Holy Perspective – Sermon on 1 Samuel 16.1-3

1 Samuel 16.1-13
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord look on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

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One of the things I enjoy most about meeting with couples, and talking about weddings, is the invitation I offer for them to pick a particular scripture for their weddings. Now, I always have backups prepared just in case they are unable to come to a consensus or if they are just unfamiliar with God’s Word. But most of the time, they are willing to look around for something.

Many couples will choose the oft-mentioned 1 Corinthians 13 passage: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

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Others will pick something along the lines of the regularly misinterpreted Ephesians 5 passage: Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. Or that great passage from Ruth: “Where you go I will go, where you stay I will stay, your people will be my people, your God my God. Where you die I will die.”

The scripture that a couple chooses for their wedding can be quite revealing. It helps to demonstrate where their priorities are, what they expect out of marriage, and frankly, what they want to hear the pastor talk about.

So, you can imagine my surprise, when a couple recently asked me to use the scripture from today for their wedding. Preparing to enter wedded bliss, they didn’t want to hear about love, or marriage, but instead they wanted to hear about Samuel anointing David…

David & Samuel

The people of Israel had demanded a king from their God. For too long they had wandered about without leadership and they cried out for a leader they could follow. Reluctant to provide a human and fallible leader for a people that were supposed to be following their Lord, Saul eventually became king.

Handsomer and taller than any other man in the land, it quickly became clear that Saul was not the right one to rule the nation. He listened to his own heart rather than the Lord, and God eventually rejected him.

Thats where our story begins today. Samuel was sent to see Jesse the Bethlehemite, for the Lord has provided a king among his sons. The prophet took a heifer with him to cover his true actions from the vengeful Saul who might’ve killed him upon discovery.

After arriving, the elders met Samuel with fear and trembling. Turbulent events had always come in the wake of Samuel’s life and the people were responding appropriately. Great men and women always seem to stir up trouble wherever they travel. (It might be worth rediscovering this today in our own faith lives; too often has it been supposed that the role of church is to give all of us peace of mind. Truly I tell you, the greatest churches and sermons are those that challenge us to be better and do more than we already are)

So Samuel begin to evaluate all of Jesse’s sons; first Eliab, then Abinadab, than Shammah, and eventually all of Jesse’s sons had stood before the prophet. But the Lord spoke to Samuel and said, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his statue, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Samuel was caught up with outward appearances. It’s like whenever I go to Alexandria to visit my grandmother, there is always a bowl of skittles out on her coffee table. I love skittles. On the outside the skittles always look delicious, the problem is that I don’t know whether they were put out that day, or six months ago. If you’ve never experienced it, trust me, you would rather have fresh skittles. The point being, you cannot tell how they will taste from the surface.

Anyway, the Lord had promised Samuel that one of Jesse’s sons would be the king, yet the Lord had passed over each one. “Are all of your sons here?” Samuel asked Jesse. “Well, there remains the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” David was beckoned away from his shepherding duties and brought before the prophet. He was ruddy and had beautiful eyes. The Lord commanded Samuel to anoint this boy, for he was the one. So Samuel took the horn of oil, anointed David in the presence of his brothers, and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.

I prepared for the wedding like I have for all the others, I had counseling sessions with the couple, I talked about the major issues that most couples confront once joining together, but the whole time 1 Samuel 16 hung in the back of my head. What was I going to do with the text during the ceremony? How in the world could I proclaim love and wedded bliss in the midst of David being anointed by Samuel.

I was at a shop here in Staunton when I saw a bumper sticker that illuminated the text for me. The bumper sticker said, “Marriage: betting someone half your stuff that you’ll love them forever.” In reading that, I realized what the world sees in marriage is not what God sees. We, myself included, look on marriage and all things with mortal eyes, but the Lord looks on the heart.

All of the sudden 1 Samuel 16 became the perfect wedding scripture! The Lord does not look on our cooly color coordinated outfits, not our perfect hair, not the precise flower arrangements, God looks on the heart. God does not concern himself with the pomp and circumstance of weddings but instead looks at the intentionality of the two being brought together. God does not get caught up with the minor details of all the rights words and ceremony, but cares about the love within two people sharing a life together.

On the outside, marriage looks like it can be sustained by love alone, it appears like a gamble of half of your things, it seems to be a simple agreement to live together. When we look at marital relationships through mortals eyes, we are limited to the surface appearance and we forget to look on the heart.

Marriage is a beautiful and strange thing. Like Samuel pouring oil over David’s head, it can become uncomfortable and weird. At its best, marriage is loving someone knowing that they will not be the same person tomorrow. Its entering into a dance that will evolve over the years with different tempos and time signatures. Marriage is about the inward heart and disposition of two people coming together to share this remarkable thing we call life.

The Lord looks on the heart. This, after all, was a perfect wedding scripture. As I stood before the happy couple, presiding over their marital vows I could tell that their intentions were clear, they were not caught up in all the outside elements, but were committing to their marital covenant together.

