Hope is Never Hidden – Jeremiah 33:14-16

In his book, Hidden Christmas, Timothy Keller says that Christmas is the only Christian Holy Day that is also a major secular holiday. Sure, there’s a secular component to Easter. We’ve got the Easter Bunny and the Egg Hunts to go along with the cross and the resurrection. But Easter’s secular side pales in comparison to the onslaught of lights, carols, sales, TV specials, and SALES, SALES, SALES! Easter has Good Friday; but, nothing to compare to Black Friday – consumerism’s kidnap of Christmas. 

As I was writing this sermon, I was listening to a Christmas song by Rodney Crowell, “Christmas Everywhere:” 

Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas everywhere
Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas pullin‘ out my hair
Shoppers lined up out the door
Traffic backed up miles and more
It’s Christmas time, so what the heck
Let’s go spend the whole paycheck 

But, when you focus all your annual financial success on this one month, one weekend, no expense is too great to draw customers in. So, Christmas, real Christmas, is hidden beneath a mountain of secular images in an attempt to make money.  

I recall one “Black Friday” I spent in the University Mall in Tuscaloosa. Technically, it still felt like Thanksgiving Day – we left the house about 10:00 pm (so, we hadn’t been to bed!). I sat on one of the benches, just like all the other “old men!” Thousands of people hustling back and forth with bags and boxes representing even more thousands of dollars in cash purchases and credit card debt. They carried sale flyers, celebrating each acquisition with glee.  

Over the din, I could hear the faint strains of Christmas carols over the loud speakers:

“O Little Town of Bethlehem . . .” 

“What Child is this, who laid to rest . . .” 

And perhaps the most ironic – “Silent night, Holy night . . .” 

There was very little “holy” about that night. No child “on Mary’s lap” would sleep through this commotion. The “hopes and fears of all the years” probably wouldn’t meet until the bills came due in January.  

In America, its “Hark the Herald Angels” versus “Holly Jolly Christmas.” We know who wins. Santa takes it every time! 

The secular, consumer side isn’t going away any time soon – not when there’s so much money riding on it! But, really, we Christians shouldn’t worry about all that. The true, holy roots of the season will always be present.  

The problem comes when the secular, consumer side drowns the holy roots that seek to sink deep in our hearts. Buying lots of presents isn’t the problem. The problem is when the accompanying greed drives compassion out of our hearts.  

It’s bad when we move away from the justice and righteousness that God brings during Advent. 

Jeremiah was a prophet of longing. His ministry, his preaching, came during a time of great suffering in the land of Israel and Judah. They had been defeated in war. Most were taken off into slavery and exile in Babylon. It is common for the First Sunday of Advent to draw our attention to the longing for a coming Messiah. Our desire for peace, justice, and righteousness isn’t much different from the longings of the ancient Jews.  

Today’s scripture is from Jeremiah: 

14 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 33:14-16) 

Jeremiah speaks of longing, but uses words of certainty: 

“The days are surely coming . . .” 

“When I will fulfill . . .” 

“He shall execute justice and righteousness . . .” 

The season of Advent – the lead-up to Christmas Day – is a season when the church can no longer contain the unfulfilled desire for all God promises. A cry breaks out, “O Come, O come Emmanuel!” Lord, hurry up! Come and fulfill your promises! “Execute justice and righteousness” in our world! 

My longing breaks forth into a cry when the prevalence of hate begins to “turn my stomach.” 

I want to cry out when I see people dragged down into addiction and poverty. 

I want to do more than cry when I see people shot in malls and children tear-gassed at our borders. Merry Christmas, y’all! 

They say that despair is the absence of hope. Maybe it’s hope that is the most hidden in all this worldly cynicism. The God for whom Jeremiah longs is not absent – not hidden. He is coming, and, for us, has come! 

Even amid all the hype of Black Friday, the holy roots of Christmas can still be found. Christ can be found in the everyday lives of his people. Christ can be found in our acts of love. Christ can be found when we show compassion.  

Like a Christmas Carol refusing to be drowned out by the noise of shoppers, if we listen closely, we hear the hope! We hear the hope as we sing: 

“Glory to the Newborn King . . .” 

“God and sinners reconciled . . .” 

“Born that man no more may die . . .” 

“Born to give us second birth . . .” 

If we listen closely, we discover the source of all our hope, even under the sound of cash registers and commercials. If we open our hearts to the presence of “God with us,” Emmanuel, we will see . . . 

That the days are surely coming . . .  

That God’s promise will be fulfilled . . . 

That justice and righteousness will burst forth in all the land!  

Welcome to the Neighborhood

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . .”

It is common to hear this verse at Christmas time. It’s what Christmas is all about! Jesus becoming incarnate – “made flesh” – as a baby in the manger. The Divine becomes human; the spiritual becomes physical.

