Preaching: The First Mark of the Church; Romans 10:5-15

Sermon:          Preaching: The First Mark of the True Church
Scripture:       Romans 10:5-15
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:        First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                August 13, 2016

You may click here to listen to the sermon.

Turn in your pew Bible to page 921 where we will read and hear the Word of God from Paul’s letter to the Christ-followers gathered in Rome.  The book of Romans is one of the most theologically packed and dense Christian witnesses in the New Testament. Many people tend to pick and choose parts of Romans to look at but it’s only fair to do that if we keep the overall purpose of Paul’s letter to the Romans in its proper context.

Paul is a Hebrew of Hebrews who was knocked up on the side of the head by Christ Jesus on the way to Damascus, Syria. He knew the Torah, the Jewish Law, better than most people as he was, as he describes himself, “A Pharisee, a son of Pharisees!”[1] He knew the commandments of God inside and out. Paul is best described as a Jewish Christian; he was steeped in the Jewish ways and culture and knew the Jewish understanding of Messiah but he also built on that knowledge and saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the Messianic promise.  We read in Romans 9.2ff., “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself was accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people (i.e. the Jews).”

Much of Romans is dealing with Paul’s argument that the Jews are the people of God’s adoption bound by the covenant promise given through the Patriarchs and then through Moses and the Law.  The Jews are the soil from which the Messiah would sprout and make himself known to the world.  As such, Romans is a book where Paul essentially reminds the Roman Christians, “We are to have good hope for the people of Israel and that God is not done with them yet!”  And this is where we pick up in the Story.  Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Romans 10:5-15

5Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” 6But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7“or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).8But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”

12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” 14But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” [2]

The last line Paul quotes from is from Isaiah 52. For the Jew, it would be a well-known line from the Prophet that God is promising salvation to those in exile and will restore the people back vis-à-vis a Messiah.  The people have been in captivity and slavery for so long and now God has declared their salvation and restoration is at hand!  This is the Jewish gospel.  Paul is expanding on that distinctly Jewish gospel and declares that the ultimate fulfillment of salvation, healing and wholeness is in and through Jesus Christ. The good news is that all people are brought under the salvific umbrella of Jesus. Yet for this to happen, the Good News must be proclaimed! As Paul says today, “How are they to hear without someone to proclaim Jesus?  How are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? Oh, how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

This morning we are going to look at this issue of proclamation and preaching that Paul brings up in our text.  Specifically, we will cover four main bases that speak to the importance and understanding of what proclamation is and is not.

The first base we will cover regards proclamation or preaching is to determine what proclamation is in our Reformed tradition. A friend of mine recently pondered online whether the Protestant understanding of preaching in worship is really nothing more than just a lecture.[3] I replied that preaching is more proclamation, or as the Greek’s and ancients describe it, kerygma. Proclamation, or the sermon, is different from a lecture.  A lecture is the dispersion of facts and ideas. The sermon is designed to highlight and unpack the salvific works of God as they are attested to in scripture and through Jesus Christ. Now some may say it’s the same as calling a tomato or a to-maa-toe but there is a difference. Sermons belong in worship; lectures do not.

All bona fide sermons proclaim Christ but the same cannot be said of lectures. The demise of the Western Church I think can be tied to the fact that for the last 100 years, preachers have been lecturing on interesting ideas or have fashioned slick religious TED talks but the proclamation of Jesus has been lacking.  Generally speaking, Fundamentalists have high jacked the sermon for moral instruction while Progressives have used it to push social causes; both morals and causes are important but unless the proclamation is tying it back into the way Holy Spirit is revealing Jesus and his gospel to our particular time and place, it’s nothing but a lecture. In another one of the Apostle Paul letters to the recalcitrant church in Corinth, he provides the definitive purpose for proclamation or the sermon; he writes, “So we are ambassadors for Christ…we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”[4] The purpose of the sermon is to help people become reconciled to God in their work, in their play, in their rest, and in their social life.

The second base we want to cover is that preaching is vital for the church. In our Reformed Christian heritage, the three marks, or notes, of the true church’s existence is when at least three things happen: The Word is faithfully proclaimed and faithfully heard; the sacraments are administered; and when there is discipline and order in the fellowship. [5]

Sermons are a part of worship not as a form of slow, numbing punishment whereby the preacher waxes on to wear you down so you’ll finally succumb to the altar call on the 8 verse of singing, Just as I Am; sermons are a vital part of worship because they should prophetically declare what Sunday school and confirmation teachers are teaching, what the foundation our acts of mission and Christian service stand upon, confirm or disprove what our theological studies are for as well as how we read and interpret our devotional material. Theologian Hendrikus Berkhof remarks that when the preacher fails in his or her proclamation of the Good News, he or she fails to give the interpretive lens for the people of the Church to understand what the Holy Spirit is trying to convey to each of us in all our devotional and missional endeavors.[6]

The third base we need to cover about proclamation and preaching is that it will often cause you to get uncomfortable. My former colleague, the late Dr. Frank Harrington, tells the story of how he was preaching on the need for people to respond to God’s call and challenged them to think about heading out into the mission field.  Following church that day, a young woman in college was sitting with her family at Sunday dinner and said, “The sermon really spoke to me today. I feel truly convicted and I think God is telling me to go into foreign missions when I graduate.”  The table conversation grew quiet until the father at the head of the table clears his throat and says, “Oh now honey, Dr. Harrington was only preaching.”

Only preaching. I would dare say he was!

Preaching in worship points the Church to Jesus Christ and how it’s God’s desire to reconcile the world to Himself and to one another.  If we’re honest, that is not always going to be easy to listen to week after week.  Paul’s preaching had a way of making people upset because he challenged the status quo of the religious institutions and that of the proper relationship to the state.  His preaching often times got him beat up or run out of town. John the Baptist’s preaching got his head cut off.  Jesus’ preaching had him run out of this home synagogue and nearly tossed over the side of a mountain!  This is what generally happens when the proclamation of Christ is declared: people will get unnerved or upset because the Gospel challenges the core of our personal way of seeing God’s purpose in the world; those divine purposes are generally at odds with what our culture says they should be and so we struggle and don’t like what the preacher says.

Sermons point to Jesus and the ways God interacts with our world. You are not always going to like what we preachers have to say. The Holy Spirit is ever trying to help us grow in faith, enlarge our holy vision of God, of others and of the world. The Spirit of God through the church’s sermons are going to convict us on whether our professed life in Jesus Christ is actually matching our lived and expressed life of Christ Jesus.  It’s going to compare and contrast how you and I, how the culture interprets life events with the attitudes and proclamation of the prophets of Scripture that have spoken over the millennia.

Now that we have rounded the third base and are headed to home, we are reminded that preaching is about the message and not the preacher.  Let me give a word about the difference between good and bad sermons and good and bad preachers. A talented good preacher can have all the skills of rhetoric and communication but still deliver a bad sermon; conversely, a poor preacher that speaks so as we watch paint dry can have a good sermon. I have heard many a poorly delivered message (and have given many of them myself!) but I can still hear the proclamation of Jesus. It’s led me to the place in my ministry that when a person says, “That was a good sermon or a bad sermon preacher” that I immediately run through a two-question checklist in my head:  Was I faithful in declaring gospel: yes or no? If yes, then does that person’s reaction say more about me or about where they are in their spiritual life right now?

