Trouble and Trust

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
June 21, 2020
Matthew 10:16-33

Click here to watch the worship service. To just catch the sermon, fast forward to 20 minutes and 30 seconds.

 

How many of you are afraid? I wish I could see a show of hands. Most of us, I expect, have them raised. After all, we’re dealing with a pandemic, a struggling economy, the highest unemployment in ninety years, and renegade police officers involved in unjustified deaths leading to unrest in our cities. For those of us who are fathers, we worry about our children making it in this world. There’s a lot of reasons for fear, but what if I told you that we’re probably living in one of the safest times in history. Yes, COVID-19 is a threat, but look at the illnesses we don’t have to deal with these days: polio, smallpox, and a host of childhood diseases. Yes, there have been some police officers who have done bad things and there is unrest in some streets, but overall violence is down (and has been dropping for decades). And the economic issues have more to do with the struggle to supply what is needed and a drop in demand as people try to avoid the virus. In the long run, we may end up with a less vulnerable supply chain, which could be a good thing.

So why are we afraid? If we step back, we would see that fear often has little to do with risk. And often what we most fear isn’t what’s most likely to affect us. But fear sells. Fear is a basic instinct. It’s a primal reaction.[1] Because it’s such a gut reaction, fear is used in a way for someone else to make a profit on us. Crime’s up, so you better buy an alarm system or a gun. We fear rejection, so we use the right deodorant and toothpaste and drive the right car and wear clothes that are in style.

A dozen years ago, there was an eye-opening book published. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear spends the first chapter discussing the “profit-making bias” that results in us being continually fearful. Sometimes even the church is guilty. Fear can be used to increase offerings or, as in the Left Behind Series, in an attempt to scare us into heaven.[2]

But what does our faith say about our fear? What does Scripture say to us about fear? You know, when an angel appears before people in the Bible, their first words are often something like “Fear not.”[3] “Yeah, right,” I’d think, “if it was me, I’d be shaking in my boots”. But think about it, there’s something to be said about having angels around and not fearing. We should rejoice. Their presence shows that the God of Creation is interested in us. God trying to connect to us is a comforting thought. If God cares enough to send an angel my way, instead of (let’s say) a lightning bolt, at least there’s a chance everything will be okay. We’re in good hands. This is the point Jesus is making in our text which could be titled, “Trouble and Trust.”[4] Yep, there’s going to be trouble. But we’re to trust God that, in the end, things will be okay.

Because God is the creator and has power over life and death, we’re to stand in awe… Others whom we encounter in this life may have half the power of God—the power to destroy—but God has the power to destroy and to create. If we’re on God’s side, there is nothing anyone else can do to us that God cannot undo. The resurrection is the ultimate act.

However, a healthy dose of fear is a good thing. Fear keeps us from taking foolish risks. Even the best rock climber will be fearful of clicking onto a frayed rope. You don’t want to tempt fate, or as Jesus said to the Devil during his temptation in the wilderness, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”[5] A healthy dose of fear can help us be safe, but too much fear becomes a problem because it leads us to inaction. And with 24-hour news, feeding us fear day and night, it’s amazing anyone gets anything done. The problem of too much fear is that it keeps us from taking risks, and if we don’t risk, we have no need of faith or trust.

In our passage for this morning, Jesus is preparing the disciples for the troubles they’ll face once he’s gone. There’ll be persecutions and lots of reasons for the disciples to be afraid. They’ll be hauled into court and flogged and betrayed and even face death. But Jesus doesn’t want them to be paralyzed into inactivity. Jesus is depending on this motley group of followers to spread the good news. He promises the Spirit will speak through them. The disciples must be willing to proclaim God’s word from the housetops. This is risky business.

In an Empire that will see the church as a threat, Jesus gives them reasons not to fear the powerful. First, at judgment, all things will be revealed. Martyrs can say, “I told you so.” But let’s face it, the promise our concerns will be addressed after the grave isn’t all that reassuring. So, then Jesus tells them not to fear those who will take their lives, but to fear God. After all, God has power over not just this life, but life after judgment. If you think about what Jesus is saying here, you’ll see because the disciples believe, they’re freed to do great things. They’re not afraid of death. All of us will die, but eventually many of them died at the hands of persecutors. Some, like Peter and Andrew, were crucified; Stephen was stoned; and Paul and John the Baptist literally lost their heads.

By refusing to be paralyzed by fear while trusting in God’s goodness, we can achieve more than we’ve ever imagined. Recall the Parable of the Talents.[6] The man who received only one talent and refused to take risk, because he was afraid of his master, is punished. Those who took risks are rewarded with even more talents. It’s that way with us. If we invest the talents God has given us, for godly purposes, God will bless our efforts. If we hoard our talents, we will be judged harshly.

“You’re to trust in God,” Jesus tells his audience, “whose concern extends even to the lowest sparrow.”  Jesus must have been an animal lover. This passage is filled with animals: sheep and wolves, serpents and doves, and sparrows.[7] Or maybe it’s the little things in creation that brings Jesus joy. Think about this, a sparrow at the temple in Jesus’ day could be purchased for next to nothing. If God is so concerned for the small parts of his creation, think of how much more concern God will show us, the pinnacle of his creation. To further emphasize God’s concern, we’re told that God has counted even the hairs on our heads (with some of our heads, God has an easier time).

In verse 32, Jesus returns to his rationale for us not being afraid. He doesn’t want us to become so scared that we slip into inactivity. That’s why he reminds us that our purpose is to be his ambassadors, shouting from the rooftops (at least, metaphorically). The warning here is that if we are unwilling to risk letting others know of our faith, we run an even greater risk that Jesus will not acknowledge us before the Father.

The gospel still puts people at danger. Yet Jesus calls us to take risks. “To those whom much is given, much is expected,” we’re told.[8] And we’ve been given a bounty, and if we fail to take a risk and use it in a worthy way, we’ll have something to fear when all is revealed! Furthermore, as Christians, we’re called to a higher standard. We’re to speak out when we see people being abused or being taken advantage of. We’re to call for justice and mercy and to stand up against those who bully and abuse. By keeping quiet, we may avoid the wrath of a boss or friends, but is that what Jesus want us to do? As we see in this passage, keeping quiet can cause us to run a greater risk: experiencing God’s wrath…

When Jesus is first in our lives, we will have the courage necessary to stand up to the powers in the world that challenge his authority. When he’s first in our lives, we can take the risk needed to expand his kingdom, for we know that we’re taking that risk with the God of Creation on our side.

Do not be afraid of anything earthly, we’re told. If we trust God, there is no reason for us to fear anything else. If we don’t trust and fear God, then everything may be feared. Amen.

©2020

[1] Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 16.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:30 and 2:10.

[4] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994). 471-492.  Bruner divides this passage into trouble (Verses 16-23) and trust (verse 24-39).

[5] Matthew 4:7.

[6] Matthew 25:14-30.

[7] Bruner, 484-485.

[8] Luke 12:48.

The Harvest is Ready

 

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
June 14, 2020
Matthew 9:35-10:15

 

 

 

You can watch this service on YouTube by clicking here. If you just want to hear the sermon, fast forward to 20:36.

We made Blood Mountain Shelter on our third day of hiking. Reuben and I had started at Springer Mountain in North Georgia. After resting a bit, we set out to fix dinner. By this point, we’d hiked 100s of miles together and formed a well-oiled team. I hauled water from the spring while Reuben got out the stove and started to assemble it. In a large gallon Ziploc bag, I poured the contents of instant pudding, powdered milk, and water. I kneaded the bag by hands till the lumps were gone and then walked back to the spring to place the bag in the cool water to set up. Reuben started boiling water as I opened soup packs for each of our cups. He started the noodles and we chatted and enjoyed a drink while they cooked.

About this time another hiker came to the shelter. Paul looked to be an old man, but he was much younger than I am now. He’d been on the trail for six days, covering the distance we’d covered in two and a half days. He’d gotten lost earlier this day which explained why we hadn’t meet him when we passed along the trail. His pack was heavy; his knees were killing him. He didn’t look like he was having fun. Paul plopped down and began to prepare his dinner as he watched us. Reuben poured the water from the noodles into the cups, so that we had soup. We mixed in the ingredients for mac and cheese, which we ate next, followed by pudding for dessert. As we ate dessert, we put another pot of water for tea and clean up. We used our tea bags to scrub out our bowls. Paul watched in amazement, we had only what we needed and nothing was wasted.