The Message says, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

When you show up somewhere, does Jesus come with you?

If we move into a neighborhood, take a new job, go shopping, come to church or go to a party, does Jesus come with us?

We are the way that God chooses to continue to make Jesus known to the world! The Word once became flesh in Jesus Christ, but Jesus still becomes flesh everyday in us – if we proclaim to be a Christian.

We become the means by which Jesus “moves into the neighborhood.”

If we proclaim the name of Christ, the Holy Spirit comes upon us and fills us with Christ’s presence and transforms our heart and mind into the heart and mind of Christ!

Examining today’s scripture will help us understand this idea:

1 In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.
2 The Word was with God in the beginning.
3 Everything came into being through the Word,
    and without the Word
    nothing came into being.
What came into being
4     through the Word was life,[a]
    and the life was the light for all people.

The wording is meant to remind us of the Book of Genesis. John means for us to think about creation.  It is difficult to separate “God” from “Word.” From the first moments of creation, God has been inextricably tied with his creative Word. He spoke the word and light, dark, earth, and water were created.

Where does “God” stop and “Word” begin? John doesn’t know. It’s all the same! So, everything – you, me, animals, earth, and trees, sun and moon and stars – are given life by God’s creative Word.

The Life we are given shows us how to live. It’s the Light.

 11 The light came to his own people,
    and his own people didn’t welcome him.
12 But those who did welcome him,
        those who believed in his name,
    he authorized to become God’s children,
13         born not from blood
        nor from human desire or passion,
        but born from God.
14 The Word became flesh
    and made his home among us.  

One day, that pure, undiluted Word, that pure Light, became flesh and walked among us.  That “one-of-a-kind God expression, the very heart of the Father” came to earth. Some of us recognized him and some did not. If we did recognize him, “believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said,” God made us to be our “true child-of-God selves.”

If we recognize the Light that is Christ, we are changed! We are no longer just plain, old human beings. We are children of God!

It, therefore, becomes our responsibility to continue to be that “Child of God” every day! This is what people see in us when they say “there’s something different” about us. Because we are Children of God, we have more peace, more love, more trust. When we talk about “making disciples,” we are talking about how we show people what Jesus is by our actions.

We make disciples by incarnating Christ among others; by making him known to those who do not know him yet.

Phil Maynard, in Shift: Helping Congregations Get Back in the Game of Effective Ministry, says:

“Christians believe that life finds it meaning in a relationship with Jesus. Since that is true, it becomes the responsibility of every disciple to not only be in that relationship, but to help others discover that relationship as well.”

We cannot be Christ “in the flesh” to others, if Christ has not been “made flesh” in us.

You’ve got to know Jesus to share Jesus.

It is very easy for that relationship, that connection with Christ, to atrophy, to shrink. How?

Maynard says that the longer we are involved in a church, the fewer people we relate to outside of church. We get so attached to the folks we see in church that we neglect to form relationships outside of church.

How, then, do we ever incarnate Christ to people who do not know him yet? Maynard calls it Incarnational Hospitality: 

  • Presence – being there, casual relationships
  • Proximity – meaningful involvement with others, making a difference in their lives
  • Powerlessness – be a “servant,” not a “fixer;” empower others
  • Proclamation – “Always be ready to defend the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15); why is “proclamation” last?

Think about our lives.

  • Who are we close to? With whom do we have casual relationships? Outside the church!
  • Who have you helped? Made a difference in their lives? Outside the church!
  • Is there anyone who feels more empowered, more in control of their lives, because of the help you have given them?
  • Of those people, is there anyone who is looking for meaning in life? That might find it in Jesus Christ?

Proclamation is last for a reason. People are more open to gospel when we have a relationship with them (presence). People are more open when they know we care about them (proximity). People are more open when they feel empowered, rather than overpowered (powerlessness). Then, we can proclaim the gospel with integrity – because we have incarnated the presence of Christ!

God Made It All

Genesis 1  (NRSV) 

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God  swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 

Do you know what a “light year” is? It is the distance that light travels in one year, or. 9,460,700,000,000 km, about 6 trillion miles. Some of those galaxies are 24 million light years wide. 24 million times 6 trillion equals a number that boggles the mind! 

When we turn our lights on, we see the light immediately; because light is moving at over 670 million miles per hour! So, imagine the distance: we turn on a light and it takes 365 days for us to realize it. It’s beam is moving at 670 million miles per hour, and it’s traveling 6 trillion miles. 

And God said, “Let there be light.” 

One night recently, as I was walking the dogs, as thought of the scripture I just read to you. It was a clear night, and there was very little “light pollution” (few street lights visible, etc.). All I saw was stars! Big stars. Little stars. Clouds of stars. Big Dipper. The Little Dipper (that’s the extent of my knowledge of the constellations). 

