Paul corrects the Galatians

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Presbyterian Churches

April 24, 2022
Galatians 1:1-11

At the beginning of worship

The “Church Curmudgeon” post daily memes on Facebook and Twitter. If you don’t follow him, you’re missing a treat. With humor, he makes so good insights. This week he posted: “Remember, you are made in the image of God and so is that other jerk you’re arguing with.”[1] Did you catch that? “That other jerk” implies they’re two. And we know who the second jerk is, don’t we? This is what happens when we argue for the sake of being right and forget that we’re first to love one another.  I want you to hold that thought in our service today as we look at Paul attempting to correct a church heading in the wrong direction. 

Before reading the scripture:

This week, we’re starting a series on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. There is debate as to how many and just which congregations he addresses. The Galatians were Gauls, people of Celtic origin, who moved in ancient times into Central Asia Minor (think present day Turkey). However, there was also the Roman providence of Galatia that extended beyond the Galatian ethnic boundaries and included churches in the south in which we know Paul and Barnabas visited and helped organize.[2] But that’s a sidebar. For our purposes, what’s most important isn’t to whom the letter is written, for they are long gone, but the issues Paul addresses.

Paul writes out of concern of false teachings and ideas circulating within these churches. It appears some other missionaries have come in behind Paul, telling the people that they aren’t doing church right. Gentile converts dominated the membership in these churches. These folks left behind their pagan ways and are now being told they must do more to earn their grace. Paul blasts these “agitators” for perverting the gospel and demanding these gentile converts to adopt the Jews ways.

In Galatians, Paul reiterates his beliefs. He summarizes the gospel of grace, informing the Galatians what they should believe and how their lives should reflect God’s mercy. 

READ Galatians 1:1-10

After the reading of the scriptures:

Jayber Crow.

One of my favorite novels by Wendell Berry is Jayber Crow.Jayber finds himself in Port Williams, Kentucky, Berry’s fictional town, in the late 1930s.  He sticks around, becoming the town’s barber. But earlier in his life, Jayber had considered the ministry. He gave it up after he found he had too many questions. Even though his questions remain, in time he begins to serve as sort of a pastor to many in the town, especially the men who find comfort and a listening ear in his shop. In such a position, he also finds himself occasionally in a situation where he must rebuke someone. It’s never pleasant, but sometimes required.

One day, during the height of the Vietnam War, a debate ensued within his shop. There were several men waiting to have their ears lowered, when Troy, one of the local farmers, piped up about the war protestors. “They ought to round up every one of them SOBs and put them right in front of the communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.”  

Troy’s comments were followed by an uneasy pause. No one knew for sure what to say. Should try to top or counter his remarks. Jayber admits it was hard to do, but he stopped cutting hair and looked at Troy for a bit before breaking the silence. 

“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them who hate you,” he quietly quoted.

Angrily, Troy glared at Jayber, asking, “Where did you get that carp?”   

“Jesus Christ,” Jayber responded. 

“Oh,” Troy quietly mumbled. In recalling the encounter, Jayber said “it would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.”[3]

Sticking up for the faith

Have you ever been in a situation where what’s being said goes against what you know is true? If so, do you stick up for the truth? Do you stick up for your faith?  It can be hard, but do you try to explain why Jesus offers a better way? It’s good if we do, yet we must remember such rebukes must be done with humility and not superiority.

“I didn’t love Troy.” At least Jayber is honest; he knows his faults. He confesses his sin. Although he may not quite be there, Jayber strives and certainly has a vision of how love and graciousness are necessary components to any correction offered to another soul. Rebukes are best done in love.

Paul’s opening

Paul has a problem. He’s got to get these folks in Galatia back on track. They’ve turned onto a siding that’s going to end in disaster if they don’t get back on the mainline. So, he writes this letter to refute the teachings of the false preachers whose work within these churches have caused confusion. Paul cares for the people in Galatia, and he has great concern for what those who have stirred up the mess he’s addressing have done.

Paul begins by claiming his credentials for writing such a letter. He declares he isn’t sent by a human commission. However, the church in Antioch did commission Paul as a missionary, but not on their own accord but because they were led by the Holy Spirit.[4] Paul claims to be an apostle sent by Christ through God the Father. Paul’s authority is divine. He’s working to share the message of hope that comes from Jesus Christ. 

Paul is first in a long line of clergy and Christian leaders since, who have been commissioned to do God’s work and who ultimately must answer not to those who have commissioned them, but to God, for their work and actions.

As Paul often does, in his opening, he calls upon the grace and peace of Jesus Christ to be with the church. But here Paul’s goes into more depth. In his other letters, Paul generally moves on after expressing God’s grace and peace. Here he digs in, noting that Jesus has given himself for our sin to free us from the present evil age… All of this is done according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever. At the beginning of this letter, Paul provides insight into why he’s writing and from what authority.

The problem in Galatia

The churches in Galatia have a problem. In Verse 6, Paul essentially says, “What are you thinking?” In many of his other letters, Paul at this point in his beginning gives thanks for those to whom he’s writing, but here Paul goes straight to the problem. The churches of Galatia are abandoning the grace found in Jesus Christ. “You’re accepting another gospel,” Paul accuses. And then, as if Paul realizes what he wrote is quite right, clarifies himself. “There are no other gospels.” The gospel, the good news, can only be found in Jesus Christ.  

Paul closes out our section this morning, returning to his claim that he was not sent by a human commission. Now he says he does not seek human approval, nor is his first concern to please people. If that’s the case, he would not be a servant of Christ. 

The tension in which we live

Paul is living in the tension of all clergy. Who are we to please? The governing board of the church, the Elders, those who contribute the most, those who have the loudest voice, or none of the above. The answer: “none of the above.” The first concern, for clergy, is Jesus Christ. But this doesn’t apply only to me. The same applies to all you, lay members of the church. We seek to please only Christ. And sometimes, as Jesus himself made clear, there will be opposition.[5] However, we’re to still look to Christ, for on that final day it will no longer matter what everyone else says or does. Hearing our Savior say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” is all that matters.[6]

However, like the character Jayber Crow in my favorite Wendell Berry novel, we must be careful. We can’t use “pleasing Christ” as an excuse to say spiteful or hateful things. Whenever we are called to correct someone else, we must do it out of love for both God and for others. 


We’re not that different from the Galatians. I remember learning to play baseball.  It’s the same with golf and tennis. You must keep your eye on the ball. Keep your eye on the ball, just as with our faith, we must keep our eye on Jesus. And we must keep love in our hearts. Thankfully we worship a merciful God who is willing to forgive, for if our salvation depended just on us, we’d be in a heap of trouble.  In thankfulness for God’s mercy, keep your eye on Christ, keep him in the center of your life.  Ultimately, what matters is that we please him.  Amen. 


[2] Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1988), 1.

[3] Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2000), 287.

[4] Acts 13:2.

[5] For example, see Matthew 24:9-14.

[6] Matthew 25:21

This morning’s sunrise

Books on Poetry and Writing and a Poem

Mark Jarman, Dailiness: Essays on Poetry

(Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2020), 177 pages.  

