Easter Unfolding

A sermon based on Psalm 116 and Luke 24:13-35 preached on April 30th, 2017

Sermon audio

The ability to see is granted gently.

Throughout scripture, God’s very presence is described as light. The kind of light that overwhelms us, the kind our eyes are not built to withstand or make any sense of.

When God comes to His people, it’s always with a blinding truth that none of us are able to handle. Think of Moses at the burning bush. On fire but not consumed. Think of Sinai, the mountain that only Moses could ascend. He climbed into God’s radiating company. After those mountaintop conversations with God, Moses had to cover his face with a veil, or else the afterglow of God was enough to blind the Israelites.

I imagine every time he stood atop Sinai, Moses shook all over from a reverent fear—an overwhelmed and overwhelming sense of the Holy that not one of us are built to witness. Not many of us could withstand such a sight.

God knows this about us. God was careful with Moses, and God is gentle with us, too. God grants us the ability to see, but He grants it to us gently. Our eyes adjust slowly to new rays of light. That’s why Easter comes not all at once, but over all these days and weeks after Jesus’ resurrection. God unfolds the Truth of Easter slowly. One sign at a time, and only when our eyes and ears, hearts and minds are ready to see it.

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No one has ever found Emmaus. Thousands, perhaps millions, of maps have been unfolded, unearthed, and unrolled from their ancient containers, combed over with magnifying glasses in case its name has faded away, but Emmaus has never been discovered. Perhaps it was never a place—or at least no place in particular.

And Cleopas. Who’s Cleopas? We don’t know really. He wasn’t one of the Twelve, but he was a disciple of Jesus all the same. He and his unnamed traveling companion—they were walking away. Away from Jerusalem. And toward who knows where or what. Maybe they didn’t even know. All they knew was that something they had given their lives to had come to an end. It all had unraveled in the course of the last three days. Along the way to Emmaus, they recounted their time with Jesus to each other. All the places He had taken them.

Wouldn’t we like to know all they were saying to each other. They must have recounted His words. His teachings. They must have laughed at themselves for never understanding any of His parables. What was Jesus trying to say, anyway?!

They must have had conversations along the Road about all the healings they witnessed. The way Jesus talked about God as if He knew God’s own heart—or had God’s own mind. What’s not to be astonished by? How could they ever forget?

They must have recounted that last week with Jesus over and over again while they walked away. The conflict in the Temple. That last meal together. The words Jesus had spoken around that table—this is my body broken;  this is my blood poured. Those sleepy moments in the Garden of Gethsemane when their Master went off on His own to pray. The two of them must have poured over every detail of what happened next. The arrest. The chaos of it. It all happened so fast. The next time they saw Jesus, He was hanging on a cross. Then the burial. How many tears were shed along that road as these last few days unfolded again and again in their memories? How do you walk away from all that?

They were going back to their old lives. They were walking away from the last three years of following Jesus. All of it having unraveled into nothing right in front of them.

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It’s in the thick of their grief, the fog of all this loss, that Jesus comes along. Appearing to them as a fellow companion along their journey away. Anonymous. Just a stranger keeping them company. He walks with them slowly. Nobody’s in a rush here. There’s nowhere specific to go now—nothing left to do anymore, or so they thought. This is slow time along a lost and dusty road. Jesus had so much to share with them. So much to prove to them, but Jesus is patient with them. God grants us the ability to see, but He grants it to us gently. Our eyes adjust slowly to new rays of light. Jesus knows this about us.

It’s along a road like this, with stories shared like these, that the truth of Easter should strike us not as an event that occurred, but a path on which we stand. A journey we take. A direction we walk. Easter, as well as the resurrection that comes with it, they are not one-time events frozen in place along a timeline. They are a constant unfolding of truth that takes place right in front of us. Easter resurrection is a way for us to encounter Jesus no matter when or where we are.

Emmaus maybe be a lost destination so far as maps are concerned, but we know where it is, because we’ve been there before. Emmaus is all the in-between places in our lives. It’s the ground we stand on when we don’t know exactly where we stand or what we stand for. There are many Emmauses. It’s in the middle of these Emmaus moments that Jesus arrives.

What are you discussing as you walk along?

He says.

Jesus companions with us in these places, but He doesn’t reveal himself—not at first, not in any obvious way—because He knows that our faith cannot yet handle a revelation. We aren’t yet ready for that. Faith cannot be forced upon us. It cannot be coerced. Faith—that is, having eyes to see and ears to hear Jesus—does not come all at once. It must be gradually unfolded in front of us. We are brought to sight slowly. As poet Denise Levertov puts it, every step we take is a sort of arrival. God is patient with His people.

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There are moments in our lives when we feel like we’re headed in no specific direction at all. When we lose sight of our purpose and our path. So, we walk away. Away from life as we knew it before. In our grief and hurt, we think that every step forward—away from a life that once was—will distance us from our past.

Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. That first question He asks the two along the road is Jesus’ way of reminding them of who they are and whose they are. In effect, Jesus comes along and says,

Let me re-tell you your story. It’s God’s story, too.

Jesus won’t let them walk away. God’s story is the biblical story, and we have been a part of it from the very beginning. Jesus won’t let them walk away because first and foremost, this is a story of a God who relentlessly pursues us. Who will not let us go. Who will not let us forget our story. And that’s when Jesus takes over. He tells the two everything that God has been doing. He starts with Moses—all that God has done for His people as God guided them away from slavery in Egypt and into the freedom and abundance of the Promised Land.

Jesus didn’t stop there. He told them about all the prophets who came along after that to guide God’s people in the right direction. Throughout history, those who lose their hope in God—who forget their salvation story—they walk away. But over and over again, God pursued them, retaught them their own story, and set them back on right paths again.

Along the road to Emmaus, as Jesus unfolds God’s story for the two disciples, their hearts are kindled inside of them. Brought to flame. And with each one of Jesus’ words, the two disciples begin piecing back together what they thought was forever broken. Maybe the Jesus story does have a future. Who are we to say that God’s story has an ending? Maybe there’s more.

