From The Pastor's Pen

(Rev. Evan W. Hill)

November 11, Hebrews 9:23-28

"Nothing Stopping Us"

So, two weeks ago, we heard another passage from Hebrews, and I talked about how Hebrews is a letter that is concerned with the question, “Why Jesus?” Hebrews is written to a people who have lost their fire, who have stopped coming to worship, and who need to be reminded why they should devote their lives to this Jesus guy. The folks to whom this letter is written are mainly Jews, and so the writer of Hebrews makes big effort to explain Jesus in a way that would make sense to them. And so, the writer answers this question, “Why Jesus?” by talking about ancient Jewish rituals: temples, priests, sacrifices, and all that. Which is great if you are a Jewish person in the year 90, but not so great for most of us. So, a lot of Hebrews can seem strange to us. But the answers that are at the core of this letter are just as true for us today as they were for those Jews in the year 90.

Many people these days are still asking “Why Jesus?” Some of you here might be asking “Why Jesus?” What difference does Jesus make? Why is he the focus of everything? And the answer we are given today is this: Because Jesus “has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Jesus removed sin once for all by sacrificing himself. Why Jesus? Because he got rid of sin.

Okay… that’s great! Jesus got rid of sin. That’s good news.

Well, sort of. The fact that Jesus got rid of sin is really only good news if

a) You know what sin is. And

b) You believe that sin is a problem.

Sin is not something most people go around talking about. Sin doesn’t come up in small talk. I don’t see very many social media posts about sin. Unless of course, it’s about something sexual, and then maybe people will mention sin. So, I don’t think most of the world around us has a very clear understanding of sin, much less why it’s a problem.

Sin is simply anything that harms our relationship with God. All people are meant to keep a relationship with God. And the way we keep this relationship is by loving God and loving other people. And anything we do that gets in the way of loving God and loving people, it has the effect of harming our relationship to God. We put our work and career before our love for God. That’s harming the relationship. That’s sin. We ignore a person who needs our help. That’s harming the relationship. That’s sin. We sin all the time. We’re all the time harming our relationship with God. Mostly we don’t even realize it. We’re too wrapped up in ourselves to even notice that we’re not loving God or loving others. Too into our own world to notice the damage we’ve to this relationship.

But there’s another part to sin that the Bible talks about. And we talk about it even less than we talk about harming our relationship to God. The harm we do to our relationship with God doesn’t just go away. Sin has lasting effects. It creates a wound.

Think of it this way: let’s say you choose to ignore your spouse for a few days, refusing to talk to them, refusing to respond to them in any way. That’s going to cause some harm, right? And that harm you do to your relationship isn’t just going to go away when you stop ignoring them. The harm you’ve done is going to leave a wound. It’s going to continue to hurt your spouse, and it’s going to hurt you. It’s going to be hard to restore that relationship with that wound between you.

It’s the same way with our relationship with God. The effects of sin don’t just go away when we turn back to God. Sin leaves a wound.

In its own way, our world knows how to deal with sin. It’s what our legal system is set up to do. If you do harm to another person or to the stability of society, then you are punished. You get a fine. You get community service. You get probation. You get jail time. You go to prison. That how our world traditionally deals with the harm of a sin against another person.

More recently, our world has started dealing with sin in another way. For sins that don’t fit neatly in legal code, we’ve taken to dealing with them through public shaming. The social media has made it far easier to make someone’s sins known far and wide. So, sins like sexual harassment are being dealt with through the punishment of public shame.

We have our ways of dealing with sin. But our world doesn’t know what to do with the wounds of sin. Our world doesn’t have good ways for healing the wounds between people. If it did, we wouldn’t be such a divided country right now. And our world definitely doesn’t have a way to heal the wounds between us and God. But our Scripture does.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus has removed sin by sacrificing himself. But clearly, there is still sin. Turn on the TV. Look at your news app. Another mass shooting this week. Twelve lives taken, and for what? Sin is alive and well.

Try this: at the end of your day, reflect on each part of your day. Ask yourself, “Was I loving God? Was I loving other people? If not, what was stopping me?” It can be surprising to go through your day like that. It makes it clear that sin is definitely alive and well.

So, what is the writer of Hebrews getting at? How can sin have been removed? If we look closely at this passage, we see that it is not simply sin that Jesus has removed, but the wounds of sin.

Hiding under the surface of our scripture today is a passage from Leviticus that describes the rituals for the Day of Atonement. On the Day of Atonement, which occurred once a year, the high priest would enter into the holiest place of the temple – a place that could only be entered on this day, once a year. This is the place where God’s presence resided. So, the priest would go into the presence of God and restore the relationship between God and the people.

The priest would do this in two different ways. One of things the priest did was to take a goat, put his hands on the goat’s head, and confess the sins of the people, putting them onto the goat. Then the priest would send that goat out into the wilderness, effectively dealing with the people’s sins.

But dealing with the people’s sins was really only a small part of what the priest did on the Day of Atonement. Most of what the priest would do on the Day of Atonement was to heal the lasting wounds of sin.

The way the Old Testament tends to talk about the wounds of sin is by talking about uncleanliness. It makes sense because untreated wounds are unclean. And in Old Testament culture, if you were unclean, then you weren’t fit to be around other people or in relationship with God. So, on the Day of Atonement, the priest cleansed the holiest place in the temple. He got rid of the uncleanliness that separated people from God. For all of God’s people, the priest healed all the wounds that sin created during that year.

And this is exactly what Jesus has done in his death on the cross. Except what Jesus has done was not just for a year and not just for the people of Israel. Jesus healed the wounds of sin once and for all people.

Yes, sin is still alive and well. But the wounds of sin no longer have to separate us from God anymore. The harm you have done to your relationship with God, it has already been healed. The harm you will do to your relationship with God, it too has already been healed as well. Whatever guilt, whatever shame, whatever wound is keeping you from fully embracing the love of God, Jesus has already dealt with it. Nothing is stopping you from having a relationship with the One who created you. With the One who gives you purpose. With the One who loves and affirms you.

All you have to do is trust and accept the gift of Jesus’ healing.

But Jesus didn’t only heal the wounds between us and God. Jesus healed the wounds between us and them. Jesus healed the wounds of sin that exist among all people. So, the wounds of sin no longer have to separate us from each other anymore. The harm you have done in your relationships, it has already been healed. The harm you will do in your relationships, it too has already been healed. Whatever guilt, whatever shame, whatever wound is keeping you from forgiving or accepting forgiveness, Jesus has already dealt with it. Trying to hold onto your wounds is like keeping an old band-aid. It’s no longer doing you any good.

If we trust in what Jesus has done, there is nothing stopping us from restoring our broken relationships.

Why Jesus? Because this world is full of broken and wounded relationships. This world is full of broken and wounded people. And this world can’t do a thing about any of it. But Jesus, who was God right here in the flesh, he can. And he already has. Trust, accept this healing, and see what God has done. Amen.

"God's Tears"

Sept. 22, 2019

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Luke 19:41-44

It’s kind of a strange little scene there in Luke, isn’t it? The Bible has this way of telling a story that makes it seem like it’s the most ordinary story in the world. But if you stop and think about it for a moment, you realize, “Wait, that’s a little odd...”

I mean, when was the last time you saw a grown man weeping in the middle of the street in broad daylight? Yet, that’s what we just heard that Jesus did. He’s coming into Jerusalem, and the disciples have just been lining the streets and shouting, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus is taking a look around as he coming to the city gates, and he just starts weeping right there.

Imagine you saw a grown man weeping openly on the sidewalk in downtown Franklin. He’s on his knees in front of the Tartan Museum, just bawling his eyes out. You’d think something is really wrong with him. Maybe he just found out someone close to him died, or maybe he’s drunk. You might even want to keep your distance and cross to the other side of the street. It’s just not something you see every day. It’s a little strange.

So, here’s Jesus coming into Jerusalem, and the first thing that happens is he’s overcome with sadness and grief. What’s going with him? What is it that he sees that causes him to weep like this?

Maybe Jesus sees signs of the religious corruption of the people of his own faith. After all, the very next thing he does is go into the Temple complex and drive out all the merchants trying to make a profit off of worshipers. Maybe he sees signs of how the Romans were oppressing the Jews: the corrupt taxation that kept people poor, the soldiers who intimidated Jews with military force. Maybe Jesus sees the misery of all the sick and disabled people begging on the edge of town. Maybe he sees all the people wandering the streets, burdened with demons. Maybe Jesus sees people’s hearts and knows that they aren’t seeking God, they’re not looking for the things that create true peace in this life.

Or maybe Jesus is looking ahead in time, beyond this moment as he enters Jerusalem. Maybe he sees some forty years down the road, when in the year 70, the Romans will surround Jerusalem, cutting off their supplies and causing mass starvation and famine. Maybe Jesus sees how then the Romans will destroy everything in Jerusalem, including the Temple, leaving the city in rubble.

Or maybe he sees all of this at once: corruption, oppression, misery, sin, and destruction. All this strife grieves Jesus’ heart, and there is nothing he can do but weep. He says, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” (Luke 19:42). The people have not recognized the things that create peace in life.

If what Jesus saw that day in Jerusalem made him weep, then surely, he must have plenty to weep over today. Corruption, oppression, misery, and sin are still with us. They may look a little different. But they certainly haven’t gone away. I think about all the opioid overdoses our community saw last weekend. I think about the misery that must have caused them. I think about grief they produced. There’s strife all around us. Many of us have strife within us. Our inner life can be a mess of worries and fears and anger and desire that we don’t know what to do with. It can feel like there’s a storm churning in our hearts and in our heads. We are just as captive to the forces of sin as they were in Jesus’ day.

Yet so often, like those people in Jerusalem, we too fail to recognize those things that create peace in life. We fail to recognize that Jesus has come close to us. We fail to recognize the Holy Spirit is among us. We fail to recognize them because we’re not looking for them. We’re not looking for Jesus in our daily life. We’re not looking for the work of the Spirit. So, we don’t see them. We don’t see those things that create peace in our lives. Those things of peace that the Apostle Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If you’re not looking for Christ in your life, then you’re not going to see these things that create peace. You have to look past the strife within you. You have to look past the strife around you. You have to be looking for Christ if you want to see the things that create peace.

But I want you to notice how God responds to the strife in our lives. What does our Lord do when he sees the strife that sin causes in our lives? God weeps. God grieves to see our lives in such strife. The Lord says in Jeremiah, “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt; I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me” (Jer. 8:21). God is hurting because we are hurting. God’s heart is sick because of the ways we suffer. You know that feeling of being broken hearted. It’s not simply, “Oh, I’m sad.” When your heart is broken, you feel it in your whole body. It’s like there’s a weight on your chest. When our lives are in strife, even when it’s our own stupid fault, God must experience something like that feeling of heartbreak for us.

Our God is not some heartless dictator in the sky. Our God is not this unfeeling, distant being. Our God weeps for us. Our God is grieved to see so much strife in our lives. That’s how much our God loves us. That’s how close our God is to us.

We hear our God wonder aloud in Jeremiah, saying, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” It’s like God is perplexed. Because of course there is balm in Gilead! That’s what Gilead was known for: it’s healing ointment. It’s as if God were asking, “Isn’t there a hospital in Franklin? Then why are people still hurting?” The Lord wonders why there is still suffering among us when He has provided healing. The Lord wonders why there is still strife among us when He has provided the things that create peace. The Lord wonders why so many are not saved from sin when He has given everything, even His only begotten Son.

Friends, there is a balm for the suffering in our lives. There is a cure for all this strife. Because we are not alone in this. God sent his Son. God entered into this world, fully human. Even though he was free of sin, Jesus felt the full measure of human strife. His tears on that day in Jerusalem were our tears. And on the cross, as the nails were hammered in, his pain was our pain. He experienced a full measure of the suffering of sin. God is not distant from us. God weeps for us. God suffers for us. God dies for us.