I became acquainted with Jarman’s poetry through poems published in the Reformed Journal.  Dailiness consists of a series of long essays on various aspects of poetry. Originally, I thought I would use this as evening reading, but the essays were too long and deep for that. I found myself falling asleep. They required more attention, so I began to read them in the morning with better success. Not only do these essays need to be read, but they also need to be pondered. As they are independent of each other, I recommend reading one per sitting.  In each essay, Jarman muses about aspects of poetry as he reflects on a concept (like dailiness) while engaging in a conversation with poems throughout the ages. 

After opening with a reflection of the epic Gilgamesh, the author explores the role of metaphor and repetition in poetry. He insists on the need for one to write daily with two essays (dailiness) and devotes essays to poetry as devotion and as part of the religious life. Here, he attempts to save the George Herbert (the parson poet) from critiques of T. S. Eliot and Samuel Johnson. However, to Herbert’s credit, Coolridge appreciated his poetry and Simone Weil credits one of his poems for her Christian conversion. Jarman (as with Malcolm Guite who I review below) explores the work of Seamus Heaney. I found his concluding essay on the pronoun “Something” inspiring.  Reading this essay after church on Palm Sunday, which lead me to write the poem below.  

I liked the book but would only recommend it to those serious about poetry. In a good way I found myself often looking up words (not in a dictionary, but with google on my phone).  Like many books I read this one provided me with another book to check out, John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (University of Chicago, 2014). 

Now here is my poem:

Palm Sunday 2022

Something is happening and will happen this week.
Something so dark and terrible we can barely comprehend over the noise of this day 
filled with excitement and expectation 
as the Messiah rides into Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowd.
For evil lurks behind these walls and in the minds of those in power, 
and soon, the expectation of the crowd will melt into the excitement of a spectacle 
as the innocence one dies and the guilty go free.

Something is happening and will happen this week.
Something so wonderful and hopeful we can barely comprehend over the noise of this day 
filled with excitement and expectation 
as the Messiah rides into Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowd.
For the goodness of God prevails over evil and in the deep darkness of the week, 
on the stillness of the morning of the third day a light will burst from a tomb 
as the innocent one rises and the guilty pardoned. 

                                    -Jeff Garrison, April 10, 2022

Malcolm Guite, In Every Corner Sing: A Poet’s Corner Collection

 (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2018), 196 pages.

I had not read Guite when I heard him speak at the HopeWords Writing Conference in Bluefield earlier this month. While there, I purchased and had him sign this collection of his columns which appeared in Church Times, a British magazine. Each article is about 500 words or two to two and a half pages in length. Although English, Guite spent part of his years growing up in Canada. As I read this book, I enjoyed getting to know him better. Each article draws on poetry, from ancient to modern poets including a few from his own hand. 

 In them, he muses about poetry and the natural world. We learn of a man who enjoys many things, from smoking a pipe to walking his dogs. We also learn of his deep faith in Christ, his delight at the natural world, and how we are connected to those who came before us. Most of these essays have a nice twist at the end. In one story, he marvels at an old bridge as he canoes “Willow” on a river through the bridge. The last two arches in the bridge are “new.” They were rebuilt after having been destroyed Cromwell’s era (17th Century) to prevent an army from taking a town.  After flirting with the bridge, the poetry of Tennyson and Eliot, he ends marveling at the bridge God has built through Christ that cannot be destroyed. 

This was a perfect wind-down book for the evening as I could read through four or five of the seventy-three columns, before closing the book, turning out the light, and going to bed. 

Peter Yang, The Art of Writing: Four Principles for Great Writing that Everyone Needs to Know

(TCK Publishing, 2019), 89 pages. 

Yang distills the writing process into four principles: Economy, Transparency, Variety, and Harmony.  And, with homage to “economy”, he does this in 89 pages. A lot of people could benefit from these principles to help clarify their thoughts on paper. This is the value of this small volume. While this may not be on par with William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, few people will wade through Zinsser’s more detailed prose. What Yang provides are simple ideas, each backed up with a couple of stories and examples. For the person just wanting to learn some basic techniques to make their writing appeal to more audiences, The Art of Writing would be a good place to begin. Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for an honest review of the work.

Easter: Paul’s Defense of the Resurrection

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches  
1 Corinthians 15:12-28
April 17, 2022

At the beginning of worship:

In a devotion for Easter a few years ago, Richard Rohr, reminded his readers that “Easter isn’t celebrating a one-time miracle as if it only happened in the body of Jesus and we’re all here to cheer for Jesus.” Sadly, he concludes, that’s what a lot of people think. Rohr places the seeds for Easter in Christmas, with the incarnation.[1] If God can become flesh (that’s incarnation), the resurrection naturally follows. The resurrection is what Easter is all about. Ask yourself, “What difference does the resurrection make for your life?” Remember, the empty tomb which we come to celebrate today is just the beginning. 

Before the reading of Scripture:

In the 15th Chapter of First Corinthians, Paul provides the most detailed treatment of the resurrection found in scripture. It’s a long chapter. This morning, I will begin reading in verse 12. Here, Paul begins by pointing to objections being made about the resurrection. For Paul, the foundation of our hope in Jesus Christ is found in the resurrection to life everlasting. Yes, we will all die; we will cease to exist. But the grave is not the end!  Later on in this chapter, Paul can ask: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”[2] He can be that bold because he believes, as we proclaim in the Apostles’ Creed, “in the resurrection of the body and in the life everlasting.” 

Read 1 Corinthians 15:12-28.

After reading Scripture:

People turn to the church when there is a death because we’re the only place that offers hope for something beyond our frail mortal bodies. In all the work I did on the history of Western Mining Camps, one of the surprising things I learned was how at the time of death, even people who religiously avoided the shadow of the steeple, would be brought back for a funeral. 

Funerals in the Old West

The friends of Julia Bulette, Virginia City’s most famous prostitute, sought out the presbyterian minister for her funeral. Mark Twain in Roughing It has a wonderful tale about Buck Fanshaw’s funeral. Fanshaw, a leader of the “bottom-stratum of society” and based on a real-life character who had a relationship with Bulette, died. The local roughs elected Scotty Briggs to “fetch a parson” to “waltz Fanshaw into handsome” (their word for heaven). The dialogue between the minister and Scotty is classic Twain.[3] Although funny, it’s a reminder that at the time of death, we want the comfort only the church can offer: the hope in life everlasting in Jesus Christ. 

The resurrection and how we live

But let me suggest that such comfort isn’t just for the dying. It’s also important for how we live our lives. Having faith in the resurrection allows us to be bold. 

We must look no further than to John Knox, the great reformer of Scotland, to see boldness fortified by belief in the resurrection. Knox converted to the Protestant faith through the preaching of George Wishart. Knox first heard Wishart in Leith on December 13th, 1545. While Knox had began moving toward the Protestant movement with his study of Scripture, Wishart’s preaching sealed the transformation. Knox immediately became Wishart’s disciple and spent the next five weeks with him. Knox stuck by Wishart, even though he knew he was marked man. In early 1546, less than two months after the two met, Wishart was arrested and burned at the stake in St. Andrews.[4] Knox avoided such a barbecue, but ended up doing hard time as a prisoner, manning oars on a galley ship. Why would someone be so willing to risk their own life unless they really believe it’s worth it?  

