Last week we lit the hope candle, reminding us that hope is a period of active waiting for a certain thing to happen. Hope begins as a thought in our head before makes its way down to a desire in our heart – where love is ignited. Today we light our second candle. Love.
When I asked Siri what is love, my phone told me, and I quote “As I understand it, love refers to a deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude.” In other words, Love is a feeling that is understood best by the things it makes us do – acts of kindness, being generous and giving of ourselves to others.
Jesus is the perfect example of God’s love for us. And so as we look at this light of hope and love we are reminded of the words of John who wrote, “For God so love the world that he sent his only begotten son” and those who see and do what the Son does will be redeemed back to the everlasting love of our Creator.
Come and let us hold fast to the words of the Lord who said, “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill my promise to my people. Justice and righteousness will fill the land, and all will live in peace and safety.”
It’s easy to laugh at Christmas jokes, but it doesn’t always make the season joyful. For many, this time of year is hard to bear.
It was three years ago, last month, that my family and I made the hard transition of leaving our church, my ministry, and some very dear friends for reasons I will not go into. This was one of those life changing choices Kathleen and I had to make. We relied heavily on God’s guidance to get us through it.
A month later… I was sitting in this room, feeling abandoned by God. My spirit and joy were barely noticeable. I no longer had a ministry or a reason to pursuit one. Needless to say it was a very difficult advent wait – a dark time spent doubting myself and my calling. Everything I had worked hard to achieve and held true in my heart felt like it had been shoved through a wood chipper. I was nothing but an old stump of what I once was.
Have you ever felt that way? Chopped down to nothing, feeling hopeless, worthless or useless at best? Is Christmas hard for you? Are you having trouble mustering the strength to get through the season?
Hopefully, today’s reading will shed some light on your life so you can see that God, out of deep love for you, is hard at work redeeming and restoring you… transforming all of creation into something new and amazing.
Read Isaiah 11:1-6
Two summers ago we put up a new fence around our property. When I read this story I thought of the six huge ficus trees we had to cut down to make room for the fence. The guy who did the work didn’t use a stump grinder to finish the job. Instead he cut giant X’s into the stump with his chainsaw. Then, for safe measure, poured gas into the grooves which apparently kills the tree from the top down. With the trees gone, I removed the sprinklers from the area. And a couple of days later we had a brand-new fence in its place.
But that’s not the end of the story. A year later, these little green sprigs began growing out of those stumps. For a while, I would snip them off. But the more I snipped the stronger and faster they grew. Today, we now have a lovely green hedge in that old space.
Not only did the trees survive being cut down, dosed in gasoline and denied water…but they were also transformed into something new in the process, they went from trees to shrubbery. A perfect illustration of how God’s love works. Out of death comes new life.
We see this when Isaiah pronounced the coming prince of peace. Judah had been defeated and those who were hauled off in captivity believed God had abandoned them. Their life seemed hopeless. And those who remained behind were nothing more than old stumps of what they once were. But Isaiah said, God is up to something.
A green shoot from the House of David will emerge and reign with the Spirit of God’s love and righteousness. A new king will come out of Bethlehem and lead his people with “wisdom and understanding” “counsel and might” and with “knowledge and fear of God.”
And just for good measure, this ruler will be the bearer of God’s Spirit, who will transform a culture of fear into a world of peace. He will judge with justice according to God’s will and righteousness: freed from bias or favoritism.
Out of something that appears finished, lifeless, or left for dead, comes the sign of new life. This is how God’s love surprises the world. Hope emerging as a tiny tendril in an unexpected place. A teenage mom, a dirty stable, a tiny baby born with the weight of the world on his shoulders and a giant target on his back.
I had a professor in seminary who always warned us not to read Jesus into this text no matter how tempting it is to do so. St. Paul has no problem using the stump of Jesse metaphor to argue differently in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 15:12). Either way, Isaiah shows us how to wait for Christ.
For those of us who are fed up with the moral, religious, and political crisis our nation and world are facing today, Isaiah reminds us that God is up to something.
For those of us who are in dark places, and cannot muster the strength to live another day, Isaiah says hold on, God is up to something.
For those of us who are barely getting by, or living in poverty or suffering injustice, Isaiah offers hope that arises out of God’s great love for us.
No one exemplified God’s love better than Jesus, the Christ. When we look to him we see God. Through him we know who God is and who we are to God.
And so Isaiah invites you to ask where are the stumps in your life? Where do you feel chopped down, hopeless, or alone? Can you imagine or believe that even now, in your own dark space, God is nurturing the growth of something new and good? The world can dowse us with gas, and even deny our thirst, but it cannot stop God from doing what God wants to do – creating life out of death.
When I thought my ministry was done, God was up to something – transforming my faith and leading me to a new kind of church that uses technology to reach people who, for whatever reason, aren’t hearing the Good News.
Today, New Church Sherman Oaks, along with our sister church The Phoenix Congregational Fellowship, are literally reaching the furthest corners of the world to share Jesus’ story of love and redemption. As long as we have the internet, we have mission and ministry...because God is always up to something.
No matter what you might be going through, I pray Isaiah speaks to your heart and gives you hope in your head. Because God is not only faithful, but God is hard at work. Through Christ, God is taking your pain, your fears and worries, and making something new. A new life, and new light, and new everlasting love.
The peace of God that is inaugurated with the incarnation is one where all things will be transformed. Humans, animals, and the land itself will be filled with the knowledge of God. And be reconciled and restored into God’s glory, where the kingship of Christ will reign with justice and fairness.
But here’s the kicker. All we can do is wait it out. Yet in this time of wait, I invite you to look within yourself. And ask how can you use this Advent time to spiritually mature?
How can you bear the fruits of God’s love, through acts of mercy, forgiveness, and justice?
How can you see and do what Jesus does, so others can see and do the same. Our hope, and our love, are the first fruits that God uses to bring divine peace into a world that desperately needs it. In Jesus, God came to be with us, to show us how to be the shining lights in the darkness, to show how God is at work in the most ordinary and unusual of ways.
As you leave here today, how you might live out this light of hope and this light of love in such a way so the wolf and lamb can live in harmony? Here’s a hint: follow the little child who leads the way back to God’s glory?
Let us pray:
Lord Christ, shine in us and through us today so that we might illuminate the darkest corners of our life and the life of others in this season of advent wait. Help us to see what you do, and a to accept the call to go and do the same…so your name can be glorified, now and forever, Amen.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
Bartlett, David. L., and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1 (Westminster John Knox Press: 2010) pp. 26-31.
Last year, I kicked off the first Sunday of Advent with a quote from Julie Polter who described this season before Christmas as “the ending that is the beginning ...when we ponder the second coming of Jesus before we celebrate the first.”
I feel like we’ve spent the last few weeks pondering this beginning and ending as we looked through the lens of hope. And not just any hope, but hope that was born in the Bethlehem stable. A kind of Hope that not even death could defeat.
By definition, hope is a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen...a wish, an ambition, or goal. Hope is experienced in many different ways. Fiona hopes she gets into the college of her dreams. Sean hopes to get a Nintendo Switch for Christmas. And Colleen hopes I won’tuse her as a sermon illustration. I don’t even want to know what my wife is hoping I will do today, because I was hoping to take a nap later on.
Which leads us to today’s scripture. Whenever we hope, we can assume that there will be a period of waiting. But what exactly are we waiting for? And how will we fill that time? These are questions to ponder as we look at Matthew 24:36-44.
Nothing like starting off the Christmas season with a story about the end of the world, and the end of humankind. But if we look at it honestly, we might see Jesus’ words are no different than a Hallmark Christmas movie, where something good always happens no matter how bad the situation might seem.
Recently we’ve talked about how prophetic and apocalyptic text are warnings for us. They are the flashing red lights and sirens that get our attention, designed to keep us on our toes. Matthew uses this technique to awaken us from our slumber.
