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04.21.19 Amazing Doubt Isaiah 65.17-25 Luke 24.1-12 Sermon Summary

“Jerusalem” means “City of peace”. I can’t remember it ever being that, which is why Isaiah’s prophecy about Jerusalem is so hard to believe.

When Jesus returned to Jerusalem, there was little doubt what could happen. It was Passover week, the most important Jewish holiday celebrating their liberation from foreign powers. Thus occupying Rome already had an itchy trigger finger. This in addition to the fact that Jesus’ conflict with religious authorities was reaching its peak.

Jesus went knowing the very real possibility that he would die. Even his disciples, as they reluctantly joined him on his journey, said, “Let us go and die with him.”

Jerusalem was the center of corruption. A greedy priesthood was collaborating with Rome and disenfranchising the common religious people. Some Jews separated themselves. Others planned rebellion. Some emphasized ritual purity. Others urged spiritual renewal. No one was looking to Jerusalem for leadership. And yet that is where Jesus insisted on going.

Jesus went to Jerusalem because Jesus was a believer in Isaiah. On one hand, Isaiah is easy to believe in. He is quoted throughout the Bible and throughout Christian worship. “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God almighty.” “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength.” “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” “To us a child will be born, and his name shall be wonderful, counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace.” “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.” “He was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.”

These verses make it easy to believe Isaiah. But these are not the verses Jesus believed most. He believed Isaiah’s prophecies about Jerusalem. God would create a new Jerusalem, a whole new earth, even new heavens! Jerusalem would be a joy. A place of life instead of death. A place of justice instead of exploitation. A place of answered prayer instead of religious commerce. A place of peace instead of strife. A place of healing instead of hurting.

This is the Isaiah Jesus believed in. This is the Jerusalem Jesus came to save.

Sounds like a pipe dream, doesn’t it? If someone told you this is how it ends in Jerusalem, given the history of Jerusalem, it would seem like an idle tale.

So it makes some sense that the women came to the tomb having prepared spices. They witnessed Jesus executed and buried outside of Jerusalem despite all his faith. They didn’t have Jesus’ faith in Isaiah anymore, Jesus’ faith in God’s creating something new, Jesus’ faith in Jerusalem.

They had lost faith. When our faith is shaken we do as they did. We do what we can. We go back to what works. We lean on tradition. We remember the “good old days.” We prepare spices, like Mary, Joanna, and the other women. At least it’s familiar. It gives us something to do.

And then there, right in the middle of our coping, though we’re convinced our dreams are dead, in the midst of our tradition, God’s promises come to us anew. And we hear a gentle and familiar admonition: “Why are you searching for the living among the dead? Do you not remember his words?”

Then they remembered. And they believed. More than belief, they had conviction. Still Isaiah’s visions were true. Still God has power to create. Still Jerusalem, and the earth, and the heavens can be saved. For still and again, Jesus is alive.

So they told the other disciples, and the other disciples heard. Maybe they also remembered. But they considered it an “idle tale.”

Sometimes hearing and remembering aren’t enough. How many of us have heard and remembered the stories, Christmas after Christmas, Easter after Easter? Sometimes we need an experience. Like the scent of a candle. Like the splash of water on our face. Or the warmth of wine in our chest. Or the gentle touch of a Good Samaritan.

And even then for some people it takes more time. For Peter chased an experience. He ran to the grave, saw that it was empty, then “went home amazed at what had happened.”

Peter had amazing doubt. At least there is doubt. Doubt suggests at a minimum we’re asking questions. Amazing doubt may be closer than doubt to conviction, but it has some ways to go. We know Peter eventually got there. Maybe we will too.

This morning you’ve heard that on this third day since Jesus’ death he has risen from the dead. Maybe you’re like the women that morning. Grieving a loss. Resigned to reality. In spiritual despair. Don’t worry—you’re on the path.

Maybe you’ve heard Isaiah’s vision this morning, and God’s plan to create all things new, and a little hope has stirred within you.

