Thrill of Hope sermon series – #2: O Little Town of Bethlehem

This is our second sermon looking at some of the favorite hymns of the Christmas season.

SCRIPTURE – Luke 2:1-7 – In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

SERMON
The Thrill of Hope sermon series
#2 – O Little Town of Bethlehem
December 7, 2014

I was reading this past week about the different meanings that are given to the Advent candles that we light during this season. We use the traditional meanings of hope, peace, joy, and love as do many other churches, but not necessarily in that order. Every year I get confused and have to look at our banners to remember which candle we’re lighting each week. Other congregations identify them as the prophecy candle, the Bethlehem candle, the shepherd candle, and the angel candle.

And then there is the meaning given to them by one girl in Sunday School. The teacher was trying to help the children name the four Advent candles. They had gotten three but were stuck on the last one. The teacher said, “The candles represent love, joy, peace and…” The little girl raised her hand and said, “Love, joy, peace, and quiet!”

Not much about this season represents peace and quiet, does it? It is a season of holy chaos that seems to get bigger and louder each year. Christmas continues to make the slow move from sacred to spectacular, which is amazing when you consider how it all started. The scripture from Luke we read today is such a simple story for such a big event. That simplicity is echoed in our hymn today, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” For the sermons in Advent we’re looking at some of our favorite hymns of the season to learn the story behind them and see how their lyrics are still fresh and relevant today. This hymn was written by a pastor, Phillip Brooks, who penned it after a visit to the Holy Land in 1865. Several years later when he wanted a new song for the children to sing at his church, he wrote these words as he reflected on his visit. The church’s organist, Lewis Dedner, wrote the music that gave us the song we have today.

The images Brooks has given us are of a sleepy little town in the quiet countryside, hardly the expected location of such a magnificent event. Listen to all the images of serenity the song contains: “how still we see thee lie”… “deep and dreamless sleep”… “silent stars go by”… “while mortals sleep the angels keep their watch of wondering love”… “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” This song and our scripture for today tell of a humble birth in a quaint little town. Could have been any town. Could have been any baby.

But that is what makes this story so powerful. This passage from Luke is overflowing with paradox. A paradox is something which seems ridiculous but actually contains a possible truth, which describes a lot of my seminary papers. The fact that the God of the universe would come to earth as a little baby is a paradox. It’s the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and End, the Ancient of Days, emerging as a baby who couldn’t speak or feed himself or change his own swaddling cloths. Paradox. The Roman ruler at the time of Jesus’ birth, Caesar Augustus, was the emperor who reigned during the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. But it is this baby who will become known as the Prince of Peace. That’s a paradox. “Yet in thy dark street shineth the everlasting light.” Paradox. This baby, who is a descendant of King David, one of the richest and must successful Jewish kings, is poor in the poorest and most humble of circumstances. “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” Paradox.

The sense of understatement that dominates this story and the hymn might seem like a paradox to those of us who equate bigger with better. Conventional wisdom tell us the more significant the event, the more hoopla it deserves. When royal babies are born today, the country of England and most of the world stops what they’re doing. We don’t throw big parties for someone’s 42nd birthday or 12th anniversary, do we? We wait for a more significant time. And what could be more significant than the birth of the son of God? This should be a big deal, this baby should be born in Rome or Jerusalem, not some little town six miles from nowhere. This is HUGE and yet Luke treats it like just another birth. “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” Are our lives too noisy to hear it?

I wonder if we’ve lost our sensitivity to the paradox. I wonder if we have become numb to the sheer subversiveness of this story. The son of God, the King of Kings, born right under the nose of Caesar Augustus. Born to an obedient peasant girl named Mary and a faithful carpenter named Joseph. Born in a cattle stall and laid in a feeding trough. God becomes human. “Something which seems ridiculous but actually contains a possible truth.” When we hear this scripture, do we get the paradox? When we sing this hymn, do we grasp the truth beneath the absurdity of God coming to us as a little baby? “For Christ is born of Mary.” Just that statement alone carries meaning that has the power to change the world. But, in this season when bigger is better, do we miss that?

If we do, if we lose the power of this story, we also lose the mystery and wonder it holds for us. Christmas as a season is utterly dependent upon mystery for its meaning, and I don’t mean that strictly from a religious standpoint. Part of the mystique that Santa Claus holds is the mystery of what he does. How does he make all those toys? How does he get down our chimney? How does he eat all those cookies and still fit into his suit?  Christmas is about mystery.

I wonder what it would be like if, as adults, we beheld the Christ child with the same awe and mystery that kids hold for Santa. I believe that child-like capacity for mystery is there, in each of us…isn’t it? Or have we gotten so old and mature and adult-like that we’ve lost the ability to wonder? Are we so calloused that we can hear this story or sing this song and not be awestruck? “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” It’s a mystery in the holiest of senses. Or is it just another song?

That’s the key for Christmas to remain alive in us. For so many of us, we’re now at the point during Advent when we’re asking, “Are we there yet?” Not because we can’t wait for the birth of Jesus, but because we can’t wait for it to be over! Soon will come the frenzy of unwrapping and visiting and eating, and then the holiday letdown, and then the Christmas tree takedown, and then it’s January. That’s almost depressing to think about, isn’t it? Where is the mystery, where is the wonder in that?

I believe for the spirit of Christmas to be alive in us in January and July, we need to approach Dec. 25 with a sense of wonder. The mysteries of Christ’s birth remind us that life is bigger, more wondrous, more unexplainable than our precise calculations and neat explanations and tidy little bows. There are so many questions this story raises for us: Why Mary? Why Joseph? Why that time? Why a baby and not a soldier or conqueror? Why a little town and not a palace? Christmas lives on in our souls as we seek answers to those questions.

That sense of wonder is important because as we move forward in life beyond Christmas, those questions don’t go away. While they may fade they are replaced by more pressing questions, like “What is my purpose?” and “What is my future?” and “Where is God?” and “Are my prayers being heard?” Life is a series of questions, and without a sense of wonder and curiosity, our eyes are closed to the answers around us. But the hymn reminds us that Jesus is the place where all our fears and all are hopes come together.

Christmas is such a major happening in our church and our culture that often the beauty of the Christmas story gets treated as if it were the whole story. It’s become so romanticized and sanitized that it sometimes feels like a fairy tale, a wonderful story that provides a brief escape from the world we face every day, like some vacation from reality. A quiet birth in a quaint little town immortalized on Christmas cards and in our hymn. But this story is powerful for its concreteness, the fact that Jesus was born in real time, while Quirinius was governor, born in a real town with streets and houses and a stable. This story happened in real life! It’s the concrete beginning of Jesus’ entry into the world, not our invitation to escape from it.

And this year, he will be born again. God will become incarnate. Jesus will make an appearance here on earth. But I don’t believe he will be born to us. That happened already. That gift was given 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. No, this year I follow the lead of author Brian McLaren, who wrote, “”What matters is not for Christ to appear to us, but for Christ to appear in us, among us, and through us.” Think about that. He isn’t born to us, but in us. “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” We are the vessels that will receive the gift of the Christ child. We will be the God-bearers that hold this gift, the packages that contain the divine present.

But it’s not enough that he’s born in us. He must also be born through us. Because, for whatever crazy reason, God has chosen normal, average, everyday, screwed-up, REAL people like you and me and endowed us with a holy gift. For Christ’s birth to make a whit of difference this year, he must be born in us and through us, we must embody the emerging miracle that is Christ’s presence and peace in this world.

