Here is my sermon based on Luke 3:7-18:
The lure of tradition at this time of year is irresistible. It overwhelms everything else in this time of year. People who hate snow find themselves dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones they used to know even if they have never known one. Unbelievers are swept up in piety, faith, and belief. The usually oblivious and uncaring begin to imitate the generous spirit of those who care. I admit to loving Advent wreaths and Christmas pageants, trees, decorations, cards, and family rituals. Tradition has an enormous and positive power over us in these days – especially given our current national and world situations. I have no plans to resist it, and I do not want to suggest any resistance to you. Traditions are a good thing and a good way to find diversion.But I do want to raise a point about the limits of tradition. Tradition is a good thing, a piece of truth, but it is not a very big piece. Tradition is not anywhere near the whole story of what God is doing among us. Tradition cannot begin to express what is really going on. We are all about to disappear under an avalanche of traditions. Before we go under, I would like to talk with you about what the Gospel for this morning says about the limits of tradition.The Gospel story is about John the Baptist. He has been preaching out by the Jordan River causing quite a stir. People came to try to make sense out of him. I mean he was definitely something different then they have ever encountered before. They had established certain categories for people like him. Tradition said that he could either be the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, or he could be Elijah. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Elijah was carried up into heaven on a chariot and did not die, so he was always available to come back to be the prophet who would precede the end of the world. The people asked John the Baptist if he fit into one of their traditional categories, and John replied simply. and I quote him directly, “I do not fit into your boxes. God is doing something well beyond the bounds of tradition, and there is one coming after me who will make toast out of all your little boxes anyway. So listen, believe or else you’re gonna get it”Tradition is a way of wrapping up the truth in little packages. It is a way of taking a tiny piece of the truth and isolating it carefully and lovingly. Tradition is to truth as a bottle of water is to a great river. The water in the bottle came from the river. It is part of the river. It shares all the chemical properties of the river. In a way, it is the river. But the real river is, in fact, miles of life tumbling across the land. The real river is eddies and rapids, swimming holes and fishing holes, muddy banks and rocky bottoms. What is in the bottle is just a little tiny piece of it and not a very complete piece at that. The traditions of Christmas–the star, the manger, wise men, shepherds, Mary and Joseph, even the baby Jesus–are just little tiny pieces of what God is doing. The action of God is vast and sweeping. The people in the Gospel who were trying to figure John out using the traditional categories were trying to catch the Spirit in a tradition. We do the same thing at Christmas time. We want God to fit into our traditions. It’s like trying to catch a river in a bottle. It simply cannot be done.The Spirit of God at work in Advent and Christmas is far more than our traditions can embrace. For one thing, traditions are predictable. The Spirit is not. Traditions are comforting. That is why we keep coming back to them. The action of God is often disturbing. Traditions tend to affirm things that we like about ourselves. But the Spirit is always challenging and changing our lives, sometimes even things that we like the best. Tradition has a way of being isolated from life. That’s the reason the great traditions of Christmas that seem so compelling in December often make little difference in our lives in January. But the Spirit is all about the connectedness of life.Tradition does not know how to relate the softness of the season to the hard realities of living. The Spirit holds them in an uncomfortable but constant connection. Tradition tells us what the angels said to the shepherds in their field at night. But it has no idea what the angels are trying to say to gang members watching over their turf by night. Tradition knows about the wise men, but it does not know what to say about the murder of the babies in Bethlehem brought about by the magi’s innocent inquiry to Herod. Tradition basically ignores Jewish life under the Romans, so it does not know what to say about those who suffer in occupied countries in territories. Tradition makes the flight into Egypt romantic, but it is silent about the refugees stumbling back and forth in misery across our world today. Tradition celebrates loving households, but it has not a clue about violent ones or tense ones or sad ones. Tradition speaks of certainty; the Spirit speaks of ambiguity. Tradition speaks of simplicity; the Spirit speaks of complexity. Tradition speaks of wonder. The Spirit pushes us toward doubt. Tradition calls us to happiness, which is fun. The Spirit leads us to joy, which is deeper, better, harder.The people came to John and said that over a thousand years they had worked out certain possibilities, certain traditional categories for the Spirit of God. And they asked John to fit into one of them. And John says to them, “I do not fit into your boxes.” Later on, a Pharisee will come to Jesus–Nicodemus by name. And he will say, “I like what you’re saying, Jesus. Please fit it into something I have thought about before.” Take your truth, your Spirit, and whittle it down so it will fit into one of the traditional boxes of thought that I have in my mind. And Jesus will say, “Nicodemus, the truth is like the wind. You cannot put the wind in a box. If you do, it’s just air. And what I’m talking about is wind. It is not just air.”Like our predecessors, we come to this time of year with wonderfully crafted boxes of tradition. Jesus and Mary and Joseph all set out in the Christmas pageant, Jimmy Stewart on the video, Johnny Mathis on the CD, Kwanzaa, evergreens, Hanukkah, Santa Claus, turkey, music, laughter, gifts and fun. And we say, “God, we would like for you to fit your truth into some of these fine boxes.” And they are fine boxes indeed. I love them! I imagine that you do as well. But the answer is the same as that given by John and by Jesus. The truth of God will simply not fit into the traditions of Christmas. It’s bigger than that.I have no misgivings about the goodness or the power of Christmas traditions. I love them and I intend to immerse myself in them. I do not expect to feel guilty about it for even a moment, and it may even make me a better person. But I do hope to hold in the back of my mind the fact that the traditions we hold so dear are to the work of God as a bottle of water is to a mighty river. In the days ahead, may you enjoy the bottled water of tradition and may God grant you a glimpse of the mighty river of the Spirit from which they come. Amen.
