Sunday’s sermon: Wishes and Visions and Dreams … Oh, My!

dreams

Texts used – Joel 2:18-28; 1 Corinthians 2:6-16

 

AUDIO VERSION

 

 

  • We don’t talk about dreams much in church, do we? I mean, dreams are a funny and fickle thing, aren’t they? Many people report not remembering any of their dreams. Ever. Scientists believe that as much as 95% of our dreams are forgotten almost immediately after waking up, and while our dreams are all nuanced from one person to the next, we all share certain universal dream themes – falling, flying, showing up late, and so on.[1] And thanks to Freud and those who came after him, dream interpretation is a multi-million dollar industry from books to websites to YouTube channels to webinars. But like I said, we don’t talk about dreams in church. We don’t often or easily link our dreams to our faith … which is funny because throughout Scripture, dreams actually play a pretty big role.
    • God speaking to people through dreams/visions
      • OT dreams
        • Abraham
        • Jacob
        • Joseph, the great dream interpreter
        • King Solomon
        • Elijah the prophet
      • NT dreams
        • Joseph
        • Mary
        • Paul
        • John (writer of the book of Revelation which is itself a dream)
    • Visions (non-sleeping dreams)
      • Ezekiel’s dry bones (which we’ll read next week for Pentecost)[2]
      • Isaiah’s vision of the Seraphim with the 6 wings (“two covering their feed, two covering their faces, and two to fly”)[3]
      • Peter’s vision of the traditionally-unclean animals lowered down in the sheet[4]
    • The point is that God is actually far from being removed from dreams. That doesn’t mean that God is trying to say something to us in every dream that we have. But overwhelmingly throughout Scripture, God uses the medium of dreams to convey messages to God’s people. → just as the particular details of our dreams differ from person to person but the overarching themes are the same, the particular details of God’s message differ from person to person, but the overarching theme is the same: God speaks of dreams through dreams – God uses dreams to convey God’s plans and desires for the Kingdom of God
      • Last week: talked about how we desire for God and God’s Kingdom to be our “greatest show” – magnificent, awe-inspiring, riveting, an eye-opening, life-altering, mind-blowing experience
        • Words of the song that we used last week – “The Greatest Show”[5] – were sort of like words from the mouth of a prophet: not spoken by God, not necessarily spoken by us, but a hope and a prayer voiced by a third party → “It’s everything you ever want / It’s everything you ever need / And it’s here right in front of you / This is where you wanna be”
      • This week: talk some more about that Kingdom → not our idea of it, but God’s idea
        • Doing it using the next song from The Greatest Showman[6] soundtrack, “A Million Dreams” → not a prophet’s voice that I hear this time, but God’s voice
        • So let’s listen to it! [PLAY “A Million Dreams”[7]]

  • This was one of the first songs that, when I heard it, I thought, “Yeah, this could definitely be a sermon” because there are so many similar stories throughout Scriptures.
    • Song context = young P.T. Barnum telling the girl he loves about the dream world that he wants to create for them → through the course of the song, Barnum grows up, marries the girl, and still clings to the dream of “the world we’re gonna make”
      • Fanciful world
      • Spectacular world
      • World of abundance (in contrast to the poverty and longing that Barnum experiences in his own life)
      • World of comfort and familiarity – lyrics: “But it feels like home”
    • How I hear God speaking to us through this song = not so different
      • Words spoken with passion and enthusiasm and love
      • Speaks of creating a beautiful world, a spectacular world, a world full of blessing and promise and joy
      • Hear a burning desire to share that dream with others → God’s desire has always been to share that dream of and work for the Kingdom of God with the world
      • Reality/creation of this world requires faith in the face of doubt – lyrics: They can say, they can say it all sounds crazy / They can say, they can say we’ve lost our minds / I don’t care, I don’t care if they call us crazy / Runaway to a world that we design[8] → It’s this faith in the face of doubt that ties most strongly back to Scripture. Let’s look at our passage for this morning.
  • OT – Joel passage
    • Context
      • One of what we call “the minor prophets” (12 skinny little books toward the back of the OT that are hard to find)
      • Scholars are in a disagreement about the specific date when Joel was written → clues within the Scripture itself make it clear that it was written[9]
        • After the Babylonian exile (so later than Isaiah)
        • After the Jews had all been returned to Jerusalem
        • After the rebuilding of the 2nd Temple
        • After the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem
        • Time of relative peace and calm when “no external unrest threatens the community”
      • As a prophet, Joel borrows heavily from other, previous prophets
        • Wording
        • Images
        • Overarching themes (e.g. – today’s passage: “the day of the Lord”)
      • Elizabeth Achtemeier: Joel draws on centuries of Israelite tradition in the framing of his message. … But Joel’s prophecy is not a stereotyped word from the past. Rather, it is a forceful, something eloquent testimony to the continued working of the prophetic word in history.[10]
    • Much of today’s text = speaks of the blessing and promise and abundance of that “day of the Lord”
      • “Day of the Lord” = sort of the OT equivalent of the “Kingdom of God” from the NT
      • Speaks of abundant harvest
      • Speaks of peace
      • Repeats 3 key phrases again and again → ideas that are key in the creation of the Kingdom of God
        • “Don’t be afraid”
        • “Rejoice and be glad”
        • “The Lord is doing great things”
      • Beautiful illustration of this – God’s Dream[11] by Archbishop Desmond Tutu – [READ God’s Dream]
    • Promise that we hear at the end of the text speaks to more wonderful dreams and visions to come – text: After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions.[12]
  • So that’s the faith part of it … but what about the doubt? Especially in this post-Enlightenment, post-modernist world in which we live – a world in which we are taught to question everything and to investigate everything and to prove everything … a world in which it can increasingly feel like the majority of people no longer find religion to be “relevant” (that’s the buzz word, anyway).
    • Can be challenging to cling to faith
    • Can be frustrating in the face of so many naysayers
    • Can be daunting to cling to faith when indeed we cannot “prove it”
    • This is where our NT text comes in → God knew that there would always be those who didn’t believe – those who tried to negate the word and dreams that God was trying to give to the people, those who would mock and ridicule and even try to hinder the working of God in the world.
      • E.g. – those who laughed at Noah for building the ark
      • E.g. – evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel who sparred with prophet Elijah time and time again
      • E.g. – Pharisees that attempted to uphold and entrap Jesus with the strictest, most legalistic interpretation of the law
    • NT passage today speaks words of encouragement in those times
      • Paul speaking to the church in Corinth[13]
        • Church full of people who had been gentiles – not only new to the idea of Jesus (who he was, what he did, what he meant) but also to this God and even the idea of just one God instead of a full pantheon → church full of people who probably felt like they had more questions than answers
        • Church in a city that was steeply divided across socioeconomic lines: small class of wealthy, ruling elite and a large amount of much, much poorer people → church full of people who felt disempowered, unimportant, and underprivileged
      • And to this church full of people who must have been filled with trepidation and doubt and uncertainty, Paul spoke today’s words. – text: What we say is wisdom to people who are mature. It isn’t a wisdom that comes from the present day or from today’s leaders who are being reduced to nothing. … We haven’t received the world’s spirit but God’s Spirit so that we can know the things given to us by God. … Spiritual people comprehend everything, but they themselves aren’t understood by anyone.[14] → (lyrics): They can say, they can say it all sounds crazy / They can say, they can say we’ve lost our minds / I don’t care, I don’t care if they call us crazy / Runaway to a world that we design[15]
        • Words of reassurance and encouragement
        • Words of clinging to those promises and that dream of God’s Kingdom
        • Words that reaffirm the importance of being a part of the work that God is doing → God wants us to be a part of it. We have only to say yes.
          • (lyrics – Barnum’s wife: However big, however small / Let me be part of it all / Share your dreams with me / You may be right, you may be wrong / But say that you’ll bring me along / To the world you see / To the world I close my eyes to see / I close my eyes to see)[16]
    • God’s Dream: Will you help God’s dream come true? Let me tell you a secret … God smiles like a rainbow when you do.[17] Amen.