Christ came all the way into our strife, so that he could bring us all the way out of it. Look past all the suffering within you. Look past all the suffering around you. And instead look for Christ. Seek him. In him you will find the things that will create peace in your life. You will find love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In him you will find the way out of the strife. In him you will find the way out of sin.

God loves you enough to weep for you. Let God’s tears give you hope. Amen.

"Never Too Far Gone"

Sept. 15, 2019

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Luke 15:1-10

One of the things that comes as a surprise to most new, young preachers is that people actually want to hear about sin. Inevitably, not long into their ministry, the new preacher will be asked, “Why don’t preachers preach about sin anymore?” I know it’s happened to me. It’s happened to a lot of my seminary friends. “Why don’t preachers preach about sin?”

At first, I just kind of laughed off the question. Like, “They can’t be serious, can they?” Preaching on God’s judgement, wrath, and anger at sin is one of the things that has driven so many people from church. People can get this impression that God is this angry, disapproving father who sees everything we do. And they end up feeling judged and guilty, and they become resentful of God. That’s what happened to me, at least. It took me years to discover that Jesus didn’t want me to feel ashamed all the time. Instead, Jesus wanted me to accept the Spirit’s grace and power to transform my life. So, why should I preach about God’s anger at sin when I could tell hurting people about God’s amazing grace? And anyway, I always suspected that when people wanted to hear sermons about sin, what they really wanted was a chance to feel spiritually superior. Like the Pharisee praying in the temple, I imagined them saying, “God, thank you that I’m not like those people.”

But I’ve since learned that there is a wisdom at work in all those people who wanted to hear me preach on sin. Because sin is not simply this wrongdoing or that wrongdoing. Sin is not simply a list of Thou-shalt-nots. Sin encompasses an entire spiritual state. Sin is when we try to meet our deepest needs with anything that is not God. It’s that state of spiritual hunger when we run after anything that we hope will fill our emptiness. Anything that will let us feel secure. Anything that will give us some joy. Anything that will give us a purpose. Anything and everything but God. And that spiritual state of sin is an experience that is common to all of humanity. At some point or another, we all try to satiate that spiritual hunger with something that is not the bread of life, God Almighty. And when we fail to tell people about sin as a spiritual condition that everyone experiences, then people no longer have a way of understanding what is happening in their lives spiritually.

So, I’ve come around. Sin is important to understand because sometimes we don’t recognize when we’re caught up in it. Sometimes we don’t recognize that we’re lost.

Helping people understand their sin was one of Jeremiah’s main goals as a prophet of God. Jeremiah did not shy away from telling the people when the Lord did not like the path they were on. Again and again in his prophetic words, he shows the people just how sorry their spiritual condition is and tells them exactly what they can expect if they remain in their sinful spiritual state. Jeremiah tells Israel and Judah what they can expect if continue chasing after idols. He tells them what they can expect if they continue abusing poor and marginalized people for their own gain. So, Jeremiah has a reputation of being somewhat of a prophet of doom, because what you can expect from remaining in sin is never good.

In our reading today, Jeremiah has a vision of what is to come for Judah if they continue to worship idols and abuse the poor – if they continue in their sinful state. It is a vision of total devastation. Complete chaos. A kind of uncreation of Creation. He says, “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.” Jeremiah is intentionally bringing us to mind of Genesis, Chapter One, here. The earth is waste and void, which is exactly how it is described before God begins to create. The light in the sky that was set in place at creation is now dark. There are no more humans. The garden of creation is now a desert. In other words, the good Creation that God had intended is no more. It’s now desolate and destroyed. It’s been unmade. It’s almost as if God had never shaped it at all.

The Lord is telling the people of Judah that this is the kind of destruction they can expect if they continue in this sinful spiritual state. And in some ways, it is what happens to them. The empire of Babylon invades Judah, and eventually they destroy and burn Jerusalem and the surrounding towns. They destroy God’s holy Temple. And they capture the people and force them into exile. Jerusalem becomes a wasteland. This was where their sinful state had led them. Their homes were destroyed, and they became a lost people.

But Jeremiah’s vision here is about more than the just the destruction of Jerusalem and the fate of Judah. Jeremiah’s vision is about the consequences of sin, the effects of a sinful state upon the soul. This vision isn’t just the unmaking of Jerusalem. It is the unmaking of the human soul. This vision is a vivid description of the soul that is lost in sin.

A life that is not filled with the Lord, a life in which we go chasing after any old thing to fill our spiritual hunger, eventually becomes a life that is waste and void. I’m not saying anything new here. Even those of you who have been Christians for years and years know that feeling of looking at the state of your life and realizing that it has become a waste. And what a horrible place that is to find yourself! Jeremiah says, “I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking.” It’s that realization that the things you thought were solid and firm as a mountain are just as shaky as a leaf. Relationships you thought were lasting come crumbling apart. Friends you thought you could count on deceive and abandon you. The things you thought that would make you happy have left you feeling empty as a desert.

The soul that does not seek the Lord – the soul that continually puts other things ahead of God – will eventually become totally empty. The soul that is lost in sin will become completely unmade and undone. Because we as humans are meant to be in relationship with the Lord. To be in relationship with God is the deepest longing of our souls. And when we are not, our souls lose their shape. We become unmade.

Friends, there are people all around us whose souls are suffering in the lostness of sin. Maybe here in this church. But certainly, in the community around us. People’s despair at being lost in sin might seem like a mostly hidden thing. You can’t always tell how lost someone is just by looking at them. But this despair is showing up in our culture in concrete ways. Public health researchers now track what they call “deaths of despair.” These are deaths due to suicide or drug or alcohol abuse. And in the past decade in this country, these deaths of despair have greatly increased. Especially among young people. The suicide rate of people 18 to 34, the millennial generation, increased 35% in the past ten years. And drug and alcohol deaths have increased far more than that. In 2017 alone, 36,000 millennials died deaths of despair.

We are in the midst of a spiritual crisis here. When people are lost in a sinful spiritual state, the effects can be felt throughout the culture. Sin has destructive consequences.

And yet, as we heard in Luke, Jesus was often found among those who were called sinners. The Pharisees wanted to keep their distance from the sinners, but Jesus sits down and eats dinner with them. He doesn’t isolate sinners. He doesn’t shame sinners. He welcomes sinners. And to show just how important this was to him, Jesus tells two parables: the lost sheep and the lost coin. In one, God is like the good shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after the one lost sheep. In the other, God is like the good woman who tears apart her home trying to find one little lost coin. It is God’s nature to go searching for the lost. Just as it should be in our nature, as God’s people, to go searching for the lost.

The word ‘lost’ in Greek is the same word they would use for something that’s been destroyed. So even when our lives have been destroyed by sin, when they’re just one big, heaping pile of rubble, when it seems like nothing is left but despair, Christ still seeks us out. He clears away the rubble. He digs us out of the wreckage. He never stops searching until we are safe in his arms.

No matter how lost in sin we get, no matter how unmade our souls become, Christ still comes searching after us. And all he asks is that we let him find us. That we take his hand when he comes. That we confess to him that we’ve gotten lost in sin and despair and we cannot help ourselves. We need his help. We need his strength to lift us up. We need his grace to build our lives back. That’s all he asks.

Do not underestimate the power of sin to undo and unmake your life. Do not let sin make a ruin of your life. Let God fill your life with all you need. If you want it, God will make your life abundant. Amen.

"Turning Toward the Center"

Sept. 8, 2019

Luke 14:25-33

I’m not sure how well you were paying attention to the Scripture readings this morning, but you may have noticed that we heard some particularly difficult passages. After hearing these scriptures, you might be thinking, “Exactly who is this God? Is this the same God who is gracious and merciful? Is this the same God whom we know is love?” Because in Jeremiah, we heard the Lord say, “I am a potter shaping evil against you” (Jer. 18:11). And that doesn’t sound very loving at all. And then in Luke, we heard Jesus say, “Whoever...does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even their own life, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). And wow, that doesn’t sound very loving either. What’s going on here? Who is this God? Is God doing evil things against us? Does God want us to hate our family?

The short answer to these last two questions is: No. First, God is incapable of doing evil. God doing evil is just a nonsensical thought. It makes about as much sense as ordering a cheeseburger, hold the cheese. And second, as a good Jew, Jesus of course follows the Ten Commandments. So, Jesus wants you to honor your mother and father. Jesus does not want you to hate your family. He’s exaggerating to make his point. The God who speaks in these difficult passages is still the same loving and merciful God who speaks through the rest of the Bible. This is the same God who passionately cares for each and every one of us. The same God who is always working to save us. The same God who is actively shaping and molding each of us into the person that we are meant to be.

But the God who loves us and is shaping our lives has also given us free will. We have the gift to choose whether we work with God or work against God. God doesn’t force us one way or another. But that doesn’t mean that God’s not going to try to influence our decisions. It doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit is not going to try and get our attention when we’re going in the wrong direction in life.

And that’s what these harsh passages are about. The Lord is using harsh language and harsh warnings to get our attention so that we won’t head in the wrong direction. And we all know, sometimes it takes some pretty harsh words before we start paying attention. Sometimes it takes more than one warning before we get a clue.

God is always trying to get our attention. Because God’s always trying to shape our lives; to get us walking on the right path. And usually God gets our attention in a gentle way.

I love the way God gets Jeremiah’s attention. Jeremiah gets this word that he needs to go down and see the potter at work. So, he goes and watches the potter working as he shapes and molds the clay into cups and bowls and pots and pitchers. And it’s by watching this potter doing his work that God gets Jeremiah’s attention and speaks to him. Isn’t that wonderful? God can use any old ordinary thing to get our attention. If God can use a potter working with clay to speak to Jeremiah, think what God could be using to speak to you.

So, Jeremiah sees this potter working with a lump of clay. And this lump of clay is giving the potter trouble. It’s just not holding its shape, and the piece that the potter is working on becomes ruined. So, what does the potter do? Keep working on this messed-up-looking bowl? No, he starts all over with that piece of clay. He mashes it down into a lump so it can be reshaped into something new. Something not as messed up.

As Jeremiah watches this, he hears a message the Lord is speaking to the people of Judah. The Lord is saying, “Hey Judah, right now, you are on the path to being that messed-up-looking bowl. And if you keep on the path that you’re on, I’m going to have to mash you down and start all over with you.” In other words, Judah is on a path toward devastation and destruction. They’re on a path where they’re ignoring God and living however they want. They’ve put idols at the center of their lives instead of God. And God doesn’t want them on that path. So, if turn from this path, if they turn back to God and put God at the center of their lives, then the Lord won’t have to get their attention anymore. God won’t have to let this devastation and destruction be the wake-up call.

You see, it’s not as if God is in heaven coming up with ways to mess up our lives. What's happening is that when we don’t have God at the center of our lives, the result is our lives get messed up. Out of whack. Disordered. When we don’t have God at the center of our lives, our lives lose their shape.

If you’re having trouble making sense of your life – if your life feels like a disordered jumble, like a bunch of puzzle pieces waiting to be sorted and put together – it’s worth asking yourself, “What is at the center of my life?” Is it the Lord? Is it Jesus Christ? Or is it something or someone else? Maybe God’s trying to get your attention.

Think with me some more about this message that God has shown Jeremiah. In the image, God is the potter, and humans are the clay. We humans are that lump of clay on the potter’s wheel, spinning and spinning as God shapes us into something useful. Have you ever seen a potter a work? If you haven’t, look it up on YouTube sometime. It’s fascinating. The clay on the wheel can spin pretty fast. And when something is spinning, it wants to go away from the center.

