The Tomb is the Womb

Titian / Public domain

Synopsis: Humanity is currently undergoing a time of great change, which is generating a lot of fear because human beings in general do not like change. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration can give us courage and hope as we face our personal and collective trials.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon. Note: The live recording of this sermon ends at about 9:45 (my recording device’s batteries died). The remaining sermon audio was recorded in my home.

Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9

Peace be with you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, has been quoted as saying “change is the only constant in life.” It’s strange that a statement containing two contradictory words, “constant” and “change,” can be so true.

What’s just as ironic – and true – is the fact that change is something we humans fear the most. Here we live in a world where the only constant thing is change, and we fear change. What a predicament!

And here we are in this time of great change in our world, and we can feel the fear in the air. I believe the story of the transfiguration of Jesus can help us to be less fearful of change – and maybe even learn to embrace it.

In the previous chapter, Jesus and his disciples entered the region of Caesarea Philippi, located about 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. This area was ruled by Herod’s brother, Phillip the Tetrarch, who changed its name to Caesarea Philippi to honor the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, and – of course – himself.

At this point in his ministry, Jesus was beginning to face opposition from religious leaders who kept asking him to produce a miraculous “sign in the sky.” Jesus had already performed many miracles, but they dismissed them as magic tricks, coincidence, or the use of some evil power.

Jesus knew that producing this sign would not convince them because they had already made up their minds about him. They believed that he was not of God, so they would once again explain away even a miraculous sign in the sky.

Juxtaposed to their doubts is Peter’s famous confession of faith. When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

When Jesus asked them who they say he is, Peter declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus praised him as blessed for having received this revelation from God.

After Peter professed his faith in Jesus, Jesus began talking to the disciples about what he was going to face in Jerusalem – that he would be turned over to the religious leaders, be killed, and on the third day, rise from the dead.

Peter believed in Jesus as the Messiah, but he didn’t understand why he had to suffer and die. So, he took Jesus aside and rebuked him saying, “Lord, this shall never happen to you!” Jesus responded with a strong rebuke of his own, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter had six days to think about that before Jesus took them up that high mountain in our scripture reading for today.

Why did Jesus take them up there? Luke’s gospel says that he took them up there to pray, which is most likely true. In ancient times, people often used mountaintops or the wilderness to remove themselves from the world in order to pray or to receive spiritual revelations or transformations.

What’s interesting is that Jesus didn’t take all of his disciples up the mountain, only Peter, James, and John. Jesus was praying within eyeshot of these three when he was “transfigured.”

The main focus of this passage is on this one word: “transfigured.” The Greek term is meTA-mor-phoh-see, from where we get our word “metamorphosis.” The word describes a complete change in the form and substance of something. We read “his face shone like the sun” – as if light were coming out of the pores of his skin” – and his clothes became dazzling white.”

If that weren’t startling enough, Moses and Elijah suddenly appear. Moses wrote the Law and represents those who obeyed the Law. Elijah was to come to prepare people’s hearts for the coming of the Lord, so he represents those who had fallen away.

The presence of Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus emphasizes his link with the ongoing story of God’s journey with His People, Israel. Jesus is the main character in chapter three of Israel’s Redemption Story – a story that would be extended to the entire world.

We read that when Peter saw Elijah and Moses, he offered to build tents for them. What was that all about? Peter wasn’t being obstinate or irreverent. His offer directly relates to the Feast of Tabernacles. This is a yearly feast in the Jewish tradition commemorating the wilderness wanderings and finally settling in the promised land. The people would build little shelters (or booths) and live under them for a week until the last day – the great day of the feast – to celebrate the promises coming to fulfillment.

In the previous chapter, Peter heard Jesus say, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Peter, upon experiencing this glorious vision of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, probably thought, “This is it – Jubilee! Can I make the tents?”

We certainly can’t blame Peter if his mind was a bit blown by what he had just seen, but he also wasn’t totally off. The prophet Zachariah wrote that in the Kingdom of God people will celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, or the fulfillment of all promises. Peter had the right idea – it just wasn’t the right time.

Peter’s offer was interrupted by a bright cloud overshadowing them, and a voice coming from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The Voice confirmed that Jesus embodied the Christ, so he was not merely a “son of God” like many people of royalty were called in those days, and he was not merely a “son of man,” like an ordinary human being.

Jesus Christ is the Son of God – the beloved and only begotten – and the Son of Man prophesized about in Daniel chapter 7: “I saw one like a human being (or a Son of Man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”

The Voice declared, “This is Jesus Christ, who sits at my right hand, to whom I have given authority over all things.” This is the claim Jesus will make at his trial in front of the Sanhedrin, the claim that will ultimately seal his fate.

The Lord’s transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah were not meant to frighten the disciples. It certainly made it clear to them that Jesus is what Peter declared him to be, not John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.

I’m sure those three disciples were at least awe-struck and from that point on and listened more intently what Jesus had to say.

After Jesus’ transfiguration, they came down the mountain. As much as it might have been tempting to remain there basking in all that glory, Jesus was ready to begin the final stages of his work as Savior.

He warned his disciples not to tell anyone about who he is until “the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” We can assume he didn’t want them to share this experience even with the other disciples. We don’t know why, but Jesus must have foreseen that sharing this with others before the right time would somehow interfere with his mission.

Now, how can this story help us deal with our fear of change in this time of great change?

Jesus’ transfiguration gives us hope for the future of humanity. God made us, and we are magnificent creatures. Just as Jesus’ transfiguration blew the minds of his disciples, we human beings all have the same mind-blowing potential in union with Christ, and Jesus came to prove it.

In 1 Corinthians 15:50-52, the apostle Paul wrote, “What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

On the Mount of Transfiguration, God gave us a glimpse of that mysterious change. He revealed His Glory within Jesus. That glory is also within you as the Christ. That glory is within you. Do you believe that? Do you believe that you can morph into something entirely different?

When we think of the word metamorphosis, we often think of a butterfly. If I were to show you a caterpillar and a butterfly, would you ever believe in a million years that that little worm crawling around in the dirt would transform into a creature of such exquisite beauty and power, floating around in the sky with effortless grace and total freedom, if you hadn’t seen it for yourself?

Behold the power of God within His Creations! We take it for granted, but isn’t that magnificent?

And here we all are, with the same exquisite beauty and power within us that the disciples witnessed in Jesus. It’s hard for us to believe that we are not really this little worm, this physical body, this personal self, crawling around in the dirt of this world. We are really something else – something of unbelievable beauty and power – something that can soar with effortless grace and total freedom.

But the only way that we will ever believe it is to see it for ourselves. Herein lies the problem. We choose to wait in darkness for the “proof” that only our own light will deliver. The caterpillar is driven by its God-given instincts. When it is time, it begins to make its cocoon. The caterpillar’s tomb will become the butterfly’s womb.

We have free will, so we can choose to delay our transformation as long as we want, but not forever. Unlike the caterpillar, we are afraid of change. We’re a bit attached to who we think we are. We think we’re perfectly happy as a little worm. We don’t want God to show us the butterfly we really are.

We can be like the religious leaders who had already made up their minds about Jesus. We have already made up our minds about who we think we are, and the ego doesn’t like to be proven wrong. It also fears the unknown – at least it knows what to expect as a little worm.

But there’s only one way to become the butterfly we really are: We have to let the little worm go. Most people experience this “letting go” upon the death of their physical body, but we can experience this psychologically – without dying.

The timing is up to God, but we can allow God to give us this glimpse of who we really are in His Time by being willing to let go of all the ideas we have about ourselves – to let go of our beliefs, our desires, our likes, our dislikes, our past, our future, and all the other psychological “stuff” that separates us out and makes us “someone.”

I know that sounds strange, but it is believing all this “stuff” that has us convinced that we are the little worm – separate selves with separate lives – when we are really so much more. There is a purpose for this illusion. It’s how God experiences life as a human being – by temporarily “getting lost” in the human experience just like we get temporarily lost in a story by becoming identified with the characters.

