You Know the Way

 

Meditation on John 14:1-7

In Memory of Raymond “Duke” Walters

Nov. 5, 1932-Jan. 26, 2020

Jan. 29, 2020

 

Raymond Walters Paper Picture

 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

      5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 

     Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

 

I was an outsider a year ago when my family and I moved to Coshocton. I’m told that you will always be an outsider in Coshocton, no matter how many years pass, unless you were born here. So far, I haven’t found that to be true. Or maybe it just doesn’t seem to matter to the people I have met. They have always made me feel welcome and have been as curious about me and my family as I am about them and theirs.

This has been my experience with Duke and Nellie and all the family. Warm and welcoming. The first time I met Duke was in Coshocton Hospital, not too long after I arrived. The afternoon I visited, he was sitting up and smiling in his hospital bed. He was cold and pleased to have another prayer shawl crocheted by Betty Salvage, a longtime member of our church. He had been very ill and weak, but was feeling better. He would soon be going to Altercare for rehab, and Nellie would join him there after her surgery. Though they weren’t home, they would have the comfort of being together. They WERE home, I should say, whenever they were together. And they weren’t apart very much since the day they were married 28 years ago at The Presbyterian Church—Jan. 18, 1992.

In my visits to their home, later on, Nellie would share bits of their stories. They watched game shows together every afternoon and ate at Bob Evans every day because the people were nice and treated you like family, she said. One of the floral arrangements here, I saw, is from Bob Evans! They loved spending time with grandchildren and great grandchildren, whose numerous pictures lined a wall in their living room. Duke, a gentleman, always wanted to walk me to the front door as I left, though he used a walker, and it was difficult for him to get around.

Both Duke and Nellie lost their spouses much too early–Duke’s first wife when she was 54; Nellie’s first husband in his 50s, as well. Nellie was decorating cakes at Buehler’s when someone suggested she should meet Duke. She wasn’t sure she was ready for another relationship, let alone marriage. But Duke, who was working at Clow’s back then, had a way of making everyone feel comfortable, special and loved.

Scripture says the Lord knew all our names and had a plan for each one of us since before the foundation of the world. Psalm 139 says he knows when we sit down, lie down and rise up and “searches” every path we take, even when we don’t choose the right one. He is “acquainted with all our ways.” Our Creator formed us, knitting us together in our mother’s wombs, so that we could be his companions. He knows every word we are going to say before it is on our tongues—even the words that we probably shouldn’t say! God loves us anyway. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  “Your eyes beheld my unformed substance,” declares the psalmist, “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”

So, I think it’s pretty safe to say that Duke and Nellie’s finding true love for a second time –this time in middle-age—was meant to be. Their joining as man and wife would lead them to become one, big, happily blended family. Her children were never treated like “stepchildren.” Nieces and nephews were loved like daughters and sons. He treated everyone’s children like his own.

He was an encourager, a natural teacher. Duke, who was too busy working to finish high school, knew how to do almost anything. He was good at math and measuring. He was good with his hands. He patiently taught the boys everything mechanical—building, repairing and restoring cars and hot rods; building houses and garages; plumbing; bricklaying; and electrical work. You name it. If it was broke, he could fix it and, with his generous heart, he would. But he taught them important life lessons, too, allowing them space to learn from their own experiences and be there when they needed someone to talk to.

Although he was a hard worker and good provider, he wasn’t ALL work. He knew the importance of play and family time. He took the kids to Cedar Point. He square danced with Nellie on a moving float in Coshocton’s Canal Days Parade. They cruised to Alaska, traveled to Myrtle Beach many summers with extended family, and vacationed in Florida. He went boating, fishing, biking, and camping with the boys. Duke even tried to teach Mark how to waterski and didn’t mind that it took all day and a tank of gas to get him to stand up.

He was the favorite uncle, the grandfather who enjoyed spoiling the grandkids and great grandkids. Candy or ice cream before dinner? Sure!

“There’s not many kind people left in the world,” Mark Granger said, while sharing memories of Uncle Duke. “He was kind. He was always kind.”

***

 

In our gospel reading in John 14, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his death and what it will mean, assuring them that it isn’t the end of their relationship. “Don’t worry,” he says. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He is going to his Father’s house to prepare a place for them, for all of us. We are all welcome, and it’s large enough for everyone; it has many dwelling places, but the rooms need to be prepared. Only Jesus can do the work because of being God’s only Son—fully God and fully human, but without sin.

Jesus’s leaving and going to the Father’s house before us is kind of like a big renovation or restoration project, where you actually have to move out of your home while it is being repaired, restored, and rebuilt. For that is what Christ’s death on a cross has done for us—it has restored us to loving relationship with God, after our sin going back to Adam and Eve ruined our relationship with him beyond any kind of human fix. But Christ’s sacrificial work—his suffering, dying and rising—has also rebuilt us into a new Creation, the Body of Christ. We are not like one of the old cars Duke might have restored in his younger years or even one of his hot rod model A’s with V-8 engines. We have become a whole different creature altogether—something new and amazing.

With the Lord, nothing is more important than relationships. Life isn’t about accumulation or worldly accomplishments. If we accomplish nothing more than loving God and our neighbor, then we have done the Father’s will. And God is Father to all of us equally, with no “favoritism.” We are precious in God’s sight—every one of us, children of God. The Risen Christ will tell Mary at the tomb in John 20:17, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

This is a God who created the world and us, but knowing that we would struggle, rebel, and fall, he already had a plan to bring us back to Him and cleanse us from sin. In John 3:16-17, Jesus tells Nicodemus, who has come to the Messiah with questions under the cover of darkness, “For God so loved the world that he gave His only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

This salvation isn’t a future thing, after we die and go to heaven, someday; it happens the moment we believe and accept him as our Savior. For in receiving his love and forgiveness, we make our home with him. We turn away from what we used to be, forgiving ourselves and looking to Christ for what we will become. For the one who has prepared a place for us in our Father’s house has made his home with us. He promises to complete the work in us that He has begun by the day that he comes again to take us to himself, so that where he is, we will forever be.

And while we wait and work for the Kingdom, serving others, living in peace, we bear witness to the kindness of a God who sent Christ to be the way, the truth, the life. You DO know the way, for he has shown us. The way is to walk in the path of love, mercy, and grace.

