The Vision of God Is Here

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

21 February 2021

I. Scenes from a Life

  • What we have here in Mark’s Gospel are three scenes from Jesus’ life – the Evangelist tells readers these stories right after telling about the John the Baptizer – these scenes give us some insight into who Jesus is in Mark, and they establish his identity, mission, and authority as the Messiah
  • The first scene takes place somewhere along the River Jordan – it is the enigmatic baptism of Jesus – leave aside the questions we moderns have about it (why did Jesus need to be baptized in the first place? Why did he go to John as he did?) – Jesus comes up from the water, sees the heavens torn open, sees the Spirit of God come down from heaven as a dove, and hears a voice – this is what we need to take from this scene –this is an announcement to the readers of Mark’s Gospel that in Jesus God is doing something new – in Jesus, a new day is dawning – and Jesus has God’s approval and support – the whole baptism scene is an affirmation of Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry
  • In addition, the Holy Spirit is with him – throughout the Hebrew Bible, we read of the Spirit of God resting on or coming to people for particular tasks and particular times – there is no clear sense that the Spirit remains with any of those people for any length of time – in Jesus’ case, however, the word the Evangelist uses implies that the Spirit does not come down “onto” Jesus, but “into” him – the Holy Spirit comes to Jesus and stays with him permanently
  • The second scene is in the wilderness – we usually think about this scene as the temptation of Jesus, but a better way to think of it might be as the testing of Jesus – in this case, I believe that the testing is not for God, but for Jesus’ sake – the testing comes to prepare him for the rest of his work, mission, and ministry
  • One of the Evangelist’s favorite words is “immediately,” and he uses it here — immediately after the announcement, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness – Mark does not say Jesus wants to go or that he chooses to go – the Evangelist implies that Jesus has no choice – the Spirit drives him, impels him, compels him to go – the word that Mark uses is the same word he uses to say that Jesus drives unclean spirits from people – it is a forceful word, not really a gentle word
  • The wilderness a symbol of chaos – there is no rule of law there – there is no peace – the wilderness is the place where the fittest survive and the weak do not
  • This wild and dangerous place is where Jesus encounters God’s adversary, the one who puts Jesus to the test, physically, personally, and spiritually – but Jesus is not alone in his test – in the wilderness, Jesus is with the wild beasts, and angels wait on him – here, then, is another symbol that something new has arrived – it is a new Vision of what the world can be, a Vision of a peaceable place – it is God’s Vision for all the world, and it begins in earnest with Jesus
  • The third scene moves readers to Galilee, where Jesus begins his public ministry – it starts with a sermon – after apparently passing through the time of testing successfully, Jesus returns to Galilee and starts preaching the good news of God – it is a simple message, really, “The time is now, and the Vision of God is here; turn away from brokenness, from anger, from violence, from power, from the ways of the world; turn to God and to God’s ways of peace, grace, hope, and love; turn and trust in the good news” – in the proclamation Jesus makes, and in the proclamation we make about Jesus through our words and our actions, we signify that God’s Vision is here, now

II. The Vision of God Is Here

  • We have to understand and always remember that the Vision of God is never only about individuals – God comes to us as individuals and as communities – for us as individuals, the Vision becomes the dominant reality of our lives – the Vision informs everything we think, say, and do – the Vision is the standard by which we measure our lives – the Vision is God’s dream of healing for us and for the whole world
  • As far as we know from Mark, Jesus alone sees the heavens torn open and the Holy Spirit descending, and Jesus alone hears the voice of affirmation – and having heard, the Spirit drives Jesus into confrontation with the powers of this world – and the Spirit also drives us into confrontation with powers – with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, we confront the powers that divide us from one another, the powers that treat some people as commodities and as of less value than others, the powers that oppress, the powers of violence – every day for us is a test of where our hearts are – we cannot hope to avoid these tests because following Jesus means that we do not, cannot, follow the ways of the world
  • To confront the powers, we have the words of Jesus’ teaching – the time is fulfilled and the Vision of God is here – while that is true, we also live between the times – the vision is here, and so are the powers of the world – and yet there will come a day, we do not know when, when the fullness and the perfection of God’s Vision will be apparent to all the powers – until then, we have the stories about Jesus to guide us
  • These scenes from Jesus’ life tell us that following the Holy Spirit in the way of God and Jesus brings us into confrontation with the powers of the world – and when all is said and done, no one can serve two masters – the choice is ours to make which master we serve

III. Conclusion

  • As we begin our Lenten journey, let us see the days ahead for all the opportunities they will bring to us – opportunities for service – opportunities for testing ourselves – opportunities to share with others, through our actions and through our words, what God has done and is doing in our lives through Jesus Messiah – our task is not to force anyone accept the good news of God – our task is simply to proclaim and to live the good news of the Vision of God
  • The time is now, sisters, brothers, friends, the Vision of God is here, now – through Jesus, we have the power and the calling to live into the Vision with everything we are

