Stand

December 2nd, 2018, Pastor Galen, First Sunday of Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-36

Fear and Apprehension

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says that people will feel “faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world” (Luke 21:26).  I think this is a fairly apt description of many people in our world today. Many of us live in a constant state of fear and apprehension, worried about everything from terrorism to botulism, from government corruption, to environmental pollution. We worry about our own personal finances, or whether we’re gaining too much weight. We’re worried about extinction of endangered species and climate change. And then of course there are the fears we have about our own physical safety and that of our family members.

And the news often doesn’t help. It plays into our fears. There’s always a new food to steer clear of, a new health study that comes out saying that something is bad for us that used to be considered good. Anything that happens on a local level gets broadened out so that the whole world seems to be in danger. If one person experienced it, then we might all experience it. And the rise of social media has exponentially multiplied our capacity to be aware of all of the possible hidden dangers present throughout the world.

All of this adds up to us as a people being rather fainthearted and apprehensive.

But In the midst of this, Jesus tells his disciples and us today, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).

Stand and Wait

“Stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near”

The people living at the time of Jesus were in great need of redemption. And not just spiritual redemption. They needed to be set from from physical oppression. Jewish people were ethnic minorities living under Roman occupation. They were essentially held captive by Rome. Heavily taxed, under constant threat of violence or retaliation, they longed for freedom. They longed for God to intervene and to restore their rightful place as citizens of the Kingdom of Israel, to set a Jewish King back on the throne and to grant their nation complete autonomy.

In the midst of that, some, like the Zealots, thought they should revolt violently against Rome. The infamous Sicarri (a Jewish extremist group within the Zealot party) advocated assassinating Jewish leaders who colluded with Rome. Others, like the religious sect called the Pharisees, thought that perhaps if they were just spiritual enough and holy enough, if they prayed enough prayers, if they gave enough alms to the poor, if they kept all of the sacrifices and holy days just right, then perhaps God would intervene and restore their land.

And yet Jesus tells his disciples not to try to try to take over Rome by force, and not to be afraid, but to “stand and lift up your heads.” It’s a seemingly passive yet active and bold response. Standing with heads held high, for a people who were marginalized and politically oppressed, denotes a sense of dignity and self-worth. At the same, standing and waiting, suggests complete and utter trust and dependence on God alone for salvation.

Salvation and Security

The prophet Jeremiah’s words provide a measure of hope and relief in the midst of terror and apprehension:

‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah. ‘In those days and at that time, I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior’ (Jeremiah 33:14-16).

Jeremiah’s words, spoken 600 years before the birth of Christ, acutely predict that the Savior would be a descendant of David, that he would do what was right and just, and that he would be an agent of peace and salvation in our world. Jesus showed us the right way to live, and revealed the thoughts and intentions of people’s hearts. Jesus made it possible for us to have peace with God and with others.

Ultimate we look to Jesus as our guide, as the template for how we live our lives. It’s been said that “Jesus lived the life we should have lived, and died the death we deserved to die.” Throughout Jesus’s lifetime he absorbed all of the pain and suffering, violence and oppression that this world could throw at him. All of the evil, greed, and corruption in the world converged together in a single moment as Jesus hung on the cross, and when Jesus breathed his last breath, sin and death were defeated and no longer hold any power over us. Through his death and resurrection Jesus conquered sin and death and the grave. He died to make it possible for us to be reconciled to God, he was raised to life so that we can have life.

And yet, even as we hear the words of the prophet Jeremiah, we know that there are parts of the prophecy that have yet to be fulfilled. Although the work that Jesus did on the cross brought about our spiritual salvation, and although Jesus laid out the path for us to live righteously and and pursue justice, our world still awaits God’s ultimate promise of total peace and security, which will only come to fruition when Christ returns. There are still wars. There are still famines and earthquakes, violence and discord, injustice and oppression, but on that day when Christ returns, all will be made right.

