Believe and Obey!

“Believe and Obey!”

Gen 8 Noah's Ark 5

Genesis 7:5, 23, 8:1 – June 23, 2019

Who remembers Sunday school? If not your own experience in Sunday school, perhaps your children’s time there? Or even your experiences teaching Sunday school? Children’s bible stories play a big part in Sunday school. We are going to look at ten children’s Sunday school stories for our summer sermon series, starting with Noah and the ark from Genesis.

I have memories of Sunday school and Vacation Bible School where the children sang songs about Noah and his ark, including “Rise and Shine!” complete with hand motions and hand claps. I suspect many of us have memories about Noah, Mrs. Noah, the ark, the animals coming two by two, the rain falling for forty days and forty nights, and finally the rainbow at the end of the story. We can learn some things as adults from this narrative in Genesis, too.

First, imagine yourself—ourselves—back in Noah’s time, in Genesis. According to the Bible, the world was different, in a lot of ways. People had a huge tendency to do things and say things that were contrary to God’s will and God’s ways. (Some things have not changed.) People were so downright disobedient to the Lord’s manner of living and the ways God had instructed people to act that God got extremely angry with all the people. Except, for Noah and his family.

This is not the version of Noah and the ark that is found in Sunday school stories for children. That warm, fuzzy, sanitized version tells children about Noah and his sons building the ark, the animals coming two by two (carnivorous beasts, too!), and everyone living in harmony on the ark while it rained. Which is one version of the events.

Are you familiar with what some other groups say about the God of the Old Testament? About how God is a mean, angry, vengeful God, ready to smite anyone who steps even a toe out of line? These groups emphasize narratives like this one from Genesis, “a story that is most definitely not for children. In this interpretation, God is so angered by human rebellion that God floods the whole earth, wiping out nearly everything in a fit of divine rage. This is a story about a God whom you’d be crazy to want to have anything to do with, a God of wrath who is ready and willing to strike down sinners.” [1]

This second interpretation does not quite hit the mark either. We have two ends of a pendulum swing—the first version warm and fuzzy and happily-ever-after, and the second version mean and vengeful and smiting and wiping out everything on the face of the earth.

What does the book of Genesis say? As Eileen read from Genesis earlier in the service, “The Lord then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation.” And, “Noah did all that the Lord commanded him.”

This is in contrast with the whole rest of humanity that God had created. In Genesis chapter 6, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.”

Or as Eugene Peterson’s translation “The Message” says so poignantly, “People thought evil, imagined evil—evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart.” And, “As far as God was concerned, the Earth had become a sewer; there was violence everywhere. God took one look and saw how bad it was, everyone corrupt and corrupting—life itself corrupt to the core.”

It is difficult for me even to contemplate such extreme evil and wickedness as Genesis describes—until I think of murder, slaughter, concentration camps, internment camps, gas chambers, razor-wire fences, genocide, people “disappearing” and abducted in plain sight, carpet bombing of civilians, and napalm raids. There have been so many people approving of these horrible activities throughout history, in hatred and fear of other people-groups, or in the name of their country’s security. Even today.

God’s heart, in striking contrast to the evil inclination of the human heart, is grieved by their betrayal. God is pained by the brokenness of creation. God sends the flood, then, not as an act of revenge, but out of grief over the rending of right human relationship with God.” [2] Perhaps I can see why the Lord was sorry God had made the human race in the first place. Perhaps all of this horror and human-made devastation can break our hearts, too.

But—Noah alone believed God. Noah was a righteous man, and was obedient to the words and ways of the Lord. As The Message says in Genesis 6, “Noah was a good man, a man of integrity in his community. Noah walked with God.”

How many of us can say that about ourselves? How many of us are good people, and people of integrity? For that matter, can we point to anyone, any single person we know and say, “That person walks with God!” Yet, the Bible says that about Noah.

So, Noah and his sons (and perhaps their wives, too) built the ark, believed God and were obedient. The Lord sent the rain upon the earth to wipe away every living creature, for forty days and forty nights. Only Noah and those with him on the ark were saved. And finally, “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.”

After Noah and his family finally left the ark, the Lord made a covenant with Noah. Perhaps we remember this covenant of the rainbow. “At the heart of that covenant with Noah and his descendants is God’s promise that “Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life” (11b).  In other words, God seems to promise that God will never again use a natural catastrophe to destroy all earthly life. Yet while God says “never again,” God doesn’t add, as we might expect, “but in order for me to spare creation, you must do this and that.”  God’s post-Flood covenant is unconditional.” [3] In other words, no strings attached.

As commentator Doug Bratt reminds us, perhaps the Lord knows if we try to keep up our end of the bargain by acting in a manner pleasing to God, we will just fail completely. Again. “People after the Flood, after all, aren’t much different than they were before it.” [4]

Just as the rainbow covenant (or promise) was unconditional—no strings attached, so is the promise of Resurrection we have in the risen Lord Jesus. God promises through Christ Jesus and His death on the cross to forgive us our sins; just as the Lord promises through the rainbow to never flood the earth again.

