Beware the Jesus Bobblehead

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, February 12, 2017
Scripture:  
Matthew 5:13-20

 

 

Last Sunday, we took a look at verses 1-12 here in Matthew, chapter 5.  It’s what we commonly call The Beatitudes.  The word beatitude comes into our English from the Latin word meaning happy.  In Christian use over these many centuries, beatitude has come to mean the state of “supreme blessedness”.  The original word Matthew used meant “very fortunate”.

So, we get Jesus’ drift:  we have come into a really marvelous state of being in this life.  Nine times, Jesus says, “…blessed are you…blessed are you…blessed are you.”  I presented these beatitudes as a kind of clothing, each blessing as though an article of clothing in which we are dressed as though dressed by Jesus Christ.

To be dressed by Jesus, as we might guess, will mean that we will be differently clothed in contrast to the many ways we might be clothed in this life.  So differently clothed are we as citizens of the kingdom of God that we will encounter misunderstanding and hostility.  Jesus wants us to understand that harsh reality of opposition.  It comes in his final beatitude, in verse 11: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil nonsense against you falsely on my account.”  It means you’re wearing your Jesus-clothes well.

But, again, what does that look like, to be clothed in Christ?  Well, I have here with me this morning one way of depicting what Jesus looked like, all dressed up in his Jesus-clothes.  This is a Jesus Bobblehead that some well-meaning soul gave to me.  It’s a very Anglo-Saxon, Roman Catholic, depiction of our Palestinian Jewish Lord.

As with other bobblehead versions of famous figures, this Jesus Bobblehead has his little body, with his great big head mounted on a spring, so his head can bob around and back and forth.  It’s really handy when you need some guidance from Jesus.  “Jesus, is my wife the luckiest woman in the world?”  See!  Jesus is bobbing his head up and down: “Yes,” says Jesus Bobblehead, “that is indeed a true statement.”  Oops, no, now he seems to be changing his mind on that question.

The Jesus Bobblehead I really wanted to get is called the Buddy Christ Bobblehead.  It’s based on a movie that I won’t name because I’ve watched it a few times, and I cannot as your interim pastor, recommend it to you.

In this movie that shall not be named, there’s a Catholic Cardinal named Cardinal Glick, based in New Jersey.  Cardinal Glick wants to revive interest in the Catholic Church, so he comes up an outreach campaign called, “Catholicism WOW!”  For Cardinal Glick, the Catholic Church has an image problem; it’s the crucifix.

The crucifix is a symbol commonly associated with Catholicism.  The crucifix presents Jesus crucified on the cross, his face contorted in agony.  Cardinal Glick finds the crucifix is way too depressing.  So, he proposes to replace the crucifix with a new symbol of the faith that he calls, “the Buddy Christ”.

The Cardinal has a news conference to kick off his “Catholicism WOW!” campaign.  Next to the Cardinal is what appears to be a statue covered up with a sheet.  With a dramatic flourish, the Cardinal  pulls off the sheet revealing the life-size sculpture of “the Buddy Christ”.

Buddy Christ is based on the famous painting, The Sacred Heart of Christ.  I’m sure you’d recognize if you saw it.  It’s your iconic, handsome Caucasian Jesus, with thick long hair flowing down around his shoulders, an immaculately trimmed beard, and a bright red heart that seems to glowing out his chest.

Buddy Christ has got this wide, toothy grin.  He’s wearing this big red heart medallion on a pretty red sash across his chest. He’s winking; he’s pointing at you with one hand, while giving you the “thumbs up” sign with his other hand…he’s everybody’s Buddy, Christ.  You can get Buddy Christ’s in a fairly expensive bobblehead edition.

Jesus Bobbleheads are fun.  They’re always smiling, always bobbing, always just what they are, a big, empty-headed – and, some would say, sacrilegious – depiction of our Lord.  Jesus Bobbleheads in many forms are always tempting alternatives to the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount.  This world and even many preachers in this world offer to you and to me many versions of Jesus other than the Jesus who was and who is and who is to come, the Jesus who calls out, “blessed are you destitute ones, you grieving ones, you starving, thirsting ones…you are the blessed ones, for to you belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus says, you are blessed, for in your need, you have sought and found what only, finally, is real:  purity of heart, mercifulness, humility, genuine peace of spirit that compels you to be a witness for peace, so much so, you willingly suffer for that peace you’ve found.  That’s why you’re harassed and persecuted.

Of these people and of us, Jesus says, you have come to the kingdom of God.  But, having once found our way, desperate, starving, thirsting, to our Lord, having been clothed in the character and qualities of our Lord, have we continued to be so clothed, have we continued to fill our closets only with the garments of Christ, or have we returned so quickly to the rags of this world?

Jesus warned his listeners there with him on that day, as Jesus warns us even in this day, we can lose that spice, we can dim the light, we can trade truth for fakery, we can walk in an apparent righteousness which is no righteousness in reality.

Or, to use my little sermon gimmick this morning, we can trade away the genuine Jesus for this more convenient and agreeable, bobblehead rendition of our Lord, and often at great sacrifice.  Our flawed and even blasphemous image of God can be very demanding and rigorous.

Jesus cautions his listeners about the most demanding, rigorous representatives of God on earth imaginable:  the Pharisees and the Scribes.  But, says Jesus in verse 20, they offer distorted images of God:  “For I tell you for a fact:  unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you’re doomed!  You will never see the inside of the kingdom of heaven.”

Well, the people must have heard Jesus say that and thought to themselves, “that can’t be right!”  “The scribes and the Pharisees know the Scriptures backwards and forwards!  The scribes and the Pharisees are the epitomes of godly righteousness!”  “Good heavens!  If that’s what it takes to please God, then we might as well just give up now!”

We need spiritual guidance; we need spiritual mentors.  Our guides and our mentors must help us to discern the leading of our real Guide and Mentor who is the Spirit of Christ, rather than themselves.

As a young man in my early twenties, I went through something of a personal spiritual revival.  Very eager to prove my worthiness of God’s favor, I thought I should get me down to our church every Tuesday evening for personal visitation.

If you’re unfamiliar with that weekly tradition, usually on a Monday evening or a Tuesday evening, a tiny clutch of church members would meet at the church building around 6:30, divvy up names and addresses of people to visit that night.  These might be recent visitors to church services or names submitted by church members of their neighbors and relatives whom they thought needed a visit.  So, we’d pair up, take two or three addresses to hit that night, say a prayer, and off we’d go.

Since I was a novice visitor, they assigned me to very experienced weekly visitor, a much older church member who’d been visiting folks on Tuesday night visitation for decades.  We’ll call him “Bob”; honestly, I don’t recall Bob’s real name.

So, Bob drove us to the first home.  We sat there in Bob’s car, reviewed the names and other information we had, said another quick prayer, and off we went up the sidewalk with Bob in the lead and me trailing putting on a brave front, knowing I was doing the right thing although dreading what lay ahead.

Lady comes to the door, welcomes us in to her living room, gathers her family there on the couch with her.  Bob sits in a chair across the room from where I take a chair.  Bob reintroduces us, “Hi, I’m Bob and this is Gary and we’re from Bon Air Church.  We were given your names because a concerned friend thought you might like to know more about our church and especially that you might want to know a little more about Jesus.”

Then, Bob looks across the room at me and smiles real big and says, “And Gary now would like tell just why he loves the Lord.”  Just like!  With no warning, Bob throws me into the deep end of the witnessing pool and expects me to put out this marvelous testimony of my faith!

“I don’t know, Bob…can’t really say off the top of my head exactly why I love the Lord.  You know, if you’d given me a little warning maybe I could come up with something to save these poor folks from their wretched spiritual state, but, no, Bob, you didn’t show me that simple courtesy, did you?”

Of course, I didn’t really say that.  In fact, knowing myself, in my admiration of Bob as such an advanced Christian witness, I’m sure that I didn’t allow myself even an inkling of reproach toward Bob.

But, I had a pretty good idea of how Bob would answer that question, so I started saying what I thought Bob would say.  I gave a pretty good Bob-witness, but I sure didn’t give a real Gary-witness as I sat there in the witness chair that night.

See how the little Jesus Bobblehead started getting shaped in me?  Not trusting that I was clothed in Christ, I started clothing myself in Bob.  I began taking on a form of faith, borrowing from this person, Bob, and other persons in their faith that all looked pretty much like a Bob sort of faith.

Somehow, I couldn’t believe that Jesus would really want me to say what was actually true:  something about how spiritually uncertain I was, how I had become, sad, confused, desperate to please Jesus and not really knowing how to do that.  How these folks here at Bon Air really seem to know what they’re doing, and they really seem to love the Lord, and they actually seem to really love me, too.  So, I just told the Lord I’ll do my best to serve you and that’s why I’m out here in your home tonight with Bob.  “And, now, back over to you, Bob!”

The scribes and Pharisees had a pretty well-set depiction of God which they expected everyone else to hold to.  The scribes and the Pharisees were all about knowing and keeping the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, “the Law and the Prophets” as Jesus sums up the Hebrew Bible there in verse 17.  And, to tell you the truth, Jesus continues on there in verse 17 down through verse 19, that’s what I’m all about, too:  I’m all about knowing and keeping the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, every last dot and dash of it, and you had better be about that, too, says Jesus to his horrified listeners.

What in the world were they to do now?  The scribes and the Pharisees…these were the guys who knew how to do that!  If we can’t look to the scribes and the Pharisees to show us what it means to know and to keep every last little bit of the Law and the Prophets, then what are we to do?  Who will show us what that means?

Well, if the scribes and Pharisees won’t do it for us in the way that pleases God, then I’m pretty sure a Jesus Bobblehead of anyone’s design and construction won’t do the trick either.

Nothing I’m saying diminishes the need for you and for me to know this book.  In fact, Jesus directs a pretty severe warning to those of us who dare preach and teach among God’s people.  Right there in verse 19—Jesus includes us all, of course–but since we preachers and teachers and evangelists and other promoters of the Christian faith present ourselves as one’s who know a thing or two about God, well, we’ve got an extra responsibility, don’t we?

So, please hear me quite clearly this morning:  you yourself need to read and to grapple with the pages of this book, from Genesis on through to Revelation, and the maps in the back, too.  Out of the abundance of that study, if you do it the Jesus-way, the Spirit of God will be forming within you the fullness of Jesus because only the Spirit of God can do that in you.

It is an adventure of soul-formation.  It is a journey along which we will often stop and rest for a while, where we will pitch our tents and sometimes where we will stop and raise a religious fortress.  But, don’t be surprised if one day, the Spirit of the Living Christ comes chipping away, perhaps even sledge-hammering our way at our fortress doors.

That’s why Jesus was so critical of the scribes and the Pharisees…they were very much into building religious fortresses, religious forts constructed of layers of their Scriptures stacked one atop the others, so much so, they could no longer here the voice of God calling to them from on the other side of the wall they’d built.

Of course, there’s the other pitfall:  Jesus warned us about the scribes and Pharisees, so we end up  all our time reacting to their excesses and their foibles of the faith as played out among us Christians.

The Arctic Monkeys is a British band…isn’t that a great name for a band?  The Arctic Monkeys’ first big album is entitled, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not”.

“Whatever People are Saying a Christian Is, That’s What I’m Not.”  Perhaps the loudest, most public personifications of our Christian faith are absolutely not what you are in your personal Christian faith.  Fair enough.  But, then, who are you in your own faith in Christ?

If those folks there that day had gone away saying, “Praise the Lord, whatever those scribes and Pharisees are, that’s certainly what I am not!”  “Those scribes and Pharisees have totally messed up saying the Law and Prophets have to say about God, so good riddance to the Law and the Prophets.”  Jesus says, Nope, don’t get to do that, my friends.

“My goodness, I sure don’t like what I’ve been taught about all that stuff the Apostle Paul wrote…good riddance to him!”  “I sure don’t buy into all that crazy stuff I’ve heard people preach from the Book of Revelation…good riddance to those nutty chapters of the Bible.”

