February 28, 2021, Second Sunday in Lent
“Take up Your Cross”
Ernest Gordon, who served as Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University in the late 20th century, describes a redemptive journey through suffering. A British soldier during World War II, Gordon was taken prisoner by the Japanese in Burma. He tells of the experience in his book, Through the Valley of the Kwai.
It was in the P.O.W. camp that Gordon met a soldier nicknamed “Dodger.” Dodger suffered from serious stomach ulcers, a condition that caused him almost unbearable pain. More than that, he suffered from a despair so black that his fellow prisoners feared it would kill him before the ulcers would.
But then, Dodger came to trust Jesus Christ in a special way. He became a Christian, there in the camp: And one of the first things he did was to look around for a way he could be of service.
The filthiest job in camp was collecting the rags the prisoners used as bandages to cover the sores on their arms and legs. The rags had to be collected, scraped clean of infection and then boiled, before being returned so others could use them. “A smelly, unpleasant job it was,” Gordon writes, “but Dodger volunteered for it. Regularly I would see him going from hut to hut, carrying his can of rags, and whistling as he walked.”
Gordon asks, rhetorically, “Who but a Christian would whistle as he carried a cross?”
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
When we hear that text today, 20 centuries after the death and resurrection of our Lord, we hardly bat an eye. It’s the season of Lent, after all, and we know Jesus is headed up to Jerusalem, even as we’re following along on that journey. But we’re also well aware that Jesus’ passion narrative, where he tells his disciples beforehand the purpose for going to Jerusalem is his arrest, trial and death, precedes the glory of his resurrection 3 days later. We get that.
We might also discern that the folks to whom Mark writes his gospel are in much the same place as we are, some thirty years after the fact.
But put yourselves in the sandals of the disciples on that final ascent and things look a bit more dicey.
Our text this morning follows along after Jesus’ initial prediction of his fate in Mark’s gospel, Peter’s brash statement that nothing of the sort could ever occur, and Jesus essentially calling Peter the spawn of Satan. Jesus tells them of his impending suffering, rejection, trial, and death. He knows what lies ahead in Jerusalem. He’s headed for suffering in the extreme. And in those days, prisoners on death row didn’t get a last wish, a last meal or a “last” of anything except a last breath. Condemned persons didn’t die quickly. They were staring at a slow and painful execution on a cross.
In the scripture text, Jesus is aware of this: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed …” Then he adds, as if an afterthought, “…and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31) You might think he’d lean a little more heavily into that last part, giving a bit of reassurance: “Hey, guys, sure, I’m going to die in Jerusalem, but don’t worry! After three days in the ground, something amazing is going to happen. I will be with you again. No worries!”
But he doesn’t do that. He just lets his declaration hang there in the air; Peter reacts and is put in his place. And then Jesus starts to teach them about the cost of discipleship.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
Consider for a moment what those words sounded like to the disciples before the fact. Did those who heard those words from Jesus about his death and suffering understand that he would die such a horrible death – crucifixion is one of the most grisly means of execution – could they even conceive that this amazing teacher, this powerful healer and deliverer, this righteous and Godly man would die in such a detestable and humiliating way?
Of course not. They didn’t get it. They didn’t yet have ears to hear.
So, before they could even begin to wrap their heads around his death, by crucifixion, Jesus tells THEM that they have to “take up their cross.” When Jesus says this here, a while yet before Golgotha, these words would have had to sting and confuse the ears of his listeners.
Take up our cross? What cross? You mean a cross of crucifixion? The instrument of death for a slave or foreign criminal? Before they have time to even register the thought, Jesus moves on:
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Perhaps this thought is the climax of the conversation with his disciples, the point Jesus was driving at. When you follow Jesus it means putting everything, including your own self-survival, in the backseat. The transformation that takes place in the growing disciple is a re-ordering of priorities and principles in order to “get behind” Jesus and follow along in the way of the Kingdom.
We’ve been studying a good deal about that in our small groups with “The Road to Damascus: Where Christians Become Missionaries.” Kent Hunter talks about aligning ourselves with God’s vision in five categories:
Values: What we consider/identify as important
Beliefs: What we demonstrate we believe is true
Attitudes: How we position our lives before God
Priorities: What we consistently, always do first
Worldviews: The way we see the world and the way it works
So, listen carefully. When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he is saying that getting behind him means your focus is no longer about saving your life or preserving the values, beliefs, attitudes, priorities, or worldviews this current world and culture sets out as standards. On the contrary, following Jesus means that your priority is to lose your life for his sake.
And, what better way to talk about that than the cross. It’s an instrument where not only are you condemned to a tortuous death, but you’re also succumbing to a dishonorable death. A slave’s death. A death that even the Old Testament calls “accursed.” On the cross you don’t just lose your life, but you do so in a wholly unfashionable way. You lose everything. Life. Honor. Pride.
But, Jesus says that in such a loss everything is, in fact, gained.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
And, just in case Jesus’ first audience didn’t get it—because they were scandalized at the thought of dropping those last few pitiful rungs on the societal ladder—Jesus himself follows this up with showing them how it’s done.
How to lose. And how to triumph. For God and His Kingdom.
Look at Abraham for a moment. He doesn’t die on a cross when he decides to follow God’s will for his life. But he does give up just about everything he might have hoped for: home, family, country, security. He lays aside his own priorities and “takes up his cross” and follows where God leads him in order to establish a new nation out of which God will deliver all of humankind. He packs up his wife and servants, invites his nephew Lot along for the journey (probably a mistake), and leaves everything he knows and loves behind for a perilous life ahead. God promises him a child when he’s around 75 years old, and then waits another 25 years to bring the promise to fruition. Paul talks about that in Romans when he writes,
Hoping against hope, [Abraham] believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:18-22)
I love that phrase “considered his own body, which was already as good as dead.” The Hebrew word translated into that cute little colloquialism is nenekromenon, literally “to be deadened.” Sure Abraham’s faith wavered along the way, as witnessed by his lie about Sarah being his sister and the birth narrative of Ishmael by Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar. But his faith was still “reckoned to him as righteousness.”
And don’t overlook Paul himself. He suffered greatly for the faith, suffering that was predicted for him even before his conversion. In Acts 9, after he was struck down and blinded on the road to Damascus while setting out to persecute the church, a disciple named Ananias balks at the idea of going to pray over him to receive his sight. In a vision, the Lord says to Ananias:
“Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Ac 9:15–16).
Paul “takes up his cross,” just as he describes in 2 Corinthians:
I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather. And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. (2 Co 11:23–28 The Message)
You might conclude that Paul knew what it meant to be “as good as dead” as he considered what it meant to “take up his cross and follow Jesus.”
When we hear the stories from Scripture we might be tempted to think that they record the faith experiences of super-human believers, people for whom faith is simple, following God is a snap, folks like Abraham and David, Daniel and Paul, yes, even Peter. Historically we have even had the tendency to categorize these folks as saints, forgetting that God makes no distinction – we are all sinners saved by grace through faith.
For early Christians, persecution and pressure worked to prevent them from practicing their faith. In that environment, one could hardly practice their faith by accident – it had to be intentional. Today, in our culture, other public and private pressures (particularly the busyness of work and activities) can push one’s faith to the margins. Like the early Christians, we also must look at what we are willing to sacrifice in order to follow Jesus intentionally.
Let’s go back to that text once more:
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
In calling us back to the basics, Lent reminds us of what really counts: following Jesus. In these texts today we are encouraged to understand and tell the truth about discipleship, both its costs – losing one’s life – and its promises – receiving one’s life back, and that abundantly blessed.
In Jesus’ words to Peter, “Get behind me,” Mark uses a Greek preposition that appears mainly when Jesus calls people to follow “behind” him. Peter is called to get behind Jesus, to follow him, instead of setting his mind on human things. When we follow Jesus it means a careful look at “human things” is required. When and where are we drifting into the cultural biases of the world, and failing to follow in Jesus’ way, behind him?
In this gospel from Mark, discipleship means “getting behind” Jesus, even in the midst of pressure to save one’s own life and preserve one’s own habits. It means believing in God’s promises – even ones that seem far-fetched – and living as if they are true. It may mean giving something up for Lent, but even beyond that it means giving up anything that prevents us from receiving the eternal, abundant life that Jesus longs to give us and would die for us to have.
In God’s eyes, what counts? Jesus tells us that the life he gives us is what really counts, rather than “gaining the whole world.” Paul tells us that Abraham’s faith, believing in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, counted: “it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Considering then what it means to “Take up your cross and follow” Jesus – both the burdens and the blessings – let us also “get behind” Jesus and seek to do his will. “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven,” right here, right now, that he might receive all the glory, now and forever.