Maybe this morning your belief has strengthened into conviction and you know beyond knowledge, with a peace that transcends understanding, that God can recreate your life just as God resurrected Christ from the dead.

Or perhaps you’ve heard and experienced something here and you don’t know quite what to make of it, but it is amazing to you. You have amazing doubt.

Wherever you are, this morning you’re on the path. You’ve joined other disciples of doubt who are trying their best to follow Jesus—Jesus who has resurrected from the dead to lead us into God’s peaceful city.

It is the resurrected Christ who is our host at this Table. He invites us to rejoice in his presence, to receive his life, and to have our faith strengthened so that we may see as Isaiah saw, and work for peace in the world.

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04.20.19 Amazing Doubt Luke 24.1-12 Easter Vigil Version

The Great Easter Vigil is the dramatic counterpoint to Christmas Eve. Four months ago, we celebrated the Feast of the Incarnation, the appearance of light in a dark world. Tonight we celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection, the triumph of light in the universe.

During the Vigil we hear a rehearsal of “salvation history,” stories of the Bible recounting God’s deliverance. There may be as many as twelve or more such stories read. There must be at least three.

Tonight we heard Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, Zephaniah’s prophecy assuring the return of the Exiles, and the one story that is required every Vigil, the Exodus account. The reading from Exodus is Israel’s foundational story. In it God’s identity as deliverer and savior is revealed, as well as the Jewish identity as God’s own people.

It is amazing to me how early doubt enters the community of faith. After the ten plagues in Egypt, how could the ancient Israelites doubt? And yet they did. They said, “This God is a tease. He leads us out of Egypt into the wilderness only to let us die here.”

Moses’ message in response was, “Keep going. You don’t know when God’s deliverance will kick in.”

Story after story, in remembrance like the reading from Exodus, in metaphor like Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones, in poetry like Zephaniah’s prophecy, through Joseph, David, Gideon, Sampson, Ruth, and Ester, the Bible tells the history of salvation.

It’s amazing to me that the followers of Jesus doubted. Had they completely forgotten the God to whom Jesus prayed? Had they missed the God to whom Jesus pointed?

I suppose in the face of death and such utter disappointment that perhaps it’s understandable that they doubted. Or just forgot.

When it happens to us, when we doubt or forget, we do what we can. We go back to what works. We lean on tradition. We remember the “good old days.” We prepare spices, like Mary, Joanna, and the other women. At least it’s familiar. It gives us something to do.

And then there, right in the middle of our coping, though we’re convinced our dreams are dead, in the midst of our tradition, God’s promises come to us anew and we hear a gentle and familiar admonition: “Why are you searching for the living among the dead? Do you not remember his words?”

Then they did remember, and they believed. More than belief, they had conviction. Still God’s promises were true. Still God saves. Still we are God’s people.

So they told the other disciples. he other disciples heard, maybe they also remembered. But they considered it an “idle tale.” Sometimes hearing and remembering aren’t enough. How many of us have heard and remembered the stories, Christmas after Christmas, Easter after Easter?

Sometimes we need an experience, like the scent of a candle, like the splash of water on our face, or the warmth of wine in our chest, or the gentle touch of a Good Samaritan. And even then for some people it takes more time. For Peter chased an experience. He ran to the grave, saw that it was empty, then “went home amazed at what had happened.”

Peter had amazing doubt. At least there’s doubt. Doubt suggests at a minimum we’re asking questions. Amazing doubt may be closer than doubt to conviction, but it has some ways to go.

We know Peter eventually got there. Maybe we will too.

Tonight you’ve heard pieces of the salvation story and how in Jesus God renews his promises. Maybe you’re like the women that morning. Grieving a loss. Resigned to reality. In spiritual despair. Don’t worry—you’re on the path.

Maybe you’ve heard the promise tonight, and a little hope has stirred within you.

Maybe tonight your belief has strengthened into conviction and you know beyond knowledge, with a peace that transcends understanding, that God is your savior and that you are God’s child.

Or perhaps you’ve heard and experienced something here and you don’t quite know how to handle it, but it is amazing to you. You have amazing doubt.

