In the Beginning God

FeaturedIn the Beginning God

31832_A_Quiet_HikeThe holidays are great. They are full of excitement, family and festivities. But when it’s over I am ready to get back to normal. I want the house back to its pre-Christmas décor and the new toys put up. Children jacked-up on chocolate running through the house flying Star Wars Galactic gliders is enough to make the most laid back father find his breaking point.

The calm of a silent night gives way to chaos.

Chaos. This is how the world is described before God took on the role of artist and begin creating. Before God spoke the world into existence the world was a dark glob of mess. Translations of Genesis says it was a “formless void,” or “vast waste,” or “formless and empty.” The earth was without order and no creative purpose. But all that changed when Genesis says, “In the beginning God….” God was, God is, and God will always be. In the beginning God.

For those who have felt abandoned in 2017, “In the beginning God” is statement of more than historical record. This is a confession. When all that is left is chaos and darkness, God is present. 31815_A_Quiet_Hike

This is a God who chose to get intimately involved in the chaotic mess. This is an artist who chose to get His hands dirty. An artist who gets the stains of water color on His fingertips. God gets down in the chaotic mess and creates something beautiful. If 2017 has you asking, “Is God still able to create something out of my chaotic life?” The answer is found in Genesis 1: “In the beginning God….” If God can take all the chaos of primordial substance and make something as beautiful as sunsets, waterfalls, and sunflowers then God can do something with your messed up life.

As we head into 2018, we all have something in our life that can be described as chaotic, formless, or empty. What is it? Is it a relationship? A job? A loss of some kind? Your emotions?

The story of creation is not just about a God who made the heavens and earth. It is a story of a God who takes things that are formless and empty and creates something life giving and full of purpose. This is what God wants to do in your life in 2018.

31828_Quiet_hikeGo over to the New Testament and we discover how. In using the same images as Genesis, the author of the Gospel of John says speaking of Jesus, “All things came into being through him, and without him no one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3). A life with Jesus at the center is a life that can have order in chaos and purpose beyond being empty.

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A Future Hope (Jeremiah 29:1-14)

now-whatMitch Albom, perhaps most noted for his book Tuesdays With Morrie, in a recent book Have a Little Faith quotes from a 1975 sermon from his rabbi. The rabbi tells the story of a man seeking employment on a farm; he hands a letter of recommendation to his new employer that reads simply, “He sleeps in a storm.” The farmer is uncertain what to make of the note, but desperate for help, he hires the guy. Several weeks pass, and suddenly, in the middle of the night, a powerful storm rips though the valley. Awakened by swirling rain and howling wind, the farmer leaps out of bed. He calls for his new hired hand, but the man is sleeping soundly. And so the farmer dashes off to the barn, where he sees to his amazement that all the animals are secure with plenty of feed. He then turns to the field, only to discover that the bales of wheat had been bound and wrapped in tarps. And when he runs to the silo, he finds latched doors and dry grain. Only then does he understand the note, “He sleeps in a storm.”

For most Americans this election season has been one giant storm. The lighting strikes of negativity, the thunderous booms of allegations, and the soaking rain of misery have left many of us drenched in despair. Even if we are joyful that our candidate won, we still are left feeling like we need a new change of clothes.

The year was 598 B.C. and a storm called Babylon had rip through Israel and forced many into exile. They had been removed from their homeland and forced to live in a foreign land. But they knew their God was faithful. They knew that their God rescued. They knew that their God saved. They knew for certain that their God was just around the corner. They knew that at any moment Yahweh was going to sweep down and free them. If you would have taken a poll, the overwhelming response would have been that it was just a matter of time that God was going to lead them back to their land, restore their homes, and crush their enemies.

To make matters worse, false prophets were telling the people that this was exactly what was going to happen. So, live your life in a holding pattern. Live out of suitcases for a while. Don’t pull out the cookbooks quiet yet. Make due on peanut butter and jelly.

The prophet who was told by God at the beginning of his ministry, “I have put my words in your mouth,” was to go and tell the people, “Babylon is going to be your home for a while.” The prophet Jeremiah tells the exiles in Babylon, “Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Go ahead and marry, have children, get ready for grandchildren. Get settled. Get comfortable. Unpack your bags. You are not going anywhere anytime soon.

It was not ideal. It was not what they had expected. It was not what they would have wanted. But it was where they had found themselves. And as a result God says, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare

Through this election process many Christians feel like they are living as exiles in their own homeland. And in one sense we are. As followers of Jesus, according to Paul, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior” (Phil. 3:20). Hebrews 13:14 says, “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” The scripture speaks of Christians as “exiles and strangers” in whatever culture or nation we inhabit. This doesn’t mean we lack engagement. It doesn’t mean we shrink from responsibility. Instead we work for the welfare of the city. We strive for the betterment of the nation. We struggle for justice. We stand for peace on earth.

But how do we strive for good in the midst of the bad? How do we stand for justice and peace in the midst of violence? How do we unite when we are so divided? How do we find rest for our souls when the storm is raging?