“That whole blood bath theology in the Old Testament and that whole blood bath theology in the New Testament…glad that’s not what I believe.”

No, says Jesus.  I have not come to lead you away from the resources of biblical faith…Jesus says, I have come to fulfill those resources…you’ve got to know what it is, then, that I have come to fulfill.

You are the salt of the earth….you are the light of the world….Let [them] see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  (verses 13-16)

Let’s let Jesus say who we are and what these good works are all about.  We can trust Jesus on that subject.  That’s why Jesus, one day, climbed up on this mountain, and gathered all his disciples around him, and said, “Here’s how you do it.”

So, allow the Spirit of the Living Christ to make you a little salty.  Let the light of God’s kingdom community shine brightly here, in and through this church, and in and through you.  Believe me, nobody’s going to confuse you with being just another Jesus Bobblehead out there wagging its head this way and that way.  But, maybe, just maybe, they will see something of the genuine Christ in you…and that is so worth all the risk.

 

 

 

They Don’t Wear Plaid on the Champs-Élysées

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, February 5, 2017
Taken from
Matthew 5:1-12

 

In April, 1997, Karen and I went to Paris.  If you’ve ever thought about going to Paris, go to Paris.  It is a truly beautiful city.  We stayed in a hotel reputed to have been the mansion of Napoleon Bonaparte’s personal physician.  It was located just three blocks off from the Arc de Triomphe, there on the grand boulevard, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

So, early every morning, we’d set out from our hotel and walk those three easy blocks.  We’d emerge onto the beautiful Champs-Élysées, look across that massive traffic circle to the Arch, and then set out on our day’s adventure.

Our last day in Paris, we wanted to go out in style.  We’d spotted a restaurant on the Champs-Élysées with a second story balcony where you could go outside, dine on the balcony, and watch all the goings on up and down the boulevard.

The weather was clear, but chilly.  I had brought with me my red plaid wool shirt that had a nice warm lining in it.  You know, it’s the kind of shirt you typically see outdoorsy types around here wear; perfect for that kind of weather.

So, there we are, enjoying lunch on the balcony of this restaurant overlooking the Champs-Élysées.  The sun was up high overhead by now, people crowded the sidewalks.  The day had warmed up by then, so I proceeded to unbutton my red plaid wool shirt sleeves and roll them up my arms.  As I rolling up my sleeves and looking over my arm, watching the crowds below, near and far, it suddenly occurred to me, “You know, you don’t see many people wearing red plaid wool on the Champs-Élysées.”

The in-color in Paris that spring was lime-green.  So, those folks were pretty easy to spot.  The default clothing color in Paris was black.  So, lots of men and women dressed in black.  But, no, I had to conclude, they just don’t wear plaid on the Champs-Élysées.

That little experience of being differently clothed came back to me as I was reading over our Lord’s teaching here we call The Sermon on the Mount.  Which is not really that strange of connection.  The New Testament often uses the metaphor of clothing to talk to us about our identity with Christ.  We wear a different kind of spiritual, moral, ethical clothing.

We illustrate that truth at our baptisms.  We strip down; we put on a white baptismal robe to cover us up, signifying through our baptism that we have put on Christ.  We are baptized, and we arise to walk anew in this world clothed now in Christ.

What does that mean?  What does Christ’s line of clothing look like?  Suppose you’re walking the red carpet this year, heading into the Oscars, and Robin Roberts stops you and says, “My, that is so stunning!  Who are you wearing tonight?”  And, you answer, “Oh, isn’t it beautiful!  I’m wearing all Christ tonight.”  What would that look like, to be dressed by Jesus?  The Sermon on the Mount answers that question for us.  Today and next Sunday, we’ll look at these opening verses of this Scripture we call the Sermon on the Mount.

Just before this, in chapter 4, verse 17, Matthew tells us that Jesus has begun preaching what will be his basic theme:  Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  Then, Matthew concludes chapter 4, relating how Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching… What?  “…the gospel of the kingdom [of heaven]” (verse 23).  That’s what this is about:  what does it mean now to be part of this kingdom now come through Jesus?

Chapter 5, verse 1, Jesus goes up on the mountain.  He sits down, he gathers his multitude of followers around him, and he begins describing distinctive qualities and practices that identify us with him.  These qualities and practices detail what it means for us to be adorned as children of God.

Jesus starts off calling these folks around him—and us, we hope—blessed…blessed…blessed.  Nine times Jesus tells us what we all want to hear:  “You are the blessed ones of God.”  The word, blessed, is like our word ‘happy’, only it means really, really happy for some really good substantial reasons.

How the ears of everyone must have perked up when they heard Jesus start off on that happy note:  blessed.  But, then, it seems to go downhill pretty quickly from there.  Blessed…you impoverished ones, and blessed you overtaken in grief and blessed you meek ones and you starving, thirsty ones.

That sounds like a pretty sad bunch of people to be around, doesn’t it?  I imagine at about this moment, a few people started looking at their watches and remembered there was somewhere else they needed to be!

It’s a mixed bag of beatitudes here that Jesus pronounces.  Now, most of us would be happy to receive, blessed are the merciful…blessed are the peacemakers.  To me, those qualities imply a kind of power and authority.  “Yes, you poor wretch, it within my power to ignore you or to punish you, but instead I will show mercy on you, because that’s just who I am.”  That’s a good position to be in, to bestow mercy.

To be a peacemaker implies the respect and authority others give to us, so that people in a dispute seek out our great insight that will satisfy all concerned.

Even to be called ‘meek’ in Bible terms implies a kind of power…the power of self-control.

Every so often, as I’m out riding down the interstate in my little four-cylinder Ford Focus, I get a cheap thrill.  Sometimes, I get to pass a Chevy Corvette, or a Ford Mustang, or maybe even a Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe—oh, so sweet!

They’re cruising along in the right lane, and I swoosh by them at an incredible 72 miles-per-hour, leaving them in the dust!  Clearly, with a little tap on the gas pedal, the driver of the Corvette or the Mustang or the Mercedes C-Class could leave me behind in an instant.

In Bible terms, those drivers are showing meekness.  They are freely submitting the superior power of their vehicles to traffic laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia.  They’re choosing not to speed.  Biblical meekness is us freely submitting our strengths, our power, our resources, in obedience to God.

Even Jesus’ eighth Beatitude, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, implies exceptional courage.  You’ve done something truly righteous that’s drawn the reproach of those with the power to punish you.  But, you don’t care…you’ve got the courage of your convictions.

Blessed are the pure in heart, Beatitude number six.  We might quibble about that one, but if I’m merciful and a peacemaker, and if I’m boldly righteous, then I must be at least a little purer of heart than your average citizen, right?

This is where our hold on the Beatitudes starts to unravel, and we’ve got to give them back to Jesus.  Dare we ascribe to ourselves what Jesus means by being merciful, being a peacemaker, being meek, being righteous?

Or are we guilty of the spiritual equivalent of buying a $10 Versace belt off a street vendor and then trying to fool ourselves and others that it’s the real thing we’re wearing?  How do we know whether we’re clothed in this blessed wardrobe of Christ or if we’ve merely clothed ourselves in some less demanding knockoff outfit?  Discernment comes with these other Beatitudes Jesus pronounces.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit”, says Jesus first.  It’s Beatitude number one.  This word, poor, doesn’t mean just the working poor, you know, the folks scraping by but still a roof is over head and some sort of food is on the table.  Jesus uses the word poor as in ‘destitute’, the folks who’ve moved from being working poor to having absolutely no way of providing for themselves.

I recently watched a Russian dissident interviewed on TV.  The dissident now lives in New York City.  The interviewer walked her through the hardships and deprivations the Russian government imposed on her and her fellow dissidents.  Finally, the interviewer asked, “In those circumstances, how do you know when things have hit rock-bottom.”

The woman answered this way.  She said, “In Russia, we have a joke.  You think you’ve hit rock-bottom, and then you hear someone knocking from below.”

The poor in spirit?  These are those folks knocking from below, and Jesus says, what a blessed bunch you are?  Pardon me, Lord, but I don’t think so!

“Blessed are the spiritually destitute?  Blessed are the grieving?  Blessed are the starving and the dangerously dehydrated?”

I do not want to be the guy on the bottom, knocking.  I don’t want to feel deep, unassuaged loss.  You really don’t want to see me when I hungry, because I get really cranky.  And, yes, I have been seriously dehydrated before, and I’m here to tell you it can really mess up some of your vital functions to be dehydrated!

This is hard language, Jesus chooses.  This is not what we want; it’s certainly not what we want for our children.  But, we do want for ourselves and for our families to share in the good news of the kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus.

Perhaps it would make us feel better if we could say Jesus isn’t talking about real poverty or grieving and so forth; he’s just using those as kind of metaphors.  Don’t know that I can say that, but even so, if Jesus is speaking in metaphors, then metaphors for what?

Basically, what Jesus is saying is, you impoverished ones, you grieving ones, you hungry and thirsty ones…you’re the people who have no illusions about yourselves anymore; you have no illusions left about this world anymore, do you?  All the usual props are stripped away; bankrupt of all sense of independence and wellbeing; we are undone and lost.  On the bottom, knocking.

We, so many of us, live clothed in illusions of self-righteousness, self-empowerment, self-serving selflessness even. We cannot be merciful as God is merciful out of our own sense of privilege and power.  We cannot be peacemakers of God’s kingdom-presence if we rely on the strategies of this earth’s kingdoms.  We don’t generally do too well at freely submitting our resources before God in the ways of biblical meekness.  Our hearts are seldom if ever pure much past the innocence of childhood.

Before we can be wear Christ, we must first see:  we stand before him barely clothed at all, in tattered remnants we gathered about our shoulders as though we’ve wrapped ourselves in the best of the world’s finery.  Jesus says, no.

We can respond to that in a lot of ways.  We may just flat out say, Jesus, that can’t be so!  Well, good news…denial is the first stage of grief, and  Jesus says in verse 4, blessed are those who grieve.  We’ve only four more stages to work through:  anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

If we reach into our spiritual pockets and turn them inside out to find them empty, well, good news, says Jesus.  If we open up our spiritual lockbox and the only thing in there is a moth trying to get out, what a fortuitous discovery we’ve made, says the Lord.

If we yearn for what this world cannot satisfy, we’re dried out and life seems only to offer up more dust to feed our hunger and quench our thirst, Jesus says, excellent!  You’re ready to hear the best invitation to food and drink any soul could imagine.  You’re ready to hear God’s invitation to the kingdom of heaven’s banquet table.

Be very happy, Jesus says.  Come, let me cloth you and feed you and satisfy your thirst, says the Lord.  Come, let Jesus teach us, now, how we receive the kingdom of God now come among us.

What Do You Want Now, God?

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, January 29, 2017
Taken from
Micah 6: 1-8


Knock, knock, knock! You go to the front door to see who’s on your porch knocking at your door.  You open the door to see a fine young sheriff’s deputy standing there holding a document you’re your name on it.  It’s a court summons.  If you’re fortunate, you’re being summoned as a witness in somebody else’s trial.

What you don’t want to go to the door to discover is that the court has sent the sheriff out to summons you as the defendant.

You most, most, don’t want that to happen if the plaintiff who’s calling you to court is God!  But, that’s exactly what’s happening here, in our Scripture this morning.  God sends the prophet Micah to summons the people of Jerusalem to court, because God has a complaint to bring against them.

It’s a jury trial as it turns out.  Well, who could possibly serve as the jury in that kind of trial?  Turns out it’s the mountains and the hills of Palestine:

“Oyez! Oyez! All rise,” says the bailiff, Micah, in verse 1.  “Plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills here your voice.”

He continues in verse 2, addressing the jury:  “Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.”

Now, why the mountains and the hills of Palestine?  Because, they’ve watched what’s been going on there in their land.  They’ve seen everything that’s unfolded after God parceled out the Promised Land among the Twelve Tribes.

So, in true biblical fashion, the local mountains and hills are the ones with the perspective to judge between God and God’s people.  God gets to go first as the complainant; verses 3-5.  (Like a lot of civil suits among family, it gets really intense, really fast!)

