LOVING OUR PERSECUTORS

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
February 5, 2022
1 Peter 2:11-17

Sermon recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, February 3, 2023

Before the reading of the Scripture

We are now entering the center part of Peter’s letter, where he creates a framework for his readers to live out their lives faithful to Jesus in a hostile world.  Essentially, Peter advises his readers to take the high road. They may be marginalized people, but don’t fight back. We should remind ourselves, that in both the Old and New Testaments, we’re told that vengeance belongs to God, not us.[1]

Living in a paradox

We live in a tension between the world upon which we walk and the kingdom that is not of this world where we are citizens. In a way, it’s a paradox. We respect earthly leaders, but we also realize our true loyalty is not to them or to a flag or a country. Our true loyalty is to God whose love for us is shown in Jesus Christ. God creates and owns the earth.[2] We’re just given temporary residence here. We’re honor those in power on earth, Peter tells us, for the Lord’s sake. Or, as The Message translation has it, “Make the Master proud of you by being good citizens.” 

Read 1 Peter 2:11-17

HELPING YOUR ENEMY IN LAURENS, SOUTH CAROLINA

In the mid-90s, in the down-on-its-luck Upstate South Carolina town of Laurens, John Howards, a white supremacist, brought the boarded-up movie theater across from the courthouse.  He renovated the property and opened a museum celebrating the Ku Klux Klan. The “attraction” also featured a small gift shop, and a meeting place. He hoped to attract people into his movement. 

Helping Howards was a troubled young man named Michael Burden. Howard essentially adopted Burden, helping him to get his life back on track. In opposition to their work was David Kennedy, an African-American pastor of the New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church. 

But there is a twist to this story. Burden marries a young woman who had two children. She was also suspicious of Howard and critical of the Klan and encourages her new husband to make a break. He does, but since he lived in a house owned by Howard, he now finds himself and his family locked out. Homeless and broke, who will come to his aid? Surprisingly, Kennedy, the pastor of the African-American church, shows up. He sees to it that Burden, his wife, and her children have a place to stay, food to eat, and clothes to wear. 

Loving our enemy

The story sounds almost too good to be true. Does anyone really love their enemies in such a way? The preacher’s deeds cause him to receive much grief within his congregation. Members couldn’t believe their pastor helps a man who’d belonged to the Klan. But as one who takes the Bible seriously, Kennedy stuck to his guns and helps Burden and his new family navigate this difficult time in their lives.[3]  

Wonder why Jesus calls us to help those who hate us and pray for those who persecute us?[4] Do we really want to help such people? Isn’t that aiding the enemy? Some call that treason. As Christians, the road we travel is not easy.  Peter understands this.

The world is not our home

Our passage begins with the Apostle reminding his readers that this world is not their home. They are aliens, they are in exile. But just because this world isn’t their home, they shouldn’t just do what they want. This isn’t a “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” type of world. We must guard ourselves, our souls. Furthermore, if we take the high road, others may see our “good deeds” and come to understand there is something special about faith and be drawn to God through us. 

Early Christian evangelism

Peter describes the type of evangelism common in the early Christian era. Back then, Christians didn’t hand out tracks or, from what we know, knock on doors. They didn’t hold massive rallies or run a PR campaign. Instead, they allowed others to see what they were about by how they lived. Christians didn’t just look out for themselves. People took notice when they saw the early church being concerned for others, especially those unable to help themselves. 

Even though the world considered these early Christians evildoers, when they saw their good deeds, at least some reconsidered such categorizations of Christians. “Let your light shine,” Jesus says.[5]

Demonizing those seen as different

You know, the world hasn’t changed that much. Why do you think Christians were seen as evil doers or condemned as atheists in the first century church? Why? Because they were different. When people are different from us, sadly, we often categorize them in a negative manner. We devalue them, or even more dangerously, we see them as less valuable. On the extreme end, as it was with Nazism or even with our ancestors with their treatment of Native Americans or African slaves, we view them as less than human. That’s dangerous. 

If we take the Bible seriously, we can’t do that because we are reminded that all of us have been created in God’s image.[6]Furthermore, as Paul points out in his letter to these same people, the church doesn’t consist of just who you see sitting inside buildings this morning, but those of all races and sexes and gender who believe in Jesus Christ.[7]

God’s temple 

As we saw last week, Peter says something similar when we talk about us being stones shunned by the world, but God brings us all together to create a new temple on earth.[8] The old temple was soon to be gone.[9] The church, of which we’re all a part, is now God’s temple on earth. 

Role of those in authority

Peter continues this section by encouraging his readers to honor those in authority. Those with power, whether they are emperor or an elected representative, are used by God to help maintain peace and avoid chaos. Unlike today, those with power were not in the churches to whom Peter wrote. 

How to live as a persecuted minority

Nonetheless, they were to do their parts to honor and obey the laws of the state, just as they were to work for the benefit of everyone. Peter does not allow his readers to hide. They are to make the best of the situation in which they live, not just for themselves but for everyone. Like Jeremiah writing to those hauled off into exile, they are to seek the welfare of where they’re at.[10]

Like Paul, Peter speaks of the freedom we have in Christ. But he also reminds us that we should not take advantage of such freedom but use it to serve God and not to break the rules.[11]

God wants us to be good, which means that we strive to be helpful wherever we find ourselves.  And while Peter provides advice on how they, a minority community on fringe of society, are to get by, he sows seeds that will eventually challenge the pecking order of the Roman Empire. Yes, they’re to honor and respect and be subjected to the emperor. But then, Peter says, everyone is to be honored. The emperor is not that special after all. For even the emperor on this throne, as powerful as he was, sits below God.[12]

Allegiance only to God

Our ultimate allegiance is to God. Yes, we should honor those elected to political offices, as well as those who serve the public good like police officers and sheriff deputies. But we don’t deify them. Nor should we overlook their mistakes or shortcomings. We honor them because God allows them their position of power so that they might help maintain order and to help society flourish.  

A commentary on the Sermon on the Mount

This portion of Peter’s letter could be an expanded commentary on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about loving your enemies and praying for your persecutors. The type of love Jesus calls us to show is agape, which means we look out for the best interest of the other.[13]

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said he was glad God told us to love our enemies instead of telling us we had to like them.[14] There’s probably an important distinction here. What can we do the make this world a better place. That’s what we’re called to do, no matter where we find ourselves and no matter how much we like or dislike others. 

Let me close with a story.

The Battle of Shiloh

At the battle Shiloh, one of the bloodiest in the Civil War, Albert Sidney Johnston, the southern general who commanded the western troops of the Confederacy, saw many wounded Union soldiers on one part of the battlefield. According to Shelby Foote, a Civil War historian, he told his surgeon to treat them. His surgeon questioned the command since the battle was still ongoing and Johnston might need his help. Johnston insisted, giving him a direct order to tend to the wounded enemy soldiers. 

Later that afternoon, a bullet struck Johnston in the leg. He bled to death. Had his surgeon been at his side, he could have probably been saved. Instead, he became the highest-ranking officer of both sides to die in battle in the American Civil War.[15]

Conclusion 

As I discussed last week, the Christian life requires us to have Jesus’ eyes. We’re to see people as Jesus sees us and do what we can to help one another. It may require taking a risk. Certainly, Peter’s readers took a risk, as did General Johnston and Pastor Kennedy. But then God took a risk on us by coming to us in the life of Jesus.  Amen. 


[1] Leviticus 19:18, Romans 12:19, and Hebrews 10:30.

[2] Psalm 24:1.

[3] This story has been made into a movie and is told in a book. See Courtney Hargrave, Burden: A Preacher, a Klansman, and a True Story of Redemption in the Modern South (New York: Convergent Books, 2018). For my review of the book, click here or go to:  https://fromarockyhillside.com/2019/03/06/burden-a-preacher-a-klansman-and-a-true-story-of-redemption-in-the-modern-south/

[4] Matthew 5:43-44.

[5] Matthew 6:15.

[6] Genesis 1:27.  See John P. Burgess’ essay, “Facing the World,” in After Baptism: Shaping the Christian Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005), 95-117. 

[7] Galatians 3:28. Galatia was one of the churches to whom Peter has addressed this letter. See 1 Peter 1:1.

[8] See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2023/01/29/humbled-but-valued/  

[9][9] The Romans destroyed the temple in 70 AD, probably just before or just after this letter was written. 

[10] Jeremiah 29:7.

[11] See 1 Peter 2:13-17, The Message translation. 

[12] Joel B. Green, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007). 279ff. 

[13] Matthew 5:43-48.  

[14] This paraphrased quote came from the preacher at the recent Martin Luther King, Jr’s Service at Hillsville Christian Church on January 15, 2023. 

[15] Shelby Foote, Shiloh (1952, Vintage, 1991), 199.

Morning light (January 29, 2023

Humbled but Valued

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
January 29, 2023
I Peter 2:1-10

Sermon recorded on Friday, January 27, 2023 at Mayberry Church

At the beginning of worship: 

Last week, I began by discussing humility. I will again hit on this topic in today’s service, as it is a major them in Peter’s first letter. Christians are to be humble, because we give God the credit and realize that without the help of the Almighty, we would be nothing.

The great 19th Century British Calvinist Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, writing about our work in helping others discover the grace found in Jesus Christ, said:

Humility makes you feel that you are nothing and nobody and that, if God gives you success in that work, you will be driven to ascribe to Him all the glory for none of the credit of it could properly belong to you.[1]

I only partly agree with Spurgeon on this. Yes, God’s grace should make all Christians humble. On that, we agree. However, God’s grace shouldn’t make us feel as if we are nothing or nobody. We are somebody, for God has claimed us. We are a member of God’s family and that’s more than enough to make us something. However, it also means we need to give God the credit. Scripture reminds us of this. As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.”[2]And to the Corinthians he wrote, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”[3] We’re here today to give God the glory. 

Before reading the Scripture:

Before reading the scripture for today, let me summarize where we’ve come in this letter. In the first chapter of 1st Peter, we saw how Peter addressed his audience with a blessing that reminds them of God’s work in their lives. And while the term “Trinity” wasn’t used in first century Christianity, Peter hits on all three members of the Trinity. We’ve been chosen by God the father, sanctified by the Spirit, and sprinkled with Jesus’ blood. Then Peter reminds the reader of their living hope in Jesus Christ (my sermon from two weeks ago).[4] Because of our hope, he calls us to live holy lives (my sermon last week).[5]

First verse

As we begin the second chapter, I debated whether to attach the first verse with last week’s sermon or this week. The verse reminds us of what we’re “cleansing ourselves of” as we strive for holiness. But it also goes with the verses following as we consider our calling by Christ into the Christian life where considered a part of the chosen race, commissioned as priests, naturalized as citizens in the holy nation, and considered God’s own people.[6]  

Read 1 Peter 2:1-10  

There are three things I want you to take from this passage. First, the importance of the church, the body of Christ. Second, the reason why we are called into this body, which is to glorify God. And finally, the impact our calling by God should have on our lives and how we relate to others. 