Think of a merry-go-round. When I was kid, we would get a merry-go-round spinning as fast as we could, and then we’d hop on and try to make our way to the center of it. It always felt like this epic struggle because the centripetal force was pulling us away from the center. Merry-go-rounds always feel like they’re trying to fling you off of them.

It’s the same thing with a potter’s wheel. When a potter is forming a vase or a bowl, the clay is naturally pulled away from the center by centripetal force. Without the potter’s hands guiding and shaping the clay, the clay is much more likely to get stretched out of shape or even flung off the wheel entirely.

So you see, like the clay on the wheel, we’re always being stretched and pulled away from the true center of our lives. The forces of sin are always luring us away from our true center. The forces of sin want us to go running after anything in this life that isn’t God. Sin tells us, “Put yourself first. Do whatever feels right. You can do it all yourself. You don’t need anybody else. You’re a nice person; that’s good enough.” And when we get lured by sin and go following after sin, our lives get stretched out of shaped and end up like a messed-up-looking piece of pottery. And sometimes we get flung off that pottery wheel entirely.

But the Lord God is the potter whose hands are always, always guiding us back toward the center. God’s hands are always drawing us back from the path of sin. Sometimes even as we are actively resisting the Lord, God is still holding our lives together, not letting us get too out of shape. But then sometimes, we resist God too much, and our lives just fall apart.

But when we turn and make Jesus the center of our lives, when he is Lord of our hearts and everything that we do, when we give ourselves completely to him, well, then the potter has no trouble at all shaping us into what we’re meant to be. When Jesus is the center of our lives, and we’re coming closer and closer to him, it is like we are totally in God’s capable hands. We’re being formed into whatever beautiful thing that God wants to make with us. God wants to shape your life into something beautiful. But you’ve got to let God work. You’ve got to stop resisting, and put Jesus at the center of your life.

Friends, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say Jesus is the center of your life and then go following after every sinful distraction that lures you away. Either you’re letting God mold and shape your life, or you’re not. Either Jesus is at the center of your life, or he isn’t.

Christ expects nothing less than to be the center of your life. That’s why his words come off to us as harsh. It’s got to be Christ, and Christ alone. Not your possessions at the center. Not yourself at the center. Not even family at the center.

The Lord doesn’t want your life to be a mess. The Lord wants you to have a life that is secure, joyful, and full of purpose. That doesn’t mean it going to be a life of sunshine and roses all the time. Not hardly. But it’s a life that you know is actively being shaped by God’s capable and caring hands. And that life can only happen when we stop following after sinful distractions and truly put Christ at the center.

Jesus says in our reading today that none of us can become his disciple if we do not give up all our possessions (Luke 14:33). The word that’s translated “give up” literally means in Greek “to say goodbye.” Jesus is saying we can’t become disciples – we can’t have the life God desires for us – unless we say goodbye to things we put at the center of our lives. Is there something you need to say goodbye to? Is something getting in the way of God shaping your life? Is Christ truly at the center of your life? If not, what’s luring you away from him?

God wants to shape your life into something beautiful, strong, and useful like a good piece of pottery. God’s grace is more than capable of doing it, too. Put Christ at the center, and let the Lord shape your life. Amen.

"Running on Empty"

Sept. 1, 2019

Jeremiah 2:4-13

Running on Empty

Some of you might know Jackson Browne’s song “Running on Empty.” It was a hit back in 1977. I know that’s a few years before my day, but I was raised by Baby-Boomer parents, listening to Baby-Boomer music. In “Running on Empty,” the singer is looking back on the years of his life. He sees behind him a life of running after something, a life of busyness, a life of movement. But now, looking back, he doesn’t really know what he’s been running after this whole time. He says, “I don’t know where I’m running, just running on.” And what has all this running and busyness and movement gotten him? Well, ultimately nothing. In the chorus of the song, he sings, “I’m running on empty. Running blind. Running into the sun, but I’m running behind.” This life that had seemed so full of running after this and that has simply left him empty. Unfulfilled. Unsatisfied. Without any lasting joy.

It’s a catchy song, but it’s kind of a bummer.

But I think “Running on Empty” was a hit because it tapped into something we’ve all felt at one point or another. Don’t we all look behind us and ask, “What have I done with my life? What has all of this effort been for? With all I’ve done, why do I still feel empty?” I know I have asked these questions! There was a period of my life where these questions haunted me on a daily basis. But feeling this way and asking ourselves these kinds of questions is not something we should be ashamed of. In fact, if we’re feeling this way and asking ourselves these kinds of questions, then there’s a good chance that the Holy Spirit might be trying to get our attention. The Holy Spirit might be working in you and saying, “Hey! Pay attention! This isn’t the way you’re supposed to feel! Something’s got to change!”

We know that the Lord works in this way because we see it all throughout Scripture. The Lord intervenes in people’s lives to tell them that they’re walking down wrong path, they’re running after the wrong things. And that’s what we see the Lord doing in our reading from Jeremiah today.

The Lord speaks to the people of Israel – God's own beloved people – and tells them that they’ve become worthless and empty. The word in Hebrew is hebel: meaning, just a puff of air, here and gone just as quick. Poof. That’s what their lives have become: worthless, empty, amounting to nothing.

But the Lord doesn’t stop there. The Lord goes on and tells them why this has happened. The people have become worthless and empty because they’ve gone running after worthless and empty things. The people have replaced their worship of the Lord God with worship of Baal. Baal was a god of the Canaanite people and was supposed to be a god of fertility. So, if the people wanted their crops to be fertile and plentiful, they’d pray to Baal. If they needed rain, they’d pray to Baal. If they wanted to have children, they’d pray to Baal. In other words, when people got afraid that their basic needs would not be met, they turned and prayed to Baal. Instead of trusting in the Lord, they went running after Baal. And the Lord says that Baal isn’t even a real god. Baal is called a “no-god,” a fake god, totally worthless and empty.

What happens when you run after worthless and empty things? You yourself become worthless and empty. Or as Jeremiah also puts it, it’s like giving up a stream of the freshest, cleanest, most-satisfying water for a dirty hole in the ground that won’t even hold the nasty, stagnant water that’s in it. If you turn from the flowing source of life that is the Lord God, you just end up as empty as a hole in the ground.

Now, the worship of Baal is probably not a big problem for most of us these days. But the Lord’s warning to Israel is just as relevant today as it was back then. Because the Lord is simply warning the people about sin.

Sin, as we see it here, is not breaking this command or that command. Sin covers more than that. As we see it here, sin is running after anything that is not the Lord God. Sin is when we run after empty things.

As humans, each of us have some basic needs that have to be met. We need basic security of food, water, shelter, and safety. Our spirits need joy, especially the joy of being seen and known by another person. And we need an ultimate purpose to give meaning to the work we do. Three basic needs: security, joy, and purpose. And sin is when we try to have these needs met by something other than the Lord God.

So, Israel was afraid their crops wouldn’t grow, and they prayed to Baal for security. That’s sin because it is only the Lord God who provides the food that sustains us. But we do the same thing, don’t we? When we’re unhappy. And our lives have no real joy. We’re running on empty. What do we do? We look anywhere we can for something to give us joy. Maybe we look to something seemingly innocent. We look to our family to be the source of our joy. Or our work. Or maybe we turn to pleasures to look for joy: food and alcohol, sex, or tv and games. It’s not that those things in and of themselves are sinful. But that they become sinful when they replace the Lord as the source of our deepest needs. And what happens when we seek joy from anywhere but the Lord? We ultimately end up feeling worthless, empty, and simply unhappy.

When we sin and go running after other things to meet our needs, we grieve the Lord. We break God’s heart. Because God has made every effort to show that we will be nurtured and cared for. As it says in Jeremiah, the Lord led Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through the desert wilderness, and cared for them the whole way. The Lord led Israel through the shadow of death to a plentiful land with fruit and good things.

And isn’t that the same thing that the Lord has done for us in Jesus Christ? Our Lord Jesus has walked through that shadow of death. He went to the cross for our sake. He died so we would not have to die. He was raised so that death would not have victory over us. And he is leading us to that promised land, God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven! Hasn't Lord Jesus proven that he will be faithful? Hasn’t he proven will meet our deepest needs?

Friends, if you run after anything in this life but Jesus and his way, you will end up worthless and empty as a hole in the ground. But the Lord wants your life to be full. The Lord wants to give you abundant life. And if you want that abundant, joyful, purposeful life, then you’ve got to turn from sin. You’ve got to turn your deepest needs over to God. What is it that you are seeking? What is it that you are running after? Whatever it is, you will only find it in Jesus Christ and his way. Amen.

"No Excuses"

August 25, 2019

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 13:10-17

I want you to think about something for a moment. What is God’s calling on your life? Have you ever considered that question?

If you go into ordained ministry, you get this question a whole lot. People are always asking me in one way or another how God has called me. What is it that God has called you to do? How did you know God called you? Sometimes the question comes by someone asking, “What made you want to be a preacher?” And honestly, the fact that I get these questions all the time is a blessing. Because they force me to really think and pray about God’s call on my life. They force me to listen for God’s voice guiding and directing me. And it is a blessing to consider the ways that God has called me to serve.

But it’s not just ordained people and preachers who are called by God. Each and every one of us is called by God. God has saved us for a reason. God has saved us so that we might join in the effort to bring the heavenly kingdom to earth. We each have a role to play in working for God’s kingdom. Jesus even tells us, “The one who believes in me will do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these...” (John 14:12). Each of us is called to do as Jesus did, and even greater things that Jesus did.

Look at the kind of thing Jesus does in our gospel reading today. A woman comes into the synagogue service to hear the Scriptures being taught. She’s totally bent over, eyes facing toward the floor, because it’s hard to lift her head. You can see her in your imagination, can’t you? You can see how hard it is for her to get around. You can see how uncomfortable she is. You can see her suffering and the pain on her face. Some of you can relate to her first hand. We’re told she’s been this way for eighteen long years. That’s a fifth of someone’s life if they live to be ninety. And then, we’re also told that this ailment is not just physical, but spiritual. A spirit of Satan has bound her soul. The spiritual forces of this world have oppressed her, and that spiritual oppression has had these physical effects on her body.

This woman is not just some character in a happy gospel story. More than likely you’ve seen this woman or someone like her. You’ve seen someone suffering spiritual torment and how that torment has had physical effects on their body. Think of the drug and alcohol addicts you’ve known and how that illness has ravaged their bodies. Think of the people who have suffered some horrible trauma and the way that the effects of that trauma have changed the way they carry their bodies. Think of those who have lost hope and how their bodies will get weaker. Spiritual torment has physical effects. We see this all the time.

But what does Jesus do? He sets this woman free from Satan’s chains. He gives her this precious gift of spiritual freedom, and immediately her body changes. She’s able to stand up straight.

This is the kind of thing that Jesus says believers will do. This is the kind of thing he calls us to do: Freeing people from spiritual bondage. So, think, how might God be calling you?

The Bible is full of stories of God calling people to serve. We heard one of them in our reading from Jeremiah. And the story of Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet is fairly typical.

Jeremiah came to be a prophet to the Southern Kingdom of Judah during what may be the biggest disasters of Israel’s history. In 597 BC, the empire of Babylon came and conquered Judah and ruled over it. But then, eleven years later in 586, something even worse happened. Babylon destroyed Jerusalem. They destroyed God’s holy temple that Soloman had built. And they captured the people of Judah and took them to Babylon in exile. It was physical and spiritual devastation for the entire people of Judah. And Jeremiah had the miserable task of warning the people that this was coming because they would not repent before the Lord. And God called Jeremiah to this enormous task when Jeremiah was just a young boy.

Or more accurately, Jeremiah learns about God’s calling on his life when he’s a young boy. Because God had been planning to give Jeremiah this difficult, prophetic task since before he was even born.

