Sunday, April 6, 2013 “Hoping Against Hope”

Old Testament Reading: Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty;1 walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram,2 but your name shall be Abraham,3 for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

New Testament Reading: Romans 4:13-25

13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness[a] of Sarah’s womb. 20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

Hear the sermon.

Posted in Sunday Morning Preaching | Leave a comment

Sunday, March 30, 2014 “Snake on a Stick”

Old Testament Reading: Numbers 21:4-9

4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze[a] serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

New Testament Reading: John 3:14-21

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world,[b] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

Hear the sermon.

Posted in Sunday Morning Preaching | Leave a comment

Sunday, March 23, 2014 “Holy Water”

The Scripture (English Standard Version) says:

Old Testament Reading (Exodus 17: 1-7)
1 All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the name of the place Massah[a] and Meribah,[b] because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

New Testament Reading (John 4: 5-15)
5 So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.[a]

7 A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.[b] The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”

Hear the sermon.

Posted in Sunday Morning Preaching | Leave a comment

Sunday, March 9, 2014 “The Real World” (Joshua 6: 1-16)

1 Now Jericho was tightly shut up because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in. 2 Then the LORD said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. 3 March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. 4 Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. 5 When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in.” 6 So Joshua son of Nun called the priests and said to them, “Take up the ark of the covenant of the LORD and have seven priests carry trumpets in front of it.” 7 And he ordered the people, “Advance! March around the city, with the armed guard going ahead of the ark of the LORD.” 8 When Joshua had spoken to the people, the seven priests carrying the seven trumpets before the LORD went forward, blowing their trumpets, and the ark of the LORD’s covenant followed them. 9 The armed guard marched ahead of the priests who blew the trumpets, and the rear guard followed the ark. All this time the trumpets were sounding. 10 But Joshua had commanded the people, “Do not give a war cry, do not raise your voices, do not say a word until the day I tell you to shout. Then shout!” 11 So he had the ark of the LORD carried around the city, circling it once. Then the people returned to camp and spent the night there. 12 Joshua got up early the next morning and the priests took up the ark of the LORD. 13 The seven priests carrying the seven trumpets went forward, marching before the ark of the LORD and blowing the trumpets. The armed men went ahead of them and the rear guard followed the ark of the LORD, while the trumpets kept sounding. 14 So on the second day they marched around the city once and returned to the camp. They did this for six days. 15 On the seventh day, they got up at daybreak and marched around the city seven times in the same manner, except that on that day they circled the city seven times. 16 The seventh time around, when the priests sounded the trumpet blast, Joshua commanded the people, “Shout! For the LORD has given you the city!

Posted in Sunday Morning Preaching | Leave a comment

Sunday, March 1, 2013 “Living at the End of the Beginning” (Mark 9:1 – 8)

Rev. Tom Wiles, preaching

Hear the sermon.

Posted in Sunday Morning Preaching | Leave a comment

Sunday, February 23, 2014 “A Grace Place” (Acts 20:22-28; 32; 36-38)

The Text Says:

           The biblical text on our final Sunday together as pastor and people is St. Paul’s parting address to the Church at Ephesus. It is characterized by simplicity, pathos, and dignity. He reviews with them his past ministry, his present concerns and future dangers. Laid bare is the loving heart of a pastor, who’s fervent yet restrained devotion throbs in every line. It is personal but not egotistical, and soars without effort. This scripture testifies to a pastor’s compassion for his people, and theirs for him. “He knelt down and prayed with them and they all wept freely.” Here St. Paul was no cold dispenser of doctrine, but a warm, deeply caring servant of God. Paul gave the saints in Ephesus the best of his capabilities in being true to his calling. His firm conviction was that he was saying goodbye forever to those for whom he had truly cared and faithfully guided. Parting words should be like these, genuine and solemn, which are both present in the highest degree.

Hear the sermon.

The Preacher Says:

What a predicament! I’ve flat run outa Sundays! But not outa bees! But I’m neither the first nor the last preacher who finds myself in this spot. There’s a similar situation in the Book of Acts where the Apostle Paul gives his own farewell address to his beloved church in Ephesus. This is not the maligned Paul that the offended ones like to censure. Here is a warm pastor with time running out with his people. It is a touching scene where he reminded them of the past and all the things they’d experienced together. And how he always told them the truth and held nothing back. Then he turns toward the future.

There’s a natural sense of sorrow surrounding the scene as they watch the ship float into the harbor.  The numbers dictated that he’d never see some of them again. Paul called on God as his witness that he did the best he could.  And when it got down to the final nub, and there’s only one thing left to say to them. He said:  “I commend you to God.” More appropriate words were never uttered.

His first two words were “And now.”  For even final words have to be spoken: “And now … I commend you to God,” because everything we do at church has to do with God. We’re here because of God. We heal because of God. We love because “God first loved us.”  Paul didn’t refer them to Barnabas or Luke or Peter. “I commend you to God!” Who gathers all our diversity into one. Who’s the stack pole, around which every church should be structured. You can go to Brown and get an education. Or RISD and hone your skills as an artist. But you come to The Meeting House to get “recommended to God!”

There are the seniors among us who’ve been here a long time and teach us a lot about the faith. They may not have many more earthly miles to travel. But all of the old folks, whom I hold in highest regard, without whom this church wouldn’t be here: I commend you to God!

Our young people and students of differing shades and hues, including the rabble; some still drying from the waters of baptism, some with new families gazing down at the unknown years ahead of them, with some wonder and no little apprehension: “I commend you to God.” And bless you for your strategic role in this place.

There are those to whom the changing scenes of life have brought happiness and for others — sorrow: for whom the road to faith is hedged with doubts and frustrations and questions; for whom religion has been more of a barrier than a blessing: “I commend you to God!”

            How can I not brag on our marvelous choir? Holy Jesus! Bless their hearts! What an honor it’s been to work with Steve Martorella these years! One-of-a-kind. Thank you Steve. Thank you choir. I commend you to God! “O for a thousand tongues to sing,” wrote John Wesley. I only have one tongue, but if I had 1000, I would use every last one of them to commend all ya’ll to God.  Only God abides, all else is relative.  And we have that solid foundation upon which to stand as we part company.

Maybe Paul pulled this up from his familiarity in preaching about the cross. He used the same benediction as Jesus before he died: a word of commendation. “Into Thy hands I commend my Spirit!” Jesus commended himself to God! Paul commended the church to God!