He tells us that one day Jesus might appear like a thief in the night. We don’t know when that day or hour will come. We can’t mark it on our calendar or prepare for it beforehand. We just have to stay awake. For those who like to nap, this is a bit disconcerting.
So why does Jesus bring it up? Does he want us to be feel unsettled and anxious? Personally, I think that the fact Jesus isn’t telling us when that day will come, is actually very telling. Just as we overlook advent to get to Christmas, it’s easy to jump ahead and make faith only about the end goal- getting into heaven. We become so enamored with talking about spending eternity in the Kingdom of God that they forget Jesus said the kingdom of God has come.
Advent is not a time to simply wait for Christ to be born, or the resurrection to happen. Instead it’s a time to “Stay awake.” To be present and live intentionally, to see and do what Jesus does as if Jesus meant what he said. It’s a time, not just to ponder the first and second coming of Christ, but to be fully engaged with the Christ within us all until that day comes.
I love to tell the story of a Buddhist monk who is being chased by a very hungry tiger. Running as fast as he can the monk realizes he’s running straight towards a cliff. As the tiger gets closer and closer, the monk searches for an escape. He sees a long vine dangling from a tree over the cliff. The monk jumps and grabs hold of the vine and begins to shimmy down just before the tiger can pounce.
But as fate would have it, the vine wasn’t as long as the monk had hoped. And when he looked down there were sharp, jagged rocks about 1,500 feet below. Letting go of the rope would be certain death. As would climbing back up.
So the monk looked for another escape plan. And that’s when he saw a small ledge on the side of the cliff. On that small ledge was a patch of soft, dewy grass. Growing from a crag in the rocks was a small strawberry bush. And on that bush rested a fresh red, ripe strawberry.
The monk reached out and plucked the strawberry off its branch, and brought it up to his nose and inhaled its goodness. It was the best thing he had ever smelled. He savored that moment before he took a bite and enjoyed its sweetness.
There was something about that strawberry that made heart sang with joy. In that moment he was fully alive. Had he only focused on what was to come, the sharp jagged rocks below, or on his past where the tiger waited, he never would have seen the gift God had placed in his path to savor. Jesus says, “stay alert.”
“When we are too focused on heaven as the only place of beauty and goodness,” writes Jazzy Bostock, “we run the risk of not only ignoring the beauty and goodness of the world but also our responsibility to it.”
A life of faith need not be focused on the world to come but on how to remain faithful in this one – the one God gave as our mandate to love and care for. It’s here in this world, in this place and in this time that we find that red ripe strawberry to savor.
If you’ve been following me on Facebook or on my blog, you know that I spent each day of November getting to know someone new. Afterward I quickly wrote about the experience. What you may not know is I didn’t take notes, or record the conversations. Instead I listened to what they had to say. In doing so, I learned something new about myself: I could remembered their story, their quotes, and the small facts about who they were and where they were from, simply because we shared a moment. Their story became a part of my own story.
Moreover, I discovered this simple act allowed a young man named Matt to cry with a total stranger. It helped Dan to confess something before going home to make amends to his wife. It gave Bill, an elderly vet who I continue to run into, a friend to talk to in the park. And it helped Gerry and Victoria to take sting out of a bad situation.
We may not know the day or hour, but we do know that at any given second Jesus will appear around the corner, suddenly like a hungry person, or a neighbor in need of help, or a friend who is sick, or someone we love who is in a broken or toxic relationship. People around us are suffering in many different ways. They are worrying about climate change, gun violence, and fearing what is to come out of this political mess we’re in.
Jesus doesn’t tell us when the day is coming, because today there is work to be done. When we focus only on the world to come, we lose sight of the task God has called us to do right now.
“Jesus is offering us an invitation into the world we are already in – an invitation to this world, to this time and place” (Bostock). As messy as this place might seem, it’s precisely in this space we find our hope, our strength, our grace, our salvation.
Here’s the best part about it all. We don’t need to be perfect, just present. We don’t need to hide from our messiness to participate in this season. John Pavlovitz calls us to,“bring every bit of your flawed self and all your chaotic circumstances to this day. This is where we notice beauty, move with compassion, and have grace revealed.” Jesus calls us to ready ourselves to leave this world by truly living in it, by soaking up every grace-filled moment and savoring its sweetness. To actively wait for both the birth and rebirth of Christ that is happening all around us, right now.
If you’re only sitting around waiting for God’s kingdom to come, then you’re missing what God’s Kingdom is all about - a kingdom where Heaven and Earth are one. In the race to get to Christmas morning, the season of Advent can come and go without notice. So I invite you to take the time to be in a spirit of wakefulness and watchfulness. And to make yourself God’s Christmas gift for those around you.
Jesus is coming at an unexpected hour – it might be in this moment or it might be on Christmas Eve, we don’t know. But what we do know is what we can do while we wait. And that’s to make heaven happen for someone today. It might be in the most outstanding act of charity or the simplest act of compassion. It may be in our our daily busyness or in our quiet moments.
As we kick off advent, we do so with gratitude that Jesus makes us sit and ponder what is to come. In doing so, Jesus is giving us the time we need to simply be in the moment where life is happening in real time. He is giving us this day to see Christ in our midst, in the stories of strangers and friends alike…and he’s giving us the time to love them as if we were loving Jesus himself.
Not knowing when the day or hour will come is a gift for us. It’s the time we need to look around and see those red ripe strawberries that are growing wildly all around us, to pick them and to savor every bite of goodness, as we wait the goodness and the greatness that is to come.
Let us pray.
Loving and generous God, you have given us so many great reasons to be alive in the moment. As we move forward in our day, take our burdens into your heart and redeem them; take our fears and transform them, and make this step we are taking to be in line with the steps of Christ who walks before us, behind us, and beside us until the day your full glory is revealed. For it is in his name we pray. Amen.
Bostock, Jazzy. No One Knows. episcopalchurch.org. (Accessed Nov. 27, 2019).
Pavlovitz, John. Low: An Honest Advent Devotional. (Chalice Press: 2019) Kindle edition.
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Speaking of hell, our Congress has spent the past couple of weeks questioning people about the President’s use of quid pro quo to get information on a political rival. The world has tuned in to hear the statements from diplomats and career civil servants hoping to learn the truth. After all, the President’s reputation is on the line.
In today’s reading from Luke, we get an unembellished statement from a man whose reputation is also on the line. His is profoundly poignant - especially given its context. The one who asked the question is overjoyed because the answer he receives reveals the truth he had hoped for.
READ LUKE 23:32-43
Last week we spoke of hope. And now on the last Sunday of the church calendar, as we celebrate the Reign of Christ, Jesus offers the world hope like it’s no one’s business. In his final statement to another human being Jesus tells a confessed criminal, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
It’s like Jesus is the diplomat of God’s grace. The ambassador of love. A statesman for salvation. This shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus began his ministry announcing the kingdom of God to the world, and now at the end of his short life he shows us what that kingdom looks like. Often in the most unorthodox of ways.
“Jesus was pretty weird,” writes Todd Brewer in a recent essay on Mockingbird. “Jesus laughed off death threats, and he regularly insulted his dinner hosts. He held a patent disregard for social conventions. And when he had the chance, he did or said the last thing people expected. He must have been incredibly infuriating to be around.” Sound like anyone you know?
The priest and politicians deemed Jesus a threat, because he represents and embodies God’s grace - the greatest threat to anyone who reigns over people with fear instead of love. Even in his final minutes of life Jesus practice what he preached – showing what real grace looks like to those who believe they aren’t worthy to receive it.
This begs the question, “Who among us is worthy?”
Jesus says you are. God loves us all no matter what. Hanging on the cross is proof of that love. Sadly, we waste so much energy believing that we are unworthy. So, we avoid God as if God is keeping score. Or hiding in the bushes to catch us.
If what Jesus says is true, if God’s grace is real, and God’s love is abundant, then what does that say to those who doubt or mock Jesus from their cross? Are they any less worthy than the ones who recognize him?