Let that sink in. The Lord had a plan for Jeremiah’s life. The Lord had a key a role for Jeremiah to play. Not just in the history of Israel, but in the history of the world, because we’re still reading the words that Jeremiah delivered. And God knew it before Jeremiah was even born.

Certainly, not all of us are called to the role of prophet to the nations. But God has a plan for each one of us, nonetheless. God has a role for us to play in working toward the kingdom. And God has had that role for us since before we were born! But it is up to each of us to listen to that calling and to obey.

However, it is in every human’s sinful nature to resist God’s calling upon our lives. Whenever we hear God calling us to work toward the kingdom, our instinct is to throw out a bunch of excuses. It’s what Moses did. It’s what Gideon did. It’s what Isaiah did. And it’s what Jeremiah does.

Jeremiah really does not want to do what the Lord has appointed him to do. He says, “Oh no, Lord! I can’t be a prophet to the nations. I hardly know how to speak good. I’m just a little boy.” They’re pretty good excuses, right? Prophets are known for their ability to speak beautiful and powerful words. You have speak well to be taken seriously as a prophet. And no powerful ruler would take a little boy seriously as a prophet to the nations. Jeremiah has some legit excuses.

But don’t we all have our stock excuses? “No, I couldn’t do that. I’m not a leader. I’m more of a follower.” “No, I wouldn’t know how to begin to do that.” “No, my plate is just too full right now.” “No, that’s just not my thing.” “No, I wouldn’t know what to say.” You know what your stock excuses are. And I’m sure they’re legit, good reasons why you should say no.

But Jesus has something to say about our excuses. When Jesus heals that woman in the synagogue, the synagogue leader had a legit excuse for why the healing shouldn’t happen. It was the sabbath, and it was unlawful to work on the sabbath, including acts of healing. But Jesus says in response, “Ought not this woman...whom Satan bound for eighteen long years be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” In other words, we have a choice: we can help free someone from the bondage of Satan, or we can have our excuses. Which is more important to you? God’s kingdom or getting yourself off the hook?

In the end, for God, our excuses don’t hold water. But it’s not because God is this tyrant forcing us to do what we don’t want to do. Our excuses don’t work on God because a calling is not about your ability. It’s not about your power. It’s not even about how holy you are. A calling is about God’s ability to work through you.

When Jeremiah throws out his excuses, God swats them away like little gnats. “You don’t know how to speak? I’ll give you words. You’re just a little boy? I will protect you. What else you got?” A calling is not about our ability. A calling is simply about our obedience. God will supply the ability. God will supply the power.

God even supplies our holiness. When Jeremiah had exhausted all his excuses, the Lord stretched out His hand and touched Jeremiah’s mouth. God gave him the holy words to speak. God purified his speech. God touched him, and he was made holy.

But this gift of cleansing and holiness is not just for Jeremiah. Because by sending Jesus, God has stretched out his hand toward each of us. Friends, I want you to know that Jesus Christ has stretched out his hands on the cross for you. I want you to know that if you are willing to accept it, his touch will make you clean. His touch will remove the guilt of your mistakes and sin. His touch will remove the power of sin in your life. His touch will make you holy.

When we are in Jesus Christ, we are made right with God. You might see yourself as a nobody. You might see yourself as not having any real abilities. You might see yourself as not particularly holy. But in Jesus Christ, God sees you as one of the saints.

So if you have Jesus, you have no excuse. If you have Jesus, you’re not in the power of sin. You’re in the power of God! And God is calling you to work for the kingdom. God is calling you to free this world from the bondage of Satan. God is calling you to fight against spiritual forces of evil. Does that sound like a big task? Good, because it is! Those who are suffering physically and spiritually in this world, they need you.

God has a call upon your life. God has a plan for you. God wants to use you to help bring forth the kingdom. And in Jesus Christ, you have no excuse not to obey. No excuse.

Listen to the Spirit who is speaking to your heart. Listen to the calling that God has put on your life. Listen, and then obey. Amen

"Not Without Obedience", August 18, 2019

Isaiah 5:1-7; Luke 12:49-56

A few years ago, I was driving through a neighborhood in Atlanta. It was one of those older neighborhoods full of nice-looking homes that were built around the 1920s or so. Admiring old houses is a past-time that I’ve inherited from my mother, so as I was driving, I was craning my head this way and that way, trying to see all there was to see. These houses were impressive, so there was a lot to admire. Suddenly, I heard a honk. My attention snapped back to the road. And when I did, I realized I had just cruised through a stop sign without even slowing down. I’d cut somebody off. Immediately, my heart started pounding. Adrenalin kicked in. And I felt this rush of embarrassment and shame. I thought, “I could’ve really hurt someone. I could’ve really hurt myself. I have got to pay better attention when I’m driving.” It was absolutely a wake-up call. I’m sure a lot of you have had something similar happen.

These kinds of wake-up calls, they’re not fun. But they’re needed. They snap us out of our comfort and obliviousness. They get us back on the right track.

So often we rely on Scripture as a book of comfort. We look to Scripture for those words that will sooth us through our difficult lives. But just as much as the Bible is a book of comfort, it is also a book of discomfort. It’s a book that’s meant to snap us out of our comfort and obliviousness and get us back on the right track. Hearing Jesus say that he’s come to bring division hardly gives us comfort. But it does get our attention, right? It helps us focus on what exactly Jesus is asking us to do.

The Old Testament prophets are especially good at this. They made whole careers out of trying to snap people out of their comfort and obliviousness. And that’s exactly what Isaiah was trying to do in our reading this morning.

Isaiah is speaking to the kingdom of Judah, which was the southern kingdom after Israel divided. And he starts by telling this funny little story. A man wants to grow a vineyard to make wine. So, he picks out a hill where the soil is fertile and there’s plenty of sunshine. He clears out all of the stones in the soil, so the vine roots can grow deep without anything getting in the way. He built a tower in the middle of the field, so that he could have watchmen to keep an eye out for anyone who might want to steal from or harm the field. He made his winepress because he expected a good harvest. He planted the best grape varieties he could get: hearty plants that produced tasty fruits. This man did everything he could to ensure he’d have a good harvest to make wine.

But a very strange thing happened. Even though he did everything right and planted the best grape varieties, the vines that grew produced grapes that were poisonous and inedible. It doesn’t make any sense! He’d done everything right. He provided the best conditions possible to grow good grapes, but the vines produced bad fruit. Clearly, something had gone horribly wrong.

But what more could the man have done? So, the farmer makes the difficult choice to abandon the vineyard. He takes down the protective hedge, letting the animals and everyone else come in. He lets the vineyard become overgrown with briars and thorns.

At this point in the story, Isaiah’s audience is probably on the side of the farmer man, who is a clear stand-in for the Lord God. “Yeah, what more could he do? He doesn’t have much of a choice here.” And just when everyone is comfortable with this nice little story about a man and his troublesome vineyard, Isaiah pokes Judah in the eye. He says, “For the vineyard of the Lord of host is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting” (Isa. 5:7). Isaiah is trying to snap Judah out of their comfort and obliviousness. He saying, “You are the vineyard that has produced nothing but bad fruit.”

But even more importantly, what Isaiah is saying to the people of God is, “You are responsible for your circumstances.” Because at this point the great empire of Assyria had come to invade Judah and had trampled down its cities. Violence had come to the people’s homes, and it must have felt like the Lord had abandoned them. Isaiah is telling Judah that if they had produced the fruit they were meant to produce, this destruction could’ve been avoided. God’s Word through Isaiah is holding the people responsible for the mess that they’re in. Yes, what Assyria has done is awful. Yes, the violence is horrible. But what else could God have done for Judah?

At some point, the people of God must make the choice to be obedient to God. They must produce the fruit that they are meant to produce.

As God’s people today, this is an uncomfortable message to hear. At a time when we are overwhelmed by the frequency of mass shootings, at a time when racist rhetoric is on the rise, at a time when the divisions among us seem impossible to bridge, at a time when our churches are shrinking and atheism is growing, at a time when our own denomination seems to be heading in two separate directions, it is hard to hear that we might bear the responsibility. Because it is not as if we chose for these things to happen. It’s not like Judah asked for Assyria to come and conquer them, either. But at some point, as uncomfortable and unfair as it may seem, we must accept responsibility for the mess among us. We must admit that we have not been obedient.

Just like those vines did not produce the fruit they were meant to produce, we too fail to produce the fruit that God expects. And what does God expect from us? Isaiah tells us: “He expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry” (Isa. 5:7). God expects justice and righteous from us. Just as you would expect grapes from a grapevine, God expects justice and righteousness from God’s people. It’s what we are made for.

So what is justice? Justice is making sure every person is treated like they are created in the image of God. No matter age, gender, nationality, skin color, orientation, or ability, every person is made in the image of God and deserve to be treated that way. Justice also means speaking up for others when they aren’t treated as if they were made in God’s image. To do justice means to work on behalf of those who are poor, or oppressed, or weak. And as Isaiah implies, justice means working to end the bloodshed of violence.

But God also expects righteousness. And righteousness is simply a right relationship with God. You could boil it down to that double commandment: Love God and love your neighbor. And righteousness only comes through a relationship with Jesus Christ. To live a life of righteousness is only possible when we know that we have been forgiven. It’s only possible when we have been set free from the burden and shame of our sin. It’s only possible when we have been made new by accepting the gift of Christ's death and resurrection. Righteousness is not something that can be achieved. It’s the gift that comes when we know Jesus as our beloved friend.

Just as the farmer man did for the vineyard, and just as God did for Judah, God has provided everything we need to have justice and righteousness. God the Father has given His only begotten Son that we might have eternal life. God has sent the Holy Spirit to empower us with strength and knowledge and gifts. God sent apostles, who were filled by the Holy Spirit, to share the good news of Jesus, to make disciples, and build up churches. God inspired people to record the good news in writing so that Christ could be revealed to us in Holy Scripture. God raised up saints who spread the good news and showed us how amazing a life with God could be. God has kept the Word alive in the Church for 2000 years. God has put people in your life and in my life who showed us love and grace and led us to know Jesus Christ. God has provided us with this place to worship and the freedom to do so. God has gathered all of us here in this place on this day that we might be in the presence of Jesus and be filled by his word.

What more could God possibly do?

God’s love can transform this country. It can transform the world. Lives can change. Churches can grow. But not without obedience. Without our obedience to the Word of God, there will be no justice or righteousness in this world.

And obedience is not easy. Obedience is not comfortable. As Jesus says, when we are obedient, we should expect some division. Many of the powerful in this world are just fine without justice and righteousness. Plenty of folks are good with the status quo. But God expects obedience from His people.

And obedience is a daily walk. Do you know Jesus as your beloved friend? Are you seeking to be in his presence every day? Is your life showing forth his righteousness and his love?

It might seem to be hard to live out justice each day. There is so much injustice and hurt all around us. But the next time the news causes you to shake your head in disbelief, or the next time you see something that breaks your heart, ask the Lord, “What would you have us do?” Don’t just accept the status quo, but seek the wisdom of the Lord.

Jesus Christ has provided all that we could possibly need. Now it’s time to accept our responsibility. Now it’s time to obey. Amen. 

August 11, 2019

Worthless Worship

Isaiah 1:1,10-20; Luke 12:32-40

There’s nothing like tragedy to shake you out of your slumber. Last week’s mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton did that to me. Twenty-two people gunned down in El Paso. Nine in Dayton. These evil acts have shaken a lot of people, jolted us awake to the evils that fester in this country. They’ve broken our hearts and caused us to cry out to God in grief, confusion, and anger. For some, it has caused them to pour new energy into political action and asserting their political voices. Tragedy and cries for political action go hand in hand.

