Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Sermon Sketches: Jeremiah 33:14-18 ~ A King & Priest for Us

Note: I usually post an initial sketch on Monday or Tuesday of each week; then, I come back with a revised piece on Fridays. I hope my thoughts nourish your thoughts, that something here helps you think in the right direction for the congregation you serve. Cheers!

Advent! I’m one of those folks who waits with baited-breath for this season to roll around. I love…I LOVE…the season—the remembering, the anticipation, the decorations, the songs. Everything about Advent and Christmas seems to capture a huge part of what being a Christian, a disciple of Jesus, is all about.

Even so, I come to today’s reading with a bit of disappointment—I wanted to read Isaiah 9 or 11…to hear again the words about 'light in the darkness,' about a child who will lead the people. These are themes we are desperate to hear in these dark times. We crave words of light and hope from our leaders—as we hear words of division and derision. One of the great issues of our time is the changing climate of our planet—something that can potentially be catastrophic—and the one voice we do hear is that of a ‘child’—Greta Thunberg--leading the way.

Yet, I am convinced that our God still speaks clearly through the pages of Scripture, and I believe that the message in the passage from Jeremiah today is a message we need to hear, the Church needs to hear.

Jeremiah the man was a prophet that began his ministry during the reign of the Josiah—the same king we met last week who called the people back to faithfulness, back to the Book. While God promised not to destroy the kingdom during Josiah’s life, God did vow to bring judgment on the land, and Jeremiah served as one of the mouth-pieces of God proclaiming the coming destruction.

While much of Jeremiah’s prophecy is directed towards this coming destruction, words of hope are woven into this fabric of loss and mourning. Jerusalem is going down, the temple will fall…but there is hope.

We need those words of hope woven into the fabric of our own reality as we look around us. At this  time, we may feel that this journey of life is a dead end, but God says, ‘no!’ At times we may feel that the social fabric and democratic processes crumble—this is the end!, but the Word says, ‘no!’ At times we may feel that our relationships, work plans, and other facets of our lives head towards nothing or towards destruction…but God’s Word comes again and again with words of hope.

The people of Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s time faced the same. They had heard about the growing kingdoms around them. They knew that Egypt’s economy was growing and their army, too. They were still telling stories of what had happened to the Northern Kingdom, Israel—how the Assyrian war-machine has swooped in and crushed the Israelites. They knew stories of the Babylonians to the east—a growing empire with a powerful army. They were surrounded by stories of dismay…and they craved words of hope. Of course, false hope is no hope at all. They needed to hear something from God’s appointed one. They needed to hear something from the prophet.

14 The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. 15 In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness. (Jeremiah 33)

The people had heard the promises of judgment. Jeremiah had spoken those words over and over. In Jeremiah 7 we find samples of those words of judgment: 

20 Therefore thus says the Lord God: My anger and my wrath shall be poured out on this place, on human beings and animals, on the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched.

32 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. 33 The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. 34 And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.

 …And now, here in Jeremiah 33, some much needed words of promise, of grace. The people have floundered at times under not-so-great rulers, so these words about the “David’s line” bring comfort and hope.

We understand this when we pine for the leadership of the great presidents of the past. Almost without exception--regardless of political party--were we to ask Americans who the great presidents were, most folks would name Washington, Lincoln, or Kennedy. Not that these were without fault, without blemish. We admire these men for their overwhelming good work in spite of their humanity. Washington frees America from the tyranny of George the III, Lincoln overturns the evil institution of human slavery, and Kennedy—had he been given the chance—would have ushered in changes in civil rights.

David was seen the same way—the king who had united the tribes, conquered the enemies, and made Jerusalem the capital of it all. The thought of David was a dream of a united kingdom once again, a hope for safety, and a return to religious fealty. However, this ‘branch’ is not just about political power and unity.

17 The Lord proclaims: David will always have one of his descendants sit on the throne of the house of Israel. 18 And the levitical priests will always have someone in my presence to make entirely burned offerings and grain offerings, and to present sacrifices.

This branch will somehow serve as both king and priest—this descendant of David will be ruler of all part of the people’s lives…the social/political and the religious.

We don’t talk much about kings and queens…or even priests…in our western, protestant world. We’re far too democratic for such concepts. But, our Scriptures are filled with these images. Perhaps we should pause and take a look once more. Perhaps we’ll see that regardless of our democratic talk, we in fact always allow someone or something to rule as king in our lives…we just don’t call it that. But, is what reigns in our lives the king prophesied here in Jeremiah? And, perhaps our bumbling faith could use a priest—someone to guide and direct and help us into the presence of God, someone to show us how to live, to bring offerings, and to make right sacrifices?

In too many ways, we have divided lives much like the divided kingdom. We have abandoned the ways of God and done our own things. In a very real sense, we have embraced the ideals of self-reliance…and we have become our own kings and queens. If not ruling ourselves, we follow empty leaders, dead idols, insubstantial gods and goddesses. And, certainly, too many of us have little concept of ‘sacrifice.’ 

This season of Advent calls us back to new possibilities of wholeness and submission to a promised king—one who will rule and guide and counsel us, one who will care for us and champion our cause. That one will be called ‘King of the Jews’ and ‘a high priest…forever.’ That one will teach us about real sacrifice, about ‘laying down your life for your friend’ and ‘loving your neighbor as yourself.’

Are we ready to receive a king and priest anew in our lives? Do we really want the peace this one will bring? May this Advent season be a time of hope as we look forward to God’s words of promise becoming true in our lives. Amen.

Feel free to leave your own insights, questions, and words of encouragement below--perhaps they'll help us all as we strive to faithfully present this passage to our congregations. Blessings...