Here is my sermon based on Mark 10:46-52:
Let us get our story in context. We are at the end of chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel. While the entirety of the gospel up to this point has been concerned with the three-year ministry of Jesus, his miracles, his teachings, his confrontation with the religious leaders, what remains of the gospel from this point on is the last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he has predicted that he will “give his life” as a ransom for many. Jericho is a town along the way.The town is stirring with excitement; Jesus is coming through town. His reputation as a teacher and miracle worker precedes him. Likely the townsfolk are eager to make a good impression, perhaps the celebrated and controversial rabbi will decide to stop in Jericho for a few days before continuing on to Jerusalem. Maybe they could hear one of his famed teachings or he would do some miraculous sign. Then they could see for themselves what all the matter is about this Jesus of Nazareth.But, as Jesus comes along the road, we notice Bartimaeus, that blind beggar sitting by the side of the main road through town. Of course, he is always sitting right there, begging whoever comes by for alms. It is just that he kind of becomes invisible when you live in Jericho. Now, however, when you look with the eyes of a traveler, Ah what an eyesore. Maybe Jesus would not have noticed, but Bartimaeus gets wind of what is going on – that Jesus of Nazareth is coming through town. He starts doing the most embarrassing thing. He starts yelling, “Jesus! Son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus! Jesus! Have mercy!” The crowd cant’ get him to shut up. “Be quiet!” they yell, “Be quiet! You blind fool! (You’re ruining the moment!)” But it is like pouring gas on a flame…the more they hush him, the more he calls out. “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy!”Now, I want to stop for a second and point out something curious. Bartimaeus has heard from the townspeople that Jesus of Nazareth is coming through town. But that is not what he calls out. He does not call out, “Jesus of Nazareth, have mercy on me!” No, he calls out, “Jesus, Son of David!” He addressed Jesus with the prophetic title of the messiah king expected to take his throne in Jerusalem. It is the blind man, who sees who Jesus really is. Faith pops up in the most unexpected places in Mark’s gospel. The blind beggar has it; the Syro-Phonecian woman (a gentile and a woman, ch. 7) has it; Jarius the Centurion (a roman official, ch. 5) has it; the woman with chronic hemorrhaging (a condition of being ceremonially unclean, not to mention physically at risk, ch. 5) has it. Conversely, faith is not found where one would most expect to find it – in the disciples sometimes, in the religious leaders most of the time, in the crowds (if you give credence to the notion that if most people think a certain thing they must be right). The seeds of faith are spread all over the place, but mostly landing on unsuitable soil. To most, Jesus is just Jesus of Nazareth; a teacher, a prophet, maybe even a miracle worker. But every once in a while, a pocket of rich soil is discovered…like this blind beggar. And he calls out to Jesus’ identity, “Son of David!” Or as the children of Jerusalem will later chant, “Blessed are you, you who come in the Name of the Lord!”And Jesus stops in the middle of the road. Likely, he cannot see Bartimaeus any more than Bartimaeus can see Jesus. He just hears the shouting, from somewhere in the crowd, somewhere in back. He says, “Tell that guy back there who’s yelling to come here.” It seems everyone knew exactly whom Jesus was referring to, so they turned to Bartimaeus. Their reprimands change from “hush and be quiet” to “have courage, cheer up.” Bartimaeus had been calling Jesus till he was blue in the face and the people around him had only responded with agitation; but when Jesus calls B the whole situation is changed. So Bartimaeus tosses aside his cloak and whatever alms might have been resting in it. He starts bumping his way through the crowd, until the arms of Jesus or perhaps one of his disciples steadies him. Jesus and Bartimaeus are face to face.Jesus does not tell the crowd to shut the beggar up. He does not reprimand or correct B for addressing him as “son of David.” He does not even assume what the beggar wants of him. Jesus calls him forward because he recognizes Bartimaeus’ faith. He recognizes that bold, incessant, risky, earthy, heart and soul and sweat, maverick faith borne of neediness and suffering behind Bartimaeus’ words.Jesus asks him, “What would you have me do for you?” “My master (rabboni),” Bartimaeus replies, “I would see!” And Jesus responds, without a single gesture, without further conversation, “Go, your faith has saved you.” And Bartimaeus could see. Like that (snap!), with a word – if even a word – Bartimaeus can see. He has been healed.Now most of your translations, NRSV in this case, translate Jesus’ words as “Your faith has healed you,” or “made you well.” Clearly, this meaning is intended; B is now seeing. However, additional meaning is brought out in a literal translation. “Your faith has awakened you, saved you.” And this savedness is not just the having of sight. You are not saved, Bartimaeus, because I have just now given you sight. The savedness is the faith you had while you were blind, the faith that compelled you to call out to me in your neediness, the faith that I see in you right now, whether sighted or blind. You are saved because you called upon me – and that you did by faith, not by sight.Now, for the first readers of Mark’s gospel, his intended audience, the first century Christians, this was a powerful illustration. These early Christians were marginalized and persecuted, even put to death for their faith. They had a radical belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah. He had been put to death, in accordance, they maintained, with the prophecies of Scripture. He had then risen from the dead, ascended into heaven and would come again one day. All of this guaranteed for them a new and better covenant with God, one in which their sins were forgiven and life eternal was guaranteed. They were a minority in this conviction. As a result, everyone was trying to shut them up. As far as the world was concerned the early Christians were all Bartimaeus’ – blind and begging. Blind because they couldn’t see the obvious foolishness of their own assertions and beggars because they were constantly seeking redemption from their sins and willing to live impoverished lives for the sake of this so called “gospel.”The funny thing is that the world was right. And this is precisely how Christians saw themselves as well. To the world, I am blind, to the world, I am foolish, but I can see with faith, what the eyes of the flesh cannot see… I KNOW WHO JESUS IS. I KNOW that Jesus of Nazareth is Jesus the Son of David, Jesus my Savior and Lord. I KNOW in whom I have believed. I know because I have been saved. – and like Bartimaeus I am going to follow Jesus as his disciple no matter what comes. I may not know what tomorrow holds, but I know who holds tomorrow. I am going to follow Rabboni, even if it leads me to Jerusalem and to the cross that awaits there. Why? Because Jesus went to the cross –and there he conquered sin and death and he will do the same for me. Because just being healed is not reason enough to live or to die, but being saved is reason enough for both. And perhaps in my own following, others will see in me a glimpse of the risen Christ.Recall again the words from 2 Corinthians 5:16-21: From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.If you have that faith in you, that bold, incessant, risky, earthy, heart and soul and sweat, maverick faith borne of neediness and suffering, our world of today is not all that different from the first century. We may not be put to death for our faith, but we will be hushed. Why? Because we do not regard ourselves or others as the world regards. We do not judge people based on what they can produce and what they can earn. We do not judge them by whether they can see or hear, whether they are very intelligent, whether they are pleasant to look at, whether they are needy or hurt. Because we recognize that we all need more than just healing, we need saving. And in relation to being saved we are all on equal ground – some of us are the blind, some of us are the begging, some of us are the unclean, some of us are the outsider, some of us are the tragic. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory and we all need the same thing: To come to terms with our own wretchedness and neediness, our own sin, to come to terms with the very things about ourselves to which we would like to turn a blind eye, to come to terms the things that the world would like us to turn a blind eye, and to cry out, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!”And he does. Some of us can tell stories of radical divine interventions, some on par with Bartimaeus receiving his sight. Some of us cannot. Some of us are waiting and praying, shouting from the roadside as it were, for just such an occasion. But no miracle is as great as the central, invisible, secret miracle: that we have been saved. We have been reconciled to God through Christ; we have been made the righteousness of God. This savedness is what we all have in common, the newness of life together and together with Christ in God. And the natural response to this newness of life is to walk in the way that Jesus walked, – trials, temptations, crosses, resurrection, glory and all – ever hoping that in our own discipleship others will catch a glimpse of the risen Lord. We are, as Bartimaeuses all, ambassadors for Christ because God makes his appeal to the world through us.
