December newsletter piece

Thus says the Lord, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” ~ Isaiah 43:18-19


December always seems to be a season of newness.

We often experience the first big snowfall of the year in December – the kind of snowfall that covers the entire countryside with a soft blanket of white. It almost looks like the slate of the earth has been wiped clean and is waiting for something brand new.

Even though it’s already grown colder by December, we usher in a new season. December 21 marks the winter solstice, and though the days are short and the nights are long, each day after the solstice brings us just a little bit of new light.

And of course, we celebrate Christmas during December. We delight in the giving and receiving of new gifts with those we love. We send out the newest family photos and news in annual Christmas letters. And even though we find joy and comfort in our old holiday traditions, we create new memories in the midst of the familiar.

But we are not the only ones doing something new during the holiday season. We celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ – that long-anticipated Messiah, the Shepherd King for whom the people had waited for so long. But instead of sending a mighty warrior or a fierce conqueror to free Israel from oppression once more, God sent a tiny baby. God sent vulnerability and compassion and tenderness. God sent the kind of king that could only be recognized through the eyes of faith.

And God sent love … a whole new kind of love. Before this Jesus-child, the world had never known such a self-sacrificing love. Before this Jesus-child, the world had never known such an accepting love. Before this Jesus-child, the world had never known the kind of love that could shatter even the strongest barriers that separated us from God, the barriers of sin and death.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God says to us, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” When I read this passage, I picture God speaking like a small child who’s so excited she can barely sit still, who’s bursting with such joy and anticipation and delight that he can’t contain it one minute longer. “I am about to do something totally new … something that’s never, ever been done before! And it’s not just something boring or subdued. What I’m about to do is so sensational and captivating that it’s going to SPRING FORTH. Surely, you can see this amazing thing that I’m doing … right? Surely, you can recognize how amazing it is, know how important it is, understand the impact it’s going to have on the whole world forever and ever … right?”

As the OZ congregations, we are about to start doing new things. We are looking at doing new things in worship – trying new practices, learning new songs, introducing new elements. Some of these new things may cause us to spring forth – to get excited about the way we worship and to inspire us to be excited about the God we worship again. But some of these new things may be less successful. Some of them may feel a little strange at first … a little uncomfortable at first … a little foreign and uncertain.

But I encourage you to give it time.

Remember, God did something totally new and unexpected by sending the Savior of the world as a tiny baby born to an unwed mother in a dirty, dingy old stable. God did something totally new and unexpected to “make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

And it worked.

Jesus was that Way, the Truth, and the Light in the wilderness – that source of living water in the desert … but it took time. Before he could be that amazing Savior, Jesus first had to experience the newness of life as an infant. He had to learn. He had to grow. He had to trust, all the while being loved and nurtured by his family and by God.

As we begin doing something new, may we learn. May we grow. May we trust, all the while loving and nurturing one another as this unique and blessed OZ family that we are, knowing that God is making our way in the wilderness and rivers in our desert.



