Advent 1: The End is Near, But Don’t Worry

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Church  

Luke 21:25-36
November 28, 2021

Sermon recorded on Friday, November 26, 2021, at Bluemont Church

At the Beginning of Worship

Today we begin our Advent journey: four weeks of preparation for Christ’s coming. Advent is about waiting. During this season we recall the centuries the Israelites longed for a Messiah. It’s also a season in which we are reminded that we, too, wait the return of the Messiah at the end of history. We wait in hope for what is to be. We wait because we know the future will be wonderful, kind of like a kid knowing that Christmas will be incredible when whatever present is the big one that year is found sitting under the tree. 

But there is a trap in such thinking. Yes, it’ll be wonderful to be united for eternity with our Savior, but Jesus wants us to enjoy life, here and now. We’re not to just sit and wait for his return. Let me explain… 

If you haven’t read Marshall Goldsmith, I recommend him. He is one of the world’s leading business gurus and advises leaders of multi-national companies. In one of his books, Goldsmith describes himself as a cultural Buddhist. This means he appreciates Buddhist philosophy but doesn’t practice the religion. He describes what he gains from Buddhism as an antidote to what he labels our “Great Western Disease.” We often think, “I’ll be happy when…” I’ll be happy when I have a million dollars, or a new house, or sports car, or a boat, or a spouse… We’re like me as a boy waiting on Christmas, “I’ll be happy when I find that Daisy BB gun under the tree.” 

Don’t put your happiness into the future

The idea of achieving a goal to bring about happiness puts everything off into the future. Such thinking is very Western. We fixate “on the future at the expense of the present.”[1]

Interestingly, Jesus says similar things about making the most of today and not worrying about the future, especially in his “Sermon on the Mount.”[2] But then, Jesus’ way of thinking wasn’t very Western. As we’ll see in our morning text, Jesus reminds us that the near future may not even be all that nice. But we should have faith and not worry.  

Before Reading the Scripture

We’re exploring a passage from Luke’s gospel today, from the 21stchapter. During this Advent season, I will draw upon the scriptures from the lectionary. 

Let me give you some context. Jesus is finishing up his earthly ministry in Jerusalem. Our passage is the last of Jesus’ public addresses recalled by Luke in his gospel.[3] The setting is the week between what we call Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, and Good Friday, when he was crucified.  

Jesus and the disciples are on the temple grounds. The chapter opens with Jesus pointing out to the disciples the “widow” giving her mite to the temple treasury. Then he begins to speak about the temple’s forthcoming destruction. This shocked everyone. That structure was strong. I just learned recently that the temple foundation stones Herod used were 40 cubits in length, approximately 60 feet. Can you image moving such rock without modern equipment?[4]

 Yet, approximately 30 years after Jesus spoke these words, when Rome puts down the Jewish Rebellion, the Empire destroys both Jerusalem and the temple. Our passage is an example of eschatological literature. But Jesus uses a near event (the destruction of the temple) to foreshadow a distant event of which we still wait. 

Read Luke 21:20-36.

After the Reading of Scripture

I looked back in my files and found the last time I preach on this text was in December 2012. I’d made a note on this sermon. Five days earlier, I had a surgery to remove and biopsy a cyst from my forehead. The blood for the surgery drained down around my eyes and my cheeks. My right eye was almost swelled shut. I looked like I had gone twelve rounds with George Foreman. I provided the congregation a visual image of what one might look like dealing with the chaos Jesus’ describes. I may not be the best thing to look at in the pulpit, but I look a lot better today than I did that day!  

Worrying about “The End”

“Nothing lasts forever; even the earth and sky will pass away,” Jesus tells us. Only his words will survive. Or, to put it another way, only God is eternal. Of course, we want to know when such things will happen. We’re no different that the disciples. 

Are the things Jesus speaks of in this chapter happening, now? Some will say yes, but that’s nothing new. And yet, Jesus, in other places, is adamant that we’re not to worry about the tomorrow.[5] Furthermore, Jesus teaches that only the Father in Heaven knows when the world will end.[6] What’s going on here? Is Jesus giving us a clue? I don’t think so.

Whenever things start to go bad, people begin predicting the world’s demise. But so far, the world muddles along. Barry McGuire sang about “The Eve of Destruction” in 1965 and with minor tweaks to the lyrics, the song would be just as relevant in 2021 as it was then. Prophets come and go, plagues come and gone, wars and come and go, but so far, the world remains. This doesn’t mean the world we know won’t end, it will; but as for when, we have no idea. And we’re not to worry. 

Avoid those who suggest the end is at hand

Jesus doesn’t want us to worry whether today will be the day. After all, earlier in the chapter, Jesus warns the disciples not to run after those prophets who claim that the time is near.[7] Instead, I think this passage is more pastoral, about how we are to live our lives in the middle of chaos. As disciples, we’re not exempt from suffering the tragedies mentioned. But instead, as Jesus’ said earlier in this chapter, during all this trouble, we are to be Christ’s witnesses.[8]

Know you’re in God’s hands

Jesus begins with the cosmos (the heavens and the earth), then moves to the changing of the seasons, and concludes with words that speak to our hearts. We’re to live knowing that things are in God’s hands and are under control. So, it doesn’t matter if the world ends today or a thousand years from today. God matters, and God has a lot more power and compassion than us. We’re not left to fend for ourselves, but to take hope in the power of a loving God.

Mayor Bob

One of the first individuals I met in Hastings, Michigan, as I was discerning the call to the Presbyterian Church there, was Bob. He was the mayor, and a good man but had never joined a church. We became friends. I think it took Bob five years before he attended a church service, even though we often talked about faith. Slowly, he began attending church and made a profession of faith. Around the same time, he was diagnosed with cancer. 

And then the strangest thing happened. In the months before he died, Mayor Bob ministered to me many times. It was like a role-reversal. I’d visit with Bob, sometimes in the hospital. I tried to help him make sense of things and to remind him of God’s presence despite evidence to the contrary. But Bob accepted what was probably going to happen. He would tell me that he desperately wanted to live. He had things he wanted to do in the city and community. But he also said that it doesn’t matter what happens. It’s going to be okay. If he was given another reprieve from cancer, great! And if not, fine. He’d be in Jesus’ hands. 

What an incredible testimony. It’s one thing to make such a testimony when things go well. But as Jesus reminds us in this passage, things won’t always go well. Bob had the kind of faith Jesus encourages. Do not worry about these things. At some point, in our lives all of us will have such signs. But instead of worrying, we’re to live in the hope that such signs mean our redemption is near. Only someone assured of his or her faith can have that kind of trust.

Don’t try to predict “The End”

People have often tried to interpret when the end will be based on Jesus’ words, but that’s a misinterpretation of what our Savior taught. Jesus taught us to not to worry about tomorrow, not to fear the end, but to live for today.

