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.

Our Thankfulness Requires a Rest. Reflections on Psalm 46

Sermon:          Our Thankfulness Requires a Rest
Scripture:        Psalm 46
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:               November 20, 2016, Christ the King Sunday, Proper 29

You may listen to the message by clicking here.

Psalm 46

1God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.           Selah

4There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
5God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
6The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.        Selah

8Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
10“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
11The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.            Selah[1]

Today is the very last Sunday on the Christian calendar.  It is known as Christ the King Sunday and it culminates the divine drama that has unfolded before us since the first Sunday in Advent last November. Advent is the time on the calendar we prepare for the inbreaking of God into our world on Christmas and Advent begins next week. We then make our way through the through the season of Epiphany when people finally begin to recognize who Jesus is.  It’s at this point we begin our long walk through Lent as we learn about the sacrifice required to reunite all of God’s people back to one another and to the Lord God Himself.  The dark days of Lent culminate with the empty tomb on Easter morning and Christ’s resurrection. Following the time of celebrating Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, the Church remembers her birthday on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given to the people.  In the summer months, we enter a long stretch of time called “Ordinary Time” when Christians look at the life of Jesus, the Covenant people of Israel and what it means to live in the world as a Christ-follower.  So today, we end our Church year with a celebration that the child born of Mary lived, died, rose, and ascended to God and is now reigning in the heavenly realms literally holding the whole wide world in his hands. It’s a day we celebrate that Christ reigns supreme!  And the people said, Selah! “Selah?” you ask?  Hold onto that for a moment; we will get to it in a minute.

Today’s lectionary text is one that many of us have heard before whether we knew where it came from or not.  It was the basis for Martin Luther’s famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and it is also known for one of the most memorized scripture verses in the Bible:  Be still and know that I am God (vs. 10).

What did this Psalm, or song, mean for those in Israel who first heard it?  Let’s get into their ancient-thinking heads a moment and then see how it connects with us today.

First and foremost, the song’s very opening line tells us that for the ancient Jew, this was a song that affirmed the heart of their faith. The Creator God is a God of solace, fortitude and safety for the people. The psalm leads with this because it serves as the reminder for what is to follow in verses 2 through 3 as well as in verses 4 through 9.

Verses 2 and 3 speak of the calamities of a world falling apart.  In their ancient understanding, the mountains were The Pillars of the Earth holding the heavens in their place.  Should The Pillars of the Earth fall, what hope do they have for survival?  The water was the place of chaos and uncertainty.  Water was destructive, swallowed ships and was the source of sea creatures who were large and foreboding. The sea was a dangerous place and the way the psalmist describes events in verses 2 and 3, it sounds very much to what today’s Christians hear in the New Testament book of Revelation.  These are apocalyptic words which describe the destruction of everything they knew and loved.

If you look in your Bible you will see a word that might be italicized and it stands alone at the end of verse 3.  It’s the word, Selah.  It occurs some 71 times in the psalms and it is one of those ancient Hebrew words that has never been fully translated.  So why is it there?  Scholars believe that Selah is a musical notation that simply means to stop and pause.  It serves as an “amen” of sorts that functions like a musical rest note in the middle of the psalm.  What is it that we are to stop, pause and reflect about? Selah points us back to the very first affirmation of our text today which declares, “God is our refuge a very present help in time of trouble” – a promise that repeats a variation of God’s protection at the end of each stanza in the song.

The psalmist has the people sing that even though the end of the world seems near, although Mother Nature seems to be collapsing in on herself, we are not to have fear because God is our place of refuge and is our source of strength.

And all the people of God say, “Selah!”

Stop.  Reflect on what verses 1 through 3 mean to you.

Then the song continues with verse 4.  We read of a river that flows from the city of God, Zion, Jerusalem.  The stream from Zion is a metaphor for God’s refreshing goodness and these waters will flow even bringing comfort and solace even though the chaos waters of life outside of the city gates feel like they will overwhelm us.  We read how God is in the midst of Jerusalem and even though the world seems falling apart, Zion will not be moved.

Verses 6 through 9 go on to describe to the ancient Jew how there are wars all around them.  Nations are rising up against the people of God.  Rulers will rule who will do whatever they can to overthrow the power of God and the holy city of Zion. And then once more we are given the assurance in verse 7 that Yahweh himself is with us and the God of Jacob will be our protection.

And then there is that word again – Selah.  Once again we are asked to pause and let the reality of verses 4 through 7 sink into the depths of our being.  Yahweh is with us so there is nothing to fear from our political or national leaders, because ultimately, they are not in control of our, nor the world’s, destiny.

And all the people of God say, “Selah!”

Stop.  Reflect on what verses 4 through 7 mean to you.

The final stanza of our song goes on to do two things. First, verses 8 and 9 go on to reaffirm the power and majesty of God and how God is the One who is in ultimate control of the Earth. It affirms that God is greater than any President, Congress, Politburo, dictator or queen and king. Second, verse 10 is a verse that contains two imperatives directing the people to, “Be still” and it demands that we are “to know” God and that God alone is to be worshipped.

These demands are set off with the only quotation marks in our song; it’s a writer’s technique inviting us to slow down, pay attention and ask, “To whom are the quoted words directed towards?” One particular group these words are declared to are the Jews themselves.  They are, in the midst of all the chaos they are undergoing, told to pause, stop, and remember Whose they are in the midst of the chaos: They are the Lord God’s; they are the beloved of the Most High Creator God! In the midst of life’s swirliness, you and I are also beckoned to drop what we are doing and remember Whose we are and that the One who loves us will never let us go.

The other group verse 10 is directed towards are the kings, rulers, presidents and nations of the world. The cultural leaders are being forcefully reminded to literally cease and desist what they are doing and know God is God and that the Almighty is in control.  The ancient Jews heard this as more than just “quiet yourselves for some meditation;” the power of the Hebrew is a command to drop whatever it is your holding onto and pay attention! Like a police officer encountering someone with a weapon, the demand is made to “Drop it right there!”

And all the people of God say together, “Selah!”

Stop a moment.  Reflect on what verses 10 and 11 mean to you.

Beloved, we begin “The Holiday Season” this week.  There are two very distinct and very different agendas that are paralleling one another and each of us is asked to choose which agenda we will participate in. One path is marked out by our compass-less culture demanding we be rampant consumers of food, goods, and stuff.  The other path follows the Church calendar and invites us to slow down and walk through this compass-less world and look at it, experience it, and revel in it with the eyes of God.  Let’s remember that “the holidays” literally meant “the holy days” long before Black Friday and Cyber Monday ever were thought about.

My prayer this week as we each approach Thanksgiving and the holidays that we will write into our daily routine those Selah moments whereby we stop and reflect upon all God has done, is doing, and will do in each of our lives.  For those of you who find Thanksgiving and holidays hard, my prayer is your Selah-moments will help you to redeem your sense of loss or sadness.  For those of you who love this time of year, my prayer is your Selah-moments will be a time to reflect upon the blessings you have been given.  For all of us, my prayer is that this Thanksgiving, we each will be still, that we will cease and desist all our worrying, fretting, scampering, cooking, napping and shopping to silence our hearts so that we can hear the heartbeat of God.

Selah

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] 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.