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Sermon Sketches: II Kings 22:1-20; 23:1-3 ~ Reading the Word Again…for the First Time

Note: I usually post an initial sketch on Monday or Tuesday of each week; then, I come back with a revised piece on Fridays. I hope my thoughts nourish your thoughts, that something here helps you think in the right direction for the congregation you serve. Cheers!

Do you know where you come from? Can you imagine forgetting where you had come from? Can you imagine finding a book that tells you who you are and how to live? In a sense, the reading this week is an ‘everyman’ story—it tells us about how anyone can lose touch with the past, reconnect, and move forward.

I. Josiah
 Josiah—just eight years old when he becomes king—is now a young adult, 26-years-old, when he decides it’s time to repair the temple. As we read chapters 22 and 23, we realize that the Temple has simply fallen into disuse—it has been ignored and almost abandoned. This happens as a part of the disaster has befallen the kingdom David and Solomon, the division that Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, brings about. Today’s reading relates something that happened in the Southern Kingdom of that division, Judah.

Josiah decides—for some undeclared reason—to have the Temple repaired. He orders stone workers and carpenters to renovate. In the process of the renovations, a book is found…or, more likely, a scroll— ‘the Book of the Law.’ The priests bring the book, and when Josiah hears what the book says, he is convicted…and determines that he needs to lead Judah in a new direction.

II. Grandmother’s Stories
I guess I was a young teenager when I first heard the stories. My parents were missionaries, so we spent much our lives outside the US—far away from our family, from aunts, uncles, and grandparents. This was a time long before cell phones and computers. Letters would often take weeks. As a result, I didn’t really know my grandparents that well, but one summer on furlough in the US, I got to spend some weeks with my Grandmother Herrin—and I was forever changed.

Perhaps I had never had a reason to ask those sorts of questions, so when the answers came, my identity was shaped like never before. One afternoon, I began to ask Grandmother about her childhood, growing up in the mountains of north Georgia. Soon, she began to tell me the story of our family’s migration…beginning back in the 1740’s in Scotland. The story took us from Scotland to Pennsylvania down to North Carolina and finally into Georgia.

Suddenly, I had a past, a history, an identity! I went from being simply ‘Jon Herrin’ to being ‘one of the Herrins’—one in a long line of people who had traveled and lived through two-and-a-half centuries. My interest grew, and I went on compile the family history by pulling together all of the written pieces and oral pieces. An afternoon with my grandmother changed everything.

III. The Book of the Law
We have a sense that something similar to my family epiphany occurred that afternoon when Josiah heard the reading of Torah—the stories of Creation, the Fall, the call of Abraham, the sojourn in Egypt, and the journey of the people with Moses back to the land of Abraham. When the Book of the Law was found and read to the young king, he suddenly found his identity and that of his entire people. He also found a code to live by, a standard—a bar set a bit higher than he be handed by his family. In an instant, the king gained an understanding of who he was and how he was to live…and he realized he had not been living the life he should have been. He realized that he had ignorantly been living ‘other.’ Not only he, but he and his people had not been living as God had called them to live.

Josiah calls his people together—everyone—and shares with them what has been discovered, and it changes the way the people see themselves, understand themselves.

At first, we wonder how this could have happened—how could someone misplace ‘the Book of the Law’? But, when we realize that Josiah is living some 350-400 years after the construction of the Temple, when we think about all that has transpired with the division of the kingdom and the parade of different kings—some, or many, corrupt—before him, we realize that even things as precious as this book could have been lost, misplaced, laid aside.

IV. Again…for the First Time.
Of course, the book is not really new for the people of Judah—it has been around since the days of leaving Egypt and crossing the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. This book had once guided Moses, David, and Solomon. But it’s new for this generation.

I recall when I was a youngster that Kellogg’s aired a commercial for their Corn Flakes cereal that urged viewers to “try them again…for the first time.” Well, the fact that I recall the silly commercial some forty years later certainly speaks to the effectiveness of the advertising program. And, I have often applied the concept to my own life—getting back to things important but long forgotten. Judah is called back to ‘the Book of the Law’…something they as a nation, as a people, were hearing again, for the first time.

V. Bringing it All Together
In our own age of information, we are easily side-tracked by all of the materials available to us. Our phones and devices—though they often contain a Bible app—too often take us to other places and that Bible app gets lost in a sense. Too often we Christians have been enticed to read all of the many books written by other Christians about how to live better, how to be disciples, how to think…and we have forgotten to read ‘the Book’ itself.

In Jesus’ time, the Sadducees—some of the supposedly very committed students of ‘the Book of the Law’—were reprimanded by Jesus because “you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). If some of the very experts in these things didn’t know the Scriptures, isn’t it possible we might be missing something as well?

Today’s passage urges us to return to the Book, to reclaim the Book, to re-read the Book. We may have copies lying about the house…unopened. Why not commit this day to reading a Psalm each day, or a chapter of Proverbs each evening? If you have heard the story of Jesus but have never read his story, perhaps reading a chapter a day from the Gospel of Mark or Matthew is where to begin.

We may not shred our clothes like Josiah—after all, we’re not reading only ‘the Book of the Law’—Torah; we’re reading what has become a book of grace that includes the old and the new, the story of Israel and the story of the Church. We may discover that we have not been living into our true identity as children of God. We may discover that we have neglected important parts of this life of faith. We may realize that we, too, ‘do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.’ If nothing else, we may suddenly find our real identity as a part of God’s people…we may find our place in the Story…the story of God’s people that we’ve been following since September. If even that happens, our lives will be forever changed.