Yes, I have an obligation in leading worship in preparing the best I can.  But remember this, too: You have an obligation in preparing for and participating in worship! The first mark of the true church is when the Gospel is faithfully preached AND heard!  So, the music, whether it’s contemporary or traditional, the prayers, the liturgy and drama are not for our enjoyment or for our entertainment; they are the means by which we worship God. The preachers, liturgists, readers, musicians, organists are here to point to the gracious character and reality of our loving God. If we draw attention to our sermons or music or prayers more than we point you to God, then we have failed you as leaders of worship.

Then again, for some of you, I may be only preaching. Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] See Acts 23:6.
[2] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Paul is referring to Isaiah 52.7.
[3] The quote from a very affable Hellenist Rebbe, AR, is “Am I too bold to suggest that sermons are lectures and not worship?”
[4] 2 Corinthians 5:20.
[5] The Scotts Confession, Chapter XVIII,  3.18,
[6] Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith. An Introduction to the Study of Faith. Revised Edition. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986),100.

The Message: An Impetuous Choice Cannot Be Undone; Genesis 25:19-34

Sermon:      An Impetuous Choice Cannot Be Undone

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Photo Credit: Instagram from nashi_svyatini

Scripture:   Genesis 25:19-34
Preacher:    Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:    First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:            July 16, 2017,

 

You may listen to the sermon by clicking here.

This morning, we are reading a foundational Story in scripture that outlines three primary biblical themes. First, it narrows down the lineage of Jesus and the Messiah. Second, it outlines the tensions between God’s chosen people the Hebrews and their life-long nemesis the Edomites. Third, it begins to solidify the fact that God uses grossly broken, fallible, unlikely people to accomplish His plans.

Our Story this morning describes what we would call a classic dysfunctional family: We have a cut-throat sibling rivalry; the parents choose favorites amongst their children; there is deception; there are impetuous, rash decisions; and then there is the sin of all sins in any relationship, family members joining alliances and triangulating against other members of the family. Isaac and Rebekah’s family puts the “fun” in “dysfunctional family” and the good news is, God will still use that brokenness to accomplish the Kingdom of Heaven’s ends.  Turn to Genesis 25 and we will begin with verse 19.  I would very much encourage you to go home and read this family’s whole Story which runs through Genesis 50. It contains three generations of one family; it runs like the TV show Dallas in all its sordid details. If after you read it and tell me, “I don’t see why the Old Testament is worth reading or is boring” then we need to have coffee together! As my former Hebrew professor, David Gunn would wistfully say in his Australian accent, “These are just whopping good tales!”  Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Genesis 25:19-34

 19These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord.23And the Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb,and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.”

24When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. 27When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

29Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. [1]

Even before the twins were born, they were struggling and fighting with one another. Even in the womb, momma Rebekah already knew she had a tempest in a teapot brewing. Twins, seemingly the same but who are oh so different. Even at birth, this set of twins will struggle with each other to be the first one out. Jacob, whose very name means “to grab at the heel” or “strive against” tried valiantly to be the first one born but his brother Esau was positioned ahead of him.  Esau, who came out all red and hairy as an infant may not have been the prettiest baby to look at but he grew up strong and became his daddy’s favorite.  He liked to go hunt, kill stuff and to be out as we would say “tromping in the wilderness” doing all types of manly-man things. Based on Scripture’s description of the two, they were most likely fraternal twins and not identical. Esau was the Grizzly Adams outdoorsman.

Then there was Jacob. Jacob is described as a “quiet man living in the tents.”  Quiet is an interesting Hebrew word in that it means one who is complete, perfect, morally innocent and ethically pure.  The funny thing is, the more we get to know Jacob, we know that Jacob fails to live into that description at the outset. While Esau was happy to be out hunting and chasing animals on wilderness adventures, Jacob, the supplanter was happy to hang around the tents with all the women learning about home economics as well as being tuned into all the family scuttlebutt.  Jacob was shrewd and he used this to his advantage.

Esau was daddy’s favorite and Jacob was a momma’s boy. Esau loved to dote on his daddy Isaac and bring him hunting trophies but Jacob listened and learned from the women; it is while remaining in the camp among the tents Jacob learned to be a political animal.

It’s important to note that in our Story, God is using the main female character to implement His plan of salvation history. Rebekah, as any smart married man would say, wears the pants in the family; she is the one who orchestrates the events that unfold over the next nine chapters in her family history which in turn impact the Storyline of Christ centuries later. Yes, Isaac and Rebekah’s family would give any marriage and family therapist lifelong job security. And yet, in the midst of this stew of family goulash, in the midst of all the conniving, deceiving and favoritism, God works in the swirliness of this broken family to ultimately redeem humanity. It may be our dysfunction but God will turn it to His opportunity in spite of us.

Today’s Story has the family in the midst of their everyday routines.  Jacob is hanging around camp and Esau has been out hunting. Esau has been traipsing through the wilderness looking for food to bring home and it seems he was not too successful. He returns home totally exhausted and spent to the point where he really is not thinking clearly. He comes home, plops down, and begins sniffing the air: Ah, Jacob has been cooking! “Hey Jacob, give me some of that red stuff to eat! I’m starved!” Jacob was all too ready to oblige his brother and by having control of the kitchen, Jacob exerts some power over the Esau, who is now nicknamed Edom which means ‘red’.  Today we would nickname Esau, “Red.”

Whether it began as a joke or not, the situation soon becomes a life-changing moment for the family and for all salvation history, Jacob replies, “Sure, Red, I’ll give you some of this stew – and let me tell you it’s delicious!  Everybody loved it, daddy particularly.  But I tell you what, before I give you any of this luscious red stew, you have to sell me your birthright.”

Let’s put this in perspective.  Let’s say your late great aunt Milly died and let left you $4 million dollars. Now you have a brother or sister who is not in on the money’s disbursement and they are left off the estate. Imagine calling them up and telling them, “hey I just got $4million from Aunt Milly and you didn’t get anything.  What I was thinking, why don’t you take me to lunch at the finest Scottish restaurant in town, McDonald’s, buy me lunch and I will give the $4 million dollars in return.”  Shaking your head in disbelief, you repeat back to them what you heard: “You’re going to give me $4 million dollars if I take you to McDonald’s and buy you a McRib sandwich?  That’s crazy!”  Yup, it is crazy but this is exactly what Esau did with Jacob.

Birthrights were a big deal in antiquity. The rights of the firstborn son in any family were substantial as they were entitled to a double portion of the inheritance. The one who owns the birthright not only becomes wealthy but he also becomes the de facto family leader and patriarch. And yet, here we have heel-grabbing Jacob making a such a preposterous proposition to his brother over a bowl of red bean soup that anyone who overheard this conversation would immediately shake their head and look at Jacob and say, “What? You want Red to sell you his birthright for a bowl of stew!?  I don’t care how good it is but it’s not worth a birthright! You’re nuts!  Red’s not that stupid!”

