Sunday, November 27, 2016

In the light of the Lord

Scripture Lessons: Romans 13: 11-14 and Isaiah 2: 1-5, OT pages 631-632 Sermon Title: In the light of the Lord Preached on 11/27/16 Today is the first Sunday of Advent. I didn’t grow up thinking much about Advent. We didn’t go to a church where we paid too much attention to it, or else we didn’t go to church regularly enough to pick up on it, but Advent is the season leading up to Christmas. It is a time of preparation not unlike Lent, the season leading up to Easter. Our church takes Advent seriously, and there are many things that you can do to celebrate this time of preparation. The Christian Education Committee provided Advent Devotionals with Scripture Lessons and prayers for each day of this season. Thanks to a great idea of Dawn Taylor, the Christian Education Committee also put together a special Advent Calendar, each day of Advent offering its own spiritual discipline – a charge to pray for someone or to do a good deed. These in addition to the liturgy of lighting the Advent Candle, Susie Baxter putting up the Chrismon Tree, Bitty Crozier and Martha Jones decorating the sanctuary – we do all this to make sure you know a baby will be born and we must get ready. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and Advent is all about preparation. Someone is coming. Someone is coming who will change everything and in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, to prepare for the coming savior means preparing to be taught: In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all nations shall steam to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, that he may teach us his ways.” Isaiah is clear – they go to the mountain to be taught. Twice in this Second Scripture Lesson for the First Sunday in Advent the Prophet tells us that the Savior who is coming has something to teach us. We read there in verse 3, “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction.” Now, if Advent is about preparation then how should we prepare for a coming savior who has a Word to give us, who has a lesson for us to learn? How should we prepare for the coming of a teaching savior? For I wonder, how teachable am I? I remember it like it was yesterday. I was in 7th grade pre-Algebra. I was never much of a math student. My father who has his masters in mathematics failed to pass on to me any of those genes and in the words of my childhood friend Mickey Buchanan, “Math got really hard when they mixed in the alphabet.” Algebra was hard, so I expected the worksheet our teacher handed out to us as we entered class one morning to be difficult, so I sat down and diligently began working like all my classmates did. I went from problem to problem all the way to the end and thought I had done alright, but then the teacher wrote the answers on the board and I got every single question wrong. That was a new low, and the teacher seemed to be able to read my face and the faces of my classmates. She asked, “did anyone answer these questions correctly?” Only one girl raised her hand, so the teacher said, “As for the rest of you, go back and read the directions,” and there, right at the top of the page it clearly stated, “add 10 to your answers.” “Never start an assignment without reading the directions first,” she told us, but how often do I still go through life unteachable because I don’t read the directions, I don’t heed advice, I don’t ask questions – at least not until I’ve tried and failed on my own, then tried and failed on my own again. Is that part of the human condition, I wonder. Paul seemed to think that it was. In our First Scripture Lesson from the book of Romans the Apostle Paul calls us to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” which we all treat as a good suggestion, but as for most people – they’re going to keep on with the works of darkness until they hit rock bottom. In the words of that great preacher William Sloan Coffin, “We put our best foot forward, but it’s the other one that needs the attention,” for we are full of good intentions but we still have a foot stuck in “I’ll do it my way.” We have intentions to be better and to do better but so often we stay put in ignorance until we have no other option. The coming savior brings us eternal life, but we won’t receive it unless we’re ready to listen. You know that great quote from biochemist and science fiction author Isaac Asimov: “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge,’” but to fit this thought into our Christian framework might mean to change it to something like, “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” It’s not just human ignorance verses human knowledge, but what is human knowledge even? John Calvin, the man who in 1559 wrote The Institutes of the Christian Religion and laid the theological framework of the Presbyterian Church, begins his two-volume work by clearly stating that anything we humans know that is worth knowing is a gift from God – and – that our ignorance should lead us directly to Him. Listen to this: “For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. Then, by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself… The miserable ruin, into which the first man cast us, especially compels us to look upward. Thus, not only will we, in fasting and hungering, seek thence what we lack; but, in being aroused by fear, we shall learn humility… Each of us must, then, be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God.” Now understanding that takes some work. That Calvin knows some things, but what every seminary student must do is pick up his book and start studying, and not all do. “Each of us must, then, be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God.” Or, to put it another way, each of us must stare into the face of a worksheet where we have answered every question incorrectly if we are ever to start reading the instructions at the top of the page. Each of us must hit rock bottom before we’ll give up on the works of darkness that drag us down. Each of us suffer in our own ignorance or our own wisdom – we must go on believing that we know it all until we are struck down by our own arrogance – and then, and then we are compelled to “look upward.” That’s why the Israelites had to wander in the desert – so they would learn to trust not in their own strength. That’s why we read in the Proverbs – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” That’s why, Jacob had to be defeated by God as they wrestled on the bank of the Jabook – to learn we must first surrender – because in Christianity those who want to gain life must first lose it; and to be wise, to be taught; in order to learn we must stop thinking that we already know. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, but our world doesn’t The world tells us that if someone asks you a question that you don’t know the answer to just answer the question you wish they would have asked. The world tells us that it’s not the one with the right answer, it’s the one who talks over everybody else. The world tells us that might makes right, but it doesn’t. Might makes war and war means death and the Prophet promises a future where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks; where “nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” And how? How will this be? Because “Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” My question for you on this First Sunday of Advent is: “Are you teachable?” For the Lord has wisdom to offer. The Lord who is coming has enlightenment, a new way to live, and to prepare for his birth we first must humble ourselves enough so that we can be taught. I first started learning what it means to be a preacher as a guest at a small church outside Jacksonville, Florida. I finished the sermon and was standing at the door. A man came up to me and said, “So you’re a seminary student are you.” “Yes, sir I am. In my third year,” I said. He responded: “Well they should have taught you something better than that by now.” How many times have I felt that same feeling looking out on a congregation of blank looks? It makes me wonder if failure is my destiny or if boring congregations is just my calling. It’s not. But to move, that best foot forward must be followed by the foot that is stuck in arrogance. That best foot forward has to be followed by a humble heart ready to listen to something new. That best foot forward must be free of the temptation to do it my way or the highway for my way and the highway both lead to death. Life is so full of changes, and the way we’ve always done it won’t always work. Thanksgiving looks different after someone we love is gone. Life keeps on changing and we all must keep learning and trying and following the one who leads to new life, because only he can lead us to those places we’ve never been before. So, “house of Jacob, come, let us be ready to listen, let us be ready give up on arrogance, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

In him and through him

Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 23: 1-6 and Colossians 1: 11-20, NT page 200 Sermon Title: In him and through him Preached on November 20, 2016 There is traffic in Columbia, TN. People have places to go, and they need to get there quickly and they’re usually running late. A couple weeks ago, I saw a man brushing his teeth while sitting in traffic. That’s strange isn’t it. But people do strange things while they’re sitting in traffic. Some people honk their horn, most people get irritated because they have places to go and things to do, but here’s the thing that I’m thankful for: people in Columbia still stop for funeral processions. Sometimes it’s hard to stop. People have places to go, and they need to get there quickly, and they’re usually running late and it seems like getting there is a matter of life and death, but then we see the lights of the sheriff or the police officer, then the hearse and our priorities shift. Suddenly, the meeting isn’t so important. Everything stops as we show our respect to the wife, the mother, the husband, the son, who is looking straight into the eyes of the real matter of life and death. Stopping for a funeral procession can be a moment where no matter how important we think the meeting or the errands or the appointment is, when we stop we see clearly again. The priorities shift. And the meeting that we were rushing to gets back to its proper place in the grand scheme of things, because you’ll have the chance to be on time again tomorrow, but for someone there will not be a tomorrow, at least not on this side of mortality. Coming to church should do the same thing. Six days of being busy. Six days of thinking about ourselves and what we must do and what we need and who all needs us, and then the clock strikes 10:30 and we stop. We stop to look up from whatever it was that seemed so important to focus on the giver and redeemer of life. Six days of focus on the world and this one hour to focus on the one who created it and the one who will take us from this world into the next. It’s in a moment like this that we see clearly. The priorities shift back to where they should be – with God right here and everything else below, but here’s the problem, while everyone in Columbia still stops for funeral processions, not everyone stops at 10:30. Not everyone stops to see the world clearly through the lens of hope that our Lord provides, so they go on looking through the lens of fear and anxiety. Not everyone stops so that their priorities settle back into the order they should, so they go on chasing after momentary contentment, they go on defining themselves by physical beauty or wealth or popularity. They go on dedicating themselves completely to their jobs, they go on rushing through life and wondering why they feel so empty. We were studying the book of Proverbs last Thursday and one in the group lifted up Proverbs 16: 25 – “Sometimes there is a way that seems to be right, but in the end it is the way to death.” Not everyone stops to think about the way that seems to be right. Few stop to question the rat race because everyone else is doing it. Not everyone stops so that their priorities shift back to the order they should with God at the top, then family, then community; maybe most people think it’s normal to keep yourself right there at the top, so I’m thankful to Diane Messick who reminded us of a moment on the show Mama’s Family when a young man proclaimed: “I get to know God just fine from the comfort of my bed on Sunday morning. I don’t need the church to get through life.” Mama responded: “Well, you don’t need a parachute to jump out of an airplane either.” Today is an important day, and I’m glad that you’re here so that together we can stop, let our priorities shift back into the order that they should always have, and remember that we have been waiting for so long to hear who our president is going to be that we may have forgotten that we already have a King. Today is Christ the King Sunday, so this hour in the great scheme of things has great significance, for here comes from Scripture the reminder that among all the failed shepherds who have promised us the world while leading us nowhere, the Creator God raised up for us a righteous branch, the firstborn of all creation, and in him all things in heaven and on earth were created and in him all things hold together. Today is the day for us to pull over to the side of this busy life full of anxiety and false hope to recognize that we have a savior, and in him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins – but the world doesn’t stop you see, so some just keep on driving, and they are like those who drive by the funeral procession unable to recognize that something important is happening. You see, he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but while some bow before him, others just keep on driving. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, but while some marvel at him, there are others who don’t have time to stop. And he has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, but some of us just keep on driving as though nothing new has happened. But to be rescued – that’s worth stopping the car, for to be rescued by him means something, it declares something about who you are and who I am. According to the author of Colossians, the Lord “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” What this would have meant in ancient times is that he has captured us, invaded our territory and taken us to a different place as though we were his captives. To be transferred into a different kingdom is something like what happened to the nation of Israel when Babylon invaded and took so many of the people to live in exile, but here it is Christ who has invaded the world, concurred it, and has taken us as his captives into a new kingdom – the Kingdom of Heaven – and here we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Here we are not subject to the powers of sin and death. Here all things visible: thrones, dominions, rulers, or powers – they are subject to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but too often we still bow before them. Sometimes we look to them for legitimacy. We celebrate the great movements for equal rights. We recognize the significance of the moment when an African-American became President of the United States of America because that meant something, but we must be careful about what it meant, for some hoped also that the glass ceiling would shatter and Hilary Clinton would become president sending a message to little girls everywhere that they can do anything that boys can do. When that didn’t happen, I was sad for my daughters, until Cece told me that when she grows up she is going to be a panda bear. I was sad until I found the words to a song that Lily wrote and left on the piano so she could compose the music to go with these words: “I can be anything when I grow up, like a teacher or a police officer. I will be great at it when I grow up.” Some have to see to believe – but truly, who can define what my children or your children will be? Who gets to decide who they are? Only the one who created them. Only the one who redeemed them. Only the one who concurred this earth and claims them as his own. Of course, not everyone values as Jesus values. There are many false shepherds in this world but not be deceived even for an instant. Stop. Pull over and let the truth wash over you. Let the messages of the world fall away and hear the truth – you matter because our savior has said you do. Forget what the false shepherds have said - You matter because the King, not only said you were worth dying for, he died so that you would know your worth in his eyes. “Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” so don’t let them fool you for an instant – you matter because the King said so, and woe to the shepherds who say otherwise. Woe to those who would scatter the sheep of God’s pasture, for our Lord will attend to them for their evil doings, but you will be gathered back to the fold. You shall not fear any longer or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Beware the you are not led astray

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 65: 17-25 and Luke 21: 5-19, NT page 85 Sermon Title: Beware that you are not led astray Preached on 11/13/16 “Beware that you are not led astray” is the title I gave to this sermon, and I chose that phrase Jesus uses in our Second Scripture Lesson for the title because I believe that we often are led astray even though he tells us not to be. We, as a people, are led astray all the time. Often people are dishonest with us about the cost or the time required. There were people downtown, Christians I assume, standing beside a sign, handing out pamphlets, and saying to the men and women who walk by, “Sir, can I have just a minute of your time?” If you had somewhere to be you were wise to have kept walking. “Beware that you are not led astray,” Jesus says, because Christianity is going to take up more than just a minute of your time. In fact, the cost is high for what is required is your life – so we sing “Take my life and let it be, consecrated, Lord to thee,” but that’s a hard sell. We don’t like things that are hard – we want things to be easy, and that’s why the computerized receptionist says that “someone will be with you shortly” in the hopes that you won’t give up, but “beware that you are not led astray” for many things in this life take time, and if you are expecting immediate results, if you are expecting the easy way, then when things get hard those who offered us less than full disclosure did us a true disservice. “Beware that you are not led astray,” Jesus says, because some things are hard. Some things take time. Marriage for one. Sara and I had been married for just a few months. We were living in a one bedroom apartment without air conditioning in Atlanta. Every morning I woke up at 6:00 AM so that I could get to work cutting grass by 7:00. Sara would wake up about the time I was leaving and would drive from Atlanta to Alpharetta in 45 minutes to an hour of bumper to bumper traffic. We didn’t have enough money. We didn’t have enough time. We’d come home from work tiered. The traffic was so stressful that Sara developed an ulcer, and when I heard a man say that the first year of marriage is the hardest I was so relieved I couldn’t stand it. Of course, I look back on those days now longingly. Times were simple and we were happy. There was joy in our little apartment and there was love, but all those who expect marriage to be easy will wind up disappointed so “Beware that you are not led astray,” for some things are meant to be hard. Raising children is hard. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun, but if you go into parenthood thinking that life will be about the same as it has always been than be warned now for a child is like a wrecking ball – sweeping aside things like sleeping late so that looking forward to Day Light Savings Time is a luxury never to be looked forward to again. A child does the same thing to the idea of a spotless living room – if you imagine that you’ll be able to keep your living room spotless with a toddler in the house than you have been led astray because children change everything, and those who aren’t prepared for a radical shift of priorities and lifestyle will be sorely disappointed. You know what else is hard that people think is going to be easy? Democracy. Democracy is hard, but we treat it like it’s easy. Half of us voted last week. Literally half of this country voted, the other half couldn’t make it, and what’s more is that out of the half of us who went to vote are so many people who go to vote and that’s it. We cast our vote and then we go home believing that we’ve satisfied our duty to our country and then sit back to watch and criticize and judge the people who have been elected. To any who believe that democracy is easy I say, “beware that you are not led astray,” for Scripture calls us to pray for our leaders and that is going to be hard for some, but anyone who said democracy was going to be easy was leading us astray. In the introduction to his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Eric Metaxas tells the story of the summer of 1787, when inside Independence Hall over the course of about one hundred days “some