Saturday, March 28, 2015

Words Matter - Mark 15:6-15

Zechariah 9:9-10

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.  

Mark 15:6-15

Now it was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.

"Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate, knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.

"What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?" Pilate asked them.

"Crucify him!" they shouted.

"Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!"

Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

               On Palm Sunday we celebrate the day that Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem.  There was a festive atmosphere in the city.  The out of towners had arrived, and all the pilgrims were there to worship God in the Temple.  Jesus rode a donkey into town, and everyone knew what that meant.  He was acting out the prophecy of Zechariah, who described the Messiah coming into the city in a particular way:

See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

The people watching Jesus live out this prophecy by riding into town on a donkey began to grab branches from the trees and wave them in the air.  They took their coats and robes and placed them on the road so the donkey would have something to walk upon.

And they shouted at the top of their lungs – “Hosanna.  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

It was a word of praise.

It was a word of celebration.

It was a word of affirmation.

It was a word that disappeared quickly.

In its place a phrase of hatred was spoken – ‘crucify him.’

Days after this triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Christ was tied and bound and led to face the authorities.  A politician felt “stuck” with this unwelcome case.  He wanted to get rid of this case and wash his hands of the whole affair. 

There was a prevailing Passover custom in Jerusalem that allowed or required Pilate, the governor of Judaea, to commute one prisoner's death sentence by popular acclaim.  Pilate offered them a choice – Jesus or Barabbas.  They picked Barabbas.  Pilate asked what he was to do with Jesus, and the crowd yelled out ‘crucify him.’

We have not changed a bit.  We speak words of love and support one moment, and the next moment we shout words of hate and anger.

We throw words around as if they have no meaning – but they have so much meaning. 

               “I have a dream…

               “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…

               “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

               Words matter.  Whether we say “hosanna” or “crucify” the words matter a great deal.

               And we, like those of ancient Jerusalem, are as quick to speak words of hate, as we are to say words of love.

               In the New Testament book of James, the writer talks about how a small spark can set off a great forest fire, and he says that the words we speak are like such fire, capable of setting off great evil with a small spark.  James goes onto say, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, who have been made in God's likeness.   Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.”  (James 3:4-11)

               In our culture today we no longer hear debate and discussion, we hear insults and angry words of hate.

               We hear it all over the place. 

               Young people smart mouth their teachers.

               Husbands and wives stab each other with painful words.

               Customers speak rudely to store clerks and store clerks speak rudely to their customers.

               We toss words around as if they have little meaning – but they have tremendous weight.

               Words have power.  And we can either shout words of praise and joy with “Hosanna” or we can shout words of hate as with “crucify him.”

Jesus says in Matthew 15, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.  For out of the heart come evil intentions....”

Reflecting on those words, John Wimberly, pastor of the Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, has said that the insight of Jesus come like “a spiritual lightning bolt.  Hurtful words we utter are not slips of the tongue.  They are expressions of a heart ready, willing and able to hurt somebody.  When we fail to speak a word for justice, it isn’t an oversight.  It is a heart afraid or unwilling to speak up for injustice.”[1]

Often times, when I am with a couple preparing for marriage, I caution the bride and groom to be careful how they speak to one another.  Once certain words are spoken, it is impossible to take them back.  We may be sorry later, but the other person may not be in a very forgiving mood later. 

You’ve probably have heard me say more than once that I’ve never found any truth in that old saying we teach children.  “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never harm me.”

That is nonsense.  Just the opposite is true. 

The wounds from sticks and stones usually heal. 

But what survives is the wound from the words we hear.

Few of you who were beaten up by some bully on the playground are still in pain from the blows of a fist. 

But what survives are the wounds from the words you heard - the hateful words spoken that were addressed to you or said about you.

Our bodies usually recover from the wounds inflicted by sticks and stones. 

But inflict a wound with words that are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, divisive, hateful, violent, or otherwise hurtful and the wound may well last a lifetime.  Call a kid ugly, stupid or clumsy and the kid may well weave those words into the fabric of his or her soul and those hurtful words survive.

If words are what will survive for so long – let us make them words of peace, and love, and justice.  Let our words be helpful, and healing, and able to make the kind of changes we desire.
The sad thing is, I believe, most of the people on that Palm Sunday and later in the week were shouting words without thinking.  They were just words, and people did not think about the power of words.

