Advent Begins In The Dark

Isaiah 64.1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. These is no one who calls on your name, or attempters to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Advent begins in the dark. And, of course, it’s hard for us to wrap our minds around this strange beginning, not only to a season, but also to a new year in the life of the church. After all, our sanctuary has changed. Gone are the white sheets of Christ the King Sunday, tucked away are the green banners from Ordinary Time. Today is a new day in the life of the church and in each of our lives. Today is a day of purple and blue, of royalty and repentance; today we begin in the dark.

For many churches in many places, Advent is filled with joy and hope. Pastors sprinkle their sermons with tidings of good cheer, and wishes of merry Christmases. The sentiment of the season is one of smiles, laughter, and bright light.

            But Isaiah speaks a different word.

From ages past, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.

Although the life and time of Isaiah differs from ours in tremendous ways, there are similarities. We know, like Isaiah, that our reliance on a massive political accumulation of power, rather than a pursuit of love and divine justice, has brought us everlasting turmoil. We know, like Isaiah, that our culture has less to do with the peace of God and more to do with individual hopes and ambitions. We know, like Isaiah, the temptation to throw everything into violent forms of power while ignoring the people tasked with doing such.

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From the dark place of reflection, we read Isaiah’s words about God tearing open the heavens and shaking the foundations of the earth, but when we try to imagine it in our minds we don’t think of the new heaven and the new earth of revelation. Instead, we have visions of devastating destruction like floods, earthquakes, and perhaps even nuclear war.

During Advent we might want our God to look and act more like the chubby man who slides down the chimney with gifts, but Isaiah presents us with an image of God as angry and silent.

And that is the tension of this season. The words from the prophet are even harder to swallow for those of us who have already put up the tree, who have hung all the lights, who have turned our radio stations to the never-ending array of Christmas tunes. But Advent has always held the tension of God’s judgment with God’s promise.

            We have all become like one who is unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We have sinned, and God has moved away from us.

Last week, in our Sunday School class, we wrestled with the always difficult subject of forgiveness. We talked about actions that feel unforgiveable and how difficult it is for us to wrap our heads around the fact that God’s love is for all people, no matter what. And in the midst of the discussion, someone from our church mentioned that beyond individual forgiveness, it might be even harder to forgive entire groups of people for terrible atrocities. He probed us to think about Germany and Japan, to ponder the devastation waded against nation by nation. How can we forgive those kinds of things?

Perhaps, the only way to get to a place of offering forgiveness, the only way to take steps out of the darkness that marks the beginning of Advent, is recognizing our wrongs as well.

A couple weeks ago I heard a story on the radio that has haunted me ever since. As a teenager in 1955, Paul Zimmer was assigned by the military to serve at Camp Desert Rock, Nevada. He was there to witness the testing of atomic bombs. He thought it might be a cool assignment, or at the very least, it would produce stories that might be a good way to pick up girls in the future. He spent a lot of time smoking cigarettes and chumming it up with the other young men, but every couple days he and the others would be convoyed in the middle of the night and marched into the desert.

There they would find long thin trenches dug into the earth like scars from a giant. They wore steel helmets, with little else, and they would wait.

And now I’ll use his words: “I never became fearful until I heard the countdown over the loud speaker. And I only became terrified when I saw the flash. It was bright enough, that even with my eyes closed, I could still see the bones in my hands over my eyes. The shockwave crashed over the trenches and we were then told to open our eyes and watch. We saw the mushroom cloud, with strange purples and blues billowing into the sky above.”

“I saw 8 atomic blasts in total, each of different sizes and deployments. Sometimes the shockwave was so powerful that the walls of the trench would cave in and we struggled to climb out of the grave dug into the earth. And, again and again, we were given the all clear and marched forward into the blast area to wear witness. Bearing witness seemed to be the entire reason we were there.”

“One bomb was three times the size of the one we dropped on Hiroshima, and when we walked forward the air was filled with the stench of ozone, small bushes and trees had evaporated into thin air, and small animals were scattered on the edge of the blast radius whimpering in pain. We walked forward and we passed crumpled vehicles and turrets, mannequins with melted faces, and mangled test animals. No one ever asked us to write a report, nor did anyone ever ask what we saw, because (it turns out) they were watching us. They wanted to see how young men responded to an atomic blast.”