Sunday’s Sermon: An Important Question, An Elusive Answer

  • In the PC(USA), the last step that you have to complete before your Committee on Preparation for Ministry certifies you ready to seek a call – ready to look for a church – is the final assessment.
    • Hour-long interview with entire committee – question you on …
      • Theology
      • Personal practices (self-care, spirituality, etc.)
      • Statement of faith
      • Responses to profile questions (what type of church you want to serve, leadership style, etc.)
      • [UCC equivalent ~ ecclesiastical council –> less people, similar types of questions]
    • One particular question that stuck in my mind after my final assessment – Denise’s question: Who is Jesus Christ to you?
      • Now, I know it sounds like a simple question, but think about it for a minute. Who is Jesus Christ to you? I bet if I asked every single person in this room, I’d get a whole bunch of different answers.
        • Answers history has given us: Jewish man, probably a carpenter
        • Answers we’ve been taught – church/Sunday school: Son of God; Redeemer of the world
          • Small sampling of names found throughout Scripture
            • 1 John = our “advocate with [God]”[1]
            • Rev = alpha and omega[2]
            • Gospel of John = bread of life, light of the world, lamb of God[3]
            • Isaiah = Wonderful, Counselor, Prince of Peace[4]
            • Psalms = cornerstone[5]
          • Answers we’ve experienced in our own lives: friend, confidant, teacher
          • Answer Denise was looking for: Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior (comes from PC(USA) confessions)
          • There are so many layers to who Jesus is! And today is Reign of Christ Sunday … what used to be called Christ the King Sunday. It’s a special Sunday but unfortunately one that I think often gets overlooked in the church year. We’re already looking ahead toward Advent. We’re already looking ahead toward Christmas. And in all that looking ahead, we miss the significance of this day, the last Sunday in the church calendar year: Reign of Christ Sunday, a Sunday focused on how essential and compelling the person and work of Jesus Christ really is.
            • History: instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as reaction to rising non-Christian dictatorships in Europe and global secularism at the time –> point: try to draw focus of church and world back to Christ[6]
              • Papal letter sent to bishops –> hoped “that the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration of the feast, as we are reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies”[7]
              • Question that Pope Pius XI was trying to answer at the time = essentially same as Denise’s question: Who is Jesus Christ for you?
    • And this is such an important question for us. It truly is a pivotal question for our own lives and for the life of the church. It sheds light on how we understand our faith, express it, interact with it, and share it. But at the same time, it’s a question with such an elusive answer. –> many roles Jesus plays/fulfills throughout our lives 
      • Roles are often shifting and changing
        • Changes as our needs change
        • Changes as we mature in faith
    • So this morning, on this Reign of Christ Sunday, I want to talk about some of those roles that Christ can play in our lives.
  • First role: Jesus = teacher/guide
    • Familiar role – portrayed throughout all the gospels
      • Taught through Scripture references (OT) – speaks of fulfilling what was written by prophets, quotes from the law (often Deut), references story of the exodus from Egypt[8]
      • Taught by e.g. – constantly welcoming marginalized into his circle
        • Lepers
        • Women
        • Sinners
      • Taught through stories – parables
    • See reference to guidance provided by this teaching in Jer
      • Refers to God designating a shepherd to lead the flock
        • Scholar: No matter where one wanders, one needs eventually to come home. In Christian tradition, home is found by following the Shepherd king who knows the way in and through the grace and power of God.[9] –> find that guidance in Jesus as teacher
    • Continues to teach/guide us today through God’s Word
      • Remember, one of the many Scriptural names for Jesus is the Word.
        • Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.[10]
        • Scholar: The truth is that, at one and the same time, [Scripture] speaks powerfully both to what God will do in the future and what God is doing in the here and now. Such is the dynamic life of the word of God wherever it is uttered. It speaks to the possibilities of the present, as well as to the hopes of the future. God is able to do all of that under one and the same word of promise.[11] –> shows us the “doing” side of God; embodies our still-active, still-speaking God