Paul was a schoolteacher from Oregon and planned to spend his summer hiking. He’d done a little camping in his life, but had never backpacked. Gathering what he thought he needed and had taken a flight to Georgia and was walking through the woods with a 70-plus pound pack on his back, twenty or twenty-five pounds more than what we were toting.

The next morning when we set out, Paul asked where we were going to camp for the night. For us, it was going to be an easy day, even though there wasn’t anything easy about the trail in Georgia. There’s little ridge line in the southern part of the Appalachians; although the hills aren’t tall, you are either going up or down. We gave him our destination, a campsite by a stream about 13 miles north. We said goodbye and thought that’d be the last we’d see of him. We were surprised later that day when he hobbled into camp. That night we went through our dinner routine again and Paul started asking more questions. Before the evening was done, Reuben and I had given him tips on hiking, on food, and most importantly dug through his pack and showed him how to lighten his load by a at least fifteen pounds. To our amazement, he was carrying a hatchet and a folding saw, yet had not built a single fire. It was too hot. He had a stove. Scalping, I assured him, was no longer in vogue, so the axe could go. He had extra clothes and cooking utensils and all sort of stuff that he could get by without. The following day, when we were met by friends for a food drop, we arranged for Paul’s extras to be mail home. With his load lighter, Paul began to enjoy hiking.

The ninth chapter of Matthew’s gospel ends with Jesus telling the disciples that the fields are ripe with the harvest, but the laborers are few. “Ask the Lord,” Jesus says, “to send laborers out into the harvest.” Mission begins in prayer. This plea is answered in the tenth chapter where the Master’s plan is set in place with Jesus commissioning the disciples to go out on their own and do the work of the kingdom. For the past five chapters, Jesus had been preparing the disciples. Now, their apprentice ends. They’ll get a chance to live out their call to be fishers of men and women (although Jesus’ shifted metaphors as they are sent as farmers reaping the harvest).

When Jesus sends the disciples, he insists they go light. No extra clothes, no extra gear, no extra food, and no extra cash. They go by themselves, taking only the blessing Jesus bestowed upon them. They are to learn first-hand that Jesus is sufficient—he has given them power over evil as well as the ability to bring healing to those who are sick and to bring to life those who are dead. Going out without possessions, they will be continually reminded that they are dependent upon God and the generosity of others. Furthermore, they would be continually reminded that they are working for Jesus.

Jesus advice to the disciples is to start in their own neighborhoods. The mission to the Gentiles will come later; they first must take the message to the Jones and Smiths who live down the street. As they travel, they’re to live modestly and with the people. They are to be gracious and content with what they’re offered. They’re to “be courteous.” They’re not out to bring judgment or to browbeat folks, they’re just to go about helping people and sharing with them the good news that the Savior has come. If they’re not welcomed, they’re not to make big deal about it, they’re just to move on to the next neighborhood, not taking it as a failure. They’re not to mope around showing disappointment.

There are many things we can learn about mission from this story. First, it’s interesting who Jesus has called. The twelve disciples are all ordinary folk, including as our text points out, the one who would betray Jesus. They are not going out on their own skills, but with Jesus’ blessings, which makes the difference.

Another thing we learn that the world isn’t how it should be. We know this is true. If there was any question about it, the last few months dispelled our doubts. But at this point in the First Century, Rome had beaten all its enemies, and those who thought world peace had come. Of course, Jesus sees problems. There are people suffering. Jesus is compassionate. He realizes the struggle many face, especially the poor and slaves. Many are battling demons and the powers of evil. Many are grief-filled, or hurting physically and emotionally. Jesus’ plan is to turn the world upside down, offering grace and hope that can only come from God.

We also learn here the importance of mission for the church. It’s essential. It’s our purpose. We’re not here just to praise God, although that’s important. We’re not just here to sooth folks concerns by proclaiming forgiveness through Jesus Christ, although that’s important. We’re not just here to provide a safe haven for Christians to gather and be in fellowship (when there’s no pandemic), although that’s important. The church is called onto the mission field. For a few of us, that means going to exotic places. As we see here, the mission field starts at our doorstep. Jesus first sends the disciples into their own neighborhoods, to their own people. It’s not that Jesus isn’t interested in other people, but first he wants to solidify his base. As we saw last week, Matthew ends his gospel with Jesus commissioning the disciples to go to the ends of the world. Mission starts locally but extends globally. As Christians and followers of Jesus, we can’t ignore either group. To say that we only do mission locally is just as much of a travesty as to say mission is only what we do for those who live across salt water.

A final truth I want us to consider is that mission involves more than just telling people about Jesus. You know, Reuben and I could have spent all day telling Paul about how much fun we had backpacking and it wouldn’t have made any difference. It was only by helping him go through his gear and showing him how to lighten his load were we able to help. It’s the same with our calling as disciples. We’re not to just share the good news; we’re to demonstrate godly values in our lives and to show others how it can make a difference. That famous saying attributed to Francis of Assisi, “preach the gospel, if necessary, use words,” comes to mind. As the 18th verse reads, “you’ve been treated generously, so live generously.” Doing is just as important as telling, as Jesus makes clear in this passage. He didn’t give the disciples golden words to woo people; he gave them the ability to minister, to heal, and to confront evil.

This is still our goal. Live simply and generously, ministering to the needs of others. In other words, let the love of Jesus flow from your hearts, and be gracious. These days, the world can use a little help. Let’s flood it with grace. Amen.

 

 

 

Works consulted:

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

Gundry, Robert H., Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982.

Hare, Douglas R. A., Matthew: Interpretation, A Commentary for Teaching  and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992).

©2020  Jeff Garrison

Where do our loyalties belong?

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 22:15-22
March 15, 2020

 

 

        If you read the entirety of Matthew 22 (and with the extra time we may be having on hand as everything is being cancelled because of the Coronavirus, it’s not a bad idea), you’d witness a masterful campaign to trap Jesus. But Jesus isn’t so easy to catch. He’s kind of like Stonewall Jackson in the Valley Campaign in the spring of 1862. Jackson faced much larger armies who wanted to trap and do him in.[1] Similarly, with Jesus during Passion week, he’s confronted with a large number out to destroy him. But Jesus doesn’t fall in their traps. Jesus bewilders his enemies.

         What’s happened is that unlikely groups join together to challenge Jesus. The old cliché, “politics make strange bedfellows,” rings true. Groups who wouldn’t normally give each other the time of day have come together to take on Jesus. They sense that Jesus is challenging the existing order. You have a few Herodians, who are Jews who believe they’re be better off cooperating with the Romans. They take their name from Herod, who had Jewish blood but worked for the Empire. And you have the Pharisees; a group of seriously committed religious leaders who believe in the resurrection. Theologically, they’re most like Jesus, but Jesus constantly challenges them and exposes their hypocrisy.

        What we read this morning could be described as one movement in a tag-team wrestling match. The Herodians and the Pharisees team up on Jesus.[2] Once they are dismissed, in the next passage we have the Sadducees, the conservatives of the day, crawl up on the mat.[3] According to most translations, Jesus’ “silenced them,” but the original language is a bit harsher. A better translation would be that Jesus “muzzled” them.[4] Think of muzzling a dog!  Jesus is on a roll! But the Pharisee’s still come back for more.

    So what is Jesus telling us in this passage? Do you remember those big posters that use to sit out in front of the Post Office and government buildings with Uncle Sam pointing his finger and saying: “I want you!” I believe we could easily surmise this text into a big poster of God saying: “I want you!”

Let’s now look deeper into the passage. We’re told that the Pharisees are plotting to entrap Jesus. How does Jesus know this? We could say that because he was God he knew, but that explanation does not uphold the human side of Jesus. The human side of Jesus would have realized something was up when he saw the Pharisees and the supporters of Herod walking hand in hand.

These two unlikely groups approach Jesus. They try to butter him up a little by telling Jesus he’s sincere, he speaks the truth, and that he is impartial. This Jesus’ second clue. “For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain,” we read in Ezekiel.[5] Most of us, I would expect, are smart enough to realize something fishy is up when those who have nothing to do with us began to butter us up. And that’s what happens here. With compliments, they try to catch Jesus off-guard before snapping the trap with their sixty-four thousand dollar question.

         “Tell me,” they ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  Jesus has to be careful. Last week you heard Deanie preach about the revolutionary act of Jesus cleaning the temple. Now they want Jesus to make a revolutionary statement against the civil authorities. If Jesus says they should not pay taxes, the Herodians could have him arrested for treason. But then, if he says to pay the taxes, the Pharisees can attack him for not being a patriotic Jew.[6] It’s almost a no-win situation.

