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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Don’t Try This At Home

A Sermon based upon Luke 4: 14-30
A Sermon by Charles J. Tomlin
Zion-Flat Rock Baptist Partnership
Third Sunday after Epiphany, Jan. 24, 2010
The other day I saw Jay Leno’s spot; “Don’t Try This at Home.”   The first guest stood on a medicine ball and while balancing himself, took a barbell and did several squats.   It hard enough to do squats on level ground, but he did it standing on a medicine ball.   Then, to beat this, the next guest stood flat footed, turned a backward flip and then landed his feet into a swinging rope, suspending himself upside down.   He did all of this while blind-folded.   Both times, Leno reminded the crowd, “Don’t try this at home.”

Today’s Scripture reminds something else we should be careful about at home.   It is the story of how Jesus was rejected even in his home town of Nazareth.  It’s the kind of text that reminds just how dangerous and risky religion can be, especially because we hold faith close to our hearts, because, for the most part, we have been free to practice our religion our own way.  

It’s kind of ironic, don’t you think?   Most of the time we preachers are trying to get people to take their faith home with them.   We tell you that just coming to church is not enough---you’ve got to take Jesus home and practice what you preach.   What we mean is that real faith needs to impact your whole life; not just your church life.   This is still true.   In fact, today’s text is still trying to get us to do just that---let faith impact our lives in very life-changing ways.  But that is also where the danger comes in.   The people in Nazareth are willing to practice their faith at home, as long as they decided the faith they were going to practice.   The faith Jesus brings home to them is not the kind of faith they wanted.   They had their own “home grown” faith already and didn't want anyone, including Jesus, showing them any different. By the time we get to end of the story people in Nazareth are ready to kill their own, hometown boy.

But the story didn’t begin this way.   In fact, our story begins when Jesus unrolls the scroll where it says in Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…”  (4:16).   With this moment of drama, Jesus has announced his own call to preach.   The people are amazed and excited.   “The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him…” (Vs. 20).   It gets better: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came out of his lips” (Vs. 22).   

All this reminds me of my own call into the ministry.   The pastor was pleased.   The people prayed for me.   They were all ready to support me in any way they could.   They let me preach, even when my grammar was bad and my thoughts were scrambled.   I knew I wasn’t polished, but I was the first one in the church to be called into the ministry.   It was an exciting moment, for everyone, except my mom.   When I told her I felt that the “Spirit of the Lord was upon me”, and felt God was calling me into the ministry, my mom’s first words were, “No, you don’t want to do that!   At first I couldn’t believe my mom saying this, then she said, “Don’t you know what people do to preachers?”   

No sooner had the people started showing their support of Jesus, the support turns to rage against him. Jesus doesn’t just read the Scripture, but now preaches the truth; something always dangerous especially at church.  Without warning, Jesus tells them that “no prophet is accepted in his hometown” (Vs. 24).   He will not be able to do miracles here.   He goes on to explain how in Elijah’s day great miracles were not done among his own, but among foreigners and strangers.   A widow in a Gentile town received the miracle, but the Jewish widows didn’t.   A sick man in Syria, Naaman the leper who was Gentile, not Jewish received the healing, and he was even one of the enemy, but no Jewish lepers were healed.  That is the point Jesus is trying to make.  He will do no miracles in his hometown.  He will come to his own, but they will not receive him well, but the sinners will and that made them mad.

After this very short sermon, warm feelings of support and sentiment turn to anger and rage as they force Jesus out of town and to the edge of a cliff.  Right when they were ready to push him over, he turns and walks right through the middle of the crowd and not one person dared lay a finger on him.   Now, you know why I’ve entitled this message, “Don’t try this at home!”   Jesus came home, but the man who has come home is not the boy who left.   He is different.  His message is different than what they expected.   Everyone had their own set of expectations of what he would say, but Jesus doesn’t fulfill these expectations. He’s no longer a just a preacher, but he’s a threat and somebody’s got to stop him.

When I read this story I’m reminded of the statistics say that most people die within 10 miles of their home.    Being at home can be dangerous for other reasons too.  Thomas Wolfe once wrote a book entitled, “You Can’t Go Home Again!”  Wolfe was writing about people leaving the family farm and going to the city to get an education or to find their fortune and then wanting to go back home.   He believed that when you leave home for whatever reason, returning is practically impossible.   It is impossible because you change and the world changes...nothing remains the same.   You can’t go home again because even the home you come back to, is not the same as the home you left.  

Teresa and I experienced this in several ways when we returned from Europe.   We loved the home we had in America, but then we also came to love Europe as well.   We saw good in both of them and that is part of the problem.   When you are in one you miss the other.   For example, when we were in Germany we loved experiencing the differences in cultures, but we also missed our families, peanut butter, free public restrooms, cheap gas, and being able to say anything in our mother tongue.   When we came back home to the US,  loved being home again, but we missed so much about Germany—the youth we ministered to, the cold winter’s with snow, the bicycle trails, the sauerkraut, the cheap but quality health care, and how most everything we owned there, was built to last.   When you have lived in two worlds you can’t help but compare the two and in some ways, you gain two homes and you lose both homes.  You always feel a little lost without the other, and you always feel a little lost in the one, that is not like the other one.  

Jesus had trouble going home to… but it was for a different reason altogether.   Jesus came preaching about another world, God’s new world which was being unveiled--- a world that was now possible but still beyond what most could imagine, because we get so used to the world we're in. Jesus wanted his people see, imagine and grasp, the new possible spiritual dream of God that was coming near to them through the gospel and through the kingdom of God, but Jesus knew, even from the beginning that his own people would be able to see it.  “He came unto his own and his own received him not.”  God’s new world is so radically different that even Nazareth would miss it.  They would miss seeing God at work in him would not fully realize how God is at work in the world right under their own noses.   They would be too comfortable in their world to entertain any dream or hope of a new one.

Making our home in this world can be dangerous to our spiritual health too.   Can’t we get to be so much at home in our own worlds of faith, belief, habits and customs, even so much at home with Jesus that we fail to see the “strangeness” and the “challenge” of what Jesus came reveal to us?     Can even knowing Jesus “too well”  prevent the miracles happening in our lives?   Can we get so comfortable in the truth about Jesus that he is almost too familiar to us, so that we miss the radical, challenging, and life-changing message we need to hear and follow?    For a couple more moments, I want to mention a couple of ways Jesus’ truth still challenges us in ways that can be hard for us to see and very easy for us to stifle the miracles God wants do among us.

First, Jesus challenges his people to see God in the particular and the ordinary, not just the spectacular and the extraordinary.    He wants them to see God in the human flesh who rides a donkey and serves his disciples here and now, not the Lord who will one day judge and rule with iron fist and rides a white horse to kill all of his enemies.

