Easter Sunday 2023

photo of dogwood in bloom in front of Bluemont Church

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches

Easter Sunday, April 9, 2023
Matthew 28:1-15

At the beginning of worship:

The resurrection happened on the first of the week. It did not happen on the Sabbath, the holy day, but on what in the first century was a workday. Something new occurs. The Sabbath ends at sunset and before the sun rises, the women head to the tomb. God, in Jesus Christ, is resurrected and as Christians, we now hollow this day, the first day of the week, the day of resurrection.[1]

Before reading the Scripture:

We’re reading this morning from Matthew. We might think of this as the story of the resurrection, but that’s not right. None of the gospels tell us about the resurrection itself. Instead, we’re told of the encounters the women and disciples had with the resurrected Christ. The resurrection remains shrouded in mystery, for when the two Marys arrived at the tomb, Jesus was no longer there. Matthew always reminds us that from the beginning there was an effort to cover up what had happened. Listen.

Read Matthew 28:1-15

Once there was a man with a pet lamb. He fed it by hand and played with it every day. When hard times came, he was forced to take his pet lamb to the market to sell. Now there were three thieves who heard of the man’s plan and plotted to take it away from him in a clever way.

Early in the morning the man rose and put the lamb on his shoulder and began the journey to the market. As he traveled down the road, the first thief approached him and asked, “Why are you carrying that dog on your shoulder?” The man laughed, “This is not a dog, it’s my pet lamb and I am taking him to market.

After he walked a little farther the second thief crossed his path and said, “What a fine dog you have there. Where are you taking it?” Puzzled, the man took the lamb off his shoulders and looked carefully at it. “This is not a dog,” he said slowly. “It is a lamb, and I am taking it to market.”

Shortly before he reached the market the third thief met the man and said, “Sir, I don’t think they will allow you to take your dog into the market.” Completely confused, the man took his lamb off his shoulders and sat it on the ground. “If three people say that this is a dog, then surely it must be a dog,” he thought. He left the lamb behind and walked to the market. If he had bothered to look back, he would have seen the thieves picking up his lamb and running off with it.[2]

Are we like the man and the lamb?

Those of us who make up the Christian Church are often like the man with the lamb. We lose our focus by allowing other people’s opinions to shape our vision. To appease the world, some try to conform the gospel to science and popular opinion and end up not knowing what we believe.    

The gospel truth

The truth of the Christian faith is that God raised Jesus from the dead. It is not something we can prove. Paul himself, in the first century, admitted that it makes no sense outside of faith, that to non-believers it’s mere foolishness.[3] Our belief in the resurrection cannot be based on empirical evidence. The resurrection is about God’s power, but the story itself must be accepted on faith.  

Do people really know what we celebrate today? For some, the idea that Jesus laid in a tomb deader than a doornail and then raised from the dead is a scandal. It’s easier for them to believe the disciples stole the body. Or perhaps, today, it’s easier to believe in some silly bunny, a rabbit who should be the patron saint of dentists, bringing chocolates to the kids. 

What are we celebrating?

Or maybe Easter is about the rite of spring. As a child, we brought out our spring clothes on Easter. We took pictures of the family, generally in front of an azalea which bloomed in Eastern North Carolina this time of year. 

On Easter, girls once again could wear white shoes. They were allowed them to till Labor Day. Guys could wear lighter colored jackets. I’m not sure who the fashion police were back then, but many mothers lived in fear of them. 

Easter has become a holiday whom marketers embrace to sell candy, flowers, hams, and clothes. So, is it any wonder, according to a Gallup poll I heard many years ago, 25% of people in church on Easter Sunday don’t know what they were celebrating?  

Forgiveness and Hope: The Church’s gift to the world

Have we, followers of Jesus and members of his church become so lackadaisical that we no longer know what we are all about? Jesus Christ has given the Church two primary things to offer the world which no other organization has: FORGIVENESS AND HOPE. Forgiveness centers around the events on Good Friday, on Jesus’ death for our sin. As Peter wrote in his first epistle, “Christ bore our sins in his body on the cross that we might die from sin and live for righteousness.”[4]

Hope is based on the events of Easter morning itself, of the tomb being empty. It was there in those early morning hours the women and the disciples learned that God’s power is greater than all the powers of evil combined. God’s power extends over the grave. As Christ’s Church, we offer forgiveness and hope to the world, telling the gospel story repeatedly to each new generation.

The Two mary’s and the tomb

According to Matthew, the two Marys went to Jesus’ tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week. It was not yet dawn, but the Sabbath was over. But it was still dark. Anxiety, uncertainty, and fear lurk in the darkness. 

Did the women know what to expect at sunrise? It’s doubtful. Two of the other gospels tell us they planned to prepare Jesus’ body for its eternal rest, a required task.[5] Besides, psychologically, this ritual would help them put the death of Jesus behind them and allow them to get on with their lives.

Things happened quickly that morning. There’s an earthquake, then there’s an angel rolling back the stone. Ironically, the guards froze, as if they were dead. Matthew has fun here; the guards that are alive are as if they are dead, while the one who was supposed to be dead in the tomb is out and walking around.

The Earthquake and the coming of the end

Furthermore, the earthquake symbolizes the end of the old order. In Chapter 24, Jesus told the disciples there would be earthquakes before the end and we’ve now witnessed two earthquakes in three days![6] The end is upon us, having begun with the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s kingdom replaces the older order.. We’re in the last days.[7]

The women are shocked with fear with not only the earthquake, but an angel descending from above and rolling away the stone covering the tomb. Notice, however, this isn’t the resurrection. The angel reassures them that Jesus has already risen and orders them to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee. Think about this, the resurrection has already occurred. The stone rolled away just opens the tomb, its emptiness serving as evidence of the resurrection. 

Suddenly, the women’s lives are changed. They run and tell disciples, only to be surprised when Jesus appears to them. Jesus calls out to them, using a Greek word translated in most Bibles as “Greetings,” but a better translation might be “Rejoice!”[8] “Rejoice” conveys more feeling and power than “greetings” which is just a simple hello. Jesus’ words shock the women, and in awe, they kneel at his feet and worship him.

He gives the women the same instructions as the angel, with only one slight, but very important difference. “Do not be afraid,” he says, “go and tell my brothers that I will see them in Galilee.” No longer are Jesus’ followers just disciples, they are now his brothers.

Go! Run! Tell!

GO! TELL! RUN! These verbs used by Matthew create sense of movement and urgency to get the message out, to let the disciples know that God has raised Jesus Christ. The followers of Jesus had gone to bed on the Sabbath thinking that it was all over. Their friend Jesus had met his end on the cross. But on Easter morning, an open tomb shadows the cross and because of God’s love and action, the followers of Jesus once again have hope. 

GO! TELL! RUN! It’s imperative that the message gets out and is spread across the world. Jesus Christ is risen, today!

we accept the resurrection on faith

As I’ve indicated, we accept the resurrection on faith, not on empirical evidence. Obviously, Matthew is not interested in “proving” the resurrection. He tells the story from the eyes of two women, and you may remember that women in 1st century Palestine did not even have the right to testify in court. They would not have been considered creditable witnesses. The disciples were called to believe by faith. By faith they had left their former trades and followed Jesus and by faith they set out for Galilee to see the resurrected Lord. 

Like the disciples, we too are called to believe by faith. If we believe by faith, Jesus promises his presence and we will witness his glory.  

That first Easter began somewhat obscurely during the coolness of an early morning on the first day of the week. A few women, a disciple or two, and a few guards were all who experienced it and knew that something special had happened. 

Most everyone else in Jerusalem, as in the rest of the world, continue with their lives as if nothing happened. But soon the message spread. We are not told how the resurrection happens; only that it changed the disciples. It also has the power to change us.

GO! RUN! TELL! The urgency of those words still applies to you and me. Our troubled world needs to hear about God’s love and power. We may be hopeless like the disciples on that Holy Saturday. But because of God’s power, things can change. God is in control, and we see evidence of this when life is the darkest. Don’t believe the naysayers. Place your trust in a God who has power over the grave. It’s our only hope. Amen. 

[1]Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28), (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 779-780.

[2] William R. White, Stories for the Journey (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988) 26-7.

[3] See I Corinthians 1:18-31.

[4] 1 Peter 2:24.                        

[5] The other gospels also include different women attending the grave, but they all include Mary Magdalene. Mark says they were to anoint the body (Mark 16:1; Luke says they came with prepared spices (Luke 24:1), John doesn’t mention spices and has Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb by herself.  

[6] Matthew 24:7. The first earthquake occurred during the crucifixion. See Matthew 27:51.

[7] See Bruner, 781-782.

[8] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew (Louisville: John Knox’s, 1993) p. 330.

Bluemont Church with blooming dogwood

Palm Sunday, 2023

title slide, photo of trees blowing in wind

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
April 2, 2023
Matthew 21:1-12

Sermon recorded at Bluemont on March 31, 2023

At the beginning of worship:

Who is Jesus? And what does it mean to follow him? How would you answer these questions? What difference does the first question, who’s Jesus, make in our lives? How does it guide our attempts at following him? Ponder these questions as we worship. They were questions that was being asked the first Palm Sunday, too. 

Before the reading of Scripture

Last week, we’ve finished working through Peter’s first epistle. This week, as today is Palm Sunday, we’re looking into the gospel of Matthew. In the 19th Chapter, we’re told that Jesus leaves Galilee, heading to Jerusalem. A large crowd follows him.[1] He now arrives. All four of the gospels tell of Jesus’ entry into the city and each provides different insights. We refer to this day as Palm Sunday, but only one of the gospels, John’s, tells us the crowd waved palm branches.[2] Matthew just says they cut branches and spread them on the road. It appears to have been a joyful party, but as we know the joy of the day will quickly fade as the week wears on. 

