March 2011 Sermons:
We use the phrase, "mountaintop experiences," to describe wonderful things that happen in our lives. Haven’t we all had moments of joy, when we were sure we would live happily ever after? I’m sure these were the times of your life, like your wedding, the birth of your first child, getting your learner’s permit, or winning a community award. Both our Old Testament lesson and our gospel lesson for today are, literally, stories about mountaintop experiences.
The gospel of Matthew tells this story. One day, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a steep mountain trail. They climb for what seems like hours and hours, until their backs ache and their knees hurt. Then they see a strange vision. Jesus looks totally different, all of a sudden. His face and robe are shining like the sun. They see the greatest prophets of Israel---Moses and Elijah—floating through the air, and then standing next to Jesus. Then, something even more incredible happens. They hear a loud voice coming from a cloud, and it says, “This is my own dear Son, and I am pleased with Him.” Even though the disciples know their teacher is special, this is God’s way of saying it, loud and clear. The disciples are thrilled and terrified at the same time.
In our story from Exodus, Moses meets God, face to face. He receives the tablets of the Jewish law. He remains in the presence of God for forty days and forty nights. Then he walks down the mountain, with his face shining in glory.
Both of these stories are followed immediately by "valley experiences." We’ve all had times when God seems far away. Those are the times when the world makes tough demands on us.
When Jesus comes down from the mountain, He finds a crowd waiting for him. In that crowd is a man whose son needs to be healed. The disciples who hadn’t gone up the mountain with Jesus had already tried to heal the sick son, but had failed. Jesus heals the boy. Then He teaches a lesson about faith. I can’t imagine a more abrupt shift from the mountaintop to the valley – well, except for what happens to Moses.
Moses is up on Sinai for a long time. God tells him how to build a tabernacle, and what priests should do and wear and say, and lots of other details. Then, God writes the ten commandments on tablets of stone, and sends Moses to take them down to the people. And what does Moses find, when he comes down from the mountain? The people have made a golden calf. They’re having a religious festival around this idol they’ve made. The people are making sacrifices to the calf and having a feast and making lots of noise. Moses’ brother Aaron is actually helping them! And the shock is too much for poor Moses. He had never wanted to lead his people into the Promised Land in the first place! Moses drops and smashes the stone tablets God gave him.
So later on, Moses has to go back up on Mount Sinai and ask God to make him another copy of the tablets. Doesn’t it seem that the best of times come just before the worst of times? I have wondered, sometimes, whether God doesn’t set it up that way to test us!
Most of us are more like Peter than we are like Moses or Jesus. When something wonderful happens to us, up there on the mountaintop, we’d like to just stay totally wrapped in God’s comforting grace. Even if it’s only a temporary dwelling – like the tent Peter wants to build—we want to be there forevermore. I think that’s why families take so many photographs. We want to be on the mountaintop forever or at least, to remember what it felt like. We can’t get away with that for very long, can we? The more we try to preserve these moments, the faster they slip away from us.
We need our mountaintop experiences, to restore ourselves and to be lifted up into the presence of God. But we also need to go down into the valleys of real life. Those are the times when we are called to bring God’s light to other people. And sometimes, we ourselves are in the depths and we need someone to lift us up into the light.
But I’m more interested in our thinking about times when we choose to enter the valley. When we’ve been up on the heights, and it’s been wonderful, and we’ve been strengthened and enlightened by being with God, we’re well-prepared to serve others in need.
Jesus did that. He chose to come back down from the mountain and enter into the struggles and the pain of the world around Him. Jesus is not only God. He was, and is, human. He let the people in the crowds who needed to be healed, to make demands on Him. Jesus has a human mission to fulfill, just like He did then. We are His hands and feet. We must respond to His call, even if it exhausts us and leaves us in need of shelter and rest.
Our mountaintop experiences are a privilege, and the valleys are a responsibility. Now, here’s the flip side of what I’ve just said, and it’s equally important. Just as it would be selfish of us to try to spend all our time enjoying the splendor of the heights, so, also, it’s a bad idea to push ourselves very hard to accomplish God’s work, without ever taking time to renew ourselves on the mountain.
It’s too easy to become overly involved with helping, loving, teaching, lifting, healing others; and to forget that we ourselves need to be loved and lifted and taught. When we look honestly at the pain in the world, and God’s children in need, it’s overwhelming.
And it’s easy to run around doing good works, without ever taking time to be sure our own souls get restored. We burn out when we keep giving and giving to others, but never stop to allow God to fill us back up.
