Sunday’s Sermon Today (DNBA – Advent 3): The Other Important Yes (Matthew 1:18-25)

This is the third sermon in the DNBA Advent series.

Every year during Advent, I find myself wishing we could unlock the personal journal of Joseph. Not the coat-of-many-colors guy, but the one who became the earthly father of Jesus.

Joseph intrigues me because he was a man who became a father – a man who potentially had the same questions about fatherhood I did but going into his marriage, he knew his wife would have a kid who wasn’t his! Let’s be honest – if you’ve had a child, and you have no apprehensions about being a dad or a mum, well, let’s just say I won’t hook you up to a lie detector.

Joseph has to deal with the ‘normal’ concerns – like how will he provide, what will change about his schedule, can he really get to know his wife while waking up at 2 a.m. to change a diaper … and what will the world his son grow up in look like, thanks to Roman oppression?

Some of these questions we might relate to – and some we might not. Just like the set up between Mary and Joseph.

See, Joseph and Mary are not married yet but they are contractually joined. They don’t live in the same house, they aren’t joined together yet, but they might as well be married.

Matthew tells us that Mary was “found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” We don’t know exactly how, but the news got to Joseph somehow, the way that spectacular (or dangerous!) gossip travels through small towns. So, Joseph found out.

Think about that for a minute – on top of Jesus not being Joseph’s, it wasn’t even Mary he told him!

But it says that Joseph was “faithful to the law,” that is, he obeyed the Ten Commandments, he followed the rules. By law, Joseph could’ve exposed Mary’s pregnancy, and she would’ve been stoned in the streets per the laws of the Old Testament.

But it says that Joseph “did not want to expose her to public grace,” and intended to quietly divorce her. While everyone else seems to be abuzz about her pregnancy, Joseph uses his own soul, his own innate goodness, to absorb the criticism for Mary. He doesn’t yet understand what is going on but he still wants what is best for Mary. Joseph puts Mary first.

What is going through Joseph’s mind?

I can’t imagine having been in Joseph’s situation. You are about to get married, and suddenly, the gossip around town is that your fiancee is having someone else’s baby. And it’s your fiancee by an arranged marriage, so it’s not like you and this woman can just fall back on your longstanding courtship, or your mutual admiration for each other. No, this stranger you are supposed to love and cherish as your very own appears to have betrayed your trust, your contract.

And the letter of the law says that Mary has to die because it’s what your society does, and frankly, it’s the only way for you to save face.

But on top of that, Mary, you’ve heard, has told her closest friends that God appeared to her, and that the baby is actually God’s, and that he will be the Messiah who will save his people from their sins.

Seriously, where does she get the idea that spinning that wild tale makes it better?

Still, you’re a classy guy. You follow the law, but you were raised in a home that emphasized grace. You know what you can do, but you don’t want to live with the truth that you condemned a woman to death. So you decide to tell her father that the wedding is off, and move on with your life, even if that brings you more ridicule, even if you never get engaged again. Because that’s the kind of guy you are.

But, and it’s a big but, Matthew 1:20 says that when Joseph had considered all of these things, that an angel of the Lord also appeared to him. The angel quickly connects the dots: Joseph is called “son of David,” highlighting the historical line from Israel’s highest king to the king who was to come. He tells Joseph “don’t be afraid,” which seems to potentially care a different type of weight to it here, like “don’t be offended.” And he tells Joseph, as Zechariah was told, what they will name their baby, breaking the historical pattern of a father choosing the name. (Or actually letting the Father choose the name…)

And the angel tells Joseph that he (Joseph) carries a higher purpose: he will now raise up a young man who will “save [God’s] people from their sins.” No pressure, right? Joseph just went from a “what was Mary thinking?” moment to a “what was God thinking?” moment. And the author of Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Which the God-fearing, rule-abiding, Old Testament-literate Joseph would have known.

For Joseph to be the kind of guy who knew what should happen to Mary and be the kind of guy who chose not to fulfill the letter of the law, Joseph was just the kind of man God wanted teaching his/His son Jesus what it meant to be human. What it meant to be a man.

Joseph could have been afraid of how things might look or what people might say, but he chose to trust God. 

Because when Joseph woke up from his dream, he did what God had told him to, implying that he immediately went and claimed Mary. That he immediately went and took responsibility from her parents for caring for her. That he did not consummate their marriage, but that from a public perception situation, he claimed her as his wife. No more gossip. No more rumors. End of story.

I wonder if God would find us to be “that kind of guy” or “that kind of gal” who would answer the call. We still have “what was God thinking?” kinds of moments, right? But do we respond the way that Joseph did? Are we obedient?

I recently asked my Facebook world to answer the question, “what rule or law do you have the most trouble following?” The answers ranged from forgiveness to abstinence to the speed limit. My best friend from high school highlighted the rule that governed the “Holy Lawn” outside of the school’s Catholic church that stated we must not walk on the grass. But most of the responses centered around forgiveness and “loving one another.”

For me, as I explore Advent, I recognize that there’s no Nativity Scene without Joseph. That there’s no holy family without Joseph saying yes, too, that Jesus couldn’t have been raised by a single mother in those days, and that while Mary did the heavy lifting (and she was obedient, too!), that Mary and Jesus needed Joseph to be “that kind of guy.”

Joseph was the man. He was the husband Mary needed, the father Jesus needed. He was faithful to the laws God had given his people, but he understood that grace overrode the letter of the law. He chose, even before the angel, to put his own desire and his own status and reputation below Mary’s; he chose to take the brunt of the community’s gossip on himself by claiming Mary obediently after the message from the angel.

So, after we’ve recognized that God is speaking to us, we must choose whether or not we will obey. Whether we will obey the Ten Commandments, like the one that instructs us to only worship God and nothing else before him; whether we will obey the greatest commandment to “love the Lord our God and love our neighbor as ourselves”; whether we will follow the instruction of Jesus based on both his teaching and his self-sacrificial example, to “lay our lives down for our friends.”

That would make us “that kind of person.”

From hearing or experiencing, to obeying. Somehow, this seems tougher, doesn’t it?

If we struggle to keep our speed under control on the road, how can we change our deeper psyche, our deeper love of self and instead put others first?

Will you obey this year? Will you hear the voices of the angels speaking to you… and be the angel this year for someone else? Will you recognize that what seems crazy to you is beautiful to God, that God continues to move?

It doesn’t matter what you think you have. Someone else has less. Less confidence, less faith, less time, less money. How will you obey God’s command to love, to give, to be like a brother or a sister to someone in need?

I wonder what Joseph was thinking. Michael Card put it this way in “Joseph’s Song”:

How could it be this baby in my arms
Sleeping now, so peacefully
The Son of God, the angel said
How could it be?

Lord, I know He’s not my own
Not of my flesh, not of my bone
Still Father let this baby be
The son of my love

Father show me where I fit into this plan of yours
How can a man be father to the Son of God
Lord for all my life I’ve been a simple carpenter
How can I raise a king, how can I raise a king?

He looks so small, His face and hands so fair
And when He cries the sun just seems to disappear
But when He laughs it shines again
How could it be?

Father show me where I fit into this plan of yours
How can a man be father to the Son of God
Lord for all my life I’ve been a simple carpenter
How can I raise a king, how can I raise a king?

How could it be this baby in my arms
Sleeping now, so peacefully
The Son of God, the angel said
How could it be? How could it be?

Joseph knew Jesus wasn’t his son, but he still was. God knew what Jesus needed to be when he grew up, and he knew that Joseph was the kind of person who could teach Jesus how to be a man.

Sounds mysterious, ridiculous, and otherworldly. With God, it often is.

How will you be “that kind of person”… right now?

Step up – follow Jesus unabashedly. Say yes. Do not be afraid. 

Posted in Current Events, Pop Culture, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sunday’s Sermon Today (DNBA- Advent 2): God Chooses You (Luke 1:26-37)

This is the second sermon in the DNBA Advent series.

It’s often assumed that I’m a technophile. Based on my age, and the fact that I use a lot of technology compared to many of the people who know me, most people assume that I have this compulsion to explore and understand every new thing that comes across the wire instantaneously. But consider these arguments to the contrary:

-One of my college students set up a Facebook account for me, and I let it sit vacant for eighteen months before I ever logged in.

-My mother-in-law bought me a Kindle for Christmas, knowing how much I loved reading, and I didn’t take it out of the box for…three months.

Fastforward several years, and those two pieces of technology are necessities I can’t live, or don’t want to live, without. But I couldn’t see their benefits because I wasn’t willing to receive them. They were, to coin an Ebay phrase, “new in box.”

Never opened. Never explored. Never received.

How many of us live lives of faith that are potentially “new in box”? How many of us check out the shiny paper, appreciate the bow, even pick it up and shake it like a cat pawing at the shiny thing, and never unwrap it and open it up?

Or, consider it this way: what if when the angel had shown up with this news for Mary, that she had said “no?”

What if when the angel had shown up with the news that she was about to be impregnated by the Holy Spirit, Mary had said, “Um, no thanks. Maybe someone else with more experience, or more knowledge of the Scripture, or someone older, or someone younger, or someone from that family, will do it”?

What if Jesus hadn’t been born in Bethlehem? What if God had met resistance in the first dozen virgins he contacted, and decided that maybe it wasn’t worth it to send his son to die for a bunch of people hung up on -isms, and -phobias, and themselves?

What if Jesus hadn’t come at all?

What if Mary had chosen not to unwrap the gift? What if she had not been receptive to the angel of God, Gabriel, who showed up to speak this gift into her life?