Read Matthew 21:1-11

One Summer: America 1927

I have been listening to a book by Bill Bryson, titled One Summer: America 1927. It was an amazing summer in our nation. Babe Ruth was knocking the ball out of the park. He set a home run record for a season that stood until Roger Maris came along. President Calvin Coolidge, not known as a man of many words, made a sparse announcement when on vacation in South Dakota. He would not seek his party’s nomination for the Presidency in 1928. Also in South Dakota, workers were carving out the faces of Presidents on Mount Rushmore. Ford Motor Company shut down the manufacturing of Model Ts and retooled for the Model A. 

But probably the most exciting thing to happen in the summer of 1927 was the race to fly a plane from New York to Paris. The excitement focused on large planes with crews, but in came a lone pilot with backing from some businesses in St. Louis. Charles Lindberg, flying the Spirit of St. Louis, he won the prize. When he returned to America, he received, up to this point in history, the largest ticket-tape parade in New York City. Tons of paper was thrown out the windows along the parade route.[3]

Of course, looking back at 1927, it seemed so idyllic. As a nation, America was on the top of the world. Few people were aware that just around the corner the Great Depression would descend. And after that, there would be war unlike the world had ever seen.[4]We might draw a similar analogy to this day in Jerusalem in roughly 30 AD. Excited people shouted “Hosanna.” Everyone was excited. But darkness would descend and a few days later some of those same people would shout, “Crucify.”

Our text begins with Jesus and the crowd approaching the Holy City. Around the Mount of Olives, Jesus sends a couple of his disciples into a village ahead to procure an animal for him to ride into the city. We’re not told Jesus had all this worked out in advance. There’s a mystery here. How did Jesus know that there would be a donkey and a colt waiting? Was he somehow able to work it out in advance, without anyone knowing? In the days of walking, that seems unlikely. After all, he couldn’t call ahead. 

Or did Jesus employ his divine powers? We’re not told. The same goes with the response Jesus gives the disciples if they’re challenged for taking the animals. Tell them the master needs it. What farmer would lend out their beasts of burdens without collateral and with just the promise that this unseen master would return it?

If I’d been one of the disciples, I might have resisted. Why go into the unknown when you could return to a place you already been? Why take part in what feels like petty larceny? Of course, there were no Avis donkey rentals back then. But still, it seems strange. I’d prefer Jesus to tell me to go back to that place where we saw a donkey waiting by the road and where they knew the owner. But Jesus always calls us into an unknown future.[5]

I had this conversation with a parishioner this week about no knowing what’s next in our lives. It’s often scary if we pause long enough to think about our situations. We’re called to go forward, into new territory, trusting that Jesus, the good shepherd, travels with us. 

Matthew tells us that what happened fulfilled prophecy and then quotes from the Prophet Zechariah a passage about our king coming, humbled, and riding on a donkey.[6] The disciples are told in Matthew to bring two animals, a donkey and a colt. This has created some confusion. Did Jesus ride both animals, balancing up on the backs of each like some kind of circus performance? Maybe he even held the reigns in his teeth as he waved to the crowd? Probably not. Matthew also emphasizes the humility of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and that would be showing off.[7] More likely, Jesus rode the donkey while the colt, perhaps not even weaned, tailed behind, staying close to his mom.[8]

We’re told the disciples put their cloaks on the donkey for Jesus to ride it. Donkeys are not normally ridden straddled, like a horse. Instead, the rider sits to the side of the beast. Other cloaks were spread on the path, along with tree branches. The crowd began together as they approached the city walls. As they are pilgrims coming for the Passover, they cry out the words from Psalm 118, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest.”

Psalm 118 celebrates victory. God has given victory to the one coming into the city who then returns thanks for God’s steadfast love. God has taken the stone discarded by the builders and made it the cornerstone.[9] The Psalm captures the hope of the people that there be a new king on David’s throne, but in a way this Psalm seems out of place. While the Psalm celebrates victory,[10] Jesus heads to his death. And while his followers at this point don’t understand, Jesus knows.[11] The weight of this knowledge must have weighed heavy on his heart. They cheer Jesus on, a truth that should hang over us on Palm Sunday, for the crowd will soon turn on Jesus and demand he be crucified. 

But before that, they wonder, “Who is this?” This little parade seems to have really shaken Jerusalem. Our translation, in verse 10, said the whole city was in turmoil, but the word used in Greek for turmoil, is the Greek word from where get the word seismic. In other words, the city was shaken to the core, as if in an earthquake.[12]

This word is used only in three places in Matthew’s gospel. The first is when the Magi come to Jerusalem asking about the birth of the Messiah.[13] The people in the city were bothered. Why did they need a king when they had Herod. The second time is here. The word will be used once more, on the day we recall this Friday, during the crucifixion. That was when a real, not metaphorical seismic event happened. There was a real earthquake. At that time the temple curtain ripped into two halves while graves opened.[14]

So, the crowds ask who this Jesus is. I assume those with Jesus pointed out that he is a prophet from Nazareth. But, of course, Jesus is more than a prophet. In the week ahead, we’ll see that he’s also the Chief Priest, and the sacrifice. And then, we’ll learn of his defeat of death and that he is a king that is above all kings. But that’s to come. 

We’re left this Sunday with the question of the crowd. Who is this man we call Jesus? And if we believe he is the King as well as the Prophet and Priest, then how do we respond to him? Are we willing to go into the future where we have no control but can only trust him. For that’s what we’re called to do. Amen.  

[1] Matthew 19:1-2.

[2] John 12:13.

[3] Bill Bryson, One Summer: America 1927 (Random House, 2013).

[4] Bryson discusses a secret meeting by the head of the Federal Reserve along with banks in Great Britain, France, and Germany, whose decisions have been partly to blame for the worldwide Depression. 

[5] This idea came from MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s sermon on this passage on the website, “A Sermon for Every Sunday.   

[6] Zechariah 9:9.

[7] Mathew leaves out a piece of what Zechariah said. The prophet said, “triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey…” The “triumphant” part is missing in Matthew, as he emphasizes the humility of Jesus. See Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 355.

[8]See Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 238-239. 

[9] Psalm 118:22.

[10] Everything said in the Psalm “portrays the celebrant’s deliverance as the work of the Lord.” James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 377. 

[11] According to Matthew, at this point, Jesus has referred to his upcoming death three times, the last being in Matthew 20:17-19.

[12] Chelsey Harmon, “Matthew 21:1-11 Commentary. See https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2023-03-27/matthew-211-11-2  See also Bruner, 357. 

[13] Matthew 2:4.

[14] Matthew 27:51-52.

trees lining a road
The wind has blown hard for the past 24 hours.
Yesterday, the branches were waving as if they lined the parade route.

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

The Lord’s Prayer, Part 6: Temptation and Evil

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Church
November 20, 2022
The Lord’s Prayer, Part 6

Sermon taped at Mayberry Church on Friday afternoon, November 18, 2022. Notice the late afternoon sun that at times blinds me!

At the beginning of worship: 

Two weeks ago, at Mayberry Church, we held a training event titled “Centered and Soaring.” This event was sponsored with partnership funds from the Presbytery of the Peaks. Those there were provided several “take-away ideas” to strengthen our discipleship as a follower of Jesus. One take-away was a Prayer Covenant. The idea is that we join with another individual to pray for each other for a specific time. Sometimes the prayers may be general, other times they may be more specific, as when we need help in a particular area. 

Jesus wants us to pray for each other

When Christians pray for one another, we’re doing what Jesus teaches in the Lord’s prayer. This is not a prayer about us as individuals. It’s about us in community. Consider the words: “Our Father, Give us, Forgive us, Lead us not, Save us…” There is no “Me” in the prayer. It’s all about community and for that reason, we need to be praying for one another.

This will be our six and final Sunday focusing on the Lord’s Prayer. I have never preached a series on Jesus’ prayer and in a way am sad that it’s coming to an end. There is so much more that I would like to say. This prayer is steeped in our tradition. As Matthew’s version of the prayer reminds us, we’re to use this prayer as a model or template for our own prayers. 

Lord’s prayer as a template

At the Presbytery meeting this past Thursday at Second Presbyterian in Roanoke, our moderator modelled this. She didn’t say she had written a prayer based on the Lord’s prayer, but as I listened, I could pick out the various petitions of the Jesus’ prayer. When you need to pray and are lost for words, you might consider the parts of the Lord’s prayer. And, to reiterate, if we find a lot of “Me’s” or “mine’s” in our prayers, we should compare how we pray to how Jesus teaches us to pray. 

Before the reading of Scripture:

While I didn’t watch Jeopardy this week (which is nothing new), I heard about it. One of the questions in a championship round had to do with which epistle of Paul’s had the most Old Testament references. According to Jeopardy, the right answer was Hebrews. I didn’t realize so many familiar with the Bible watched Jeopardy, for immediately Facebook and Twitter blew up with people pointing out Jeopardy’s mistakes. For nowhere does Hebrews tell us that Paul was the author and there are some who question labelling it an epistle as it’s more of a sermon than a letter. And finally, Romans appears to have more links to the Old Testament than Hebrews. They got it wrong on many levels.[1]Hold that thought, I’ll come back to it in a moment. 