Wherever you are, tonight you’re on the path. You’ve joined other disciples of doubt who are trying their best to follow Jesus—Jesus, who has resurrected from the dead to lead us into God’s deliverance.

 

 

04.19.19 John 19.16-42 Good Friday Sermon

The late Roman Catholic scholar and priest Raymond Brown described the Gospels as “Passion narratives with long introductions.” Indeed the suffering (passion) of Jesus has enjoyed historical priority in the telling of Jesus’ life.

After the sixteenth century Reformation in the West, Jesus’ death became the particular focus for Protestants. This is when the theology that “Jesus died on account of our sins and in our place” became dominant. More recently among evangelicals, the emphasis has been on Jesus’ resurrection.

But it is a fair question: Why did Jesus die? Beyond the obvious answer that he was a created being? Perhaps the compelling question is better phrased, Why did Jesus die the way he did?

There is some truth to the answer above. “Jesus died on account of our sins and in our place.” We do see this answer in the New Testament which was written beginning about twenty-five years after Jesus death.

But Jesus, and some NT writers, had a larger view, in part because if Jesus’ death satisfied the penalty for sin, why do we still feel guilty and anxious? Why do we still die? Why do we still suffer?

The larger vision of Jesus’ suffering and death is reflected in parts of the book of Hebrews. There we read that, “We have a high priest who sympathizes with our weakness.” Jesus’ death is the ultimate identification with our weakness as human creatures. We succumb to death.

Using John’s Gospel account of the crucifixion, I want to reflect upon this question. How does Christ sympathize with our weakness?

There are times we suffer uniquely alone, for example, in the death of a child or through the burden of a degenerative disease. It helps to remember that Christ carried the Cross alone.

There are times when the popular crowd excludes us. It helps to remember that Jesus was crucified with outcasts.

Sometimes our words are taken out of context, and our good intentions are derailed by a carless word. Jesus also was misunderstood and mischaracterized though he was a king.

Sometimes people gossip about us. Christ was also a humiliated celebrity.

There are times when we resolve to love, even when it’s hard, even when it’s a sacrifice. It helps to remember that Jesus suffered with a purpose.

Sometimes people are just mean. It helps to remember Jesus was also mistreated with the Roman soldier’s spear.

And John tells us that Jesus trusted God in his suffering. This is the practical meaning of his death according to the larger vision. We can trust God in our suffering because Christ trusted God in his suffering.

And more, as God vindicated Christ’s suffering by resurrecting him from the dead, so we hope God will vindicate our suffering. For we share in Christ’s suffering when we suffer, and we share in Christ’s death with our death. And the sacrament of baptism promises that we will share in Christ’s resurrection also. We don’t suffer alone, and when we do suffer, we still have hope.

So let us listen to the Passion narratives and their long introductions and the Good Friday liturgies. Let us find comfort in Christ’s death “for your sins and in your place.” And let us find strength in Christ’s death “because you don’t suffer alone and because you have hope.”

04.18.19 Grace to the Humble John 13.1-17 Sermon

Tonight the paradox of Holy Week is distilled into one act. Of course the week begins with Jesus’ entrance as a king and through a gross miscarriage of justice it ends with his execution as traitor. And in one act we see the message again: Jesus the teacher and Lord washes the feet of his disciples as a slave.

This one act, and all of Holy Week, simply reflects his life. His whole ministry was one of paradox. Against the religious, he welcomed sinners. Against the powerful, he welcomed disenfranchised. Against the popular, he welcomed the outcast. Against those who had no need of a doctor, he welcomed the sick. Jesus’ life was a paradox.

John offers an explanation as to how Jesus could live according to the paradox: “Jesus knew God had given him all things, that he was from God, and was returning to God.” It was this assurance that led him to be faithful, that led him to serve. The assurance goes all the way back to his baptism and forward to his crucifixion.

Jesus is the revelation of the paradox of God, a God who graciously exchanges the light for those living in darkness, the faithful for the unfaithful, the free for the bound, the innocent for the guilty, the sinless for the unclean, the truly living for the truly dying, the giver for the greedy, and the king for the subject. Leonard Cohen’s You Want it Darker summarizes our situation: “If yours is the glory, mine must be the shame.”

Except for Jesus. For there is another paradox in this passage. You and I can participate in the same divine life as Jesus. He said, “Unless I wash your feet, you have no share with me.”

How can we who are in shame, have a share in the glorious? How can we who are the guilty, have a share in the innocent?

It starts with Jesus washing our feet, cleaning us where we need it. Not our heads and our hands, as Peter insisted (unless we need that), but only our targeted need. The place we need it most, which we hide the hardest, is where God wants to wash us. That’s where grace is applied to us. It takes humility to receive grace, to have a share, and it starts with Jesus washing our feet.

But then it continues. We have to wash others, according to their need, not where we want to show them grace, but where they need it. It takes humility to offer grace as well.

And Jesus has plenty of grace to offer, plenty of grace to share, for all who will allow him to wash their feet, and who will wash the feet of others. Amen.

04.14.19 Jesus’ Preview of our Lives Philippians 2.1-11 Sermon Summary

The central claim of Christianity is that God is revealed in Jesus Christ. What we overlook is that we also are revealed in Jesus Christ.

We began our Lenten Journey on Ash Wednesday, when we contemplated how all things return to dust, including sin, and how this is good news.

Then we read about the Temptation of Jesus, and considered how God claims us as his children without regard to how useful we are, what others say about us, or even how religious we are.

Then we talked about repentance and change, how it helps to have the proper attitude, to use new language in our prayers, and the inspiration we can draw from the examples of the saints.

But then we talked about repenting of repentance, how we must turn away from sin and fear and turn instead to holiness and love.

Last week we read about Mary of Bethany and Paul the Apostle, and observed how a habit of giving opens us up to receive from God and frees us to give extravagantly.

Now our Lenten journey brings us to Holy Week. It begins with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry to Jerusalem and ends with Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Jesus’ last week is a dramatic reminder of our destiny, a rehearsal of our own lives. As he did, we make a grand entrance at our birth, with many people anticipating our arrival and welcoming us with joy.

Then we live lives of drama, just as Jesus did throughout the week. We enjoy friendship as at the house of Mary and Martha. We experience conflict, as Jesus did with the authorities. We suffer betrayal, like Jesus did by Judas. And we encounter systemic unfairness and injustice, like Jesus did before his crucifixion.

Finally, we all will experience death. Death empties us of our lives. For some, it is a welcome relief. For others, as death approaches, we cling all the harder to life. But no matter where we are on the continuum, death empties us completely.

As we begin this Holy Week, this preview of our lives through the last week of Jesus’ life, let us remember: In the meantime, between today and the day we die, we can live this life in Christ. And we can live this life with Christ in us. And so we can live with the assurance that God will resurrect us, just as he did Christ at the end of his life.

In other words, Holy Week reminds us that Jesus’ fate is our fate. Eventually we all lose our lives. Eventually we all take up the cross. Eventually we all return to dust. Eventually we all rest in God. Eventually we all rise with Christ.

Since this is the case, Paul urges us to have the same mind as Christ, even in this life. We are to humble ourselves, to serve one another and the world, to make our lives really count for something. This Holy Week, and throughout our lives, let us live in Christ, let us serve in Christ, let us die in Christ, and let us rise with Christ.

When Christ said, “remember me” at his Table, this is what he meant. Remember my body, remember my blood. Live, serve, die, and rise with me.

04.07.19 John 12.1-12 Pouring Out Sermon Summary

The story of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus is one that makes many people uncomfortable. We just KNOW the point is that we all should give more to Jesus. Few of us have the faith to admit that we’re more like Judas. Fortunately, there are some simple steps we may take to become more like Mary.

Jesus had come to the house of Mary and Martha, sisters to Lazarus, in Bethany, a town outside of Jerusalem, a short time after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. At some point during dinner, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair.

The action alone was extraordinary and reminds us that every giving action is a form of worship. But what is more, the perfume was valuable—300 denarii we’re told. A year’s worth of wages. Let’s estimate it at $30,000 today. That’s like giving Jesus a new car.

Mary appears to have understood something that we say we understand, but our actions don’t always align. She understood that God deserves gifts from us. She understood also that God delights in our gifts. Any act of giving is an act of worship. A big gift, in the right spirit, is a big act of worship.

Many of us want to give but feel we can’t. Or we don’t really get around to doing it. I recently spoke with a retiring doctor on his way the Caribbean. “Are you going to do relief work after the hurricanes?” “Not this time, but I do want to. I’m keeping my license active so I can do something like that someday.”

Well, nothing was going to stop Mary. She was convinced God deserves our gifts and delights in them. Nothing else mattered. Not Martha’s opinion. Not Judas’ criticism. Not even Lazarus’ need. Remember Lazarus had died not too much earlier. His body needed anointing. But Mary waited to anoint Jesus.

How did Mary get something so valuable? Today we would have to work extra hours. Or save a long time. Or maybe we would receive it as a gift. What matters is not how she got it, but that she gave—extravagantly and unreservedly.

How can we give to God when it seems we can’t? How can we be sure when the time is right that we can give to God like Mary did?

Every life is like an empty pitcher which we fill up with things important to us, things like school, sports, music, friends, work, games, TV, movies, car, furniture, gadgets, clothes, books, food, and activities. The whole time, God is right next to us also wanting to fill our lives.

Isaiah forty-three gives us a picture of God’s desire. Right there in the desert of our lives, God promises to make a river, providing water for the animals and drink for the people. But how can God do this if our lives are already full with other things?

The Apostle Paul answers with another picture. Paul was an exceptional religious individual, the admiration of everyone. Then he met Jesus, and he decided that all his religious observance and righteousness weren’t as valuable as knowing Christ. So he poured some of his life out, and what he discovered is that God filled him. This dynamic continued for Paul: The more he poured himself out, the more God filled him. Paul found he could give himself to God the way Mary gave to God.

This is something we can do, too. We can make room for God by giving less room to other things. We can “pour out” something valuable to us to God, then be filled by God so we can give again.

It’s important to give like Paul and Mary. “Giving generously reprioritizes lives and helps people distinguish what is lasting, eternal, and of infinite value from what is temporary, illusory, and untrustworthy.” (Bishop Robert Schnase)

Mary gave us a picture of giving to God. But Mary’s wasn’t the only gift that day. We’re told that Martha served the meal. Martha gave us another picture of giving. And just as Jesus praised Mary’s gift, so he praised Martha’s gift by imitation, as later that week he served a meal himself. This is the meal he still serves today, as we gather at the Lord’s Table.

God has created us as vessels of his grace. God’s grace never runs out. The more room we create to receive it, and the more we give it away, the more it will flow through us. May we seek and find grace in our life this week. Amen.

03.24.19 Luke 13.1-9 Repenting of Repentance Sermon Summary

Jesus’ preaching had taken an edge and was making people uncomfortable. Their responses were rather typical (see Luke 11-12). After one dinner, the religious leaders began to “cross-examine” Jesus, looking for a loophole in the rules. They forgot that just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s right.

Later someone in the ever-increasing crowd interrupted Jesus to settle a dispute with a family member. When Jesus’ teaching puts in the spotlight, we shift attention to someone else. But Jesus tries to get his disciples back on track. He tells them to be watchful, as if you knew a burglar was coming tonight to rob your house. Then one of the disciples expressed their discomfort. Peter asked, “Are you saying this to us or to others? Because the rules don’t apply to us insiders, do they?”

We can argue with Jesus like the Pharisees, lawyers, and teachers. We can try to distract him like the guy in the crowd. We can think his teachings don’t apply to us like Peter. But Jesus keeps pushing, keeps making us uncomfortable, keeps calling us to repent.

Do you know anyone who likes being told to repent? It implies there’s something wrong with us, that we’ve been making bad decisions, that we need to change. “Who are you to tell me to repent?!” is the typical response.

