Sunday, January 27, 2013


(A sermon based on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 & Luke 4:14-21 for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany)

Can you go home again? And if you do will they listen to you?

On May 7 I will be preaching at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia’s Senior Adult Celebration at the First Baptist Church in Forsyth, Georgia, which is about fifteen miles from the house in Barnesville in which I was raised. This will be the first time, except for a couple of funerals, that I have preached that close to home in many years. Many of my remaining family members and friends in the area are chronologically qualified to attend the meeting and I hope they will.

If they do, though, I will be a little intimidated. Some of them will be very curious about me. They’ll be asking themselves questions like, “Is he a know-it-all?” “Is he full of himself?” “Where did his hair go?” “Didn’t he used to be skinny?”

I don’t know what I will say to them but I hope it will be a lot like what I want to say to you today, namely, that fulfillment is found in fulfillment. That is, the church experiences a fulfilled life by helping others to live a fulfilled life, all of which is how we fulfill the purposes of God in our own place and time. Or, to come at it from the other direction, we fulfill God’s purposes when we help others to experience the fulfilled life that we have found and as we do that we become even more fulfilled. The more fulfillment you find the more fulfillment you offer and the more fulfillment you offer the more fulfillment you will find.

In our Gospel text we see Jesus, right after his baptism and his test in the wilderness, and so in the very early days of his ministry, returning to his hometown of Nazareth. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue and there he exercised the prerogative of a Jewish adult male to read and comment on Scripture. He chose a passage from the Isaiah scroll that said,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
(Luke 4:18-19).

When those words were first spoken sometime during the years of or during the years after the Babylonian Exile of the Sixth Century BCE they referred either to the people of Israel or to person representing the people of Israel whom God would use to bring about a radical transformation in society. Because of the actions of this person or persons, actions that would be brought about through God’s anointing and because of God’s Spirit, the poor would receive good news, the captive would be set free, and the blind would be given sight. Moreover, the “year of the Lord’s favor”—the Jubilee year in which slaves would be set free and debts would be forgiven—would be proclaimed.

It was something to which the people looked forward; it was something that gave them hope.

It is one thing, though, to keep looking forward to such great transformation; it is quite another when someone announces that the time is now. Imagine if I were to go to Forsyth and there, just a few miles from my hometown, say, “Sisters and brothers, some things have to change around here.” All the people would say “Amen.” But then imagine how they would react if I were to then say, “And brothers and sisters, I am the one who will be the instigator of that change.” All the people would say “Yeah right.”

Jesus, after reading the words of the prophet, then said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” At first his words received a good hearing from the hometown crowd, but then he started challenging them. He challenged them to understand the barriers that they had built against the fulfillment of the good news of God, barriers like a lack of faith, a lack of openness, and a lack of self-awareness; he challenged them to understand that he understood how hard it would be for them to get on board.

Their response was to try to throw him off a cliff. The final straw was his observation that God’s salvation was not just for a select few but for all and that the time had come when God would on a broad scale do what God had done on a smaller scale before: throw the gates of the kingdom open to anyone who was willing to come and pour the blessings of the kingdom out on those who were on the outside.

How different things would have been had the people in the synagogue that day realized just how blessed they were to be in the presence of Jesus and to have the opportunity to embrace the fulfillment that was offered to them in Jesus and the further fulfillment they could have found in getting in on the ground floor of what Jesus was doing, namely, sharing the good news with everybody everywhere. But the main barrier they experienced was their inability to embrace the fact that fulfillment came through both receiving and sharing the great gifts of God.

It was the most transitional moment in the history of the world and people cut themselves off from the fulfillment that comes only from accepting the grace of God and then joyfully and sacrificially sharing that fulfillment with others.

At another pivotal moment, one much closer to the time when the Isaiah text read by Jesus was spoken, the people of Judah who had returned from Babylonian Exile gathered to hear the reading of the Torah by Ezra the priest and its translation and interpretation by the Levites. When the people heard the Torah read they wept but Ezra and the other leaders told them not to cry but rather to celebrate. Then he said, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

Be very glad for the joy and fulfillment you have in Christ.

Be very, very glad that you can share it with others, whether they have prepared for it or not…

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Best

(A sermon based on John 2:1-11 for the Second Sunday after Epiphany)

In the Harry Potter book and movie series, there are creatures called Dementors; they have the ability to suck the soul out of a wizard. In the stories, those who experience the work of the Dementors report that they felt like there was no more happiness in the world. According to one of the adult wizards, a man named Lupin, dementors drain “peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them” (The Prisoner of Azkaban, p. 10).

There are events that can seem to drain the life from us. There are events that can drain the life from us.

Not all events to which we give that kind of weight deserve it, though.