Petitions in the Lord’s Prayer: A Bit of Jeopardy-like trivia

Today we’re looking at our last petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” I noted in one of my earlier sermons that while we tend to consider the prayer to have six petitions,[2] there are some who divide it into seven. To do this, they split the last petition into two separate parts, one on temptation and one on the evil one. You can find this in Luther’s Catechism[3] as well as the catechisms of the Catholic Church.[4]One of the reasons for making this prayer into seven petitions instead of six is that it seven is consider a perfect number.[5]

This kind of trivia might do you well if you find yourself on Jeopardy. Of course, you’ll have to guess which source their experts consulted as to if there are six or seven petitions in this prayer.

Read Matthew 6:9-13

I recently spent a lot of time with John Bunyan’s classic, Pilgrim’s Progress.[6] I had read parts of it before, but never spent much time studying the book until a theology group of which I am a member decided to study it. In preparation, not only did I read the book, I also read a commentary on it and also reviewed books on Puritanism which I had read decades ago. 

Popularity of Pilgrim’s Progress in 19th Century America

I had looked forward to delving into this work of Bunyan. I had known for some time that Pilgrim’s Progress was the second most popular book in the 19th Century for those moving into the American West. On wagon trains and clipper ships, the Bible was the number one book people had in their possessions. If they had a second book, unless you were Samuel Clemens, the book was most often Pilgrim’s Progress. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, wrote a humorous piece about hauling a dictionary across the continent.[7]

Christian’s journey

Pilgrim’s Progress begins with the story of Christian, who becomes convicted the city in which he lives (aptly named “Destruction”) is about to be destroyed. No one wants to listen to him talk about what’s to happen. He’s mocked by friends and family. So, he decides to flee. He leaves on a pilgrimage to the Celestial City, to God’s kingdom. While he abandons his family, he begins his trip with two friends. But they quickly leave him. His travels are often solo or with just one companion, such as Faithful, who is martyred along the way… 

Obstacles to overcome

Christian must overcome many obstacles to reach God’s kingdom. In the second half of the book, Christian’s wife Christina and his children make their way to the city, following Christian’s example. Unlike Christian, who is often alone, they travel in a group and while they have their own trials, they make the journey with less trouble than their father, who has become an encouragement to other pilgrims. 

The reader of Pilgrim’s Progress comes away with the impression the Christian life is one of constant challenges and temptations. Nothing is easy about the pilgrim’s journey, but the hope of the eternal city keeps the pilgrim moving forward and making the right decisions. 

Pilgrim’s Progress and the ending petition

The ending of the Lord’s Prayer captures Pilgrim’s plight. “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” The language here is stark. Deliver us could also be “snatch us”[8] as if we’re about to walk off a cliff. Metaphorically that’s what we’re about to do when evil confronts us. 

Early in his pilgrimage, Christian is caught in the Slough of Despond. In this prayer, temptation is the pit or slough where we find ourselves stuck when caught in sin. And the evil one is the power that draws us into the pit.[9]

Evil forces in the world

This prayer reminds us that there are forces in the world who challenge us and seek to keep us from faithfully following Jesus. And prayer challenges those powers. As Karl Barth, the great 20th Century theologian, said, “To clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”[10]

Prayer is where we start. Before we do anything else, we need to be sure we are on God’s side. This prayer helps us do because it refocuses us, away from our petty concerns, and toward God. Before we set out to save the world, which isn’t our job by the way, we should pray. We pray because we see dimly in this world,[11] and we need God to light or direct our way.

Subtle temptations

Temptations can be so subtle. Often temptations are good gifts but are not used in the manner intended. When anything moves between us and God, the good is tainted. And the evil one knows this, which is why he makes temptations seductive. So, we ask God to help us as we navigate this life. We only have glimpses of the holy, of God’s plan and glory. But we move forward, through the fog, in faith, praying and holding out to the hope we have in Jesus.

Lack of community

One of the things that struck me in my recent study of Pilgrim’s Progress was the lack of community.[12] Christian is often on his own. I’m afraid this aspect of Bunyan’s book has been detrimental on American Christianity. The book’s popularity in our early history tempted the church to deemphasize community over the individual. 

A theologian friend of mine has suggested the Achilles tendon of the Reformed Tradition is our lack of understanding of ecclesiology.[13] That is, by focusing on the individual, we don’t have a good understanding of the church and how it is to help us grow disciples. This over-emphasis on the individual may stretch back to the Puritans, of which John Bunyan was one. But in Scripture, as we see in this prayer, the focus is most often on the community. We need to regain a sense of how the Christian community works to draw us closer to Christ. 

Lord’s Prayer is based on community

The Lord’s prayer is not about the individual. It always pulls us from our individual concerns to the concerns of others. We don’t pray, “Save me,” but “Save us.” The community, the church, is to be there to help us when we falter along the way. While we look for God’s guidance as we are tempted or challenged by evil, we are also to be supported by other godly people. We have two hands and should hold God in one and God’s people in the other. 

It is interesting that Jesus’ begins his prayers with a focus on God as Father, and ends this prayer on a downer, talking about the evil or the “evil one.” We can give him a name, “Satan.” Perhaps this why a doxology is added onto the prayer. However, as we see, most Bibles don’t have this doxology. If you’ve worshipped in a Catholic Church you’ll know they don’t say it. I found this out the hard way when I was a student pastor and participating at a Thanksgiving service at St. Mary’s of the Mountain Catholic Church in Virginia City. I continued to pray, along with a handful of Presbyterians, while the rest of the congregation ended their prayer early.

Ending doxology

The doxology was found in texts dated to around the 10thCentury.[14] It’s found in the King James Version, but even then, it was known that this passage may not have been original. John Calvin admits such in his writings.[15] Today, as it is not found in any of the older manuscripts, translations leave out the doxology. However, thanks to the King James Version, the phrase has been adopted by us liturgically. After all, who wants to end a prayer with the focus on Satan?

Why might this doxology have been added? One suggestion is that the prayer ends so ruggedly so we might continue with our own prayers. This is kind of like how I write my pastoral prayers. Generally, on Sunday mornings, as I watch a new day emerge out of the darkness, I write a paragraph or two. Then, we when we come to the prayer, based on shared joys and concerns and how I’m feeling, I finish praying “off the cuff.” 

In favor of the doxology

Personally, I don’t think we should get rid of the doxology even though it’s not in scripture. Instead, it concludes this prayer in a “shout out” to Almighty God: thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory.[16] But if you want to pray the prayer as it is found in the gospels, do so and tack your own prayers of praise at the end.


I hope you have learned something about prayer over the past six weeks. If I was to quickly summarize the highlights of this prayer of Jesus, I’d say it focuses us on God, on our necessities and the necessities of others, and to our need for God’s protection and the fellowship with other believers. Amen. 

[1] This is the example of one such article to come out of Jeopardy-gate: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/jeopardy-paul-hebrews/

[2] Both the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms have six petitions. These are found in the Presbyterian Church USA, The Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, 2018). The same is true for John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559, Ford Lewis Battles translation), III xx.

[3] Martin Luther, “Large Catechism,” Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 433-435

[4] See https://www.usccb.org/sites/default/files/flipbooks/catechism/686/

[5] The Greek early Church fathers mostly divided the prayer into six (two sets of three, and Matthew often uses sets of three in his gospel). However, Augustine along with Lutherans and Catholics use the “perfect” seven sets. Fredrick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 2004), 293.

[6] In addition to reading Pilgrim’s Progress and listening to it on Audible, I also read Robert Maguire, D.D., Commentary on John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (1863, Minneapolis, MN: Curiosmith, 2009).

[7] Mark Twain, Roughing It (1871: Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993), 18-19.

[8] Bruner, 314

[9] Bruner, 314.

[10] As quoted by William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach US: The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 109.

[11] 1 Corinthians 13:12.

[12] My other concern is the apparent lack of grace that is seen in Pilgrim’s Progress.

[13] Ecclesiology is the study of the church. Dr. Jack Stewart, formerly a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, and I have discussed this several times.  As a scholar of Charles Hodge, Stewart points out that Hodge had planned but never completed a fourth volume of his systematic theology that would have been on ecclesiology. 

[14] Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 2001), 242, 244.

[15] Calvin, Institutes, III xx 47. 

[16] Willimon and Hauerwas, 98.

Early evenings, bare trees, and steely skies. Winter comes.

“Forgive our debts” The Lord’s Prayer, Part 5

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
November 13, 2022
The Lord’s Prayer, Part 5
Matthew 6:9-15, 18: 23-35

Sermon recorded on Friday, November 11, 2022, at Bluemont Presbyterian Church

At the beginning of worship:

I came across a quote this week that struck me. “The worst thing is not being wrong but being sure one is not wrong.”[1] Let that sink in. “Being sure we are not wrong.” Why is that so bad? Because we often fail to see or understand our sinfulness. It’s easy to see sin in others, but harder to see it in ourselves. But one day, we’ll all stand before God’s throne. And we will all stand in need of forgiveness. But we don’t like to forgive, do we? We’re going to talk about this today. 

Before reading today’s scripture

Today we’re looking at the fifth petition in the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. 

Debts or Trespasses

Historically, those of us in the Reformed Tradition, including Presbyterians, have always said debts and debtors. When I say the Lord’s Prayer at a funeral or an ecumenical gathering, I just quietly say debts knowing I’ll be drowned out by those who say trespasses. I am not sure why others—from Roman Catholics to most Protestants—say trespasses. 

In preparation for this sermon series, one of the books I read was by two Methodists, William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas. I thought they might enlighten me, as the Methodists say trespasses. Instead, they admitted that while there is a long history of saying trespasses in the prayer, it’s not what’s in the Bible.[2] Maybe this is the one thing we get right.

