently matter.  The question is raised about the authenticity of another person’s salvation and whether the source of the salvation was sufficient and credible.  These are not new questions.

Sometimes friends and church folk are unwilling to believe someone’s testimony about what God has done.  Even in Jesus’ day, people raised questions about salvation.

            Let’s look at some excerpts from Chapter 9 of the Gospel of John.  One day, Jesus and his disciples were walking along, and Jesus encountered a man blind from birth.  The man was left to sit on the roadside and beg for money to sustain his own life.  Jesus “spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7 ‘Go,’ he [Jesus] told him, ‘wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (this word means ‘Sent’). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing” (John 9:6-7).  This is another illustration of salvation.  The man who was blind a birth, no hope of change, no hope of a full future, living a life constrained along the side of the road is now free to see all things and move about safely.  This healing came about by grace and mercy from Jesus.

            Now the man returned to his home.  “8 His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, ‘Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?’ 9 Some claimed that he was.  Others said, ‘No, he only looks like him.’ But he [the formerly blind man] himself insisted, ‘I am the man’” (John 9:8-9).  We see here that the neighbors of the man who was once blind were unwilling to accept the man’s testimony that he was healed.  The man’s neighbors could only see the man defined by his past.  But salvation means our past is behind us. We are no longer constrained by our past.  Now some people will not accept that truth about salvation and will try to drag people back to their former ways.  They will say, “I remember you when…don’t tell me now you have changed because you have God.  I am not buy it.”  This is essentially what the man’s neighbors were saying.  This cannot possibly be the man who was blind; this is only someone who looks like him.  But the man persisted saying, “I am that man.” The man gave his testimony of the work God did through Jesus.

            The neighbors then brought this man to the religious authorities for them to question the man.  The man repeated his story of being blind and now able to see because of what Jesus did for him.  “18 They [the religious leaders] still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. 19 ‘Is this your son?’ they asked. ‘Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?’

20 ‘We know he is our son,’ the parents answered, ‘and we know he was born blind. 21 But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.’ 22 His parents said this [Ask him] because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:18-22).  The religious leaders refused to acknowledge Jesus was the source of salvation and that Jesus was working in the lives of one person, here a “nobody” who deserved no special grace from God.

            This scene teaches us that Jesus does not work through nations or people groups or race or any other sort of political affiliation or identity that people may chooses to assign to others.  Jesus works through a person; one at a time and offers salvation.

            In the Gospel of John, Jesus described the act of salvation using another illustration.  Jesus said, “3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3).  Jesus illustrated salvation as a second birth, a spiritual birth. Everyone here experienced a natural birth, that is we were born into this world.  Our life was derived from our parents.  Our birth did not come about by our own will or through our own provision.  In a similar manner, our spiritual birth will not come about through our own will or through our own provision.  Our spiritual birth will come about through the action of God through Jesus.  In that second birth, the source of our life is Christ living within us.  In this way, Christians do not believe they God will love them because they are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.  This is salvation.  We are no longer trapped in a hole.  Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7b).

            Salvation is our avenue to joy, peace, praise, and faith. Salvation is our path to an ongoing relationship with Jesus.  Salvation is forgiveness, mercy, and grace given to us simply because we asked for it. Salvation is God’s to give and ours to receive.  Be willing to ask and receive and embrace salvation.  Amen and Amen.

10-04 - Good 'N Evil

            There was a very popular Broadway musical entitled, “Jekyll and Hyde.”  One of the songs from that show was entitled, “Good ‘N Evil.” Included among the lyrics of that song were these words, “The battle between good and evil goes back to the start - Adam and Eve and the apple tore Eden apart!  The key thing about good 'n' evil - Each man has to choose!”  Because the Broadway musical is a dark story the song concludes with “Evil's for me - you can have good!”

