Sunday, January 27, 2013

The WORDLESS Sermon


A Sermon Based Upon Psalm 19
Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Zion Baptist Church
Epiphany 3, January 27th, 2012

“The heavens are telling the glory of God;…Day to Day pours forth speech.  (Psa 19:1,2 NRS)

How would you like to have a sermon without words?  

A few years ago, mysterious billboards started popping up in Greensboro, and other cities around the nation.   An anonymous donor sponsored these billboards with a spiritual message that caught the attention of drivers all across the nation.   Each quotation was signed "God."    Originally eighteen sayings were selected for billboards in south Florida, but it soon mushroomed into more than 10,000 across the nation.    

SERMON WITHOUT WORDS  
Long before any billboards were erected claiming to be a message from God, God had already emblazoned God’s own handwriting for all to read.   More than three thousand years ago a king looked at the vast array of stars and cried, "The heavens declare (NRSV ..are telling) the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands."  

That king was David, and he was speaking of God’s sermon, the sermon that is preached every day the sun rises----a sermon without words.    Although David was a powerful man, David felt dwarfed by the power of the creator of the heavens.  On a clear night David could likely see 2,000-3,000 stars. If he’d had a good pair of binoculars he could have seen 100,000 stars.  Today, with the Hubble Telescope it is estimated that in our galaxy alone there are 100’s of millions, or about 10 to 10th or 12th power stars; and we also know that there are at least 10 to 10th power galaxies out there all with hundreds of million stars in each one.   David would never have dreamed that, but interestingly, even with the relatively few stars he could observe, it was enough to stagger him, as he observed God’s sermon without words. 

David didn’t have a laptop, but he had a rooftop where he watched the sunrise and sunset, and what he saw spoke to him of the grandeur of God.  He believed God was speaking to the inhabitants of the earth by means of God’s amazing, limitless, creation.   What if David had had not only a telescope, but a microscope?  What more could he have said or seen?    The late Dr. Carl Sagan marveled that a single human chromosome containing 20 billion bits of information.  This corresponds to four thousand 500 page books—and that’s only one chromosome!   

The created world preaches and reveals God in a very general way, pointing people beyond themselves to the ultimate power, creator and source of everything.  The apostle Paul reiterated this truth when he wrote, "From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made…so they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God." (Rom 1:20)   For decades, philosopher Anthony Flew argued that religious beliefs could not meet modern, scientific criteria for rational acceptance.  But in 2004, at the age 81, he changed his mind. The complexity of DNA convinced him that "intelligence must have been involved" in the design and creation of life.  Flew is not yet a Christian, but he became a deist.  The evidence available to everyone of us, when we walk outside, seen a sunrise or sunset, or see the star-lite heavens, is evidence that can persuade even the most ardent atheist that some sort of ultimate power, truth, or creator, must exist.  

Who cannot see the truth of God in the glittering stars flung across his heavenly billboard?  There is so much to consider:  The earth in perfect orbit around the sun—close enough to sustain life but far enough away to keep from burning up.
Sculpted mountains, the earth’s crust carved into a breathtaking canyon, fish that glow in the blackest depths of the sea, the meticulously spun web of a gray spider, molecules, atoms, electrons, the growth of a child in the womb, birth—these all clearly attest to a Creator who made everything, including us.   One leader of the French Revolution, Jean Bon St. Andre, said to a peasant, "I will have all your steeples pulled down, so you will not be reminded any more of your old religion." The peasant replied, "But you cannot help leaving us the stars."

SERMON WITH WORDS
After describing in the first six verses how nature reflects God’s glory, David switches gears. From the sun, moon and stars he turns to consider the beauty of God’s law: God’s sermon with words. 

Earlier in the chapter the psalmist refers to God with a general name that anyone, of any religion, might use—just like our English word god.   But from verse seven on, God is called "the Lord" (a translation of the Hebrew Yahweh)—the personal name God revealed to Moses from the burning bush (Ex 3:15).  It seems as if David is saying, "Yes the heavens declare the glory of God, but God’s law reveals even more—God’s personal voice to God’s people." General revelation (creation) declares God’s glory, but the Scriptures tell us what God did so that we may celebrate that glory.  We need something more specific than creation that reveals clearly the character of God.  That "something more" is the truth, and rule of God found in the Bible.  Today’s Psalm contains synonyms for God’s word: God’s law, testimony, precepts, commandments, fear of the Lord—each describes what God’s word is;  and each pronounces what it effectually accomplishes.  We need both the nonverbal and the verbal to experience the wonder of God’s majesty: God’s world and God’s word. The better you understand your Bible and obey it, the more you will appreciate creation, and the better you will understand yourself and others which gives us stability and vitality for life.

What does it mean to obey God’s law?   A great modern example is found in the Oscar-winning movie, ‘A River Runs Through It’ (1992: dir. Robert Redford), which is based on the 1976 semi-autobiographical novella of the same name by Norman Maclean.   The movie focuses on the Maclean family, especially brothers Norman (Craig Sheffer) and Paul (Brad Pitt). Their father (Tom Skerritt) is a strict but loving Presbyterian minister, and he and the boys’ mother (Brenda Blethyn) raise the brothers in the mountains of Missoula, Montana. Reverend Maclean is fond of fly-fishing and teaches the sport to Norman and Paul. Indeed, in the film, fly-fishing becomes a motif that points to the spiritual components of communing with nature. For this minister and his two sons, there is something sacred about nature. Thus, just as Psalm 19 sees God in nature, so does the film.

Regarding adherence to the law, the movie explores this theme in the two boys. Norman is more responsible and diligent. He goes to college. He works hard. He does not engage in dissolute living. He becomes a teacher and begins dating a sweet young lady named Jessie Burns (Emily Lloyd). Younger brother Paul, by contrast, is rebellious, taking up drinking and gambling. Paul, however, masters fly-fishing to a degree that Norman does not. Paul ends up beaten to death in a drunken brawl. Thus, he is at once tragic and a figure who achieved perfection as a fly-fisherman. Paul defies laws and propriety and pays a huge price as a result. Nevertheless, he also connects with nature and spirituality through his family’s beloved sport.

This film functions as a visual cautionary tale against disobeying God’s law and pursuing sinful behaviors.   But at the same time, the film also shows the merits of following a different kind of law, the law that teaches us to see God’s grandeur in nature.   As the film declares, quoting Maclean’s novella, "Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it."    Ulitimately, God’s truth is not many, but one thing.   And even as we contemplate finding God in nature or following God’s law, we are always the greatest message in all things is the message of God’s love.

There is no conflict between what God does in God’s universe and what God says in God’s word.  They work in harmony together as in the Christmas story—the Magi in Matthew’s gospel started on their journey by following God’s star, a special messenger in the sky to direct them. Then they consulted God’s Word and found that the King was to be born in Bethlehem; so they went to Bethlehem, and there found and worshiped the Savior. When you study God’s creation with a Bible in your hand, you can’t help but find the best directions for life. David says God’s Wordless Book and the Word Book are truly a wonderful pair that belong in every library.