            I suspect that many people who shouted “Hosanna” on that first Palm Sunday did so with very little commitment to Christ in their hearts.

            They were just getting in the mood of the party atmosphere that was sweeping through Jerusalem that day.

            And the same must have been true of those who shouted “Crucify him.”  They were just being swept away by that crowd mentality that so often infects us.

We live in an angry time.  And everyone has a right be angry.  There is injustice in this world.  There is unfairness.  There uncertainty.

And in these angry times, it is easy for us to speak – not just angry words – but hate filled words. 

The Old Testament book of Proverbs said it well in chapter 17:  “A person of knowledge uses words with restraint, a person of understanding is even-tempered.”

Copyright 2015. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.

[1] John W. Wimberly, Jr.  “Words Matter.”  Western Presbyterian Church, Washington DC.  August 17, 2008.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

“We Would See Jesus” John 12:20-33

New Testament Lesson                                                                John 12:20-33
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people[a] to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

          Pulpits are interesting parts of the church architecture.

From time to time I get an invitation to visit a different church to be their guest preacher.  Whenever I preach in a church I haven’t been to before, I am always anxious to stand behind the pulpit to get a feel for it.  I want to stand there and look out at the still empty pews and imagine how I will be making eye contact with the people.  I want to hold the pulpit to see how it feels.  Most of all, however, I want to sneak a peek inside the pulpit – just to see what’s back there.

          A lot of you have never looked behind the pulpit, but there are a couple of shelves in most pulpits, and you often find unusual sorts of odds and ends back there.

          Let me see, I sometimes have hay fever, so I have a box of Kleenex back here.  A couple of hymnbooks.  A Bible.  Taped to the side of the pulpit are a couple of extra batteries – that’s in case my portable microphone runs out of juice in the middle of the sermon.  Well, as pulpits go, this one is rather tame.  

          I can remember preaching in one church and inside the back of the pulpit was a fire extinguisher.  One can only wonder what kind of fire and brimstone preaching would make it necessary to have a fire extinguisher behind the pulpit.

          I can remember visiting another church and finding, of all things, a telephone.  Throughout the sermon my mind kept wondering, “What do I do if it rings?  Stop preaching and answer it? Ignore it?”

          Behind the pulpit in the chapel at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA, there is a small sign.  It is a brass plate with an inscription, quoting the New Testament lesson for today.

          “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

          Of course, seminaries have changed a great deal in the past several decades since that chapel was built, and the last time I was there, someone had scotched taped an appendix to that quote, so that the sign now read, “Sir, or madam, we would see Jesus.”

          The reason someone put that sign behind the pulpit in the first place is to encourage the new preachers being trained at the seminary not to proclaim themselves, but to proclaim Jesus Christ.  Every sermon ought to enable people to see Jesus more clearly.

          As a minister, I am the first to admit that sometimes I am not able to do this.  No minister is able to perfectly proclaim Jesus ALL of the time.  We’re all human.  Sometimes the sermons we preach simply seem to cloud the issue, rather than to clarify Jesus – to obscure rather than to proclaim Jesus.
          I have a friend who, in her early years of ministry, did volunteer work as a chaplain at a nursing home.  One day she was invited to conduct a Sunday morning service at the nursing home – an invitation which she accepted gladly.  She threw herself into the task with all of her energy.  She thought very highly of the people who lived at the nursing home and she wanted to deliver – not just a sermon – but a great sermon.  So she worked and worked on it, filled the trash can with rejected thoughts, until finally she had IT.

          The only trouble with IT is that it was the kind of sermon that only a recent graduate of the seminary would understand.  It had lots of references to Greek and Hebrew in which the thighbone of Justification is connected to the hipbone of ecclesiology.

          On the day when she delivered the sermon, the residents of the nursing home gathered in the activity room.  Some were wheeled in.  Others used walkers.   A few had I.V. needles in their arms.  Nurses gathered around in the back to attend the service.

          Now, one of the gifts of old age is that you often take the freedom to say the truth, no matter what the truth is.  My friend was preaching her sophisticated, theologically artistic sermon, when all of a sudden one of the elderly residents started wheeling her wheelchair out of the activity room and headed back to her own room.  With each push of the wheel chair, the lady said very loudly, “Blah, blah, blah, blah.”

