Skip to content

12.24.17 Where is God in the Waiting? Matthew 1:18-25a Sermon Summary

Not many people would offer Joseph the father of Jesus as an exemplar of faith. Maybe we should give him another look.

We know very little about Joseph the father of Jesus. The gospels tell us he was a descendant of David and that he was a carpenter. He is remembered as Jesus’ father during Jesus’ adult life, which implies he was out of the picture by then. Later speculation says that he was an elderly widower, which is used to explain Mary’s perpetual virginity and more recently to defend some politician’s predilection to date teenagers.

Despite such a dearth of information, Joseph might be considered along the other exemplars of the faith in the Bible: Noah, Moses, Hannah, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph the son of Jacob, David, Mary, Paul, and of course Jesus, to name a few.

Some of these others have a long narrative presence in the Bible. Others have brief but extraordinary episodes. Joseph has neither. His story is told very matter-of-factly. He’s sort of like a place-holder in the narrative of Mary and Jesus. But there are a number of characteristics about Joseph that qualify him for inclusion in the above list.

First, Joseph was a religiously righteous man. Matthew tells us this directly. Joseph apparently had a reputation to maintain, which is why he couldn’t bring a pregnant Mary into the picture. For as the angel reminded him, he was a “son of David.”

Second, Joseph was a man of discernment. When he heard about Mary’s pregnancy, he didn’t rush to judgment. He didn’t exercise his rights immediately. He didn’t claim the moral high ground. Instead, “He planned to dismiss her quietly.” Matthew tells us he “resolved” to do this, which implies careful deliberation, a weighing of pros and cons, a working out of the details. For Joseph, faith required discernment.

Third, Joseph was compassionate. This is what led him to plan to dismiss Mary quietly. He was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.”

To the qualities of faith Joseph already had—righteousness, discernment, and compassion—God was about to call him to yet deeper faith. All his righteous discernment and his compassionate motives could not prepare him for God’s revelation. And this is why the angel comes to him in a dream.

Sometimes it isn’t enough to walk the straight and narrow, or to make decisions with prayer, or to treat others with compassion. Sometimes God wants to do something so unusual he has to move us out of the way. God has to bring us to a dark wood, to a place where our faith can take a new turn.

For Joseph, that was in the darkness of night. The angel came during a dream, when all these admirable qualities of Joseph’s faith were in a suspended state. There the revelation occurred. Mary’s child is of the Holy Spirit, and he is the Savior of the people.

When Joseph awoke, he added a fourth quality of faith: Patience. Joseph waited. He waited to have marital relations with Mary. Maybe he was unwilling to cause skepticism about Jesus’ origins. Or maybe it was to protect Mary against her own doubt.

Or maybe he waited out of respect for God’s priority. Joseph had learned that God is in religious righteousness, that God is in faithful discernment, and that God is in compassionate decisions. Now he would discover that God is also in the waiting.

This Christmas, as we celebrate the first arrival of Christ in his birth and await the final arrival of Christ in the fullness of God’s Kingdom, may God find us waiting faithfully. Faithful like Joseph. For God is in the waiting.

 

Advertisements

12.17.17 Where Christ Finds Us Philippians 2:3-11 Sermon Summary

We are born naked, empty, open, a tabula rasa. As we mature and become aware of this, we also become insecure about it. So we try to fill up our lives. Graciously it doesn’t work.

Summary Points

  • A reading of the “Fall”
  • The role of emptiness in our lives
  • What keeps us from being filled with God
  • The example we have in Christ
  • A Eucharistic prayer

One way of reading the “Fall Story” from Genesis 3 is that even though we humans have so much, we always want a little bit more. Adam and Eve had everything—well, almost everything. They had an intimate relationship with God. And they had everything in the garden . . . except one tree.

This tree in the middle of the garden is a reminder of their humanity. It testifies to the truth that humans can’t have it all. If we could have it all we’d forget God. And God created us for relationship with him. So God designed us with an awareness of emptiness.

At some point we become anxious about this emptiness we feel, and from then on we have a choice to make: Will we be content with God, or try to fill the emptiness with something else?

