“Hosanna,” Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29 and Matthew 21:1–11, April 9, 2017, FPC Holt

“Hosanna”
Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29 and Matthew 21:1–11
April 9, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

God’s love endures forever. God’s love endures forever. There are times it is easy to echo the Psalmist’s words: when we see God’s beauty in nature, when we experience miraculous healing for ourselves or someone we love, or when falling in love. God’s love endures forever.

What about when the pain of this world seems all too much; when pain, death, and destruction can be found under every headline?

I have to be honest, I’m not really sure anything that I can offer will be any sort of solace in a world where so many terrible things have been happening. As just another Christian trying to figure things out, I feel like the most authentic witness I could bring to the hurt of this world would be just to stand up here and weep, I believe that God weeps alongside us in our grief. As it says in Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” The Lord is near indeed.

However, as someone called to preach the word of God, I am not speaking on my own behalf. Thanks be to God. And so today I strive once again not to speak my own message, but, by the Holy Spirit, to speak God’s message of hope. I am here to preach God’s word, and so today, as each of us takes a break from the 24 hour news cycle and from our social media feeds, that is what I will do.

Bookending today’s Psalm we hear our refrain: “give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!”  In the Hebrew, the word we have translated as “steadfast love,” is “hesed.” “Hesed” is rich with meaning, it has been translated in older versions as “lovingkindness.” It is also used throughout the story of Ruth as the “covenant love” between Ruth and Miriam.  It appears in the stories of the Old Testament over and over as God insists on loving the people of God. It is an ongoing, unstoppable sort of love. It reflects loving acts of God throughout all of history, as well as our own, individual, immediate experience of God’s love and care for us.

Psalm 118 was originally written as a hymn of praise. The Messianic Christ was a hope for the future, but eternal salvation seemed quite far off. However, God’s desire to provide for God’s people was a historical certainty.  With the waters of the flood all around them, God brought a rainbow and a dove to give Noah hope of a new world. Through the faithfulness of a terrified mother God raised Moses from river basket to leader of a nation. In seemingly hopeless circumstances, God brought a child to impatient Abram and laughing Sarah. This passage is regularly read in the Jewish tradition in connection with the Passover as a prayer of praise for God delivering God’s people from slavery in Egypt to freedom.

In the New Testament God’s saving power is brought to realization in Jesus Christ.

God’s love endures forever. “Forever,” means that God’s love endures through all the crowds of Palm Sunday and the crowds of Good Friday. “Forever,” means that God is present even when God’s own son asks, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Rev. Lisa Horst Clark writes, “The true horribleness of any tragedy cannot be held by us. The depth of feeling required to fully contemplate any tragedy, let alone the big ones, is not the kind of thing a mortal can do. At least for me, emotionally, it breaks me. Thinking of all of that fear, and horror, and violence. The depth of sin in this world, and all of those broken hearts, are held by God—and even the tiniest fragment, could be too much for any of us to bear. I do not believe that contemplation of violence is redemptive unless it seeks to heal a wound—to sit beside those in pain.”

It is easy to get swept up in the lament, to get stuck in the sorrow of the world, to grieve the many losses of innocence worldwide. But to stay in that space of pain makes us frozen to the action we can take. In the often quoted Psalm 23 we hear of the constancy of God’s provision. In verses 4 and 5 we read: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

God is not merely creating comfort in an abstract intellectual way, but is walking alongside, co-creating peace, anointing with oil, and providing protection.

This Psalm does not say that we will never encounter darkness or that we will never have enemies. It does say that God will be with us in the darkness and among us when we encounter enemies.

Modern culture tells us that doing anything in the midst of our enemies is foolish, possibly even inviting confrontation or violence. But this Psalm is clear that if our confidence is in God, if we truly trust that God has our best interest in mind, we needn’t fear any evil.

Author and activist Eve Ensler writes about our particularly American perspective of security in her book, “Insecure at Last.” She writes: “All this striving for security has in fact made you much more insecure. Because now you have to watch out all the time. There are people not like you, people you now call enemies. You have places you cannot go, thoughts you cannot think, worlds you can no longer inhabit…Your days become devoted to protecting yourself. This becomes your mission…Of course you can no longer feel what another person feels because that might shatter your heart, contradict your stereotype, destroy the whole structure…. There are evildoers and saviors. Criminals and victims. There are those who, if they are not with us, are against us.”

She continues, “How did we, as Americans, come to be completely obsessed with our individual security and comfort above all else? … Is it possible to live surrendering to the reality of insecurity, embracing it, allowing it to open us and transform us and be our teacher? What would we need in order to stop panicking, clinging, consuming, and start opening, giving— becoming more ourselves the less secure we realize we actually are?”

