“It’s Alive!”; Hebrews 4:12-16; October 11, 2015; FPC Holt

“It’s Alive!”
Hebrews 4:12-16
October 11, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2015 10 11 Slide01When I was in third grade I received my first Bible. This red “Good News Bible,” with my name printed on the inside cover. I remember standing up in the front of the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, Ohio and being handed this brand new fresh Bible. I was so excited, beaming from ear to ear, proud that my church was entrusting me with such a very important gift: the word of God!

2015 10 11 Slide02And then, after the service I went up to Sunday school, Bible in hand. A friend of mine grabbed mine to check it out and I’ll never forget this moment, she opened it and I heard a distinct ripping noise. I was horrified. I’m not sure if I started crying or not, but I know I thought about it. Here I had this brand new Bible and now it was ripped! It was no longer new. It was no longer special. I was so upset.

Though it is rational to get upset when something you have is ripped, I was upset for the wrong reasons. I wanted my Bible to stay clean and pure, to stay just like I had received it. I thought that this rip meant that I had messed up God’s word! I thought it meant that I was not responsible enough to have such a holy book in my library.

2015 10 11 Slide03I didn’t understand that though one page was ripped ever so slightly, the words were intact. The importance of this book was intact. God’s promises were intact. The troubling thing with this sort of reaction towards a slight marring of God’s word is that it places the emphasis on the physicality of scripture, as if somehow my copy was the only one, and my “ruining” of this book was messing up God’s message. Thankfully, maintaining scripture was not the sole responsibility of my third grade self.

2015 10 11 Slide04For thousands of years scripture was transmitted from person to person by storytelling. God’s truth was whispered in back alleys, told over kitchen tables, 2015 10 11 Slide05 drawn out in the sand, and shouted from street corners. God’s message of love and hope and redemption and grace and joy can no more be contained to this little red book than God can be contained by our human understanding of God. As a third grader, I didn’t understand that.

I begrudgingly opened my now less than perfect Bible and tried to figure out what it had to say to me. And you know what, even though it was not so perfect in physical appearance it spoke to me a message of grace and truth. It told me that I, Bible-ruining as I may be, was a child of God. It told me that God has a call for my life. It told me that God loved the whole world and that I was a part of making sure that the whole world knew that truth. I was now tasked with whispering this word, writing it in the sand, and shouting it from street corners. These messages of less than perfect disciples and inadequate preachers whom God had tasked with the bringing about of the Kingdom of God leapt off the page and into my heart.

2015 10 11 Slide06 The beginning words of the Gospel of John speak to the enduring timelessness of God’s word throughout time and tradition: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” [1]

The word of God is so much more than the Bible itself, this passage tells us the Word was God. Through the person of Jesus Christ, the living incarnation of God, the holiness of God was lived out in human experience. Through a blameless life and a selfless death Christ lived the Gospel message that love is stronger than hate and life has the final word over death.

The truth of this living word echoes throughout our Biblical texts, breathing life and grace into the written word. When we read this written word we too are welcomed into this eternal story of God’s enduring truth, of the lived reality of grace.

Each and every Bible is a unique sort of book because it is so much more than a work of literature, a book of poetry, or a nice story about the history of people who lived long ago.

Princeton Professor John P. Burgess writes, “The Old and New Testaments offer much more than information about God. They set forth the living Christ and invite us into relationship with God. In this sense, the Bible is the word of God – not because it is correct in every historical or scientific detail, but rather because it witnesses to what God has done and continues to do in Christ.”[2]

2015 10 11 Slide08Psalm 119 gives us instructions on how to take in this amazing story, the story of God and of us. In verses 12-16 it says, “Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes. With my lips I declare all the ordinances of your mouth. I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”

To truly allow God’s word to be alive in us and in the world around us, we need to experience it. We can’t mediate on God’s word if we have not read it. We cannot fix our eyes on God’s way unless we learn about God’s way through scripture. But also we cannot call ourselves followers of Christ, if we allow our devotion God’s word to stop at the reading of scripture.

2015 10 11 Slide09We read in Hebrews 4 today, “the word of God is living and active.” We read the words of Jesus in John 14:12, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” What are we to do with scripture than, if not to let it guide us to “live and move and have our being”[3] in response to God our creator.