God Speaks

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

14 February 2021

I. God Is Judge

  • To be honest, the portion of Psalm 50 that is the lectionary reading for today, today being Transfiguration Sunday, is only an introduction – the rest of the psalm takes a different course
  • In our reading, the emphasis is obviously on God, on God’s nature and actions – first, God speaks, but it is not simply a speech that God gives to the world – this time, when God speaks it is to issue a summons – God’s speech here calls the earth, “from the rising of the sun to its setting,” which we can understand geographically as from the east to the west – but we can also take it metaphorically, perhaps going beyond geography to include time – God summons the earth in all its days, past, present, and future – metaphorically, God’s summons could refer to the whole earth, its creation to forever – and the summons could thus include us
  • In a similar vein, Zion can be a geographical reference, as the location of the city of Jerusalem – that might mean that God shines forth from the place – Zion could also refer to God’s people – and given what comes in the rest of the psalm, that seems like a good choice – out of God’s people, who are completely beautiful, God shines forth
  • The scene here reminds me of a courtroom – God comes into the room with signs of awesome power, a devouring fire and a mighty storm – and having come into the room, God calls to the heavens and the earth to hear of God’s judgment – the universe knows that God is righteous, and that God is judge of all things
  • This is the introduction – what follows is the content of what God speaks in the cosmic courtroom, and it is not an easy message to hear, because God, acting as judge, prosecutor, and witness, has come to testify against God’s people
  • God’s testimony declares that God does not accept the sacrifices of the people – it seems that a misunderstanding has arisen among the people, or at least some of the people – the misunderstanding is that some have come to believe that the purpose of sacrifices is to gain favor with God, to put God in the debt of the ones making the sacrifices – instead of giving an offering out of gratitude, they give an offering in an attempt to manipulate God
  • What they have not comprehended is that the animals they use for their sacrifices belong to God already – even if God were hungry, God would not tell the people – and the idea of God being hungry is ridiculous on the face of it – does God eat the meat or drink the blood of the sacrifices? – of course not
  • These same misinformed givers of sacrifices also reject the discipline of a life lived in relationship with God – rather than adhering to God’s Instruction, they live as thieves, liars, slanderers, deceivers – and in the presence of such evil, God has remained silent…until this point
  • We find the root of the problem in v. 21: “You have thought that I was one just like yourself” – but God is not one just like human beings, and so God rejects their sacrifices and lays the charge against the mistaken worshipers
  • What God wants is not the ritual form of relationship with God, which keeps the traditions and follows the letter of God’s Instruction, while ignoring their spirit – what God wants is honest, authentic, personal relationship with the people – what God wants is a gift of thanksgiving – such a gift recognizes the relative positions of both God and the worshipers – God is God and the worshipers are not – God is the creator of all things, including the worshipers
  • God’s testimony of judgment might sound harsh in our ears and in the ears of the deluded worshipers, but God offers abundant life to all who bring their gifts with gratitude and who follow the right way

II. God Speaks

  • I am not entirely sure why Psalm 50 is the lectionary psalm reading for Transfiguration Sunday – maybe it is because of the line that says that God shines forth – I suppose that the line does fit with Jesus’ experience on the mountain
  • You remember that story from the three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 9.2-8║Matthew 17.1-8║Luke 9.28-36) – while there are some differences in the three tellings of the story, the main elements are present in them all – Jesus takes Peter, James, and John, and heads up a mountain – while on the mountaintop, Jesus begins to shine and his clothes becomes dazzling – he talks with Moses and Elijah, although we do not know anything about their conversation – in his excitement and enthusiasm, and maybe his terror, Peter (of course it is Peter) speaks up to say that it is good that they are all there and that he thinks they should erect three shelters, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, as if they are going to stay on the mountaintop, or maybe to memorialize the moment – in response to Peter’s statement, a voice comes from heaven to say that Jesus is God’s beloved one – and all three versions of the story include this statement: Listen to him!
  • That statement could also be a good summary for Psalm 50 – God speaks! Listen to God!
  • God does not desire from us an outward demonstration of piety – God does not desire sacrifice from us so that we can please or appease God
  • Our friend and my colleague, Andy Mockridge, is fond of saying that God’s judgment is always mercy – if Jesus tells us anything, if his life shows us anything at all, it is precisely that – God’s judgment is always mercy
  • God did not offer the testimony against God’s people as a threat – the hope, the goal, for doing it was and still is to encourage people to lay aside our tendency to think that God is one just like ourselves – do not forget where the psalm ends – it ends with a word of assurance to those who give generously and with gratitude, who go the right way
  • God calls all people to be faithful, not to a creed or to a church or to an institution, no matter how noble they might be – God calls all people not to trust in ritual or tradition, no matter how meaningful and comforting and even challenging they might be – God calls all people into relationship with God, to trust in God, to show gratitude to God, to recognize that only God is God and that God is not one just like us
  • The source of our hope and our life is not in ourselves – the source is in the God who speaks, and in speaking calls us to life and relationship

III. Conclusion

  • On this Transfiguration Sunday, may God speak and transform us by the power and presence of the word in us – may God speak to us, and when God speaks, let us listen to God

The Company of the Upright

Monday, 1 February 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

31 January 2021

I. Singing a Song of Praise

  • Hallelujah! – this is how our psalm for today begins – the singer of the psalm calls readers and hearers and singers of the song to join in praise for God
  • Praise is a frequent theme in the Psalms, and here the singer calls us to join her in giving thanks to God with our whole hearts – this is more than a call to some sentimental expression of adoration – for the ancients, the heart was not just the metaphorical location of emotion, as it often is for us – for them the heart was also the location of reason and intention, of understanding and thought – perhaps because our hearts are in the center of our bodies, protected in our ribcage, surrounded by other organs, the ancient people thought of the heart as the location of the center of being for individuals – for the singer to say that she gives thanks to God with her whole heart is for her to say that she gives thanks to God with everything she has and everything she is – everything she thinks and feels – from the depths of her life and being, she gives thanks and praise to God
  • By singing her song in the company of the upright, which is the same thing as the congregation, the assembly of all the people, she invites the whole company to join in her praise and thanksgiving
  • Most of the rest of the psalm consists of citing the many and powerful works of God and of naming the traits of God, as the reason and justification for the singer’s praise and thanksgiving
  • God’s works are great, which refers to the size of the works – in my mind, this points us to the entire universe – God is powerful and majestic, and created all that is and holds it all together – these great works of the Lord are worthy of our notice and attention, so the company of the upright studies them
  • At the same time, the one who creates and sustains the universe is also gracious and merciful, providing for all who revere God – this moves the praise from the cosmic and universal to the personal – the majestic and transcendent God enters into covenant with human beings and never forgets that covenant – God is faithful and just, trustworthy in all things, holy and awesome
  • The singer ends her song of praise with a statement that appears several times in the Hebrew Bible – reverence for God is the beginning of wisdom – among those who revere God, there is understanding of the relationships that God’s covenant has put in place – among those who revere God, in the company of the upright, God’s praise endures forever