Or is he? Will Red bite the bait? Sadly, we discover he is. Was Jacob kidding with him or did he shrewdly know his brother so well that he dared to ask the question?  We don’t know.  All we know is that Red took the bait, swore away his birthright, ate the red stew, drank up heavily, and then got up to leave. Esau, Red, was overwhelmed with his immediate physical gratification and needs that he took no thought of his future.  He defines the Me Generation in that he wants whatever he wants when he wants and he wants it right now! “What good is my birthright now? Daddy’s still alive and I’m starving now!” So he sold his birthright for a moment of sensual pleasure. He sold his birthright thereby selling off his very future for the most basic and common of all meals – soup!  At least if he was going to sell it for food, make sure it’s a feast fit for a king with lamb, beef, succulent herbs and side dishes. Not so with Red, with Esau.  His lack of discipline, prudence, and vision for the future caused him to flippantly disdain his birthright.

As renowned Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, notes in his brilliant commentary on Genesis, “What is clear is that Jacob, in contrast to Esau, believes in futures to which Esau is indifferent.”[2]  He goes on to say that Jacob at least knew of the future promise of God and patiently waits for those promises to unfold.  Esau, Red, on the other hand, compromises “the faith for the sake of easier gains: pottage.  Esau becomes a type for those who do not trust the promise (of God) and accommodate themselves. The issue for (us) is how to believe (in) the promises seriously enough to withstand alternative forms of (self-gratification) which are available and within our control.”[3]

So, first the bad news; the bad news is that an impetuous choice the likes Esau made cannot be undone.  It has lasting consequences.  But second, the good news: The Good News is that any impetuous action we take, no matter how much it thwarts our future, no matter how much it hurts us or another person, it cannot thwart the purposes and future God already is creating in the midst of our current life or mess. We may act out of anger, impure motives, resentment or contempt, but the good news is, as we are reminded at the very end of Genesis, that though others mean things for evil, the Lord intends it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people.[4]

Beloved, in the bulletin, is a picture I found on Instagram.  It’s a picture of a German Shepherd that in a moment of rage and hunger leaps off a high cliff to snatch a bird out of the air. The picture does not reveal what happens next but we know:  Birds can fly but German Shepherds cannot. Beloved, are you like the German shepherd in the picture which is a metaphor for Esau, or are you developing the spiritual discipline of praying and patiently waiting for God to reveal His promises to you in your life?  Church, have you ever sold your birthright?  Have you ever sold Christ out in a moment of anger, passion, or impetuousness?  Let all of us be assured that if have – and all of us have at one time or another – it’s not too late to get it back!  You see, what we do not see an image of the Christ who catches that German Shepherd when it fell; it’s the same Christ who catches us when we fall as well.

Perhaps you may want to cut that picture out and place it in your Bible or on your mirror to remind you to wait patiently for the Lord.  And all God’s people say, Amen!

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for teaching and preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 219.

[3] Ibid., 220. Words in parenthesis were added by me for rhetorical clarification.

[4] Genesis 50:21.

Have you ever felt like you are staring at the back of God’s head? (Feeling forgotten by God), Psalm 13

Sermon:        Have you ever felt like you are staring at the back of God’s head?
Scripture:     Psalm 13
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:      First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:              July 2, 2017, Communion

You may listen to the sermon here:

This morning’s preaching text is printed in your bulletin. I encourage you to read it from your devotional Bible later today and note the differences in how it is presented.[1] Today we will read Psalm 13 from Peterson’s The Message.  Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Psalm 13, The Message

1-2 Long enough, God—ic-ma173-icon-holy-seraphim-sarov-deathyou’ve ignored me long enough.
I’ve looked at the back of your head
long enough. Long enough
I’ve carried this ton of trouble,
lived with a stomach full of pain.
Long enough my arrogant enemies
have looked down their noses at me.

3-4 Take a good look at me, God, my God;
I want to look life in the eye,
So no enemy can get the best of me
or laugh when I fall on my face.

5-6 I’ve thrown myself headlong into your arms—I’m celebrating your rescue.
I’m singing at the top of my lungs,
I’m so full of answered prayers.[2]

“Long enough, God, long enough!”  Have you ever uttered that flavor of a prayer beforeGod?

Long enough, God, you’re ignoring me!

Long enough, God, people are speaking all kinds of lies about me at work!

Long enough, God, I’m tired of the gossip spoken about me and my family all the time!

Long enough, God, I’m anxious about not being able to pay my bills on time!

Long enough, God, my body cannot go through any more tests, procedures, or pain anymore!

Long enough, God, the anguish of my beloved’s death bitingly stings my soul to the point of no relief.

Long enough, God…hey God, are you even listening to me?

Long enough, God, are you even there?

Long enough, God, I’m tired of staring at the back of your head; turn around and look me in the eye face-to-face!

All of us at one time or another has had, is, or will have these types of prayers escape our lips.  It doesn’t mean we are faith-less people or bad people; feelings of abandonment by the Ultimate Source of Life is endemic to our human condition. Even Atheists and Agnostics, those who don’t believe in any Higher Power or those who do not know what Higher Power to be in relationship with at all will at some point in their life encounter one of Life’s realities, drop their hands, droop their shoulders, and lift their faces heavenward and cry, “Long enough, God.  This is too much for me to bear!  If you’re out there, I’m talking to you so this is a good opportunity to prove yourself to me!”  Today’s psalm is a song of lament, a prayer of beseeching God’s presence and care when life feels overwhelming.  It’s in the Scriptures because it’s a universal cry that even the biggest, roughest, toughest spiritual giants among us have even prayed. I love what the great Reformer, John Calvin wrote about the psalms. He says, “The Psalms are an anatomy of all parts of the soul.”[3]  Oh what comfort that brings us!

There’s comfort as a person of faith to be able to approach the Lord so honestly with raw fear and emotion in times of uncertainty in our life. There’s comfort knowing that God is big enough to absorb those flashes of doubt in what is normally a solid faith in our life. There’s comfort in the fact that like the psalmist, there are those moments we feel we are looking at God’s backside and are desperate for Him to turn around and look at us; just imagine what it is like for those who don’t even think or consider God is in the same room; at least we see God’s backside!

The psalmist is pouring their heart out to God to please take notice of them, acknowledge them, and rescue them.  He or she is demanding that God pay attention to their plight. But then there is a shift in the song and prayer. At the very end of the lament the worshipper cries with celebratory tones in verses 5 and 6:

I’ve thrown myself headlong into your arms—
I’m celebrating your rescue.
I’m singing at the top of my lungs,
I’m so full of answered prayers.

I like to refer to this as the “even though but still aspect” of a follower’s spiritual journey. This aspect is all throughout the Bible, too.  For example, Even though I failed my exam, I still know that you are in control of my life!  Even though the bank account is almost overdrawn, I still thank you for providing for me out of your provisions from only you know where that will see me through.  Even though the chemo stings and the radiation burns or causes me gross fatigue, I still know Whose I am and will not waiver.  Even though the shadows of depression are overwhelming me, I still know that you have been to the depths of that hell yourself in Jesus and I get the privilege of feeling the depth of feeling you feel.  The psalmist, even though in the waves of those most desperate times and situations, still knows that God is bigger than any obstacle or problem he or she will ever face. We must note that the psalmist does not say how God specifically answers their prayers but only that they are answered.  We do not know if the psalmist got what they wanted from their prayers or whether God granted them what they needed in their prayers; all we know is that the psalmist, even though in the moans and deepest cries for help, they still had confidence and assurance the Lord is in the process of answering those prayers.