And not just to God, but to “the word of God.” Not infallible or inerrant, but certainly “profitable for reproof, for instruction in righteousness.”  This has been the basis of our Sunday morning gatherings. People come to church because they wanta hear the stories of Jesus.  And “I love to tell the story!” They don’t come to worship to hear somebody’s opinion.  There is a genuine hunger everywhere I’ve been for a biblical word that makes sense, invigorates, and encourages.  Which is why every Sunday I have “commended you to the word.”  The first thing you see on our worship folder is an explanation of the day’s text. So you know something of what’s coming. Open it up and there’s a picture of it. Then we highlight it, sing it, read it, pray it, preach it and celebrate the word from God in it.

All of it is to “commend you to the Word.”  Not to beat you over the head with a Book.  Or dangle you over hell with a sacred text.  But a forthright attempt to offer sound guidance “for the living of these days.”“I commend you to the word.”  Because there is more that finds us in the Bible than any other literature.  All the drama of life and death and the hereafter; all the joys and sorrows we have in the scriptures. It never grows stale.  Or fails to heal us or bless us; rebuke us or inspire us. When people dedicate their babies, they read from the Bible.  When they get married, they wanta hear I Cor 13, the Apostle’s peon of love. When  dying day comes, they may call the funeral director, but at the memorial they read from the Bible!  “O grave where is thy victory? O death where is thy sting?” (I Cor. 15:55).  When we come and when we go, and all points in-between, we unapologetically read the scriptures.  When we’re up, when we’re down, when we’re warm, when we’re cold, when we’re young, when we’re old we read from the Bible.  Paul couldn’t’ve said it better:  “I commend you to God.  I commend you to the word.”

But not just any word.  “I commend you … to the word of his grace.”  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” Who wouldn’t want more of that?  Paul used his last opportunity to declare once more, with passion, his belief in the all‑encompassing grace of God. There’s nothing else like it. The thing I’ve loved best, to stand in this hallowed spot and proclaim the providence of God in Providence, RI.

The future is bright for ol’ First Church, because you have made this a grace-place, that dispenses the “wine of the gospel.” And not get bogged down with the “skins.” Here we traffic in compassion not guilt, hope not condemnation, acceptance not rejection, forgiveness not judgment. The ministries, gracing the poor, the facilities, gracing the person in the pew, the worship, gracing the stranger.  Do you realize how rare stuff like this is in a church?

Religion at its best is grace-based. So I’m gonna load on all the grace I can today. It is grace that shatters our discrepancies, grace that brings low our pretensions. Only grace can heal some wounds. No matter what mistakes you’ve made; no matter what others have done to you, God’s grace is offered to all of the undeserving. That’s what makes it grace. On this day of our parting, I wanted to remind you of “the word of his grace.”  And if it’s not for everybody then it’s for nobody.

Then Paul continues, it is grace “that is able to build you up.”  Not tear you down. Who needs to go to church and get a dose of how bad we are? Everybody’s used to hearing about what’s wrong with the church. Well there’s an awful lot that’s right about this one. And you’re the reason that is so. Where else but in church can you hear these days, that you are a person of value, created in the image of God, full of dignity and worth? A church worth-its-salt will build us up and “level every hill and make the crooked places straight;” strengthen the weak, and energize the defeated and help us to stand up to life.

A few weeks ago we talked about Moses standing in front of a burning bush. The bush didn’t know what else to do, cause it was set on fire by the Lord God!  And that same holy fire is what enabled the church to stand against Herod and Caesar and the “principalities and powers of darkness,” of corrupt culture and selfish society.  People come through these doors hungry for a loaf of bread; “God forbid that we give them a stone!” This church has enjoyed almost four centuries of illustrious history, but we don’t point to memory alone. There are many wonderful days of service ahead to look forward to.  The messenger said to the women at the empty tomb:  “He goes before you…” Let that “build you up!”

 Finally Paul ends with a “reading of the will.” Their “inheritance…among all those who are sanctified.”  His thoughts are soaring now.  He’s taken it to another level; far beyond this world. Farther than Ephesus or Jerusalem or Rome. Lying beyond the tears that fall when we part, is our “inheritance.”  There’s something in it for us!

The Apocalypse calls it, the “City of God, come down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband.” Where there will be “no more tears, no more parting, no more sadness.” Paul realized that the sands of time were ebbing for him. So he reminds them of the Capital “C” church invisible; and “a multitude that no one can number.”

This, is your inheritance! “Here and now dear friends, we are God’s children. What we shall be has not yet been disclosed” (I John 3:3). I confess that I’m too pre-occupied with moving-hell on this earth, to be thinking too much about sitting around in heaven someplace. But when it comes to leaving we think of God and we think of heaven. That is your inheritance. Wherever it is, whatever it’s like, it’s a good thought.  There’s not a better church in the world than this one, to be your last one.

Please indulge me one more story.  A church youth group was discussing how 9/11 affected their prayer life.  One young man said he’s not been able to pray since that day.  He figured many people in the planes and buildings were praying for God to spare them. But their prayers were not answered. So what’s the use in praying, if it doesn’t get what you want? Another youth said he can’t pray for a different reason. He assumed the terrorists were praying to Allah for courage to follow through with their dastardly deed. And their prayers were answered.  That’s counter-productive. So why bother to pray? Then a young artist allowed as how she’s still prays. She visualized both the victims and the perpetrators of 9/11, sitting around a table in heaven, trying to figure out what on earth happened that day. But the group leader had a world-view that was threatened by her graciousness. So he interrupted her and sternly declared the scene she described was not possible … because the terrorists are in hell. So often people use religion or ideology to end a discussion.

No doubt each of those responses can be found in most churches, in relation to not just September 11, but any quandary we face. Of those four attitudes, the one that prevails here is the perspective of the young artist.  Because that’s the way I visualize this unique gathering of God’s frail beings of light.  Those whose prayers were answered and those whose prayers were not answered, sitting around a table, trying to figure out what the heck happened.

That vision doesn’t end the discussion.  It continues one. Going on nine years now, it’s fallen to me to continue the discussion “in season, out of season.”  And trust something productive comes of it after I’m no longer in the picture. As me and Libby vacate the premises today, we will leave a big part of ourselves here.  I just thank the Lord for the blessed privilege of being your pastor. Now as I go, “I commend you to God!” And I commend God — to — you!

Providence Prayers: 2/23/14

In this historic city named for Thy Providence, we bless Thee O Lord for this congregation that also came to be under Thy divine guidance. After 376 years it’s still what makes the church meaningful, our burdens bearable, the future hopeful. Your grace makes heavy loads lighter, and turns houses into homes, sinners into saints, and common elements into messianic banquets.

If Christ could fashion from a cross a depiction of the truest love there is, what might God do with the cruelest hurts that invade our lives?  May this hour of worship allow us to be delivered from self‑promotion and petty distractions, that we might serve you better. When our desires outweigh our intelligence we pray for the common sense to have a realistic outlook. For unwise prayers that go unanswered, sparing us pain we never meet, for unwelcome new experiences through which we discover in ourselves capacities we never knew were there, for the scriptures that blaze with insight as our circumstances change, for the winsomeness of good friends and your mercy that holds us steady when everything around us feels like it’s coming loose… we give Thee thanks.

