First Congregational Church
April 24, 2015
Fifth Sunday after Easter
“Footprints On the Earth”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A new pastor was visiting in the homes of his parishioners. At one house it seemed obvious that someone was at home, but no answer came to his repeated knocks at the door. So, he took out a business card and wrote 'Revelation 3:20' on the back of it and stuck it in the door. When the offering was processed the following Sunday, he found that his card had been returned. Added to it was this cryptic message, 'Genesis 3:10.’ Reaching for his Bible to check out the citation, he broke up in gales of laughter. Revelation 3:20 begins 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock.' Genesis 3:10 reads, 'I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid for I was naked.’
Funny the stuff we don’t know that really is in the Bible. Perhaps the book of Leviticus is the hardest/harshest. Leviticus 10:6 says: “Uncover not your heads, neither rend your clothes.” So while some modern hipsters have the slouch hat right, those ripped jeans are a sin. It’s the book that says that "Anyone who dishonors father or mother must be put to death. Such a person is guilty of a capital offense.” (Leviticus 20:9) Leviticus 19:19 says: "'Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material." 90% cotton, 10% rayon? Congratulations, you, too, are a sinner! Bad fashion has long been known to be a crime, just not against God!
For most of us, Thursday May 5 - Ascension Day - will float by like so many other days. But if you are tuned into the lectionary - that great prescribed reading list of Bible passages for each day of the year - then you might wonder why this passage of Christ’s ascension is being read today - eleven whole days before the event.
Part of the reason for going “off lectionary” is that I’ve wondered what it might be like to look at what the book of Acts has for us - so long after it’s writing - some 80-90 years after Christ’s death. I’m not sure how it will pan out in the long run - but I remember one of my clergy mentors doing something similar; and the idea obviously stuck.
The book is properly called The Acts of the Apostles. It’s perhaps better to use the whole name, because just “Acts” is rather vague. The link is more direct, too, from apostles to disciples to us. Apostles are more properly “teachers,” while disciples are more rightly “students,” and aside from those original thirteen, everyone else since then - and us - would then rightly be students of the teachers of Our Teacher.
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Thank you, Michael. In just eleven days, it will have been forty days since Easter. The number forty should throw up a little yellow flag of other forties: Noah’s rain of forty days and nights, the Israelites’ forty years eating desert manna, Moses’ forty days getting the Ten Commandments, and Jesus’ forty days in the desert of temptation, to name some of the big 40’s.
There’s another link in this passage and Easter - and that’s in the “suddenly two men dressed in white” part. In this author’s “former book,” the book we call Luke, there were “suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning (that) stood beside” the women that went into Jesus’ tomb. We suspect those two men - in both instances - to be angels - which is - in reality - as odd as the admonition against mixing clothing fibers.
If for no other reason, we need this reminder that Jesus’ ascension fulfills his circle - shepherds looking to the sky at a star when he was born, the apostles looking to the cloud that received Jesus back. His ascension back to God’s right hand reminds us that we, like Jesus, are spiritual beings having a human experience - that eternity is really our home.
While all that about “up there” and all the stuff that’s actually “in” the passage - equally interesting - maybe more interesting - at least to me - is what’s “not” there, and what’s left “down here” in the real world of our “here and now.
In a nod to last week’s Earth Day celebration, Ole and Sven were sitting in a kayak and got a little chilly, so they lit a fire in the craft. Unsurprisingly it sank, proving once again that you can't have your kayak and heat it too. Two antennas met on a roof, fell in love and got married. The Ceremony wasn't much, but the reception was excellent. A man walks into a bar with a slab of asphalt under his arm and says: "A beer please, and one for the road."
Albrecht Dürer was a German painter, printmaker, theorist and contemporary of Raphael, Bellini and da Vinci. What he “didn’t” see in the account from Acts, he put into a woodcut that I’ve printed here for “show and tell.” What Dürer didn’t see was footprints, specifically, Jesus’. So he had Jesus on a rise of some sort, near eye-level with the apostles - so they wouldn’t miss them.
Maybe Herr Dürer was simply imagining a homey detail that isn't in the text, as Barbara Lundblad, preaching professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City said. Or, perhaps, the artist is pressing us with the old question, "Why do you stand looking up into heaven? Look at these footprints here on the earth."
Jesus’ dusty footprints are all over the pages of the gospels: in the desert, walking on the wrong side of the street with the wrong sort of people, walking up to Zacheaus’ tree and inviting himself for dinner, stumbling with the cross on the way to the place of The Skull.
The Ascension is probably the most difficult event in the life of Jesus for us to reconcile with a scientific worldview. For Christians, that’s a big place where faith comes in to play. Regardless of our position on the reality of Jesus’ ascension, his footprints have great examples for us.
So many of us have seen, read or heard the old “Footprints in the Sand” poem by Mary Stevenson. One night I dreamed a dream, as I was walking along the beach with my Lord, across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life. For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonging to me and one to my Lord.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me, I looked back at the footprints in the sand. I noticed that at many times along the path of my life, especially at the very lowest and saddest times, there was only one set of footprints. This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it. "Lord, you said once I decided to follow you, you'd walk with me all the way. But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life, there was only one set of footprints. I don't understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me."
He whispered, "My precious child, I love you and will never leave you; never, ever, during your trials and testings. When you saw only one set of footprints, It was then that I carried you.”
There are times in our lives when we carry other people. Sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, perhaps emotionally more times than not. As students of the teachers of The Teacher, we don’t have to carry the load of those people or situations all alone. Christ - along with the Holy Spirit - walks beside us to help us carry our burdens, even when the burden is our own self. When Christ gave the apostles that gift of the Holy Spirit, it wasn’t just for them - but for all of us - that all of us would be able to be Christ’s witnesses - to the ends of the earth.
Our work here on earth - as represented in our footprints - is important - extremely important. Whether it is helping to reconcile brokenness, or to help heal our land or to bring joy to the prisoners, our footprints matter, each and every one of them. The crazy part is that regardless of the medium, our footprints are also so very temporary.
We walk on grass and the grass may “remember” our steps for a time, but the grass grows again. We walk on asphalt, but no one sees our imprint. The wind blows and a footprint on the beach is gone in an instant. And yet, we know where we’ve been. We know what has transpired in our own lives, and that gives us credit to become the helpers to those who come our way - for whatever time we have with them.
