Love’s Power

In many ways our world has never been more divided.
Frustration, fear, and anger are casting shadows all over the world
Governments are dropping chemical bombs on their own children
Tribes are refusing humanitarian aid for their starving people in order to maintain power and control
Even in our own country, families are being divided and communities are falling apart all because of differences of opinion

Watching or reading the news has almost become an unbearable task as we are bombarded with headlines and stories of division, anger, and hate.
It’s easy to feel powerless, isn’t it?

Things weren’t so different in the ancient world.
At the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire was exercising ruthless domination
leaving the people of Israel desperate for hope and salvation

Like many of us today, the people felt hopeless in the face of so much suffering and pain.
They too were looking for a new path forward

In the Gospel reading tonight, Jesus startles his disciples when in the middle of supper, he gets up, removes his outer clothing, and begins to wash their feet.

None of them quite know what to do as this action is such a countercultural move
They’re not even sure what it means
It’s a reversal of everything they’ve ever known
Leaders do not serve like this, they are served!

But Jesus is demonstrating for them a different form of leadership

It’s a symbolic gesture, but a powerful one.
By washing their feet, Jesus isn’t just showing hospitality
He’s demonstrating for them an entirely new way to live.
Jesus is showing them that in God’s Kingdom humble service is the ultimate power.
It is love that dismantles oppressive forces and unites people.
It is love that liberates.

We spend so much of our time and energy searching for these miracle solutions to the world’s problems
We exhaust ourselves, debating and arguing in an attempt to find that silver bullet
when the Bible shows us that the solution is right in front of us-
it’s the power of love

In the interest of pragmatism, we are quick to dismiss the power of love as whimsical folly when Jesus is telling us just the opposite.
that yes, love is the ultimate power.
It is love that will ultimately have the final say.

But loving isn’t always easy is it?
Just like the disciples in that day, we build all these barriers between one another

The color of our skin
how much money we make
how much education we’ve had
our occupations
our political affiliations
even our religious affiliations

Pretty soon, we’ve created for ourselves so many barriers that can we no longer
see each other
or hear each other
let alone love each other.

But Jesus is showing us that

True love requires mutuality
True love requires vulnerability.
True love requires humility

And only when we open ourselves to these elements can the power of love truly be harnessed.

Jesus shows us all of this when he gets on his knees and washes the feet of his disciples.

Loving is not always easy, that’s for sure.
It often requires us to move past ourselves and our own needs in the service to the other.
It sometimes asks us to place ourselves in uncomfortable situations
It sometimes asks us to love someone we don’t want to love.

When Jesus commands us to love our enemies, he knows its a difficult task indeed.

But we must remember that sitting at the table of the disciples was also Judas.
And Jesus knew good and well that Judas was going to betray him.
And it pained him deeply.
But in spite of this,
Jesus washed his feet, too.
Perhaps that is what is asked of us as well.

Maybe- just maybe- in the washing of feet Jesus is modeling for us true Christian community
commanding us to serve one another in love
to cast aside any notions of superiority
to humbly care for one another’s needs.
To break down those barriers that are keeping us from loving one another fully.

Jesus is setting up a pattern of service, of humility, of bearing one another’s burdens.
He says, “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: just as I have done, you also must do”

This is radical love.
Putting yourself out there when maybe you really don’t want to.
Offering yourself in service when maybe you feel like it is you who should be served.
This is servant leadership.

Knowing that the hour was near that he would no longer be with them, Jesus offers a final commandment or in Latin a “mandatum” which is where we get the name, Maundy Thursday
It is one that is to be the shaping motive for all of Christian community:

He says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And when we do this, we are living in to the promise of ushering in the the kingdom of heaven.

So equipped with the power of love
and motivated by the promise
we can be Christ to one another
we can make true progress in healing some of the wounds which plague us.

We can begin to dismantle some of these barriers.

No longer will the color of our skin keep us apart
No longer will how much money we make divide us
How much education we have and don’t have will no longer be a factor in our relationships

our occupations
our political affiliations
our religious affiliations
none of these will continue to divide us
none of these will stand a chance against the power of love

But we can’t do this on our own.
Quite frankly, left to our own devices, none of this really is possible.
Left to our own devices, we stay mired in our own selfishness,
paralyzed by our fears

To be liberated from these forces it will take an event bigger and stronger and more powerful
than anything we could ever imagine.

Friends, that is why we are here tonight
That is why we are walking together through the holiest of weeks
We know this big event is just around the corner
beckoning us
It is the event that will offer us the power of new life.

But for tonight, as a community and as the church we stand together in hopeful anticipation
locking arms in support
holding one another in love
knowing that we must get through the pain and sadness of Good Friday
to get to the glorious liberation and freedom of Sunday.

It’s just around the corner.
and for that we say,

Amen.

Palm Sunday Sermon: Who Is This?

Text: Matthew 21:1-11

It’s the year 33 AD or so
It’s probably a Sunday
And the setting is Jerusalem, now a world class city and the center of Israel’s religious life with its newly renovated temple that rivals any in the ancient world.

The city is filled with pilgrims in town for Passover.
everything is noisy and bustling
Merchants are actively selling their wares, families are moving and shuffling about.
Dust is likely filling the air as animals hauling belongings and supplies are shifting and plodding
this way and that
Chatter is everywhere.

And then, people begin to take notice of this scene developing at a distance, toward one of the entrances of the city
People are starting to whisper and point into the distance.
The interest and curiosity seems to be building
Some are grabbing each other by the arms and racing toward all the action
Something is going on but no one is quite sure what.
It appears that the crowds are noticing this man riding atop a donkey entering the city.
people are gathering on the edge of the road like its some sort of parade
many are even running alongside him seemingly to get a closer look
They’re shedding their garments and throwing them on the road in front of him for the donkey to tread upon
They’re ripping palm branches from the trees and waving them in celebration—
Gestures that everyone in the crowd know are symbols for victory—
They shout Hosanna!
Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
In Hebrew, Hosanna means “save us” -which considering the story is interesting, but here it is likely just a shout of praise.

But who is this guy?
And why are they all responding to him like teenage girls to the arrival of Justin Bieber?
Who is this, making such a scene?
Surely it must be someone royal and powerful, considering this level of welcome.
And this enthusiastic welcome would indeed be appropriate
if what they’re saying is true-
Because the Messiah was understood to be from the lineage of King David, Israel’s greatest king.
being a descendent of David was a prerequisite for this new king
So when they shout out “Hosanna, Son of David” they are acknowledging that he fits all the criteria of the one who is hoped for
In other words, this could be IT.

This is the image they have likely dreamt about for years.
Perhaps lifetimes.
The arrival of the Messiah.
It fits all the descriptions they’ve heard in prophecies.
Almost to a “t”
So in their hopes at least- The Messiah has come to rescue them at last
To liberate them from the tyranny of the Roman Empire.

But who is this?