[1] Kendra Cherry. “10 Interesting Facts about Dreams” from Very Well Mind, https://www.verywellmind.com/facts-about-dreams-2795938. Updated May 15, 2019, accessed May 30, 2019.

[2] Ezek 37:1-14.

[3] Is 6:1-8.

[4] Acts 10:9-22.

[5] “The Greatest Show” written by Ryan Lewis, Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, © 2017 Warner/Chappell Music.

[6] The Greatest Showman, released by Twentieth Century Fox, Dec. 2017.

[7] “A Million Dreams” written by Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, © 2017 Warner/Chappell Music.

[8] “A Million Dreams” written by Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, © 2017 Warner/Chappell Music.

[9] Elizabeth Achtemeier. “The Book of Joel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 7. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 301-302.

[10] Achtemeier, 302.

[11] Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams. God’s Dream. (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press), 2008.

[12] Joel 2:28.

[13] 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), 777-778.

[14] 1 Cor 2:6, 12, 15.

[15] “A Million Dreams” written by Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, © 2017 Warner/Chappell Music.

[16] “A Million Dreams” written by Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, © 2017 Warner/Chappell Music.

[17] Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams. God’s Dream. (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press), 2008.

Sunday’s sermon: This is the Greatest Show

The Kingdom of God

Texts used – Isaiah 41:8-13; Philippians 4:4-9

AUDIO VERSION

 

 

  • I want to invite you all into my brain for a moment this morning. (Buckle your seatbelts!) As I go through my days, I am always on the lookout for sermon illustrations or inspiration.
    • Video or picture posted on Facebook
    • News snippet (print, digital, television … whatever)
    • Interaction with someone (don’t worry … if it’s you, I’ll ask your permission before using your life in public like that!)
    • Song
    • Movie
    • Children’s book (one of my favorites, as you know)
    • I keep a digital file in my Evernote account of all the different illustrations, sermon ideas, or other worship ideas that spring up from day to day, and when I need something, I’ll frequently comb through what I’ve compiled to see if anything fits.
    • Enter “The Greatest Showman[1]
      • Loosely (very loosely) based on the life of circus innovator and pioneer P.T. Barnum
      • Hit theaters Dec. 20, 2017
      • About a year ago, my mom brought both the DVD and the disc for the soundtrack to our house and said, “You’ve gotta watch this movie, and the boys are gonna love this music!” And she was right. On both counts.
        • Watched the movie → LOVED it!!
        • Boys fell in love with all the songs on the soundtrack
      • And as I was listening to that soundtrack over and over and over (and over and over and over!!) again in the car, I was on that same sermon-material-alert that I always am. And one song would come on, and I’d think, “Well, that’d preach. I could pair it with this text.” Then the next song would come on, and I’d think, “Well, that’d preach. It goes along really well with this story or that psalm.” Then the next song would come on … and you get the picture. It didn’t take me long to decide that the whole soundtrack needed to be a sermon series … so here we are.
        • Going to spend the summer with some great music
          • Sometimes talking about the storyline of the movie
          • Talking more about the lyrics themselves than about exactly where and how they fit into “The Greatest Showman” plot per say
          • Not necessary to have seen the movie because we’re going to be talking more about the songs than anything à we’ll listen to the song + you’ll have the lyrics so you can follow along
        • So let’s get started! “This is the greatest show!”
  • [PLAY “The Greatest Show”[2]]

  • They say the opening song for a movie sets the tone, and this one does exactly that: it sets a tone of excitement, a tone of wonder and grandeur, a tone of incredible feats and transcendent promises.
    • Strong music
      • Driving beat
      • Intense, boisterous chords sung by powerful, projecting voices
    • Music to get your blood pumping and your imagination running wild
      • Strong theme in the movie → imagination running wild … and where that running might take you (for good or for ill)
    • Music to stir and inspire
    • Music which leaves no doubt that what you are watching is, indeed, “The Greatest Show”
  • And that excitement, that exhilaration, that passion and purpose are how we should feel about our faith, too.
    • How we should feel about participating in and sharing our faith
    • How we should feel about God
    • God and the Kingdom of God should truly be our “Greatest Show”
      • Not a hard concept to grasp in the midst of those awe-inspiring moments of life, right?
        • Breathtaking sunsets
        • A cool, quiet morning on an impossibly-still, calm lake
        • Serene moment out on the green
        • One of my favorites: the riotous explosion of color when the wild phlox start blooming in a week or so
        • Achingly beautiful strain of music
        • Utter joy and delighted abandon in a baby’s giggle
        • Quintessential twist and tangle, push and play of words in your favorite song or poem – the way those words fit together **just right**
        • In this incredible world, we are surrounded by reminders of how truly amazing and bless-full and mind-blowing this world is, and as people of faith, we see God and hear God and thank God in the humbling and heart-rending face of that beauty. In those moments that steal our breath away, it’s easy for us to lift up our hands and our voices and praise God as “the greatest show,” right?
      • But what about the dark moments? What about the ugly moments? What about the mind-numbingly mundane moments?
        • See the majesty of God … in the minutia and frustration of filing taxes?
