“Anticipation of the Journey”; Luke 1:68-79; November 29, 2015; FPC Holt

 “Anticipation of the Journey”
Luke 1:68-79
November 29, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Today’s sermon will be a little bit different. I will be telling you the story of Zechariah, but what makes this sermon different, is that I will be telling this story in first person, taking on the perspective of Zechariah. So far we’ve heard the “canticle of Zechariah,” the joyful proclamation at the birth of his son, John, later to be known as John the Baptist. But, this story is much more interesting than a proud father’s exclamation, with many unanswered questions for us to explore. And so together let us listen to what Zechariah might’ve said and thought, and may we hear in it God’s message for our own lives as well.

SLIDE 1 - ZechariahI’m not used to being quiet. As a priest, I spend many of my days surrounded by words, teaching what other priests throughout time have understood about the meaning of our sacred texts, preaching so that those who can’t read may hear what God has told them to do, and debating with others in the temple so we can better understand.

Then the silence came, and nothing was the same. At first it was hard to remember what had happened. I’d wake up in the morning and begin to say my prayers, and my lips just moved wordlessly. I’d see a friend approach me in the synagogue and start to say hello and couldn’t even manage a squeak. Eventually it set in and I’d try different ways to communicate. I could always write things down, but not everyone could read what I was trying to tell them. Even those who could didn’t always have the patience to follow along with what I was trying to convey. After all that had happened, to be silent was maddening.

SLIDE 2 - Zechariah and ElizabethYou see, I’ve lived my whole life waiting for what was now happening. My wife Elizabeth and I had waited our whole long, long marriage for a child, someone who could carry on our legacy and family name. But at our age? Impossible. Or so I thought.

SLIDE 3 - TorahAs a priest, I’ve read over and over again the scriptures of the prophets, telling of a Messiah, one who could start a new future for us, saving us from the oppression of the Roman emperor, saving us from the oppression of our own sinfulness. And for year we’d waited for the opportunity for me to go to the Holy of Holies and offer incense. You see, we priests serve in a group, two times a year for a week we would draw lots each day for the chance to approach the temple Holy of Holies. Again and again, my lot was not called.

SLIDE 4 - Zechariah and ElizabethFor years I’ve wondered what my purpose was as a husband, and as a priest, if all I’ve been waiting for and hoping for just weren’t happening. Had God forgotten me? Was I so stuck in going through the motions that somehow what I’ve been doing has ceased to honor God? I thought God was through with me, that is, until the day of the silence. That day that changed everything.

SLIDE 5 - Jerusalem TempleIt seemed like just a typical day, traveling to the Jerusalem temple with my fellow priests. Chatting with each other as we walked, sharing our joys and our frustrations. I knew the way this worked, we would go to the temple draw lots, and I’d try my best to graciously support whoever was chosen that day. But then, my name was drawn, and I was to experience the Holy of Holies!

For all my training and years of experience, as I entered into the chamber I’ll admit my hands shook a bit. I was about to enter into the very presence of God! I knew what that space was like by rote, and had heard others talk about the stillness, but couldn’t imagine it fully until I was there. Lighting the incense I suddenly felt like I wasn’t alone. SLIDE 6 - AngelI looked and gasped as I saw…well, it’s hard to put it in words… but there was a presence in front of me, winged and bright and powerful. I was terrified! Wouldn’t you be?

This, this… angel spoke me, I’ll never forget this part, it said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.  You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,  or he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.  With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

I was shocked, incredulous, frightened, and I’ll admit, a bit angry. What on earth was this thing telling me? We’ve never been able to have a child and now, we’re being given instructions not only what to name him, but also what he should drink? This was absurd!

SLIDE 7 - Angel touching lipsI made the mistake of expressing my… disbelief and was immediately admonished. The angel said, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

I started to object again, but found my mouth would make no sound, try as I might. SLIDE 8 - Zechariah trying to talkStumbling out of the inner sanctuary into the daylight I’m sure the gathered crowd thought I was stunned. And well, I guess I was. Try as I might I couldn’t tell them anything of what had happened, couldn’t explain my silence, couldn’t explain my incredulous joy. Then after the week was up I headed home to Elizabeth.

SLIDE 9 - Zechariah and ElizabethIt was one thing to not be able to tell the other priests, but to not tell my wife? Especially about something so dear to us, so immediate to her own body, it was maddening. Try as I might I couldn’t speak a word. And my dear, darling wife, had never learned to read, so I couldn’t begin to share this story.