Wait and Work

And so we continue to wait. We continue to stand. We continue to have hope, even in the face of terror. We stand in humility but with dignity. We stand with our heads held high, yet we also kneel down in humble submission before God. We work tirelessly to bring about change in our world, but we admit our vulnerability and the reality that we cannot do it on our own. We acknowledge the pain and suffering that is still very much in existence in this world, even while we await the final restoration when Jesus will return to make all things right. We pray for miracles, while at the same time actively working for solutions to the problems plaguing our world today, believing that God is working in and through us to bring about God’s Kingdom on this earth.

The amazing reality is that as followers of Christ we are invited to be agents of God’s healing work in our world. We, apprehensive and fearful people though we are, are called and invited to be co-laborers with Christ in bringing about peace and safety and security in this world.

Advent

Last night I had the honor and privilege of attending the pre-dinner before the 46th Annual Mayor’s Christmas Parade, which many in our congregation have played a significant role in helping to make happen. At the dinner I saw many people from many different walks of life, gathered together with the common purpose to promote happiness and cheer during this festive season by coordinating this parade which has been such a long-standing tradition in our community. Our very own Tom Kerr has been coordinating the parade for 46 years. Today Christina will be co-emceeing the event, while several of us will be serving as judges, parade marshals, or even walking in the parade itself.

Now, our city is not a perfect city. Like any city we face a multitude of perennial problems, some that even threaten our physical safety. And yet it’s a beautiful thing to see people standing in the face of fear, marching and walking in a festive display of unity, community, and togetherness. It’s wonderful to see people of all ages coming together to show that our city is united, to show that no matter our socioeconomic, cultural, or ethnic backgrounds, we can come together to celebrate the holiday season and share in joy and festivity.

And it strikes me that this is what Advent is all about. It’s about choosing to have hope even in the midst of darkness. It’s about believing that God will one day make everything right, waiting and anticipating what is to come, while striving and working for good here and now. It’s about proclaiming to the world that Jesus has come and that he will come again. It’s about coming together to acknowledge our need and dependence on God and one another, and promoting peace and joy in a world where there is so much fear and apprehension.

And so in light of that, let us stand. Let us stand with humility and dignity, with utter trust and dependence on God. Let us allow Jesus to work in us and through us. Let us experience the joy of this season, even as we long for and anticipate the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises when Christ returns.

 

Christ the King

November 25th, 2018 (Christ the King Sunday), Pastor Galen 

2 Samuel 23:1-7 and John 18:33-37

A King Unlike Any Other

Today is “Christ the King Sunday,” the final Sunday of the Christian liturgical calendar, the last Sunday before we begin our season of advent.

It is fitting that we begin and end the Christian year with a focus on Jesus as King. During Advent we will prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of our King Jesus. Today during this culmination of our worship calendar, we acknowledge the fact that Jesus is already the King.

In truth, Jesus is a King unlike any other king this world has ever known. While kings are usually concerned with grasping and holding onto their power, Jesus intentionally gave us his power to come down to this earth, to be born as a baby, to live among the poor and powerless. Rather than amassing worldly wealth (as most kings strive to do), Jesus left the splendors of heaven to be born in a lowly manger. And rather than using military might to enforce his will, Jesus taught and modeled turning the other cheek and loving his enemies.

So it makes sense then that Pilate would be confused as to Jesus’ royalty. Many people were, and continue to be, confused to this day. Standing there in the early morning light in front of Pilate, shackled in chains, clothed in modest apparel, and with the haggard look of a purported criminal who had been questioned all night long, Jesus probably looked anything but kingly. A wise teacher? Perhaps. A prophet? Most likely (after all, prophets were often a little crazy). A healer? It was possible. But a king? A rather ridiculous suggestion to those present.

And yet, whether or not Pilate recognized it, and whether or not he appeared to be such, the truth was and is that Jesus is a King. And not just a king, but the King of kings and the Lord of lords (see Rev. 17:14). In other words, even though it very much appeared as though Pilate was the sovereign and Jesus was his subject, in actuality the reverse was true. Jesus was very much in control.

