Grace Presbyterian Church

A Warm and Welcoming Church

Sermon: Zeal for What?

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 7, 2021, Lent 3B (recorded)

John 2:13-22

Zeal For What?

The good folk who formulated the Revised Common Lectionary seem to have decided that the season of Lent, Year B, should start off with some Angry Jesus. After last week’s account of Jesus calling out Peter as Satan, today we get the story often labeled as Jesus’s “cleansing of the temple.” What’s more, we get it in the version found in the gospel of John, which seems in some way more intense and, well, frankly, violent than the accounts found in other gospels. 

After all, in John’s gospel this event happens very early in Jesus’s public life – you could even argue that this was his first public appearance. Yes, John had pointed him out in his baptizing activities, and a few disciples had come to him, and he had turned water into wine at that wedding in Cana, but this was out in front of the whole world, in about the most public place one could be in Jerusalem. For another thing, while the other gospel accounts of this story do speak of Jesus driving out the moneychangers and animal keepers and in some cases flipping their tables over, only John includes that business about Jesus fashioning a whip out of cords to drive the animals out. He’s not just picking up a whip that was lying around; he made a whip on the spot. To put it bluntly, something set Jesus off, and he acted on it.

Jesus’s words point pretty clearly to what set him off. Evoking words of the prophet Zechariah, Jesus directs particular ire at the sellers hard at work on the temple grounds with the cry “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” We find in the very last sentence of the book of Zechariah (14:21) the exultation that, on the day of the final victory of the Lord over Israel’s foes, that “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.” Jesus’s cry thus evokes the degree to which the state of the temple was far short of its intended ideal as the house of the Lord. 

Those words also help explain the reply of the temple authorities. Rather than launching into a full-fledged assault on Jesus for the disruption of temple business, their reply indicates that they remember Zechariah’s words as well; thus they ask for a “sign” for Jesus’s prerogative to do this. They know as well as Jesus does that this isn’t how the temple is supposed to be.

Other gospel accounts of this incident, besides placing it during Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem instead of the beginning of his public ministry, hint that there is double-dealing going on in this temple marketplace. Since particular animals “without blemish” were required for sacrifice in temple ritual, those who came to participate regularly brought their own sacrifices. However, those sacrifices might be judged insufficiently unblemished or “pure” to meet temple standards. How convenient, then, that this marketplace was right there to provide “pure” animals for sacrifice, at what was certainly a most reasonable fee, right? At minimum, the potential for abuse in such a system was clear, and in the other gospels such abuse is strongly hinted as a reason for Jesus’s anger. Here in John, though, it seems to be that it is simply the presence of the “traders,” in Zechariah’s words, that is the offense. 

Does it indeed serve the purpose of the temple for these traders to be present? Or does it become an obstruction? Does it hinder the people from being able to offer their sacrifices without being exploited or drained of their meager resources? Does it detract from the holiness of worship? These are all possible responses to what happens in these first verses of John’s account, reinforced by that quote from Psalm 69 the disciples recall at this point.

That phrase – “Zeal for your house will consume me” – sure seems to fit here. You can see why John reads this thought into the disciples’ collective thought; Jesus has seen the temple overrun by marketplace activity and he went all crazy on them. The remainder of the reading, though, should perhaps give us pause before rushing headlong into taking this as our particular lesson from the story.

We have already noted that rather than outright condemning Jesus for his act, the temple authorities ask Jesus about a sign. His answer, as much as those temple authorities might not get it, is what truly unlocks what Jesus is about at this moment, and it turns out that Jesus might not really be quite as concerned about the building as it seems.

Jesus answered the authorities, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” And let’s be honest, the reaction of those temple authorities is, on the surface, very logical. The temple has been “under construction” for forty-six years, as they observe (which suggests it still wasn’t quite complete), and this one man thinks he can build a whole new temple in three days? Dude must be crazy is a perfectly reasonable way to respond to such a statement, if you’re going to take that statement literally. 

However, those temple authorities didn’t get what Jesus was saying, and apparently Jesus’s own disciples didn’t either, at least until after Jesus had been resurrected years later. John is particularly fond of this little trick he pulls here – sticking in a little after-the-fact editorial comment that unveils the “real story” behind a moment like this one. In this case, the hidden nugget of wisdom John drops has everything to do with what the true “temple” really is, and what it really means to worship God in spirit and in truth. And it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with a building.

John’s little insert is pretty simple, actually: “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” 

On the surface, it might seem like a non sequitir – wait, what does his body have to do with the temple? – but following the logic of the statement we find ourselves with a whole lot to unpack. For John to epeak of the temple of Jesus’s body points way, way ahead in the story. John acknowledges this in his note that the disciples only really understood what Jesus was saying here after the resurrection. 

This becomes part of the gospel that sweeps through the infant church in the book of Acts. You can hear it in Stephen’s last great speech before his stoning, when he tells his listeners that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands” (which is itself an allusion to Isaiah 66:1). God is not bound up in human buildings at all, nor can the worship of God be so bound.

Hopefully, if we’ve learned anything in this past year, we’ve learned that. Indeed it was a year ago tomorrow that we held our last service in our sanctuary before the pandemic started shutting things down. We ended up finding ways to keep worship going, somehow, even if our cats became unintentional fixtures of the service for a few months. 

Not all churches seemed to learn this lesson. You might remember that there were a number of churches that insisted that they had to continue meeting together, no matter how much virus-spreading that caused. You could also see churches rushing back into in-person worship only to have to resort back to the remote version when people started contracting the virus as a result. At the risk of seeming to denigrate fellow Christians, what kind of God do they think they worship? Some kind of God who can be contained in a building? 

Or are they bound by all sorts of external concerns that in fact have very little to do with the worship of God Almighty? Are they so bound up with the idea that worship itself is bound up in a particular building (not unlike the temple in the biblical account)? 

If the center and focus and reason and locus of our worship is in anything other than the person of Jesus Christ, we’re doing it wrong. Even as at some point we do return to worship in the sanctuary, we had better be reminded that there are those who cannot gather with us or with any church in person even under the best of circumstances and remember that Jesus would not have us exclude them from the worship of the Lord because of that hindrance. 

The way we as the larger church think about worship needs to be different, now and forevermore. Anything that detracts from the source and object of our worship being Jesus and Jesus alone has to be put out of mind for good. If we can’t do that in the church writ large, we aren’t serving anybody particularly well – not God, nor Christ, nor ourselves nor the world around us. And it’s probably best to start that rethinking and reimagining now, before we are back together again all vaccinated and protected, and think we have permission to let everything go back to “normal.’ There are some “normal” that should never return, and the whole idea that the worship of God in Jesus through the Holy Spirit can or should be contained to a building needs to be one of those “normal” that never rears its head again.

For Jesus Christ, our only Temple, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #61, Your Law, O Lord, Is Perfect; #394, Christ is Made the Sure Foundation

Sermon: “You Keep Using That Word…”

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 28, 2021, Lent 2B (recorded)

Mark 8:27-38

“You Keep Using That Word…”

One of the favorite scenes in the cult-favorite movie The Princess Bride involves Inigo Montoya, a Spanish-born master swordsman in the employ of a low-rent thug named Vizzini, who has kidnapped the crown prince’s bride-to-be. Vizzini has a habit of exclaiming the word “inconceivable!” upon seeing something happen that he did not expect, typically involving their pursuer as they flee with their kidnapped princess-to-be. After one such exclamation from Vizzini (when their pursuer fails to fall to his death after the rope he is climbing is cut), Inigo responds with one of the most classic lines from the film: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

You won’t be surprised to learn that line has taken off, becoming among other things a particularly popular social media meme, frequently applied to the words of certain politicians and certain of their followers. One could well argue that it could stand to be used in the broader church these days, as certain corners of Christendom demonstrate repeatedly that they have utterly failed to understand much of what Jesus said at all in their public actions and words. And here in today’s reading we have a pretty good example of a time when it could have been used appropriately in scripture, if somebody had bothered to invent it by then. The word in question in this case appears in verse 29, and it sets off everything else in this account.