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Over the years I’ve begun to realize that I am one of the last living people in America to have actually experienced close-up explosions of atomic bombs. And now, in my late years, when I think about my experience, I feel it is my responsibility to witness to the sights and the sounds that still ring in my head even today. I feel it is my duty to remember the reckless absurdity of it all, the being buried alive, the walking past death and decay, and the waking up to do it all over again.

We live in a world still shrinking under the threat of nuclear war. Tweets and temptations to push the button ring out across the globe. And while we want our Advent season to be nice and pretty and light, there is a real risk to maintaining the lives that we have grown so comfortable with.

Zimmer ended his story by saying this: “We keep threatening to release these bombs, and I suspect that one day we will. Most of us have forgotten what we are capable of, but I have not.”

(For more on Zimmer’s story: Secret Information)

Advent jolts us out of Ordinary time, where we’ve gone all over the map (so to speak). Isaiah speaks to us on this day with invasive news that it’s time to repent, and to think about fresh possibilities. That’s a tough thing to swallow these days, particularly when we are more moved by feeling good than by being good.

Right? I mean how many of us will fill that empty space under the tree with presents in hopes that those gifts will fill the holes we feel in our souls? How many of us are so consumed by a desire to judge that we forget the need to reflect? How many of us are actually stuck in the darkness of Advent without any of the light of Christ?

If we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t want to hear about nuclear explosions at this, the most wonderful time of the year. We want something pretty and something happy. But I think Paul Zimmer’s witness is as prophetic as Isaiah’s. The hope of Christmas has not looked away from the darkness but straight into it. That, after all, is the message of the incarnation. God comes to us in flesh, in the brokenness of the world, to redeem the world.

But we’re not there yet.

As Christians, though we move through the liturgical calendar every year, we are stuck in Advent. We live in the darkness of Advent, between the first arrival of God’s Son in Bethlehem and the final arrival of God’s Son in the New Heaven and the New Earth. We’re stuck in the tension between the ways things are and the way they ought to be, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

But there is hope in this strange Advent time and it comes from an unexpected place. If we put our trust in princes, or politicians, or even plutonium, we will be disappointed. We cannot receive lasting comfort from this broken world of ours where it feels like the end is always a buttonbush away. Our hope and comfort must come from another place, a place beyond our ability to grasp and comprehend, a place of ultimate divine humiliation and divine exultation, a place that is both beginning and end, a place that isn’t even a place: God.

Hope in God is a strange, vexing, and transformative thing. Hope in God is what comes with a broken heart willing to be mended. Hope in God comes when we are able to look in the mirror, and say from the depth of our being, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am a sinner.” Hope in God comes when we realize that God is always the light in the darkness, but without the darkness we cannot see the light.

The good news we anticipate on Christmas will come, it will be brighter than any atomic blast and it will fundamentally change everything about the world. God will come again and tear open the heavens. God will reorient the world in such a way that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. God’s justice will rain down like waters. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. God will destroy evil forever.

As Christians, yes, we sit in the shadow of the cross and in the darkness of Advent. But we also know the end of the story, we know that greater things are still to come. We know that only God can shake the foundations of the earth. We know that hope in God is unlike anything else in existence. We know all of this because we know that the promise in Mary’s womb comes to fruition in the empty tomb. Amen.

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Devotional – 1 Corinthians 1.27

Devotional:

1 Corinthians 1.27

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.

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When Pharaoh enslaved the descendants of Abraham, God chose a weak little baby abandoned by his mother to the Nile River to deliver the people out of bondage. When Goliath stood in front of the Philistine and Hebrew armies, God chose a foolish and weak little shepherd named David to bring him down. When the time came for the defeat of death, God chose to come in the form of a baby to die at the hands of the government in order to rise again.

Through the Old and New Testaments, God is forever subverting the expectations of the world with something foolish or weak. We can only imagine what people thought of Noah building his giant ark, or Isaiah wandering the streets naked for three years, or Jesus praying over a loaf of bread and cup of wine. God chooses what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chooses what is weak in the world to shame the strong.

For far too long, the world has treated an entire gender as foolish and weak. Even in this progressive land we call the United States of America, women still only make $0.80 for every $1 that men earn. The belittling of women is made manifest in a number of ways from churches that believe women do not have the right to preach, to companies that overlook hiring women because of their gender, to women who are made to feel that their fundamental role is to support their husbands.

But on Saturday, God subverted the perspective of the world through the gathering and marching of “foolish and weak” women to shame the wise and the strong. They did not need weapons and aggression and violence to achieve their goal, they did not need the tools the world values so dear, they used the foolishness and weakness of peace to say more than any weapon ever can.