It’s not always easy, to walk with those who need us. But that is exactly the same truth for each of us. So we pay it forward, or backward or whatever way, those footprints that came beside us, in gratitude to the other footprints that come by ours, but most especially so to honor God. So shall we pray.
Gracious God, we thank you for the example - and footprints - of your son. Thank you for sending him, raising him, returning him, and by his example, giving us certainty that we never walk alone, and that we can walk beside those who need us. Sustain us when our footprints seem aimless, and strengthen us when we tire. Receive all our footprints, in the name of your son, Jesus Christ. And all your people say, Amen
First Congregational Church
April 17, 2015
Fourth Sunday after Easter
“Time for the Sheep Talk”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
One day, I’m thinking that the phrase, “I’m bored” will be extinct. When the solitaire game won’t cut it, the electronic edition of the latest novel won’t do, and the weather is so bad, one can’t even drive over to the turnaround, there is the internet.
The site of the week was namibian.org, and the specific page was collective nouns. From it one can discover the somewhat obvious; it is a cloud of gnats, a kaleidoscope of giraffes and a crash of rhinoceros. Wrens and cranes come in herds, sparrows come in quarrels while owls come in a stare. Ducks are a paddling on water but a safe on land, sardines come in families and trout come in a hover.
In the less mundane column, it is a colony of badgers, cats come in chowders, clowders or clusters and fox come in an earth, a lead or a skulk. It is a raffle or rafter of turkeys, when swans are on land, they are a whiteness, eagles come in convocations, crows come in a clan, hover or murder and loons come in rafts. These things are important to know when conversing with other people, so you can say things like, “Yes, our pastor heard a raft of loons Friday night in Betsie Bay.” Not only would you sound cool, but you would be correct - in more ways than one.
In the just plain odd group, buffalo come in gangs or an obstinacy, turtles come in a bale or turn and swine come in a drift, herd or sounder. It is a troubling of goldfish, a brood, flutter or smuck of jellyfish and an erst of bees. They are a charm of finches, a bellowing of bullfinches, and a flurry, regiment of skein of flamingoes. Last but not least in this odd category are a pandemonium of parrots, a muster of peacocks, a congregation, flight, stand or wing of plovers, a drift of quail and an unkindness of ravens.
Narrowing in on the topic, camels, goats, lions, ostriches and sheep come in flocks. But camels also come in caravans, goats also come in trips, lions also come in prides or troops and sheep also come in mobs.
22 Then came the Feast of Dedication [That is, Hanukkah] at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon's Colonnade. 24 The Jews gathered round him, saying, How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, [Or Messiah] tell us plainly. 25 Jesus answered, I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father's name speak for me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no-one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. 30 I and the Father are one.
Thank you, Missi. Last week the church council had our annual visit from the church investment company, RW Baird. Usually, Ed Schindler and David Appleford come together, but this time, just David was able to come. It was an interesting visit; Ed usually does the talking, and David does the nodding. But this time, David stepped up to the plate and hit a good, long line drive. Like Ed has done so often, David had handouts to help engage his audience, and lines and red dots can do that.
But as he spoke, I realized that David was saying almost exactly what Ed might have said, “Don’t get concerned about the day-to-day; think about the long-haul.” David’s new news was that over the last five years that we have been with Baird, because of a generous gift from Ruth and Joe Deacon and some wise financial theory, we have made roughly 5.14% in interest, spent roughly $136,000 of accrued interest, and have still built up the base, as of last Wednesday anyway.
It struck me, in that meeting, how these two gentlemen come to remind us that we are doing well, of where to put our focus, to give the council members a real face to remember and to reassure us that their philosophy of investment hasn’t changed.
When I came across this morning’s scripture passage, I was struck with how this passage, that many of us have heard so often, is really a reminder that we, as God’s particular herd, are doing well, of where to put our focus, to give us a real sense of God’s personal presence and to reassure us of how God’s care of - and about us - hasn’t changed.
It is passages like this one from John that helps us discern our Shepherd’s voice from the other voices that clamor for our attention, many of whom claim to speak for God. Those voices are legion, but we do not always recognize how contrary they are to the voice of the Good Shepherd.
There are many voices that tell us how to grow closer to God: by having a prescribed religious experience, by believing the “correct” doctrine, by reaching a higher level of knowledge or a higher level of morality.
But here, God tells us that everything depends on belonging to the Good Shepherd. Never does our status before God depend on how we feel, on having the right experience, on being free of doubt, or on what we accomplish. It depends on one thing only: that we are known by the shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:28).
The voice of the Good Shepherd is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses. It doesn’t say, “Do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.” It says, “You already belong to me. No one can snatch you out of my hand.” Secure in that belonging and relationship, we are then free to live the abundant life of which Jesus spoke earlier in the chapter: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Most all of us know that the abundant life of which Jesus speaks is not necessarily about abundance in years, or in wealth, or status, or accomplishments. Every so often, actually, maybe every week, we need to be reminded that this life is abundant in the love of God - as we know that love in Christ, so abundant that that love can then overflow to others (John 13:34-35). We need that reminder that abundant life is eternal because its source is in God who is eternal (17:3), and in Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life (11:25-26).
Amidst all the other voices that evoke fear, make demands, or give advice, the voice of the good shepherd is a voice of promise - a voice that calls us by name and claims us as God’s own.
In picking up the baseball metaphor again, we come to the seventh inning stretch. What do you call a sheep covered in chocolate? A: A Candy Baa. Q: How do sheep in Mexico say Merry Christmas? A: "Fleece Navidad!” Q: What do you call a sheep that is always quiet? A: A shhhheep! Q: What do you get if you cross a sheep with a porcupine? A: An animal that knits its own sweaters.
We need regular reassurances to trust - trust that Christ is who he said he was. We can know the information, but putting that trust to the test - that’s different. It would be like driving on a brand new bridge for the first time. We could know that the steel, mortar and labor are of the best quality, but that is a completely different knowledge than the knowledge you would have after driving over the bridge and not falling through it. It takes a trust - of which no one can really convince you - despite all the right words and arguments.
Trusting that Christ will lead us and care for us and watches out for us is easy in one sense, but when our human timeframes and frailties and foundations come in to play, sometimes it’s hard to trust completely.