            Good and evil are truly as old as time.  In the beginning of time, God had one and only one commandment.  The man and the woman were not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Everything around the man and woman, including they themselves, had been described by God as “good.”  All that existed was good, everywhere, through and through.  Evil, as the man and woman, might understand it, was not present. Well, we know the story.  The man and woman ate the forbidden fruit and their eyes were opened.  “7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.  8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:7-8). Immediately, we see good has changed. The man and woman were ashamed of their nakedness and they were afraid of God.  As we read further, God found the man and woman. He asked the man if he ate the forbidden fruit.  The man replied, ““The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (Genesis 3:12).  The man admitted he ate the fruit but only because God put woman with him, and she is the one who gave it to him to eat.  Good has changed.  The man learned quickly to blame others and admit only what is provable. The woman learned from the man. She said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:11).

            How might we visualize the change from good alone to good and evil together?  One way might be to think about a hole.  Now a hole is not a real thing.  Right? You cannot go to Home Depot and buy a hole.  Kids cannot dress up for Halloween as a hole because holes are not real things even though they exist.  A hole exists as a missing part of something else.  We might have a pair of pants and observe, “I have a hole in my pants.”  A hole is the absence of what was once present. We know there is a hole present because we remember what those pants were like when we they were in tack.  In similar manner, we might think of evil as the absence, a hole, in what was once good.  We know that it is evil because we still retain memory of what it ought to have been like, that is good.  Confused? Think of it this way.  The only way we know a line is crooked is if we know what a straight line looks like.  The only way we know something is evil is because we retain a knowledge of what is good.

            So evil marred good.  Through sin a hole was punched into what was good but more in the way of punching a hole through a folded piece of cloth.  It was not just single hole, but a hole in many places. And life is still very much like a folded piece of cloth.  Every sin puts new holes into the cloth of goodness.

            Now God, who created good, has been unceasing in his desire that man and woman would seek good.  God sent Jesus, his own Son, to earth to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom.  The good news was that in receiving Jesus our sins would be forgiven and we would be called away from evil and called to do good.  In that calling and accepting of Jesus, our tattered cloth representing our life before Christ is replaced with the seamless and complete cloth representing the sinless life of Christ.  This happens because Christ loves us and forgives us.  This is the good news God offers through Jesus.

            And even though we may accept Jesus in this life, we know, God knows, that we are still inclined to sin and still want to punch holes into what is good.  Goodness is still a memory imprinted upon humanity and like all memories we do not recall things perfectly.  The Apostle Paul expressed the sense of seeing things as they are this way. First, Paul said, “12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).  In the present, we still see in part and thus are more than capable of acting in ways other than good.  The second thing Paul said was, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:17).  The reality, that which is good through and through is found in Christ.

            Knowing that we do not always see things clearly, the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to give instruction on how to live our lives continually moving in the direction of good.  From our New Testament reading today, Paul wrote, “9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”  Love here is not an emotion, it is an action.  Paul’s point was that we must love with sincerity. How do we display such love?  We begin this way, “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”  Have you ever been the edge of very high point such as the edge of a roof or to the edge looking into a very deep canyon?  For many people who come to that edge, there is almost a magnetic-like pull over that edge.  Paul was saying do not go to edge of hole, to the edge of evil.  Step back from evil with the feeling hatred toward it. Instead, cling to the safety of goodness.  Do not let your hands go of what is good.  What is good?  The person of Jesus.  Hold tight to him.

            Paul then went into rapid succession of actions that represent love and goodness. “10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.”  Be willing to serve other people because of love.  I read that we make friends for one of three reasons.  When we are young, we make friends based upon pleasure.  Our friends are those people who make us happy because we enjoy doing similar things.  Now when we no longer enjoy doing those things, our pleasure friends will disappear. As we age, we begin including friends in our life because we are useful to them and they are useful to us.  We have friends who are co-workers or neighbors. We might not even like these people that much, but we are friends because it is useful to get along.  When that usefulness ends, those friends will disappear. The third friend we make are virtue friends.  They are the people who become our friends in a deep and personal way.  Their friendship is true whether the moment is pleasurable or useful.  They want to do good for us simply because it is good for us.  These are rare friends indeed.  Paul was saying be that rare friend.  Devote yourself as a friend to others and be good to them simply because it is good for them.