Avoid sins that break unity

As I mentioned before reading the scriptures, the first verse could go either with the previous chapter or this one. Part of this is the limitations created by chapter and verse numbers, which were not a part of the Scriptures until centuries after the Bible was completed. To show you two ways of understanding this verse, the New Revised Standard version places it clearly with the opening of the second chapter as they title the first ten verses, “The Living Stone and the Chosen People.” However, if you look at the Revised Common Lectionary, which I seldom follow, you will see when this passage comes up, they skip the last two verses of chapter 1 and begin Chapter 2 with verse 2.[7]

This opening verse, as I said before reading the scripture, addresses what’s important for us to rid ourselves of if we’re to live holy lives. Interestingly, however, the sins which are mentioned at this point in the letter are not what we might think of as most important. 

Peter discourages sins that break unity

Peter doesn’t address here what we might rate as the top ten individual sins. He doesn’t say to be honest in your business dealings or faithful in your relationships, or no violence. There’s no mention of avoiding immoral or illegal behavior… Peter will touch on some of those issues later in this letter.[8] But here, first, he harps on community-destroying vices. As one commentor on the passage points out, these are the type of sins “often tolerated by the modern church.” He wants his readers (including us) to avoid actions that cause bickering and division within the church. He knows persecution can strain the fellowship. So, he first insists we do our part to help the church remain united in God’s mission by avoiding malice and guile (or hypocrisy), insincerity, envy, and slander.[9]

Spiritual milk

Following this, Peter reminds us of our need of pure, spiritual milk. We must start off with what’s essential, as an infant begins its nourishment with only milk. This is a familiar metaphor in the New Testament Epistles, but Peter also must have had in mind Psalm 34, “O taste and see that the Lord is good.”[10] We discover God’s goodness, which leaves us wanting more.

Coming to Christ, the living stone

The heart of this passage begins in verse 4, where he encourages his readers to come to Christ the living stone. Like Christ, society may reject us. As I’ve pointed out over the past two weeks, Peter’s audience found themselves rejected and on the outskirts of society. While society may reject us, we should remember that we are precious in God’s sight. As living stones ourselves, Christ collects and builds us into a spiritual house.

Stone Churches and this passage

I can’t read these verses without thinking about these stone-walled churches in which we worship here along the Parkway. Here again, we find an image of the importance of the body, the fellowship. Before these rocks were used to create these churches, they laid despised in fields. After all, they might be just below surface and at a place where they could nick a plow blade. In digging, they meant one had to lay aside the shovel and get out an iron bar to break up the stone. 

But as the members of these churches, who are now mostly gone, collected those “hated stones” out of their fields, they were brought here and mortared into these walls. Here, when combined with many other stones from other fields, they collectively serve a useful function. But when laying on or in the ground, a single stone might cause us to trip. Like the stones, when collected, we are much safer together than being alone where we (and because of us, others) might stumble. 

A Church of stoners?

On a side note, if you need to advertise our church to someone out on the margins of society, you can tell them that we’re a church of stoners… Of course, Peter uses such illustration long before it was adopted by hippies and those strung out on drugs. If you want to make such a suggestion, be sure to also refer to this passage, so they won’t get the wrong idea. 

The Cornerstone

Don’t be offended that Peter suggests we’re stones or rocks, for he also includes Christ in this grouping. Drawing upon Psalm 118:22, a verse quoted more often by Peter and Paul than any other verse in the Hebrew Bible,[11] Peter reminds us of that Christ is the cornerstone. The cornerstone, the most important stone in a building from which the walls are based, is Christ. 

And I’m sure Peter would include himself in this for the Savior changed his name from Simon to Peter, declaring that “on this rock I will build my church.”[12]

We are somebody!

Peter begins to conclude this section of the letter with a bold proclamation. We are, as he writes in verse 9, “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” I love the affirmation! Returning to my opening remarks from Charles Spurgeon. Yes, we’re to be humble, but we are somebody because of what God has done for us. God calls us out of darkness and into the marvelous light and we’re to rejoice in what we’ve experienced. 

An ancient poem

In verse 10, Peter closes out this section with an ancient poem that reiterates what he just said.[13] “Once you were not a people, but now you’re God’s people…” The ancient Roman world was a caste society where everyone had their place. And if you were on the bottom rung of society’s ladder, you didn’t have many rights. But the gospel disturbed that order. The church didn’t see Roman citizenship as the end all. Instead, it was the citizenship into God’s kingdom that mattered. And in that kingdom, everyone is important, not just citizens or senators or Caesar.[14]  

The mosaic that makes up these rock-walled churches is beautiful. But the mosaic that makes up the church, the inclusion of us all, is even more beautiful because we’re all a part of the only kingdom that matters in eternity. 

Conclusion: how we should live

So, how should we live because of Peter’s writings? In our “Centered and Soaring” discipleship training we held back in November, one of the concepts taught was having “Jesus’ Eyes.” We’re to see others as Jesus sees them. This is a powerful concept that should cause us to have empathy for others and free us from reacting to what we may take as an affront. 

We don’t know what others endure, so we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Someone cuts you off in traffic, you let it go. Yeah, they may be a jerk, but they might also be rushing someone to the hospital. We don’t know, so we let them go. It may be humbling, but that’s what we’re called to do. 

Everyone is created by God, in God’s image, so we treat them others than they treat us. It’s hard, but that’s how true disciples try to live. That’s the challenge we have before us. Use your eyes to see others the same way Jesus see’s us and them. Amen. 


[1] Charles Spurgeon, The Soul-Winner (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1895), 47. Quoted in Christopher A. Hutchinson, Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way Up is Down (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018), 193.

[2] Philippians 4:4. 

[3] 1 Corinthians 1:31.

[4] 1 Peter 1:3-12. See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2023/01/15/the-opening-of-first-peter/

[5] I Peter 1:13-25. See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2023/01/22/6254/

[6] 1 Peter 2:9.

[7] The Revised Common Lectionary is on a three-year cycle in which it attempts to “hit” the major themes in scripture, but not all the Bible. This year, on April 23, will have 1 Peter 1:17-23. Then on April 30, it will jump to 1 Peter 2:19-25, only to jump back on May 7 to 1 Peter 2:2-10. The lectionary omits 1 Peter 1:24 to 1 Peter 2:1  Commentaries also divide this passage up in different ways. 

[8] See 1 Peter 2:11-12.

[9] Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 80.

[10] Psalm 34:8. For milk as a metaphor for basic Christian teaching see1 Corinthians 3:1-2 and Hebrews 5:13. 

[11] See Scott Hoezee, “Commentary on 1 Peter 2:2-10, https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2017-05-08/1-peter-22-10

[12]  Matthew 16:17-19.

[13] Davids, 93. 

[14] See Joel B. Green, “Aliens and Strangers in the World: A Contextual Theology,” in 1 Peter: The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007) 191-197. 

Hope in the future, but there’s work in the meantime

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
January 22, 2023
1 Peter 1:13-25

Sermon recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, January 20, 2022

At the beginning of worship: 

Are you humble? What I if told you that humility is at the heart of the gospel, would you believe it? As one author writes, “Christian discipleship cannot be supplemented with a dash of humility for flavor but must have humility as the main ingredient.”[1] Because of what God has done and is doing for us through Jesus Christ, Christians are to be humble and gentle people. 

Before reading the Scripture:

Today, we’re continuing with our look at 1st Peter. As I said last week, I’m preaching out of this book through Lent. First Peter is “not a course for inquirers,” nor does it give us a “comprehensive exposition of the faith,” one scholar wrote. Instead, this book is written for those who understand the basic truth of the gospel.[2] Peter’s hopes to encourage those of the faith who are marginalized in the pagan world. He reminds them of the hope they have in the future as well as their marching orders in the present.

 C. S. Lewis once said that “it is safe to tell the pure in heart that they will see God, for only the pure in heart would want to [see God].”[3]Although Peter mentions our call to holiness and the hope we have in life everlasting, he doesn’t bribe his readers into good behavior with the promise of heaven. Nor does he try to incite fear in them to get them to clean up their act. Instead, he assumes their goal is to see God. Heaven is their true home; therefore, he reminds them of God’s promises as he encourages them to remain faithful.  

Read 1 Peter 1:12-25.

The Late Great Planet Earth

When I was in high school, I read Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. The book had a profound and long-lasting impact on me. In the short-run, it caused me to be nervous about how long the world was going to last; in the long-run it fueled my interest in the Scriptures as well as how people can find wild interpretations in the Bible. Although Lindsey doesn’t come out and give a date for Christ’s return, he certainly hints it would be soon—like in the mid-1980s, within 40 years of 1948. As I read this book in the mid-70s, it didn’t look like we had much time. 

Was 1988 the year?

Obviously, if I interpret Lindsey’s correctly, he was wrong even though once in 1988 I wondered. I was in the check out line at a K-mart in Carson City, Nevada. A woman came into the store and at the top of her lungs shouted: “Thus says the Lord.” Everything stopped. We all turned and looked at this lady. She continued, identifying Ronald Reagan (who at the time was winding up his last year as President) as the anti-Christ and warning us the end was at hand. As soon as she finished, she turned and walked out, not providing time for questions. All of us—cashiers and customers—stood stunned. Did she know something we didn’t. Obviously, not.  

Signs in the sky

One summer in high school, shortly after reading The Late Great Planet Earth, I became convinced the end was here. It had been a stormy day with numerous thunderstorms sweeping through the region. Early in the evening, as the last storm cleared, that fiery globe we know as the sun dropped below the horizon. Although the sun was not visible, its rays stuck the clouds in a way that everything turned blood red. It was eerie. I should have enjoyed the moment. But instead of being in awe at God’s creation, I thought the end was at hand. I pointed out the sky to my mother. She thought it beautiful and didn’t seem concerned, so I went into my room and prayed. 

Obviously, I was wrong, the world didn’t end. Since that time, I have learned to appreciate such special spectacular displays as a blessing from God instead of a sign of impending doom.

Why do we worry when the end will come?

There appears to be something about us as humans that make us curious about the future. That’s why so many books are written about the second coming, but it doesn’t stop there. After all, we pay consultants to predict what’s going to happen to the economy and to tell us where to invest our money—that is if we have any left after buying groceries.

Think about other ways we try to learn of the future. In many places, foretelling and palm reading appear to be a cottage industry. All you need is a quaint older home, a plywood sign, and something other than a basketball into which to gaze. The Farmer’s Almanac has been around for centuries, supposedly informing what the weather will be in the coming year. Most primitive religions have shamans, whose role is to predict the future. However, scripture is clear. The future is for God to know, not us.[4]

Peter’s audience: those without control

However, we want to know and to have some control over the future. It may have been no different for Peter’s audience. But in a way, Peter’s audience didn’t have much control over anything. As I explained last week, they have been alienated from society, who ironically thought of the Christians as atheists. They are, in a sense, homeless people. They don’t fit, a problem that the church faced for the first several centuries. 

