The Message: Be the Light! Unpacking the Beatitudes

You may listen to the Sermon by clicking here.

Sermon:         Be the Light 
Text:                Matthew 5:13-20
Preacher:       Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:       First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, FL
Date:               January 5, 2017, Epiphany 5, Communion Sunday

Years ago when I was avidly backpacking, I carried with me a light that was the envy of everyone I met on the trail.  Instead of using batteries, my little lantern burned off another energy source which at first blush sounds crazy.  You see, I used to pack with a calcium carbide lantern.  It’s the same little lantern miners use.

Unlike batteries which get used up or a gas fuel source that would run out, a calcium carbide lantern worked on just two ingredients: Little rocks of calcium carbide and water.  You place a few pieces of calcium carbide in the bottom of the lantern and then just add water.  The mixture produces a gas which emits at the top of the lantern and once lit, burns for hours. I didn’t have to worry about batteries or kerosene; all I needed were my rocks and some water. Whoever would have thought the phrase, “Just add water” would generate fire and light?

Today’s text from Matthew’s Beatitudes describes what it means for you and me, this church, to be light.  Being light is synonymous with the theologically loaded word “righteous.”  Just as unlikely that a mineral mixed with water produces light, so the concept of what it means for us to be righteous is not immediately recognizable at first glance; as rocks and water create fire, righteousness is not made up of what we think it is either.

Turn in your Bible to Matthew 5:13. Jesus is up on a hillside above the seaport village of Capernaum located at the 12 o’clock position on the Sea of Galilee. We read last week the series of “Blessed ares…” and today we are picking up right where that left off.  Let’s refresh our memory with the “Blessed ares…”.

Jesus begins his sermon in chapter five by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek…blessed are those who hunger after righteousness…blessed are the merciful…blessed are the pure in heart…blessed are the peacemakers…blessed are those who are persecuted for showing righteousness…blessed are those when you are reviled because of me.”  Now, let’s listen to what Jesus says next.  Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Light is a big deal for the Jews. They would have heard Jesus’ words and reflect back on the text in Isaiah 49.6 that says, “I will make you (O Israel) as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”  Isaiah the prophet was reminding those Jews held in exile’s captivity that they would be restored to Jerusalem; furthermore, it is through them the world would come to see and learn about the Lord God.  They were to be lighting up the Lord of Hosts so that all could believe and live in the unity, grace, gaze and care of God’s provision.

Sadly, that didn’t happen.

What happened was when the Exiles got back to Jerusalem, they took the notion of being a light to the nations and codified it into a list of do’s and don’ts. They said that to be a real believer, one had to do right things; what Jesus is saying today is that they got it wrong; what Jesus is stressing is that in order to be the light of the world, his followers would have to live out from the right way of viewing and understanding life.

The Jewish religious leaders felt that doing the right things – a very will-full and intellectual matter – made one righteous, i.e. made one right with God.  Jesus, on the other hand, was stressing that being made right with God is not about mental assent to do the right things; on the contrary, Jesus was stressing that in order for his followers to be the light to the world and to the nations, they are to live the right way as guided by their heart.

For the religious leaders, living righteously was a matter of personally following the Law for their personal piety’s sake and because the Law demanded it.

For Jesus and his followers, living righteously was a matter of humbly living out the “Blessed ares…” in relation to God and to one another; this is what it means to be righteous. Righteousness, or right living before God, requires the intellect for action but righteousness’ birthing ground is in a person’s heart.  Lest we forget, the people in Jesus’ day believed that God resided within a person in their heart as opposed to their head. Righteousness describes how a person sees and lives out their life in a God-oriented direction as opposed to doing “the right things.” Righteousness is way and attitude towards living life; it’s not about moral checklists.  Righteousness describes who a person is and to Whom a person belongs more than it describes what a person does or does not do. Our actions of what we do or do not do stem from who we are in our heart and core. The soil our actions are grown in is either self-righteous or is light-generating righteousness.  Jesus prefers the latter.

