Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…


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Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid (A Sermon for Christmas Eve)

This sermon was preached at Memorial United Methodist Church, Fernandina Beach on December 24, 2017 at the 11:00PM Service. The text was Luke 2:1-20. This is a sermon manuscript. It does not necessarily reflect the exact words that were said. 

There is something about birth stories. My parents like to tell the story of how they were on their way to their bowling league when my mom went into labor with me. They were grabbing a bite to eat at their favorite local BBQ place and my mom comes back from the bathroom and informs by dad, “Honey, I don’t think we are going to make it to bowling tonight. We are going to have a baby.”  

I remember before my son was born. My wife and I were on our way to our last sonogram appointment and talking with each other that we really should pack our hospital bag when we got home. It was getting close and we needed to make sure that we were ready. We get to the appointment and the tech is looking at our cute baby and then she gets a bit quiet. After she calls the doctor in we learn that they did not see enough fluid around him. And so, the doctor informs us: “We’re going to send you down to labor and delivery now.” Needless to say, we were both shocked and terrified. This was not the plan. We still had several weeks, we had nothing prepared. And yet, here we were walking down the hall in a haze of confusion and fear.  

The consistent thing with giving birth is that you should expect the unexpected. Things never go according to plan.  

I think Mary and Joseph would have agreed. I imagine their birth plan included some privacy and a quiet place to give birth, perhaps it would be at home supported by her family and friends. Instead they are in a far away land, with Joseph’s family that Mary (and possibly Joseph) didn’t know very well. The place they are staying in has no more room in the guest quarters and so Mary has to give birth in the busyness of a strange place with animals looking on.  

Then in a couple of hours or so, just as she is getting cleaned up some shepherds come into the house with their eyes full of amazement and awe. They have a story of an unexpected encounter as well. They had been minding their own business, protecting their flocks when the skies opened up, angels appeared and they learned that the Messiah had been born that day. They learned that they would find their Lord, not in any of the places they would expect, but lying in a feeding trough.   

The consistent theme throughout the nativity story, and indeed the entire story of Scripture, is that God comes into our world in unexpected ways and does unexpected things. It is easy for the surprising nature of this story to get lost as we tell it year after year.   

There is a pattern that Luke follows throughout these two chapters each time angels unexpectedly appear. The receiver of the revelation, be it Zechariah, Mary, or the Shepherds, are always described as being “terrified.” And then the angels respond with the familiar words, “Do not be afraid.”  

This certainly makes sense. I grew up in a house that liked to play practical jokes. My dad would frequently pop out from around a corner or hide behind a door to see how loud of a scream he could get. I can only imagine if instead of my father a divine being with the glory of the Lord suddenly appeared. It would certainly catch me off guard.  

This sort of fear, however, may not be all of what Luke means here. While certainly angelic visions could be terrifying, the word fear in Scripture also has the sense of sacred awe and reverence. It is a recognition that you are being faced with a power that is so far greater than yourself  it makes you drop to your knees in submission and worship.  

 And so, if the shepherds are struck with awe and bowing in reverence and worship, the angel’s words to them, while comforting, may also be words of correction. What if the angels statement, “Do not be afraid,” also means, “Do not revere or worship us. We have come to point you to the good news. Don’t worship us, but instead go and worship the Lord who has been born this day. Go and worship the Lord of all who is wrapped snuggly and lying in a manger. That little bundle of joy is the true and only object of worship.” 

In this season it is so easy to cherish and revere the messenger. The garland and the lights, the family meals and gift exchanges are all such precious parts of this season. The sense of nostalgia and comfort of traditions can be appealing after weeks of frantic gift buying and meal planning. But all of these things are just messengers. Ways that we remind ourselves of the meaning of Christmas. They are important, but they are not the true focus of our worship. Shifting this perspective helps us to hold these traditions and this season lightly.  

