Give Me Joy Or Give Me Death

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

I am convinced that the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve are some of the noisiest days in the year. There’s the noise of scratching together the proper shopping list, the boxes of decorations being dragged down from the attic, kids screaming in the car on the way to the grandparents’ house, extra services at the local church, and boxing other people out to buy the perfect present at the mall.

And right at the beginning of all this noise, the time of frenetic and frantic noise, we have Christ the King Sunday.

Like many Sundays throughout the liturgical year, this one has a special focus and significance. However, Christ the King Sunday is a more recent addition to the church calendar. Whereas Christians have celebrated the likes of Maundy Thursday and Pentecost for a long long time, Christ the King was only established as an official day in the liturgical year in 1925. It took the church nearly 1900 years to need this day the same way that we need it now.

In 1925, Mussolini had been in charge of Italy for 3 years, a loud insurrectionist in Germany named Hitler had been out of jail for a year and his Nazi party was rapidly growing in power, and the entire world was suffering under the weight of a Great Depression.

Yet, despite the rise of autocratic dictators, despite the lack of economic opportunities, despite the strange and uncomfortable silence between the two World Wars, Christ the King asserted, and still does, that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Jesus the Christ is Alpha and Omega, the one to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance. This psalm and this day are a reminder of our first and primary allegiance to the Lord.

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Make a joyful noise to the Lord, everyone! Praise the Lord with glad and generous hearts; come into the presence of God and sing your hearts out. Know that the Lord is God. The Lord made us and we belong to the Lord. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. With every breath give thanks to God and bless the name of the Lord. God is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

We praise and sing with joy because God in Christ is the Good Shepherd. We jump to our feet and throw our hands in the air because God has already done so much for us.

But if we’re honest, sometimes it feels hard to praise God during this time of year. For some of us, all those decorations and all those songs don’t hold the joy they once did.

Rather than hopeful in expectation, we are fearful in deliberation. Instead of thinking about all the God has done for us, all we can think about are all the things we still have to do. And instead of praising God with a joyful noise, we struggle to hear God among all the sounds of this season.

The psalmist proclaims a joy for the Lord that cannot be contained, a joy that must be shouted from the rooftops. But most of us don’t want to sing to the Lord in public. In fact, we don’t want to be confused with the type of people who do sing aloud in public places.

However, Christ the King Sunday prepares us for Advent, the season dedicated to waiting for the arrival of Christ on Christmas. This is joyful, praise-filled waiting. And, ironically, in many churches it does not look like the congregation is making a joyful noise to the Lord. Rather, most churches are filled with people singing along looking slightly bored.

Thanks be to God that this church is not like other churches.

Last Sunday, during the 8:30 service, our sound system decided to no longer cooperate when it was time to sing our final hymn “I Am Thine, O Lord.” The whole service had built up to the final hymn and our chance to respond to what God had said, and I sighed as I reluctantly announced that we would be singing it acapella knowing it wouldn’t have the full strength as usual. And just when I was about to start singing the first note, Gloria raised her hand from the choir and said, “Pastor, I can play that one on the piano.”

Friends, I don’t know if we’ve ever sounded more joyful than when we sang that hymn last week. And even at the 11 o’clock service, when I knew ahead of time she was going to play it, I ran over to the drums and joined her for our final hymn and the whole congregation made a joyful noise to the Lord.

It was a shot of joy to the arm, and it was a reminder that the Lord is indeed good.

But it forces us to ask ourselves, “How can we be joyful when so much is wrong in the world?”

When a new widower attends church on a Sunday morning, he hears the familiar words of a Christmas hymn and instead of being transported to joyful memories from the past, all he can think about is the now empty spot next to him in the pew.

When a mother goes to the store to purchase Christmas presents, she goes not with the excitement of how the children will react, but with the fear of how the family will be able to afford it all.

When the refugee woman hears similarities between her story and Mary’s, she cowers in fear upon returning home and wondering if she will be caught and shipped back to her home country.

The kind of joy the psalmist sings about is not a surface-level temporary experience. It is not a fall on the floor guttural sense of laughter that eventually fades.