But soon, she knew for herself what miracle was happening within her, the family forming between us, the journey that was before us. We’ve been waiting so long, that this additional nine months of waiting seemed like nothing, but in the silence, it was so, so hard.

For so, so many years we had hoped for this, but after so many years, we dare not plan for this. Even after the birth of our child we couldn’t be sure of our own ability to support him into adolescence, or adulthood. What would be come of this child of ours, this John. His name was John. But I couldn’t tell Elizabeth that. I couldn’t share the promises of the angel. I couldn’t say a thing.

But I could listen. And in listening I heard Elizabeth weep with joy. She told me of so many times she was overlooked in the synagogue, in the town, in our own family, for not being able to be a mother. She spoke of her pain. And all I could do was hold her and listen.

In this silence too, my prayers changed shape. I was so used to talking, sharing with God the ways I had been left out, the way I wasn’t getting what I hoped for. But in the silence, I learned to listen, listen to the ways that God’s bigger plan was unfolding. The way that my meager hopes could be used for eternal glory.

SLIDE 10 - John birthFinally the day came when Elizabeth gave birth to a son, our son. The one to prepare the way of the Lord! Over the past many months I had made peace with my silence, and with the future that lay before Elizabeth and me. My incredulity had been transformed into joy, my distrust into steady belief. I knew that God had a plan for this child, our child who was so much more than ours. The one who would make a way for the Messiah.

After so much silence the family knew Elizabeth spoke for the both of us and so asked her directly what our son’s name should be. She said “John,” the name I had been unable to share with her for months, the name I had heard in the temple. How could she know his name? Surely she had felt God’s presence too. SLIDE 11 - His name is JohnWhen those at the temple for his circumcision questioned it I confirmed by writing “His name is John.” And all at once I could talk again. My voice had come back and I had so much to say, no longer bitter from waiting, no longer fearful from mistrust, I had nothing to share now but praise: And so I began: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel. For God has looked favorably upon God’s people, and has redeemed them.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Ready, Set…Now!”; Mark 12:38-44; November 8, 2015; FPC Holt

“Ready, Set…Now!”
Mark 12:38-44
November 8, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2015 11 8 SLIDE 1 - Faith4GensThroughout the past few weeks we’ve been focusing on stewardship, on our Generations of Faith, the foundation of those who have come before us and the legacy we hope to establish for those who come after us; our giving towards the ongoing ministries of this church as well as investing in the future of what we will be able to accomplish in the future once our capital campaign is completed.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 2 - Widow Close upHow fitting it is then that the lectionary passage this week just happens to be the story of the widow and her two coins. If you’ve been around Christianity for a while, it’s a story you’ve likely heard many times and if so you probably have a good idea already of what I’m going to preach on, right? Praising sacrificial giving of our money.  Right? Well, not exactly.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 3 - piggy-bankShe gave all she had. All she had to live on. I remember hearing this story while I was growing up, and thinking of how I could give everything I had too. Surely God would want me to break open my piggy bank and give all of my pennies to those in need. But those pennies were not all I had to live on. Breaking my own bank would not leave me diminished. And if I were hungry that hunger would’ve dissipated the very moment my parents called me down to lunch.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 4 - Widow in TempleShe gave all she had. Hearing this story now I can’t help but worried for her. We’re not told much about this woman, just that she is poor, she is and widow, and she came into this temple and gave all that she could, all that she had. In this time a scribe keeping track of each person’s contribution observed the temple treasury. It’s likely that names and monetary amounts were called out at each contribution. Surely her meager offering of two coins was given some strange looks as she offered it up. She might have been giving solely as an offering to God, but chances are good that she was giving due to a debt assessed by a scribe.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 5 - James-c-christensen-the-widows-miteI really wish that we were given a follow up report about this woman, because with this gift of everything, I worry about what comes next for her. This painting by James C. Christensen captures the expression I can imagine her having. Light shines on her face, and we can see worry in her eyes. She does not give happily, but she does give obediently. She is at the end of the line, she’s given everything and has nothing left to lose. She is in a frightening position both socially and economically. What will become of her? Scripture never gives us that answer.

The truth is, for all the teachings that lift up the widow’s tremendous sacrifice as the ideal giving, Jesus doesn’t seem to be doing that. Could we even wrap our minds and hearts around it if he was? After all this scripture comes to us from the very same Bible that teaches us that God, “desires mercy and not sacrifice,” and that Jesus came to give his life for us, not the other way around.

