1/27/2013 Sermon: “If You Build It…”

Clapping Hands - lens flareNehemiah 8:1  And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel.  2  And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month.  3  And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.

4  And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden pulpit which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood [the elders of Israel on his left hand].  5  And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; and when he opened it all the people stood.  6  And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God; and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.

7  Also [several men of the Levites] helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places.  8  And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

9  And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10  Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

11  So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”  12  And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

Last week, we were thinking about weddings.  The gospel reading was about the wedding at Cana, when Jesus changed water into wine, and in my own mind, I was visualizing some of the weddings that I’ve officiated.  Some of best moments of people’s lives happen at weddings.  Or maybe some other time.  If I ask you to think about the best moments of your life, can you do that?  If you were in a bad mood, break into that, and allow yourself to visit a good time.  Think of a good moment.  Stay in that moment for now.

Think of where you are, whom you’re with.  If you were eating, what was that good food?

Now go to a moment that wasn’t so good – a time when you were really struggling, when things weren’t going well at all.  Maybe it was a brief moment.  Or maybe it was something that stretched over time.

When I think about good times and bad times, I’m struck by how unpredictable it all was, especially the bad times.  That thing that happened.  And I never saw it coming.  Never saw that one coming.

And, at least for me, I’m aware of how close together the good times and bad times were.  Life really can be a roller coaster.  Peaks and valleys.  I know that God can get you through it.  The Spirit of God in you will make sure you don’t get stuck in the valleys – if you are willing to trust, to move on, and walk through that valley with God.

2 - New Orleans houseI visited New Orleans with a mission group in 2006, not long after Hurricane Katrina.  I had never been in a place that experienced destruction on such a scale.  So many families literally lost everything.  The Jersey Shore is now a place where many people have to start over from scratch.  Maybe you have seen places like this yourself – or lived there.  Maybe that’s your story.  There are countless stories of destruction and starting over.  Our God is at his best when people are rebuilding, renewing, or being reborn.

The Old Testament reading was about people starting over.  Talk about a bad time that stretched out over years.  Nehemiah was the governor of the Hebrew people who brought them back to Jerusalem after 140 years of exile in Persia (around 400 BC).

The good news was that they were allowed to go back to their homeland.  The bad news was that the city of Jerusalem was a heap of ruins, Solomon’s Temple had been long gone, and they were surrounded by enemies.

It looked like a huge problem – a survival problem.  Just the kind of problem that gives people no other choice but to turn to God.  They were at a turning point.  They were starting over.

Wall around the Old City of Jerusalem.  Rebuilt many times over the centuries.
Wall around the Old City of Jerusalem. Rebuilt many times over the centuries.

The first thing they did was rebuild the walls of the city for protection, which was a step of faith.  They still had enemies all around, who were not exactly supportive of the rebuilding.  I think this is true of all rebuilding projects.  There is always someone ready to say, “Look who’s back! Who do you think you are?”

And in the midst of the taunts and the threats, God gives you permission to start over, to be restored.  When you start over, it’s important not to go into hiding.  Show God you believe, even when you’re not sure you do.  God says to the Hebrew people, essentially, “If you build it, I will come.”  In the gospel of Mark, the father brings his son to Jesus and says, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

Next, after the walls started to go up around the city, the Hebrew people asked Ezra the scribe to bring out God’s word and read it to them.  It had been a long time.  Knee deep in trouble, they knew they needed to hear what God had to say, and this was a case of “be careful what you ask for.”

When they heard the reading of the law, which would have included things like the ancient stories from Genesis and the 10 Commandments, they started to weep.  Their hearts were open to God, and they understood what God had to say to them.  They realized how far they were from living the way God wanted them to live.  Hearing what God has to say doesn’t always feel so good.  Sometimes you weep.  But it’s a good hurt, because God  cares, and this – God’s Word – is an expression of love for God’s people.

But the story doesn’t end there.  The end result of a connection with God isn’t a funeral.  It’s rejoicing.  Ezra tells them to go have a party.  Celebrate.  You’re free.  God is in control.  You have a new future.