Imagine what ancient humans thought, when they looked at the night sky, before they knew those lights were called “stars,” before telescopes, before we had measured the speed of light or a Light Year. What did they think before they knew that those lights in the sky were rocks reflecting the light of the sun? The only answer they had is an answer that has lasted through the ages, “In the beginning, God . . .” 

After all these years, after all our exploration, there is still an element wonder. After our knowledge reaches its end, there is still evidence of a plan, of “intelligent design.” 

 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. 

Before December 22, 1968, we only knew the earth through drawings, “artist’s renderings.” A few humans had been to space and actually seen the Earth from that vantage point. But, before December 22, 1968, with the flight of Apollo 8, no human had looked back at Earth with a camera in their hand.  

For some, the beauty of that picture is enough to convince them of the hand of God in its creation. 

Martin Rees, a British astronomer, says that for the universe to exist, it requires that hydrogen be converted to helium at a very precise rate – so that seven one-thousandths of its mass is converted to energy. (0.007) Lower that to 0.006 and no conversion would take place, the universe would be all hydrogen. Raise that to 0.008 and hydrogen would convert to helium so fast there would be none left.  

Change that already small number one one-thousandths either way, and no universe. No Earth. No nothing. How did this hydrogen to helium conversion stop at the precise rate needed? 

“In the beginning, God . . .”  

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. 

Then,  on the fourth day: 

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; 

And finally, after creating us – humankind – God said:  

28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. 

But that was not the last thing God did: 

The heavens and the earth and all who live in them were completed. On the sixth day God completed all the work that he had done, and on the seventh day God rested from all the work that he had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation. (Genesis 2:1-3) 

After all the work of creation, God “took a day off.” Likewise, we do the same – to prove that God will provide. The Sabbath proves that all that God created will continue to work without any input from us.  

After those ancient humans discerned God was the creator, there came a time when that Creator reached out to a man named Abraham. From that divine initiative, a nation was created, a group of people united by their relationship with the creator of the universe. Over time, those people wanted a way to show their devotion to their God. They wanted the God who made them to know that they loved him. God must know that we are grateful to him for all that he has made. 

God made everything, so everything belongs to God.  

So, they began to bring God the produce of the earth he had created. And not just any grain or livestock, but the best of the bunch! The first fruits. They gave to God before they fed themselves. Their law even prescribed what they should say when they brought their offering: 

you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 26:5-10)  

God made everything – the harvest, the nation to which we belong – so everything belongs to God.   

In the giving of the first fruits – ancient Hebrews expressed their awe of God’s power by giving what was most valuable. Their harvest was their “checkbook.” As they gave the offering, they acknowledged God’s hand in creating the offering.  

What we do isn’t much different. We don’t bring grain and oxen to the altar for sacrifice, but we bring what is most vital us – money. We bring the currency of our day. We bring what we need to survive. We bring what we have used our God-given strength to produce – money.  

God made everything, so everything belongs to God.  

We give because God first gave to us – the earth that produces, the sun, the rain that helps produce. From our vantage point, the divine giving took on even greater significance.  

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life,  and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. (John 1:1-5)  

The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)  

We give because God first gave to us – the universe, the Earth, the produce of that earth.  

We give because God ultimately gave his very self to us!

Put God First

Here we are. “It’s that time of year, again!” It’s time to talk about money. It’s time to talk about giving. Some of us dread it. Some of us think we should just “skip it.” Some believe it is an invasion of privacy to talk about what they give to the church; “That’s between me and God, Preacher!”

Those last people are exactly right! It is between you and God. Giving to God through the church is never a financial matter and always a spiritual matter.

Think about this – when the book of Genesis speaks of bringing an offering to God, there were no buildings to maintain, no staff to pay, no “building projects” needed. Why did people make sacrifices to God?

In the Old Testament, there were no checkbooks, ATM cards, IRAs, 401k, no cash – just cattle, grain, wine. Wealth was computed in grain, livestock, wine, oil, crops. When Old Testament people burn offerings and sacrifices, they were offering their wealth to God in the same way as when we make regular tithes, or put money in the offering plate.

We are giving that which sustains our life, that which is most valuable to us.

Everything the Old Testament says about giving puts it in the light of sacrifice and devotion to God. There was no option. They looked around at the majesty and wonder of their world – nature, harvest, sun and moon, children – and knew they must pay homage to God, who made it all.

Every idea, every practice, every act of worship was designed to put God first. Putting God first brought many benefits. Priorities, peace, order, worship, everything in its right place – “Shalom,” as the ancient Jews called it.

Today, we are tempted to put many competing idols, many gods, at the top of our priority list – and we wonder how our life seems “out of whack,” chaotic, and out of order. Many times, when we do give to God through the church, we even mis-prioritize the reasons we do so.

