“Tear Open the Heavens;” Isaiah 64:1-9; November 30, 2014; FPC Holt

“Tear Open the Heavens”
Isaiah 64:1-9
November 30, 2014
First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Slide01Lloyd Dobler on Diane Court’s front lawn with a boombox above his head. Katniss Everdeen volunteering as tribute when Prim’s name is called at the Disctrict 12 reaping. Slide03The town of Bedford Falls gathering around George Bailey and his family to help him on Christmas Eve.  Jean Valjean carrying Marius through the sewers of Paris to safety. Slide07 Harry Burns running across New York City on New Year’s Eve to recite his declaration of love to Sally Albright. Anna throwing herself in front of Elsa for protection.  An astronaut going on an impossible journey through galaxies for the love of his family.

 

When it comes to movies, we all love a grand gesture, the chance for wrongs to be made right, for good to overcome evil, for love to win. Slide08Some of these scenes even evoke a visceral reaction, no matter how many times we’ve seen them, like the way my aunt always cries at “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and depending on my mood I can pretty choked up over that final scene in “When Harry Met Sally.” I know what’s going to happen, I have confidence that my DVD wouldn’t have somehow added in a new ending, but still in the re-watching I get caught up in the story, in the “will they, won’t they” of it all, and so I feel a tangible sense of relief and joy when it works out just the way I was hoping.

Slide09In our scripture today the prophet Isaiah is calling out for a grand gesture from God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah says. Isaiah has journeyed back from Babylon with the exiled Israelites and comes to find Jerusalem in ruins and the temple destroyed. “Where are you, God?” the people ask. “Surely you have hidden your face from us. O that you would break forth in justice and righteousness so that the mountains would quake, the nations would tremble, and the evildoers would get what they deserve. O that you would make yourself known to us. O that you would rescue us from ourselves.”[1]

Slide10 The Israelites know God’s presence best through the grand gestures of their history. Their family stories include plagues as persuasion for their deliverance, the parting of the Red Sea to stop their enemies, and food falling from heaven when they’re in the wilderness. They know that God is capable of greatness beyond all measure, and so that is the type of presence they request, the grand gesture that will make things right again. They want God’s presence to be manifest among them, to shake up their enemies, and to form their claylike-selves into the people they are meant to be. They are looking for something monumental to happen.

Biblical commentator, Scott Bader-Saye writes, “God’s refusal to replicate a Red Sea-type deliverance does not mean that God has abandoned Israel (or the church). Our hope does not rely on God’s acting today in the same ways God acted in the ancient stories, but it does rely on God’s being the same God yesterday, today, and tomorrow – a God who hears our cries, a God who does not abandon us, a God who will finally redeem all that is lost in a new heaven and new earth (Isaiah 65:17). The tradition of biblical lament does not invoke the past as nostalgia, nor does it dismiss the present in despair; rather, it draws on the collective memories of God’s people as a source of hope for the future.”

Slide11Hope is the way forward out of the wilderness of those times when God seems absent. Hope in the God who has been, is now, and forever will be the potter of our claylike existence, molding us into our full-capacity selves. The Israelites in our passage defer to this potter, this creator God who holds all things in God’s hands, but are not quite sure how God will work it all out.

Slide12And since this passage in our lectionary does fall on the very first Sunday of Advent, we all have an idea where things are headed, right? We sit here as people who have seen this story play out year after year. We know that sweet baby Jesus is going to glide into our world to come and save the day!

But wait a minute, that’s not exactly what the Israelites were looking for. They wanted the mountains to quake and their enemies to tremble. They want the immediate and grand gesture, not a divine rain check for deliverance in the distant future. They want God’s divinity to be present among them unencumbered. Instead, divinity comes in the form of humanity. Jesus comes as both fully divine and fully human.

Slide14Luther Northwestern Professor, Diane Jacobson writes, “The call is not to come as a child, as ‘God with us,’ but to come in power, in theophanic splendor…[they] call on the Lord to come as mountains quake, fires burn, and nations tremble. Here is a God so terrible that a mere glimpse of his visage might cause death. Such is the God for whom we wait.”

They’re waiting for God’s might, God’s power, even in the expectation of God’s wrath. The Israelites accuse God of being hidden from them, but might it be that God is just not revealed in the ways they’re expecting? Slide15You don’t expect the mighty creator of everything to take the form of small baby. You don’t expect the all powerful to be vulnerable and sleeping in a manger.

