Living As God’s Beloved

My friends, we gather here this morning first and foremost as the people of God. We gather as followers of Jesus. We gather as members of one body in Christ. But, of course, the life that we share as a community of faith does not occur in a vacuum. The separations we so often try to hold between the sacred and secular, the religious and political are actually artificial distinctions that do not reflect the reality and complexity of our lives. And so, even though we gather first and foremost as the people of God, we also bring with us this morning all that we have experienced and witnessed this past week. We bring with us this morning our emotions and reactions to the shocking events that took place in our nation’s capital. We bring with us our fears and our anxieties. Our anger and our grief. Our doubts and our questions. We bring all of those things and as we gather this morning, we are longing to receive a Word from the Lord. Longing for God to speak. Longing to hear the voice of the One who has promised to be with us no matter what. 

And so, it’s interesting that in our gospel reading this morning we actually hear that voice speaking to Jesus. As Jesus emerges from the waters of the river Jordan, he hears a voice from heaven. Jesus at his own baptism hears God speaking. Jesus hears and receives a Word from the Lord. But before we get to that Word, we have to set the scene for a moment. Imagine with me, John the Baptist shows up in the wilderness. People from all around Judea and the whole city of Jerusalem are coming out to be baptized. Jesus himself comes all the way down from his hometown of Nazareth. And did you notice where they are all going? The wilderness! Where is John the Baptist doing his thing? The wilderness! Where are all of these events taking place? The wilderness! And so, when Jesus comes up out of the water, what is he confronted with right in front of him? The wilderness! In fact, several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the site that is the most likely location of the baptism of Jesus. And sure enough, when you stand in the water of the Jordan River and look straight ahead, as far as the eye can see is wilderness. The place of testing. The place of temptation. The place of confusion. But, my friends, it is there in the wilderness, that the Word of God comes. It is there in the wilderness that God speaks. Not in Jerusalem. Not in the Temple. Not in the Imperial palaces of Rome. Not in the usual centers of power or influence. But it is there in the wilderness that the heavens are torn apart and the voice of the Lord speaks. And that voice says to Jesus, “You are my beloved!” You are the One upon whom I have poured out my love.

In the wilderness, Jesus receives the promise of the Father’s love. But when Jesus receives this Word, when he hears the voice of the One of the who calls him beloved, it is not something he keeps for himself. Rather he goes into the world. He goes knowing full well the darkness that he will face. Jesus enters into the wilderness of real life. The wilderness of sickness and death. The wilderness of human pride and arrogance. The wilderness of injustice and inequality. The wilderness of suffering and grief. He enters into the wilderness of the human condition, but instead of giving into the chaos, he embodies what it means to be God’s beloved. Jesus lived and died and rose again as a living testimony to the power of God’s love to heal and transform and make all things new. But first, he heard a voice. First, he received a Word from the Lord. 

My brothers and sisters, each one of us here this morning, each one of us who has been baptized with water and the Holy Spirit, we have received that same Word. That same voice calls to each one of us and says, “You are my beloved.” God has spoken and is speaking right now to each one of us and he is calling us to go into the wilderness of this world and to live as God’s beloved. To not give into the chaos, but to embody a different way. A more excellent way. A more powerful way. A more effective way. And that way is the way of love. But, of course, we have to stop and ask the obvious question is. What does that even look like? What does is it look like for you and me to live our lives as God’s beloved?

I believe the answer to this question is found in the all too familiar description of love written by the Apostle Paul nearly two thousand years ago. You all know these words. 

Love is patient. Love is kind. 

Love does not envy or boast. 

It is not arrogant or rude. 

It does not insist on its own way.

It is not irritable or resentful. 

It does not rejoice at wrongdoing,

but rejoices in the truth. 

Love bears all things, 

believes all things, 

hopes all things, 

endures all things.

Love never ends.

What does it mean to live as God’s beloved? There it is! Can you imagine if we actually lived those words? Not in a passive “Pollyanna” kind of way. But with boldness. With conviction. With integrity. With passion. What if this is a moment in history when the church is being called upon to embody a radically different vision for the world? A vision in which we first hear the voice of the One who says, “You are my beloved.” And then we respond to that voice by living lives that actually embody the way of love. We respond by actually doing the work of love. We respond by actually living out our baptismal promises. To seek and serve Christ in all persons. To love our neighbor as ourselves. To strive for justice and peace among all people. To respect the dignity of every human being. Can you imagine a world, a church, a community, a family that embodies this more excellent way of love?

But, my friends, right now, we are in the wilderness. It seems that the forces of darkness and chaos are all around us. There is a very real sense of fear and uncertainty and even despair. But I’m here to tell you this morning there is a Word from the Lord. There is a voice calling out to us right now. God has spoken and is speaking. And he says to each one of us – “You are my beloved.” This is who we are and this is how we are called to live. 

Love is patient.

Love is kind.

Love is not arrogant.

Love does not insist on its own way.

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

Pointing to Jesus

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 

Last week, we met John the Baptist in the gospel according to Mark. And, in that gospel, John is very busy. He is somewhat preoccupied with his own ministry of baptism and teaching and preaching about the message of the Kingdom of God. But today, we’re in a different gospel – the gospel according to the evangelist John, And, in this gospel, we encounter a very different John the Baptist. In today’s gospel reading, we find that the primary work of John the Baptist is not so much the work of baptism and teaching and preaching, but rather, his primary work is the work of testimony. He came as a witness. He came to testify to the Light that is coming into the world. 

Now, it turns out that this work of testimony is a central theme throughout the gospel of John. In fact, if you look up the root of the word testify in all four gospels, you will find that is occurs only once in Matthew, twice in Luke, and three times in Mark. But in the gospel of John, the word testify occurs over 45 times. Do you think the evangelist John is trying to communicate something important about the work of testimony? The work of bearing witness? 

