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1-19-20 — Bound To Differ — 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

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I don’t have to tell you that we’re living in divisive times. It seems like every news event that happens sends opposing sides scurrying to their ideological corners to engage in verbal combat. Even a natural disaster like the wild fires in Australia have sparked heated partisan bickering. Look at what happens every time there’s a mass shooting. Newspapers, airwaves and blogs start to explain why it happened. Those attempts usually reveal more about the commentators than about the shooter. One side of the political spectrum immediately blames the other for creating a climate of vitriol that led directly to the violence. As it becomes clearer that the alleged shooter has emotional and mental problems, the other side shoots back by saying that their accusers were once again trying to deny individual responsibility and solve all our problems by social engineering. Explaining the tragedy becomes a contest to see which side can score the best talking points.

That’s what happens when we think of politics and social discourse as a protracted sporting event, with elections being like the Super Bowl where the goal is for one side to emerge victorious over the other.  The goal isn’t to work together to arrive at what is true and good and right, but to vanquish the opponent and vindicate ourselves. It’s a zero- sum game. If what you believe is right, then those who disagree have to be wrong. Period. End of discussion.

It’s a pattern that carries over into the church. Just before Christmas I was talking with a friend of mine who is pastor of one our larger Presbyterian churches. He’s had a productive ministry there. The church’s mission and outreach has grown. A year or so ago members of the church, a same sex couple, asked if they could get married in the sanctuary. The session decided it was finally time for the church to confront that issue because there are other LGBTQ people who worship there. My friend led the church through a long and thorough process to come up with a decision that was true to scripture, would be pleasing to Christ, and preserve the peace, unity and purity of the church. But after going through the long process, he was shocked at the vitriol that surfaced when it came time to make a decision. He was disheartened by how mean some church members have been to each other. It was as they forgot all the hard work they’d done on how to discuss controversial issues in the spirit of Christ and reverted to the models of debate they see on cable TV.

Eastminster had your share of divisions and church fights in your history. By God’s grace, this is now a congregation that demonstrates the love and acceptance of Jesus and is focused on serving him faithfully without energy being diverted to quarreling. But it took a long time and lots of effort to bring healing.

If it’s any consolation, this problem isn’t new. It’s why Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. The church he had founded was being torn apart by differences. There was conflict over everything from how to worship to sexual morality. But it wasn’t just that there was disagreement. People were impugning each other’s integrity, accusing their opponents of being traitors to the faith.

Church fights can be the most painful of all because the stakes are so high. They deal with things that are at the core of our being. Even if the presenting issues seem trivial – the color of the carpet or the order of worship – they have to do with the way we honor God, and that really matters.

When the Corinthians broke into factions, cast aspersions on one another and spent all their energy fighting, they were at cross-purposes with the very reason God had called them into being. The questions they had were similar to the ones we wrestle with today: Can you really be a Christian if you don’t believe the same way I do? What kind of worship best honors God? What is the proper sexual morality for God’s people? Those are important questions. They shouldn’t be ignored or papered over. Paul wasn’t saying that anything and everything should be accepted without making any judgments about what is right and what is wrong.

Paul had some definite opinions on the controversies that were dividing the Corinthians. But before diving into the controversies, Paul reminded them that what they had in common was much more important than their differences.

He didn’t start by lecturing them on civility. He doesn’t evenhandedly weigh out the opposing arguments and try to find some middle ground. The first thing Paul did was give thanks to God for what bound them together. He says, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given to you in Christ Jesus for in every way you have been enriched in him… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” He starts with giving thanks.

When we give thanks, we recognize that we are dependent and fallible. Giving thanks is how we acknowledge that we can’t take credit for what we have or what we’ve accomplished. We recognize those places where God is at work among us. When we see God at work, carrying out God’s purposes, it puts our agendas in perspective.

Try this exercise for a few weeks. Every night before you go to bed, set aside a few minutes and think back over your day. Identify those places where you saw God at work in your life and give thanks for them. Maybe it was a kind word that a coworker said to you. Perhaps it was some insight you had into a dilemma that was troubling you. Maybe it was the way the sunset was reflecting off a field of snow. It could have been some strength you discovered deep inside you that helped you get through a difficult moment. Identifying those places where God was present in your life and giving thanks for them puts you in touch with something else that is going on. You realize that you’re not alone and that it’s God who strengthens you and guides you. You don’t have to be defensive about your opinions or your ideologies when you know God is working through you for something that is better than anything you can conceive of.