        • See the beauty of God … in the infuriatingly endless column of red tail lights as you sit in traffic?
        • Hear the splendor of God … in your last argument with your co-workers, friends, spouse, parents, children … or whoever it was you last fought with?
        • It is in these basic and banal moments of life that we need to cling to our conviction that God is indeed our greatest show, even when we can’t see it … hear it … recognize it.
    • Purpose of our OT reading this morning → reminder of how truly great God and God’s Kingdom are
      • Speaks of God’s protection and shelter and strength
      • Speaks of how humbling and honoring it is to be one of God’s people
      • Speaks of ultimate reassurance and courageousness that we find in God – text: “Don’t fear … don’t be afraid … don’t fear”[3]
      • Makes it clear that this is God’s doing and God’s doing alone – text (God speaking to people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah): You whom I took from the ends of the earth and called form it farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant; I chose you and didn’t reject you: Don’t fear, because I am with you; don’t be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will surely help you; I will hold you with my righteous strong hand. … I am the Lord your God, who grasps your strong hand, who says to you, Don’t fear; I will help you.”[4] → In this, there is no mistaking human action and capacity with God’s unfathomable nature. God is the one who did the choosing. God is the one who did the calling. God is the one who did the strengthening. God is the one. God is the one. God is the one. Not us. Humans are secondary actors in this text because ultimately it is God’s show, not ours.
  • Song also speaks to the excitement and enthusiasm, the eagerness and the openness that we should have about the Kingdom of God
    • Excitement and enthusiasm – lyrics: Buried in your bones there’s an ache that you can’t ignore / Taking your breath, stealing your mind / And all that was real is left behind / … It’s fire, it’s freedom, it’s flooding open / It’s a preacher in the pulpit and you’ll find devotion / There’s something breaking at the brick of ever wall, it’s holding / All that you know / So tell me, do you wanna go?[5] → song speaks of a night at the circus as an eye-opening, life-altering, mind-blowing experience = our belief that the Kingdom of God is also eye-opening, life-altering, and mind-blowing
      • God’s wisdom and guidance = eye-opening
      • God’s grace and forgiveness = life-altering
      • God’s unconditional love and radical welcome = mind-blowing
    • Hear that life-changing goodness and radical welcome in our NT reading this morning, too
      • All about rejoicing in the goodness and mercy and peace and grace of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit – text: Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad![6]
      • All about rejoicing in the utter, mysterious, immeasurable nature of God as the source of all the blessings around us – text: From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.[7] → all of these blessed and beautiful things come from God
    • Hear that radical welcome in the lyrics, too
      • Line: Where the lost get found in the crown of the circus king
      • Repeated line from chorus: Where the runaways are running the night → “the runaways” = those who have been cast out, marginalized, told they’re “no good” … these are the ones running the night, making this show what would eventually be tagged “The Greatest Show on Earth”
      • Goes with theme of the movie → everyone is special and treasured and deserves to be celebrated, no one is “outside”
      • Goes with theme of Jesus ministry → ministry of a man who ate with sinners, lepers, outcasts, women, “the unclean” as well as legal experts, Temple leaders, and those in power
  • Finally, in terms of the Kingdom of God, we hear what scholars and seminary professors like to call the “already/not yet” of the Kingdom.
    • Concept that speaks to our belief that the Kingdom of God is both already here among us and is coming again whenever Christ returns
      • The “already” of the Kingdom of God → our mission: We believe that the work that we do, the love we give, the forgiveness we embody, the hope that we cling to, the light that we share … all of that is part of the Kingdom of God here on earth – that that Kingdom is already here. We are already a part of it, and we are already working to grow that Kingdom in beauty and grace and welcome.
      • The “not yet” of the Kingdom of God → speaks of our hope and belief that Christ will return one day to fully accomplish God’s purpose here on earth
    • Song: It’s everything you ever want / It’s everything you ever need / And it’s here right in front of you / This is where you wanna be[8]
    • It is a statement both of faith and of hope – faith in what God is already doing in the world today and hope in what is to come.
      • See this in our Scripture – Phil: Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.[9]
      • See this in the movie, too → Even if you haven’t seen it, this won’t spoil anything, I promise. As you can probably tell from the song, the movie begins with a scene from an incredible circus – elephants, performers, acrobats … the works. It’s big. It’s flashy. It’s elaborate. It’s dazzling. It is, undoubtedly, the Greatest Show! But soon, that scene fades to reveal that, at least at first, it’s nothing more than the highly extravagant daydreams of a young boy gazing in a shop window at a red suit coat with gold trim and long tails.
        • Can’t be seen (except in that little boy’s mind)
        • Can’t be touched
        • But the hope and the belief are there nonetheless. And even through the hardships of his young life, P.T. Barnum’s dream couldn’t be taken away from him. He had hope. He had vision. And he had tenacity. And with those, he became the Greatest Showman. So when it comes to our faith, do we have hope? Do we have vision? Do we have tenacity? Do we truly believe that this faith that we live, this God that we love and serve, is the Greatest Show? Amen.