The danger of fear

Yet people misuse these texts to incite fear. That’s not their purpose. Jesus doesn’t want us to run around afraid. Jesus wants us to be assured when things look bad that God is with us. The 23rd Psalm reminds us that the Lord is with us when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus is not trying to scare us but to assure us when things look bad. 

I had a professor in seminary who spoke about hell-fire sermons. I think the same warning should be made about fearful preaching on these kinds of texts. He said that if we dangle the souls of our congregation over the fires of hell, we may cause more fear than salvation. In this case, our listeners may wind up hating evil more than loving the good. Such teachings result in disciples who don’t necessarily follow Jesus. Instead, they become good haters who miss the whole point of Jesus’ message. Sadly, we see this a lot!

Jesus tells us in this passage that when we see things happen which we can’t explain, we should raise our heads because our redemption is drawing near. We are not to be afraid. Jesus doesn’t say when this will happen, but that it’s getting closer! Time marches on.

The near and distant future

In this passage, Jesus speaks of something that is soon, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Such events were only a three or four decades in the future. They foreshadow the end of history when Jesus returns. So, we live in the in-between season, waiting for our Savior’s return. As one Biblical scholar writes, “The end cannot be prepared for by anticipating and forecasting, but by watchfulness and faithfulness in the present.”[9]

Know by the seasons

We’re now entering the winter season. We’ve had several hard freezes; on Friday morning, the winter wind howled. But we all know that come March there will begin to be signs of springs. In the swamps, even if there is still snow on the ground, skunk cabbage will appear. It’s a unique plant that creates its own heat and can melt enough snow to poke its head above the muck. In other areas, shoots of ramps will appear. Then buds on trees will start popping open and in places the ground will be covered with trillium and mayflowers.

We’ll know then that winter is on its way out and summer is approaching. Jesus says it’s going to be the same way with his coming. So, we “guard our hearts” and avoid trying to ignore the signs by over-indulging ourselves or getting drunk, yet we’re not to worry. Yes, we remain on guard and alert but don’t be frightened. We have hope in the one in control.


By being alert, but not being overly concerned, our hearts won’t be weighed down. We accept today as a gift from God and rejoice in it, but we also realize that tomorrow will be a gift of God, whether the earth continues, or dissolves. But we’re not to worry, we’re to be concerned for today and that we’re doing what we can to bring God glory.  

Let me end with a question. If God comes back today, what do you want to be doing? The work of a disciple? Or living in fear of what might happen? Amen.  

[1] Marshall Goldsmith, Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, How to Get It Back If You Lose It (New York: Hyperion, 2009), 79-80. 

[2] Matthew 6:25ff. 

[3] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 592

[4] Edwards, 593. Josephus gives the measurement of stones of 40 cubits. 

[5] Matthew 6:31-36

[6] Mark 13:32

[7] Luke 21:8

[8] Luke 21:12-19. See Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), 244-245. 

[9] Edwards, 610.

Mayberry Church’s float (which took first place in the Meadows of Dan Christmas parade)

Thanksgiving Day, Mid-1960s

Coffee can in a field behind my grandmother’s house, 2007

I lived in Petersburg, Virginia, during the first three years I was in elementary school. But only one year do I remember having thanksgiving there, with a turkey my father shot while deer hunting on the Nottingway River. The other two years, we headed back to Moore County, North Carolina for Thanksgiving. The song, “Over the hills and through the woods, to grandma’s house we’d go,” played in my head as we drove through the night. We’d leave Wednesday afternoon, after school and after my dad finished work. This way, we were in Pinehurst for Thanksgiving morning and would drive home on Sunday. On one occasion, all the men of Culdee Presbyterian gathered for breakfast and a brief worship service. Perhaps this was designed to keep the men from interfering with things in the kitchen. It may have been the same trip, that all the men at my grandparents’ home went out hunting in the afternoon. My grandfather knew better than to get into my grandmother’s way in the kitchen. 

We gathered in my grandparents’ front yard and crossed Juniper Lake Road, heading back to a field by the foundations of a house long gone. I’d been here many times. Once my uncle took my brother and me to a graveyard out behind where the house once stood. He told us of the folks buried there. Each grave was marked with a metal plaque welded to a metal post and stuck in the ground. I’d seen such markers before, on freshly dug graves in the cemetery by the church. These types of markers would stand until replaced with a tombstone. Larry concocted a story about these folks being too poor to buy any permanent tombstone. It just didn’t right to hunt in a graveyard and I expressed my concern and quickly learned that we’d been duped. There had been no cemetery. My uncle and his friends had collected the grave markers from the trash from the cemetery by the church and created a make-believe graveyard. 

This may have been my Uncle Larry’s first hunt. He was probably twelve or thirteen. I was six or seven. My brother and I were too young to have a gun. There by the old foundation, Dad and my grandfather consulted. Larry would go out point, with his youth model shot gun. My dad with his 12-gauge pump, followed by my brother, skirted the south side of the field, through the sumac. I was glad that I wasn’t going with Dad for I never liked the look of sumac, especially in the fall as the dried black berries drooped down, creating an image for me that would give Freud a field day. I stayed with my grandfather, and we worked the north edge of the field. Granddaddy held his Browning double-barrel with both hands, the gun crossing his chest. I walked in his steps a few feet behind. We skirted along the edge of the sand hill, where the land dropped toward Nick’s Creek. 

Time moved slowly as we crossed the field in anticipation. Rabbits might be hiding in the broomsedge. Quail often concealed themselves under clumps of wire grass. I had flushed out coveys before, when not hunting, and the sudden beating of the birds’ wings as they took to flight made my heart stop. But this time, we were ready, knowing if a covey flushed, it’d be over in a second. Sadly, we found no birds, nor did we see any rabbits. After this field, we headed through woods, under longleaf pines and by blackjack oaks. Like before, we crossed through a few older fields grown up in broomsedge before heading home empty handed. No one had even fired a shot. 

It was late afternoon as we stepped into the house. There, grandma, and mom had just finished preparing our Thanksgiving feast. We finally saw the only bird that mattered that day, a big one, already clean, basted, roasted, and browned. It sat tall in the in the center of the table, surrounded by all kinds of goodies. By the time we were done was just a carcass awaiting the soup pot. 

I hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving.

Sin as Idolatry

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
Deuteronomy 5:1-11
November 21, 2021

Sermon recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, November 19, 2021. This may be slightly different from the text below.

At the beginning of Worship

Today, as I’ve been doing for the past three weeks, we’re exploring key beliefs of what makes us a part of the Presbyterian and Reformed family. Taking sin seriously is one of these tenets. I am sorry to disappoint you, but when it comes to sin, we’re all guilty. 

