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

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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/

Three Types of Repentance

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Artist: Alessandro Allori (Public Domain)

Synopsis: How do you think people would respond if we hear on tomorrow’s morning news that a guy wearing a black robe, a rope belt, and a reformation-style hat has arrived in Rome, and he is baptizing people in the Tiber River, which runs through Vatican City?

Scriptures: Matthew 3: 1-12 and Ezekiel 34

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

“Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!”

This was the message of John the Baptist, a guy who lived over 2,000 years ago in a place far from America, to people of a different faith. How can Christians today relate to him and his message of repentance?

The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t tell us much about John the Baptist until he starts baptizing people. He describes John as eating locusts and wild honey and wearing clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist.

This garb wasn’t unusual for a prophet. In the Old Testament, in the book of 2 Kings, King Ahaziah asked his messengers to seek a prediction from Baal regarding whether he would recover from an injury. His messengers returned stating that they came upon a prophet who told them that the King would surely die because he sought a prediction from Baal, not from the Lord. When King Ahaziah asked what this prophet looked like, they replied, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” King Ahaziah said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”

When John started baptizing people, it had been 400 years since a prophet had spoken to Israel. But John’s coming was foretold by both the prophet Isaiah and the prophet Malachi. In verse 3, Matthew directly quotes Isaiah’s prophecy from chapter 40, verse 3.

It has been over 500 years since there has been a great reformer of the Christian faith. Imagine if there was a prophecy that Martin Luther would come again to reform the Christian faith and prepare the way for Jesus’ Second Coming. Now imagine hearing tomorrow on the morning news that a guy showed up in Rome wearing a black monk’s robe, a rope-like belt, and a reformation-style hat, and was baptizing people in the Tiber River, which basically runs through Vatican City?

How do you think people would respond?

How many people do you think would flock to Rome just to check out this nut who obviously thinks he’s Martin Luther? Maybe they would have no intention of repenting and no intention of being baptized. They would come just because they were curious – or wanted some entertainment – or wanted to take a selfie with him and post it on social media.

I’m sure many people came to see John for the same reason – except for the selfie part, of course. They may not have been religious Jews; they were just curious and wanted to check out this guy who thinks he’s Elijah come again in fulfillment of some Torah prophecy.

John was weird and did some weird stuff by the world’s standards. That’s because he was not of this world. That’s why he was raised in the wilderness – so he wouldn’t become like everyone else.

If we’re not of this world, we are also weird. I have been called weird. In fact, the person who ended up being the accidental “matchmaker” for Tabatha and I warned Tabatha, “Joan’s coming to the party. You haven’t met her yet. She’s a little weird.”

It used to bother me that people might think I’m weird. But now, I think being weird is a good thing. Look at what it did for John the Baptist. People came to him and heard what he had to say just because he was weird. How many of them ended up repenting and being baptized?

That’s accidental repentance.

Back to our Martin Luther scenario. We’ve said some people would come to Rome to see him out of curiosity. Now imagine seeing the pointy-hats of the bishops from the Vatican approaching the scene and maybe even a gaggle of Protestant ministers with their black robes and stoles. Imagine one of them asking him, “So, are you the reincarnation of Martin Luther?”

How do you think he would respond?

Martin Luther was excommunicated from the church, which also allowed anyone to murder him without penalty. So, we would understand if he might not come right out and say, “Yes, I am!” Many of those bishops and perhaps even some Protestant ministers surrounding him might not see any need for another Reformation. They might be quite happy with the ways things are, thank you very much. Unless, of course, he could solve the problem of fewer butts in the pews and dollars in the offering plate.

In the Gospel of John, when the priests and Levites came from Jerusalem and asked John who he is, John denied being the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet. He simply alluded to Isaiah chapter 40, verse 3.

He didn’t come right out and say, “Yep! I’m the prophet Elijah come again just like Isaiah’s prophecy said!” We can understand why he wasn’t so straightforward. Elijah was horribly persecuted in his time by Queen Jezebel. She wanted him dead, and he had to run for his life.

Throughout Israel’s history, many of its prophets were murdered by illegitimate and corrupt kings. Unfortunately, this would be John’s fate as well. But first, he needed to fulfill his mission to prepare the hearts of the people to receive the Christ.

John baptized people in the Jordan River, which is about 70 miles long and ran along the eastern border of Israel, about 20 miles east of Jerusalem. A baptism by John in the Jordan River would have been quite symbolic to the Jewish people.

Toward the end of Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness, after the death of Moses and the installation of Joshua as Israel’s new leader, it was at this river that Israel renewed their covenant with God before entering into the Promised Land. Here, at the Jordan River, John was asking people to renew their covenant with God once again.

In Matthew’s gospel, John attacks the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees and Sadducees, as we know, had a problem with self-righteousness. Since they were the sons of Abraham, they figured that they were already saved. The only people who were baptized in Judaism those days were converts and anyone whose ritual purity had been sullied in some way though, for example, contact with a corpse.

But John’s baptism didn’t have anything to do with cleansing the body; it was about cleansing the heart. To approach John for baptism required people to admit that their hearts were defiled and needed to be cleansed. The Pharisees and Sadducees figured they didn’t do anything that would have required they receive a mikvah (or ritual bath). But John saw how much their hearts were defiled.

Why did the Pharisees and Sadducees come if they weren’t sincere? Well, they had a lot of influence over the people. The Sadducees administered the rites in the Temple. The Pharisees taught Torah law and how to properly follow it – along with a whole heap of “Tradition of the Elders.”

They didn’t like what John was saying. What John was saying is this: “You can follow all the rites and rituals and traditions you want. You can even come here and be baptized, but if it doesn’t lead to a change of heart, if it doesn’t inspire you to love others as you love yourself, then it is worthless!”

That’s phony repentance.

If Martin Luther was in Rome, baptizing people in the Tiber River, how do think the Catholic and Protestant ministers would respond to that message? “You can be baptized, go to church every Sunday, be confirmed, take Communion, serve as a deacon or even be ordained a priest or minister, but if it doesn’t inspire the growth of love in your heart, it’s all worthless!”

I’m sure that some of those who would come to see our reincarnated Martin Luther might be Christians who are sincerely repentant. Most Christians are not oblivious to the sins of the Christian church – and not just sins from long ago, like the Crusades. We’ve recently become aware of some horrible sins committed by some of our religious leaders.

And I’m sure many who came to hear and be baptized by John were truly repentant. We know that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were more concerned with the letter of the law and their own reputations then they were about planting the seed of love in people’s hearts and properly nurturing that seed. Whole groups of people were ostracized: Samaritans, Lepers, Tax Collectors, Romans, and anyone judged to be “sinners.”

The shepherds turned out to be wolves in disguise. God promised in our reading from Ezekiel chapter 34 that he would come and shepherd the people Himself. John was calling people to repentance to prepare their hearts for the coming of the Good Shepherd. Become like sheep in your hearts, not like wolves. The Good Shepherd will know the difference between the sheep and the wild animals.

John warns the people to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” It doesn’t matter if someone is a “son of Abraham” if he doesn’t act like it. True sons and daughters resemble their parents. This doesn’t make salvation dependent on good works; it makes good works dependent on salvation. We are not saved unless our hearts have changed, and if our hearts have changed, that will be evident in our good works.

John makes this clear in Luke’s gospel. After John warned the people, they asked, “What should we do?” John replied, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He told tax collectors, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” He told soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation and be satisfied with your wages.”

Loving one another as we love ourselves was not a new commandment in Judaism. There’s a Jewish parable called “The Rabbi and the Exceedingly Ugly Man.” It goes like this:

On one occasion Rabbi Eleazer son of Rabbi Simeon was coming from Migdal Gedor, from the house of his teacher. He was riding leisurely on his donkey by the riverside and was feeling happy and elated because he had studied much Torah. There he chanced to meet an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, rabbi.”

He, however, did not return his greeting but instead said to him, “Raca (which means ‘Empty one’ or ‘Good for nothing’) how ugly you are! Is everyone in your town as ugly as you are?” The man replied; “I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is the vessel which you have made.’” When R. Eleazer realized that he had sinned he dismounted from the donkey and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, “I submit myself to you, forgive me!”

That’s sincere repentance!

The rabbi immediately realized his mistake and was grateful for the correction. He realized he was calling someone made in the image of God – someone like himself – ugly, empty, good for nothing. Some say we can’t love others until we love ourselves. I used to think that, but now I think it’s the other way around. We learn to love ourselves through loving others. That’s why loving one another comes first in the commandment. If we wait until we love ourselves before we love others, we’ll never get there.

John tells the crowd that he is baptizing them with water; he is purifying their hearts for the one coming after him, who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He will fill their hearts with the most powerful force in the Universe – an eternal force that creates entire Universes: The fire of love.

This advent let us rejoice in our weirdness! Accidental repentance can happen when somebody meets one of us weirdos, and they are curious. Their burning question is usually something like, “Why are you always so happy? Why aren’t you miserable like everyone else?” How many of us have been able to share the Gospel with people who really want to know how to get whatever we’ve got?

I have to admit, I am sometimes tempted to be more like others when I’m around people who are very different from me. We all want to feel like we belong, but we don’t have to compromise. We belong to people who are not of this world, people like John the Baptist. Like him, we can be the “voice crying out in the wilderness” that leads people to repentance.

This advent let each one of us envision what our life would be like if our heart was burning with love. I’m not talking about gushy, lovey-dovey, romantic love. I’m talking about agape love – the kind of love that sees every human being as another glorious expression of the Divine within – the kind of love that treats every human being as if he or she has unlimited value. What would that look like?

Now, I’m sure some of us might immediately think of a person or persons in our lives whom we would have trouble loving. What is the mind telling us about why they should be exempt from our love? That’s when phony repentance might be tempting.

And that is the time to choose sincere repentance – to stop believing what the mind says and start believing what the heart says about them. Does what they did matter more than who they are? Does it make “exceedingly ugly” the vessel God has made?

Be careful how you answer because the answer you give will also be true for you. If you believe that they can be good-for-nothing, then you’ll believe that you can be too. If you believe that they can’t be forgiven for what they have done, then you’ll believe it’s possible that you can’t be forgiven.

Finally, this advent, let us consider the areas where we need to repent as a Christian community. As a member of the Christian community, I often feel ashamed of how some Christians ostracize and persecute people for “religious reasons” when Jesus never gave us any reason to treat others that way. How can we repent for them by giving of our time, talents, and resources to serve those who suffer?

John was preparing the people for the Lord’s first coming, where the Lord sacrificed his personal self in order to demonstrate to the world who God is, who we are in relation to Him, and what His Love looks like. We are preparing ourselves and others for the Lord’s second coming – for the Christ to come into hearts that have prepared him room, and from there, rule a Kingdom where the only law is love.

Let’s pray together:

Father, we come to your throne of grace with sincere repentance. Through the Power of Your Holy Spirit, make us aware of what needs to be cleansed in our hearts to prepare room for the Christ’s arrival and the coming of Your Glorious Kingdom. Amen.

Resources:

Deffinbaugh, Robert L. “4. John the Baptist and Jesus (Matthew 3: 1-17), Bible.org,
bible.org/seriespage/4-john-baptist-and-jesus-matthew-31-17

Lose, David J. “Advent 2A: Reclaiming Repentance.” DavidLose.net, 28 Nov. 2016,   davidlose.net/2016/11/advent-2-a-reclaiming-repentance/

Young, Brad H. The Parables (p. 9). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

No Greater Love – a Parable

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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.”