Covenant – Unbreakable Love

Genesis 9:8-17

1 Peter 3:18-22

“From grief to grace in just a few verses,” is the description, one of the commentaries I read this week, gave of the passage we heard from Genesis.

The phrase stuck with me as I thought about this 40-day journey we call Lent, what it means, and why it matters.

For some, Lent means giving up something from Ash Wednesday until Easter morning.  A group of ladies with whom I try to have breakfast each Thursday morning, often share small gifts to celebrate special times of the year, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, Valentines Day, Easter.  One of the ladies gave each of us a piece of chocolate the week before Ash Wednesday, noting she wouldn’t have chocolate again until Easter.  Several of my colleagues have declared their absence from social media for the next several weeks, and I have heard a variety of other things “given up” for this season of the Christian year.  Reflecting on the “giving up something for Lent’ tradition as well as this morning’s scripture passages I wondered if “giving up something” is what God is asking of us.

It seems God is saying I am willing to do everything it takes to show you how much I love you, how much I want to be in relationship with you, to give you grace so you can share grace with others.

The verses before this rainbow part of the story, depict God’s creation moving so far from what God intended that God is filled with grief over the state of the world he had made.  Heartsick, sad shattered by what the people made in his own image had become, God decides only a fresh start will return creation to right relationship with God and all that was created.  Grief motivates God to separate the righteous from the unrighteous and to create a situation in which all things can be new again.  God sends a flood but at some point realizes that this would not lead to a lasting solution.  God’s grief-filled action, quickly turns to a grace-filled promise.[1]

God takes the initiative throughout this passage.  God reaches out to Noah with the plan for the ark.  God puts everything in place so the plan can be successful.  I am pretty sure no matter how skilled Noah and his family was with caring for animals, putting Elephants with mice, and Lions and bears with sheep, was an impossible task without Divine intervention.  God took care of the details and Noah followed God’s lead.

Then once on dry land, Noah acknowledges God’s gift of a new life for his family by taking time to worship before starting the task of starting over, but it is God who again reaches out.  This time establishing the covenant with Noah, his descendants and with every living creature for all time.  Offering grace for all of creation for perpetuity.

We do not find God – he finds us, calls, and saves us.   God regularly shows us unbreakable love in the middle of what we can experience as overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, unworthiness.

Ancient people thought the rainbow was God’s weapon from which his lightning arrows were shot to defeat evil in wrath.  (Ps. 7:12-13)  For them the rainbow in the sky after a storm was a fearful sight.  Setting the rainbow as the symbol of the covenant turned a symbol of destruction to one of deliverance. Moving us from the fear of wrath to the promise of divine mercy. [2]

The people of ancient Israel needed to hear this gracious promise during the time of their exile, and this tangible sign of their relationship with God and the promise of an everlasting covenant bond brought comfort.  With all the structures and practices of their shared life back home wreaked, with their reality in shambles, they were likely inspired by the story of a new beginning, a story of hope and the promise of Gods presence with them, always.[3]

1 Peter is written by people in the midst of political chaos.  In this first generation after Jesus, followers are trying to figure out what it means to be a community of faith in new contexts and turmoil.  They are experiencing what is going on around them with the experience of the flood waters of Noah’s day.  They are trying to figure out their own identity and purpose.  In this the hope made real in the work of Jesus reminds them of the unbreakable love of God extending since the time of Noah.[4]

Jesus overcame the power of all sin, through his death and resurrection..  Nothing stands between us and God, because Jesus has bridged the gap.  And from the 1 Peter passage we are reminded Jesus has gone to hell and back for us, experiencing anything and everything we experience.  We are call to embody that love in our relationships with those who see no hope to get out of the storm, or abyss in which they are passing.   [5]

As we continue on the journey we call Lent, I invite you to look for the signs of God’s covenant with us, remembering it was put in place as Noah began rebuilding after the storm.  Let’s look for the rainbows in our lives that remind us that God loves us.

The outreached hand when we are feeling low.  The phone call from a friend to check in with us.  The Health care professional walking with us through some a difficult health situation.  The smile of a child.  Words we need to hear at just the time we need to hear them.  A ride to the store when we can’t get there on our own and the joy of offering a ride to someone who needs a little help.  The person who takes time to listen, the time we set aside the agenda of the day to listen to someone.

Rainbows appear when we look for them in others, seeing God’s love for us in the people he puts on our ark during our storms.

There is still evil today, it found its way on the Ark so long ago, and we see the signs every day.  God still grieves when we make choices that put barriers between us and God, and God is still ever present with all the grace necessary to tear those barriers down.

The rainbows remind us God’s love is stronger and if we focus on recognizing the rainbows and on how we can be a rainbow for others, we will experience the unbreakable love that is God’s covenant with us in familiar as well as new ways.

Let’s spend this season actively looking for all the ways there are rainbows reminding us of God’s covenant with us that stands against any tough times we face and surfaces even before the storms fully pass.