When we’re expecting God’s grandeur, we can become blind to God’s incarnation. It was no small gesture for God to become embodied, to take on humanity. It is indeed an act of the heavens being torn open that allows God to break into human history. But it is not the grandness that the Israelites were used to: this small baby born in a small town in a disconnected world, who comes not as a demonstration of God’s might, but of God’s love. Who comes not to control God’s people, but to teach how to be in right relationship; what care for neighbor looks like; and how to live a faithful life, not just to avoid judgment, but to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.

God comes into our world embodied, so we might be instructed in how God is to work through our own embodiment towards the bringing about of God’s kingdom. The ways that God might be present in and among us.

Alongside the list I gave of those memorable grand gestures in the movies we likely have our own lists of actions in our own lives or of those we love that are not grand as much as they are incarnational actions of love made present.

Slide16A father reaching down instinctually to hold his daughter’s hand as they cross the street. A teacher offering a listening ear to a student who’s struggling at home.Slide18Someone shoveling the walk of an elderly neighbor after a particularly harsh snowfall. A mother tucking in her son after he falls asleep with book in hand. Slide20 A wife driving to see her husband in nursing care every afternoon, day after day.

Slide21These gestures are not the grand things of the movies, but they are the very real ways that we are incarnate in one another’s lives, and that we allow God to be incarnate in us. May God indeed tear open the heavens, once again, and come incarnate into our Advent waiting. Amen.

[1] Paraphrase by Rev. Vicki Kemper: http://www.firstchurchamherst.org/sermons/past_srmns_08_11_30.html#one

“God Along the Way,” Lenten Practices: Traveling the Labyrinth; Isaiah 55:1-9 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; March 3, 2013, FPC Jesup

“God Along the Way,” Lenten Practices: Traveling the Labyrinth
Isaiah 55:1-9 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
March 3, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Children’s Message
I am posting this mainly because this was something I was unable to find in other resources. I hope it will be helpful for you!

Click here for handout. First I showed the kids the maze we talked about what a maze is like (dead ends, objective of reaching the end). I then showed them the labyrinth and told them how the labyrinth only has one path which winds around itself. We read the description on the handout that I wrote up:

Labyrinth, a maze where you never get lost: For hundreds of years people have been walking labyrinths as a way of focusing on how God walks with them. Some people use the different parts of the path to be different parts of prayer. Walking towards the middle can be like walking towards God’s presence. You can use this time for confessing things you’ve done wrong. When you get to the middle you can use that time to thank God for all the blessings in your life. When you’re walking out of the middle back to the beginning you can pray about how you will share God’s love with other people in the world.

We lifted up our own confessions, thanksgivings, and prayers for others.

“God Along the Way,” Lenten Practices: Traveling the Labyrinth

Slide04We are now about halfway through our Lenten series on Spiritual Practices. So far we have discussed iconography, seeking God’s presence in this world; fasting, hungering for God’s will; and prayers of petition, crying out to God from our helplessness. Today we are continuing on with another practice: traveling a labyrinth.

Slide03In the book “50 Ways to Pray,” Teresa Blythe explains what a labyrinth is:  “A labyrinth is an ancient prayer practice involving a winding path that leads ultimately to a center and then winds back out to the point where it began… The path is symbolic of the journey inward toward God’s illumination and then outward, grounded in God and empowered to act in the world.” [1]

Slide07Many labyrinths are outdoors: constructed of rocks on the ground, the way grass is cut, or in hedges.  Some outdoor labyrinths are made of paint on pavement. There are labyrinths laid out in the stone, marble, or carpeted floors of churches all over the world. There are also fabric labyrinths that you can rent and lay out a floor. Any church with pews can be walked as a labyrinth, winding in and out of the pews and back up the aisle. A familiar neighborhood can also be walked as a labyrinth as long as your don’t get lost. There are also smaller labyrinths, such as the ones you have in front of you that can be traced with your fingers or even followed with your eyes.  There are labyrinths nearby in the Cedar Valley Arboretum, at St Luke’s Episcopal in Cedar Falls, and at Camp Wyoming.

When I was in seminary I took a class during my first year called “Spiritual Formation.” In our class we worked through different prayer practices. One of these practices was, as you might have guessed, praying through the labyrinth.