Sin as Idolatry

Sin finds its root in idolatry-the substituting of something for God. Sometimes we place ourselves in the position of God, as if we know enough to disregard God’s teachings. Other times, our idols can be our spouse, our parents, our children, our jobs, our politics, our country, or even the institutional church. As good as these other things may be, and they can be very good, they are not an acceptable substitute for God. 

Ulrich Zwingli

As I have done so far in this series, I am linking our topic to a theologian. Today, we’ve prayed prayers written by Ulrich Zwingli, who was the first to reform the churches in Zurich. Zwingli was probably the most radical of the major first-generation reformers.[1] He strove to remove anything that which might be construed an idol. Thisled to a purging of the churches of any artwork. In this manner, the pendulum swung too far. Thankfully, not all art has been lost. 

Zwingli also had strong beliefs concerning the Lord’s Supper, which separates him from both Luther and Calvin. Yet, he was a brilliant theologian who died early. With a short life, he did not have the time to produce the massive volumes of written material as did Calvin and Luther. 

Our text today will be from Deuteronomy 5:1-11

After the reading of Scripture

A salty old sailor sat through a sermon at the Seaman’s mission on the Ten Commandments. Afterwards, he was visibly shaken. “What’s the matter,” another asked. “Well,” he said pondering, “at least I ain’t made no graven images.”

Such is the attitude of many of us today. In these modern times, we often overlook the first couple commandments. The days of manufacturing idols of out metals, wood or clay are all gone, or so we suppose. We’re more sophisticated, or so we think. We don’t believe God resides within an idol and therefore think we are safe from breaking this commandment, but are we? We would do best to realize what Calvin taught. Our hearts can be a factory for idols.[2] An idol isn’t just something made to represent a make-believe deity. 

Three Reasons: #1. Commandment from God

In this passage from the beginning of the Ten Commandments, we’re provided three reasons we’re to have no other gods before the One True God.  First, it’s the Lord who gives this commandment. “I am the Lord,” the sixth verse begins.  As Americans, we don’t tend to like titles like Lord. But understand what is being said here. In ancient times a Lord controlled his lands and those who lived on it. What’s implied here is that God, as Creator, rightful holds the title for the earth. “The world and they who dwell therein” belong to God, the Psalmist proclaims.[3]   

Who is God?

Who is this God? The Confessions of the Presbyterian Church bring together many of the attributes of God found in Scripture. We speak of God as “a Spirit, infinite in being, glory, blessedness and perfection.” God is “all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, all present, almighty, all knowing, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth.”[4]  

When we think about God, it is easy for us to be overwhelmed. As mere creatures, God is beyond our imaginations; therefore, God had to come to us in the person of Jesus Christ. It’s easy when contemplating God to give up and resign ourselves never to be able to fully understand God and therefore drop our quest to know God. 


But God, as he lays out his commandments, encourages us. We’re reminded that not only is he Lord, he’s also our God. “I am the Lord, your God,” he says in verse seven.  Not only is God the all-powerful creator, who rightfully claims ownership of Creation, he is also “our God.” God takes the initiative to come to us, to enter into a relationship with us, to be personally involved with us.

Three reasons: #2. Freedom from slavery

The second reason given to us to encourage our compliance with the first commandments is that God led our ancestors out of Egypt. Our Great God, the Creator of all, heard the cries of the Hebrew people as they labored, building pyramids and other sorts of monuments to the rulers of Egypt. 

Today we marvel over their work. We shouldn’t forget that the construction of these ancient wonders was done by the backbreaking labor of an enslaved people. Sadly, the same can be said for our capitol or the White House.[5] But God heard the Hebrew prayers. Over the sound of cracking whips, God listened to their cries, just as he listens to us. Through the leadership of Moses and a host of special effects, God rescued his people. God is not a distant Creator, uninterested in what goes on in the world. Our God listens and answers prayers.

Three Reasons: #3. Out of Bondage

The third reason given for our obeying this commandment is that we were brought out of the house of slavery. The Hebrews were in the wilderness, but Moses reminds them they’re now from Egyptian Slavery. They (and their ancestors) had spent 400 years in bondage. But this isn’t just for them. God can free us all.

Let’s take a bit of liberty with its original meaning and see if we can come up with a meaning for us today. Think of the Exodus event as a model of how God rescues his people. It’s an archetype. With this understanding, we can make this third reason to obey the commandment apply to us personally. We obey because we’ve experienced release from bondage, whatever the form of slavery it might have been. 

Has God helped you kick the smoking habit, beat drugs, get control over alcohol abuse, recover from an accident, a job loss, or a divorce, or regain self-esteem? Regardless of what the issue, if God helps us regain control, we owe him enough not to break this commandment.  

Let God be God and accept the life he offers

Having no other gods mean we let God be God and we trust and depend upon him. God is the giver of life. We need to remember this for whenever we put something between God, and us, we find our lifeline compromised. If you have difficulty breathing and are on oxygen, you want to be careful not to stand on the tubing between you and the oxygen tank. Otherwise, you won’t get the air you need. You might pass out or even die. It’s the same way when we block our access to God through idols.

You may remember the scene in the old comedy, “Airplane,” where a nun on the plane offers to cheer up a girl who is being transported for a life-giving surgery. The nun has a guitar and begins to sing. She really gets into the groove, singing away with the rest of the plane, while she stands on the girl’s oxygen cord. Everyone is having a great time, but the girl struggles to breathe.[6] We’re like that. Sometimes even when trying to do good, we create idols that block us from God. 

God’s will for us is that we draw our life from him and to live abundantly. We don’t want to cut off our supply of his life-giving breath, but we do this anytime we place something between God and us.  

The Second Commandment

The first commandment excludes all other gods. The second commandment forbids any physical representation of either another god or the one true God. At the time the commandments were given, this was a radical departure from the norm. In the Near East, the use of art to depict deities was ubiquitous. Everyone did it. Everyone was into idols. Israel stood alone and offered a new way of looking at God. God is holy and therefore not to be depicted in artwork. 

This doesn’t mean that art is bad. Instead of knowing God through art, God is to be known through our experiences with him. Therefore, the Exodus event becomes so important for the Hebrew people. Through this deliverance, they encountered the living God, whose reality can be described, and then only partially, with language.[7]  

God, in the Second Commandment, goes to great lengths to stress the importance of not having idols: God insists that idols cannot be in any form, whether it comes from the heavens, the earth or the waters. Birds, animals, and fish are all off limits. God is the creator, not the creature. God is the artist, not the subject of art. God doesn’t want to be objectified, for if we can objectify God, we will think we can handle him. Ours is a God that’s too hot to handle. 

