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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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?”

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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.

He Is Coming Soon!

Meditation on Matthew 24:36-44

First Sunday of Advent

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

Dec. 1, 2019

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36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

 

***

 

It was Taco Teepee Tuesday, and I didn’t even know it.  Mr. Gill and Mrs. Yost had invited me to spend time with their second graders at Coshocton Elementary on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, since school would be closed on Friday, my usual day to read to the students and listen as they read to me. I said yes, though it meant changing my schedule and working at the church office on Monday, my usual day off. I was looking forward to sharing a message with Mrs. Yost’s class about the first Thanksgiving, like I did for the children’s message in church, making sure to emphasize, in the midst of our delicious Thanksgiving feasts, the importance of remembering to give God thanks for all his gifts to us.

Mr. Gill had just started making taco teepees with his class—and I had just finished my time with Mrs. Yost’s class, when the fire alarm went off! From the startled expression on Mrs. Yost’s face, I was pretty sure she wasn’t expecting a fire drill.

But she knew what to do—and so did her kids. She grabbed her class list and down the stairs we went, out the back door, and down more steps to a sidewalk, then, turning left, we walked all the way to the tennis courts, where the entire second grade was gathering. They moved quickly, with only a little talking, giggling, and shhh-ing—knowing their destination. They had practiced a number of times this school year and in kindergarten and first. Their teachers had taught them what to do—and how they shouldn’t be afraid, but that they should also take it seriously and be watching and listening for new instructions. Because you never know if it is a real emergency or just a drill!

Waiting with the children at the tennis courts, I had a moment to thank God, again, for making it possible for me to be there with them, when I had never planned on coming on Tuesdays, let alone THE Taco Teepee Tuesday.

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It was another opportunity to serve those whom Jesus had said, gathering the children to himself, as the disciples tried to shoo them away—to “such as these” the Kingdom of God belongs.

 

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As we waited for the all-clear signal, I thought to myself, what if instead of a fire alarm, it was the sound of a trumpet and Jesus had come back at that very moment—when we were with the children, talking about, of all things, prayer. That would have been a good time for Jesus to return! We were ready!

“Come, Lord Jesus,” I whispered as we walked back to our classrooms, remembering Christ’s promise in Revelation 22:20. “Surely, I am coming soon!”

 

***

 

On this first Sunday in Advent, we are reminded that we are living in the in-between times—getting ready to tell the beautiful story, once again, of our Savior’s birth and preparing our hearts for Christ’s return.

In our gospel reading in Matthew, why does Jesus emphasize our need to get ready and be alert? Because it is easy to let the things of this world distract and consume us—like they did in the time of Noah, when people were eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage—just living their lives, but living apart from God. They didn’t have a foundation of faith or a relationship with the Lord.

It’s not a coincidence that we read this Scripture on the first Sunday of Advent, in a season when we are SO busy. We just make it through Thanksgiving, and then it’s Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. Our homes must be decorated, cookies must be baked, and the Christmas cards are waiting to be written. Is anyone else’s December calendar already full of activities and the month has barely begun? With all the good things you have planned, make sure you don’t forget your first love—the Lord—and that preparing our hearts to meet Him isn’t the same as getting ready for Christmas.

Another reason Jesus urges us to prepare our hearts for his return is to give us hope. We can become easily discouraged if we forget that this isn’t all there is!

We know Christ is coming. We just don’t know when. Jesus says not even the angels or the Son of Man himself know when he will return. Only God knows. Anyone who tries to tell you differently, Jesus says, is trying to lead you astray.  The image of his coming like a thief in the night here in Matthew is taken up by the Apostle Paul in 1 Thess. 5:2: “ For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” And in Revelation 16:15, when Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake…”

But we can be ready for him, as I felt so keenly this past Tuesday, when I was sure that where I was, was where I needed to be, and what I was doing was what the Lord wanted. Isn’t that a wonderful feeling when that happens? I felt a longing in my heart to see the One who will “come on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory,” as Jesus says in Matthew 24:30-31. “And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”

Are you wondering what will happen to us when Jesus comes back? Scripture says that we will be transformed. The Apostle Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:51-52, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” John says in 1 John 3: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

And what of the images of two being in the field—one taken, the other left? And two women grinding meal together; again, one will be taken, another left? How should we respond to these? Should we be afraid that we might be left? No, once you have said yes to the Spirit’s invitation and accepted Christ as your Savior, the Lord isn’t going to change his mind about you. Ephesians 1:4 says, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” And Paul in Romans 10:13 says, “All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Rather than fear or insecurity, the image of one being taken and another left should stir us to compassion for those who don’t know Jesus. It reminds us that we have an important job—and that’s allowing God to use us and speak through us, sharing the good news of Jesus and his love.