[1] https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_greatest_showman_2017.

[2] “The Greatest Show” written by Ryan Lewis, Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, © 2017 Warner/Chappell Music.

[3] Is 41:10, 13

[4] Is 41:9-10, 13.

[5] “The Greatest Show” written by Ryan Lewis, Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, © 2017 Warner/Chappell Music.

[6] Phil 4:4.

[7] Phil 4:8-9.

[8] “The Greatest Show” written by Ryan Lewis, Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, © 2017 Warner/Chappell Music.

[9] Phil 4:6-7.

Sunday’s sermon: Jesus Had a Little Lamb

sheep

Texts used – John 10:22-30; Revelation 7:9-17 (embedded in sermon)

AUDIO VERSION

 

 

  • It’s a classic story of love, compassion, and devotion, isn’t it?
    • A little girl
    • A beloved companion
    • Separation
    • An epic journey
    • Rejection
    • And, in the end, a blessed, joy-filled reunion
    • Is it Disney? No. Tolkien? No. Harry Potter? Nope. Not that one either. It’s the story from a treasured, time-honored ballad. Sing it with me, friends: Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb. Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow. And everywhere that Mary went, Mary went, Mary went, everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.
      • Lamb = Mary’s beloved companion → follows her to school → entertains Mary and her friends but to the detriment of their learning → banished from school by the teacher → waits for Mary and reunites with beloved friend at the end of the school day
    • A beloved companion … separation … rejection … and in the end, a blessed, joy-filled reunion. Hmmm … sounds a little like the story of the gospel doesn’t it? “Jesus had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb …”
  • Before we dive into our Scripture readings this morning, let’s talk about sheep a little bit. I mean, throughout the gospels – and especially throughout the gospel of John – Jesus frequently likens his followers “sheep.”
    • Descriptions uttered in protectiveness and endearment → Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd[1], speaks of worrying about a bandit coming to steal the sheep away, charges Peter to “feed my sheep” during one of his post-resurrection appearances[2]
    • Also used in parables – Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Mt[3]
      • Parable in which we hear that well-known phrase “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”[4]
      • Parable begins with the Human One (Jesus) enthroned with all the angels around him and the nations gathered before him → separates the people of the nations: sheep to the right, goats to the left → sheep = those who did give food, water, welcome, etc.
      • So time and time again, Jesus compares those who love and follow him to sheep in a positive, endearing sort of way.
    • So let’s talk about sheep! Full disclosure: I was preparing to talk about how they’ve made their way into popular culture (especially baby décor) as soft, fuzzy, adorable things while in actuality, they’re pretty dumb and smelly animals, and I was trying to figure out how to spin that in a way that didn’t sound … well … dumb and smelly. But then I discovered an article posted online by the BBC[5] a couple of years ago that talks about how sheep are actually both intelligent and complexly social creatures.
      • Beginning of the article: “Reputation: Sheep are stupid, defenseless and harmless creatures that mope about on hillsides doing not very much. They are good for two things: being eaten and producing wool. Reality: Sheep are actually surprisingly intelligent, with impressive memory and recognition skills. They build friendships, stick up for one another in fights, and feel sad when their friends are sent to slaughter.”
      • Speaks of …
        • Sheep learning to recognize and remember 50 individual faces for more than 2 years
        • Sheep learning the way out of a complicated maze and being encouraged by the sight of fellow sheep at the end
        • Evidence in the way sheep’s brains are organized that indicates they may be able to differentiate different facial expressions in people and may respond to their own situations with some emotional activity
        • Sheep forming long-term emotional bonds – friendships! – and coming to the aid of their friends in times of need
      • And it cannot be denied that sheep are a staple of many cultures around the world. → used for wool (both within the culture and for sale or trade), for meat, for milk
      • So maybe it’s not so bad to be considered a sheep after all. “Jesus had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb …”
  • Back to our Scripture readings for today – Gospel passage first
    • Gospel context: passage directly following part of John in which Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd
    • Begins with quite the setting description: The time came for the Festival of Dedication in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple, walking in the covered porch named for Solomon.[6]
      • Festival of Dedication = still celebrated today, though we know it by a different name: Hanukkah
        • Origins
          • Syrians had conquered Jerusalem → forced people to sacrifice to Syrian gods while in control – burn those (blasphemous) offerings on the holy altar in the temple
          • Maccabean revolt defeated Syrian army and expelled them from the city → demolished the profaned altar brick by brick and replaced it with a new one which was then rededicated, hence “Festival of Dedication”
        • 8-night celebration
        • Explains why Jesus and the disciples were in Jerusalem
        • Explains why Jesus was in the temple
    • Text: The Jewish opposition circled around him and asked, “How long will you test our patience? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”[7]
      • Hear a bit of their desperation in this – Gr. “test our patience” = literally “keep our souls in suspense” → word for “keep in suspense” is kind of this odd word that means both taking up and removing, sort of an “in limbo” kind of word
      • Also hear some challenge in their words – Gr. “plainly” (“If you are the Christ, tell us plainly”) has all sorts of interesting connotations: speaking plainly and openly, yes, but also publicly, with boldness and confidence, with courage and fearlessness, and speaking joyously → So those who have surrounded Jesus to ask him this question – “Are you the Messiah?” – have done so both to get answers for themselves and to pressure Jesus into making some sort of public pronouncement … the kind of pronouncement that would surely get him arrested and convicted of blasphemy.
    • Jesus’ response = typically evasive → Throughout the most of the gospels, Jesus doesn’t really admit to being the Son of God or the Christ. He lets other people say it for him. He acknowledges it when it is proclaimed by disciples and banished demons alike.
      • John’s gospel = a little different → a little more forward and blatant in its theological proclamations
        • Written roughly 100 yrs. after Jesus’ death → plenty of time for that “Messiah/Son of God” theology to develop
      • Text: Jesus answered, “I have told you, but you don’t believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you don’t believe because you don’t belong to my sheep.”[8]
    • Meat of today’s gospel text = Jesus brief discourse on eternal life and protecting the sheep – text: My sheep listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life. They will never die, and no one will snatch them from my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them from my Father’s hand.[9] → This is the promise of the good news of the gospel, right? This is the good news that we cling to and proclaim even in the midst of the grief of funerals – that the Kingdom of God awaits us “on the other side,” an eternal life of protection and joy and unconditional love in the presence of God.
  • And this is where today’s New Testament text comes in. – [READ REV TEXT]
    • First, let’s talk about Revelation as a whole for a minute.
      • Lesson one: Revelation, not RevelationS (singular, not plural)
      • Historically one of the older books of the New Testament – written even before the gospel of John, probably closer to the time that both Matthew and Luke were writing their gospels from 60-70 C.E.
      • In terms of literary genre, Revelation is apocalyptic literature: a singular vision given to one of the disciples → Throughout his ministry, both before his crucifixion and resurrection and after, Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God coming. We have to understand that in the disciples’ minds, that meant coming imminently – like, within their lifetimes. They believed the end was near, and that was the message they passed on.
        • E.g.s
          • Jesus in Lk: “Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”[10]
          • Paul in 1 Thess: The Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet. First, those who are dead in Christ will rise. Then, we who are living and still around will be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air. That way we will always be with the Lord.[11]
        • Fairly popular literary genre at the time → many other “apocalypse”s written, both concerning Christian faith and concerning other faith traditions at the time as well
        • Genre full of veiled imagery, metaphor, and allegory → not meant to be read literally, historically, or as something to be decoded like a Biblical tarot card reading
          • Scholar: The role of revelation, akin to God’s answer in the final chapters of the book of Job, is to stress the puny nature of human understanding in the face of the transcendence of God, to stress the ultimate victory of God’s righteousness and to urge the need for those committed to the ways of God to continue in the narrow way that leads to salvation.[12] → So it’s about delivering hope in the midst of desperate, destructive, desolate times. It’s about bringing the good news in a powerful, evocative way to a people in the throes of great darkness.
            • John’s revelation (today’s text) = imparted in time of great political and cultural upheaval: Jewish uprisings, Roman sieges, the destruction of the temple → Into this fracas, John dispatched this cryptic and mystical vision fraught with meaning and promises of something better to come.
    • And part of that promise is what we read today – text: Then one of the elders said to me, “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” Then he said to me, “These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[13] → This is John’s image of hope that the words that Christ spoke to the Jewish leaders in our Gospel passage this morning will indeed come to pass – that those who have fought the good fight, who have run their race despite obstacles and harassment and persecution and even death, that those who have lost all for the sake of their faith … that these will indeed not be snatched away from the hand of God but will spend their eternal days worshiping and praising at the feet of God in heaven. And that, friends, is indeed good news. “Jesus had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb …” Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Jn 10:11-18.

[2] Jn 21:15-19.

[3] Mt 25:31-46.

[4] Mt 25:35.

[5] Harriet Constable. “Sheep are not stupid, and they are not helpless either,” from BBC Earth. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170418-sheep-are-not-stupid-and-they-are-not-helpless-either. Apr. 19, 2017, accessed May 11, 2019.

[6] Jn 10:22.

[7] Jn 10:24.

[8] Jn 10:25-26.

[9] Jn 10:27-29.

[10] Lk 21:27-28.

[11] 1 Thess 4:16-17.

[12] Christopher C. Rowland. “The Book of Revelation: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 12. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 505.

[13] Rev 7:13-17.

 

Sunday’s sermon: A Change is Gonna Come

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Texts used – Psalm 30; Acts 9:1-20

I’m definitely new to this audio recording this, folks … and this week, I forgot to hit record. Hopefully I’ll have audio back next week. My apologies.