A lot of us Christians get pretty uncomfortable with the idea of mixing politics and religion. Even if the preacher is preaching my politics from the pulpit, I get uneasy to hear it because I know I have brothers and sisters of good faith and good conscience around me who would bitterly disagree. So, my stomach tends to get queasy when I hear certain political messages from preachers. We Christians tend to think that such worldly politics dirties up the purity of our worship with earthly concerns, distracting us from our heavenward praise.

But the Bible doesn’t have such concerns. Isaiah as a prophet was greatly concerned with politics. Isaiah was a prophet to the kingdom of Judah. By the time Isaiah came onto the scene, Israel had split apart into two kingdoms due to rivalry: The Northern Kingdom kept the name Israel. The Southern Kingdom was called Judah. And Judah had plenty of political problems. The big one was that the empire of Assyria, northeast of Judah, was threatening to gobble up all the other nations around it. So, you can see throughout Isaiah’s prophesies the politics of international relations. Do you make an alliance with other small nations to fight off big, bad Assyria? Judah chose not to do that. Do you pay off Assyria so they won’t come destroy you with their military? That’s what Judah did. And it devastated their economy and caused the idols of Assyrian religion to flood into the country. Then what if you stop paying off Assyria? Well, Judah tried that, and Assyria sent its military forces, destroying small towns and surrounding Jerusalem.

It’s a political story, right? Ancient international politics.

But even though Isaiah spoke directly about these political issues, he claimed that at the root of Judah’s problems was not a political issue, but a spiritual one. The second verse in Isaiah says this: “the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.” The Lord says through Isaiah that Judah’s problem is not mere politics; it’s a problem of rebellion. A problem of disobedience. The Lord has saved Judah and raised them up, but Judah has turned away from the Lord. God says the problem goes way deeper than international politics, deeper than the threat of Assyria. The real issue is spiritual disobedience. Judah has forgotten the Lord.

Like Judah, we too have deep political problems right now. The deaths in El Paso and Dayton are just the most recent alarms, waking us up to these political problems. There’s the issue of gun rights versus gun control. There’s the rise in white supremacist violence and the spread of its racist ideology. There’s the treatment of Latino immigrants and the separation of immigrant families. Questions of immigration policy. There’s the divisive and often hateful speech of political figures. There’s question of how to handle hateful speech in a land that cherishes free speech. There’s mental health issue. The problem of male violence against women. Issues of rising social isolation.

We’ve got serious political problems right now. And those are just the ones that these concern these shootings. And yet, as Isaiah preached to Judah, there is still a deeper problem here. And it is spiritual. All our vast political problems are merely symptoms a great spiritual sickness among us. That might sound like a bunch of hooey to some people. People today want concrete answers to real-world problems. And to call our problems symptoms of spiritual sickness sounds weak to some people. But how do you talk about hatred without talking about the spirit? How do you talk about fear and insecurity without talking about the spirit? How do you talk about violence without talking about the spirit? These issues go deeper than mental health and psychology. They are rooted in the condition of our spirit.

So, we’re facing this great spiritual sickness among us. The enemy is successfully spreading the seeds of hatred, division, and fear among us in this country. But the cure to our sickness might surprise us.

I think the cure that most of us would suggest is that people need to get back in church. If this is a spiritual crisis, then we need to turn to the Lord in worship and in prayer. We must have more worship and more prayer in this country to make it holy. People need to give themselves over to Jesus. That’s the only solution to a spiritual sickness.

But what does Isaiah say? When the people of God are facing political problems and spiritual sickness, the Word of the Lord says, “What are your sacrifices to me? … I have had enough of [your offerings]… I cannot endure your solemn assemblies... They have become a burden to me.” When the people of God are facing political problems and spiritual sickness, God rejects their worship. The Lord even rejects their prayers, saying, “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen.” This isn’t because Judah’s worship and prayer aren’t good. Far from it. Their worship was the worship that God had commanded, through animal and grain offerings, incense burning, and special festival days. It was holy, God-ordained worship. It was good. But to God it had become worthless worship.

Because the cause of spiritual sickness is often not that we fail to worship and pray, but that we fail to obey. Judah had rebelled against the Lord and failed to obey. As we can see by the spiritual sickness in this country, we too have rebelled against the Lord and failed to obey.

Our worship becomes worthless when we fail to obey the Lord. And so, the cure to this spiritual sickness among us is simply obedience. What does obedience look like? As the Lord says through Isaiah, “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” We are called to seek justice for the oppressed and to defend the most vulnerable among us.

What is justice? Justice is simply giving to another what is due to them. Each and every person is a creation of God, so each person deserves – they are due – to be treated with dignity. Justice is treating people with God-given dignity. Justice is righting a wrong, when people have been denied basic dignity. Even more than our worship and adoration, this is what God wants from us: Obedience; to treat others with love and dignity, righting the wrongs in the world.

Justice can and should be obtained through politics. I absolutely believe that laws could be passed to keep us safer and help people be treated with dignity. But what I’m more concerned about is our everyday obedience. Is justice a part of your life? Is justice as valuable to you as this time of worship? Do you treat people with God-given dignity? Everyone? Do you make sure others are treated with dignity? Do you speak up when someone is treated unfairly or with prejudice? What are you doing to help the most vulnerable? The orphan, the widow, the homeless, the abused, the neglected. How are you being obedient?

Because our daily obedience to the will of God is the only cure for the spiritual sickness among us.

But here’s the good news: Through Jesus Christ there is forgiveness for our disobedience. As we heard in Isaiah, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.” We are not burdened by the sins of our past. We are free to do as God commands today. We are freed for joyful obedience. And, “if you are willing and obedient, you shall eat of the good of the land,” as Isaiah says. You will be blessed by God. The joy of the Lord comes through faithful obedience.

How will you be obedient?

July 14, 2019

I Believe God Makes Us Holy

I Believe in the Holy Spirit

Ezekiel 36:22-32; 1 Corinthians 2:6-16

We are continuing our series exploring the Apostles’ Creed and why our traditional Christian beliefs are still important for us today. We’ve now been through the parts of the Creed that concern God the Father and God the Son, and now, we’re beginning the third and final part, which is all about the ongoing work of God the Holy Spirit. Today, we’ll be looking at the line, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

So, what do we mean when we say, I believe in the Holy Spirit? Well, first we need to be clear: the right question to ask is not “What is the Holy Spirit?” The right question is, “Who is the Holy Spirit?”

Sometimes we talk about the Holy Spirit like some kind of mystical energy force. Like, when there’s a good energy in a room full of people and emotions are high, we’ll say, “The Holy Spirit really showed up!” Or we’ll talk as if we can manipulate the Holy Spirit as a power to heal or make a situation better. We’ll say something like, “I used the Holy Spirit to bring healing.” But the Holy Spirit is not an energy or a force or a power. Especially not one within our control. The Holy Spirit is not an ‘it’. The Holy Spirit is a person. Just like God the Father and God the Son are persons. Like them, the Holy Spirit has a personality. Throughout Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit has been addressed as He or She, but never ‘it’, because the Holy Spirit is personal.

The reason some people have addressed the Holy Spirit as feminine is because the Spirit has been associated with God’s Wisdom. And in the book of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as a woman. If Wisdom is a woman, and the Holy Spirit is the one who communicates God’s wisdom, then it seems right to talk about the Spirit as feminine. Either He or She is fine, however. Just don’t call the Spirit, ‘it’. Because the Holy Spirit is a person.

And when we say we believe in a person, we’re saying we trust in that person. We’re saying we trust who they are. If I say, “I believe in Laura Green,” it means I put my trust in who she is: her character, her integrity. I have faith she’ll do what she says. When we confess that we believe in the Holy Spirit, we’re saying we put our faith in who the Holy Spirit is.

So, our question today is really, Who is the Holy Spirit?

Well, in 1 Corinthians, Paul first brings up the Holy Spirit when he’s talking about wisdom. Paul is saying to the church in Corinth, “When I first came around you preaching, I wasn’t doing it in a fancy way. I didn’t come to you even with what you would consider wisdom.” Paul’s message to the people in Corinth wasn’t just some generic wisdom or good life advice. His message was that Jesus the Messiah was crucified. It was a message that did not sound especially wise or good at first.

But then Paul goes on to say that it’s not like he’s against wisdom. He’s all for true wisdom. He’s for God’s wisdom. What he’s against is mere human wisdom. He’s against the wisdom of this age. He’s against the so-called wisdom of the rulers and the powers of this age.

Paul understands that all societies have a kind of conventional wisdom that is shared. The conventional wisdom might be different from society to society, but it’s always there. A conventional wisdom tells us the right way and the wrong way that a life should be led. It tells us the way to live a good and happy life. Conventional wisdom is usually not something we even think about. It’s so widely accepted that we just assume that it is just how the world works.

Here in America, we call our conventional wisdom the American Dream. So, what’s the wisdom of the American Dream? It’s that no matter who you are, if you work hard enough and smart enough, you can make a financially successful and thus happy life for you and your family. This wisdom is captured in every rags-to-riches story we tell. Every zero-to-hero story. Every hated-to-made-it story. And the central truth of our conventional wisdom is that you earn your position in life. This world is tough. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Wealth, status, success, happiness are not just given away in this dog-eat-dog world. Whatever position a person has in society, whatever happiness, they have it because they earned it. They deserve it. So, if you want anything from this life, you’re going to have to work for it and work hard.

That’s the wisdom of our world. If you grew up in America, this is in your bones.

But what does the gospel say? What’s God’s wisdom? Roman 5:8 - “But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us.”

Do you hear how that is so different from the wisdom of our world? The thing that matters most in life, that which brings true joy – the love of God Almighty, our Creator – is not earned. Because God’s most generous act of love, suffering and dying for our sake, was done for us while we were still sinners. We did nothing to earn it. On the cross of Christ, God’s love was poured out on the sinners, the self-centered, the lazy, the rebellious. Even those who are least deserving receive the greatest gift of all and have their lives transformed by it. I don’t deserve it. You don’t deserve it. None of us do. But God has already given us all that we need to live a life of purpose and joy. That’s the good news. That’s God’s amazing grace. That’s God’s wisdom.

And it runs totally counter to the wisdom of our world.

Yet so many people buy into the wisdom of the world. So many do not know God’s wisdom. It makes you wonder then, how come people are missing out? How is it that Christians know God’s wisdom when others do not? It’s more than the fact that Christians read Holy Scripture. Lots of people read the Bible and don’t have a clue about God’s wisdom. So, there has to be something more.

And that something is the Holy Spirit.

Our reading from Ezekiel is another example of the good news of God’s wisdom. God’s people Israel had failed to obedient. They were idolatrous, unholy, and oppressive of the least among them. And yet, when Babylon conquered them and took them away from their homeland, God promises to rescue Israel and make them holy again. Even though they had done nothing to deserve it. Even though they had failed to repent. God says, “I will put my Spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land I gave your ancestors” (Ezk. 36:27-28).

It was God’s desire that all people should have the Holy Spirit within them. The wisdom of God has been placed within each of us, whether we are aware of it or not. The Holy Spirit is always guiding us away from the wisdom of this world and toward God’s wisdom. Through our conscience, that little voice in our heads, that feeling in our guts, the Holy Spirit speaks to us, even when aren’t aware of God. This is what we Methodists call prevenient grace: the grace of God that comes before our salvation. If we allow it, the Spirit will lead us to God’s wisdom. If we follow, the Spirit will lead us to salvation. If we answer the call, the Spirit will guide us to the life that God has prepared for us.

That’s who the Holy Spirit is. The Holy Spirit the one who reveals God’s wisdom and leads us to the life that God has prepared for us. And that is exactly what Paul tells us. He says, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” - these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:9-10).