Being prepared for Christ’s return means having a firm foundation, having studied, worshiped, prayed and practiced our faith so well that we respond to the Lord as the children did to the fire drill—with confidence and without fear, being sure of our destination, always listening for the Spirit’s direction, looking for opportunities to serve, care for others and give of ourselves. We won’t know how many lives we have touched; how many people we have helped draw nearer to Him. But we HAVE touched lives. We ARE making a difference.

It is my prayer that when the Lord comes back, he will find us faithful—doing only the things he wants us to do and not wasting a single moment harboring hurt or holding onto the past, not when there are good works in Christ’s name to do.

For every time we give and care for someone in need, we are preparing our hearts to meet the Lord.

Friends, He is coming soon!

 

***

As I was leaving the elementary school last week, one of the ladies in the office asked, “Hey, do you have a minute?” I had an appointment to get to, but I stopped to listen, sensing it was important.

She wanted me to know about a gift from the women of our church, more than a year ago, of about $250. She used the money recently to buy sweat pants of all sizes—47 pairs—for children who fall down, tear their pants, or get dirty or wet at the bus stop, on the playground, or in school. The new pants are given to the children; they never ask for them back.

The lady who told me this story had tears in her eyes. “Will you tell the women that I said thank you?” she said.

I said that I would—and that I would encourage our church to help again whenever the children have needs.

For when we give and care for others, we are preparing our hearts for the Lord’s return. When he comes on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, may he find us faithful.

Friends, He is coming soon!

 

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for the promise of our everlasting life with you and for your return for your beloved Church. Thank you for the plans you have for us, the works you have already ordained for us to do in your name, giving to others, caring for people in need, sharing the good news of your grace and love. Help us to keep you at the center of all our activities and celebrations this month. Lead us in your will so that we don’t try to do too much. Prepare our hearts, Lord, for your return. Stir us to remain ever watchful and ever faithful, not wasting time on things that don’t bring joy or build up your Church. Come, Lord Jesus. Come soon! In your name we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Give Thanks

 

Meditation on Philippians 4:1-9

Nov. 17, 2019

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton, OH

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

***

It was a different world in November 1956 when Margaret Towner was the first woman to be ordained in the northern branch of our denomination. “It was a watershed moment for women’s equality,” says Presbyterian Outlook in its Oct 7 issue, “for dismantling gender power structures within the church and for ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church.” Thirty-six years had passed since the first overture to ordain women as elders and as ministers went before the General Assembly in 1920, the same year women were granted the right to vote in the United States.

Margaret’s ordination to serve God through First Presbyterian Church of Allentown was not, alas, a call to preach. That would come later, when she served other churches. Her first call was to be a minister of Christian education, overseeing the work of 60 teachers, with 910 students. The charge at her ordination has never been forgotten. “Be the shepherd of the flock and not their pet lamb.”

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Margaret’s ordination was covered by Life Magazine with a 5-page spread. The article, “A First Lady Minister in Robes of a New Role,” contains photos that play up her femininity. One features 31-year-old Margaret standing with arms outstretched in a borrowed black clergy robe as two ladies hem and shorten her sleeves to fit her 5-foot-2-inch frame. Another shows her kneeling before 7 men of the presbytery, clad in long black robes and white clerical ties with preaching bands. Another shows her smiling as she sticks her head in the door of a nursery, a small child peering back. Still another depicts Margaret laughing and the caption explaining that an old friend from college, where she had studied pre-med, reminded her that she had once said, “The one thing I will never do is go into church work.”