May the joy of your redemption fill our souls so that in the worst of times we’ll do the best of things. Bless all who are facing the complexities of life, anxious about events beyond their control, and too many we bring upon ourselves. Be with the incapacitated, held back from a life they would otherwise live.  And the bereaved, whose hearts, if not their bodies reside in the graveyard.

As we celebrate this special place, keep smiling, not only on this church’s past but also her future, as we build on our efforts to be a church, and not just a museum, thus making us worthy not only of the best of the name “Baptist,” but also “Christian.” Through Christ our Lord…

 

 

 

Posted in Sunday Morning Preaching | Leave a comment

Sunday, February 16, 2014 “You Can’t Go Home Again” (Gen. 3:22-24; Matt. 16:18)

The Text Says:

             Today’s scripture is taken from the 3rd Chapter of the Book of Genesis. The purpose of the stories is to account for, explain and interpret the present circumstances of human life; particularly its brokenness. The initial couple and all of their successors carry with them the memory of the way life could be or should be. But they face an uncertain future because of an imprudent past. It raises questions about human evil and suffering in moral terms, showing the consequences of disobeying God. Because they are us, it shouldn’t be difficult for contemporary saints to identify with the characters of the story; and thereby to better understand ourselves, our world, and God.  

Hear the sermon.

 The Preacher Says:

            Thomas Wolfe’s classic “You Can’t Go Home Again,” was published posthumously in 1940. In it he explores the changing American society, including the illusion of prosperity and the relentless passing of time that prevents us from ever going back home again. Going through some of my books last week that I need but never read, I came across one I forgot that I had. By my childhood hero, Coach Johnny Majors. “You Can Go Home Again.”  It’s about his move from Pittsburgh back to Knoxville in 1976, to rebuild the gridiron fortunes at The University of Tennessee.  He had his work cut out for him! Coach Majors’ title, like most books was to help it sell. You can go home again, but it won’t be like it was. Change and the passing of time guarantees that. “This time you’ll be going home!” That’s been a recurring refrain I’ve heard these past few weeks here in Rhode Island. Those who say that are happy for us. But this place has been home to us too. Home can be wherever you are, if you feel like you belong.

            Today’s biblical text is about our 1st home. In the 3rd Chapter of Genesis. The authors tell a story about God and creation; of people and their decisions, and the consequences of them. It’s a painful story about humanity losing our place; our home; and our innocence. It tells us things about ourselves we need to know; not only how we fail, but how we survive. That’s part of the story too. Adam and Eve didn’t die at the end of it. They went on and did the best they could with what they had, like everyone else has had to do since then.

            There is wisdom in not losing the meaning by taking it as historical fact. It becomes trivialized when literalized; but quite profound when viewed as a parable. Mythical knowledge resides in our bones before it’s in our brains; in the soul before it’s in the literature. The intimation that something’s amiss; that things as they are, aren’t what they ought to be. That we, as we are, aren’t what we’re meant to be. Eden provides the unreachable standard; a state of perfection without which, the imperfect wouldn’t bother us so much.

            Adam and Eve are us. Except they had it made in the shade. The idyllic garden was the perfect environment. It’s a reversal of Lennon’s lyrics, “Imagine.” Imagine there IS a heaven…not up in sky someplace, but a heaven on earth! Paradise, but not utopia, because people are in it! A peaceful garden with blue skies above, and clear water below.  No need for air conditioning or snow shovel. There’s plenty of everything. Plus, the added benefit of being tight-with-God! There was no fear. No shame. Nothing had ever been broken. No pain; nothing to hide and nothing to hide from.

            The first pair were like innocent children; complementing each other. And everything they needed was provided for them. It was all play and no work. The original welfare state. God meant well. But it backfired on him. Because we always find a way to blow it! Which is usually what happens when life is handed to us too easily. After they messed up, they tried to lay it on the serpent. But he didn’t have a leg to stand on! I know that’s bad, but when there’s nobody else to blame, only they else could be held accountable. Like Dennis the Menace, “Why do I always get blamed for the things I do?” Duh! Their punishment was permanent eviction. “God drove them out, to the east of the garden of Eden.”

            Some concept of a golden age, back there somewhere, out there, in here, is commonplace in the hearts and literature of most people. Genesis gives us the Hebrew version. God sets us up; we blow it; paradise is lost, and there’s no going back. Eden’s gate is closed. It is guarded by Cherubim, the traditional protectors of the holy. And a revolving sword of fire for good measure.  These severe security measures imply that somebody might wanta get back in. Who wouldn’t? God anticipated our hunger. But it’s irrevocable. No matter how badly we want it, we can’t go back home. All we can do is what they did, go forward. Or else stay stuck.

            So what does it mean to live on this side of Eden? It surely means we can’t re-create perfection in this life. Some of our deeds are so heinous they can never be rectified. So a revisionist history is very much in vogue today. Stemming from enormous guilt to somebody’s ancestors. There is a mean-spirited attempt to get even. Payback is due. Nobody is sure just who gets the proceeds, but some remuneration is involved. Whether its political correctness or political cash, there is a demand for reimbursement out there. They need to read Genesis 3. How can the holocaust? Or slavery? Or blaming somebody for the way they were born ever finally be remedied?  What will it take to satisfy the offended? We long to get back to that primeval garden.

            But there has to be a cut-off point. All the evil isms are not correctable, because of the 1st one. And that’s the problem in trying to get Eden back, it requires us to always be looking back. And there’s no future in that. If we could just discover where that ball of yarn got started, then maybe we could go back and remove the tangles. Meanwhile we dissipate our creative energies on stuff like that, which could otherwise brighten the present prospects for the future. We can’t roll history back any more than we can push toothpaste back into the tube! No matter how hard we try, there’ll always be more that we haven’t done. The gate is sealed. There’s an old Jewish saying, when everybody’s trying to fix everything.  “Be the best, but do it and relax.  And leave a little something for the Messiah.”

            There’s an interesting aspect to the story about the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, that flow from the Fertile Crescent into all the world. To the oriental mind, those rivers are the jewel of life; the elixir of the soul. That they originated in Eden speaks of God’s intention for all history was to be influenced by what went on there. But today’s world is a lot more complicated now than the simplicity of Edenic bliss. Because there’s so much more to influence us than a couple of rivers.