There are very real fears in this world, but we are to keep in mind that they are of this world. We are called to listen to Christ’s message of hope and restoration over the world’s cries of violence and pain. We are called to dwell in the Lord right now, right here in the midst of this broken world. We are called to follow Christ in the bringing about of a kingdom of peace, hope, joy, and love. May we be conduits of God’s love, so that through us others will know, “God’s love endures forever.” Thanks be to God, today and every day. Amen.

“God’s Words, Our Mouths”; Jeremiah 1:4-10; August 25, 2013; FPC Jesup

“God’s Words, Our Mouths”
Jeremiah 1:4-10
August 25, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - BibleSometimes when I preach it’s hard to find a unique word to bring to you. The texts that form our Bible as we know it know were formed over hundreds of years, and all along and ever since hundreds upon thousands upon millions of preachers, prophets, humorists, poets, and lyricists have all thrown in their two cents about what God’s word has to say to us today, and then again this day, and now at this very moment. In this buzz of conversation we can get lost in trying to stay current with prevailing theories on authorship of the different texts or which translation is the most accurate or which pastor has the best things to say about all of it.

SLIDE 2 - OceanLike ocean waves we keep pushing off from shore and getting pulled back towards the constant promises of God. The nature of God’s promises is this persistent repetition, this lapping of waves on sand. Over and over in scripture we hear: “I created you,” “I will deliver you,” “I am with you;” “I created you,” “I will deliver you,” “I am with you;” “I created you,” “I will deliver you,” “I am with you.”

SLIDE 3 - Trinity In fact, these very promises of God form our understanding of the triune functions of God: “I created you”: God the creator, God the father, God the beginning; “I will deliver you,” God the redeemer, God the son, God the present; “I am with you,” God the sustainer, God the Holy Spirit, God the always.

SLIDE 4In our scripture today we hear this formula in the context of Jeremiah’s call. In verse 5 we read “before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” This is the call of God the creator, God who knows us intimately, even beyond our own consciousness or our own decision-making. There’s something God knows about Jeremiah from his very beginning fibers of being-ness. God has designed Jeremiah for God’s own purposes and needs Jeremiah’s heart, mind, and voice to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.

SLIDE 5 - Jesus handsIn verse 8 we read, “I will deliver you.” This is the promise of Jesus Christ, who came to earth and lived among us God’s people to save us from the consequences of sin. More than 600 years before Christ came to this earth for the first time through the person of Jesus, Jeremiah carried this promise of God’s deliverance with him to the people of God. God knew that the life of a prophet would not be easy for Jeremiah, and that he would receive much opposition. In verse 10 he was tasked with “plucking up and pulling down, destroying and overthrowing, building and planting.” By repeatedly pointing out the foolish and harmful ways of God’s people, he was able to bring correction and redemption. Jeremiah went into all circumstances with confidence of God’s power to save him from his current opponents as well from the pain of earthly life.

SLIDE 6 - Holding HandsAgain in verse 8 we read, “I am with you,” this is the promise of God through the Holy Spirit, the divine surrounding presence of God. God promised direct inspiration by putting out a hand and touching Jeremiah’s mouth and saying, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” The Holy Spirit speaks through Jeremiah, using Jeremiah as a conduit for enabling God’s work on earth.

Beyond the familiar themes, this passage also has familiar phrases, echoing a scriptural foundation. The phrase “before I formed you in the womb” comes from Psalm 139. Let us read this together, from verses 13-18

“For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.”

By referencing this passage while describing Jeremiah’s call we see how scripture comes to life in personal story. Even while we strive to understand this passage in its’ particularities, we can feel comfort from the familiarity of these words. Coming to know God through a familiarity with scripture’s promises and words equips us to speak those words of God into the world.

In verse 9 we read, “Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’”

Through knowledge of scripture we have God’s words in our mouths. When we hear these familiar phrases it reminds of how God’s word seeps into our lives.

Biblical commentary writer John T. Debevoise wrote “Scripture is written over time on our hearts and in our consciousness…this familiarity becomes a part of the heritage of faith, indeed, the treasury of faith shaping our lives.”

In Hebrew 8:10 we hear God’s promise that God’s word is put in our minds and written on our hearts. We come to know God through familiarity with scripture, through the many repetitions of God’s promises. And as we learn them in both our minds and in our hearts, we become equipped to speak them to others. Through the reading of scripture and the preaching and teaching of fellow Christians, God’s words are put in our mouths and we too are tasked with speaking God’s promises. God gives us the role of Word bearers, tasking us with speaking God’s word into this world.