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What good news it is to know that God is still upsetting and overturning the world to shame the wise and strong! How glorious to know that women all across the world can come together in such a holy way to protect those whom the world has dismissed! How beautiful to see women powerfully and deliberately march for empowerment!

God makes the first last, and the last first. The great story of scripture is the narrative of God turning the world upside down. O that God would do the same to all of our hearts who are more convicted by the ways of the world, than by the truth of the Good News.

Devotional – Luke 18.9

Devotional:

Luke 18.9

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. Weekly Devotional Image

Jesus knew how to use his words. When he was surrounded by day laborers, he used parables about seeds and vineyards. When he encountered the wealthy and the elite, he used parables about banquets and wedding feasts. Even when he called the first disciples (fishermen) he knew to use imagery about fishing for people to drive the point home.

The stories and parables of Jesus are magnificent in their ability to convey a greater point about the kingdom of God in a way that is approachable and applicable. This is why some of the most memorable sermons we hear (even today) are those that confront and reimagine Jesus’ parables for our time.

However, the beauty and applicability of Jesus’ parables are also a fundamental challenge in that Jesus often used specific parables for specific people. The day laborers heard about seeds and fields because it would make sense to them in a way that it wouldn’t to someone so wealthy they ever had to enter the fields. Similarly, what Jesus says to the rich young man (sell your possessions and give the money to the poor) was meant for the rich young man. Yet, today, many of us preachers apply Jesus’ parables generally for all with ears to hear and not necessarily in the same specific manner that Jesus did.

The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is one that receives a pertinent introduction: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” This is to say that Jesus used this particular parable for a particular set of people because they needed to hear it. Yet, this Sunday, many preachers will take the time to preach these words to their congregations whether the people trust too much in their own righteousness or not.

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Jesus knew how to use his words, and sometimes we do not. In this particularly vitriolic political season we post Facebook statuses as if we hope someone who disagrees with us will read it and be transformed. We send snide emails to family members and friends with the belief that we are right, they are wrong, and our email will fix everything. We speak down to the people around us with mixed metaphors and problematic parables because we are so consumed by judgment that we forget what it means to “be” with others.

It is good and right for us to remember to listen when Jesus speaks whether Jesus’ words were meant for a particular group or not. For it is when we immediately assume that Jesus meant his words for someone we are bickering with, that Jesus is actually talking about us.

Devotional – Psalm 146.1

Psalm 146.1

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!

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On Thursday afternoon I made my way over to the parking lot at Gypsy Hill Park to prepare for the UMC Trunk or Treat. The pastors and lay leaders from the Staunton area United Methodist churches had been planning the event for a number of months and it was my responsibility to set up the parking lot and organize the first wave of volunteers. For months we had collected candy and advertised in the local community and I was anxious to see how it would turn out.

In our earliest conversations we thought we would be lucky to receive a few hundred children and their parents for our Trunk or Treat. We continued to organize, plan, and pray for the event and when it was time to start trunk or treating a long line had already started to form; All of our hard work was about to come to fruition.

Over the next two hours the line of people never dwindled. Volunteers were running around in order to maintain the safety of the young children while also replenishing the candy supplies that had run low in some of the trunks. Children were dressed in some of the wittiest and most delightful costumes as they came forward with grateful hands to receive a peace of candy. And every trunk was attended by a faithful Christian eager and willing to share God’s love through the tiniest of gifts.

At about 7pm I left Lindsey with the candy at our trunk and made my way to the top of a hill for a better vantage point; I wanted to see how well the line was moving and if people were still enjoying themselves. I resisted the temptation to turn and look until I got to the very top and when I did I was stunned. From where I stood I could see no end to the numbers of children and families that had gathered in the park. I tried taking a picture and I could not even come close to capturing everyone in it. By the time the Trunk or Treat came to a conclusion over 3,500 people had come through.

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When I stood on top of the hill and looked out at what the United Methodist Church could do in connection I wanted to praise God. Only an almighty and powerful God could call us to work in community with one another instead of in competition. Only a faithful and loving God could stir our hearts to give generously to this wonderful community. Only a redemptive and sustaining God could accomplish something in us as powerful as our Trunk or Treat.

We truly serve an almighty God who is worthy of our praise!