“My people!  What I have done to deserve this behavior from you!  Where in the world have I gone wrong!  TELL ME!” 

The events which God then relates all have to do with what God did to liberate the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt.  It’s like a set of bullet-points of how God got them safely out from under Pharaoh’s control and set them up in the Promise Land.

God says at the end of verse 5, “It was all just for you, just so you, among all the nations in the world, could know the lengths I was willing to go to save you.”  God is so distraught and so hurt.  As would any of us if we were so poorly treated by folks we’d poured out our hearts and efforts to help get a fresh start in a new place.

Now, it’s the defendant’s turn; it’s God’s people up next.  Boy, does Micah ever know their song-and-dance routine, down to every last insulting move.  Verses 6 and 7:

“What do you want from me now, God?!  Huh?  What’s it going to take to satisfy you?”

The mountains and the hills sitting over there in the jury box cannot believe their ears!  The people of God are actually going to try to bribe their way out of this…can you believe it?!

“What’s it going to take, God?  Here, I’ve got my check book out, my pen’s in my hand; you name the amount.  We’ll take care of this, and we can all get out of here.

More offerings, God?  Is that it?  You want the really expensive stuff now.  The yearling calves?  That’s a big investment down the drain, but I’ll do it.

More rams?  More grade-A olive oil?  I can do it by the cartload.

What?!  You’re still holding out for more! You’re just like all those other gods, aren’t you?  You want me to sacrifice my first-born child, don’t you?  Is that what you want, God?  You want my first-born child, ‘the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’”

Wow!  The jury’s just waiting any moment now to hear the thunder rumble and to see the lightning bolts to start streaking down, wiping out these ingrates.

But, instead, Micah takes the floor.  Micah plays the role of mediator, the voice of reason in the room.  Verse 8:

“God has shown you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

What does God expect of you, of us?

It’s like a simple, three-legged stool:  act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God.  Do all three, and we’re fine.  But when we take away one of the three legs off a stool, things start to get really shaky betwixt God and God’s people.

But what about all that other stuff?  The worship stuff?  Bowing before God on high, bringing offerings, and other aspects of ritual?  Yes, do that.  But, to what end?  Their rituals had become a way of trying to keep God contained in that grand God-box called the Temple:  “God, we’ll give you what you need for the spiritual stuff; leave the business and civic stuff of life to us.”

And, oh what they did on all those other six days as they went about their business and civic ventures.  The Book of Micah isn’t all that long.  Take some time this afternoon to read it.  At least read chapters one through five that are prelude to chapter six.  They’d forgotten the rule of life among God’s people: the spiritual stuff of God is the business of God and the civics of God, is the spiritual stuff of God.

Biblical justice, biblical mercy, biblical humility.  Please notice, I am using that modifier “biblical” because as a person of faith and as a congregation of the faithful, God demands we look to God as our reference for justice, mercy, and humility.

Humility we know and embrace as a virtue, though, of course, we can’t claim if for ourselves because as soon as we do, we tend to forfeit the essence of being humble.  Humility, I believe, is the essential foundation for mercy.  That could be me, humility tells me.  If it were me, I sure wish somebody would help me out.

That’s what acts of mercy are about.  Mercy is when we’ve got the resources to help somebody out of a jam that they’re unable at the moment to help themselves out of.  Think Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan:  there’s the great model for mercy from Jesus’ teaching.

University Baptist is a congregation of humble people and merciful people. Just last night, we began our two-week turn at hosting homeless men, something we do with other churches during the winter months.  It takes a lot of effort and a lot of resources to host the homeless in our church building for fourteen nights running.

What about this third leg of the stool that is biblical justice?  Well, it might better be called the ‘third rail’ of faith.  You all know the expression, “the third rail”?  The third rail is the rail next to the two rails of a train-track for a train that runs on electricity.  The third rail is the one charged with electricity; you touch the third rail, you die.

In national politics, the third rail is Social Security:  you mess with Social Security as a politician, you die a painful political death.  For pastors, the third rail of preaching is biblical justice.  The pastor who takes hold of the topic of biblical justice and gets into the nitty-gritty of it, that pastor will experience a swift death in the ministry.  Unless, of course, that pastor’s congregation happens to be full of folks suffering biblical injustice.

What is it about biblical justice so off-putting and risky to us, when we so readily embrace these other two legs of humility and mercy?  Let me suggest the problem we have with biblical justice by offering this rule of thumb:  the more justice provided in a community, the less mercy required from its citizens.  The more justice provided in a community, the less mercy required from its citizens.

For most of us Baptists, the word ‘justice’ is associated with the New Testament word, ‘justification’.  Justification, for us Baptists, means getting saved:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not by works lest any man should boast.”  Ephesians 2:8-9.

God has justified us, made us right, with God because of God’s mercy toward us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, but to what end?  End-of-life security of going on to be with God in Heaven is pretty big benefit for sure, but that’s not God’s purpose for justifying us and bringing to birth God’s own Eternal Life within us.

The purpose of God justifying us with God is so that God’s justice might reign here on earth, as in heaven, as least among somebody on earth.  Get enough people together in whose lives God’s justice reigns, and you got a shot a living in a just society.

God’s justice on this earth goes a-begging because God’s people and the great majority of God’s ordained messenger will not touch the dreaded third-rail of biblical justice for themselves and their communities.

Let me offer this illustration about biblical justice.  [MANUAL TYPEWRITER ON STAND NEXT TO PULPIT, COVERED]

Some of you may have only seen these in the movies.  This is called a manual typewriter. It’s what people in the last century used when they needed to print out a text-document.  It’s sort of like a clunky laptop that has its own built-in printer.

Everything you type on a manual typewriter is automatically left-justified.  It’s built-in by the mechanics of a manual typewriter’s construction.  The carriage gets to the end of its run, the little bell dings, you take hold of the return lever, and it slides so easily back to the left-hand margin.

The challenge of word-processing on a manual typewriter is when you want to center your text so all the words fall neatly between the left and the right margins.  Even more challenging is when you want to right-justify your text, so all the lines end in perfect alignment with the right-hand margin.

On a computer, centering text or right-justifying text, is the easiest thing in the world.  You just click on a setting, and then you forget about it.  The software takes care of the rest.  Just like that!  All your text beautifully centered or justified with the right margin.

On a manual typewriter, though, you’ve got to commit yourself to some work for all that to happen.  Remember how you center text on a manual?  You count the number of letters and spaces you want centered and divide by two; then, you move the carriage over to the center of the paper, and backspace by that number of spaces, and then you type.

Right-justifying text was just a downright pain in the wrists.  First, you had to count up the number of letters and spaces in each line.  Then, you moved the carriage all the way over to the right margin, and you back spaced the entire line and then you typed it in.  It took some real motivation before you’d right-justify much text.

What God’s people have to remember is this:  to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God, is like typing on a manual typewriter.

That built-in left-justified margin so easily done on a manual?  That’s us on our own, apart from God.  Lining up our lives with our own values and goals…that’s human nature; that’s the mechanics of how we’re built.  We come already set left-justified.

That right-hand margin?  That’s God’s values and goals.  That right-hand margin is what God wants in our justness and our mercy and our humility with God.

New Testament justification so important and so essential to us?  Well, that’s God giving us a clean sheet of paper to start writing a whole new life, a life we’ve committed now to live as God desires, a life that is right-justified.

There’s still that good old built-in left margin; we can still keep justifying everything we write on that clean sheet of paper over there.  We call talk about being self-justified.  But, remember:  we’re now justified with God.  Whatever we now write from that point on, we are seeking to right-justify with God’s margin.

This life-vocation to follow Jesus, to be God’s person on this earth, is not like composing text on a computer with its wonderful word-processing software.  We can’t get set ourselves once, right-justified with God, and then just forget about what comes next.

We’ve got to do the hard work of starting every line of our lives now, aligned under God.  We’ve got to figure out, counting letter-by-letter, space-by-space, how far over toward that built-in left-hand margin we can go and wind up every line of our lives aligned with God’s values, God’s goals, God’s three-fold call, “…to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk in all humility before God.”

Pretend for a moment, that you could take break from typing out your life.  You’ve been busily composing on that fresh piece of paper God gave you in that moment you professed your faith in Jesus.  You pull the paper up to where you can read it.

How many lines of your life are all nicely right-justified over here with God?  Truth be told, for each of us, there’s going to be an embarrassing number of typos of all kinds.  Not every line is going to be perfectly right-justified; we can give each other that bit of understanding.  But, on the whole, does your piece of paper at least show a good-faith effort and at least some degree of being right-justified?

Or, as with many of us, does it look like you’ve been trying to center all the text of your life?  You know where your personal, pre-Jesus, left-margins lie, and you know where the setting for God’s right margin is, and it looks for all the world like you did the math to find that middle way, like you struck a deal with God:  God’s gets a little bit of your text, and you get an equal amount, so on balance, it’s all good.

Sorry, doesn’t work that way.  God justified us so that we would henceforth live out our lives justified with God.  God’s spiritual concerns are the concerns not just of our Sunday worship, but our Monday to Saturday personal relations and business and professional relations and our civic relations.  Again, don’t take my word for it, read God’s word on it.

What is true for us as individual followers of Jesus, is most certainly true for us a community of Jesus.  University Baptist Church, you are indeed a people of biblical humility.  With all the ways you give yourselves and your resources to help others, you are recognized as a church of biblical mercy.

What about that third leg of the stool, that third-rail?  Will you also be known in the larger community as a people of biblical justice?

It’s your story to write.

Looking for Light in All the Wrong Places

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, January 22, 2017
Taken from 
Matthew 4:12-17 (Isaiah 9:1-7)

“I spent a lifetime lookin’ for you
Single bars and good time lovers were
never true
Playin’ a fool’s game, hopin’ to win
Tellin’ those sweet lies and losin’ again

I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong
places
Lookin’ for love in too many faces
Searchin’ their eyes
Lookin’ for traces of what I’m dreaming of
Hoping to find a friend and lover
I’ll bless the day I discover
Another heart lookin’ for love
[‘cause I was lookin’ for love all the
the wrong places]”

Thus sayeth the prophet, Johnny Lee, in his 1980 hit, Looking for Love.

According to the much, much earlier prophet, Isaiah, there is indeed “another heart lookin’ for love”.  It’s the heart of God.  It’s God, lookin’ through the bars and pickup spots where hook-ups are many but hoped-for love is a lie…all the wrong places where God’s people go lookin’ for love, lookin’ for love, yet they go wanting.

But, then, here comes God through the doors, the Eternal Heart lookin’ for those upon whom God may pour out Divine Love and have it returned to God by Gods own people.

Interestingly, when those two hearts meet, the Divine Lover encountering the beloved, that Love which searches and that love which is found, is not at first the love of romance; it is the love of a desperate rescue operation.

The brilliance of God’s love like the beam of a search-light pierces the pitch-black night through which God’s beloved children stumble and fall.  The brilliance of God’s love is an early morning sun, unimpeded by storm-cloud or rain, the new sun rising, breaking and lifting that deep darkness lain too long over the landscape of our lives.

“The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this,” says Isaiah.  “The zeal of the Lord will do it.”  The passion of God never yields; the passion of God never dims nor weakens.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts does not surrender in defeat.  The passion of God burns ever-brilliantly, it’s fuel never lags, and it’s light never weakens.

For so long, though, God’s people have laid down and accepted as their fate the shadows which overtook them.  It is their energies that have lagged, not God’s.  It is they who have accepted defeat and a slow death under the cover of darkness, and not God who has resigned the field of combat.

We like to call ourselves “people of the Book, people of the Bible.  Well, these were the people in the Book!  These are the people in the Bible!  They had misdirected their search for what only God could offer them.  Like burned-out bums in a bar and the wasted wanna-be’s sitting at their sides, God’s people had caroused their way down across the generations, vesting their hopes and dreams in what never could satisfy what needs only God could meet.