The church after Constantine

After a few centuries things did change. Thanks to Emperor Constantine, the Roman Empire adopted Christianity and the church moved into the center of power. It’s been a rocky road ever since… 

Story about Francis of Assisi

To illustrate this, let me share with a legend of Francis of Assisi. This humble disciple was supposedly once given a tour of the Vatican by the Pope. According to legend, when the Pope showed Francis the papal treasury, he couldn’t help but brag. Referring to the story in Acts 3 with Peter and John at the temple, the Pope said: “No longer do I need to say to a poor beggar, silver and gold I have none.”   

“True,” Francis said, “but neither can you say, ‘stand up and walk.”[5]When the church became successful and powerful and rich, we lost the ability to trust and depend upon God. It became too easy to depend upon our own abilities, a battle we fight to this day.

Resident Aliens

One book that has been eye-opening to my entire ministry is Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony. The book was published during my last year in seminary, and I first read it shortly afterwards. The authors point to how the church became a supporting institute to western culture. 

By the way, they are critical of both the conservative and the liberal expression of the faith. They see both as the opposite side of the same coin, focusing on the political process. In other words, both talk about what we can do to change the world. Instead of calling for a church that’s foremost task is to change society, they call for a “confessing church,” whose purpose is to worship Christ and to determine how to live as followers of Jesus in a hostile world. For you see, our call does not come from society but from the Lord and it’s to him that we’re to be faithful. 

Hawerwas and Willimon see the “Confessing Church” as a church on a journey as its members, resident aliens, strive to know God. [6] This sounds a lot like the church Peter addresses, don’t you think?

Opening conjunctive

Our text for this morning opens with the conjunctive, “Therefore.” When you see such a word, you should go back and review what’s been said. He also shifts to the imperative.[7] Essentially Peter says, “because of what I said (what we covered last week), do this.” While our salvation depends on God, we are still expected to work with God as we strive for holiness. 

This “therefore” is followed by the command that we prepare our minds for action. But the Greek here translates more literally, “grid up your minds for work.” This creates an image of one rolling up their tunic as they prepare to go into the field to labor. We are not to spend our time just waiting for Jesus to return. Instead, we are to be busy, doing his work. Peter began this letter reminding his readers of their hope, now he moves on to our relationship to God as “obedient children.”[8]

On a journey to God

Peter sees us on a journey. We’re not home yet; we’re not home till Jesus arrives. But while we’re waiting, we’re to be busy doing his work. Our foremost task, with God’s help, is to strive for holiness. That’s the standard set for followers of Jesus. 

Striving for holiness goes against popular goal setting theory which says you set achievable goals. This is a goal we can never achieve on our own, but then that’s the message. We must depend on him, on our Savior, on the one who sacrificially gave his life for our lives. Our hope is in Christ, who paid the price for our redemption. Because of what Christ has done for us, we are to live for him.

God as a parent

Peter describes our relationship with God as that of a child relating to his or her father. As children obey parents, we are called to obey God. We’re also to fear God, but not in a terrifying fear that one might have of a vengeful God, but in the respectful fear that we might have of our parents. This is the type of fear that kept me from racing my dad’s car because I didn’t want to tell him I wrapped it around a pine tree. Such fear is good—it keeps us in line, but it also helps us to stand in awe of God and his power and glory. 

We don’t have to fear earthly masters

One scholar, recalling the precarious existence of Peter’s audience, suggests they’d understood his message as “Christians don’t have to fear their temporary masters [here on earth] because they fear God.”[9]Jesus says something very similar: “Do not fear those who can kill the body…, rather fear him that can destroy both the body and soul.”[10]Such an attitude puts things in perspective. Because God is good, instead of seeing our fear as binding, we should see that it frees us to be in awe of God’s glory.

An imperishable seed

Our passage closes with a reminder that this new life we have as Christians is born, not of a perishable seed, but an imperishable one. While Peter quotes Isaiah 40 (the grass withers, the flower fades), we’re reminded that our hope is grounded in God who has saved us eternally. But this doesn’t mean we can brag about the state of our souls. Because of what God has done for us, we can’t be prideful. Instead, such knowledge provides us hope and humbles us as we love God and our neighbors.[11] Amen.  


[1] Christopher A. Hutchinson, Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way Up is Down (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018), 31.

[2] David L. Tiede, “An Easter Catechesis: The Lessons of 1 Peter,” Word & World (St. Paul, MN: Luther Northwest Seminary, 1984). 194.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain as quoted by Rueben Job and Norman Shawchuck in A Guide to Prayer (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983), 151.

[4] In a sermon I gave a year ago (using Jesus’ words and Saul striving to learn of his future), I tried to make this message clear. See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2022/01/remain-at-your-post-stay-awake/

[5] See Acts 3:1-10. This story has been told in many places. It probably isn’t factual but certainly illustrates Truth in a capital “T” sense. 

[6] Stanley Hauwerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989), 36-46. 

[7] Joel B. Green, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 33.

[8] Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 65. 

[9] Tiede, 197.  Tiede is quoting Gerhard Krodel, “The First Letter of Peter,” Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, Revelation by Fuller, Sloyan, Krodel, Danker, & Fiorenza (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), 74.

[10] Matthew 10:28.

[11] See Hutchinson, 94. 

The destination may be blurred, but the road is sure…

The Opening of First Peter

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Presbyterian Churches
January 15, 2023
First Peter 1:1-12

Sermon recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, January 13, 2022

At the beginning of worship:

This week I finished reading Miroslav Volf’s A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Seve the Common Good. It’s a short but a deep book that deals with the paradox we have as Christians, living in a world but not being of the world.[1] Volf spends a whole chapter on the topic, “human flourishing,” which he begins, “Hope, in a Christian sense, is love stretching itself into the future.”[2] I like that.


For the next three months, I will work through in my sermons First Peter, a beautiful letter written to marginalized Christians in the first century. We may think, at times, we have it bad. But consider being a follower of Jesus in a time when the world truly hates you? How would we live? Where do we place our hope? Peter encourages his readers to have a living hope in the future.[3] Sounds a lot like Volf’s thesis, doesn’t it?

Before reading the Scripture:

Addressed to a group of churches in what we now know as the country of Turkey, First Peter was penned in the last quarter of the first century. The letter encourages these churches as they strive to live as followers of Jesus in a hostile world. For this reason, we find applications that apply to our lives as we strive to follow Jesus in a world that is often indifferent. 

The return address on the letter is Peter’s. There is debate among scholars as to whether it was written by Peter the fisherman (if so, he most likely had some help with his Greek grammar). Or, as was often done in the ancient world, was the letter written by one who admired Peter and therefore attached the apostle’s name. 

Confusing things even more, the letter doesn’t go into details of Peter’s life other than to say he’s an Apostle. Instead, it focuses on the life within the recipient community,[4] so whether Peter pinned these words or dictated them, doesn’t much matter. Finally, let me say that this letter follows a familiar correspondence format, as does many of Paul’s letters. Today we’ll look at the introduction and opening. 

Read 1st Peter 1:1-12.

I woke precisely at 6 A.M. The radio came to life with the Star-Spangled Banner. KIKX returned to the airways with its whooping 58 watts of power dedicated to covering the Wood River Valley. It was the only station that I could pick up in the valley. During the summer of 1988, I depended on it as an alarm clock. I went to sleep with the radio on at night, as the station went off at midnight. In the morning, I’d be rousted out of bed with patriotic furor. 

Normally, I jumped out of bed, dressed quickly, and headed down to the lodge. There I started a fire in the potbellied stove to knock the chill out of the air. In the Idaho mountains, it could be quite chilly in the early morning hours, even during the summer. But on this day, I was not too quick to jump out of bed. I was fearful of what was ahead. I laid there, warm under the covers, listening to the national anthem, and then the news and the weather. Although it was in the mid-30s at camp, the temperature in the desert to the south would spike above 100 that afternoon.  

It was Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, my last day for the season at camp. In the kitchen, the cooks prepared the last meal of the season for the few of us who were still on site. Over a cup of coffee, we talked and laughed about the summer. But inside, my stomach churned. I thought about leaving the familiar setting of camp and heading for the unknowns of Nevada. 

I’d taken a break from seminary to devote a year serving as a student pastor for small church in Virginia City, Nevada. I wasn’t sure what to expect. As a naive seminarian, Nevada appeared a den of iniquity. Saloons and casinos never closed. Gambling and prostitution were readily available. What was I getting myself into.? 

The following afternoon I made it up the windy road to Virginia City. I told you a month ago about the nail in my tire as I drove across the desert.[5] But I made it without any other issues. I parked in front of the rickety white wooden church C Street. The doors were locked. For a few moments I stood on the porch, looking down Six-mile Canyon toward a rock formation known as Sugarloaf.[6] There were plenty of people on the streets, but no one seemed to notice me. Everyone assumed I was just another tourist.

A couple minutes later, I headed down the boardwalk to the Bucket of Blood, a saloon where I had been instructed to pick up the keys for the church and for the little house where I would live. It seemed a little odd for my first task to call on a place named the Bucket of Blood. The sun warmed the air. Although the peak of the tourist season was over, sightseers on C Street still vied for the slot machines standing just inside the establishments adjacent to the boardwalk. The noise of the electronic bandits and the smell of the sausage dogs and spilt beer overwhelmed me. What was I getting myself into?

It’s hard for me now to think about how I felt when I first went to Virginia City. I was nervous. I didn’t gamble. I’d never been in a casino. The idea of legalized prostitution seemed barbaric. It still does. While I’ll occasionally have a drink, the thought of having alcohol available 24 hours a day was unsettling. Furthermore, I’d never lived in a place where, on any given Sunday, only a handful of folks would be in church. I was nervous as to what I’d signed up for. 

Living there forced me to think hard about what it means to follow Jesus. Many times, there and even here, being faithful to Jesus means we must live differently than the society in which we find ourselves.

In the first sentence of Peter’s letter, we learn that its intended recipients are “exiles from the Dispersion.” Now the Dispersion refers to those Jews who lived, at this time in history, throughout the Mediterranean region. After Babylon, Jewish enclaves were established through that part of the world and, as we know from early church history, Paul and Peter and other Apostles were often able to find a receptive ear in these communities. 

Think about Paul’s travels in Acts, his first place to visit in a new city was often the synagogue.[7] But Peter isn’t writing to those in the synagogue, instead he’s writing to those who have been exiled or booted out of the synagogue. In a religious sense, these are marginalized people. Because they are followers of Jesus, they find themselves exiled even from the synagogue community that was, in a sense, exiled.[8]

Now think about the world in which they lived. Most of their neighbors worshipped the ancient gods as well as Caesar. For them, God in the flesh was the emperor in Rome. If you lived in this world, you were expected to pay homage to the gods and to Caesar, the one loophole being that you were a Jew. Then, provided you weren’t causing trouble, you could worship the God of Israel. As the early Christians found themselves no longer a part of the Jewish minority, they had nowhere to go. Shunned, they were considered atheist as they worshipped an unseen God. 