An archaeologist was digging in the Negev Desert in Israel and came upon a casket containing a mummy. After examining it, he called the curator of a prestigious natural-history museum. "I've just discovered a 3,000 year-old mummy of a man who died of heart failure!" the excited scientist exclaimed. To which the curator replied, "Bring him in. We'll check it out." A week later, the amazed curator called the archaeologist. "You were right about the mummy's age and cause of death. How in the world did you know?" "Easy. There was a piece of paper in his hand that said, '10,000 Shekels on Goliath'."
David Lose, president of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia writes to pastors, encouraging us to encourage you. “There are so many times, Dear Partner, when life conspires to make us feel unsafe and unworthy and it is our job to proclaim in the face of these harsh realities the even greater reality of God’s undying, unconditional, and unyielding love. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” There is no difference in those needing to hear this promise reminder.
How many situations can you think of that need that reminder - whether you could personally voice that assurance or not? Maybe it’s the student that has friends going through difficult times: God’s got you. Could be the one grieving so deeply that they wonder about the validity of any kind of future at all: it may feel like God is absent, but God’s got you in God’s hand. Maybe it’s the parent of the little baby screaming his or her lungs out in the emergency room: God’s holding you together, despite you feeling like your brain is going to explode. Might be all those so distressed by the disrespect and dishonor that seems to be winning the pre-elections: listen to God; turn off the tv, the radio and the internet, remember who you are and to whom you belong to. You are God’s flock - not God’s mob. So shall we pray.
Good and Holy God, we are grateful that no matter how crazy or difficult or stressful or scary our lives are, you choose us, love us, accompany us, and will hold onto us through all of life - even through death into the new life you have us. Help us to realize our part in our relationship with you - the trusting part - even when that trust seems illogical or insane. You know so much more so than we - of those who don’t have One that will offer such promises. Help us to offer those within our reach the grace of what belonging to you means and looks like. Help us to rise up as people of your flock - as people of the Good Shepherd. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
April 10, 2015
Third Sunday after Easter
“When It Goes Against the Grain”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There are limited hours in a day and in the life of a student, so we just can’t learn everything when we’re in school. To assist you in your continued learning, if you didn’t know before, a dime has 118 ridges around the edge. A cat has 32 muscles in each ear. A crocodile cannot stick out its tongue. A dragonfly has a life span of 24 hours. A goldfish has a memory span of three seconds. A "jiffy" is an actual unit of time for 1/100th of a second. A shark is the only fish that can blink with both eyes. A snail can sleep for three years. And a goldfish has a memory span of three seconds.
Back some 2,000 years ago, the realm of spirituality and religion was all over the map. Within what we consider Judaism at that time, there were Zealots, who were the terrorists against Roman Oppression. The Sadducees were the ones who didn’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection and thought peace was to compromise with the Romans. The Pharisees were the theologian legalists who thought that if they just lived according to the Old Testament laws, everything would be good. The lesser known Essenes were the ones most like our Pilgrims - just withdraw from the political hotspots and start over.
In an almost throw-away mention in our scripture passage this morning, we discover another religious group called “The Way.” It may have been a moniker for the group that followed the one who said, “I am the Way and the truth and the life.” It may have been a spin-off of John the Baptist’s preparation for “the way of the Lord.” Whatever the origins, it was the word used prior to the general acceptance of the term “Christian”.
In a bit of an aside, we don’t see it so often any more, but many of our forefathers and mothers referred to ours as the Congregational Way. You still see the term used in older publications, but this reference adds a bit of spice to this morning’s scriptural kettle.
Acts 9:1-20 (NIV) Chris Porter
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered.
11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Saul in Damascus and Jerusalem
Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.
Thank you, Chris. This is the great Paul, even though that name isn’t even used in this passage. Saul was used by his friends, while Paul was used out in the wider world. It’s the practice we use today with Bob and Robert.
Before we get too far down the sermon road, I find it an interesting “coincidence” that both Saul/Paul and Ananias, when they hear their call, respond, “Lord.” If they were using the term in a generic way, that’s cool. But what if they really knew it was God? How did they know that and not get freaked out? I suppose we will have to wait to ask them in the hereafter ourselves.
A lot of times the focus of this event is on Saul/Paul. Rarely do we hear Ananias’ involvement, nor do we perhaps think of his situation. God - asking Ananias - to go to Saul would be like asking an innocent Jewish person to go to Hitler, in his day, and ask him or her to lay hands on Hitler in order to heal him. Or asking a young girl to care for a member of Issis or other such group. In essence, it’s the imbalance of power and status that presents potential death.
In our passage though, it’s not just greater good that is behind Ananias’ summons, but God’s very self. And it’s not a suggestion on God’s part. God says, “Go.” I don’t think God ever used instructions in that “do as I say or else” tone of voice. If God is a God of love, then I think those times would be the “Go” that comes when the tornado is coming right down on you and you are told to get to the basement.
On first glance, this passage is rather removed from our regular everyday lives. Miraculous scales falling from eyes could be construed as cataract surgery, but that is a rather narrow field of application.
I don’t know about anyone else, but sometimes it is as if God is telling me to “go” do something that seems rather insane at the moment. In fact, I think God does that to us far more frequently than we realize. “I haven’t talked to so-and-so for a while. I really should call them.” Or “It’s been ages since I volunteered at church. I really should mention my willingness to do whatever.” (Oh, wait, did that really fall out of my mouth?)
But I don’t think these “Go” situations are really the whole point, either. I think it’s those times when we’d really rather not do what we know we could or should do, because, well, it’s likely to get messy and feathers may get ruffled and I’d just really love to take a nap instead. In those situations, I wonder if God limits the number of “Go” statements we receive. I would venture that we, like Ananias, get told “Go” enough to make us comfortable enough to act.
Like so many things, I think fear is a big resistance factor. What if what I “do” doesn’t go right? What if I don’t “say” the right things? What if the other person or persons turn their back to me - forever?
If God calls us to “Go,” then like Ananias, God will take care of the results and after effects. That is, in actuality, the way it is. Whatever it is we’ve been asked to do, God doesn’t send us alone. God goes with us to help us through it, in the preparation for the task, as well as in the end results. Those end results may not be within our timeframe, and our patience may need stretching more than once. But when God has need of us, God will take care of us in the process - even when it goes against our grain.
The temporary Sunday School teacher was struggling to open a combination lock on the supply cabinet. She had been told the combination, but couldn't quite remember it.