 Feel free to leave your own insights, questions, and words of encouragement below--perhaps they'll help us all as we strive to faithfully present this passage to our congregations. Blessings...

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Sermon Sketches: Isaiah 5 & 11 ~ A Taste of Hope

Note: I usually post an initial sketch on Monday or Tuesday of each week; then, I come back with a revised piece on Fridays. I hope my thoughts nourish your thoughts, that something here helps you think in the right direction for the congregation you serve. Cheers!

This week, the kind folk who prepare the Narrative Lectionary have given us two passages. The first, from Isaiah 5, gives us words of despair, disappointment, and coming destruction. The second, from Isaiah 11, gives us words of life, hope, and justice. Upon first reflection, I wondered which of the two I would decide to work with…I mean, after all, we can’t do both, right? Wrong. Let’s do both.

I’ve often told the congregations I serve that there is no ‘Good News’ unless there’s ‘bad news’ first. News is often made good or bad relative to what is going on or has gone before. To simply hear, “The stock market fell 35 points today,” may be bad or good news. If the market has been going up every day, a 35-point fall will be a bad thing. If the market has been falling by 100 points a day for the last three days, only falling by 35 points is a good thing! So, we may not recognize the good news if we aren’t aware of how bad things are or were. The two Isaiah passages help us see that things were bad...but there’s something good on the way!

As we have followed the story of the People of God, we have seen some recurring themes since the Garden: rebellion, disobedience, arrogance. God provides a Garden with just one rule, and the newly formed humans break that rule. God calls Abraham to found a new nation, and Abraham decides to do it his own way. The people are called out of slavery, out of Egypt, and asked to trust in God’s provision, and they grumble, complain, and take things into their own hands. And, so the story goes—God promises life, freedom, provision…and the people—in general—are selfish, arrogant, and oppressive.

In fact, as we look around us—at least here in North America—we see clearly that the injustice persists. Just reflect on our legal system and see who suffers most and who is let off easy. Just reflect on the disparity of wealth and the inequality of our healthcare system in America. The selfishness and arrogance continue—at all levels of our society. Just hop on Twitter. Venture with fear and trembling into a store on Black Friday. Or…glance in a mirror. We wish we could say, “Ah…those who are not Christians, who haven’t yet read the Bible…,” but even that is not the case. Some of our “Christian Leaders” are leading the charge of injustice and selfishness. And, perhaps the words of Isaiah this day are words the Church needs to hear, words that God is speaking to us:

I dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
I built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then I looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit.

I find it interesting that Jesus, too, tells a story about a vineyard. In Matthew 21:33-41, Jesus tells the story of a vineyard that is given to the care of others. The point is not the quality of the fruit but the arrogance and insolence of those who are caring for the vineyard. The focus moves away from the fruit to the caretakers…and Jesus calls those caretakers to task!

Isaiah, though, does look at the fruit, and through him, God complains against the people regarding their neglect of justice, righteousness.

“Righteousness”—one of those big ‘church words’ that we often have a sense of but couldn’t really define if we were put to the test. When I learned Spanish in my family’s international mission days, a lot of things became clearer for me in Scripture—those of you who know a second or third language know what I mean. In Spanish, the word for ‘righteousness’ is ‘justicia’ – yep, it’s another word for ‘justice.’ However, I’m also now convinced that the best way to understand ‘righteousness’ for those of us who are English-speakers is to get ‘eous’ (us!) out of the word: ‘rightness.’ Rightness: the right way of things, correctness, sense of ‘right.’ Re-read the passage and substitute ‘rightness’ for ‘righteousness’ and see if it doesn’t help a bit.

So, the people of God in Isaiah’s day (and perhaps the church today) have neglected rightness and justice. And God is disappointed. But all hope is not lost.

11 1A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

Hope! Someone comes who will change everything. Someone will come who will be empowered by the Lord to bring justice and rightness and goodness. The poor and the needy will finally find justice; the wicked will be brought down.

No passage initiates the Christmas season for me more than this passage. This hint at a coming change cracks open the door. It’s a taste of Advent before Advent. It’s peek at the Messiah before Jesus is born Messiah. And, it’s a vision of what we earnestly desire and hope for and crave…but has not yet come to be.

These readings call us in two directions. First, God has given us so much, provided a world to sustain and more…and we have squandered it. We’ve had every chance to produce ‘good fruit,’ and we’ve preferred bitter grapes. And, God is not pleased. Then, we hear words of hope—perhaps in this same garden a sprig, a shoot, a tender green branch grows that will change everything. Yes, there is hope—hope for the people of Israel centuries ago and hope for us today. We hold on to the hope. We wait for it. Isaiah is that same prophet who encourages us—

…But those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint. (Isa. 40:31)

May we—in the face of troubles, injustice, and un-rightness—hope in the Lord. Our strength will be renewed! We will soar like Eagles! What do you think? Sounds like good news to me. Amen.

Feel free to leave your own insights, questions, and words of encouragement below--perhaps they'll help us all as we strive to faithfully present this passage to our congregations. Blessings...

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Sermon Sketches: Hosea 11:1-9 ~ As a Parent Loves a Child…

Note: I usually post an initial sketch on Monday or Tuesday of each week; then, I come back with a revised piece on Fridays. I hope my thoughts nourish your thoughts, that something here helps you think in the right direction for the congregation you serve. Cheers!