Like the Light of the Morning at Sunrise

The words that the Holy Spirit spoke through King David 1,000 years before the birth of Christ (recorded for us in 2 Samuel chapter 23) provide an illustrative and poetic

depiction of the coming reign of King Jesus:

‘When one rules over people in righteousness,

   when he rules in the fear of God,

he is like the light of morning at sunrise

   on a cloudless morning,

like the brightness after rain

   that brings grass from the earth.’ (2 Samuel 23:3b-4)

Although David liked to think that the rising sun was an apt description of his own righteous rule, the reality is that David’s monarchy, as well as Pilate’s and that of every other earthly leader, falls very much short of the sun’s brilliance and magnificence. The reigns of even the most righteous earthly rulers are often clouded by greed and corruption. Even the most well-intentioned leaders so often fall prey to the darkness of self-deception and deceit. And even the most judicious kings render unjust judgments from time to time.

The rising of the morning sun is an appropriate and powerful depiction of Christ’s Kingdom, however.

The rising of the sun is peaceful, yet persistent.

It’s mundane, and yet magnificent.

It’s vital to our survival, and yet we rarely give it a passing thought.

If you’re someone who prefers to experience the rising of the sun from the comfort of your bed, underneath your covers, fast asleep, you know that the sun is invasive. No matter how tightly you might draw your curtains to try to seal out the light, the sun seems to seek out and permeate even the smallest crack and crevice.  

Every time I watch the sun rise, I’m amazed. It’s a beautiful and magnificent sight to behold. And yet it happens every day. it’s occurrence is so frequent that usually we don’t even think about it, yet our lives are very much dependent on its recurrence.

Jesus’ Kingdom is very much like this. It’s so pervasive and comprehensive that we might miss it. It’s all around us and we live in the midst of it and yet so often take we it for granted, but when we really stop to think about it, it’s stunningly magnificent.

Our lives are very much dependent on Christ’s rule and reign, and yet we often go about our days with little thought for what would happen if Jesus were not in control.

The Reign of King Jesus

Because the Kingdom of King Jesus is so pervasive and yet so unlike any other that this world has ever known, it’s important for us to draw out some specific points of comparison.

You see, often we don’t imagine Jesus as a king walking this earth delivering kingly decrees. And yet Jesus did issue rules for his subjects to follow. He commanded us to love God and to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:37-39), and to do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matthew 7:12). He charged people to repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (Matthew 4:17) and to let our lights shine before others, that they may see our good deeds and glorify God (Matthew 5:16). He commanded us to live at peace with one another (Matthew 5:23-24), to love and pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), not to judge others (Matthew 7:1), and that when we are giving a banquet we should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind (Luke 14:13). He directed his followers to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 238:19).

Although Jesus did not raise up a physical army, he demanded absolute allegiance from his followers. He said that if anyone wants to be his disciple they “must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). He decreed that we should to seek God’s Kingdom above all else (Matthew 6:33).

And although we don’t often think of Jesus going around pronouncing judgments, Jesus did utter stern warnings and rebukes to the Pharisees and religious leaders (see Luke 11:42-52) and anyone who heard his words but failed to put them into practice (Matthew 7:26). And Jesus told of a time when there would be a final judgement, when even the nations would be judged for how they treated the least of these (Matthew 25:31-46).

But Jesus didn’t only issue decrees and demand allegiance. He also transformed people’s hearts. Just like the warmth and glow of the early morning sun, the wisdom that came from Jesus’ mouth illuminated people’s hearts and minds, so that they came to understand things they had never understood before. Jesus’ deeds of power shed light into the deepest and darkest strongholds of the enemy. Jesus’ love radiated forth and touched even the innermost places of despair.

Only a King who was so holy, so perfect, so just and so righteous could, by his very presence, draw people into the warmth of God’s loving embrace, could cause people to freely give up all they had to follow Him, could transform people’s hearts and souls so that they willingly chose to pledge their allegiance to Jesus as their King.

An Invitation to Bask in Christ’s Glory

When I was a senior in high school our class took a trip to Ocean City. For several of my classmates it was the first time they had been to the beach. I remember my friend John was so excited to see the ocean, that as soon as we pulled up next to our hotel on the waterfront John jumped out of the van and ran towards the water. He climbed up on the wall separating the boardwalk from the sand and just plunged face first right into the sand.

I had seen the ocean before, but one thing I had never done was watched the sun rise over the water. I was determined to do so on that trip. And so I woke up early the next morning before everyone else and went out to the beach just as the sun was coming up over the horizon. And it was indeed a glorious sight to behold.

But I wasn’t content to just watch it from a distance. I had to get as close as possible. And so I plunged into the water and swam out as far as seemed safe (given the fact that there were no lifeguards around yet), and just watched the morning sun glisten on the water all around me.

There are no words that can encapsulate a moment like that, no picture that can adequately describe the ephemeral beauty of the sun rising over the ocean. I had no camera with me to record it, no one there to share that experience with me. All I could do was bask in the beauty and enjoy it.

This morning as we meditate on the kingly rule of Jesus, throughout Advent as we anticipate the birth of our Lord Jesus, and all throughout this upcoming liturgical year, I want to invite us to just bask in Christ’s glorious presence. His Kingdom is unlike any other kingdom. It’s hard to describe it, impossible to depict it. You just have to experience it.

Unanswered Questions

At the same time, I know that there are so many unanswered questions. If Christ is reigning on the throne, why is there so much evil and pain and suffering in the world? If God is in charge, why do bad things happen?

These are of course the perennial questions. All I can say is that, although Christ has instituted his rule and reign, His Kingdom has yet to come to completion. Although Jesus is sovereign, not everything that happens on this earth is in accordance with God’s will. There are forces of evil at work in the world, and as people we make our own decisions, many times not in in line with what Jesus has decreed.

And yet each one of us are invited to live into the reality of Christ’s kingdom, to simultaneous hope and long for the ultimate fulfillment of the Kingdom, while praying, serving and working for his Kingdom here and now. That is why we pray for Christ’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).

So this morning I invite us to pray, to dream, to work, to long, to bask in the reality of Christ’s Kingdom, and at the same time to roll up our sleeves and get busy. Let’s acknowledge Jesus as King, even as we anticipate and await the arrival of the ultimate fulfillment of Christ’s Kingdom. Let’s acknowledge Jesus as Lord of our lives and as the rightful King of this world, and let’s invite others to do the same.

Toward Love and Good Deeds (150th Anniversary)

November 18th, 2018, Pastor Galen

“And let us consider how we spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together…but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25)

What If They Had Given Up?

Imagine for a moment that Hampden Church never existed. Imagine that 151 years ago when that small group of passionate and visionary individuals met together in the home of John Knight to pray and dream, that they decided that the sacrifice was too great, that the cost was too high, that the dream was too large to be accomplished. Imagine that they said to one another “Let’s just carry on with our lives and go about our days, ignoring the plight of those around us, and pursue lives of comfort and ease.”

Or imagine with me that at any point along the way in this past century and a half, the congregation gathered here in this place said to one another, “let us discontinue meeting together.” Imagine that when the going got tough they just decided to lock the doors and walk away.

Imagine how many lives would not have been transformed, how many souls would not have found peace with God, how many people would have never heard the Good News of Jesus Christ. Imagine how many hungry people would not have been fed. Imagine how many hurting, lonely people would never have experienced a loving, supportive community of brothers and sisters in Christ surrounding them in their darkest of times.

Looking Back with Gratitude and Thanksgiving

I for one am grateful to God that that small but committed group who assembled 151 years ago did not decide to let go of their dream. And I’m grateful that week after week, Sunday after Sunday and all throughout the week people have assembled here in this place to worship God together, to learn and grow in love for God and one another, to minister to the needs of the community, and to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:25) as the author of Hebrews says.

Think of all the precious moments in people’s lives that have take place within these walls. Weddings, funerals, baptisms, birthday parties, anniversaries, graduations. Think of how this church building has been a landmark within the community. Think of all the fellowship meals that have been shared, the ham and oyster dinners going back 85 years, the community gatherings and neighborhood meetings.

And think of all those people who have walked in through those double doors for Sunday morning worship or Bible study with heavy hearts, burdened down with grief, having been tossed about by the cares of this world, having wrestled with doubt and despair, who stepped foot into this sanctuary and immediately received a welcoming hug or a warm smile, whose hearts were stirred by the playing of the organ or piano, who heard the Scriptures read and the Good News of Jesus proclaimed, who came forward and knelt at this altar and cried out to God, who experienced the life-saving grace of God and had their guilty consciences cleansed.

Think of the children and youth who have experienced a safe and nurturing environment to grow in love for God, to be instructed in the faith, to have fun and play and learn and grow, to learn what it means to participate in God’s mission and to be a part of a community, who have had mentors and role models pour into them and invest in their lives.

And think of all those who have walked back out of those doors, having been transformed by the love of Christ, who have gone out into the world to be agents of healing and reconciliation, who have proclaimed the Good News through word and through deed to their neighbors across the street, in other parts of the country or even around the world.

I’m grateful that those saints down through the generations and those gathered here today did not give up meeting together. I’m glad that you stuck it out through thick and through thin. Oh I’m sure there were times you were tempted to toss in the towel. I’m sure there were disagreements, times when the finances were tight, when the congregation felt defeated. But you didn’t give up. You pressed on. You gave sacrificially of your time, talents, and treasure. You  continued to dream, you didn’t lose hope, you continued meeting together. And because you persevered, we are here today.

Moving Forward With Hope and Creativity

But today is not only a day to look back. It is also a day to look forward. Because the needs in our world today are just as great. There are lost and lonely people all around us. There are people who are burdened down with care, people longing for meaning and purpose and a place to belong, people trying to fill the voids in their lives that only God can fill.

But some people today are saying that we are living in a “post-Christian” society. We’re living in a day and age where society so often does not revolve around the church, where it is not assumed that people must come together to worship God. We’re living in a day and age where so many people are skeptical of organized religion, where many people, having felt like they have given God a chance, have now moved on to other things. We’re living in a day and age where religion is seen as more polarizing than unifying, where people have more faith in corporations and governmental organizations than in religious institutions.

And yet, despite what some may say or think, I believe our world needs Jesus now more than ever. I believe that only Jesus can heal our wounds, both individually and as a society. I believe that only Jesus can bring true and lasting peace and security. Only Jesus can bridge the chasmic divisions within our country. Only Jesus can transform our hatred into love, and turn our bitterness into joy. Only Jesus can transform people’s hearts and bring healing, hope and restoration to families and whole communities.

Political leaders and so often even religious leaders will let us down. Corporations will come and go. But in Jesus we can put our complete trust.

And so the idea that we are living in a post-Christendom era does not mean that we should give up meeting together. We should not lose heart and we should not lose hope. We must remember that God is faithful. And we must move forward with confidence, knowing that the good work that God has begun will be brought to completion (Phil. 1:6).

We must continue to assemble together, to spur one another on toward love and good deeds. As the Message paraphrase of the Bible says, “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love” (Hebrews 10:24, MSG). The approaches that have worked in the past might not work in the future. The programs that met the needs of previous generations may seem to meet the felt needs today. And so we must be creative, constantly discerning the needs of our neighbors, constantly in tune with the cries of our community, and ask God for insight to see past the surface and to see the deepest, innermost longings of people’s hearts, and to cry out, “God, here am I, send me!”

Today, as we celebrate this tremendous milestone for our congregation, as we look back with joy, as we share memories, reconnect with old friends, and talk of the wonderful times gone by, let us also look to the future with hope. Let us “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for God who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together…but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:23-25).

Dual Roles

November 11th, 2018, Pastor Galen

Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28

In the classic 1961 film (and the 1998 remake) “the Parent Trap,” two identical twins who had been separated at birth due to their parents’ divorce meet coincidentally at summer camp when they are eleven years old. When they discover that they are twins, they hatch a plan to switch identities so each twin can meet the respective parent she’s never known, with the ultimate goal of reuniting their father and mother.

It’s an interesting plot and a very entertaining film, but I’ve often been intrigued by the film from a cinematography and acting standpoint, since both of the identical twins were played by the same actress (Hayley Mills in the 1961 version, and Lindsey Lohan in the 1998 version). I’ve often wondered what it was like for the actress to film each scene playing one of the twins, and then to go back and film the exact same scene again taking on the perspective and personality of the other twin.

Day of Atonement

In Hebrews 9, Jesus plays multiple roles in the same scene. Jesus is the High Priest entering into the Holy of Holies (the holiest place in the temple), and Jesus is also the sacrifice who was given on our behalf. In other places in the Bible, Jesus is referred to as the fulfilment of the temple itself, and of course we know that Jesus is the manifestation of God’s presence among us.

The author of Hebrews is building a case to show us that Jesus is everything, that Jesus is sufficient, that Jesus is all we need.

The scene that’s evoked here is the ceremony of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when once a year the high priest would enter into the innermost room of the temple, called the Holy of Holies and offer a sacrifice on behalf of the whole nation for all the wrong things that the people had done that year.

The Holy of Holies was seen as the place where God’s spirit dwelt, and the place was so holy that only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and only once a year on this Day of Atonement. (There is a tradition that they would tie a rope around the ankle of the High Priest so that in case something happened to the Priest while he was in the Holy of Holies, they could drag him out without someone else having to go in for fear that that person would die from being in God’s presence).

Before even entering into the Holy of Holies, the high priest would bathe and put on a pure white linen robe to symbolize repentance. He would then sacrifice a bull and a ram as a sin offering for himself and the other priests since they were also in need of forgiveness, and then the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies with incense and sprinkle the blood of the bull all around the Holy of Holies.

The high priest would then cast lots to choose between two live goats that had been brought by the people. One of these goats would be killed and offered as a sin offering on behalf of the whole nation. The other goat was allowed to remain alive. The high priest would place his hands on the goat and confess the sins of the whole nation and then someone would take that live goat and set it free in the wilderness. By the way, this where we get the term “scapegoat,” because the goat was seen to carry away the sins of all the people.

I’m sure that this was in ways in many ways a very beautiful and meaningful ceremony. The problem was that since it had to be done every year, the people seemed to live in constant fear that God might choose not to forgive their sins if the ceremony wasn’t done properly, or that God might wipe them all out if the sacrifice wasn’t pleasing and acceptable to God. To many people in that time, God was seen as distant, and was a vengeful, wrathful God, just waiting to punish them if and when they got out of line.

Jesus: High Priest and Sacrifice

But then along comes Jesus. Jesus is God’s Son, Jesus is God in the flesh, come to dwell among us. Jesus lived a perfect life, he loved everyone, including those on the margins of society, the lost, the forgotten. Jesus taught us to love God and to love our neighbors, to treat others the way we would want to be treated. He performed miracles, healed the sick, delivered those who were facing demonic oppression. But Jesus was eventually killed, put to death on a cross. He loved us so much that he gave his own life for our sake.

And so the author of Hebrews says that in dying on the cross and rising again, Jesus takes the place of this whole sacrificial system. We don’t need a high priest anymore to enter into the Holy of Holies every year to ask for God’s forgiveness on behalf of all the people, because Jesus has already done that! We don’t need a sacrificial goat or a scapegoat, because Jesus has already died in our place and carried away all of our sins.

Because Jesus was perfect and wasn’t deserving of punishment he didn’t need to offer a sacrifice for his own sins, and so Jesus was the perfect sacrifice. We no longer need to sacrifice animals, nor do we need to worry about whether God will forgive us, because we know that Jesus’ sacrifice was perfect. It was a once and done deal. We don’t need to live in fear, we don’t need to feel like God is distant, because in Jesus God has come close to us.

And so Jesus is the High Priest, he is the temple where God dwells, he is the sacrifice, and Jesus has given us his Spirit to dwell among us. Jesus is all we need. In Jesus, we see that God is not a God who is just waiting to squash us when we get out of line. In Jesus we see that God is loving, God is merciful, God is willing and waiting to extend grace, mercy, and forgiveness to us.

“I don’t know how anyone makes it without God”

This past Wednesday morning I had the opportunity to visit a dear member of our church who is recovering from hip surgery. We had a wonderful time visiting, she showed me some artwork she was working on, and we even sang some karaoke together. When I was getting ready to leave, I prayed for her, and I commented on how much she’s gone through over the past month-and-a-half since she broke her hip, and how wonderfully she’s recovering. She turned to me and said “you know, I don’t know how anyone makes it without God!”

You know, I don’t either. But you know, so many of us have been Christians for so long, that we can’t even imagine or remember what it’s like to not have God in our life. Sure, we go through difficult times, and I’m sure many of us experience doubts from time to time. But in the end, when tragedy strikes, or when we are going through a rough time in life, Jesus is right there with us, even in our darkest moments.

But Jesus is more than just a friend to get us through the dark times. Jesus is not just a therapeutic, calming presence in our life.

The author of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus is the difference between life and death. Jesus is the one who brings salvation, the one who gave his own life and died in our place. And Hebrews tells us that Jesus “appear[s] for us in God’s presence” (Hebrews 9:24). Jesus is constantly advocating on our behalf, interceding for us, and cheering us on.

In other words, we can’t make it without Jesus.

Sure, we can try to do it on our own. We can try to go through life, trying to be perfect in our own strength, but we’re always going to fall short. Like the Psalmist says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1a). We can try to do it without God, but eventually we’re going to fail.

Remembering our Baptism

This morning I want to encourage us to cling to Jesus. In the midst of all of the craziness of life, when it can feel like we’re being pulled in so many different directions, let’s remember that Jesus is all sufficient. Let’s not try to make it on our own. Let’s allow God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness to wash over us again and again.

We’re going to respond to the Word by singing “Spirit of the Living God.” And then after that, we’re going to celebrate the sacrament of baptism as we welcome a new member into the body  of Christ. And as we do that, let us all remember our baptism, and renew together our commitment to Christ and to the Church.

Every Tear (All Saints Sunday)

November 4th, 2018, Pastor Galen

Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6a

“[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes” — Rev. 21:4.

Some of have tears that flow frequently and uncontrollably for seemingly little to no reason. Others of us might find that we can cry only when we’re by ourselves or when we’re with people we are very close to, people we know we can completely trust. Still others of us might struggle to ever cry.

According to an article in Medical News Today, there are actually numerous health benefits to crying:

  • Crying has a soothing effect, aids in sleep, and improves our vision.
  • Crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which helps people relax.
  • Shedding emotional tears releases oxytocin and endorphins that make people feel good.
  • Tears in response to stress contain a number of stress hormones and other chemicals which could reduce the levels of these chemicals in the body.
  • Crying helps to kill bacteria and keep the eyes clean as tears contain a fluid called lysozyme which has powerful antimicrobial properties
  • Crying has an interpersonal or social benefit as it rallies support from the people around us.

There’s no shame in crying, despite what some of us have been taught. In fact, there are many times when it is completely and utterly appropriate to cry. The death of a loved one or a close friend. The loss of a pet. When we receive bad news, or when we’re feeling stress or desperation.

Crying is a way that we let loose our inward feelings or our pent-up emotions. Often when we experience the loss of a loved one, our first response is shock. The tears do not come until later. When we finally do cry, it often is a breakthrough moment. It’s a moment when we have finally come to grips with our loss, or when we’ve finally stopped trying to hold it all together. It might happen when the funeral planning tasks are completed, or when we finally feel safe enough to let others comfort and hold us.

There are, of course, other reasons why people cry other than sadness. There are tears of joy, tears of empathy, tears of anger, and tears of frustration. Often we try to hold back our tears, especially when we don’t want others to know how we’re feeling. But tears give a physical expression to our pain, or sadness, our happiness, or joy.

Revelation 21 provides a beautiful and fascinating foretaste of the new heaven and the new earth. The Holy City, the new Jerusalem, will come down out of heaven from God, “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Rev. 21:2). God will dwell with people, “They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev. 21: 3). And then we have this beautiful promise, that God will “wipe every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 21:4, a quotation from Isaiah 25:8).