          Jesus asks them for a coin. Unlike us, he didn’t have to worry about where that’s coin has been or picking up some a virus from its surface. However, Jesus still has to be careful. The disciples, we know, had a common purse and he could have gone there to fetch a coin, but then the Pharisees might have charged him with toting around an engraved image of the emperor.[7] So Jesus has them to look at a coin they are carrying, and he asks them whose picture is on it…. They reply, “Caesar’s.” Jesus then flips the coin back to them, saying give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to give God what is God’s. The little band of tempters are astonished. They are amazed. They don’t know what to say, so they leave.

These men are amazed, but do they understand all that Jesus says? They hear “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but do they hear “Give unto God what is God’s.” Do they understand what Jesus meant? Probably not for they continue their attempts to attack Jesus throughout this chapter. But let’s not worry about them. How about us? Do we hear what Jesus is saying? Back to that revised army poster of Uncle Sam saying, “I want you!” Jesus is saying, “God wants us!”

The coin had an image on it, Caesar’s, therefore give it to him. In Genesis, we’re told we’re created by God, in God’s image.[8] The coin belongs to Caesar, it bears his image; our lives belong to God, they contain God’s image.  Caesar may have a lien on our possessions while we’re on earth, but God has a lien on our total being—now and forever.  God is calling us to dedicate our lives. God, in Jesus Christ, is in that poster pointing, and saying, “I want you.

        Give to God what is God’s.  This phrase is often overlooked.  We tend to get hung up on what is Caesar’s and what is ours. We get hung up on the petty details and we miss the important question. What does it mean for us to give ourselves to God?

Sure, a part of devoting ourselves to God is about money, but it’s more than that. Money is only a start for God wants and expects much more from us. God wants us to trust him and then to do what we can to live in a manner that will further God’s work in the world. If we believe that we are owned by God and not Caesar, our lives should reflect such faith. If we believe that we belong to God, and are in God’s hands, we have nothing to fear, not even the Coronavirus. For regardless of what happens to us on this earth, God has us in his hand and is working out all things for good.[9] That may be hard to believe considering that panic that is going on around us, but it’s true. It’s why Christians for the past two thousand years have risked their lives and their well-being on behalf of others. Yes, we can give Caesar what is Caesars. But we can also take risk and do what is right and noble and good because we have trust in God.

         Earlier I mentioned Stonewall Jackson, whose biography I’m currently reading. But let me tell you two other Civil War stories, they’re both short, and demonstrate this point. At the Battle of Shiloh in the spring of 1862, Albert Sidney Johnson led the Confederate troops as they overwhelmed the Union forces near Pittsburg Landing along the Tennessee River. It was a bloody day and the Union lines were broken in places. During a lull in the first day of battle, Johnson, seeing a number of wounded Union soldiers in need, ordered his surgeon to set up an aid station and to tend to their needs. According to Shelby Foote in his novel about the battle, his surgeon, Dr. Yandell protested. Johnson cut him off saying “These men were our enemies a moment ago. They are our prisoners now. Take care of them.” A few minutes later, a stray bullet struck Johnson’s leg and without medical aid, he quickly bled to death.[10] To this day, there is debate as to whether or not Johnson’s death caused the tide of the battle to turn. But the tide did turn and General Grant became a national hero.

          A second story comes from the city of Wilmington during the Civil War. In 1862, a blockade runner that had come in from the Caribbean brought Yellow Fever to the town. Those who could fled to the country, but several of the pastors and the leading citizens of the town stayed behind, feeling it was their Christian obligation to help out the victims. Over 400 people died of Yellow Fever that fall, including many of those who intentionally stayed to care for the dying.[11]

Of course, with the current threat we face, we need to think about our response. We need to help when and where we can, but we also need to be wise enough not to become a carrier of the disease. So while mercy might call us to act boldly, it also might call us to isolate ourselves (especially if we’ve been recently travelling and could have potentially been exposed to the illness). Such isolation might help slow the spread of the disease and, with the phone and the internet, there are many other ways that we can read out to those for whom we care and love. The Christian faith calls us to be brave, after all we don’t belong to ourselves but to God. But it also calls us to be wise!

      Give to God what is God’s, is the message here. So yes, we should pay our income tax. And when you write that check this April, we might remember that giving Caesar his due can be a lot easier than giving to God what is his. For our whole life belongs to God. But then, God’s given us life and in Jesus Christ has redeemed us to be his people. That’s a debt we can’t repay, nor is such repayment expected. As the old hymn goes, “Jesus paid it all.”[12]  Amen.

 

©2020

[1] I have been reading S. C. Gwynne, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson (New York: Scribner, 2014).

[2] Matthew 22:15-22.

[3] Matthew 23-33

[4]  Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 410.

[5] Ezekiel 33:31b.

[6] Bruner, 397.

[7] Bruner, 398.

[8] Genesis 1:27.

[9] Romans 8:28.

[10] Shelby Foote, Shiloh (1952, New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 199.

[11] James Sprunt, Chronicles of the Cape Fear River, 1660-1916 (1919: Wilmington, NC: Dram Tree Books, 2005), 286-288.

[12] “Jesus Paid it All,” Elvira Hall (1865).

Peaceful Joy

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 1:18-25
December 22, 2019

The Isaiah scripture is also referenced in Matthew’s telling of the birth narrative.[1] Before I read it, let me tell you a bit about the opening of Matthew’s gospel. The Gospel of Matthew is filled with surprises. It begins with a genealogy of Jesus. That seems innocent enough, but within the names, we find scandals. There are four women mentioned, none of who seem to meet the Jewish holiness standards. Two are foreigners, and there’s a prostitute, an adulterer and one involved with her father-in-law…[2]  Matthew drives home the point that God works in mysterious ways and can use anyone to further the kingdom. Following the genealogy, we are told of Jesus’ birth and again, we find a scandal. A woman is pregnant and the man she’s to marry is not the father. Joseph, the man, is about ready throw in the towel, but then he has a dream. Let’s listen to the text. Read Matthew 1:18-25.

###

Christmas often doesn’t seem peaceful. Pressure can build as we strive to find the right gifts for our loved ones, or fix the perfect meal, or attend all the parties and concerts.

The holiday stands in contrast to the birth of the Prince of Peace, as it was with a woman shopping in one of those big city department stores. It was a multi-floored building, with escalators and elevators and an entire floor devoted to toys. To her four and six-year-olds, it seemed like heaven. The mother was reminded of another place. Her kids kept singing the “I want this” song over and over. On every aisle they discovered a new “I gotta have” toy. Frazzled and about to come unglued, the lady finally paid for her purchases. She dragged the bags and her two kids to the elevator. The door opened. She and the kids and the presents squeezed in. When the door closed, she let out a sigh of relief and blurted, “Whoever started this whole Christmas thing should be found, strung up and shot!” From the back of the elevator, a calm quiet voice responded, “Don’t worry, madam, we already crucified him.”[3]

That joke reminds us that the Christmas story is all a part of a larger drama in which God is directing. Christmas is a celebration of the God coming to us in a way we can understand. It’s a new genesis (which we’ll discuss in a bit). In that child born of Mary, a peaceful joy is offered to the world. We can now experience forgiveness and to be reunited with God. Christmas, Good Friday and Easter are all linked together.

Birth is always an exciting time, for when a child is born there is no telling what might come from his or her life. But for this child, the child Mary carries, there’s something even more special about him. He’s the Messiah. But he’s not the Messiah folks are expecting. He’s not going to be a great military leader wiping out enemies. He’s not going to be a pretentious king sending decrees out from his throne in Jerusalem. He’s going to be a carpenter and a teacher and a healer. Instead of providing earthly rewards, he’ll erase the gap between us, citizens of earth, and God. He comes to save us from ourselves, from our sins, and from our failures at trying to be our own gods.

God certainly chose a unique way to bring the Messiah into the world. Our text begins simply: “the birth of Jesus took place in this way.” Interestingly, the word for birth used here literally means “the genesis.”[4] With Jesus, there comes a genesis, a new beginning. If you look at the opening chapter of John’s gospel, you’ll see John drawing upon the images of creation as recorded in the first chapter of Genesis; likewise, Matthew reminds us that this isn’t just an ordinary birth. God is starting anew.

This is a new beginning, a genesis. In Romans 5, Paul makes this analogy, comparing the works of Adam, who brought death into the world, with the works of Christ, who brings new life.[5] With Christ, our history with the Almighty, with our Creator, a history marred since Adam, starts over.

