In this Age of Darkness, We Need the Prophets

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

Who are the prophets? The prophets are those on whom God has sent his Holy Spirit.

This is the same Spirit that hovered over creation. The Spirit that breathed life into the first man and woman, creating us in the image of God. This is the Spirit that came upon Moses, giving him power to speak the word of the Lord to Pharaoh and to guide the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. The Holy Spirit fell on the seventy elders, whom God appointed to assist Moses, and they prophesied.

They prophesied. What does it mean to prophesy? Prophecy means speaking the words of God, just like Moses did. It means revealing that which is hidden, pointing people to the truth that the brokenness of this world has hidden from us. The truth that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus is a God of love and a God of justice. And that neither his love nor his justice will sleep forever.

Wherever the Holy Spirit moves, there is prophecy. This is the characteristic mark of the Spirit’s presence in the world: When we experience the presence of God in our heart, minds, and spirits.

When the Spirit shows up, we feel the love that God has for each of us, and the anger that God has at those things which hurt and destroy his beloved children. The Spirit comes to teach us who God is, and to inspire us to speak the message and demonstrate the character of our loving, righteous God.

This is Holy Ghost experience has always been the formative experience of the prophets. From Moses and his seventy elders, to Elijah and Elisha. From John the Baptist to Jesus. From George Fox and Alexander Mack to Martin Luther King, Jr and William Barber II. The Holy Spirit raises up men and women to speak the words our world needs to hear. Words that speak the very will of God. Whether or not the world is ready to listen.

As we see in our gospel reading for today, the world often isn’t willing to hear. It’s not an accident that John the Baptist ends up dead – beheaded by Herod at the request of his wife and daughter. It’s not an accident when terrible things happen those who speak the words of God, because fallen humanity is always killing the prophets.

Why would anyone want to be a prophet? Most of the prophets don’t. We see throughout the pages of the Bible, and throughout the history of the church, that prophets usually question their calling. Because being a prophet is often a death sentence. Friendship with God means enmity with the world. Speaking the truth means exposing the comfortable lies that this world cloaks itself in. Declaring God’s love for the needy, the outsider, the foreigner, the poor, means bumping up against the interests of the powerful insiders who are well-positioned to use violence to maintain the status quo.

In our gospel reading this morning, the story of Herod and John the Baptist is a quintessential telling of the relationship between God’s prophets and the powerful people who would prefer not to have the system disrupted by prophetic speech and action.

John the Baptist was acknowledged by everyone as a prophet. Even Herod knew that John was a “righteous and holy man.” So, despite all the reasons that he might want to permanently silence John by killing him, Herod held off. He locked John away in prison, but he hesitated to raise his hand against God’s prophet.

Herod’s hesitation might have been the result of simple political calculation – after all, John was a very popular man, and killing him might be more trouble than it was worth. Who wants to create a martyr? But the Mark gives us reasons to believe that Herod’s hesitation to murder John went deeper than mere political expediency.

The truth is powerful. It has an effect, even over those who are very wicked like Herod was. And John was a holy man, a prophet of God – clothed in righteousness and speaking the truth with the easy sincerity and fearlessness of a God-surrendered man. John was probably the only person that Herod encountered on a regular basis who wasn’t afraid.

Herod had the power of life and death over his subjects, and so most people were scurrying around, trying to please Herod. John wasn’t impressed. John lived in the life and power of the Spirit of God. He knew the truth, and the truth had set him free. John wasn’t afraid of Herod, because he had a life in God that transcended the threat of death that Herod could hold over him.

John and Herod had this really weird relationship. Herod had John locked up in prison. And you’d think that Herod would simply want John to disappear. To stop saying disruptive things about the immoral way that Herod was conducting himself. Yet Herod couldn’t get enough of John. He kept telling the jailers to bring John up out of the prison. Herod met with John regularly. Mark says, “he liked to listen to him,” even though when John spoke, Herod “was greatly perplexed.”

Herod could hear the truth in the words of the prophet. He could sense the presence of the Spirit in John’s life. Part of him wanted to silence this prophetic voice forever, but another part couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. He knew the truth when he heard it, even if he didn’t have the moral courage to surrender himself to the love and justice of God.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Herod was a weak man, and a foolish man. He couldn’t quite bring himself to kill John, despite the fact that his wife Herodias was demanding that he put John to death. But in our reading this morning, he’s thoughtless enough to make an oath, in front of many guests, that he will give his daughter anything she asks for.

When she comes back and asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, Herod is shocked. He didn’t even consider that the girl might consult with her mother and come back with such a request. But because he’s so afraid to lose face in front of his guests, he agrees. Herod dispatches guards to the prison, and they slaughter John, this holy man of God. They butcher the presence of the Holy Spirit in Israel. They desecrate the sanctuary of God to satisfy the whims of an insecure dictator and his family. Herod knows what’s happening. He knows who John is. But he goes ahead anyway. He fears men more than God.

The way of the prophets often leads to death. Jesus himself stood squarely in the prophetic tradition. He identified himself with the mantle of Elijah and Elisha. He stood in that Holy Ghost tradition. The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, anointing him to proclaim good news to the poor. The Spirit sent Jesus to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus stood in the tradition of the prophets. And like the prophets of old, like his cousin John the Baptist, he faced terrible repression and violence. Like John, he ultimately surrendered his life speaking truth to power, pouring out his life as an offering to God in love.

We live in a time of great darkness. It occurred to me as I was preparing this sermon that Herod doesn’t seem so unusual anymore. I used to consider Herod to be particularly monstrous, a truly evil character. And he was. He was an evil man. Yet today in our own national politics and throughout the world, we see men and women who are selling their souls for power built on falsehood, hatred, violence, and oppression. Today we witness evil that makes Herod look almost sympathetic. After all, Herod felt bad when he slaughtered John the Baptist. He regretted it.

But the Herod I know isn’t the one who cringed over his own murder of John. The Herod I’m more familiar with is Herod the Great – the father of the king Herod we read about in today’s scripture. King Herod the Great is the one who slaughtered the boy children in the vicinity of Nazareth. That’s the Herod I know, the one I’m seeing coming to power in the world today. He’s the one who doesn’t hesitate to destroy families for political gain. The one who forces the family of Jesus to flee and become refugees in a foreign land. The one who is praised by the religious authorities for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, even as he assaults the very word of God in the streets of Bethlehem.

This is the world of Jesus and John. A world where prophets are nailed to the cross and beheaded. A world where children are stolen from their parents and locked in prisons. A world where those in power prefer lies to any truth that threatens their dominance and control.

We live in a time of darkness, domination, and violence. Just like John and Jesus under Herod and Pilate. Just like Moses under Pharaoh. Just like the early church, whom God blessed and covered with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Living in our own time of darkness, we’ve been visited by this same Spirit.

As Paul says in our reading from Ephesians this morning, we have been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. We are called to be God’s prophets in this time and place. In this present darkness that can feel as palpable as a clinging fog. God has marked and sealed us with the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the dangerous truth of God’s love and justice. The truth that the creator of this world stands with the immigrant, the poor, the marginalized.