The day’s appointed lectionary reading actually started only in verse 31, when Jesus begins to teach his disciples about what was to come, just after Peter has had his big breakthrough moment about who Jesus is. But that breakthrough moment is so important to what happens in this passage it seemed best just to go ahead and read it. That might seem strange to say; the disconnect between the two seems rather sharp and severe. As it turns out, that is precisely Jesus’s point.

Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Caesarea Philippi, a major seat of Roman imperial influence in Palestine, when Jesus begins to ask the disciples what they’re hearing. This comes after an extended stretch of Jesus’s ministry consisting mostly of miracles and teaching. The disciples have seen not one, but two miraculous feedings in Mark’s account, and numerous healings and exorcisms to boot. The teaching episodes have intensified along the way as well. Not everything has gone smoothly; things got rough and nearly hazardous on their visit to Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth. Still, after the slam-bang pace of the first 7 ½ chapters of this book, things slow down just a bit as Jesus begins to solicit the disciples’ thoughts here.

The responses are not that surprising: John the baptizer, not that long executed by Herod; the great prophet Elijah, or possibly another of the prophets of old. Then Jesus turns the tables, asking the disciples their own opinion. Since Mark isn’t much for setting a scene, we don’t know if Peter blurted out his answer immediately or if there was a period of silence or verbal hemming and hawing first, but out the words come tumbling: “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus’s first reaction seems strange enough: the rhetorical equivalent of a great big “SSSSHHHHHH….”. But it’s what comes next that sets off the fireworks, and to grasp that we need to remind ourselves that the word “messiah” had acquired meanings in the popular imagination that went beyond what might have been found in the prophetic literature or in rabbinical teaching of the time. Such meanings were heavily influenced by the situation in which the people of Palestine found themselves, under the rule of Rome.

Let’s face it: most of us have never lived in a place occupied by a foreign power, so it’s not easy to relate to what Peter and the other disciples were experiencing in Roman-occupied Palestine. Still, such pressures can do bad things to theology. In this case, at least among some, the anger or hatred felt for their Roman occupiers began to bleed over into their anticipation of a promised deliverer. When the whole idea of “messiah” is all bound up with saving God’s people, saving the people of Israel, well, it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that driving out the Romans has to fit under that definition, right? For quite a few that did indeed become part of the hoped-for messiah’s job description, so to speak.

We don’t know for sure if Peter fell into that category, but it’s not a stretch to guess so, given the evident harshness of his response to Jesus’s teaching that came after the big happy moment he had just had. When Jesus – for the first time in Mark, but not the last – begins to teach that the Son of Man (his own word for his work, rather than “messiah”) would suffer and be rejected by the authorities and be killed, Peter’s response is described with a particular word (here translated as “rebuke”) that frankly rules out a response rooted in sadness or shock or fear. Peter – the same Peter who had just pronounced Jesus as “Messiah” – was now practically bullying Jesus into taking back that talk about suffering. Let’s not mince words; in Mark’s telling this is an angry and emotionally violent moment.

What Peter dished out, he got back tenfold.

Notice it isn’t just the verbal response – the words “Get behind me, Satan!” that get all the attention – that Jesus responds with here. To utter those words, Jesus turns to the disciples – that is, turns away from Peter as if to say if this is what you think I’m not even going to look at you. It doesn’t hurt to make sure the other disciples get the message as well.

Suffice to say that Peter, and the disciples as well, were finding out that the word “messiah” did not mean what they thought it meant.

In the next moment Jesus even turns his attention away from the disciples and calls the crowd that had accumulated around them for teaching. There, in verse 34, is the command that so many seem to fail to understand even (or maybe especially) today in the church:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

There is no room for appropriating the Messiah (or the Christos to use the Greek in most manuscripts of Mark) for our own personal or political or even religious desires. If we are about anything but what Jesus lays out here – taking up our cross and following, our lives being taken into the work and life and witness of Jesus and his gospel – we get the response that Peter had just gotten. And yeah, this applies to a lot of people who have been in your news headlines since, oh, say, around the first of the year, no matter how much they invoke Jesus’s name and cover themselves in “Christian” garb of whatever sort. When you’re trying to lead Jesus around where you want to go and to hurt whomever you want to hurt in Jesus’s name, well, “Get behind me, Satan!” is about the only response appropriate for you. Don’t think you’ll get away any easier than Peter did.

I’m not enough of a church historian to know, but I’d not be surprised if that tendency – to appropriate Jesus and the gospel to promote the church’s rather distinctly secular agendas – has been a problem as long as the church has been in existence. It does seem, sometimes, to be a particularly American trait. We are particularly prone to equate the adjectives “American” and “Christian.” That’s never been appropriate for any other nation, and it’s not appropriate for us either. If our first loyalty, our first impulse is to anything other than Christ, we’re doing it wrong. And yet we have an awful lot of folks around who seem quite willing to announce that Jesus has exactly the same agenda that they do, and somehow not grasp that it’s supposed to work the other way ‘round. 

So it’s simple as this: you can either follow Jesus where he leads, or you can tell Jesus where he’s supposed to go.

You want to be a disciple of Jesus? Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow. Simple, though of course not simple to do at all. 

You think “Messiah” means something different? That word may not mean what you think it means.

You think you know better what a Messiah is supposed to be than Jesus does here? You have a mind to tell Jesus what Jesus is supposed to do and not do? 

Well, we know what Jesus has to say to that.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #49, The God of Abraham Praise; #726, Will You Come and Follow Me (The Summons)

Sermon: Lent Again? Already?

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 21, 2021, Lent 1B (recorded)

Mark 1:9-15

Lent Again? Already?

It can’t really be Lent again already, can it? 

It’s not hard to feel that way right now. Lent already? It’s true that it falls pretty early this calendar year, but it’s also true that after nearly a year of Covid-induced shutdowns and isolation and mask-wearing and anti-mask-wearing jerkishness and over 400,000 deaths and complete and utter failures and corruption of leadership, not to mention the usual disasters over the course of a year like devastating hurricanes and now winter storms that have frozen several Southern states solid, it can feel like last year’s Lent never ended. How can it be starting again already?

Given the stress of this particular entry into Lent, it might be a good thing that we are in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary, which means that the gospel readings for this year, for the most part, come from the gospel of Mark. That means that for this first Sunday of Lent, which features those scriptures dealing with the temptation of Jesus, we get Mark’s account of that event which, as you can see, is dramatically different from the accounts in Matthew and Luke. And that might be a very good thing in this particular moment.

Matthew takes eleven verses to tell this story, including the account of the three specific temptations to which Jesus was subjected. Luke also includes those three specific temptations (though in a slightly different order), taking thirteen verses to tell the story. Our man Mark, on the other hand, tells it all in two verses, and doesn’t include those bits about turning stones to bread or jumping off the Temple or offering up worship to the unworthy tempter. No, what we get from Mark is this: 

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

As the social-media joke goes, that’s it. That’s the tweet. That is, in Mark’s telling, the whole story.

What in the world are we possibly supposed to learn from this, and how does this make Lent any more bearable?