February 21, 2021...First Sunday of Lent
Water to Wilderness to Witness
The gospel text for this morning probably sounds familiar to you. It should. We read it just 6 weeks ago as we observed the Baptism of our Lord Sunday. The reason we get it again here is multi-fold. First, it establishes the preparation of Jesus for the task that is before him – with 40 days in the wilderness corresponding with the 40 days of Lent that will lead up to his passion, persecution, and death. Next, it focuses on the origins of Lent, that is a 40 day period of preparation for adult Baptism which would occur at the Vigil of Easter, practiced as far back as the second century. And then there is the idea that Jesus enters into his wilderness experience just as we enter the wilderness of Lent, to contemplate, struggle with temptation, and turn back to God in repentance (though Jesus never required that element).
There is movement in our text for this morning: from Baptism to temptation to action; from being to struggling to doing; from water to wilderness to witness; from identity to reflection to task.
Let’s first look at identity as it occurs in baptism
What happens at baptism?
Well, the story of Jesus’ baptism shows us. Three things happened in the story. The heavens are torn open, the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice says, “This is my beloved Son.” Each of these events has great significance for us.
The beginning is about tearing and it goes like this: heaven is open to you. Look at what happens in the story of Jesus: the gospel of Mark begins with the tearing of the heavens and ends with the tearing of the Temple curtain. The veil between you and God has been torn apart. Heaven is open to you. There is no limit to God’s purpose for your life: it is an eternal purpose.
The text says, “He saw the heavens torn apart” (Mark 1:10). Here is a meeting point of heaven and earth, a deliberate ripping aside of the barrier on the part of God. Jesus is the point of intersection.
There’s a lot of talk about global warming, dire predictions that the ozone layer is thinning to the point of being torn apart. There is an understandable fear of catastrophe. In contrast, this phrase that describes the heavens being torn apart, with the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, through the tear, suggests a more uplifting theme, of God being present in the tear. On that Friday that will ironically be known as “Good,” the Temple curtain separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies is torn in two as Jesus dies (Mark 15:38). The result of this tearing is the opening up of the way of salvation for all who believe.
As the letter to the Hebrews records:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-22)
This “tearing of the heavens” has to do with access, welcome, invitation, presence…
The second point is about the dove: God’s Spirit is in you. Remember the end of the flood, when the dove brought the twig of new life back to Noah? Well, here is the dove descending on Jesus, bringing the gift of the Holy Spirit, affirming new life. In the same way, in your baptism, the Holy Spirit has come to indwell you; you are now the Temple of God’s Holy Spirit. You are the place where others will encounter God and his new life. God’s Spirit is in you. And this Spirit’s coming is attended with power – dunamis – for the purpose of telling others that they may share in this same relationship.
So, in baptism, heaven is open to you, God’s Spirit is in you. The third detail of baptism is about the beloved: the focus is on the relationship rather than the genealogy, let alone the genetics. This is the Son with whom God is well pleased. What is being said here is this: you mean everything to God. God’s words at Jesus’ baptism are, “This is my beloved Son.” These words mean that Jesus means everything to God, and everything God gives to Jesus he gives to us. You mean everything to God.
I read a brief article entitled “What love means to a 4-8 year-old.” Children were asked to explain what love means, and out of the mouths of babes came some remarkably touching words.
Bobby said, “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.”
Jessica said, “You really shouldn’t say “I love you” unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.”
The one that really caught me was Billy. “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.”
I love that!
God knows your name, and it’s safe in his mouth…
In the latest baptismal liturgy it states “The triune God delivers us from the forces of evil, puts our sinful self to death, gives us new birth, adopts us as children, and makes us members of the body of Christ, the church.” (ELW, 225) Which is simply another way of saying heaven is open to you, God’s Spirit is in you, and you mean everything to God.
As Christians, we are drowned in the flood waters of baptism and raised up with the promise of new life as God’s children. In baptism we receive a sign of God’s unfailing commitment and love for us. It is not a bow in the clouds but the sign of Christ’s cross marked on our foreheads. As we begin the season of Lent, we receive the sign of God’s promise in the form of ashes on our forehead. As we approach the Easter vigil, again the sign of the cross is traced on the foreheads of those newly baptized.
We move on…
From identity to reflection
Jesus’ baptism leads to reflection: the wilderness
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:12-13)
As much as we would want, you don’t stay at baptism – the world, life, is full of wilderness experience. Luther put it this way: baptism takes only a few minutes to do, but a whole lifetime to finish.
Given the framework of thought within which Mark celebrates Jesus, and in his prologue presents him to the reader, we are doubtless correct to see the time in the wilderness as both preparation and struggle from which Jesus emerges victorious. The victory here promises victory everywhere. Jesus is in the desert. The desert is a primal place of wild forces and wonders. It is a place of hope and new beginnings. Israel passed through the waters of the sea and set out for the wilderness, where they stayed for 40 years. Jesus is like Israel. He passes through the baptismal waters and moves out into the wilderness for 40 days.
The fact is, we can’t escape the wilderness. Even Jesus needed to enter it.
The theme here might be “life after baptism” – it’s a life full of testing. The fact is, “life after baptism” is “life in the real world.” And Jesus knows this “real world” of temptations, and undeserved suffering and death.
In Mark’s Gospel, the Spirit is literally “casting out” or “throwing out” Jesus into the wilderness. Our text says, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” (Matthew and Luke are a bit less graphic with the spirit “leading” Jesus.) In the wilderness Jesus is to be tested by Satan. I wonder how many people really want to be led by the Spirit – if this is where the Spirit leads!
Let’s look at the word “testing” – the Greek word is peirazo. Translators have to decide if the word means “to test” or “to tempt.” Because it has both meanings. In a “test” the tester is not trying to make the testee fail, but to determine what they know or what they can do. In a “temptation” the tempter is trying to make the temptee fail.
A closely related word is used in Deuteronomy 8:2 – Moses is speaking to the generation that will enter the promised land when he says, “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these 40 years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” I think the purpose of Jesus’ “testing” in the wilderness is closely related to Deuteronomy 8.
Generally when teachers or driving instructors give tests, they are not trying to flunk the testee, but to help discover what they know and what they can do – their ability to do what is required of them. In “proving” them, they are also instilling confidence for the task. Doctors and lawyers and accountants among other professions have to pass tests so that the public can be assured that these people know what they are doing. But it also provides us reassurance to the one being tested that they have made it, they are accomplished at the task ahead of them.
This is a story of preparation. In part, it functions to establish the credibility of Jesus.
A seeker after truth came to a saint for guidance.
“Tell me, wise one, how did you become holy?”
“And what are they, please?”
The seeker was fascinated. “How does one learn to choose rightly?”
“One word! May I have it, please?” The seeker asked.
The seeker was thrilled. “How does one grow?”
“What are they, pray tell?”
This is God’s purpose in times of testing – to help us grow – to show us that we have the faith and ability to stand up to the testing – that we will trust God in difficult times – to strengthen our faith and Christian character. However, we must know at the same time, Satan has his own purpose – to turn the testee away from God – to “tempt” them to sin. Both elements or at work here in the wilderness. And, unfortunately, there will be “wrong choices” along the way, by which we just might grow. The truth is, this is…
A matter of the will
From whomever it comes, the tempter/tester does not have the power to make someone do something. Temptation is not the same as coercion. The serpent in the garden didn’t make Eve and then Adam eat the forbidden fruit. Satan in our text can’t make Jesus turn against God. “To tempt” means to try and convince someone to do something. It means enticing someone to want to do something. Tempter’s can’t make someone do something bad, but try to make the temptee want to do something bad. They don’t take away the will, rather, they try to change one’s will.
In my own experience, often when I sin, it is not a problem of knowledge. I usually know what is good and bad – we’ve known that since the time of Adam and Eve. It is a problem of the will. I just want to do the bad. Or there are times I just don’t want to do the good. More often than not, it is not a question of ignorance – of not knowing the difference between good and bad. It is a question of one’s will or conviction – what do I want to do and what will I do. Martin Luther once noted that the problem with free will is that we most often use it to choose what is wrong.
It is the responsibility of parents and sponsors end of the church not only to teach its baptized members the difference between right and wrong; but also to help motivate them to want to do the right thing. Satan (and much of human society) is still around, trying to make us want to do the wrong thing.
Immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drives Jesus into the desert for a period of testing, surrounded by wild animals, Satan, and ministering angels – all in order to prepare him to declare the good news of the kingdom of God. So finally we move…
From reflection to task
The task: spreading the good news
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)
The story ends in good news because God is determined to have the last word.
When life’s struggles overwhelm us, God’s promises comfort us with the assurance of God’s abiding presence and healing touch. The cross and the rainbow are visual images reminding us of this promise.
