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12-8-19 — A Christmas-Sized Welcome — Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       A few months after my mother died, I drove down to South Carolina to tie up some loose ends with her estate. My brother was staying in her house, and on a bright Carolina morning we went outside so he could show me some of the things he’d done with the yard. He pointed over to the neighbor’s house and said something had changed about Tommy, the man who lives there. Tommy, his wife and two kids had lived in the house since before Mom and Dad moved into the neighborhood 25 years earlier. He was always a friendly neighbor, with a warm greeting and an offer of a helping hand as my parents aged. But according to my brother he had turned sour and sometimes downright hostile. “I can’t figure out what I’ve done to make him so unfriendly,” David said.

       Later that morning we went out to run an errand. As we drove in front of Tommy’s house, I noticed a handicap ramp leading up to the front door. I asked my brother about it, and he said that in recent years Tommy’s wife had developed a severe disability that limited her mobility. I began to wonder. I remembered how my parents had told me that Tommy had been bouncing around jobs ever since he retired from a career as a state trooper. A light went off in my head. I said to my brother, “Maybe you haven’t done anything to make him unfriendly. Maybe that’s how he deals with the losses in his life – the loss of his career to retirement, his wife’s health to disability, the kids moving away, and who knows what else.” I couldn’t know for sure, because I didn’t know Tommy that well. But you’ve seen it before: Sometimes stuff happens to a person and they turn inward. Everything seems hopeless, and it’s hard to see the point of engaging with the neighbors or anybody else.

       Later that afternoon David and I went to visit our Aunt Mattie Lee. Mattie Lee was 97 years old. She never married, and she had lived alone in the same house since our grandmother died in 1976. She was totally blind, and her mobility was limited. She relied on Meals on Wheels five days a week for food. The county’s department of senior services sent someone around every other week to help with cleaning and chores. You might think Mattie Lee had a grim life – but no. She was one of those people you visit thinking you’re doing them a favor and when you leave you realize that you’re the one who is better off. She radiated a deep joy that let you know she was genuinely glad to be with you. She kept up with the news. The deacons from her church kept her informed about what was going on in her congregation. She listened to audio books that came in the mail from the state library system. While we were there my cousin Edwin stopped by to give her two estimates he had gotten from a contractor to repair some damage caused by a tree that fell on the house. Who knew how long Mattie Lee was going to be living in that house, but she questioned Edwin thoroughly to make sure that he chose the estimate that would be the best value. Then she started asking him about their mutual acquaintances and sharing small town gossip. Mattie Lee may have been blind and housebound, but she was fully engaged in life.

       The prophet Isaiah writes about a stump. In the way that prophets do, he uses the stump as a metaphor for something else. The stump is the nation of Judah, God’s chosen people. It has been cut down and left to rot, the way Judah had been destroyed by Babylon and left empty and ravaged. You look at the stump, and you think that’s the end of the mighty tree that once towered over that spot. But the prophet said, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out his roots.” God wasn’t through with that tree yet. Even though it looked dead and barren, new life would spring from it. Even though it looked as though God’s people had been wiped off the face of the earth, God would be true to the promise God made to David. A new people would rise up, led by one who fulfills God’s promise of a new creation where the poor are treated fairly and the wicked do not hold the upper hand and even the forces of nature are no longer a threat.

       Some people, maybe people like Tommy, see the stump of what remains of their life, of the hope and promise they once had, and give up. They close in on themselves and shut out others. Others, like Mattie Lee, see that stump and see the new branch sprouting out of it. They know that their lives belong to God, the God of life and hope and promise. They reach out and embrace the world. They welcome each day, each person as a gift from God, a glimpse of God’s new creation.

       Today’s New Testament lesson says, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (v.13) It’s hope that lets us reach out and embrace the world around us. It’s not a way of thinking or a mental discipline. It’s not a denial of the cold hard facts. Hope is a gift from God, something we receive through faith in Jesus Christ.  

       Paul is not touting the power of positive thinking or preaching the gospel of prosperity. He is proclaiming God’s new creation where no one will be in need, where all will be healthy and whole. But something happens before the meek and the poor are given justice. Isaiah says that the entrenched powers have to be displaced. “He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Before the wolf lives with the lamb and the leopard lies down with the kid, before the calf and the lion and the fatling come together, those carnivores will have to make some pretty big sacrifices and changes in their lifestyle. For the little child to lead them, the grownups will have to relinquish their power. Just thinking positively, just laying claim to riches or health or happiness that are supposedly yours doesn’t make that peaceable kingdom come. The powers that oppress the poor, those illnesses that ravage our bodies, even those forces of nature that harm us, the floods and fires and storms, all those things are still with us and bring us all kinds of grief and suffering, but rather than resign ourselves to those things, God gives us hope.