SERMON IN YOUR OWN WORDS
But now consider this final word about God’s sermon, with and without words.   The Psalmist concludes this Psalm with a prayer about his own words:  “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer (Psa 19:14 NRS).

The work and word of God is of no use to you or to me, unless you put your own “two cents” in, as we say.   You must join in the chorus of praise and prayer or all this glory and grandeur is worth very little.   Isn’t this why we are created in the ‘image’ of God?  Isn’t part of our reason to be, to be able to see, enjoy, and make use of God’s marvelous wonders for our own time, moment and situation? 

Even a mentally ill person name Charlie can put his ‘two cents’ into God’s message.   Charlie has a great longing to "be whole and sound" at least since the war in Vietnam, which ended in 1975. He suffers from war-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as schizophrenia.   As he explained to a government office, "My situation when I was in Vietnam was that I was on a small gunship compound in the Central Highlands at the height of the war. The whole time I was in Vietnam we were surrounded by enemy soldiers who were plotting to kill us. I had a sense that they could see us but we could not see them. They regularly attacked us…. Repeatedly when I was in Vietnam I would become so terrified that I would freeze up. This is not something I did on purpose but something that happened to me.

"So my understanding now is that when I would freeze up I imprinted the traumatic situation that I was in, in such a way that this traumatic imprint became for me a permanent way of seeing and experiencing the world…. I am still very frozen up inside. A large central part of my soul is missing. This really scares me! What if I die and part of my soul is still missing?.... I sit on top of the frozenness and I have a small supply of energy and a short leash…. I can only function briefly, maybe for an hour or less, and then I collapse emotionally into the frozenness. At this point I need to just sit down or lie down and wait for a new supply of energy. I wait a long time."

Charlie’s double maladies, PTSD and mental illness, hinder him from having a relaxed enjoyment of God’s presence in nature or community. Yet, even with his handicap and illness, Charlie knows the grace and glory of God in his own way. He knows better than most of us that he depends upon grace every day.   He has said, My basic understanding of God’s grace comes from theologian Paul Tillich: ‘Accept that you are accepted even though you are unacceptable.’ That is really, really, helpful! I would be totally lost without that!  My other understanding of grace comes from another spiritual saying: ‘When you know that God knows everything there is to know about you and still loves you, then you are free.’ Knowing we are known and loved—that brings unspeakable comfort to me."

But there is one more word from Charlie.  Once, when Charlie noticed the heavens declaring the glory of God, his mouth and the meditation of his heart brought him trustingly into God’s presence (vv. 1, 14), and he wrote his own Psalm  of praise.  Even with all his handicapps and hang ups, he put into words and praise his own two cents worth:  The poem or psalm is entiled, “The Sky Is Big Enough.”  He wrote in on mother’s day.

It is the middle of the night   I am on the farm again   under the night sky   w
aiting and watching the sky  and listening  
I am on a bunker waiting to be blown up  watching the sky and listening  the one who is condemned  becomes the one who condemns  so I curse at the sky  and the sky watches and listens and waits with deep big silence so I keep on cursing at the sky  until the cursing loses its charge 
and so I cry out "I need you!" and I keep on crying out "I need you!"  until it loses its charge and the sky listens with deep silence the sky waits and watches and listens and I cry out "Have mercy on us!" and I am gnawing on the sky! 

as fiercely as I can  as long as I can  and the sky watches and waits and listens
with deep silence with deep silent longing  that echoes the deep silent longing in my heart deep silent peace,
deep silent gratitude ,  snuggling up to the sky so now when my neighbor curses at me I wait and watch and listen
with deep silent longing
Sometimes sand does turn into a pearl and I can rest in the pearly gates. (As printed an article by Joan Beck, www.goodpreacher.com/journalread.php?id=2996).

How can we put our own ‘two cents’ in?  Notice what Psalmist declares near the end.   After going through a list of what God’s law or words can do in our lives, he adds this conclusion in verse 11:  Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Psa 19:11 NRS).”   Do you see his point?   The world and the word of God are wonderful, but even as wonderful as they are, they are of no real value, unless their truth gets into us and make a difference in our lives. 

What does he recommend us to do, to find what this difference might be?    Go outside this week on your work break go outside, observe and enjoy creation.  In the evening watch a sunset or gaze into the night sky, and ask yourself what does creation teach you about God’s power and divine nature?  Thank God for speaking to you through nature and ask God for greater insight into God’s written revelation as you read your Bible in this New Year. 

This morning let us praise God for the story of salvation in the pages of scripture, but let us not forget to praise God for all of God’s creation---and let us also value it and put our own ‘two cents’ of praise into this moment. Whether we look at the grandeur of the heavens or the intricacies of a chromosome, let us stand in awe of our Creator, and let us be all that he has created us to be.   Amen.  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Who Was Jesus, Really?


A Sermon Based Upon Luke 3: 23-38
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Epiphany 2, January 20th, 2012

“He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph …son of Adam, son of God. (Luke 3:38 NRS)

Back in 1999 Time Magazine stated that one of the top four activities on the internet was genealogy.  I doubt that any of us have done as much work on our family tree or ancestry as has the Mormon Church, but most of us have had some interest in finding out where our ancestors came from.   

But in the ancient world genealogy was not simply a hobby or pastime.  Your ancestry established who you were, and who you weren't.   People who could establish some type of royal or priestly lineage were people of status, privilege who had special “rights” and “responsibilities”.   People who could not establish any kind of important lineage or bloodline were considered “nobodies”.  In short, they had no real rights, no special privileges, or no status, whatsoever.

DID JESUS HAVE CONNECTIONS?
One of the reasons two of the gospel stories give us genealogical lists about Jesus’ ancestry is to establish Jesus as a special sort of somebody.   In the ancient worldview, to both Jew and Gentile, if Jesus had no sort of pedigree, then people would immediately have written him off, giving his story no attention at all.   Two of the gospels, Mark and John, see no reason for Jesus’ genealogy.  But Matthew and Luke beg to differ.   They wanted to show who Jesus was, first of all, through his family tree, so that people, particularly Jewish people, would see that Jesus was born as part of the royal bloodline of Israel’s greatest King named David.

But here is exactly the problem.  Jesus didn’t really have a royal bloodline.  Both Matthew and Luke also tell us that Jesus was ‘born of a virgin’ (Matthew 1.23, Luke 1.27) named Mary and did not ‘physically’ have an earthly Father.   Even in the genealogy Luke gives us, he begins by telling us that Jesus was “thought” or “supposed” to be the “son of Joseph”.   Luke is giving us a legal listing of Jesus’ royal bloodline, but this is in no way a literal or legalistic listing of the lineage of Jesus. 

One other interesting question is how Luke and Matthew are structured in completely different ways.  Luke is formed with a descending manner, starting with Jesus and looking back.   Matthew’s list is written in an ascending manner, starting with Abraham and then coming back to Jesus.   But there is much more here than merely a question of form.    Matthew and Luke’s listings also start at different places and go through different people.   For example, if you take a look at Matthew’s genealogical list, you will start with Abraham and move up to David and then follow David’s traditional royal line all the way down to Joseph.  Luke also goes through David, but Luke’s line of backtracking “descent” goes all the back to Adam, beyond Abraham.  Perhaps even more important is that Luke does not even follow the normal, royal lineage of David.   My point is that Luke does not trace the line of Jesus through the somebodies of Israel’s history, but Luke has traced the line of Jesus through the “nobodies”, the people that are unknown and untraceable.