At death and in times of peril, the church is a symbol of our faith and the hope we have for something we can never fully comprehend in this life, the resurrection.

Exploring the text

Let’s look at our text. In verses 12 through 19, Paul plays the devil’s advocate. If there is no resurrection, it’s a big joke. If there is no resurrection, we are to be pitied. Of course, Paul doesn’t believe that. In verse 20, Paul shifts his argument with a powerful “BUT.” This change of direction wipes out the objections he’d just raised. “But Christ has been raised,” Paul proclaims; this truth makes all the difference in the world!

Adam’s sin

Paul begins by contrasting two men who represent more than themselves. Adam is not just our first-umpteenth great-granddaddy; he stands as the primal man, the representative of us all.[5] The death that comes through sin is something we all share. Interestingly here, Paul does not cite Eve or blame her for the first sin, the eating of the forbidden fruit. In this way, Paul is more enlightened than he is often given credit. Within the rabbinical tradition at the time, as can be seen in the Apocryphal literature, Ben Sirach lays the blame for sin and death on the first woman. After all, Eve was the first to nibble on that sinful fruit.[6] But Paul doesn’t go there. Instead, by using Adam as an archetype for all humanity, he shows that we all share in the blame for sin and in sin’s consequence: death.

Response to Adam: Jesus’ resurrection

However, there is good news. Although death came through a human being, so too has the resurrection come through a human being. Paul lifts the Christmas doctrine of the incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God became flesh! Christ is the first-fruit of the resurrection, a term that probably meant more to Paul’s audience than to us today. For you see, the Jews were to bring the first of the harvest, their first-fruits, to God as an offering of thanksgiving. We tend to give God what is left, not our first-fruit, which probably says a lot more about our spiritual state that we’d honestly like to admit. However, this isn’t about our giving, it’s about God’s gift, for God the Father gave us his first-fruit, in that of his Son.  

All this is a part of God’s plan in history, Paul notes. It’s all a part of the great plan to destroy all authorities and powers that defy or challenge God. At the end, there will be nothing to draw our attention from the Almighty. All idols will be destroyed, all that which we fear will be removed, the last of which is death itself. With the removal of that great enemy which has haunted humanity since the beginning, we can worship God without fear or distraction.

Enemies under Jesus’ feet

Kenneth Bailey, in his commentary on First Corinthians, goes into detail about the meaning of Jesus placing all his enemies (the last one being death), under his feet. Bailey suggests that verses 24-27 could be removed and the reader wouldn’t notice. You can try this yourself, at home, just leave the verses out and see how it reads. So why did Paul insert this little segue? It’s to make a political point: Jesus is Lord! 

If Jesus is Lord, that means Caesar isn’t Lord. He cites examples from the ancient world in which the ruler’s footstool often had engravings representing the kingdom’s enemies and when the ruler placed his foot upon the stool, he was making a statement about his power. When Christ has finished, there will be no possibilities of his enemies, including death, making a comeback![7]  

Example of enemies underfoot from Korea

In the winter of 2000, I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks in Korea: preaching, sightseeing and mountain climbing. I visited the imperial city in Seoul, where the emperor once ruled, his throne built on a hill that allowed him to overlook the city. In 1910, Japan invaded Korea. The Japanese decided it was too dangerous to destroy the ancient throne, so instead they built a modern government building to block the view from the city. When there, a controversy over what to do with this building that was architecturally significant ensued. Many wanted to tear it down, which is what happened, but others wanted to relocate it. One of the more creative ideas, which caused a minor international incident with the Japanese, was to dig a hole and sink the building and then glass over the top. That way, the building would not be destroyed, but the Korean people could have the satisfaction of “walking over” or stomping on the visible representation of 40 years of Japanese occupation.  

Enemies not under our feet, but Jesus’

The idea of our enemies being under our feet is still strong in our imaginations, as we can see from Korea. We can only imagine what kind of imagery Ukraine will come up with! Yet, we need to remember that in the eternal realm, we’re not conquerors, Christ is! We’re not the victors; we share in Christ’s victory. The enemies are not under our feet, but his. And they’re not our enemies, they’re his enemies. We might even be surprised to find some of our enemies on Jesus’ side. All things are possible with God. But the important thing isn’t who’s in and out, it’s whether or not we are on Jesus’ side. Consider this, if we are out, we could end up being a footstool. 


Friends, we’re mortal and we’re going to die. We know that, even if we sometimes act as if we don’t. As for when or how we’ll die, we don’t know. But we live with hope. We’re told that Jesus is the first fruit of the resurrection. The implication here is that Jesus will not be the only one raised. Jesus’ resurrection is not the exception to the rule. Jesus’ resurrection is the start of something new: all who trust and accept him will live with him eternally.[8]

And because we put our faith in Christ and through him have faith in the resurrection, we can live this life without fear. We can be like John Knox, following George Wishart to the stake. We can be bold on behalf of our Savior. Friends, live fiercely, in the knowledge that in life and in death, we belong to Jesus Christ.[9] Amen.


[2] 1 Corinthians 15;55.

[3] Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872), Chapter 47.  See also Charles Jeffrey Garrison, “Of Ministers, Funerals, and Humor: Mark Twain of the Comstock,” Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 38, #3 (Fall 1995).

[4] Jane Dawson, John Knox (New Haven: Yale, 2015), 28-32.

[5] Hans Conzelmann, First Corinthians: Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 268.

[6] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2011), 443.  See Sirach 25:24

[7] Bailey, 447.

[8] William F. Orr and James Arthur Walther, I Corinthians: The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1976), 330.

[9] Taken from the opening question of the Heidelberg Catechism. 

Sunrise over Buffalo Mountain

Easter Sunrise Services

Much of this blog post had been originally published as an article in The Skinnie published in March 2018. This version has been slightly edited and altered. 

Easter Sunday 1982, Old Salem, North Carolina

The wake-up call came at 4:30 AM Sunday morning. I am staying at a hotel right across from Old Salem in present-day Winston Salem. Washing the sleep out of my eyes, I hear the music playing from the street down below. It was been warm when I left home in eastern North Carolina, but a cold snap descended on Saturday. I dress as warmly as possible, pulling on multiple layers. I realize I don’t even have gloves with me. 

By 5 AM, I am outside the hotel, walking with strangers, heading to Home Moravian Church. On most street corners, we pass brass quartets playing Easter music, calling people to come. By the time I reached the church, thousands had gathered, waiting in front of the steps of the sanctuary. A cold wind blows and the dark sky spits snow. In the distance, we hear the brass playing. We shuffle around trying to stay warm and waited. The anticipation of the crowd is high as we have all gathered to participate in the second oldest Easter sunrise service in North America. The honor for the oldest sunrise tradition belongs to the Moravians of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who began holding such services in 1754. 

