July 2015 Sermons:
"And Jesus called to Him the Twelve and sent them out, two by two." This verse of our gospel lesson always reminds me of Noah’s Ark. Noah boarded the animals of ancient Palestine on the strong and sturdy ark, in pairs, male and female.
Can you imagine how skittish those chosen animals would have been? Picture your own dog or cat being boarded onto a huge ship as rains began to pour down! But God had warned Noah, long before the skies had darkened, and he had built this boat to float above the seas. His boat was a refuge to the chosen animals who eventually found comfort, safety and rest in it. As the storm raged outside the ark the animals knew, I'm sure, that if they were to venture out of the huge craft, they would drown in the waves.
They sat and waited. The storm continued. This ship which had once seemed almost claustrophobic, had become their home. After forty days and forty nights, the storm stopped; and their floating refuge now lay calmly on the water's surface. The ship, which the animals had been afraid to enter, felt like home now. As the flood waters began to recede, anxiety heightened.
The day did come in which the ship finally did rest its hull upon dry land. As the doors swung open Noah stood with an outstretched hand and pointed to the horizon and said, "Go!" Terrified, the animals left the ark in twos. The land, once familiar, looked flat and wet, with all the familiar buildings and trees gone.
Who knows what really did happen on that ark more than three thousand years ago? Whether it happened this way, or not, isn’t important. But notice the similarity between the animals in the Noah story, the disciples in the gospel lesson, and our life today as Christians.
Imagine that this church is Noah’s ark. It is similar to an ark in a few ways: it’s made of wood, and it’s fairly big, with sturdy beams to hold it together. We have enough space for more than a hundred people. The ceiling looks a bit like the hull of a ship. The floor would be the deck, and our pews, the resting places to ride out our journey through the flood.
Many years ago, for most of us it was as infants, we were brought into this ark. For many of us, it wasn’t this ark in particular, but it was a church, with wooden beams, filled with people to witness our baptism. We sit in this ark today and notice that just as Noah went out into the land to rescue the animals from death, so Christ came us in our baptism and saved us. The Lord has brought us here and gives us sanctuary from the storm. And what a storm it is out there—just listen to the news or read the front page of yesterday’s paper. We ride now securely over the water, never sinking in the waves, never drowning. In a sense we are in the same situation as Noah’s animals were—safe and secure in a place that is familiar to us. God knows we need that security. We lost three longtime members last month, and endured a hailstorm and a tornado last Tuesday. There are great changes in the law of this land that make many of us uncomfortable about the future. There is violence, even in churches. But not here! We know pretty much everyone here today, and we know the familiar words of worship. Church is a safe place, and it seems protected from the storms outside.
We want a community of Christians like us. That’s why we’re here this morning. Some of us have no other family. Jesus says, "Come unto me all you who labor and I will give you rest." We have heard the sound of His voice. We find peace in the church. Naturally we want to protect that place of refuge and the place where we find it.
Once upon a time there was a village by the sea. At the edge of this village was a lighthouse that protected passing ships from the rocky reef that surrounded the small village. Unfortunately, this lighthouse was not enough to keep the ships from crashing against the reef on the stormy winter nights. So, the people in the village took it upon themselves to rescue those whose boats crashed into the shoreline. They had done this for generations. It was their mission. Each time a boat would slam into the rocks, they would rush out and save the victims. When they weren't rushing to save the people from the boats, they sat around talking of the last rescue and how they saved the drifting people. Then, they planned how they could do better next time.
As time went on, they spent so much time talking about issues and problems and trivia, that one night a ship crashed on the shoreline, and they didn’t notice the people dying at sea. Soon all the people of the village had, were memories of how they had once saved storm victims. They frequently got together to remember those days of glory. But they no longer saved people from drowning.