The fact of the matter is that the earliest communities of faith were brought into being through the work of testimony. For early Christians, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were evidence that the kingdom of God was breaking forth in the world. The light of God’s presence was breaking into the darkness of our world, a world broken by the effects of our own sin and disobedience. And the response of early Christians to these world changing events was to testify, to bear witness, to point people to Jesus as the Savior and the Light and the Lord of the World. The primary work of the early Christian movement was the work of testimony.

Many theologians and biblical scholars have pointed out that John the Baptist is the first example of the work of testimony, and his example serves as model for the work of testimony in our own lives. When we look at the life of John the Baptist, what we discover is that testimony is not only something that we do; it is, more importantly, something that we are. 

We tend to think of testimony primarily as something we do, right? It is a particular action or a particular function of the Christian life. Especially within the evangelical tradition of the church, it has been important to have a personal testimony that you are able to articulate and share with others. You might also think of the work of testimony in terms of going out on the streets to witness to talk to people who may never have heard the good news of God’s unconditional love and amazing grace. This kind of testimony terrifies most Episcopalians, but that is exactly what early Christians did. They went out and just talked to people about Jesus. Now this understanding of testimony as something that we do is not wrong, but I think the New Testament says something much more profound about what it means to bear witness and to share our testimony. 

New Testament presents the work of testimony in much more incarnational terms. In other words, our testimony, our witness is something that we embody. It is something that is expressed and reflected in everything that we do. And therefore, testimony is not simply about words, it is about the entire content of the character of our lives! This is what we see in the life of John the Baptist, the whole shape and character of his life points people to Jesus. In other words, he doesn’t simply have a testimony, he is a testimony!

There is a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that says, “How you live your life may be the only sermon a person will ever hear.” A sermon not preached on Sunday mornings in the context of a church service, but preached everyday in the context of our lives. We are called to be living testimonies!

Now if we understand testimony as something we embody then every facet of our lives becomes part of this living testimony. Every status update on your Facebook page. Every hand gesture made while driving in traffic on I-95. Every email that you sent, even those you wish you could unsend. Every harsh word to a spouse, a friend, or a neighbor. It’s all part of our testimony.

Testimony is not only something we do. It is something we are. You are a living testimony, every facet and dimension of your life.

But there is a paradox in all of this. The paradox of Christian testimony is that even though we embody this testimony, the subject of our testimony is not ourselves; it is the light and love and power of Jesus. Now this may be self-evident, but the reality is that we are pretty good at focusing on ourselves. Even when we are talking about spiritual things, it is all too easy to make ourselves the subject of our testimony. John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase; I must decrease.” John understood that he was not the subject of his testimony. The subject of his testimony was the power of God, the light of God’s presence breaking into the darkness of our world.

In the vesting room where the clergy prepare the service, there is a painting by a German artist named Matthias Grunewald. The painted was completed over 500 years ago and it depicts the crucifixion of Jesus. But what makes this painting unique is that off to one side Grunewald has included John the Baptist in the painting. Now we know that John the Baptist was killed long before Jesus was crucified, but Grunewald includes John the Baptist simply pointing at Jesus.

The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth had this painting hanging over his desk. And when someone asked why he had that particular painting hanging over his desk, Karl Barth said, “The goal of my life is to point people to Jesus.” Now the writing of Karl Barth contains over 6 million words and 8,000 pages. And yet, for him, none of that mattered unless he was pointing people to Jesus.

My friends, look at the world around us. Turn on your TV. Open a newspaper. Check the homepage of any prominent news organization.  Don’t you think we need men and women of God who will simply stand up and point to Jesus? Don’t you think we need men and women of God to stand up and point people to vision of healing and justice? Don’t you think we need to boldly claim God’s vision of restoration and renewal of all things? This is who we are called to be!

There was man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light. This morning I want to invite you to simply insert your name into that statement. You and I are called to be living testimonies of the power of God. You and I have been called, appointed, anointed, and sent to testify to the light of God’s presence in the world – we have been called, appointed, anointed, and sent to point people to Jesus! 

Preparing for RESTORATION

Last Sunday, we began the season of Advent by focusing on God’s promise of restoration. The promise that one day God will heal and restore and make all things new. Just as neglected piece of artwork may need to have layers of dust and debris removed in order to reveal its original beauty and brilliance, so God is in the process of removing the layers of sin and brokenness and human pride in order to reveal the masterpiece that he intended from the very beginning. And so, the season of Advent is a time of waiting, a time of longing and looking for God’s promise of restoration. 

Now we like the idea of restoration. We like the idea that God healing and restoring the beauty and glory of his creation. We get excited about the promise that God is making all things news. But here’s the thing. Restoration might be our destination, but it’s not our starting place. In other words, restoration is the goal, it’s is where we are headed, but there are some things that need to happen first if we are to witness restoration in our lives and in the world. 

And so, this morning, on this Second Sunday of Advent, I want us to take a step back and to examine what needs to happen before restoration is possible. 

Now, in the Bible, one of the things that precedes restoration is REPENTANCE. As I said, we like to talk about restoration. I don’t think we get as excited about repentance. As a general rule, we don’t like to spend too much time dwelling on what’s wrong in our lives, what do we need to confess, what do we need to change. And our culture certainly doesn’t promote the value repentance as an important part of our lives. And yet, if you read your Bible, you’re going to discover that repentance is at the very heart of the gospel message. 

In our gospel reading this morning, we hear the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark. And Mark announces that this is, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In other words, Mark says, “this is how it all starts.” This is the launch event for the kingdom of God. This is the opening act for the “headliner” to come which is Jesus himself. So, you might expect that the beginning of the gospel message would focus on God’s plan of restoration and healing and renewal. 