Finally she went to the pastor's study and asked for help. The pastor came into the room and began to turn the dial. After the first two numbers he paused and stared blankly for a moment. Then he looked serenely heavenward and his lips moved silently. He looked back at the lock, and quickly turned to the final number, and opened the lock.
The teacher was amazed. "I'm in awe at your faith, pastor," she said. "It's really nothing," he answered. "The number is on a piece of tape on the ceiling.”
So let us pray. Omnipotent and Omniscient God, we thank you for using us in this world in ways that are sometimes beyond our understandings. Thank you for the honor you bestow on us in being part of the maintaining and sustaining of your creation. Sometimes, when you call us to those harder moments, God, remind us that you have our backs, and that you are there with us, ready to take care of the results. Remind us to look to you for guidance, and it’s as easy as looking up. Make us bold - and humble - when you call us to this work - that we may be the balm so needed in this world. And all your people say, Amen
First Congregational Church
April 3, 2015
Holy Humor Sunday
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Christmas is a big deal within and without the life of the church, but Easter, with the exception of candy, is mostly a big deal within the church. Last week we got to celebrate Christ’s resurrection and what it means - as in hope for the future. This week we get to sit in the joy of that reality - joy that allows for laughter, thoughtfulness and appreciation.
When I was teaching, I would teach my students all the “alternative” words to songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I told them that if they were going to sing them on the playground, then as a reflection on me, they’d better sing them correctly.
It’s a similar idea with the bulletin covers this morning. If one is going to have such an inviting bulletin cover, they why not provide the color crayons to doodle during the sermon? Not only that, but coloring is becoming one of the great activities of relaxation - for adults, to -, so it’s good for you. You may commence coloring if you’ve not yet begun.
Sticking with that mindset, here are some fun things to do during boring sermons. (Even if the sermon is boring, you don’t have to be bored!) Devise ways of climbing into the balcony without using the stairs. Listen for the preacher to use a word beginning with 'A' then 'B' and so on through the alphabet. Try to raise one eyebrow. Wiggle your ears so that the people behind you will notice. Twiddle your thumbs. Twiddle your neighbor's thumbs.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
Thank you, Hugh. Some of our faith ancestors would celebrate Holy Humor Day with the playing of pranks, telling of jokes, smoking of cigars and drinking of cognac. If a church frowns on the use of wine for communion, it’s very conceivable that it will not allow for the substitution of cognac. And besides, those who struggle with addictions don’t need our help in that manner.
I don’t know if this would be considered enough of a public space, but I would imagine that the fire chief would hear about smoking cigars in a church and get a little excited. Besides, some of us are becoming more and more sensitive to smells and odors as we age.
There is nothing like a really good prank, but they aren’t so conducive to larger groups, so those are out. Sadly - or joyfully - depending on your point of view - we are left with the jokes. And really, truly, jokes are good, if they are well thought-out, because they lead to laughter. This day and being able to laugh at death is, as my buddy, Rev. Richard J. Fairchild of Spirit Networks, says….
“The laughter of knowing that God is good. The laughter of the wonder of all that God does. Biblical humor is the humor of those who know love. It is not nasty or cruel. It focuses on our failings - our pride - our silly habits - our way of thinking and speaking, and by playing with these things - transforms them.
A fisherman and his wife were blessed with twin sons. They named the boys "Toward" (spell) and "Away" because when they were infants one of the boys would always turn toward the sea, while the other boy would always face inland. It didn't matter which way the parents positioned the boys, the same child always faced the same direction.
The years passed and the boys grew. The day came when the fisherman said to his sons, "Boys, it is time that you learned how to make a living from the sea." They provisioned their ship, said their good-byes, and set sail for a three-month voyage. The three months passed quickly for the fisherman's wife, yet the ship had not returned. Another three months passed, and still no ship. Finally, after three whole years passed, the grieving woman saw a her husband walking down the lane to her house - alone.
"My goodness! What has happened to my darling boys?" she cried. The ragged fisherman told this story: "We were just barely a day out to sea when Toward hooked into a great fish. Toward fought long and hard, but the fish was more than his equal. For a whole week they wrestled upon the waves without either of them letting up. Yet eventually the great fish started to win the battle, and Toward was pulled over the side of our ship. He was swallowed whole, and we never saw the great fish or Toward again."
”Oh dear, that must have been terrible! What a huge fish that must have been!"
"Yes, it was, but you should have seen the one that got Away….”
It has been said that “you don’t stop laughing when you grow old; you grow old when you stop laughing.” If God continues to laugh at Satan’s folly, maybe we should take a lesson from God.
Four brothers left home for college, and they became successful doctors and lawyers and prospered. Some years later, they chatted after having dinner together. They discussed the gifts they were able to give their elderly mother who lived far away in another city. The first said, "I had a big house built for Mama."
The second said, "I had a $100,000 theater built in the house." The third said, "I had my Mercedes dealer deliver an SL600 to her."
The fourth said, "You know how Mama loved reading the Bible and you know she can't read anymore because she can't see very well. I met this preacher who told me about a parrot that could recite the entire Bible. It took 20 preachers 12 years to teach him. I had to pledge to contribute $100,000 a year for 20 years to the church, but it was worth it. Mama just has to name the chapter and verse and the parrot will recite it."
The other brothers were impressed. After the holidays, Mom sent out her Thank You notes. She wrote: "Milton, the house you built is so huge. I live in only one room, but I have to clean the whole house. Thanks anyway.
"Marvin, I am too old to travel. I stay home. I have my groceries delivered, so I never use the Mercedes. The thought was good. Thanks.
"Michael, you gave me an expensive theater with Dolby sound. It could hold 50 people, but all my friends are dead, I've lost my hearing and I'm nearly blind. I'll never use it. Thank you for the gesture just the same.
"Dearest Melvin, you were the only son to have the good sense to give a little thought to your gift. The chicken was delicious. Thank you.
Ironically, I was talking to someone - just this week - who mentioned her father’s favorite book. It is a book of sermons a congregation put together in celebration of their pastor’s anniversary of ministry with them. (Now don’t get any ideas - I’ve got all my sermons on my computer, so none of them need to be commemorated beyond that.) Anyway, Rev. Carleton Brooks Miller of First Congregational Church, UCC, of Battle Creek, MI wrote a sermon called “Living Life with a Capital “L”. In that sermon, his first directive was “laugh,” as it is a form of courage. We don’t often equate laughter and courage. In fact, we most often associate laughter with foolishness.
