Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Fake News

Deuteronomy 18:15-22
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

   I used to love fake news, and by that I mean, back when it meant “satirical news.”  Satire is healthy, and wonderful, and good for us.  Satire tells us the truth about ourselves with just enough absurdity to it to make us not take ourselves too seriously.  There’s a website I like called the Babylon Bee.  It’s set up to look like a news site, but it is obviously satire about the Christian Church.  And it’s usually pretty good: they go after everybody.  Like not long ago when they ran a story about a Presbyterian church, where the motion-sensor lights turned off… during worship.  It’s funny because there is a truth to it.  Did it happen?  Of course not.  Could it? Sure.  Satire is good for us because it makes us laugh at what is true about ourselves and maybe even nudge us into being better than we are. 
   But somewhere along the line my “fake news” took a turn.  As the devil will, somewhere along the line, this wonderful thing I called “fake news” and made it bad.  Somewhere along the line the made-up stories stopped trying to be satire and just started being absurd.  Somewhere along the line, websites, and emails, and Facebook posts just started lying to us.  Sure, like satire, some were surreally absurd, but they were told with such conviction that we believed them.  For me, the one that tends to come to mind at times like this was the one about the guy who went to a pizza place with a high-powered rifle and shot off some rounds because he was convinced that Hillary Clinton was selling children out of it.  Thankfully, no one was hurt, but it was certainly absurd; certainly a story like that is satirical on a level; but certainly not very funny when it gets to that point. 
   But what bothers me more is that Truth is important.  We are in the Truth business, you and I.  As the Church of Christ, we have a prophetic calling to speak God’s Truth, through word and action, to one another and to the world around us.  So we need to be able to recognize it when we see it.  The Truth we proclaim to the world is a valuable commodity, these days more than ever.  And so, as we gather around God’s Truth, God’s word to us, may we learn to seek it, treasure it, and even separate it from all that other stuff. 
   As you’ll perhaps recall, I’ve been talking about prophecy lately.  And although we’ve been looking at prophecy through the lives and words of some of the Old Testament prophets, you may have also noticed that I I’ve been talking about prophecy in terms of us.  I believe we don’t really see grand prophets like Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Moses any more for a reason: because we are, together, God’s great prophet in this world.  The office of prophet is an office that we each share together.  As I see prophets described in Scripture, they are those who speak a Truth that comes from God alone.  And what is a church for, if not, by the power of the Spirit; to speak God’s Truth.  And we see that central task of the prophet laid out by Moses this morning. 
   What we hear this morning are the last words of Moses; the many, many, many last words of Moses.  I enjoy famous last words, but I prefer the shorter, pithier quotes.  Like the great comedian Groucho Marx, whose last words were, “This is no way to live!”  What a great, sardonic last thing to say.  Moses’ last words go on until the end of chapter thirty-three.  I am confident in my salvation, so I hope that, when I go, I go out saying something memorable and funny.  If I don’t get a chance to leave a funny deathbed quote, here’s what I want you to say about me: “Well, he went out doing what he loved: screaming.” 
   Moses, at the age of one hundred and twenty years old, is coming to his end and he knows it.  The people of God are about to cross over into the Promised Land and Moses is not coming with them.  So the next fifteen chapters are among his instructions to the people before he and they move on.  He is preparing the people, but he is also transitioning his leadership over to Joshua.  As a prophet should, he tells the people what God has told him: he quotes God, saying, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” 
   They would have understood that prophet to be Joshua, but we know where this story is going.  We know how God continued to keep that promise, not only through Joshua, but beyond.  After Joshua came the Judges.  After the Judges came the Kings.  And when that didn’t work out, God sent more prophets.  And of course, when we read “I will raise up for them a prophet from among their own people” we think, “Well he means Jesus.”  We hear something in this promise that Moses couldn’t: we know Jesus, the ultimate prophet.  Who could possibly speak the words of God with more authority than the incarnate Word of God? 
   But we also know that there is yet more to this story.  Not only do we see this promise as pointing to Jesus, who was more than a prophet, we know about the Spirit he left here with us.  You see, that’s where I get the audacity to say that we are God’s prophet in this world: by the Spirit, we proclaim the words that our Savior commands us to say.  By The Spirit, we are God’s prophetic voice. 