Martin Luther King Jr. had that perspective. He was able to see beyond any narrow interest to a broader vision of Isaiah. One of his rivals in the struggle for civil rights was Malcolm X. Malcolm ridiculed King’s philosophy of nonviolence and called for armed resistance to white segregation. The way Malcolm saw it, white people had used violence to suppress blacks for centuries, and the only way to meet violence was with violence. Malcolm wanted to vanquish the enemy so his side would win.

King realized that racism is bad for white people too. It poisons the soul of the racist. He saw the struggle as more than just one side triumphing over the other. His dream was for a world where all people live together in justice and peace, not for a world where the oppressed and the oppressor just changed sides. He dreamed of a world that was fundamentally transformed. The dream that he shared in that famous speech on the national mall in August of 1963 was taken right out of the Bible, the prophet Isaiah’s promise of the world where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb and all people will live together in peace.

One of the dangers of strong convictions is that they seal us off from other perspectives. The louder and stronger we defend our positions, the less we hear those who think differently. The more we hunker down in our convictions and shut others out, the more likely we are to objectify those who disagree with us. And when we treat people as objects, we’re not showing the light of Christ that saves the world.

King and Paul both had strong convictions, but they were grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we anchor our convictions in a living, ongoing relationship with Christ, in a relationship that is nurtured and sustained by thanksgiving and prayer, then we allow him to use us to bring about his dream for what the world should be. In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” King wrote to the white pastors who told him to tone it down, “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth and goodness and thereby rose above his environment.”

And Christ expects the church to rise above our environment of invective and hatred. Paul begins his letter by reminding the Corinthians who they are. They are  “the church of God that is in Corinth… those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus…” God is at the center of their being. They hadn’t voluntarily banded together as a service club or a civic organization. They weren’t an affinity group or a life-style enclave. They were called to be saints, together with all those in every place who call on the name of Jesus. The church can’t set its own agenda that’s fought out among its members. God set the agenda for the church before any of them ever belonged to it. In Isaiah 49:6 God says, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” That’s why the church exists, to give Christ’s light to the nations so God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

In another one of his speeches King said, “We’re all tied together in a garment of destiny.” The church can be a model for our nation. By the way we treat those who differ from us, we can be that light to the nations. We don’t shun controversy or differences, but we deal with them in the spirit of Jesus, giving thanks first of all for the grace we’ve receive through him. Then we lay our differences before him and let him use them like threads to weave that garment of destiny. We may be bound to differ, but we’re bound together in Jesus.

1-12-20 Sermon — The Rev. Chris Blackford, H.R.

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1-5-20 — The Rest of the Story — Isaiah 63:7-9, Matthew 2:13-23 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

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Over the past week you’ve probably been seeing reviews of the past decade in the news. The 2010s began on a horrific note. In just a few days we’ll be upon the tenth anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti where 230,000 people lost their lives. A photo I saw captures the horror of that event. A mother kneeling on the floor, her hands clutching her head, facing upwards with tears streaming from her closed eyes, surrounded by the bodies of children, among them her own.  The verse we read from Matthew could serve as the caption of the photo: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation.  Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When you read those reviews of the past decade, with wars, genocide, floods, and earthquake, it raises a hard question for those of us who just got through celebrating the birth of the Christ child in Bethlehem: Where is God in this?  It’s a question that’s asked daily somewhere by someone.  It’s asked after a violent crime.  It’s asked when there’s a diagnosis of cancer.  It’s asked when a marriage falls apart and when a dream is shattered.  When you look back over the years, there are tragedies of such magnitude that we have to ask as a community of faith Where is God in it all?

That’s when we have to hear the rest of the Christmas story, the part we leave out of our pageants and carols.  The rest of the story tells how the well-meaning inquiry of the wise men led to the death of innocent children.  The rest of the story tells what happened in the little town of Bethlehem after the wise men left, how its streets that lay so quiet on Christmas night ran with blood a few weeks later.  And it tells the story of how God was present through it all, never going back on God’s promise to deliver God’s people in the face of disaster and death.