I read about a pastor who had a very interesting message on her voice mail. If she wasn’t there to answer the phone, the caller got this message: “This is Pastor Jenkins. Now you say something.” Christ’s coming is our Creator saying to us, “This is God. Now you say something. You do something. You give something. You change something.” Take what you’ve been given and put it to use for God’s kingdom.

The mystery of Christmas doesn’t end on Christmas Day. The wonder of what God is doing in our world and in our lives is ongoing. The love that the Christ child represents is still alive, right here, right now, within us. As we live that out, we take the hope and peace and joy and love of Christmas and extend it on into the bleakness of January and the cold of February and beyond. Don’t let Christmas end this year. Don’t close your eyes to the mysterious. Christ is coming. God is becoming one of us. The paradox of Christmas is here again. A miracle is emerging. This world needs to know Jesus Christ is here, that he is real, that he brings real love and real peace to little towns like Bethlehem and Ferguson and Lexington. People need to know. Now, you do something.

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The Thrill of Hope Sermon Series – #1: O Come O Come Emmanuel

This Advent, I’m doing a sermon series on some of our favorite Advent/Christmas hymns. I hope you enjoy them!

SCRIPTURE – Isaiah 11:1-9

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

SERMON
The Thrill of Hope sermon series
#1 – O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Nov. 30, 2014

Here are we on the first Sunday of Advent, which means it’s time to loosen up the pipes and prepare to sing some of our favorite songs of the season! But I wonder how often we actually listen to the words we sing on Sunday morning. I choose hymns that try to match the theme of the sermon and service, but it’s hard to sing and read and comprehend and mentally make out a shopping list and decide where you’re going for lunch all at the same time, so I believe we often don’t really listen to what we’re singing. For our Advent sermons, we’re going to look at the words of some of our favorite Advent and Christmas hymns to get at the deeper meaning behind them.

And even when we sing songs we know, we may not know what we’re singing. I know for a fact that a lot of us sing the wrong words to our favorite Christmas hymns. For example, in “Silent Night,” do you ever sing, “Round John Virgin, mother and child…” Or how about this one from “Angels We Have Heard on High”? “Gloria…in a Chelsea stable…” I’m sure at least a couple of you have sung, “Noel, Noel…Barney’s the king of Israel…” Or maybe you’ve exclaimed, “Joy to the world! The Lord has gum, let earth receive her keys…” Do we really know what we’re singing?

            We start this series by looking at my favorite Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” This hymn actually started as a series of sung responses call the “O Antiphons,” because each line started with the letter O: O Wisdom, O Root of Jesse, O Dayspring, etc. These seven antiphons, which date back to the 12th century Roman church, would be sung or chanted on the seven nights leading up to Christmas. Back in those days, few people could read, so these songs were teaching tools, expressing the hope and truth of Christmas and the promise of Christ’s return. It wasn’t until the 1850s that these words were translated into English by John Mason Neale and combined with a haunting tune to create the hymn we have today.

The hymn is a plea, much like several of the psalms, for the Lord to come and make things right in a world which we have broken. The hymn calls Jesus four different names: Emmanuel, which means “God is with us”; Dayspring, which literally means the rising of the sun or the break of day and honors the light Jesus brings into the world; Wisdom, a feminine term used several times in scripture to refer to God; and Desire of nations, which comes from the verse in Haggai that says, “’ I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

Much of the hymn is built around or alludes to imagery we see in the passage from Isaiah. Both the hymn and the scripture are set in the context of Israel’s exile from their homeland. As you may know, God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and, after 40 years of wandering in the desert, into the Promised Land. The good news is they settled there; the bad news is they settled there! They got too comfortable and complacent in their faith, backsliding away from the laws God had given them to live by. So God sent a series of prophets to Israel to warn the people that if they didn’t shape up, they were going to be punished for their lack of faithfulness. Humans being humans, they didn’t listen, and so they were invaded by the Babylonians, who conquered the Israelites, ransacked their homeland, and sent the people off to Babylon to live in exile. That’s why, in v. 1, the Israelites are spoken of as captives, mourning in lonely exile and awaiting the appearance of their Savior.

After the first verse sets the stage for the longing of liberation, the next three offer glimmers of hope for Christ’s return. Verse 2 says, “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s deep shadows put to flight.” Verse 3 calls on Wisdom to bring order to the chaos of their lives, granting divine knowledge and leading them down that path, instead of the one that got time into this mess in the first place. And verse 4 calls on the Desire of nations to bind all people together, and then offers what I think is the most provocative line in the whole hymn: “Bid envy, strive, and quarrel cease, fill the whole world with Heaven’s peace.” Hmm. In light of what’s happened this week in Ferguson, Mo., and other parts of the country, in light of what’s happening around the world in places like Syria and the Ukraine and many countries in Africa, this plea takes on a new urgency.

I don’t know about you, but paying attention to these lyrics makes them a little harder to sing. Gloom and death? Quarrels and strife? Did the Grinch write this hymn? This is a season about joy! Can’t we set these downer things aside for a few weeks and just enjoy the spirit of the season? Besides, this hymn really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with us, does it? I mean, it was written about a group of people who are exiled from their homeland, taken captive by foreigners and forcibly moved. Luckily for us, we’re not in exile, are we? We live in a free country, where we’re free to buy stuff and post pictures of our pets on Facebook and call each other names and come to church on Sunday and do what we want on Monday through Saturday. We’re not in exile from anything! Except maybe our soul, the image of God inside of us. We’re not captive to anything, except maybe our desire to buy more, to own more, to be more than the person next to us. We don’t need to be ransomed from anything, except maybe our own selfishness, or our smug judgmentalism, our own desire for comfort, our own propensity to do the easy thing instead of the right thing. Do we need ransoming, do we need to be saved – from ourselves? O come, O come, Emmanuel.

This hymn is a stark reminder that each of us need the liberation that the Christ child offers. I believe each of us brings death, gloom, sadness, strife, envy, and conflict into the sanctuary this morning. Something this morning holds us captive; something is casting a shadow over us. Something is keeping us in exile. Sure, we can try to set those things aside, even for a few weeks, to savor the joy of this season, but I have a better idea. How about we ask Christ to enter into those shadowy things, to enter into our gloom and our sadness and our strife, and to disperse them, to fill the world and our hearts with Heaven’s peace? How about, along with the candy canes and the presents, we put under the tree our deepest fears and our most painful hurts and say, “O come, O come Emmanuel?”

What would happen if we do that? That’s the picture Isaiah paints so vividly for us, a peace that takes mortal enemies and unites them as companions – wolves and lambs, cows and bears, children and snakes. That kind of peace feels so wonderful and exhilarating and impossible, so we have a hard time even envisioning what it would look like, because too often the peace we strive for is completely conditional. I can remember my grandfather had an interesting way of keeping the peace when I was little. If one of us grandchildren would get out of line, he would threaten to go get the yardstick. Now, that usually was enough to make us cool our jets, but if we continued, he’d walk slowly over to the closet, open the door, and pull out the aforementioned instrument, all the while giving us that look. I know it was only a yardstick, but to us little kids it must have looked at least three feet long! He’d walk slowly back over to his chair and lay the yardstick across his lap, and peace would reign in the kingdom. Now I have to tell you that in a million years my grandfather would have never hit one of us; he never needed to. Just the threat of violence was enough to coerce peace.