You’re not going to learn about the life God intends you live from the wisdom of the world. You’re not going to find true joy and true purpose from the wisdom of the world. Our world says you must earn your happiness and your place in society. Our world says you only get what you deserve. Our world says that the harder you work, the happier and more successful you will be. But that is not God’s wisdom. God’s wisdom is Jesus the Messiah crucified for the undeserving. And the Holy Spirit is the one who reveals to us this mysterious truth and wisdom.

All of the Holy Spirit’s work is done so that we might become holy like God is holy. So that we can have the same mind and attitude of Jesus Christ. So that when people see the way we live our lives as Christians, they don’t see us; they see God. In our passage from Ezekiel, the Lord says, “the nations shall know that I am the Lord...when through you I display my holiness before their eyes” (Ezk. 36:23). Through you, the Lord will display His holiness.

God puts the Holy Spirit within us to lead us to wisdom, so that then we can become holy as God is holy. That means we have someone on our side, actively guiding us to the life that God has prepared for us. Right now, the Holy Spirit is leading you to the holy life God has prepared. If you are willing to follow, the Holy Spirit will lead you to that life of holiness. To that life of joy. To that life of purpose. To that life of true abundance. To that life of love.

I believe that God makes us holy.

So, I believe in the Holy Spirit. Amen.

July 7, 2019

I Believe in the Messiah’s Victory

The third day he was risen from the dead.

He ascended into heaven

And sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty

From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

Psalm 110; Matt. 25:41-46

We’re continuing our series on the Apostles’ Creed today. In this series, we’ve been exploring why these traditional Christian beliefs are still so important. We’re coming to understand how the Creed is more than a dry list of facts. Instead, the Creed is more like a collection of good news that shapes the way we see the world. Today, we’re exploring these lines of the Creed: “The third day he rose from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” Altogether, these lines are a statement about Christ’s victory over sin and death. When we profess belief with these statements, we are saying that we trust that all the evil in the world does not have the final say. Jesus the Messiah’s mercy and justice that will have the final say.

Those of you who are familiar with the Christian story have likely heard that Jesus’ resurrection was God’s victory over death. Because Jesus has been raised, we know that one day, death will be no more for all of us. And you may have heard that Jesus’ ascension into heaven means that he now reigns as king over all things until all enemies of God are brought low. Like we heard in Psalm 110, “The Lord says to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” (This, by the way, is the verse from the Old Testament that is quoted the most in the New Testament.) Because the fully divine, fully human Messiah now rules over all heaven and earth, Jesus’ ascension is also part of his victory.

But one thing we don’t hear a lot is how Jesus’ return in judgement is the final piece to Jesus’ victory. Victory without judgement is like catching an arsonist as they light a house on fire but then never making them stand trial. The victory of justice is not complete. As long as we humans choose to turn away from grace, choose to rebel against God’s rule, choose to treat each other as something less than beloved creations of God – as long as we continue to collaborate with the powers of sin and death, Christ’s victory is not completely fulfilled. Because Christ has the victory, then there must be judgement. God will win in the end. The work that began with resurrection on the third day ends with the final judgement of the living and dead.

That’s what the Creed is referring to when it mentions the quick and the dead. Quick is just an old-fashioned word for living. Final judgement isn’t based on how fast we can move. Thank God.

When Scripture discusses judgement, it is clear: all people, past and present, will be judged because Christ’s victory over sin and death is a complete victory. The victory is so complete that it does not simply account for the evil of the present moment, but for the evil that has been present throughout all time and history. And only when the stain of sin and death has been thoroughly erased from the record of history, only then will Christ’s victory be fulfilled.

So, judgement is critical to our Christian hope and our belief that in the end, God wins. Critical to our belief that in end, this world will be set right. A belief in final judgement is not our license to wag our finger disapprovingly at others. Nor is it our permission to cast God as some kind of cosmic boogeyman who might suddenly fling you into the fires of hell. Our belief in final judgement is instead part of our Christian hope. It is the hope that the goodness of God wins in the end.

That means to understand Christ’s return and final judgement is to understand the nature of our Christian hope. So, what kind of judgement is it, then? On what basis are we judged?

When we look at the account of final judgement in Matthew 25, the primary image we have is a shepherd separating sheep and goats. This would’ve been an image people understood in Jesus’ time. Sometimes the shepherds herded the sheep and goats together in one flock, and when it came time to shear the sheep, the flocks had to be separated. Judgement in this image is a separation of one kind from another kind. This is not a separation by degree. It’s not, “Oh, you’re mostly a sheep so you can stay.” Or, “You’re kind of goaty, so you gotta go.” It is a separation of two distinct kinds. Either you are a sheep, or you are a goat.

The final judgement then is based on who you are. But not who you are according to where you were born. Or who you are according to who your family lineage. Or who you are according to your place in society. The judgement is based on who you are in relation to God. And that’s where faith comes in.

It is by faith in the grace of Jesus Christ that we are made righteous in God’s eyes. It’s by faith in the grace of Jesus Christ that we are reconciled to God. It’s by faith in the grace of Jesus Christ that we are adopted back into the family of God. To trust Jesus and his gracious love is to change our relationship to God. And to change it so completely that we are made new. We’re born again. We’re like a goat that becomes a sheep.

Judgement is based on who you are in relation to God. Either sheep, or the blessed and righteous, or goat, the cursed.

What’s interesting is that the sheep and the goats are all part of one flock at the beginning. They live together, eat together, sleep in the same places. It’s not until judgement when they become separated. But even though they live together, eat together, sleep in the same places, there are somethings that the sheep do that the goats do not. What distinguished the sheep, or those who have been made righteous, was their love of the least. The righteous are the ones who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, give clothing to the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner. They love the least of this world. And those who are cursed do not.

These actions don’t earn the righteous their favorable judgement. These actions are simply outcomes of their righteousness. They are the proof, the fruit, of righteousness. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit... Thus you will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:18, 20). Our relation to God determines who we are. But who we are is shown by what we do.

We all wonder about our relationship with God from time to time. Am I on good terms or bad? But as Jesus tells it, the status of our relationship should be clear: Do you feed the hungry? Give drink to the thirsty? Welcome the stranger? Clothe the naked? Care for the sick? Visit the prisoner? Do you love the least? If so, then there is your answer. Because to do these things is to stay close to Jesus. Jesus is found among the least of our world, so that is where we should be found as well. Not in places of comfort or wealth or power. And I don’t need to hammer home exactly who the least among us are. The Holy Spirit, working through your conscience has already told you. You know where you have seen suffering. That is where you can find Jesus.

The hope we receive from Christ’s return and final judgement therefore is a hope for the least of this world. It is hope for the suffering. Those who refuse God’s grace, who fail to love the least, who allow sin and death to run amok, they are held accountable. They bear the punishment. They are humbled. And the humble are raised. Christ’s victory is fulfilled only when those who refuse grace and join with the powers of sin and death are cast out of God’s kingdom once and for all. Only then can all things be restored.

I believe in the Messiah’s victory.

So, I believe that on the third day he rose from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. Amen.

June 30, 2019

 I Believe Jesus is Messiah and God

“and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord,

Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

Born of the Virgin Mary

Suffered under Pontius Pilate

Was crucified, dead, and buried”

Psalm 2; John 1:1-18

We are continuing our series on the Apostles’ Creed and exploring why our traditional Christian beliefs are so important. Today, we will be looking at what the Creed says about Jesus. It’s not surprising that the Creed has the more to say about Jesus than it does about God the Father or God the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Creed packs in so much about Jesus, that we’re going to spend two Sundays on these beliefs about Jesus (and even that will be rushing through it). So, this morning we’re focusing our attention on these lines of the Creed: “and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” Taken all together, these lines of the Creed are beliefs about the incarnation of God the Son. Incarnation is a fancy word for being in the flesh. The Latin root of the word is carne, meaning flesh or meat. We hear the same root word whenever we go to a Mexican restaurant and order carne asada. So, this part of the Creed is our beliefs about God in flesh and blood.

Why is incarnation good news? Why is incarnation a core belief of Christians? Why did God take on flesh and blood and live among us? Well, it’s all goes back to God’s faithfulness to people. But first, we need to get a sense of the entire story.

When I was a kid, almost all of our big family gatherings were at my grandmother’s house. She was the matriarch, and on birthdays and holidays, we gathered around her at her home. I loved going to my grandmother’s house because there was always something to explore, inside and outside. For a kid with an active imagination, little adventures lurked around every corner.

At one family gathering in the summer, I was occupying myself by jumping off of the back deck. The deck was only five or six feet off the ground, and I was trying to work up the courage to jump off the rail like my older brother, Nathan. That was another four feet higher, and my courage was not quite up to that. So, instead, I sat on the edge of the deck, with my feet dangling off the side, and sort of let myself slide off the deck onto the ground. That was plenty thrilling for me, and I practiced the jump again and again.

Until I hit a snag. Literally. As I was sliding off the edge of the porch, my shorts caught an exposed nail head. I heard a rip. I tried to jump, but... I didn’t hit the ground. The nail had ripped through my shorts and my underwear, caught the band of my undies, and now I was dangling by a thread, four feet off the ground. I was like Tom Cruise hanging from the ceiling in that first Mission Impossible movie, except I was flailing my arms and legs. I was stuck. I was helpless.

No one was around, so I cried out, “Help! Help!” My uncle was the first one to come out the back door, and I thought, “Thank God.” He took one look at me dangling by my underwear, burst out laughing, and immediately went back inside to get the others. Next came my brother, who instantly started mocking me, then my mom and dad and aunt, all of them doubled-over in laughter. None of them coming to my aid. I was dangling, stuck, helpless, and no one would come to my rescue.

While they were still laughing, the thread finally broke, and I hit the ground with a thud.

No matter how talented or capable or courageous we humans are, there will always be times that we find ourselves to be helpless. Times when there is nothing within our strength that we can do to make a bad situation good again. There will always be times when it feels like we are dangling above a pit, flailing our arms, trying to reach hold of anything sure, but nothing we do seems to help. That helplessness is a horrible feeling.

And yet it is an all-too-common feeling among people these days. The helplessness of being trapped in addiction. The helplessness of an endless cycle of debt. The helplessness of chronic illness and pain. The helplessness of places overrun with poverty and violence. The helplessness of facing the overwhelming suffering and division in this world around us. So many people feel helpless. And we wonder, will anyone ever help us?

Well, this feeling of helplessness is not new of course. We can find it all throughout the Old Testament, especially the Psalms of lament. People have always felt helpless when faced with the suffering and wickedness in the world. And yet, in the Old Testament, there is also a conviction that the Lord will provide a way. The Lord will send someone powerful enough to set things right and bring help to the helpless. We heard it at the beginning of Psalm 2, which asks, “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?” Why is there all this evil and power-grabbing and oppression in the world, when people should know that God is going to send a righteous king who will break the power of the wicked? The wicked should know that the Lord God will help the helpless! This hope that God will establish justice and peace and righteousness on earth – through a human ruler – is found throughout the Old Testament. And this figure of hope, this righteous king who will bring about God’s reign on earth came to be known as the Anointed. Or in Hebrew, Mashiyach. Messiah. And when Greek became the common language, it was translated as Christos. Christ. Both Messiah and Christ simply mean the Anointed: the one God has chosen to rule the earth.

But for the Israelite people, the wait for a messiah was one long string of disappointments. Leader after leader, king after king, failed to bring about justice and righteousness and God’s reign on earth. Some kings were better than others, but all of them failed to live up to the promise. No one could rescue God’s people from the suffering and oppression in the world.

We know what this is like. We know the disappointment when our leaders fail to create a better life for the suffering and vulnerable. We know the disappointment when our leaders prove to be deeply flawed or corrupt. And that disappointment only furthers our sense of helplessness: can no one get us out of this mess? Can no one help me?

