Conjuring Voice

A sermon based on Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8 preached on December 10th, 2017

Sermon audio

In order to find our way into these opening words from Mark’s gospel for this morning, I have to take you back to college—to the day when I walked into my Public Speaking classroom on the day of my first presentation in front of that class. When I walked in that morning, there was a classmate who took one look at me and told me I looked like I was about to vomit. I was in such a nervous stupor, I mindlessly replied by saying, “Thank you.”

This sort of nauseousness that came with public speaking occurred without fail.  Forget butterflies. These were Gremlins inside. If you had been able to tell me then that I’d be doing what I’m doing in front of you this morning, there’s no way I would have believed you.

Then, there was my English 050 class I had to take in my first semester of my Freshman year in college because I had failed my entrance essay. Somehow, I had graduated high school with no idea how to write a paper.

My English 050 class met twice a week in a trailer on the fringes of Old Dominion University. And the professor, through patient tutelage, taught me how to structure words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into college-worthy essays. She taught me the finer points—writing in such a way to get my readers somewhere, and she woke up something inside of me. By the time she was done, I had developed a love for it all—something that lied dormant until that 050 class came along. I didn’t know it was there, but that professor conjured it up in me—let something loose or free.

These sorts things, they come slowly. With patience and slow practice. Nothing like this comes easy. In order to wake up to what we’re good at, we must first fail and fall and then get back up again—find someone who can walk with us as we move from that place and teach us who we really are—who can tease out of us, or conjure up in us, who we shall be—that thing inside of us that lies dormant, but has been waiting to come alive. We all hope to one day find our voice.

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The first written words about God’s coming in Jesus Christ come to us from Mark’s pen. These words from the earliest of the four gospels are not spoken to shepherds, angels, or wise men. They are spoken to us.

The beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.

They are here for us this day in Advent, but they speak into every season of our lives—at least to those of us who have ears to hear a voice that cries out from the wilderness, addressing us with their stark and altogether confounding and compelling announcement:

Now hear this! Now, O you people of God, listen up!

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John the Baptist’s father was a priest in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. We hear about him in Luke’s gospel. When he heard word from the angel Gabriel about how in their old age he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son, he doubted—more than that, he was incredulous. Unbelieving. As punishment for Zechariah’s incredulity, God took away his voice.

John grew up not wanting anything to do with work or worship in the Jerusalem temple, even though he was next in line to do so. His call led him far from the Temple, out into the wilderness. John found his place on the far side of the Jordan River, where he set up camp and called all the people to come to him and be baptized, not cleansed with water as they did in the Temple, but this fresh meaning John had given to the same act. John’s baptism was a once-and-for-all sign of repentance. John’s ministry was an invitation to the people to forget about the repetitive religious rigamarole of offering unending sacrifices and being washed over and over again to be made right with God. John’s Baptism was meant to change people’s hearts and lives. In effect, John was saying that God doesn’t want any more empty ceremony. God’s not interested in that. God wants our lives. God is interested in having our hearts.

The people had been lulled to sleep through their repetitive religious movements, and John the Baptist shows up in the middle of their slumber like an alarm clock, rude and loud, and he would not stop crying out from the wilderness until the people of God wake up from the trance of their drowsy ceremonial religion, and wake up to the living God. The God who still speaks.

God does not show up to give His people the religion they want. God comes close to give us the truth that we need. And the truth might feel at first like a wrecking ball, here to destroy everything in its wake, but then after it tears down what is false and hollow inside of us, truth sticks around to build us back up again in an entirely new way—to build us back up into Jesus-shape. At last, the truth frees us to be who God wants us to be.

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With John the Baptist here at the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, God is speaking into our Advent inviting us to start anew, to offer to us a new way to walk and speak and live. And we begin that process by leaving the old behind—shedding worn-out skin. We are like the crowds listening for the voice of the prophet John, seeking new direction for their future.

We, too, look for God’s definitive intervention to set things right in this world and in our own lives. And John points us to Jesus, who came so long ago but is still, this Advent approaching us, His people. As in the past, Jesus’s arrival among us may shock us. Now, just as then, He comes showing us who we really are before God, calling us back into right relationship. This is what repentance is—a conjuring. This is what the wilderness prophets, and the prophets among us, do: they come alongside us and invite us to wake up to who we really are before God. It is the prophet’s task to invite their people to come alive to the truth that God is present and working, calling us to turn around and see the God who creates us for relationship with Himself, who has been pursuing us since the foundation the the cosmos, and has been speaking compelling words to us ever since—words of peace and assurance, forgiveness and challenge, confrontation and mercy, all of which are spoken so that we might be transformed by the renewing of our hearts and minds.

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According to John the Baptist and all the prophets of the one true God, Advent is no time for God’s people to be silent. There was a day when the Pastor of a church was paid by the people to be their voice in the presence of God. It used to be an unspoken assumption that all one needed to do at church was show up, sit up, shut up, and pay up. But those days are no more. Today’s pastors are called to something far more challenging: We do what we do to conjure up, tease out, encourage, and empower others to live and speak their faith—to find their God-given voice.

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Friends, you know the day. This is no time to be silent. These are times for us to find our voice and raise it. I’m here to tell you that you have a voice and that God can speak through your voice. Jesus—the long-awaited One, the One we expect this Advent—can be known through you. Just as John the Baptist heralded Jesus with the power of his speech and presence, so God uses our voice, yours as well as mine, to speak Christ into this suffocated and voice-choked world.

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This Advent, friends, there’s a conjuring, compelling voice—one that’s here to wake us up to our own lives, one that brings words of challenge and confrontation, assurance, hope, peace, joy, love, and mercy. One that conjures in us some new Word of God. One that has come close to compel us to speech—strong speech, confident and truth-telling.

Find your voice and speak of this coming Christ so that you may be transformed by the renewing of your hearts and minds. Let this be your life’s work so that others may know the Truth and the Life.