Here is my sermon based on Mark 10:2-16:
The crowds were bringing children to Jesus so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to his disciples, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” Then Jesus took the children in his arms and began blessing them, laying his hands on them.This story, of Jesus blessing the children, is well-known story. And, I think, one that is close to our hearts. It is an endearing scene. Jesus, a great rabbi, the Son of God, spending time with children. In most of the depictions of this story you might see, the sun is shining warmly, everyone is smiling, there might be a butterfly lilting in the air, a bird is chirping. Who wouldn’t want to part of such a moment? Well, me for one, and I’ll tell you why: Because I’m an adult. And Jesus, says something very unnerving: If you will not receive the kingdom of God like a child, then you will not enter it all.I look at the children, and I wonder what Jesus means. And I discover that I am not all that different from Nicodemus. We remember Nicodemus, don’t we? He came to Jesus by night to learn more explicitly the nature of Jesus’ proclaimed “good news.” But explicitly is not what he got. What he got instead was, “you must be born again.” And Nicodemus was puzzled, “What do you mean born again? That is about as possible as me climbing back into my mother’s womb.” And so I say now, “what do you mean, as a child? Life moves in one direction, I couldn’t be a child again even if I wanted to. ”Perhaps we remember Jesus’ response to Nicodemus. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, and spirit gives birth to spirit. It is of the spirit that you must be reborn.” There is a spiritual dynamic that must take place, not a physical one. So it is with Jesus commanding us to receive the kingdom as children. A spiritual dynamic is being hinted at. Like most of Jesus’ teachings, to receive the kingdom as a child is a parable. It is an earthly example with a heavenly meaning. Jesus is not calling us backwards, he is not commanding us to be retrogressive. No, he is calling us forward and upwards. But he says there is something in the life of a child that is essential to the life of faith. There is some element within what it means to be a child that is meant to be a characteristic of genuine spirituality, at whatever age we are. The question is, What is that element? Again, typical of Jesus’ parables, he doesn’t give us the explicit answer. He leaves it to us to wrestle and search for the answer.So, this week I have been wrestling with this question. I’ve been wondering what essential quality we associate with childhood. Certainly it is more than just a chronological or biological designation. For we might look at a child who has a hard home life and say, Ah, how sad, he is being robbed of his childhood. And we might say of an elderly person, How wonderfully young at heart that person is! When I think of when I was a child, I’ll share with you what I remember. I remember action figures. Hours and hours of action figures. Mighty, epic wars would be fought on the stairs of my house. Loves would be gained and lost, friendships would overcome galactic dictators, spaceships would take off and land on a formica table that doubled as a space station. For other children childhood was dolls, or a pet, or rollerskates or playing and exploring in the woods, some had an invisible, but trustworthy imaginary friend. It was a time of wonder, when what was inside our heads was not totally dissociated from the world around us.I think of that as childhood, because I remember it ending. It was some afternoon after I raced home from the last day of school. I got out my figures, their vehicles and weapons. As the afternoon stretched out before me I waited for that blessed immersion into the drama before me to begin, but nothing happened. The figures were just little plastic toys, the rocket sounds were just the sound of a child’s voice and my bedroom floor was not some far away planet. So as I put my toys away, I knew then, that even though I still looked like a child on the outside, childhood had in some way ended – or at least that special quality, perhaps even its briefest and most precious quality, had passed and it would not return.When childhood goes it goes, and it is all too brief. That is why we treasure it so, and why we love to give children toys and opportunities and why we feel it is such a travesty to steal the wonder years from a child. So, what does Jesus mean when he says, “Receive the kingdom of God as a child or not at all?” To me, he is saying, “Receive the kingdom of God with imagination and wonder, or not at all.” I know it is common to interpret Jesus’ words to mean we should be humble or dependent or simple like a child. We get that from Matthew’s account, where the word “humble” appears. Humility, dependency, simplicity may be qualities we see in children, but we may not. Take away imagination, and you’ve taken away childhood.And so I think it is imagination and wonder that are the spiritual qualities that Jesus is commanding us to receive. I think we might underestimate just how important imagination is to the way we conceive of the world and, consequently, to how we behave in it. If we imagine the world is basically a hostile place, we will perceive other people as threats. We will think they are always competing with us or saying nasty things about us. Probably they are not, of course, but we imagine they are. And so we become defensive and hostile ourselves. But, if we believe that people are intrinsically lovable, then we are likely to be compassionate with them, and seek to make the world a better place than it is now; even if that means sacrifice and challenge.When Jesus commands us to receive the kingdom of God with imagination, he is calling us to a certain kind of imagination. It is an imagination that is rooted in the faith that Jesus is himself the Lord of the Universe and the Savior of each one of us. This is an article of faith, but it is also an article of imagination. It is imagination that allows us to conceptualize what is not immediately apparent. That “God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, Jesus, so that any who would believe in him would not perish but would have eternal life,” is not apparent to the natural mind. One theologian said, “faith is the enduring ability to imagine reality a certain way.”To know Jesus in this way is a gift from God. And depending on whether one receives this gift from God, will determine whether one truly sees reality as it is. That is, the gift of faith, the gift of spiritual imagination, will radically change the way we conceive of the world, ourselves and other people – we will see them as God sees them. This is the holy imagination and wonder Jesus is calling us to. And here is the real twist. It is with imagination – that very thing that the secular mind warns us will lead us into what is imaginary, or false or fanciful – that is redeemed by God to lead us into the truth.To the eyes of unfaith, Jesus was just an historical figure. But the redeemed imagination sees more, it sees who Jesus really is. He is God the Son in human form, walking amongst us to show us what humanity is meant to be. To the eyes of unfaith, Jesus on the cross is a morbid picture of human cruelty and misplaced zeal. But the eyes of faith see what it really is – it is the picture of the death of our sins and the vanquishing of evil. Without faith-fueled imagination, the empty tomb of Easter morning is simply an unsolved mystery. But faith sees more, it sees our own resurrection with Christ, the promise that one day we too will be with him in paradise. The certainty of these revelations is life changing.Look around you with imagination. This congregation is not just a gathering of people – this is the family of God, it is a representation of the great universal and invisible church of Christ that spans eternity. How lucky we are to be a part of it! A committee meeting is not just a task force – it is Paul and Silas and Chloe and Lydia, fulfilling the great commission of Christ to spread the Good News of the Gospel.What an awesome calling! This church is not just a religious artifice – no, it is holy ground, where God’s spirit moves amongst those who enter it. How humbly we should enter it! When we look at ourselves words like beloved, saved, empowered, saint, redeemed, holy, commissioned come to mind.Maybe for you such words are not coming to mind. Maybe you don’t see around you what I have described. Maybe you never have, maybe you haven’t recently. I remind you, to see in this way is a gift from God. James wrote to us earlier, “if any of you lacks wisdom, or cannot perceive in this way, ask of God who gives liberally and without reproach, and it will be given.” Ask God to reveal or re-reveal these things to you, and he will.When our imaginations are fueled by the Spirit of God, we know we are finally seeing reality as it is. And we can rejoice with the joy of childhood, we can be humble with the humility of a child, we can be dependent on a faithful Father. We are reborn of the Spirit, just as Jesus said we are; and we receive the Kingdom of God as children, or not at all.
