Sunday’s sermon: God Above All

God above all

Texts used – Isaiah 40:12-25; John 10:1-10

  • Last week, we began our Lenten sermon series on the Creeds and Confessions of the Presbyterian Church – talking about what they are, where they came from, why their important, and how they continue to connect us to God and help us to learn about and grow in our faith.
    • Just a refresher
      • Importance of the creeds/confessions outlined by the late Jack Rogers, prominent Presbyterian scholar and theologian: The creeds and confessions of the church identify us as a community, guide us in studying Scripture, and summarize the essence of the Christian tradition. Thus, the confessions equip us for the task of proclaiming the good news.[1]
      • 10 creeds/confessions that have been adopted into our Book of Confessions
      • Tackling 5 of those creeds/confessions during Lent
        • Started with the oldest – the Nicene Creed last Sunday
        • This week: jumping to the creeds that come out of the 20th → 1st: The Theological Declaration of Barmen
  • Now, in order to begin talking about The Theological Declaration of Barmen – or, more simply, The Barmen Declaration – I want to introduce you to a man named Karl Barth[2].
    • Karl Barth is a huge name in the world of theology. His works are required reading for many seminary courses across denominations, and there are a number of seminaries that will teach an entire course devoted solely to Barth and his writings/teachings.
    • Born in Basel, Switzerland in 1886 → father = Swiss Reformed preacher and prof. of New Testament and early church history at University of Bern
    • Eventually decided to follow in his father’s footsteps: ordained in 1909 and served as a pastor in a few small, parish churches before shifting his life and career path to academia (Incidentally, this shift is also the move that brought Barth into Germany.) → eventually became Professor of Systematic Theology at University of Munich starting in 1930
    • Now, if you’re following Barth’s timeline and mentally lining it up with a timeline of global history, you’ve probably realized that Barth was in Germany throughout WWI and into the start of WWII. This point is crucial, because Barth had a critical role to play in Nazi Germany and in the life of Hitler’s Third Reich: a role of opposition.
      • Was fundamentally opposed to the Nazi party and their overtly racist agenda before Hitler even rose to power in 1933
      • Was largely responsible for writing The Barmen Declaration in 1934 – a confession of faith adopted by 139 evangelical clergy and lay people that became one of the founding documents of the Confessing Church Movement in Germany
        • Confessing Church = those churches who spoke out and led spiritual resistance against Hitler and the Nazis
        • German Christian Church = those churches who used theology and Scripture to justify the horrors and actions of the Third Reich
    • Barth actually mailed a copy of the Barmen Declaration to Hitler himself! → eventually forced to leave Germany in 1935 because he refused to swear a loyalty pledge to Hitler without including his own clause: “to the extent that I responsibly am able as a Protestant Christian.”
    • Returned to Switzerland and continued to teach theology and write prolifically throughout the rest of his life
  • So that gives you some historical context for the writing of the Barmen Declaration. It is a document that comes out of Nazi Germany, and it is a document whose sole purpose is to oppose Hitler’s total authoritarianism and hostility toward the church. At that time, Hitler was basically claiming power over everything. He was claiming that the government had power over all aspects of life – that nationalism was more important than anything and everything else, including faith.
    • Rogers: Hitler believed that Germany would become a great power only when it had been welded into a powerful military nation. The necessary initial steps were to be purification of the race, elimination of class distinctions, removal of divisive elements such as political parties and religious denominations, and a new system of education.[3]  → Hitler wanted to remove anything that would oppose his totalitarian regime, and that included all of those pesky Confessing Christians who kept trying to claim that God was more important.
  • And that gets down to the main purpose of the Theological Declaration of Barmen: to declare that God is God above all else. Period.
    • Admittedly probably one of the more difficult documents to read because of the way it’s written (writing style of the time)
    • Basics
      • Begins with some basic declarations …
        • About who Confessing Church was
        • About the paramount importance of prayer and Scripture
        • About how people need to decide for themselves if the declaration was speaking the truth (instead of following blindly as Hitler demanded)
        • About how the integrity of the Church (universal and German churches in particular) was being threatened by the subservience and complicity of the German Christians with the Nazi Party
        • About how those writing and adopting the Barmen Declaration could, in true and good faith, no longer keep silent