As we begin to preach this passage, we want to remind our hearers of the story we're following--from Creation to sin to a flood to a plan of redemption; from the call of Abraham to a promised land to an Egyptian detour to the call of Moses; from the Exodus through the wilderness to the promised land; from a loose confederation of tribes to a monarchy to victory to defeat to dissolution of the Kingdom...into the North (Israel) and the South (Judah). And today, we join the prophet Hosea in the Northern Kingdom--here referred to as Ephraim. Let's step up and have a look at this passage....

Just looking at this passage in our Bibles (or on our devices), if it’s been formatted and presented properly, we notice something different immediately. We’re not looking at the usual prose paragraphs of Genesis or Ruth or Matthew or Romans. Rather, this looks like what see in books of poetry—like the Psalms or Proverbs, Job and Song of Songs. What do we do with this? How do we approach and read this? When we come to poetry (and prophecy), we read it differently and do different things with it. In fact, upon first reading, my thought was, “What? How in the world do I preach this?!” Unlike the narratives of Sundays past, this passage begs for a different approach. So, what to do?

As a minister who is also an English teacher, I get to teach poetry from time to time. Presently, in my British Lit. class, we’re strolling through the 17th Century writers—Donne, Jonson, Herrick, and Milton. They’re poets—all of them. And, one of the tasks I have is to teach my students how to read poetry, what to do with poetry, how to understand poetry.
Poetry has a different purpose besides often having a different structure. We read the following sets of lines quite differently:

“I think you are a very beautiful person, and I hope we get a chance to go out and get to know each other.”

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate….”
                           from Sonnet XVIII, W. Shakespeare

The first lines above give information—what one person thinks. We find informational prose in those lines. The second lines, from Shakespeare, are far richer…evoking imagination through imagery and metaphor. Poetry is more about the expression of feeling through comparison, imagery, personification, and more.

We find in the words of Hosea exactly these things—imagery, comparison, metaphor…all to express God’s love.

               When Israel was a child… ~ metaphor

               It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
             taking them by the arms.
~ metaphor

               I bent down to feed them… ~ personification

And, these are only the most obvious examples.

If we were to attempt to approach this passage as we might approach the usual prose passages, we would find ourselves frustrated and perplexed. We often come to a passage from an exegetical approach, examining each verse…taking the verse apart to test each word…and then putting it all back together to see a deeper understanding. But, when we come to these poetic passages, rather then digging deeper and dissecting, we actually need to step back, step away, in order to get a sense of the overall image, meaning, and feel of the passage.

When we step back, we see a declaration of parental love on the part of God for the people of Israel—the northern Kingdom. Our academic side wants desperately to find the ‘factual,’ to compare what is said here to what actually happenings in history…but that is not the point. The point is, God rather fiercely declares a parent’s love for a child.

If anything, we get a sense of the child-like nature of ‘Ephraim.’ Israel and we like to imagine we’re all grown up and mature, that we can handle things, that we can make decisions. This passage reminds us that we’ve only just begun to walk; perhaps we’ve made it to that rebellious teenage period of our lives. In any case, we need a parent to guide us; we still need the loving oversight of one who sees more than we see, who cares for us in spite of our rebellious tendencies.

But this is more than simple poetry. This is also prophecy—the ‘forth-telling’ of God’s will and—in this case—a fore-telling of things to come. Mixed with the declaration of God’s love are words of warning—Ephraim, your rebellious ways are going to get you in trouble. Here, the loving parent warns the youngster much as we might warn our own children during their rebellious stages of life: I love you, son, but your behavior is going to get you in trouble; I love you, daughter, but these folks you’re running with are going to take you places you don’t want to go…. Through the words of Hosea, God expresses both love and warning to a young, rebellious people.

Some have pointed out that God declares the following, but the Northern Kingdom is decimated by Assyria anyway:

I will not carry out my fierce anger,
    nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
    For I am God, and not a man—
    the Holy One among you.
    I will not come against their cities.

How do we make sense of this? If God says, “I will not carry out my anger…I will not come against” them, but then destruction does come, how to do we understand these words? I’m not sure. Could it be that God had something even more destructive in mind? Rather than rob them of life, did God simply allow them to lose identity (being subsumed into the Assyrian world)? We again are probably being too academic and exegetical. Perhaps we again need to step back and hear the sense or sentiment of the poetic, prophetic words: Israel, you are frustrating me so much and I want to bring my wrath and anger down on you…but I’m not going to do that, I’m holding back. Perhaps this is a temporary reprieve…or perhaps we humans simply cannot see all that is going on behind and around these words.

And where is Jesus in all of this? Jesus often reminds us of the parental aspects of God. He calls us to pray to God as if he were that perfect, loving father we can all imagine: “Our father…” (Matt. 6:9). In that same teaching in Matthew, Jesus reminds us that the forgiveness God wants to pour out in our lives is conditional—only if we forgive can we know God’s forgiveness. In another passage, Jesus calls us to be “perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt.5:48). All through the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ Jesus calls our attention to the parental aspect of God—17 times!

But, we don’t want to be children, and we don’t want to need a parent to guide and teach us. In fact, we often want to be more like Ephraim than we’d like to admit. And, like Ephraim, we run after false gods—just their names have changed: wealth, power, social media influencer, popular. We often would rather turn from God and do our own thing, our way…even if we claim and call on the name of God on Sunday mornings for an hour.

Things don’t turn out well for the rebellious children of Israel. Why would we think that our destiny will somehow be different even if we act the same? The words of Hosea come as both a comfort and a warning, then, for us today. Yes, God loves us—dearly!—as a parent loves a child. Yet, we must live as children of God—trusting, obeying—if we are going to enjoy the blessing of being the children of God.