Here is my sermon based on Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18:
Life is full of choices, isn’t it? Most of the choices are mundane and routine. Whether you choose one way or another, your life is not going to be much affected. What I ate for breakfast, what I decided to wear this morning, and even which car I decided to drive really are not going to have a profound impact on my life or the lives of those around me.But there are other choices that we can make that can have profound, life-changing consequences. In 2001, a young man named Jason was racing his friends in his car. They all thought they were just having a good old time. But Jason had been drinking. In a split second, the good old time changed into a tragedy. Jason caused a crash that killed his 15- year-old brother, Aaron. As a result, Jason was convicted of vehicular manslaughter. He was sent to state prison on a six –year sentence. Jason had a choice, and he made a tragically wrong one.On the other side of the coin, there are people who make incredibly good decisions. In my life, I have had the privilege of meeting a number of people who have made wise choices. I could spend the rest of this sermon sharing stories about some of these people but that is not necessary because you have all met these same sorts of people. They make wise personal decisions, decisions about finances, decisions about life and the results of those decisions stand as testimony to their wisdom.We make choices all the time. There are just all sorts of possibilities for us in the realm of ‘choice.’ I am about to read from the 24th chapter of the Book of Joshua. In this familiar passage, Joshua offers the Israelites a choice of eternal consequences. Let us open our Bibles and listen to the Word of God. (Joshua 24:1-2, 14- 18).Joshua offered the Israelites a choice. He said to them, “…Choose this day whom you will serve…” (Joshua 24.15)As I said before, life is full of choices, isn’t it? But life is also full of things that we really shouldn’t choose because it just doesn’t make sense. Let me give you an example. All you have to do is to look at me and you can see that I am not built for speed. Through genetics and the fact that I love to eat, I’ve become a guy that carries around an amount of pounds wherever I go. Even if I were to slim down all I could, I would still weigh about 215 pounds. Now as a person of my configuration, I know that there are things that I can do and things that I can’t or shouldn’t try to do. I would not make a good ballet dancer – that would not be good choice of career for me. I would not make a good living at running track and field. I know that I would not be very good as a flying trapeze artist and so that wouldn’t cut it as a career choice for me. These are choices that really have no choice because I have to follow the sensible path.But there is a catch to all of this. You see, in each of those cases, I had a choice to make. I could choose to be a ballet dancer or a trapeze artist, or a sprinter (not a good idea in any of these) but they are choices that I can make. There are times in our lives, though, when we have no choice to make. For example, I am a fan of the Food Network show “Barefoot Contessa”. I would love to be invited to her house to enjoy one of her meals. If the invitation came in the mail, I would accept immediately and be on my way to dinner. But you see the invitation has never come so I can’t choose to go for dinner.If God had not offered the invitation to become God’s people, the choice could never have happened. That’s the way it is when we speak about our capacity to choose for God. Without God taking the initiative, choosing for God is something that we can’t do on our own. God is beyond our capacity to grasp. We cannot choose to love God on our own. We cannot choose to serve God with our whole heart and mind and soul on our own. The Scriptures say, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14) Simply stated it means that in things spiritual, a person not led by the Spirit of God just doesn’t have a clue. If we are not led by the Spirit of God, we will never be able to even begin to grasp an understanding of God let alone make a choice.In matters of salvation, we do not have sufficient understanding and discernment and will power to choose for God. The Scriptures speak of the person who doesn’t know God as if he or she were dead. The darkness of the sin in our lives is such that we are dead to the things of God. How can a dead person choose for God? But there is a very interesting passage in the Gospel of John that says: “I tell you the truth; a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” (John 5:25) The voice of Jesus, through the Gospel penetrates into the darkness of spiritual death and brings light and life.It is in this context that we can begin to understand the choice that Joshua offered to the Israelites. Joshua specifically encourages them to choose for God because God had invited the Israelites to be God’s people! You see, the Israelites were covenant people. God had already chosen them! God had come to them and beckoned them to enter into a relationship with God. God had liberated them from slavery. God had rescued them time and again. God had protected them in their desert wandering even when the grumbled about everything on a daily basis. God had led them to the Promised Land. God had given them the commandments and had instituted the worship rites that they well knew and understood. God had already worked on their lives, in their hearts and had called them to be God’s. And it is in this context that Joshua offers a choice. He offers a choice to people that know God – God’s covenant people.We too are a Covenant people, beloved by God. We live in and by a covenant with our God. We are a people – a people whom the God of heaven and earth – the Creator of all – our Creator – has called to be God’s own. God has sent Jesus Christ into the world to rescue us from the spiritual darkness and sin that keeps us from being able to choose for Him. That light of Jesus Christ comes to us by the Gospel. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing through the Word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17 – ESV) The Holy Spirit works through that Word of Christ to point us to Jesus. When the Holy Spirit works in us, then the words of Joshua make sense for us: “Choose this day whom you will serve. But as for me and my house we will serve the Lord.You see, we live in a land, like the Israelites of Joshua’s time, that has the tempting allures of man gods. You’ve heard all heard the call – you’ve felt the temptations that this world offers. Of course, those temptations take a different form for each person whether it is football, drugs, sex, money, power, and the list goes on and on. But in Christ we are empowered to make the small choices that give testimony to the work of God in our lives. We can make a choice to ignore the gods of the world and serve our God, the God of all Creation. When we serve the Lord, people see that choice – and that gives testimony to the work of God in your life. And other people are influenced and convinced of God’s love for them in Christ. Your little choices to live a godly life can be used by God to make an eternal difference, not only for you, but for those who know you. St. Francis is rumored to have said: Preach Jesus always and when necessary use words! Our actions speak louder than anything we can say and when we stand up to choose God and be Christians, people will watch what we do. I said earlier that most of our choices really don’t have a big impact on our life or the world around us but they really do. Our behavior, as Christians, can turn someone on or off to God.Thankfully, God doesn’t let us on our own to help spread the gospel. Once the seed is planted, God comes to us beckon us, to woo us, to draw us unto God. The waters of baptism come and bring with them forgiveness and faith. Jesus offers Himself to us. He brings forgiveness and peace to our lives through the Gospel. He comes to us in his Word to bring illumination. And through all these things, He carves us out as his own. He makes us into covenant people empowered to choose for Him because Jesus lives in us and we live in Him.My friends, I invite you today to make a choice. Choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my house, we will choose the Lord. Amen.