Just as the holy family’s plans were derailed, be prepared for things to not go perfectly. Traditions change, reality falls short of expectations. In these moments, hear the words of the angels: Do not be afraid. Do not become so focused on the events and external elements of Christmas. The God we worship is the one who came to bring peace in the midst of chaos and confusion.  

For others in this season, the empty seats at the table bring to mind traditions that are no longer possible to achieve. The sting of grief, the reality of divorce, the difficulty of deployments and all the reasons that we are forced to be separated from those we love. As these feelings bubble up, hear the words of the angels: Do not be afraid. Give yourself the permission to start new traditions, to sit out of activities that are too much, and to take care of yourself. The God we worship this evening is the one who promises comfort to those who mourn, the one who gives healing for those who are broken, and the one who is making all things new.  

And so this evening as we enter into the beautiful traditions Christmas, as we celebrate together the sacrament of Holy Communion, as we join our voices in Silent Night and let our lights together push back the darkness with hope and joy, let us be prepared for God to enter in through in unexpected places: in words we hadn’t noticed, in memories we had forgotten, and feelings and thoughts that seem to come out of no where. In these moments let us not be afraid of the distractions but instead enter into worship with the fear of the angels who inspire in us awe and wonder.  Let us approach the manger with the tender love of Mary, with the amazement and joy of the shepherds. Let us worship the God who surprises us and sustains us, who comforts us and calls us and invites us to come and adore him—Christ the Lord. Amen. 

References

https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3099

 

 

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Salvation’s In the Details (4th Sunday in Advent Sermon)

This sermon was preached at Memorial United Methodist Church, Fernandina Beach, FL on December 24, 2017 at 9:00AM. The Scripture was Luke 2:1-20. This is a sermon manuscript, so it does not necessarily reflect the exact words preached. 

On the fourth Sunday in Advent, we traditionally focus on the theme of peace. Peace is a complex, nuanced topic. It can refer to everything from the end of violent conflict, to something more holistic that is best captured by the Hebrew word, Shalom. These themes of peace are deeply woven into the nativity story. The word peace also conjures up a sense of tranquility and calm. It is that feeling of curling up with a warm mug of hot chocolate while the fire flickers in the hearth. The day at the beach where the sun is barely hidden in the clouds, a breeze blows gently and the sea barely ripples.  

Although nice to think about, this latter feeling of “peace” might actually be the LEAST present within the nativity story.  If you are used to the nativity as told through poised porcelain figurines of a radiant Mary surrounded by well groomed visitors all dressed in their finest Renaissance attire, you may not see the difference. But one of the realities with stories that get told and retold, imagined and reimagined, is that the details of the text sometimes get lost in the retelling.  

One of the reasons for this is that Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus is lacking in the type of good juicy detail that we might expect at a baby’s birth. Today when a baby is born, we immediately ask for all the details. What was their height and weight? What time were they born? How was the birth? How are they doing now? Luke doesn’t give us any of this. I personally would love to have known how heavy baby Jesus was or how many cubits he measured. But for Luke those details don’t matter. He has a different agenda in mind.  

Luke begins his story with a detailed account of the government authorities at the time. In chapter 1, Luke sets the stage by referencing the rulers of Israel at the time. These details root Jesus’ birth in the concrete reality of history. This is not just a “Once upon a time” story. It is an event that really happened. It also serves as an almost ominous beginning like “It was a dark and stormy night.”  

Roman rule was not a pleasant thing. Rome was a brutal force that was quick to violence and reminded its subjects of their overwhelming might and power.  

Emperor Augustus was proclaimed as the bringer of peace to the Empire. However, for Rome, peace came through war and military might. Peace for them meant that the territories  they controlled were so beaten into submission that they would not even consider rising up to seek independence.  

And then there is the focus on taxation. I doubt that preparing your taxes gives anyone here warm and fuzzy feelings. However, for the Jewish people, Roman taxes were oppressive. They kept the people in poverty and supported the corrupt government officials who made their everyday lives miserable.  