So still trying to justify themselves, to get themselves off the hook, some hometown buddies ask Jesus, “Did you hear about our fellow Galileans, and what happened to them in Jerusalem?” Apparently the Roman governor Pilate had slaughtered some Galileans as they worshiped in Jerusalem—not unlike what we saw in Christchurch, NZ last week.

Jesus saw the question for what it was. “Oh, we may have some work to do in our lives,” they were saying, “but those other Galileans must have been really bad!”

“Really . . .” Jesus muses. “Well don’t forget the eighteen who died in that freak accident when the tower fell on them.”

“Yeah, those guys must have done something really bad, too.”

“Well,” Jesus closes, “all those unfortunate people were no worse than any of you. And if you don’t repent, you’ll perish the same way.”

Wait, what is going on here?!  Is Jesus threatening us with an angry God? Is God just waiting to condemn us? We’d better repent before our luck runs out? Just thirty-one verses earlier Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

What is Jesus’ ultimate message? Is it God is a loving parent eager to provide for our needs? Or is it God is a condemning judge barely restraining himself from annihilating us? Can it be both?

In his letter to the 1 Corinthians, Paul also reminds us that the whole clan of ancient Israelites crossed the Red Sea, they were led out by the cloud, they ate heavenly food, they drank spiritual water. All of them were under the grace of deliverance. But their desires turned evil and they committed idolatry. So most of them died in the wilderness.

Paul’s reason for this reminder? “These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

Judgment is real. There are consequences to our decisions and actions. Jesus is right to call us to repentance. Paul is right to use the fallen to encourage us to remain standing. But is this the best way to think about repentance? Is Lent really about fearing God for our lives? When Jesus calls us to repent is he calling us to fear God?

“Repentance” comes from the Hebrew word to turn around, and the Greek word to change your thinking. When you think differently, you act differently. Are Jesus and Paul calling us to think about God as an angry judge and then to act accordingly?

Before Jesus and Paul, there were David and Isaiah. It is said David wrote Psalm 63, the first verse of which is, “My soul thirsts for you as in a dry and weary land where there is not water.” And Isaiah replies on behalf of God, “Everyone who thirsts, come the waters. You that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

We tend to think that our repentance changes God’s thinking and turns God’s attitude around from one of angry judge to loving father. But repentance is about changing our thinking and turning us around from fleeing a God of wrath to returning to a God of grace.

Jesus speaks of judgment only because he is convinced of grace. Paul speaks of trials only because he is convinced of deliverance. If repentance means to change one’s thinking and then one’s actions, then let me suggest that we need to repent of repentance. We need to think differently about repentance.

We have learned to think that repentance changes God from wrathful to benevolent. In reality it changes you from being fearful to being grateful. When we think about repentance, that “others need it, not me,” Jesus teaches that others need it, but so do you. When we respond that, “there are worse sinners than I who need it more,” Jesus responds that we need it as much as anyone does.

And if we think about repentance that, “I’ll suffer less if I do it,” the Bible teaches that suffering is part of life, but we don’t suffer alone. We’re not in solitary confinement as punishment for our sins. We suffer, just like everyone else, but God suffers with us.

Isaiah assures us, “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”

Jesus ends his warnings with a parable about a man who owns a fig tree. After three years of barrenness he wants to cut it down. But the gardener pleads to work with the tree one more year. Jesus’ point? Return to being a fig tree. Let the gardener come to you. Let him dig around your life. Then see what fruit you can bear.

This Lent, let us repent of repentance. Let us return to God. For the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is God’s faithfulness.

Hear in the words of Isaiah an invitation to the Lord’s Table: Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

Hear David invite us: My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips.

So let us delight in God’s gift of real bread and rich food. May our souls be satisfied and let us praise God with joyful lips. Then as beloved children of God, let’s change our thinking about repentance. Let’s repent of repentance. Let’s turn from our ways of sin and fear, and turn towards the God of holiness and love. And by the light that shines through us, may others be drawn to the light of Christ. Amen.