It is Advent, and it is no time to be silent.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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Apocalypse Survival Kit

A sermon based on Isaiah 64:1-12 and Mark 13:24-37 preached December 3rd, 2017

I can hear you. You’re saying to yourselves, What’s Patrick doing reading this text? Does he not know it’s Advent? If I wanted to hear a fire and brimstone sermon this morning, I would have gone to another church. What’s an apocalyptic passage like this—an assigned reading for today, no less—doing here on the first Sunday in Advent?

That’s a good question.

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We hear a lot in that one word: Apocalypse. One mention of it and our minds, very much steeped in centuries-long cultural messages, go in tons of directions. In words like these from Jesus, we hear the warnings of fanatical preachers condemning the world for its moral degradation, trying their best to tease the end times—to encourage God to speed up the process a bit.

We hear in these words prognostications from televangelists about the whens and hows and whys of a God who must be altogether angry—enraged, really—and is just around the corner, ready to scare the bejesus out of all of us. Who will bring an apocalypse where all the good people will be sucked up into the heavens and everyone else will be left behind. We, spared. They? Well, they’re in for it. There are those who take passages like this and treat them like evacuation routes or escape plans.

There’s a satirical cartoon that advertises a roof escape hatch. A worker will come out to your place and cut a hole in your roof, turning it into kind of vertical doggy door, so that when you get assumed up into the sky at the end of times, you won’t hit your head on the way up.

We’ve been taught too may wrong-headed, wrong-hearted things about this. And it’s all non-sense.

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There’s no way around the fact that Jesus has some startling news for us in these words. There is a warning in them, and we ignore the vision given to us from the voice of our Lord to our detriment, but I’m not sure Jesus shared any of this to scare the pants off of us. Yes, these words are filled with caution and injunction, but have you noticed there’s nothing in what Jesus says here that sounds like a threat.

One telltale sign of the false messiahs and teachers of that day and the false prophets in our day too, is that they were all about showing off their own self-importance. They say what they say and do what they do to impress, because they have nothing else to offer. Jesus, on the other hand, is restrained here—as is the way he delivers these words to us. There are no scared-straight tactics here. Jesus doesn’t manipulate us like that. He never has. He does nothing to impose or compel faith. Instead, Jesus declares these things in order to get us to wake up to the present, to pay attention to what’s happening right here, right now.

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The word apocalypse is from the Greek—the language of the New Testament—and it means an uncovering or a revealing. Apocalypse is a word not about the future, but about the present. It’s a word about possibilities.

Jesus is uncovering something for us in this passage. Revealing something to us. And while uncovering something that we’d just as soon keep hidden can be a frightening prospect, the point is not to scare us, but to get us to take notice of what’s happening right in front of us. To ready ourselves, to anticipate what’s already underway. To startle us alive. To shake us awake—awake to what’s really going on, awake to the possibilities of the present moment. To see and then respond to the invitation in everything.

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Biblically understood, apocalypses happen every day. Whenever the earth shakes a bit under our feet or the faultiness of our lives crack open. They happen whenever we’re thrown off our center by something that happens, and it wakes us up to something that has always been, but we simply couldn’t see until that stark moment—when all the sudden, everything is laid bare in front of us.

You know these moments. You have lived these moments. Plenty of them.  Hospital stays where life as we know it comes to a screeching halt, and we are confronted by our own frailties. When the tales we tell ourselves about self-sufficiency and longevity are suddenly exposed as the myths they are. Or, how about those moments when a parent looks at their child and it dawns on them that they’ve grown up too quickly—right in front of our eyes. And it hits them like a ton of bricks.

These are moments when things are revealed for what they actually are. They happen all the time, but most of the time we’re not ready for them. Apocalypses show us what we’re not seeing. In their small way, these tiny, everyday apocalypses are an ending of the world—not in total, but as we know it. We wake up to something happening right in front of us that changes everything just a little bit.

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Here at the end of Mark chapter 13, Jesus is wrapping up a warning—something along the lines of: “everything we know passes away in due time.” In this particular instance, Jesus is talking about the temple in Jerusalem. This is a recently completed, tremendously huge, and very impressive monument that King Herod the Great has built for the Jews to worship in—where they believed their God resided in.

At the beginning of Mark 13, Jesus declares that the Temple in Jerusalem will one day be destroyed. It too will pass away, He says. Every stone will be thrown down, not one will remain on another. Indeed it was destroyed in 68 AD. Jesus declares that He is the new Temple. Everything, including this great temple, comes to nothing, but He, Jesus, Son of God, will forever remain.The end of something also means the beginning of something more, something bigger, clearer, something closer to the truth.

Apocalypses are hardly welcome, but they do come to reveal things for what they actually are. We must catch ourselves up to them. God works inside of each one. The promise of Christ is not that we are saved from these apocalypses, but that we’re saved in them. Our task is to endure and keep watch. Our ability to get through each of one—big or small—has much more to do with God’s faithfulness than our wit and wisdom, our skill or ingenuity.

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I’ve gathered together my own Apocalypse Survival Kit. I try my best to carry it with me wherever I go, but some days I forget. I’d like to share with you what’s in it. It contains five things—if you can call them “things”. I want to go through each of them real quick.

The first one is hope. Hope is that thing we do when we put our trust in, wait for, eagerly anticipate something or someone. We only have hope when we choose to patiently endure now because we know there will be a then, and that somewhere deep down God isn’t done with us yet.

The second thing in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Peace. Biblical peace is so much more than the absence of war. God’s peace means wholeness, completeness. It comes from a Hebrew word we know: Shalom. It does not come from us. It does not happen simply when all is calm and bright. Peace happens when God is the source of every one of our longings.

May you see where I’m going.

The third item in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Joy. Author C.S. Lewis thought that joy must be sharply distinguished from happiness or pleasure. I think he’s right. Biblical joy is a by-product of a life with God. It’s not a feeling but a perspective we adopt that’s more constant and more enduring than adverse circumstances.