of the most brilliant men of that or any other era created what would become the Constitution of a new country.” “We the people,” this document began, but “what is required of us – of each one of us who are “we the people,” is something that we have mostly forgotten Metaxas claims. He tells the story, one I had never heard before, recorded by Dr. James McHenry, a delegate from Maryland, who was, at the age of 34, one of the youngest men at the convention. McHenry wrote that as Benjamin Franklin emerged from Independence Hall once the Constitution had been finished a young woman named Mrs. Powell shouted out to him, “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin, a man who was rarely short on words shouted back to her, “A republic, madam – if you can keep it.” I hope that no one did, but if you’ve been told that democracy is easy, that it is normal or typical or that you are entitled to it, you have been led astray, for democracy is a system of government that requires you to fight if we are to keep it. Now finally, there’s Christianity. And I hope no one ever told you that Christianity would be easy, but some people do, some people smooth out the edges and water down the commitment. Just four easy payments of 29.95 they say, but truly, nothing that is worth having comes easy and our Lord Jesus Christ is no Tupperware salesmen and what he’s hawking is not something that can be used once and then stowed away in a drawer – our Lord is offering us the bread of life, the living water so that we will never go thirsty, but “Beware that you are not led astray” because this is going to be hard. The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and “The time is near!” When you hear of wars and insurrection, do not be terrified. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues. Dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. They will arrest you and persecute you. They will hand you over and you will be brought before kings and governors – and “Beware that you are not led astray” because you can never say that Jesus told us that Christianity was going to be easy. And when life gets hard – that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. It felt good to write that down last Friday morning. It feels good to say it to you now so I’ll say it again: “When life gets hard – that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.” I think it feels good to me to say that and to hear that because I always assume that I could have done something to prevent hardship. I have a list of regrets so long that it’s amazing. Every morning my liturgy to start the day is this long list of I should haves and I wish I would have – if only I had been better or smarter or stronger or kinder than life would be easy, which is how I assume it should be. When I was in 9th grade I got hit in the face by Jason Muhmaw – and he’s not a major figure in my life. I just barely knew the guy but I think about him about once a week and how I wish I would have done something besides the nothing that I did. Regrets. I have a few. And they go through my mind again and again. I’m still living out my mistakes and imagining a different future where things would turn out better because life is not easy and so often I assume that’s because I have done something wrong. What could I have done? What could I have said? What could I have not said? If only I could do it all again – I already have my speeches planned so just as soon as someone invents a time machine I’ll go back to fix things, but Jesus tells us, “make up your minds not to prepare a defense in advance, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” That’s what he tells us, only, what then am I to do with the speech that I’ve prepared? I hope you can tell this is a political sermon I’m preaching today. Right now, the Democrats are mulling over past decisions to figure out what went wrong and preparing speeches to make sure that things go differently next time, but Jesus commands something more faithful than regret. First he reminds us that life is hard and is full of tragedy, but our response to such tragedy cannot always be formulating better words or better actions, for we are not in charge here. We are powerful enough to change the channel, but the whole world does not rest in our hands. We are powerful enough to change the baby’s diaper, but from us does not come the breath of life. And we may have a part to play in this great cosmic drama called human history – but it is God who moves the earth to change summer to fall and fall to winter. It is God who melts hearts made of stone. It is God who gives life and makes a way out of no way at all. So, stop preparing your defense in advance, for if you go to your friends with a speech in your hands you can’t hear what your friend has to say. Now is the time to listen. Now is the time to rest in the assurance that Jesus never said this would be easy, in fact he told us all that it would be hard for where he leads is to the cross. Make up your mind not to prepare your words or your actions in advance, for our Lord is at work today – and rather than preparing speeches or regretting actions now is the time to put our trust in him and what he has promised he would do. Hear again these words from the Prophet Isaiah: For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating. Amen.