It was still dark when a light comes on inside the church foyer. Then massive wooden doors fly open. The pastor steps out on to the porch. He raises his arms and shouts, “Christ is Risen!” We respond, “He is Risen Indeed!” The Pastor and his assistants step out of the church, and we follow them down Church Street to God’s Acre, the community’s cemetery. God’s Acre is many acres, large enough to hold the thousands who have gathered. We pack in and wait as the sky becomes lighter gray. A few stray flakes of snow still fall.

Then it starts. All those brass quartets unite, and they march in from behind us playing Easter hymns. As they move to the front, we stand and began to sing.  The ministers pray and read scripture. The pastor offers a brief message about the hope of the resurrection. Somewhere behind the gray clouds, the sun rises. A new day begins. The benediction is pronounced and we head our separate ways.  

Arriving back in the hotel, I stop by the restaurant for breakfast. The place is packed with those coming back from the service. The poor lone waitress is running around trying to serve everyone. Most of us just want hot coffee and are willing to wait to eat as we warm up. She apologizes and says the management had forgotten that it’s Easter Sunday and hadn’t scheduled anyone else to work the shift. Several of us help out, taking turns making and serving coffee as she takes and delivers our orders.  

History of the Sunrise Service

The Moravians of Old Salem have been celebrating Easter Sunrise at God’s Acre since 1772, picking up on a practice that begin in Europe in 1732. In the town of Hernhut, which is now in the Czech Republic, the young men of the church gathered in the cemetery during the night and waited for dawn by singing hymns of the faith. The services are simple with hymns, prayers, scripture, and a brief message that is all done to the glory of God. The sunrise service is now an established tradition within the Moravian Church and one that has been adopted by many other Christian denominations.  

Of course, those Moravian young men were not the first to be up at sunrise on Easter. That distinction goes to the women described in the gospels who headed out before sunrise to anoint Jesus body before the tomb was sealed. They were shocked to find the grave open and Jesus’ body missing. As the events of that day unfold, they learn of his resurrection, an event that gives hope to Christians to this day.  

Easter Sunday, 1975, Wilmington, North Carolina

I first attended an Easter sunrise service as a high school student. It was held in a cemetery off Greenville Sound, east of Wilmington, North Carolina.  Unlike the year I was at Old Salem, the skies were clear. And just as the sun broke over the horizon, its rays reflecting off the water and bring warmth to the marsh grass, several ducks took the skies, their calls and the flapping of their wings drowning out the voice of the preacher. Even they celebrated the new day.  In the years before seminary, I would attend many such services at a variety of locations. The message was always the same.  Christ has risen! 

Easter Sunday 1989, Virginia City, Nevada

Mount Davidson from Boot Hill at sunrise

For obvious reasons, sunrise services seem to be more popular in the American South, but as a seminary student pastor, I brought the tradition to Virginia City, Nevada. There, we gathered on “Boot Hill” on a cold morning. The temperature was in the mid-20s and the wind was blowing hard over Sun Mountain. But we witnessed a glorious sunrise, the rays racing up Six Mile Canyon. Afterwards, we enjoyed coffee and warm pastries back at the church.  

Easter Sunday 1991, Ellicottville, New York

In my first call to a church in Ellicottville, New York, a community known for skiing, we partnered with Holiday Valley, the local ski resort, to host the service on a deck outside a clubhouse. It was even colder than at Virginia City, but we dressed appropriately, wearing ski bids and parkers. Nicky, a young woman volunteered to provide music on a keyboard.  We started with a song and were going to close with the traditional hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”  As we began to sing, Nicky missed note after note. I looked over to see what was wrong. The keyboard had frosted over between hymns and her fingers were sticking to the keys. Afterwards, with hot drinks and donuts inside the lodge, we had a laugh over the situation. The next year, she brought a blanket to lay over the keyboard.

Easter Sunday 2020, Skidaway Island, Georgia 

When I accepted the called to the Presbyterian Church on Skidaway Island, I saw the perfect opportunity to hold an Easter Sunrise Service in a park next to the marina on the north end of the Island. Starting in 2015, we began holding services. The first year, we had maybe 50 in attendance. It was beautiful as the sun rose over the marsh and the Wilmington River. 

In 2016, a heavy rainstorm was ensuing, so about 30 who came out made their way to the church’s fellowship hall where held the service. Afterwards, Thom, a member of the church volunteered to video tape a sunrise in which we could use inside just in case of rain. Over the next several years, we had beautiful weather and our number grew to nearly 200 worshippers. 

Sunrise at Landings Harbor, 2017

Then, in 2020, everything shut down because of COVID. The park had been closed and churches were not meeting inside. We decided to to record a sunrise service that involved just a few of us, all maintaining safe distance. After a live stream Maundy Thursday Service (which only had a camera operator, my associate, the organist, a soloist, and myself), we set up a green screen in the sanctuary to record. While the organist played in the background, we all did our parts, stepping in front of the green screen to be recorded. This allowed Thom’s sunrise to play behind us and it appeared as if we were at the marina. 

The most precious moment in the service came when Gene, the soloist, sang “Jesus Christ, is Risen Today.” On the tape, the sun rose as birds took to air. A seagull, on the tape, flew toward the camera then turned back and flew out over the water. On the recording, this bird appeared to fly right through Gene’s head. We laughed and laughed and decided not to cut it out. “That alone is worth the price of admission,” Gene said. 

Sunrise at Landings Harbor Marina, overlooking the Wilmington River

We uploaded the sunrise service to YouTube and set it to go live on Easter Sunday morning. That Easter, we all slept in. 

Sunrise 2022, Bluemont Church

Bluemont Church
Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost #192

This year, there will be a sunrise service at Bluemont Presbyterian Church, located along the parkway at milepost #191. The service is outside so you may want to bring a lawn chair and a blanket. The service will begin at 6:45 AM. Afterwards, coffee and a light breakfast will be hosted in the fellowship hall.  We hope you will join us. 

Other Holy Week Services along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Mayberry Church
Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost #180

April 14        Maundy Thursday communion 
Mayberry Church at 6 PM

April 15        Good Friday Service
Bluemont Church at noon

April 17        Worship at Mayberry at 9 AM
Worship at Bluemont at 10:30 AM

Sir, We Wish to See Jesus

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
April 10, 2022
John 12:12-26

Sermon recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, April 8, 2022

At the beginning of worship:

Palm Sunday. We begin Holy Week as we recall Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Later, when I read the Scripture, I am using the account told in John’s gospel, which is often overlooked on Palm Sunday. But John has something important to tell us. John reminds us of the political nature of this date. The crowds are present at the beginning. They’re ready. They want to see Jesus because of what he’s done, especially raising of Lazarus from the dead. They wave palm branches, symbols the Jews used in their revolts against Rome. 

But Jesus downplays all this by coming into Jerusalem on a donkey.[1]In the ancient world, if a king came upon a city riding a stallion, it was a sign of war. But if he rode a donkey, it was a sign he was coming in peace. Our world today can use a little peace, don’t you think? 