The fourth thing in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Love. Love is the greatest of these four, only to be outdone by the fifth. Author Frederick Buechner asserts that the first stage is to believe there is only one kind of love, the middle stage is to believe that there are many kinds of love, and the last stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love. Love, if we’re going to understand it in any way close to how God does, is an act of the will. We love our neighbors by working for their well-being, even if it means sacrificing our own well-being in the process. Love is a decision we make over and over again.

And the last thing in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Christ. The greatest of these five is Christ, because in Him we find the perfect image of the first four. In Him we find our way, our truth, and our life. He is God come near this Advent, over and over again surprising us, confronting us, comforting us, waking us up to what it means to really live this life, to what it means to be human. On the cross, He showed us what it means to live completely—to love even if it does us in, and in whose Advent, was God come down. In Him, and still because of Him, heaven keeps invading earth.

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Carry these five things close in an Apocalypse Survival Kit of your own. And this Advent, keep watch with me.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Arrivals, Departures, and Arrivals

A sermon based on John 1:14-18 and Jeremiah 29:1, 4:14 preached on November 26th, 2017

This is high season for flying. Thanksgiving and Christmas send millions crisscrossing the skies visiting family and coming back home again. Airports are packed to the gills with anxious travelers, each of them feeling like the rigamarole of it all—checking bags, being scanned in deeply personal ways by the TSA, making their way through crowds of people, through the very narrow aisles of a aircraft and into a seat built for a size zero model—well, it’s all a bit too much. Many may wonder if traveling by plane is worth the hassle involved. And that is why no one likes airports. When we walk into an airport, we don’t intend to stay for long. We intend to go—to leave as soon as possible. They’re places designed to take us some place else. Nothing stays put in an airport. No one belongs there.

There are people who make their living in airports, though. Millions actually. You can find them if you look carefully. They’re the ones who look comfortable in a terminal. They’re the ones walking slowly down each long breezeway. And maybe, if you look even closer, you may find one who shows up to work at the airport wearing a clergy collar. Airport chaplains are still a thing. We may not notice them. These days, they can hardly be found inside airport chapels. Who goes to an airport chapel anyway? Now, they’re out and about, in the corridors and terminals, they’re riding up and down escalators, searching for travelers who look like they could use some help or encouragement.

People who go through the airport are very vulnerable, and probably at 35,000 feet, you might be the loneliest person alive. As flight delays worsen, security lines bulge, and nerves fray, chaplains at airports across the country cruise up and down concourses, casting a trained eye on the swirl of humanity in search of anybody who appears in need. The attention of a good airport chaplain may be the only personal, comforting thing a traveler comes across. Singer-songwriter, Neko Case has a line in one of her songs where she says that she thinks Heaven will smell like the airport. She may be onto something. What if God loves airports?

God has a history of hanging out in places that are no places at all. How many times in scripture do we read about people encountering God in the wilderness, for example? God has a tendency to settle down in middle spaces, settings where no one would ever think to call home.

The Reverend Mote, an Episcopal member of the interfaith chaplains’ department at Atlanta International Airport—Mote, and interesting name for an airport chaplain—was still in training when, on a hunch, she decided to check the departures board for lengthy delays. She noticed one and started heading to that gate where she met a traveler who just realized she would miss her aunt’s funeral. “I’m on the edge of panic,” the woman told her.

Chaplain Mote sat with her. Listening. Trying her best to bridge the gap over this woman’s troubled waters.

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Most of the time, the prophet Jeremiah was a lousy chaplain. Here in chapter 29, he writes a letter to his people Israel. It’s full of God’s words for them. The Israelites are in exile in Babylon, having been recently kicked out of their Promised Land by an invading army. They were beside themselves. They believed that God had abandoned them, left them for dead in a nowhere place.

So, here they are in Babylon, complaining about their displacement, holding their breath, waiting for the day, the hour, the minute when they can go back home.

Any moment now,

they thought,

God’s gonna rescue us from this in-between place, this nowhere land, and then we can get back to living again.

There was a preacher named Hananiah who was a false prophet, a good news preacher

—one we might call these days, a Prosperity Gospel preacher—who spoke up and lied to the exiles, telling the Israelites,

You won’t be here for long! Don’t unpack your suitcases. God’s going to take care of us, and before you know it, you all will be back home again.

It didn’t work out that way. God’s message to His people is much harder to swallow.

You’ll be in Babylon for a long time. So, you best unpack your bags, and find a way to call this place ‘home.’

Sometimes, the truth stings. But it must be spoken, anyway. So, the prophet goes on:

Quit sitting around feeling sorry for yourselves, you people of God! You will be in Babylon for a long time. You had better make the best of it. Don’t just survive, thrive.

Put down roots, build houses, build businesses in this place, plant gardens, have families. No, you’re not at home, but God has placed you here. That must mean He has something. God wants you to do life well right where you are, so be faithful in this strange city. Settle down here. Establish roots. Dig in.

See, the only opportunity any of us have to live by faith is in the circumstances we are experiencing right now, right here—in this house you live in, in this family you find yourself in, and in this job you’ve been given to do.

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The Israelites’ old life is dead. Now it’s their task to find new life in Babylon. This is God shouting into their ear,

Arrive, Israel, arrive! Show up in this place. Don’t just exist, do not simply graze this land. Dig in.

And these same words are for us, too: Don’t just endure in this life, flourish! Grow where you’re planted. God expects much from His people, no matter where we find ourselves. Or, as Jesus put it in His Sermon on the Mount,

Become salt and light in and for the world…wherever in the world you are.

Wherever we find ourselves, God wants His people to make the inward journey from refugee to resident, from victims to visionaries. From seeing ourselves as the defeated to living as the difference-makers. This is God’s idea of faithful living.