Where do most of us look for God?   It is so easy to get people to look for God in the amazing testimonies and stories of dramatic grace.    Almost every year, I get some invitation from a church that is having a revival with a person who had been an alcohol and set free, been a drug addict, a gang leader or some other struggling soul, but has now  been redeemed.   They try to draw people in to hear the amazing, astounding, arresting testimony of God’s power.   Seldom, do I get an invitation to come hear a preacher who was raised by Christian parents, is faithful to his wife and family, or who always tried to be faithful and do the right thing and who faithfully and courageously leads his people to be faithful to God is some ordinary ways.   People are still more drawn to find God the dramatic and the unusual, the spectacular and the special, but not to look for God in the regular and the ordinary.   We look up in the heavens and strain to see a god who looks down on us from far away, who can’t really interfere or get into our lives, but seldom do we look around us to find God close and present with us in the nearness and familiarity of some very ordinary places and very ordinary people.

I’m reminded of the story told about Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity.  He was working for the poor, doing exactly what Jesus talks about in this text.   He was building one of his first houses  and was hard at work.   While he was working, a child kept coming buy wanting to help.  But Fuller had little time for the child.   But the child would not give up and this frustrated Fuller so much that one day, he told him he ought to go home.   It was then, the child told him, “this was his home.”  He was one of the children in family for whom the house was being built.  “Ok kid,” if you’re going to hang around here and help, I need to know what your name is.   The little Hispanic boy, then tells Fuller that is name is , Jesus.   Fuller, writes, that it suddenly occurred to him.   Here he was building a house for Jesus and “Jesus” was right here in this child he failed to see and tried to push away (My Memory of a story told by Millard Fuller’s in his book Theology of the Hammer,  Smyth and Helwys, 1994).

Where are you looking for Jesus?   Are you looking for Jesus in the special, the supernatural, the extraordinary, or can you see Jesus in the normal, the average, the ordinary, and even in the day to day events of everyday life?   Jesus wanted his people to see God in the flesh, right before their eyes and right under their noses, but they could not.  Is it any different for us?   So many people go looking for God in just the right church, with just the right people, looking for just the right experience, but the truth Jesus came to be is the “word become flesh” right where we live and right under our noses.  

There is another way the people missed and even resist and reject what Jesus can do in our lives.   People can only look for Jesus in the comfort God gives saving us, but not in the challenge Jesus brings to call us to join him in the work of bringing salvation into the world.  

We all want to know the “God of all comfort”, don’t we?   We all want to know the Jesus who quiets our fears, who still our hearts, who speaks promises of love, of life, of faith and of hope.   And of course, this is part of who God is and part of what Jesus came to share.   “Let not your heart be troubled, you believe in God, believe also in me….. in my father’s house are many mansions…. I go to prepare a place for you.”   We all need the comfort that only the gospel of Jesus and his resurrection can give.   We need this hope, for there is no other that speaks so clear and dear to our hearts.

Some of this very hope of “good news” is revealed in this text.   Jesus said the “Spirit is upon him…. to preach good news to the poor… to release the captives… to give the blind sight…. and to let the oppressed go free.” These are all wonderful words of hope to a people who needed to hear it so desperately.   In a bad news world, we are always hungry for some good news.   Right now, all our hearts go out to those Haitians who have been waiting, hurting, and even dying, as they wait for the good news of deliverance that is finally starting to pour into their very desperate situation.   But we too, even far away from those events, have also been encouraged by the stories and miracles of saved lives.   Hearing about hope in their world, even from somewhere else gives us some hope for our own lives and our own world.  It takes our mind off our own problems and pains.  Hope and comfort is the kind of salvation we gladly receive.

But with the hope of salvation also comes a challenge.   In fact, the comfort we all need comes through accepting the challenge of the same gospel which offers us comfort.   Isn’t it true that when Jesus said that the “spirit was upon him to preach good news” he also came with a challenge for his people to see beyond their own need for comfort and to rise up with their hope and start reaching out to the world God has come to save.   In reaching out to save, they would also realize the fullness of God’s salvation in the world.   God’s salvation was not just an action God was doing, but it was an action his people were to become a part of and by becoming a part, they were see God’s salvation realized beyond them and it would even come back to them.  So these words of comfort also came with the words of challenge.   But were they ready for these words of challenge any more than we are?

Neither Nazareth nor Israel was ready for how Jesus challenged them.   Are we any more ready?    They wanted the God, high in the sky who could bring them comfort, but they were not willing nor ready for finding the any comfort in the accepting the challenge.   So, when Jesus spoke about God working more miracles in Sidon and Syria, among the Gentiles, than he could work in Israel, this was not what people wanted to hear.    They wanted to see God confirming who they were, giving them exactly what they wanted, but they did want God challenging them to let go of their “safe place” and encouraging them to share their spiritual home with real pressing needs of the world beyond their own home.

Do you know that in the 1700’s, before the mission moment came to America, the question was asked first asked in England, “What do we need missionaries for?”    When a Baptist Christian, named William Cary first stood up in and suggested that English Christians raise money to send out the first missionaries into the world to India, some answered by saying,   “Sit down Mr. Cary, if God wants the heathen to be saved, let him go and save them himself.”    It might be hard for us to believe that some people still think the gospel is only about comfort, not about challenge.  But there are still people who don’t see the reason to send missionaries; who think the only mission is at home and to protect home, and who have no view or vision for seeking and saving the lost in this world.   They don’t see that reaching out to the world is also part of way we bring God’s salvation not only to the world, but bringing the fullness of salvation back to ourselves.  

Of the challenge is hard.   It was hard for people to see and understand Jesus then, and it is still a challenge today.   The Second Coming of Jesus is one of those difficult teachings to grasp in the Bible.   Let me say to you, right up front, that I believe in the second coming, but I don’t think we see all of what Jesus meant by it.   We might see some of it, especially we like to “gaze into the heaven’s” like a few disciples did when Jesus ascended into heaven, but we don’t see all of what the second coming means hear and now, and I’d say, we still miss the main part.  

If you take the Biblical Recorder, you notice that last week’s issue had a full centerfold piece on differing views of the Second Coming which Baptists have.    When and where I grew up we had one very specific view of what it will look like when Jesus returns.   I learned and memorized all the specifics of what it will look like…tribulation….rapture… wrath… judgment…antichrist… and end of the world.   Then when started to study the issue in college and seminary,  I realized there were other Christian viewpoints about the second coming.    I even discovered that sometimes we try to find comfort in the second coming but see little need to be challenged to do anything for the salvation of the world now.   I also learned in seminary that we live in the ‘already, but not yet’ time, which means we live in between what God is doing and what God will one day complete.   We don’t have much to do with what God will complete, but we can have much to do with what God is doing.   But when I came home suggesting there could be other ways to look at the second coming, it was like I had leprosy.   Especially, when I suggested that Jesus’s promise to return in glory before “this generation” passed away, could mean Jesus coming in promise and power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost when Jesus appeared in a new, spiritual and very challenging way.   When I also took people to Matthew 25 and showed how Jesus himself explained clearly how he is revealed and returns in body when we minister to the least of these, I found it hard for people to accept the challenge that this might be part of what the second coming means.    This is part of the reason my home church doesn’t invite me back to preach.