Before the reading of the scripture:

Our reading this morning is from the 12th Chapter of John’s gospel, beginning with the 12th verse. This incident occurs shortly after Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave, and a few days before his crucifixion. The situation in Jerusalem is tense. Paradoxically, we learn in John’s gospel, Lazarus’ life-giving miracle serves as the final straw for the Jewish leaders. In the previous chapter, we learn the leaders in Jerusalem fear Jesus will force the Romans to respond brutally. The decide to kill him. “It’s better to have one man die for the people than the whole nation destroyed,” the high priest said.[2] He had no idea the truth he proclaimed. Providing life for one, Lazarus, leads to the death of another, Jesus. We shouldn’t be surprised, that’s the gospel as Jesus gives his life for ours. 

READ JOHN 12:12-26

After reading the scripture:

Jesus comes into Jerusalem. John leaves off the story of the disciples borrowing a donkey and all that.[3] Instead, John gives us the basics. Jesus rides a donkey, and a crowd has already gathered to see him. They wave palm branches and shout out the from Psalm 118, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” They also quote from the prophets, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”[4]  

John tells us that even the disciples are dismay and unsure what to make of it all. Only after the resurrection do they understand. The Pharisees, however, are worried. From their perspective, Jesus appears to draw the entire world into his camp. Again, as with the high priest, John foreshadows what will happen. In the very next verse, some Greeks asks for Jesus. 

Who are these Greeks?

I like the question they ask Philip. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” It’s a line often found inside the pulpit, a reminder to the preacher that his or her goal is to introduce the congregation to Jesus.[5] Hopefully, at times, we experience Jesus here, as well as in our lives. 

Greeks are outsiders. They are not ethnically Jews. A shift occurs. Jesus primarily worked with the Jews. Now, Greeks seek Jesus. There are disagreements among scholars if these “Greeks” were Greek-speaking Jews, Jewish proselytes, or straight-out Gentiles.[6] Since they’re in Jerusalem right before the Passover, it seems that they must be interested in Judaism. Maybe they are considering the adoption of Jewish practices and becoming a proselyte. But John doesn’t say. Regardless of their background, John uses them to foreshadow Jesus’ larger purpose—salvation for the entire world.  

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” they ask. Jesus draws people to himself, which he still does today, but we’re not told if they ever saw Jesus. The question is asked of Philip—a disciple with a Greek name. Alexander the Great’s father was named Philip. This may be why they approached this disciple, thinking if his name is Philip, he’s one of them. Philip, it seems, can’t do anything by himself. Instead of answering, he runs off finds Andrew (the other disciple with a Greek name).[7] The two of them take the request to Jesus.[8] But John doesn’t tell us if Jesus granted them an audience. Instead, John notes Jesus’ shift in conversation, as he talks about what’s going to happen.  

Jesus takes the conversation in a different direction

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  Now that John has shown that interest in Jesus extends beyond those from in Judah, Galilee and Samaria, Jesus focuses on what is about to unfold. 

Hearing that Jesus is to be glorified was probably sweet music to the disciples’ ears. They’ve been wondering when Jesus would usher in his kingdom. They’ve had visions of Jesus sitting up on David’s throne and them all around him in positions of power and glory. 

But Jesus doesn’t stop at the glory, he continues with a disturbing parable. “Unless the wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a kernel, but in dying it can grow into a plant which bears fruit.” Jesus isn’t just hinting around; he says clearly that he must die. The Pharisees and high priest will get their wish. As Jesus peaks in popularity, his life and ministry on earth comes to an end.

Parable of a seed

Let’s consider this parable. Farming was tough back in Jesus’ day. There were no Co-ops or Farm Supply Stores where you could buy seed. Instead, you kept a portion of your previous harvest as seed so you would have something to plant during the next season. This means that if you had a poor harvest and, as the winter continued, your supply of wheat would dwindle, and you’d have to make a hard decision. Do you eat all your wheat, or do you tighten up your belt and go with less so that you will have seed enough for another crop? Consider your thoughts as you, on an empty stomach, sowed the seeds into the ground. It took faith to be a farmer back then, just as it does today, to bury seeds knowing they’ll die but in the hopes they’ll sprout.

Some of the disciples listening to Jesus’ parable had probably experienced such situations. They knew the value of planting, of letting the seed die in the hopes that God would give it new life and an abundant harvest. Here Jesus talks about himself, about his death, but quickly shifts to talk not just about himself but also about his followers.

The lives of Jesus’ followers

“Those who love their life will lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me…” This idea of losing our lives or losing ourselves for Jesus isn’t too appealing, but there is something to it because variations of this saying by Jesus is recorded in all four of the gospels.[9]

What should we take from this passage? Jesus wants to make sure his disciples, and his followers who come later, know that he came to die. Jesus’ death is counter intuitive. Through his death, through being lifted up (if you’d read ahead to verse 33), Jesus draws all people to himself. Like the seed that dies in the ground as it sprouts new growth, Jesus knows his sacrifice will reap an incredible harvest.  

Jesus like a parent protecting children

“I love you enough to die for you,” Jesus shows. Jesus is like a good parent who will do anything and everything to save the children. It is something instilled in mothers throughout the animal kingdom. I have seen it when paddling on a river and come near to the nests of ducks and one bird takes off, limping, as if to lead us from the nest. The bird keeps moving away from the nest until you are far away and then, flying normally, circles back.

I’ve also seen this behavior when hiking. A grouse will wobble away from the nest, acting hurt, staying just out-of-reach, until you are a safe distant from the nest. Then the bird flies off normally and circles back to the nest. Both birds make themselves vulnerable to save their young. 

I read about such people in the news this week. A Ukrainian couple who could have fled the Russian army, but instead stayed back to help those who weren’t able to flee. And they were killed as they sought out food for their elderly neighbors. 

Jesus’ sacrifice and our call

Jesus sacrifices for us, but he also calls on us to sacrifice for others. It is not just about Jesus’ sacrifice, but our willingness to work on behalf of others. If we follow Jesus, we must, as he said in another place, “Pick up our cross daily.”[10] The Spiritual life is about being in tune with the needs of others. We must be willing to sacrifice, to let go of things we hold dear which hinder our walk with Jesus. 

This passage confirms that following Jesus has cost. It may cost our own lives. Yet, our focus isn’t on what we’ll lose, but on what we will gain in the end.  

Anything worthwhile comes with a cost

We always must give up something to acquire something else, that’s a principle of economics. You can’t have it all. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. So, we make economic decision to sacrifice one thing for another. If you’re a kid and you have a dollar burning in your pocket, you decide if you’re going to spend it on an ice cream cone that’s been tempting you or save it, hoping one day you’ll have enough for a bike. One satisfies an immediate need, the other a long-term need. 

Unfortunately, in our society, immediate gratification generally wins. But not in the gospel! Long-term gratification always takes precedent. Consider Jesus’ words about storing up our treasures in heaven where we don’t have to fear thieves and where they will not rust.[11]

Where is Jesus calling us?

What is it that Jesus is calling us to give up for him? A lot of what is being taught in this passage has to do with death, but I hope you can see a linkage between this parable and Jesus’ teachings on stewardship. In the parable of the talents, in which those who were rewarded had invested all they had, the ones who were rewarded did not hedge their bets.[12] They had faith. 

