Third Sunday after the Epiphany for Year B (January 25, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Jonah gives the most direct revival sermon ever preached — it’s just one sentence long. And it worked! Lots to think about here, including the timing of God’s action in the world, God’s prerogative to change God’s mind, and our willingness (or lack therof) to go along with God. When God decides a thing, are we “free” to run in a different direction or to disagree with God if we wish?

In regard to Psalm 62, what is it that we really hold onto and where do we place our trust? Whether I am one of the “low estate” or the “high” and mighty — is it God (and God alone) that I trust and listen for?

Our idea of time, and particularly the timing of God, is awfully short-sighted. Paul’s words to the Corinthians sound long-ago and faraway to us; we might well be tempted to say that Paul got it wrong when he told those folks “the time is short.” But, was he? Has not the world, in the form that we know it, pretty much passed away since the days of our childhood? How much has the world changed since the time of Jesus and Paul? What does our faith in the “unchanging” God have to say in the midst of an “everchanging” world? Again, what do we “hold on to” for support and hope?

Mark reports Jesus saying, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom has come near.” The image is of a pregnant woman who is preparing to give birth — the time is HERE, people! When a child is coming, there is very little you can do to stop it. Just as there is very little that can be done to hurry it up, either. As the old saying goes, “Timing is everything.” In the things of God’s kingdom, nothing could be more true. God’s timing, though; not ours. How do we continue to wait and discern God’s timing in our own lives? What does it mean for us to “leave our nets” and follow Christ today?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The world was rocked a few weeks ago by the terrorist attacks in Paris.  We witnessed forty world leaders and throngs of ordinary people walking arm-in-arm to signal solidarity and protest against monstrous evil.  In the streets and on selfie twitters and on Facebook and any other way they could, people loudly proclaimed, “We are Charlie!”  Even the magazine Charlie Hebdo, did it with on the cover with their usual satirical twist, showing Muhammad holding the Charlie sign – under a headline that said “All is forgiven.”  There were marches across Europe and heightened tensions everywhere, softened only by the fact that one of the French policemen killed was a Muslim.

For most of the 21st Century, the west has lived in fear of Islamist fanaticism.  We have fought a long war, calling it a “War on Terror.”  In the last year of so our fear and distrust has become even more focused on the group known to many as ISIS, the Islamist State, a very scary army that is attempting to create a new country from parts of Iraq and Syria. Their basic technique is sheer brutality and intimidation.  They have been particularly rough on the Christians, many of whom trace their roots back almost two thousand years in the area.

Now suppose, in the midst of all this, a voice you were sure was the voice of God were to come to you and say to you, “Get up, go to ISIS, that great state and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”  Would you not be likely to be like Jonah and take off in the opposite direction?  Jonah’s escape plan reminds me a little bit of that old Steve Martin/John Candy movie, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.”  I don’t care how, just get me far away from here.  Alas, there is no way to run from God.  As the saying is, “Wherever you go, there you are.”  And God is there with you.

Once Jonah learns that lesson and emerges from the belly of the beast, God comes to him a second time and says, “Okay, are you ready to go where I tell you?”  And Jonah goes, reluctantly, unhappily, unenthusiastically, but he goes. He goes to Nineveh and preaches judgment saying, “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!”  Notice, there’s not a wisp of hope in that statement, not a hint of grace, not a whisper of forgiveness.  It is as harsh and cold and final as Jonah could make it.

Can you imagine going into the heart of ISIS country and standing on a street corner and shouting out that message?  I’m sure, you’re sure, we’re all sure, that such a preacher would either be shot or beheaded in a matter of minutes.

And yet this is what God asked Jonah to do and what Jonah, eventually, did.  And the radical surprise is that it worked.  The Ninevites repented, said they were sorry; and God repented, changed his mind about destroying them. Aah – what a Hallmark moment, everybody’s happy.  Well, not everybody.  Jonah’s not happy.  Jonah’s really angry actually.  Jonah is still thinking about all the people the Ninevites killed over the years, all the lives they destroyed, all the damage they did.  This can’t be right!  This can’t be the way this ends!  It’s not fair, it’s just not fair. And Jonah’s right – it’s not fair.  But it is the way God operates – a fact for which we should all be glad; very, very glad indeed.

Jonah is one of those stories in the Bible that is very, very true without being particularly factual.  It is like a Hollywood movie, “based on a true story.”  There was a man named Jonah, you can find him in 2 Kings 14:25.  One small mention, but he appears to have been a very nationalistic prophet, a real “God and Country,” sort of guy.  And the Assyrians had been a very powerful and feared nation headquartered in the city of Nineveh about a 100 years before our text was written.

The author took these slim facts to spin a story that aimed at getting the people of Israel to broaden their understanding of the wideness of God’s mercy.  If God can love and forgive the people of Nineveh, God can love and forgive anybody – including us.  If God can love and forgive the people of ISIS, God can love and forgive anybody – including us.  And if God can love and forgive anybody, so can we.

What if God is calling us?  What if God is calling us to do something we don’t want to do?  What if God is calling us to extend not only God’s mercy but our mercy, not only God’s love but our love, not only God’s forgiveness but our forgiveness, to people we don’t like, people we don’t believe deserve love and forgiveness and mercy?

Here we sit, minding our own business, mending our own nets, being nice and good to those who are nice and good to us, busy about the business creating a friendly, family church – when suddenly we hear this voice saying,  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news.”

How shall we respond?  Will we repent?  Will we change our minds about what’s important and alter the direction of our lives to follow more closely God’s call?  Will we leave whatever boats and nets represent in our lives and follow after the one who calls us?  Will we go to “Nineveh” and preach God’s love?

Amen and amen.

Second Sunday after the Epiphany for Year B (January 18, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

In Samuel, we have the “call” story of the young boy who would become Israel’s priest, prophet, and prelude to a king. The visual and aural clues are important; the lamp of God is dimmed, as is the eyesight of the old priest, Eli. However, neither has gone out yet. Also, the young boy, Samuel, has trouble understanding the voice that keeps haunting him. The old priest is a bit muddled, as well, but finally figures out what’s going on (“the third time’s a charm?”) We may have our own spiritual perception dulled — for any number of reasons — but this episode reminds us that God doesn’t give up, doesn’t leave, and will always keep working until the message is received, one way or the other.