“And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”

There is a time for serious reflection.  Life is not easy, and this is life and death stuff we talk about here.  We worship together, we hear God and understand.  But if this moment of starting over doesn’t produce joy in our faith, we’ve missed the point.  God’s people are commanded to have joy.

Sometimes we start over by choice.  Sometimes we start over because of the consequences of things we do.  Some turning points are what the insurance companies call an “act of God.”  We have no control.  Any control you thought you had is an illusion.  All problems, all crises, have one thing in common: they give an opportunity to trust in God.  It’s all about faith.

God’s word is important in this story.  When the destruction came, there was a way to help the people find there way back to a spiritual and moral center, and this is still true.  In a culture that demands entertainment and convenience, the word from God can be so inconvenient and easy to ignore.  It is so easy to wander to a place where you know you are lost -without the direction we all need from God. And the GPS device in your car won’t help. Calling Onstar won’t help you figure out what to do or where to go next.  The first step in healing is an honest look at where you need to go and then taking a step in that direction, then another step – trusting in God.  And it’s great to know that God is still speaking.

Out of every problem, or crisis, or disaster, there are possibilities if God is in the picture.  When we trust in God, when God is part of the flow of every day life, the possibilities are endless, crisis or no crisis, disaster or no disaster.

So You’ve Got Problems?  Listen to this story from Norman Vincent Peale:

One day, I was walking down the street when I saw my friend George walking toward me. It was clear from the look on his face that he wasn’t overflowing with the ecstasy and exuberance of human existence, which is a high class way of saying that George was dragging bottom.

So naturally, I took the bait.  “George!  How are you doing?”  While that was meant to be a routine question, George took me very seriously and for fifteen minutes he enlightened me on how bad he felt.  And the more he talked, the worse I felt.

Finally, I said to him, “Well, George, I’m sorry to see you in such a depressed state of mind.  How did you get this way?”  That really set him off.

“It’s my problems,” he said.  “Problems, nothing but problems.  I’m fed up with problems.  If you could get rid of my problems, I would contribute $5,000 to your favorite charity.”

Well now, I’m never one to turn a deaf ear to such an offer, and so I meditated, ruminated, and cogitated on the proposition and came up with an answer that I thought was pretty good.

I said, “Yesterday, I went to a place where there are thousands of people.  As far as I could tell, none of them has any problems.  Would you like to go there?”

George brightened right up and said, “When can we leave?  That sounds like my kind of place.”

“If that’s the case George,” I said, “I’ll take you tomorrow to Woodlawn Cemetery because the only people I know who don’t have any problems are dead.”

Peale used to say, “If you have no problems at all – I warn you – you are in grave jeopardy – you’re on your way out and don’t know it!  If you don’t believe you have any problems, I suggest that you immediately race from wherever you are, jump into your car and drive home as fast – but as safely as you can – run into your house, and go straight to your bedroom and slam the door.  Then get on your knees and pray, “What’s the matter, Lord?  Don’t you trust me anymore? Give me some problems!”

Are you living the “ideal” Christian life?  No problems?  The more we trust God, the more God might just give us some things to work on to test our faith in order to deepen it. And together as God’s church, if we step out in faith to build new things for Christ, if we plant new flowers in God’s garden, problems will come.  That’s when we know that God will do things in us and with us that we never expected.


O God, you are the Lord of all our beginnings and all our endings. Give us the vision to see the new beginnings you’ve prepared for us. Give us courage to face the unknown challenges ahead. Help us learn from the mistakes we have made in the past. Help us forgive ourselves, that we may go on to write new chapters with confidence.  Keep us secure in your peace. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

1/20/2013 Sermon: “Filled Up & Flowing Out”

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John 2:1-11.  On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11.  Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

First, a little story:

Sally was driving home from one of her business trips in Northern Arizona when she saw an elderly Navajo woman walking on the side of the road. As the trip was a long and quiet one, she stopped the car and asked the Navajo woman if she would like a ride.

With a word or two of thanks, she got in the car. After resuming the journey and a bit of small talk, the Navajo woman noticed a brown bag on the seat next to Sally. “What’s in the bag?” asked the old woman.

Sally looked down at the brown bag and said, “It’s a bottle of wine. Got it for my husband.”