This new beginning starts with a young pregnant woman, not yet married. Her fiancé, we’re told, is a righteous man. It’s not easy to be an unwed mother today, but an unwed mother in the first century was in a real pickle. She didn’t have the social services we enjoy today to help such individuals and in a harsh religion that frowned on moral failure, such a woman had few options. She and her child would always be a social outcast. But Mary wasn’t just any woman with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. She was carrying the Messiah… Her situation is precarious considering the pivotal role she plays in salvation history.

As we would expect, her fiancé is also shocked. We’re told he planned to quickly dismiss Mary which may sound harsh, but not in the culture of that era. He could have gone public and humiliated Mary and, at the same time, made himself look righteous. Because Joseph would have been wronged yet so righteous, his sad eyes would have drawn women. They’d be falling at his feet. But instead of boosting himself at Mary’s disgrace, he decides to quietly dismiss her. Joseph would now have to take the heat. It was an honorable thing to do, for he would protect Mary from crowds (for there would have been those willing to stone her) and he himself would accept her shame. From this story, we learn something about the true nature of righteousness. It’s not just doing what is right according to the laws or customs. It also means taking on, at the expense of oneself, the guilt of another. Christ does this for the world, and to a lesser degree, Joseph was willing to do this for Mary.

The glue that holds this passage together is the Holy Spirit. In a way, the Holy Spirit is like divine matchmaker. The Spirit impregnates Mary, bringing life into her womb and setting off this genesis, this new beginning. The Spirit also works on the other side of the equation, with Joseph, getting him to buy into the plan. Through the dream, Joseph is informed of Mary’s righteousness and of God’s plan for the child she carries. And when Joseph awakes, he decides not to dismiss Mary, but to go ahead with the wedding. They’ll marry and together raise this child and participate in God’s plan for reconciling himself to a fallen world. It’s a good thing Joseph listened to God in this dream.

I’m may have told you before that when I was considering seminary, I had several dreams affirming my decision. I’m not sure I would have been as willing and ready to quit a job, sell a house, and move four states away had it not been for those dreams. In one, I found myself asking if it was worth it as I didn’t really think I was cut out for all this. But in this dream, I heard a very distinct voice saying, “Go ahead and go, and when you’re done, you’ll know what you’re to do.” Notice that I did not know where I was going or what it was that I’d be doing. I had to step out in faith, just as Joseph’s decision still required faith. But these dreams gave me the confidence I needed to pack up and head to seminary.

Joseph’s dream shows us the importance of listening to God and when we listen to God and follow his path, we will often find peace. Let me clarify. I don’t think listening to God means trying to understand all the dreams of our sleep. Often our dreams are a way that our minds sort out stuff. Instead of investing large amounts of time trying to understand what our dreams are telling us, we need prepare ourselves to hear God’s voice by studying Scripture, by praying and by being open to hear God by whatever means he comes to us. God’s word can come many ways: in our sleep, through a thought we have while walking or driving, or in a conversation. What’s important is that we know God’s word enough to make sure what we hear is from God. Notice in our account today how Joseph is reminded of the prophecies in Scripture.  For him, that was assurance God was behind this.

A second clarification needs to be made is about the meaning of peace. Obviously, if you read beyond the first chapter of Matthew, you’ll see that peace eludes Mary and Joseph as they flee as refugees to Egypt to escape Herod. The peace they had, in that little bundle of joy they protected, was knowing that they were fulfilling God’s will. God’s Spirit was with them, giving the strength they desperately needed. God’s peace doesn’t mean the absence of conflict, but the assurance of God’s presence. As the Psalmist reminds us, it’s the peace that overwhelms us even in the “shadows of death.”[6]

This passage is about the work of the Holy Spirit, guiding and directing mere mortals, like you and me, to help bring in God’s kingdom. Life is like that. It’s not about us; it’s about God. As for us, today, we, too, need to be open to experiencing that prod from God to take the risk before us. We need to be prodded to step out in faith.  God’s Spirit gives us new life. In our prayers, in our Bible Study, in our mediation time, in times of quietness which may only come when we’re asleep, we need to be open to hearing God’s invitation to participate with him in bringing about the kingdom.

We learn in the first chapter of Matthew that God works through ordinary people. I have recently been reading John Kasich’s book, It’s Up to Us. He writes, “Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes, but it almost always starts at home and grows from there.”[7] Well, sometimes, it starts in a manger. And it starts when we respond to God’s call, for God can do great things through us, things that are frightening and things we would never have dreamed of doing on our own. When we hear God’s call and we answer, God will give us the peace to know that he’s with us and will guide us that we might do whatever small part we’re called to do to bring about the peaceful kingdom. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Isaiah 7:13-15 was our Old Testament Reading

[2] Tamar (Genesis 38), Rahab (Joshua 2), Ruth (the Moabite with her own book) and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)

[3] I have told this story several times. I read the story and modified it from one used got the story years ago from a sermon by Dr Clayton Cobb, St Peter’s by the Sea Presbyterian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.

[4] Dale Brunner, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2004), 23.

[5] Romans 5:12-21

[6] Psalm 23.

[7] John Kasich, It’s Up to US: Ten Little Ways We Can Bring About Big Change (Hanover Square Press, 2019), 108.

Loving Joy and the Preaching of John the Baptist

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 3:1-12
December 8, 2019

 

Our series, “Let Heaven and Nature Sing,” is all about joy. But this series is also based on traditional lectionary readings from scripture and today’s reading, on the second Sunday of Advent, includes the preaching of John the Baptist. How shall we bring joy out of this guy who today would be passed over as a desert lunatic? The background material for the series even suggest doing a cantata today and skipping the sermon based on this text. To me, that’s not fair to Scripture. We need to wrestle with what God is trying to tell us in his book.

Have you ever thought about this: Why do we only find the story of Jesus’ birth in two of the gospels: Matthew and Luke? And why do we find the story of John the Baptist preparing the way for the Messiah in all four of the gospels? And in all four gospels, there is the link back to Isaiah, of that voice howling out in the wilderness.[1] The story of John the Baptist is one with which Scripture demands that we contend. What are we being told here? How does the fire and brimstone preaching of John the Baptist prepare us for the loving message of Jesus?

If we want to get to the good news, we must face up to the bad. So, let’s listen to what John has to say to us. Read Matthew 3:1-12.

###

          There were two preachers who, on their day off, enjoyed fishing. They were at a river next to a highway. Before sitting on the bank, where they’d watch their corks in the hope they’d be the tug of a fish on the line, they posted a sign. It read, “The end is near! Turn yourself around before it’s too late.”

A few minutes later a car flew by.  Seeing the sign, the driver yelled out, “Keep your religion to yourself, you fanatics.” He then hit the gas, sending rocks flying and dust swirling as he headed around a curve.

Just a moment later, there was a screech from braking tires, followed by a big splash.

One of the preachers looked at the other and asked, “Do you think we should have, instead, put up a sign that said, ‘Bridge Out’?”

         I wonder about John’s message. It’s so harsh, maybe he should have toned down his words. Repeatedly, he talks of fire, and not the warming flames of a campfire, but the ominous fire like those recently experienced in California and Australia. “You brood of vipers,” he calls the religious leaders of the day. That doesn’t sound very loving, does it? Jesus would never say that, would he? Actually, he does; twice in Matthew’s gospel.[2] What does this phrase mean? And how does this relate to a loving God?

Law and gospel must go together. In scripture, law came at Sinai during the Exodus and the gospel came roughly 1400 years later with the exemplary life, atoning death and glorious resurrection of Jesus. John is the last in a series of prophets who show our failure of abiding by the law as he calls us to clean up our acts. God is doing something new and marvelous and we need to be ready! All this talk about fire and calling people snakes is a way to get our attention, to force us to examine our own failings so that we might repent and follow Jesus.

          Law and gospel, they go together. To understand the story of scripture, we can’t just push off the “law” parts of the Bible and only focus on the gospel. The gospel makes no sense without the law. The gospel is about how God saves us from our failures, our sin. Those who listened to and were moved by John’s preaching were left with no choice but to confess their sins in order to begin the process of repentance, a word that means to turn around or to start in a new direction. They had to leave sin behind as they joyfully accept what God was doing in their midst.

So, why does John call the religious teachers of the day a brood of vipers? It’s a pretty harsh term. For many people, it conjures up nightmares, a den full of snakes, a place for Indiana Jones but not the rest of us. In the desert, you must be careful when trying to find shade under a rock overhang or in a grotto or cave. Snakes tend to gather in such places to avoid the heat of the day and you don’t want to be messing with them. John implies their words are poisonous.

