God’s Great But

John 16.33 (ESV)

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

“Our online worship numbers have gone down week after week even though I keep telling my people to invite more people, and to pray harder, and to read their Bibles. None of it seems to work… I feel like I’m losing my religion.”

“If my son doesn’t get the classes he needs this year, then he’ll never get into the right college and it will ruin the rest of his life.”

“Every time I leave the house I feel anxious about the possibility of catching Covid from someone else not taking the proper precautions.”

Those are three sentences I heard from three different people (a pastor, a parent, and a parishioner, respectively) in the last week. The lingering tribulations and anxieties are quite perceptively present these days and it can feel like there’s nothing we can do about any of them. Whether it’s turning on the news to see another protest, or pundits arguing about the Presidential Elections, to doom-scrolling through Twitter, it seems like the foundations of life are crumbling under our feet 

Or, to put it another way, the world feels like its falling apart.

“I have overcome the world” says Jesus near the end of his earthly life in John 16. And, frankly, that’s the message of the Gospel – The child born to us and for us in the manger, the One nailed to the cross, the One resurrected and delivered from the grave has overcome the world.

Notice: Christ does not say we have overcome the world. Instead, he says, “I have overcome the world.

Not us. 

Whether we’re good or bad, foolish or clever, powerful or weak, we could not (and can not) do what Christ has already done.

It makes all the difference in the world that Jesus says these very words to his disciples, and therefore us. They ring throughout time as a reminder that no matter what tribulations or anxieties occur, Christ has overcome the world. 

And those anxieties and tribulations will come. Jesus doesn’t say we might face hardships, but instead states it as a plain fact: In the world you will have tribulation.

There is tribulation among young people today: tribulations about who they are, their very identities, and fears about what life will bring in the future with all of its rampant uncertainty.

There is tribulation among older people today: tribulations about bodily ailments and infirmities, economic concerns about how to live on little, and thoughts that more lies behind them now than ahead.

There is tribulation among all regarding the pandemic: tribulations about other people and what they can transmit to us willfully or ignorantly, fears over whether life will ever feel normal again, and the ever ticking number of people who have died because of COVID-19.

And the same One born to us and for us, the One beaten, betrayed, and abandoned, the One delivered and resurrected, declares the truth of our tribulations. Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat what life is like, he doesn’t promise sunshine and rainbows. He speaks honestly about the condition of our condition, but then shouts into all of our anxieties: But take heart.

The powerful and glorious But! God’s great Nevertheless! It shines like a beacon in the midst of a tumultuous sea. In the world you will have tribulation – But take heart!

“Take heart,” contrary to how it is often explained, does not mean just think of something else. Nor does it mean run away from your troubles. 

“Take heart” means lifting up our eyes to the hills and see where from where our help comes – it comes from the Lord.

“Take heart” means taking up our hearts with those who have the strength to carry us in the days/weeks/months/years when we feel weak, when the tribulations are too much for us to bear on our own.

“Take heart” means bearing one another’s burdens because no one should have to go through this life on their own.

“Take heart” means resting in the Good News that God has already written the end of the story and we know how it ends.

The Advent of Abram – Sermon on Genesis 12.1-9

Genesis 12.1-9

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abrams took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord apprised to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

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Today we begin our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” Advent comes from the latin adventus which means “coming.” These few weeks are integral to the life of our church in the sense that we are preparing our hearts, minds, and souls, for the coming of God in Christ on Christmas day. This season lends itself to new beginnings, not just in our church, but in each of our lives. This morning we begin with the Advent of Abram.

Wow,” he exclaimed a little too loudly as he began gripping deeply into my shoulder. I found myself staring at one of the groomsmen from the bridal party. We had spent the better part of an hour attempting to line everything up for the wedding during the rehearsal and were now at the Mill Street Grill for the rehearsal dinner.

Wedding rehearsals are crazy; a conflation of friends and family gather together in a church they have never seen, and listen to a pastor they have never met, telling them where to stand and what to do. In no other aspect of ministry is the metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep more appropriate than when I plead with the groomsmen to pay attention and start acting appropriately. Things would go so smoothly if the groomsmen would act like the bridesmaids.

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Anyway, I was staring at the groomsmen when he began to lay on the compliments about how well the rehearsal went and how impressed he was with my disposition. “I can’t believe you’re a pastor! I mean, dude, you’re younger than me! And the way you pray, it sounds like you’re actually talking to God, and for real that was awesome.” I will admit that people are rather honest with me, particularly when the rehearsal dinner has an open bar.

A little later another young person from the bridal party came forward to introduce herself and began opening up about her faith. “It has been a long time since I was in a church, but hearing you speak and seeing how serious you are about all this has reignited my faith; If I lived around here, I would want to worship at St. John’s.”

Still later another young man from the wedding walked over and began speaking to me through jovial chuckles and slaps on my back. “Now man I have got to ask, that good looking girl with the blue eyes, are you two together? Cause if not I would love to get her number.” To which I replied, “Till death do us part” and I walked away.

Conversations as a pastor are often one sided: people bring their own sets of questions and baggage about the church and they are looking for me to confirm their suspicions. “Are you really allowed to be married?” “I never knew pastors could be so young” “What do you think about the Catholic church?” are all frequent elements of dialogue.

However, toward the end of the night, after the last call had been made from the bar, yet another groomsmen came forward. At this point I was getting tired of the same trivial conversations about how I knew the bride, what it takes to become a pastor, and how long had I felt called to the ministry. I am sure that I sighed as he came forward, but his question was unlike any of the others…

“How long have you been serving here?” “It’s been about a year and a half” “Is it still everything you thought it would be?” 