Beloved, what are the “Even though but still” moments in your life right now? Think about a moment. Think to yourself of a dire or less than positive situation you are in now and turn it into a prayer. Pray, “even though such-and-such is happening, I still know in the end you will look at me in the eyes and answer my prayer according to your glorious riches and purposes!”

How can you or I even dare think we can pray to God like that? We dare to pray and believe it because our Jesus prayed the same thing in Gethsemane and on the Cross. “Even though I am scared to death, I still pray not my will but Thine be done!”  “Even though they have beat me, spit on me, and taunt me, I still believe you will not hold this against them.”

How can you or I even dare think in those moments when we feel God has turned his back on us God will still answer our prayer and make good on His promise to restore our lives and restore the light in our eyes to look at life again? Because even though, while we were yet sinners and alienated from God and one another, God still came down to live, walk, and to die among us in Jesus Christ.

We know that in the middle of our doubts, Jesus sits at the Table of God and says, “Beloved, even though battered by life, come and sit with me now.”

We know that when we feel the Lord has his back to us, he smiles lovingly and says, “Beloved, my back was turned just a moment to prepare your meal and banquet that we may dine together and celebrate the Light in your Life! I didn’t leave; I was getting something prepared just for you!”

I invite you to eat of the Lord’s Table this day, my friends. Come scared and leave assured. Come broken and leave being whole. Come with your doubts and leave with assurance.  Listen to the Christ as he says to you, “Silly one, come up here and sit next to me and tell me what’s going on in your day; I want to hear it from you.”

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley,org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] See, for example, how the NRSV translates it: How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!  Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.  But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord,  because he has dealt bountifully with me.
[2] The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson.
[3] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Preface on the introduction of Community.

Sermon #2 on Mission: When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Stay on Point!, Matthew 10:24-39.

Sermon #2 on Mission:  When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Stay on Point!, Matthew 10:24-39.

Sermon:        When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Stay on Point
Scripture:    Matthew 10:24-39
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:     First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:          June 25, 2017, 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 7

Last week we began looking at the second major sermon in Matthew’s Gospel as we started delving into Jesus’ focus on mission.  We noted how Jesus called out twelve Apostles who then received their marching orders from Jesus to go out to preach and heal.  We particularly noted why mission matters to Christ, what the first step is in any form of mission we undertake, and we looked at the overall purpose of mission in God’s eyes.  Today, we are continuing along in the same sermon Jesus was giving last week but as you see today, the focus has shifted to what you and I can expect in undertaking mission in the world.  Listen to the Word of the Lord.

Matthew 10:24-39

 24“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.[1]

There is so much meat in this text that it would appear to be an overstuffed sandwich! There are so many “hot topics” Jesus raises from God’s Providence, human fear to cross-bearing! You would think it easy to make our lection a shorter reading but as I dug into it, I realized Jesus’ words must be taken as a whole unit. Why? Because Jesus wants his disciples to know that when the going gets tough (and it most definitely will), then the tough are called to stay on point.

It’s a little different from our colloquial saying that says when the going gets tough the tough get going. When the going gets tough and the tough get going, we hear it as a call to gather up strength from whatever source you can and keep on going forward no matter what. If you were running a marathon and at mile 16 I yell at you, “Hey Martha, when the going gets tough, the tough get going!” you would hear that as a personal encouragement to reach down inside yourself and pull some more up the bottom. This in and of itself is not a bad thing to do per se but this is not what Jesus was trying to get his disciples to understand.  You see, when the tough get going they could change their direction and go the other way or take an alternate way and path they were originally taking. Contrary to this Jesus is telling the disciples that when the going gets tough, the disciples are to stay focused and on point. As a racehorse has blinders on to prevent them seeing the neighboring horses immediately on their left and right, the blinders help the horse not to become distracted and stay focused on the course they are running because they are running for a purpose and have a goal to succeed.

Today’s scripture outlines how Jesus wants his disciples to stay focused and on point.  Let’s briefly look at the two blinders Jesus uses to keep the disciples focused and then we will identify the goal Jesus wants us to achieve in our mission.

Blinder number one: Verses 24 – 31 have Jesus reminding the disciples that they are not going to experience anything different than Jesus himself has experienced. Jesus reminds them as he was called names and maligned and so will the disciples.  We see this clearly in Matthew a few chapters ahead when the religious officials tell people Jesus is really Beelzbul, i.e. Satan, God’s arch-enemy.[2]

There is an interesting word-play with the name Beelzbul.  In antiquity, names meant something. So for example, my name Patrick means ‘the one who is noble’ and I would try to live into that name’s meaning.  Beelzbul refers to Satan, God’s enemy, but it also means, ‘god of the dung heap.’ So the theological literalists of his day would be calling Jesus Satan or comparing him to Satan, while others who simply did not take Jesus seriously derisively called him this to infer he was the god, lord of the dung pile. Consequently, Jesus was seen as a threat at worst or not taken seriously as a joke at best. He’s either Satan or lord of the piles.  Either way, people will hear and see his message as a threat and/or a joke.

Jesus is reminding you and me that our life of mission will have the same effects his did in both positive and negative ways.  The disciples will preach and they will heal but Jesus is reminding us that we are to remember that people will take the gospel message as a threat or they will see it, and us (the Church), as a joke. We see this happening today all over America. It is because of this fact, disciples are to remember the intentional loving care of God for them. He is telling them you will be treated as I am treated, i.e. with contempt or disdain, but you will also be cared for by the all-encompassing Providential Care of God!  Does not the Father in heaven care for the sparrow?  Does not the Father in heaven know how many hairs are on top of our heads? The answer is yes, most definitely, but keep shouting the message from the rooftops anyway! You’ll be treated as I am treated but stay on point and tell the Story openly for all to hear!  There’s the first horse blinder keeping our eyes focused ahead.

The second blinder offered to keep our goal in sight is found in verses 34 – 39.  It’s the blinder that reminds us that being a disciple takes hard work and we are to expect that fact. American Christianity has become Joel Osteened to the point that we believe once we follow Jesus, we can sit back and expect the material blessing faucet to be turned on over us. Our lives of discipleship will be happy, easy, and our lives will be overwhelmed with material prosperity. Jesus is saying that is a bunch of hooey.

He’s reminding the disciples that their work will disrupt and cause problems in the most basic and most important aspect of their very social structure: It’s going to threaten Jewish family loyalty. The old ways of believing God will bless you if you behave correctly are being replaced with Jesus’ words of God’s desire for us to live lovingly and justly with each other.  It’s not that Jesus wants families and the social structure of the Jewish community ripped apart; Jesus is simply stating the reality of what will happen.