Today we read in our gospel lesson that we are supposed to "GO." Christians sometimes become secluded from the rest of the world, caught up in insignificant debates, like the people of the village. Brothers and sisters in Christ, we have come, we have seen, and now we know. Why are we here? It is our responsibility as Christians to "GO.” It is easy for our faith journey to become so comfortable that we don't go out and spread the good news. This happens more and more, as we get older and more tired. I, for example, am such a perfectionist about office filing, that the time I could be spending with shut-ins, gets wasted. I love the quiet of my office on a weekday. My paper files have all my sermons from the last ten years. I know how to find every book I need. But there is tremendous need in our congregation, and in the Lehigh Valley, which I could be filling in better ways. Since God has given me so much, I must give.
Do you know the song, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine"? That is what our gospel lesson is urging us to do. Not to hide our light in the ark, or in the sanctuary, or in the office, but to let it shine out in the world. The story of the ark, like the story of Jesus sending His disciples, urges us to “GO!” Christ heals and feeds as a sign of God’s reign. (Not R-A-I-N, R-E-I-G-N!) He gets tired, after long days trudging down the dusty road. He longs to rest, away from the noisy crowds. But He keeps on preaching and healing. He redeems the lives of the lost. He reaches out to the poor and the needy.
And then, it is as if He says, “I’ve enjoyed doing the work of God, demonstrating the reality of God’s reign. Now, do it for yourselves. I’ll commission you as my disciples, my representatives to do God’s work in the world.”
That’s you. That’s all of us.
II Samuel 7:8b-14a
King David had come a long way from being a shepherd boy. Now he was the king of Israel. He had united the northern and southern kingdoms, established the capital in Jerusalem, and moved the Ark of the Covenant into the city.
For David, life was beginning to settle down. At last, the battles, the troubles, the running from one end of his land to the other, seemed to be over. There was time now for David to have a home built of cedar. After finishing the royal palace, the king found himself with time on his hands again. He came up with a brilliant idea. He would build a house for God. So David said to Nathan, his chief religious counselor, "I am living in a house of cedar, but the Ark of God stays in a tent. That doesn’t seem right!”
When David shared his idea with Nathan, the prophet liked what he heard, and said, "Go for it! God would love a house." Nathan had spoken for the Lord all these years, so naturally he assumed that he knew what the Lord wanted. He was so sure what God wanted, that he forgot to ask. So that night God came to Nathan in a dream saying: "Hold on there, Nathan! Who told you what I would like and what I wouldn’t like? What makes you think I want a house?"
Then Nathan and God started a theological discussion which has lasted for more than three thousand years: Where does God live? The way Nathan and David put the question was: Now that we have settled down, isn't it time for God to settle down with us?
That discussion is as important to us, today, as it was to Nathan and David. Is God in service to us, or are we in service to God? At times of stress, "Where is God?" is the first question we ask. When we ask this, we usually mean, "Why isn't God here? And if God is here, why doesn't He stop all these terrible things from happening?"
Is God available whenever David and Nathan need God, or whenever you and I need God? Imagine God tucked away in His own house, available on demand, to do what we ask. Wouldn’t it be nice to know we can always go knock on the door whenever we need God? The rest of the time, the door to God’s house could stay closed.
But that’s not the God I know. God is not a servant under our control. He can seem to be off somewhere when we need Him most. God pushes us to take action at the most inconvenient times.
In the twenty-first century, we don't think of God living in a house. We're 3,000 years more sophisticated than Nathan and David. We know God is a spirit. The Holy Spirit can't be confined to any house humans can build. We build homes for God when we build churches. But they aren’t the only places where God can be found.
In some ways we're like King David and the prophet, Nathan. We want to control God. We reach out to God only when we decide to need Him. He is otherwise irrelevant to our daily concerns.
We can't help feeling that a settled-down-God, who would live in a house built by us, would always show up when we need Him. We’d call on God at times of scary medical tests or family tragedies. The on-call God would give us huge personal power at the most important times, then leave us in peace when life got back to normal. God could be turned off and on like an electric light bulb. But God isn’t like that. He is always on the move. In fact, God is more like lightning than a light bulb, exploding into our lives in unpredictable ways.