In this context, Luke’s story is a far cry from one of peace or calm. Each step of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem to add their names to the tax lists was a reminder of Rome’s rule over their people and over their lives. The baby that Mary was carrying, however, was a sign of hope that the oppression of Rome would come to an end, and that God was still present with them. Several verses later, the angels will announce peace because of his birth. This peace proclaimed by the angels, stands in stark contrast to the peace promised by the empire. Instead of a peace through violence, God’s peace is one that comes through a baby being born, a life of faithful love, a sacrificial death, and a victorious resurrection.  

When it comes time for Jesus’ actual birth, Luke thankfully skips the details. For anyone who has been there for the birth of a baby, it is not a calm process. Birth is messy, painful, difficult, and stressful…and that’s just for the guy. But remember, Mary is a new mother. She has never done this before and she is a long way from home.  

It is the scene around the birth that often gets the most attention. The lack of vacancy and the manger for a crib are all specific details that Luke gives us, however, he doesn’t dwell on them much at all. I think that this is interesting. Perhaps Luke didn’t want to talk a lot about it because he knew that every preacher for the rest of time would do that for him.  

Traditionally, we are used to hearing the translation, “there was no room for them in the inn” “The greek word for “inn” here is kataluma. It can mean a room for people who are traveling, but it is probably not an “inn” in the sense that we think of – like a hotel. Rather, it is a room in a personal house which you stay in for free. This word stands in contrast to another word for “inn” that is used in the parable of the Good Samaritan. When the Samaritan takes the wounded man to an inn, Luke uses the word, pandacheon which is more like a hotel or hostel which you have to pay for.  

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So, as we picture this story in our minds, we should think of Palestinian peasants homes which looked a bit like this. There are two and half levels. The main floor was where you cooked your meals and lived most of your life. To one side of this room was a slightly lowered area where the animals stayed. And then the top floor was the kataluma, the sleeping area which had a section for guests to stay. This setting makes more sense given that Joseph is traveling to his family homeland. Undoubtedly he has relatives in Bethlehem, and in Biblical culture, it would have been very rude not to stay with family. However, given how much family was in town, it makes sense that the guest rooms in Bethlehem were full.1 And so, Mary and Joseph were invited into the main living area of the house and when the baby was born they laid him in the best crib option they could find right next to them. And so instead of picturing Jesus being born in a distant remote stable surrounded only by animals, the image that Luke’s readers would have had was a busy home bustling with people and animals.  

 

I find it particularly powerful that Jesus comes into this world, not in our guest rooms, but right smack dab in the middle of the house. I don’t know about your house, but our guest room and guest bathroom are the cleanest rooms in the house. Before anyone comes over those are the rooms we give an extra wash, making sure we are more attentive to the clutter and that things are ready for anyone who stays.  

God, however, had the ultimate place to stay. In choosing to enter into our world, God left the high and perfect heaven to come into our everyday normal lives. God does not ask for special treatment, or clean linens. God wants to join us as we are. When we welcome God into the messy busyness of our lives, the brokenness and the vulnerability, God’s grace begins to recreate and restore us to the wholeness and peace that we were originally designed for. The more we allow God’s peace to reign in our hearts and then overflow into lives, the more we begin to live into the Shalom that is God’s desire for the world. 

As Luke’s story shifts from the manger to the pastures, the birth of Jesus, an event which happened in the privacy of a home gets announced from the heavens with shouts of: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to those he favors.” The peace which the baby Jesus brings into our world is a peace which lies beyond our ability to comprehend or imagine. It will be a peace that will bring an end to oppression and violence and redemption to the broken places in our lives. However, just as the baby must grow into the man he will become, so too does this peace growing in our world. All of us can attest that the peace of Christ is far from complete both in our world and in our lives.  And yet, this story of Jesus birth serves as a reminder for us that the Prince of Peace is present and at work around us. And that is a story worth telling again and again.  