To the objection that the ordination of women “will be just another excuse for men to get out of the church,” Margaret told Life Magazine, “In my mind there is no ground for men’s fears that women will move in and take over their jobs. There is too much work to be done to allow any jealousy.” Her main worry is not being kept out of the pulpit, she says, for her ministry is with the children and teachers. What bothers her is that the church has a baseball team, “and it’s all men and they won’t let me play,” she says. “But they will call on me when they are in a tough spot in the league!”

Margaret would later choose not to marry, “acknowledging that her temperament wouldn’t allow her to serve both the church and a family.” I suspect that she realized she wouldn’t be able to do it all in an era in which women were expected –not only by men, but by other women—to do everything at home for her husband and children.

While church leadership has been open to women in the Presbyterian Church for more than 6 decades, gender discrimination persists, says the Oct. 7 issue of Presbyterian Outlook. Female ministers have encountered sexism in a variety of forms, including snide remarks and inappropriate evaluations of their bodies, their hair, and the pitch of their voices. It’s no secret that women have a more difficult time finding jobs in ministry and more often work in part time or temporary positions. The gender pay gap among ministers is wider than the national average for all jobs. It wasn’t until Margaret’s last call –decades after she was ordained—that she would receive equal pay with her male counterparts.

Margaret, now 94, in last month’s Presbyterian Outlook, recalls opposition from both men and women in the church. She did receive letters from minister’s wives who worried that women would take jobs away from their husbands and would be willing to be paid less. She also received letters from men who called her to repent and be saved. She chose not to answer those letters or “get into a dialogue with others about their opinions,” she says. “I felt that an example of women in ministry would help break down barriers rather than debate.” When things got tough, she says, her supporters “had her back. Successes and affirmations kept her going.”

“And I felt called,” she says. “Ordained ministry was my life’s work.”

***

In our Philippians reading today, we note that the apostle Paul is supportive of women in ministry. And, in spite of his situation of being imprisoned for the gospel, he says in 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice.” Later in chapter 4, he will go on to tell how he has heard of their concern for him and assure them that, “In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Paul is concerned for unity and peace in the Philippian church. He does something that is unusual for him, in Philippians 4:2-3, and that is to name two women, leaders in the church, whom he has heard are not in agreement. This stirs him to urge Euodia (a Greek name meaning Success) and Syntyche (Greek for Lucky), “to be of the same mind in the Lord.” He doesn’t condemn any specific actions. And he doesn’t take sides! And, also unusual for Paul, he expresses a desire for a loyal companion of his—possibly Luke—to help them be reconciled. He claims them as colleagues in ministry who “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers,” he says, and that their “names are in the book of life.” This is the only time Paul mentions the heavenly “book of life,” in his letters, though it is a common belief from his Jewish heritage and will be mentioned numerous times in the NT book of Revelation. These two women, in Paul’s view, haven’t ceased to be among God’s faithful.

Women have been in leadership in the Philippian church in Macedonia from its beginnings, when Paul shared about Christ with some Gentile women–God-fearers—who met by the river on the Jewish Sabbath for prayer. In Acts 16, the Lord opens the heart of one of the God-fearers named Lydia, a dealer in purple, to listen eagerly as Paul shares about the Risen Christ. She and her household are baptized, and Paul, Silas and Timothy accept her hospitality and stay in her home a while.

The command to rejoice in the Lord follows Paul’s urging Euodia and Syntyche to have the same mind. In chapter 2, he had urged the church to be careful of their witness and “do all things without murmuring or arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.” Here in chapter 4, he encourages the church again to remember to live so that they reveal their faith and to whom they belong. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” he says. “The Lord is near.”

Paul urges us all, then, to turn our worries into prayer and, with thanksgiving, bring our requests to God. We remain in the mind of Christ when we reject negative thoughts and think on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, excellent, commendable—anything worthy of praise.

And the promise for those who keep on doing what we have learned, received and heard and seen? “The God of peace will be with you.”

***

We rejoice as we welcome five new members in The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton today. We give God thanks and praise for you! We embrace you as you are. We hope that you feel God’s love here.