The Navajo woman was silent for a moment, and then speaking with the quiet wisdom of an elder said, “Good trade.”

I’ve always enjoyed knowing that in the Gospel of John, the first miracle of Jesus was at a wedding, at a party where the wine had run out.  A kind of metaphor for anything that has gone stale or sour in life – especially marriage.  Let Jesus in – if you have faith, if you let the Spirit of God in, everybody will want to be at your party saying “Give me some of what you’ve got!”

Greek weddingSome of you might remember reading that Kathy and I were married in a Greek Orthodox church, and that if you’ve ever seen “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” you’d understand a lot about us.  One way in which a Greek ceremony is different from others is that the couple never speaks to each other.  Maybe in movies or photos, you’ve seen the crowns that the couple wears for a few minutes.  There is a ribbon strung between them.  This symbolizes the Holy Spirit in the marriage.  The ceremony is about dedicating their lives together to God.  God fills the marriage and God is the third partner.

Filled Up!   Compared to the other gospels, there aren’t very many miracles in John. But when each one is done, someone believes in Christ who didn’t believe before.  Here’s Jesus turning water into wine and people believe in him.  The miracle is the faith someone has where there was no faith before.  John says it’s more than a miracle – “It was the first of his “signs.”  (John 2:11)  So this is a sign. A sign of what?

The miracle was good thing, but you might not have caught the real miracle: after Jesus does what he does, somebody believes he is the Son of God, and there should be cheering.  Later on, the woman at the well believes Jesus is the Messiah – bells and whistles go off.  Then a blind man is healed – and he believes – fireworks.  Jesus turned the water into wine and the disciples believed – and that’s why he came.  The miracles produce faith, that faith the punch-line of the story, the sign.  People believe in Jesus who didn’t believe before.  The sign is that this is the One, the one we have waited for.  The One who can believed in, the One who can receive faith, and in return, create new life in us.  This is God.  That’s what the sign points to.

In the Gospel of John, turning the water into wine was the first sign of who Jesus was.  Might seem like a parlor trick, something that we might think of as being trivial, but it produced faith.

In that story, it sounded like Jesus was being difficult when he said… “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” But the Greek for these verses doesn’t translate very well.  When the wine ran out, Jesus said something more like, “What’s that to us?”  It sounds like he might have been refusing to do the miracle, but his intention was to give this gift of wine, not because anyone asked him to, but because he wanted to.  I don’t think Mary knew what he was going to do; I think it was surprise to her too.  He turned the water they had been using on the outside (for washing) into something good you could use on your insides.  Like the Spirit of God when you believe.

For the party, they’ve brought these six stone jars the size of garbage cans so that everybody can follow the Jewish tradition of washing before eating.  This water isn’t meant for drinking; it’s taken out in pitchers, probably by servants, and then poured over feet and hands.  Tradition is the key word here.  They wash their hands and their feet.  This is what the Jews do in this place.  It demonstrates obedience to God.  They probably have done this tradition so long and so often they don’t even remember exactly why, except that God said so and it’s one of the rules.

The jars are empty because all the people at the party have been washing feet and hands.  Then the servants re-fill the jars and Jesus turns the water into wine, and apparently, really good Cabernet or Pinot Noir.  The stuff they had been using for washing became good for drinking.  It had only been good for the outside of a person, now it was good for the inside.  It’s a sign.  It’s a hint.  Who is this? Jesus took the tradition and filled it with life.  One minute they had empty traditional, unsanitary stone jars, then suddenly, with Jesus at the party, they had more good wine than they could ever drink, at least 120 gallons. Before, all they had were clean hands and feet, now they’re satisfied on the inside.  That’s what Jesus does.  That’s what God does.  And this is God.

God wants to know, “What’s your empty tradition?”  Jesus wants to fill it with life.  He wants to change the old stuff and fill it with himself.  The empty tradition could be the things we do at church, unless Christ fills them.  It could be the things we do at school, unless Christ fills them.  It could be any of the empty habits we have that are so hard to break.  Every empty tradition we change has to have something to take its place, and that’s what Christ does.  It’s very difficult to stop a bad old habit unless we replace it with a good new habit.