Today is the eighth Sunday after Pentecost, and so maybe we need reminding. At Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit to each and every one of us who has decided to follow Jesus. Along with Jesus, we have been called and anointed to be prophets of the living God, the creator of the cosmos. We have been filled by the Holy Spirit, to speak the very words of God into a world that is so hungry for the truth and love that only God can provide.

We live in a time of darkness. And in times like these we are often tempted to despair. Yet it is in times such as these that the witness of the prophets is most needed. This is our time. This is our season. This is the moment that God calls us into active service, to speak his word of truth and love. To the powerful, as a rebuke and a challenge. To the powerless as a message of comfort and through tangible acts of solidarity. God has called us to be as prophets, even if we have to walk the path of suffering, just as John and Jesus did. This is what is means to be friends of Jesus. We walk in his footsteps, and accept his mission of love, justice, and reconciliation.

I would like to invite us to enter into a time of open worship, in which we can invite the Holy Spirit to be especially present with us. Spirit of God, we need your guidance. We are blind and lost without you. We need your love. We need your truth. And most of all, Lord, we need you to show us how to be faithful servants in sharing this love and truth with the world around us.

We live in dark times. But Jesus Christ has given us the light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We are the light of the world. Holy Spirit, come and show us how to shine, and how much we must endure for the precious name of Jesus.

Living Lightly on God’s Good Earth

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:4, Psalms 104:10-24, Romans 8:18-25

On our vacation, Nate and I had the joy and privilege of spending time amidst wonderous natural beauty and marvelous, astounding animals. We hiked up Table Mountain in Cape Town. We spent hours marveling at African penguins that waddled and swam and napped in little rocky nooks. Our breath was taken away by the dark skies of KwaZulu-Natal Province, where the Milky Way shone brightly for us in a coastal town with very little light pollution (and the power went out, which helped us further). The vastness of two oceans, the Atlantic and the Indian, was awe-inspiring – and somehow, I can say that even though I was stung by a Portuguese Man-Of-War jellyfish while swimming near Durban.

I can’t mention all of the beauty and delight we had on a river full of hippos, at the sight of Nile crocodiles, at the sound of lions crunching their hard-caught meal, or when driving through the gorgeous green mountains of Swaziland.  

King David, in Psalm 19, wrote that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (vv. 1-4). Our natural world is beautiful, and its vastness and grandeur point humans to the Source of all life and goodness.

God’s Good Earth

God’s story and our story start out with the natural world in focus. In the beginning, the universe was formless chaos. God the Creator took what was chaos and made beauty. In Genesis 1 and 2, we see that God is the Creator and originator of every living thing. The notion of something being made by God inherently imbues it with worth and value. Beyond that inherent value, God the Creator explicitly deems every aspect of creation—night and day, sun, moon, and stars, water, land, plants, animals in the sea and on dry land, and human beings—to be good.

The meaning of “good” here in Genesis 1 is much more than “just okay.” It isn’t “good enough.” For the Hebrew word tov, good is pleasing, pleasant, pure, and delightful. An ancient Jewish commentator Rashbam translated tov as beautiful. We mark Earth Day today because God’s story (and our story) starts out declaring that the earth and every living creature is from God, by God, and good.  

Our Genesis Creation story tells us about the value of our natural world. It also tells us about who we are and should be as humans. We see that humans are created in the image of God and this means that humans have a task in relation to the world.  God blesses humans, calling them to “Be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (1:28). What exactly does this filling, subduing, and dominion mean?

In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis argues that this text has often been misinterpreted, equating subdue and dominion with exploit. Yet to understand it as exploit is to miss the broader biblical message about God’s creation. One way to understand dominion is to think of humans as being given power and authority like God (humans were made in God’s image), to care for everything under their stewardship—just as God cares for both humans, lilies, and the smallest sparrow (Matthew 6:26-31; 10:29-31). Nowhere in scripture does God exploit creation; therefore, the stewards who are made in God’s image (people!) are not supposed to do dominion in that way.

Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann (1982) further adds that “The ‘dominion’ here mandated is with reference to the animals. The dominance is that of a shepherd who cares for, tends, and feeds the animals… Thus, the task of ‘dominion’ does not have to do with exploitation and abuse. It has to do with securing the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition” (p. 32). This interpretation fits well with the parallel account in Gen. 2, where God commands Adam to “till and keep” the earth where God has placed him (Gen. 2:15).

Humans fulfill their God-given purpose when they enable ecosystems to thrive. When we protect and sustain the earth, we live out our role as God’s image-bearers. The big picture from Genesis 1 and 2 is that the earth made by God, the earth is good, and that humans are called to protect and care for it.

In the New Testament, we see Creation as good enough for God to be manifest within (John 1 – the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood) and we read that all created things were made by and through Jesus (Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:2-3). Jesus made and intimately knows and delights in the creeping insect, the budding flower, the newborn kitten, and even the adult human. This “made-by-Jesus” label is something that clearly should impart honor and value to the environment and living creatures.

For some Christians, they can acknowledge that God made the world and maybe that it was originally good, but they don’t want to go further. Those facts aren’t enough to motivate them to change the way they live or to think that caring for the environment is an important calling for the Church. An argument is often made that caring for the environment pales in comparison with preaching the gospel of Jesus, with saving souls and transforming human lives. I believe that this argument is faulty, because it involves an incomplete and shallow understanding of Jesus’ redemption work in our world. It’s not an either/or dilemma. God’s redemption throughout the Bible (from Genesis through Revelation) is actually portrayed as touching every corner of Creation, both human souls and healthy ecosystems. This is the powerful gospel of Jesus that we proclaim.

The Gospel Will Reach Every Corner of Creation

The world recently mourned the loss of the last male northern white rhino in the wild. Around the world, there are many species of animals that are on the brink of extinction or have not been seen for many years. Just yesterday, I saw news that North Atlantic right whales do not have any documented offspring during this breeding season. Pollution, overfishing, entanglement, and blows by passing ships are all factors that are stressing these whales to critical endangerment. While one can talk about the economic, social, and political factors that affect the health of these whales, a biblical perspective leads me to believe that the underlying factor is human sin.

Any time you see ecological devastation in the bible, the cause is human greed or idolatry. If we look from Genesis through Revelation, we can see pictures of sustainability and wholeness as designed by God, we can see destruction and environmental degradation caused by human sin, and thankfully, we can also see God’s vision for the earth’s renewal and redemption.

Starting in the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament, we can see that the natural order designed by God allows for ecosystems to sustain all organisms. There’s a harmony depicted, with God the Creator holding everything in balance. In Psalm 104, God’s hand is over the natural order of ecosystems, animals, and people. Humans and animals are pictured with all that they need, in a world rightly oriented around God the Creator. It’s when people take their eyes off the Creator that ecosystems are shown to go sideways.

In Exodus, when the people of Israel receive the covenant through Moses, following God has direct implications for the well-being of the Land of Israel (Deuteronomy 28). Right living in the covenant with Yahweh brings blessing, bountiful harvests, and ecological prosperity. Right living included both right worship and right relationships, caring for the marginalized and vulnerable. Idolatry and oppressing the poor would result in the land drying up and becoming infertile. This eventually comes to fruition.