   We talked a bit about this kind of thing yesterday, as it turns out.  Yesterday, your elders and I gathered in Durango to meet with other leaders in our Southern Cluster of Presbyterian churches to talk about church leadership.  We do this every year, and I am always nourished by it.  The pastors take little pieces of the teaching and we (sort of) coordinate with one another.  Because we all do our parts separately, it’s always interesting to see if the Spirit will weave a common theme in there somehow.  Apparently, yesterday the Spirit wanted us to know about the Spirit.  I’m not going to lie, the event wasn’t perfect; some parts were a bit weird, actually.  (If you were there, he’s a wonderful man, but he’s been through a lot.  The fact that he’s still talking to Presbyterians is a testimony to God’s grace.  If you weren’t there, just know: just know that the person I’m talking about is not going to be doing any pulpit supply for us.)  But one theme did rise above everything else: discernment.  How do we, as the people of God, discern what God is calling us to say to the world around us? 
   In our Scripture lesson today, Moses poses an interesting hypothetical question: he says, “You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a word that the LORD has not spoken?’”  That’s a good question.  It’s easy for the prophet to say, “Thus sayeth the Lord,” but how do you know the Lord really sayethed it?  (That’s the past-tense of sayeth, right?)  We strive to listen for what God is saying through prayer, through Scripture, through the confirmation of what we feel God is doing through one another; but how do we know we’re hearing God’s voice and not just our voices?
   Moses says, “If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken.”  I’m not much on predicting the future, so I’m glad Moses adds Truth as a measure.  And indeed, we do see in the church today (not ours I hope), those that presume to speak on behalf of God, but speak things that do not prove true about God. 
   I saw a survey recently that was put out by the Barna Group (they do social surveys that are mostly church-related).  This survey asked, among other things, why millennials don’t go to church.  Among their answers, two things rose to the top: they are repelled by the church’s lack of tolerance and its hypocrisy.  Two things that don’t really describe our church particularly, but it’s the perception that many may just have of us.  Someone has been spreading this fake news about us, but even more upsetting, it’s fake news about God too.  How do we tell the Truth about who we are and who our Savior is, to a world that has been told lies? 
   Well, we’re back to discernment.  One of the ways I personally listen for the Voice of God is when multiple people start separately saying the same thing; kind of like at Pentecost, when the followers of Jesus, although they were speaking in different languages, were all saying the same Truth about God.  Lately, a lot of people around here have been saying the same thing.  We haven’t been using the same language: some express it through a concern for the future of the church; some express it through a concern for those in our community who need to hear the gospel.  Some call it being a more “missional” church; some simply call it being the church Jesus made us to be.  But it’s all going in the same direction and it’s all being moved by the Spirit.  It’s what’s leading us to plan our workshop event on February 24 and it’s what’s leading the survey that is in your boxes this morning.  Some are already hearing God’s prophetic voice speaking through one another and we want to hear it from you too.  The Spirit of God uses each one of us to contribute to this church’s prophetic voice, and Moses was very clear: you shall heed such a prophet. 
       May we continue to listen for the words that God would have us say through Scripture, prayer, and one another.  And as we do, may the world around us hear news (for a change) that is indeed Good.

Who Knows?

Jonah 3
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

   There are two words in our Scripture lesson that rise up to be the central two words in the entire passage; they might be the most important two words in the entire book of Jonah.  Those words, of course: “Who knows?” 
   It’s a question we all ask sometimes.  We’re talking about prophecy in this series, but we’re not usually the predicting-the-future kinds of prophets; we’re the “proclaim the message God sends us to proclaim” kinds of prophets.  So we all sometimes find ourselves faced with questions that can only be answered by that question: “Who knows?” 
   Will the Jaguars manage to beat the Patriots today?  I hope so, but who knows?  Will I manage to keep my sanity until Sherry comes home from her trip?  Who knows?  By the way: I had six meetings this week.  Six!  Do you know how many meetings I usually have during an average week?  One or two.  Sherry leaves me home alone with three kids and I have six meetings added to my schedule.  If you had asked me Last Sunday how I was going to make it through the week, I would have answered, “Who knows?” 
   We make plans, we set goals, and we expect certain things for our future, but at some point, our only answer is a question, a question that ends our questioning: who knows?  But you know, there is an answer to that question.  Today we remember that, in the end, God knows.  God knows the day the Patriots will know justice.  God knows the unexpected challenges that will face us this week.  God knows the people who will show us unexpected help and speak a word of grace that will get us through.  God knows even when we don’t. 
   God does know the plan God has for us and for this community.  God knows the amazing things in store for us as we seek to listen faithfully to the Voice of the Spirit.  God knows the power and mercy that is yet to be unleashed all around us.  And God knows why we sometimes forget about all of that. 