You can especially see this when you compare how Matthew traced the lineage of Jesus through David’s son, Solomon, and other prominent Kings of Israel, like Rehoboam, Jehoshaphat, Uzziah, Hezekiah, and Josiah  (See Matthew 1: 6-11).  But Luke’s genealogy skips all these “important” people and brings the line of Jesus through David’s unremembered son, Nathan (not in the Bible unless it means the prophet Nathan who was not a physical son of David, but perhaps a spiritual ‘son’) and then through a bunch of names that are not only unknown, but are also even questionable because they don’t fit, either the history or the pedigree Luke should be showing if he wants to prove Jesus’ royal identity.    This makes scholars still wonder what in the world Luke was up to.  Whatever he was doing, he was not giving us a literal, royal background check on Jesus’ identity.  Luke must have had much bigger plans than that. 

So, what is Luke trying to tell us about Jesus, through these names, this lineage, and this list of practically nobodies?   Some have answered that Luke is trying to trace the royal line through Mary, inserting the word “son-in-law” after Joseph.  But no, the text traces Jesus “legally” through Joseph, yet he has done it a very different way.   Most scholars will tell you that the main answer to these ‘differences’ is not historical, but theological.  In other words, Luke is not trying to tell is legalistically who Jesus was, but Luke is trying to say something to us theologically, about who Jesus still is.   

Perhaps the best way to begin to see Luke’s goal in this genealogy is to see, not where he started (both genealogies start with Jesus) but to see where Luke’s lists ends up.   Whereas Matthew’s list goes back to  Abraham, naming Jesus the ‘son of Abraham’ who was the Father of the Jewish faith, Luke’s list goes all the back to Adam, and even further than that, declaring Jesus to not only be the son of Adam, but perhaps most importantly of all,  to be the ‘son of God’.   Now, perhaps we can see what Luke may have been up to.  He wants us to know that Jesus is not just connected to David, but Jesus is even better ‘connected’ than that. 

So, who was Jesus?  Who is Jesus?  What was Luke saying to us, not just in his genealogy, but also in the message of this gospel and all the gospels?  

CAN WE KNOW THE REAL JESUS?
The one thing I think is most important about Luke’s genealogy is not only ‘how’ Luke puts his list together, but “where” he puts it.  Notice in our text that Luke does not include the genealogy at the beginning or at the story of Jesus’ birth, but Luke puts the list at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.   It is at the time Jesus ministry begins and right after Jesus’ baptism that Luke inserts his list.   The list begins: “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work” (Luk 3:23 NRS).   This should be a “dead giveaway” as to what Luke was trying to tell us about Jesus.  This genealogy is dramatically connected to Jesus’ work, and Jesus’ work is directly connected to Jesus’ background.  Even though Jesus is to be understood to be a King, he is a very different kind of King.  He is a King who does not come from a list of great Kings, but he is a descendant of a great King who comes through a bunch of nobodies.  Luke seems to intentionally associate Jesus with a list of ‘nobodies’ because this is exactly who Jesus came to work with and save.  Luke wants us to know, right up front, that the ‘real’ Jesus, whoever we might think him to be, is not who most want him to be, but Jesus came with his own agenda.   Jesus’ ministry will be about making the ‘nobodies’ of this world, somebody in the eyes of God.

Who are these ‘nobodies’ that Jesus has come to work with?   The listing will be given in the very next chapter, in Luke 4.   When Jesus reads this list in his hometown synagogue he got into a lot of trouble.  You do recall that list, don’t you?   Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah about how his ‘work’ was to bring good news to the poor…”to proclaim release to the prisoners”…”to bring the recovery of sight to the blind” and to “let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4: 18-20).  Are these kinds of nobodies on your list?   Luke tells us that the “Spirit of the Lord” is upon Jesus so that Jesus can work with a very different group of people than people are used to working for or used to working with.  Jesus is to work in behalf of the ‘nobodies’ of this world and this is good news in and, of itself.  This good news of God is not specifically for the somebodies---the people who already have it made---the successful, or the promising or the privileged, but God’s message is for the forgotten, the downtrodden, and the nobodies of this world.  

We should have known this.  Luke has been telling us this all along.  Whereas in Matthew, it is Three Wise men who visit Jesus, in Luke it is poor Shepherds who find Jesus first.   In Matthew, whereas Jesus has come to “save his people from their sin”, in Luke, the message shall be to “all people”.      In Matthew, Jesus is revealed as a child, who is hurried away to Egypt, identifying only with Israel’s slavery in their past.  But in Luke it is an Israelite ‘nobody’, an old man named Simon, who announces that this child is God’s ‘salvation given to us in the presence of all the peoples’ and is to be especially given “as a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”    Now, the people who have been understood to be ‘nobody’, even in the eyes of Israel, have now become ‘somebody’ in the mind and heart of God.

What does all this mean for us?   How does this identity of Jesus who also comes from a long list of ‘nobodies’ mean for us today?   How does it help us think again about who Jesus was, and who Jesus should be for us today?    Isn’t this a question on the minds of many as the mystery of Jesus is bigger now than ever before, and and more people struggle with the truth of the gospels and the historical uncertainty concerning Jesus.

THE JESUS EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW
“Of all the descriptions of Jesus, the one I love the most, said Charles Mercer, is "The Man for Others." Jesus always was there for others; he never put himself first.  He listened to people.  He touched the sick, the blind, even lepers. He ate with sinners.  He fed the hungry.  He comforted the sorrowful.  He taught the multitudes, but they were never a crowd to him.  He saw each person as special, unique and worth saving.   Jesus always taught that the way to the Kingdom of God was to go out there with the ‘others’, the ‘nobodies’ of this world feeding the hungry, sharing a cup of water with the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting those who are sick or in prison. (See Matthew 25:34-40).   Jesus was, more than anything else, the one who was born ‘among the nobodies” and who became a ‘nobody’ for all ‘us’ nobodies of the world.  

In a challenging book:" Half the Sky" authors Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof describe the lives of poor, forgotten women in India, China and Africa. They are women who, though poor themselves, have made a difference in the lives of others around them, showing us all that even those who are considered ‘nobodies’ in this world, have the power to make a difference.   In this same book, Sir John Templeton is quoted as saying: "Self - improvement comes mainly from trying to help others" (pg. 249).  The way to real happiness is become somebody is not to win the lottery, which may provide an initial spike, but quickly passes.   We find our greatest human riches by connecting to others in the midst of their needs.

It is very humbling to read about people, who have little themselves, the nobodies, who give themselves and their meager resources to help others.   What we all know, very well, is that it is not the great talents of the ‘somebodies’ who save the world each and every day, but it is the great sacrifices by the ‘nobodies’ that holds this world together.   All those ‘nobodies’ need to help them, and to help us, is an initial boost in terms of schools, medical facilities or other resources to escape from their lives of slavery, abuse, ignorance and poverty.   When we reach out to help them, we see quickly see them reaching out to help others and we see all this that can be done, done first in the name of Jesus, who reached out to ‘nobodies’ just like us.   