       Jesus is our model for how to deal with the upheavals in our lives. He shows us how that new creation comes. He lived simply, cared for the poor, welcomed the outcast, proclaimed God’s new creation in what he said and did and how he related to other people. That perfect life was broken. He suffered pain, death and desertion. Then God raised him from that tomb, the righteous branch out of the dead stump, and gave him new life. The one who was raised is the same one who died, but through his suffering and death he proclaims the power of God for life.

       Each of our lives is a continual process of incorporating our losses into the new reality of who God is shaping us to be. Jesus gives us hope and courage so we can leave behind those parts of our lives that are over and receive what God is giving us that is new. Adolescence is such a tumultuous time because we are giving up our identity as children. But we don’t abandon who we were as children. We incorporate who we have been into the new person we are becoming as an adult. Scripture says that when we marry, we leave our father and mother and cleave unto our spouse, but it doesn’t take any longer than the first Christmas to discover that your spouse’s family, with their assumptions and traditions, is still very much part of your beloved. One of the beauties of a strong marriage is the way it takes people from two different families and blends them to become a new family. One of the challenges of retirement is figuring out who you are once you’re no longer working. Your years of work shaped you, so who are you once you’re not going to work? A successful retiree is someone who doesn’t necessarily abandon the person she or he was at work, but discovers who they are now at a new stage of life, how God is bringing forth the new from what has gone before.

       It happens in all of life’s transitions, whether it’s becoming a parent or an empty-nester, putting life together after the death of someone we love, living with an illness or a disability that turns life upside down. A life lived in Christ is the life that can welcome all changes and transitions, even our losses and our griefs, because we are sure that in Christ all things do work together for good.

       That’s one of the most important things a congregation does during the time of transition between pastors. You embody the hope of Advent, the expectation that God is going to continue being faithful to God’s promises.

       Now, Eastminster Presbyterian Church is by no means a barren stump. The vital signs that measure a congregation’s health are strong. Worship attendance is stable, giving is up, you have a mission outreach locally and globally. You’re a caring congregation that is at peace with itself. Over 100 people enjoyed the Thanksgiving feast two weeks ago.

       But there is some anxiety about the future. You look out across the congregation and see lots of gray hair. The ministry to children and youth took a big hit a few years ago, and you lost a critical mass of young families. We want more children and youth but don’t know what to do.

       That’s where Isaiah’s image of the stump of Jesse is helpful for Eastminster. This Advent season is a time to learn how to wait. The promise is that for those who wait in hope, God brings forth new things out of the old.

       We all get anxious about what the future will bring, whether it’s the college we’ll attend or the job we’ll have, our family or our finances – or the future of the church. But whenever I get anxious about the future, I always remind myself that the same God who has brought me to where I am today is the God who holds my future. I have no reason to think that God, who has been so good and faithful in the past, is going to be any different in the future. So we commend our lives, our loved ones, and our church, to God who brings forth new things. We don’t know what they will be, but Advent reminds us that sometimes the right thing to is to wait in prayerful expectation so we’ll be ready to receive God’s gift, when God is ready to give it.

12-8-19 Bulletin

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12-1-19 Bulletin

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12-1-19 — A Matter of Time — Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:8-14 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Do you know what time it is? Often we treat other people as if we’re living in a different time. Parents treat grown sons and daughters as if they’re still children.  Husbands and wives don’t keep up with each other as the years go by and they discover that the ways they related to each other when they first married don’t work for the new situation that exists 5, 10, or 40 years later.  A friend or coworker has offended us, and we let that insult shape the way we relate to them for years to come instead of working through differences and starting over so that we do not live in the past.

It seems to be human nature, like generals who are always fighting the last war. Eighteen years ago the attacks of 9/11 jolted us into a whole new era. We initially responded to al Qaeda the way we’d always responded to threats to our national security, by invading foreign countries with massive firepower. We expected it to work in 2001 the same way it had worked during the first Gulf War of 1991. But after a while it became clear that Afghanistan and Iraq weren’t our fathers’ wars, that the old ways of fighting were only making things worse.

       We’re good at living in the past, but today’s New Testament lesson encourages us to live for the future.  Paul reminds the Romans, “You know what time it is.”  He was speaking to those who had given their lives to Jesus Christ, reminding them that his life was more than an affirmation of peace and joy and good will.  Paul wrote to those who knew that Jesus changed the way we look at time.  Because of Jesus, we know what time it is.  It’s not the past that shapes us any more.  The future, the promise of Jesus, is what guides us.

       Just think how knowing what the future holds affects the way you live right now.  If you’re a high school senior, you know that things will be different for you after this year, so it changes the way you think about school this week.  Once a couple becomes engaged to be married, the months before the wedding are a whirlwind of preparations for what is to come.  As you approach retirement, your goals and ambitions are tailored with that retirement date in mind.  If you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness, each day takes on a different character, it becomes a gift to be savored because you know in a more intimate way than the rest of us what the future holds. 