Well, they know his name is Jesus.
But this is a common name at the time
Almost like John or Bob or Richard of today—
so the name wouldn’t be a big indicator
But chances are they had a good idea of who this guy was
the word was on the street, so to speak
it’s likely the word was getting out about about this traveling rabbi from Galilee who had started up a movement of sorts
He’s creating quite the buzz
People are beginning to follow him from town to town to listen to his teaching.
many even consider him to be a prophet
And all this hubbub has been getting under the skins of the religious leaders
Everything he has been saying has been challenging them

Now we have this scene which will likely only make matters worse

Because from the looks of things, people are soaking it all in and starting to get excited.
As the text says
The city was all stirred up.

Jesus knew what he was doing by setting this all up this way.
He’s no stranger to provocation

He knows good and well that the people of Jerusalem will recognize the statement he is making
They’re steeped in Scripture.
They know the prophecies.

So, just before he enters the city, he stops by a suburb of Jerusalem known as Bethphage at the Mount of Olives, and sends two of his disciples to secure a donkey and a colt for which he was to ride.
this way, he’s intentionally linking himself to, and placing himself in, the prophecy in Zechariah 9:

“Tell the daughter of Zion (which is Jerusalem)
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

If you continue on with Zechariah passage, it goes even further in describing this king.

The image of a divine warrior
Promises to “set your prisoners free”
To return you to your stronghold
To restore to you double

By taking these well-understood symbols and reappropriating them, Jesus is deliberately claiming to be the promised king of Israel who will re-establish the throne of David

And they respond accordingly

When they throw their garments on the ground for him to ride over, it is reminiscent of how crowds acted when Elisha commanded the anointing of the prophet Jehu as King of Israel in 2 Kings 9:13. “hurriedly they all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king’”

With his dramatic arrival into the city, Jesus is announcing that he is the king they have been waiting for. He is the Messiah that has been foretold for so many years.
And yes, he has arrived
And yes, he will save them.
And yes, he will liberate them.

But not exactly how they think…

The entire story in fact is a study in contrasts.

A king riding not on a majestic warhorse….but a donkey.
Instead of royal robes, the clothes of the poor and marginalized are rolled out on the ground like a red carpet
Here is a leader who conquers not with force, but with love, compassion, and forgiveness.
This is a kingdom not of glitz and splendor, but of lowliness and servanthood.

Now this is NOT what the people were expecting.

And we know that once they learn that their expectations are not as they think
Their shouts of Hosana will turn to hisses of “Crucify!”
But for those developments,
and to fully experience how this story unfolds,
you’ll have to come back later in the week.

See you Thursday.

Amen.

Love Letter to My Hometown

Last night I returned to my hometown of Elkin, North Carolina for the night. My parents recently converted their guest house into an Airbnb (shameless plug: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/11062826) and I decided to take advantage of one of its rare vacancies to work on the upcoming essays and paperwork I am required to complete in preparation for ordained ministry. It was a treat beyond comparison to have the luxury of a quiet house all to myself, let alone to be able to walk next door at dinner time for a delicious meal prepared by my parents.
After a restful sleep and a delicious breakfast of homemade granola and fresh scones (thanks Mom!), I decided to go for a run through my hometown. To say it was nostalgic is an understatement.
Parks have sprung up in the most wonderful of places.
There is shade where it didn’t used to be.
Beautiful structures and bridges have been erected “in memory of” friends of my parents’ friends who it seemed like just yesterday were cleaning my teeth, or playing tennis at the park downtown.
I have incredibly fond memories of my childhood hometown. As I have become a parent, I only wish for an upbringing like I had. The town is fresh from the pages of a Norman Rockwell book. Many towns such as this one, experience the ravages of time, and suffer the consequences of urban flight and neglect at the hands of either disinterest or lack of funds. But time has been kind to Elkin. In fact, over the years, it has only gotten better.
There is now an extraordinary nature trail that snakes along Big Elkin Creek, replete with waterfalls and bird sanctuaries. I had hiked along these paths and played in these areas for years as a kid, but now I suppose they have been revealed to the world and declared “official”.
There are now breweries, wineries, antique stores, and coffee shops in our historic downtown, where we used to ride our bikes and line up to watch the annual Christmas parades. The old movie theater, where we would hide in the last row and sneak our first kisses in the dark, is being renovated to be a state-of-art performing arts center.
Change is inevitable. Time has a way of doing this. Thank goodness for our memories. Our bodies might ultimately fail us, but our memories are forever shelved in our minds, free to be dusted off and revisited as often as we like, for joy and warmth.
This is how I felt on my run this morning. It was a journey through time, but it was also an exciting glimpse into the future. I could write volumes on the memories I revisited as I jogged along the landmarks of my youth. But no one would be able to truly experience them in the same way I do. Those are special glimpses, preserved only for the eyes lucky enough to have seen them first hand. I will continue to share these memories to anyone who will listen- don’t you worry about that. But for now, I wish for new and exciting memories to be formed today by this next generation of Elkin youth. My message to them: one day you’ll wake up, like I have, and realize you’re a grown adult (even though you’ve fought it the best you can!) And you will realize how lucky you are to have grown up in such a special place.
So to all the incredible people of Elkin, North Carolina, thank you for making me the man I am today. Although I wish you would have made me a little taller, I carry with me the wisdom and insights of my youth you instilled in me so many years ago. I hope to make you proud.

With love and admiration,
Brook Seaford

Ash Wednesday Sermon 03/01/2017

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Oftentimes we hear that and interpret its meaning as some sort of depressing reality.
Some sad curse.

I think of Solomon lamenting in Ecclesiastes, “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

Or that horribly depressing song from the 70s by Kansas, “Dust in the Wind”
“everything is dust in the wind”
“all we are is dust in the wind”

Is that it?
Is that all there is?

To be fair, it is indeed meant to be a confrontation with death, so to speak.
Ashes are a symbol for death
thus are a reminder of our concrete, fixed place in the world.

But friends I invite you to expand your envision on this a bit and see this as blessing.
Not a curse.

Because understanding that we are dust and to dust we return is also a reminder that we are connected to creation.
And not just creation, but the heavens as well.
Quite literally in fact.

From a scientific point of view, the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. Because humans and every other animal as well as most of the matter on Earth contain these elements, we are literally made of star stuff.

We are made of star dust.

And by being connected to creation and the heavens— which were all been deemed “good” if you recall—
we are connected to the creator

The ashes remind us of this.
Ashes, the usual sign of death, are put on your forehead
but not in some random pattern— but in the shape of a cross.
This alters the starkness of the message of gloom from

“you will die, you cannot change that”
to
“yes, you will die, but you can die in Christ, whose death transforms your own demise into everlasting life. Christ has conquered death.

It’s important to note that we follow these ashes- this concrete symbol of death-
with the very real, living presence of Jesus in Holy Communion

So we move from this concrete symbol which reminds us of our finality
to the very otherworldly reality of divine power in holy communion
Because in Holy Communion we actually receive Christ.

This is very intentional.

In this movement in the service, we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ.