It is good and necessary that we learn the difference between a crisis and an inconvenience. The world if full of both; our lives contain both. What the family at the wedding feast at Cana was confronted with was not a crisis; it was an inconvenience—a very embarrassing one, but an inconvenience nonetheless. Jesus did not make it a regular practice, so far as we know, to protect people from party disasters or other inconveniences.

Still, we must reckon with the fact that John views this miracle as so important that he puts it right up front in his story of Jesus; he even goes out of his way to point out that it was Jesus’ first miracle. It is helpful to know that when the people of Jesus’ time and place thought about what would characterize the kingdom of God when it came, one way they pictured it was as a great banquet that included copious amounts of wine.

So Jesus’ first miracle indicated, for those with eyes to see, that the kingdom had arrived. As John points out, Jesus by this sign “revealed his glory.”

In the Bible, wine is a symbol of life, joy, and plenty. Jesus, by changing the water into wine, announced that he had come, then, to give us life and to give it abundantly. Jesus connects us with God, the true source of life. Always God has been about making that life available. Being who we are, people refuse that life or think they can find a better life without God. People are silly. And lost.

Jesus may or may not have been the life of the party but the party was about to run out of life until he acted.

Jesus was and is the life of God in the world and it is in him that we find the life that God means for us to have.

The story of Jesus turning water into wine is about Jesus giving gifts that are abundant and extravagant. Jesus turned water in six stone jars that each held up to thirty gallons into wine; that’s as much as 180 gallons of wine. Jesus did not meet the need just barely; he met the need extravagantly.

Jesus does not just give us life; he gives us life extravagantly.

Jesus was and is the giver of extravagant grace, of extravagant love, of extravagant hope, and of extravagant life.

Let’s not quash it and quench it.

The late Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard once remarked, “Christ turned water into wine, but the church has succeeded in doing something even more difficult: it has turned wine into water.” [Soren Kierkegaard, cited by Richard Bauckham, “Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C. Gospel Lesson: John 2:1-11,” in Roger E. Van Harn, ed., The Lectionary Commentary: The Third Readings (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2001), p. 492]

How have we managed to remove joy from our experience of God? Oh, sometimes our critical nature, our narrow vision, and our lack of spiritual discipline might contribute to the problem. But might not the biggest cause be that we have tried to keep God’s extravagance for ourselves rather than understanding that real joy comes from giving it away?

I mean, what if the bridegroom had kept the wine for himself and not shared it with his guests? I guess he could have enjoyed 180 gallons of wine (hopefully over a very long period of time). But it was a party and at a party enjoying things together and making sure everyone has more than enough is the point.

What will we do with the extravagance? Will we go off by ourselves and sip the wine alone? Or will we live in such a way that everybody wants to come to the party?

Again, Jesus was and is the giver of extravagant grace, of extravagant love, of extravagant hope, and of extravagant life. Do we squash such extravagance by trying to hold onto it or do we embrace God’s extravagant grace and love by giving it away to the people all around us who are hurting so badly?

A couple of people with birthdays this past week teach us some important lessons.

Sandy West turned 100 years old on Thursday, January 17, 2013. She is the daughter of very wealthy parents and from them she inherited Ossabaw Island. Ossabaw, at 26,000 acres, is Georgia’s third largest barrier island. Needless to say, it would be worth a fortune to developers. But West did not sell it to developers. No, in 1978 she and her brother’s heirs sold it to the State of Georgia for $8 million, or one half of its appraised value; they gifted the other $8 million to the state. In return, West was able to have a say in what happened to it and she determined that it would be used only for educational, cultural, and research purposes. West was also allowed to live in her home on the island for as long as she lives; she is, apart from a ranger, the only resident.

Sandy West received great gifts and she did great things with her great gifts. She shared them with others in way that will make a difference from now on. She serves as a role model for us in the ways that we receive and distribute God’s extravagant grace and mercy in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been eighty-four years old on January 15. Dr. King once said, “Those who are not looking for happiness are the most likely to find it, because those who are searching forget that the surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.”

Jesus gives us the best there is to give—real life, a life connected with the life of God—and Jesus gives it extravagantly and abundantly. How can we help but share the best with others?

When Jesus’ mother told him that the wedding hosts had run out of wine, Jesus initially said that his time had not come. He says that at other times in John’s Gospel. What was his time? When would it come? It was the time of his glory which would come at his crucifixion. Jesus finally gave us life by giving his own life.

How generous will we be with the extravagance with which Jesus has blessed us?

It’s a party. Jesus has made sure there is plenty to go around…

Sunday, January 13, 2013

When You Pass Through the Waters

(A sermon based on Isaiah 43:1-7 & Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 for the Baptism of the Lord)

The images are ones we still use. “I feel like I’m going under.” “I really got burned.” Water and fire have long been images of trial, testing, and suffering. We experience events and situations that either are life-threatening, such as a serious illness or accident, or feel like they are life-threatening, like a divorce or job loss or serious problems with a family member. We feel like we’re going under. We feel like we’re getting burned.