It begins in school, I guess, where we try to fill the emptiness with academic achievement. Or if we have athletic abilities, maybe we start filling it with sports accolades. For some kids, it’s being the class clown. For others, it’s being the good child. Perhaps if we only had more friends.

The filling continues throughout our lives. We try to impress our boss or our peers. We work to make more money. Maybe we pursue experiences or develop expertise in a hobby. We seek fulfillment in a relationship. We add kids. We make sacrifices to advance our careers. We try to be more popular. If only we had more things. In retirement, we fill our time with travel and leisure activities.

But even with all this, the emptiness never goes away. It never goes away because God has built it into us. God has made it so that we live continuously with the choice be content with God or try to fill our lives.

Blaise Pascal wrote of our failed serial attempts to satisfy the emptiness. “. . . [A man] tries in vain to fill [the emptiness] with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

Centuries earlier St. Augustine summarized our condition this way: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

God has built this emptiness, this restlessness, into us. It is there like a homing device, calling us back to God. In his book Gifts of the Dark Wood, Eric Elnes evokes the image of a ball held under water. It wants to rush to the surface. That is the natural course for the ball. And it would, unless something holds it down. What’s holding us down? All the things with which we try to fill our lives.

People become acutely aware of this at Christmas. Here we are filling our lives with festivities, activities, and gifts. We may be distracted for a time—and what a welcome distraction it is! But the emptiness returns in the form of hangovers, debts, and broken gifts. The loneliness returns. We circle back to the same routines, different year.

What if we made the other choice? What if, instead of trying to fill our emptiness we chose contentment with God? What if, instead of avoiding the emptiness we embraced it? Instead of using fillers to try to be something we aren’t, what if we let God mold us into the image he has of us?

If we did that, if we chose contentment with God in our emptiness instead of trying to fill our emptiness, we’d probably look more and more like Christ.

Philippians tells us that God exalted Jesus on the basis of Jesus’ obedience. Some say he is exalted on the basis of his crucifixion, that the crucifixion of Christ is absolutely unique and merits God’s exaltation on that basis. But really it is the obedience of Christ that is unique. Jesus was faithful throughout his life, all the way “to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Lifelong faithful obedience is the unique characteristic of Jesus’ life.

His death wasn’t unique. We are all going to die. Graciously only a tiny minority of people meet death as Jesus did—a painful execution following torture. But all of us die. All of us reach that same point of death.

Just like God designed us with emptiness, so God designed us to die—and for the same reason: To reveal our dependence on God. At the end of our lives death makes us all obedient. No one can disobey death though some of us try and needlessly suffer a great deal more.

Death ends all our efforts to be filled with anything but God. Death empties us of everything. Death makes it possible for us to be filled with God. Death makes it possible for us to be filled with everlasting life.

The difference between Jesus’ death and ours, beyond the torture and execution, is that he was obedient before death and up the point of death. And then “God highly exalted him above every name that can be named.”

Paul understands this to be our destiny in Christ. Because in Christ we die, so also we shall be exalted with him. That’s the message of baptism. (see Romans 6) And while death will bring this for all of us, ending our disobedience that we may be exalted with Christ, we don’t have to wait to be obedient. We can follow Christ now, in this life, by taking his same attitude, Paul says, by being humble.

This is the good news of Christianity. It became obvious at the Resurrection but was already embedded in Christ’s life, beginning with this birth. He had humble origins: Conceived in ignominy, born to peasants, delivered in a stable, placed in a manger. In humility God came to us in Christ, seeking to find that which was lost. Thus Jesus lived according to what he taught: Those who exalt themselves will be humbled; those who humble themselves will be exalted.

God has created us with an emptiness, and desires to fill it in relationship with us. Each life takes a different shape. The shape of my life is different from yours. The shape of Jesus’ life was different from ours. But each of us can take whatever shape God has given our lives and let God fill the empty places. Though the shapes of our lives are different, the method of being filled with God is the same for us as it was for Jesus. It is humility. It is faithfulness. It is obedience to God’s calling. And if we follow Jesus’ example God will use us as he used Jesus to bring light to the dark wood.