II. The Company of the Upright

  • While we do not have the right to claim the same relationship with God as do our sisters and brothers who are the Jews, God does have the right to claim us as part of God’s people in a larger sense – and because of God’s call and claim upon us, we are among the company of the upright, not because of who we are but because God makes us so – God brings us into the family
  • God’s call and claim on the ancient people of God was never for themselves or their community alone – going all the way back to the stories of God’s covenant with Abram, when God promised to make of Abram and his wife Sarai a great nation, a great people, the promise came with a purpose (Genesis 12.1-3) – the purpose for God’s promise of blessing on Abram and his descendants was so that they could then be a blessing to the whole world – God promised to bless Abram’s “family” so that in them and through them all the families of the earth will be blessed
  • The work of the company of the upright is to bless the earth and a significant part of that work begins with praise – as the singer calls us to do, we praise God for God’s works, from the smallest act of creation to the largest – we study God’s works, not as we might study a textbook, but by looking for them in the world around us and in our own lives
  • We have trained ourselves to see God in nature – we look at the mountains or the oceans and we see God’s handiwork – we look at the stars in the sky, we see their numbers beyond counting, and our response is amazement and awe – we see the sheer unimaginable size of the universe in those stars, millions of which no longer exist at this moment, having exploded or died out long ago, but their light still comes to our eyes – and in their deaths lies the possibility of new life in the universe
  • For the company of the upright, however, seeing God in honor and majesty, in glory and reverence, is only the beginning – we also praise God for God’s grace and mercy, not for us alone but for all people – we praise God for God’s abundant provision, which is at the heart of this life and of our home planet – there is enough for all and we praise God for such bounty
  • Our praise does not end there either – our praise continues in response to God’s faithfulness and justice – God has provided for us all a guide by which we can live and in which we can find our path as the company of the upright – that guide is God’s Instruction, which at its core calls us to love God, to love one another, to love our enemies
  • All of this matters because praising God is never about shouting or singing or preaching or praying alone – it is also and more importantly about how we live – of course, praising God in our worship and in the world, using our voices and our bodies, is important – we should sing (when it is safe for us to do it) and shout our praise to God – but God’s call and claim on our lives require more of us
  • God has commanded that we live in the covenant forever – our covenant with God finds its fullness in our covenants with each other, in praising God through our service to others – we who are the company of the upright praise God in the grace we share, in the mercy we offer, in the justice for which we strive, and in seeing the face of God in the faces of every person we meet

III. Conclusion

  • We are among the company of the upright – may our lives reflect the grace and mercy, the power and the presence, the faithfulness and uprightness of the one who calls us
  • Reverence for God is the beginning of wisdom – and in the company of the upright, praise for God endures forever

God Alone

Monday, 25 January 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

24 January 2021

I. Quiet Trust

  • There is a temptation to read this psalm simply as a celebration of trust in God alone without keeping the opening verses in mind – those first four verses tell us that the singer of the psalm is not naïve or out of touch with reality – they tell us that the singer is well aware that there are enemies all around, which then tells us that the singer’s trust in God comes only with difficulty
  • The singer begins with a declaration that his soul waits quietly for God – this is not a statement about not speaking aloud, but of having a peaceful spirit, of living peacefully with trust in God alone
  • Several times in this psalm the singer uses the word for “alone” or “only” – and, honestly, for many of us, maybe most of us, maybe even all of us, that is the problem – there are just so many competing powers in the world around us that trusting in God alone is not easy – and the singer of the psalm knows this, too
  • The psalmist knows this because even though God is the rock and deliverance and the haven for him, and even though the singer does not believe he will be shaken, the psalmist is also surrounded by others who attack him, to crush him as if he were a leaning wall or a tottering fence – these are images of instability and weakness – all it takes is a nudge and the fence or the wall could fall – and the others are ready to give the singer that nudge
  • The others plan and plot against the singer, telling lies, and speaking out of both sides of their mouths, as we might say – outwardly blessing and inwardly cursing the singer – the singer knows very well that all is not as it could be, not as it should be
  • So, the singer restates the opening declaration as an inward statement – instead of averring that his soul waits quietly for God, the singer now implores his soul to wait quietly for God, reminding himself that God is the rock and deliverance and haven – reminding himself that he relies on God, trusts in God
  • Then the singer turns to the congregation, or to us, encouraging them also to trust in God alone – as it has been with the singer, trusting that God is a constant and unwavering refuge, so it can be with everyone around him
  • Standing before God, the singer tells the congregation that all people are merely a breath, a momentary exhalation of air, here one second and gone the next, an illusion, nothing – if all people were on one side of a scale, a breath would outweigh them
  • The singer next turns to the things that we human beings trust, so he can demonstrate that we trust in the wrong things – do not trust in violence or robbery or force – these give false hope, false security – these human ways promise peace and safety, but they cannot deliver
  • Power, true power, belongs only to God – steadfast love, faithfulness, belongs only to God – and God rewards all people according to their deeds, which is not a threat of punishment but an affirmation that only when we trust in God alone will we actually find what we hope to find through our futile trust in ourselves and our own ways

II. God Alone

  • When the psalmist exhorts us to trust in God, what do we think it means? – too often in our modern world, we equate trust with belief – we reduce trust in God to beliefs about God – then our relationship with God becomes simply a matter of having right beliefs without regard to how we live our lives
  • Just as did the ancient people, we trust violence and robbery and force – we trust wealth and worldly power – we trust status – we trust ourselves – this is not a condemnation of us – it is simply true –Jesus knew it – in his Sermon on the Mount, he said “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6.21), and even though we wish it were the other way around, that our treasure would go where our hearts already were, we know at some level that Jesus is correct – and in Jesus’ statement, we could substitute “trust” where he said “heart”
  • We trust what we can see, and we see the effects of worldly power – we see the violence all around us and we trust in violence to protect us – we believe that the way to overcome our weaknesses is with a show of strength and force – it is what we do
  • In the lectionary readings for this week, from Mark 1, I Corinthians 7, and Jonah 3, we read about repentance – we see what can come of it – we hear of Jesus proclaiming it – we see Paul telling the Corinthians that the form of this world is passing away and calling for a change of heart and mind away from what is passing and toward what endures – we feel Jonah’s anger at God’s grace on Israel’s enemies who change their lives
  • And in this psalm, the singer’s exhortation to readers and hearers of the song is also a call to repent, to turn away from human ways of violence, robbery, and force, and toward trust in God – not toward right beliefs, but toward a loving relationship of trust in the one who holds true might and steadfast love
  • The ways of the world are seductive – they claim to offer hope and peace and security – they claim to be a haven, a refuge for us – but the hope and peace and security and refuge are not for everyone – the world might offer such things to a few, but never to everyone – and we forget the fine print on the offer – Jesus referred to it when he asked what profit we have even if we gain the whole world when the cost is our souls (Mark 8.36)
  • Our hope is in God alone – our security is in God alone – our deliverance from the ways of the world and from ourselves is in God alone – our refuge, our protection, is in God alone – it is not a matter of what we believe, but of whom we trust
  • One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard: that might belongs to God alone, and faithfulness is yours, O Lord