          • That “word of promise” – the Word of God, that Jesus-Wordis always working to form, reform, and transform
    • What does that look like in our lives? –> turning to Christ when we’re questioning/unsure
      • Find Jesus in Scripture
      • Find Jesus in prayer
      • Listen for God speaking in and through others
  • Another role: Jesus = servant
    • I think that most of the time we feel a little uncomfortable with seeing Jesus in this role. Unlike those around him during his time, we know how important this Son-of-God-Jesus-man really is. We know the weight that he is going to have to bear for our sakes. We know the ultimate sacrifice that he is going to make. And we don’t want to add to the burden of one already so loaded down.
      • But remember … this is a role Christ chose – so many times throughout the gospels where we see Jesus serving others
        • Jesus’ own words in Mark: The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve[12]
        • E.g. – washing his disciples feet à Jesus’ example of service is one not of obligation and requirement but humility and grace. Jesus served those around him because he loved them.
          • Scholar: Living under Christ’s reign means we are called to … model Christ’s example to love God and neighbor. We are called to see the value God has bestowed on every human being and thereby work toward justice and God’s restoration for all people.[13]
    • Where we meet servant-Christ in our lives –> through others
      • Give us a hand when we need help
      • Serving alongside others in mission
        • [O – serving at Dorothy Day house, helping with food shelf, nursing home birthday party]
        • [Z – serving Towers dinner]
  • 3rd role = Jesus as friend
    • Let me ask you a question. Why are your friends your friends? What role do they play in your life? What place do they inhabit in your heart?
      • My friends = people who …
        • Share similar values
        • Share similar interests
        • Most importantly: make me feel treasured
        • Values and interests that Christ put forth as central: Love God … love your neighbor … love as I have loved you.[14] –> The driving force here is love, and in this, we see how much we are truly treasured by God. God loves us because we are God’s own creation – unique, quirky, astonishing, and precious.
    • Another important element of friendship = those who understand where we are and where we’ve been – hold us up when we’re struggling, cheer with us when we’re celebrating –> Jesus was God incarnate, yes, but he was also a man. He laughed. He delighted in the presence of children. He mourned his friends. His heart broke for those who had strayed from God, and he wept. He can understand where we are and where we’ve been because Christ has been there, too.
      • Rejoices when we rejoice
      • Weeps when we weep
      • Prays for us
      • That all sounds like what a friend does to me.
    • Another role that we encounter most often through others –> kindness of others offering us a hand when we need it most
  • Most constant role Christ always has always played and will always play = role that Denise brought up (from confessions) – Jesus Christ as Savior
    • See it in both texts
      • Jer speaks of righteous branch that will come from David: In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.[15]
      • Col: He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.[16] –> Through his death on the cross and his resurrection, Christ freely gave us this redemption and forgiveness, and it is in this loving sacrifice alone that we find our salvation.
        • Scholar: On [Reign of Christ] Sunday, worshipers are reminded that, as Christians, they are subjects of Christ and Christ alone. Christ’s power transcends all other powers. Moreover, salvation in Christ has been achieved for all.[17]
    • Role that we see in a thousand different ways – those little God-moments that bring hope, strength, comfort when we need it most –> In these moments, God is reminding us that we are not alone. Jesus is saying to us, “You have already been saved. You are my own, and I love you. Even though what you’re facing right now seems bad, I will get you through this, too.”
  • Each and every one of us has experienced the guidance, the companionship, and the saving power of Christ in different ways in our lives. But I want to make it clear that the question I’m asking this morning isn’t just a hypothetical question. I really want to know who Jesus Christ is to you!
    • My hope: question will spur actual discussions – today, tomorrow, next week, next year
      • Between you and me
      • Between each other
      • Between you and other people in your lives
    • Question presents opportunity to learn more about each other’s lives and faith journeys
      • So tell me … tell each other … who is Jesus Christ to you? Amen.