I’m afraid that’s the only kind of peace we know these days, peace that is arrived at through the use of threats and weapons and wars. Our peace is conditional. We’ve all been bombarded with such visions of violence and atrocity that Isaiah’s unconditional peace hardly seems worth working for, much less being an attainable goal. How can we endure sharp words of hate from other people and be expected to invite them to Christmas dinner? How can we allow ourselves to be cursed at and not want to curse back, or be flipped off in traffic and not return the hand gesture? How can we watch what has happened in Ferguson and expect to sing about peace with anything less than a heavy and vengeful and prejudiced heart? The gloomy clouds of night, the shadows of death, hang over us. Living for peace is not always the easiest response, and yet we know that’s what we are called to do. O come, o come Emmanuel.

In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin, the little boy, says to Hobbes, his stuffed tiger, “I feel bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings.  I’m sorry I did it.” Hobbes suggests, “Maybe you should apologize to her.” Calvin thinks hard about this for a moment and then replies, “I keep hoping there’s a less obvious solution.”

God has given us an obvious solution to one of our greatest problems – our lack of peace. God has given each of us a spirit of peace within us so that we may work to make that peace exist outside of us, and God has given us a vision of what that peace looks like in the life of Jesus Christ. It’s so easy to give in to our fear and hate, to speak the harsh words and counter malice with malice. But that’s not what Christ did, and that’s not who we were created to be. Maybe we can’t change the world. But God can change our world through us.

Isaiah’s peace isn’t here yet. Not by a long shot. But he dares us to dream about it, to imagine it, to work for it until envy, strife, and quarrels cease. He challenges us to envision each day, each encounter, each word and action as a chance to bring a little bit of Heaven’s peace into our not-so-peaceful world. It’s a smile instead of a curse, or a handshake instead of a hand gesture. It’s outstretched arms instead of clenched fists, and loving each other for our similarities, and respecting each other for our differences. It’s choosing to live for peace instead of living in fear. It’s replacing “us vs. them” with “us and them.” It’s asking: does what I’m about to say or do or write promote God’s peace, or hinder it? The good news is that Isaiah’s peace can be achieved, one person at a time.

That’s a daunting task, isn’t it? Part of me would rather ignore the conflict in my life and in this world, to insulate myself and pretend like everything’s all candy canes and mistletoe. If I surround myself with people who look like me and think like me, then I never have to worry about getting along with the wolves and bears and snakes of this world. But that’s not who we are called to be. We are called to be instruments of God’s peace, beacons of hope that this world is worth saving, that God is still at work to bring about Heaven’s peace. Until that day when Isaiah’s peace is achieved, we have work to do. Thankfully, we don’t do it alone. One candle is lit. We have reason to hope. Help is on the way. O come, O come, Emmanuel.

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It’s a Miracle! Sermon Series – #6: The Cross-Eyed Miracle

SCRIPTURE – Mark 8:22-26 -

22 They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. 23 He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

24 He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

25 Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”

SERMON
The Cross-Eyed Miracle
Mark 8:22-26
Nov. 23, 2014

We conclude our sermon series on miracles today. We’ve seen Jesus do a lot of amazing things these past few weeks. He’s provided two miraculous catches of fish, healed a man’s withered hand, cast out demons, and even raised a girl from the dead, all for the purpose of helping us get a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like. For just a moment, he’s shown us a world with no pain, no death, where everyone has enough to eat. In other words, he’s helped us see that there’s more to see than just this world around us. So it’s only appropriate that the last miracle we look at is healing a blind man. It’s a peculiar story, only found in Mark’s gospel. The other three gospel writers may have left it out because, on first reading, it sounds like Jesus botches the healing. But, as usual, there’s more at play here than meets the eye.

This story comes at an important time in Mark’s text. For a while now Jesus has been dealing with two groups of people who have caused him constant consternation: the Pharisees and the disciples. The Pharisees have been a thorn in his side because they have steadfastly and stubbornly opposed Jesus’ teachings, unwilling to see things from his kingdom-of-God point of view. They are blinded to who he really is.

On the other hand, the disciples have been eagerly following Jesus, but have also failed to recognize the true identity of the man in front of them. Despite Jesus’ patience, they can’t seem to grasp that he is revealing to them a greater truth than what they have experienced. In the first part of chapter 8, Jesus feeds 4000 people with baskets of food left over. After the feeding, he sternly warns the disciples about the Pharisees, but as usual they completely miss the point. And Jesus says, “Do you still not understand who I am? Do you have eyes but fail to see?”

With both groups, Jesus is dealing with a case of spiritual blindness, people who have eyes, but fail to see. So with that setup, we get this story of the healing of the blind man. The blind man is brought to Jesus, but instead of Jesus healing him, he takes him outside the village. The village of Bethsaida had been the site of several of Jesus’ miracles, but in Matthew 11 Jesus curses the town because they had seen all these signs of who he really is and they still didn’t get it. They were probably looking for Jesus to wow them by pulling another rabbit out of his hat, but he wasn’t in the entertainment business. So he leads the man out of town, away from the distractions and clutter.

I took a youth group on a weekend team-building retreat once, and one of our activities was to partner up and lead each other through the woods with one of us blind-folded. I earnestly prayed to God not to let me get paired with Craig, the group’s biggest show-off and troublemaker. He was about as sharp as a bowling ball, so I wasn’t ready to put my life in his hands. Of course, I was partnered with Craig. He led me down paths, over fallen trees, under drooping branches. When he said to step over a log, I had to trust we weren’t on the edge of a cliff. And he never misled me. Likewise, Jesus leads this man away from a place of disease to a place of healing. But it’s really, really hard to trust Jesus to do these things because we aren’t aware of our own blindness. Sometimes we live with blinders on, not seeing what Jesus can do for us and where he can lead us.

They arrive outside the village and Jesus performs the healing by spitting in the man’s eyes. That may seem a little rude to us, but the general understanding in Jesus’ time was that there was healing power in saliva. Think about it: when you burn your finger, what’s the first thing you do? You put it in your mouth. Which makes me glad that we don’t believe there’s healing power in earwax, because we’d look pretty silly. So Jesus spits in this man’s eyes and puts his hand on him and asks, “Do you see anything?” And the man responds that he sees people, but they look like trees walking around. Jesus then touches him a second time, and the man’s sight is fully restored.

I wore glasses or contact lenses from seventh grade until 2001, when I was lucky enough to have Lasik eye surgery. I got a discount because my aunt worked for the doctor, but I don’t like to tell people that, because it sounds a bit sketchy. Discount muffler service? Yes. Discount eye surgery? Not so good. And it came with a free set of knives! My vision before the surgery was horrible. After the surgery, as I laid in the recovery room, I opened my eyes and could already tell a difference. The trees I saw walking around had facial features. By the next day, there was a noticeable improvement. Within weeks I had 20/20 vision.

In our story, this man doesn’t see clearly right away, either, but I don’t think that has anything to do with Jesus’ power to heal or the man’s ability to see. Instead, what’s going on here is directly related to the blindness of the disciples and the Pharisees and the Bethsaida crowds. Jesus had become known, against his will, for his signs and wonders. The crowds loved him for it, the Pharisees hated him for it, and the disciples were confused by it. Jesus was known as a miracle worker.

But there’s way more to Jesus than that. With his first touch, he helped the man see. With his second touch, he helped the man understand what he saw. The Pharisees, the disciples, the crowds, they all saw Jesus. But they didn’t know him; they didn’t understand him. “Do you have eyes but fail to see?” What we choose to look at becomes our focus. They were so focused on Jesus’ ability to heal that they were blinded to the meaning of Jesus’ healings; they failed to see the glimpse of God’s kingdom that Jesus was showing them.