We can’t take on our work for Jesus in the valley—the Lehigh Valley—if we don’t accept the privilege of meeting God in the heights. That’s why it’s important to be here, worshiping God together today. That’s why we need to have time alone, too—for prayer, meditation, and one-on-one communion with God.
In a few minutes, we’ll be taking on our daily pressures, carrying the same burdens we had when we came into the church. But we’ve been to the mountaintop. We’ve celebrated Holy Communion with Jesus. We have felt the sunshine of His face fall on us. He has given His body and blood for our sake. We have heard Him say, “I am with you, always.” May we walk joyfully with Him down the mountaintop, to serve our neighbors
Let us pray.
Lord, we’re following you, climbing up the high mountains with you, descending to the deep valleys with you. Lord, help us in our fear. Give us the gifts we don’t have no our own—bold, courageous determination to follow you ,no matter where you take us—up on the mountain or into the valley. Amen
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Tonight, Christians around the world are observing the beginning of Lent. Thousands are being reminded of their dependence on God at Ash Wednesday services. They are hearing, once again, the words of Jesus I just read.
Tonight, we commit ourselves to becoming the people God intended us to be. Our gospel lesson from Matthew is at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is challenging the disciples to answer these questions: what, and where, is the greatest treasure? What changes will they need to make, in order to place God first in their lives?
Let’s look more closely at the nineteenth verse: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal." That’s quite a sweeping statement for Jesus to make. What about the money we’ve saved? What about our family heirlooms? What about our stamp and coin and art collections? What’s wrong with treasuring grandmother’s china and silver, and our old photo albums? Can’t we take pride in our homes, the cars we drive, and the way we dress?
Jesus is telling us that we cannot worship what we own. We can be proud of it, but it’s not going to last. God’s love is the only spiritual treasure we have, that lasts forever. It can’t be stolen, like a diamond ring, and it won’t rust like a car. Jesus is describing what the inner life of the Spirit should look like.
What IS spiritual treasure? I first learned about spiritual treasure from a children’s book that I first read at a school book fair in 1957. It’s a book nearly every American knows by heart. Dr. Seuss tells the story of the Grinch, a guy whose heart was "two sizes too small." It would seem that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount might have influenced the theology of Dr. Seuss. The villain of this story, the Grinch, hated the way his neighbors, the Whos down in Whoville, celebrated Christmas. The Grinch figured the holiday was nothing but a celebration of the loot Santa Claus brought, every year. The Grinch hatched a plot to keep Christmas from coming in Whoville. He waited until Santa had made his rounds, then he sneaked down from his mountaintop home, broke into every Who house, and stole the Christmas presents Santa had brought. The Grinch couldn’t wait to hear the Whos sobbing because they had no Christmas presents.
Dr. Seuss’ stories are fantasies, but they are usually pretty realistic pictures of human nature. When I was ten years old, I didn’t think this Grinch story was as realistic as his other books. In fact, this story shocked me. I would have been devastated to get no presents at Christmas, as a child. I’ll admit it: I love presents. I love to get coupons and catalogs in the mail. I love to shop. I can’t resist buying books, even though I’ll never have time to read them. I’m delighted that the yard sale season is upon us. I have given material things too much power in my life. That is a sin, and I am guilty. Accumulating and organizing and protecting my stuff distracts me from praising God. I have a long way to go, to put God first in my life all the time.
Let’s go back to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was teaching the disciples a lesson about God, that they would have found difficult to accept— such revolutionary ideas as turning the other cheek and loving your enemies. His teaching about treasurers on earth, seems pretty radical to us, too.
What, does Jesus tell us we should treasure? Jesus says: "Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Did you know that the word "heaven" is a Jewish synonym for "God?" We can’t take material possessions with us when we die. As someone once said, “There are no hearses with luggage racks.” Jesus tells us what we can take with us, what will bring us closer to God both now and in the future.
The twenty-first verse of our gospel passage tells us what real treasure looks like. Jesus reminds us that the place where we put our treasure is the place where our very souls will dwell. What’s more important, Jesus asks, earthly or spiritual treasure? Do our hearts dwell in our physical homes or in God’s house made by God’s spiritual gifts? Is your house one in which true treasures of the heart can be found? Do you cherish, even more than your treasures of furniture, clothing and financial worth--- the gifts of grace, forgiveness, good works, and Christian love?