God and Idols

Why does God get so upset over idols? I certainly don’t think God is threatened by our misguided actions. God has power over all other make-believe gods, as shown by Elijah with the priests of Baal.[8]There is no danger of God losing his position to one of our idols. Instead of God taking this personally and being upset, God is concerned for our well-being. As a component of our created being, there is a restlessness, a longing, an emptiness within us which we try to fill. God created us this way so that we might see the need to have him fill our restless desire to worship something beyond ourselves. But God wants us to come freely, which means that we will also be tempted to create our own substitute for God. All of us have this desire for fulfillment; idolatry is when we try to satisfy it with something that is less than God.[9]   

Idols are impotent; they are without power, and they provide us nothing except empty promises. Idols rob us of the power we have within ourselves and from God through the Holy Spirit.[10] Our idolatry has gotten more sophisticated; we’ve long given up on the golden calf and little miniature statues of Artemis so dear to the Ephesians.[11] But are we putting our trust in God, or in something else?  

The Incarnation

Surely this commandment means that we are not to depict God in any creaturely way. But as Christians, we acknowledge that 1400 years after the commandments were given, God came to us as a man. We need to understand these commandments in the light of the incarnation. In other words, God himself chose to relate to us in a way we can understand. 

Yet, it’s interesting that we’re not given a physical description of Jesus in the New Testament. The mystery of what God looks like continues! Instead, we’re told that we will meet him when we reach out to someone in need and that we’ll feel his presence when two or more are gathered in his name.[12] God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ means we should not worship a picture, even if we had one of Jesus. 

However, the incarnation gives us a better understanding of the nature of the God we worship and adore. Through Christ, we can have a more personal relationship with God, which is what God wants and we need. Think of it this way, you can’t have a relationship with a piece of art; you can only have such a relationship with the living God. Worship the Lord with all your heart and mind, body and soul. Keep God in the forefront of your lives. And honor God by not using his name in vain. Amen. 

[1] Certainly, Zwingli was more radical than Luther and others within the Reformed Tradition. But other minor reformers, such as Thomas Muntzer, a leading figure in the Peasant Revolt and a major figure within the early Anabaptist movement, would have been even more radical. 

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Faith 

[3] Psalm 98:7, KJV.

[4] Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 7.

[5] In the case of these, the government didn’t own slaves, but the contractors who built the buildings did. See

[6] Airplane,

produced by Paramount Pictures and released in 1980.

[7] Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 114.

[8] 1 Kings 18:20-40

[9] cf, Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for A Christian Spirituality (NY: Doubleday, 1999), 3-5.

[10] Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments in terms of today (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1963), 38-39.

[11] Acts 19:23ff.

[12] See Matthew 18:20, 25:40.

Worship on the Isle of Iona, Scotland

The Death of Politics, A Review

Over the past few years, I have been concerned on the lack of civility in our public lives. We see it in politics, in grocery stores, and on the highways. Before COVID, I was activity attempting to foster conversation about civility. It’s needed in our world. Because of my interest, a parishioner in one of my churches gave me this book.

Peter Wehner, The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump (New York: HarperCollins, 2019), 264 pages including notes.

The death of politics sounds like a good idea. But is it? Politics is how we work out our differences without resorting to violence. If politics dies, so does our democratic society. 

Peter Wehner is a life-long Republican and a conservative who served in Reagan’s and both Bush’s Presidential administrations. He’s concerned over the current state of our political discourse, believing that we are on a dangerous road. We look with contempt at those with whom we disagree. We despite politics when we don’t get our way. We’re angry. Many people have lost hope in the political process to help guide us peacefully out of this situation. In this book, Wehner begins discussing how we’ve gotten into such a position as a society. While he was concerned over Donald Trump, Wehner acknowledges this slip has been going on in America at least since Vietnam. What gave Trump his power was his ability to harness such negative energy. 

This is not really a book about Trump. Wehner’s concerns are much deeper. He begins with a discussion on how politics is a noble calling. Then he delves into how we found ourselves into a position where we hold politics in disdain. Before offering suggestions on how to make things better, Wehner provides a civil lesson in how politics should work. He draws on the political insights of Aristotle, John Locke, and Abraham Lincoln. As a conservative, he also pulls ideas from the British statesman, Edmund Burke, along with many Americans conservatives, especially Reagan and William Buckley. 

My favorite part of the book are the middle chapters (4 and 5), titled “Politics and Faith” and “Words Matter.” While Separation of Church and State is enshrined in the Constitution, America is fundamentally a religious country. The founders of our nation, while wanting to keep the church and state separate, “argued that religion was essential in providing a moral basis for a free society” (66).  Wehner builds upon the Biblical foundation that we’re all created in God’s image. Recalling the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, he reminds that church that it is not the master nor the servant of the state, “but the conscience of the state” (88). He is very critical of many within the evangelical circles and of Trump. He suggests that Trump’s morality is more Nietzschean than Christian and that many evangelicals are “doing more damage to the Christian witness than the so-called ‘New Atheists’ ever could” (80-81). 

Wehner ends the chapter with four suggestions for Christians in today’s political climate: 1. Begin with Jesus, with what he taught and the example he modeled. 2. Articulate a coherent vision of politics, informed by a “Christian moral vision of justice and the common good.” 3. Model “moving from anger to understanding, from revenge toward reconciliation, from grievance toward gratitude, and from fear toward trust and love.” And finally, 4., “treat all people as ‘neighbors they are to love (86ff).’”  Interestingly, in his acknowledgements, he thanked Philip Yancey (whose memoir I reviewed a few weeks ago) for helping him with this chapter. 

Chapter five, on words, he begins recalling many of John Kennedy’s speeches. As a student of politics, even though a Republican, he noted the eloquence of Kennedy’s style that launch a decade in which America made great gains ending up on the moon. It is interesting, too, how Presidents tend to be remembered by their words more than their policies, of which he provides examples across political spectrum and ages. Drawing from David Reynold’s book, Mightier than the Sword, which looked at the impact of Harriett Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin on changing the discourse over slavery in America, Wehner makes the case that words can help move a society in a more noble manner.

Wehner also shows how words and rhetoric can be misused. Here, he primarily focuses on how words can help foster racial biases toward others. He also notes our tendency toward “confirmation bias,” where we tend to listen and read only that which confirms our own prejudices. He is critical with how words are used as weapons, and how truth no longer matters as long “our side” wins. Wehner suggests as an antidote to our bias, that we read widely. He ends this chapter drawing from the English author, “George Orwell, especially his essay “Politics and the English Language.” He suggests that reclaiming language is necessary for us to reclaim politics (139). 

In chapter 6, Wehner turns to the topic of moderation, compromise, and civility. Here he begins to offer more suggestions with how we might live together peacefully despite our differences. The goal of society is not to have everyone think the same, but to allow people coexistence. Drawing upon the ideas of James Madison, he recalls how the founders of our constitution understood humanity as flawed but also capable of virtue and self-government. Sadly, he sees our current situation as pushing us in the opposite direction, toward alienation from one another. To reverse direction, we need the constitution’s system of checks and balances to work. He makes a case for moderation to temper the populist anger that judges others to be “evil and irredeemable” (151). Moderation understands the complexity of our world and “distrusts utopian visions and simple solutions” (153). When we are moderate in our ideas, we are willing to compromise (which isn’t a bad word, but how we settle differences). Finally, we need to be civil toward one another. Here, Wehner draws from his faith, quoting the Apostle Paul advice to the Colossians, “Let your conversations be always full of grace…” and from his “fruits of the Spirit” which he encouraged the Galatians to demonstrate in their lives (163). 