  • All right, y’all, you have a yellow insert in your bulletins this morning. I’m going to ask you to take out that handout, and we’re going to take a little poll. We’re going to play a little game of “What do you see?”
    • 1st image: What do you see?
      • High contrast image of a woman’s face (a la Katherine Hepburn)
      • Silhouette of a man playing a saxophone on a windy day
    • 2nd image: What do you see?
      • Young woman wearing a flowing veil and turning her head away
      • Profile of an old woman with a large nose and a head scarf
    • 3rd image: What do you see?
      • Duck
      • Bunny rabbit
    • Final image: What do you see?
      • Line of men passing under an arch, one carrying a heavy book
      • Skull
    • What you see in these images depends on your perspective, doesn’t it? It depends on your point of view, on the particular attitude or way you perceive it. Perspective can be a funny thing, can’t it?
      • Convincing – How many of you only saw the opposite image after it was described to you? (Only saw the saxophone man when I told you about him? Only saw the old woman in the headscarf after I described her?) → Since our perspective is based on our own point of view, our own experiences, our own research, our own understanding, our own base of knowledge, it’s pretty easy to convince ourselves that our perspective is “the right way,” isn’t it? “Of course it’s the right way … it’s the way I’ve been doing it! And I’m certainly not about to go around doing things the wrong way on purpose, right?” My perspective is right precisely because it’s mine.
        • Dangers of this: our own perspective often doesn’t leave wiggle room for growth or expansion, new ideas or new experiences or new data → perspective can be a pretty limiting box sometimes
          • Can sometimes act like the blinders on a horse of falcon à limit the flow of information to our brains to keep up from seeing the whole picture
      • AT THE SAME TIME, perspective = fluid → If we do actually let that new information in, sometimes our perspectives can change. They can grow. They can even do a complete 180°, causing us to reorient ourselves to a whole new way of thinking … doing … believing … being.
        • Ill. images → now that you’re aware of both possibilities for the images, sometimes you see one, sometimes you see the other, right? Even crazier: sometimes you see both at once!
    • Now, with the shifting of which image you see, perspective is a silly thing, right? Something fun and funny to share with your friends. And admitting you see one thing and not the other isn’t a big deal. It doesn’t say anything about your character. People won’t judge you for it (hopefully!). Changing your perspective and saying that you see the other image instead – or even that you see both images equally – isn’t going to cause some fundamental shift in your life. But there are plenty of other places in our lives where we cling desperately to our perspectives and what they say about us, about our family, about our culture, about our convictions, about our faith. These perspectives are the pillars on which we build our sense of self. They are foundational in discovering and rediscovering who we are, how we interact with the world around us, and what we believe. So what happens when those perspectives start to shift?
  • Paul’s story in Acts = dramatic example of a perspective shift
    • Begins life as a Pharisee → learns under Gamaliel, one of the most respected and also one of the most religiously strict Pharisees serving on the Sanhedrin (Jewish council) at the time
      • Clearly had an “up and comer” reputation among Jews and non-Jews alike
        • Present at the stoning of Stephen (1st Christian martyr, 1st person killed for his faith after Christ death and resurrection) – Acts 7: Then they dragged [Stephen] out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. … And Saul approved of their killing him.[1]
        • Today’s text: The Lord instructed [Ananias], “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.” Ananias countered, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.[2] → So Saul’s reputation most certainly preceded him.
    • Crucial to exercise caution in this moment
      • Caution not to villainize Saul
      • Caution not to villainize Judaism in the process
      • Amy Oden, Visiting Professor of Early Church History and Spirituality at St. Paul School of Theology in OKC: It’s important to remember that Saul sees himself as the good guy trying to protect the faith. Saul loves God and wants to stamp out anything that, in his view, dishonors God. In this case, that means the Jews in the movement around Jesus. … He sees Jesus’ followers as those within his own faith needing rescue from their error. … As far as he is concerned, this is not a matter of going after people just to persecute them, but rather a correction of “Jews gone bad.” Saul is the classic example of the devout person who is so determined to do good that they are blinded (literally!) to the destructive consequences of their purity campaign. He does much harm as he is trying to do good.[3] → Saul didn’t do what he did because he was evil. He wasn’t some religious sociopath bent on destruction for destruction’s sake alone. Before his experience on the road to Damascus, he was doing what he thought he needed to do to protect his faith and his culture.
        • Not so different than the Crusades undertaken by the Church during the medieval period
        • Not so different from the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century
        • Not so different from the young man who decided that it would be okay to go into a synagogue in Poway, California on Wednesday and start shooting Jewish people because, according to his own words, Jewish people were guilty of everything from killing Jesus to controlling the media and deserved to die[4] → That young man was part of the Orthodox Presbyterian tradition – an ultra conservative branch of the Reformed tradition that broke off from mainline Presbyterianism in the 1930s.
        • Hear it in this short back-and-forth reading written by Rev. Roddy Hamilton, pastor at New Kilpatrick Parish Church in Scotland[5] – READ DIALOGUE: Saul-Paul Acts 9 reading
  • You see, friends, it’s all about perspective. But as we said earlier, perspectives are fluid. They’re flexible. They can change. And we know that God loves to reach down into our lives, stir them up, and bring about change, don’t we?
    • Hear it in our psalm for this morning
      • Speaks of changing situations – text: You pulled me up; you didn’t let my enemies celebrate over me. LORD, my God, I cried out to you for help, and you healed me. LORD, you brought me up from the grave, brought me back to life from among those going down to the pit.[6]
      • Speaks of growing in faith – text: You who are faithful to the LORD, sing praises to him; give thanks to his holy name! … Because it pleased you, LORD, you made me a strong mountain.[7]
      • Speaks of changing attitude – text: You changed my mourning into dancing. You took off my funeral clothes and dressed me up in joy so that my whole being might sing praises to you and never stop. LORD, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.[8]
    • That’s the whole point of our NT story this morning → God reaching down into Saul’s life and changing his perspective – text: During the journey, as [Saul] approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?” Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. “Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.” Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything. … Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. After eating, he regained his strength. He stayed with the disciples in Damascus for several days. Right away, he began to preach about Jesus in the synagogues. “He is God’s Son,” he declared.[9] → Talk about a 180°! God reached down into Saul’s life and brought about a drastic shift in perspective … but in doing so, God didn’t change the essence of who Saul was. He was still learned. He was still dedicated. He was still passionate. God just set Saul’s feet on a new path and said, “Go. Do. Preach. Pray. Believe.”
  • Friends, I cannot preach these words to you this morning without a heavy heart because just yesterday, we lost just such a prophet and change-maker in the life of the church – someone who took a dramatic shift in her own faith perspective and used it to open the hearts and minds of so many people who felt long-since burned by the church.
    • Rachel Held Evans
      • Began life as an evangelical Christian – struggled with a tradition that devalued her contributions and her voice simply because of her gender along with many of the other exclusionary teachings she found in that tradition
      • Tried to leave the church but just couldn’t quite leave it behind entirely
      • Ended up coming back as a voice for love and inclusion and beauty in the messiness of our faith journeys
        • Wrote a number of books
        • Engaging speaker
        • Blogger and event organizer
        • Advocates for those too-long abused by the church: LGBTQ+ folks, people of color, and most certainly women (especially those who grew up in more conservative, repressive traditions like her own)
      • After a brief and unexpected hospitalization, Rachel died yesterday. She was 37 years old. She left behind a husband and two young children. And she left behind a motley, stunningly diverse community of people who are devastated by her loss because through her perspective – and especially through the change in her perspective – she showed them God’s love in a way that was accepting and expansive and genuine even in its doubts and questions and faults. God inspired and emboldened Rachel to shift her perspective, and through that change, so, so many others found the courage to shift their perspectives as well.
        • From Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church: But the modern-day church doesn’t like to wander or wait. The modern-day church likes results. Convinced the gospel is a product we’ve got to sell to an increasingly shrinking market, we like our people to function as walking advertisements: happy, put-together, finished—proof that this Jesus stuff WORKS! … But if the world is watching, we might as well tell the truth. And the truth is, the church doesn’t offer a cure. It doesn’t off a quick fix. The church offers death and resurrection. The church offers the messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation. The church offers grace.[10] → It’s all about perspective, and sometimes, perspectives have to change. But sometimes in that change – messy and painful and challenging and ugly as it might be … sometimes in that change is the truest place that we can find grace. So be on the lookout, friends, because a change is gonna come. Hallelujah. Amen.

[1] Acts 7:48, 8:1.

[2] Acts 9:11-14.

[3] Amy Oden. “Commentary on Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]” for May 5, 2019 from The Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4043. Accessed May 2, 2019.

[4] Julie Zauzmer. “The alleged synagogue shooter was a churchgoer who talked Christian theology, raising tough questions for evangelical pastors” from The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/05/01/alleged-synagogue-shooter-was-churchgoer-who-articulated-christian-theology-prompting-tough-questions-evangelical-pastors/?fbclid=IwAR2B_kRJg1px7OMOcdMw4yVkYmjuGEUqTIrBSeIffvc3pZIiDKZ686pUDtg&utm_term=.fc428baca115. Posted May 1, 2019, accessed May 2, 2019.

[5] Roddy Hamilton. “Dramatic Reading: Acts 9” from re:Worship blog. https://re-worship.blogspot.com/search/label/Easter%203%20Year%20C.

[6] Ps 30:1-3.

[7] Ps 30:4, 7a.

[8] Ps 30:11-12.

[9] Acts 9:3-9, 17-20.