III. Conclusion

  • Human ways and self-serving and selfish and inevitably disappoint us, and God never disappoints us – God’s power is never power over us or over anyone – it is always power for us and for all, to bring abundant life fully into this world – and it comes from God alone
  • Steadfast love belongs to God alone – and in that love we can be quiet, at peace, serene, because that love is all over us, all around us, and fills us – and it comes from God alone
  • The psalmist recognizes that God alone holds life, and that is the life in which we live and move and have our being (Acts 17.28) – for us and for all people, everything we need we find in God alone

God Knows

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

17 January 2021

I. Introduction

  • Everyone knows the film “A Christmas Story,” right? – it is a Christmas time favorite – it is a story about a lot of things, but one of those things is that Ralphie wants an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle for Christmas, but at every turn he meets an obstacle insurmountable “by any means known to kid-dom” – everyone from his mother to the department store Santa tells him, “You’ll shoot your eye out” – after a discouraging visit to that Santa, Ralphie’s dad asks if Santa had asked him if he had been good that year – Ralphie realizes that Santa had not asked him such an important question – and the Old Man assures his son that Santa knows, Santa always knows
  • For a long time, parents have used the idea that Santa knows if we have been bad or good as a means of controlling children in the weeks leading up to Christmas – unfortunately, we use the same principle in our relationships with God – God sees everything, we say, so we should be “good,” which has a flexible definition for us, to avoid incurring the wrath of God – this is unfortunate because the presence of God is then a threat to us
  • This psalm tells us that God’s presence is not and cannot be a threat – far from it, God is life and hope and assurance for all people

II. Where Can We Go?

  • The psalm begins with God’s knowledge of the singer – the singer knows that God has examined her and knows her intimately – God knows everything she does, thinks, and says – in our modern world, we might perceive this idea as an implied warning, as in “I know who your family is” or “I know where you live” – for the singer, however, it is beyond understanding and it is wonderful
  • Knowledge is only one part of the wonder – the singer is certain that there is nowhere she can go to get away from God, even if she wanted to – God created the universe and holds it together with a word of life, and there is no place that is beyond that word – most powerfully, in a time when there was only a shadow of an idea about life beyond death, the singer affirms that even if she were to go to the place of the dead, to the place where everyone goes after dying, to the place where God does not go, she would find God there, all the same – light and darkness are the same to God – God is in the shadows and in the bright light of day – God is at the farthest reaches of the universe and in places where no one thought God would go or maybe even could go
  • At the same time, God is intimately familiar with the singer – God knows the intricacies of her body, of her life from its beginning to it send – God knows all that can be known about her
  • Yet this is not a cause for anxiety or concern for the singer – God’s greatness is the reason why God can know her so well – and God would never use that knowledge as leverage against her – God would not hold God’s knowledge over her head like a sword of Damocles – God’s knowledge of her means that she can be herself, without having to hide anything – God knows her and God loves her – and it is all a cause for amazement and awe for her, as it should be for us all

III. God Knows

  • The centuries of the influence of Greek dualism on Christian theology have made it difficult for us to read this psalm clearly – dualism teaches us to think in categories of opposites – this or that, either/or, good/bad, right/wrong, and so on – we learn from an early age that all these categories are mutually exclusive and that there is really only one way for us to think – we create and perpetuate these divisions because they make life easier to grasp, easier to understand – and we think that if we can understand a thing we can control it
  • I remember my late Hebrew Bible professor in seminary telling us, however, that in biblical Hebrew there is no word for “but” – all of those times in the Hebrew Bible where we read “but” the word is actually “and” – that is a hard thing for us to understand, but it makes perfect sense in a way of thinking that took shape outside of Greek categories – in that ancient way of thinking, there is no separation between the physical and the spiritual – the spiritual realm is thoroughly physical and the physical realm is thoroughly imbued with the spiritual
  • If we lay aside those divisions that we create, we end up with images of God very much like what we see in Psalm 139 – we end up with a God who creates and holds together the entire universe and at the same time loves us as individuals and communities– we see that God knows everything about us, both the parts we like and do not like about ourselves, and loves us not in spite of them but because of them
  • God is involved in our lives in intimate ways – God walks beside us all every step of our many journeys through life – God never leaves us or abandons us – neither does God make everything to be just the way we might want it to be – God walks through life with us no matter where our journeys take us – God does not remove trouble and difficulty from our journeys – instead, God empowers us and enables us to move forward through those hard times – the wonder that the singer of the psalm expresses, and that I hope it is our wonder, too, is that nothing can separate us for God’s love for us and for all people – ever – period
  • In addition, in Jesus we the example of one of us, a fully human person, who understands that God’s love knows no end or limit – Jesus shows us what we can be and do when we give ourselves completely into the hands of God
  • God knows us and God loves us all – and come what may, that will never change

IV. Conclusion

  • God is not Santa Claus – God does not come to us in Jesus simply so that we can have our every heart’s desire – God is not about wish fulfillment – God created the universe out of a desire to love – and God sent Jesus into the world as the perfect demonstration and guarantee of God’s love for us and for all people
  • God knows us more fully and more graciously than we know ourselves – in God’s knowledge of us we find our true selves – in God’s knowledge of us we find our fellow human beings – in God’s knowledge of us, we find that we are one people, all loved by God