The people in AA know this.  They know everybody needs a higher power, and that we can’t help ourselves without that higher power.  Christians have the advantage of knowing who that higher power is.  And no matter what it is we’re trying to change about ourselves, Christ is just waiting to be asked to change our water into wine.

Flowing Out!  But it doesn’t stop there.  God changes your life for a purpose.  A theme that runs throughout the writings of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament is that when you have faith, God gives you gifts.  God takes the old stuff in you and turns it into good things that we share with each other.  God fills you up with the good stuff and sends you out.  It overflows.

I’ve been to seminars and study groups intended to help people discover their spiritual gifts.  That ability God gives you to bring something special to the church that it needs.  What I think is interesting is that in scripture, at least in the writings of Paul, nobody has to figure out what their gift is.  I think Paul would have hijacked the Nike slogan – “Just do it!”  You have the gift – just do it!  There is that thing that you love doing for God and others.  We just have to find the place where you can put it to use.

Some would have the gift of…

  • wisdom or wise speech, v.8  – helping others express themselves in helpful ways.
  • knowledge, v.8  – helping others understand meaning.
  • faith, v.9  – helping others believe.
  • healing, v.9  – helping others become whole.
  • miracles, v.10  – helping others experience the unexpected things God does.
  • prophecy, (v.10)  – speaking truth to others on behalf of God.
  • discernment of spirits, v.10  – helping others understand what is true spiritually.
  • tongues, v.10  – communicating the Good News of God in a language others can understand.
  • interpretation of tongues, v.10.  helping others understand what God is saying.

Most of those gifts have to do with communication and our relationship with God.  As you read through scripture, you find that God gives gifts that aren’t in this particular list – the gifts of making music and art, for instance, which are described in the Old Testament.  The Book of Romans mentions the gift of organization and the gift of giving.  Each one of you brought something in with you that God would like to use with someone else.  You may think it’s not much to offer, but God doesn’t think so.  With you in the mix, there’s a kind of domino effect.

Singing in the choir, teaching Sunday School, keeping the roof from leaking, leading the youth group, and…

Not everybody has the same gift; and the gifts are not for individuals, they’re for the good of the group, and they bring people closer to God.  They happen when we are together and your gift, whatever it is, is not about you – it’s about what God wants to do for somebody else through you.  I know that in life, you can achieve a sense of success in many ways.  But God can give you a true sense of fulfillment, when you allow yourself to be used to bring faith to someone who has none.

Everything we need to be the church, the Body of Christ, together, is right here.  Everything we need to be a force for Christ is right here.  Everything God needs to make a real, lasting difference in our homes, our community, and our world, is right here.


O God, sometimes we feel empty, just like stone jars.  Cold and lifeless.  We follow our traditions without even thinking what they mean.  But we want to be filled with life.  We want you to make us new.  Our lives need to change, we need your kind of CPR, and so we come to you.  Send your Spirit into our lives; help us know the habits and traditions that take us away from you.  Give us the faith to know that you will walk with us through the withdrawal as we change direction.  And when our friends and family ask us, “What’s new?” we will know that the change they see has happened through our friendship with you.

Now give us the courage of a Martin Luther King Jr. to follow you and make difference in our world.  Amen.

1/13/2013 Sermon: “Show Me Your ID!”

Stained glass window in the Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth, Palestine. CN – 2011

Luke 3 15  As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ,

16  John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  17  His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18  So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.

19  But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20  added this to them all, that he shut up John in prison.

21  Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,22  and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”

 Show Me Your ID.  This is the Sunday when the traditional readings focus on the baptism of Christ.  We have two sacraments in the UCC: baptism and… communion.  For a few minutes, I’ll show you where the tradition of baptism came from.

In baptism, everybody finds out who you are; people are identified.  That’s one of the purposes of baptism.  It is a debut, a coming-out, a public introduction – originally intended for people who want to express faith openly – and in our churches for parents and their children.  Around the 5th century, baptism started to include children so that families could express faith in Christ together.  And whom are they identifying themselves with?  Jesus… and you, the church.  When you say yes to Jesus Christ and become part of Christ’s body, you are identified.  And baptism is a public moment for that.

