Palm Sunday

Pastor Galen, April 14th 2019

Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 19:28-40

Palm Sunday vs. Good Friday

I have always loved Palm Sunday, ever since I was a little kid. The joy and jubilation, the opportunity to wave palm branches and march around the church shouting and singing “hosanna.”

And I’ve always loved the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, of people laying down their coats and waving palm branches and saying “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” stirred my imagination. I loved to picture the throngs of people crowding around Jesus, the children singing and shouting, the grand welcome that Jesus received as he rode into the city of Jerusalem.

But as a child, I did not love Good Friday. The gruesome account of Jesus being beaten and mocked, whipped, and flogged, and ultimately nailed to the cross was something I did not want to think about. Jesus — betrayed and denied by his friends, rejected by the religious elite, abandoned by his disciples, was too horrific to imagine. Even the crowd that rejoiced in his arrival five days earlier seems to have turned against him.

Even now as an adult, the somberness and sadness of Good Friday is unsettling, unpleasant, and uncomfortable.

And yet, when we look at Luke’s account of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, we see that even on Palm Sunday there were elements of Good Friday. In Jesus choosing to ride into Jerusalem on a humble colt, we see an illustration of Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:8 that Jesus, “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” In the Pharisees’ rebuke of Jesus’s disciples, we see a foreshadowing of the looming conflict that is to come between Jesus and the religious leaders of Jerusalem. And in the passages before and after Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem we see hints of the sadness and sorrow and rejection that is to come.

The Context

The story of Jesus entering Jerusalem is the culmination of Jesus’ long journey to Jerusalem that spans much of the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 9:51, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” but he does not reach Jerusalem until Luke 19:45.  

Immediately before this passage in Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a king whose subjects hated him and didn’t want him to rule over them (see Luke 19:14,27). And in the verses immediately following our lectionary reading for today we see Jesus weep over the city of Jerusalem and prophecy its destruction because it “did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (19:44).  

The King They Were Waiting For

It’s important for us to acknowledge that the welcoming crowds who shouted “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” were most likely expecting a rather different king than the king that Jesus turned out to be.

This whole event took place around Passover time, which was a time to remember when God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt through the violent and victorious act of killing all of the firstborn sons in Egypt, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh, all the way to the firstborn of the slaves and even the animals (see Exodus 11:5). Only the firstborn of the Isrealites were “passed over” and escaped this horrific destruction.

But it didn’t stop there. When the Egyptian army tried to recapture their escaped slaves, God miraculously caused the waters of the Red Sea to come crashing down upon them, drowning Pharaoh’s whole army in one fell swoop.

It was these mighty acts of God that the people celebrated during this time of the year. And as you can imagine, as a people who were in bondage themselves, living in the midst of Roman occupation, they longed for the same sort of decisive victory over their oppressors. They longed for God to free them in the same way that God had freed their ancestors so long. They longed for God to intervene once more in history, to bring them out of bondage and oppression just like God had done for their foreparents.

And all of their hopes centered on one central mythical figure, a person they had been waiting for for many years, the promised one, called the Messiah, “the Anointed One.” This would be a king who would be raised up from among their own people, a king they thought would deliver them, a king who would lead them to overthrow Rome and make them a sovereign nation once again.

And so, every year they would remember and celebrate the passover festival, longing for their own redemption and freedom. They would sing Psalms, like Psalm 118 that we read responsively earlier. They would ask God to save them, to grant them success (Psalm 118:25). But the salvation they longed for was not a spiritual salvation, but a physical salvation.

This was what the crowds meant when they welcomed Jesus with the words “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” They hoped beyond hope that the time had come, that Jesus was the one they had been waiting for. ‘

The Humble King

For Jesus, everything seems to have been building up to this point. Jesus had been healing the sick, casting out demons, proclaiming the Kingdom of God, and calling people to follow him. He had shown his power by calming the storm and feeding the 5,000. He even raised the dead to life. Surely someone with that much power could raise up an army to overthrow Rome!

And now Jesus arrives at the crest overlooking Jerusalem, the capital city, the center of Jewish life and culture where there was also a Roman military base. What could be a more perfect place to stage a demonstration or even a coup, to gather an army to violently revolt against Rome, to attempt to free the Jewish people once and for all?

The fact that Jesus requested a colt for the last mile of his journey after traveling this whole time on foot indicates that this is a symbolic action, designed to reveal himself as a king. Jesus wanted to ride into Jerusalem in a way that would demonstrate that he was the Messiah, God’s anointed king.

And yet, Jesus chose not to ride into Jerusalem on a chariot or stallion — symbols of war that would have demonstrated his desire to overthrow Rome. Instead, Jesus chose to ride in on a humble colt, symbolic of a king who is confident in his authority, who does not need to flaunt his power and might. A king who has already won. A king who comes in peace, confidence, and humility.