Enthroned over the Flood

Monday, 11 January 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

10 January 2021

The Baptism of Christ

I. Introduction

  • Since I became aware of his work, I have always enjoyed C. S. Lewis – even though his series “The Chronicles of Narnia” is supposed to be children’s or young adult literature, I think that they can appeal as well to adults – there is some powerful and moving imagery that can engage our minds and hearts regardless of chronological age
  • One such image is in The Magician’s Nephew – the story takes a small group of people and a horse into a place filled with darkness – there is something solid under their feet, but they can see only the darkness – then they hear a voice singing – at first the voice sings alone, then suddenly there is a chorus of voices and at the same second the sky is full of stars – the voice continues to sing and a sun rises over a hill
  • It is the story of the creation of the world of Narnia – the group eventually learns that the singer is Aslan, a great lion, who is the son of the Emperor across the Sea – the story that Lewis tells reminds me of a biblical image – the story of creation in Genesis 1 begins in chaos and darkness – then, says the writer, “God said….” – the power of creation is in God’s voice – each day of creation begins with “And God said” – and the power of creation in the Narnia stories is in the voice of Aslan, who sings all that is Narnia into life
  • Lewis tells a story of true strength in action, and it echoes the stories and songs of the Bible

II. A Song of Strength and Glory

  • The psalmist begins by calling all heavenly beings to ascribe glory and strength to God – but the singer of the song does not say who the heavenly beings are – literally, the Hebrew text calls them “sons of gods,” so the psalmist may intend readers to take the heavenly beings as all the pantheons of all of the surrounding nations, thus asserting the authority of the Hebrew God over all other gods
  • Honestly, although it seems strange to us, the Hebrew Bible does not always say that God is the only god – the Bible is consistent in saying that there are powers other than God in the universe, but they are false gods – their power exists only as opposition to the true God – the powers of the world want human beings to believe that they are gods, but they are not – God’s glory and strength are always greater than any the heavenly beings might possess
  • Another possibility is that the heavenly beings refer to God’s host of angels and other such beings – the force of the call for the heavenly beings to ascribe glory and strength to God is to make clear from the start of the psalm that God is above all other heavenly beings, whether they are angels of the sons of the gods – all of them are to worship God
  • Next comes the “voice of the Lord” – seven times we hear the psalmist use the phrase – seven times, with seven perhaps referring to the number of perfection, of completion – the voice represents all of who God is, even though we cannot begin to comprehend the fullness of that image – the voice of the Lord personifies the strength and the power of God
  • The psalmist uses images of nature, especially of an extremely powerful storm, to give just the barest glimpse of God’s strength – the voice of the Lord is over the waters, which again echoes the Genesis story – the voice of the Lord is thunder over the mighty waters – the voice of the Lord is powerful and demonstrates God’s majesty – the voice of the Lord can break trees, as a powerful wind can do – the voice of the Lord makes mountains dance, as in an earthquake – the voice of the Lord is like lightning – and the voice of the Lord strips the leaves from the trees – and having heard the voice of the Lord, the only reasonable and appropriate response is to shout “Glory to God!”
  • God is enthroned over the flood, over the chaos that existed before God began to create the universe – and because God is the Creator, because God says to the waters of chaos, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther” (Job 38.11), God’s reign over all of Creation is forever
  • The psalmist concludes the song of glory and strength by blessing all of God’s people with strength and with peace

III. Enthroned over the Flood

  • In our liturgical calendar, the first Sunday after Epiphany, today, celebrates the Baptism of Christ – there are several connections between the stories of Jesus’ baptism and the words of this psalm – obviously there is the connection of water, although in the baptism stories the emphasis is on Jesus’ submission to the power that is enthroned over the flood more than it is about sharing that power – to be sure, the gospels relate other stories about Jesus’ power over nature, but in the baptism, Jesus identifies himself with humankind – in his baptism, Jesus declares himself to be fully one of us
  • Another connection is the voice of the Lord – in the baptism stories, a voice from heaven announces either to Jesus or to everyone present in the moment that Jesus is God’s beloved son, and that God is well pleased with him
  • With this announcement, there is a sort of a conferral of authority on Jesus – God indeed gives Jesus strength and peace, but the strength that God gives Jesus is the strength to love, to forgive, to heal, to reconcile – it is not strength to control others – and the peace that God gives Jesus does not protect Jesus from facing the powers of the world, the power of empire and the power of domination and the power of riches – and the worldly powers oppose Jesus at every step
  • For us, as we recall our own baptisms, the psalm reminds us that Jesus embodies the power enthroned over the floods – Jesus, who is God’s voice in the world, shows us that God’s strength and peace are with us always – Jesus shows us that the voice that created and continues to create the universe speaks in us, to us, and through us to tell the world that there is nothing that can separate any person from the love of God in Jesus Messiah – Jesus shows us that the creator of all that is, is at work to heal the world and all of its creatures, including us human beings

IV. Conclusion

  • The power enthroned over the flood moves continuously to undo the damage that we cause by following after the powers of the world – the power enthroned over the flood is to be enthroned in our hearts and spirits to restore all that we have broken and to bring life out of death
  • The power enthroned over the flood is, after all, the power of creation, the power of love, the power of healing, and the power of life for all of creation

Lamplighter Article, January 2021

Monday, 4 January 2021

Dear Friends,

About a week and a half before Christmas Crystal read on Facebook that one of my seminary professors had died. The former professor was Dr. Reidar B. Bjornard, my Hebrew Bible professor, whom I have mentioned several time before. At his passing, Dr. Bjornard was 103 years old. He was born in Norway and served in the Norwegian resistance movement during World War II. He was a brilliant man, an inspiring teacher, and a tender pastor to his students.