            Like this place has been here for nearly 400 years! Generations have come and gone. Each one makes its moves and sets the table for another that follows. Then it’s their turn to make the moves. By the time #36 arrived, there’s so much water already over the dam. I inherited things put here long before I came. The one who follows me will do the same. It’s not anybody’s privilege to make the opening moves. All we can do is come aboard and do the best we can with the pieces in place before we showed up. There’s so much behavior from the past that determines the present, it’s impossible to number them all. We’ve lost the garden.

            Eden is suspended in time. It has no connection to history. But I am connected to a huge network of living and dying before me. We’re all products of the knocks and boosts of centuries. We’ve lived way too long for innocence. Our ability to influence is limited by the ages. Neither our gifts nor our sins are entirely our own. Our rivers are the mighty Hudson and the muddy Mississippi. Because we’ve been evicted. We can’t go home again. The gate is shut.

            Maybe you noticed in the New Testament reading from Gospel of Matthew that Jesus spoke to Simon about a gate: “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18). Gates don’t move. They’re just there. To let somebody in or keep ‘em out. Jesus intends for his church to struggle against the “principalities and powers of this age.”  It is a good way to understand the church, which lives between the gates. Between the shut gate of Eden and the tottering gates of hell. There is no doubt about the outcome.  It is given to the followers of the Lord to know that “the gates of hell cannot stand.” To follow somebody assumes they’re going somewhere. It is the genius of Jesus that he kept pointing his followers forward.

            This is the digital age. I noticed an online advertisement online awhile back of a virtual mirror. Like your cell phone, it’s a touch screen mirror! It shows how the person would look, if they lost a lot of weight. Your head stays the same, but everything else is up for grabs. You can see what you’d look like if you lost 10, 20, 50 pounds, or more! Health organizations and psychologists make good use of them. It’s a great idea because it provides incentive to improve ourselves. Instead of thinking about all that candy you ate in the past to get where you are today, you can look into this nifty mirror and see what you can be if you work at it.   

            Isn’t that what Jesus did? He didn’t waste time with people whining about their hang-ups, or how they were mistreated. He just showed them what they could be like. He turned them away from gazing at some irrecoverable Eden and pointed them to the future. In the prayer he gave us as a model, the forward look is dominant, “Thy kingdom come.” We look for a day when his will shall be done on earth, as it is in his home.

            We can’t go home again. But then, we don’t need to. “In my father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you.” Where there’s no cherubim to guard the entrance, and no fiery sword to intimidate. Amazing grace that God is willing to work through the mistakes we’ve made and calls the church to do the same. That is our story. It has everything humanly possible in it‑‑promise, failure, blame, guilt, healing, hope. That is what people are like and what God is like. He made us, and heals us and came among us — this side of Eden‑‑until he can bring us home. And if we, in our time, could move his kingdom just a smidgen further; resisting the gates of hell, then we — will not — have lived — – in vain.

 

Providence Prayers: (2/16/14)

            Gracious God, our Father, beneath whose eye and within whose patience our story is told, we thank Thee for the gift of faith that prompts our prayers of gratitude for generations past and generations to come. We are mindful that the fall of snow can hobble this city named after Thy Providence and anything that humbles us before the mystery of life and worshiping the works of our hands.

            We unite our hearts to pray for this church, facing a time of change with hope. Grant to our members a fresh doubt-scattering confidence that belongs to Thy people. We bless Thee for the life you have given us; for ways that have opened to us to learn and grow and trust; for friends who have imparted something noble of themselves to us; for special saints who have encouraged us at the vital junctures of our journey; for the wisdom of the written Word and the presence of the Living Word, and signs in the unlikeliest of places that you are on the premises. And as the passing years exact their toll on the outward self, we can come to this Meeting House and be renewed on the inside.

            We love our church home O Lord, and for her good, we offer to Thee our best. Center our far-ranging lives in Thy eternal love, that in whatever time or circumstance we may know and celebrate Thy presence. May our time together this morning make us more authentically human and more dependably serviceable to Thee. Through Christ our Lord…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Providence Prayers: (2/16/14)

            Gracious God, our Father, beneath whose eye and within whose patience our story is told, we thank Thee for the gift of faith that prompts our prayers of gratitude for generations past and generations to come. We are mindful that the fall of snow can hobble this city named after Thy Providence and anything that humbles us before the mystery of life and worshiping the works of our hands.

            We unite our hearts to pray for this church, facing a time of change with hope. Grant to our members a fresh doubt-scattering confidence that belongs to Thy people. We bless Thee for the life you have given us; for ways that have opened to us to learn and grow and trust; for friends who have imparted something noble of themselves to us; for special saints who have encouraged us at the vital junctures of our journey; for the wisdom of the written Word and the presence of the Living Word, and signs in the unlikeliest of places that you are on the premises. And as the passing years exact their toll on the outward self, we can come to this Meeting House and be renewed on the inside.

            We love our church home O Lord, and for her good, we offer to Thee our best. Center our far-ranging lives in Thy eternal love, that in whatever time or circumstance we may know and celebrate Thy presence. May our time together this morning make us more authentically human and more dependably serviceable to Thee. Thru Christ our Lord…

Posted in Sunday Morning Preaching | Leave a comment

Sunday, February 9, 2014 “Saving the Best for Last” (Luke 4:14-22)

The Text Says:

The church is in the Season of Epiphany. The text from the Gospel of Luke describes the first time Jesus preached in the local synagogue where he grew up. He started off well, but ended up riling the congregation and getting kicked out of church. Consequently he never went back to Nazareth again. Familiarity breeds contempt. It wasn’t that they didn’t know him. They just didn’t take to his debunking things familiar to them. And especially when he suggested their enemies were God’s friends. Sometimes when that happens things can turn violent. We still make the mistake of allowing our familiar traditions to come between us and God. Good tradition, however, is a means to epiphany, not a barrier to it.

Hear the sermon.

The Preacher Says:

  This Sunday finds #36 with a lot more yesterdays than tomorrows left at the Meeting House.  Last Sunday we saw how Jesus said goodbye in the Gospel of John.  Like “pouring molasses out of a fruit jar,” he took his sweet time, navigating through four whole chapters. Today we see how Jesus said goodbye in Luke. Jesus came back to his hometown, but word already leaked out about him to his neighbors.  So expectations were high; and at first “they marveled at his ability.” 

        Three forms of the popular messianic hopes of his time confront him: 1) To be a new Moses, would win-over the Pharisees; 2) To be a new David, would put the Zealots in his corner; and 3) To be like John the Baptist, would put the separatist Essene sect on his side. Guess which role Jesus claimed?None of the above. He was a square peg in a round hole. And couldn’t be squeezed into any of the preconceived notions. Instead of the popular expectation of a new King David, Jesus chose for himself, the Suffering Servant role of Isaiah 61. Except he took it a step further. Instead of the exclusivism they wanted to hear, Jesus believed God’s blessing was not just for Israel, but others too. It was so heretical, they “ran him out of church” and tried to push him over a cliff!