The joy of the Lord comes because God is still God, even when the world feels like its falling apart.

The joy of the Lord comes because we are still God’s people, even when we feel like we’re all alone.

The joy of the Lord comes because Jesus is King, even when it seems like other people are determining what happens in the world.  

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When we feel the struggle of making a joyful noise amidst all the other noise, we fall back to God’s great gift of music. For music is the magnificent agent that lifts our hearts to commune with the heavenly angelic choir. Music transforms our hearts and minds such that we give thanks to the Lord through our voices, and we know that the Lord is good.

A few summers ago I took a group of youth down to Raleigh, NC for a week-long mission trip. My particular group was assigned to help at the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Every morning we traveled to the facility in order to help lead the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise together, and respond to trivia questions. It was quite the shock to the youth to go from the comfort of their homes and friends and family to sitting in a room full of people with limited abilities and limited communication.

We tried pulling out the bingo cards and reading out the letters and number. I encouraged the youth to dance around the room to get the residents involved, but almost all of them just stared off into space. We even tried leading them through an exercise routine to the music of Michael Jackson, but it was as if we weren’t even there.

To be honest, we felt pretty worthless. Having traveled all the way to Raleigh, it was hard for the youth to feel so unsuccessful with those near the end of their lives. But then I saw a discarded hymnal on a table, and I started flipping through the pages until I found Amazing Grace.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.

All eyes in the room, though previously locked onto the walls and the floor, had all turned to the center where I stood with the hymnal in my hands.

            ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.

            The youth moved closer toward the center and started singing and humming along with the familiar tune that had all heard so many times before.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

The residents started perking up in their wheel chair, even the ones who had nothing to do with what we had done earlier, and some of them even started to mouth the words with us.

            The Lord has promised good to me, his words my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.

The aides and employees who were wandering the hall started gathering in the doorway to watch what was happening, and a few of them even opened their hands and prayerfully joined in one voice.

            Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, a life of hope and peace.

            Everyone in the room was singing or humming along, every resident who was previously lost to the recesses of their minds were found by the time we all joined together for the final verse.

            When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun.

It was abundantly clear that for many of the residents this was the first time they had participated in anything for a very long time. From the tears welling up in the eyes of the employees while watching the people they served each day, to the smiles and wrinkles breaking forth on individual faces, to the youth singing and dancing in the middle of the room, the Lord was giving us the strength to make a joyful noise.

From there we continued to flip through the hymnal and we joined together for a number of hymns. That previously silent room was suddenly filled with the words and tunes of Softly and Tenderly, Stand By Me, I Love to Tell they Story, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and we ended with Victory in Jesus.

            It was one of the most powerful moments in my life, and we get a hint of that same feeling every week when we gather here together.

When I hear all of you say the Lord’s Prayer just as Jesus taught his disciples, with one voice, it sends shivers up my spine. When I look out while the choir is singing and I see some of you on the edge of your seats my heart flutters in my chest. When I open my eyes right before saying “Amen” and catch all of you faithful praying with tightly clenched eyes, I feel the Spirit moving through air.

And I am filled with joy.

Even the sounds that drive some of us crazy: the shuffling around of bulletins from someone in the back row, a toddler crying from a pew, a kid cackling on their way up the stairs toward Children’s Church. These are joyful sounds!

They are a reminder of God’s wonderful majesty and mystery. They are a reminder that God still has work for us to do. They are a reminder that Jesus unites us in a way that nothing else on earth can.

We worship the King of kings in Jesus the Christ. We come into God’s presence with gladness and singing because of all that God has done for us. And in response we can make a joyful noise. Amen.

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Stuck In The Middle

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rev. Matt Hambrick about the readings for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (Judges 4.1-7, Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18, 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11, Matthew 25.14-30). Matt is the pastor of Trinity UMC in San Diego, California . The conversation covers a range of topics including the joy of collecting vinyl records (and why OK Computer is so good), the importance of place-names, the myth of originality, being stuck between joy and sorrow, militaristic language, and using our God given talents. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Stuck In The Middle

 

MH

Devotional – Psalm 34.8

Devotional:

Psalm 34.8

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.