While there is still a lot of debate, and may forever be debate, about exactly ‘who Jesus was’, we know that the real truth about Jesus is not about only who Jesus was, but it’s also about who Jesus wasn’t.   As John Ortberg has said, Jesus wasn’t great, at least not in the worldly sense of the word.  The greatness of Jesus was on a whole different level. 

As we think about all these nobodies in Jesus’ family tree, we might come to realize that it doesn’t really matter who Jesus was, if you don’t know who Jesus wasn’t.   Jesus wasn’t ‘one of them’, but Jesus was ‘one of us.”  Isn’t this why people still love Jesus so much, even though many have less love for the church.  Jesus wasn’t just some ‘righteous’ somebody, but Jesus was from a long list of nobodies.  And guess what?  The good news is that you can still get on that list.  Amen.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Baptized with the Spirit

A sermon based upon Luke  3: 15-22
By Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership,
Baptism of Jesus Sunday,  Year C, January  13, 2013.


“He will Baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  (Luke 3.16).

Today’s text from Luke invites us to look at Baptism---even to consider again and perhaps and hopefully to renew the spirit of our own baptism into the Christian faith.  

If you have been baptized for a long time, Luke wants you to gain a very unique perspective about your baptism and what it is supposed to mean.  If you’ve been baptized recently and you are still ‘wet behind the ears,’ Luke wants to teach you something more about what that Baptism means---most importantly, that this baptism is certainly more than just about the water.

WHAT WATER BAPTISM CANNOT DO
I think I told you once this pastoral story about teaching on baptism to a church in Greensboro.   It’s worth telling again.  I was trying to make this very point, that baptism is more than about how much water we are baptized into, whether there is enough water to immerse us or only enough to sprinkle on our head.  I’m a Baptist, and I like water, but it’s still not about the water.  

I went on to tell how early Baptist in England relearned the biblical method of adult baptism from the Anabaptist, or Amish, living in Amsterdam, not because wanted to us more water, but because they wanted to try to get back to the biblical ideal, which was not about ‘water’, but about adults giving their whole lives to Jesus, and not just having baptism be a ritual in their infancy.  Early Baptists were not so much against the practice of infant Baptism, as they were for having ‘true Christians’ at church.  They hoped that getting back to the biblical forms would be followed by having people who were truly faithful because they meant what they did.

Again, I reiterated.  It wasn’t the wrongness of infant baptism, nor was it about lack of the right amount of water, but the major point was about having real, adult, Christians who truly lived their whole lives for God.  They wanted to get back to this ancient practice in hopes of having Christians who really practiced their faith.  It wasn’t about the method of baptism as much as the mode of living.   It wasn’t about the water as much as it was about the witness. 

Then, after this historical review, I told them how we only baptize practice adult baptism by immersion as Baptists, but this does not mean we are against infant baptism or other methods that other denominations use.  We only practice it the way we feel is biblical and is best for our witness.  It is still the faith and fire of God in the heart that matters most, not the water.

Hearing me say that we ‘only practice adult baptism’ a little 80 year old lady raised her hand.   She told the group, “I became a member of this church after I was married.   I grew up Methodist.  I was baptized as an infant.  Does this mean I need to be re-baptized to be a member of this church?” 

The question was directed to me, as her pastor, but as a teacher, trying to teach what is most important, I decided to pass the question on to the group.  Most of them were older folks, and most of them had grown up Baptist.  Just about every one of them thought ‘baptism’ should be done only by immersion.  If she was anyone else, like someone outside the church, they would have probably told her she needed to get re-baptized, right there on the spot.  These weren’t normally shy people at saying what they believe.  So I put the question directly to them to give them the opportunity to say what they wanted to say.  Do you know what they said?  Nothing!    That’s when I spoke up again.  “O.K.” Do you mean by your silence that you want me to ask her to be re-baptized?  Is this what you want me to do?   They still didn’t say anything.

Then I told them.  “If you want her to be re-baptized, you’ll have to do it.”  Because it is just what I told you.  Now, right here and now you have a true example of what I’m trying to say.  It’s not about the water.  It’s not about what age you are when you were baptized, nor about how much water is used, but it’s about who you are after you are baptized.  It is about how much fire there is in you for God.  If you have the ‘fire’ of Jesus’ baptism in you, you don’t need more water.  We need to let it burn.  Right?  Amen? Let the light shine, don’t put it out!  That’s how I answered.  And amazingly, they all said: Amen.  Thanks to that honest Methodist woman, we taught a Baptist church the gospel ‘truth’ about baptism.  Wow!

This is the very same kind of message John was trying to convince the crowd when he told them, “I only baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Even John’s baptism by water didn’t cut the mustard.   You had to have more than water to immerse you, sprinkle you or poured upon you to be filled with the Spirit of God.  You needed fire.   So, with this introduction, let’s look closer at what John’s words might have meant then and should mean to us now.

BAPTISM AS A HOT TOPIC
But he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and Fire.”   No pun intended, but this sounds like a very hot topic---both to speak about the baptism of the holy Spirit and to make a comparison with fire.  What could John be saying about Jesus, about the Spirit, and about the fire that is supposed to be ‘burning’ in us?

First off, let’s talk about ‘fire’.  Fire is not a laughing matter.  I’m not making light of it.  Neither is John.   Fire is serious business.   Fire can do some wonderful things for us in life, but it can also hurt us, burn us, and even kill us.   The image of ‘fire’ is an attention getting word.  It means that something dangerous happens when people are ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit’.  But the question is, what kind of ‘danger’?

Now, let’s quickly join this word ‘fire’ to the idea of being ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit’.   That’s another ‘hot’ topic, isn’t it?  There are people of faith today, who claim that after you have been baptized with water, you need a second baptism, another baptism, and that this other baptism of fire is the baptism with the Holy Spirit.   They tell us, especially us Baptist and a lot of Methodist too, and they say that’s where this whole Pentecostal talk of “holy spirit baptism came from.  That is came out of the holiness movement in among Methodist in the early part of the 20th century when it began with the need and belief that God could do a ‘second work of grace’ in people.  This ‘second’ work of grace came to finally be called the baptism of the Holy Spirit---a second blessing---the final work of sanctification, of holy-making that could come and should come when a person gave their life fully to God.
Is this a ‘second blessing’ that John is also talking about?  What does John mean when he speaks of being baptized with the Holy Spirit?  I want to first talk about what it doesn’t mean.

I was first introduced to the Pentecostal movement when I was in High School.   We had a Bible club at North Iredell and in that club I got to be around students who had a different upbringing than I did.  But it was not one of the other students, but it was a visiting speaker who, after speaking to our club, invited me to a meeting at a home in the Fairview section of Statesville.  I asked him about what he would be talking about and he said it would be about the cross.  This is what he also what he spoke about in the meeting and I was ready to hear more.