       But “He passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (4:30). That’s how Jesus leaves in Luke! An inauspicious beginning for a young preacher, to be sure.  So other preachers can take solace, knowing Jesus blew his trial sermon in Nazareth! As always, that depends on who you’re talking to. But apparently God liked it. And I know Luke did! Else why tell about it?

Luke’s Jesus is not heroic like John’s. From beginning to end, in the 4th Gospel, Jesus arrives with a flourish, does his thing with proficiency — getting born, growing up, teaching, healing, being crucified and resurrected.  And He does it all with a flair! Then he leaves. But Luke is low-key. It’s unusual that it’s not unusual. Heroic deeds are invariably exceptional. Champions do certain things. Sometimes they come out of nowhere.  But they always leave in style.

Oh we like for our heroes to look heroic and act heroic. That’s part of what it means to be a winner. Coach Carroll carried off on his players’ shoulders, doused in an ice cold Gator Aid victory lap! Mel Gibson as William Wallace in “Braveheart,” being tortured to death on the rack, crying out “Freedom!” with his last breath. Very impressive!  When Martin Luther King in Memphis TN said, “I’ve been to the mountain‑top, I’ve seen the Promised Land!” That’s been grabbing Hollywood headlines since 1968! And they still can’t let go of it.

          There’s none of that in Luke. Unlike in John, Jesus never left in style.  No big deal. He just left. His arrival? Heralded by angelic choruses.  But his departure was muted.  He took a few bedsheet angels and some buddies out to Bethany; blessed them and didn’t even finish the blessing; then he just wafted away! Outa sight! Luke’s gospel is like that. Jesus arrived with a bang and got banged-up. Then he left. He entered Jerusalem in a triumphal parade, and left a condemned failure. Unlike John’s Jesus, who even in failing, wins. Luke has no victorious “I’m the Christ.” Before Pilate it’s just a mild “If you say so.”  Whatever.           

          Luke has no planting a proud flag up Mt. Surubachi. Just an old rugged tree up Mt. Calvary. No “Don’t cry for me Argentina,” before thousands of spellbound admirers. Just that words “Today!” You will be with me in paradise” to a dying thief. No Nathan Hale “I regret that I only have one life to live for my country.” Just “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep  for yourselves,” to a handful of unnamed women. No gallant style! Because it’s not Luke’s intention to paint Jesus as a hero‑warrior. But as a servant-savior.  So Jesus didn’t do the things that other heroes did.  He did what only the Son of God can do.  With his unimpressive departures, Luke is more interested in what Jesus did before he left, than any style of leaving. It’s what Jesus said in the synagogue that Luke wants us to get: he isn’t rejected because he left. He left because he was rejected.

       Jesus was interested in health-care. There were “many lepers” in the days of Elisha the prophet. But only Naaman, a Syrian outsider got healed! Jesus was one of those “We reserve the right to accept everybody” guys. And that got him in a heap of trouble. But what really bowled them over was his repudiation of nationalism. So Jesus just lost the Zealots.  But he gained the world! The 1st thing any Messiah has to do is to get people to quit looking for one. Listen up Search Committee!

       Another thing about Luke’s disdain for heroic departures is his hesitation to record an end to the story.  Rather he calls our attention to what Jesus is doing next. Luke’s crucified Jesus doesn’t say, “It is finished.”  That’s John. He wraps it up with a valiant feeling of finality. Luke’s Jesus always has other places to go, other things to do. When the Nazarenes turned violent, he “passed through their midst and went on his way.”  Evidently they got out of his way! But Luke is more interested in the journey itself. Not just how it ends.  This society is so “end‑focused.” Dufusses speculate about the end of the world. How’s it gonna end? Nuclear war or asteroid?

         How will it end? Once the Super Bowl is over, everybody goes “big deal!” It’s over. Now we can go about our lives. Boomers talk about retirement, at the end of a career. Retirement didn’t even exist a few years ago!  But today our adult lives are shaped by sharp boundaries. There’s something about being 59 ½ today that didn’t use to be there.  We’re big on departures. We have role exits: kids grow up, and then depart, (hopefully!)  Some get married, and then depart. Some work awhile and then retire. Some come back and live in the basement! Can’t shake ‘em off! How it ends is not Luke’s concern.

        Luke’s Jesus never made a big deal about exits.  The way we leave matters, but it’s not as important as what happens before we leave and after we leave. In my own leaving, I’m more like Luke. Ya’ll know I care about you and hope good things continue to happen here. But when it’s time to let-go, you say goodbye, wish once another God‑speed, and vacate the premises. What won’t happen is holding on too long, which can cause a lot of relational damage.

         Notice what Jesus did before he left, for that is Luke’s real interest. Jesus’ best service, his wisest teaching, his inspiring act of forgiveness, he saved for last.  He was consistent throughout. In his first miracle at the wedding at Cana, he “Saved the best wine for last.” Experience teaches us that realistically, life will get harder. But hopefully, better and better.  

           Luke notes in these parting gestures of Jesus, that each time he left one place, it was to go to another place, with another task.  There comes a time to let go. It can be too soon, or it can be too late. But there’s wisdom in sensing that the time is now to try something else.  That’s what Jesus did in Luke. Nelson Mandela was released from prison at the age of 71. Instead of making up for lost time, he went on a world peace tour! And when South Africans needed a president, he’s the one they chose.          

    The day when Jesus preached in his hometown, Luke says “every eye in the synagogue was fixed upon him.” And within the hour they tried to waste him! But God had more for him to do. So Luke says he just left.  Nothing noteworthy as we think of notoriety. But what’s gripping is what he said in Nazareth before he left.  He said something radical, “Today!” “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The good news is for now and it’s for everybody or it’s for nobody. Those who think they’re God’s faves aren’t gonna like that.

          So Jesus walked away from the nay‑sayers. But not an away from as much as a going to.  That’s a good model for when you feel trapped. He went over to nearby Capernaum, and did “mighty works.”  He couldn’t do anything in Nazareth because they wouldn’t let him. I always thought Jesus can do anything!  That’s John’s Jesus. Not St. Luke; where even God is limited by our intolerance! So Jesus left his hometown behind, never to return, as far as we know; to arrive at another place where his gifts were appreciated and utilized.

           On the last evening of his earthly life, the emphasis is not how he left, but what did he do?  “He sat down at a table” with his buddy’s. Again, “Every eye was fixed upon him.” They didn’t know it, but we know it — within an hour, everything would disintegrate into arguments about “who’s the best?” So disappointing.  But then betrayal and denial and arrest and crucifixion. But watch what Luke says. “He went outside.”  A furor in Nazareth; “He passed through their midst.” Egotistical turmoil in Jerusalem. And Jesus “went outside.” Both places, he just leaves. Nothing heroic.