[1] 1 Jn 2:1.

[2] Rev 1:8.

[3] Jn 6:32; 8:12; 1:29 (respectively).

[4] Is 9:6.

[5] Ps 118:22.

[6] David Bennett. “Christ the King Sunday: History, Information, Prayers, Resources, Traditions, & More – Introduction.” Last update: Nov. 18, 2013. Visited: Nov. 21, 2013.

[7] Pope Pius XI. Quas Primas, 33.

[8] Variety of quotation cross-references can be found at

[9] Martha Stearn. “Proper 29 (Reign of Christ) – Jeremiah 23:1-6 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 319.

[10] Jn 1:1.

[11] Nelson Rivera. “Proper 29 (Reign of Christ) – Jeremiah 23:1-6 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 318.

[12] Mk 10:45.

[13] Mary Eleanor Johns. “Proper 29 (Reign of Christ) – Jeremiah 23:1-6 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 4. (Louisvilly, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 316, 318.

[14] Mk 12:30-31; Jn 13:34 (respectively).

[15] Jer 23:6a (emphasis added).

[16] Col 1:13-14.

[17] Barbara J. Blodgett. “Proper 29 (Reign of Christ) – Colossians 1:11-20 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 326.

Sunday’s Sermon: The Answer is Jesus

  • One of the many wonderful steps along the ordination journey – at least as it’s laid out by the PC(USA) – is the Ordination Exams: fun and exhilarating, lighthearted 3-hr. examinations filled with joy and amusement. Okay … that description may not be entirely accurate.
    • Not so much fun and wonderful –> difficult and stressful
    • Not so much lighthearted –> gut-wrenching
    • Not so much filled with joy and amusement –> filled with frenzy and pressure
    • Days, weeks and even months prior to these exams –> spent in serious study mode … I’m talking about studying 6-8 hrs. a day to the point of brain-frying!
      • Sometimes people like to study on their own, but the thing about these exams is that they’re all essay questions – questions that test your knowledge, yes, but that also test your ability to explain things practically and apply that knowledge in a hypothetical situation.
        • 1st half of each question = theological response to situation, 2nd half is how you would respond pastorally
        • Soon discovered that it was more helpful to study for Ords in groups –> talk through various theologies, worship practices, pastoral care situations, etc.
        • After hours and hours of intense discussions and reading from such tantalizing volumes as The Book of Order and The Book of Confessions, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that we all got a little … punchy. When someone would propose an exam-type scenario, the rest of us would simply respond with our best revival tent, Bible belt impression: The answer is Jesus!
          • Answer-wise: may be a little simplistic … still ultimately the right answer, right?
            • Perfect words from imperfect lips
    • And imperfect words fall from our lips every day.
      • Sometimes we’re aware – we know when we …
        • Lie
        • Gossip
        • Intentionally insult
      • But this isn’t always the case. The things that we say can sometimes inadvertently hurt, offend, or upset people – imperfect words tumbling out of our imperfect lips before we stop to think about them, words we’d often like to take back.
    • Our examples from Scripture this morning – both Job and Peter – are far from perfect as well. And yet in the midst of their imperfection, we find them uttering perfect words.
  • Job
    • Backstory: Job has lost everything – health, wealth, family – and while his wife and his friends question his faith, he remains faithful to God
      • Job’s problem: spends a lot of time proclaiming his own self-righteousness –> Imperfect words falling like rain from imperfect lips.
    • Toward the end of the book, God finally responds to all Job’s complaints and sanctimonious speeches. God reminds Job of God’s own power and omnipotence, artistry and inspiration, infinite knowledge and wisdom. And after this eminent revelation comes our passage for today – Job’s reply to God’s majesty:
      • I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.[1] –> Even though his world has been turned upside-down, Job still manages to recognize God’s sovereignty. Not only that, but Job finds a humility and a reverence that he didn’t have in the beginning.
        • Always believed in God
        • Always loved God
        • But for a while, Job became too swallowed up by his imperfect words to allow himself to be awed by God. But when God’s glory was finally able to shine through, Job speaks words of perfect humility and devotion: I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
          • How often does this happen to us?
            • Get swallowed up by all those little irritants –> lose sight of what’s important (faith, relationship with God)
        • Job’s story teaches us how to find humility before God again
          • Scholar: Job’s confession acknowledges God’s power and ability to implement plans.[2] –> Job is still human. His lips are still imperfect. And yet, we hear a perfect affirmation of God’s sovereignty from those imperfect lips.
  • So let’s turn to Peter, an apostle who is also far from perfect.