Slide12At Union Presbyterian Seminary we had a labyrinth on the edge of campus out behind the campus apartments that was made with stones in the ground, so that you couldn’t really see it until you were right up at it. For my class assignment, I went to the labyrinth and walked the path.

Slide13I knew that the correct thing to be doing was to walk along the path, mediate as I walked, and seek God’s guidance. This was supposed to bring me peace and quiet in my heart, connection with my God. However, as I walked that path I did not find transcendence. Rather, I found myself getting more and more annoyed. I got to the center of the labyrinth and let out a big sigh and stomped off in frustration. When I got to class that week I complained to my professor saying, “Labyrinths are everything that’s wrong with organized religion! Everyone just walking around in circles looking at their own feet! Everyone’s just following others in their faith and are afraid to make their own path!”Slide05

I was angry. I was annoyed. I felt let down by my own inability to be meditative. As others in the class shared how they had enjoyed themselves in their labyrinth walking, I was jealous. Why couldn’t I experience God in that way?

Slide15When I left class that day I went into work at the seminary library where I worked the desk and shelved books. There was a full cart of books to be sorted, a challenge that I enjoyed; creating order out of what was sometimes chaos. And then, I took those books around the building to the stacks, going up and down the aisles making sure things were straightened up, and placing the books from the carts on the shelves where they belonged. Though this task was mundane, it also brought a lot of peace. I did my best thinking as I was walking down around those books.

Slide16About halfway through shelving books I stopped myself right in an aisle and nearly laughed out loud. An hour ago I had been complaining about walking a labyrinth. Complaining about having to walk around in that patterned path. And now, here I was walking another patterned path and I loved it. I felt God’s presence around me. I prayed prayers, talked to God, and was able to clear my mind and reach that transcendence I was trying so hard for in that labyrinth path. God had already been working through me in a labyrinth practice and I hadn’t noticed. It’s a funny thing to be in a school where you are being trained to think theologically and to stumble quite by accident into the very spiritual practice you’ve been resisting. God certainly has a sense of humor.

In our Old Testament passage we heard:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55: 8-9)

When we seek to follow God in our lives and fully place our trust in God’s direction we are often led in ways we could never expect. Labyrinths are a place where we are forced to trust that we will end up where we need to be. As we allow God to lead us in our daily lives we are transformed. Following God in the labyrinths of our lives takes us to a place of wilderness, but with God as our focus it is also a place of hope and transformation. In the desert, the people of Israel were transformed into the children of God. Jesus went into the wilderness in the forty days before his crucifixion, was tested and tempted by the devil, and came out on the other side fortified for the horrors of his atoning death.

Our New Testament passage today speaks of God’s presence guiding people through the wilderness, emphasizing the many ways the people stepped off the path and failed to trust God’s guidance. Paul exhorts his readers to strengthen their trust in God saying in 1 Corinthians 10:12-13:

“So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:12-13) In our labyrinth experiences, there is always a way out, and God desires to lead us through it.

Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Reading writes of his first experience walking a labyrinth, “I was both held by the inevitability of the journey – one step in front of another – and also vulnerable: I knew where I was going – the pathway wound inexorably to the centre – but I didn’t know what I was going to find when I got there.”

Slide20At first glance a labyrinth looks like a maze: twists and turns on a defined path. The difference is, while one can pick the wrong direction in a maze and become lost, the path of a labyrinth never branches off. While in the labyrinth you might be confused by the twists and turns of the path, as you are getting closer to the center it may suddenly take you back right by where you started. But if you keep moving forward along the path, you will always make your way to the center, and will always make your way back out again.

Sally Welch, author of “Walking the Labyrinth,” writes: “It is quite a brave thing to do, to step on a labyrinth for the first time… The centre is plain to see; the way to reach the centre is not so obvious. I have seen many people pause at the entrance, look, hesitate as they tried to follow the path with their eyes, and then walk on, not daring to risk themselves on something for which the outcome does not appear certain. And yet, once that first step is taken, the rest is physically straightforward and spiritually can be transforming.”