There are some folks who say yes. They don’t want to believe that “all” people deserve God’s grace. Muslims, Hindus, Democrats, or your weird gun-toting uncle who spews conspiracy-theories whenever you’re around. Who wants to share eternity with them?
In a recent Facebook post, a friend made a comment about not wanting to live in heaven next door to the kid who killed two students last week at Saugus High. She preferred he be “in substandard housing in a really warm climate.”
But then another asked, “Does this kid get more of a pass because he was messed-up?” This got me thinking. God didn’t mess this world up, we did. God didn’t teach this boy to hate, we did. We made a place for him where violence and killing is normalized. Who needs God’s grace more than this him?
In her book Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber confessed she was reluctant to recognize the Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza among those killed. But then she realized “that the light of Christ cannot, will not, shall not be overcome by that darkness. Not by Herod, and not by Adam Lanza. The light of Christ is so bright that it shines even for me and even for them.”
It’s hard to think God loves mean, angry, bad people. But if God is alive in all, then no one can be left out. The grace of God that is revealed in Christ is so deep and so abiding, that even to those who disappoint can receive it if they want it.
Some might call this fake news. But to me, it’s the good news. The gospel Jesus proclaimed when he ushered in the kingdom of God. A kingdom where prodigals are forgiven, lost sheep are found, people are restored, and those who are condemned can claim God’s mercy and grace if they want it.
Christ has shown me God’s Kingdom is like a dad who never gave up when his son screwed up. Or a mother who patiently loved her daughter through those difficult years. It’s like my wife who forgives me not because she’s committed to loving me for better or worse, but because she too has received undeserved grace. She knows the power of claiming it…if she wants.
Congress can debate the usage of quid pro quo, but Jesus knows God plays by a different set of rules. You see, God’s grace is not transactional. It’s transformational. It has nothing to do with what we did to deserve it. But it has everything to do with those who want it.
Here is a person who does not taunt or mock Jesus with royal titles, but simply addresses him by his name. Jesus. A name which means “God saves.” And more precisely, “God is rescue.” I don’t know if that criminal knew Jesus is the embodiment of God's salvation and rescue, but he wants it. The very last thing this dying man does is to speak “the name that is above all names” (Phil. 2:9). And today he is with Christ in paradise.
I want you to remember this as you go out into the world. God’s love is infinite. So too is God’s grace. There is plenty for everyone – not just those who recognize who Jesus is but even for those who mock him. If they want it.
But here's the catch. If you accept it, remember that grace is God’s way of saying, “I’m not interested in what you’ve done but what you are doing right now, today, in this paradise.” Jesus has already died. We have already received the benefits of his sacrifice. Now it’s up us to go and be the presence of God’s greatest gift for others .
Today it’s up to us to go be weird like Jesus, who showed us how to sit with others in their sorrow, how to celebrate in their joy, and feed their hunger for something other than what this world offers. It doesn’t matter which side of the cross they are on, to care for the least of our brothers and sisters is to care for Jesus himself.
As we move towards Advent, we do so with the cross of Christ in front of us and the hope that it sheds light on. It is our reminder that God love is real. And God’s grace is real. The life that Jesus invites us to live is an everlasting life that begins today. If you want it, God says it’s yours.
Today, let us call on the name of Jesus, to make his name our statement in the world. This means to be a diplomate and ambassador of Christ and proclaim the truth of God’s love in all that we do.
Today, I invite you to see and do what Jesus did, so the narrow path expands and the doors of the Kingdom are pushed wide open for anyone who desires to enter into paradise.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C. Vol. 4. (Westminster John Knox: 2010) pp. 332-337.
Bolz-Weber, Nadia. Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. (Convergent: 2015) p. 78.
Brewer, Todd. The Elusive Strangeness of Jesus. Mocking Bird: Nov. 19, 2019. (accessed 11/19/19) https://mbird.com/2019/11/the-elusive-strangeness-of-jesus
Read Isaiah 65:17-25
Advent starts in two weeks. Yet this reading seems more appropriate for Easter. If we think about it, we really can’t have one without the other. Even though sometimes I think they’re in the wrong order.
In her Life Mastery course Mary Morrissey said, “Everything is created twice.” That is, everything was first a thought before it became a thing. The lightbulb was first an idea before Edison produced the actual product. The seat you’re sitting on, the camera I am looking through, the shirt you are wearing, everything was first a thought before it could become a thing. Even us. A student of biology knows that long after we’re pronounced dead our bodies take on new life through decomposition, and through that process we become something new.
So maybe this moment we are in is only God’s idea, and not yet the thing God has in store for us. Maybe the stuff we’re going through today is not what will always be. Everything is created twice.
In the 7th century St. John Damascene said, “I do not worship matter. I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and designed to inhibit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.” Here Damascene speaks of the Christ who took on human flesh, who lived and died like all of us, and yet transcended the grave to create new life. You see, death was not God’s idea for us. Life was. And the life it produces through the Christ is resurrection Life. It is in this promise that we find our hope, our joy, and our reason to love one another – even in hard times - knowing that what we do here will affect what is to come – a new heaven and new earth.
This might sound crazy or idealistic at best. But I’m sure DaVinci idea of flight seemed nuts before the invention of the plane. God, the creator of life, is no different. And we see this in Isaiah’s prophecy. A mere 700 years before Jesus is born, Isaiah watched the Israelites reject God yet again. In the preceding verse, the Lord spoke through the prophet saying, “I will destine you for the sword and you will bend down for the slaughter; for I called but you did not answer, I spoke but you did not listen. You did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me.” God was not happy.
Despite their betrayal, a plan was already in the works. As Isaiah watched Jerusalem burn and his family and friends get carted off into captivity, God spoke these words of comfort through him. “Behold, I will create a new heaven and a new earth.” Everything is created twice! This passage tells us that God is not only present in our pain and suffering, but that God is looking far into the future, to a time when pain and suffering will not exist because Christ has ushered in the resurrected life. This is the promise God gives us… to get through those seemingly impossible hardships we face.
When our job is lacking, our relationships are fading, or our health is diminishing, there is hope because God is at work making something new. When a friend hurts you, your spouse betrays you, or someone you love is no longer with you, God is at work making something new. As an old southern preacher used to say, “when you are down on something God is up to something.” What is that something? I don’t pretend to know. But Isaiah gives us some clues to what we can expect:
The things we did will not be remembered nor come to mind. Our past will no longer define us or weigh us down or limit our possibilities. All the dumb comments we’ve made, all the shameful and foolish things we did in our youth God won’t remember them! And neither will we. Can I get an AMEN!
In this new heaven and this new earth…there will be no crying or weeping or suffering. The things that break our hearts will no longer exist. There will be no more miscarriages, stillbirths, or parents dying when their children are still toddlers. Sons and daughters won’t get killed in car accidents or school shootings. People can love without the pain of heartache. Can I get an AMEN!
In this new heaven and this new earth we’ll live in everlasting harmony with one another. There will be no more bullying, no more meanness, no more petty jealousy or personal attacks on Twitter. No more war, poverty, injustice, captivity, hoarding resources or holding back care. “The wolf and the lamb will feed together. They will neither harm nor destroy.” Can I get an AMEN!
In this new heaven and this new earth… you will enjoy the fruits of your labor. Yes, you still have to go to work. However, your commute won’t suck, your co-workers will be awesome, you won’t get frustrated when someone thinks your idea is dumb. And of course, you work will always be rewarding because your boss will always reward you with the greatest of blessings. Can I get an AMEN!
The way I see it, God’s joy is creating – creating a new space, a new context, a new Jerusalem where God will be with us and we can be with God. Where God is present, joy is present. Hope is present. Peace is present. This new space becomes a party space, because the reign of God is a joyful party that Jesus has invited you to attend. A wedding banquet, a marvelous feast, an unbelievable party to celebrate new life. For what was once lost is found, what was once dead is alive again!
You’re probably thinking this new life sounds great, but what about now in this unpredictable life that we are enduring the best that we can? How will this help me deal with the news from my dermatologist tomorrow or prepare for that math test on Thursday?