In the first seven verses of this passage, Luke recounts in painstaking detail the preparations for this journey into Jerusalem. The instructions to the disciples as to where to find the colt, and exactly what explanation they should give.

After all the preparations have been made, Jesus descends down the mountain into Jerusalem. His disciples and some of the people respond by hailing him as king and spreading their cloaks on the road (Luke 19:36). When Jesus passes the Mount of Olives “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen” (Luke 19:37), reciting Psalm 118:26 but substituting the words “the king” in place of “the one.”

Glimpses of Good Friday

At this point in time the story has reached its climax.  Jesus is riding into Jerusalem on a colt while a multitude of his disciples proclaim him as king and people spread their cloaks on the ground.  For the disciples and the crowd there is a sense that the prophecy is being fulfilled, and something very major is taking place.

While in many ways this is an exciting and dynamic picture, there is something significant missing.  In the typical story of a king entering a city, it would be at this point where the king would be welcomed by the inhabitants of the city, and in particularly the leaders.  “At the approach of a dignitary, a band of municipal officials and other citizens, including the social, religious, and political elite, would proceed some distance from the city in order to meet the celebrity well in advance of the city walls.”*

Unfortunately, we have no record of an official welcoming committee coming out to meet Jesus and his disciples.  The town officials are noticeably absent from the story. There is not even a small delegation of nobles and dignitaries who come out to greet him. They did not roll out the red carpet in his honor. The Pharisees, the religious elite who were present, tried to stifle the celebration that was happening.

All of these are indicators of the conflict that is to come, the looming suffering and persecution that Jesus will endure at the hands of the religious and political elite on Good Friday.

Let’s Welcome Our King

And so we cannot separate Palm Sunday from Good Friday, the victorious king from the suffering Messiah. The truth is that this is why Jesus came. He came to give his life for us, so that we could be saved. The suffering and death and rejection that he faced on Good Friday is what it means for Jesus to be our King.

And so this morning I want to invite us to welcome Jesus as king. Not on our own terms, but on his. Let us welcome Jesus as the humble king who came to bring about our salvation. Humble yet confident in his authority. Even though there are so many in our world who do not acknowledge Jesus as King, let us give Jesus the welcome and the honor that he is due, like Jesus’s disciples did so long ago. Let us worship him as the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

 

*1] Brent Kinman, “Parousia, Jesus’ ‘A-Triumphal’ Entry, and the Fate of Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-44),” Journal of Biblical Literature 118, no. 2 (June 1, 1999): 281. Accessed December 15th, 2013. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials.

God’s Provision in Desperate Places

35144684_10217135216751702_847451855578464256_n“God’s Provision in Desperate Places”

Guest Preacher: Alexis Garrett

April 7th 2019

1 Kings 17:8-26

It’s so good to see you all this morning! Thank you, Pastor Galen, for inviting me to speak with you all today!

So I was born in here Baltimore and lived in the city until I was about 7 years old, before my parents moved my siblings and I to a small city called Havre de Grace in Harford County. Now my family grew up fairly middle class, as my dad owns his own plumbing and HVAC business along with my two uncles and has been in that business for about 25 years. I also come from a Christian family and my older sister, younger brother and I grew up attending church. So, my parents firmly believed and always taught us that God takes care and provides for us; even in hard situations. Well, that belief was put to the test in 2008.

Now I’m sure most of you know about the recession that happened in 2008. The housing market and stock market had crashed and was making a devastating impact on jobs and families. Over 8.4 million people lost their jobs, and small business suffered immensely. My family was included in that number. Business had started to become scarce. People were not buying or fixing up property, which caused a decline in the number of clients that were contacting my dad for work. Money was barely coming in and every week it was getting harder and harder to pay the bills. Life was changing quickly around me.

Though I had no financial responsibility, I felt the effects within my family. For example, we had stopped eating out at restaurants. Lights had to stay off in the house, so the electric bill would not be run up. We took our clothes to the laundry mat to avoid using water that would run up the water bill. We did anything to cut costs in the house. Things had gotten so bad that my parents could no longer afford to pay our health insurance. But the worst was that they were struggling to pay the mortgage on the house. If my parents couldn’t pay the mortgage, we would soon lose our home; my parents losing everything that they had worked so hard for. We were at a point of despair, and we were in a desperate, and dire situation.

Elijah

My experience reminds me of a story in the Old Testament found in 1 Kings 17:8-16. This story centers around a prophet named Elijah. Now Elijah was a pretty powerful guy, and God had enabled him to do many miracles. As a prophet, Elijah’s role was to act as God’s messenger or mouth piece to share God’s message with the people of Israel. You can imagine how tough of a job that may be.