When I arrived at the meeting, we all sit around in the living room and the speaker began to share.  As he ended another good talk, he asked us to bow our heads and pray with him.  In the middle of his prayer he cut loose speaking in a language I did not understand.  I knew my French was bad, but this wasn’t anything close to a real language.  I listened, but I also felt very uncomfortable.  Even at that young age, I knew the Bible’s teaching about ‘tongues’, and this guy did not go about it the right way.  He didn’t give us any kind of ‘interpretation’ at all. 
After the prayer was over, the speaker came to me and asked me how I enjoyed the service.   I didn’t want to tell him what I felt, so I asked a question: “What kind of language was that you were speaking?  Did you even know what you were saying?”   He said that he didn’t even know what language it was---he said it was angelic or something.   I told him that it sounded ‘demonic’ to me, and I left.

Today I kind of regret that I called that guy’s religious expression ‘demonic’, but he was older than me and I felt he was trying to drag me, as a teenager into something I did not need to get into.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t serious about following Jesus, but it was that I was serious, very serious, and all this gibberish didn’t sound serious enough.  It just seemed fake, synthetic, unnecessary, and for a serious, intelligible, and understandable witness to the world, it just sounded too strange and weird.  If it confused me, I knew it would confuse others.  And that is where I left it.  I put filed all this Pentecostal teaching about the Baptism of the Spirit as a misunderstanding, a misinterpretation of what it was supposed to really mean.

I remained as far away as possible from this kind of Holy Spirit talk until I ran into it again on the mission field; and it Germany of all places.  I thought all Germans were intellectual, academic and unemotional.  I figured they would not allow any such nonsense as this. 

But one day, the Church leader and myself were discussing having New Year’s prayer service with the Lutheran and Catholic pastor’s in our community.  There were less than 500 Christians in our town of nearly 50,000 and it was important for us to get together and to show and share our faith.  We getting to know each other and the Lutheran pastor looked at us and said, I don’t know much about Baptist.  What kind of Christians are you?  Before I could try to get a few German words out, the Church leader who was with me, and had some theological training came right out and said: “We Baptist are charismatic Christians.”   I thought I would fall out of my chair.  I couldn’t believe that this guy; this smart, intelligent, and well trained Baptist layman would say something like that.  Immediately, I gave my reply: “Well, he might be charismatic, but I’m not.  I hoped that the Lutheran preacher would not hold it against me.   He did let me speak in his big, cathedral-like church.

After we left the Lutheran’s office that day, I asked my German brother, “Bruder Richard, are you really a charismatic Christian?  You don’t act like one.  I’ve never heard you speak in tongues?”
He answered that he did indeed speak in tongues, but he did it silently and he did not do it for a show to others.  I was indeed very glad for that.

I came to learn while a missionary in Germany, to my surprise that there were indeed many Charismatic Baptists in Europe.  In fact, most Baptist over there have some kind of ‘charismatic’ experience, at least in the beginning.  What I also came to learn is that much of this was out of their need to express a faith that had been held down too long by the spiritual coldness and impersonal nature of the established European church.  In order to break free, some kind of emotional, spiritual, and charismatic experience would often happen.   Many Baptist wouldn’t show it, but they had been, in a very charismatic way, filled with the Holy Spirit.  It was part of who they were.
If you recall, when the past head of Southern Baptist International Mission Board, Jerry Rankin was active, a controversy came up about his association with some very charismatic Baptists who often prayed with a special kind of ‘prayer’ language and may have practiced it himself.  The more traditional and fundamentalist leaders of our convention were not too happy when they realized that the now head of our mission agency had been close to such experiences.  They wanted to say, like I did when I was young, that this was not spiritual, but demonic.   They wanted to express their opposition to this ‘charismatic’ way of God being a work in the world.  Most of us would probably agree.   Any kind of discussion of the Spirit could end up being a ‘hot topic’.  (http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=22683).
 
THE MEANING OF SPIRIT BAPTISM
When I was pastor in this association back in the 80’s, I preached a series of revival services at Courtney Baptist.  The pastor and his wife were very nice, but there was something very interesting about their relationship.  He was the pastor of that church, but she was also a preacher, a woman preacher and a Pentecostal preacher.  Even more interesting was that she was fun and full of life—so much more than her husband, the pastor. 

I’m telling you about this because I want you to know something I came to like about her and about Pentecostalism---they don’t have God all figured out---but neither do I, nor do you.   I’m still skeptical about the charismatic and displays of emotion of some, but I have come to better understand it, and I like the fact that Pentecostals desire to be baptized, not just with water, but with the Spirit and with fire.  But what does this mean for us?  Better yet, what should it mean? 

If Luke is trying to tell us something in this text, the Baptism of the Spirit is not just what Jesus will do for us, when he comes, but we can already see, right here in this text, that this very ‘fire’ was right here, in the very, deep, meaningful, fulfilling, and affirming spiritual experience Jesus had during his own baptism.   Here, Luke moves right from talking about the coming baptism to show us how the Spirit baptizes Jesus with very personal, warm, affirming and special kind of fire.  If we would just stop, I believe a lot of spiritual confusion clear-up a little.  So let’s look one last time at our text.  Do you see what happens to Jesus when the Spirit baptizes him?  When the Spirit comes down, this is when God calls his name and calls him his “beloved child”.  

In his commentary on Mark, N.T. Wright tells of a famous movie-maker who had a huge legal conflict with his long time mentor and guide.  The younger man simply couldn’t handle criticism, and ended up rejecting the person who helped him so much.  When it was all over, a close friends summed up the real problem.  ‘It was all about an ungenerous father,’ he explained, ‘ and a son looking for affirmation and love.’   Wright goes on to comment, ‘It happens all the time, in families, buisinesses, all over.   Many children grow up in our world who have never had a father say to them (either in words, in looks, or in hugs), ‘You are my dear child’, let alone, ‘I’m pleased with you.”  In the Western world, even those fathers who think this is in their hearts are often too tongue-tied or embarrassed to tell their children how delighted they are with them.  Many, alas, go by the completely opposite direction route: angry voices, bitter rejection, the slamming of doors”  (From N.T. Wright’s Mark for Everyone, WJK, 2004, p. 4).

Why does this lack of blessing have to happen in our world, when the God of all gods, the Lord of all lords, and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has said to us at our own baptism: “You are my dear, precious child.  I’m delighted in you!”   The whole gospel can be summed up in this one truth.   Say it to yourself slowly, over and over.   When you finally get it into your heart, you too will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.  God knows you by name.  Can’t you hear God calling you, loving you, pleased with you?  Watch out!  When you come to realize what this means---its fire!  Fire that can fire up you heart and warm up your soul because you know that having this kind of unconditional love within us is all that matters.   Amen.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Sight For Sore Eyes

A sermon based upon Luke 2: 22-39
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
For Epiphany, January 6, 2013

What do you hope to see happen in this New Year?  

Do you want to see the economy improve?  Do you want to see your child graduate?  Do you want to see someone get married, get a job, or have a baby?  Do you want to see this church grow?  Do you want to see people draw closer to God and new people come to Christ?  What do you expect to see happen in this New Year?  Our text today promises us one thing:  We will not see it, if we don’t look for it!  What happens in life is not a “closed” system of already determined fate, which says, “What will happen, must happen”.   But “what might happen” will not happen unless we want it to happen, expect it to happen, or desire it to happen.    Let me explain.