The status quo, the peaceable way things are, is to be overturned. When the ethic and character of God expressed through love and justice is introduced, people, systems, groups, churches, and social structures get uncomfortable. We like it when the boat isn’t rocked. Yet, Jesus is reminding us that the status quo of judging others for their sexual orientation and not seeing them as a child of God makes a mockery of the power of the Cross. He is reminding us that the status quo of our nation’s tendency to overlook the poor because it affects our personal bottom line is unethical. He is reminding us that the oft-used excuse that it’s too hard to change the social structures to care for the least of these just will not cut it anymore. Jesus is reminding us that the message of love and justice is hard.  We will be maligned.  We will be taunted.  We will be accused of being out of touch. We are to keep our race blinders on and keep moving toward the goal of his message: Reconciliation, love, and justice.

Blinder one keeping us focused: When the going gets tough, the tough are reminded that we are experiencing what Jesus did and God has our backs. Blinder two keeping us focused:  When the going gets tough, we are not to be surprised when the world pushes back against the message of Christ.  So what is the goal these blinders are directing us toward down that race track?

Verses 32 and 33 say, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

Our goal is that when the going gets tough, the tough stay on point, they stay on focus and that means to acknowledge, affirm, and show allegiance to Jesus and his way of reconciliation, love, and justice.  We deny Jesus when we fail to reconcile with our kids, spouse, neighbors, coworkers, or fellow Republicans, Democrats and Independents across the political aisle. We deny Jesus when we fail to show love to the invisible ones among us. We deny Jesus when we fall back solely with a ‘what’s in for me” mindset and fail to execute biblical ethics and justice for our neighbor.

When the going gets tough, the tough keep on point and purpose. Jesus isn’t asking you or me to do anything he has not done himself. It’s not easy but God is in control. It’s not easy because demonstrating love, reconciliation and justice make everyone uncomfortable. Our text today leaves us a question to wrestle with this week: In my life, in this church’s life, am I, are we, staying on point and acknowledging the Christ or are we denying him before the Father and the world? Let’s remember Jesus’ words that those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for his sake will find it.

Let’s pray.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] See Matthew 12:24, 27.

A Message on Missions: Am I Player or a Spectator?

Sermon:           A Message on Missions: Am I Player or a Spectator
Scripture:        Matthew 9:35-10:8
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                June 18, 2017, Proper 6/Ordinary 11/Pentecost

At the recent Presbytery meeting, Dr. Hunter Farrell, Director of the World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, began his presentation by showing a slide of a college-aged student on missions. She was an attractive young woman sitting on the ground and she was surrounded by children of color presumably from Africa.  Her arm was extended out with her cell phone in hand and was smiling for the camera but all the bedraggled children in the photo with her looked puzzled and confused.  The only one smiling in the picture was the young woman.missions_trip--selfie

Dr. Farrell went on to say that the Church, particularly the Presbyterian Church and other Mainline denominations, were once known for the power and impact of their mission endeavors. He said, “Whereas there was a time we were known for building universities, schools and hospitals, the church’s mission seems to fulfill the needs of the missionary as opposed to the ones for whom the mission is to be done. We’ve exchanged meaningful mission for mission selfie experiences that last for a fleeting moment.  Sure, they make us feel good but is our work making a meaningful impact in the long term?”[1]

I’m grateful First Pres DeLand still has the notion of strategic mission impact the Presbyterian Church was known for!  Yesterday, 17 members of our church family got back from a ministry with a community in Nicaragua we have had a relationship with for over twenty years! We launched the House Next Door decades ago to meet the social and emotional needs of the working poor in this part of Volusia County.  Dr. Hugh Ash and members of this church began Hugh Ash Manor fifty years ago which has served thousands of modestly-incomed older adults with affordable housing.  We need to be proud of what God has done with, in, and through us as a church but we are here today as a new generation of disciples in this congregation and we have some decisions to make.  Shall we continue with our legacy of making strategic mission decisions that make a lasting impact or will we revert to what so many churches in our country are doing today and participate in projects that only give us quaint mission selfies?

Turn in your Bible to Matthew 9:35. We will read verses 35 through 10:8.  Dale Bruner, Professor of New Testament at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington reminds us that our text today begins a new section in Matthew’s gospel.  The first major section was Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount beginning in chapter 4 which instructs the Church, i.e. you and me, on how to live a God in-Spirited life.  Chapters 8 and 9 give us examples on how Jesus lives those values out through several healing stories which lead to today’s section which begins what we could call a sermon of the biblical doctrine of mission and evangelism.[2]  Our text today provides answers to these three questions:  Why does mission matter? What is the first step in doing missions? What is the goal of mission? Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Matthew 9:35-10:8

35Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

10.1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.[3]

Why does mission matter to God? Jesus’ style of ministry was by way of a walkabout. In other words, he was a peripatetic, i.e. someone who walks and talks and thinks about deep issues while they are walking out amongst the people. How all of us in ministry need to remember that Jesus did not own a desk!  The reason mission matters to God is right here in the first few verses of our text. Verse 36 reminds us that as Jesus walked around, he saw the people and had a broken heart for them.  The religious and social systems of their day had failed them and Jesus’ heart broke.  They were trying to make it through life without any direction, solace, purpose, and hope. Matthew reminds us that they are like sheep without a shepherd with no one willing or wanting to care, protect and feed them spiritually, socially or politically.

Why does mission matter?  Because Jesus has a broken heart for the people.  He has compassion for them which for Matthew meant Jesus’ very gut was turning over in pain for them.  We forget that our word “compassion” literally means to “suffer with” another.  Why does mission matter?  It’s because God in Christ is suffering with the people.

Dr. Bruner has an interesting insight on this. He writes, “Mission is not motivated by Jesus’ disgust for people because they are such sinners…mission is motivated by the (more) appealing fact that Jesus (has) compassion for hapless people.”[4] We do mission not because people are pagan sinners but first and foremost because as disciples we are to viscerally feel their pain and to respond to it.  Why does mission matter?  Because broken and lost people matter to Jesus and they are to matter to us as well.

This leads us to the second question from our text:  What is the first step in doing missions? Verses 37 and 38 have Jesus making a poignant observation:  The harvest, i.e. the depth of need and suffering is great but the day laborers are few.  The first step in missions is not to go but it is to stop and to pray.  It seems counterintuitive as we see a need and want to immediately go and deal with it.  But Jesus sets the right order in place.  Jesus says, “Ask the Lord of the harvest to thrust out day laborers to glean the harvest!”

First, note that the harvest is already out there to be had.  God has already done the planting, watering, fertilizing and growing. The harvest is waiting for someone to go and work in it. Second, it is God who sends out the workers. A precise reading of verse 38 is that we are to pray for God to “thrust out” workers into the harvest. God does the sending of workers.  God is the one who casts out day laborers into the world’s harvest.

Why is that important?  Because it reminds us that mission is a Spirit-instigated and driven reality; it’s not something we simply sign up to go do and feel good about it; it is something that God initiates and literally casts us out into!  Friends, this is why the first movement of mission in the church is to pray.