Instead, there is truth in this story that is indeed in line with our very God who desires good things for all of creation, particularly those who are disenfranchised, overextended, and desperate. In this passage Jesus teaches us about the wrong way to give and the right way to be stewards, both of our own prosperity and of the well being of all of God’s creation.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 6 - Jesus in backgroundFirst, we hear about the wrong way to give, which Jesus lays out in the verse immediately before the verses we read today. He says,. “Beware the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” These are the same scribes Jesus rebukes in Matthew because they sound the trumpet before they give their alms. But we don’t give in order to be acknowledged for our giving. The scribes shouldn’t be giving to get a seat at the head table, and we shouldn’t give to be first in line at our potluck today, or for say, naming rights to some part of our building. We give because of our reformed understanding of stewardship, that all we have is God’s and our giving is much more an act of acknowledging God’s providence than it is lauding our own generosity.

The passage continues, “They [the scribes] devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” All throughout Hebrew scripture God’s people are directly commanded to care for widows, to not was seen as tremendously unfaithful. Jesus condemns the actions of those who have put this woman in this position of desperation, it is likely that these leaders are taking advantage of the widows’ hospitality and therefore, what was left to them to live on after their husbands had died. Their long prayers do nothing to further the kingdom of God when they take advantage of those already on the margins of society.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 8 - Questioning Jesus If you have your Bibles open or if you are quite skilled at memorizing Scripture passages, note what happened only moments before Jesus notices the widow. “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one and beside him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”

2015 11 8 SLIDE 9 - BillboardThe scribes simply are not—for all their piety—loving their neighbors. Their long prayers and large sums of money cannot possibly further the kingdom of God without loving actions toward others. Our giving—be it financially, through our time, or in how we use the spiritual gifts God has given us to further the kingdom—must be given in love.

Which brings us to how we can learn to indeed be good stewards of everything: monetarily, physically, relationally. Every aspect of our life and livelihood can point to God’s goodness if we let it.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 10 - Generations of LightThroughout our Capital and Annual campaign season we’ve heard many stories of what faithful living looks like. We’ve heard about the 150 years of past generations of Presbyterians that have done all they could with all they had to make this Church great, to indeed strive to be the hands and feet of Christ in this community.2015 11 8 SLIDE 11 - Bell RingingThere are members here who can point to various parts of the building and excavate layer after layer of stories of ministries lived out in this space.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 12 - Building PlansIn a similar way I’ve seen Dave Viele and others point to our space both in walking about and in architect renderings and paint the scene of the possibilities that await us in generations to come: expanded Christian Education, a food kitchen, a liturgical arts studio, so many things that we hope and pray will come to fruition.

 But there’s one generation that we cannot overlook. A generation we’re depending on for faithfulness, stewardship, and gifts given in love…. I’ll give you a hint. Look at those sitting around you. Look at those sitting behind you and in front of you. Look around you, and see your brothers and sisters who make up this church. As surely as we can look around the building and see the history and potential, we can look around this room and see God at work among us right this very moment. You are the generation called to be stewards of the many gifts we’ve been given in our history and called to be stewards of the relationships yet to be built in this place, the faith that will be formed from the foundation we help to lay.

You are tasked with serving God and God’s people in the here and now. Your faithfulness in this very day, in these next few weeks of our capital campaign, in the support of our annual campaign, shape the reality of the impact we have as a church, in the future, yes, but also in the here and now. What we give financially right now shapes how we are able to serve those God calls us into relationship.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 14 - Light of ChristOur giving to our annual campaign enables us to yes, keep the lights on, but also to shine the light of Christ into the lives of children each week with A-Team, X-team, and church school. 2015 11 8 SLIDE 15 - BlanketsWe’ll keep the building heated and we’ll also warm the hearts of those seeking hope through the Food Bank, Act Uganda, and our ministries in the Yucatan.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 16 - AAEvery day of the week we have people meeting in our church basement for Alcoholics Anonymous. Every day. This is not a future hope for service but a current vibrant relationship we have with our community. If we are able to meet or exceed our capital campaign goals we have the potential to better serve these brothers and sisters with an elevator, allowing all to access this life saving ministry.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 17 - Spiral StainglassIn taking our place in the line of faithfulness behind and before us, we are working to bring about God’s kingdom in the very here and now. How will you live into this call? Every one of us has something to contribute in this Body of Christ whether it be time, abilities, money, or gifts. And only you know for yourself the difference between a gift of faithfulness and a gift of spare change.

How will we be a Generation of Faith? What legacy will we leave? What path will we create? May God guide us all. Amen.