But instead, the good news begins with the appearance of John the Baptizer in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance. Why would the launch event for the kingdom of God be a call to repentance? Because repentance precedes restoration.  

Now, as you may already know, the word repent simply means to turn. The concept of repentance comes from the ancient Hebrew word shuv. And it means to turn around. The implication is that you are heading in the wrong direction and in order to head in the right direction, you have to turn around. They had been following the pathway of their own pride and arrogance. They had been following hard after the false gods of power and control. They had been caught in a cycle of injustice and violence for too long. And God said, “turn around!” It’s like if you’re driving and you get lost, you’re GPS just starts repeating over and over again, “Make a u-turn! Make a u-turn!” The only way to get back on track. The only way to reorient ourselves is to turn around. And so, if restoration is that direction and I’m heading that direction, there is only one thing to do. Turn around! 

REPENTANCE precedes RESTORATION. 

But there is something that comes even before repentance and that is RECOGNITION. What I mean is that at some point, we have to recognize that something needs to change in our lives, that we need to turn. At some point, we have to acknowledge that we have fallen short. At some point, we have to recognize that we need redemption. We need mercy. We need healing. We need forgiveness. 

The John the Baptists of the world can stand on every street corner calling us to repentance, but until we recognize our need for grace, we will just walk on by every single time. The beginning of good news of Jesus Christ is also a call to “get real” and to “get honest” with ourselves and with one another. 

So, what we have a three-fold pattern.

RECOGNITION

REPENTANCE

RESTORATION

This is the pattern we see over and over again in the lives of God’s people. What you may not realize is that we actually do this every Sunday. We pray this three-fold pattern almost every single Sunday when we pray the Confession of Sin. Think about what we pray when we pray the confession.

Most merciful God,

we confess that we have sinned…

Do you notice how counter-cultural that is? That every single week a group of people to come to together and part of what we do is recognize our sin, to acknowledge our weakness.

We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,

by what we have done,

and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. 

That’s all recognition. That’s saying, “God, we have fallen short and we need your help!”

And then we continue. 

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. 

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,

have mercy on us and forgive us;

This part of the confession moves into repentance. This is moment when we commit to turn. To move in a new direction. To make changes in our lives. To rely on God’s mercy and forgiveness. We make a commitment to repentance. 

And then finally, we pray…

That we may delight in your will,

and walk in your ways,

to the glory of your Name.

That’s restoration. That’s newness of life. We are praying that God’s will would be our delight, our source of joy. We are praying that we would begin to walk more fully in God’s ways of justice and healing and renewal.  We are praying that our thoughts, words, and deeds would now actually bring glory to God’s name. 

Week after week, we push through the Confession without really thinking about what we are doing. But what we are doing is enacting this three-fold pattern of Recognition, Repentance, and Restoration. And so, this morning, in a few moments when it comes time for the Confession of Sin, instead of just reading quickly and moving on, we’re going to slow it down and take it line by line, in order to move more intentionally through these three movements of recognition, repentance, and restoration. Because that’s journey to which we have been called. That’s the pathway we have been called to follow. And it’s the beginning of the good news we’ve been called to believe. 

The Promise of RESTORATION

Over 150 years ago, in the middle of the 19th century, there was a famous artist who was widely acclaimed for his work as a sculptor and a painter. This particular artist had been trained in Rome and studied with many of the great artistic masters of his day. So, the works that he created were of the highest quality and many were placed in some of the most prestigious museums in the world. They were characterized by brilliant colors, intricate details, and profound beauty. 

But after sitting in a museum for a while, something began to happen to one particular painting. The combination of dust, moisture, and the residue from 19th century kerosene lanterns all combined to create a film that darkened brilliant colors and concealed the intricate details that had made this artist famous. 

Believe it or not, at one point, a well-intentioned maintenance worker actually coated this painting with varnish, thinking that would surely protect it from further damage. But the varnish, of course, turned yellow and further diminished the profound beauty of the artwork. Ultimately, the residue and buildup became so significant that by the middle of 20th century, art historians were highly critical of the artist’s work. They thought it was inferior and amateurish. They were, of course, judging not the original work, but the rather the effects of the dust and dirt and varnish that had accumulated over time.

Many years later, it was discovered that the paintings had cracks and chips that needed to be repaired. But when artists were hired to conduct this repair work, do you know what they did? They didn’t try to match their paints to the original brilliant colors, because they couldn’t see them! Instead, they matched their paints to the dirty and yellowed colors that were the result of layers of dust and moisture. And so, now on top of the layers of dust and residue, there were layers of paint that represented numerous attempts to “fix” the artist’s original work.

Eventually, a new museum curator decided to take a closer look at the artwork and became convinced that underneath these layers of dust and paint, there was a masterpiece of brilliant color, intricate detail, and profound beauty! And so, began the process of RESTORATION, which involved scraping away the excess paint, which in some cases was 15 layers deep, and then methodically removing the layers of dust and residue. It a slow and tedious process. But it was a process of rediscovering the beauty and power of the artist’s original work. A process of restoration!

My brothers and sisters, you and I gathered here today on this first Sunday of Advent, precisely because we are in need of restoration. When the world around us has already jumped ahead to Christmas, the church actually takes almost a month to reflect on why we need Christmas. Why did Jesus come in the first place? Why do we need the incarnation? Because we need restoration! 

If you think about it, at the very beginning of creation, God crafted a masterpiece full of brilliant colors, intricate detail, and profound beauty. The pinnacle of that creation was humankind, created in the image and likeness of God. Created to be a reflection and the brilliance and beauty of God himself.