God loves you, loves me, loves us. Let us not squander or take advantage of that love. Let us not be blind to the love of God that has given us hope, a spiritual family, purpose and direction. God has made us a part of this very story we read today. Hosea's story, Ephraim's story--all of this is our story. Therefore, let us live into this story of stories...into this family faithfully, trusting, as brothers and sisters in this household of faith.


Feel free to leave your own insights, questions, and words of encouragement below--perhaps they'll help us all as we strive to faithfully present this passage to our congregations. Blessings...

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Sermon Sketches: I Kings 18:17-39 ~ Fire from Heaven!

Something about these dynamic stories from the Old Testament grabs our attention. We can’t turn our eyes away. In fact, we begin to pine for these kinds of demonstration of God’s power in our lives, in our world. Why doesn’t God do this in our world of skepticism and growing unbelief? Surely if fire would fall from heaven as in Elijah’s day that would capture people’s attention! While this brief chapter in the history of the people of God captures our imaginations, this event also reveals truths that we may miss if we don’t look closely. Let’s see what the Scriptures have for us here.

1 Kings 18:17-39
Vs. 17-19: Last week, we learned of the division of David and Solomon’s kingdom into the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). Today, we see that Jeroboam’s great idea for ensuring the strength and integrity of the Northern Kingdom—moving the religious cult away from Jerusalem in the Southern Kingdom to designated holy sites in the north—has resulted in religious disintegration: The people have abandoned the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and are following other gods—Baal and Asherah. One prophet of the God of Israel remains in the north—Elijah. And he is determined to bring the people back to faith in the one true God.

Vs. 20-24: There’s almost a ‘Western’ feel to this reading, almost like a showdown at the O.K. corral. Except, there are no peacemaker revolvers and no cowboy hats. There’s almost a comic feel as well, like we find in the old Terrence Hill ‘Trinity’ films…a bit of the absurd. We find Elijah up against what? 450 prophets of Baal? The gauntlet is thrown down—let’s see whose god responds to the prayers of which prophet(s). And, the whole world is looking on. All the people are standing around to see who the last man standing is going to be. The people themselves resemble what Jesus saw in his own day--"sheep without a shepherd" (Matt.9:26). They seem to be completely as the will of the prophets, not willing to fight for one god or another. Perhaps people have not changed so much down through the ages--they'll roll with what's convenient, easy...or with what proves to be true and impactful.

Vs. 25-29: Just because Elijah is God’s man, so to speak, doesn’t mean he’s perfect. In fact, if anything, this passage reveals yet again that God uses anyone and everyone at times. Elijah’s behavior here is questionable at best; just plain rude at worst. Yet, some Christian leaders will see Elijah taunting his ‘enemies’ and think they, too, are justified in acting the same way. I can only imagine God shaking his head as Elijah hurls insults at the prophets of Baal and Asherah. Our behavior as Christians is based on Jesus, not Elijah…just in case we think this passage gives us license to behave badly towards people who believe differently.

Vs. 30-38: We like this story on one hand because God comes through in a mighty spectacular way—fire falls from heaven at the simple, humble request of the prophet. This is how we want God to respond to God’s people. This how we want God to respond for us. We want to reveal to others, to the world around, just how powerful and amazing our God is, and how nice it would be if the fire would just fall from heaven once in a while! But, that doesn’t happen. So, why not? What’s going on here in this passage…and why doesn’t this sort of thing happen in our lives?

Of course, we hope for the amazing display of Elijah, but we're more likely to find what Dr. Rene Belloq finds in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Fire falls from heaven at the end of that film, and Belloq discovers the truth: we don't control the fire, we don't control God...and any lame attempt on our part will probably end badly. (Yes, of course Indiana Jones is fiction, but I do appreciate Hollywood's not minimizing or trivializing the power of God in the film.)

This inability on our part, on Elijah's part, to control or direct God makes the prayer in this passage quite notable. Elijah does not pray for 'fire from heaven'--he doesn't tell God what to do; rather, his prayer is "let it be known today that you are God in Israel...so these people will know that you, Lord, are God..." (vs. 36-37). These two verses themselves would be enough to preach--"God make yourself known for who you are!" No plea for miracles, no plea for spectacle...just a plea for revelation and changed hearts. Perhaps we learn something about prayer from Elijah here.


In this this passage from I Kings, we’re looking at an Old Testament revelation of God, an expression of power through fire and spectacle. And, we are looking at the work of an Old Testament prophet—someone who is called to reveal the invisible God and who will often do so in spectacular ways. On the other hand, we’re living in New Testament times—when God is no less powerful but often acts in subtlety and understatement: instead of fire from heaven, a few loaves and fish feed 5,000 people; instead of fire from heaven, a man cries out for faith when his epileptic son falls in a fire; instead of fire from heaven, the right person shows up at our door or your door in the moment of need with just the words we need to hear or the food we need to eat. Today, the fires of heaven are more like a candle in the darkness or a heart strangely warmed. God is no less powerful; God chooses to act in different ways today.

Actually, the fire from heaven does fall again in Scripture, and it falls on us…at Pentecost. Rather than falling to consume dead flesh and ordered stone, the fire from heaven falls on God’s church to give life and hope and assurance, to make all of God’s people into prophets and priests (I Peter 2:5). That fire still falls today on every baptized Christian, empowering him or her to live out the faith and to reveal the love of God. It’s true—we don’t see the spectacular roaring flames of Elijah in our world today. It’s also true, however, that God still works through all of us to bring people to faith.