During this time, the kingdom of Israel operated as a monarchy. Israel had a history of Kings that chose to turn away from the laws that God had put in place and chose to follow other gods, putting up idols to worship and serve instead of Yahweh the God of Israel.

The king in power during Elijah’s life was king Ahab. He also turned away from God to serve an idol named Baal. King Ahab married a woman named Jezebel who was the daughter of a priest who served Baal. Baal was considered the god of the heavens, sky, and of fertility. Fertility meant Baal would create and sustain thriving agriculture for the people. Because Ahab had turned away from God to serve Baal, Elijah pronounced a judgement that God was going to shut up heaven so that it would not rain for 3 and a half years. Choosing to withhold rain demonstrated that the God of Israel has power over what should have been under Baal’s jurisdiction. It served as a testimony that if Baal truly was God, he would have been able to make it rain once again.

We now come to the passage in 1 King’s 17. The drought was in full effect, so God had provided a place for Elijah to receive food and water from a town called Cherith, which was east of the Jordan River. As a result of the drought, the spring dried up, so God instructed Elijah to head to Zarephath where he meets a widow:

 SCRIPTURE: 1 KINGS 17:8-26.

Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” 10 So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” 11 As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”

12 “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”

13 Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. 14 For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’”

15 She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So, there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. 16 For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.

So, what’s going on here? Elijah meets a widowed woman in the town of Zarephath. Zarephath was a town in the Region of Sidon which was located along the Mediterranean (This is near Modern Day Lebanon). The two major exports in Zarephath were grain and oil. This drought made it impossible to grow crops and produce the oil needed to keep the economy going and people fed resulting in famine throughout the land.

By the time Elijah meets this widow, all of her resources had been exhausted with only a little left to sustain her and her son. She had reached her end. This was essentially her last meal before she accepted the reality of starvation. Can you imagine how she felt in that moment? To have barely enough left for her and her child and then to have this complete stranger ask her for water, THEN turn around and ask for bread?

But something in Elijah’s response makes her react. “Do not be afraid,” Elijah says.

Now this woman had every reason in the book to be afraid. She was prepared to eat her last meal and now she’s being asked to take what little she had a give it to a stranger. I wonder if Elijah’ next response compelled her: For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel says: The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the Lord sends the rain on the land.” With nothing else to lose, she may have been thinking, “well, let me just try it.” She could have simply refused Elijah after his request, but she made the decision to take the risk and trust this man, and this mans God.

I mentioned earlier about my family’s financial crisis. The recession only lasted 2 years but its effects lasted about 3-4 years for my family. My parents still could not afford to pay the for-household expenses, and a few years into the recession I was heading off to college to attend Loyola University. We too were in a place of desperation. After receiving all I could from financial aid, there was no way I could continue to pay the remaining tuition to continue attending this school. My parents were at a place of desperation. God saw the situation we were in and through the graciousness and sacrificial giving of my extended family, they paid many of our household expenses for multiple years. My grandparents, aunt and uncle put their money together every month and helped my parents pay the mortgage, groceries and part of my tuition every year until I graduated.

If it was not for God’s provision through my family, we would not still be in our home, and I would not have graduated from Loyola. Though the circumstances of the situations are different, God provided for my family like he did for the widow.

But not only did God provide food for the widow, He did it in the form of a miracle. The same jar of flour and oil was used every day until God sent the rain. Can you imagine her astonishment? For three years she prepared meals from that same amount of flour and oil and every single day she came back and there was still enough oil and flour for her to feed her family! There was a continual assurance of provision in God’s promise. Even in the midst of scarcity surrounding them Elijah, the widow, her son, and her family had their needs met by God.

I think sometimes the image of the God we see in the Old Testament is depicted as different than the God of the New Testament.  And I get that. Often in the Old testament we perceive Him as a wrathful, angry, and unmerciful God that allows suffering, whereas the God we see in the New Testament in the person of Jesus is kind, merciful, forgiving, loving and full of grace.

Though we see plenty of examples of Jesus providing for those in need, we see that that happening in the Old Testament too. The same God whom through Jesus, fed 4000 people off a few fish and loaves of bread, is the same God who saw a woman in a state of despair and desperation and sent Elijah to provide food that would not run out until it rained three years later. This is also the same God that provided Manna from heaven daily to feed the people of Israel while they were living in the desert. This is the same God who used my extended family to financially carry my family until we could reach stability once more. God sees the places in our lives that we need for Him to provide. The places we share with others and the ones that no one else knows about.

Conclusion

What about you? Where are areas of desperation in your life that you need God to intervene and step in? What are those places that leave you at a point of despair? Maybe it’s a situation in your family that just seems impossible to solve, or a financial situation much like what I went through. or maybe you just want God to help you in the time you spend with Him. What would it look like for you to trust God with those areas of desperation? Like the widow chose to trust the God’s promise and give the last bit of oil and flour that she had, whatever your worry may be, I want to invite you to bring that to God. He sees the places of desperation in our lives and longs to intervene. He longs to carry that burden, to ease our fears, and to provide what we need.