References:

https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/jesus-was-not-born-in-a-stable/

New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary

 


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Crown Him With Many Crowns (A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday)

(Below is the preaching manuscript of the sermon. Due to the nature of preaching and the movement of  the Holy Spirit, it is not the same as the video above which was recorded at Memorial United Methodist Church on 11/16/17 at the 9:30AM worship service.)

Eph. 1:15-23   I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.  I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him,  so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints,  and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.  God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. Kingship is a difficult thing for Americans to comprehend. Our country was literally founded on a rejection of monarchy. I lived in England for a year during seminary and while I was there, I got to understand just what a monarchy can look like. It is a subtle influence. I didn’t even notice it at first, however, every day you are surrounded by symbols of the monarchy. It is on the money you use, the stamps on your mail, signs around town, mail boxes, and even on some of the foods you use. The monarchy also features on the news, it punctuates every major holiday and sporting event. There are no institutions or people who so dominate our society in quite the same way.

When thinking about the Lordship of Christ, such a pervasive influence and impact makes more sense. Consider your Thanksgiving table.  God does not intend to be relegated to a corner of our world like cranberry sauce on my family’s Thanksgiving table. It almost never got eaten. I swear my mom just put it on a dish out of obligation. Instead, Jesus should be like the gravy. It seems into every other item, even when you don’t necessarily intend for it to.

Both of these metaphors fall far short in describing what it means for Christ to be King. The monarchy in England is pervasive, but is a figurehead with little real power. Gravy may fill your plate, but no one would mistake it for the whole meal. Christ as King not only has influence, but also has complete authority in every corner of creation.

Christ the King Sunday provides us with the opportunity to take a moment before the start of Advent and celebrate the fact that the baby we will begin to focus on is now the King of the World. We celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ did not stay a baby in a manger, but grew up, died, was resurrected and now sits at the right hand of God the Father and everything in earth and in heaven is under his control.

There is such darkness and chaos in our world. In the newspapers, on TV, social media we find reports of violence, war, political unrest, suspicion, corruption, oppression, and so much more. I have heard of many people who have quit reading the news or going on Facebook in an attempt to stave it off. However, chaos and distress creep into our lives as well. They come when a friend receives a diagnosis, a relationship becomes strained, work gets stressful, or our lives become somehow knocked off center. It is in these moments when we need to remember that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Paul gives us this vision of Jesus, raised from the dead and sitting at the right hand of God, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, above every name that is named not only in this age, but in the age to come…all things under his feet. Just when our world seems like it is careening into chaos, Paul reminds us that God is in control. There are no forces in heaven or on earth that are more powerful. There is nothing in this age, or any age to come that will come out victorious.

Such a statement is not Pollyanna optimism or plugging your ears and pretending it is not real. Recognizing Jesus Christ as Lord does not give us an escape from the world and all its troubles. The reality that Jesus Christ is Lord helps us to live in the midst of those troubles with the knowledge that those troubles will come to an end. No matter what this life throws at you, God is with you and will be with you through it all.

Every Sunday this month, our affirmation of faith has been from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Every Sunday this month, we have reminded each other that nothing can separate us from God’s love: hardship, distress, death or life, angels, rulers, things present or things to come, powers or principalities, nothing at all will be able to separate us from the love of God. This is all true because of the Lordship of Jesus.

Whereas other places in the New Testament describe Jesus’ future return and triumphant victory over the forces of Evil, Paul in Ephesians uses the present tense. It is not that we are forced to wait for a future savior. We have a savior now and his name is Jesus. The forces of evil, the powers and principalities of this world that threaten us and cause us to live in fear, they are already defeated. Christ is already sitting at the right hand and everything is under his feet.