This Christmas as Christ comes to look for us again, may he find in us a welcome place, an empty place, as we let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus.

A Eucharistic prayer:

We give you thanks and praise, Almighty God, with your Son and our Savior Jesus Christ. Inspired by his faithfulness, we come in humility, obedient to his command to “take, eat, drink, and remember.” We do remember his teaching and his life, his obedience to the point of death, and how you exalted him above every name. At this table we exalt him above every name that can be named: above the names of politicians and sports teams, above the names of our favorite stores and what they sell, above the names of demons like shame, prejudice, despair, and selfish ambition. As we lift the bread and cup, we exalt his name, we give you thanks, and we pray for the Holy Spirit to conform us more and more to the image of Christ in which you created us, for which you redeemed us, and to which you are calling us. All this we pray in his holy and exalted name. Amen.

12.10.17 Feeling Lost at Christmas 1 Samuel 3.1-18 Sermon Summary

Before we can see the light of dawn, we have to accept the darkness of night—sometimes that’s pretty easy.

Summary Points

  • The dark wood metaphor in Samuel’s day and ours
  • The hope of light
  • How God’s call is ordinary but steadfast, and why
  • What happens when we hear God’s call

In his book Gifts of the Dark Wood, Eric Elnes says that before we can find ourselves we have to experience being lost. Or in the metaphor of the dark wood, to experience the hope of light we have to accept the darkness.

The dark wood is a metaphor of our spiritual lives. It’s the moment when trusted spiritual landmarks are no longer available, when our surroundings are no longer familiar. It can lead to confusion or doubt. It’s a basic feeling of being lost.

There’s a lot of darkness in today’s Bible passage. Eli the priest’s eyesight has begun to grow dim so that he cannot see. It is nighttime, so it’s dark for his apprentice Samuel also. Eli’s sons, also priests, have been unfaithful, treating God, ritual, and the people with contempt. They have brought darkness over the whole nation.

Many of us feel such darkness this Christmas. Deep inside we know that the holiday lights, parties, and gifts may distract us, but they can’t chase this darkness away. Our world is led by people like Eli and his sons. They say they pray, and certainly others pray for them, and they bless their nations in God’s name. But they do not listen for God’s Word. Like Eli’s sons they blaspheme God, and like Eli no one restrains them.

We have lost our way. And if we hope to be found again we need the light of God’s Word. In the story of Samuel’s calling we are told the light of the Lord had not yet gone out. It is night, but dawn is coming. It is dark, but light is about to arrive. In the lines of the narrative, “the Word of the Lord is about to be revealed.”

Samuel had a front row seat to the corruption of Eli’s priesthood. But he also had a front row seat to the presence of God. He sleeps in the Temple with the ark of God. When God comes and calls to him, Samuel doesn’t recognize it right away.

God’s call comes ambiguously, which means we can miss it. We can confuse it with something else. Samuel thought it was Eli calling. That’s how close God’s voice is to other things.

God’s call comes to us through the ordinary—like through the pages of a book, or water in a bowl, or bread and cup on a table, or imperfect ministers like Eli and I. We may have heavenly hopes, but God comes to us in earthly ways. The reason God’s calling isn’t obvious is so that we have to listen, so that we have to question, so that we have to choose.

God requires this of us because God respects our freedom to doubt and to question. God wants our partnership, so instead of intervening with miracles, God influences through people, through building relationships. This is how the world is transformed.

This was the point of Jesus’ temptations. Jesus trusted God’s presence, not God’s miracles. And by his trust he saved the world.

God was about to change the world through a relationship with Samuel. He is young and just an apprentice, but God calls him anyway. He does not yet know the Lord, the narrative tells us, but God calls him anyway. Samuel is confused and full of questions, but God does not stop calling him—once, twice, as many times as it takes.

Nothing gets in the way of God’s call—unless we are not listening. But even then God continues to call. If we want to hear it, we have just to start listening. We have to acknowledge the darkness but realize the light of the Lord has not gone out. We have to sit with the silence and listen for God’s call.