Developing that kind of vision takes time, just as it took time for my eyes to completely heal from the surgery. But often our prayers reflect a desire for Jesus to act now. John Calvin called it instantaneous grace: heal me now, forgive me now, give me stronger faith now. Calvin says on rare occasions the grace of Christ is poured out all at once, but most of the time it flows to us drop by drop. We think God should act on our timetable, but then it wouldn’t be grace, it would be God acting as our spiritual vending machine. Receiving Christ’s grace gradually, drop by drop, may actually be the best way, because when we experience God’s grace one drop at a time, one moment at a time, we savor it more and don’t come to think we deserve it.

The key is opening our eyes to see the drops of grace all around us. We’re human, so naturally we don’t get it the first time. We need a second touch, or a third, or a fourth. Or a thousandth. We need constant spiritual eye surgery, we need Christ’s repeated touches to help us see with our hearts the work of God in our lives. That’s how my faith has developed. I didn’t have instant faith. Instead, my faith has grown, drop by drop, as I’ve seen God’s presence in my life. Each day, I pray to wake up with a little more clarity, with my ability to see God at work a little closer to 20/20 than it was yesterday.

I remember early in my ministry I was driving back from a regional meeting with several older, more experienced pastors. I was intimidated by their wisdom and their poise and starting to doubt whether this whole ministry thing was really for me. God had shown me my call to serve, but I was focused on all the reasons I wasn’t good enough. I was choosing to look at all the reasons I thought I shouldn’t be a minister.

As I was driving, I passed an exit signed I’d never noticed before. It said, “Paw Paw, 1 mile.” I guess there’s a town in Illinois called Paw Paw. That’s also what I called my grandfather who had passed away a little over a year ago. Paw Paw was always my biggest supporter and was so proud of me for becoming a minister. When I got to the exit, the sign said, “Paw Paw” and had an arrow pointing up the ramp. Only, to me, it looked like it was pointing up to somewhere else. Ok, God, I get it. I get it. Drop, drop, drop. And there was God’s grace. Just when I needed it, there was another touch from Christ, helping me to see a little more clearly the kingdom of God around me.

We are the constant recipients of God’s miraculous grace, if we have the eyes to see it. When someone says, “I’m praying for you,” that’s grace. When a child says, “I love you,” that’s grace. When someone takes a moment to smile at you, even if you don’t deserve a smile at that particular moment, that’s grace.  If we only look for the signs and wonders, if we only look for what Jesus can do for us, if we only look for God when we’re in trouble, we will probably be disappointed. We may think we can see just fine, but if that’s all we are looking for, we are really blind to how God is at work in our lives. A great way to end each day is to take a moment and reflect on this question: Where did I experience God’s grace today? If you can’t answer that, maybe you’re looking for the wrong things.

Helen Keller said, “It’s a terrible thing not to be able to see. But it’s even more terrible to be able to see but to not have vision.” What we choose look at becomes our focus. So I wonder, as we approach Advent this year, where will our focus be? Will the image of baby Jesus be blurry, crowded out by all the other distractions of the season? Will we set our eyes on the things we buy, the things we get? Or will we look at the baby lying in the manger and what his birth means for us this year? What we look at becomes our focus. Each time God touches our lives, we can see a little better his kingdom all around us. How many times will God touch us? As many as it takes. But the real question is: Will we have the eyes to see it, to take in and savor the drops of grace all around us? Where is our focus? We have eyes; may God grant us the ability to see.

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It’s a Miracle! Sermon Series – #5: Go Fish!

SCRIPTURE – John 21:1-14 –  After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards[b] off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

SERMON
It’s a Miracle! Sermon Series
#5 – Go Fish!
John 21:1-14
Nov. 16, 2014

Does this miracle story sound a bit familiar? If you were with us when this series started a few weeks ago, you may recognize some similarities to the story we look at in Luke 5, where the disciples, after a long night of fruitless fishing, are encouraged by Jesus to try again, and end up hauling in a catch of fish so big that their boat couldn’t hold them all. Jesus calls them to follow him, promising they will become fishers of people. It must have been so exciting at the beginning of their time with Jesus, setting sail on a journey with this rabbi from Nazareth who just might be something more than just a rabbi from Nazareth.

So you see why the disciples may have had déjà vu in this story: the boats, the nets, the sound of the waves, a stranger calling out to them. Only this time, the circumstances couldn’t be more different. The first time, they were fresh, rugged, ready to drop their nets and follow Jesus. Now they are tired, emotionally raw, ready to drop their nets and just give up.

Two fish stories with many similarities, but canyons apart in the emotional state of Peter and the other disciples. They’ve just been through the most incredible three years of their lives: following Jesus, witnessing his miracles, listening to his teachings. They loved him beyond measure and had given up all they had to be with him. They just knew he was the Messiah. And then…he was arrested. And beaten. And brutally murdered. This was not supposed to happen! It was such traumatic experience for many of them that they ran away. Even Peter, the leader of the disciples, actually denied even knowing Jesus three times. They had all abandoned Jesus when he needed them most.

Then, John tells us, while the disciples are huddled together in a locked room, afraid that they might be the next ones on the cross, a resurrected Jesus appears to them and tells them not to be afraid. He tells them the Holy Spirit will be with them, and he even shows Thomas his wounds so that he would believe. Maybe the dream didn’t have to end. Maybe life would be different, even without Jesus.

And then, it was over. Jesus was gone. No more resurrection appearances, no idea of when the Holy Spirit was coming, no instructions on what to do next. Jesus simply says, “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” To do what? “Wait, Jesus…that’s it? We need a little bit more detail in our marching orders.” What do they do now? They couldn’t stay in Jerusalem. The authorities knew they were friends with Jesus; the disciples might suffer the same punishment. But up until this point, they’ve only been followers of Jesus. Where do you go when you don’t have anyone to follow?

So they go home. What do you do after such a life-changing experience? Have you ever had some mountain-top moment, and then thought, “Wow, I’ve done it. Now what?” We look so forward to the accomplishment that we don’t even think about the letdown. I can remember going to a lot concerts while I was in college. The lights would dim, the band would start playing, we’d rock out for two hours, then they would leave the stage and the lights would come on and we’d all go, “Hmm. Oh well.” The very moment you say, “I doesn’t get any better than this,” that means it can only get worse from there.

The disciples had just lived three years of, “It can’t get any better than this.” And now it was over. What do you do after spending three years with Jesus? How in the world do you follow that? The disciples had no idea. So, with fear and sorrow still in their hearts, with their faces sagging, they simply go back to doing what they did before Christ filled their nets and called them out. “I’m going fishing,” said Peter, but it wasn’t really about fishing. You can almost hear the sigh of resignation in his voice. “I’m going fishing.” What else is there to do?

Remember, fishing for the disciples was more than just a diversion; it was how they made a living before Jesus came along. For many of them, it was the only thing they knew how to do without him. Jesus’ life on earth had ended, but theirs hadn’t, and they still had to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. So they go fishing. And even that is a letdown! The spend all night fishing and don’t catch a single fish, the feelings of failure as fishermen piled on top of their feelings of failure as disciples. Can you picture their mood when, in the morning, a stranger appears and says, “So fellas, catch any fish last night?” I have a feeling the disciples said a few choice words that didn’t make it into the Bible.