 

Devotional – James 3.5

 

Devotional:

James 3.5

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

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On Sunday morning, during the Sunday school hour, I asked the group if they could remember a mean comment someone had made in the past. I was trying to prepare us for a discussion on the fact that in Mark 7 Jesus basically calls the Syrophoenician woman a dog and what it means to wrestle with the text. I myself can remember of number of negative comments from my childhood, moments when I was made fun of by fellow students, or a harsh criticism from a former Scout Master. But one of the women from the Sunday school class shared that, out of all the experiences she had as a teacher, she will never forget the one boy who waited till the end of the year to tell her that she was mean.

What is it about words that make them so powerful? How strange is it that one of the greatest tools of humanity can both give life and destroy life? The expression “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is a worthy thing to teach young children so as to not let comments destroy us, but the expression isn’t really true; names can hurt, and they can stay with us for years and years.

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Just ask a preacher about the power a comment can make right before or after a worship service. Just ask a teacher about the power a comment can make on an end of the year evaluation. Just ask a student about the power a comment can make during the first few weeks of a new school year. Just reflect on your own life and soon enough you will surely remember a time when the power of words was almost unbearable.

The tongue is a small thing, yet it has great power. James reminds us that even the greatest fires were started with a tiny spark. In all of our actions as Christians, the many ways we demonstrate Christ’s love in the world, the way we use our words might be the most powerful.

This week, let us reflect on the times that we have experienced the harsh reality of the power of words. How have we continued to carry those comments around, and how have we let them reshape our lives? Similarly, let us pray for God to give us the strength to use our words wisely toward others so that we might build people up, rather than break them down.

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You Cannot Save Yourself – Sermon on Ephesians 2.1-10

Ephesians 2.1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

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Our series on “Back to the Basics” continues this morning by looking at the topic of salvation. We started this series in light of the fact that many of us are deeply rooted in our faith, but some of the basics have perhaps become so routined that we no longer understand what they mean. We began with a call to return to the basics, then we looked at the Ten Commandments and today we are talking about salvation. Here we go.

My friend Josh loved the Christian camp. Every summer he looked forward to returning to the familiar space with young people all growing in their faith. From tubing on the lake, to hiking around the compound, and even just praying at night with his friends, the camp was a place unlike any other; at camp he could be fully Christian without the world judging him for his discipleship.

By the time I met Josh, camp was long in the past though he remembered most of it fondly. Having never gone to a specifically Christian camp I was fascinated by the idea of being immersed in an intentional faith community with other young people and I regularly asked him questions about his experiences. After all, it was at camp where he met his future wife, and it was years later that he made a scavenger hunt at the camp in order to propose.

As a young Christian my faith was largely formed and nurtured by my home church. I was blessed to grow up around a number of people who took their commitment to raising me in the faith seriously. Josh, however, learned a lot about what it meant to be Christian from the counselors at camp, which, like many things, can be a blessing and a curse.

The young adult counselors embodied how you could still be cool and Christian. They made faith so appealing because they regularly demonstrated what God had done for them in their lives. They made efforts to make faith approachable and were able to share the love of God with campers every summer.

Yet, some of them deeply believed it was their chief responsibility to save others and did whatever they could to make that happen.

It would come at the end of an incredible week of building new relationships and ideas when one of the counselors who begin talking about the Roman Road and I imagine it went something like this:

“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? Your life might feel pretty good right now, you might have a kind family and some nice friends, but what about your eternal life? Do you want to spend life after death burning in the fires of hell? Or do you want to be saved?

“Imagine that you are standing on the edge of a cliff. Being a good person isn’t enough to save you. You can see salvation on the other side of the divide, but the only way you can get there is through Jesus Christ. Try to picture the cross being a bridge for you to safely get to the other side. You have the power to decide your everlasting fate. What’s it going to be?”

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When Josh explained these experiences to me I could sense the amount of manipulation that went into the dialogues. As the summers passed at camp, the conversations remained the same only the stakes became higher: What are you doing to save the people around you? Have you explained the Roman Road to your friends?

My friends, we are now alive though we were dead. Until the great gift of God in Jesus Christ we existed like lifeless bodies wandering around. Part of this came to be because we were guilty of sinfulness though we were also victims of our environment – people and organizations who told us we can save ourselves. But God, rich in mercy, saved us.