Can we believe God, today? Can we obey God, instead of going our own way?

We have the opportunity to believe and be obedient to God, just like Noah. We can strive to be people of integrity, walking before the Lord in righteous living, and treating each other as God would have us do. We can thank the Lord for the Resurrection promise we grasp hold of, the blessed truth that the risen Lord Jesus has provided salvation for us, just as the ark provided salvation for Noah and his family.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1222

Commentary, Genesis 9:8-17, Elizabeth Webb, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-1b-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary

Sermon Starter of the Week, illustrations, text commentary, etc, Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

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Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit!

“Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit!”

holy trinity mosaic

John 16:13, Psalm 8 – June 16, 2019

In our everyday lives, all kinds of things come in threes. The rule of threes tells us that when things are presented to us in threes, they are easier to remember. Comedy tells us that when jokes come in three parts, they are somehow more satisfying and funnier.

Commentator Alyce McKenzie reminds us, “We read The Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Goldilocks and the Three Bears before we eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a knife, fork, and spoon. We hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil despite the fact that we are threatened by lions, tigers, and bears. We play rock, paper, scissors. Our goals are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and we count on the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government to assist us in this pursuit, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, because we cherish our government of the people, by the people, and for the people. We live a hop, skip, and a jump from snap, crackle, and pop. Our journey of life has a beginning, a middle, and an end. On the journey we encounter lights that may be red, yellow, or green. Our motto, for the past, the present, and the future is Ready, Set, Go!” [1]

The rule of threes does have relevance in our Christian life; we know the Trinity with the traditional expression Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the Triune God. One in Three, and Three in One. Yet, how can we wrap our heads around such a huge concept as the Trinity?

We might consider God in this way: God was, God is and God will be. God past, God present and God future. Our psalm reading for today, Psalm 8, talks about the majesty and power of God the Creator, God the Father. That is what our opening hymn of praise lifted up: “How Majestic is Your Name.” God created the whole universe, everything we see when we look up in the sky, times 1000. Times 100,000! It is truly mind-blowing to consider how enormous the universe is. I cannot even comprehend a tiny sliver of how immense the cosmos is!

And yet, God still thinks about each of us, and loves each one of us as very special people. As our psalmist King David said, “What is man – humanity – that You are mindful of them?” In other words, how can the amazingly huge God who called the whole universe into being ages ago with a word even think about such tiny, insignificant beings such as humans? Yet, God does exactly that.

God the Father, God-not-only-in-the-past is part of this incomprehensible God, One in Three, Three in One, the Trinity.

Yet, there is God the Son. God the Son was eternal, too. He was in the beginning with God, as John chapter 1 tells us. The eternal Son was incarnate, was made flesh. That is fancy wording for Jesus becoming a baby. What’s more, He emptied Himself of all Godhood, all God-ness. Jesus became a baby just like any other newborn baby you might meet.

Jesus grew to adulthood, and lived life as a human being, like you and like me. Jesus got hungry, tired, slept, worked, laughed and cried. Yet, at the same time, Jesus was God. I can’t understand it, yet that is what our Gospels and many other places in the New Testament tell us. Here, in John 14 through 16, Jesus tells His disciples some very important things. This is God the Son talking, who would very shortly die on the Cross and very soon transition into His Resurrected form.

We see God-in-the-present here in John 16, telling His friends about the not-so-distant future. Jesus is talking about the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Oh, what kind of wondrous happening was this, Jesus the Eternal God the Son, talking about a Spirit of truth? Even though the disciples probably had some kind of idea about the wisdom that came from God – Proverbs and several Psalms serving as great examples – when their Rabbi Jesus started talking about a Holy Spirit, I have no idea what must have been going through the disciples’ heads!

When Jesus talked with His disciples in the Upper Room on that Thursday, that Passover night before His crucifixion, He knew everything was going to change for His friends. Jesus would no longer be with them, in a human body. Jesus was promising them something for the future. God-in-the-future, as well as in the present and in the past. Jesus promised the coming of the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, to live with them and remain with them as long as they were on this earth. The Holy Spirit was—is indwelling every believer in Jesus Christ. And, that is still the case, today.

Another—very imperfect—way to think about the Trinity is in the family context. All of us are members of a family. All of us came from a mother and a father. I will take myself for an example. I am a daughter to my parents. (Now deceased.) I am a mother to my children. I am a wife to my husband. Those are three distinct roles. Very different roles, too! Yet, I am one person. Not wanting to compare myself to the eternal, ineffable, transcendent Holy Trinity (much), I hope this family example might be able to give another example, some idea of the complexities in considering the Trinity.

Which brings me to the question I passed out to everyone in your bulletin: “When I—when you—thought about God, I used to think…” What did we used to think about God? How has it changed? What do we think about God, now? Has the blessed coming of the Holy Spirit into each of our lives changed those thoughts?