We love getting sucked into a good story, don’t we? That’s because we never lose who we really are. God intends for Life to be fun that way – to be a joy – but when forget who we are, we become afraid, and then it isn’t fun anymore. Trials help us remember who we are. They encourage us to enter our cocoon – so that the tomb of our “character” may become the womb of Christ.

Jesus’ transfiguration gives us hope in times of trial. Peter tried to keep the Lord out of the tomb. During Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Satan also tried to keep Jesus out of the tomb – to seek personal worldly glory, not Christ’s eternal glory.

But then Jesus would have remained Jesus of Nazareth and would never have become Jesus Christ. And we would not have his path to follow and the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort us.

Can you think of a time when you went through a very difficult trial? At the time, you might have thought, “Why are you doing this to me God? What have I done to deserve this?”

But there’s nothing like a difficult trial to destroy the false ideas we have about ourselves – especially the limiting ones. We often don’t know the strength within us until our personal self finally acknowledges complete loss of control and throws up its hands in surrender.

Unfortunately, to get it to that point usually requires a lot of pain. Arthur Burt once said, “Nothing happens until the pain of remaining the same outweighs the pain of change.”

The good news is that we’re not left there in ruins. That’s when the Christ within takes over and takes care of what needs to be done effortlessly. That’s when God’s love and grace and mercy become most apparent. That’s when we realize that trials are not meant to destroy us; they are meant to make us stronger. They are meant to wake us up.

We not only experience trials individually, but also collectively. Humanity is in a lot of pain right now. Can you feel it? Are you shuddering to think how bad the pain might have to get before humanity’s collective ego finally throws up its hands in surrender?

Me too, but at the same time, I trust that we will not be abandoned.

Jesus’ transfiguration confirms our faith. While we don’t know specifically what was said between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, we can assume that they were discussing his upcoming trial in Jerusalem. Jesus was not abandoned as he approached the most difficult part of his mission.

We can be sure that somehow his experience of being transfigured and his speaking with Moses and Elijah gave him the strength to face it.

Our faith is that strength. From the perspective of the world, Jesus’ march to the tomb was insane. That is why Jesus told his disciples in the previous chapter, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must forget about himself. He must take up his cross and follow Me. If anyone wants to keep his life safe, he will lose it. If anyone gives up his life because of me, he will save it. For what does a man have if he gets all the world and loses his own soul? What can a man give to buy back his soul?”

I’m quoting the NIV version of this verse because I believe this version makes it clearer what Jesus is talking about. The soul is the one consciousness that animates all living things. This one consciousness is Christ. Christ is the content within every living vessel.

Jesus was saying to his disciples, what have you gained if you protect this vessel but lose its contents? You become like a book with no words written within it. You not only become an empty book, but you lose your connection to everything. You lose the Word which is the very content of the Book of Life.

But the Truth about our loving God is that we can’t get lost; we can only experience ourselves lost temporarily. So, no matter what happens in our personal or collective lives, we should never lose hope, but abound in compassion for the pain within ourselves and all humanity as we struggle to wake up and become all God created us to be.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to enter the tomb of our personal selves that it may become the womb of Christ. Shine in us, around us, and through us, that the world may see your glory in the faces of your people – faces transfigured by the light of your love. Amen.

Resources

Ross, Allen. “25. The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13).” Bible.org 31 Mar. 2006, https://bible.org/seriespage/25-transfiguration-matthew-171-13

Changing the World for the Better

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch, 1877 (Wikimedia Commons)

Synopsis: Changing the world for the better is a very complicated matter when viewed from a political perspective. From a spiritual perspective, however, it’s far less complicated. Jesus taught us how we can easily change the world for the better by being salt and light.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Peace be with your from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

On Tuesday, President Trump delivered the annual State of the Union address. Despite all the negative drama going on over the past four years, it’s been a long time since there has been so much interest in what the government is doing. That’s a positive thing.

People’s reactions to the President’s address demonstrated that some believe he is taking the country in a positive direction while others do not. It’s clear that everyone wants our country to be better; it’s just that not everyone agrees about how that can best be accomplished.

Changing a country for the better – indeed changing the world for the better– is an extremely complicated matter when viewed from a political perspective – with political parties often opposing each other tooth-and-nail.

Fortunately, when viewed from a spiritual perspective, it’s far less complicated. Jesus teaches us how we can easily change the world for the better in our Gospel reading for today.

In the previous chapter, Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum to begin his ministry. He called his first disciples: two sets of brothers – Peter and Andrew and James and John. He began preaching in the synagogues and healing the sick throughout Galilee. Matthew reports that his ministry in Galilee was very successful: large crowds of people began following him.

Chapter five opens with the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Beatitudes we all know and love. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain, sat down, and began to teach. He spoke about the blessings received by those who know they live in darkness and actually mourn over it.

Their sincere sorrow inspires them to earnestly seek righteousness, and as they seek righteousness, they naturally become more merciful, pure in heart, and peaceful. Unfortunately, these qualities are not ones the world values, so those who possess them will be persecuted. But even that is a blessing because it’s a sign that they are “not of this world.”

That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Jesus taught that if we are blessed with these spiritual qualities, then we are like the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We can boil down what he is trying to say to one word: influence. If we are blessed with these spiritual qualities, we can influence the world in a more positive direction. We can change the world for the better.

What did Jesus mean when he said that we are the “salt of the earth?” If Jesus said this today, we might think he is referring to salt as a type of “spice” to flavor things. I like salt. Salt makes a lot of things taste better. Is that what Jesus meant? That we help make life more palatable for people?

Some ministers might interpret it this way, but I think that’s missing the mark. We followers of the Lord do at times make life more pleasant with our compassionate words and deeds, but we also at times make people uncomfortable by challenging them to think and behave differently through our example.

To properly interpret what Jesus meant, we must consider what he said from the perspective of his time and culture. In his time, many households used salt as a preservative for fish and meat since there was no refrigeration. Jesus was most likely referring to salt’s function as a preservative. Those of us who follow Jesus’ example help to preserve righteousness and prevent moral decay.

Most people want to become better people. God created us that way; it’s part of our inherent goodness. Now, there are people in the world who are so lost that they are not in touch with their basic goodness. It’s not God’s Will for anyone to remain lost forever, so we can never give up hope for them. All we can do is pray for them, the main prayer being, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

But they are the exception. Most people want to become better people – to become more rational and considerate human beings. They just don’t know what that looks like because they haven’t had good role models. They need people to influence them in that direction; they need us to be “salty.” 

We need to behave in a way that is vastly different from the way people usually behave. We may not realize how much our words and deeds make a deep impression on others, but people do take notice.

I recently read a story about a sixteen-year-old from Nebraska who lost control of his car on icy roads and took out his neighbor’s mailbox. What do you think he did? What do you think a typical teenager would do in that situation?

This young man walked up to the neighbor’s front door and rang the doorbell. When she answered the door, he explained that he accidently hit her mailbox when his car slid on the icy roads. Then he opened his wallet and offered her all of the cash in it. When she told him it was OK and to keep his money, he was so grateful that he returned three days later with a plateful of homemade cookies for her.

The neighbor was so impressed by this young man’s noble behavior that she posted his picture from her front door security camera on social media, wanting to know who his parents were so that she could tell them what an outstanding young man they raised.

When we behave in a way that is vastly different from the way people usually behave, people not only take notice, but they also do a quick inventory of their own morality. They can’t help but ask themselves, “Would I do that?” Virtuous acts throw up a mirror, forcing people to look at themselves and challenging them to “go and do likewise.”

This young man, though his words and actions, proved that it is possible for human beings to act with a high level of virtue. He raised the bar for all of us. It would have been so easy for him to just get back in his car and drive away. Most teenagers, even most people, probably would have done that. But if he had done that, he would have lost his “saltiness,” and I would not be sharing his inspiring story with all of you today.

Jesus taught that if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It becomes worthless. Think about it. It’s impossible for salt not to be salty. There is no such thing as saltless salt. If it’s not salty, it’s not salt, and if it’s not salt, then it can’t be used to preserve anything, and that’s its main purpose. If it can’t fulfill its purpose, it is worthless.