Consider this: both the leaders of the day and John took seriously the sins of the people. But the difference is that the leaders of the day taught that people must justify themselves before God through an elaborate system of sacrifices, whereas John twists the concern of sin around to where people must accuse themselves before God, confessing their sins, so that they might be washed of them as symbolized in baptism.[3]

        But it all comes back to this. God is doing something new. With John the Baptist, God was paving the way for his Son to come on the scene and to teach people a new way to live and to be human. In order to prepare for something new, people must admit their own sinfulness and to realize that they long for something better. Of course, if we don’t think we need to be better, there’s a warning here. Judgment that comes from transgressing the law is a reality. So, do we ignore our sinfulness and die to the law? Or do we accept and confess our sinfulness and embrace the grace that Jesus’ offers? Those are our choices.

          Advent is the time for us to prepare for the loving tenderness shown by Jesus. If God is redeeming this world, if God is promising a new heaven and a new earth, then we should want to be ready to receive this gift. But to receive the gift, we must leave the past behind. We have to be willing to examine deep within our souls and to offer up all that’s not godly so that we might be both cleansed of our sin and have the room to accept Christ into our hearts. We must be willing to allow ourselves to be transformed into something new and better. For Advent is a time not only to remember that Christ came, but that he will come again, and we must be ready.

Your assignment for this week is to examine yourself, your words, your thoughts, your actions. What have you done that’s not been Christ-like? Have you harbored bitterness or showed unkindness or said things that twisted the truth or belittled another? If so, bring it to God. Get rid of the darkness by bringing it to the light.

         We must not just prepare ourselves; we should prepare the church, which is, in the final events of history, to be the bride of Christ.[4] That means that the church must confront all it’s done that’s not been holy, and there’s been a lot. From the crusades to the inquisition and witch-hunts, from the support of slavery and conquest to our tendency to huddle into crowds of similar people and turn our backs on the world for which Christ came and gave his life. The earthly church has not always been holy. We need to confess this! John’s call to the religious establishment of the day still holds. Are we willing to confess our shortcomings and to be open to what God is doing in the world? That means we must give up control, for this enterprise known as the church isn’t about us. It’s about God. It’s about us bringing glory to God as we serve as the hands and the feet of our Lord in the world.

          Is there loving joy in this passage that will lead to us “repeat the sounding joy”? Yes, there is, but we must get beyond the call to prepare, which John focuses on, and realize that God is doing a new thing. We trust in a God of resurrection. Even if the world destroys itself, God won’t let that be the final word. God wants to remake us. John’s role is to prepare us. Our role is to respond to John’s call to repentance so we might be open to what God is doing in our lives and in our fellowship.  Confession and repentance may not in favor in today’s secular world, but in the church, it’s where we begin. All of us need to take a deep look at ourselves and then turn to God and fall on our knees… Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Isaiah 40:3-5. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 2004), 88.

[2] Matthew 12:34 and 23:33.

[3] Bruner, 89.  Bruner attributes this idea of a shift from justifying to accusing to Matthew Henry’s Commentary (1721).

[4] Revelation 21:2.

Looking In

 

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
November 10, 2019
Matthew 6:19-24

 

 

Our morning passage comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus forces us to consider what we value. Ponder this. What would you grab if your house was on fire? Or, what would you pack if you had to flee, as a refugee or hurricane evacuee and could only take a suitcase? For some of us, our treasures are tangible things. An Arnold Palmer autograph, a trophy, a special putter, or a favorite Hawaiian shirt. For others, our treasures are in bank statements and stock certificates. Granted, most of us like to think we have more noble treasures—our families, our friends. But even with good treasures, a problem arises when they become the most important things in our lives. Then they began to control us and eventually will become our god, with a little g. Such a god will not satisfy our needs. Today, I encourage you to “look in” on what you value. Ask yourself what your life might look like if you spent more time storing treasures in heaven than on earth. Let’s hear what Jesus has to say. Read Matthew 6:19-24.

###

The trail, somewhere between northern VA and southern PA.

   When hiking the Appalachian Trail through Pennsylvania, I stopped one night thinking I was going to get to spend an evening by myself. My plan was to get up early and catch some friends who were a day ahead of me. I was in the middle of fixing dinner when a family of four came trudging into the campsite. They were dead tired—they’d set out that day to hike ten or so miles and hadn’t even gotten half that distance. The man asked if I would mind if they camp there, as there was a spring for water nearby and plenty of room. “Not a problem,” I said, even though I wasn’t overly excited about the prospect.

          Continuing with dinner, I kept glancing over at the family. They were quite amusing. It was like watching the backpacking version of a National Lampoon Vacation movie. The father even looked like Chevy Chase. They were obviously new at this and, making it even more humorous, they had not tried out their gear. I’ll give them credit, they had good gear. It was all new and shiny and never out of the package. The family appeared as if they stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalog. With my dirty and torn clothes and well used equipment, I looked a bit like a hobo. After a comedy of errors, they finally were able to pitch their tent. Then it was time to eat.

I could tell the dad was getting flustered. Finally, he came over and asked for my help. He had a top-of-the-line stove, the same one that I had, an MSR multi-fuel stove. This was the preferred backpacking stove for long distance hikers because it burned regular gas. You could fuel up at a gas station. While a good stove, it wasn’t the type of stove most folks had if they were just hiking for a weekend. Next, he had the top of the line cook set that all nestled together and included a windscreen in which you sat the stove. Knowing this, he left behind the simple windscreen that came with the stove. He was trying to put all this together, but there was one problem. The cook set was designed for a Sevier stove, not an MSR one. They didn’t go together. No matter how he tried, it wasn’t going to work. I told him to put away his windscreen and showed him how to set up some rocks upon which he could make a windscreen as he cooked. Soon, they were cooking dinner.

A friend with his possessions on his back. This was back in the 80s, before digital cameras, so I don’t have as many digital photos from which to select.

After they’d finished dinner and while his wife was putting their kids to bed, we talked. He was a physician. He’d hiked a few times with the Boy Scouts and now thought he’d like to get his family into it. He went to a backpacking store to get what he needed. I’m sure the guy selling gear had a nice dinner later that evening on the commission he made. Everything this family had with them, and they had way more than they needed, was first class (even if some of it wasn’t designed to work with other pieces of gear). And the sheer volume of their gear was overwhelming. He confided in me that they were probably going to hike back to their car in the morning instead of continuing down the trail, for there was no way they’d make the distance they’d planned.

Talking with this guy, I realized a couple of things that I jotted down in my journal. First, in the woods, it didn’t matter than he had the money to buy all this fancy gear. It didn’t do him any good. Then I realized that backpacking is a great equalizer. When you have too many treasures, it weighs you down. This guy was carrying nearly eighty pounds on his back, and his wife had another fifty. Each of their kids had a small knapsack. All this stuff was killing them. My pack weight was more like his wife’s and that was only when I was fully loaded with ten days of food, a liter of fuel, and two quarts of water. Thinking about this, I felt a bit of pride.

That me, the traditional photo taken on Mt. Katahdin in Maine at the end of the trail

Then I realized that I, too, was storing up treasures, in the form of memories and bragging rights. Idolatry is a sneaking temptation. I wanted to be able to say that I hiked the whole trail and at that time was roughly halfway to Maine, a goal that was an obsession. Likewise, what the man was doing by getting his family out into the woods was also noble. But ultimately, neither of us was what we’re to be mainly about. Hiking is okay, just as a lot of other things we enjoy are okay, provided they’re put into priority. God must come first. It’s not about what I can do. It’s about what God can do through me.

 

Jesus realized the danger of treasures. He knew “stuff” wouldn’t be able to satisfy us like a relationship with God. When it comes to stuff, be it money, the junk we collect, or accomplishments, it’s never enough. We will always want more. Supposedly John D. Rockefeller was asked how much more money he wanted. “Just a little more,” he said. If we try to satisfy our appetites with our treasures, we’ll always be hungry.

         This passage is about us looking deeply and getting our priorities right. There are three connected proverbial thoughts here, which Jesus uses to encourage his listeners to evaluate their lives and to see where they are placing their trust. First, we’re not to trust worldly treasures for they have a way of disappearing. A fine wardrobe can be destroyed by moths, objects crafted out of metal can rust, and what’s to stop someone from stealing them when we’re not looking. Notice, however, Jesus doesn’t say that having nice things is bad. He just says we can’t trust them to always be there and that the problem with such niceties is that when we place too much trust in them, we risk not trusting God. Ultimately, our treasurers are going to fail us.