SLIDE 11 - Law and GospelBut as Jeremiah will quickly reveal, the word of God is not simply a calming and joyous presence, it also challenges us. Martin Luther said that the word of God comes to us as “law and gospel,” and that both need to be held together for God’s word to be fulfilled, saying that the Bible speaks words that accuse and condemn us, revealing our human brokenness and showing us our sin. AND that the Bible reveals words that comfort and save us, healing our brokenness and conveying God’s grace. While our sin pulls us away from God we are ever brought close by the dependability of God’s promises.

It is all too easy to skip ahead to the promises of God and forget that we are in need of correction as well. This is a harsh word to have put in our mouths as well. It is bitter to the taste, being tasked with confronting the injustices and problems of this world. Bitter as God’s confronting and correcting word is, and reluctant as we may be to offer it, our hesitation or even outright refusal does not exempt us from speaking the words God places in our mouths.

SLIDE 12 - MosesWe can find all sorts of reasons why not to follow God. Moses doubted his ability to speak God’s word, four times over in Exodus, beginning in verses 3:11-14: “Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”  He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”  But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

Continuing in Exodus 4:1-3: “Then Moses answered, “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you.’” The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” And he said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw the staff on the ground, and it became a snake”

Then in verses 10-12 we read: “But Moses said to the LORD, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Then the LORD said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”

In a last ditch effort, in verse 13 Moses says, “O my Lord, please send someone else.”

SLIDE 13 - IsaiahEven Isaiah, known for his willingness to follow God’s call, doubts his worthiness in light of such a mission. While in the midst of angels and in the presence of the Lord he cries out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

In our scripture today we heard of Jeremiah’s reluctance to speak this word, saying, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

SLIDE 14 - TruthIt can be a daunting thing to be tasked with bringing God into this world, yet that is what we are called to do. Martin Luther once said, “truth is more powerful than eloquence.” When we work to speak God’s word into this world we needn’t worry so much about having the perfect words, only about whether or not we are willing. May we forever open our hearts to receiving God’s promises and our mouths to speaking God’s truth. Amen

Arise, Shine!; Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12, and Luke 2:22-24, 36-38; January 6, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Arise, Shine!”
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12, and Luke 2:22-24, 36-38
January 6, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

After the reading of scripture, five women read “Anna,” by Mary Lou Sleevi from “Sisters and Prophets,” accompanied by the following slides

Slide01 Slide02 Slide03 Slide04 Slide05 Slide06 Slide07 Slide08 Slide09 Slide10 Slide11 Slide12 Slide13 Slide14 Slide15 Slide16 Slide17 Slide18 Slide19

 

“Arise, Shine!”

Slide01Epiphany! Have you ever heard someone say, “I have had an epiphany!”? In our culture the word “epiphany” has become synonymous with “brilliant idea” or “life changing thought.” The word may give us visions of someone with a light bulb floating above their head. It’s an unexpected sort of occurrence: a lighting flash, a stumbling upon. Epiphanies enter our lives before we even know we needed them, but once they occur, are not soon forgotten.

Slide02In the church calendar and in Biblical Greek, this word takes on a different depth. In the Greek: ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia) means “manifestation,” or “striking appearance.” The root of the word is close the word for “shine upon” or “to give light.” On the liturgical calendar, today is this day of Epiphany, this celebration of the manifestation of God through Jesus Christ. The celebration of when God became incarnate; when God took on human form and walked around.

Slide03This sort of epiphany is not just a light bulb above someone’s head, but a sunrise that lights a whole horizon in never ending day.

As John 1: 4 describes Jesus’ incarnation: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

It seems strange that Christ’s birth date and manifestation date are separate occurrences. Didn’t we already celebrate Christmas?

'ADORATION OF THE MAGI'But those two dates are different for a reason: the Epiphany is the commemoration of when Christ was visited by the Magi or the three wise men. This particular visit changes the meaning of Christ’s birth. As Christian tradition goes, up until that point, only fellow Jews had commemorated Jesus’s birth. Jesus was still contained within his own cultural context. But the visit of the magi changes things. This was the first time he was visited by Gentiles. This was the first step towards Christ’s bringing about of a Kingdom that would unite all people to God, both Jews and Gentiles.

This is an important lesson for our own lives: Christ is only truly manifest in this world when we introduce him to those outside these walls. Christmas is only realized, when we live our lives in response to it, far beyond its allotted time on the calendar.