Psalm 139, of which we have a portion for today’s reading, speaks of the thorough ways in which God “knows” each of us. Sometimes, we say that a person “knows us better than we know ourselves.” Well, that most certainly may be true when thinking of God’s view of our innermost being. While at first, this might seem a frightening prospect, it is ultimately more “good news.” God’s intimate knowledge of us is the basis for the never-give-up presence of God with us. We can’t ever mess up enough to drive God away; we can be completely honest in our thoughts, feelings, and even our prayers to God. God already knows it all, anyway!

Paul writes to the Corinthians of the deep bond that is formed when our lives are united with Christ. Using some very tangible physical illustrations, he answers questions for new Christians about what is “allowed” and what is “beneficial.” Don’t get too sidetracked by the sex language; the larger issue is the stunning idea that we have all been “bought with a price” by the very life of Christ. We certainly don’t want to cheapen that relationship by committing to anyone or anything lesser.

John‘s gospel features another “call” story — this time illustrating that Jesus is often the one in search of us; notice that he “found” Philip. Not an accidental stumble-upon kind of finding, but a purposeful effort, most likely. Similarly, Philip mimics the action of Christ and “finds” his buddy, Nathanael. Philip’s friend is a classic skeptic — he’s pretty sure this stuff about Jesus being the Messiah is a load of hooey, but Philip nevertheless invites him to come and see. There is an awful lot of power in both the personal invitation to friends and acquaintances, and the individual experience of the Holy at work in the midst of the community.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In the part of the world where I grew up, the southern Appalachian mountains, a minister is expected to have a “call story,” the more “Damascus Road” dramatic the better. When I started seminary I did not have such a story and was therefore a bit of a disappointment to many of my more pious neighbors and relatives.  So I made one up.  Instead of my usual lame, “Well, I’ve just always felt like it’s what God wants me to do,” I started saying, “I was in the tobacco field on a hot and humid day in late July.  There had been a thunderstorm in the early afternoon so I had red mud up to my knees and there was steam coming off the tobacco leaves. I was hot, wet, and muddy when I looked across the creek to the paved road and saw a Ford Fairlane drive by with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on.  The man inside was wearing a white shirt and a thin black tie.  He has patting the steering wheel and singing along to whatever music was on the radio.  I looked up at the sky and said to God, ‘Yes Lord.  I can do that. I will do that.  I will become a preacher.’ ”

I don’t think anyone ever believed me but they did quit asking.

In today’s Gospel lesson we have two overlapping call stories.  First we read that Jesus found Philip and said, “Follow me.”  Then we see that Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found him who Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.”  Now, occasionally when you find something you just stumble upon it by accident, but most of the time we use the word to indicate locating something you want after a considerable amount of searching.  Which indicates Jesus was looking for Philip, Philip was looking for Nathanael, and Philip and the others were looking for the Messiah.

I remember some years ago when a major American denomination had an evangelism campaign with the theme “I found it!”  Many people, myself included, stood outside that campaign and somewhat snidely and archly said, “Oh, we don’t find God, God finds us.”  Well from the evidence of this text, we were all half-right at least. When we find God it is because God has been looking for us all along.

But Nathanael’s response to Philip reminds us that the divine/human encounter is a very personal one – we cannot meet God by proxy, or by inheritance; it is always an individual and unique moment.  Nathanael scoffs at Philip’s discovery. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  What he means is something like this:  “This man is from the wrong part of the country, from the wrong social class, he has the wrong accent, he has no real education or training.  Seriously, why should I listen to him?”  Many people today question Christianity in much the same way, “Can anything good come out of the church?”  “It’s antiquated, behind the times, speaks the wrong language, it’s pre-scientific and irrational, it’s judgmental and full of hate, etc. etc.”

I’m sure Philip was tempted to argue with Nathaniel, was anxious to convince Nathanael of Jesus’ Messiahship – but he resisted the temptation and instead did exactly the right thing.  He invited him to “come and see,” for himself.  Somehow Philip realized that you do not argue someone into

a new religious understanding.  All one can do is help someone encounter Jesus.  The rest is up to the action of God in Christ.  Our calling is to be like Philip and invite others to “come and see” what God is doing in our lives and in our congregation, to “come and see” what a difference knowing Christ has made in our lives, individually and as a community, “come and see” how Christ could make a difference in their lives too.

Nathanael does come and see. Nathanael meets Jesus. Nathanael is convinced by his encounter that Jesus is the Christ.  Nathanael affirms his new-found faith, “You are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!”  Nathanael was found by Jesus and found both God and his own true self in the process.

I actually do have a call story, we all do.  My call story is about being raised by believing parents who took me to church when I was two weeks old and never quit taking me.  My call story is about Mrs. Gammons teaching Junior High boys Sunday school and putting up with our antics and misbehavior and somehow leading us to love Jesus and each other.  My call story is about going to a little mountain Presbyterian Church for evening services and hearing the retired missionary pastor tell stories about God was changing lives in Africa and Asia and thanking that maybe God could change my life too.  My call story is about being invited by many different folks to “come and see” what God in Christ was doing, is doing, and will continue to do in many different people and places.

What’s your call story?  And who do you know that needs to know that God is looking for them?  Who do you know that needs a little nudge, who needs you to invite them, saying, “Come and see.”  You are Philip – who is your Nathanael?

Amen and amen.

Baptism of the Lord for Year B (January 11, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

It’s all about the Voice here in Genesis. It is God’s voice that creates (or, brings forth) light — followed by all of the other elements of creation. Interesting, isn’t it, that with all of the hullabaloo raised by many voices about the opposition of science and religion that we have here near perfect agreement on the beginning moments of our world? Light is energy; nearly all cosmologists and physicists agree that the universe, as we know it, began in a burst of energy. I just really like it that my brain and my heart are able to come together here in a moment of saying, “God, you are so scientifically cool!”