So all is not meaningless as Solomon might have suggested
And we are more than just “dust in the wind” as the song says

We are not stuck in death
In Christ we are reborn

So may this ritual remind you and prompt you to live into the life offered through Christ.
A new life that stands in contrast to the death of a life outside of Christ.

As Paul writes in Romans, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Amen.

Wilderness As Preparation: 1st Sunday in Lent

*Automatically posted from http://www.sawdustandstone.com

Audio version available at http://www.crossandcrown.org

Text: Matthew 4:1-11

How many of you have ever found yourself in the wilderness, so to speak?
A place in your life where you seem somewhat adrift; not knowing the next steps and maybe even unsure how you got there.
Where the ground seems to be shifting
And the usual comforts and supports seem distant and far away
Where nothing seems familiar
And you’re craving direction
Guidance
Some sort of map to lead you out of your pain.

Maybe:
You’ve lost job and not sure how long it will take to find a new one or
maybe you have reached this stage in your career where you want a change; a more fulfilling existence, but you’re not sure what that is or even how to pursue it.
Maybe you’re experiencing or have experienced the end of a relationship; and suddenly everything you have known about yourself, about life, is sort of up in the air. Who are your friends when it has always been our friends? how will I provide for myself now that I can no longer count on 2 incomes? These are questions you might ask.
Or maybe its a Life transition / you’re now an empty nester and no longer feel confident in your identity -for years you’ve been the caretaker; running kids here and there; scheduling activities, soothing wounds, and celebrating victories. Now the kids have moved out and starting lives on their own and no longer appear to need you
Perhaps you’re recently sober and are unsure how to navigate the complexities of the world- professionally, socially— it’s all new and unknown; frankly its scary

There are many types of wildness experiences.
And none of them are comfortable.
We spend our lives avoiding the wilderness places
In fact, We employ every possible strategy we know
We try to chart our own courses
creating this illusion of control in our lives

We spend countless hours calculating our decisions and trying to reduce our risk
We remain guarded emotionally so we aren’t vulnerable and maybe won’t get hurt
We temper our opinions so we never “rock the boat” socially
We stay in “dependable careers”, even when they aren’t life-giving, so we can be “safe”

And even with all this effort,
no matter how hard we try
we occasionally still find ourselves in the wilderness.
Off course, and searching for our true north.

We might be tempted to cry out WHY? Why am I here? Why did you send me here, Lord?
That’s a normal reaction I would say.
I’ve said the same thing at various times in my life when I’ve found myself in the wilderness
But whether or not God sent you there is missing the more important point—
and that point is that God meets you there and is there with you

And as difficult as it might seem at the moment
It’s important to remember that
God uses this time in the wilderness to strengthen us.
To prepare us for the next stage in our journey

The text says “Jesus was led UP…into the wilderness”
In Scripture, any time the movement of the narrative was to go “up”
up the mountain
up to Jerusalem
this was usually a cue that teaching was about to take place
or a type of revelation

Wilderness time is a time of preparation.

Nelson Mandela watched his friends humiliated, tortured, and murdered as a result of the brutal oppression of his country’s racial segregation system known as apartheid.

He himself endured this abuse but decided to fight back, using non-violent resistance.
As a result of his role in an attempt to overthrow this oppressive government, he was imprisoned for 27 years in Cape Town.

But rather than wear him down and defeat him, the 27 years in the prison emboldened Mandela.
It deepened his resolve.
Upon finally being released from prison, Mandela went on to become the first black president of South Africa.
He eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the country’s apartheid

He Became an International emblem of dignity and forbearance

and a Prolific writer and world renown advocate for social justice and HIV/AIDS awareness.

When he eventually became president of South Africa, he went as far as to invite one of his white wardens to his inauguration

People are usually astonished by the sense of grace he displayed after being robbed of 27 years of his life.
But Mandela experienced the 27 years in captivity as a time of preparation.

The Apostle Paul had a similar experience;
having wilderness time in the form of prison time

According to biblical sources and biblical scholarship, Paul was likely in prison from between five and six years’ total. He was probably imprisoned in Rome at least two years, two-years in Caesarea and additional prison experiences noted in the Book of Acts.

Seems like a long time in the wilderness.

But consider this-
if Paul had not been imprisoned, we would not possibly have the epistles like Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Paul used the time that he was in prison to write these powerful books of the New Testament.
For Paul, being in prison was a huge inconvenience but for God, it was an opportunity for God to prepare Paul for God’s glory.

Both the Apostle Paul and Nelson Mandela could have just given up while in prison
But God had other plans.
God would use this time in the wilderness for good.

We don’t know why we find ourselves in our varied wildernesses.
But oftentimes we become keenly aware of God’s presence there with us.
In fact, sometimes, the wilderness is when we experience God the most fully.
When we’ve found ourselves in a place where none of our strategies of avoidance, none of techniques of control have worked.
and we are there
in our wilderness.
No map to follow.
No compass to guide us.
Only God.

Perhaps that is God’s intention
To lead us away from the distractions and the idols to have us experience God more fully
to finally depend on God.

When have you been in a wilderness?

Are you there right now?
While Jesus was in the wilderness, the devil kept at him with temptations.
In fact, many of our bibles have a heading for this passage that reads, “The Temptation of Jesus”.

But I argue this story is about much more than temptation.

Yes Jesus was tempted in the wilderness
But what did the temptation mean?

It wasn’t to prove that Jesus was the Son of God— the devil already knew this.
And it wasn’t to provide an opportunity for Jesus to prove to God that he’s up to the test.

Maybe the temptations reveal to us what our idols are
And to show us that the only real dependable source of security and comfort-
the only true guide-
is God and God alone.

Oftentimes temptations are the false promises
The easy way out
That usually offers short term relief but long term pain.
This surely was the case with Jesus-
The devil offers him several opportunities to turn away from God for immediate relief.

The same temptations tempt us today.
But they usually look quite different:

It’s that recently single ex-girlfriend or boyfriend to occupy the emptiness of a struggling marriage

It’s the elicit website glaring in the darkness to fill the void of intimacy

It’s the credit card-fueled shopping sprees to soothe a battered self image

There are many things to reach for when we are in the wilderness
All for the instant relief of avoiding pain

But God meets us there in the wilderness to fill the voids in our lives in a way nothing else can.
Maybe that’s what Jesus is trying to show us in this story today.
You might find yourself in the wilderness
But you won’t be there forever.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent.

Lent offers us the opportunity to recreate this experience of wilderness
to draw closer to the one who can truly satisfy our souls.
Lent is a time of preparation

So may you
Look to Jesus as the strength to resist the temptations and false promises that lead to death

May you
Trust in God to use your time in the wilderness to strengthen you and prepare you for whatever comes next in the adventure we call life.

And may you
Find in Christ the only true, dependable map to lead you out of the wilderness

And may you be awakened to the truth that this map and only this map
will lead you home.

Thanks be to God.
Amen

Practice Makes… Perfect?