In as much as this text fit perfectly for the couple, I believe that it stands as a light in the darkness for churches and Christians today. The Lord looks on the heart – How sad is it then that most human judgments about people are almost always superficial? Those who are physically attractive have many easy advantages in life, while others, by their very appearance, seem to be severely regarded by others.

David was noted by Samuel as being handsome, with beautiful eyes, but he was still one of the least likely candidates to be anointed by the Lord. While his brothers were older and more mature, David was still young and off in the fields tending the sheep. Rather incredibly, while God anointed David to become king, he would have to mature and go through many trials and tribulations before his role would come to fruition. He would have to battle against the mighty Goliath, avoid Saul’s spear in the royal court, and flee for his life hiding in caves before he could event mount the throne of Israel.

In many ways, God ordains each of us, anoints all of our heads, for certain tasks and graces in the world. Some may have occurred already, and many more lie ahead of each of you in your futures.

God does not call the attractive and the strong to bring about his will on earth, he is not caught up with our outward appearance and physical requirements. God is concerned, above all, with our hearts, with our intentions, with our hopes.

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This past week, the Christian organization World Vision made national news. World Vision is a humanitarian agency dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice. Like many other similarly focused organizations, it can operate primarily under the radar and achieve a lot of good in the world. That was, until this past week.

In a public statement issued on Monday, the organization announced that it would begin hiring Gay Christians in legal same sex marriages. Prior to the announcement World Vision required all of its employees to maintain heterosexual practices within marriage to be considered for employment. The new policy was described as symbolic not of compromise, but of Christian unity, with the hope that it would inspire unity among other Christians as well.

After a remarkable amount of public outrage by evangelical Christians, and a significant amounts of threats regarding withdrawal of funding for the organization, World Vision reversed its decision to hire Gay christians in same sex marriages.

In only 48 hours, one of the most open, vulnerable, and incredible acts by a Christian group, devoted to helping sponsor children in need, was reversed. The mission of World Vision, the good that they do in the world, was immediately overshadowed by their hiring policy.

I don’t know what to think about all of this. I don’t know if any of the decisions have been right or wrong. What I do know is that a significant number of people who were being helped and saved by an organization were almost put in jeopardy because an agency aspired for greater Christian unity. It would seem to me, that regardless of opinion, the majority of the response was far more focused on the outward appearance of an organization, rather than their heart and intentionality.

I want to be clear that I’m not trying to say that one side was right, or that one side was wrong, but merely question how far we fallen from the idea that God looks on the heart. Every week we gather in this place to affirm our faith in the God who loves us when we don’t love back, that God listens when we run out of words, and that he desires us to be one in the Spirit when it seems as if we cannot agree on anything.

The Lord said to Samuel, and I believe the Lord is still saying to all of us: “Do not look on appearances or on height, do not look on political ideologies or past deeds, do not judge others lest ye be judged; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

How do you look at others in your life? Are you caught up with outward appearances, judging others before you have an opportunity to really learn their story? Do you see the world through mortals eyes, or do you look at the world the way that God looks at us?

This is a tough Word for us to hear today. God called Samuel to look on David through God’s eyes, with holy perspective. We, in the same way, are called to radically love one another, sacrifice for the body of Christ, and be one in the Spirit with holy perspective. It is not easy, and we cannot do it on our own.

So, may God bless us enough to open our eyes to see the world, and one another, the way that God sees us. Amen.

 

Open My Eyes That I May See

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Devotional – Psalm 130.1-2

Devotional:

Psalm 130.1-2
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!

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The church service went as well as could be expected. The small gymnasium was perfect for the contemporary service setting and most of the chairs were occupied. Like a lot of contemporary services, it began with a succession of three or four songs all focused on praising the glory of God; some of the lyrics included phrases such as: “Your love never fails,” “He’s been so good, so so good to me, Jesus,” and “you are amazing God!” Immediately following the collection of praise songs, there was a time of welcome, a brief reading from scripture, and then a focused sermon with images and themes being displayed on two screens hung from the ceiling.

I don’t remember much about the sermon except for the refrain: “God loves you no matter what!” The preacher’s perfectly executed contemporary outfit (Black Tee-Shirt with Blue Jeans) was matched with a consistently dynamic smile throughout the message. I wanted some of whatever he was having.

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After another dose of positive and uplifting music to close out the service, we were all dismissed to re-enter the world. I stood in the back watching the people neatly file out of the gymnasium, observing sporadic examples of fellowship between people. In the corner I noticed an older woman, clearly frustrated with something, and trying to vent her frustrations to those around her. When it became clear that no one was listening to her, I walked over to ask if something was wrong. “I can’t stand services like this!” she nearly shouted, “Its just too happy!” And with that she threw her complimentary coffee in the trash, and left the building.