As the gospel of Luke begins to tell the good news of Jesus, it reminds us that the truth of how things really are is not always apparent to everyone.    As far back as Isaiah, the Word of God questioned the human vision of things, saying “Behold I am doing a new thing; Do you not perceive it?” (43:13).   God was at work doing something new, but people were still expecting the same old thing.  People even pigeon-holed God.  The did not really believe God was free to do things differently, nor did they believe they could do things differently.  The end result: everything remained the same. 

In today’s text, it took an old fellow, an old aged devout gentleman named Simon, to see something different was about to happen.   These were some ‘new’ things about to happen through Jesus, which even Jesus parents couldn’t see yet.    I think there is something about Simon’s very ‘old eyes’ see that see clearly what God wants us all to see.   Isn’t that the way it often happens, you just start seeing things clearly and then you’re too old to see anymore.   You just start figuring out how to make a living, or how to live, and then, suddenly, your body is too old to go any more.   Don’t you just hate it when that happens?   Sometimes life seems to happen in reverse.   Or are we getting ready for something more?  Do you ever wonder?  What is it that God wants us to see, to know, to understand in this life? 

In our text the “consolation of Israel” is what Simon and Anna have been waiting for, but poor o’ Simon and Anna are on the way out.  But wait a moment.  Simon has just one more thing to say.  He’s been waiting to see this his whole life.   ?  Are we ready to see what Simon saw?  Simon has been praying that God would give him just one more year and one more chance to see God’s Answer for the problems of his world before his eyes are closed in death.   Now, as Simon sees Jesus,  Israel’s Messiah for the first and last time, this baby is, as the adage says, is a “sight for sore eyes”.   

Another ‘oldie goldie’ nearby, is an aged woman with the name of Anna, she sees the child Jesus in a very similar way.  Now, watch out.   Anna is a woman preacher.   Women preachers see things differently than men preachers.   They can give us insights from some very different angles and perspectives.  This woman preacher is 84 and she’s too has been waiting all her life to preach one last sermon.  Our text tells us how she goes out and preaches about this baby to everyone and all who are looking for the redemption of Jerusalem---for the hope of the future to become the reality of the present.  

But here we need to make a special note about Anna’s preaching.  Preacher Anna only preached her message to those who were looking; wanting and expecting for to God do something.    Those who don’t want to see, don’t want to understand, don’t want to hope or don’t will to believe, dare not apply, listen, learn or look to see what they see.    The target audience of her preaching “those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (vs. 38),  makes me wonder whether or not people in our own cynical and skeptical age can see still see what they saw or hope what they hoped.     Simon and Anna’s own faithful expectation of God’s fulfillment  should make us question our own view of the how the future might turn out.  Can we, with the help of these two, aged, wise, biblical characters, learn to expect what God can do next in our own time and in our own world?  Can we see God’s message of hope coming just around the corner, sooner rather than later, being fulfilled in God’s time rather being forgotten in our own time?  My question today is simply this: How should we see and hope for the future in a time when the future doesn’t look so optimistic?  Can we see own  ‘sight for ‘sore eyes” that is still can happen?   Can we, metaphorically and physically speaking, hold our eyes open just long enough for one more look into what God can do with us yet?

I have never been blind, yet, but I’ve observed a few people who are.  People who can’t see with their eyes often compensate with other senses and faculties.  They are able to develop an amazing sense of hearing, a keen sense of direction, a special sense of touch, of taste or of smell, and often a focused state of mind.  You’ve see that happen, haven’t you?  The eyesight goes dim, but the mind becomes sharper.  I watched on TV the story of a blind man who traveled all over his neighborhood with his cane.  I’ve meet a few people like that walking alone on the street and never missing a beat.   Once I watch and listen to a blind preacher who memorized the entire wedding ceremony and performed it perfectly.  And we’ve all heard Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles play and sing with Rhythms and sounds no one else could ever sing or play.  Google has even developed an especially programed GPS car that the blind can drive around town.   It’s amazing what you can see, when you really want to see.    It all makes me wonder even more about how and what Simon and Anna saw in Jesus before anyone else could?  How did they do that?  How can we? 

There were, no doubt, a lot of other people living in Jerusalem on that day when Jesus was brought to the temple.  But the only ones who saw him, as we can note, were only the ones who were faithfully waiting, looking, still hoping and expecting to see God fulfill his promise.    Do we want to see hope happen?  No matter how old or how young, are we content to settle for how things are, or can we still see hope on the way?  Are our eyes looking straight into the path what is still coming, or have our eyes already become too tired, too lazy or too sore to look up any more?    

Sometimes we have to train our eyes to see, what we can’t see, don’t we?  And it is possible, isn’t it?  Remember those 2 D photographs that were popular a few years ago?  You could stare at them and if you looked at them correctly, if you trained you eye to see, they were turned into 3 D images.  But again, you had to develop the eyes to see.  It did not come easily, or at least it didn’t come easily for me.  You had to have patience, and you had to make your eyes want to see.   If you didn’t, you ended up seeing only what was easy to see, the scrambled 2 D image.   This illustrates well what I want to say about having faith, hope and love when the prospect doesn’t look faithful, hopeful or loving.  There are some things in life you can’t see, have, or believe in, unless you really want to.   Many things pass by the untrained, unwilling, impatient eye, or overly critical eye.  But the trained eye, and the believing heart can not only see “new” and different things, it can almost be haunted by everything it sees as possible and hopeful.   Haven’t you also been around people who could see things you couldn’t?

I used to watch my father-in-law, while we sat around in a room.  He was a skilled carpenter.  While in conversation, his eye would often wander and you could see him checking out the shape of a line or sizing up the line of a wall.  He was both gifted and trained so that his eye could see what most of us never notice.  He could see what was square, what was plumb and what wasn’t.  He could see even when he didn’t try to see it.  It became automatic.  It became not just what he saw, but part of who he was.  You could even say that it was not just a matter of seeing, but it was a matter of being.  He could not do his job, live his life, or make his living, without the ability to see what others couldn’t.   I guess, if we wanted, we could all train our eyes to see a lot of new things like that.   We humans have the capacity to train ourselves to see what we want to see, what we need to see, and what we might still see, if we really try. 

We are told exactly what trained Simon’s and Anna’s eyes.  It was the Holy Spirit.  Now don’t get too nervous about what I’m going to say about the Holy Spirit.   I recently heard that a certain Lutheran church in a nearby city fired their preacher for just mentioning the Holy the Spirit in a sermon.   Don’t get the wrong idea.  I’m not talking about seeing ghosts or seeing strange things happening or hearing things go “bump” in the night.   People are superstitious by nature, but I don’t want to appeal to superstitions.    By talking about the work of the Holy Spirit, I’m talking about how God’s Spirit is at work in us, around us, through us, even outside of us, to bring about a more hopeful , caring, and loving reality in our lives and in the world.  The same kind of “hopeful” things Simon and Anna saw, I believe we can still see, if we want to see them.   But it will take some well-trained, well-focused, and well-matured eyes to see these hopeful things, especially when everything looks bad around you right now.   Do you want to see what they saw?