   So, if you were here last Sunday, you heard how I was surprised to find myself in the middle of a sermon-series on prophecy.  The Spirit kind of weaved this thing together through me without me noticing until last Sunday.  What makes it even better was that I started paying attention to what God was doing through the Bible story of the call of Samuel.  If you’ll recall, that’s the one where God calls to the young Samuel and no one realizes at first that it’s God talking.  When Eli, the so-called priest, finally figures it out, he tells Samuel to say, “Speak, your servant is listening.”  So you know I was listening this week, right?  You know I went to all six of those meetings listening, that I might hear what God was saying through those around me.  Some of what I heard was personal.  Some had to do with our church.  Some had to do with others.  One of those meetings had a part of it where we were voting on letting a pastor into our Presbytery.  I’ve never heard the voice of God so clearly through a no-vote in my life. 
   So last week we talked about our listening for the Voice of God, like the prophet Samuel did.  This week our focus is on how others might receive the word God sends us to speak, but not like the prophet Jonah did. 
   I love the story of Jonah so much.  I love this story, and frankly, I find the part about the fish, the least interesting part.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s weird.  I appreciate the weirdness of the part about the fish, but the fish is just doing his job.  God tells a giant fish to swallow up a prophet and spit him up on the beach and the fish does because God’s creatures are supposed to do what God says.  Unlike, of course, the prophet Jonah. 
   The Book of Jonah is unique among the books of the prophets in a couple of ways: first, most books of the prophets are collections of the things God said through the prophets, whereas Jonah is mostly a story about Jonah.  But mostly, the Book of Jonah is different because Jonah is such an awful prophet; he’s really just an awful person too, but he’s an awful prophet first.  He hears God, that’s not the problem.  He knows to listen to God, that’s not the problem.  He even knows what God is like: gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing; that’s not the problem.  The problem is, he doesn’t want the people of Nineveh to know what God is like. 
   Jonah knows that if he goes to Nineveh and says what God has sent him to say, they will repent and God will show mercy.  So Jonah goes the other direction.  Jonah is the worst.  What kind of prophet would avoid speaking the Word of God?  Well, all of us sometimes.  I love the story of Jonah because, like us, he’s such an unlikely prophet.  I would bet that most of us on most days don’t even remember that we are prophets; that we are sent by God to speak God’s Truth.  But if Jonah is still qualified, we have no excuse: Jonah is disobedient, self-centered, and ungrateful.  You know: like us when we’re not at our best.  I mean, how often do we hear God’s call on our lives and we head toward Tarshish?  Usually, the ones around us who need to hear God’s message of salvation the most are the ones who make us the most uncomfortable.  We see the need; we hear God’s call to speak the Truth; and we head the other way. 
   Jonah’s call was simple: to go the “great city of Nineveh and preach against it” because it was wicked.  Thankfully, our message is a bit more upbeat: our message is to share the good news of Salvation through the Risen Jesus.  But we may have similar reasons for why we don’t proclaim it.  Namely, what’s the point? 
   In Jonah’s day, the main enemy of Israel was Assyria.  And guess where Assyrian capital was: you guessed it, Nineveh.  Nineveh is described, around this same time by the prophet Nahum, as a “city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, and never without victims!”  They were not nice people.  They didn’t deserve God’s mercy and they were not likely to even want it.  For Jonah to hear that judgment was coming to Nineveh must have seemed like great news.  Finally!  They’re getting what’s coming to them.  It was a horrible place filled with horrible people and there was no good reason (other than God telling him to) that Jonah would want to go to Nineveh. 
   Part of Jonah’s message was to tell them that they only had forty more days.  If the world was going to end in a little over a month, wouldn’t we be better off not knowing?  I mean, can you imagine living in Hawaii right now?  I can only imagine how upsetting it must have been to receive a report saying there’s a nuclear missile heading your way; I can only imagine having to live with that thought in your head for over a half an hour before finding out it was a false alarm.  The news of Nineveh’s demise was not helpful and only would serve to upset doomed people.  Some people are just doomed, right?  Some people are just evil.  Some people like to sin.  Why would we bother telling them that God has a different plan?  It’s just going to make them mad.  Why would we bother telling the Truth to those who don’t want to hear it?  Because we know the heart of God, that’s why.  Because we know that God desires to show grace and compassion to those who are lost.  What I love so much about Jonah is that, in the end, what he has to teach us is to try not to be like him. 
   It took three days to walk across the city of Nineveh, but Jonah didn’t need them.  We read that, after the first day’s proclamation, from the greatest to the least, they begin to mourn God’s displeasure: they dress in sackcloth, sit in ashes, and begin a fast.  It is in their repentance that we hear the wisest human words in this whole book… and they’re not from Jonah.  In his decree, the king of Nineveh says to the people to turn from their evil and, “Who knows?  Who knows, God might just forgive us?  Who knows, God just might be compassionate and gracious to those who need compassion and grace?  Who knows?”