I am grateful for Margaret Towner and all the women in ministry, going back to Biblical times, whose stories inspire us to be open to the Spirit bringing change to our church and society. While it hasn’t been as much as Margaret, I have experienced some opposition to my ministry over the years. None of that is worth talking or even thinking about, as Paul says; it’s not honorable, excellent, pure, or praiseworthy. I, too, haven’t felt that entering into debate about women in ministry is helpful—not when there’s work to be done! The best thing is to be who we are meant to be and not be ashamed of who we are. I, too, have been strengthened by the support of family and friends, and the certainty that God has called me to this work.

I would add to Margaret’s list of things that keep her going a sense of gratitude to God for this call. Gratitude is a powerful thing! I give thanks to God for what he has done in my life and is doing in our church. One more thing I would add to the list is joy. The joy of the Lord is OUR strength. No one can take our joy away!

Let us make our requests known to the God who loves us and has a plan for us. And remember that in Christ’s Body, we are made one, in spite of our differences. Remember that your gentleness is part of your witness to the world.

Now, keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen. Give thanks! And may the God of peace be with you!

Let us pray.

Thank you, Lord, for your love for us and for sending your Son to give His life for our sins—making a way to be reconciled with you and one another when there was no way. We were lost! Thank you for calling us all now by name to love and serve you and your people and for giving us joy for this journey, YOUR joy that no one can ever take away. Thank you for all the godly men and women, like Margaret Towner, who have heard your voice and accepted the call to serve as ministers, despite the opposition she faced. Grant us the mind of Christ so that we may all live in peace with one another, forgiving each other as we seek to do the work of your Church and reach out with your love to our community. Help us to think on things that are honorable, excellent, pure, and praiseworthy and to be a faithful witness through kindness and gentleness, shining like stars in a dark world. Amen.

 

 

 

Our Father in Heaven, God of the Living

 

Meditation on Luke 20:27-38

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

Nov. 10, 2019

 

27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

 

     I was already thinking that I was too busy. As our Mary and Martha study group would well understand, I was thinking I may have too many rocks in my wagon–and that maybe some of the rocks in my wagon weren’t rocks that the Lord had given me to carry for him. So when Tina texted me that the funeral home wanted me to do a memorial service for someone who wasn’t a member of our faith community, I called the funeral home with every intention of saying no.

You know what’s coming, right? The funeral director, a hardworking young lady with a gentle heart, told me that after meeting with the family, she thought that I would be a good fit for them. Something in her voice stirred me to say that I would talk with the family and see what I could do. As I waited for the phone to ring, I prayed, “Lord, if this is your will for me, show me how I can do this. Give me your compassion and joy.” Immediately, I remembered how my father didn’t have a church, either, or a pastor, when he died. And how we didn’t want just anyone to do his service.

When Linda called and told me about her mother, Joyce Selders, I knew this was, indeed, God’s plan. Especially when she said how she wanted her family to know that Joyce wasn’t suffering anymore–and that she was in a better place. What I heard in her plea was that she wanted me to bear witness to the resurrection, to comfort them with the hope that we have in Jesus Christ, who says to Martha after her brother Lazarus dies in John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?

Joyce, who had lived at Windsorwood for the past 5 years or so, died on Halloween at the age of 89. A widow since 2001, she had lived independently at her home on Adams Street until she was seriously injured while planting a rose bush in her yard. She suffered a massive stroke six months later.

She was born in Dresden in 1930, and while she had grown up in the Depression years, she would tell stories of a happy childhood, making do and learning to appreciate what they had. Money was scarce. They had stamps for sugar and flour. New shoes and clothes were luxury items. And the new shoes usually went to her younger brother, Bunk, first, and when he got new shoes, Joyce said, he would try them out by kicking her with his new shoes. For fun, their sister, Reva, would stop at the gas station and ask for “50 cents’ worth of Ethel” to drive them around town.

Joyce borrowed a dress to marry Dale Selders of Coshocton in early 1946, when she wasn’t quite 16. The young man had served in the U.S. Army in WWII. He borrowed a car, and they set out on an adventure that lasted 55 years together.

“I always knew that I was loved,” Linda says. She never questioned her mother’s love, for it revealed itself in acts of kindness and sacrifice, with all the little things that she did and the extra effort to make things special. Whether it was cooking noodles from scratch or making filled raisin cookies that was an all day process, her motto was, “If it is worth doing, then it’s worth doing right.”