Here is my sermon based on John 6:1-21:
Introduction:We’ve all had this experience. Every one of us has found ourselves in front of the TV a couple of hours after a satisfying and filling supper and seen a commercial – and not just any commercial. You know what I mean: One of those commercials. There it is: a delicious looking triple bacon cheese-burger or maybe a pizza smothered in mozzarella cheese and pepperoni. It could be any sort of food advertisement. Maybe it’s an ad for a Dairy Queen Blizzard or those Cadbury Easter Cream Eggs. All of a sudden you’re hungry – and you didn’t even know it!No matter how many times we eat enough to fill us up – even to make us feel stuffed! – we always get hungry again. We don’t have the option – we have to eat again. One meal will never do us forever.Feeding the Crowd:Well, the crowd that follows Jesus in this story acts just like us when we see the fast food commercials. And what I mean by this will be clear in a few minutes. First note that this crowd of people had followed Jesus because of the signs that he was doing for the sick. And while they were with him, he had fed them – all five thousand of them, not including women and children. He did so with five loaves of bread and two fish. Not only had this been enough – but there were leftovers! Twelve baskets of leftovers! Having followed Jesus on account of the signs he performed, they become witnesses to another sign: the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Our text says in v. 14, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’” They did see the sign. They knew that Jesus had fed them miraculously. They knew something had happened that was outside the realm of common experience. They knew something was up here. And they responded by recognizing something of who Jesus was. They called Jesus a prophet. The question is: did they really understand Jesus? Did they really understand the importance and meaning of the sign?We don’t find out until the next part of our passage. It’s the next day, and once the crowd realized that Jesus was gone they went looking for him. What was their reason for looking for Jesus? Why did they want to find him? Perhaps they wanted to confess their faith in him. Or it could be that they wanted to learn more about who he was. Did they want more teaching? Maybe something intangible about Jesus’ character compelled them to seek him.Jesus, of course, knew exactly why the crowd sought him out. He tells them: “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Wow. They came because he fed them. He had met their physical need. It seems that the memory of the sign had either disappeared, or been rationalized away, or at least faded enough that all they focused on was the result of the sign: food to eat. They came to Jesus again because maybe he would feed them again. Maybe he would satisfy their hunger one more time.Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with asking Jesus to meet our physical needs – “Give us this day our daily bread” is our ongoing prayer – and so we shouldn’t downplay the significance and legitimacy of seeking God to meet these needs. And Jesus, we see, does meet those needs – and here he does so in an incredibly miraculous way that demonstrates the providence, power, and graciousness of God!But you see, while because of the sign they realized that he might be the prophet “who is to come into the world,” like so many others they ended up completely misunderstanding who Jesus is. Like so many others they just didn’t get Jesus. They missed the point entirely.That the people missed the point is clear when Jesus takes the opportunity to tell about the “food that endures”: the food that gives eternal life. Using the image of food he tells them that he can give them eternal life. The food that they work for is food that perishes. He can keep giving them loaves and fishes, but they will just get hungry again. Nothing he can give can forever satisfy this basic physical hunger – and that is not the need that Jesus is largely interested in meeting. Jesus is essentially saying to them what he said to Satan in wilderness when tempted: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” In this case, the word that comes from God is Jesus himself, the Word made flesh. It is Jesus that gives life and this is what he offers – something infinitely more important than their next meal.Another Sign? More Manna?Then the people do the unthinkable. They ask for a sign that they should believe in him. They ask for a sign! Can you believe this? They want more proof that Jesus is the one who can give them eternal life. As one scholar comments, “The crowd’s request is jarring. How can they make such a request immediately after the feeding miracle in which they shared? The crowd does not recognize the sign that has already been enacted before them.”So while it seems that they did see the sign of the loaves and fishes, they really had no idea of what it meant. The crowd then refers to Moses’ gift of manna, ironic since you might say that they had already received the equivalent of manna: through the loaves and fishes. And if the crowd failed to see the sign in the loaves and fishes, how likely is it that they will recognize another sign? Even if they see a miracle, why should we think they will see a sign?Now this is why these crowds act just like us when we see fast food commercials: miracles never satisfy; they are the fast food equivalent of spiritual experience: it just breeds desire for more of the same without ever satisfying that desire. That is why the Gospel of John calls them signs – they point us to Jesus, who can satisfy our spiritual hunger. Just as those who drank the miraculous wine at Cana will get thirsty again, those who ate their fill of bread and fish will get hungry again. And, in the same way, it doesn’t matter how many signs you see, you will never be satisfied. You will want another sign – just one more. And the crowd in our story doesn’t come any closer to Jesus because of these signs. “The people’s confession of Jesus as ‘the prophet who is to come into the world’ is therefore ambiguous, because while it is an appropriate confession, it rest on the evidence of signs.”The True Bread of LifeAnd when Jesus offers them the true bread from heaven, they think he means some sort of heavenly manna of the kind that Moses gave the Israelites in the wilderness. They say to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” We hear echoes of the woman at the well who didn’t grasp what Jesus meant by “living water.” She was looking for a kind of water that would prevent her from having to return to the well. This crowd is looking for bread from heaven like manna – something to fill their present hunger. They want another sign. And they want something akin to manna in the desert, thinking that this is what Jesus offers. For them receiving this manna would be sign – but would it be the sign? Would it be the sign that would finally point them to Jesus?So when Jesus offers them bread – the true bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world – the people say to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Again, they don’t really get it. They don’t. They think he means something like the manna Moses gave the Israelites. While the crowd recognizes that the bread Jesus offers is better, they do not realize why it is better.So Jesus finally delivers the punch line: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” He turns the conversation in a completely different and totally unexpected direction. He redirects their attention, he adjusts their focus. All this time they were focusing on the signs. They had been focusing on the food they had received. Jesus pulls the rug out from under them and says, “Focus on me. Believe in me. Come to me. That is how to get eternal life.” Forget for a moment your present hunger, whether for more food or more miraculous signs, because none of those things will satisfy you. None of those things gives you eternal life. And that’s what matters here. Jesus tells them that they ought to pay attention to eternal matters, and that the only way to do so is to focus on and believe in him. He wants them to take seriously something other than their earthly needs. He invites them – and us – to do this by drawing upon our own experiences of hunger and thirst. Imagine what it would be like never to get hungry again. Imagine what it would be like never to need or desire another drink – imagine being forever satisfied. It is this that Jesus invites the crowds to consider.What Are You Hungry For?Once again we see that miracles have little value unless they point us to Jesus. “A basic theological tenet of the fourth Gospel is that a sign alone is not an adequate ground for faith; the believer must come to understand the theological and Christological truths revealed in that sign.” Miracles and signs are there to point us to Christ and have little value unless they draw us to him and deepen our relationship with him.The crowds wanted another sign. Perhaps they wanted more food. Why are you following Jesus? They