Have you ever felt that way in worship? Have you noticed the abundance of smiling faces in worship, discovered the overwhelmingly uplifting nature of some hymns, all brought together with a happy and positive sermon delivered with three primary points? Have you ever felt suffocated by the amount of joy that some worship services attempt to produce?

Christian discipleship is not a blindly happy-go-lucky journey. There should be more time and focus in worship devoted to the suffering that is present in each of our lives (however small or large). The psalmist writes, “Out of the depth I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” Sometimes, the most appropriate form of worship is clenching your fists and shouting out those same words.

So, do not be conformed to the ways of so many churches that appear to say that happiness is a requirement for discipleship. If you are deep in one of the valleys of life right now, I encourage you to cry out to God. If you are on one of the mountaintops of life right now, open your eyes to the needs of those around you, and make God’s presence known through your actions.

If You Knew… – Sermon on John 4.5-15

John 4.5-15
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria? (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

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Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

In the heat of the day, with the sun held straight above, Jesus was resting by a well. He was tired from his recent journey, traveling around Galilee healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and now here he was, sweating under the sun in the middle of Samaria. He had sent his disciples into the local city of Sychar to procure some food and was enjoying some “me-time” by the well when a woman appeared.

Now, you might not know this, but Jesus definitely did; nobody goes to the well at noon. Its too hot out around lunch time when the sun strikes the ground. Most people went either in the cool of the evening of the cool of the morning. At those times the local wells were bustling with women, gossiping about the coming and goings in town, while taking care of retrieving water and washing clothes.

So, at this most bizarre time, a Samaritan woman made her way to the well where Jesus was resting. “Give me a drink” Jesus asked. But the Samaritan woman replied, “Why are you, a Jew, asking me, a woman from Samaria, for something to drink.” You see, at the time Jews did not share anything in common with the Samaritans, let alone using the same cup or even really speaking to one another. Jesus replied, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

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The woman pondered this for a moment and then said, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water. Are you greater than Jacob, who gave us this well, and his sons and animals that drank from it?” Sensing that she was missing the point Jesus tried again to explain, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

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Believing that she finally understood what this strange bearded man was saying, the woman said to him, “Sir, give me some of that water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to drink water.”

Sometimes, no matter how much explaining, no matter how many metaphors you use, no matter how many illustrations, people will not get the point. During the heat of the day, that strange time to draw water, Jesus revealed the depth of his ministry to this unnamed woman and she doesn’t get it. Jesus’ words “If you knew…” are perfect for describing the situation. If she knew who she was talking to, if only she knew what living water was, If she knew then she would have understood. But living water is not necessarily an easy thing to grasp.

I love this story. Its filled with so many wonderful details that could each become their own sermons. For instance, I love the fact that Jesus was tired. Many of us are tired within our lives. A tired Christ therefore must understand what its like to feel this way, as no one else ever could, Jesus could perceive the struggle in the woman by the well just like he knows our struggles. In that small, seemingly insignificant detail we discover that Christ is with us, because he is like us. Its Christ’s humanity that brings him down to us, and in his divinity that we are brought to him.

Another detail: The woman approaches Jesus, but he makes the first step that opens this great story: “Give me a drink.” There is no shadow of a doubt that what draws most people to Jesus is not so much what he gives us as what he asks. We are moved and drawn toward Christ because he looks on us to help, offering us a share in this thing called the kingdom of God. So the unnamed woman is reeled in with this simple request.

Another detail: After a short debate about the historical prohibitions about a Jew and Samaritan interacting with one another, Jesus declares and offers his “living-water,” Though he repeats his description numerous times, the woman misunderstands. How often are we presented with an aspect of the Gospel, perhaps for our entire lives, and we still never really understand what its all about?

So, what is the point of the story? Is there one? Are we supposed to walk away from this feeling Christ’s living water gushing up from within us? Are we supposed to offer Christ’s living water to our friends and family?

In many ways, the focus of the narrative rests in the fact that Jesus, as a Jew, is in enemy territory. The most substantial detail is in the fact that he offers the living water to the least likely of persons: female, Samaritan, we discover later that she was a frequent object of the men in town, the focus of gossip, and isolated from everyone else. It was to the least of these that Jesus attempts to reconcile the divided nations of Samaria and Israel.

One of my professors loved to tell a story about his roommate from college. They were going to school in South Carolina during the height of the Civil Rights movement when my professor’s friend decided to travel to Washington DC in order to participate in a Civil Rights March. Upon returning back to school, the friend relayed what had happened during the trip:

He described that everything was about as normal as you could imagine. he arrived, met up with the people he needed to, marched where he was supposed to, handed out flyers. By the time it was over he was exhausted while waiting for his plane to bring him home. As he sauntered onto the airplane, he sat down in my seat and, you’ll never believe this, he was sitting next to Martin Luther King Jr.
It was the craziest thing. He had gone all the way to DC and here he was, sitting on an airplane, next to his hero.