The mess is so great and wickedness so widespread that it becomes clear that no mere human can help us. You can’t save me from it. I can’t save you from it. We can’t even save ourselves. We are dangling over the pit, separated by the darkness of sin, unable to truly see each other or reach out and help.

Yet God has promised a Messiah. Someone like us, human. How can that be? Certainly, we humans have proved that we cannot save the world; we can’t rid it of wickedness and injustice.

But God is faithful to people. God is merciful. God’s answer to our question is the incarnation. What we could not do for ourselves, God has accomplished in Jesus.

We hear it in Psalm 2: “He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (Ps. 2:7-8). Only the Son of God, one who has the full divinity of God the Father, can bring about the reign of God: true justice and righteousness in this world.

This is affirmed in the Creed: “Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” We tend to get hung up on that word ‘virgin.’ Either we question the miracle of a virgin birth, or we worry that it puts an unfair purity standard on women that doesn’t apply to men. Both of those issues are beside the point. The meaning of these lines in the Creed is the incarnation. That Jesus was fully of God’s Holy Spirit and fully of Mary’s humanity.

Because we had failed to save each other or save ourselves, God entered into humanity to do what we could not. As it says in John 1, “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). God became human. God took on our humanity – with all its weakness, with all of its suffering, with all of it tendencies toward selfishness and sin – God took it on and sanctified our humanity. Perfected it. Lived in our humanity with grace and truth. So that those who knew him could honestly make the claim that he is God, though he was utterly and totally human. God did what we could not. God the Son became the Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ. And by doing so, began the coming of the reign of God, the time of true justice and righteousness on earth.

God became human, became the Christ, so that we would no longer be helpless. In Jesus, the incarnation, God came to our rescue.

But it was not the rescue that anyone was expecting. No one expected a Messiah who would suffer and die on a cross. That was no one’s idea of justice or righteousness. But God knew that we could only be rescued if He went all the way down to the pit with us. We would not be rescued with commands or advice yelled down to us from above. We are too helpless, too lost in the darkness of our sin. We would not be saved unless God came down into our suffering, into this mess, into this unjust world, into our humanity and restore it from the inside out. And that is what God did in Jesus.

And so, it says in John 1, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace... Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:16-17). Because God became human, now all humanity can be restored. None of us are truly helpless anymore. There is hope for true justice and righteousness in this world. Through Jesus Christ, we may all receive grace upon grace, power upon power, mercy upon mercy. That is the good news of the incarnation.

That’s why I believe that Jesus is Messiah and God.

It’s why I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. Amen.

June 16, 2019

Acts 16:16-34

Sometimes when I read the book of Acts, and especially a story like this one, I end up feeling a little disappointed. I don't get disappointed in the scripture. How can you be disappointed in an exciting, dramatic story like this one? But I get disappointed in my own Christian life. I get disappointed in what I know of the Christian Church. Because it seems like my Christian journey and my experience of Church is just a pale shadow of what those earliest apostles and evangelists experienced. Do you ever feel that way? It is like there is this huge gap between the witness of folks like Paul and Silas and my own witness. And it’s more than time that separates us. There’s a power in those earliest apostles that I just don’t see too often.

Now, some people might question if we should even compare ourselves to those early apostles and evangelists. These are people who had seen Jesus’ resurrected body. They experienced the Pentecost miracle. True, but it’s not as if the Holy Spirit has stopped working since those biblical times. And these biblical figures came from humble backgrounds: fishermen, tax collectors, persecutors of the Church. So why is it that we rarely see such witnesses to Christ as Paul and Silas?

Because in our scripture today, Paul and Silas are powerful and confident in their witness to Jesus Christ and his resurrection. When an enslaved woman with a spirit follows them around shouting and drawing unwanted attention to them, Paul orders the spirit out of her in the name of Jesus. And immediately the spirit comes out. God’s power acts through him.

When the slavers see that they can no longer make money off of exploiting this woman, they decide to get back at Paul and Silas. The slavers capture them and then falsely accuse them in front of the authorities and crowds. So, Paul and Silas get beaten severely and thrown in prison. They’re put in the most secure cell, chained, and their feet put in the stocks. All for being witnesses to Jesus Christ and the freedom that comes in his name. Let this be a lesson: We should never assume that living out our faith and sharing it with others will be easy!

And yet, Paul and Silas handle this painful turn of events without ever losing confidence. They sing praises to God in their prison cell! And when at midnight an earthquake comes, shaking loose their chains and opening wide the prison doors, it becomes another opportunity for them to bear witness to Christ. The jailer comes wanting to be saved and ends up baptized before the sun comes up.

It’s awe-inspiring, isn’t it? How is it that they could have such a powerful witness to Christ? How could they be so confident?

Well, notice their behavior. You can learn a lot about someone by observing how they deal with failure and defeat. When Paul and Silas are at their lowest moment – arrested, beaten, bleeding, in chains, in the most secure cell in the prison – in this moment of defeat, they turn their hearts to the Lord. In stocks and unable to move, they sing and pray to God. There’s an old Stanley Brothers song called “Paul and Silas.” And it's about this moment of Paul and Silas singing to God in prison. But as the Stanleys tell it, Paul and Silas are singing “Who shall deliver for me?” Who will rescue us? But with all due respect to the Stanley Brothers, I think they got this one all wrong. In this low moment, Paul and Silas aren’t singing the blues or crying out in despair. They’re singing hymns. And as the word is used in Scripture, a hymn is a song of praise to God. So, they’re praising God even though their locked in chains. They don’t curse or say, “Why me? Why is God doing this?” They turn their attention and their hearts to God.

Because Paul and Silas know that prayer is the primary way we keep connected to God. Prayer keeps us in relationship with the Lord, who is our Redeemer and Savior and the Source of our life. No matter what situation we’re in, our God never changes. So, no matter our situation, it is always right to pray and sing God’s praises. Especially in our moments of defeat. Especially when it feels like the world is conspiring against us. Because prayer is the channel through which we receive God’s grace, God’s comfort, God’s freedom and God’s power. When we are empty, prayer is the faucet that pours living water into us. God wants to pour life into us. God wants to renew and restore us. And when we seek God in prayer, it’s like turning on that faucet.

The key to a powerful witness is a strong prayer life. And Paul and Silas are clearly praying persons. It's no coincidence that earthquake shakes loose their chains and opens the doors as they are praying and singing. Because God’s grace and power set us free. And that grace and power comes to us by prayer. God works through prayer. God works through prayer to set Paul and Silas free. Not so they can break out of prison, but so they can share Christ with jailer and his family. God sets them free so they can be witnesses.

When I was in seminary, I worked as a chaplain intern at a minimum-security transitional women’s prison. It was a place that helped women transition back into freedom as they finished up their prison sentence. Once a woman was there for a month, she would be evaluated, and if the evaluation went well, she could get a job on the outside. So, most of the women worked regular jobs, but their off time was spent in the prison.

There’s one woman I worked with there who has made a lasting impression on me. Her name was Helen, and from the moment she first came to one of our Bible studies, I could tell there was something different about her. She was quiet as we talked about the scripture, but you could tell she was totally focused on the study. At the end of our time, we opened the floor for anyone to pray. And Helen stepped up. Then she let loose this joyous, powerful, spirit-filled prayer. It was like the Holy Spirit was set loose in the room as she prayed, and when we said Amen and opened our eyes, it was like, “Wow, where’d that come from?!?” And Helen modestly said something about how good God is.

One day, I came across Helen in the lounge, and I could tell something was wrong. She was seething and pacing and holding back tears. She’d had her evaluation for approval to get job. And she hadn’t passed. The warden wanted Helen to express guilt and remorse for her crimes. But Helen wouldn’t. She couldn’t. Helen told me that she could not feel guilty for those crimes because Jesus Christ had forgiven her of her sin. Jesus had washed away the guilt of her sin. Christ had set her free, and no one was about to take away her freedom in Christ.

That wasn’t a good enough answer for the warden.

Then Helen began telling me all about her life. And it was a sad and tragic story: sexual abuse, physical abuse, drug addiction, poverty, homelessness, and loss. Prison had saved her life because in prison, she’d turned her life to Christ. And as she told me her story, I couldn’t help but wonder, how could this woman in prison who seen so much of life’s sorrows have such a powerful witness to her faith in Christ? With a life of suffering how could she bear witness to God’s love?

Helen’s powerful prayer at that Bible study was not a one-time occurrence. Helen was steeped in prayer. Prayer connected her to the love of God in Jesus Christ. In prayer, she saw how God had been with her throughout her life, even in tragedy. Through prayer, God gave her new life. Through prayer, God set Helen free.

When we are steeped in prayer, when we have a strong prayer life, our connection to God becomes clear to whole world. When we are closely connected to God, it shows in our spirit; it shows in our actions. Our prayer life doesn’t simply help us to be a witness to Christ. Our prayer life is a witness to Christ. It’s a witness to the ways in which God’s power and God’s grace transform our lives.

Now, you might say, “I’m just not one of those people. I’m never going to be one of those super-spiritual people. I’m not one of those on-fire-for-Jesus evangelists. That’s not me.” Granted, we’re not all called to the same work. We’re not all going to be evangelists or apostles. But we are all called. We’re all called to make disciples of Jesus Christ. And too often, we give up on that calling before we’ve even started, thinking we can never live up to the examples of people like Paul and Silas.

But here’s the thing: rarely ever does God transform someone into a powerful witness overnight. Instead, God seems to prefer to change us over time. If we want a powerful witness to Jesus Christ, if we want our connection to God to be clear to the whole world, it is going to take practice. It’s going to take time spent seeking God in prayer. Time spent praising God. Time spent asking God’s will be done. Time spent paying attention to God. Time spent listening to God in Scripture. Are you putting in the time?

God’s grace is powerful enough to transform each and every one of us into a witness like Paul and Silas in their prison or Helen in her prison. But there’s no shortcut. It takes our effort. It takes our intention. But, oh, how greatly we are rewarded! The walls will shake, the doors fly open, our chain will fall off, and we will be free! Amen.

I Believe in a Loving Creator

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”

Genesis 1; Ephesians 3:14-4:6

Today we begin a six-week series on the Apostles’ Creed. If you’re anything like me, that sounds about as exciting as a six-week series on techniques for brushing your teeth. I get it. A few years ago, when Kellie and I had just moved to Atlanta, we were visiting churches to attend. One church we visited was in the middle of a series on the Apostles’ Creed like this one, and I was like, “Oh great, a church that has dry sermons on church doctrine...” I was pretty cynical about it.

Because, let’s face it: the Apostles’ Creed isn’t the most exciting part of church life. A list of things I’m supposed to believe is hardly awe-inspiring or inspirational. And it’s not particularly obvious how a creed could even be relevant to our lives. Most of us Americans have been raised in a culture that prizes independent thinking: you have to think for yourself and come to your own conclusions. And reciting a creed that’s been handed down for centuries can seem like the opposite of that, like we’re just blindly accepting beliefs. I get that.

On top of it all, the Apostles’ Creed seems like a strange way to talk about Christian beliefs. There’s stuff in the creed that seems more like side issues rather than what is most important: born of the Virgin Mary, sitteth at the right hand of God the Father, the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body. You might wonder, just how important are these beliefs? And then, there are things that are missing from the creed that seem super-important to most of us: no mention of love, no mention of grace, no talk of any of Jesus’ ministry among the poor and oppressed, nothing about salvation, nothing about baptism. It’s like there are these gaping holes in the creed. If the Apostles’ Creed serves as a kind of the basics of what Christian’s believe, then a lot of us might want to review and revise it.

So why should we even need a creed? What’s the point? We’ve got the Bible. Isn’t that enough?