We want the “comfort” part which says Jesus will bring a brand new world, but we don’t deal enough with the “challenge” part which says we can have part in how this new world breaks into our world here and now.   While I do have hope that Jesus will return to this world in a final, glorious way, and that Jesus will ultimately rule the world in love and grace, I also know that I have a much better understanding of how Jesus can already come here and now, and that this is the is suppose to be the challenge and opportunity of ministry in my life.   Jesus challenged his own people to see more than they saw, and to do more than they were doing.   But they wanted the comfort, but not the challenge.

There is one more way that the gospel of Jesus might get under our skin.  Jesus not only comes to save us in a new spiritual way, he also comes to save us in some very obvious and earthy ways.  He comes to give us life now---as well as, in the age to come.

Let me tell you how seeing the earthly Jesus change how I see the gospel, even how I read Jesus’ own call to ministry.   Back in the late 1980’s Teresa and I went on our first trip to the northeast, and while in New York, we attended a historic Baptist church in a poorer part of New York City.   You might know it as the church Rockefeller built.  When Teresa and I first walked into the Riverside Church, we were amazed at what we saw.   Upon entry into the foyer, we saw table after table of church members advertising and advocating involvement in various social ministries of the community.   It wasn’t exactly like the tables I saw a couple of weeks ago at the Cove Church in Mooresville, which were all laid out inviting people to this Bible study or to this coffee-discussion group.    I don’t remember all the ministries being promoted in that New York Baptist Church, but I do know they were not handing out religious tracts on how to get to heaven and I remember thinking to myself these disparaging words: “social gospel”.   Those words had been drilled into me in church as a child—and meant that some churches had strayed away from the true “spiritual gospel” having compromised themselves by getting involved in the social gospel of  reaching out to the hungry and the poor and by joining together build better neighborhoods.   This they hoped to do to bring more of God’s salvation in this world, and not only by helping and comforting those who are afflicted with poverty and pain, but also by afflicting the comfortable who selfishly build a world that makes and keeps people poor and in pain.   That was a kind of gospel was told to stay away from.  I was told not to try this kind of gospel at home.

In reflecting upon that, I’m somewhat amazed how last week we sent money to Haiti to help these poor people in need and we are taking up money today.  When I think about it, I can’t remember any one of the several Baptist churches of my childhood doing something like that---something has changed or is still changing, but I wonder if we really see it.   It is as if, we too are beginning to understand that the gospel of Jesus does have earthly, social, as well as spiritual dimensions and that you can’t do one without also doing the other---that is, you can’t reach into a person’s heart with good news of Jesus until you first reach out and respond to their hurt, their pain, their poverty and their problems in the name of Jesus.   Where do you think we got an idea like that?    Listen to it again from today’s Bible text in Luke 4:18-21  18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,  19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Aren’t Scriptures being fulfilled today as we respond to the social and spiritual needs of people around us?  And isn’t this what challenges us most about the gospel of Jesus---Jesus still challenges us to take the gospel to people we don’t know in particular ways that impact their lives so the truth of God’s love can also reach their souls.  It’s not either or, but it’s both and.  And how did the Jews ever miss this?  How did Christians and a lot of Baptist miss it?  How do Muslims, Buddhist and all kinds of religious and non religious people miss it?  How can we too miss what Jesus is calling us to do today?  Isn’t this what we are about, seeing the truth of Scripture fulfilled, not just when we get to heaven, but also here, today, right where we live in ways that make this world the kind of world it was meant to be---a world filled with faith, hope and love and the greatest is always love.  This hope was at the core of Jesus' ministry, which is both a social and spiritual ministry (not either or but both and) and I hope it is also at the core of ours.  Amen.

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Running On Empty

A Sermon based upon John 2: 1-11
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
2nd Sunday of Epiphany, January 17, 2010

Brent Younger, professor of preaching at Mercer Divinity School, says his Junior boy’s class Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Pope, did not care for the story of Jesus turning water into wine.   In fact, she hated this story and tried to get through it as fast as possible.  Still, being the polite and precise woman that she was, she would always stop after teaching the lesson and ask the boys if they had any questions. 

The junior boys, on the other hand, loved it when this story came up in the teaching cycle.   They would plan to have some questions to ask in attempt to get their teacher off track.  One of their questions was:  “Mrs. Pope, why did Jesus turn water into wine and not Coca-Cola?”   Mrs. Pope told the boys that this is one of the first questions she was going to ask God when she got to heaven.  (As told in a Sermon, “Cup of Wonder” in Lectionary Homiletics, 1. 17.2010)

Some of us may still struggle to understand why in the world the very first miracle Jesus performed was the miracle of turning 150 gallons of water into overflowing barrel-like jars of wine at the wedding in the town of Cana of Galilee?   Being Baptist, most of us grew up hearing powerful temperance or anti-drinking sermons.   If you or your family has had a bad experience with an alcoholic in the family and you have become sensitive to the negative impact that alcohol abuse, alcoholism, binge drinking or drunk driving has upon our society, then you too might be wondering how in the world wine-making became Jesus’ first miracle.  

In order to help us begin to understand this, there are two important matters we need to address right up front.   While it is true, that Jesus’ first miracle was to make 150 gallons of vintage rosè and this was about  enough to drown the entire wedding party,  there are two very important words of clarification we must grasp before we can understand this whole event.  (Helping you see this is part of the reason we still need  preachers).

The first matter of clarification is that this miracle takes place at a wedding, but the miracle is not about the wedding.   

When I first started performing weddings, I often used the traditional wedding vows.  These vows spoke of the fact that Jesus treated marriage as an “honorable” because he once attended a wedding in Cana of Galilee.  Though it is theologically true that Jesus blessed the rite of marriage, and even went on to denounce divorce in some very rigid terms, this story about Jesus in Cana is not about the wedding.    In fact, if it were about the wedding we probably know a few more details about the couple, the guest list, or the many traditions of the day.  But all our text does is tell us that there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, that Jesus’ mother was there, that Jesus and the disciples’
were also invited and probably were all in attendance.  But this is all we know because very little emphasis is placed upon the wedding itself.

In the New Testament, it is also true that the Jewish wedding ceremony and the big wedding feast is often used as a picture of what God is doing in the world.  Jesus used marriage as the picture of the great spiritual marriage of the Church as the Bride of Christ and Jesus as the Bridegroom.   You can’t get to the heart of the meaning of the New Testament without having some understanding of this important social event of the ancient world.   It was an event filled with important rituals, meaning, all based upon important vows of human faithfulness and hope for joy and fulfillment.  But even as important as the wedding was and marriage still is, this story is not about the wedding.   It is very important that we grasp this first of all.