As Isaiah references in chapter nine, verse 1, they had been “brought into contempt”.  They themselves had become a byword and a cruel euphemism for all that it meant to be lost, wandering, floundering:  “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali”.

“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali”:  that phrase means nothing to us today.  But it meant a lot to Isaiah and the folks in his day.  Obviously, it meant a lot to the folks in Jesus’ day.  This is the prophecy Matthew chose to frame for his generation the starting-point of Jesus’ ministry.

Matthew put his first readers right there on the spot on the map from which Jesus began his preaching.  It was not only a spot to which our GPS’s might take us; it was a blemished location in the religious travails between God and God’s people:  the land of infamy, the time of disrepute and despair:  “the land of Zebulun…the land of Naphtali”!  What could it have meant to Matthew and to that first generation of Christians to know this place was the land of Jesus’ origin?

Well, there were stereotypes rooted in centuries of assorted events, famous and infamous. Folks in that day were no different from us, when it came to stereotypes.  Stereotypes generally are rooted in some fact of a people and place’s history, facts that then get exaggerated and generally used a pejorative way.

For example, I’m a Hokie, here in the midst of the Wahoo camp.  I’ve learned I’ve got to accept a little grief from you fine folks here among the hallowed colonnades of Mr. Jefferson’s University.

“How can you tell when somebody’s died at Virginia Tech?  All the students ride around with their tractor lights on.”

You know, things like that.  It goes on and on.  Yes, Virginia Tech was founded as a college of agriculture an mechanical arts, but I’d like to remind us that there can be no culture without agriculture.

Working with those sorts of stereotypes, picture, if you will, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s map.  Basically, Virginia’s a great big triangle.  The short side of the triangle is what’s known as The Golden Crescent.  To quote the Richmond Times-Dispatch, from an article in 2012:

“The ancient world boasted a Fertile Crescent where civilization flourished. Virginia boasts a Golden Crescent that promotes the commonwealth’s prosperity. The crescent follows the Interstate 95 and Interstate 64 corridors. It stretches from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads. Richmond lies pretty much at its center.” 1

I don’t think anything’s really changed since that description in 2012.  So, the short side of Virginia’s triangle is this Golden Crescent, with Richmond lying at its center.

Then, you got that side of the triangle called “southside”, running along contiguous with the border of North Carolina:  Martinsville, Danville, South Boston, Emporia.

And, then, you’ve got that long side of Virginia’s triangle, pretty much following the Appalachian mountain-chain, starting up north in the Winchester area, then following on down in that southwesterly flow of I-81, down through Harrisonburg and Staunton and Lexington, and thence to Roanoke and then on down by exit 118 to that Mecca of Educational Excellence of which I just spoke.  But, staying on I-81, going and going, further down, down, down skirting the mountains as a you go through Pulaski and Wytheville and Marion.

And, somewhere along there, you realize:  you’re a long way from the so-called Golden Crescent of Virginia.  Before you get to Bristol, find a state highway going west.  Those little two lanes will wind you up and down and over and through the mountains and down into the Clinch Valley region where you’ll find yourself in places like Norton and Wise, Grundy and Big Stone Gap.

You’re in the extreme southwest tip of Virginia.  Never mind how the map borders are laid out, folks here seem to have much more in common with their neighbors in the contiguous states of West Virginia, and Kentucky, and Tennessee and North Carolina.  The Golden Crescent is whole other world from this extreme south western corner of the Commonwealth.

Now, imagine taking that great triangle of the Commonwealth of Virginia and tipping that extreme southwest corner up until its now the extreme northwest corner, with Virginia’s Golden Crescent sitting now as Virginia’s Southside.

Same wealth, same prosperity, same governmental centers of power, both for the state and for the nation, stay down south.  Same decimated coal towns, same addiction and poverty, same everything stereotypes that go with deep southwestern Clinch Valley region now in the northwest tip of the triangle.

Now, rename that southside Golden Crescent, Jerusalem and its environs, wherein sits the capital Jerusalem with all its glorious history as the seat of King David’s reign and most especially as location of the Temple.

Back up there in that now northwest corner of the Clinch Valley, that’s Isaiah’s and Matthew’s “land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali”, or as it’s better known to us, that’s Jesus’ Galilee.

Zebulun and Naphtali, shoehorned in up there between the Mediterranean Sea, and ancient Assyria and Syria and a little further over, Persia.  It’s borders were ill-defined and porous, with Gentiles and Jews coexisting in living and commerce and marriage.  The headwaters of the Jordon River get lost there among the various streams that feed into it before becoming an identifiable river you could name.  So far removed from that golden, refined, urbane place called Jerusalem.

The “land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali”, was not someplace any sane Israelite would go looking for God’s love.  Yet, there lived a native-born Galilean, who had begun to understand his unique emerging ministry.  Following his baptism by John the Baptist and his wilderness sojourn, Matthew tells us that Jesus removed himself even further back up into that seemingly God-forsaken territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.  From there, Jesus gathered his followers and launched his public ministry.

From there, as Matthew notes for us, as “…was spoken by the prophet Isaiah…‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people [there] who sat in darkness have seen a great light…for those who sat in…the shadow of death light has dawned.’”

Perhaps something of Zebulun and Naphtali resonates with you, today.  What resonates with you is not the incredulous wonder of this prophecy Isaiah recorded some 700 years before our Gospel accounts.  What resonates with you is not that latter-day proclamation of Good News by Matthew.

What resonates with you is that enshrouding darkness, this foreboding sense that God has abandoned me; somehow, I missed it and God has forgotten and passed me by.  Evidently, God’s moved on to shower this Divine Love on someone else.

Perhaps you think this about us:  poor University Baptist Church, here we sit lost in the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali.  Well, if we’re going to let that part of Scripture resonate with us, then we’d better be ready for this other part of Scripture that speaks Gospel to us.

We better be prepared to identify with this whole story of Zebulun and Naphtali’s fate, no longer a fate of lost opportunity and lost hope; you must as well believe and live into, this incredulous wonder Isaiah proclaimed of what God’s love would do in that region of Zebulun and Naphtali, in that place called Galilee.

“The zeal of the Lord” has done it!  For there, in Galilee, God’s light was born.  There God’s light grew strong until it pierced the darkness and shone brightly for all to see:  God, in the flesh, dwelling among all, Jesus of Nazareth.

“Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places
Lookin’ for love in too many faces
Searchin’ their eyes
Lookin’ for traces of what I’m dreaming of…”?

Well, as the song finishes,

“Now that I found a friend and lover
God bless the day I discover[ed]
You, oh you, lookin’ for love”
God bless the day that it may come soon, that it may be today, when you discover, it is God looking for you, man or woman, whoever you are.  God bless the day soon to come, when you discover, friends of this church, it is God who seeks you.  God’s light alighting and shining brightly in you, God’s joy for your own souls and God’s joy a witness for you to offer, to those around us, yet lookin’ for light.


 

1  Interstate Corridors:  Golden Crescent – June 11, 2012, The Richmond Times-Dispatch/archive/ article

 

Good Group Think

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, January 8, 2017
Taken from 
Isaiah 42: 1-9

Jesus Washing the Apostles Feet

This sermon title today, “Good Groupthink”, is an oxymoron; it is self-contradictory.  It’s like saying, “healthy disease”, or “bitter sugar”.

“Groupthink” entered the academic lexicon back in 1972.  A research psychologist named Irving Janis published his book entitled, Victims of Groupthink.  Janis studied significant military campaigns of the 20th century that went terribly wrong for the United States.

Janis’s question was this: how could key military and political leaders with all their experience and resources make such poor strategic judgements?  Their decisions cost our nation in huge losses of life and material resources.Groupthink was the term he used to describe the problem.

Janis described a range of behaviors that make up groupthink.  Leaders ceased to value individual creativity among their advisors.  Unquestioning affirmation of the leader’s preferences was expected before the start of any discussion.  Differences of opinion were suppressed.  Protecting the group from outside critique became paramount.

Members of the group dismissed out-of-hand any information which contradicted their assumptions, no matter how reliable the information might be.  Loyalty to the group’s plans was valued above all else, even if the original strategy proved unrealistic.

Other researchers found  groupthink to present in any organization, whether governmental, military, civic, religious.  In religion organizations, the most extreme examples would be cults.  Less extreme examples might be churches with highly autocratic pastors or self-perpetuating boards or councils.  Churches built around the personality of a founding pastor might realize only in hindsight after the pastor has retired or died just how much they’ve operated on these dynamics of groupthink.  The church has no good decision-making practices to help their congregation continue to thrive.

So, how do we as followers of Christ, in this organization called University Baptist Church, how do we find our cohesive identity as a church without falling into the trap of groupthink?

We, as with any church, would seem especially vulnerable to the downfall of groupthink.  The Scripture teaches that we are to function as “the body of Christ”.  We are to have the unity of a single body; we are to highly value cohesiveness above, because as the Bible cautions us, the body is more than a mere collection of parts; we are members in service of the whole, each member functioning for the overall health and purpose of the body, the church. (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:12-31)

Well, the answer seems simple enough.  The Bible tells us that we are the body of Christ, with Christ himself as the head” (Colossians 1:18).  Just listen to what the Head says and all will be fine.  Simple, right?  Let’s just listen to what Jesus says to do and go do that.

I just love to hear coaches in their pre-game interviews.  “Coach, tell us, what’s your strategy going into tonight’s game?”  “Well,” says coach, “we’ve got to be consistent in moving the ball down the field; we’ve got to overcome their defense; we’ve got to work our strengths; we’ve got to play smart; ultimately, we’ve got to get that ball across the line more than the other team.”

In other words, the best strategy for winning is to win.  Why didn’t we think of that?  The best strategy for listening to Jesus to listen to Jesus.  Brilliant strategy.  How do we do that?

Our Scriptures today suggest an approach so we can avoid the trap of religious groupthink.  If we can avoid religious groupthink and instead think well together as a group, or what I’m calling ‘good group think’, then we can act better as the body of Christ.

Here’s my suggestion.  We have a better shot at thinking well together about ourselves as the body of Christ, in this time, in this town, if we observe how Jesus himself understood his own life on this earth in the place and the time which our Scriptures describe about Jesus.  Such as our two Scripture readings this morning.

It’s a happy coincidence in how our Scripture readings happen to lay out in our worship bulletin.  It was God working through Alba; I didn’t have anything to do with it.

First, we have our Gospel reading where Matthew describes Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. What do the final verses describe?  Jesus comes up from under the water, the Spirit of God visibly descends upon Jesus, a voice is heard from heaven: “This is my Son, whom I love—with him I am well pleased.”

Then immediately, we read from the prophet Isaiah where God speaks, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him….”

Those two readings fit, like hand in glove, don’t they?

1) Matthew: “this is my Son”; Isaiah:  “here is my servant.”
2) Matthew:  “my Son, whom I love”; Isaiah:  “my servant, whom I uphold.”
3) Matthew:  “with him I am well pleased”; Isaiah:  “my chosen one in whom I delight”;
4) Matthew:  “the Spirit of God descended and alighted upon him”; Isaiah:  “I will put my Spirit upon him.”

What’s going on here?

John and those who would become Jesus’ followers witness these unique experiences that happen at his baptism.  They watch the contours of Jesus’ ministry unfold.  And then it dawns on them:  they’re watching a set of prophecies of Isaiah now being lived out before them.

Some 700 years before Jesus, Isaiah prophesied about someone called the Servant of God.  Our reading this morning is the first of the four prophecies commonly called the Servant Songs of Isaiah.  They’re recorded in chapters 42 through 53 of the Book of Isaiah.  (42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12).

Now, the curious thing about these four Servant Songs is this:  while Isaiah never names the Servant, one gets the distinct impression that at times Isaiah is speaking of specific individual and at times he is describing the entire nation of Israel.  So, which is it, Isaiah?  Are you talking about one person, the singular Servant of God, or are you speaking of the entire nation of God’s chosen people as though they were a single Servant of God?  It’s both, of course.

