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A Whole Lotta Love 1 John 4:7-21
April 29, 2018- Moravian Music Sunday

Today is Moravian Music Sunday. I guess we could actually call every Sunday Moravian Music Sunday since every time Moravians make music it’s automatically Moravian music. But today is the Sunday that we celebrate Moravian music. It is the Sunday that we remember the rich musical heritage of our Moravian forebears. It is the Sunday that we recognize the wonderful contributions of the modern day Moravians to Moravian music. It is the Sunday that we try to ensure that all of our music has a Moravian connection. Most of the hymns today are kind of the “Greatest Hits” of the Moravian Church. And our closing hymn was even written by members of our church!

It’s a pretty exciting Sunday. But honestly, I am probably the last person who should be up here speaking about Moravian music. Because I’m not what you would call musically gifted. I can barely read music. Sometimes when I am trying to choose hymns for a service, I’ll have to look up the tune and listen to it online. I was the worst saxophone player in the Ardmore Moravian band. I felt that I had done a good job if I could just play the first and last note of each chorale. And I can’t sing, not a lick.

I remember one Christmas Eve in Mayodan. The kids choir was singing Morning Star and they starting singing the wrong verse. Since I was sitting right behind them, I started singing, pretty loudly, trying to get them back on track. As soon as I started singing, every SINGLE one of those kids stopped, and turned around and stared at me, as if they couldn’t believe that sound could come from a person. If you have the notion that all Moravian ministers are good singers, let me disabuse you of that right now. Because I can’t sing. Not a lick.

I’m actually ok with that. Perhaps it doesn’t make me the best candidate to be preaching on Moravian Music Sunday. But I’m not at all bothered that I can’t really play and I definitely can’t sing, not a lick. And I haven’t been bothered by it for a long time.

When I was growing up, at Ardmore Moravian, there was a man who always sat right in front of where my family always sat. Here’s a little secret- pastors like the fact that everyone always sit in the same place every Sunday because that way we know who’s not here. But anyway, this man always sat right in front of us. And he couldn’t sing. Not a lick. But just because he couldn’t sing didn’t mean he wouldn’t sing. And sing he did-loudly and badly. When I was a kid it was always kind of embarrassing but also kind of funny to hear him sing. It was hard not to giggle just a little bit.

So one Sunday there he was just singing away. And my brother and I started looking at each other and the next thing you knew, we both started giggling. We kept it under control for the most part. But my grandmother saw us. Now she wasn’t the kind of grandmother who would give you one of those looks that let you know you were in trouble. She was the kind of grandmother who would take those moments when we should have been in trouble but instead she would use it to teach us something, often in a way you didn’t even realize that you were learning something important. And after church that Sunday, Granny asked me “What did you think about that hymn?” and I knew which hymn she meant. “Why don’t you go back and look at the words.”, she said. So I did. And these were those words:

We who here together are assembled, joining hearts and hands in one, bind ourselves with love that’s undissembled Christ to love and serve alone;
O may our imperfect songs and praises be well pleasing unto thee, Lord Jesus; Say “My peace I leave with you.” Amen, Amen, be it so.

“O may our imperfect songs and praises.” When I read those words and really thought about them, I got what Granny was trying to teach me- that all of our songs and praises are imperfect. No matter how great a singer we are or how terrible a singer we are, it just didn’t matter.

What mattered was why we sang, and what we were singing about, and who we were singing for. I never again giggled at the man who sang so loudly and so badly because he also did it so joyfully, In fact, church was never the same once he died. The singing may have been better but something about it was still off-key.

That taught me that it was ok that my songs and praises were “imperfect” (because remember, I can’t sing, not a lick) so long as I always remembered why I was singing them and what I was singing about and who I was singing for. (And I know that it would be more grammatically correct to say “for whom I was singing” but that just doesn’t sound right) So I’m not at all embarrassed that I can’t play or read music. And that I can’t sing, not a lick. Because it just doesn’t matter.

As long as I keep offering my imperfect songs and praises with love, then God will take my imperfections and make them perfect. And not just my imperfect songs and praises, but all of my many imperfections. And all of our many imperfections. That’s what John is talking about when he writes: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

God loves us despite our imperfections, God loves us despite our failings, God loves us despite our sins. He loves us so much that he sent his only Son to us. To die for us and for our sins so that we might be forgiven of our sins. Jesus, through his grace, through his mercy, through his love, forgives us of our sins and makes us perfect before God. And then he calls us to love each other in the same way that he loves us.

And that’s where it gets tricky. First, it doesn’t seem easy for us to let ourselves be loved by God. I know that I often struggle with it. And I feel sure that WE often struggle with it. We don’t feel that we are worthy of anyone’s love, let alone Gods. For we know the depths of our sins, of our failings, of our imperfections, we know how unworthy we truly are. We can’t imagine that ANYONE would ever love us. Yet God loves us.

God, the Creator of heaven and earth, of ALL that is, seen and unseen, that same God loves us. God loves me and God loves you and God loves all of us. God loves us and claims us and calls us his beloved children. God loves us so much that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him shall not die but shall have eternal life. God loves us so much that he became one of us.