Let’s Pray.

Pastor Galen, March 31st, 2019

2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Have you ever had a classmate, coworker, friend, or family member who always seemed to do the wrong thing, but always seemed to get ahead?

Maybe in school they always cheated but never got caught. Maybe always came in late for work, or left early, while you were always there on time, but somehow they got promoted instead of you.

Or maybe you have a family member who eats whatever they want but never gains weight. They have the unhealthiest lifestyle or make the poorest life decisions, but they still look fit and fabulous, while you seem to gain weight just by looking at a piece of chocolate cake.

We probably all have someone in our life like this. It might be a sibling, classmate or coworker. Or it could be a “frenemy.” Have you heard this term? A “frenemy” is an enemy that you pretend to be friends with, or a friend that you secretly despite or are jealous of. It’s a person in your life that you love to hate.

It can be incredibly frustrating to be around people who seem to do whatever they want and get away with is. People who do everything wrong but never seem to reap the consequences, people who seem to get whatever they want, or people who always seem to get a pass in life, especially when you’ve had to work hard for everything that you have.

The Story of the Two Sons

The parable that Jesus told in Luke 15 has often been called “The Story of the Lost Son,” or “The Prodigal Son.” But in actuality, it’s the story of two sons. Two sons who live their lives very differently. One son who makes incredibly poor life decisions but seems to get a pass in life. And the other son who works hard all of his life, but who is jealous as he watches his brother get all of the love and attention from their father that he feels like he deserves.

Now, Jesus told his story to religious people who were frustrated by the fact that Jesus was spending his time eating with “sinners.” These religious people were probably wondering why Jesus wasn’t spending his time with them, debating theology and avoiding tax collectors and doing whatever else it was that religious people of that day did.

Jesus told this story to illustrate what he was doing and why he was doing it. And so even though we tend to focus on the younger son, the “prodigal” son, I want to argue that this story is just as much about the older son. In fact, the story was told for the benefit of people who probably could identify much more with the older son than with the younger.

So let’s dig in to this story.

First Instance of Grace

The story opens with the younger son making one of the most presumptuous, insolent, and disrespectful requests that a son could possibly make of his father. He asks his father for his inheritance.

Now, an inheritance is usually something that you get from your parents when they pass away. It’s not usually something you ask for when your parents are alive. This is probably an inappropriate request in any society, but in ancient middle eastern Jewish culture this would have been worse than spitting in your father’s face in public. It was sort of like saying “Father, I can’t wait until you die. Can I have your money now?” It was utterly inappropriate and disrespectful.

Now I can only imagine what the older son was thinking when he heard his younger brother ask his father for this. “Now he’s going to get it!”  In a society based around shame and honor, for a son to make this sort of request of his father warranted at least a slap in the face, if not a public flogging. I imagine the older brother sitting back with a smirk on his face, just waiting to see what’s going to happen.

But surprisingly, the father responds with grace. He gives the son what he asked for, even though he probably knew that his son would waste it. In fact the father divided his property between both of his sons.

Now despite the fact that the older brother just became instantly wealthy, it had to be incredibly frustrating to see his younger brother get away with committing the most socially disrespectful act in the world and escape unscathed. I imagine the older brother seething with rage as he watched his younger brother set off into the world to blow through his father’s inheritance.

Second Instance of Grace

Of course the younger brother did go and waste it all, while the older son stayed home and continued working in the fields for his father. Maybe the older son invested his money in the bank, or bought property or real estate like a wise older son.

Meanwhile, the younger son spent it all and ended up penniless and destitute. Things got so bad that he had to take a job feeding pigs. In ancient Jewish society this was the lowest of the low. Pigs were despised and considered ritually unclean, and anyone who worked with pigs was also considered religiously and ritually unclean. The youngest son had reached rock bottom. He was as low as you can go.

Now, I have no idea if the father and older son were receiving reports about the youngest son or not. There was no facebook back then, no instagram or snapchat, but they probably heard rumours of his loose living, of how he was living like there was no tomorrow, of how he was practically giving away his father’s hard-earned cash.

The Youngest Son Returns

But eventually, the Bible says that he “came to his senses” (Luke 15:17 NIV). He had a moment of realization, an epiphany. In that moment when he was at rock bottom, it slowly dawned on him that his father’s servants had it better than he did at that point. His father’s servants had plenty of food to eat, clothes to wear and a warm place to sleep at night — while he was hungry, homeless, and feeding pigs.