The truth is, we don’t have to play the what if game for long. Mary said yes.

Mary, a teenage virgin engaged to a significantly older man named Joseph, who was descended from David (a man after God’s own heart), said “yes.”

Now, to be fair, it says that when the angel named Gabriel – which means “hero of God” -appeared, the angel called her “highly favored,” or “full of grace,” both from the same Greek word which means “grace.” Words – and names matter here – because they show how one woman could so exemplify those things which we know God is all about. This word for grace in the Greek is used seventy-seven times in the New Testament, not least of when grace describes the heart of Mary.

Mary was full of grace but that didn’t mean she saw this coming. 

Mary -or the Theotokos or “God bearer” – was “greatly troubled” and wondered why he’d talk to her that way. The Message translation says that the angel called her “beautiful with God’s beauty, beautiful inside and out!” The angel again urges Mary onward, saying, “Do not be afraid.”

Beautiful inside and out. God knew Mary. He knew her in a way that meant his angel recognized she wasn’t just a “pretty face,” but that she was a woman after God’s own heart. She was faithful, she was true to herself, she was the kind of woman that God wanted raising his son on Earth. Mary could have been afraid that she couldn’t be used by God. But she chose trust.

We know a little bit about what Mary was like because she questioned why the angel would address her that way! She responded humbly, showing her courage under fire. But, it says, the angel proceeds to lay out that she will give birth to a son named Jesus, who will be great, and who will ascend to a throne, ruling a kingdom that will never end. The Message takes it a step further and says that God has a “surprise” for her. [SURRRRR-PRISE!]

In the movie, Harvey, the character Elwood Dowd tells the story: “I started to walk down the street when I heard a voice saying: ‘Good evening, Mr. Dowd.’ I turned, and there was this big white rabbit leaning against a lamp-post. Well, I thought nothing of that, because when you’ve lived in a town as long as I’ve lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everybody knows your name.” Mary has that kind of reaction to what the angel has just said!

Mary doesn’t ask about being descended from David (she would’ve known her family line didn’t work that way); she didn’t ask about a kingdom that would never end. Both of them would’ve been about the end result, the glory and the honor.

No, commonsense-filled Mary, humble yet brave Mary, asked: “How can that happen because I’m a virgin?” Mary is engaged in faithfulness through her heart, her soul, AND her mind. She’s not doubting that God can make it so, but she wants to understand what’s going on underneath the hood. She wants to know.

In one of the few times in the narrative that a person asks a question of an angel and no sarcasm or rebuke is given, Gabriel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and that she will immaculately conceive. And Gabriel tells her that she can check with her much older cousin Elizabeth who (surprise, again!) the angel reveals is pregnant herself.

And the angel closes with potentially the most powerful of pep talks: “For no word from God will ever fail” or “nothing is impossible with God.”

Mary is satisfied, and says, “I am God’s servant, may it be so.”

Every year we look at this Scripture, and I find myself in awe. Sure, I’m in awe of the power and miraculous way that God moves. But I’m in awe of a kid, a young girl, a teenager, and her willingness to receive from God what was the greatest gift and the biggest responsibility.

Seriously, at about thirteen or fourteen years old, Mary agreed to be Jesus’ mom! She said YES! Mary was willing to embrace the gift… even when some of us aren’t.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the young man who wanted a new car for graduation.

For many months he had admired a beautiful sports car in a dealer’s showroom, and knowing his father could well afford it, he told him that was all he wanted. As Graduation Day approached, the young man awaited signs that his father had purchased the car. Finally, on the morning of his graduation, his father called him into his private study. His father told him how proud he was to have such a fine son, and told him how much he loved him. He handed his son a beautiful wrapped gift box.

Curious, but somewhat disappointed, the young man opened the box and found a lovely, leather-bound Bible, with the young man’s name embossed in gold. Angrily, he raised his voice to his father and said, “With all your money you give me a Bible?” And stormed out of the house, leaving the Bible. Many years passed and the young man was very successful in business. He had a beautiful home and wonderful family, but realized his father was very old, and thought perhaps he should go visit him. He had not seen him since that graduation day.

Before he could make arrangements, he received a telegram telling him his father had passed away, and willed all of his possessions to his son. When he arrived at his father’s house, sudden sadness and regret filled his heart. He began to search through his father’s important papers and saw the still new Bible, just as he had left it years ago. With tears, he opened the Bible and began to turn the pages. His father had carefully underlined a verse, As he read those words, a car key dropped from the back of the Bible. It had a tag with the dealer’s name, the same dealer who had the sports car he had desired. On the tag was the date of his graduation, and the words… PAID IN FULL.

Okay, so maybe that story is true or maybe it’s not. But the view is still the same, isn’t it? God wants to give us something but our arms aren’t always open to receive it. Sometimes we have too much stuff in our hands. Sometimes we’re too busy. Sometimes we can’t believe anyone would love us enough to do what God did, to give us grace for free.

I remember as a campus minister for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the University of Richmond, that we decided to have an event called “Paid in Full” (not to be confused with the movie of the same name!) We advertised, we raised funds, and for one two-hour period on a Thursday night, we paid the tabs of everyone who entered The Cellar, a non-cafeteria eating establishment on campus. We had people read poetry, play music, share their thoughts, in a way that was faith-based but not “churchy.” And we paid for everyone’s food.

But not everyone could believe it. “What’s the catch?” “But I didn’t know about it upfront.” “I’m not in FCA, or even a Christian.”

And every time, the answer was the same, “it doesn’t matter. It’s paid in full.”

We have a hard time with that, don’t we? There’s always a catch… or some fine print. But then we realize that if we receive grace like Mary did, that our world can change in an instant. That God actually has a plan for our good and our future… if we’d just open up our hearts.

(Now, the next time the pastor asks you to serve on a committee or plan VBS, think about Mary and the gift she received willingly. I’m just kidding. No, I’m not…)

But the skeptics out there say, “well, sure, she had to say that with the angel in the room. Maybe she got it later on, but I mean, she couldn’t have really been that faithful…”

Consider what some people call “The Magnificat,” from Luke 1:46-56:

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.

Mary opened the gift! She didn’t just check out the tag or explore the outside of the package. She tore it open and embraced the gift, and in the process, embraced the giver.

Mary had a heart to receive what God was offering her. And in the receiving, she became part of the giving, part of the process, part of the transformative power of God’s love in the world. Mary got “it.”

I hope that you will wrestle this week with the experience of Mary. Ask yourself how you would respond if God appeared to you and gave you a gift. Ask yourself whether you would focus on the pressure teenage Mary surely endured as an unmarried pregnant woman, or if you would be like Mary and focus on the way that God had chosen to make you part of his good news shared with all.

Take it a step further: what is God offering you today? Is God offering you the gift of salvation, the good news for all people even you who has done [ ….] that only you know and hold onto and devalue yourself for? Or is God offering you the opportunity to get off the sidelines of faith, to get in the game and to make a difference in the lives of someone else? Is God offering you the chance of a lifetime, an eternal lifetime, and are you politely accepting it but not really opening it up?

What gift is the hardest one for you to receive? Is it forgiveness? Is it membership in a family because your experience of family was so negative? Is it purpose or calling in a way that feels strange and life changing? What questions do you have about receiving the gift?

Today, or the next time you take communion by intinction, think about the way that we say that we “take communion” but that it’s really that we’re given communion. We open up our hands and the server places the bread into our palm. We’re served at Christ’s table where we receive God’s gift of the body of Christ that was given for you, and you, and you.

God gave this gift to Mary, and she chose to unwrap it and participate. To be used by God for the glory of God’s kingdom, that is present and yet to come.

At the end of my life, I hope you are surrounded by thousands of opened boxes, broken bows, and scattered scraps of wrapping paper. I hope you have lived a life that recognized it was “paid in full.”

Because it would be a real shame to leave God’s gift “new in box,” under the cross. Open it up – do not be afraid.

Posted in Current Events, Pop Culture, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Sermon Today (DNBA – Advent 1): Don’t Miss Christmas (Luke 1:5-22)

This is the first sermon in the DNBA Advent series. 

Do you ever miss the point? Maybe it’s the punchline of a joke, the purpose of a story, the content of the conversation that the other person really wants you to understand. Whatever it is, do you find yourself scratching your head, and going “wait, what just happened there?” (I’ll admit that it happens to me more often than I like.)

Too often, we’re not really celebrating Jesus’ birth as the coming Messiah who would change the world, and our future. We’re celebrating that our spouse is healthy, or that our child has returned home, or that we’ve survived another year of the grind. We haven’t gotten to a point where we can recognize what it is that God is giving us.

Maybe we’ve lived our whole lives as consumers, as “takers,” rather than givers or stewards. Maybe we’re too much like Uncle Scrooge pre-Carol, or we’re like the Grinch, and think all of the hubbub is foolish and a great time waste. Maybe we believe that Christmas and God’s purpose for us can’t really make a difference, that transformations are just stories. Maybe we’ve been worn down by the way that life works or that our family has worked, and we think Christmas is just about what we get (a BB gun) or the break from Christmas work like Christmas vacation.

Either way, Christmas can seem like an adventure in missing the point. But we’re not alone. Sometimes, we are afraid that change is unexpected or might actually affect us and we miss the point.

In our scripture today, the aged priest Zechariah is taking his turn in the temple. Now, we should note a few things about Zechariah and the world he lived in. First, the Jews are predominantly able to settle their own accounts politically and religiously, but they are currently under the rule of the Romans, who have appointed Herod the Great to rule Judea. These are an oppressed people.