Slide22So what are we supposed to do as we walk a labyrinth, or trace one with our fingers? Some recommend praying through the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, or any other familiar prayers. However, I think the danger with any sort of prayer practice is we become convinced that our experience needs to look a certain way, or feel a certain way, and we close ourselves off to the outcome that God intends from our circumstance. For some, having a checklist of prayers to run through can seem like another distraction. Allow yourself to pray whatever you need to pray, and to be comfortable with silence. One of my favorite prayer suggestions was by author and labyrinth expert Jill Geffrion who suggests to simply pray “Your will be done,” at the beginning of the labyrinth, and then walk with intentionality to your own movement and pace.

This Lenten season I would like you to try a labyrinth practice. Allow God to work through the winding paths, to provide wisdom and clarity in the silence. I would also like you to open yourself to the purpose of this practice: allowing prayer to be rise out of movement, allowing meditation to surface in the seemingly mundane tasks of your everyday life. Slide28This may happen for you in the piecing together and sewing of a quilt, in filing files in an office, perhaps in plowing rows in a field, or as I often find it, in knitting. These patterns of your life can be adopted into labyrinth prayer practices. As you work through these activities pay attention to  your movement, quiet your mind, and see what God may be saying to you. Remember Paul’s urging to the community at Corinth, traveling through life’s path is requires trust in God. This Lenten season, may we move forward as God leads us. Amen.


[1] Teresa A. Blythe, 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 92-93.

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting; February 17, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting
Isaiah 58:1-12 and Luke 4:1-15
February 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Throughout the season of Lent we are discussing various spiritual practices in the hopes that practicing these things will allow us to grow closer to God. Part of this series is the idea of unpacking a bit of our preconceptions about these practices, seeking to understand them them over the span of history, and learning ways that we might incorporate them into our lives. I would say that today’s practice is simultaneously one of the simplest practices to do and the most complicated to understand.

SLIDE 2 - Dont EatIn the most basic definition fasting is to go a length of time where you do not eat. This is a practice that Jesus himself engaged in when he went into the wilderness and was tempted by the devil.

Thousands of years of history have given much depth and complication to this practice. Slide03 Many translate this ancient discipline into “giving up something” for Lent. People give up sugar, pop, chocolate. For some it becomes a sort of restart on New Years Resolutions, personal self-improvement projects. But Biblical fasting has a longer and richer history that encompasses much more than simply giving up on a treat that we might enjoy.

Slide04In Jewish tradition, the Day of Atonement is commemorated each year. This day is practices through fasting from both food and work. In Leviticus 23:27-28 it says:

“Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves and present the LORD’S offering by fire you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God.“

Slide05The word that is translated as “deny yourselves,” can also be translated as to oppress, humiliate, or afflict. All words that we justifiably cast in a negative light. To oppress, humiliate, or afflict anyone else is a terrible thing. But in this context, one is doing that to themselves. This doesn’t mean that they are harming themselves or making a fool of themselves, but rather that they are putting themselves last, they are putting aside their own needs for the sake of others out of devotion to God. This fast was not just to be a fast from food and work for the sake of the law, but it is meant to be a fast from self interest.

Slide06In our Old Testament passage today in Isaiah we hear the result of the fasting of the Jewish community, many years removed from the original intention.  The prophet Isaiah confronts the grumbling of the God’s people who have forgotten the purpose of the fast.  I can almost hear a mocking tone in his voice as he echoes the complaints of the people in verse three:

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Slide07When I was in high school, my youth group participated each year in the 30 Hour Famine. Since Isaiah preaches against telling people about fasting, we weren’t exactly on track with the original intent of this event by having it organized and publicized, and I’m getting even further off track by talking about it now, BUT the intent of the event was to fast in order to raise awareness about world hunger. In the thirty hours of the fast we watched movies and played games like a typical lock-in, worshipped together, and went into the community and gathered food from church members for the local food pantry. Let me tell you, gathering food, while simultaneously not being able to eat any of it was a difficult thing to do. As a high schooler participating in this fast, I don’t know that I verbalized my frustrations at fasting, and my hunger throughout the day, but I certainly was grumbling in my mind as my stomach kept on growling. And I wanted those thirty hours to mean something, to lead to some great epiphany in my walk with Christ. I wanted to get something out of it. Essentially, I found myself praying prayers that sounded much more like whining than like devotion.

Isaiah confronts his audience, saying:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting, as you do today, will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?”