But shortly thereafter, something began to happen. Due to our own sense of pride and entitlement, we began to make choices and decisions that slowly darkened the brilliant colors of our lives, concealed the intricate detail of God’s handiwork, and ultimately diminished the profound beauty of God’s creation. We have attempted to cover up our mistakes with the varnish of good intentions, the varnish of human achievement, the varnish of progress and innovation. We are really good at glossing over things, but eventually that glossy covering itself becomes dull and yellow and cracked!

And the saddest thing of all is that somewhere along the way we have just gotten used to it. Like the painters who were hired to fix the tarnished artwork, we often match the colors of our lives not to the brilliance of what we were created to be, but to the dull, muted, depressed colors that are the result of human sin and brokenness. Ultimately, we spend a lot of time and energy trying to “fix” ourselves and “fix” each other and “fix” the world, but it seems that for everything we try to “fix” over here something else begins to fall apart over there! If there is anything the year 2020 has taught us, it is that we can’t fix everything. Some things are out of our control! 

But thousands of years ago, our spiritual ancestors, the prophets and sages of the Old Testament, began to take a closer look. Like the Curator of the museum, they began to look underneath the layers of human pride and arrogance. They began to peel away the layers of sin and brokenness and alienation. And you know what they began to see? They began to see the brilliant colors, the intricate details, and the profound beauty of creation that had been there all along! And they began to proclaim that one day, God would break forth into the course of human history to bring about healing and restoration, not just for humanity, but for all of creation. And they were longing for that day. 

In our Psalm this morning, the psalmist cries out not once, not twice, but three times, for God to restore his people. “Restore us, O God of hosts; show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” The prophet Isaiah echoes this cry when he says, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down hear.” Come and heal. Come and restore. Come and make all things new. 

Now if we fast forward to November 29, 2020, we are gathered here on this First Sunday of Advent, because we believe God heard the cry of his people. We believe that in the fulness of time, God sent his Son to come among us in great humility. God tore open the heavens and to get to us. To heal. To forgive. To restore. 

My friends, the incarnation is a sign of God’s promise to make all things news, to peel away the layers of sin and brokenness, to chip away the hard shell of human pride and arrogance. To reveal God’s masterpiece that has been there all along. To reveal the brilliant colors, the intricate detail, and the profound beauty that God created at the very beginning.

Of course, we don’t see the fullness of this restoration yet. When we walk out those doors, it won’t take very long before you and I notice the dull, muted colors that are the result of human sin and brokenness. We see the degradation of creation. We see suffering and pain. We see violence and injustice.

But in the midst of the darkness of this broken world, you and I are called to see a deeper reality, to see God’s hand work in the world about us. We are called to bear witness to God’s work of healing and restoration and then to participate in that work. We are called to show forth in our lives the brilliant colors and profound beauty of God’s creation and then to work for the renewal and restoration of that creation. And so, as we celebrate this first Sunday of Advent, be reminded that you are part of God’s masterpiece. You are a reflection of the very image and likeness of God. And you are called to be a vessel of healing and restoration for the world! 

The Great Surprise

One thing is for sure, the year 2020 has been full of surprises. Of course, many of the surprises we have endured over the past several months are ones we most certainly could have done without. There have been significant challenges. There has been profound change and deep uncertainty. All of which has resulted in a palpable sense of loss and grief. But in the midst of this loss and grief many people have also been surprised by grace. There have been moments when we have witnessed compassion and healing and kindness and even joy. There have been opportunities to grow and deepen our faith. Opportunities to see grace in action, to be surprised by beauty and hope. And these opportunities I think have been right in front us the whole time, but sometimes we just simply don’t have eyes to see them. 

This reminds me of a story of a young man who, several years ago, was playing music in the subway system of Washington D.C. His clothing and appearance indicated that he was homeless and had been living on the streets for quite some time. He set up his blanket in the corner of the subway station. He set out his plastic cup and a cardboard sign that simply read “please help. When the rush hour crowd began to descend the escalators into the subway station, the young man began to play his old violin. Hundreds of business men and women hurried past the man without even noticing the amazingly beautiful music that was being played. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, only six people would stop to listen. About 20 people tossed a few coins in the man’s plastic cup but then continued to walk at their normal pace. When he finished playing, no one even noticed the music had stopped. No one applauded. There was no recognition of any kind. No one had a clue that the violinist was, in fact, Joshua Bell, one of the most widely acclaimed classical musicians in the world. No one knew he had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth over 3.5 million dollars. No one knew that that just two days before his playing on the subway platform, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the ticket prices averaged over $100 a piece.

This was a social experiment about the way we perceive the world. Do we perceive beauty and hope and grace where we least expect it? Can you imagine the great surprise for those hundreds of subway passengers if we could somehow gather them and tell them, “You just walked past Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world?!?”

This morning’s gospel reading from Matthew 25 is all about the element of surprise. However, that’s not the way this parable is often taught. In fact, I looked up this parable in several of my study Bibles, and I found that this passage is most often referred to as “the Parable of the Final Judgment” or “the Parable to the “Sheep and the Goats” or “the Parable of Eternal Destiny.” But I think another possible title for today’s gospel reading could be “the Parable of the Great Surprise.” 

Now, most of us know the basic elements of the story. The Son of Man is coming in glory. And when he comes, he will separate the people one from another just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. In the parable, all the nations are gathered together, and the King says to those on his right hand, “Come you who are blessed by my Father and take your place in the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” But to those at this left hand, he says, “Depart from me, you evildoers and you who are cursed.” At face value, this parable seems to be exactly what those titles in our Bibles indicate – it is a Final Judgement, it is the Separation of the Sheep from the Goats, it is a parable about Eternal Destination. But this morning, I want you to notice that it is also a parable full of surprise!!!