Think of an hourglass:  wide at the top, containing all the sand, then narrowing done to a tiny opening through which all the sand must pass, as the sand then enters the lower part of the hourglass that opens up and broadens in perfect symmetry to the top part of the hourglass.  That’s what Isaiah’s Servant prophecies are like.

Isaiah’s prophecies of this one, the Servant of God, describe God’s vision for the nation Israel.  The whole enterprise of God’s covenant with Abraham was to bless all the families of humanity through this single family of Abraham. (Genesis 12:1-3)

The context in which Isaiah describes God in this first Servant Song is as God, Creator of all.  He describes God in verse 5,

“Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread forth the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it and [life] to those
who walk in it”

God the Creator is concerned for all of humanity.

Israel’s priests were to teach God’s people of their sacred calling to  the nations.  Israel’s kings were to lead God’s people in fulfilling their sacred calling to the nations.  When priests and kings failed, God sent prophets to challenge these leaders and to challenge God’s people, calling them to repent and to renew their covenant with God.

Despite God’s repeated efforts over centuries upon centuries, Israel refused their calling.  Instead, Israel behaved as the nations to whom they were sent:  Israel’s kings sought only to sustain the perks and privileges of being in charge; Israel’s priests maintained their positions of power often in a ruthless competition among the families of priests; the people themselves turned their faith into mere formalities that blessed the self-enrichment of the powerful and rationalized the oppression of the powerless.

Israel, over and over, devolved into a nation of groupthinkers, refusing the critique of the prophets.  They refused this sacred title:  the Servant of God.

What should it have meant for Israel to be this chosen servant whom God upholds and in whom God delights?  It should have meant that above all else, they would uphold and delight in God’s justice in their own lives and in their communities and in their nation. Three times in the opening verses of this first Servant Song, Isaiah proclaims God’s justice:

Verse 1, God says, “my servant…he will bring forth justice to the nations.”  Verse 3, my servant, never adding to the injuries of the wounded, never dismissing the worthiness of the weak, “[my servant] will faithfully bring forth justice.”  Verse 4, “[my servant] will not fail nor be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth.”

“The distant lands wait”, proclaims Isaiah at the end of verse 4.  For what do they wait?  “The distant lands wait” for God’s Servant people to bring God’s justice to them.  And, they waited, and they waited, and they waited across the centuries.  That was Isaiah’s message:  the nations waited, but Israel failed to deliver.

In verse 5, Isaiah depicts God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, scanning the horizon, taking in all that God has made.  Isaiah describes this God of justice watching over all the peoples on the earth, to whom God has given breath and life.  As God looks outward over all this good work of God’s creative power, God turns to speak to God’s Servant, Israel.

God says in verses 6 and 7:  “I have called you…I have called you.

“I have taken you by the hand and preserved you; I have given you as a promise to all these other people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the those who don’t yet see me, to bring out of the prisons of human misery those who sit entrapped by the dark shrouds of human oppression.”

“I have called you,” says God to this Servant people, “I have called you.”

All of that promise gone wanting.  All of God’s “covenant to the nations”, as Isaiah calls it, a covenant that God’s justice shall be done for all people, left unfulfilled.  Because the Servant people of God would not serve.

They would not let God’s thoughts become their thoughts, they would not let God’s Spirit enliven their spirit.  Not valuing God’s justice in their own lives nor in their nation’s life, they had no viable witness of God’s justice to offer among the nations.

Until that day on the shores of the Jordan River some 700 years later.  People stood awaiting their turn for John the Baptist to baptize them, this baptism of repentance as John preached it.   They watched as one of their own, a young man name Jesus come down from Galilee, as he took his turn to enter the Jordan.  They watched the carpenter from Nazareth offer himself into John’s hands.

Then, something most unexpected happened, as Jesus came up out of the water.  A movement, as when a dove alights upon a branch.  A sound, as though rumbling down from heaven.   A blessing and a pronouncement:  the Servant has come, God’s Chosen One, in whom God delights, as Isaiah had foretold.

The sands of that broad hourglass that had belonged to God’s people, the children of Abraham, now spilling down into this one narrow bit of humanity, this man from Nazareth.

Followers gathered around Jesus in his life on this earth; believers later received his Good News preached by the Apostles and began living among themselves as Jesus himself lived and taught.  As those men and women did that, God’s hourglass began its broadening out again, growing and growing to become once again, not a single Servant, but a Servant people serving with a singular purpose.

That’s who we are.  Or, at least, that’s whom God has called us to be as the body of Christ.

How do we escape the traps of religious groupthink?  We’re no smarter nor better than those kings and priests and people to whom Isaiah prophesied.

If we are forever trying to insulate ourselves from the Servant call of God that would intrude upon our plans, we fall into groupthink.  When we reject whatever God might say that differs from our own narrow assumptions and goals, we lapse into groupthink.   As often as we persist always in postponing going with God the Creator, to look abroad on this good earth and to see all the people whom God has placed here, we persist in groupthink.

We ourselves who are called to be bearers of light hide from the light of God’s justice.  We hang in the shadows that imprison us.   We will not turn loose of our idols and all that enthralls our senses.

We stop up our ears and refuse to hear God’s Servant-commission:

“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness.
I have taken you by the hand and preserved you.
I have given you as my promise to the people, a light to the nations.

This becomes groupthink in action instead of acting as the Body of Christ.

The nations wait.  The Lord God still calls for a Servant people to serve God by living out God’s justice.  How will you and I personally, a believer and a recipient of Christ’s Gospel, answer?  How will we, University Baptist Church, answer?

The prophet Isaiah had to give account of himself before God.  As Isaiah tells us earlier in chapter 6, verse 8, there came a moment when Isaiah knew he stood before God needing to give answer.  Isaiah answered, “Here am I, Lord!  Send me.”

Will we shy away from God’s call, or will we glory in the marvel of that call?  Will we answer God, as Isaiah did, answer as Jesus did, answer as so many other saints before us have done?  Will we answer, “Here am I, Lord!  Send me.”

 

 

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink

Extract of Eternal

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, December 25, 2016
Taken from 
Matthew 1: 18-25

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Rich food and the Christmas Season, as Forrest Gump would say, go together like peas and carrots.  Especially rich Christmas desserts.  Extracts and essences of cinnamon, peppermint, vanilla figure prominently in recipes this time of year.  Chocolate chips, nuts, bits of fruit get tossed into the mixes of cookies and cakes in abundance.

The chips, nuts and fruit sit there in the cookie or cake or pie; you can see them and, really, you look for them.  Those extracts and essences, though, they’re a bit trickier…those are some powerful flavors that permeate the recipe.  You can’t see the extracts and essences the way you do those chips and bits, but one bite and you know they’re there.  A dash of peppermint turns a basic dough one way, and a drip of hazelnut will turn that same basic dough a totally different way.

Extract of Eternal is like that.  A smidge, a mere drop, of Extract of Eternal, will seriously alter  a person’s life.  This Essence of the Divine will turn a person’s life in a very definite direction once its mixed into the human recipe.

Not by some clever incantation nor by wishful dreaming does this Extract of Eternal get folded into a man or a woman’s experience.  God makes the overture, as a master chef blending together the right moments, the timely word, the mix of people, the stirring movement of the Holy Spirit.  Received by the welcoming embrace of that woman’s faith, that man’s faith, God creates a Christmas delight in their lives.

Just ask the young peasant woman, Mary, or ask this older tradesman, Joseph.  Ask them what happens when God offers you a taste of Extract of Eternal.  Well, you can end up with something cooking in the oven!

This “being with child” for Mary easily could have ended with the men of her village stoning her to death. (Deuteronomy 22:23-24) At the very least, Mary will be publicly shamed and her chances of marriage reduced to zero.  As young as she was, Mary was still old enough to appreciate the consequences of her faithful reply to God’s messenger, as Luke records her saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  (Luke 1:38)

Joseph, for his part, had good reason to put as much distance between himself and Mary as he could.  Our traditional translations have Matthew describing Joseph in verse 19 as “being a just man”.  That phrase meant so much more than Joseph simply being a congenial sort of person.

The modern translation in our worship bulletin comes much closer to what Matthew was saying about Joseph:  “Joseph her husband was faithful to the law”.  Joseph was conscientious about keeping the Law of Moses, even to point of being zealous.1

His fianceé’s apparent infidelity to their betrothal contract cast a dark shadow of suspicion over Joseph’s own personal honor.  To use our modern equivalent, Joseph had every reason to throw Mary under the bus to save his own reputation of being “a just man”.

The angel’s assurance to Joseph brought an equal challenge to Joseph’s faith, as did the angel’s invitation to Mary.  The challenge was the apparent conflict between the plain reading of the Law of Moses required of him and what the angel was attributing to the will of God.

The law of Moses clearly stated that Mary and whatever man committed this infidelity with Mary, they were to be stoned to death.  Whether the religious authorities could identify the guilty man, they certainly could identify Mary’s guilt, ever so more evident as the months went by.

In this very crux of God’s law and Joseph’s life colliding, says the angel, it was God calling on Joseph to set aside that law.  If this was so, then God clearly was doing something so new, so unexpected, so transformative in Mary, the Law of Moses no longer applied to her.  Could Joseph, a man intensely dedicated to God’s Scripture, really dare to believe what he was hearing?

Joseph would not be the first devout man of that day for whom Jesus would challenge his conventional reading of God’s Word.  Joseph’s faith must undergo as dramatic a transformation altering his life, as Mary’s own faith had accepted this dramatic transformation now altering her body.

This moment when God challenged Joseph’s faith was a moment full of redemptive possibility intertwined with the challenge God had offered 700 years earlier to the king of Judah.  King Ahaz and all of Jerusalem’s citizens were terrified over what was happening around their little nation and their capital.

Two kings had allied their armies to unseat King Ahaz and to take over Judah.  Whether by violent assault or patient siege, their generals would overthrow Jerusalem, kill King Ahaz, and Ahaz’s family, and put a puppet king on Judah’s throne.

Ahaz had decided to send his diplomats to military powerhouse of Assyria.  Ahaz would pledge his fidelity to the king of Assyria if only Assyrians troops would come defeat the forces now allied against Judah.

In this critical moment in the lives of God’s people, God sends the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz.  God calls on Ahaz through Isaiah, “’Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be as deep as Sheol or high as heaven’” (Isaiah 7:10-11).  “Whatever it takes to convince you, Ahaz,” God offers, “just ask, and I’ll do it for you.”

This was truly a unique offer God was making to Ahaz.  The Law of Moses forbid putting God to the test by demanding signs from God.  Yet, here stands God’s messenger, Isaiah, there before Ahaz, just like that much later angelic messenger to Joseph, calling on Ahaz to defy the conventional faith of the day.

But, Ahaz chose instead to use that conventional teaching as an excuse to avoid this great leap of faith God now was placing before him.  “’I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’” Ahaz replies in verse 12.

Isaiah rebukes Ahaz.  Isaiah tells Ahaz, “God will give you a sign anyway.”  For God’s faithful ones, this sign that Isaiah is about to pronounce will be a sign of God’s presence with them, even in the midst of times of terror and hardship.  But, for the faithless like King Ahaz, that very same sign will become a sign of God’s judgement and reproach.

“Hear then, O house of David!” says Isaiah, “…the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel [which means, God is with us]’” (Isaiah 7:13-14, NRSV)

Scholars can only speculate who this young woman was in Isaiah’s day.  Apparently, it was a woman whom both Isaiah and Ahaz knew about.  There’s good reason to identify her as Isaiah’s own wife, whose other two sons were also given as God’s prophetic signs to Judah.

Isaiah goes on to say that before this child, Immanuel, gets old enough to choose between right and wrong, Assyrian forces will not only destroy these two kings terrorizing Judah, but they will also overrun Judah.

The Assyrian king will enforce cruel burdens on Judah’s citizens, all because King Ahaz, had chosen wrongly.  The king had failed to reach down within himself, to find the far richer, more complex faith that God required of him.