wanted more from Jesus rather than more of Jesus. You see, Jesus was not interested in simply feeding the crowd and satisfying their immediate needs – he wasn’t going to give in to their notion of a prophet or king and he wasn’t going to give in to their need for instant gratification. Jesus isn’t there simply to fill our needs. Sometimes we don’t even know what it is that we really need anyway. Sometimes we come to Jesus with desires that he is not there to fulfill. Sometimes people come to Jesus with wrong expectations. What Jesus wants to give us is himself. He is the bread of life. Jesus himself is the gift, not any miracle he can perform.So the question is: what are you really hungry for? And what am I really hungry for? What are we really hungry for? Are we willing to look past our immediate physical needs to something that is really important, namely, eternal life, real life, everlasting life? We all know what it’s like to feel famished. We all know what it’s like to be thirsty. Jesus is saying that the real hunger and thirst we ought to be focusing on is the hunger and thirst for eternal life, for the truth that is revealed in Jesus, for the righteousness only he can give, for the hope only he offers, for the salvation only he can provide, and for the love that only he makes available. Is this what you want or will you be satisfied with more fast food?
We like winners. Our culture, our country, our society are caught up with the idea of winning. Winning, succeeding, getting ahead, overcoming great obstacles these are the ideals, these are the goals that society places on all people. We can see this as evidenced by our preoccupation with sports. We like to see our team win. We like to follow a winner. Not only in sports, but throughout all of life, we like to see and know about people who have succeeded. We like to read, or watch stories on TV of people who have overcome great mental or physical obstacles, then making a success of their lives. A recent article in ESPN magazine describes the struggles of a high school track star who was involved in a car accident. He was paralyzed from the neck down but through his determination to walk again, he worked himself back to the track and barely a year after the accident, he was running the 100 meter dash with record times.I wonder if they would have printed the article, if this boy had remained paralyzed from the neck down and then had to live the every day unglamorous struggle of having someone feed him, dress him, and help him in the toilet. I wonder if they would have printed this article showing the frustration, the hurt, and the helplessness that someone who is paralyzed feels. I wonder if they would have told about the pain of isolation, the hurt of rejection, the feeling that society doesn’t like losers only winners? I wonder why we only hear about those who make it back, and not about those who are daily struggling with the brokenness of life? There are many people who live lives of quiet brokenness and frustration, sensing, feeling the strong cultural preoccupation with winning, getting ahead and knowing they have given their all, they have tried, but cannot break out of their individual brokenness and have to live day in and day out with the consequences of this struggle.A paradox is taking place in their lives. A paradox which says though they are weak in the eyes of society, they are strong in God’s eyes.Our lessons this morning speak of a paradox. They speak of being strong while being weak.A statement from 2 Corinthians is a paradox, it says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” How can a person have power when he or she is weak? According to our human standards, this is a paradox.Jesus lived in the weakness of God and in that weakness he became strong. He lived in the paradox of life. There is a paradox between the demands of our world, and the demands of our God.Our world calls us to be strong, to succeed, to be upward mobile, but our God calls us to surrender, to be dependent on him, to worry about our neighbor, to treat others with kindness, humility and honesty.Yes, this a paradox that has been around for a long, long time.Jesus was a paradox to the people in his time.His life style, his birth, his death was a paradoxical statement of how God’s power would be manifested on this earth. Jesus himself appeared weak to many of his contemporaries. They were expecting a kind of Superman. They anticipated spectacular signs and unmistakable evidence of his divinity. They saw only a carpenter’s son, a local boy, a prophet without honor. Our text says this of the people: “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”Our text says: Yet all the power of God came to expression in that “weakness”. The weakness of God proved mightier than the strength of men. Jesus didn’t fit the image people had of the Messiah. They expected a mighty king after the fashion of King David. A man who would lead a mighty army, a man who would make this small nation of Israel strong and powerful. A leader who would defeat the Romans.But they got a babe born in a stable, a carpenter’s son who for approximately 30 years didn’t even make a stir among the people. When Jesus did finally go about his ministry, he walked, he lived with outcasts, he ate with sinners; he made enemies of the priests and the rulers.His closest followers were a band of twelve men who were uneducated fishermen or tax collectors. He was followed by all manners of sinners, religious radicals, and even women. He didn’t say anything to the Romans but talked to the house of Israel. He healed people, he forgave sins, he made wine, he calmed the sea.He talked about the love the Father had for his children, and he said he was the Son of God. Jesus died because he didn’t fit the expectation and did not have the value system the people of Israel expected. Jesus came as a servant to people. He came to show that God didn’t want people of superhuman ability, but he wanted people who would believe in God’s power for their lives. He showed that God wanted people who would live in this paradox. He showed that when you are weak, believing in God and not self, then you are really strong.Jesus lived the ultimate paradox.Paul says: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”If we are true to ourselves, we must admit that we struggle with this paradox. We want to succeed and better ourselves despite the fact that we are at our best in our weakest moments. While God does reach out to us in our moments of joy and happiness, it is in our weakest moments – when we have sinned, when we are grieving, when we are tossed about by the circumstances of life that God works the greatest things in our lives.In our weakness moments, God’s grace is sufficient for us.In my life I have seen the power of God to work in my weakness. I have made mistakes that I have come to regret and some of those mistakes have had some long-term impacts on my life. I wonder what good can come out of them but then God shares grace and through my weakness, God shines through. God uses my weaknesses and my mistakes to help others.“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”Six -year-old Brandon decided one Saturday morning to fix his parents pancakes He found a big bowl and spoon, pulled a chair to the counter, opened the cupboard and pulled out the heavy flour canister, spilling it on the floor. He scooped some of the flour into the bowl with his hands, mixed in most of a cup of milk and added some sugar, leaving a floury trail on the floor which by now had a few tracks left by his kitten. Brandon was covered with flour and getting frustrated. He wanted this to be something very good for Mom and Dad, but it was getting very bad. He didn’t know what to do next, whether to put it all into the oven or on the stove and he didn’t know how the stove worked! Suddenly he saw his kitten licking from the bowl of mix and reached to push her away, knocking the egg carton to the floor. Frantically he tried to clean up this monumental mess but slipped on the eggs, getting his pajamas white and sticky. And just then he saw Dad standing at the door big crocodile tears welled up in Brandon’s eyes. All he’d wanted to do was something good, but he’d made a terrible mess. He was sure a scolding was coming, maybe even a spanking. But his father just watched him. Then, walking through the mess, he picked up his crying son, hugged him and loved him, getting his own pajamas white and sticky in the process!That’s how God deals with us. We try to do something good in life, but it turns into a mess. Our marriage gets all sticky or we insult a friend, or we can’t stand our job, or our health goes sour.Sometimes we just stand there in tears because we can’t think of anything else to do. That’s when God picks us up and loves us and forgives us, even though some of our mess gets all over Him.But just because we might mess up, we can’t stop trying to “make pancakes” for God or for others. Sooner or later we’ll get it right, and then they’ll be glad we tried…“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”Make some pancakes.