I was in his office once for a chat. He showed me what he had been reading when I came into the room. As I recall after nearly forty years, he was reading his father-in-law’s notes in Norwegian on a lecture in Greek class taught in German. Seeing the handwritten notes led me to comment that I wished that a book by one of Dr. Bjornard’s teachers, Sigmund Mowinckel, which was available only in German, had been translated into English. He looked at me with a smile and said simply, “Learn German.” Nothing to it, I suppose.

Dr. Bjornard (I cannot call him by any other title even after all these years) preached the sermon at my ordination. I was tremendously honored. His text was John 3.30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” It was a moving and inspiring sermon, obviously, since I have never forgotten it.

He came into a class one time and noticed that there was a problem with the door. He spent a few minutes and corrected the problem. When he sat down to teach, he looked at the group around the table and said, “A pastor’s primary task is to be a good custodian.” He was only partly joking—he had a very dry and wry sense of humor—because, indeed, pastors are caretakers of all sorts of things. We see to buildings and lives and confidences. We have “custody” of hearts and spirits, and Dr. Bjornard was telling us that our calling is to be careful and mindful custodians.

I had not seen Dr. Bjornard in I do not know how long. I corresponded with him a few times, but I do not recall if he ever replied. He retired not long after I left seminary, and I could not tell you if he even remembered me, but I never forgot him, nor will I ever forget him.

That happens a good deal in our lives. We have relationships with some people, relationships that last only for a season in our lives, and yet they echo throughout our lives. Dr. Bjornard may have forgotten me the day after he preached the ordination sermon, but who he was and how he was continues to be a presence in my life. Which leads me to wonder, is there anyone in whose life my presence will continue to echo for years after we part?

We do not think often about such things, or at least I do not. And yet how profound our lives could be if we did think about them. How far the ripples of our lives could extend into the lives and the world around us if we gave more thought to striving to be positive influences.

On the flip side, I know that there are times that I have lost my temper and been short with someone who absolutely did not deserve it. If we are not careful, those “negative ripples” could extend as far as any positive effects we bring into the world

The year 2020 was a hard one in so many ways. So, reflecting on the life of Dr. Reidar B. Bjornard has encouraged me to strive to be someone who brings thoughtfulness, mindfulness, and positive influences into the lives of people around me. The adult Sunday School class is currently reading and discussion Grateful, by Diana Butler Bass. I want to be a person who lives a life of gratitude and praise.

I invite you to join me. Together let us work toward influencing the world around us in positive ways. Let us work to be good custodians of the blessings of our lives. Let us be people whom others will remember long after we are gone because we were grateful and joyful and merciful and loving, and all that the good news of Jesus calls us to be.

Grace and Peace

Tommy

Gladness for Sorrow

Monday, 4 January 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

3 January 2021

I. Jeremiah’s Consolation for the Exiles

  • The prophet Jeremiah was hard on the kings and the people of Judah – he preached and he preached, trying to call them back to following the ways of God – he was not happy about it – sometimes people today refer to him as the Weeping Prophet because he was so very reluctant to preach the message that God gave him
  • The prophet was reluctant, but he had to preach, all the same – when he tried to hold back the message, it became like a fire shut up in his bones (Jeremiah 20.9) and he had to let it out or suffer for it – even though many tried to silence him, Jeremiah preached the words that God gave him
  • Shortly before the sermon that is our reading for today, God has Jeremiah make a yoke of bars and straps and walk around Jerusalem calling the king to stop listening to false prophets and to listen to Jeremiah – Babylon had begun demanding tribute from Judah and the king had gotten tired of paying it – he had begun to plan a rebellion – but the prophet tells him that the tribute and the rise of Babylon are part of God’s plan and that the king should not rebel – while he was not happy about the message, the king stopped plotting a rebellion and Judah was able to continue to preach, yoke and all
  • Then along comes the prophet Hananiah, who takes the yoke off of Jeremiah’s shoulders and breaks it apart, saying that God was going to return the kidnapped former king of Judah and his court in Exile in Babylon, along with all the tribute that Babylon had taken – and what does Jeremiah do? – he says to Hananiah and to all the priests and everyone in the temple that he hopes that Hananiah is right – he does not want to preach a harsh message to anyone, but while he hopes that Hananiah is correct, he does not think he is – Jeremiah thinks that the Exile is nowhere near over, that it is going to continue until God says it will end
  • And yet, with all of his sorrowful and reluctant preaching of God’s call to repentance and right relationships and a return to the covenant of old, it is a message for the people still in Judah – for the Exiles, we get the sermon, part of a letter, really, in Jeremiah 30 and 31 that is so powerfully hopeful that scholars sometimes name it the Book of Consolation – it is a word of hope to a people who feel hopeless, a word of return to a people who have been removed from their homeland, from the Land of the Promise, a word of consolation to a people who are sorrowing and in distress because they feel cut off from their God
  • To the Exiles, the prophet’s message is a call to sing and rejoice because God is going to return them to their homeland – anyone who has been cut off will return, even the blind and the lame, even the expectant mothers who might otherwise have to wait – everyone will go home and God will take them there
  • God will take them by a straight path, a path with plenty of water, a path without stumbling blocks – everyone will go home because God is the loving parent of God’s people
  • The prophet knows that restoration is coming, but he does not know when – what he does know is that the Exiles will not be able to make it happen on their own – the restoration will be God’s work and it will come in God’s time
  • That does not mean that the Exiles have nothing to do in the meantime – the Exile will continue until God declares its end – and God’s people will still have the call to remain true to their covenant relationship with God – they can indeed trust in God because God’s nature is always to move toward life – while there is difficulty in the world, with God death never gets the last word – with God, the end is life – God turns mourning into joy and God gives gladness for sorrow
  • It is who God is, at least as God has revealed God’s self through the creation and through the prophets both ancient and modern