    • Peter’s impulsive nature – often got him into trouble
      • Sees Jesus walking on the water: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” –> Jesus says, “Come” –> part way through his journey, Peter’s fear overcomes his belief and he begins to sink –> Jesus saves him[3]
      • Incident in Garden of Gethsemane: soldiers come to arrest Jesus –> Peter draws sword and cuts off ear of high priest’s servant[4]
      • Not just impulsive actions but words as well – following today’s reading: Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block.”[5]
        • “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” That sounds like a reaction to words uttered by profoundly imperfect lips to me.
    • But in our text for today, we come upon Peter’s saving grace: perfect words from his imperfect mouth.
      • Text: Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that the Son of Man is?” … Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”[6] –> Like Job, Peter affirms the true nature of God. He names Christ as the Messiah – the One for whom they had waited, the One who would save them all. While the other disciples spoke from their heads, comparing Jesus to powerful (yet solely human!) examples from Jewish history, Peter spoke from his heart. And it was by doing this that he was able to make that profound and yet crucial leap from the imperfect to the perfect, from the familiar to the unknown, from the human to the divine.
  • Another important lesson from Peter’s story – don’t find in Job’s story –> Let’s look at Peter’s perfect and imperfect examples again.
    • Example – perfect words from today’s text = Matthew 16:13-20
    • Example – imperfect words and Jesus’ response of “Get behind me Satan!” = Matthew 16:21-23
    • You see, Job’s perfect words of witness came at the end of his story. They followed all the imperfections, almost as if he glossed over the bad with the good, trying to redeem the bad with the good through his own efforts. But Peter’s redeeming words preceded his imperfect ones.
      • God knew Peter’s impulsiveness would get in his own way – not so different for us –> God knows that sometimes, we’re going to say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, or neglect to act as we know we should.
    • Peter’s story teaches us that it’s not always about saying the right thing at the right time.
      • Not about covering every wrong answer with a right one –> can’t earn grace
      • Not about telling yourself you’re only going to “say the right things” from now on –> perfection is impossible
  • You see, despite all the slip-ups and complaints, God’s love never wanes. God’s mercy never fails. Jesus’ response to Peter is similar to God’s response to Job: blessing.
    • God’s response to Job’s humble repentance = restoration and renewal
    • Jesus’ response to Peter – text: And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”[7]
      • So then what is it about? It’s about knowing the right answer – the perfect words – in your heart. It’s about believing in the truth and the saving power of the gospel. Even when our lives are muddles, even when everything feels like it’s falling apart, even when our imperfections are overwhelming us, do we treasure the perfect truth and everlasting love of our Savior deep inside?
  • Sometimes, as far as the world is concerned, we have anything but “the right answer.”
    • Friends who struggle mightily with passing Ordination Exams
      • Took 3 or 4 attempts
      • Some still haven’t passed
      • For whatever reason, the answers that they pour their hearts into are not the ones that the exam readers are looking for. The answers that they spend hours agonizing over just aren’t enough. And this can be a really difficult thing.
        • Ords = significant step in PC(USA) ordination process –> have to get permission from presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry every time you want to take them
        • Treated by a lot of presbyteries as an indicator of validity of a candidate’s call –> So when these friends of mine are struggle to pass these exams, they’re not only questioning their own knowledge and abilities, they’re also questioning whether or not they’re actually called.
          • Sometimes presbyteries handle dilemma well – encouragement and alternate forms of testing
          • Sometimes presbyteries don’t handle it well – dropping people from care process –> These committees are essentially saying, “We don’t think you’re really called to ministry after all,” and confirming the worst fears of those already struggling.
    • It is because of times like these – times when the world seems to be against us, when nothing’s working out the way it’s “supposed to,” when we feel like we can’t do anything right – it’s times like these that we have to remember the only answer that matters. When we ask ourselves who is in control. When we ask ourselves who can help us in the midst of this mess. When we ask ourselves who cares, who can pick us up and brush us off and make it all better, who can possibly love us in spite of everything that’s happened. The answer is Jesus. Amen.

