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

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


Sermons

Seven Essential Questions: Who Is Jesus?

Sermon ~ Sunday, February 18, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Seven Essential Questions: Who Is Jesus?

Matthew 16:13-16

During this season of Lent, I am going to be considering a series of seven questions are essential questions to our faith regardless of where you believe you fall on the religious spectrum.  My idea for this came from a blog by Pastor Martin Thielen, who wrote What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?: A Guide to What Matters Most.  Both lifelong Christians and people on the edges of the church have some of the same basic questions about life and faith. Lent is the great time to explore these questions, leading up to the big question that is answered with Easter: is there hope for life and life beyond death?

First, I have a preliminary question for you. 

What do you claim as your basic faith perspective?  

Hindu?  Jewish?  Zoroastrian?  Christian?  Muslim? A “none” as in no specific faith perspective?

I would hazard a guess here and say “Christian.”  And if I am correct then there is a follow up question that you and I face every day as Christians:  “Who will we (you/me) say that Jesus is?”

In other words, in our own minds and hearts what/who do we truly believe he is?  And beyond this what sort of testimony do we offer about him through our words, through our deeds, by our lives?  What will our loved ones, our congregations, our neighbors, our communities know about him because of us?  This may be even more difficult to get right than saying the right words and believing the proper theological principles!

Jesus presented the question to Peter and he came up with what seemed to satisfy his teacher in v. 16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  And yet finds himself rebuked in v. 23 for completely misunderstanding what that answer might mean.  

This should serve as a warning to us.  We, faithful followers that we are, may know that Jesus is the one who was sent, the one who took flesh, the one who dwelt with us, the one who suffered and died and was buried, the one who rose on the third day. 

We declare with our pious lips and confident hearts that Jesus is the Messiah (the Christ), the beloved child of the most High.  We know the right words.

We would be wise, however, to proceed with caution, because there is apparently no guarantee, despite the precision and sincerity of our Christological convictions, that we have a clue about what our confession, “Jesus is Lord,” actually means.  I mean after all, if Peter gets it wrong?  And not only did Peter get it wrong, he was rebuked in the strongest terms, being called “Satan” and a stumbling block to Jesus himself.

Peter, praised for saying the right thing,

 and for his faithful testimony named the very foundation of Jesus’ church,

 the rock against which not even the forces of death can prevail. 

Peter, given the keys to free or to bind any and all on earth. 

If this Peter gets it wrong, who are we cavalierly to assume that we have it right?

To put it another way, why, like Peter, do we find it so hard to believe that the beloved of God must go to Jerusalem, undergo great suffering, die, and only then be raised by God to new, everlasting, and glorified life? 

Surely the one known as Son of God will reign without threat,

 will be honored rather than subjected to suffering,

  will live, not die,

  will establish a commonwealth of peace and justice,

   rather than be executed as a rebel and heretic. 

However, this is simply not the case.  But it is also the basis for some consistent and destructive false testimony from some of the best regarded followers of Jesus to this day!

We, of course, live in a post-resurrection world.   We know that what Peter could not accept was true. 

We know that Jesus went to Jerusalem and confronted both religious and secular authorities with their arrogance, exploitive policies, and violence. 

We know that he was arrested and subjected to both torture and capital punishment. 

We know he was raised and ascended to the heavenly banquet table and sits at the right hand of God and will welcome us to the feast. 

Still, we preach, more often than we ought, that the faithful will not suffer but prosper, will triumph over every adversity, will win rather than lose. 

Yes, we believe that Jesus won the final victory, and death’s sting has been swallowed up.  That our salvation has been wrought and cannot again be lost.  Jesus’ work may have been once for all; yet we must avoid Peter’s mistake.  We must not make what Mary Poppins called “pie crust promises: easily made, easily broken.”

We must not say “God forbid” that the righteous suffer, that saints are killed.  Faithful discipleship cannot avoid walking our own roads to Jerusalem and there have our own confrontation with the principalities and powers.  Jesus leads us in the way we must go, rather than letting us off the hook.  That he is Messiah, beloved of God, makes of us members of his body, adopted children of the Most High ourselves – we are participators not bystanders in the fulfillment of the promise of his messianic life.

Unfortunately, this means we do not stroll along easy street but must march down the streets of economic exploitation to seek new means of exchange through which all may prosper.  