In the early church they did not spend their time going around trying to convince people with the Roman Road argument. They did not waste time going through the in and outs of theological proofs of Christ’s divinity and resurrection. Instead the church pointed at itself to prove the miracle. Want to know about death, the cross, and the resurrection? Here they are.

The budding Christian community grew not because it’s leaders were particularly articulate in their ability to save others through words, but because they believed in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. With the new family that was created in community they experienced a new kind of life with God at the core, a new opportunity that came with the Spirit.

While the early disciples went throughout their surrounding regions, their cries of evangelism did not begin with “Save yourselves!” Instead they, like Ephesians, triumphantly declared, “God saved you, come live your new life!

If we are anything we are a people of resurrection. Not a country club of like-minded individuals, not a political organization, not a club of devoted fans, but a people of resurrection.

Since the time of Christ, those who followed him have found new life, resurrected life, with God. New life has come by many ways – repenting for the wrongs of our lives, being forgiven by God and our friends, experiencing an assurance of the eternal dimension of God’s love and care, and by a number of other life events, even hearing about the Roman Road from camp counselors. However, we must be careful when putting too much emphasis on our power in salvation. Yes, God has opened the door and we must be the ones to walk through it, but the greater act came in the opening of the door and not our power to go through it.

Resurrected life is something that will come when Jesus returns but we can also experience it here and now. Whenever I’m asked about miracles I can quickly describe some of the incredible things I have witnessed, events I attribute to God’s grace. But some of the most powerful miracles, to me, are right here in our midst. I can look out from this pulpit and see people’s lives who have been turned around through Christ’s love. I see and remember stories about things that have happened to you, sinful desires that suffocated your ability to live fully, when God offered you a new resurrected life.

I heard someone once describe their days as lifeless. They went through the familiar motions but it all felt repetitious, pointless, and directionless. This went on and on until someone invited them to a church community. Suddenly people began to care about him without knowing anything about him or his past. It was like he was being seen and treated through God’s perspective. Through a simple invitation and a new opportunity he felt resurrected from the dead, and began living again. 

Salvation is not about receiving a perfect grade that allows us to make the cut into God’s heavenly kingdom. Who among us fulfills all of the laws from the Old and New Testaments? Loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, giving away our possessions? Even the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor with our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths is incredibly difficult.

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If salvation was about getting the right grade, I’m sad to say that most of us would be failing. It’s as if the closer we get to visions of God’s glory, the more we realize our unholiness.

We pray to God before our meals and while we look out on the feast before us we are reminded of the many who have no food to eat. We kneel in a makeshift structure in Guatemala being served food by people who have nothing in terms of our materiality but have faith that we could never imagine. We sit on the stoops of a front porch in West Virginia after painting all day and we realize we could be doing so much more.

We were dead through the sins of our lives and we have been victims of our environment. The good news amidst this unholiness is that, by the grace of God, we have been saved. That through God’s incredible act of selflessness, our sinfulness has been forgiven.

Not a forgiveness as a nice plus added to a grade for our performance as Christians, but forgiveness as a completely unearned gift – a gift extended to a prodigal son who squandered his inheritance, a gift extended to a tax collector who only cared about himself, a gift extended to a thief who hung on a cross to die, a gift extended to you, or to me.

By grace we have been saved. 

Grace is like friendship. Josh, the one who shared with me his experiences of Christian camp, is my best friend and was the best man at my wedding. I did nothing to earn his friendship.  If it had been initiated over an exchange of goods (I will be your friend if you do this for me) it would never have become the true friendship that it is today. Friendship, and I mean true friendship, is an act of faith. Learning to trust the other knowing that they could hurt you.

I know that Josh will be there for me at a moment’s notice. He will listen to me and do whatever he can to help. I also know that he doesn’t expect anything in return. That is the meaning of true friendship; a willingness to give because the well-being of someone else matters more to you than your own. My friendship with Josh is an act of faith, but one that I am remarkably thankful for.

Salvation, for us, is the beginning of a covenant of friendship between us and God; between the divine and a sinner. Grace is another way of describing an incredible love story between God and his creation.

We cannot save ourselves. We cannot save other people. No matter what the commercials, advertisements, and camp counselors tell us. Only the Lord has the power to save. Thanks be to God that he came in the form of flesh in Jesus Christ to open up the gates of heaven to people like us.Thanks be to God that we are not called to save others, but merely help them to see what God has already done, and continues to do, in their lives.

We were dead but have been made alive through the greatest gift ever given. The question for us, then, should not be, “Am I saved?” Instead we should be asking, “What am I doing with this resurrected life?