Being the light of the world means we humbly live poor in spirit; that we are in touch with the suffering in the world; that we are not driven to gain power or to have power over others; it means we desire to cultivate a relationship with God in our heart; being righteous means that we are merciful and kind to others; being the light, being righteous demands that we keep our hearts swept clean for God’s presence and trust God to hold us close even though the world reacts against us because the light reflects a different quality of life to the world that people would rather ignore. Jesus’ very life and progression to the Cross and his crucifixion are an example of what righteousness means; His very life and death are a reflection of the Beatitude’s “Blessed ares…”

He is telling us that our very life, our very difficulties, our triumphs are to be a reflection of the “Blessed ares…”  This, my beloved, is what Jesus means when he says our righteousness needs to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  Entering the Kingdom of Heaven is not about doing right things; entering the Kingdom of Heaven is about living rightly with our hearts calibrated to Jesus and to the “Blessed ares…” just as Jesus’ heart was.  Righteousness is more than doing good; righteousness means living well and humbly from the depth of one’s heart out of gratitude for God and for the desire of sharing that Light of God with others.

The scribes and Pharisees were living self-righteously for their benefit; Jesus tells you and me to live out the “Blessed ares…” in order to be the light source for others to learn about God’s righteousness. It’s either self-righteousness for my salvation or other-directed-righteousness for the declaration of salvation for others.  The Law was not meant to be some high-level Trigonometry test we have to pass in order to get from here to heaven.  The Law was originally designed to show people how to cultivate a humble heart so as to live right with God and with our neighbor. Oh my, haven’t we messed that up over the last several hundred years!

The Pharisees and Scribes believed righteousness meant living separated from “those type of people” like the leper, the prostitute, the unclean and the ordinary.  Jesus understood righteousness to mean living one’s life emanating the love, grace and glory of God in the very midst of the ordinary people, the unclean, the prostitute and the leper. Christ-following lives are lived in the midst of the world’s daily grind and as such, appear as bright lights of hope in the face of other people’s despair or are a fragrant sweet smelling breeze that comes from out of nowhere to revive the tired and fainthearted.

Preparing ourselves to receive this powerful meal means we pause and ask ourselves: Does my spiritual life show that I am simply punching a check-list of what I am supposed to do, or, does my Christ-following life reflect a righteousness that is attempting to live into the “Blessed ares…”? Remember: Righteousness is not for the self; righteousness is the light of God’s face shared with others.  Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor and Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, FL
724 North Woodland Boulevard
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 in DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

All scripture is from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

The Church’s Ten-Letter Dirty Word (E-v-a-n-g-e-l-i-s-m)

Sermon: The Church’s Dirty Ten-Letter Word
Scripture: John 1.37-42
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, FL
Date: January 15, 2017, The Second Sunday of Epiphany

This morning, we are going to begin with the end in mind. I’m going to give you four words which are the answers to what we will be unpacking today. So, if you are the type who likes to write notes, here are the four words you to shape your outline: Know; Embrace; Meet; and Introduce. Now that you have all the answers, let’s jump into the question!

Back in the ancient times, i.e. 1972, the late comedian George Carlin had a famous sketch on the “Seven Bad Words You Can Never Say on Television.” The amazing thing is you still cannot say them on TV! But let me ask you this: Did you know the Church of Jesus Christ has at least three words people would rather not be said in church, particularly from the pulpit?

The first dirty word people don’t like to hear from the pulpit is repent. People wince at that word because it reminds them they are to stop what they are doing and turn around and live in a different way. It means to cease and desist with behaviors that demean the image of God in others as well as in ourselves. Though ‘repent’ is a word people don’t like to say in church, it’s a good word. We need to be able to say it. So, say it with me: Repent. That was not so bad, was it?

The second dirty word people don’t like to hear from the pulpit or in church is the word money, or its pseudonym, Stewardship. People hate it when the church talks about money and stewardship. We shouldn’t talk about it because that’s my personal business, thank you very much! I find it ironic that people will tell their pastors the most intimate details of their lives but when they find out their pastor knows how much they give to the church budget, they go nuts! Money or stewardship is a dirty word in church for most people. Go ahead and say this offensive word: Stewardship. Good, you’re getting the hang of it!

The third dirty word people do not like to hear in church or even think about is the ten-letter word that strikes fear in the masses. It’s the word Evangelism. Evangelism is a dirty word to many in the church because they feel evangelism is manipulative, pushy, or confrontational. Many believe that evangelism means cramming one’s faith beliefs don’t the throats of others and that if they don’t listen to us then they are going to hell. I mean really, who wants to tell someone about Jesus if we think that if they reject what we say we might be responsible for their eternal life?  Evangelism literally means “to Good News someone.”