While Wehner encourages citizens to support candidates for office who model moderation, compromise, and civility, he also realizes that the anger within society has often been fueled by outside sources. He calls for a blockage of foreign web bot sites that spreads false information and encourage civil unrest. Organizations like “Better Angels” and “Speak Your Peace”, as well as columnists like David Brooks and Yuval Levin are offered as good examples that will lead us to a more civil society.  

In his final chapter, Wehner makes the case for hope. He reminds Americans of the social regression between 1960 and 1990, which saw a 500% increase in violent crimes, 400% increase in out of wedlock births, increase in children on welfare, teenage suicide, and divorce. But then, things started to improve, with a decrease in these areas. But we’ve forgotten how things should work.  He chides conservatives for focusing only on the cost of government and not on its effectiveness. Wehner also acknowledges his own failures within George W Bush’s administration in relation to Iraq, admitting that they were wrong in their assumptions. He also admits that its easier for him to be a “Monday morning quarterback” and to critique from the outside than the inside. Finally, he encourages us to care enough to act and to move beyond our current “bread and circus” style of government. 

One of the keys in being civil, which Wehner recognizes, is that it must come internally. Civility won’t be achieved with conservatives demanding it of liberals, or liberals demanding it from conservatives. Instead, we all must realize that more is at stake. The soul of our nation is in danger. What can we do as individuals to help change the tenor of the political conversation? Those of us who are followers of Jesus should be at the forefront in displaying civility. I encourage others to read this book.  

My review of other books of similar interest:

P. M. Forni, The Civility Solution: What To Do When People are Rude

Ben Sasse, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal

W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media

Arthur Brooks, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America

John Kasich, It’s Up to Us: Ten Little Ways We Can Bring About Big Change

Romans 8: Election and Augustine

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
November 14, 2021
Romans 8:18-30

Recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, November 12, 2021

At the beginning of worship

I am continuing to review the theology that makes us Presbyterian and a part of that body within Christ’s church known as Reformed. Today, the topic is election. No, I am not talking about what we did a two Tuesdays ago. I’m talking about the only election that manners in eternity: God voting for us. 


Election is another name for predestination—a belief that God is in control and knows how things are going. As one theologian writes, “In prosperity and in adversity, God is for us, in us, and with us. This conviction is… a mystery to be experienced by the faithful.”[1] Election is a mystery and a source of our comfort. We hear an echo of this when Jesus says: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”[2]

Augustine of Hippo

As I have done with this series, I am attaching a theologian to this doctrine. Augustine is today’s mystery theologian.[3] He lived in North Africa in the late fourth and early fifth century. He’s considered the most influential theologian from the early church; therefore, it’s important we know something about him. His father was pagan and his mother a Christian. A scholar early in life, he lusted after women and enjoyed parties. Much to his mother’s dismay, he kept a mistress. During his first thirty years, he certainly didn’t appear to be on the road to sainthood. But that changed!

A mother’s prayer

Augustine had a mother who continually prayed for him. Any of you who mothers wonder if your prayers for your children do any good? Draw inspiration from Augustine. Thanks to his mom’s prayers, along with the work of a theologian named Ambrose, and more importantly the work of the Holy Spirit, Augustine discovered Christ. At the age of thirty, he put aside his wild ways and focused his attention on the church.

Encounter with Pelagius

During Augustine’s ministry, the Roman world collapsed. The church found itself attacked by left-over pagans, who blamed this chaos on Rome abandoning the gods of old. The church also found itself attacked internally. Many Romans flooded to North Africa as refugees. Among these refugees was the English theologian Pelagius. His writings have not survived so his teachings can only be reconstructed by the response of his opponents. It appears he questioned the doctrine of Original Sin and held that people could, by our God-given will, accept Christ, make the necessary changes, and be saved. So, Augustine had two battles—one with those outside the church and one with a sect within the church. In his answer to Pelagius, he expands the doctrine of election (or predestination), a doctrine from which he borrows heavily from the Apostle Paul.  

Today’s sermon will be taken from the eighth chapter of Romans. This is a comforting passage. Ultimately, for Augustine and Calvin and Paul, election or predestination is a doctrine of comfort. 

Read Romans 8:18-30                                  

After Scripture Reading

Election and Fate

Two of my favorite theologians are Frank and Ernest (from the comic strips). Ernest asks Frank if he believed in fate. “Sure,” Frank says, “I’d hate to think I turned out like this because of something I had control over!”

In the last 200 years, predestination has taken a bad rap. Some equate predestination to fate, but that misses the point. Predestination is a part of Christian Theology which says that God is all powerful and is in control of the world and because of this, God knows what will happen and is working to bring out good in all things. 

Mortal danger of freedom

Of course, this type of thought doesn’t seem to allow much room for “free will.” And we, especially us Americans, like to think of ourselves as free… We only need to look from a Biblical perspective to see what freedom does for us. (I can take a bit of that apple[4]) It draws us deeper into sin. So, if we are to have any chance at salvation, God must be in control… God, not us, is the author of salvation. The only safe kind of freedom we find comes from us willingly becoming a servant of Christ.

An analogy

One analogy that attempts to explain this imagines the world as one giant supermarket—think of one of the larger stores in Mt. Airy or Christiansburg. We’re all inside shopping and are freed to pick the items that we can reach and place them into our carts. Some of these items are good for us like spinach and celery. We are also able to pick up things that aren’t so good like highly processed foods loaded with sugars and fats. But God is with us and guides us and, when we’re not looking, adds things to our cart from up on the top shelves, where we can’t reach, like salvation. We think we’re in control, but are we really?[5]

We Presbyterians have often been characterized as believing in an elitist form of predestination. I believe this is generally because most people perceive this doctrine on the same level as Frank in the comic strip. They see predestination as fate, as a crutch. If I am predestined to be saved, I don’t have to worry about anything and if I am not predestined, then I cannot do anything to change my fate anyway… This maybe how the average person understands this doctrine, but it’s not totally correct.

Our call to share God’s word of comfort to everyone

Our Confessions challenge such thinking as foolish. We are to teach everyone God’s word in the hope that they might repent.[6] This is part of our calling as a Christian. The doctrine of predestination is a doctrine of comfort for those who are saved, yet still suffer. It is not a doctrine designed to lead people to Christ. To perceive predestination only within salvation is to misunderstand it.