II. Gladness for Sorrow

  • The year 2020 was an odd year for all of us – Crystal reminded me in the days leading up to this new year that we had so looked forward to 2020 – for Salem Church, there were many events what the 150th Anniversary Committee had worked for two years to plan and prepare – there was going to be a big Confirmation celebration and the return of a Salem Sunday School picnic for at least one year – the General Minister and President was going to be here in our sanctuary to preach and celebrate with us – it was going to be a grand year for all of us to remember, to serve, and to celebrate our sesquicentennial anniversary and to look forward to many years of life and ministry to come
  • And for all of us personally there were family reunions and trips to other places, graduations and marriages that we had awaited with eagerness, celebrations that also had been years in the making lay ahead of us twelve months ago
  • Of course we also knew that there were going to be surprises, moments both joyous and sorrowful would come upon us unexpectedly, all those times for which there is no planning nor could there be – and yet, all in all, we entered 2020 with the usual sorts of hopes, dreams, and expectation that we have had as we approached the years in our past – but none of us could have expected what 2020 turned out to be
  • At times, last year felt like an exile – we all of us felt cut off from one another – loved ones would go to hospital and we could not go see them, or our time with them was limited – sorrows would come and we could not find the communal outlet for our grief or receive the communal support that we had always relied on in times past – the separations we experienced might as well have been hundreds of miles – it has been a painful time for us all – and it is completely possible, perhaps even likely, that our exile could get worse before it gets better
  • Even so, God has been with us through it all – we have adopted and adapted to new forms of expressing our worship, forms that, frankly, many of our fellow Salemites resisted for a long time – and now, ten months into this Covid-colored world, many of us cannot imagine simply going back to the way it was before – some of our changes are here to stay
  • And God is still with us – we are finding new ways to express our grief and support, to share our joy and our sorrow – and we are finding that God is even now at work to give gladness for sorrow

III. Conclusion

  • We do not know how long we will have to live in this exile any more than God’s ancient people and prophets knew how long their Exile would be – but the lessons of that Exile are with us still
  • God is still with us – God is still at work – and I believe that no matter how long it takes, God will still give gladness for sorrow – it is who God revealed God’s self to be in the ancient prophets and in the life and message of Jesus

Praise from the Heavens and the Earth

Monday, 28 December 2020

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

27 December 2020

I. The Call to Praise God

  • The roots of this psalm lie far back in the biblical story – the entire biblical story of life begins, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” – that assertion is at the heart of today’s Psalm reading – it runs before the psalm and through the psalm and all around the psalm – it is the essential declaration, the starting point of all of creation, including humankind
  • Praise begins in the heavens – the psalmist calls the angels and all of the heavenly host to lead the chorus of praise – just behind the heavenly beings, all heavenly structures receive the call – sun, moon, and stars, and the waters above and around the heavens – all that we see in the sky by day and by night, have a call to join the chant, the choir, and enter into praise for God
  • The universe vast, even more vast than the psalmist could have known – the universe is so huge it is beyond our comprehension – not only can we not fully comprehend the universe, we can never fully know the universe, and we can never control it in the least – we can affect the tiny little bit of creation that we call the earth – we can effect change here in many ways, for good and for ill – but we cannot change the movement of the planets and stars in even the least degree – it is simply too big
  • Some say that the universe is so large that it even has a sort of consciousness – I cannot go that far, but I do believe that God created it – God created not a few thousand years ago, but billions of years ago – God spoke, God sang creation into being, by putting natural processes in place – and God’s song continues in the very existence of the universe, in its order and physical laws – to God’s people, these are the evidence of God’s creative and sustaining power
  • Because of that power, the psalmist calls the universe to join in the song and praise God – and the psalmist expects the universe to respond to the call, or perhaps, the psalmist believes that the universe already praises God, that praise is an aspect of its existence and always has been
  • The simple reason for calling the heavens is that God created them – God spoke a word, God commanded, and the heavens came into being – God established the heavens and fixed their limits, telling the waters that they could come this far and no farther – these limits opened a space beneath the heavens in which the earth could appear – obviously this is not science – it is poetry and it is the story of God’s work in creation – from the heavens to the earth and more
  • Praise then moves to the earth – again, even though the earth is the tiniest place, one of billions of planets in our galaxy alone, moving according to God’s decree around one of hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, even though we can look at Google Earth or Apple Maps and see nearly every square inch of land on the planet, there is much about our planet that we cannot know or understand
  • Thus the psalmist calls the sea monsters and the unsearchable deeps of the oceans to praise God – and the weather, including what one source I read as I prepared this sermon called the “unnecessary freezing of water,” hail, snow, and frost, as well as fire and stormy wind
  • The psalmist includes in the call to praise those bits of the earth that we often think give evidence of God’s existence, that is, the mountains and hills, and the diversity of plant life – the psalmist calls them all to praise God
  • Then come the animals – all animal life from the feral to the domesticated, from the largest to the smallest, from sea monsters to microbes, receives the call to praise the Creator
  • Only after all of the universe and the earth have heard the call does the psalmist turn to humankind – it almost feels as if calling human beings to praise God were an afterthought for the writer of the psalm – but I think it was part of the plan from the beginning
  • How does the universe praise God? – how do planets and stars praise God? – how do sea monsters and ocean depths praise God? – and how do plants and animals praise God? – they praise God by existing and by being exactly what God created them to be – the difference is that apart from humankind, so far as we know, the universe, from the greatest stars and galaxies to the least little microbe or virus, does not think about God or about who and what they are – they exist and by their existence they participate in praise – their existence is praise and praise is their existence
  • Humankind is different, no better or worse, simply different – and perhaps the greatest difference between us human beings and the rest of the created universe is that we think and choose – and we can choose whether or not we are going to join in the song of praise that the universe already sings all around us

II. Praise from the Heavens and the Earth

  • The way that the psalm stands, it seems at least possible that the writer points to the wider universe and world, from inanimate structures and objects to the many different forms of life and how they praise God by their existence so that we, the readers and singers of the psalm, will see our place in creation, will see our created-ness, will see our interdependent nature with all that is, both human and not, and will feel the same urgency and determination to praise God as we it in all that is around us
  • It makes sense, I think – when we see God’s hands moving in the order and structures of the universe, when we see God’s hands at work in the world around us and even in our own lives, it makes sense that we would feel gratitude and praise well up within us and that we would join in the chorus, both heavenly and earthly, and praise God
  • Praise in not to be for one hour each week – as is true for the rest of creation, praise is an essential element of our existence – as is true of the rest of the universe, we praise God best by being who and what God creates us and calls us to be
  • In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, God created a chorus of praise, and it is our privilege and our responsibility to join in that chorus by living lives of gratitude, lives of service to the earth and to all of humankind, lives of praise to the one who creates and sustains all that ever existed, all that exists now, all that will exist in the time to come
  • God has made us for praise – it is who we are