When we begin to sense God’s call, it’s helpful to verify with others, as Samuel did, even if they are imperfect like Eli. And then we have to speak the truth, as Samuel did, and live according to it, even if it leads to hard times.

Samuel faced hard times. Eli and his sons die. The Philistines capture the ark of the LORD. Samuel then leads the people for a season. His own sons become corrupt, just like Eli’s. He anoints Saul as the first king of Israel, whose reign then fails. Finally Samuel anoints David, the great king, and the ancestor of Jesus, God’s Savior of the world.

All the while, through the darkness, confusion, and doubt of being lost, Samuel listened for God’s Word and followed.

This week our Jewish siblings begin to light the Hanukkah candles. At the same time we are anticipating the Christ candle on Christmas Eve. Things may appear dark now—in our lives, in our nation, and in our world. But the light of God is coming. And if we embrace these feelings of being lost, listen for and follow God’s calling, we will be found in the light of Hanukkah and Christmas. Amen.

12.03.17 Where Will We be this Christmas Luke 14.7-14 Sermon Summary

Being in a place of honor is something special. Jesus’ parable invites us to appreciate it even more.

Summary Points

  • Sitting in honored places and a spiritual truth
  • The guests at our table who matters most

I’ve enjoyed a number of “honored places,” some I’ve worked hard to earn and others I was surprised to receive. There’s satisfaction in both. Sitting around the table at the North American Academy of Liturgy with scholars whose books I read in graduate school is an honored place I have earned. Getting bumped up into first class with the comfort and amenities is an honored place that comes as a surprise.

Sitting in a place of honor can go to your head, which is why Jesus tells the parable of the banquet. Probably few of us have this exact situation where we receive formal invitations and have formal seating arrangements. But Jesus’ parable is practical advice for the spiritual life nonetheless. It’s a matter of attitude, and the enduring rule is that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

According to another passage of scripture, we humble ourselves by “associating with the lowly” (Romans 12:16). This is something we experience now. But the exaltation may be delayed, according to Jesus, even as long as the “resurrection of the righteous.” This is helpful to remember when we don’t see the humble exalted in this life, and especially when we don’t see the self-aggrandizers humbled!

Jesus’ parable has practical application in a metaphorical sense also. Each of us sits at the tables of our lives surrounded by many guests. We are the host.

Some of those guests include:

  • peers from work, school, or our interest groups
  • superiors like our boss or teacher
  • parents or siblings
  • voices from the past, whether deceased or just present as influential memories
  • celebrities or other people we admire
  • leaders whether political or just charismatic
  • advertisers, especially this time of year, who are always clamoring for our attention

These guests sit around us according to our pleasure. They are the honored guests. We listen to them.

But also always at our table is the Holy Spirit. We may experience the Spirit as conscience, or maybe wisdom, perhaps some kind of personal impression.

It is in this context that we conduct our lives, with all these voices gathered around us. Here we talk about our life. Eric Elnes points out that normally the Holy Spirit has the softest voice and assumes the lowest place at this table, and the Spirit waits to be invited by us to the honored place.

To do that, like the host in the parable, we have to say to one of the honored guests, “I’m giving the Holy Spirit your place.” One of those louder voices has to be demoted to make room for the Holy Spirit. I can tell you that this is the essence of prayer—quieting other voices and promoting the Spirit’s presence in your life.

A family in our congregation has visited a “Sensory Sensitive Santa” event. Because their children have special needs, they require fewer lights, less noise, and a calmer environment if they are to be able to talk and relate to Santa.

When I was preparing recitals as an undergraduate, my piano professor told me to “listening to the house” while on stage. I had to quiet the obvious voice of the piano right in front of me and my intentions and instead hear the music from the audience’s space. Then I could adjust to what I was hearing and improve my performance.

These are examples of what Elnes is talking about, of re-arranging our lives in order to call upon the Holy Spirit to take the honored seat.

Recently someone told me of their decision to retire. It follows a long season of prayer. It was an easier decision, he said, once he recognized the role his profession has had—it is not one’s identity, but a calling. And now the calling is to retirement.