In the “olden days,” when “everyone” went to church, when everybody was a member of our “club,” we could take the easy way out and talk about giving to support our “club.”  Now, we are being forced to reevaluate the basics of our faith.

Stewardship basics are:

  1. God made everything, so everything belongs to God.
  2. When we give, we put God first.
  3. We give because we love God.

Our giving to God through the church (or, as we call it, stewardship) is always about our relationship to God, and never about “paying the bills,” “keeping the doors open,” or “balancing the budget.” Giving to God through the church is always about ministry, not money.

The only truly Biblical approach is to address giving as a matter of relationship to God.

Herb Miller, one of the most prolific writers and teachers about Stewardship, says, in a publication called Full Disclosure:

Every encouragement toward financial giving stands on the foundation of Jesus’ Great Commandment and Great Commission:

  1. Grow spiritually in your relationship with God (Acts 2:41-46) as you share resources with one another.
  2. Love your neighbors in church, community, and world (Luke 10:25-37) as we help others in need. (Good Samaritan – showed his commitment)
  3. Offer Christ to people outside your church’s walls (Matthew 28:19-20) as we share our faith with others.

Financial giving increases our spiritual health by “encouraging discipleship behaviors” like sharing resources, helping others and sharing faith. As we grow in discipleship behaviors, we more closely and fully accomplish our purpose as a church – “to discover, develop and deploy spiritual leaders for the transformation of the world” or, put more simply, “to make disciples.”

The way we give to God through the church shows whether or not we give God the highest priority. There are other ways we show that we put God first – the way we act, the relationships we have, the way we think. But, how we give shows our “willingness or unwillingness to give ourselves wholeheartedly to God’s guidance in all our lives.”

How we give shows what is important in our lives. How we give to God is an “essential element in helping us form, retain, and grow in our spiritual connection to God.”

The very first time the Bible mentions anyone giving to God is the story of Cain and Abel – the world’s first brothers:

Genesis 4:3-7 (CEB)

Some time later, Cain presented an offering to the Lord from the land’s crops while Abel presented his flock’s oldest offspring with their fat. The Lord looked favorably on Abel and his sacrifice but didn’t look favorably on Cain and his sacrifice. Cain became very angry and looked resentful.The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why do you look so resentful? If you do the right thing, won’t you be accepted? But if you don’t do the right thing, sin will be waiting at the door ready to strike! It will entice you, but you must rule over it.”

Scholars have long debated why Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s was not. If we compare this story with the many other mentions in the first five books of the Bible (The Pentateuch – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), we conclude that Cain’s offering was somehow insincere and selfish. Maybe Cain gave God the “leftovers” while Abel put God first and gave the firstborn of his flock. Every other book of the Pentateuch – and many other sources – give the same kind of warning. God wants more than money, more than stuff, he wants our hearts.

This first story holds such truth! Be sincere with your gifts. When you are insincere, or give with an eye toward your self, rather than the recipient, you could become jealous and resentful of those who give generously.

When I first started in ministry, I heard experienced pastors say that those who complain the loudest about a preacher preaching about money are those who don’t give; and, every time you preach about giving, they are convicted. That gets painful!

I doubted them, when I was young and stupid. But, guess what? They were right. Jealousy is a powerful emotion – it lead to the first murder, and the murder of many church’s ministries.

In this Genesis passage, there were no buildings to maintain. No temple. No ministry. There was only devotion to God. When our devotion to God is insincere and self-serving, we’ve got more problem than our pocketbook!

We find a similar story in the Book of Acts:

Acts 5:1-11

However, a man named Ananias, along with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. With his wife’s knowledge, he withheld some of the proceeds from the sale. He brought the rest and placed it in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Peter asked, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has influenced you to lie to the Holy Spirit by withholding some of the proceeds from the sale of your land? Wasn’t that property yours to keep? After you sold it, wasn’t the money yours to do with whatever you wanted? What made you think of such a thing? You haven’t lied to other people but to God!” When Ananias heard these words, he dropped dead. Everyone who heard this conversation was terrified. Some young men stood up, wrapped up his body, carried him out, and buried him.

About three hours later, his wife entered, but she didn’t know what had happened to her husband. Peter asked her, “Tell me, did you and your husband receive this price for the field?”

She responded, “Yes, that’s the amount.”

He replied, “How could you scheme with each other to challenge the Lord’s Spirit? Look! The feet of those who buried your husband are at the door. They will carry you out too.” 10 At that very moment, she dropped dead at his feet. When the young men entered and found her dead, they carried her out and buried her with her husband.11 Trepidation and dread seized the whole church and all who heard what had happened.

Needless to say, “trepidation and dread” would seize us, too, if the same thing happened.