Jesus doesn’t wipe out our past.  He doesn’t eradicate our identity or our accomplishments.  He honors those things we’ve accomplished and the good we’ve done. His life fulfilled the past. It was the culmination of all the wonderful things God had done for Israel.  But it was also the promise of the future, an affirmation of what God has in store. It affects the way we relate to the people we meet every day.  We relate to people by what we know about their past – what we’ve heard about them from others, how they’ve treated us.  And all of that is important.  You can’t deny a person’s past.  But imagine what it would be like if we related to everyone in light of the promise God has given us in Jesus.  God has something wonderful in store for each and every person on the planet.

God thinks enough of that person who bothers you, that one who has hurt you, that one who makes you toss and turn at night – God thinks enough of that person to send Jesus to die for his or her sins, just as God loves you.  God wants that person to have a place at the table when the heavenly host is gathered in glory.  When you look at a person for what God desires for him or her, are you quarrels really that important?  Is it worth your time being angry?

But it’s not just a personal promise that God makes about the future. The victory Jesus won over hopelessness and hatred and death was for all the nations. Instead of resolving differences by brinksmanship or threats of force, people will look to God to guide them to be fair to everyone. Instead of resolving conflicts with weapons and wars, the time is coming when nations will look to God to resolve their differences. All our energy, our creativity, our resources will go into improving life rather than destroying it.  We’ll beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.  We’ll beat our tanks into tractors and instead of carrying bombs our airplanes will all carry food and medicine and books.  Instead of hiring baggage screeners and security officers, we’ll be hiring childcare workers and nurses and teachers.  Jesus has bigger and better things in store for us.

Church is the place where we live that promise. One reason this congregation has thrived is because it has looked for what God is doing in the world to make all things new and getting on board with it. Your commitment to serving the community is a bold affirmation of how God’s love makes all things new. You show local families the promise of Christ’s hope when you give food to the needy and Christmas gifts to kids through Bell Shelter. Your partnership with Source of Life Ministries in Haiti that we heard about last week sends the powerful message that things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been for street kids in Haiti. The compassion you show through Stephen Ministers and deacons outreach reminds our church members that Christ makes all things new. Eastminster Preschool is an investment in the future that shapes young children to respect one another and to love learning so they’ll go on to become successful students.

One of the things a congregation works on during the transition between pastors is figuring out what time it is. For Eastminster Presbyterian Church, Greg’s retirement marked the culmination of a good era. This church is strong, a real accomplishment for any congregation these days. A new era is in the works, and one of the things that happens as a congregation welcomes a new pastor is discerning what God has in mind for Eastminster Presbyterian Church here in east York and what kind of pastoral leadership you need to fulfill God’s vision for you. It’s a matter of knowing what time it is, recognizing what’s the same and what’s different, what stays the same and what has changed. That’s not something that happens fast. It takes patience and lots of prayer. It takes a commitment to keep up the good things that God is doing here now while waiting expectantly for the new things God has in store.

For the last 2000 years the western world has marked time by the birth of Jesus.  His arrival divided history into BC and AD.  In him time is different now.  The old is finished and gone.  Everything is fresh and new.  We have to make concessions for the present, for those who would harm us, for the inequalities and the injustices that plague us now.  But we don’t get stuck in the past – and what is current today will tomorrow be past. When God sent Jesus to us, God sent us the future. In Jesus we’ve already got the very best God has in store. Jesus keeps us from getting stuck in the past because he is our future.  We don’t live by what has happened but by what is yet to come.  And the one who is coming is Jesus.  He’s where your future lies.

December Pew Points

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11-24-19 — Angels: In Praise of God — Psalm 103:1-5, 19-22; Revelation 5:11-14 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

Today we conclude a three-part series of sermons about angels. The first time we talked about angels we saw how they serve as messengers of God, informing human beings of the marvelous things that God is doing. Our last sermon looked at angels as God’s agents, one way that God is actively involved in the world around us. Today we’re going to talk about the third and perhaps most important function of angels in the Bible – their praise of God.

These spiritual beings without physical bodies are mysterious creatures. Even though they are mentioned often in the Bible, the scriptures don’t tell us much about angels. Much of what you read about angels in popular books are conjectures that people have made over the centuries, some based on the Bible, some taken from folklore and other religions, some straight from the imagination of the author. I suspect that the Bible doesn’t tell us much about angels so we won’t be distracted from God, whose messengers and agents the angels are.

For all that angels do in the Bible, from rescuing apostles from jail to slaying Assyrian armies, their encounters with human beings are spotty and extraordinary. When the Bible portrays angels going about their routine business, it’s not roaming the earth looking for people to help or lives to save. Angels spend most of their time doing something that may strike us as not terribly pragmatic or functional or utilitarian. Angels spend most of their time worshiping God.

When the shepherds got a glimpse of heaven on the night that Jesus was born, they saw the heavenly host praising God and singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” When Isaiah was in the temple and beheld the grandeur of God in its fullest, he saw a type of angel called seraphim surrounding the throne praising God. Psalms like the one from which we read this morning tell of angels continually praising God. And the book of Revelation, which in symbolic language describes what it will be like when history reaches its goal, tells of angels and all kinds of creatures surrounding God and giving praise.