She taught herself to do many things. She loved gardening, cooking, baking, sewing, quilting, ceramics, music and dancing. And she took time to play with her children, teaching Linda to roller skate and ice skate and joining in when the kids competed to see who could eat corn on the cob the fastest.

Linda used to wonder why her mother paid so much attention to the laundry, always ironing, cleaning house, and making sure dinner was ready every day at 5:30. Later, she understood that her mother had been on a mission her whole life to please her family in every way she could.

Linda’s stories of her mother reminded me of our Good Shepherd in John 10, who knows his sheep intimately and calls us each by name. “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says, “and they follow me.” In the greatest act of love, our Good Shepherd lay down his life for the sheep. We never have to question our Good Shepherd’s love.

***

Studying this scripture in the gospel of Luke this week, after celebrating the life of an amazing woman and bearing witness to the resurrection, I couldn’t help but be disturbed by the Sadducees’ question. So what about the childless woman who dies after becoming a widow 7 times, marrying the brothers of her first husband? This is according to the practice of Levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. A childless widow would have been poor, marginalized, and vulnerable, if there were no male relative to protect, provide and care for her. I found myself wishing that we knew more about this woman, if she did, indeed exist. What a sad thing to lose so many loved ones and to remain childless in a time when a woman’s value was tied to her children.

The question of the Sadducees is not innocent. They are determined to make a fool of this country rabbi called Jesus, who is a threat to them, though he lacks a formal education, money, prestige and political power. As Jesus is teaching in the temple in Luke 19:47-48, some people are “spellbound by what they heard”; others want to kill him. Others, in Luke 20:20, come asking questions to “trap him by what he said.”

The Sadducees, who may have taken their name from Israel’s high priest, Zadok, during the reigns of David and Solomon, control the temple, which is the center of religious and community life. They oversee formal affairs of the state; participate in Israel’s court called the Sanhedrin; they collect taxes; equip and lead the army; regulate relations with the Romans; and mediate domestic disputes. Not only do they not believe in the resurrection, they reject the notion of spirits or angels or an afterlife of any kind.

With their question, the Sadducees imagine that the resurrection of which Christ speaks must be merely an extension of the life we have today. But we know that’s not true! It will be a completely new existence, and we will be changed. Marriage, family, children–these characterize life in our age. We will be “like angels,” “children of God,”  “children of the resurrection,” says Christ about the future that we can hardly imagine, but one day will see.

The Sadducees profess belief in the 5 books of Moses–the first 5 books in the Bible, but not the remainder of the Scriptures. This is why Jesus, when he answers the Sadducees’ ridiculous question, mentions the story of the burning bush. This is God’s first encounter with Moses, when the Lord reveals himself to be the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”

“Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living,” Christ declares, “for to him, all of them are alive.”

***

I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to share about the hope of the resurrection with the family of Joyce Selders–and to be inspired by her story. The Spirit of the Living God interrupts our plans and redirects us, continually, as we seek to be faithful to obey God’s will and have the Lord prepare us, more and more, for the Kingdom of Heaven. This is what I realized as we said the traditional Lord’s Prayer at the memorial service–that this is our welcoming our Father in Heaven to reign in our hearts and over our lives now and always–for “thine,” we say, or “yours” “is the Kingdom, the power and the glory forever. Amen.”

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We can trust the Lord to be in every future we can imagine, with the help of the NT. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his,” says Romans 6:5, “we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” “For God so loved the world,” says John 3:16,  “that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” “We will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, when the dead will be raised,” says Paul in 1 Cor. 15:51-52. And when “he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is,” says 1 John 3:2.

Friends, we don’t have to wait till we die to live resurrected lives in Him. Today is the day Christ will make all things new. We will have a glimpse of the Kingdom as God’s people gather in faith to experience Christ’s presence and partake of the bread and cup. And the Holy Spirit will do its work, uniting us in Christ’s Body with all the saints, in every time and place. We who are broken and feel empty, will be strengthened, filled, and made whole. We who remember Christ’s body given and blood shed for the forgiveness of sins will be re-membered and sent out for the world, to comfort and share the hope we have in Jesus, who says to us in His Word, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy One, we believe in you! Thank you for our faith. Help us when we struggle with unbelief. We trust that even though we will die someday, we will live forever with you. We know that you live in our hearts now and will never abandon us. We seek your help that we may be strengthened, filled and made whole. Comfort those grieving the loss of loved ones. Give us the hope of your resurrection and remind us, every day, of the promise of our resurrection with you. Give us patience and grace as your Spirit interrupts our plans and you provide ministry opportunities. Lead us to be faithful to share our stories with our community and to live new, resurrected lives, as we seek to be in your will. For thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory forever. Amen.