Now, he knew that his father would be crazy to accept him back again as a son. But in a moment of desperation, he thought to himself that perhaps his father would accept him back, not as a son, but as a servant. Maybe if he pleaded and begged, his father might receive him back as a hired servant. Maybe, just maybe, his father would have enough pity on him. Then he could work to pay his father back, to make up for all that he had wasted.

So the younger son set off towards home. And all the way home he rehearsed in his mind what he was going to say to his father. He would grovel, plead and beg. He would say “”Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands”‘ (Luke 15:18b-19)

But he never got the chance to deliver his speech. Because, while he was still a long way from home, far off in the distance he could see his father coming towards him.  Not walking, but full-out sprinting, running towards the son. This was a grown man in Middle Eastern culture, where grown men typically didn’t go for jogs around the park. This was a man whose son had disrespected him publicly, had practically spit in his face. But he runs towards his son, his long robes flying out behind him. And when the father reaches the son, he meets him not with a stern rebuke or a slap in the face, but with a kiss and a loving embrace.

The son begins his rehearsed speech, “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son’” (Luke 15:21).

But the father doesn’t even let him finish his speech. The son never gets to ask if he can be a hired servant. Even before he can blurt out the words the father turns, tells his servants to bring the best robe, to bring a ring (the emblems that would prove that this is his son) and to kill the fattened calf and to have a feast to celebrate the son’s return.  The father forgives and restores his son.

This is the kind of love that God has for us.  A lot that embraces us, that forgives us no matter what we’ve done, no matter how much we’ve messed up. A love that pursues us, no matter how far we’ve strayed away from God. This is God’s amazing grace.

The Older Son

But the older son had no clue this was all happening. He was out in the field, slaving away for his father. He didn’t know his younger brother had returned home until he came in from the fields and heard the sound of music and dancing.

I can only imagine the thoughts running through the older sons mind. “Who planned a party and didn’t invite me? How did I not know we were having a feast?”

I imagine him at first standing there bewildered and confused. Then he slowly begins to suspect what has just happened. It couldn’t be, could it? There’s no way! After all that his brother had done. There’s no way his father would receive him back again, right? He begins to seethe with rage at the thought. But he has to know. He calls one of the servants over to ask, and his suspicions are confirmed. It is indeed what he thought. His younger son had returned home, and his father was throwing him a party.

He had done everything right. He had worked for his father his whole life. He never made outlandishly disrespectful requests of his father. He never gone and wasted away his father’s inheritance. He never even left home — he was right here working for his father to this very day. But his father had never killed the fattened calf for him. He had never even given him a goat so he could celebrate with his friends.

He spins on his heels and walks the other direction. He doesn’t even want to see his younger brother, let alone celebrate his return. He is so filled with rage and jealousy that he can’t even see straight.

But then he hears his father’s voice and he feels the soft touch of his father’s hand on his shoulder, which he quickly shrugs off.

He turns and gives his father the works. All of the pent up rage and anger and frustration he has been feeling all of these years. He unleashes it on his father. He tells him that’s he’s done everything right. Why is his younger brother getting all of the love and attention that he deserves? His younger brother has done everything wrong, why does he keep getting away with it? Why is his father celebrating that he’s home?

The father stands there and lets him unleash his anger. He waits for him to finish. And then he says “son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:31-32).

“You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

Such a profound statement. The older son had been working all of his life to gain his father’s approval. But his father already loved him. He didn’t need to do anything to gain his father’s attention. He could have it whenever he wanted it. He had been out in the fields, striving away to please his father, when his father had already given him his inheritance. He didn’t need to keep working to make his father happy. His father already adored him.

The love that his father showed to his younger brother was not unfair, it was a testament to the father’s unconditional love that he had for both of his sons. The unfathomable grace and mercy the father extended to the younger son was available to the older son as well. He just hadn’t ever realized it, because he was so busy working to try to please his father.  But his father loved him unconditionally as well. He had been loving him all of his life, he had already given him everything he needed.

Conclusion

Friends, when we see other people receiving unmerited grace, When we see people getting a pass in life and we wonder why it doesn’t happen for us, let’s remember what we already have. Let’s remember what we’ve already been given. We’ve been given grace, and mercy. We’ve been promised salvation and redemption, an inheritance.

And let’s remember what we have access to. We have access to the love of God, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We have a community of brothers and sisters in Christ who are there for us when we need them. We have hope through Christ’s death and resurrection.

And like Christ, we’ve been given a mission and purpose in life, to go and seek out the lost, to point others towards Christ, to extend God’s love to the outcast, the marginalized, to help others experience the joy that we have in Christ.

And so rather than stand back and judge and criticize those who are making poor decisions, rather than lamenting the fact that they keep doing the wrong thing and landing on their feet, let’s be grateful that God has given them one more chance, that’s we serve a God who is loving and merciful, and let’s keep loving them and pointing them towards Christ. And let’s pray that they will wake up and come to their senses before it’s too late, so that they too would experience the warm and loving embrace of a Father who is waiting to welcome them back home.