One of the biggest hits on Broadway last year was To Kill a Mockingbird.  Not long ago, I rented the movie to watch it one more time. In one scene the hero, a small-town Southern lawyer named Atticus Finch, goes out to the country with his 10-year-old son Jem to meet with the family of Sam Robinson, the black man whom Atticus is defending against a trumped-up charge of raping a white woman.  As he’s leaving the shack where Robinson’s family lives, one of the white men who wants to lynch Robinson confronts Atticus, calls him an obscene name, and spits in his face while Jem watches.  When they return to their home in town, Atticus says to Jem, “I wish I could shield you from all the bad things in this world, son, but I can’t.”

And God doesn’t shield us.  Christmas is a time of hope and joy and promise, but it doesn’t make the world a perfect place, at least not yet.  Once Christmas was over in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph had to flee with the baby for their lives. The hope of Christmas isn’t that everything is perfect now.  The hope of Christmas is that God is with us – Emmanuel.

Our Christmas celebrations focus on the baby in the manger, but the Bible sets the scene in the midst of a world with which we can identify, a world where powers collide and leave innocent victims in their wake.  Remember how the beloved account in Luke begins: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration, and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  In Matthew’s story of the wise men, they stop in the capital city of Jerusalem to ask King Herod for directions to the child.  The Bible stories want us to be clear that the Messiah was not born into some idyllic world far removed from the conflicts and controversies that are so real to us.  The writers want us to remember that this child was born into a world that was wracked by political disputes and tormented by tyrants.  Some scholars have wondered why there is no other historical record of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem.  Wouldn’t another ancient historian in addition to Matthew have noted something so horrible?  Probably not.  Herod was such a tyrant that the slaughter of a few dozen innocent children might have gone unnoticed in light of his other atrocities.  Just consider how many people have been killed by dictators in Syria or North Korea or Congo. We’ll never know their names because their individual stories are overshadowed by greater atrocities.

Jesus was born into a world that was much like ours, where the lives of innocent people were at the mercy of powers greater than themselves.  The wise men had made the mistake of asking Herod where they could find the one who was born king of the Jews.  Herod heard that as news of a rival, which is why he sent his soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem who were under two years old – just to be sure he didn’t miss the one who might threaten his power.

The Holy Family fled to Egypt.  Like many refugees who come to this country to flee persecution, they may have had family or friends in that foreign land.  Ever since the fall of Samaria in the 8th century BCE there had been a large contingent of Jews there.  When Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE, another wave of refugees headed west.  The prophet Jeremiah went Egypt when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem.

It’s likely Joseph and his family settled among fellow Jews and made a decent living.  Perhaps they could have stayed in Egypt and the child could have grown to live a safe and relatively comfortable life.  But that is not why the child was born.  That is not why God sent his son into the world.  After Herod died, an angel told Joseph to take Jesus back to Israel, back to the place they had fled.  There he grew up to live among the poor and the outcast.  He healed and taught and gave hope to those who had little hope.  He threatened those powers that hold sway over us, and his witness led him to a cross, where he shared the fate of those children who died in Bethlehem – the death of an innocent one who did not deserve to die.  He took on himself the pains and disappointments of the whole world.  And just as God was faithful to him in infancy and delivered him from the sword of Herod, God remained faithful in death and delivered him from the grave.  Except that Jesus’ suffering and death and victory were not for himself but for us, for you and for me and for all creation.  Jesus suffered an unjust death, even felt the absence of God when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Yet even death could not separate him from God.  Even death cannot separate us from God.  In his death he conquered death to give us hope and courage. – not only to you and me and the rest of humanity, but to the earth itself.  Romans 8 says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…”  Maybe the earthquake that shook Haiti or the fires that are ravishing Australia are the groaning of creation that waits for the redemption of Christ.

There are no simple answers to explain why someone like Herod had it in his power to murder the innocent.  There are no simple answers to explain why floods and tsunamis kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people.  In the face of questions like that we cannot do much better than look to Job and stand in awe of God whose ways are so much beyond our ways that we cannot begin to comprehend them.  But when God came to us at Christmas, God showed us the divine character, and God’s character is love.  God came to be with us, to live with us and to die with us and to deliver us into eternal life.  God weeps with that mother surrounded by the bodies of her children.  God comforts those who grieve.  God upholds those who question and wonder why.  And God gives strength and purpose to those who reach out in compassion in his name.