In a world so lacking in kindness, be kind, like Uncle Duke. Always be kind.

Amen.

 

 

Follow Me

 

Meditation on Matthew 4:12–23

Jan. 26, 2020

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

 

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

 

jesus_calls_disciples

On Friday morning, I woke up to the sound of rain. It was time to get up and have devotions with the Lord, but what I really wanted was to go back to sleep. Did any of you feel like that on Friday? The cat had me up several times that night and I felt really worn out.

One of my devotions that morning was from Joni Eareckson Tada’s A Spectacle of Glory: God’s Light Shining Through Me Every Day. Joni, paralyzed from the neck down since a diving accident many years ago, is founder and CEO of Joni and Friends.

Joni-eareckson-tada-e1532850777133

Joni Eareckson Tada, minister, speaker, author, artist.

 

The Christian organization seeks to minister to people with disabilities and their families. Joni’s devotion for Jan. 24 began,

     “When you don’t walk, your shoes never wear out. My shoes can last me 10 years or more and still look brand-new. The soles that have never touched dirt, gravel, pavement or even carpet stay pristine. …But the truth is, even though my shoes may not get a lot of mileage, my wheelchair logs countless miles. Traveling isn’t easy for me, but the Lord has sent me to visit more than 50 countries with the gospel of peace. Whatever inconvenience, difficulty, hardship, or physical and emotional wear and tear we experience to bring the story of Jesus to others is worth it a thousand times over.”

Her grateful heart and humble prayer stirred me to change my attitude. I was reminded that God wants to use me for ministry every day, and presents opportunities if I am willing to obey. The call to follow Jesus doesn’t just come once in a lifetime or on the days we feel like doing God’s will. It is a commitment to love and serve Christ for all of our days.

I prayed with Joni, “Lord Jesus, I would love the privilege to speak for You today.”

The Lord would answer my prayer and grant me joy as I followed Him. I was due to be with the second graders at Coshocton Elementary at 9, reading aloud to Mrs. Yost’s class and listening to children read in Mr. Gill’s. I actually arrived before 9, miracle of miracles, and some of the kids in Mrs. Yost’s class were really surprised! One said, “You’re here already?? It’s not even 9!”

“Yes!” I answered. “Do you want me to leave and come back?!”

My change in attitude opened me to see and respond to ministry moments that I might not otherwise have seen. One was in Mrs. Yost’s class, when a little girl came up to me and just stood silently in front of me for a long moment. I asked her if something was wrong. She shook her head and said, “Thank you for the scarf and hat that you gave me for Christmas.” I thought for a moment, and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember giving her or anyone in her class a gift! But then it dawned on me! I said, “You’re welcome.” She was one of the children who got off the bus that day before Christmas break when Sharon Sutton, Judy Ogle, and I were waiting at the entrance to Chestnut Crossing apartments with goodie bags, Christmas cards, and scarves and hats crocheted by Betty Salvage; 30 or more children were blessed that day.

This little girl, standing right in front of me, quietly and simply expressing her gratitude, was God’s way of teaching me to trust Him and obey his call, no matter how I felt.

“See how I use you and the Church to touch hearts and lives—for my sake? Follow me and you will fish for people.”

 

***

 

Don’t you wonder what these first disciples, two brothers who are fishermen working on the Sea of Galilee, are thinking when they respond immediately to the one who says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” ? What stirs them to leave their nets, family, and family business behind? Simon called Peter and Andrew, his brother, aren’t the only fishermen called that day. Two more brothers—James and John, sons of Zebedee, who are mending their nets, leave their boat and their father to follow him, too.

Can you imagine the dinner conversation that night as Zebedee tries to explain to his wife what has happened with their two sons—and the family business? I can just see Mrs. Zebedee saying, “Now, what are we going to do?” The boys have taken off with this stranger from Nazareth, who had settled in their town—Capernaum–by the sea. The event that moves him to leave his hometown and call the 12 is when John the Baptist is arrested.

Do the fishermen know the fullness of their call? Do they know the depth of their sacrifice? Probably not. But they will join the Messiah in calling people to repentance, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom and revealing it through deeds of power and love. Just imagine if everyone in Coshocton were cured of “every disease and every sickness” today? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

The call comes in God’s timing, and the disciples are compelled. For it is God’s desire to use them for His work. This will require a change in their focus, no longer living as individuals, families and clans, according to their culture. They are called to live as a new, Christ-centered community, nurturing relationships with God and each other, reaching out with the good news, “The Kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Like the first disciples, we, too, are ordinary folks living in uncertain times, caring for our families and working hard to provide for them.  We, too, most urgently sense this call to love and serve the Lord and reveal the Kingdom in this place. We know this IS the will of God, and that God gave us this desire. But we, too, struggle to keep our gaze on Christ, especially when our own needs and the needs of our families are felt so keenly.

I want to assure you that this passage isn’t saying that the Lord doesn’t care about our problems or that caring for our families shouldn’t be important to us. Our families are our first ministries. Following the Lord doesn’t mean abandoning your responsibilities at home. So, what can we learn from today’s passage about the call of the first disciples to help us answer Christ’s call today?

The key, to me, is when Simon Peter and Andrew let go of the nets, immediately, in response to Christ’s invitation. Jesus doesn’t tell them to let go of the nets, without which, they couldn’t make a living. They do it because they want to. They trust him. When their hands are empty, and they are no longer clinging to the things of this world, these disciples are ready to make a full commitment and give their hearts and lives to the Lord. There’s no turning back.

Everything these men have experienced up to this moment will serve them well in their calling, just as everything we have done and learned and all our resources will help us as we seek to embrace the opportunities for ministry that the Lord opens to us. But only if we don’t hold too tightly to our nets and boats—the things of this world that bring us a false sense of security and can become idols for us.

It is only when we turn our gaze away from ourselves and our problems to the One who is shining in our dark world, the Light that still scatters shadows, that we experience Christ’s peace and joy. Fixing our eyes on Jesus, we are empowered to love God and neighbor, and give of ourselves for His sake.

We are strengthened to trust and obey when he says, “Follow me.”