Friends, we have a distorted understanding of Evangelism and today’s scripture in John can help us sort out the mess of what evangelism is and isn’t as well as provide us a user-friendly model to follow. So, let’s say together the ten-letter dirty word people don’t like to say: Evangelism!

Our text today has John the Baptist talking to the people who are following him and have responded to his call for baptism for the remittance of sins. In verse 1.29, John proclaims to those who are following him, “Look! Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” as he is pointing to Jesus walking by the group. In the group that heard John say this was a man named Andrew and some unnamed disciple. And this brings us to our text today. Listen to the Word of God!

John 1:37-42

37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Looking at our text, I want to lift some observations for us that hopefully will demystify evangelism as well as help each of us see how we can be a witness for Good News. I want us to realize that evangelism is not rocket science nor is it the duty of a select few in the church.

Our Story has John the Baptizer pointing out Jesus to Andrew and to the other unnamed disciple and Andrew and the other immediately began following Jesus. I love what happens next. Jesus notices them following and he takes the initiative to stop what he is doing and asks them the one penetrating question every one of us, indeed, all people wrestle to answer. Jesus asks rather directly: What are you looking for (v. 38)? The first observation is that before we can tell others about what God has done in our life, we need to first understand what we are looking to experience from listening to and searching for in Jesus. It’s vital for each of us to ponder the question Jesus asked Andrew: What are you looking for? Why are you on a quest to know God? Why are you following Jesus? How do you answer that question? Once you can answer why you are following Jesus, then you are ready for evangelism.

This leads us to our second observation: Andrew was not completely sure what he was looking for but Andrew did have a yearning for something deeper in his life. Jesus asks him, “Andy, what are you looking for?” and Andrew has one of the oddest responses in Scripture. Did Andrew ask Jesus if he was the Messiah? No. Did Andrew ask Jesus to perform a miracle? No. Andrew asked, of all things, “Where are you staying?” I’m not sure that would be the one question I would ask the Savior of the world if I had the chance but for Andrew, knowing where Jesus was staying was enough. Andrew was not sure of the full ramifications of what it meant that Jesus was the Lamb of God. He has not witnessed, per John’s Story, any miracle or healing. He has simply experienced the presence of Jesus and that was enough. He couldn’t put words to it but he knew that there was something different about this man which made Andrew want to spend more time with him. Andrew, whom I like to call The Patron Saint of Evangelism, reminds us that we are to embrace the fact we will not have all the answers when we tell people about our experience with Jesus. That, my friends, is very okay!

The third observation about evangelism in our Story is that Jesus met Andrew where Andrew was in his life. Andrew didn’t have all the answers and for Jesus was that was just fine. Andrew at this point did not even have good questions and for Jesus that was just fine, too! Jesus wasn’t pushy or demeaning. He didn’t respond with, “Andrew, c’mon! That’s the dumbest question anyone could ask me!” Jesus met Andrew right where Andrew was and he was still a little perplexed, questioning and wondering.

Andrew and the other disciple went with Jesus and spent the day with him. We have no idea what they talked about. We can presume that since they spent the day together and the text mentions, “it was four o’clock in the afternoon” that Andrew, the other disciple, and Jesus worshiped together for the Jewish prayer hour held at three o’clock. They spent time together. They built a relationship with one another. In this light, when we read in other Gospels how Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee and sees Andrew fishing and calls out to him, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people!”, it is not surprising Andrew dropped what he was doing and followed. Jesus was patient. Relationships take time before a call to discipleship can be offered and answered.

The final observation we note about evangelism from our Story is that Andrew’s style of evangelism was to first go to someone he already knew, i.e. his brother, Simon and all he did was to introduce Simon and Jesus to one another. “Simon, this is Jesus, the one I told you about and Jesus this is my brother, Simon.” Andrew then backs off. Andrew didn’t convert, cajole, shame, or push Simon to believe. He simply introduced the two of them and let Jesus take over. Andrew reminds us we are not responsible for another’s conversion but Jesus is. There is no need to beat, cajole, deride, shame and push people into following Christ! No, all we are asked to do is make a non-threatening introduction and let God take over.