First of all, notice that both the “sheep” and the “goats” are completely surprised by their own actions or inaction. To those at his right hand, the King said, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was homeless and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” And upon hearing these words, they are utterly astonished and they ask the King, “when did we do these things?” You can imagine these guys looking over their shoulder and thinking, “Are you talking to me?” They are completely surprised! 

And those on the King’s left hand are equally surprised. To them the King says, “I was hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned – and you did nothing to help me!” Upon hearing these word, they are just as astonished as the other group and they ask the king, “When did we not do these things?” 

This element of surprise reminds us that there is mystery when it comes to our own spiritual condition as well as the spiritual condition of others. We can never be so confident as to say we have somehow achieved righteousness. Nor can we place ourselves in the position of judge, arrogantly assuming we know who is righteous and who is not. For both the sheep and goats, for both the righteous and unrighteous, there was a moment of surprise. 

But I want you to see this morning that there is something even more surprising something even more scandalous going on in this parable. And that is the revelation of where this King is spending his time – with “the least of these!” The hungry. The thirsty. The homeless. The naked. The sick. The imprisoned. Both the sheep and the goats, both the righteous and unrighteous, are surprised to find out where Jesus has been hanging out. They are surprised by their failure to recognize the presence of Jesus all around them. Like the hundreds of subway riders who hastily rushed past Joshua Bell and failed to recognize one of the greatest musicians in the world, the great throngs of people described in today’s parable find themselves in the very presence of Jesus and fail to recognize him as King of kings and Lord of lords. They didn’t expect to find the presence of Jesus in the midst of the pain and brokenness of this world. 

Many people this year have been asking the question, “Where is God? Where is God in the midst of this pandemic?” I think the words of Jesus make it clear. God is right there among the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the naked, and those is prison. Jesus is hanging out with “the least of these.” And Jesus says, when you love and serve and do justice among the least of these, you are doing those things to me. 

My friends, this morning, my prayer is that we may we be open to the surprising and amazing grace of God that is at work in our lives. May the eyes of our hearts be open to see the presence of God in surprising and unexpected places. And may we have the courage to embrace the pain and brokenness and mystery of this world that we might have an encounter with the transforming love of Jesus Christ and once again be surprised! 

Waiting in HOPE

Have you ever noticed how much time you actually spend waiting? Over the course of your lifetime, you will spend an average of 184 days simply waiting in line. You will spend another 126 days sitting at traffic lights. And you will spend approximately 43 days of your life waiting for the next available customer service representative to answer your call. Of course, beyond the mundane hassles of waiting in line or sitting at traffic lights, there are the much deeper, more troubling, experiences of waiting. Waiting for a phone call from the doctor’s office with the results of a recent test. Waiting for news from a loved one who may be in the midst of a crisis. Waiting for a prodigal son or daughter to make their way home. We so often find ourselves in a place of waiting. 

This morning we gather as brothers and sisters in Christ after what has turned out to be an election week. Nearly 150 million Americans exercised their constitutional right to vote. And yet, although a winner has been called and decisions have been made, I would contend that, at many levels, we still find ourselves in a place of waiting. On a global level, we are still waiting for the end of what continues to be a devastating pandemic. On national level, we are still waiting for the remainder of this election process to be officially completed. On a local level, we are waiting to see what Tropical Storm Eta is ultimately going to decide to do. And on a spiritual level, we are still waiting for divisions to be healed. For hearts to be transformed. For that day when hatred, injustice, and fear will once and for all be overcome by love, mercy, and the abundance of God’s grace. My friends, we are still in a place of waiting. 

This week as I read the gospel reading appointed for this morning, I thought to myself, “What, if anything, does a parable about foolish bridesmaids running out of oil have to do with our present situation?” It’s a good question. At first, I was having a hard time making any immediate connections. And then it occurred to me, “This is a story about waiting!” The bridesmaids in the story have really only been given one task – to wait. To wait for the arrival of the bridegroom who apparently has been delayed. As the parable goes, five of the bridesmaids are described as wise because they have an ample supply of oil for their lamps, and five of the bridesmaids are described as foolish because they run out of oil just as the bridegroom is about to appear. 

So, the question that this parable seems to be asking is “What do we do while we wait?” And the implied answer seems to be “Make sure you have enough oil for your lamps!” Now Jesus doesn’t tell us what the oil represents. Some have suggested it represents the anointing of the Holy Spirit, others say it represents faith or love or good works. But this week when I read this parable several times through, I thought, “What if the oil represents HOPE?” Because what do you need most when you waiting? HOPE! What do you need most when you are uncertain about the future? HOPE! What do you need most when you not sure what in the world is going to happen next? HOPE! When we find ourselves in a season of waiting, what we need is an ample supply of HOPE! 

And so, if the oil represents hope, what does this parable tell us about the nature and character of hope? 

Well, I think it tells us that HOPE is a choice. It is an intentional decision that we make. It is a spiritual practice. In our parable, the fact that the wise bridesmaids’ have an ample supply of oil is not by chance, but by choice. They made a decision to bring extra oil with them, so that they wouldn’t run out. In the same way, hope is a decision and a choice that we make. It is something we do. But that’s not how we usually think of hope. We usually think of hope as a feeling or an emotion that comes and goes. We say things like, “I feel hopeful,” as if hope is a mood or disposition.  Other times we think of hope as something that is somehow determined by our circumstances. So, if life has been hard and then things start going well for us, we say things like, “Finally, I have a glimmer of hope.” And more often than not, when I hear people talk about hope, they talk about it as if it is a last resort. When we have exhausted all our rational and reasonable options, we say with disappointment, “Well, all we can do is hope.” 