Psalm 29 is one of the more “active” texts in the psalter. The word ascribe literally means “to write down” — if even in your thoughts — the nature of what you are trying to describe. It is encouragement to get specific when we talk about the reasons we worship God. The ensuing action phrases certainly contain a good deal of specificity.  “Lord, your voice thunders over the waters…it shakes the wilderness.” If you’ve ever experienced a thunderstorm outdoors– or even survived a tornado or a hurricane — you can sense the verve of this phrase, can’t you? How would you “ascribe” glory to God based on your own experience?

Acts 19 is an obvious companion text to today’s gospel reading. We see an example of the early church working out what it means to follow Jesus, particularly when it comes to the “profession of faith” that is baptism. Is this passage intended to give us a full scriptural formation of the doctrine of baptism? No. But it does illustrate for us the ongoing nature of our experience of living for Christ. If and when we are given a fuller understanding of living out our faith — well, perhaps it is best for us to press ahead, regardless of whatever past notions and preconceptions we may have had. It’s worth a thought.

Mark is the our “just the facts” gospel writer. His is the plainest and most straightforward of all the descriptions of the Jesus’ own baptism. He doesn’t offer a great deal of theological justification; he doesn’t give us any hint of the discussion between John and Jesus about who should baptize whom. It’s just Jesus, the water, and — again, as in Genesis — the voice of God. What are we to pay attention to here? Since we are claimed by God in baptism, just as Jesus was on this day, what does it mean for us to be the “children of God, the Beloved?” In what ways shall we live in order to be pleasing to God?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

One of my Facebook friends posted an interesting New Year’s Resolution.  She said,

“Dear Facebook friends.  I have been spending too much time on social media so I will stop using Facebook on December 31, 2014 and resume next year on January 1, 2015. Thank you for understanding.”

The New Year has been a traditional time for making changes in our lives; for giving up old, bad habits or taking on new, good habits, or doing both at the same time – replacing a bad habit with a good one.  It is a secular “repentance ritual,” an attempt to change the direction of our lives through sheer willpower, and depending on the strength of our will, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) One of the questions in the early church was the question of the difference between “John’s baptism” and being “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Both the story in Acts and the story of Jesus’ own baptism were written to help us understand this.

Because all Christian life is rooted in repentance, all Christian life is rooted in baptism.  In the weekly confession contained in the liturgy, we remind ourselves of three things; we have failed to be the people we want to be, God forgives us our failures, God sends us out to try again.  So far so good.  This is tied to “John’s baptism,” of repentance and forgiveness because in the confession we remind ourselves that we were forgiven at the cross and in our baptism.

But there is a problem, or rather a limitation, in John’s baptism.  Luther put it very well in the Small Catechism, “I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel . . .” As the Gospel lesson points out – even Jesus needed to receive the Holy Spirit, and after that time alone in the wilderness with the Devil, he spent the rest of his life surrounded by community, the disciples.

The early church quickly realized that spirit and community was necessary to the Christian life.  We cannot, as Luther said, do this by our own “reason and strength.”  The story from Acts, about Paul encountering the group in Ephesus who said that, “we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”  (One of my teachers at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary claimed that there were Lutherans in Bible times.  When students protested that could not be so, he would smile and point to these people in Ephesus who had not heard of the Holy Spirit.)

Though some in the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions point to verse six to claim that speaking in tongues and prophesying are proof that one has been baptized and is saved, most Christians do not see those things as either necessary or as the most important signs that one has received the Holy Spirit.  As Paul points out in his discussion of the gifts of the spirit in 1 Corinthians 13:13 – “Faith, hope and love remain, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”  This is not romantic love, or friendliness, this is charity – self-giving love of the other without any interest in either the other’s worthiness or what one will receive in return.

This is the greatest gift of the Spirit.  This is what “baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus,” gives.  I find verse seven, a little “throw-away line,”to be fascinating in this regard, “. . . altogether there were about twelve of them.” From the moment they were baptized, they lived in community, a community in which the Spirit led them in loving one another.

Now, when Jesus was baptized and the spirit came upon him, it not only gave him the gift of self-giving love, it also gave him a job, a ministry, a role to play in the world.  “You are my Son.”  Sometimes I hear that and envision a storefront sign in 19th century script “God and Son – Worlds Created and Redeemed.” In this moment Jesus was being commissioned to go forth in his Messiah/Savior role – to preach, teach, heal, confront, die for, and ultimately save the world.

In our baptism, we too are claimed by God and sent out into the world.  Many churches include in their baptismal formula something like these lines from the Lutheran tradition (LBW, p. 124) “(Name), child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”  Then a lit candle is given to the newly baptized and these words are spoken, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Our Baptism, like that of Jesus, is a calling into ministry in the world.  We have been invited to make a New Year’s Resolution today.  We are invited to remember and live out our baptism, to follow Jesus where Jesus went, to the cross and beyond, to allow the Holy Spirit to fill us with self-giving love for God and others.  We are invited to remember that we too are Children of God, beloved by God, well-pleasing to God, and sent out by God – to show the world the love and kindness of God.

Amen.

A Bonus Sermon for Epiphany (Year B — January 6, 2015)

By the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

(Note: I preach with an outline that I distribute to the congregation; hence, the blanks indicated here by underline)

I’ve always heard the expression – which seems to apply a lot in my family – “better late than never!” Of course, there are also those folks we shudder to meet sometimes, and wish we could turn it around: “Better never than late!”

Our text for this morning is about some folks who often get included in the original celebration at the manger in Bethlehem, but who were, in fact, most likely not there at the same time as the shepherds or even the “we-assume-he-was-around-but-he’s-never-really-named” innkeeper.

Of course, I’m speaking of the “wise men” or the “three kings” – or, as the Greek text actually names them – “the magi.”