One point to note is that the context in which this account happens makes a striking difference. We heard the account of Jesus’s baptism six weeks ago; here, having it follow directly and even abruptly into the wilderness story is particularly jarring. Jesus has just come up from the waters of the Jordan, the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove and the voice calling him God’s beloved, when all in an instant – and this is Mark’s description here, not mine – “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness”. Jesus didn’t ask for this. 

On the other end of the story, when Jesus comes out of the wilderness, things haved changed, John his baptizer has been arrested, and Jesus returns to his home region. He was earlier described as coming from Nazareth in Galilee, what one scholar described as a “third-rate village in a second-rate province.” Jesus doesn’t just go home to that second-rate province, though; he goes with a mission and a message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Because of the vagaries of Greek verb tenses, the precise rendering of the first half of that sermon can be a little challenging to translate. One might even be best advised to go full vernacular and put a southern spin on it: “It’s time, y’all! Here comes the kingdom of God!” At the minimum that might give us a more definite sense of the urgency of thie message, or for that matter the urgency of pretty much everything about the gospel of Mark and its account of Christ’s words and deeds. (Speaking of which, these are the first words we hear from Jesus in this gospel.) 

The two-verse narrative itself does include some tantalizing details of its own. It makes clear that Jesus is being tempted or “tested,” also a good translation of the Greek, and a slightly different thing than being tempted. Temptation, after all, purports to encourage the temptee to choose some desirable thing – bread, or ultimate power, say – over fidelity to God. Testing, on the other hand, is just that; being hard-pressed, challenged, possibly hurt, all to discover what our capacity to answer or finish or endure is. That puts a different spin on what Jesus was facing out in the wilderness, and maybe, if we look at it right, it changes what Lent is or can be for us. We aren’t called to “overcome,” or “triumph” over all this; just endure. Just finish. Remember Paul’s words about how he fought the good fight, completed the race, kept the faith? He never claimed to have won the fight or the race; he simply endured and finished. Maybe that’s a Lenten discipline all its own.

There’s also mentioned the presence of angels, ministering to Jesus all through the forty-day testing, apparently. Whereas other accounts suggests that angels came to Jesus after it was all over, Mark tells us they were there the whole time. Maybe that’s another Lenten lesson for us; no matter how long or how tough or how much of a slog it all becomes, we are not left on our own, cut off from God’s care. That ministering presence is still with us, if we just look and pay attention and don’t get caught up in our own myopic lack of understanding.

Oh, yes, there’s also the bit about the “wild beasts.” Jesus was “with” them, Mark says – not that they were menacing or threatening Jesus; nothing like that is suggested. Simply, “he was with the wild beasts.” Who knows, maybe if we quit abusing and exploiting and destroying our fellow members of creation out of raging greed and reckless indifference, maybe we could be with God’s creation too, with all the comfort and care it has to offer. 

But maybe the thorniest text clue is that very first statement – not that Jesus went into the wilderness, but again that “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Again, Jesus didn’t ask for this. It’s not as if he stood there dripping in the water thinking “ok, now I go off into the wilderness and fast for a while…”; no, the Spirit – God, in short – forced Jesus into the wilderness. It was something Jesus had to face, evidently, or else why doe God do this?

There is that line in the old spiritual “Jesus walked this lonesome valley,” the one that follows up that first verse with the point-blank statement “you must go and stand your trial.” It’s appropriate to quibble with the next line, “you must stand it by yourself” – Jesus didn’t have to do that, as we’ve already seen. But there may be something to that first line, and maybe that’s the hardest lesson of Lent. Our life, no matter how much some blasphemous preachers would tell you otherwise, will not be all sweetness and light. Even those of the most penetrating and unshakeable faith will face testing; the unexpected cancer diagnosis, the lost job, the marriage gone to pieces out of nowhere, the child dead all out of time. Our own understanding of faith or God or our calling or our vocation may be tested, hard.

And sometimes that testing may show us that things do indeed need to change. We may need to move on to a new job or vocation. Our life circumstances may need to change. We have already seen members of our own congregation who learned through this extended time of testing in the pandemic that continuing to live on their own was no longer a good option, and they have already moved or are moving to live closer to adult children who can support and care for them. Sometimes testing is meant to provoke a change.

And that may be true for the whole church, maybe even especially the white Protestant portion of the church, in this extended time of testing. We’ve learned how little we’ve truly lived up to God’s call to live as children of God with all of God’s children, instead of just staying cozy with those who look like us and think like us and all that. We’ve been forced to see just how much our relative privilege or power has been built on oppression and suppression and exploitation and outright cruelty towards those not born white. Look at Texas right now and see the latest example of how poorly we have stewarded God’s creation, and how yet again “the least of these” are made to suffer the most, while the privileged escape to Cancun. 

Yes, the church is being tested. Some parts of that church, including some of your neighbors, will gladly ignore that testing and continue to exult in the privilege and power that protects and elevates them, no matter who suffers. We had better not be that church, folks. To survive and even thrive on the stoking of hatred and exploiting and abusing of others and destroying of God’s world is blasphemy, pure and simple, and leaves us on the wrong side of that message Jesus proclaimed after coming out of the wilderness. “It’s time, y’all. Here comes the kingdom of God!” And a church that persists in its own comfort and safety is going to find itself on the wrong side of that kingdom. This is where that word “repent” comes in.

So perhaps this past year really has been an extended Lent, and that date on the liturgical calendar last Wednesday is not really changing much about our spiritual circumstance. We have been and are continuing to be tested. But learn from this miniscule story in Mark; we are not left alone in this testing, even in isolation at home. We have a whole creation to be with as well. The testing may well show us it’s time to change directions, as discomfiting as that is. But no matter how the testing goes, we have a good piece of news to proclaim on the other side of it. As much as we don’t like the word “repent,” because that really does mean turning around and not doing that anymore, it is good news that turning around is even possible. 

It’s time, y’all. Here comes the kingdom of God!

Are we paying attention? Are we ready to move?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #165, The Glory of These Forty Days; #166, Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days

No, these probably weren’t the “wild beasts” Jesus was with in the wilderness…

Sermon: The Praise of God

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 7, 2021, Epiphany 5B (recorded)

Psalm 147:1-11

The Praise of God

“Praise the Lord!”

More than one commentator on the Psalms has observed that when preaching from the Psalms, particularly one like Psalm 147 or its surrounding songs at the end of this great trove of song that all start with that word “hallelu-ja”, one might be best served by quoting this opening exaltation and stepping down. I might just as well move on to my usual concluding “Thanks be to God. Amen” and move on to the Affirmation of Faith. There’s really not much way to top that. 

I’m pretty sure that’s not what I’m getting paid for, however, and for that matter the psalmist doesn’t stop there either, but perhaps I can be as economical as possible with my words, the better to keep the praise of God as uncluttered and clear as possible.

In continuing, the psalmist, almost like a film director, moves seamlessly between tightly focused, intimate and particular scenes of God and God’s provision for creation and vast sweeping vistas that, for all their vastness, only hint at the scope of God’s power and majesty. The same God who “gathers up the outcasts” and “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” in one scene then “determines the number of the stars” and “gives to all of them their names” (2-4); the God who “covers the earth with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills” then turns and “gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry.” We humans tend to get caught up in one or the other – the cosmic or the immediate; the psalmist reminds us to praise God for both.

So “Praise the Lord” in all things great and small, right? Well, there might be more to say, based on the context in which this text first appeared. 