I preached this sermon in April for the Spring Meeting of the Nashville Presbytery. I based my message on John 3:16 and I think the lessons in this sermon are important for all of us so I am sharing it here. I hope you find some wisdom in the words:
Much of the time in the gospel of John, we find Jesus using the simplest, everyday analogies to teach spiritual truths. It’s fascinating to listen to Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel of John but we often miss the obvious because we want to put the Jesus we know in the story.
When Jesus passes through Samaria and encounters the woman at the well, He finds himself striking up a conversation with a woman with whom He appears to have very little in common. She’s a female Samaritan, he’s a male Jew. She has been married multiple times, He has never been married. So many differences, so much that separates them; yet they’re both thirsty, and they’re at the same well. So Jesus uses the most obvious point of reference to reveal His identity to her. To this woman with a deep thirst, He announces that He is the source of living water, “and whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.” This is an incredible story because Jesus, a first century Jewish male, takes the time to talk to a woman about religion. He makes her his equal. But we know Jesus and what happens to the story when we know Jesus? She becomes a Samaritan woman who has been married five times and Jesus condemns her! Why? Because we would condemn the woman today so we expect Jesus to do so.
We go to war with others because we know what Jesus would want us to do. Jesus would want us to spread Christianity (and the democratic ideals it carries) to the rest of the pagan world. That’s right; we need to use bombs, guns, and violence to spread a religion of equality and peace to the world. A bit closer to home is my own actions. I tend to be judgmental and closed-minded about people who are judgmental and closed minded. If people don’t fit into my view of what makes a Christian (a view that I myself cannot live up to), I tend to judge them harshly because I know Jesus and I know what Jesus would do. People just don’t get it. Sometimes Jesus has to choose an unusual image to make His point. That’s what’s happening here. Jesus is in the middle of a discussion with Nicodemus, a Pharisee who has come to learn more about who Jesus is. The fact that he comes to Jesus in the middle of the night is also very telling. We’re not sure why Nicodemus came but he started by telling Jesus that he knew who he was. A pretty arrogant statement, don’t you think. To presume that you know someone and we just talked about what happens when we think we know God. Nicodemus comes, seeking, wanting to find out more about Jesus. The answer Jesus gives Nicodemus is not what he expects and Jesus has to break it down for him. There is the joy in this passage. There is the hope in this passage. There is the love in this passage. We are the most arrogant, aggravating people but God gives us the means of salvation. God has shown us the way despite ourselves.
Jesus turns to a strange Old Testament story to make His point. In the days of their wilderness wanderings, Israel had sinned. There was grumbling about Moses, grumbling about God, and there was punishment. The punishment was, in part, to be snake-bitten. The Israelites cried out to God for deliverance, and God used the strangest thing to save them. Moses formed a bronze serpent, mounted it on a pole, and hoisted it toward the sky. When they looked up to it, they were healed/saved.
Strange, but I guess it’s just another way of showing God can use anything to accomplish God’s purposes. But, the Israelites soon forgot God’s graciousness and sinned and sinned and sinned until the Exile. God had to work to bring about salvation.
Just as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, so will the Son of Man be lifted up [crucified & glorified]. God can use anything, anything at all, to bring about salvation. There is nothing so common that it can’t point to God. But even the “out of the ordinary” can be used to lead to salvation.
What kind of God do we serve, who can use serpents and penguins, and all manner of things to draw people to Godself? What kind of God do we serve who can overlook our many, many shortcomings and failed attempts and sins? We serve a God who can use any event in our lives to bring about salvation.
But in these days, Jesus announces, in these days salvation comes through Me. God has sent Me, the Son, to bring about salvation. God can choose anything God desires to bring about the salvation of the world, and God has chosen Jesus Christ. God can still take any event and use that as the turning point in a life, but salvation comes through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And hear the good news: your name is on the list of people Christ has come to save. Your name is on that list the day you are born. Every one God has created is on the list of people Christ has come to save. Everyone. That is what makes grace so scandalous. There is not one person God created whose name is not on the list. You and I might make the list differently. You and I might exclude certain people from the list of the saved. We divide the world into so many categories:
If we were making the list, we might be more selective as to who makes the list. But God’s list is long. The list of people for whom Christ died includes all the world. There is no debate, no discussion, no waiting period. Every person who has ever been born and ever will be born is added to God’s list. That is everyone. I don’t know about you but I am glad that I am not in charge of the list. There are a lot of people who might not make it to heaven if I was in charge. Christ comes into our world, shining the light, looking for names on God’s list. Christ has come to seek you out. It takes awhile for some folks to hear that as good news. Some have the idea that Christ has come saying, “I’ve got a message from God: boy, is God ever mad at you!” We have this idea because we think we know God.
To those who would rather live in the darkness, to those who are hiding from God, for folks who are running from God, the light is a nuisance. An encounter with Christ makes them feel like they’ve been caught.
I can remember as a child sneaking a cookie out of the cookie jar after I thought my parents went to bed. Sometimes I could get away with it but when the light came on, all my sins were out in the open and I preferred to stay in the dark! After I was corrected, though, my parents would always love me again.