Text: Matthew 5:38-48
Audio Available at http://www.crossandcrown.org

The gospel passage today provides several examples of Jesus encouraging his disciples to strive in their behavior to be more like God. Turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, giving more than is asked of you.
These rules or guidelines are not easy to be sure. In fact, they are quite difficult. One in particular stuck out at me this week—
and that’s the call to love your enemies.

For the Seaford family this week, the enemy took the form of these tiny creatures known as HEAD LICE. Nasty. Even the thought of it makes my head itch. Jesus might have implored us to love our enemies, but surely he didn’t mean lice.
Folks there wasn’t one ounce of love for these disgusting microscopic bugs who basically turned our lives upside down.

In fact, I dare say my heart was full of hate (Lord, forgive me). It was one of those situations where my poor wife was nervously collecting the children in a room saying, “Kids, daddy might have lost it this time. But everything is going to be ok”.
As much as I tried to reframe the situation and look at it through a lens of gratitude— going that “extra mile’ as Jesus noted— I fell short.
I was as far from being God-like as possible.

We eventually succeeding in “delousing” the house- what seemed like hundreds of loads of laundry and scores of black plastic trash bags filled with every stuffed animal and pillow in sight- which is a lot when you have 5 kids I might add. Thankfully these nasty critters spared everyone except little Jeannie, which was indeed a blessing but whew! let me tell you-

I now know how to defeat ISIS. You tell them all detainees will have to pick the knits out of a screaming 4 year old, we’ll have terrorism knocked out in no time!
Alas we are all clean and bug-free in our house.
But I think I might have aged a good bit in the process.

Yes, trying to practice being like God is difficult indeed.

And how are we really supposed to be able to do some of these things?
Jesus notes that if people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left check to them as well. Now in those days, most were right-handed. So for a right-handed person to slap you on the right cheek, it would be a back-slap. A disrespectful move that compromised the person’s dignity as well. It was an insult.
Now to be clear this is a metaphor.
I’m not saying that anyone should endure physical violence from another
And Jesus is not saying this either.
But what Jesus is saying is not to respond to insults with insults.
To try to rise above the fray and offer grace and love.

And then he encourages us to walk an extra mile. In this time, Roman soldiers would conscript Jewish civilians to carry their heavy packs for up to a mile. Jesus commanded them to voluntarily duplicate the legal limit. Could you imagine how hard that would be?

And then, Jesus says to not just love your neighbor, but to love your ENEMY. He explains that loving those who already love you is not that challenging of a task— which is true, I suppose— but to go as far as loving an enemy and praying for those who persecute and harass you? Not easy.

Those are tall orders, Jesus!

Why on Earth would Jesus levy such difficult requests?
Is it a set up for failure?

Maybe what Jesus is trying to show us here is both the generous and merciful character of God and
ways to partner with God is ushering in God’s kingdom.

The passage tells us that “He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good, and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous” (CEB). This tells us a lot about God, doesn’t it? God extends God’s love for us all and never keeps a tally of our shortcomings.
Like a good parent, God loves us regardless of whether we come up short or whether we make mistakes or show our true selves from time to time, warts and all.
God’s love is all-encompassing.
So Jesus wants us to adopt the same radical love God shows to us.

But how in the world do we do this?
I guess its just like with any new thing we are trying to learn.

It takes practice.
And persistence.

We constantly strive to imitate God in our choices and our behavior.
Over and over and over again.
And if we keep at it; if we keep practicing; if we continue to imitate God in our behavior; ultimately God will use this to transform us.

If we practice turning the other cheek, then ultimately we will learn to answer conflict with non-violence
If we we practice going the “extra mile” we will learn the ways of generosity
If we learn to not just tolerate our enemies but to love them, we will learn to treat people as God treats us.

It’s a lot like muscle memory.
Any athlete will tell you that practicing the same movement or act over and over again will ultimately train your body so that the moves become instinctive.
I’m on the church bowling league and on Friday night there was a man on the lane beside us who was consistently throwing strikes. It was unbelievable.
So I looked to Coach Downey and asked him how it was possible.
He told me that this man has practiced the same motion over and again and has been doing it for 30 years.
It was as smooth as silk.
And obviously worked.
Or the tennis player who doesn’t really have to think about the movement of her serve because she has practiced it thousands of times to the point that it is also second-nature.

It’s Repetition
It’s Persistence

When Kristan was first learning to walk with her new leg, she had to relearn the basic movements of walking. The second-nature of this marathon runner was no longer in place, so she had to start from the beginning.
But as an athlete she understood the benefit of repetition and muscle memory to regain her strength and ability.

So she started walking.
First from the porch to the mailbox
and back again.
And then, she added a little more; going from the mailbox to the middle of our cul-de-sac
and back again.
Then a little more- going half-way around the cul-de-sac
and back again
until she eventually could walk around our neighborhood.
Before long, her muscles, although significantly changed since the last time she used them, regained the natural movement they had done for so many times for so many years.
It took practice
and repetition.
she had to imitate what a natural gait would look like.
But eventually, she got it.

That’s a lot like what we are talking about here, with God.
Most of us aren’t instinctively able to turn the other cheek when someone hits us.
or walk an extra mile when we are asked to go one
Most of us aren’t able to love our enemies naturally
But with God’s help
and a little practice
hopefully it will get a little easier.

One might think this was enough of a challenge for one day, but then Jesus seems to throw down the gauntlet.
He says, “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.”
WHAT?
Wait a minute..
Perfect?
Now this is really a push, Jesus.
I can practice and imitate all day long, but becoming perfect seems like an insurmountable goal.

Well, fortunately, this is where we get some help with the original language.
The root word that Jesus uses for “perfect” is “telos”
And while one translation is certainly “perfect”, other meanings, and ones which might best capture what’s going on here are “completion, intended goal, or determined end.”
The perfection for which we aim is a goal, an end, not necessarily a state of being. We are not there yet, but with each movement we get closer.

In other words, Jesus is not asking us to be perfect as we understand it, but to persist in the goal Jesus has for us.
He’s telling us that being a disciple does not require perfection but a persistence toward bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to bear.
If we are persistent.
If we practice these things over and over again.
And just like with muscle memory
We’ll start doing them naturally.

It might seem overwhelming to think about trying to do all these things.
It seems like a lot of weight on our shoulders, doesn’t it?
Especially if you’ve been doing the practicing-
imitating God’s love to others
again and again and again and it seems like to no avail

Maybe its a teenager who you’ve shown love and compassion repeatedly but she still seems to shut you out.
Or maybe there is a loved one who seems adrift, who needs to get back on the right track, and no matter what you do, it seems impossible to help them make headway.
We love and love and love and oftentimes we get nothing in return.

Well take heart, friends because the good new is that it’s not just on us.
God is actively at work in all of us; our neighbors, our enemies, as well as ourselves.
Working to transform them as well.
So we don’t need to burden ourselves, thinking that bringing the kingdom of God to bear relies on our actions alone.
As Christians, we trust that God is at work in the other as well.