This is helpful to remember in the dark wood, that place of spiritual ambiguity where we don’t know who we are and the voices around our table aren’t helpful. Psalm 23 says God prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies. If there, then certainly in the dark wood also. Sometimes the dark wood actually feels hostile. But at that table is the Holy Spirit—quiet and unassuming, waiting to be called upon, waiting for a conversation to help us reorient and redirect our lives.

There are so many voices this time of year in the run up to Christmas and as the New Year approaches. It’s easy to get disoriented. This sermon series has ended up being about reorientation. I didn’t intend it to take this direction, but it has. You might revisit the messages from November 12 and November 26 for other ways to do what I’m talking about here also: To quiet other voices, call upon the Spirit, and listen.

But here is something else also. Instead of just quieting other voices and calling upon the Spirit to move to the place of honor, what about moving our chair? We’re the host, after all, and we determine where the honored places are by the place we sit.

Maybe the Spirit has it right. Maybe in the lives of God’s children the Spirit is actually the host and the honored place is among the lowly. Maybe if we moved lower, joining the Spirit among “the poor, crippled, lame, and blind,” we’d discover that we’re the honored guest at God’s table, and from there our lives would look much different. There and then, maybe the dark wood wouldn’t seem so dark.

May God find us there this Christmas. Amen.

11.26.17 Being Led by the Spirit Job 37:1-5 Sermon Summary

Embedded in an easily overlooked passage of the Bible is one of the most profound theological insights I’ve found in a while.

Summary Points

  • The message of Job and his three friends
  • The surprising insight of Elihu
  • Reasons we miss God’s speaking to us
  • An application to the giving of gifts at Christmas

Many people know the basic outline of the book of Job. We are introduced to a man who has everything, but then has it all taken away—his wealth, his family, finally his health. Then he’s visited by three friends whose attempts to cajole him into confessing his sin fail. Then God shows up at the end and passes judgment on everyone.

Job’s three friends talk about God in terms of rewards and punishments. Their God supervises a mechanistic universe where sin is punished and obedience is blessed. For some, this perspective on God brings comfort. The justice of it is certain. People get what they deserve. If they suffer, it is the result of their choices.

The problem with this perspective is that God may as well not exist. But God does exist, and he shows up in Job 38-41 when God finally answers from a whirlwind. God opens his defense by booming out, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” And for the next four chapters God says to Job, “You’re complaining without the full picture.” And he says to Job’s friends, “You’re explaining without the full picture.”

What most people haven’t notice, and I was one of them, is that a fourth speaker enters the stage just before God speaks at the end. His name is Elihu, which means “He is my God.” We learn he’s a younger person who has been listening with deference to Job and his three friends. He criticizes them all (but also affirms the perspective of the three friends).

The presence of Elihu is a literary set-up to God’s speech (other narratives from the time follow the same formula: Three speeches, a fourth by a newcomer, and a final). The major point of his speech is to urge everyone to listen for God’s voice. But embedded in his speech is a jewel I’ve never noticed before.

Part of Elihu’s argument is that neither our righteousness nor our sin is all that important to God. He says to Job, “Your righteousness doesn’t impress God,” and to his friends, “Our sin doesn’t hurt God.” Consider these words from Job 35:1-9: “Look at the heavens and see; observe the clouds, which are higher than you. If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against God? If you are righteous, what do you give to him? Your wickedness affects others like you, and your righteousness, other human beings.”

Elihu goes on to say that what actually concerns God is the consequences of our sins upon others. This is what God cares about. This is why when victims cry out to God, God hears it. What about the cries of Job and his friends? Elihu says, “Job opens his mouth in empty talk, he multiplies words without knowledge.” Sound familiar?

The profound theological insight is that God cares more about the impact of our sins, than that we commit them. This is why apologies without repentance and restitution ring hollow—(just ask any of the #metoo victims).

Elihu’s insight corrects the perspective of Job and his three friends. He proves that God isn’t mechanistic. God cares about victims of sin and tries to communicate to us. Because this is true, Elihu urges us to listen.

Why do we miss it? Why don’t we recognize it when God speaks to us? One reason is that like Job and his friends, we’re too preoccupied with rewards and punishments, with our own righteousness (or not) or with the sins of others.

Another reason is that we simply don’t recognize God’s voice. When the Bible refers to God’s speech, it’s often in the contexts of lightning and thunder, burning bushes, earthquakes, clouds that roll back, trumpet blasts, solar eclipses, torrential rains, and the like. This sets up the expectation that this is how God will speak to us. That’s what we expect, and when it doesn’t happen, we conclude God isn’t talking to us.

Elihu uses one of the most popular of these images, that of lightning and thunder. Remember Saturday morning cartoons, when a character got an idea? A lightbulb appeared over his head. Today we still refer to good ideas as “bright ideas.” It’s the same thing with lightening in the Bible.

We don’t recognize God’s voice because we make the same mistake fundamentalists and atheists do: We take the Bible too literally. We shouldn’t expect lightning and thunder, but we can expect God to speak to us. The correct interpretation of these passages is not literal, but figurative. Lightning and thunder are metaphors referring to flashes of insight followed by rumblings of affirmations.

The Bible uses extraordinary but natural occurrences to depict God’s speaking to us. It’s a clue to pay attention to the natural events in our lives, for God may be speaking to us through them. It may come as an impression, or a comment someone makes, or an observation we make that others miss, or in conversation with trusted friends. And it can happen in nature. If we’re open to it, we’ll discover God speaks to us all the time.

This is important to remember when we’ve found ourselves in the dark wood, another metaphor from nature, that spiritual place where we feel lost or alone, perhaps confused and afraid. Some of us intentionally enter the dark wood, hoping to hear God’s voice away from everyday distractions. In either case, a lightening flash of insight truly inspired by God will be followed by rumbling affirmations of thunder—but only if we interpret the Bible metaphorically.

Besides fundamentalists and atheists, there’s another group that takes the Bible literally, and it’s especially important to know this at Christmas. It’s advertisers. They have taken the lightning and thunder images and transferred them to the bright lights and loud noises of ads, all designed to make you think it’s God’s will for you to have their products. “You need this! Your kids need this! Your spouse needs this!”

As a more faithful way to give gifts this Christmas, consider listening for God to guide you to someone’s needs, not with lightning and thunder, but with discernment. Pray you will be sensitive to what God wants in someone else’s life. And don’t underestimate that you may have a unique insight based on your relationship with someone. Such a gift is most truly a gift because it is a gift of your self and arises from your relationship.

And after all, this is how God gives to us at Christmas. God does not offer a general salvation to the world, but one that is characterized by individual redemption. The whole world may be saved, but each of us experiences it fully in our own unique way as God leads us throughout our lives. But this is true for us only if we will listen for God’s voice in the dark wood and follow.

11.19.17 Born Again with Christ Luke 1 Selections Sermon Summary

Waiting for Christmas can make us feel a little like Zechariah and Elizabeth. We can feel old, or like our lives don’t really matter, or that there isn’t any future. Thanks be to God there is a light to shine in these dark woods.

Summary Points

  • How God’s promise originated, evolved, and was fulfilled
  • How the fulfillment of God’s promise gives us new birth
  • How we continue to grow in the spiritual life

The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth parallels the Older Testament story of Abraham and Sarah. Both are a couple past child-bearing years who yet miraculously conceive. Isaac was the child of Abraham and Sarah. He was the fulfillment of a promise—that they would be blessed. But he is also the first installment of a wider promise—that the whole world would be blessed through him.

Generations later David was born. He was a blessing to the nation of Israel, but not yet a blessing for the whole world. Generations later again, Jesus is born. He was a blessing not just to Israel, but to the nations. Finally, the promise of such a blessing was being fulfilled.

In the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the gospel writer Luke reminds us of this widening promise and fulfilment. The perfect fulfillment of God’s promise arrives with Christ.