Easter slowly unfolds in front of these two disciples along the Emmaus road. They start gaining eyes to see some vague notion of a future for themselves. Their hearts are brought to flame as the Holy Spirit speaking into them. But they needed more nudging. We all do. Our eyes are never opened fully. The Easter news of resurrection is too big for us to see all at once. There’s always more that needs revealing. It was only when they stopped and gathered around table, as Jesus broke bread with the two, that something in them was shaken awake.

How many times had they gathered around table with Jesus and shared bread with him? How many times had Jesus hosted a meal with them, inviting the hungry and the lost to be nourished, to recover who they are while sitting around table? This happens over and over again. Countless times. It was around table that their eyes were opened. When bread is shared, all heaven breaks loose.

They recognize Jesus right then. In table fellowship. This should remind us of Communion, of course, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that Luke intends here. After all, it was the two disciples who invited Jesus to stay and eat with them. Jesus was their guest. With hearts burning inside of them, they couldn’t yet let go of this mysterious traveler. They wanted more time with Him. Having been invited to their table, though, Jesus quickly becomes their Heavenly Host, taking bread and breaking it in front of them. It was then, in that moment when Jesus took bread and broke it, that their burning hearts were broken open and they could see!

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Friends, Easter is still unfolding right in front of us. There is no end to God’s story. Salvation is still working itself out right in front us, with every step we take along the Way. Emmaus is nowhere in particular. Emmaus is everywhere. Emmaus always happens. Easter is always unfolding in front of us. In all of our journeys, do we have eyes to see Jesus with us?

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

Alleluia! Amen.

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A Christian’s Footing

A sermon based on Psalm 31 and Matthew 7:21-29 preached on April 2nd, 2017

Sermon audio

Throughout Lent, we’ve been traveling our way through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s sketch of the countercultural ways of discipleship. Jesus himself teaches His people how to follow Him.

All of the Sermon on the Mount adds up to create one picture, one snapshot. This is our value-system, our rule of life, our compass pointing the way in a world that wants to give us a million different ways to walk. All these words add up to a direction-giving, disciple-making manifesto. If you want to know what Jesus is up to, come back to these words. If you’re ever unsure what the heart of God looks like, cares about, is filled with, what God yearns for, come back here to these 3 chapters of Matthew’s gospel. But don’t simply read them. The Sermon on the Mount is not a constitution, it’s not a set of guidelines; it’s not a rulebook or an owner’s manual. It is a Way to walk. A way to talk, and live, and breathe. A way to hear and see. Watch and discern everything. If we treat what we’ve heard over the course of this Lenten season as merely sound advice that we may or may not take, depending upon our circumstances, then we’ve misheard Jesus. Jesus doesn’t come to us as just another voice among many other voices, with suggestions about how to get along day by day. Discipleship is a take it or leave it affair. It’s all or nothing. Jesus is the Way, and with Him, there is no halfway.

We should confess that many of us get really uncomfortable with that idea. That “all or nothing, take it or leave it” language from the Gospel. Jesus saves the hardest part of His message for last. This idea that maybe one day we might call Jesus Lord and His reply will be,

I’m sorry, do I know you?

That’s terrifying.

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All the way through this Lenten season, coming back again and again to the next parts of this Sermon on the Mount, I tried to keep in mind who Jesus is teaching these words to. He’s talking to His disciples. These words are for them. For us.

I imagine that as Jesus made his way through this 8-minute long sermon, folks gathered around Him and His circle of 12. Maybe they were interested to some degree or another in the ideas that He had about the way the world works. Maybe they stood within earshot of Jesus and leaned in a bit to hear Him a little better.

I can picture a crowd slowly gathering around. Maybe some of them paced along the periphery, too scared to come any closer. The closer an onlooker came, the easier others might mistake them as one of His disciples, so, for the timid, it was best to keep some distance, to appear nonchalant; yes, interested and curious, but not too interested or curious. Let’s just play the casual observer. One can hear or even consider what Jesus has to say and still walk away. One can even agree with what Jesus has to say, ponder all these things in their minds, thinking He makes some good points, but still remain uncommitted.

Good ideas, Jesus! Maybe you should write an opinion piece with all these ideas of yours and put it in the local section of tomorrow’s Galilee Times.

But the disciples weren’t listening from the periphery. The disciples were gathered in a tight bunch, circled around Jesus as he told them all of these things.

Try to put yourself in their position. Try to imagine Jesus staring straight into your eyes as He talks to you about murder, adultery, divorce, loving your enemies, judging others, asking, seeking, knocking. What would you be thinking? How would you feel by the end of it all? Would you wonder if Jesus was giving you advice or simply passing along some new ideas that came to Him. Was He expecting you to take all of this on and live in these ways? No, that can’t be. It all sounds too hard! Would you think it was all too much?

Slow down, Jesus, I need time to digest some of this!

What if being one of Jesus’ disciples meant you and I had to accomplish all of this—to stick to this narrow path that we heard about last week? Imagine how glazed over the disciples’ eyes were getting. They had no idea what they had gotten themselves into. Do we even? And if all these things He’s had to say wasn’t enough to knock you over with a feather, certainly the ending is:

Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a man who builds his life on unsteady ground.

How high is this hurdle, Jesus! And who could ever jump over it! Who stands a chance here?!

I wonder if the disciples were thinking something like that.

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Two wonderful families build two houses. They build them out of the same material. Good solid wood. Only the best will do. They go down the local Home Depot: Galilee’s Home Improvement Warehouse. Then they go down to the local blacksmith and with the same exact amount of money, they buy all the nails they need—really solid ones. They draw up plans, they learn them inside and out—pored over the blueprints more times than they can count.

Their houses are going to be the best on the block! These two families, they’re all really hard workers. They’re ready to pour their blood, sweat, and tears into this project. Both see their houses as lifetime investments, and they have made all the right choices along the way. But, no matter how costly or well-built a house may be, it can never out-last its foundation. If the foundation gives way, the house will give way right along with it.

One family takes that into consideration; sadly, the other does not. That’s the parable Jesus tells. It doesn’t matter how well you have it together. All of it will crumble into a pile of splinters if it’s not founded upon something solid underneath. Something sound. Strong. Storm-proof.

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Oliver Wendell Holmes said of the Sermon on the Mount:

Most people are willing to take these words as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer.