Free

Pastor Galen, March 24th, 2019

Isaiah 55:1-13

How many of you like free stuff?

I think our culture is pretty obsessed with the word “free.” We love to get things for free, we love being free, we love things that are free of contaminants or chemicals. The word “free” usually brings up positive connotations.

I love the website Craigslist. Craigslist is one of those websites where you can post local announcements or post pictures of things that you have for sale and people in your local area can buy them. Sort of like an on-line yard sale.

And of course, the favorite section is the free section.

I haven’t had very much success getting things for free on Craigslist — you have to be very fast and persistent. But I’ve had great success giving away things for free.

Last weekend we wanted to get rid of a refrigerator that didn’t work up in our youth space, Emmanuel’s Rock. It was super heavy, and I thought we were going to have to pay someone to haul it away. But I posted it for free on Craigslist, thinking that perhaps someone might come and get it to sell for scrap metal, and sure enough within a few hours a family came and hauled it away for us for free! In the past I’ve posted things for a few dollars and no one has even responded at all. But the minute I change it to “free” it’s usually gone within a few hours.

We as a society love free stuff.

All Who Are Thirsty

Here in Isaiah 55, the Lord invites everyone who is thirsty to come to the waters to be satisfied, everyone who is hungry to come and eat, and anyone and everyone to come and buy wine and milk, with no money and without price. Now if you’re buying something with no money, that essentially means its free! So often certain people are prohibited from buying or partaking in something when there’s a cost. But here God is inviting everyone to come and receive whatever they need.

The grace of God is free to all, there’s nothing we need to do to deserve it. Salvation is a free gift. There’s no amount of money we need to give or spend, no amount of good works we can do to deserve it, God’s mercy and grace are free and available to all, no holds barred.

That’s pretty amazing, right? Grace and mercy and salvation for free! We don’t need to spend money on it! We don’t need to do anything to earn it!  You’d think that our culture would be obsessed with it!!

Why Spend Your Money on Things that Don’t Satisfy?

And yet so many people spend so much time and money and energy working for things that don’t satisfy. So many people think that they can buy their way into a life of satisfaction and joy. And so they spend their lives working as hard as they can to get into the best school they can so that they can get the best job that they possibly can, in order to make the most money that they can, so that they can buy everything they want.

They try to keep up with the latest fashion trends, the newest releases, the hottest styles, so they can appear on the outside like they have it all together.

But inside they’re not satisfied. Inside they feel like they’re missing out on something. And so they strive for more and more, hoping that eventually, they’ll fill the void.

Some people try to fill the void with relationships, jumping from one relationship to the next, thinking that if they can just find the right person then they’ll be happy.

Other people try to ignore the void. They binge on TV or food. They self-medicate, or turn to illegal substances or activities. Other people thrive off of adrenaline, seeking one adventure after another.

But in the end, there is down deep inside of us a hunger and a thirst that can only be satisfied by God.

And the Good News is that God’s grace and mercy and salvation are accessible to all,

We just have to “Seek the Lord while he may be found, [and] call upon him while he is near” and Isaiah says. We need to forsake our unrighteous ways, return to the Lord, and God will have mercy on us and abundantly pardon us.

God’s Word will Not Return Void

Many of you have family members, friends, and loved one whom you have been praying for. You’ve seen them heading down the wrong path, you see them striving after things that don’t satisfy, you see them filling their lives with things that are destructive or meaningless, refusing to acknowledge God. And I know it’s painful to watch people go down that road. It’s painful to watch, and so many of you have been praying and seeking God on their behalf for a long time.

But Isaiah’s word here gives us a measure of comfort for them as well. Isaiah reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways and that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. And that just as the rain falls down from the sky and waters the earth, so God’s Word will fulfill God’s purposes on this earth.

Over the years many of you have spread the Word in a variety of ways. You’ve taught Sunday School, Vacation Bible school. You’ve sang in the choir, performed with the Good News Puppets. You’ve led youth programs, invited friends and family members to church, and in general tried to be a witness to your friends, neighbors and coworkers.

And some of you might wonder if it has all been in vain? You look around here at all the empty seats, and you think of friends and loved ones who used to go to church, people who used to come to Sunday School of Vacation Bible school, and now you’re not even sure if they’re following the Lord.

But Isaiah says that God’s Word will not return empty. God’s Word will accomplish the very thing that it is meant to do. The songs that you taught in Vacation Bible School, the Bible verses you taught in Sunday School, they will stick with people for years to come.

Music has a way of sticking with people. How many of you have ever heard a song that you hadn’t heard in a long time, and instantly you were flooded with feelings and emotions? You were taken back to a time in your life where that song had special meaning to you.