  1. The magi were latecomers to the first Christmas celebration.
  • “Magi” is an old Persian (Iranian word,) members of an ancient religion that studied the stars and folk legends
  • They most likely were not “kings” and we don’t know if there were three (despite the song)
  • They may not even have been “men” for that matter – after all, they did stop and ask directions from Herod!
  • This story could have occurred as long as two years after the “manger scene” in Bethlehem; they note that they saw the “star” at its rising – which was some time in the past
  • There has been lots of interest and conjecture over what exactly the “star” was that was seen – some say a supernova, others a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, others think maybe a comet
  • Fascinating to me is the explanation that what they actually saw was an “angel” – a bright messenger from heaven who was calling them to come. We know that in Revelation, the angels – or messengers – of the seven churches are depicted as stars in the hands of Jesus. Hmmm…
  • Regardless of the answer, we know that these magi saw something unusual that had to do with a light in the sky, and according to the legends they had studied, they deduced that an important child had been born in Judea, the land of the Jews
  • Persians would have known quite a bit about Jewish belief systems, as their ancestors (the Babylonians) had captured Jerusalem and held the Jews in exile approximately 500 years earlier…
  • So, their curiosity led them on this “late” Christmas journey…and there is room for them in the story! (which interests me as much as anything)
  1. Truth from God can be found everywhere (and, evidently, anywhere.)
  • The magi are not Jewish, they are not Christian…though their history led them to a form of belief in “one god,” they did not necessarily fit the normal criteria for someone who would be likely to come to Christ
  • Who would expect these guys (or gals) from a “pagan” society to come such a great distance, at great cost, with expensive gifts…to worship a child?
  • Of course, the whole Christmas story has been about God doing the unexpected, hasn’t it?
  • Teenage virgin mother, unwitting and reluctant “step”-father, baby born in a barn on the backside of nowhere, first witnesses a bunch of smelly shepherds… you get the idea
  • So, now…add to the cast these mystical, magical philosopher/astronomers as among the first to see what God was up to
  • Makes you wonder just where God might be trying to send us messages of truth in our time, doesn’t it?

The real question is – if we were to hear the “truth” from God – what would we do with it? This story illustrates that…

  1. What you do next when you hear from God indicates what kind of faith you actually have.
  • Three sets of characters heard the “truth” about the baby born in Bethlehem; each of them had a different reaction.
  • The Jewish priests and scribes had all the right knowledge and information; they quoted Micah 5:2 to Herod as soon as he asked, “Where is this kid they’re talking about?” They knew that a Messiah was coming, and that there were rumors of some kind of birth “out there”
  • Herod had the message from the magi, and now confirmation from his own court experts…that was a pretty strong signal that something big was happening in the kingdom
  • And, of course, the magi themselves had the “star” and a story…and now got what they needed from their stopover in Jerusalem. (Interestingly, as soon as they decided to take the next step of their journey, the light of the “star” reappeared to them!)

So, what were the reactions of each of these characters?

  • The priests and scribes went right back to “business as usual” – nothing changed for them. Kind of an “oh, that’s interesting” response
  • Herod got worried; he was afraid that if there really was a new king coming, it was going to upset his personal apple cart pretty badly and could ultimately cost him his power, prestige, and his kingship. Better find a way to take care of that kid!
  • The magi – well, they followed the light that they had been given, and at the end of the trail – they worshiped.

Which of the three got it right?

We want to be pretty careful, I think, about coming to God’s house week after week, hearing the good news, and continually leaving with “business as usual” on our minds. God is constantly speaking to us – here and in the “unexpected” places of our lives – and is continually forming us, shaping and reshaping us, possibly even redirecting us in the choices we are making. We don’t want to ignore God!

Worrying about what following God’s will will cost us is not a good option, either; Herod did a pretty good job of placing himself on the throne of his life. He was willing to murder in order to keep things under his own control (he killed not only his own family members, but the terrible “Slaughter of the Innocents” depicted just a few verses later in Matthew’s story.) But, in the end…what happened? History tells us that Herod went insane and died after being exiled by the Roman emperor, Caligula.

It is the “outsiders,” the unlikely candidates in the story that give us the example of faith; they put feet to their prayers. They got up and went in the direction that God revealed to them. And they expressed their faith in real, practical terms.

Of course, that didn’t mean their way was easy…

  1. Following Christ may lead you on the “road less traveled.” 
  • The magi got a warning about going back the same way they came
  • Just in case these “wise men” weren’t wise enough to figure out that Herod was “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” – they dreamed about taking a different way to get back home
  • It might have been a harder journey; it may have taken them longer; it was probably more costly in time, effort, and expense
  • But, it was the right way to go
  • We may need to take some different paths in our own lives, once we have seen and heard the message of God for us
  • It may not always be the smooth, or popular way that we are called to walk
  • The path may get steep, the cost might be high; but God has promised to walk with us and guide us

Robert Frost didn’t write his famous poem for a spiritual purpose, as far as I know; but I like his words in “The Road Not Taken.”

The Road Not Taken

BY ROBERT FROST

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 *   *   *

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

 *   *   *

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

 *   *   *

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I took the one less traveled by…and that has made all the difference. A pretty good metaphor for our call to walk the way with Christ on this day, and every day that lies ahead of us in 2015 and beyond.

Amen? Amen.

The Second Sunday after Christmas for Year B (January 4, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Jeremiah illustrates that God takes both credit and blame for the results of God’s own action in the world. Verse 10 anchors the other vivid details in this text — “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.” God both scatters and gathers, all in God’s time. Not that we always understand that timing, nor do we fully comprehend the significance of either the scattering or the gathering. But, we do come “from the farthest parts of the earth,” weeping, thirsty, blind, lame — and we find rest in God. Worth an amen, I think!

Sirach reminds us that God’s “timing” was put in place before there even was time — v.9 says, “Before the ages, in the beginning….” I wonder if God loves it when a plan comes together?

Psalm 147 encourages us to “count our blessings” (in the word of the old gospel hymn I grew up singing.) Just how many of those ways God has blessed can you count in this psalm portion — and in your own life? A great exercise to begin the new year, by the way — counting blessings and giving thanks to God.

Wisdom of Solomon gives us further reason to trust God, no matter the circumstances that surround us: the wisdom of God (here, personified) dwells with us — an ever-guiding presence.

The opening of Ephesians gives us a second accent on the idea that God has worked from “before the foundations of the world” (v.4) to secure our salvation — choosing us in Christ. Our salvation is 1.) through the blood (life-source) of Christ; 2.) brings forgiveness for sin (an awfully handy commodity), and; 3.) flows from the absolutely stunning riches of God’s grace (v.7).