While we tend to think of the book of Psalms in general as being of the time of King David, and while many of the individual psalms do originate in or around that era, not all of them do; some come from perhaps a little earler, and some from later – even quite a bit later. This particular psalm, with a particular style and certain seeming references to language found in later parts of the book of Isaiah, seems to date from a period after the exile of the people of Judah in Babylon and their return under the direction of the Persian ruler Cyrus. It is a return, but not necessarily all that triumphant. Christine Roy Yoder of Columbia Theological Seminary describes the likely audience for the psalm in such a scenario thusly: “…the psalmist heralds the sovereignty of God for a ragtag and conflicted community composed of returnees, those who had been left behind to till and keep the land…and others, who were struggling in the aftermath of the exile to rebuild as a small colony on the fringe of the new world empire, that of the Persians.” 

You can almost imagine the returned exiles sneering at the rough, uncultured bumpkins who had remained, while those who had remained in Judah grumbled about the JINOs (Judeans in Name Only) who came barging in as if they owned the place. At any rate it is in the midst of this uncertain and fractious setting that the psalmist sings out the exhortation to “Praise the Lord” in the cosmic and the personal, in all things great and small. Perhaps hearing it from that perspective – one that might not be as different from our own as we’d wish – might give us a new perspective on just what kind of startling, upending, even radical call this is that is embedded in what seems a simple psalm of praise.

I was a little too young to grasp what was going on when the first pictures of our planet to be taken from space began to appear, as NASA and Apollo astronauts began to produce views of Earth that had never before been possible. The now-famous “Earthrise” image and others sent back from various Apollo missions around or to the moon put our planet in a perspective simply not imaginable before; from vast, unknowable horizons viewed by the naked human eye to a blue dot set in space. 

Later years have brought us a different alteration of perspective: with the aid of new technologies and scientific advancements, we can see smaller and smaller living organisms – microscopic bacteria, for example, that could easily nestle together one hundred fifty or so in a single E.coli cell. [Note: image below]

Obviously the psalmist would have had no clue about either such thing, nor the ability to visualize the earth from space or to view microscopic bacteria. And yet, the vision of the psalm extends all the way through these extremes and even beyond. Our exhortation to “Praise the Lord” encompasses both the vastness of the universe, and our planet’s small place in it, and the tiniest of living organisms, to which we are universes, smaller by magnitudes than our human eyes can see or our human minds can conceive. 

There is one more part of this psalm that demands consideration. To put it in more modern terms: God does not relish superpowers. 

It is not in our great accomplishments that God glories. God isn’t about delighting in the speed of the Kentucky Derby winner or Olympic gold-medalist sprinter, or the strength of the greatest weightlifter or most powerful wrestler. Since there’s apparently some football game tonight, we’ll also put it this way: God does not delight in Patrick Mahomes’s ability to scramble away from would-be tacklers, or Tom Brady’s ability to find receivers in tight corners.

No: God delights, as verse 11 says, “in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” Remembering that this usage of “fear” is not about our modern “being afraid” condition, we see that this psalm-long exhortation to “Praise the Lord” touches upon this delight of God in those who pay their honor or adoration or respect towards God, those who know their own strength or speed or cunning or reason are no match for the vastness or the infinitesimal scope of God’s care for creation. God, you see, has taken care of the great and the small. Here’s a spot to remember the verse from Psalm 62, a few weeks ago: “For God alone my soul waits in silence (or “silently”); for my hope is from him.” This is, in short, what gives God joy.

In the vastness and unimaginable scope of God’s creation, “Praise the Lord.” In the infinitesimal inner reaches of God’s creation, “Praise the Lord.” In moments of triumph, glory, success, fame, or exaltation, “Praise the Lord.” In moments of struggle, division, conflict, or loss, “Praise the Lord.” In all things, “Praise the Lord.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #657, Sing to God With Joy and Gladness; #547, Go, My Children, With My Blessing

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Sermon: The Silence and the Quiet

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 24, 2021, Epiphany 3B (recorded)

Psalm 62

The Silence and the Quiet

While I guess I sing more than most pastors, I have not really been a “singer” since my days in higher education – as a student, not as a professor. My last great public performance as such a singer was in the spring of 1988, my senior recital at the small college in south Georgia where I would get my Bachelor of Music degree. 

One moment from that recital has stayed with me across the more than three decades since then. I was singing a set of songs from a cycle of songs (or Lieder, to use the proper German term) by the nineteenth-century composer Franz Schubert. That Lied was in a minor key, with a slower tempo and a piano accompaniment mostly consisting of repeated chords. The middle of the song became more active, slightly faster, and definitely louder, but the Lied returned to its slower and stiller character at the end. My instructions for that were not to relax after the last note, but to hold my position and gaze, frankly, until someone started applauding.

I did a pretty good job with it overall, and at the end I managed to do just that – hold my gaze as if off into some unknowable distance, with my arms slightly extended forward as if reaching for something unseen (it fit with the text to do so). And I held it, and the most shocking thing possible happened: people didn’t immediately clap. They held their applause, not speaking or making any noise, seemingly not even breathing. I couldn’t tell you how long that moment lasted, but it seemed to be an eternal instant. At last the applause finally started, slowly but building into a steady round from the maybe-thirty people present. 

Let me tell you, that was better than any standing ovation ever could be.

I often flash back to that experience when the subject of silence comes along. Silence is an important part of music, after all, and that creative tension has touched off a lot of notable quotes on the subject, such as: 

  • “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence in between.” – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 
  • Very similarly, “Music is the silence between the notes.” – Claude Debussy 
  • “A note of music gains significance from the silence on either side.” – Anne Morrow Lindbergh
  • “In music, silence is more important than sound.” – Miles Davis
  • “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and which cannot remain silent.” – Victor Hugo

You get the idea, and that’s a small sample of the possible quotes. 

Silence shows up plenty in scripture as well, though we often plow through it with our words. It thus jumps out as particularly interesting that today’s psalm invokes silence twice in its first five verses, almost repeating the same verse in our NRSV translation in verses 1 and 5. Naturally, most studies and commentaries on this psalm focus on the other ideas that follow – God as our rock and salvation, our deliverance and our honor, our only one we can trust. All of that is good. But I confess I get hung up on the silence, because for the most part we are so bad at it. 

The novelist and Presbyterian pastor (and most frequently quoted non-scripture source in my sermons, I am quite sure) Frederick Buechner has quite a few things to say about silence as well. One of those quotes captures the author’s experience of a moment, in a quite different setting than my old recital, with the power of silence in response to a moment that defies words:

I REMEMBER ONCE going to see the movie Gandhi when it first came out. . . . We were the usual kind of noisy, restless Saturday night crowd as we sat there waiting for the lights to dim with our popcorn and soda pop, girl friends and boy friends, legs draped over the backs of the empty seats in front of us. But by the time the movie came to a close with the flames of Gandhi’s funeral pyre filling the entire wide screen, there was not a sound or a movement in that whole theater, and we filed out of there—teenagers and senior citizens, blacks and whites, swingers and squares—in as deep and telling a silence as I have ever been part of. 

There are moments like these that show us the triviality of our applause, the futility of our words attempting to describe or control what we have just seen, to bring it down to size and keep it from troubling our minds or souls. Whether a powerful scene in a movie or moment of music, a newborn child or an unspeakable tragedy (I remember a lot of stunned silence in the wake of the Challenger disaster, also in my college days): every now and then our circumstance demands our silence. 

There is something interesting about those two verses, 1 and 5, at the beginning of this psalm. To all appearances, to those of us reading the NRSV, the verses are almost exactly the same, with verse 1 claiming that “from him [God] comes my salvation,” and verse 5 invoking “hope” instead of salvation. They are different, and they are both truly found or justified only in God, as we realize when we know our own selves truthfully. 