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To follow a call from God may be a costly matter, particularly when it leads to a lonely road. Abram was tasked with following the call of God to leave everything based on God’s Word.

One day, an ordinary day, the Lord told Abram to go from his country and his family to the land that God had prepared with the promise that God would make of him a great nation, he would be blessed, and his name would become so great that he would be a blessing. So Abram went.

The simplicity of “so Abram went” is one of the most deceptive phrases in all of scripture. The extraordinary nature of those three words are lost in Genesis 12 if we gloss over it too quickly. Abram was free from indecision, self-doubt, or stubbornness. His willingness to go is the opposite of what took place in the garden of Eden, and demonstrates a radical dependence on the providence of God.

Abram must turn his back on what had been the familiar and the friendly to go out toward the unwelcome and the unknown. His life would be forever changed in his decision to respond to God’s simple push, something that changed the history of humankind.

The call of Abram is not unlike the many callings that God places in each of our lives. It might not come in the definitive and spoken Word as if from the wind, but there are subtle moves and pushes that God does in order to bring about his will on earth. Many people prefer to stay where they are and as they are rather than to try hard to arrive at something different. Once they reach a level of comfort in their lives, they become content with keeping their eyes trained on the dirt instead of gazing up into the stars.

People of apathy appear throughout the bible, people who might have made their lives significant but never wanted to put their effort in to change. The likes of Esau, Jonah, and Solomon grew complacent with their blessings, and stopped dreaming about the future. Their failure was not generally aiming at anything bad as it was in the fact that they did not aim strongly enough at anything!

Abram could have been apathetic, but instead he responded enthusiastically. He took his wife, his brother’s son, and all his possessions and set forth toward the land of Canaan. When he arrived, God made it clear that this would be the place of his offspring, and Abram made an altar to praise the Lord.

Abram might have accepted the divine message with the momentary enthusiasm of a man who is proud to feel that he has been singled out for something special, but quickly cools when he finds where he must go.

Is is still everything you thought it would be?” As soon as I was asked images from the past year and a half floated through my mind – the baptisms, the deaths, the weddings. The tears spilt in my office, the dreaded phone calls from the hospitals, the shaking hands gripped in prayer. The kids laughing in the Preschool, the palms outstretched for communion, the knocks on the door that carried the weight of the world.

Has my enthusiasm cooled? Is this call to ministry everything I thought it would be? I always dreamed about the sermons that would get people to shout AMEN! from the pews. I dreamt about the people who I would help bring to the light of Christ, people whose lives would be radically transformed through God’s Word from this church. I dreamt about all the positive affirmations I would receive from people at the back of the sanctuary following worship.

The more time I have spent following this call from God, the more that I have realized how similar it is to Abram’s journey. Responding to God is not about the results, packed pews, lots of money in the offering plate, and people lining up to commit their lives to Christ. Responding to the call is about walking the lonely path, standing up for what is right, and calling all of us, including myself, to live better and holier lives. 

Moreover, the call is not just for pastors, but for all of us as Christians. God is not looking for people to say all the right things at the right times, people who will proudly place money in the offering plates, people who have perfect posture in prayer. God is looking for disciples who are willing to say “yes” when the world says “no”, people who fight against injustice, and go into the unknown like Abram.

God tells Abram that he will be blessed in responding to the call. The bible makes it very clear that a person can know and recognize their blessedness not when they have managed to get rid of all the dangers and risks and burdens, but when they have been given great and gallant strength to bear them.

The collective group can only move forward when an individual breaks the path ahead. On every level of life there must be a pioneer. Joseph had to dream dreams that went beyond what his brothers wanted, Moses had to stand before the Lord and plead for the forgiveness of God’s people, and Jesus had to push his friends further and farther than they ever wanted to go.

Only when people are brave enough to rise above the crowd, only when they set out on new beginnings, do they follow the roads of freedom for their souls.

The past week has been filled with frightening examples of our need to start standing up against the crowd mentality of our culture:

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We need a new beginning when it comes to the foolishness of sitting around a family table to give thanks, to then punch one another in the face while wrestling for Black Friday deals. 

We need a new beginning when it comes to a nation flocking to Facebook to express their opinions about what is going on in Ferguson, when they neglect to create real and meaningful relationships with those around them. 

We need a new beginning when it comes to our denomination meeting for a day of “holy conferencing” about homosexuality when we keep talking about it as an “issue” instead of it being about people. 

We need new beginnings all around us, and its up to people like you and me to listen like Abram and start walking down the strange new road.

Wherever Abram went he built an altar to the Lord. While responding to the call of God he recognized the importance of worshipping the Maker in whom we live for the true blessings of life. Having a new beginning implies understanding that worship is important for the cultivation of one’s soul. We gather here in this place week after week to hear the Word of God and respond to it in our lives, we gather to feast on the Word so that we can encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ to take radical steps of faith into new beginnings just like Abram.

Abram left it all for a new beginning in a new place. He traveled as the Lord commanded and wound up in the hill country on the east of Bethel. Many years later a young virgin named Mary and a man named Joseph traveled to Bethlehem for a new beginning in a new place. They traveled as the Lord commanded and wound up in a village without space at the inn, but brought a child into the world who changed everything.

Is it still everything you thought it would be?” the man asked. I thought for a long time before I responded, reflecting on all that has happened to our precious church over the last year and a half. “No, its not everything I thought it would be. It is so much harder. But thats why its worth it.”

Amen.