Amen.

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The Tent Peg of Doom – Sermon on Judges 4.4-9

Judges 4.4-9

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Behtel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, brining ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’” Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh.

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Today marks the second part of our Sermon Series on Women of Faith. Throughout the last year or so I have been excited to hear questions in, and outside of, church regarding the role women play in both the Old and New Testaments. This series is focused on exploring some of the great women of faith from the Bible, particularly those who are not regularly mentioned from the pulpit. So, here we are, may God bless our time together as we explore two more women with dynamic and powerful faith.

Deborah was a judge over Israel. She had a wide range of responsibilities with her position; deciding controversies, announcing verdicts, and implementing judgments. For her to have been given, and honored with, this responsibility is exceptionally rare for a woman in the Old Testament. Moreover, she is remembered as one of the finest rulers: she is sought out for her counsel, she is referred to as a prophetess and mother of Israel, she boldly proclaims the Word of the Lord, and there are no controversies surrounding her rule.

The Israelites are once again in bondage in their own land, and they beg God to deliver them from oppression. For the past 20 years the people have suffered under the vicious hand of Jabin and his general Sisera. The Lord then moved Deborah to call upon Barak, an Israelite general, to go to war with 10,000 men against the mighty Sisera. Barak, however, is reluctant to do so, even with the promise of the Lord’s presence, he knows the kind of weaponry and army that Sisera has, and feels that this might be a suicide mission. Barak refuses to go to war unless Deborah goes with him. 

One of the great generals of God’s people is afraid to follow the Lord’s command unless a woman goes with him.

So Deborah agrees to travel with Barak but warns him that the battle will not bring him glory, because the Lord will deliver the evil Sisera into the hands of a woman.

Thats where out scripture reading ends for the day, but of course that is not the end of the story. If you keep reading Judges 4 you learn that Barak summoned the 10,000 warriors and traveled to Mount Tabor. When Sisera learned of Barak’s movement he called out all his chariots of iron and all of his troops to go to war. The battle ensues and the Lord threw Sisera and all his army into a panic before the Israelites. Sisera retreated from the battle, but the entirety of his army fell at the hand of Barak and the Israelites.

Sisera fled to a nearby village and was met by a woman named Jael outside of her tent. She implored him to come inside where she would hide him and take care of him. In the tent she covered him with a rug and offered him milk to drink. After he fell asleep she took a tent peg in one hand and a hammer in the other, went softly to Sisera, and drove the tent peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground and he died. Only later did Barak arrive in the village surprised to discover that Sisera had been killed, still stuck to the ground by the tent peg.

It would seem to me, therefore, that the message from our scripture today is to be very careful about accepting invitations into the tents of strange women, particularly if they have extra tent pegs lying around.

I offer this in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen…

 

Just kidding.

What a crazy and awesome story. It plays out like a movie; Barak is told that he will receive no glory but he heads into battle anyway. Deborah promises him that the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman, and we assume that means the Lord will hand the evil general over to Deborah.

The scene then shifts from the giant battlefield to the interior of a small tent with the candles burning in the corner. Perhaps still nursing his wounds from the battle Jael offers Sisera comfort and safety. Under the warmth of the carpet, filled with the cool milk from the caring woman, Sisera drifted off to sleep.

When suddenly Jael drives the tent peg through his skull leaving his lifeless body stuck to the ground like a tent in a wind storm.

So what are we to make of these dynamic women of faith, both Deborah and Jael? What do they teach us about our faith today?

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Women are powerful.

The story begins with Deborah and Barak, the female is obviously stronger than the male. As I mentioned before, the assumption of leadership by a woman is extraordinary during this time and something that we should not overlook. Deborah is a priestess and a judge over God’s people, she contained insight, perspective, and knowledge far beyond the average person, and held an awareness of the movements of God’s spirit. Though it is not written in scripture, she appears to be a woman of prayer, regularly in communion with the divine, someone who let her faith lead her, rather than the other way around.

Deborah was not the domestic type of woman that so many women are made out to be today. Yes she was married, but she committed herself to God’s people, to helping, guiding, leading, and shaping them. She was not relegated to a sphere of domicile power, but was intimately involved in the lives of others, respected for her wisdom, and sought after for judgment. It is no small thing that when she tells Barak to fight for God’s people, he was unwilling to do so without her. Women are powerful, and therefore deserve more respect than is often given. 