In baptism, you have an ID you didn’t have before.  Do you have ID?  In our culture, in order to live as a whole, functional  person, you’ve got to know who you are.  But as a Christian, your identification is bigger than that.

Ever have to come up with appropriate ID for a passport or drivers’ license?  Of course.  Have you ever asked a five-year-old for some ID?  After stumbling around for a while, what do they do?  They point to their parents.  There’s some good symbolism there.  With your baptism ID, you point to your Parent.

In the story from Luke, this is the time and place where Jesus gets his public ID.  “…the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (3:22)  He is publicly owned by God at that moment.  He leads the way for us in baptism, and when this voice speaks, our faith allows us to hear God saying the same thing to each of us.  “You are my child; with you I am well-pleased.”

John the Baptist.  The person speaking in the first part of the reading is John the Baptist.  John is a wild, hermit sort of a character who comes out of the desert to tell the people ofIsrael to prepare themselves for the Messiah.  He was alone in the desert, but he wasn’t alone.  For hundreds of years around the time of Jesus, people had been living this isolated, deprived lifestyle by choice, sometimes in village groups, sometimes alone in caves.  They still do.  In the Judean desert, there are Greek Orthodox monasteries that follow a simple lifestyle focused on prayer.

Cliff dwelling used by monks in the Judean desert, in the area where John the Baptist would have lived. CN – 2011
St. George Koziba monastery in Palestine, near Jericho. Hermits have lived in this area for many centuries. Traditon says that Elijah lived in a cave here (1Kings 19:9).

They do this as a spiritual discipline, removing all of the daily distractions that might keep them from prayer, from worshiping God.  They generally eat no food other than what was necessary to stay alive (John ate locusts and honey).  No clothes other than what little they needed to protect themselves from the weather (John wore animal skins).  Anybody who did this was looked upon as a holy person.  When they came out of the desert, they were treated with a kind of awe and respect. This is why John was able to gather a crowd.  And this is what happens when the crowd gathers:

John baptizes with water, which is symbolic for cleaning sin away, and you don’t come to be baptized unless you realize you are dirty.  In the ancient Jewish synagogues, next to the door, there was always a small pool for washing yourself in the presence of God.  This is a Jewish thing John is doing, and the people understand it.  In the Jewish religious culture, cleanliness really was next to godliness, and there were ceremonies to make you clean.  The only difference is that John not in a building; he’s outside, out in theJordan River.

He’s out in the world.  He’s still in the presence of God, but he’s gone public.  He’s reaching out to everyone, Jew and non-Jew.  There might be Romans in the crowd. He’s reaching out to everyone who will listen, so you have to picture many different kinds of people in the crowd on the river bank.  You could be in that crowd.

No privacy here.  It would be like us having our baptisms out on the front steps by the street so that everyone driving by could see.  When you are baptized, you are saying to your friends and family, to everyone, “I am not the same; I’m heading in a new direction. I belong to God.”  When a child is baptized, the parents are saying “we belong to God.”

Wheat and Chaff. John is a strange guy and impressive preacher, but he is not the Messiah.  He says that the Messiah has his own way of baptizing with the Holy Spirit (v.v. 16-17), which is like threshing wheat, which is done with big machines in the field today.  The husks of the wheat are separated from the parts that are edible.  In those days it was done in flat area of packed earth called a threshing floor.   The ground that the Jewish Temple stood on was originally a threshing floor (see 1 Chronicles21:28 – 22:1).

Can you picture Jesus the country boy?  He grew up and lived in a rural town in an area not too much different from this.  It’s a safe guess that he knew all about raising wheat and even though he was a carpenter, in this country town,Nazareth, I’ll bet he helped out in the wheat fields from time to time.  He knows what a winnowing fork is (like a wooden pitchfork).  As a carpenter, maybe he made winnowing forks.

John is baptizing with river water, making the outside of you clean.  Jesus is going to baptize with the Holy Spirit.  That’s his winnowing fork.  He’s working with your wheat and separating out the chaff.  He’s got to get rid of the chaff, the useless stuff.

Is chaff so bad?  It keeps you from becoming what you should be.  It’s the stuff in your life that isn’t good for anything, but it takes up space.  To grow, you have to get rid of it.  Maybe it’s a habit, maybe an attitude.  Maybe an addiction.  Maybe a relationship.  Maybe you like your chaff, but you know it’s not helping.  Maybe your personal landscape looks so winter-bleak, you don’t see a future, but that’s not how God sees it.

Driving around the countryside is a little different right now, compared to summer, isn’t it? Empty fields, bare trees, frozen rivers.  It looks dead, but God doesn’t see it that way.  That stuff is a recipe for life.  God sees great things coming.

I have a little math problem for you.  Take the number of your age and divide it in half.  Are you the same person you were half your life ago?  Do you remember what you looked like?  The sort of things you were interested in?  Do you have things in your closet, or attic, or basement from those days that might be worthless, but you can’t bring yourself to throw them away?

In the back of the basement, in a neat stack are about a dozen boxes mostly filled with children’s’ clothes and toys from about 20-25 years ago.  There might be a few things in there that have sentimental value, but when the grandbaby comes, they’ll get new clothes and toys.  So that stuff in the boxes?  Some of is okay for Goodwill, but much will go to a landfill, I’m afraid.

That’s a metaphor for so much stuff in our lives.  It’s got to go!  And this is a little scary.  You have to change.  You have to grow.  Some of it might be comforting to think about, but you can’t live back there.  There are things you have to keep, but many things you have to be willing to let go of.  You treasure the past, but you don’t live in it.  Likewise, maybe there are some things you picked up along the way that you really should get rid of.  Maybe you’re the same, basic sort of person; there might just be a little more of you!  Even though the core is still there, I’d be willing to bet that in many ways, you aren’t the same person today.  And I’d bet that for the most part, you’re thankful for that.

I know that for myself, many of the changes that really took root and grew are connected with the time in my life when I consciously made a commitment to belong to Christ.  There’s a better way to describe that: there was a time, a moment, when I understood the commitment God has made to me.

This is what happens if people follow God: crops are harvested and the parts God doesn’t need are thrown away.  Praise God. Aren’t you thankful for some of the things God has helped you get rid of?  And we grow, and as we grow personally, the body of Christ grows together.

I was listening to a radio interview not long ago with an author named Michael Norton whose book is called 365 Ways to Change the World – How to Make a Difference One Day at a Time.  He said one thing that got my attention.

“The biggest problem in the world is not AIDS, it’s not global warming, it’s not world poverty, and it’s not war. It’s apathy. It’s the fact that we feel like we can’t do anything about any of these problems. We actually can. And I would say that it’s only by doing things that the problems get solved. It’s not governments, it’s not big organizations. It’s individuals caring enough to go and do something that will create change.”

For us, I believe it’s personal faith that gets that ball rolling – our own individual connections to the God who is saving us.  Faith in the risen Christ.  Then families of people believing.  Then as a church, each of us contributing that one thing we can do well.  Then collections of churches.

God is committed to us. We don’t have to worry about God, God is faithful to us.  We are people who believe God gives life and power to live.  What we need to work on is our own commitment to God, and to exercise our own faith, and carry our ID proudly together.

Prayer.  O God, in this new year, we see a lot of potential for good things and we head into it with faith, even though there may be opportunities for problems.  But we thank you for the gift of a new year, and all the opportunities that come with it –opportunities to love and be loved, opportunities to make new discoveries, opportunities to find our true and best selves, and opportunities to give ourselves away in your service.  We thank you most of all for being with us.  We hear your voice saying, “These are my people, with whom I am well pleased.”  May we live up to your blessing.  Help us be faithful to you each day during this new year.  We know that you walk with us every step of the way through your son Jesus, in whose name we pray.  Amen.

1/6/2013 Sermon: “Not What You Would Expect…”

A house near Bethlehem – note the “stable” area in a cave below.
The interior of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem – sections dating from the 4th century. The stable/cave is below the altar (under the cross). This building was saved from demolition by Persian conquerors in the 7th century when they saw a mosaic depicting the “three wise men from the east.”

Christmas Trivia/Traditions.  Christmas celebrates the fact that God came to live with us through the birth of a child.  Today is Epiphany – the day in the life of the church when we remember that he was recognized as the Jewish Messiah by people we know as “wise men.”  We have many, many traditions to help us remember important facts like that.  Which Christmas tradition actually has a connection (in scripture) to the night when Jesus was born?

          Christmas tree
          Advent wreath
          The date – December 25
          The wise men
          Santa Claus
          The shepherds*
          The drummer boy

Did the shepherds come to a stable or to a house?  (stable)

Did the wise men come to a stable or to a house?  (the wise men came separately to a house)

There were three wise men, true or false?  False – possibly.  There were three gifts.  Nobody knows how many wise men or magi.

How old was Jesus when they got there?  (nobody knows, but he might have been as old as two)

We’ve heard it so many times now, that it seems normal for Jesus the Messiah to be born in a stable in Bethlehem.  One of the truths about Christmas that has been lost, though, is how strange and unusual the story is.

 Matthew 2:1-12.  In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 

They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:  ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,     are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;     for from you shall come a ruler     who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

 Looking for Jesus.  Do you have unique Christmas traditions?  We all have a lot of traditions connected with Christmas.  Some traditions depend on where we’re from or where we live, like New England or Pennsylvania.  We can’t imagine Christmas without snow, or at least cold weather.  But Jesus wasn’t necessarily born in the winter, and the climate in Palestine isn’t the same as it is here, so there probably wasn’t any snow.  In fact, it may have been a hot, humid night when he was born!

We have gotten so used to the story about the wise men that we don’t question it at all.  Matthew uses this story to show how strange and unusual the birth of Jesus was.  Even bizarre.  In the gospel of Luke, who does God first announce the birth of the Messiah to?  Shepherds.  Not well-to-do religious types, but peasants; nobodies out in the fields.  In Matthew, who does God announce the birth of the Messiah to?  Foreign scientist/astrologer types from another religion.  The most important thing about the magi is that they were not Jewish.  This Messiah had come to save everyone.

If you were a first century Jew listening to this story, you would have said, “What, it takes these non-Jewish people from some far-off country to come and tell us who our king is?”  Not what anybody would have expected.

Matthew says that they were “Wise Men.”  The Greek word for what we are calling “wise men” is Magi. “Magic” comes from this word.  These men were magicians in the ancient sense of magician (they weren’t called kings until the 6th century).  Do you remember Merlin the magician, from the story of King Arthur?  Merlin wasn’t a magician (to us) as much as a scientist, and that is how we should think of these men: scientists who studied the stars for their meaning, and were able to tell by looking at the stars that God was doing something unusual.  Some scholars call them astrologers.  Although Christmas cards show the wise men around the manger of the newborn baby Jesus, they didn’t come until Jesus was one or two years old.

Looking for Jesus.  The wise men looked for Jesus because the stars told them this was somebody they should honor.  But there were other people looking for Jesus, too.  Herod the king looked for Jesus because he wanted to kill him.  He could only see Jesus for what he might take away: the power, money, and influence of being king.  That’s the story, or at least one of the stories, of Jesus’ life: people wanting to touch him or kill him.

We don’t always realize it, but we look for Jesus all the time.  We look for Jesus everywhere.  We look for him in some of the things we take to make us feel better, or the maybe things we drink too much of.  We look for him in the money we think we need and the things we buy once we get it.  We look for him in grades at school.  And relationships with others. We probably don’t always think that’s who we’re looking for, but it is.

The one who can take the edge off of the hurt inside; the one who can bring peace and forgiveness when all we see is stress and confusion.  Most of the time, we hope he’s in his place: in this big brick building on Main Street in Manheim.  Is that where we keep Jesus?  Or maybe in that dusty book over on the shelf.

We’ve got a separation of church and state, so we know he’s not in any of the schools or government buildings.  Or is he?  I think that if this is somebody who rose from the dead, he can be anywhere he wants to be.  But he’s not pushy; he waits for an invitation.  In reality, we don’t have to look for Jesus.  He is here. He is wherever people have gathered to worship and serve him.

Two thousand years ago, God entered human life and became understandable and real to us in Jesus.  This Jesus who would eat dinner with anybody, no matter what was in their past.  This Jesus who would touch anybody, no matter what was wrong with them.  This Jesus who would go to anybody’s house, no matter who they were or what they believed.  This Jesus, who can fill that void when we talk to him and trust in him. Even us.  Not what we would expect.  Those who find him are overwhelmed with joy!

Do you remember what the name Emmanuel means?  In Jesus, God is with us.  And because of us, people in Manheim shouldn’t have to look far to find Jesus.  They should be able to see Jesus working in us and through us.

The Rabbi’s Gift.1  There was a famous monastery in Germany which had fallen on very hard times.  In years past, its buildings were filled with young monks and its huge church was filled with the singing of the chant, but now it was nearly deserted.  The people from the village in the valley below no longer came to Mass.  A handful of old monks took care of the place, and shuffled through the cloisters, praising God with heavy hearts.

Out on the edge of the monastery woods, an old Jewish rabbi had built a small hut and would sometimes retreat there to pray.  No one ever spoke with him, but whenever he was seen, word was passed along from monk to monk: “The rabbi walks in the woods.”  Somehow his presence cheered them up and gave them strength.

One day, the abbot of the monastery decided to visit the rabbi.  So, after the morning Eucharist, he set out through the woods.  As he came near the hut, the rabbi stood in the doorway, with his arms outstretched.  It was as though he had been waiting there all morning.  The abbot and the rabbi embraced like long-lost brothers.  Then they stepped back and just stood there, smiling at one another.

After a while, the rabbi motioned the abbot to come into the hut.  There was only one room, with two primitive chairs, and in the middle of the room was a rough wooden table with the scriptures open on it.  They sat there for a moment in the presence of the book, and then the rabbi began to cry.  The abbot couldn’t help himself; he covered his face with his hands and began to cry too.  For the first time in his life, he cried his heart out.  The rabbi and the abbot sat there crying like lost children, and soaked the wood of the table with their tears.

After the tears stopped and it was quiet again, the rabbi spoke for the first time.  “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts.  You have come to ask a teaching of me.  I will give you a teaching, but you can only repeat it once.  After that, no one must ever say it aloud again.”

The rabbi looked straight into the abbot’s eyes and said, “The Messiah is among you.”

For a while, they were silent.  Then the rabbi said, “Now you must go.”

The abbot left without saying a word and without ever looking back.

The next morning, the abbot called the monks together in the chapter room.  He told them he had received a teaching from “the rabbi who walks in the woods” and that this teaching could never again be spoken aloud.  He looked at each of his brothers and said, “The rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.”

A different kind of shocked look was on every face.  “What does it mean?  Is brother John the Messiah?  Or Father Matthew?  Or Brother Thomas?  What does this mean?  They were confused by the rabbi’s teaching, but no one ever spoke about it again.

As time went by, the monks began to treat each other in very special ways.  There was a gentle, soft-hearted, caring quality about them now that was hard to describe, but easy to notice.  They lived with one another as though they had finally found something, and they prayed together as though they were always looking for something.  Visitors to the monastery were moved by the lives of the monks.  Before long, the people of the village were coming to Mass again, and young men were asking to become part of the community.

In those days, the rabbi no longer walked in the woods.  His hut was now a pile of ruins.  But somehow or other, the old monks who had taken his teaching to heart still felt his presence, and knew that the Messiah had come among them.

The word “epiphany” means “an experience of sudden and striking realization.”  The light bulb goes on!

Because of our faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit is at work here, doing new things in each of us and with all of us together.  May the people who visit here know that the Messiah is among us.  Amen.

Prayer. O God, surprise us with yourself.  You can create life and move mountains.  You can change hearts and change lives.  Our hearts are so empty without you.  We come to you to be filled.  We trust in you; our faith is in your son Jesus.

As you fill us with your Spirit, help us see your world as you see it, hear what you hear, feel what you feel.  Take us beyond the little chores and distractions we create for ourselves.  Help us truly love peace and hate conflict.  We give the new year to you, and pray that throughout the 2013, this church lives a life that truly reflects your message of hope in Jesus.  Amen.

1  adapted from Stories for the Journey by William R. White (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988)