It’s not what’s over your head that counts. What matters most is what’s under you. The exact wrong way to respond to Jesus’s words in Matthew chapters 5 through 7 is to lift them up and worship them. To gaze up at them once in a while, to make some sort of symbol out of them by which we define ourselves. That’s not discipleship; that’s mere observance. It might even be idolatry. Jesus’ words frozen into a collection of principles we simply align ourselves with, gather ourselves under, pledge our allegiance to with hands over our hearts as we do so. Jesus, as well as His sermon, is no emblem.

The only right way to respond to the Sermon on the Mount is to live into it. To jump inside of it. To let it carry you. Animate you.  Jesus as well as all the words He says are the Word of the living, breathing God who is here to steer you and I in all our directions. The right response to Jesus isn’t observance; it’s movement. Let Jesus be the power underneath your feet. Allow Jesus as well as His words to take you places.

If we approach the Sermon on the Mount the first way Holmes suggests: as our flag, we assume control over Jesus, continuing to live our lives in first place, in all the ways we would like. But, if we let Jesus’ words become the rudder by which to steer, then we give up control.  The power won’t be ours anymore, it will come instead from something underneath us, something bigger that moves us. Jesus, our direction-giver. Someone who guides us. The One under us that carries us in the Jesus Way.

If we look at the Sermon on the Mount as a list of things to pay attention to, Jesus remains an icon like a flag; some self-righteous statement we make; some personal slogan of ours. But Jesus doesn’t belong on top of a flag pole, as a word on a bumper sticker or as something shouted into a megaphone. Jesus isn’t a position we take. We don’t use Jesus. Jesus uses us. Jesus is a moving, living breathing person who has the power to breathe new life into us.  And discipleship is a choice we make each and everyday to have Jesus be the very bedrock that upholds, giving shape and integrity to everything we are, do, and say. That’s the life of discipleship. It’s a life where we come in second place, because Jesus always claims first place.

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The word obedience comes to us from three different languages: Middle English, old French, and Latin. It literally means to hear in the direction of. By now, we’ve figured out that the Sermon on the Mount is a direction-giving message from a direction-giving Messiah.

Having faith in Jesus isn’t about standing in one position and declaring it as the right place to establish ourselves. It’s a movement forward. If we think being Christian is a place to plant ourselves, we will quickly find ourselves alone. Jesus is a mover, and the Way of Jesus is a chasing after Him in every aspect of our lives. As Presbyterian Pastor, Eugene Peterson, puts it, discipleship isn’t about building monuments. It’s about leaving footprints. Discipleship is a travel song we sing to give witness to our God along our way.

Poet William Faulker once said something like that. The way of Jesus, he said, is not filled with monuments but with footprints. A monument says, “At least I got this far,” while a footprint says, “This is where I was when I moved again.”

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All foundations sink after a while. All ground gives way. That’s why we build our traveling faith upon Jesus—the Rock that’s never in one place but also never fails, never gives way.

May we build ourselves upon this Jesus, so that our journey will be carved along pathways made strong and sure by the One who always goes before us. And because this pathway is steep and demanding, because it asks us to hand over every bit of who we are, may God be gracious and merciful as we stumble along. And when our legs shake and the ground gives way, may God become our help. May God be our solid footing.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

The Longing of Pilgrims

A sermon based on 1 Kings 8:22-30 and Psalm 84 preached August 23rd, 2015

The Camino de Santiago is a long and arduous path through France and Spain. Millions of hikers, adventurists, and Christian pilgrims have walked its way since the Middle Ages. Before the time of Christ, the Camino de Santiago was a major trade route—a well-worn circuit for merchants, but when, at the end of the route, a shrine and cathedral was built to venerate Saint James in the Northwest reaches of Spain, where tradition has it that the bones of the apostle are buried, the Camino de Santiago became a highway for saints—a passage way for Christian pilgrims from all around the world. The first recorded pilgrimage dates back to the 9th century. Today, hundreds of thousands walk on the Way of St. James each year. They start out from their doorsteps and trek across all of Europe on foot, with everything they need for the 200-900 kilometer journey strapped across their backs. There’s a way to get there from anywhere in Europe, and folks will point you along the way as you go.

If you travel the Camino de Santiago, bring a bit of money with you. There are hostels along the way. You get a bunk and breakfast for around 10 Euros a night—maybe even 6 if you don’t mind roughing it. And you also need your passport handy because all along the way of St. James, you’ll want to stop at the churches, the tourist offices, missions, and all the little watering holes along the way to get it stamped.

The Camino de Santiago is an unhurried adventure. There’s no rush. With a huge pack on your back, you’ll only be able to walk so fast anyway. The venerated Cathedral to Saint James will be your destination, but getting there means little if you haven’t taken the slow time to enjoy the way. Most pilgrims who walk the whole 900 kilometers—even the slowest of them—can get to St. James Cathedral in a month. You’ll want to take in the landscape while your there.

On high holy days, you can make your way to the heart of the 950-year-old church and find eight red-robed monks swinging long ropes that set in motion a huge pendulum that’s attached to the roof of the cathedral, the pots at the end of the pendulum reaching speeds of up to 50 miles an hour as they swing across that space dispensing incense across the massive sanctuary.

And since you’ve made it to your destination, you’ll want to visit the Pilgrims Office while you’re there. As long as you’ve walked a minimum of 100 kilometers, you can go there and show your thoroughly-stamped passport, state that your journey was religiously motivated, and you will receive your credencial there—your certificate of completion. But most who complete the pilgrimage say that the sights at the Cathedral and their credencial in-hand are only capstones to the journey—it’s the camino, the way itself, and the longing for its end that is the heart of the matter.

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Psalm 84 is the travelogue of a pilgrim. The words would have been sung as pilgrims made their way to Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. It’s in this song that we hear the eager praise of worshippers who long for—even yearn to be in the Lord’s courtyards.

These Jewish pilgrims would have traveled in bands, taking care of each other along their way, making their way from watering hole to watering hole, setting up camp each night together whenever the sun set in the west and they could no longer see ahead. As long as they had the financial means, this was an annual pilgrimage for many of the Hebrew faithful. They sang songs like this one to pass the time, to worship the God whose House they were walking towards, confident that even as they walked through the wild terrain of dessert and wilderness, God would provide a way for them—keeping them fed and hydrated. They sang of God’s power to give them springs of water even in the driest of places. This is the way that God made. They just walked it. Instead of worrying about where the next drop of water or the next morsel of food might be found, they enjoy each step along the way as the parade of pilgrims moves toward the Temple in Jerusalem, singing refrains about how marvelous it is to be in God’s house—longing to be near God.