Sometimes, we don’t just find ourselves in such a situation; we rather put ourselves there. So the prophet speaking in Isaiah 43 spoke his words to guilty people, to people who had sinned and who either knew they had sinned or needed to admit their sins. Their nation had been devastated by the Babylonians and they had been transported into exile hundreds of miles away and it was all because, the true prophets had told them, they had sinned against the Lord by trusting in their own power and wisdom and because they had put their faith in expedient gods and in military and political alliances.

There were no doubt (relatively) innocent sufferers among the exiles; those were people who were faithful back in Judah or who had been born in Babylon. Always there are the innocent sufferers; always there are the ones who are not evil but who get caught up in the evil. The very nature of society means that we are connected to one another and are affected by one another.

Sometimes we know why we are suffering. Sometimes we don’t.

The exiles were already going through the fire and the flood and they had more to go through before they left Babylon and once they began to return to Judah and even after they got home.

Going through the fire and the flood is the way of things.

God through God’s prophet assured the people that they could have confident trust as they went through their trying experiences. God assured them that God would be with them. After all, it was God who had created them, it was God who had redeemed them, and it was God who had established a relationship with them. It was God who had brought them out Egyptian bondage and it was God who would bring them out of Babylonian bondage.

Most amazingly, God would be with them in the flood and the fire and would bring them out on the other side “because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:4a). Yes, they had sinned and yes, they had suffered because of that sin, but still God loved them and even treasured them.

God loves and treasures us, too. God passes through the waters with us, too.

Jesus even passed through the baptismal waters with us.

Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came to take away the sins of the world. One day, right at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized. Notice how Luke describes that event: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…” Jesus was baptized along with all the other people. Imagine him standing in that line, maybe fourth from the end.

Lots of people were baptized the night I was back in 1966. It was a long line comprising a motley bunch made up of children and teenagers and adults. I’m picturing Jesus being in that line, just waiting like a regular guy with the rest of us regular folks. After all, we were all in it together. And Jesus was in it with us.

That’s one of the reasons—maybe the main reason—that Jesus submitted to baptism, even though Jesus himself was without sin. He went through the waters of baptism with us because he goes through all the waters with us; by joining with those sinners lined up to be baptized by John, Jesus was immersing himself in their sin, suffering, brokenness, and pain. He entered into it so as to make it clear that God is with us in all we go through; he entered into it to destroy from within those realities that threaten to destroy us.

Jesus was as aware—maybe even more aware—of the sin of the people in that line, waiting to go into that river, than they were. We need to be aware—probably more aware than we often are—of our sinfulness. Back when our friend Melvin Giddens was diagnosed with cancer he and I talked about the Lord (after Norma had already talked with him). He said that he had trusted in Christ but when I broached the subject of baptism, he balked. “I want to really mean it,” he said, “because the Lord will know if I don’t.” Thankfully he was able to work through things and he was baptized.

Jesus was aware—he was the only one who was aware—of the special nature of who he was and yet he dove right in with those sinners. As his followers, as the body of Christ in the world today, it is our responsibility and privilege—it is our mission—to dive right in, too. This cartoon says it well.

It is good to be secure in the knowledge that we are the beloved children of God. But out of that security let’s take the risk of being with the lost and hurting. Anton Chekhov once wrote,

There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her laws sooner or later, trouble will come for him -- disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer; the happy man lives at his ease, and trivial daily cares faintly agitate him like the wind in the aspen-tree -- and all goes well.

Chekhov was wrong about one thing, though: there is a man with a hammer, reminding us of the unhappy people with all their hurts—his name is Jesus.

And he taps away, continually asking us, “Why isn’t (your name here) with me?”

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Gifts of the King

(A sermon based on Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12 & Matthew 2:1-12 for Epiphany).

In many a Christmas pageant, men dressed in bathrobes and plastic crowns have come down the church aisle bearing objects meant to represent the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the Magi delivered to the Holy Family. It’s usually quite a sight to behold.

When I was a child I was captivated by the irony (although I didn’t know that’s what it was) of blue collar mill workers from the South pretending to be Wise Men from the East. I couldn’t help but stare.

Let’s stare again. When we look at our basic Epiphany text—the one about the Wise Men coming from the East to find the newborn King of Israel—we tend to focus our attention on the Wise Men themselves (Who were they exactly? Astronomers, maybe? And where were they from? Arabia, perhaps, or maybe Babylon?) and on the gifts that they brought to the infant (How much were they worth? What did they symbolize? The answer to the first question is “We can’t know” and to the second “Perhaps nothing”).

Then we sometimes ask ourselves a question that goes something like this: What gift should I bring to Jesus? It’s a good time to think about that, given that we are now almost two weeks removed from having to think about the gifts we are going to give each other.