But here the NRSV, in keeping up the poetry, does us a disservice in translation. Verse 1 is the more accurately rendered of the two, with its description of the psalmist’s soul waiting “in silence.” One may imagine a great sanctuary empty, silent, with palpable anticipation – that would be a reasonable metaphor to represent that verse. 

Verse 5, however, is worded slightly differently in the Hebrew. The force of that silence is different; while “in silence” is a technically correct rendering, the silence in question is not in the place or condition of waiting around the psalmist, but in the psalmist himself (or herself). We might get the idea more clearly by rendering the verse “for God alone my soul waits silently.” The mental picture above is not necessarily changed, but the focus is different, on the one in the great sanctuary keeping silence rather than on the silence of the holy place itself.

Frederick Buechner had something to say about this too:

WHAT DEADENS US most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter including the chatter of spoken prayer. If we choose to seek the silence of the holy place, or to open ourselves to its seeking, I think there is no surer way than by keeping silent.  

That is the hard part, isn’t it? We are terribly prone to fill up silence with words. Are we terrified of what we might learn in that silence? The author and critic James Baldwin famously observed, for example: 

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

Is this what possesses those we have seen in recent weeks, giving themselves over to loudly proclaimed hatreds and threats? Do they fear the possibility of having to confront a core of unbearable pain and emptiness within? And what about us, the folks who don’t go out storming public buildings but nonetheless fill up our lives with what can only be called chatter? What do we fear from the silence, particularly what Buechner called the “silence of the holy place?” And we certainly don’t model silence in our worship, particularly not in these times in the virtual space where silence gets the dreaded label “dead air”? 

Even in so mundane an activity as watching television we can’t bear anything in between. The gaps between parts of the program are filled with commercials even noisier than the shows. And how many of you, even if you have a mute button on your remote control, cannot abide those few moments of silence waiting out those muted commercials, but instead flip to another program to fill the gap? 

We as a people abhor silence, and that is to our detriment. Buechner again points us to the peril of avoiding silence, or what he also calls here “quiet”: 

An empty room is silent. A room where people are not speaking or moving is quiet. Silence is a given, quiet a gift. Silence is the absence of sound and quiet the stilling of sound. Silence can’t be anything but silent. Quiet chooses to be silent. It holds its breath to listen. It waits and is still.”In returning and rest you shall be saved,” says God through the prophet Isaiah, “in quietness and confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). They are all parts of each other. We return to our deep strength and to the confidence that lies beneath all our misgiving. The quiet there, the rest, is beyond the reach of the world to disturb. It is how being saved sounds.

Quiet is a gift.” We surely do not act like this in our lives or in our world. But how can we truly receive the salvation, or the hope, or the deliverance the psalmist claims? How can we be sheltered in the fortress or the rock of God’s protection and care, if we cannot bear the silence of that holy place, or bear to keep quiet long enough to know that presence? Particularly in the tumultuous time in which we live, the willingness to claim silence and keep quiet, to listen for God every now and then instead of always talking at God or shouting about God or cursing others in the name of God (or even, as much as I hate to think it, singing to or about God), we are indeed depriving ourselves of that rest of which Buechner speaks, of the strength that Isaiah promises, of the fortress and rock and deliverance to which the psalmist would urge us. 

For God alone my soul waits in silence.

For God alone my soul waits, silently.

From God comes my salvation.

My hope is in him.

For the silence of the holy place, and the strength in that silence and quiet, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #832, Here on Jesus Christ I Will Stand; #—, For God Alone My Soul Does Wait

Sermon: The One Who Knows

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 17, 2021, Epiphany 2B

Psalm 139; 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51

The One Who Knows

When I was a young lad in Sunday school, one particular part of our learning somehow involved learning a series of particular attributes of God. In this case the attributes were summed up in three words, each of which began with the prefix “omni-,” which of course roughly translates as “all-.” The first was “omnipotent,” or all-powerful. I was a geeky enough child that it was fairly easy to figure out, because I somewhat knew the word “potent.” The next was “omnipresent,” a fancy way of saying God was everywhere and even easier to figure out.

The third word required a little more work to understand and was therefore (to me at least) the most fascinating of the bunch. God is, by this description, “omniscient.” I had to work a little harder for this one, as my teacher kept conflating the ideas that God is “all-knowing” (which would be the approximate translation of the world) and “all-seeing,” which to my still-developing mind was a different, if related, thing. Even so it’s clear enough that (especially speaking of God) the two things – knowing and seeing – do go together quite well.

Something along these lines is clearly what is going on in the psalmist’s mind in Psalm 139; a God who knows all and sees all, with all that knowing and seeing trained specifically on the psalmist. 

It’s not hard to see how this psalm was appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary for this day, given the readings from Hebrew scripture and from the gospel of John already in place. The passage from 1 Samuel tells of God’s calling of the boy by that name, who had been dedicated to the Lord from birth and worked and lived in the Temple in service to the priest, at this time a corrupt old man named Eli. It took a few tries to get through Samuel’s youthful ignorance and Eli’s absence from God, but at long last Eli remembered his calling and taught Samuel what to do the next time the Lord spoke.

In the gospel reading, the “all-seeing” and “all-knowing” nature of God in Jesus is made even more explicit, as the recalcitrant Nathaniel is gobsmacked to learn that Jesus saw him under a fig tree before Philip had even come to tell him (Nathaniel) about Jesus. This extracts a great confession from Nathaniel about this Jesus he was just meeting, to which Jesus replied in essence that if you thought that was big, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Indeed the idea of God (again, in Jesus) as all-knowing and all-seeing is made explicit here, and even suggested as kind of a “no big deal” attribute – there are far more arresting and magnificent things yet to be seen. 

For the psalmist, though, things are more personal. That is clear from the very first verse: “you have searched me and known me,” the psalmist sings. It is a staggering thought, that one’s very words and thoughts are known to God even before they are known to the psalmist. The psalmist admits as much in verse 6: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.”

It is at this point that I must confess that I regret not having Russel Rumenik read the intervening verses here as part of the psalm reading. The developers of the Revised Common Lectionary had their reasons for keeping them out, I am sure, but I have come to believe that we can miss the fullness of this psalm if we don’t take in verses 7-12, if we don’t acknowledge that there are times when such knowledge, knowledge of just how completely God knows and sees us, can seem something less than “wonderful”:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

This begins, at least, to sound a little more ominous. There is nowhere to go, the psalmist muses, where God is not. Even Sheol (a Hebraic concept of the underworld, not to be confused with the later concept of Hell) offers no escape from the Lord, in the psalmist’s understanding. There is even no darkness from which one can be hidden from God, if “night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light” to the Lord. 

Let this sink in.

Nothing about us is hidden from the Lord. Nothing

That’s all fine and good when we are, say, gathered like this, even in this virtual space, for scripture and proclamation and prayer and song. We’re good with showing this to God. We feel all righteous and proper and churchy and we want to make sure God sees us like this. 

But that doesn’t apply to our whole lives, not as long as we’re human beings.

There are times when our thoughts are more like those expressed by the psalmist towards the end of the psalm, the other part left out of the lectionary:

O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me – those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil.

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?

I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.

No, no human being is immune to the violence of thought and attitude captured here in this, in which the psalmist is in the position of becoming what he says he hates. No wonder the psalm ends with words of chastised confession and petition:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

It is a challenging spot to be in. 

Even for those who would cloak their evil actions or desires in God-talk – like the man charged in a plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, who claimed (according to court testimony Wednesday) that God had given him permission to kill[1] – cannot hide their corruption and hatred from God. God isn’t fooled by fervent-sounding prayers and churchy-sounding songs and t-shirts full of “God” this and “Jesus” that. God sees the darkness and knows it.