But there is good news to these “twice-shunned” believers. Peter, with language that carries overtones of predestination, reminds them that they have been chosen and destined by God. So even though they may feel like out-casts, and are persecuted, God is with them. Furthermore, they’re sanctified by the Spirit and have been sprinkled with the blood of Jesus, the one to whom they are obedient. Peter, in the first sentence, packs in the theology. He mentions all three members of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit. He speaks of God’s gracious sovereignty, Jesus’ atonement, and our need for sanctification by the Spirit. Peter wants them to understand that they haven’t saved themselves; their salvation is grounded in God.

Then, in verse 3, Peter lays out the hope they have in Jesus Christ. In the Greek, this is all one long run-on sentence, going all the way to verse 12.[9] Luckily, for us, most translators break the sentence into smaller chunks. In this super-sentence, Peter acknowledges the trouble his readers face, the trials they endure, but reminds them that their inheritance. Hold on, be obedient to Jesus, for it is in him that we have hope. Even though it may not always seem like it, God’s with them, and their future is bright.  

Now, let’s face it, whatever tribulations we face today are nothing when compared to what Christians in the first three centuries faced. Furthermore, we in America have no idea what Christians in other parts of the world must endure today. Think of Christian in Pakistan, China, India, North Korea, Nigeria, or Saudi Arabia. 

But even if we do face persecution, we must remember that our first loyalty as a disciple of Jesus is to him, the one in whom we have our hope. And what does Jesus call us to do? We’re called to be the salt of the earth, to love God and to love our neighbor, and to love even our enemies.[10] Are we doing that?

In the last three verses of this section, Peter recalls the work of the Old Testament prophets, those who foretold what God was doing and the Messiah to come. Peter notes that they did not serve themselves, but were in a sense serving those, like Peter’s audience, who experienced such grace. It pleased the prophets to do God’s work for the benefit for future generations. And in a way those suffering for Jesus, to whom this letter was addressed, worked on our behalf. We are their beneficiaries, and we’re to benefit those who follow us.  

So, what does Jesus call us to do?  Like those who received this letter, he calls us to be faithful and obedient. We’ll all face challenges. Sometimes the pressure of society will try to lure us away from Jesus. Or we may be lured away from the Jesus of scripture to another form of Jesus, one who is more our image and doesn’t look like the Jesus of the Bible.[11] When this happens, Peter reminds us of what’s important.  

Going back to my fears when I moved to Nevada, I quickly learned that just because bars and casinos remained open 24 hours a day, I didn’t need to take advantage of it. And when I did go inside such a place, moderation was the key. Too much of a good thing can also be bad. And there were places where I shouldn’t’ be seen, and I stayed away. And on Sunday morning, when I put on a suit and walked down the boardwalk to the church, people knew where I was going. Hopefully, by my witness, I planted a few seeds. 

When we are obedient to Christ, we witness to the world a gentle faith that God is in charge, and we’ve placed our hope in his hands. Amen. 


[1] John 15:19.

[2] Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, MI: Bravos Press, 2011), 55.

[3] Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 1990), 52. 

[4] Donald Senior, “First Peter Introduction” in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 2181-2182.

[5] https://fromarockyhillside.com/2022/12/hope-in-the-desert/  

[6] This view, which I so enjoyed, is no longer available as new construction was built across from the church. During the Bonanza era of the 1870s, the view wasn’t available either, as the Baptist Church (that closed in the 1880s), sat across the street. 

[7] See Acts 13:5, 13:14, 14:1, 17:1, 17:10, 18:4, and 19:8. 

[8] For insight into this community to whom Peter writes, see Joel B. Green, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 14-18. Green notes that most of those first reading this letter probably were not Jews, but gentiles. 

[9] Green, 22.

[10] Matthew 5:13, Luke 10:27, and Matthew 5:44.

[11] Those who want to promote a masculine Jesus (aka, Rambo Jesus) or make Jesus into a nationalistic symbol risk creating a Jesus in their own image and not in the image of scripture. 

Virginia City at night during the winter of 1988/1989

Psalm 1: Two Roads

With back to back bouts with COVID, I’m still testing positive. So I taped the sermon at home using my iPhone (which is why you get a smaller photo of me). This sermon will be delivered by Libby Wilcox tomorrow at Bluemont Church. Mayberry Church will be closed because of COVID (mine and some others) along with freezing rain and icing that is called for earlier in the morning.

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont & Mayberry Presbyterian Church

January 8, 2023
Psalm 1

This was taped in my basement library on Saturday, January 7, 2022

We’re exploring the very first Psalm today. Before we get to the Scripture, let me tell you about the Psalms.

This book in the middle of scripture was the hymnal and a worship resource for the Hebrew people. When you read the Psalms, you may have notice many of them have Hebrews words like Selah written in the margins. It’s thought that this was an instruction for the musicians, maybe the point when a cymbal would clap or the tempo increased. We don’t know exactly what it means, but that’s the best guess of scholars. Many of the Psalms indicate worship, calling us to come into God’s presence, to sing God’s praise.[1]

Those who study the Hebrew Scriptures generally date the coming together of the Psalms, and much of the Old Testament as we have it today, to the Babylonian period. It was a time when the Hebrew people lived in exile. During that era, away from the Promised Land, the ruined temple and the holy city of Jerusalem, the Jewish people collected their writings to preserve their religious heritage. Text that had been passed on orally were written down. Other texts, like the Psalms, which existed as fragments, were collected, and put together into a book. 

Individually, many of the Psalms themselves are much older, some attributed to David and to earlier era of Israel’s history. We can image that the collection of the Psalms was much like the publishing of a hymnal today. A group of people gathers and decides on the hymns used and their placement in the hymnal, and then sends a rough draft off to the printer. Same thing happened then, only they didn’t have a printer and had to send a copy to scribes who copied it by hand.

Let’s consider a few hymnals. I grew up with the Red Hymnal—it was published by the Presbyterian Church a few years before my birth and was the main hymnal in use for over 35 years.[2] The first hymn in this hymnal is “Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty.” Do you think this hymn was chosen randomly? I don’t think so. It’s a fitting hymn for Presbyterians, the focus being on God Almighty and not on ourselves. In another hymnal I’m familiar with, the first selection is “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” Again, is was it picked randomly? I don’t think so, for it calls us into worship with a joyful heart. In the same way, when the collection of Psalms were compiled, there was an intentional decision, as they were led by God’s Spirit, to place what we know as Psalm 1 at the beginning of the collection.[3]

This Psalm was picked to remind the Hebrew people, and us, that if our prayers and songs are to mean anything, our lives must reflect God’s will. Ponder what it says as we listen to God’s word.  READ PSALM 1.

###

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” the poet Robert Frost wrote in his famous poem first published in 1916.[4]  Likewise, according to the Psalmist, there are two options for those of us who believe in the God of Abraham, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We can be on God’s side, rewarded by the one who gives life. Or we can take the road of the scoffers, the path that allows us to think we or something else is god. This path will lead us away from the Almighty, the path to destruction. Two ways: God’s way which leads to life, or the other road which leads to death. Two ways, the choice is ours. Which one will it be?  

This could be a mother’s Psalm. Mother’s care about the path their children take. Will they follow the right path? There’s probably nothing more tragic than a mother dealing with the disappointment of a wayward child.[5]

Our psalm opens with a beatitude, promising us that if we’re good and on God’s side, we’ll be blessed and have a happy life. But the opening line also reminds us of competing claims within the world. Happiness comes from not accepting the advice of the wicked. Their guidance run counter to God’s word. The first verse makes it abundantly clear to the reader that we should we should avoid such people…  Accept their advice? Strike one. Follow their paths? Strike two. And sit in their assemblies? Three strikes; you’re out. Instead, after making three negative suggestions, the Psalm reminds us that we’re to delight and mediate on God’s law. 

The idea of delighting in laws is foreign for most of us. I mean, we’re running late, and the speed limit is only 35 miles per hour, do we slow down? Or, do we curse the car in front of us that’s maintaining the legal speed? We see laws as being burdensome; they hold us back, or so it seems. Of course, if we live on that street and have a child who plays in the front yard, we understand and don’t want anyone to drive by at 60 miles an hour. If we put ourselves in such a place, we see the rationality of the law. We have to admit that most laws are for our benefit or for the benefit of society. Of course, I still can’t see the reason some states outlaw barefoot driving.

God’s law, like most laws of the state, provides a boundary within which we can live life abundantly. Within these guidelines, life flourishes. Outside them, life diminishes. If we understand the law this way, we should take delight in it. We should learn and take to heart God’s instructions on how to live abundantly and to relate to one another and to Almighty faithfully.

Psalm 1 is just one of several Psalms that extol the virtues of following God’s laws. Perhaps the best known, of such Psalms, is the 119th, which is also the longest Psalm in scripture, going on and on for 176 verses. If I ever decide to preach on the whole 119 Psalm, I’ll give you advance warning so you can pack a picnic… Of course, that week, nobody will show up. 

Both Psalms, the 1st, which is rather short, and the 119, a marathon, encourage us to pay attention to the ways of the Almighty. Near the opening of the longer Psalm we’re encouraged to “delight in God’s decrees as much as we do in riches, to meditate on God’s precepts, to fix our eyes on God’s ways, to delight in God’s statutes, and not to forget God’s word.”[6] These positive verbs direct us toward God and an understanding of God’s laws.  

Now let me clarify a point. We can get a bit carried away with our emphasis on the law. After all, the law does not have the power to save us. The law points to our need for Jesus’ salvation and by obeying them, we’re allowed to enjoy life here and now. Obeying the law isn’t going to save us, but it will make our lives better and that’s its purpose.[7]

I like this idea of mediating on the law that’s found in both the 1st and 119th Psalm. It doesn’t mean memorizing the 10 commandments (although that’s not a bad idea) or the 600 and some other laws found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Instead, to meditate means to internalize the laws so they become, by second nature, our guiding rule. Such meditation allows God’s will to shape our will, and ultimately, that’s what it’s all about, us following God’s will. 

If we are following God’s will, we’ll be like that tree by a stream. Such trees grow fast, drawing upon available water. Likewise, if we live in a way that allows ourselves to be nourished by God, our lives will indeed be blessed. We may not have the riches or the power that we once desired, but we will be content and at peace with ourselves and with God.  

Of course, this psalm presents parallel images. The righteous is like a well-watered tree. The wicked, however, have no roots. They’re like the chaff that comes off the wheat during the milling process. The chaff blows away, it easily burns and no longer sustains life. The choice we make, whether to follow or run from God, determines which image applies. Do we want to be a tree, or husk blown in the wind? These two images lead the Psalmists to conclude with a warning of judgment. The wicked, the chaff, will be judged. But the righteous, the one watered by the Lord, will stand tall.  