And the payoff for us as Christians is that when we look for this transformation in others-
when we open our hearts and our eyes to see the redemptive work God is doing in our neighbors, our friends, even our enemies..
we catch a glimpse of God.

You never know when the transformation that is going on in you, will align with the transformation going on in the other.
So keep practicing.
Stay persistent.
Imitate God in all the ways you can.
To be perfect?
Well, maybe one day.

Amen.

Let Your Light Shine

Text: Matthew 5:13-16
In art and poetry, Light was, and is, the dominant metaphor for what is pure and what is true and what is good
In the ongoing poetic battle to understand the nature of the world
Darkness and light was used to represent the two opposing forces of nature

In classical literature, light is often synonymous with love. Perhaps the most notable example of this is in William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which relies heavily on the symbol of light to describe the emotional state of the young lovers.

In the famous balcony scene of Act 2, Romeo first sees Juliet and proclaims, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east and Juliet is the sun!”
Sun, moon and star metaphors appear throughout the play, evoking love’s illuminating, sometimes bewildering power.

Light is good
Light is love

In Scripture, light is used to describe man’s moral state in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Light is assigned the good.
Darkness is assigned the evil.
So light becomes synonymous with God.
Because God is good
God is pure
God is truth.
The First Epistle of John describes God as light and beckons us to walk in the light.
The Psalmist describes God as light and salvation.

Since almost the beginning of human history, light has been a symbol or metaphor for God

Jesus himself said, “I am the light of the world” and this theme is repeated throughout the Bible.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus implores us to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

What does Jesus mean by this?
We will get to that in a moment.

From a scientific point of view, Light is not always well-understood,
Light has properties of both waves and particles but does not fit into either category.
It has the extraordinary ability to transcend any organizing structure
It’s awe-inspiring
And wild
It defies logical expectations.
It’s very super-natural
Sort of like God.

And just like God, light has power.
human life is impossible without light
Light helps things grow
Light can warm things and create an environment for healing
Light can also create energy to power things
In and of itself, light is truly
remarkable.

Light comes in different forms-
Light is used for different purposes—

Light can keep us safe
think of a traffic light
or floodlights for homes and buildings
Lights in parking lots
Or think of a lighthouse
which guides ships and steers them from the shore

Light is practical-
allowing us to see in the dark
for us to read
for us to work
for us to play

Light is also a truth-teller
Sometimes you flip on that bathroom light first thing in the morning
and Lord have mercy-
that reflection in the mirror!

all is suddenly illuminated to reveal
every wrinkle
every dark circle
every blemish.
In this case, maybe light is the enemy.

But more often than not,
Light offers us comfort
This little nightlight can mean the difference between a good nights sleep for my entire family
and a harrowing journey into the abyss of fear and tears
Yep, this little thing has the power to keep the monsters at bay
Even the smallest of lights can overpower the darkness

When Jesus says that we are the light of the world
He is drawing from all of these understandings of light
with all of the various sizes, shapes, and uses
to make an impact on the world.

Everyone has their own unique light.
God placed these lights in each of us
Very intentionally
You’re the only you.
Your light is your gift to God.
And in the passage today, Jesus is saying not to dim that light
let it shine!
Whatever it is.
It is your offering to the world.
It is God working in and through you.
Because your light
is God’s light.

Sometimes your light will be used to initiate change in the world.
To eradicate injustice
To bring truth
To improve things
To better things
But it doesn’t do ANYthing if its hidden under a basket.
Those in leadership positions throughout the world are usually there because they harnessed their light

Scouts in particular will use their light to become leaders in their communities
To be the light
in their churches
in their workplaces
in their families
Right now, they’re learning to develop their light
Refining it
Strengthening it
and focusing it
Building their skills and discipline
So they can become instruments of truth
Some of the most incredible leaders of our time were scouts
and it was because they developed their light.

Barbara Maillet uses her light to help this church navigate financial decisions. And when she is not working basically a full-time job here, she’s tutoring at-risk students at not one, but two elementary schools.

Sarah Rhyne, a daughter of this congregation, is using her light to work with autistic children at the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill
To help them discover their own light
To overcome substantial hurdles
To brighten their worlds.
To expand their horizons.
Sarah knows her light and is using it for good.

I could name several others right here in this congregation who are using their light for good in the world.

From politics to social services
From education to business
People all over are using their light to be change agents in a world in need of them.

But sometimes our light is just for beauty
Sometimes our light is just for joy.
But this does not make it any less important

Sadly, oftentimes people suppress their light because they don’t feel good enough.
“I’m not going to sing because I’m not any good”
they say or
“Why would I show you my drawings, they’re terrible!”

At times we think everything has to be perfect.
And our culture certainly reinforces this.
Whatever our light is
cooking
dancing
painting
gardening
singing
creating

We feel like it has to be perfect
Up to some standard.

But God already sees it as perfect.
What’s important is that your light is you
And God loves you.
Yes, you.
God is using your light for good
To proclaim God’s goodness in the world

God has always been an artist
using our varied lights to create
this symphony of beauty.

Yes, there are some whose light seem to shine brighter than others
Those famous singers
or world renown scientists
But they, too are just using their light to shine.
Olympic runner Eric Liddel, whose story was later turned into the movie, “Chariots of Fire” once said,
“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
God uses our light- whatever it is- for God’s glory.
Don’t miss the important truth that whatever your light is, God is using it to make the world a better place

Kristan and I recently watched the movie, “Florence Foster Jenkins”.
If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the true story of an American socialite at the turn of the century who was known for her generous support of musicians, singers, and composers.
But she was famous for her outrageous and flamboyant performance costumes and her notably poor singing ability.
Even though she was often mocked
and lampooned
The butt of many jokes
She didn’t let this stop her
She would rent out Carnegie Hall for her own performances and fill it by donating tickets to soldiers or other elite society types
anxious to be in her good social graces.
She let her light shine
She once said, “I might not be able to sing; but you can’t say I didn’t sing”

And thats the point
That’s what God wants of us
Shine your light
Let it shine!
Don’t keep it under a bushel
NO
Let it shine!

We are all different parts of this same body
tasked to do our parts in the world
Be you
Do you.

What is your light?
What brings you joy?
What is it that when you’re doing it, make you feel God’s pleasure?
Is it woodworking?
Is it pottery?
Is it knitting?

Is it organizing?
Is it electronics?
Is it building?

Whatever your light
Let it shine
So that others might see your good works
and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Jesus talks about this type of light
the greatest light of all
This light makes the most impact
This light Initiates the most change
So what does it look like?

It looks just like this—

(Lift up a mirror)

Let your light shine.
Thanks be to God

“Follow Me…”

Following Jesus
Text: Matthew 4:18-25

In the gospel this morning, we encounter Jesus calling his first disciples.
We’ve heard this story so many times I would imagine that, to some, it maybe has gotten a little…stale.
Yep, yep. Jesus is walking on the beach, he sees some brothers, he says to them, “follow me” and BOOM they drop everything and follow him.
And thus begins the ministry of Jesus and in turn the radical transformation of the world through Christianity.
Right?
Well…not so much.
I mean, to a point, yes.
But let’s look at this story a little closer.