[10] Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.  (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2015), XXX.

Sunday’s sermon: The Flip Side of the Tomb

empty tomb

Texts used – Psalm 118:14-29; Acts 5:17-32

NEW THIS WEEK: AUDIO VERSION

 



 

  • In 1942, DC Comic introduced an incredible supervillain into the Batman universe: Harvey Dent, more notoriously known as Two-Face.[1]
    • Former upstanding district attorney
    • Burned by acid when dastardly mob boss throws chemicals on him during a courtroom trial → At first sight of his reflection Harvey Dent is driven mad, and a supervillain is born.
      • Becomes obsessed with good vs. evil → And to make the decision about whether to follow the good path or the evil path with each and every decision, Two-Face utilizes what used to be his good luck charm: a two-headed coin.
        • One side = pristine and unmarred
        • Other side = damaged by the same acid that turned Harvey Dent into Two-Face
        • Constantly flipping the coin sort of like a nervous tick – when it comes to decision time: good side = perform an act of charity/goodness, ruined side = perform act of evil/lawlessness
      • With Two-Face, it all comes down to which side of the coin is visible.
  • Today = first Sunday after Easter
    • Easter = more than just a day in the liturgical life of the church → Easter = a whole season (just like Lent and Christmas)[2]
      • Eastertide = season that stretches 7 weeks (50 days) starting with Easter itself and going up to Pentecost
      • Evidenced by continued white paraments and candles
      • Peppered with Scripture readings throughout the lectionary of Jesus’ many appearances among the disciples after his resurrection → many of these appearance stories are feel-good Gospel stories
        • Luke: Jesus walking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus[3]
        • Matthew: giving the Great Commission: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.[4]
        • John: Jesus’ interaction with Thomas and his doubt[5], breakfast encounter on the beach[6], special mandate for Peter to “feed my sheep”[7]
        • All Scripture stories that leave us feeling pretty warmed in our hearts about what came next for the disciples post-resurrection, right?
    • But then we come across today’s Scripture reading … the other side of the coin (the flip side of the tomb, if you will) – the side that illustrates that things in post-resurrection Jerusalem were not so easy. Things in post-resurrection were not so hunky dory. Things in post-resurrection Jerusalem were not so safe and tame and tolerant as some of our other Scripture readings might portray.
  • Acts passage starts off with the high priest and his allies, the Sadducees
    • Distinction reminder:
      • High priest = Caiaphas, the one who asked Pilate to sentence Jesus to death
      • Pharisees and Sadducees
        • Similarities
          • Both religious sects within Judaism that included learned men with political power
          • Both had seats on the Sanhedrin (70-member Jewish council that made all the religious legal decisions for the people of Israel)
            • Sadducees held more seats
        • Differences
          • Sadducees socially more aristocratic and elite (more wealthy, held more powerful positions, friendlier/more accommodating to the Romans) ⟷ Pharisees represented common working people more (had the respect of the people but resisted Roman occupation/assimilation) → If you think about British parliament as an illustration, the Sadducees would have been more like the House of Lords while the Pharisees would have been more like the House of Commons.
          • Sadducees’ power = centered in the Temple (chief priests & high priest were always Sadducees) ⟷ Pharisees’ power = control of the synagogues → Because of this, the Sadducees ceased to exist as a sect after the 2nd destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE while the Pharisees continued to maintain power in the synagogues which survived.
          • Sadducees = more conservative and strict with their beliefs and their literal interpretation of Hebrew scripture than the Pharisees
    • So while the two groups shared power and both worked together to rid themselves of that troublesome Jesus, there was no love loss between these two groups. And yet in our New Testament Scripture for this morning, once again, they’re forced to work together to try to quell the spread of Jesus’ teaching through his disciples. – text: The high priest, together with his allies, the Sadducees, was overcome with jealousy. They seized the apostles and made a public show of putting them in prison.[8] → This collaboration alone should tell us just how seriously they were taking this situation.
      • Not the first time the religious leaders had harassed and arrested Jesus’ followers since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (previously questioned and temporarily jailed Peter and John), but it is the first time the disciples are all arrested en masse
  • Disciples’ incarceration doesn’t last long
    • Angel of God releases them in the middle of the night → Now, I don’t know about you, but I can imagine that the disciples would want to get as far away from those who had arrested them as possible. You know, get out of town … find somewhere to lie low for a while … let things blow over for a bit before resurfacing. But … NOPE! – text: The angel told them, “Go, take your place in the temple, and tell the people everything about this new life.” Early in the morning, they went into the temple as they had been told and began to teach.[9]
      • Shows dedication
      • Shows audacity
      • Shows resolve
    • Next part of our NT story reads a little bit like a comedy skit
      • Unaware of the disciples’ escape, the high priest convenes the Council (the Sanhedrin) and calls for the prisoners to be brought before them
      • Guards go to the cells to let them out … and they’re not there!
      • Guards return to the Council and report their findings (or, rather, lack of findings) – text: “We found the prison locked and well-secured, with guards standing at the doors, but when we opened the doors we found no one inside!”
      • of the temple guard and high priest are “baffled and wondering what happened” (can’t you just see them standing around scratching their heads?!) → And then, as they’re standing there wondering what the heck happened, someone comes running in and says, “Hey! You know those guys you arrested yesterday? Well, they’re out there in the temple teaching the people!”
      • Guards (along with capt.) go out into the temple courtyard and bring the disciples back before the Council again BUT – text: They didn’t use force because they were afraid the people would stone them.[10] → I mean, come on … this whole scenario is a little bit comical, right?
  • But once the disciples are brought back, things get serious. – text: The apostles were brought before the council where the high priest confronted them: “In no uncertain terms, we demanded that you not teach in this name. And look at you! You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching. And you are determined to hold us responsible for this man’s death.”[11] → sobering accusation, to be sure, considering these men make up the council that just sealed Jesus’ death
    • Disciples response is one of courage and conviction: Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than humans! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God has exalted Jesus to his right side as leader and savior so that he could enable Israel to change its heart and life and to find forgiveness for sins. We are witnesses of such things, as is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”[12] → Imagine how intimidating this situation must have been for the disciples! There the 12 of them stand facing 70 powerful men who had just recently killed their beloved teacher and friend, and they were standing there not in deference or meekness but in bold and tenacious defiance declaring the good news of Christ’s resurrection after death.
      • Declaring the Sanhedrin’s guilt in Jesus’ death
      • Declaring the Sanhedrin’s failure in their attempt to silence Jesus and his message
      • Declaring their intention to continue spreading that message despite the Sanhedrin’s blatant warnings and threats (“in no uncertain terms”)
      • And it is in this defiance, in this bold declaration, in this stirring conviction that we find the flip side of the tomb – not the easy-going, comfortable post-resurrection appearances of a Risen Savior but the challenge and accusation and persecution that awaited all those who followed Christ’s ascension charge: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”[13]
        • Scholar: Today’s text, filled with the post-resurrection realities, of which we are all too familiar in our daily life, is terribly sobering. A life of faith, the author reminds us, holds the promise of persecution in tension with the promise of eternal life.[14]
        • I can’t help but think that the disciples may have had the strains of our psalm today running through their minds and their hearts as they stood there before that council. à reminder: psalms were used in worship (some as songs, some as readings) – words would have been familiar (sort of like you have your favorite hymns and Scripture passages that you remember)
          • Ps 118: The LORD was my strength and protection; he was my saving help! … I won’t die—no, I will live and declare what the LORD has done. … I thank you because you answered me, because you were my saving help. The stone rejected by the builders is now the main foundation stone! This has happened because of the LORD; it is astounding in our sight! This is the day the LORD acted; we will rejoice and celebrate in it![15]
  • And it’s true, isn’t it? Those twelve disciples nearly two millennia ago certainly weren’t alone in having those in power trying to stop the good news of the Christ’s resurrection and grace from spreading, were they? Throughout the centuries, time and time again, there have been those who have tried to silence the word of God. There are plenty of places in the world today where it is dangerous to declare your Christian faith – North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran being the top ten.[16] And even if it’s not physically dangerous, we cannot deny that we live in a culture in which people sometimes look down on our faith either because of their preconceived notions of what a “Christian” looks like and believes or because they find faith to an outdated concept. In times like that, it can be intimidating to share our faith – to declare the good news that Christ has died and Christ is risen; that God loves us and cares for us; that through God’s love, we find forgiveness and wholeness and hope. But as we continue through this Easter season, remembering the joy and light and promise that we proclaimed just a week ago – “Christ IS risen! He IS risen indeed!” – let us also remember the courage and determination of the disciples this morning.
    • Scholar: When we embrace the Easter miracle, we commit ourselves to embrace all that comes after it: joy and sorrow, clarity and confusion, celebration and persecution. … The apostles got in trouble for doing two things: proclaiming the good news and preaching truth. What wonderful, and holy, disruption![17] Go. Be disruptive. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-Face.