          But what he said in Jerusalem before he left was something we haven’t caught up with yet: “This is my body, broken for you.  The cup is a new covenant in my blood.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  Then “he went outside.”  But not before leaving them with something to remember. Where did he go?  He just “went outside to save the world. Again, nothing heroic! Just going outside is no big deal. But what went on before it and after it is huge!  And that will always be the measure of us. 

What makes these days hard is our shared experience these past 8 years. Just a blip in the overall longevity of this historic congregation. But that’s why “Today!” … we can laugh a little louder, cry a little softer, love a little stronger, because … we were friends! Nothing heroic, mind you. I’m just your pastor.

Providence Prayers: (2/9/14)

        We gather once again in this sacred spot for worship O Lord, to be reminded of the importance of the church and the great influence it can have on this life…and the next. Here the 2nd mile ethic calls us to grow in our faith; to be better tomorrow than we are today. And to stretch our hearts and dig a little deeper, try a little harder, lift a little higher, and give a little more.

            We pray for those who feel trapped and hindered from giving their best; for all who struggle against the structures of injustice; for those whose poverty is spiritual and those whose poverty is material. Grant us the courage to try to live like Jesus taught us. We pray for ourselves and our church in a time of transition and change.  May it be a time of centering, in‑gathering and continued growth, a time of focusing on the future while blessing the past. 

          If we are discouraged, make us useful again. Where pride distorts our self-estimate, remind us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. Stand beside the beds of pain where those we love suffer and fill the hearts of those who mourn with Thy healing Spirit. Be our anchor and our guide through all of life’s transitions.  Help us to entrust the future to you; and your grace, through Him who came to fulfill the law and the prophets…even  Christ our Lord.  Amen. 

Posted in Sunday Morning Preaching | Leave a comment

Sunday, February 2, 2014 “Jesus Prays for Us” (John 14:1-10; 17:20-21)

The Text Says:

            Chapter 14 of the Gospel of John that begins Jesus’ lengthy farewell discourse is not for the public, but for his disciples. And by extension, the church. The primary concern is not what will soon befall Jesus, but what will become of his followers after he’s gone. Jesus is attempting to soften the blow of the announcement of his departure. The text consists of an inter-weaving of promises and exhortations. Jesus’ promise carries a commission and his commission implies a promise. The one who sends also goes with those he sends. And he who loves expects the loved to love others. Leaving behind his followers in a hostile and indifferent world was the first major crisis for the infant church. He assured them with 3 promises: the abiding presence of God, that Jesus is the surest way to God, and the power to “do even greater works than Jesus did.”

Hear the sermon.

 The Preacher Says:

             Chapters 14 through 17 of the Fourth Gospel are extraordinary. The story-teller is John the evangelist. And it goes like this: Once upon a time, there was a man from the little mountain town of Nazareth named Jesus.  People who knew him came to believe that he wasn’t just Mary’s boy, or the carpenter’s son.  Something about him told them he was more than a man. His courage and character, his teaching and creativity, the way he treated people, made them believe he was God! He was more unusual than different. He didn’t glow in the dark; or go around talking religion all the time.  It’s just that what he said, what he did, and how he did it; who he was made them think … God. 

            You’ve met people who made you think better thoughts, live a fuller life, be more genuine and reflect deeper about God.  More than any other human in any other time — that’s Jesus of Nazareth. Now only a few people were fortunate enough to know him in person.  Some of those gave up on him when the cost got too high.  It goes with the territory of following the one who came to reveal to us, God. It’s mind-boggling to think it all took place in 33 brief years!

             After just 3 years of public ministry, the time came for him to leave the world. It felt way too soon because naturally he bonded with a lot of people. They wanted more Jesus, not less. Toward the end of his life, he said to his disciples, “I don’t think of you as servants. Instead you’re my friends.” He had a magnetic personality that allowed him to connect with the multitudes.  And the deeper the bond, the more painful the absence. 

            Anybody with a pet knows what that’s like. The time comes into their brief little lives, unless they die from natural causes, you’re gonna have to put ‘em down. We agonize over that as much as a person. But my next door neighbor goes “Who Cay-uhs?” The more you love something, the deeper your relationship is to it, the harder it is to fill that big empty hole in your soul. It only intensifies for those who lose their life-long mates and how excruciating that is. Your mind knows of the absence, but it’s hard for the heart to absorb it. Libby’s Dad used to philosophize about it. “You know death wouldn’t be so bad, if you didn’t have to stay dead so long!”  The finality is what really stings.  Death is no respecter of age.  It isn’t just the elderly who die.  Death can slip into the nursery or early adolescence. Absence is more painful when you consider how some people die. A natural death is easier to accept than a pre-mature or violent one. Some are too old to live. Others, too young to die. But every leave-taking hurts if you care about somebody. The proportion of the sorrow is comparable to the closeness or remoteness of the relationship.

            In church it’s Communion Sunday, when we think of the way Jesus died. Publically humiliated, mocked and jeered, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” Taunting and gambling for sport! They’re partying while he’s dying.  The pain of absence is harder still when you consider the character of the one going away.  Think of Jesus’ character.  He gets blamed for a lot of unsightly things these days by pip-squeak movie stars and various and sundry pagans. But I can’t recall a single occasion when Jesus turned his back on somebody in need. Or cruelly blamed or hurt or rejected anyone. It is the purpose of the church to mold more people like that in the world.

            But it’s his grace-full-character that makes his absence more keenly felt. Jesus was aware of this. In Chapter 16, he tried to soften the blow, to prepare them for what’s to come.  He tells them, “Now ya’ll believe in God. Believe in me. But I’m going to provide a place for you.” Nice try. But they didn’t buy it! It only confused them. “We don’t know where you’re going. How are you gonna get there? We don’t understand.  Just show us God and that’ll satisfy us.” It didn’t work. It never does at the time.  You can talk till you’re blue-in-the-face, but the deeper the love, the more blinding the pain.  It took Jesus 4 long chapters in the 4th Gospel to say goodbye to his friends. 

            John begins his good news with his presence known as “the Word, made flesh and dwelt among us.”  It ends with ascension and absence, and the Word saying “Goodbye” from Mt. Olivet in dramatic fashion. It’s as if John’s pouring cold molasses on a hot biscuit. Slowly dripping the news, that Jesus is leaving. The one who called and taught them, turned water to wine, fed the 5000, washed their feet, forgave their sins, healed the sick and raised the dead … is departing. All they’d been through “makes the goodbye harder still.”