Then the stranger (we know who it is) invites them to do something quite peculiar. The disciples had spent the night fishing off one side of the boat. That was probably the way they had always done it. But the stranger says, “Throw your nets on the other side.” But what he was saying wasn’t really about fishing. He invites them to change their methodology, to see things from a different perspective. Do you know the definition of insanity? It’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And a night of fishing without catching anything would surely drive someone insane. But this stranger told them to try something new, to see things from a new perspective.

When I was in college I took a photojournalism class. We were given these primitive 35-millimeter cameras to use, a Pentax K-1000. I was used to the cheap point-and-shoot cameras, so this was a learning experience for me. I shot my first roll of film and developed it in the darkroom. But when the images appeared on the paper, they were all blurry. I took them to my professor and said, “Look at these pictures. Something’s wrong with my camera.” And he said, “Did you adjust the focus?” And I said, “What’s the focus?” So I took the camera and held it up to my eye, and he turned the lens, and everything that was blurry came into focus. And I said, “Can I take those pictures again before you give me a grade?”

Sometimes, when seen through human eyes, life seems blurry, the path forward is out of focus. We can’t quite see things clear in our mind; we lack the clarity to understand why something is happening and where God is in the picture. Then Jesus invites us to turns the lens a bit, to see things, not through our own eyes, but through God’s eyes. And suddenly, things change. One moment things seem hopeless, the next you see possibilities you never saw before. One moment your problems seem too big to be budged and the next you discover handles on them you didn’t know were there. One moment the net is empty, the next it is full of fish. There’s something alive in there, where before there was nothing but emptiness and darkness.

But we can’t see these things if we keep doing the same things we were doing before Jesus turned the lens for us. I know of many people who had mountain-top experiences at church camp, who welcomed Jesus into their heart, and then went back to being the same jerks they were before church camp. I firmly believe that if we’re the same person after we meet Jesus as we were before we met Jesus, then we didn’t really meet Jesus. Because meeting Jesus changes you. It fundamentally turns the lens on life. Sorry turns to joy. Cynicism turns to optimism. Despair turns to hope. But if we go back to doing the same things we were doing, being the same people we were, we’re going to miss this whole catch of fish Jesus has waiting for us.

I don’t know that this story is an actual supernatural miracle. It could be, for sure. But the miracle of the fish in this story might be secondary to the miracle of the disciples not doing things the way they had always done them. You know how hard it can be to get church people to change? Lord have mercy! “We’ve been fishing all night! What’s different about the other side of the boat?” The difference is that’s where Jesus called them to be. What we have here, folks, is a call story, just like the first catch of fish. Because sometimes – like every day – we need to be reminded that Jesus has called us, and because of that, we can’t go back to doing the same old things. What is the other side of the boat for you? What’s a source of frustration or hopelessness for you that Christ can turn into an abundance of blessing?

The story ends with a meal of fish and bread, surely calling to the disciples’ mind another time by the seashore when Jesus took fish and bread and fed multitudes. In that story, when the disciples complained about the lack of food for the crowd, Jesus said, “You feed them.” Just after our story today, Jesus will tell Peter three times, “Feed my sheep.” For three years the disciples had been nourished by Jesus’ teachings and his presence with them. He had filled their spiritual nets to overflowing with his abundance love, and grace. How could they go back to they way things used to be? How could they just go fishing for fish? There were so many people who needed to be fed.

I believe we are here this morning because, somehow, Christ has touched our lives. Maybe we’ve had a relationship with Christ since before we can remember. Maybe we’re searching for the “after” story that goes with our painful “before” story. Maybe we’re not even sure if Jesus is real. But we’re here, to be among God’s people, to hear God’s call to us, to share a meal that reminds us of Christ’s presence.  After this, how can we go back to doing the same old things? What will you do differently after you leave this place? Christ has come into our lives and changed things at the deepest levels. There’s light where there use to be darkness; there’s fish where there used to be empty nets. We have been fed, and we’ll never go hungry.

Now, Christ says, there are a lot of other hungry people out there just waiting to be offered nourishment. It’s as simple as a friendly smile, or a compassionate ear, or a show of patience, or an invitation to church. Isn’t it amazing what we can see when once Christ turns the lens on our lives? Can you imagine what difference that could make in the life of someone else? Jesus has supplied you with the abundant catch. You’re not the person you were before. You are a walking miracle, the embodiment of Christ’s love and grace in this hurting world. So now what? Are you just gonna go fishing? You feed them.

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It’s a Miracle! sermon series – #3: Girl, Get Up!

SCRIPTURE – Luke 8:40-42, 49-56

40 Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him.41 Just then there came a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, 42 for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying.

49 While he was still speaking, someone came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.” 50 When Jesus heard this, he replied, “Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.” 51 When he came to the house, he did not allow anyone to enter with him, except Peter, John, and James, and the child’s father and mother. 52 They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, “Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” 53 And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. 54 But he took her by the hand and called out, “Child, get up!” 55 Her spirit returned, and she got up at once. Then he directed them to give her something to eat.56 Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened.

SERMON
It’s a Miracle! Sermon Series
#3 – Raising Jairus’ Daughter
Luke 8:40-42, 49-56
Nov. 2, 2014

We continue our sermon series on the miracles of Jesus this morning by looking at one of his resurrections, which I think are the biggest challenges to our rational minds. You might be able to explain away a miraculous feeding or the healing of someone’s hand. But unless you believe in zombies, there’s simply no explaining a person being brought back from the dead. And the person who is resurrected, unless it’s Jesus himself, is still going to die in the future. So what’s the point?

By this juncture in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ popularity is reaching rock-star levels. Everywhere he goes people are waiting for him, crowds are forming to see him. He’s becoming known, against his will, as the man who can work miracles. He’s already raised one person from the dead, lifted him right out of the casket. It appears as if he can do anything. That belief is what drives Jairus to seek out Jesus. As the president of the local synagogue, Jairus would have heard about Jesus. In fact, he probably would have been warned by the Pharisees to keep a close eye on Jesus. “Watch this guy, Jairus; if he does anything suspicious, call us.” As a Jewish religious leader, he was expected to help out in the plot against Jesus.

As important as Jairus’ role was as a Jewish leader, he had an even more important part to play in his life: he was a father, and that trumped everything else. We fathers are very protective of our little girls. One time, when Sydney was in first grade, she was punched in the nose by another kid while riding the school bus home. When Leigh called me and told me, I admit that I stopped thinking like a pastor for a moment when I thought about what I wanted to do the kid who punched her. The father instinct kicked in. That’s why when I say my daughters won’t date until they’re 30, everyone else laughs, but I don’t. We fathers are a protective bunch.

Jairus has that same protective instinct. His only daughter, just  a year away from being a teenager, is dying. So when he sees a chance to restore her to health through this man Jesus, he acts on it, regardless of what his bosses might think, throwing himself at Jesus’ feet. This must have been a strange sight. Jairus the ruler of the synagogue, in his flowing robes and religious garb, on his face in the dust before this itinerant preacher and miracle worker.

But Jairus had been driven far beyond the point of caring about appearances. His daughter was dying. At this time, there was no Jewish belief in eternal life. The prevailing understanding of the day was that the souls of people who died went to Sheol, a murky, mysterious underworld that offered a kind of shadowy, purgatory-like existence. With no expectation of life after death, the death of a young person was considered especially tragic. Their time on earth was all they had. That’s why Jairus is so desperate.