When we come at this theological doctrine of the Trinity head on, yes. It is important. It is part of our Creeds, and a foundational aspect of the Christian faith this church proclaims. Yet, a perfect understanding of Christian theology is not at all necessary for us to be saved, for us to enter into a close, deep relationship with God.

Throughout the Easter season, for the past weeks, I have been preaching on testimonies. When various people were confronted by the claims of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, and what happened after that. Mary Magdalene was the first evangelist when she ran to the other followers of Jesus on that first Easter morning and cried, “I have seen the Lord!” Mary did not have a full understanding of Christian doctrine and of the three Persons of the Trinity, But, she knew that Jesus had risen, and was alive again.

I hope and pray that our understanding of God keeps growing, deepening, and maturing.  I hope that each of us keeps that excitement, that exuberance in our lives and our testimonies as we proclaim Jesus, as we tell all that the Trinity has done for each of us.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] https://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Power-Three-Alyce-McKenzie-05-21-2013.html

“The Power of Three,” Alyce M. McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Dynamic Spirit Power!

“Dynamic Spirit Power!”

Acts 2 Pentecost mural

Acts 2:2-4 – June 9, 2019

Have you ever been outside in hurricane-force winds? Either you, or a loved one you know and who is very dear to you? How about a massive storm that has huge bolts of lightning, and loud cracks of thunder? Can you imagine God’s mighty power displayed, for everyone to see and hear and feel? Anyone who has ever been caught in such a powerful storm can tell you, such a dynamic panorama can be earthshaking, literally. That mighty God-sent power is just what I’ll be preaching about today.

Most of us, perhaps even all of us are familiar with the disciples’ fearful reaction after our Lord Jesus ascended into heaven. And, for good reason! The Roman authorities were still hunting for the body of the Rabbi Jesus that disappeared from the tomb, some weeks before. Remember what happened on Easter morning? Not only the Roman authorities but also Jewish leaders were still demanding to see the body of this itinerant rabbi that they said was stolen from the tomb! Of course, we know better.

God’s mighty, miraculous power intervened, by way of the Resurrection and Ascension. Our Lord rose from the dead, walked and taught on this earth in His resurrected body for seven weeks, followed by His bodily ascension into heaven. What is more, the last instructions of Jesus to wait for power, to stay put in Jerusalem, were still fresh in people’s ears.

But—still, God left the disciples very much afraid, and very much in hiding. At least, after the risen Jesus went away for good. That’s what humans thought, anyhow.

Here we are, on Pentecost morning, waiting with the disciples. As was their custom, they were gathered for prayer in the Upper Room. Can you imagine a large group of disciples, with Jesus’ mother Mary in the midst of them? Talk about a prayer meeting! Still, they were huddled, in hiding. These disciples were being faithful, as best as they could. When, on Pentecost morning, a God-sent happening occurred. But, you don’t need to take my word for it!

Listen to what Dr. Luke says at the beginning of Acts 2: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.

Now, today, if something like that happened, we might look around for the fancy special effects team in the background. We might wonder where the cameras were placed when those tongues of fire wondrously appeared above each person—marking them, letting everyone know that God was director, and God wrote the script.

Getting back to a description of a display of God’s mighty power, that other-worldly power was certainly on display in the sound like the blowing of a violent wind from heaven. In keeping with my analogy, God was also producer and certainly handled all special effects.

The Koine Greek word for “power” is dunamis, which the Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament defines as: able to produce a strong effect power, might, strength” and “as supernatural manifestations of power, miracle, wonder, powerful deed.” This is the same word that is used ten times in the book of Acts to refer to God’s mighty power or acts. Plus, dunamis is the root word for dynamite: the mighty, powerful dynamite of God!

This dynamic power was on display to the disciples, in the upper room. Dr. Luke mentions that “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” On display only among the disciples—at first. But, soon, other people started to get in on the action!

Let’s hear from Dr. Luke: “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?”

Once the dynamic Holy Spirit blows in on the disciples with tongues of fire, and their physical tongues are loosened in many other languages, what an awesome display of power! Passersby from other countries off the street gathered around. They heard the violent wind of the Spirit and the expression of many languages that quickly followed. All of the disciples were telling the Good News, that Jesus our Messiah is risen from the dead—in many different languages. And, probably because of the regional pronunciation, the expat onlookers were able to tell that many of those who were speaking different languages were Galileans. Is it any wonder that these onlookers were totally amazed?

I am reminded of a flash mob in some public place, like a mall or in a downtown square. Just as passersby are engrossed in the performance the flash mob does, in a similar way, the onlookers are fascinated by the whole God-sent operation that happened in Jerusalem on Pentecost morning, especially by the sharing of the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ in their own heart-language, their own mother tongue. And, since the Holy Spirit was present in mighty power on that Pentecost morning, many came to believe in Jesus as their Messiah that day.

But, Pentecost was not just a one-time event. You know, an event that happened just in the distant past, in Bible times, never to be repeated. No! Whenever anyone believes on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, a Pentecost happens! The Holy Spirit blows through that person, that beloved one of God. The Holy Spirit blows into each of our lives, and the power and possibility of God acting with and through each one of us is an amazing and awesome truth!

Commentator Rev. Gary Simpson brings out the fact “I am more aware of the numerous ways the Holy Spirit comes into people’s lives and affects positive change. No longer is my understanding of Pentecost simply wrapped around the phonetic languages we speak out of our mouths. Rather, I am aware of the many ways the Holy Spirit speaks through us and to us through sounds, pictures, ideas and even hope.” [1]

I am reminded that some people think Pentecost was just a day, an event that happened two thousand years ago. But, no! Wait a minute! Are these well-meaning people putting limits on the mighty power of God? What about that violent wind of the Holy Spirit that blew through the house on that first Pentecost? Are these well-meaning people trying to put God in a little box of their own devising and understanding?

As the Rev. Simpson reminds us, Pentecost is not simply a day to remember the birth of the Church, but it is also a day to celebrate the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, the dynamite of God, active and present in each believer’s life and heart. It is God’s power working in us and through us, so we can be witnesses to what the risen Lord Jesus has done for us. Yes, we are changed, too! And we have the opportunity to change the world, just as much as the first-century disciples of Christ—by the power of the God-sent dynamite of the Holy Spirit.

Alleluia! Amen.

[1] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=88

Lectionary Commentary, Acts 2:1-8, Gary V. Simpson, The African American Lectionary, 2009.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

The Jailer’s Story

“The Jailer’s Story”

Acts 16-31 Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ stained glass

Acts 16:30-34 – June 2, 2019

A number of years ago, a pastor friend of mine needed to buy some new tires for his car. He had an acquaintance who was an auto mechanic, and went to his auto shop to purchase the tires. My friend Pastor Jamie was fascinated by the machine used for balancing, and watched the tires go round and round. The mechanic watched, too. Pastor Jamie suddenly asked the mechanic, “Did you ever feel your life was just spinning round and round, just like that tire? So fast, that you weren’t sure if it was going to spin out of control?”

As we follow the apostle Paul through the book of Acts, we might get the same idea. Paul’s life seemed to spin out of control time and time again. Trouble certainly seemed to follow Paul; take this week’s Scripture reading, for example. Paul and his friend Silas were beaten and thrown into prison. What is that all about?

We need to back up and see exactly why the people of the city of Philippi were so upset. Last week, we met Lydia, a well-to-do Gentile business owner who became a believer in the Gospel. She invited Paul and his friends to stay at her large house and use that as their base of operations. This week, we continue in Philippi with a slave girl who had an evil spirit, who did fortune-telling to earn money for her owners. She followed Paul and his friends around town for days, calling out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, telling you the way to be saved!”

On the face of it, Paul and his friends might have looked on this slave girl’s hollering to be free advertising. But, no! It got annoying, very quickly! The slave girl was a kind of heckler, constantly trailing after the missionaries. Finally, Paul got fed up, and cast the evil spirit out of the slave girl. The spirit was gone! However, so was the way the girl had earned money, telling people’s futures and fortunes. The girl’s owners were really upset at this turn of events! They got mad at the apostle Paul, too.

Now we start to see why Paul and Silas got thrown into prison—this time.

I am not sure whether life has ever spun out of control so much that you and I have gotten thrown into prison, but things can take unexpected twists and turns, and sometimes drag us into some awful predicaments.

It did not matter whether the owners of the slave girl were lying or not when they accused Paul and Silas in front of the Philippian judge. (They were, though.) The false accusation—that Paul and Silas were trying to lead the citizens of Philippi astray by encouraging them to leave behind good, solid Roman practices—fired up the crowd and got them to shout out against Paul and Silas. What is more, the judge was convinced to have Paul and Silas beaten and put in prison.

To give us a closer look at what their punishment involved, I am afraid Dr. Luke will offer a candid description. I am letting people know, just in case anyone needs a trigger warning.

First, Paul and Silas were beaten with rods—around the size of a broom handle. We cannot be sure in Paul’s and Silas’s case, but the beating with rods was oftentimes so severe that it broke bones and lacerated the skin. Following the painful beating, Paul and Silas had their legs pulled far apart and wooden stocks were clamped around their ankles. [1]

After this acute pain and suffering, the two missionaries actually were singing hymns of praise at midnight. Can you imagine how much Paul and Silas had just experienced? After all that, Dr. Luke reports that they were singing hymns of praise to God, and the other prisoners were listening. What a change from the usual prison noise of shouts, groans and curses.

Perhaps we have not experienced anything as severely agonizing as being beaten and thrown into jail unjustly, but life can spin out of control in any one of a number of ways.

We can see how Paul and Silas singing hymns at midnight is a key part of this narrative, because the Lord sends an earthquake to the Philippian jail as a result of that praise. “Just as the Gerasene demoniac was loosed from his chains by Jesus (Luke 8:35), all the prisoners, including Paul and Silas, are loosed. The work of the Spirit brings freedom to all who are captive.” [2]

Enter the jailer upon the scene. At this climactic point, the Philippian jailer was filled with fear and despair. Dr. Luke says, “When the jailer saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped.”  His prisoners—his duly-appointed charges—had been sprung. The jail had been destroyed, and the jailer thought he would be tortured and killed by the Roman authorities for failing in his duty.

It is at this critical point of despair for the jailer that Paul calls out, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

Remember my friend, Pastor Jamie, and his acquaintance the auto mechanic? Remember how they both watched the tire spinning round and round, almost out of control? Jamie made that comment, and the auto mechanic immediately agreed. The auto mechanic then asked the question of the day: “what’s the use? What can I do about it?”

This is so similar to the question asked by the Philippian jailer: “The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

What can we do to get right with God, get our lives on track, and come into a loving relationship with our Lord and Savior? Paul and Silas’s answer is in the next verse: “They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.”

Pastor Jamie shared the good news of Lord and Savior with his acquaintance the car mechanic. Similarly, Paul and Silas shared the good news with the jailer, another working-class guy. Both gratefully received the Gospel. And, the jailer and his prisoners were ultimately freed—both in this world, and the next.

To take that sudden out-of-control moment and transform it into something God-sent is truly a gift of God. We can all pray with Jesus in our reading from the Gospel of John, our Gospel reading for today, “26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

The narrator Dr. Luke so skillfully expanded the apostle Paul’s groundbreaking adventures in the city of Philippi into an elegant story or drama in Acts 16. Using the backdrop of Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew [Paul and Silas] or Greek [Lydia, the slave girl, the jailer], there is no longer slave [the slave girl] or free [Lydia, Paul], there is no longer male [Paul, Silas, the jailer] or female [Lydia, slave girl], for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” [3]

God’s power acts to bring together the most unlikely group of people for God’s glory. We can celebrate, because God has arms wide open for all who believe. Even me, even you.

Praise God! Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.christianlibrary.org/authors/John_L_Kachelman_Jr/phil28.htm

[2] Landers, Richard M., Homiletical Perspective on Acts 16:16-34, 7th Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 527.

[3] Walaskay, Paul W., exegetical Perspective on Acts 16:16-34, 7th Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 527.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

You Had to Be There!

“You Had to Be There!”

Acts 16-14 Lydia, words

Acts 16:14-15 – May 26, 2019

Sometimes, you had to be there. Consider my daughter Rachel. As part of her music studies, she is taking an intensive summer course in Broadway musicals. Right now, she, her small class of graduate students, and her professor are all in New York City—studying Broadway musicals, in depth. She has told me a little about two of the performances she has seen, and they sound wonderful. So wonderful, she could not even do them justice in describing them. I can imagine her saying “You had to be there!”

The power of narrative, of story. That is what a Broadway play or musical is all about. That is what personal testimonies are all about. As we hear personal stories, we can become immersed in the happenings, the events, the trials and tribulations of the person we are listening to—sometimes to the point of having a personal stake in the events we hear and see.

Consider the apostle Paul. He and his friends Silas, Dr. Luke and several others were traveling around Asia Minor—present-day Turkey—on Paul’s second missionary journey. When, all of a sudden, Paul receives a vision from God. A man from Macedonia—northern Greece—appears to Paul. He begs for Paul to come to Macedonia and preach the Gospel to the people there. This dream or vision was God-sent, and Paul and his friends got on a ship immediately and set sail for Greece.

Ever been in that situation, where you had a dream or vision or message from God that was so strong, you just had to obey? Apparently, this sort of thing happened more frequently in Bible times. And, the followers of Jesus hearkened to Paul and his words about the vision. It wasn’t a second-hand or even a third-hand recounting of some vision some guy had, no. Paul’s first-person account of his amazing vision was so much more compelling!

The narrow stretch of water Paul and his friends crossed to get into Macedonia was the same strip of water that many, many refugees from the Middle East recently crossed to get away from life-threatening danger. Imagine their relief to finally cross the water and be physically separated from war, starvation, political persecution, and loss of life and property. That was the first-person story of the refugees in recent times, their personal testimony.

Let us return to Paul and his friends, and their personal story. Dr. Luke is with them at this time, and he makes note of the place where they are staying: Philippi, a leading city in that area of Macedonia. Not anywhere else in Macedonia, “it is straight to Philippi. In places just like that God planted (and still plants) the church to the community that says ‘no’ to the ways of imperial power and offers a different way of life, a different story, and a different promise.” [1] We have the opportunity to hear a different kind of first-person account, a different sort of personal testimony from people from the imperial city of Philippi, in Europe—not in Asia.

Paul and his friends stay there for some days before any serious preaching or teaching goes on. Then, as is Paul’s habit when in a new town, today’s reading tells us “On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.”

Hold it right there! I see a couple of things right off the bat that make this a different kind of situation. There is no synagogue, no ordered gathering of Jews in this large town. Plus, Paul and his friends meet with a bunch of women. Not even a mixed gathering of men and women, but a group of Gentile women. How open-minded of Paul!

Something further: the Bible hardly ever mentions a gathering of only women. Now, this was not in Israel, where things were culturally sensitive. How fascinating “that this well-known Pharisee and teacher from Jerusalem would carry on a serious discussion with a group of women.” [2] Yes, aspects of this whole situation were completely new, almost alien for Paul and his friends. All the same, Paul still preached and taught the Gospel of the Lord Jesus. He still preached Christ crucified. He still told his own personal story.

As Paul discusses spiritual and theological things with the group of women, Dr. Luke tells us about one in particular: “One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.”

God does the totally unexpected. “When God does begin to work in Philippi, it comes with a surprise. Paul’s vision had involved a Macedonian man. But the first to welcome the gospel in Philippi was a woman, and in fact a woman from the area that Paul had just left in the east.” [3] We saw several weeks ago when we considered the Easter morning testimony that God chose women to be the first ones to hear and believe the Good News of the Resurrection. Now, here in Europe, the first one to hear and believe the message of the Good News of the Resurrection is also a woman, and a prominent one for this time, too.

Lydia is a business-woman, a dealer in purple cloth. This is a luxury item, which only the upper class was allowed to wear. In today’s terms, she could be seen as a high-end clothing designer and manufacturer. She owns a large house, and has a number of servants and/or employees. Plus, she is held in high enough esteem that when she believes the Good News of the Gospel, her whole household is led to believe in the Good News, too. A pretty persuasive woman! And, a leading citizen of Philippi.

What a turn of events! The first convert in Europe is not a sober Jewish man of stature, a leader of a local synagogue, but a savvy Gentile business-woman, wealthy and significant in the community. Any expectations Paul and his friends had of their missionary trip to Greece were certainly turned on their heads. This reminds me not to make meticulous plans set in concrete for any operation, because God will often surprise us with unexpected outcomes.

But, that is not all. Dr. Luke tells us, “When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us.” Imagine, Paul and his friends invited into a large, spacious, wealthy home. Not only that, Lydia probably invited them to make her house a base of operations for their mission to the whole region. A good friend and follower of Christ, indeed.

Remember what I said about having plans set in concrete? “It is not the charismatic personality of the pastor or preacher that has the power to create faith; it must come from God’s own merciful activity. From beginning to end, this [Scripture passage] stresses that it is God who is in charge of the mission, God who sets its direction, and God who determines its results.” [4]

Can we show hospitality like Lydia? Like Paul, can we persuade others to consider the claims of Christ? We are still in the Easter season, a wonderful opportunity to tell others our personal story. God can use any personal testimony, to God’s glory. Praise the Lord, we can invite friends, neighbors and acquaintances into a relationship with God. Let us not miss this wonderful, God-given opportunity. To God be the glory. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1627

Commentary, Acts 16:9-15, Brian Peterson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

[2] Walaskay, Paul W., Exegetical Perspective on Acts 16:9-15, 6th Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 479.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1627

Commentary, Acts 16:9-15, Brian Peterson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Everything We Need?

“Everything We Need?”

Psalm 23 KJV

Psalm 23:1 – May 12, 2019

Advertising lets us know how much stuff we really “need.” Madison Avenue certainly knows how to plant the thoughts of desire and dissatisfaction in our hearts, prompting us to go out and buy, buy, buy! Consume, consume, consume!

Aren’t we supposed to be dissatisfied with what we have? I thought I was supposed to buy lots of things at shoe stores, department stores, sporting goods stores, computer stores, car dealerships, even garden supply stores at this green and growing time of the year.

What does King David tell us, in the very first verse of our psalm reading today? From the Good News Translation, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need.”

The first verse of Psalm 23 many people are familiar with? “the Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” The other translation has a bit different words for the second phrase; ‘I have everything I want.” But, doesn’t this fly in the face of advertising and popular culture today?

One pastor expanded on this thought in his comments on this psalm: “We live in a consumerist society that thrives on teaching us to want. Wanting more and more and more: I want a new car. I want a flat screen TV and a Blue Ray player. I want more apps for my iPhone. I want to win Lotto. I want a bigger house. I want it all… “ [1]

Anyone who knows more than one language knows what a challenge it is to exactly translate certain words and phrases from one language to another. Sometimes there are no exact translations. The Good News Translation is one of those versions of the Bible that instead of words, it translates thoughts and phrases from the original Hebrew and Greek into English. Like, right here, where we have the phrase “I have everything I want.”

If I look at life from a sheep’s perspective—which is one perspective of Psalm 23—we do have everything we want. Fields of green grass to eat, quiet pools of fresh water to drink, and a quiet place to rest, all provided for us by this Good Shepherd.

The problem is, we are not sheep. We are human beings, with the complexities and challenges of living in the real world. Life continues to happen. Friends get sick, relatives lose their jobs, loved ones die. Wildfires burn many acres of land, hurricanes devastate towns, floods wash away livelihoods.

We come back to the opening words of this psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need.”

Another word for a psalm is a poem. King David begins with a simple metaphor. This first line is concise, simple, and expresses the message of the entire psalm. The Lord supplies—or satisfies—every need. [2] This idea of King David’s definitely goes against everything that Madison Avenue and popular American culture tells us today. But, most of us want to have our emotional and spiritual needs met, too.

Rev. Lockhart lists these needs: “I want a happy life. I want to live in safety and security. I want to be left alone. I want someone to show that they care about me. I want someone to visit me. I want the best for my children and my grandchildren. I want my husband to be more considerate. I want my wife to understand me. I want worship to be more fun. I want to know God loves me. And I want to die peacefully in my bed. I want and I want and I want.” [3]

What’s the use? Life is just not fair. I want so much. I’m never going to get what I want. I may as well quit trying to get what I need.

Except—that attitude of defeat is not what God wants for us.

I can tell us all right now that God never promised us a huge flat-screen television, or a fifteen-room mansion, or the latest iPhone, or winning numbers in next week’s Lotto drawing. However, God did promise us the Good Shepherd’s presence at our sides, all along our journey.

This psalm is so familiar, and well-loved. The pastoral images leap right off the page, they are so vivid. We sheep do have a Good Shepherd. We sheep are led into green pastures full of grass. We even have nice, quiet pools of water to drink from, and can lie down to rest, free from all danger.

Except—we are not supposed to flop down and stay in those green, verdant pastures forever. King David describes a journey. We—that is, all of us—are on a journey. A journey through life that the Lord oversees and guides. Sure, sometimes we do get to rest in those green pastures, but it’s just temporary. Our psalmist is on the go, walking beside the water, along paths, and through valleys. Some of those valleys are really deep and dark, too! [4]

What does verse 4 say? “Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for You are with me.” It does not matter what the darkness is—devastating disaster, mental illness, shattering disease, emotional trauma, sexual abuse, grinding poverty, constant warfare. God has promised to be with us all the way, and all the time, too.

Verse 6 says “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” The Hebrew word “follow” can also be translated “pursue.” You know, the same word used when enemies pursue us when we are trying to run away. Except, it’s not enemies pursuing us. Instead, goodness and love will be pursuing us and chasing us down! [5]

We can thank God for such a wonderful image.

The last line of our psalm finishes up our journey. We are to dwell in the house of the Lord all our lives long. Except—the Hebrew word is not exactly “dwell.” Instead, our verb means “to return.” Again, we were—we are—on a journey with God. Our lives are sometimes peaceful, and sometimes difficult. Sometimes quiet, and sometimes traumatic. This psalm enables us to shoulder difficult burdens, and aids us as we sometimes walk sad paths, as well as those times when we rest in beautiful green pastures—or comfortable, joyful places.

No matter where we are on this journey with the Good Shepherd, Jesus has promised to be right by our sides. Yes, we will end up with God when we finish our journey! I do not know exactly what that will be like. I can’t give you a blow-by-blow description. However, as King David tells us, we can continually return to God’s presence all the days of our lives. And, no matter what, if God is there, for sure we will have no more worries or concerns.

What a Good Shepherd. What a wonderful promise. Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://revplockhart.blogspot.com/2012/04/psalm-23.html

Psalm 23, Peter Lockhart, A Different Heresy, 2012.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372

Commentary, Psalm 23, Joel LeMon, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher, 2015.

[3] http://revplockhart.blogspot.com/2012/04/psalm-23.html

Psalm 23, Peter Lockhart, A Different Heresy, 2012.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372

Commentary, Psalm 23, Joel LeMon, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Who Are You, Lord?

“Who Are You, Lord?”

Acts 9 conversionofsaintpaul - ethiopian icon

Acts 9:1-20 – May 5, 2019

Once there was a recent college graduate named Martin. He had enrolled in a doctoral degree program at the University of Erfurt, but he went home for a few days before the class session started. On his way back, not far from the town of Erfurt, a huge thunderstorm broke over the countryside. Martin was trying his best to get to shelter when a sudden lightning bolt fell to earth. BOOM! It struck the ground immediately next to Martin—so close he could feel it singe his clothing! He was thrown to the earth with great force. Frightened almost to death—literally—Martin made the immediate, passionate vow that he would change course in his life, become a monk and devote his life to God. All this happened while Martin was traveling, on the road. A true “Road to Damascus” experience.

Has anyone here ever known someone who went through a radical transformation in an instant? Or, at least, in a relatively short time? That is what happened to Saul of Tarsus, on the road to Damascus.