If you look at almost all English translations of the Lord’s Prayer from the King James Version on, the Greek is translated as debts. Now, right after the prayer, as we’ll see, Jesus speaks of trespasses. But not in the prayer. In the prayer as recorded in Luke’s gospel, Jesus uses the words for sin and for debts.[3] I think there is a reason for the use of debts, for we are all in debt to God. 

Read Matthew 6:9-15 & 18:23-35

The Swamp Fox

I have been listening to John Oller’s, The Swamp Fox, an audible book this week.[4] The Swamp Fox was Francis Marion. A Revolutionary War hero from South Carolina, Marion did his best to be a thorn in the side of the British and Loyalists. This was especially true as Britain began its Southern Strategy in 1780, with the hopes of gathering loyalists and moving north to trap George Washington and his army. During this period, Marion destroyed British supply routes between the coast and the upland. As Cornwallis’ army moved north, it was ill prepared for what they would face and eventually they became trapped. Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, and the war ended. 

South Carolina during the Revolutionary Way

During the war, South Carolina had more engagements than any other colony and was the bloodiest theater. But in many ways, the Revolutionary War in South Carolina wasn’t so much a war against Britain, but a Civil War. While there were a few British regulars in South Carolina, much of the combat occurred between loyalists and patriots. At the time, these two groups were also known as the Torys and the Whigs. They were merciless toward the other. And sometimes, spats between neighbors determined which side one was on. 

When a patriot did something to his neighbor, his neighbor became a loyalist and fought for Britain. This also went the other way, too. The armies burned homes of their enemies, and often killed their prisoners. Marion supposedly detested such behavior and was willing to court-martial his own soldiers when they behaved in such a manner. But he had his hands full. Because of the animosity between groups, after the war, most loyalists migrated to Canada or back across the sea. 

South Carolina was not a good place in the Revolution

South Carolina would not have been a good place to live in the late 1770s and early 1780s. (I’m not sure it’s any better today, but I’ll leave it at that and not include more of my North Carolina bias). But I hope you can you see how the lack of forgiveness leads to chaos. The home of one side was burned, someone else burns a home of someone on the other side of the conflict. I think it was Gandhi (at least in the movie) who said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” 

What’s So Amazing About Grace?

In his book What’s So Amazing about Grace, Philip Yancey says grace is the best gift the church has given the world. But two pages later, he also acknowledges that the church often communicates ungrace to the world.[5] When we in the church fail to grant forgiveness, we don’t appear graceful!

Physical needs before forgiveness

As we saw last week, Jesus, in the Lord’s Prayer, first takes care of our physical needs. “Give us our daily bread,” is the first petition that concerns us directly. Then, on its heels, Jesus addresses the human condition.[6] We are a sinful people. Not only do we need to eat, but we also need forgiveness. And we need to forgive others. It’s the only way we can break the cycle of vengeance that is too prevalent in our world today. 

Forgiveness is difficult

But face it, forgiveness is hard.[7] And it’s not very popular. Many churches forego prayers of confession, which I think is one of the most important prayers we have. After all, where else can we find forgiveness. It’s the one unique thing the church has to the offer the world. Lots of what the church does can be done by other groups, and in many cases, they can do it better. But Jesus gave the church the keys to the kingdom.[8] We have the right to proclaim the forgiveness of sin that can only come through Jesus Christ. No other group has that kind of gift that is so desperately needed in our world today.

We are debtors!

This prayer assumes we have debts. This may have come from an old concept where, when we sin, a notation is made into a ledger indicating the debt we now owe. And debts need to be repaid. It’s the only way the books can balance. Yet, we are all guilty. In other words, we are all debtors. As Paul writes, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”[9] Our debt may be from that which we have done which is against God or against neighbor. And it may be that which we left undone but should have done. There’s a ledger book for us all and it’s filled with sins of commission and omission.

Forgiveness is not cheap

Sin is serious and forgiveness is not cheap. Jesus paid the price for our sin, enabling us to be forgiven. The only way we can be forgiven is for God to wipe out our debt.

Forgiveness with a caveat

But this forgiveness comes with a caveat. While we are forgiven by God through Christ, in our striving to be more “Christ-like,” we are to be forgiving others who have done wrong to us. We don’t do this to obtain forgiveness. Instead, we forgive graciously, knowing what God has done for us. When we act in this manner, we break that cycle of revenge that threatens to tear our world apart. First God forgives us, then we are to go and do likewise and forgive others. 

When we forgive someone who’s wronged us, it’s like throwing “a monkey wrench into the eternal wheel of retribution and revenge.”[10] But it’s the only way forward. As C. S. Lewis once said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”[11]

Matthew 1

As we heard in our reading from Matthew 18, Jesus told a frightening parable about this. A man owed and obscene amount of money to his king. 10,000 talents. Each talent was worth 15 years of wages, so this man would never be able to pay unless he lived 150,000 years. We’re talking about a debt as great as what Elon Musk borrowed to buy Twitter. Now the king wants to clear his accounts. Unable to do so, the man and his family are to be sold into slavery. He begs his creditor, the king, for forgiveness. Surprisingly, the king relents and forgives. 

But the man who was forgiven such a great sum, was unwilling to forgive another who owed him 100 denarii, or the equivalent of 100 days of work. The one forgiven the obscene amount wasn’t willing to forgive the one who owed a fraction of what he owed. And the king in the story, who represents God, is furious when he learns about this ingratitude. We don’t want God furious at us, do we?

All of us need forgiveness and to be forgivin

We stand in need of forgiveness, but we must also be willing to forgive. Failing to forgive, the cycle of revenge will only grow and eventually lead to our destruction. The good news is that God forgives us. Accept this incredible gift and strive to let others also experience this gift. For when we forgive, we are displaying a central characteristic of a loving and gracious God. And may we do it all so that God will have the glory. Amen. 


[1] The quote is attributed to Paul Tournier, The Whole Person in a Broken World. It was posted on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brian_Scoles/status/1590754738794270720

[2] William H. Willimon & Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 79. 

[3] Luke 10:4. 

[4] John Oller, The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, Joe Barrett, narrator (2016).

[5] Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 30, 32. 

[6] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 309. 

[7] While I didn’t want to go down this path in this sermon, one of the problems I have with dispensationalism is that some theologians who hold such beliefs see the difficult teachings of Jesus in the Sermon of the Mount applying not to the present but to a future dispensation. This concept makes the commands in Jesus’ sermon easier for us to “ignore” in the present age because they are too hard, instead of seeing them as a goal which we may not successfully reach, but should still attempt.  See John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (1991) or Bruner, 310.

[8] Matthew 16:19. 

[9] Romans 3:23.

[10] Willimon and Hauerwas, 84. 

[11] This quote was quoted in What’s So Amazing about Grace?  See Yancey, 64. 

Saturday evening, looking toward the Buffalo at sunset

“Give us this day our daily bread.” The Lord’s Prayer, Part 4

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
November 6, 2022
The Lord’s Prayer, Part 4
Matthew 6:7-13 and 4:3-4

Sermon recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, November 4, 2022

At the beginning of worship:

We don’t like to be dependent on anyone other than ourselves or perhaps our spouses. It’s the American way. Pull yourselves up by our bootstraps, be independent. But there’s a problem with such thinking. It runs counter to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In all things, we are dependent on the providence of a loving God. And we live in an economy that demands we depend on others. Could you make your own car or build your own road? But today, I want us to consider God’s providence.

We owe where we are in life to God. Think about it, we could have just as easily been born in Ethiopia or Ukraine. We could have been born with a birth defect or learning disability, contracted a terrible disease at an early age, had horrific parents, or been run over by a truck. Some of you may have experienced such, but even then, God sticks with us. If God was not present, where would we be? When we consider the blessings received in this life, most of us should be humbled. Look for the blessings you have and be grateful.

Before the reading of scripture:

As we continue to look at Lord’s Prayer, let me say a little more about this prayer as it appears in Matthew’s gospel. First, the prayer is almost exactly in the center of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. If you look at this sermon in the Greek, which runs three chapters in the gospel, there are 116 lines before the prayer and 114 after it.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus said a lot about prayer. Prayer is central to Jesus’ teachings. 

Jesus begins this prayer saying, “So you should pray like this.” For some reason, the New Revised Standard Version (along with some others), leave out the “You,” but in the Greek, Matthew emphasizes it. Jesus says his followers are to pray like this (this is the You in this sentence). We’re not to pray like those in other faith traditions. Nor is prayer just about putting in an order for stuff. We are to pray like Jesus.

A second point is that this prayer is given as a model. It’s not the law. We don’t have to pray these words, exactly. Instead, this prayer becomes a template for our prayers. “You should pray likethis.”[1]

The fourth petition

Today, we’re looking at the fourth petition of this prayer. Remember, the Lord’s prayer can be divided into two equal parts. The first three petitions praise God and reorients us toward God. The second three petitions are about our needs. The first is for our daily bread. Jesus is interested in our well-being. We ask for bread even before forgiveness, which indicates the importance of our physical health. The word bread, in how it is used here, implies more than something made with wheat (which should be good news for any of you who may be gluten intolerant). 

While the word translated as bread literally means food, here it probably also refers to all we need to survive. And note, we ask for bread, not cake. We can be thankful when we’re given cake but should be satisfied with bread. We ask God to provide the basics, day in and day out.[2]

 I am again reading the prayer from Matthew’s gospel along with a short passage from Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in Matthew 4. 

Read Matthew 6:9-13 and 4:3-4.

My work in a baker

I’ve shared with you before that I spent five years working in a wholesale bakery. I started there as a summer job, between my freshman and sophomore years of college. And I stayed on for a while. You know, there are plenty of jokes about working in the bakery. People say such things as “you must be rolling in the dough,” which isn’t the case literally or figuratively. 