If, or when, we believe that God became human in Jesus- that he lived among us as we live, that he felt the same feelings that we feel- the joy and the sorrow; that he shed the same tears and laughed the same laughs; that he truly knew what it is like for us to be us, then that is how we know that God truly loves us. God didn’t do that because WE love God. God did that because God loves us. It wasn’t a response to our love for him that caused him to come to us, it was because he already loves us so much that he came to us and died for us. So the response is up to us.

And that is the REALLY tricky part. As difficult as it is for us to allow ourselves to be loved by God, to be loved with a love that is so great that God gave up all that he had and all that he was, and that he then gave up the life that he took on, for us and for our salvation, it is even more difficult for us to take that next step and to love each other with that same love. Not the same kind of love, but the SAME love.

This is what John means when he writes: Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. First he reminds us that we are loved, as he calls us “Beloved” and then he tells us how much God loves us, so much that he sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. And then he tells us that we ought to love each other WITH THE SAME LOVE. Maybe John doesn’t come right out and say it but it is definitely clear through his words that this is the love that we need to have for each other- the love that God has for us.

And that is really, really, really difficult. For as clearly as we can see our own faults, and failings, and imperfections, it is even easier to see the faults and failings and imperfections of others. And once we see that, how can we love them? Because we know that they will fail us, they will disappoint us, they will show us that they aren’t perfect. They will show us that they don’t deserve our love. That’s what makes it difficult to love each other with the love that God loves us- when we confuse love with something that is deserved, something that is earned. But it just isn’t. Love is given and love is received. It is not earned, it is not deserved. It is just given. Or it isn’t.

Giving our love to others makes us vulnerable. It opens us up to rejection, to the love that we give not being received and not being returned. And we don’t want to do that. We are afraid to do that, we are afraid of being vulnerable, of being rejected. So we hold on to our love. We make it something that has to be earned and deserved. But that’s not love. At least it’s not the perfect love that cast out fear.

There’s that word again “Perfect” we tend to shy away from it because we know that it is impossible. Perfection is impossible. It’s why I like songs that request our imperfect songs and praises be well pleasing. Because we know that is the best the we can do. We can strive for perfection but we can never achieve perfection. With one exception.

And that’s love. We can be made perfect in love. We are made perfect in love. When God looks at us in love, in God’s all encompassing, self-giving love, God sees not our failings and shortcomings and imperfections, but He sees his beloved child, who he created in his image. And God sees us as perfect because God is perfect. And we are perfect because God and God’s love makes us perfect.

That is what we need to remember when we hear the call to love each other. We need to remember that we are loved with the perfect love that casts out fear. And because we are loved in that amazing way, then we are free to love one another in the same way. With a perfect love that casts out fear- fear of that love being rejected, fear of that love not being returned. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” When we accept the perfect love of God, because God does not reject us or our love, then we can offer that same perfect love to others.

God is a God who is identified by his love- it is a love that is so great it caused the creation of the heavens and the earth, and of you and me. It is a love that is so great it caused the salvation of all of God’s creation from ourselves, from our faults and our imperfections, our failings and our sins. It is a love that is so great that it sustains us through out the ups and downs of life. It is a love that is so great that it makes us perfect in that love. The love of God is a love that is so great, so perfect that it has to be shared, without fear but loudly, proudly, and joyfully. It is a whole lot of love. And it is enough for us and for us to share with all the world.

Amen

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In 2nd Corinthians 12:14 the apostle writes that  “… children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children.” Paul was willing to spend and be spent for the church in Corinth, for the members of that church were his spiritual children. In the same way, we who are parents are willing to spend and be spent for our children.

“Parents ought to lay up for their children,” and it is perfectly natural for parents to want to pass on their material advantages.

I once knew a woman of advanced age. As a young woman, she worked as a secretary for about a decade, and then she became a full-time housewife and mother. When she reached the age of 65 she started receiving a small Social Security check every month. She never cashed a single check for her use. Instead she put it in the bank for her children. She told me that “parents ought to lay up for their children,” and she wanted to lay up for hers.

Or what about this. I have a friend who was living in the state of Florida when his first child was born. He and his wife had a little extra money, so they took advantage of a Florida law, and paid their infant sons college tuition at a greatly reduced rate. This year their son will be graduating from college, in Florida, debt free. When it comes to material benefits, “parents ought to lay up for their children.”

It is never too soon to start putting something aside for our children. The parents and grandparents of Baby Boomers worked hard, and we are in the midst of the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the world. Unfortunately, we are also in the midst of a huge transfer of poverty. Several years ago, I went to a Safe and Sober Prom Night presentation and heard David Daggett give a statistic that frightened me. If a person drops out of high school, there is a 90 percent chance they will spend their lives in poverty. Likewise, if they have a baby, or help to make a baby while they are in high school, there is a 90 percent chance they will spend their lives in poverty. And if they drop our of high school while having or making a baby, there is a virtual 100 percent chance they will spend their lives in poverty. Who then can save them from poverty? Thank-fully, what Jesus said about saving people from wealth in Mark 10:27 is equally applicable when it comes to saving people from poverty. “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”

Of course, this text is not just about laying up material benefits for our children. It is also about laying up spiritual benefits for our children.

What is true of poverty and wealth is also true of sin and righteousness. Both the Bible and life teach that what we are, whether good or bad, we almost invariably pass on to our children, whether we want to pass it on or not.