            Paul continued.  “11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”  In expressing love and seeking goodness, we must remain vigilant to recognize that the strength to live our life comes from seeking God’s will and wisdom. We need to be excited about our faith and joyful about the hope we have because of the Lord.  Billy Joel’s song pokes fun at Christian behavior.  In the song, Only the Good Die Young, Billy Joel wrote, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, the sinners are much more fun.”  Paul’s point was nonsense!  Christians should be the people abounding in joy.  Paul wrote famously, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).  With great sincerity, we need to show others why we have hope and they can as well. And we need to pray for one another. I mean by name and specific.  It is a humbling experience when someone says to you, “It is so good to see you.  I have been praying for you.”  Prayer builds intimacy in our relationships.

            Paul said our love and goodness must be practical. He said, “13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”  We should be a giving people who express and show what goodness looks like and feels like by helping to solve needs of fellow Christians whether those needs are for food, clothing, shelter, companionship, or wisdom.  Quite frankly, these should be easy things for us to do and doing these things gets us in practice for the heavy lifting that love and goodness demand.

            Paul turned his attention to those difficult things.  Paul wrote, “14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”  Now that is tough stuff.  Blessing those who are unkind is not natural.  I learned that lesson as a young child.  My brother, who is four years older than I am, used to say to me, “If you punch me, I will punch you back 10 times and harder.”  I, of course, would have to punch him and he in turn would have to punch me back.  There was not a lot blessing going on when my brother and I were wrestling and fighting. We wanted revenge.  Paul went after this point a little further in this passage.  Paul wrote, “17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.”  “19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head’” (Romans 12:17, 19-20) 

            Instead of revenge, we are to imitate Jesus, who when insulted and injured did not retaliate.  When Jesus suffered, he did not seek revenge.  This does not mean we have to be everyone’s punching bag.  It simply means we will seek ways for God to bless them and move them toward goodness.

            Paul then concluded with these words, “21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).  God created us with free will.  If we are free to pursue good, then we are also free to pursue evil. Because we have free will evil is possible, but free will is also the only thing that makes possible love, goodness, and joy.  Paul said that we are faced with alternatives.  We can either be overcome by evil or we can overcome evil.  To be overcome by evil is to live a life making holes in the fabric of our life.  We can seek revenge for harm done to us but that makes as much sense as eliminating a small hole in our pants by making it bigger.  “You don’t see that small hole in my pants any more do you.”  No because you replaced it with a larger one.  We can seek to blame others for our problems and failing in life, but we know that will only result in us suffering alone in our failings.  Or we can overcome evil with good.  We can listen to God and follow the goodness revealed to us.  We can imitate Christ and be a source of hope.  We can practice the virtues of life and be the type of friend who never tires of doing what is good for our friends simply because it is good for them.  We can be part of God’s plan to overcome evil with good.  And by the way, in case you were wondering, there is no other plan available.

            As part of that plan we learn that on the evening that Jesus was betrayed and arrest, itself an act of evil, Jesus said to his disciples, ““As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:9-17).

            Jesus gave his friends what we now call the Lord’s Supper.  He gave them the bread and the cup to remind them that in the middle of evil seeking to destroy him, he had overcome evil.  Jesus gave his friends the bread and cup because it was good for them.  Through the bread and the cup his friends could hold in their hands the goodness of Jesus’ presence in their lives.  You and I are Jesus’ friend as well and he is offering us the bread and the cup because it is good for us.  It is good for us hold goodness in our hands.  Let us come together to remember what is good and be strengthened to overcome evil with good. Amen and Amen.

09-27 - Baptism

Today, I would like us to explore baptism. There are three reasons why I think we should talk about baptism.  The first reason is that we are Baptist and even the word “Baptist” appears in the name of our church.  Therefore, it stands to reason that baptism must be an important part of who we are. The second reason is that some people here have not been baptized and it would be important for you to understand baptism.  Finally, we should talk about baptism because some people here were baptized and we might only think about our baptism an event from our life and not essential element of our daily faith walk.