[1] Job 42:2.

[2] Carol A. Newsom. “The Book of Job: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 4. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 628.

[3] Mt 14:22-33.

[4] Jn 18:10.

[5] Mt 16:21-23a.

[6] Mt 16:13, 16.

[7] Mt 16:17-18.

Sunday’s Sermon: Church DIY from the Inside Out

  • Have you noticed how popular Do-It-Yourself – or DIY – projects have become?
    • Websites like Pinterest – catalogue/organize all your DIY projects
    • Magazines devoted entirely to Do-It-Yourself
    • There’s even a whole TV channel – the DIY Network – that’s devoted to shows that both inspire and walk you through these types of projects.
    • Even careers built on DIY – e.g.: Martha Stewart
    • A lot of DIY projects taking something that’s a little bit ratty, a little bit dirty, and a little bit beat up and revitalizing it into something beautiful and new. Now, when people talk about whether or not a specific piece (furniture, clothing, or even a home) is a good DIY-project candidate, they talk about whether or not it has “good bones” – whether or not the piece has a strong enough foundation to stand the DIY process and come out shinier and yet still sturdy on the other side.
    • This morning’s Scripture readings – DIY Scriptures
      • NT reading = makes sure our faith has “good bones,” a sturdy foundation
      • OT reading = makes clear how the stability of our own faith affects worshiping community
      • You see, before we begin to build up the church, we have to make sure we’re firmly grounded in Christ.
  • In this part of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is very clear: as Christians, our foundation – the bedrock on which we build not only our faith but our lives as well – must be Christ.
    • Text: For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.[1] –> There is no question in this. There’s no hedging. There’s no uncertainty. If we’re going to bear the name ‘Christian,’ our whole selves – our hopes and dreams, and our identity – must be grounded in Christ.
      • What does this mean?
        • Dedicating time to learning more and more about Jesus –> And for this, we need a Bible, and we need prayer.
          • Bible – dig into the life of Christ
          • Prayer – get to know Christ working in and through us –> This is going to involve more listening in prayer than it is talking. One of my favorite sayings is that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason: to listen twice as much as we speak.
          • Also means acting on what we learn
            • Changing our habits to reflect Christ
            • Changing our attitude to reflect Christ
            • Changing our perceptions to see Christ
              • In the world around us
              • In the people around us
    • NT passage also makes it clear that a strong foundation is one that’s been tested – text: The work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.[2] –> Again, there is no hedging or guessing here. “It will be revealed with fire.” Our faith will be tested. But in Paul’s words, we also hear the message that that testing – that fire – isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
      • On one hand –> burns away unnecessary
      • Other hand –> refines what is good/useful
        • Scholar: Fire consumes and destroys, but is also may refine and purify. Paul’s abiding conviction that God is known for grace, for giving new chances for redemption, leads Paul to hold out the hope that salvation may ultimately come even to the one whose work is burned up.[3] –> Ultimately, this is why it’s so important that the foundation of our faith be firmly grounded in Christ. There will be times of testing. There will be times of challenge and discomfort and fear. In this passage, Paul is both acknowledging the reality of those times and reminding us that while we may not come out the other side completely unscathed, there is no fire strong enough or hot enough to burn away the grace and redemption that we find in Christ Jesus.
          • Important to remember – refining = change
            • According to her self-described “cranky, beautiful” faith/theology, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber’s description of Christianity = “process of things constantly dying and being made new”[4]
  • So how does being grounded in our faith affect the church as a whole? –> where OT text comes in
    • Haggai’s e.g. – rebuilding of the temple
      •  Background: temple destruction by the Babylonians in 568 B.C.E. –> began to rebuild it decades later during Haggai’s time but no one could remember its former glory (exiled too long) –> temple rebuilding ended up taking backseat to people’s personal rebuilding –> This is the context into which Haggai was delivering the word that we read today.
        • People distracted by the many demands in their own lives
        • Placed ultimate worth in things other than their faith
        • Led to lackluster attitude toward rebuilding –> Because the people’s hearts were grounded in things other than their faith, the temple was being rebuilt, but it was a half-hearted attempt at rebuilding – spiritless and pale in comparison to the temple’s former splendor.
          • Still God desired success in the work – Scripture: Yet  now, take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadek, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts.[5]
            • Heb shows us God is active in this work: My spirit abides among you; do not fear – “abides” = stands –> To me, “stands” sounds more dynamic and more interactive than “abides.” It implies participation and expresses a collaboration, but here’s my question: How are we supposed to be aware of this dynamic and interactive God if our faith isn’t securely grounded? If we are so distracted by everything else, how are we going to hear God’s call to the work that needs to be done – the work that is on God’s heart, the work that the church is called to do in this world?
            • Other problem in this passage = Israelites forgot that ultimate worth comes from God, so Haggai reminds them – text: The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.[6]
              • More than just material splendor – Heb “prosperity” = shalom … completeness, soundness, welfare –> So God is promising wholeness … a sustaining peace. This sounded to me like the peace promised in Jesus Christ: And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.[7]
                • Again, this leads us back to building a firm foundation in Christ. It is in Christ that we find our strength and surest support. It is in Christ that we find our greatest peace and reassurance. It is in Christ that we find our true treasure and significance. The ultimate worth that Haggai encouraged the Israelites to find in God is the same ultimate worth that we find through Christ Jesus.
  • Also why the building materials that we use don’t really matter so long as we are grounded in Christ
    • Scholar: Our life of faith is not a quest for the “right” material with which to build; instead, the life of faith involves each of us building with the material available to us. … So our building and our using the Spirit’s gifts are alternative ways of talking about our responsibility to put what we have and what we are into service of God at all times.[8]
    • But let’s talk a little bit about what sorts of building material we have available to us. What can we use to building upon and strengthen our relationship with Christ?
      • First and foremost = PRAYER –> I know it sometimes feels like “all we did” was pray for something, but in truth, prayer is an infinitely powerful thing.
        • Story of how Iona community (Scotland) was built up
          • Founded in 1938 in context of a Depression
          • Community intentionally living in faith – monastic life without the Catholicism/vows
          • “All they did” was pray … and people just started coming.
      • We can also build on our relationship with Christ through Bible study – reading Scripture each and every day and taking the time to consider what it’s saying to us about …
        • Relationship with God
        • Relationship with other brothers/sisters in faith
        • How we can/should live more like Christ
      • And linked to both prayer and Bible study is Sabbath time – that time that we set aside so that we can both find rest and honor God.
        • Sabbath time = planning time
          • Think of Sabbath time as the blueprint for building on your relationship. Every building needs plans, and planning takes time – time to consider things like dimensions, the needs of the builder, and the goal of the one for whom the structure is being built. In our lives, we need to take that time with God to figure out the dimensions of our faith in our lives, what it is that we need to keep building that faith, and what goals God has as the ultimate One for whom the structure of our faith is intended.
  • Anyone who’s been involved in any kind of Do-It-Yourself project knows how easy it is to become consumed by what you’re doing. You sit down to start working on your project, and before you know it, hours have slipped by … if not the whole day! It’s funny to think that we ourselves are DIY projects for God – something that captivates not only God’s attention but also God’s heart, the kind of work that brings God a challenge but also delight and peace. And when we make our faith our own DIY project, we can find that same challenge and delight and peace. And when we feel strong in our own faith foundations and firm in our identity as followers of Christ, you never know where that will take us in the life of the church. We’ve got good bones … now it’s time to see what kind of creation we can become together. Amen.