When the church lives the faith, when we live the faith in our lives, people see the difference that a life of trust, hope and love makes in a life, in a family, in a community. And when they see, God has a chance to change a heart. The masses may not see and all fall prostrate and cry, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!” as in Elijah's day. But, one or three or a family may see and experience what we have found in Christ Jesus, and they may turn their hearts to God and be changed forever.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Sermon Sketches: I Kings 12:1-17, 25-29 ~ When Wisdom Wanes…

Sometimes, I come to a passage and I wonder where it will take me, I wonder how I can possibly preach it. Any of you who have followed my “Sermon Sketches” know that I always look for where Jesus fits in the picture, and I have to admit that on my first reading of this passage, I was a bit stumped. But—as is true for many of you—I have wrestled with this passage over the last few days, and there may be something here that both brings us to Jesus and speaks to our world.

As we look at this passage together, let us remember why we are following these ancient stories—stories that began with Creation, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; stories about Moses, Ruth, and David. We are following the story of God’s people; we are following our story. The moment we were baptized into the Church, the day we confirmed the faith, the occasion we decided to say ‘Yes!’ to Jesus and follow him, we entered this very story of life and faith. In that moment, the men and women I’ve just named became our ancestors—every bit as real as those folks named on your family tree. Your family tree follows our blood-line; the Bible gives us our faith-line.

So, today we come to that chaotic time in the history of Israel just after King Solomon has died. Solomon was the son of David…who was the son of Jesse…who was the son of Boaz and Ruth. Yes, the connections are all there…and we’ll keep connecting the dots of this story until we arrive at the birth of Christ’s Church. Just stay with us!

David, as you may recall, was the one who was able to unite the tribes and form the first ‘united kingdom.’ His reign was one of peace, and war, and trade, and more. His son, Solomon, came after David’s death, and we are told that his reign was spectacular. Israel shined like a beacon under his rule. The kingdom is rich. The borders are fairly secure. And then he died. Enter Rehoboam, son of Solomon…eager to ascend his father’s throne. Also enter Jeroboam, returning from his Egyptian exile, a former public servant of Solomon who had to flee the kingdom when he decided to ‘go for the gold.’

As we hear in this reading, Rehoboam places his confidence in his young friends, his comrades…rather than listening to the words of his elders. He has the whole kingdom before him, and they are gathered either to give him their loyalty…or walk away. He has the chance to shine to like his father. He has the opportunity to solidify and strengthen what has been passed on to him. All he has to do is listen to the right voices. And he doesn’t. Then the kingdom falls apart.

Jeroboam returns from exile just in time to benefit from Rehoboam’s foolishness. He gratefully steps in to lead the northern tribes who are having nothing to do with Rehoboam. And then he makes a smart move—he moves the center of faith and religious life to the Northern Kingdom. This will solidify the Northern alliance, and further separate them from the Southern Kingdom of Rehoboam. While this may be a divisive act, destructive to Israel, for his own purposes, this a politically shrewd.

Jesus tells us two parables in Luke that speak to these kings and their issues. When Jesus tells his disciples about the “cost” of following him (Lk.14:25-33), he uses the example of the king preparing for battle—" Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able…?” Rehoboam doesn’t sit down, doesn’t count the cost. He ignores the words of wisdom of his ‘elders’ and listens instead to the untested thoughts of his peers. He rejects wisdom.

Jeroboam—sort of the ‘bad guy’ in the story, the usurper, the king-wanna-be—is the one who actually acts wisely. Jesus tells that troubling story of the “shrewd manager” (LK. 16:1-9), called the parable of the “Unjust Servant” in some places, but Jesus holds this fellow up at exemplary: “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light” (v.8) Jeroboam proves to be this kind of fellow—smart for moving the centers of worship out of Jerusalem. Obviously, he ignores the commandment concerning idols, but for the consolidation and strengthening of the Northern Kingdom, he is shrewd in deed.

This passage is a passage about the rejection and embrace of wisdom. Wisdom. It’s one of those soothing words like ‘peace.’ And, like peace, it’s one of those things our world sorely needs. We have information unlike any generation in history—we can access information, data, charts, graphs, history and more through our smartphones and devices. But wisdom…ah, that’s the thing we don’t have, don’t see, and have a hard time teaching in our schools and universities. How do we make good use of our information? What information is worth having or using? What do we do with the kingdoms we’ve been given (perhaps the small kingdoms of our home or job or our own bodies)?

The call today underlying this reading is a call to seek wisdom, to listen to words of experience, to take counsel…and Proverbs reminds us:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7)


“Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction; pay attention and gain understanding. I give you sound warning, so do not forsake my teaching. For I too was a son to my father, still tender, and cherished by my mother. Then he taught me, and he said to me, ‘Take hold of my words with all your heart; keep my commands, and you will live. Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or turn away from them. Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you….’ (Prov. 4:1-6).

Rehoboam provides us a negative example—who not to live like. Jeroboam provides us a positive example—shrewd and wise. Perhaps it's time to revisit the book of Proverbs--just a chapter each day for a month. Perhaps there we'll begin to find the wisdom we and our world craves. 

May we learn from the story of our spiritual ancestors and embrace the gift of wisdom that God offers to us.


Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Sermon Sketches: II Samuel 6:1-5 ~ The Work of Celebration

1David again brought together all the able young men of Israel—thirty thousand. 2He and all his men went to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark. 3They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart 4with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. 5David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.        2 Samuel 6:1-5 (NIV)

Last week, we heard about and joined with Ruth in her journey to the land of Israel. She, the one who was welcoming and embracing of foreigners, became a foreigner, embraced by her new land. If you had a chance to read the rest of the book of Ruth this week, you learned that in the land of Israel, she worked the fields of Boaz…a man who fell in love with her and eventually married her. Together, they had a son, Jesse, and he in turn became the father of David—the future king of Israel.