There’s a lot we don’t know about angels, but what the Bible tells us about them it tells us for our benefit. Every once in a while we get a glimpse of how the angels spend their time so that we will know the most important thing that we can do. There are lots of important things that we do. We help other, we provide for our families, we work to make the world a better place to live, but those aren’t the most important things we do. The most important thing we do as human beings is doing what the angels do: worshiping and praising God.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism is a little book of questions and answers that for generations was the basic Sunday school curriculum used by Presbyterian children. It’s part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one of our confessions of faith, along with The Apostles’ Creed and eight others, that we use to interpret the Bible. The very first question that the catechism asks is “What is the chief end of human beings?” and the answer is “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Our chief end isn’t to make the world a better place or to win the world for Christ. It’s to glorify and enjoy God. Of course, when we do that, all other good things follow. We naturally help others and show God’s love to all we meet and find the spiritual resources to be good parents, true friends, and faithful children. But before we can do anything else in a way that pleases God, we must first worship.

The angels in the Bible help us see what that means. As they gather around God and sing praise, they are totally focused on God. You see, it is only in God that we get the kind of purpose and focus for our lives that makes them worthwhile. Eugene Peterson says that people who do not worship “live in a vast shopping mall where they go from shop to shop, expending enormous sums of energy and making endless trips to meet first this need and then that appetite, this whim and that fancy. Life lurches from one partial satisfaction to another, interrupted by ditches of disappointment.”[1] So many things claim to offer us meaning and purpose, there is so much to do and so much to acquire that promises to make life better, so much that it often seems we don’t have the time to worship because we’re so busy doing important things.

What makes worship so powerful is that it takes us out of ourselves. When I’m worshiping God, I’m no longer the center of my universe. Worship brings us into the spiritual presence of God, where we realize that there is nothing other than God that is big enough to sustain the human spirit. Worship puts us in touch with the only one who is capable of giving our life purpose, who can strengthen us to be the kind of people we long to be.

The images of worship in the Bible are the most glorious pictures that the biblical writers could paint with words. They describe the abode of the angels as a place with streets of gold, buildings of jewels, and music of harps. Did you hear about the older couple who died and went to heaven? They were amazed by the beauty of the place. It was more spectacular than they could have ever imagined during their life. As they stood there  marveling, the husband turned to the wife and said, “You see, if you hadn’t made us eat all that high fiber, low fat food, we’d have gotten here sooner.”

When worship really works for us, when we’ve been graced by an encounter with the Holy Spirit that’s lifted our spirits right into the presence of God, we walk away feeling centered and whole, uplifted and reassured, confident and focused. Every faded tint, every wavering line of resolve is restored to original sharpness and hue.[2] If just for a brief time, we have become part of a cosmic reality, a reality that’s taking place on a plane that’s different from the one where we exist in this world. This sanctuary isn’t a place where we come to escape reality. It’s where we enter into a reality that’s more real than the places we live the rest of the week. We practice doing what it is we’re made to do, not scurrying after things that fade and pass away, but standing in the timeless presence of God. When we’ve beheld the peace, power, and joy of the one who made life and defeated death, there’s nothing in our lives that can overwhelm us.

Angels may be enough alike that they all worship the same way, but we human beings carry out our praise in as many different ways as there are human beings. Frankly, the thought of floating on a cloud playing a harp for eternity doesn’t sound all that appealing to me, but it’s been used as an image to get at the peace and fulfillment that comes with being close to God. Some of us worship best when we can be relaxed and informal. Some of us are more open to God’s Spirit in a grand and majestic setting. The Bible doesn’t describe one form of worship that is exactly right for all people all the time. What it describes is the glory and majesty of praising God.

The variety of what makes for meaningful worship is best illustrated in our reactions to hymns. There’s something about music that moves us toward God in a way that nothing else can do. That’s why the biblical descriptions of angels praising God so often have them singing. Hymns have a way of unlocking storage bins of memory in us that bring back encounters we have had with God and help us meet God again. But our experiences are different, and our beloved hymns are varied. On more than one occasion after a worship service I have had someone speak to me and say, “Thank you for choosing my very favorite hymn of all time,” only to have someone later say, about the same hymn, “Where did you find that? I hate new hymns like that.” At its best, music helps us reclaim life-changing encounters we have had with God in the past and leads us to new ways of praising God that expand our understanding of who God is.

Of all the things angels do in the Bible, there’s none more important than their praise of God. That tells us something. The hours we spend here in church, the minutes we spend each day in prayer and worship don’t earn us a living or further our career. It’s time we could spend doing for others, helping our children or serving the community. All of those are important things, things we need to do. But the time we spend when we’ve placed ourselves in the presence of God is time that we spend experiencing what it truly means to be alive so that when we depart, we live life to its fullest, as God desires. We have seen God in God’s glory so we can see God everywhere.