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“So,” my professor asked, “what happened?!” Well, he got so nervous, and he was sweating, and fidgeting, and rehearsing what he might say, but there was a small problem: Martin Luther King Jr. was asleep. I mean what was he going to do? Wake up the leader of the Civil Rights movement? So he just waited, sitting there, staring at him, watching him sleep. After the flight had nearly reached its destination, he finally opened his eyes. “Dr. King I don’t know what to say. You are my hero. I just traveled all the way to DC to help march for Civil Rights, you are such an inspiration, I am so impressed with…” “Thank you. God Bless.” he interrupted, seemingly ending the conversation. But the young man was undeterred. “Dr. King you don’t understand, you have changed my life, you have opened my eyes to the many opportunities that are not available to others… “I appreciate your kind words son.” Dr King interrupted again. However he was was not finished, “Dr. King, you don’t understand. My father is a racist. I left home because of him and his prejudice. He offered to pay for my college, but I have cut all ties with him. We have not exchanged a word in years because of his racial bigotry.” At this point Dr. King’s eyes widened, he turned his body to face this young college student and he reached out and grabbed him by the collar, “You have got to love your father. Whether he’s racist or not, loving him is the only thing you can do.” And with that he let go, closed his eyes, and promptly fell back asleep. It was at that moment that my professor’s roommate realized that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. really was a prophet, beyond all expectation and assumption.

Woman at the Well

In the story of the woman at the well, Jesus began to reconcile a very old, and very real division between the Jews and the Samaritans. The whole story is about religious tensions and a church which sought to overcome them in the first few centuries. Though portrayed as a simple interaction between two individuals at a well under the heat of the sun, the narrative has major religious implications for us, even today. Just like with Nicodemus, the conversations points to something great and profound that will change the way that we interact in the world.

The gospel, in all its magnificence, is incarnational in its ability to use everyday realities to convey a deeper sense of the divine.

But here’s the problem: when we confront a text such as this we tend to think of it it in large grandiose terms; Jesus reconciled the Jews and Samaritans. There is no church unfamiliar with ancient and large divisions within people: Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Christian, Faithful and Faithless. But, like the man on the airplane learned, sometimes the reconciliation needs to occur much closer to home. 

When Jesus met the woman at the well, he offered the beginning of a new life to the least likely of candidates. Before him stood an unnamed woman, a Samaritan, a polygamist, a focus of gossip, and a isolated individual. The first reconciliation did not take place at a theological council, or a political rally, but it happened face-to-face.

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I would venture to guess, that in all of our lives we have “a woman at the well.” He or she might not be as obvious as the character in our narrative today, but we all know someone who has been ostracized from the group. Whether its that kid that everyone else makes fun of at school, or that politically opposed neighbor you have living down the street, or maybe its someone within your own family. Its sad considering how easy it is for us to cut ties with people around us as if their hearts and souls were just another commodity for us to examine, purchase, and then throw away.

Martin Luther King Jr. sat on a plane next to a young college student and reminded him that the truest forms of Christian living happen at home, within our own families and friends.

Jesus, our Savior, sat at the well and in the simplest of conversations help to re-establish a woman’s life. With simple questions and the beginning of a friendly relationship he gave her the kind of identity that she had lost in her life. He provided her with one of the greatest gifts the world has ever known: he gave her a sense of worth.

“If you knew” was Jesus’ great rebuttal to her ignorant question. How much of our lives are wasted and could be reignited by that little phrase? If you knew that man who stands on the corner every Tuesday morning has nobody else in the world and needs a friend; If you knew that in your own family there is someone who has lost their identity and needs to rediscover a sense of worth; If you knew that your son or daughter wants to reconnect even if you don’t; If you knew that the stranger asking for a drink was actually Jesus; would you do it?

Jesus calls us to love one another. Not just the people we worship with, not just the people who make us feel comfortable, but the last the least, and the lost. Where is the woman at the well in your life? How will you greet her the next time you meet?
Amen.

Devotional – Ephesians 5.10-14

Devotional:

Ephesians 5.10-14

Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

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As I sat here this morning typing the devotional scripture out on my computer, 5006 customers lost power in Staunton, including St. John’s UMC; a particularly fitting moment for reflection on a scripture that discusses visibility, light, and darkness! Everything in my office, the hallway, and the entire church shut off except for my laptop computer (on battery power). Though light was coming in the window, the only thing illuminated within the office was God’s Word staring back at me on the screen: “everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.”

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Instead of staying in my office to write out some narratival reflection on light and darkness, I made my way down the halls to the other part of the building in order to check on our secretary, our teachers, and students in the Pre-School. 

The 4 year-olds thought the power outage was the funniest thing in the world (thats because they think anything can become the funniest thing in the world) and I was greeted with a uproar of laughter when I opened the door to their room. Sensing that my presence was not needed, I went across the hallway to the 2 year-old room; they were having a very different experience. 