Prayer is the first thing we do because we are to ask God which part of the field we are to do mission in ourselves. Our temptation is to try to take on the whole harvest as a church and do it all but this isn’t realistic; there is simply too much out there to do.  So we pray that God will show us which part of the field we are to work and harvest. God knows our personal and collective gifts and graces and when we start with prayer, we are asking God to first choose which part of the field we are to harvest and then based on that particular field, choose the day laborers who are gifted and graced to accomplish the ministry outlined for us. We pray so that our mission and ministry is not guilty of low aim whereby we have mission-selfie opportunities but that we dare to dream God-sized dreams to be change agents in the field we are called to work!

Why is mission important?  Because Jesus’ heart is breaking for people. What’s the first task of mission?  Pray the Lord of the harvest will send the right people to the right mission at the right time. This leads us to the third vital question our text raises.

What is the goal of mission? Matthew 10:1 says that Jesus gave them authority over the unclean spirits as well as the ability to cure people. The goal of mission is for you and me, this very church, to be the extension of Jesus’ authoritative Presence in the world exposing brokenness where there is pain, challenging unjust social policies and mores when there is oppression, and earnestly seek reconciliation and wholeness where there is tension, bigotry, and discord. As the extension of Jesus in the world, we are to unmask consumeristic idolatry, we are to heal prejudice, and we are to demonstrate to others outside the church community what living in the unity of the Spirit of the Lord looks and acts like. Unlike mission selfies that shine the light on us, our missional outreach is to shine a light on others and what God is doing in their lives.

Here’s a question for you trivia buffs: What is the only publicly held and owned team in the NFL? The Green Bay Packers!  It is not owned by a family or a corporate sponsor but by the fans of the Packers themselves! So, when in January 2012, The Green Bay Packers were to play the New York Giants for a Divisional Playoff game at Lambeau Field after a night of nearly a foot of snowfall, the fans who had an investment in the team came to shovel out all the tons snow in the stands and on the field.  They City workers did not do it. A private company did not do it. The fans who owned and had stock in the team did it!  At 4:30 in the morning of the game, nearly 1,300 people showed up in the subfreezing temperatures to wait for the privilege to blow, shovel, and clean the stadium from tons of snow. On that day, the spectators became the players on the field. It was the spectators who made the game possible in the first place![5]

Today’s scripture is Jesus’ way of telling you and me that we are not to be spectators of the mission of the church, we are to be the actual players.  Mission isn’t for just a few or for the professional ministers; mission is the way ordinary disciples are called to be the authoritative Presence of Christ in the world. You may not know the mission you are to accomplish.  You may not know if you are the one who is even the person to do what you think you are to do. You may not believe you’re qualified to go and cast out the spirits of this world and cure others and reunite spiritually lost sheep to God and to others. And do you know what?  That is okay.  It’s God’s job to reveal the field of harvest we are to reap. It’s God job to choose, select and then dispatch the workers into fields to do ministry.

And why does God do it? Because people matter to Jesus and he has a broken heart for them. And what are we to do about it?  We are to pray for workers who will go to the fields God has chosen for us to tend and reap.

First Pres is in a position to make new and exciting strategic investment in God’s harvest field, beloved, just as we have in decades past but God needs our help. Jesus needs all of us in this church to pray the Spirit will identify the mission field we are to work in and then reveal those among us who will be the authoritative Presence of God in seeing that mission through. If you are willing to pray that the Lord of the Harvest will do that through us, I invite you to stand right now. Let us pray.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley,org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] Dr. Hunter Farrell at a plenary presentation for the June meeting of the Central Florida Presbytery, Wycliffe Bible Translators Discovery Center on June 7, 2017.

[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook. Matthew 1 -12, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 445ff.

[3] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[4] Bruner, 448.

[5] “Packers fans wait hours for chance to shovel Lambeau Field,” by Alex Morrell, Green Bay Press-Gazette, January 13, 2012. Accessed on 6/14/2017 from http://content.usatoday.com/communities/thehuddle/post/2012/01/packers-fans-wait-hours-for-chance-to-shovel-lambeau-field/1.

The Trinity and the Law of Three

The Trinity and the Law of Three

Sermon:          The Trinity and Law of Three
Scripture:       Genesis 1.1-5
Preacher:       Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:        First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:               June 11, 2017, Trinity Sunday

You may listen to the sermon by clicking here.

Today on the church calendar we are taking the time to pause and celebrate Trinity Sunday. Following immediately last Sunday’s Pentecost celebration, Trinity Sunday is a day we remember the character and type of God we love and serve. The Trinity has been much debated by scholars and religious greats for 2,000 years and I do not kid myself into thinking I have anything important to add.  Yet, I want us to think critically on the Trinity and today’s scripture passage will provide us the foundation from which to look at the oft-ignored Trinity of God.

This morning’s scripture is a timeless old passage many people have heard before. I am speaking of the first description of Creation in our Bible. This morning, the lectionary has us reading through the entire week of Creation which goes into chapter two of Genesis but I will be reading simply the first five verses of Genesis 1.

1:1-2 First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss. 3-5 God spoke: “Light!”
And light appeared.
God saw that light was good
and separated light from dark.
God named the light Day,
he named the dark Night.
It was evening, it was morning—
Day One.[1]

The Creation.  I am choosing to only read the first five verses because the Creation Story itself gets people thinking about all sorts of things, some of which are not too helpful. Engaged discussion on the Creation has often brought disagreements between fellow Christians as well as derision from those outside the Church. Why is this?

Well, we tend to look at life through binary lenses and we bring those binary lenses into our reading of Scripture.  For example, a binary way of looking at the world sees things as either this way or that way. Complex issues are reduced to either black or white; now I don’t know too many people whose lives are as simple as black or white.  I imagine everyone here would say that his or her life has many different shades of gray in them!  So, with the Creation accounts, our human tendency is to assume one of two positions as we read this Story.  On one hand, we read the Story from a pre-critical point of view and understand that the earth is only between 6 and 10,000 years old according to the biblical accounts of Creation and the history of humankind in the Bible. Pre-critical readers understand that each day of creation was a literal day and it took God six full days to create the universe and humankind.[2]

On the other hand, others will read this Story from a second point of view called a critical reading of the Story.  They are going to point to the sciences of geology and biology and argue that the world is really 4.5 billion years old. They are going to see the comparison and contrasts with the Hebrew telling of creation with other ancient creation narratives from other cultures.  A critical reader will hold that the Hebrews took elements of the ancient Sumerian story of Gilgamesh and rewrote it in a way that highlighted the Jewish understanding of a monotheistic God.

Consequently, when we look at the world through binary lenses, our faith and intellect are forced to choose between this way of understanding Creation (i.e. six literal days) or that way of understanding of Creation (i.e. the Hebrews co-opting another culture’s narrative). Binary thinking often posits two sides against the other.  Either “I’m right and you’re wrong” or “you’re wrong and I’m right!”  Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a third way to approach the scriptures? There is.