Jesus approaches the men—who are fishing because they are, you guessed it!- fishermen.
And he says to them:

“Follow me and I will show you how to double your income in just 5 easy steps!”

ok, ok. That didn’t happen.

He says them:

“Follow me and I will show you how to be an even BETTER fisherman than you already are!”

Nope. ok, that didn’t happen either.

So what did Jesus say?
He said:
“Follow me and I will make you fish…for people”

And immediately….Immediately, the men dropped everything and

followed
Jesus.

Now at this time, being a fisherman wasn’t this idyllic life of peaceful production;
it didn’t carry with it the freedom of self-employment where you could control your own hours,
make as much as you were willing to fish,
and so on and so forth
No
At this time, the Roman Empire controlled all aspects of land and sea.

Rome asserted control over all of their production
their transportation
their marketing
their contracts and customers
The fishermen are merely cogs in a vast, imperial economy.
But
This was their trade
This was their lifeline

And yet, this man approaches them and— offers them something more.
And the fact that Jesus approaches them is significant and says a lot about God
Because in ancient culture fishermen aren’t among the elite
They don’t have personal wealth
or really any power at all.
And yet, they will later play a critical role in the early days of the church

But on this day, they are simply ordinary men
doing ordinary work.

And yet
They jump.
They don’t hesitate.
They don’t say,
“This sounds like an interesting proposal, Rabbi, let me review the terms, consult with my wife and financial planner and get back to you by the close of business tomorrow.”
No way
They jump

Because following Jesus offers a life of meaning.
Even though all of them had steady jobs and familial ties to the jobs to boot
this call was a call to a life of deeper meaning

A life with God
is irresistible.

Fishing for people touched that inner part of their soul
That deep longing I believe we all have
A place in our hearts and our very bodies that yearns to make a difference in the world and participate in something bigger than ourselves.

This is God at work in our lives.
planting that seed of desire in everyone’s hearts.
As the body of Christ we long to make the world a better place— to build a more loving and peaceful kingdom using the gifts we’ve been blessed with.
And not just through our vocations, but with our very lives.
How we treat our neighbor
How we treat each other.

Follow me.

So all the men—Peter and his brother Andrew
James and his brother, John
all abandon their predictable lives and set forth on this adventure with this little known rabbi.

In the text, our translation says “Follow me and I will make you fish for people”
But others translate it as
I will show you how to fish for people
I think that better describes what Jesus does here
Because what happens next in the story?

He travels throughout Galilee, these brothers in tow, and teaches in the synagogues sharing the good news of the kingdom.
But what else does he do?

He cures diseases
He treats sicknesses.
He eases pain
He CARES for people.

Follow me, he says.

Have you ever noticed that wherever Jesus goes, there seems to be a lot of sick people?

This is actually a reflection of the imperial world at this point in time.
Lives lived under the close control of the Roman Empire.
This type of oppressive living was bad for people’s health.
One commentary I read noted that 70-90 percent of folks in Rome’s empire experienced some level of poverty.
70-90 percent!

At this time
people didn’t really understand hygiene
water quality was poor
they had little food and the food they had was poor quality
Such factors resulted in widespread diseases
and these kinds of diseases were death-bringing in a world that required physical labor for survival.
And lest we get too comfortable and think we are safely removed from this, all we have to do is travel to a 3rd world country— or even some parts of our own city—to experience the same realities

Jesus’ healings and caregiving aren’t just loving acts, but acts that seek to reverse the damage inflicted by an oppressive system
and usher in a new reality—
the kingdom of God.

Yes, following Jesus shows the men how to care for others
But also
How to reverse injustice
How to love the neighbor.
Following Jesus is a radical departure from the predictable life they’ve known.

God in Jesus calls these men to follow him
into a new life
follow him to a new existence
God calls them to participate in this new way of being
To help build a new kingdom.

God continues to do this today.

Where is God calling you?

I was talking to my friend Karen
We were discussing this passage and I asked her about her thoughts on following Jesus
What does it mean, What does it look like-
all that stuff
And she shared with me a challenge I think many of us struggle with-
knowing when it is actually God inviting us

Because there are so many competing influences in our lives
so many pulls and temptations
How do we know if it’s Jesus calling us into action—
How do we know if it Jesus inviting us into new spaces—
How do we know if what we are doing with our lives
and our time
and our money
is pleasing to God?
How do we know?

Friends, I say we know by knowing Jesus
By getting to know the character of Jesus
Reading the stories in Scripture and observing
what he does
how he acts
who he favors
what he says

When we do this, we not only learn about Jesus, we get to know Jesus.
And what following him looks like today.

God is always beckoning us
Asking us to follow
But do we?
How often does God approach us and beckon us to follow and we DON’T “immediately” follow?
It happens all the time
We get too busy
Or too self-interested
oftentimes we get so caught up in the cares of life that we slip into this rhythm that sort of pushes God into the background
We completely miss Jesus’ invitation.
Or misunderstand it.

And to be fair, knowing how to follow Jesus has gotten a bit hijacked
By extremists
And fundamentalists
And even some politicians
Who insist that following Jesus involves an approach I certainly don’t see evidenced in Scripture
and certainly not one embraced by Jesus.

There are young people today who want no part in following this Jesus because all they read about and all they see in the news and in media is a complete misrepresentation of what it truly means to follow Jesus.
What it means to lead an authentic Christian life.
And who can blame them when all they’re seeing are these distorted efforts and claims all done in the name of faith.

So let me help clear up a few things—

Following Jesus is NOT

Building structures and crafting policies to keep out refugees fleeing violence in their home countries

Following Jesus is NOT

Hatred, rooted in fear like
Homophobia
or Transphobia
Xenopobia
or frankly any phobia.

Following Jesus is not shunning your neighbor

Following Jesus is not shaming someone because they’ve made some mistakes or might disagree with your point of view.

Following Jesus IS

answering the gentle call of love
Following Jesus is caring
Following Jesus is compassion
Following Jesus is connection

The fishermen in today’s gospel were lucky enough to have a human encounter with God in Jesus
and were blessed with a very stark and direct invitation to follow him.

Today ours might be more subtle
But they are nevertheless there
In all kinds of ways Jesus calls us to follow him
If we could just pause long enough to listen for it
To engage our senses and our heart to receive it.

FOLLOW ME

Listen for it
in a whisper
Listen for it
in a roar
Listen for it
in music
In laughter
In tears

Listen for it
And you’ll hear it.

Follow me.

And let the adventure begin.

Amen.

New Year’s Day Sermon

Text: Matthew 2:13-23

As a father of young kids, I can’t help but think about Joseph in this passage.