[1] 1 Cor 3:11.

[2] 1 Cor 3:13.

[3] J. Paul Sampley. “The First Letter to the Corinthians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 10. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002), 829.

[4] Nadia Bolz-Weber. Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint. (New York, NY: Jericho Books), 2013.

[5] Hag 2:4.

[6] Hag 2:9.

[7] Phil 4:7.

[8] Sampley, 830.

[9] Frederick Buechner. Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1973), 119.

Sunday’s Sermon: Being Sent Out in God’s Word

This is the last installment of the “Why We Worship” sermon series.

  • When I was at daycare, the other kids and I used to find the most exotic, fascinating pets you could ever imagine!
    • Small
    • Black and red
    • Fun to watch … even if they weren’t so good for snuggling.
    • What were these exceptional pets? Box elder bugs!
      • Huge tree in back of Joan’s yard = no shortage of “pets”
      • Describe how we used to keep them
    • I can only imagine how many of those poor, disgusting bugs my daycare lady ended up having to throw away! You see, they never ended up surviving long in those plastic palaces we used to put them in.
      • Couldn’t get nourishment
      • Couldn’t thrive
      • Couldn’t grow
    • Now, I know this may sound a bit odd, but God’s Word is not so different from those poor box elder bug pets we used to keep. God’s Word isn’t meant to be restricted and cooped up. It’s not meant to circle round and round solely within these four walls, only interacting with something or someone on Sunday morning. God’s Word is meant to be out and about among the people, and how does it get there? Here’s a hint: it rhymes with us!
      • Aim of the 4th and final worship phase: being sent out in God’s Word –> more than just a dismissal (e.g. – school bell at the end of the day)
        • You see, it’s those last 3 words – being sent out in God’s word – that make this phase of worship so crucial. –> up to this point – immersed ourselves in the Word
          • Gathered together in God’s word for praise, confession, and prayer
          • Heard the word read and preaching and sung and prayed
          • Responded to the word by sharing as much of ourselves as we can
            • Giving of resources in offering
            • Giving of our hearts in celebrating sacraments
            • And now, it’s time to leave. It’s time to go back out into the world, back into the busyness of our daily lives. But before we do, it’s important to know and understand and remember that we are not being sent out empty-handed. God’s Word goes with us.
              • Scriptures today not only address being sent out in God’s word but also give encouragement in the power of that word
  • Isaiah passage speaks to true majesty and dynamic nature of God’s Word
    • First = majesty – text: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.[1] –> By definition, ‘majesty’ is a greatness, an authority and a grandeur. There is a feeling of preeminence and power and importance wrapped up in this concept. This is God’s word! This is the power of the gospel message that God has given to us. No wonder such a message was meant to be shared! It’s far too big and too significant to keep to ourselves.
      • Like trying to hold a beam of light in your hand – shining out all over the place no matter what
    • Is passage also describes dynamic nature of God’s word
      • Speaks of how active rain and snow are in renewing the earth and producing grain for food, then likens that activity to the nature of God’s word – text: So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.[2]
        • Heb word ties majesty and dynamic nature together – “succeed” = strength, effectiveness, power + activity of causing to thrive –> This amazing thing – this thing that inspires strength and power and nourishment for the soul … this amazing word of God is the same word that we hear and share with one another.
          • Word we hear in Scripture and sermon
          • Word we voice in prayer and song
          • We even get to be the dynamic nature of this word, first when we pass the peace with one another but also later, when we leave this sacred space. –> leave with God’s word tumbling around in our hearts and in our minds
            • And it’s important for us to truly believe that there is real power in this word. If we don’t, why would we bother taking it with us?
              • Power to heal scarred heart
              • Power to renew weary soul
              • Power to embolden timid spirit
              • Power to convey greatest message of all time: God loves you. God loves you! Ultimately, this is the message we share.
            • Can be intimidating, especially in society that tells us not to talk about something as “touchy” as religion –
              • “Too controversial”
              • “Too personal”
              • “Too irrelevant with today’s culture”
              • But think about those objections for a minute … controversial, personal, and disconnected with social structure. Hmmm. Jesus was controversial. Jesus was personal. Jesus was found to be irrelevant by the popular culture of his day. Yet despite being labeled as “unacceptable,” Jesus still shared God’s word with everyone he could. And even after he was gone, his disciples continued to share that word, giving it room to grow and thrive and change people’s lives.