Predestination in Scripture

Before I go too far, I would like to clear up one basic misunderstanding concerning predestination. This is not only a “Presbyterian” doctrine, regardless of what the followers of Wesley might say. The concept was clearly presented by Augustine in the early church. His writings influenced both Calvin and Luther, but all three were deeply inspired by Scripture. Paul writes that we have been “chosen before the foundations of the world”, and that “from the beginning, God has chosen us to be saved.”[7] In the Old Testament, the Lord tells Jeremiah God knew him in his mother’s womb.[8]


I do not believe we can have a theology which takes sin and the power and providence of God seriously without having a doctrine of election. However, this is a part of the counsel of God. We will never fully understand it. As with much with God, it’s a mystery.[9] But it’s also a hopeful concept firmly grounded in our belief that God works in the world to bring things around for the best.  

A simplified view of salvation

At the risk of over simplifying, I will summarize our theology into four basic parts: First, we are sinners. Paul makes an extended effort in Romans to emphasize this.[10] Second, God still loves us as shown in the life of Jesus. Third, God’s Spirit gives us the power to respond to this love and frees us from our bondage to sin. And finally, we respond to God’s love with praise and worship, as we dedicate our lives to God.

If you followed this, you see that our salvation is God’s doing. Once we accept God’s love, once we accept Jesus as Lord, we then respond by working to bring God further glory within our lives. For a Christian, our work and ethics grows out of our response to God. They are not an attempt to earn God’s favor, for God has already freely loved us. Predestination then, is not something terrible. Instead, it is a comforting mystery. We know God is working things out for the best.  

What do we make of our suffering?

Paul ties predestination with human suffering and misery. Paul does not diminish the suffering which Christians and all humanity experience in life. We suffer from illness and accidents, from broken hearts and back-stabbing friends, and from other people prejudices and our own missed opportunities. Life can be painful, and Paul does not deny it. Instead, he points out that all of creation is longing for the fulfillment of God’s promise. Creation, which was cursed along with Adam, Eve and the snake, longs for the new day when decay will be no more.[11]

Our hope

All creation and humanity share in the hope. We share together in their quest for a better world, one we cannot conceive but trust that the pain known here will be removed.[12] But we are in a transition period in which sin and hurt still prevail… To comfort us in the interim, God’s Spirit is present. Paul even writes that we cannot pray properly, so the Spirit intercedes on our behalf. Think of this: God even helps us pray, which is kind of like God dropping goodies into our grocery basket!

When you think of predestination, don’t be concerned with loss of freedom. Instead, focus on God’s kingdom and how we glorify God in our lives.[13] We must understand what God has done in our lives; knowing that even when things seem messed up, God is there beside us; and that the future belongs to God, and it will be glorious.

Comfort and Assurance

There are two basic things which come out of our theology. First is a comfort God’s providence. We know that God is in control, and we trust in God’s judgment. We do not have to worry and work ourselves to death trying to prove to God, and to others, that we are good… And once we understand that our salvation is grounded in God as revealed in Jesus Christ, we are freed to praise and worship God out of gratitude rather than fear. And we can reach out and love and serve others, not because we need the extra brownie points to get into heaven, but because God loved us first and has given us the capacity to love others.

Romans 8 teaches us to trust God

What can we take from this passage? If we are in God’s hands, we’re going to be okay, regardless. God has the future under control. Don’t worry about it; instead, accept this gift of grace and strive to live a life pleasing to God, knowing that the Almighty has got your backside covered.  Yes, there will still be suffering, but that, too, one day, will come to an end. Until then, glorify and enjoy God and that which God has given. 


Yes, predestination is a Presbyterian doctrine. But it is not the cornerstone of our beliefs. Instead, our theology is built upon a belief in an all-powerful and loving God who is in control of the world and of our future. God created us and through Jesus Christ, promises us new life. Only such a God can save us. To God be the glory!  Amen.  

Mia on a walk (isn’t that a happy face)

[1] Andrew Purves and Charles Partee, Encountering God: Christian Faith in Turbulent Time (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2000), 

[2] John 15:16.

[3] For a biography of Augustine, see Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).  Much of the information about Augustine’s life I refreshed my memory with his entry in The Westminster Dictionary of Church History, Jerald C. Brauer, editor (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 72-74.

[4] Tradition holds that fruit that Eve ate in Genesis 3:6 is an apple. The Scriptures doesn’t identity the type of fruit.

[5] Partee and Purvis, 110.

[6] See Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confession, Second Helvetic Confession, 5.057.

[7] Ephesians 1:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:13

[8] Jeremiah 1:5

[9] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confessions, Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.021.

[10] Paul uses the first five chapters in Romans to build the case of our sinfulness.

[11] Genesis 3:14–19

[12] Revelation 21:1-4.

[13] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confession, Westminster Shorter Catechism, 7.001.

Saying Goodbye to Color

Mayberry Church Road on the 1st of November

My eyes have feasted on a beautiful colored landscape for the past month. Slowly the trees turned color. But with last week’s heavy frost, the trees are now mostly brown or their leaves have fallen to the earth, to rot into the soil and nourish another season.

I thought I would share some of my favorite photos from this color season, along with two poems. One I wrote on Sunday evening, having done my 4 1/2 mile hike to Laurel Fork and back. Once I climbed my way up out of the hollow and the forest gave way to the hayfields, I was treated to a perfect ecliptic in the sky with four heavenly bodies (a crescent moon, Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter) visible. The other poem was written while taking Amtrak’s Crescent (formerly Southern Railroads “Southern Crescent”) from Danville, VA to Atlanta.

Mayberry Church Road in late afternoon


The young moon, just above the horizon,
flirts with Venus as darkness descends.
The red of sunset has faded 
except a thin line just above the trees to the west, 
as Saturn and Jupiter, the only other objects visible
look on with approval.

Venus and the new moon. Saturn and Jupiter would be to the left, behind the oak still clinging to its leaves. Photo taken with an iPhone, handheld.
Laurel Fork early in October, with just a hint of color.

Bear Creek Road in late October

Nursery Road in late afternoon

Asleep on the Southern Crescent

Maturing moon high overhead
fills my compartment with light 
as the blowing whistle up front
announces our fleeting presence,
followed by clanging bells 
and the flashing red lights 
of the crossing guards.

The train snakes into the Carolinas,
with stops, I’m told, in Greensboro, 
High Point, Salisbury, Charlotte, Gastonia,
Spartanburg, Greenville, and Clemson.
But I sleep soundly and wake up in Toccoa, Georgia.

At breakfast, I’ve learned we lost a bit of time
in Charlotte, as they worked on a toilet,
but I never knew anything had happened.

My compartment at daybreak, on my return trip from Atlanta.

Mia, my frequent hiking companion (for short hikes)
The leaves may be gone, but there is still beauty to observe. Early November, behind Nester’s Cemetery.

The Role of Scripture

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
November 7, 2021
2 Timothy 3:10-17

Recorded on Friday, November 5, at Mayberry Church.