          Later on, my friend was telling me about the experience and admitted to me that while she had tried to preach the greatest sermon of all time, she had failed to help them “see Jesus” – so that it had become nothing more than “blah, blah, blah.”  She had tried to preach a graduate level course in theology, but the people just wanted to see Jesus in a basic level of truth.

          There is something about the Gospel that is on one hand very complex.  Whole libraries of books have been written in which scholars try to unravel the mysteries of God.  You want to get to know Jesus?  You want to see Jesus?  There is an avalanche of material on the subject.

          Understanding the Trinity.  Understanding the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  Comprehending fully the meaning of bread broken at the Table and wine shared in the cup.  Our faith is full of complexities.  We can’t understand them all.

          And we can’t even begin to, until we first “see Jesus.”

          There are times when we have theological questions that simply cannot be answered – not completely.

          From “how can Jesus be fully human and fully God” to “why do bad things happen to good people.”

          Those are difficult theological questions.

          And until you first “see Jesus” any answer you give is simply going to be meaningless, “blah, blah, blah.”

          I did a funeral a few years ago.  Now every funeral has tragedy about it, but you know what I mean when I say that some are more tragic than others.  When Grandma dies at age 99, that’s sad, but when a child dies at age 5, the tragedy is magnified.

          In this particular funeral, a woman had an argument with her boyfriend.  He killed her in a fit of rage, and then committed suicide.

          I did the funeral for the woman, who had very rarely attended church. 

          After her funeral, the family was filled with grief. 

          They tried to seek comfort in God, but they didn’t know God.

          They had all these strange theological ideas.

          They thought the woman would go to heaven – not because God loved her and had mercy on her, but because God owed it to her because he’d made mistake and had taken her life too early.

          One of the family members was pregnant at the time of the funeral and the family thought this child would be the reincarnation of the dead woman.  As one of them put it, when you die, you get the next available new body.

          I guess for them death was kind of like trading cars.

          Another family member believed that when the woman died she became an angel and walked the earth watching over people.  That theology about angels doesn’t come from the Bible, but from the old TV series, “Highway to Heaven.”

          At one point, one of them asked me – and they asked me this because I was the trained and paid theologian in the group – “Why did God let this happen?”

          That is a good question.

          But it is a difficult question.

          And you can’t begin to understand that issue until you have done a lot of ground work. 

          These people, who came to church Christmas and Easter only, had no basic understanding of God.  They were asking a doctoral level question, but all they had at that point was a preschool level of understanding God.

          You can’t jump from preschool to doctoral level work just like that!

          If you want to understand calculus, at some point you have to first pass 3rd grade arithmetic. 

          I looked at these people and thought, “These people haven’t seen Jesus yet.  And anything I say to them is going to be nothing but ‘blah, blah, blah.’”

          The Christian faith is like an archeological dig.  You look at the surface and you can learn a lot.  You brush away the dust, and then you can learn even more.   You dig deeper, you learn more.  You dig deeper and deeper and deeper, and there is more and more to discover.

          But you have to start at the top.  Start with the basics.  You can’t understand God and the complexities of the faith unless you first start with the most basic.

          “Sir, we would see Jesus,” is a statement that in John’s Gospel means more than simply catching a glimpse of a celebrity who is performing miracles.

          It means that you really want to get to know and believe in Jesus.

          Our New Testament lesson comes from the Gospel of John.  One of the dynamics of John is that “to see” is more than simply to see something with your eyes.  For John, “to see” is “to believe.”

          We see this early on in the first chapter of John.  Jesus is gathering his disciples and one of them is Philip – Philip, the one who shows up in the Gospel lesson for today.

          In chapter one, Jesus calls Philip, and Philip goes to find his friend,  Nathanael.  He tells him, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote-- Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph."

          Nathanael is not impressed.  "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathanael asked.

Philip doesn’t argue.  He simply says "Come and --  see."

          Jesus meets a woman at a well.  There is a classic conversation between the two and the woman and Jesus are on completely different wavelengths.  Jesus talks about how he is the “living water.”  The woman says, “where’s your bucket?  Where you get this water?”
In the end, she comes to believe that this is Christ – the Messiah.  And John’s Gospel says (John 4:28-29), “ 

Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.’”