Notice that Ananias and Sapphira were not question about the size of their gift. How big it was, how small it was didn’t matter. What mattered is that they lied. They lied to God and they lied to the community of faith. Once again, priorities matter! There is no place for selfishness in the heart of a true disciple.

Clarity of devotion leads to generosity in giving – and vice versa. Resentment in giving betrays a lack of faith and trust in God. I wonder, if Ananias and Sapphira had told the truth, would they have died? Peter condemns the lie, not the gift.

Jesus himself lifts up, not the amount, but the motivation in Mark’s famous “Widow’s Mite” passage:

Mark 12:41-44

41 Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42 One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny.[g] 43 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44  All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”

Many rich people were throwing in lots of money.” It was noisy as they threw in lots of coins. Everybody knew they were rich! Jesus praised the widow to the surprise of his followers. They were accustomed to favoring the wealthy. Jesus favored the devoted.

I could go on. In the Old Testament, “offering” and “sacrifice” are used interchangeably. In each instance, it was a matter of worship, or devotion. It was an act that sought forgiveness, that atoned for sin.

The financial giving of our day should be no different. It should never, if it is to be biblical, be based on arm-twisting, guilt-inducing appeals from the outside. Good stewardship should come from the heart of the believer, as we seek to devote our dearest, most precious resources to God. Not all of those resources, just some. And do it first. Put God first in your giving. Learn to prioritize your devotion as you prioritize your giving.

Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The converse is also true – if we want to know someone’s heart, look where they put their treasure.

Abiding: The Quiet Pentecost

Our world is just about totally intolerant of silence. Have you noticed? Have you noticed how nearly everybody has decided that “louder is better”? It’s like, if you aren’t sure what you are talking about, at least say it louder and more passionately than your opponent, then maybe no one will notice if you’re right! 

It seems we are encouraged to be loud in every aspect of our personality – demanding, perpetually offended, self-promoting, always right! 

In the course of our days, its TV in the morning, music in the car, FOX News in the doctor’s office, music at the grocery store, cell phones ringing, people talking – my ears are ringing just thinking about it! 

In our little Southern-American corner of this world, some people get extremely “loud” about their faith. Always talking about Jesus, wearing t-shirts about Jesus, displaying bumper stickers about Jesus, running for office in Jesus’ name . . .  

For all that loudness, the world doesn’t seem to be getting any better! We’re still as mean, evil, greedy, and self-centered as we ever have been. If hollering changed people, you’d think this world would be in a little better shape, wouldn’t you? 

Instead of more volume to our faith, we might need a little more depth. Instead of loud faith, maybe some more living faith. More “abiding,” less hollering. 

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day on which we remember the full-scale arrival of the Holy Spirit. Traditionally, preachers use the second chapter of Acts today. In our world, the traditional story of Pentecost fits right in! Disciples rushing out into a crowd of thousands, preaching and speaking in a confusing jumble of languages, acting like their “hair is on fire!” That is Luke’s version written in the second chapter of the book of Acts.  

There might be another version, though. John might have given us a different description of what the presence of the Holy Spirit might mean. In his description of the last night Jesus and the disciples spent together (chapters 13-17), Jesus teaches a lot about the Holy Spirit. It all centers on the presence of Christ and the connection we have to him through the “Companion.” He calls this presence “abiding.”   

This is the “Quiet Pentecost.” It might not be the Pentecost story we want, but it might be the story we need. Let’s start with the beginning of John 15: 

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrowerHe removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed[b]by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become[c] my disciples. (John 15:1-8 NRSV) 

 In John’s “Last Supper” story, Jesus talks a lot about “presence” – God’s presence with him, his presence with God, God’s presence with the disciples. Here, Jesus is talking about the value of being connected. He uses the image of a vine, which most of us still understand.   

In this image, “abiding” means being connected to Jesus like branches are connected to a vine. This is the only way to stay alive in the faith – to stay connected to the source of all spiritual nourishment, Jesus Christ. There are plenty of “branches” in this world that are beautiful and green, but won’t last long because they aren’t connected; they do not abide with Jesus. There are some “fans” of Jesus, some very loud ones, who might fit this description. If we aren’t abiding in Jesus, we’re withering, not long for this world!  

To “bear fruit,” to make disciples, we must stay connected to Jesus; we must abide in Jesus.    

In this section of John, for as much as Jesus talks about “presence,” he talks a lot about “absence,” too. Ironically, his physical presence in this world must decrease for his spiritual presence to increase.  

At this point, Jesus knows that he cannot give up the mission God has given him. Yet, the “powers that be” feel threatened by that mission and are planning to silence him – permanently! Jesus knows he will not be with his disciples for very much longer, so he tells the what to expect in his absence: 

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion,[a] who will be with you forever. This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you. (John 14:15-17) 

This “Companion” will be an eternal companion, as opposed to a limited, finite, physical presence.  “You know him because you have been living with me all this time,” Jesus seems to say.  