Jesus calls us to be faithful and willing to invest in the building up of his kingdom. As an individual, that may mean being willing to give sacrificially to Christ’s work in our church and in his missions in the world. Or it may mean you give up a pleasurable vacation and volunteer to go on a mission trip. As a congregation it may mean us making uncomfortable changes in our music or time of worship in hopes of making new disciples. When we follow Jesus, we are forced out of our comfortable zone as we strive to help others. 


Let’s go back to the question, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus?” How would we respond to such a request? Although we can’t take them physically to Jesus, we witness to our Lord through our lives and in the life of his community, the church. For we are his body in the world and when we follow him, he should be seen through our lives. As Jesus reminds us in the Parable of the Judgment of the Nations,[13] when we show kindness, we serve him. But you know what; Jesus doesn’t want us to wait for that question. Instead, he wants us to share him by showing his love to others. Are we willing to make such a sacrifice? Amen. 


[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 709-710

[2] John 11:49.

[3] See Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, and Luke 19:28-40.

[4] Psalm 118:26 and Zechariah 3;14 and Zephaniah 9:9

[5] Bruner, 712.

[6] Brown thinks they are Greek proselytes.  See Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 466.  Sloyan thinks they’re Greek speaking Jews living outside Israel’s borders.  Gerald Sloyan, John: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988),155.

[7] Bruner, 722.

[8] When Philip was called to follow Jesus, he went and got Nathanael to go with him.  John 1:43ff.

[9] See Matthew 10:39, Mark 8:35, Luke 17:33.

[10] Luke 9:23

[11] Matthew 6:19-21.

[12] See Matthew 25:13-20

[13] Matthew 25:31-46.

March 30, 2022, Early Spring sunset

HopeWords Writers’ Conference

Bluefield, West Virginia

I traveled to Bluefield last Friday to attend the HopeWords Writers’ Conference. I had never been to Bluefield, although I often taken the West Virginia turnpike, I-77, through West Virginia. The turnpike bypasses Bluefield by about ten miles to the north. Known for coal and trains, the Norfolk Southern yard takes up much of the flat land along the valley. The railroad’s shops to maintain engines and cars are on the west side of the tracks and in the middle of the yard, a large coal tipple rises like a village steeple in an English town. There are still a few long coal trains running through the city, but I’m sure not as many as in previous decades with the decline of coal. 

The commercial district of Bluefield rises to the east of the tracks, rising up the hill with each road that parallels the tracks gaining more elevation. Like many cities, the downtown suffered greatly over the last few decades. Decay can be seen everywhere. Old houses and abandon buildings became havens for illicit drug use. Many elegant homes that once overlooked the city fell into ruin. Their iron fences and gates rusted and the concrete steps leading up from the street below broken. Thankfully, in recent years there has been an attempt to bring back the downtown. Buildings and homes have been renovated. There are trendy restaurants and funky museums. The old West Virginia hotel is being converted to apartments. Amid this revival is the Granada Theater. Built in 1928, the theater stood abandoned for years. But after a community effort, it has been restored to its previous grandeur and reopened this year. What better place for a writer’s conference focusing on hope?

Bluefield may not be the most likely place for a writer’s conference, but several years ago, Travis Lowe, a city resident, had an idea. Travis, at the time a local pastor, admits he had never been to a writer’s conference but felt that Bluefield was an ideal place for a conference that talked about hope. From this dream, HopeWords was born. This is the fourth conference held, and the first I’ve attended. Kicking off the conference was an hour of wonderful jazz music on Friday evening. 

Friday night jazz in the Granada

Makoto Fujimura 

Drawing me to the conference was the Japanese/American artist and author Makoto Fujimura. Last year, I read his book Art and Faith: A Theology of Making and reviewed it in my blog in early in January. He gave a masterful presentation on Friday evening. As he started, he joked how he drove 8 hours from his home Princeton, NJ only to find himself back in Princeton (West Virginia). 

Fujimura spoke of art rising out of the brokenness of our lives and world. While we prefer “good news,” he noted that we live in a world that is filled with bad news—hate and fear. But our art and writing can bring healing. He drew on the lives of Herman Melville, Vincent Van Gogh, Emily Dickerson along with the Japanese art known as Kintsugi, to show how beauty can come out of tragedy. Then he moved to the story of Jesus’ resurrection, suggesting that God is the real Kintsugi Master. He closed with the benediction that is found at the end of his book, Art and Faith, a part of which I’ve copied below:

May we steward well that the Creator King has given us, and accept God’s invitation to sanctify our imagination and creativity, even as we labor hard on this side of eternity.  

On Saturday morning, Fujimara was joined by his wife, an attorney in New York. The two of them spoke of their hopeful work within the brothels of India, teaching art to the children and trying to help them find a way out of such improvised lifestyle.  During his morning talk, Fujimura mentioned how his conversion to Christianity came through reading William Blake’s epic poem, “Jerusalem.” I found that interesting! 

Hannah Anderson

The first speaker on Saturday morning was Hannah Anderson, who lives with her family in Roanoke, Virginia. Hannah is the author of four books, and I have a copy of Humble Roots on order as I did not get to the table to purchase this book before they were sold out. Having grown up in a part of Pennsylvania abandoned by industry, she said she feels right at home in Bluefield.  

Anderson spoke of bringing the natural world into our writing, not as a prop or a setting, but as a part of the story. Nature and creation, she said, is telling a story. Nature provides the best example of “showing and not telling.” Nature reveals. Drawing on Psalm 19 and the writing of Annie Dillard, she linked nature back to God in both its glory and terror. “Nature is hopeful and darker than we image,” she said.  She concluded with three points about nature in writing:

  • Show, don’t tell. Get out of the way.
  • Partner with nature. Remember that nature is a metaphor only from our perspective.
  • Trust the story nature tells. Jesus used nature in parables not only because he lived in an agrarian world but because such stories are true. 

Winn Collier

Our next speaker, Winn Collier, recently published the authorized biography of Eugene Peterson and directs the Peterson Center at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. I received Peterson’s biography as a Christmas present but have not yet read it. I told him this when he signed my book. He laughed and handing the book back said that now I’ll have to read it. 

Soft spoken but profound, Collier began discussing the poetry of Genesis 1 and moving to John 1. Collier commended poetry for helping us understand ourselves, God, and the world I which we live. But we must not forget that God spoke first (although he also quoted Rabbi Abraham Hessel, “God begins where words end”). God, at creation, choose to use words. And God always calls first. This also ties into the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, where holiness and humanity go together. While we don’t do “sacred writing,” our writing becomes sacred when it responds to a God who calls us first. 

Calling for bold and fresh words, Collier drew on the work of two authors. The late Jim Harrison (whom I have read and wrote the novella which became the movie “Legends of the Fall”) and the late Brian Doyle (whom I haven’t read, but now have his last book, One Long River of Songs, on my TBR list).  

One Thin Dime Museum and Gary Bowlings House of Art

One of the presenters had cancelled, with allowed us to have a longer period for lunch. While there were restaurants nearby, the conference also provided bag lunches. I decided to go the bag lunch option and then use the rest of the time to explore a local history museum (One Thin Dime Museum) and an artist colony (Gary Bowlings House of Art) in the old school three blocks away from the theater. The art was modern, funky, gothic and made more delightful by Gary Bowling welcoming everyone who stopped in to visit.