We are to enter the halls of power where unjust policies are written and voice the concerns of the voiceless. 

We are to visit those in prison while working to dismantle judicial systems that locks away so many, especially an unproportionable people of color.

We are to welcome strangers, even those we may consider scandalous to our reputation and who by their presence make us a scandal!  (Look at what others said about Jesus. He hangs out with sinners; dines with tax collectors and prostitutes!)

Such was his way.

This way of this Jesus seems to say that we are wrong about something else.  Jesus’ final rebuke of Peter is that he has set his mind not on divine things but on human things.  And we nod approvingly.   “Yes, that’s right Jesus, we’re about the spiritual, not earthly things,” we like to think.   “That is what Jesus points us toward, the spiritual.” 

In this too we risk further rebuke.  If we trust the whole of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, is it not precisely the avoidance of tangible and material action – with its potential for suffering and threat of death – that Peter’s mistaken interpretation entails, and does not this demonstrate his all too human mind-set? 

Divine things are not always ethereal, floating above the mundane, but those things that involve a vision of justice and liberation, compassion and mercy – and the ones who really seem to know who Jesus is are those who, like him, are willing to bear the burden of his suffering and death to make his vision real.

 

By now you may have noticed that I haven’t really answered today’s question for you, “Who is Jesus?”  While this question, for anyone claiming to be Christian, cannot be avoided, I cannot give the answer as if it were a quiz and I am a teacher with the answer book.  It must be answered by each of us in our own way.    

How we answer though, cannot be avoided.  Who will we say Jesus is?

And, truth be told, our answers may rest more with those who are watching and witnessing with our lives.  As has been said many times, we may be the only evidence of Jesus some people will ever see.  This being the case, what will we be saying with our lives, about who Jesus is to us? 

Whatever it is, it will probably be truer to what we believe, than any pious profession we might utter with our lips.   Peter found that out let us take a lesson from him.

 

Audio and video available below:  

Select “Download File” to listen to the audio version of Pastor Neil’s Sermon.  Also now we have the Video from Sunday’s Sermon.  Enjoy!

Click on the video below… it’s almost like you are here 🙂


The One that Didn’t Get Away

Sermon ~ Sunday, January 28, 2018

The One That Didn’t Get Away

1 Cor. 8:1-33

 

Last Saturday dawned seasonably cold in Rockhaven.  I believe I heard that out at the University Extension Field office on the blueberry farm (one of the coldest spots around) it was about -5.  Here in town it was about zero.   But the sun was shining and there was very little wind.  A great day for the 25th Annual Josiah W. MacPherson Ice Fishing Derby held out on Hobbs Pond.    

Josiah was an old bachelor woodsman and in the 1940s built a camp on Timber Point along the western shore of Hobbs Pond.  In his later years he would invite all the kids out to his place to do some ice fishing.  That was back when you had to carry all your gear or pull it on a sled from the landing by the outlet.  Josiah’ camp was about a 2 mile walk across either ice or ice covered with foot of snow depending upon the year.  Josiah would drill the holes, supply the tip ups and bait, have a roaring fire and all the hot dogs you could eat.  Roasted of course, on a stick you cut from a bush along the shore.  Many a son (and daughter) was given their very first jack knife for the occasion. 

Josiah has been gone now for, gosh, I guess 30 years.  Our community was rather surprised to learn that he had a rather sizable estate and a significant amount of it he designated to be used to establish a college scholarship fund for the youth of our community. 

A couple of years after Josiah’s death some of the folks in Rockhaven got together and organized an ice fishing derby in his memory.  It was so popular that they did it the next year and eventually the Rockhaven Youth Recreation Club took it on as an annual event, this year’s being as I said the 25th .   

There have been some changes in the derby over the years.  Today you’ll see more kids (and parents) with cross country skis than snow mobiles.  Instead of a huge bonfire in front of Josiah’s old camp (now owned by Randal Stearns, Bea and Melvin’s son), gas grills are used to prepare lunch.  And while red hotdogs are still on the menu, they’re turned with tongs, not cooked on whittled sticks.  An occasional a steak will find its way onto a grill along with those vegetables wrapped in aluminum foil.  Then there was the year they tried beer can chicken.  But it being a youth event, the powers to be decided it would be more appropriate to use soda so it was a “cola can chicken!” 

We’re seeing more people using these little sawed off fishing poles.  People leaning over their fishing holes like monks in prayer. 

Even the tip ups are “new & improved!”  No longer the old home made single stick that is stuck into the ice beside the hole but these 3 dimensional things with the reel underwater.  Some have even tried attaching a waterproof game camera and proposed using a radio controlled artificial bait that the “fisherperson”  could control from inside their nice warm ice shack.  But that was quickly  ruled out of the derby along with the use of ice fishing shacks.  No-sir-ree, we’re roughing it with our gas grills and our L.L. Bean poly-filled, thermo-lined, power-dry-stretch base layer, and Gore-Tex covered, weather challenger outerwear!

 But the most notable change over the years has been indeed for the better.  We are seeing more and more young girls and their Dads and even Moms with their sons.

This year some of the adults who were there as the local “fishing experts” were Danny Killington, Jed Carlisle, Joe closed the barber shop, Leslie and Jerome Jordan co-chairs of the Recreation Club, and Peter Warren, teacher at the alternative high school and Jake Bradley’s right hand for the church suppers.  New this year was Sergeant Sally MacFague, the local game warden.  She was there handing out junior game warden badges to any child that could show how to assemble and bait a tip up.  Later she had gave rides in her Warden’s ATV equipped with lights and a siren!  It was more of a hit than the little badges!  

There were about 30-40 people, kids and adults, signed up for the derby this year.  And as usual, the local merchants donated several items for prizes: a dozen bakery items of the winner’s choice from Holgrum’s Bakery; Harbor Hardware gave a tackle box with assorted hooks, sinkers and lures; Mason’s Pharmacy donated a set of six Ty Beanie Baby stuffed animals.  But the grand prize was a dozen minnows a week for the entire ice fishing season from Wally’s Fish Market and Bait Shop!  What 8-9 year-old wouldn’t by-pass the Beanie babies and go right straight for the bait! 

Oh yes, and every participant got a small bag filled with pencils, pens and little note pads all imprinted with “Coleridge Digging & Construction, ‘Your Hole is Our goal!’ Sam Coleridge P.O. Box 235 Rockhaven.”  

Anyway . . . amongst the families last Saturday was Perry Packard and his granddaughter, Jessie’s girl, Samantha.  You remember Perry, owner/operator of Packard’s Garage and Towing on the way out south of town.  

Samantha or “Sammy” as her grandad calls her, is an articulate, thoughtful 9 year old.  She appreciates beauty and her interests span beyond Beanie Babies and Barbies!  Her grandad on the other hand is an avid, old-school fisherman.  He has the bass boat with the 200 hp Merc cruiser, a collection of fishing tackle that rivals the museum collection of Bass Pro Shop, he has his own Ice shack but he keeps his not on Hobbs Pond but on Franklin Lake where there are land-locked salmon and lake trout to be caught.  Hobbs Pond is great for kids but serious fishermen like Perry don’t waste their time there, unless of course, you have a cute, dark-eyed, pony-tailed granddaughter pleading with you to take her to the Ice Fishing Derby!

So there they found themselves just off Timber Point where the bottom drops off into the deeper part of the pond, tending 3 or 4 tip-ups. (Perry insisted that at least they use his high tech ones!) 

It was quiet throughout the morning. They had a couple of “flags” pulled up one little perch and lost the bait on the other. 
They had just finished their lunch, Sammy had some of those potatoes, onions, and peppers cooked in the foil.  Grandad Perry is more of a traditionalist.  He scarfed down three of those red hotdogs, the ones long enough to hang out over both ends of the bun!  He noticed the sun was disappearing behind a high layer of clouds which were lowering as the afternoon went on. 

“A storm is coming.” Perry announced to Sammy.  “Fish bite best right before the storm.  Better make sure our bait is fresh and active.” 

Sammy squirmed at the idea of checking the bait.  It was bad enough that they had to use minnows that were still alive, to think that they were down there trying to swim around with a hook through their back was not something she had expected to be part of fishing.

All was good at the first tip ups they checked.  Minnows still lively, depth about right.

As they were making their way out to the farthest one, suddenly the flag sprung up and the tip up slid over in the hole!  When they got up to it they could see the line zipping off the reel and out towards the deeper water.  Perry cautioned Sammy to be patient, let the line run.  It stopped for a moment and just as Perry was reaching for the tip up, zing, off it went again!

When just about all of the 100 feet of line was out, it stopped.  Perry carefully pulled the reel up out of the water, he took the line in hand and gave it a quick jerk to set the hook.  He then passed the line to Sammy.  The game was on! 

 What seemed like 30 minutes was more like five when Sammy and her grandad caught the first glimpse of what was on the end of their line.  It was enormous!  Perry caught just enough of it as it flipped it’s side under the hole.  It was a pike, one that Captain Ahab could have told stories about.  Suddenly Perry found himself thinking about that grand prize, a dozen minnows a week.  But more than this, what this beauty would look like mounted and hanging over his desk in the little office at his garage!

Back and forth it went just under the ice.  Perry had everything he could do not to take the line from Sammy but he knew that for the fish to count a youth had to pull it through the ice.  Finally, the pike took a flip just as it came to the hole Sammy seeing her opportunity lifted her arms way above her head and up through the ice came the most massive and beautiful fish she had ever seen!  Perry let slip a couple of colorful adjectives to which Samantha said “Grandad!”

Perry helped her lay the pike out on the ice to get a good look at it.   It truly was a beauty.  Sammy marveled at its magnificence.  Perry let out a low whistle. 

“Look Grandad!  Look at those colors!  So bright out here in the light.  Imagine this is the first time this fish has seen light like this.” 

“Look at those eyes Grandad.  Imagine the knowledge of deep places of the lake in those eyes!” 

Like I said, Samantha was an articulate and thoughtful girl for her age. 

Then they came.  The words Perry half expected but dreaded, the words he feared at that moment more than any others . . . “Grandad, we need to set it free!”

She looked at this beautiful creature struggling to breathe; it’s first thrashing around now only a wiggle. 

“No! No!” Perry wanted to cry out.  “It’s the grand prize winner!  Maybe even the biggest fish in the 25 years of the Josiah W. MacPherson Ice Fishing Derby.  No! we can’t” 

But he didn’t. 

The vision of the monster mounted and hanging in his garage office was fading like the afternoon sun.  To him, it was a trophy and a story waiting to be told and embellished upon in years to come.

 To Sammy it was one of God’s special creatures, of so much more value than a dozen minnows a week for fishing season. 

Perry knew that it would be okay to keep the fish.  If he really wanted to push the matter.  After all, no laws were broken; it was a legally caught fish, certainly over the minimum size limit.  And the God Perry prayed to often when fishing, would certainly understand! 

But it was love that reached down and gently removed the hook from the toothy jaw. 

It was love that reached under the massive fish, with the brilliant marking and dark eyes and with his granddaughter slide the prize winning pike through the hole to return to the deep haunts of Hobbs Pond. 

Love won out over knowledge and legality, as it should.           

St. Paul, who wasn’t a fisherman, like Peter and Andrew, wrote, “ . . . we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

Perry and Samantha went home that afternoon with something that would remain with their relationship much longer than a dusty old pike hanging on a wall.  The memory of a day fishing with a grandad and granddaughter that will be fixed in their memories forever.

For the special relationship, respect and love between them ran as deep as the pike’s home in the dark places of Hobbs Pond. 

Sure there will be days Perry will still wonder “How he let the big one get away.”   But he also knew that for today something much bigger and more important didn’t get away.

Listen to the Audio version by double clicking “Download File” below and open it on your PC.  Enjoy.

We are also trying something new… let us know what you think of this!  Remember this is a Work in Progress!



Bearer(s) of the Kingdom

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.

Amen.

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!

 


In Spite of Ourselves

~ 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.


Okay, Let’s Try This Again. Only This Time…

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!


How Can This Be?

Sermon ~ Sunday ~ December 24th 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

How Can This Be?

Luke 1:26-38

 

Our little town sorely needed a bit of Christmas cheer this year. 

Maybe even a little miracle if its not too much to ask?

It’s been a rough one with the recent storm that took the power out and left us isolated for days, say nothing of this year’s lobster season starting late and slow, then ending abruptly about a month earlier that usual.  Seems the bugs aren’t coming into the bays like they used to.  And this year there seemed to be a preponderance of hens.  “Brooders or “tossers” they’re called.  The fisheries folks up at the university have their suspicions but aren’t saying much except that this might be something we better prepare for with forecasted ocean levels and temps.

So families are struggling this winter.

Buddy Watson and his gang is one of these families.  Buddy runs his traps off Walkers Head just down east o’ Broad Flats, which is another thing.  The red tide came in a couple times this summer and closed down the flats to the clamming, which didn’t help those families out there either.  But I want to tell you about Buddy and the star.  You see, Buddy is the “keeper of the Christmas star.”

The Christmas star has been illuminating the steeple of Old First Church on the Common since 1973 that’s when Buddy first built it and every November since before they called the fourth Friday “Black”, Buddy crawls up into the steeple with his cross. 

 

It is a traditional five-point, five armed star with 60 100 watt incandescent light bulbs shining its Christmas proclamation out over Rockhaven’s common and village, all these years drawing in the wise and the foolish with its 6000 watts of heavenly lumens.   When Buddy heard that incandescent bulbs were on the way out he ran right over to Howard Williams, when Howard was the proprietor of Harborview Hardware, and bought 25 cases with 24 four packs to a case of 100 watts of the Christmas cheer. 

It was always a bit of a task to keep all those hot light bulbs glowing each year.  About every 2-3 days Buddy would have to crawl up there and replace burnt out bulbs.  One year a storm hit followed by a vicious cold snap, Buddy didn’t get up there for a week and a half and by Christmas Eve the patrons of Helen’s Dinner claimed what they saw looked more like a stick figure doing the “M” of the YMCA song!

And to think, that all this holiday devotion comes from a fellow who never once attended a worship service in our church.  He and Emma were married in the church.  Both his parent’s funerals were held in the church, but Buddy nor Emma ever went to church nor did his name even show up on the cradle roll.  Although Rev. Williams did hear that when some members of the Blessed Day of Redemption in Christ Community stopped by the Watson place with some of their evangelistic tracts and pamphlets, Buddy thanked them kindly but informed them that he had a church and asked if they had ever seen the Christmas star shining over the Common.   

 

This year, on top of the poor fishing season, Buddy and Emma’s daughter Sybil, who married Wally Poindexter’s son Jerry, (Jerry is also a lobsterman, a stern man on one of the bigger lobster boats.) Well, they had a fire in their home and Sybil was taken to the hospital because of smoke inhalation.   If that wasn’t scary enough the x-rays of her lungs indicated something else was going on.  Further tests were run up at Eastern Regional Medical Center and they found lung cancer.  Buddy took it pretty hard.  When he first saw his 34-year daughter in the hospital room with all that tubing and such, fighting back the tears his eyes said “How can this be?”  

As I said our little town could use a Christmas miracle this year! 

 

Well, it was about this time that Miss Susie from up on Slabtown Road was over to the VFW in Uniondale.  She was Jed Carlisle’s guest for their annual Christmas dinner.  Jed a veteran, served in the first Iraq war is a member of the post over there.  Well, wouldn’t you know but Miss Susie won the door prize which happened to be 25 of those five-dollar Holiday Gold lottery tickets! 

Now, Miss Susie had no idea want to do with them.  She had never purchased a lottery ticket had had no plans to.  Jed even had to show her how to do the whole “scratch off” thing to see if she had won anything! 

Well, let me tell you, win she did, and Miss Susie won big!  The top prize in the five-dollar Holiday Gold tickets is $100,000.00 and Miss Susie had a “golden ticket” right there in her hand!!

 

 It was big news in our town and perhaps just the bit of good news we needed with the difficult year and now Sybil’s diagnosis.  And there is no one more humble and deserving than Miss Susie of Slabtown Road!  Of course, everyone was weighing in on how she should spend all her $100,000.00!  Sam Coleridge was quick to point out that the Feds would want their 25% right off the top and then the governor would grab his 5% so Miss Susie shouldn’t be spending it all before she has the check in hand!  Which, if you know Miss Susie, the only chickens she is counting are the ones already in her coup! 

The most anyone got out of her was, “My, oh my!  How can this be?”  This and that she might need a new wood stove and she always fancied having one of those little greenhouses.  She asked the Rev. if he would “gaggle” or “goggle” whatever the young people called it about these things for her.

Miss Susie’s good fortune has brightened things up a bit in Rockhaven, but not for everybody.                

Buddy and Emma have been caring for Sybil’s 4 children while she and Jerry have been making the daily trips to Eastern Regional Medical Center and Buddy’s focus being elsewhere hadn’t paid any attention to the Christmas Star.

Well, a couple of weeks ago some of the Priscilla Circle women got to talking after church and agreed that there just ought to be some way to help Sybil and her family.  Everybody knowing everyone’s circumstances in our town knew that as a stern man Jerry would have very little if any insurance, and knew all too well some from personal experience how the medical bills must be stacking up!

 

It was Bea Stearns who asked, “Why couldn’t we have a dinner in the church fellowship hall and raise a little bit of money to help out the family?”    And Leslie Jordan added that it should be an event that the whole community could get involved in.

Word got out and before long calls were coming into the church with donations of food.  

Wally’s Fish Market and Bait shop donated enough Pollock to make 15 gallons of fish chowder.  

Helen’s Diner baked over 40 apple and blueberry pies.  

Holgrum’s bakery promised enough of their famous split top dinner rolls so that everyone in Rockhaven could have two.  

Harry’s IGA sent over coffee and tea, sugar and creamers along with enough Chinet plates, bowls, cups and prepackaged utensils to serve several hundred.   

Even the Daughters of Scotia Society said they would bake 25 casseroles. 

“Danny” Killington donated enough potatoes from her root cellar not only for the chowder but to make several roasting pans of cheesy potatoes. 

People were calling in with milk and butter for the chowder, vegetables, and the ingredients for punch.  There were offers to help set up, serve, and clean up.  Let’s just say it was quite a spread!

 It was last Saturday and the whole town turned out or at least it seemed as though they did.   The fellowship hall is cozy at 125 but was set up for 145 and there were at least 4 settings.  A light snow turned to rain the day before left walkways a bit icy in places, so the Rockhaven Fire Dept. was there to help with parking and getting people in and out of the fellowship hall. 

No tickets were sold.  No one was at the door watching over a donation box.  That’s not how we do it in our town.  Fish bowl like containers were put out on the tables for donations.  To be sure there were certain people not wanting to be seen as uncharitable, would watch to see what their neighbor would put in and make sure that they at least matched if not out donated them!  A little peer pressure is okay for a good cause!  

After it was all over Rev. Williams along with Jerry Charles, Rockhaven’s first selectman and Bob Blaisdell, manager of the local branch of the Down East Banking & Trust, emptied out the bowls and tallied the donations.  There were dollar bills, and fives and tens, twenties and a considerable number of personal checks, even a few zip lock baggies heavy with change. 

And in one of the bowls they found a cashier’s check from the Down East Banking & Trust.  Bob had no knowledge of the check but recognized the signature of the teller who authorized it. 

The check was made out in the font of the bank’s old Remington typewriter to the “Jerry & Sybil Poindexter Family” to the order of $65,432.17!  The memo line blank. 

“How can this be?  This can’t be, can it?”  Jerry and Bob looked at each other.  Rev. Williams didn’t say anything, but he what he found online when he “goggled” wood stoves and greenhouses.   

 

The following day in the scripture for that Sunday the angel had just told Mary a bit of fairly farfetched news about her future.  And Mary said, “How can this be?” 

Maybe she wasn’t asking so much about the biological plausibility of a virgin birth but the more honest human response to such news, “How can this be happening to me?” 

How can this be? 

We may not always have a satisfactory answer for so often the mysteries of God are hidden from us.  But we always have the promise of God’s nearness.

Then and still today the angel’s response is: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”   Not for Miss Susie . . . not for Sybil and Jerry, Buddy and Emma, not for our little town.  

And perhaps this is the ultimate message of the mystery of God’s coming to us in an infant.  God’s nearness comes in unexpected ways, through unexpected people!    

We’ve seen God holiness breaking into our community’s life.  And while it may not have been through the innocence of a baby born to a common young couple, it came through to us through common everyday people just the same! 

 

And you know something else!  Just yesterday I was enjoying a cup of coffee in Helen’s Diner and I looked up at the Christmas star in our church steeple, and lo, all the bulbs are shining brightly.  And I thought, now I knew; we have indeed been visited upon by a number of angels.   And perhaps we have found our Christmas miracle after all! 

Click the link below and you will find the original audio recording from December 24th’s morning service.  Pastor Wilson is a talented speaker. 😉  


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!!!!