Having been baptized and tested, Jesus’ purpose is to tell others that everything that is true for him in his relationship with the Father is true for us as well. The heavens are torn; God’s spirit can be in you; you mean everything to God.
That’s good news!
Our Lutheran worship traditionally ends with the dismissal, “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.” To which the church responds “Thanks be to God.” We have been very intentional here about this sending. We say “Go in peace,” then “Thanks be to God!” “Serve the Lord” is no throwaway line – it is a call to discipleship, to commitment. It is Jesus leaving the wilderness to do what he was prepared to do – to take up his task – to invite others in. It is our commissioning for the everyday task of sharing the great good news. So we respond with, “Yes, Lord! We will!”
As I think about times when my faith has been tested/strengthened, often the best service that others can do for me, is to let me share the experience. Perhaps that is why this event is followed with Jesus first public announcement. Maybe there is a connection between the Holy Spirit leading in times of testing and the Holy Spirit speaking through us.
From identity to reflection to task.
Those are the elements we see in the gospel this morning. Jesus’ experience is a foreshadowing of our own. Our baptism is intended to prepare us for both the wilderness and the witness. With our identity firmly established in God our Father, we are ready for the wilderness, which empowers us for the witness. From water to wilderness to witness, from identity to reflection to task, from being to struggling to doing, in this Lenten season we are being prepared for Kingdom work. May we be inspired by the same Spirit that leads Jesus Christ to endure, for heaven’s sake.
FEBURARY 14, 2021, Transfiguration Sunday... “Glory That Transfigures You and Me”
Two times Mark’s gospel records God’s spoken voice, a “voice from the clouds.” At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, as he is baptized, God says only to Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased.” (Mark 1:11) No one else hears that proclamation. Now again, the voice from the cloud speaks, but this time it isn’t meant for just Jesus, but for his inner circle, Peter, James, and John, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.” (Mark 9:7) We’ll come back to that a bit later.
Today we reach the climax of the Epiphany season in the liturgical year. Epiphany is all about revealing, and the texts over the last few weeks have focused on Jesus being revealed in varying ways to the people around him: in his baptism, in the call of disciples; in healing and deliverance miracles; in a new way of teaching, with an authority unlike any of the scribes possess.
We are told the occurrence of the Transfiguration comes six days after Peter’s great confession concerning Jesus, “You are the Christ.” The Transfiguration adds a whole different level of revelation to the epiphany of Jesus. The Greek word is “metamorphose” - translated transfiguration, though we hardly need a definition in our language, as any young child has already learned about the metamorphoses of caterpillars to butterflies and tadpoles to frogs. Already in their earliest stage of development these creatures hold the DNA, the characteristics into which they will finally transform. I get a kick out of the two caterpillars talking to each other. One spies a butterfly soaring above and says, “You’ll never get me up in one of those!” To which the other replies, “Ahhh! Talking caterpillar!”
If I can carry the analogy out, Jesus brings to the mountaintop the divine DNA of Shekinah glory that shines through him, a divinity he set aside in order to become one of us, one with us, one for us, as Paul writes,
“Christ Jesus… had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death – and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion.” (Philippians 2:5-8 Message)
Daniel Clandenin writes:
Nothing is easier for Christians who have become over-familiar with the gospel texts and traditions then to domesticate and diminish them – taming the ineffable, trivializing the indescribable, cutting and trimming to neuter God so as to manage him.
In his book, “What Jesus Meant,” Gary Wills tries to recapture the radically subversive life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth:
“He intended to reveal the Father to us, and to show that he is the only begotten Son of that Father. What he signified is always more challenging than we expect, more outrageous, more egregious.”
Again Clandenin notes “Wills is not fond at all of Thomas Jefferson’s scissored-down Jesus who is little more than a ‘mild humanitarian normalizer,’ nor the more recent Jesus Seminar scholars, “the new fundamentalism” (as he calls it), who end up with Jesus as a bland cardboard cutout.” He goes on to say “The Transfiguration of Jesus belies the ways we dilute the stringent wine of the gospel. The blinding light, and voice from the clouds challenge faith that has turned tepid, perfunctory, bored and boring.”
In her book “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” Annie Dillard thus asks:
Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets! Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews! For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us to where we can never return.
Maybe Peter's wanting to build shelters on the mountain of Transfiguration is a forerunner of the way we construct church comfort zones through wanting to pin things down, keep them as they are, bringing them under any little control we can manage.
For many years I never got the Disney production “Fantasia.” It was much later that I began to understand that it was merely a visualization of the orchestration behind it. But one thing I did understand was the sequence with Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, playing with power far beyond his understanding. I believe it’s not too much of a reach to use the presentation in order to grasp how the church of Jesus Christ misses the point of the power it holds.
Remember after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ that Jesus first begins to teach about his impending passion. “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31) Jesus predicts his death, and then in Mark’s gospel we move immediately into the Transfiguration. There is here the beginning of a grand reversal in the gospel text. The glory of the Transfiguration occurs to highlight what appears to be the opposite: the humiliation and rejection of the cross. Jesus’ passion predictions underscore the cross that becomes his crowning glory only as we see Easter in retrospect. Hindsight is 20/20!
Again, Epiphany means “to make known.” This Transfiguration, this metamorphosis, emphasizes that Jesus whom the disciples followed was not just a rebel Rabbi, clever sage, sociopolitical provocateur, subversive wisdom teacher, ascetic, or failed apocalyptic troublemaker. The Transfiguration portrays him as the Lord of human history, God’s beloved and appointed Son. Transfiguration is seeing the glory of Jesus before the cross even occurs.
The flow of Mark’s gospel is revealing. Chapter 1 gives us Jesus’ baptism and the voice of God saying to Jesus “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased.” And in the ensuing eight chapters we get epiphanies, small revealings of just who Jesus is, culminating in Jesus’ first passion prediction and then his Transfiguration on the mountaintop. And once again the voice of God speaks, “This is my Son, whom I love; listen to him!” Then, coming down from the mountaintop, the ministry and passion story leads Jesus to another mountaintop 5 chapters later: Calvary, Golgotha, the point of sacrifice, the cross where Martin Luther says Jesus is enthroned in glory.
Peter gives testimony to the Transfiguration in his second letter. He wrote:
But we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and his coming again. We have seen his majestic splendor with our own eyes. And he received honor and glory from God the Father when God’s glorious majestic voice called down from heaven, “This is my beloved Son; I am fully pleased with him.” We ourselves heard the voice when we were there with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18)
The apostle John also alludes to the event, saying, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father.” (John 1:14)
The appearance of the two great OT prophets, Moses and Elijah, represent those who, like the disciples at this moment, beheld God’s glory on a mountaintop at crucial periods of discouragement in their mission. Elijah, victorious over Baal’s prophets and hunted by the authorities, flees to the mountains only to be met by God and sent back into the fray. He sees God’s glory in the storm, the fire, and the earthquake, and finally hears God’s still small voice, a whisper in the breeze. (1 Kings 19:11 ff)
Moses comes down from the mountaintop after receiving the tablets as Yahweh’s envoy whose message is rejected by the people, found to be worshiping the golden calf. He re-ascends the mountain, sees God’s trailing robe from the shelter of a rock and God’s protecting hand, and he begins to glow himself, the Shekinah glory of the Lord lifted up upon him. (Exodus 33:18 ff)
The effect is the same for both Elijah and Moses: it changes them and empowers their ministry.
The disciples are struggling in the midst of Jesus’ predictions of impending death, and notably, resurrection. “Coming down the mountain, Jesus swore them to secrecy. ‘Don’t tell a soul what you saw. After the Son of Man rises from the dead, you are free to talk.’ They puzzled over that, wondering what on earth ‘rising from the dead’ meant.” (Mark 9:9-10 Message)
But Jesus’ Transfiguration actually serves to transfigure the disciples. Peter, James, and John behold Christ’s glory, and it has to affect them.
The voice gives the command: "Listen to him!" "Listen" (akouete) is a present imperative, implying continuing action: "Keep on listening to him" or "Continue to listen to him." God gave Ten Commands in the OT. In the NT, we have this one command. (It should be printed in green.)
Edwards (The Gospel of Mark) notes that this command also recalls a word from Moses, "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me.... You must listen to him" (Deut 18:15). [p. 268]
Connected to Romans 10:17, we can conclude that the Christian faith comes through our ears: "So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ."
Since these disciples have heard God say, “This is my Son, whom I love; listen to him!” perhaps that is exactly what they do. Maybe they begin to listen more closely, more carefully to what Jesus is teaching. What are they to listen to? Everything of course, but considering the context, Jesus is speaking words the disciples seem to be unable to hear – about his coming passion and death. God appears to be speaking to their lack of understanding about what Jesus will do and the power, and glory, of the cross.