Favorite preacher of mine, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about the danger of preferring time with the written page over enacting God’s lived out word. She writes, “If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape.  Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake.”[4]

2015 10 11 Slide12Being a part of bringing about God’s living and active word in this world is certainly more complex than simply listening or reading scripture, and so it can be hard to know where to start. An overwhelmingly present example in our world today is the care and wellbeing of refugees, particularly in Syria.

Throughout history Jewish and Christian tradition have placed emphasis on hospitality towards refugees, with repeated reminder that God’s people have so often been the stranger. Exodus 23:9 says, “Don’t take advantage of a stranger. You know what it’s like to be a stranger; you were strangers in Egypt.” In Leviticus 19:34 we read, “When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of him. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt.” In total, there are 36 biblical warnings against the mistreatment of strangers; 36 Biblical warnings.

And yet we sit overwhelmed both by the present situation of international distress and the overwhelming Biblical mandate to do something about. What are we to do? How can we enact God’s word in this story still taking shape?

Stated clerk of our denomination, Grayde Parsons wrote this week,  “Presbyterians profess a faith in Christ, whose parents were forced to flee with him to Egypt when he was an infant to save him from King Herod. Knowing our Lord was once a refugee, faithful Presbyterians have been writing church policy urging the welcome of refugees and demanding higher annual admissions into the United States since the refugee crisis of World War II. … Presbyterians through decades of policy have demanded humane treatment of people of all nationalities and faiths who find themselves within our borders. We have challenged our government when it neglects to acknowledge the refugee status of those fleeing persecution. We have pushed for due process at the border and we continue to petition for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented persons.”[5]

Through supporting these efforts of our denomination, and joining our voices with those speaking for justice we enable God’s word to speak hope to those in need of hope.

2015 10 11 Slide15In this very church and community there are many opportunities for you to extend God’s love and welcome to those who are seeking home and sanctuary through relationship with Global Family Fellowship. I’m sure Lazara, Gary, and Trudy would be delighted to find ways to connect you with those in need of the very welcome and connection that the Bible urges us to provide.

When we open ourselves to proclaiming God’s word in our actions, relationships, and livelihoods, we can share in the confidence of the prophet Isaiah who said, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” May we indeed accomplish God’s purpose. May God’s word come to life in us and through us, as we seek to speak and live God’s word into being. Amen.

[1] John 1:1-4

[2] John P. Burgess, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4

[3] Acts 17:28

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith

[5] http://www.pcusa.org/news/2015/10/2/clerk-issues-letter-trump-refugees-immigrants/

“Known;” Psalm 139 and Hebrews 4:12-16; October 14, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Known”
Psalm 139 and Hebrews 4:12-16
October 14, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

This week I adopted a dog. His name is Bailey and he’s a sweet little four year old terrier. Anyone who’s had a dog in their lives before will have an idea of why he came to mind as I was reading these scriptures this week. The second verse of our Psalm today sums up a dog’s attitude towards their owner quite well: “You know when I sit down and when I rise up… You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.” Dogs have a way of following your every move. They’re interested in what you’re doing and interested in what your goings on might have to do with them.

And when I read Hebrews’ account of God’s word being like a “two edged sword” and “all must render an account,” I thought of the Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy and company approach the wizard to ask to go home, for courage, for a brain, and for a heart, he angrily bellows “I know why you have come.” The wizard knows their ways, having had watched them all along, and requires that they do as he asks before he will fulfill their desires.

Our two passages today speak of God’s knowledge of us, describing God as knowing us in a way that falls between Bailey’s inquisitive and encouraging attentiveness and the Wizard’s frightening omniscience. God dotes on us with love and examines us with judgment.

Our Psalmist’s relationship with God is one of joy, praising God for being fearfully and wonderfully made. The psalmist speaks of God’s knowledge of him from the very beginning his life, how God knew every detail of him even when he was still in his mother’s womb. In Hebrews chapter 4 God’s Word is described like a sword, separating out soul from spirit, bringing judgment to thought and intention.