For instance, the author of 2nd Kings warns that when we serve idols, we sow the seeds of idol worship in our children and grandchildren. In those days, an idol was made from wood, stone or precious metal and was shaped by human hands. Today, we are more likely to worship idols of plastic, silicon and steel that are shaped by robots. Even more dangerous, we worship at the alters of beauty, wealth and power. Bertrand Russell warned against the worship of “that bitch goddess success.” Success just for the sake of success is a terrible mistake. We may climb the ladder of success, and get to the top, only to discover it has been leaning against the wrong wall.

What is the point? Simple either we serve God, and God treats us like children, and the world serves us; or we serve the world, and the world treats us like slaves, and prevents us from enjoying the blessings of God.

Both the Bible and life teachs that we reap what we sow. The prophet Ezekiel reminds us that God keeps steadfast love for untold multitudes, but visits the sins and mistakes of the parents upon their children’s children. When God visits our sins upon our children and grandchildren, God is not being cruel, for God is simply following the same laws he laid down for us in the world. We reap what we sow. Writing in the 6th century B.C., the prophet Isaiah said, “The father’s have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” In the first part of the 20th century, Ann Franke wrote, “Our lives are fashioned by our choices. We make our choices and our choices make us.” I would add only that our choices make us, and our children, and our grandchildren. This is a hard truth; but life is a lot easier for those who learn it. Frankly, if we love our children, the only decent choice is a decent life. In Psalm 103:17,18 we read:

But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.

We want to lay up material benefits for our children, and we want to lay up spiritual benefits for our children. Naturally, above all, we want our children to know they are loved and accepted.

Mothers communicate love and acceptance quite naturally. A mother’s love is physical. It is tightly connected with the mother’s body. Before birth a mother is connected with her child by the umbilical cord. After birth, a mother is connected with her child literally “at the hip.” A mother’s love is expressed when she holds, touches, feels and feeds her children. An old Jewish proverb declares, “God cannot be everywhere so he made mothers.” An old Scottish proverb captures the same truth in more detail when it declares:

Baby has no skies, but mother’s eyes;
No God above, but mother’s love.
Her angel sees the Father’s face,
But she the mother’s, full of grace;
And yet the heavenly kingdom is of such as this.

There is no substitute for the kind of love a mother gives. No young child can survive without some mothering from somebody. Children have to be hauled about, and fed and changed. A child needs his mother like a fish needs water and trees need sunshine Likewise, every child—whether a baby or an adult, is challenged to the depths of their being by the loss of a good mother. In his book, “From Wild Man to Wiseman,” Richard Rohr says that:

When a good mother dies, it feels to the child—even the adult child, like God has died, because our mother is our first clear God image and she is our Divine security.

And what about a Father’s love? A father’s love is different from a mother’s love. For a child, the father is the other person in the house. A father’s love is not so immediate and physical as a mother’s love. It exist at a greater distance. A father does not have to love his children; a father must choose to love his children. A good father decides in our favor. He picks us out of the crowd, and picks us up, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually.

I think it is interesting that in most primitive cultures, God’s love is almost always perceived as feminine. People worship a mother goddess. But the religion of the Bible is different. In the Bible, though the God we know as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not a sexual being, God reveals God’s Self to his children in the way that human Fathers reveal themselves to their children. For instance, when God choose Israel to be his people, he picked them out of the nations of the world, and lifted them up out of slavery in Egypt to claim them for his own. God gave them an identity. Thus in Deuteronomy 7:7 Moses says to the people:

When God set his heart on you and chose you, it was not because you were greater than other peoples, you were the least of all the peoples. It was simply for love of you that God chose you.

Every person wants God to love them freely, without qualification. That is why Nathaniel said to Jesus, “Show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” And that is why Jesus said, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.” Jesus wants us to know that the Father loves us like he love us. And every child wants his or her father to love them freely, without qualification. Listen carefully. If you remember nothing else from this sermon, remember this: When a child gets a father’s love in abundance, whether that child is male or female, they enter life with confidence and energy. We want to do great things, and we have the energy to get them done.

By contrast, when children—especially men, don’t experience the love of the father, and there is no father substitute—like a step father who steps in to love them, or a mentor such as a Scout Leader or teacher, disaster follows. Let me give you an example.

Father Richard Rohr, whom I have already mentioned, tells the story of meeting a Catholic sister who worked in Peru’s central prison. During her first year at the prison, as Mother’s Day approached, the inmates came to her and asked her for Mother’s Day cards. No matter how many cards she gave them, they were always asking for more. As her first Father’s Day at the prison drew near, anticipating a similar rush, she ordered several cases of Father’s Day cards. Several years later those cards still in her office, for not one prisoner asked her for a Father’s Day card. Then she realized why.:The men in the prison had no real father figures in their lives.

As fathers and grandfathers, and as friends of the family, and as those those who love and work with children such as teachers and pastors, men must pay careful attention to the children in our care when they are young. We must pick them out of the crowd, and find ways to “pick them up” (psychologically and spiritually) and make them feel special. The opportunity is passing quickly. By the time our children are teenagers, they will care more about the opinions of their peers, than the opinions of their parents and grandparents and teachers.

The truth is that all children are easily reached—though some take more reaching than others. In his book, “The Road Less Traveled,” Scott Peck says that we spend time with what we love. Children know this instinctively. When we spend time with our childen, they know we love them.