Yes, it’s true that God is everywhere—that we are in the presence of God no matter where we go. Yes, it’s true that God is in us, among us, and well beyond us at all times—that we have been promised that if we search for Him, we will find Him right where we are. That’s the promise of our God who is called Emmanuel, God-with-us. But don’t we find ourselves needing more than that? Like the writer of Psalm 84, don’t we sense that God’s presence is more palpable in particular spaces, whether they’re Temples, sanctuaries, conference centers like Montreat or Bluestone, beaches or retreat centers? There are thin places that seem to exist on the borders and boundaries of our world and another, high space, where God’s presence is constant and strong and always breath-taking. That is the longing of pilgrims.

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Pilgrimages though, however long they may be, are only temporary. Conferences come to an end and so do trips to the beach. Most often we find ourselves right here, back home in Barboursville where we run around in our daily patterns—where our movements aren’t along mountain pathways or the shore. Most of the time, we find ourselves in our regular circuits: home, school, store, church; home, school, store, church. Week in and week out. But this too is a pilgrimage. It’s the everyday, mundane sort. But it has something to show us—something for us to encounter as we move along its way.

Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Peterson, calls discipleship a long obedience in the same direction. The road we walk as disciples of Jesus is longer and snakier and trickier than all the others. The way isn’t always clear. It’s sometimes lonely. Sometimes arduous. And always harder to walk, but God covers it with blessings anyway.

Peterson talks about a book written by another author called The God Who Stands, Stoops, and Stays. Those are the postures God takes: God stands, He’s foundational and dependable; God stoops, He kneels to our level and meets us where we are; and God stays, He sticks with us through hard times and good. God is alongside of us for every one of our journeys—however goose-bump-enducing or yawn-inspiring they may be—and God covers them with blessings. And if our Psalm is any indication, we should also bless God with each one of our steps.

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Think of the trek of one of those Temple-travelers or what it might be like to walk to 200 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago. Lots of gear to hull? Yes, there will be back pain, but bless God anyway. Elevations to climb and descend, and the sore thighs and hamstrings that go along with them? Yup. Bless God anyway. People with you who keep asking “Are we there yet?” Bless God anyway. Did you have a fight with our travel partner who looked at the map upside down and steered you the wrong way? Do you feel like wringing their neck? Bless God anyway. Are your feet so sore that all you can do is grumble? Bless God anyway. At the end of your journey, are you ashamed that all you could manage to do throughout your journey was grumble? Bless God anyway. Saint Catherine of Sienna once said: “All the way to heaven is heaven.” So bless God anyway.

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Every movement we make is a pilgrimage into God’s presence—a sacred journey we take. Each step is a prayer—one in front of another. When we set out in the way of faith, every bit of it is a way to bless God and to teach ourselves and each other to rely upon God’s blessings for us. And the whole purpose is to find ourselves at the culmination of our journeys and appear before God, to shout aloud our praises, and give away ourselves in wonder and awe of all that God has done for us—guiding us along, making a way for us, nourishing us as we walk along our pathways, and calling us to His courtyards. That’s the movement of our lives. That’s our purpose as well as our goal. That’s the longing of pilgrims: To praise God and enjoy God forever! As Eugene Peterson writes in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction,

All the movements of discipleship arrive at a place where joy is experienced. Every step of assent toward God develops the capacity to enjoy.

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So, are you a journey person or a destination person? Do you like the way there, or are you more in it for what awaits you at the end? Do you like the feel of gravel beneath your feet on the bottom of your hiking boots, or are you in this for the sites, sounds, and smells of St. James Cathedral, and the credencial at the end? I confess to liking the destination, but without the Camino de Santiago—all 900 kilometers of it—there wouldn’t be a St. James Cathedral at all.

It’s the paths we take along the way that matter most, that bless us most, that reward us most. The cathedral at the very end of our pilgrimage? Well, that’s only the last stamp in our passports.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

God’s Own Face

A sermon based on Exodus 33:12-23 and Mark 9:2-10 preached on February 15th, 2015

 Sermon audio

These cold, cold winter days in February make me long for the summer months. At the beginning of this month we all paid a tiny amount of attention to one of the oldest meteorologists there is, Punxsutawney Phil, hoping he would have good news for us. We hope that the sharp edges of this cold weather will melt away into Spring sooner than we anticipate.

One of my favorite memories of spring and summer are evenings out on the front lawn of my parents’ house with my brother, Mike. Both of us barefoot in the grass with bug nets in our hands chasing fireflies across the yard.

Fireflies are the tiny beacons of summer vacation. Small fireworks coming up from the ground and then fading away again. What is it about them that children want to catch them, contain them?

I think it’s that their lights catch us by surprise. When they glow, they’re so easy to find. The challenge is keeping up with them when the glow fades away.

I remember my parents teaching me the kind way to catch a firefly: with cupped hands, slowly, so as not to scare them away.

They might even land on your hand and stay there for a while,

my dad explained,

as long as you’re careful with them.

Some nights my brother and I were fine catching them in our hands, studying them, and letting them go. Other nights, we grew more curious—maybe more selfish—and we went out with Ball Jars.

We wondered if we could catch a few fireflies in our jars, punch a few air holes in the lid, and seal them up, would they make good night lights? The thought was they could glow all night long in our containers—that we could hold on to their light, keep their light captive, all for ourselves.

Every child needs to learn that lesson, don’t they? You can’t bottle what lights up and expect it to remain radiant. It’s just not possible.

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Jesus’ clothes were amazingly bright. Brighter than if they had been bleached white. The disciples see how Jesus lights up. He glows in front of Peter, James, and John on that high mountain. They’ve never seen a thing like it.

Then speaking for all 3 of them, Peter volunteers with his mouth (one of Peter’s greatest talents) and he says in effect,

This is an awesome moment, Lord! Let’s make it last!

And in the absence of smartphones or cameras of any sort, the only way to make it last was to build shrines.