The second important word of clarification is that, even though Jesus does convert very big jars of water into about 150 gallons of wine, the message of the miracle of the wine-making is not about making wine.  

Now, it might sound a little bit confusing, at least at first—for me to say that this miracle of making wine is really not about wine-making.  How weird is it to say that making wine is not about wine-making?    But let me also say that it is the same kind weird you find when you talk about baptism not being about water or getting wet or the fire of the Holy Spirit not being about heat or getting burned.   The Bible often uses very earthly images to speak of spiritual truth.  Here, in the first miracle we are to learn to see in very earthy, common, ordinary images of life, the very extraordinary work and purposes of God.  

The action of the story really starts when we read the words that “the wine ran out” (v. 3, New Jerusalem Bible).   Wine was an essential part of a Jewish wedding ceremony.   This part of old world culture was even carried over into the rest of Europe and in all Wedding ceremonies when I was a missionary there in Germany during the 90’s.  I’ll never forget how a very conservative, even tee-totaling leader in our Germany Baptist mission was orienting me and others as new missionaries.  He told us, “I know that by being a Baptist missionary you don’t drink and probably never have.  I also know that the mission board does not promote drinking” (at that time there was no signed vow of alcohol abstinence).  But then, he concluded, “when you are invited to a wedding and they come to toast the bride, you’d better put that glass up to your lips and look like you are taking a sip or you’ll look not only look stupid, you’ll insult the bride and you lose your ability to be a missionary here.  If you can’t do this, you’d better go home now.”

Many of us have a hard time with a culture that uses alcohol as part of its feasting, especially if we know how it can be abused and misused, but what we need to understand it that in the ancient world, and especially in the middle east, wine was essential to one’s health and well being.   The Rabbi’s of Jesus day had a saying which went, “without wine, there is no joy.”   Now don’t misunderstand this to mean that people got drunk all the time.  Drunkenness was a great disgrace in the ancient world, as it is still a great social disgrace today.  And the truth is, says William Barclay, people actually did not drink their wine straight, but they drank it “two parts wine to three parts water.”  (See The Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of John, p. 97).  You practically had to drown in the wine before it got you intoxicated.   In a world without refrigerators, without sanitation and without any other way of preservation, wine was not only necessary, it was essential.
Making sure everyone had enough wine was the number one responsibility of what it meant to be a good host in that world.   It was even seen as a religious and sacred duty.   To fail to have wine would have been a great humiliation and insult to the guests and to the bride and the bridegroom.   And that brings us to the major problem presented in this story.   Mary comes to Jesus with the bad news:  “They have no more wine”  (vs. 3).    Weddings were supposed to be times of hospitality, happiness, joy, feasting and celebration.   It was one of the few times when people, especially those who were mostly poor, would pull out all the stops and share in the richness of life.   It was also a time when every guest was supposed to get what they came for, but unfortunately, the news is that “the wine ran out.”

Still, let me reiterate, the problem is the wine, but the story is still not about the wine.   THIS STORY IS ABOUT JESUS and about who he was and came to be.

Because the story is about Jesus, this is also why the story now gets a little tricky.  Mary comes to Jesus to inform him about the wine and Jesus appears to get a little sharp with his mother.  “Woman, what do you want from me?  My hour has not yet come?”    If Jesus sounds a little hesitant, a little frustrated, and even a little irritated, don’t be too hard on him.   To come out in public now means that Jesus has begun his way to the cross.   We need to understand that Jesus’ is not being rude to his mother, but he is preparing her and us for what is about to happen next.    Jesus is about to take care of this problem in a way that changes everything.  We all need to prepare for what will happen next.

What happens next in this story is that Jesus’ mother informs the servants to obey whatever Jesus commands.  Obey Jesus.  Get the message?   Is it starting to come through?   Read on.  In front of Jesus are 6 stone jars used for the Jewish rite of purification.  Whenever you entered a Jewish house in the ancient world, because of the dusty and dirty conditions and out of respect for the host, you would go through a ritual of cleansing before you entered their house.   This cleansing was both a sanitary and sacred ritual which said you were physically and spiritually prepared to enter a home.   Jesus instructed that these purification jars of preparation now be filled with water all the way to the brim.    Jesus was preparing to introduce himself to the world.   Now, after each of the jars were filled with water,  Jesus then instructed the person in charge, who was also the person worrying most about having no wine, to come and draw some out to drink.   This is when it is discovered that the water had suddenly been turned into wine. 

After the miracle took place, we read that the wine Jesus made is even better than the previous batch.   Normally, the wine best wine was used first, so that it would make a good impression.  Then later, the lesser wine was used, because when people were a little tipsy, it wouldn’t matter as much.   But Jesus, in this miracle not only helps the host look better, he also brings excitement when the bridegroom says, “You have kept the good wine until now” (2:10).

So now, we have a complete picture of the event.  The Wedding host runs out of wine.  Jesus is asked by his mother to intervene.   Jesus is reluctant, but his “time” has come.   The servants are told to obey whatever Jesus says.  They fill up the jars with water.  When the contents are tasted, the six jars of water used for purification and preparation has become wine.  And its not just any wine, but it is the best wine because the best has been saved for last.     

In review of these events, we are ready to ask, what is this all about?  And it had better be good, right?   If Jesus makes 150 gallons of wine, we can all wonder:  what in the world was he thinking?  In order to answer, direct your attention to one word of explanation in verse 11.   John tells us that Jesus did this as, “the first of his signs”.  Signs of what?   It says with this ‘sign’ Jesus began to reveal his “glory” and his disciples came to “believed in him.”    Do you see what is happening?  It’s not about the wedding and its not about the wine, but it’s about Jesus.   It is about seeing his “glory” and becoming “disciples” who also follow and “believe in him.”

Isn’t this one of the most pressing questions many are ask both inside and outside the church?   Who is Jesus?   Was Jesus simply a miracle worker or a holy man of a particular religion at a particular time and place, or was Jesus something more.   Is there something revealed in Jesus that has been revealed in no one else?   And if Jesus is more than just another person, just another preacher or another religious guru, then how should we respond to him today?

One thing this miracle of wine-making tells us is that we know Jesus best, not by what we think about him, but we know him best through experiencing what Jesus came to do.  Do you see what is being unleashed in this miracle?   Another part of John’s gospel might help, when Jesus says, “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly.”   Abundance is written all over this story.   Though the wine, Jesus is ready to show how he came to bring fullness, joy, fulfillment, and spiritual abundance into to our lives.   Jesus came to rescue us from the fear or the feeling that our lives might come up empty. 