Years ago, I had a friend who had a young son who was born with a tragic illness. He knew he would have limited time with his son, so he treasured every moment. He had a little poem hanging over his desk that summed up his attitude:

What shall you give to one small boy?
A glamorous game, a tinseled toy?
A pocket knife, a puzzle pack?
A train that runs on some curving track?
A picture book, a real live pet?
No, there’s plenty of time for such things yet.

Give him a day for his very own,
Just one small boy and his Dad alone,
A walk in the woods, a romp in the park,
A fishing trip from dawn to dark.
Give him the gift that only you can,
The companionship of his “old man.”

Games are outgrown and toys decay,
But he’ll never forget If you give him a day.

Naturally, though we may have to vary the activities, the same approach works with our daughters. The apostle said that, “Parents ought to lay up for their children.” Ironically, when we do that, we find that we are also sowing the seeds of our own happiness.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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Mark 11:1-11 & Philippians 2:5-11

It was Michael Jordan who said, “Some people wish it would happen, some people wait for it to happen, other people make it happen.” Jesus made it happen, no matter what “it” happened to be! No where is this more evident, than on that first Palm Sunday. Let me explain.

In the 5th century B.C. Zechariah prophesied the coming of a new and mighty king, the Messiah, saying:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter
of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and
victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the
foal of an ass.”

Five centuries later, in the time of Jesus, this prophecy was as familiar to the people of Jerusalem as the wall that encircled the city, or the gates that opened to those who would enter it. In that time, Pilate, and his officials and soldiers, and other proud Romans and Gentiles, often rode into the city on horseback; but few devout Jews would dare to ride into Jerusalem. As the typical devout, Jewish traveler approached the city, he would dismount, and then lead his beast into the city, so that people would not accuse him of being bold enough, or foolish enough, to enter the city in a manner that the prophet had reserved for the coming of the Great King.

On the Sunday we call Palm Sunday, Jesus did what few Jews in their right mind would have done. When Jesus drew near Jerusalem, walking, he sent his disciples into a nearby village to procure for him an animal exactly like the one described by Zechariah. It appears that Jesus had arranged for the animal in advance, indicating that he had been planning his triumphal entry for sometime. Anyway, when his disciples returned with the colt and threw their garments upon it, Jesus sat himself upon it, and entered the city in the exact manner that Zechariah had prophesied of the King who was to come.

Mark tells us that when the people of the city saw Jesus riding into the city on the colt, some of them came out to greet him with enthusiasm. They spread their garments on the road, and stowed his path with leafy branches they cut from the surrounding fields. And those who went before him and those who followed after him, cried out:

“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!”

Jesus did what he did, because he knew that the common people who heard him gladly, and loved him, would come out and give him a royal welcome. Jesus did what he did, too, because he knew that other people, important people, would give him a very different kind of welcome.Three times in the gospel of Mark (8:31, 9:31 and 10:33), Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer. He tells them that he must be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, who would condemn him to death, and deliver him to the “Gentiles”—or, Romans, who would mock him, spit upon him, scourge him and kill him, which the Romans alone had the power to do. Then, on a hopeful note, Jesus told his disciples that after three days he would rise. In predicting his resurrection, Jesus was counting on the God he called his Father to vindicate him, and put a seal of approval on his obedience unto death, even death upon a cross.

There is little doubt that Jesus expected to die on a cross. We know this, because in Mark 8:34, just after predicting his own death, Jesus predicted a cross for his followers saying, “If anyone would come after me, let them take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus expected the Romans to crucify him and his followers because that is what the Romans did. The day they crucified Jesus, they crucified two others, two thieves, one on his right and one on his left. And Josephus , the Jewish historian, reports that, in A.D. 70, when the Romans sacked the city of Jerusalem and razed the temple, they crucified so many Jews on the hill of Golgotha, there was no room for another cross, and no trees left from which to fashion them. There is a sense in which Jesus chose the manner of his death, and a sense in which he did not.

Anyway, things went exactly as he predicted. Jesus was welcomed by the common people; rejected and condemned by the important people; and mocked, scourged, and killed by the Romans. We know, too, that a friend, a respected member of the council, who was looking for the kingdom of God, named Joseph of Arimathea, too courage, and went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus. And Pilate gave the body to him, and he laid it in a tomb cut into rock. And rolled a stone before it. And two of the women, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses (and James the Lesser and Salome), who were brave enough to follow Jesus even to the cross, even after his disciples forsook him and fled, saw where the body was laid. And for three days, the body of Jesus rested in the tomb. And, then, on the third day, God raised him from death, and hi”…ghly exalted him, and gave him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord,’ to the glory of God the Father. ”

Now some people will accuse me of running ahead with the story. They say, “Worth, when we came it was Palm Sunday, and you have rushed us through that, skipped over four days, including Maundy Thursday, briefly touched on Good Friday, and Great Sabbath, and then rushed right along to Easter Sunday.”

That is true, and because it is, I hope you will spend this week with us as we share the Holy Week Readings.

However, I also want you to know, that I have done what I have done to illustrate a point. Some people wish it would happen, and some people wait for it to happen, and some people make it happen. Jesus made it happen. When Jesus mounted the colt and rode into Jerusalem, he was like a chess master, executing not one move, but a series of moves, based upon his knowledge of the board, the situation, and upon his knowledge of his opponent. Besides, the triumphal entry led directly to the cross, and apart from the resurrection the cross is meaningless. Without the resurrection, the cross of Jesus is just the bad end of a good man; but add the resurrection, and study the cross in the light that breaks forth from the empty tomb, and the cross of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the King, is revealed as a road traveled once, for all, by our now victorious Lord and Savior.

Next Sunday, we will talk at length about the resurrection, so, today, let us spend just a few minutes on the cross, on which Jesus choose to die. I will say just this:

1. Jesus died for a reason, and that reason is my fault, and yours. In 1st Corinthians 15:3, St. Paul said, “he died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” We are all sinners. The scripture tells us that “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together (we) have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one.” Life also teaches us that we are sinners. Sin is anything we do, or fail to do, by which we hurt ourselves or another, and we are constantly tearing at someone, even if that someone is ourselves. People who don’t believe in God believe in sin. We know that when we reach down inside ourselves we dredge up that which is unworthy to be spoken of. The New Testament is reaching back to the Hebrew Bible for inspiration when it teaches that Jesus Christ died “for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,” the righteous, for the unrighteous, like a lamb without spot, or wrinkle or blemish. St. John verifies this when he calls Jesus “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

2. Jesus died in accordance with the will of God. Mark tells us that, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, not once, but three times saying:

“Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what you will.”

There are those who say that Almighty God would like nothing better than to dangle us all over the fires of hell until we are roasted and toasted. They say that a Jesus had to appease God’s anger for us to be saved. The New Testament will not allow this. The New Testament teaches that God the Father so loved the world, that he sent his only son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world. There is a picture in London’s National Gallery which describes the relationship between Jesus and his father perfectly. It is a picture of Jesus on his cross, surrounded by clouds and darkness. You can see his nail pierced hands, and the crown of thorns that his been pressed down upon his head. More than that, you can see the look of abject poverty upon the face of Jesus when he cried out, “Elo-i, Elo-i, lama sabachthani?”, which is to say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” However, if you look closely into the clouds and darkness, you will see something more. Look closely and the figure of God the Father emerges, and it is his hands support the outstretched hands of his son, which received the nails, and his tears, drip hot upon the face of Jesus, even as it is twisted up in agony. We will forgive the artist this anthropomorphism, for he has beautifully captured the truth that God not only willed Jesus go to the cross, but fully participated in the event with him. Jurgen Moltmann says, that, in the cross of of his son, Jesus, God takes death into himself. It is the cross of Christ that justifies human beings before God, yes; but it is also the place when God is justified before human beings.

3. Jesus died on the cross to ransom us. In Mark 10:45 Jesus himself said, “The Son of Man came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The question becomes to whom does Jesus pay the ransom? Some say that he paid it to the devil. The Bible will not allow this. God owes the devil nothing, ever. The true answer is that Jesus ransoms us from sin and death. Jesus must ransom us from sin because sin permeates every aspect of human life. We think that sin is a choice. That may be true of our first faltering steps into sin, but as soon as we make our choices, our choices make us, and sin takes control and leads us into places we would never willing go. The Japanese have a saying about Saki, a powerful liquor. They says, “First the man takes a drink; then the drink takes a drink; and then the drink takes a man.” That is true of sin, too. But in the cross of Christ, we see that God can defeat sin, and the effects of sin. He delivered Jesus and he will deliver us.

Likewise, Jesus must ransom us from death, because death hangs over our heads from the cradle to the grave, and it cast a pall over all that we do, especially as we grow older. Apart from Jesus, we live in the anxious middle. We don’t know where we have come from or where we are going. But in Jesus we see that we have come from God and we are going to God, and because he lives, we will live also, and death no longer has a hold on us.

Perhaps you have heard the story of a boy who made a model boat, about ‘so long,’ and he set it out in a city pond, and then, storm came up, and he lost it. Weeks later, he saw it in the window of a shop. With joy he went in and explained to the shopkeeper than he had made the boat, and lost it. The shopkeeper responded, “Well, you may have made it; but it is mine, now.” The boy left the shop saddened, but he went to work, and he earned the money to buy back his boat, and he went to the shop, and he bought it, and as he left the shop he said to himself, and to his boat, “You are twice mine. First I made you. Then I bought you back.” In the same way, we are God’s twice over. First God made us, then God lost us to sin and death, and then God ransomed us, or bought us back.

Let me say it one more time. Some people wish it would happen, and some people wait for it to happen, and some people made it happen. Jesus made it happen!

He made it happen for us. Now it is for us to seize the opportunity he has given.

Finis

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Fly Eagles Fly – sermon by Rev. Joe Moore

Isaiah 40:21-31

February 4, 2018

 

For the last two weeks, I have been driving my wife crazy. (Well, she would probably say that I have been driving her crazy for the last 22 years) But specifically for the last couple of weeks, I have been texting her or calling her or just asking her “Hey, did you hear that the Eagles are in the Super Bowl?”

Yes, I am an Eagles fan. I come by it honestly. As I mentioned last time I preached, our first church was in New Jersey. South Jersey to be exact. And South Jersey is basically a suburb of Philadelphia. We could actually see the Philly skyline from our house in New Jersey. So naturally, the Philly sports teams dominate the news. The Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, and 76ers are all anyone talks about.

So while we were living there, I adopted some of those teams as my own. I would root for the Phillies (if they weren’t playing the Braves) and the 76ers (on the rare occasion that I paid attention to the NBA) and I even had a Flyers t-shirt (despite knowing nothing about hockey). But the Eagles became my team, primarily since football is my favorite spectator sport.

While I naturally wanted to support the local teams, it also helped me as a pastor there. It gave me an instant conversation starter with the members of the congregation. It was kind of like what Paul meant when he wrote “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

I’m not saying that I became an Eagles fan “for the sake of the Gospel” but it helped to establish some common ground with people that I really didn’t have much in common with otherwise. Being a North Carolina boy in New Jersey made me something of a stranger in a strange land. That is really the first steps in sharing the Gospel- finding something that brings you together, establishing a relationship, building trust. Coming together over things that are less significant allows you to then share about the more important things- like the good news of Jesus Christ.

From the very beginning of Christianity, followers of Jesus have been called to share the gospel- Jesus sent his 12 disciples out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Then the risen Christ expanded that mission when he said “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” and “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

 Sometimes I feel that we don’t really take that call as seriously as we should. We know that we are supposed to share the gospel. And we try to share the gospel. But it is not the driving force of our life and faith. We share it when it is convenient, or comfortable, or safe. But we seldom take risks to share the gospel, we seldom venture out of our comfort zones, we don’t have a sense of urgency or expectancy. We don’t feel like Paul does when he proclaims “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!”

That’s a pretty powerful statement. I don’t think that we have ever felt “great sorrow or distress” when we fail to proclaim the gospel. We may feel a little bit guilty, but it is a passing guilt that quickly fades. We may know that we should but we don’t really feel that bad when we don’t. We certainly don’t feel “woe”

I see three main reasons for this- 1) the sense of urgency isn’t as great for us as it was for the first Christians and 2) We haven’t had the Gospel “proclaimed” to us and 3) proclaiming the Gospel is hard! I want to spend a few minutes taking a closer look at each of these.

1)We don’t proclaim the Gospel with the same urgency that the earliest Christians had. Let’s face it, over time the sense of urgency will fade. Jesus’ original disciples, and other first century Christians, like Paul, believed that the return of Jesus was imminent. They believed that it would happen in their lifetime. Therefore they did not have much time to share the Gospel, the good news of Jesus, with the

Knowing both the command of Jesus to be his witnesses to the end of the earth and to make disciples of all nations combined with the belief that Jesus was returning soon, meant that they HAD to share the gospel as quickly as possible. I imagine that if we were living then, we would feel the same. But we aren’t living then. We are living now, and almost 2000 years have passed and believers are still waiting for Jesus to return. And we all know how that works. The longer we wait for something, the less urgent, the less immediate it seems. Sure, we still believe that it is going to happen. But instead of expecting it to happen tomorrow or next week or even next year, we just think that it is going to happen “someday” but who really knows when.

So we don’t feel that urgency to share the gospel. We know that if we don’t take advantage of the opportunities we have today, there is always tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, there is always the day after that and the day after that. For two millennia, there has always been another day, another opportunity, to share the good news of Jesus. It seems almost arrogant of us to think that this is THE day or this is THE time.

But maybe we should. Maybe we should try to revive that sense of urgency and immediacy to share the gospel that motivated the first Christians. Because we have been entrusted with the same gospel that they felt such urgency to share. We have been given the same mission, received the same calling. And the news is just as good now as it was then. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life.”

This news is something that we should never hesitate to share. It is news that can’t wait until tomorrow. It is news that requires being told to the whole world. For God did not send his son, the Word did not become flesh, just for us, or for some of us. But for the whole world and it is up to us to tell the world. So we can’t stop until we have made disciples of ALL nations, until we have been Jesus’ witnesses to the very ends of the earth. We need to reclaim that sense of urgency.

The second reason that we don’t proclaim the Gospel as we should is that we have never had the Gospel proclaimed to us. Yes, we are all believers but our faith is primarily an inherited faith. It is something that we have received from our parents and family and church. Our faith is not something that we didn’t have one day and were told about the next. But it is something that we have always had, and always known. It is something that we have cared for and nurtured over the course of our lives. And that is a good thing. But it also limits our understanding of what it means to have the Gospel PROCLAIMED to us.

Imagine what it would be like to hear about Jesus and his love for the very first time; to hear the Good News that you had never heard before. It would be news that was actually NEW. I would want to run and tell everyone all about it. Kind of like how I have felt the need to text Kelly every day about the Eagles being in the Super Bowl. It’s just something that is impossible to keep to yourself.

We need to treat the Gospel in the same way. We need to be so excited about it, so amazed by it, that we can’t help but tell everyone we meet about how exciting and amazing it is. We believe that, don’t we? We believe that the Gospel of Jesus is exciting and amazing, right?

The final reason that we fail to take our call to proclaim the Gospel as seriously as we should is that it is just hard to proclaim the good news. And I mean that very literally. It is hard work. It takes confidence and commitment. It takes patience and persistence. Like a Boy Scout earning his Eagle award.

To proclaim the Gospel, we need to elevate the gospel. We need to see it- not as something that is essential on Sunday morning but nonessential the rest of the week- but as something, actually the ONE thing that is essential always. We need to remember that we need the good news; that everyone needs the good news.

And we need to believe that it is up to us to share that good news. Yet, in the midst of our calling to share the good news, we need to know that even though everyone needs the good news, not everyone is ready for it. Not everyone is ready to hear the gospel, to receive the gospel, to believe the gospel. But we can’t let that deter us, we can’t let that defeat us. We can’t let that even slow us down or stop us.

We have to keep on sharing the good news of Jesus even with people who aren’t ready to hear it, or receive it, or believe it. We have to keep on doing it until God makes them ready. It’s not up to us to determine when and where people are ready to hear and receive the gospel. Our task is to proclaim it- to all people and all the time.

God knows how difficult that can be. God knows and God helps. The words we read in Isaiah make that clear. The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

God gives us all that we need to fulfill the mission he has given us. God gives us power and strength. God allows us to fly like eagles, soaring higher and higher, as we seek to help the world claim the victory over love over hate, of light over darkness, of life over death. That is the Gospel, that is the good news. Through Jesus, love wins over hate, light overcomes darkness, life defeats death.

So let us regain that urgency that Christians once had because the good news is THAT good. Let us proclaim the Gospel that we have received. And let us walk and not faint, let us run and not be weary. Let us fly like Eagles and tell all the world the good news of their salvation. Do you not know? Have you not heard? We do know and we have heard, so now let us go and share what we know and tell what we have heard.

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

December 31, 2017

New Philadelphia Moravian Church

 

The days between Christmas and New Year’s are always kind of “off”, kind of different from normal. Christmas is still lingering. Yesterday, as I was getting the golf cart out of the church garage to have it ready to be used this morning, I noticed that the Christmas lights that were on it for Christmas Eve were still burning. Their brightness had dimmed quite a bit, but it was still there. That’s what this week feels like.

The decorations are often still up but they always seem to look a little less  colorful and festive than they did last week. There are football games during the middle of the week! Many people take vacation days, school is out and almost everyone has a different schedule. No one seems to even know what day of the week it even is.

For me, that feeling has been heightened by the fact that Kelly and Zach and I  are just back from Winter Camp at Laurel Ridge. Zach was a camper (along with 35 other 6th to 12th graders plus a couple of college freshmen) and Kelly and I were the Deans and led the program. We had a wonderful time but it certainly wasn’t the way we would normally spend a Tuesday through Friday. Regardless, it was a great four days of fun and fellowship and even some learning. The program was all about the Twelve Days of Christmas.

The Twelve Days of Christmas are not the 12 days before Christmas but they are the twelve days starting on Christmas Day and ending on Epiphany (January 6). So that would make today the 7th day of Christmas. And on the 7th day of Christmas my true love gave to me seven swans a-swimming. Most of our familiarity with the twelve days  of Christmas comes from the song- the one where the true love gives increasingly elaborate (and often strange) gifts for each of the 12 days. And the gifts are cumulative, so over the 12 days of Christmas, you get 12 partridges in 12 pear trees and so on for a total of 364 gifts. Despite the lack of any real relatability (who wants 3 french hens as a Christmas gift?) the song has become a Christmas tradition.

Kelly and I based our program for Winter Camp on the legend that the song was written as a secret catechism for Catholics in England. The theory is that it was a code to help young Catholics learn the basics of their faith at a time when Catholicism was outlawed in England. While it is only a legend and there isn’t really any way to prove  that that is why it was written or what it really means, it is interesting.

Each of the 12 days represents a basic point of Christian doctrine. “My true love” who gives all the gifts is God, the partridge in a pear tree is Jesus, the 2 turtle doves are the OT and NT, the 3 French hens equal faith, hope and love, the 4 calling birds are the 4 gospels, the 5 golden rings are the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the OT) the 6 geese a-laying are the 6 days of creation, the 7 swans a-swimming are the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit, the 8 maids a-milking are the 8 Beatitudes, the 9 ladies dancing are the 9 fruit of the Spirit, the 10 lords a-leaping are the 10 Commandments, the 11 pipers piping are the 11 FAITHFUL disciples, and the 12 drummers drumming are the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostles Creed.

Sharing this with the kids at Winter Camp was lot of fun and led to some interesting discussions about what the basics of our faith and belief are. But sadly, since we were trying to cover 12 days of Christmas in 4 days, we didn’t have time to go into a lot of depth on any of the gifts. And we didn’t really get to talk much about the whole  idea that the song was written as a means of sharing faith in secret. Even if that is not really the reason the song was written, even if it is not really what the whole thing is all about, it is still fascinating to think about. Primarily because we rarely, if ever, have had to hide our faith, or practice it in secret.

We live in a time and place where we are free to live our faith and share our beliefs. But not all Christians do. In fact, over the 2 millennia of Christian faith, believers have frequently had to hide what they believed and who they were. Even going back to the very beginning itself. Our Gospel reading for today continues the story of Jesus’  birth and details the time when Jesus himself had to go into hiding for who he was.

It’s interesting how we take the very different Christmas stories from the gospels of Matthew and Luke and combine them into one narrative, even though that was not what the authors intended. We have the angels coming to visit Mary (in Luke’s gospel) and Joseph (in Matthew’s), to tell them that they will have a son and name him Jesus. Then we have Luke’s account of the journey to Bethlehem where there was no room in the inn so the baby was born and laid in a manger; the angels bringing good tidings to the shepherds; and Mary pondering all of it in her heart. In Matthew the wise men follow the star to Bethlehem and find the CHILD (not a baby) in the house (not a manger) and then leave by another way so as not to tip off Herod to Jesus’ whereabouts.