[1] Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1991, p. 60.

[2] ibid.

11-24-19 Bulletin

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11-17-19 — Angels: Agents of God — Numbers 22:22-35, Acts 12:6-11 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Wouldn’t you like to have an angel step into your life every once in a while? Have there been times when you’ve been in a predicament like Peter’s, maybe not chained in a jail cell, but in a hopeless situation with no way out, and you could have used an angel to spirit you away from your problems? Or have you been headed in a foolhardy direction, like Balaam on his way to Balak, and wish, now that you look back in hindsight, that an angel had stood in your path, waved a sword in front of you, and warned you in that convincing way that only angels can, that you had better rethink what you’re doing? That’s one reason angels have such appeal: They offer the possibility that we may not have to rely on our own wits to survive and prosper. They present the possibility that we’re not bound by the laws of nature, the actions of others, and the consequences of our own misguided decisions. Last Sunday we talked about angels as messengers of God. Today I want to talk about angels as agents of God, beings who do things, who make good things happen and prevent bad things from taking place.

       But for all the popularity of angels, many people have trouble with them. They see them as relics of an obsolete world view, one that attributed illness to demons instead of viruses and saw the earth as the flat center of a three-tiered universe. The idea of angels turns off those who have an aversion to overly large doses of sweetness and light. The popular image of heaven which the Victorian era, adorned with frills and flourishes, looks more like something from Better Homes and Gardens magazine than anything from the Bible, so that instead of declaring bone-rattling pronouncements like angels utter in scripture – sonorous words like “fear not!” – modern angels look like they are going to pat you on the knee and mutter “There, there.” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Intro.) Someone once observed that angels are so popular because people think that God is too preoccupied with more important things to be concerned about the details of our lives. So it’s reassuring to think that an angel can “make the tow truck come when you have a flat tire.” (Nora Ephron quoted in The New York Times, April 6, 1997, p. 41.) Angels who deliver tow trucks would be nice, but there’s nothing in the Bible that indicates they’re the celestial equivalent of AAA. But angels are mentioned too frequently in the Bible, and too many people I know have told me about encounters they have had with angels that I can’t dismiss them as figments of the imagination.

       Bible stories about angels tell us something about God. When we read the Bible, the most important thing we learn about God is that God acts. God isn’t a philosophical notion, a first principle, a distant ideal. God is involved in the lives of women and men, of boys and girls. God didn’t make the universe and set it in motion then step back to watch it work as in the classic image of God as a watchmaker. God is active in the world, and when God acts, God acts in love. Love isn’t something that can be coerced. God made us so we can share love with him and with others. But God gives us freedom to accept his love or reject it. There are times when we choose to do things that go against God’s purpose for us and distance us from God. And there are times when other people do things to us that aren’t in God’s loving purpose, when they hurt us and make us suffer. And there are times when things just happen, like miscarriages and strokes, that can’t be the will of God but which take place because we live in a still imperfect world. Love, at least when human beings are involved, isn’t always neat or predictable. Lots of times it’s complicated and messy.

       The Bible tells us that God is involved in this messy world, and there are times when God intervenes in extraordinary ways. The foremost example of God’s intervention in the course of history is Jesus Christ. God took on a human body in Jesus who was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, taught throughout Galilee and Judea and the surrounding country, was put to death on Calvary and was raised from the dead on Easter. In Jesus God changed the whole course of human history. In him God showed us that nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even death.

       Jesus is God’s supreme intervention in the course of the world, but the Bible tells of other extraordinary interventions. There are miracles, like those that took place during the Passover and Exodus. God sent plagues on Egypt to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go, plagues of blood and frogs and gnats and even death. God parted the Red Sea so God’s people could escape the Egyptian army. God sent manna and quails to feed the people in the desert during their long forty-year journey. Theologians and biblical scholar debate just how those miracles happened. Did God bend the laws of nature, or did God work within the laws of nature which we haven’t yet discovered, or were the miracles ordinary natural occurrences that happened to take place at just the right time, or did the miracles only take place in the perceptions of people of faith? Those are questions for other sermons, but the Bible is clear that sometimes God intervenes in the world through miracles.

       The Bible relates other ways that God intervenes in the world. Sometimes it’s through politics, as when God sent the Babylonians to punish Israel, then after forty years in exile God raised up Cyrus, the king of Persia, who wasn’t even aware that God was using him, to deliver them back home. Sometimes God has intervened through romance, as when Ruth and Boaz fell in love and were married and began the lineage that would lead to King David and then to Jesus. Sometimes God has intervened through dreams, as when Daniel interpreted visions for kings. And sometimes God has intervened through angels.