Have you ever found yourself “running on empty?”  My wife has this kind of problem.  While she does very well at being joyful in life and bringing joy to me and others, she sometimes lets the gas hand get low on the car.   Literally. Once she ran out of gas going up a hill on the way to the gas station.  I told her it was going to happen.   She said, “Oh, I can make it.”  She didn’t make it.  Another time it happened when I was in the vehicle with her.  Who do you think had to walk?   I’ve been worried about her ever since and I’m always complaining to her when I find the tank below three quarters empty.  I don’t want her to get stranded.   I even tell her she’ll  get better gas mileage running the car with a full tank.

While it’s one thing to run out of gas in your car, it’s worse to run out of energy for life.   When I became pastor of the Pleasant Grove Church in Shelby, N.C., on my first Sunday as Pastor, someone came quickly to the church after the evening service and asked me to rush to a church member’s home.  A young, beautiful, 18 year old daughter of one of our members had just taken her own life.  I thought to myself, well, this is not any way to start a new pastorate.  Upon my visit in the home, I discovered that the young girl felt that her sister was “Miss Perfect” and she was a complete failure.   It wasn’t true, but she felt this way and she lost all her energy for life.   That is not supposed to happen, especially, when you are 18 years old.

All of us look at life differently and most of us find the reason and joy for our lives in different ways.  But let me just suggest something that might shock you as much as the “wine” does.   Jesus did not come to force you to be a Christian.   He did not come to make you into a Baptist.  He didn’t even come simply to tell you how to get to heaven.  Jesus says that he came that you might have life, and have “life” in abundance.   Do you know what this means---to have life in fullness and abundance?

Bette Midler the singer and actress can give us some insight.  She is a talented person who sings, dances, does acting in dramas and comedy.  What many don’t know is that Bette Midler also writes.   In 1983, Bette Midler wrote a book for children, called The Saga of Baby Divine.  It’s a celebration of new life from start to finish.   The book is exuberant, joyful and very funny.  One detail of the book is worth remembering more than the rest.   Baby Divine is born, and grows like most babies.  Then, the book says she learns to talk.   Do you remember your children’s first words?  Did your parents tell you what it was?  Most children say “mama” or “da-da”, but Baby Divine said something else.  Her first word was “more!”  And it wasn’t the “more” of selfishness or indulgence, but it was the “more” of hopefulness, adventure, joy, celebration, and excitement.

What ever you think or believe about Jesus, John’s gospel wants us to know that Jesus came to give us “more.”   He came to help us make “more” of our lives than we have been able to make on our own.  He came to call us to more joy, more love, more peace, and more adventure.   He came to bring us more hope, more purpose, more fulfillment and more grace and more mercy.  And when you discover the  “more” Jesus came to give you is when you begin to really grasp who Jesus is what he came to do.   Discovering Jesus isn’t something you learn in a book, class, or through some theory or even through this sermon.  To find this “more” he offers, you’ve got to fill up your glass and drink.  

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once said we human’s are designed as a God-shaped vacuum—and we are restless until that void is filled and we can say, filled with God’s “more”.  The essence of the “more” Jesus came to give takes us right to the very nature of God and the purpose for being human.  God’s nature is the pure more of grace—generous, abundant, excessive, surprising grace—grace overflowing to the brim, in times and places when we least expect it.  To be human is to hunger and to thirst for this grace, this joy, this abundance—and to thirst for God until we are finally satisfied.  Another writer describes this human longing in this way:   “Our thirst for God will never be satisfied by taking an eye-dropper-ful of divine love and dribbling it onto our tongues…  We want to swing out on a rope over the river, and let go, and splash naked into the deep, delightful pool…that is our thirst for God.”  (David Rensberger, “Thirst for God” in Weavings, July 2000, p. 23 as told by Susan Andrews.).

The God of “more” is the God Jesus came to reveal and this why he came to live and die…to give us this “more” which is now offered to us.   You see, the miracle of Cana is not really about the water turning into to wine, but it is more about “Jesus” himself becoming the purifying ‘water’ of our lives which can change everything and even quench our deepest thirst we have for life.   Now, today, through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus himself,  Jesus offers us God’s more---more  when our lives run out of joy, just as he offered “more” to the Wedding party in Cana of Galilee.  But the final question is this: how do we define this “more” in our lives and how does it come to us?

Well, look once again at the miracle itself.   The miracle of “more” comes through a miracle of transformation and change which can happen in our own lives when follow Jesus, as Mary says, "Do whatever he says."   By following Jesus we too can gain the power to change our empty, tasteless, and watered-down lives into the full, richness of living that which brings our souls what we need the most.

Currently I’m reading a controversial, but stunning book from a philosopher and Christian preacher from Oklahoma, named Robin Meyers.   The title of his book got my attention: “Saving Jesus from the Church.”  Then, I opened the book and read the title of a chapter that also go my attention again, entitled, “Jesus is not Savior, but Teacher.”   When I first read those lines, it made me think I’m just reading another liberal idea, but then I read on in the chapter.   Meyers says that the real problem is that the church has worshipped a Christ of our traditions which we can admire at a distance, but at the same time we overlook the Jesus we are suppose to be following and who can change our very lives.   He is not saying that Jesus doesn’t save, but he says we miss the very salvation he came to give, when we only believe the truth about Jesus but fail to follow Jesus and trust Jesus with our very lives. The first Christians were not just known as people who were “saved”, but they were “followers” of Jesus, who learned by following Jesus how they could be changed into people who lived “the way”---the same way--- by following his way.  

I think Robin Meyers is on to something.   This last weekend, I took a working Sunday off to visit a congregation doing some interesting ministry in hope of getting some inspiration and ideas.  We visited the Cove Church in Mooresville.  When we arrived, it was suddenly clear this was not your regular church service.  You could hear the music already in process as you arrive, even 5 minutes early.  You also saw why most churches don’t have many young 20 something’s.  They were all at this church.  When you entered the foyer, there was a café, flat screen tvs everywhere, a warm fireplace,  people conversing with each other, and all kinds of people standing around to direct you or offer a ministry to become involved in,  a mission to go on, or a study group to join.   When we went in and listened to the music, as it came to a close, after a couple of announcements, the pastor came and started preaching.  But his preaching was more teaching about life than anything else.  He was teaching about how we all need a home to come to and sometime in our lives we all need to come back to this home.   He was using the prodigal son as his text.  But the core of his message was about finding more… more than what the son found… more than the money we squandered… more than the home he left so easily.   It was only when the son lost everything and became hungry and thirsty for home, did he finally realize what he had lost.

It was a great message and a message right on target for his congregation, most of which had left their own homes to come to find jobs and live near Charlotte.  But the one thing I noticed about the sermon which disturbed me was that seldom did he mention Jesus as the way home.   He spoke about the ways to lose your way home, but he did not say very much about the way to come home.  It was the first sermon in a series, but I’m sure there was more he was going to say.