We put it all together in one beautiful story that we put on Christmas cards and in Nativity scenes. But we always end it with the Wise Men and we never include the less acceptable continuation of the story- Herod’s slaughter of all the children under two years old and the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into hiding in Egypt. It’s pretty obvious why we don’t include Herod’s murdering children in our Christmas celebrations. It is less obvious why we overlook the flight to Egypt. But I think I gained a better understanding of it as I considered the theory of the Twelve Days of Christmas being a secret catechism, being a secret way of sharing faith that has to be hidden.

We overlook Jesus having to hide in Egypt because we have never had to hide our faith. We have always been free to practice our faith out in the open. We have always been free to gather here and sing the hymns of faith and share the gospel and proclaim the good news that our Savior has been born. And while that is a great thing and a blessing we have that many Christians do not have, it also causes us to miss out on something.

In 2004, I had the chance to see first hand what it was like to have to be a Christian in secret. A colleague in ministry offered me the opportunity to join him on a mission trip to China. We were to spend 3 weeks teaching Chinese Christians how to teach the Gospel and the basics of Christian faith. We journeyed from the United States to Beijing then onto Shenyang, a city that I had never even heard of but it is the home of 8 million people. On our VISA applications, we listed the purpose of our trip as “visiting friends” since it was illegal to go there to share the gospel. When we arrived, we had to hang out in a tea shop until it was late enough to go to the “seminary” without attracting any attention. The seminary was actually a 3 bedroom apartment that served as a teaching facility for Chinese Christians who came from all over the region.

When we finally were clear to go to the apartment, before we got out of the car, we were instructed to put on our hats and to keep looking down if we passed anyone on the stairwell. It was unusual for Americans to be in the part of the city. It was far away from any tourist places and our arrival would attract attention, possibly unwanted attention. Once we made it into the apartment, we didn’t leave for a week. We weren’t even supposed to look out of the windows because we would risk being noticed. We were joined by 25 Chinese Christians who were anxious to learn new ways to share  their faith with the people in the villages that they had come from.

We were only able to communicate through an interpreter, as they didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Chinese. But that really didn’t matter because what we shared was often shared without words- faith, hope, and love transcend language. The Chinese students traveled for hours on crowded trains to get there. If we had been discovered, I would have just been expelled from China and sent back to the United States. But the Chinese students would have likely faced lengthy prison sentences.

Think about that for a second- imagine being so committed to your faith that you would risk going to prison just to learn more. It is something that I had often read about but until I spent time with people for whom it was a very real possibility, I had never really grasped its importance. It helped me to see how much I take my faith for granted. And how much most Christians in our world take our faith for granted.

When we have the freedoms that we do, the freedom to practice our faith openly and to worship anywhere and everywhere, then we also have the freedom to NOT practice our faith, to not worship. And that is a freedom that we exercise far too often. In the midst of our freedom, our faith has become a faith of convenience. We practice it when it is convenient, when it fits our schedule, when it doesn’t require too much sacrifice on our part.

I recognize that I am preaching to the choir a bit on this one. After all you are here on New Year’s Eve. Maybe I should have preached this on Christmas Eve. But even the best of us, even the most committed among us, are guilty of taking our faith for granted, of practicing a convenient faith. But our God isn’t a God of convenience. Our God is a God of commitment.

God is so committed to us, that he became one of us. As Paul writes “though he was in the form of God, (he) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”  That is commitment.

And it is something that we should not lose sight of during these 12 days of Christmas, or ever. God is so committed to us that he became one of us. He put aside his divinity to assume our humanity. He then gave himself over to death in order to bring us over to eternal life. That is the level of commitment that our God has to us. He  literally gave all that he is for us and to us.

It is really hard for us to understand that level of sacrifice. That’s why I’m glad  that the account of the flight to Egypt appears during our Christmas celebration. It reminds us, at the one time of year when it is the easiest to be a Christian, that it isn’t always so easy to practice our faith. There have been times, ever since those days right after Jesus was born, when it is downright dangerous. And there have been people who have made great sacrifices to share their faith, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. Whether it is fleeing from their homes to the safety of anonymity or teaching the basics of faith in secret codes or risking imprisonment to learn how to teach others about Jesus, Christians have always made sacrifices for their faith, for their God, for their Savior.

So as we stand in the middle of these 12 days of Christmas, as we watch the old year pass away and a new year enter in, the questions are “What about us? What sacrifices will we make for our faith this year? How will we serve our God? How will we share the good news of salvation?”

I think that the answer to all of these questions comes is the same- to stop making our faith a faith of convenience, to stop having church be something that we do only when we don’t have anything better to do. Jesus’ ministry to us was first and foremost a ministry of presence. He came to us so that we might be able to come to him, so that we can draw closer to God. During 2018, I think that we should all commit  to doing the same. We should all commit to a ministry of presence rather than a faith of convenience.

That means being here. Being at church, being with our brothers and sisters as we worship, as we serve, as we learn, as we play, as we come together in the name of our Lord and Savior. It means giving of ourselves, not just when we feel like it, or when we don’t have anything better to do, but always. It means making the sacrifices for our faith necessary to make our faith part of our lives, every single day.

On the first day of Christmas, our true love gave himself to us. What are we  going to give to him?

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A few pictures from our 2017 Lovefeast services taken by our church member, Denise Hunt:

 

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