They’ll stay here forever,

Peter seems to suggest,

and we can come back to this mountaintop anytime we want and relive this spectacular moment.

Peter wants to hold onto this light. Peter wants to contain the radiance in any way he can. He wants to bottle what’s alive and keep it for himself. But every kid who’s tried to contain light in a jar on a summer evening knows that’s not possible.

Light travels on, always moving outward at speeds we can’t handle. And whenever we try to catch it, it fades away.

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Moses’ face was radiant with divine light after every mountaintop encounter with God in the book of Exodus. No one can see God’s face and live, but Moses was invited into the glow of God’s being. He could survive on the edges of God’s splendor and live to climb down the mountain and tell all the others.

Each time, the Hebrew people waited eagerly for Moses to come down with a word from God. Moses is looking for a light to lead the Hebrew people forward—outward—to guide them toward whatever’s next.

God promises to go with them—to be their light and reveal the way. As the story of God and His people moves onward, God reveals more and more of Himself to them. And as we read into the Gospels and Mark’s story of the Transfiguration this morning, God has revealed His full self to all the people—Jesus shines on the same mountain God shined down on Moses.

This is my son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!

These are God’s words, and Peter, James, and John heard them. God’s voice has been heard by the people; the radiance of God’s Word has been revealed in the person of Jesus Christ for us to see with our own eyes and know in our own lives.

God promises Moses,

I’ll travel with you.

And in Jesus, God has given us a companion, a travel partner. One who promises to always be with us.

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Mark’s story of Jesus’ transformation into light is the halfway point of his Gospel—and that’s no mistake. Mark is a gifted and mindful writer, and there’s no doubt he placed this story right here in the center of his story to make a statement. The Transfiguration of Jesus reveals to all who were up on that mountain—for Peter and James and John—as well as for all those like us who hear about it later, that Jesus is the Center of the Story—the Center of God’s Story. It’s apex. Everything revolves on that axis. Jesus is the turning point, not only of Mark’s Gospel, but of all of history—the One who came to change time itself—to divide history in two.

And from this point onward Mark’s Gospel is one big chase scene. Forward is Good Friday. This passage from Mark is the hinge that turns Jesus, Peter, James, John, and all the rest of us toward the cross. The light of the transfigured Jesus will fade away.

The disciples will follow their Master as he descends this mountain and makes his way into the darkened valley toward Jerusalem. This light that shines atop this mountain can’t be held onto for too long at all. It will fade, and despite Peter’s suggestion to build three shrines, there’s no way to bottle up light. The lid is off the jar. God’s plans are madly uncontainable.

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This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. It’s the beginning of Lent, a seven-week journey with Jesus toward the cross that stands tall in the center of Jerusalem. We are invited to walk with Jesus along the way. Lent is a time to confront darkness—the darkness out there as well as the darkness inside ourselves. It requires confident courage to confront the world to change its sinful ways and to light its darkest corners, but that’s what we will do this Lent. That’s what Jesus did as he traveled the distance between the Mountain of Light and the Mountain of the Cross.

On this journey we seek God’s own face. And there’s no way to look into God’s own face without facing the cross. Apart from the cross of Good Friday, the full radiance of God cannot be seen.

If there is to be any transformation of ourselves into disciples and followers of Jesus, that transformation into that kind of life is possible only after we connect ourselves to the cross—to the suffering Jesus will undergo. It’s only possible as we too begin to realize the uncontainable love of God given to us through Jesus, the One who is God’s own face—the One who was willing to give it all away for our sake.

That’s the journey we’re about to embark upon.

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Christian writer C.S. Lewis once wrote,

Don’t shine so that others can see you. Shine so that, through you, others can see Jesus.

From here, as we turn our faces away from the dazzling light atop the Mountain of Transfiguration—this resplendent, but brief radiance—we make our way down into the dark valley. That is where our Lenten journey begins. That is when the real work begins.

Lent is the journey after the glow. The challenge is keeping up with Jesus when the glow fades away.

As we travel forward into these next seven weeks, may we seek God’s own face. May we search the depths of God’s uncontainable love. And at the end of Lent, we will see such love in the resurrected Christ, who is God’s own face.

There’s a light up ahead. And alongside Peter, James, and John, we will find our way.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Signs Along the Way

A sermon based on Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8 preached on December 7th, 2014.

Sermon audio

How has it been with your heart this week? Let’s start there.

No one needs to remind us how stressful the Christmas season is. Stores and their commercials remind us of all we have yet to buy for all those people on our Christmas lists. Houses to decorate, food to prepare, relatives to welcome in, traveling to do. The hype of the Christmas season has fallen upon us heavily. This is what they call Christmas joy.

But this year, we’ve been confronted by so much else, haven’t we? As if preparing for Christmas Day wasn’t enough of a noise to distract us from the coming of Christ among us, we are surrounded by the uproar of way too many voices lending their perspective of the goings on in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City.

I myself have lended to that noise via Facebook posts—social media has spawned a new phenomenon—something called “slacktivism”, where we all think voicing our opinions from the comfort of our own couches actually does anything to change the world.

Sometimes we just need to shut out all that noise—turn off the 24-hour news—much of which, many of us suspect, adds fuel to the fire. There are arsonists behind microphones and TV cameras and studio desks.

Yes, our nation has problems, but do those problems need more gasoline added to them?

So the question is, through all the chaos of Ferguson and all noise surrounding it—in NYC and Oakland and Chicago, where do we go to hear Truth? Where do we go, in Advent 2014, to hear that still, small voice calling to us—inviting us to hear a different story, to choose to walk in a different path than all the rest out there?

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This Advent season, there is one voice calling out to us from a place far beyond the noise and distraction that surround us this season. It’s a voice calling out to us from the wilderness—calling us away from the busyness of our lives.

John the Baptist was a man who was done with all the noise that distracted him and his people from experiencing real relationship with God. John thought Jerusalem—with the Temple there and all the noise surrounding it—the unending sacrifices offered to God for forgiveness—all the noisy prayers offered there, the fanatical prophets shouting out truth as they thought they knew it—all of it was distraction—it kept the people from really experiencing a personal relationship with God.