Lutheran pastor Daniel Habben said, “Studying this text is like circling your vacation days on your kitchen calendar. You do that, not because you’ll forget to go on vacation, but because sometimes you need a motivational tool to keep plugging away until that day comes.When the shortened daylight hours lengthen your dark mood, you can look at those red marks on your calendar and be reminded of the warm sands of Waikiki under your feet."
When you need to work overtime to make changes on a presentation that is already overdue, those red marks help you see the light at the end of the tunnel. When your world is literally crumbling and burning down right in front of you, God puts a circle around our life and reminds us that everything is created twice.
Through Christ, “we are headed to a better place that will keep us from giving up on life or from getting wrapped up in all the negativity and frustrations that cause us to lose focus and direction.” Yes, God is up to something. We may not know exactly what it is but we have some clues to know what to expect. We are never without hope.
Hope is the sole message of Advent that leads us to the beauty of Christmas morning. The hope God gave us in the stable is also the hope we find in the Easter tomb. Everything is created twice – and with God, it’s always for a greater purpose. While Isaiah gives us a great picture of what God is up to, Jesus shows us how to begin living that new reality today. In Jesus God is making painful memories, anger and sorrow disappear. So why bother holding on to grudges now?
Jesus teaches us to forgive the sins committed against us, just as God has forgiven and forgotten what we’ve done to others. Let your resentment go and focus on the love that God has placed in you. Today is the day to give up all arrogance and all judgments and condemnations and take on a heart as gentle and humble as the heart of Christ who will bring you to that place where God has always imagined you to be – in a new heaven and a new earth.
I know we can’t circle the day on a calendar when Jesus will return, and make everything new. But I can stay encircled in Jesus’ love and the hope that his love brought into the world. We can be that love for others to understand that the pain they are feeling now will no longer be pain but joy. By seeing and doing what Jesus did, not only will we set foot in that new heaven and new earth, but we will also help usher it in today, tomorrow and forever. Can I get an AMEN!
LET US PRAY:
Loving God, you are forever patient with us. As we fumble with our lives, and make messes of things, you are busy at work planning and preparing a place for us all. Help us to understand this in both good times and bad, when we are feeling grateful or feeling like the wind has been knocked out of our sails. In all times may our focus be on you and all that you are doing through Christ the Lord, Amen.
Greatly indebted to Rev. Daniel Habben for his inspiring sermon “When Lions Eat Straw” on Nov. 15, 2010 (accessed on Nov. 14, 2019). www.sermoncentral.com
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C. Vol. 2 (Westminster John Knox: 2009) pp.354-359.
When I was a minister at a church in Greenville, Michigan I started a Beer and Bible Study for men. My secret goal wasn’t to just share my knowledge of God with them, but the help them crack the gold leaf on their bibles so they could search through the pages and get to know God on a more personal level.
As I was looking for a passage to preach on this week, I discovered that there were sections in my bible that just automatically open – places I tend to frequent. There is still some unchartered territory that I haven’t ever preached on. One such book is Chronicles, actually it’s two books but could easily be one.
Chronicles is a considered a historical book that literally chronicles the kings and players in Israel’s story. Todays reading focuses on the time in King David’s reign when the Ark of God has been returned to the tabernacle after having been lost in battle. It is a reason to celebrate, and to worship God! So David commemorates the event with liturgy, a song of praise.
It comes from 1 Chronicles 16:7-11:
I want you to take a moment and think about something your grateful for today. How does it make you feel? And how do you show it?
I asked this question at an assisted living facility and nearly everyone said the same thing. The first thing they do when they wake up is to pray thanking God that they woke up. We often overlook the obvious, like breathing, gravity, and good art.
I am grateful for the gift of life that is Colleen and for the love which she was created from. I am grateful God has chosen to make our home a holy space for people to worship in God’s presence. I am grateful to have my voice and the ears who are willing to hear what I have to say.
I met a man who, since childhood, has recited an ancient tribal prayer that had been passed down through his Locanda ancestors. He begins each day saying, “Spirit, I thank you for my first breath, and for the knowledge that every breath I take after this is my responsibility to reveal your truth through me.” What a powerful way to start your day, centered in gratitude for the gifts you’ve been given and accepting the responsibility to use them
More than just being grateful, giving thanks to God is a great way to check in with God on a daily basis. Our God is relational and loves to connect with us. We have all the time in the world for binge watching, hanging out with friends, or zoning out on Instagram. But when God wants to share some of our time we balk.
We should be grateful that God wants to be with us. God wants to have a relationship with us. The incarnation is a powerful reminder so that God was willing to become one with us through Jesus, so we could have a face to relate to. I’m grateful for that!
Social scientist have proven that living in gratitude builds better relationships, improves physical, mental and emotional health, and builds confidence and self-esteem. It actually helps us sleep better, and who doesn’t want that?
If living in gratefulness can have that affect on your life, imagine the transformation that can happen when you call upon God’s name – the second imperative in this verse.
Although he wasn’t always good at it, David made it his goal to make God his number one priority. He called on the Lord constantly. He sought God’s council. Pleaded for God’s help in matters big and small. As a result, David dwelt in the rich presence of God’s glory.
His story is similar to Abraham, Isaac, Samuel, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, and so many other saints who have experienced the transformative power of God’s glory simply by calling out to God. It could be a morning prayer, or just an ongoing conversation you have with God while driving to work. Another thing I am grateful for is the car phone…because I can talk out loud to God without looking crazy to the other drivers.
I don’t think it matters how you do it, or what you say, God just wants to hear from you. I have found that when I speak my problems out loud, I am able to deal with them better than if I stuffed them deep inside me. When I speak them out loud with God, I am inviting God to help me through them. God wants to help you through those tough situations or difficult challenges you might be facing. As C.S. Lewis said, “Prayer doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
Just as it is with gratitude, we need to give God a call at least once a day. Not only does it help turn the ritual of prayer into a relational conversation but it keeps us aligned with God’s will. Even if we falter from time to time.
Calling on the name of God keeps the connection between your heart and God’s heart moving in one continuous flow. When our hearts are connected to God, we find our inner peace; we receive a deeper understanding of who we are and the relations we have with God and others; and we develop a more accepting and loving spirit. We become a living testimony of God’s grace and love. The third imperative in this verse.
I don’t know if it’s because of where we live, or the time in which we live in, but it seems to me there is a greater and growing reticence among Christian people to share their faith in public. It’s almost as if we’re embarrassed of our faith, or by what God has done for us.
Just yesterday, while meeting someone for my KNOWvember challenge, the person opened up about his faith, and his failures in it. When I asked him why he felt comfortable sharing those things with me, he said, “because you’re a minister, non-believer can’t understand.” All the more reason to let the world know that God is worth knowing.
Imagine a world where people felt free to talk about God and share their faith – without shame, or fear of judgment. We have no problem spewing our political beliefs, or our opinion on a movie or celebrity. But when it comes to sharing our beliefs in God or our Christian faith we just clam up. It’s not easy to share something as personal as faith, but how else will people come to know God’s glory, or find the love God has for them?
Today also marks the 50th anniversary of the first episode of Sesame Street. For 50 years they have been proclaiming God’s will in the most creative, and unintentional ways. Sounds crazy, but watch an episode and you will see the ways they teach us to love and care for each other. Wasn’t that Jesus’s message?
If a big yellow bird can teach us how to be hospitable, kind, gracious and joyful, then so can you. If Oscar the grouch can teach us how to lament or be more accepting of who we are, then we can teach others as well. You see, talking about God doesn’t mean reciting bible verses to win a dogmatic argument.
King David did it with poetry and song. Jesus did it in the way he loved and forgave others. For Paul it was preaching and in his letter writing. To borrow from St. Francis, preach the gospel –use words only when necessary. How could you proclaim the good news without saying a word?
The prophet Micah said, “What does God want from us but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.”