But, for those whose faith in God would persevere, for those whose vision for God’s work among them would grow, those whose faith would lead them to choose what is right, God will be with them to rescue them.,

So, it turns out that the angel’s message to Joseph is not so new, afterall.  This dream contains truth anchored in the records of God’s dealing with God’s people.  That truth is this:  the Extract of Eternal, the Essence of the Divine, is Immanuel, God is with us.

The angel’s message to Joseph in this dream is, “this isn’t just about you, Joseph.  This isn’t just about Mary.  This is very much about God as God has spoken in the past.”

“Your betrothed’s pregnancy has everything to do “to fulfill what the Lord…[spoke]…by the prophet:  ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel-el’.” (verse 22-23).

To our ways of thinking, “Emmanuel”, is such a beautiful word of Christmas bliss and enchantment.  “Emmanuel”:  a word we take up over and over as though we might over time domesticate it as a comforting companion to soothe us.  The angels must not know whether to laugh or to cry over our superficial grasp of the meaning of this word, “Emmanuel”.

The messengers of Heaven know this Emmanuel is a potent blending of Divine and Mortal.  God’s own Divine Self, welcoming us into God’s presence even in this world fraught with terror and hardship.  This Extract of Eternal, here in human frame, among the conspiring and warring powers of the earth’s nations.

This Essence of Emmanuel, here within our too-often settled and tamed religious aspirations, seeking to break us open as a plow churns up fallow fields for planting.  This single Christmas Word, “Emmanuel”, challenging us to know the will of God not as static words preserved in ancient texts.

Instead, we are to know God as the Dynamic Word, ever moving, drilling down, deepening the wells of our faith, calling us beyond ourselves, calling us ever-moving with the unfolding work of God on this earth.

This “Emmanuel” kind of faith announced to Joseph and about to be birthed in his bride, that is a faith worth pursuing.  That is a faith worth risking our reputations.  That is a faith worth daring the reproaches of others who don’t know this Extract of Eternal flavoring their lives.  That was the faith of the bold prophet Isaiah and the innocent virgin Mary and the older tradesman Joseph.  That is to be our faith, the faith of Emmanuel, God with us.

To go back to our Christmas cooking, once you decide to put that extract of vanilla or hazelnut or peppermint or whatever into your basic cookie dough, there’s no going back.  You have chosen a very specific kind of cookie you’re baking.  You can still toss in whatever bits of this and that you want, but it’s the extract that pretty much defines the cookie.

Once Mary accepted the Extract of Eternal into her being, the direction for her life was pretty well set for her.  There was no going back for Mary.

When Joseph awoke and got up from his bed that morning, his faith had been transformed.  It was no longer the conventional faith which was his when he had laid down that previous night.  Joseph got up, ready to go in whatever direction God was about to spin his life.

We pray this simple children’s bedtime prayer,

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Don’t know what prayer Joseph prayed before he went to sleep that prior night, but this child’s prayer is what he got by the time he woke up the next day

He has committed his soul to Lord’s safekeeping.  In a real way, Joseph has died to the life he’d come to expect for himself, for Mary, for whatever children they might share.  The Lord, Immanuel, raised up Joseph’s life into a new path, a path not in God’s presence in Heaven above, but in God’s presence on this earth below.

“Emmanuel”…may that word take up our lives on this earth below, as well.

 


1 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. 1 (Nashville:  Broadman Press, 1930) p. 8.

 

 

Holy NonSense

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, December 24, 2016
Taken from Luke 2: 1-19

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Ladies and gentlemen, skinny and stout,
I’ll tell you a tale I know nothing about.
Admission is free, so pay at the door.
Come pull up a chair and sit on the floor.

One bright day, in the middle of the night,
two dead boys got up to fight.
Back to back they faced each other;
drew their swords and shot each other!

A deaf policeman heard the noise.
He came and shot the two dead boys.
If you doubt my tale is true,
ask the blind man—he saw it, too!

Perhaps you delighted in that poem when you were a child, as I did.   I still enjoy reciting it.

We call it a “nonsense” poem.   Yet on the surface, it’s a very sensible poem.   The grammar is correct.  The syntax is correct.  It has a nice rhyme scheme to it.   There’s nothing wrong with any of the words; they’re all perfectly sensible, common words.

The problem comes though when you put all those words “back to back and facing each other” in the same sentence.   Everything’s correct but nothing is right; from our own experience, we know, this tale just makes no sense.

We know, don’t we:  there is no world in which a bright day shines in the middle of the night, nor is there a world in which “two dead boys” suddenly get up from the grave nor where a deaf policeman hears and a blind man sees. Those things make no sense, and we dare not pretend so.

In the world to which Luke wrote, his tale of this first night we call “Christmas Eve” may have sounded rather nonsensical as well, somewhat like our poem.   Now, that may seem a fairly strange thing for me to say.

Christmas has a very definite order to it.   You have Halloween and then Thanksgiving, and then, as soon as you’ve cleared out the Thanksgiving leftovers, it is Advent.  You put up your Christmas tree, decorate the house, get down to business making your Christmas list and shopping.   You may even go so far as to actually get your Christmas cards or newsletter out before Christmas.

That’s why we get so upset with the stores…they’re violating our sense of the proper order of things for Christmas.   Good grief!   Pull down the Halloween pumpkins and the costumes off the shelves at the stroke of midnight, October 31, and out comes Christmas stuff on the shelves.   It’s not right, is it?  It violates the sensible and correct way of preparing for Christmas!

You’ve got your little manger scene; a very organized and orderly place   There’s old Joseph looking down lovingly on his young not-quite bride, who’s kneeling by the side of a crib, looking at their newborn infant Jesus.   It’s a little odd, on this point:  I’ve never seen a manger that actually swaddled the little baby Jesus.  Usually he’s laying there with his cute little loin cloth, looking up at Mary.

Working out from the Holy Family, you’ve got to have a shepherd, preferably with a lamb across his shoulders; a sheep or two; a cow, maybe a donkey.  It’s permissible to have a trio of Wise Men off to one side.   An angel on the roof is of course a nice touch.

Some folks have gone to adding a kneeling Santa Claus there in the manger…that’s a bit of stretch, I think.   That’s starting to introduce a bit of nonsense into this otherwise sensible observance.   Keep your history straight–we all know it was years and years before Santa Claus started doing his Christmas Eve work.

Putting aside the kneeling Santa in the manger, everything else springs from the orderly and sensible story as originally told by the Gospel writers, such as Luke.

But, we fail to include all the elements that Luke shows us in his account.   No one, it seems, thinks to include a little plastic Caesar Augustus in or around their manger.  Yet, that is precisely how Luke starts off.   Luke has Caesar Augustus and the little baby Jesus, there, poised “back to back and facing each other”, lined up and prepared for a deadly duel.

Luke begins, In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.   This was the first enrollment—by the way–when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

We read that and think, “Aha!  Luke is sort of flipping back through his calendar, and researching the precise date on the calendar when Jesus was born.   How very sensible of him.

Well, Luke is trying to inform us of the times into which Jesus was born, but it’s not about a precise date on the calendar; it’s about Caesar Augustus:  in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus and it affected everyone in the world.

Caesar Augustus, himself, in his own person, was the power behind the peace and prosperity to all the world.  It was indeed a good time to be alive in the Empire, at least among those with whom Caesar was well-pleased.

Caesar Augustus’s full, official name was:   “Victorious Commander, Caesar, Son of God, the Most Illustrious One”.   The first Emperor of Roman Empire; in fact, the Savior of the Roman Empire.   It was Caesar Augustus who had finally ended years of bloody civil war.   It was Caesar Augustus who renovated and restored the city of Rome to its urban grandeur.

A common term to describe this period in world history is “pax Romana”, the peace of Rome.   But, first, it was known as “pax Augustus”…the peace which Caesar Augustus brought to the world.

Caesar had accomplished all this peace and order and prosperity through clever political maneuvering, to be sure.   He had most especially brought about that peace and order by waging war against his competitors and by assassination and by asserting his claim to the position and wealth held by others.

To keep it all going, Caesar needed revenue.   He had the authority to command that all the world should be enrolled so he could better tax everyone.  Including, Palestine; that backward yet essential component to his Empire.

Luke does not begin his tale with Caesar Augustus so we can peg these events to a particular day or year on the calendar.   Instead, Luke wants us to appreciate the audacity and the plain nonsense of what he is about to tell us.  For everything Luke proceeds to describe, is foolishness when set in the reality of that time.

The world is Caesar’s; the peace is Caesar’s; there is but one, Most Illustrious and Victorious Son of God, and it is Caesar.  So, go on and tell us, Mr. Luke, about this peasant couple who have their lives disrupted at the whim of Caesar Augustus, who sits high and mighty on his throne off far across the Sea in Rome.

Go on and tell us, Luke, about this couple and their infant son born in stable and laid in a feed trough.  Tell us again, Luke, about that crew of shepherds who came to town late one night, claiming a heavenly vision, that one of their own would become the guarantor of peace and prosperity for all the world.   In form and structure, it is a well-told story.   But, in fact…in meaning…it is nonsense.

Except for this:   it is a true story, still being told and still being understood, even to this day, right up to this very Christmas Eve night.

Ladies and gentlemen, skinny and stout—and all shapes and sizes in-between,

I tell you a tale I know a little something about—though, honestly, weeks can go by when I’m not sure I understand any of it really.   But that’s o.k.; because reality never has depended on me grasping it fully.   Plus, I’ve got you, the community of Christ, who carry one another through the hard and confusing times, till one’s own peace can be reclaimed.

Admission is free, that is true, for the blessings of this tale are pure gift.  Though, honestly, hearing and receiving this tale into one’s life can exact a price.

There is a chair and a place for you and for every one of us.   You may not think that’s possible, but it is.

This is a tale of a bright day that shone in the darkest of night.  A tale of a world where the dead live, though they no longer need fight.  Witnesses to this tale heard good news that pierced their deaf ears; a vision enlightened their once-blind eyes to see past human foolishness, both their own foolishness and the folly of others.

They spoke freely of peace.   Their peace confronted and rejected the wealth of Rome and the brutalities of its leaders.   This peace came through the healing word of its most Illustrious One, the child of Mary and Joseph, this Jesus whose birth we celebrate tonight.    This is the gift of God’s own Self, for all who hear the tale and discover its good, good sense for themselves.

The Wisdom of Finnegan

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, January 1, 2017
Taken from Matthew 2: 13-23 

The Wisdom of Finnegan

Our story today picks up when Christmas is over. The reading from Matthew begins, “When the magi had departed,” and now these new parents are left alone with their baby. Like all new parents, they begin trying to figure out what in the world they are supposed to do. Feeding and potty training and skinned knees and shoes that don’t fit anymore. The pageantry of Christmas is behind them, and now they begin in earnest the slow, steady work of raising baby Jesus. Now their life gets started.

But then—as if parenting weren’t stressful enough—an angel appears in a dream, with the terrifying news that Herod wants to murder their baby. So they flee to Egypt, to a new country, where they know no one. They are refugees there, seeking refuge from Herod’s tyranny and brutality (not unlike refugees today). And there they must start over, all alone.

Eventually, news reaches them that Herod has died, and they can finally go home! Can you imagine their joy at that return? To walk familiar streets, to see beloved faces, to re-introduce their growing boy to his cousins and grandparents and neighbors. Imagine the relief they must have felt: the nightmare of Herod is finally over, and now our life can get back on track. Now we can start fresh—a new beginning.

But then, another dream, another angel, another warning. Herod’s son is now ruling Judea, and they must go. Again they must flee, this time to Galilee, to the small town of Nazareth, to start over there.

“The Wisdom of Finnegan” is the title for today’s sermon. Finnegan is not a character in this story, nor an obscure Old Testament prophet from Ireland. This is not a literary allusion to Finnegan’s Wake, or something similarly profound. No, “Finnegan” is none other than Michael Finnegan, of the children’s song of the same name. “There was an old man named Michael Finnegan, he had whiskers on his chin-egan, they fell out and they grew in again. Poor, Michael Finnegan—begin again.” It goes on and on, but each verse ends with that same line: “Poor, Michael Finnegan—begin again.” And that last bit, “begin again,” is what we’re talking about today. Each verse: begin again. Begin again, and again, and again.

