Click on the pics below to go to my flickr account to view and/or download larger versions of each.
Here is the beginning of my sermon for Sunday. I can’t believe that I have gotten this far already. I will move from where I have ended to talking about the fact that ultimately Abraham’s hope did not disappoint, though it was fulfilled in God’s time and not his own. I will also reference the fact that part of the reason Peter rebukes Jesus is that his own hope in Jesus was that Jesus would be a different kind of Messiah than the one Jesus says he will be . . . i.e., one that must suffer and die. Hopefully (pun fully intended), I will move to talking about the hopes the people of First UMC have for their church and how we must live that hope out even when things seem dire or hopeless.
Let me know what you think, if you don’t mind. The scriptures the sermon is based on are as follows:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous." Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
God said to Abraham, "As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her."
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations")- -in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become "the father of many nations," according to what was said, "So numerous shall your descendants be." He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith "was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now the words, "it was reckoned to him," were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
"Hoping Against Hope"
As a kid there were two presents I always hoped to get for either my birthday or at Christmas.
The first, when I was younger, was a giant set of Legos,
you know, those small building blocks that are still popular today.
You see, my cousin David had the biggest collection of Legos in the world,
and I would go to his house and literally spend hours playing with them —
building spaceships and houses and other assorted projects.
I think I played with those Legos more than David himself did.
But year after year my hopes were dashed.
I never got those Legos I so desired and wanted.
When I was older for several years my hopes were set on receiving a combination microscope and chemistry set.
The one that came with at least 30 different chemicals and promised hundreds of experiments.
I envisioned spending hours learning the mysteries of the universe,
perhaps even making new discoveries with these tools of science and technology.
I saw myself as a young explorer on the way to becoming a renowned scientist.
I was sure that this microscope/chemistry set was all I needed to get me started down the path to my eventually winning the Nobel prize for Chemistry or Physics or Biology.
Remembering my experience with the Legos,
I became determined to make my wishes known in as many ways as possible.
I gave my parents birthday and Christmas wish lists,
with this set on the top of each one – underlined and circled to make it clear that this was what I really wanted more than anything else in world.
I cut pictures of the set out of catalogs and taped them the refrigerator.
I talked about how well I was doing in my science classes and how much better I would do if only I had a microscope and a chemistry set to further my education.
I begged and pleaded and cajoled my parents so much that one year for Christmas they finally gave in and I discovered a rather large box under the tree with my name on it.
Hoping against hope, I carefully and slowly unwrapped it,
and discovered that I now had the object of my desires.
To say I was thrilled is putting it mildly.
I couldn’t believe that I held in my hands the one gift I had wanted for so long.
Needless to say, my hopes were dashed again.
The microscope was some cheap plastic toy that looked nothing like the pictures in the catalog.
The chemical set, which promised hours of discovery and hundreds of experiments,
was also a disappointment.
After all, how many times can you mix chemicals to see them change color or foam before getting bored?
Not many times I soon discovered.
It was only a matter of days, or at most a week or so,
before I packed this once-prized and coveted gift away in my closest,
never to use it again.
Hope is a strange thing, isn’t it?
At one point in Romans chapter 5 Paul writes,
“and hope does not disappoint.”
Now I don’t know about you,
but this has not been my experience.
I have fou
nd that hope has often been disappointed in my own life,
and I am willing to bet that you have found the same to be true as well.
What are some of the things you have hoped for?
Think about that for a moment.
Have you ever found your hopes dashed against the rocks of reality?
I bet you have.
Because of this several individuals have had a rather negative view on hope.
The French philosopher Albert Camus talked about learning to live "without appeal."
To Camus, hope was a distracter, a dilutor, a sop.
It distorted any clear comprehension of reality,
and Camus was convinced that hope was an illusion, and therefore inadvisable.
The infamous athiest Nietzsche went even further.
For him, not only was hope a waste of time,
it was an instrument of avoidable cruelty.