 

***

I was signing out at the main office at Coshocton Elementary on Friday at a quarter past 11, bag slung over my shoulder, coat on. I had places to go and things to do. I looked outside and saw it was pouring, again. Then I noticed a second grader from Mr. Gill’s class sitting on a chair behind the office counter. She looked unusually sad. She was one of the children I hadn’t gotten to read with that morning. I asked her what was wrong. Her Grandpa had died, she said, and she was going to his funeral. “I am sorry,” I said, and paused.

Then I put down my bag. My plans could wait. ‘Cause once we’ve been called by Jesus, there’s no turning back.

She jumped out of her chair, grabbed my hand and pulled me to sit beside her. Then she brought a picture book out of her bag and began to read it aloud, sliding a finger under each word. And that’s where we were when her mother came to pick her up. As I shook her hand and expressed sorrow for her loss, I recognized her from the ministry at Chestnut Crossing, where women from our congregation, for years, have offered the children kind words and gifts of love.

I heard the Lord saying, again, “See how I use you when you let me lead you? Trust me when I say, ‘Follow me.”

 

Let us pray.

 

Lord Jesus, we hear your call to us even today. Thank you for the privilege of serving you. Thank you for your mercy and grace. We ask that you would open up new ministry opportunities to us as individuals and as a church in this community that we may honor you and bear witness to our faith. And, Lord, if we have been reluctant to follow you and found excuses not to, forgive our hesitation. Help us to be pleasing to you. Empower us with your love. Stir us to acts of kindness and compassion so that everyone will see your Light in the darkness, a light that will never grow dim. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

Come and See

 

Meditation on John 1:29–42

Jan. 19, 2020

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

 

Come-See-January-6-7-2018-2

 

 29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed[). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

 

     We celebrated an important birthday in our family this week. On Friday, our eldest granddaughter, Jessie, turned 6. Jessie lives with her baby sister, Madeline, and her parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We don’t get to see them in person very often, maybe one week a year. But in between in-person visits, we connect through modern technology. On Friday night, we visited with them in their living room with our Ipad and Google Duo.

When we answered the call, how special it was to be invited to draw closer to those whom we love–Danny, Hiu-Fai and their children–Jessie and Maddie, aged 2. She is harder to see than the others when we video chat. She keeps on moving! At first, all we saw of Maddie was a strip of her forehead, as she peered into the computer screen, trying to figure out my identity. I heard her say, “Grandma? Grandma?”

You see, she and her sister have 3 grandmas, and they get to see the other grandmas more than they see me. So big sister Jessie, having known me 4 more years than Maddie, introduced us. “That’s Grandma Karen,” she said with the authority that only an older, wiser sibling can have.

Maddie chirped, “Grandma Karen! Grandma Karen!”

 

Jessie and Maddie

One by one, Jessie opened the gifts we had sent her, with Maddie right beside her. Her little hand kept coming up and being brushed away.  “No, Maddie!” Jessie would say, firmly. She didn’t want her to touch or even look at her new books or the glow-in-the dark press-on stars for her ceiling or the fairy garden kit with real seeds to plant. She didn’t want her anywhere near the new jean jacket and long-sleeved shirts, with a sequined butterfly that changes in appearance when you rub it the other way, and a snow globe that moves with its wearer.

The video chat ended with Maddie wailing in frustration and their mother carrying her away, speaking soothing words to comfort her. Maddie just wanted to come and see—with all her senses—and be seen and loved, given gifts and made to feel special. How difficult it is for her to understand that it will be her turn to be celebrated in September. What does time mean to a 2- year-old?

Birthdays are new beginnings, a change in identity. For Jessie is no longer 5 and will never be. She is measurably different than a year ago, in body and mind. Today is a new day, a new world, for Jessie and her family.

***

And so it is with the first disciples in the gospel of John, when the Baptizer introduces them to the one for whom Israel had been waiting. It is John’s testimony that transforms their world; their calling is a rebirth.

With prophetic eyes that see the end at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, John points to the cross. He says, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” What he’s really saying is, “Now, finally, this is the only sacrifice that will ever be needed to take away the sins of the world.”

John, as the son of the priest, Zechariah, understands the rituals of the Temple and its sacrifices. Exodus 29:38-42 tells us about the 2 lambs offered each day, one in the morning and one at night, daily sacrifices for communal sin until 70 A.D., when the Temple is destroyed. When John calls Jesus the Lamb of God, he may be thinking of the Passover, when the blood of the slain lamb protects the Israelite families on the night they leave Egypt in Exodus 12:11-13. The Angel of Death claims the lives of the first born in Egyptian families, but passes over the Israelite households with doorposts covered by the blood of the lamb. With his image of the Lamb of God, John joins with the long tradition of Old Testament prophets. Isaiah 53:7 and Jeremiah 11:19 speak of the one “like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” Through suffering and sacrifice, the lamb redeems God’s people. Still another image of the Lamb of God, familiar to John’s first audience but strange to us, comes in the time of the Maccabees. The Jewish rebel warriors fight and regain control of Judea from the Seleucids in the Second Century BCE. The horned lamb is not the symbol of gentleness, helplessness or meekness, then, but the symbol of a conquering champion of God.

In the New Testament, the “Lamb of God” is embraced by the writer of Revelation, who uses the phrase 29 times! It becomes one of the most precious titles for Christ, summing up his suffering and sacrifice, his love and triumph.

Behold

All of these images bring layers of meaning to audiences over the centuries who listen to John’s introduction, “Here is the Lamb of God.” But it isn’t until the first disciples follow Him that they begin to understand who and what he is. As they take their first steps of faith, Jesus turns and meets them halfway, just as when we draw nearer to God, the Lord draws nearer to us. “What are you looking for?” Jesus asks. These first disciples have no idea what to say.

This stirs memories for those who know how the story ends, and that the end is just the beginning. We know about Easter morning in John’s gospel, when first the angels, then Jesus, looking like the gardener, asks Mary, weeping at the tomb, “Who are you looking for?”  When he calls her by name, finally, she recognizes him.  “Rabboni!” she answers, which John will translate, once again, as “Teacher,” an echo of today’s passage in the first chapter, when the disciples feel compelled to ask the one on whom the Spirit descended and remained, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”

The Lamb of God says mysteriously, “Come and see.” And they came and saw, and stayed with him. And then at 4 o’clock, one of the two who heard John speak and followed him, Andrew” goes to find his brother Simon to tell him the good news. “We have found the Messiah,” he says.