      • “In view of the errors of the ‘German Christians’ of the present Reich Church government which are devastating the Church and are also thereby breaking up the unity of the German Evangelical Church, we confess the following evangelical truths:”[4]
        • Outlines 6 “evangelical truths” that follow a basic formula:
          • All begin with Scripture
          • All declare some aspect about the authority of God and the predominant nature of the claim that God has on our lives
          • All reject false doctrines laid out by Hitler and upheld by the German Christian movement that the state has more power over people’s lives than God
            • E.g. – We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords – areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.[5]  → Basically, God is God … and we are not, no matter who wants to tell us that they are or how hard someone or something else tries to be. God is God … and we are not.
  • Now, while we are certainly – and very thankfully! – not living in Nazi Germany today, there continue to be plenty of things that vie heavily for our attention and our devotion over and above our faith. There are plenty of distractions … plenty of “but what about this” moments … plenty of idols that we both encounter and create as we go about our day-to-day lives.
    • Some of the things that we can let eclipse our faith
      • Careers
      • Relationships (healthy or otherwise)
      • Politics
      • Material things
      • Addictions/compulsions
      • Overbooked schedules
      • Hobbies/pastimes
      • Fears/worries/anxieties
      • Technology
      • We have so many different things that try to compete with God for our attention and devotion. But God is God … and we are not … and neither are any of these things.
    • Exactly what our Scripture readings this morning address
      • OT passage kicks off with great questions: Who has measured the waters in the palm of a hand or gauged the heavens with a ruler or scooped the earth’s dust up in a measuring cup or weighed the mountains on a scale and the hills in a balance? Who directed the Lord’s spirit and acted as God’s advisor? Whom did he consult for enlightenment? Who taught [God] the path of justice and knowledge and explained to him the way of understanding? … All the nations are like nothing before God. They are viewed as less than nothing and emptiness. So to whom will you equate God; to what likeness will you compare him?[6]  → I love the attitude of these questions. They are just a little bit snarky, and they’re the quintessential rhetorical questions because they literally have no answer. “Who has measured the waters in the palm of a hand?” Ummm … no one but God. “Who has gauged the heavens with a ruler?” Again … no one but God. “Who directed the Lord’s spirit and acted as God’s advisor?” Yup, you guessed it … no one but God. And then the crucial question: “To whom will you equate God?” [PAUSE] God is God … and we are not … and neither are any of these things.
    • NT reading = Jesus addressing exactly those like Hitler and anyone else who tries to lure us away with false words and doctrines and promises – text: I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. … I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life – indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.[7]  → Jesus speaks of sheep and shepherds and thieves. Jesus speaks of us and of God and of all those who wish to pull us away from our true home and identity in Christ – those who would steal our attention, our enthusiasm, our devotion.
      • Speaks in warning against those who would act as thieves
      • Speaks in warning to us: Be on the lookout! Do not follow the voice and the temptations of the thieves!
      • But Jesus also speaks in reassurance – reassurance that the shepherd is always with us, ready to lead us and shelter us and provide for us; and reassurance that our Good Shepherd does indeed have the best intentions for us. – text: He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and the follow him, because they know his voice. … I came so that they could have life – indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.[8]
  • Friends, there will always be people and experiences and things that try to be our “be all, end all” – that try to fill whatever void we have inside us; that try to convince us that truly, they are all we will ever need; that try to get us to lift them up above all else in our lives; that try to be a god in our eyes and our hearts. But God is God … and we are not … and neither are any of these things. They cannot hold the seas or measure the heavens. They cannot lead us safely to green pastures and still waters. They cannot compare to the One who created us, named us, claimed us as God’s own before we even knew any of these other things existed.
    • From Barmen: The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and Sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church or pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely [Christ’s] property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his directions in the expectation of his appearance.[9]  → And so we lift up the one Triune God above all. Because God is God, and thanks be to God, we are not. Amen.