                • Had faith in transformative power of God’s word
                • Don’t have to reinvent the wheel –> same word we’re asked to share – tried and true message that’s weathered the test of time: God. Loves. You.
  • You know, being sent out in God’s word should be the exciting part of worship, not because the service is almost over and we get to head home to whatever’s waiting for us there but because we get to be a part of that activity! We are here for our own spiritual renewal, yes, but we’re also here because we’ve got an active part to play in the shared story of faith in this world.
    • Clear in OT – Is: For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands.[3]
      • Popular Christian worship song: It only takes a spark to get a fire going, and soon all those around can warm up in its glowing. That’s how it is with God’s love once you’ve experienced it. You spread his love to everyone. You want to pass it on.[4]
    • Also main focus of NT text: If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed. … set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching.[5]
      • First thing you may be thinking of = evangelism – sharing God’s word with those who have never heard it before –> certainly one very important aspect of being sent out in God’s word
      • Another side = just as important – doing all of this reading and exhorting and preaching for one another
        • Scholar: The point is that the Christian life involves movement, growth, development. Too often … so much attention is given to conversion that the equally important development toward maturity is neglected. … Here again a choice once made has to be repeatedly reaffirmed and lived out.[6] –> So we’re being encouraged to take the word of God with us when we leave because in addition to sharing it with those who haven’t heard it before, we just might need it to help each other out out there! Yes, we lift up our prayers for those things that weight on our hearts on Sunday mornings, but bad things happen on days other than Sundays. And good things happen on days other than Sundays, too. When we take God’s word with us from this place, we do this for a number of reasons.
          • Bolster ourselves throughout the week
          • Continue learning/reflecting throughout the week
          • Support one another throughout the week
            • Bump into someone at the grocery store or the pharmacy or the gas station or the coffee shop – remind them of God’s message of love, lift them up in prayer
            • NT passage: Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them …  continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.[7] –> Gr touches on intimate nature of our role
              • “put these things into practice” = meditate on them, cultivate them
              • “devote yourself” (re: reading of scripture, exhorting, teaching) = literally “be in them” –> We’re asked not just to read God’s word the way we scan through a newspaper article or novel. We’re asked to really inhabit that word – to nestle in, to wrestle with it and chew on it and let it challenge and stretch us. At the end of our service on Sunday morning, we may be leaving the physical structure of the church, but God is asking us to remain in the word always.
  • Nuts and bolts of what this looks like in our actual worship service
    • As far as the elements of the worship service that are included in this final phase, they’re pretty self-apparent.
      • Sending hymn – hymn that aims to wrap up what we’ve been talking about and give us encouragement as we go
      • Charge – challenge for the week –> Now that we’ve talked the talk, how are we going to walk the walk?
      • Benediction – blessing
    • Scholar sums up importance of these elements: Having assembled in God’s name, [the people] now prepare to go out in God’s name. … Having been fed by Word and Sacrament, we go out to share that nourishment in the ordinary intersections of our daily lives. The Lord’s Day service is the indispensable event that identifies the church with its [God] and equips it to identify with those whom [God] has called us to serve.[8]
  • I want you to take out your hymnals and look at the words for our next hymn (#76). Yes, it’s a sending hymn – a hymn that’s normally sung at the end of a worship service. But these words convey why it’s so important for us to be sent out in God’s word:
    • v. 1: Sent forth by God’s blessing, our true faith confessing, the people of God from this dwelling take leave. The service is ended, O now be extended the fruits of our worship in all who believe. The seed of the teaching, receptive hearts reaching, shall blossom in action for God and for all. God’s grace did invite us, and love shall unite us to work for God’s realm and to answer the call.[9] Amen.

[1] Is 55:8-9.

[2] Is 55:11.

[3] Is 55:12.

[4] “Pass It On” by Kurt Kaiser, © 1969.

[5] 1 Tim 4:6, 11-13.

[6] James D. G. Dunn. “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 11. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), 815-816.

[7] 1 Tim 4:15-16.

[8] Peter C. Bower, ed. The Companion to the Book of Common Worship. (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2003), 43.

[9] “Sent Forth by God’s Blessing” by Omer Westendorf, © 1964, emphasis added.