But even those of us who aren’t plotting an attack on one Capitol or another can’t claim to be without those darknesses and petty sins we would hide from God. We can’t, not from the all-seeing and all-knowing God. Politicians who hide their true motives behind calls for “unity” and “healing” cannot hide their sinfulness from God. Those who indulge in hatred disguised as fear cannot hide their sinfulness from God. None of us can hide our sinfulness from God, no matter how great or small by comparison to the sins of another.

This is a tremendous challenge in clouded and divisive times such as these. It is still imperative that we do justice, as Micah and Amos and numerous other prophets (not to mention, oh, Jesus) demand throughout scripture. That call cannot be overruled by anything else in scripture. We are not, however, free to “go dark” ourselves in pursuit of those things necessary to bring forth justice. We are not free to be ungodly in the name of God. We are not free to be ungodly even when opposed to those being ungodly in the name of God. God knows and God sees.

Indeed, we truly have no recourse but to plead with the psalmist, for God to “see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” We cannot claim to be unblemished in God’s eyes; God sees and God knows.

For the God who has searched us and known us, from whose presence we cannot flee, who made us fearfully and wonderfully, and who leads us in the way everlasting; Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #686, God of Our Life; #634, To God Be the Glory

[1] “Man charged in alleged plot to kidnap Michigan governor says God gave him permission to kill,” Los Angeles Times (accessed 1/14/21).

Sermon: The Waters

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 10, 2021, Epiphany 1B (Baptism of the Lord)

Psalm 29; Mark 1:4-11

The Waters

(version 2.0)

Psalm 23, the most famous psalm ever, contains a brief phrase which turns out to be illuminating. It’s early in the psalm; verse 2 declares “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters…” 

It turns out that in ancient or biblical times, the people of Israel weren’t terribly fond of the water. While ancient peoples such as the Phoenicians proved to be adroit at travel across the seas, the Israelites…didn’t. Aside from the fisherfolk like several of Jesus’s disciples, going out on the water, whether the grand Mediterranean Sea or the smaller inland “Sea” of Galilee, wasn’t a preferred activity or vocation.

It’s hard to argue this was unjustified, to be sure. The sea was a dangerous place. It was easy to die out there, and many sailors lost their lives. (See another psalm reference, Psalm 107:22-32, for a particularly vivid description of the hazards of the deep.) So Psalm 23’s reference to “still waters” is thus revealed as a sign of the utter safety and peacefulness of God’s provision and care for the sheep in that psalm.

The author of Psalm 29 takes a different view of the waters – no safety here. Indeed the psalmist appears to take the kind of storms that would blow in from the Mediterranean across the northern reaches of Palestine, slamming into Lebanon and crossing into Syria, and ratcheting them up, oh, a thousand times or so. (Of course we n Florida are familiar with how the waters that surround us can spin up or intensify storms that then rumble across the Peninsula or into the Panhandle.)  The rhetorical coup de grace of the psalm is to place God at the head of the storm.

Verses 3-9 of this psalm are a storm scene, the likes of which would trigger bad flashbacks for many storm victims. The voice of God thunders; the voice of God breaks the mightiest trees of the forest, the cedars of Lebanon and ravages the mountainous regions; the voice of God flashes lightning and triggers fire and sets the oaks to whirling as if caught up in a tornado, shaking the wilderness. All of this time, at the beginning and the end of this psalm, we are reminded that “the voice of the Lord is over the waters” (v. 3) and that “the Lord sits enthroned above the flood” (v. 10). The storm is the dynamic rendering of the voice of God, and (in the psalm at least) all of those in the temple cry “Glory!

Here’s where I come to doubt the psalmist. 

I’m not always so certain that people cry “Glory!” at such a sight, not all of them anyway.

I know darn well, from observation, that people cry, “I want that power.

We saw that this week, those who want that power. They attacked the Capitol building on Wednesday. People “to whom,” in the words of Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri, “being more real than others is so important” peformed an act of terrorism and violence that would have gotten any other class of people in this country shot on the spot, without even a fraction of a second’s hesitation.

They want that power, to exalt themselves and to destroy others. 

And they’ll even claim God’s blessing to do it, carrying Bibles and crosses and singing churchy songs and prayers while rioting and breaking things. Mind you, this is a God who bears much more of a resemblance to John Wayne, or maybe Bravehart William Wallace, than to what most Christians would think of God resembling. Certainly not the gray-bearded old God of cartoons and comic strips, or the shining, beneficent light of paintings. 

And most emphatically not the God-with-us who comes to the Jordan in today’s reading from Mark’s gospel.

Let’s be clear: Jesus does not need to be baptized. Why does a sinless person need to be baptized for repentace and forgiveness of sin? Why does Jesus need to be baptized by John, who has already foreseen him as “the one who is more powerful than I,” and the one who John is “not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals”? 

Water is powerful. History records river baptisms – with their symbolism of dying in Christ – tragically ending in more literal death, as baptizer or baptized or both are swept away by the mighty, uncontrolled waters. Even modern-day baptisms can end that way; a quick Google search reveals deaths during baptism due to drowning, heart attack, and in one case a pastor being struck by lightning. The Jordan River doesn’t necessarily have a lot of raging rapids, but it could still take you under. 

And yet Jesus (Emmanuel, God-with-us, remember) submitted to this risky and kinda needless exercise. Jesus stepped into the Jordan and submitted to the baptism for the forgiveness of sins of which he had none, at the hands of one not worthy to untie his sandals. The possessor of all that power as described in the psalm submitted, and was baptized.

Coming up from those waters, Jesus (and only Jesus, as Mark describes it) saw just a flash of those mighty powers – the heavens “torn apart” – and instead of breaking the cedars and ravaging the mountains, the heavenly voice announcing Jesus as “my Son, the Beloved” and saying to Jesus “with you I am well pleased.

If you’re going to call yourself a follower of Christ, this is your response to the temptation of power. To grab and terrorize and threaten and wreck and break, all because you did not get your way, cannot be reconciled with Christ. Period.

The temptation to indulge in the power of self-importance and domination of others runs rampant these days. Do not be deceived. No matter how many crosses are raised, no matter how many prayers are prayed or praise and worship songs are sung, that grasping of “power” or “strength” or “might” is not of Christ, and pales pathetically in the face of the God who sits enthroned above the flood, who breaks the cedars and causes the oaks to whirl and makes the mountains skip like young cattle or oxen. The One who submits to the lot of humanity in baptism is not the one who demeans or destroys some so that others can live in gratuitous privilege to exploit and abuse and destroy. 

The power of the waters of baptism is the power of God, and God alone. To submit to these waters, for once and for always, is the true fellowship of Christ, the powerful One who submitted to weakness for the sake of all of us. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #259, The God of Heaven; #480, Take Me to the Water

Sermon: Waiting Rewarded

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 27, 2020, Christmas 1B

Luke 2:22-40

Waiting Rewarded

Last week’s scriptures offered up a couple of examples, on that last Sunday of Advent, of two important figures – the king David and the priest Zechariah – who, in their own ways, failed to get it right when it came to waiting for the Lord. Their shortfalls – David trying to rush ahead into a thing God had not called him to do, Zechariah dismissing even the possibility of what God told him through Gabriel would happen – left only Mary, the young girl from the sticks in a more modern vernacular, as the example of waiting and being ready to respond with acceptance and affirmation to God’s wild and crazy plans for her.

Fortunately for those of us in the AARP crowd, today’s lesson from the gospel of Luke offers a pair of better examples of those who wait upon the Lord and are ready and able to do their part and play their role when their awaited appears, no matter how big a scene they cause.