Notice that God doesn’t reprimand the people for crying or for feeling sad. God doesn’t rebuke or scold them for shedding tears, or tell them to “toughen up.” Instead God wipes their tears away. God meets them where they are, in their sadness, and mourning and grieving, and God comforts them. God acknowledges the pain they experienced, the hardships they endured. God sees, God knows, and God cares.

The act of wiping away tears is such a loving and tender gesture. It’s an intimate, gentle expression of love. In order to wipe away someone’s tears you have to be in close proximity to them. You have to touch them. You have to be with them in their moment of grief.

The idea that God will wipe away our tears means that God knows us intimately, that we can feel safe with God. God will be with us. We will be God’s people, and God will be our God.

Future and Present

While this seems to be primarily an expression of what will happen in the future, we find that it also displays the type of relationship that God desires to have with us now, the way that God wants to interact with us, and us with God.

The God who will one day wipe away our tears is also present with us in our pain and suffering now. God is especially close to us in our grief. Psalm 34 says thatThe Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

Perhaps this is why Jesus says “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

All Saints Day

Today is All Saints Sunday, the day that we remember all those who have gone on before us — both in the distant past, and in the recent past. Some of us have lost loved ones this year, and during our Communion Service later this morning we’ll have an opportunity to say their names out loud as we remember and reflect upon their lives and on their passing.

It’s also a day to remember the saints who have lived throughout history — those faithful followers of Christ who gave their lives in sacrifice or service to Jesus, who inspire us through their example to live more holy lives, who modeled what it looks like to live a life of faith and integrity.

Saints were not perfect people. Saints were regular, everyday people like you and me who allowed God to work through them. In fact in the Bible, all of the people of God were referred to as “saints.” The word “saints” refers to “holy ones, set apart, consecrated or dedicated to God.” Saints are people who have dedicated their lives to Christ, who have remained faithful to the end.

So many of those saints who have gone on before us sacrificed much so that we could be where we are today, and it is good and right to feel honor and gratitude and respect for those who have gone before us, those who have paved the way, and those who paid the ultimate cost in order to proclaim the Gospel and advance God’s Kingdom here on this earth.

Looking Forward

But Revelation reminds us to not only look back, but also to look forward to the future, when we will be reunited with our loved ones, when we will gather together with all the host of heaven, with people from every nation, tribe and tongue around the world, to praise the Lord together, when God will not only wipe away our tears, but take away the very cause of grief — sickness, death, loss, and pain (Rev. 21:4).

We can look forward to that day because we too have experienced God’s love, grace, and mercy. We know that we are not special in and of ourselves, but we have been set apart and made holy because of the work that Jesus did for us, by dying and rising again. We are recipients of God’s mercy and grace, just like those saints down through the ages, and so we too can be agents of God’s healing and redemption in this world. As we admire and respect those who have gone before us, so too we seek to set an example for those who will come after us.

When we look at the world around us, it can be hard to feel any hope at all. Political strife and divisions, economic uncertainties, and environmental instability all threaten to bring things to a horrific and terrible end.  

And yet our readings today remind us that in the end, all will be made right. That God will wipe away our tears, that “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4).

It’s difficult for us to imagine a world without death or crying or pain, since it’s all we know. Revelation shows us that there will be a return to the way things were supposed to be, the way God created the world to be. The old will pass away, and God will make “everything new” (Rev. 21:5)

I think “saints” are people who live into that future reality here and now. They are people who live and work to make God’s new creation a reality, who strive to make the world more just and peaceful. Saints know that we can’t do it on their own, that we need God’s help. Saints don’t do it for the fame or glory, to be thanked or recognized. They just believe that God’s way is the best way, and that if they want peace on earth it has to begin with them.

So as we celebrate the saints who have gone before, let us also join in with all those saints, and let us live in hopeful expectation of the world that is to come, where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. And let us at the same time seek God’s Kingdom here and how. Let us ask God to form us into the type of people that future generations will want to emulate, people who point others towards Christ through word and deed, people who live into the simple yet hopeful reality that God is with us and that in the end God will make all things right.