 

 

I Lay Down My Life for the Sheep

Meditation on John 10:7-15

In Memory of Joyce (Bice) Selders

Nov. 4, 2019

Given-Dawson-Paisley Funeral Home,

Coshocton, OH

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So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

      “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 

 

***

When Linda shared with me about her mom, the day after Joyce had gone home to be with the Lord at the age of 89, she told me how she always felt loved. And I thought to myself, what a wonderful way to be remembered—by our love! I can’t think of a nicer thing to say about a parent. She never questioned her mother’s love. In a day and age when so many homes are filled with strife, her family’s home was brimming with love. She knew her mother loved her not just because of what she said, but how she lived her life.

Linda saw love in the things her mother did—all the extra effort she would put into making things for friends and family. As Linda talked, I could almost smell the filled raisin cookies that her mother made that took her all day to make. I imagined her mixing the batter, rolling out the dough, cutting out circles, and then alternating circles of dough, with cooked raisin filling, before baking in the oven till golden brown. Nowadays, when drive-through fast food and carry out pizzas are all too frequent fare for today’s busy families, her mother prepared hot meals that her family ate gathered around the table at home. In addition to gardening, baking, and cooking, her mother enjoyed sewing and quilting, walking and line dancing, music, and making ceramics.

Born in Dresden in 1930 and growing up with three sisters and two brothers, Joyce married young. She and Dale Selders of Coshocton, a WWII veteran, tied the knot on Feb. 28, 1946. He was creative, too, and enjoyed hobbies, such as working on old cars, even rebuilding a 1930 Model T Ford. He learned how to lay brick, and together they built five homes. He retired from GE after working 39 years.

Family always came first for Joyce—caring for her husband; daughter, Linda; and son, Allen; though she did work for Pretty Products in Coshocton for a time. She continued to live independently at their home on Adams Street after Dale died in 2001, until about five years ago. A serious injury while gardening and a stroke six months later led her to move to the assisted living community Windsorwood Place.  Though her gardening and baking days were over, she continued to enjoy her friends and neighbors and, most of all, family gatherings, especially when they involved spending time with grandchildren and great grandchildren. I suspect, like Linda, all the rest of the family didn’t question Joyce’s love.

It is that way with Jesus, our Savior. We never have to question his love. He proves his love to us not just by words, but by acts of kindness and self-sacrifice. In the 10th chapter of the gospel of John, we learn that he isn’t just our Shepherd; he is the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd would stay to defend and protect the sheep from wolves, while the hired hand would run if he saw the wolves coming and leave the sheep to be snatched and scattered. “The hired hand,” Jesus says, “runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.” The Good Shepherd calls us each by name; he claims us in our baptism; we belong to Him. And listen to this promise in John 10:27-28. “My sheep hear my voice,” he says. “and I know them, and they follow me: And I give them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall anyone pluck them out of my hand.” Not only will the Good Shepherd stay with us, defend and protect us, he offers us abundant life through the sacrifice of his own.  “I lay down my life,” he says, “for the sheep.”

And when we love, like Joyce loved, then we bear witness to the love of our Good Shepherd, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. When we love one another, we reveal to whom we belong, the one who claims us in baptism. He is the one who knows us better than we know ourselves as he knew us before we were born. He wants to give us life—so that we live abundantly. It is His voice that we hear and know. He calls us by name. He draws us nearer to Him, even now, gently whispering, “Come. Follow me.”

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, thank you for your Son, Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd, who claims us in baptism. Thank you for your Spirit that has poured your love in our hearts and offers strength and comfort to us every day. Lead us, Lord, to bear witness to you by living abundantly, revealing to whom we belong by our love for one another. In Christ we pray. Amen.