This Sunday that celebrates the Transfiguration of our Lord inaugurates a transition into the season of Lent. During Lent we prepare for the passion of Christ in Holy Week.
Ultimately, the Transfiguration is a message of succession. In our world succession takes on many forms. Democracy has in its design a peaceful transition of power, when not usurped by coup-d’état, violent overthrow, or rebellion. Monarchy’s transition requires someone’s death or abdication. This morning we have numerous instances of succession described: the mantle of Elijah being passed to Elisha, as Elijah rides a whirlwind to heaven; the presence of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration emphasizing the glory of Jesus surpassing even them; and Jesus’ impending empowerment of his disciples, which of course includes you and me.
In Julia Ward Howe’s classic, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, the fourth verse says:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men (and women) holy,
Let us live to make men (and women) free,
While God is marching on.
As we make this transition from Epiphany to Lent on this Sunday of the Transfiguration of our Lord, there are three things to take note of, that prepare us in this journey: 1) listen to him; 2) see his glory; 3) follow all the way to the cross.
Just as Jesus’ journey now leads up to Jerusalem, so too our journey leads us from these Epiphany texts into the season of Lent and the way of discipleship. Just as the disciples are led from the mountain, so, too, have we been invited and called to walk the walk of discipleship. Brothers and sisters, our God wants very much to be included in every part of our lives. The Holy Spirit is actively at work in the world, the Lord Jesus Christ is with us every moment, until the end of all the ages, just as he promised he would be. We must simply take the time to listen, to look for the one who is the light of the world, the one whose glory we shall one day see face-to-face. As Peter tells us: “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Peter 1:19) and Paul concludes, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)
In the benediction with which we close our worship service each and every week, the Aaronic blessing of Num. 6:24–26 is quoted, where “the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace”’”
To my understanding, that last part where it says, “The Lord lift up his countenance upon you” literally means for God to place his face on you. In other words, you are to be the reflection of the Father’s glory to the world around you. That is a “glory… that transfigures you and me” for the Kingdom of God’s sake. May we all be blessed to bear the glory of Jesus to a world desperately in need of God’s light.
January 24, 2021 Pastor Pat's Sermon Notes ...Great commissioning
Some times when I think of the notion of God’s calling, I can’t help but think of Moses and the burning bush. First thought: Don’t you wish you had such an obvious experience of God’s direction in your life as Moses got that day?! And maybe not! But look at what happens with Moses. He gets into a debate with God about just how capable he felt he was at accomplishing what God was sending him to do. Moses objects to God’s call first on the basis of his lack of ability: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11) His next objection is that he lacks authority: “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” (3:13) His third objection is that of veracity: “What if they don’t believe me or listen to me?” (4:1) Finally he gets practical: “O Lord, I have never been eloquent… I am slow of speech and tongue.” He seems to be saying, “But Lord, I st,st,stutter!” (4:10)
Inevitably it seems the answer Moses attempts to give to get out of his Great Commission is, “Here I am, Lord, send Aaron!” “O Lord, please, send someone else to do it!” he says in Exodus 4:13. God equips Moses for his work; first he gives Moses 2 assurances: “I am with you, and you and the Israelites will make it back to this mountain alive to worship me.” (Exodus 3:12), presence and promise; then he gives him a name to proclaim: “I am who I am; I am has sent me to you”; and finally an angry rebuff: “Okay, take Aaron, but you’ll put the words in his mouth!” (4:14-15)
Predictably, Moses accepts the call, lives out his great commission, and God uses him to rescue and deliver Israel from slavery and lead them to the doorstep of nationhood in the Promised Land, 40 years later.
God calls, and people respond in many different ways. I’ve always wondered, hypothetically of course, if others were approached along the way to be a part of God’s great plan but turned him down, and their names were thus never recorded in scripture. Of course, I think God knows who will respond to his call and so there’s no wasted motion in the process. But still, I don’t think my idea is without precedent.
There is a strong contrast in how one responds to God’s great commission in our lessons today. First, take a look at Jonah.
In the mid-eighth century the once powerful Assyria is suffering through a time of decline. Its capital city is Nineveh, and for many centuries this nation has been the despised enemy of Israel. Jonah is called to be sent as a prophet of impending doom to them, and, to be honest, he’s one of the reasons I think about those whose names are not known by us, because he did exactly what I was thinking about. He chose not to do what God asked and actually fled in the opposite direction. Assyria was to the north and east of Israel; the Mediterranean is due west. Catching the first boat out of there, Jonah tries to get away from God. Stormy seas, a sinking boat, and superstitious but willing sailors throwing him overboard finds our buddy floundering like a flounder in the mouth of a great fish for three days and nights. Jonah actually praises God from the innards of that fish because it has saved him from sinking to Davy Jones locker. Unwilling before his chastisement, Jonah repents and goes to Nineveh. He declares their doom and then sits back and gleefully awaits the fireworks. But, Nineveh repents. Jonah’s less than gracious prophecy has just the effect God wanted, and sadly, Jonah is not pleased.
A couple of points here. First of all, notice that God’s grace is shown to people outside of Israel here - God cares for ALL people, wanting all of them to know his salvation and mercy. Remember, Jesus came to seek and to save the lost among all of humankind, because God so loved the world. Then don’t miss the fact that the same message Jonah carried to Nineveh of their destruction if they were unwilling to repent was given to the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in this same time frame… and they refused to repent, thus dooming themselves to the Diaspora, where they are carried off into the uttermost parts of the world, never to be heard from again, AT THE HANDS OF THE ASSYRIANS in 722 BC! How’s that for irony!
And then there’s the gospel…
Can I just say at the beginning that I’ve always found this passage to be both an inspiration and troublesome. I’m inspired by how quickly the four fishermen respond. One of Mark’s favorite words pops up twice, in verses 18 and 20: immediately. At once, instantly, without any intervening time or space, these four leave their nets, climb out of their boat, “and followed him.” There’s decisiveness in their response that I hope I would emulate in the same circumstances.
But I’m also troubled by their response because it seems to set the bar so high: leaving everything behind to follow this previously unknown itinerant preacher into… what? Honestly, knowing what I know now, I would jump at the chance; knowing how little they knew then, I find it hard to imagine doing what they did; possibly you might feel the same.
Perhaps that’s the point. We might consider this morning if we can imagine picking up and leaving everything to follow Jesus. Take an honest look at this. How do we stack up in the call-and-response nature of this event? Perhaps most of us would find it very hard to leave everything behind, family, friends, occupation, and all the rest to venture out on an unknown and uncertain path with this guy… Does that mean we’re less faithful than Andrew and Peter, James and John? And is that the reason, the purpose that Mark offers this story in the first place, to set an example for us to follow? And if not to do exactly the same thing, what kind of example might he be intending?
I think we are meant to be inspired by the example of these four faithful fishermen, willing to follow immediately. Yet I’m certain Mark doesn’t mean for us all to ditch our everyday lives in quite the same way. Mark’s writing 20-25 years after Jesus walked the earth, so the possibility of physically following the Master in the same way is readily not accessible to his readers and to us. That time has come and gone. But following is certainly important enough for Mark to tell the story. So perhaps his message is more about following Jesus in general than in the specific way that these four did.
I mean, we do follow him in particular and distinct ways, and they may not be like the first disciples. Our following takes many designs, perhaps as a teacher, a volunteer in the Pantry, or as one who reaches out to the outsider to invite them in. Perhaps our following is doing our jobs in the workaday world to our best ability and to the glory of God. Maybe it’s seen in our generosity of treasure and time, or by listening to those around us and responding with grace and care. You get the idea, I’m sure. There are any number of ways that following Jesus plays out in our world.
Seminary professor David Lose, in his article, “Following Jesus Today” writes
What seems at the heart of the matter is that we can follow Jesus in all of these different situations and circumstances precisely by trying to imitate him – by trying, that is, to treat others with the same regard, love and patience that he did, including all manner of people but especially those who were overlooked by society. This, I think, is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian: to try to live and treat others as Jesus did, embracing the values of inclusiveness, love, forgiveness, and healing that he radiated in word and deed.