But none of these is the biblical vision of hope. Biblical hope is a steadfast confidence in God’s faithfulness. Biblical hope is the conviction that God’s promises are true, and God’s plans are perfect. And this confidence and conviction are not dependent on how we feel, they are not determined by our circumstance. and they are certainly never a last resort. As followers of Jesus, hope is where we begin, not where we end. It’s a choice. A decision. An action. Hope is something we do.

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Keep Looking Up

So, have you all heard the news that there is an election coming up? This morning, we might as well name the elephant (or donkey) in the room, because it seems to be on everybody’s minds. Over the course of the past few weeks almost every conversation has in some way touched upon the stress or anxiety people are feeling about this year’s election. And just because we are in church doesn’t mean that we are able to set that aside. We don’t leave those emotions behind when we walk through those doors. Moreover, we are here because we believe the message of the gospel has something important to say to every facet of our lives.

Now one of the reasons that this year’s election is so distressing for many people is because it seems like the only thing that we are united about is the fact that we are divided. There are these major ideological fault lines that seem to be growing wider and deeper every single day. There’s conversative and liberal. Rural and urban. Rich and poor. Black and white. And it seems there is tension no matter what issue is at stake.  Whether it’s taxes or climate change, immigration or healthcare, we are deeply divided as a nation and as a people. So, what do we do? What is our response as followers of Jesus? 

To begin to answer these questions, we have to go back to the very beginning when the first followers of Jesus went into all the nations to preach the gospel. I think we often assume those early years were a time when the church was united, a time when there was widespread agreement and harmony and unity among the people of God. But guess what? Nothing could be further from the truth. The first followers of Jesus had to overcome significant differences. There were major obstacles that the early church had to overcome in order to fulfill its mission. Now want you to think about this. They spoke different languages. They lived in different regions. They had been practicing different religions. They were part of different cultures. And they came from vastly different socio-economic backgrounds. In other words, in the first century, there were rich Christians and poor Christians. There were rural Christians and urban Christians.

There were Jewish Christians and Greek Christians. You might even say there were conservative Christians and liberal Christians. My point is that the first followers of Jesus faced many of the same ideological divisions that we face today and yet somehow, they were able to come together as a movement that changed the course of human history. How did that happen?

It happened because the first followers of Jesus had a vision. They had a vision of a different kind of world, a vision of what Jesus called the kingdom of God, a vision of what the world would be like if God was in charge! This was a powerful and compelling vision! It gave a group of people that literally came from all walks of life a common purpose and common identity. It was able to bring them together around a common table. So, what was it about this vision that it was able to unify this radically diverse group of people?

First of all, it is a vision of a kingdom that transcends this world. It’s bigger than any one group or faction. It’s bigger than any one ideological camp. It’s bigger than any one perspective or point of view. In our reading this morning from the Book of Revelation, we are given a glimpse into this vision through the eyes of Apostle John. John looks up into heaven and he sees “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from every tribe and people and language, standing before the throne of God.” And John keeps looking, and in this vision, he sees that no one is hungry. No one is thirsty. No one is grieving. No one is isolated. No one is without shelter. No one is suffering. 

My friends, can you see the vision? For John, the doorway to heaven opened up, and he was given a glimpse of God’s dream. God’s desire for healing and renewal and restoration for the whole of creation. This is a vision of a kingdom that transcends this world. It’s bigger than you and me. It’s bigger than this election. It’s bigger than all the things we try to hold onto so tightly in this life.

However, if this only a vision of a kingdom that transcends this world, then it is just out there somewhere in the distant future. But for the follower of Jesus, this is also a vision of a kingdom that transforms this world. It transcends this world and transforms this world. The first followers of Jesus did not believe the kingdom of God was just some distant place or some future reality. To the contrary, they believed that the kingdom of God was breaking into the world now. Transforming lives now. Healing people now. Establishing justice now. You and I pray for this transformation every single Sunday when we declare “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven.” We are praying for the vision of God’s kingdom to be made a reality right here, right now in our lives and in our world. We are praying the kingdom that transcends this world will also come and transform this world, that God’s dream might be realized through us. Through our lives. Through the work and the mission that we share together. My friends, can you see the vision?

Now I know that there are times when it’s easy to lose sight of the vision. It is easy to think that what is going on all around us is all there is; we get caught staring at what is right in front of us. The division. The anger. The pain. It’s easy to lose heart and wonder if things are ever going to change. But once again, we find that God’s people have been here before.

When I find myself wondering if things are ever going to change, I go back more than 3,000 years ago to the story of a man named Abraham who was given a vision. A vision of world full of God’s blessing. A vision of God’s abundant provision. A vision of hope and salvation. But after years of waiting, Abraham found himself inside his house. He was frustrated, disillusioned, and angry. He was complaining to God and saying, “Lord, this is never going happen. The vision is never going to become a reality.” All Abraham could see was what was right in front of him. 

The Lord said to Abraham, “Go outside and look up. Look up at the sky. Look at the stars. Try to count them.” And the Lord said, “The extent of my blessing is going to be greater than the stars of heaven. “So, look up, Abraham, look up! The vision hasn’t been lost. The vision hasn’t been lost.”

My friends, no matter what happens this week, there will be winners and losers. There will be some who are happy and others who are sad. There be some who are hopeful and joyful. There will others who angry and anxious. But regardless of what happens, our call as followers of Jesus is to look up, to see a vision of the kingdom of God that transcends the kingdoms of this world, a vision of a kingdom that is transforming this world right now, through us. Through you and through me. Don’t lose sight of the vision. Be encouraged. Keep the faith. And most importantly, look up!

Sharing GRACE

Over the course of nearly two thousand years, the message of the gospel has essentially remained the same. It is the same message of radical love and extravagant grace. It is the same message that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, a whole new way of living has been opened to us. It is the same message of healing and hope and transformation. For nearly two thousand years, the message hasn’t changed.

What has changed is the packaging. What has changed is the means by which the message of the gospel is conveyed to the world. We have gone from small house churches to grand cathedrals to football stadiums. We have gone from leaders who were uneducated merchants and fishermen to highly educated, professional clergy with masters and doctoral degrees. We have gone from hand-copied scrolls to mechanically printed books to iPhones and live streaming technology. The packaging has changed significantly.

And we devote a significant amount of resources to develop this packaging. We invest a lot of time and money into our structures and systems that support all of the outward and visible elements of the church. I heard recently about one church that has a hairstylist on staff, so the pastor can have his hair cut and styled before every service. The good news is that this is one expense Good Shepherd doesn’t have to worry about. My point is that we have seen dramatic changes in the way the gospel message is packaged. It has been accessorized, glamorized, and commercialized. It has been modernized, digitized, and, in many ways, Americanized. And so, there are times when I have theorized that the message might be compromised or sanitized or trivialized to the point where it’s hard to recognize the authentic gospel of Jesus. 

Because, you see, no matter how expansive and elaborate our structures, programs and ministries become, the basic package by which we convey the gospel to the world is our lives. The fundamental building block of evangelism is the authentic witness of a transformed life. A life changed by grace!  

This morning we heard the words written by the Apostle Paul to a group of Christians in the ancient city of Thessalonica. And this particular part of his letter contains what I consider to be one of the most important statements about the mission of the church in the entire New Testament. 

Paul said, “so deeply to we care for you that we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”

Now, it is clear that Paul came to Thessalonica with a message. He came proclaiming a message of salvation, forgiveness, and transformation. He came with a message that through Jesus a whole new way of living is now open to us. But it is also clear that the packaging of that message is not a book, or a bulletin, or a building. It is a message that is lived. It is a message that is embodied. It is a message that is most fully shared in the context of relationships. 

Now don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in books, bulletins, and buildings. I’ve missed these things over the past seven months. But I am also a believer that all of the outward and visible structure and governance of the church is there to support and empower this most basic mission – to share the gospel through our lives. We’ve discovered this over the course of past several months, even when our buildings have been closed, even when the outward and visible structures have not been able to function, the mission of the church goes on, a mission to share the gospel of God, through our lives.

But what exactly does that look like? What does sharing “our own selves” require of us?  It requires us to be real. It requires us to be our authentic self. This real, authentic self includes all of our successes, our talents, our gifts – all of those positive characteristics that we want people to see. But our real, authentic self also includes our failures, our weaknesses, our experience of brokenness and pain and shame – all of those things that we don’t want people to see. Who we really are encompasses every aspect of our lives! The good, the bad, and everything in between. 

And yet, all of us try to hide the brokenness and messiness of our lives. All of us, to some degree or another, create a persona. The word persona comes from an ancient Greek word that means mask. Now we’re getting used to wearing masks! But I’m talking about the emotional ask that we wear. The version of our selves that we want other people to see. If you think about it, much of our contemporary culture such as reality TV and social media reinforce this persona, this mask, that we present to the world. Think about what people post on Facebook.

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Grace is UNLIMITED

This Sermon is Part Four of a Six-Week Series on GRACE!

Over the past several weeks, we have explored the ways in which grace – God’s favor, kindness, and blessing toward us – operates contrary to the usual way we think the world should work. For example, contrary to our value-system of fairness, grace is fundamentally unfair. Contrary to our usual ways of ordering and structuring our lives, grace so often shows up in surprising and unexpected ways. And contrary to our world’s model of competition, grace is entirely unearned. So, this grace – God’s favor, kindness, and blessing toward us – is unfair, unexpected, unearned. This morning we are going to continue this journey and explore the way in which this same grace is also unlimited. It is boundless, extravagant, and abundant. Grace never runs out! 

But before you and I can even begin to comprehend this unlimited, extravagant, abundant grace of God, we have to first come to terms with what many have called the mindset of scarcity. This is an attitude, a set of convictions that profoundly shapes the way we perceive the world. The mindset of scarcity says there will never be enough. The mindset of scarcity focuses on what we don’t have. The mindset of scarcity focuses on what we can’t change. The mindset of scarcity is always afraid of running out. Running out of money. Running out of resources. Running out of time. Running out of patience. Just a few months ago, we could have added toilet paper to that list. Whatever it is, we have a fear that what we have isn’t going to last. 

If you think about it, there are so many dimensions of our culture that are driven by a mindset of scarcity. For example, think about the basic impulse behind the advertising industry. Any good advertisement aims to do at least two things. Number one – an advertisement should evoke a sense of desire, to get you to believe that “you really need this!” Number two – an advertisement should prompt you to act as quickly as possible, to get you to “call the number on your screen right now!” Both of those two objectives are motivated by a mindset of scarcity. You need this and you had better act now, because it’s going to run out!

And so, it makes sense that we have a difficult time comprehending the unlimited, extravagant grace and mercy of God, precisely because we are so conditioned to look at the world with a mindset of scarcity. Well, guess what? God’s people experienced this same struggle almost three thousand years ago. 

Our Old Testament reading this morning is from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 25. But in order to understand the power of Isaiah, chapter 25, we have to go back to chapter 24. And chapter 24 describes a world in pain. The prophet says, “The earth is utterly empty. The people of the earth languish. The vine withers and all those who should be celebrating are grieving. The tambourines are stilled. The celebrations have all gone quiet. The cities lie in waste. And there is an outcry in the streets because there is no wine!” What could be worse than running out of wine! By the way, do you know what you call the fear of running out of wine? Novinophophia! In all seriousness, chapter 24 of Isaiah is about the pain and brokenness of God’s people brought about by their own sin and unfaithfulness. In the midst of this pain and brokenness, a mindset of scarcity is taking over. They are entrenched in the belief that there will never be enough, that everything is finite. They look at the world and say, “things are never going to change!” Time is running out. Money is running out. Their vision for life is running out. Is there anyone here who has ever felt like Isaiah chapter 24?  

But then we turn the page! In my Bible, I quite literally turn the page to chapter 25 of Isaiah and the prophet declares, “O Lord, you are my God, I will exalt you; I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure. You have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and shade from the heat […] Therefore, on this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of well-aged wines refined and strained clear.” In chapter 24 everything is about to run out, but in chapter 25, God says “I am preparing a feast!” 

Now, in the ancient world, before money became widely utilized, one of the most common metaphors or images for abundance was that of a feast, an extravagant party! We see the same image in Psalm 23 when God’s sets up a table and prepares a banquet in the midst of our enemies. Or in our gospel reading, the invitation to enter the Kingdom of heaven is like being invited to an extravagant wedding reception. The image of a feast in an image of abundance! 

And so, do you see what has happened? In the span of one chapter, God’s people have gone from a mindset of scarcity to a mindset of abundance, from a vision in which there is never enough and everything, including the wine, is about to run out, to a vision in which there is plenty a vision in which the love, mercy, and grace of God will never run out! 

Where do you think God wants us to live? Isaiah 24 or Isaiah 25? With a mindset of scarcity or a mindset of abundance! Of course, the answer is abundance!

But we know that this is much easier said than done! Because we look at our world and we don’t always see abundance. We see a world that looks a lot like Isaiah 24. We see pain. We see division. We see an abundance of hate, but a scarcity of compassion. An abundance of judgment, but a scarcity of mercy. An abundance of fear, but a scarcity of hope. We fall into the trap of thinking things are never going to change. Time is running out. Everything seems to be running out. 

But, my friends, those are moments when grace breaks through! Those are the moments like Isaiah 25 when we are given a glimpse of God’s vision! Those are the moments when we come to know that all we are and all we have come from God. Those are the moments when we recognize God’s unlimited, abundant, extravagant grace. When things look the darkest, when it appears that hope is gone, when it seems that nothing is going to change, that is precisely when God is setting the table for the greatest feast we have ever known. Because GRACE NEVER RUNS OUT!

Grace is UNEARNED

The Sermon is part of a Six-Week Series on GRACE.

As a young boy, I remember going on car rides with my grandfather. Usually these were short trips to the local market to grab a gallon of milk or the daily paper. But the car rides were always just long enough for my grandfather to tell a story and every story would end with some grandfatherly nugget of wisdom. He would say things like, “Thank the Lord for your health, Doug” or “Family should always come first” or “Remember, you have to work hard to earn a living.” And it was this last statement that was always perplexing to me, because I wasn’t sure what it meant to earn life. As a child, I thought it was strange that somehow living was something that had to be earned or worked for, because like most kids, I was pretty carefree and unconcerned with the more complicated matters of life.

Of course, I grew older I came to understand exactly the meaning of my grandfather’s advice. We live in a world in which we are taught that almost anything of value, anything with meaning, anything worth holding onto must be earned. We earn money. We earn degrees. We earn recognition. We earn respect. Our world is based on a “competition model” in which there are winners and losers, those who succeed and those who fail, those who earn a living and those apparently who don’t. This “competition model” is deeply embedded in the American psyche; we have a fundamental belief that the “good life” is something that must be earned. 

Now at the other end of the spectrum is what we might call the “participation trophy” model. This is the idea that everybody on the team regardless of their attendance, ability, or contribution gets the same reward. There are those who are passionately oppose to the “participation trophy.” They insist that this is not teaching our kids the value of hard work; they’re not learning this basic life lesson that something of value and meaning has to be earned.

Now, when it comes to our spiritual lives, I think people tend to look at their relationship with God according to one of these two models. For some, they see their relationship with God as something that has to be earned. That you have to be a certain kind of person and achieve a certain level of holiness or spirituality in order to earn God’s favor and blessing in your life. Let’s call that the “competition model.” For others, God is sort of this great benefactor in the sky freely dispensing love and goodwill, and it doesn’t very much matter what you do or how you live. Let’s call that the “participation trophy” model.

I’m here to tell you this morning that neither of these two models are what we find in the New Testament. Instead, what we find is an entirely different model, a totally different way of understanding our relationship with God. And let’s call that model grace. As we have learned over the past few weeks, this model of grace is radically different than what we experience in the world. Grace is unfair. Grace is unexpected. And this morning we discover that grace is unearned

Which brings us to Paul’s Letter from the Philippians. In this letter, Paul gives us a rare glimpse into his own spiritual journey. He begins by laying out his spiritual heritage and accomplishments. He is a full member of God’s covenant people, circumcised on the eighth day. He is an Israelite from birth, a Hebrew of Hebrews. He is a descendant of tribe of Benjamin, considered one of the most faithful tribes of Israel. He was a Pharisee, part of the religious establishment. He was a persecutor of the church. Blameless in his adherence to the law

In other words, according the world’s “competition model,” Paul was incredibly successful. He had rightly earned his place in the world. He had earned respect and recognition. He had earned a position of privilege and power. But somewhere along the line, Paul realized that it was not the things that he had earned or accomplished that gave meaning and purpose to his life. It was being in a relationship with Jesus. It was knowing Jesus intimately and passionately that gave meaning and purpose to Paul’s life. In other words, Paul discovered that the world’s “competition model” was empty and hollow. Because we can’t earn life, at least not the abundant life of kingdom of God. That kind of life is only possible because of grace, Its only possible because of God’s unearned favor and blessing and provision in our lives. 

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