[2] Mark D. Roberts. “The Season of Easter” from Patheos, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/introduction-to-eastertide-the-season-of-easter/.

[3] Lk 24:13-35.

[4] Mt 28:19.

[5] Jn 20:24-29.

[6] Jn 21:1-14.

[7] Jn 21:15-19.

[8] Acts 5:17-18.

[9] Acts 5:19b-21a.

[10] Acts 5:26b.

[11] Acts 5:27-28.

[12] Acts 5:29-32.

[13] Acts 1:8.

[14] Cathy Caldwell Hoop. “Second Sunday of Easter – Acts 5:27-32, Commentary 2: Connecting the Reading with the World” in Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship – Year C, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 202-203.

[15] Ps 118:14, 17, 21-24.

[16] Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra. “The Top 50 Countries Where It’s Most Dangerous to Follow Jesus” from Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/january/top-50-christian-persecution-open-doors-world-watch-list.html. Posted Jan. 10, 2018, accessed Apr. 28, 2019.

[17] Hoop, 203.

Easter sermon: God Moves … Out of the Tomb

Empty tomb

Texts used – Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 24:1-12

  • Answer a question for me, all (be honest!): Who had some chocolate on this beautiful Easter morning? Or, if you haven’t had it yet, who has some chocolate waiting at home for you?
    • Probably one of the biggest names in chocolate around the world and certainly the biggest name in American chocolate: Milton Hershey[1]
      • Born in Pennsylvania in 1857
      • Dropped out of school at age 13
      • Apprenticed with a master confectioner (candy maker) in Lancaster, PA at age 14
      • First attempt at opening his own candy shop @ age 18 (Philadelphia, PA) = failed after 5 yrs.
      • Spent time working for another candy maker in Denver
      • 2nd attempt at opening his own candy shop (Chicago) = failed
      • 3rd attempt at opening his own candy shop (NYC) = failed
      • 1883: founded the Lancaster Caramel Company (back in PA) → success at last!
      • 1893: got an up-close introduction to chocolate-making at World’s Columbian Exposition → decided to formulate a way to mass-produce milk chocolate (delicacy at the time – largely done only by the Swiss and only by hand)
      • 1900: sold Lancaster Caramel Company for $1 million (nearly $30 million by today’s standards!)
      • 1903: started building a massive and modern candy-making factory in Derry Church, PA → opened 2 yrs. later … and the rest, as they say, is sweet, sweet history.
    • If Milton Hershey had allowed his path to be determined by expectations and “how it’s always been before” (failed candy shop after failed candy shop after failed candy shop), those Easter baskets … the candy aisle … chocolate-making as we know it today would be vastly different. But Milton Hershey kept hoping that something new and different could happen. He hoped through setbacks. He hoped through outright failures. He hoped and hoped and hoped … until it happened.
  • So friends, we’re here this morning to celebrate Easter – the empty tomb, the sparkly strangers bearing the good news, and the risen Christ.
    • Sermon series throughout Lent: God on the Move
      • How Christ moved throughout his ministry (physically and through teachings/parables)
      • How God moved throughout Scripture
      • Ways that God moves us to action
      • Today’s capstone = most important movement of all: God Moves … Out of the Tomb → This is it. This is the point. All of the other movement culminates in this. This is the reason for the movements that Christ made throughout his ministry. This is the pivotal moment to which all the movement in Scripture has been pointing. This is jumping off point for all of our movements of faith. Without this movement, we would not be sitting here today. And yet none of these are things that were expected. This movement was completely out of the blue – a whole new thing. And it hinged on one, effervescent, pie-in-the-sky, never-been-done-before thing: hope.
  • Love this version of the resurrection from Luke’s gospel because it’s so full of obvious shock and surprise
    • Begins with women bringing “fragrant spices” to the tomb = “business as usual” → The women were coming to the tomb that morning to anoint the body of their beloved teacher and friend. In that time and culture, it was the women’s job to prepare bodies for burial which included anointing with a number of different oils and spices, some for religious purposes, some for embalming purposes. The spikenard that we talked about a few weeks ago was one of those oils. Now, surely, this would have already been done before Jesus was placed in the tomb, so Biblical scholars aren’t entirely sure why the women felt the need to anoint the body again.
      • Maybe they just wanted to be near Jesus one more time (time to say goodbye) → spices were a plausible excuse if they were stopped by the Pharisees or the Romans
      • Maybe they wanted to further honor Jesus → anointing him again as a way of expressing their grief and devotion
    • Arrival at the tomb is anything but “business as usual”
      • Stone inexplicably rolled away
      • Jesus’ body = gone
      • Sudden and unexplainable appearance of unexpected strangers bearing the most baffling and miraculous news of all – text: [The women] didn’t know what to make of this. Suddenly, two men were standing beside them in gleaming bright clothing. The women were frightened and bowed their faces toward the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised.”[2] → Imagine what must have gone through the women’s minds at that point! It’s hard for us to grasp today, isn’t it? I mean, we’ve had the privilege of knowing the end of the story since the beginning. Even as we embarked on this Lenten journey – as we do every year – we know that the culmination is Easter: white paraments, celebratory flowers, an empty tomb, and the proclamation, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” We are so familiar with the story that I think the shock of it is often lost on us. But to those women that morning, it was a whole new thing!
        • Jessica LaGrone captures some of that shock and amazement: The women arrived to see a stone that had rolled and a world that had changed, even though they didn’t know it yet. They expected to encounter a continuation of the message of grief and sympathy that had begun on Friday; instead they found Sunday’s message of congratulations and a Savior who would not be contained to one location.[3]
      • Reason for the passage from Is this morning → God declaring through the prophet Isaiah that God was going to do a new thing and that that new thing would be sacred and glorious and hope-filled – text: Look! I’m creating a new heaven and a new earth: past events won’t be remembered; they won’t come to mind. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I’m creating, because I’m creating Jerusalem as a joy and her people as a source of gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad about my people. No one will ever hear the sound of weeping or crying in it again.[4]
    • Shock and surprise of Luke’s account extends outward from there – text: When [the women] returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles. Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women. But Peter ran to the tomb. When he bent over to look inside, he saw only the linen cloth. Then he returned home, wondering what had happened.[5] → That’s right, y’all! The first evangelists … the first Christian preachers to deliver the good news of a risen Savior … were women. And the men didn’t believe them.
      • 2 powerful elements to this part of the story
        • First: women’s action → We’ve spent Lent talking about how God moves us to action, and here it is right before us in black and white. These women heard the good news of resurrection, and they went out to share it. They moved. They shared. Through those sparkly strangers, God called them to go and do, and that is exactly what they did. God in Jesus Christ moved out of the tomb that morning, and thankfully, so did the women. Because that movement sent the word out.
        • Second: Peter’s reaction = powerful because it is both immediate and unresolved → Scripture says the apostles didn’t believe the women … and yet Peter is curious enough to run to the tomb and check it himself. When he does, he finds it empty with nothing but the used linen burial wrappings lying on the floor. And all that we get from Luke for a conclusion is, “Then he returned home, wondering what had happened.” There is no period on the end of this story. There is only an ellipsis … “dot dot dot” … an open space for whatever comes next.
  • And friends, that is where we come in this morning. We are a part of that ellipsis. We are a continuation of that resurrection story – of the shock and surprise, of the good news, of the movement that defies expectations, and above all, of the hope that spurs that movement. Because that is indeed what we are called to do: defy expectations with radical, hope-filled abandon.
    • Sometimes expectations can be a good thing → classroom management tactic: setting clear expectations so your students have something to strive for (parents, too!)
    • Flip side: expectations can fall short of our actual potential and hold us back
      • Expectations placed on us by others
      • Expectations that we place on ourselves
      • Expectations that come from past experiences
      • Expectations that come from things we have learned OR lack of learning
      • Expectations based on misunderstanding and prejudice
      • Expectations based on flawed or incomplete picture of who we really are
    • Everyone’s been underestimated at some point in their lives, right? Someone at some point in your life thought you couldn’t do something for some reason or another. Maybe it was a big thing. Maybe it was a small thing. Maybe you were the someone who thought you couldn’t do something. But through the miracle and audacity and movement of the empty tomb, God has said definitively, “Expectations no longer apply. Forget what you thought you knew. Forget what you thought could happen. Forget what you assumed or supposed or even what you believed what possible because I am doing a new thing. And I am doing that new thing through you. Hope abounds. Hallelujah!”
      • Scholar: Through the presence of an empty tomb, God calls on people to act. Easter morning is God’s clearest statement that the world is different and that those who follow in the pathway of the risen Lord are called to live differently. The good news is not something to observe; it is something that demands our response.[6]
        • Reason we say “Christ IS risen! He IS risen indeed!” instead of “Christ was risen! He was risen indeed!” → power and hope of resurrection are ongoing, and so is our participation in it
      • Scene from Polly[7] (“Wonderful World of Disney” made for TV movie – adaptation of the original Pollyanna story with twist of being set in the segregated south in 1950s → Polly brings people together to tear down barriers of segregation) → scene where Polly finds Miss Snow picking out her coffin
        • “That itched like crazy, didn’t it? That means you’re alive, and I want you to act like it!”
        • Miss Snow’s expectation was aging meant inertia and death à Polly’s call was to action and life
      • LaGrone: Wherever you are feeling stuck or trapped, wherever your past has told you that you will never change, wherever you encounter a world that seems to be lost in pain and grief – you will find a moving Savior. Today is a day of congratulation for God’s people. For new locations and second chances. For new hopes and dreams. … [Jesus] is alive and moving in our world and our lives today. Hallelujah![8]“Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” Amen.