The scene that plays out in this latter half of Luke 2, after all of the dramatic events of the Nativity, has the feel of a mid-credits or post-credits scene in some Hollywood blockbuster, particularly in superhero movies and other serialized films or television shows. The scene doesn’t necessarily alter the basic story, but it does suggest there might be new directions for the characters or new plot twists ahead, setting up the next movie or episode in the series. In this case, the words and actions of Simeon and Anna point towards, ultimately, the opposite end of Jesus’s earthly life, as well as much of what Jesus was to face over the course of his earthly ministry.

Mary and Joseph are doing what they are supposed to do according to Jewish law. It’s possible that Luke might be mixing up a couple of different rituals meant to be performed on a child, particularly a first-born son. Nonetheless, they are at the Temple to fulfill this law and custom, and frankly it should have been a fairly boring affair. It is worth noting that the offering that the parents brought to be sacrificed for the event, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” tells us something about the couple; that provision was in the law as an option for those who were not able to afford the preferred offering for the occasion, a young lamb. Jesus was not born into wealth, if we needed any reminder. 

The first disruption of the routine came from Simeon, described as “a devout man” who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” We aren’t given a specific indication of how long he had been waiting for the fulfillment of this promise, with the Spirit “resting on him” as in verse 25,, but we are led to suppose it has been many years. The Spirit had prompted Simeon to come into the temple, and he didn’t wait upon seeing Joseph and Mary with the child Jesus. While today it would be a major incident if a stranger took a child right out of the arms of his mother, here Simeon doesn’t bolt and run with the baby; instead, he sings out an exclamation to God. You might recognize this text; it is commonly used at the conclusion of a Service of Witness to the Resurrection in PC(USA) churches and of memorial services in other denominations as well. You can see why. We have no idea what happens to Simeon after this moment, but it is not hard to imagine that if he died soon after this, he did so about as contentedly as possible. To be able to say, after all of the waiting, that “my eyes have seen your salvation” is a profound and overwhelming thing, and Simeon sings it out for all to hear and rejoice.

But Simeon doesn’t stop there. After his acclamation to God, he has things to say to the parents, and these words are a little less cheering. That first statement to Mary and Joseph catches the ear and eye with its seeming backwardness, doesn’t it? We tend to speak of the “rise and fall,” whether it be of the Roman Empire, the Third Reich, Civilizations or any number of other things. Here, though, Simeon invokes the reverse: “this child is destined to be the falling and rising of many in Israel…” and also “a sign that will be opposed so that the thoughts of many will be revealed.” At the minimum, Jesus was to be a turning point. His own earthly life would indeed play out as falling (in his execution at the hands of Rome) and his rising (in resurrection), and his ministry became more and more opposed over the course of his three years in public life. Most of his immediate followers would experience a similar trajectory as well. As if that weren’t enough, his final words to Mary leave no doubt that this life would know sorrow – “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Most likely Mary had no time to recover from those words before the second interruption arrived, in the form of a prophet named Anna. We are told that she was “of a great age,” and had lived many years beyond the death of her husband, and now waited and worshiped in the temple “night and day” (another reversal) awaiting … it isn’t exactly stated what. Simeon had barely spoken his last words before Anna took up her exclamation. 

Their exclamations are presented differently. While both praise God, Simeon speaks to the parents (mostly Mary), while Anna begins to bear witness to all the others in the temple, and indeed to “all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” It’s a needful call and one that we future generations after Anna are encouraged to emulate. One might even be tempted to call Anna the first evangelist, even more than the women at the empty tomb.

This pattern reminds me of one of the elements of a pastor’s ordination. It’s been almost six years, so I don’t expect you to remember two of the climactic parts of an ordination service: the charge to the candidate and the charge to the congregation. One addresses the man or woman who is taking up not only a new job but a new vocation, indeed even a new life; the other speaks to the congregation about their opportunities and responsibilities in welcoming this new minister into their church. In this case Simeon addresses Jesus’s parents about what they are facing, and Anna is speaking to a congregation that doesn’t even know it’s a congregation, much less that they have any interest in this child being brought to the temple by these Galileans, one out of who knows how many children brought to the temple for this purpose in any given week. To be blunt, most passers-by probably wondered what this old woman was going on about. 

The last verses give us only the tiniest of peeks into the childhood of Jesus. Luke will in the last portion of this chapter give us the only reliable story we have from Jesus’s pre-adult years, another story that takes place in the temple when Jesus is twelve. But for now we are left with the parents returning home with their child, minds and hearts overwhelmed by what they have heard from these two strangers, masters of the spiritual practice of waiting and being ready. 

For the time of waiting, and for the Simeons and Annas who show us how, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #119, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; #148, Mary and Joseh Came to the Temple (sung to tune BUNESSAN); #134, Joy to the World

Sermon: Waiting Until the Coming of the Lord

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 20, 2020, Advent 4B (recorded)

2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 16;  Luke 1:5-38

Waiting Until the Coming of the Lord

So here we are, almost there. Come this Thursday, Christmas Eve will be upon us, and Christians all over will, whether online or in outdoor services or even “drive-by” observances, mark the birth of Jesus in that feed trough in Bethlehem. The season of Advent will meet its culmination, or at least one of them.

Advent is, as we have observed already, a two-faced season after a fashion; even as we look back and remember that birth, we also look forward, anticipating the longed-for return of Christ. While it’s not at all impossible that such could happen between now and Christmas Eve, it’s not something we can predict or count on. We’ve been reminded many times in scripture that nobody but God knows that hour (not to mention reminded many times by the failures of those who tried to predict those events). As far as we know, we will be continuing to wait for that “second Advent.”

The readings we just heard offer us some examples of waiting, both done well and…not so well. The account from 2 Samuel finds its place in Advent as a reminder of and connection to all those other texts of the season that point to the anticipated Messiah as being of the line of David; that “house” is evoked at the tail end of verse 11. This account also serves, however, as a good example of how not to “wait upon the Lord.”

Let’s be clear: King David wants to do a good thing. He sees the magnificent palace he has built for himself and at least has the decency to notice that the tent in which the Ark of the Covenant is housed is rather meager-looking by comparison. David also has the decency to realize that, as the king, he can do something about that. Meanwhile the prophet Nathan, apparently without hesitation, agrees with the king’s insinuated plans. God does not agree, however, and gives Nathan a substantial bit of instruction to relay to David, which might be summed up as “did I ask you to do this? I’m the one who builds around here…

However well-intentioned, David’s plans were not God’s plans. This is an easy trap. We mean well. We want to do a good thing, or at least what seems a good thing. Yet it isn’t the thing God wants us to do. On the other hand, there are those who think that by their moves and machinations they can manipulate God into giving them…oh, so much – wealth or power or whatever gets covered by the social media hashtag #blessed. Or there are even those who think they can hasten “the day of the Lord” by their political or religious or financial machinations. All of these things fail to meet the criteria of good Advent waiting. God is the one who initiates, and we are to follow.

When God does initiate, though, it’s our job to be ready to jump in and cooperate with God’s action. This is where Zechariah falls short in the beginning of Luke’s gospel. Zechariah served as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, so you’d think he’d be ready for something to happen while on the job, but even the priesthood could apparently have a numbing repetitiveness to it. He is performing his service when an angel appears, and his first reaction is to be frightened – Luke says that “fear overwhelmed him.” The angel, who later identifies himself as Gabriel, pronounces a shocking thing: the old priest and his old wife will have a son, and not just any son at that; one who will be “great in the sight of the Lord” and who “will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.” Zechariah’s response – again, out of fear – is one of incredulousness, pointing out that he and Elizabeth are quite old. Gabriel’s response, which really seems to need a deep breath or sigh before it, is to point out that “look, I’m bringing this straight from the presence of God,” and to pronounce the old priest mute until the promise is fulfilled.