When he brings his brother to Jesus, the Lord gives him a new name–Cephas in Aramaic; Petros in Greek, meaning Rock or Stone; Peter, to us. And the other, unnamed disciple, who heard the Baptizer and responded to the call? John, very likely a young man at the time, maybe a teenager, and perhaps the brother of James, one of Zebedee’s sons.

We who have come to worship today have come seeking, just as those first disciples introduced to the Lamb of God. In the hearing of the gospel, and in our beholding of the Lord, we are continually transformed.

Be lifted by the hope and promise of new beginnings, not just in this new year, but in the new identity you have in Jesus Christ. Nothing in this world can ever take that away from you. You know the Messiah! You have seen the Lord.

Friends, I urge you to share your stories, like Andrew and the Baptizer. Tell what God has done. For the Spirit that descended on Christ and remained on Him, now remains in us. And the Lord who welcomed the first disciples to stay with him, makes his home with us.

Do you want to know the Lamb of God more? Do you want to feel special and loved? Keep seeking the Source of all life, the One who IS love. James tells us that every good gift comes from above. The Lord wants to talk to us, as he did the first disciples and Mary at the empty tomb.

“What or whom are you looking for?” says the Lord, to you and me.

“Come and see,” He says, mysteriously.

 

Let us pray. Holy One, thank you for sending the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world. Thank you for your mercy and grace. Help us to feel your loving presence with us now, hear your voice, and answer the call. We are looking for you. We want to know you more. We welcome your transformation. Give us courage to share our testimonies and tell of your faithfulness to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We ask for help and healing for families and communities, provision for those who cannot find work, are underemployed, or fear for the future of their jobs; those who are sick in body and mind and those who are struggling with addictions. Teach us to walk in your loving ways and bring hope to the hopeless, never growing weary of doing good until all respond to your invitation, “Come and see,” with “I have seen the Lord.”  We pray in the name of our precious Redeemer. Amen.

New Life with the Beloved       

Meditation on Matthew 3:13-17

Jan. 12, 2020

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

Baptism of Our Lord Sunday

 

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved. with whom I am well pleased.”

 

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Yesterday, a package arrived from our friend, Carol, in Florida. It was addressed to Jim and Karen Crawford and the cat! Christmas continues in my household not just with decorations, but with gifts. Melvyn’s present—the only one he got for Christmas this year—was a soft toy fish stuffed with pillow fluff and catnip! I woke him up to play with it. He kicked, licked and bit it for about 10 minutes, then put his head down and started to snore.

The other gifts were red, white and blue caps knitted by a group of women at my last church. They get together twice a month to make things to give away. They call themselves “HH,” which stands for Heavenly Handmade or Holy Hookers, depending on the audience. I can say Holy Hookers here, right? Carol said, in her note, that they had made the hats from remnant yarn. “Figured you could use them more than anyone here,” she said. The funny thing was that they were having cool, blustery weather yesterday, and here it was 70 degrees! It really is true what they say about Ohio. If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute! It’ll change.

The hats are special to me, not just because they are homemade and given by friends. They remind me of Betty Myers, a sweet woman who taught me how to make a knitted cap. To get me started, she bought me a round loom, a hook, and some yarn. Then she sat beside me, showing me how to do it stitch by stitch, row by row. How to put it on the loom and how and when to take it off. Nana, as we called her because she was my friend, Pam’s grandmother, kept saying, “You can do it! It’s easy!”

Nana was right—but it was easier because she was beside me, doing it with me. We laughed while I learned. I felt safe. She didn’t scold if I made a mistake. There was love and help when I needed it, and plenty of humor, patience, and grace. And there was room and trust to grow in myself and in our ministry. For we were adding the knitted caps to HH’s creations to bless others and reveal God’s love.

This is how it is when the Church is at its best. The soil of our ministry together must be rich and fertile for growth and bearing fruit. We should never stop learning! There has to be a strong foundation of faith, but also an environment of love, acceptance, patience, humor, and grace. This is our calling as we seek to live out the new life and identity of God’s Beloved, given to us in our baptism. For who we are in Christ is still being revealed.

***

When I read the story of Christ’s baptism, I marvel that John, a great prophet and example of faith, argues with the Lord, saying “I need to be baptized by you and do you come to me?” This gives me hope that even those who are good can sometimes get it wrong. But then I remember that everything in Scripture is there for a reason—and for our benefit. This argument is a way to make sure that we understand that this is no ordinary man in need of baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins, which John has offered up to now. Jesus never sinned!

The Lord persuades John “that this must be done to fulfill all righteousness.” This word translated “fulfill” appears 16 times in Matthew’s gospel, mostly to connect with Old Testament prophecy. We should see this as a signal, then, that, once again, prophecies are about to be fulfilled, as in Matthew 3:17, when the heavenly voice announces that Jesus is “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This is an echo of Psalm 2:7, “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you,” and Isaiah 42:1, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”

Christ’s baptism in the Jordan connects with Israel’s story—the end of their captivity and wilderness wanderings—and their entrance, led by Joshua, crossing the Jordan into the land of the promise.

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His baptism takes us all the way back to Creation in Genesis 1:2, when the Spirit hovers over the waters and God speaks the world into existence. His baptism demonstrates his full identification with human beings, his humility, and his submission to God’s call.

Christ’s baptism marks the beginning of his ministry. For us, baptism marks the beginning of our new life in Him. And no matter what your calling, baptism is a preparation for ministry. The gifts you receive at your baptism are sufficient for your calling. And the Spirit that claims you for Christ in baptism never lets you go.

The Spirit keeps working in us and using us to nurture one another until we are enabled to live into our new identity as God’s Beloved.

For who we are in Christ is still being revealed.