On the way to Jairus’ house, Jesus gets sidetracked by another person looking for healing and that interruption was the girl’s death sentence. A messenger comes to Jairus and delivers the final verdict. Save your breath, don’t waste your time, give up your hope in Jesus. There’s nothing left to do but make funeral arrangements.

The wording of the message that is delivered is a peculiar one. “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.” At first that sounds like a brusque brush-off of Jairus’ request. “She’s gone. There’s nothing he can do here.” But I read it as a brush-off of Jesus. “She’s gone. There’s nothing you can do here.” Do we place those same kinds of limits on what Jesus can do in our lives, in our world? Had Jairus believed the message, his daughter would have stayed dead. I wonder what hope is squelched in our lives because we believe there’s nothing Jesus can do here.

Jesus here’s the grim report and says to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid, just believe and she will be saved.” They continue on to Jairus’ house, where they find a crowd already gathering to mourn the girl’s death. Jesus takes a few disciples and the girl’s parents into the house, takes a look at the girl, and pronounces, “She is not dead, she’s sleeping.”

Now, did you hear the reaction? Luke says, “And they laughed at him.” Laughed! At Jesus! “They laughed at him.” Who is “they?” I can’t believe it was the parents who laughed. They’re the ones who had faith in Jesus in the first place. And his disciples knew better than to laugh; they’d seen what he can do. Maybe it was the servants or the mourners outside the house who laughed. Would you have laughed? I probably would have. Sleeping? We saw her chest stop moving. We can’t feel a pulse. We know this guy has touched a few lepers and calmed a storm, but this girl is dead. No one has that kind of power. There’s nothing he can do here. Would you have laughed?

Sarah did. When a visitor told her and Abraham that she was going to have a baby at age 90, she laughed. When we’re faced with impossible circumstances, the only thing we see in front of us is a brick wall. And then God shows up and said, “That’s not a wall, that’s a door,” and we say, “Are you blind? That’s bricks and mortar! There’s no getting past that diagnosis, no finding another job, no chance for love.” Do we laugh? Do we make light of the promises Jesus has made to us?

When Jesus goes into the house, he sees the girl lying there on the bed. Is there any worse feeling than that? At Crestwood, we know something about sick children, don’t we? Two of our own, Milly Bles and Holly Schoeder, have recently been the little girls lying on the bed. And we’ve probably experienced similar things in our families. I remember when our daughter Molly was about seven months old, she had to get tubes put in her ears. That’s probably the simplest surgery in the history of surgeries, but when they wheeled her back on the gurney through the surgery doors, Leigh and I just dissolved into tears. And then five seconds later they wheeled her out. “We’re done!” But when it’s your child, there’s such thing as a minor surgery. It is soul-level painful to see a child lying there.

Jairus is not the only one who feels that pain when he sees his daughter lying there. I believe God also felt that pain. We use many different terms to describe God. Some are nice. God is our Creator of the universe, God is a Shepherd, God is almighty and holy and loving. Some are not so nice. God is a vengeful judge. God is a critical punisher of sins. But I believe this story gives us the term that trumps all terms. Pardon the gender exclusivity here, but it fits our story. First and foremost, God is our Father.

When we hurt, God hurts with us like a father does a child. When we accomplish something, God celebrates with us like a mother does a child. And when we fall ill or make bad decisions or are the victims of cruel circumstances, God grieves for us like a parent does a child. I believe God’s parental love for us is a constant presence for us, even in situations that don’t work out the way we had planned. I’m really glad for Jairus that this story has a happy ending, but we have to acknowledge the painful reality that not all stories end the same way. On this All Saints’ Day, I’m aware that we remember a number of kind, loving people who weren’t healed, who died despite our prayers. Sometimes the girl doesn’t get up off the table, so we have to be careful about telling people that if they just have enough faith, God will fix everything.

This story leads us down that road, doesn’t it? Jesus says to Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe and she will be saved.” Notice he doesn’t say she will be alive again. It doesn’t say she will be resurrected. In the translation the Message, Jesus says, “Trust in me and everything will be all right.” Can everything be all right even if the girl still dies? Yes it can. Maybe not “all right” in the way we want it to be all right. But all right in the sense that we have put our trust in the one Who promises life in the face of death, the One who doesn’t stop working when we think there’s nothing he can do here.

For us today, to have faith in Christ doesn’t mean we believe we’ll always experience a physical miracle. Christ calls not to fear, but to trust. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says that if Jairus was able to do that, to trust in Jesus’ power and presence, then he would have survived whatever happened next, even if Jesus had walked into the room, closed his daughter’s eyes with his fingertips, and pulled the sheet over her head. Her father’s belief would have become the miracle at that point, his willingness to believe that she was still in God’s good hands even though she had slipped out of his.

Our faith is not grounded in the fact that Jairus’ daughter was brought back to life. If that’s the basis for our belief, if our faith is predicated on the certainty that Jesus can rescue us from every illness and even physical death, then we’ve set our sights way too low, because at some point, we’re still going to die. Instead, our faith is grounded in the fact that the one who had the power to bring her back from the dead has himself defeated death forever, for all of us. The miracle is not that he can perform resurrections; the miracles is that for all of us, and for all of those who didn’t get up off the operating table or get out of the hospice bed, Christ is the resurrection, that there is something more to our life than our time here on earth. Trusting in that, claiming that promise, even in the face of death, is the  miracle.

By raising Jairus’ daughter, Jesus gives us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, where there is no illness or mourning or death. But not everyone who calls on Jesus’ name receives the same kind of miracle. And yet, we still believe. Faith means refusing to focus on the circumstances and the uncertainties. Faith means taking seriously the promises of God’s presence, the promises of God’s goodness, the promises of God’s faithfulness to us. Faith means believing that God loves us like a father. Even when death seems to have won, through pain and anxiety and grief, when the love of a parent isn’t strong enough to save, we trust. We are in God’s good hands, regardless of what life brings or what life takes away. Thanks be to God.

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It’s A Miracle! Sermon Series – #2: Lending A Hand

SCRIPTURE – Luke 6:6-11 – On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him.Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

SERMON
It’s a Miracle! Sermon Series
#2 – Lending a Hand
Luke 6:6-11

We continue our sermon series this morning look at the miracles of Jesus. We laid some groundwork last week that will be important for us to remember moving forward. First, we learned that in most of these stories, the miracle itself is only of secondary importance to the larger context of what’s going on. And second, we learned that the purpose of Jesus’ miracles was not to entertain or even to provide healing. The primary purpose of the miracles was to give those who witnessed them a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like, where there is no more death, everyone is feed, etc. So hold onto those two thoughts as we move into our miracle today about the healing of a man with a withered hand.

But first, a confession. Not mine, yours! I want you to think about the 10 commandments, or at least the ones you can remember, and then decide which one of them you are most likely to break. Is it “thou shalt not steal?” Then you and I need to talk. Is it “thou shalt not commit murder?” Then you and I need to talk in a very public place. Which commandment are you most likely to violate?

I believe that there is one commandment that 99% of the people in this room will break before the day is even over. That’s the commandment to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, to give the whole day to God and to rest from our labors. At some point today, we will do some kind of work – answering an email, cooking a meal, going shopping, pumping gas. Of all the commandments, this is the one that probably gets broken on a regular basis most often, and without even a second thought.