The people were good at practicing their religion—but it kept them hungry and lacking. Repetitive animal sacrifices at the Temple did nothing to bring the people closer to God. All of that had quickly become noise—mindless practice, empty and meaningless ritual. John the Baptist thought that what the people really needed was relationship. Not religion but relationship with the living God.

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We find John calling his people away from the noise and the distraction of their day, and into the stillness of the wilderness, where they could escape from all that kept their faith more like ritual than relationship—that had them constantly paying attention to all the wrong things.

And his word to them is simple but also confrontational: Repent.

Repent and believe the Good News.

So often the word “repent” gets a bad wrap. It’s the angry word shouted at us by street evangelists holding a picketing sign over their shoulders. It’s the word thrown at us by TV pastors with their bright white teeth trying to draw us in—making us feel crappy about our lives, who ask us to wire money into their already stacked checking accounts.

We hear John the Baptist’s words and they make us feel guilty, don’t they? At least that’s what we’ve been taught about the word “repent”—whenever we hear the word it sounds to us like an admonition, a scolding, a warning. But let me try to change that for you. Our translation this morning gets to the core of what John is trying to say:

Change your hearts and lives.

What we hear from John isn’t an admonition but an invitation—an invitation to turn in a whole new direction—to change the way we’re facing and to walk in a different way.

Change your hearts and lives.

In other words,

Walk away from all that noise.

It all keeps you stuck in place. If you want to get somewhere—if you want to start walking with God, then turn off the auto-pilot—that thing that keeps you doing the same old thing and expecting different results. Do something to change your ways. And do it now.

Change your hearts and lives!

John the Baptist is inviting us out of our rituals—all those mindless and unproductive patterns of ours—the ones that freeze us in place—that get us nowhere. John is inviting us into a new relationship with the living, dynamic God—and the point of that relationship isn’t so much about believing and doing all the right things as much as it is about going a journey—about walking a new pathway—towards Christ.

As one of my very favorite radio personalities, Garrison Keillor, once said,

Give up your good Christian life and start following Jesus!

Advent is a time for us to let go of what distracts us from walking with Jesus.

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My dad wouldn’t mind me sharing with you that he has a love/hate relationship with his GPS. I do too, I suppose.

Way too many of us rely upon our GPS devices to take us where we want to go, only to find in the end they had no idea where they were taking us in the first place. I’d say roughly half the time my GPS gets me in the general vicinity of my desired destination, but still I end up lost and having to ask an actual person for directions.

Whenever my dad decides to go a different way from where his on-board GPS wants to take him, the female voice says the word “recalculating, recalculating ” over and over again. Recalculating. And it isn’t just a part of his imagination that each time she says “recalculating”, her voice gets angrier and angrier.

Whether you use a GPS or you go the old fashioned method and unfold a map, you rely upon all those signs along the way to tell you where you are and to point you in the right direction.

Advent is like a GPS for our hearts—pointing us to Christ—recalculating our hearts and lives. In this Advent season, we are being pointed in a very specific direction. In our Old Testament reading for the morning, the prophet Isaiah declares,

Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!

And Mark quotes this passage in his own way:

Prepare the way—the way for the Lord. Make his paths straight.

See, there’s all sorts of ways we can get turned around. Lost. Tied up in knots. We can very easily get caught up listening to the wrong voices—paying attention to the wrong things. And no one’s here to blame us for walking down the wrong paths sometimes—we can easily get confused—there’s way too much noise out there distracting us from walking in the right direction.

We talked a little bit about this during Wednesday night’s Advent bible study and a little more about it at Women’s Circle on Thursday: The good news of the Gospel is not for the perfect—the ones who know exactly where they are going all the time, no matter what. The Gospel is for the lost who want to be found. And John the Baptist is the voice calling out to us—the lost. And with his words, “Change your hearts and lives”, he’s inviting us to relocate ourselves, oddly enough, by venturing out in a direction we’ve never been before—away from the center and toward the edges—into the unknown territory of the wilderness. That’s where he says we will find our way.

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St. John the Forerunner – Parchment – 15th Century Russia Click to enlarge

 

We’ve been using art lately to help us see new things. On our bulletin cover this week is a 15th Century Russian icon of St. John the Forerunner. John had his own ministry. He had many followers. I suppose he could have easily convinced all of his followers that he was the One. He could have pointed to himself—just as many false messiahs did in his day. He could have easily told all of them that he was the destination—the One who was promised to come. But he didn’t do that. John saw his ministry not as an end in itself but merely a sign along the way, highlighting the path to Jesus.

You can see in this painting that he is looking downward—gesturing way from himself—towards his right-hand side—pointing beyond himself—to the One who is coming after him. Just a sign along the way—a direction-giver, a mile-marker.

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Advent is like a GPS for our hearts.

At the center of Advent is John’s still, small voice calling us out of our frenzied pathways. Out of the noise of our hustle and bustle this Christmas season—from well beyond the chaos around us—all those people shouting to us through our TV sets telling us how it is and what we should believe.

Advent is a journey pointing us away from all that. And this morning we are invited to hear the voice of the one who is calling us in a new direction—pleading with us to change our hearts and lives, and start walking in a new way.

The Gospel is not for the found—it’s for the ones who need a map—it’s for lost who want to be found. Let us continue walking toward that hope—in the direction John is pointing us—toward the Way, the Truth, the Life. And in the words of the prophet Isaiah,

Here is our God. In Him, the glory of the Lord will appear and together we will see it.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Melt Me, Mold Me

A sermon based on Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 and Isaiah 64:1-9 preached on November 30th, 2104

Sermon audio

The season of Advent is among us. Today is the first day of the Christian year as well as the first Sunday in Advent.

Advent is a journey through the darkness knowing that there is light up ahead. In Advent, we join the magi in their search for the Christ child—yes, there’s a star up above us, ahead of us—a dim but large light, but in order to see it more clearly—to see the One to whom it points, we have to travel through the dimness, we have to wait for that light to grow brighter and bigger.

Advent, though, is not a passive waiting. There’s walking to do. During these 4 weeks before Christmas Day, God wants us searching, scrounging in the darkness in front of us because we know that beyond it, there is brilliant light.

The waiting of Advent is an active waiting—a longing for our Savior to arrive among us—dispelling the gloom that falls heavy upon us, delivering us from our slumber, our brokenness, and our lostness.