TO SEE RIGHTLY WE MUST LIVE RIGHTLY ---THEN THE SPIRIT WILL REST UPON US
First we are given the insight that Simon was righteous and devout, so that the Holy Spirit rested on him.   We also read about Anna, that she ‘devoted’  so that she ‘worshipped’ in the temple and ‘prayed day and night’.  Here we already see something about how to train ourselves to have hope.   You can only see what you are preparing yourself to see.   What Simon did with his life, and what Anna was doing with hers, is that they were living as if they really wanted God’s work to be fulfilled in their world.  Their witness to faith is a witness of their faith---at work, real, being practice in their own lives---their whole lives.  

Isn’t the same true for us?   Especially when it comes to spiritual matters, to seeing what can’t yet be seen, you don’t see what you don’t want to see.  You will not see anything, until you put your whole life into it.   When I studied psychology in college, we came to a very interesting subject of Hypnosis.  I was captivated by the idea that you could put a person into a trance and get them to do things while they were unconscious and asleep.   Under Hypnosis, something that was blocking a person’s healing in their unconscious mind, could be moved.  Sometimes a person who could not overcome an addiction could be retrained while asleep.  Sometimes a person who could not move an arm or leg, for no physical reason, but for an emotional one, could learn to move that part of their body while in a trance.  It was kind of like “mind over matter” instructions.   Sometimes, you could even train a mind that was afraid, not to be afraid anymore.  When the person would wake up, they would lose their fear.   But Hypnosis doesn’t work on everybody.   That’s why I used the word: “Sometimes”.   You have to want to be hypnotized in order to be hypnotized.   It does not always work, nor does the person always respond to the therapy.   One very important thing I learned about hypnosis, was that you could never make a hypnotized person, who was in a trance, wake up to do something they would not do normally do.   For example, you could not tell them to shot someone, and they would do it, if it was against their belief or values.   The only things you could get them to do, were they things they wanted to do, but could only do, when you helped them release their mind to do it (I often wondered who tested this theory).

Whether you think hypnosis works or not, for me the theory is very similar to what it means to say that because Simon was devout and righteous that the Holy Spirit rested on him.   It does not mean that Simon was able to hear things he didn’t normally hear, nor that Simon was special, unique or strange.  What this text means is that when Simon was righteous, he wanted what God wanted and he was devoted to what God desired for the world.   When you want what God wants, new things happen.   As, William Temple used to say, “When I pray coincidence happen, but when I don’t pray coincidences don’t happen.”   I don’t think Temple believed that pray works by coincidence, but I don’t believe he intended to help us realize, if we don’t pray, things most often don’t change.   We must wish them, want them, desire them, and this must not just be a matter of our heart, but it must be a matter of how we live our live.  God loves to do a new thing, the Scripture clearly says.   The Spirit blows where it will.  The Spirit rests on people who are open to him.  But before the Spirit abides on us or in us, we must first want what the Spirit wants.  We must be what God wants us to be.   New hope and new help begins with our openness to God’s Spirit which is prepared for by living our lives in the right direction and way.    So let me ask you, how will you open yourself to God’s new work of the Spirit by living your life in the best and right way in this New Year?   What is that ‘right way’?  I’m glad you asked.

TO LIVE RIGHTLY WE MUST LISTEN TO GOD’S SPIRIT—THE SPIRIT REVEALS WHAT WE NEED TO SEE, KNOW AND DO
We are also told in this text that it had been ‘revealed to him by the Spirit that Simon would not see death until he saw the Lord’s Messiah.    We are also told that Anna was a ‘prophet’—a person who listens for the voice of God before they speak for the voice of God.     This was how it was with them, but how does the Spirit “reveal” truth to us?    

This brings us to beyond the “want to” to the “how to” of knowing spiritual things.  The point here is that not only do we have to want the spirit to rest on us as we give our lives fully and freely to God, but we also have to train ourselves to be able to hear what the Spirit is truly saying, both to us and in the world.   Can you even learn to do this?   Well, Simon did.  He was not a preacher like Anna was, but he was able to gain the Spirit’s revelation of truth.  So if Simon can do, I believe anyone can get their heart in tune with the will and work of God.  I can.  You can.  For the Spirit of God is always revealing and speaking in this world, but we are not all tuned in to understand it. 

This ability to listen to the Spirit is something like that old school question about the sound of the tree falling in the forest.  If the tree falls, and no one is there to hear it, does the tree still make a sound?  I finally figured out that the right answer is that it depends on how you define the word ‘sound.’   If you only define sound as something making a noise, then it the tree did make a sound.   But if you define a sound as someone hearing the noise, then the tree didn’t make a sound because no one heard it.   The work of the Spirit can be understood just as simple as that.  What we all know is there are all kinds of noise, sounds, and clatter in this world, but it’s not all really saying anything; at least nothing important.   In order to hear what needs to be heard we need to change channels.   Sometimes we need to open ourselves up to deeper understandings of truth.   Likewise, if we want to see God at work, we too must train ourselves to see, understand and know what this means.  We must also train ourselves to hear and see what most people don’t see, but what the Spirit is actually saying and revealing to us and to the world.  

One thing that I’ve been noticing lately is the upswing of reports of NDE, or Near Death Experiences in the news media.   Have you noticed it?  First there was a child, then a woman doctor; both who wrote books.  But then, the latest of these came from a Neurosurgeon who said that he knows that his brain had no activity, yet after he woke up, he knows that he visited a place of peace where an unknown sister (he was adopted), escorted him around through a place that was filled with the most pleasant sights illuminated by a most amazing, unexplainable light.   Now, after that experience, this doctor, who is now laughed at by most of his peers, has totally changed his life.  He prays.  He goes to church.  He spends time with his family.   His life is more than his job.  His attitude about everything in life and death is different.  It is as if his life has been charged and changed by a life-giving vision and by a life-giving Spirit.  

I personally have a lot of reservations about such claims, but so did this doctor until he had the experience himself.  For him it was real.  It was unexplainable, but it is proven true and real, not by explanation, but by how he has, in fact, changed his life through what was revealed to him or to her.   Again, I can’t say whether this experience was a physical one or a work of the Spirit, but I can say that the spiritual isn’t any less than the physical we now know.  If anything, the spiritual is even more.   This doctor and others today, are being awakened to the matters of the spirit and the limits of human life, which many have been paying very little attention to.   Seeing the limits of human life or human logic can do that kind of thing to you.  It can make you want to understand, to know, or to hear more.   Are we getting older?  Are people paying more attention?  Why are people having these revelations, these NDE, and these very spiritual experiences of mind beyond body?  What enables them to know what others don’t yet know? 