John Piper teaches us that, “God calls us to enjoy continual consciousness of Divine greatness and beauty and worth.” This takes a daily, conscious effort to set our mind’s attention and our heart’s affection on God.
When we set our minds in God’s mind, we can do the will of God without fear or trepidation. When we set our hearts in God’s heart each day, we can revel in God’s love and peace always. When we testify to God’s great glory, our life and every life around us, can’t help but be transformed and rejoice.
So to borrow from David’s psalm, I leave you with this challenge: “Seek the Lord and God’s strength. And seek God’s presence always.” For there is no better way to worship God.
Let us pray: Most glorious and merciful God, we give you thanks for all that we have been given; especially through the the gift of your Son, Jesus the Christ. Fill us with your Holy Spirit so that we can go out in the world to proclaim your glory by walking in the footsteps of Christ in all that we do. Amen.
This story comes on the heels of one of my favorite bible stories where Elijah the prophet challenges the prophets of the god Baal to a match. In a nutshell...YWHW comes through in the most powerful way. And the prophets of Baal lose more than they bargained for. But that’s a whole other sermon.
READ: 1 Kings 19: 9-13.
These verses are best understood in the larger context of 1 Kings. In the previous chapter, Elijah is a completely different person. He has raised the dead. Ended a three year drought. He’s challenged and defeated 450 prophets of Baal in the most specular competition. And boldly and bravely ordered them to be killed.
But when Queen Jezebel here’s about this she vows to kill Elijah in retaliation. Even after witnessing what God can do...Elijah is afraid for his life. He flees into the wilderness, sits down under a tree and prays to God to die.
Elijah, who had been so powerful and courageous is now despondent and discouraged. Full of God-inspired imagination before, Elijah now, can see no way out. He feels like a loser, believing he has failed God and his calling. Abandoned and alone, Elijah goes away to have a pity party for himself. He’s done speaking for God. It’s not worth the risk. He just wants to die.
Have you ever felt so broken or alone that death seems like the best possible solution? If so, you’re not alone.
Have you ever wandered in the wilderness...or trudged up a lonely mountain to feel closer to God only to sit and wait…wondering if Heaven has closed its doors. If so, you’re not alone.
Have you ever knelt by your bed and prayed intently for answers until your knees are screaming? Or sat in a pew clutching the bible to your breast waiting in faith and expectation while the airwaves remain silent. God is not home. If so, you’re not alone.
Silent but not alone. This is what Elijah teaches us.
Two years ago, I went to visit my friends in Mexico. I was in a bad place. Like Elijah, I too felt like a loser and a failure. The church wasn’t growing like I expected it to, nor did it look anything like I had imagined. I was struggling with my faith, my confidence, and my call. I was desolated and ran away to Southern Baja to find consolation.
My friend’s built a beautiful beach house where every window had a calming view of the sand and the sea. Getting to that beach was a bit stressful. The pathway was rough- built with rocks, shells and broken glass – each stood out like orange caution cones along the highway warning of danger ahead.
The path eventually gave way to the sand, which was soft and deep. Each step was a struggle... like marching through mud in flip flops. The sand did its best to keep me from advancing any further. But I was determined.
After a hundred yards or so of this thigh burning march, I came face to face with an enormous wall of sand dunes. I felt like I was in Game of Thrones and the giant ice wall was keeping me from going where I needed to go. And so I climbed, pushing through the soft sand.
Atop of the dune the wind off the Pacific Ocean screamed past my face, “Go back. Go back.” But I did not listen. And walked towards the sea. The beach was at least three big city blocks wide and no less than four miles long. I had the entire place to myself. There was not a person in sight anywhere. Talk about being alone.
My focus was on the water that was beckoning and calling me like a salty siren leading a ship into the rocks. A part of me wanted to jump in and be carried out to sea. But with all the energy of the vast Pacific Ocean at it’s disposal something was pushing me back – I was refused and rejected.
Like Elijah, I felt exhausted, alone, self-righteous and under attack. So I screamed and yelled and shouted and cried out to God. The only response I received was a mocking tempest. After hours of this my voice gave out and I simply gave up. God wasn’t at this address.
Back in the solitude of the house I looked through the windows and saw where I had been. In the silence, a sense of peace and accomplishment settled within my soul. It was then I realized God was not absent, but waiting silently for me.
God tells Elijah to go stand on the mountain. Violent forces of nature break underneath him and whirl all around him. Yet God is not in these overwhelming demonstrations of power. Rather, it is out of sheer silence that God finally speaks.
This story reminds me that God’s silence is not God being absent. It’s a way for God to draw us closer to the Divine where we can vent, melt down, and feel sorry for ourselves because sometimes that is exactly what we need the most.
As my wife so brilliantly stated, “God silent is God listening.”
This makes me wonder about our listening. Perhaps we have trouble hearing God speak because of the winds, earthquakes and fires that are erupting all around us.
Social media and 24 hour news constantly vie for our attention. Some of us have marriage or financial troubles, health issues, a problem child or a dying parent that steal our focus from that small voice within. How many ways have you been distracted while reading this message, muchless this past week?
Sometimes we have to move beyond ourselves to hear what God has to say. But sometimes we don’t hear God speak, because we don’t like what God has to say.
Elijah knew what God wanted him to do. But when doing it put a price on his head, Elijah go the heck out of Dodge. It's not that unuaual.
Think about all the people who profess Jesus as their "personal Lord and Savior" but completely ignore what he taught or what he has called them to do.
How many churches are in the middle of building a bigger sanctuary even though Christ called them to build bigger homeless shelters?
Listening is not just hearing words spoken. Listening means fully taking in what God has said and living it out in our lives. It’s listening with the intention of hearing.
My dear friend Dawn and I have a special relationship that provides a sacred space to complain and vent our frustrations. We listen intently, offering ourselves to be the vessel by which God can speak to the other. Through her smoky southern drawl, I often hear God asking, “Are you done with your pity party?”
Sometimes we don’t know we aren’t listening to God. Or sometimes we ourselves are making too much noise to hear God speak to us. And sometimes God is just allowing us a space to vent. But in each of these situations...just as it is in all of life... God is very much present.
If you feel defeated or despondent, distracted or deflated, or like God has left you on your own, don’t despair. God is not absent, but silently at work. Despite Elijah’s fears and failings, God does not give up on him. And neither does God give up on us.
Jesus is our proof of how far God is willing to go to make that point. Jesus knew what it was like to be abandoned. Alone on a cross he cried out the psalm “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.” And yet, God was with him. In life and through death. Just the same God is with us, leading us home to the Divine.
We ought to find it encouraging and comforting that God is faithful even in the face of our fear and depression, our worries and our weariness, and our blindness and deafness God does not abandon us. We abandon God. And even then, God sent the Christ to be the open arms of our loving creator.
If we see and do what Jesus does, then we too can help bring people back to the Divine Love of God that waits for them. That’s what God is calling us to do.
So I hope you will remember this: If God appears to be silent, be reassured that God’s loving kindness is never failing even when we can’t feel it.
In these seasons of silence, we need to look within ourselves where there is always a still small voice whispering, “You are my beloved child. Go and be who I called you to be.”
We may be thinking that we’re waiting for God, but really it’s God who silently waits for us.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3 (Westminster John Knox: 2009).
Bloom, Jon. When God Seems Silent. (July 18. 2014) https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/when-god-seems-silent
Harris, Tania. Three Reasons God is Silent. Relevant magazine (May 15, 2014) https://relevantmagazine.com/god/3-reasons-god-silent/
The famous Lutheran theologian, Adolf Harnack, referred to this chapter as, “the greatest, strongest, deepest thing Paul ever wrote.” And G. Campbell Morgan, said that “If one examined this chapter, it would be like dissecting a flower to understand it. In the process, one would tear the flower apart and lose its beauty.” My goal here isn’t to tear it apart Paul’s perfectly penned words, but to find our place and God’s power in them.