Life is a continuous succession of new beginnings, isn’t it? It was for Mary and Joseph, moving from place to place, and it is for us. Time after time, we find ourselves starting over. We move to a new town, or start a new job, or start over after losing someone we love.

Some new beginnings we choose; others happen to us. Some are exciting, some tragic; some are in between, a mixture of both. Sometimes we gradually change, and other times our lives are turned upside down in an instant. And we begin again.

The Daily Progress ran a story last week—perhaps you saw it—about a teacher who works in the UVA hospital, right across the street at the Battle Building.[i] She helps kids who are sick to stay caught up in their schoolwork while they are missing school for treatments. This article describes how she was in a terrible car accident, hit head-on by a drunk driver. She barely survived, with broken bones in her neck, back, knees, legs, hands. But after multiple surgeries and months of recovery, she got back to the work she loves, teaching kids. But then she also found a new calling, volunteering with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and speaking to groups all over the area. She and her kids have been volunteering at the nursing home where she spent time recovering, doing arts and craft projects with the residents.

It’s an incredible story of perseverance and renewal. She nearly died, and had to work for months to even be able to walk. Starting over… yet, finding in that experience a new beginning, and a new way to serve her community.

Do you have stories like that in your own life? Times when you had to find strength to keep going, and then set about starting over? Some new beginnings happen in ways we never would have chosen, yet there we are. Like that teacher, or like Mary and Joseph forced as refugees to flee from place to place, we too find ourselves in unknown territory, beginning again.

And then there are days like today. New Year’s Day. There’s nothing inherently special about this specific day, except that it falls at the beginning of our calendar. But as the start of the year, it takes on a greater meaning, offering the occasion to step back and stake out a new beginning. Today… is 2017! 2016 is officially behind us, and we are starting fresh in a new year.

There are other days when we can do this, of course: the start of the school year, or fiscal year, or a baptism day, like today will be for Mel. There are also milestones like birthdays, or anniversaries. All of these remind us to examine where we are. (Actually, speaking of milestones, I should mention that today is one of those landmark occasions for a couple in our church. Today is the 75th wedding anniversary for the Norvelles. 75 years—isn’t that amazing! Make sure you give Gus and Velma a call to congratulate them!)

New Year’s Day is a milepost for us, a time to pause and look around at where we are and where we are going. And of course, it is a time for resolutions. Many of us use this occasion to make changes in our lives, to re-calibrate in one way or another. Have you made any resolutions this year?

This is a popular tradition in our society, to resolve to live a little better, and we all know that these usually don’t last but so long. Apparently, though, researchers have found the exact date when these effects wear off: the first Thursday in February[ii]! Looking at social media data, the first Thursday in February is the date when, each year, declining gym attendance rates intersect with increasing fast food consumption rates. By early February, the good habits of exercising and eating well begin to fade away and we’re back out at Burger King instead of ACAC.

Still, there’s something powerful about resolutions and the New Year as an occasion to re-assert control over our lives, to have a fresh start. At its best, this is a time when we take a hard look at ourselves and make intentional choices about who we want to be: to live more the way I want to live, to be more fully who I know that I am, to leave behind what needs to be left, to be freed to live fully.

That’s what the promise of a new year offers, isn’t it? A new chance to move more fully into who we are meant to be…

Oddly enough, we accomplish that, and step into our new beginning, only when we can also look back. Looking back, and stepping forward.

As Mary and Joseph trudged through the desert into a strange, foreign land, surely they must have been carried along by their memory of what had happened before: startling visits from angels, and then God’s promises kept. Their baby was proof of God’s faithfulness. And as they traveled from place to place, surely they drew strength from that: even if we don’t know where we’re going or why, God has been faithful to us before.

The passage we read from Isaiah puts this sentiment into words for us: “I will recount the Lord’s faithful acts; I will sing the Lord’s praises, because of all the Lord did for us.” Surely Mary and Joseph’s memory of God’s faithfulness emboldened them to step out in confidence. Looking back, and stepping forward.

And we must look back. The writer of this Gospel went to great lengths to show how Mary and Joseph’s story was connected to the past. Just in the passage we read today, there were three separate quotations describing how the narrative is a fulfillment of Scripture. Matthew makes clear that to understand this story, you first have to hear the prophets. God is doing something new and incredible with this Christ child, but it can be understood fully only when we are also looking back.

And it’s the same for us. Life sometimes forces us to start over (like the teacher in the car wreck), and sometimes we claim for ourselves a fresh start (like in a new year), but always we bring our past with us. The truest new beginnings begin by looking back, reaching deep into who we know ourselves to be. Looking back, and stepping forward.

Take those New Year’s Resolutions. It’s not just about making a checklist of things you’re supposed to be doing better in life: reading more, exercising, spending less time on Facebook. That’s all fine, but it doesn’t take you very far—probably only until the first Thursday in February. Instead, what would happen if we dug a little deeper, to ask questions like: “Looking back on my life up to this point, when did I feel most alive, and most fulfilled? How can I move deeper into that?” Or, “Where has God been leading me until now? What has God been preparing me for? Where might God want me to be going now?”

Maybe you still end up saying “read more books” or “pray more often,” but it’s because you see how those make you more fully who you are supposed to be. You see the changes that align with who you have been becoming. Sometimes that means consciously letting go of what is past, to free yourself to move forward.

Looking back, and stepping forward.

It’s the same for us as a congregation. In this transitional period of our church’s life, we are doing a lot of soul searching about what kind of new chapter is beginning. But the reality is that we don’t become something we’re not. A new pastor doesn’t change who we are. Yet within our own story, there are new beginnings, turning points, new chapters and new opportunities. The question for us is, what does it look like to imagine a new beginning here, yet one rooted in our past and our identity? What are those best parts of who we are and who we have been? How can we move more fully into that?

Looking back, and stepping forward.

As a church, and in our individual lives, we are always facing opportunities to “begin again”, as Finnegan tells us. But it is when we look back that we discover more clearly who we are and what God has been doing in our lives, and only then are we able to start anew, living more fully into who we have always truly been.

And so, we start this year the way we start each month in our church, by coming to the Lord’s Table, to remember what God has done for us, to remember our identity as God’s beloved children, and in finding ourselves there, to step with confidence into the future to which God is calling us. Let us look back now, together, in remembrance of Christ.

 


[i] http://www.dailyprogress.com/news/local/distinguished-dozen-horrific-wreck-led-teacher-to-greater-joy/article_c6cadbd0-cc80-11e6-b3c4-7fc2fbbecc58.html

[ii] From Episode 4 of “Tell me something I don’t know” podcast, available here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/tell-me-something-i-dont-know/id1171534532?mt=2&ign-mpt=uo%3D4

Peace Garden

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, December 11, 2016
Taken from James 3:13-18

Bulletin cover 2016-Dec-11

Words are only squiggles and lines on paper or pixels on a screen if we’ve got no life experiences that we associate with those squiggles and lines.  Just open a book written in a foreign language we’ve never studied.  We assume they’re words on the page that mean something, but they could just be gibberish for all we know.

Theological words are especially like this.  Theological words must somehow find root in our life experiences if they’re to grow meaningful for us.  Did you hear what I just did there?  I used a metaphor.  “Root”.  “Grow”.

You and I understand from experience things “rooting” and “growing”.  That’s in contrast to things that are static and lifeless.  A rock, for example.  A slab of concrete.  A chunk of metal.  Definitions written in theological dictionaries:  very static, unmoving, lifeless.

But, if you accept my “rooting and growing” assertion, then you understand that theological words are meant to become dynamic, life-bearing quantities defined in our living rather than static and inert dead weight.

Thankfully, Jesus, and then James after him, used metaphors of garden and field to teach us the meaning of theological words such as “righteousness”.

“And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace,” writes James in verse 18 of our reading this morning.  Peacemakers, sowing peace, yield harvests of righteousness.

Whether the ground we work is a farm or a garden or a flower box, the whole point is that we are applying ourselves towards growing something that we fully intend to harvest.  It may be a dozen acres of corn or an eight-foot row of tomato plants or a gallon pot containing a single flower bulb:  we want to see something coming up out of that ground that corresponds to what we planted and that we know will yield the end-product that’s inspires our work.

There is a “wisdom from above”, writes James, “a wisdom from God”, which God offers all God’s children.  Who are God’s children?  Jesus told us in what we call “the Sermon on the Mount”:  “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be known as the children of God” (Matthew 5:9)  This “wisdom from above” God entrusts to those who make peace, who sow peace:  they are the people who reap the harvest of God’s righteousness.

A harvest of righteousness…what images do those words bring to your mind?  For me, my well-entrenched image is negative.  That word, “righteousness”, wraps around my mind and heart like a straightjacket and weights down my soul as though challenging me to swim with a concrete block around my waist.

“A harvest of righteousness” brings to my mind that famous painting by Grant Wood entitled, “American Gothic”.  You’ve seen it:  the dour-faced farmer standing there holding a pitchfork with his equally dour-faced wife next to him, both looking for all the world like they’d rather be anywhere else than standing next to each other posing for their portrait.

“A harvest of righteousness” brings to my mind Jonathan Edwards, the early American Puritan preacher.  Edwards terrified his parishioners with horrifying images of their eternal souls hanging as if by a spider’s thread, the flames of hell leaping up to grab them, with God holding that single, thin strand as if hoping they’ll give God just any excuse, any excuse at all, to let go of them, so every last miserable and ungrateful soul that they are will drop like spiders cast off into a fire, there to burn forever in the flames they so truly deserve to suffer.

Am I the only one here today that’s got such a messed-up version of righteousness playing in their heads.  Is that righteousness sown in peace by a peacemaker?

My mother grew up on a tobacco farm down in Pittsylvania County, as did my father.  They were high-school sweethearts, though actually Mom was the one in high school; dad got fed up with public education after the tenth grade and dropped out and starting bagging groceries.

Dad managed to save enough money to buy a roadster off a couple of brothers who lived there in the county.  The brothers ran moonshine and the state police had come to recognize their little roadster all too well, so I suppose that’s why they sold it at a price my 17-year old dad could afford.

Dad came by the farmhouse one day to give my mom a ride in his car.  But, her father, my grandfather, had given my mom a bag of seed-corn earlier that morning to plant in a garden patch he’d gotten ready to supply food for the family table.  So, mom took that bag of seed-corn out to the garden, held it by the bottom of the bag, and slung it out, scattering the seed every-which-a-way, tossed the bag, and off she went with my dad.

When mom got back to the farmhouse later, my grandfather was standing on the porch waiting for her.  In his hand, he held that little paper bag she’d balled up and tossed on the ground.  He gave her the bag and told her she could come in the house once she’d pick up every last kernel of seed-corn and planted it the way she should have the first time.

That’s a tricky illustration to use in the context of these verses about sowing to bear a harvest of righteousness.  You would correctly infer that I am using my mom’s petulance and her disregard for my grandfather’s instructions to illustrate how in our own petulance and disregard for God, we fail to grow what God seeks to plant within us.

As with my teenaged mom being enticed by my teenaged dad to go off on a joy ride, we may give only the most superficial appearance of obeying God, while running off to pursue our own desires.  “There!  I’ve done what God’s demanded of me; now I can go do what I really want to do.”

Well, that’s a correct though partial hearing of this illustration.  My mom’s self-serving and self-justifying behavior would not yield the crop of corn my grandfather was hoping to see harvested for their family table.

The Scripture here in James chapter 3, verses 14 through 16, describe in vivid terms just this kind of behavior my mom was portraying that day.  Verses 14 through 16 describe an attitude of appearing to be wise, or clever, but it is a superficial wisdom that cloaked at its heart bitterness and divisiveness and selfish ambition.  Such false wisdom, says verse 15, “is not such as comes down from above [from God].”  If left unaddressed and unchecked, verse 16 goes on to say this kind of so-called wisdom produces “disorder and every vile practice”.