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These days, we the church and all of its people, are experiencing a peculiar kind of exile. Many of us are home—some of us have never left home. But the neighborhood has changed, hasn’t it? A few decades ago, churches could exist right where their building sat, and people from all over would come to us. Those days are gone. But that isn’t the problem. The problem is that we’re still waiting for people to come to our door. We keep wondering what’s taking them so long to notice we’re here. Guess what? They either no longer know or no longer care that we’re here.

Sometimes exile happens when the world around us changes. Sometimes, we experience dislocation or displacement even though we never left home! This is a change we didn’t choose, but it has happened. This is exile. We’re home, but it feels different. And just like the Israelites, we can complain all we want.  We can pine for our yesteryears when all was good and right and plentiful. But that’s not where God has placed us. So, no longer can we ask questions like “How do we get more folks in our doors?” or “What do we have to do to make church important for people again?”

God wants us to have a new conversation—to change the way we talk. The church’s life isn’t over, not is it slowly slipping away. It’s moving. This is hard news for we the church to hear, just as Jeremiah’s words were hard for the ancient Israelites. Everything is displaced. God is not calling us back to where we once were. God is inviting us to show up in the place where we now find ourselves. To invest ourselves and our ministry in this new context, to sing a new song in this strange land. This is not something we’ve chosen, but we can no longer resist the change we see. Denying it is futile. Instead, we must find a way to live faithfully in this new landscape God has us in. The new and faithful question for us is: Now that God has us here, in this place, among this people, how do we show up and become a faithful people in it? How do we become salt and light in and for the world…wherever in the world we are?

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And we would do well not to come up with an answer to those questions all by ourselves, but to look to the One who is the Answer to all of our questions.

We are a week away from Advent, the season when we ready ourselves—try our best to make a place for—the arrival of another both within us and among us. This is the season where every heart is invited to prepare Him room, because in the fullness of time, God became one of us in Christ Jesus. As the first words from John’s gospel for the morning declares,

The Word became flesh and made His home among us.

In other words, God moved into our neighborhood. Now, He lives among His people. He’s out and about, strolling the corridors and breezeways, the sidewalks and front porches, searching for travelers who look like they could use some help or encouragement. We have a God who is out and about. Who in Christ now called this place Home. Who has arrived, who has never departed, and promises to arrive again. Who, throughout history, has met us right where we are, and says to us,

You are never in the wrong place to serve God.

All praise to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

All Blessings Flow

A sermon based on Philippians 4:4-9 and Deuteronomy 26:1-11 preached on October 22nd, 2017

Sermon audio

This morning, I got up out of bed, a mattress put together in New Jersey by a factory full of workers. I picked out clothes, probably stitched together by a couple of underpaid ladies in China, and purchased from a salesman at Men’s Wearhouse who didn’t seem to mind taking the measurement of my inseam right after we introduced ourselves to each other. The hot shower I took was brought to me by a water heater assembled in Missouri, probably by a couple of employees in some factory just trying to put food on the table for their families.

I sat at a kitchen table handed down to me by Roger and Pam Nicholson, a retired Presbyterian minister and his wife who were moving back to Richmond after years of pastoring a church in Seattle. While I sat at that table, I ate 4 slices of bacon, provided to me by a pig farmer in Iowa. I also had a glass of kefir, made from the milk of a farm full of cows in California, delivered to our local grocery store by at least seven different refrigerated trucks all with drivers who spend weeks away from their families in order to keep up with their kids’ college tuition, or maybe to pay for their 7-year-old’s ballerina classes.

I turned on the TV and watched a couple of anchors who all got up probably around 4 this morning, maybe earlier, to get to work on time to go on air and give me the fantasy football insights I expect to hear whenever I tune into ESPN. By the time I left the house this morning, I had depended on 100’s, maybe even thousands of people who work hard, every day of their lives to provide me with the stuff of my livelihood. Food to eat, clothes to wear, clean water in which to bathe, a way to entertain myself. And that’s just the in the first two and a half hours of my day. Our lives are not our own. They are woven together in this huge web of interdependence. We do indeed belong to each other.

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These days, this world, and our hours in it, are busy. More than ever before, really. And sometimes we forget among the anxiousness of it all what we’re all so busy for. What’s the fruit of all this running around we do? And is the fruit good? That should be a question we ask ourselves often. It’s super easy to stay busy, maybe even exhausted, but why and what for? Is all the busyness and exhaustion worth it?

One of the worlds that will forever astound me is the one that takes place inside a hive. Most of us are unaware that bees were one of the early symbols of the Christian Church. The fervent activity of the beehive suggesting the church, hibernation suggesting the resurrection, and the honey offering a symbol of the abundant new life in Christ.

Bees are a symbol for ourselves as Christ’s people. Let’s give ourselves to that metaphor for a second. Bees—they’re not self-made creatures. They busy themselves gathering from the earth. They take from what’s already among them, given to them day in a day out. Nectar is collected from the earth. Bees trust it’s there, but they work to find it. Nectar is gleaned and gathered from an earth that is much bigger than they are. But then they work together to make something new out of it. Something sweet and nourishing, rich and satisfying.

Honey was the early church’s symbol of the abundant new life in Christ. Milk, honey, and first fruits are all metaphors for God’s grace because they are not ours—they were never ours. They are gleaned from the abundance of God’s good creation. We eat and are satisfied from what is not ours—what is never ours. Bees were also a symbol of the early Christian church because their day to day work was done unceasingly for the common good. St. John of Chrysostom said it this way in a 12th Century sermon:

The bee is more honored than other animals, not because it labors, but because it labors for others

We do the work we do, inside and outside the hive of church with an unceasing faith and commitment to the church, to each other, and to God’s purposes and intentions and promises to and for the world. Church is a hive who works and shares life together to produce the sweetness of God’s grace and mercy—from whom all blessings flow.