It’s our main purpose to preserve righteousness in this world. If we’re going to continue to be salt – to be the kind of influence that makes the world a better place – we can’t lose our saltiness. We can’t do what’s easy. We can’t “sell out” and behave like everyone else.

The Rev. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “The glory of the gospel is that when the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.”

What did Jesus mean when he said that we are the “light of the world?” Jesus is essentially making the same point twice, using two different analogies. The world is not only in a state of moral decay, but it is also in state of darkness. As salt, we preserve righteousness. As light, we drive away the darkness.

If we are blessed with the spiritual qualities Jesus spoke about in the Beatitudes, we will drive away unrighteousness wherever we go just as the light drives away the darkness.

How do you know if you are the light? You know you are the light if you walk into a room and people automatically stop gossiping – or cussing – or arguing. Suddenly, people start behaving themselves; they start acting like better people. That’s when you know you are the light.

Dwight L. Moody once said, “A holy life will make the deepest impression. Lighthouses blow no horns, they just shine.” We don’t even have to say a word; the most powerful statement is to simply refuse to participate in or tolerate bad behavior by leaving the room.

We should never fail to take advantage of opportunities to influence people in a positive direction.

In Joyce Myer’s book “The Confident Woman Devotional,” she tells the story of Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker minister in Europe in the early 1800s. Ms. Fry was invited to do social work in England’s Newgate prison. She said she found “half naked women, struggling together … with the most boisterous violence … I felt as if I were going into a den of wild beasts.”

All she did was suggest a few things – that women and men be held in separate areas, that the more violent offenders be separated from the less violent, and that the prisoners be employed in some useful work – and she became one of the greatest prison reformers of all time. Her influence spread throughout France and the British colonies, and today we can’t imagine prisons without her reforms.

Joyce Meyer writes, “If you will do what you can do, God will do what you cannot do. You will also inspire others to do what they can do, and even though each person can only do a little, together we can make a big difference.”

And that brings us to the Law Jesus said that he came fulfill. What was he referring to? Was he referring to the entire Torah Law, both oral and written? Didn’t Jesus have an issue with Torah Law?

Jesus did not have an issue with Torah Law. He had an issue with those who didn’t practice what they preached. Many of the “Teachers of the Law” (i.e. Pharisees and Scribes) taught the people Torah Law but didn’t follow it themselves.

In addition to not following Torah Law, they also didn’t follow “the traditions of the elders” that they insisted others follow. Because they kept people so busy with the outward demonstrations of the Law, people’s hearts weren’t being changed by the Spirit of the Law.

Friday is Valentine’s Day, guys. Imagine bringing flowers to your sweetheart, and your sweetheart says, “Oh sweetie, these are lovely. Why did you do this?” And you respond, “Oh, I don’t know … I’m just doing what they tell me I’m supposed to do. I have no idea why. Seems like just another money-making scam holiday to me.”

Wrong answer.

The right answer would be something like: “How could I not, love of my life? I think of you always; I delight in you! I delight in doing this. What else would I rather do; where else would I rather be than be with you, showering you with my gifts of love?”

The same action coming from two very different places. That’s why Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Many of them understood the Spirit of God’s Law as much as that “wrong answer” illustrated an understanding of the Spirit of Valentines’ Day.

And what about the Prophets? Was Jesus saying that he fulfilled all that was written in the books of the prophets, such as the books of Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel? I believe he was saying that he is the fulfillment of all that was written in those prophetic books – the Son of God who is to come to fulfill God’s Law. In other words, he is the Law of God in the flesh. He is the living, breathing Law of God.

That seems complicated, but Jesus simplifies what he means by the Law and the Prophets in Matthew chapter 20: 34-40. We read, “… One of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

God’s Law is Love: Loving God and loving one another. Following the Law of Love is about more than just going through the motions; it’s about letting it change our hearts and thus our behavior. The way to change the world for the better is to influence people to become better people.

That’s our job; surely, we can’t expect politicians to do it.

The problem with our world is not complicated – not enough love. How do we know that? Because there are people in this country and in the world who are suffering because of inadequate food, water, shelter, education, employment, or healthcare. If God’s Law of Love has entered into the hearts of enough people, this would not be happening. It wouldn’t be tolerated.

The solution is just as uncomplicated – more love. We need to love people more – enough to take advantage of any and all opportunities to be good to people – enough to speak out and insist that our national and world leaders find reasonable ways to ensure people’s basic needs are met.

That is – after all – the hallmark of an enlightened society. When everyone’s basic needs are met, then we can justifiably say a country or our world is “great.”

How can we love people more? We – as a people – need to get rid of the “us” vs. “them” mentality that so clearly dominates the political scene, often causing governments to be practically non-functioning. A society also can’t function well with this mentality. We can’t count on our governments to change, so we must change.

Everyone wants to live – and to live well would really nice. If God put someone on this earth, he or she is here for a purpose and therefore deserves to have his or her basic needs met and to be treated with the utmost respect.

They are not separate from us: They are one with us in Christ – and if they are not too busy struggling to survive, they have the potential, just like us, to become another glorious in-the-flesh expression of God’s living, breathing, Law of Love. Imagine a world where everyone is just that.

There is a wonderful story that I love to share that illustrates this concept. An anthropologist proposed a game to children of an African tribe. He put a basket of fruit near a tree and told the kids that the first one to reach the fruit would win them all. When he told them to run, they all took each other’s hand and ran together, then sat down together enjoying the fruits.

When asked why they ran like that, as one could have taken all the fruit for oneself, they said, “Ubantu, how can one of us be happy when all the others are sad?” Ubantu is a philosophy of African tribes that can be summed up as “I am because we are.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, it is our desire to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. May the Law of God’s Love fully enter into our hearts and become manifest in our flesh as it did in Yours so that we may powerfully and positively influence the world as you did. Amen.

Resources

Anderson, David. “Lesson 10: Salt, Light, And Law (Matthew 5:13-20).” Bible.org, 23 July 2013, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-10-salt-light-and-law-matthew-513-20.

Meyer, Joyce. The Confident Woman Devotional (p. 43). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

“Teen Praised for His Honesty After Heartfelt Apology (and Cookies) for Stranger Following Icy Road Incident.” GoodNewsNetwork.org, 29 Jan. 2020, www.goodnewsnetwork.org/teen-praised-for-honesty-after-hitting-mailbox/

Becoming Fishers of Humanity

Domenico Ghirlandaio [Public domain]

Synopsis: There is a difference between a job and a calling – between what you are paid to do versus what you are made to do. Jesus called these Galilean men because they were empty of the three things that keep us all from becoming fishers of humanity.

Scriptures: Matthew 4:12-23

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

How many of you have had a job that paid the bills and gave you plenty of security, but deep down, you felt unfulfilled? Now how many of you have done work that was so deeply fulfilling that you did it even though it didn’t pay the bills or offer you any security?

That’s the difference between a job and a calling: what you are paid to do versus what you are made to do. That’s what our scripture reading for today is all about.

Up to this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had not yet begun his public ministry. He hadn’t preached or performed any miracles. We’ve been given Jesus’ genealogy, and the accounts of his supernatural birth, the visit by the magi, the family’s flight to Egypt, and their eventual settling in Nazareth in the province of Galilee. 

Matthew then fast-forwards through Jesus’ childhood to the story of his baptism by John, where the Spirit’s proclaims that Jesus is indeed the one that God has chosen to carry out his plan of salvation. After this, Jesus enters the wilderness, where his commitment to God is tested. He passes the test and puts on the mantle of the Savior.

All along, Matthew quotes Scriptures to prove that Jesus fits the description of the Messiah the Jews have been expecting. This is essentially the goal of Matthew’s gospel.

Most people don’t realize that about a year passes between Jesus’ temptation and his withdrawal to Galilee. Matthew doesn’t tell us what happened in Jesus’ life during that year, but according to John’s gospel, he was quite busy: He called his first disciples, changed water into wine at Cana, drove the moneychangers out of the Temple in Jerusalem, visited Nicodemus, and spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well.

Capernaum, where Jesus settled according to our scripture reading, was located on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee. After John was arrested, Capernaum became Jesus’ home base, rather than his hometown of Nazareth.