The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you. (John 14:26) 

The Companion’s voice will sound very familiar.  

“When the Companion comes, whom I will send from the Father—the Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father—he will testify about me. You will testify too, because you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:26-27) 

When the Companion arrives, then and only then (?) will we be able to testify about Jesus. So, in Jesus’ absence, there will be a familiar-sounding, courage-inducing, word-producing presence that will abide with us.  

This Companion,  this abiding presence, is something the world needs, but something that only the believer can know (“whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him.”) 

The world doesn’t need louder disciples. The world doesn’t need more noise. The world needs the Companion, the Holy Spirit, to abide with it and teach it all that Jesus said. How does the world get that Companion? By connected, abiding-with-Jesus disciples bearing fruit and making more connected, abiding-with-Jesus disciples. 

It’s hard to watch this beautiful world suffer. It’s hard to wish that they would see the truth about “sin, righteousness, and judgment.” Its hard to watch this beautiful world stumble blindly about, following the loudest (and sometimes the least connected) voices. 

Paul offers us one last word of comfort. In his letter to the Romans, he seems to know how we feel:  

We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. . .  

26 In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. (Romans 8:22-23, 26) 

The NRSV says “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” 

When we who abide, feel the pain of a world groaning and suffering . . . 

Feel the pain of a world so noisy that it can’t hear the voice of Jesus . . . 

So busy that it can’t feel the presence of the Companion . . .  

When we feel that pain, and don’t know what to say . . . 

There is a deep and abiding presence, a quiet presence, that knows exactly what to say. When we are weak, there is a strong, silent presence . . .  

When we feel separated and lost, there is – through the power of the Companion, the Holy Spirit – a presence of Christ out there, abiding with all us sinners. We should take great comfort in that. If we can just be quiet enough to hear it, feel it, and abide in it. Abide.    

A Backwards Baccalaureate Sermon

“I wish I knew then what I know now . . .”  

You usually hear that from us old people, insinuating that somehow, we’ve learned some great, secret wisdom in our lives that would make what your future much easier. I’ll let you in on a secret – we haven’t. Most of us are still “making it up as we go along.” 

It’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? Look at the world – war, violence, racism, poverty – does it look like we know what we’re doing?! 

I’m sure that, by now, you’ve heard a LOT of advice. Teachers. Parents. Preachers. Strangers in Walmart. Everybody has an opinion about what you need to know.   

“Boy! When I was your age, I wish I knew then what I know now . . .” 

When I was asked to speak, I started thinking about what to say. I started out like every 50-year-old male preacher you’ve ever heard. I meant to say to myself, “If I knew then what I know now.” But, what came out of my mouth was – “Man, if I knew now what I knew back then . . .” 

Oops! I got it backwards.

Or did I . . .  

Maybe I got it right? Maybe there’s a lot of stuff that I used to know, that I have forgotten? Maybe you Soon-to-be-Graduates are smarter than I – and a lot of my colleagues – give you credit for. Maybe . . . 

Hey, adults, parents, teachers – the smartest creature on God’s green earth is a High School Graduate, at least that’s what they say. Maybe they’re on to something! 

I wonder what I have forgotten in the 30+ years since I graduated from High School? 

What did I know then, that I don’t know now?  

If I could go back to 1982, and talk to 18-year-old Earl, what wisdom would he impart to 54-year-old Earl? 

I think, above all, Young Earl was generally more hopeful than Old Earl. You might have heard the verse from Philippians:  I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13). Let me explain where that came from.  

It comes from a letter written by Paul to the Christians in a town called Philippi. Paul was one of the first and undoubtedly the greatest missionary of the cause of Christ. He began his life as a persecutor of Christians, but was miraculously converted to the faith. After his conversion, he traveled all around preaching and starting churches. He was beaten, imprisoned, and suffered a lot! He still kept going. In fact, he writes this letter while he is in prison! Scholars believe it was written near the end of his life; the charges for which he was arrested could have led to execution.  

If you were in jail, possibly waiting on the hangman, what kind of letter would you write?  

Paul’s letter from that situation says things like: 

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7) 

Can you imagine?  

I’m not saying that, at age 18, I was like Paul, but I was definitely more filled with hope for the world and for my life than I am now. Maybe it’s almost 40 years of seeing sinful and lost people being mean and hurtful to each other – and to me! I think it happens to all of us as we age.  

But don’t let it happen to you! I want to you all to keep reminding us that the world is a beautiful place. I want all of you to keep doing all things; keep trying all things; keep going!   

Understandably, some of you may be a bit skeptical of the claim of faith upon your life. Maybe Christians have been unkind to you or to your family members. Maybe you’ve seen and heard loud, outspoken, judgmental Christians in the news and on TV. I understand that it might have turned you off to believing in Jesus. But, read one of the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John – the Jesus portrayed in those four books is nothing like the Jesus touted by politicians and pundits.  