         The second proverbial through is about a “healthy eye.” My father just had cataract surgery this week and was telling me on Friday about how bright the colors are now that his eye is healthier. But Jesus isn’t making a pitch for eye surgery. Jesus listeners would have known right away what he was talking about when he mentioned an unhealthy or evil eye. They understood that an evil eye referred to an envious, grudging or miserly spirit, while a good eye connotes a generous and compassionate attitude toward life. One of my professors from seminary, in his commentary on Matthew, says it’s as if Jesus’ says: “Just as a blind person’s life is darkened because of an eye malfunction, so the miser’s life is darkened by his failure to deal generously with others.”[1] Generosity brings light into the world; greed darkens the world.

         The next statement by Jesus concerns serving two masters. A slave would be run ragged if he had to answer to two masters. Likewise, if we try to serve both God and money, we find ourselves with two masters and the latter, money, makes a harsh master. There can never be enough. We need to place our priorities in order. We need to stick with God.

But then again, as I said, Jesus never says that treasures in and of themselves are wrong. He never says that our desire to have treasure is wrong… We’re not Buddhists trying to remove all desire from our lives in search for enlightenment.[2] Instead, Jesus knows we have desires… So, he encourages us to put our desires into the right channels. “Strive to store treasures in heaven.”

It sounds too simple. “Store up your treasures in heaven; don’t worry about things here on earth.” Easier said than done, right? We all worry about having enough for tomorrow—and the day and the year and the decade that follows. We must admit that our prayers for daily bread seem unnecessary when we have a pantry full of food. When we have too much, it’s hard to depend upon God.

But Jesus wants us to trust in God, which is why we’re to store up treasures in heaven. Jesus, in this passage, teaches a good Reformed concept. On earth, we’re to be about doing the Father’s work. And when we do what God calls us to do, we’re storing our treasures in heaven. But when we forget about what God wants us to do and focus only on our wants and desires, we lose our way.

          How might we learn not to store up our treasures here on earth? First, “Enjoy things, but don’t cherish them.” God created this world good and wants us to enjoy life and the blessings provided, but God gets angry when we see such blessings as being ours or being worthy of our worship. Second, “Share things joyfully, not reluctantly.” If it bugs you to share something you have with someone who needs it, you should then know that item has gotten a hold on you. It’s an earthly treasure, an idol. Finally, “Think as a pilgrim, not a settler.” “The world is not my home, I’m just passin’ thru,” the old gospel song goes.[3] Store your treasures at your destination, then your journey will then be easier.

          Look inside yourself and use these thoughts to evaluate what you have: Enjoy, Share, and think like a pilgrim. A pilgrim is like a backpacker. Remember, you don’t want your pack to weigh you down. Amen.

[1] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: JKP, 1993), 72.

[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 321.

[3]  Kirk Nowery, The Stewardship of Life (Camarillo, CA: Spire Resources, 2004), 122-123.

Looking Back

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 22:15-22
October 27, 2019

Homecoming is a time to look back, and the sermon is titled “Looking Back.” But we don’t look back just to be nostalgic. Instead, we should look back to help us understand where we are and how we got here. Think about all the people who helped build this sanctuary and establish this church. We’re in debt to them, and hopefully the next generation will be in debt to us. But we also look back to see where we picked up burdens that influence us today. Which ones are good that we should continue carrying and which ones should we discard?

Today, we start a new worship series titled “A Wonder-Full Life.” Speaking of looking back, the title comes from the classic 1946 film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. We’re using this series as a lead-up to Consecration Sunday on November 24th, the day we make our faith promises to church for 2020.

      The characters in “It’s a Wonderful Life” provide us with archetypes for the many different ways we relate to life and we handle money. The book that goes with this series, Integrating Money and Meaning, uses these archetypes to explore our spiritual relationship with money.[1] And the first task to become more spiritual is to look back and understand how we relate to money. In the movie, George Bailey plays the role of the martyr. He often does the right thing, always looking out for the needs of others, but he resents it. He slips into despair. As we heard earlier, to be discouraged is worst than being sick… He’s ready to end his life. Money can be a terrible master, which I think is a message we get from today’s text. By the way, if you’d like to read the book, let me know as we have a couple extra copies. In addition to reading the book, it would be good for us to be reminded what the movie is about, so we’re planning a pot-luck lunch and viewing of the movie on Wednesday, November 13.[2] I hope you join us.

Our Scripture for today comes from Matthew 22:5-22.

 

          At our first forum on civility, Dr. Robert Pawlicki told of an incident when he was a psychiatrist and professor at a Medical School. A patient had gotten into an argument with a resident and he was called in by a nurse who was concerned the confrontation might become physical. Stepping between the two, he said to the patient, “You’re really angry, aren’t you?” By giving a name to what was happening and the emotions the patient showed, he opened a channel that helped the patient calm down. The situation de-escalated. This is good advice. Sometimes we need to go to the heart of the matter and, without increasing the confrontation, name the issue. But this is not what the Pharisees and the Herodians do in our morning text.

          It’s hard to understand this passage without explanation. The Pharisees are plotting to entrap Jesus, we’re told. How does Jesus know this? We could say that because he’s God, but that explanation doesn’t uphold the human side of Jesus. Instead, I think Jesus knew something was up when he saw the Pharisees walking hand to hand with the supporters of Herod.

Who are these people? The Pharisees: They’re good, upright, outstanding Jews, the keepers of the Law. And they are not too happy with the Roman occupation of Palestine, but they deal with it. Right beside them are the Herodians, the supporters of the Herod family. This half-Jewish family had a foot in both camps: the Jews and the Romans. The Herodians accept the Romans. Possibly, they want to modernize Palestine, for the Herods were great builders. Herod the Great began rebuilding the Jewish temple. They built ports along the coast and even coliseums for the Roman games, along with temples for the Roman gods. It’s said that politics make strange bedfellows. None could be stranger than these two groups: devout Jews and those supporting the pagan Romans. The Herodians and the Pharisees together would be like Trump and Pelosi working together. If you see it, you know something may be askew. Jesus smells something fishy!

These two unlikely groups approach Jesus. They butter him up by telling Jesus he’s sincere, he speaks the truth, and that he’s impartial. Don’t you love it when someone you are not so sure about butters you up? Then they ask the 64-thousand-dollar question. “Tell me,” they ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” A trap is set. If Jesus says we should not pay the taxes, then the Herodians could have him arrested for treason. And if he says to pay the taxes, the Pharisees can attack him for not being a patriotic Jew. It’s a clever trap!

        Jesus asks to see a coin. He has to be careful here. He doesn’t want the Pharisee’s to charge him with toting around an engraved image of the emperor. So Jesus has them to look at a coin they are carrying, and he asks them whose picture is on it…. They reply, “Caesar’s.” Jesus then tells them to give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to give God what is God’s. The little band of tempters are astonished. Amazed and not knowing what to say, they leave…

Amazed, but did they understand what Jesus said? They hear “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but did they hear “Give unto God what is God’s.” Do they understand the implications? Do we?

          The coin had an image on it, Caesar, therefore give it to him. But remember, we’re created by God, in the image of God. The coin belongs to Caesar, it has his image; our lives belong to God, they contain God’s image. Caesar may have a lien on our possessions, but God has a lien on our total being. God is calling us to dedicate our lives to himself. God, in Jesus Christ, is like those old recruiting posters found the post office, with Uncle Sam saying,  “I want you.” And you, and you, and you (point at myself last).

Give to God what is God’s. We tend to get hung up on what is Caesar’s and what is ours. Let’s face it, none of us like paying taxes. They didn’t like it in the first century and we don’t like it now. But what about the giving to God part? Essentially, Jesus is saying that we’re to respect (and support) the state, but there is a limit to the state’s powers for they belong under God’s realm, and ultimately our allegiance belongs to God.[3]

If the Pharisees and Herodians really wanted to know what Jesus thought about paying taxes, they could have taken a clue from Dr. Pawlicki and admitted how uneasy it made them feel and then ask Jesus what he thought. But instead, they wanted to trick Jesus and the attempt failed.