Well, yes, the Bible is enough. It’s got everything we need for the purposes of our salvation. But in case you haven’t noticed, the Bible’s a big book. There’s a lot going on in it. And a lot of it is subject to different interpretations. So, in the first 300 years of the Christian Church, the creed developed as a kind of summary of biblical beliefs as they had been passed down by the apostles. These was especially necessary because most people didn’t have access to a Bible. So, the creed was developed as a part of the baptism ceremony, so that people who were converting could be explicit about what it was they were committing to. If you look in the hymnal, you can see that it’s still a part of our baptism liturgy today. When you’re baptized as a Christian, you’re committing to a certain set of beliefs about the world, and the Apostles’ Creed summarizes the way we Christians look at the world.

Think of it this way: Imagine that someone in England discovers a never-before-seen manuscript of a Shakespeare play. The whole world is excited, but there’s only one problem. The fifth and final act is missing. Most of the story is there, you can see where it is going, but no one knows exactly how it ends. Shakespeare’s Globe Theater decides to stage the play anyway, and as a solution, they’ve asked the actors to improvise the final act. These are well-trained Shakespearean actors. The first four acts have all the main events and all the characters of the play. These actors just need to bring the play to a nice conclusion based on everything that has already happened in the play. Well, because a lot of important stuff happens in the first four acts of the play, the actors decide to make a summary to help them keep track of it all. And the summary that the actors create helps them to improvise that fifth and final act.

So, you probably see where I’m going here. The Bible is like the first four acts of the Shakespearean play. It has all the main characters, events, ideas, and themes important to our salvation. And we are like the actors improvising the final act. With our lives, we continue the biblical story of God’s salvation of the world. And the Apostles’ Creed is like that summary of play. It condenses all the main characters, events, ideas, and themes of the Bible as a way of helping us to live out God’s story of salvation. We know where the story is going; we just have to play our role within it.

Which brings us now to the first line of the Creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” We’re introduced the principal role in this drama: God the Father Almighty. God, who in the beginning created heaven and earth. God, whom Jesus called ‘Father’ in his prayers. God, whom Paul says is above all, through all, and in all. How does believing or trusting in God the Father Almighty help us to play our role within this story?

I think many of us take our understanding of God for granted. We assume that when we talk about God, everyone knows who we’re talking about. But if you listen to the way a lot of folks talk about God, you realize there are all kinds of ideas about God that don’t quite fit the Christian story. There’s still a lot of folks out there whose image of God is not far from the old, white-haired man in the sky who doles out blessings and punishments based on how he’s feeling that day. Or people think God is this distant creator being, who doesn’t want much to do with this world. Or people think that the universe and everything in it is God, so everything we see is just a part of God. None of this fits the picture of God described in the Apostles’ Creed.

In the creed, God is Almighty Father and Almighty maker of all things.

Let’s start with Almighty Maker part. Genesis chapter 1 poetically describes a process by which God brings all things into existence. Beginning with the formless void and ending with humanity, God creates all matter and life and gives it order and purpose. Forget about how exactly this is done. That’s not a question Genesis 1 is trying to answer. But what the author of Genesis wants us to see is that God is responsible for Creation. God is responsible for the order and logic and beauty of everything around us. God declares all of creation to be good. Very good. And why wouldn’t it be? The source of everything in existence is God, who is supremely good. And when we observe Creation around us, we can see just how good God is. God is order. God is beauty. Creation teaches us this.

God did not have create all of this. Nowhere does it say that God was lonely or God wanted to show off or God needed to be in control of something. No, God created to simply share this goodness. God didn’t want to keep all His goodness. God wanted to share it, to give it away. God gives food to all creatures. God gives humanity the resources of earth and plant and animal. It is God’s nature to give. And all of creation is a gift. This universe, this world, each and every life: it is a gift from God. And so, as Christians we are to treat this all as a gift.

But notice here: God is not the creation. The creation is not God. God is totally distinct from everything else. Or as Paul says in Ephesians, God is “above all” (4:6). And yet, Paul also says, God is “through all and in all.” Though God is totally distinct from us, God is not some far off, absent Creator who set the universe in motion and left the scene. God remains close. God works through us. God is present within us.

Which is why God is also Almighty Father.

Now, I know this is Father’s Day. So, our own fathers are already on our minds. That can be an issue, since a lot of times our own fathers fall way short of godly. Yet it can be difficult to talk about God as Father and not think of our own father or some other male figure in our lives. Let me say this: we should not look to our fathers to understand God. Instead, we should look to God to understand true fatherhood. God is the example for true fatherhood. The same is true for mothers and motherhood. Because God has no gender. God is not male or female.

We call God ‘Father’ because Jesus called God ‘Father.’ And to call God Father is to claim that we are a part of God’s family. Paul says that every family in heaven and on earth takes its name from God the Father. Every family can be traced back to God if you go far enough. As humans we are intimately connected with God. God has given us His holy name. God has created us in His perfect image. Each and every person has dignity and sacred worth simply by being a child of God. The dignity and sacred worth of each person comes directly from God the Father. The felon on death row is child of God of sacred worth. The immigrant crossing into the country through the desert is a child of God of sacred worth. The person with severe mental and physical disabilities is a child of God of sacred worth. The people marching in gay pride parades this month are children of God of sacred worth.

What we do does not determine if we are a child of God. We are children of God by the very fact that we have been created by God the Father. And God created all things as a gift. God created all things as a way of sharing the love that exists among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the Holy Trinity. All of Creation is simply an outpouring of God’s love.

You exist because of God’s love. The people you dislike exist because of God’s love. And the love of God does not abandon us. Even though we sin and turn away from the Father’s love, God is not distant from us. God is working in and through each and every person to strengthen us with power. To save us from ignorance. To free us from sin. All because we are children whom God the Father has created.

I believe in a loving Creator. I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. Amen. 

"Wide Awake"

Sometimes I forget just how surprising the Bible can be. I’ll be doing some devotional reading, making my way through one of the biblical books, and I’ll come across something that makes me say, “How did that get in there?” Sometimes it’s a particularly violent story in the Old Testament, or one of the prophet Ezekiel’s X-rated metaphors that he was so fond of using, or even just a detail in one of the Gospels that I’d never noticed before. If you’re paying attention when you read it, the Bible is full of surprises.

But I’m not sure anything has surprised me in the Bible as much as the first time I read Ecclesiastes. Can you remember that moment when you realized that Ecclesiastes was more than “a time for this and a time for that”? I don’t know about you, but I was pretty surprised to find that there is a whole book in the Bible devoted to making the point that everything in life is vanity. Pointless. A chasing after the wind. I was shocked. Ecclesiastes can sound almost blasphemous. “What’s this doing in the Bible? How did that get in there?”

Ecclesiastes can be so surprising, that we tend not to pay much attention to it as Christians. Except for the “there is a season for everything” part in chapter 3, of course. But I think, this is a mistake on our part. I think Ecclesiastes has an essential role to play in our sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ. Because no other book in the Bible is more brutally honest about what it is like to live without the hope of salvation.

Ecclesiastes makes it crystal clear why death is the enemy of every single person. Listen again to how the Teacher of Ecclesiastes describes the human condition: “Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice. As are the good, so are the sinners…This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone” (Eccl. 9:1b-3).

Death comes for everyone, no matter how you’ve lived your life. Death makes life pointless. So, death must be the enemy. Death is an inescapable evil.

The world in which we live is increasingly ruled by the kind of thinking that says, “If you can’t see it, and you can’t measure it in any way, then it doesn’t exist.” It is a way of thinking that has no room for spirituality or faith of any sort. Especially not any life beyond death. And so, according to much of the world around us, Ecclesiastes is exactly right. Death comes for everyone, no matter how you’ve lived your life, so what’s the point of anything? What’s the point of being good or being holy? What’s the point of riches? What’s the point of staying healthy, eating right, and exercising? What’s the point of any of it if we’re all just going to die?

There is a hopelessness at the root of our modern world that few are willing to acknowledge. But we see its effects everywhere: in the opioid epidemic, in the rising rates of suicide, in the violence of mass shootings, in the hoarding of wealth by the very rich, in the ways we ruin our environment. These are symptoms of a hopeless world. These are symptoms of a world that cannot imagine a future for itself. These are symptoms of a world that believes that death is always victorious. These are symptoms of a world that believes that death has the final say.

And this is exactly why Paul is so upset with the church in Corinth. There are some in the church who believe that there is no general resurrection of the dead. They believe that Jesus was raised, but no one else will be. They probably thought about death as going down to a dark place of nothingness with no connection to this world and no connection to God. They thought that Jesus brought hope for this life, but not beyond this life.

So, Paul is kind of freaking out that the Corinthians have gotten the gospel all wrong. He says, “If we hope in Christ only for this life, then we are the most pitiful people” (1 Cor. 15:20 my paraphrase). Because Paul is a good and faithful Jew, and he’s read Ecclesiastes. He knows that death is the enemy who robs all life of its purpose and meaning. Paul even makes a reference to Ecclesiastes here in this passage. He says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile” (15:17). And the word for “futile” is the same word that gets used again and again in Ecclesiastes: “vanity” or “pointless.” Paul is saying that if you don’t believe in resurrection, then Ecclesiastes is right: Everything is vanity and pointless. Even faith in Jesus is pointless, if there is no resurrection.

If that sounds like a bold thing to say, it’s because it is a bold thing to say. Paul is not playing around here. He’s going all-in on resurrection. Putting the whole faith on the line. Forgiveness, healing, feelings of salvation, whatever. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then none of it matters.

Let’s be honest. Believing that a man was dead for three days and rose up into a new kind of bodily life is a pretty out-there thing to believe. And believing that we will eventually do the same thing is maybe even more strange. I get why it’s a stretch for a lot of folks. I get why people want to make these beliefs into metaphors about natural cycles of death and renewal. But these aren’t unimportant little doctrines that we can agree to disagree about. Having faith that Jesus was raised and that we too will be raised is what Christianity is all about. If there is no resurrection, then the rest of it doesn’t matter.

One thing that we tend to miss by reading a translation of the Bible is some of the wordplay in the original language. If you read a King James Bible, you’ll notice that it doesn’t say “those who have died” in this passage, but instead it says, “those who have fallen asleep,” which is a more accurate translation. New Testament writers often say that people have “fallen asleep” when it means that they have died. But what most of us don’t pick up on is that the word “raised,” as in “raised from the dead,” also means to awaken from sleep. So, reading the Bible in English, we don’t notice that Paul is saying that those who have ‘fallen asleep’ will be ‘awakened.’

We don’t realize that resurrection is literally an awakening, waking up into a new kind of bodily life. A life beyond the chains of death.

Too many people around us are sleepwalking through life. Too many people are fumbling their way through life with no sense of direction, no sense of purpose. Too many people are just lulling themselves into a deeper sleep with mindless materialism and frivolous pleasures. Too many people are living endless, miserable nightmares without a hope of ever waking up.

Too many people who don’t know that Jesus was raised from the dead, the first of many to come. Too many who don’t know that “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54), that death does not get the final say upon our lives, that death does not eternally erase us out of existence. Too many who don’t know what it is to wake up each day knowing that their lives and their actions matter. Too many who don’t know that Christ’s resurrection is our wake-up call into a life of purpose and hope.

Too many people who don’t have faith in the good news.

So, what about you? Do you have faith in resurrection of Jesus Christ? Do you have faith that you will be raised when Christ returns? Have you been awakened to a life of purpose and hope?

If not, know that Jesus is calling your name at this moment, calling you to wake up. Open your eyes and see what he has done for you!

And if your eyes are already open, and you have faith in resurrection, don’t ignore all the people sleepwalking through life around you. Share the good news. Share your hope. Bear witness to the resurrection. You never know whose eyes may be opened. Amen.