It should go without saying that the subject of this chapter is love. But not the kind of love I use to describe my longing for donuts or the feelings I have for my wife and kids. Instead Paul chose a rarely used Greek word “Agape.” We’ve talked about agape before; describing it as a type of altruistic, undeserving, unmerited love. The ancient Greeks considered it to be Divine because no human could achieve it. Maybe that’s why Paul chose to use it. And why the early church took the idea and ran with it.
If you read the entire epistle, you’ll see that Paul did not have brides, bouquets, or unity candles in mind when he wrote it. He was not trying to be poetic either, but pastoral. You see, Paul had heard that there were some in Corinth who were trying to enhance their status in the church by puffing-up their spiritual gifts. The age-old, “I’m right, you’re wrong, so get over it” type stuff.
There will always be people who think their insight or opinion is better than everyone else’s. And will do whatever it takes to get their way. This happens in business, in politics, in school, and even in the church. Yet tucked away in the Bible are these profound verses where Paul both admonished and affirmed the young church with one simple command: practice agape, be the divine love of God.
My first point is this: The primacy of love begins with God. You heard me say God is love. And that those who dwell in Love dwell in God forever, for God is love and love never ends. But what exactly does that love look like? Just reread this passage and wherever you see the word love, or any inference of it, replace it with the word God.
For example, God is very patient and kind. God is never jealous or envious, boastful or proud. God is never haughty or selfish or rude. God is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever truth wins out. God never dies.
I think this exercise gives us a wonderful portrait of who God is. And what agape looks like in reality. Like the ancient Greeks, you might believe it to be impossible for humans to attain agape. You might think the things you’ve done in your past have made you undeserving or unworthy of such love.
But that’s where agape turns everything you know upside-down. It’s God’s way of telling us that we are worthy to be divine and beloved. Agape is our assurance that no matter how far you have strayed from doing what God has called you to do, you are never beyond the boundaries of God’s love. And the proof of this claim is Jesus – the incarnation of God’s agape.
Which is my second point: the character of love is Jesus. If you want to know who Jesus is, then all you have to do is look at what he does. Jesus is God’s love because he lived agape in all that did. Again, replace the word love in this passage with the name Jesus.
Jesus cares more for others than for himself. He isn’t selfish, or force himself on others, or have the need to be first. Jesus doesn’t revel when others grovel. He takes pleasure in being truthful. He trusts God always. He doesn’t keep score but keeps leading us onward and upward to God’s glory.
When we look at Jesus through the lens of Paul’s letter, we see that wherever this kind of Love is practiced, God’s love is present. Our world today could use agape because it defuses fights, and exhausts the need to be right, or to get its own way simply because it’s not focused on itself but on the other.
There was a couple who had been married for 60 years and had no secrets except for one: The woman kept in her closet a shoe box that she forbade her husband from looking in. But on her deathbed the two opened the box together. In it was a crocheted doll and $95,000 in cash. She explained to her husband that her mother taught her that the secret to a happy marriage was to never argue. Instead of fighting she should crochet a doll. Her husband was touched. Because there was one doll was in the box meant she’d only been angry with him only once in 60 years. But then he asks dying bride, “what about all this money?”
“Oh,” she said, “that’s the money I made from selling all the dolls.”
While Paul isn’t speaking of weddings, his pastoral point remains true in all circumstances. Our capacity to flourish in God’s love is realized when we can live out the love of God as revealed in Jesus the Christ. By seeing and doing what Jesus did, we begin to understand that Love is not so much a feeling or spiritual gift. It’s an action. A way God intended us to give our gifts and talents to others. When we give ourselves freely to others… we are giving others a glimpse into God’s gracious heart.
Which takes me to my last point: the enduring presence of love is us.
We are both loved and love. But my fear is we throw the Love word around so much that we’ve lost any sense of agape. To this point, the other night my wife and I were enjoying a glass of wine after dinner. Out of the blue, she says, “I love you.” Instead of just taking it to heart, I jokingly asked “Is that you or the wine talking?” She said, “It’s me. But I was talking to the wine.”
I still remember that time my daughter fell in love with five different guys in a single day…Niall, Harry, Louie, Liam and the other one. Around the same time Fiona began her love affair with One Direction, there was a post making its way around Facebook. It was written by a concerned mom whose daughter always fell head-over-heels in love with whomever she was dating.
When the mom saw her daughter getting involved with a guy she had reservations about, she handed a piece of paper to her daughter with the words of 1 Cor. 13 written on it. And wouldn’t you know it, she put the boy’s name wherever love was written or implied. She told her daughter if this boy could passed this test, he was worthy of her love.
It didn’t take long for the young girl to think about all the times her boyfriend laughed at her when she goofed up. And earlier that day she saw him lie to a teacher so he could do something he wanted to do. The mother concluded her post by stating, “Not only did this give my daughter greater discernment about others but it also has helped her reflect on her own behavior.”
I invite you to put your name in the passage, and think about how might it affect the way you see yourself or how others respond to you. When we take on the qualities of Jesus, God’s agape, we attract those same qualities from others. Patience begets patience. Kindness begets kindness. Love begets love.
God is the primacy of love. Jesus is the character of love. And we are the enduring presence of a love that can transform and renew the world. To practice agape is to practice the immense compassion of God and “to look at people with love the way Jesus looked at the adulterous woman and made her discover her own goodness that empowered her to go and sin no more.”
There’s a good chance we’ll mess up it up from time to time. That’s ok. Love is sloppy and messy and complicated. That’s just the way it is. But as Paul so poetically penned, love rejoices in all things, good and bad, because wherever love is, God is. By this truth, we are able to be patient and kind, to bear all things and hope all things and get through all things.
As we know some marriages don’t last. And our spiritual gifts will eventually fade away if only because every human life comes to an end. But love never dies. We pass it on throughout the generations. But the divine love we receive through Christ is not merely left behind in the hearts of others when we die. But it grabs hold of us and pulls us into God’s heart throughout eternity.
Let us pray:
Most loving Lord, in your perfectness you have made us in your image, and by your steadfast love you have empowered us to be agape. Send us out into the world to be a mirror of you love so others may see you and glorify your wonderful name. Amen.
Today I leave you with the charge Paul gave to the Corinth Christians: “Be on your guard; stand firm in your faith; be courageous; be strong; and let all that you do be done in love.”
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1. (Westminster John Knox: 2009) pp. 302-306.
Garish, Jim. Word of God Today. http://www.wordofgodtoday.com/1-corinthians-13 (accessed Oct. 23, 2019)
God Vine. My Daughter’s Boyfriend Test. https://www.godvine.com/read/love-verse-insert-boyfriend-name-test-relationship-951.html(accessed Oct. 23, 2019).
So, I just got back from a lovely trip to Scotland, where I was invited to officiate a wedding of an old friend of mine. It was a beautiful occasion and a spectacular location in the Scottish Borders along the River Tweed where the leaves where just beginning to change colors. The weather was supposed to be rainy and cold, so I grabbed a rain coat and a very thick sweater. Both took up valuable space in my suitcase… and both were never worn because it was so lovely there.
Checking the weather before I left is about all the time I spend preparing for my trip. I spent many hours preparing the words for the wedding ceremony. But as for everything else, I probably took about a half hour max to compare airfare prices, book my flight, and rent a car. And only half that time packing my suitcase.
My friend Dawn is the polar opposite. She prepped for months for her trip to Ireland. She joked about practicing packing and unpacking her bags as if she is preparing for an Olympic event. Unlike me, she goes well prepared. Has all she needs, and knows where it is. By the time she landed in the Emerald Isle, Dawn had her entire journey mapped out – down to the local grocer. Whereas I relied on the overly polite British lady in my GPS to help me navigate the roads and roundabouts so I wouldn’t get lost or starve to death.