[1] Abingdon Preaching Annual 2018 Feb 18

[2] Ministry Matters Sermon Options February 18, 2018

[3] Dianne Bergant Feasting on the Word Year b, Vol. 2

[4] Mary Schaller Blaufuss Sermon Seeds Feb 18, 2018

[5] James C. Howell The Life We Claim  Weekly Preaching February 18, 2018

Rise Up: God is Speaking

2 Kings 2:1-12

Mark 9:2-9

Today we conclude our “Rise Up” series.

From that first reminder – that God is still Speaking today just as he called to Samuel, to our exploration of what it means to listen for God’s voice: a process that requires study, community, and practice; to hearing that God’s Call pushes us to Action and to Rise Up and Move when we answer yes to that Call – to last week when we were reminded that even once we’ve listened, acted, moved, and answered, we need to stay focused, intentionally moving away from those things that seek to distract us, it has been a challenging series.

This morning we are back to “God is Speaking” with two scripture lessons which are nothing like that quiet voice in the darkness that called out to Samuel.  In these passages, there is no mistaking the glory and power of God.  It is visible, audible, and once experienced, life-changing.

Both passages give us examples of what we have explored throughout this series.

God is speaking:  Elijah knows it is time to end his earthly mission and that his departure will be very different.  Each time he heads in a new direction, he tells Elisha the Lord has sent him.

The company of the prophets at Bethel, company of the prophets at Jericho, and Elisha are all aware the Lord is taking Elijah on that particular day, the information coming from God, as Elijah only mentions it as he prepares to cross the Jordan.

All those with the fore-knowledge were grounded in their faith, likely studying all aspects of what it meant to follow God, testing what they heard with the community of prophets with which they lived and worked, and practicing “listening” before sharing what they heard with others.

That was true of Elijah and Elisha as well, although, theirs was a particularly close relationship with Elisha actively learning from Elijah in a mentor, apprentice type of relationship.

They all acted on what they heard, the prophets sharing what they understood to be true with Elisha; Elijah taking action to go where the Lord sent him, and Elisha taking action to stick with Elijah no matter what was to come.  They all moved, first to Bethel, then to Jericho, and on to Jordan, staying focused on God’s direction.

Elisha, recognizing the strength he would need to do what God was calling him to do once Elijah was carried away, asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit.  Then, although experiencing grief, and tearing his garment in two, Elisha picks up the mantle of Elijah and continues to expect to hear God Speaking, to study, test with others, and practice hearing, to take action, move, answer, and focus, continuing as a prophet, as he was called.

He is with Elijah as Elijah is whisked home.  Witnessing a chariot with horses of fire carry your mentor, father-figure, away is a life-changing, mission affirming experience.  One I don’t believe any of us have experienced.   Some of us have made decisions as to how much we are willing to do, how far we are willing to go, to listen to God’s nudges in our lives to follow and focus.

One of you posted in Facebook® this week that you saw someone struggling to shovel their walkway and left yours to go help them.  In doing so you made your neighbor’s job easier, had a good conversation, and learned to know a little of his story.  You described it as God pushing you to respond.

We are faced with those choices daily.  It is easy to come up with “valid” reasons to dismiss the tug we feel to reach out, to help, to have a conversation., to share God’s love.  How much we expect to hear God Speak through study and our faith community and how intentional we are about listening, preparing, acting, and focusing, will determine how we handle those tugs that take us to life-changing experiences, even if found in a conversation over a snow shovel.

Mark takes us, to the mountain top with Jesus, Peter, James and John in this morning’s gospel reading.  This story of the transfiguration of Jesus is shared the Sunday before Lent each year as we are reminded of the significance of the journey we are about to take and from where our strength is drawn.

Vividly, with jaw dropping imagery, and special out-of-this world guests, Mark affirms that Jesus is the Son of God, loved by God, worthy of our full attention.

Faced with this breath-taking display of God’s glory, Peter feels compelled to consider building three structures to house Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on that mountain top.  He may want to capture the moment, preserving it, as long as possible.  As unexplainable, awe inspiring, blinding moment as it must have been, he may have needed to try to contain it, make sense of it, box it in for fear of what it meant if it was allowed to expand.

Scripture tells us he did not know what to say, because they were so frightened.  Fear sometimes pushes us to try to make sense out of things over which we have no control, moves us to box in the experience, or contain it in some way.  Regardless of what Peter was thinking and feeling, he tries to protect the experience from ending.  He was likely disappointed when it did and Jesus called them to head down the mountain to continue their work among the people.  Maybe not as disappointed that they were instructed not to tell anyone about the experience until the time was right.  Pragmatic Peter likely wasn’t sure anyone would believe what they had witnessed anyway.

During Church Council devotions on Thursday night, Peter Beach talked about the Peter we just witnessed on the mountain top.  Noting that much of the early church formed around the leadership of Mountain top Peter, Peter shared the question: What would you do if you could start the church from scratch?  What would it look like?