[1] Jack Rogers. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 23.


[3] Rogers, 177 (emphasis added).

[4] The Theological Declaration of Barmen from The Book of Confessions: Study Edition (revised). (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 8.09.

[5] The Theological Declaration of Barmen, 8.15.

[6] Is 40:12-14, 17-18.

[7] Jn 10:1, 9-10.

[8] Jn 10:3b-4, 10b.

[9] The Theological Declaration of Barmen, 8.17.

Sunday’s sermon: Begin at the Beginning

christian unity

Texts used – Isaiah 43:5-13; Romans 10:8-15

  • Once again, we find ourselves in the season of Lent.
    • Very often a season in which people give up something
      • Food items: chocolate, meat, soda, daily fancy coffee, etc.
      • Bad habits: complaining, negative self-talk, etc.
      • Popular one among younger generations: social media
      • Giving things up = form of fasting → purpose:
        • Symbolically mirror the fasting that Christ did as he wandered in the wilderness for 40 days/nights being tempted by Satan[1]
        • Demonstration of penance → way to turn away from distractions and turn our hearts and minds back toward God
    • But there are other ways to return to God as well. And this is what we’ll be doing with our Lenten sermon series this year. We’ll be turning back to God by taking a closer look at some of the confessional documents of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
      • Installing elders and deacon during annual mtg. last Sun. – constitutional question: Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?[2]  → Here’s the thing: I know not all of us grew up Presbyterian. In fact, more people have come to this congregation by way of at least one other denomination or tradition if not more than that. And yet here we are in the Presbyterian Church of Oronoco. There are confessional documents that are an important part of the way we understand and interpret our faith – so important that we ask everyone serving in a leadership position to affirm those confessions. So throughout Lent, we’re going to explore some of them – what they are, where they came from, and how they continue to turn our hearts and our minds back to God.
  • Necessary place to start: why the confessions are important
    • Presbyterianism = part of what’s called the “Reformed tradition”
      • Grew out of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century when Martin Luther broke from the Catholic Church
      • Reformed tradition started in Switzerland roughly a generation after Luther with a number of reformers who “desired to reform all of life, in the church and in the world, and were willing to retain only those elements of doctrine, worship, and life-style for which they believed there was a positive basis in the Scriptures.”[3]
      • Reformers’ motto: “The church reformed, always reforming.” → This means that there are always new possibilities for our faith –new things to learn, new ways to interpret – because we believe that our God is a living God who continues to work in the world and do new things. But it’s a motto that also ties us back to our history because that history shows us how we have reformed in the past.
        • Book of Heb. (NT): So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.[4]
          • “cloud of witnesses” = all those brothers and sisters of the faith, past and present and even future, who speak to our faith
          • Reformed tradition: confessions provide a voice for that “cloud of witnesses”
    • Late Jack Rogers, prominent Presbyterian scholar and theologian: If we are to be one church, we must learn to discuss theology, to say clearly what we believe. To do that, we must know where we have come from, who we are today, and where we mean to go in the future. … The Book of Order declares that the creeds and confessions of the church identify us as a community, guide us in studying Scripture, and summarize the essence of the Christian tradition. Thus, the confessions equip us for the task of proclaiming the good news.[5]
  • So that’s why Presbyterians put so much stock in the confessions. → basics:
    • 10 confessions affirmed and upheld by the PC(USA) → But fear not! We’re not going to tackle all 10 during Lent. Today, we’re going to start at the beginning with the oldest confession – the Nicene Creed. Then, starting next week, we’ll jump ahead to the confessions that were written in the 20th
      • Curious about the other confessions that we won’t be tackling? I’d be happy to loan you my Book of Confessions so you can read the rest of them.
      • Part of this series = the text of each confession will be included in your bulletin along with a space for taking notes and some questions that you can wrestle with at home  The church reformed, always reforming. 
  • Today’s confession: the Nicene Creed
    • Historical context:
      • 1st creed/confessional document ever written
      • Comes out of the work of 2 councils in the Early Church – the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE  councils = attempt by Emperor Constantine to bring unity to all parts of the Roman Empire, including the church which was incredibly divided at the time
        • Think about it. Christianity was a brand new thing at the time. There were still all sorts of people both coming up with their own theologies and perpetuating other’s theologies of who Jesus was, how he was or wasn’t the Son of God, what that meant, how the Holy Spirit factored into the equation, and so on. All of these different ideas and doctrines were making things in the Early Church pretty conflicted and divisive which, in turn, was making things pretty difficult for Emperor Constantine. So he called the councils together to sort things out – to separate the accepted doctrine from the heresies.
      • Purposes of the Nicene Creed:
        • Help the Early Church define what they believed about the Trinity – God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit  who the individual persons were, their origins, and how they were divine and worthy of worship
        • Stake their claim on the importance of the Hebrew Scripture (today: OT) and their authority in interpreting it differently than that Jews did  a way to differentiate themselves as Christians instead of just another Jewish sect, even though they were using the same Scripture
    • Today = remains the most universally accepted creed by Christians
      • Only creed affirmed by the 3 major branches of the Christian church: Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox Church
        • Affirmed by a wide number of Protestant traditions: Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Church of Christ, Methodists, Episcopalians, some Baptists, etc.
        • Not affirmed by most Pentecostal and non-denom churches
  • So how does the Nicene Creed – these words written more than 1600 years ago! – speak to our faith today?  a couple of key elements
    • Speaks to many of the key tenets of our faith
      • Declares belief in God, in Jesus as the Son of God, and in the Holy Spirit
      • Names God as creator “of all that is, seen and unseen”
      • Speaks to the death and resurrection of Christ “for us and for our salvation”
      • I think we can agree that these are all pretty important things for Christians to believe.
    • Another crucial element of the Nicene Creed = speaks to the unity of Christianity  the Church (universal) as one body, one voice, one confession
      • “We believe in the holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”  That phrase “holy catholic and apostolic Church” can be confusing. The Nicene Creed isn’t holding up the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today above any other branch of Christianity. In this context, “catholic” simply means “universal.” That’s why, if you look at that sentence, the “c” in “catholic” is lower case while the “C” in “Church” is capitalized. This creed is declaring the importance of the unity of the body.
        • Notice that everything in the Nicene Creed is “We believe …”: “We believe in one God … We believe in Jesus Christ … We believe in the Holy Spirit … We believe in the holy catholic and apostolic church …”  differs from the Apostle’s Creed in that way (Apostle’s Creed = all “I”)
  • Scripture readings this morning also speak to the crucial nature of that unity when it comes to faith
    • OT passage = all about reunification  comes out of that time of Babylonian exile when the best and brightest Israelites were captured by the Babylonians and taken from Jerusalem to live in Babylon for generations
      • Isaiah’s word from God to God’s scattered people: Don’t fear, I am with you. From the east I’ll bring your children; from the west I’ll gather you. I’ll say to the north, “Give them back!” and to the south, “Don’t detain them.” … All the nations are gathered together; the peoples are assembled.[6]   speaks reassurance of God bringing the people back together after their long and devastating separation
      • Also speaks to God’s unequivocal power and authority – reassures that God is the one who can do this incredible thing: I, I am the Lord, and there is no savior beside me. I announced, I saved, I proclaimed, not some stranger among you. You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and I am God. From the dawn of time, I am the one. No one can escape my power. I act, and who can undo it?[7]   combats those hopeless, helpless feelings that can come when we feel like things are out of our control
        • Israelites had been conquered by invading Babylonian army and were forced away from their beloved Jerusalem
          • Families were separated
          • Priests and scholars were torn from the Temple, their holiest place of worship and learning
          • Entire culture was thrown into chaos
          • And yet through the prophet Isaiah, God is reassuring the people that nothing is stronger, more powerful, more influential than God. And God will reunite the people once again.
    • NT passage
      • Speaks to the importance of one body in Christ: The scripture says, All who have faith in [Christ Jesus] won’t be put to shame. There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord is Lord of all, who gives richly to all who call on him. All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.[8]   All who have faith … all who call on the Lord’s name. There is no distinction … no matter how many barriers and dividers and qualifiers we may try to set down as broken human beings, God is the Lord of all.
        • One body, one voice, one confession
      • Also speaks to the importance of confession: The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart … Because if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation. … All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved. So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the good news.[9]   This is probably my favorite series of questions in the Bible because it just makes so much sense. “How can people call on someone if they don’t have faith? How can they have faith if they haven’t heard? How can they hear if there is no preacher? And how can there be a preacher if no one is sent?” So often, we have a tendency to complicate everything – complicate the message, how we word it, how it’s delivered, and on and on and on. But this makes things so thoroughly uncomplicated. All they need to do is hear. All we need to do is announce the good news and let God do the rest.
        • This is what the confessions do for us – announce the good news of the grace of God and the salvation we find in Christ
          • Do so from a variety of times and places and contexts throughout history
          • Do so so we can hear and have faith and return to and call on our God once again  Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13.