Later, in the prophets, we see the effects of sin on the land (Hos. 4:1-3; Jer. 12:4). In both Hosea and Jeremiah, the land itself mourns as it and the creatures it sustains begin to die. The prophet Ezekiel chastises the Israelites for trampling the land and polluting the water (Ezek. 34:18). In the prophet Jonah, we also see that animals are part of God’s beloved creation, affected by the consequences of human sin. Yahweh calls on Jonah to preach so the Ninevites repent, to save the population of people and cows (Jonah 4: 9-11). God was not just concerned about the destruction of people, but also the destruction of animals; Jonah’s reluctant message delivered both.

During the days of the prophets, things looked bleak because of the consequences of human sin. But amidst prophetic messages of judgment and consequences, Yahweh also sent images of hope and redemption. The Hebrew prophets pointed beyond judgment to an ecological wholeness that would characterize the final reign of Yahweh; reconciliation with God would go hand-in-hand with a fertile, bountiful, and healthy ecosystem (Amos 9:13-15). Peace in the last days would not only include salvation and freedom from violence, but also ecological peace and wholeness—even peace between people and animals (Isaiah 11:6-1; 65:17-25).

These messages continued as God’s Messiah, Jesus, came to deliver hope and redemption. One of the most famous passages cited about Jesus’ redemption is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” The Greek word for “world” here does not just refer to humans; a Methodist pastor and author Rebekah Simon-Peter explains that “The word world is actually kosmon in Greek—the cosmos… Jesus’ love is not just for humans, it’s for all creation. That’s why he said to the disciples, ‘Go to all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation’ (Mark 16:15)” (Passi-Klaus, 2015, April 17). Jesus’ salvation redeems human hearts and everything else. In Colossians, we read that “through [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).

One of my favorite passages of scripture illustrates this further: the apostle Paul writes to the early church in Rome, which has been enduring suffering and persecution, and says that it isn’t just the early church that longs for God’s redemption. Not just humans; “all creation waits and groans for the children of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:18-25). The earth yearns for Jesus to reign, for an end to sin and war and violence and greed and destruction.

Some Christians do not see redemption this way; they see God doing a complete purge of everything on earth. The notion that “it’s all gonna burn” can be a rather convenient theological cover for greed and indifference to God’s creation. Most importantly, I don’t think it’s biblically accurate. While some New Testament voices do use images of fire and destruction to talk about the coming of Jesus’ Kingdom, Jewish tradition does not understand these to be obliteration for something completely different. Rather, fire was used for purifying and healing, much like the biblical image of metal purified or the ecological image of new life after a forest fire. When passages like 2 Peter 3:10-13 and Revelation 21:1-7 talk of new heavens and new earth, the cultural context likely means new as renewed and healed. Understanding it this way also makes more sense alongside passages like Romans 8 and prophetic visions of renewal.

The biblical story starts out with God creating and declaring the created world to be “good.” The last book of the bible shows us a Kingdom where Jesus reigns, where the curse of sin is no longer prevailing, and where God’s full reconciliation will define the world—a redemption that transforms humans and all created things. Jesus declares in Revelation 21:5 “Behold! I am making all things new!” Jesus is making all things new.

Living Lightly on God’s Good Earth

So what does this mean for us? We see in scripture that 1) Creation is good, made by God, and humans are to care for it; and 2) that the gospel of Jesus leads to transformation in human relationships with God and human relationships with the earth. If these are the case, then there are several implications for our lives as Christians. We are to

  1. Act in ways that honor God’s creation, protect it, sustain it
  2. Learn about the impact our lives have on the earth
  3. Find ways to live lightly on earth and reduce our consumption, so that we are not trampling God’s creation (to use the image from Ezekiel).

I’m sure we’ve all been overwhelmed by data and guilt about our role in environmental degradation. Talking about the environment can be paralyzing for folks. So, my exhortation for us today is for three things: 1) connect with God’s Creation in a concrete way, 2) explore change as an individual, 3) help us explore change as a church.

How can you find a way to tangibly connect with God’s Creation on a regular basis? Can you walk or sit outside in the sunshine? Can you tend a plant at home (growing an herb indoors can be easy for apartment dwellers) or garden at church (we’ve got a garden you might have heard about in the announcements)? Can you sit next to or walk along the Anacostia or Potomac Rivers. Take opportunity to praise God and to consider that the earth, the sun, the plants, the trees, the water—these good things—are also each declaring their praise for our common Creator. If you do this already, add a new psalm or song to your outdoor routine to deepen the sense of prayer and worship.

How can you as an individual find a way to live more lightly on God’s Good Earth? Can you switch out some disposable, single-use plastic items for reusable items? Bring your own utensils or metal straws? Can you cut out meat for one meal per week? Can you try public transit, cycling, or walking?

How can we as a church find ways to live more lightly on God’s Good Earth? For starters, we do need some volunteers to improve how we recycle and think about sustainability. Can you help us? We need someone to put clearly marked recycling bins in all rooms where church folks and other guests meet. We could use a little extra coordination for our potlucks to try to reduce (and ideally eliminate) our use of single-use plastic items. Maybe it is by finding volunteers to wash metal utensils (whether it’s washing them at home or at church). Can you help us with outreach and communication to better highlight the steps we have already taken to care for the earth, such signs that tell the community about our solar panels, rain barrels, or our gardens?

I don’t have the answers or even all the right questions that we should be asking. Thankfully, one of the beautiful things about community is that we can learn from each other and challenge each other to live in ways that honor and protect the goodness of God’s creation, demonstrating the power of Jesus’ gospel to transform both our lives and this world. Let us journey together as we follow Jesus, living lightly on God’s good earth. AMEN.

References

Brueggemann, W. (1982). Genesis. Interpretation. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox.

Passi-Klaus, S. (2015, April 17). Christians and Creation: ‘You can’t love God and ignore the Earth’ Retrieved from http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/christians-and-earth-day-you-cant-love-god-and-ignore-earth

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD

The Spirit of God hovered over the waters. The voice of God spoke light into the darkness. By his Word, God divided the day from the night. He created the dry land. He made the seas teem with life, and filled the earth with beauty. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.

All things came into being through him. Without him, not one thing came into being. Not the trees and grass. Not the stars in the sky or the rumbling furnace beneath the earth. Not one thing came into being without the Word. This word that was with God in the beginning.

Everything we see, all that we know, the entirety of who we are – none of it exists except through him. The love, the creative power, the living presence of God’s Word is the author of all creation. “Let there be light!” said God. And there was light. And God saw that the light was good. A reflection of the light of his Word.

What came into being in him was life. And this life was the light of all people. The Word of God speaks in and through the whole creation. In every solemn stone, in every living thing. In every human heart, the Word of God is here – alive and active. He’s still creating us. Growing us. Teaching us.

This is the true light, who enlightens everyone that comes into the world. The Word of God speaks within each one of us. He is our ground and our foundation. It is through him that we came to have existence at all. He knows us intimately. We are what we are, because of the Word who formed us.

The light shines in the darkness. The Word of God, this light, is no stranger to the darkness. He knew Stalin, and Hitler, and the Columbine shooters. God has seen the way hatred and fear have twisted his good creation. And again he has sent his Word to us, this time with the ministry of reconciliation. To untwist the twisted, heal the broken, and restore the earth.