But in the meantime, God’s promised blessing had evolved. It took on variety of forms, and Zechariah summarizes some of these forms in his prophecy. He speaks of grace: “God has looked favorably upon us.” And he speaks of deliverance: “God has redeemed us.” And he speaks of salvation: “God has raised up a mighty savior.” And he also speaks of the dark wood: “Dawn from on high has broken upon us; light has shone on those living in darkness.”

The dark wood is the spiritual wilderness where we feel lost, abandoned, and forgotten. It is the awareness of the promises God has left UNfulfilled. It can lead us to disorientation and doubt. But there, according to Zechariah, the light has shone. God’s promises are renewed in the coming of Jesus Christ.

Zechariah speaks of this promise in yet another phrase: We will “worship God without fear in holiness and righteousness before him.” Zechariah would have known. He was a professional priest from a family of priests. Even his wife came from a family of priests.

Zechariah knew a lot about worship. He had done it his whole life—except he served God WITH fear because he was WITHOUT holiness and righteousness. But with the fulfillment of God’s promise, he discovered that we can serve God WITHOUT fear, and rather WITH holiness and righteousness.

Zechariah’s fear, shame, and insecurity were overcome, light was dawning in the dark wood. His prayers were being answered—not just in the birth of John his son, but especially in the birth of Jesus.

In these births Zechariah’s faith was being restored. In these births Zechariah was being born again. But before Zechariah could talk about this, before he could see the light fully, before he could experience the new life of rebirth, he had to “disappear” as Eric Elnes describes it. Zechariah was struck mute. He was reduced to merely an observer.

The angel told Zechariah his baby’s name would be Jonathan, which means “God has given.” So for over nine months, the observing mute Zechariah could only receive. And that’s the point of Christmas. Salvation comes as a gift. We can only receive it. Unfortunately, we can get so caught up in giving that we forget to receive.

As John the Baptist grew up he learned from his father. He knew where to find light in the dark wood. He learned how to recognize God’s grace, deliverance, and salvation. So when John saw Jesus as an adult on the banks of the Jordan River, he proclaimed, “Christ must increase, and I must decrease.”

And this is what baptism means. It is to be born again in Christ. It is to live more for Christ and less for ourselves. When a child is baptized, when an adult reaffirms those promises, when we serve the church and the world with the gifts of the Spirit we receive in baptism, we progress in this spiritual transformation.

These moments all arise from the message of John the Baptist, that for Christ to increase we must decrease. For the light of life to shine, our egos have to enter the shadow of death. To receive the promise of Christmas, we have to silence ourselves in Advent.

This season, may we all reflect upon the promise of God fulfilled in Christ and testified to by Zechariah, by John, and by the waters of baptism. May we all be born again with Christ this Christmas.

11.12.17 From Good to True Luke 4:1-13 Sermon Summary

From Adam to Jesus, one of the quickest ways to enter the spiritual dark wood is through temptation.

Summary Points

  • The dark wood of temptation from the first and second Adam to us
  • Jesus’ temptation to do good
  • How God calls us not just to the good, but to the true
  • Four practices for discerning our true calling
  • The role of trust
  • A true Christmas

The dark wood is a place of spiritual disorientation and doubt. It’s been part of the human experience from the beginning. Way back in the Garden of Eden, the First Adam (as Paul refers to him) found himself in the dark wood through temptation. He wasn’t allowed to eat from the tree right in the middle of the garden. Temptation was also the way the Second Adam Jesus entered the dark wood. Just so we don’t miss the point, Luke refers to both of them as the “son of God.” So now the question falls to us—the rest of God’s children: How will we navigate the dark wood?

Last week we considered how sin can land us in the dark wood, not just the sin of wayward decisions but even more, sin as the power of estrangement. Today we consider how temptation can land us in the dark wood, not the temptation to do bad, but rather the temptation to do good.

Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee to the North came south on the Jordan to be baptized. He was about thirty years old. Following his baptism Jesus was tempted to turn bread to stone, gain power over the political realm, and demonstrate God’s power through miracles.

There’s nothing bad about these activities. He did all of them eventually. The temptation was to do them at the wrong time and in the wrong context. While they are good things, they were not true things. We’re called to do good things, but we’re also called to be true. The key is in the decision making process.