Here’s a man thrown into—let’s be honest— pretty frightening situations.
And everything seems to be happening at once
His newborn son is being proclaimed as the savior of all people
How does a dad even respond to that?
I mean sure, every dad is proud of his kids
And let’s be clear, he wouldn’t be the first dad to consider his first born “God’s gift to the world”
But this is legit Messiah activity here—
This is prophecy-fulfilling type action!

People are coming from all over to worship him—
And it’s not like this is typical behavior in Joseph’s world
he was a simple carpenter
not some king—
A craftsman
Whose existence is so humble that his pregnant wife has to deliver their first born child in the midst of animals and lay the child in a feeding trough
Not exactly the Hilton
I can just imagine Joseph feeling completely unequipped for the circumstances presented to him.
I know I would feel the same way
Wouldn’t you?
But Joseph responds to the circumstances in the way I believe is a model of faith.
Obedience.
And courage.

Because Joseph recognizes that somehow, someway God is at work
But it hasn’t been easy

First, he learns his fiancé was already pregnant, which even for today would have been a scandal- more so even in those days. And rather than follow the Jewish customs of the day (which would have spelled BAD NEWS for young Mary) he decided he would divorce her quietly to honor her dignity and frankly, save her life.
Few realize that this was actually breaking the law at the time.
So not only was he protective of her, but he’s also non-protective of himself!
Courageous indeed.
Joseph obediently trusts in God and agrees to marry her.

THEN

His boy is finally born and in the midst of all this newfound fame and fanfare, learns that the current king is so threatened by him that he has ordered him to be killed.

So In yet another dream, God tells Joseph to take Mary and the baby Jesus and flee to Egypt for safety.
So Joseph
courageously
obediently
trusts in God and does as he is told.

Because Joseph recognizes that somehow, God is at work

It’s a long journey to Egypt
All to protect his bride and young child
Approximately 429 miles.
lets think about this—
I learned that it takes an average person about 20 minutes to walk a mile, which is about 3 miles an hour.
Let’s assume they walk 8 hours straight a day—
No easy task—
That would mean they would cover about 24 miles a day.
So that would have meant to get to Egypt- under IDEAL circumstances, would take about 18 days.
honorable for sure
And all to be obedient to God who is sending these messages to him

In my imagination I think of the long days and long nights hiking to Egypt
Frightened at what could happen if they’re found by Herod and his soldiers
And not just that
In these days, robbers frequented the well-traveled roads, preying on parties just like this one- most likely vulnerable
and most likely weary
And I imagine they were also traveling with everything they owned
At the very least everything precious to them

So I envision Joseph laying awake at night on the side of the road as they camped
Likely tucked away out of sight
with hopes of safety
His little boy and his wife sleeping
Their breathing soft and rhythmic—
He’s tired but unable to sleep,
wrestling with the fears many men wrestle with
Those fears that keep us up at night
How do I protect my family?
How do I provide for them?
What if it’s not enough?
What if I’m not enough?

Sometimes we dads feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders.
And not just dads- all of us.
Moms-Brothers-Sisters
Aunts- uncles, Grandparents
Cousins- friends
I think all of us— at one time or another— get overwhelmed with the responsibilities of life
How are we going to make it work
How are we going to take care of the people looking to us for provision and protection

But just like with Joseph, God is always at work

behind the scenes
helping guide us and protect us

Just to recap—

God warns the Magi to return home by a different way to avoid the murderous efforts of Herod

then

God protects Joseph and his family by urging him in a dream to flee to safety to Egypt.

And then, Once in the clear, God, again in a dream, intervenes and advises Joseph to return to a different town upon hearing that danger still awaited him at the hands of another oppressive ruler.

God is always at work.

This isn’t the first story of God intervening in daily lives to deliver God’s people.
In fact, this story recalls an earlier Joseph in the bible
Whom God spoke to in dreams
and whose guidance delivered God’s people to safety
The first Joseph in the book of Genesis (46) helped deliver God’s people from Egyptian slavery
And ironically, this second Joseph finds Egypt a place of safety.

God is always moving on our behalf
urging us to safety.
We aren’t always able to see God at work
and frankly there are times when we don’t think God is active in our lives at all.
Lousy things still happen to us

And just like Joseph we might even be fearful of the world
A world that seems to be turning toward the same type of violence which threatened this early family
Many around the world live in the fear Joseph and his family lived in
Where tyrannical rulers lash out violently at the perception of threat
There are dads just like Joseph out there right this second
Frightened
And anxious to keep their families safe
to feed their hungry children
and comfort them

I’ve been touched recently by news articles detailing the plights of recent refugees

There is one about a 35 year old Syrian refugee dad who was selling pens on the street of Beirut, Lebanon to provide for his two young children.
A photographer took a picture of him selling his pens while his daughter slept on his shoulder.
And you can see in his face the fatigue and anguish of a man trying to make it happen for his family
The scene appears hopeless

But God is indeed at work
Behind the scenes.

How?

Well, the photographer who took the picture of the refugee dad started an online fundraising campaign for him that raised $190,000
The man used the money to open not 1 but 3 businesses- a bakery, a kebob shop, and a small restaurant which not only allowed the man and his two young children to move into a safer apartment, but also allowed him to employ 16 other fellow Syrian refugees.

Our God is at work.

Today is the first day of a new year.
For some, 2016 was a year of joy, accomplishment, and good cheer.
For others, it was a tough year.
Maybe you lost someone you love
Maybe your career fell apart
Maybe you learned of an illness that has sent you reeling
Maybe you are just so weighed down by the cares of the world that you can hardly imagine the next day
or week
let alone the next year.

But remember friends
God is at work
Just like God was at work with the first Joseph
and the second Joseph
guiding them to safety
We are not in this alone

God is at work redeeming the world
often through us—
Moving us to act in solidarity with those like refugees
who are feeling oppression and fear.

God is at work
We are never alone

We just celebrated the Christmas holiday which reminds us of Emmanuel- God is with us
God taking on human flesh to live among us and to walk with us
Experiencing everything we experience

the joy and sadness
the pleasure and the pain
All of this we share with the God who is with us

We are not promised to come out without any scratches
no
But we are promised that we are never alone
that God is at work
behind the scenes

And just like Joseph emerged from the darkness of life to the safety of the other side
We too will emerge
We don’t know what that will look like
or when it will happen
Joseph didn’t know how long he would be in Egypt
he certainly never expected to be there in the first place
But we do know that with God with us
We are ever alone
and that ultimately all will be well.
that’s the comfort of our faith

Yes, today is the first day of a new year.
It is ripe with potential
pregnant with possibility

As you begin this year
Moving forward
Step by step into the unknown of which a new year offers.
Rest assured that God is with you
Just like with Joseph
you are never alone
And that behind the scenes
God is active at work on your behalf.
Guiding you and walking with you

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Advent Sermon: Don’t Skip the Steps!

Text: Isaiah 7:10-16

I don’t know about you, but that text we just heard didn’t make a ton of sense to me. So to make better sense of it, let’s step back and discuss the larger story so we can see where God might be speaking to us—
So here we go:

Ahaz, the king of Judah, has gotten word that they are about to be invaded by the north. When he heard of this, “the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind”.