Hope. Hope is not optimism. Optimism is what politicians preach. Hope is what prophets and preachers proclaim. Optimism is simply bringing a wishful attitude into a present situation. Optimism is a good trait to have. But it is not Christian hope. Hope is rooted in the goodness of God. Hope is believing in God’s goodness more than believing in the world’s badness. Hope allows us to see beyond our circumstances. Hope helps us to understand that we don’t simply define our lives by what we can see, taste, and touch. This is what the writer of Hebrews means when he says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

On Tuesday night, election night, I went to bed early. Along with many others, by placing our hope in Jesus, we are learning to sleep through the storm. This was what the prophet Jeremiah wanted the people of exile to understand as well. Hope keeps life circumstances from turning into life sentences. God is not helpless when life seems helpless. God is not spinning out of control when life seems to have lost its way. God is not lost when our life seems to have no direction. Jeremiah ends his message to the people with a direct word from the Lord, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

A future with hope. This is God’s message to God’s people today. This is the prophetic message the church is sent to proclaim in our world today. It is time the Church awakens from its slumber and gives this message of hope to a world screaming in pain and loneliness and division.

Francis Miller, a leader who served under General Dwight Eisenhower during World War II, once related an incident that occurred at the end of the war. A young lieutenant under his command was talking with a Russian officer, who asked the American officer, who also happened to be a Christian, if he had read the writings of Karl Marx. The young Christian replied that he had read Marx. In response the Russian officer said, “Then you know how it is going to all come out.” According to the story the American asked his Russian counterpart if he had ever read the bible. When the Soviet officer allowed that he had, the Christian responded by saying, “Then you know how it will turn out.”

God’s goodness is revealed in Jesus Christ. God believes in each of us enough to send His Son that we may have hope beyond the grave. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. We have not been left to wallow in our own despair. We are a people with a future hope. Amen.

(Sermon preached at Gainesville First UMC, Gainesville, Ga on Sunday, November 13, 2016)

The Gift of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-47)

Book of Acts logoAre you a Democrat? Are you a Republican? You pro-life? Or are you pro-choice? You support traditional marriage? Or do you think it is time for marriage to be re-defined? If we get nothing else out of this election cycle, it is clear we like our labels. Regardless if the issues are truly as clear-cut as we like to make them out to be, we like to know where we stand. We also like to know where our neighbor comes down on these issues. Labels give us confidence. They help us identify ourselves and others.

One of the most important question we can ask is “Who are my people?” The answer to this question give us our social identity and sense of belonging. As much as we want to think we are creators of our own destiny, how we come to answer this question shapes what we think of ourselves and our world. The answer to “Who am I” is found in asking “Who are my people?”

I am African-American. I am Asian. I am Latino. I am non-religious. I am Christian. These are our social identities. They are important to us. It is at the boundaries of these social identities that some of our most heated and complex conversations happen. These identity markers become our ticket at the ballot box. They become the reason we use words like “us” and “them” or “those other people” or “not my kind.” These identity markers help us create community. They can also be damaging and hurtful when used to exclude others from community.

In Luke 9:49-50 John, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, says, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” Do you hear what he is saying? Here is someone ministering in the name of Jesus but because he is not a part of the right community, John thinks he should be stopped. It doesn’t matter that he is doing the right thing. He is not part of the right group. Jesus responds, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.” Jesus is saying that he may not be a part of the right group but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t do the right thing. This is a great reminder for all of us who are tempted to demonize fellow Christians who happen to be voting for a candidate that you don’t represent.

Just after this episode, Jesus sends some of his followers to prepare for his arrival in a village of Samaritans. The Samaritans refuse to accept Jesus. As a response, James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, say, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them” (Luke 9:54)? Followers of the one whose message is love are asking, “Do you want us to kill them?”

The disciples were shocked that Jesus would talk to a Samaritan woman. They complained that mother’s brought their children to Jesus to be blessed. And here, they wanted to call fire down from heaven and turn the town into a pile of ash. Of course, the first disciples were good Jews. And the first century Jewish faith had clear markers on what distinguished someone as clean and unclean, pure and impure, godly and ungodly. You were Jew or Gentile. If you were Gentile, you had no place at God’s banquet table.

But something changes. Something happens that disrupts the disciples understanding of social identity. In a few weeks we will be looking at the first church council meeting in Acts 15. It was a called meeting by church officials to determine if Gentiles could be a part of the church without going through the Jewish conversion process or if they needed to first go through the ritual of becoming Jew. Can Gentiles stay Gentile and worship the covenant God of Israel? The council determined that they could remain Gentile and worship God as it was made possible through Jesus. They send a letter to the non-Jewish Christian communities explaining their decision. The letter begins, “The brothers both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings” (Acts 15:23).  This simple greeting is hugely revolutionary. For the first time the word “brother” is used by Jewish men to refer to non-Jewish men. Some scholars suggest this is one of the few places in first and second century Judaism that Gentiles are referred to as belonging to a Jewish social identity without becoming a convert to Judaism. By referring to the Gentile believers as “brothers” the Jewish-background church leaders are saying they belong equally to the same social group. The Jewish believers see the Gentile believers as having identical standing in Christ while allowing them to hold on to their Gentile identity.