The bakery industry involves tough work in a difficult business climate. Because bread goes bad fast, it must arrive fresh in the stores almost every day.[3] Once I became a supervisor, I was on call always unless I was on vacation.

Daily bread and the wholesale bakery

Give us our daily bread, we pray. This took on a whole new meaning when daily bread was being shipped out in a dozen tractor trailers each evening. Or, as happened once, when we ran out of flour, we kept looking down the railroad tracks for the train bringing the hopper car full of flour, that was a day late. Even in modern times, there is no guarantee of daily bread.

The bakery was never idle more than one day at a time. Starting around midnight on Saturday night and going through late afternoon Sunday, we’d bake what was shipped out late Sunday afternoon and evening. Smaller trucks took the bread to stores where it was fresh on the shelves early Monday morning. The plant was shut down on Tuesday and Saturday, which was when our deep cleaning occurred. And if you had a breakdown, you worked until you got the product out because if it wasn’t on the shelves, the customer would buy another brand. 

Short shelf life for things on earth

This prayer, “give us our daily bread,” reminds us that things on earth have a short shelf-life. There is some debate over this petition as to if we’re asking for heavenly bread (as in the banquet in God’s kingdom) or bread to sustain our bodies on earth. Both are important, but I go with the later. If we don’t have food, we die. Surely, we are to store up our treasures in heaven, as Jesus recommends. Jesus acknowledges that there is a danger of accumulating even solid things on earth, which over time will rust away, or be consumed by moths, or stolen.[4]

But Jesus also realizes that we need to eat. That’s why he fed the multitudes, a miracle found in all four of the gospels.[5] And it’s also why the church’s mission from the beginning has been to feed people.  

Jesus, the “Bread from Heaven” also fed peopl

Yes, Jesus says he’s the “bread of life,” which we find in John’s gospel.[6] But Jesus never says that we don’t need anything else. He fed the 5,000 because they were hungry. But Jesus didn’t want people to depend on him for just physical bread when he could give so much more. 

When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness to turn a stone into bread, as we heard in our readings, he said one doesn’t not live by bread alone. Notice, he didn’t say, one does not live by bread! It goes without saying that we need food and the necessities of life. 

Such gifts we ask daily from God; otherwise, by hoarding, we may begin to think that we’re in charge of our abundance and see no need for God. We’d be like the guy in the parable who wanted to build larger barns, only to die before he could enjoy their benefits.[7]

Communal aspects of bread

Yet, no one wants stale bread. And moldy bread isn’t good for us. Of course, today there are options such as freezing bread and pulling it out when needed, but that wasn’t the case in Jesus’ day.[8] Bread was baked daily. Bread is also an example of a communal dependance on one another.[9] Also notice, we pray for “OUR bread,” not “MY bread.” 

The baker depends on the farmer to grow the grain. Grain is hauled a great distance, even in Biblical times. Think of Joseph’s brothers taking grain from Egypt back to Canaan to feed their families.[10] Before the baker can use the grain, a miller grounds it into flour. And the flour needs to be used soon or bugs begin to grow in it. If the baker in Jesus’ day was in a city, he’d have to have hire someone to bring him firewood for the oven. 

Bread, something we take for granted, requires a whole village. Few people can do all it takes to prepare bread, and if we could do all it takes, from growing grain to grinding, to kneading and preparing fires for baking, we’d have no time to do anything else.

Luther’s interpretation of this petition

In his catechism, the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said that when we pray for our ‘daily bread,’ we are asking for everything necessary to have and enjoy our bread. Luther has a good point here. At the same time, Luther continues, we ask for protection from everything which would interfere with us enjoying our bread.[11]

In his little book, A Simple Way to Pray, which Luther wrote for his barber, he includes a prayer based on this petition which thanks God for blessing our temporal and physical lives. Then Luther strangely continues, “Graciously grant us blessed peace. Protect us against war and disorder. Grant our dear emperor fortune and success against his enemies…”[12]

War and bread prices

It may seem strange to pray for peace when praying for our daily bread, but perhaps, if you’ve been following world news, you’ll understand. Bread, even in ancient days, wasn’t something people took for granted. In Jesus’ day, much of the grain that fed Rome came from North Africa. War has a way of disturbing transportation arteries, making wheat and other food stuff more and more expensive. 

We’re seeing this now with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine is one of the world’s breadbaskets. A large percentage of the world’s grain and vegetable oil, especially in the poorer regions of African and the populated cities of Asia, come from Ukraine. If all a sudden the world lost 42% of its sunflower oil, 16% of its maize, 10% of its barley, and 9% of its wheat, which is the share of these products supplied by Ukraine in 2019, people will suffer.[13]Grain is a commodity. Producers sell commodities where they can get the highest price. Therefore, a war thousands of miles away affects prices in our grocery stores. 


So, after reorienting our lives toward God, we ask God to care for us. We don’t pray to be indulged with goods or supplied with rich foods. Instead, we ask, day by day, for what we need to get by so we might enjoy this good world in which God allows us to live. And, as this prayer reminds us, we don’t pray, “give me” but “give us.” We want everyone to have enough that their stomachs might be satisfied. This prayer not only orients us on God; it also focuses us on the needs of our neighbors.

I hope you see this petition in a new way. First, we’re not just asking for our own needs, but for everyone’s need. Second, we ask this prayer daily, for we continue to need to be reoriented toward a gracious God from whom all good things flow.  Amen. 

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 292-293.

[2] Bruner, 306-308. For a detailed discussion of the word used for bread, see James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 334-335. 

[3] When I worked in the bakery (1976-81) bread only stayed on the shelves three days. After a week, it would often mold. Today, it appears that bakers are using better preservatives than were available then, as a loaf of bread often last two weeks in our house.

[4] Matthew 6:19-21.

[5] Matthew 14:12-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-15.

[6] John 6:35. John 6:35-59 discusses the crowd’s desire for more bread, but Jesus had already fed them when they were hungry and now wants them to seek not just temporal benefits but spiritual benefits of believing in him. 

[7] Luke 12:16-21.

[8] When I was working in the bakery in the late 1970s and early 80s, flash freezing was just coming into use. Unlike slow freezing, flash freezing keeps the dream from losing taste while frozen and when it thaws it is still fresh. I’m sure this is used even more today in the industry. 

[9] William H. Willimon & Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 76.

[10] Genesis 42.

[11] Martin Luther, “Larger Catechism,” The Book of Concord (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 430.

[12] Martin Luther, A Simple Way to Pray (Louisville, KY: W/JKP, 2000), 25. 

[13] Figures from the BBC, “How Much Grain Has Been Shipped from Ukraine?”, November 3, 2022.

Photo taken on Wednesday, November 2, at Rocky Knob. Our leaves are going fast!

The Lord’s Prayer, Part 3: Thy Will Be Done

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
October 30, 2022
The Lord’s Prayer, Part 3, “Thy will be done”
Matthew 6:9-13, 26:36-46

The sermon was recorded in worship at Bluemont today (Sunday, October 30, 2022)

Before reading the scripture:

We continue to explore the Lord’s Prayer today, as we look at the third petition. As I suggested over the past two weeks, this prayer begins by reorienting us toward God. The first three petitions all focus on God, not us. 

The Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments

These petitions parallel the first table of the law. The first four commandments—which deal with not making or worshipping idols, not misusing God’s name, and keeping the Sabbath—all focus on our relationship with God.[1] Likewise, the second half of the prayer focus on our needs roughly parallel the second half of the Ten Commandments. 

Calvin on the Lord’s Prayer

John Calvin, in writing about this prayer, notes that the beginning reminds us to keep God’s glory before our eyes. We’re not to look for advantages for ourselves. Instead, we want God’s Spirit to govern our hearts and teach us to love the things that please God.[2]

Again, I will read the prayer from Matthew’s gospel, followed by the passage of Jesus praying in Gethsemane on the night of his betrayal.

Read Matthew 6:9-13 and Matthew 23:36-46

Friendly bantering and contempt

I have friends who are college football fans. Those in the SEC can be a little fanatical. Yesterday, the University of Georgia and the University of Florida met on the gridiron. All this week my Twitter feed has been clogged with their back-and-forth banter about the big game. Now it’s all over and I can get back to looking at pictures of nature and dogs. And congratulations to the Georgia Bulldogs. 

But now I’m starting to see similar bantering between Astros and Phillies fans as the World Series kicks off. It never ends. We are so sure of our side, which can be fun when it’s just a game… but when we take things too seriously and start demonizing others in real life, seeing our opinions as Gods and theirs as Satanic, we’ve crossed a line. In such cases, we develop an unhealthy case of contempt for others, which can be even more harmful to us than to those we perceive as enemies.[3]

Lincoln’s Second Inauguration 

Dawn broke on March 4, 1865 with rain and storms. Early in the afternoon, dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit (a company which until a few days ago I didn’t realize existed back then), Abraham Lincoln stepped out of the porch of the unfinished capitol to deliver his second inaugural address.[4] It was a short speech, especially for inaugural addresses, but one peppered with theological and Biblical references. 

This brief speech by a President who never joined a church is considered the most theological of all presidential inaugural addresses. In roughly 700 words, Lincoln tries to frame an understanding to what the country had endured in the Civil War while offering a vision for a better future.

A little over half-way through, he said: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” Sound familiar? We gotta be careful in claiming God to be on our side.