Understandable.
No one likes to be ganged up on.
And no country likes to be invaded.

So the Lord sends the prophet Isaiah to Ahaz to reassure him that all will be ok.
That God is in control.
Isaiah tells him to “take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint”
He encourages him to hold tight, that all of what he fears will not come to pass—
Isaiah then provides some strong advice- perhaps a stern warning:

“If you do not stand firm in faith,
you shall not stand at all.”

Ahaz’s faith is shaky at best. He isn’t quite sure he can truly believe in God’s promises.

Sensing this, the Lord offers him a deal many of us don’t get (or think we don’t get)—
A sign.
How great is that?
I mean, how many times have you been in a situation where you weren’t quite sure what to do, so you ask “God, please just send me a sign..”
Well, Ahaz is actually offered one.
And not just any sign but a big one- a sign as deep as the depths and as high as heaven.
Isaiah is offering him a sign so clear it will be unmistakable.

Crazy enough, Ahaz rejects this offer and maintains he will “not put the Lord to the test”
Sounds good, right.
So pious.
But Isaiah will have none of it
Impatiently, Isaiah responds, “ok, FINE, you don’t want a sign? Well, God will give you one anyway- so here it goes-

Look! that young woman there- that one! she’s pregnant and shall bear a son- and the son’s name will be Immanuel, which means “God is with us”
And before he is able to eat curds and honey and know the difference between good and evil- the kings you’re worrying about invading you will be gone.

Isaiah is telling Ahaz not to worry.
That God has this.
He only needs to wait and allow God to act.

Instead of relying and trusting on God, Ahaz ends up selling his allegiance to the king of Assyria for protection
and this turned out to be a fateful decision because it resulted in devastation for Judah
Because Assyria turned on them and conquered them.

Poor Ahaz.
Had he just listened to Isaiah and trusted in God rather than in his own devices
things might have turned out better.
But rushing for the quick fix
he skipped the waiting
and sealed his own fate.

“If you do not stand firm in faith
you shall not stand at all”

Now I would love to stand up here and admonish Ahaz for his lack of faith.
But frankly, I might have done the same thing, I’m sad to say.
I think we all have struggled with trusting in God in times of uncertainty
I think we all have rushed for the quick fix rather than the longer, perhaps tougher remedies.

It’s a lot like grief in a way
When we skip over the tough work
of mourning
and crying
lamenting
and we rush to cheer ourselves up and just “move on”
we often never truly process what we are feeling
and don’t experience the full value the grief has to offer.
We might achieve a quick fix, sure
But when we skip these steps, we deny God—and ourselves- the opportunity to accomplish some meaningful work in our lives.

Our culture conditions us for this mindset
We don’t wait for anything

Entire industries have emerged to deal with the “problem” of waiting—
all for the sake of efficiency and perceived productivity
think of the microwave oven- we got so sick of waiting for things to cook that we brought in radioactive devices INTO OUR HOMES to nuke our meals!
And be honest- you still don’t even wait the whole time before the beep— you stand by that microwave and open up the door when there’s only 30-45 seconds left.
Don’t you?
Admit it!

But we have drive-thru everything- meals, prescriptions, coffee
Call ahead seating at restaurants
Almost everything in our lives we can do from our phone now
All to “maximize our time”
The message is clear: whatever you do, don’t wait.
Now, sometimes this can be good- don’t get me wrong.
I doubt anyone is inviting a long check-out line at Harris Teeter
Or a three hour wait at the DMV

But in this busyness and “efficiency”, we drown out the voice of God who is calling to us
begging for our attention
Offering us true wisdom
To slow down
and wait for God’s guidance.

Sometimes, we don’t really want to wait for what God has to say because we don’t want our plans derailed—

When Ahaz refuses to “test” God, I have a sneaking suspicion it has less to do with piety and more to do with being afraid of what God might actually say

For me this happened in my professional life.
For years I struggled with my vocational calling
I knew the things I enjoyed and were gifted at
But these jobs weren’t as financially lucrative as others, and I was convinced that the money was the priority.
So I went through the motions of praying— asking God for guidance
But really only if it fit my current agenda.
Because listening to God was too scary to me
Too uncertain and unpredictable
So rather than wait on God for guidance,
and trusting in his provision
I took matters into my own hands
And jumped into jobs
for money
and the quick fix—
Now, this lasted for while
But ultimately each time I was left restless and unsatisfied.

I kept looking for the quick fix rather than waiting on the right fix

When I finally stopped to wait for God—
he revealed to me a path unimaginable to me before
I mean, ministry? Really? Me?
And yet, this was a path I’ve found to be far richer and more fulfilling than my wildest dreams—
If I had only listened in the first place.

Maybe this has happened to you?
where have you skipped the steps in your life?
When waiting on God
trusting in his provision
Would have granted you so much more?

Where is this happening to you now?
Is there an opportunity for you to slow down, quiet yourself, and wait for God to act?

God offers us so much more than our human minds can imagine
If we just lean into the waiting and trust in God.
That’s what Isaiah was saying to Ahaz.

Matthew rightfully interpreted our passage today as a prophecy for the birth of Jesus.
And what a prophecy it was!
It is no small thing that God defied expectations and came to the world as a vulnerable baby
Instead of the Warrior Messiah others wanted and expected
Prophets promised this different kind of Messiah
but the people would have to be patient and wait.

So-
Many skipped the steps of waiting and jumped at the messiahs that met the criteria they were looking for
ones who exhibited power
prestige
and might.
And as a result, they suffered the consequences of their impatience.

God offers something so much more precious than a quick fix
so much more valuable and lasting
In the birth of Jesus, God shows us God’s true nature:

Meek and humble
Gentle and trusting
Compassionate and kind

And so… we wait.

For the last 3 weeks we’ve acknowledged this waiting through our liturgical observance of Advent.
Each week we’ve discussed a specific type of waiting:
Waiting on..peace
Waiting on…a new story…
Waiting on….new life in desert places.

We’ve acknowledged the waiting through the lighting of candles on the Advent wreath
each week we’ve marked the time with the accumulation of light
Visualizing how at the end of our Advent journey, the wreath will be ablaze with light
And Christmas will at last be upon us.
But until then, we move through the season with patient intention.

Now we might be inclined to skip these steps and race to Christmas morning—
to get to the prize
get to the presents
or maybe just to get through it altogether—
to check off all the action items on our to do list
to just…get it done

Doing so might offer us some short term relief.
And doing so might not bring us to destruction like it did Ahaz.

But it will nonetheless cause us to miss the work God is doing in our lives
to miss the joy of reconnecting with friends
to miss the excitement of anticipation
to miss the love offered in precious time with family

All of these are signs of the love, compassion, and care shown to us in the Christ Child.

And these are too precious to miss
So let’s not skip the steps
Let’s wait on them
Let’s savor them
And enjoy the gifts that they are

Thanks be to God.