But, that comes after the end of our narrative, today. What is the beginning of the story? How did Saul of Tarsus get to this point?

The wonderful commentator Bob Deffinbaugh sets a vivid scene for us. He says, “Imagine for a moment that this is the week of Saul’s arrival at Damascus. By this time Saul has gained a reputation as the ringleader of the movement to make Christianity extinct. A devout Hellenistic Jew, of the tribe of Benjamin, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, Saul did not agree with his teacher, Rabbi Gamaliel, on how the Christians should be dealt with. Rather, he sought the arrest, trial, conviction, and punishment (with imprisonment the norm and death the ideal, it would seem) of those in Jerusalem. Saul was not content to punish some and to drive the rest from the “holy city.” He did not want to merely contain Christianity or to drive it from Jerusalem; he wanted to rid the earth of Christianity and its followers. His opposition to Christ and His church took on a ‘missionary’ spirit. Saul went to other cities where he sought to arrest Christians and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. Damascus, a city 150 miles to the northeast of Jerusalem, was one such city. Word was out that Saul would soon be arriving.” [1]

I don’t know about you, but if I heard of such a bloodthirsty, vengeful person coming to my home town, I might be scared to death, too. What are the followers of Jesus going to do? Ethnic hatred blended with and heightened by religious hatred is corrosive and hurtful, and greatly to be feared.

This was not just a problem in bible times. Seriously, there are many places in the world today where determined, devout people want to eradicate people who do not believe like they do. Not just run them out of town, or out of the country, but instead, put them to death. I am not just speaking about devout Hindus, or devout Muslims, but sometimes devout Jews, or devout Christians or Catholics or Orthodox Christians.

This was the situation with Saul of Tarsus! He was a religious, observant Jew, an up-and-coming rabbi, a “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” by his own account. And, he could not kill these “heretics” fast enough. He even had letters of recommendation to the heads of synagogues in Damascus, to let them know his official status as a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council.

This was early in the life of the Church, only a number of months after the great Pentecost happening in Acts chapter 2. And, the followers of “The Way” (as they were called) were spreading like wildfire!

But, similar to the situation with Martin in the scene I opened this sermon with, Saul was literally knocked off his feet. A heavenly light, brighter than bright, surrounded Saul. A shocking, out-of-this-world thing happened on the road to Damascus, indeed!

Just like Moses at the burning bush, just like Martin when the lightning struck, Saul had the presence of mind to realize that this was so huge, so stupendous, this could only be a God-moment! Have you ever had a God-moment? You, or someone you know? An instant when you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is present? Did you get an answer to that question, “Who are You, Lord?” up close and personal?

I did. I remember it vividly. Itp was early in my first chaplain internship, right out of seminary. In Cardiac Care, I held the hand of a tiny, very elderly woman as she transitioned from this world to the next. The woman had no one—no relatives, or friends, or any one else, except for a state-appointed medical power-of-attorney. I could feel the presence of God. And, yes, God was there with us, as she died.

Saul got that answer from God in plain language. From our reading today from Acts: “Saul fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” He replied.

How stupendous was that response! And, how crushing! All the orthodox theological and religious scaffolding Saul had painstakingly erected throughout his education and training was tumbling around his ears, in that one moment.

Dr. Luke continues with the risen Lord Jesus’s words: “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So, they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days Saul was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.”

“It was time for Saul to ponder what he had seen and heard. For now, he was told to proceed on to Damascus, where he would be given his next instructions.” [2] It was as if this revelation was going to come in several different pieces, or parts. Yes, his sudden conversion happened on the road to Damascus. However, Saul’s blindness allowed him the opportunity to think deeply about these events, and gave him the opportunity to wholeheartedly commit his life to the risen Lord Jesus Christ. How many of us would take something like this seriously?

Remember bloodthirsty Saul? Breathing fire and brimstone? Remember the shock and stunned reaction to the heavenly light, on the Road to Damascus? And, the follow-up question, “Who are You Lord?” Saul made a first-person testimony. We all can thank God for Saul’s—now, Paul’s—testimony and subsequent witness, too. Witness and Apostle to the world.

Remember Martin, almost struck by lightning? That was Martin Luther, and that was a true story. It really happened in 1505, and Martin’s life was forever changed, that day lightning just missed striking him. That was his Road to Damascus experience, sending Martin on the path to grapple with God’s presence and forgiveness in his personal life, and more.

It doesn’t matter whether you or I have had a Road to Damascus experience, or whether we more gradually become aware of God’s work in our lives, because there are countless ways to come close to God. These were the ways Saul (who changed his name to Paul) and Father Martin developed their relationships with the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus has His arms open. He wants us all to struggle out of blindness, like Saul, and come into His heavenly light, the light of a loving relationship and friendship with Him.

Come to Jesus, like Saul, like Martin. Jesus has His arms open wide.

Amen, alleluia.

[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/conversion-saul-acts-91-31

“The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-31),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/conversion-saul-acts-91-31

“The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-31),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!