Nietzsche called hope "the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torments of man."
And then there are the opening lines of Woody Allen’s parody, “My Speech to the Graduates,” which read:
"More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads.
One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness.
The other, to total extinction.
Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."
And yet we continue to hope.
In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul tells us that three things endure:
faith and love and, you guessed it, hope.
The noted English author and man of letters, Dr. Samuel Johnson, once said,
"Hope is necessary in every condition."
And I think he was right in saying so.
My normal thoughts lie more with Johnson than with Camus or Neitzsche,
but there are times when I am tempted to agree with them.
There are times when hope seems hopeless.
Take our passage today from Romans 4.
In it we read about Abraham and the faith he had that God would fulfill God’s promises.
Paul writes about Abraham:
“Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’
according to what was said,
‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’
He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body,
which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old),
or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.
No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God,
but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God,
being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
Now I don’t know how Paul knows all that about Abraham,
having lived himself hundreds of years after the man in question.
And the stories about Abraham in Genesis show us a man who is often impatient when it comes to waiting for God to fulfill God’s promises,
and he also seems, at times, to be filled with doubt.
For instance, at one point Abraham lies to Pharaoh about his wife Sarah,
fearing for his life.
Does this sound like a man filled with faith?
Or how about the time he takes matters in his own hands and tries and succeeds in having a son with his servant Hagar,
thinking that this will be the solution and answer to his concerns about an heir?
In fact, the one thing that Paul seems to get right, as far as I am concerned is that very first phrase: “hoping against hope, . . . [Abraham] believed.”
“Hoping against hope. . .”
Now that is a curious phrase,
and when I looked it up online, here is what I found:
hoping against hope is . . .
“to have hope even when the situation appears to be hopeless;
to hope very strongly that something will happen,
although you know it is not very likely;
or to hope with little reason or justification.”
Now that sounds about right to me.
Thanks to Anne Le Bas and others on the Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary discussion group for their input and contributions to this message, which is based on Mark 1:9-15:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.".
Traditionally on this first Sunday of Lent,
we always hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
It’s a familiar story, but if I asked you to tell it to me,,
I suspect that Mark’s version isn’t the one you would recall.
It is the version in Matthew and Luke that most people remember,
since they both have that famous conversation between Satan and Jesus as the devil tries to tempt him away from his mission.
“Turn these stones into bread”,
“Throw yourself from the Temple to test if God will help you”,
“Bow down and worship me” he says,”and I will give you the world.”
But Jesus would have none of this,
and for each temptation, he refutes the devil with the Word of God,
until eventually Satan realizes he has no power over Jesus.
In contrast, the story from Mark’s Gospel doesn’t include any of that.
It seems incomplete by comparison.
What goes on in the desert is only hinted at.
But I don’t think Mark’s version is any less powerful, though.
What we see instead in Mark – something we might miss in the other versions – is how this time in the wilderness fits in with the rest of the story.
Matthew and Luke give us a rather elaborate, even stylized encounter between Jesus and Satan
– you could imagine it as a play taking place on a stage –
but Mark’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is full of movement, more like an action film.
There’s no time for detail,
no time to stop and talk.
The story rushes us along.
Jesus comes down from Galilee to the Jordan,
right down into the Jordan for his baptism.
He comes bursting up out of the water as the Spirit descends on him from Heaven.
The Spirit doesn’t bring tranquility though;
instead it drives Jesus right out into the desert, the wilderness,
where there is no peace for Jesus at all.
To ancient peoples the wilderness wasn’t a place to retreat to –
it was the place where demons lived,
a place of chaos and danger,
a place where Jesus will find himself in a battle for his life and identity.
The wild beasts prowl around him.
The angels circle him protectively as he struggles.
And when the battle is over,
there is still no time for Jesus to rest on his laurels or regain his strength,
for he is propelled out of the desert and straight back to Galilee,
where his message comes spilling out of his mouth,
as if he can’t contain it.