A girl passed an old man's house on the way to Sunday School. One day the old man said, "Why do you always go to Sunday school? All they tell you is ridiculous fairy tales!" So the little girl replied, "Like what?"
"Well," the old man said, "like that story about Jonah and the giant fish. Do you really believe that that could happen?" "I don't know, but when I get to heaven I'll ask him." The old man said, "Well, what if Jonah's not there?" "Then you can ask him." the little girl replied.
Because Christ lives, we can laugh at ourselves and our peculiarities. An old-fashioned elderly lady was planning a weeks vacation in Florida at a particular campground. Uppermost in her mind were the toilet facilities, but she couldn't bring herself to write "toilet" in a letter. After considerable deliberation, she settled on the term "bathroom commode." But when the lady wrote that down, she thought it still sounded too forward. So in her letter she wrote, Does the campground have it's own B.C.?"
The campground owner was baffled. He showed the letter to several of the campers who couldn't decipher it either. Finally, the owner figured she was referring to the location of the local Baptist church. He sat down and wrote back to her the following letter:
Dear Madam: I regret very much the delay in answering your letter, but I now take the pleasure in informing you that the 'B.C.' is located nine miles north of the campgrounds, and is capable of seating 250 people at one time. I admit it is quite a distance away, if you are in the habit of going regularly, but, no doubt, you will be pleased to know that a great number of people take their lunches along and make a day of it. They usually arrive early and stay late. It may interest you to know that right now there is a supper planned to raise money to buy more seats. They're going to hold it in the basement of the 'B.C.! I would like to say it pains me very much not to be able to go more regularly. It is no lack of desire on my part. As we grow older, it seems to be more effort--particularly in cold weather. If you decide to come to our campground, perhaps I could go with you the first time. I'd sit with you and introduce you to all the other folks. Remember, this is a friendly community!
Because Christ lives, our hope is so very different than those who grieve or suffer without hope. Q: What was the name of Isaiah's horse? A: Isme, because he said: "Whoa Isme!" (Isa. 6:5).
Because Christ rose, faith is not the absence of fear, but the presence of love. New evidence has been found that William Tell and his family were avid bowlers. However, all the league records were unfortunately destroyed in a fire. Thus we'll never know for whom the Tells bowled.
Because Christ is alive, we will never know a time that Christ will not be with us. Back in the 1800s the Tates Watch Company of Massachusetts wanted to produce other products and, since they already made the cases for pocket watches, decided to market compasses for the pioneers traveling west. It turned out that although their watches were of finest quality, their compasses were so bad that people often ended up in Canada or Mexico rather than California. This, of course, is the origin of the expression, "He who has a Tates is lost!”
Joy, hope, faith, love - all those kinds of life aspects are different for us because of Christ and his resurrection. So shall we prepare our hearts for communing with the Risen Christ, the Holy Spirit, God of all.
Gracious, delightful God, we thank you for the joy of this day, and the supreme “joke” you played in Christ’s overcoming of death. When our way is drear, remind us of the joy that lies so close. When we feel despair, remind us that your hope - our hope in you - is not of this world - but beyond this world. For the gift of faith, from our ancestors to that of those who sit among us, we are grateful for their inspiration. And for the love that sent your son away from you to us, that he would show us the way home, thank you. Help each of us point the way home for all those who happen our way. For all your joy, hope, faith and love, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
March 27, 2015
Easter Resurrection Sunday
“Amazing Grace for the Grieving”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Scripture: John 20:1-18 Bob King
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.
Through the whole season of Lent, we looked at God’s Amazing Grace; for the Faithful, the Tempted, the Healed, the Free, the Filled, the World, and the Thief. We would have looked at Amazing Grace for the Servant, but that was Maundy Thursday, and Mother Nature had a different thought about that. When you think about the individuals that fall into those categories and ourselves over all the various times of our lives, we get a much larger understanding of how great that grace is.
The original title of the sermon was “Amazing Grace for the Grieving.” As good as the notion is, I thought, “Really, addressing grief on a Sunday with one of the best attendance numbers of the year, and you’re going to drop a downer like that?”
Like I said, the premise is fair, because who among us cannot identify with Mary Magdalene? Regardless of the proximity of relationship, all of us have been touched by death, sometimes to the core of our being. But again, what minister in their right mind would focus on such a dreary point of view?
Besides, I’ve not met anyone who is “into” grieving all that much. Most folks I encounter would rather have root canals sans novocain, fingernails scraped on bulletin boards and/or mix stripes with plaids than deal with grief. As much “fun” as any of those alternatives are, avoiding grief is as short-sighted as avoiding joy.
Consciously or unconsciously, somehow we are taught to get over our grief, to suck it up and get on with life. Sometimes we even fall for the adage that it’s the American way to ignore and avoid what is really going on inside our hearts. We’re so uncomfortable with death and grief, people reject their own funeral or memorial service, thinking they are doing their family and friends a favor. Too often people don’t deem life important enough to allow the living to do that which can most help our pain. But like I said, what pastor in their right mind…?
Because today - we get to celebrate God’s amazing grace in that we are fully spiritual beings having a human experience. Like Mary, Peter and the other disciple, we may have trouble really grasping Jesus’ resurrection. Shock and disbelief - very human responses - can sometimes distract us from reality, which is that because the tomb was empty, we have the very real hope of re-joining those who have gone before us, in an eternity of wholeness, love, safety and beauty.
Those who believe that when we die, we fade away like mere grass, and that’s the end of it, those people grieve as those who have no hope. Broken hearts are broken hearts and that’s just the way it is. But if you believe that because Jesus lives, that all who die in faith will be raised to life as he was, then your grief is very different. It is grief with confidence in the resurrection of your loved one. It is certain that you will see your loved one again, and therefore grief no longer has the final hold on your life.
Funny thing, this world, that we are sometimes so tied to the earth, that we have trouble letting go of it. There is so much assurance in holding on - as Mary held on to the sleeve of Jesus’ tunic; the smell of a specific perfume or cologne, the feeling that that special someone brought just by knowing they were at the end of the phone.
Then Jesus calls our name, like he did with Mary. Whether it happens through a television commercial, a summer breeze, or a spectacular sermon, we are reminded that God has a bigger plan than any sorrow or temporal sadness. Maybe what we struggle with - is not so much death or grief, but the seeming lack of joy or insight that sent Mary running back to the disciples to tell them about Jesus’ Good News. Why is it that we can’t get that excited?