I added that question to my prayers for this congregation after hearing Peter raise it.

I think it is a question God has raised to each of us through both Peters and is one which we should intentionally consider throughout the days and weeks of Lent.  Studying the scriptural descriptions of the early church, talking with one another, spending time in prayer not only speaking but listening, reflecting on the needs of our community for the healing, grace-filled, divine power of Jesus we have experienced.

Dreaming what church would look like if we were starting it from scratch.  If the traditions and buildings and structures didn’t exist and we were just looking for ways to build a faith community reaching out to those who need a word of grace.

Elisha was carrying on ministry started by Elijah.  He had a double portion of spirit and half a mantle. How he heard God, what action he took, and where he moved was formed by what he had learned from his mentor as transformed in that moment when he witnessed God’s horses and chariot of fire.  He served the same God, listened to the same God, but moved in new ways, uniquely touched by the divine to touch others with the message they needed to hear in their context.

Peter, James, and John were close to the one whom they knew as Jesus.   There was something about him that pulled them away from the way of life know to their families for generations, that allowed them to see others differently, to witness miracles, and in this mountain top experience, to see the Divine shining through this teacher they followed.  Just before this experience, Peter had declared Jesus was the Messiah, yet didn’t fully grasp what that meant as he pulled Jesus aside to raise concern over his language about dying and rising again.  Seeing the Divine shine through Jesus on the mountain provided him with an experience which would help him build the church, though he didn’t know it at the time.

God was equipping Peter and the other Disciples for the journey ahead.

I believe, God has put together the right disciples and provided the experiences needed for this congregation to be the church for this community.  In a way Peter has invited us up to the mountain top to take in the divine presence of Jesus.  To stand in awe at the power and glory we can’t contain or control, but to which we are called to draw grace and strength for the work ahead.

The story of Jesus’ transfiguration invites us to look for “more” in ourselves and others.

There are angels in boulders and revelations in the commonplace.  The whole earth is filled with God’s glory, and charged with “God’s grandeur.”[1]

When we can’t see it, it is not because God hides it from us, it is because we settling for the surface rather than the inner life and light of all things.

Jesus Shines – Jesus Shines through all of those who follow.

As we begin this journey of Lent, I encourage us to consider Peter’s question – If you could build the church from scratch what would it look like?  What would be important to the mission in our time and space to share how Jesus does things no one else can do, how with divine glory shining through each of His cells, he walked humbly with us so we could have abundant life and shine as He does.

Elisha stepped out boldly in faith.  His action did not mean that he did not feel sorrow when Elijah went away, that things had to change.  It did not mean that he had all the answers right away or that he didn’t make mistakes.  He allowed God to work through him to move forward and to stay focused on using all the skills and grace God gave him for the task ahead.

Peter, James, and John, ultimately stepped out boldly in faith.  They weren’t happy about the changes, but they were strengthened in knowing Jesus had conquered death and equipped them to form his church, so that others could come to know this saving grace.

I invite you to Rise Up – claim that God is Speaking to each of us – Shining through the mountain top experiences of our lives into the darkest moments of despair, calling us to listen, move, act, answer, and focus on the unique task before us.  To look beyond the surface and consider the possibilities because we serve a God who sends chariots of fire to pick up his prophet and who sent his son to bring light into our lives so bright we are rendered speechless and awestruck.

God is Speaking – together let’s discern the message.

[1] The Adventurous Lectionary – The Transfiguration of Jesus – February 11, 2018