[2] Book of Occasional Services: A Liturgical Resource Supplementing the Book of Common Worship, 1993. (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 1999), 24 (emphasis added).

[3] Jack Rogers. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 20.

[4] Heb 12:1-2a.

[5] Rogers, 19, 23.

[6] Is 43:5-6a, 9a.

[7] Is 43:11-13.

[8] Rom 10:11-13.

[9] Rom 10:8b, 9-10, 13-15.

Sunday’s sermon: Exposed and Changed


Texts used – 2 Kings 2:1-14; Mark 9:2-9

This past Sunday was our congregational annual meeting. We incorporate the elements of the meeting in with our worship to remind us that even the technical (and sometimes tedious-feeling) work that we do as the church is all for the glory of God. Yesterday was especially special because, in addition to electing and installing a new deacon and 2 new ruling elders, we also welcomed 4 new members into our congregation! 

  • Over the last six weeks, we’ve been talking about the mystery of Jesus’ identity as he began his ministry.
    • May remember: began with a revelation at Jesus’ baptism
      • Holy Spirit coming down in the form of a dove
      • God’s words: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”[1]
      • But this revelation, at least according to Mark’s gospel as we read it, was private. It was a revelation for Jesus’ eyes and ears alone. So despite this incredible revelation that we as readers of Scripture are privy to, Jesus’ secret was still safe.
    • Today’s Scripture reading brings it all full circle → another, very similar revelation … but this one’s not-so-private
      • Text: Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them, and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!”[2]  → If you’re Peter, James, or John, this is not the kind of interaction you’re going to forget! Your teacher’s face and clothes are glowing a brilliant white. A couple of dead Fathers of the Faith suddenly appear with you. And you hear the voice of God emanating from the clouds, declaring your teacher as God’s Son and directing you to listen to him. Yeah … this revelation brings things around full circle and fully exposing Jesus’ secret at the same time.
        • Have to wonder what Jesus thought when he heard God speak those words – words that were almost exactly the same as the words he heard at his baptism
          • Nostalgic and heartwarming?
          • Reassuring and bolstering – sort of a boost in the midst of his ministry?
          • Frustrating because they unequivocally revealed the identity he had worked so hard to keep under wraps?
        • Whatever Jesus’ response may have been, we know how Peter, James, and John were feeling – text: Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified. → And can we blame them?! Whatever Peter, James, and John expected when they followed Jesus up that mountain, this encounter with Moses and Elijah and God almost certainly wasn’t it! And yet they found themselves there in that moment of powerful transformation.
  • Transfiguration Sunday = all about transformation
    • NT reading
      • Physical transformation of Jesus – glowing face and robes
      • Transformation in their own understanding – unmitigated confirmation of Jesus’ identity as God’s Son → not the first time they’d heard such a pronouncement, but definitely the most authoritative and unambiguous (literally straight from God’s mouth to their ears!)
    • OT reading – one of the most sensational stories in the Bible (and frankly, that’s saying something)
      • Dramatic transformation of Elijah → taken up into heaven in a whirlwind by a chariot and horses of fire! – text: They were walking along, talking, when suddenly a fiery chariot and fiery horses appeared and separated the two of them. Then Elijah went to heaven in a windstorm. Elisha was watching, and he cried out, “Oh, my father, my father! Israel’s chariots and its riders!”[3]