We have many criteria for making good decisions. For example: expediency, what’s the fastest solution; finances, how can I save or make money; stability, how can I limit uncertainty; the obvious or easy, what’s right in front of me; comfort, how do I avoid unpleasantness; service, how can I help others? All of these criteria can help us make good decisions.

Jesus could have done what Devil tempted him to do. A lot of good would have resulted. People would have been fed. Politics could be purged of corruption. More people would trust God. There’s no doubt these are good ends, but God calls us not just to good ends, but to reach them by true means. Jesus had to be true to his calling. It was to trust God, not to follow the Devil, especially not through temptations to do good.

True callings are personal, conditional, and provisional. They share concern for the good, but are still unique to each person. True callings can’t be calculated or taught or told. They have to be discerned. We have to work them out for ourselves—not necessarily BY ourselves, but FOR ourselves.

Finding our true calling is assisted by four practices: Time, Reflection, Prayer, and Patience. Consider the example of Jesus. He took time—forty days in the wilderness (which is another name for the dark wood). As the story is told, the “Three Temptations” came at the end of those forty days, but it is implied that the Devil was tempting him the entire time.

We also need time. We have to make time, then take time. I don’t know anyone who can take forty days, or retreat into the desert. But I suspect many of us could benefit from making time for a forty minute walk.

During the time he had taken, Jesus surely practiced Reflection. Luke tells us he was thirty years old. Jesus had lived some life, practiced some religion, made some friends, and figured some things out about himself. God’s leading in our lives becomes clear in reflection because it is so often reflected. More often than not, God leads us not directly but indirectly.

Reflection includes asking such questions as, What brings me joy? What are my heart’s desires? In my past, when was I most happy and felt I had a purpose? What do others say about me? Through times of reflection, God’s vision for us becomes clearer to us.

The third practice arises naturally out of the first two. Time spent in reflection leads to Prayer. Certainly Jesus spoke to God in the dark wood. But he also certainly listened. It’s much easier to listen in prayer during time away. I imagine Jesus out there praying in the desert, which must have included observing nature—sand storms, the movements of stars, the scuffling of desert life. He must have walked around. He probably drew in the sand or journaled some thoughts there. Clearly he prayed through the Bible as that was how he answered the Devil’s temptations.

The more time we spend in reflection, the easier these non-conventional ways of praying will be for us. And the more beneficial they will be towards discerning our true calling.

The fourth practice brings us full circle back to time. After we make time and take time, we have to give it time—we have to have Patience. The “Three Temptations” don’t end the story. The Devil departs from Jesus “until an opportune time.” Jesus was subject to temptation his whole life. He didn’t overcome the Devil’s temptations once for all. Like the rest of us, Jesus had to wait to see the realization of his true calling.

In many ways, Jesus is still waiting. He is still waiting to see all people fed. He’s waiting for politics to be purged of corruption. He is still waiting for all people to trust God.

For me, this is the biggest challenge: Trust. I have to remember that if I resist a temptation to do good, the good will still get done. I may not be a part of it, but God will get the good done. I have to trust that if I discern my good and true service, God will lead others to theirs. I’ll be out of the way, not trying to do all the good myself. God has given each of us gifts and opportunities to do good and to fulfill our true calling. I have to trust that the practices of Time, Reflection, Prayer, and Patience will work their way through all of our lives and lead to the good God envisions for everyone.

To conclude, a thought about Christmas. I heard recently of someone who is already anxious about the debt he will incur purchasing gifts for others this Christmas. He knows from experience that he won’t pay off this debt till this time next year when it starts all over again.

This is a common temptation. How often is the truth of Christmas sacrificed for the goods of Christmas? The truth of Christmas is that upon those who live in the land of darkness, God’s light has come in Christ. For this person and many of us, we have been tempted away from the truth of Christmas by the goods of Christmas. We don’t see the light of Christ shining in our dark wood. This Christmas, and throughout our lives, may we welcome and walk in the light. May we follow Jesus from the good to the true this Christmas.