   There are two ways we can look at this question, both are wonderful: first from the perspective of the Ninevites—whom I don’t think really knew what God was going to do.  “Who knows?  Let’s take a chance on God’s grace.  What have we got to lose?  We know that God is upset with us; we know we’re doomed if we do nothing, maybe God is also gracious.  Maybe God will see that we are sorry and forgive us.”  What a great gamble!  How wonderful it is when a sinner takes a chance on God’s mercy!  Because that sinner always finds out how infinite God’s compassion can be!  Who knows? 
   Of course, we know.  There is our perspective on this question as well.  Who knows about God’s compassion?  Well those of us who have received it, for one.  We know the faithfulness of God.  We know first hand the life-transforming power of God.  We know what God can do in people’s lives because of what God has done in ours; and that is the prophetic message we sent to proclaim.
       Friends, our Savior sends us this day to proclaim his truth in word and action.  And although we have good reasons why we don’t want to and why it will never work, our Savior calls us anyway.  Remembering the mercy that we have been shown, let us be obedient to God’s call… and who knows?  Maybe we will see the very transforming power of God at work all around us.

Horton Hears the Holy

1 Samuel 3:1-11
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

   The other day, I was talking with Sherry—and I’m not sure how it came up—but I was talking with her about the vision God has given me for this church.  She said, “You need to tell people this.” 
   And I said, “I do, it shows up in every sermon and I talk about it all the time.” 
   She said, “No, you need to tell them you’re telling them.” 
   Of course, she’s right so I’m telling you.  As we set our course into this New Year, a year we turn one hundred and twenty years old as a church, I intend for us to see together the new thing God is doing among us.  I want to be clear: it can’t just be my ideas; it is God’s Spirit that brings the vision.  It isn’t just a thing I’m doing, it’s our thing to do and discern together. 
   And to begin this year of growth and discovery, we’re going to start with a somewhat underappreciated role in the church: the role of prophecy.  I see the church set in this world to be a prophetic voice to it; an underappreciated role but so desperately needed by those around us.  A role in this world so vital that we’re about three sermons into an entire sermon series about prophecy.  And again, one might suggest that I maybe should have told you about this series a couple of sermons ago. 
   But here’s the cool thing, a thing that makes an important point about prophecy: I did not realize I was preaching a sermon series on prophecy until this week.  After Christmas, I had my Scripture texts picked through to the start of Lent; I had clever titles written; I even drafted the central point I thought each lesson was saying to us; but I didn’t notice, until this week, that they were all about prophecy.  I didn’t notice until this week that I had started talking about prophecy two weeks ago.  God did that.  To those who have eyes to see it, the Voice of God spoke this into being in a surprising and unexpected way; as the Voice of God will often do.  It turns out that, sometimes, I’m slow to tell you what God is doing because surprises me to; and I think that’s just wonderful. 
   I have an all-in-one printer at my house.  It is a fax machine, it is a scanner, and most importantly, it’s a printer.  Only it doesn’t print.  I’ve tried everything I know: I’ve run diagnostics and self-cleaning programs, I’ve changed the ink cartridges, I’ve even turned it off and back on again (which usually works for most things) and it still won’t print.  It thinks it’s printing, but it’s not.  The one thing it’s reliably supposed to do, it is unable to do.  It is not called an all-in-one fax machine, not an all-in-one scanner; it is called an all-in-one-printer.  It seems that sometimes, when you try to get a thing to do too many things, it stops being good at the very thing it was made to do.  This might have been where Eli broke down too. 
   The historical context of our story today is between when Joshua led the people into the Promised Land and before the leadership of the kings of Israel.  This was that in-between time when the people were led by, what the Bible describes as, “judges.”  Scripture calls them judges, but really they were the all-in-one leaders of the people of God.  Sure they settled legal disputes between people, but they did so much more than that: they led the people in military campaigns; they corrected the people when they disobeyed God; and they served as priests, the religious intermediaries between the people and God.  So the Bible calls them judges, but by the way they are described, they could just as easily have been called “ruler,” “general,” or “prophet.”  Interestingly, in 1 Samuel, Eli is also called a “priest,” but we don’t get the sense that he is any good at it.
   In those days, it seems that the role of judge was a role that was passed along their children.  Unfortunately, Eli’s children were worse at it than he was.  That is partly what God showed up to say: that Eli and his children were out and that God was going to do something new.  God’s new thing is always good news, but not always for everyone.  God’s new thing decidedly did not involve Eli or his sons: if you keep reading in 1 Samuel, you’ll see how it does not end well for Eli and his family.  Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say Eli had it coming, but I can see where God was coming from on this.  Eli was in the way of what God was doing and God needed someone else to take his place.  Eli had stopped listening for the Voice of God, if he had ever even listened; heck, it seems that Eli didn’t even read the Bible.  I’m not going to say that Eli had it coming, but he had no business leading the people of God; certainly not as judge, ruler, general, prophet, and priest. 