The question then becomes, if Jesus Christ is Lord, how do we live in the present chaos? Paul gives us a glimpse of this in the beginning of his prayer. “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…”

As followers of Jesus, we need know the truth. We need to know that the violence of our world will end in peace. We need to know that the oppressed and forgotten people of our world will receive justice. We need to know that the political debates and back and forths pale in importance to the message of the Gospel. We need to know all of these things because we know that Jesus Christ is Lord. This is not only the end of the story – this end is alive and well in the here and now.

Our task is to turn our eyes so that we can see it. Every week in our staff meetings, we share with each other where we have seen God at work in our lives. Each Sunday in the Connect, we highlight one place where our church and its members are living into our vision to be a “grace-filled family of Jesus followers.” These regular habits help us to make sure that we are paying attention to all that God is doing. It is too easy to get caught up in our lives and the frustrations, difficulties and routines that fill our days. The more difficult life gets the more we retreat into our selves and lose focus on God’s presence with us and distance ourselves from those around us. Worse yet, we try and dull the pain. Some people distract themselves with food or shopping. These options can be all the more tempting as Christmas approaches. Others turn to the internet, gaming, or other diversions. Still others use alcohol or drugs to try and escape. Each of these distractions may seem to work in the short-term, but over time they all fall short because instead of trusting in God’s power to lift us up and carry us through the chaos, we have turned to a lesser power.

By trusting in the power of Christ who is our King, we begin to live into Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians.  Instead of keeping our gaze on the darkness around us, Paul asks that they would lift their eyes beyond their present circumstances and that God would give them eyes to see the world as it is with Jesus on the throne. By shifting our perspective we see that there is hope. Not only are we not alone, but the one who is with us is the only one who can see us all the way through to the other side.

When our eyes are Kingdom focused, however, we do not turn a blind eye to the struggles around us, but instead we see them in their context within God’s active presence in our world.

In this way, we can walk through the storms of life with the One who stilled the waves, we can face the threats of death with the One who defeated the grave, and we can engage with the broken places of our world knowing that our God is the One who is making all things new.

My prayer for each one of you is that God would give you the same spirit that was given to the Ephesians. That your eyes would be able to see the world as it truly is and that God would give you the grace to know that all things are under the lordship of the one who is Emmanuel, God with us. And he is with us still. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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#MUMCbelieves Reflection on Exodus 3

 

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This is one of the trees I saw on my ride in this morning.

When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” Moses said, “I’m here.” Exodus 3:4

 

I often ride my bike to work in the morning. because I am usually running late, I am in a bit of a hurry. This morning, however, I decided to take my time. I looked at the beautiful oak trees that cover the street in front of my house, I saw how  many flowers and trees are starting to bloom. And I realized how much I miss. We live on this beautiful island and I do not take advantage of it.

Moses was out at the edge of the desert minding his own business and then he noticed something different. A bush engulfed in flames and so he got curious. I had not noticed before that God only speaks to him after he comes over to investigate the situation. I think this is significant. How are we missing what God wants to say to us because we don’t see the signs around us?

God has given us this beautiful creation and uses it to direct all of creation towards a relationship with its Creator. Our role, like Moses is to  keep our eyes open and listen for God to speak to us.

 


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The Realities of Christmas

It was 5:30am and I had been up with Malachi several times that evening. He was not feeling well, which means he was not sleeping well. The only thing that would get him back to seep, and therefore quiet, was being held on my shoulder and gently swaying back and forth. It is our nightly ritual. He wakes up, I wake up, and groggily trudge into the nursery in the next room, pick him up and gently sway, pat and shush him to sleep, dreaming of the days when I was woken up by my alarm instead of the urgent cries of a baby.

On this particular night, however, I had a song stuck in my head. It was “Away in a Manger.” In case you have forgotten the lyrics:

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.
I love thee, Lord Jesus! look down from the sky,
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven to live with thee there.

This is the image we always have of baby Jesus. Calm, peaceful and serenely sleeping in his manger. With the clean Mary and Joseph attentively watching him with awe. I am not sure about anyone else, but this has never been the case at our house. In our life with a baby there has not been a lot more vomit, crying, and restless nights.