It’s in Advent that God wants to shake us awake again—there’s news coming, news that will deliver us—that will change our hearts and lives and give us the hope of becoming whole again—that’s what real peace is—Shalom—wholeness, human wholeness—as we discover our humanity in the bright light of the coming Christ. But there’s no way to enter into the bright light of Shalom without first traveling through the darkness of Advent. There’s no way to know how great and secure our hope in Jesus is unless—like the Magi—we risk becoming vulnerable in our journey to Him.

The opening words from the prophet Isaiah: “If only…”

If only You would do the easy thing, God, and tear open the heavens and come down right now! Then everyone would know You, be reminded of Your power and glory, and change their hearts and lives.

I think that’s the easy fix Isaiah is daydreaming of. An instant mending of a broken world. A get-right-quick program of salvation—God just bursting in and making everything whole again. It doesn’t happen that way. We know it never does. We have to wait for healing like that. That’s what these 4 weeks of Advent are all about. It’s active waiting. Hoping God will mend what’s broken and mold us all into the shape of his coming Son.

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When my parents were here several weeks back, I decided to take them to Heritage Station in Huntington. I had never been down there, so I was curious about what each shop had to offer. We waited until the kickoff of the Marshall football game because we knew there wouldn’t be anybody on the roads. It turns out everyone goes to the football game whenever Marshall’s playing because we were the only three there.

Many of the shops were closed but we enjoyed the few that were open. There’s one shop there called Lamb’s Gate Market. It’s a fair trade goods boutique. There are items from all over the world there—mostly from Central America, and 100% of their net profits are sent to an orphanage in Nicaragua.

The couple who own it travel back and forth between here and Nicaragua a few times a year and have developed personal relationships with the boys and girls in that orphanage. They sell some cute stuff in their tiny store—including some fair trade dark chocolate, which I can never turn down. I bought a bar with mango pieces in it.

Among the several treasures for sale at Lamb’s Gate Market are bowls, of all different sizes—small salad bowls and large serving bowls—made out of old World News magazines. They’re made in Central America by women who take the vitriolic content of our world’s media—something so often used to break down, to point blame, and to alienate us from one another—they shred it and give it a new purpose: they mold it into a serving bowl—something we use to nourish ourselves and others—the harmful nature of the world news melted down and molded into something that feeds, gets passed around a dining table, cultivates sharing, and builds us up in community.

What a profound statement of peace and hope each one of those bowls hold!

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In the time when Isaiah 64 is written, the people of Israel are in exile. They’ve been kicked out of the Promised Land by a much larger army and are crying out to God in fear and despair. They feel forsaken and they wonder if God had left them. All the sanctuaries and others shrines of all the centuries of worshipping God were now destroyed—brought to ruin. Without the Land God has given them, Israel doesn’t know who they are—they’ve been displaced, physically, yes, but even more profoundly, spiritually. In these few years of exile, the Israelite people are confused and disoriented, formless and shapeless.

Isaiah speaks up on behalf of the people, admitting to God that they have sinned against Him—they’ve become unclean as a people—they’ve strayed from God’s instruction for them and instead have all too often gone their own way and done their own thing. And because of all their bad choices, the people’s distrust of God, Isaiah admits here to God, Israel has not lived according to God’s hope for them. But, Isaiah reminds God in verse 8—and it’s a big but. BUT, God, You have just as much responsibility to us as we have to You.

You, God, have promised to be faithful even when we screw up—remember the covenant You have made with us! Consider us—we are Your people!

Instead of forsaking us, God, do something new in us and for us! Melt us, mold us, reshape us into something new!

This is Isaiah’s prayer to God. Isaiah tells God that his people are like clay that needs to be molded in God’s hands. Melted into something God wants them to be. In the Potter’s hands, given a brand new shape and a brand new purpose.

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Advent is that time for us. It’s our opportunity to stand in front of all the broken pieces and the shattered fragments we’ve made out of our lives and say to God,

Don’t forsake us, don’t leave us here inside in our brokenness—our misshapenness. Melt us down and re-mold us into a new creation! You are the Potter, may we be Your clay—clay in Your hands, O God! Make us into something purposeful—something used to serve, nourish, feed, and build up.

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I’ve been introduced to the ancient Japanese art of kintsugi. It means “golden joinery.” It’s the practice of fixing broken pottery with a lacquer resin mixed with gold powder. It’s an art that dates backs to the 15th Century.

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Whenever a piece of pottery was broken, instead of tossing it away, the Japanese would piece it back together, melding the broken shards back in place with this gold-color lacquer.

Rather than using a clear glue like we would these days, trying to hide the damage done to the piece of pottery, kintsugi is about using this shiny gold lacquer to actually highlight the brokenness of the vessel—to illuminate the cracks. It’s the art of focusing on the imperfections and making a vessel usable in spite of them.

Kintsugi became so popular that the Japanese would sometimes deliberately break a bowl or two so they could put it back together again with this shiny gold laquer. With kintsugi, the cracks in, and the repairs made to, a bowl simply become a part of a piece’s story—the breaking of a bowl becomes one event in the life of an object rather than its ending. Each illuminated flaw told a tale. Each imperfection was celebrated. Each bowl still purposeful—and with every gold-lined crack in it, it became an even more treasured a vessel.

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Advent is when we take the shards of ourselves, all those imperfect fragments, all of our sharp edges—the brokenness of our lives—and hand them to God, piece by piece.

Entrusting all of ourselves into the hands of the Potter—so that we can be remade—re-purposed, melted and then molded once again, into usable vessels—made whole once again to serve in God’s Kingdom.

God is the Artist who, with skillful and gracious hands, pieces us back together again and molds us into new creations.

Advent is that time for us to come into God’s presence, cracks and all—with all the broken pieces of ourselves—and hand them over to God so He can melt us, mold us, into new vessels—fit for service and sharing.

God is the Artist who fashions a new way for us, who re-casts us into new people—God’s broken people made whole in the Potter’s hands.

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

Alleluia! Amen!

With-ness

A sermon on Psalm 23 preached on March 30th, 2014.

Sermon audio 

One of my very favorite TV shows is Mythbusters. It airs on the Discovery Channel, and it’s about a bunch of scientist and special effects artists who test out whether there is truth behind tall-tales, conventional phrases, and if the stuff we see in movies is really possible in real life.