There are few better texts for preaching a “New Year” sermon on beginnings than the opening of John‘s gospel. “In the beginning” takes us back to the Genesis account — where we are informed that the Word was present. In Genesis, God’s first creative act is bringing forth light (no sun or stars yet…just light, which I always find fascinating!) Now, John takes that light as the presence of Christ in the world — from the beginning, in John’s time, and in ours, too. Whatever 2015 holds, God is with us as the “Light of the world.” And the darkness will never overcome that Light!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In 1675 a fire destroyed most of London, England.  Therefore, many of London’s most impressive, beautiful, and famous buildings were built between 1675 and 1725.  In 1684 Sir Christopher Wren laid the cornerstone for what would be his greatest building, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

It took thirty-five years to complete.  When it was finished, Queen Anne took a tour of the building.

Wren waited breathlessly to see what she would say.  At the end of a through tour, the Queen pronounced her verdict.  “It’s awful, it’s amusing, it’s artificial.”

What?  “It’s awful, it’s amusing, it’s artificial?”  Wren must have been devastated, we think.  But he wasn’t. He was delighted.  In those days – awful meant, “full of awe, awe inspiring, awesome,” amusing meant, “amazing, unbelievable,” and artificial meant “artistic.” What sounded to us like a devastating critique was, to Wren’s ears, the highest praise.

Today’s Gospel lesson says that “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”  I am wondering how we make sense of this sentence in the modern world.  Perhaps it is as foreign to our ears and our understanding as the Queen’s praise of Wren’s Cathedral.

It must be admitted that the Incarnation, God’s act of become human, has been difficult to comprehend and accept in any time and any place, not just the West in the 21st Century.  Martin Luther said, “The mystery of humanity of Christ, that He sunk Himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding.”  It is not a truth that can be explained by science or logic; it can only be proclaimed as revealed truth. But once it has been proclaimed, it can be explored so as to better understand the difference this mystery makes in our lives.

In these few verses, the writer of John two  philosophical and religious ideas current in the first century in order to get at what happened when God got born as a baby in Bethlehem. There is Logos from Greek philosophy which is the truth or wisdom of God.  Then there is the Jewish Biblical idea that when God created the world, God spoke the world into being, “God said, let there be light, etc.” (Genesis 1:3 and following.)  John then taps into the early church’s memory and proclamation about the man Jesus and the things he said and did.  He puts it all together with soaring, poetic prose to show us Jesus as the living expression of God’s truth and wisdom spoken into earthly existence.

John proclaims to us that Jesus was the living, breathing, very human, creative, and life-giving power of God. John shows us God on one side and humanity on the other and Jesus in the middle as the word which God spoke to us about God’ love and purpose for us all.

A few years ago at a funeral over which I presided, a young man spoke lovingly about his father, Henry, a working class guy, a factory worker.  The son had gone far, both far in life and far from home, studying in major universities in far-flung cities as he became first an M.D. and then a well-respected expert in his specialty.  At the funeral, the doctor said that often when he called home, he would apologize to his father for being so far away, for seldom being able to visit. And Henry would say, “It’s okay son, it’s okay.  Alexander Graham Bell was a great man.  He allowed us to go cheek-to-cheek anytime.”  Jesus was God’s way of going “cheek-to-cheek” with us.

This is important because it made God’s love for us real and tangible.  Holy love is like human love in that it has to be embodied in order to be experienced.  It is one thing to believe in “romantic love,” in two people finding their heart’s desire in each other, candlelight dinners, moonlight walks, eternal bliss. It is quite another thing for two people to live together, to struggle to work out their differences, to accept one another’s flaws and shortcomings, to live face-to-face in a living, breathing less than ideal but oh so realistic relationship.

So it is with us and the holy.  God became flesh and lived among us because God was not willing to be a far-off, spiritual ideal.  God knew that for the divine/human relationship to be real, it had to be fleshed out.  That “fleshing out” continues in the life of the church, the “body of Christ” as we embody our faith and love for God in our efforts to live lives of love with one another and the world.

Just like a marriage, it is seldom perfect, it is always a work in progress, it requires work to iron out our differences and accept one another’s flaws and shortcomings, to forgive and trust and love and go forward together.  It is difficult.  It is also “awful, amusing, and artificial.”

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

The First Sunday after Christmas for Year B (December 28, 2014)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Isaiah gives voice to our praise — “I will not be silent!” When it comes to the blessing of God, what do you have to shout about?

Psalm 148 gives a nice baker’s dozen invitations to praise — 13 times in these 14 verses the word occurs. Notice also all the members of the “Choir of Creation” that are invited to join the song: from angels and the starry host to sea monsters and all people (young and old.) Talk about “We Are the World!”

Galatians makes a nice play on an image for today — God has sent His son (a child) into the world, so that we might be made the children of God.

From Luke‘s account, I nominate Simeon and Anna for most outstanding characters who are most often overlooked in the Christmas story. These two Spirit-led senior citizens have an awful lot of good stuff to say. Listen to them closer than you would to E. F. Hutton (if you don’t get the reference, ask someone who watched TV during the late 1970’s and early 80’s! Or, catch a vintage repeat here.)

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Believe it or not, 2014 is almost over.  New Year’s Eve, and its attendant parties, is Wednesday night.  While the new Football Playoff System has taken some of the finality of the games away, New Year’s Day will be still be a big day for College Football Bowl games and their attendant parades.  One of the most enduring symbols of the New Year is Old Father Time, with a long beard and dressed in a robe, walking away over the hill while the Baby New Year, wearing nothing but a sash with the year emblazoned on it, bursts onto the scene.   I thought of that image as I read about the old man Simeon taking the little baby Jesus into his arms.

Now the secular image often portrays the old year as stooped, weary, worn out, almost disgusted looking, ready to be shed of the whole thing.  Looking at the New Year with a combination of envy and pity, as if to say, “Yeah, I used to be full of pep, energy and enthusiasm too.  But you’ll learn, my boy, you’ll learn.  They’ll wear you out too.”