That’s a far cry from how the Pharisees observed this law. They were the Jewish religious leaders, and one of their jobs was to make sure God’s law was followed to the letter. They were fundamentalists when it came to the law, making sure that God’s commands were properly honored and followed, especially the Ten Commandments. So in our passage today, when they see Jesus not honoring the Sabbath, he was committing one of the most serious offenses in their eyes. It’s not like he’s breaking law #312. He’s breaking one of the Top Ten! We read at the end of this passage that this incident was the nudge that pushed the Pharisees over the cliff and made them actively start to plot against Jesus. But were they in the wrong here?  If Jesus knew this law was so important, and if Jesus was a Jew himself, why didn’t he observe it?

I don’t believe this was because Jesus didn’t think that idea of Sabbath was important. We have several examples of him pulling off by himself to rest and pray. But in this instance, Jesus saw that the Pharisees were giving more importance to keeping this commandment than to doing God’s work. The Pharisees thought they had an understanding of the right way to do things, and they tried to enforced that, to the extent that the lost sight of the bigger picture.

Earlier I called the Pharisees fundamentalists. That’s a harsh term in today’s world because of the baggage it carries with it. Fundamentalism is defined as “a strict adherence to basic ideas or principles.” In that case, I will admit to being a fundamentalist. I strictly adhere to the idea that you do NOT leave a baseball game before the last pitch is thrown. If you do, you’ve broken one of my commandments.

Fundamentalists are everywhere these days! People are fundamentalists about things like no spaghetti in their chili or not wearing white after Labor Day. Some people are toilet-paper-from under fundamentalists; others are toilet-paper-from-over fundamentalists. Some people are fundamentalists about no nuts in their fudge; others are fundamentalist about opening one present on Christmas Eve. If you look into you heart of hearts, I bet there’s something about which you are a fundamentalist.

So before we dismiss the fundamentalism of the Pharisees, we have to be willing to admit our similarities. The problem Jesus had was not with their fundamentalism; it was the way their fundamentalism blinded them from seeing the situation in front of them. It’s fine to believe you should stay to the end of a baseball game. It’s not fine to strictly adhere to that principle if the stadium catches fire. There has to be a balance between believing our way is the right way, and being open to a better way.

The Pharisees just knew that their way of observing the Sabbath was the right way, so they were determined to catch Jesus breaking the commandment so they could punish him. Jesus was never one to hide from a challenge, so on the Sabbath, while teaching in the synagogue, he gives them their smoking gun. It’s interesting to note that Luke says the Pharisees were “watching him closely,” which can also be translated as “spying.” On the day they were supposed to be observing the Sabbath by not working, instead they were working by observing Jesus!

Jesus sees a man with a withered hand and calls him forward so everyone could see him. Now, this man’s condition, while unfortunate, was not life-threatening. Sabbath law actually allows for doing work if it involves a life-threatening situation. But this man wasn’t about to die. Jesus could have waited a day and performed the same healing action with no consequence. But to do so would have been saying that the Pharisees’ law of strict adherence to the Sabbath trumped God’s law of doing the right thing.

Now notice that Jesus didn’t actually do anything in this story. All he did was say something, which hardly counts as work, unless you’re a preacher! But the Pharisees didn’t care; they knew the right way to observe the Sabbath, and whatever Jesus was doing, that wasn’t it. Luke, who was a doctor by trade, gives us the details. He tells us it was the man’s right hand. The right hand was the one used for work, for gesturing, even for greeting someone. To be without the use of the right hand was not only physically debilitating, but would have hurt this man’s ability to make a living and a life. Without his right hand, he was cut off from society.

Jesus says to the man, “Stretch out your hand,” something that, with a shriveled hand, would have been impossible.  At the call of Jesus this man does what he otherwise couldn’t do, and Luke tells us that his hand is completely healed, restored to his former good health. But that physical healing that the Pharisees witnessed, the healing that made them so mad, was only a small part of the real healing in this story. The spiritual healing of this man has longer lasting effects.            This man had once had a full life. Then, because of his hand, he lost it: his self-esteem, his sense of worth, his livelihood, his ability to provide for his family. All gone. Now, thanks to Christ, he found it again. His sense of dignity restored. His ability to work restored. His life restored.

And it never would have happened had the Pharisees had their way. Their understanding of God was cemented in the law of the Old Testament. They weren’t open to this new way God’s kingdom was present among them. They were open to the idea that God was still working. You see what Jesus did, right? He took a scripture passage about the Sabbath and reinterpreted it for his current context. You mean it’s OK to interpret the Bible, not to be restricted to reading it literally? That’s a miracle right there! The Bible, which looks like a static book, is actually a living document if we let it speak to us. But we have to be willing to interpret it for our current context.

Jesus does that here, and in doing so he displays his own form of fundamentalism. His strict adherence is to the principle that God is love, and that showing God’s love should trump anything else. In fact, Jesus goes further. He says that inactivity before human need is not an option. He says that if you have a chance to show God’s love and you don’t do it, you’re not just abstaining from giving a glimpse of God’s kingdom. You’re doing evil.

Ouch. That one stings. There have been plenty of times in my life when I could have shown God’s love but didn’t for selfish reasons. Not stopping to help a car on the side of the road because I was in a hurry. Not sharing my money with someone because I’d have to go to the ATM to get more. Not helping to serve at church because I was afraid I wouldn’t do it the right way. What keeps us from being love fundamentalists, from giving a glimpse of the kingdom by showing God’s love?

This is no law greater than the law of Christ. There is no purpose that trumps our call to love one another. There is never a wrong day or wrong time to help someone in need. We have a role to play in restoring this world, in making people whole. We can speak a kind word of encouragement to a disheartened coworker. We can offer a smile to a weary store clerk. We can give someone else our time and attention to let them know that they matter to God and to us. We have the power to restore life, to offer spiritual healing, to participate in making a miracle happen.

Jesus is not devaluing the role of taking a Sabbath. It’s still important for all of us to find time to rest. What Jesus is saying is that doing God’s will – whether that means resting, worshipping, or helping – shouldn’t be confined to a certain day or time. Every day is holy. Every day has the potential for being a time of Sabbath or a time of serving. Every day holds the potential for a miracle, the potential for being restored, the potential to provide a glimpse of God’s kingdom. If we are open to a better way. If we are fundamentalists about sharing God’s love.

We’ll never be perfect at this; we still suffer from Pharisee syndrome of thinking our way is the right way. We will still think we know what is best. There’s our way, and then there’s God’s way, and our goal each and every day should be to make our way look more like God’s way, because that’s when we become miracle-workers in Christ’s name. What do we say in that prayer? My will be done? No, we say, thy will be done, Lord. Thy will be done.

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It’s A Miracle! Sermon Series – #1: A Fish Story

SCRIPTURE – Luke 5:1-11 – Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

SERMON
It’s A Miracle!
#1 – A Fish Story
Luke 5:1-11
Oct. 19, 2014

We begin our sermon series today on the miracles of Jesus. Through the course of the next several weeks we’ll be looking at a number of Jesus’ miracles as recorded in the gospels. Our goal is to try to make sense of them, which I can tell you right now is impossible. The dictionary defines a miracle as an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.” If we could make sense of them, they wouldn’t be miracles. But, because you’re curious and I’m stubborn, that won’t stop us from trying, so I pray that along the way God will grant us new insight and understanding to these supernatural stories and what they have to say to us.

One biblical scholar said that without the miracles the New Testament would be a lot easier to believe, and that’s exactly right. The things in scripture that most challenge our reasoned intellect, that most bewilder our rational minds, are the irrational acts. I believe the miracles are one of reasons some people reject Christianity. How do you explain them? Five loaves of bread and two fish turned into a feast for 5,000. A raging storm calmed by a few words. Scores of sick and lame people healed at the touch of a hand. A man hung on a cross to die lives again in three days. These things just don’t happen in our everyday life.

So the New Testament would be easier to believe without the miracles. And yet, if the New Testament didn’t have the miracles, it wouldn’t be worth believing. Without the miracles, all we have is the account of a righteous prophet who was put to death for his teachings. Without the miracles, we have a wise dead man; with them, we have a Savior.

So if the miracles have the potential of driving people away from faith, why are they in there? What is the purpose of miracles in the gospel stories? I don’t believe Jesus was trying to show off or entertain the crowds. I don’t even think the ultimate purpose was to heal or to feed or to make life better for someone, although that was a beneficial outcome. I believe the true purpose of Jesus’ miracles was to give us a glimpse of God’s kingdom. For just a moment, Jesus says, take a look. See what is coming. There will be no illness. There will be no pain. There will be enough food for everyone. Miracles were windows into God’s future plans. Through them, Jesus was reminding his followers that God’s kingdom was present among them.

If that’s the purpose, then you have look at each miracle through that lens. Jesus not only performed the miracles to prove this point, but to encourage people to join in the miracle and work to make that kingdom real on earth. In a sense, the miracles were a means to an end, the end being the call to faith and action, and the people who experienced the miracle were not just observers but participants. That’s evident in the first miracle we’re witnessing.

Jesus was in the midst of his teaching ministry, and he was gaining some popularity. On this particular occasion, so many people came to hear him that there wasn’t enough room on the shore for all of them. Luke says: “The crowd was pushing in on him to better hear the Word of God.” I love that image. When we hear the word of God, are we reclining back, or are we pushing in to hear it?

To get some personal space, Jesus asks to use Simon the fisherman’s boat. Jesus had probably observed Simon earlier on the shore, who was cleaning up after a long night of fruitless fishing. After Jesus finishes speaking, he says to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down your nets for a catch.” Now, if I’m Peter, I’m looking at this stranger, this carpenter from Nazareth, and I’m telling him exactly where he can put his nets. “Look, Jesus, you stick to building cabinets and leave the fishing to the experts.”

After some mild balking, Peter obeys Jesus and heads out to the deep water. Now we need to pause here to recognize the significance of Jesus’ command. Back in those days, people didn’t know what was under the water. They didn’t have sonar and submarines and snorkels. In fact, they believed that water was the residence of evil. The monster Leviathan, mentioned several times in the Bible, lived under the water. In the beginning, God’s spirit hovers over the chaotic waters and brings order. In the book of Revelation, the evil beast rises from the deep. Fishermen tended to hug the shoreline because it was safer. If a storm came, you didn’t want to be caught out in the deep water. It wasn’t safe. It was evil.

How would you respond to Jesus’ command to go deeper, to leave the safety of the sand and head out into the deep water? For me, I really, really like staying close to the shore. I prefer not to get over my head. It’s tempting, isn’t, to stay in the shallow waters? Shallow water is pleasant. It tickles our ankles when we walk in it. The minnows and the little fishies gather there. In the shallow water, you can see the bottom. You know where you’re stepping. The shallow water is safe.

But, as Jesus shows Peter, the shoreline is not where you’re going to catch the big fish. When I was little, my PawPaw used to take me fishing at a local pay lake He’d get my pole all ready, bait my hook with a worm, and then show me how to cast out into the middle of the lake. But every time, I would only cast the line about 10 feet in front of me so I could watch the bobber. He’d say, “You’re not going to catch any fish there.” Well, one day, that bobber dove under water and I pulled in a nice sized bluegill. “See?” I told him, as if to say, “Leave the fishing to the experts.” About a half hour later, as we were getting ready to go home, he reeled in his line from the middle of the lake and hauled in a catfish about twice as big as me. The deep water is where you catch the big fish.

If the story ended with the miraculous catch of fish, what we’d have would be an amazing tale of Jesus making life better for someone. But remember, the purpose of the miracles wasn’t simply to make life better for people, it was to give people a glimpse of God’s kingdom, so we know there must be more going on here. Jesus has just dumped this miracle flipping and flopping at Simon’s feet, enough fish to provide for his family for months. Then Jesus says, “You think that’s something? Come with me and I’ll teach you catch more than fish.” And Simon leaves behind the biggest haul of fish he’d ever seen and becomes a disciple.

My question to you is this: what is the greater miracle in this story? The catch of fish, or Simon’s decision to leave it lying on the shore? In both cases, the miracle is predicated on Simon’s participation, his willingness to let go of what is safe and comfortable. First he lets go of the shoreline, then he lets go of the catch of fish. In both cases, his trust in Jesus trumps his fear and his sense of security.

For me, the real miracle in this story is the power of faith to see beyond what appears to be. Look at our world. Look at the needs on our prayer list. Look at what’s happening to our baby Milly. Look at all the violence and hatred and negativity on TV, and that’s just the political ads.  Is there anything there that justifies faith in God?  We may feel like we’ve fished all day and our nets are empty. Tired. Frustrated. At a dead end. Is there anything there that tells you God is at work in this world?

Yes, there is. There is the faith those who pray, who cry, who send cards and care packages, who work for fairness and justice. Every believer is a participant in God’s miracle, because it is through us, the hands and feet of Christ, that God’s kingdom is made known on this earth. That doesn’t mean if we have enough faith everything will work out the way we think it should, but it does mean that our faith will help us see God at work in the midst of the challenges in our lives. And it means we can be participants in helping others glimpse the kingdom of God, as well.

Here’s what this story tells me: If we want to participate in a miracle, if we want to help show this world what God’s kingdom looks like, we can’t do it by hugging the shoreline. We are called into the deep water, the place beyond safety and control, the place where we turn our boat over to Jesus and let him guide us. We each have a next step to take in order to grow in our faith, and I’m pretty sure that step is not back toward shore. You don’t get many glimpses of God’s kingdom while standing on the dock. So what is the deep water for you? What is the miracle in which God is inviting you to participate? Is it reminding a shut-in they are not alone? Is it a step up in your giving to make more ministries possible? Is it lending your voice to the church leadership or the choir or a Sunday School class? Where is God calling you into the deep water? And what is keeping you from going there?

Patrick Henry once wrote, “I’ve never been party to a clear-cut miracle, but I do know the precondition for recognizing one if it happens is the openness to surprise.” If we stay where it’s safe, we only see and experience what is safe. But if we put out into the deep water, if we dare to go where God calls us, we open ourselves up to the surprising presence of Christ, who fills our souls to overflowing and then calls us to follow him.

And then, we have the indescribable opportunity of becoming the miracle. Every believer is God’s miracle. Every person who steps out on faith and gives Jesus command of their boat becomes a living testimony to the power of faith in Jesus Christ. And then, maybe when we least expect it, while we’re out there serving, suddenly our boats are overflowing with fish, a child’s eyes are opened to a Bible story, a new relationship is made, a person grows in their knowledge and love of Christ because of your relationship with them. When we open ourselves to God’s capacity to surprise, miracles happen. The shallow water is safe. But the deep water is where miracles happen.

I’ll close with this poem credited to Sir Francis Drake: “Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves. When our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little. When we arrived safely because we sailed too close to shore.”

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