At the beginning of worship: Scripture

Today we’re continuing looking at the key beliefs for those of us within the Reformed or Presbyterian tradition. Last Sunday, we began with God. Faith starts with the Almighty. I also looked at one of our important Reformers, John Calvin, and what he had to say about God. God has shown us his grace throughout history. God comes first, even before anything is written down.[1]

Our theme is Scripture. I will parallel my thoughts while drawing on the life of another Reformer, Martin Luther. But first, let me say something about Scripture and Theology. Some people think Scripture should come first, before a doctrine of God, but I disagree.[2] If we put the Bible before God, we’re risk making an idol out of the Scripture. Idols, whether of a book or of stone, are forbidden. We don’t worship the Bible. We worship God revealed in Jesus Christ, of whom we learn about through the Scriptures. 

Because Scripture teaches about God and our human condition, it plays an important role in our faith. The authority of the Bible comes from the one who inspired it. But it wasn’t always this way. Before the great awakening of the church in the 16th Century, known as the Protestant Reformation, the Western Church held to multiple sources of truth: the Bible, the church, and tradition. In time, errors seeped into the church, leading Martin Luther to proclaim that only scripture held ultimate authority and that the pope and church councils are fallible. This didn’t go over well in some corners.  However, Luther ideas spread throughout Europe challenged the established hierarchy. 

Introduction to Martin Luther 

Unintentionally, Luther began the church that now bears his name, but he also placed his stamp on the entire Protestant Reformation.  

Unlike the Swiss Reformers, such as Calvin whom I wove into my sermon last week, Luther didn’t want to leave the Catholic Church. He believed if he could demonstrate the Pope the church’s errors, things would changed. But the church, it seems, always resist change and Luther found himself at the head of a new movement.  

Early in his ministry, Martin Luther had a troubled soul. It bothered him that he might forget and leave some sin unconfessed and thereby assigned to perdition. Luther’s early belief wasn’t in a God of grace. In reading the book of Romans, a light flashed in his brain. He experienced God’s grace. Luther developed a faith in God’s goodness as opposed to his own good works. He understood that scripture, God’s revelation to us, trumped all human authority. 

The bumper sticker, if they’d had them in the 16th century, on Luther’s carriage would have read: “Grace alone, Faith alone, and Scripture alone.[3] In other words, Scripture tells us we’re saved by God’s grace through faith… This doesn’t mean that things like tradition or the ordering of the church weren’t important. They were and still are, it’s just that they’re just not authoritative. Scripture, God’s revelation, is our source for authority. This concept united the German and Swiss Reformers. 

I should say one other thing about Luther and the Bible. Gutenberg had invited the moveable-type printing press only 70 years before Luther began his ministry. This was an era when literacy was on the rise and for the first time in the history of the world, books including Scriptures, were cheap enough that common people could own them. This technological change fed the Reformation. 

Today, my focus is on the role of Scripture and our text is from Paul’s second letter to Timothy.

Read 2 Timothy 3:10-17.

After reading the Scripture

When I was a child, I idolized Dennis the Menace. In one cartoon, his Sunday School teacher asks him to name things found in the Bible.  Dennis ponders for a minute and then responds: “my baby picture, dried up flowers, an’ a piece of bacon that I’ve been saving.” I am sure we have all placed important things that we don’t want to lose in the Bible, which in a way shows our reverence to this book even if it isn’t its intended purpose. We know that such things are safe there! 

As a family, we always had such a Bible in the living room. It probably weighed twenty pounds. We read it on Christmas Eve. Lighter Bibles were used for general reading. However, I remember my mother remarking that we need to dust the Bible just in case the preacher came by (I can assure you I never look for dust on the Bible when I visit).  

And then there was a kid asked by his mom when the preacher visited to “bring that big book I’m always looking at.” To her horror, her son brought her Sears and Roebuck’s catalog. Of course, it’s been a while since there was a Sears “Big Book.” To liberally paraphrase Isaiah, “catalogues come, catalogues go, but the Word of God stands forever.”[4]

Luther and the Diet of Worms

Back to Luther. Did you hear about him and the Diet of Worms?[5]Thankfully it had nothing to do with weight loss. However, I’m sure such a diet would be an effective weight loss program, for everything but robins. 

The Diet of Worms was a meeting of the German princes with Martin Luther. There, he refused to recant his teachings. Luther was on the fast track to his own barbecue. To save Luther, Fredrick, one of Luther’s supporters, had him “kidnapped” and took him to the Wartburg Castle. There, disguised as a knight, Luther studied and wrote. He produced a German translation of the New Testament. He felt people needed to have access to God’s word in their own tongue.   

Suffering for God

I’m sure that during this period of his life, when the Reformation was young and the danger was real, Luther could identity with Paul when he writes about his persecutions and sufferings? Paul calls on Timothy to observe his teachings and actions, noting how he remained steadfast through his suffering, and then credits the Lord for rescuing him. Like Paul, it seems that early in the Reformation, the more Luther was attacked and the more danger he faced, the more certain he became of his beliefs. 

In Luther’s case, the Lord worked through a German prince to save his life and to allow him the freedom to expand the Reformation by the publication of a Bible in the vernacular, in the common language of the people. As we are reminded in verse 12, persecution may come to those who desire to live a godly life, yet we are to endure and to remain steadfast in our faith.

Timothy’s background

In verses 14 and 15, we are informed that Timothy, to whom this letter was addressed, had a similar background to many of us. He had been brought up in the faith. He had attended church and Sunday School and the youth group or their equivalent. He knew the sacred writings. His training is credited to his mother and grandmother, Eunice and Lois.[6]We, too, have had others who have instructed us in the Scriptures and to them we should honor and give credit for the gift they’ve given us.

Scripture takes precedent over human authority

The highlight of this passage is in verses 15 and 16 which reminds us that Scripture leads us to faith in Jesus Christ. Scripture takes precedent over all human authority including the church. The Presbyterian Church proclaims this. The Bible trumps both the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions. Those other books aren’t sacred.  They are referred to as “subordinate standards,” “subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him.”[7] The confessions can help us interpret Scripture but cannot replace it. 

The inspiration of Scripture

“All scripture is inspired by God,” we’re told in this passage. Let’s unpack this a bit. For Timothy and his contemporaries in the middle of the first century, scripture was the Hebrew Bible or what we know as the Old Testament. The New Testament, such as this letter, was in the process of being written. But in time, the new canon came into being and the church applied this teaching to both the old and the new. Those of us within the Reformed Tradition see them as equally important. Both testaments contain revelation of God.  

This is the reason most Presbyterians have two candles on the communion table and our seal has two flames beside the cross. One candle (or flame) is for God’s revelation in the Old Testament as symbolized in the burning bush.  The other candle represents the New Testament and God’s ongoing revelation in Jesus Christ that continues with the Spirit which showed up on Pentecost as flames.   So, when we read all Scripture, we can assume this means the entirety of the Bible.