As obvious as it should be, perhaps the first thing we should point out in response to the question “What should we give Jesus?” is that we can’t give to someone about whom we don’t know. With that in mind, perhaps you will see what I mean when I say that the Epiphany story is first and foremost, then, about God, because we know about God only because God chooses to reveal God’s self to us. Without God there is no story.

The Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem one day looking for the new King of Israel because it stood to reason that one would look for the new King in the capital city. The reason they were there, though, was because they had seen a star that signaled the birth of the child; that star would eventually lead them right to the place where Jesus could be found. They knew about the birth of the child, in other words, because God wanted them to know about it; they knew about the birth of the child because God revealed it to them.

Why did God reveal the birth of Jesus to people who were, from the Israelite standpoint, foreigners? It was because God’s King belonged to all of God’s people, not just to those who happened to live in Israel.

Psalm 72 is a royal psalm; its original intent was to ask God’s blessings on the king of Israel, whoever that might be at the time. While the psalm envisioned a king of Israel, it envisioned that king ruling over the whole world. See, for instance, this line: “May all nations be blessed in him; may they pronounce him happy” (v. 17b). No king of Israel ever lived up to the ideal expressed in the psalm; when the one was born who would live up to it, then, God made it clear that the king had been born for the benefit of all the world, not just one small part of it.

Because they had been given the gift of knowing that Jesus had been born, the Wise Men offered their gifts to Jesus. They responded out of gratitude for the grace that had been shown to them by God. Grace led to grace. Love led to love. Giving led to giving.

We don’t know what happened to the Wise Men after they returned home. I would think that we can safely assume that, having been led so well by God, they continued to seek and to follow God’s guidance and that, having been inspired by the gift of God to give gifts themselves, they kept on giving.

We do know about the Apostle Paul, though; we know that once it got him, he got it. Whereas the Wise Men were quintessential outsiders—foreign practitioners of a foreign religion—Paul was the quintessential insider—a Jewish rabbi of the strictest and most respectable sort. But God in God’s grace got hold of Paul and revealed to him the same great truth that God had revealed to the Wise Men—that Jesus had come to establish God’s kingdom in which Jews and Gentiles—in other words, all people—would worship, love, and serve together.

And once Paul got it, he had to give it away. The gracious good news he had received about the boundless love and grace of God caused him to want to share it with everyone. And it is the best news of all—there is no one whom God does not love; there is no one whom God will not forgive; there is no one for whom the gifts of God’s Son and God’s grace are not intended.

So before we think about the gifts we can give to or for the King, let’s think about the gift of the King—God gave us Jesus so that we could know who God is, how God is, and how we as God’s people are to be. We can sum it all up in the words “love” and “grace” and we can define such love and grace as sacrificial, giving, and interested in helping the weakest, poorest, and most marginalized among us.

We want our giving to be appropriate in light of what God has in Christ given us. And the King of whom Scripture teaches us judges “people with righteousness” and the “poor with justice” (Psalm 72:2), defends “the cause of the poor of the people,” gives “deliverance to the needy,” and crushes the oppressor (Psalm 72:4). “He delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy” (Psalm 72:12-13).

That’s the way our King rules. That’s the way we who are his people will serve and give.

In a Christmas episode of the television series M*A*S*H, the doctors and nurses and other personnel are pooling their care packages from home to try to give the children from a nearby orphanage a Christmas party. All the Boston blue blood Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III will contribute, though, is a can of smoked oysters, even though he has recently received several packages from home marked “Perishable.” As it turns out, Charles had received several boxes of expensive chocolates which he, in line with a family tradition of anonymously leaving such a gift at the door of a needy family, left at the door of the orphanage. Caught in the act by the orphanage’s director, Charles explains the tradition; the director thanks him and promises to keep the act anonymous.

At the orphans’ Christmas party, Charles spots a soldier eating one of his expensive chocolates. When he asks where it came from, he is told that the soldier got it on the black market. Charles asks one of the children if she had gotten such a chocolate and when she says “No,” Charles, enraged, confronts the orphanage director, who tells him that the money he got for the candy on the black market enabled him to buy enough rice and cabbage for the children to feed them for a month.

“It is improper,” Charles responds, “to give dessert to a child who’s had no meal.”

It’s not about dessert. It’s about basic nutrition.

It’s not about expensive sodas and energy drinks. It’s about clean drinking water.

It’s not about food stamps. It’s about social and economic and political structures that make the richest richer and that keep the poorest poor.

And in the church, it’s not about providing more and more dessert to those of us whose basic spiritual and physical needs are more than met. It’s about offering basic sustenance—food to the hungry, hope to the despairing, grace to the rejected—to people in need. Really, how much more dessert do we need here in the church when people are starving, both spiritually and physically, all around us…