But there is still another way that our following is displayed, and it is more important than any of these other ways. It is in how we share the truth about our Lord. Listen to this song by Big Daddy Weave, “This Is What We Live For,” that David turned me on to this past week:
This Is What We Live For
What can I do with this fire on the inside
I'm burnin' up with a truth I can't hide
You're the reason for this hope in my life
I'm gonna let it shine
I have to let it shine
This is what we live for to go where You say go
To let the whole world know
You're light in the darkness oh oh oh
This is what we live for to love the way You love
So God be lifted up
Come be light in the darkness oh oh oh
This is what we live for oh oh oh
This is what we live for oh oh oh
This is what we live for oh oh oh
Oh oh oh
When You breathe even dry bones come alive
When You speak God You shut down every lie
You're the reason for this hope in our lives
I'm gonna testify
I have to testify
Chasing Your Heart and all that You are
We surrender surrender all
Your favor with us Your presence in us
Now Jesus Your name above it all
Whatcha gonna do with this fire on the inside
I said whatcha gonna do with this fire on the inside
This is what we live for oh oh oh
This is what we live for oh oh oh
This is what we live for oh oh oh
Oh oh oh
CCLI Song # 7133641
Jonas Myrin | Matt Redman | Michael Weaver
© 2019 Capitol CMG Paragon (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing)
Son of the Lion (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing)
Integrity Worship Music (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing (Integrity Music, David C Cook))
Said And Done Music (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing (Integrity Music, David C Cook))
Weave Country (Admin. by CURB | Word Music Publishing)
Curb Word Music (Admin. by WC Music Corp.)
CCLI License # 587498
The song’s lyrics say:
What can I do with this fire on the inside
I'm burnin' up with a truth I can't hide
You're the reason for this hope in my life
I'm gonna let it shine
This is what we live for to go where You say go
To let the whole world know
You're the light in the darkness
The fact is, we each and all have a story to tell, our story of what Jesus has meant in our very own lives. And we each and all have a network with whom we can share this great Good News. And that is our commission, to go and make disciples by telling them our story of how following Jesus has meant peace and hope and service and joy to us.
It’s like the examples we’re given this morning are the two ends of a “spectrum” where Jonah represents one self-involved, unwilling prophet, until threatened, seeing a positive effect from his work, and even then missing the point. And on the other end of the scale are the four fishermen who willingly and “immediately” get out of the boat and answer the call to follow, although their discipleship certainly has its struggles along the way.
And we have a call as well, we have a “Great Commission,” to tell the story as it has come to be known by us. And we find ourselves somewhere along that spectrum of response, where one end of it is the ideal, the other end of it is faulted, but both ends end up doing their part to let God’s will be known. We pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” with the addendum that it come and be done in this place as well, right here, right now.
And then there’s Paul, who invites disciples of Jesus to refocus their agendas, to re-prioritize their lives around the importance of telling the story, “For the world, as we know it, is passing away.” (1 Cor. 7:31b)
In the closing passage of his monumental “The Quest of the Historical Jesus,” Albert Schweitzer – theologian, doctor, Bach scholar – offers a similar insight that I think is still both poignant and relevant. Having come to the conclusion about separating the “real” or “historical” Jesus from the “Christ of faith,” Schweitzer nevertheless discovers that we can come to know Christ Jesus fully and authentically only by following Christ. As he writes,
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.
As we learn who he is by walking in his promised presence, we discover that following also means inviting, that discipleship also means sharing, that our commissioning also means showing the way to the One who brings near the fullness of the Kingdom of God. In this process, be aware that “I am” is with you always, that your destination is secure and that your commissioning in baptism includes empowerment for that witness, as the Holy Spirit comes to reside within you, to teach and guide, to give you words to speak, to embolden and inspire your testimony for the One whom we follow, Jesus Christ our Lord.
January 17, 2021 Pastor Pat's Sermon Notes
In the book, In the Eye of the Storm , Max Lucado tells this story on him
One summer while I was in high school I worked laying pipe in the West Texas oil field. At lunchtime the workers in the oil field would tell jokes and play cards. “For 30 minutes in the heat of the day,” [Max writes] “the oil patch became Las Vegas – – replete with foul language, dirty stories, blackjack, and barstools that doubled as lunch pails.”
One day during lunch a supervisor walked toward us. Did he have a job for us and couldn’t wait? we wondered. “Uh, Fellows,” he said. We all turned and looked up at him. “I, uh, I just wanted, uh, to invite…” We could tell he was uncomfortable with whatever he was trying to tell us. He tried again. “I just wanted to tell you that our church is having a service tonight and…” “What?” I thought to myself in disbelief. “He’s talking church? Out here? With us!?” “I wanted to invite any of you to come along,” the supervisor said.There was a silence among us. Several stared at the dirt. Others just looked at each other. No one said anything.
“Well, that’s it,” he said. “If any of you want to go… Let me know.” After saying that he left. We all began to laugh. Five years later I was a college sophomore struggling with a decision. I admit I drifted from faith. I wanted to know Jesus again. But the price was too high. My friends might laugh. That’s when I thought of the supervisor in the oil field. That supervisor’s love for God had been greater than his concern for his reputation. “So I came home,” Max concluded.
Throughout the pages of the Bible we find a God who loves us and wants the very best for each of us. Sometimes God speaks to us directly. At other times God speaks to us through others, such as that supervisor. In either case we must respond to the voice of God. God does speak. This morning we have in our lessons two cases in which God speaks and calls, from which we can learn how to answer when he calls on us. In the first lesson, in the time of the prophets, before the kings of Israel, when Israel was led by what were known as judges - think Othniel and Deborah, Gideon and Samson, we hear the story of Samuel’s call; this prophet and judge would eventually anoint first Saul and then David as kings of Israel. Then, in the gospel lesson, the call of the first disciples is exemplified in Jesus’ invitation to Nathaniel. Let’s take a look at those two vignettes: Samuel was just a young boy when he went to live in the Tabernacle with the old priest Eli. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had dedicated her son to God’s service, even before his birth. His name means “Name of God.” Samuel had all the energy and enthusiasm of a child. We are told Eli was old and his eyesight had grown dim. Eli’s sons were next in line to be high priest, but they were not like Eli. In fact, they were outright frauds. And, the writer of Samuel tells us, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Perhaps there was simply no one worthy to hear it.
Samuel’s sleeping quarters were in the Tabernacle – right near the famed Ark of the Covenant. I’ve always wondered about this. Our text says, “Samuel was lying down in the Temple of the Lord, where the Ark of God was.” On the one hand, it would certainly be exciting to be welcomed into the inner sanctum of the tabernacle, into the Holy of Holies. On the other hand, I can’t help but remember, that’s where a quick glimpse of God nets you the end of your story. But there little Sammy sleeps, and one night, while Eli and his sons were sleeping in their tent nearby, God called the young Samuel, “Samuel! Samuel!” And the young boy was startled awake. The sanctuary was a strange place for a boy. And his mother was not nearby to comfort him. He was alone in this extraordinary place and he had heard a peculiar voice calling his name. You might imagine he would have been alarmed.
His first thought was that it must’ve been Eli. Eli must need something. Who else would be calling him? Samuel got out of bed and raced to Eli’s tent. “Here I am,” the young boy says, “for you called me.” Now Eli was sound asleep, along with his sons. But it hadn’t been Eli who called him. Samuel’s commotion must’ve been equally disturbing to Eli. You can almost hear Eli thinking in his disturbed sleep: had this sort of thing happened before? Was Samuel prone to hearing voices in the night? Did he often have nightmares? Was he going to be too much of a bother to have around? I can imagine Eli didn’t like being awakened in the middle of the night like this. “I didn’t call,” he says brusquely to Samuel. “Go and lie down!” Dejectedly, Samuel went back to bed. But he was certain someone had called his name.
As he began to fall asleep, once more he heard the voice calling his name: “Samuel.” Again, he raced to Eli’s tent. This time he was sure that someone had called him. Again Eli sent him back to bed, somewhat exasperated for these disturbances to his sleep. After the second time, we are told Samuel “did not know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” And we shake our heads and think, “how silly of him,” knowing, of course, we would’ve been able to distinguish right away who was calling, right? But still, Samuel had no idea who was calling him that night.
Then it happened a third time. Again Samuel rushed to Eli’s side.
God does speak; the problem is that maybe we don’t really listen. It took old Eli three times before he realized that it was God who was calling Samuel. You would think that a priest who had devoted most of his life to God’s service would realize sooner who was on the line. Perhaps for Eli, too, it was because “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread,” that he failed to get it the first three times. To Eli’s credit, he finally tells Samuel that if he hears the voice again to reply, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Why would God be calling Samuel? Samuel was just a young boy, perhaps as young as seven or eight. Probably hadn’t even yet made his Bar Mitzvah! But notice that God calls persons of all ages; we are never too young; we are never too old. Samuel returns to bed. If he hears the voice again, he will respond as Eli has instructed. And of course, God speaks. What prevents us from hearing? Could it be that we fail to listen? Maybe we need to discipline ourselves to hear the still small voice of God, and then invite him to speak when we recognize his voice, saying “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Perhaps we have missed God’s call because we’ve been too busy being in control of our own lives. God speaks. Some of us haven’t been listening. That brings us to the point of this ancient but well-loved story.