   A giant clue to this comes in verse three: it is past bedtime so Eli was sleeping in his room, but notice where Samuel was.  “Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.”  This is not a bedroom!  Moses was very clear about this.  This was the “Holy of Holies.”  Those who entered were expected to be properly-prepared and only on appropriate days.  You don’t just throw down a cot and let children sleep there.  This was thought to be the dwelling place of God Almighty.  Does Eli not expect God to show up?  Does Eli not expect God to speak?  Does Eli even expect that God is at work in a room down the hall?  Not at all.  What kind of leader is that?  God can do better.
   Have you ever heard of the “Rule of Three”?  It’s a literary term that suggests when things come in threes they tend to be more satisfying somehow.  Like the one about a Catholic priest, a Presbyterian minister, and a rabbi compete to see who’s best at his job.  They’re challenge is to go into the woods, find a bear, and attempt to convert it.  Later, they all get together. The priest begins: “When I found the bear, I read to him from the catechism and sprinkled him with holy water. Next week is his first Communion.”
   The pastor goes next: “I found a bear by the stream, and preached God’s holy Word. The bear was so mesmerized that he let me baptize him.”
   They both look down at the rabbi, who is lying on a gurney in a body cast. The Rabi says, “Looking back, maybe I should not have started with circumcision.”
   See, better in threes.  It is thought that, not only does the rule of threes make jokes better, they help us learn our lessons better too.  We see in Scripture God employing this technique from time to time as well; our story today is a good example.  Three times, God calls out to Samuel and three times, Samuel thinks that Eli calling.  Good set up, but this is no joke.  Samuel should have known this was the Voice of God because Eli should have taught him this sooner.  As I mentioned earlier, our lesson begins by pointing out that, “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  It begs the question: why?  Was God hiding?  Is there ever a time that God gets distracted and can’t tend to Creation?  Is there ever a time that God stops loving us; a time that God stops wanting to be in a relationship with us?  So where was God’s voice?  Where was the vision that only comes from God?  I suspect it was a problem in all-in-one leadership.  Samuel didn’t know to listen for the Voice of God because Eli never told him. 
   Thankfully, our church is not run by an all-in-one kind of leadership.  I’m going to tell you to listen for the Voice of God anyway, but I know it’s not just up to me.  I am going to tell you (as I am telling you now) to listen for the Voice of God as you seek it in Scripture.  I am going to tell you (as I am telling you now) to listen for the Voice of God as you turn to God in prayer for the future of our church, for one another, and for the world around us.  I tell you this because this is how we join in God’s new thing.  We begin by having ears that are eager to listen. 
   God called Samuel a third time and Eli finally gets it: he perceived finally that the voice of the Lord was back.  Finally, he told Samuel something that he probably should have been telling him all along; something maybe Eli should have told himself: listen.  Say to the Voice, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  Something tells me that, when the Voice of the Lord is rare, that one prayer will make it surprisingly less rare. 
       Friends, God is not hiding from us; in fact, I think God is doing something new among us.  As we should always do, let us listen.  Let us listen to God’s Word, let us listen as we pray, let us listen for God’s Spirit speaking through one another.  Let us pray that God would speak, that we God’s servants might listen.  And let us look for God’s new thing, a thing that God will do through us that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.

What Are You Into?

Acts 19:1-8
Baptism of the Lord

   All of Scripture has value.  It is good for us to know what the entire Bible has to teach us and I find that theologies that depend on only small parts of it tend to be dangerous.  But let’s face it: some parts of the Bible are more important than others.  The story of the birth of Jesus is important.  The story of his resurrection is a really important part.  The story of Pentecost, when the followers of Jesus received the Holy Spirit, is important.  And similarly, the story we hear today is important.  I should add that I don’t think I have ever preached on this Scripture lesson and I suspect some here may not have heard it before.  That being said, I also think that it is vital that we learn the point of it. 
   I’m nervous about building up sermon text like that.  Let me also add that, if this sermon isn’t the most life-changing sermon you’ve ever heard, it’s probably nothing to worry about.  There are a lot of things that can keep a sermon from being life-changing: we get distracted, we come with a bad attitude, the preacher is not exactly “on his game,” things like that.  But if, by the end of this service, you don’t see why this story from Acts ought to be important to you, go home and read it again.  Read it again like you are one of these dozen or so disciples that Paul meets today.  Read it again like you never even knew that there was a Holy Spirit.  Read it again and ask yourself, “What am I baptized into?”  This is an important story because this is an important question. 