Preacher’s call this “life situation” preaching.  You hear a lot of it from the very popular Joel Osteen, who preaches so you can have the best life you can have.   Nothing wrong with that, except that it doesn’t always address “how”  how you move toward the miracle of having God's presence in your life.   Doing what Jesus says is the way to the more which only Jesus can give.

Let me give you one more example.  Since we are talking about a wedding, in a couple of weeks, I’m going to start a seminar for married couples who want to enhance their marriage by living closer to Jesus.  It is interesting that there are all kinds of marriage guru’s and all kinds of sophisticated techniques you can learn to help you marriage.   But the real help for a marriage is now what you can do to change your spouse or change your situation.  No, the best thing you and your spouse can do to help your marriage is to really learn how to follow Jesus.  When you have the “more” Jesus gives and when you are “changed” by Jesus yourself, now don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s amazing who you can live with and what you can live for.   I’m not suggesting that with Jesus you can fix everything wrong in your marriage, but I’m suggesting that with Jesus, you can be changed into a new person, and when you are  a new person, it’s amazing how that affects everything in your marriage.

So, let me close by asking you; “what is the “more” you need in your life?   Do you find yourselves running on empty?   Have you taken this need to Jesus and have you asked what you yourself can do to bring his “more” into your life.   Let me give you a final hint about this “more”.  This “more” is not the same for everybody.  We are all needy in different ways.  We all have differing ways that we hunger and thirst for righteousness and peace.   We all have different ways that we come to Jesus with our empty jars and empty lives.   So, today, I can’t tell you what Jesus can do for you.  I can only point you to the one who turned the water into wine, so that you can come to him in full expectation, that if you want it, he can change you into something much better than you are now.   You can be more, but first you must “do whatever he says.”    Amen.

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Open to the Light

A Sermon Matthew 2: 1-12
Charles J. Tomlin
Second Sunday after Christmas or Epiphany Year C
Flat Rock Zion Baptist Partnership

The text for today takes us back to the Christmas story one last time.   In the most ancient Church, the Orthodox Church, Christmas was not officially over until after “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, which lasted until January 5th.   You might be ready to move on, but the traditions of the church ask us to reflect upon part of the Christmas story once again: the visit of the wise men.

Before we get to the story of the Wise Men and the Star, I want you to think about some of your earliest star gazing.   Stars are especially bright during the winter months and as a child, we were not a bit afraid to go out in the cold and play.   Especially around Christmastime, when all kinds of cousins were gathered at grandma’s house,  it was a good time to go out and play “freeze tag” or “hide and seek” regardless of the temperature.   As I look back upon it, waiting in the dark while playing games as a small child, was one of the first times I ever looked up into the heavens and considered the vastness of the universe.   It was in one of those brief moments, while waiting there in the dark, that I first began to see light.  It was there that I first wondered who am I in the midst of this vast, endless sea of stars.

Interestingly, there is a great moment in the opening of the movie Amistad, which is about one of the more disturbing parts of our American history.   In the first few minutes of the movie, Cinque, a black man from Africa who has been ambushed and sold into slavery and is on board the ship Amistad.   He has a similar awing response to a starlit night on board that slave ship.  He and his people have just taken over the ship and are attempting to sail back to Africa.   Cinque looks into the starry night and wonders about the vastness of the universe and considers what it means to have all that heavenly light beaming down on such a hostile world, which now looks suddenly bright and different.   The movie goes on to consider how difficult it is for people to see the light of grace and hope, but how wonderful it is when the light finally does come into human condition  (As told by Patrica De Jong in a sermon "Star Light, Star Bright",  Lectionary Homiletics, Jan. 3, 2010).

LIGHT IS NOT ALWAYS EASY TO RECEIVE, IS IT?   Think how long it took for many in our country and in our world to see the light that all people are created equal, even though the Bible stated it, nature suggested it, and the US constitution was supposed to guarantee it.   The truth is, some people still don’t get it and racism is still alive in many darkened hearts.   Unfortunately, there are those who still prefer to walk in darkness instead of the light.   And even for those upon whom the light of freedom and hope has shined, it has taken a long, hard struggle before the light finally came on for them.

On this day, we want to consider how this light of grace, hope and freedom, shone through the Star the Wise Men followed and the Christ child they visited.  But what I especially want us to consider for a few moments, is how the “light” of truth was and can still be refused and rejected.   That is also a part of the Christmas story: “He came unto his own and his own received him not.”   Here, in the story of the wise men we already see the difficulty one might have in receiving the light of truth into their lives.    As we look at King Herod’s struggle with the light, but also look into a mirror and see some of our own hesitancy in being open to the light of truth in our lives.

If we are honest enough to admit it, we’ve all been there when truth is hard to swallow or when new  ideas are hard to follow.  We are, as humans, for the most part, creatures of habit.   As the movie Amistad reminds us, some of us here in the south still remember struggling with and overcoming our own feelings of racism can’t we?   Though the “truth makes us free”, it can also surprise and alarm, rather than comfort, especially when we are the ones holding the reins of power. 

Unfortunately, even those of us in the church, who are supposed to “walk in the light as he is in the light,”  sometimes come here seeking to be comforted in our darkness rather than being opened to light.  Sometimes we are more like Herod than the Wise men.   A friend of mine was the Interim pastor at a church and it was suggested to him that he might teach on the book of Revelation.   When he made the statement that sincere Christians have differing views of how to interpret the book, over 40 people left the church in shock that there might me more than one way to interpret that book.   They only wanted a church that reinforced their own views instead of looking for truth.  Some people have all the light and truth they want, whether they have all the light and truth they need.

Again, we must reaffirm, that “light” is not always easy to receive.  Isn’t this part of the core message of the gospel?  John’s gospel, though it does not tell us the story of the star, tells us that the light came into the world and that the world prefers darkness rather than light (1: 5).   In the third chapter of John, he is more direct, saying that in Jesus, “judgment has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light”   Instead of coming to the light, he adds, “all who do evil hate the light because their deeds are evil” (John 3: 19). 

Speaking of evil, this brings us to King Herod the Great.   Herod is not remembered as the kind of guy who is open to much of anything, except his own point of view.    Notice the first response he has when he first hears reports about the birth a promised Messiah from the Wise Men.   Matthew tells us that when Herod “heard this, he was frightened” (2: 3).   It also goes on to add that “all of Jerusalem was “frightened” with him, but we are not sure whether they are frightened because of the child, or frightened because Herod was known to do some crazy things to deal with his fears---like kill all kinds of innocent babies in order to get to one.