“Here I am” is the ready response. After waking old Eli up for the third time, Samuel goes back to bed. Samuel would be called one more time that night. This time when God calls, “Samuel! Samuel!” young Samuel pops up saying exactly what Eli instructed him to say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” And God spoke to Samuel. One reason we might be reluctant to hear God’s call is the changes he might require of us. That night in the tabernacle, God spoke to young Samuel and gave him some rather disturbing news. Samuel would become a prophet, indeed, the last of the Judges. Eli was on his way out. God told Samuel, “I am about to punish his house forever.” God had had enough of Eli’s sons. Samuel would take Eli’s place. Samuel probably didn’t want to hear that, but God assured him he would not be alone.
We need to understand as well that if God calls us and we respond, “Here I am,” there might be changes in store for us, too, but we are never left alone. You might imagine Samuel wasn’t able to go back to sleep that night. He had been awakened four times in one night. Now he had this heavy message to consider. More than likely he spent the rest of the night awake. Everything happened just as God told him it would. Later, with the news that Eli’s sons had been killed, Eli himself died. In the closing verse of chapter 3 we discover that, “All Israel… knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.”
Moving on in God’s story, did you ever stop to think about how Jesus put his team together? No MBTI evaluations, no references, no headhunters, not even an application process, very much like an NFL draft, without the scouting or the combine. And what an unlikely group of “leaders” Jesus chooses: some fishermen, a few whose jobs we never hear about, and a tax collector; among them, possibly one of royal blood, descended from David himself, and at least one, perhaps two malcontented Zealots, who hate Rome and everything it stands for, and wouldn’t think twice about out and out rebellion, even murder – imagine the initial snarling match between Simon the Zealot and Matthew the collector of Roman taxes – talk about building friction, tension, and strife into your team! And not a scholar among them.
Jesus rolls out his IPO with what appears to be little actual employment strategy, leads them in practical application training and seminars for three years, then, just before he disappears before them into the clouds, tells them to wait in Jerusalem for something special to happen, which they do in heightened fear and anxiety. Suddenly, as they’re considering just how they ought to celebrate Pentecost, one of the high festivals of Judaism, the Holy Spirit falls on them, and Jesus’ choice of them seems to be genius, because from the first day on, the church goes viral.
Now that’s a rewrite of the Gospels and of the first chapters of the book of Acts, more or less. But I’d like you to notice something very important in this whole call process. Jesus could call just about anyone simply because what the family business is all about is going to be empowered and anointed by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and not by any particular strength or wisdom on the part of those chosen
Oh, please don’t misunderstand. God can and will use the specific way in which you are SHAPEd, but he’s certainly not restricted by that. If he can use a donkey to preach to Balaam, a Midianite diviner and prophet, he can use me to preach, or you to pray, or sing, or share, or fund his kingdom work, or, horrors, do outreach. So trust the Holy Spirit to work in your life and in Christ’s church.
That brings us to the story of Nathaniel’s call some 1100 years after Samuel. It doesn’t appear to be quite so startling a revelation; it doesn’t take place in such a holy location; the call was a good deal easier to hear and respond to. Nonetheless, its message is just as important.
Do you have a favorite place to go, a place nobody else knows about other than you? Is it a secret place where you can be alone, maybe to write in a diary or pray to God or just do your own thing? If you have such a place, then you can understand the reaction when Jesus of Nazareth told Nathaniel Bartholomew that he had seen him under the fig tree.
It makes sense to guess that there was a fig tree in Nathaniel’s yard where he was accustomed to reading Scripture and praying in private. Fig trees grow well in climates such as Israel. In the summertime, the fig tree is a big leafy, shady tree whose figs weigh the branches down until they hang quite low. It was cool under that fig tree, cool and shady on even the hottest summer afternoon. I suspect Nathaniel’s tree was just like that, a quiet place of refuge and of meditation, far from the prying eyes of neighbor or passerby. But not far from the view of one who sees all and knows all – Jesus our Lord.
Thus it is the Lord who broke in on Nathaniel’s happy, carefree life, and changed it forever with merely a word of recognition. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” Jesus told him. It was enough of a call for Nathaniel; it was enough of a reason to leave everything and follow, and it was a call that changed his life. Whatever his prior occupation, he left its security to follow Jesus. Whatever his prior reservations – remember he had said to his brother, Philip, scoffing, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” – he left any reservations behind to follow Jesus. Whatever his prior commitments, however full his weekly reminder, he gave them up to follow Jesus.
Scripture tells us little more about this Nathaniel, son of Tholmai, Bartholomew, other than that he was one of the dejected disciples who accompanied Peter when he decided to go fishing after Jesus death and resurrection. Nathaniel was there when the fishermen toiled all night long only to catch nothing. He was there as Peter swam to shore to meet Jesus, left behind to pull in the teeming net of fish capsizing the boat. He was there to hear Jesus restore Peter to leadership in the group, and he ate of the fish Jesus had prepared for his fishermen, even as he had shared with them and eaten of the Sacrament promising both forgiveness and life to those who believe in Jesus.
Nathaniel had his decision to follow vindicated, for he was doubtless present at Pentecost to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Tradition tells us that he lived his life as an apostle, being martyred in India rather than giving up his preaching. Somehow such a response seems characteristic of one whom Jesus found to be “… an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Nathaniel Bartholomew had discovered that something good could come from Nazareth – something no less significant than his Savior and his Lord. Accepting Phillip’s invitation to “come and see,” he began a glorious adventure with Jesus, an adventure we too share.
For, along with Nathaniel, we’re seen by Jesus under our “fig trees,” and the one who sees us there calls us to repentance and to service. And as we learned last week that in Baptism we receive from God both his affirmation of affection and his proclamation of purpose, so too in the Lord’s call we receive affirmation of our worth and notice of our mission. And, like Nathaniel, we may recognize our Savior and King, and we may also hear him call us to serve him in this life and in the life to come. God speaks to us in many ways. We need to spend more time listening. And we must be prepared to follow and to change, to allow for the transformation the Holy Spirit brings, and to become, by the grace of God, new people.
The next time you hear someone calling you in the night, it just might be God. When the invitation comes to leave the comfort of your secret place, the Lord might be inviting you to a greater adventure. When you hear that call, respond as young Samuel did, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Follow along as Nathaniel did, and witness God’s marvelous grace at work in your world. Once we have encountered God in our lives we will never again be the same.
January 10, 2021 Pastor Pats Sermon Notes
Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
The Baptism of Our Lord
I suspect that, having made it to mid-January, you would say that you have successfully survived the holidays, even though somewhat muted this year because of the circumstances, which for many of us means we’ve also, so far survived covid! The celebrations of our Savior’s birth – Christmas; then the New Year; and finally the Feast of the Three Kings, on January 6, Epiphany, or as it has come to be known for many of us, The Feast of Taking Down the Decorations, have all passed. This morning I want to suggest that there is one more holiday we should be observing – THIS day, the one the liturgical calendar designates to remember the baptism of our Lord. If the witness of Scripture is to be taken seriously, this day must be even MORE important than those others. After all, only Matthew and Luke record anything about Jesus’ birth, but all FOUR Gospels report his baptism, PLUS acts and Romans. In fact, in centuries past the church DID celebrate this day even more than the days remembering the holy birth, but we have drifted away from that practice.
It’s sad, really, because in the process, we have relegated to minor importance an event that, when properly understood, can give us a sense of enthusiasm, encouragement, and absolute joy.
Think about the scene for a moment. We are down by the Riverside… the Jordan. There is a throng of people from all walks of life who have made this mini-pilgrimage into the countryside. They had come to see an itinerant preacher who is more than just strange – a coarse camel’s-hair tunic with a leather belt around his waist, the uniform of a prophet since the days of Elijah. A diet of locusts and honey, one I’m certain would not be approved by the FDA as a possible weight reduction regimen! But maybe so – our son Ken received a gift of dried crickets, with various spices, I suspect to cover the taste, for Christmas from his wife this year. Not sure exactly what she’s meaning…
Back to our scene - it was longing and anticipation that brought this mass of people out – there was a sense that something was missing in their walk with God, so they were ready to listen to a new voice. And John the Baptists is a powerful new voice: according to the other Biblical sources he shouts, “You pack of snakes! Who warned you to run from the anger of God that is coming on you? Clean up your act! And do not presume to rely on the fact that you are Israelites – God’s chosen people – to save you. Get right and do right.” The crowds asked what to do. He responded, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Tax collectors were told, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers were instructed, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” It was a message that affirmed what they already knew: if they would be right with God, they had to be right with, not only God, but God’s children as well. Then as a sign of their commitment to repentance and a new way of living, they made their way down into the river, allowed John to “bury” their old ways under the water in baptism, then raise them again to a better life. Neat ceremony. Wonderful symbolism. And in the hands of a dynamic personality… so forceful and impressive that some were led to think that John was the promised Messiah finally come. So forceful and impressive in fact that sometime later in the Book of Acts, recorded in our Epistle lesson today, Paul runs into a band of believers who know nothing about the Holy Spirit’s promised coming in baptism and know only the baptism of John, yet are described as believers in Jesus. Paul sets them straight, baptized them and then laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied, in other words, they experienced Pentecost themselves and it completed their baptism in Jesus!
But, back to the Jordan - there John the Baptist debunked the notion of his own preeminence out of hand: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I’m not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Then one day it happened… Jesus comes. The request for baptism is made of John. John is initially reluctant, then acquiescence follows. Finally, the dramatic climax. As our lesson has it, “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” What an image! It is as if God the Father, confined to heaven at this fantastic moment, in euphoric frustration rips open the very fabric of the universe to lay claim upon his Son. It is a cosmic yes, arms raised high and feet dancing. It is love spilling out, the cup overflowing. Not celebrating the conclusion of a work well done, but before anything at all was done by Jesus, who is only now about to embark on his ministry.
THIS CHANGED EVERYTHING! Jesus’ baptism ushered in a new baptism. Christian baptism became not just a washing away of sin, as John’s baptism was, but the baptism that brings a special relationship with God and the power of the Holy Spirit for witness. Why? For no reason other than God chooses to do it. Now, that’s worth a holiday in my book.
Perhaps we should be used to this by now, but once more, all our high and holy religious expectations are trashed. It started with the ruler of the entire universe entering this world how? As an all-powerful potentate? No. An utterly helpless infant. The King of creation being born where? A palace? No. Among the animals. As life went on his best friends were who? The privileged and powerful? No. The down and dirty, the outcasts, those on life’s fringes, the nobodies. And, of course, at the end of it all, instead of doing what the world would consider the really smart thing, and not dying, he dies. Then three days later, SURPRISE!!! Empty tomb! Why should we be amazed when we learn that God loves us for no more reason than good parents do: just because. No surprise, because, actually, God is love.
And this is half the message of Jesus’ baptism and our own – we are loved. Most folks understand that, and that is why they get all warm and fuzzy when it comes to presenting their little ones for the sacrament.
I read a definition of grace that I think is powerful and applicable here. Grace is the willing transmission of an unmerited blessing to an unworthy recipient at great cost to the Giver. And God does that because He loves the world so much…
But there is another side to this baptism event, and it is this: WE HAVE WORK TO DO. Remember, this happened at the start of Jesus’ ministry. This was his commissioning service. Now, almost 20 centuries later, when someone is baptized in the church (infant or adult), it is no different. There is surely the affirmation of God’s incredible and unconditional love and… and this is a big AND… a commissioning to service in the name of Jesus Christ, the One into whose name we are baptized. That is why we take so seriously the promises that new disciples make or their parents make on their behalf – to live the Christian faith, to teach that faith to the children. We even go for extra help: as we present the baptized to the congregation with the proclamation, “Through baptism God has made these new sisters and brothers members of the priesthood we all share in Christ Jesus, that we may proclaim the praise of God and bear his creative and redeeming Word to all the world,” you, the ministers in this place, are called upon to add your affirmation, “We welcome you into the Lord’s family. We receive you as fellow members of the body of Christ, children of the same heavenly Father, and workers with us in the kingdom of God.” New disciples have work to do, and they will need all the help they can get. So we invite them to stand beside us in ministry and mission.
Both of the elements are important: the affirmation of affection and the proclamation of purpose. Lacking one or the other, we are incomplete.
Among the millions of Jews imprisoned by the Nazis in the death camps of the 1930s and 40s was Viktor Frankl. In spite of the horrors and the odds, he survived. Around him, next to him, each day of his ordeal, dozens, hundreds, thousands of fellow Jews, and others, died, many of them, of course, in the ovens – but many others died by giving up hope, losing heart, overwhelmed by horror and fear and hopelessness. Frankl survived, he said, because two forces sustained him: one was the certainty of his wife’s love. The other was an inner drive to rewrite the manuscript of the book he had completed after years of labor – but the Nazis had destroyed. Frankl’s imprisonment was lightened by daily imaginary conversations with his wife and by scrawling notes for his book on all the bits and scraps of paper he could find. And Frankl has written eloquently of these two insights to cope with life: first, the discovery and certainty of being loved, and, second, having a clear and controlling purpose in life. Both are the messages we receive in Christian baptism: the affirmation of affection and the proclamation of purpose.
A blog from a pastor I read recently said:
Quote “I think of the story that appeared a number of years ago in the midst of the upheaval in the former Soviet Union about the fact that Gorbachev’s grandmother had had him baptized as an infant, and what that meant as far as his willingness to see and do things differently. I think of the conversion and baptism of the former slave trader, John Newton, and his ministry of healing and grace which continues through his hymns, which include, “On Our Way Rejoicing,” and “Amazing Grace.” I think of how important Luther’s remembrance that “I am baptized” was to him in moments of trial and despair… I will be honest. I tremble and grow weak when I do baptisms… And I weep. Not because of some cute-little-baby-warm-fuzzy-isn’t-this-a-nice-family picture kind of feeling, but because I think it is the most radical and dangerous thing I do. And maybe because it is so radical, so dangerous, so threatening, that people either flee the church as they get older, or they weep when we have the opportunity to reaffirm our baptismal vows.” End quote…
The Baptism of the Lord was a big deal, and much bigger than we have given it credit for in its implications for you and me. Perhaps if we celebrated this day as a holiday… a HOLY day… we might reclaim the importance of the sacrament. After all, what we do in those sacred moments at the font has the potential for unleashing incredible power. The message is: you are loved and you have a purpose; that combination makes you very special.
You’re all familiar with the Rev. Jesse Jackson. No matter what folks think of Jesse’s politics, most everyone will agree that he is an incredible speaker and can genuinely communicate. Jesse speaks in many different settings, and one of those he enjoys the most is school auditoriums – he loves addressing students, particularly those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, to give them a sense of their own worth and a vision of a better future. Some years ago, he began concluding his speeches by having the youngsters respond to his urgings with a litany of self-affirmation. He would say something or ask some question and he would have the kids respond, “I am somebody!” Over and over again, the youngsters would be asked about themselves and the response would be, “I am somebody!” By the time Jesse would be done, those students would be positively bellowing, “I am somebody,” and they would leave with a sense of worth that, for many, would be brand-new.
The first message of your baptism and my baptism is that, in God’s grand scheme of things, I am somebody… you are somebody. The world asks, “Who are you?” And because of your baptism you can proudly proclaim, I am somebody in Christ. The world says we have no interest in you, but you can say, “World, you had better pay attention,” because you audaciously affirm, “I am somebody!” Your detractors can say that they can ignore you, but because of your baptism, you can say, “You dare not, because I am somebody!” Society says we have no need of you, but you can say, “Oh, yes, you do, because, in Christ, I am somebody!”
The second message of your baptism and my baptism is that, in God’s grand scheme of things, we are called, empowered, and sent for the purpose of declaring God’s great love for all humanity, to show the way, “making the paths straight,” as John the Baptist was commissioned, for any and all others to come home to God. At our baptism, God pours His Holy Spirit into us so that we have power to witness to his grace and majesty, wherever we are.
We take this moment to consider our baptisms. When you do, you tell me whether or not this day that recalls the baptism of the Lord deserves a holiday. I think absolutely! Because at its heart it teaches me that my own baptismal status, in spite of all my fears and failures, in spite of any worry and wonder, once and for all, in the eyes of the God of all the universe, I am somebody! You are somebody! And because we are somebody, we are in Christ and we have work to do, for Jesus Christ our Lord.
Let us pray. Gracious Lord, we are grateful to have been chosen, not only for your love, but your service as well. Help us to joyously celebrate your affection, but then equally joyful, set us about the work for that which you set us apart. Your Kingdom come, your will be done. Right here, right now, build your Kingdom and use us. We pray, Father, in the name of Jesus, empower us with your Spirit. Amen!
Pastor Pat's January 3rd, Sermon Notes
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:1-18
2nd Sunday After Christmas
I saw a book at Barnes & Noble, on the sale rack, one of my favorite places to browse for books. “1,000 Events that Shaped the World” published by National Geographic, August, 2019, is described as:
A fascinating sweep of global developments, this fact-filled book delivers what National Geographic has introduced into households for more than a century: The world and all that is in it. A thousand concise nuggets of text, each focused on one event and numbered chronologically, walk readers through time —from the first evidence of life 3.8 billion years ago to a just-discovered planet beyond our solar system that could harbor life as we know it.
Accompanied by hundreds of illustrations and maps, the chosen events give insight into how and why our world has grown and changed. Did you know that the bow and arrow were developed nearly 5,000 years before pottery was made? (Events #16 and #19.) Or that Hamlet (#319) appeared at about the same time as Japan’s Kabuki theater (#320) and the first newspapers (#322)? There’s much more: Buddha’s birth, the understanding of sight, Mercator‘s mapmaking, Tsar Alexander’s freeing of serfs, the Battle of Gettysburg, the debut of toilet paper [now there’s a banner day!], D-Day, the first e-mail. A reader can open this book anywhere and find fascinating tidbits of history embellished with quick-read biographies, first-person accounts [keep that thought in mind…], and landmark paintings and photos. 1000 Events is sure to be a perennial backlist book, with its well-researched information appealing to readers of all ages. In the winning tradition of bestsellers Visual History of the World and Concise History of the World, this new volume presents facts in the easy-access format that people love.
Now I generally love National Geographic magazine and generally respect its work. So I thumbed open the book to something I thought would be relevant and found this brief article:
#127 Jesus Begins Ministry
29 C. E. Jewish preacher Jesus of Nazareth began his public ministry in the Roman province of Palestine around 29 C. E. Palestine at the time was a land rife with political and social tensions between Gentiles and Jews, between Roman overlords and subjects, and among various sects of Judaism itself. Though himself a man of peace, Jesus gathered large crowds with his preaching and any man capable of attracting such crowds was viewed as politically dangerous by Roman governors and Jewish priests alike, as there was no dearth of Jews willing to mount rebellion against Rome. Jesus was never charged in his native region of Galilee with any serious legal offense, but when he entered Jerusalem to observe the Passover and was greeted by a mass of admirers, even his message of compassion became a portent of conflict. He was crucified as an agitator by Roman authorities around 30 C. E., But his teachings, preserved in the New Testament, have survived as some of the most powerful cultural and political forces in history.
Perhaps National Geographic didn’t check out the “first-person accounts” it is so vaunted for and entirely missed the point… I didn’t buy the book…
We’ve just come through the season where clerks in stores have been instructed to say, “Happy holidays” or “Season’s greetings” instead of the more controversial “Merry Christmas.” Curious to me that people want two days off, paid, mind you, to celebrate the holiday, but can’t acknowledge the reason for it in the first place. The word itself, “holiday,” is a contraction of the words “holy day” which marks the occurrence of a holy event, in this case, Christ’s birth.
You’ve seen the signs, “Jesus: the reason for the season.” How about, “Jesus, the reason for all existence!” or “The reason you’re set free!” or “The reason for your being!” What about “The reason for yesterday, today, and tomorrow!” I was thinking about another phrase often heard over the past weeks: “Keep Christ in Christmas!” And I couldn’t help but conclude that, no matter how hard we try to keep Christ in Christmas, He keeps breaking out!
And I want to be part of that breakout! And I want you to be, too!
In the biblical accounts of the incarnation, who bears witness to Jesus? In Matthew and Luke, there are shepherds and kings, an old man and an old woman, and angels. But these are not witnesses in the Gospel of John’s account of the incarnation. Here we find, in chapter 1, only one witness, a man sent from God whose name was John. As you listen to John 1:1-18, hear the rhythmic flow between proclamation about Jesus and witness to Jesus.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
The evangelist has, in this poetry, established a theme that he will continue to develop throughout his gospel. That theme is the critical importance of the witness. We know who Jesus is because of the witness, who is John the Baptist. We know the witness is reliable because he was sent by God. Whenever truth is proclaimed in the Gospel of John, it is attested to by a witness which might be a person, a sign or a miracle, or God directly. Listen to this series of phrases from John’s Gospel: “… The father who sent me has himself born witness…” (5:37); “I bear witness to myself” (8:18); “the works that I do… they bear witness to me.” (10:25) and then, listen carefully, because we shall return to this point: “…You also shall bear witness…” (15:27).
The problem the apostle John, writer of this gospel, had to contend with in his church, some 60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, was opposition to the truth. Pagans, Christians teaching false doctrine, and some Jews who continued to oppose the church, all had to be battled. The light had to continue to oppose darkness. The truth had to be ever vigilant against distortions and lies. And that is why, of course, such attention is placed on the authority of the witness. There has to be a witness who knows and can tell the truth if there is to be salvation for any of God’s people. Without the witness, there can be no faith. The witness creates a connection between Jesus, who is the light, and anyone still living in darkness. For example, notice the use of the word “we” in the middle of John 1:14: “… We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father.” John claims for his people that they, 60 years or so after the resurrection, have seen Jesus, because they have seen him through the eyes of witnesses. It was like they were really there. John’s church was saved by Jesus, because they saw Jesus, in all of his glory, through the eyes of witnesses.
And what of those who see through the eyes of witnesses, who saw Jesus through the eyes of other witnesses, who saw through the eyes of previous witnesses, who saw Jesus in all his glory through the eyes of still other witnesses, who saw him through the eyes of other witnesses… I trust you get the point. Those people who see the glory of Jesus through the eyes of witnesses for almost 2000 years of Christian history, those people whose salvation depends on the faithful testimony of witnesses, are you and I, and those who will yet come to believe because of our witness. Witnesses in my life included my parents, Ann Sullivan (who later became my wife of 50 years now), Larry Lachman, Pastor Carl Dietz, Jerry Romanek, Bob and Mickey Beard; all of them spoke faith into my life by their witness.
The proclamation of the people of John’s church is also our proclamation: “For we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father… And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.”
It may be apparent how important it is, then, that we have a practice of listening to and learning from reliable witnesses. Christians, and the church, can, according to John, reflect the full glory of Jesus only if their lives are grounded in the witness of others who saw Jesus. In turn, the Christian and the church must bear witness to what they have received. Given the depth of John’s emphasis on the importance of the witness, might we not be concerned about how little emphasis there is on “witnessing” among Christians today? The freedom to tell the stories of our meetings with Jesus used to be a great strength in many Christian communities. Given some of the distortions that become all too common, it is not hard to see why giving witness has become a lost art. But it cannot remain lost! The power of the witness to bring others to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ is astounding. I could prepare numerous classes and wonderful sermons (if I were capable of that), but more often it’s the spontaneous, one-on-one sharing of a Christian witness that will turn a person on to Christ. If the gospel of John is correct, then careful, prayerful, focused witnessing to Jesus is essential in any and every church that bears his name, that hopes to be the light of Jesus Christ to the darkness of the world.
There is another kind of witness along the way to whom we might listen. Of course we need to listen to theologians and scholars, to preachers and teachers. And there are saints of the church who are particularly authoritative witnesses. But in addition, from among the communion of saints stretching through the ages, each Christian can choose a witness, or two, or many, to whom you listen regularly in order to be sure you are seeing Jesus in all of his glory.
One witness I have been particularly drawn to over the past years has been C. S. Lewis. Lewis was an Anglican layman who taught at both Oxford and Cambridge. C. E. M. Jody has said about Lewis that “he had the rare gift of making righteousness readable.” His tales of Narnia, beginning with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” are so simple that, 60 years ago I could read them aloud to my children, and yet they are so full of profound analogy that I myself could study them in depth. One of the reasons that C. S. Lewis is good for me, besides the fact that he is spiritually profound and a deep lover of Jesus, is that he comes to Christianity from a different direction than I do. His experience, his witness, is such that he leads me to make conclusions I would not otherwise consider. He also writes in a slightly different dialect of English, more full and rich than I am accustomed to. All of this serves to help me to see and to know Jesus in new ways. Literally, day after day, every time I pick up one of his writings, I find myself feeling that I have received from Christ by way of Lewis’ witness.
C. S. Lewis gives witness to the Christ who was first witnessed to by John the Baptist, who was sent by God. All of that is why I can believe! The fullness of God’s love for you and me was passed down witness to witness for decades and generations and centuries of Christian church history. And look! Do you see it? This light and life and love, Jesus, full of grace and truth, has now come to make his home in our lives, and in our church.
And God the Father is making you into his witness. Remember when Jesus said in John 15:27, “You shall bear witness?” That word was spoken to the apostles. When John recorded those words of Jesus in his gospel, 60 years later, then it was also spoken to John’s church. And it is still the word of the Lord for us today. You are the witness. I am the witness. We are the witness together. That is how God is acting in our world today to bring the saving light of Jesus to the people, the community, the nation, and the world. Do not fail to see – do not fail to be – the witness. Can I get a witness?!
May God empower you by the Holy Spirit to be his witness, to the ends of the earth, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.