Something happened. Something allowed the early followers of Jesus to see the world in a different way. A few years before they were ready to call fire down from heaven for those who were different and felt it was their place to remind Jesus of his Jewish identity. But now they are ready to redefine the question, “Who are my people.”

What happened?

Pentecost. Pentecost happened.

Post-resurrection band of believers have regrouped after the violent death of their leader, his resurrection, and his ascension into heaven. With a head count of 120 including the original eleven, with the replacement of Judas chosen, they wait in Jerusalem. Whatever the band of followers were thinking when Jesus told them to wait for the Spirit’s coming, you can bet they were not expecting what they got. What they got was a fear-induced, adrenaline-pumping, wind-tossed, fire-seized, smoke-filled experience. A gale force wind and tongues of fire sends chaos through the streets. A Pentecostal tent revival gets confused with a college frat party.

The streets of Jerusalem were lined with people celebrating the Festival of Weeks. From the Greek word for fifty, the festival eventually became called Pentecost. It occurred fifty days after Passover. The festival celebrated the gift of the harvest. It later came to be recognized as the celebration of the anniversary of the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. People came from all over. The city filled with different nationalities of Jews living in Diaspora. A cacophony of languages rang through the streets.

The Spirit’s arrival marks the turning point in the mission of Jesus. It fulfills the promises he made to his disciples that they would “receive power” and be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Spirit of God visits and says, “You think resurrection was something? Wait until you see what’s next.”

The book of Acts is not a story of a cluster of creative individuals who set out to start a new religion. It is not a story of a group of men who should be working in the branding and marketing department of Apple. It is not even a story of people who were sitting around trying to decide how they were going to keep the story of Jesus going. They didn’t know what they were going to do. They didn’t have a plan. They didn’t have an agenda. Gathered in that room we have a group of people who loved Jesus and knew him to be something special. But beyond that they just wanted to survive another day.

This was God’s miracle. It was a miracle the disciples could have never comprehended. Now, suddenly, they are speaking in many languages and people from every corner of the world are hearing the good news of Jesus. Nobody in their right minds would infuse this band of confused and fearful men and women with power. Nobody except God.

Peter, the one who denied Jesus, is now filled with the Holy Spirit and is ready to speak. He interprets this event as fulfilling the book of Joel’s prophecy of the coming salvation on the day of the Lord. He recites the prophet, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your old men shall dream dreams, Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).

Power, boldness, and an injection of supernatural determination was given to the church at Pentecost. But the real miracle was that at Pentecost the church was given a word to say to the brokenness of the world.  A word unlike any other word. Sons and daughters were given a word to speak that is stronger than death. Old men given dreams to share of hope deeper than despair. A word given to all God’s people, men and women, old and young, that in the power of Christ’s resurrection there is life.

The miracle of Pentecost is a word spoken to the world. A word that the world is desperate to hear. It is what unifies and brings together the church. Jesus told those early disciples you will be my witness – you will have a word to speak. It is the word that God is reconciling himself to the world. God is rescuing the broken. God is setting the captive free. God is releasing the prisoners. And God is doing it all through the power of the Spirit of Jesus. The Church is the Church when it gives witness to the presence of God in the world.

A rushing, mighty wind roars through a crowded room, and tongues of fire are placed on each one. A Pentecost of tongues explodes in witnessing to the name of Jesus. Three thousand souls that day were stirred and added to the church as they believed the Word.

The Holy Spirit gives us a new way of being human in community. Through the Holy Spirit the question “Who are my people,” is answered by a community centered on Jesus. The community functions as God’s witness to the world. The Church is at its best when it is united in giving witness to Jesus through the power of the Spirit.

Get Your Head Out of the Clouds (Acts 1:1-11)

Book of Acts logoEaster has come and gone. The shouts of “Alleluia” left us with hearts overflowing. On resurrection morning we heard “He is risen” and we walked out with renewed energy. Easter was a great day.

The resurrection is behind us. New life is before us. What do we do now? For some, they want to hit the rewind button and do it again. The passion, the energy, it all felt good. We encountered the resurrected presence and we want another taste. It is for those that the angels say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Other words, “Hello! Quit relishing in the past. Look ahead. He is about to do something new. Get your head out of the clouds!”

The book of Acts is the story of a Spirit-filled movement of what can happen when people get their head out of the clouds. It is the story of God’s people on the move. It is the story of Jesus’ followers who took serious his prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.”

When the greatest authority in your life is a God who won’t stay dead, then your life is going to be interesting. The book of Acts is filled with adventure, suspense, and a God-size mission that turns the world upside down. Today we start our journey through the book of Acts with the hopes of discovering how we can be a church fully alive.

The author begins by saying, “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven” (Acts 1:1). Acts is part of a two-volume collection. The author of Luke’s gospel begins by saying, “I decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:3, 4). Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Luke belong together.