God loves us because he truly knows us. He knows everyone you’ve ever hated, more intimately than they could ever know themselves. God loves the people that you hate. Of course he does. He created them. He knows them with the care and affection that a parent has for a child.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. The love of God is so full. His creativity is so expansive. God understands each one of us to the very core of our being. God knows and understands the darkness we carry inside.

Though it seems terrifying, the darkness isn’t that powerful. It shudders, trembles in the presence of the light. Darkness resists – with lies, and rage, and arrogance, and violence – but it will never understand who the light truly is. The burning, searing love of the Word of God is a mystery.

The Word of God is powerful, like a two edged sword. Like a surgeon with a scalpel, God’s Word cuts for the sake of love. He is the sword that heals. He is the light that exposes and cleanses.

Yet this world, in it sickness, doesn’t want to be healed. Our thoughts and deeds of darkness don’t want to be exposed. So we have resisted the light, just like our ancestors did. We’re part of a very old story.

The light and Word of God has always been in the world, speaking to us in the creation, and in our hearts. Yet the world did not know him. We despised and rejected him. We preferred our world of darkness and confusion to the health, humility, and challenge that the Word of God demands of us. We turned away from the light.

But there is power in the name of Jesus. There is a change that comes for those of us who have made the decision to turn our lives over to the light of God. To all who receive him, he gives us power to become children of God. Living in his light, allowing his Word to speak in us and fill us, we discover a a whole new life that we never imagined possible. We are born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

But this is all so abstract. We can talk all day about the light. About the Word of God and what he did and is doing in the creation of the cosmos. We can talk about darkness and sin, and the power of the light to overcome death and heal the world. But it all easily starts sounding like just more mythology. Good stories we tell ourselves to order our society and treat one another decently, maybe. But nothing that could possibly topple empires and economies. Nothing that can raise the dead, heal the sick, and preach good news to the poor.

God knew we needed more than a good story about light and darkness. We’ve gotten ourselves into so much trouble, he knew that we needed even more than the quiet whisperings of the Spirit. We needed to get beyond mountains, and temples, and goats’ blood, and the law. We needed a new mediator and a new covenant. We needed to see the face of God for ourselves. We needed to meet the Word face to face.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He moved into the neighborhood. We have seen his glory. We say together with the Apostles that we have seen his glory. We witness the glorious presence of God in the face of Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus we see God’s grace and truth, the loving relationship that is only possible between father and son, parent and child. Before, we could have said we did not know God, we had never seen him. But now we have no such excuse. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

We learn from the Hebrew scriptures that no one can ever see God and live. Knowing this, God came to us. He took on human form – he became a human being, just like you and me. The invincible and sovereign Word of God – the one who created black holes, supernovae, and photosynthesis – became a little baby boy. Utterly helpless. Dependent. Weak.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” The law was given through Moses, on top of a mountain with fire and smoke, with dreadful awe and power. But the ultimate revelation, the final word on who God really is, came through Jesus – God with us in the most real and tangible sense imaginable.

Jesus wasn’t some mythological demigod. He wasn’t a sort of blended god/man. In Jesus, God took on all our limitations. He was no different from you or me, except that he was without sin. It’s quite possible that some of us have a better grasp on mathematics than Jesus did. That’s the kind of character that God revealed in Jesus – a God so powerful, so full of love for us, that he was willing to limit himself. He became weak and poor. He suffered shame and death on a cross. Because we hated the light and chose to crucify the light rather than surrender our darkness.

It is time to stop resisting. The light has come. It is time for celebration. Jesus is here! The Messiah child is born! The Word of God, all-powerful, all-creative, all-loving, has come to live among us! Nothing can ever be the same again.

There is a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. God has sent the spirit of his son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!” We are children of the light. We are sons and daughters of God, walking in the footsteps of Jesus. He is our brother, our friend, our sovereign lord and teacher.

We are children of the light. In the midst of all this darkness, this light in us can never be defeated. We are children of the light. Sing and rejoice, you children of the day and of the light. For the Lord God is at work in this dark night that can be felt.

Trust him. He’s been here a long time. Before the sun ignited and the planets formed, he is here. Before the earth’s crust cooled and the seas filled with life, he is here. In the beginning was the Word. He is our past, present, and future.

The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us. In Jesus. In this little fellowship gathered together in his name. In all creatures great and small that hear his voice. When we remember that he is powerful, present, and leading us. Even in this deep winter season, the Word is alive.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

 

Luke 24:13-35, 1 Peter 1:17-23

Nathan Hosler

Earth Day Sunday was last week. Though I wasn’t here (I’m going off the word on the street) I heard that while mentioned and in some manner included in the prayer time it was not a main theme. In the end, the point is to focus on caring for creation so timing is really not particularly essential. Better late than never.

At Christian Citizenship Seminars (CCS), this past week we focused on Native American rights focusing particularly on food security. This history of displacement and violence and broken treaties and degraded land is significant—and ongoing. Again, better late than never to focus on this and seek to listen and address this. [CCS is a youth program of the Church of the Brethren organized by Youth and Young Adult Ministries and my office—the Office of Public Witness].

The land on which this church is built is the land of the Piscataway people. Though I’ve wanted to look this up for a while. I only now just did after spending a week discussing and hearing about the experience of Indigenous peoples of this continent. I guess, at least, its better late than never.

These are related to the land (and the people of the land). For example, on the edge of the Navajo reservation sits the Lybrook Community Ministries of the Church of the Brethren. Kim and Jim Therrien are the directors and they, along with Kendra Pinto, a young Navajo protector of the land, spoke at the Christian Citizenship Seminars the past week. They told of the devastation to land by the oil and gas companies and the disregard and abandonment of the Diné people in the “checkerboard” eastern side of the reservation in New Mexico. The land and the people who know the land—whose histories and beliefs and stories of creation relate to this land—cannot be separated.

Of course, at some point it might just be too late and then it is never. So, better late than never does not eliminate urgency it simply provides a way forward in the face of much harm. For example, Cherokee attorney Joel West Williams, of the Native American Rights Fund, who also spoke at CCS told me on the taxi ride to the session that there are only around 100 Cherokee individuals who speak the language fluently and around 5 or 6 for whom Cherokee is their first language. At some point, it might be too late but for now there is at least some time. Some time to hear the call to repentance, action, and right believing.

The road to Emmaus is a narrative of an encounter with the risen Jesus. Though word had gotten out, these disciples remained perplexed. The narrative is of an encounter and of the disciples’ inexplicable inability to recognize Jesus. This unrecognition in the narrative highlights the need for God’s revelation (Craddock, Luke, 285). Jesus walks and teaches them and in retrospect they note that their hearts burned. Jesus walks and teaches them, explaining the scripture. It is not until he breaks bread that they recognize him—that he is revealed.

Now this is a telling of the revelation of the resurrected Christ to Jesus followers—and as such drawing a general lesson is a bit risky. There is significance of the sharing of the bread—as a reminder of the last supper, as the eventual practice of communion, as the simple practical act of hospitality and sharing in the basic needs of life—just the significance of this bread beckons to be extrapolated. I remember breaking bread (in the form of individually wrapped pound cakes dipped in green bean stew) with a Somali refugee in Chicago as he broke Ramadan fast in the middle of our English lesson, or Elmira the grandmother aged homeless women I’d meet in the same city and who would give the college students pizza that people gave her while sitting along the street asking for food, or breaking fry bread with a Navajo man whose ancestors were displaced by my ancestors. Hospitality and breaking bread in the face of displacement is a sign of the presence of God. It can be a revelation.

Now these breakings of bread may be too far a stretch from the Emmaus road but it does catch my imagination. Jesus is brought up out of the grave as a revelation of the power of God which then is gradually revealed to the disciples. While such revelation may be hard to spot, and in some way, is finished (since we aren’t still adding to the scriptural text), God continues to revel Godself. The revelation of the power of God continues through the work of the Spirit and the work of the community in scripture, prayer, and worship while we continue on the road of following Jesus in the work of Jesus and listening to others.

As we all know, the church has not always gotten its teaching or actions right. Because of this, care is needed in teaching, reading scripture, and discerning action. One such troubling teaching that has far reaching consequences is the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Specifically, in America there was an appropriation of the Exodus story by the European settlers. They were the Israelites escaping the slavery of England (Egypt), crossing the Red Sea of the Atlantic Ocean, to the Promised Land of the “New World,” and seizing the land from the people they found there as an act of the will of God. This misreading then continued to animate the imagination of Europeans who pushed further westward and continued to seize land through direct violence, pressure, or through manipulations of the law in their favor.

Such activity found a basis in official church teaching. The World Council of Churches in a 2012 statement notes, “For example, the church documents Dum Diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1455) called for non-Christian peoples to be invaded, captured, vanquished, subdued, reduced to perpetual slavery and to have their possessions and property seized by Christian monarchs. Collectively, these and other concepts form a paradigm or pattern of domination that is still being used against Indigenous Peoples.” (WCC, Statement on the doctrine of discovery and its enduring impact on Indigenous Peoples, Feb 17, 2012).

Creation Justice Ministries’ Earth Day Resource this year asserts that, “Because the Doctrine of Discovery is based on principles that originated with the church, the church has a special responsibility to dismantle this unjust paradigm.” (http://www.creationjustice.org/uploads/2/5/4/6/25465131/indigenous.pdf?key=63038771, 4). Now while the Church of the Brethren has never officially ascribed to this doctrine we have still benefited from the stolen lands. Most of the early Brethren were farmers and we continue to live on the land. We are not free from responsibility.

While I was in New York with the high schoolers Jenn suggested that the CCS topic of Native American rights and food security and Earth Day might be good topics for the sermon. I had already begun to look that the lectionary passages for the week. Though passages did not seem particularly related to either caring for creation or the rights of Native Americans, I began to see that there were several points of connection. For one, the 1 Peter passage made an intricate argument connecting belief and action. A commentator confirmed this observation writing, “1 Peter is not alone in the NT in accenting the truth that a believer’s ‘whole life’ is a journey to heaven in the footsteps of Jesus. Yet its testimony stands as a serious caution against three popular misconceptions: that salvation is merely something that happened to Christian believers in the past, that their only responsibility now is to wait passively for the second coming and that ‘going to heaven’ is something that begins when they die” (J.R.Michaels, “1 Peter,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, 922).

1 Peter 1:17-23

17 If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. “If you invoke” in the NRSV is translated “If you call out for help” in the Message.

In the New International Version, it reads, Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.”

 Exile—displacement—references the Israelites displacement from their promised land. There was a covenant by God to Abraham stating that he would be the father of a great nation. This people eventually formed into a nation but were then enslaved but then led to freedom through the power of God. They then wandered for years (40) and then went into the land that was promised. In their entering, they displaced peoples and then were themselves displaced by violence and invasion. Though this narrative introduces many questions—such as “who was in the “promised land” before the Israelites?” and “What did the original peoples think about Israel’s conviction that they should enter the land?—it also is part of what “exile” references.

18 You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. Being brought from “futile ways.” The assumption of superiority and dehumanization, exploitation, and genocide of peoples surely must count as futile. Jesus saves us from these. Though one might object and say that Peter is talking for religious practices. Because of the blood of Christ, which is pictured here as in the role of the sacrificial lamb which is part of the religious practices of the Hebrew people. Elsewhere Jesus is pictured as a priest as well as the lamb. Jesus saves us from futile ways. Jesus can yet save us from practices that continue the legacy that continues environmental racism (such as in Standing Rock which protests by a white community moved construction to sacred lands and near the water of the original peoples or in New Mexico where safety measures on oil and gas companies are enforced in white communities but not on the Diné (Navajo) reservation) and the inability to acknowledge whose land this was.

22 Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. 23 You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.

Obedience to the truth results in souls that have been made pure. When we realize that the Church has not only been complicit in injustice, but as with the Doctrine of Discovery, has generated teaching that spurred on the conquest and dehumanization of peoples, we should seek to repent and change our ways. The Church, thank God, has also been part of the creation of beauty, the abolition of slavery, the expansion of civil rights. So, my urging us to mine our theological and biblical resources while also interrogating them and the church’s practice is not a self-loathing or a nagging self-righteousness but a continued seeking to live in the love and will of God.

Mark Charles, a Navajo theologian and activist, argues that both the oppressed and the oppressor communities suffer from historical trauma of genocide, forced displacement, policies and practices (such as board schools) which tried to destroy culture, and dehumanization. http://wirelesshogan.blogspot.com/. Willie James Jennings, an African American theologian and professor, asserts that the Christian imagination has been distorted.

Jennings writes, “Christian social imagination is diseased and disfigured. In making this claim I am not saying that the church is lost, moribund, or impotent. Rather, I want my readers to capture sight of a loss, almost imperceptible, yet articulated powerfully in the remaining slender testimonies of Native American peoples and other aboriginal peoples. This loss points out not only to deep psychic cuts and gashes in the social imaginary of western peoples, but also to an abiding mutilation of a Christian vision of creation and our own creatureliness. I want Christians to recognize the grotesque nature of a social performance of Christianity that imagines Christian identity floating above land, landscape, animals, place, and space, leaving such realities to the machinations of capitalistic calculations and the commodity chains of private property. Such Christian identity can only inevitably lodge itself in the materiality of racial existence” (Jennings, The Christian Imagination, 293).

As we seek to follow the risen Christ as a community, we as the disciples along the Emmaus road, will experience the revelation of our Lord in what are at times unexpected ways and places. As we open ourselves to hear histories and stories of the indigenous communities of this land we must both mourn the past and our complicity but more importantly we must listen and seek to end this mistreatment and injustice in the present.

Caring for Caribou

Genesis 1:20-31

Katie Furrow

“The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” For the Gwich’in people, this place is the coastal plains of Northern Alaska. The coastal plains are home to the breeding grounds of countless migratory bird species, polar bears, and the Porcupine Caribou which plays a significant role in the lives of the Gwich’in as a means of sustenance and spirituality. When one learns of the role of the coastal plains in regard to the breeding and calving grounds for all of these animals, it is hard to dispute that is anything less than divine Creation at work—it is a space that is temperate enough for mothers and newborns to have proper nutrients from vegetation but not so warm to allow breeding of the hoards of mosquitoes that will descend upon the area in warmer months as a nuisance to everything that has blood, and the plains are often safer from predators allowing newborns to grow well. It is truly sacred ground.