Second, Zechariah and his wife are descendants of Aaron, the first priest that God chose to intercede between his people and God. They are the purest line of God’s holy relationship with his people. They have a double-portion of the priestly role – they both should have expected that God would speak through them to God’s people.

Third, while Zechariah and his wife are by all accounts just, righteous, God-fearing people, they are now old and grey and they have no descendants. Not only do they not have children, but they don’t have anyone to pass the priestly responsibilities to. It’s a personal, familial problem, but it also shows that the priestly line is in danger of dying out. They have reached the point in their family, in their synagogue (or church), where the way they’ve always done it has run its course. They need something to happen – but as we’re about to see, Zechariah neither expects God to move nor does he have any frame of reference where it could matter.

So, Zechariah finds himself in the temple one day, taking his turn as the burner of incense in the holy place. Zechariah, we understand, was in this big, cavernous room, with the ark of the covenant and some incense, and no one else, because the people had to stay outside the temple while the priest prayed for them. This is typical – this is how it would have worked all of the time. It has become commonplace because the conversation was never world shattering. This is not a special situation, but the mundane: the priest addresses God, the people wait to hear from the priest.

But today, the mundane will be anything but ordinary. On this day, God himself will show up and give something to Zechariah.

The first thing the angel of the Lord gives to Zechariah is a good scare. Now, I don’t think it was intentionally scary like a haunted hayride or like kids waiting for each other in the dark. But imagine for a moment what it would be like for you, going about your daily work, humming to yourself, focused on the task at hand or completely wrapped up in your own thoughts, and BAM! There’s the angel of the Lord standing to the right of you.

Pretty startling, right?

Every year, my family got a Christmas tree from the same little Christmas tree farm. We’d bundle up the day before Thanksgiving (because my parents wanted it precut so that the dead needles would fall off… we’d decorate it the day after Thanksgiving), and drive to the farm. One year, after selecting and cutting the tree, my dad and I loaded it onto the roof of our minivan. My dad turned to get in to drive home but he saw the farmer loading wood into a chipper and shouted out, “Thanks! See you next year!”

Pretty common, right? Pretty mundane interaction…

The farmer half-turned, half-fell, so startled was he by my dad’s greeting. It’s still one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen (maybe you had to be there) but it reminds me that just because it’s ordinary, doesn’t mean it can’t be startling….

So Zechariah is surrounded by the incense, moving through his normal operations as the priest, and suddenly, an angel stands before him. If that happened regularly, do you think Zechariah would’ve been startled? If he was expecting that God would show up, do you think he would have been “gripped by fear?” The Message said he was “paralyzed” by the fear.

Now, remember, he’s in the temple to communicate with God on behalf of the people. It’s his job, his responsibility, to be present so that whatever message that God would give his people, whatever forgiveness might be bestowed, that Zechariah is the one God will give it to.

And Zechariah isn’t ready. Zechariah is so unprepared for this development that I imagine he found himself thinking, “why did this have to happen on my shift?” Zechariah is so caught up in his own fear that he can’t immediately recognize that if the angel is there than that means God wants to give his people something! But this is a message that God is giving that actually begins with Zechariah first.

Before we move forward through the incense and consider the words of the angel, let’s stop and ask ourselves: how often does God show up in our lives, ready to give us something, and we’re not ready? How often do we miss the markers, the road signs, the grace-filled moments because we’ve failed to see God in the every day? What if, as we pray that God would be revealed in our world, God is actually already revealed in our world and we just can’t see it because we assume it’s going to be a normal “get the church clothes on, put the offering in the plate, sing a couple of songs” kind of day? What if we came to church, went to our Bible study, picked up the Bible at home and expected that God intended to give us something every time? Would that change anything?

What if we expected that God would move in and through us to change the world?

Remember, Zechariah is paralyzed by this truth. The angel has to free him up, like the angel will free Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, from fear.

Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard.”

Wow. God shows up in the middle of Zechariah’s day, and says, “I hear ya, buddy.” He shows up and tells him that all of the mundane moments leading up to that moment mattered, that even in all of the times that Zechariah and everyone else thought God was out to lunch and didn’t care, that God was paying attention and had a response. The angel first tells him not to be afraid and then he tells Zechariah that all of the prayers, all the crying out, all of the incense burned that has seemed mundane, and poured down into a dark well with no bottom, that the God of the universe received all of it, gathered it in, that God cares.

And then God gives Zechariah the kind of news that is mind-blowing. “Yes, in your old age, with your wife who can’t conceive, you’re going to have a baby.”

Obviously, a baby in a long-awaited situation would be well-received, right? But the angel takes it a step further: Zechariah’s son will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring his people back to God. The godlessness, the rule-following but heart-breaking, Zechariah’s son is part of God’s solution.

And naturally, Zechariah has gotten over his fear and asks the same question that you or I would be asking, “Um, so, like, ok, how is that going to work?”  (Notice, he says he’s old and his wife has a lot of mileage on her. Smart man, not calling his wife old, too.)

You can almost see the angel Gabriel straighten up. I see the wings going from folded to fully extended, fire-glowing, eyes-blazing glory: “I AM GABRIEL AND I STAND IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD. I have given you good news and because you didn’t believe, you will not be able to talk until your son is born. Because God’s word is always good in God’s time.”

And then BAM! the angel disappears. Or he teleports. Or he sneaks out the back door. (We never hear how angels leave.)

And Zechariah is left to unpack, unwind, devour, digest the news that the angel of God has given him. But when he leaves the temple, he can’t say a word about it. He literally can’t share the good news just yet. Zechariah’s fear of change, fear of what could be, had rendered him speechless when he had the opportunity to embrace the angel’s good news, so God gave Zechariah an “opportunity” to sort of percolate or marinate in his news.

Zechariah and the Jewish people had been missing the point. They had put the rules and the mundane, the incense and the sacrifice, ahead of being in a relationship with God. So God set a series of events in motion that result in Jesus- but that’s for Christmas Eve, and this is Advent.

We’ll see over the next few weeks, a few more people who missed out on Christmas. The innkeeper who couldn’t see that love and compassion should’ve trumped “no room in the inn” for a pregnant woman; King Herod who was so threatened by the Wise Mens’ arrival that he wanted Jesus the baby dead. (Again, that’s just cold.)

But Zechariah almost missed it. Zechariah doubted and God used him anyway. Zechariah knew the biology of childbirth; he knew he’d been burning incense once a month for years and nothing special ever happened. And God showed up in the midst of it. God showed up and said, “It doesn’t have to be pointless anymore. It doesn’t have to feel like no one’s listening. It doesn’t have to feel like your job or your marriage or your life don’t matter.”

God showed up in Zechariah’s life and gave him a gift that was personal, that was needed, that showed that God knew Zechariah.

I asked some folks what their favorite gift was that they’d ever given to someone else.

1. I gave my mom a set of hand made Protestant prayer beads just last weekend… Her favorite colors, with the breast cancer ribbon on them. Every 7th spacer was a heart. I guess because I made them for her specifically. I picked the beads, the cross, and the breast cancer ribbon. She called me crying, thanking me.

2. Every year we have a tradition of having father-daughter dinner and shopping for my mom’s Christmas presents. One year dad had decided he wanted to get mom a Methodist cross necklace and we found one. That same year mom wanted to get dad a Methodist cross lapel pin and we found one. So, Christmas morning we were opening gifts and the hand surprised each other not so much with the gift but they were thinking the same thing. It didn’t end there though because my sister and I each had a Methodist cross necklace in our stockings too!

3. The best gift was being told I would never have children… And God blessed me with my son (who is a senior in high school now)….

4. I called my parents on Christmas Day one year and asked them if they could pick me up at the airport. They live in a different state and didn’t know I was coming.

5. My most memorable Christmas gift was in the 1980’s. Ronnie decided to add a bit of excitement to the morning. He gave me a hint as to where to look for my gift but each time I found the hint, there was another hint. We were all running around the house and laughing so hard and then, there was my gift In the Christmas Tree. A new ring. That is My best Christmas memory, except in 1966 when he finally gave me My engagement ring. that he had had since September!

6. The very best gift I ever received was not a thing. Tom had been in the hospital for weeks, and we spent the day there. We had insisted that everyone go on with festivities without us, and we celebrated the birth of Christ quietly and alone. The next day, Tom had a treatment early, and I stayed home for a bit. I was sitting at my kitchen table. I admit I was in a sad, dark place. Self-pity, sadness, and hopelessness overwhelmed me. Unmotivated, I had not even dressed or showered. All of a sudden, there was caroling on my front porch. I said to myself, I cannot open the door, looking like this. I tried to ignore the songs. Then the door was unlocked from the outside. My entire family…..father, brothers, sister, in-laws, ALL my nieces, nephews, their friends came rushing in. They had caravaned from Roanoke, bringing Christmas with them. Food and presents and even a tree flooded our home. We exchanged gifts. (Mine still unwrapped in bags!). Then, we went to the hospital to surprise Tom. If only I had a picture of his face when he received this gift of love and sacrifice. That morning we hugged and laughed and cried and felt the love of family. It made us aware of the Hope the birth of Christ brought to the world, and I believe in my heart that that visit gave Tom the will to fight harder. It was God’s gift. We were blessed. 

All of these gifts reflect the knowledge of the person they gave gifts to. All of them reflect a grace based on their understanding of what God gave them. All of them reflect hope.

See, the greatest gift the angel of God gave Zechariah that day, it was HOPE.