S. D. Smith

After the lunch break, the conference resumed with Travis Lowe humorously interviewing S. D. Smith. Smith is a West Virginia author from Beckley, who writes fantasy for a young audience. While I haven’t read him, it appears his books are filled with characters like rabbits with swords. Much of the conversation skirted around having children read fairytales. Smith defends the darkness in such stories. After all, they know the world is evil. But the fairytale doesn’t just scare the child with the dragon, but gives them hope in the likes of St. George who slays the dragon. “Write with evil and enemies,” he said, but “also where there is hope.” 

Lewis Brogdon

Lewis Brogdon a Bluefield native, spoke on “Writing After a Struggle with God.” Brogdon is African American and an Old Testament scholar. He drew heavily on the writings of Walter Brueggmann, another Old Testament scholar who labelled the term “prophetic imagination” to describe the role of the Biblical prophets who “conjured and proposed different futures.” Recalling the works of Habakkuk and Jonah, along with the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan, he reminded us that our job as writers is not to look away from needs. It was the Samaritan, not the priest or Levite, who saw a need and did something about it. 

“The pandemic exposed deep problems we have in the world that we have tried to cover up,” Brogdon said. “God is giving us an opportunity to do better.” He went on to insist that when we fail to show compassion, we lose our humanity. “The pandemic displays our “callous disregard for human life in America,” he said.  Brogdon encouraged us to listen to the experiences of others, especially those living poverty. Listening to such stories will help us deepen our faith, for God works in such tensions in society.

Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” was the example Brogdon used of how writing can help us see. While the answers to the problems are not always easy, “the gospel does not call us to do nothing. We can’t fix the world, but we can make it a better place.” Brodgon then moved to the spiritual of Black preaching, which has generally been described as “pastoral, priestly, and prophetic.” He proposed a new model that moves from moral imagination to moral courage to moral intelligence. Then he asked, “what would it mean to write and inspire, to nurture and deepen imagination, courage, and intelligence in our readers?” 

As he drew his remarks to a close, Brogdon offered several writing prompts for our journals (he also humorously suggested that anyone who doesn’t keep a journal should just get up and leave, as they don’t belong in a writer’s conference). First is a question to he asked in a recent piece he wrote on in an article titled, “America on the Blink: Musings on Race, Politics, and Religion:” “Is America endangered in losing its soul.” 
Brogdon other questions were more general: 

  • What are you struggling with personally (especially that which intersects with a broken world)?
  • What keeps you up at night, or wakes you up?
  • What bothers you to the point that you can’t look away?
  • What issues are you passionate about?
  • Where have you experienced pain? 
  • What understanding have we gained about the pain in others which can help us tell the truth about racist and sexist things we once laughed about. In the last, he confessed personally about the jokes on homosexuality that used to be regularly laughed over within African American congregation. 

Malcom Guite 

Our last speaker was Malcom Guite, a British theologian, Anglican priest, and a poet. 

Guite began his talk with a humorous “minor exorcism,” he which he dispelled any demons who challenge us not to write or read poetry. Then, he moved into his presentation on poetry which he  centered around a poem titled “The Rain Stick,” by the late Irish poet (and his friend) Seamus Heaney. While using pieces of this poem to make his points, Guite used a real a rain stick (a dead piece of cactus with seeds inside that when tipped over makes the sound of rain) to illustrate what he was saying. Woven into this talk was a discussion about his study of chemistry and his challenge to the scientific demand that one only writes in the 3rd person.

Guite drew on Jesus’ saying about its easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich person to get to heaven. Dismissing ideas to this saying such as there was a “needle gate into the city, he suggested that the poetic answer is the paradox. He linked Jesus’ “eye of a needle” with Heaney’s use of the term “ear of a raindrop.” In these small things, God can be encountered and experienced.  

Guite speaking & holding his rain stick under his left arm
(I’m sitting in the balcony)

My favorite quote from Guite: “Sometimes we receive packages that says on the outside, “Contents may have settled in shipping. Sometimes I think our churches need to have these warnings on our outside walls.” Then he turned over the rain stick in his hand, and we once again heard the sound! 

Future HopeWords

Next year’s HopeWords Writers’ Conference is scheduled for March 24-25, 2023.  Won’t you join me? This year, the conference price was only $95, plus the price of a hotel room (I stayed in Princeton, West Virginia, where there are more hotels along I-77). Registration for 2023 opened today (April 9). Check it out here!

Mural of Bluefield on a concrete wall

Why Church? For proper worship

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
Isaiah 6

April 3, 2022

Sermon recorded on Thursday, March 31, 2022, at Mayberry Church

At the beginning of worship:

Each of us are instilled with the need to worship. Whether or not we’re Christian, whether or not we’re religious, we have a desire to find meaning in something larger than ourselves. That “something” becomes the object of our worship.  

The “atheistic Communist,” whom we used to so fear, believed in a dialectical materialistic philosophy they saw giving rise and power to the proletariat to create a new state. They worshipped the state. We see this today in Putin’s nationalism extended to all Russian speakers. 

Even the most apathetic couch potato, who never darkens the door of the church, may worship a basketball team, a NASCAR driver, or a movie star. The narcissistic believe they are larger and more important than others and worship an inflated ego with no relationship to reality. We all look for meaning; it’s just that a lot of us attempt to find meaning in the wrong places and end up restless and disappointed. Augustine, writing 17 centuries ago, said our hearts are restless until they come to rest in God.[1]

Why church?

Today, we continue to ponder “Why Church?” Church should be the place we learn who’s worthy of worship. It’s also an outlet for such worship. Here, we should encounter the living God and find satisfaction to our desires. 

Other “Why Church” Sermons:

To reorient our lives

To care for the world

We’re a place for questions

Because Jesus set up the church to continue his work

Read Isaiah 6

After the reading of Scripture:

Our scripture for this morning, Isaiah’s call, is an example of what should happen in worship. In this passage, Isaiah encounters God in all his holiness and majesty. This occurs the same year that King Uzziah died. Such reference provides a timetable for the vision, but also contrasts the transient nature of earthly kings and powers to the eternal nature of the King to whom our allegiance belongs. Uzziah is dead, his throne empty. But Isaiah witnesses a greater throne and king.[2]

Setting Isaiah up to hear his call

We’d think Isaiah would be overwhelmed and overjoyed to see God, wouldn’t we?[3] Isaiah, however, realizes he has a problem. He sees the real King and prevailing wisdom has it that for a mortal to see God brings certain death. Our sinful state leaves us vulnerable before God’s holiness. Isaiah knows he’s in deep sneakers as he cries, “Woe is me; I am lost, I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and I have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” In other words, because of his condition, Isaiah cannot join the song of praise to God.[4]

But all is not lost. One of the seraphs before the throne takes a coal from the altar, flies down and presses it to Isaiah’s lips, proclaiming that his sins are forgiven. At this point, Isaiah can now hear the call of God, asking who will go and take a message to the people, and Isaiah pipes up and says, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”

A call is not necessarily a good thing

It all sounds good, doesn’t it? That is, until we read the rest of this chapter. Starting in verse 9, we realize the job for which Isaiah volunteered wasn’t a coveted one. His words are to harden the hearts of his people as he speaks judgement. This forces Isaiah to ask, “How long?” How long will Israel’s heart be hardened? How long will the people be punished? Isaiah asks.[5] The answer isn’t hopeful: Till the cities become desolate and the land empty. Even if a piece of it survives, we’re told in verse 13, it will be burned again.