Without Deborah, Barak would never have had the confidence and courage to lead the army into battle. This is not the same thing as “behind every great man is an even greater woman.” Deborah was a great woman. Her role was not to make men look better, or stay hidden at home to take care of other responsibilities, she was a profound individual full of power and glory, one who stands as an example for how we should view women today.

In ministry women are still facing challenges to be taken seriously and respected in their vocation. In saddens me to hear stories from my female peers who are often neglected and ignored because they are women. Too often I hear about church attendance declining significantly on the Sundays that the female pastor is slated to preach, or funeral directors refusing to believe that a female pastor has been called to proclaim someone’s life, death, and resurrection, or men making inappropriate comments to women in the ministry.

In particular I can remember receiving a page from one of my female colleagues at Duke University Hospital that a patient wanted a different pastor to visit. The patient was an older woman who had recently arrived and when I entered her room I wanted to find out why she needed a different chaplain. Had my friend said something inappropriate? Did she offend the woman laying in the hospital bed? The patient’s response was simple and sweeping: “Women are not meant to be pastors!

Deborah stands in stark contrast to the negative perspectives of women in ministry, and outside of service in the church. Women can be, and are, just as powerful as men. They can live and lead like Deborah with power, respect, and wisdom. We just need to have our eyes opened to the ways that God would have us see one another, neither male nor female, but made one in Jesus Christ.

In addition to the call to see women in a new light, the stories of Deborah and Jael remind us that having faith is complicated. We cannot compress what we believe into a tweet or an announcement on the marquee in front of church. The Good News cannot be compartmentalized onto a bumper sticker or a tee-shirt logo. Our faith is dynamic, organic, and complicated.

Jael striking Sisera dead with a tent peg is a frightening end to an otherwise typical story in the Old Testament. It had astounded faithful people for centuries; even John Wesley expressed his ethical qualms about Jael’s murderous actions in Judges 4 and wondered if this was divinely inspired, or written by someone who was subject to mistake.

However, God’s ways are sometimes like that; they are beyond explanation and justification. Considering the calls to love our neighbor and turn the other cheek, this story from Judges 4 seems contradictory compared with Christ’s commands in the New Testament. Yet we affirm this as God’s Word, that even in this story we receive an element of God’s ways with God’s people.

God, in scripture and in life, works in ways that surprise us. God delivers the people from the murderous Sisera with a tent peg from a deceitful woman. God calls a young shepherd to defeat the mighty Goliath and lead his people, only to fall to the temptation of lust in Bathsheba. God saved the two spies who entered Jericho through a harlot named Rahab who hid them on her roof. And God chose to save all of us through a carpenter who was nailed to the cross.

We affirm many things about God through worship. But one of the things that we neglect to mention, is that God is strange. God’s ways are not our ways. We cannot, and should not, presume to know why God does what God does. 

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A year and a half ago, I thought I was supposed to be an associate pastor at one of the larger churches in the Virginia Conference. After going straight from college to seminary and then into the ministry I believed it might be a good thing for me to follow under the leadership of a seasoned senior pastor who could help me learn the most fruitful ways of doing church. Knowing that I was going to propose to Lindsey, and hoping she would say yes, I figured that working in a larger area would give her a greater opportunity for finding a job in social work. I had it all planned out in my head, exactly how I would follow God’s call on my life.

And then I received a phone call: “Taylor, we’re taking your name off the associate list. We believe that your gifts and graces fit best with serving as the pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Staunton, Virginia. The bishop has appointed you, and we are praying for your ministry.”

As a 25 year old coming straight out of seminary, I never imagined that this would be the church that I was serving. I thought that I had it all figured out.

But God’s ways are not my ways. Our God loves to surprise us and save us in ways that we cannot imagine. I’m still trying to work out why God chose to send me here, but every day that I serve as the pastor of this church is a constant reminder that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. Because whether you know it or not, you have saved me in ways that I cannot even begin to describe.

Women are powerful and being faithful is complicated. Deborah and Jael remind us that the ways of the world are not the ways of God. That we are called to a new perspective on how to view one another: male-female, black-white, gay-straight, young-old, we are all God’s children full of value and worth. That God works in ways that are unexplainable and bizarre, calling people like you and me to serve our community side-by-side.

I’ll admit that its frightening and disconcerting, but sometimes God needs a tent peg to jolt, shock, and knock some sense into us.

Amen.