Lincoln continues, hinting at his own convictions: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” 

God’s will may be different

The Almighty has His own purposes… Ponder these words… Then Lincoln continues: 

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away… Yet, if God wills that it continues until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Lincoln then offered a vision for a hopeful future as he closed and as the sun broke through the clouds: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”[5]

Humble Abe

Honest Abe. He may have been the last of the honest politicians. While he felt he was on the right side, he was not going to second guess God. He always allowed for the possibility that in some things he would be wrong. When he first entered politics, his moniker was “Humble Abe,” and he lived up to it. 

“Your will be done” is not a natural prayer

“Your will be done on earth as in heaven…” we’re taught to pray. Like Lincoln admitting that he may not be completely right, I don’t think praying for God’s will be done is a natural prayer. We seem to think we know what is right and what should be done. But do we? Are we willing to so surrender to God that we give up our own beliefs and desires? We must be taught to pray this prayer. Otherwise, our prayers will only focus on our wants and needs. 

Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane praying

In the Garden of Gethsemane, we witness the humanity of Jesus as he prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” The cup is a metaphor for death. Think of the agony facing our Savior. He’s leaving behind his disciples who are unable to support him in his time of need. He knows that as the sun rises in the morning he’ll face the worse sort of torture, punishment, and eventually death. 

Matthew doesn’t show us a Jesus heroically marching to his death. Jesus in the garden depicts a normal man. He’s full of fear and anxiety.[6] No one would want to endure what Jesus faced. But Jesus ends his prayer with a humble acknowledgement, “yet, not what I want but what you want.” “Thy will be done.”

A bold prayer

Praying as Jesus taught, as one of my professors said in a commentary on this passage, “can be costly when a serious decision is being contemplated.”[7] Are we so bold? Are we willing to accept God’s will and to seek it in our lives? If we believe God is with us, we can endure anything, but that requires faith. 

Martin Luther, the great Reformer, understood us to pray in the first petition for pure teaching. In the second petition, we seek trust in this teaching. And in the third petition, we ask for perseverance to carry out God’s will.[8]

The “postscript” to the first half of the prayer

The first “table” of the prayer, focuses on God, ends with a postscript. This can grammatically be applied to all the first three petitions. “As on earth as in heaven” goes for the hallowing of God’s name, the fulfillment of God’s kingdom, and God’s will being done. Think of it this way: all three petitions are already done in heaven. We don’t ask to be snatched up from earth, but for what’s happening in heaven to come to earth.

Nor in praying this prayer, do we ask God to help us do these things. While implied, we leave it up to God to determine how. We ask God, by whatever means God determines, to fulfill these three requests.[9]

I’ve already alluded to in this series,[10] heaven and earth are to be brought together. This happens at the end of Revelation.[11] We pray for it to be fulfilled.


In this prayer, we trust that God is good and will give us what we need. In praying this petition, the focus is on God and not us. Instead of demanding what we want from God, we position or reorient ourselves to accept and to do God’s will in our lives. Amen.

[1] Exodus 20:1-17 or Deuteronomy 5:1-22

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559, Ford Lewis Battles’ translation), III.xx.43.

[3] For a study on the impact of contempt, see Arthur C. Brooks, Love your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt (HarperRow, 2019). For my review on this book, see https://fromarockyhillside.com/2019/04/love-your-enemies/.   

[4] For the weather and the “Brooks Brother’s coat, see the prologue in John Meachan, And There was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle (New York: Random House, 2022), xxiv.

[5] For a detailed exegesis of this speech, see Ronald C. White, Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002).

[6] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 300-301.

[7] Hare, 302. 

[8] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 304. 

[9] Ibid, 304-5.

[10] See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2022/10/the-lords-prayer-thy-will-be-done/

[11] Revelation 20 & 21.

Mayberry Church Road at the intersection of Maple Swamp Road, October 25, 2022

The Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom Come”

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
October 23, 2022,
The Lord’s Prayer, Part 2
Matthew 6:9-13, 22:1-10

At the beginning of worship:

In his book on the church, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that we are called by God into the church. This call extends to us before we ever enter the community’s common life. Therefore, we enter “not as demanders, but as thankful recipients.”[1]

Gratitude is a quality all Christians should have, but we live in a fallen state which causes us to create our own idols and to follow the wrong path. Therefore, we need to foster gratitude and one way we do this is to pray like Jesus. The opening of the Lord’s Prayer, as we saw last week and will continue to explore today, begins by reorienting our lives toward God. Prayer is not about us demanding from God what we want; it begins with us responding to God’s gracefulness with gratitude and thanksgiving.

Before reading the Scriptures:

Last week we began our look at the Lord’s Prayer with the Lukan version. This week, we’re going to look at the prayer from Matthew’s gospel, which is a little different. Both prayers are short, but Matthew adds a few more words and petitions to his prayer. Both gospels have the second petition, “your kingdom come.” If you remember from last week, I’m working through each of the petitions of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray. 

Kingdom is a political term

Kingdom is a political term. The “United Kingdom” came about with the merger of England and Wales with Scotland. A kingdom is an area under the control of a king or a government. This is true for God’s kingdom, too. Except that God’s kingdom encompasses all earthly kingdoms and the cosmos itself. For God is sovereign over all, including those in rebellion. 

But God’s kingdom is different

You know, we got this war going on in Ukraine, where Russia tries to impose its rule. Russia wants to assume power over another nation, bring it under its control. That’s how kingdoms work here on earth. While God already has such power, our God doesn’t work within human constraints. God has this crazy way of making the weak strong, the last being the first, death resurrecting into life. God’s kingdom will be fulfilled, but God’s ways are not our ways. God’s time doesn’t equate to our time. And God’s politics are not our politics. Instead, the old life and the old ways must give way to God’s method.  

Leaning into God’s future

Our prayer, “Thy kingdom come,” is our way of leaning into God’s future, of longing for God to fulfill history so that we’re all under the lordship of Jesus Christ. There is an eschatological element in this prayer. While we can prepare ourselves, we can’t bring about God’s kingdom on our own. And if we assume we can do so, we are mistaking our desires for God’s will. This is the problem with Christian nationalism (which in my opinion isn’t Christian). Only God can bring about God’s kingdom.[2]

Today, I am going to read the Lord’s Prayer from the 6th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. In addition, I’ll also read a parable of the kingdom found in Matthew 22. 

Read Matthew 6:9-13 and Matthew 22:1-10

Martin Luther addresses the second petition of the prayer with a story about a poor beggar. A rich and mighty emperor invites this beggar to ask for whatever he desires, promising that he was willing to give the beggar great and princely gifts. The beggar being hungry yet foolish, only asks for a bowl of broth. Luther suggests the beggar is rightly considered a rogue and a scoundrel who mocks his imperial majesty’s command and is unworthy to come into his presence. Imagine how we dishonor God when we are invited to ask for such wonderous gifts and only seek something for our stomach.[3] And what more of a blessing can we ask for than experiencing God’s peaceful kingdom?

This prayer is not about us

“Thy kingdom come” reminds us early in the prayer that this is not all about us. Our lives are first about God, who gives us every breath. And we focus our prayer first, not on what we desire or think we need, but on God’s promises. 

This morning, we opened with a call to worship taken from Isaiah 65. At the end of Isaiah, God has the prophet proclaim a new peaceful kingdom. Jesus, himself, speaking in the synagogue in Nazareth, interprets Isaiah’s envision kingdom in his own life.[4]But how does this kingdom come about?  As N. T. Wright asks in a commentary on this prayer, “How can the Prince of Peace defeat evil if he has to abandon Peace itself in order to do so?”[5]

The coming of God’s kingdom

This request for God’s kingdom to come was answered at Easter. God triumphed over evil. God’s love for the world shined through the wickedness of an empire that put to death an innocent man. As Wright goes on to say, “in the unique life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the whole cosmos has turned the corner from darkness to light.”[6]

How Jesus fulfills prayer

Wright offers two metaphors as ways of thinking of how Jesus fulfils this prayer. He’s a medical genius who invents a wonder drug like penicillin. We are the doctors, who are both healed by this drug and then use it to heal others. The second is that Jesus is a musical genius who writes the greatest musical score of all times. And we are the musicians who perform this work before the world. 

Wright concludes his thoughts on these metaphors writing: “The kingdom did indeed come with Jesus; but it will fully come when the world is healed, when the whole creation finally joins in the song. But it must be Jesus’ medicine; it must be Jesus’ music. And the only way to be sure is to pray his prayer.”[7]

So, when we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” we not only want God’s kingdom to be fully realized, but we also imply we’ll do our part. 

Parable of the Kingdom: The Wedding Banquet

The parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22, which I read, speaks of God’s coming kingdom. The banquet is for the wedding of the son, whom we can identify as Jesus. In fact, the wedding imagery plays out through scripture, with Christ being the bridegroom, as earth and heaven are brought together in a marriage union.[8] In this parable, the king’s friends offend him by refusing to honor his son. In response, the king opens this banquet up to those normally not invited to such functions. Come, and enjoy the party, he says to us.  Or, if we’re already in, God sends us out to invite others. 

The Kingdom of God is a party in which unlikely people, those like us who don’t belong, are invited out of divine generosity. Jesus makes it possible for us to attend. As one commentor noted, this is why the church can be a real pain. Jesus invites all kinds of reprobates to the party.[9] The church consists of those called by Jesus, not chosen by us. Instead of looking around and complaining, we should be honored and thankful we’re included.

We don’t wait idly for the kingdom

While only God can bring about his kingdom, and we’re to wait and have patience, we don’t idly wait on the sidelines. God’s kingdom is not just something in our hearts. It involves a reversal of the way things work in the world. Yet, we still have our own internal work we can be doing. John Calvin writes that “God sets up his Kingdom by humbling the world, but in different ways.” Some of us he tames, others he breaks our pride.[10]

While God’s kingdom for which we long is communal, it also involves our internal work. We should invite God to help us examine ourselves so that we make daily progress in becoming more Christ-like and worthy of the Kingdom. We must draw back from worldly corruption and visions of kingdoms that reflect our values and not God’s. 