I’ve said it once and I will say it again: This church is one generation away from extinction. Sadly, that’s not only a prediction for our church but for the overall Church of Jesus Christ. The Christian church does not have a healthy understanding of evangelism or the Gospel and a result, people are turned off to the Christian faith, have little or no faith in the institution of Church, or perceive Christians to be hypocritical judges of others who act like theological know-it-alls. We need to overcome the notion that evangelism is a dirty word and a duty exercised by only a few. We first begin learning to know why we are looking for and drawn to Jesus and then follow our scripture Story’s lead by

• responding to Jesus’ question, “What are you looking for?” the best we can;
• embracing the fact that belief in Jesus does not mean we have all the answers and are not expected to give all the answers when we share the winsome Story of the Gospel with others;
• meeting people where they are and then build relationships with them;
• Introducing people in our current networks of relationships to Jesus’ winsome way of life and then back off.

Is that too awfully difficult? Know why we believe; embrace you don’t have all the answers and neither do others; meet people where they are and then develop relationships; introduce them to God but let God do the work of transformation.

This week, I want each of us to ponder the question Jesus asked and discern why we are drawn to him. I want us to ponder who we know or with whom we can build a natural relationship with so that the Spirit can provide an opportunity for us to simply ask the other one question: I’m in a community of folks who are looking to better understand God. Would you like to meet me for worship, Bible Study, feeding the homeless, taking flowers to the homebound….

No beloved, Evangelism is not rocket science. It’s all about knowing, embracing, meeting and introducing. For Christ’s sake, the Church’s sake, won’t you join me in doing it? And all of God’s people said, Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pastor@fpcdstaff.org
http://phwrisley.blogspot.com

© 2016 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.

A Christmas Meditation

Sermon: A Christmas Meditation
Scripture: John 1.1-14 (MSG)
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date: December 25, 2016, Christmas Day, Year A

This morning we are hearing the Apostle John’s unique Christmas Story. Whereas Matthew has a very hasty mention of Jesus’ birth and Luke’s gospel is most detailed with angel appearances to men, women, and shepherds, John’s birth narrative begins at a different place. Instead of beginning with the birth of the baby Jesus, John begins with how the baby described in Matthew and Luke is none other than the one who gave birth to the whole Creation as the Cosmic Christ. At first blush, you might say to yourself, “Well, so what?” I mean, after all, John’s version of the Christmas Story is not all warm and fuzzy with bleating sheep, lowing animals, and a gentle fire burning outside the manger to keep the Holy Family warm. It’s much more, well, philosophical sounding as compared to Matthew and Luke’s accounts. Consequently, as we hear the Scripture this morning, I want you to hear the words from a different translation than you are accustomed to hearing it from so as to jar your familiarity with it; perhaps, just maybe all of us can hear these words of Christmas birth and hope anew with fresh ears and eyes of our hearts.

Our text comes from the first 14 verses of John’s gospel. You might find it helpful that as you hear John use the phrase, “The Word,” you can substitute that in your mind as “The Eternal Son of God, Jesus”; in fact, each time you hear me say “Word” in our reading, I’ll pause and let you say out loud in response, “The Eternal Son of God, Jesus.” Listen afresh to the Word of the Lord and the Spirit stir in your hearing something you have never heard before!

John 1:1-14, The Message

1:1-2 The Word “The Eternal Son of God, Jesus” was first,
the Word “The Eternal Son of God, Jesus” present to God,
God present to the Word “The Eternal Son of God, Jesus”.
The Word “The Eternal Son of God, Jesus” was God,
in readiness for God from day one.
3-5 Everything was created through him;
nothing—not one thing! —
came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life,
and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
the darkness couldn’t put it out.
6-8 There once was a man, his name John, sent by God to point out the way to the Life-Light. He came to show everyone where to look, who to believe in. John was not himself the Light; he was there to show the way to the Light.
9-13 The Life-Light was the real thing:
Every person entering Life
he brings into Light.
He was in the world,
the world was there through him,
and yet the world didn’t even notice.
He came to his own people,
but they didn’t want him.
But whoever did want him,
who believed he was who he claimed
and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
their child-of-God selves.
These are the God-begotten,
not blood-begotten,
not flesh-begotten,
not sex-begotten.
14 The Word “The Eternal Son of God, Jesus” became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.(1)

As Pastor Bodger reminded us last Sunday, many of us have become too comfortable and familiar with the Christmas Story of a baby born in the manger. John’s account is the needed check on reality to remind us that the Baby born in Bethlehem was the very-before-and-beyond-time God of all that is, was, and is to come. John so beautifully says in verse 14, And the Word (the Eternal Son of God) became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. We even saw the glory with our own two eyes!