Fortunately, the value and importance of this land as a sacred space that creates new life and helps species and cultures flourish has been known for some time, and in 1960, legislation was passed protecting over 19 million acres of this area, creating the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And even just last January, President Obama proposed to designate over 12 million acres of the refuge as wilderness, further protecting it.

However, some would consider the coastal plains and the refuge sacred for other reasons. You see, this place where life begins is also where United States-owned oil reserves begin.

According to the US Geological Survey, there are approximately “896 million barrels of conventional, undiscovered oil,” located underneath the coastal plains and many individuals, corporations, and members of the government have been clamoring to drill there since the mid-1970s despite the location’s status as a wilderness refuge. While the monetary profits of such drilling are certain, the reality is that the oil that comes from the refuge would provide only 1 to 2 percent of the oil that the United States consumes each day—in that knowledge, one must consider if it is truly worth it.

Drilling in this delicate habitat would irreparably change the landscape of the environment—altering migration patterns and threatening survival rates of newborns animals and entire species, for that matter. Unfortunately, this is a pattern that we have seen too often throughout human history; we are many times willing to forego the protection of Creation and all that is in if for the “betterment” of human society, or so we think.

Scientists are actually calling this period of time the sixth extinction crisis in geological history, and according to the World Wildlife Fund, the current rate of species loss is between 1000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. It is nearly indisputable that there is one species causing this to happen. Who guessed humans? Well, you would be correct.

We find ourselves as the most dangerous predator to other species on the planet; we are superior, and our needs far outweigh the needs of creation. Or so we far too often like to think. This is not the life that we were called to, though, as our scripture today shows us.

The Creation narrative is one of the most familiar books of the Bible, yet it still holds key lessons for us to learn (or relearn) today. It’s where it all started—quite literally “In the beginning…” God created the heavens and the earth, the seas and the land, day and night, and every living creature that swims, crawls, slithers, burrows, flies, and walks. God saw what God had created and declared all of it—every last bit of it, in its original and undefiled state, as good.

In the middle of all of that creating and declaring of goodness, humans were given a special role to fill as the keepers of everything that had come before; from the beginning, God made us stewards over all of Creation, and in that moment of divine decision making, once again, God thought that doing so was good. We have been given dominion over creation and all the creatures in it; we have been given this Earth as a source of sustenance, but the Earth has also been given us to tend and care for it.

Our friends from the Gwich’in tribe know the fine balance of this role well. Earlier, I spoke about how important the Porcupine caribou is to this group of people; throughout their history, they have been tied to the caribou through countless ways.

Princess Johnson, a Gwich’in leader, wrote in a recent blog post for Sojourners that “our communities still rely heavily on the Porcupine caribou herd for sustenance, as well as our culture and spiritual wellbeing. Our elders have taught us that our connection is sacred.” Without the caribou, they would lose not only a meal source but also a connection to their culture. It seems safe to say that the caribou, and consequently the coastal plains where they breed, are a lifeline for the Gwich’in.

Yet, in spite of this, or maybe because of it, they have very specific rules about how they will or will not interact with the animals. Even in seasons where caribou are scarce, they will not go into the coastal plains to hunt, despite knowing that the hunting would be easy and the reward would be great. The Gwich’in respect the need for the caribou to have a safe space to breed and raise their calves without fear of predation in order to maintain the herd, and they would rather choose to go without than to threaten the balance of their relationship; they are willing to forego the domination that they could have over the caribou in place of having a right relationship with Creation. They see and understand the sacredness of their relationship with the caribou and the land.

Given that Genesis is only the beginning of our story, it seems fitting that we see reminders of this role we were assigned to play throughout the rest of the Bible–from the Wisdom books in the Old Testament to Paul’s letters. One scripture that reinforces the importance of taking care of what has been given to us comes from Ecclesiates 3:19– “For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals.”

It’s made clear in those few sentences that we are tied much more closely to the animal kingdom than many of us would like to think. In God’s infinite wisdom, God made our planet into a finely woven and delicately balanced ecosystem. This connection reminds me of a game that we would often play with the kids at the summer camp where I worked through high school and college. Standing in a circle, one person would throw a ball of yarn across to someone else, holding on to their end of the string. This would continue until everyone in the circle had received and thrown the yarn, always holding on to their piece before throwing it.

In the end, what was created was a web, connecting each of us to the rest. If one person were to pull on their end of the string, it would cause a chain reaction forcing everyone else to lean in or loosen their hold. Or if another person dropped their end, the rest of the group would have to pick up the slack to keep the web together.

In this way, much like the yarn connected our group, we are all connected in Creation with one another. Anything that I can do, will affect Creation around me. Every time I drive a car or water the garden or throw away trash, I’m altering the environment; sometimes that’s a good thing as I watch the baby spinach plants grow right outside, a product of tender care, but sometimes what I do causes pollution or harm–to animals, to the earth, or even to other people. And sometimes I don’t even realize the impact of what I’m doing.

We live in a world where we are fairly far removed from seeing the results of our choices. Driving a car or using a plastic anything requires petroleum, which has to come from somewhere. It’s easy to fill up the gas tank or drink out of a water bottle and not consider the line of production that it took to get to me. Without seeing how the coastal plains will be damaged, and the caribou herds being driven out, and the Gwich’in losing a part of their heritage, it makes it a lot easier to drop the ball on being a good steward to the earth. And God sees what is being done, and knows that it is not good.

On the sixth day, God created humankind and put us in charge. While we’ve veered off course, often choosing domination over creation instead of serving and tending to it, it is not too late–for us or for the earth. We can take simple steps every day to be stewards, whether that’s just taking the time to learn more about the impacts that our choices make, like where our food comes from or how the things we buy impact the earth, or if it means taking concrete steps like choosing to walk or bike more or even just turning off the water while we brush our teeth. Little steps add up to make big changes.

God saw what God made, and knew that it was good. If we each took a little more time out of our days to see the good in creation, we would probably end up with a greater appreciation and a greater caring for what is around us. By choosing to see the divine spark that all of us–people, animals, and even plants–were created with, we would not so quickly take the easy path of destruction or harm. I know it is a lot harder for me to take the lazy way of unsustainable choices or to want to see the end of certain species (mosquitoes) when I remember that we all belong to God.

Perhaps the best thought comes from one Gwich’in leader. When asked how to say “wilderness” in the Gwich’in language, she responded that there is no word for that, but that the closest phrase is to “leave it the way the Creator made.” Whether we are looking to drill in far away places for nonrenewable oil or to make changes in our own communities that would hurt God’s creation, we should take this lesson with us. Let us work as best we can to leave it as God created. And it will be declared good. Amen.

 

LET’S START AT THE VERY BEGINNING

John 1:1-18

Jeff Davidson

 

I don’t blame you if you’re a little confused. Why are we back with John the Baptist again? Isn’t he an Advent kind of guy? Isn’t he the one who tells us to prepare the way, and make the crooked paths straight and the mountains and the valleys level? Didn’t you preach about him a few weeks ago? Maybe it was Jenn or Nate, but I’m sure I remember something about John from Advent.

You’re right. John the Baptist is an Advent kind of guy. We almost always preach about him during Advent, and he usually shows up a couple of other times a year. I admit, though, that this may be the first time I have mentioned John the Baptist so soon after Advent and Christmas.

Let me say, just in case some of you don’t know, that John the Baptist is not the same guy as the one who wrote the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John has traditionally been attributed to the same guy who was John, Jesus’s disciple, and the style of the Gospel of John is similar to 1, 2, and 3 John – three small books later in the Bible, and the Revelation of John. John the Baptist, on the other hand, was killed by King Herod. We’ll come back to John the Baptist in a minute or two.

Did any of you watch the sing-along version of “The Sound of Music” that was on TV a week or two before Christmas? I didn’t get to watch the whole thing, but I got to see a couple of songs that I’ve known since I was a kid. The first was “My Favorite Things” and the second was “Do Re Mi.”

Until that night, until just a couple of weeks ago, I had thought that the syllables “do re mi fa so la ti” were written for that song. Julia told me that I was wrong, that those seven syllables had been used to teach the traditional seven tone scale for a long time. I did not know that, so I looked it up.

The use of do, re, mi, and the rest to teach the notes of the musical scale goes back to around the eleventh century, the ten-hundreds. Using those sounds to represent music is called solfege, and the sounds themselves come from an 8th century piece called “The Hymn of Saint John.” The words of that hymn are, “So that these your servants can, with all their voice, sing your wonderful feats, clean the blemish of our spotted lips, O Saint John!”

So today’s sermon is not the first time that Saint John and “do re mi” have been associated. They’ve been together since the 8th century, 1400 years ago. I think that’s kind of cool. And the principle behind the use of solfege, do re mi, is similar to the principle (or one of the principles) in our scripture reading from John’s gospel. Julie Andrews sang that principle in this song: “Let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start.”

Once you know the notes that go with do, re, mi, fa, so, la, and ti then you can sing most songs. Like Julie Andrews said, “Once you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything.” You don’t have to read music – you just have to read those little syllables. If I want you to sing the notes that go with “Doe, a deer, a female deer” I don’t have to write out the musical notation – I can just write the syllable “do re mi do mi do mi.” Right? When you know the notes to sing, when you start at the very beginning, you can sing most anything.

When you start at the beginning you learn the essentials. And the Gospel of John starts at the beginning. No, I don’t mean with Christmas. John doesn’t have a Christmas story in it. No manger, no star, no angels appearing to shepherds in the fields, no Mary and Joseph, none of that. After the part of the Gospel of John that we read, it moves straight into John the Baptist. You may have seen the heading in your Bible when we were doing the scripture reading – “John the Baptist denies being the Messiah.” John the writer skips ahead about thirty years and picks up Jesus’s earthly life about two or three years before it ends.

So what does it mean that the gospel writer starts at the very beginning if there’s nothing in there about the birth of Jesus? How can a story start at the beginning when it skips thirty years? It can’t. The mistake we make sometimes is thinking that the birth of baby Jesus is the beginning of Jesus. That isn’t so.

In the beginning, the very beginning, was the Word. There’s a capital W on that “Word.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That’s verse 1, and then that word with a capital W doesn’t appear again until verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” The Word was in the beginning, with God; in fact the Word was God. The Word became flesh and lived among us. Whose birth have we just finished celebrating who became flesh and lived among us? Jesus. So Jesus is the Word, and the Word was there in the beginning, and the Word was God. In other words, Jesus is God. Jesus is the Creator.

Let’s start at the very beginning of Jesus – the very beginning of the world. We don’t think of Jesus as being there with Adam and Eve, with Moses, with David, with the prophets and in the exile. We think of Jesus as starting off in a manger, and in terms of the man that we call Jesus that is correct. But the Word – the capital W Word that came to earth in human form as Jesus – the Word was there at the creation of the world. The Word was there from the very beginning.

Starting at the beginning means that you build a foundation for what is to come. Starting at the beginning means you’re taking care of the basics, you’re preparing for the future and taking at least some steps to help determine what that future will be. With “do re mi” you’re preparing for a future where you can sing and make music and share that music with others without having to teach them how to read music. When we recognize Jesus’s presence at the creation, it changes how we read the Bible. It helps us to realize that God was present, Jesus was present, throughout the Old Testament. Jesus was present during the wandering in the wilderness. Jesus was present during the joyful times of King David. Jesus was present during the exile. Jesus has been present with God’s people since the creation, since the very beginning.

When we recognize that, when we know that and live out of that, we can know that Jesus will be present with us in all of our lives, the good times and the hard times, the times of celebration and the times of exile. When we start at the very beginning, it helps us to know a little more about what we can do, where we can go, what we can accomplish and it reminds us that we are not alone.

As individuals of faith we can go back to the very beginning and recognize Jesus with us in our journey. I know that I have told this joke before, but that has never stopped me. It’s a cartoon I saw that’s based on the old story about a person seeing two sets of footprints on the beach. The person is dreaming this, and dreaming that she is with Jesus, and she says to Jesus, “What are those two sets of footprints?” And Jesus says, “Those are the times in your life when you and I were walking together.” And she says, “But Jesus, there I see only one set of footprints – why did you abandon me?” Jesus says, “My daughter, that one set of footprints is not where I abandoned you. That one set of footprints is where I carried you.”  And then the cartoon adds one more panel to this old story, where Jesus says, “And that long deep groove over there? That’s where I had to drag you kicking and screaming.”

Anyway, as individuals of faith we can go back to the very beginning of our lives and recognize where Jesus has been with us on our journey, whether it’s walking along with us, carrying us, or dragging us along. Sometimes something comes along that makes us examine our lives, that makes us take a look at what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. The New Year is kind of a natural time for that; that’s why we have New Year’s resolutions. We’ve taken a look at our lives and decided we need to change something or improve something or leave something behind or develop some sort of habit. Sometimes it takes, sometimes it doesn’t, but there is value in taking a look at our lives, seeing where we’ve been from the very beginning and looking ahead to where we want to go.

That’s what we did as a congregation last year with our visioning meetings and our tagline. We went back to the very beginning; not chronologically, not back to the 1890’s when the church was founded or the 1920’s when this older section of the building was built. We went back to the very beginning in terms of our spiritual roots and spiritual foundation. We prayed, we studied scripture, we talked with one another, and we developed a new way to describe what we are about. Seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.

It’s a nice tagline. It’s a nice thing to put on our letterhead or our business cards or on the website or in the worship folder. But if that’s all it is, then it’s probably not worth sharing it. Although we only came up with it last year, it’s one way that we as a congregation have tried to go back to the very beginning. It’s one way that we as a congregation have looked at how Jesus has been with us on our journey from the beginning, and have tried through prayer and study and conversation to walk with Jesus into the decades to come. It’s a re-statement of what we’re about, what we hope to accomplish, what we believe God is calling us to. It’s new, but it also takes us back to the very beginning.