Now perhaps if our son was God incarnate, life would be different, but I don’t think so. The fundamental truth of the incarnation is that God put on flesh and became human. This means the word became flesh, full of grace and truth as well as urine, poop, vomit, and snot.

I think this image of the infant Jesus is important. A peacefully sleeping child does not require anything of its parents. When the baby is sleeping, you have time to do your own things, when the baby is awake, however, your time is not your own. Life is dictated by the needs of this small, helpless creature. Jesus came into the world to interrupt our normal routines and habits. Jesus desires not just partial obedience, but our full attention and complete control. This will mean that our lives will be messy, our hands dirty, and at times we will feel exhausted, frustrated, and even defeated. The joy of discipleship, and in a way parenting is not in the minute by minute experiences, but in the knowledge that the child you love and serve will grow up and once day make it all worth it.


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Light in Darkness Sermon

(This sermon was given on Sunday, December 18 at Trinity UMC in Fernandina Beach, for the Memorial UMC Service of Light in Darkness.)

When I was a kid, there was a show on TV called, “Are You Afraid of the Dark.” It was basically a child-friendly version of Twilight Zone. After an episode the night was full of monsters and villains and my imagination would populate the unknown around me with so many forces of evil that I would keep a flashlight beside my bed to ward them off.

There is something scary and unnerving about the dark. In the daytime we can see what is coming. We know what to expect. There are very few surprises during the day. At night, however, everything changes. Familiar streets get cast in unfamiliar shadows. It is impossible to see someone coming your way until they are already next to you. Sounds fill the air all around you, but you can’t see their origins.

Physical darkness, however, is the easiest of the darknesses that fill our world. There is no flashlight that will drive away the darkness of grief. There is no candle to ward away depression or anxiety. There are deeper darknesses in our world which stand in the way of the light and cast long shadows over our lives. These dark places often get lost amid the lights of the Christmas season. With such an emphasis on joy and peace, the realities of sadness, distress, and worry often get pushed to the side. However, if we look at the Christmas story there are both light and dark places.

We see the light in the angelic visions, but often miss the fact that the angels appear to Joseph and Mary in the dark as a dream. The Shepherds are watching their flocks by night when the heavenly host appear in all their glory. And the star the wisemen follow to the new-born King was like every other star, only available to them when the brightness of the sun no longer shone in the sky.

What do we make of this shadow-side of the nativity?

I believe the darkness is there because it is a part of the world we live in. From the very beginning when God separated the light from the darkness, each one was given a name and a space in creation. I remember when I lost my grandmother, in seminary, I was thinking about my grief and tears and I realized that the pain I felt at her passing was rooted in the very love that I had for her when she was alive. Even as difficult as grief can be, I cannot think of anyone who would give up the love they have for the one they lost in order to make it go away.

Darkness can obscure our vision, cast doubts about our future and our purpose. The loss of a job, adjustment to retirement, the change from one way of living to another is disorienting and confusing. Our once familiar life and purpose is covered over by a new reality that remains to become fully present.

Walking with a loved one through the shadow of death can be darker for the caregiver than the one who is in the middle. Watching a loved one slip away, we are forced to live in the tension between how they are now and how they were before. In some cases, our memories of them are stronger than theirs are. With the loss of the spouse, friend, or relative, we also loose the future we had hoped to live with them.

In other ways, darkness has a way of focusing our attention. In the daytime there is a lot of distractions. The myriad of colors and shapes which surround us each day all merge together because we cannot take it all in at once. In the dark, however, those colors mute and the shapes soften. It is then that other things come into focus. The stars, for example do not appear in the evening. Instead, it is only when the brightness of the day has faded that we are finally able to behold their steady beads of light. When life gets difficult, it brings other things into perspective. I have spoken with so many people who have a terminal illness that after their diagnosis they didn’t worry as much about their work, their business, their money, or any of the other things that had previously filled up their lives. They began to cherish the time spent with family, the long chats with good friends, walks on the beach, and spending nights laying out on a blanket gazing into the heavens.