Rise Up! Focus

Isaiah 40:21-31
Mark 1:29-39
There will be many times later today that those watching what is marketed as the most significant professional football game of the year will “focus,” or call on others to “focus.”
Some will focus on the food, enjoying a feast prepared for this special event, even if not planning to really watch the game; focusing on the time with family and friends around a common interest.
Others will focus on the stats, considering if “their team” has a chance to out play the opponent and how that changes as the game progresses focusing on the plays called, the officiating,  the effectiveness of players, and many other aspects of the game.
Some will focus on the advertisements. A 30 second ad costing $ 5 million and advertisers hoping to cash in on their investment with lots of focus on their products.
Some will focus on doing anything but paying attention to this game we dub the “Super Bowl.”
For players and fans alike, “focus” will go a long way in what kind of experience tonight’s big event brings.
This morning’s scriptures provide us with the foundation for an experience that comes with a focus unlike any of those I’ve mentioned so far this morning. They call us to “get into the zone”: to stay focused on the one who gives us the power to get where we are called.
The Israelites to which the Isaiah passage is addressed are focused on the difficulties they have experienced, the wilderness in which they have wandered, a complete loss of hope that they will ever reach their destination. They are focused on what was, because they have lost the vision of what can be and they feel abandoned.
Into their darkness, their despair, the prophet offers encouragement, calling them to focus on God’s power and authority. They hear these words:
28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength. (NIV)
The prophet calls them to focus on the Lord’s power and direction, the strength and renewal found by trusting the everlasting God.
Mark takes us from the synagogue where Jesus calls out the impure spirit, immediately to the home of Simon and Andrew. Immediately reflective of the urgency of the unfolding of Jesus’ ministry with which Mark fills this gospel and literal in that the synagogue entrance is about thirty feet from the door to Simon Peter’s home
Simon’s household is focused on the illness of his mother-in-law and the possible negative impacts of that illness. Jesus calls them to focus on healing, and Simon’s mother-in-law calls us to focus on service as a response to healing.
Those who gathered at the doorway that evening are focused on healing for themselves or others.
Jesus is focused on revealing that the kingdom of God is dawning and declaring his identity. He healed many, but didn’t heal all who came to the door of their physical aliments. His healing was broader, it encompassed focusing them on God’s plan for which shapes their earthly walk into eternal life. It showed that God was still active in a hurting and sinful world, reaching out in love in the midst of all circumstances.
In both passages the difficulties draw the focus of the people. In both they are redirected to focus on God and their relationship to God and others. They are called to trust in God’s plan and power to get them through.
When I came to Abundant Harvest I asked you to tell me your focus, your hope for this faith community. Almost all of you said “growth” and we have explored the various directions “growth” can take.  I also shared a vision written by one of you: “ a hope that the UMC of the Abundant Harvest can be for this community the hands and feet for Christ, acting as advocates for those people/ families/ communities that are struggling by showing our love and the love of Jesus can reach everyone… showing, rather than just saying, that we are an open, caring, group of people, that love in spite of our differences, breaking down barriers, to bring people to Jesus.
Illness, grief, disillusionment, finances, pain, disagreements, anxiety about the future, barriers, and fatigue have in many ways surfaced as our focus.
As I worked through these passages, God laid it on my heart that we are called to intentionally focus on hearing God’s voice through the voices of those within our faith community and those outside of our community. To focus on preparing to hearing those voices with prayer, study, and dialog. To committing to making short and long term plans together, based not on what has been, not on the wilderness or the illness, but on the strength of God that will lift us where we need to go. We have done significant focusing together, but there is more work to do.
Problems we face will not all go away, but our Lord, our everlasting God still heals, still gives energy for whatever continues to reveal God’s kingdom to a broken and hurting world.
Simon’s mother-in-law may have started serving dinner when she was healed, but the service indicated by the Greek was the service which gave her life for the sake of the Gospel.  Each of us has experienced healing, can we do any less?
Our focus needs to be doing what is in front of us to do, because this is what the Gospel call us to do.  Together, we can figure out what is in front of us.
Let us pray
God who has promised us strength in all things, who has revealed your kingdom to us through the life of Jesus, who empowers and enlightens us through the Holy Spirit, give our souls eyes and ears that we may see and hear what you have placed in front of us to do to reveal your kingdom to those who are searching for you in this time and place. Amen

Rise Up: Answer

Our Rise Up series continues today with the title “Answer”.  Remembering that God is Speaking; that it takes study, community, and practice to listen to God’s voice; and that hearing God’s call on our life requires action, forces us to move; “Answer” reflects our movement or chosen answer to God’s call on our lives, as well as God’s answer letting us know if we are headed in a direction that shows we really heard.

There have been multiple times in my faith journey that my prayer went something like, “God I’ll go and do wherever and whatever you call me to, but could you just email your answer, the map, as well as a “to do list?”  Taking the time to sort it out, to consider the people and information put in my path which point me in the way I am called to move, is sometimes painful, filled with self-doubt, questions, and missed turns.  I tend to need that list of expectations to feel truly comfortable with what I’m hearing and where I’m moving.

Early this week I was the Board of Ordained Ministry and other Provisional Elders.  I went reluctantly, looking at the agenda of the three-day event with skepticism and a feeling my time was better spent in other ways.   From the very beginning, God called me to an attitude change, as session after session I discovered “stuff” which has the potential to help us in ministry in the greater Millville/Knowlesville area.  It was in fact exactly where I needed to be for those three days.

God lifted leaders who could share what I needed to hear.

I did get an answer to my prayer for a “to do” list for continuing this process toward full ordination as an elder.  It is already printed out and I will enjoy checking off each of the items on what at the moment seems like a very long list.

Information on financial reporting should help us as we complete our annual Conference reports and plan for the future.

Planning and visioning surfaced as a main theme for the retreat and while listening, I purchased three of the suggested books to read.  Amazon Prime “One click” is helpful and dangerous at the same time.

The event showed me some possible ways forward for discerning God’s call to the UMC of the Abundant Harvest.  In some cases, practical process ideas, in others, dreams of vital ministry in ways we may not believe are possible.

One of the young pastors who happened to sit next to me most of the time (we shared an electrical outlet for our computers) serves a new church plant.  A new ministry without traditional funding in the heart of a community filled with people who are homeless.  It is not a ministry of “doing for” the community, but a ministry of “being in” community.