Hope that two old people who’d longed for a child would finally have one.

Hope that the prayers of people were heard by God.

Hope that God wasn’t done with the Temple, or the priests, or his people.

Hope that a Messiah was coming.

Do you need that hope today? Are you missing Christmas? Do you feel like your prayers go unheard because you don’t know what exactly to pray or because they’re not answered at a time you think they should be? Have you gotten caught up in trying to “be good” rather than accepting that God loves you and forgives you? Have you missed the forest for the Christmas trees? Do you need to make room in the mundane so that you can see God show up?

And here’s the question that follows: once you recognize what God gave you, what are you giving God this Christmas?

Now, I don’t believe we “work” to gain salvation- God’s gracious gift through Jesus Christ was just that, a gift. But there’s a response that should naturally follow. We don’t give back out of fear or of rule-abiding but out of a response in love to what God did for us.

Maybe you don’t know what to give. It’s a situation more and more people find themselves in every year. But I heard the phrase, “empty pockets or not, we’ve all got something to give,” and it’s stuck with me.

It matters more whether your heart is full than if your pockets are!

Check out this story about a woman who had her wallet stolen, and how she handled it, how she gave even while she was losing. See, this man stole Jessica Eaves’ wallet out of her shopping cart while she was buying groceries, but she tracked him down and she gave him two options.

Consider for a minute, which woman do you compare him to? Who do you have in mind: is it your wife? your daughter? your grandmother? What options do you think that Jessica Eaves gave the pickpocket?

Do you think he expected this: “Listen, mister, ‘I think you have something of mine. I’m gonna give you a choice. You can either give me my wallet and I’ll forgive you right now, and I’ll even take you to the front and pay for your groceries.'”

“Otherwise, I’m going to have to call the police.”

My friend, the Reverend Bill McClung, said this was the equivalent of the priest who frees Jean Valjean from prison, right after Valjean had stolen the church’s fine silver! The priest says, “Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”

Here’s a real-life moment, where Mrs. Eaves could’ve let the man well-enough alone, much more safely, I might add, but instead, she boldly offers grace.

The man breaks down sobbing, follows her to the cash register where she pays for $27 in groceries, apologizing profusely. He tells her that he’s broke, that he has kids, that he got laid off, that he would never have done that if he wasn’t desperate.

And in that moment, Mrs. Eaves gave this man his dignity, a second chance, and GRACE.

Will you give grace to others as you have received it? None of us stands here on our own efforts alone, but by the grace of God and the help of others. Will you give grace in an unexpected, underserved, BAM! sort of way this week?

Will you give back? Will you pay it forward?

Will you give financially to help someone else have enough this Christmas? Or make enough food to feed a shut-in neighbor at Christmas?

Will you give of your time by serving through church or elsewhere?

Will you give by sacrificing your concern for safety and pride and ask others to join you in celebrating Jesus’s birth?

Will you give of your mind by studying the stories of Jesus’ birth at home or joining in a Bible study?

The good news to Zechariah was only the beginning. This was the first of “not fearing” and it freed Zechariah up to be part of the giving. 

So as you hear these words, consider the giver and your own giving:

Hear the good news of Jesus Christ: God sent his Son to restore us to a right relationship, to give us grace and love. God sent Jesus even if no one would’ve accepted him. God sent the angel to Zechariah even though Zechariah wasn’t ready. God sent hope so that we could really live.

Do not be afraid. Amen.

Posted in Current Events, Pop Culture, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Sermon Today: Social Principles- The Christmas Jar

I’ll admit it. I love books. I enjoy diving into a world I’ve never experienced before, learning about a place or a person I would never meet otherwise. I’ll read a few books a week during the year, even twice as many in the summer or on vacation. But periodically, I’ll come across a book and be transformed.

The week of Thanksgiving 2009, my mother-in-law gave me her copy of Jason Wright’s The Christmas Jars to read. I’ll admit that I was skeptical at first, because her book group was reading it –  and I’d ignored the previous year’s worth of selections. But something about the way she spoke about the book made me open to the first page, and a few hours later, I’d finished a book that is one of just a few books I’d say changed my life.

In the original story, written by the Shenandoah native in 2005, a poor, young family collects money in a jar all year for its gift giving to each other. On the night they decide to go Christmas shopping, their young daughter sees a woman sitting alone and heartbroken on a bench. She reacts immediately out of kindness and mercy to give the woman their Christmas jar. The family has no money for gifts that year, but the impact of her decision reverberates for decades. A tradition of giving a jar of coins and cash to people, secretly, without receiving credit is born in the little town. While the gift is financial, the amount is never too much – it fits in  jar – but the impact of the jars on the life of each character is exponential.

The giver and the receiver in each ‘transaction’ recognizes that there is something in giving, in passing it on, in paying it forward. Each person recognizes the beauty and truth of Micah 6:8:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Justice. Mercy. Humility. Earmarks of the disciple, right? Earmarks of what we are called to be when Jesus calls us out of the lives we live without him into the life of the kingdom of God.

Here, on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, I am left wondering what it would look like if we embraced that holy triumvirate of virtues, if we sought to live out our lives with the life of love and grace that the prophet Micah spoke of.

But how can we? What qualifications or marks might we look to when determining how to direct our work, our home lives, our church, our community? Consider these words contained in the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline.

The Social Creed of the United Methodist Church

We believe in God, Creator of the world; and in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of creation. We believe in the Holy Spirit, through whom we acknowledge God’s gifts, and we repent of our sin in misusing these gifts to idolatrous ends.

We affirm the natural world as God’s handiwork and dedicate ourselves to its preservation, enhancement, and faithful use by humankind.

We joyfully receive for ourselves and others the blessings of community, sexuality, marriage, and the family.

We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of all persons.

We believe in the right and duty of persons to work for the glory of God and the good of themselves and others and in the protection of their welfare in so doing; in the rights to property as a trust from God, collective bargaining, and responsible consumption; and in the elimination of economic and social distress.

We dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom for all people of the world.

We believe in the present and final triumph of God’s Word in human affairs and gladly accept our commission to manifest the life of the gospel in the world. Amen.

Are we the living embodiment of these things? Are we pursuing the kingdom of God in a holy way? I must admit that some days I don’t know how to start.

I wonder if serving in the community, whether it be coaching a little league team or volunteering at a school makes a difference.

I wonder if giving financial help to one person makes a difference in the life of the community.

I wonder if one word spoken can make a difference in the day of a person or group.

I wonder if taking a stand on an issue in one corner of the world can make a difference in another.

And then I remember the Christmas Jars, how one book challenged me and changed our church.

See, the Sunday after I read Jason’s book, I preached on it. I talked about what it would look like if we stopped seeing missions as a way to give money away over there to people we didn’t know, to people we didn’t have to interact with, to people we didn’t have to be empathetic to, only compassionate for.

I talked about what it would take for us to do good even if we couldn’t get credit for it because Christmas Jars are supposed to be anonymous. Christmas Jars were an abundant outpouring, a connection with someone else, that we wouldn’t ever get the satisfaction of their thanks.

Christmas Jars were about our Thanksgiving, not the recipient’s.

And then, that Sunday, I shared about some real-life Christmas jars, because Jason’s story isn’t just a story, it’s a movement. Jason’s website, www.christmasjars.com, has story after story about people who received jars, and people who gave them. It has stories of people who were going to commit suicide the day they received a jar, and of people who thought they had lost everyone and everything before receiving a jar and realized they were not alone.

Stories like these:

I was diagnosed w/a brain condition called Cadisal in 2010. It is a really rare neurological disorder that can cause loss of some functions in a persons body and/or memory loss, both long and short term. It is a calsification of brain matter and most people are born w/it and are diagnosed until they are about 50. Many of the symptoms are just assumed to be normal physical manifistations everyone goes thru as we grow up/age. Until one is diagnosed you have no clue these things are actual symptoms of a disorder!!

Anyway, because of this I had occasional auras and seizures as well. Finally, in November 2015 I had a grand mall seizure and hit the basement floor, causing a concussion and a broken left arm. That put me out of commission. My friends and family all over here and across the country sent me cards and letters, as well as in this case a copy of the book and a jar filled w/coins.

One day we found several boxes of groceries that had been left by someone in our garage w/o a note or any way of knowing who to thank for such a generous gift. W/i the next week a ziplock baggie was found on our back porch with a Christmas card, unsigned; a copy of the book by Jason Wright and a jar filled w/coins. We opened this jar and dumped it into a bowl, with the coins were two little balls of green paper. We unfolded the balls and they turned out to be $100 bills!!!! Yep, two $100 bills. Again, no signature on the book, card or in the baggie to let us know who did such a generous thing for us and just after I had the seizure and got my las paycheck from my demo job at Walmart. This was like winning the lotto to us. WOW.

Or from Purcellville, Virginia:

I received a jar this Christmas while I was at physical therapy for my daughter. She’s eleven with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, to name a few. I also have an eight-year-old son. Their father has passed on so I’m a single parent. This jar has changed my life. I too said that surely there had to be a more needy person than myself! The message behind it has moved me deeply. They gave it to her therapist to give me. Whoever my angel is, we thank you and God bless.

There are hundreds of stories like these, spread around the country. But I know from firsthand experience – from giving and receiving Christmas Jars – that the jars will change you.

See, within a week of that first sermon, I had ordered dozens of copies of the book for people who wanted to read it. Within the first month, there were jars flying around the church, to those in need throughout the community. People were making change just to fill jars!