The choice is ours. Whose side are we own? Those who compiled the Psalms placed this Psalm first, so that when someone began to read this book, he or she would be encouraged to decide to follow God and seek out God’s ways. Psalm 1 prepares us for the rest of the Psalms, which quite interestingly consist of five books, as in the Law, or the Torah.[8] The Torah called the Hebrew people to align themselves with God. Likewise, the Psalmist calls us to align ourselves with God, drawing upon the rest of the Psalms as that tree draws upon water.[9]

“Two roads diverge in a yellow wood…”  Which one will you take? Psalmist calls you to take the way outlined in this book, to mediate and internalize God’s word.  Amen.


[1] See especially Psalms 95-100 and 145-150.

[2] The “Red Hymnal” was titled The Hymnbook was published in 1955.  There was a hymnal titled The Worship Book that was published in 1970, but it wasn’t received very well and many churches continued to use the “Red Hymnal” until the 1990 publication of The Presbyterian Hymnal. 

[3] Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 25-28.

[4] Robert Frost, The Poetry of Robert Frost, Edward Connery Lathem, editor (NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 105.

[5] See comments about mothers watching their sons die in a BBC article on the woman who served as communication director for the Texas Prison in Huntsville and who has observed more than 300 executions. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43995866

[6] Psalm 119:14-16.

[7] John Calvin and other reformers taught that the law had three purposes: to show our need for repentance, to help us live in God’s will, and to help keep the reprobate in check.  

[8] The Torah consists of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  The five books of the Psalms, which each close with a benediction, are Psalms 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150.  

[9] James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 40-44.

Trees and Mountain Laurel growing by Laurel Fork. Photo taken on March 13, 2022.

Christmas on the Blue Ridge

This will go down as a strange Christmas. Christmas Eve is always rushed. This is especially true when Christmas falls on a Sunday, which means I have two messages to prepare… This year, I thought I would get ahead of myself. Partly, I was forced to because the guy who tapes the sermon for Mayberry Church was leaving town for the holidays. So I taped the sermon on Tuesday. Because he was traveling and a number of people in the church had come down with COVID, we took precautions and wore masks or stood (as with the taping) on opposite ends of the sanctuary.

Then I woke up on Wednesday, feeling congested and not very well. I tested myself. After almost three years of avoiding the virus, I was positive. The quarantine started… Thankfully, my library (and visitor guest room) is almost done in the basement, so I moved down stairs). I would not be there for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (which I never got around to preparing a sermon for). I am thankful for many people who stepped up and help make sure worship will continue.

Then there’s this bomb cyclone that much of the country faced over the past two days. Last night, when I went to bed, the temperature was at -2 with winds gusting. This morning, I got up at 6 AM and the temperature was -6, with the winds sustained around 18 mph and gusting much higher. Lots of people lost power. For a time, it was questionable if we’d have the service at Mayberry tonight, as their power was out, but it’s come back on. The power is still out at Bluemont Church and Appalachian Power doesn’t think they’ll get it back before tomorrow night, so we cancelled the Christmas Day service that was to be held there…

As for COVID, I was very congested for the first two days. Now, I don’t feel bad, but will abide by the recommended quarantine. I hope I’ll be back to normal next week. Here’s the sermon I was going to preach tonight. Instead, it will be shone to those who brave the cold on a big screen TV.

Have a Merry Christmas everyone!

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2022

Isaiah 9:2-7

Homily taped at Mayberry on Tuesday, December 20, 2022

This evening, I’m drawing my homily from a well-known passage from Isaiah, one often read during the Christmas season. As I have been reminding you through Advent, the first 2/3s of Isaiah is filled with judgment with a few kernels of hope sprinkled in. We’ve been looking at these passages of hope. This is another one of these passages. As we’ve just past the winter solstice with the longest night of the year, it’s good to be reminded that darkness never has the final word.  Read Isaiah 9:2-7.

###

Benighted is a word that is often used by mountaineers. It refers to getting caught in the darkness when climbing or hiking.[1] Generally, one doesn’t plan to get caught out like that, but I often go out for a walk as the sun sets, so that I might hike back in the night. I love watching the light fade from the horizon and the stars to pop out in the sky as I acknowledge each constellation as old friends. If I’m walking back up Laurel Fork Road, some of the hayfields allows for long views off the west and in the winter, I can see lights twinkle at Crooked Oak and toward Hillsville. I take comfort in these lights, knowing they represent homes where people are warm and safe.

It’s a little more troubling to hike at night when there is no light. I’ve been caught a few times like that, when it’s dark and you can’t see more than a few feet ahead. Once, in a backpacking trip in Yosemite, I’d walked out to a ledge about a half mile from where we’d camped to watch the sunset. I stayed a little longer than planned and was making my way back in the dark. Suddenly, a bear coming down the path in the other direction, stood up in front of me. It was as startled as me, and thankfully took off in another direction. Darkness can be scary. 

Without vision, there is no comprehension of what’s out there, what’s around you. It’s all about what’s with the next step or within our reach. You walk slower and try to avoid running into things. It can be scary. We become confused and find ourselves lost. We’re become anxious and apprehensive, as I was the rest of the way back to my camp. 

This is the situation Isaiah addresses in this oracle. People walking in darkness, living in a land of absent of light. Tonight, millions of people in Ukraine live in darkness because Russia constantly bombards their electrical grid in an attack of civilians. Those civilians could identify with those whom Isaiah addressed in this passage. We’ve all dealt with similar darkness during ice storms. It’s frightening, but Isaiah offers hope. There is a promise of light filling the land. The light brings joy, there is a renewed confidence. As with the breaking of dawn, things are changing.  

We take light for granted. We flip the switch and like magic, light appears. We are troubled when the power doesn’t work, which is why many of us have generators. Candles and flashlights just don’t do it for us anymore. Especially now, at the time of the year when the nights are at their longest and the air is cold.

Yet, despite the easy availability of light, we still suffer from depression and want. The metaphor of darkness still applies to us as we worry about the present and fret over the future. We need to hear and experience Isaiah’s words again. 

This passage of Isaiah, possibility originally written for the birth of one of Jerusalem’s kings, offers hope to a people oppressed.[2] As a nation, Israel and Judah stood at the crossroads of mighty nations. In world affairs, they were a pawn, in the middle of a chessboard, with the powers of the Fertile Crescent on each side. The dark pieces of the chessboard could have been Egypt and the white pieces could represent a variety of nations (Assyria, Babylon, or Persia) depending on the era of history. Sitting in this crucible, Israel always felt insecure. But at the time of a new king there would be hope that alien rule would come to an end and their enemies would be defeated as the new king restores the prominence of Israel to what it had been under David. It would be centuries before Jesus’ came, fulfilling this prophecy.

In verse 4, Isaiah recalls the victories of Gideon at Midian, where he led the Israelites into battle. Over 32,000 Israelite men responded to the call to arms to save their nation, but God had Gideon whittle down the number of soldiers. In the end, he kept a force of only 300 who slipped into the Midianite and their allies, the Amalekites, camp and routed them. With just a handful of men, but more importantly with God’s help, they were victorious over a much larger army.[3]The promises in our passage all link to God working to end their oppression as God had done in the days of Gideon. This leads to verse 6, which is perhaps the most hopeful verse in scripture, where Isaiah’s oracle announces the birth of a child. But sadly, no such king was born during Isaiah’s era.

The early church quickly realized how this passage applied to Jesus, whose birth we celebrate tonight. Jesus came in humility, yet had the authority of God, was God with us. Jesus offers us a new way of enjoying peace. Of course, his reign hasn’t been fully realized and there are still those who oppose his kingdom, but his victory over evil and death has been won on the cross and it’s only a matter of time. For as we celebrate his birth, we also long for his return and the everlasting kingdom.  

On these dark winter nights, when you see lights glimmering in the distance, think of the hope we have in Jesus, the light of the world. As we heard earlier this evening from the prelude to the Gospel of John, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”[4]

There is a legend that one winter, the great church reformer, Martin Luther was walking in the woods at night. There was a cedar tree frosted with snow on a hill above. As he looked up at this sight, he could see the stars flickering behind and through the branches of the tree. He was so moved that he had a tree cut down and brought inside his home and decorated it with lights to recapture the glory he’d witnessed. This season, I hope you can capture that same glory when you look at the lights all around us and be reminded of the hope we have in Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate this evening. For in Jesus Christ, born of Mary, God came into our world and lived among us, showing us how to live, and reminding us that we’re not alone. We should no longer live in the fear of the darkness, for unto us a child has been born….  Amen.  


[1] This word came from a Twitter post by Cian McCarthy: https://twitter.com/arealmofwonder/status/1605101212554117120

[2] For a more fuller discussion of this passage as an enthronement oracle, see Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1:12, Old Testament Library, Second Edition, John Bowden, translator, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 210-214.

[3] See Judges 7.

[4] John 1:5.

A decoration on my tree

God Believes in Us

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
December 18, 2022
Isaiah 7:10-16

Sermon recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, December 16, 2022

A thought at the beginning of worship:

You know, it’s tough being a Department Store Santa. Thankfully, most of the kids are good when they crawl up onto the chubby old man’s laps. Santa listens to their wants and desires for Christmas. But some lists breaks Santa’s hearts. Others, who come with a list that rivals the one their mom has for the grocery store, reminds Santa of how greedy some kids can be. And then, sometimes a kid pulls his beard to see if it’s real. 

And then there is Scottie. At eleven, almost twelve, he feels he’s too old for Santa. But he’s his mom’s last kid and she wants one last photo of him on Santa’s lap. Scottie doesn’t like it when his mother orders him to climb up in the Old Man’s lap. 

Santa doesn’t relish the thought much, either. Especially because Scottie was big for his age and had a few extra pounds to boot. But Santa has a job to do. He lets out a hearty “ho-ho-ho” and welcomes Scottie, asking the boy what he wants for Christmas. Instead of answering, Scottie looks Santa in the eye and says, “I-don’t-believe-in-you.” “That’s alright,” Santa says. “I believe in you.”[1]

I believe in you

“I believe in you.” That’s what God says to us and to all humanity.  

God believes in us even when we have our doubts. And when we least expect it, in the darkness of a depressed Palestine, God enters our world as a child. God believes in us, a truth that should empower our lives with meaning and conviction. 

Before the reading of today’s scripture: 

We’re again looking at hopeful passages found in the first half of Isaiah during this Advent season. Today’s passage is problematic. It seems odd for this passage to relate to this season. However, this reading (or verse 14 of the reading) is tied to the Christmas season thanks to the Matthew’s gospel.[2] It’s made even more famous by the rousing singing of altos in Handel’s Messiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us.” If God is with us, it sounds like God believes in us, doesn’t it? But it’s also a frightening thought. God being with us also brings judgment, as this chapter of Isaiah shows.

An odd passage for Advent?