Built in many ways on what economists might call “social entrepreneurialism” this congregation has formed a construction company and is training members to work in that industry.  Employment provides them with a means to move out of precarious housing situations and profit from the business helps fund the ministry of the congregation.  That is only part of the way this new congregation is building community and mission in the midst of what others may see as impossible conditions.

God sent a “prophet” to meet the needs of God’s people and they are listening and answering by moving forward into the unknown and seemingly impossible path.

This is a community of faith recognizing the God still speaks when it seems God is nowhere to be found, that growing spiritually and finding ways to work with one another, God’s voice can move them in exciting, life-affirming ways, which offer tangible evidence that God is answering their cries even before they lift them.

When we left on Tuesday, this pastor and I shared contact information and a plan to share ideas, find ways to work together, and to lift each other’s ministries in prayer.

Prophets often help us see where God is leading.  Speaking truth in love, they offer the information we need to make informed, God directed decisions.  It was a prophet-filled week for me.

Moses assures the people who follow God that the Lord will lift up a prophet from among the people to lead them.  The population to which he spoke would discover Joshua was the one to immediately follow Moses.  We know that God has lifted men and women, children and adults who have a heart for God and the ability to give us insight into God’s call, to us throughout time.  Sometimes that word seems a little silly, difficult or impossible to follow, but the truth of it tugs at our heart and requires us to move to at least explore it as God’s answer to our question.

Jesus is in Capernaum in this morning’s reading, and heads into the synagogue on the Sabbath.  There were others there, as it was the tradition of the people to be in synagogue on the Sabbath.  It is possible some were only there because it was a cultural requirement, that others felt a personal need to be there but recited the liturgy and prayers of the day out of habit more than from the heart.  It is possible some were there discouraged and had stopped believing they could hear the word of God, and that others were distracted by the circumstances of their lives.  There is no indication they came expecting to hear something new, or to experience a healing as profound as the one they witness.

It is interesting that while the people in the pews should have recognized that Jesus was the One for whom they were waiting, it is the impure spirit who recognizes that Jesus is the Holy One of God.

In the interaction with the impure spirit, the authority which is Jesus, is made known and his uniqueness and teaching spreads.  The people in the synagogue aren’t just surprised by what they hear and see that day – they are amazed, changed, and quick to share their experience with others.

The exact nature of the spirit in this passage is unknown, only defined as “impure”.  The known is that Jesus had authority over it, and as his ministry progresses we know Jesus has authority over physical, mental, and spiritual illness.  We have the assurance that no matter what is holding on to us, God is bigger, God has authority, and prevails.

There are still impure spirits that affect us today.  They may not exhibit themselves as did this one, they may not be illness driven.   They may be a variety of things that keep us from fully deepening our relationship with God and others.  Busyness, apathy, fear, distrust, believing we have all the answers, having a critical nature, aversion to healthy change, being consumed with things and substances, and a long list of others.

Those impure spirits recognize the authority Jesus has to silence them, and to leave us as we become more and more Christ-like in our thinking and living.  As those spirits leave us, those around us notice the subtle changes in our priorities, our words, our actions.  As others learn by whose authority we live, news will spread and more will be freed from the spirits that plague them.

God often answers our need for vision and direction correction by sending us prophets who help us answer God’s call on our lives.  They help us see where to make adjustments which surrender our impure spirits to the authority of Jesus.

Moses connects prophets sent by God with God’s authority and what happens in relation to what they say.  Mark wants to make it clear, to those who will listen, that the words and deeds of Jesus are connected to God, who empowers them with authority in a kingdom that is here, now, and forever.  If the church today is to preach, witness, or minister to the needs of a hurting world, it must do so with an empowered authority thereby ensuring the consistency between what it says and what it does.[1]

According to Moses and Mark, people will know the difference.

People all around us are looking for answers to the impure spirits that torment them.  You have the answer, you have experienced the grace and authority of Jesus.  You are a prophet empowered by God to share that answer with at least one person, if not many people.

To live into that call you need to believe God is speaking, put in the effort to study, be part of the faith community, and practice to listen to God’s voice; you need to move in the direction God is leading.  Share how God has answered the impure spirits that popped into your life over the years and expect to be amazed!

[1] Ministry Matters Sermon options January 8, 2018

Rise Up!

Isaiah 60 1-6

Matthew 2:1-12

The Magi may be the characters in the story of Christmas who receive little attention other than their colorful addition to the children’s pageant and nativity scene, yet they have one day in the Christian calendar all to themselves, Epiphany. Counting 12 days after Christmas, Epiphany was yesterday, but we often observe it on the closest Sunday.  This day was set aside because it marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas and reflects on God’s revelation that Jesus is the light of the world, coming to save all nations.

We know very little about these journey-taking persons.  The information we do have comes from this passage in Matthew, the only gospel to share that they even traveled to see Jesus.