The writings were dedicated to a person called “Theophilus.” The name means “lover of God.” In Luke, he is given the title “Most Excellent,” which would be reserved for a high-ranking government official or someone of public stature. He is already familiar with the Jesus movement. Christianity was seen by many with widespread suspicion. As we will see through Acts, it causes a lot of disruption when it is preached on the streets. The movement disrupted a lot of the social order. Jesus followers were beginning to face regular persecution. At the end of the book, when Paul is in Rome, the Jewish leaders said, “We would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against” (Acts 28:22).

In dedicating this two-volume collection to Theophilus, I believe that Luke is trying to give a true account of the Jesus movement up against the one that may have been spoken on the streets. Luke wants Theophilus to have the truth before he makes a decision of what to do with Jesus and the movement. Luke sets to layout an accurate account of the story of Jesus and His movement.

After his resurrection, Jesus spent forty days with his disciples teaching about the kingdom of God.  Like us, the disciples had a hard time grasping the kingdom of God. They were thinking that Jesus was about to restore Israel’s independence. For the disciples, the kingdom of God meant Israel’s freedom from the suppressive power of Rome. For us, we have made the kingdom of God about where we go when we die. We have made it a teaching about keeping our heads in the clouds. But the kingdom of God is about God’s reign invading our age in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The kingdom of God is God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19). This is the message of the kingdom of God. The reign of God is over all the earth. This is the message that Jesus sends his disciples out with. This is what they are being called to give witness. And what we are called to tell the world – Jesus reigns!

The witness is done in the power of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, the same Spirit that breathed life into creation, the same Spirit that spoke through the prophets is the same Spirit that will empower the disciples to carry the message of God’s reign to the ends of the earth. The disciples wanted political power. They had earlier asked about who would reign with him. Now they wanted to know about restoring the political strength of Israel. But Jesus tells them they will have a power that that is far greater than any political power. When the Holy Spirit comes upon them they will be given heavenly power.

“You will be my witness” is sort of the theme of the book. “In Jerusalem” covers the first seven chapters, “in all Judea and Samaria” covers 8:1 to 11:18, and the remainder of the book traces the gospel to the ends of the earth as it extends to Rome.

The Christian faith is a faith on the move. The Gospel of Luke records Jesus as he heads to Jerusalem. The book of Acts tells the story of Jesus’ Spirit descending in Jerusalem and sending his followers out from Jerusalem. The Christian faith is a missionary movement. What is it going to take to reach the 1.6 billion people who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ? It is going to take a Spirit-filled presence.

What is it going to take to keep sharing, giving, and living so that every person in Cherokee County is given an opportunity to respond to the Good News of Jesus Christ?

It is going to take a church that does not settle for comfort and safety. It is going to take a church that is possessed by the Spirit of God. It is going to take people of faith who go out in boldness filled by the Spirit of Jesus. What is it going to take to take the gospel to the ends of the earth? A church that has its feet on the ground and its head out of the clouds.

It is hard to see the Spirit of God at work among us when our head is in the clouds. All kinds of impossible things are being made possible because the Spirit of God is at work among us. Things like families being restored, marriages being renewed, and prodigal children coming home. Things like drug addicts being delivered. Alcoholics being set free. Chains broken. Freedom given. New life.

This gospel is the hope of the world. What sin has destroyed, Jesus’ blood has restored. Now by the power of the Holy Spirit we are called to be bold witnesses to this truth. Easter was amazing. But what is to come is truly remarkable. God is calling forth our church to new beginnings. God is calling us to be witnesses of His Good News. This week I want to ask you to be bold. Take an opportunity to invite three people to worship with you next Sunday. Invite them to be your guest. We will be talking about the birth of the church. Be bold. Invite someone.

I read recently of a Mexican priest who decided to take communion to the people of a town whose church was overrun by the drug cartel. They shot anyone who came near, but the priest came forward to enter the church. They shot the ground around his feet, and overcome with fear, he started to leave, but then he stopped, came back again, and moved forward while the town came out to watch. His courage inspired others to fall in step beside him until there was a collection of unarmed people moving toward the church. The startled soldiers no longer had the will to do them harm. They stepped back helpless of the power that was evident among them. The people shared communion. Something moments earlier had been impossible was made possible by the power of God’s presence.

We are called to be a witness. We are called to give witness to the one who calls himself the Bread of Life, who tells the woman at the well that he can provide her with water that will quench her thirst. We are called to give witness to the one that feeds five thousand with one basket of bread and fish. We are called to give witness to the one who says the kingdom of God is like a giant banquet table to which everyone is invited.

You are being invited by a living God to be present with him at His table. We are not worthy. It is an invitation. All are welcome. At this table you will find strength for the journey. At this table you will find the source of strength to go out and be bold witnesses in the name of Christ. Come and feast at the table. Leave empowered. Be a witness of God’s reign to your world. Amen.

Because He Called My Name (Easter Sermon)

11 x 8.5_Flyer.indd“Did God say,” the serpent asked Eve in the garden. “Did he really?” And that’s how it starts. A simple question. Is this really true? Can this really happen? Does this really make sense? In a garden at the beginning of time, the doubt was real.