I do not know everything about the darkness that you have brought with you today. But I do know that Scripture is clear, darkness is a temporary phenomenon. Psalm 30 declares that weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

In the nativity story, John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, sings a song of praise to God which proclaims that:

Because of God’s deep compassion,
The dawn from heaven will break upon us,
To give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.
(Luke 1:78-79)

Before Jesus was even born, the prophet knew that the night was almost over—a light was coming. This can be hard to see in the midst if the darkness. When all around you are shadows, it is easy to forget that there is a light. It is easy to get lost in the darkness, however, the story of Christmas is that a light “did come into our world.” That light did not wait until our eyes had adjusted to the dark. It did not ask us to leave the darkness and come into the light, it came to us instead.

Hear again John’s declaration about the light:

“What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.,,,The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world.
(John 1:3b-5,9)

This is the core of the story. Even in the dark world the light appeared to Mary and Joseph, to shepherds, to wise men and now to us. And that Light cannot be overcome by our darkness, but instead, that Light enters into where we are and makes his home among us so that we know that no matter how dark our lives get we are not alone.

As you go throughout this holiday season, as you see the lights on houses and trees and everywhere else, I pray that you would be reminded that Jesus has come to be with you in the darkness and lead you forward wherever you need to go.

(Note: I am grateful to Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark” for being a helpful thought partner and a general good read.)


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From Where Does My Help Come?  [sermon]


(This sermon from was preached on July 17th at Memorial United Methodist Church in Fernandina Beach, FL. The manuscript is below and the video from the 9:30 service is above.)

Last week’s psalm of lament and this week’s Psalm 121 are both what are known as “psalms of ascent.” You can see that in the titles that the authors have placed before the psalm. Most of the titles you will find in your bible have been added by the translators to make life easier for you when looking for a passage. The notes at the beginning of many of the psalms, however, are in the original text. They can be instructions for the worship leader, descriptions of the content, or other words or phrases whose meaning has been lost over time.  Psalms 120-134 are grouped together with the same title: A Song of Ascents. Scholars suggest that these psalms were used by pilgrims during the festival seasons as they travelled to Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem and the Temple itself are on the highest hill in the area and so one literally must “go up” to Jerusalem.

Theses songs would be sung along the road and in services at the beginning of their journey and before they set off. Taken together the psalms are a mixture of different types and themes, but they are mostly short and easy to memorize. Psalm 121 is one of the most popular of the group as well as the whole psalter. It is a psalm of unqualified praise to a God whose protection knows no limits.

It begins with the beautiful question: I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? In the times of the Bible, there were lots of options to turn to for help. Every hill and high place in the area contained shrines and poles in honor and worship of a god for every ailment or problem. If you needed crops to grow, there was a god for that. If you wanted children, there’s a god for that. If you were on a journey, there’s a god for that. Whatever you needed help, you could look to the hills and find an assortment of gods to pray to and worship.

Things are not so different now. When we are in need of help we lift our eyes to the Hollywood Hills and find movie stars selling insurance and credit cards which will solve our problems. We read tabloid magazines and websites which while they may not solve our problems will at least distract us from them long enough to get us by.

When we are unhappy with our country or our community we lift our eyes to capital hill and pray that our candidate is elected or that our law is passed.

When we want to make more money we look to the hills of wall street, or we look uphill and see what job or position might bring us more success.

The psalmist looks at these hills, and knows that true help will not come from the tops of any of them. True help will only come from the Lord who made the hills and who created the rest of earth and heaven.

How often do we set our sights too low. We put our trust in people who promise to make things easier for us, who know a better way, a faster way. And then how slowly it takes us to realize our mistake.