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We are in Deuteronomy. The verb Give is used seven times in these eleven verses. Last week we looked at the story of God’s gracious provision to His hungry people when He provided daily manna—daily bread for the journey into the Promised Land. And here we are at the end of their time in the wilderness. It has been 40 years. A generation.

Those who will soon enter into this long-awaited and long-promised land flowing with milk and honey are the sons and daughters of those who were delivered from Egyptian slavery. They are the ones who have never known anything but desert living. Manna and quail are all their tongues have ever tasted. For them, milk and honey was nothing but a rumor—some dream of plenty, a kind of abundance they had yet to experience. But now, at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses is readying this new generation for what they will see. There they will live in bounty. There they will know lavishness.

Their future will be full of abundance and Moses knows there’s a danger in abundance. Abundance breeds amnesia. There’s a point at which we all forget—individually and collectively—that the profusion of resources surrounding us is a gift. And when we forget this, we begin to call it all ours. These gifts lose their giftedness in our eyes and they become resources we consume. We begin to think we have afforded them because we’ve worked hard to get them, and that’s when an attitude of entitlement erodes us.

We’ve been living in a world full of commodities available to us—not resources gleaned from and entrusted to our faithful use, but products wholly consumed, having convinced ourselves that we have earned them all on our own.

This is the delusion of autonomy, and Moses tells his people and all of us who are a part of the future generations of the people of God, that we have been designed by God to live in worshipful dependence and in humble interdependent community with other people. Our self-sufficiency is a delusion, but it’s a powerful one—one we have to fight off in ourselves ever single day just as Moses urges the Israelite people to do. As busy and hardworking as bees are, there’s one thing they are never, and that’s autonomous. Their one existence is community-based. That’s why they are the perfect illustration for us who call ourselves Church.

If there is a Creator and if we are His creatures, the work of his hands, the beneficiaries of His promises, the ones who have been delivered into life abundant by His hand and by His sacrifice on the cross, then there is no such thing as autonomy. So, we give back. We give back to the One who gave everything to us, for us. Who went to the cross with no notion and in no manner of self-sufficiency or self-preservation, no delusion of autonomy. And so must we. We give because in Christ, God has first given everything for us. And the only reason we have is because God gives.

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We have a promised land, and too often we take this as a sign of a special blessing from God, rather than a sign of special responsibility. We who call ourselves Church have been freed to give not in drips or trickles, as an afterthought from what’s left when all the rest of our life has already made its financial, emotional, and time demands upon us, but from our first-fruits. Before everything else takes, we give to the One from whom all blessings flow.

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I ask that you would find your Scripture insert.

God knows that when a people forget their past, they lose their present and future. So God has given us words we can use to remind ourselves of where we have come from, who we are, and what our responsibilities to God are.

Please, let us confess who we are by reading together from our passage of Deuteronomy, starting at verse 5 and reading through the end of that middle paragraph:

Then you should solemnly state before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a starving Aramean. He went down to Egypt, living as an immigrant there with few family members, but that is where he became a great nation, mighty and numerous.

‘The Egyptians treated us terribly, oppressing us and forcing hard labor on us. So we cried out for help to the Lord, our ancestors’ God. The Lord heard our call. God saw our misery, our trouble, and our oppression.

‘The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land—a land full of milk and honey. So now I am bringing the early produce of the fertile ground that you, Lord, have given me.’

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

The Power to Empower

A sermon based on Genesis 2:18-24 and Ephesians 5:21-6:9 preached August 13th, 2017

Sermon audio

We’ve been immersing ourselves in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians all summer long now. We’ve tried our best, so far, to do more than that, though. If we’ve been paying attention to what Paul has to say here, if we’ve given ourselves fully to the truth about who God is, who we are in God, then there’s no way we can come to the end of this letter without a transformed and altogether renewed vision of the world, of the God who created it, who entered into it through the person of Jesus Christ, and who still to this day fills it with His mighty and grace-filled presence through the Holy Spirit.

We started big. Talking about God. Big words about the eternal and infinite. We’ve been invited into the vastness of our living God, urged to jump into the deep end of God’s presence—vast, long, wide, deep. And as we have moved further into the letter to the Ephesians, the more particular and specific the language has been.

All the sudden we realize that we are because God is. That the ins and outs of our day—all the way down to the boring and humdrum aspects of it are the way they are because God is the way God is. There is nothing, absolutely nothing in or about our lives that God does not have words to speak into. Nothing is secular or completely up to us. Everything is sacred and completely up to God. We must listen closely.

It’s quite easy for us to see God in the vast expressions of the cosmos—a sunset, the beauty of nature, the flight of a bird, the mysterious changing of Summer into Fall. It’s quite another thing to see God at work in the small parts of our lives. In our relationships, our households, in our daily encounters with neighbors and strangers, our wives and husbands, parents and grandparents, our children and grandchildren, aunts and uncles. This is far more complicated.

What does God have to do with those things? How is God speaking into those routine parts of our lives? Is God there at all? Or have we left Him here at church from one Sunday to the next? Did we leave God in the mountains of Montreat or in some other transcendent get-away, under some notion that keeping God in places like that protects God from our everyday lives, and our everyday lives from God?

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Paul isn’t done yet. The further we get along in this letter, the more specific the context gets.

Last week, we talked about how God’s presence changes our actions and attitudes when we’re in church community. This week, Paul drills down further. This week, Paul wants us reflecting upon how God’s presence changes our actions and attitudes when we’re at home. How husbands treat wives and wives treat husbands in a way that reflects the love and grace of God. How marriage changes the family dynamics. How children are a part of this. What their role is in the context of family—how they are to treat their parents and, in turn, how their parents are to treat them. There’s absolutely no part of our lives that God is not speaking in to.

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Last Monday evening, I had the honor to officiate the wedding of my Father-in-Law, Jim, and his fiancée, Katheryn. (I have to be careful how I phrase that—at first, I told some folks that I was marrying my Father-in-Law.)