Just to give you an example, they ran a whole experiment on whether or not it’s really all that easy to steal candy from a baby. After a day of bringing in babies of all ages and handing them lollipops—the huge ones that you get at an Aunt Sarah’s restaurant—they found that once the children get used to holding it, they quickly fall in love with its bright colors, and it’s very hard to take it out of their hands.

Of course they found that the hardest part of taking candy from a baby was that whenever you did so, the baby would start to cry—you would feel evil for having taken the candy. So it is possible to steal candy from a baby, but it turns out, it’s not so easy.

In another episode, they did a pirate special. The episode was filled with myths from the movie series Pirates of the Caribbean. Their big experiment in that episode involved testing the real reason why we see so many pirates wearing patches over one of their eyes.

I had always thought that getting an eye poked out was one of the vocational hazards of being a pirate, but as it turns out, that’s not at all the reason why pirates wear eye patches. Pirates wear eye patches so they will always have one eye that is adjusted to the light and another that’s always adjusted to dark. If they run down into the lower decks of their ship, they can simply shift their eye patch to the other eye, uncovering the eye that was adjusted to the pitch dark so that they could see below deck right away.

The Mythbusters tested this idea and lo and behold it checked out! It totally worked!

Anyone with kids or grandkids knows what it’s like to turn out the lights in the living room before heading upstairs for bed, only to step on a Lego or a superhero figure left in the middle of the room. It causes a surprising amount pain. If only you wore an eye patch then maybe you would have seen it before you stepped on it!

Our eyes need to adjust to both the light and the dark, or else we have a hard time finding our way.

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Psalm 23 is the most widely known piece of scripture there is. Most of us I imagine could at least stumble our way through it without having the words in front of us. As children, we heard its words for the first time. And then when we received our first bibles from our church we opened them to the very center and we flipped to Psalm 23 together and read those words aloud. Slowly but surely its words sunk into our heads.

The 23rd Psalm has become a part of who we are, and even reciting it is an exercise in pulling together all the different parts of our lives. That’s what makes it a comfort psalm—it reminds us of our journey of faith. Its words sink deep inside of us and they become a part of who we are.

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Why do we like this psalm so much? Out of everything in the bible, why Psalm 23? I think it’s because through its words we here God’s greatest promise to us. And it’s the same promise that is at the heart of the Gospel too: it’s the promise that God is always with us.

There are plenty of other places in the bible where God declares he will always be with us. In Isaiah we hear the word Immanuel—one of God’s many names. Immanuel means “God with us.”

But here in Psalm 23 we have more than a name. Here we have an assurance that no matter where we go, even if we’re walking through the darkest parts of our lives, God is still right there with us. Comforting us. Protecting us.

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There’s something else about Psalm 23, though. So often we think that we do this faith thing best when we’re riding high, when life is good and we’re happy and every cloud has a silver lining.

Somehow we’ve whittled faith down to something like a Hallmark card. Faith, when we’re doing it right, we think, is supposed to make us feel good. Isn’t that the way God wants us? Shouldn’t we feel blessed and be the kind of people who smile while we count our blessings? Happiness, we think, is the currency and the evidence of faith.

Or consider what kinds of things many of our friends, neighbors, or co-workers say to us to try to lift our spirits during difficult times. Some might say things like,

Cheer up! Things aren’t so bad!

or some might try to solve our issues for us and give us advice like,

What if you tried to go out more and get some exercise?

Whenever we’re down and we hear others say these things, we understand that they mean well, but frankly they just don’t help. When somebody says these sorts of things, they’re trying to abolish the darkness around you, and all their words just make you feel like you’re doing something wrong—that first and foremost, you need an attitude change or you need to fix something about yourself.

The words of the 23rd psalm guide us to do things differently. If we followed the counsel of the 23rd psalm, we wouldn’t be too quick to offer others advice about how to stay out of the dark valleys of life, nor would we try to offer quick solutions about how to get though them.

If our friends understood the wisdom of this psalm, they would simply walk through our troubles with us. They would know simply just to being there and standing along side of us—right smack-dab in the middle of our troubles with us. That’s the best way care for each other. Simply sitting right by our side and listening.

So often we assume that if we ever come across darkness in our lives, if depression ever overtakes us, if we feel trapped in the dark places, then we must have done something wrong. But this psalm says no, that’s not right at all! This Psalm assumes that along our journey, we will all encounter dark valleys, and the Shepherd’s strategy isn’t to avoid them or try to walk around them, the Shepherd’s strategy is to take our hand and walk straight through those dark place with us.

The divine shepherd of the 23rd psalm knows that the only way forward is through. Through the pain and loss, through the disappointment, we can lean on the One who walks beside us and offers us protection and presence.

This psalm tells us that God never abandons us. God always sticks by our side, and most of the time the best care there is is simply being there.

This Psalm attests to the power of presence—the “with-ness” of God.

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Lent is time of walking through the darkness—the darkness between two bright lights. If you’ll remember weeks ago, we talked about the Transfiguration of Jesus. Jesus is high atop a mountain with Peter, James, and John, and right in front of their faces, Jesus becomes transformed by light.

During Lent, we travel with Jesus after the bright light of Transfiguration Sunday has faded. Lent is a time for our eyes to adjust to the light and the dark of our journey with Jesus. And as we wind our way though the valley between the mountain where Jesus was transfigured and the mountain where Jesus will be crucified, we see all sorts of things—glorious and terrible things: mountaintop transformations, prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus arrested, persecuted, and put to death. But still we are called to follow along that pathway. To walk with our Master, teacher, and friend through the darkest valley. To share our with-ness with Jesus.

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God has never promised anyone fair weather or a smooth journey. God never promised Jesus any of these things either. God never said that having faith means we never stumble through darkness. All that we are promised is that God will be with us when we do. That is God’s greatest promise: with-ness.

We have a God who knows the journey we make. We have a God who has felt suffering and rejection. Who walks with us, adjusting his eyes so that he can guide us in the dark places we sometimes find ourselves in. We have a God who promises to be with us. Always. Who will never abandon us. No matter what. No matter where.

All praises the One who made it all and finds it beautiful.

Alleluia! Amen.