Fear is not a natural enemy of the light of truth.   Fear can be a normal, human response to the unknown and the unpredictable.   A certain amount of fear is good for our survival.   We obey the law, because we are afraid of going to jail.   We work, because we are afraid of being fired.  We try be responsible and honest, because we fear God.   There is a certain amount of fear that can be a good thing and a little bit of “fear of the Lord” is the beginning of light of wisdom (Proverbs 1).   But the kind of fear we read about in our text is the kind of fear that can goes beyond the norm and leads to irrational, irresponsible behavior and, as we know from the story, even murder. 

Why is Herod afraid of the birth of a child?   Part of it had to be the very way the Wise Men put the announcement they made.  They did not say, where is this sweet, little Jesus boy, but “where is the child who has been born the king of the Jews?”   Herod is afraid because what the wise men are saying threatens the very kingdom he now holds.  If this child is to be King, what will that mean for him who is now suppose to be the king?   A land can’t have two kings, just like Jesus later himself says, that no one can serve “two masters.”

In middle of Herod’s problem with truth that has suddenly come to light is same kind of fear we all might have with truth:  Truth and new light can change things; and it can change even how we view the things we hold on to dearly.  This kind of radical change is very scary and understandably so.  It is the primary problem people have with seeing, hearing, entertaining or dealing with new ideas, new understandings and new truth.  We are suddenly afraid and become skeptical, not so much being afraid of the truth, as much as we are afraid of what we might lose when the truth comes to light.

Right now in our country, one of the newest “truths” out there that we all know about is the theory of Global Warming.   We all know that most scientist say it is true.   No one can dispute that glaciers and the polar icecaps are melting.   No one can dispute that the earth is warmer than it has been.  What is still unsure is why and what does this mean?   Is it a normal turn of events or is it man induced.    What’s more is what should we do in response to it?    What would it mean if we have to live with new laws and regulations because of Global Warming.  It is still a new truth; in some ways a scary truth, and a truth that can easily be misused or abused by those who would profit by the changes that come, while others stand to lose because of them.   This is the scary nature of truth which helps some and hurts others.  It is the kind of truth that is not always welcomed, even when it is true.

For us in the church the greater problem has been our fear of gaining new theological truth from scholars and scientists.  Whereas in the world of science, there is most often welcome and excitement with the discovery of new, earth-shaking truth, those of us involved in religion are more often suspicious of new truth.  Isn’t  that part of why the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus’ new teachings about the Sabbath?  They were very suspicious that anyone should mess with the Sabbath as they saw it.  The Law said that the Sabbath Day was holy, but if you let Jesus new interpretation stand: “That the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” couldn’t this mean that any human will then have the freedom of interpreting what it means to be holy on the Sabbath?  Shouldn’t this kind of “law” be left up to experts and priests, not to intenerate rabbi?   We all know that Jesus saw that some of the laws had gone too far and told the religious were practically enslaving people with those laws, but on the other hand if the “Sabbath is made for man” and we humans can interpret what Sabbath means in our own hearts, won’t that also lead to abuse?    This kind of new understanding that brings not only new light, but freedom, which can be very risky and that risk results in fear. 

In the same way today, newer understandings in language and the Bible require me to say that we should follow the new light which says, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath,” because we have new understandings and need to be inclusive in our reading of Bible.   But this “change” is exactly the kind of “new light” that still scares people.   Just like the Jews didn’t want Jesus messing with their Sabbath, many don’t want scholars messing with their Bible.   There is a lot of anti-intellectualism  and fear that still raises its head when new ideas are suggested, especially when it comes to gaining new religious or biblical insight.   Who can resist thinking about the life of “fear” and “terror” which many religious radicals are still trying to bring into our world because they themselves are “afraid” of new truth about women, about faith, and about the world. 

There is a second problem with receiving new light.    Look at what Herod does in response to the Wise men’s message.   In verse 7, after hearing that Jesus is to be born in Bethlehem, we read that  “Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star appeared.”    Don’t misunderstand this.  Herod does not really want to go worship Jesus as he says, but he does this “secretly” because he really wants to reject and kill Jesus. 

 “Secrecy” is the next response to new truth that we can see in Herod and we sometimes also see in ourselves.   Somebody comes up with a new idea and some openly reject it right out, but most do not.  Most people go home and begin to talk in secret and often behind the messenger’s back. Instead of confronting and dealing with their fears, worries and questions in the open, many prefer to hide their feelings, deny the issues, and leave the doors of their hearts closed to hearing anything new.

Do you know what hiding and secrecy can do to a church, a marriage, a family or a community?   Psychologist tell us that the healthy personality is also an open, transparent, sharing personality and that people who like to keep everything to themselves and away from others add to their misery and bring untold misery upon others.   The repression of feelings can either lead to depression or aggression.  It always leads to something.   But in contrast to the person to hides in secret is beautiful image in the Bible of a redeemed person who wants to live in the light and vows to leave the dark, hidden, secret places of the world.   It is only in the light that new ideas can be rightly studied, analyzed, studied, and rightly accepted as truth or sometimes even rightly rejected as falsehood.   Truth means dealing with ideas in the light, not hiding and not secrecy.

In my last church I had some real challenges.   I followed a pastor who had founded the church and still lived in the community.   He wanted to make sure the next pastor was just like him.   Every ounce of my experience told me that this would not be long job, but it was one I felt lead to take, even for a short time. 

It wasn’t long, maybe even in the beginning of my second year as pastor, that I saw problems on the horizon.  There were staff problems, people problems, and all kinds of skeletons that had been sweep into the church closet during those 22 years.   I knew that now that the former pastor was gone, I was going to get to deal with all these issues, so I knew that before I could help the church, it needed to see that the problems were already there.   They needed to face them openly and intentionally before they had to face them suddenly and unexpectedly.  

So I invited a church consultant to come and lead the church through a weekend of exploration and study.  It was an eye-opening and revealing weekend for all of us.  Some of the things we learned were good and well received and other things were bad or not so well received.   The good news, at least for me, is that many of the skeletons were exposed and confronted.  There was no way forward until the church learned to be more open with the challenges, the disappointments and the truth.   I’ll never forget, however, what one pastor told me when he heard that we’d had such a weekend of openness and transparency.  “Are you crazy?”   “Don’t you realize what will happen when all that stuff starts churning around?”  

Well, he was right about that and I knew it.  Opening up to the truth can be risky business.  I knew the first day I took that church that my job there was not going to be pleasurable and my time there might be short.   But in those 3 and a half years, I believe my ministry of openness and transparency helped that church actually confront and deal with some of the most difficult issues it had been hiding and didn’t want to face.    We had a few painful moments in those years, but fortunately the leadership held together and we faced the hard issues.   And do you know what?  When we got things out in the open so that everyone could see problems together, they realized it wasn’t about me or them, but it was just a necessary time of change and adjustment.    The great news is that I spoke to one of the deacons last week and now the church is growing and moving forward.   The pastor is free to continue doing some of the same things I implemented, and he’s even doing a few new things, even asking women to lead publically in prayer.   I was attacked because I believed a woman should be able to pray in public, or whatever else God called her to do, but I never actually called on one.   But now that freedom has been won, the hidden issues have been exposed, a couple of difficult people are gone, and new folks are pouring in.  Now the people and procedures I put in place are now helping the church move forward openly and cooperatively.   A new day came, when the church learned not to hide, but to be open to the truth.