As I said, the Isaiah passage from where this verse which brings so much meaning to Christmas seems quite odd for the season. After all, Isaiah deals with international politics and who’s aligned with whom. And we have a king, Ahaz, who fails to take God’s advice. If you read on to the end of the chapter, God judges the king for following his own way and not the ways of God. 

Take time this afternoon to read this chapter. There are some hidden meanings behind the “hair cut” the king receives in verses 20.[3] Again, in Isaiah, as we’ve seen all along in Isaiah, the prophet ties judgment and hope together. It seems an irony, but perhaps Matthew understood this for after telling of Jesus’ birth, he follows that hopeful story with that of another king. Herod finds the hope of a child too threatening and seeks to destroy him.[4].

Hope and Judgment.

Hope and judgment? How do we respond to the hope that God is with us? Is it good news or do we fear the judge?

Read Isaiah 7:10-16

Background info on Ahaz.

Ahaz, the king Isaiah confronts in today’s passage, isn’t a model of faithfulness. He’s remembered as one of the worst kings—one of the most idolatrous—in the history of the Hebrew people. His history is somewhat scattered. It must be pieced together from several books within scripture as well as from Assyrian sources.

World politics 2700 years ago

It seems Judah, some 700 years before Christ, found herself besieged by the combined forces of her northern cousins, Israel, and the Aramean or Syrian kingdom. Israel and Syria allied in an anti-Assyrian pact. Assyria was the unquestionable world power for several centuries during. Israel and Syria joined together to fight her dominance. Judah did not enter this pact; she was attacked because of this.

Ahaz, the king of Judah, calls on Assyria for help. The Assyrians attack Syria, which relieve Ahaz forces. After the capture of Syria, Ahaz meets with the king of Assyria in Damascus, and they set up a pact. The Assyrians would not conquer Judah, but the little state would become a vassal under the mighty Assyrians. Ahaz, the king, pledged his loyalty to the king of Assyria.[5]Can you keep Syria or Aramean, Assyria, Israel, Judah straight? Complicated, isn’t it? World politics always is.

Ahaz’s real sins

Had Ahaz just forged an alliance with Assyria, he might have been okay. But his loyalty went beyond a military alliance. While in Damascus, Ahaz eyes an Assyrian altar. It must have been pretty fancy because he orders his chief cabinetmaker to build one to put into the Jerusalem temple. Furthermore, Ahaz robs the temple of some of its treasures to pay tribute to the Assyrians. Ahaz seems to have a thing for the idols of Judah’s neighbors, preferring them over the God of Abraham. Many of these idols he places in the temple, too, making it into a pagan shrine as opposed to a place focused only on the worship of Almighty God. 

Today’s text

Now, with that background, let’s look at the text. The Lord tells Ahaz he should ask of the Lord whatever he needs. Ahaz refuses, telling Isaiah that he’s not going to put the Lord to the test. We’re told in Deuteronomy not to test God.[6] If we just read this verse, it sounds as if Ahaz faithfully tries to live by God’s commands. But, as I have shown you, history tells us otherwise. Ahaz isn’t going to test the Lord, even when given permission, because he has a bunch of other gods upon whom he can call. Perhaps this resulted in Isaiah’s sarcastically response in verse 13, “Is it too little to weary mortals that you weary my God also?”

God with us through a child

Isaiah’s use of “my God,” points to Ahaz’s faithlessness in the God of his ancestors. But God is not going to be unfaithful, Isaiah proclaims. God will come to this people. A young woman is to give birth to a child named Immanuel. The Hebrew word translated as young woman means a girl or maiden, someone entering the age for marriage. 

There’s a lot of confusion around this word. As I said, in the Hebrew, the word is for a young woman of marriageable age, but when the Isaiah was translated into the Greek, the words used was for a virgin. And that’s what is in our mind as Matthew quotes, not the Hebrew text but the Greek Septuagint.[7] This led to the veneration of Mary in the medieval world. And thanks to Matthew, along with Handel’s wonderful oratorio, becomes entrenched in our mind with Christmas. 

The real miracle in this prophecy 

But the real miracle here is not with the woman. I suggest the scandalous miracle is with the child. God comes to us in an infant. That’s the meaning of Immanuel. God is present, in person, in this child wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manager.[8]

You know, God could have washed his hands of Judah because of Ahaz. If God would be like us, the king’s unfaithfulness would be enough to find some new folks for the chosen people. But God doesn’t work that way. God remains faithful. As I said at the beginning of today’s worship, God believes in us. God believes in us so much that he sent his only Son.[9] God’s desire to be in relationship with us is so great that we’re given chance after change to get it right. God was willing to give Ahaz another chance. He didn’t take God up on the offer, but that was his decision. And in Jesus Christ, God offers the world a new way of being. 

Where do we see God’s presence? 

During the Advent season, we should think about where we see God’s presence in our lives and in history. Are we looking in the right places? Who’d expect an infant from a young mother to make such a difference?

In the 1975 movie, “Love and Death,” Woody Allen’s character says, “If God would only speak to me—just once. If He would only cough. If I could just see a miracle. If I could see a burning bush or the sea’s part. Of my Uncle Sasha pick up the check.” If only… We understand these feelings. An unambiguous sign from God would certainly be appreciated.[10] Instead, we’re to take hope form the birth of a child.

The season of expectant waiting.

This is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent. We now have four candles burning in our wreath. Advent is the season of expectant waiting. In Isaiah’s day, they longed for safety from invaders, someone strong and bold, yet Isaiah promises hope in a child. A child doesn’t come with armor and a spear. One must wait, as God’s people waited for a Messiah and as we wait for his return. 

Prison and Advent

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian killed by the Nazis just a few weeks before the end of World War Two, wrote in prison shortly before Christmas 1944, his last: “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent. One waits, hopes and does this, that, or the other—things that are really of no consequence—the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.”[11]

Bonhoeffer is right. Only God can come to us. Our sinful natures are unable to transcend the divine. We must depend on God to open the door… But don’t despair. Remember, God still believes in us. That’s the good news. God enters our world through Jesus Christ and ushers in his kingdom which is demonstrated when one of us accepts his rule over our lives. Christ has come and we should see evidence of his presence in one another as we gather to worship and to do the work to which we’re called. 

Conclusion 

And Christ will come again. Until then, the question we need to ask is, “Will we be ready?” Or will we be like Ahaz and, in the meantime, run off after other gods? God believes in us. Will we believe in God? Amen. 


[1] This story came from an the old ECUNET internet bulletin board. I first told it on December 20, 1998, changing the kid’s name to Scottie to pick on Scott Burns, one of the great jokesters in the congregation I served at the time (Community Presbyterian Church, Cedar City, Utah). A year earlier, we had moved into the new church. When the building was dedicated, we hung in a hall 8”x10” photos of pastors who had served the church. At the unveiling of these photos, Scott created a special “photo” of me. It was poster sized. He’d taken a rather unflattering picture of me, at church camp that summer, sleeping in a hammock. It seemed only right to name the kid after him.

[2] Matthew 1:23

[3] See the footnote for this verse in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible (2003). Dehairing describes destruction as in Ezekiel 5:1-4. 

[4] See Matthew 2.  See also Scott Hoezee, “Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 18, 2022: Isaiah 7:10-16” at https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2022-12-12/isaiah-710-16-3/.

[5] Background information on Ahaz from the Anchor Bible Dictionary and John Bright, A History of Israel (1959, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), 291f. 

[6] Deuteronomy 6:6.

[7] Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, The Old Testament Library, 2nd Edition, John Bowden, translator (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 154. See also Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah Updated Edition (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 145ff.

[8] Luke 2:12.

[9] John 3:16.

[10] Donald W. McCullough, The Trivialization of God: The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity (Colorado Springs: Nav Press, 1995), 119. 

[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (NY: Collier, 1953), 135. 

After sunset, last Tuesday

Hope in the Desert

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
December 11, 2022
Isaiah 35

Recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, December 9, 2022.

At the beginning of worship

There is a wonderful little book filled with wisdom titled, Jacob the Baker. When teaching his fellow bakers, Jacob holds up his fist and says:

The fist starves the hand… When our hand is made into a fist, we cannot receive the gifts of life from ourselves, our friends, or our God. When our hand is closed in a fist, we cannot hold anything but bitterness. When we do this, we starve our stomachs and our souls. Our anger brings a famine on ourselves.[1]

Think about it. Harboring bitterness only intensifies our despair. We need to make the best of all situations. 

Advent, as the days grow shorter, is a time of darkness. We might wish this time to quickly pass, but I suggest instead we seek God in such times. For only when we stand with open hands to receive the Lord will we be ready to be shepherded into a better place.

Before reading the scripture:

We’re again exploring a hopeful passage from Isaiah. This book forms the centerpiece for the Old Testament’s concept of a redeemer God. This is the God we meet fully in Jesus Christ, but the theological foundations for Christ’s work is set forth in Isaiah. Today, we look at the 35thchapter, which contains a hopeful vision. 

Many scholars suggest chapters 34 and 35 should be read together even though they seem to be contradictory.[2] Chapter 34 deals with God’s judgment on the nations, with Edom particularly selected for condemnation. The land becomes a wasteland inhabited by wild animals. This desolation is followed, in Chapter 35, with the promise of God’s restoration. By the way, blending judgment and hope is something Isaiah does well.[3]

Read Isaiah 35

Life in the Desert

Life in the desert is precious. Everything fights for its share of water. Savage animals live in the desert; they must be that way to survive. They’ve adapted to the climate. The sidewinder rattlesnake jumps sideways as it makes its way across hot ground while only exposing a limited portion of its underbelly to the baking rock. Other snake who slithers on the ground can be quickly fried. They only come out at night and quickly find shade when the sun blazes. 

Cactus is another example of unique survival. It’s a plant that stores up water and then defends its stash with sharp points. Everything competes for moisture.[4]

Fear of the desert

Many people are apprehensive about the desert. Back in 1988, when I moved to Virginia City, Nevada, I worried about driving across the 40-mile desert. I had read horrible accounts of what wagon trains endured crossing this parched land.[5] And it didn’t help any that I picked up a nail in a tire in Elko. Was this an omen? Thankfully, I was able to get the tire repaired in Lovelock, Nevada and made the trip without any problems. 

Without air conditioning, water purification systems and deep wells, life in the desert is precarious. Today, it’s a bit easier, but you still don’t want to run out gas or water or with a flat tire. 

In the days of Isaiah, the desert was even more hostile. Yet that’s where Israel finds herself, in the desert. Before looking at the 35th chapter, let’s take quickly review the 34th Chapter. As I’ve said, the two appear to be one unit. 

The Judgment of Chapter 34

In the 34th Chapter, judgment has descended upon the world. Everything is affected. In the first four verses, we read of those slain by God’s anger. In verse five, we learn that Edom, a neighbor of Israel’s, is especially singled out for the harshest treatment. God’s wrath continues till only wild beast, demons, buzzards and the like, inhabit the land. The world is now a desert; it’s an inhospitable wilderness. There is no hope on the horizon.