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Last night, after we finished dinner, my wife and I got out the Robin costume for our 18 month old Elijah. The Halloween decorations had been up for weeks, we were stocked with candy for the neighborhood kids, and the time had come to begin trick-or-treating. And, wonderfully enough, this was to be Elijah’s first ever outing on Halloween and the excitement was palpable in the air.

However, once we made it outside we realized that no one else was combing the neighborhood. And, not wanting to be that family, we patiently waited in our front yard until we saw at least one other costumed child before we guided Elijah up to our neighbor’s front door. He only made it to ten houses last night but he ran down every sidewalk with the kind of excitement that leaves parents smiling and giddy with joy.

When we returned to our house, we set up chairs in the front yard and waited to pass out candy to kids from the neighborhood. And for the first fifteen minutes Elijah was fine with sitting on my lap, but at some point he remembered that people had strangely handed him pieces of candy and he wanted it. Lindsey and I quickly agreed that it would be fine for him to have one piece of candy (he’s maybe tasted chocolate all of three times in his life) and when he crunched down on his Kit-Kat bar his eyes lit up like fireworks. For the next fifteen minutes all he said was “mmmmmm” and “more.”

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In some strange way, the kind of excitement and joy that my kid experienced last night is the same kind of excitement and joy that we are privileged to experience in the church. The fleeting sugar rush that entered Elijah’s blood stream eventually disappeared, but the table that we feast at as a community of faith has an everlasting significance. The hope and wonder Elijah had while walking up to other homes is the same hope and wonder we discover when we actually do the good and hard work of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

The challenge of a holiday like Halloween is that there is so much build-up and when its over, its over. But with God we discover something that is truly good; we find a refuge offered without cost.

We can find happiness in this life through experiences of glee and moments of wonder, we can decorate our homes for all of the pertinent holidays, but true happiness comes when we discover that the Lord is good, and that one holy day with God is more powerful than any holiday.

Now What?

1 Peter 1.3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

The existence of the church is a miracle. We live in a world so steeped in the need for scientific, historical, and verifiable fact that the existence of a community based on a person we have never seen is nothing short of a miracle. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ indeed!

However, this profound miracle is not limited to our contemporary world’s desire for things seen and observed.

According to the New Testament, only a scattering of people ever saw the resurrected Jesus after the first Easter. The disciples in the upper room, a smallish crowd heard his teachings, a handful of people saw the ascension. And from them, from their witness, the church was born.

They were filled by the power of the Spirit to live out the resurrection in their lives and it shined brightly wherever they went. They went on to tell their friends and families what they had experienced. They wrote letters to different communities. They traveled around sharing the Good News.

And today, I am sure that each of us can think about someone in our lives who was like those first disciples; we can remember someone whose faith shined brightly wherever they went. It is in large part because of them that people like you and me are receiving the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls.

Today is a strange day in the life of the church; Clergy and church folk often call today “Low Sunday.” It is a terrible name. People refer to it as such because, traditionally, the first Sunday after Easter has the lowest attendance of any Sunday in the year. And there is almost an unavoidable feeling of lowness after the highness of a packed church on Easter only to be filled with the likes of us one week later.

The resurrection of Jesus was not like that. No, it grabbed hold of people in a way never seen before. The inexplicable, unexplainable, and uncontainable event of the resurrection resulted in glorious joy. Like dancing in the streets, laughing on the floor, tears in the eyes kind of joy; a contagious joy that forever changed the fabric of our reality.

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Years ago I read a book by Donald Miller titled Blue Like Jazz and in it he describes his relationship with jazz music: “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside a theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes and he never opened his eyes. After than I loved jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It’s as if they are showing you the way.”

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.

Similarly, I love jazz music. To me, there are few things as wonderful as sitting down and listening to an old Dave Brubeck LP. But I used to hate jazz. I hated how confusing it was, how unmelodic it could be, and how indefinable it was. I hated jazz until I started playing jazz.

12 year ago my high school jazz band needed a drummer and I signed up. I played Christian rock songs every Sunday for my church and I thought, “How hard could it be to play jazz?”

It was hard.

But every day I sat behind the drum-kit until my fingers were blistered and calloused. I watched my peers hold back smiles while blowing into their horns and while their fingers were flying over the keys. In response to their love for the craft I started listening to jazz in my spare time and tapped along on my thighs and countertops. I immersed myself into the strange new world of jazz, and before long I fell in love. I fell in love with the wonderful solo runs that were never the same, I fell in love with the strange time signatures and rhythms, I fell in love with the genre of music I hated because I watched others love it.

How many things in life are like that? How many of our hobbies and cultural obsessions were born out of someone else’s love and obsession?

More than four years ago I received the phone call about coming here. I was with Lindsey in New York visiting my, at the time, soon-to-be sister-in-law when a familiar voice on the other side of the phone said, “The bishop has discerned that your gifts and graces will be most fruitful at St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA.” To which I said, “I think it’s pronounced STAUNton.

I never made that mistake again.

So I looked up the website, searched for any information I could find on Google, and started praying. And I’ll admit, after checking the statistical data and other relevant materials I thought, “How am I going to love these people? I don’t know anything about Staunton, the community, or the church.”

And then at the end of June in 2013 I showed up for my first Sunday. I smiled at all of you and led us through worship, I almost forgot to take up the offering, and when I walked down the aisle after my first benediction I let out an unnecessarily loud and deep sigh.

I knew nothing about what it meant to be a pastor, or even what it meant to serve God in this place. But then I started watching you. Like a saxophone player on the street corner, I watched you close your eyes and make beautiful music in your lives.

I saw your love of God through Marshall Kirby bear-hugging every person that walked into this church, whether they wanted it or not. Through Pam Huggins’ never-ending, and forever-repeating, stories about how God has showed up in her life. Through Alma Driver’s limitless knowledge of who came to this church, where they sat, and what they were like. Through George Harris’ insistence on standing next to me after church to say goodbye to everyone as if he were the associate pastor. Through Dianne Wright keeping Hallmark in business by sending people cards for no reason other than the fact that she wants them to know that God loves them. Through Grace Daughtrey spilling grape juice all over herself while attempting to serve communion. Through Rick Maryman’s brilliant use of timing and rhythms through the hymns we sing and the anthems we hear. Through Dick Pancake’s joining the church after refusing to become a United Methodist for decades. Through Jerry Berry’s theologically probing comments offered after nearly every sermon. Through Ken Wright crawling on his hands and needs to pick the weeds. Through Eric Fitzgerald and Mike Hammer’s willingness to be dressed up like fools for a children’s message. Through Sue Volskis’ continued calls to make sure that everything was going well. Through Leah Pack’s pats on the back after the good, and the bad, sermons. Through Bob Pack mocking me from the back every week. Through Dave Fitzgerald offering to preach a better sermon than I have ever offered.

Through every rolled sleeve to clean dishes; through every casserole provided for a family in grief. Through every committee meeting, every bible study, every Circle gathering. Through every mission trip, hospital visit, and picnic.

I literally could go on and on with the myriad of ways that I’ve seen God’s love through your love but I would break my rule of keeping sermons under fifteen minutes.

What I’m trying to say is this: I learned what it means to love God through all of you. For the last four years I have been blown away by your remarkable capacity to love one another and the Lord.

All of you are the reason that, even though I have not seen Jesus, I love him, because I see his love manifest in you. That is why I rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy. You practice resurrection daily, you are receiving the outcome of your faith, and salvation is here.

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You have taught me what it means to be Easter people. As Easter people there is a “not yet” to the fullness of God’s salvation, but there is also a “now” to the anticipation and joy of that fullness. That alone is reason enough for us to sing and praise the Lord. That alone is reason enough to be filled with a hope that does not disappoint. That alone is reason enough to believe that God truly does make all things new.

By the Lord’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.

In the last four years I have watched people who were spiritually dead be resurrected into new life through your faithfulness. I have seen you surrounded people in the midst of sorrow when they needed it most. I have witnessed your faith through all the crazy things I’ve asked you to do in responding to the Word, like reconciling with people with whom you were angry, like burning palm branches as a commitment to leaving behind our broken identities, like even dancing in the pews to a Justin Timberlake song in anticipation of the joy of our promised resurrection.

God has brought this church back to life through you. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

In the United Methodist Church clergy people like me make a vow to go where the Spirit leads us. When I was finishing seminary I lived into that promise when I received that phone call about coming here and I embraced it. I came here not knowing what it would look like, how it would feel, or whether or not it would be fruitful.

And I can say to you today with joy that serving this church has been the greatest privilege of my life.

But the Spirit is moving. Over the last few months the leadership of the church and I have been in prayer and we have discerned the time has come for me to respond to the Spirit yet again in a new place, and that the Spirit is calling a new pastor to serve St. John’s. And in response to that prayer and discernment, our Bishop has projected to appoint me to different church at the end of June: Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge.

I am grateful beyond words for the many ways you have showed me how to love God, and that I get to share your love of God in a strange new place. I have nothing but hope and faith that this church will continue to pour out God’s love on the last, the least, and the lost, because that is who you are. I rejoice in the knowledge that God is doing a new thing for this community.

By the Lord’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This is a time of new birth for St. John’s; a new pastor, a new chapter, a new beginning. On this side of the resurrection we are bold to proclaim our joy in God making all things new. Amen.

On Rediscovering Joy At Easter

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The team from Crackers & Grape Juice recently spent an afternoon interviewing Brian Zahnd (founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a nondenominational congregation in St. Joseph, Missouri) for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for the season of Easter during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary. For the first Sunday of Easter, Brian challenged us to make it all about joy while the world struggles under the weight of the current political climate. If you want to hear the conversation and learn more about heresy, the paradox of Easter, and destroying lilies in worship, you can check out the podcast here: Easter 1 – Year A

 

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Devotional – Psalm 80.3

Devotional:

Psalm 80.3

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Weekly Devotional Image

On Sunday mornings I drive to church hours before worship so that I can properly prepare. I always begin in the sanctuary by praying by the altar and then I pray over every single pew. After I feel like have spent enough time with the Lord I will make sure the doors are unlocked and the heat is working before I step up into the pulpit to preach my sermon to an empty sanctuary. I will go through the sermon line by line and make any changes necessary before printing off the final version.

Yesterday morning I was standing in the pulpit and preaching to an empty sanctuary when I heard a soft voice say, “Hello?” My first instinct was to look up in case God was telling me to make a change to the sermon, but it was actually someone who walked into the church through the main office door. When I went to shake his hand in the hallway it was clear that he had been outside for a long time because he had very red cheeks and he kept bringing his hands up to his mouth to blow on his fingers. He explained that he was homeless and was walking down the street when he felt the need to walk into the church. He told me about various life situations that led him to where he currently is and then I invited him in the sanctuary so that we could sit down and talk some more.

I motioned for him to join me in one of the front pews and asked him to continue. But he didn’t. Instead, his eyes rapidly filled with tears and he wept. I sat stunned and unsure if I had said something wrong, and then asked him if everything was okay. He said, “I can’t remember the last time I saw a Christmas tree.”

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What I had neglected to think about was the overwhelming sense of joy that was radiating through our seemingly countless poinsettias and our perfectly adorned and lit Christmas trees; a sense of joy that was in sharp dissonance with what the man has experienced recently.

We talked some more and I learned all about his life, and when it felt like the conversation was coming to an end I asked how I could help him, or how the church could help him. To which he responded, “Honestly, I was just cold and lonely. All I wanted was to warm up and have some company. Thank you.” After that, we prayed together, shook hands, and he left.

This strange season of Advent is one that often leaves us filled with joy, but it can also be a time of deep sorrow. Instead of fondly remembering presents under the tree, we might remember our parents fighting and yelling at one another. Instead of recalling the smells of a delicious Christmas dinner, we might feel suffocated by the sadness of another Christmas without someone we love. Instead of humming the familiar hymns with a twinkle in our eyes, we might not even remember the last time we saw a Christmas tree.