 

***

I have learned a great deal about myself through ministry. The learning and growing never stops, as long as you seek to follow in the footsteps of the Beloved Son. One thing I know for certain is that when you say yes to following Jesus, you have no idea what that will mean. You will often feel unprepared and unworthy for the work that God equips and leads you to do.  But you will have to do what God wants you to do, or else, you will not be able to sleep at night. Your heart and mind will be changed—not just once, but continually—so that you can live out your baptism—and live, more and more, into the identity given to you—God’s Beloved Child.

Before I left Florida, it was hard to say goodbye to many people, including Nana. I was grateful for all she taught me—so much more than how to make knitted caps. She taught me about faith and friendship and modeled generosity, joy, peace, and love. She encouraged me in my ministry. She had just moved to Merritt Island to be closer to her family, after living independently for years, still driving and active in her church in Clearwater, FL. She was one of the last people to join my congregation—just before I answered the call to Coshocton. I hugged her tightly when we said goodbye. I told her that I loved her and that I would miss her and her family.

Those would be my last words to her. For my dear friend Betty suffered a stroke on Easter, and went home to be with her Beloved Lord on April 24. She was 98.

Today, at the baptismal font, we will ordain and install a new ruling elder to serve on Session. During the ordination and installation, we will remember the style of leadership Jesus modeled for us. He came to humbly serve and not be served, and give his life for all.

Janice, you may feel unprepared and unworthy. But nothing is impossible with God. Thank you for trusting in Him and serving with us.

We acknowledge that our lives are no longer ours—and that we belong to Him. And we will give thanks that just as the Spirit came on Christ in His baptism, we, too, are filled with the Spirit in our baptisms, so that the Lord may use us for His loving work.

I want to assure you today that even if you are not an elder, deacon, or pastor, you are still called to ministry. It may take you a lifetime to discern the shape of it. And it may change with different seasons in your life. But all of you have been called to live as the Beloved, in Christ.

So make every day count. Do what brings you joy. Be passionate about the things of God! Don’t waste time and energy on things that don’t matter for eternity. Don’t waste time worrying! Forgive one another. Love your Church. We aren’t perfect. But we love you and want to nurture your gifts and help you discern your calling. For who we are in Christ is still being revealed.

Live as if this is the first day of your new life with the Beloved.

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy One, thank you for your gift of faith, for opening our hearts and minds to the truth of your Word. Thank you for the gift of the Spirit in our baptism, and for your Spirit’s continuing work in us—refreshing and renewing us when we celebrate Communion, hear or read your Word, and seek you in prayer. Thank you for calling us your Beloved. Lord, some of your children are struggling to discern their call to ministry. They may not know the gifts you have given them. Or they may be afraid to answer your call to them. Help us all to trust in you—that whatever you are calling us to do for you and your people, we can do with you. Nurture our faith and help us to love and serve with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. In the name of your Beloved Son we pray. Amen.

 

Arise! Shine! Your Light Has Come

 

Meditation on Isaiah 60:1-6

Epiphany of our Lord

Jan. 5, 2020

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton, OH

 

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

***

I was looking out the kitchen window yesterday, and my husband asked me, “Are you going to watch the birds all day?”

And I said, “Yes!”

We put up our first bird feeder in our Coshocton yard the week of Christmas. Since then, we’ve added 3 or 4 more feeders of different kinds, with a variety of food to appeal to the tastes of a variety of birds. It’s complicated, isn’t it, feeding birds? Sunflower or safflower seeds; suet or thistle, mealworm blend, corn or peanuts? I have seen cardinals and blue jays, finches and chickadees, wrens and sparrows, nuthatches and tufted titmice. I’ve seen crows large enough to carry my Pomeranian away. I’d be OK if the crows didn’t come back! And yes, I have seen some squirrels.

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And is it my imagination or are my neighbors’ cats spending more time in our yard than before? Could be!

 

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I haven’t had a bird feeder since Minnesota, maybe 6 or 7 years ago. I had a kind of traumatic experience in Minnesota with my bird feeder. My husband remembers that day well. I was watching out the kitchen window at a beautiful bird eating on the feeder on a cold, rainy day. I called out, “Jim, come quick and see this bird!” And then, I let out a blood curdling scream. Aaaaaaaaaaaaa!! A hawk had swooped down, grabbed the little bird off my feeder, and took him down into the bushes. Never to be seen again. It took me a while to get over the shock that my offering food to birds was luring some of them to their death.

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God has rekindled in me a passion for watching and feeding the birds since we came to Ohio, especially in the winter months. I don’t know about you, but the dark and gloomy weather has been dampening my spirits. I can handle the cold and snow of living up north again; I sure do miss the sunlight of the south.

But there’s something about the birds—maybe it’s their bright colors and their energy—that lift my spirits. Especially the cardinals. They are SO cute. Whenever I see them in my yard, fluttering at the feeders or perched on the branches of shrubs and trees, I just feel better. Don’t you?

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I know that this is one of the ways that God speaks to me. He is reassuring me that just because the world seems dark and gloomy, at times, the sun is always shining. Redemption is present with us because God is here! He’s not going to abandon us, no matter what.

And redemption is personal. To be sure, the Lord speaks to each one of us in ways that only each one of us can understand. This is something John Calvin talks about in his 16th century work of systematic theology, Institutes of the Christian Religion. God accommodates himself to us—that’s why he came to us as one of us. If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t have listened and understood. And if he didn’t continue to speak to us, then we wouldn’t be able to survive. As the writer of Hebrews tells us in the first chapter, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”

 

***

The theme of the day is redemption on Epiphany, when we remember the first revelation of Christ to the Gentiles—to the wise men from the East. Redemption that is present and personal, but also surprisingly inclusive. For these are foreigners, not raised in the faith of Abraham. They are seekers of God, drawn to a mysterious, irresistible light, as if they were responding to Isaiah’s prophecy in 60:1, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” This is the word of God written on their hearts, for the magi could not otherwise know of the prophet’s encouragement to God’s people in the 6th century BCE, when they return from exile in Babylon to discover that their once beautiful home land is filled with decay and corruption. The call to arise and shine is a spiritual awakening, a call to return to the God who loves them and is present with them, wherever they are. The language of becoming radiant in the light of the glory of the Lord brings to mind the radiant face of Moses after he had spoken with God on Mount Sinai in Exodus 34.

Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 40 that God’s people would “mount up with wings like eagles” and “run and not be weary” has come to pass. This God is faithful to His promises. The descendants of God’s people in exile return home in glory, while the descendants of those who made them captive return in humble praise. Surprisingly, or not so, if you understand how BIG God really is, the Lord uses a Gentile, the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE, as an instrument of healing and peace, restoring the exiled Judeans to their homeland. The construction of the second temple in Jerusalem, as described in the book of Ezra, begins 2 years later.

The divine light in the gospel of Matthew has brought the magi a long distance; how far, we don’t know because we don’t know where their journey began. But we can be sure that they have come in faith that they will see the Lord. They have brought with them precious gifts to offer the one who will bring salvation as a gracious, free gift to all. These are standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil. Some scholars believe that these three may have been chosen for their special spiritual symbolism about Jesus himself—gold representing his kingship, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role, and myrrh that prefigured his death and embalming—an interpretation John Henry Hopkins Jr. made popular in his 1857 Christmas carol, “We Three Kings.”

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The wise men’s coming to Jesus is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision. The glory of the Lord won’t just be for Israel; strangers from every nation will travel from near and far and be drawn to the light that changes hearts and transforms lives. “Then you shall see and be radiant,” Isaiah says. “Your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”

With all this divine guidance, do you wonder how they end up in Jerusalem? Did they take a wrong turn? If only they hadn’t gone, lives would have been saved. Their arrival alerts the one man who would be the fiercest enemy of the child born King of the Jews, as the wise men say. These foreigners aren’t so wise that they are acquainted with Herod’s evil ways. Their arrival in Jerusalem sets off a deadly chain of events that results in the loss of the lives of many young children. This serves to emphasize the terrible darkness into which the light of Christ has finally dawned.

But Herod is the one who directs the wise men to their divine destination—Bethlehem, after his chief priests and scribes read from Micah 5:2, “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”  The wise men accept Herod’s lie, at first, that he wants to join them in worshiping the child who would be king. Then they are warned in a dream not to return to him.

So, they leave for their own country, whatever country it is, by another road. Could that be symbolic of the transformation of their entire life’s path? Who could help but be changed in the presence of the Christ child? I suspect that the gospel writer purposefully keeps us in the dark about the origins of the wise men, so that whoever would hear the story would see them as foreigners. This is the point! God wants to break down all cultural, geographic and religious boundaries—every kind of wall that human beings use to divide people. As God proclaims in Isaiah 56:7, “…my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

The magi take with them the story of God having come to us, as one of us. Salvation is present, personal—and inclusive. It has been opened to all—even strangers and aliens from afar.

Do you know the God who is with us now? Have you heard God’s voice? God is still speaking to you and to all the church! He wants to accommodate himself to us so that we can see his light, experience his love, and know his will.

Your redemption is here! It may feel to you sometimes like it’s far away—with a sudden health crisis, accident or loss of a loved one, job or home. It may be cold, dark, and scary in your world sometimes, but the Son of God is always present and will never leave us alone.

The Word became flesh. And what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Arise, shine; your light has come!

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Let us pray.

 

Holy One, thank you that you continue to speak to us with your powerful Word, sustaining us and all that you have created. Thank you for speaking to us first through the prophets and then through your Son, who is the Savior for all people. Lift us up, now, Lord and fill us with your light and love so that we may be radiant and shine brightly for all to see. Help us, Lord, reach out with compassion to those who still walk in darkness. May we reveal your glory so that all may come to know your present, personal, and surprisingly inclusive redemption. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

 

Are You the One Who Is to Come?

 

Meditation on Matthew 11:2–11

For the Third Sunday in Advent

Dec. 15, 2019

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton, Ohio

 

         2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

     7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

 

***

I had the opportunity, despite my busy schedule, to watch one of my favorite Christmas movies this week. I saw the 1946 classic, It’s A Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Does anyone else like that movie?

 

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This was the first movie director Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart made since coming back from serving in WWII. Stewart had been gone from the Hollywood scene for nearly 5 years and had served as a pilot, including 15 months in combat. And he was struggling with PTSD, only they didn’t call it PTSD back then. He flew his last mission in February 1945.

He had become obsessed with fear of making a mistake—and someone losing their life because of it. He had nightmares, shakes, and sweats. He couldn’t eat. He lost a lot of weight. He was grounded until August and then sent home to his parents in Indiana, Pennsylvania.

About 10 days later, he got up the courage to return to Hollywood and look for a job. He didn’t have a place to live, so Henry Fonda, who just got back from serving in the Pacific, offered him a room. Neither of them was getting any offers. While they were gone, other actors, such as Gregory Peck, had taken their place as leading men.

Finally, Stewart was offered the role of George Bailey in a movie written and directed by his good friend, Frank, with whom he had made other movies, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He didn’t relish the role of George Bailey, which may have felt too dark and too close to home when he was already struggling with depression. George Bailey was a young man on the edge of despair, contemplating suicide because his problems seemed unsolvable, his life out of control.

It was Christmas Eve. Uncle Billy had lost the $8,000 bank deposit from the Bailey Building and Loan that George managed, having reluctantly followed in the footsteps of his father. His dad had died of a stroke just as George was prepared to leave for college, shaking the dust of crummy old Bedford Falls, the small town in which he had grown up. He dreamed of traveling the world, and doing big, important things—building bridges and skyscrapers, not nickel and dime stuff in Bedford Falls, building homes at not much more than cost for first time buyers, many of them hardworking immigrants, paying high rents for shacks to Potter, the richest and meanest man in town. The loss of the $8,000 would mean scandal and possibly jail for George, who had a young wife and small children. But Billy, an absentminded old man, hadn’t really lost the money; he’d accidentally handed it to Potter at the bank, wrapped up in a newspaper celebrating the heroism of George’s younger brother, Harry, in the war.

Potter chooses not to reveal that he has the money. He sees an opportunity to get George out of the way and put the building and loan out of business. He wants revenge on the one who once called him a, “warped, frustrated old man.” After the movie premiered, audiences wrote Frank Capra, complaining about the story. It wasn’t an instant box office hit. They  wanted Potter to give the money back and feel badly about what he had done. But you know what? It is more believable, to me, that a man like Potter would keep the money and not care that he had hurt others to make himself wealthier, still. This would definitely fit his character.