Some might be apt to say such behavior is rather optimistic, even fanciful. But then there’s “the other disciple’s” part of the story - the one most think is John and his evidence. There were Jesus’ words: the ones repeatedly uttered that he would be crucified and then rise from the dead. There were angels, who sat in the tomb - in very specific spots - who said Jesus had risen. And then there were the grave cloths Jesus had been wrapped in, most in a pile, but the head covering neatly folded and off to the side. Grave robbers aren’t going to fold things up. They’re going to steal the body or the valuables and get out of there fast. Why make mention of a detail that precise if it weren’t true? On the basis of all the evidence - John believed.
Truly, I didn’t plan for this big streak of grief in this morning’s message. But if you think about it, it’s such an important part of the whole Easter message. When we are at our lowest, Jesus’ resurrection reminds us that there is more to living than grief and sorrow - a lot more.
That’s true for guilt, too. Like so many individuals, I’m sure Peter did the “if only” list. If only I hadn’t denied Jesus. If only I’d not run away. If only I’d stuck up for Jesus. If only…. Such a huge piece of God’s Amazing Grace is that Jesus knew what Peter was doing, and yet Jesus didn’t get angry with Peter or berate him or embarrass him. Jesus just loved him. That’s what Jesus does with us - when we are less than we would like to be.
Slowly, from Easter Sunday and for the next while, that sense of guilt for Peter began to lift. The guilt was actually gone the day Jesus died, but the feeling of guilt stuck around.
Guilt, regret, sorrow, grief, reluctance and skepticism are all very human parts of life. So are things like relief, joy, excitement, anticipation, and receiving forgiveness. Like so many things, any one of these reactions is not better or worse than the others. They just are. Like us. None of us are greater than any other. We are all God’s children, created in God’s image.
One of the definitions of grace - the one that pertains to faith - is the free and unmerited favor of God. There is nothing we could have done, can do, ever will do, that would earn us God’s grace. There is no cost for it except for Christ’s life, which he gave willingly, that you - all of us - would be able to live life to the fullest. The whole of our lives - of which this earthly part is just a smidgeon. The amazing thing about this grace is that it’s not time constrained like a K-Mart blue light special. We simply walk into it, accept it, allowing that grace to permeate our being, that we live as a person of hope. So shall we pray.
Gracious, gracious God, we are truly grateful for the gift of your son, even if we struggle with some of the details about his life. We thank you for his gracious gift, of removing the walls between us and you, that we may live that fuller, larger life you intend for us. There are some among us, God, who are not so good with a life lived out of your amazing grace. And we know that is okay. But we do pray that you will hold those folks a little closer, to help them - and all of us - hear the healing beating of your heart. We thank you, too, for being the God of miracles and creation. In gratitude for all you have given us, for your grace, and most especially for your risen son, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
March 25, 2016
“Amazing Grace for the Thief”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
John 19:14-22 Jean Neuhardt
Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. Pilate said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he delivered Jesus over to them to be crucified. They took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the dump, called The Place of the Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.
Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”
As we have made this journey of Amazing Grace in this Lenten season, it was an easy start. Grace for the Faithful, the Tempted, the Healed, the Free, the Filled - all seemed rather logical. Amazing Grace for the World and for the Servant may have stretched some of us a little more than if we were to do the planning and perceiving. But then we get to this day.
Call me Dismas. That’s how I’ve been known since the 4th Century, although my name is nowhere mentioned in the Bible. “Dismas” may be related to a Greek word for “sunset.” That was about the time of day I died on a cross beside Jesus who had already given up his spirit to God.
Death coming so quickly to a victim of crucifixion was unusual. Sometimes it would take days for a victim to die. But it was near sundown during Passover, and with the Sabbath just beginning, the religious Jews asked that my partner in crime, traditionally named Gestas, and me be killed and buried.
To accelerate the dying process the soldiers broke my legs so I could no longer stand on the small platform to which my feet were nailed. All my body weight was now transferred to my wrists, greatly amplifying the pain and strain on my heart causing me to die quickly. And if that didn’t work, there was always the spear thrust into the side, just to make sure. But before that happened, I had plenty of time to think about my situation and compare myself to Jesus.
It was on a Friday in spring. Four of us were in the justice system, if you want to call it: justice. One was Barabbas, a murderer. There I was and, of course, Gestas. But most noteworthy was Jesus, a man both loved and hated with equal intensity. Yet in the hours that passed as we hung side by side, each on our cross, all I saw in Jesus was love. All I heard from him were words of grace.
Yet for some reason the crowd had forced Pilate to crucify this man while demanding that Barabbas be freed. If someone were to be freed, why not me or Gestas? After all, we were just petty thieves, not killers. Or even more appropriately, why not let Jesus go?
He’d done nothing deserving death, actually nothing wrong at all. Pilate even said so. But no. “Crucify him!” the crowed demanded, “Crucify him!” and “Let Barabbas go!”
Whatever possessed these people to make such an unjust request? Well, you see Barabbas’ full name was “Jesus Barabbas” meaning, “Jesus, son of the father.” By demanding freedom for Barabbas, the crowd was heaping the greatest expression of contempt they could think of on Jesus. Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of the Father must die, but a murderer who shares his name must go free! Could there be any greater insult or rejection than that?
Maybe you wonder why two petty thieves and a man who claimed to be the Son of God were being crucified at all. Isn’t that incredibly harsh? Why didn’t they just make us spend some time in prison? Well, in my day and throughout most of history, prison was not punishment. It was not a “penitentiary” where wrongdoers contemplated their crimes and resolved to do better. That was a Quaker idea from the 19th Century. Prison in my day was where you waited till you could be punished by scourging or very often death.
So it was that I, Dismas, Gestas and Jesus were sentenced to die by crucifixion. We two malefactors had been duly tried and found guilty, even admitting our crimes, but Jesus was never convicted of anything. He was only sentenced. And since a holiday was coming and everyone wanted to go home early and have the weekend off, and since it was cheaper to kill three on the same day, we were all crucified together on what you call “Good Friday,” or “God’s Friday.”
My time in prison awaiting punishment had done nothing to improve my character. I was still a sorry, miserable and impenitent thief when they nailed me to my cross and hoisted me up. I was still irreverent and full of cursing, even as I was about to face the Judge of all flesh and hear from God my eternal fate.