        • Reminders about Elijah
          • Elijah = powerful prophet in southern kingdom of Judea, one of the real heavy-hitters in the OT → brought God’s word time and time again to evil King Ahaz and his wife, Jezebel (did horrible things, worshipped other gods, ignored God) → time and time again had to run from them for fear of his life after delivering that word
      • Powerful transformation of Elisha, Elijah’s chosen successor – text: When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “What do you want me to do for you before I’m taken away from you?” Elisha said, “Let me have twice your spirit.” Elijah said, “You’ve made a difficult request. If you can see me when I’m taken from you, then it will be yours. If you don’t see me, it won’t happen.” … When he could no longer see him, Elisha took hold of his clothes and ripped them in two. Then Elisha picked up the coat that had fallen from Elijah. He went back and stood beside the banks of the Jordan River. He took the coat that had fallen from Elijah and hit the water. He said, “Where is the LORD, Elijah’s God?” And when he hit the water, it divided in two! Then Elisha crossed over.[4]  → transformation of Elisha from watcher to doer, from follower to leader, from disciple to prophet
    • And that’s why it’s so fitting that our annual meeting this year falls on Transfiguration Sunday. Friends, we have had an incredibly transformative year as a congregation. We took a leap of faith in deciding to dissolve our 50-yr. yoke relationship and try this “life in ministry” thing on our own. Despite the added expenses and worries that came with that decision, we remained committed to doing what God calls us to do and being what God calls us to be in this community, in the surrounding area, and in the world. We continue to give to missions. We continue to welcome people into our midst. We continue to gather on Sunday mornings for worship. And this year, we have seen ourselves transformed: in spirit and attitude, in engagement and idea-sharing, in dedication to who we are as the Presbyterian Church of Oronoco, and even in numbers (both attendance and financially).
      • Celebrating and welcoming new members today
      • Installing new deacon and elders
      • Discussing budget that, while not perfect, has been in the black more often than not in the last 6 mos. → more than any other time in my entire 5 yrs. here so far!
    • Like Peter, James, and John and like Elisha, we don’t know what lies around the corner following this transformation, and frankly, I don’t think our transformation is even complete yet! But we cannot deny that God is doing great things in us and through us because we were willing to take that leap of faith – to follow God into the unknown, to expose and submit ourselves fully and tenaciously to the call of God, and to not only expect but desire to be changed. And we do this, not alone, but together.
      • Scholar: At Jesus’ transfiguration, he is surrounded by those past and present: Peter, James, John, as well as Moses and Elijah. We too are surrounded and do not journey alone. We carry with us the cloud of witnesses who have lived before us. We carry with us our friends, family, colleagues, and strangers in our midst. Together we are transformed. Together we are a beacon of light to others, inviting them to join on the walk as we circle back to the One who created us, loves us, and calls us to follow him.[5]  → And so, friends, as we continue to review the year we’ve had as a congregation, let us also continue to move forward in hope and joy and faith. Because God is not done with us yet. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Mk 1:11.

[2] Mk 9:2-7.

[3] 2 Kgs 2:11-12a.

[4] 2 Kgs 2:9-10, 12b-14.

[5] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Transfiguration Sunday: Exposed” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 100.