From his account, we know some “magi” journeyed to Jerusalem “from the east” seeking the child who was born king of the Jews.  We often refer to them as Kings and portray them with crowns and royal garments.  Yet, The term “magi” originally meant a member of the tribe of the Magoi, and then became synonymous with a group of Persian priests with special powers to interpret dreams and read the stars for signs. Our modern term “magic” is a derivative of “magi.” These “magi” who show up at Herod’s doorstep could hardly be more strange and foreign to the Jewish messianic tradition. They are the ultimate “outsiders” in this story. In fact, some of this group of priests were women, so those who followed may have been both men and women, all of whom were gentiles seeking the light of the nations.[1]

Christian tradition sees in the Magi the first among the Gentiles to see Jesus; they lead in showing all the peoples of the earth that this child born under the “star” is important to everyone, and because of that, the Epiphany is an affirmation of salvation available to all.

We say there were three because there were three gifts named, but many more could have made the journey.

Tradition looks at the gifts as symbols of who Jesus was: gold, a symbol of his royalty, frankincense a symbol of his divinity, and myrrh, a burial spice, a symbol of his suffering but Matthew does not specify those reasons for these particular gifts.

We know they brought gifts of immense value; gifts that were precious to themselves.  They so adored the Lord, they were willing to give up something they adored to worship Him.

We know they left for their own country by another road, because they were warned that going back to King Herod was not a good idea.

After seeing Jesus for themselves, kneeling before him, not only was their route home changed, they were changed.  Nothing was the same and they found themselves going another way.

These travelers had followed a light.  Their risky, probably to some looking on, foolish journey, didn’t just happen one night as they gazed up at the sky and saw a unique star.  They knew there would be a star signifying the birth of the King of the Jews.   There is evidence they read and studied, listened to the voice of God; that they looked beyond themselves and the limited focus we sometimes get in our own small part of the world.

The differences between the rural Jewish family and the urbane, educated, cosmopolitan magi were ridiculously huge. And yet they came together as one in the presence of Jesus.[2]

Maybe we really do know a lot about these Magi from the East.  Maybe in their story we can see ways we can come to see the Christ-child anew in the weeks and months ahead.  How we can experience God in our lives in ways that take us places and introduce us to people we haven’t met yet, or with whom we are acquainted but haven’t really gotten to know.

Following their example we need to Rise up.

Rise Up to study more so we are prepared to notice the stars that God sends us to lead us.  These magi looking at the star charts and reading the religious and political papers of the day, find Jesus, while Herod’s Bible scholars miss the Messiah completely.

Rise Up to set aside quiet time for prayer, talking and listening, each day that we may hear God guiding us to the best paths to serve God and our neighbor.

Rise Up to risk surrendering more of what makes us comfortable, our power, our time, or stuff, to follow where God is leading.

Rise Up to recognize the light of Jesus shining through others, as well as the ways the light of Jesus can increasingly shine through each of us.

Rise Up to realize that sometimes others will think we are foolish, that we aren’t really making a difference, and there is still more darkness in the world than we can possibly illuminate; to realize we are not called to be the light to everyone, to eliminate all the darkness in the world.  The glory of the Lord has that handled.  We are to light the corners of darkness God calls us to light.

As Isaiah calls to us, we can Arise, Shine, knowing our light has come.  Knowing that as we reflect the light others will be drawn to it.  That the light is brighter in community. Remember the brightness of our candles as we joined together Christmas Eve.  A community reflecting the Christ-child in all it says and does brings light and hope to all those who see it.

The Star still leads us if we watch for where it shines.  By its light we see a humble child, born in poor circumstances to ordinary people in an obscure, oppressed nation, a child with all true authority who rightly rules in our lives and our world.  His authority showed by gifts fit for a king, his power in his self-giving love.

By its light we are led to new places and new ways in which to shine this love which came down at Christmas.  Let’s look for ways to Rise Up, hear God’s voice, and Shine.


[1] Dr. Leonard Sweet Plough Sunday

[2] Ibid

Breaking through!

Isaiah 64:1-9

Mark 13:24-37

Coming home for Christmas is a common theme of movies and music this time of year.  Most of us know the song “I’ll be home for Christmas,” originally written to honor soldiers overseas who longed to be home at Christmastime, which is now a standard of the season.

Some of us know of the movies by that title

the one where a college student faces an impossible journey when he is left stranded in the desert thousands of miles from home, with no money and only a few days left until Christmas.

Or the one that Hallmark aired for the first time last year, dealing with an Assistant District Attorney and single mom, whose estranged dad, a gruff retired police officer shows up at her door unexpectedly forcing them to confront old wounds.

Some of us are having conversations as to who in our families will be home for Christmas and who will not.   Some of us long to be home, others long to be anywhere else because of situations in our lives.  Some of us are not sure where home is.

The phrase “Home for Christmas” can bring us warm, comforting feelings, and it can push us to confront situations we would rather ignore.