   First, a little background to this story: our passage today begins with mention of a guy named Apollos; that turns out to be an important mention.  Paul will speak of Apollos a few times in his letters.  They were partners in ministry, but Apollos had a somewhat rocky start.  In Acts eighteen we meet Apollos trying to serve God.  Luke tells us that in Ephesus, there was, “A Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.” So in chapter eighteen, Apollos was quickly and politely corrected by Priscilla and Aquila—a couple of other colleagues of Paul—and he continued his ministry in Corinth. 
   Now, a couple of things at this point: first, how about a guy who takes correction!  By the way Luke describes him, he has every reason not to be humble; he has every reason to think he’s got it all figured out.  But when a couple of siblings in Christ tell him he isn’t exactly getting the message right, he hears it and changes the message.  He doesn’t get defensive or start a new denomination; he listens and adapts.  How much better would we be at the work Christ calls us to if we learned to learn from one another.  I’m preaching to myself here, by the way.  I meet with the Personnel Committee next week; I’m trying to remember to keep an Apollos attitude about it; an attitude that takes constructive criticism well and uses it to make the ministry better. 
   But the other thing is: we see today that Apollos wasn’t the only one who wasn’t quite getting it right.  Luke describes the people Paul meets as “disciples” and “believers.”  Like Apollos, they had come to know who Jesus was and were seeking to be faithful to him.  And here’s where it gets interesting: they hadn’t gotten the right baptism. 
   We aren’t really told what it was that they believed about Jesus.  There is the distinct possibility that they learned about Jesus through Apollos, which would explain why he’s mentioned at the start of this story.  If that’s true, they learned “accurately” the things concerning Jesus.  Those central, foundational things: that he lived; that he was crucified and died; that he rose again to life; and that he promised he would come again. 
   So what’s the problem?  They believed the right stuff; isn’t that what’s important?  Are they not a lot like us?  Are these central truths about Jesus not what we celebrate here at this Table?  I am usually careful to mention, when we celebrate this Sacrament, that this is the Lord’s Table.  Everyone who puts their trust in Jesus, is welcomed by him to this.  You don’t have to believe what I do about Communion.  You don’t even need to be a member of this church.  Personally, I think you should be baptized somewhere before you take it, but no one is going to check your card.  Because it’s not about how redeemed I think you are, it’s about what Jesus has done for you.  This central Sacrament of Communion reminds us that we have life eternal, not by anything we have done to earn it, but by his work for us; a work we celebrate here in this Sacrament.  But here’s the thing: we don’t just have one Sacrament; and there’s a reason why we have two. 
   Repentance is a good thing.  There is nothing wrong with the Baptism of John.  John’s Baptism reminds us that we’ve got a problem: John reminds us that God’s way is not always our way and we need to continually find our way back.  But ultimately, John’s Baptism only proves how we are not able to stay on that path.  Thankfully, Communion reminds us that we don’t have to: that by the work of Jesus, we belong to God no matter what. 
   And our Baptism reminds us of that too, but there is something else going on.  In verse three, when Paul learns that these disciples had not even heard about the Holy Spirit, he asks them, “Into what then were you baptized?”  One might think the answer might be, “Uh, I don’t know; into the water?”  But Paul’s question is absolutely the right question; because we aren’t just baptized from something, we are baptized into something.  We are baptized into God: Father, Son, and Spirit.  We are baptized into something vastly bigger than ourselves.  We are baptized for a purpose. 
   Currently, the Friday morning men’s group is reading a book by Paul Young, the guy who wrote The Shack.  The book we’re reading is called Lies We Believe about God.  Not a surprising title if you consider he’s the guy who, in The Shack, depicted God as a sassy black woman.  As you might imagine, each chapter tackles what we commonly imagine about God and why those common presumptions aren’t biblical or true.  So far I haven’t argued with him too much, that is until this week.  I was pleased to find out I wasn’t the only one in our group who thought he was wrong in chapter six: the so-called lie was, “God Wants to Use Me.”  I agree with what he meant by this, but not with the way he said it.  What he meant to say was, “God merely wants to use me”: that we’re just tools for God; that somehow God does not also want to be in relationship with us; that somehow we’re redeemed in Christ only so that we can go to work for God.  But God absolutely wants to use us; that is what our baptism, the Holy Spirit, and our Scripture lesson today so profoundly show us. 
   We are baptized into Jesus and Jesus wasn’t born into this world just to spend quality time with us; Jesus absolutely wants to spend time with us, but he came into this world primarily to be its salvation.  We are baptized into his Spirit because we are indeed used by God for that same purpose.  Notice in Scripture what happens every time people receive the Spirit: they go to work.  The Risen Jesus breathes his Spirit into his followers and tells them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them [John 20:23].”  Right before he ascends to heaven, he tells his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth [Acts 1:8].”  And here in our story today, as soon as they received the Spirit, they spoke in tongues and prophesied.  Now, you can read a lot into that, but the bottom line is this: God does indeed use us. 
