WWJBD?

WWJBD?

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 19, 2020

2nd Sunday after Epiphany

Isaiah 49:1-7; John 1:29-42

 

Christmas has come and gone. Presents wrapped with paper of red, gold, and green, have been opened and are being enjoyed. By now, most of us have taken down the tree, gently wrapped precious ornaments and decorations, and returned them to their usual resting place in the garage, basement, storage building or up those never-ending steps to the attic. Christmas has come and gone, yet while preparing for the sermon, I happened upon what I can only describe as a belated Christmas gift. It came through the pages of a favorite commentary, Feasting on the Word, in an essay written by one of my favorite professors at Columbia Theological Seminary, Rodger Nishioka.

 

 

Before we open the gift, let me tell you a little about Rodger Nishioka. From my perspective, he and I became friends long before we met face to face. If you are a book lover as I am, you’ll completely understand—I first met Rodger Nishioka as the author of a book he had written about youth ministry. In those days, it was his area of expertise and he was in high demand—writing, lecturing and traveling. Through his writings, I came to admire him as a man of humility and wisdom. I am happy to report when I finally sat in his class at Columbia, my earlier impression of him was spot on—he is humble and wise, and he has a wonderful sense of humor.

 

 

One evening he invited our entire doctoral class to his home for dinner—a dinner which he prepared single-handedly. After we had eaten the delicious fare, someone remarked on our host’s culinary skills and he said his mother taught him and his brothers to cook when they were young. Then he shared how they nearly ate their parents out of house and home. After school, they’d be starving but their mother was often still at work. Finally, she decided it was time for them to pitch in since they were teenagers and fully capable of doing their part, so she taught them how to make one of their favorite meals, which included vegetables and a roast of some kind. Imagine her surprise when she got home the next evening and the table was bare. She asked her sons, “What happened, didn’t you cook the roast?”

“Yes mom, we cooked everything you told us to cook.”

“But where is it? Where’s the food?”

“We ate it!”

I guess Mrs. Nishioka should have been a little more specific with her growing boys—that is if she and her husband wished to partake of the evening meal.

 

 

It’s true that as we teach our young people, they teach us, if we will only pay attention. Our youngest son, Shane, has frequently played the role of my teacher—and often it has occurred on a long walk to one of our favorite spots. Generally, as we trek along, I can count on him to turn the conversation toward theology. So, I wasn’t at all surprised one afternoon when he started talking about certain televangelists and other people of celebrity status, who sometimes misrepresent Christianity. Finally, he said, “While I don’t mean to judge them, people who claim God speaks directly to them or insist they KNOW the mind of God, well, they make me a little nervous.”

“Smart boy,” I thought, and I had to agree with him. I went on to say that I believe God can instruct us in an audible voice—God can do whatever God wants to do—God is God, after all. But most of the time, divine guidance comes bit by bit, piece by piece. The Holy Spirit nudges us through the voice of a friend, Scripture, the Word proclaimed, the community of believers with whom we worship, poetry, art, music, prolonged silence, nature…

 

 

Yes, God speaks to us in endless ways, but there is no denying incredible evil has been carried out down through the ages in the name of God, when in fact, God had nothing to do with it! It seems to me that knowing, really knowing the heart of God is not something at which humans excel. Thus, when it comes to discerning the will of God, a little humility and wisdom go a long way.

 

 

Which brings me to our belated Christmas gift. You may recall several years ago when the What Would Jesus Do (WWJD?) campaign (based on a popular novel) was all the rage. Youth leaders near and far encouraged young people to wear WWJD bracelets to help them think before acting. Nishioka, who was working with Presbyterian youth at the time, had an interesting conversation with a high schooler one evening. Someone had given her a WWJD bracelet and she had chosen to wear it, but at the same time she found it disturbing. She shared this with Nishioka, who tried to explain that it was a symbol, a tangible reminder that as followers of Jesus, every step we take, and everything we do should be guided by Jesus. She said that she got that…but what she didn’t get was how in the world she was supposed to know what Jesus would do in any given situation, let alone carry it out. Nishioka tried to explain it all in theological terms, terms that I can hear myself saying to Shane, “Well, we have the Bible and we have a community of believers who help us interpret Jesus’ will…” But that’s not what the young woman was after. She interrupted, “Yeah, but don’t you see? I am not Jesus! I am fully human, but I am NOT fully divine. I just don’t think it’s fair to assume that I could even imagine what Jesus would do because I am not God!” [i] Smart girl—wise and humble!

 

 

16th Century Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila, toward the end of her life composed the following poem:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.

Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world;

Yours are the feet which he is to go about doing good;

Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.

 

 

While being the hands and feet of Jesus should be our life’s goal, still it’s good to acknowledge we are not Jesus and knowing the heart of God is not easy. Sometimes, when we are so certain we are doing the work of God for God’s sake, we can trip and fall on our human nature.

 

 

In Nishioka’s essay, he tells about a time when he was teaching at the seminary. With an overloaded schedule and commitments galore, he was beginning to look a little frayed around the edges. That’s when a friend and colleague insisted on taking him out to lunch. “It’s urgent,” she insisted. When they sat down at the table, Rodger asked what was going on. She smiled and said, “I want you to know the Messiah has come!” He was confused, to say the least. Then she told him she had even better news: “You are not him!” A wise man became a little wiser that day: “The real danger in a distorted incarnational theology is that we come to believe that if we truly are Christ’s body in the world, then if the world is going to be saved, we have to do it.”[ii] Nishioka continues,

 

It may be better for us to ask, not so much WWJD? but rather WWJBD? What would John the Baptist do? Lately, I have been challenging myself and my students to be more like John the Baptist—to call attention to Jesus Christ and then to say to all who are within hearing distance, ‘Hey, look! See! God is alive. God is in our midst. The Holy Spirit is at work in us and through and for us and even in spite of us! Behold! The Lamb of God![iii]

 

 

Wise words, indeed!  As baptized believers, we do house God’s Spirit. But for every ounce of the divine running through our veins, there’s a pound of flesh that will readily lead us in the wrong direction. That, for me, is one of the most important reasons we need each other. We need the community to help shore us up when we are weak and to remind us, no matter what is going on, God is alive. God is in our midst. We need to be reminded who we are and whose we are because there are plenty of naysayers who will gladly try to convince us there’s no way we can make a difference in a world so full of pain and brokenness. Yet, if all we do is stand with John the Baptist and point a finger toward Jesus—with what we say—with how we behave—with how we respond when life takes a surprising turn—then we have done a great thing.

 

 

Today, as a church, we install a new class of ruling elders. They will join others on Session to help lead our church toward the life and light of the Messiah, who takes away the sins of the world. Together, we will pray and study and listen and then, with all the faith and hope and love we can muster, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we will try to do what John the Baptist would do—point people toward God. “Hey, look! See! God is alive. God is in our midst. The Holy Spirit is at work in us and through and for us and even in spite of us! Behold! The Lamb of God!”[iv]

 

[i] Rodger Nishioka, Feasting on the Word, 262.

[ii] Ibid, 264.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

*Cover Art by Meister von Gracanica; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

Chosen by God

Chosen by God

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 12, 2020

Baptism of the Lord

Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-48

 

Through the prophet Isaiah, we hear words of hope as God claims a servant, in whom he delights, to humbly, steadfastly, bring justice to the nations. The same God who spread out the earth, gave breath and spirit to the people upon it, now declares a new thing is on the horizon. God’s chosen One will open eyes, set prisoners free, and dispel the darkness. And just who is this quiet, unassuming servant through whom God will bring about justice and liberation?  It is a much-debated question!  In Hebrew Scripture the servant is often the nation of Israel. To complicate matters, the servant may also have a mission TO the nation of Israel.  In this case, the servant is called by God to bring to the nations the covenant revealed to the Israelites through Moses and championed by the prophets. God’s servant is to bring justice, not by brute force, but gently, quietly, with care and concern for those who are bruised and weak. New things are afoot! 

 

 

The Book of Isaiah is quoted more than 100 times in the New Testament. Susan Ackerman notes that Isaiah is so highly esteemed by the church fathers that they refer to it as their 5th Gospel.  And by the 4th century, Jerome writes, “[Isaiah] should be called an evangelist rather than a prophet because he describes all the mysteries of Christ and the Church so clearly that you would think he is composing a history of what has already happened rather than prophesying about what is to come.” By the Middle Ages, Isaiah is regarded as the prophet of the Passion. By the Reformation, the book’s emphasis on the “word of our God” becomes crucial to Martin Luther. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Christian missionary societies identify with the universal message of Isaiah. More recently, liberation theologians celebrate Isaiah’s prophetic mandate for peace.

 

 

Isaiah, beautifully written, complex in theology, has been used for great good. It has also been used for great harm. Anti-Semitic interpreters over the centuries have cited Isaiah to condemn Judaism as a whole. One has gone so far as to even compare Jews to Sodomites-hardly a message of reconciliation! It interpret Isaiah in a manner that uses it against other nations, to “lord it over them,” if you will, goes back to the question of “who is chosen?” as well as “does being chosen come with special privileges?” That way of thinking misses the point entirely. What is the message of God that we read, particularly in Isaiah 42?  God is sending a servant to bring forth JUSTICE to the nations—and this servant will be so humble as to not break a bruised reed. In other words, he will be gentle. The chosen one will serve the purposes of God and bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

 

 

It turns out that being chosen is not proof of superiority and entitlement!  It is proof of servant hood. But that is not the way of things in the early church. Insiders and outsiders, those who are chosen and those who are not, were designations alive and well in the early church. (And I might add, still alive and well in many places). But, as God says through the prophet Isaiah, former things have come to pass and new things I now declare, before they spring forth I tell you of them. God is about to bring about change, painting with vibrant strokes of color a “new thing.”

 

 

Which brings us to our reading from Acts. Earlier in the chapter, Cornelius, a low-ranking Roman military officer, who fears God and prays constantly, has a vision in which an angel instructs him to send to Joppa for Simon Peter. About noon the next day, Peter, too, has a mystical experience—falling into a trance. In a vision he sees the heavens open and a large sheet descends holding a host of unclean animals. When Peter is instructed to eat, he refuses because he has never eaten anything profane or unclean. The voice responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times. Afterward, Peter wakes to Cornelius’ men knocking on his door. Peter goes to Cornelius, hears his story, and is amazed when he realizes that God shows no partiality.

 

 

Cornelius, an outsider, has a vision of an angel of God telling him to send for Simon Peter, an insider. Peter, a disciple of Jesus Christ who has witnessed the good works of his Lord, as well as his crucifixion, and resurrection, also has a vision—one that changes his world forever. Let us be clear: neither Cornelius nor Peter act on their own. They are players in a drama being directed by someone far greater than themselves. The script of this drama is being written by God and as William Willimon suggests, it’s difficult to tell if this story is about the conversion of a gentile or the conversion of an apostle.  “The real hero of the story,” writes Willimon, “is not Peter nor Cornelius but the gracious and prodding One who makes bold promises and keeps them, who finds a way even in the midst of human distinctions and partiality between persons.”

 

 

So, God reveals a new thing to Peter, and, in response, Peter preaches the good news. What is the good news that he preaches?  First, Peter declares that God shows no partiality. Peter has learned that anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God. Cornelius, a Gentile, is accepted by God because of his faith—his ethnicity has no bearing. Second, God has the power to change people. In fact, the whole point of Peter’s vision is that God can “make clean” those who are unclean. God sees that the human condition needs change and God sends Jesus—the change agent to confront all that is wrong so that hope can be restored. In his sermon, Peter essentially sums up the ministry of Jesus: Upon his baptism, Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit and his earthly ministry begins. Jesus does good and heals the oppressed. Even when he is hanged on a tree and all seems lost, God is victorious, raising his Son from the dead on the third day.

 

 

Finally, Peter points out that the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection is not made known to all. Only those chosen by God as witnesses eat and drink with Jesus. And those who are chosen are given no special privileges. Instead, they are chosen to serve the purposes of God as they testify to the people that through Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins is now available to everyone.

 

 

Biblical scholar, Andrew H. Bartelt, asserts: In the baptism of Jesus, he is announced to be the one in whom God delights and through whom all righteousness will be fulfilled. Here God is doing a new thing greater than all former things and still in anticipation of something yet to come…. That we might claim a role as humble messengers of this justice and heirs to the very identity of God’s people Israel is our …“new thing,” accomplished through our baptism into the life, death and resurrection of this same Jesus.

 

 

Matthew 3:13-17

Commentary on Gospel by Mark Allan Powell

The Gospel lesson for this day presents the second of seven pericopes in Matthew’s Gospel dealing with John the Baptist:

  • 3:1-12 the ministry of John is reported
  • 3:13-17 John baptizes Jesus
  • 9:14-15 John’s disciples ask why the disciples of Jesus don’t fast
  • 11:2-15 John questions Jesus’ identity and Jesus speaks of John’s role
  • 14:1-12 John is murdered by Herod
  • 17:10-13 Jesus speaks of John following the Transfiguration
  • 21:23-27 Jesus refers to John when his own authority is questioned

A study of these texts reveals that John is an unusually significant figure in this Gospel; he is very much the forerunner of Jesus, to the point that the content of his preaching is word-for-word identical with that of Jesus (cf. 3:2; 4:17) and is echoed in apostolic proclamation as well (10:7). Matthew understands John to be a bridge figure between the old covenant and the new – he brings the era of promise to a close and initiates a new era of fulfillment. The story in today’s text presents a “passing of the baton” from John to Jesus.

 

John tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized. Why? Many Christians have probably thought it is because his baptism was one of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (see Mark 1:4) and, so, would have been superfluous for the sinless Jesus. But such thinking may be foreign to Matthew. John was calling Israel to repentance and, though individuals might have personal peccadillos to confess (3:6), the primary focus was probably on the sins of the nation. Jesus and others were baptized by John to symbolize a new birth for that nation, a cleansing for the people of God.

 

John’s objection to baptizing Jesus is related to a difference in status. John recognizes Jesus to be the “more powerful” one, the one he has been talking about for some time (3:11). John himself stands in need of what Jesus has to offer: a greater baptism of Spirit and fire (3:11); this is probably what he means when he says, “I need to be baptized by you” (3:14). John’s water baptism is one of repentance, which prepares the way for the messianic judgment that establishes God’s righteousness. Jesus’ response picks up on precisely that theme: they must do what is proper to “fulfill all righteousness” (3:16). These are the first words that Jesus speaks in Matthew’s Gospel and the saying is a bit mysterious. We may at least gather that God has a plan for making everything right and that Jesus is committed to being obedient to that plan. Why did he have to be baptized? That’s a minor question. The big one is, why did he have to die on a cross? Matthew grants that neither makes sense from a human point of view: thus, John tries to prevent Jesus’ baptism and Peter tries to prevent Jesus’ death (16:22).

 

The real focus of this story, however, is on the descent of the dove and, especially, the voice from heaven. Matthew’s Gospel is, of course, about God—every Gospel text in the Series A lectionary is about God—but most of the time God is in the background. People talk about God, and the thoughts of God are often revealed through prophets or angels or through references to scripture, which is “the word of God” (15:6). But there are only two texts in Matthew in which God actually speaks directly, as a character in the story (3:13-17; 17:1-9). One is read on the Baptism of Our Lord, the first Sunday in the Epiphany season; the other is read on the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the last Sunday in the Epiphany Season. These weeks we call Epiphany are literally framed by two divine pronouncements. What’s really interesting is that both times that God chooses to speak aloud from heaven, God says almost exactly the same thing: Jesus is God’s beloved Son and God is pleased with Jesus (3:17; 17:5).

 

The single most important thing that Matthew’s Gospel wants to say about Jesus is this: Jesus is the Son of God. This is the confession that gives birth to the church (see 16:16-19). It is hidden truth that must be revealed by the father in heaven (11:25-27; 16:17). Why is this so important? For Matthew, the divine sonship of Jesus is what establishes him as one in whom God is present (1:23). But hasn’t God been present in people before – kings, judges, prophets? No, not like this. God is present in Jesus in an absolute sense, so much so that people worship Jesus (see Matt 2:11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 21:16; 28:9, 17; in all these verses the Greek word is proskyne´ō. Radically monotheistic Jews who believe that people should worship no one—no prophet, no king, no spirit, no angel, not even the messiah—no one but the Lord Yahweh (see Matt 4:10) are now worshiping Jesus. How is that okay? Matthew would say, because Jesus is the Son of God, and God is so present in him that worshiping Jesus counts as worshiping God.

 

The season of Epiphany focuses on the worship of Jesus, in whom God is made manifest to us. The revelation of his glorious divine sonship begins with baptism – the revelation to the world began with the baptism of Jesus and the revelation to us typically begins with our baptism. Some such analogy was no doubt intended by Matthew: when we are baptized, we too receive the Spirit and we too are identified as beloved children of God. We are baptized with Christ and into Christ, so that God’s plan of righteousness might be fulfilled in us and through us.

 

 

Contributor Profile

Mark Allan Powell

Professor of New Testament
Trinity Lutheran Seminary
Columbus, OH

How then shall we live; we who have been chosen, through our baptism, to further the plan of God?  We who have been chosen, not through any goodness of our own, but through the act of a gracious God who has chosen us for a life of service—how then shall we live?  How can we be change agents, participants in God’s reconciling work, in our little corner of the world? How can we share the message that God shows no partiality, all can be forgiven, all can be made clean, all are welcome at the Table of Grace?

 

 

It may start with wonder as we learn to blanket our words and actions with prayer. It may start small: choosing to refrain from gossiping and complaining, offering a hand to someone in need, sending a card to someone we haven’t seen in a while, taking the time to listen to a person who is in pain, or making a much needed phone call. It may start here in our church when God provides new avenues for learning, worshiping, and service. It may start at home with more words of kindness and compassion for our children, our parents, our spouse. No matter how it starts, it must start!  It has already started in each believer who is equipped by the Spirit to be an instrument of change in a world that is desperate to hear the good news of Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

*Cover Art by Ira Thomas; used by permission

 

The Word

The Word

Jeremiah 31:7-14 and John 1:1-5, 14-18

First Presbyterian Church Valdosta

Jane Shelton; January 5, 2020

(Epiphany Sunday)

 

Today is Epiphany Sunday.

Epiphany is the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi.

On this Epiphany Sunday, may we remember the words of John the Baptist who testified to the light of life which came into being in the birth of Jesus, who God sent to be the light of all people.

Might we remember that The Law was given to us through Moses, yet grace and truth through Jesus Christ.

Jesus became the Word in flesh.

Jesus made God known to us, and it is through Jesus Christ that we know God, and not by the law.

In a letter to his friend, Mrs. Johnson, as a reflection on John 1:1, C.S. Lewis wrote

“And The Word Was God”:

  1. S. Lewis said,

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. 

The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him. 

When it becomes really necessary (i.e., for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. 

But we must not use the Bible (our fathers too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and not read without attention to the whole nature & purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.”

 

So it is as C.S. Lewis wrote, “It is Christ himself, not the Bible, who is the Word of God…”

 

So I submit to you today that it is Jesus who is the still the Living Word among us.  Jesus, the light we continue to follow into this new year.

In our first reading this morning, we find a list of ways to live into the truth of the light of Jesus on our journey this year.

Perhaps we might even consider them as 2020 Resolutions from the Lord as written by Jeremiah:

Thus says the Lord, your New Year’s Resolution is to:

Sing aloud with gladness.

Proclaim the goodness of the Lord.

Give Praises to the Lord.

Gather All.

Come with weeping and give consolation.

Lead others to the Lord.

Walk by brooks of water in a straight path in which you will not stumble.

Hear the Word of the Lord and declare it.

Be radiant over the goodness of the Lord – grain, wine, oil, young flock and herd.

Rejoice in dance and be merry!

Turn mourning into joy!

Receive comfort and gladness for sorry.

Be satisfied with the Lord’s bounty.

And when we do these things, “your life shall become like a watered garden and you will never languish again.”

 

 

In these words of Jeremiah is the Word of God and the Word that is Jesus Christ in all his truth and grace and mercy for us.

 

As this is Epiphany Sunday, may we follow the light of Jesus the way the magi followed the light of the Star of Bethlehem so that we find Jesus throughout this new year.

Kristin Stroble, a Presbyterian Pastor in Youngstown, Ohio, wrote in an article about a practice she has come to share with her congregation on Epiphany Sunday.

A Sunday when we remember the star that led the magi to Jesus.

Rather than encouraging resolutions for the New Year that often fail and make us feel guilty, she provides her congregation with “Star Words.”

Star Words are words written on a star shaped paper that we receive as a gift from God to help us remember to practice through the new year.

Words such as restraint, joy, and courage.

We might receive the word restraint as a gift to help us remember to hold back on the donuts on the breakfast table on Sunday morning, or restraint from allowing other things that keep us from making good choices such as holding back on second helpings or choices that allow us to omit exercise when we should become better caretakers of our bodies.

Or perhaps we receive the word joy to help us to remember to receive the gift of joy in all circumstances in our life, or as a reminder that we have joy because we belong to God.

Maybe the word we receive as a gift is courage.

Courage to live through difficult times, courage to face another day when dealing with depression, or courage to live through a time of unwanted illness and treatments, or the loss of a loved one.

Courage to recognize that we do not walk alone, but with one that is always there walking with us.

 

Star Words remind us that God sent his Son, Jesus as the Word in flesh to bring us truth and grace to share with ALL.

 

Pastor Stroble wrote that in the year that followed, a coffee reception was prepared following worship, and she was amazed at her congregation’s sharing of experiences with each other, as they shared their journey over the past year with the gift of their Star Words.

With their Star Words, they had replaced the negative feelings of failure and guilt of failed resolutions with positive reflection of the word they had received as a gift.

They were able to share their results of how they had followed their star daily, and how they found Jesus waiting to share his truth and grace in their journey.

 

Today, I have prepared for all of you a Star Word.

May you receive your word as a gift from God as we follow the Star of Jesus today.

I hope that you will place your word where you can see it each day so that it can be a reminder of your journey to Jesus as he waits our arrival again and again in all his glory.

I invite those joining us via live stream to take a moment during our time of silent reflection and thoughtfully receive a Star Word for yourself.

As we receive these gifts, may we also follow the light of Jesus into this New Year so that we shine brightly like the Star of Bethlehem, so that others may be led to the light of Jesus, just as the magi were led all those years ago.

 

*Cover Art by Ira Thomas; used by permission