With darkness caving in upon him, Jesus cries out from the cross, My God, my God why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27: 45)? There are moments in life so terrible, so painful, and so difficult that God’s silence, or apparent absence, leads us to question his very existence. Moments thick with pain that seems too much for a good God to be conceivable.

From the foot of the blood drenched cross, Mary Magdalene heard the cry. She also saw his body go limp and lifeless after he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). She saw his body removed from the cross. She saw him wrapped it in burial cloths. She heard the large thump made by the stone as it closed the entrance of the tomb. Her rescuer. Her rabbi. Her friend. He was dead.

We are told, “While it was still dark,” Mary Magdalene came to the garden and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. It was dark. The sun had yet to shine. When she saw the stone rolled away she didn’t shout, “Christ is risen!” Resurrection was the furthest thing from her mind. The first visitor on the first Easter morning was bringing her questions, her doubts, and her suspicions to the garden. Before the exuberant shouts of “He is risen!” there were quiet doubts.

Some of us carry it like a rock in a shoe. It is there. It is annoying. It bothers off and on. For others, it is a splinter underneath the skin. A constant reminder. For some, it is a rip tide that pulls further out to a sea of confusion. Doubt. Is this really true? Can I believe? Can I trust?

Pollsters tell us less and less people are believing. Less of us are attending church. And most of us are attending less often. The reasons are many. The church is irrelevant. The church has caused a lot of damage. The church is boring. Life is busy. Priorities have shifted. Or, is it something else. Is it that we are just being honest with ourselves? We find a lot of the church’s message hard to believe?

Some of you today are fumbling through songs that you don’t believe. “Because he lives I can face tomorrow . . . Because he lives all fear is gone,” you are just not sure. Not wanting to upset the family you allow your parents to drag you here today. All while not believing a word that is spoken.

You wish you believed. You wish you could sing, “Chains have been broken, eyes have been opened” with as much passion as the person sitting next to you. You wish that the belief was strong that you could say with confidence, “death is defeated.” But you can’t. There are too many questions. The doubt is too strong.

I know folks that wake up many mornings “while it is still dark,” and they are not sure they can out run the shadows of doubt and uncertainty. You are not alone. This morning if you are one of those persons who heard, “We haven’t seen you here in a while. It is great to have you back,” don’t take it as a criticism of your lack of participation. Instead recognize it as genuine care and an invitation to join us even in your doubt. At least in this place, we welcome your questions. We think it is okay to bring your doubt to church.

Faith cannot be forced. But unfaith can be challenged. Sometimes just showing up is all it takes.

From the perspective of the Gospel of John, we don’t know why Mary is showing up at the tomb. Jesus’ body had already been prepared for burial. The stone had already been put in place. For some reason, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. She sees the stone that closed off the tomb from the outside has been taken away, and she comes to the only conclusion that seems reasonable. Running to the disciples, she says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.”

Peter and the unnamed disciple rush to the tomb. The unnamed disciple runs faster than Peter. He gets there first. But doesn’t go inside. Peter enters the tomb first, sees the burial garments of Jesus. He walks out. The unnamed disciple, goes in, he sees, and he believes. They return to their homes. Mary is still standing outside the tomb weeping.

One sees and believes. Peter sees the same thing and there is no indication that he is convinced. Remember Peter is the one who walked on water. He is the one who first called Jesus Lord. But he was also the one who betrayed Jesus. He denied being a follower. He walked away. It wasn’t that his rational mind kept him from believing. For Peter, it was that his heart kept him from believing.

When you sit with your questions and doubts, it helps to be honest with what is it that keeps you from believing. Is it that you don’t find it rational believable? Or is it that your heart is cold and refuses to let yourself believe? Maybe you have been hurt by the church. And you are not going to let yourself be that vulnerable again. It is easier to say, “I don’t believe” than it is to let yourself be loved.

Maybe, you are ashamed. You are carrying around this guilt for past mistakes. Instead of being open to the possibility that you can be forgiven, you find it easier to not simply believe. It is not that your mind is keeping you from believing, it is that your heart doesn’t have the capacity to believe.

Mary stands weeping. Through the tears, she looks into the tomb. She sees two angels. Treating the angels as if it is two men having a picnic inside an open tomb, she cries, “They have taken away my lord and I don’t know where they have laid him” (John 20: 13). She turns to walk away. She sees what she believes to be a gardener, a body stealing gardener. “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15).

Three at the tomb on that first Easter morning. One sees and believes. One has a heart that won’t let him believe. And for the other, none of it makes sense. I am grateful on this Easter morning God has room for each of us. For the one who sees and believes and sings “Alleluia, He is risen!” with a gusto and passion, God welcomes you. For the one who comes with a mind that wants to believe but a heart that holds back, God welcomes you. For the one who comes with questions and doubt, God welcomes you.