The room was silent and dark with the students all huddled together with their teacher in the middle of the room. Because the blinds were drawn, a very limited amount of light was streaming through and it was clear that some of the kids were on the verge of fear. “Pastor Taylor,” one of them began, “Is there a storm outside?” 

Darkness can be a frightening thing. Even though those students had been outside only minutes before, walking in with their parents, the darkness that entered the room brought forth a sense of fear for them. Darkness can envelop us. Darkness can pierce through the deepest core of our souls, because darkness is the unknown.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, he cautioned the gathered body to expose the darkness, and do what is pleasing to the Lord. For you, the darkness might not be as obvious as it was to the 2 year-olds this morning, your darkness might be entirely different and difficult to discover, but the darkness is something that waits for each of us. The unknown can instill in us a sense of fear, often appearing insurmountable; the loss of a job or loved one, the inability to communicate with your children, the loss of independence as you grow older, falling short of parental expectations, etc. 

But friends, Christ’s light shines in the darkness. When the power came back on in the building, the lights in the Pre-School shined brilliantly, bringing a sense of calm back to the students. In the same way, Christ’s light brings brilliance to our lives, reminding us of who we are and whose we are.

So, as you go forth into the world today, I encourage you to try and discover what is pleasing to the Lord, pray for God to deliver from any darkness in your life, and know that Christ’s light shines on, and through, you.

Nicodemus and Sidewalk Chalk – Sermon on John 3.1-17

John 3.1-17

Now there was a pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I had told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

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For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

There was a pharisee named Nicodemus and he came to visit Jesus at night. As a leader of the Jews it was probably best to visit Jesus under the cover of darkness, and when they met together Nicodemus began to ask Jesus about all he had seen and heard. “Teacher, it is clear to us that you have come from God because no one can perform the signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” “You’re absolutely right,” Jesus replied, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

“Now wait a minute Jesus, how can anyone be born after having grown old? Can someone re-enter their mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus calmly answered, “Listen Nicodemus, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be surprised that I told you that you had to be born from above. You know very well that the wind blows where it chooses, you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

“But Jesus how can these things be?!” “Nicodemus, are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? If I had told you about earthly things you would’ve believed,  but now I talk to you about heavenly things and you do not believe. No one has ascended into heaven expect the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Nicodemus_Jesus

Last week we looked at one of the most well known stories from the Old Testament: Adam and Eve in the Garden. Today I could not help myself from proclaiming one of the most well known New Testament scriptures: John 3:16. In the entire biblical canon, both the Old and New Testaments, there must be few, if any, scriptures that have been so remarkably loved by so many as this text. It is simple and to the point. It opens up endless possibilities. It embodies the hope of all Christians. It is beautiful and appealing. It begins with the beginning and stretches into the far reaches of eternity. It proclaims that which is most fundamental to our faith: that God loves us. 

But the scripture today is about so much more than just that one isolated verse. I am thrilled that so many of us have memorized John 3:16, but we cannot forget about the inquisitive soon-to-be disciple named Nicodemus.

What do you make of this pharisee who came to see Jesus in the middle of the night?

 

On Tuesday morning, after gathering with the UMW, I made my way outside onto our back parking lot. After months of cold weather, with mounds of snow continually piling up, the Pre-School was finally able to play outside again. Now, let me be clear: I am just like those children. Having been cooped up in this church all winter I was just as, if not more, excited to run around and play outside. The children all had their plastic cars and bikes, some were running around in circles, others were using the fake gas pump to fill up the cars, (capitalism at its finest) when I saw a box of sidewalk chalk.

sidewalk-chalk

I silently made my way to the middle of the black top with the biggest piece of chalk that I could find and I began to draw. Without saying a word, or drawing attention to myself, the children began to congregate around me in a large circle. “Pastor Taylor, what are you drawing?” I heard one them mutter behind me, and I replied, “You’ll see in a moment.” As I stepped back the children moved with me, and there on the blacktop was a giant head with a wide open mouth. Why? I have no idea, but its what I drew. And without really understanding what I was doing I told the children that I was going to jump in the mouth of this mystery person made out of chalk. If I had said that to any of you, you would have thought that I lost my marbles. But with the children, they believed me, they looked into my soul, and some of them even begged me not to do it. But there I stood crouched with my hands at my side, and I jumped in. Of course I acted as if I was falling in and some of the children laughed, and when I was done, I encouraged some of them to jump in. There was a moment when the first girl stepped forward to the edge of the face. As I saw her prepare to jump in I realized she was unsure of what would happen to her. While rocking her hands back and forth I could see the sense of wonder and imagination brewing within her as she jumped right in.

Thats what Nicodemus was like. Jesus is known for having said that whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. Nicodemus had a childlike and inquisitive faith. When confronted with the man of many wonders, Nicodemus wanted to jump right in to learn more about this new kingdom. While his contemporaries scoffed at the new teaching, Nicodemus’ imagination allowed him to see deeply into the truth of Jesus.