III. Conclusion

  • The first historic Westminster Shorter Catechism is “What is the chief end of humankind?” – the beautiful answer is that our chief end, our goal, our aim, our purpose, is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever
  • God calls all of the universe, including us, to join in praise of our Creator – as the Catechism says, to glorify God and to enjoy God forever
  • Praise from the heavens and the earth is the essence of all that is – let us praise God in word and in action every moment and every day of our lives – in the time of Christmas and beyond

God Will Do This

Monday, 14 December 2020

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

13 December 2020

Third Sunday of Advent

I. Community Instructions

  • Today we are at the end of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian followers of the way of Jesus – the letter is probably the oldest writing in the Christian New Testament, and it is a personal letter, filled with the apostle’s praise, thanksgiving, and encouragement for the Jesus people in the city
  • The apostle closes this mostly positive correspondence with some final words of wisdom – he tells the followers of Jesus to respect the leaders of their community, whom Paul may have put in place – the people should esteem their leaders for their work on their behalf
  • There should be peace among the Jesus people as they urge idlers to become active in the work, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, and live with patience for all of them – the human tendency is almost the opposite of the apostle’s instruction – we tend to deride idlers, beat down the faint-hearted, and despise the weak – but once again, a prophet of God tells us that Jesus’ followers are not to live as others live – they are to be an example of a better way
  • Not for the last time in all his letters, the apostle tells his readers, in this case the Thessalonians, never to retaliate for anything that others do to them – do not repay evil for evil – instead, they are to seek to do good to one another and to all – this is certainly a hard thing that Paul tells the people, but his instructions are going to get harder still
  • Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances – this has to be one of those times when one of the biblical writers uses exaggeration to make a point – this is ridiculous – no one can do any of this – it is bad enough that the apostle wants the Thessalonians to forgo retaliating for perceived wrongs and to live at peace with one another and do go to those who do them evil, whether inside the community or out – but this goes too far – rejoice always? – pray without ceasing? – give thanks in all circumstances? – seriously? – and then he affirms that “this is the will of God in Christ Jesus” for them, which makes me believe that he absolutely means this
  • Without going into any detail about it, Paul moves right along by telling his readers not to quench the Spirit, to heed the words of the prophets, by which I believe he means himself and the community’s leaders, as well as the ancient prophets, and any prophets who will arise in future – and yet, while the Thessalonians are to heed the prophets, they are also to test everything, holding on to what is good and keeping away from every form of evil
  • Their goal, their aim, their purpose for all of this is healing and wholeness, both for themselves and for the world – they will do all of this, they can do all of it, uniting them completely, body, spirit, and soul, because it is the work of God in them, in their community – they can do it because God is actually the one who does it in them and through them – it will happen because God will do this

II. God Will Do This

  • This is hard for us, too – none of this sits better with us than it might have with the Thessalonians – living at peace with one another is not our best event in life’s games – we are much better at demonizing those who are not like us, and, having demonized them, we move on to eliminating them – as a human race, we have become quite adept at this
  • As followers of Jesus, however, we model a better way, a more excellent way, as Paul will later say to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 12.31) – we model a way of peace, a way of respect for others, a way of non-retaliation, a way of doing good not only to the people we like, but to everyone
  • As followers of Jesus, we allow God to work God’s healing in us, and because God is making us whole, we can indeed rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and given thanks in all circumstances, because our very lives consist of these things
  • Think of it – what do rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks sound like to you? – to me, they sound like worship – and I believe that that is what the apostle is saying to the Thessalonians and to us, too – our lives are to be constant and complete expressions of worship – all that we do is to declare openly to all the world our rejoicing for God, our constant relationship with God, and our gratitude to God
  • It is not something that we can accomplish on our own, and, thank God, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God will do this – God will do this in us, through us, and with us
  • Through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God will heal us and make us whole – we cannot do it for ourselves – only God can do it – but it is also true that we can prevent it from happening – we can indeed quench the Spirit, like pouring water on a fire – we can ignore the Spirit’s urgings – we can tune out the voice of the Spirit as it comes to us – we cannot heal ourselves, we cannot live lives of worship on our own, but we can choose not to allow God to work in us and move us
  • God brings the healing and wholeness to us, partly, as individuals – more importantly, however, and more emphatically, God does this in community – as we grow together in the Way of Jesus, as we learn to live with one another in the fellowship of Jesus’ followers, God will do this
  • The adult Sunday School class is currently reading together a book called Grateful, and, as it happens, the chapter we shared today included a part of our epistle reading – and the author reminded me, reminded us all, that we really should not rejoice about everything, we should not be grateful for all circumstances – we all of us know some degree of suffering in our lives – we all know sorrow at some time or another – and while we might not be grateful or rejoice in such things, if we allow God to walk with us through them, they, too, can help us grow as human beings and as children of God – and we also grow as individuals and as community through even the difficult times
  • We might not rejoice and give thanks in every moment of our lives, every moment is nonetheless a gift from God – every moment is grace – and life is always a gift
  • The importance of community in being followers of Jesus also goes against the grain of our radical and insistent individualism in the modern world – for followers of Jesus, we cannot separate the community and our mission together from our identity – community is the heart of following Jesus

III. Conclusion

  • Advent is a season of preparation – we prepare our lives, our bodies, our spirits, our souls, every day for the coming of Jesus – we cannot do that preparation on our own – we can only do it fully in peaceful and peaceable community with other followers of Jesus – and we can only do it as God works in us and through us
  • We cannot do it alone – and we cannot do it on our own, either as individuals or community – but we can do it because God is at work in our bodies, spirits, and souls – the one who calls us is faithful – of this we can be sure – God will do this