This is why this is Good News: somewhere in the shadows of your life and my life, a truly risen Savior is lurking, bursting in new life. Belief in the resurrection moves us beyond the realm of a normal experience. Resurrection belief moves us beyond the realm in which we can understand and manage. It moves us into the sphere of the impossible. Believing in the resurrection requires the same type of belief that is needed to believe in love and hope. Love cannot be explained rationally. Hope doesn’t seem realistic. And yet, we know we can’t live without a sustained hope or an enduring love.

With her doubts, her questions, her fear, her tears, Mary stands staring down an empty tomb. Easter is more than an empty tomb. The power of the resurrection is not ultimately in the empty tomb. Instead, the power of the resurrection comes from a personal encounter of the risen Christ. When Jesus calls her by name, her eyes are opened, and she begins living into the impossible possibility of a new life. She brought her darkness of doubt to the empty tomb and she was met by a risen Jesus who called her by name.

And he knows your name, just as surely as he knew Mary Magdalene’s name. No matter the reasons you doubt, listen for the voice calling your name. Because he is calling. Easter happens as Jesus appears to those who have given up hope. He appears to people who have been swallowed up by doubt and uncertainty.

Believing in the resurrection moves us beyond believing only what we can see to entrusting our lives to a God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. It is a new way of living. It means we see possibilities of new life in every death, sees light shining in the deepest darkness, and sees hope in the midst of despair. I agree it is a leap of faith. But so is most things worth believing.

This morning you have an option. You can approach the resurrection and life as a problem to be solved. A problem can be held at arm’s lengths. It can remain distant. It doesn’t have to be personal. Or you can approach it as a mystery to be explored. A mystery is inexhaustible. We are embraced by mystery. A mystery refuses to be kept at a safe distance.

For Mary the moment the empty tomb turned from being a problem to a mystery was when she heard her name spoken by Jesus. All her questions about the empty tomb were not answered. But her encounter with the risen Savior gave her back hope. Only her name. Then we remember what Jesus said before, “The sheep here his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3). A problem becomes a mystery when she hears her name. The impossible becomes possible when she hears her name. Unfaith becomes faith when she hears her name. Hopeless becomes hope when she hears her name.

Some years ago retired professor from Candler School of Theology, Tom Long told the story of Mary Ann Bird. Mary Ann had it rough growing up. Born with a cleft palate and a disfigured face, Mary Ann also had lopsided feet and so an ungainly way of walking. Naturally, she was the target of all school-age cruelty the other children could muster. “Did ya cut your lip?” they’d sneer. “How come you walk like a duck?” Mary Ann lived in a dark world.

One year her teacher was Miss Leonard. Miss Leonard was short and round and a little doughty but she shined with kindness. Back in those days teachers were required to administer a kind of homespun hearing test. The teacher would call each student up to her desk, have the student cover first one ear and then the other, and the teacher would whisper something to see if the child could hear. Usually the teacher would say simple things like “They sky is blue” or “You have on new shoes today.” Well, Mary Ann dreaded this test because she was also deaf in one ear and so this test would be yet another chance for her to be singled out for her deficiencies in life.

On the day of the test when it came time for her turn, Mary Ann waddled and shuffled forward. She covered up here bad ear first and then, as Miss Leonard leaned in close, Mary Ann heard words that would change her life. Because for Mary Ann’s hearing test, Miss Leonard whispered, “I wish you were my little girl, Mary Ann.” And through those words and in the midst of her personal darkness, Mary Ann heard the voice of Jesus the voice of love, the voice of grace. And it changed her. Mary Ann grew up to become a teacher herself, and now she shines with kindness and grace for her students. And it started when Mary Ann heard Jesus call her name through the voice of a middle-aged teacher.

Mary Ann heard it through a teacher. Mary Magdalene heard it through a gardener. Jesus is speaking your name as well. It may come through an unexpected place or person. It may be coming from here today. Maybe you mustered up enough courage to bring all your doubt and questions to this place, and in doing so resurrection faith is about to burst through your heart. He is calling your name.

I been asked, “How can I really believe all this stuff?” And my answer is always the same, “Because I have heard him call my name.” Because he lives I can face uncertain days. Because he lives I can face tomorrow. Because he lives I don’t have to fear. Because he lives life is worth the living. Because he lives. And I know, because he called me by name.

If you hear your name being called today, it is time to respond. If you are here today and ready to respond to your name being called, will you join me in this prayer?

Jesus Christ, I put my trust in you. Forgive my sins. Wash me clean, and make me new. Take my doubt and my questions and bury them behind the stone of the empty tomb. Thank you for the hope I find in you and for helping me to see the love of God. I wish to live as your disciple. Help me to follow you. Thank you for the gift of faith. In Jesus name. Amen.

Because He Died (Good Friday Sermon)

Because He DiedHere we are between the Hosannas of Palm Sunday and the Hallelujahs of Easter confronted with another act of terror. At least 30 people killed and 230 more wounded in attacks on a subway and airport in Brussels, Belgium. Life hurts. People are violent. We are left choking on fear.

When the world gets drenched in pain I find it hard to hold my anger in check or to keep revenge restrained. I want to lash out. I want to enforce eye for an eye. When wrong is done, I want right to be imposed. Imposed at any cost.