The other leaders of the synagogues were already muttering with irritated resentment regarding this so-called teacher who was beginning to develop a following. They disagreed with his strange ways, his strange teaching, and his strange disregard for authority. Nicodemus, however, felt there was indeed something strange about Jesus, but it could not be dismissed so easily. To Nicodemus, God was still speaking through people, and to his ears there was something in this new proclamation worth considering.

So, under the cover of night, Nicodemus went to learn more. He wanted to see for himself, he desired to hear from the man himself, to question and to learn. Instead of giving into the rumors, Nicodemus wanted to base his understanding on first hand experience. He could not settle for hearing about the man, but instead needed to jump straight into the abyss of the Son of Man.

In his willingness to question Christ we discover that Nicodemus was a great man who possessed enviable qualities. While suffocated by the surrounding culture and religions assumptions and expectations, he somehow managed to exhibit an open-mindedness that broke the chains of religious limitation. 

Moreover, Nicodemus is one of the best examples of discipleship. By the end of the gospel account Peter will have denied Jesus in a shameful panic, the rest of the disciples will have scattered or run off into hiding. For all practical purposes, the story had come to a close. But Nicodemus, this strange pharisee from our story today, openly stood forth as one of Jesus’ only remaining friends. Nicodemus dared to risk the punishment of superiors, the resentment of his peers, by paying the last loving rites to the dead body of Jesus that would have been treated as trash by anyone else.

Nicodemus is an understatedly important figure in the Gospel for us in the life of the church. He is so familiar to us, because he is just like us. He asked the kind of questions that many of us would have asked, had we been there with our Lord.

If you take a step back from the account, what Jesus was talking about sounds impossible. How can someone be born anew? Jesus simply responds to our misunderstanding and confusion; its not about being physically reborn as a child, but about being born anew in such a way that you can reorient your life. We must be born anew. Our prayer and our hope should be rooted in the desire to be recreated. Make me another kind of being from what I am. Renew a steadfast spirit within me. Create in me a clean heart. Do all this, O God, so that I can lead a different life. 

The whole point of the gospel is that God can achieve the impossible. Just as God can raise Jesus from the dead, God can achieve the impossible with you and me. And he does it! We see it happening in other peoples lives, our wayward friends who reorient their lives for the better. We have experienced it on some measure in our own lives however small or large. How does God change us? Ah, says Jesus, that is part of the great mystery. The wind comes who knows how, cleansing, refreshing, and then before we know it, its gone.

For God all things are possible. We can be born anew. We can find a new orientation for our lives no matter how young or old we may be. But even greater than this, is the promise of eternal life.

Jesus ends his conversation with Nicodemus with the, now famous, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Martin Luther, the great protestant reformer once said, “If I were as our Lord God, and these vile people were as disobedient as they are now, I would knock the whole world to pieces!” We consistently make a mockery of God’s love by continually disobeying his commands, and by ceasing to love others as we love ourselves. How can God love us when we ruin everything he created including ourselves?

God loves us, because God is love. God loves the world; his foolish, blundering, wayward, and sin sick world. This love utterly breaks through our foolish conceptions of what love means and is; God’s love runs out to lengths that sounds incredible to our human ears because we could never return that same love.

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God is like that remarkable parent who continues to love a child through all the wrong decisions and failures. Picking them up from the police station, driving them back to rehab, sitting with them night after night helping with homework, loaning them money when they fall on hard times. The only difference being that when our love for our children fails, his love for us remains steadfast.

God proves his love toward us by doing all that God can do, and giving all that God can give to help us; stretching himself even to sacrifice his only Son, and hold back nothing.

Thats what Nicodemus learned from his time with Jesus. That in the impossible mystery of God’s created order, God’s love knows no bounds, was made manifest in Christ’s death on the cross for you and for me and for the whole world.

Let us all strive to live like Nicodemus. Let our faith be inquisitive and exciting. Let us all prepare to jump into the unknown, to fearlessly step into a relationship with the triune God, and above all remember that great scripture: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. To God be the Glory.

Amen.

 

Devotional – Psalm 95.6-7

Devotional:

Psalm 95.6-7

O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice!

Weekly Devotional Image

“Have any of you ever worked on a farm?” my CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) supervisor once asked during a reflection session. My group had been gathering every Monday for the past few months to talk about different interactions with patients from Duke University Hospital, and what it meant to be pastorally present in suffering. At the end of a particularly laborious day, our supervisor asked his question about farm life. Most us us had grown up in the suburbs, and therefore had limited experience of farm life. So as we shook our heads in response to his question, he continued on. “Well, when working on a farm you often get the chance to interact with a variety of animals. The cows have to be milked regularly, the chickens’ eggs have to be collected, and, at some point, you’d have to deal with the sheep.”