You see, a third way of hearing our text today is simply taking what the pre-critical and critical reader say for what they describe.  Together, pre-critical reading leads to a critical reading that ultimately delivers us to a third, post-critical way of reading Scripture; post-critical reading also called a literary reading of the text, is simply looking at what the Scripture says about God’s relationship to His creation and to people.  A third way of approaching scripture does not bog itself down into the minutia as to whether or not the world is 6,000 years old or 4.5 billion years old.  A literary reader may find it interesting that the Hebrews may have taken passages of her Creation Story from the Gilgamesh narrative.  But what the third way of reading scripture does is to force us to intellectually, spiritually and emotionally reflect on how this creative God and this Story is active in our lives this very moment. It reads the Bible as it is at face value.  This third way of approaching Scripture opens up new understandings and possibilities for ministry!

Are you still not sure about the challenges of looking at the world through binary, black and white lenses?  Look at our country’s election this past year.  Look at the recent election in Great Britain this week!  It was the Labor party over and against the Conservative party.  It was the Democrats over and against the Republicans. The binary way thinking and looking at the world and values has shut down Washington as opposing sides of Congress draw lines against each other.  Today’s elected officials seem to have forgotten how the Founding Fathers understood that American Democracy would only work when both sides could come together and compromise thereby creating a fresh, new way forward. The political term we use is a bipartisan stance worked out through a compromise which can only occur when there is an engaged relationship with the other.[3] The authors of our Constitution seemed to understand either/or thinking would not make our country great.  They assumed our leaders would be virtuous enough, humble enough to come together in a relationship and honorably move forward with an as yet undiscovered new way through a dilemma.

It’s at this point I want to remind us that as Christ-followers, we do not look at the world through binary lenses.  Our Christian faith is built upon a ternary understanding of God and the universe; our view of the world is built upon the Law of Three, i.e. the Trinity. Sadly though, many Christian profess Trinitarian thinking but live a functional binary spiritual relationship with God focusing solely upon God the Father and God the Son, Jesus to the exclusion of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps they focus on God the Father and God the Holy Spirit but cut Jesus out as being superfluous. Somehow, we forget the way forward is made possible by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit moves us from dualistic thinking of this or that to a both-and-even-more possibility!

We see this in today’s scripture. It was not just God the Father who created the heavens and earth.  The scripture says “God” created, breathed life in the universe.  In Genesis 1.26, the scripture relates that on the sixth day of creation, “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”  Here is one of the first overt references to the Trinitarian Godhead. God did not say, “Let me make humankind in MY image” but instead, “Let’s make people in OUR image.”  And like our text today indicates, it’s the Father and Son manifest in Holy Spirit who broods, floats, relaxes and hovers over the chaos and bringing form and life from a previously empty state of being.

Scholar and Episcopal priest, Cynthia Bourgeault, says that in this way, the third force, i.e. the Holy Spirit, acts as a midwife for the Father and Son. It acts on the desires of the fullness of God to bring into life something brand new.[4]

The Law of Three and the Trinity is a dynamic process that brings birth, growth, and change.  The interplay and relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit are generative in that together they create something new, a fourth previously unseen way forward! Their interplay at Creation brought forth the universe and all life.  It is inherent in the Law of Three to spin its collective energy outward in ever-widening circles of artistic, creative newness.

The Reverend Bourgeault gives us examples.  When a seed, the earth, and the sun come together, a fourth item is created called a sprout.  When flour, water, and a fire’s heat is added, a fourth is created called bread.  When a plaintiff, a defendant, and a Judge come together, a fourth way is created called a resolution.  When a ship’s sails, keel and helmsman work in synchronicity, a ship’s course is created and sustained.[5] When a proton, a neutron, and electron have interplay, a fourth entity called an atom is formed.[6]  When God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit dance together, light emerges and creation is formed. The Law of Three means the whole Christian notion of Trinity is not some ancient theological abstract; on the contrary, when the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit spins and dances and encounters a church or a person, a fourth way forward presents itself through new life, new energy, or a possibility for new ministry to be born![7]

This past Christmas season, I was sitting on our patio watching a fire in the pit.  There were two logs left and their light grew dim and the crackling sounds were no longer heard.  I’ve learned through years of camping about the law of three.  I’ve seen many fires that dwindle down to two pieces of wood and the fire begins to die out.  What is needed is a third log tossed at an angle onto the two and energy is formed and new flames burst up, more heat is generated, and the crackles and pops begin again.  It’s the Law of Three.[8]

Christian mystics believe the whole universe is held together by the Trinitarian dance of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  They believe that we need to become re-enchanted with the mysterious Law of Three and the Trinity in order to apply it to all aspects of our lives new options for ministry, for reconciliation, and for healing will reveal themselves to us.

Politically, it reminds us to work together for compromise so that we can generate a fourth new totally unforeseen way that’s beyond liberal and conservative that is indeed called just.

Environmentally, it reminds us to move beyond either believing in climate change or denying climate change whereby we can come together and create a fourth way forward that meets humanity’s needs while ensuring our planet will be available for future generations.

Spiritually, it means we suspend reading our Bibles pre-critically or critically and instead look at what God is actually trying to get across to us in the scripture. Spiritually it means we cease and desist saying some people are more deserving of God’s love while saying certain others are not worthy of grace at all; instead we are called to intentionally express that love of God in ways we never imagined! Spiritually, it means that Christianity’s opposing sides need to work together and generate a fourth winsome and gracious expression of God’s presence in ministry to people who have fallen through the cracks or pushed to the margins because of our own infighting.

Beloved, thanks for hanging in there with me through this very thought-full subject.  My prayer is that as each of us leaves today, we will be thinking about the Trinity in brand new ways. Specifically, I want us to leave and ask ourselves how the Triune God is working in your life this very day? What new thing, new ministry, new relationship is the creative expression of God trying to have you display? What new fourth way forward is God’s Trinity and the Law of three churning up in you?  Let’s pray.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] The Message by Eugene Peterson.

[2] Please see http://www.icr.org/article/how-old-earth-according-bible/ accessed on 6/9/2017.

[3] Richard Rohr, with Mike Morrell. The Divine Dance.  The Trinity and Your Transformation (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2016), 93.

[4] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three. Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity (Boston: Shambhala, 2013), 45

[5] Ibid., 15-17.

[6] Rohr, 70.

[7] Bourgeault says, “The interweaving of the three produces a fourth in a new dimension…The first and most important point is that linking the Trinity to the Law of Three adds predicative capacity. It explains why the inherent dynamism that Bruteau calls agape love must create new worlds; why it cannot remain locked up with a great intra-Trinitarian circulation.” Bourgeault, 89.

[8] Retired firefighter and church member, Walter Kahr, reminded me that when learning how to put out fires, firemen and firewomen are told that a fire is made up of three parts: Material, Oxygen, and a heat source. When approaching a fire, the goal is to separate one of these three from the other two.

How to Glorify God in the Tough Times; Acts 7:54-60

stephenSermon:        How to Glorify God in the Tough Times
Scripture:     Acts 7:54-60
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:      First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:             May 14, 2017, Fifth Sunday of Easter

For us to have a deeper appreciation of our scripture Story today, it’s vital for us to know a little about the overall scene. Our Story begins back in Acts 6.  The Church at this point was still located in Jerusalem and the first scene in Acts 6 introduces the necessity and ordination of the first seven deacons who were charged to tend to the everyday care of members of the church while the Apostles were devoted to healing and preaching. One deacon stands out above the others and that is Stephen who is described as full of grace and power.

Stephen began to display wonders and signs among the people and a group of Jews related to the Jews of the Diaspora, in other words, the scattering of Jews after the exile, were among them.  They began challenging Stephen and his teaching saying that he was speaking blasphemous things about God and the Temple. This group began to spread rumors about Stephen and the message of Christ and planted false witnesses in the crowd to stir things up. The crowds grabbed Stephen and took him by force to the Jewish religious council, the Sanhedrin, and demanded Stephen be punished.

The High Priest asked Stephen if he was indeed speaking blasphemy against God and the Temple and this begins Stephen’s long biblical and historical defense of God’s interactions with the people of Israel beginning with Abraham and the Patriarchs to Moses and the Tent of Meeting God used to travel around in with the Hebrews in the wilderness. Stephen lectured the religious leaders on the fact that God does not dwell in houses made by human hands but that God created, dwelt and lived anywhere God felt like it. The Jewish prophets spoke on God’s behalf but people refused to listen.  Then Stephen goes and puts his foot in it. He declares, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in your heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do…They killed those who foretold the Righteous One (i.e. Jesus), and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.  You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

This was the trigger that exploded the religious leaders and crowd’s sensibilities.  It’s at this point we pick up in our scripture today which marks the end of the Jerusalem narrative of the church and begins to move the Christian Story out into the larger world. Also, as emerging church leader Stephen dies, a new leader is introduced who would, ironically, pick up Stephen’s arguments with the Greek-thinking Jews and forever change the course of Church history. Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Acts 7:54-60

54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.[1]

Mob mentality.  It’s a scary thing to be caught up in one.  I was an R.A. in college and remember how Georgia Southern’s campus exploded with unrest during the American hostage crisis in Iran back in the early 1980s.  One hot afternoon, mobs of people began moving en masse from all the dorms and usually well-collected and mannered people were shouting epithets and rage dragging an Ayatollah’s effigy behind a car. The students used it as an excuse to pour out their stress and rage with liberal amounts of cheap beer. It does not take a lot to cause a mob scene.  All it takes is a little stress mixed in with some righteous indignation, a bit of boredom, and sprinkled with a few well-placed instigators. It does not take long for a crowd to turn into a toxic mess of vented anger.

Stephen, very much like Jesus before him, was caught up in the swirling pot of political, military, economic, cultural and religious turmoil. The Jews were afraid of the Romans.  The Romans kept a wary eye on their Jewish citizens. The Jewish religious leaders were pitted against the Romans who saw Caesar as a god and then there were people like Jesus, followed by Stephen, who declared that the Messiah and Righteous One was already in their midst. There were political and religious splinter groups all vying for control and the undercurrent of distrust and cultural hatred of “the other” was laying the foundation for a brutal war that would break out some thirty to forty years after Jesus’ death. It sounds all too familiar with our world today.

Did you know that there are 15 countries in the world today that still use lapidation as a form of capital punishment? Lapidation is simply a sanitized way of being stoned to death. Today the accused has his, or in most cases her[2], hands and feet tied and they are placed into a hole buried up to their shoulders. Rocks are thrown first by the witnesses to the alleged crime and then by the rest of the crowd until the person is dead. You see, this way everyone in the community gets to exact the sentence on the guilty one without anyone knowing whose stone it was that actually killed the person. This way your conscience is assuaged because you can say, “It was not my stone that killed them!”  Death by stoning is a horrible, barbaric way to die.[3] Yet, in our Story today, amid this horror, Stephen kept his wits about him.

Stephen shows us how we can glorify God in the direst of situations.  He shows you and me how to keep our head in a world that is all too cultivated for mob mentalities. He does this by glorifying God and this glorifying of God has three distinct parts.

First, Stephen in the midst of the mob and frenzy never took his eyes off the Lord. He stayed true to his convictions and pointed to the power of God displayed by Jesus Christ.  In the midst of the evil swirling about him at his kangaroo court, Stephen saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God. He kept his eyes on Jesus.

Some have wondered why Jesus was standing and not sitting at the right hand of God in a place of magisterial splendor.  Many believe Stephen saw Jesus standing at the Father’s side because he was about to rush in himself as Stephen’s advocate; Stephen saw Jesus ready to run to his aid.

The second aspect of glorifying God is that even during the moment when the rocks began hitting him, Stephen committed himself to the Christ. Stephen had the long view.  He knew his physical life was only one aspect of living and he realized that through Jesus’ resurrection our life continues in the presence of the Almighty in ways we cannot imagine.  During his pain, amid his crisis, Stephen not only kept his eyes on God but he committed himself to God’s Spirit and cause when he cried, “Lord, receive my spirit.”

This leads us to the third aspect of glorifying God and if we are honest, it may be the most difficult for us to do.  Rocks were pounding him and his last recorded words are, “Do not hold this sin against them.”  It’s so much easier for us to keep our focus on God and to commit ourselves to God than it is to forgive those who are causing us pain in our life.  Stephen’s last words were words of forgiveness to those who were killing him. Stephen was demonstrating the highest expression of agape love and that was his intentional, volitional letting go of any hate or contempt he might have felt.  They say the greatest act of love is to give one’s life for someone else. That may be very true but for the clear majority of us, the greatest act of love we can express is love through the forgiveness of those who have hurt us the most. It’s in the act of forgiving someone else that we are giving them life back – a life that perhaps they did not even know they lost.  Remember that Stephen’s words of forgiveness and release were uttered within earshot of a young man who needed to hear those words whose name was Saul! When we forgive others, we are de-clogging our spiritual arteries by letting the cleansing Spirit of God spread out in our own lives that give us new hope and freedom that withholding forgiveness prevents.

Beloved, what in this life is overwhelming you? What are the mobs of life that are pelting you with rocks? Is it a relationship that has turned south or is abusive?  Is it a job or work conditions that feel unbearable?  Is it an illness that is robbing you of health, financial resources, and hope?  Is it a traumatic event in your life that has crippled you emotionally?  Whatever it is for you, just look to Stephen.

In the midst of Stephen’s turmoil, even when things were at their worst, he never took his eyes off Jesus.  In the midst of Stephen’s turmoil, even when things were at their worst, he once again entrusted himself to God.  In the midst of Stephen’s turmoil, even when things were the worst and as his life was ebbing away, he prayed for the pardon of the ones who were causing him pain.  This, my friends, is how we glorify God even when the world feels as though it has aligned itself against us.

What is overwhelming you right now, my friends? Keep your eyes on Jesus!

What are the rocks of life which are about to knock you unconscious? Even if you do not understand why it is happening to you, once again, commit yourself to God.

Who is it that is killing your spirit because you are still harboring resentment and hatred towards them for what they have done or did not do?  Show them the love that only can emerge from forgiveness because when we let them free of their debt, we become free ourselves!

This week, let’s all be more conscious of glorifying God even when life makes it difficult to do so.  Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1]The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[2]Please see https://mic.com/articles/68431/women-around-the-world-are-being-stoned-to-death-do-you-know-the-facts#.uGpMR6zTx. Accessed on 5/12/2017.
[3] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoning. Accessed on 5/12/2017.