       Whenever angels appear in the Bible, they’re not like the fairy godmother in Cinderella. They don’t show up to grant wishes. Angels show up to carry out God’s plan for humanity. When Peter was freed from jail, it was so he could proclaim the gospel of Christ and establish the church of Christ on earth. When the angel stopped Balaam in his tracks, it was so he would do God’s work and bless Israel as they entered the Promised Land that God had promised to Moses. Angels don’t appear in the Bible in order to make dreams come true. They’re not sent as rewards for being especially good or faithful. Those whose lives are touched by an angel don’t boast about it, usually because they’re humbled that God has given them such a key spot in human history and they are awed at such a direct encounter with the Almighty.

       Biblical stories of angels are usually extraordinary, historical events, which raises the question that many of us have: Are there such things as guardian angels who occupy themselves with watching over each of us individually? Do you and I have our own angel who protects us from harm and guides us in our decisions? In favor of guardian angels are a few oblique references, such as Matthew 18:10 where Jesus tells his disciples that the angels of little ones continually see the face of his Father in heaven. After the angel leaves Peter in the story we read this morning, Peter appears to his friends who think that they’re not seeing Peter but his “angel.” But you can make strong arguments from the Bible that there aren’t guardian angels. When angels appear in the Bible, it’s for a brief time. They do their work then disappear, the way the angel did in our reading from Acts. There are no accounts in scripture of angels taking up residence with someone, continually guiding a person or looking over her shoulder. People of faith in the Bible are always aware of God’s presence with them, but only rarely does that presence take the form of an angel. I’m with that great Protestant reformer John Calvin on the question of guardian angels. He said that he just didn’t know if there are guardian angels or not.

       Angels are wonderful examples of God in action, but for some thoughtful people, their irregular appearances create more problems than hope. It’s like a sign that was on a small church in Texas. The sign read, “Come into this church to sit, to think, to look at the beauty within, to pray. It’s never too late to talk to God.” And there was a small sign below that read, “Hours 9 a.m. to Noon.” If God does sometimes intervene in the world through angels, why doesn’t God do it more often?

       For instance, Peter was rescued from prison by an angel, but why wasn’t James? I know of a person who felt an angel rescue him from death, but why do other people get cancer and die? Those are some of the most difficult questions that the human mind can come up with, and angels aren’t adequate to address them. The only one who can address hard questions like that is Jesus Christ. He could have called down legions of angels to fight off his enemies and rescue him from the cross, but he died there, suffering for us, making his death the way to eternal life. On the cross Jesus overcame the power of suffering by submitting to it.

       You see, angel visits are acts of God’s grace, and grace isn’t something we can predict or demand. Once we expect something as our right or our entitlement, it’s no longer grace. It’s more like a stipend. We know that God is good to us, that God is with us even in our suffering, that God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, and angels remind us of that.

       We can’t expect God to send us angels the way one came to Peter in prison, but we can expect God to send us surprises, surprises of grace that astound us as much as that angel astounded Peter. Barbara Brown Taylor tells about growing up in a small town and going to the movie theater on Saturday afternoons in the summer. All the kids tried to get to the matinee early so they could be at the front of the line. They wanted to be right there when the theater owner opened the doors and the fresh cool air from the dark theater rushed out over their hot sweaty faces. They wanted to claim the best seats, right down front, and be first in line for popcorn. And if it was an especially popular movie, they wanted to be in the front so they could be sure to get a seat. There were days when the kids in the back of the line didn’t get in at all.

       But what would it be like if one day, the day that the movie that had just won the Academy Award was opening, and the line was so long that you had to get there an hour early to make sure you got a seat in the theater? What if that day you were the last kid in line and for no reason at all other than he felt kindly toward you, the theater owner slipped out the door, walked all the way down the line to the very rear, and said to you and your friends, “You come in first today.” (“Beginning at the End,” in A Chorus of Witnesses, ed. Thomas G. Long and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.) That’s what grace is. It wouldn’t be grace if you expected it. It wouldn’t be grace if you thought it just might happen and took a chance of standing at the end of the line. That would be gambling. Grace is something as startling as Peter standing out in the open air and realizing that he wasn’t dreaming after all. It’s as improbable as having a donkey look up at you and tell you how to save your life.

       God intervenes in our lives in many different ways. Angels remind us of that. But they aren’t the only way God works, nor even the most common. When we profess our faith in Jesus Christ, we trust that God is intimately involved in our lives. Sometimes we get discouraged because we don’t see much evidence of God involved with us. The Psalms are full of cries asking God where in the world he is. That can be a danger of angel stories; they get our hopes up, then when we don’t see an angel, we get disillusioned. But it takes practice to recognize God’s grace when it’s staring us right in the face. It’s like other things that we work on so we recognize what we see right in front of us. If you don’t know anything about basketball, you can’t recognize a brilliant play when you see one. It looks like a bunch of people running aimlessly around a hardwood floor. But if you’ve taken the time to learn something about the game and watched it enough, you’ll recognize a pick and roll when you see one, you’ll anticipate an alley-oop on the way.