Today my beloved, we come and worship the utterly nonsensical-sounding and wildly fantastic Story of how God pierced our understanding of time and became like you and me in every single way through this Jesus. The Eternal Word becomes like you and me and stitches everything together in our time and lives both beyond our time into God’s timeless eternity. It means the Eternal God knows your joy just as the Lord knows your pain and suffering. It means the Eternal God had to hold a job in this life like you and me and knew the struggles of living with family who at times thought he was out of his mind. It means the Eternal God born in the baby Jesus knows the sting of hate and death as well as the comfort from lying in the safety of his mother’s tender breast. God, my beloved, in the baby Jesus, known as the Eternal Word, moved into the neighborhood.

The question for you and me is what do we do with our new neighbor? The moving truck has been unloaded and is pulling away. Now what? Do we run over and introduce ourselves? Do we take over our best holiday dish and casserole? Or, do we simply mutter, “I’m glad that dang moving truck has finally left and isn’t blocking up traffic anymore”?

The Slaughter family wrote out a poem in their Christmas card to us that
was originally written by a late resident of Daytona Beach who was both a mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King and the early civil rights movement and was an influential theologian, professor, pastor and writer. Dr. Howard Thurman wrote a beautiful piece that speaks to you and me today as we leave this morning and embark on a new year of life. It reminds us that the Cosmic Christ, the Eternal Son of God who dared to become like you and me moved into the neighborhood is calling you and me to go do the same right where we live, we work and we play. It’s titled, “The Work of Christmas.”

Then the son of the angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are back with their flocks
the work of Christmas beings:
to find the lost
to heal the broken
to feed the hungry
to release the prisoner
to rebuild the nations
to bring peace among the people
to make music in the heart.
And to radiate the Light of Christ
every day, in every way, in all
that we do and all that we say.
then the work of Christmas begins.

From my family to yours, blessings abound upon you this Christmas and throughout the brand, new year. And all God’s people proclaim, 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

© 2016 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) Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group. The words contained in the  “ “ signs are for the congregation to say back to me and are not part of the translation.

The Message: Do We Live as Though We Live in the Kingdom of Heaven?

Sermon:          Do We Live as Though We Live in the Kingdom of Heaven?
Scripture:        Matthew 3:1-12
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                December 4, 2016, Second Sunday of Advent Year A, Communion

You may listen to the sermon by clicking here.

Matthew 3:1-12

3.1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”[1]

 
Many of you are not aware of it but your preacher has a B.S. Degree in Communication from Georgia Southern College.  Now some of you may think most preachers have a B.S. In Communication but mine is bona fide. One of the requirements for graduation for that degree was to pass a typing test of 35 words a minute which one had some two years to take before graduating; it was something I pushed off until the last three weeks of my senior year.

The deal was this:  The student would go to the Department of Communication’s office and ask the secretary, Mrs. Ivey, for the test.  Mrs. Ivey had been in her position for nigh thirty-five years and those tired eyes of hers looked at me and said, “Mr. Wrisley, here is a sheet of paper with several paragraphs on it.  Sit down over there at that typewriter,” pointing to an old IBM Selectric, “and start typing.  I will tell you when to begin and when to stop.”

It sounded easy enough.  I sat down, quickly read the paragraph and the ancient secretary said, “Begin.”  I started hammering away on that old IBM but I kept making mistakes.  I would hit the return button and the machine would white-out my mistakes and I would keep on typing, repeating the process over several times before Mrs. Ivey said, “Stop.” It was the longest minute of my life. I handed her my sheet and she just shook her head.  This process went on for several tries and after thirty minutes of having her precious time interrupted by some procrastinating senior during a very frenetic time of year for her, she finally let out a long sigh and looked at me over her glasses.  “Mr. Wrisley, let’s try this one last time. I’m going to tell you to begin and then I am going to leave to use the bathroom.  You can give me your test when I come back. Begin.” Well, some seven minutes later I gave her my perfectly scored typing test. She took it, signed it and smiled saying, “Congratulations, you get to graduate.” All the math, science, rhetoric, English and history classes I labored over for the last four years meant absolutely nothing if I could not pass that one silly typing test.  If it wasn’t for Mrs. Ivey, I would not have had a chance.  She purposely went to the bathroom that fateful day to give me a reset button on my test and my ability to walk at graduation.