By the end of the first year, the church’s mission had grown, to include annual Christmas jars, to include Christmas and Thanksgiving baskets for the country, to include an ongoing benevolence fund for those who visited the church in need.

All because of one little book. All because of one fictional little girl who was thankful for what she had. All because of one man’s faithful imagination. All because of one Christmas jar.

Today, I invite you to start filling a jar, to begin finding a tangible way to express your thanksgiving for what God has given you abundantly. And I encourage you to start praying for the person in your life who you’re supposed to bless.

Each coin, each prayer, will change you.

It’s the thought that counts, put into action, that can change your world.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Amen.

Posted in Sermons, Theology | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Sermon Today – More Than Stories: Eating Well, Living Right (Daniel)

Most of us have gone through a phase where we wanted to lose weight. We’ve tried plenty of methods, working out, not eating after a certain time, getting a better night’s sleep, several little meals versus breakfast/lunch/dinner, whatever the latest fad is, right? But ultimately, it doesn’t matter how much we change everything about our lives, if we don’t alter what we eat, as one of my informal Facebook surveys proved.

When asked for weight loss tips, several of my friends focused in on the number of grams of sugar they consumed per day.

Some held onto the tried and true exercise programs, or Weight Watchers, or a glass of water before every meal.

The ingesting or the intake was the thing!

What we eat impacts our ability to lose weight. We can change all the other variables, and if we don’t change what we consume, it really doesn’t matter. It’s a lesson many of us have learned by looking down at our guts and our growing clothes sizes, but it’s one that Daniel understood as a young man, imprisoned in Babylon.

Now, maybe Daniel was smarter than many adults, or maybe his perspective on the world was sharpened by his being kidnapped at such a young age, and being thrust into a strange culture. In Daniel 1, we know that he was dragged to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar’s righthand man, Ashpenaz, along with all of the young men who were deemed to be all of the young, male royalty, who were “without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace.”

King Nebuchadnezzar has snagged the best-of-the-best that Israel had to offer. The pretty kids, the skilled kids, the people that he could use because they were brimming with potential. And Ashpenaz was supposed to brainwash them, to lure them in with the finest foods and to teach them all about how to be a Babylonian. Nebuchadnezzar didn’t plan on just capturing other countries. He wanted to assimilate them, until no one could remember that they were anything other than Babylonian. Nebuchadnezzar was the biggest bully alive — he’d basically replaced that old enemy of the Israelites, the Philistines.

So, we’re told that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were chosen, and renamed Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Their assimilation, their discipleship, their removal of all things Jewish was intended to be thorough, complete, and final.

But in 1:8, it says that “Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine.” Daniel decided that he wouldn’t be bullied. He wouldn’t bend or break. He wouldn’t relinquish who he was.

This week, I had the opportunity to see Hacksaw Ridge about the U.S.’ assault on Okinawa during World War II. There are intense, bloody battle scenes that won’t be for everyone. But this is just the backdrop for the real story of the film: the life and faith of Desmond Doss. Doss is a Seventh Day Adventist, who believes that God doesn’t ever want him to kill. But he’s patriotic, so he signs up for the Army as a medic.

And the worst treatment he gets in the whole film comes at the hands of his comrades, who don’t understand his faith, who think his unwillingness to handle a gun makes him a coward. I won’t spoil the film for you with too many more details, but let’s just say they don’t make movies about people who don’t prove unique. Doss stands for his beliefs and that changes everything.

How often does it come down to one person? One person who is willing to make a tough call, to follow what he or she knows to be true, to be bold and courageous in the midst of a sea of adversity like Abraham or Joshua. One person to say yes to God like Mary. and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way.

It says that God honored Daniel’s faith and softened the heart of his jailer, Ashpenaz, but Ashpenaz still had to deal with his own pain and fear. The Babylonian heard something in Daniel’s plea that made sense, that defied the ways that he’d been expected to act. But he was still afraid.

So Daniel, a teenager remember, but maybe it has to be a teenager, someone brave and willing to play fast and loose with the rules, even in captivity, says, “give us ten days to try it our way.” He proposes a ten-day experiment, the compare and contrast, the my way versus your way test.

And at the end of ten days, Daniel’s crew of Four Musketeers was healthier and stronger than those who ate the rich food of the palace. And the outcome was so stark, so obvious, that Ashpenaz took away all of the rich food of the king and substituted it with the vegetables that Daniel had proposed.

Were the four men sent back to their homes? No. Were they freed from slavery? No. Were their instant troubles alleviated? No.

Their obedience was rewarded though. “To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning,” and their responsibility, their stature, rose. They had stood together against something they knew wasn’t right, and they had survived. They had rejected the fat, the poison, the dilution of their physical selves because it would dishonor their beliefs, and God had rewarded that.

Sounds like a perfect segue to “our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit,” right? I could promote Jenny Craig For Jesus or Weight Watchers and Ye Holy Ones or South Beach of Galilee Diet. But instead, I think it’s fascinating to focus in one aspect of this, and shocking enough, it’s not the food.

Daniel rejects the idea of taking in anything that would weaken his spiritual being.

The food is just the physical thing we recognize, but Daniel is rejecting being assimilated into something less than who God wants him to be. The new name, the new language, the new beliefs, the new everything.

Daniel knows who God is and he rests in that. He’ll pass on the extra servings of everything else. He’s turning all of the bad stuff aside… “thanks but no thanks on the wine.”

And I wonder how much of the seemingly insignificant things we “allow” for are the beginning of the slippery slope. Where do you or I draw the line on staying true to following Jesus?

For Daniel, nothing is insignificant.

See, after the food challenge – Daniel ends up with a prayer test.

 

God isn’t done with Daniel yet. In Daniel 6, Daniel is thrown into the den of lions most famously because he refuses to not pray. In Daniel 6:6-23, we find Daniel, the advisor to the king, knee-deep in a conspiracy of the high court. See, several of the king’s other advisors must’ve felt threatened by Daniel’s relationship to the king, so they went to the king (never too bright a bulb as we’ve seen already in his handling of nutrition and the thousand-foot statue of himself) and proposed that the king issue a law that said the king was the only person who could be prayed to for a month.

And the king, proud, powerful, and vain, thought this was a great idea, and signed on the dotted line. Condemning his best man to death with a stroke of the pen.

How often do you think you’re forced to choose between what you’re told to do by your boss, by the government, by your spouse, by your parent, and what you think that you’re supposed to do based on what the Bible has to say?

Once a day? A week? A month?

What pressure do you face? Is it the loss of a job, or a friendship, or status? How do you decide what’s “right” for that instance? We’d all like to say that we always do the right thing… but we don’t. And frankly, neither did the people in the Bible. Peter got it wrong several times; so did Abraham, David, and Adam… but we still remember them well. It’s not always getting it right or wrong though that matters in the Bible– it’s usually most important how God shows up.

When I find out that there’s a law or a rule in place that seems to penalize me, I usually pout for awhile. Sometimes, I’ll even eat some candy and watch television. But I rarely flaunt the breaking of that law immediately, and I’ll admit it, I don’t pray about it as often as I should.

Daniel, he’s iconoclastic and faithful. It doesn’t just say that these out-for-blood rivals found Daniel praying; it says that when Daniel heard the law was in place, he went to his room, through open the windows and prayed to God at the three times appointed for prayer. He didn’t change his pattern, he didn’t hide what he was doing. He went to God about the problem in prayer.

Daniel went directly from hearing the bad, life-condemning news to prayer. Dir-ect-ly.

Now, how seriously do you take prayer?

Of course, his rivals saw the prayers, and went running to the king to tattle like little kids who’ve caught their classmate in mischief. “Oh, King Dariiiiiiius! Remember your law about praying? Well, Daniel is breaking it!” Instantaneously, you can see the color drain from the king’s face as he realizes what he’s done, and he thinks all day on how to get Daniel out of trouble.

Still, there was no rescue for Daniel. The king’s law was more powerful than the king himself. The law was too dangerous, and the king couldn’t undo it. So Daniel gets thrown into the lion’s den with the king’s blessing, “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!”

Daniel was thrown in, rare meat and blood still bumping, and a stone placed over the mouth of the den. And the king went back to the palace to contemplate the funeral of his friend and advisor, while Daniel… slept?

It says that at daybreak, at dawn’s first light, the king ran to the lions’ den and cried out before he even got there, “has your God actually been able to rescue you from the lions?”

Daniel responded that there had been an angel there all night, that the angel of God had shut the mouths of the lions because Daniel was innocent in God’s sight. And Daniel pronounces himself innocent of offending the king, because his prayers to God were right and just. Not only was he alive but there were no wounds on him, because he had trusted in God.

Twice, Daniel was faced with a challenge: would his faith outweigh other authority, other choices, other temptations? And three times, Daniel passes the test, major tests, no less.

And I find myself wondering, do I even pass the quizzes? Do we even recognize the little moments when we have the chance to make the right decisions and honor God?

Do we curb our tongues in vocabulary, or in the way we speak about and to others?

Do we consider what we read about, watch on television and in the movies, listen to on the radio or on our iPods?

Do we reject the stories, jokes, gossip, or general meanness that circles around us at work or at home or with our friends?

Are we willing to take a stand on whatever front could be the most dangerous to us, and recognize that we are meant for something greater than this? That God doesn’t want our minds, our bodies, our souls defiled by the junk that the world tells us is okay? That God wants our undivided attention and love, that’s decluttered of junk, food or otherwise?