Let’s start with baptism as it is portrayed in the Bible.  While there are some historical accounts of ritual washings among the Jewish cultures and even pagan cultures, the concept of baptism was introduced by a man named John. This man, John, and baptism were so linked together that John became known as John the Baptizer or John the Baptist. For another day, we will look at John in detail, but for today, we will look at John as a matured man.  We find John introduced to us in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 3.

“3 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:  ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’  John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Matthew 3:1-6).

            Let’s take a look at a couple things about John and baptism.  John was a vocal preacher far removed from the mainstream of religious life.  Jerusalem was the center of Jewish religious life and John was in the wilderness, in a place called Bethany by the Jordan River.  In John’s day, it was a 20-mile walk from Jerusalem to Bethany and people from all over came to hear what John had to say.  John had a simple message, “Repent!”  Today, when we hear someone say “Repent,” we might be inclined to picture a street preacher screaming at folks as they passed by his corner proclaiming the end is near. We are not sure what to make of such people but generally most of us are inclined to cross the street and avoid the drama.  “Repent,” properly understood means to “turn around because God is behind you and you are walking away from Him.”  Repent means to turn around and agree to walk with God in your life. John, from his wilderness outpost, called people from the Temple of Jerusalem and the synagogues of other cities pointing out that following rules and religious practices, participating in ritual sacrifices, and wearing the right religious clothing was not the same walking with God.  Religiously practicing traditions does not mean you are with God.  Listen to how John address the most respected members of the religious community:

“7 When he [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he [John] said to them: “You brood of vipers [snakes]! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10).

John was blunt.  He was saying, do not talk the talk of faith and believe you are walking the walk of faith.  The talk of faith alone produces nothing.  The walk of faith produces fruit in keeping with repentance.  When we repent, that is turn and genuinely follow God, then we can produce fruit that reflects the goodness of God.  When we repent, we stop doing things that we know are not pleasing to God and we begin doing things consistent with God’s character of truthfulness, honesty, compassion, empathy, patience, kindness, and love.  We are concerned less with the idea that God is to be found in religious traditions, rules, and rituals and we become focused on becoming the person God wants us to be.

John said to his listeners that once you have repented, once you have come into agreement with God, be baptized; be immersed and submerge yourself under the water as an outward sign of your decision to repent.  Let that baptism signify to the witnesses of your decision and desire to turn fully toward God and let that moment remind you that you are in God’s presence.  And people were baptized, submerged under the waters of the River Jordan, by John for their decision to repent.

So we learn that baptism began as a decision to repent and water was used to symbolize the change of direction.  That is what John’s baptism meant.

Then, in that remote location, “13 Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’  15 Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then John consented. 16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he [Jesus] went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he [John] saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him [Jesus]. 17 And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:13-17).

            In the baptism of Jesus, we see God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit present.  In the baptism of Jesus, God was signaling that he would change John’s practice of baptism forever.  Baptism would no longer be simply about repentance, a turning toward God. Instead, baptism would come to represent a supernatural involvement of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit into the life of the person being baptized.  Baptism was still a human response to the presence and call upon an individual by God but now baptism would reflect the work of God’s Son and the involved of the Holy Spirit.  Like many of the things that happened with Jesus or Jesus taught and said about himself, the significance would not be fully understood during Jesus’ life on earth.  The same would be true of baptism.

            Let’s see what I mean by that.  After Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection from the dead, Jesus said to his disciples, “19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).  We see a couple of things here about baptism as Jesus would now define it.  First, baptism was for those who would follow him as a disciple; that is one who would seek to do what Jesus would do.  A decision is made for the individual to accept the forgiveness Jesus offers for all sin, past and future, and then as a confirmation of that acceptance, they are baptized.