In both passages, God is spoken of as knowing every detail of our lives, both good and bad. Whether we take initiative for a relationship with Christ or try to ignore God’s impact on the world, God is still aware of all that we are and what we do. When we open our hearts to God we open our lives to God’s judgment, but also to God’s grace.

Presbyterian pastor, Robert Boyd Munger wrote a sermon called “My Heart, Christ’s Home,” that speaks of welcoming Christ into our lives through the metaphor of welcoming someone into your house. At first he is excited to have Christ in his house. Christ makes the darkness light, builds a fire on the hearth and banishes the chill. Then he tells Jesus, “Lord, I want this heart of mine to be Yours. I want to have You settle down here and be perfectly at home. Everything I have belongs to You. Let me show You around.”

He shows Jesus the house, room by room. As he watches Jesus look at the house he sees things in a different light. In the study, his mind, he realizes there are books, magazines, and pictures he’s not proud of, and asks Christ to help him to be filled with scripture and images of Christ. The dining room is a room of his appetites, his favorites being, “money, academic degrees and stocks, with newspaper articles of fame and fortune as side dishes.” Jesus did not eat of those things, but instead tells him of satisfaction that can be found by fully pursuing God alone.

Jesus continues through the house, asking to go into each room, and he lets him in but becomes more and more reluctant when Jesus wants to be let into his relationships, the work that he does, and the way that he spends his time. Then, they get to the hall closet, the place of hidden things. There’s an odor that emanates from this closet that he is unwilling to deal with, but when he hands Jesus the key, Jesus cleans it out in a moment. Finally, he decides to entirely transfer the deed to his heart to Jesus, in the knowledge that he cannot keep this house of his heart clean on his own.

Just as this man decided to surrender the house that is his heart to Christ, we are called to surrender our lives to Christ. This does not mean that we offer up just the pretty and cleaned up parts of our lives, but that we share all parts of our lives with Christ.

In Psalm 139 the psalmist says, “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.”

God is ever present in the world and desires to be ever present in our lives. Even when we strike out on our own, intentionally following darkness, God is still there beside us. When we run away from what God has called us to be and do, God is still there beside us.

Once we are aware of God’s presence in the world, our ignorance or inaction are both acts of disobedience. Through God’s creative act of bring each of us into the world God has placed a call on our lives for a relationship with God’s self.

Galatians 4:8-9 says, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?”

When we welcome Christ into our lives, we are inviting both affirmation and judgment.  As we read in Hebrews 4:13: “Before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

There is no hiding from God. God has known us since time began, and will continue to know us through eternity. God delights in who we are, but is not naive to the good and the bad that we allow to occupy our lives. We should be prepared for the correction that comes by fully opening our hearts to Jesus Christ.

Author Anne Lamott writes in her book, “Traveling Mercies,”: “God loves us exactly the way we are, and God loves us too much to let us stay exactly the way we are.”[1]

Christ desires to clean up the house of our hearts, to sweep away all things that are harmful for us. Only when we welcome Christ into our hearts can that sort of cleaning begin.

Hebrews 4:14-15 says, “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Author John Burgess points out that as these verses follow the passage we just discussed about being laid bare before God, these verses cause us to “wrestle with the theological tension between God’s word to us and our words to God, between God’s judgment that lays us bare and God’s grace that empowers us to ask help of God in our time of need, between God’s claim on us and our claim on God by virtue of Christ’s saving work…The God who places us under judgment is the very God who loves us and sympathizes with us in every respect.”[2]

Jesus Christ came to earth and experienced deep pain, loss, grief, and struggle. We needn’t be afraid to face God with complete honesty and candor. God can take our anger, cursing, crying, whining, and confessing. When we come to God, especially in our weakness, we express our deep need and desire for God’s grace.

The good news is God doesn’t leave us in our own sinfulness. God brings it to the light and then washes it clean. Through Christ we do not have to assume the punishment for our sins. Christ has already taken on our sins through his death and resurrection. There is nothing we can do to deserve God’s love and nothing that we can do that will stop God from pursuing us. God knows us intimately and yearns for us to know God’s self in the same way. Let us open our hearts with honesty and with joy and receive God’s grace. Amen.


[1][1] Anne Lamott, “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith”

[2] “Hebrews 4:12-16, Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4