       In a moment, we will remember this in a special way: in a moment we will be reinstalling some previously-ordained elders.  The installation service serves several purposes: for the elder, the re-asking of the ordination questions reminds us of what we signed up for; and the prayer over them reminds us that we are not just about making good decisions; we’re about doing, by the power of the Spirit, the very will of God.  But it serves a purpose for the rest of us as well: it is a reminder that, by our baptism into God—Father, Son, and Spirit—we are each chosen, marked and sent to share in our Savior’s work until he comes again.  This is indeed important.

Seeing Salvation

Luke 2:22-40
First Sunday After Christmas

     Speaking of Christmas songs, there is this one song that I always hear at least a few times during the months leading up to Christmas.  It’s not a funny song, but it makes me chuckle to myself every time I hear it.  I laugh because, when it is played, I think, “Somewhere out there, there are people like me arguing about over this song.”  The song is “Mary Did You know?”  A song that essentially asks Mary, the mother of Jesus, if she knew that her baby boy would grow up to be the Savior of the world. 
     Now, I want to make it clear: I think it’s a great song; it’s a pretty song, it’s a touching song, and I think we’ve even had it sung for us in worship before.  But I also know the debate it stirs because I’ve had this debate in my own head.  On the one hand, of course she knew!  If you were here last Sunday morning, we heard from the first chapter of Luke, where the Angel Gabriel visits her and tells her that she is going to give birth to the Son of God.  Christmas Eve, we heard how shepherds told them what their angels said.  Now this morning, two prophets tell her about her baby boy.  Mary did you know?  Of course she knew!  Read your Bible. 
     On the other hand, if you’re familiar with the song, you know that this is not the only question that was posed to Mary.  The way the song goes is, Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day do things like walk on water and save our sons and daughters.  And if you’ll recall from last Sunday morning, Gabriel didn’t say anything about things like that.  She heard from some shepherds on the night Jesus was born that he would be the Messiah or something, but you know shepherds.  Best just to take the things they say and ponder them in your heart.  And although these prophets today proclaim the greatness of Jesus, they’re not terribly specific. 
     So did Mary know?  She knew some.  She knew enough.  She knew to keep on the lookout because God was up to something and this child was in the middle of it.  And most days, that’s all any of us really need to know: God is up to something in this world and in us, and we need to learn to see it in one another. 
     As I was preparing for this message, I noticed something that I hadn’t noticed before: I noticed how intergenerational this encounter was.  Between baby Jesus, his parents, and Simeon and Anna, there are three generations of people represented in this story.  I mention this because, as I see it, this story teaches us different things as a church depending on where we fall, generationally. 
     I have had elders confide in me that they think, what our church needs most, is more young people; that we ought to be investing our time, and energy, and even our money into attracting and caring for the young people in our community.  I have had other elders confide in me that they think, what our church needs most, is to take better care of our older population; that we ought to be investing our time, and energy, and even our money into attracting and caring for the elderly in our community.  I think the Bible story before us today points out that they’re all right.  Our church is better off when everyone is here; when all generations are welcomed and cared for.  I don’t just make sure my kids are at church every Sunday because I know they need church; I make sure they’re here because I know the church needs them too. 
     Last Monday ranked among my favorite Christmases ever.  A lot of things went right at my house on Christmas Day.  One of the best parts for me was having a three-year-old around.  It’s been a while since I had a three-year-old over for Christmas; if you have the means, I highly recommend it.  He’s old enough to get the excitement of it all.  I’m not saying that the rest of us don’t get excited for Christmas, but you can’t compete with the level of excitement that a three-year-old brings.  A three-year-old doesn’t quite know where reality leaves off and their imagination takes over, so everything is already magical.  A three-year-old is completely on board with getting presents, even though it’s the birthday of Jesus; to a three-year-old a mystical creature with flying reindeer makes complete sense; and he was pumped for it all.  So his excitement for Christmas morning made it more fun for the rest of us, less excitable people. 
     We need that kind of excitement in our church: children show us things that we may not remember to notice.  Children remind us that we have reason to be joyful.  Children remind us that we have hope; that God has a plan for us, for our church, and for our world.  In our Scripture lesson today, baby Jesus doesn’t say a word because he doesn’t have to: he is, just in his little, baby self, the joy of new life and of new beginnings; he is the future.  He is also the Messiah and the Savior of the world—we don’t need to put that kind of responsibility on our children—but we can certainly see in them the work that God will certainly do through them in their lifetimes.  But more on that in a moment. 