The rest of the Christmas story brings us back to the world where Herod reigns and floodwaters rage, but there is something fundamentally different.  We know that God is with us, sharing our horror and our grief.  God is with us working through our prayers and our gifts.  God is with us giving us hope.  That is the rest of the story.

12-22-19 — Signs of Hope — Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

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Don’t you wish God would make you the kind of offer God made Ahaz? “Ask a sign of the Lord your God,” Isaiah told the king, “let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”  Wouldn’t you like to have that offer when you’re trying to decide whether or not to take a new job? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have divine confirmation when you’re trying to determine if the person you’ve been seeing for so long is really the one you’re supposed to spend your life with? How many times has someone begged for that sign at the bedside of a loved one after the doctor has asked whether to end life support. Usually we’re the ones who ask God, Please give me a sign.

But God offered to give Ahaz a sign, and Ahaz rejected the offer. He’d rather not have God get involved. Ahaz had already worked things out on his own.

Ahaz was king of Judah. His country was being threatened by its neighbors Israel to the north and Syria to the east. Israel and Syria had formed an alliance and laid plans to attack Ahaz’ capital city of Jerusalem. In order to protect himself, Ahaz had made an alliance with Egypt, the most powerful superpower of the day. Egypt would protect Judah, but in exchange Judah would give up some of its freedom and pay tribute to the pharaoh.

That wasn’t what God had in mind for the chosen people Judah. God sent the prophet Isaiah to remind Ahaz that the source of Judah’s strength and freedom wasn’t Egypt, the country that had enslaved their ancestors. The source of their freedom was God. Before long Israel and Syria would amount to nothing more than a couple of smoldering logs. Have faith. Hold firm. Trust in God, not in Pharaoh. God has something else in store for you. Do you need a sign to reassure you? Just ask. Ask for anything, and God will confirm what God has planned.

Ahaz tried to make it sound like he didn’t want to put God to any trouble. “I will not ask,” he said, “and I will not put the Lord to the test.” God saw through his ploy. Ahaz wasn’t being humble. He didn’t have so much faith that he didn’t need a sign. Ahaz didn’t want God interfering. Being an ally of Egypt appealed to him. It made him feel important, the way some people feel important when they have a connection with the powerful and the famous. “Oh, did you know the senator goes to my church?” “I’m in the same club with the CEO of that company.” Or as those of us from across the river liked to say before they broke up, “Did you know that Lady Gaga’s boyfriend lives in Lancaster County?” Ahaz had visions of a grand alliance with the world’s major superpower. He was willing to sacrifice his country’s freedom and its role as God’s chosen people for the security that he thought would come from being friends with pharaoh. So no thank you, he didn’t want a sign. He preferred that God keep the sign and stay out of his way.

But God wasn’t going to stay out of Ahaz’ plans. God gave him a sign anyway. And it wasn’t one of those grand, dramatic signs. It was a simple sign in the midst of ordinary life, something that is miraculous and wondrous, but as commonplace as life itself. The sign was a child. By the time that child became a toddler, the threat that faced Ahaz would be gone. God was going to work through the normal course of events to show that God was involved in the life of God’s people.

Now, God isn’t confined to working through the normal course of events to give signs that God is involved in our affairs. When God wanted to get Moses’ attention, God appeared in a burning bush that was on fire but not consumed by the flames. When God wanted to show how wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel displeased God by worshiping the foreign gods of Baal, God sent down lightening to burn up the offering Elijah had prepared on Mt. Carmel. There are plenty of examples throughout the Bible when an angel appears to someone to tell them what God wants. That’s what happened on Christmas night when the shepherds saw the heavenly host singing in the night sky over Bethlehem.

And God sometimes gives signs like that today. I have a friend named Betty who was going through a difficult divorce. Throughout the ordeal she saw a pastoral counselor who helped her find the inner resources to deal with the feelings of failure and defeat and depression that she struggled with as her marriage fell apart. One night a bright light woke her up and a voice told her that her church was to have a counseling center to help other people through life crises and that she was to be the one to make it happen. At first she worried about her sanity, but the light and the voice came to her again. She talked about it with her pastor, and to make a long story short, she listened and obeyed. Betty was a philanthropist and knew how to make things happen, and with her seed money, her organizational skills, and her testimony, she saw to it that her church, which I later pastored, had a Samaritan Counseling Center which for decades now has been a force for healing and wholeness in that community.