David is the stuff of legends. Even in the Old Testament, he was quite the figure—an amazing warrior and leader, a wise king (most of the time!), and—as Luke reminds us in Act 13:22—a man after God’s own heart. Add to all that his amazing good looks, and David becomes the ‘whole package.’ He was able to do what Saul, the first and previous king, could not do—he united the kingdom of Israel.

But, besides his great feats of war and diplomacy, we find tucked into II Samuel 6 an act of faith, an act of religious importance—he moves the Ark, that symbol of God’s presence that had preceded the People of Israel as they left Egypt for the Promised Land, to the city of Jerusalem. Oh, we dare not separate this act of faith from his feats of war and diplomacy. His life, like ours, is not broken up into little boxes; rather, all aspects of his life—and ours—are woven together, each sphere of our lives impacting the others—whether we admit it or not. So, the act of bringing the Ark from Baalah to Jerusalem in simply another facet of David’s expansive life of leadership and faith.

As I read these verses, I was taken by verse five:

5David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord…

Celebration—we generally love this part of life. When we have a chance, we rarely pass up the moment to gather with family or friends to celebrate something. When my grandson, Santiago, turned four months old a couple of weeks ago, it was a fine excuse to get together with our daughter and her husband to celebrate. When our daughter, Meg, got married last month, family came in from Wyoming, Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama to celebrate with us. When my birthday arrives towards the end of the month, we’ll celebrate…eat lasagna and chocolate-chip pound cake. Usually, we love to celebrate.

But, there are those days we do not enjoy celebrating. There are those days that we are weighed down, tired, empty…and we just don’t want to celebrate. I know those times have come when a friend has invited me out to celebrate, and I beg off saying that the day was long and I’m too tired to be good company. Maybe I was a little tired, but more than anything, I didn’t feel like going out and ‘celebrating.’ I was heavy and did not care to be surrounded by joy and laughter…and I didn’t want to have the pressure of being a source of joy and mirth. Have you ever felt like not celebrating?

I suppose this is why II Samuel 6:5 catches my eye. Did you see it? 5David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might…. “Celebrating with all their might….” They weren’t just celebrating; they were working at it! “Might” is strength, energy. I imagine that not everyone there felt like celebrating. David and his men had just returned from battles (see II Sam. 5)—while they were victorious, that does not mean they not suffer losses. Friends, brothers, cousins, uncles probably fell on the field of battle. Others may have suffered life-changing injuries—lost limbs, broken bones that would never heal properly. While there was victory on the battle field, certainly there was loss and pain. And, I’m guessing they didn’t sleep great during those days in the field, so people were tired. No wonder celebrating was a chore!

But, they did it. They chose to celebrate…with all their might. The put aside their feelings of loss or weariness or whatever else, and they determined to celebrate the coming of the Lord’s presence to their capitol city of Jerusalem.

How often do we gather on Sunday to celebrate the goodness of God, to worship, to celebrate Communion, and we really don’t feel like celebrating. We’ve had a difficult week. The test at school was harder than we thought it would be. The results of the check-up weren’t what we expected or wanted. The diagnosis of a parent’s condition left us with little hope. The deal we were working on at our job fell through. The visit the children promised didn’t materialize. The retirement isn’t turning out how we expected. Or, that fool driver who cut us off on the highway is still very present in our thoughts…even though he drove on his merry way two hours ago. For whatever reason, we arrive on Sunday morning, and we don’t feel like celebrating anything.

David and his people were not relying on how they felt. They determined to celebrate the coming of the Ark to Jerusalem. They celebrated with all their might—they physically forced themselves to celebrate.

And, when we gather for worship, we may have to do the same…if we don’t have the feelings. We may need to make ourselves smile. We may need to force ourselves to greet the old friend and the new visitor. We may need to coax ourselves to sing the songs with passion. We may need to push ourselves to recite the Creed, to join in the Lord’s Prayer. We may need to apply our ‘might’ to the acts of worship.

I imagine some will ask, “Are you asking me to be a hypocrite? Are you asking me to put on a fake smile and act happy when I feel like crap and would rather be anywhere else, doing anything else?” No. I’m not asking anyone to be a hypocrite. I’m asking us all to embrace what contemporary psychology now understands and teaches us: not only do our feelings and attitudes affect our behavior, but our behavior affects our feelings and attitudes. How we act directly impacts our feelings. Just try it. Stand before a mirror and smile at yourself—you’ll be amazed at how it changes or reinforces how you feel.

When I officiate wedding ceremonies, I remind the couple that love is not a mere feeling. Feelings come and go; they’re about as predictable as the weather. If we rely on feelings, we’re in for a world of trouble. So, I remind the couple that love is what Paul describes in I Corinthians 13: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. These are not descriptions of feelings; these are ways of acting, thinking, behaving. I encourage the couple not to rely on the feelings but to do the acts of love, for when we do the acts of love, the feelings return…again and again as we act in love.

So, no—I’m not asking anyone to be a hypocrite. I’m asking everyone—all of us—to remember to do the sometimes hard work of celebration, to celebrate with all our might, to worship with all our power. Perhaps this is why Jesus reminds us that we’re to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27). Jesus knew there would be days we didn’t feel loving towards God, so we would need to rely not on our hearts alone but also on our strength and mind to carry us forward in the life of faith.

As we determine to do this hard work, we will find that our hearts, our attitudes, will catch up with our actions, our behavior, and so the set smile on our faces will soften in natural smile. The words of grace spoken haltingly soon becomes flowing conversation. The somewhat perfunctory greeting soon shifts to warm welcome. The song that our lungs force out of mouths slowly crescendos into words of praise that lift our hearts, if not our hands, to God.