After we’d all been lifted up above the crowds, the taunts and catcalls poured in against Jesus. Like a schoolyard full of bullies, Gestas and I joined them. One man called out, “If he is the king of Israel, let him come down from the cross and we will believe in him!” (Matthew 27:42). “Are you not the Christ?” Gestas shouted. “Save yourself, and us!” (Luke 23:39).
This was all just hateful sarcasm, of course. Crucified men never came down from crosses until they were dead. But despite his tormentors, Jesus never responded with the anger and hatred you’d expect. Remarkably, all his words conveyed kindness and concern even as he was dying. He forgave those who mocked him. He arranged for the care of his mother. He prayed.
As I reflected on the provocations he was enduring, these were not the responses of an ordinary man. These were not words of retribution but of redemption. These were divine words, words one could imagine being spoken by a merciful and gracious God. Might he be the divine Son of God after all? Might he be the Savior? I was beginning to think so.
I looked toward Gestas and spoke. “Do you not fear God seeing that you are under the same condemnation? We are condemned justly, for we are receiving the due reward for our deeds. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-41).
Without realizing what was happening to me, I was being converted. Comparing myself to this truly holy man I had become fully aware of my sin and for the first time admitted my sinful and lost condition to myself, the world and God. And though I had no time left to do any of the good works repentance always produces, I was truly sorry for my sins. I would do those good works if I could, but now I could only cry out to Jesus, and beg him to save me. “Jesus,” I pleaded, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom!”
Though consumed with the agony of his dying, still he heard me. And he answered me! “Truly, I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
With those words I could die in peace because they meant absolution! They meant pardon! Jesus himself had promised me forgiveness of my sin and a home in Paradise with him. That afternoon I would die, but even as Jesus would rise from the dead three days hence and ascend to God, I, too, would soon awake from the pauper’s grave where my body was dumped. Soon I would see Jesus and God and all the saints in glory.
John 19:23-42 Jean Neuhardt
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
So the soldiers did these things, but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.”
After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body.
Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
By Don Neidigk. © 2015 Creative Communications for the Parish, 1564 Fencorp Dr., Fenton, MO 63026. 800-325-9414. www.creativecommunications.com. All rights reserved.
First Congregational Church
March 20, 2016
“Amazing Grace for the World”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
The sub-themes that followed our Lenten series called “Amazing Grace” have been for the Faithful, the Tempted, the Healed, the Free, the Filled, and the Faithful. “Amazing Grace for the World” throws this topic into a whole new arena, particular in this 21st century, media-saturated day and age.
Zechariah 9:9-12 John McElduff
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” 14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:
15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” 16 At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.
17 Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. 18 Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”
Call me Zechariah. It means, “Yahweh remembers.” My father Berekiah chose my name when I was born in Babylonia to assure me and all the exiles of Israel that Yahweh would not forget God’s people; that God would indeed keep God’s promises.
And, true to the promise, Yahweh did remember. God saw the suffering people in far-off lands and gathered us like a shepherd gathers lost sheep, bringing us home again to Jerusalem. I was among the first to return. Zerubbabel was our leader and Joshua our high priest. Blessed of Yahweh, those two were. Some thought one or the other might be the Messiah we longed for, that Isaiah and the prophets before me spoke of.
I lived 500 years before the first Palm Sunday, the event you’re commemorating. Words I wrote form part of the Gospel lesson you read today. But I’d have to say, even I didn’t fully understand these words when the Spirit of Yahweh moved me to take pen and ink and set them down on the scroll.
You moderns say, “Hindsight is 20/20,” implying that over time something once misunderstood becomes clear. Perhaps, but can anyone really say he or she understands the ancient prophecies clearly? It’s been 25 centuries since I wrote mine, but if “Hindsight is 20/20” wouldn’t everyone agree on what the prophecies mean by now?
The children of Israel still misunderstood them on that first Palm Sunday. Yes, the adults and children shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13). And it was all true, but who did they think this king entering Jerusalem on a donkey was? Who did I think he was?
One of the problems we prophets have is that though we sometimes see far into the future, the events we foretell seem compressed and distorted. I’ve heard that baseball is
America’s pastime. Perhaps you’ve watched a Saturday afternoon game on television.
Have you noticed those camera shots taken behind the pitcher’s mound looking down range toward the batter and the home plate umpire? The camera is closest to the pitcher, but the batter who’s farther away looks bigger, and the umpire bigger still.
That’s the way it is with prophecy. When I penned my words, Israel was barely home again from Babylon and all the other nations where she’d been held captive. Old enemies like Egypt and Philistia to the south still threatened us. Hostile Arabs menaced us to the east, as did rich and powerful Tyre to the north.
And as if that weren’t enough, with the discerning eye of the prophet, I could see a new enemy on the horizon, Greece, soon to become more powerful than all the old enemies and even the current power in our part of the world, Persia.
So when I wrote these words quoted in the Gospel, I understood them to speak of a Messiah that was coming right away, in my day, a Messiah who would vanquish every oppressor of God’s people, from Egypt, all the way to Persia, and to the ends of the earth.
He would be a Messiah very different from the kings he came to conquer. This Messiah would be gentle. He would ride a donkey like the common people. He would free from the dry cisterns every child of God held prisoner in far-off lands. Soon, in my day, Yahweh would honor his covenants with Moses and Abraham and through the Messiah extend his divinely enforced peace over all the world.
This is how I understood my vision of Messiah’s coming in triumph into the holy city. He would come to the temple we had struggled to rebuild and had just now finished. He would take up residence there as our priest and king. Jerusalem would become strong and prosperous again. The kings of the earth would enter our city and bow down. The Lord would reign from Zion over all the world, and we, the people of God would be happy and safe forever.
But my day came and went and it didn’t happen. The Greeks came and oppressed us, as had the Canaanites and the Midianites and the Assyrians and the Babylonians and the Persians. Yes, Yahweh raised up Judas the Hammer who got rid of the Greeks. (This is not the Judas most people “know,” but one that lived long before him.) Valiantly, that prior Judas fought against the sons of Alexander’s generals and defeated them. Some thought Judas was the Messiah. But ultimately Judas and his family were a disappointment.
So my understanding of my own vision was far from accurate. But still the children of Israel clung to it, and were doing so when Jesus appeared outside Jerusalem in the days of the Romans. Might he be the Messiah, the common people wondered? Yes! This is the Messiah! This is the Son of David! “Save us, Lord!” they shouted, waving palm branches as they had done for Judas, throwing garments on the ground before him, their version of a red carpet.