What does it mean for you to go back to the very beginning? What does it mean for you to go back to the basics of “do re mi?” How do you recognize Jesus’s presence with you throughout your life up to this point? Where do you think Jesus is calling you to go next? If you were to develop a tagline for your own life, what would it be?

This is the first Sunday of the New Year. A great time to start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. Amen.

 

 

THE HEAVENS ARE TELLING

Psalm 19:1-4a, Genesis 3:8-15

Jeff Davidson

The skies reveal God’s glory. Do you believe that? A lot of people do. A lot of people look at the sky, at the beautiful sunset with oranges and purples across the sky, they look at the bright stars and moon at night, they consider how all the planets revolve on their axes and go around the sun without running into each other, a lot of people look at the skies and are moved to an awareness of God. Maybe it’s a rational, scientific consideration of the planets and their compositions and the like, or maybe it’s an emotional response to the beauty and wonder of the creation. Either way, it’s the heavens proclaiming God’s glory.

When I was a kid I would sometimes notice the flowers in our garden. They would always grow in a direction that got them the most sun possible. Since our houseplants did the same thing, Mom would turn them from time to time so they would grow straight and not crooked, so that each side would get an equal amount of sun.

When you walk through a woods you’ll see some small trees and plants on the floor of the woods growing up at angles. That’s because there’s only a limited amount of sun coming through the canopy of the trees. The plants on the bottom have to grow whichever way they can to expose themselves to the maximum amount of sun.

We’re kind of the same way as the plants sometimes. Blaise Pascal said, “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every (person) which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” Sometimes we try to fill that vacuum with different things, but once we start trying to fill it with God the rest of our lives are an effort to move closer to God, an effort to grow and develop and live the way God calls us to. Sometimes our faith journey will bend us in one direction or another, but it always keeps us moving towards God. Just as the plants have a sun-shaped vacuum that they try to fill, so do we try to fill our God-shaped vacuum.

Let me tell you something about whales, particularly the North Pacific Humpbacked Whale. When it comes time for mating season, all the males sing a mating song. The interesting thing about that is that there are several mating songs for this particular whale, and all the males all sing the same song at the same time. From time to time the song changes. Led Zeppelin – the song remains the same. North Pacific Humpback Whales – the song changes. And when the song changes, they all switch to the same song. All the whales, all over their world, all singing the same song.

It sounds a little like the Holy Spirit, doesn’t it? We’re all bound together across the miles by the love of God and the bond of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches us how to sing and the Spirit leads us in praising God and serving God. We don’t always listen as well as the whales, but the Spirit is there – leading us, teaching us, keeping us together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Something from the heavens proclaimed God’s glory to me a while back. It was a gray day – we’ve had a lot of those lately, haven’t we – and I was walking into the Manassas Mall, and there was a songbird of some kind sitting on the roof of the mall over the entrance singing and singing and singing. The sound was so clear, so bright, so musical, so beautiful.

This bird’s song cut through the gray of the day, it cut through the traffic sounds, it cut through the kind of fog we all walk around in sometimes. This bird’s song cut through all of that and reminded me of what it’s like to live as a Christian. Standing up wherever you are, and singing the song of God. Living your life with joy. Doing what God made you to do, and doing it with all your heart. That bird expressed more of the joy and the truth of Christian living than many of us might feel in a week.

Historically the Church of the Brethren has emphasized the importance of living simply. It doesn’t get much simpler than nature, does it? In the beginning of the world, at the creation in Genesis, it was pretty simple. There was God, nature, man, and woman. That’s it. That’s the list.

What happens when sin enters the world? What happens when God is disobeyed? All of a sudden it isn’t so simple. All of a sudden the man and the woman are aware of their nakedness, and they’re ashamed. All of a sudden there is a complication. At the creation, it was as simple as it could possibly be. It was never that simple again, as Adam and Eve have to move, as Adam has to start to work, as Eve has to bear children, and it goes on and on and on from there, more and more and more complicated, farther and farther from the simplicity which was God’s intent at the beginning of the world.

Last week Jenn talked about Elkanah and his two wives, Peninnah and Hannah. Peninnah had higher status than Hannah within the Hebrew community because she had children and Hannah did not. After much praying and a blessing from the priest Eli, Hannah has a boy, whom she names Samuel, and who she turns over to Eli to be raised for the priesthood.

As Jenn mentioned last week, Samuel became an important Israelite leader. He was the last of the Hebrew judges and the first of the major Hebrew prophets. Jenn said that Samuel anointed the great King David, but that wasn’t the first king that Samuel anointed. The first king was Saul.

Before Saul, the Israelites were led by the judges – heroes, leaders, wise men and women who were used by God to get the Israelites through difficult times. The Israelites didn’t have a king – God was their king. The relationship between the Hebrew people and God was just about as simple as it could have been after the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, it was God speaking directly to Adam and Eve. Now, thousands of years later, there is still only one more step added – God speaks to the judges, who speak to the people.

That’s not good enough for the Hebrew people, though. They want to have a king, just like all the other countries around them. Jenn talked about status last week and how God turns our expectations of status upside down. The Israelites hadn’t learned that yet – they thought it would be cool to have a king like all the other countries.

Samuel tries to warn them. You can read it in 1 Samuel chapter 8 starting at verse 4: “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’ But (it) displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only–you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

“So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

“But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

“Samuel said to the people, ‘Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship.’ So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal.There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the Lord, and there Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly.”

Let me boil that down to it’s essence. Samuel told the people, “Having a king isn’t going to be as simple as you think.” The people said, “We don’t care.”

The Church of the Brethren has thought that simplicity was important from the very beginning. That’s because they looked to the New Testament as their rule of faith and practice, and Jesus lived a simple life. The early believers lived simple lives. They didn’t let things get in the way of what God wanted them to do.

But simplicity in the Bible starts even before the early church. It starts even before Jesus comes to earth. It starts before our Psalm about the heavens telling the glory of God. Simplicity in the Bible starts before the Israelites mess it all up with a king, even before Adam and Eve commit that first sin. It starts at the very beginning – with God, nature, and people.

And believe it or not, there isn’t all that much more today. There’s still God – who has been made known on Earth in Jesus Christ and who still dwells with us through the Holy Spirit. There is nature. There is us. And then, there’s everything else.

Don’t let the “everything else” get in the way. We have a responsibility as Christians to keep it simple, to provide and maintain places where nature can flourish. We have a responsibility to let nature speak not just to us, but to people who may never have had the chance to see it, to children yet unborn for whom the development and sprawl that we see now will be a given, for whom “nature” may be Seward Square park across the street, and for whom “the country” is hours and hours and hours away. We have a responsibility to develop wisely if we must develop, and to preserve God’s creation where we can.

The heavens are telling the glory of God. As we make decisions about what we buy and how we drive and the ways we live, let us be aware of the ways the heavens can speak to us and to others. Let’s be aware of the responsibility that God has given us as stewards of the earth to make sure that the heavens can continue to speak. Let us look to live simple lives and encourage simplicity where we can. And when nature and the heavens speak simple to us of the glory and the truth of God, let us listen. Amen.