Now if you go to the end of this chapter, you’ll see that all does come right in the end; Elizabeth does conceive and bear a son, and Zechariah, despite being unable to speak, does prevail over those who somehow had taken it upon themselves to decide the baby would be named after his father, despite Elizabeth’s protestations. He apparently manages to write forcefully “His name is John,” and his voice is restored, and he gets to have his own prophetic moment, paraphrased in the first hymn we sang today. But that first moment of fear did cost Zechariah, at least several months of being able to speak and to do his job for that matter. 

I’ve never been able to shake the thought that Gabriel decided, after his experience with Zechariah, that he was better off going directly to the potential mother for these exchanges, and so next appears to Mary herself instead of going through Joseph. And Mary, as it turns out, manages to do what Zechariah could not: she responds to Gabriel without fear. Let’s be clear: she’s not unaffected by the event – Luke describes her as “perplexed.” Furthermore, it’s not as if she doesn’t have her own question for the angel – “how can this be?” But there’s a way of questioning that makes it clear you think everything is ridiculous, and there’s a way of questioning that makes it clear you’re trying to understand, and Mary apparently found the latter. Or maybe Gabriel simply had more compassion for an uneducated, frightfully young woman from nowhere in particular being thrust into this impossible situation than he managed for a priest who by all rights should have known how to react to a word from God. Whatever the case, Mary’s response is ultimately on target: she asks her questions, but she listens and ultimately answers “yes” – “let it be with me according to your word.” She then goes to visit her old cousin Elizabeth, sings a Magnificat, and ultimately, in chapter 2, delivers that promised Son.

All of the watching and preparing that we associate with Advent has a purpose: to help us to be ready to respond when God calls us or comes to us or appears before us or begins to move in the world. Not to jump the gun like David and try to do what God has not called us to do; not to shrink back in fear and slip into disbelief like Zechariah. Instead, we listen like Mary, we even ask questions, but we respond in the end with acceptance and obedience and readiness to do what we’re called to do, no matter how crazy it sounds. 

I’m pretty sure Tom Petty didn’t mean his song “The Waiting” to be an Advent song (certainly not based on the verses), but the chorus does get it right:

The waiting is the hardest part

Every day you get one more yard

You take it on faith, you take it to the heart

The waiting is the hardest part

And so we wait, watching and preparing, so that when the day comes and we behold the Lord’s action in the world, we respond in faith and obedience. May God so prepare us to respond to that call.

For the waiting, and for being ready to act in obedience, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #109, Blessed be the God of Israel; #—, To Our God Who Holds You Strong; #83, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

Sermon: Waiting With the Joy of the Lord

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 13, 2020, Advent 3B (recorded)

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46-55; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:19-28

Waiting With the Joy of the Lord

Last year the church’s worship committee added a new element to the visual adornment of the sanctuary for the season of Advent. A series of four banners was commissioned (made by one of our nursery workers, Carmen) each bearing one of the calls of the Advent season. You’ve been seeing these banners during these broadcasts, at the beginning and end of each service. The first week’s banner reminds us to “watch”; the second week, “prepare”; and the fourth week’s banner, to be seen next week, commands us to “behold.”

Meanwhile, the banner for week three, seen at the beginning of today’s recorded service, calls us to “rejoice,” an appropriate call for the Sunday with the pink candle in the Advent wreath being lit. In some circles it’s known as Gaudete Sunday (from the Latin for “rejoice”). As these banners were being developed last year, someone (I can’t remember who) wondered aloud why the “rejoice” banner and Sunday came before the “behold” command. I don’t remember what answer I gave at that moment, but if I had been thinking properly it would have been easy enough to point to the scriptures of the day for the answer – and that holds true no matter which liturgical year we’re talking about.

You begin to get the idea in today’s readings from the prophet Isaiah, who in this particular oracle declares that he is, under the leading of the spirit of God and the anointing of the Lord, called to “bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” The oracle continues in a similar vein for several verses, adds in the pointed declaration on behalf of God that “I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing,” and finally climaxes in a section of rejoicing, or seems to do so, at verse 10. Even here, though, there is a bit of a head-fake; the rejoicing seems a more personal moment than the rest of the passage, a suspicion that seems to be confirmed by verse eleven’s return to future tense. “For as the earth brings forth its shoots,” says Isaiah, “and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” The “will” of verse 11 echoes the “shall” of verses 3-4. 

Things look slightly different in the prophetic words of Mary, the impending mother of Jesus, in her song in Luke 1 (echoed in our first hymn today). It also begins, like Isaiah’s oracle, with a personal statement of call or commission, and launches into what seems to be a statement in the present tense – “he has” comes up a lot. Thing is, though, it’s not uncommon for prophetic oracle to appropriate present tense for God’s future action (which I suppose makes sense in light of last week’s statement from 2 Peter that in God a thousand years are like a day, and vice versa; perhaps in recounting a vision from God it’s hard to avoid slipping into the language of God’s “eternal now.” Again, here in Luke 1, the prophetic statement (from a teenage girl, yes) is one of God’s actions to come, or to be brought to fulfillment.

In neither case is rejoicing foresworn because of the not-yet nature of the proclamation; indeed, both statements point to something about the rejoicing that is part of Advent. Although John the baptizer, showing up again this week in our gospel reading, doesn’t seem like a bundle of joy here, he nonetheless wraps himself in the words of Isaiah (last week’s reading, actually). His proclamation here is in service of the promises described by Isaiah and other prophets; as such, he is also bound up in the rejoicing of the day. 

Even as John is proclaiming the imminent coming of this Promised One, it is still as yet an unfulfilled promise. As of the end of this reading Jesus – the one greater than John, the one for whom John isn’t worthy to tie his shoes – still hasn’t shown up yet, hasn’t presented himself. The Promised One is still just that: promised.

And yet the day is “Gaudete” Sunday, “Rejoice” Sunday, pink-candle Sunday. You see, our rejoicing is not contingent upon promises granted; we rejoice in the promise itself, or even more in the God who promises. Notice how both Isaiah and Mary place it that way: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord” in Isaiah 61:8, “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” in Luke 1:46. Joy is rooted in God, the God who has the whole history in here of faithfulness and provision and care and love for God’s people. The God who has done is the God who will do, and our rejoicing is in that God. 

Again, it falls to the epistle reading to draw things into perspective. You might think this sounds vaguely familiar, and it is indeed a portion of the same passage that was featured in a sermon about a month ago, on November 15. For today, the key words are the very first two in verse 16: “Rejoice always.” I mean, the rest of the passage is good too, but here this simple reminder from Paul to his beloved Thessalonians, reminds us that our joy is not contingent. When our rejoicing is in God, rather than in some particular thing we think about about God or some particular thing God has done or we expect God to do, that joy is sustained even in times when joy might not seem the most obvious reaction. 

But to put it bluntly, “joy” or “rejoicing” that is contingent is not joy. It might be happiness, or it might be pleasure, but it is not joy. Happiness and pleasure are not bad things themselves, but they are not joy, no matter how often we might confuse the two.

Our joy, our rejoicing, is in God, because God is God. We see the work of God; we read the fulfillment of what God has done, as witness the Son of God revealed in a low manger, and we read the promises of what God will do, keeping us “sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”; we rejoice, however, because…God.

For the time of waiting, and the joy of waiting, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #100, My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout; #—, Rejoice! Rejoice in Every Time; #96, On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry