As many of you know the most recent rendition of Star Wars came out in theatres this past thursday. You may not know this, but I am a pretty avid fan of the Star Wars franchise. It was the story that I grew up watching with my older brother. I remember in the second movie, The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke Skywalker is told by Obi Wan to go to the Degobah system… have I lost anyone yet?... There he was to meet a great jedi master named yoda. After his ship gets stuck in a bog on a swampy planet, he is soon greeted by an mischievous little green creature, who starts going through his stuff. This little green creature promises that he will take Luke to the great jedi master Yoda. It is only after Luke loses his patience, does Yoda reveal his true identity. For a lot of us who grew up after the original trilogy came out, we knew exactly who Yoda was when he came out on screen. It was dramatic irony for us, as we watched Luke keep asking when they would see Yoda to which Yoda responded, “not long.” But for the folks that saw the movie for the first time when it came out, they were just as much in the dark as Luke was. I can imagine that when it was revealed that this little green creature was yoda, everyone was thrown off. After all, he didn’t look like a great warrior. Yoda did not look like to our eyes what a Jedi master was supposed to look like.
It is an amazing thing about the human brain is that it works together with the eyes to fill in gaps of our vision. When we have to make quick decisions, our brain will filter out and make assumptions about what it is looking at. So often times, what we are seeing may not always match reality which is what makes illusions so much fun. We experience this disconnect between what our brain thinks we should see and what our eyes actually see when we meet people for the first time. We have all done this at one time or another. We will meet someone that does not exactly look like who we would expect them to look like. Sometimes, we catch ourselves in time and don’t have an embarrassing moment. Other times, we find our foot in our mouth like Luke Skywalker. We can have a certain mental picture of what someone should look like without meeting them first. I experience this a lot of times when I tell people that I am a pastor. For many people, I am about thirty years too young to be a pastor. Sometimes, our eyes can deceive us from the truth in front of us because we already have made up in our minds what someone is supposed to look like. For example, according to John’s Gospel what does John the Baptist wear and eat? If you have answered “Camel’s hair and wild locust and honey,” then you are correct… if you are reading the Gospel of Matthew and Mark. But in John’s Gospel, it doesn’t say anything about what John the Baptist is wearing. That is important for us to point out that in John’s gospel, we aren’t actually told what John looks like. While Matthew and Mark felt like John’s appearance would be helpful for their readers, it would seem John felt it might distract us.
Often times, the one whom God has picked out for the story doesn’t match who we might pick with our eyes. We might recall that when Israel wanted a King, they looked to Saul, who was tall, dark and handsome. He looked like a king. But we know from the story that he did not do a great job. When the prophet Samuel came to find the next king of Israel, 1 Samuels 16 says, “he stands before Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord's anointed is before him.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” So when John the baptist comes on the scene, it is clear that he needed to be a very transparent figure in more ways than one. When he was asked, “who are you?” Who comes right out with it and says, “I am not the Messiah.” The greek is Ego Ouk Eime Christos, which is a very emphatic, “ I am definitely not the Christ.” They then ask if he is the prophet Elijah, which is is even mort curt, “Ego Ouk Eime,” I am definitely not. “Are you the prophet?” “No” he says forcefully. With each question, the religious establishment tries to categorize what they see in front of them with some preconceived notion: the messiah, Elijah, the prophet. With each attempt, John the baptist answers transparently and openly that he is none of those things. When they finally ask “well who are you then,” he says, “I am the voice.” In a way, he is saying, “Don’t picture anything. I am just a voice coming out of the desert. Don’t try to imagine what I will look like or you will miss the point entirely.” It’s as if John is saying to us if the fore-runner of the messiah isn’t what we expect, then know that the messiah will not be what you expect. Because so many looked to the Messiah to be a mighty warrior king, and so overlooked the infant child born in a manger. From the Old Testament and the New Testament, it is clear that human beings can miss the people sent our way because they don’t look the way we expect.
I wonder how often we have missed the moments where God would send us because we don’t feel like we look the part. In many ways, we can be our own worst pharisees. Just like in our scripture this morning, we can have a leading of the Spirit sent from God to witness our faith in some way. But then, just as quickly, we send our very own interrogation crew. We can ask ourselves just as the pharisees and Levites asked John, “Who are you?” “What gives you the authority to do this?” “How could you think you would be called to this?” And through these and many other questions we can begin to doubt ourselves and doubt the way the Spirit is leading us. We end up being like Moses, who after God calls him to be the leader of Israel, rattles off a lengthy list of reasons why he couldn’t lead the chosen people. He rattles it off so well, it’s like he had rehearsed it. And in many ways he had, and we do. We rehearse in our minds all the things that could keep us from doing God’s work that when the Spirit comes with an opportunity, we are ready to give our regrets. We quench the Spirit of God because we are looking at ourselves and not with the heart of God. You know, I imagine that each one of you could think of someone who didn’t fit the picture of a God-send or a saint. But I bet you can remember a time in which they spoke a fitting word to you, or encouraged or challenged you. You may not remember their face or their name for that matter, but you know that they made a difference in your life. The same can be true for each of us. It does not matter if we look the part, because God will give us the lines anyway. I have heard it said that people may not remember what you said, but they can remember how you made them feel. At least for John’s gospel, the people at the river Jordan didn’t remember what he was wearing or eating, but they remembered how he made them feel. For some, it was hope that things could be made new. For others, the challenge of changing their ways. For all, the the of the coming messiah.
May we hold on to the truth that we do not have to look the part to be in God’s story. That it was shepards and wise-men who proclaimed the holy birth, while the kings and priests slept. The Christ child was born not in a throne room, but in a manger. That he was in the world, but the world knew him not. I hope and pray that as we journey closer to Christmas day we might have the faith of Mary, who looked not with her eyes but with her heart when she was told that she would bear the messiah and said, “may it be according to your word.” It doesn’t matter who we are, where we are, or what we look like, God can send us to witness our faith in Christ. John the baptist did not let the doubt of the pharisees or levites keep him from following the leading of the Spirit of God. May we also learn to not doubt the leading of the Spirit in our own lives. May we have the courage to witness the light of the world just as John the Baptist did.
Sin. It's not an easy topic to talk about even in a church. It can conjure up images of bible-beating, judgemental, bull-horn toting, corner-street-standing "prophets" who would like to tell you all the ways you are going to burn in hell.
It's such a difficult word that a lot of churches just don't know how to handle it. The Methodist church has often been accused as being a little lacking when it comes to talking about sin and would instead emphasize heavily on grace. In fact, we've sometimes been termed semi-pelagians! No, that doesn't mean that we plagiarize.. Pelagius was a christian theologian around the time of St. Augustine (~400 AD). He taught that humanity wasn't all that bad because, after all, God created us and called us good (Genesis). He didn't have much to say about sin. In his view, humanity had the inherent capacity to choose to do good, and grace was just a little bit of a pick-me-up. So anytime a christian group has ignored or denied the reality of sin (or even perceived to do so), they get called Pelagians or semi-pelagians.
But the Methodist church does affirm the reality of sin. Like Augustine, we affirm that humanity's condition has been gravely affected by sin (theological pun intended). Our hearts have practically bent in on themselves because of our sin. We know that we can't get out of our sinful condition by our boot-strap. But we do believe, by God's grace, we can do better. But first, we have to admit we have a problem... Every time we gather in worship at Daniels Memorial, we have a moment of confession right after the sermon. We do this right after the sermon because we trust that through the work of the Holy Spirit, the words that the scriptures from the Old and New Testament and the words the preacher gives in the sermon become the words of God to God's people. And anytime God speaks, people start repenting (Isaiah 6:5). The words come out of our tradition that can date back to the early church: "Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart..." If you need a definition of what it means to sin, not loving God with your whole heart would be a good one. So when we talk about sin, we aren't pointing at anyone else but ourselves, "Against you and you alone have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight" (Psalm 51:4). There's no bull-horn, just contrite hearts. No judgement, just repentance. But then come the best words ever spoken, "Hear the good news, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). That proves God's love for us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven." And just like that, we are reminded of the truth, "Grace, Grace, God's Grace. Grace that is greater than all our sins." Recognizing our sin is our first and daily step in our closer walk toward God by God's grace.
Like the song by Hundred Waters, "Show Me Love," we know that there is sin in our lives. We know that we have a hard time doing the right thing as the song says, "Don't let me show cruelty, though I may make mistakes." But though we recognize it, we don't let it control us. We look toward the one who was without sin, yet became sin for our sake (2 Corinthians 5:21) and call out to Him, "Show me love. Show me love."
A man is stumbling through the woods, totally drunk, when he comes upon a preacher baptizing people in the river. He proceeds to walk into the water and subsequently bumps into the preacher. The preacher turns around and is almost overcome by the smell of alcohol, whereupon he asks the drunk, "Are you ready to find Jesus?" The drunk answers, "Yes, I am." So the preacher grabs him and dunks him in the water. He pulls him up and asks the drunk, "Brother have you found Jesus?" The drunk replies, "No, I haven't found Jesus yet." The preacher shocked at the answer, dunks him into the water again for a little longer. He again pulls him out of the water and asks again, "Have you found Jesus my brother?" The drunk again answers, "No, I haven't found Jesus yet." By this time the preacher is at his wits end and dunks the drunk in the water again --- but this time holds him down for about 30 seconds and when he begins kicking his arms and legs he pulls him up. The preacher again asks the drunk, "For the love of God have you found Jesus?" The drunk wipes his eyes then catches his breath and says to the preacher, "Are you sure this is where he fell in?" If you read the resurrection stories from the Gospels, it is clear that the disciples are trying to find Jesus. The empty tomb left more questions than answers, and even when Jesus appeared to the Disciples and many others, there were still plenty of others who missed Him before the ascension. And today, there are still many people who are looking for Jesus. And if our story from that road between Jerusalem and Emmaus tell us anything, it is that Jesus is often found in places of brokenness and around the table.
Jesus likes to be in the broken places in life. One of my favorite preachers and writers is Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor. She writes in her book, Gospel Medicine, that the Emmaus Road is “The road you walk when your team has lost, your candidate has been defeated, your loved one has died--the long road back to the empty house, the piles of unopened mail, to life as usual. It is, as she says, “the road of deep disappointment, and walking it is the living definition of sad.” For these former disciples, all their hopes and dreams had been dashed on the rocks. The prophet that was mighty in deeds before God and humanity ended up dead on the cross. What’s worse is that it had already been three days. They had left everything and everyone to follow the one they thought was the Messiah. It would be an understatement to say that they were heart-broken. Their heartbreak is clear as they talk to a fellow traveler. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” I don’t know about you, but I hear a hint of frustration. A modern translation would be, “Have you been living under a rock?” What makes the sting even worse is that this stranger is clueless about something that has absolutely devastated their world. Little did they know, that their fellow Traveler was the Lord, still walking along the broken places healing broken people. You may recall that Jesus was once asked by the Pharisees and the scribes why he spent so much time with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus reminds them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Luke 5:31). Throughout his ministry, your best bet to find Jesus was to look for someone who was in need of healing, someone who was broken. He seemed to enjoy their company. I think he enjoyed their company because broken people don’t hold anything back. They will usually let you know up front that they have got a lot of stuff they are dealing with and they are not perfect. They were honest. I think Jesus liked that. It surely makes it easier to work his wonder-working when someone can name what is wrong.
The good news is, Jesus can still be found in the broken places. One of my favorite scriptures as you’ve figured out, is “when you have done for the least of these, you have done for me also.” When you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, take care of the stranger, you do these things for Christ. I don’t think Jesus was joking or exaggerating when he said this. It’s the main reason why I think we as a church ought to be out in our community, inviting people, getting to know our neighbors. The reason we should go out into the trailer park, the apartment complexes, and the houses around the church is because Jesus is out there already. Jesus is there with our neighbors, who are broken people just like you and me. Sadly, Jesus never said, “go visit once and let them know where the sanctuary is and that you worship on Sunday at 11:00. He said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” We go out there and keep going out there, because that’s what Jesus has called us to do. Because that is where Jesus is.
Jesus also likes to be around a table. He was always eating and drinking with someone. He didn’t pass up a meal whether it was with a Pharisee, or Zacchaeus the tax collector. In fact, he was always eating and drinking that he eventually got called a drunkard and a glutton. He liked to be around the table. Maybe it was his own gurgling stomach that made him have compassion on the crowd that followed him. Maybe that is why he gathered up what little the disciples could find, gave thanks, broke it and passed it around. Even before his death, he got the disciples to make a reservation for the upper room so that they could share a meal together one last time. He was the life of the party, in more ways than one. And so his friends that he walked with who still didn’t know who he was, thought he was good company and invited him to dinner. Just a few more laughs to get their minds off of what had happened. But somewhere between appetizers and the main course, the table turned. The guest became the host. He took some bread, blessed it, gave thanks, and broke it. It was in that moment they realized who they were eating with. Think about that for a moment. It was when he took bread, gave thanks, and broke it that they knew who he was. Sure, after the fact they said their hearts felt something while he read the scripture, but they knew without a shadow of a doubt who he was when he took the bread. I think it's because he was always around a table, always sharing bread with those around him, that it was practically something they expected. Even after the resurrection, Jesus still liked to get around a table and eat. John’s gospel even tells the story of Jesus having a fish fry on the beach for the disciples. Jesus liked to eat with his friends around the table.
The good news is: Jesus is still found around the table. When we take communion, we believe that Jesus is present with us. We aren’t just remembering something that happened long ago, we are actually gathering around the Lord’s Table with the Lord himself. He is the host of the meal. And just like the disciples on the emmaus road, he becomes real to us in the breaking of the bread. Sure, our hearts burn as we read scripture, but we have no doubt that it is the Lord when we taste and see the goodness of the Lord. But it’s not just at the Lord’s table that Jesus can be found. Many of you have heard me sing and mostly butcher the table blessing. But I love it because it’s an invitation to Jesus, “Be present at our table, Lord.” Come take a seat with us, Jesus, broken sinners that we are, and have a meal with us. It’s been said that Methodists love to eat, and it is true. But it is true because we know that Jesus loved to eat. In a few months, we will be a part of the Hearts Apart meal, where we will be feeding the families of those who are deployed. You can bet that Jesus will be there. And any time we get together around a meal, whether here or at home, you can bet Jesus is there.
The good news is: Jesus is still found in the broken places and around the table. The challenge is: are we there with him? Are we going to the broken places to find the broken people that Jesus is ministering to and inviting them to our table? If there was ever a basic biblical definition of evangelism, I think that would be it: inviting broken people to share a meal. It’s what Jesus did. There are a lot of people who are still looking for Jesus, even if they don’t say it just like that. There are a lot of people who are still looking for Jesus, even after they’ve found him. Let’s go meet people on their Emmaus walk to find the risen Lord.
An empty tomb is our first sign of joy and hope this morning. This can seem strange at first as it was indeed strange for Mary, John, and the beloved Disciple. After all, emptiness is usually not a good thing. No one likes empty promises or empty words. If you borrow someone’s car and return it to them with an empty tank of gas, they will not rejoice or thank you for it. Some of you may remember the guffaw that Geraldo Rivera experienced on live television when he opened up a supposed vault containing Al Capone’s treasures only to find it empty. Even last Sunday, as Mrs. Lynn told the passion story to the kids, with each child opening an egg to find a clue to the story, the child that had the Resurrection Egg was visibly disappointed that his egg had nothing in it. But the empty tomb is, for us, the first sign of the resurrection. For John, this emptiness is a sign that the new creation has begun in Christ Jesus. In celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ this morning, we celebrate the defeat of Hell and death. The empty Easter Sunday sepulcher is our sign that Christ was victorious on that Holy Saturday and that Hell and death have been emptied of their power. And that means if Christ can empty the power of hell and death on Easter morning, then he can empty the power of hell and death in our own lives.
For John, Easter Morning is like the first day of Creation all over again. John likes Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. You hear it in his opening lines, “In the beginning was the word.” But you see it in the resurrection story too. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark.” It was still dark, dark like the first morning of creation. In Genesis, it says that the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep. Another way of saying this is that the the earth was empty. It was a blank canvas. But the Holy Spirit was brooding over the emptiness. And the spirit was brooding over the emptiness of the tomb as Mary Magdalene came and saw that the stone had been rolled away. Mary, John and the beloved Disciple had been through so much over the last few days. The chaos, the formless void, the darkness that reigned over the face of the earth seemed to reign again as Jesus died on the cross. The sky itself grew dark (Mark 15:33). They did not yet know that the empty tomb was a sign that the spirit had been moving just as it had that first morning.
The empty grave would become for the early church the Easter Sunday sign that Jesus had conquered Hell and Death on Holy Saturday. In the Apostles Creed, there is a line, “Jesus was crucified, dead and buried.” The “dead and buried” part is basically all we say about Holy Saturday. But there’s a little more to the story, something that we cut out. Some of you who grew up Catholic may remember the words, “He descended into Hell.” It's understandable why we might have cut that out. It makes us a little nervous to talk about Jesus going to Hell. Isn’t Hell a place for sinners and the unrighteous? But the early church wasn’t as queasy as us, and knew exactly what they were saying and why they said it. Jesus came to save sinners (that’s all of us by the way). He came to take back what rightfully belonged to him. As 1 Peter 18-19 proclaims, “For Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous and the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” or as Paul tells the folks in the church in Ephesus: “When is says he ascended, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?” (Ephesians 4:9). Christ drank the full cup of suffering for us, to the point of death and beyond. While we don’t know the details of what happened on Holy Saturday, we know that it was in our favor because of Easter Sunday. As Christ proclaims in Revelation: “I am the first and the last, the living one. I was dead and behold, I am alive evermore; and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” My church history professor called it Jesus’ commando raid on Hell. He went there, not as a prisoner but a liberator. Within church tradition it is said that Jesus took the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Old Testament and those who had been waiting patiently for their salvation who were born before Christ. The early church believed that Christ emptied Death and Hades. Whether that is true or not, one thing that I know is that Jesus plunged the depths of Hell and Death and came up with our salvation; Satan was left empty-handed. “The Light shines in the darkness” John says, “and the darkness has not overcome it.” For John’s Gospel, the Spirit brought the Light of God out of the darkness of Holy Saturday, just as the Spirit brought light out of the darkness that first morning. The emptiness of the grave was a sign that death itself had been emptied
In the church, we don’t talk a whole lot about what happened on Holy Saturday when gathered together on Easter Sunday, and that’s a shame because it can speak to us in our lives. Because we all feel like we are going through hell one way or another. And the chaos of our lives feels like the chaos that reigned that first day of creation. We find ourselves like Mary Magdalene, John, and the Beloved Disciple. We feel empty. And we try to fill our emptiness with more activity, more social engagements, and other things. We think if we can make a little more money, live in a bigger house, get our families under control, then the emptiness will go away. But the more we try, the emptier we feel. We feel stuck in the hell that we find ourselves in. But the Good news of Easter morning is that Christ has come to free us from our captivity. And that just as Christ descended into hell for humanity’s sake, the Risen Christ is willing to descend into the hell of our lives and set us free. The good news this Easter morning is that Sin and Death no longer have a hold on us as they once did. They are emptied of their power as Christ fills us with his spirit. As Paul said, “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ Jesus who lives in me!” Where are the empty places you need the Lord to descend into? What level of Hell do you cry out from, “Lord, hear my prayer”? Take comfort, The Spirit that brooded over the dark emptiness of creation and who brooded over the dark emptiness of the tomb is that same spirit that is brooding over the dark emptiness of our lives and bringing forth light and new life.
An Empty tomb. That's our first sign that something wonderful happened that first Easter sunday. As the early church peered into the empty tomb with Mary Magdalene, John, and the Beloved Disciples, they began to realize it was more than just the tomb that was empty. Christ had emptied the power and dominion of Hell and Death. As we peer into the empty tomb this morning, we also realize that it is so much more than an empty tomb. It is a promise of new life for us. It is a promise that the Risen Christ continues to plunge the depths of the dark chaos in our lives and release us from our captivity. In the words of St. Paul, “death has been swallowed up in victory! Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?” An empty tomb. Hallelujah He is Risen. Hallelujah He is Risen Indeed. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Every night, I hear a myriad of sounds. I either hear the deep reverberation of the jets flying overhead, or the sad cry of the bugle, or the constant rhythm of cars passing by. There is always noise going on outside. But the funny thing is, to combat the noise, I bring in more noise. A fan is always whirring in the background, covering up the unpleasant noise going on all around me. Many of you probably sleep with similar set ups. White noise is what it is called. A pleasant stream of rhythmic, repetitions sounds that can lull us to sleep. We might say that we can’t stand the noise, and how often it keeps us awake at night, but the truth is we would be terrified without it. Those rare nights where nothing is happening, and there is a stillness in the house, we begin to become self-conscious. Those of us who have watched enough scary movies begin to interpret every creak of our homes as the slow walk of Freddie Kreuger or Michael Myers into our room. Silence is hard for us, because it can be the times the demons of our lives come through the clearest. And so we keep the fan running, and indeed we keep our own lives running so that we do not have to think about much, so that we can be lulled into a spiritual sleep. Yet, in this season of Lent, we are given the courage to fast from the white noise of our lives just long enough to face the things that keep us from being more alive in our faith. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can walk into the desert to face our own demons just as Christ our Lord faced Satan.
We all have some kind of spiritual white noise going on in our lives. These are the things, like the fan in our rooms, that keep us distracted from the things that are going on around us. We focus on their rhythmic noise to the exclusion of other noises. The spiritual white noise of our lives can be our family, our children and grandchildren, our careers, our neighbors, the things we do in the community. Spiritual white noise is the thing you wish you weren’t doing because it is running you ragged, but you know that you can’t let it go. You can’t let it go because the absence of the spiritual white noise would cause a vacuum in which all those things that you do not want to think about come flooding in. So you keep the spiritual white noise, even though it runs you ragged.
That is often why fasting is such a hard thing for christians to do. Because the thing that we give up usually makes us have to slow down. If you have given up sweets, you have to think a little harder when the waiter comes around asking if you saved room for dessert. If you gave up alcohol, you now have an open time slot where you once had an after-work ritual of getting a beer. If you started praying in the morning, you now have taken 30 minutes of the twilight period between waking and sleeping, and now sit in silence, waiting. In whatever way we decided to fast, we have disturbed the rhythm of the spiritual white noise in our life, if we haven’t cut it off entirely. And so we are left with those things that have been swirling around us, but we have not cared to listen to. And this kind of fasting brings out the devils.
Jesus is thrown into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to face the devil. In seminary, the chapel showed a series of cartoon stills of Jesus in the wilderness. But as can happen with most church services, the sound wasn’t working. So here we were stuck in the silence as we watched Jesus’ journey into the wilderness and temptation by Satan. And I imagine that the silence we experienced that day was not far from the silence Jesus experienced as he walked into the desert. Out in the wilderness, then as now, there was not the daily hum of activity of others. The land was dry and lifeless. The city lights did not outshine the stars at night. It was quiet, but brooding. All the distractions, all the spiritual white noise have been taken away. For forty days and night, Jesus fasted until the point that he was famished. Can you imagine forty days of no contact with anyone and no nourishment of any kind? Jesus walked into the wilderness and into the sound of silence. “Hello darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.” It was then, with no distractions, the things that have been circling around Jesus’ mind speak to him through the serpent’s words: “If you are the son of God…” In the middle of the wilderness, Jesus faced the demons of his own life, “if you are the son of God.”
And that is the risk that we face as we tread into this wilderness of silence for forty days before Easter morning. A friend of mine once shared a story about visiting a monastery. She asked the monk questions about how she might could incorporate the practice of silence into her own faith practice. To her surprise, the monk told her that it would not be wise to try to do much more than 15 minutes to start with. The monk shared that you do not want to be silent for very long, because that is when the demons start to speak. Silence is hard on people. It’s been shown how detrimental practices like solitary confinement have been on inmates. What used to be a standard practice even for minor offences in prison even in juvenile prison, has now been reserved for the most extreme cases because of the psychological damage that it can do to a person. We are not meant to be in the silence long. And so in this season of Lent, we find ourselves like freedivers plunging the silent depths. Just as Jesus went out into the wilderness through the power of the Holy Spirit, it is with the Spirit’s breath that we are able to plunge the silent depths of our souls knowing that we will not go much further than we are prepared for. Folks often don’t realize but whatever fast that you have taken on is not supposed to be for the entire period between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Each sunday is considered a break from the fast. For numerical reasons, if you included each sunday, it would be more than forty days. But spiritually, it is our gasp of air as we come up to breathe. We do not try to plunge the depths the whole time. The risk that we take in getting away from the spiritual white noise is that we come face to face with those demons that we have kept at bay for so long.
But we must learn to face our demons. There is a horror movie that came out on Netflix called, “The Babadook.” In the movie, a mother and child are both dealing with a tragic loss. The mother is clearly frazzled as she tries to help her son get ahold of his emotions. The child finds a children’s story about an evil monster, the Babadook, that torments people after they become aware of its existence. And so the boy begins to see the Babadook. The mother tears up the book, only to have it mysteriously restored with the ominous words, “the Babadook will become stronger if she continues to deny its existence.” The final confrontation between the babadook and the mother protecting her son reveals that the tragedy that has not been dealt with was the loss of her husband, his father, in a car accident. The monster was a metaphor for all the things that we try to keep out of view, the things that we try to run away from by keeping ourselves busy. The only way to defeat the babadook was to face it.
Prayer and fasting are the only way to face our own demons. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus finds the disciples having trouble bringing out a demon from a boy. After commanding the demon out, the disciples ask what they did wrong, and Jesus’ response is that this kind can only come out through prayer and fasting. I can imagine Jesus recalling his forty days and nights in the wilderness as he tells his disciples, “this kind can only come out through prayer and fasting.” It is in these times of prayer and fasting, that the spiritual white noise fades just enough that we hear the old lier whispers in our own ears, “if you really are a child of God,” We see it even in the Genesis story, “Did God really say to you that you couldn’t eat the fruit?” It is in these moments of quiet desperation that we sing, precious lord take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.”
We live in a time where Christians, let alone the world, does not know how to sit in silence. For example, the next time you find yourself in a line at the grocery store, look around to see how many people are on their phones. Better yet, see if you don’t quickly turn to your phone to see if you got a message or check your email. Even in churches, we can get uncomfortable with the quiet. Some churches react to this by filling every second with a praise song or sound. Something to cover the silence. But the answer to our discomfort to the quiet introspection is not to turn to our spiritual whitenoise whether in our lives or in worship. Because just as much as we face our demons in the quiet of our fasts and prayer, we also hear the still small voice of God. Here, the Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words and Christ intercedes for us through the scriptures.
Quit running from your thoughts and demons. Quit being lulled asleep by the spiritual white noise of your life. Walk into the wilderness of silence for these forty days with the Holy Spirit as your guide. In the words of St. Paul, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Rev. Colby Leonard
Pastor at Daniels Memorial UMC. Bee Keeper. Bow Tie aficionado. Black Coffee Drinker
I don't know if it is a motto, but there is a phrase that pops up in Methodist churches, "open hearts, open minds, open doors." Recently, the church put out a few videos of children asking them what they think these three things mean. I hope that you enjoy them. "Out of the mouth of Babes."
Imagine with me a cold new years eve in London around 1755. There was most certainly snow falling across the city and its people. While many of the english high society were safely snugged away in their warm mansions drinking champagne and brandy, there was a small group banding together. From the poor cobblers home to the widow down the street, they walked toward the chapel that seemed to glow in the night. On this cold night, they left the safety and warmth of their homes to attend a New Year’s Eve worship service. A Watch Night, The Rev. John Wesley called it. There in the service, they risked something far greater than simply braving the weather: they risked going deeper in their faith. Rev. Wesley often called them to become more than just an almost Christian, and to become an altogether Christian. They gathered each week in their class and band meetings to share the triumphs and struggles of their souls for just such a goal. But tonight, they came to remember God’s mercy and renew again their commitment to the covenant that they had made with God. In the service, they had several new year's resolutions that I imagine we all would agree with. Wesley called on those around him to set apart more time to be alone with God, be more serious about faith, trust God more, and renew our promises to God. In the spirit of the Lord who called on the disciples to count the cost, Wesley asked his people to be absolutely sure before they committed themselves to the covenant that they were about to make and not to walk into it lightly. It was a risky adventure.
During the season of Christmas, we celebrate God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ. We celebrate the Incarnation. But so often, we might overlook the risk that God took in becoming flesh. In becoming flesh, the creator of the universe took on the risk of muscles that would ache if worked too hard, or skin that could bruise easily if you took a fall. In becoming flesh, the Lord took on the risk of showing love to a creation that had gone astray. Bloody and Beaten Prophet after Bloody and Beaten prophet was humanity’s only response to God’s attempts at calling his people back to himself. To show love to a people who had constantly rejected the messengers of love was a risky venture. We also overlook the risk that we must take on because of the Incarnation.
Our scripture lesson today comes at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. The Cross and Calvary loom off stage as the disciples ask Jesus how they would know when the time would come when He would take back Jerusalem from the Romans. To their questions the Lord responds with a simple “just wait. Be patient.” He tells them to stay alert like the wise bridesmaids. It must be that he could tell that they didn’t understand why they should wait and so he says, “for it is as if a man going on a journey.” Wait, be patient, because I will be going on a long journey. In the parable, the master takes a risk in his absence. He hands over his property to his servants. We might not hear the risk because we hear 5 talents. But that was essentially 20 years salary for a laborer. In leaving his servants with their talents, he left them with everything. And two of the servants responded to this risk in kind by going out to risk the large sums of money through trading. Just as with today’s stock market, the higher the risk the higher the reward and these servants doubled their money. But the last servant hide the talent in the ground. We should not be so hard on this servant, however. It was in rabbinic tradition that burying money was the safest thing to do and it absolved you of responsibility of it. His motive was sincere. He didn’t have the confidence to handle such a large sum. The master had entrusted him with other sums of money, sure, but never to this amount. He feared his master and the thought of losing what had been entrusted to him paralyzed him from action. “I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.” His action was an attempt of faithfulness. But because there was no risk involved there was no return.
I wonder if churches don’t bury their talent in the ground. I wonder if we have lost our own confidence and forgotten to take the risk. Maybe we have become a participation trophy church. Because we have given ourselves low expectations, we don’t have to take risks. Some folks will be content with showing up on sunday and putting some money in the offering plate as the fullest extension of their faith. Though they promised in joining the church to give their presence, prayers, gifts and service, very few venture outside of what is comfortable and what feels safe. And when the individual members of a church never reach outside of their comfort zone, they never actually risk anything and like our text says, they never get to enter into the joy of the Master. The sum effect is that the church just requires that you show up to be celebrated with very little discipleship required. We become a participation trophy church.
To see growth, you have to work within your own abilities and take risks. Something that I have shared with the leaders of the church is that we cannot compare ourselves to other churches. If we do, we will fail every time. But we can do things to the best of our abilities. When we work with our strengths and our talents, that is when we are being the best church that we can be. We might not be able to have a live band that plays what comes on KLOVE, but we have a choir that loves to sing the old hymns and a pianist who plays with her heart. We invest with the talents we have been given, and through that we are able to enter into the joy of the Master.
It’s worth noting that the master did not give the talents to test his servants. For one thing, it would be unimaginable for someone to give away large sums of money to figure out if someone who works for you can be trusted. The scripture says that each was given to their ability. The master had already learned to trust them through various tasks before. Like the servants of the master, we have been given a share of Christ’s property to tend until he returns. Yet, there is a difference between working within your abilities, and never reaching beyond what is comfortable. I’ve said this before, one of the most dangerous phrases that can ever come out of a church person’s mouth is, “that’s not how we’ve always done it.” The danger in those words is that it keeps the church from ever venturing out and taking a risk. It masks timidity as tradition. Real tradition comes from leaning on what you have done to help you move into the future. The servant that was given 5 talents was surely a stretch. Even if he had been used to that sum before, he had the master around to double check his math and to green light an investment. But with the master gone, he was the sole proprietor and arbiter. Yet, it was not the first time that he had been given a task to complete by the master, and he surely had watched the master as he made business deals that ended well. So when the time came for the master to leave him in charge, the servant was not without some knowledge about how to move forward in this unprecedented situation. There is a way for the church to look at things that have been done before without being beholden to them, and there is a way for the church to do new things that harkens back to the old ways.
In this new year, let us as a church commit ourselves anew to the Lord’s work. We should like methodists of old, take the year in review to see God’s mercies, take account of how we have spent our talent or hidden it in the sand. Let this be our own sacred hour of renewing our covenant. We have so much to be thankful for with what God has done in our church in the past year. We have seen new faces and new ministries. Yet, like the servants of the master, we will only be trusted with more if we are diligent with what we have been given. There is no magic bullet when it comes to the growth of a church. My football coach used to say, “take care of the small things, and the big things will take care of themselves.” Faithfulness and discipleship is about doing the small things. So I want to challenge each of you in this christmas season to take a risk of faith here at the church. I want you to take the risk to do more than show up on sunday. Risk being more involved. Risk being a part of a ministry you haven’t before. Risk reaching out to neighbors and inviting them to church. The degree to which you participate will be the degree to which you will see growth in your faith. In the words of our Lord, “for to all those who have, more will be given; and they will have an abundance.”
" In the past, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son" Hebrews 1:1
If there is an opening line that is so well known during the christmas season, it would have to be the gospel of John. “In the beginning was the word and the word was God, and the word was with God.” The constant alliteration plays in our ears like a melody to drive home the point, Jesus Christ born in a manger was the Son of God. But there are other opening lines that have just a poignant an opening. Polumenoes kai polutropoes palai ha theos lalaysaes tois patrasin en tois propehtes. A long time ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets. That is the opening to Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. Our english translation doesn’t carry across the alliteration of the greek, polumenoes, polutropoes palai, patrasin prophetes. But the point of both openings reveals the truth of the Incarnation, that God became Flesh so that we might know Him. The christmas season is about the closing argument for God with his Son, Jesus Christ, being the piece de’ resistance. It is through Jesus Christ that God not only intends to show his creatures what being truly human is about, but also what being truly divine is about.
If you want to persuade someone to your side, whether it is charity or to a cause, it helps to have a visual. It has been shown that human beings have a better chance at making a donation if they have a connection. That is why so many non-profits and scholarships will send pictures of the students and children that you help. I can remember the first time that I went to give blood in College. I was nervously reading over the statistics about the average transfusion being 3 pints, or Approximately 36,000 units of red blood cells are needed every day in the U.S. But these numbers were not giving me any more courage to face the dreaded needle. Then I asked the nurse that was getting ready to insert the needle, how many people would I be helping. I remember her looking at me and say, “You can help 3 babies by giving blood today.” And that was all I needed to hear. While I couldn’t wrap my head around the statistics, I could see three babies in an E.R. needing a quick transfusion of blood to survive. Scripture talks about the Incarnation in the same way. Paul mentions that God has already spoken through the prophets to our ancestors about who He is, but it didn’t seem to work. And so, Paul says, in these last days he has spoken to us by a son. As we have already mentioned in John’s Gospel, Jesus was known as the Word, ha logos. But this is not word on a page, this is a visual, an illustration of who God is. As Paul says, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” There could be no doubt, from this point forward, who God is or what God’s plans were. In the prophet Isaiah, God calls out to Israel, “Learn to do right, seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless. Plead the case for the widow.” It is through Jesus Christ that the words of the prophet are fleshed out as Jesus pities widows, orphans, and upholds the oppressed. Though God calls for the year of Jubilee to Israel, it is Jesus who heals the sick, sets the captive free, and gives sight to the blind. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is God’s final word on who he is and what he is about.
And it is through the incarnation, that God shows us what it means to be truly human. Sometimes, I think as a church we gloss over the profundity of Jesus being human. That just as he was fully God, he was fully human. In some sense, he was really more human than us, because he was doing what we had originally be created to do. Human beings were made to worship God, but through the fall, we could no longer do what we were created to do. And by not doing what we were created to do, we lost our function. An engine that does not run, is really only an engine in name. But Jesus, fully human, was able to do what no human had been able to do in a very long time: praise God fully. Because he was without sin. And so in some sense, it's not just that Jesus was human like we are human, but that Jesus shows us what being human is really about. I take seriously the words of Christ when he says, “Whenever you do for the least of these, you do for me also.” It is worth considering that only someone who was truly flesh and blood (who knew what it is like to be cold, hungry, imprisoned) could think to say whenever you do for the least of these, you do for me. Jesus knew what it was like to be cold, hungry and imprisoned because he was human just like us. Often times, we pass over those who are sick, cold, hungry, and imprisoned. Sometimes, we have a feeling of superiority, “Clearly they have made bad decisions in their life, and are now paying for it.” In those moments of hubris, we fall so far from being human. We should consider Christ, “who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” I believe that when we take care of those who cannot take care of themselves, we not only do what God’s heart wants us to do, I believe it makes us more human.
When we gather around the Lord’s table, it is another visual for God’s intention. United Methodists define a sacrament as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. It is God’s grace that we are saved, but God has given us a visual through the bread and cup to show us his love. Because God knew that we are most moved when we have a visual. So he constantly gives us something we can see, something we can touch, something we can taste, something we can smell. “Taste and See, Taste and See, the Goodness of the Lord. Taste and See, Taste and See, the Goodness of the Lord.” The incarnation is our visual of God’s love and intention. We know who He is and who we are supposed to be through Christ. This Christmas season, if you want people to know the difference Christ makes in your life, don’t just tell them. Show them.
I have this guitar that is from the 30s. My dad found it at a junk shop in Tuscaloosa one day and brought it home. The back was taped together with masking tape, and inside there were braces that had been knocked out of place. It was clear that it had seen better days. I took it to a guitar repair shop in Fremont. It took nearly a year for it to be fixed because of the extensive damage. I told the luthier that I felt as though even though it was beat up and seemed beyond hope, it deserved to sing again. The reason that I took the time, energy, and effort to have it fixed is because it stands as a witness to my faith.
From the start of Genesis through to revelation, there rings a truth: what God has created, God will redeem. What was made by God, will give glory to God at the end of time. When you read Isaiah’s words about Israel’s return to the land, it can sound like a fairy tale, “The mountains will burst into song before you, and the trees of the field will clap their hands.” You might be picturing in your head something like a disney cartoon, something like snow white where the woodland creatures gather around her while she sings. It can easily sound childish and even a little silly. You might also be wondering how in the world a thornbush would turn into the juniper or briers would turn into myrtles. But this was God’s promise to a weary exiled people: if you return to me and renew the covenant which you broke, I will restore the land and my people. Notice, Isaiah did not say to Israel when they came back, “God will take you away from this awful place.” He said God was going to transform the land: briars would become junipers. And that is the same hope we find at the end of Revelation. In chapter 21, John of Patmos records what he sees, “I saw the new heaven and a new earth. I saw the holy city, the new jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bridge adorned for her husband.” Now when scriptures says the new heaven and new earth, it does not mean that God has scrapped everything else. It means that the corruption of sin and death are gone for good, “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more for the first things have passed away.” Like this guitar, God has performed a restoration project on all of creation that was time intensive and very costly. In the next chapter, the tree of life, blooming continuously brings forth that richest fare that Isaiah promises to Israel. There, the nations that Isaiah said would come to Israel because of the Holy One, now flock to the city of God to bring their splendor. Indeed, the leaves of the tree of life are the healing of the nations. And the curse that ravaged the land ever since humanity’s first disobedience and filled the land with thorns and briars is no longer present, so that as Isaiah says, the juniper and the myrtle might bloom. You have to marvel at the strength of Israel’s faith as they looked out into a war ravaged land and trusted that God would restore it all. So easily, they could have said that God did not intend for the land to be included in their redemption. But had they done that, they would have essentially forfeited the claim that their God was the sovereign of all creation. To say that God would just restore the people of Israel and not the land, would’ve been the concession that Yahweh was no more powerful than any other rival God, like molek or Baal. Yet, they were able to trust in God’s promise, and see beyond what was in front of them. They knew that their God was the one who created heaven and earth. Their care for the land was a sign that the Lord God still reigned over heaven and earth. While their eyes told them that the land was irredeemable, their faith told them that God would restore everything. And it was with that hope, that they began to plow the field, dig up the briers, and plant again.
During this advent season, let us remember that the joy of Christ’s return extends to the entire world, plants and creatures. The beauty of our faith is that while we know creation groans now, God will redeem it, and it will sing the processional song at the end of time. The truth of our faith is not that God will destroy the earth, but that he will destroy the enemy of all creation: sin, evil and death. The truth of our faith is that God will give heaven and earth a new song to sing. “Sing a new song to the Lord, all the earth,” the Psalmist proclaims, “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy. Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth.” We stand as a witness to God’s intention to restore the earth whenever we take care of our land, our fellow creatures, and every living thing. I can see it now, just as Isaiah prophesied, the trees will clap, the Mountains shall rejoice, and all of creation will sing a new song.
Even though as protestants, we don’t believe weddings are a sacrament, we put a lot of pressure on weddings and marriages. We expect them to be picture-perfect, without flaw, without conflict. And when we put such a high standard on our marriages, we miss out on the basic beauty of what God is doing in a marriage: bringing two, flawed, broken people together to be a visible sign of his love for us all.
“You never marry the right Person,” says Stanley Hauerwas, a professor at Duke Divinity School. “We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.” If you’re like me, his statement shocks you and irritates you a little bit. His statement shatters our desire to have the perfect wedding and perfect marriage with the reality that marriages are messy because they are real. But we also know that he is right, marriage is about learning to love a stranger. The princess that you married suddenly has a snoring problem. The Knight in shining armor suddenly forgets to put the toilet seat down. I’m reminded of the words of St. Mick Jagger, “You can't always get whatcha want. But if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.” We all come to find out that there is more to the person that we married than we knew in the first place. Throughout the prophets, God is learning how to love and care for the stranger, Israel, to whom he has married. Isaiah says, “For your husband is your maker, whose name is the Lord of hosts.” Jeremiah proclaims, “I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them, declares the Lord.” There in the prophets we hear the cry on God’s heart for his true love, Israel. There it seems the marriage of God and God’s people is constantly being strained, constantly being pressured, constantly on the verge of divorce. And in that is a word of comfort for us, who are flawed, broken creatures, married to other flawed, broken creatures. God doesn’t know a perfect marriage, but he knows a broken one.
But God’s love becomes evident in the broken places of our marriages. For some, the marriage may have been unhealthy, disruptive, or abusive, and the only recourse was divorce. Sometimes, divorce can be the right thing to do. But while sometimes our shared brokenness in a marriage results in divorce, in other times, it can be the place that God’s grace is made evident. The grace becomes evident as we live out the marriage vows, where we promise that we will love each other. Did you catch that? We promise that we WILL love each other. It is a love that is a commitment and not simply a present feeling. These words help me understandGod meant when he promised, “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Those were not the words of a tyrant, but a lover. That is why our marriages can have broken places, and reveal God’s love. It is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to work through it, to continue to love even when you don’t feel like it, that is a sign of God’s love. That commitment, that promise, bears witness to God’s love in this world, as the benediction goes, so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends.
God doesn’t know a perfect marriage, but he knows one that can be redeemed. When we gather at the Lord’s table, where the cup is poured and the bread is broken, we gather around a wedding table as God’s people. It’s real, and its messy. We may wonder if there will be enough to go around. But we pray that the Spirit would work here in this moment that we might become one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world until Christ returns in final victory and we feast at his heavenly, wedding banquet. And through Christ, we experience the mystery of the wedding of Cana. Just as Christ turned water to wine, he uses bread and the cup to transform broken, flawed people like us into the people of God. We truly become one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world. And to those whom God has brought together, let no one put asunder.