I once had a Godfearing friend of mine come and admit to me that somehow, what he heard on TV and talk radio had replaced the values he had learned in church. My friend told me that he’d stopped listening to the radio on his long work commutes altogether because he realized he spent more time listening to them than he did to the pastor of his church. He recognized that what he was internalizing wasn’t Biblical – so he put a stop to it.

What he was ‘ingesting’ through his ears was making him sick! He realized that there were other agendas he was hearing that weren’t from God – that weren’t about loving our neighbors, loving our enemies, as we’d love ourselves. My friend realized that problem – and he decided he was going to “eat” right and live well.

I pray that this week that you will have the faith of Daniel, to reject those “foods” the world tries to feed you, and stick to the diet of God’s truth, love, and grace. I’m betting it won’t take you a ten-day trial period to see the difference.

I pray this week that you will put the worship of God before any idol the world places in your path, whether it be material, monetary, or relational. I’m sure that God is the only thing worthy of our absolute adoration.

I pray this week that you will pray – without ceasing, regardless of how uncool or unremarkable praying is considered. I’m confidant that praying is significantly more powerful than not praying!

Friends, I hope this week, you are inspired by Daniel – a young man who lived boldly by just being who he was supposed to be. And that you’ll be inspired by Desmond Doss, who refused to stop praying, even when others found it ridiculous.

This week, I’m aiming to do just the same. Will you join me? Amen.

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Sermon Today – More Than Stories: Saints in Different Shapes (I Kings 17:1-6)

Sometimes, the line between saint and sinner is razor thin. There’s the story of a minister who died and is waiting in line at the Pearly Gates. Ahead of him is a guy who`s dressed in sunglasses, a loud shirt, leather jacket, and jeans. Saint Peter addresses this guy, “Who are you, so that I may know whether or not to admit you to the Kingdom of Heaven?”

The guy replies, “I’m Joe Cohen, taxi-driver, of Noo Yawk City.” Saint Peter consults his list. He smiles and says to the taxi-driver, “Take this silken robe and golden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

The taxi-driver goes into Heaven with his robe and staff, and it’s the minister’s turn. He stands erect and booms out, “I am Joseph Snow, pastor of Saint Mary`s for the last forty-three years.”

Saint Peter consults his list. He says to the minister, “Take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

“Just a minute,” says the minister. “That man was a taxi-driver, and he gets a silken robe and golden staff. How can this be?” “Up here, we work by results,” says Saint Peter. “While you preached, people slept; while he drove, people prayed.”

Hilarious, right? Sometimes, sainthood is not quite as funny.

In her book, Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Webber writes about discovering a woman named Alma White who planted the Pillar of Fire Church in 1901. So excited was Bolz-Webber that she Googled White, and discovered that she was the first female bishop in the U.S. in 1918, noted for her feminism and… her association with the KKK, her anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, anti-Pentecostalism, racism, and hostility. When she called a friend to tell her she’d found her newfound hero was a racist, her friend said she belonged in their All Saints Day celebration. Bolz-Webber didn’t want her there – she wanted her categories kept clean, not a situation where “saints were bad and sinners were good.”

Bolz-Webber writes, “Personally, I think knowing the difference between a racist and a saint is kind of important. But when Jesus again and again says things like the last shall be first, and the first will be last, and the poor are blessed, and the rich are cursed, and that prostitutes make great dinner guests, it makes me wonder if our need for pure black-and-white categories is not true religion but maybe actually a sin. Knowing what category to place hemlock in might help us know whether it’s safe to drink, but knowing what category to place ourselves and others in does not help us know God in the way that the church so often has tried to convince us it does.”

Ah, saints.

Let’s look into the life of the Catholic Church – maybe they can help us clear up this saint thing. They’ve been working on it for quite some time.

Seriously though, there’s actually a five-step process in the Catholic Church to canonize a saint. First, the local bishop investigates the person’s life, gathering witnesses and information about what they may have written. If their words are considered worthy, the information is submitted to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Second, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints can choose reject the application, accept, or investigate. Third, the Congregation approves the candidate as having lived a heroically virtuous life — not declaring them to be now in heaven, but that they pursued holiness on earth. Fourth, they determine whether or not the person took part in a healing which was instantaneous, permanent, and complete while also being scientifically unexplainable. If so, the person is declared a blessed. Fifth, to be a saint, the person must have completed a second miracle confirmed as the first.

Sounds intense, doesn’t it?

In the United Methodist Church, we call Matthew, Paul, John, Luke and other early followers of Jesus saints. And, as we do today, we recognize those people who have died before us, who are “all the saints who from their labors rest.” We remember those people of faith who lived faithfully and shared their faith.

These people did what they were called to do – sometimes boldly and sometimes simply – but they were where they needed to be and did what they needed to do.

Sainthood – it’s … complicated.

Do you know what you’re called to do? Better yet, do you know what you’re called to be?

I love the World War II drama, Fury, with Brad Pitt and Shia LaBoeuf. It focused on one team of soldiers who fought from inside of a tank against the Nazis in Europe, specifically Germany. None of the men in the tank are quite as religious as LaBoeuf’s character, called “Bible,” but they all seem to understand what he believes in. He thinks, win or lose, live or die, that God put him in a position to do something about the evil of the Nazis by fighting against them. It’s not metaphorical or haphazard: Bible literally knows he’s supposed to be where he is because he’s convinced God would want him to stop the evil Hitler was doing.

Bible has a clear sense of his calling; some of us don’t. But the Scriptures are full of people who either denied their call or who recognized a change in their call and responded to the urging of God. [To be clear, not all of them responded obediently: check out Jonah for instance, or consider the way that Cain responds to God’s call on his life!] My profession has a strong pattern of men and women who ‘put off their call’ until they were older, and switched from some career or calling to the pastorate later in life.

What if we could learn from the Bible what we were supposed to be and how we could look for those patterns in our own lives?

Let’s dive into the story of Samuel. Now, Samuel is one of the Bible’s miracle babies: he’s specifically prayed for by his mother Hannah, who mourns because she is infertile. When she discovers that she’s pregnant, she calls her unborn baby Samuel, “because I asked God for him.” When he is old enough, she gives him to the priest Eli to raise in the temple as one of God’s priests.

The first sign of calling: recognizing that we are God’s to begin with and our lives find their purpose when we acknowledge God.

Do you acknowledge God? Do you recognize that your life, the air you breathe, is God’s? Do you recognize that your money, the work you’ve accomplished and the stuff you’ve acquired, is God’s? Do you recognize that everything you have, and everything you are capable of becoming, is because God knit you together before you were born?

God breathed Spirit- air – life into Adam’s lungs in Genesis, and it made him come alive; God continues to breathe life into you and me, and it’s what makes us alive, makes us human.

The first sign of calling is recognizing whose we are.

So Samuel is raised up by Eli in the temple. Eli teaches Samuel the Scripture, and what it means to be a priest. I’m sure he put Samuel to work with the menial things, like sweeping out the temple, and counting the offering left by those who came to worship outside. As Samuel grew older, and accepted more responsibility, Eli gave him more to do, more practical ways to act out being the priest of God.

The second sign or mark of calling: recognizing the need to learn more about God and seeking out opportunities to study, pray, and grow.

Are you learning, or are you going through the motions? Do you recognize a need to know more about God, about the Bible, about the tools you need to practice prayer, and other marks of being a disciple? Are you recognizing that call to be a disciple, the marks of which many of you have taken on when you promised to be faithful by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness, in joining the church? What are you doing to gradually grow in those things, whether it’s being more intentional about coming to worship on Sundays or setting the alarm an hour earlier so that you can make it to Sunday School or increasing your tithe, what you give back to God, by a percent or two each month?

At one of my previous churches, there was a woman named Kathy. Every Sunday morning, she had a deal with the children in her neighborhood. If they met her at the community playground by 9:30 a.m., she’d give them a ride to Sunday School, church, and usually, lunch!

Kathy is a saint. And she’s constantly working other people to sainthood, too, driving kids, rounding them up, and getting them to church. The thing is: these kids wanted to be there. There’s something they knew was different about being there, and they recognized it.

Now, imagine what it would look like if we could get all the adults we knew to recognize that need…

The second sign of calling is to recognize the need to grow.

Now, Eli is raising Samuel as a son, as a priest, in the temple, even while Eli’s sons are falling away from what God has called them to. Samuel is growing in “favor with God and all the people”- people are noticing that he’s good at being a priest- even while the people are stirring against the sons of Eli. They are abusing their power as priests by taking what they wanted, in terms of offerings brought by people to pray and by manipulating the women outside the temple. God was not pleased, and he prophesied against Eli’s house that he would be calling up a priest from outside of Eli’s house. God’s people needed priests but the priests weren’t getting it done; someone had to rise up to be the voice of the people to God and the voice of God to the people.

The third sign of calling is recognizing the need for what you bring, what gifts and graces God has given you in your personality, skill set, interests, and experience.

I read a story a few weeks ago about a young man named Carson Jones. He was a senior and starting quarterback in his high school. And one day, the mother of a special needs child came to him and asked him if he could figure out who was bullying her daughter at school. Easy enough, right?

Jones could’ve gotten some of his buddies together and ‘taken care of’ the problem. But instead, he changed things subtly. He brought his new friend with him to the football lunch table; he saw that someone walked her to class. Pretty soon, other people weren’t bullying her- they were looking for ways to help her out, too. Jones knew who he was and what he could do, and he did it- and it changed everything. [From Rick Reilly’s “Special Team” as republished in Tiger, Meet My Sister.]

Sometimes, it’s as simple as being there.