It is not until you know God is seeking you in love, not in condemnation; it is not until that moment that the gospel becomes Good News for you. I always used to wonder why some folks would stand at football games holding a sign with the words “John 3:16.” “Who do they think that’s going to help?” I’d ask myself. “Don’t they know what an unlikely way that is to save someone?” That’s what I used to always ask. But I’m having second thoughts. If God can use bronze serpents and wooden crosses as means of salvation, then maybe a cardboard sign isn’t such a far-fetched idea after all. And if God truly desires that the entire world would be saved, maybe getting the message out where the entire world can see it just might be a good thing. For those that are lost, Christ has come searching. For those in the darkness, the light is shined. And everyone who believes in Jesus Christ will have eternal life.
Fireworks were invented in China. Very early in history, during the first thousand years after Christ, Chinese scientists discovered gunpowder. And from this discovery came the concept of fireworks. The ancient Chinese people were very superstitious, and believed that fire could disperse evil spirits. Sparks were a good omen, they thought, a good indication of the future. Loud sounds, they believed, would frighten away ghosts. And smoke was good for your health. And so in ancient China, fireworks were the perfect thing. All the fire and noise would chase away the spirits and ghosts, and the sparks and smoke would make you healthy.Chinese kings were given fireworks as a form of tribute. Today, Chinese people set off fireworks to express their happiness and to invite good luck into their lives. Today, we use fireworks as a form of entertainment, and often as a way celebrating of some sort event or holiday, like the Fourth of July.Today in the Word of God, the prophet Ezekiel talks about something similar to fireworks and here is the comparison. With fireworks, it’s always amazing to me that one of those little rockets could give off so much light and so much noise. One little rocket – it doesn’t seem like much as it sits in the box – there doesn’t seem to be much to it. But wait and see – when it’s lit off, it lights up the night sky and gives off a boom that you can hear for miles.Today the prophet Ezekiel talks about something that seems small, seems insignificant. But wait and see – it becomes something much greater than you would ever expect. What Ezekiel is talking about is the Kingdom of God. He compares the Kingdom of God to a tiny little stalk. God plants that stalk, and it doesn’t look like much as it sits on top of a high mountain. But you must wait and see – eventually it becomes the greatest, most amazing tree in the entire world. Today God teaches us about his kingdom, and how he works. God does things that seem small in our eyes, to begin with. But the things that God does turn out to be the greatest, most amazing things we could ever imagine.Today, as we focus on this picture that the Old Testament prophet paints for us this morning, we learn two lessons about God’s kingdom. Lesson number one – we will learn why we are sometimes unimpressed by God and his work. And lesson number two, we will learn why we can be impressed by God and his work.Look at verse 22, where God says, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it. I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.” God describes himself as a gardener planting a tree. He plants a small shoot onto a high mountain. God finishes his work, brushes off his hands, and walks away. It doesn’t look like much – just a small green stalk sitting by itself on top of a high mountain. Not very impressive.What God is talking about here is Christ, and the Christian church. When Jesus was born, he didn’t look like much – a tiny baby born to a poor Middle Eastern family. And as Jesus carried out his ministry, he didn’t look like much. Sometimes he would perform a miracle, but most of the time he talked about things that people didn’t care about – he talked about repentance and faith and the life to come. And when Jesus died on he cross, he didn’t look like much – very unimpressive, as he died between two common criminals on a Friday afternoon. His early followers didn’t look like much either – a group of uneducated fishermen who didn’t fit in with the rest of society. One needs to wait and see.Today, you and I are tempted to look at Christ, to look at God’s church, and think to ourselves, “I am not impressed. This doesn’t look like much to me.” We look at our world today, and often times, it’s hard to see the greatness of Christ. We look at the state of Christianity in our world today, with all of its problems, and it’s hard to see the greatness of Christ. We look at our own lives – all of our own problems and it’s hard to see the greatness of Christ. You need to wait, and see.The secret to seeing God’s greatness is focusing on things you cannot see, and focusing on the future. The prophet Ezekiel told Israel to focus on the future – something they could not see – and there they found God’s greatness. Verse 23: “On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar.” God is talking about Christ, and his kingdom here. Someday, it will grow, God says. “Birds of every kind will nest in it.” God is talking about people here. People of every kind will become a part of God’s kingdom. People from all over the world, every nation, every background, every kind of personality and every social status. Look to the future, Ezekiel told the people of Israel, and you will see the greatness of God’s kingdom.The last part of verse 23: “They will find shelter in the shade of its branches.” If you were a bird, this would be a driving force in your life – to find shelter. This is why some birds try to make their way into your homes. This is why birds like trees so much. There’s shade there. There’s shelter there. You can find relief from the hot sun and the driving rainstorms and the cold winds, in the branches of those trees.In the same way, God says, people will come and find spiritual shelter in Christ. Shelter from fear. Shelter from uncertainty. Shelter from despair. One of my fellow seminary students described in class how he and his wife were blessed with twin daughters, and immediately after having twin daughters, his wife was stricken with cancer. During that time, all kinds of doubts and questions and fears began to rain down on him. Where did that man find shelter when his world was crashing down around him? He was a Christian, and so he focused on something he could not see – the promises of God. That was his shelter. He didn’t try to solve his problems himself. He looked to God, and God, through his Word, sheltered him from despair and anger and fear. God was his shelter.When fireworks are lit off at night, it doesn’t look like much to begin with – a small white dot quietly sailing up into the night sky. But then it reaches its peak, and it explodes with a loud boom, and the dark sky is filled with a beautiful color and design, all from one small firework.When you first meet Jesus, he doesn’t look like much. When you first have contact with his Word, it may not seem like much to you. But wait and see – after dying, he rises from the dead. The Holy Spirit works on your heart, and that’s when the fireworks begin. You begin to believe that this man Jesus is God. You realize that his death wasn’t just a sad injustice, it was all part of a master plan designed to take away your sins. And someday, when you look into the sky, you will see something greater than the greatest of all fireworks displays. You will see Christ coming again in all his glory, with all the saints and angels behind him, coming to take you to be with him forever.This portion of God’s Word teaches us that if you want to be impressed by God, then wait, and see. Do not focus on all life’s troubles that you see and experience here and now. Focus, instead, on God’s Word, and let the Holy Spirit show you what Christ has done for you – look at what Christ has promised to you – and look at what Christ has waiting for you. Things may seem small now, but wait, God says, and you will see.God surrounded you with trees, not just to give you shade, but to remind you of his kingdom. Every tree starts out as a tiny shoot, but grows into the great tree that you see out your window. And so it is with God’s kingdom. It doesn’t seem like much now, but wait and see, God says, wait and see. The fireworks are coming.