          What Jesus does here is demonstrate the delicate balance that exists in our use of money. Money is necessary. It’s what we trade for the necessities of life. But, as is taught in the book Integrating Money and Meaning, we need to understand the power of money. If we don’t understand its lure in our own lives, it can bring out the worst in us. There’s a shadow side to money that’s pointed out in scripture. “The love of money is the root of evil,” we read in the First Letter to Timothy.[4] It’s not that money, itself, is bad. Money is a tool, just like a hammer. A hammer can be used to build good things like houses, but it can also be used as a weapon. Remember the Beatles’ catching tune, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”? “Bang, bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer came down upon his head…” Likewise, as a tool, money can be used for good and for bad, which is why we need to spiritually discern how we relate to money. What do we spend our money on? Why do we want more of it? Will it really bring us security? Do we put our trust in God or what’s in the bank?

          Over my next four Sunday’s (we will skip next week with a guest preacher), we’ll look at how we spiritually relate to money. How do we balance things like paying taxes, buying what we need, and giving to God through the church? How much control does money have in our lives? What would we do if we experienced a windfall of money? Or what would you we do if suddenly your money was of no value? These are questions we should all be wrestling with as we come to understand, as Jesus taught, that money isn’t anything to fear. We’re not to fear money, but we’re warned that it contains power. If not understood, money can overtake our lives and become a dreadful master. Look back in your lives and ponder this question, “How do you spiritually relate to money?” “What kind of power does it play in your lives?”

Friends, take care of your obligations. I think that’s what Jesus means when he says to give Caesar what belongs to him. But remember, Jesus also speaks about what we owe God. We’re to remember that we should have only one Master, and his name is Jesus. So, we take care of our obligations, but we must remember our first obligation, that we owe everything to God. Amen.

©2019

The background photo is of me looking at a sunset on a lake deep within the Quetico Wilderness Area in Western Ontario. 

[1] Maggie Kulyk with Liz McGeachy, Integrating Money and Meaning: Practices for a Heart-Centered Life (Chicorywealth.com, 2019).

[2] The church is obtaining a video license to legally show this movie (which is required if it is shown outside a home audience).

[3] F. Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 399-400.

[4] 1 Timothy 6:10.

The Right Tempo

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
March 10, 2019
Matthew 11:28-30

 

Jig Pendleton is crazy on religion. He’s a character in Nathan Coulter, a Wendell Berry’s novel. Jig lives alone in a shanty overlooking the Kentucky River. Like some of the original disciples, he makes a meager living fishing. When not fishing, Jig spends his days holed up in his shanty reading his Bible. Over and over again, from cover to cover, he reads the Good Book. He knows it by heart, yet he’s consumed worrying about sin. You see, Jig believes if he can just purify himself enough the Lord will dispatch a chariot of fire, and like Elijah, take him up to heaven.[1] But there’s a problem. Jig can’t quite purify himself enough. It’s too great of a task. Sooner or later, he always throws in the towel and goes on a big drunk. Then, he starts his quest all over again.[2]

You know, when it comes to religion, we often think it’s about being good, or good enough. We think we need to be like Jig in one of his purifying stages. We see religion as hard work which is why many people don’t want to be bothered with it.  We forget about the joy of salvation.[3] I wonder if at times we spend way too much time on the Great Commission found at the end of Matthew’s gospel,[4] where Jesus tells his followers to go out and make disciples of all people. The operative verbs here are “go” and “make.” We see religion as making something, either out of ourselves or someone else. We’re caught in the trap of thinking the way to heaven is by hard and difficult work. We forget that long before the Great Commission, Jesus issued the Great Invitation.[5]  Instead of inviting us to labor, Jesus first invites us to come to him and take a load off our backs—to take a break—to catch our breath—to find the right tempo. 

The Christian faith isn’t supposed to be hard; it’s supposed to be joyous. Life is hard when we try to do everything by ourselves which is why Jesus calls us, “Come to me, all you who are weary.”

 

Are you weary? (What a question to ask at time change?) Who among us isn’t a bit weary? Who among us isn’t a bit heavily burdened? In this passage, Jesus addresses a crowd of people desperate for someone to come and lift their spirits. I envision Jesus looking into the faces of weary men and women tired from the legalism of first century religion. He observes the fatigued bodies of hard working men at dead end jobs, who are sick of paying the heavy taxes imposed by the Roman rulers. He sees the broken hearts of the women who deal, day in and out, with squalling children and distant husbands. He sees the sad eyes of children without a future. Like us, who among this group isn’t a bit weary? Who isn’t carrying a heavy burden? It’s refreshing to hear Jesus say “Come to me.”

You know, Jesus doesn’t bring an end to all their problems.  When those who had gathered around him woke up the next morning, many things had not changed. The men still have to go to work and the women have to take care of the children and prepare the family’s food. They still have letters from Roman IRS agents calling them in for audits and creditors banging on their doors. They still have squalling kids and screaming bosses. So just what does Jesus offer when he invites the crowd to come to him? What are we offered in this passage?

It’s easy to think that Jesus’ promise in this passage refers to our eternal rest, but that would also be very disappointing and not at all what I think he’s talking about. The primary concern for the Christian faith (along with the Jewish, as Jesus was talking to Jewish folks) isn’t our reward in the next world. Yes, the promise of eternal life is real, but when it becomes our sole focus, we prove Karl Marx right in his classic cliché that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” If we focus only on an eternal rest, then religion easily becomes a force to keep us in line and what fun is that? A state sponsored religion might be about social control; but a faith grounded in Jesus Christ is about freedom and transformation. The goal of the Christian faith isn’t to maintain status quo in individual lives or within a society. Instead, the Christian faith promises abundant life.[6]

So when Jesus says, “come to me all who are weary, and I’ll give you rest,” he’s talking about something that happens in the present. He’s promising us a new outlook on life—with him at our side. Instead of a life preoccupied with the pressures which surrounds us, he wants us to live a life thankful for what we’ve been given. We’re called to a new tempo, one that he sets, which is freer than the hectic world around us. Instead of a faith that worries if we are good enough for God, he offers a faith that gives thanks for God’s goodness. God’s goodness is what’s important, because we ourselves will never be good enough. We need to accept and be thankful that God loved us first. Our faith starts with God calling us, not the other way around and the first thing about caring for ourselves is to understand this distinction.

So Jesus invites us saying, “Come to me; take my yoke.”  He’s not talking about a single yoke, one that he gives us and we wear around so that we might haul a heavy load.  Instead, I think he offers a double yoke, one that he helps share the load. One in which we are able to watch him and learn how to live graciously, to appreciate beauty and to give thanks for the blessings of life. Our translation tells us Jesus’ yoke is easy, but it could also be translated as kind[7], or “easy to carry.”[8] Sure, we’re created by God for work, but we achieve more when the yoke is comfortable, just like an ox or a mule can pull longer if it has a well-fitted yoke. Since few of us have had any dealings with yokes, let me use another example.

My first real experience at backpacking occurred when I was in my first year of college. My uncle, who is a few years older than me, had just gotten out of the Navy and was also attending college. We decided to hike a new trail that ran along the crest of the Uwharrie Mountains in central North Carolina. It was 30-some miles long, not too long. I had a pack, “The Kilimanjaro,” one of the best packs K-mart sold. With a name like “The Kilimanjaro,” it sounds as if was a serious pack. We made the trek right after New Year’s, since we had a week before school resumed. With food and gear and plenty of warm clothes, we set out.

Unlike the other photos, this wasn’t in my sermon slides. Instead, I showed the backpack.

Halfway through that first day, I was in trouble. My shoulder straps were digging into my shoulders. The padding didn’t hold up. Instead of the straps displacing the weight over their width, they buckled and pulled right in the middle, making it feel as if I had a rope sawing into my shoulders. Compounding the problem was the lack of a waist band, without which I had no way to relieve the weight on my shoulders. I ended up improvising a waist band with some rope, which helped a little. By our first night, we were both hurting.  Yet, we continued. When I got back home, I started saving money and before I tried anything else like that, I purchased a brand new Kelty pack. It didn’t have a fancy name like my other pack. It was the D-4 model, a staple of Kelty’s packs for years!  I still have it. I threw that Kilimanjaro pack away a long time ago. With the D-4, I’ve done the entire length of both the Appalachian and John Muir Trails. I can assure you, a waistband and well-built, nice fitting shoulder straps make all the difference in the world. Had I continued hiking with the Kilimanjaro, I’d given up on the sport like my uncle did. Either that or I’d be crippled by now. We need an easy yoke if we’re going to accomplish what God plans for us.