Do you remember the ending to the Dr. Seuss story? On Christmas morning, the Whos in Whoville awoke to find nothing but empty space around their fireplaces and no gifts under their Christmas trees. And the Grinch, who had been waiting to hear the Whos crying because they had no presents to unwrap, couldn’t believe what he heard instead. Nobody was crying. Instead, "Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, was singing! Without any presents at all! He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME! Somehow or other, it came, just the same!"
The Grinch was amazed that the Whos could celebrate Christmas without presents. But, then, as he thought about it some more… the light began to dawn inside his mind.
"‘Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!’"
Then, as we all remember from the Seuss story, the Grinch’s tiny heart grew three sizes that day. He had come to understand the deeper meaning of the holiday. The Whos had united as a community of faith. Their Christmas song, celebrating Jesus’ birth even though they hadn’t gotten any Santa loot, actually witnessed to the power of their faith in God. It even converted an unbeliever!
We’re not in the Christmas season now, but the message is the same for Ash Wednesday. This is the season when we repent of our materialism and our other sins, known only to us. The scripture lessons call us to turn to Jesus Christ and let Him guide us. He tells us what really matters in this life: treasures like the love of God, family, and friends; the kindnesses we offer one another; and the spirit of faithfulness, of hope, and of trust in God and in our fellow human beings. May our hearts grow three sizes in the next six weeks of the Lenten season, as we consider our true treasures.
Let us pray.
O God, help us to return to you this Lenten season. Only then can we know the treasure of spiritual peace you offer. We humble ourselves in your sight, O God. You know us completely, and you call us to be more than we are today. Help us be what we can become, we pray. Lord, have mercy. AMEN
There’s a famous saying. No one knows, for sure, who said it—Mae West, Oscar Wilde, or Will Rogers---but it’s true for everyone: "The only thing I can’t resist is temptation." Don’t assume that today’s gospel story is JUST about Jesus! This story is full of temptations—just like our daily lives.
Matthew told this story right after the story of Jesus’ baptism. After He left the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit led Jesus to the desert, but not for a forty-day vacation! There in the wilderness, God would strengthen Him for His ministry in Galilee, by giving Him three tough tests.
The Judean wilderness is a lonely place. Only goats and sheep have been able to live there for any length of time. George Adam Smith, an Englishman who crossed that desert on foot, described it as “glowing and shimmering with heat, like a vast furnace.” The Bible says that for "forty days and forty nights (Jesus) fasted there. At the end of that time the tempter came to Him and said, “If you are the son of God, turn these stones into loaves of bread."’ What harm could there be in turning stones into bread? We have to eat, in order to live. What could be wrong with turning rocks into food to stay alive?
Jesus knew that Satan wanted Him to break faith with God by turning His ministry into a series of magic shows. He understood that, in spite of His hunger, He was expected to wait for the “bread of heaven.” That’s how He was able to resist the temptation to make dinner for Himself from the stones of the desert, and put all His trust in God.
One famous preacher, George Morrison, tells why he thinks Jesus refused to turn stones into bread. In Reverend Morrison’s words, “Jesus refused to take, for His own use, the powers that God had given Him for helping others….. He came not to be ministered unto, but to minister. The day was coming when he would feed five thousand by a miracle. But by a miracle He never fed Himself."
In the second temptation, Satan took Jesus to Jerusalem. He set Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple. The pinnacle overlooked a deep valley. A fall from that pinnacle would have meant certain death for Jesus. Once again, the Son of God refused Satan’s bait. The final temptation Satan offered was the key to all the kingdoms of the world. If Jesus had taken all the political power Satan offered Him, the dreams of Israel might have been fulfilled. But to get this power, Jesus would have had to worship Satan. So, He refused.
At every stage of our lives, people say, “no,” to us. Eventually we learn to say, “no.” That’s a basic principle of parenting. As a child you may have wanted to play baseball with your friends in the street. Your dad was glad you liked sports. He was glad you had friends to play with. And yet he refused to let you play in the street. Later in life, you may have found yourself in the same position. "No," you said to your eight-year-old, “You may not ride your bike to the mall by yourself.” You didn’t hesitate to say, “no,” and disappoint your child. Why? You could say,“no,” because, at the same time, you were saying, “yes,” to your child’s safety.
In today’s gospel story, Jesus, said, "no," three times. First, He said, "no," to creating loaves of bread from the desert stones, because it would have been a willful act of disobedience against God. Secondly, He said, "no," to getting attention in order to prove himself. Third, He said, "no," to a position of political power. He had no desire to be that kind of Messiah. No wonder His own people looked at Him and complained, “This man isn’t the kind of king we had expected.”