It was a beautiful ceremony. We held it in our Chapel, surrounded by a dozen or so family members. Afterward, all of us went to out to dinner at Fratelli’s. We had a great time. As we were leaving the restaurant, Katheryn, the bride, gave me a hug and said to me,

Thank you for not mentioning anything about submission or obedience.

I laughed and agreed with her. I told her I hadn’t even thought about saying any words like that. And that was true. We’ve all been to plenty of weddings where passages like this one is read or at least mentioned.

Wives, obey your husbands.

Maybe, the word submit is even worse.

We end up cursing passages like this one and others like it. Why couldn’t Paul just keep his mouth shut about such matters? He wasn’t even married! So, when we hear a pastor say these words in the context of a wedding ceremony, all of us squirm about in our pews. But in these weddings, the surrounding verses are always left out. Whether we agree with it or not, we hear verse 22, but we never hear its context—all that Paul says around it.

Verse 21: Be subject to one another. Why, or for what reason? Out of reverence to Christ. And we discover in the next paragraph that husbands are not off the hook. Just like every other Godly relationship, marriage is a two-way street.

Verse 25: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

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I want to encourage you to hear what’s astounding about these words from Paul. Women in his day, and in every time before, were considered property. They were not people. They were not her’s or she’s—they were its. Objects. Owned and never loved.

Enter these words from Paul: “Husbands, stop thinking you own your wives. Don’t treat them that way! Love them instead.”

It’s as if Paul is saying “You live in a culture that tells you that in order to be a strong and powerful man, you just assert ownership and dominance over your wife. No more of that for us! Reject this cultural message. Your new life in Christ calls for an entirely different way of thinking about your spouse and your marriage. Husbands, love your wives and hold them up—honor them, seek their interests and personal development.”

This was radically counter-cultural. And in quite a number of places, it’s still a radical idea. Be subject to one another.

Here’s the thing about submission that we don’t understand anymore: Submission, as it’s spoken about in this passage and others like it, is never forced. It is always voluntary. Furthermore, this submission to another is never a permanent arrangement. It’s always situational. There are moments when it’s right for you to submit to me and just as many moments when it’s right for me to submit to you. Such is the way of a healthy relationship.

Neither does Paul’s idea of submission have anything to do with hierarchy. It does not mean that one of us has the right to assert power over another. It is not that. What Paul is talking about here is a flexible, dynamic way of relating to one another that’s based upon self-giving love. We’re talking about the way of mutual servanthood. Never mandated but, in Christ—the Servant King—always encouraged. When we understand all this, it’s easier to see how these words are meant to free wives from the oppressive ways in which that ancient culture made objects out of them.

Today, these words are still here to free all of us, men and women, to empower one another—to lift each other up, asserting each other’s dignity and worth as the beloved and honored children of God we all are.

This is how to bring Christ into our homes, or more to the point, this is what it looks like when we practice Christ in our homes: in each other’s sight, our intrinsic value and worthiness takes off, has no limit. And we respond to each other’s God-given worth by becoming subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. In Christ, we have to power to empower one another, to lift each other into the light, to celebrate each other for the gifts we are to one another!

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I hope you can see how this is radically counter-cultural even today. No one may ever admit it, but we are a people who gain and assert our power and self-worth by recklessly and dismissively climbing over the backs of others.

We live in a world of unbelievers who do believe in something: they believe that the only way to practice power—to assert themselves—is to wield power over others. To these folks, self-centeredness, individualism, and independence are things to aspire to. For these people, the name of the game is that wrong kind of submission—the one Paul speaks against in this passage—the kind that says in order for me to be important and significant, you have to be unimportant and insignificant. Such is the way of the world. In the face of this ugly assertion, we who call ourselves followers of Christ shout No!

We are to live in such a way that we assert one another’s worth, to give witness to the truth that one person’s importance takes nothing away from another’s importance. That your power and significance, expressed and practiced biblically, is never had or asserted at the expense of my power and significance—or anyone else’s for that matter. Life, love, significance, and worth are not zero-sum games. And, in the same way, my expression of submission to you never means that I think myself as less important, less human, than you—just as your expression of submission to me never means you or I think you are worth anything less than me.

If we look at Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection, we would never think that submitting to each other could ever be done out of a sense of inferiority. Christ, the King of all kings, the All-Sovereign and All-Powerful Lord of all lords, came not to be served but to serve, and even give up His life for others.

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Friends, we are called to imitate Christ in all of our relationships. Each of us looking out for the interests of the other.

We are called to ditch all the worldly notions we have that tell us that submitting to each other makes us push-overs or weaklings or doormats. Far from being an expression of inferiority, our willingness to be, and witness as, servants to one another through our Servant Lord is an opportunity for us to lift up the lowly into the light of Christ. To bend down in an effort to pick others up.

We serve out of an expression of a strange kind of power—one that the world knows nothing about—the power to submit ourselves so that those we serve may be empowered.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

The Foothold of Faith

A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10 preached on June 11th, 2017

Sermon audio

Hobby wind-surfer, Adam Cowles, realized he was way off-course when he spotted a cargo ship. He was windsurfing the Swansea Bay, not too far from his house, but after a few hours of delightful distraction, Adam found himself in strange territory. He had unwittingly made his way into the Bristol Channel, 140 miles away from home.

The water that day was freezing cold. If he fell in, he’d be in serious trouble. If there came a lull in the wind, Adam could have found himself stranded. Opposite the cargo ship, Adam could see land, so he surfed his way to shore and walked into a nearby bar, soaking wet.

The locals must have seen sights like him before, because even though he was still dripping wet when he walked into that pub, the patrons thought and said nothing of it. They even bought him a beer.

Adam began to tell them his story.

They told him how far away from home he was. 140 miles. He was astonished. And then he was embarrassed when he had to call his wife, asking her to make the 280-mile round trip to pick him up. She was not happy.

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Wind is so prevalent inside of scripture that one could easily call it a character. A living force rather than an object or an atmospheric phenomenon.

God shows up in the beginning of the opening act, in the very first lines of our story in Genesis 1, as wind. This is the form in which the Spirit of God makes way into creation, and then helps creation take its shape out of what was before simply chaos and nonsense. The second verse in all of scripture says it this way:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

This is how God shows up. In a breeze. And that happens over and over again throughout God’s story—our story, too.

Consider the moment of the Exodus, when the Hebrew people, enslaved for two centuries in Egypt, make their way across the Red Sea and to the other side, outrunning Pharaoh and his army and into freedom. The Sea was split in two that day by a strong eastward wind.

And then there’s Jonah, the stubborn prophet, who tried his best to outrun God after God asked him to do something that made no sense to him. Throughout the Book of Jonah, he’s stopped, over and over again, to the point where it gets comedic, by wind and sea, by whale and wave.

We try our best but there’s no escaping the Spirit of God.

There’s at least two stories in each of the four Gospels, where fisherman disciples are out on a boat on the Galilee Sea. Terrified by brewing storms and rising waters, Jesus comes to calm the waves and the rain and brings them through. These are messages for us about how when we are caught in the scary seas of our own lives, when the water rises too high all around us, Jesus comes to us and subsides our fears and says to us the same thing he said to His disciples in those moments:

Peace be with you.

Last and certainly not least is the story we have in the Book of Acts where Luke gives us a glimpse of Paul’s travelogue. To get to the churches he has planted, Paul and his own team of disciples, servants, doctors, and scribes cross the Mediterranean Sea and sail up the Aegean between present-dayPaul Turkey and Greece, and north into the Sea of Marmara. Some of these voyages brought disaster. Pirates, shipwreck. Loss of cargo and loss of life. Throughout scripture, water and wind give life but they also take it away.

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dSo when Paul writes from a prison in Rome to the young believers in Ephesus—and by extension, to us—he has been wind-tossed, beat up, lost at sea, and then found again. Paul knows a thing or two about what it is to be blown about by wind. And he warns us, right at the get-go, here at the very beginning of Chapter 2,

Do not be blown about by the wind. Once you lived your entire lives wandering off-course in this perverse world….You were the offspring of the prince of the power of the air. He once owned you and controlled you.

I don’t know what kind of devil you believe in. We talk so little about evil and its personifications. Certainly, the personification of evil into some being with the proper name, Satan, is not as much a creature found in scripture as it is one that has been imagined in the tales of subsequent works of fiction: Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. We need to keep our stories straight.

We’ll talk more about this when we reach Chapter 4 of Ephesians, but for now, suffice it to say, here Paul describes some sort of evil or persuasive power, but he doesn’t give it a name or a form. It’s as if Paul is describing that thing mentioned in the first two verses of Genesis 1, a sort of earthly chaos, life and creation without shape, or meaning, or form. Life without God. That is a sort of evil in and of itself.

Paul is warning us against living in a way that’s uncritical, where we get swept up by the power of the air, picked up by every breeze that comes our way. Life lived empty and persuadable, easily manipulated by anything and everything around us. We can get picked up and pushed around wherever the breeze takes us, like that empty plastic bag at the beginning of the movie American Beauty. This is the prince of the power of the air. This is an opportunistic presence that will sweep us off our feet any chance it gets.

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We live in a culture full of wind-blown people. Too often, we get caught up in the prevailing winds of our day, and before we know it we’re like that empty plastic bag that gets knocked around by forces both visible and invisible. We get taken anywhere it pushes us.

What Paul is inviting all of us to see is a new way to live and move. Paul’s words here are a sort of prelude to the important and biblical idea of living in but not of the world. We cannot be blown about. Persuadable. Pushed about. We must find our footing. We must be discerning, keen, wise, sharp, perceptive, insightful, critical. You’ve heard the phrase,

If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for everything.

This is God’s way of saying a similar thing. Find your footing.

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Paul knew something about wind. He was a tentmaker.

These days, if a person calls him- or herself a tentmaker, there’s a good chance they’re a Pastor who specializes in creating new churches. Paul did that, but before he ever entered into the ministry he actually made tents. This is how he made a living, even while he sailed the seas, planting churches.

So, Paul knew a thing of two about wind. How to shelter oneself against it. How to build a structure that can withstand it. Build them strong, resilient, and with a big footprint so they hold up to the power of the air and the elements. Everything thrown at it.

As we mature in our faith, as we walk forward slowly in the Way of Jesus, following in His footsteps, we too become strong against the breezes that try to blow us off course.

It is with rope and ground pegs, poles and stakes that a tent becomes secure even in the most chaotic of climates. It’s the power of God’s grace that does the same thing for our minds, our hearts, our spirits. God’s grace pins us to solid ground, can keep us from being blown off course. Grace is the foothold of our faith.

I mentioned a few weeks ago when we began our look into Ephesians, that God’s grace given to us is not an end in itself. Grace is not the end of any conversation, as in, “but for the grace of God go I.” Grace is always the beginning of the conversation. Grace was in the wind that blew the disciples out of their tiny house on Pentecost, and it’s the power we have been given by God to walk out of here and do God’s work—in and for the world.

Grace is the fuel, the power source God gives us to start something—to go out from here, or wherever else we are, as agents of God’s love, as keepers of God’s Message, as sharers of God’s mercy. Grace is designed and given to us by God to take us places. It is first unmerited benefit, yes; but it’s also Divine enablement. Grace is given to us to get us going!

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Through grace, we gain a foothold in our faith, stand up tall in Christ, and then become agents of grace—taking it and using it. Paul writes,

For it is by grace you have been saved. You have received it through faith. It was not our plan or effort, it’s God’s gift. Pure and simple. You didn’t earn it.

That’s verse 8. It’s one of the most beloved in all of scripture, but I’m afraid it’s too often misunderstood. People use it to convince themselves that works—doing stuff with and because our faith—isn’t important. But what Paul says is, Take God’s gift of grace, freely given to you—yes, it’s never earned, it’s always a gift—but then do something with it. Use it. Pay it forward. Grace is never the end of the conversation; it’s always the beginning of one. God’s grace is given to us in order to be put to work through us. Grace is God’s enabling power for growth.

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If you feel like you’re trudging through life right now under your own power, if you’ve lost your footing, if you’ve exhausted yourself that way, let me re-introduce you to grace. Author Anne Lamott says,

When you’re out of good ideas, what you’re left with is God.

She describes grace as spiritual WD-40 or water wings, if that works better. And all you have to do to find grace is to say “Help,” preferably out loud. Shout it into the heavens if you have to. The heavens will hear you. “But watch out!” Anne Lamott says. The moment you say that word, “Help!”, the moment you find grace, buckle up! Because, powered by the Holy Wind of God as it always is, God’s grace will take you places you never intended to go!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Cross-Alive, God-Alive

A Holy Monday meditation on John 3:1-21 preached on April 10th, 2017

The holy city of Jerusalem came alive for a week. It was Passover. And even though the Palm Sunday parade was over, the festival was just getting started. They say that Jerusalem grew by 150,000 people at Passover. It was a city whose walls bulged at the seams. Inside those walls, people packed in shoulder to shoulder. Imagine Disney World, but with a Temple at the center instead of a castle. The place was teeming, loud, chaotic.

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The Jerusalem Temple stood tall and mighty in those days. It was a huge structure, Herod’s Temple was the central symbol in a city full of God-symbols. And that week, somewhere in that Temple complex was a Pharisee—a very important man—whose name was Nicodemus.

Most of our gospels make no mention of the Nicodemus. He’s nowhere to be found. But he is mentioned three times in John’s gospel. Here in his most well-known place in John chapter 3, but he surfaces again in chapter 7, and then one more time near the very end of John’s gospel, in chapter 19.This is interesting. Captivating, really. John, the one who wrote the fourth gospel, must have thought so, too.

Three mentions of this man, Nicodemus—once at the beginning, then in the middle, and another at end of his gospel. We should be curious. Could it be that Nicodemus—this Pharisee—is doing something quite like what we’re doing here at the beginning of Holy Week? Is Nicodemus chasing his way to Jesus?

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In our passage for today, we have an account of Nicodemus’ first—and most likely, only—conversation with Jesus. And it doesn’t go well. For the whole conversation, from verse 1 all the way to 21, Jesus and Nicodemus seem to talk past each other.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness, curious about who He is, but scared to death He’ll get caught being curious about Him.So he slinks to Jesus. He tip-toes up to Him at night. And for the whole conversation, Jesus talks way over Nicodemus’ head. Being a Pharisee, Nicodemus lives a life built out of rules, facts, head-knowledge. It’s a very cerebral existence. Nicodemus makes a living inside of moral and religious law. So, when Jesus starts in with a metaphor—this talk about being born again—poor Nicodemus gets lost real fast. He has no clue what Jesus is saying. Nicodemus slinks back into the cover of darkness, completely confused by his cryptic conversation with Jesus. Whatever questions he had of Jesus were never answered. His curiosity was left unsatisfied. If we were to guess, we might say, “Well, that’s the last we’ll hear of that guy!” Who would ever come back for more after such a frustrating conversation?! But Nicodemus keeps popping up.

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The next time he’s mentioned, is at the end of chapter 7. Just a brief cameo.

The Pharisees send temple guards to go arrest Jesus and bring Him in for questioning. The temple guards don’t do their job. They supposed to take Jesus captive, but instead they get captivated by Jesus’ teaching, and they find no reason to carry through with their orders. They come back without Jesus in hand-cuffs and get chewed out for their insolence. It was right then that Nicodemus speaks up and says,

Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?

Very interesting. In some round-about way, Nicodemus seems to be sticking up for Jesus.

Makes you wonder what sort of spiritual journey he’s been on between John 3 and John 7. This sounds like a man whose heart is changing. Do we sense a glimmer of discipleship, a hint of faith in this question he asks? Is Nicodemus slowly but surely coming out of the dark? Were Jesus’ former words about being born again starting to make some sense to Him? All that talk about being born again—Nicodemus thought then that Jesus was talking biology, but could it be that those words have been working on Nicodemus, coaxing him to grow, to come to life, to be born just like Jesus said?

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The third and final time Nicodemus is mentioned, He’s standing next to his friend, Joseph of Arimathea, at the base of the cross—Jesus still hanging from it, his dead body limp. Nicodemus is holding 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes and spices in his arms. The two men take Jesus’ body down from his cross, they embalm it, they wrap it in strips of linen, and then they bury Jesus in a garden tomb.

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Here in John chapter 3, Jesus wasn’t trying to confound Nicodemus’ mind; He was trying to jumpstart his heart.

We see no immediate signs of it here, but it happened. Gradually. Slowly but surely, Nicodemus woke up to God alive. He woke up from the darkness of that covered his tracks back and forth to Jesus that first night. He woke up slowly but surely from the slumber of his dead, Pharisaical, crusty religion—the one that diluted God down to facts and rules, religious laws and head-knowledge. His heart had been jumpstarted—coaxed alive by Jesus. It took some time, but it happened.

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Friends, could the same be true for us? Can we spend this week—this Holy Week—walking closer and closer to Jesus? Just like Nicodemus can we move from out of the darkness that keeps our life with Jesus a secret we thing we keep to ourselves, and take the same steps Nicodemus took: steps out of the dark and toward the Cross of Christ?

Can we too, walk out into the daylight where everyone can see us as He walks His way toward the cross this week? Can we also tend to Jesus as he hangs there on that tree? Can we, just like Nicodemus, wake up to Jesus this Holy Week—can we become cross-alive? God-alive?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.