I talk to so many people who used to go to church. And even if they don’t go anymore, they still remember. They still remember the songs, the Bible verses, the kindness and gentleness of their teachers.

And so, even if your friends or loved ones have gone astray, keep praying for them. Keep seeking God on their behalf. Keep lifting them up to the Lord in prayer. Keep praying that God would work in their lives, that God would draw them back, that they would come and enjoy the spiritual feast that God has for them.

The reality is that there’s not much that we can do to change their minds. As you probably know, no amount of arguing or reasoning will work with some people. But as it has often been said, we are the only Bible that some people will ever read. So keep praying, keep trusting, keep seeking God, and allow your life to be a living witness and testimony to those around you.

Come to the Altar

This morning I want to make an invitation. We have an altar here that is available for anyone to come forward and pray. And so this morning I want to invite you to come forward if you would like prayer for anything whatsoever.

Maybe you want to pray on behalf of a friend or loved one for whom you have been praying for many years. I want to invite you to come forward, and kneel at the altar on their behalf.

Maybe you have a health need or concern. I want to invite you to come forward.

Or, maybe you are struggling with something in your own life that you just want to give over to God.

Come forward, and kneel here at this altar, and let’s just spend some time in prayer.

Abide

Pastor Galen, March 17th, 2019

John 15:1-8

Would you rather spend a quiet Friday evening at home, or have a weekend of action-packed adventure?

Which do you like more: a new technological gadget, or a faithful old tool?

How many of you would rather try an exotic new food that you’ve never tried before, or eat your all-time favorite home-cooked meal?

For me, I’m drawn to the new, shiny gizmo, the action-packed adventure, the newest latest thing (although most of my friends don’t know it, because I’m too frugal to go out and by the latest technological ga. And, although I definitely have my favorite foods, it’s difficult for me to turn down the opportunity to try something new.

A while back, I was eating at one my favorite restaurants in Midtown, and I was all prepared to order my all-time favorite food — chicken tacos — when the waitress came past and told us that the burgers were half price that day. That changed everything! I quickly scanned down the list of burgers. And of course, I couldn’t resist trying something I had never tried before — the duck burger (yup, a burger made from duck meat). Why? Because I already knew I liked chicken tacos, but I didn’t know if I like duck burgers or not, and there was only one way to find out! (turns out that it wasn’t my favorite — but hey, now I know!)

“Abiding” Doesn’t Sound Very Exciting. But it is!

So with my tendency to want to try new things, and my inclination towards excitement and adventure, it’s no wonder that when I used to read John 15, the central word of this passage did not evoke a lot of excitement for me. The word that is repeated seven times in these first eight verses of John 15, is “remain,” also translated “abide” or “dwell.”

Now, even if you’re not drawn to the shiny, the new, or the adventurous like I am, these words probably don’t evoke a lot of excitement in you either.  Why? Well, the word “remain” or abide usually has the connotation of stagnancy or complacency. Standing still. Staying the same. And who really wants to just stay in one place, and do the same thing over and over again?

But I want to suggest to us this morning that the idea of “remaining” or “abiding” in Christ, is anything but boring. And I want to propose that if we as a church were to really grasp ahold of this concept and to really implement it into our lives, it would have radical, earth-shattering consequences for both us as individuals, and for us as a church.

Grape Vines and Branches

But first, we have to understand something about grape vines and branches.

The vine is what comes up out of the ground and is connected to roots under the ground. It’s kind of like the trunk of a tree. The branches are where the grapes grow.

In verse 2 of chapter 15 Jesus says that the gardener will “cut off” the branches that don’t bear fruit. What is the fruit that Jesus is talking about here?

In a spiritual sense, the fruit that Jesus is talking about can refer to good works. It can also refer to a change in your character, or an outpouring of goodness to others. If you’re someone who has an angry temper — the fruit of being connected to Jesus is that you may start to become more patient. If you’re a naturally selfish person, the fruit might be that you start to become more focused on others.

But here in John 15 Jesus says that the gardener — referring to God — will “cut off” (or some translations say “remove”) any branch that is not bearing fruit

This passage has caused a lot of fear in people – fear that if they’re not performing well enough that they will be cut off. That if they’re not doing enough good works, then maybe they’re not saved.

But the word “cut off” here is actually better translated “take up” or “lift up.” It’s the same word that’s used when the disciples “take up” the 12 baskets of food that are left over after Jesus feeds the 5,000, and when Simon “takes up” Jesus’s cross.

You see, when a branch is not bearing fruit, it’s normally because it is sagging down in the mud. It’s not receiving the air and sunlight that it needs. But the gardener doesn’t cut it off or throw it away – vines are much too valuable for that! Instead, the gardener lifts it up — washes off the mud, and ties it to the trellis so that it can receive the sunlight and air that it needs.