Slide09In this community, fasting had become a showy thing to do, people debasing themselves with sackcloth and ashes, looking forlorn and sad. When they were doing this they were not doing it out of self-denial, but rather in a way that drew more attention to their actions, trying to receive praise for how religious they were being.

In verses six and seven, Isaiah points to a better fast:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Thomas Currie, dean of the Charlotte, NC campus of my seminary wrote about this saying, “’Why do we fast, but you do not see?’ is the question of an anxious idolatry eager to make God ‘useful,’ worshiping God for the sake of something else, in this case, one’s own salvation. Lusting for such a possibility was the great threat that continually confronted Israel and continues to tempt us today…all desire the power to save themselves. The form of fasting that God chooses is strangely free of this affliction. It is distinguished from idolatry in its lack of anxiety. It is free to engage another, to see the other, and to see the other not as something to be used or merely as an object of pity or duty, but as a gift…In the presence of [God] we are saved from the loneliness of our self-justifying ways, even as we are forbidden to give ultimate loyalty to our own agendas, however pious or political. Instead, we are invited to receive ourselves and others as gifts, discovering in God’s engagement with us a life that can only be a life together.”[1]

Slide14Our New Testament passage today tells the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, a time that we mirror in the church calendar through the forty days of Lent. Forty is an important number in the history of the church, particularly in terms of wilderness. When a flood came over the earth, Noah and his family waited out the storm on that animal crowded boat for forty days. Moses led the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness. For forty days Jesus, himself spent forty days in the wilderness with the devil, where he was tempted and tested. In each of these three narratives there is wilderness, God’s presence is experienced, and it is in preparation for a greater thing that is coming: the promise of God’s protection in a new world, the promised land awaiting God’s people, and the promise of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection.

There will be times in our lives where our circumstances force us into the wilderness, but rarely do we intentionally choose wilderness. Like the story of Little Red Riding Hood being told not to go off the path, we have heard over and over again that choosing the harder path will certainly lead to tragedy. Fasting is a wilderness practice. It is something that we do that separates us from the conventional “path,” leading us into the wilderness. Choosing to go without something that is life giving is choosing to be less-than, choosing to be outcast. But remember the lesson of Isaiah’s audience: this wilderness is not to be chosen for the sake of being outcasts, but for the sake of putting outcasts before ourselves.

SLIDE 15 - Presbyterians TodayAs God’s humor would have it, after I had decided that the Lenten sermon series would be on spiritual practices and planned out the various weeks, we received this month’s “Presbyterian’s Today.” This whole issue is based on spiritual practices, with a special article on fasting. In it, Dave Peterson, pastor of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston writes of his own experiences with regular fasting, he says:

“We don’t fast to impress people or to demonstrate our piety or our zeal; we don’t fast to get something from God. There will likely be other benefits to fasting, but its central motive is simply fellowship with God.” [2]

When we spend time focusing on God, rather than our own needs and self-interest, God’s will will hopefully come to the surface.

As Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, our New Testament passage tells us in Luke 4:5-7 that:

“the devil led [Jesus] up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’”Slide16

Like a mirage in the desert, the devil is offering things that he cannot promise. Who wants all the kingdoms of the world when you can be a part of the kingdom of heaven?

When we fast we acknowledge that there are things that the nourishment of this world cannot provide, that the food of this world is only temporary, and that the substance of God is eternal. If we can get past the physical hunger, a deeper hunger gets satisfied.

The real question of the practice is: when you give up something, who is it benefiting? If we are fasting to try to earn God’s favor or to show how religious we can be, we are fasting in vain. Fasting is not for our glorification, but for the glorification of God.

SLIDE 17 - JesusChrist fasted in the desert and was tempted throughout those forty days, but his faithfulness did not waver, no matter what was offered to him. He knew that anything the devil had to give, was far less than what was found in God’s eternal kingdom. In this action he foreshadowed his faithfulness on the cross: the ultimate emptying of oneself. And all of God’s created people benefitted from his self-denial.

In the better fast that Isaiah describes we are being called into a change of our mindset, we are called to take up something that’s going to benefit someone else. We are called to deny the temporary pleasures of this world, for the ultimate future of salvation. May we embrace this, the better fast, throughout Lent and into the rest of our lives. Amen.


[1] Thomas W. Currie, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 4

[2] Dave Peterson, Presbyterians Today, January/February 2013, p. 23