We all prepare differently, because each trip is different. Yet no matter how we go about it, nothing compares to the planning God has made to be with us. Then again, God wasn’t planning for just a visit. Which takes us to our reading today from the gospel of John 14:1-7:
I have spoken these words from John’s gospel at countless funerals and bedsides. They often provide a sense of promise and comfort in times of grief or worry. Like the comforting voice in my rental car, when Jesus speaks these words, I feel hopeful – believing them to be true and following them as such. While John alludes to an afterlife, and a promise of something greater is to come, I think Jesus is speaking to the present. After all, preparing for a life after death starts with preparing a way to live rightly so we can die faithfully.
The scene of this passage is set in the upper room where Jesus has gathered with his friends for one last meal. Up to this point, Jesus has washed their feet – teaching them what it means to serve. He has revealed his betrayal by Judas who has already slipped out into the night. He has told them he is leaving soon and where he is going, they cannot come. He even foretold of Peter’s imminent denial to the shock of all present.
So, when Jesus tells his friends, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” it’s easy to understand why there’s a little push back. They’ve been looking for the Messiah. And now they believe they have found him. What they don’t know is that in less than 24 hours, all they had hoped for will be nailed to a cross. And Jesus wants them to be prepared.
But how does one prepare the human heart to be free of trouble when your world seems to be crashing down around you? On Google, Facebook and Twitter you’ll find a million stocked answers and opinions on this. But in the Bible there just one. Jesus said, “Believe in God. Believe also in me.”
It’s worth noting that the central theme of John is the indwelling relationship between Jesus and God. His gospel opens with the bold declaration, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Here John is telling us that Jesus is the Word, the Christ. The one God has been preparing for this moment since the beginning of time.
Jesus comforts his friends by inviting them to have the same intimate relationship that he has with the One who sent him. Jesus is also inviting you and me. This relationship begins not with some great faith which might seem impossible to achieve. It starts with a sliver of belief in the preparation God has made to remove our troubles, distress, agitations and fears through the redemptive work of Christ. Try to imagine the prep that went into that!
After a long overnight flight and a nerve-wracking drive to the rental home, I was exhausted and needed sleep. Unfortunately, I arrived well before our check-in time, and the owners were still preparing our rooms from the previous renters. As I waited in the car for them to finish, I thought about Jesus trading his righteous robe and holy halo for an apron and rubber gloves.
It’s funny to think of Jesus pushing a vacuum and making a bed for me. But that’s what he does. He serves others. He feeds them, washes their feet, and cares for all their needs. So, it’s no surprise that wherever Jesus is, or whatever he’s doing, it’s all to prepare a place for our hearts to share oneness with God.
It makes my heart feel good, knowing there is a place that Jesus is preparing for us and that he is going to come back and take us there. That’s why I often read this passage at funerals or at the bedside of the dying. But every now and then someone asks me “What is that place? And where exactly is it?”
Like so many of us, Thomas also wants to know the way to this place so he can be in the safe care of his Messiah. Can you blame him? Up until meeting Jesus, Thomas relied on the world to make sense of the great mysteries of life and death.
As Jesus begins to reveal the truth for him, its natural for Thomas to want a map or a softly spoken British Sherpa to tell him where to go… because these are roads he’s never traveled. There are signs that are hard to read. And roundabouts ready to throw him off course.
As the Bible reveals, Jesus knows the only way to make sense of the mystery of death is to enter it. And the only way to come out the other side is to follow God through it.
Like a soft spoken voice guiding the way through a backwards maze, Jesus calmly tells his beloved friend, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
I read these words and find comfort knowing Jesus is exactly what I need to prepare for life’s journey; there is no need to panic, no need to search desperately for a secret map. I just need to follow the One who is already One with God.
I can trust and believe he knows the way because he’s already been there before. By his words and deeds, Jesus reveals the fullness of God’s love for me so I know where I am going in a world of twists and turns.
I invite you to join me on this trip. I invite you to hear Jesus’ words and follow his way of living, so you will find your place of peace in God’s expansive and everlasting heart… no matter where you are or what the world throws at you.
Jesus said, “Believe in God. And Believe also in me.” In doing so, he’s telling you to believe in who God made you to be – a beloved child with a great mission.
Through Christ, God has already prepared you for glory. By seeing and doing what he does, you too can reveal the personhood of God for others. This is why I believe this passage isn’t so much about being with Jesus in some afterlife, but it has everything to do with our life here and now.
As the world will tell us we can’t, Jesus says we can. This does not necessarily happen in spectacular ways like making the blind see or raising someone from the dead. Yet wherever you bring healing, forgiveness, or any life-giving work into the world, the glory of God is made visible. The presence of God is known. And the love of God is felt.
It is as though God had thought very carefully and spent a lot of time prepping…not so we can just be in heaven after we die. But so we can experience heaven as we live and travel in this journey called life.
As you leave here today, I hope you will ask yourself where you might become the presence of God’s love in the world. How might you be for others the way of Jesus, the truth of Christ, and the life that draws people back to the Oneness of God’s ever expanding love… as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, Amen.
Let us pray:
Most Merciful and Loving God, through the ministry of your Son you have soothed our trouble hearts and free us from the grip of the tomb. As we await the coming of his glory, we pray for your Spirit to keep us filled with the fullness of life so that we can proclaim your glory to all the world. Amen.
In today’s reading, the disciples doubt they have what it takes to accept such an invitation. They feel like it will take more faith than what they have. You might feel the same way – wondering how in the heck anyone can live like Christ, or love as he called us to do?
Even though I ask myself that all the time, it doesn’t invalidate the job of the church or her members. In addressing their concerns Jesus gives us this answer in Luke 17:5-10:
This might seem like two idea’s crammed into one reading. First Jesus talks of faith, and then jumps into something about being a slave. It feels like one of those incomprehensible tweets we get on a daily basis. How are we to read into this? By remembering that it’s Jesus who we follow and not some rambling stooge on Twitter.
A few years ago I was struck by something I read from Richard Rohr who wrote, “After two thousand years of studying to be like Jesus Christ we’ve managed to avoid everything that he taught to do.” His words echo something G.K. Chesterton famously said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
Both men’s views on Christianity, suggest Christ followers have never really put our faith into action, at least not like Jesus did. Yet I think even Rohr and Chesterton would agree there was at least one notable exception beside Christ – Francis of Assisi.
The son of a wealthy textile merchant, Francis always dreamed of earning glory in battle. His first time at war, Assisi was defeated, and Francis was taken prisoner and nearly died in captivity. Through a series of divine interventions, Francis found new glory in answering a unique call to repair God’s church which had fallen away from what Jesus intended it to be.
By the 13th century, the church was waging its own wars in Europe and in the Middle East. Priest were giving special privileges to the wealthy while forgetting the poor completely. Some leaders at the top were even selling positions of power to those who could afford it. While all this was going on, Francis was leading a revolutionary new interpretation of the gospel life – one based more on the works of Christ than the doctrines of man.
This quiet revolution started after Francis met a stranger on a pilgrimage to Rome. Outside of St. Peter’s Church Francis saw a beggar calling out to him. Moved by the Holy Spirit, Francis did something unthinkable. He traded clothes with the man. And Francis himself spent the rest of the day begging for alms in his place. That experience shook him to the core causing him to renounce his family’s wealth and to take on the garb of the poor. Following closely to the example set by Christ, Francis cared for those who were forgotten or pushed away by the church. And soon others followed suit, and a monastic movement was born.
What can Francis teach the Christian churches today?
In some respects many churches have gone back in time — supporting war-like leaders, favoring the rich over the poor, and being more concerned with defending politics and doctrine than loving people. They preach a new life in Christ but they themselves are unwilling to live it.
Perhaps Chesterton was correct to suggests that the Christian ideal is just too difficult and thus left untried. Not so with Francis. His approach to imitating Christ and living a life of service fits with what Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel reading.
In response to the disciple’s plea, Jesus tells them that they can accomplish great things for God with just the tiniest amount of faith. This is important to us because Jesus goes on to describe the thankless task of serving God. But a careful read of this passage suggests there is a connection between these two seemingly different points: it’s in serving God that our faith is strengthened.