Listen to the questions: “Where are you going?” “Can we come too?”  “What’s gonna to happen to us after you’re gone?”  “Emmanuel,” in the manger at Bethlehem became the Risen Christ, in the garden on Easter. “But what’s going to become of us?” “I’m leaving to prepare a place for you.” A place? What is having a place compared to having Jesus? They’re gonna end up on the short end of the stick.

            Jesus takes his sweet time, but is careful not to promise we’d never feel like we’re alone. He had a front-row seat at the abandonment of God. So no illusions are offered about leaving being easy.  Nor does he assuage our pain with cheap consolations.  Jesus felt the distance between him and God increase.  “Why have you forsaken me?” Sometimes God has to put a little more steel in our spines: “Try this by yourself and see what happens.”

            There’s a compelling story about a man who was born with no arms.  Think of how hard it would be just to get dressed. So his Mom always dressed him.  One day she laid his clothes in the middle of the floor and said, “Dress yourself.”  “What?  You know I can’t dress myself.”  She said, “You’re gonna have to.”  And he kicked and screamed and cussed his Mamma, “You don’t love me anymore!” When he realized that was getting him nowhere, and if he was gonna get dressed, he had to do it himself.  After hours of struggle, he finally succeeded.  But it wasn’t until years later that he learned his Mamma was in the next room listening and weeping.

            Kinda like the sky turning black at noon on that Friday we call “good.” Good theology tells us God is never absent.  Sometimes all he can do is weep with us. But our faith tells us he’s always there. How do we manage when it feels like he’s no longer around? The Gospel of John offers a suggestion (17:20-21b).  He who’s felt the absence of God the most prays for us, before he leaves us.  “I am praying not just for these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” And this is his prayer: “That they may be one.” When you consider what Jesus could’ve prayed for, it’s remarkable to see what he did pray for. Nothing about getting saved, or tithing, or being re-assured, or protected. He prayed for — unity.  The one thing God wants for his church is not a nice building or a parking lot or numerical growth. But for us to get along.  In the Gospel of John Jesus benedicted his goodbye!

            Moses was graceful; up on Mt.Nebo, where he scanned the promised land. But he wasn’t allowed to enter. Moses had completed his calling. It was time for him to let the others go. So he told them goodbye. And handed the reins to Joshua to lead the people across the Jordan. Samson’s goodbye was angry and ugly. His dying prayer was to get even with the Philistines. You learn a lot about people the way they say goodbye.  What about this: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  For his enemies, forgiveness. For his friends, unity. And that is my prayer for ya’ll too.  “That you may be one.” So I hold before us this morning, the powerful image of Jesus praying for us, to stand together, as one in the Lord.  The pastor who authored the Book of Hebrews wrote: “We have a high priest, seated at the right hand of God in glory, interceding on our behalf.” What an encouraging thought! Can there be a better definition of church at its best than being “priests to each other?”

             Today, as pastor #36 and people move a little farther along in the disengaging process, like Jesus in John, I don’t wanta get in any hurry. We’re taking our time to be with anyone we can before we head South. With lots of friends but no map. There is no GPS for what we’re experiencing. It’s not given to any of us to know what lies ahead. But one thing we do know: Jesus is praying for us!  There’s nobody else I’d rather have praying for me. So let us pray for one another.  That will be enough to know for now.

Prayer:   

God bless these wonderful people, who now populate this historical congregation. And for the spiritual ties that bind us together; enabling us to coalesce in our loyalty to Jesus.  We give Thee thanks for those special times when we have experienced church-at-its-best, and for the resiliency of this fellowship to adapt to the changes sure to come.  Guide us through this time of transition, help us to maintain our commitments, to keep on creating a grace-place in a divisive society.  Always hold before us the image of Jesus praying for us as we pray for one another, united in our devotion to him.  Through Christ our Lord…

 

 

 

Posted in Sunday Morning Preaching | Leave a comment

Sunday, January 26, 2014 “The Ministry of Fading” (John 3:22-30)

The Text Says:

             Today’s scripture lesson is from the Gospel of John featuring the words of John. If it is possible to capture the beauty and complexity of one’s life this is it: “He must increase, and I must decrease.” Is that not an example of the proper imbalance of life? What does it mean to have your life defined as preparation for another? That is the question for our consideration in today’s worship. Words about John abound. Yet he has only one word: prepare. Along with these magnificent words about increasing and decreasing, that capture the character of Christian ministry. We all must interpret our lives through these words. John understood that the Messiah must increase. All that remains is for us to decrease. The proper imbalance is not self-discovery or realization. It’s not about us. It’s about Christ. Paul too recognized this. “We preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5). For everyone who dares to decrease so that Christ may increase, God will pour his Spirit upon them without measure.

The Preacher Says:

            Before Jesus, there was John the Baptist, who holds a significant place in all four gospels. He was already an established figure, going full-guns, when Jesus appeared for baptism.  That’s when John’s struggle began with this “increasing/decreasing” business. The more prominence Jesus is given, the less influence John has. It’s fascinating to observe the interplay between these two cousins. For it holds a lot of promise for where we find ourselves just now. John models the ministry of fading, that sooner or later becomes familiar to all of us. In a culture of shakers-and-movers, fading seems like wimping out. At the very least, it’s a form of courtesy. We revere John the Baptist not because he’s a “Baptist,” but because he’s the “forerunner.”  His mission was preparatory. Then in due course, he must step-offstage, yielding the spotlight to his successor. That’s the story-line.

We first meet John as a desert puritan; a fiery prophet in the manner of Amos and Elijah, calling folks to repent.  But with one difference: the Old Testament prophets proclaimed a futuristic Messiah.  John’s talking about now: “He’s so near I can feel it!” He was such a powerful preacher that many people thought he was the Messiah. But no one can fade with a big ego. So he allowed as how he wasn’t “worthy to stoop down and untie the Messiah’s laces!” Those in the process of fading do so for a reason. Their ebbing  occasions another’s flowing. Like the moon playing with the tide, if one part of the ocean doesn’t recede, another part couldn’t surge.

The text is about the second time the two meet. The first time was in utero. This time, all John needed was a glimpse of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”  “It’s about him, not me.”  How rare that is in our time! And yet, it’s not so unusual. It’s more dreaded than it should be. People are always doing one or the other are we not?  We increase for a time, then inevitably the time comes for us to decrease.  Nobody stays in the limelight forever. The day John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, was a unique moment in the sacred story, accompanied by a tailor-made affirmation from heaven, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well‑pleased.” That was John’s signal that his own vocation of preaching was about to taper off. The time had come for him to back away. It’s such a smooth transition it feels surreal. Mark emphasizes John’s magnanimous attitude: “hard but necessary.” That’s the official version. And it strikes me as a bit fictitious!