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“Sheep are by far the dumbest animals I’ve ever seen. They are pathetically dependent on a shepherd to watch over them. They are have no sense of direction, often wandering off into oblivion. They are defenseless, prone to becoming a easy snack for any predator. And they are just plain dumb.” (At this point in the conversation, the rest of us were waiting for him to make his point after having rambled about the idiocy of sheep) “And that why I love the fact the we are the sheep, and Jesus is our shepherd. We can be so dumb sometimes, and we so desperately need our Shepherd to help us figure out whats going on.

The psalmist writes, “We are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice!” In many ways, the analogy of discipleship to wandering like a directionless sheep is fitting. How often to we stray from the path that we know is right? How often do we succumb to the temptations (predators) around us in our daily living? And the psalmist tells us exactly what to do when we find ourselves acting like the sheep that we are: Listen to his voice.

As I have mentioned before, Lent is a great time for us to re-evaluate where we are with our God. Are we prone to wandering off like a defenseless sheep in our lives, or are we listening for the voice of our great Shepherd who watches over his flock? Today, let us all recognize our foolish ways that drive us away from God, reorient ourselves back to the great “I AM,” and above all, listen to his voice through prayer, reading scripture, and reconciling our relationships with those around us. 

The Temptation of Temptation – Sermon on Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7

Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

tree_of_life

The Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

In the entire range of the world’s writings, it would be immensely difficult to locate any passage so brief that has had such immense influence on human thought. I have heard this scripture preached upon countless times, I can remember learning about it in confirmation class years ago, and I can vividly remember struggling with the text as I attempted to explain it to pre-school age children during a particular Vacation Bible School. The story of Eden is so well known and discussed that even most self-affirmed “non-religious” people can even explain what took place in the Garden. 

This passage has been debated, ripped apart, examined, micromanaged, and exegeted for centuries. Generations of Christians have dwelt upon these verses unlike any others to explain the introduction of sin into the world through the one man, Adam.

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I know a family that had it all together. The husband and wife always sat next to one another in church, fingers wrapped together as they listened to the sermons week after week. The children were all attractive, known in the community for their well-behaved manners, regular fixtures on the honor roll at school. Because of their wide interests and pursuits the family was known throughout many of the segmented areas of the community; sports, music, drama, politics, faith, etc. On the surface they were that perfect family. Others families would often hold them up on a pedestal and compare their own flawed family to this ideal one. Why can’t my children work harder like theirs? Why don’t our parents love us as much as theirs do?

What no one realized, was that underneath the exposed public appearance, the family was about to fall apart. I don’t know all the details about what happened leading up to the great schism, I don’t know who was to blame for the many rumors than began to spread around town, but I do know that it began with the husband.

He felt unfulfilled. There was a constant nagging sensation that he deserved more than what he had. Though he had that ideal wife, and the ideal children, with the ideal house, and the ideal job, he believed he deserved more.

Thats when a younger woman appeared in his life. He knew that it was wrong to flirt with her, he knew that it was wrong to lie to his wife about spending time with her, but he did it anyway. As time went on, casual get-togethers became more frequent, the conversations moved from flirting to romance, and soon they were engaged in an affair.

I don’t know if this is true, but I imagine that late at night, when laying awake in his bed he would rationalize what he had done: If she makes me happy how can it be wrong to be with her? I deserve her love. I deserve this kind of happiness in my life.

Eventually he could no longer continue to live the lie. He told his wife what he was doing, without remorse he left her and the children, and started a new life.

Europe_a_Prophecy,_copy_D,_object_1_(Bentley_1,_Erdman_i,_Keynes_i)_British_Museum

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. He gave meaning to existence, brought forth light and life, and populated the earth with his creations. The paramount of this creative work were our first parents, Adam and Eve, made in God’s image. They were given everything they needed: life, land, food, companionship, and purpose. At the beginning of our scripture this morning Adam and Eve were content with all they needed, but they did not have everything. 

Enter the serpent; crafty and wise. He said to Eve, “Did God tell you that you could eat from every tree in the garden?” and she replied, “Of course we may eat the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God told us not to eat the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, not even to touch it, because if we do we will die.” But then the serpent said, “Surely you will not die! God knows that when you eat of that tree your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” At that moment Eve saw the tree in a new light, she believed that it was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and that it would make her wise. So, she took the fruit from the tree and ate, gave some to Adam who also ate, and their eyes were opened. For the first time they realized they were naked and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Real temptation is never an offer to fall, but instead it comes as an offer to rise. Notice: the question was not, “Do you wish to be like the serpent?” but instead, “Do you want to be like God?” The truest forms of temptation are indications of strength, not weakness. We are not tempted to do what we cannot do, but what is within our power. The greater our strength, the greater the temptation.

This is how the seductions of sin and temptation present themselves: Want to know a little bit more about life? Want to be a little bit greater than you are already?