The circumstances were much the same as in my day. Israel was still weak and defenseless. Roman armies occupied the land (at the invitation of my people, mind you!) after we’d had enough of the corrupt descendants of Judas. Roman chariots were in Ephraim, their warhorses in Jerusalem, their bowstrings always ready to launch iron tipped arrows at anyone who rebelled.
In my day, the leaders of Israel had sold out the people like a merchant would sell sheep to the highest bidder for personal gain. Long before the first Palm Sunday, the priests and Pharisees had done the same.
If you read my prophecy you can see why the people of Jerusalem were so excited when Jesus entered the city. He was riding on a donkey, no less! (Zechariah 9:9c). It would be with just such a humble entrance that Yahweh’s self would come! Hadn’t I said so? Soon there would lightning from heaven and the great sound of a trumpet heralding the destruction of Israel’s enemies, just as I had predicted! (Zechariah 9:14).
“The Lord their God will save them in that day,” I had prophesied, “as the flock of his people; they shall sparkle in his land like jewels in a crown” (Zechariah 9:16). Jerusalem would once again be a city filled with people; boys and girls playing in the streets, old ladies walking with canes, old men sitting and talking. It would be the best world anyone could imagine when the Messiah came, riding on his donkey. That’s what those people thought on the first Palm Sunday.
But of course, things didn’t quite turn out that way, just as my own understanding of the vision was never realized. Yes, Jesus did cast some money changers out of the temple. He did work a few miracles. He did teach in the temple portico. He did have a few arguments with the leaders. He did delight the people with his verbal victories over his opponents.
But at the end of the day, the Romans were still there. The priests and Pharisees continued to oppress the people. And a week later, Jesus was dead. Thank God he was raised again after three days, giving new hope and confidence to his followers!
But had they learned anything? Have you learned anything? Is hindsight really 20/20?
As I look ahead to your day, I see Christians reading the paper, scouring the web, attending prophecy conferences and making all the same mistakes God’s people have made over the centuries. Even today there are faithful but confused people eager to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem in preparation for Messiah’s return. When will the faithful learn that prophecy is timeless and current events are not necessarily the place to see its fulfillment?
The truth is that Messiah has come and has already done what he intended to do. You see, the oppressor has never really been the nations surrounding Jerusalem, or even the drug dealers or the child molesters in your own neighborhood. Rather, the oppressor is Satan and the powers of darkness that control the uncertain. But you need not be afraid because those very powers of darkness were broken at the cross and the empty tomb of Jesus. And “Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
And when will the faithful learn that the Jerusalem of God is not a city in Palestine but a kingdom of souls freed from the power of evil by faith in Christ? I’m speaking of the Church of course, a community made up of everyone joined to his victory by faith. The return of the scattered people of God is not just about Jews returning to the ancient land of Israel; that’s but a picture of the real return of God’s people as they repent of their evil ways, trust Jesus as the Messiah and Savior from sin, and are welcomed into the shelter of the Church he died to save.
This is how the Messiah answers the shouts of his people, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (John 12:13a). This gathering of people today, all of you gathered in the name of Jesus are the holy city. The gates you throw open to welcome the King are your hearts. The enemy he drives out, the chariots he smashes, the bloody clothes he burns, the arrows he breaks, are sin and Satan and evil.
When this is the Messiah and Savior you welcome with shouts of “Hosanna!,” then you truly celebrate God’s wondrous grace. But if you think he’s come to destroy the Russians or the Chinese or the North Koreans, or Al Qaeda, you will be sadly disappointed. In fact, you will be completely wrong. This very day he comes offering even them deliverance, forgiveness and welcome if they but repent and receive him in faith.
Now don’t get me wrong. Remember I said prophecy distorts images of the future and often compresses them. There is yet a Judgment Day, and those who reject the first judgment day ultimately will be excluded from the Kingdom of God.
First judgment day? What do I mean by that? By that I mean the cross. That lightening and trumpet and wrath of God against God’s enemies foretold by prophets like me has already taken place. It happened when Jesus died. There at the cross, the whole of the divine fury against sin was directed at Jesus in the place of sinners. Now God offers the olive branch of peace through faith in God’s Son.
Every moment of every day since Good Friday and Easter Sunday is a time of amnesty, an invitation to lay down every weapon, to cease rebellion and come home to God.
God’s waiting ever so patiently for you to hear God’s pleadings to come, for you to stand at Jesus’ feet. All are welcome. And once you’ve come, you’ll wonder why anyone would ever wait, because, now, having come, you can’t help but celebrate the wonders of God’s grace.
Thank you, Zechariah. This past Thursday, those pastors at the Ministerial Association got to doing something we hardly ever do: talking politics. What was interesting is that while no names were really spoken, there was a common consensus of the concern that all of us - all across this nation - remember the big picture in this political season. Zechariah and the people from his day thought the Messiah was for them and their time. They forgot or didn’t realize that there was a larger picture to the prophecies.
So there is a larger picture to God’s amazing grace - larger than just the forgiveness of your or my sins - but for the sin of the world - all of us - throughout time and for all eternity. Until the day when Christ comes again, we will always have those among us with whom we will disagree, those who drive us to the brink just by their mere presence. Just as Christ rode in gentleness amidst the very ones who would disavow him, we have his example of making our way amidst those who don’t understand us or our motivations. God didn’t send Christ just for us, but for all of us - those we love, those we tolerate, those who push our buttons and get under our saddles, yes, even those we would call “enemy.”
God’s amazing grace is big enough that we don’t have to like all those in God’s kingdom, but helps us to love those seem unloveable. For that kind of grace, so should we pray.
Gracious God, we thank you for the balance you give us in our lives, most especially for the grace that is not just for favorites, but for each and every one of us - throughout time and realm. Help us to realize that whether we’re doing dishes, raking last year’s leaves or trying to hold on to our sanity, that you offer us your grace - your divine, free, eternal, larger-than-life, covering everything grace. For those times when your grace saved our necks - literally or figuratively - even spiritually - we are grateful. For this gift that grows greater as the weeks have gone by, all your people say, Amen.
By Don Neidigk. © 2015 Creative Communications for the Parish, 1564 Fencorp Dr., Fenton, MO 63026. 800-325-9414. www.creativecommunications.com. All rights reserved
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.