Metaphorical deserts

So far, I’ve spoken about literal deserts, something that not all of us will experience. Those of us who do experience a real desert, will probably do it on our own free will and prepared. So, let’s think about deserts metaphorically. Yet, sooner or later, all of us will find ourselves in such a place. 

Life becomes a struggle. We question what purpose life serves. It could be the evaporation of a career that seemed so promising. Or the unraveling of a marriage upon which we’d placed our hopes and dreams. The death of a parent, a child, or a close friend can bring about such feelings. Or our health declines, and things just don’t seem to be getter better. At such times, we enter a desert. We question if it’s worthwhile to continue to search for something that will quench our thirst. There’s no joy and no hope, only despair. Been there yet? Most of us have at least tasted a part of what I described. We’ve been there at the situation Isaiah explains in the 34 chapter, where hope seems as distant as a shower of rain in the summer desert.

But then we open the 35th chapter, which begins in the wilderness, and something strange happens. The wilderness and dry land we’re told are glad, the desert rejoices, flowers bloom abundantly. 

Death Valley in bloom

Occasionally, in late winter, Death Valley, one of the most inhospitable places in America, is transformed into a blanket of flowers. I once saw it in its full glory. This miracle last only for a week or two. It only occurs maybe once a decade, during a time where significant rain falls in December and January. Soon afterwards the flowers bloom, Death Valley resorts to its natural state. Everything dries up. 

Isaiah and the desert blooming

I expect Isaiah experienced such wonder. He knew how things can change quickly. He knew how the desert can bloom and be transformed into a garden—how seeds lie in wait for a thirst-quenching rain. And Isaiah uses this vision to remind his readers that God does wonderful things. It’s not all judgment and despair. God works best in our wildernesses—transforming a barren landscape into one of life! Out of the crucible of judgment God leads his people. 

Christ brings hope

This poem of Isaiah, which speaks of God’s people returning to Zion, foretells of Christ’s coming into a world without hope and reversing the fortunes of those with the least amount of confidence—the blind, the deaf, the lame. Water appears as springs bursting forth in the desert, again reminding us of the living water Jesus promises.[6]

A highway to paradise appears. A safe road with no nails waiting to puncture a tire. Those willing to leave their past behind move into God’s future are invited to journey upon it. Even fools, we’re told, won’t get lost on God’s Road. They’ll be no danger lurking at the edges. Lions won’t prowl. Remember, as I pointed out last week, the Assyrians were identified as a lion. But in this new Eden, ravenous beasts will stay away from those “ransomed” by the Lord.  

No reason to despair in the desert

The message of this passage is that being in the desert is no reason for despair. It’s in the desert we experience the full joy of our God. If we have such an outlook on life, such expectations, desert places won’t seem so frightening. Instead, we can enter such landscapes with a hopeful anticipation on what God can do for us and through us.  

God can speak in the desert

Terry Tempest Williams, a Utah author who writes about the land, says this about desert:  

“If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide, and so we are found.”[7]

Williams is onto something. When we are in the desert, be they real or metaphorical, we are exposed. We find we must depend upon the other and upon God. It may be that the desert is the only place quiet enough for us to hear God speak. When things go well, we’re too busy to be bothered. But when things fall apart and there’s no place to turn, then we hear. These are the moments God might speak to us. The desert helps us define what’s important.

Keillor’s story of life after a desert experience

Garrison Keillor, in his book Wobegon Boy, tells John Tollefson’s story. A cheerful young man, he leaves Lake Wobegon for the glitter of New York. John rises to the top, managing a public radio station and, with a friend, opens a restaurant. He’s got it all, it seems. Then comes the desert. He’s fired. The restaurant fails. You’d think his cheerfulness would wane, but during this desert time he realizes what he wants. For the first time in his life, he makes a commitment to love. The book ends happily with his wedding. John’s desert clarified his understanding of himself. [8]

We can’t just depend on ourselves in the desert

Ultimately, the desert reminds us that we can’t just depend upon ourselves. We must depend upon something greater, upon God. In Sacred Thirst: Meeting God in the Desert of our Longings, Craig Barnes points out that if we try to take care of every situation we find in our deserts, we’ll quickly burn up. We learn in the desert that Jesus, not anything we can do, is the answer.[9]

When we’re in a desert, we find we must listen and accept help from God and others to find the way out.  

While I don’t wish adversity on anyone, during such times if we choose, we might experience God. That’s the hope of Christmas. Don’t fear the deserts that may be before you, instead look at them as opportunities. Expect great things from our God. Amen.


[1] Noah BenShea, Jacob the Baker: Gentle Wisdom for a Complicated World (NY: Ballantine, 1989), 27-28.

[2] Christopher R. Seitz, Isaiah 1-39: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 236.

[3] I was reminded of this reading Fleming Rutledge’s sermon on Isaiah 64 and 65 titled, “Advent on the Brink of War” in The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 307-309

[4] For a good understanding of water in the desert, see Craig Child’s The Secret Knowledge of Water (Sasquatch Books, 2000). 

[5] The summer before moving to Nevada for a year as a student pastor, I worked at a camp in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. One of the books I read that summer, in preparation for going to Nevada, was Sessions S. Wheeler, The Nevada Desert (1971, Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1972). Chapter 2 is titled “The Dreaded 40 Mile Desert.” This is a section of land between Lovelock and Reno (the Humboldt Sink and the Truckee River) where there is no water to be found.

[6] John 4:10, 7:37-38. 

[7] Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (New York: Vintage, 1992), 148.  

[8] Garrison Keillor, Wobegon Boy (New York: Viking, 1997).

[9] M. Craig Barnes, Sacred Thirst: Meeting God in the Desert of our Longings (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), see especially Chapter 5.  Barnes draws heavily on the story of the Samaritan woman at the well found in John 4.

The desert blooming.
That’s me standing in Death Valley in early March of 2005.

A shoot from a dead tree & the peaceful kingdom

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
December 4, 2022, Advent 2
Isaiah 11:1-10

At the beginning of worship: 

I can’t imagine what these mountains where we live looked like at the beginning of the 20th Century. In the mix of the trees were chestnuts, giants that grew straight. Chestnuts provided not only strong and rot-resistant wood for building, but they also gave an abundance of nuts. Our pioneer ancestors would gather them for eating. Furthermore, they were a cash crop that could be sold to supplement one’s livelihood. By the mid 1920s, long before any of us were here, they were gone. 

A fungus introduced in the United States in 1904, when some Asian chestnuts were brought to New York, spread into the American chestnut population. An estimate of 4 billion chestnuts trees died in the Appalachian Mountains alone. It is thought that one in every four hardwoods died. But still, in places, from old chestnut stumps, new growth sprouts. The sprout grows tall and straight. It looks promising. But before it matures, it too succumbs to the blight. Hopefully, one day, scientists can find a way for these trees to dominate the landscape once again.

A shoot for a stump

A shoot coming up from the roots of a dead tree is a sign of hope, as we’re going to see in text today. Advent is a season in which we are reminded that we live in a world that’s not our home. Our world is like a stump, in need of new life. We long for a better home, which will require God’s invention. God can do things that has mostly alluded scientist for the past 100 years—giving growth that continues from a stump that appears dead. As followers of Jesus, hold on to this hope. 

Before the reading of Scripture

Today, I’m going to read two passages of scripture for the sermon. The first is from Matthew’s gospel, in which we hear that madman John the Baptist rail against the people of his day. John knew something was happening and he wanted people to prepare by repenting and changing their ways. John speaks to our world today, and the need we have to prepare ourselves for God’s coming. I’m not going to say much about John in the sermon, but let’s hear his words and be reminded of the type of world in which we live. Are any of us fully content here? I hope not. I hope we long for a better world. 

We get a glimpse of this better world my second reading from Isaiah. We hear of a shoot growing from a stump and catch a vision of life as God intends. 

Read Matthew 3:1-12 and Isaiah 11:1-10

Edward Hicks

You know, sometimes artists appear to be in a rut. Think of Monet and his 250-some paintings of water lilies. Another such painter is Edward Hicks, a 19th Century Pennsylvanian artist whose favorite subject was “The Peaceful Kingdom.” Hicks painted an untold number of canvases that depict the scene we just heard from Isaiah. All the animals are at peace: predators and prey, along with children and snakes. The National Galley in Washington, DC have several of Hick’s paintings. If you are there, check them out. While you can look at his paintings in a book or on the internet, there is something about seeing it in person. 

Hicks’ mother died when he was 18 months old. Being unable to care for him, his father shipped him off to friends who raised him. Then he moved into a coach makers home, where he worked as an apprentice. He became known for his illustrations on the side of the horse drawn carriages he painted. This resulted in people asking him to paint furniture and signs. He was later given commissions for paintings to decorate walls. 

Depicting Biblical Scene

Hicks joined the Quaker Church. This created a tension with his art because Quakers were plain folk who shunned art for art’s sake. He then began to use art to interpret scripture, especially the peacefulness sought by Quakers. This is when he began his lifelong obsession with “The Peaceful Kingdom.”[1] I wonder if Monet and his waterlilies and Hicks and his peaceful kingdom were attempts to get it right. By painting the same scenes over and over, were they striving for perfection? It will take a lot of work to achieve such a kingdom. In fact, we can’t do it ourselves. Only God can bring such a kingdom about. 

The curse of Genesis 3 is remove

But just because we can’t, by ourselves, bring such a kingdom about, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it. Instead, we should mediate upon it, and ponder how we might help demonstrate the kingdom to the world. In doing so, we instill hope. Our passage from Isaiah showsthat the curse of the fall, from Genesis 3, has been removed. In the curse, the woman’s and the serpent’s descendants are to be in constant battle. Humans stomp on snakes while they bite at our heels.[2]But in Isaiah, and in the paintings, a child is safe around a poisonous snake. 

Now, I know my mother thoughts of heaven would be a warm place without snakes. She was afraid of them and didn’t want us to have anything to do with them. But perhaps this idea of the child and the snake being together is an example of how, in heaven, we’ll get along even with our enemies. 

Animals living in harmony

Furthermore, in this scene, as I’ve said, we have the predator and the prey lying together. Woody Allen once quipped, “the day may come when the lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.”[3] Like the child, the ancient enemies in this imagined world are no more. No longer do the weak have to be concerned about being consumed by the powerful. Predators and bullies and rouge nations are no more. Everyone looks out for everyone else. That’s the Christian hope. We won’t be able to do this on our own. We’ll have to depend upon God. Thankfully, we worship a God of miracles who sent his only Son into our world. And that child, born in Bethlehem, gives us a vision of the kingdom that is coming. 