God told Nathan to go tell David that God had no desire for a house. God told Nathan to say three things to David. First, God said, "I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about, among all the people."
I’m sure you’ve noticed. Our God is constantly moving among us in unpredictable and inconvenient ways. God takes times of triumph and shows us how meaningless our goals may have been. On the other hand, God can take our failures and help us grow, even in the midst of humiliation and pain. Not all the time, for God is not predictable. God exults with us in success, and mourns with us in sorrow.
The second thing God had Nathan tell David was this: "Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went." God was reminding David that he had become forgetful. No house could ever make God more present with David than God had always been.
Even when God seems very far away, I always come back to this: God is with us, wherever we go. When we are wondering what God is doing, the problem is not that God is absent from our lives. The problem lies in what we expect the presence of God to be like. We can be as forgetful as David. The gospel is not about what people have done for God. It’s about what God has done for us.
Here’s the third statement God made to Nathan: "The Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house." David wanted to build a house for God, but God turned David's desire around and said, "No - you can't build a house for me, but I'm going to give you the only kind of house anyone really needs."
Then, in a play on the Hebrew word, “BEIT,” God gave David a "house" ---his descendants; and, by extension, all the people of God. The faithful people of God are the only real house of the Lord. How can we find God? In the people of God.
Think of the people in your life who helped you, listened to you, strengthened you, and loved you. God was present in those people. God is in people who help, people who care. I have seen God in a nursing home, in children sitting by their grandfather’s bed, holding his hand. I have seen God in a mother comforting a crying child. I have seen God in an emergency room nurse, crying with a parent whose child has died. I have seen God in a soup kitchen, serving food to hungry people. God’s house is wherever the poor are fed, the sad are comforted, and the powerless are lifted up. I have seen God many times, and so have you.
God mentions how David’s son will build a house for the Lord. I think there’s a hidden meaning here. God isn’t speaking only of the great temple David’s son, Solomon, would build in the future. God is talking about Jesus, the one who is of the house and lineage of David. Jesus will fulfill God’s promise to David.
Nathan and David come to understand that “God-on-the-move” has always been with them. God lives in His faithful people. Faithful folks are the house where the Lord dwells, now and forever.
A journalist gets assigned to his newspaper’s Jerusalem bureau. He rents an apartment overlooking the Wailing Wall. Whenever he looks down at the wall, he sees the same old man praying there. The journalist wonders whether the man, and his prayers, might make a good feature story for the paper. He goes down to the wall, introduces himself and says: "You come here every day. What are you praying for?"
The old man replies: "In the morning, I pray for world peace, then I pray for the brotherhood of man. I go home, have a glass of tea, and I come back to the wall to pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth."
The journalist is very impressed with the man’s persistence. He asks, "How long have you been coming to the wall to pray for these things?" The old man thinks for a minute: "Twenty-five years."
The amazed journalist asks: "How does it feel to come and pray every day for twenty-five years for the same things?" The old man answers, "It feels like I’m talking to a wall."
In today’s epistle reading, Paul writes, "I bend my knees before God." Good Jews prayed standing with hands out and palms up. They never got down on their knees except in emergencies. Sadly, we don’t, either! What does it take to drive us to our knees?
Someone we love gets sick and we pray for that person—even though there is no scientific evidence that disease is affected by prayers. Some of the most “prayed for” people die too soon. During times of national emergencies we pray. We pray for safety for those we love. We wonder if it’s doing any good, the same way the man at the Wailing Wall wonders.
What sends us to our knees to pray? Some of us haven’t been on our knees in a while. A few of us worry that, if we did fall to our knees, we’d have to pray to get back up. But there is something else for which we need to pray—a sense of wonder at God.