Sunday’s sermon: Secrets, Secrets, Secrets


Texts used – Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39

  • Everyone has secrets – secret stories, secret passions, secret fears, secret wishes, secret struggles. And secrets are a funny thing because when we have a secret, we are both driven to keep it to ourselves (for this is, indeed, the nature of a secret – “something not known or not meant to be known by others”) … we are both driven to keep that secret to ourselves and to share the burden of that secret with someone else – to lighten our own load, even if just by the smallest margin – by sharing our secret with another.
    • Quote from Italian poet and essayist Fausto Cercignani: “A secret remains a secret until you make someone promise never to reveal it.”
    • PostSecret Project[1]
      • Started as a community art project by Frank Warren in 2005 à handed out 300 blank, self-addressed postcards to people on the streets of Washington, D.C. and invited people to anonymously send him a secret
        • Also invited them to decorate the front of the postcards
      • Featured on CBS Sunday Morning a number of years ago
      • Has received over a MILLION postcards from people all around the world
      • Created PostSecret Community
        • Blog – new mailed-in secrets shared every Sunday
        • 6 PostSecret books, all of which have hit the NY Times Best Seller list
        • Traveling interactive theater production – “PostSecret: The Show”
        • Raised over $1,000,000 for suicide prevention
      • The beauty and the intrigue of the PostSecret project is the wide variety of secrets that people send in.
        • Some are raw: “I’m jealous that my sister got to donate her kidney to our Dad!!”
        • Some are sweet: “I have been sending uplifting anonymous cards to random people in the phonebook. I hope they have helped in some small way.”
        • Some are painful: “I can’t pay my bills anymore. My credit card made a nice postcard. I wish I wasn’t in debt.”
        • Some are ordinary: “It’s cold outside. And I wonder what I’m doing in a place like this.”
        • Some are humorous – most common (according to Frank): “I pee in the shower.”
      • All of these postcards are ways for people to anonymously relieve the burden of their secrets … because even though we all have them, that’s what secrets often become: a burden.
        • Created to be a relational people – to build and strengthen our bonds with others and to grow and thrive off those bonds → part of building and strengthening those bonds is sharing with one another … but the nature of secrets hinders that sharing, that bonding. Secrets can often isolate us and even imprison us in our own thoughts and struggles.
    • Over the last few weeks – talking about Jesus, Man of Mystery: how Jesus continues to insist on maintaining secrecy about his identity (mostly in Gospel of Mark) and yet continues to reveal who he is through his actions → Today’s passage is about Jesus and his secret, but it’s also ultimately about the secrets of those whom Jesus heals and how he sets them free of the prisons that their secrets have created.
  • [READ GOSPEL PASSAGE] → Once again throughout this text, Jesus is both trying to maintain the secrecy of his identity and at the same time, revealing his true nature through his actions – healing, casting out demons, teaching in synagogues. And people are obviously starting to take notice.
    • Dichotomy illustrated pretty succinctly in our text: That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed. The whole town gathered near the door. He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him.[2]  → This is exactly it. In his actions, Jesus is revealing more and more about his nature as the Son of God, about the goodness of the Kingdom of God, and about his mission and purpose among the people. And yet, he continues to refuse to let anyone spread the word.
      • Spent quite a bit of time throughout this sermon series talking about Jesus and his secrecy as well as that sense of urgency/immediacy that is so prominent in Mk’s Gospel → today’s passage is no different
        • Scholar: We feel that urgency in the swift healing of Simon’s mother-in-law and in the pressing of the crowds. Jesus’ time is limited, and yet the Gospel repeatedly tells us that not even the people closest to Jesus really know who Jesus is.[3]
  • So today, instead of focusing on Jesus, we’re going to take a closer look at those whom he has healed – those whom he has set free – and how that interaction with Mark’s Jesus – a Secretly Urgent Man, as it were – changes their lives.
    • Something incredibly important and incredibly telling about the first person that Jesus chooses to heal in today’s passage: Simon Peter’s mother-in-law
      • Woman without a name
      • Woman without another mention anywhere in Scripture
      • Most pointedly: a woman → We have to remember that in Jesus’ time, women were regarded as property. First, as the property of their fathers or, if their fathers died before they came of marrying age, the property of an older male relative – a brother, an uncle, etc. Once they had reached marrying age and indeed were bartered into marriage (always arranged and little more than sold for some cattle or a parcel of land), they were the property of their husbands. And if their husband should pass away before them, they either became the responsibility of another male relative (again, a brother or perhaps, if they were lucky, a son) or they were forced to live lives of destitution on the street, begging for whatever they could get to help them survive and harvesting the leftover grain from the fields once the fieldworkers had completed their task.