It doesn’t just happen in churches, but it happens in every area of life.   We can all get used to hiding from the truth that we know all to well, but won’t admit to ourselves.   Hiding from the truth, living in secrecy are still ways that people get trapped and refuse the light they need.  It can happen in a marriage, in a family.  We need to be open and honest with each other and with our feelings.  This does not mean that we become unkind or we simply blurt out what we think when we know it might hurt people.   I’m not talking about the crazy view of honesty taken in the movie Liar, Liar, when Jim Carrey’s character goes around blurting out the truth without respecting people’s feelings.  What I’m talking about is refusing to resort to secrecy when we know that issues need to be dealt with in fair, honest and open ways so that everybody wins.

The final problem we see in Herod is how fear and secrecy can lead to isolation.  This is the darkest place of all and it is also very sad and can be tragic.   Listen to what Herod says when he is lying to the Wisemen:  “Go and search diligently for the child and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”   What we do not see Herod doing, is just as important here as what we do see.  Herod does not call his people to hear the good news, but he wants to “worship” all by himself.   He wants to decide about Jesus his own way, on his own terms and for his own reasons.   We all know what Herod’s reasons were.  He does not want to join with the Wise men in worshipping, nor does he want to bring his nation to worship the true Messiah, but Herod wants to isolate himself and take care of this matter his own way.  When you want to decide everything alone, you will end up in the loneliest place of all.

So now, let’s quickly review.   In Herod we see the full movement of a soul that rejects the light of new truth in their own heart.  First one decides to give into and live in fear, instead of facing the issues with courage and trust.   Then the person moves toward secrecy, close mindedness instead of transparency, openness and honesty.   Finally, the person back away completely and in isolation lives in its own world which consideration of anyone else except what it wants.    Unfortunately, because of our pioneer culture in our past, we Americans are pretty good at being rugged individuals who have liberty and freedom so we can do what we please.   What we still need to work on, is how we can carry the and bear light with others.   When we resolve to go it alone, we miss the wonderful community of grace, goodness, hope and light, which God wants to build in our world.  

Here is especially where I want to challenge us to walk in the light as we move into this New Year together.   Did you hear my last word: Together.   Isn’t it interesting that part of what made the Wise men “wise” is that went on their journey toward the light together?  That is such a contrast to Herod who lives in fear, keeps his people living in fear, who works in secret and isolates himself in his own little world of his own personal version of truth.   The bad news about living only with your own “personal” truth is that that is all it is.   It is personal in a way that it is not linked up with the eternal light which can shine new light and new hope into our own lives.

So, here is my question to us, as we enter this New Year: How shall we come to the light in this year?   We live in a world where the stars still shine brightly in the night filled with potential, adventure, hope and purpose.  We can still approach the wonder of life filled with childhood energy and excitement which new light can bring, if we trust that God is at work in it all.   At the same time, we live in a world that is still hostile toward the light and still prefers the darkness, not unlike the world Cinque experienced.   I believe that we Christians want to be open to the light, the cries and the needs of the world where there is so much darkness.   I believe that we believe that light can still come into this world and that God has plans to move people out of darkness into his wonderful light.  I believe that some of the most difficult and darkest problems our world now faces can be resolved as the light continues to expose the bad and help us distinguish the good.   We too face our own challenges here in our community, in our churches and in our own lives, if we are willing to stay in the light and not in despair run back into the darkness.  If I didn’t believe the light can make a difference, I wouldn’t stand here and tell you it would. 

A great example of the difference light can make, even in the simplest situation is a brief story about what happen to my wife and I on the way to her colonoscopy procedure.  To make a long story short, we were ready to go and our car would not move.  It was locked in park.  We were only 10 minutes from the Surgical Center, but it would take longer than that to get a taxi.  I called one anyway.  In the next moment, we saw our neighbor, coming out of her driveway.   Now, I need to tell you that we had not always been on the best terms with our neighbors.  The man was an ex-foot ball player and sometimes had a drinking problem.  One night, we had a little confrontation with him when he making loud noises in the middle of the night.  Of course, since he was a right Guard for the Cowboys and Redskins,  Teresa is the one who confronted him.  Our relationship as neighbors hadn’t gone much further than this.

But when Teresa informed the wife of the problem, she was glad to drive Teresa.  Then, she began to open up and share more light.   Her husband had lost his job working for a plastic company in Lenoir.  She told Teresa that her husband was Catholic, but not really practicing anything.   She said she was not Catholic, but was a believing person, but would even go to Mass with her husband if he would go.  She opened up about their struggles and then told Teresa, she’d do anything else for her that day, if we couldn’t get our car started.   When the conversation opened up, the light came in and a new world of care, concern, possibility and prayer also opened up.   Everything became different between us, because now there was light.

Our greatest challenge, however, is not will the light make the difference in our own lives, but will we let the light shine in our hearts together as the people of God who are called to be a community of light and to challenged by Christ himself, “to let our light shine”?   Will we be committed to building the kind of spiritual community of sharing, openness, caring and hope that will keep the lights on?   The Scripture reminds us that when Jesus was the “Word become flesh” that he also “dwelt among us”.   The Hebrew background suggests a word picture of God “pitching his tent among us.”    We too, in order to be a people of the light, must pitch our tents together and cannot forsake the community of light we are called to be.   The light shines best when we open ourselves up to the light together.  We can’t live alone, in fear and in secrecy from each other and bear the light this world needs, but we must also bear the burden of the light as we open our own hearts to it, together.   Just like those wise men, we don’t travel on this journey alone, but we move toward the light as a fellowship, as a communion, as companions, and as a community of people who believe God’s light is still revealing new truth to us, so that we can let our own light shine in the world.

How open will you be to God’s light in your life this year?  How willing are you to help us shine our light together so that more light shines, more truth rules our hearts, and more love breaks through to hungry and hurting souls.     Again, come back to that childhood moment when you were hiding in the darkness in a bush and suddenly somebody cried out, “all-y, all-y, all-y all in free.”  This was the cry for everyone to run back freely out of the darkness and into the light and to freely come home.   That is how God’s grace still calls.   All can come in freely to the light.  There will be no condemnation to those who come in freely to Jesus and his light.  Today the light still shines.  It can shine in your heart too, even in new ways.  It can still shine, that is, if you are still open to the light.  Amen.

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.