The Apostle Paul has had five public whippings and three beatings. He has been stoned once, shipwrecked three times, and imprisoned many times. Now he’s on death row. Paul writes a positive and faithful letter to his friends in Ephesus.
I admit that, if I were writing a letter from Death Row, it would say something more selfish and less faithful that Paul writes in this letter: "Dear First Presbyterian Church, get me out of here. I have done nothing. Somebody in our congregation has to know a criminal lawyer to help me."
Listen to what Paul actually does write to his church in Ephesus from prison: "When I think of everything that is going on I get down on my knees before God, and I beg God to give you, out of God’s glorious abundance, the power to live by the Spirit. God grant that Christ might be in your hearts. May you have the strength to grasp the width and length and height and depth of the love of Christ that surpasses your understanding."
While waiting for the warden to call his number, Paul prays that the Ephesians will have the same sense of God’s presence that Paul can feel in his prison cell. Paul’s life is about to end, but his normal fear of execution doesn’t diminish his sense of God’s grace. All that counts, for him, is the Spirit he feels billowing through his body when he speaks of Jesus. In the presence of Christ, Paul has no doubt that God loves him.
Paul has gone through hell on earth, but what he feels, more than anything else, is God with him. He prays that his friends will know God too. Our prayers are nothing like Paul’s. We pray when we’re frustrated with our lives, and when we want someone to get what’s coming to them. We pray that people will be smart enough to agree with us all the time. We pray that our lives will get easier. We try to find happiness through the right job, the right car, good behavior from our kids, a lucky break at work. Prayer is our last resort. We try everything else, first.
What do we most need to pray for? A sense of God’s presence. Paul describes the Christian life as praying without ceasing. The old definition of prayer we repeat each Sunday is "lifting our hearts to God." Prayer isn’t just expressed in words. It’s the pain we feel at another’s pain and the joy we feel at another’s joy. Every bit of our lives--- given to God--- is a prayer.
We’re never closer to God, than when we are praying. When we understand that God surrounds us, everything changes. We can see that we aren’t the center of the universe. We realize that our friend in the nursing home may need a visit more than a prayer. We see others differently! We see that the woman who cut us off in traffic is a single mother who worked ten hours that day and is rushing home to cook dinner and spend a few precious moments with her children. The rude young cashier who threw our change at us, is a worried eighteen-year-old, who wants to start college in August, but is still waiting for news about the financial aid he has to have. The homeless man, begging for money at the door of our church, is a slave to addictions that we can’t imagine in our worst nightmares. God is with us, and when we pray we see that God is with all those other people, too.
If we recognize that God surrounds us, we’ll see ourselves differently. When we’re weary from responsibilities with family, work, and church, God leads us back to life. When we’re feeling broken, we pray knowing that God can- put us back together. Whatever we ask or imagine cannot use up God’s abundance.
Paul is praying that young Christians will draw upon God’s power. We pray the same thing—that those we love will feel God’s power all the time. The children will be learning three lessons this week in Vacation Bible School, “God has the power to provide. God has the power to heal. God has the power to give eternal life.” Children need to learn that God is king—greater than the coach of the football team or the cheerleading captain or the family doctor or the homeroom teacher.
If we, the Christian leaders of our families and friends and communities, truly believe that we are part of the great goodness of God, we will be more likely to turn off our smartphones, tell a child a story, hold the ones we love tight, choose our friends differently, spend money and time differently, laugh, and ask our friends, "How are you?" and listen carefully for the reply. If we see that God is with us, we will tell the truth even when we know it might annoy someone. We’ll challenge the prejudices around us. Maybe we’ll even do something risky because God wants it. When we pray, we learn to trust in God.
So pray for a bigger vision of God. Pray that you will see His grace in your life. Pray that Christ will dwell in your heart. Pray knowing that every time we pray, what we’re praying for is God.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday Worship Service 10:00 a.m. | Sunday School 9:00-9:45 a.m.
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