 

CHARGE

Danny Boyle (British film director, producer, screenwriter): It’s a good place when all you have is hope and not expectations.

[1] https://www.biography.com/business-figure/milton-hershey.

[2] Lk 24:4-6a.

[3] Jessica LaGrone. “Lenten Series: God on the Move – Lent 7: God Moves … Out of the Tomb” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 201.

[4] Is 65:17-19.

[5] Lk 24:9-12.

[6] Pendleton B. Perry. “Luke 24:1-12 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Luke, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 346.

[7] Polly. Released by Walt Disney Television, Nov. 12, 1989.

[8] LaGrone, 203.

Palm Sunday: Journeying to the Cross

journey to the cross

As we’ve been going through Lent with our God on the Move series, we’ve come to the place of God moving toward the cross. So for our service on Palm/Passion Sunday, we read through a number of Scriptures taking us from Jesus’ predictions of what was to come straight up to the cusp of Maundy Thursday with the preparations for the Passover meal. And we paired those readings with hymns. So instead of a sermon, here’s our service:

GATHERING IN GOD’S WORD

Letting God In
                During this time, we invite you to prepare your heart and your mind for worship. We want you to be able to use this quiet time to settle your thoughts, set aside any distractions that may be troubling you, and focus your whole self on God. Open your heart, your mind, and your spirit, and let God into your life.

Centering Prayer: We walk with you, Crucified Christ.
As you breathe in, pray, “We walk with you.”
As you breathe out, pray, “Crucified Christ.”

* Gathering Hymn – Come into God’s Presence (verses 2-4)

* Opening Praise
One: This is the day that the Lord has made.
Many: Let us rejoice and be glad in it!
One: The day is filled with God’s presence.
Many: The Holy Spirit’s breath permeates every moment.
One: God’s grace fills each experience.
Many: God’s promises move us toward hope.
One: Through Christ’s faithfulness, we know God’s great faithfulness.
Many: Through Christ’s grace, we know God’s unending grace.
ALL: Through Christ’s love, we know God’s deep love.

Lenten Reading

* Opening Hymn – Be Still and Know That I Am God (sing through 3 times)

* Joining in Prayer
                 Have mercy on us, O God. Where despair lingers, grant us hope. Where fear threatens, grant us comfort. Where strength fails, give us courage. Where faithfulness wanes, grant us endurance. Where sin invades, grant us forgiveness. Shine upon us with your love and grace, O God. Strengthen us with your Holy Spirit, that we may be ever wakeful, ever alert – as we worship, as we live, and as we follow where you lead. (Please take a moment for personal reflection and confession.)
In Christ’s blessed name, we pray.
                 Amen.

* God’s Promise of Grace

Passing of the Peace

* Song of Peace: Come and Fill Our Hearts with Your Peace (sing through 3 times)

JOURNEYING TO THE CROSS

Jerusalem is Coming
                Scripture readings
Luke 9:18-22
Luke 9:44-45
Luke 18:31-33
Hymn – Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley

Coming into Jerusalem
                Scripture reading – Luke 19:28-40
Hymn – Prepare the Way, O Zion

Lesson from the Fig Tree
                Scripture – Luke 21:29-38
Hymn – Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said

Prayers of the People
Sharing our lives in prayer
Silent Prayer
Pastoral Prayer
Lord’s Prayer: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

Plotting to Kill Christ
                Scripture – Luke 22:1-6
Hymn – O How He Loves You and Me

Preparing for the Passover
                Scripture – Luke 22:7-13
Hymn – An Upper Room Did Our Lord Prepare

RESPONDING TO GOD’S WORD

Offering
* Hymn of Response – Praise to God the Father
* Prayer of Dedication

Announcements

BEING SENT OUT IN GOD’S WORD

* Charge & Benediction

* Sending Hymn – Go with Us, Lord