By defying Satan, Jesus held fast to His faith, even in a place where God seemed to be absent and Satan seemed to hold all the cards. He showed loyalty and obedience to God—the same qualities He expects of us as Christians.
Each time Jesus was tempted, He answered Satan by referring to the Old Testament. He knew every line of the Torah by heart. The phrases, "One does not live by bread alone," "Do not put the Lord to the test," and "Worship the Lord your God," are all from Deuteronomy. Not only could He say them by memory, but He also applied them to the way He lived.
We all need time in the wilderness to get in touch with who we are as Christians. We need to make hard choices. We can learn to do that, with God’s help. But society pushes us to do just the opposite. We see bumper stickers that say not to worry, and to be happy—as if happiness should be our goal in life. We’re encouraged to fill every minute with places to go and things to do. We work constantly to accumulate more stuff. We want to be in control of our lives, but when we struggle to get that control, we can become obsessed.
In Greek, the word for “devil” is diabolos. To the ancient Greeks, that word meant, "the one who separates you from your purpose, or the one who distracts you." We are so pulled in all directions, that we lose faith in ourselves and in God. We find it difficult to say, "no," to temptation because we haven’t had enough practice in saying, "yes," to God.
When we say, "no," to pushing people around, we are saying, "yes," to justice and love. When we say, "no," to revenge or hatred, we’re saying "yes" to forgiveness. When we say, "no," to temptation, we say, "yes," to self-control. Jesus always said, "yes," to self-control. He said, "yes," to kindness and love. Three times in today’s gospel story, Jesus said, "no." Three times, and the devil was defeated.
Jesus had a huge advantage over us, of course. Jesus was the Son of God, and He had no doubts about that. He didn’t need to show off His power. He didn't need to change stones into bread just to prove He could fill His stomach. What Jesus did need to do was to demonstrate that He was, and is, God’s Son. In the wilderness, He did this---by showing His complete obedience to God. We have a savior who understands what it means to be tempted. When we face temptation, we need to remember that Jesus has been there.
Every moment of our lives, we have to make choices. Satan may whisper to us, “Live for yourself,” “Don’t help this person. Someone else will come along to help.” Satan may whisper to us that we need to work night and day, in order to prove we’re worth our salaries. Satan may bombard us with little temptations that end up having big consequences. Let’s say, for example, that when we’re driving we are interrupted by a cell phone call. If we get too distracted by that call, and stop watching to road, we may end up having an accident, and maybe even destroying lives. What does Satan whisper in YOUR ear?
We aren’t alone in our struggles. How can we practice saying, "no," to temptation? We can say, “yes,” to God. Whether our temptations are small ones, like food or sleep, or big ones, like betrayal or dishonesty, Jesus understands how hard it can be. He helps us understand ourselves. Jesus reveled in His power to say, “no” to temptation.
We’ve just started the season of Lent, a forty-day stretch of getting serious about our faith. It’s time for us to repent and practice self-discipline. As we begin this journey, I pray that we will have the courage to be the people God calls us to be.
O God, at those times when we find ourselves drifting into places where we are tested, be present to us, we pray. Be with us in ways that bring light. Be present in friends who give us guidance. Be present in the Holy Spirit, who renews our ways and empowers us to choose faithfully. Amen.
Do you remember being curious when you were a child? Did you peek in your parents’ closet at Thanksgiving to try to find your Christmas presents? Did you look behind the television set to see where the little people on the screen were hiding? Did you wonder what God looks like? I hope so. I did all those things. It’s wonderful when children want to know about the world. Their curiosity is a gift that we should treasure. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What are you curious about now? Do you glance at the National Enquirer in the supermarket checkout line? Do you want to learn more about the latest discoveries in medicine? Do you wonder about the meaning of life? If you do any of these things, then you can understand why a leader of the Pharisees went out in the middle of the night to try and find Jesus.
Nicodemus had a good life. He had a salary in six figures and a big new house. He had never broken the law. He had a good wife and a couple of high achieving children. He was a pillar of his congregation. He’d never caused his parents any grief. And yet, Nicodemus had a restless heart, and he knew something was missing. He was a religious leader, but he didn’t know much about God. There were times, when he woke up in the middle of the night, that Nicodemus wondered if there might be more to life.
Nicodemus was like a lot of people today. He had worked hard, and he had always played by the rules. He was professionally and financially secure. He got up every morning when the alarm went off, and was never late to work. And yet, Nicodemus wondered what it was all about. Sometimes he sat in the synagogue and wondered if he really believed in God. He wondered if he really believed in anything.