Contemporary hymn writer, Jim Strathdee writes of the importance of the mission of manifestation in his “Christmas Poem”[1]:

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SLIDE 10 - Full MailboxWhenever there’s a major life change in a family there’s an initial few weeks where people are lined up to hold the new baby, casseroles lining the refrigerator form an edible memorial to a life lost, and the mailbox is flooded with cards. But then time passes and the life change becomes a part of the regular rhythm of things, a new family dynamic is adopted, a new social calendar is established. Things return to normal.

Slide11It’s tempting to do the same after Christmas. We have celebrated the birth of this new baby, Jesus of Nazareth. We have sung the carols, read the scriptures, hung the greens, and lit all the candles on the Advent wreath. We’re now ready for the “long winter’s nap,” prescribed in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Now we get on with the rest of our lives, right?

In the wake of Epiphany, we are summoned into a new reality, beyond the pre-Christmas normal and into the post-Epiphany exceptional. This great happening is something to be shared.

Slide13In our reading today we heard of the story of a woman who understood the significance of the incarnation. I love this telling of the story of Anna. Though scripture only gives us a couple of verses about this woman, this reading expands on the story and imagines all the hope and expectation that went into her Epiphany experience. She had waited at the temple for many, many years in the hope of Christ’s coming. Her eyes were opened to receiving Christ in their midst.

There is a beautiful story about Anna’s sort of waiting by minister Daniel Evans. He writes of performing the sacrament of baptism saying:

“Gently, as if passing treasured, fragile china dolls, they hand their babies to me there across the words that make the time.  I splash the water and look down for recognition. I try to read those eyes to see if something’s there in innocence that none yet has taken note of, something special from that other side of being, birth; a message for us sinners gathered round a bowl of water and some ancient words. “I baptize . . .” I begin and think of Anna or old Simeon, lifting up a blushing Mary’s baby, all awash in wonder to be holding God in hand. The God who never tires of birthing love in this tired world came once, a child. I hold above the holy water these same new promises that same God makes to my world and wonder if God’s come again.”

Both Anna and Rev. Evans wait expectantly for God to come incarnate into this world. Waiting so that they may recognize and worship our Savior. Anna, is waiting for Jesus and Rev. Evans is waiting for Christ to come again. Wait a minute. Did you get that? Christ is coming again.

In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13, we meet Jesus in conversation with His disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Right before breaking bread and sharing the cup, as we will do later in this service, He speaks of when He will come again.  Mark 13:32-37 says:

“About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Slide19This echoes the prophet Isaiah’s call. Once we witness the light of Christ, once we have risen and are shining Christ’s light into the world, we must continue to stay awake in anticipation of Christ coming again. Which that leads to a more important question: Do you really believe that Christ is coming again? Have you ever looked at a newborn baby and thought: could it be? Or have the best parts of our Christian story already played out? The script has been written, the play is done, and now we can just celebrate the birth of a child and the redemption by our savior. Right?

I know that this is a struggle for me. Like the religious scholar’s of Jesus’ time, I know what is the right answer. I know with every academic fiber of my brain that when someone asks me the line in the Apostle’s creed that follows “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” I know that the answer is: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” I know that, but is that something I eagerly anticipate? Or is it something I just think might happen someday, but doesn’t really have much to do with me. If I’m honest with myself I’ve done a lot more to prepare to celebrate Christ’s birthday that happened 2000 years ago, than I’ve done anything at all to prepare for Christ coming again. “Keep Awake,” the Gospel of Mark tells us. “Keep awake.” Christ’s coming again is not the sort of event in which we must go to sleep in order to receive presents under our tree. Rather, we are to stay alert with eyes open to meet our Savior. As Disciples of Christ Jesus, we are those very servants charged to take care of this world until Christ comes again, and then we will be judged for what has been done and not done.

John’s Revelation previews what we can expect from the return of Christ:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Slide22This hopeful account of Christ’s coming again urges us to choose Christ as our Lord and Savior. The good news is this, by accepting Jesus as Christ, His death covers our sins as well.

And what of Christmas? Today’s Epiphany reminds us that while Christ has already come into this world to save us from our sins, Christ will come again to judge the world. This is our yearly reminder to  “rise, shine,” “keep awake.” We don’t know what God has chosen as the next “fullness of time,” by which Christ will come again. But this yearly, heavenly birthday celebration serves as a bit of a wake up call, part of a larger advent. This Epiphany day may we arise with the joy that Christ has come into this world and shine with the hope that Christ will come again and make all things new. Amen.

 


[1] “Christmas Poem,” Jim Strathdee