Then I hear it. I hear the words from a blood drenched cross, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” What are we doing? Why do we keep hurting? Why do we keep stabbing friends in the back? Why do we continue to hate? We know. We know what we are doing. Father, forgive us.

Here we are between the Hosannas of Palm Sunday and the Hallelujahs of Easter confronted with an act of terror. The night before this night Jesus fed his disciples, washed their feet, and led them to a garden to pray. Tonight he hangs from a cross. “I am thirsty,” he says. And after a wine soaked sponge was held to his mouth, he says, “It is finished.”

There was no lethal injection in Jesus’ day. There was no attempt to make the killing less painful. The whole point was to make it hurt as much as possible. Jesus died with a crown of thorns on his head and a sign of mockery above. He probably died of suffocation, as his arms gave out and his lungs collapsed under the weight of his sinking body. Some say it was a broken body that killed him. I believe it to be a broken heart.

“No one has greater love than this,” he said on the last night of his life, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Having explained this to his friends, shown them in the washing of their feet, he leaves the room to go prove it. Less than twenty-four hours later, it was finished.

The cross of Calvary is the place where God, having become flesh in Jesus, took upon himself the brokenness of our fallen world. God did not create a fallen world. We made this mess. Instead of abandoning us to our own chaos, God chose to reach over an infinite chasm of justice and love and wrap us in mercy. The cross is God’s victory over darkness. From it, we see a love that can only come from God. On the cross we see dying love, and we recognize it as the undying love of God (NT Wright). Because He died.

God is not the kind of God that thinks you and me so awful and horrible that we should get what is coming to us, death and destruction. Instead, God thinks you and me are so beautiful, so precious that our redemption is worth dying for (Douglas John Hall). Seen from the light of Easter, the Crucifixion is the turning point in history. It is the moment when all the evil and pain of all the world is heaped into one place and there dealt with once and for all. “For God so love the world that he gave his only Son.” Because He died.

At the end his book, What Jesus Meant, Gary Wills comes to Good Friday. He writes, “Dark and mysterious as the whole matter of the Incarnation and the Passion, perhaps a single thing can help us think of them.” He then shares a personal account of a conversation that he had with his son. His young son woke up one night crying. He had a bad dream, a nightmare. When Wills asked what was troubling him, the little boy said that a nun in his Catholic school had told the children that they would end up in hell if they sinned. “Am I going to hell?” the little boy asked his father. Wills writes, “There is not an ounce of heroism in my nature, but I instantly announced what any father, any parent would: ‘All I can say is that if you’re going there, I’m going with you.”

On this Good Friday, Jesus says, “There is no place – no hell, no suffering, no threat, and not even death that if you are going, I am going with you.” Only God can love like that. What is good about tonight is not what happens to Jesus, but what happens to us. Because He Died.

The Word Became Flesh

 

Gospel of John  (1 of 1)Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? On December 15, 2015, Wheaton College, evangelical school in Chicago, placed a tenured professor on administrative leave for making comments that they felt were contrary to their Statement of Faith. Dr. Larycia Hawkins, political science professor, wanted to show solidarity with her Muslim neighbors by wearing a hijab as part of her Advent discipline. It wasn’t the stand of solidarity that brought her the attention of the school board. It was her Facebook post. She says, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book and as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

As of current, it appears that Dr. Hawkins will be terminated by the school for her refusal to recant her statement even though she says she continues to adhere to the school’s Statement of Faith. Is she right? Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? After all, Muslim’s profess belief in God who created Adam and Eve, who rescued Noah from the flood, promised Abraham many children, helped Moses escape Egypt, who gave a child to the Virgin Mary, and who sent Jesus into the world. Is this not the same narrative of the God of the Christians? Does the finer details of Christian theology disrupt any talk of unity? Does it matter that Christians believe in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus and Muslims are diametrically opposed to this type of thinking about God?

For the sake of solidarity many are saying that there is one Creator whom Muslims and Christians worship. For example, in some parts of the country soda is called pop, and in other regions all pop are referred to as Coke. No matter what name we call it we are referring to the same thing – a carbonated soft drink. This is the approach many take to understanding religion. There is one God being called by different names depending on where you are from and what religion you follow.

Difficult times come with challenging questions. Our current culture context is asking us to answer some difficult questions. There is enormous pressure on followers of Jesus to know what they believe and the ability to articulate that belief in a convincing, non-threatening way. The cost of getting it wrong has huge implications on how we come to translate the gospel for the next generation.

For centuries, Christians in Malaysia have been using the word Allah for God. That is until 2006 when the Islamic-influenced government prohibited non-Muslims from using the word Allah to refer to the creator God.  The Muslims wanted a clear distinction to be made between the god of Islam and the god of the Christian. The Christians countered by pointing out that the word precedes Islam. It was used to describe the Supreme Being by the Arab tribes in Northern Africa long before Islam. Christians in Malaysia have lost the legal battle and can no longer use the word.