Have you ever thought about what gifts you have that you could bless others with, in and outside of church? Have you ever prayed about how you could get more involved with church? Sometimes, it’s the preacher who points it out to you- sometimes it’s someone else in church. But what would it look like if you actively stepped up to get involved, whether it was helping in children’s ministry, helping paint a room or two, serving food at a mission project or fundraiser? There are spiritual gift inventories you can take if you haven’t done one before – see me afterward if you want a copy to explore!

The third sign is self-examination of your gifts and situation to see what you can bring.

Back to Samuel: It says that “in those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions” (I Samuel 3:1). Is that any different from our days? Do we really think God is heard more frequently now, that the world is moving toward “your kingdom come?” But we know that we have a lot to turn off, from the television to our wifi feeds, if we expect to be able to hear from God.

Our boy-turned-priest is listening. Samuel hears God call him three times, and he thinks that Eli is calling out to him in the middle of the night to do something; stoke the fire, check the locks, etc. But Samuel is alert, even in the midst of sleep, to know that he is being called.

The fourth sign of calling is listening- there’s a difference between hearing and listening. Listening involves change, adaptation, transformation based on what we receive from the other person… or God.

How do you listen? It’s different for different people but there are many ways we can listen. We can read our Bible and reflect over it; we can actively quiet our hearts and turn everything else off and speak with God. We can have holy conversations (I’ll get to that in a minute) and seek wise counsel. But listening requires a heart primed for receiving what God has to speak into our hearts. Listening requires an expectation that God will and does speak, that God has a plan for us.

Do you show up on Sundays and expect God to show up? Do you come ready and prepared to see what God has for us in worship? Do you know that God wants all of you, from what you do to what your heart feels to what your mind thinks? God wants to talk to you. God has so much for us if we would only listen.

The fourth sign is listening to the heartbeat of God running through our lives.

Back to our middle-of-the-night story, Samuel thinks Eli is calling but he, Eli, knows that it’s really God. And it’s Eli who points Samuel in the right direction. He tells Samuel to go back and wait, and to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel was listening but he didn’t know how to differentiate the noise. He couldn’t identify the Lord’s voice correctly until he was told, until the more experienced priest showed him how to respond correctly.

Samuel was called but he needed mentorship. He’d already received training and care and direction but mentorship connected his call from God with what he was supposed to be doing.

The fifth sign of calling is confirmation and mentoring that requires community to be involved with the individual’s call.

Who is mentoring you? Who are you regularly talking with in the faith community to show you the ins and outs of faith, the ways to grow and the direction God has for your life? Leonard Sweet asks in his book 11, about the crucial relationships in our lives, who is our Butt-Kicker? There are plenty of folks who will blow smoke at us, but when it comes down to it, who is helping you stay accountable to who you are called to be, whether that’s a pastor, a Christian stay-at-home mom, a Christian retiree, a Christian teacher, a Christian businessman, whatever it is?

Who is saying, ‘God’s calling you to this and it’s time that you respond?’ If you’re not in a relationship like that, let’s be clear: you should be. For many of us, it starts with whoever first brought us to church and it grows out from there. On a Sunday when we recognize our saints, we need to see that God has set these people before us to show us the way and to direct us on the journey toward what God wants us to be.

That’s one of the things that I love about the football story of Carson Jones: he was getting ready to leave for college, and his mother wondered one night who would watch over the younger girl that the football team had sheltered. His younger brother, a sophomore, piped up: “Don’t worry, I got this one.”

Whether we know it or not, we’re mentoring; good, bad, indifferent, we’re teaching people around us what the right way to behave is. And that doesn’t matter if you’re sixty-seven or six going on seven. Sure, our role in church may change over time, but you old-timers, you need to be sharing what you know, have learned, and experienced with those who are younger. Half of the mentoring is the stories, the time together. Samuel doesn’t become who he is without Eli’s involvement.

The fifth sign of calling is mentoring and confirmation, in who we are.

Samuel goes on to have a pretty good career as God’s priest. He anoints the first two kings of Israel; he speaks for God and develops the priesthood further. Samuel’s heart and experience, mixed with the call of God on his life, meets up in what Samuel does as he goes on to be the man of God who he was called to be.

The sixth sign of calling is responding, in doing what you are called to do.

So where are you? What signs are you seeing? Are you the one that God is calling to step up and help lead the children of our church as a teacher or nursery worker? Are you the one that God is calling to help lead the next mission project, or fundraiser? Are you the one God is calling to pray more, be in church more, give more of your time and money to benefit the church?

Our call does change over time, sometimes incrementally and sometimes exponentially. Sometimes, we’re called to change an attitude; sometimes, we’re called to change careers! [Did you know the percentage of ‘second career’ pastors? Folks who were pharmacists, car salesmen, prison guards, etc. before they became pastors?] I love that part of the story from Planes: Fire & Rescue, as Dusty realizes that he can no longer race (remember he was a crop-duster first) and he recognizes a need for firefighting planes. Dusty could’ve been disappointed, or sad, or scared (and he was all of those things at times) but he accepted the challenge, answered the call, and made a difference.

Do you recognize the call? Are you listening? Will you go where you’re supposed to go? Are you responding to the call of God on your heart?

The people who respond to the call of God on their lives are saints.

In Hebrews 11:32-12:3, the author lists many more of those figures from the Bible who did great deeds – Gideon, Samson, David, Samuel – who “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning;[a] they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.”

And yet, the author says, “none of them received what had been promised,  since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”

All of these people did amazing things – and yet did not experience heaven during their earthly lives. All of these people remained faithful, yet did not receive their reward in full. All of these people exhibited faith in something that they did not see, but believed in. All of these people heard their call – regardless of the sacrifice that it required – and answered the call of God to love, to go, to stay, to fight, to not fight, to speak, to not speak, to be who God needed them to be in the particular time and place in which they lived.

They were all different but they were all united in being the people God chose.

And they all became our “great cloud of witnesses.” They became those people gathered around us, as we run our races, cheering us on to perseverance.

I wonder how many of those people we recognize from the Bible – and from our own lives – thought they were saints? I wonder how many of them realized that they were saints-in-the-making. And yet, I think, that part of being a saint is not recognizing your own sainthood.

I think that fighting through enemy lines to share Bibles…

Or teaching Sunday School for twenty years…

Or starting a business and using the proceeds to reach those who are often ignored…

Or cooking selflessly when church events require food…

Or offering to sit with those who are hospitalized…

Or taking the time to check on people who are homebound…

Or peaceably sharing the good news of the gospel…

I think those are all the actions of saints, even when done by people who have their own problems, who drink too much, who wrestle with doubts, who wonder sometimes if they matter, who struggle with anxiety, who let their tempers get in the way, who fail to be who they know they can be…

See, I think our saints come in different shapes and sizes. I think they sneak up on us, and surprise us, and yet their lasting memory pushes us to be better people than we would be otherwise. I think they are the people whose pictures we have on our All Saints Day altar – and who we owe our faith to.

I wonder what it would look like if we honored our saints before they were our saints, before they passed on. What would happen if we recognized them by telling them what they meant to us? What would happen if we actively looked to share our faith with others because of them, honoring God and them, too? I hope today, that if one of your saints is still living that you’ll stop and call them, that you will let them know how their lives have touched you.

Each year, on All Saints Sunday, I think of my Grandma who bought me my first piano and asked that I would learn some of the hymns she loved, which inspired my love of music – and has meant that I know many of our hymns by heart.

Each year, I think of the countless Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders, like Betty Nutt and Cynthia and Kelley Brown, who shaped my faith.

Each year, I think of my college chaplain, my United Methodist mentor, and my parents, who shaped my faith as I continue to grow.

Some of them have passed on to heaven; some of them still shape my life.

Too often, I think we assume that people know how we feel, and wait until it’s too late to really articulate it. Who are your living saints? How will you tell them what they mean to you?

But there’s more.

Sometimes I think we assume that someone else will be the one who shares their faith and makes a difference, that we couldn’t possibly be who God expects or plans to use the way that he used angels to announce the birth of Jesus, or Philip to speak to the Ethiopian eunuch he’d never met, or Paul to stand on trial for his faith. We always think it will be someone else.

What if we remembered our saints by emulating them? As I stare at their pictures, I wonder – what would it take for us to be saints, who boldly stand for faith and share it in a way that it catches fire in the hearts of others?

What would it take that one day your picture, or my picture, might be on that altar, the reference point for someone’s memory of faith, the moment when they first heard the good news of Jesus or when they experienced God’s love?

At what moment will we recognize that we’re all called to sainthood – we just might not know it yet?

You’re a saint in process. A saint in the making.

When you leave worship today, I pray you live like a saint – just the size, shape, color, and grittiness you were meant to.

We can all be saints – it’s not one size fits all.

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Sermon Today – More Than Stories: Face Your Giants (I Samuel 17)

Sometimes, we want to simplify everything and make things black and white, Hoos or Hokies, Trump or Clinton. But the truth about life is that things are rarely either/or. Often, they are the results of decisions made over a lifetime, or at the very least, they are result of a series of events.

The story of David and Goliath boils down to one young man and one tyrannical giant. But lost in the final battle are a series of people and situations who more often resemble our lives than the final two gladiators. To recognize the choices we all face, today we’re going to look at the background to one of the Bible’s most famous showdowns.

In I Samuel 17, it says that the Philistines had gathered their forces of war and were marching in Judah. The ‘bad guys’, no, the baddest guys in the known world had already crossed the Israelite border – think Patrick Swayze’s Red Dawn or some Roland Emmerich movie where the White House gets blown up. The villains are not out there but they are right here.