Another interesting question of human limit, also, strangely enough can help us to see more potential and possibilities for life.   Have you ever noticed your own limits in life and been amazed at what someone else knows or can do?  Have you see how some people are ‘gifted’ to have knowledge or talents no one else has?  In news spot on a TV news program, they told about several young prodigies who were playing the piano or violin as good as Mozart, Bach, or Beethoven.   One child, read music and at age 3, an entire year before Mozart did.  He also played the piano at age 4, an entire year before Mozart did, and by the time this child was 7, he wrote an entire Orchestra piece, at age 7, again, an entire year before Mozart did.  How did this child do this?  Was there something exceptional about their mind---about their training and environment---or was it a gift from God---or were they a freak of nature?   Maybe it was not one, but all of the above.  Spiritual things that have not happened in many years can happen again.   There are still things that can happen that cannot be explained any other way than a ‘gift’ of the God.   Are we, in these days of realizing our own human limits, about to enter a completely new day and a new age, as religious scholar from Harvard has named as,  the age of the Spirit?   The point being, that only when we realize our human limits, can we train ourselves to see what God has for us to understand and see.

I can’t say exactly what it means to know that the Spirit reveals something to you or me, but I can tell you what the Spirit does, what the Spirit is always doing, and I can tell you what it looks like when it happens.  I can tell you this because we have been told in Scripture what the Holy Spirit reveals and does.  We may not always know where the Spirit is blowing (John 3.8), Jesus told Nicodemus, but we can know and witness to what we have seen (John 3:11) and should be able to see when the true Spirit of God is at work.   The Spirit reveals truth.  The Spirit reveals sin.  And the Spirit reveals reason and judgment.  It is this Spirit, which is nothing less than God’s Spirit, even the Spirit that has been breathed into us, that  enables the human person to rise above their animal instincts.  It is this same the Spirit that can enable us to see beyond and rise above our current situation.   It is the Spirit that opens us up to new understandings, new revelations and new avenues of possibility and hope.   These are the kinds of things the Spirit did and still does.   We can’t know everything about where the Spirit is going, but we can know for sure where the Spirit wants us to take us and wants us to go. 

TO HEAR THE SPIRIT’S REVELATION, WE MUST BE GUIDED BY THE SPIRIT---WE MUST LIFT UP JESUS
Where does the Spirit want to take us?  What does the Spirit want to reveal to us?   Our text tell us specifically that Simon was guided by the Spirit as he entered the temple and saw the child brought in.  If Simon had not wanted to be guided by the Spirit, it would not have happened.  If Simon had not been trained in the things of the Spirit, he would not have seen what he needed to see.   The same was true of the prophet Anna.   She wanted it.  She trained herself in it through her praying and fasting in the temple.   She was ready to speak because she too had been guided by this same Spirit.    The Spirit ‘guided’ her in the very same direction.  

So, now what did the ‘Spirit’ guide them to do, to see, and to know, which the whole world needed to know?  This is not hard to see is it?   What Simon and Anna do in these text, in their own ways, is what we too must do, if we want to be guided by the right Spirit in this new year.    Do you see especially how a great truth was made into a very teachable, trainable, graphic and very specific image for us when Simon took up the child up into his arms and start praising God!    Anna did the same, even in a more spiritual sense, as she began to “speak about the child”, not just praising him for herself, but speaking about the child to any who wanted to see ‘the redemption of Jerusalem’.   

Perhaps in the witness of these two worshippers we can see what will enable us to be guided by the Spirit which can lead us to find new hope and promise in this New Year ahead:  Lift up the child!   Lift Jesus up in both word and deed.  You can’t be guided by the Spirit until you identify the Spirit.  You can’t identify the Spirit until you are familiar with what the Spirit does.   And the Bible tells us that Spirit does only one true thing:  He does not speak about himself, but the Spirit reveals the truth about Jesus.    The truth was fully revealed in the life of both Simon and Anna, when they physically and spiritually began to lift up, magnify and glorify, the presence of Jesus Christ in their lives and their world.  Isn’t  this what Christian worship is about?  And isn’t it the true worship of Jesus that can bring us the hope and promise we need in our world and in our own lives?  

Near the close of last year, I came across a website that I’m going to visit a lot in the next year.   It’s a website that can bring a lot of hope to this world.   It will challenge you, and I mean really challenge you.  It will make you think and it might even make some of you mad.   The idea of this web site goes back to what most of us are already familiar with---red letter Bibles.  I don’t use one anymore, because it can be hard to read from the pulpit.  But a red-letter edition of the Bible is a Bible where the words of Jesus are printed in red ink.   What this new website, by Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne challenge us to do, is to take and try to live these words of Jesus, as if they actually are the way we are supposed to live and behave.   Now, again, let me warn you.  This website challenges you and I to be red-letter Christians who join a red letter revolution that can bring real hope to our world.  Listen to the Manifesto, as it is printed:
“Many Bibles have the words of Jesus written in red to set them apart. Many traditions rise and stand every time the Gospels are read. It’s not to say that the other words in the Bible don’t matter. In fact it’s just the opposite – Jesus did not come to abolish the Old Testament, but to complete it.  Jesus is the fulfillment of everything God is doing in the world, the climax of the Bible, the pinnacle of history. He came to show the world what God is like with skin on, in a way we can emulate and follow.    Jesus is the lens through which we understand the Bible… and through which we understand the world we live in. As you read the words of Jesus, you get the deep sense that he did not just come to prepare us to die but to teach us how to live.
Sadly, Christians have not always followed Jesus very well.   It’s startling to think of how easily we forgotten the real Christ of our Christianity.  Often we have worshipped Jesus without doing the things he said. Sometimes we’ve even become known for the very hypocrisy and arrogance for which Jesus scolded the religious elite of his time, and we have not always been known for the love and grace that magnetized the marginalized to Christ…
But there is a new and beautiful movement stirring around the world. It is a movement of folks, young and old, who want a Christianity that looks like Jesus again. It is a movement convinced that Jesus did not just come to prepare us to die, but to teach us how to live. For us, being a Christian has as much to do with life before death as life after death. It is a movement that refuses to use our faith as a ticket into heaven and a license to ignore the hells around us. It is a movement that is committed to building the world Jesus dreamed of – a world free of violence and poverty, a world where the last are first and the first are last, where the poor are blessed and the peacemakers are the children of God. It is a movement that believes in resurrection and lives in light of the promise that life conquers death and love triumphs over hatred. It is a movement of people who are reading the Gospels with fresh eyes and saying, “What if Jesus really meant the stuff he said?”   http://redletterchristians.org/redletterrevolutionbook/manifesto/index.html.

We all know that true worship is not just coming to church, setting on a pew, singing a song or saying a prayer.  But true spiritual worship, said the apostle Paul is to “make your body a living sacrifice, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12: 1-2, NRSV).   To lift up Jesus, you must put your whole life on the line.  This is what being a ‘red-letter’ Christian means.   Real hope does not come with half-way commitment to the truth.  Hope only comes when we live rightly, listen to God’s spirit, and when we are guided by the same Spirit we allow to take control of our own lives.

So, my most important message of the whole year all comes down to your answer on this first Sunday:  How will you lift up Jesus with your life in this New Year?  How will you do right?  How will you listen with your whole heart?  How will you make yourself available to go where the Spirit leads and do what the Spirit says?   How will you not just be hopeful, but how will you bring hope into this world by the faithfulness of your own life?   This is just how close real hope is to any and all of us; it is as close as the very next right, good, and necessary thing we will do to lift up Jesus for the glory of God who is always able to do a new thing.  Amen.