I think the reason Young Earl was so hopeful, so sure that he could “do all things,” is that he was surrounded by people, family, a church youth group, friends, who were accepting and open to all. There was prejudice, there were some closed minds (this was Alabama, after all), but my closest friends and mentors knew the loving, non-judgmental Jesus of the Scriptures.  

I think Young Earl was purer than Old Earl.  

More of Paul’s “prison letter” to the Philippians: 

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9) 

Confession time: by the time most adults get to this age, we’ve filled our hearts and minds with a lot of whatever is the opposite of what is true, holy, just, pure, lovely, and praiseworthy. It happens when we just aren’t diligent and watchful enough to keep it out. It even happens to preachers. Shoot! It even happened three or four times while I was writing this sermon! 

If I knew now what I knew then, I would remember that there is a lot of beauty in this sometimes awful world. I would remember that there is truth – even in the face of lies. I would focus on places, people, events that are worthy of praise.  

If 18-year-old Earl could come forward in time and talk to me now, he would be encouraging. I hope I’d be willing to listen to him. He would know that he could do anything, be content anywhere, offer anything to God in prayer, and worry even less.  

If I knew now what I knew back then . . . 

I pray that all of us know-it-all adults might be willing to listen to you. I pray that you – young, hopeful, optimistic, and full of energy – would be patient with us. We’re trying to remember what you already know!   

“Mama’n’em” – a Mother’s Day sermon

Y’all understand the title, right? If you live in the South, you should. Everybody’s got a “Mama’n’em.” Allow me to translate. “Mama’n’em:” a Southern derivative of the phrase, “your Mother and them.” In this case, it can be used like this:

Who took care of you when you were young?

My Mama’n’em.

Most of us had (or still have) a whole host of women who watched over us as children – our “Mama’n’em.” My list includes:

  • A biological mother – the unknown woman who gave me birth. 
  • a “real mother” – Sarah Roe Freeman 
  • A Step-mother – Mary Bone Freeman 
  • Extended mothers – mothers of friends who treated me like their own child – Cookie Cole, Jane Newman, Lou Croley, Peggy Butler, among others 
  • Grandmothers, real and “step-“, and a great aunt Polly who acted like a grandmother. 
  • School mothers – teachers with an extra dash of care – Billie Clokey and Jeanette Miller 
  • Church mothers – Sarah Johnson, Jill Hurst (who alternated between mother and big sister) 

Since today is Mother’s Day, we should acknowledge the many different manifestations of “mother,” and honor all women for their strength. I have had many different “Mothers” in my life: In my life there are mothers – many mothers – who never “birthed” me as a son. A few (Aunt Polly, Sarah Johnson, and Cookie Cole) never birthed a child at all. Even my own “real mother” never birthed a child.  

All too often, we have restricted the “Mother’s Day” honor to our biological mothers, or at least the mothers who raised us. That’s too narrow for me, and I think for most of y’all, too.

The Church is guilty of holding up an unrealistic stereotype; Christian women are supposed to be meek and mild and submissive. Some think that’s from the Bible. Read closer! Scriptures are full of examples of strong and determined women. Some were mothers in the traditional sense, some were not.  The Bible was “inspired by God” but recorded and compiled in a time and culture ruled by men. Women were of little value, even considered property. At best they were secondary actors in the drama of life and are rarely mentioned and even rarely named in Scripture.

Our Church was founded by a man with a very strong mother. The relationship between John Wesley and his mother, Susannah, is well-known. She taught his everything he needed to know about growing in the faith, and being strong.

A story: 

Samuel Wesley was a Priest in the Church of England. His parish was in Epworth. The Annual meeting of all priests was held in London on December 7, 1711 – 140 miles away. Since traveling was difficult, he would be gone until March. Communication was limited to letters. He assigned the Associate Pastor, Godfrey Inman, to take over. During Samuel’s absence, many felt that Inman’s leadership and preaching was inadequate.    

Susannah was already conducting devotions for her household every Sunday afternoon; she had 10 children. John was 8 and Charles 4. Servants were also invited. One servant told his parents, and they began coming. Soon, there were 50 people in the parsonage. Susannah would preach and lead singing. Then they prayed together (an obvious forerunner of John’s Class Meetings).  

This upset Rev. Inman and, rather than talking directly to Susannah, he enlisted several others to help him shut her down.  He wrote to Samuel in London to get him to tell his wife to stop. 

On February 6, 1712, Susannah writes Samuel to answer his questions and address his doubts about the gathering. She reports that attendance had grown to somewhere between 200-300. Her letter ends: 

“When you have considered all things let me have your positive determination . . . in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting the opportunity for doing good when you and appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.”   

