First Congregational Church
(United Church of Christ)
Neil H. Wilson, Pastor

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720
231-547-9122


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I Am Not…But He Is!

Sermon ~ Sunday, December 17, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

I Am Not . . . But He Is!

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Going to church can be a risky thing!

I’m not thinking about the danger of persecution like some Christians face even today.

Nor am I thinking about bad preaching, which is a very real concern (especially for those of us who may be the purveyors of such poison!)

No, I’m thinking about the danger of religion itself.  By this I mean any of the systems invented and defended by human beings in our efforts to pigeonhole God. 

Would you believe that “religion” is not spoken of very often in the Bible?  In fact if you take a concordance and look up how many times the word religion occurs in the Bible you find it is only 3 times!  Once in the book of Acts when Paul is talking about his past as a Pharisee, and twice in the letter of James, where the author defines religion as caring for the orphans and widows in their distress. 

That’s all the religion there is in the Bible!  Jesus never uses the word, perhaps because he found organized religion of his day so unfriendly.  The first time he preached in his home synagogue, the entire congregation rose up in wrath and tried to throw him off a cliff.  The clergy in Jerusalem had a similar reaction.  Every time he showed up in the temple, they stood around in tight little circles trying to figure out how to rid themselves of him, and at least once he got so angry at what was happening in God’s house that he overturned the furniture!

As near as I can tell, Jesus was not big on religion.  He seemed to think it was something that people did instead of actually worshiping God.  Perhaps it kept them at a safe distance from the all-consuming love that was unwavering, undefinable, and ultimately unknowable.  They invented religion as a way to manage all those things for them and they worshiped that instead.  Then they spend their prayer time making up rules and definitions.  They used time that should have been devoted to orphans and widows making sure their records were up to date!

All this seem to frustrate Jesus because they didn’t seem to know when to stop.  It might have been okay if they had limited their organizational skills to themselves but they didn’t.  They tried to organize God.  But rather than making God more accessible it seems that their religion became blindfolds that kept them from seeing the God who came to them often time sideways, unexpected, a voice calling you and your family to a far-off land, a burning bush, a babe in a manger to a working-class couple.   

 

John draws a crowd in the wilderness, which is how he draws the attention of the leadership in Jerusalem, only they do not know what to make of him.  He certainly did not dress, act and sound like any of them, so they send a delegation of clergy (Call it an oversight committee!) down to the camp by the Jordan River.  Their job, according to their by-laws, is to find out where John has gotten his authority to do the things he is doing and say the things he is saying.

“Who are you?” they ask.  Can you see them with their tablets and smart phones doing their “fact checking”?  Is he Orthodox or reform, a fundamentalist, a charismatic, a liberal, a traditionalist, a Pentecostal? 

Is he high church or low church? 

Does he believe in predestination, transubstantiation, dispensationalism?

Where does he stand on believer’s baptism, the ordination of women, the use of incense, and same-sex unions?

They want details, only John does not cooperate. 

“I am not the Messiah” he says, which is interesting answer because it wasn’t what they asked!  But John seems to be up to something here, which gets lost on the committee for oversight. 

“I am not,” John starts out with them, and that is how the whole conversation goes, with one denial after another.

“What then?  Are you Elijah?”

“I am not.”

“Are you the prophet?”

“No.”  It is becoming a bit frustrating for the committee!  The have a religious box with a square hole, a round hole, and a triangular hole, but John does fit in any of them.  They have their religious check sheet with various categories and John isn’t fitting into any of them.  He matter-of-factly dismisses all their attempts to categorize and pigeon hole him. And it doesn’t take them long to catch on to his trick.  Whatever they suggest John will say “no,” so they ask him to categorize himself. 

“Who are you?” they try again, “Give us an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 

But John does not say anything about himself.  He is Mr. Not Not No, the man with no face, no name, no identity at all, except for the sound that he makes.

“I am the voice,” he says at last, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.”  This is the only claim he will make for himself.  John is the crowing rooster, the ringing alarm clock, the announcing trumpet.  He is not the main attraction.  He is the wake-up call of the event they should be preparing for.  And as uncooperative as he may seem, he is saying something crucial about the one coming after him.  If they think John is hard to peg, just wait until they meet the Light!  The Light will not match any of their descriptions or fit into any of their boxes either.  The Light will not obey their rules or honor their systems, because if the Light did that then he would not be the Light.  He would be something smaller perhaps a little mini mag-lite, something people could turn off and on at will but not the Light that was coming into the world.

And thus, by refusing every religious title the authorities tried to pin on him John becomes a very good witness to the Light. Neither John nor the One coming after him will fit into anyone’s pocket to carry around and pull out at will.  John is the unclassifiable witness to the undefinable Lord, who will be as elusive as a moonbeam and as hot to handle as the sun.  No system will be big enough to contain him, John warns his visitors so they might as well give up trying.  

“Among you stands one whom you do not know” John tells those who are supposed to know everything there is to know about God, and it is a wonder they do not have him arrested on the spot!  They can’t excommunicate him though, because he doesn’t belong to any group they can throw him out of!  He lives in the wilderness, far from the temple.  He operates outside their boundaries. He is Mr. Not Not No, who has already emptied himself in order to make straight the way of the Lord.

What John does not tell his visitors is that he does not know whom he is waiting for either, but this is the point.  If John thinks he knows whom he is looking for, he might miss the one who comes to him from way outside the limits of expectations.  The point is to know that he does not know, and to do what he can to help others know that they do not know either.  It is enough to trust God to open their eyes when the time comes.  It is enough to trust the Light to be light enough to see.

We are given this passage on the third Sunday of Advent because we still need John’s testimony to the Light.  While we are waiting for the baby to show up in the manger, waiting for perhaps the chance that this time, this season have a better handle on the infinite nature of the Incarnation, we can use John’s reminder that none of us ever knows exactly whom we are waiting for either, and that we need not be ashamed of this. 

It is a good thing, not a bad thing, to surrender ourselves to a love that we cannot predict or control, especially during this season when we look forward to peering into the manger, and perhaps even for just a moment holding him in our arms.  He will allow us to do that, but only on the condition that we understand we can never possess him, not entirely.

In the end, it is He who puts his arms around us. 

No religion can contain Him.

No church can box Him in. 

But oh, can we worship Him!  We can worship Him until the light dawns upon all nations and we all see him in his full glory!

Listen to the original audio of the Sermon by Pastor Neil Wilson by clicking download and opening the downloaded link.  God Bless!


Council Agenda

Sermon ~ Sunday, December 10, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Council Agenda

Isaiah 40:1-11

 

Prophets do not speak and their words are never recorded in a vacuum.  There is always a political, historical social context.   So allow me to bore you with a brief history lesson.

In the seventh century BCE the Assyrians swept from the north and conquered the Northern kingdom of Israel.  We find prophecy relating to this in the first 39 chapters of Isaiah.  This portion of Isaiah is often referred to as First Isaiah.  Then, in the beginning of the sixth century BCE some 35 years or so later, the Babylonians invaded the southern kingdom of Judah, destroyed much of Jerusalem, disrupted the economy, and deported leading citizens to Babylon.  All told the Babylonian kingdom occupied the land for 50 years.  It is during the latter years of this Babylonian occupation and deportation that Isaiah 40 and the following chapters were recorded.

There is could be as many as 100 years between the events and people spoken of in chapters 39 and 40.  Thus many scholars refer to Isaiah 1-39 as “First Isaiah” and beginning with chapter 40 as “Second Isaiah.” This “second Isaiah “emerges with his exquisite poetry and a very different tone with today’s reading.  Isaiah chapter 40 contains poetry so beautiful that many included the likes of George Frideric Handel of the 18th century and Bono of  U 2 of the 21st century felt the urge to interpret it in their music. 

Isaiah seeks to bring back to life a people crushed under a shroud of death with this poetic image. While he writes among a people with little to hope for and perhaps even less to live for, yet he imagines a nation restored, a city rebuilt, and a people reunited in Zion.

Some scholars see in the words of Isaiah 40 the image of a great heavenly council. YHWH, the God of Israel has assembled a heavenly host.  This is no council of bickering gods competing for position and control but servants of the Sovereign of the Universe, whose compassion and regard for justice distinguish this God from all others.  I would like to play with this idea of a heavenly council a bit this morning.

The council has been assembled and we have gathered in the balcony.  Before the council is the matter of the situation and condition of God’s children, the descendants of Abraham, the tribes of Israel.  On the agenda are three items.

The first item: To find agreement among the council members that God’s people have indeed served their time, received enough punishment for all their sins and that the council needs to inform them of such decision. 

For a grieving, futureless people, few words could be more surprising than the ones found here. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God”  For a people whose God had seemed to have been silent for all these years Isaiah opens with the longed-for consoling words.  They have suffered “double for all their sins.” (v. 2 NRSV)  Their suffering is massively disproportionate to anything they may have done.  For second Isaiah, the people’s sin does not adequately explain the historical disaster of the Assyrian invasion and the Babylonian exile and actually could be seen as taking issue with other prophets at the time! 

Send them a word of consolation: “Enough is enough, says yours God!”

Second agenda item:  To determine the tone and the wording of the proclamation.   

A voice is lifted up in the council:

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the way and level the highway” . . . for the glory of the Lord is about to be revealed!”

The message is clear: be ready, prepare now, for the Sovereign is coming.  The Glory of the Lord could be translated as “the presence of the Lord shall appear.”  All they may have hoped for, all they may have given up hoping for, is about to be realized!  The God, this bruised and battered community, thought had abandoned them or perhaps had been defeated by stronger Babylonian gods, is announcing that God is coming, prepare the way, for you shall all see the presence of the Lord and you can count on it for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Then another voice in the council speaks up “Cry out!”

And another, “And I said, “What shall I cry?”

And there is a mini discussion which draws attention to more the content of the message 

 All people are grass . . . grass withers and flowers fade but the word of our God will stand forever.  

This word, message is as steady, durable, and reliable as the God who sends it. 

“You shall see your Lord!”

 

The third agenda item:  To see to the proper commissioning of the prophet and setting out of the itinerary.

“You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain.

“You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid.”

The prophet is to go up high to project their voice far and wide as the good news, the message of joy is proclaimed.  The charge is to cry out fearlessly. 

But what is fearful about this message of redemption and return?  Are the words too improbable to be believed among those to whom the prophet is to proclaim them?  Even though they are in exile, have they grown comfortable enough with their life in Babylon?

Or is it the message that this God comes with strength, with arms outstretched in triumph, a God who it seems was not able to stop the invasion and subsequent exile?   

But here God’s strength is paradoxical, because it is not the strength of a bloody avenger, a violent warrior, or a demanding judge.  No this God’s strength appears in the barely thinkable power of gentleness, in a tender and caring presence, in intimacy such as a shepherd expresses when gathering the wounded, scattered flock. 

 

Take a look at our own world, and consider how preposterous our message of the gospel sounds to many.  It does indeed seem that the God of Israel and of Jesus has very little power in relation to the “gods” that seem to reign supreme in our 21st century “empire.”

Consumerism demands more of our resources, and our lust for cheap energy and convenient mobility threaten our environment.  The conduct of war robs us of precious lives and international respect.  Even in our own society religious zealotry pits one image of God against another, leaving the human community fractured and cynical.

How dare we speak of a God who promises to become present in a way that “all people shall see it together.” (v.5)

Yet, this is precisely what the faithful people of God are being commissioned to do.  In the face of all the derision and indifference, we are to speak of this God whose fierce compassion and care for all of humanity trumps the power of the other “gods” who seem to enjoy sovereignty in our human relationships.

Advent is a time to hear these promises spoken or perhaps sung to the community of faith once again.  It is a time for us, the faith community, to find our voice, overcome our objections and fears and speak words of comfort and assurance to all who feel separated from or abandoned by God.  It is time to get passed the “Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas” debate!  Is this our only message to a hurting world? 

How will the world hear God’s real message of hope and deliverance, the message that God will arrive and will come in gentle power, when too all too many “we” seem to be more concerned about losing our faith because of how we greet each other during this season. 

Let’s just begin by really noticing each other, by greeting the stranger with the love of God we come to know through Jesus.   Is this not one way of speaking tenderly and preparing the way, leveling the paths, straightening out the highways to each other?

If we can do this then maybe, just maybe, the world might see that the glory of the Lord has been revealed. 

And the heavenly council’s agenda will have been fulfilled!

Listen to Pastor Neil’s original Sermon from Sunday morning worship service by downloading the file below:


Hope: There is More to Come!

Hope: There is More to Come!
Mark 13:24-37

I am indebted to Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor and author, for his insight and thoughts on the gospel of Mark and for much of the inspiration and thoughts I share this morning, especially his writing Peculiar Treasures and Beyond Words.

We do not know for sure who wrote the Gospel that bears Mark’s name. The book itself in the most ancient copy that exits doesn’t say. The title we know it as “The Gospel According to Mark” was given to this manuscript by the early church years if not decades after it was written.
There are those, including some biblical scholars, who claim it was the John Mark who shows up in the book of Acts as a traveling companion of Paul and the son of a woman named Mary, who owned a place where the group used to meet and pray back in the days when the church was young (Acts 12:12). There is also some speculation that he is the same person who appears in the scene of Jesus’ arrest at Gethsemane as a boy who managed to escape from the soldiers but not without leaving his shirt behind. As the story goes he ran off into the dark scared out of his wits and naked as a jaybird (Mark 14:51-52). The Gospel of Mark is the only one which reports the incident, and maybe he put it in as a kind of signature.

An early historian says he was a friend of the Apostle Peter’s and got much of his information from him. Who knows? In the long run, the only things you can find out about him for certain are from the book he wrote. Whoever he was, Mark is as good a name to call him by as any other.
He wrote as a man who was in a hurry, out of breath, with no time to lose because that’s how the people he wrote to were living. The authorities were out for their blood, and they were on the run and often in hiding, using secret signs to identify each other and safe places to gather. At any moment, day or night, a knock might come at the door. And they knew after that, it would be a short journey from there to being thrown to the lions or set on fire as living torches at one of Nero’s evening entertainments. Don’t be caught asleep!
So he leaves a lot out; it’s amazing how much. There’s no family tree for Jesus as there is in Matthew and Luke. There’s nothing about how he was born, no angel explaining it ahead of time, no shepherds, no Wise Men, no Herod, no star.

There’s nothing about his childhood. There’s precious little about his run-ins with the Pharisees, no Sermon on the Mount, and only four parables.
His teaching in general is brushed past hurriedly—except for one long speech, just a word here, a word there.
“Immediately” is one of Mark’s favorite words, and he uses it three times more often than Matthew or Luke, fifteen times more than John. “Immediately he called them” (1:20), “immediately on the sabbath he entered the synagogue” (1:21). Immediately the girl got up and walked (5:30), or the father cried (9:24), or the cock crowed (14:72).

Jesus himself races by, scattering miracles like rice at a wedding. Mark is alive with miracles, especially healing ones, and Jesus rushes from one to another. As if He had no time to lose either.

Mark writes for people who already believe. They do not need things explained for them. So he writes more about who Jesus was, rather than what he said.

Mark’s book is bursting with—who Jesus was and what he did with what little time he had.

He was the “Son of God,” that’s who he was. Mark says it right out in the first sentence so nobody will miss it (1:1).

And he came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). That’s what he did, and he died doing it.

The whole book is obsessed with the fact of his death and with good reason.

If Jesus died as dead as anybody, what hope did the rest of them have who woke every morning with the tangible fear of their own death hanging over them?

Why did Jesus die? Mark says, He died because the Jews had it in for him, because he is hard on the Jews. Mark, very likely was a Gentile and writing for Gentiles. He died because that’s the way He wanted it—that “ransom for many” again, a wonderful thing to be bought at a terrible price. He died because that’s the way God wanted it. Marvelous things would come of his death, and the one long speech Mark gives has to do with those marvelous things. Our reading for today is a portion of this writing.

“The stars will be falling from heaven,” Jesus says, “and the powers in the heavens will be shaken, and then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (13:25-26).

Of course there was hope – hope that would shake the heavens and send the stars reeling.

But even in the midst of his great haste, Mark stops and looks at Jesus, sees him perhaps better than any of the others do. When Jesus naps in that boat, it’s in the stern he does it, with a pillow under his head (4:38). The others don’t give us this detail. And the grass was green when he fed the five thousand on hardly enough to feed five (6:39), not dry crunchy, brown grass.

He tells us that Jesus got up “a great while before day” to go pray by himself (1:35), not at nine, not after a hot breakfast.

And he was sitting down “opposite the treasury” when he saw the old lady drop her two pennies in the collection box (12:41).

Only Mark reports how the desperate father said, “I believe. Help thou my unbelief” (9:24), and how Jesus found it belief enough to heal his sick boy by.
You can say they make no difference, such details as these, which the others skip, or you can say they make all the difference.

Then the end comes, and even Mark has to slow down there. Half his book has to do with the last days in Jerusalem and the way Jesus handled them and the way he was handled himself. And when he died, Mark is the one who reports what his last words were, even the language he spoke them in—”Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani”—which he translates, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (15:34). Only Matthew had the stomach to pick them up from Mark and report them too. Luke and John apparently couldn’t bring themselves to.

Mark ends his book, as he begins it, almost in the middle of a sentence. There was no time to gather up all the loose ends. The world itself was the loose ends, and all history would hardly be enough to gather them up in. The women went to the tomb and found it empty. A young man in white was sitting there—”on the right,” Mark says, not on the left.

“He has risen,” the young man said. “Go tell his disciples. And Peter,” Mark adds, unlike Matthew and Luke again. Was it because he’d known Peter and the old man had wanted his name there?

So the women ran out as if the place was on fire, which in a way of course it was, “for trembling and astonishment had come upon them, and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid” (16:1-8). Later editors added a few extra verses to round things off, but that’s where Mark ended it. In mid-air.

Mark’s last word in his Gospel is afraid, and it makes you wonder if maybe the theory is true after all that he was the boy who streaked out of Gethsemane in such a panic. He knew how the women felt as they picked up their skirts and made a dash for it. Wonderful and terrible things were happening, and more were still to come.

He knew what fear was all about—the clammy skin, the mouth dry, the midnight knock at the door—but he also knew that fear was not the last thing. It might have been the next to the last thing.

But the last thing was hope. “You will see him, as he told you,” the young man in white said (16:7).

If that was true, there was nothing else that mattered. So Mark stopped there.

And this is where we begin this season of Advent. With talk about Jesus’ death for without it we wouldn’t be here anticipating his coming again, whether we think of it in some apocalyptic end time scenario or coming again in to our homes and hearts when we celebrate his birth in 22 days.

It truly is about hope: for there is more to come!

Listen to the original Audio of Pastor Neil’s Sermon on HOPE! 🙂  God Bless!!!!