God Lifts Us Up Where We Belong

Isn’t that a beautiful picture of what God does for us? When we are not bearing fruit, God comes alongside us and lifts us up, cleans us off so that we can bear fruit. God is a compassionate, gentle gardener who wants us to have abundant life, and to bear abundant fruit! God knows there will be seasons when we’re not going to bear fruit. But rather than cast us aside, God picks us up, wipes off the dirt and makes it possible for us to bear fruit again.

Some of you might not feel like you’re bearing fruit right now because you’ve been beaten down by life. You’ve had challenges and difficulties. The worries and cares of this world are weighing down heavily on you.

You don’t need to beat yourself up over this. You don’t need to live in constant fear that God is going to cut you off. You just need to allow Jesus to pick you up, dust you off, and get you started back in the right direction. That’s what this season of Lent is all about — remembering our need and dependence on God, and asking God to forgive us and restore us.

Pruning

Later in verse 2, Jesus also talks about branches that are bearing some fruit, but they need to be pruned. If you’ve ever gardened, you know that when there are dead branches on a plant they need to be cut off. Dead branches will never bear fruit ever again — but if they’re left on the plant they can block the live branches from receiving the sunlight that they need. Dead branches need to be cleared away so that the fruitful branches can become even more fruitful.

What does pruning look like in our lives? Pruning might be painful experiences in our lives — trials and temptations that we go through that God uses to make us stronger.

Galatians 5:22 says “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.These are good things! But most often we grow into each of these things when we’ve gone through challenges and hard times in life. It’s hard to learn patience when everything happens exactly when you want it to happen! It’s hard to learn self-control when you’re not facing any temptations. And so God uses the challenges that we go through in life to help us grow to be more loving, more kind, more joy-filled people.

Abide

And so now we move into this part about “remaining,” or “abiding,” in the vine.

Now in the analogy about grape vines and branches, this part seems rather obvious, right? I mean, just imagine a branch of a tree that just decided it was going to separate itself from the trunk. How long would it survive? Or pretend that the branch of a grapevine separated itself from the roots. Not only would it not be able to bear fruit — it would die. Branches have to be connected to the vine in order to live and bear fruit.

Now, when Jesus told this parable about grapes, he was probably literally walking past a vineyard, pointing at grapes. His disciples were extremely familiar with grapevines. But I’m guessing that some of us here in the room have never even seen a grapevine in person, and most of us probably haven’t grown up on farms. So I think if Jesus were here speaking to us today, he would have probably used an analogy that we are all familiar.

A Toaster

He might have used the analogy of a toaster.

How many of you love fresh toasted bread? What about poptarts, or bagels? When I was growing up we would use our toaster to toast frozen waffles and have these wonderfully toasted waffles with syrup and butter.

A toaster is a wonderful thing. But imagine trying to use your toaster without plugging it into the electric outlet.

It wouldn’t work, right?

You can only get fresh, wonderfully toasted bread when your toaster is plugged in. Apart from that, it won’t work.

Well, in the same way that grape branches need to be connected to the vine in order to produce grapes, and your toaster needs to be connected to the power supply in order to make toast, in order for us to function the way we are supposed to, we have to constantly stay connected to our power supply. And what is that? Or rather, who is that?

The Real Adventure

Jesus says in verse 5 that he is the grapevine, and that we are the branches. Or in other words, Jesus is the power supply, and we are the toaster. We cannot make toast without being constantly connected to Jesus as our power supply. And if we’re not abiding in Christ, we’re going to have to live with frozen waffles that aren’t toasted, cold poptarts, and regular bread instead of toast!

Now, you may think going off and doing your own thing, or starting something new on your own strength might be where the real adventure is, but the reality is that without being connected to Jesus, you won’t get very far. Your passion will die, you’ll burn out. You will run out of energy.

It’s only when we are connected to Jesus as our power supply that we can truly become who we were meant to be. It’s only when we’re remaining or abiding in Christ that we can truly live. Abiding and remaining is where the real adventure is at!

Abide

I think this story about Mother Teresa illustrates well what it looks like to Abide in Christ.

An interviewer once asked Mother Teresa what she said to God when she prayed. “I don’t say much,” replied Mother Teresa, “mostly I just listen.” “And what does God say to you?” asked the interviewer. “He doesn’t say much,” she replied. “Mostly He just listens too.”

That’s what it looks like to abide in Christ. You don’t have to say much, you just have to be with Jesus and invite Jesus into every part of your life. Stay constantly connected. And when you do fall short, come to God in prayer and repentance and ask Jesus to pick you back up, dust you off, and set you back on the right path.

So let’s remain and abide. Let’s stay constantly connected to the power supply, and let’s allow God’s love, joy, and peace flow through you. That’s when the real adventure can begin!