In other words: If you’re going to tell me to stop, you better make it good because one day you’re going to have to convince Jesus! 

In our 21st Century culture, on our best days, we have grown to learn that all humans, men and women, are afforded an equal place in God’s family. That was not so in Biblical times, sad to say. Though, when you look behind the story on the page, you find that women have always been strong, more powerful than the men in their lives were willing to acknowledge.  

Our world has many different forms of “Mother” and so does the Bible. There are women in Scripture who birthed children. There are some who did not. The cultural bias of the time gives primary place to those who bore children, but all through the Scripture, we see women worthy of emulation.  

The scripture I have chosen for today may seem like an odd one for Mother’s Day. It isn’t odd, though to help us talk about strong women. First, some background. This passage comes at the beginning of the book of Exodus. A new Pharaoh has taken the throne who does not remember the favor that Joseph gained for the Israelites. They have gone from being welcome neighbors to a nuisance and now, they are slaves.  

The only problem is, there are too many of them. Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, fears an uprising.  

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.” 

Exodus 1:15-22 

Shiphrah and Puah – two women without whom the story of Salvation would have ground to a halt. I’m sure that God would have found a way, but not through Moses. If it hadn’t been for these two brave women, using what little power they had against the most powerful man in the world, Moses might never have survived.  

They did what they did because of their faith; the scripture says, “But the midwives feared God.” Our ears might hear that saying “the midwives were afraid that God would punish them.” In the Old Testament the phrase “fear of God” meant “belief,” “awe,” or “respect” of God. Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That means that no one is truly wise until they learn their proper place before God – a place of respect and awe and belief.  

Shiphrah and Puah were members of God’s Kingdom before they were members of Pharaoh’s kingdom. They allowed their faith – and probably a little anger at the injustice – to give them courage. They refused to perpetrate the crime that their earthly King had ordered.  

The first two chapters of Exodus are filled with examples of such subversive courage and power. Moses’ mother, Jochebed, hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she hid him in the reeds beside the river and dispatched his older sister, Miriam, to see what happened.  

Miriam watched Pharaoh’s own daughter open that basket and acknowledge that this baby might be a Hebrew baby. She knew, at the very first moment, that she was going to disobey her father’s orders! Even among those closest to the unjust and cruel,  God can work! 

The subversion of evil continues as Miriam volunteers to go and find a nursemaid for the baby. The sister of the illegal baby brings back the mother of the illegal baby to nurse the child under the very nose of the King who commanded the baby’s death.  

The fear of the Lord is beginning of wisdom, but it seems that the fear of the Lord might also be the beginning of civil disobedience. It might also be the beginning of protest, or refusing to obey unjust laws. Long before Jesus said “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” God was acting on behalf of the oppressed.  

On this Mother’s Day, a question for all the men – if we truly have been ruling the world all this time, what kind of world have we ruled in which women must still use protest, subversion, civil disobedience to exert their power? Have we not learned anything from the centuries of human history? 

There is an entire sub-culture (thankfully, I feel proper in using the “sub-“ prefix) of men in this world who laugh behind the backs of powerful, outspoken women; who caricature intelligent and creative women into monsters; who pretend to listen to female co-workers or peers, then call them “honey” and go on about their business. I know because I live with a woman like that! I have seen all those things happen to my wife as she attempts to live out her call to ministry; all because she “dares” to answer God’s call in a male-dominated profession. We ought to be ashamed!  

Just this week – on large, multi-national ways and small, personal ways – I have been reminded that or world has a long way to go. The United Methodist Council of Bishops announced the results of votes we took last summer on amendments presented to all the Annual Conferences. The UMC works much like the USA in that amendments to its Book of Discipline must be “ratified” by all the “states” (Annual Conferences).  

Last summer we voted on five. Three were ratified. The two that failed had to do with wording that would afford women and girls status. They failed by very slim margins, but failed nonetheless. I’m proud to say that most Annual Conferences in the United States (including North Alabama) passed these two amendments overwhelmingly; but, we aren’t a United States Church, we are an international Church. We still have a ways to go! 

On a smaller scale: one of my daughter’s friends (in her early twenties) recently got a job at a local Marion County factory. Within the first weeks of her employment, she was receiving suggestive texts from a co-worker.

Some men just won’t learn!  

If we learn anything from Scripture, we ought to know that since the days of Shiphrah and Puah, of Jochebed, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s own daughter, God works on behalf of the powerless. God has always used strong, courageous women to subvert unjust power when needed.  

On this Mother’s Day, remember your “Mama’n’em,” remember their strength, remember their compassion and love. Remember that God has never intended any of his children to live under the yoke of injustice. Say a prayer of thanks for the strong, powerful, subversive, disobedient “Shiphrahs and Puahs” in your life.