            Now, I, like many of you, was baptized as an infant. I was only a few weeks old and I was baptized in a very religious ceremony.  I had no choice in the matter.  My baptism was done by my parents out of love for me, but I express no love for Christ, no repentance, no acceptance of Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, and no decision of discipleship.  I was a few weeks old and was simply present to get water splashed upon me.  Later, in my twenties, I thought again about baptism. The first and most overriding thought of that moment was, “When I get my act together and become a better person, then I will be baptized.  I cannot be baptized as I am now.  I must make myself better.”  This proved to be a fruitless exercise and one that is not found in the Bible.  Jesus did not say to his disciples, “When people get their act together, baptize them.”  He said tell them the good news that I have shared with you.  Invite them to follow me.  And when they do so, welcome them as your equal through baptism. I then came to realize that I needed to make the decision to follow Jesus.  I needed to accept Jesus’ offer, and I needed to be baptized as an outward sign of a spiritual change within me.  And so, as a man, I was immersed and submerged in the baptismal pool.  I wanted God and those who witnessed my baptism that a serious thing had happened to me.  That serious thing was explained by Jesus this way, I was baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  I was moved to repent and turn toward the Father.  I was moved to imitate the Son.  And God was moved to grant me the Holy Spirit to make it all possible in the moment and for the rest of my days. 

            The Apostle Paul was one person who fought against Jesus until he encountered Jesus and knew Jesus was the Son of God.  When Paul accepted Jesus was finally baptized, this is how he described the experience.  “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:4-5). Paul’s point was that baptism is the symbolic act of the death of our old life, that is our life without Jesus. That old life is then buried under the baptismal waters and we arise from the waters and draw in the breath of new life.  In that new life we are united forever with Jesus including joining him in his resurrection.  The promise is that Jesus is present with us in our daily living and that we will be united with him even in our death.  For Paul continued, “38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).  Baptism is a mutual expression of love.  Baptism is offered by Jesus as his expression and promise of love and it is our clearest way of showing our love toward him.

            We are a Baptist church because we believe that baptism is a personal decision that each person must make for themselves.  We do not believe Mom, Dad, or God parents can make a faith decision for the children under their care.  We, you and I, need to make that pivotal decision in and for our life.  Perhaps you have been waiting for the perfect moment to be baptized.  Do not wait. Come and follow Jesus and be baptized. Choosing to be baptized is likely the most significant act you can take in your Christian walk for the reasons I have mentioned and for these next thoughts.

            We can make use of our baptism daily by remembering three simple words, “I am baptized.”  How can those three words offer us daily strength.  Here is how.  When I think no one cares about me or my difficulties, I can say, “I am baptized.” When sadness overwhelms me, I can say, “I am baptized.”  In the long hours of the day, I can say, “I am baptized.”  When we are uncertain of our next step in life, we can say, “I am baptized.”  And because “I am baptized,” Christ Jesus lives within me now and forever. Because “I am baptized,” my sins are forgiven.  Because “I am baptized,” I have a family with many members.  Because “I am baptized,” God will share with me wisdom.  Because “I am baptized,” the Holy Spirit will lead me in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22).  Because “I am baptized,” the Lord will call me to meditate on things that are true, things that are noble, things that are just, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy.  Because “I am baptized,” my life no longer belongs to the world, my life belongs to God and I know I am his child.

            “I am baptized” is the source of my spiritual healing.  Christian writer, C. S. Lewis wrote, “As long as the natural life is in your body, it will do a lot towards repairing that body.  Cut it, and up to a point it will heal, as a dead body would not.  A live body is not one that never gets hurt, but one that can to some extent repair itself.  In the same way a Christian is not a man or woman who never goes wrong, but a man or woman who is enable to repent and pick themselves up and begin over again after each stumble – because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him or her all the time.”

            I am baptized therefore, Christ is within me renewing my life, repairing the spiritual cuts and scrapes from this world made of hard corners and sharp edges.  For those who have chosen baptism and been baptized, remember hold close each day the words, “I am baptized.”  For those who have not yet chosen baptism, I invite you to be baptized in the name of Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Make the choice to say, “I am baptized.”  Amen and Amen.