“The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news.”
And as I reflected on these verses from Mark and hurried story they tell,
I came to the realization that these verses have been the text for my life for much of the last month and a half.
And if truth be told, this text is also applicable to most Christians’ lives most, if not all, of the time.
What do I mean by these statements?
Well let me take the latter statement and deal with it first.
The themes of these short and terse verses,
it seems to me, are three:
baptism, wilderness and vocation.
Baptism, of course, marks a follower of Christ and claims him or her as a child of God.
Without debating whether or not it removes the taint of original sin or whether or not baptism is necessary for salvation,
I think that most of us can agree that baptism is a turning point in one’s life.
Whether it is performed for an infant or child at the behest of parents or whether it is sought out by an adult making a full profession of faith,
baptism signals a willingness to either raise someone in the Christian faith or strive to be disciple of Jesus oneself.
It is also, in a sense, and perhaps even more importantly,
part of an adoption ceremony in which God claims us and marks us as one of his own children.
Now the power of this claim and mark can’t be overestimated in my opinion. It is one of the greatest things that can happen to any person.
I believe that when any man, woman or child is baptized,
the voice of God can be heard in heaven echoing what Jesus Himself heard almost 2000 years ago:
“You are my Son, you are my Daughter; with you I am well pleased.”
The simple fact is that we have been created in God’s image,
and in some way baptism renews that image in us.
Further, the truth is that God loves us and shows that love again and again,
especially in his self-giving sacrifice on our behalf in Jesus Christ.
These verses remind us of who we are: God’s beloved children.
And that’s important, isn’t it?
After all, it changes you to be someone’s beloved;
it reorients your priorities like nothing else can do.
People in love often wonder how they ever lived without their loved one.
New parents are amazed that others do not beat a path to their door to stop to gaze on the miracle of life that is theirs to cherish;
and to lose your beloved is to know a grief unlike any other in all the world. It changes you to be someone’s beloved;
the things that oriented your life before now seem shallow and meaningless;
they tumble like a stack of dominoes once the first one has been struck.
They are shown to be nothing more than a house of cards,
now that your beloved is in the picture.
It changes you to be someone’s beloved.
It set the course of Jesus’ life.
And it sets the course of life for anyone who would follow after him as well.
But this fact and truth does not mean we are immune to the troubles of this world in which we live.
Jesus, Mark tells us, was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness –
an apt metaphor, if there ever was one, of the world and our life in it.
Yes, the world is part of God’s creation, and there is great beauty in it.
There is much to celebrate and praise about the world and our lives,
but I don’t think there are many people who’d argue the fact that there is a great deal of wilderness in the world and that temptations and “wild beasts,” to quote Mark, are all too prevalent.
Who has not been tempted to do wrong or to settle for the merely good when God has asked for our best?
Who hasn’t found life to be troubling and worrisome at times?
Who hasn’t felt the dry, barren wasteland encroaching upon life?
And is there anyone who hasn’t felt the attacks of the wild beasts in the world?
Life can be, and often is, a scary thing.
Terrorism, economic meltdowns, wars, family strife, personal conflict, mental turmoil, natural and man-made disasters . . .
all these “wild beasts” and more confront on almost a daily basis,
and there are times when all of us can come to doubt our status as God’s beloved ones when we are faced with the wild beasts and have to spend time in parched and seemingly lifeless desert.
Our wilderness may be that of addiction and substance abuse;
it may be a jungle of depression and despair.
Perhaps our wilderness is an economic wasteland that reflects the world’s current financial disarray and preys on our fear and anxiety.
Our wilderness may be one of grief and pain or of illness and chronic health struggles.
Yes, wilderness takes many forms beyond the literal place of desolation and loneliness.
And we all enter into it from time to time in our lives.
But one of the promises of today’s reading from Mark is that even in such times and places and situations,
there are angels who would attend us.