George, after searching frantically for the lost money with Uncle Billy all day, goes home and has a breakdown, scolds his daughter’s teacher for her catching a cold, yells at his wife and kids for no good reason. This scene always touches me, especially now, knowing that Jimmy Stewart had PTSD. The feelings of frustration, sadness, and anger he was expressing seemed very real, didn’t they?  Then, when he realizes he has messed up, he leaves abruptly to go a bar, gets into a fight, and crashes his car into a tree. He ends up at a bridge, considering jumping into a river to take his life. But his guardian angel, Clarence, jumps in, stirring George to dive in and save him. Later, George confesses to Clarence that he wishes he had never been born.

Wonderful life clarence

And the angel second class, who hasn’t yet earned his wings, gives George a gift. He is able to glimpse what the world would have been without him. He sees how his life is intimately connected with every other life in his community, and, ultimately, the wellbeing of the little town of Bedford Falls.

How does one person’s life affect so many others? Friends, this is the way of the Lord. This is why we were created—to care for one another and nurture each other. This is how each one of us will grow to become what God has planned for us to be.

George finally realizes that he has made a grave mistake with his request. He is back on the bridge where he had contemplated taking his life, but now asks to live again. In the original, black and white film version, George prays, “Lord, I am not a praying man, but, please, give me back my life.”

The Lord answers his prayer, returning him to his former life, problems, disappointments, and all. And yet, his heart has changed. “Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!” he calls out, laughing as he runs through the snowy streets. “Merry Christmas, you old Building and Loan!” He is ready to face his problems with joy, because it will mean being back with those he loves—and those who love him. For George really has had, as the angel had said, a wonderful life.

***

 

Today, we read of John in prison in our gospel in Matthew this week, asking Jesus through his disciples, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” I am, at first, confused by John’s sudden ambivalence about Jesus, when he had been so sure. Jesus was the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and FIRE, not just water for repentance, like John, he said. John wasn’t worthy to carry the sandals of this one who would come after him, the one who would separate the wheat from the chaff with his winnowing fork.

How could the one who protests when Jesus asks him to baptize him in Matthew 3, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” now change his mind? How could he forget that when he baptized Jesus, the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove and a voice from heaven declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” ?

But now John is in prison. Could it be that he has sunk into despair when faced with his own execution? In chapter 14, we learn that Herod has arrested, bound and imprisoned him because of John condemning Herod’s adulterous relationship with Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. John tells him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”

In this moment of John’s weakness, if that is what it is, Jesus assures John and the disciples—and all of us in generations to come who hear the Word of God—that he is the one of whom the prophets spoke. The signs of the Kingdom are all around! “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus says. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Jesus assures John’s disciples that no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, in spite of his doubts. And yet, the least in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is greater than he.

I struggled with what he meant by that, too, and discovered that scholars don’t agree on his meaning here, either. What I think he may have been referring to is how human beings really get it wrong when we put a value on human life. We look judge some people as more valuable than others, depending on their looks, popularity, worldly status, wealth, accomplishments, or whatever we decide makes them good or better.  We get it wrong, sometimes, don’t we? But in the kingdom of heaven, when all that Christ has redeemed will gather for the great banquet feast, to sing praises for all eternity to the Lamb, only then will we know how God has used us—every one of us—to change the lives of others and, ultimately, to accomplish God’s good plans for the world.

As John 3:17 assures us, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

 

***

Friends, like Jimmy Stewart’s character comes to understand at the end of what he would later say was his favorite movie, the one that put him on the road to healing from his PTSD, we all have a wonderful life! All of us are needed, and not just by friends and family. Because of the ways in which all of our lives are connected, our community and our community of faith’s wellbeing depends on each one of us. And our job—especially at this time of year when emotions are high and we are constantly reminded of our loved ones who are not with us—is to encourage one another. How’s that for a job? Build one another up! For as we build up one another, we are building up the Body of Christ.

For the health of the Body, we need to remind each other just how important we are in these last days, every day, as we wait and long for the one who is to come. And we occasionally may struggle, like John the Baptist, with doubts.

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church! Your life is important! You are not insignificant! Nor is the city of Coshocton! All of our gifts and talents matter—to the church, the world, the Lord.

Will you turn to your neighbor to the right, right now, and tell them, “You are a child of God!” Will you turn to your neighbor to the left and tell them, “You are needed!”

And will you turn to both of them and say, “You are loved!”

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy One, we come to you with gratitude in our hearts for the good plans that you have for this church, for all of us in the Body of Christ. Let us feel your loving presence with us—here, now, and when we leave this place. Let your Spirit speak to us, again and again, reminding us that each one of us have a wonderful life—because you have redeemed us by the blood of the Lamb. We are children of God, called to reveal the Kingdom of God, witnessing to the miracles of healing in our midst. Give us courage to work for peace and justice. Help us to be generous in our giving, not fearing for tomorrow, and share what we have. We pray, Lord, that all will have shelter from the cold this winter in Coshocton County. And all who are hungry now will be fed. Stir us to preach good news to the poor not just by our words but through acts of kindness and love. May we have your patience to endure in hope and faith for the coming of our Lord. In His name we pray. Amen.

 

The Kingdom of Heaven Has Come Near

 

Meditation on Matthew 3:1–12

For Second Sunday in Advent

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

Dec. 8, 2019

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Melvyn

I had a little bit of difficulty working on my message yesterday. I think you should know the obstacles I face when I am preparing to share with you the Word of the Lord. You see, my cat, Melvyn, was really annoyed with me. I wrote this just after he glared at me from behind my computer, yowled, and took a bite out of the cover of my Bible commentary!

You might be surprised that his visual impairment didn’t keep him from trying to close the lid of my laptop. Then, he unplugged it with his paw, and gave it a shove. It came off my lap desk, and almost dropped to the floor. Then, after I repositioned it and restored the plug, he climbed into my lap, and lay down on top of my open Bible, making it very hard to read or type.