We find hope only at the very end of the chapter. God condemns his people, keeps them from repenting by hardening their hearts, but there is hope that a sprout may rise from the stump.[6]

Be careful about what you ask 

I’ve known people who have wanted a sign from God to help their belief. “If I could only have a sign?” You might have even said this. Be careful about what we ask. Those who receive the best signs in Scripture are those from whom God asks the most. God doesn’t give signs so we can believe. Such a sign would make faith lame. Instead, the good signs—like the burning bush, Isaiah’s call, Paul’s conversion—all come with difficult assignments. 

We can also think about Peter’s call from Jesus himself by the lake.[7] Jesus clarifies it later, informing him when he was young, he went where he wanted, but when he is old, he’ll be taken where he does not want to go, indicating the kind of death in his future.[8] One thing we should realize: Authentic worship isn’t about us; it’s about God. Ultimately, it isn’t about how we feel or what we want, but what God wants us to do.

Lessons from Isaiah being in God’s presence

What can we learn about coming into God’s presence and worship from Isaiah?  First, we see that true worship, worship which encounters the holy, is dangerous. When we truly worship in the presence of the Almighty, we play with dynamite! There’s a power greater than ourselves, and if we tap into it, we will have little control over where it will lead. It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, we read in Hebrews.[9] But with the disciples, we must acknowledge, “Where else can we go to find the words of eternal life.”[10] So we stick around, even though it can be scary.  

Like Isaiah, we find that worship is also redemptive. Where else can we go to find forgiveness, to be offered a new chance, to have our guilt erased and set free to start over? And then, like Isaiah, we find that not only are we forgiven, but we’re now open to hear God’s word, so that we can hear the Almighty call us to fulfill God’s purpose in our lives. 

Purpose of worship

Ultimately, worship is to be life changing. Coming into the presence of God does that! The sanctuary, or wherever we worship, isn’t an escape from the world, but a place to equip us to go back into the world to fulfill our roles as disciples of the living Lord.  

Understand that worship is something that needs to be done throughout the week. We’re to worship God throughout our lives. But it also important that we come together as a community to worship. As Jesus says, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there.”[11]

The Cycle of Reformed Worship

Think about what we do here and how it relates to Isaiah’s experience. We come into God’s presence, we realize God’s holiness and our lack of it, and we are forgiven and then sent back into the world to further God’s work. That’s the cycle that goes on Sunday after Sunday in a Reformed service of worship. The Call to Worship and the Opening Hymn of Praise reminds us that this a sacred place and time. The prayers of confession, both those spoke corporately and privately, remind us that we need forgiveness. Corporately, we’re reminded that as a people, we are guilty. The private prayers of confession spoken to God silently in our hearts, remind us that as individuals, we are also guilty. The Assurance of Pardon reminds us of the forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ, that frees us up to hear God’s word and to go back out into the world. 

I know some churches don’t use a time of confession, but they miss the meat of the gospel.[12] We stand in need of forgiveness and through Jesus Christ, God stands willing to offer forgiveness.

Making the most of worship

How might we make the most out of our time for worship on Sunday morning?  First, begin your preparation for worship early. Go to bed at a reasonable hour on Saturday night so that you are well rested. The Jews begin their Sabbath at sundown, which would not be a bad habit for us Christians. Prepare for Sunday morning on Saturday. You could set out clothes to wear or prepare food for the Lord’s Day. Put your Bible (and your journal if you use one) next to your clothes to bring to worship. This will assure that Sunday mornings are not hectic. Then, when you wake up, you can easily get ready for worship and perhaps even have some time to go to God in prayer. And pray for our worship. I can’t imagine the blessings we would experience if everyone took the time before coming to church to pray for the experience! 

Next, when you come to worship, come with a holy expectancy. Come, expecting that you will encounter God. Now, not every Sunday is a mountaintop experience.[13] In fact, few are going to be mountaintop experiences and if we strive for that, we’re probably focusing on what we want and not what God wants. But that said, if we don’t expect anything out of worship, we’re probably not going to receiving anything. What would happen if just a few of you came expecting God to show up? It could be dangerous; it could be glorious!

Next, arrive early. Here, do as I say not as I’ve been known to do. When I am not preaching, I’m not known for arriving too early (you can ask my wife or daughter). They call it Garrison time. But if you are here five, ten or fifteen minutes early, you have time to focus on God, to calm your hearts, and to put away distractions. Spend this time making a mental note of that which to thank God or of the deeds you stand in need of confessing. 

Pray for the worship experience

Look around and see people who are in need and offer intercessory prayer. Pray for the preacher (I need all the help I can get). Pray for those who might be new in our fellowship. Pray for those not here. Read through the bulletin, internalizing the prayers so that they can become your prayers. Look over the scriptures so that you might receive more out of the sermon or get more out of the prayers.  

While in a worship service

While in worship, learn to absorb distractions. We’re all human here. I am going to make some mistakes. Others are also going to make mistakes. God doesn’t use perfect people. Instead of fussing and fuming over such mistakes, pray silently that we might get over it, that God might bless such blunders and use them for his glory. As Paul tells the Corinthians, God uses the cross which is foolishness to the world to bring about salvation.[14] Focus your energy on what is positive, not on what can be negative and destructive. Embrace worship as a sacrifice, as your sacrifice, to God.  Remember, what happens here “isn’t about you!” It’s about God! Keep focused on that which is important.  

And finally, when you leave worship, go out to live your life as an heir to the kingdom, listening and obeying God’s word, and continuing to worship throughout the week. In so doing, your whole life will be more worshipful, and you’ll continually praise God.


We’re all to be worshippers. In worship, our restlessness finds peace in the heart of God. In worship, we move from the position of the guilty one, “Woe is me!” to the response of a confident disciple, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” Amen.  


[1] Augustine, Confessions, 1:1.

[2] Christopher R. Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 54.

[3]Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, Old Testament Library, second edition, John Bowden translator. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 128.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Seitz, 57.

[6] Compare Isaiah 6:13 (“the holy seed is its stump”) with Isaiah 11:1 (A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse). 

[7] Luke 5:1-11 (a different version of this call occurs in John 1:40-41).

[8] John 21:18.

[9] Hebrews 10:31.

[10] John 6:68

[11] Matthew 18:20.

[12] There are many things that the church does which can be done just as well by other groups. What makes the church unique is the message of forgiveness through Christ which he shares through the church. 

[13] Even the disciples found that they couldn’t stay on the mountaintop.  Life is to be lived in the valleys and on the plains, where people are at.  See Matthew 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36.

[14] 1 Corinthians 1:18, my paraphrase. 

Okefenokee Sunset, March 2019, near Monkey Lake