This morning’s scripture lessons are comforting and disruptive all at the same time.  The Isaiah passage depicts all the powerful ways God breaks into our world, showing us majesty, power and direction.  The Mark passage encourages us to watch for the ways God is with us in past, present, and future.  Again, lifting a God who meets us where we are in our common experiences, in ways that are really beyond our ability to comprehend.

God comes down to our home in ways we can understand if we are looking for them and provides a path for us to come to God’s home.  We need to stick the tasks Gods set before us, all the while watching and waiting for glimpses of where God is working for and through those who are alert to God’s presence.

Advent is a time of preparation.  We are cleaning and decorating our homes, shopping for family meals and presents, for some a very long list.

For many children it is a time of watching for the Elf on the shelf and the ways they can stay on the “Nice” list.  For some adults it is a time to look at the Isaiah passage and see where some redirection is needed, what areas of our lives we need to give over to the potter to reshape.  These are all appropriate directions to take during this special season of our faith.

There is a direction, a focus, that I suggest is even a more important part of this season of preparation.  It is becoming more in tune to seeing the places God is breaking into our world, living among us, leading us, caring for us.  It is difficult to see Jesus in the manager as “God with us” if we cannot see God with us in those around us.

It is a time which offers us an opportunity to consider how Christ is leading us, to realign our lives with the purposes and challenges of living in God’s kingdom here and now.  To remind us that it is God’s intention to meet us where we are, to fill us with joy, and to do everything possible here and now through us to make this world more closely approximate what God is longing for it to become.  We are called to live always as those who are ready, who are fully prepared for God’s kingdom to come, and for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, whenever and wherever that occurs.

Here is a Christmas commercial that is currently running.  Several of my Facebook friends posted it this week and it seemed to fit with a theme of expecting God to break into our daily lives in unexpected and amazing ways.  Let’s watch.

So many twists and turns in this story of lost and found.  A dog is found and returned to its owners. A lonely man finds a friend, willingly gives the friend back to those who love this new friend, and then is welcomed into a new family.  All have found their way home, even if they didn’t know they were looking.

Advent isn’t just about waiting for the baby in the manger.  It’s about expecting Christ here, in our own messed-up lives, right now.  It is about recognizing that we don’t need the perfect house, the most expensive gift, or a magazine worthy dinner.  It is about knowing deep within our souls that we don’t need to have it all together, that we can be imperfect, flawed, fragile. God will meet, love, and redeem us regardless of our condition and will use us to reflect His love for all people to those with whom we come in contact.

I expect the last few weeks have given you opportunities to see God break into your world.  Answers to prayers, healing, people stepping up to help people, transitions that seemed hard at first and which ultimately proved to be just the right thing at the right time.  All of you have experienced Christ breaking through time and space to be present in your life and the lives of others,  I hope all of you have been awake and alert to know it was happening.

I hope you will have opportunities to invite others to see where God is breaking into their worlds through your actions and when necessary, your words.

In the midst of knowing that we are changed when God comes down home, when God breaks into our now, we have the assurance that God comes in love.  May we be alert for the unexpected places and ways it happens throughout this Advent season.


Ezekiel 34:11-22

Matthew 25: 31-46

Officially, Christ the King Sunday is a late addition to the church calendar.  It was added in 1925 in response to the government of Mexico insisting that all allegiance was due that entity.  The Church in Mexico remained faithful, holding public parades throughout the land with significant governmental pushback proclaiming Christ is King and Pope Pius XI made that declaration the basis of Holy Day, which after the Vatican II became part of the church calendar.  It was a day set aside as a reminder of who we are called to follow above all others.[1]

Earthly governments demanding ultimate allegiance from their subjects is not new.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are figures from chapter 3 of the Book of Daniel: three Hebrew men thrown into a fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, when they refuse to bow down to the king’s image.  In the story of Esther, Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman  putting him on the execution list.

In modern times governments in North Korea and Cuba try to eliminate the church or minimally keep it under their control.   North Korea’s leader demands citizens of his country worship him and if they don’t, the consequences can be prison or death. Cuban leadership has the authority to make any church a part of the government system, requiring rent if they do.  The official stance of the country is there is no God.

We are not faced with the same levels of control and intimidation in our faith communities, but there are often efforts to influence how we live out our faith.

There are organizations that demand our ultimate loyalty even if it conflicts with our worship and service in the local congregation.  There are activities and sports teams which would have us believe our children cannot be successful, happy individuals if they don’t participate and which often schedule mandatory participation at hours of worship.  To follow our favorite professional sports team from pre-game to post-game can fill a Sunday morning and afternoon.

There are voices encouraging us to buy and do something they are offering or selling to be truly fulfilled and happy. There are business systems that push us to the point we have little room for family, let alone family time for Christian Education and worship.

Into that history and our scattered reality comes Christ the King Sunday.  A day we focus on to whom we will give our full allegiance, for whom we are willing to sacrifice, time, resources, comfort, our very lives, as well as what that means in our daily and eternal lives.