The serpent of life, the deepest part of our imaginations, plays on our condition and places the seed of doubt: I know this is wrong, but if the fruit of it is good, what sense can there be in not enjoying it? The way the serpent tempted our first parents in the garden comes to us still this very day, presenting us the idea that we can know better than God.

Reinhold Niebuhr once asked, “Do we belong to God, or do we belong to the devil? We most certainly belong to God, but we are in danger of becoming the devil by imagining that we are God.” That is true temptation at its most frightening degree; you can be like God! In our pride and lust for power, we begin to define our own understanding of good and evil. We become masters of rationalization for the sins and the wrongs we commit.

Thats what happened to the man from that perfect family. Its what happens to each of us when the temptation of temptation dangles before us. We rationalize ourselves out of making the right choice. We instantly become the center of our own universe, our own god; we become the only thing we worship.

And its not just us. This has been going on throughout the entirety of human history, particularly through what has been revealed in scripture. When God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they reached out for the dangling fruit and consumed it. When God commanded the wandering Israelites to have no others gods before him, they created their own golden calf and began to worship themselves instead. When Jesus called Peter to follow him, Peter was quick to deny Jesus three times as he was being led to the cross. When temptation strikes, it hits us in the very core of our beings, and once it enters the realm of possibility it can be dangerous and evenly deadly.

But the fact remains that we live in a universe which God controls, not us. When God gave each of us the breath of life to exist in this world, to live, laugh, and love, he did not intend that we should take over the school and change the expectations to suit ourselves.

Temptation will confront us whether we ask for it or not, it hangs out like fruit begging to be plucked and consumed. In order to confront our temptations we are called to recognize that we live in a created world where we must accept reality and not believe that we can indulge in every single wayward fantasy. There are some things in life that we are not to have, some prizes we shall not win, and some ambitions that the grace of God will not let us gratify. When our consciences tells us, as it told Adam and Eve, that some particular temptation is not for us, we do well to not rationalize our curiosity or our appetite into an justification for reaching out to take it.

We live in a risky world full of temptations. Some of us are strong enough on our own to resist the constant bombardment of sinful choices, but most us will give into temptation when it appears before us. As Christian disciples we recognize that God means for us to grow in this difficult world, surrounded by influences clamoring for our allegiance. Our call is to not shift our responsibility onto someone or something else, but to make our own creative choices for the good.

Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist everything except temptation.” Many people act as if no one could reasonably be supposed to resist temptation. Temptation is a present element in every life and it comes to everyone. But it is possible to confront our temptation and not yield to their alluring powers. Just because a choice exists, that doesn’t give us reason for choosing the wrong one.

In my experience, one of the best ways to resist the temptation of temptation is to speak them aloud and confess them to our trusted friends or loved ones. The cost of this honesty is a remarkable amount of vulnerability. To confess our weaknesses requires a fundamentally strong trust with others.

So, confession time. One of my greatest temptations is to believe that I deserve this. That somehow I have been blessed with such an incredible community, church, and vocation because I have earned it. That the reason so many new people have been coming to church is because of ME. Now on some level this is true, I have worked hard to be where I am, but there is a remarkable temptation to believe that I have achieved this all on my own. There is a power that comes with the pulpit, a tempting power to become the center of my own universe, to preach myself, to be the shining example for all of you to follow.

The truth, however, is that I am called to proclaim Jesus Christ, and him alone. I am a flawed and weak creature, guilty of sin and falling short of God’s glory. I want all of you to know about this temptation in my life, so that in speaking it aloud I might confront it, and that by making it known all of you can help me battle against it.

For some of us, though, speaking aloud a temptation is too difficult. The amount of vulnerability required to admit a temptation is so staggering that we cannot even imagine sharing it with someone else. Thats okay. There is another way that we can begin to address our temptations. Before sharing it with someone else, we do well to admit our temptations to ourselves. 

WoodFire

In each of your bulletins you will find a blank piece of paper. I encourage you to take it out, and in the next few moments prayerfully consider the temptations in your lives; the true and deep temptations that you wrestle with. Write one of them down on that piece of paper. Admit the temptation to yourself so that you can begin to resist it. When our service ends this morning there will be a fire (in a fire pit) on the front lawn of the church. Throw your confession of temptation into the fire. Let God take that temptation from you. Let the God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, help carry your burden. Watch you paper burn in the fire knowing that God is with you in this life, walking beside you, loving you in spite of your temptations.

(Pause to write down the temptations)

My friends, here we are taking our first steps into the season of Lent. This liturgical journey is always tough. But it gives us an opportunity to confront the different sins and temptations in our lives. Over the next six weeks we can begin to reconcile our broken relationship with God, with others, and with creation. As you prepare to leave from this place, watch your temptation burn in the fire. Repent and believe the Good News of Jesus Christ. Witness the flame of the Holy Spirit consume that temptation in your life knowing that nothing will ever separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.