        • All to say that women held no status whatsoever – no importance, no significance, no power → And yet we see Jesus choose to heal this woman. Again and again, we see Jesus choose the women – for healing, for teaching, for disciplining. Women play a more prominent role in Jesus’ ministry than they ever have before, and in Mark’s Gospel, that role starts with Jesus healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law.
      • Her response to that significant encounter = service
        • Scholar: Now that her healing is complete, she arises and begins serving. She demonstrates for those disciples present and for millennia of future disciples the proper response to an encounter with Jesus’ gospel. We respond to the gospel by sharing it. We respond through ministry. The woman’s ailment robbed her of an important ministry role – that of showing hospitality to friends and strangers.[4]  → Through his healing, Jesus allows Simon Peter’s mother-in-law to once again live freely – free from burdens, free from illness, free from whatever limitations her mysterious ailment imposed.
    • But Jesus doesn’t stop there – text: That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed. The whole town gathered near the door. He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him.[5]  → Again and again and again, people brought their friends and loved ones literally to Jesus’ doorstep for healing. And while we aren’t told much about the diseases that were presented to him, we know that according to Jewish custom, most if not all of those brought before Jesus would have been considered unclean … untouchable … unwelcome in “normal society.” And that is to say nothing of those who were presented as demon-possessed – those who were most likely suffering from a wide variety of both physical and mental illnesses that we have names for today: epilepsy, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and so on.
      • People who had to live their lives and struggle with their illnesses in secret – forced to the fringes of society, to live on the margins → secrets of their darkest days caused them to be incredibly isolated and trapped
        • Isolated from all who knew and loved them for fear of making others unclean
        • Trapped in a cycle of unhealthiness – in mind or in body – that they were powerless to escape on their own
      • But then came Jesus’ healing.
        • Freed their afflicted bodies
        • Freed their troubled minds
        • Freed their broken spirits
        • Instead of condemning and shunning them because of their infirmities, their imperfections, their inabilities, Jesus acknowledges them … touches them (possibly the first touch many of them had felt in a long, long time) … and sets them free.
  • Friends, we know well that there are all sorts of things in our lives that hold us captive: illnesses, injuries, prejudices, fears, compulsions, addictions, obsessions, relationships, grief, pain, brokenness, distrust, contempt, apathy. We all have something that holds us back from living our lives to the fullest – something that makes us hesitate, something that pulls us away, that makes us want to hide ourselves away, that tries to convince us that even the love and grace of God are not powerful enough to heal our brokenness and set us free.
    • OT Scripture this morning reminds us just how all-encompassing and all-reaching the love and grace of God can be – text: Why do you say, Jacob, and declare, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, my God ignores my predicament?” Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary. His understanding is beyond human reach, giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted.[6]  → Even in the face of the deepest, darkest struggle … the most painful grief … the most appalling secret … the most isolating inner dialogue, God is greater. God is stronger. God is understanding. God is loving.
      • Scholar: What secrets are keeping you from living fully? Is shame keeping you in the shadows? Jesus understands and can bring healing. Freed from all that holds us back, we can connect to one another and live fully in community and openness.[7]  → This is why, in a few moments, we’ll come together at Christ’s table – a table that offers wholeness in the face of whatever brokenness you bring to it, not because we have earned that wholeness by coming but simply because we come seeking it.
        • Table that reminds us that Jesus died to set us free – free to live in loving relationship with our God
        • Table of healing
        • Table of abundance
        • Table of grace
        • And so we come to the table, bringing our whole selves – all that we are, all that we’ve been, all that we’ve done, all that we hide – into the Light of Christ. Alleluia. Amen.


[2] Mk 1:32-34.

[3] Marianne Blickenstaff. “Mark 1:29-34 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 40.

[4] David Michael Bender. “Mark 1:29-34 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospel: Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 40.

[5] Mk 1:32-34.

[6] Is 40:27-29.

[7] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Fifth Sunday after Epiphany: Secrets, Secrets, Secrets” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 99.