God does not forsake us.
And as our text attests,
Jesus spent his own time in the wilderness.
He understands what we face.
And he is our mediator and advocate to God.
We are never alone.
Finally, these times of testing and trial and temptation can bring us to a renewed sense of who we are and what we are called to do.
In other words, they can lead us to discover or rediscover our vocation as those who proclaim the Good News of God’s Reign.
This is certainly what happened for Jesus,
and it can happen for every person who follows him as well.
This is how I see this text apply to all Christians.
But what about the former and more personal statement?
How does this text apply to what I have been going through lately?
Well, many of you know that I thought I would be moved to a new church this year.
And in mid-January I got a call from one of our D.S.’s asking me to do just that.
But almost immediately one thing after another began to go wrong,
and over the next three weeks,
I became more and more anxious and depressed about this new appointment.
In fact, I had never experienced anything like this in my 25 years of ministry,
and I reached an incredibly low point a couple of weeks ago,
during which I told one friend that I hadn’t felt this bad since my ex-wife and I separated over 10 years ago.
It was a horrible experience,
and in the end I asked the DS to take my name out of consideration for the appointment,
and asked to remain here at First Church.
This request was honored by the Bishop and appointment cabinet and confirmed by our DS last Sunday when he came and worshiped with us and met with the Leadership Resources Committee afterwards.
So, for the foreseeable future, I will continue my ministry with you,
and I hope that we all can begin a renewed effort to minister together as the people of God at First UMC.
You have my commitment to make this a reality,
and I ask for your commitment to this as well.
But in addition to telling you this,
I want to say that there were two things helped me through this dark time more than anything else:
One was the truth proclaimed in my own baptism:
I knew that God loved me,
I was one of God’s beloved children,
and God would never let me go.
The second was the presence of angels in my life,
and I’m not talking about heavenly beings with wings and harps either
(though there may have been a few of them as well).
No, I am talking about some church members who kindly brought me some meals to eat when I was feeling too down to even cook.
I am talking about some friends who listened to me during the dark times and cheered me with their many kindnesses.
I’m talking about church leaders and members who supported me during the difficult days and nights,
people who never left me or forsook me.
These angels showed me love as well,
in fact, they made the love of God a concrete reality in my life.
And for them I am forever grateful.
It is these kinds of relationships and this kind of love,
a love that transcends our human frailties,
that Jesus came to declare.
At his baptism, he heard the truth of his relationship with his Father
“This is my Son, the Beloved”.
And in the same way, he comes to us to declare the truth about us and God.
We too are God’s beloved children, all of us.
God has declared it to be so, has committed himself to us,
and that commitment has not and cannot be destroyed,
and he will find a way of continuing to declare that love to us,
even when and if we try to reject it.
You see, Christian faith is not, first and foremost, about rules or doctrines,
though we often act as if it is.
No, it is about this relationship with God,
and consequently about our relationships to each other.
It is about know who we are and whose we are.
It’s about learning to live in the light of love as we let it shape our lives and our attitudes to those around us,
who are as much beloved of God as we are.
And if we truly believe this,
then we, like Jesus,
will be led out into the world carry on his ministry and convey his message to all we meet.
So my prayer today is simply this:
As we celebrate the baptism of Rya Bo McKain into the family of God and his Church,
may we also celebrate her and our belovedness,
the fact that we are, all of us, God’s children.
May we also know that when those times in the wilderness come,
as they surely will,
we are never left alone.
Jesus has gone before us,
and angels, heavenly and earthly, wait to help us persevere and come through them.
We will not be forsaken, even in the times and places that seem God-forsaken.
There is always, always, a way out and those who would help us find it.
And finally may we never forget that both our belovedness and our testing ultimately prepare us for ministry in Jesus’ name.
Together, we are called by our baptisms and our trials to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom,
alive in our lives and in our world.
So let us once again answer that call together.