He had been trying to get my attention all day. Because the day before—on Friday—even when I was home, I was distracted, working at my computer or on the phone. Beginning Saturday morning, around 6:30, he had to make up for lost attention time. He jumped on our bed, walked across my body and onto the nightstand beside me, where there are ALL sorts of things he likes to knock off. My glasses. My watch. My phone. Books. Pens. A lamp. A cup of tea. If knocking things on the floor fails to gain my response, he thumps my glass water bottle with his head or pokes the lampshade with his nose. Bang! Bang! Bang!

Yesterday, what got my attention, finally, was when he stood on top of me, got up real close to my face, purred ferociously, and started licking my eyelids and cheek.

What it comes down to is this. Melvyn isn’t happy with my lifestyle. It doesn’t suit him. He wants me to change. He’s never going to stop trying to get my attention, and demanding an audience. He’s never going to stop pestering me when he has something important for me to do. Like feed him breakfast or give him a snack.

***

John the Baptist demands our attention, today, on this Second Sunday of Advent, and every day, if our heart is open to his message of change—in ourselves, our lives, the Church of Jesus Christ, the world.

We’ve heard this passage every Advent, so many times, it’s tempting to kind of skim it or snooze through it. Camel hair. Locusts. Honey. Vipers, unquenchable fire and all that. Why, he’s like the opening act and not the group that you paid good money for tickets to see. We want to hear about the baby born in Bethlehem and sing “Joy to the World.” Open our presents, eat Christmas dinner, hang out with family and friends. Maybe watch a football game. O-H! I-O!

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In these weeks and days before Christmas, we don’t feel much like entering into a real or imagined wilderness space, where we are called to examine our hearts, the fruit of our lives, and confess our sins. Who here feels like confessing sins?

We only half listen when John cries out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” But the word for “repent” is the Greek metanoia.  This doesn’t just mean turn away from your sin or turn back to God. It literally means take on a new mind set! Make a U-turn! Change course. John is telling his world and ours that participating in the kingdom of God is going to require more than just showing up at the Jordan. It is about being prepared to let go of what we used to be, and become someone new. Paul says to the Galatians in 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

But John says, himself, that he isn’t the important one. Not me, he says. The one coming after me. Now that’s the one to pay attention to! “I am not worthy to carry his sandals!” he says. “I baptize you with water for repentance. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and FIRE.”

John-the-Baptist-in-river

Yet, John’s cries are heard by the people of his time, as if he is a rockstar! When John baptizes, everyone in the region along the Jordan River, the big city folks of Jerusalem, and all of Judea are coming out to the wilderness. And they didn’t even have cell phones, a Jordan River Website with live streaming camera feed, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat to let them know where and when! And the interesting thing is, to me, that he hasn’t come to reform a religious institution. He doesn’t show up in a synagogue or the temple, wearing Sabbath-best clothes. He’s outside! Far from the Holy City. Dirty and disheveled. Blunt and bold. Wearing a hairy mantle like the prophet Elijah, lifted up to a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire in the sky.

John’s wilderness isn’t a bad place, not like the wilderness experience of the Israelites who had escaped slavery in Egypt only to be lost and wandering for 40 years. John’s wilderness is a safe space for people to leave their everyday problems, worries, fears, dangers, and distractions, and prepare their hearts to meet the Lord. But some who come to see John and be baptized, such as the wealthy, religious elites, come for an appearance of piety, and because they can’t risk ignoring him. He demands their attention, because he is a threat to their lifestyle– their wealth and power. John is drawing people away from the synagogues and institutionalized religion! And he’s telling the harsh truth about them, revealing who they really are. “You brood of vipers!” he shouts. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

vipers

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On this Second Sunday of Advent, we, too, like the people of Judea, Jerusalem, and the area around the Jordan, should listen to John with open hearts, so that the Word may accomplish its work in us and equip us for service. This is the violent, unjust world to which Christ will come, first as the infant, then again as our King. So, we wait and hope in Him. Our faith leads to transformed lives—to our bearing good fruit, as John commands us. But what we anticipate, what we live for in Advent, as one New Testament scholar says, is “the fulfillment of the transformative justice of the Kingdom, when right will be vindicated as right and wrong clearly identified as wrong.” Don’t we all long for that to happen?

According to John the Baptist, the day of judgment is not far off. The Lord, he says in the third chapter of Matthew, has already placed an ax against the tree, ready to cut down any that don’t bear good fruit. The winnowing fork is already in his hand.  Similar to a pitchfork, the winnowing fork is used to lift harvested wheat up into the air. The wind blows away the lighter chaff or husk surrounding the seed and other debris, while the edible grain falls to the threshing floor. The Lord will clear his threshing floor, John says, gather the wheat—those who reveal their repentance by their good works—into the granary, the Kingdom of God. The chaff will be burned with an unquenchable fire, the power of God.

But we have no fear. Our Judge is our Redeemer. Our merciful, loving Savior has claimed us in our baptisms. We belong to Him, just as Quinn and Laila will be claimed by him in their baptisms today. We are united by the Spirit as Christ’s Body for the world. Every day, the Spirit leads us and helps us bear good fruit.

Friends, I pray that the Spirit will stir you to boldly proclaim the gospel in word and deeds, like John! May the Lord grant you courage to always tell the truth and work for peace and justice.

May you be attentive to the voice of the one who cried out to all Judea and Jerusalem and speaks to us, still. Let go of your problems, worries, and anxieties. Resist the frantic busyness and materialism that the world says is good, especially this time of year.

Come with me, John says, to the wilderness. Come, just as you are. You don’t need to bring anything but you. It’s a place of safety and refuge. Honesty, trust and transformation. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is drawing near.”

 

Holy One, thank you for the words of the prophets, especially for John. He spoke the truth boldly, lived simply, and served you faithfully, even dying for you. Lead us, Lord, into the wilderness, where ever that place may be for each of us. Draw us into that space of safety and refuge, where we can leave all our problems, fears, and anxieties behind and learn to place our trust in you. Help us to be attentive to your voice. Give us repentant hearts that will lead to the transformation of ourselves, our lives, our church and world. Lead us to do the works that you want us to do, works in your name that will bear good fruit. Grant us patience and courage as we wait and hope for your Son’s return and the transformative justice of your Kingdom. In His name we pray. Amen.