Jesus calls us to come and learn from him how to enjoy life. He calls us to relearn our priorities, to set the right tempo.  Instead of having to work hard to earn God’s grace, we accept it and thereby joyously labor not for God’s grace but to praise God for having been so good to us. We don’t have to be so rushed, because we know God is in control. We don’t have to do it all, for we trust in God’s providence. We don’t have to pretend to be God. Let that burden go!

Jig Pendleton had it all wrong. Religion isn’t about working hard; it’s about looking around and gratefully receiving all we’ve been given. It’s about accepting our position in creation and giving thanks.

Take care of yourself. Reorient your life to a new perspective, one with Jesus, as the face of God[9], at the center. Drop the guilt and long faces, slip on that easy yoke, and (most of all) enjoy the journey. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] 2 Kings 2:9-12.

[2] Wendell Berry, Nathan Coulter (New York, North Point Press, 1960, 1985), 15-16.

[3] Psalm 51:12.

[4] Matthew 28:16-20.

[5] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, John Knox Press, 1993), 126.

[6] John 10:10.

[7] Hare, 129.

[8] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 540.

[9] Bruner, 537.

The Wise Men and the Evangelical Stream

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 2:1-12
January 6, 2019

 

 

        This Sunday is Epiphany. In the Christian calendar it marks the end of the Christmas season as we see the decorations disappear. Epiphany means a surprise encounter or a manifestation of God. The root is from the Greek word for sunrise or dawn, although the word was also used in reference to an appearance of a god. In the Eastern Church, Christmas is celebrated on this day with an emphasis on the incarnation—the surprising way God came to us, “in the flesh.”

Traditionally, for those of us in the Western Churches, Protestant and Catholic, this is the time we hear the story of the Wise Men or the Magi, who follow the star that leads them to the infant child. They experienced firsthand the light coming into the world.

          As I have done throughout this Advent and Christmas season (with the exception of last Sunday), we will look at these traditional seasonal passages through the lens of Richard Foster’s book, Streams of Living Water.[1] Foster identifies six different streams or traditions in which we encounter and respond to God. With each of the streams, we have explored a different character within the Christmas story. For contemplation, we looked at Mary. Joseph was our example for holiness and John the Baptist for social justice. The shepherds served as our example for the charismatic stream and, of course, Jesus is the supreme example for the incarnational stream.

Our last stream is the evangelical tradition. The word evangelical, which has been often misused, comes from the Greek word evangel or good news. Sadly, when we hear the word evangelical today, people either think of it in a political realm or as a group of Christians who are against things. That’s not a fair way to think about this tradition. It’s not about politics or what we are against. Being evangelical, in a true sense, is about what we’ve experienced in Jesus Christ and a desire to share that experience with others. It’s about being for Jesus. Today, as I conclude this series, we will look at the wise men or magi as an example of the evangelical stream. Read Matthew 2:1-12.

 

There are a number of angles we can approach the story of the wise men coming to Jesus. This morning, I would like to highlight three:

  1. The wise men made it a priority to seek Jesus.
  2. Finding Jesus, they responded with gifts of thanksgiving, without expecting anything in return.
  3. Having encountered Jesus, they knew their loyalty was to a higher power.

 

 

Let’s look at each of these.

We don’t know what was so special about this particular star. It appears only the wise men noticed the star and followed it. Why weren’t others following it? We don’t even know who these guys are. It’s generally assumed they are from Persia. Some scholars suggest they were Zoroastrian priests who spent time studying the stars. And God placed this star (or a conjunction of planets, or an unfamiliar comet, or a supernova, or whatever it was) into the sky to catch their attention and draw them to Judea.[2] It’s obvious these guys are not Jewish, for if they were, they would have known the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Instead, they had to stop and ask direction. They knew something special was happening and wanted to check it out even if it meant a long trip to a distant land.

They took a risk. It was important for them to find Jesus, as it is with us. Responding to Jesus’ call to follow him is the most important decision we will make. It overrides all other decisions. And when we decide to answer this call, like the wise men, we are off on a journey in which we have little control. We are no longer our own; we belong to the Lord.

        What might we learn from the wise men’s search? They first go to Jerusalem, the holy city, a place of excitement. Herod’s there; the temple’s there. The streets are packed with pious folks carrying out the work at the temple and with pilgrims who have trekked there to worship. But that’s not where they find Jesus. Instead, they are led to a small dumpy town five miles away. A poor suburb, inhabited with shepherds and goat herders. The town supplied meat and animals for the appetites and sacrifices of those in the capital. Flashy isn’t one of God’s traits. God humbled himself by coming to us as Jesus and, I would suggest, we’ll often find Jesus in humble circumstances. To encounter Jesus, we have to be humbled. Being splashy or among those who are popular isn’t a guarantee that Jesus is present. Jesus comes to those who humbly admit their need for a Lord and Savior over their lives.

Following Jesus is the most important decision we have to make. But we can’t do it unless we are humbled.

         Now let’s look at this passage from what it tells us about giving. One of the most important lessons for a Christian is to learn that giving is as much a blessing as it is an obligation. You know, we feel good about ourselves when we give, especially when we give without expecting anything in return. The wise men show the importance of giving without being asked and without expecting anything in return. If you think about it, this is a story of foreigners giving gifts to a child they don’t know. It would be like someone from Romania dropping by the maternity ward at Memorial Hospital and handing out gifts.

Contrary to the popular carol and the ubiquitous nativity scenes, we don’t know for sure that there were three wise men. Instead, we’re told that they had three gifts, so it’s natural to assume three bearers of the gifts, but they may have been more (or less). Gary Larson, author of the Far Side comics, suggested there were four wise men. The fourth was turned away for bringing a fruitcake.

Over the years a lot has been made about the three gifts. It’s natural to associate gold with a king. Myrrh, which was used as an anointing oil for priest was appropriate for the Messiah, the anointed one. Frankincense, used in the sanctuary where prayers were offered to God, may indicate Matthew saw the gifts as foretelling a time when the baby Jesus would be worshiped with God the Father. However, this is only speculation. The gifts may have just been those worthy of a king.[3]

The wise men knew they needed to worship something greater than themselves. They knew they needed to worship God who considered them so precious that he came in the flesh. In coming, although they had no idea of this, they fulfilled the passages from Isaiah about the light of Israel rising and the nations and kings coming to see the glory. In fact, it’s from Isaiah that we get the transformation of wise men or magi into “kings.”[4]

         Finally, think about the loyalty of the wise men to a higher authority. Herod provides a counter-plot to the wise men. He reminds us that even though the Messiah has come, evil remains a threat. Herod’s false humility almost fooled the wise men. But then, after being warned in a dream of Herod’s intentions, they skip out of town without letting Herod in on the secret. The wise men are a reminder that our first loyalty is to God. Although as Christians, we’re called to obey those in authority, our allegiance has its limits and our commitment to God always comes first.

         Now, let’s think of the wise men or magi in the context of the evangelical tradition. This stream within the Christian faith places a high priority on the proclamation of the gospel, the centrality of Scripture, and the confessional witness of the early Christian community.[5] This good news, the grace of God’s work in Jesus Christ, calls us to follow Jesus. As with the wise men, it calls us to respond out of gratitude, and it also calls us to a new way of life in which God becomes first. We see this twice in this passage, first with the gifts they gave and, secondly, when they follow God and ignore Herod’s request that would allow him to carry out a great evil.

For those of us in the evangelical tradition (and that would include Presbyterians for I am speaking of the true meaning of the word, not how it is used in political discourse today), the need to tell others about Jesus fueled our missionary efforts to spread the good news to other nations and people. We always do this with God at the center. For the wise men, it’s God who calls them to Bethlehem. The wise men become the first converts to worship Jesus outside of his parents and a few shepherds. They represent the first fruit of an evangelical zeal that will spread the gospel to all the world. Friends, we need to rekindle that zeal.

          I started this sermon with three things we learn from the wise men. I am going to add one additional thing to this. There are four things that I want you to take home today and to ponder throughout the week: Seek Jesus, give graciously, know that God always comes first, and remember that we’re called to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

©2018

[1] Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Christian Faith (New York: HarpersCollins, 1988). The idea for this series came from Peter Hoytema, “Six Biblical Characters, Six Traditions of Faith” Reformed Worship #65 (September 2002).

[2] For a detailed treatment of the various ideas around the star, see Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah  (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 167-173.

[3] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation Commentary (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 14.

[4] See Isaiah 60:1-6 (especially verse 3 for kings and verse 6 for their camels). See also Psalm 72:10-11. Brown, 187-188 has a detailed account on how the wise men or Magi were transformed into kings.

[5] Foster, 219.