In chapter nine there is a wonderful story about a man born blind.  Jesus heals him.  Afterwards there is a long investigation.  Was this man healed?  Was this man really born blind?  The man who was healed finally gets frustrated with this whole process and says that there is a lot he doesn’t know – but he knows one thing:  “I was blind, but now I see.” (John 9:25)  Amazing Grace!
And he is not simply talking about how he can now see people and trees and buildings.  He can see truth.

          Even the disciples use this word “seeing” in terms of “believing.”
Toward the end of the Gospel of John, Thomas is told about the Resurrection.  The other disciples tell him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But Thomas is not impressed.  He said to them that he had to see the nail marks in his hands in order to believe.

In the Gospel of John, “seeing” means more than simply looking at something.  It is believing.  It’s understanding the faith.

In our New Testament lesson, we read about how there were some “Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast.  They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we would like to see Jesus.’”

They don’t want to learn ABOUT Jesus.

They want to see him. 

They want to believe in him.

They want to know him.

In response, Jesus spoke to them and said these things…

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. ‘Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.  Father, glorify your name!’”

It is a rather typical kind of response that Jesus gives in the Gospel of John.  Typical because it is complicated.  John loves complicated dialogue.  But brush away the dust and look deeper at this long answer, and Jesus is simply saying, “The hour has come.  I’m about to die.  But I will be resurrected.  Follow me.”

          It’s hard to make sense out of life.
It’s hard to understand God.
Life is full of doctoral level questions. 

And until you see Jesus,
and believe in him,
accepting his death and resurrection,
nothing in life will make sense. 

Until you start with that basic level – believing Jesus, everything else will be nothing more than “blah, blah, blah.”
Have you seen Jesus?
          Have you really seen, and believed?
Have you accepted him as Lord?
Or is everything in your life still just blah, blah, blah?

Copyright 2015. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

By Grace We Are Saved - Ephesians 2:1-10

Ephesians 2:1-10

 You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ[a]—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

        I used to live and work in a part of Atlanta, Georgia, that is just north of Stone MountainStone Mountain is well named because it is mostly just a big granite, stone mountain with only a small part of it covered by trees and grass.
On the face of the mountain, carved by many of the people who once worked on Mount Rushmore, are giant carvings of the one of the three horsemen of the Confederate Apocalypse – Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee.
I used to walk up the hiking trail from the bottom of the mountain to the top – hundreds of people seemed to do that every day.  It was interesting because there was not only a nice panaramic view to reward you at the top, but there were also lots of places where people had carved graffiti into the stone over the years.
        In one spot there is an elaborate inscription that includes the year in old and fancy script, 1879.
        In many places, there are inscriptions made by lovers. Mary Ann and Greg, December 18, 1979 -- followed by the symbol for infinity. One can only hope they are still together.        In one place there is another such inscription by a young man in love. He starts with his name, "Nick." Nick is inscribed in even, well spaced, deep lettering. I can imagine Nick working long and hard and then looking at his handiwork and thinking, "Good job!"

               Then he continues carving, leading to the message, "Nick and..."

        But there is no other name. What was it supposed to be? Nick and Betty? Nick and Bobby Sue? Nick and -- who?

        I can imagine Nick being up there on that mountain and working long and hard and then as he is about to start on the first letter of his girl friend's name he suddenly begins to rethink this thing about commitment. Stone Mountain is a type of igneous intrusion that was formed 300 million years ago. Now when you love someone enough to inscribe your name and your girl's name on a 300 million year old slab of rock, that's commitment!

        When Nick realized that he must have picked up his hammer and chisel and walked back down the mountain -- and now we will never know whom Nick loved.

        Now right near the top of the mountain, just beyond the steepest part of the trail where there are handrails for the hikers, there is one very large and very elaborate inscription.
        It is near the top of the mountain, so whoever carved it was probably tired before they even began their work. And it is large enough that one can imagine someone going night after night to work on that inscription.
        The inscription reads - Jesus Saved the Carpenters, 1868.

        This bit of graffiti captured my imagination, and of many others who have hiked that trail. It is easy to imagine someone bundled up and making his way up the trail at night, taking out a hammer and chisel and beating out the letters, night after night for weeks, until the work was finished.
        And it is also easy to wonder ... Why?