Two parts to this reading from Isaiah

There are two parts our reading from Isaiah. I’ve discussed the second one first. But let’s go back to that shoot growing from a stump which reminds me of the chestnut tree. The stump of Jesse represents Israel at a time when it was united between the north and the south and it’s greatest king, David, the son of Jesse, ruled. By Isaiah’s time, David had long returned to the earth. His united kingdom had split and those in the northern half were about to be consumed by the Assyrians, the raging lions as they were known, which gives us a new insight into the tamed lions in the second half of this reading.[4]

But for Isaiah and his contemporaries, with David a distant memory, things didn’t look good. And soon, things would get worse. But our God is a God of justice and miracles. God can bring a sprout out of a dead stump and send a Son to save the world. 

The Almighty prepares the righteous king

God prepares the righteous king proclaimed by Isaiah with wisdom and knowledge and the fear of the Lord. He’s able to judge, not by sight or ear, but by righteousness, granting justice for the poor and oppressed. The lion that was Assyria will not always be on the prowl. The predators who bring danger, whether wild animals or unscrupulous business leaders or rouge nations, will be destroyed or tamed. And God’s king will rule fairly. But that’s still in the future. 

The hope of a new world

Today, we live in the world much like that which John the Baptist condemned. But it won’t always be this way. Jesus has come to save us from our sin. Jesus will come again to rule. We need to prepare ourselves for what God is doing and be ready. We need to do what we can to herald the new world that’s coming. Remember, the old saying, “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” Hold tight and trust in God. Jesus has come and will come again. Have hope, as we long for the day of peace promised in Isaiah. Amen. 


[1] For more about Hick’s and his paintings, see https://artandtheology.org/2016/12/06/the-peaceable-kingdoms-of-edward-hicks/  

[2] Genesis 3:15. See Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12: A Commentary, John Bowden translator, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 260.

[3] See Scott Hoezee, “Isaiah 11:1-10” at https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2022-11-28/isaiah-111-10-3/

[4] Christopher R. Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 106.

The tree at the Garrison’s home

Advent 1: A Call to be a Blacksmith

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
November 27, 2022
Isaiah 2:1-5

Sermon recorded on Friday, November 25, 2022 at Bluemont Church

At the beginning of worship:

I started reading Fleming Rutledge’s book, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ a few weeks ago. In one of her essays, she mentioned how she experienced Advent as a child. Rutledge is an Episcopalian, and they have a much stronger Advent tradition than most Protestants. But her childhood experience struck home with me because I’m old enough to remember when they first introduced an Advent wreath in the Presbyterian Church we attended. 

This happened in the late 60s or maybe 1970 or 71. It was before I entered high school. We even had a workshop to make Advent wreaths for our homes. We would read a devotion and light candles before dinner. The problem with those wreaths is that the candles were so small, they became a fire hazard well before Christmas.  

Advent: life before Jesus

But what struck me about the Advent of childhood, as I and Rutledge experienced, is that we were encouraged to think of the world without Jesus. We were to imagine living in the first century before the common era and contemplate what it would have been like to have no hope because Jesus had yet to come. This makes Advent void of Jesus.

But Advent is about Jesus. Jesus, who descends from God, who was there at the beginning of creation.[1] Advent is also about God’s intention for the world as we look to Jesus’ return. As Rutledge writes, “Advent faces into death and looks beyond it to the coming judgment of God upon all that deceives, twists, undermines, pollutes, contaminates, and kills his beloved creation. There can be no community of the resurrection without the conquest of death and the consummation of the kingdom of God. In those assurances lies the hope of the world.”[2]

Before the reading of scripture:

This season of Advent, I’ll focus on readings of hope from the prophet Isaiah. As a prophet, Isaiah speaks of judgment, but also of hope. His judgment passages seem to go on and on but mixed in are bits of hope. Our passage this morning from the second chapter is wedged in the middle of Isaiah’s opening oracle of judgment. 

The first three chapters of Isaiah deals rather harshly with God’s chosen people. They have rebelled against God. Zion is to be desolate and trampled on by foreigners. Judah and Jerusalem will suffer because of their arrogance. They have ignored their covenant with God. Judgment is at hand. But amid these oracles of judgment, we also get a glimpse of hope. God is doing something new. And for that, we can rejoice.

Read Isaiah 2:1-5

Have you ever wondered what heaven will be like? I am sure most of you have, but what kind of vision do you have for heaven? 

Is our heaven hopes like Bunyan’s?

Last week, I wove into my last sermon on the Lord’s Prayer pieces from John Bunyan’s classic, Pilgrim’s Progress. When Christian crosses over the river at the end of his pilgrimage (the river representing death), he’s met on the opposite bank by messengers who lead him up to gate of the Celestial City. There, people wear crowns and fancy gowns. Inside the city, the streets are paved with gold. Everyone sings praises to God and rejoice in his arrival. 

Perhaps something like this is your idea of heaven? But I’m not sure. I’m too much like Mark Twain. He wondered why, if heaven was just singing hymns, anyone would want to go there. Especially someone who couldn’t stay away in church on earth, why would they want to be involved in an eternal hymn-sing.[3]

Isaiah’s vision of the life to come

Isaiah, in the middle of prophecy of judgment, gives us a different vision of the future. This is a vision of Zion, and one that I can buy into, a vision of peace. From Isaiah we have those comforting passages about the lions and lambs and wolves napping together,[4] along with this passage where instruments of war are transformed to tools of peace. The world is restored to its original intention. We’re back in the Garden. This passage which focuses on Zion is my hope for the world to come.

Zion

Zion was a narrow ridge which contained the oldest part of Jerusalem. The name became attached to the city and to the hill upon which it sat. But in time, because of Jerusalem’s importance and the with the presence of the temple, Zion came to be understood more theologically than geographically. Zion is where God reigns.[5]

Our passage envisions the day when this will come to pass. The judgment promised in the chapter 1 and later in chapter 2 will have passed. The earth has been purified. Now that God has assumed his throne on Zion, it’s the highest mountain. 

In a literal understanding, this doesn’t make sense. Zion wasn’t a tall mountain. It wasn’t even the highest mountain around, there are many much higher to the south. Jerusalem itself is at roughly 2500 feet in elevation, about the same as we are here. But in our scripture, Zion is the highest peak. Either there are some unique geological changes occurring, or more likely Zion seems the tallest peak because we’re dealing with theology and not geology.  

Zion’s importance isn’t because of its physical height but because it is the Lord’s house. It draws people from all nations who desire to learn more about God’s ways. Zion becomes a center of learning, for out from it comes God’s word. Israel was to be the light to the nations.[6] Isaiah foresees Israel fulfilling this calling.

With-me

In verse 3, we see that in this new age of which the prophet envisions, the “With-me” principle works! Do you know the “with-me” principle?  It was a concept taught by Stan Ott and Lee Zehmer at our “Centered and Soaring” event earlier this month. The with-me principle involves us, when doing something with or for the church, inviting another to join us. Come “with me,” we might say. In Isaiah, we learn that people invite others to go with them to the mountain of the Lord, to learn of God’s ways. I can’t think of a better reason to invite someone along then to learn about God. We learn together!

Or course, some of this has already happened. The disciples, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, headed out into the world with the Great Commission. Their marching orders was to make disciples and to baptize them and to teach what Jesus taught.[7]And they went two-by-two. Jesus showed them God’s ways. Jesus then calls his followers, promising to show us the way back home to the Father.[8] But showing the world the way home is just a part of what Isaiah envisions in chapter 2. 

A message for the United Nations

In verse 4, we have a passage known beyond scripture. Even by those with little Biblical knowledge have heard about beating instruments of war into farming implements. You find these words chiseled into a wall across the street from the United Nations. Silently, as Fleming Rutledge images, it reads of beating swords into plows as it mocks nations that go to war.[9]

God’s view extends to the entire world

Looking at this passage, we see this is God’s kingdom. And God’s domain isn’t just for one nation, but the entire world. As judge, God settles disputes. There will be no more war or rebellion. God does this, but look carefully, God doesn’t do this all by Godself. God calls on us to participate. He hands us a heavy apron and calls us to become blacksmiths. How are you at swinging a hammer or heating up a forge? Ever see yourself working in a blacksmith’s shop?  See, there’s going to be a need for more than choir members in heaven! For some of us, this is really good news.

Converting the tools of war to instruments of peace

Notice the text says that God’s judges while they (think we) beat the swords into plowshares. The tools of war are repurposed so that they become instruments of peace and prosperity. Swords become plows; spears refashioned into pruning hooks. As a friend suggested in a sermon: tanks become John Deere tractors, gun barrels are fashioned into posts to hold grapevines, while missile silos find a new life as wheat silos. And the Pentagon, what to do with it? It can be converted into the world’s largest Food Court.[10]

Today, as we continue to read about the war in Ukraine, along with other places in the world like Somalia and Ethiopia, wouldn’t a little peace be nice? War brings destruction and famine, which is not God’s intention for the world. War is a sign our sinfulness. God desires us to live in peace, but a peace that involves more than the absence of war. A peace based on justice (which is why God serves as judge). And this is also why God sent his son into the world, to be born in Bethlehem. 

Bethlehem: The House of Bread

Did you know that Bethlehem means “the House of Bread.”[11]God desires the world’s abundance be used to feed everyone. And while war continues to exist in the present, there will come a time in which God will intervene. Peace will be established, and justice will reign. This is what we hope for when we pray, Come, Lord Jesus, Come. We long for the day when, instead of spending our resources on artillery shells, which only destroys, we invest in feeding and caring for people. 

We’re always in Advent

You know, Advent isn’t just four Sundays before Christmas. In a way, the church exists in Advent. Ever since the first coming of Jesus, we long for his return to consummate God’s kingdom. Until then, we hope and pray for his return. As Paul teaches, communion, or the Lord’s Supper, celebrates Jesus’ return.[12]We strive to live in a gracious manner that shows the world kingdom values. And we share this hope with others, as we invite them to catch a glimpse of the vision the Bible gives us of the world to come. 

Our hopes and fears…

As the Christmas Carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” reminds us, “Our hope and fears of all the years are met in thee (or Jesus).” Place your hope in Jesus. Yes, we live in a world of war and hate, but it’s not the way God intends. Imagine a world without war. Pray and do what you can to make this world a better place. Help create a small place where we can display Kingdom values. Invite others to also dream and vision a new future. 

And perhaps we should all learn some blacksmithing, just to be ready for when Christ returns. Amen. 


[1] John 1:1-3, 1 Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 1:15-17, & Hebrews 1:1-2.

[2] Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 22. 

[3] I think Mark Twain said this in his Letters from Earth, of which I no longer have a copy. 

[4] Isaiah 11:6, 65:25

[5] See “Excursus: Zion in Prophetic Literature and the Psalms” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 960-961. 

[6] Isaiah 42:1, 6; 49:6; 51:4; 60:3.

[7] Matthew 28:16-20.

[8] John 14:6-7.

[9] Rutledge, 208-209.

[10] This came from Neal Plantinga, and was cited by Scott Hoezee in his commentary on this passage: https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2022-11-21/isaiah-21-5-3/

[11] ibid.

[12] 1 Corinthians 11:26.

The blacksmith’s hammer is a prop for the sermon (and a way to threaten those who sleep)