There are several callings recorded in the New Testament, which can be a bit confusing. It seems that shortly after Jesus’ baptism, two of John’s disciples, Andrew and Philip, began following Jesus. Andrew recruited his brother Peter, and Philip recruited his brother Nathaniel.

Our scripture reading includes Andrew and Simon (or Peter) and another set of brothers, James and John. It’s possible that these brothers had been following Jesus already, but not full time. We read Jesus said, “follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” and they immediately “left their nets and followed him.” At this point, they became his disciples.

Most of Jesus’ ministry occurred in Galilee, and Matthew gives us an overview of his ministry in Galilee in verses 23 -25. Basically, it was an instant success. He ministered to large crowds of people, teaching, proclaiming the good news, and healing people of many ailments.

An example of Jesus’ ministry is given to us in Matthew chapter 8 verses 14-17: “When Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him.”

“That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’”

We all know how quickly word spreads in a small town. Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law at some time during the day, and by that evening, many were being brought to Jesus to be healed. In those days, I’m sure there were many incurable diseases and desperate people who had been suffering for a long time.

We can imagine how fast word would travel if someone with this kind of healing power showed up today. People with cancer, mental illness, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome – all the diseases modern medicine can’t seem to cure – would come to be healed.

Jesus didn’t begin his ministry small. The province of Galilee was a little larger than the size of Texas, with 204 total cities and villages, each populated with no less than 15,000 people. The historian Josephus estimated Galilee’s population to be about three million. It would have taken at least a few months, visiting a couple of towns per day, with no time off, to cover it all.

But why would Jesus begin his ministry in Galilee, not in Judea or even in the City of Jerusalem? Galilee was a weird place for Jesus to start his ministry. It was located at the northernmost tier of Palestine, with Samaria sandwiched in between it and Judea, where Jerusalem was located.

It was pretty far from Jerusalem, not only geographically, but also politically. A couple of years before Jesus was born, Judas of Galilee led Sephoris, the capital city of Galilee, into a revolt against the Romans. The Galileans were shamefully crushed.

Jesus was Galilean, his disciples were Galilean, and most of his followers were Galilean, including the women who followed Jesus full time.

Matthew explains that Jesus’ choice was not a mistake; he was fulfilling a prophecy found in Isaiah chapter 9: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.” These Galileans, these spiritual derelicts and troublemakers, were being given a bright light through Jesus’ presence.

I personally don’t believe Jesus chose Galilee to begin his ministry just to fulfill a prophecy. I think he was looking for followers and disciples, and he knew that Galilee was the right place to find them. He was in a province known for its militancy, but he didn’t recruit these Galileans because he thought they’d be good soldiers.

He recruited them because he believed they would become great “fishers of humanity.”

The work Jesus was calling these men into didn’t have anything to do with doing. It was all about being – being in relationship – being in relationship with Jesus, with God, with one another, and ultimately with all of humanity – catching people in the Net of God’s Love.

Jesus called these Galilean men to be “fishers of humanity” mainly because they were empty. Empty of what? First, they were empty of pride. They were empty of pride because they were men of Galilee, and Galileans were generally looked down upon. People viewed Galileans like people today view those who come from the “wrong side of town.”

The fact that Jesus was a Galilean caused many to doubt that he could possibly be the Messiah. When Philip recruited his brother Nathanial, he said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

Even Nathanael had his doubts about this man from Galilee, and Nathanael was a Galilean!

The people of Galilee walked in darkness – so did the people of Judea. The difference is that the people of Galilee knew they walked in darkness; the people of Judea didn’t. I think that’s why Jesus chose Galilee to start his ministry. He knew Galilee was ripe with followers and disciples.

Pride separates us from others because it causes us to see ourselves as superior to those who are different from us. So we say, “I’m not going to associate with those kinds of people.”

Our human nature doesn’t like dealing with people who are different. When people lived in small, tight-knit communities, that wasn’t a problem because people rarely came in contact with outsiders.

In this day and age, with modern technology making long-distance travel and communication quick and easy, we are increasingly coming into contact with a large variety of people who are different from us.

We must get over our aversion to people who are different if we want to become fishers of humanity; otherwise, we won’t be able to extend the Net of God’s love freely.

I recently came across a BBC article and video entitled, “We can get along because that’s America.” The Reverend Shayna Appel (a Democrat) and Nick Desautels (a Republican) met each other at a rally for a Democratic candidate in New Hampshire.

The video begins with Reverend Appel saying, “a queer clergy, non-gender normative individual and a big hairy Trump guy, and here we are getting along because that’s America.” Nick, the big, hairy Trump guy, replied, “It’s sad that people on either side have such a terrible vision of what the other side is about.” Then he talked about how he and the reverend, just by having a five-minute conversation, found out that they actually have a lot in common.

That conversation wouldn’t have happened if the two of them had not been empty of pride.  

Second, these Galilean “fishers of men” were empty of religion. Galilee was not only far from Jerusalem geographically and politically; it was also far from Jerusalem spiritually. Galilee was the most pagan of Jewish provinces, and those who followed Torah Law followed it loosely.

The people of Judea were the opposite. In John chapter 7, when Jesus taught in the Temple during Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, we read, “When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’”

When those in authority considered arresting Jesus, we read “Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’ They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’”

The Messiah was standing right in front of them, but their religion was blocking their view. They were attached to their way of interpreting the Torah. That’s why Matthew wrote this gospel – to try to help them view their Scriptures from a different perspective.

If we want to become fishers of humanity, we must be willing to loosen our grip on our religion, especially the literal interpretation of Scripture. We need to learn to view the Scriptures from different perspectives.

I feel sorry for those who are waiting for the world to end catastrophically as described in the Book of Revelations. Some are so afraid of being “left behind” that they won’t relate to anyone outside of their own religious communities. Others try to relate, but it’s coming from a place of fear and judgment.

How many of you have heard of Joseph Campbell? He is the “Matthew” of today. Joseph Campbell was a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College; he worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion.

He wrote many books designed to helps us view stories in Holy Scriptures from a mythical perspective. When he calls these stories “myths,” he doesn’t mean they are lies. He means that they point to a truth beyond the literal meaning – a truth about the great mystery of being – a truth that we can’t even begin to grasp without the story as a handle.

In Joseph Campbell’s book Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, the editor writes, “In a true sense, we might say that Joseph Campbell preaches the End of the World, that great metaphor of spirituality that has been so explosively employed by those who have taken its denotative skin and thrown aside its connotative meat.”

“For, as Campbell explains, the End of the World is not a cataclysmic event to whose final judgmental terror we draw ever closer. The End of the World comes every day for those whose spiritual insight allows them to see the world as it is, transparent to transcendence, a sacrament of mystery, or, as the poet William Blake wrote, ‘infinite.’”

Finally, these Galilean “fishers of men” were empty of fear. When Jesus called them, they immediately left their nets. They didn’t consider what they were getting themselves into or how they would support themselves without their fishing income. They knew deep down that catching fish wasn’t what they were made to do.

Our human nature seeks security through the four P’s: power, prestige, pleasure, and possessions – but no matter how much of these worldly things we have, we never feel secure. That’s because we’re seeking security in all the wrong places.

The key to ultimate security lies in being who we are and in doing what we were made to do. A net’s purpose is to catch fish. That’s what it was made for. We are an extension of God’s Love, so we were made to extend. We are the Net of God’s Love, so by extending Love, we become fishers of humanity, and we step into the purpose for which we were created.

When we step into the purpose for which we were created, God supports us. Think about it: Why wouldn’t he if we are doing exactly what he created us to do? We’ll get exactly what we need when we need it, so we don’t have to worry so much about security.

When we relax and go with the flow of life instead of anxiously trying to survive, we become more aware of what Life is bringing to us and what Life is asking of us. We can clearly see the resources offered to us – but also the opportunities and connections that come our way.

The Reverend David Lose writes, “Jesus issues the same call to us – to be in genuine and real relationships with the people around us, and to be in those relationships the way Jesus was and is in relationship with his disciples and with us: bearing each other’s burdens, caring for each other and especially the vulnerable, holding onto each other through thick and thin, always with the hope and promise of God’s abundant grace.”

“Sometimes that call – to be in Christ-shaped relationship with others – will take us far from home and sometimes it will take shape in and among the people right around us. But it will always involve persons – not simply a mission or a ministry or a movement, but actual, flesh-and-blood persons.”

Think about all the people in your net – all the people you “relate” to in some way – whether it be family, friends, or coworkers. Are any of them carrying a burden? How can you help? Also think about the people who are not in your net. Has the Lord been calling you to cast your net and haul anyone in? Is pride, religion, or fear getting in the way?

Let us all think of ourselves as fishers of humanity – because that’s what we are. God created us for that purpose, and the Lord has been calling us and will keep calling us all our lives to extend the Net of God’s Love to all those He has sent our way.

Let’s pray together:

Lord, we have answered your call to be fishers of humanity. Through the Power of Your Holy Spirit, may we be made aware of any fullness within us so that we can become empty and free to obey the promptings Spirit gives us to cast our net around those in need. Amen.

Resources

Campbell, Joseph. Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell Book 4) (Kindle Locations 282-284). Joseph Campbell Foundation. Kindle Edition.

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “The Commencement of Jesus’ Ministry (Matthew 4:12-25).” Bible.org, bible.org/seriespage/8-commencement-jesus-ministry-matthew-412-25

Hunt, Janet H. “Following Jesus” That For Which We Were Made.” 15 Jan. 2017, dancingwiththeword.com, dancingwiththeword.com/following-jesus-that-for-which-we-are-made/

Lose, David. “Fishers of People.” Workingpreacher.org, 20 Jan. 2014, www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3018

“We Can Get Along Because That’s America.” BBC News, 17 Jan. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-51158038/we-can-get-along-because-that-s-america?fbclid=IwAR1sMbMJ7vJu6nid9Eu_N5gMsYl49RpK1s_Wj5KT7PIt0drdGNJritEhsvU

Sharing Christ’s Baptism

Michael Angelo Immenraet [Public domain]

Synopsis: The answer to the perplexing question, “Why did Jesus come to John to be baptized?” can be answered by considering how first-century Jews viewed baptism. We can learn how to share in Christ’s baptism by pondering some snapshots from the scene of Jesus’ baptism.

Scripture: Matthew 3: 13-17

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

How many of you were baptized when you were a child? I was baptized the first time when I was only a couple months old. I had no idea was I was getting myself into. That’s how many Christians were baptized – as infants or young children – we had no choice and no idea what it meant.

Some adults choose to get baptized for a variety of reasons: to become members of a church and participate in communion, in response to an inspiring preacher or church service, or because someone tells them that they must be baptized if they want to be saved.

Why did Jesus choose to come to John the Baptist to be baptized? That’s a puzzling question for many – even John the Baptist. Some say he must have repented of his sins; after all, John’s baptism is commonly understood to be a baptism of repentance.

Other say, no – Jesus was the sinless Son of God. So then, why did he ask John to baptize him? The answer lies in how this event in Jesus’ life might have been interpreted by those who were there and saw it all happen: first century Jews.

The Gospel of Matthew opens with a description of John the Baptist. We read that John had a strange diet – locusts and wild honey – and that he wore strange clothing – camel’s hair with a belt around his waist. Matthew points to a prophecy in Isaiah about him: “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”

John spent every day of his life in the wilderness until he was revealed to Israel. He lived a rugged life in the mountainous area of Judea, between the city of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. John’s fiery preaching about holiness and the consequences of sin inspired droves come to him to be baptized. 

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls might give us some insight into how John saw baptism. The scrolls tell us that there was a community of Jews at Qumran near where John was baptizing that had very strict entry requirements.

To become part of this community people had to go through rigorous testing to prove themselves “sons of light.” They had to abandon their worldly lives, surrender all their possessions to the community, and live according to Torah Law as interpreted by the community. After they had proven themselves to be pure in heart, they were then baptized by ritual immersion and formally admitted into the community.

According to the Qumran community’s view of baptism, a person’s heart had to be pure before he or she was baptized. The baptism was designed to cleanse or purify the body of an already cleansed or purified soul. Afterwards, you’re clean through-and-through – inside and out.

John probably wasn’t a member of this Qumran community because he didn’t require people to give up their worldly lives and possessions. But he was influenced by their view of baptism. He did require purity of heart as a prerequisite. That’s why he called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.” They taught Torah Law and urged others to follow it, but they didn’t practice what they preached.  

John’s baptism didn’t purify the heart, only the body of men and women who had already turned from sin – who were already pure of heart. John’s Baptism wasn’t a way to earn pardon for sins; it was a way of acknowledging God’s favor on those who were living righteous lives – those who would escape the ax.

So then, why did John hesitate to baptize Jesus? if John’s baptism was not a way to earn pardon for sin, it doesn’t make sense that he refused because Jesus was sinless. I think John was acknowledging that the level of purity of Jesus’ heart far exceeded his own, so Jesus should be baptizing him.

In the gospels of Luke and John, we read that John said to those coming to be baptized that someone was coming whose level of holiness was so great that he was not worthy to perform the lowliest task of a servant – to untie the straps of his sandals.

What did Jesus mean when he responded to John, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” I think he was saying to John, “Let’s stick to God’s Plan. God’s Plan is for you to be the Baptist and for me to be the Messiah.”

We read that when Jesus came out of the water, a Voice from Heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This “Voice from Heaven” would not have been an unusual occurrence for first-century Jews. The Voice of God was often thought to be heard in the chirping of a bird or in the cooing of a dove.

At the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 1:2, we read “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Rabbi Simeon b. Zoma imagined the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, like a dove gracefully hovers over its nest. Isaiah 11:2 reads, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him” in reference to the Messiah. The Sprit of God would rest upon the Messiah and empower him to fulfill his mission.

We can now understand that if a dove suddenly hovered gracefully over the head of Jesus at the time of his baptism, people would have interpreted that as Messianic sign, and some related Scripture verses might have come to mind.

The voice quotes two verses from Scripture. The first is Psalms 2:7; “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” The second is Isaiah 42:1; “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”

The use of the word “Son” relates to the word used in Psalms, and the word “beloved” to the words “my chosen” from Isaiah. I believe Moffatt’s translation combines the two ideas nicely: “You are my son, the chosen; today, I have brought you forth.”

So, to the first-century Jews who witnessed this event, God was saying through the appearance of this dove, “Here he is! Here is my anointed one, the one I have chosen, and the one I am empowering to carry out my plan of salvation.”

Jesus chose to be baptized by John because he was a human being along with everyone else at this special time when God was enacting his plan of salvation. From the time he was born, Jesus had dedicated his life to God, so he was a perfect candidate for John’s baptism.

And it was part of God’s plan that Jesus be baptized to introduce him to the people as His chosen one and to empower him to fulfill his mission.

How can we share Christ’s baptism? Obviously, Jesus had a very difficult mission. He did and said a lot of things that offended and opposed people in high places. You might remember that after Jesus entered Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple, several religious leaders asked him, “By what authority do you do these things?”

Jesus responded by asking them, “Was the baptism of John from heaven or not?” Jesus’ point was that John’s baptism was indeed from heaven, and that’s why he’s doing these things. He’s speaking the Truth and serving humanity because the Holy Spirit is empowering him to do these things, so he must do them – even if it means death on a cross.

Don’t worry; we don’t have to “go and do likewise” to share Christ’s baptism. Jesus already completed the suffering and dying part. He did all of that to set us free from the ignorance about our true nature that leads to sin and suffering. Through his suffering and death, he showed us who we really are, he united with the Christ, and he provided a path for all to follow. 

We made a commitment to follow that path and consciously unite with Christ when we came to the baptismal font or river. If our parents brought us as young children, it was because they acknowledged that we belonged to God. We were too young to make a conscious commitment, so as stewards of God’s child, it was their responsibility to make that commitment for us and to provide the training we needed to keep it.

So, while our missions may be different from that of Jesus, we can still take some snapshots from the scene of his baptism and use them to inform us about how we can share Christ’s baptism.

First, John felt unworthy to baptize Jesus. Isn’t that ironic? God created John to be the Baptist. He was fashioned from the womb for that job. In the Gospel of Luke chapter 1, we read of his miraculous birth to elderly parents who were barren. God’s messenger, the archangel Gabriel, announced to John’s father, the Levitical Priest Zachariah, that he would have a son that he was to name John.

In verses 14-17, Gabriel tells Zachariah that John will be great in the Lord’s sight. He must never drink wine or strong drink, for he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. With the spirit and power of Elijah, he will turn people’s hearts back to the Lord to prepare them for the coming of the Savior.

That’s a calling!

So, if God has called us to fulfill a role, we are worthy. We shouldn’t doubt ourselves, or let the world tell us we’re not worthy. No one else can fulfill our role. We are unique. There is no one like us in the entire universe, yet we were chosen for a specific purpose, and who knows us better than God?

I was thirteen years old on a religious retreat when God called me to serve as a minister. I doubted that call because as a Missouri-Synod Lutheran, I had been taught that it was not proper for a female to be a minister. I doubted it even more when I realized that I am gay. I figured I couldn’t be both gay and Christian, and I couldn’t stop being gay, so I stopped being Christian. I stopped believing in God.

But God didn’t stop believing in me. He kept calling me. I was working at Burger King one day when I noticed a newspaper article about a church run by a gay couple: Pastor Brian, who led the worship services, and his partner, Tom, who was the music director.

Their mission was to help other gay people view God and the Scriptures as non-condemning and to provide a safe place to worship. Their mission certainly wasn’t without risk. Pastor Brian showed up for church one Sunday morning with bruises all over his face after having been “gay bashed” the night before.

I was baptized the second time by Pastor Brian, by immersion in the Lehigh River. It was my way of saying, “OK, God. I’m back, and I’m ready to do what you’ve called me to do.” If Pastor Brian and Tom had doubted God’s call to them, if they had listened to people telling them that they weren’t worthy, I doubt I’d be standing here today.

God has fashioned you in the womb for a purpose. You certainly don’t have to be an ordained minister. You might be a secretary whom people confide in for your wisdom and compassion. You might be a cashier whose smile brightens people’s day. Maybe you’re the kind of person who radiates kindness and compassion wherever you go. That’s your mission. God made you for that.

We should be confident about our calling, but not cocky. Jesus was very humble. He didn’t say, “I’m too holy to be baptized.” He didn’t set himself apart; he joined with his people Israel and with all humanity. He had a very pure heart, but he didn’t compare himself to others, and he strongly criticized the self-righteous Pharisees who did compare themselves to others. Jesus wanted his light to shine to turn people’s hearts back to God, not to draw attention to himself.

As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

So, as we go out our missions for God, let us remember that we’re not doing what we’re doing so that people will see what a “good person” we are and give us glory. We’re doing what we’re doing so that people will see God’s glory in human beings who have transcended the typical ego-centric “what’s in it for me” attitudes and behaviors.

What a wonderful world it will be when we’re finally free of all that.

Finally, after his baptism, Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve. That’s how he was able to accomplish the difficult task set before him. God didn’t give him that difficult task and say, “Good luck with that.” He gave him His Holy Spirit to guide him and give him strength.

So, we can trust that the Holy Spirit descended upon us at our baptisms to empower us to complete whatever mission God has given us to fulfill, no matter how difficult. It’s up to us whether to follow the Holy Spirit’s promptings, which may at times be hard. We can be assured that the Holy Spirit will prompt us to speak the Truth and to serve others in ways that might offend or provoke people, and we could be hurt.

But when it comes to living out our baptism, as the Rev. Brett Younger writes, “The children of God tell the truth in a world that lies, give in a world that takes, love in a world that lusts, make peace in a world that fights, serve in a world that wants to be served, pray in a world that waits to be entertained, and take chances in a world that worships safety. The baptized are citizens of an eccentric community where financial success is not the goal, security is not the highest good, and sacrifice is a daily event.”

Getting baptized is like getting married. We really don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into. But we take the plunge, and we find that the meaning becomes clearer as we travel through life with our beloved, experiencing triumphs and tribulations, and somehow along the way, our love and commitment deepens, and we become truly One.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we have committed ourselves to God as servants of the Light. Help us to trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to give us the guidance and strength we need to live out our baptisms so that all may be united with You in Christ.

No Greater Love

Bernhard_Plockhorst_-_Good_Shephard
Bernhard Plockhorst [Public domain]
No Greater Love: A parable by Reverend Joan M. Kistler

Once upon the Timeless, the Source of Being said, “Let there be Life.”

And there was Life.

Source: “It is good. Let us create a world that reflects our Perfect Love, Peace, and Joy.”

Life: “I am here, my Source!”

Source: “Yes – you are here – but you are not all here. Where are the rest?”

Life: “They sleep and will not wake.”

Source: “Why will they not wake?”

Life: “Their minds are overthrown, my Source. Hatred has replaced Your Love, guilt has replaced Your Peace, and suffering has replaced Your Joy.”

Source: “How did this happen?”

Life: “They have listened to the Voice of Lies. It told them that You did not give them everything – that You were holding something back.”

Source: “Do they not know that they have everything in life because they are Life?”

Life: “The Lie has replaced that truth, my Source. They dream of a life separate from You to find that which they believe they lack.”

Source: “Do they not know that our Perfect Oneness can never be fragmented?”

Life: “Their minds are deceived by the dream. They believe that they have destroyed Your Perfect Oneness and put it asunder. Their minds are overcome by guilt and fear of Your wrath. They wait for Your punishment in time.”

Source: “Oh – do they not know that there is only Present and Eternal Love?”

Life: “They have projected their guilt onto bodies that decay and die, and so they believe that they are these bodies. They fear death, yet do they hope for it, thinking that it will appease Your wrath.”

Source: “I have created them as Eternal Life. How can they believe that they can die?”

Life: “They have forgotten who they are.”

Source: “I will speak to them and remind them that they are the very Light of my Being.”

Life: “They cannot hear Your Voice, my Source. They have made ears that cannot hear You, mouths that cannot speak Your Truth, and eyes that cannot see the Life that You have given them.”

Source: “It is not my will that any be lost. They shall remember me; they shall remember who they are. They shall hear My Voice and remember the Truth.”

With these words, The Voice of Truth was created.

Source: “But how – how can My Voice penetrate into their illusory world and heal their deluded minds?”

Life: “I will take it to them, my Source. I will enter into the dream, take on a body, and allow the Voice of Truth to enter into it. Thus will it have eyes to see their suffering, ears to hear their cries for help, a mouth to speak of Your Love for them, and hands with which to touch and heal them.”

Life: “This is a dangerous mission. You will be tempted as they are to listen to the Voice of Lies: to forget who you are and believe that you are a body, to use the body’s eyes to see your brother as an enemy, its ears and its mouth to listen to and speak only lies about him, and its hands to hurt him.”

Life: “I will listen to Your Voice, and I will be lead not into temptation. Your Voice, My Source, will deliver me from evil.”

Source: “If they hate themselves, they will project their self-hatred onto you. If they fear me and believe that they deserve death, they will project their desire for death onto you and seek your death. You will become their scapegoat.”

Life: “Yes – I will be their scapegoat, my Source. They will project all their guilt and hatred onto me, and I will take it from them and be the sacrifice that they think You require. All who accept my sacrifice for their atonement shall be freed from their guilt and fear. They will remember who they are. They will remember You, and they will choose Life instead of death.”

Source: “Your suffering will be terrible. Are you certain you wish to do this?”

Life: “It is not Your Will that any be lost. Your Will is my will, my Source. May Your Will be done on Earth as is it is here in Your Kingdom.”

Source: “Oh Heart of My Heart – Go and bring them Home.”

And so Life entered into the womb of a woman, and she gave birth to a son and named him Jesus.

God’s Bundle of Joy

birth-of-jesus-1150128_1920

Synopsis: Amazon might be able to spread some holiday cheer by sending billions of packages around the world, but God was able to send everyone in the world one gift that would bring eternal joy and peace. How many have refused to accept God’s Bundle of Joy?

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Scriptures: Luke 2:1-20

Joy to the World! The Lord has come!

How many of you have seen the Amazon commercials with those smiling, singing packages, belting out Solomon Burke’s classic track, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love?”

The full-length commercial starts with a young girl playing the song on a pink piano and soon holiday cheer is spreading – to a budding new romance on a train, to an Amazon delivery driver, to an elderly couple dancing in their living room, to feet tapping in an office meeting room, to a woman singing out loud on a bus … from there, the joy seems to spread all over the world.

We recently got a package from Amazon, and Tabatha joked, “You see! The packages don’t look like they do in the commercial. Their smiling, singing arrow-mouths are taped shut!” I thought, “Well yeah! You have to rip the tape off to open the box! An unopened package can’t bring anyone joy.”

How many of you have ever felt very uncomfortable accepting a gift, or maybe even refused to take one? If you have, you’re not alone. According to Psychology Today, most people find it harder to receive than to give for a couple of reasons.

First, we feel afraid. We may fear not being in control, like we are when we give. We may fear the connection receiving the gift creates with the giver; there may be some strings attached to the gift.

Second, we feel unworthy. We may feel deep down that it is too selfish to receive. But a common feeling, especially this time of year, is what I call the dreaded “Holiday Gift Guilt Complex.” How can we take a gift from someone when we didn’t get them one?

Amazon might be able to spread some holiday cheer around the world with millions of packages, but tonight, we celebrate the moment when the entire world was given one priceless gift, not from Amazon, but a special delivery from God, not in the form of a cardboard box wrapped with tape, but in the form of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes – a bundle of pure joy.

But how many are reluctant or even refuse to accept God’s Bundle of Joy?

The shepherds in our scripture reading were described as lowly – poor, simple folk – watching over their flocks by night – you know, working the graveyard shift. The next thing they knew, they were getting a message from God: Light was shining all around them, an angel was speaking to them, and the entire heavenly host was singing.

When an Amazon package arrives, all we get is an email or text message.

The shepherds were terrified! But the angel said to them, “Don’t’ be afraid! I have good news for you!” Then, the angel announced the arrival of God’s Bundle of Joy: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

After the angel tells the shepherds where to find God’s Bundle of Joy, he tells them what to look for: They will find the Messiah wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. The shepherds were probably shocked. That didn’t sound like the right kind of packaging for the Messiah. Maybe they expected to find him wrapped in the finest silk, lying in a crib of gold, inside a king’s palace.

These lowly shepherds were not afraid and felt themselves worthy to accept the gift. How do we know? Because they went to check it out. They said, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

They went on a journey to find Him, and when they found Him, they proclaimed what the angel had told them. Each of them, in his or her own way, confessed, “Here he is! Here is the Messiah! Here is the one who brings salvation to all, including me!”

So, if you’re asking if this gift is for you, the answer is YES! As the angel said, this gift is for ALL the people – no matter who you are or what you have done. You are worthy to receive the priceless gift of salvation that God has offered to all humanity through His Son, Jesus Christ.

Do you know why God created us? Because He needed somebody to love. And in His Infinite Love for each and every one of us, He sent us this priceless gift with no strings attached just because He wants us all to be filled with joy and peace.

But we can’t have that joy and peace until we accept the Christ because Christ is who we really are. We are a Beam of God’s own Light – not these bodies, not these personal selves. That’s good news!

God sent Jesus to be Christ’s representative – so that we can finally see who we really are face-to-face. Jesus went to the cross willingly to show us that who we really are can never die, so we don’t have anything to fear, and we don’t have any reason to feel ashamed.

When we go on a journey to find the Christ, we must take the road that leads us to the stable of our hearts, not to the inn of our minds. The inn of our minds – the inn-tellect – is where we think we know who we are, where all our ideas about ourselves are lodged – so there is no room up here. It’s up here where ideas like, “I’m not worthy!” come from.

When we quiet our minds and open our hearts, we can feel the Unconditional Love of Our Father – and this Love is literally who we are in Christ. This Love is the Creative Power of God. When we accept the Christ, we become an extension of God’s Love, Peace, and Joy.

So, if you are one of those who has been hesitant or has even refused to open the package – to go within and check out the wondrous gift inside your own heart – let this Christmas be the one where you release your fears and doubts about your worth and finally accept God’s Bundle of Joy.

And if you’re one of those who has already accepted the gift, let your Love, Peace, and Joy shine so that others might ask, “Hey – where’d you get all that holiday cheer?”

You can start by telling them that it didn’t come from Amazon.

Let’s pray together: Lord, this season as we once again celebrate your birth, help us to open our hearts even wider to fully accept the Truth of who we are and to be the Gift that we have received through You. Amen.

Resources

Amodeo, John. “5 Reasons Why Receiving is Harder than Giving.” Psychology Today, 12 Feb. 2014, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/intimacy-path-toward-spirituality/201402/5-reasons-why-receiving-is-harder-giving.

Heath, Olivia. “Amazon Christmas Advert 2019: Festive Singing Boxes Return in Heartwarming Ad.” housebeautiful.com, 5 Nov. 2019, www.housebeautiful.com/uk/lifestyle/a24634544/amazon-christmas-advert/

got faith?

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Artist: Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo (1617-1682)

Synopsis: What if we started a “got faith?” advertising campaign? Would it be as successful as “got milk?” How would we describe what faith looks like or prove its health benefits? Fortunately, we have two wonderful “portraits of faith” to consider: Mary and Joseph.

Scriptures: Matthew 1: 18-25

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

How many of you remember the “milk – it does the body good” commercials? Milk marketers started this advertising campaign in the 1980s to help reverse falling milk sales. The commercials claimed that drinking milk was necessary for strong bones and teeth and to prevent osteoporosis.

How many of you remember the “got milk?” commercials? These commercials began in the early nineties, and they were much more creative.

The famous commercial of this campaign was the one where a museum worker is taking his lunch break while listening to a classical music station. Suddenly, the music stops, and the DJ says, “Now, let’s make that random call with our $10,000 question. It’s a tough one! Who shot Alexander Hamilton in that famous duel?”

The museum worker looks all around him, and his eyes grow wide. He’s lucky enough to be taking his break in a room loaded with historical artifacts related to that famous duel, including a painting of the two men poised to duel with their names printed on banner-like labels under their depictions. So, all he has to do is read the name of the other guy: Aaron Burr.

Just then, the phone rings, and he picks it up. It’s the DJ looking for the answer to the $10,000 question. The DJ says, “For $10,000 who shot …” the museum worker is so excited, he cuts off the DJ mid-sentence and says, “Aaron Burr.” The DJ responds, “Excuse me?” You see, our museum worker had just taken a rather large bite of a peanut butter sandwich.

The museum worker quickly realizes the problem, reaches for his carton of milk, tips it over above his empty glass, and just a few squirts of milk fly out, surely not enough to remedy the pasty glob. The DJ says, “Your time is almost up.” The museum worker tries one more time, “Aaron Burr.” The DJ says, “I’m sorry … maybe next time.” Click. The screen fades to black, and that famous slogan fades in with its white lowercase letters: “got milk?”

What if we started an advertising campaign called “got faith?” Do you think it would be as successful as “got milk?” Milk has the advantage. It’s concrete: We can see it, smell it, feel it, and taste it. Faith is abstract. What can’t see, smell, feel, or taste faith.

Does faith “do a body good”? Does it give us strong bones and teeth? Does it prevent osteoporosis? Does it have the power to wash down the pasty glob of a peanut butter sandwich and win us $10,000 in a radio contest?

How can we even begin to imagine what faith looks like? Well, luckily, we have two “portraits of faith” from today’s scripture reading.

The first one is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Ladies – try to imagine yourselves in Mary’s shoes. You are a young woman – 12-14 years old. You belong to a respectable Jewish family. In fact, you come from Jewish royalty. You belong to the tribe of Jessie, and you are a direct descendant of King David.

You are betrothed to Joseph, who is also of the tribe of Jessie and a direct descendant of King David. Your father arranged your marriage. You were consulted about this after the fact, but only as a formality. Even if you said, “Him … ewwweh, no way!” You wouldn’t get out of it. All you’d get was a look of extreme displeasure from your father.

Next a public announcement was made, and you were officially “engaged.” During this time, typically at least a year, you still lived in your father’s house, and you were not allowed to lie with your betrothed. Even so, your engagement couldn’t be broken off except through death or divorce. Your father, Joachim (YO-ah-kim), would have received a “mohar” – a dowry – as payment for you. The mohar was typically paid in cash, but sometimes it was paid in service.

Once the engagement period ends, the marriage ceremony will take place where you will be escorted to Joseph’s house to begin living with him. At that time, ownership of you will be passed from your father to your new husband.

Now, imagine that at some point during your engagement period, while you were still living in your father’s house, you are visited by the angel Gabriel. We know from Luke chapter 1 how this conversation went.

The angel says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” You’re obviously very startled by this supernatural greeting. Then the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”

“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” You say to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel replies, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

The Jews lived according to Torah Law, which is found in the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible. According to Deuteronomy chapter 22, if a girl is found not to be a virgin when the marriage is consummated, not only can her betrothed divorce her, but she can also be stoned to death for adultery.

Just imagine ladies: You’re barely a teenager, and now you have to explain your pregnancy by telling everyone about a vision you had from the angel Gabriel. Maybe you can imagine them looking at you, shaking their heads, and saying, “Sure Mary, the Holy Spirit made you pregnant.”

How scared might you be? How much might you wish this situation would just go away somehow? How much might you wish it was someone else, not you? But, do you know what Mary said at the end of the angel’s visit? She said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Our next portrait of faith is Joseph. Now men, try to imagine yourselves in Joseph’s shoes. You may be a teenager like Mary, or you could be a grown man. Either way, you have proven yourself in Joachim’s (YO-ah-kim’s) eyes to be a worthy husband for his daughter.

Imagine that you have been betrothed to this young woman for a while, and now you are eagerly waiting for the marriage ceremony when she will be brought to your home to begin living with you. Until then, you expect her to remain a virgin.

But then, you find out that she is pregnant. She claims, however, to still be a virgin. She claims that she was visited by an angel and told that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Son of God.

You know your rights under Torah Law but, you’re a compassionate guy. You want to do the right thing. You don’t want to see this young woman disgraced or stoned to death. You’re thinking about divorcing her, but quietly. Perhaps her family can hide her away somewhere for a time until she gives birth to conceal this situation.

But then, just as you’re contemplating this, you have a dream where an angel appears to you and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Marry her anyway? That’s an option you didn’t even consider. Well, you could claim to be the child’s father, but if you did that, your reputation would be tarnished. Maybe you can hear people saying, “Just couldn’t wait for the proper time, could you Joseph?”

What would you do? Would you believe the angel’s words and marry her? Or would it all just seem too far-fetched to be true? Or would the situation just be too messy for you to want to deal with? Would you want to just wash your hands of this situation?

We all know what Joseph did. He changed his mind because he had faith in the angel’s message – that this child was conceived by God for a special purpose. He took Mary as his wife, but he did lay with her until after Jesus was born. He didn’t want there to be any confusion about who this child’s father was.

Because Joseph was a compassionate guy, he probably wasn’t as concerned about his own reputation as he was about Jesus and his descendants. You see, according to Torah law as stated in Deuteronomy chapter 23, a person of illegitimate birth may not enter the Assembly of the Lord, nor may anyone related to him or her through the tenth generation. But how could Joseph claim to be the father if Jesus truly was conceived by the Holy Spirit and God’s own Son?

As you can see, the situation was quite complicated, so it took great faith for Joseph to take Mary as his wife and raise Jesus.

Our gospel writer Matthew explains that all of this happened to fulfill a prophecy from Isaiah 7: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” God Himself came down from the Heavens, and entered into the body of a baby, so that he could be with us, learn what it’s like to be human, and lead us back to Him.

Now that we have a couple of good portraits of faith to consider, I’d like to talk about what faith is not. Faith is not blind adherence to religious doctrine. Some Christians claim that you’re not a Christian if you don’t believe in the virgin birth of Jesus – if you don’t believe that the story told in our gospel reading for today is literally true.

I believe that if we insist on viewing this story solely through a literal lens, then we miss the deep spiritual meaning it holds for us. We’ve all been exposed to some great stories, some of which we knew weren’t true, yet they still spoke to our souls.

So, was Jesus really conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, or was this story concocted by our gospel writers to give credibility to Jesus’ messiahship as some bible scholars have claimed? Who knows? Who will ever know? But I do believe that Jesus came into this world exactly as God intended, according to His Will, and with God anything is possible.

I think that’s the main point of this story.

Faith does the soul good because when we have faith, we believe that with God anything is possible. That’s why Mary and Joseph both believed the messages they received from the angels.

The Jewish people believe it is important to “fear” God, not so much in the sense of being afraid of God, but more of being in awe of God – in awe of God’s Power and of the Mystery and Magnificence of His Creation. So, Mary and Joseph’s story of being visited by angels would not have been considered far-fetched by the people of their time. They believed in the unseen.

Beginning with the scientific revolution of the sixteenth century, we arrogantly began to believe only in what we could sense with our human apparatus. If we couldn’t see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, or touch it, it didn’t exist. These days, scientists are beginning to figure out that the more we try to uncover the mysteries of creation, the deeper the mystery gets.

Robert Jastrow, an American astronomer and planetary physicist, once said, “Science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about the conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by … a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

How many of you believe in angels? You’re not weird because believe or not, recent polls have revealed that three out of four Americans believe in angels.
How many of you believe in miracles? Again, you’re not weird. Three out of four Americans believe in miracles.

That’s good news! We’re not skeptics! We believe that not everything in God’s creation can be sensed with our human apparatus and not everything can be explained with our powers of reasoning. So, when it comes to what can happen, we believe the sky’s the limit. That’s faith.

Faith does the soul good because when we have faith, we find that we have more options available to us than we think. How many people might have thought, given the situation, that Joseph’s choice to take Mary as his wife anyway was crazy? How many of you can recall a situation in your life where God presented you with a solution to a problem that you didn’t even consider? Or maybe a solution that – from the world’s perspective – was nuts?

Personally, I can recall an incident in my life where I felt God was calling me to leave a job because He had bigger plans for me. Leaving that job would ruin my reputation with that employer and jeopardize my financial security. From the perspective of this world, that’s nuts!

Faith does the soul good because when we have faith, we are able to accept whatever happens in our lives gracefully – even when it doesn’t make any sense – even when we can’t even begin to imagine why on Earth God would do this to us – because we trust that God has a purpose, and we submit to His Will.

How many of you, when you were faced with a difficult situation in your life, couldn’t imagine how it could possibly be for your good or for the good of all? But then, when you looked back years later, you realized what a huge blessing it was? You realized how good it was for your soul?

I followed God’s promptings, and I left that job. For about five years, I was bitter about it. But then, when I looked back, I realized that it was the best decision I ever made. It did my soul good. If I hadn’t made that choice, I doubt I would have accomplished as much as I did in life since then.

With God, anything is possible. If we have faith, we have something far better than a $10,000 prize – something infinitely more valuable. We have peace. We have peace because we know that God knows what is good for our souls and for the souls of all humanity, and He can do anything to accomplish it, including coming down to earth to be with us.

When God “calls us up” (so-to-speak) with the arrival of a challenge in our lives for our good or for the good of all, let us have enough of the milk of faith to wash away any pasty globs of fear and doubt that might be clogging up our souls, so that we can respond with the right answer as Mary demonstrated: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

I think that’s the best “got faith?” commercial there is.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to have strong faith like Mary’s and Joseph’s. Through the Power of Your Holy Spirit, wash away all fear and doubt so that when we are faced with difficult situations in life, we can be at peace. Amen.

Resources

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “Christmas Faith: Matthew 1:18-2:23.” Bible.org, bible.org/article/christmas-faith-matthew-118-223

Schauss, Hayyim. “Ancient Jewish Marriage.” MyJewishLearning.com, www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ancient-jewish-marriage/