But that’s not the kind of dramatic sign that God gave Ahaz. Isaiah pointed to a young woman. We don’t even know who she was, maybe just a young woman who happened to be standing nearby. Her pregnancy, the birth of her child, the child’s healthy growth in the normal scheme of things would be God’s sign that God was at work among God’s people, carrying out God’s plans in ways that were not obvious unless you saw them through the eyes of faith.

I have another friend, Carla, who had a sign like that. One summer day her husband Earl had a massive heart attack. He was rushed to the hospital where he was on life support for several days. Late one afternoon Carla left the hospital to return home and check on their preteen daughter who was being watched by a friend. It had been raining all day, and as Carla drove through the country back to her home she saw in the distance a rainbow. It was a simple sign, and not all that uncommon in central New Jersey in late August. But for Carla that natural phenomenon was a sign. It assured her that God was going to hold her and her daughter up no matter what happened. It gave her the strength to make it through the next few days and be with Earl as he died. It helped her grieve her loss knowing that she was held in God’s everlasting arms, the same arms that welcomed her husband into eternal life. And it gave her strength to carry on as a single mother in the challenging days and months and years that lay ahead.

When Paul wrote to the Romans, he reminded them that Jesus had been born of a woman just like every other one of the billions of human beings who has ever lived. Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh.” He was not beamed down from heaven; he was not sprung from the head of the divinity like some Greek goddess. He was born, just like you and I. When God raised him from death, God gave him the power to raise us up with him and to call us into his work of drawing all people to God. And just as God was involved in the life of Ahaz and of Judah, God is involved with us. We know God through our Immanuel, Jesus, who was born of another young woman, the virgin, Mary. Jesus guides us, and he directs us in doing his work that proclaims justice and life and goodness, even in those places where injustice and death and evil have the upper hand.

We can nurture our ability to recognize those signs when they appear. We can get to know God well enough that we recognize God when the holy one is in our midst. That’s how the people of Le Chambon knew what God wanted them to do. Le Chambon is a tiny village in the South of France. In 1942 two khaki-colored buses pulled into town. “They were the buses of the Vichy French police, and they had come to round up the Jews who were there. The police knew that Le Chambon had become a refuge for them, so they rousted everyone into the village square. The police captain stared straight into the face of the pastor of the Protestant church, Andre Trocme, ‘warning him that if he did not give up the names of the Jews they had been sheltering in the village, he and his fellow pastor, as well as the families who had been caring for the Jews, would be arrested.’

“The pastor refused, and the police, after a thorough and frightening search, could find only one Jew because the others were so well hidden. They loaded him into an otherwise empty bus. Before they drove off, ‘a thirteen year old boy, the son of the pastor, pass[ed] a piece of his precious chocolate through the window to the prisoner, while twenty gendarmes who were guarding the lone prisoner watched.’ The rest of the villagers began ‘passing their little gifts through the window until there were gifts all around him – most of them food in those hungry days of the German occupation of France.’”[1]

After the war a scholar wrote a book exploring why this village put itself at such risk by hiding Jews from the Nazis. The author was not a Christian, but what he discovered was that the people of Le Chambon had been shaped by the experience of Scripture. There were many intimate groups in the village who spent time studying and experiencing the Bible – groups of miners, children, women and young people. Their Bible study wasn’t an extracurricular activity that they did to enhance their lives. It was their life. When they read the Bible, they didn’t ask the question, “What does the Bible say?” They asked, “What is God using the Bible to do to us and in us and through our lives?” Through their Bible study and their prayers they came to know God better and better, to be convinced, not just in their minds but in the depths of their beings, that God is faithful; God keeps promises. They didn’t see the world through the distorted refractions of deceit and alienation and hatred, but through the eyes of God who created it in love and redeemed it by grace. So when the Jews came to their doors in the middle of the night looking for refuge, they did what people do who are engaged in a living, growing relationship with God. They opened their homes to the Jews. When the police threatened to arrest them unless they turned in their guests, they did not respond out of fear but out of love, a love shaped by an ongoing relationship with God.

In that relationship with God, we can see signs of God at work among us in ordinary places, like the shepherds saw the divine light of Christ in the manger in Bethlehem. At Christmas those signs are a little more obvious. Regardless of what signs we’ve seen or overlooked all year, at Christmas we are reminded once again through acts of kindness, lights in the darkness, the story of the young woman with child, that God is with us, Immanuel.

The English poet John Betjeman put it like this:[2]

And is it true? And is it true,

This most tremendous tale of all,

Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,

A Baby in an ox’s stall?

The Maker of the stars and sea

Become a Child on earth for me?


And is it true? For if it is,

No loving fingers tying strings

Around those tissued fripperies,

The sweet and silly Christmas things,

Bath salts and inexpensive scent

And hideous tie so kindly meant,


No love that in a family dwells,

No caroling in the frosty air,

Nor all the steeple-shaking bells

Can with this single Truth compare –

That God was Man in Palestine


And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

[1] Craig Dykstra, Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1999), pp. 56-57, from Philip Haillie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There (New York: Harper and Row, 1979).

[2] John Betjeman, “”Christmas,” John Betjeman’s Collected Poems, enlarged edition (London: John Murray), 1977, p. 188-190.

12-15-19 — Christmas in Plain Sight — Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-19 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       That is a puzzling passage. John the Baptist sends his followers to ask Jesus if he is really the long-expected Messiah, or should they be waiting for someone else? John was so sure that day down at the River Jordan when he baptized Jesus. He was certain then that this was the one he had been expecting, the Christ, the Savior of the world. But now he wondered, is Jesus really the one?

       Maybe you’ve asked that question. I’ve known people who have given their lives to Jesus, confident that he would watch over them and care for them, then things happened that made them wonder if he really is the one they thought he was. I think of one woman, I’ll call her Sarah, whose father was stricken with a particularly rough form of cancer. Sarah, trusting in Jesus’ promises of healing and peace, prayed fervently that her father would be cured, but within months he was gone. Was Jesus the one she thought he was, or should she have been looking for someone else?

       Some ask that question because of what they see in Christ’s church. Sam joined the church because he felt the presence of the Holy Spirit when he worshiped on Sunday. After a while, he started teaching Sunday school and found it deeply satisfying. He was moved by some of the experiences he had while working on mission projects. After he had been in the church for a while, he had some ideas for improving the Sunday school classrooms so they would be more welcoming to the students, but his ideas were dismissed as impractical. Through his work in the community, he saw some needs that he thought the mission committee could address and further the church’s ministry, but his ideas fell on deaf ears. When his uncle was in the hospital, no one from the church called him to ask how he was doing. He began to wonder, if the church is the body of Christ, is Christ the one I’m looking for, or is there someone else?

       John the Baptist had spent his life in the wilderness, preparing for the one God was sending to transform the world. He had given up everything, and he had told the crowds who came out to hear him that Jesus was the one they were expecting. But now here he was in prison for doing all that. Was Jesus really the one he was expecting, or should he look for someone else? So he sent his disciples to clear things up.

       Jesus told John’s disciples to go and tell him what they heard and saw: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus didn’t restore sight to all the blind or give hearing to all the deaf or make everyone walk who was disabled. There were still plenty of blind people, and deaf, and disabled. He didn’t raise all the dead. People still died, and even the ones he raised eventually died for good. He didn’t eradicate poverty. The poor were still with them. But what he did was an indication of what was in store. He was beginning to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah who described the new creation as that time when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” If you have the ears to hear and the eyes to see, it’s obvious what is going on. Jesus is doing the work of God right here in plain sight.

       My wife’s family used to get together in the mountains of West Virginia every summer for a weeklong reunion. One night, some of us went on a star walk at a nearby state park. After we had gathered at the nature center, a park ranger took us out back in the woods. It was pitch black, and we couldn’t see a thing. Standing there in the darkness, the ranger said that we were going to take a while to let our eyes adjust to the dark. She explained that our eyes have cells called cones and rods. The cones are sensitive to color, and we use them to see in the light. The rods are what allow us to see in dim light. We were waiting in the darkness for our rods to kick in. Sure enough, the longer we waited, the more things appeared in the forest. The outlines of the trees began to take shape. Over the clearing where we stood, stars began to appear, until what was once a vast blackness filled with light. Everything that was coming into focus had been there all along. We just needed the right kind of eyes, our rods, to see them.

       Often that’s what it takes to see Jesus at work. We have to be still and notice, with the right kind of spiritual eyes. One thing that makes it hard to notice Jesus is that we have preconceptions about how he is supposed to operate, and when he doesn’t meet those expectations, we miss him altogether. One way we make sense of a complex life is by forming categories and sorting people and events into them. Sorting people and events into categories saves us a lot of time and effort. If someone calls me at home in the middle of the day and says, “May I speak to the head of the household?” I immediately categorize that caller as a solicitor for something I don’t need, say “Thanks, but I’m not interested,” and hang up. I’ve saved myself several minutes of wasted time.

       When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey, people put him in a category, the category of those possessed by demons. That’s what they saw, and instead of seeing past that category, they arrested him and threw him in jail. When Jesus appeared doing just the opposite, turning water into wine and going to banquets hosted by the ruling elite, he was placed in the category of a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners, a category where they put people who weren’t to be trusted, including those who were traitors and deserved to die.

       Maybe John the Baptist had put Jesus in a preconceived category of what he thought the Messiah was supposed to be like and so he missed seeing him for who he is. John told the crowds in the wilderness that the one whom God was sending to transform the world was one who was laying an axe to the root of the tree, cutting down the unworthy and throwing them into the fire. He was sorting the wheat from the chaff and burning the chaff in unquenchable fire. John was looking for someone to bring in God’s new creation with a vengeance. Yet here was Jesus welcoming children, helping the outcasts, caring for the poor, saying that the blessed ones are the meek who turn the other cheek. Maybe John asked his question because Jesus didn’t fit his category.

       So Jesus told him to look again. Look with different eyes, from a new perspective. Sometimes that’s what we have to do to see Jesus for who he is. Jack Haberer, a pastor in Allentown, told how his perspective was changed while attending the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Korea when he was editor of The Presbyterian Outlook magazine. For the first twenty or so years of Jack’s Christian journey, he heard Jesus’ commandment to go into the world and make disciples of all nations as an intense focus proclaiming the Word of God to those who have not yet heard it and inviting them to give their lives to Christ. He saw any involvement in social change as a distraction from that focus. But after he became the editor of an independent magazine reporting on the life of the church, he began to travel and to meet more people from different places who held different perspectives. He met Christians who were bearing witness to the gospel in circumstances that we here in America tend to write off as distant from our concerns as Christians.

       In Korea he met a pastor from Tuvalu, a tiny country in the Pacific that is comprised of small coral reefs. The highest point in the country is 24 feet above sea level. This pastor told the delegates to the assembly how every aspect of life in his land is threatened by the rising sea level. He asked his fellow Christians to be better stewards of the planet God has given us, to stop exploiting its riches in ways that destroy the homes of his people.

       Here in America one political party might take that pastor’s words as a rationale for regulating businesses, while another party might scorn it as questionable science that depresses the economy. “But,” says Haberer, “such categories won’t fly in Sunday worship services in Tuvalu, where gospel proclamation mixes with the intense praying of congregations living a threatened existence.” One of the gifts of Christ’s church is helping us see God’s world from the perspective of other believers.

       I sometimes find myself trying to compartmentalize Christmas, trying to put the incarnation of the Lord into seasonal categories. I find myself complaining in October when the first Christmas displays go up in the stores. It seems like they’re exploiting Christmas. Or I get annoyed in February when neighbors still haven’t taken down their Christmas lights. I’m ready to start thinking about spring and they’re holding on to December. But maybe a better attitude toward the commercialization of the stores and the laziness of my neighbors would be to remember that the Messiah whose birth we celebrate at Christmas doesn’t come and go with the season. He’s not confined to our categories. He does the work of God’s reign all year long, and not always in ways we expect. In fact, any time you look, if you have the eyes to see, there is the one who came at Christmas – in plain sight. May God take off the blinders of our assumptions and give us the eyes of faith to see.

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.

12-1-19 — 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.

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.

11-17-19 — 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.

11-10-19 — 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.