As David and the people celebrated the moving of the Ark—that symbol of God’s presence—to Jerusalem with all their “might,” we, too, gather to celebrate God’s grace, love, and presence through worship and Communion…and we may need to do so with all our might. In fact, we should do so with all our might! As we ‘share the peace,’ may we do so with all our might. As we lift our voices in song, may we do so with all our might. As we come to the Table, may we so with all our might. As we pray, may we do so with all our might.

May we do the work of celebration…and allow those actions of joy, kindness, and celebration to change us from the inside out.


Monday, October 7, 2019

Sermon Sketches: Ruth 1:1-17 ~ Crossing Borders

I usually come to Ruth in weddings—that declaration of fealty that Ruth makes to Naomi at the end of today’s passage works well in the ceremony, an example of the kind of devotion that a couple are to have for each other throughout their lives (I use the ‘old-fashioned’ version for weddings):
Entreat me not to leave you,
Or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God. (Ruth 1:16, NKJV)

However, we would quite amiss to think that this is merely a passage about family commitment. This is a passage about change, movement, crossing borders. This is the beginning of yet another chapter in the story of the people of God and the coming Messiah.

An Israelite moving to Moab is about like a Georgian moving to Alabama—an act of last resort. The Moabites were despised and their land avoided. Moab was a land, a kingdom located east-south-east of the Dead Sea, at the edge of the Arabian desert. How they had more food than Israel is a curious thing. No matter—Elimelek took his family where he thought best…or, perhaps, where he was prompted to go. We don’t know because the Scriptures don’t say anything more than that they were escaping the drought.

What we do know is that this family (dad, mom, and two boys) traveled 100 miles or more overland—in a day before cars, buses, or trains. They crossed borders—political and geographical—and boundaries to get to a place where they could eat, live, raise a family. 

Here in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas where my wife and I live, this story is lived out 100 times over--probably more--every day as immigrants cross our southern border seeking work or safety, wanting to reunite with family, looking for opportunities to realize dreams.

We don’t judge Elimelek and his family for making their journey. We don’t cry ‘foul!’ for their decision to save their family and homeland under these circumstances. We accept that they are doing what they need to do to stay alive. Were we to stand in Elimelek’s shoes, we would do the same—whatever was necessary to keep the family alive. This is not a new story for the people of God—moving, crossing borders. Long before Elimelek, the people of God, the children of Abraham, had to leave the ‘Promised Land’ to find food as Jacob moved his family to Egypt during a time of famine. For that matter, famine is not a rare occurrence in Biblical times—there are no less than 11 famines recorded in the Old Testament, and over 80 references to ‘famine.’ Also, in the prophets, the great of fear of the people, or the great cause of death, is usually “sword or famine,” violence and starvation (see Jer. 5:12). Famine was a very real thing. The journey was a very necessary thing…if they were to live.

Not only did the family of Elimelek make the journey to a new land, they settled in the new land of Moab. They settled more than simply in the sense of purchasing land or a house. They threw in their lot with these people…and they were accepted by these people. They accepted and were accepted by this new world: Their sons married local women. In fact, they were so settled, it seems that there were no plans of going back to Israel.

But, life does not roll according to our plans. Elimelek died, and the sons died. Still, Elimelek's wife, Naomi, did not plan to go back to Israel. But, she got word that the "land of milk and honey" was again flowing with milk and honey. There was food back ‘home,’ and lots of it. So, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, Naomi decided it was time to return to Israel.

But what to do with these daughters-in-law? The only right thing to do would be NOT to uproot them from the only land and language and culture they have known. Naomi frees the girls from any obligation, releases them to return to their families, their people, with the hope that they’ll find new husbands and live their lives. But, Ruth is not having it.

We don’t know if Ruth has no family to return to. Perhaps her family is not a good family. Or, maybe she so loves Naomi that she is willing to face the uncertainties of a new land and life to be with her. Maybe she so loved her husband that she wants to remain with this family…this family of one. Ruth commits herself to Naomi...and begins the journey to a new world, crossing boundaries and borders to build a new life in a new land.

Ruth eventually becomes one of those in the grand genealogy of Jesus. We find her in Matthew’s gospel (1:5)—one of just four women mentioned in Jesus’ family tree. Her willingness to uproot and move to a new land ensured her a place in the great story of our faith. Her willingness to marry an outsider (Elimelek's son), or her willingness to make an ‘outsider’ accepted, began her part in this story. And, then she finds a new husband--a man of Israel who is willing to marry an 'outsider.' When you have a chance—this afternoon or one day this week—take a few minutes and read the brief story of Ruth. It’s a story of love and faith and family.

For us, Ruth reminds us of the importance of being willing to cross borders. Will Willimon says that crossing borders is the very definition of ‘mission’—whether the borders be political, geographical, cultural, psychological, or sociological. When we cross borders with the Good News of Jesus, we are engaged in mission. Ruth crossed borders based on faith, on her confidence in Naomi and the stories Naomi had told her of the ‘land of milk and honey.’ This is a story about 'outsiders' and the acceptance of them. Are we willing to cross borders to reach people in need? Are we even willing to say to Jesus those simple yet powerful words of fealty: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God….” Will we go where Jesus goes? Will we stay where Jesus stays? Will we make those who are not ‘our people’ to be ‘our people’? Are there 'outsiders' in our communities, in our congregations, hoping to be allowed in, to be accepted? Ruth seems to demand that we attend to these questions.