     Before we get there, I want us to look at the next oldest generation in this story.  Mary and Joseph don’t really have a very large role in our lesson today, but generationally, they have a lot to teach us and remind us of.  They come to the temple to fulfill a couple of religious obligations; neither of which will likely make much sense to us, and that’s okay; they may not have made much sense to them either.  In the Law of Moses, bodily fluids were seen as “ceremonially unclean.”  If the stuff inside your body comes out of your body, it makes the things around it dirty both physically and spiritually.  So you can imagine how Moses felt about the mess that childbirth makes.  So one of the obligations they were at the temple to fulfill was to make an offering to make Mary “clean” again.  Yes, Mary the mother of Jesus the Messiah and Savior of the world, was considered “unclean” under Mosaic Law; but here they were, doing their duty. 
     But this trip to the temple had a secondary purpose: it was to commit, as the Law required, their firstborn son to the Lord.  One might wonder, wouldn’t you commit all of your children to the Lord?  Of course you would, this was a different sort of thing.  This was a reminder, a reminder of something awful.  When Moses gave this “committing of the firstborn” rule, he said that when your firstborn asks what this is about, say, “By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from human firstborn to the firstborn of animals.”  So Mary and Joseph also went to the temple that day to celebrate how God killed all those people to help the Israelites escape from Egypt.  Not exactly a fun celebration, but there they were, doing their religious duty. 
     I’m going to let you in on a little secret, a secret I’ve shared with my own children when they’ve told me, on the occasional Sunday, that they don’t feel like going to church: I told them, “Sometimes I don’t feel like going either.”  The thing about religious duty is that it’s meant to lead us to deepening faith.  Deepening faith is the goal, but religious duty is the process.  Sometimes the Spirit meets us in the practice of our religion and we experience ecstatic, joy-filled faith; and some days we’re just putting in time.  But it’s those religious practices, even when it feels like work, that open the door for the Spirit to make them so much more. 
     Mary and Joseph went to the temple to fulfil obligations that we might find kind of weird.  But let’s not diminish the fact that they were doing it anyway.  Let’s not diminish a faith that does its duty, even when it doesn’t quite make sense.  Let’s not diminish a faith that is worked on regularly, so that the power of God might meet it when the power of God chooses.  We talk about our need to care for young people in our church; we talk about our need to care for older folks as well; but what about all those folks the middle?  What about the parents who know to do their duty; who know to wake up teenagers in order to get them to the house of God?  Hats off to the parents who know to model for their children a faith that practices the religion even when they don’t feel like it.  We need that generation here too. 
     But of course, central to this story isn’t baby Jesus; this story isn’t centrally about Mary and Joseph; this story is mostly about two old prophets.  Dare I say it: these two older prophets are the “greatest generation” in this story.  Occasionally, people will ask me, “What is a prophet?”  It is a very good question because doesn’t seem like we see prophets in the world today like we did in the Bible.  It’s also a good question because, the Bible, they come in all shapes and sizes: their messages and proclamations come in a variety of forms; even the ways God calls them to be prophets don’t follow any one pattern.  All this has led me to look at what the biblical prophets did have in common: simply put, they spoke what God told them to speak.  So by that measure, the office of prophet is alive and well in the church; prophets are around us every day.  I’m a prophet.  You’re a prophet.  Whenever we speak a word to one another that comes from God—whether it’s a word of healing and hope, or of correction and rebuke—we are speaking as prophets.  We are all called, by the power of the Spirit, speak the Word of God, to be prophets; but I’ve found that those words carry a bit more weight as we get older. 
     When the receptionist at my new eye doctor was getting my information, she asked me where I worked.  I told her, “Calvary Presbyterian Church,” and she didn’t ask me how to spell it.  I laughed and said, “Yours may be the only profession, other than mine, that doesn’t need to have ‘Presbyterian’ spelled for them.”  The “presby” part of the word means “elder.”  “Presbyopia” literally means “old eyes.”  There’s a reason our church’s leadership are called “elders.”  You don’t necessarily need to be old to be an elder, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.  Age brings experience; the experience of practicing your religion even when you don’t feel like it.  Age brings wisdom; the wisdom of doing the work of faith, until it’s met by the Spirit.  Ironically, often I think that the older the eyes, the more they see.  Not literally, of course; but age can bring a different sort of vision.  Our church needs this generation too. 
          We need the Simeons and Annas in our church.  Those who are looking for and who can, by the Spirit, see what God is doing in us.  We need the energetic hope that the young people bring to our church.  And we need the faithful hard work of everyone in between.  Let us all, in every generation, remember our part in what God is doing.  May we each take our part and celebrate in one another, the gift of God born in us as the Body of Christ.