Sermon ~ Sunday, January 21st ~ 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
Bearer(s) of the Kingdom
1 Cor. 7:29-31 Mark 1: 14-20
The one thing I have discovered over the years is that it doesn’t matter how long you have been a Christian or how long you have attended church or how many sermons you may have slept through (oops listened to!) You probably still have questions about this enterprise called the Christian faith. I believe I can say this with some assuredness because I still have questions as well!
For me, theology and astrophysics have something in common: the more that is revealed, the more you learn, the deeper into your subject you delve, whether it is the spiritual realm or deep space, the more you know how much you don’t know!
The kingdom or realm of God. Paul speaks of an “appointed time” when the present form of the world will pass away (1 Cor.), revealing at last the power and love of God. For Jesus, the kingdom was at hand; for Paul the time left was short. But the kingdom patently did not come.
Or did it?
Did it to some extent arrive in Jesus himself, while we still await its fulfillment at some future time? So, one of those questions for me is: how are we to understand this kingdom, realm of God today; and more significantly perhaps, how should this affect our personal conduct and the social structures in which we are participants?
It has been suggested that if Paul had a website, 1 Corinthians 7-10 would have been under his FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) tab. The emerging congregation in Corinth had questions: “What should they believe?” And just as importantly “How should they live?” So they wrote to one they thought might be able to guide them. Their founder, Paul was in Ephesus when he received their letter and our reading is from one of at least two letters that were his reply to the Corinthian congregation and their questions. Unfortunately, we do not have the letter they wrote so we can only guess as to the actual questions asked of the apostle. But we can extrapolate from the answers Paul provides. Some of their questions might seem a bit odd to our 21st century sensibilities. Like the matter of marital relations or the matter of what should I do if my spouse stops believing in God, should I divorce them? And what about celibacy vs. marriage? And of course, on the minds of at least the gentile men was the matter of circumcision! Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians is a portion of Paul’s response to these and other questions.
At first sight Paul’s answers seem strange (e.g. if you are mourning, keep smiling; if you are feeling full of joy, keep a straight face), yet taken as a whole these questions and the answers help us to respond to one of our bigger questions –what do we mean by the Kingdom of God and does it make any difference to the way we live?
There are those who would like to leave Paul in his first century culture and society. They argue that Paul was only speaking to people who believed, like him, that the ‘time was short’ and that the end of the world was at hand. Here we are nearly 20 centuries removed and to my knowledge we have not been pulled into a black hole so time has slowed down, (but then would we know it if we had?!) we must wonder what Paul would think about his claim that the “time is short.”
Or is there something of Paul that can speak to our different situation?
I think there just might be. (Of course I do or I wouldn’t have brought you along to this point!) Paul seems to say that we are to live in the world with its institutions and relationships, but there is a sense in which we have to keep an appropriate distance from them so that we can see with what some call a “kingdom eye” to recognize how much more these structures, institutions contain or how much better they could become. We still let them service us and we continue to serve them, but our ‘critical distance’ this ‘balcony view’ – which breaks their hold on us– gives us freedom to allow Christ to change us and our relationships with the structures and institutions of society and even change these structures and institutions; which by the way, includes the church!
In another letter Paul offered this counsel to the congregation located in the center of the power and social structures of his world: Romans 12:2 The Message
Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what [God] wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
We are to live ‘as if’ custom and convention of this world no longer press upon us, ‘as if’ we are at the threshold of a transformation to a new state of being where the ultimate source of our life is Christ not the world. Another word for this: the kingdom of God.
Recent theology and study of the Bible have given rise to a new interest in the kingdom of God. But today we are less likely to think of it as something remote and at the end of time, irrelevant to us now, apart from personal implications like eternal life. Nor do we think, like our Victorian forebears, that the kingdom is the gradual progress of life in this world towards a better version – which was merely a human construct of what “better” looks like. Rather, everything we talk about and do as Christians has (or should have) a ‘kingdom dimension’. This is possible because we believe that Jesus is the ‘Bearer of the Kingdom’, and He not only brought the initial movement of the kingdom into the world, but that it can still be felt in our midst in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.
Our disordered world longs for reconciliation, wholeness but there is now hope, and outcrops of God’s reconciling reign can be seen in our own lives and the life of the world, if we would but look beyond the fake and negative news. Because of this we are to live ‘as if’ the kingdom has come. Because we have one foot in the world and one in the kingdom, Jesus’ disciples in any age are enabled, in the Spirit’s power, to begin to steer human life in that direction. So, in a very real sense, we also are bearers of the kingdom. As Jesus brought the seed of the reign of God into the world and will be there for its fulfillment, we in our day and in our lives, are bearing the ways of the kingdom.
This doesn’t mean we will see it fulfillment on our lives, we may, and we may not, but we are still to live in ‘as if.’
The prayer on the back page of your worship folders sums all this up nicely. I invite you to turn to it and let’s read/pray it together responsively.
A meditation on working for the kingdom
This meditation has been attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero but was actually written by another American RC bishop for a memorial mass for priests. Five months later Romero was martyred (1980) and it may be that the link was made then. Although originally intended for ministers, and entitled Ministers not Messiahs, it could equally well apply to any ‘worker for the kingdom’. It might be used in conjunction with an appropriate hymn, or sequence of song and hymn. Or two halves of a congregation may read it in alternate stanzas.
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, . . . not master builders,
ministers, . . . not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
There is a wonderful story from the land of my MacAllister ancestors that is illustrative of how our relationship to the Kingdom of God has ‘here and now’ and ‘not yet’ qualities.
John MacLeod, Gaelic-speaking minister at Oban until 1974, told of preaching visits to Canada where he met many who viewed Scotland as their home. One introduced himself, saying, “You’re from Oban; I’m a Coll man myself!” (the Hebridean island you sail to from Oban). “And when did you leave Coll?” asked the minister. “Oh, I have never been to Coll,” he returned, “but my great-grandfather and his family came from Coll and I have always felt that I belonged there.” MacLeod reflected: We are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20); we have never been there but Christ has come among us from there and we are of his family. The King James Version translates Philippians 3:20 ‘our conversation is in heaven’, With our feet planted in this world we keep our conversation and lifestyle in lthe kingdom of God.
Listen to the audio version of Pastor Neil’s Sermon by double clicking on the “Download File” below, open and enjoy!
~ Sermon ~ Sunday, January 14, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
In Spite of Ourselves.
1 Samuel 3:1-20
“And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not wide spread.”
We live in confusing, some would say uncertain times. Many refer to it as a post-Christian era, and to be sure the church is not as influential and dominate as it once was in our nation. Now I don’t believe that the Christian worldview was ever as all-embracing as some do, but I think we can agree that it certainly is not a strong a moral guide for people today as it once was. So a very compelling argument could be made that the story of Samuel is set in our day as well as three millennia ago! “. . . the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not wide spread.” Will this be the be the headline of a religious quarterly review a hundred years from now?
The call of Samuel comes at a time of spiritual famine in Israel. With no leadership, the people have grown away from God. The only figure of authority in our story is the priest Eli, but he makes a mockery of his position by ignoring the wickedness of his sons, who have rebelled against the Lord. (Little side note here. We cannot blame religious leaders for all the behaviors of other members of their families. We all know the stories and jokes about PKs. And how some relish the scuttlebutt of some high-profile pastor’s brother or brother-in-law falling into some immoral lifestyle.) But the biblical account seems to hold Eli somewhat responsible for the sins of his sons. Even though he tried to set them straight as we can read in 1 Samuel 2:22ff, Eli called them out on their immorality and warned them of God’s judgement, but they did not heed their father’s advice. Sadly, this would eventually impact the effectiveness of his own ministry.
We are also told that Eli’s sight was “dim.” On first glance one would think, “Okay, so Eli is older and his physical eyesight is beginning to fail him.” But there is in the background of the story the suggestion that Eli’s spiritual awareness or spiritual vision was also “dim.”
Then we have Samuel: young, dedicated to the Lord by his mother, Hannah, energetic, no family baggage or skeleton’s in his closet. It is easy to compare the two with Samuel coming out the better. But when we look at the entire life and work of Samuel, he too has some all too human imperfections. Like Eli, Samuel’s sons, who he appointed as judges in Israel, (1 Sam. 8) did not follow in the ways of their father, but rather were corrupt, known for taking bribes and perverts justice. (Umm, again sounds all too contemporary!)
And even though he did not like the idea, when the people pressured Samuel to anoint a king over them (something God had warned them about), in his role as prophet and judge, he anointed Saul as king and in so doing he broadened the people’s independence from God.
A common way to “get into the scriptures” is to imagine ourselves as one of the characters in a biblical story. The obvious question here is who do you identify with: with the young Samuel sleeping away as God is attempting to get his attention; or the elder Eli, who seems to lack spiritual awareness, and yet recognizes that it just may be the Lord who is calling to the boy before Samuel does?
There are times when I am like Samuel. I’m asleep, not fully aware of any divine movement around me. Sometimes it exhaustion. I’m tired, physically, emotionally, mentally, often because of the confusion of today’s world. How does one sort through all the claims, the images, the demands for our allegiance that bombard us? What is real and what is fake? What is the truth in the “half-truths” we are being told all the time. I feel this way and I don’t use Twitter. I’m on Facebook once every couple of days, if that.
You know I used to get this slight panicky feeling when I would go out the door and realize my cell phone was not in my pocket and return promptly to retrieve it. More and more I’m finding I’m off somewhere and notice that my cell phone is not in my pocket and actually feeling rather okay about it. (Or should I worry that this is the onset of age-related forgetfulness?!)
So sometimes it exhaustion, other times is pre-occupation or distraction. Which as we know life is full of distractions. Either way I find myself asleep, unaware of the movement of God right around me like Samuel.
What is more troubling is that like Samuel, I am in the “temple” day in and day out! Of all places isn’t it here we would expect God to speak, for visions to occur? Yet how often do I (we, you) actually come to this place expecting to hear a real “word from the Lord”?
The word of the Lord is indeed rare and visions, real visions (not fake ones) are scarce!
Or are they?
So, we have in the temple a young fellow asleep whose youth and lack of experience, maturity leaves him unable to discern God’s voice and an elderly man whose spiritual sight has grown dim and whose leadership ability is questionable. Eli, the high priest at Shiloh, who did nothing, really, to restrain his sons, Hophni and Phinehas, and the way they abused the priestly positions and authority they had simply because of their birthright as a priest’s sons.
The word of the Lord is indeed rare and visions, real visions (not fake ones) are scarce!
Or are they?
The story of Samuel and Eli tells us that “. . . the lamp of God had not yet gone out.” While visions may be rare in the modern world, they still happen, God only seems to be sleeping, and like with Samuel, while Samuel sleeps, God is wonderfully awake!
And again, in the end it was the elderly, physically and spiritually blind Eli that seems to have figured it out first.
God calls Samuel in his youth and immaturity and God uses Eli even with his blindness and moral weakness.
So, I guess my point is rather simple, whether we identify with Eli or Samuel, or both depending on the day and the circumstances, both had their weaknesses, and God used both in spite of themselves.
And as the title of my message says God can use us in spite of ourselves!
If we are listening, if we have the inner sight, if we are willing to listen and look for God in unexpected ways and speaking through someone other than the usual suspects, God can and just might use us, speak to us, and perhaps even speak through us in spite of ourselves!
I know! God has used me in spite of myself.
To listen to the original audio version, please double click on the “download file” link below, open it on your device and enjoy.
Sermon ~ Sunday, January 7, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
Okay, Let’s Try This Again. Only This Time . . .
Genesis 1:1-5 Mark 1:4-11
Yesterday was Epiphany! Yea!
I bet you’re tired from all the Epiphany parties last night!
Most people outside church circles and many times within them are not familiar with Epiphany. We have Christmas, it lasts one day. Then there is a week to recover before New Year’s Eve. And then, we if are so inclined, we enter the season of resolutions which lasts usually about as long as our season of Christmas (one day!)
Epiphany is about the “revealing” of Jesus and who he is, or will become. It is marked with the reading from Matthew’s gospel about the visit of the Magi or wise men. In this revealing of Jesus there was in a sense a new beginning, now that Jesus was among them. And it continues today with the reminder that Jesus is still among us through our baptisms and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
So I guess in some ways Epiphany and New Year’s resolutions go hand in hand. Epiphany reminds us of new things made possible by Christ’s coming into the world and January marks the new year’s genesis which we often mark by resolving to live new or better lives according to new and improved habits.
There is a sort of spirit of confession that begins the new year because resolutions are a way of admitting that we have not been the kind of people we want to be. We confess that we are not as slender, cheerful, thankful, or productive as we would like to be. We admit to our humanness and commit to doing better. These are ordinary mortal confessions: usually not all that spiritually motivated or spiritually empowered. They are signs that we would like to do better in turning our lives around. But when the days speed by and ordinary life is resumed, old habits tend to reassert themselves. And come next January, the same resolutions are often made anew with plenty of hope, but no better chance for success!
The baptism of John was similar to our attempts at making resolutions, though it was certainly a more spiritually oriented. As one who has preached a fair number of times with mixed success, it amazes me is that John preached a message on repentance and was rather successful! People were drawn to his river side chapel in the wilderness from countryside and city. At the river he dunked them as a sign of their resolution to turn from their sins and back to the worship and service of God. But, John knew that there was a tentative quality to his work. He proclaimed that the One who would come after him would baptize with something greater than water. The coming One would baptize people with (or in) the Spirit of God.
The Spirit of God represented something far more powerful, more efficacious than any human resolve. It is the same Spirit that first moved over the waters at creation and brought form to the chaos and gave birth to the universe. When Jesus rose from the river, this same Spirit descended upon him like a dove. And in this Spirit, Jesus did the powerful deeds that marked his remarkable ministry.
For us today, both John’s message of repentance and the empowering work of the Spirit are needed. Sin is a powerful magnet that draws us ever closer. Human resolve alone is weak, even with our annual booster shots in January. Truthfully, repentance is more likely a daily need.
But our resolve to turn around will not do it alone, not very often at least. Even Paul, the great Apostle, famously struggled with the inability of his humanness to help him do what is good (Rom. 7:15-20.) Something greater is needed: this something is the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. When Paul encountered the followers of John the Baptizer in Ephesus, he told them something similar to what John had taught. Though baptized by John with water, they were in need of the kind of empowerment that came through Jesus himself, baptism in or presence of the Holy Spirit. This is the gift of God that makes spiritual repentance something more than a mere resolution.
As God asks us to turn from our sin, God also provides the means to become new creatures of spiritual resolve. Baptism with water and spirit is the mark of this gift.
In Jesus’ baptism, he was fully identified with us as human creatures. In our baptism, we become fully identified with him.
His life in God is our new life.
His capacity to bend to God’s will is our strength to live a godly life.
His love of all is our charity towards others.
Note, I am not making a case for a certain mode of baptism. This is not a sermon on infant vs. adult or which method is better, dunking or “a little dab’l do ya!” (This will have to wait for another time!)
As Christians, we understand baptism differently, depending on denominational or theological tradition. Accordingly there will be ways this message will be preached and heard within various congregations. Those of the Anabaptist tradition may argue for God’s capacity to inspire people to godly living as they move toward baptism usually as a believer or adult. More mainline churches like ours emphasize the action of God in baptism more than the human, thus we baptize infants believing that we are symbolizing God’s acceptance of them into the body of Christ the church universal and our acceptance of them into the care of a congregation. Pentecostals may argue for the separation of the water baptism and the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Indeed there are passages in Acts that lend biblical credence to such an idea.
What is clear, regardless of tradition, is that God will do in baptism what God chooses to do. God is not bound by human interpretation of the means of grace.
John had it right.
One who is mightier than any other human person has come to bring forgiveness of sins and new life in the Spirit. Baptized into this new life, let us daily undertake to live as God’s people. So okay, let us try this again. Only this time let us seek the presence of the Holy Spirit and let God determine where we need the resolve to make things anew in our lives! And God might even surprise us as we shed a few things along with those pounds!
Enjoy the Audio version of Pastor Neil’s Sermon, click the Download File link below and open it on your computer. HAPPY NEW YEAR!
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!
Sermon ~ Sunday, December 10, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
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:
Sermon ~ Sunday, November 19, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
“Composers and Cleaning Women”
To me they are more than words, more than a nice little slogan many churches print in their worship programs. I take very seriously what is stated in the “Staff listing” of our worship program: “Every member, Ministers to the Community.” This is not something that I believe in some intellectual/theological sense but one that I try to live out in my daily life. In fact it was this very understanding of my Christian life that ultimately led to my sense of calling to pastoral ministry.
The Christian life is just this, a life. It is not a choice as in I chose this hobby or that style of attire. It is not even a career choice, as in, I think I will be an accountant or an engineer or a fireman. When one chooses to follow the Christian way it is a choice to follow the one called Christ. It is more than a lifestyle it is a way of living. And it was out of this calling to a way of living that God spoke more explicitly calling me to pastoral ministry.
But as our staff listing should remind us, we are all called, and everyone is called to play their part to the full. Valuing one another, accepting that the smallest of gifts is important, and believing that, in our uniqueness, God has called each of us, the whole people of God, to serve.
But you might argue a pastor is different (can’t argue with that! We are a little different!) But it is not so much a different kind of calling as it is a particular calling within the call Christ puts upon all of us. I am your ‘pastor’, for such is my role and the title I am given for my calling … but you are ministers to one another … I minister with you, not to you or even more important to understand not for you.
I have gifts, but so do each of you.
I have uniqueness, but so do each of you.
I have been given certain talents, but so do each of you.
Why am I not a choir director? Because I can’t direct a choir! Roger, who is good at this does it for us. Is that not a ministry, someone’s gifts being used well to the glory of God?
And the rest of you?
You serve in many ways. Writing letters, visiting people, taking a meal to a friend or neighbor or taking them out for a meal!
In the Church, how much do we value the people who offer a welcome at the front door? Greeters are the very first impression of our congregation visitors get. Talk about an important ministry! The stewardship of our facility … serving during our worship, Communion, lay readers, a couple of weeks ago we recognized the importance of music. The ministry of Coffee hour? All these are forms of ministry.
In the community, how much do we value our refuse collectors, our community officials, the school bus drivers, the street-sweepers, the shop-assistants, etc.?
One of the lessons we might derive from the parable read this morning is that God blesses people with differing gifts according to the grace given us (Romans 12.6). It was C. S. Lewis who wrote in The Weight of Glory:
“The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a cleaning woman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord.” This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and the rooster must crow.”
It isn’t that one person’s gifts are better than another’s, it’s about a belief in the uniqueness of every child of God, and the acceptance that God has a role for them to play –be they Beethoven or a cleaning woman. God does not value one over the other, we may do this, but God does not! God values the work that each of you have to do. After all, it was God who gave you the ability and the work in the first place. It is a rare position, job, career indeed in which one cannot find a way if you look, to serve God and God’s people. To be sure, there somethings that some do that are not in service to God and in fact just the opposite, but in many cases it is a perversion of their work. Brother Lawrence, a former soldier, who joined a monastery and spent the rest of his life working in the monastery kitchen and repairing the sandals of other monks wrote, “We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”
The parable of the three servants also indicates that the reward for work done well is more work to do. No this is not to be confused with being over-worked and the false sense of importance that can accompany this. Nor is it about always being at the center of things. It’s about development and growth, not ‘resting on our laurels’.
It’s not about the old expression, “If you’re looking for someone to do something, ask someone who’s busy.” We are to care for one another and not take people for granted. It’s about a joy in our service, knowing, learning and developing our discipleship.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t wrestle with the last part of the parable, the third servant:
But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy servant! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless servant, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Last week we considered the value of prudence and this, the last servant it would seem was in one way prudent in his use of the master’s property. Yet, he gets the brunt of his master’s anger. It could be said that he is punished for his action or better his inaction.
This whole idea of ‘punishment’ is a tricky one … But it would seem to me that Jesus in using this parable perhaps is saying that there are negative consequences for the people who don’t even try.
I think of it this way … During my high school years, I was not what you would call a star pupil, if you can imagine that! I remember sitting in Algebra II and Calculus classes with Mr. Hammond. (For you math geeks Mr. Hammond told this joke every year!
“Did you hear about the Park Ranger who saved the snakes from extinction?”
“No Mr. Hammond.” Moans from the older students.
“He built them a log table then they could multiply for they were adders you see!”
And he would laugh, “Har! Har! Har!” Every year.
In Mr. Hammond’s classroom I always choose a seat by the windows. His classroom was on the third floor of Fryeburg Academy’s south wing and it had a nice view of the mountains! And when I would get lost in algorithms and hyperbolas, I would wander among the mountains, along the ridges and down their streams, to the fire tower on Keasarge North. I had a glorious time! Then when it came time for the math test I would suddenly become a person of great faith and lean on the power of prayer! I would pray first that the questions would be easy. And secondly, that they would be over the few things I did grasp. After all God is good, right. Perhaps, but Mr. Hammond was just! And while I never failed a class I would often fail the tests!
What right had I to rely on the goodness of God when I had not done any work? What right had I to expect God to show me special favors when I didn’t even try? And my punishment/consequence? To accept that my failure was of my own making … to learn that you have to put some work in to make success possible … that I did not have God at my beck and call.
Is God still good? Of course.
Was my failure God’s fault? Not at all.
Did God remind me that trying my best is important? You bet!
And lastly, if someone has a talent and uses it well, then this parable seems to say that he or she will be able to do progressively more with it. And, vice versa, if a talent isn’t used well or at all, it will inevitably be lost to us. Any of you who are musicians know this all too well! But it is the same for all our talents, skills, our spiritual gifts. Use it or lose it. Not that God will take it away but without use it will atrophy.
But not only will your witness be weakened but the body of Christ will suffer as well!
Ephesians 4:11-13 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
1 Corinthians 12:7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
Whether composer or cleaning person, preacher or pipefitter, deacon or diaper changer, physician or firefighter, young/old, male/female, God has given you an ability, a gift, and has asked you to use it to God’s glory in service to others.
1 Peter 4:10 – 11 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.
Listen to the Audio Version below:
Dr. Hend Azhary joined us on Sunday, October 29th, 2017 to share her experience of the medical and humanitarian relief trip to the Syrian refugees in Jordan through the Syrian American Medical Society. In July, Dr. Azhary led a team of 65 medical providers, medical students, nurses and translators to provide primary and secondary health care to thousands of refugees in Zaatari camp and in clinics throughout Jordan.
Please keep humanitarians like Dr. Azhary in prayer and all who make a difference in the lives of others. God Bless you as you listen.
Below is the audio version of her sharing this experience with us and the type of difference that is being made to those who don’t have any other options.
Click on “Download File” and enjoy.
Sermon ~ Sunday, October 29, 2017
Pastor Neil Wilson
In our house as in many homes, we have a small area that you step into when you enter the door from our driveway. Some call it simply an entry way or foyer, in New England and perhaps here as well, we call it a mud room.
Mud rooms are necessary spaces when you live on farms or you have a driveway that is gravel. It is a place to take off your muddy boots, jacket, rain gear, running shoes, gloves, mittens, scarfs, etc. In most mudrooms there will be a bench of some sort, a boot jack, and and in every mud room, worth its name, there will be a line of Shaker pegs along one or more walls. We have the pegs in our “mudroom” on two walls at different heights. And we keep on these pegs depending of the season, different jackets, hats scarfs, so forth, which we will grab and take with us as we go out the door.
Okay, now with this image in mind, let’s turn to the Gospel passage from Matthew. This reading covers two short accounts from Jesus’ ministry. I would like to focus on the first selection.
Verses 34-40 comprise what for Jesus was his definition of true religion, his summary of the law and the prophets – the law spelling out what God requires in written form, the prophets speaking this law into particular situations.
First there is the command to love God with everything we have. Now if this is considered simply as a human requirement, it can lead to frustration, because if we are honest we have times when we may not feel at all loving, even toward God! But the heart of spirituality is mutuality, that is, love for God is like faith, a gift from God. We find that God gives us the love we have for God, so that the Holy Spirit is bearing witness in our hearts that we belong to God, through Jesus Christ.
For me this love for God is expressed not only in my devotion to God through the worship of God but also in the way I approach all of God’s creation. I express my love for God not only through the prayers and songs in a service of worship but also in my service to the created world around me.
How can you say you love another person and then abuse that person’s property? How can I say I love God and then exploit and abuse God’s creation?
And the second commandment is like the first Jesus says, “You shall love you neighbor as yourself.” While it might be possible for a person to force themselves, almost as it were through gritted teeth, into loving their neighbor, by-in-large we claim that no one can command us to feel something we just don’t feel. But Jesus here is talking about “biblical love,” a love that is not a matter of “warm feelings” but rather a stubborn, unwavering commitment to another regardless of how we may “feel” about them at the time. I know that there are times when I’m not very likable! But Donna amazingly still loves me! (Or at least so she tells me!)
In our Tuesday Bible Study material the author spoke of this commitment to do love, to show love, as being a “setting of the heart.” A decision to act that then affects how we feel, no matter our mood or inclination at the time. Think of it as a setting on your dryer or washing machine. This is how we will choose to treat others.
I’ve found that when I decide to set my heart in a certain direction and I do things that fulfill that commitment; my feelings will often follow the actions. Many of the “laws” of God, like giving and Sabbath and loving, rather than being punitive or negative, I believe are God’s way of getting us to do what we need to do, what is good for us.
Back to the mud room!
Sometimes Eugene Peterson’s translation of the bible called The Message can create an inmage that brings scripture alive. This is how a portion of this our Matthew passage reads in The Message:
Jesus said, “’Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commandments are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”
Love of God and Love of neighbor, two pegs on which hang spiritual attitudes that we are need to take with us when we go out into the world.
Scarfs to keep our hearts warm.
Hats to keep good thoughts in our minds.
Sturdy boots that will take you wherever God may call you.
Gloves, so that we can be the hands of God doing the work of love and an extra pair or two for it will require effort!
Perhaps even a strong vest or jacket that will protect your soul from all the stinging criticism, for even doing good, doing the right thing will bring criticism from some quarters. (Jesus warned us about this in his Sermon on the Mount.)
So rather than “what’s in your wallet? (another sermon?) What is hanging in your mud room? What do you take with you every time you step out into the world? What spiritual attributes, “gifts of the spirit” do you put on?
Now realizing that all metaphors are just this, metaphors, symbols and not the real thing, there is one especially important place where my peg metaphor breaks down, that is we should not take off these spiritual attitudes when we reenter our homes, for they are just as needed in our homes as they are in the world!
Listen to Pastor Neil’s audio recording of this sermon, spoken during 10:30 a.m. Worship services here at First Congregational… Enjoy!
Click on “Download File” below.
It’s All About Image
People worry about their image. I used to more preoccupied with it than I am now! Weren’t you? As a teenager I was concerned about my image. For me, the image I wanted to portray was not the popular kid or the athlete but the quiet outdoorsy type, if you can believe that. But, even now I like to be seen in a positive light, a certain image. So to a certain extent I do want to fashion the image I wish to present to the world. We all do. And this doesn’t mean it is a false image but perhaps the image of who we believe we most truly are.
In the business world it is crucial to have a recognizable image. “Branding” they call it. You need to have a “brand” whether you are selling cars, an overnight stay, or caring for the spiritual welfare of souls as in the work of the church. We are told by the religious/spiritual marketing experts that churches need a “brand” and we need to promote or (to use the business terminology) market it! Because, the truth of it is, if we don’t promote one, a brand will be attached to us by the community and its perception what we do and/or do not do.
How do you suppose the world has branded First Congregational UCC? Is this how we want to be seen by our wider community? In other words, what is the first thought or image that comes into someone’s mind when they hear that you attend this church?
With this bit of introduction let’s look at the gospel reading for today.
This is the first of a series of three passages in Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus is being tested by Jewish religious leaders. Here the Pharisees quiz him about the lawfulness of paying taxes. This account is immediately followed by the Sadducees’ question about the resurrection which is an important theological point for them for they did not believe in the resurrection. (Matthew 22:23-33). Then (in next Sunday’s reading) the Pharisees are back with a question about the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-40). And finally, Jesus will respond with a question to the Pharisees about the Messiah in which Jesus pushes them on an interpretation of Psalm 110:1 (Matthew 22:41-46).
These four encounters follow Jesus’s teaching in the Jerusalem temple, during which he declines to say by what authority he is teaching, and then tells a series of parables which are highly critical of the religious authorities (Parable of the Two Sons, Parable of the Wicked Tenants, Parable of the Wedding Banquet). Matthew’s account culminates in Jesus’s warning to his followers: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:2-3).
Today’s reading is a story which is often used as a basis for a reflection on the relationship between church and state. Which we know even today is far from settled! At the end of this month, October 31, the church will be marking the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. This is the date that popular legend says a Roman Catholic monk and scholar, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. In actuality, he more likely just hung the document on the door of the church as an announcement of an upcoming academic discussion he was proposing. But his propositions were radical enough to result in what we call the Protestant Reformation.
It was Martin Luther’s reading of this passage in Matthew which helped him to develop his doctrine of the two kingdoms, which distinguished between God’s spiritual rule through the gospel and the church, and God’s political or secular rule, through law and the authorities of the state. In light of Jesus’ words Luther’s view about rendering or giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s was that, the soul is not under the authority of Caesar (the state); “he” can neither teach it nor guide it, neither kill it nor give it life, neither bind it nor loose it, neither judge it nor condemn it, neither hold it fast nor release it. … But with respect to body, property, and honor …, such matters are under Caesar’s (state) authority.
I dare say there might be a few today that would take some issue with Luther’s view! But Luther’s thinking impacted church and state relationships including the version of it which was established in the fledgling democracy of the thirteen colonies.
In place of Luther’s language of gospel and law, it seems more helpful to me to tie it into last week’s message about idols and explore the question of “ultimate belonging.” And ask the questio, “Ultimately, whose are we?”
Jesus asked for a coin. The coin … bears Caesar’s eikōn [image], and belongs to Caesar. Humans, on the other hand, bear the eikōn of God.
In the first account of creation Genesis 1:27 we read these familiar words:
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
For Luther, people (back then only men) may pay the infamous poll tax among other taxes, but they do not belong to the emperor. Humans bear God’s image and wherever they live and operate –whether in the social, economic, political, or religious realm– they belong to God. Their primary loyalties do not switch (for Luther) when they move out of church and into the polling booth.
Human beings, made in the image of God, are called to belong to God.
As humankind, we are created to be in the image and likeness of God in our nature and in our thinking, in the way we behave and conduct ourselves, and in the words we speak. We are to be a reflection of God.
Now of course we are not created in the physical image of God for no one knows what God looks like! The Hebrew words translated image and likeness in Genesis do not convey any sense of physicality but refers to the nature and essence of God. We are like God in that we have the ability to understand, to reason, to create, to act and behave, to feel and see, to listen and speak, but most of all to show compassion, to love.
It was John who wrote in his letter, God is love. (1 John 4:8)
When asked by the lawyer about inheriting eternal life, Jesus in turn asked him, “What is in the law?” The lawyer, a man of reputation (perhaps worried about image) replied, “You shall love the God with all you heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Do you recall how Jesus answered him? The Parable of the Good Samaritan.
As Jesus taught in many of his parables but perhaps most poignantly in the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” it is not about our status in the church (the priest) or the culture (the Levite) it is about how we love our neighbor.
Whose image do we ultimately bear?
I believe this in large part if not the whole, will be determined by how well we love!
Listen to our Audio version (click link below) on here… then if you would like what you hear… consider coming in and joining us on Sunday mornings!