The second item in this phrase, “inspired by God,” also needs to be explored. The word “inspired” comes from the Greek and can be literally translated as “breath.”[8] We read in the creation account of God giving breath to Adam. Through Scripture, God also gives a breath by inspiring those who wrote the Scriptures. Furthermore, through the inward work of God’s Spirit, the Bible is “God’s Word in our hearts.”[9]  

The Purpose of Scripture

This passage concludes with a list of things for which scripture is to be used. It doesn’t say that the Holy Book is a science textbook. The Bible doesn’t give us all answers. And it certainly is not to be used as a weapon. Some Christians need to learn this. 

Instead, Scripture teaches us about God and ourselves.[10] It shows us where we are wrong so that we might realize our path and be brought into God’s grace. It helps us understand what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Even after we have been brought into God’s fold through the forgiveness of our Savior, Scripture helps us along the path toward sanctification—as we strive to live in a manner that will honor and be pleasing to God. In the end, through the study of scripture, Scripture equips to do God’s good works in the world.  

The Bible is a gift from God. In it, we learn about God’s goodness and love and about our role in God’s world and coming kingdom. If we are to be truthful to our calling as Christ followers, we must study and struggle with Scripture, praying for God’s Spirit to guide us. 

The need for Bible Study

We should all be involved in a Bible study. The study of this Bible isn’t something we only do by ourselves late at night as we try to fall asleep. It should also be done with others who seek out God’s will for their lives. Seek out such a study or start a new one. If you need resources or guidance, talk to me. Digging into Scripture is a way to encounter our gracious God and to learn our place in the world.

There was an old Jewish tradition that when a student starts to study the Scriptures, the rabbi drops a bit of honey on the student’s tongue as a reminder that God’s word is sweet. It is life! It’s the sweet life! Embrace it and live. Amen.    

A road in early November. By Jeff Garrison

[1] The classic case of this is the Exodus and the giving of the law at Sinai. The people experienced grace before God gave the rules of the covenant. 

[2] An example of putting Scripture first is the Westminster Confession of Faith, that begins with the canonical books of Scripture. Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion started with God. Karl Barth was even more clear, starting with God’s actions in Jesus Christ. 

[3] I adapted this joke from a comment made by Jack Rogers in a video on the “Essential Tenets”.

[4] Isaiah 40:8 (The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the Word of God stands forever.)

[5] Diet is the name of the German Legislative Assembly. Before modern German, the meeting consisted of princes. 

[6] 2 Timothy 1:5

[7] Presbyterian Church, USA, Book of Order, F-2.02

[8]J.N.D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles: Timothy 1 & 2 and Titus (Hendrickson, 1960), 203

[9] Presbyterian Church, USA, Westminster Confession of Faith, Book of Confession 6.005.

[10] The third question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What do the Scriptures principally teach?”  The answer: “Scriptures principally teach what we are to believe concerning God, and what duties God requires of us.”

Where the Light Fell: A Memoir

Philip Yancey, Where the Light Fell: A Memoir (Random House Audio, 2021), unabridged, 11 hours, 17 minutes. 

Back in the late 1990s, I read several of Philip Yancey’s book. Twenty some years later, I find myself going back to his books for inspiration. This is especially true for What’s So Amazing About Grace? While Yancey often drew from personal stories, in this book he provides even more personal details of his childhood. Yancey was only a year old when his father died of polio. However, he was a college student, bringing home a date, when he accidentally learns the details of his father’s death. An iron lung kept his father alive, but he decided that instead he would trust God. Supported by all the people who were praying for him and against medical advice, he left the hospital. Sadly, it didn’t work out. Raised in poverty by his mother, he grew up not knowing the reasons behind his father’s death. 

Secrets and mysteries abound in Yancey’s childhood world. A bright student, he starts school a year early and skipped the second grade. Although three years younger, he was a year behind this older brother throughout school and college. The two brothers were raised in Southern fundamentalistic churches with a holiness strain. Although their mother came from Philadelphia, she too had been raised in a church that taught the “curse of Ham” (an interpretation of scripture that assigns those of color to subservient positions within society). The two brothers grow up believing the myth of the Lost Cause and of vengeful God. It’s a frightful time as the Civil Rights movement gains strength as unrest around the Vietnam War increases. In time, both brothers revolted against their childhood. As the book ends, the older brother is attending an atheistic church in California, while the younger has become a popular Christian author. 

From the beginning, the Yancey’s boys were their mother’s hope to fulfill her own dream of becoming a missionary to Africa. From an early age, she tells them the Biblical story of Hannah, who consecrated her son to the Lord and gave him to the priest, Eli, to raise him up in the temple (see 1 Samuel 1-3).  For Yancey, he admits this is his least favorite story in the Bible. The pressure upon these two boys, growing up in the church (at times even living on church property where their mother leads the Sunday School) was immense. 

While there is much to lament about Yancey’s childhood, he’s not bitter. “Nothing is wasted,” he acknowledges. He credits this upbringing for teaching him the importance of language and to develop a love of scripture. While he grew up with sermons mostly from Paul or the Old Testament, he learned enough about Jesus to dig deeper. He also appreciates the way the church of his youth was a family.  “Like a family, [church] is a cluster of dysfunctional people. As he fully understands the gospel story, Yancey discoverers grace and finds the strength to move into a deeper relationship with God and with all God’s children. 

Part of the credit for Yancey comes from his wife, who had grown up in a missionary home. The two found solace with each other. Married for 50 years, Yancey doesn’t say much about their life together. This memoir focuses on Yancey’s early years.  

Sadly, Yancey’s story doesn’t end in a fairy tale. His brother and his mother haven’t spoken in decades. Yancey has sought forgiveness from some whom he’s hurt, there are others with whom he’s not been able to reconcile. The president of his college (which he never mentions by name), remains upset over the stories he told while being a student there. But in other cases, such as with his high school nemeses, Hal, he’s able to develop a new friend. Even one of his childhood pastors, of whom he’d been critical, found himself moved by Yancey’s writings on grace. Looking back, he admits to wishing he had discovered grace much earlier in his ministry. 

Toward the end of the book, Yancey digs again into the story of Hannah, whom his mother had used to make him and brother feel guilty for not following her plan for their lives. He notes that it was not Hannah nor Eli that gave rise to Samuel. God called Samuel. We live for God, not for the expectations of others. Yancey claims there are two universal themes in his writings: suffering and grace. He brings them together in these pages.  

I listened to the audible version of this book. The author read his own work, which is always a benefit. However, I will also buy a paper copy of the book as there is much I would like to revisit.  I recommend this book, especially for those who come out of a fundamentalist background or those raised up in the era of Civil Rights.