Francis took great effort to see Christ in every living thing...not just in people but in animals and in plants. He knew he could faithfully embrace a servant life because in every task he did he was actually serving the Lord in the process. The challenge for us today is to see the Divine in all things, especially in the people we serve. In doing so, we can approach even the most thankless task with joy and grace.
I have to keep this in mind when I’m wiping up muddy paw prints off the couch or cleaning dried up toothpaste out of the sink. My dog doesn’t thank me for picking up her poop, but it still has to be done.
In his understanding of who Jesus was and what Jesus taught us to do, Francis knew he had all the faith he needed to give of himself completely to do the will of God because through Jesus God had given him complete and unconditional love. As he engaged with this divine love, Francis watched his faith grow stronger and stronger with every person he served.
I believe the same can be true with us. And this is good since Jesus reminded us that when we come in from doing something for God, don’t expect a reward, expect more work. It wasn’t accolades that motivated Francis to see and do what Jesus does, it was love.
Likewise we are called to serve others with love, mercy and grace as if we are serving Jesus himself. Because to love thy neighbor requires us to constantly care for the needs of one another (including animals and our environment that Francis cared deeply for). With each step we take in this direction, our faith increases as does our love, our health, our peace, and our security.
Francis took his mustard seed of faith and used it to exchange clothes with a beggar. In the process, he found all he needed to work among the poorest of the poor. The very place where God needed him the most.
What is your mustard seed of faith? And how will you put it to work for the Lord? What steps are you willing to take as God opens your heart to this call to serve?
Francis took small steps of faith, each one emboldened him to trust God more. Likewise, with every step we take our trust strengthens – as does our relationship with our Creator and all of creation.
As we leave here today, let us look to the examples of Francis and strive to see Christ in every living thing. Let us serve one another as if we are personally serving our Lord. Let us take up the challenge to embrace the Christian ideal by living it as if Christ actually meant what he said.
G.K. Chesterton concluded in his critique of Christianity by stating, “Let religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” Walking the life of faith is simply an act of love. When we embrace Christ with love, we are able to embrace everyone we see and everything we do with love. And like Francis we can say that we are merely servants doing what we were called to do…be the mirror of Christ so others can see the Kingdom of God in all its splendor.
Let us pray together the prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
O God, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.
You have been called by God to be a chosen people, and through Christ Jesus you have been given all you need to go out into the world to love as God loves you, and to forgive others as you have been forgiven. So go serve the Lord with gladness and singleness of heart. Amen.
Special thanks to Fr. Frank S. Logue whose sermon An Act of Love (10/1/2016) inspired this message. (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/act-love-pentecost-17-c-october-6-2019).
If you have been watching our services, you would know that my name is Rev. Ian. But did you know my name means “God’s greatest gift” or a “Gift from God”? Some might say I am the gift that keeps on giving.
Ian is a Gaelic name. The English translation is John, which the ancient Celts pronounced as, “Sean.” A Name so difficult to say that our old nanny, Josephina…would call me “Senior” because she refused to call me Juan.
John is not only one of the most common names in the world, it’s also one of the oldest. Jesus had a brother named John, as well as a cousin and a disciple. In the Bible we find a gospel and three epistles sharing the same name, Johannine, as they say in Greek.
In today’s reading some picky people want to know not just Jesus’ name but what his name means. It’s found in the Gospel of John 10:22-30
It’s easy for me to say my father and I are one not just because share the same name, but we share the same DNA, the same silly humor, and of course the same faith. In the same respect, my mother and I are one and my kids and I are one. It’s not that shocking to say it publicly in front of the entire world. But when Jesus makes this claim about he and God, in front of this particular audience, it was enough to get him killed.
John tells us Jesus is walking around the Temple. A group notices he’s there and approach him. And ask him directly if he is the Messiah, the one who would be sent by God to save and rescue Israel from their oppressors. It’s a simple yes, no question. Jesus doesn’t make it easy for them. Instead he said, “You’ve seen what I do. And yet you don’t believe.” And they can’t believe because they are not a part of his flock.
Years ago, I gave a sermon on Jesus calling himself the Good Shepherd, which is at the beginning of John 10. After service someone who owned sheep told me the only way he could get his flock into their pen for the night was to sing to them.
His sheep knew his voice and trusted he had their best interest at heart. They did not fear him because they had a relationship with him. But only if he sang to them would they follow. Similarly, I think Jesus is telling us that it’s in both the hearing and doing that unites the sheep with the shepherd.
Like my friends sheep, Jesus’ followers know and trust him, not because they have gone through any rational, or intellectual discernment, but because they’ve watched and witnessed the care he gives.
But the ones who challenge him – whose vision of the Messiah is based on trivial power and not sacrificial love – are unable to see the truth right in front of their eyes. They are too busy maintaining the status quo of the Temple instead of being what the Temple represents. The presence of God in the world. They are blind to who Jesus is because they are unable to see that Jesus is a perfect embodiment of God’s character. He and God are one because they share the same vision of life.
Everywhere Jesus goes, and every time he opens his mouth to speak or his hands to help, he reveals who he is. What does that say to us? Or how people know us or this church?
Jesus shows his true identity in the way he loves people, and cares to their needs. In the same way, God is calling us to follow his lead…like a sheep follows the shepherd. Just as God works through Jesus, God also works through us, to bring healing and peace into a broken and hurting world.
Let us remember that the early church didn’t grow because of traditions, dogmas or creeds. It grew because the people were seeing and experiencing the living Lord in one another and receiving a new life that Paul described as “foolishness to the wise” (1 Cor. 1:27).
Those who have been healed and fed and cared for by Jesus have seen and know God on a much more intimate level. They have experienced God’s love through Christ and have been transformed in the process. Therefore it’s not shocking for them when Jesus declares, “the Father and I are one” because they’ve seen how Jesus shares aligns his life with the righteousness of God.
Gail O’Day said, “It is impossible to distinguish Jesus’ work from God’s, because Jesus shares fully in God’s work.” We must keep our eyes on Jesus because he shows us who God is and who God has called us all to be – the very character of God’s heavenly grace and salvation in this part of God’s kingdom. To paraphrase Dallas Willard, the point of following Jesus isn’t just to secure a place in the kingdom of God after you die. It’s about how we live in God’s kingdom before we die.
Our Good Shepherd is calling us “follow him” which means we are called to follow the way he loves, forgives, heals, and blesses. When we live our life by walking in his footsteps, we stay on the path that leads us and others to God’s loving hands.
Jesus did this by going to the poor and visiting the prisoners. He did it by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. He welcomed the stranger and delivered the oppressed. He touched the untouchable and forgave the unforgiveable. He served the least when no one else would and sacrificed himself for the salvation of all. This is what it means to follow him – to see what he does and do it so others can see God’s glory and do the same. For it’s in both the seeing and doing that unites the sheep with the shepherd. And us to God.
Christianity isn't supposed to be a religion. It’s a way of life. The way of the Christ. It’s the way we are called to live God’s righteousness in the world. So people can see God in their midst.
As John wrote in his first letter to the churches, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us… God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” (1 Jn 4:12, 16). Just as Jesus reminded those guys at the Temple, when you are in God nothing can snatch you away, not even death.
Jesus and God are one because they share one goal and one mission, one redemption and one salvation. This ought to be our goal as well. But let us not be like those who tried to trick Jesus or believe that we are the keepers of God’s righteousness. We are simply doers of it.
Despite what our ego wants us to believe we don’t save people, only God does. Our job is to lead them to him. But if we’ve learned anything today it’s that people aren’t going to follow us or see the way if our actions don’t speak louder than our words. So let us go and show the world God’s love of them by being the love of God for them. Amen.
Let us pray:
Loving and merciful God, thank you for sending us your shepherd to call us and guide us back into your fold. As we move into the world today, may the words of our mouth and the works of heart reveal the true character of you everlasting love. May we always look to Jesus as our guiding light. For it is through him we receive one heart, one mind, one vision, one love, and one everlasting name. Amen.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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