So, we pray for God’s kingdom, and we strive to be worthy of it. We do this knowing we’re like the bystanders invited into the wedding party. We are not worthy of inclusion on our own, but only because of the graciousness of our Savior Jesus Christ. May his name be forever praised and may we truly long for God’s kingdom to come upon a healed earth. Amen. 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship, John W. Doberstein, translator (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1954), 28.

[2] For an understanding of Christian Nationalism and its dangers check out “The Resilient Pastor” podcast with Russell Moore on Christian Nationalism and Public Theology: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/11-russell-moore-on-christian-nationalism-public-theology/id1607415483?i=1000579340759  The discussion on Christian Nationalism begins around 23 minutes. 

[3] Martin Luther, “Larger Catechism,” The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 426.  

[4] Luke 4:16-21. 

[5] N. T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 15.

[6] Wright, 17.

[7] Wright, 18. 

[8] See Revelation 19:7-9, 21:1-2.

[9] William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life (Nashville; Abingdon, 1996), 59.

[10] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Battle’s translation, 1559 edition), III.xx.42.

the leaves of a hickory tree shows their brilliance yesterday afternoon

Why Church?

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
March 6, 2022
Matthew 16:13-20 

This sermon was recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, March 4, 2022. It does not include the opening comments and the prayer I used at the beginning of the service to address the troubles we’re facing in today’s world. This can be found at the beginning of the text below.

At the Beginning of Worship:

News wise, it’s been another difficult week. We’ve watched the horrors of war in Ukraine. The sabre rattling is frightening as the Russian dictator threatens nuclear war and others warn of a possible World War III. And there is little we can do, as individuals, to control events, except perhaps pay more for gas. We’re even more helpless than we are with COVID, for there at least there were things we could do to protect ourselves and others. Perhaps this challenge is forcing us to learn to lean on God, so again this morning, before we get into worship, let’s clear our hearts with prayer: 

Holy God, you have shown repeatedly how much you love the world. We know your heart must be breaking as you watch the horrors we inflect on other people, as if they are not also created in your image. We, too, are horrified as we see schools and hospitals and apartment buildings shelled and bombed. Our hearts grieve as old Ukrainian women watch in sadness as invaders burn their homes to the ground. And when we hear the talk of the war expanding, knowing the weapons available to those making war, we are frightened. We can’t image the horrors of such a scene. 

Gracious God, we pray for the people of Ukraine, and for the Russians who are prosecuting this war. We pray for the safety of civilians, especially the children. We pray that leaders of nations might act rationally, honor the territorial boundaries of others, and work to reduce tensions and to bring about peace. We pray for the crowds around the world, even inside Russia, who have risen in protest. May we all seek peace. Yet, we know we are in a world filled with sin, a world in which the evil one is in a desperate battle of destruction. Give us confidence in your love and the courage to do what we must to further your kingdom. This we pray in the name of the prince of peace, Jesus Christ. Amen.  

A New Sermon Series:

During the season of Lent, I plan to preach a series of sermons around the question, “Why church?” Why do we worship weekly? Why do we gather in this building? What is our purpose? 

Let me suggest at the beginning that church is not home. Nor is the earth our home. Our home is with God and in that final vision we have in Scripture, we learn that heaven itself is void of a church building (or at least the temple which symbolized the church in the Old Testament).[1]

Again, our home is to be with God. To quote Craig Barnes, a Presbyterian minister and theologian, “If the church is the home we’re looking for, we’re in bigger trouble than we thought.” Barnes suggests that instead of greeting people with “Welcome Home,” when returning to church, we should acknowledge that it is a place where we find “long-lost brothers and sisters who are as confused about home as [we] are.” Instead of this place being our home, we come to worship to “renew our longing for the true home.”[2]

In other words, the purpose of preaching shouldn’t be to make us comfortable as if we’re in a den by a fire enjoying a good drink. Instead, preaching’s main goal is to be like John the Baptist (although I hate locust), pointing to Jesus.[3] For Jesus is our way to the Father, Jesus is our way home.[4]

Before the Reading of Scripture:

Today we’re going to look at Peter’s Confession as described in the Gospel of Matthew. This event is a key event in Matthew’s gospel, for from this point Jesus turns toward Jerusalem. And we know what happens there. This passage is one of the most discussed and debated passages in Matthew’s gospel, as we’ll see as we get into it. 

Read Matthew 16:13-20

After the Reading of Scripture

Why Church?

Why church? My first stab at an answer to this question begins with Jesus Christ, who is the head of the church. Before we can ask ourselves why we are a part of the church, we should know why Jesus established it. And, while we’re pondering that, we should go back to the beginning. Why did Jesus pick such a motley group of men to serve as Apostles and to help establish his church? 

And, while we’re asking questions, why did this unlikely organization, fraught with weakness from the very beginning, survive over 2,000 years? After all, hosts of better-established organizations have come and gone. But the church continues. We may be beaten and bruised, or as the hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation” claims, “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,” yet we continue despite our troubles. While church membership in North America and Europe is in decline, we’re still here. We’re not going anywhere. And besides, the church is growing rapidly in places like Africa and Asia. 

Why church? Because Jesus wants it that way. Let’s explore our text for the morning.

Exploring the Text: A disciple retreat

Jesus and the disciples have left Galilee, which has been their primary area of mission following Jesus’ baptism. They are now north of Galilee, in a community that is between Israel and the rest of the world, a border town.[5] We can only guess why Jesus has led the disciples here. First, outside of his normal area, Jesus won’t be troubled with the interruption of crowds. Second, Jesus can spend some quality time with his core team. And third, he needs them to jell into a focused unit. This retreat with the disciples prepares them for the task ahead. At the end of Matthew, after the resurrection, Jesus sends them out into the world to do his mission. 

Exploring the Text: Jesus’ identity

While they’re all together, Jesus asks first who people say that he is. He receives several interesting responses: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. While people don’t really understand the nature of Jesus’ ministry, by equating him with one of these, they are thinking Jesus must be someone important. 

Jesus displays an important insight with his questions. He doesn’t come right out and ask the disciples to make a profession of faith. His teaching is more inductive. Think about this, these 12 men have had more exposure to Jesus than to anyone else. So, when we are talking to someone who isn’t a believer, we shouldn’t expect them to make a profession of faith right away. Jesus didn’t expect the disciples to get it immediately. Instead, we should provide space for nonbelievers to ponder and for God’s Spirit to work a miracle.[6]

Yet, the question really isn’t who people say Jesus is, but who the disciples (and us) say that Jesus is. When Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am,” Simon Peter shouts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 

Exploring the Text: Peter’s confession

Peter gets it. Peter understands. Notice his language. He doesn’t say, “I think you are the Christ.” He doesn’t just believe Jesus is his personal Messiah, nor the Christ of just the disciples. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Chosen One who bridges the gap between earth and heaven.[7]  There is no other.

Next, think of how Jesus responds. He doesn’t say, “Way to go, Peter. You got a good head on your shoulders.” However, Jesus does call Peter “blessed,” but instead of congratulating him for receiving an A+ on the only exam that matters for eternity, Jesus informs Peter that he has had some help. Peter’s proclamation didn’t come from his brain, it came from God. God always acts first. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, God gives Peter this answer, just as God works on our salvation even before we knew we were lost. 

Grace means that our relationship with Jesus isn’t something we’ve done, but that which God has done for us which allows us to experience the benefits of such a relationship. 

Exploring the Text: Jesus builds his Church

Next, Jesus plays with Peter, essentially using a pun based on his name. Verse 18 can also be translated like this: “Rocky, on this very rock I’m going to build my church…”[8] Of course, Peter will later show that rock might also refer to his head, for he had a hard head and wanted things his way.[9]

Jesus continues talking about his church, how the gates of Hades will never prevail against it and how the church will be given the keys to heaven with the power to loosen and bind, with its authority extending even to heaven. What does all this mean?

There’s been lots of debate over this. The Roman Catholic Church uses these verses to proclaim Peter as the first pope and his successors all coming from him. But Protestant and even Orthodox Churches speaks of the church being built upon the Apostles, not solely on Peter’s shoulders. Even some notable Catholics of old, such as Bebe, an English Doctor of the church in the 7th Century, insisted that Christ is the Rock, not Peter.[10]Regardless of which way you take this verse, the emphasis is that Jesus is building his church. The church belongs to Jesus. As Paul writes, as is found in many of our hymns, Jesus is the cornerstone.[11]

As far as the “gates of Hades,” this was an ancient way of saying that the powers of death won’t destroy the church. You know, in my ministry, I have seen the death of many whom I’d call saints, pillars of the church. But the church’s foundation isn’t upon us. Jesus Christ, the eternal one, is the foundation. We are to just do our part as long as we’re able. But we have an important part to play for we’ve been given the “keys to the kingdom.” In other words, we are the organization that God uses to help further his kingdom. 

Exploring the Text: The Church as the People of God

The Greek word used for church by Jesus here is Ekklesia. While we think of the church as a New Testament concept, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into the Greek around 200 years before Jesus, the same word, Ekklesia, that Jesus used for the church was used for the “people of” or the “community of God.”[12] To answer my earlier question, that’s what Jesus expects the church to be, the community of God. And God’s community may look surprisingly weak to the larger world, but when it’s us and God, we’re strong.

Much of God’s work is done by people like you and me who, not on our own ability, but on God’s power, commit ourselves to do God’s work in the world. 