The psalmist cries out: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” O that the Lord would make his face to shine upon all of us through the lights of a Christmas tree, and give us the hope and the joy and the peace we so desperately need this time of year.

Ridiculous Renewal – Sermon on Isaiah 35.1-10

Isaiah 35.1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad. The desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a dear, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunts of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

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On Christ the King Sunday, the sermon was titled “Not My President.” And before we even started worshipping, more than a few of you made sure I knew your concerns about the impending proclamation. After all, Donald Trump had just procured the necessary electoral college votes to be labeled as president-elect, and people across the country were (and still are) protesting his election with signs saying, “Not My President.” If you were here on Christ the King Sunday, you know that the sermon had very little to do with Mr. Trump, and in fact was all about how grateful we should be that Jesus is not our President.

However, like the good Methodists we are, the sermon was not the pinnacle of our worship that Sunday. You might remember a few lines that I proclaimed from the pulpit, you might even remember one of the hymns we used, but if you sat in the front half of the congregation, I bet the thing you remember most from that service happened during communion.

As always I stood behind the table and I prepared to pray over the bread and the cup. Together we confessed our sins and asked for God to forgive us. We stood up from our pews and shared signs of Christ’s peace with one another. And then I asked God to pour out the Spirit on us gathered together and on the gifts of bread and the cup.

One by one each of you came forward to the front of this sanctuary with hands outstretched to receive the body and the blood of Jesus Christ. One by one I looked each of you in the eye as I tore off a piece of the bread and placed it into your hands. Some of you came up with tears in your eyes. Some of you came up with your eyes focused on the ground, perhaps out of reverence for the precious thing you were about to receive. And some of you came forward with eyebrows askew as if to say, “Who thinks of preaching a sermon about Jesus not being our president?”

The last family to come up for communion sat in the very last pew during worship, and they are connected to the church through our Preschool. Their son is here in the building every week learning about what it means to grow in knowledge, in wisdom, and in love of God. So when his father came up with his hands outstretched I asked if I could offer the bread to his son. The father smiled and said, “Of course.” With his blessing, I knelt down onto the floor and looked at my young friend in the eye and I said, “Owen, this is Jesus.”

To which he smiled, titled his head back slightly, opened his mouth, and waited for me to drop the bread right in.

Without really thinking about it, I took the piece and put it in his mouth, and in response he started chewing while smiling and trying to say, “Thank You Pastor Taylor.”

And I lost it. For whatever reason, I could not contain the laughter that was brewing inside me and I started cracking up. I laughed so hard that I actually snorted. Perhaps it was the seriousness of our service getting flipped upside down by a two year old receiving communion like a little bird from his mother, or maybe it was the smile he offered me while pieces of barely chewed bread were falling out onto the floor, or perhaps it was the little skip in his step while his cheeks were filled like a chipmunk preparing for winter, but I couldn’t stop laughing.

            In that simple and yet profound moment, the desert of our ritualistic liturgy was transformed with blossoms of laughter as other people laughed in response to my snort. In that brief and beautiful moment, God brought this church some much-needed joy.

You see, after spending the better part of two months confronting controversies facing the church and addressing the deep seeded political anger felt in this congregation and across the country, we needed to laugh.

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Isaiah says the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad. The desert shall rejoice and blossom. The prophet looks to the future and shares the ridiculousness of the renewal that is waiting for God’s people. Like a desert blooming in the middle of a drought, like old and worn out people finding strength in their knees, like tongues of the speechless being filled with words, so will the glory of the Lord transform the world.

In this vision everything is made new from the farthest reaches of creation, to the deepest aspects of our souls. The deserts shall rejoice and blossom, flowers will grow abundantly in the forgotten places, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and waters will break forth in the wilderness.

God promises transformation and joy. Though not necessarily the transformations and joys we pray for, but ridiculous and redemptive reversals nonetheless. Isaiah sings of liberation, joyful homecomings, and the end of all sorrow and sighing.

Signs of this future of joy will be made manifest in the weak being strengthened, those with feeble knees will stand firm, the fearful will be strong. Those who have long been isolated to the powers of loneliness will be grafted in and never forgotten.