The reason I bring this up is because it is not as clear-cut to say Christians and Muslims worship different gods. We could be using the same argument that the Islamist are arguing in Malaysia. At the same time, we have to admit that there are some crucial differences in the way the two religions have come to speak of God. It remains unfaithful to both traditions to simply say we are all talking about a carbonated soft-drink but calling it a different name.

The Gospel of John was written for such a time as this. The book was written between 80-90 AD during a volatile time for Christians. The gospel is attributed to John, the son of Zebedee. He and his brother is one of the first disciples called by Jesus. They are fishermen. The three letters of John and the Book of Revelation are also attributed to the same author. Reading through the book gives the appearance of someone who has an intimate friend with Jesus and who spends the rest of his life reflecting over what that friendship means for him and his community.

He writes from Ephesus, a cosmopolitan city on the coast of modern-day Turkey. The Christians in John’s community find themselves in an odd predicament. They have been kicked out of the synagogue accused by the Jews of heresy. There is a story in John 9 where Jesus heals a blind man. He and his parents are brought before the Jewish leaders and asked about the validity of the healing. His parents respond, “Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself” (John 9:21). The author gives us some commentary on the passage by saying, “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22). By the time the gospel of John is written, the Jewish-Christians were getting kicked out of the synagogues. A Jewish benediction from this time period reads, “Let the Nazarenes (Christians) and the Minim (heretics) be destroyed in a moment and let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous” (Twelfth Benediction “Blessing of the Heretics). Jesus predicted this would happen, “They will kick you out of the synagogues” (John 16:2).

They live in a world hated by those they called brothers and sisters. Jesus reminds them, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). They were good Jews. They trusted in the narrative of the Hebrew bible. Abraham, Moses, David were their people. And now they are being excluded from this narrative and told that they can no longer be connected to their own story because of their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. The post-resurrection Jews would say that the Christians worshipped a different God, or at the very least, a distorted view of God. The Christians argued that the God they worshipped was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What the Gospel of John does for the people is to tell the people who in and through Jesus, Yahweh is doing something new. It is nothing short of the creative act of God.  In and through Jesus, God is doing a new thing and they are participates of God’s creation.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

(John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. John 1:1-18

Most scriptural characters are introduced by genealogies. Matthew and Luke begin their story of Jesus by tracing his origins to his biblical ancestors. John begins the story of Jesus in the eternal heart of God. At the beginning of creation, God spoke the world into existence. God’s speech served as God’s creating power. By referring to Jesus as the Word, John is implying that Jesus gives visible expression to the invisible power and presence of God. The Greek for Word is Logos. The Greeks understood Logos as the rational force at work in our world. It was the unseen presence that brought stability and order to our world. It is what links the human mind to the mind of God. The philosophers of John’s time, and of ours, would say there is a “force” or “principle” at work in our world creating and bringing order. If you want to find purpose, get in touch with this life force. It is a Greek philosophy meets Star Wars meets Oprah Winfrey kind of thought process. John says there is a force at work in our world bringing life but it is not an abstract principle, it is a person. The Word has taken on flesh and made his dwelling among us.

Jesus is the one who has come to make known to us the Father in heaven. In verse 14 when John says, “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” he is making a powerful statement about Jesus’ role in revealing God. The Greek word used for “lived” or “dwelt” means “to tabernacle.” It means that God has taken up residence among us. It is the word used in the Old Testament of the tent of meeting where the Lord’s presence dwelt in the wilderness and the people encountered God. “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting” (Numbers 1:1).

Once the people settled in Jerusalem, the Temple served as the place where God’s presence dwelt. It was at the Temple that the people went to encounter God. The Temple was the place where heaven and earth interlocked. It was the place of divine encounter. John is saying that place is now a person. It is in and through Jesus that God promises to be present with his people. This is a good thing because the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in AD 70. John wrote his story of Jesus after the destruction of the Temple. The Jewish people are in the process of redefining their religion based on the fact that the place where they meet with God no longer stands. Eventually, the Torah takes the sacred place of encounter for Jews. The Torah is God’s word and is eternal and unchanging. It is normative for life. The Jews believed that where the Torah was read, continues to be read, God’s presence is felt. In a Jewish commentary it is written, “Where two who sit and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them” (Pirke Aboth 3.2). Sounds familiar to Jesus’ words, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).

Jesus becomes the place where people will meet with God. He has become the visible presence of God. “We have seen his glory,” John declares (1:14). The presence of God is no longer in a temple, but in a person. Jesus rather than the Temple is the place where the living God is present. No longer must one go to the Temple to seek forgiveness for their sins. Now forgiveness is found through Jesus. If we want to know the character of God, we look to Jesus. “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). As we go through the Gospel of John, we will see how Jesus makes know the Father in heaven. Only Jesus can lead people to the heart of God because He is the only one who has come from the heart of God.

As a Christian, if someone asked you about God, that is why we tell them about Jesus. We don’t get the luxury of talking about God in abstract language or as some generic Universal Being. We can’t refer to some force at work in the world bringing order and meaning to people’s lives. If you want to know God, discover forgiveness, walk in truth, then follow Jesus. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6).