So, “why church?” Because it’s the way Jesus Christ has set things up. We don’t come here because we think we’re special or superior. We come here because we know Jesus is the Lord, the Messiah, the Christ, the one who bridges the gap between earth and heaven. We come here to worship, and then to be sent back into the world, to do his work. Amen. 

[1] Revelation 21:22.

[2] M. Craig Barnes, Searching for Home: Spirituality for Restless Souls (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003), 26. 

[3] Matthew 3:11-12, Mark 1:7-8, Luke 3:16-17, John 1:23-28

[4] John 14:6.

[5] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (1990, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 119. 

[6] Bruner, 120. 

[7] Bruner, 121.

[8] Bruner, 119, 127. 

[9] Immediately following this encounter in Matthew, Jesus chastises Peter, calling him “Satan” for not accepting Jesus’ teachings. See Matthew 16:21-23.  And Peter will also be quick to deny Jesus three times after Jesus’ arrest. See Matthew 26:69-75 and companion stories in Mark 14:66-72, Luke 22:54-62, and John 18:15-18, 25-27. 

[10] Bruner, 129. 

[11] Ephesians 2:20

[12] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, a Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville; John Knox Press, 1993), 191. 

Iona, Scotland

Woe or Whoa?

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
November 15, 2020
Matthew 23:13-38

This is a video of a “practice run” of the sermon, recorded on Friday, November 13.
Note: The video is missing the woe/whoa joke that I added later!

At the beginning of worship:

            I warned you last week; we’re spending two weeks in the 23rd Chapter of Matthew. It’s a difficult chapter. Jesus deliverers a pulpit-pounding sermon. In the middle of this sermon are seven woes. For each, Jesus lifts up particular actions of the seemingly religious folks. He then condemns their hypocrisy.

The passage ends with a mournful lament for Jerusalem. This city stoned the prophets and will, in a few days, crucify the Messiah. Jesus’ lament demonstrates his great love for these misguided people. He longs to hug and care for them, but they won’t listen.

In this chapter, we see Jesus’ anger at prideful behavior and his heartbreak over the consequences of such actions. As the old cliché goes, God hates the sin and loves the sinner. 

After the Scripture Reading:

There are a lot of woes in this passage and Jesus isn’t riding a horse.[1] What’s he trying to say?

Let’s look at a few of his examples. He speaks of those who are seemingly religious going beyond what is required by the law.

Let me say this. Setting the bar higher or trying to do more than the letter of the law demands in and of itself isn’t bad. It can be commendable. Especially if we move from a strictly legalistic understanding of the law to one that captures the intent of the law.

Jesus himself does this in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not enough just to refrain from murder. If you try to destroy a person’s reputation by calling them a fool, you’re guilty. The same is true with adultery. You don’t have to actually do the deed. Lustful thoughts make you guilty.[2]

Understand this, Jesus isn’t upset with folks going beyond what is required by the law. One example he refers to is offering a 10th of one’s garden herbs. The tithe was only expected on grain crops, oil, and wine.

What upsets Jesus is that these people make a deal out of these little things while ignoring what’s important.[3] They take pride in their good deeds, thinking it makes them better.

Jesus takes the double-love commandment, which we looked at a few weeks ago (to love God and to love your neighbor[4]) and applies it here. “Woe to you who tithe mint and dill and cumin and neglect the weightier matters of the law—justice and mercy and faith.”

Justice and mercy link to our call to love our neighbor. Faith reminds us that we’re to love the Lord.[5] Tithing, the giving a tenth of our income, although important, shouldn’t be the focus of our faith. If we elevate its importance, we risk forgetting that tithing is to be done with an attitude of thanksgiving for what God has done. We shouldn’t tithe to earn God’s favor. Nor should we make a big deal about it, like those who gave extra tithes (as if we’re in a game of spiritual one-upmanship). Jesus condemns attempts to bribe God or to put our piety on display.

A personal example:

Let me give you an example of this from my early teen years. My mother had said she wanted a particular kind of brush. I was with my dad in J. C. Fields one day and saw it. It wasn’t very expensive, a dollar or two (remember, this was nearly 50 years ago). Having mowed some neighbor’s lawns, I had money and I brought it for her. She was pleased. A day or two later as she was getting on me for something I’d done, I reminded her of my gift. She made it very clear that if the gift was a way to bribe her, I could take it back.

Intentions are important. We’re not to do good to show off for others, or to bribe God. We’re to live in gratitude for what God has done for us.

More Woes:

In the next woe, Jesus draws upon the analogy of a cup and the absurd concept that if the outside was clean, so must the inside be clean. Such people have their priorities reversed, as it’s more important to have the inside clean than the outside.

Now, before we go any further, I must confess that I may have descended from the Pharisees. Often, I overload the dishwasher and when I unload it, I’m guilty of grabbing a handful of cups or bowls and not looking inside. They get stacked in the cabinet and, on occasion, what looked to be clean on the outside isn’t so on the inside. When someone else gets one of those cups or bowls… Well, let’s just I hear about it.

Of course, that’s not exactly what Jesus is talking about here. Instead, this is similar to his expansion of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. There, Jesus equates lust and ill-placed passion with adultery. Here, Jesus refers to an uncontrolled appetite, a desire to have our cups “runneth over.”[6]

Jesus attacks the lack of self-control, along with our lusting and unhealthy desires for things. Things are not bad; in moderation most things can be good. But in excess, even good things can be bad for us.

Jesus further warns that while we might look good on the outside, our drive to over-indulge will create filth on the inside.

Jesus expands on this theme of appearing clean on the outside but being dirty on the inside with his next woe. Here, where Jesus speaks of whitewashed tombs, he’s probably drawing from a practice of covering graves and tombs with white chalk once a year, in a belief it would keep the priests from becoming unclean by accidental contact. Jesus equates these glistening white tombs to hypocrites who look nice on the outside, but inside are dead and rotting. These are harsh words for Jesus accuses those seen as “the great defenders of the law as being the main rebels against it.”[7]

Jesus’ final woe is directed at those who glorify their heritage and traditions and mistakenly believe that tradition is the same as truth. Those who are teachers of Scripture, who also kept the graves of the prophets and the righteous in top shape, believe that because they’re a part of this tradition, they too are righteous.

They believed that if they had been living in the past, they’d been the brave ones who would have stood up for what is right. They’d keep Jeremiah from being dropped in a well or stop the stoning of other prophets.

“Be careful,” Jesus warns, “what makes you think you’re so good?”

Do we think we’re better than the Pharisees?

You know, today, almost everyone in America honors Martin Luther King, but that wasn’t the case when he was alive. The establishment, our government, even the FBI, tried to find every reason they could to attack him. Admittedly, he wasn’t a perfect man (no one is), but he did a lot of good for his people.

Consider the Jews in Nazi Germany. We might think we would have stood up to such an atrocity, but would we?

How about in our own country? Would we stand up against injustices? Against slavery? Against the atrocities at Sand Creek or Wounded Knee? Against the lynching of African Americans?

To think we’d act differently than those in the past is often to give ourselves too much credit. We should instead realize we’re a part of a fallen world. We often do what is easiest and expedient and not what is right and just.

Jesus brings his sermon to a close, following his last woe, with an indictment of Israel. The religious leaders say they’d treat the prophets of old better, and they’re going to get a chance to do just that. In a few days, more righteous blood will be spilled.[8]

Jesus’ love and grief

After these harsh words, Jesus tenderly looks over the holy city and grieves. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem. How I long to gather your children together like a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wing, but you didn’t want me.” Jesus wants things to turn out differently and his heart is heavy as his ministry wraps up.

Good News:

I remember being told in seminary to always have good news somewhere in your sermon. It’s a challenge on a text like this. But, believe it or not, there’s good news here.

First of all, there is a bright side to the woes. If we listen and clean up our act, we’ll not have to keep up a facade. We can be freed to live.

Sharon Fawcett, in a book titled Hope for Wholeness: The Spiritual Path to Freedom from Depression, writes about this struggle. She tells about keeping up appearances (which is what hypocrisy is all about). “I considered it my responsibility to look like a winner, maintain the image, and try to make my life appear problem-free.” She wanted to be “a walking billboard advertising a perfect, painless life” that came from her relationship with Christ.”[9]

For Fawcett, judgment came through a bout of depression which kept her from keeping up this façade. After lots of treatment, having worked through it, she found freedom from such burdens. God is good and can work through the bad to bring about good for us.

A second source of good news here is the love we experience from Jesus. Our Savior loves us and wants us to love him and one another. He wants us to be ourselves, not to pretend to be something that we are not. He doesn’t want to burden us or make our lives harder. He wants us to be free to accept his grace and forgiveness.

Because he loves us, as well as those around us, there are times he needs to correct and redirect our focus. Jesus doesn’t want his followers to be a veneer, to be a façade. He wants to cleanse and liberate us so we can live free from the bondage of sin. That’s good news!

This week look back over these seven woes and re-examine your life considering what Jesus says. Is he speaking to us? Amen  

[1] A silly joke using the homophone woe verses whoa.

[2] Matthew 5:21-28

[3] For agricultural tithes see Leviticus 27:30 and Deuteronomy 14:22-23. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Mathew 13-28 (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2004), 447.

[4] Matthew 22:36-40

[5] Bruner, 449.

[6] Bruner, 451, examines the Greek word akrasia, which literally means lack of self-control.

[7] Bruner, 452.

[8] This sermon was in Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem, just before his crucifixion.

[9] Sharon Fawcett, Hope for Wholeness: The Spiritual Path to Freedom from Depression (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2008), 45.