The tricky part of this illustration comes, in where we see God in my little family story.  If we assume that in this story, my grandfather, stands in for God, we will have steered ourselves off in a wrong direction as much as my mother ran off in  her own wrong direction.

My grandfather was a stern man who evoked fear in his children.  He was a man to be gotten around and avoided.  The wisdom my

grandfather exercised over his family worked in the short-run.

Yes, you can meet your daughter out on the porch and banish her from the house until she’s picked up what she has scattered and planted it to your demanding satisfaction.  You will get that crop of corn, but it will be a crop sown in bitterness and the fruit of bitterness lasts long and does not serve well for making a healthy family.

So, make no mistake, my grandfather’s wisdom in this illustration does not stand in for God’s wisdom.  God’s wisdom, says verse 17, “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits.”

No, the only difference between my grandfather’s wisdom and the wisdom of my teenaged mom on that day long ago, was the difference found in their positions of power relative to one another.  He had the power to force her compliance on threat of being shut out of the house.

The Book of James is for the family of God.  It is for the household of faith gathered together in Christ Jesus.  This message of righteousness sown in peace by peacemakers is not about Christians relating to a secular, unbelieving world torn in conflict and blinded by false wisdom.  This message was for the congregation, for their life together within the family of God.

James was writing to confront them with this question:  what harvest are you cultivating among yourselves?  What fruit will you bear as a church family?

James wrote to these first century Christians the message that God’s people always need:  we must take hold of God’s wisdom for us.  Verse 17 parses out the details of this wisdom from God, but then verse 18 brings it all back together under this rubric of peace:  “the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who are peacemakers”.

Righteous fruit which is of God is not Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and it’s not Jonathan Edwards’ fiery sermons.  Mash all that up together, and all the church has gotten for itself is an “American Gothic Horror Story” getting passed off as Gospel.  So much of the American church lives today eating the fruit of that bitter harvest.

Righteous wisdom which is from above is not the stern fathers of the church, the stern mothers of the church, demanding their children go gather up their resources and plant the garden as they, the mothers and fathers, have prepared it to be sown.

Nor is righteous wisdom is not the daughters and sons of the church throwing aside the seed entrusted to them, appearing to follow through as their elders have so carefully prepared and instructed them, while really only seeking what pleases them.

My mother enjoyed a good ear of buttered corn-on-cob just as much as my grandfather did.  In the same way, righteous wisdom knows that the sacred harvest which parent and child alike delight in is a harvest sown in peace because they are themselves, as with their Savior, are makers of peace.

We in this Christmas Season celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace.  Peacemaking is hard, sacrificial work for everybody concerned.  We remind ourselves of that truth at least once a month here in our fellowship, as we are about to do now.

I invite you to look upon this table prepared before us.  Behold the bread and the cup of our Lord’s Last Supper.  Remember the Body and the Blood of the Prince of Peacemakers.  Behold the Wisdom that is from above, sown in flesh and blood, to yield peace with God on earth among all who claim this wisdom for themselves.

Behold, the meaning of God’s righteousness.

Dancing with The Lord

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, December 4, 2016
Taken from Luke 1:39-55

2016-12-04

My wife, Karen, loves to watch “Dancing With the Stars,” which means, I get to watch it, too.  Or, at least, I get to listen to it sitting there with Karen as I scroll through Facebook.  Even supposing there was any kind of dancing gene inside me, my upbringing thoroughly suppressed it.

My old-school Baptist upbringing said, you do not play cards, you do not go to movies and you most certainly do not dance.  Also, no cussin’, no smoking and no drinking.  Thankfully, the old-school Baptist way did allow for eating, so–we got the church potluck dinner down to a fine art.

By the time I got to my senior high school days, I was ill-prepared for Homecoming and Senior Prom.  By the time I was in college, the Twist was far behind us…it was the age of Saturday Night Fever and disco.  Precision and flair had returned to the dance floor.

In my poor efforts at learning some kind of rudimentary dance moves, I discovered that three things were helpful for dancing.  A sense of rhythm, of course, is pretty important.  A second helpful thing is a modicum of coordination.  Well, I’ve got a reasonable sense of rhythm, and I’m coordinated enough to walk and chew gum at the same time.  But, what I truly lacked was this all-important third thing that is essential to good dancing and even bad dancing.

The third thing you really need to enjoy a good dance is the ability to get out there on the dance floor and just forget yourself.  Just cut loose with a total abandonment of any self-awareness.  In fact, even if you have absolutely no sense of rhythm and absolutely no bodily coordination, if all you possess is this third ability, the ability to forget yourself, you, too, can dance.

This self-forgetfulness that dancing requires momentarily erases all sense of discomfort or fear.  The willingness to be a dancing fool for the sheer delight of it, that is the kind of self-forgetfulness at the heart of every kind of joy, and it is at the heart of religious joy.

There is more dancing going on in our Scripture this morning than first meets the eye*.  Verse 44 describes when Mary comes to visit Elizabeth; her much, much older kinswoman is pregnant.  And when Elizabeth hears Mary calling out to her, what does Elizabeth say about the baby in her womb?  She says, “The babe in my womb leaped for joy.”  Then, in verse 47, what does Mary say about her own spirit?  She says, “My spirit rejoices in my Savior.”

Elizabeth and Mary use the very same word there.  It’s a word that means “to exult…exult.”  Now, that’s a word we don’t generally go around using anymore.  We don’t go around saying how we exult in this and we exult in that.  To exult in something means to be ecstatic about it, to be exceedingly happy.

And ‘exult’ comes down to us from a Latin word meaning ‘to dance; to leap out’.  It means to cut loose and forget yourself and go leaping and dancing with delight and joy.  So, my anti-dancing upbringing, you see, ill-prepared me to exult in anything and certainly to not exult in or around church since, after all, to be godly meant you did not dance.  Isn’t it a shame to knock the capacity to exult right out of ourselves?

Yet, Elizabeth says that baby inside her is just kicking up his heels in a holy dance to celebrate his baby cousin over there inside of Mary.  And, Mary says, her soul inside her is kicking up its heels in a holy dance over what God has now down for her.  Now, as we read here, Mary’s kind of exulting, dancing spirit doesn’t mean she goes off in some kind of gibbering frenzy.  Mary is downright poetic and absolutely brilliant in the way she gathers up from the vast array of Old Testament prophets a few select prophecies.  Then Mary weaves those few prophecies together in this song of praise we generally call the “Magnificat”.

Mary starts off by saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  Think of a magnifying glass that gathers up all the light bouncing off an object, and it concentrates all that light in such a way that it enlarges and makes plain the object of its focus.  Or, think of how a magnifying glass can take the rays of sunlight and focus them in pinpoint precision that can set things afire.

Mary is like that magnifying glass.  Her spirit is so gathered up and focused full of God, her spirit is so penetrated and concentrated with the truth of God, it spills out of her not as a bunch of random, scattered notions, but as this intense and precise and beautiful proclamation.

Mary forgets herself and exults; she dances; she shimmers and shines in the joy of God.  Joy is getting birthed in Mary’s spirit and it wants to get out, now.  The joy of God is a full-bodied experience, just like Mary’s pregnancy is a full-bodied experience.

Mary’s experience of divine joy may suggest a few things to us in how we might experience God’s joy.  First, it strikes me from this Scripture that the joy of God might come when we least expect it.

The prophecies that Mary proclaims, those prophecies had been floating around unfulfilled for hundreds of years.  Why in the world would Mary, this young peasant woman, or Elizabeth, this very elderly woman, think the prophecies would get fulfilled starting with them?  No one would expect God to do such a thing.

Imagine you’ve stumbled into an awards banquet.  You’re sitting in the very back; you’re not even sure how you got invited to this banquet in the first place.  The master of ceremonies is way up front at the head table.  He’s about to announce the winner of that year’s award.  As they are want to do, the MC goes on and on about all the grand accomplishments and wonderful qualities of this person whose name he’s about to call out.  You’re kind of sitting up, looking way over the backs of everybody’s heads, wondering just which one might be this wonderful person.

The master of ceremonies finally finishes his long list of superlatives and begins to say, “And, of course, the person whom I’m describing is none other than….”  Suddenly, people are looking at you and slapping you on the back and congratulating you.  It finally sinks in, the master of ceremonies has called out your name, and you didn’t even think you were suppose to be there in the first place.  How unexpected!  What a surprise!  And, what joy.  The joy of the unexpected good bestowed  on you!

That’s what’s happened to Mary and to Elizabeth.  They just didn’t see it coming, did they?  Their faith had taught them to expect that God would send a prophet who would announce the Messiah’s arrival.  Then, after the prophet got everyone ready, the Messiah himself would arrive.  They fully expected it to happen someday.  But, they never, ever in their wildest dreams, imagined God meant them to be the two women through whom, first, the prophet and, then, the Messiah would be born.

What a weird strategy God has for accomplishing salvation.  Incorporating an elderly woman well past child-bearing age and a young woman, most likely a teenager, for whom an unwed pregnancy could possibly have been a death sentence, incorporating these two as key players in salvation.

Well, it may seem a weird way to go about things to us, but God is God and God works in mysterious and surprising ways.  And, so God continues to be active in this good world.  You and I are part of God’s unfolding drama of saving this beautiful and messy world.  As unexpected as that may be for us, we have to ask the question, “What does God want to get borne out into this world through us, in cooperation with what God is about in this world?”

After Jesus gets born, eventually Mary and Joseph and little Jesus settle down in Nazareth.  Decades go by.  Finally, Jesus leaves home, following God through the Jordan River, following God through the wilderness, following God as Jesus starts calling out his disciples.  And what’s the first thing he hears in response?  It’s, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  What could God possibly find in Podunk-Nazareth of all places that might help out in God’s good work?

Are you ever tempted to ask that about yourself?  What good can come out of my personal Podunk-Nazareth?  What could God possibly find in my neck of the woods that could make a difference?  Well, a lot of good did come out of Nazareth;  God wants to bring forth a lot of good out of your own Nazareth.  So, don’t let anybody cast doubt on what God might bring forth from you, whether you are quite elderly as Elizabeth was, or quite young as Mary was, or in your prime but apparently not holding the right credentials, as Jesus was.

Why would God do it that way?  Look again to Mary’s example.  Verse 47, “…my spirit rejoices—my spirit dances—in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden….”  And then, she goes on to say in verse 50, “…his mercy is on those who fear him, from generation to generation.”

Mary sees that God has chosen her for no other reason than God’s own mercy.  No doubt, Mary had always heard that God was merciful, and now, she knows it…God has shown profound mercy on her.

God has mercy on all who reverence God and who seek to honor God through their lives.  God has this kind of mercy for us, today.  God’s mercy is like God’s invitation to come on out to the dance floor and to dance with God.  But, we’re just so self-conscious or so full of our own selves, so full, usually, of our own self-doubts, we just won’t go out there with God.

I regret having been so self-conscious growing up that I could not enjoy getting out on the dance floor with my friends.  A far deeper regret is knowing there are lots of times my own fears or self-preoccupations have kept me from hearing God’s call to come dance in the presence of God.

But, God is merciful.  God has promised, as Philippians 1:6 tells us, “…that the One who began a good work in us will bring it to completion at the advent of Jesus Christ.”  A little further over, Philippians 2:13 assures us, “…for God is at work in us, both to will and to do God’s good pleasure.”

God wants each one of you, and God wants me, to be God’s dance partner.  Sometimes, in the most unexpected ways and in the most unexpected moments, we’ll hear God calling, “Come, dance with me; forget yourself for a few moments and know my joy, exult in me,” says God to us.

In those moments, don’t worry over what others might think of you.  No matter if you suffer from “dance arrhythmia”…don’t even think of yourself.  The only thing that matters is what God thinks of you.  And what God thinks is, you’re just the one who should be out there exulting in God.  That is God’s mercy-filled choice for each of us.  This is our joy.


* Exegetical notes are from Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1971).

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