On one side of the valley are the Philistines; on the other are the Israelites. And every morning and every evening, the Philistines’ champion, a gigantic beast of a man would stand out in the valley and taunt the Israelites. This was the equivalent of Shaquille O’Neal, John Cena, and the Rock – only rather than play fighting, this guy had made a habit of coming out of every battle victorious.

And to the Israelite encampment, Goliath directed this dare: “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us. This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.”

Now, a few things here. First, the Philistine is challenging King Saul himself. If Goliath was the champion for the Philistines, Saul should have been the Israelites’ champion. He was the king chosen by God – he was the one convinced that he was chosen to be God’s leader. And Saul is afraid. Saul believes the threat of Goliath is greater than the power of God.

But before we’re too hard on Saul, let us consider that ‘all of the Israelites’ are both dismayed and terrified. Generally speaking, a group of people tend to exhibit the characteristics of their leader, just like over time, they say an owner and their dog begin to look alike.

And then we meet  David, the youngest son of Jesse, the descendant of Ruth and Boaz.

David’s story actually begins with the prophet Samuel arriving in his home town (I Samuel 16) to anoint the next king of Israel. God has rejected Saul, who had become caught up in his own hype and who disrespected God’s commands for his own pleasure over and over again. God sends Samuel to Bethlehem (the town that Jesus will later be born in but we’re getting ahead of ourselves) to the household of a guy named Jesse who had eight sons.

The eldest son walks in and Samuel assumes that it has to be him. It’s always the oldest in the ancient days who receives the blessing and is built for the best, right? But God tells Samuel not to worry about this son’s looks or his height, implying that Samuel saw what everyone else did: this guy was big and strong and a GQ model! God says he’s more concerned about what is inside the young man’s heart.

[Sidebar: this doesn’t bode well for the guy’s heart! But it is interesting that we see a pattern where good looks, and the accolades of others, are not in line with what God is looking for. I wonder if pretty, athletic people don’t have to attend to the same things because they find other avenues easier. Guess God is evening the playing field for short, ugly people?]

Jesse’s first seven sons get the big red America’s Got Talent “X” from God. I have to feel for Samuel a little here. He’s already expressed fear that Saul might become angry that a new king was being anointed while Saul was still king, alive and kicking, and now God was crossing off the most obvious choices after Jesse had shown Samuel hospitality. It had to have been uncomfortable, and frustrating, and at least a little embarrassing.

But Samuel dutifully asks if there’s another son, figuring there has to be something, right? So Jesse summons in the youngest [read: least important] who has been left out watching the sheep while the ‘big kids’ were paraded before the visiting priest. David wasn’t even invited to his own coronation! He was considered too small, too weak, too young, too everything to be included, first by his own father and then by Samuel.

And then God says, “Rise and anoint him; he is the one.” And Samuel knows that this is who God has chosen. God already told Samuel- and Saul- that God had “sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of the people” (I Samuel 13:14)! God looked down at the world and out of all of the men he could’ve chosen to lead his people, he picked a guy who was the eighth son, the one with no blessing to grasp and nothing about himself to hold onto.

We can see that God loves the underdog, that God looked into this young man’s heart and saw something he could love and respect. That David would grow to be a mighty king with God as his leader and his heart aimed at doing God’s will. This was bound to be amazing!

David is the kind of young man that other people overlook, who is shuttled around as unimportant. David is the kind of person whose gifts are overlooked by others, who is forced to do work like running lunch to his older brothers who are part of the unbelieving horde.

But David is the first one who sees that it someone must stand up against the bully, the Philistine’s champion. His brothers try to talk him out of it; Saul tries to talk him out of it — he tells David he’s too young.

Sidebar momentarily: Isn’t that the way life works? Not only is there a giant – a danger, an evil that needs faced, but there are people who are supposed to be on our side, who are supposed to be our friends, who are supposed to be of the same belief system as us who say it can’t be done. David is prepared to go against Goliath, but he has to go through all of these doubters first. Unfortunately, we can be like that at church, too. If anything, I hope today that you begin to see problems as opportunities to be overcome – and that you encourage others to overcome them as well.

Thankfully, David recognizes that God has been using his life up to this point to prepare him for a giant, for Goliath. And he’s quick to tell Saul so in I Samuel 17:34-37. “Look,” says David, “I’ve been fighting off lions and bears. I’ve been left out in the wilderness by myself with my father’s sheep – and I’ve fought fiercer things than another man.”

Can you imagine? Lions and bears? With what, a sling and a few pebbles?

Here’s David, unafraid because he can see the giants that he has already defeated. He recognizes where God moved in his life before. 

And David tells Saul that. David reminds Saul that the battle is God’s, not David’s.

Of course, Saul tries to dress David in the armor Saul would use to fight Goliath even though he wasn’t brave enough or faithful enough to do it. Isn’t that the way it always goes? There’s a new way of doing something and we tend to try to fit it into the same old boxes, we say, ‘it’s never been done that way before.’ And here’s David, wise enough to say, “No, thanks. I’ve got this.”

Every few years, someone tries to use the story of David and Goliath to sell television episodes – or even a movie – with limited success. People just don’t buy in. They want to believe that a little guy can upset the big guys (that’s why we watch March Madness), but they just can’t seem to believe that a kid with a sling shot would actually take down a fully-armored warrior. It just doesn’t make sense.

So here we are, yadda yadda yadda. One sling, five stones, out into the field David goes. Goliath mocks David and David’s response is just awesome:

“You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel” (I Samuel 17:45-6).

Mic drop. Exit stage left.

In fact, if we’re putting this up against actual war movie hype speeches, this is in my top three. Which ones are the other two? Why, I’m so glad you asked!

In Braveheart, William Wallace tells his assembled farmers preparing for the culmination of the war (and movie): “Fight and you may die. Run, and you’ll live… at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin’ to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… OUR FREEDOM!”

Pretty inspiring, right?

In Independence Day, President Whitmore channels Winston Churchill and Dylan Thomas as his ragtag pilots prepare to take on the alien fleet: “In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world, and you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. Mankind, that word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences any more. We will be united in our common interest. Perhaps it’s fate that today is the 4th of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom. Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution, but from annihilation. We’re fighting for our right to live, to exist and should we win the day, the 4th of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day when the world declared in one voice, ‘We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on, we’re going to survive.’ Today we celebrate our independence day!”

There’s only one movie speech I like better than those two … but I’ll save that for another day.

“I come against you in the name of the Lord.” Roll that one around on your tongue a minute. Think of your giants. Tell one right now, in your own head, “Fill in the blank, you come against me with all of your junk and I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty. You’re done. Stick a fork in it.”

David pulls a Babe Ruth. He calls his shot. He tells Goliath what is going to happen, and then he goes and does it. It’s almost boring at this point because we can see the way the tide has changed, how we’ve moved from the crowd’s unbelief to David’s faith. We’ve seen how one divine spark burning is enough to catch the world on fire.

So, sure, David defeats Goliath; the Philistines run and the Israelites rout them. That’s the story we tell our kids from little on up, to remind them to stand up to their bullies, to remember that God is with them, and to be reminded that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.

But to really learn from this story, I believe we must consider what kind of person we are – and what kind of person we want to be. While this is often boiled down to David and Goliath, it’s truly much more complex. Consider these types of people – and examine your own heart.

First, there’s Goliath – the bully – the type of person who believes that their previous ‘wins’ and show of force are their best means of success, who prey on the fear of others to empower themselves and disempower others.

Second, there’s Saul – the king – the type of person who has been put in a position of authority but who lacks leadership qualities, and who proves to be unworthy of following.

Third, there is David – the young boy – the type of person ignored by others, whose skills are overlooked, but who chooses bravery when put in a position where a response is needed.

And then there are the masses in between – the Israelite army who had no faith of their own, and placed it in a man – only to crumble and cave in fear when a threat arose; and the Philistine army, who had been so lulled into believing that their bully was the best bully, who finally found themselves turning tail and running when their false security was exposed.

The Bible is full of people who stepped out of the crowd, who believed in faith that they were called to run toward the danger rather than from it. Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego; Daniel; Paul; Stephen. And one of my new favorites, from 2 Samuel 23:21-22:

Benaiah son of Jehoiada, a valiant fighter from Kabzeel, performed great exploits. He struck down Moab’s two mightiest warriors. He also went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion.

Seriously, who goes into a pit on a snowy day to kill a lion? Who pursues the danger, the problem, the evil to its lair to put an end to it?

Men and women of God, that’s who. The kind of people who…

… walk on water…

…perform miracles…

…feed the hungry…

…speak for those who have no voice…

….fight injustice.

These are the Davids, the Benaiahs, the Daniels of the world, who push past their own anxiety, their own pain, their own disappointment, and recognize their moment when it comes. They are heroes, and they come in all shapes and sizes. And we could be next.

Do we have that kind of bold faith, to walk out onto the battlefield of our lives and claim the victory in the name of Jesus? Doesn’t it have to start with our attitudes and work its way out? Can we recognize that if we want our world to change, that we have to see the ways we need to change to be more like Jesus and recognize that God wants to use us as his “champions”?

I hope that you will recognize that there are battles worth fighting, and that you will fight them in the name of the one true God. I hope that you will pray that God will give you the strength to move when others are afraid and petrified, that God will use you to be a mighty force for stomping fear and setting people free.

How will you face your giants today? Whose hero will you be?

Amen.

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment