February 2010 Sermons:
"Sharing God's Grace" — February 7
Luke 5: 1-11
Have you ever worked on a project for an entire day, and ended up with nothing to show for it? Simon Peter had an experience like that. He had been fishing all night on the Sea of Galilee. Fishing was serious business for Peter and his friends. These commercial fishermen had been breaking their backs all night, but hadn't caught one single fish. They couldn’t remember a worse expedition than this one. But when Peter and the other fishermen rinsed out their nets, they noticed a crowd gathering along the lakeshore. The next thing they knew, Jesus was coming toward them. Something was up! They were instantly suspicious.
Peter and his friends had heard about Jesus. Everyone had. He was the religious leader of the hour. But none of the fishermen were interested in religion. He was no friend of theirs. What could this celebrity preacher possibly want from them? Peter and his friends weren’t as far down the social ladder as shepherds. But they weren’t the kind of people a leader like Jesus would want to hang around with. Or, so they thought.
Jesus asked Simon Peter if he could use his boat. He said He wanted to preach from the water. There were no microphones in those days, of course. The shore of the lake functioned acoustically like an amphitheater. Jesus knew how to make the sound of His voice reverberate—by sitting out on the water between two cliffs. Speaking from the boat would have made Jesus’ voice much easier for the crowd to hear.
Peter was frustrated with Jesus. True, he owed Jesus a favor, because He had healed Peter’s mother-in-law. But Peter didn’t want to repay that favor today. Not when he and the other fishermen needed to sleep! But Peter gave in. He nodded, “yes” to Jesus. So the rabbi taught the crowd about God in Peter’s boat. Imagine Peter, at the other end of the boat from Jesus, looking at his watch, wondering when he would get home to sleep. Finally Jesus finished preaching, and the crowd dispersed.
What's surprising about this story is that it's not really about the crowds or the sermon. It’s about one man—a fisherman named Peter, and how Jesus selected him for ministry. Jesus knew a potential disciple when He saw one. He didn’t just get into Peter’s boat. Jesus got into his life, too.
God has something to say to everyone. Jesus knew that. I once heard someone say that every person is like an island. If we keep circling that island until we see a place where we can land, we eventually make contact in a meaningful way. Jesus never wrote anyone off—tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, shepherds, or fishermen. No matter what their excuses were—or how unworthy they might seem. The people Jesus evangelized, were not society’s best or brightest. But Jesus recruited them as God’s ambassadors—and it worked.
The miracle of the fish helped to persuade Peter. He and the other fisherman were annoyed that Jesus was trying to tell them how to use fishing nets. Jesus had ordered them to “put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch!” Who did He think He was? But they were astonished at what happened next. Their nets began to fill with fish! That’s when it dawned on Peter, their leader, that Jesus was the Son of God. He fell on his knees.
Just about every time God has called His greatest leaders, they have resisted. Good leaders tend to be stubborn people. We can find this pattern all through the Bible. Look at today’s reading from the Old Testament. Isaiah stood before God, and God said to the angels, "Who can we send as a messenger to the people?" And then suddenly God pointed at Isaiah and said, "How about you?" But Isaiah's first reaction was exactly the same as Peter's. He said: "God, you can't mean me." But even so, he was the one whom God chose. And Isaiah became one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament.
If we're willing to listen to God's call, the surprises that God has in store for us are huge. Jesus saw that Peter was hungry for a deep encounter with God. When Peter answered the call, he became a spiritual leader. Obedience came first. Faith came later.
A disciple’s background helps—and God knows how to use that background. We see this time and time again in the Old Testament. Moses’ experiences as a shepherd, David’s as a commander, and Joseph’s as an administrator, were all good preparation for service to God.
In today’s gospel passage, Jesus said, "You, Peter, I want you to come with me." In the original Greek of the New Testament, that "you" is singular. Jesus was only talking to Peter. But then in the next breath, the Bible says that they went with him. That is, Peter's friends—James and John—went along. Jesus had invited one person, Peter, to be His disciple. But Jesus ended up with three disciples among the fishermen.
Right from the start, Jesus got Peter and his friends involved. So often we think that the only way to invite people to be a part of the church is to invite them to worship with us. But what we need to remember is that not everyone wants to come to church. Worship may not be their thing, at least to start with. Most of them get here eventually. There are other ways to reach people—like giving them jobs they can do and will enjoy.
Jesus didn't say to Peter: "Come to church with me." No, Jesus started off with Peter by putting him to work. He said, in essence, "So you're a fisherman. Let's see how we can use that ability to do some good for God.” How can we encourage people to let God use them? If we do that, before we know it, those people, who are getting started in Christian service, will find others to join up.
There are a lot of Peters all around us. We run into them just about every day. People who have boats they can lend to Jesus! God is just waiting to use those people, to do something amazing. We had a woman in my last church who loved to stuff letters into envelopes. She enjoyed folding bulletins even more. She would jump into the car and come to the church office, no matter what day we asked her. We had a woman who was a librarian who hadn’t been active for awhile. We also had a messy music library we needed to organize. She catalogued and organized the church’s music library in a matter of days! There was a young soprano who sang hymns beautifully from the pews. She knew the descants to all the hymns. No one knew who she was. She just came to church one day and sat in the back pew. A friendly woman on Session said to her, “We need you in the choir!” She’s been the soprano soloist ever since. That’s evangelism—noticing people’s gifts, and enlisting them for the Lord. Jesus’ followers suggest some jobs we know how to do. Soon we are ready to move into deep water and accept tougher challenges.
Clarence Jordan was a Christian who lived in Georgia. He was troubled by the prejudice he saw around him. He wanted to change the world in his lifetime. He was gifted as a farmer, and got a degree in agriculture in 1933. But after he graduated, Jordan realized that he needed some training in spiritual leadership to address the hatred in that Jim Crow society. Jordan got himself a seminary degree. How could he use both farming and theology, for God? He and his wife prayed a lot, and received the help of the Holy Spirit. They started an interracial farming community called Koinonia, where everyone who lived and worked there was equal. Many ministries came out of the farming community the Jordans started. The best known is Habitat for Humanity.
Peter was a good spiritual leader. But too often, Peter put his foot in his mouth. Nobody’s perfect. Give to God as you are. Fold bulletins, sing solos, maybe build houses! Ask yourself, “What does this world need, that I can give?”
Our gospel readings will be taking us into deeper waters as we begin the season of Lent next week. We eat and drink together today as the family of God today. As we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, let us be thankful that Christ is with us for all the times of our lives---whether our nets are empty or full.
Let us pray.
O Christ, you come into our lives, calling us to share your feast today. You give us the chance to do what we do best, by preparing us to serve you with the gifts God has given us. Call us once again, that in our worship we may hear your words. We pray in your name, that we might live out your call. Amen.
David Allen Farmer, “Luke 5:1-11,” The Minister’s Annual Manual 2009-2010 (Inver Grove Heights, MN: Logos, 2009), 241.
Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove ,IL: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 201.
Why do people risk their lives to climb Mount Everest? Some just want to be able to say they did it. Others say the beauty of the view from the mountain peak is worth the danger of the climb to the top. They’ll never convince me of that.
Mountains are the holiest places in the Bible. If you went to high altitudes, you would find the Almighty there with you. Mount Sinai was considered the home of God. Not all “mountaintop experiences” take place on mountains, as we all know. There are magical, mystical times in everyday life: a healing, a rescue, the birth of a child, an encounter with a long-lost friend, or even a wonderful vacation trip. I’m sure you have had spiritual mountain peaks when you’ve seen God—or, at least, come close.
I like to think of Sunday worship services as mountaintop experiences. For an hour every week, we leave the world of television and traffic and computers behind. We see each other and we pray together. We meet Jesus here. He comforts us in our sorrows and gives us a little rest.
For me, a snow day is a hilltop experience, if not a mountaintop experience. I realize that snowstorms are stressful for emergency workers or air traffic controllers, but for pastors, a foot of snow can be delightful! It gives me a whole day of unscheduled time—and I never get cabin fever! (At least, not on the first or second day.)
Two of our scripture readings take place on mountains. We can picture, in our minds, the Exodus story Debbie read to us. Imagine Charlton Heston and the voice of God in the starring roles. On the top of Mount Sinai, Moses was surrounded by black clouds and lightning and thunder. He talked with God for forty days and forty nights. When Moses finally walked down the mountain holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments, his face was shining like the sun. He felt ready to handle all the problems down in the valley. The Israelites had been disobeying God. Now Moses had what he needed to lay down the law to God’s sinful people!
Our gospel reading took place on a mountain, too. Peter, James and John had been Jesus’ closest friends. The Master invited them to head for the hills with Him—to enjoy a mountain retreat. These men had been working hard, to get their ministry off the ground. Jesus needed to go up to talk with His heavenly Father, and He decided to take His three friends along. When they reached the top of Mount Hermon, Peter, James and John were exhausted. They were fishermen, not mountain climbers, and they quickly fell asleep—even in the middle of all the beautiful mountaintop scenery. Then something strange and wonderful happened. Jesus was transformed before their eyes. His face and His clothes turned dazzling white. He began to float like an angel. Peter and his friends were able to see, for the first time, who Jesus really was--the Son of God. At the same time, the two greatest Old Testament prophets began floating through the air with Jesus—first Moses, then Elijah. Luke’s gospel says that Jesus warned His disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen.
Peter gives us some comic relief, in the middle of this holy vision. We know Peter wasn’t the most imaginative person in the Bible. He was a commercial fisherman, and he liked to deal with practicalities. He preferred his surprises to be understandable. Peter didn’t much like spiritual and ghostly visions.
Peter didn’t know how to deal with this miracle on the mountaintop. He wanted so much to say the right thing, but instead he put his foot in his mouth by making an inappropriate suggestion. “I have a good idea,” he said to Jesus. “I will build three huts—one for Jesus; one for Moses; and one for Elijah.” We know that, for people of Jesus’ time, being able to say you had been to a holy place was a status symbol. Peter just wanted to mark the spot of their mountaintop vision. I’m guessing Peter hoped to get as much mileage as possible, out of that story. But Jesus ignored him, and later told the disciples to keep it a secret.
Suddenly, God’s voice boomed out, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Then, Moses and Elijah was gone. And there was Jesus, looking like his normal self, not a bit ghostly. He was ready to lead the disciples back down to the valley.
Mountaintop experiences are special moments in life when you know that God has called you, and you surrender yourself to a purpose larger than yourself. But God never meant us to live our whole lives on mountaintops. We experience valleys, too. You and I both know what happens the next day coming down from the mountain. Real life! After Jesus, Peter, James and John reached the bottom of the hill, they found a huge crowd gathering around a boy who was having epileptic seizures. His parents were upset—especially when the little boy fell into a fire and burned himself. Jesus attended to the child, and invited the disciples to do the same. The disciples couldn’t deal with it. Maybe they were confused. But Jesus was ready. He had gotten what He needed from His heavenly father up on that mountain. Jesus healed the boy of his affliction. And then He took the boy by the hand, lifted him, and gave him back to his father.
A Scottish theologian named Henry Drummond, who preached in the nineteenth century, understood they symbolism of this story. He explained it in a sermon: “God does not make the mountains in order to be inhabited. God does not make the mountaintops for us to live on the mountaintops…. We only ascend to the heights to catch a broader vision of the earthly surroundings below. But we don’t live there…The streams begin in the uplands, but these streams descend quickly to gladden the valleys below.”
God is with us on ordinary days, too. If you’re like me, you spend less than one half of one percent of your life having mountaintop experiences. You spend one percent of your time in the darkest valleys—or, let’s hope it’s less than that. The other ninety-eight percent of our time is normal life on a plateau. Not exciting, not stressful, sometimes even boring! God is with us in our humdrum moments—when we have to wait at a red light, when we talk with friends and family, feed our pets, check our email or go for a walk. The spiritual transformation we experience in high places can make our everyday activities holier.
We’re starting a forty-day journey with Jesus to the cross this Wednesday, when Lent begins. We’ve heard God’s voice on the mountaintop. We’ve seen the glory of His Son revealed to us. Are we brave enough to follow Him to Jerusalem? We won’t be delivered from evil there. Jesus will lead us directly to Pontius Pilate. Are we ready to walk into that hostile world with Jesus?
We can find Christ everywhere we go—not just in church or on a mountain. That’s the message of the New Testament. Mountain climbing prepares us to face hardship and pain in the valleys—even in the valley of the shadow of death. Thanks be to God!
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, up on the mountain, we have caught a glimpse of your glory as God’s only son. Transform the way we see you, we pray. Show us the way up to the peak, and then lead us back to real life in the valley. Help us to hear you, and in hearing you, help us to obey. AMEN
“Mountain,” in Madeleine and J. Lane Miller, eds. Harper’s Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1973), 464.
Douglas Wingeier, Keeping Holy Time (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 109.
Luke 9:36, Luke 9:33, Luke 9:36, Luke 9:35. Luke 9:37-43.
Quotation from Henry Drummond sermon is abridged in www.sermonsfromseattle.com, Series A, “Mountains, Valleys and Plains.”
Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21.
Today is the beginning of Lent. We’re looking at forty days of prayer, meditation and self-denial. One well-known pastor writes that he feels about Lent, the way Ebenezer Scrooge feels about Christmas in the famous Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol. His opinion of Lent is “Bah! Humbug!” There are those who see Lent as self-punishment designed by the church to keep us gloomy, until life returns to normal after Easter. But returning to normal isn’t the point of Lent. Not really. The point of Lent is change. Life change.
Jesus tells His disciples that prayer should be a matter between the believer and God. Jesus is challenging His pious colleagues who do what we would call “grandstanding” today. Don’t do the right things for the wrong reasons, He tells His disciples. Spiritual practices are not for show. Give generously, but be humble about it—in other words, don’t advertise how much you’re giving, or how often. Fast and pray, but don’t show off when you do it.
God gave us our lives, and God sustains our lives. Lent is the time to examine our habits that don’t support God’s good creation. “What are you giving up for Lent?” is a common question. It’s easy to answer, off the top of our heads, something like, “I’ll give up chocolate this year.”
Giving up chocolate for Lent doesn’t accomplish much. Why give up chocolate? To punish ourselves? To look better? If we need to lose some weight anyway, or we have skin that’s too oily, that’s another matter. But if we see Lent as a season of change, and we give up chocolate to eat healthier food, that’s different. Jesus would approve. Honor the body God has given you. Give up chocolate. Eat cheese and fruit instead.
Some people take something on, instead of giving something up. But how do you find extra time in your busy life to fit in one more thing? If we take on a new task, we need to make room in our schedules for it. What is really important to your spiritual well-being? How about reading the Bible? We are asked to read and meditate on God’s holy Word. I love the Bible—but you would expect me to say that. Could you give up, say, a hour each day on the Internet to make the time for it? Sixty minutes a day! That’s the amount of time an average Facebook user spends, reading and writing messages on that specific Internet site. It’s a social networking site. I spend a lot of time on it. Some of my personal emails are work-related. And yet, I could be actually writing sermons during that same hour a day, or working ahead on bulletins. Or reading the Bible.
Lent isn’t about suffering. Lent is about balance. We have so much, and we do love our stuff. But it can be a burden. John and I discovered this when we moved twice in two years. It cost us eight thousand dollars to move all the accumulated items from forty years of marriage! Donate the money you would have spent, buying stuff, to the Second Harvest Food Bank. Or buy Redner’s out of ravioli and donate every can to the food bank. There’s no kid in the world who doesn’t love ravioli. That’s a good Lenten project.
How can we get into the habit of praying every day? Some say, just do it, and they do. Others have a harder time making prayer a daily habit—especially if they began praying in later life. There is an ancient story about a young man who wanted to join the Christian monks in the early years after the fall of Jerusalem. So he came to the desert and took up life in a cave. There weren’t any monasteries yet! Soon he sought out a wise old monk to be his spiritual director. The first thing he asked the old man was, “Teach me how to pray. I cannot do it. I sit and sit, I look at the scriptures, I recite the psalms, but I don’t think God is there. I don’t feel God’s presence with me. I find no peace. I don’t think God hears me. What can I do?”
“Ah well,” answered the old man, “Here’s what you need to do. Fill a bucket with sand. Every day, for the next two weeks, when you go to pray, pour a bucket of water over the sand in the basket.”
So the young seeker went back to his cave and did as the old man had told him. Two weeks later, he returned. “Now, my son,” what have you to tell me?” the old man asked him. “Well, I have nothing but an empty basket,” replied the young man. “I went to pray, and poured water on the sand every day. Gradually, all the sand ran out of the basket.” The old man chuckled. “That’s what prayer is about, my son. Slowly, little by little, it is preparing in you a space. You have made an empty space where God can enter.”
Why do you stop eating chocolate? Why do you give to the church? Why do you pray? You’re the only one who can answer. Changing your life won’t mean much if it doesn’t lead you to a deeper relationship with God.
There are positive aspects to Lent. We have something to look forward to---and I don’t mean just better weather after Easter! At the Last Supper, Jesus says to His disciples, "Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy." Change can be exhilarating! If we feel balanced, we discover joy that we have never known.
Lent starts out gloomy, it’s true. But it ends on April 4, with a resounding ALLELUIA!
Let us pray.
Most merciful God, by whose command we live or die: You have summoned us into your presence. You have the right to judge us in your wrath, but you choose instead to appeal to us through your astonishing love. Come into our hearts; fill us with your power and peace, that we may learn to love as you have first loved us. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Rev. Bass Mitchell serves a United Methodist Church congregation near Washington, D.C.
Matthew 6:5-6, 17.
Janet Schlichting, “Ash Wednesday,” The Abingdon Women’s Preaching Annual (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 56-57.
How do you picture the devil? Do you see him as a red-faced man with a goatee? Does Satan, in your mind, have horns or a tail? Maybe you see the devil as female instead of male. Or maybe you don’t believe the devil exists.
Did you grow up with Walt Disney cartoons? I did. Do you remember the old Donald Duck cartoon that shows Satan with the bill of a duck? Satan starts talking in one of Donald’s ears, while an angelic duck with a halo talks in the other ear. That picture still comes into my mind when I am tempted to eat too much. My angel and devil ducks say very different things. The angel voice tells me to eat more vegetables and yogurt. The devil voice asks questions like: "You REALLY don't want to learn how to eat better, do you? Just think how wonderful a cheeseburger, French fries and a vanilla ice cream cone would taste right now!" You can guess which of my voices is which! And which one I usually obey. Lent is a good time to change that.
In this story from Luke’s gospel, Jesus hears Satan’s voice after he has prayed and fasted for forty days and nights in the wilderness. Forty is a number associated with suffering in the Bible. Imagine yourself not eating for more than a month! Talk about suffering!
The devil says to Jesus, “Use your power to feed yourself.” Is he tempting the Son of God to do evil things? If Jesus would take the rocks in the desert and turn them into bread, what harm is there in that? He is hungry, and people in the villages around the Sea of Galilee have too little to eat, so it seems like a “win-win,” doesn’t it? Suppose the devil gives Jesus all the power of the underworld. Suppose Jesus tries to use the powers of both good and evil to bring about justice and make a huge amount of bread out of desert rocks? Can that be wrong?
And, finally, why shouldn’t Jesus perform a risky miracle to prove He’s God’s Son? The devil whispers in His ear, “Use your power to dazzle the people. Jump off the highest point of the Temple. When God’s angels catch you, you'll draw a huge crowd.” The whole world will want to worship Jesus, if He can survive a death-defying jump from the roof of the Jerusalem temple, like the one the devil has proposed.
Jesus is like you and me. He’s fallible and completely human in these gospel stories. All through His life, He hears the voice of God calling him to “just say no” to the voice that tempts Him to “say yes” to sin. You see how different Satan’s words are, from the words God had already spoken to Jesus at His baptism. The voice of the dove had told Jesus He was destined to be God’s servant.
That’s why Jesus put God the Father in charge of His life. One would hope the Son of God can resist the devil. Consider, though, how weak Jesus’ will power might be, after fasting in the desert for forty days. During this time Jesus shows incredible faith in God. As He resists Satan, He comes to terms with His destiny.
When two voices are arguing with each other in your ear, so to speak, which voice do you listen to? I think today’s gospel story teaches us three lessons: First, what it means to be human. Second, we are all in this together—with God in charge, not Satan. And the third lesson is about how to handle temptation.
Let’s go back and think about a story we all know well--- the second and third chapters of Genesis, which tell the story of the Garden of Eden. God put Adam and Eve there, and told them they could eat as much as they wanted of the plants in the garden. But there was one tree from which they could not eat. It was the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
God creates humans in God's image, to live in relationship with Him. But God also gives His creatures the freedom to choose. God sets limits and we have to respect them. The ten commandments tell us we are supposed to listen to the voice of God and no other.
It wasn't the fruit of the tree that Eve wanted. The serpent told her to disobey God, and to set her own limits. Eve listened to the other voice, and was convinced that her own judgment was better than God’s.
What this story teaches us is that to be human is to hear the devil’s voice. Because God has given us choices, we must wrestle with that voice.
To be human is to hear two voices. What do you do when you hear both? Sometimes we can tell, right away, which voice is which. At other times, it’s harder to recognize evil. Sometimes it lures us toward some really tempting choices that may not seem to make much difference to anyone but us! Look at the answer sheet of the student sitting next to you. Get yourself a higher SAT score. You might end up getting into an Ivy League school with a scholarship. Keep the hundred-dollar bill you find on the sidewalk. Arrange a dinner date with a friend you find attractive, when your spouse is on a business trip. We sin, and we don’t think of these things as evil. But they are!
We learn from Jesus: Don’t be afraid. Let the Spirit of God lead you into that wilderness where you can wrestle with the devil. Confronting evil, and winning over it, makes us stronger. Lent is a time to listen for the voice of God in the desert. In this story from Luke, we find Jesus being tempted to use power plays to get Himself famous. Jesus refuses. He shows He has the courage to be faithful.
When Jesus refuses the devil, it means that, by God's grace, you and I are released from the mistake Adam and Eve made. Through Jesus' choice to go to the cross, comes God’s great surprise: New life for you and me through His resurrection.
We’re human. There's nothing wrong with hearing two voices—God and Satan. What matters is the choice we make when we are tempted. Those of you who were here for our Ash Wednesday service, heard my sermon about making a life change during Lent. You may choose to make a commitment to spirituality, or to better physical health. Maybe you’d like to enrich your relationships with friends. Maybe you want to visit your aging parents more often. Maybe you can plan some trips on Saturdays with your kids, or to forgive somebody with whom you had a disagreement. Commit to one healthy change in the next six weeks.
There is a common saying, “Faith makes things possible, but doesn’t make them easy.” Test your faith. Follow Jesus into the wilderness. Wrestle with two voices. Then, say YES! to the voice of God. Amen.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, we understand that temptation is unavoidable. We ask that you would grant us eyes to spot the lies, and a heart full of truth. Give us the strength to choose your Word. Thank you most of all for giving us your Son, our Savior, and our only hope, Jesus Christ. Thank you for His obedience to you, on our behalf. AMEN
Kathleen Long Bostrom, For Everything There is A Season: a Study of the Liturgical Calendar. (Louisville, KY: PCUSA General Assembly, 2004), 37.
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
All it takes is a family crisis to shake a person’s faith. Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor, worried himself sick when his teenage daughter suffered from anorexia. He was afraid she would never get well again. But then he got a message of hope, from an unexpected place. Buechner writes: “I remember sitting parked by the roadside, frightened about my daughter’s illness, when out of nowhere a car came along down the highway with a license plate that had, on it, the one word I needed most to see. The word was TRUST. What do you call a moment like that? For me, it was a sign from God. The owner of the car turned out to be a trust officer in a bank. He later read an account I wrote of the incident and found out where I lived. This trust officer brought me that license plate, with the word, TRUST, spelled out in big black letters, on it. It sits propped up on a bookshelf in my house to this day. It’s rusty around the edges and a little battered, and it is also as holy a relic as I have ever seen.”
Which Old Testament character, would you say, had the greatest trust in God? How about Abraham, the father of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths? One person in our Bible study class described this patriarch as “a little dull.” Actually, his life was anything but! He and Sarah had left their homes and families behind at the age of eighty, when God had called them to migrate five hundred miles to Canaan. But, by the time they had reached ninety years of age, Abraham had just about given up. He was exhausted!
This elderly couple had been living as nomads for ten years, walking thousands of miles across the desert. That’s what sheepherders did, four thousand years ago. They had to keep moving, to get to where the water and the food were. Abraham and Sarah led the herds from one grazing land to another, across the Middle East from Egypt to Iraq. That’s a tough way for a couple in their eighties to live!
God had promised Abraham a son and many acres of land. But after a decade, the only land they could call their own was a cemetery plot big enough to bury them both. His wife had been trying to have a child with no success. Not a surprise for an eighty-five-year-old woman, you say? And yet, God had promised, and everybody knew that God could do anything! Abraham was brave enough to confront God and ask, “What is going on here? I am an old man. Sarah’s an old woman. Why did you tell me, ten years ago, that we would have a child? Are you really so powerful? Shall I continue to believe?”
God answered Abraham: "Look at the stars in the heaven. As many as the stars are in the sky, so many shall your descendants be." Abraham believed this, and God counted that as righteousness, our Genesis reading tells us. We tend to think that righteousness means perfection. Abraham didn’t fit our stereotype of a perfectly righteous person. He was a man of strong passions. He was a real manipulator, too. In fact, he had sold Sarah into the Egyptian Pharoah’s harem. Later he sold her to a wealthy sheepherder and claimed she was his sister! But he was loyal to God. After Abraham had sacrificed some of his livestock, God showed a sign that he would get his land and son. And did it happen? Yes, At last God made good on both promises.
Trust is a good word to think about as we look at the Gospel lesson from Luke. We don’t find Jesus expressing His emotions very often in the gospels. We remember His getting angry when He overturned the tables of the money changers. He wept over the death of His friend, Lazarus. In this passage, Jesus lamented for the City of God. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I have longed to gather you into my arms like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings!" He said sadly. Jesus knew He was a marked man. Herod was out to get Him. His earthly life would soon end in violence in the Holy City. Jesus could foresee the fall of Jerusalem coming, thirty-five years after his own death.
Aren't there times when we all want a mother hen to take care of us? If you tried to get home in the rush hour last Tuesday night, during the ice storm, you know what stress is. There were accidents on practically every street. We live lives of pressure and fear and shock. Our world had just started to recover from the earthquake in Haiti. But yesterday morning there was an even worse earthquake in Santiago, Chile, and now there’s a tsunami predicted for somewhere in the Pacific. Some of us have seen unethical behavior in the workplace, or corruption in government, and even been in the middle of it, and felt powerless to do anything. Life is crazy. Life is dangerous. We desperately need to trust in God and know that He is in charge.
Family life can be comforting, but sometimes our families bring us incredible pain. My classmate at Seminary faced the shock of her son joining a religious cult and cutting off all contact with his parents and sister. He has a baby daughter whom she may never see. My friend is a Presbyterian pastor, and she was a good mother, and now this! Her own daughter has had a nervous breakdown over this situation. And elder in a church in New Jersey, who is a long-time friend of mine, is deeply depressed because her two children haven’t spoken to each other for more than ten years, and they rarely speak to her.
We’d like to be little chicks with Jesus as our mother hen. We’d like to find shelter from the storm. I certainly would. Remember how much you trusted your parents when you were little? Do you find yourself calling “MOMMY!” as an adult, when things get rough? We’re at a loss to be really safe, even in gated communities, even in homes with burglar alarms and cars with air bags and seat belts and airports with security. Did you ever have any idea that being a grownup would be so hard?
Jesus won’t protect us from every storm. He said to His disciples that "foxes have holes and birds have nests but I have nowhere to lay my head." To be a disciple of Jesus Christ exposes us to more danger, not less. Anyone who follows Him must take up a cross. Jesus says we must go to the places where the storms are breaking, the places where people hurt, the places where people are embattled by life, the places of loneliness. We must go and stand in the storm. That's what Jesus expects of us.
Our faith doesn’t protect us. But trust in God can help us be patient, and even to find peace. Abraham trusted God. The old herdsman was getting to the end of the road. But Abraham trusted, and God counted that as righteousness. He and his wife plodded on and on, across the wilderness. And at last God gave them land and a child.
Jesus longed to protect the Holy City from destruction, but He couldn’t. His own people rejected Him as God’s messenger of peace. Most people on earth still don’t know Him. Mercy and peace He brings us, but not protection from the storm. And yet, we can trust that the Son of God stands with us in the earthquake. Thanks be to God.
Almighty God, We open our hearts to meet you. Sometimes we worry, and we fear failure. Most of all, we fear disaster. Our faith is clouded with doubts and fears. We wish we could have signs that you are with us. Assure us of your power, we pray. Surprise us with your presence in unexpected places. Strengthen us, we pray, and increase our faith, so we may meet the challenges that lie before us, as we follow Christ, who trusted you all the way to the cross. In His name, AMEN
Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), 192.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
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