       We learn to recognize God working among us when we practice looking for God. The way to do that is to develop a discipline of daily prayer and Bible study and worship. Sometimes people think that religion is boring, but that’s often because they haven’t practiced it enough to see the excitement. So much of the time we’re like Balaam kicking and cursing his donkey while God is standing right in front of us trying to get our attention. We look high and low for angels when God is already involved and we don’t even know it.

11-17-19 Bulletin

11-17-19-bulletin

11-10-19 — Angels: Messengers of God — Genesis 28:10-22, Hebrews 13:2 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Angels seem to be everywhere, if not the real heavenly beings, then depictions of them. Someone gave me a terra cotta angel that is perched on top of a bookcase in my study at home. You can find angels on jewelry, on coffee mugs, on greeting cards. Some of the most popular TV shows are about heavenly beings. The Good Place is about the hereafter that may or may not be so good. God Friended Me tells the adventures of a man who encounters God on his smartphone. Angels show up in movies. Even the Fonz, Henry Winkler, played an angel once, a full-loving spirit named Michael who is just one of the guys at heart.

       Our interest in angels is notable considering how little the Bible tells us about them. There’s a lot we could say about angels, but most of it comes from those books called the Apocrypha which were written in the time between the Old and New Testaments, or from the imagination of medieval artists, or from New Age fads. When we go to the Bible, our final authority in spiritual matters, we’re left with more questions about angels than answers.

       One thing you notice about angels in the Bible, and I think this gives us a clue to their popularity in modern times, is that they often appear in times of distress and despair when God seems very distant. When Jacob was fleeing Esau, having tricked his brother and deceived his father, escaping certain death and running toward and uncertain future, he saw angels going up and down a ladder at Bethel. When Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, and her son Ishmael were expelled from Abraham’s household by the jealous wife Sarah and left to die in the desert, it was an angel who guided them to water and delivered them to safety. The biblical books with the most angels, Daniel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New Testament, were written at times when God’s people were being persecuted violently and the faithful were in danger of giving up hope that God cared about them at all. When Jesus was alone in the wilderness and tempted by the devil, he was ministered to by angels, and as he agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion, angels cared for him.

       Maybe angels are so popular today because we are in such desperate need for reminders that God is involved in the world around us. When you read about so many mass shootings, when it seems that civility and morality in public life are plummeting to ever newer lows, when drug abuse plagues even the most respectable neighborhoods, we can use some reminders that God really is involved and not looking on aloofly from the heavens.

       The Bible is more concerned with what angels do than it is concerned about who they are. In scripture angels have three functions. They communicate messages from God to human beings, they intercede with God’s people to rescue them from danger, and they offer praises to God in heaven. This morning I would like to talk about angels in general and their first function as messengers from on high. Next week I would like to discuss how they function as helpers, and on November 24 we will see how they carry out their work of praise.

       When we try to describe angels as we know them from the Bible, it’s like trying to describe a tree as you’re looking at it through a small third story window. When you look at a tree through a window, you’re going to see some branches coming into view from this way and some from that way. If you were standing out in the yard and could see the whole tree, you would see how all the branches fit together to make up a whole tree, but through a window all you can see are pieces that, from your limited perspective, look disconnected. It also makes a difference when you look at that tree. If you describe the tree in the spring, you might describe it as covered with beautiful flowers. If somebody else tells about the tree they see in the summer they’ll describe it as luscious green. In the fall it will be cloaked inflaming orange, and in the winter it will be bare and gray.

       The Bible is like our window on angels. Sometimes we see them portrayed as completely other-worldly in appearance, like the shining angel chorus that appeared to the shepherds in the sky over Bethlehem’s plain when Jesus was born. Sometimes they appear as human beings, like the three angels who appeared to Abraham and told him that he would have a son in their old age. Sometimes they are strange looking creatures that are hard to describe such as the six-winged seraphs that Isaiah saw in the temple in Jerusalem. Often there is no description at all of what they look like, as in the story we read this morning which says merely that Jacob saw a ladder with angels ascending and descending on it.

       Our popular conception of angels says as much about us as it does about angels. C.S. Lewis, that wonderfully witty writer, says that we portray angels as looking like human beings because humans are the most rational and perceptive form of life we’ve ever seen. We imagine angels as having wings as a way of symbolizing that their movement is not constrained by physical limitations the way ours is. We give angels the wings of birds and devils the wings of bats because most people like birds better than bats.

       Sometimes the Bible portrays angels as a concentration of God in one place so that when you meet an angel, you’re actually meeting God. When the angel of God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, it was God himself who was talking to Moses. Sometimes the Bible describes angels who have unique personalities of their own, distinct from God. In the book of Daniel the angel Michael fights the forces of evil on behalf of God’s people. The angel Gabriel, who also appears in Daniel, shows up again in Luke’s gospel to tell Mary that she had been chosen to be the mother of Jesus.