There’s another side to John that’s more realistic. Again, the Bible argues with itself. There in the same gospel, John was far from ready to do any decreasing for Jesus or anybody else! This is not the “behold‑the‑Lamb‑of God” John; with stout declarations. But a fluctuating, hesitant preacher, with hard questions and real doubts. For John didn’t stop his ministry just because Jesus showed up.  Both men’s disciples were more competitive than cooperative because of that ol’ devil “methodology.”  John’s followers didn’t like the way Jesus was being the Messiah because it wasn’t their way. People have fought over getting their way more than anything else, except power and money. But all the fighting came from John’s side. He didn’t cotton to  the way Jesus did it. No judgment?  No “axes laid to the tree roots?” Just grace? How can something that mealy-mouthed save the world? So this man of great faith and stature utters the most glaring statement of disbelief in the Bible: “Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?”  (That’s always a good text for a Search Committee by the way!)  Are you the one or not?  What happened to the Lamb?

Does this less-familiar side of John tarnish his reputation?  What about all that noble stuff about “preparing the way?”  John’s genuine humanness makes us wince, because it shows that he’s more like us. In light of the total gospel story, John the Baptist ceases to be a plaster saint. This is the much more authentic John: a strange, courageous, conflicted human being with whom we can identify and empathize. Yeah he’s a weird-duck, but a magnetic one. People went way out of their way to hear him.  He was more courageous than compassionate; had more guts than grace, a stern, not tolerant demeanor.  He had a country-bias and was very much anti‑city; anti-temple. His preaching was revivalistic, deeply moral and sympathetic with the victims of injustice.

The root of John’s pain came from his expectations.  He assumed Jesus would be like himself.  Do you find that unusual?  We like it, do we not, when others are like us?  Why do liberals think God is a liberal? Why do conservatives? I don’t know why everybody can’t be for the Broncos! How do we deal with difference? Cause Jesus was definitely not like John and that puzzled him. Jesus’ arrival was a sign that John’s time was short.  He must decrease and yield the platform to somebody else. Those with power and status are loathe to relinquish it. Nobody does it easily. Not parents nor presidents, nor preachers. I’ve had to do it several times. And it’s never easy to say goodbye to something you love. In fact, it has an irrational aspect to it.

So John’s preaching repentance, and crowds come to be baptized. He’s gotta think he’s doing something right! “The Messiah is coming. Hope is on the way. The Christ is near!“  And all of a sudden he found himself in the presence of somebody who’ll do just fine … without him! He who is used to being needed is no longer necessary. So John goes, “Are you the one?”  “After all I’ve done, does this Guy have what it takes to do the job? Will he be as committed to God as I am?” But John’s ambivalence about his successor had more to do with his own providence than Jesus’ fitness. It’s about destiny, because every exit is a mini‑death for anybody accustomed to having a prominent place.  To just willingly back away, and exit to the wings is a form of dying! Decreasing, fading, whatever you call it, John was about to be martyred with his “head on Herod’s platter.”  For that he had courage and conviction galore! John knew how to step aside and die. But how on earth could he step aside and live? In some ways it may be easier to die than to vacate your place.

Facing this achingly-human-John makes Jesus increase all the more. Jesus knew John’s approach wouldn’t work for him.  The two were very different personalities with different gifts. But God saw fit to use them both. No one person can do it all. Not even Jesus! God used each of them to complement the other. John was more prophetic; preaching judgment, repentance, and radical conversion. Jesus was more pastoral. His preaching was about love, forgiveness and grace. Both men’s preaching brought hope. John was an evangelist. Jesus was a pastor. Because Jesus didn’t fit the expected mold, John wasn’t sure he could hack it.

When Jesus was a kid, Luke said he “increased … in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man.” Here he fulfils it. When John’s disciples challenged Jesus he could’ve said, “When are ya’ll gonna get it?  Stop wasting your time with this rough-hewn- has‑been!  If you want to be where the real action is, stick with me.”  Nah Jesus too was a big man, with his ego in the proper place. Not for a moment did Jesus even hint of putting John down. Instead he lifted John up, like unto no man before or since. “Look around, what did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed, shaking in the wind? John is as good as it gets!” Jesus showed no sign of impatience with John, no bragging that his way was better, no trace of annoyance that John dared to question him.  It’s almost like he expected it.   

Jesus always spoke of John in glowing terms; a warm appraisal of God’s prophet; an ally in the work of the kingdom; even though their methodology was light-years apart.  God used them both. It’s important that ya’ll understand that before I head back home. Because from politics to corporate power, from parental authority to church leadership, with every leave‑taking we die a little bit. We may think we’re ready for it, but maybe we’re a lot more kin to the honest John than we’ll admit. I completely identify with him. After resigning as your pastor two weeks ago, my role now has become preparatory, like his. And to decrease, so that #37 might increase.

Finally, when Jesus received word that John was dead, he “withdrew in a boat to a lonely place.” He deeply grieved his cousin’s loss. Jesus didn’t compete with John, he praised him, “None born among women are greater.” There’s a lot we can learn in seeing the respect Jesus had for John, whose place he was assuming. You know the only thing worse than a poor loser is a poor winner! Things are different when you’re John‑in‑prison. It’s natural to be ambivalent. We can’t expect to negotiate decreasing without some pain. Every little form of dying hurts.  But it need not destroy us. The key, I think is to keep our focus on the larger purpose of God. And the surprises he has in store for all of us. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard what God has in store for his children.”

One reason to go to church is to get us to the point when the surrender of status in life can be a step forward instead of backward? Maybe Jesus was so understanding with John, because he realized the time would come for him to stand in John’s place. He knew how to fold-up. Could anything be more gracious, than that day from the cross he said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Whew! Even the centurion was amazed! Jesus has bequeathed to us that legacy of grace, sufficient for living or for dying. He frequently taught this. “Those who love their life will lose it and those who lose their lives for my sake will find them.” And “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit” Decreasing and increasing. That is the natural way of the flow of life. So it falls to all of us as individuals and as a congregation that we too learn how to fade away with grace, so that God comes into view.

Prayer:  O Lord, we are always concerned about our place in the scheme of things.  Freedom is ours, but we try to restrict others.  Hope is ours but we prefer guarantees.  Joy is ours but we want it now.  Peace is ours but we want to hoard it.  Love is ours but we can’t believe it.  Forgive us for placing our place above your grace; for limiting your goodness by our selfishness and for expecting quick answers to eternal questions.  May your grace surround all our comings and goings and may that knowledge guide us in the coming days.  Amen.

 

Posted in Sunday Morning Preaching | Leave a comment