There is none of that in our Gospel Lesson, not from Simeon, nor from the prophet Anna, she of great age.  Both of these elders recognize in Jesus the dawning of a new age, the coming of a new blessing for God’s people; not only for Israel, but also for everyone.  Echoing the prophet Isaiah, Simeon sees in Jesus the promised salvation “which you (God) have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  Anna sees in the child as “the redemption of Jerusalem,” and both praise God and spreads the word.  Instead of looking at the baby and the changes he is bringing into the world with both jealous envy and cynical pity; both Simeon and Anna see in Jesus a new thing God is doing and they praise God for it and spread the word.

Most of us have seen more than a few Christmases come and go.  We have listened throughout many Advents to the promises of a Messiah, a Savior who is coming.  We have heard, year after year, that John the Baptist is the one preparing the way of the Lord.  We have come faithfully to Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion, singing joyfully and lustily, hymns and carols full of words about the Son of God coming to bring hope, and joy, and peace.  And we believe it, we really do.

But here, on the back side of Christmas Day, after all the parties and the presents and the family dinners; as people begin to go back home and go about their regular business – just as Mary and Joseph had to leave the stable at Bethlehem and go to the temple to tend to the requirements of the law and then hit the road for Nazareth because, after all, Joseph has a business to run and they have a son to raise; we find ourselves staring at bills and empty boxes and a world filled with the same old problems of race and politics and poverty and violence as before Christ came and we have to wonder – did Christmas actually change anything?

If we’re not careful we can become more Old Father Time, looking upon the gospel of Jesus Christ with a combination of envy and cynical pity, than spiritual descendants of Simeon and Anna.  We can begin to think, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s all very nice – you can try that peace and love stuff, but in the end, it doesn’t work. You’ll learn, my boy, you’ll learn.”

Part of our problem is that we have failed to pay enough attention to the hard-nosed practicality of the Bible itself.  We have somewhat cleaned up the Christmas story itself, leaving out the hard parts in the interest of having a pleasant and joyful Christmas.  In this, we have failed to pay enough attention to the harsh and mean world into which Christ came.  We have failed to talk enough about the “Slaughter of the Innocents” that happened in Bethlehem after Jesus birth.  We have too often failed to draw the straight line from this bouncing baby boy’s birth and his cruel yet redemptive death just over thirty years later.  It’s all there in the Bible, including in this text.  Simeon tells Mary the hard truth that, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your side too.” (vs.34-35)

On this first Sunday after Christmas, our call is to embrace the Christ Child with the clear-eyed enthusiasm modeled for us by Simeon and Anna.  They are both joyful and realistic.  They are joyful that God has acted.  They are realistic about what God’s action means.  What begins in the Christ Child will take an eternity to accomplish.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, the arc of history is long and it bends toward justice.  We are called to follow Jesus, to grow and become strong and wise in battling the injustices of our world.  Our hearts will be pierced with compassion and our souls filled with love; for once we have seen God’s salvation, we have no option but to praise God and join the parade.

Amen and amen.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent for Year B (December 21, 2014)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Samuel’s message is a reminder that, while the tangible expressions of God’s presence with us — things like Temples and Churches, candles and wreaths — are nice and helpful, they are NOT the actual presence of God with us. We must never confuse the building with the blessing, as it were; or, as Wes Avram so aptly put it writing in Christian Century recently, “…God’s presence is not assured in the building, but in the promise.” (Click here for the link.)

Psalm 89 stands as a steadfast reminder that — boon or bust, scarcity or plenty —  it is the love of the Lord that remains in our lives and sustains us, somehow.

The benediction from the book of Romans is simply not surpassed for lofty language praising God for God’s work of salvation — from beginning to end, from eternity past to eternity yet-to-come. It’s all part of “the Christmas story!”

Luke‘s telling of the encounter between Mary and the angel Gabriel illustrates for us that God always has — and always will, I suppose — use quite ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Just a girl — just a guy — just a handful of shepherds — just the Savior of the world!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I saw this in a magazine a few years ago. Margaret was having a tough Christmas season. Her husband was out of town on business for most of December. Her kids were sick half the time, work was driving her crazy with year-end deadlines. Nothing was going right. About a week before Christmas she did some shopping at the mall during her lunch owner. She darted into a card store and bought a box of 50 Christmas Cards, already on sale because it was so late. That night she printed some labels using the computer and put the kids to work. One signed the cards with the family’s last name, a second stuffed the cards into the envelope, a third put on the address lapels and the youngest stuck on the stamps, mostly upside down or sideways; but it got done, just in time.

The day after Christmas, Margaret was cleaning up and found a stray card between the couch cushions. She realized she had been so busy she never even read the card.  She sat down on the couch and then cried after she read: “We’re sending this card just to say, a little gift is on its way.”

A little gift is on its way. That is the message of the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It’s the message Elizabeth and Zechariah got about John. It’s the message Joseph and Mary got about Jesus.

And it’s the message we are getting about the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior. In the midst of our running around and gift-buying and card-sending and house-decorating; we need to pause and remember why we’re doing all this. We’re doing it because God has sent us a message that a little gift is on the way, a little bundle of joy is coming, a Word of Hope and Peace is just around the corner.

It is a gift and a word that the world needs now as much as ever. A glance at the daily paper, or 30 minutes of watching the news is enough to remind us that the world is all too often a dark, scary and lonely place run by the proud, the rich and the powerful.

And we, like Mary, have been called to carry the gift that is Christ into the midst of that hurting world. The lowly still need lifting up. The hungry still need to be fed. The poor still need a chance to live. The world still hungers in its heart for true goodness to reign supreme.

Caroline was active in her church. A few years ago she was asked her to do something more, something extra. The churches in the area were opening a Homeless shelter and they needed a director – would she help? Although she was already quite busy Caroline agreed. She went into it with great enthusiasm and high commitment; she wanted to help, she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.

By Christmas Eve, she was quite tired of the whole thing. She had come to see her job at the shelter as a thankless chore. When she started, she thought: Give these people a little love and they’ll turn around and soon become useful and productive citizens. But her high hopes and great expectations were soon dashed. “These people will never change,” she thought, “they’re all the same ; take, take, take and never give anything back.

It was in this mood that she met a young man named Christopher. She had gotten everyone bedded down for the night on Christmas Eve, which was a lot like every other night, except that they had turkey for dinner instead of soup; and everyone received a Christmas package of soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes from the Ladies Auxiliary of Greater Hope Baptist Church.

Caroline turned out the lights and retreated to the kitchen for a cup of coffee when Christopher came in, wanting to talk. She agreed, nodding her head, but not really interested. He told her the usual story – the kind of story you hear a hundred times a year if you work with the homeless. His father drank and beat him, his mother slept around. He dropped out of school at 14 and did a lot of drugs, married at 19 to a woman 36 who was already pregnant. She left him and the baby a little while later, so he gave the baby up for adoption and hit the road.

By this time Caroline was looking at her watch, ready to send the young man back to bed, when suddenly Christopher said, “God has really blessed me.” Caroline jerked her head up. “How can he say that?” She thought. “After all he’s gone through, how can he say that?” “Yes,” Christopher said, “God has really blessed me. He let me see the darkness, so I’d recognize the light.”

Christopher – the name means “one who bears Christ.” That night, Christopher lived up to his name. He brought the light of Christ to a tired and bitter woman. A woman who learned one more time that God specializes in surprise packages, in coming to us in unlikely places, in speaking to us through unlikely voices.

As Caroline thought about Christopher’s words about light and darkness, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small, worn Bible and from it he took a dried and pressed Monarch butterfly with radiant colors. “Here,” he said, “Merry Christmas. This is for you. Put it in your Bible and remember that on one cold Christmas Eve you took the time to let your light shine on some tired and lonely people.”

The mystery and miracle that is Christmas is just around the corner. Our little gift is on its way. We are invited to be like Mary and receive the gift of Christ with glad and joyful hearts. And we are invited to be like both Mary and Christopher in sharing the gift of Christ with the world.

Amen and Amen.

Special Feature: Advent in a Time of Mourning

“Advent in a Time of Mourning”

Grey hills fade into overcast skies,

night falls before we are ready,

prompting us to light up our world,

with brightly colored luminations.

It’s a good time to think upon

the coming of divine light

into profane darkness;

it is not a good time to ponder

the loss of one who carried that light

into your own life.

Advent is a time of waiting,

of being alert to the signs and signals

that God loves us

and is in our midst.

It is hard to wait, to be patient, to be alert, to see God

when one is filled with a sadness

that cuts to the bone

and reaches out to the horizon.

Advent in a time of mourning is,

like all the things in life that really matter,

both bitter and sweet.

To taste the emptiness that comes

when the one who brought you into this world goes out

is bitter.

Yet, to recollect her laugh, to relish her humor,

to recall her toughness and her love,

is sweet.

Advent in a time of mourning,

is waiting tinged with both sadness and hope;

sad for what is lost –

and hope for what is to come.

Delmer Chilton, 12/04/2014

The Third Sunday of Advent for Year B (December 14, 2014)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Isaiah‘s message is about the reversal of fortunes for those who have been beaten down by life (which happens a lot, right?) Oppressed, captive, brokenhearted, mourners — that pretty much covers lots of the folks that will sit in our pews on any given Sunday, not to mention all those within a stone’s throw of our front doors! God’s work takes time and patience on our part — not to mention a bit of effort. Notice that it is the brokenhearted, et al, who actually do the work of rebuilding once God has lifted them up. And them is us.

Psalm 126 echoes the same idea — God restores the earth every season (winter, spring, summer, or fall.) Likewise, God restores our hope, our fortunes, our faith.

The “Magnificat” portion of Luke’s gospel serves as an alternate psalm reading for this day. I refer you to the opening portion of today’s podcast, Lectionary Lab Live, for some explanation of this.

Thessalonians gives us some practical ways to live out the Advent concept of “active waiting.” Pretty much any one of us can find something on this list that we can be about.

John‘s gospel — which gives us another portion of the story of John the Baptist (no relation) — reminds us of the importance of the church’s responsibility to point toward Christ. John drew lots of attention to his exciting ministry. Any pastor would be proud of the “numbers” John put up in gathering crowds. Yet, he clearly said, “It’s not about me! You need to pay attention to the one who is coming after me. He’s the man!”

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The world’s celebration of the Nativity of Christ is surrounded by song. No secular artist puts out a Thanksgiving CD or an Easter Album, but almost everybody tries to “cash in” on Christmas, either with new songs or old favorites. Christmas songs fill the Malls and Stores and Radio playlists from early November until Dec. 25. And the question arises: What is it about Christmas that causes the heart to sing?

It was like that from the beginning. In our reading from Luke’s Gospel: Mary visits Elizabeth and breaks out in song – the Magnificat, elsewhere in Luke Zechariah celebrates the birth of his son John (to be called the Baptist) with a song that points to the birth of another child, the Coming One.  The angels sing to the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth and at the dedication of the child old Simeon sees the baby and bursts into praise.

Again, what is it about Christmas that causes us to sing?

We have lots of good Easter hymns, but the non-church world is much more likely to know “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” than “Thine Is the Glory.” But not so with Christmas Carols. Almost everybody can sing at least one verse of “Away In a Manger” or “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and can recognize the tune of a dozen more. Is it just the vast exposure on Radio and TV, or is there something about the Birth of the Christ Child that makes us want to sing?

A couple of things occur to me.

First: the only really appropriate response to mystery is adoration, and what better way to adore than to sing. The story that we anticipate in Advent is a “something more” mystery. Underneath all the theological baggage and argumentation there is this for all of us: life can be very ordinary and difficult and painful and short and depressing. The birth of a child as the Son of God, a message from beyond that God does love us after all, that this world is not “all there is,” that peace and love and joy are real and are really important and are really possible is a message we all need to hear.

So even those who have their doubts about God, and Jesus and the Church, often will themselves to believe in the “something more” that Christmas represents to them: the potential for good in a cold and lonely world. And that Mysterious Possibility is something to sing about.

Second; for those of us who receive the story as a true story, a story about how the God of the universe let go of all the trappings and power of Heaven to come and be born in a stable, taking on as the Eucharistic prayer says, “our nature and our lot,” that too is a mystery beyond words. We cannot comprehend a love that big and that deep and that complete, and when ordinary words fail us, we, like Mary and Zechariah and Simeon and the angels; burst into song, for we have no other choice.

Amen and amen.

The Second Sunday of Advent for Year B (December 7, 2014)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Isaiah‘s words — which contrast quite starkly with the apocalyptic tone of last week’s gospel reading — are all about comfort and atonement. The glory of the Lord that is about to be revealed, Isaiah says, will be about reward and recompense. That’s all good, right? Well, if you consider what it takes to level a mountain (“made low”) or to fill up a valley (“lifted up”) — I don’t know. Could be a little less gentle than we might imagine. Whatever else the result of this waiting season of Advent may be, when it is all said and done, we’ll be able to say, “Here is your God!” (v.9)

For the writer of Psalm 85, forgiveness and sin go hand-in-hand. When you have a problem with one (sin) you really need the other (forgiveness.) John the Baptizer will have a little something to say about that in today’s gospel text, as well. One of the images of “sin” is as an obstacle in the path to completing a good and desirable action. Sin blocks us from doing God’s will, from developing meaningful relationships, from loving neighbors as ourselves, and all such as that. Forgiveness is key in removing that sin-obstacle (kind of like lowering a mountain?) With sin removed, righteousness and peace are free to kiss. Faithfulness can spring up all around us; steadfast love strolls about, finding its purpose in lives made whole.

Peter‘s text reminds us of the double nature of Advent; we are glancing backward at the events of Bethlehem’s manger as we await the coming of the Christ Child, but also are keeping an eye on the future and the promised return of that same Child, now turned King of kings. “God’s timing” is oft-discussed in church circles — it being a curious and apparently unknowable sort of thing. Peter says, “Don’t get too worked up about that; God moves on such a different time scale from us, you’d never grasp it in a million years.” What matters is what God is up to: that all may come to repentance, however long that may take. (See Dr. Chilton’s sermon below for more about that totally cool word.)

Mark starts at the very best place for his gospel: the beginning. Immediately, we realize that what he will tell us, and what we will read, and even all that we will experience in this life of faith in following Christ — it’s all only the beginning. Or, since John’s message is about repentance, you might say that it’s only the beginning — again. Fresh starts, change of minds and hearts, reversing field and making better choices — all of that and more is involved in this gospel message. No wonder it takes us an eternity to get it!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A few years ago a pastor friend told me of meeting God on the highway. He said that he and his wife were traveling North on Interstate 85 when a semi began to top the crest of the hill ahead of them heading South. Above the cab, across the front of the trailer were emblazoned the letters G – O – D.

My friend’s mind began to whirl with silly questions and ideas: What kind of music does God allow the truckers to play in the cab. Is it all Contemporary Christian, or can you pop in a little Rap or Country? Would God ever break the speed limit? And if God did speed, would the State Trooper give God a ticket? As the truck drew closer and Warren that the side of the trailer read Guaranteed Overnight Delivery, one final question flashed through Warren’s mind:  If God is going south, what am I doing going north?

John the Baptist came out of the desert and the wilderness, right down the middle of life’s highway as loud and as noticeable as a semi. He was a clear and unmistakable sign that God was headed south and everybody else was going north, headed the wrong way.

The key word in John’s preaching was repentance. In Greek the word is metanoia. It means literally to “turn, to change, to reverse oneself.” In the Greek language, it is not a particularly religious word. It is rather an ordinary, everyday usable word for turning around and going the other way.

Bible Scholar Alan Richardson says, “In its New Testament usage it implies much more than a mere “change of mind;” it involves a whole reorientation of the personality.”  If God is going south and we are going north; what should we do?

Well, maybe when we see God going in the other direction, we could be deeply sorry that we are going the wrong way. We might hit ourselves on the forehead, or beat our chest, and say something like:  “God be merciful to me, a miserable driver with a poor sense of direction. I know I’m going the wrong way, but – – -I don’t know anything I can do about it. After all, I’m already headed in this direction, and I’m making good time, and I’m getting good gas mileage, and it would be very difficult for me to change and go the other way, and besides, I know you’re a God of grace and love and you’ll forgive me for going the wrong way.”

Put in those terms, it sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? But all too often, that’s how we think about repentance; being sorry for going the wrong way in life, asking God to forgive us, but not doing anything about it, not changing direction.

Another popular response when finding oneself going the wrong way is to blame others for our misdirection. You could look at someone else in the car and say, “you told me to go this way,” or “going this way was your idea,” or, “it’s not my fault, everybody else was going this way, how was I to know?’ (This option is an old favorite, dating back to Adam and Eve, “You ate the apple,” “You gave it to me.”) Or, you could blame the map or google or the guy at the gas station.

A modern response is to blame God for going the wrong way. We could spot God in the southbound lane and look over at our passenger and say, “Would you look at that? God’s lost, God’s going the wrong way, God’s out of touch with the modern world’s sense of direction.”

People have always been good at explaining failure and avoiding change. We fall back on a variety of excuses and reasons, all designed to protect things as they are. We avoid change, especially when the change God calls for will be painful for us personally. We are usually quite willing to ask others to change and equally unwilling to make changes in ourselves.

.Once during the Civil War Abraham Lincoln had a conversation with a minister who was a fervent abolitionist and war supporter. He said “Mr. Lincoln, don’t you believe that God is on our side?” Lincoln replied, “I certainly hope so Sir. But a more important question would seem to be: Are we on God’s side?”

That is still a very important question: Are we on God’s side? If God is going south, why are we going north? If the Kingdom of God is at hand, what must we do to be ready? God is traveling south on the side of Peace and Justice and the Poor. It is not for us to debate as to whether or not that is the side God is on, or whether or not God should be on that side.

God is barreling down the highway in that direction and the only question for us is “Are YOU ready to follow? Are you ready to repent, to change direction and to follow God wherever God leads?

Amen and amen.