       However angels are portrayed in the Bible, they are of a different nature from the human beings to whom they appear. They are not the disembodied souls of the dead, like dear old Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life, who had died back in the 19th century and was still trying to earn his wings in Bedford Falls in the 1940s. Angels are a separate order of creatures, made by God. You and I are beings of flesh who can’t separate our identity from our fleshly bodies. Angels, on the other hand, are purely spiritual, creatures made by God who have no fleshly bodies and never did.

       Now, that’s hard for us to conceive. Nothing in the world as we know it allows for other kinds of beings to inhabit the universe with us as purely spiritual creatures. No one can give you any scientific proof that angels exist. But, you know, the more we learn about science, the humbler we become about what we know and don’t know. There was a time when we saw the world through the eyes of Isaac Newton – it was a giant machine that was well ordered and completely rational that could be explained by a finite set of laws. But now that we know about black holes and quarks and how the speed of light bends time and a universe that is ever expanding out to who knows where, we’re a lot humbler about what we assume is possible and what is not. The more science teaches us about the complexities of our universe, the more open we should be to what the Bible has taught us all along: that God can do things and create beings that are beyond our human ability to comprehend.

       The Bible is clear that angels and human beings are different orders of creation, and the story of God as told in scripture is the story of God working among human beings. The Christian faith is not a prescription for us to become something other than what God made us to be. From beginning to end, the Bible tells us that God values this physical world in which we exist. The first chapter of Genesis tells us that when God created the world, God proclaimed it good. Instead of trying to spirit us away from the afflictions that come with living in human bodies, God took on a human body in the person of Jesus Christ who was not an angel but a human being. In Christ the sufferings of our bodies are often what lead us to rely on Jesus whose physical suffering on the cross brought us eternal life. In the resurrection we still have bodies, it’s just that they’re bodies that have been changed. They’re resurrection bodies, like Christ’s body after he was raised. We can’t say exactly what they’ll be like because we don’t have them yet.

       Yet there are stories in the Bible of these spiritual creatures called angels appearing to men and women. Their appearances aren’t predictable or controlled. Sometimes they appear to good, upright people in places you might expect an angel, the way an angel appeared to John the Baptist’s father Zechariah when he was making a sacrifice to God in the temple. Just as often they appear to unlikely people in unlikely places. Jacob, whose angel ladder we read about today, was a scoundrel who had stolen his twin brother’s birthright. The place where the angels appeared was a site that was known as a center for worshiping the pagan god Baal. One thing almost all the angel appearances have in common is that they cause fear in the person who sees them. The reaction of those who see angels isn’t like the reaction of seeing an old friend who brings relief. It’s terror that comes from being before something that’s far more powerful than you are.

       One question that bothers us is that if angels are so powerful and so effective in getting people to do what God wants them to do, then why doesn’t God use them more often? Whey doesn’t God create a corps of angels, like Monica in that series from the 1990s Touched by an Angel, who will spread out across the world and completely change the course of history?

       God’s purpose isn’t to astound us or force us into believing. Some years ago a writer did an article on angels and discovered that most people who have had encounters with angels were reluctant to talk to him about them because they knew that people are more interested in hearing about the angel than about the one who sent the angel. The Apostle Paul in II Corinthians 12 tells about an experience he had where he was caught up into what he calls the third heaven, a deeply spiritual experience, which he was reluctant to talk about and about which he said very little.

       Intensely spiritual experiences and encounters with angels are wonderful gifts, but God’s purposes aren’t to overwhelm us. What God desires in God’s dealings with us is to lead us into a relationship with him. Too much reliance on angels or flashy miracles would distract us from the one who sent them. After all, the word angel comes from the Greek word angelos, which means messenger, and the messenger is far less important than the one who sends the message.

       The more common ways that God communicates with us are through prayer and Bible study and the sacraments. Sometimes we encounter someone who may not be an angel but through whom God speaks to us if we are able to hear. Have you ever had the experience of a chance encounter or an offhand remark that changed your life? That’s how lots of people come to know God, through an undramatic invitation by a friend to return to church or a close encounter with danger that reminds them of their mortality and reframes their focus on life. Those aren’t angels speaking in those situations, but God’s Holy Spirit giving the discernment to see beyond the surface to a deeper level of meaning. God can use angels to communicate with us, but more often God works in the warp and woof of our lives to become part of our everyday experience.

       So yes, encounters with real angels are rare, and if we do see them, most of wouldn’t recognize them. But those little statues watching innocently from the corner of our living room or those cherubs adorning the mugs from which we drink our morning coffee can remind us that God does communicate with us and is not removed from our lives. Angels are meant to point us to the one from God who is always with us and who isn’t confined to experiences of supernatural glory and splendor, the one who through the power of the Holy Spirit speaks to our spirits and transforms us, body and soul, into Godly people. Angels point us to the one who is far above them in honor and in glory, to Jesus Christ, the son of God, who is with us always.