The passage in Ezekiel describes the pastoral side of shepherding.  Israel and other ancient Near Eastern cultures often depicted their leaders as shepherds.  In that culture, flocks could number in the thousands, requiring immense administrative skill.[2]

Here the Shepherd who is King has the interests of his flock ahead of his own interests.  The sheep are scattered and bringing them all home is his priority, which he takes on personally.  The Shepherd who is King is gentle and caring, seeking good pasture for his sheep, making provisions for them to lie down and rest in safety, caring for their brokenness, sticking by them in adversity, making sure everybody is cared for.

The sheep are scattered by the influences which have self-interest as priority.  Political leaders, those with influence who want to profit from them, predators who want to make a meal out of them.  They are scattered because they follow something or someone more closely than they follow the Shepherd who is King.

Their true King, the King God appoints, is not just any shepherd.  This shepherd actively goes out looking for the scattered sheep, wherever they have been abandoned or wandered astray.  This Shepherd cares for their wounds, and when it is time, carries them back to a safe fold where they can find healing.

This is also the shepherd who will choose to ignore or even destroy the sheep who have prospered at the expense of those who have been injured and scattered, those who have pushed or shoved the others out of the way to get all the choicest pasture for themselves. Those whom made themselves strong on the backs of those who were weaker and whom they made weaker still.  This shepherd sides with the weak, the outcast, the damaged, the diseased, the abandoned, the marginalized.  This shepherd spends time with them, caring for them.

The Ezekiel passage is reflecting on the kind of Shepherd King God is calling King David to be.  It also reflects the kind of Shepherd King that Jesus was and is.  Actively looking for those who he calls into the flock, never giving up on them even when they follow other shepherds or are wounded.  Calling out to them with directions and hope.  Lovingly caring for all their needs.

The sheep, listening to the Shepherd’s voice and direction, are changed, healed, and called to be in community where each one is important.

As we move to the Matthew passage we see how the sheep who follow Christ the King as Shepherd are found to be righteous.  Jesus tells the parable showing us how as those truly gathered into his flock we are to see Jesus in each human being.  To listen carefully to their stories, to offer the hope found in following the Shepherd, Christ the King, to care for them, to love them.  It is in living our lives as passionately for others as the Shepherd in Ezekiel, that we find ourselves among the sheep Jesus deems righteous.

In both passages, it is God’s responsibility to determine who are among the flock, who are worthy, who are righteous.  It is our responsibility to love and care for others in the manner the Shepherd shows us.  To follow the laws and teaching of Christ the King before any set by worldly rulers. To have as our highest authority and example, Christ our King.

Christ is at the same time both fully human and fully divine, and is truly worthy of worship and obedience.

When our priorities are not those set by our Shepherd, when we do not fully heed his voice, we remain among the scattered.  When decisions and relationships reflect more self-interest than Good-Shepherd interest we remain among the scattered.

It is tough to consider that in some situations, in some relationships, on some days we are more like the goats than the sheep, more like the things that threaten the sheep than a shepherd.

But those situations and relationships exist at times for all of us.  Those circumstances do not need to define us.  We have a Shepherd King in whom we are loved, safe, and protected no matter what we face.  If we are his, we acknowledge who we are and what we’ve done.  We let him find us, let him tend our wounds, let him love us with the love of the Eternal, let him show us his face in the face of those who we might be more comfortable ignoring or casting aside.

We respond to his touch on our lives and find ourselves out of the fold less and less.  We are both broken and whole, at once healer and healed, at the same time shepherd and sheep.[3]  As the sheep in the parable we help because we cannot stop ourselves.  Christ’s love in our hearts has compelled us to compassionate action.

We are not saved by our compassionate action, our action is a natural response to recognizing the grace extended to us through Christ.  It is part of how we respond to others because of how God reached out in loving compassion to us before we were even aware.

Many of us will watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” this holiday season.  We will watch as a man discovers that everything he did in his life, even the smallest seemingly insignificant kindness, impacted someone else and made a difference.  The lead character, George, never realized all the good he had done, and all the bad he had prevented, simply by being alive and by being himself.

He simply was not aware of the larger meaning around him every, every minute of every day.  A similar phenomenon plays a surprisingly large role in Jesus’ words about the sheep and the goats.  Sometimes the most important things we do in life are things that, at the time, we see no real significance in.   Like meeting Jesus in prison, at a food bank, at a homeless shelter, the clothing depot, on sidewalk, in the parking lot…[4]

We shout “Christ is King,” in the face of all the forces that try to scatter us, every time we follow our Shepherd and live like his sheep.

[1] Discipleship Ministries, Christ the King Sunday

[2] James C. Howell Weekly Preaching: Christ the King Sunday www.ministry;


[3] Worship Elements: November 26, 2017 Ministry Matters.

[4] Proper 29A Center for Excellence in Preaching 11/22/2017