Isaiah sings about the Holy Highway cutting through the wilderness, a way for God’s travelers to move without threat or fear, a place where the people of God’s can sing on their way home.

It sounds a lot like the Garden of Eden, and it sounds a lot like heaven.

But just like last week, Isaiah’s song about the promises of God are not just things that will happen in the distant future; they are part of God’s wonderful and creative reality here and now.

Yet, there are things in this world that hold us back, accidents on the highway of God’s grace, that prevent us from traveling the way to God’s promised salvation. There are chains and bumps that derail us from the pathway to glory: economic fears, political disappointments, spiritual droughts, emotional baggage, relational frustration, and seasonal depression, to name a few. And yet over and over again, whether it’s through a child walking back to his pew with bits of saliva soaked bread falling out of his mouth, or a host of other means, God transforms this world and fills us with joy.

I love to tell stories. From the time we are young children we learn important lessons more through stories and less through object lessons. That’s why scripture is so powerful, and it’s why Jesus used parables to relate the immensity of God to his disciples. This week, in anticipation of this sermon, I emailed a number of you to ask for stories of how God has transformed your life. I wanted to hear about the times that God’s living water broke forth in the midst of an otherwise desert-like existence.

And you did not disappoint.

One of you came to church for years without it really meaning much. It was just the thing you were supposed to do. And on one particular occasion, you were sitting in these pews listening to the choir sing an anthem. There wasn’t anything particularly moving about the words or even the melody, but you found yourself watching the individuals as they were singing and you could tell they meant it. Though you had seen and heard the choir many times, God spoke to you through their faithfulness that fateful day, and since then you have known and experienced the power of God through the music of our church, and through those who provide it.

One of you expressed how narrow-minded and intolerant you used to be. Whether it had to do with politics, or religion, or social status, you judged others unfairly. And then a pastor came to this church named Zig Volskis and he changed everything for you. His spiritual presence and demeanor taught you the importance of asking the right questions, and the importance of being content with answers that pushed you into a new direction. Instead of treating you like a student who needed to be lectured, Zig encouraged you with amazing insights and discernment. And through God working in him, you began to see the Bible not as a book to be consumed, but a life-giving witness to the reality of God.

One of you wrote about recent event whereby you attended a funeral for a man out of guilt because you were afraid that very few people would be in attendance. And yet, when you arrived, there was a line out the door and across the street full of people trying to get into the chapel. You described the experience as a moment through which God made you aware of one of your many sins, your judgment of others based on accomplishments you deemed as worthy, and through it you were transformed to know and believe that everyone has worth, and everyone is sacred.

God transformed the world through the advent of Jesus Christ, and God continues to transform our lives in ways we cannot even anticipate or imagine. The devastated deserts of our souls will once again blossom through a crowded funeral, a faithful pastor, a passionate choir, or a child-receiving communion. God uses people in our lives to change our lives so that we might change other lives.

Isaiah’s song is all about the ridiculous renewal awaiting us, God’s people. That through God’s transformative work, joy will rain down from the skies, and all the scattered promises of the bible will be fulfilled like a dance – the earth will spring forth new life, bodies will be remade, freedoms will be conferred, the city will be reclaimed, joys will erupt from unexpected places, and sorrow and sighing will be banished from the earth.

Isaiah’s song ends with the happy and joyful homecoming of those who have been liberated from the bondage that keeps them from traveling on the Holy Highway. For there is a new way that cuts through desolate deserts and turns them into beautifully blooming fields. God’s people will travel on this path without threat or fear, they will sing with joyful hearts, because the Lord is doing a new thing.

God is not done.

            God is not done with creation and God is not done with us.

            God breaks the chains of our slavery to sin and death.

            God delivers us to places yet unknown.

            God transforms our hopes and dreams into real and tangible experiences.

            God fills the deserts of our souls with living water.

            God blossoms and brings forth new life and opportunities in ways we cannot even imagine.

            God offers unending joy to the redeemed.

            God makes a way where there is no way. Amen.