Every election it seems like we all get a messiah complex for our preferred candidate. If our man or woman is elected then things will be better. Inevitably, when that person is elected we realize how wrong we were. As long as they have been doing polls, almost every president has seen their approval ratings consistently drop over the course of their presidency. Once they get into office the reality often fails to live into the rhetoric.

There is a saying, “Never meet your heroes.” So often we put people on pedestals only to discover that the more you get to know the more human you realize they are. Malachi is at this cute stage in life where he is almost sitting up on his own. He is soo close. I will often put him up on my lap and let him practice. He will push the boundaries and bend over and then pull himself back up. But if he goes over too far, my hands are on either side to keep him from falling too far. The other day, we were playing this game and I got distracted by something outside the window. Malachi leaned to far over and bumped his head on the arm of the chair. Fortunately it was not far and he didn’t even really notice, but it reminded me that I am not a perfect parent. I will not always be there when he trips or stumbles. At some point, probably around the time he is a teenager, Malachi will realize this as well. I hope by that point, he has come to learn that God is always there. God never sleeps or gets distracted. The seeming paradox of God is that the One who created the world also cares about each one of us individually. The God who orders the planets is also concerned with our path in life as well and asks us to follow where God leads.
As we know, even when we walk with God, bad things happen. The attack in Nice this week does not mean that God looked away and got distracted. Being in God’s protection means more than physical safety. As I was preparing for the funeral last Tuesday I noticed that Psalm 121 is one of the suggested psalms to be read in the service. Its assurance of God’s protection serves as both a comfort for the ones who are grieving, but also that God’s protection remains with the person who has died.

So often we limit God’s activity and care to the life we know when in reality God moves and works beyond this life. In Jesus Christ God came into this world, experienced death, and then in the resurrection proved that not even death is the end of God’s work in the world. When Paul in Romans tells us that “nothing can separate us from the love of God” there is no caveat there. The original letter did not have a footnote with a list of exceptions. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. This total and complete love of God is beyond our ability to understand, but should encourage us along the way.

One article I read this week suggested that Psalm 121 was used to prepare pilgrims before they set off on their journey. The first two verses would have said by those who were leaving: “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” And then the rest of the psalm was then recited by those who were staying. These words from Psalm 121 would serve as a reminder to the person that God would protect them on their journey.

Travelling in ancient times was difficult and dangerous. The journey to Jerusalem was done entirely on foot without a plane, train, or car. Wild animals and robbers were a constant source of danger. An injury in the wrong place could leave you exposed to the elements, with heat stroke being a real concern. In the face of so much to fear, however, the pilgrim needed to be reminded of their purpose in making the journey.
The opportunity to worship of God at the Temple was a privilege that is difficult to even put into words. For some Jews it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. As they prepared to set off and I imagine frequently along the way, they needed to lift their eyes again to the hills and fix their eyes on the hill of Zion.

As the ground became rocky, they needed to remember that God was with them every step of the way and would not let their feet stumble. As the sun beat down and sapped their energy, they remembered that God was their shade at their right hand protecting them day and night. As robbers threatened and animals howled, the remembered that God would keep them from all evil-real and imagined. Through the whole of the journey they needed to remember that the God they would worship at the end of their journey was the same God who was travelling with them along the way.

While we may not be going to Jerusalem, we are also on a journey. When the path becomes rocky, the sun intense, and the evil around us too threatening there is a temptation to look to the lesser hills around us for help. To seek out the hills that feel good at the moment, and will take less effort to climb. However, Psalm 121 is an encouragement for our journey. When we are afraid, we are called to look for help from the Creator of hills. When troubles come and evil threatens, we are to be reminded that God is with us, that God will shade us from the sun and protect us in the night. There is no aspect big or small that is not of any concern to our God. And when at last we reach our final destination, it is Psalm 121 that sends us off with the reminder that the God who is with us in this life will continue to keep us in the life to come. Thanks be to God.