Sometimes he thought about talking this over with somebody. But who would understand? None of his friends ever asked what life was all about. He couldn’t speak to his rabbi or the other Pharisees. They’d just say he was having a midlife crisis.
There WAS someone he’d like to ask about the meaning of life. He’d heard of a man named Jesus—everyone was talking about Him. Ever since the Feast of the Tabernacles, Jerusalem had been buzzing about how Jesus had gone into the Temple and overturned the tables of the money changers. Some even said they had seen Jesus turn water into wine. Now THERE was a power Nicodemus wouldn’t mind having!
No wonder Nicodemus went looking for Jesus in the middle of the night. It wouldn’t do, for other Pharisees to see him talking to such a controversial person. What would happen if someone from his neighborhood, or his office, SAW him with a religious fanatic like Jesus?
Nicodemus’ curiosity overcame his fear, and he went out to find Jesus, under cover of darkness. It was not an easy conversation, according to John, the gospel writer. Nicodemus and Jesus didn’t communicate very well. For a well-educated man, a SMART man, Nicodemus really didn’t understand what Jesus was saying to him.
Nicodemus spoke first. He began by saying, “Well, Jesus, we know you are a teacher about God. You must have great spiritual powers. I guess you must come from God, because nobody could do what you do and just be a regular person.” Nicodemus didn’t get right to the point—he was afraid to ask Jesus what He wanted to know. Jesus answered him. “Nicodemus, the truth is that you won’t be able to see heaven, unless you are born from above.”
That’s the phrase we see in our pew Bibles: “Born from above.” We use the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The Greek word, “anothen,”means “to be born.” It’s a word that has a double meaning. It means both a time of birth, “again,” and the place from which that birth originates, “from above.” That’s why some versions of the Bible translate it as “born again.” Both translations of “anothen” are right.
There is almost a sarcastic edge to Nicodemus’ next question. How can anyone be reborn after growing old? It’s a question that only a person who skims the surface of life, would ask. It’s the kind of question a person would ask who wants easy answers to the questions that pop into his mind and keep him awake at three a.m.
There’s a problem I have always had with the gospel of John. His stories are hard to preach about. After writing half a dozen sermons on Matthew’s gospel, I’d prefer preaching on a miracle story about Jesus. I’d prefer to write about a list of rules to follow like the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes. John’s gospel is much more difficult to explain to people than the other three. John gives us complicated stories. They’re full of images and symbolic truths. Nicodemus asked Jesus a question. Jesus answered with another question.
These two men were talking past each other. Nicodemus wanted to know who Jesus was. He was trying to fit Him into the Old Testament story. He thought Jesus was another great prophet from a long line—Abraham, Moses, Elijah and then Jesus. Jesus didn’t answer his question. Instead, Jesus told Nicodemus what would have to happen to him before he could answer the questions that were troubling his life. And Jesus DID tell him the answer. Before he could understand who Jesus was, Nicodemus would have to learn a new way of seeing. He’d have to be like a newborn baby, dependent on the spiritual food that only God can give.
There’s the stumbling block that trips us up every time. Nobody wants to put himself, or herself, back in that kind of vulnerable relationship that we had with our mothers when we were babies. We love our security and we cherish our independence. We’re afraid to lose these things.
Then, Jesus tells Nicodemus that God’s love for the world is so great that God risked sending Jesus, His only child, to live among us. Why? So we could come into the light and see the world as God sees it. God wants to love and honor us, not to punish us.
So where does this leave us? Where does it leave Nicodemus? The story has no ending. It’s open-ended. Jesus leaves us with a question—how will we respond to the invitation He gives us? Will we allow ourselves to be reborn?
We can choose whether to see the world in God’s eyes. If we live in the light, we begin to honor what God honors. We begin to love our neighbors as God loves us. To be reborn in Christ may mean we will be misunderstood. We may have to leave our humdrum way of living and our security behind. We may have to put ourselves at risk.
Each one of us is a seeker, like Nicodemus. Jesus says to us, “Open up your life to the Spirit of God. Admit that you are hungry. Let yourself be fed by the Holy Spirit. Come, not by night, but by day. Trust that God will feed you.”
Let us pray.
Lord, give us new eyes to see. Bless us with the courage to open our hearts to embrace your gospel. Erase our fears and doubts. Guard us as we deal with the obstacles in our lives that keep us from being reborn from above. AMEN
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
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