Today, I reflect on her and that experience and I realize her actions towards me back in 1982 were a lovely expression of grace. She gave me all the time I needed to make sure I had thirty-five correct words.

Reset buttons.  More of us are familiar with the concept of rebooting than resetting.  Whether it’s your computer or smart phone that freezes up, you learn the first thing you do is try to reboot the system which wipes everything clean and you start fresh.

John the Baptist is our Mrs. Ivey in the biblical Story today. John does not hit the reset button himself; rather, John is simply telling folks that now is the time to do it. Have you ever seen a Windows PC get the blue screen of death where everything locks up and the computer starts running hot?  John is announcing to the people that their way of living and treating God and one another was akin to the blue screen of death. It’s time to hit the reboot button in order to keep from burning out your spiritual hard drive.

John quotes Isaiah 40.3 when he tells the people to get ready and prepare the way for the Lord. We forget that this was Good News to the people of John’s day as it describes a time when the prophet Isaiah said God is near at hand and was about to bring people back from exile in Babylon.  We are to make straight the highways because we want to come home as soon as possible.  The common person heard John quote Isaiah and thought, “Wow!  A new day is about to break!”  Not everyone was so thrilled to hear it.

Verses 7 through 10 show how there were some in the crowds who were not too keen on John’s news. The established religious leaders of the day – those elders, deacons, preachers and the like – kind of liked the way things were.  Everyone knew the rules and the rules kept everyone in their place.  The rich people hung out with the rich and the poor people scrambled to eek out a living amongst themselves the best they could.  Everyone had to shut up and tolerate the Roman rulers and soldiers. The Pharisees and Sadducees represent the religious status quo; in other words, they were quite happy with the same old same old way of doing things.  Why wouldn’t they?  They had the cultural and spiritual power and authority over their fellow Jews. Now this prophet who appears on society’s margins is saying things are about to change. Those in control are not too thrilled for a new day to emerge because it is going to cost them something; specifically, it was going to cost them their spiritual death grip around the throats of their fellow Jews. Verse 7 has a fun word play we miss in our Bibles.  It can be read, “The Pharisees and Sadducees came out for baptism” or it can also be read as, “The Pharisees and Sadducees came out against baptism.”  They didn’t want the people to repent, i.e. to reboot their spiritual and cultural life because elders, deacons, preachers and Church Boards of the day didn’t want change. They didn’t want some guy in the wilderness with a vegan diet rocking their boat.  The deal is, though, they completely missed the point.  John did not want to simply rock the boat; his call for repentance was a call to burn them and then rebuild!

Sadly, we hear John’s words today and hear them as bad news.  We hear these words and we make a rushed conclusion that we are to repent or else we will suffer the consequences of the veiled threat about being tossed into the fire as described in verses 10 and 12.  The repentance being called for here is not to “turn or burn” like many Christians try to convey today; rather, they are to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.  Beloved, this is Good News indeed! We reboot our lives because the very realm and rule of God is among us.  As pastor Kayla McClurg of the Church of Our Savior in Washington, DC says, “God sends a messenger crying out. “Rethink what you think! Turn around and walk in a different way.”[2]

During this time of Advent preparation, John is asking us to reboot, rethink the way we think we know and understand God.  John is asking us to reboot, rethink the way we understand what it means to hold power over others.  John is asking us to reboot, rethink the way we relate with and use the Creation God has blessed us with.  John is asking us to reboot, rethink the way we relate with and respond to those who are homeless or poor among us.  John is asking us to reboot, rethink the way we are preparing for Christ’s birth; in other words, are our preparations an orgy of self-fulfillment with food and stuff or is it our living simply, humbly, justly, and lovingly as we await the baby to come home to his bassinet? We live in a world whereby folks are more apt to tell children, “Don’t be naughty or Santa will not come” versus, “Let’s see how we as a family can imitate what it means to live as though Jesus lived in our house and the Kingdom of God was at hand.”

Brothers and sisters, this morning we are invited to the Table of our Lord.  It is a good time to reflect on how you in your life, how you and your family, how me and mine, need to reboot, rethink what it is like to live in the presence of God in the Kingdom of Heaven.  It’s not out of fear that we do this; we do it because we cannot wait to bring the baby home!  And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

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

© 2016 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] Kayla McClurg, Disturbed by God, for Sunday, December 4, 2016, Matthew 3:1-12, Inward/Outward e-zine.  See www.inwardoutward.org.