        Let your imagination run wild and it is possible to conceive of a sinner who had led such an immoral life who thought that getting on his knees and carving out the words JESUS SAVED THE CARPENTERS on the face of a granite rock was the only way to repentance.
        In fact, according to the inscription, Jesus didn’t just save one man, but the whole family.  JESUS SAVED THE CARPENTERS. 

        In my imagination, I have often wondered who this man was trying to convince.
        Were the Carpenter family members so na├»ve that they thought some hiker might someday see those words and suddenly think:  “Of course, I need to be saved too!”
        Probably not – because this carving happens to be along the tree line, and is difficult to find.  It is well off the beaten path.
        I finally decided that it possible that Mr. Carpenter was simply trying to convince himself.
        Perhaps it was not with the commitment of Faith that this man carved the words JESUS SAVED THE CARPENTERS.
Perhaps instead it was with the HOPE that Jesus Saves.  And maybe he carved those words to convince himself, as well as others, that those words were true.
Subconsciously, there is within many of us, a stirring of doubt, a twinge of fear – “Jesus Saves, doesn't he?  Or does He?  What if he doesn't?  What if?”
A recent article in a church magazine some findings about a church growth program in a metropolitan area church.  Part of the program was to interview and survey those who were already members.
Only half of those interviewed were sure of their salvation.  The rest were trying to convince themselves that there was truth in the words...JESUS SAVES.
After the sermon today, we will sing a stanza from the familiar hymn, BLESSED ASSURANCE, JESUS IS MINE.  But for far too many of us; that statement becomes a haunting question....BLESSED ASSURANCE???   IS JESUS MINE?
Behind those doubts and fears is a question....what must I do to be saved?
What must I do to be saved from the results of my own sinful nature, how am I saved from eternal death?
In the religion of Islam, the purpose of life is to live in a way that is pleasing to Allah so that one may gain Paradise. It is believed that at puberty, an account of each person's deeds is started and continues until the day the person dies, and this will be used at the Day of Judgment to determine his eternal fate. Good living results in salvation.
In Hinduism, the view of salvation has changed over the centuries, but it involves a nearly endless series of rebirths in which a person is reincarnated over and over through the lower castes, to the highest caste of the Brahmins.  Good living results in salvation. 
In Buddhism, salvation is expressed in terms of excaping suffering and attaining enlightenment, and in order to accomplish this one must follow the so-called Noble Eightfold Path, consisting of the eight practices of self-training.  In other words, good living results in salvation.
In virtually all religions, salvation is accomplished through hard work and devotion. 

Even in Christian churches one will find many people who believe that the good go to heaven and the bad guys end up in hell – but is this really what our faith teaches?
In George Bernard Shaw's play, MAN AND SUPERMAN, an old woman dies.  Much to her despair, she is not quite sure where she is.  So she approaches another soul and asks.
To her greater despair, the answer is that she is in hell.
"Hell" She exclaims.  "How can I possibly be in hell?  I was a faithful member of the church.   I was a solid pillar of the community.  How dare they send me to hell....I was a GOOD person"
To that the other condemned soul replies..."There are a lot of good people in Hell.
The truth illustrated by this imaginative play  is that if we try to life the good life as a means of salvation, then we will find that we can never be quite good enough.
Paul in one of his New Testament letters --- the one to the Roman Church, said that All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
John in one of his letters, wrote "if we say we have no   sin....then we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us."  

Which is not good news at all for those who are Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or one of any number of other faiths on this planet.
If you can’t be good enough to earn salvation, what hope is there?But as the old hymn says, “Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus and his righteousness.”
Or as the New Testament lesson says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works…”

Christianity is the one religion in which our salvation is not dependent on our living the good life – it is a result of God’s love and mercy toward us.
And you know, it should not surprise us that it it is as simple as this. After all wrapped up in these words is a simple reaffirmation of the Gospel.
Time and time again, we are told in the Scripture that salvation IS as simple as this.
Jesus himself reminded us in what has become the most familiar of all Scripture verses, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, so that whoever believes on Him should not perish but have eternal life."
It is as simple as that:  To believe.

To believe -- in Jesus Christ.

         Now for some of us here, this is perhaps a revelation of something new, and to those I say take heart, for by grace you have been saved.  You do not need to make the effort to earn your salvation.  It has been freely offered.


         But for others here today, this is something we have known for so long that perhaps we have grown apathetic.  This is something we take for granted.


         How many of us have received gifts for which we have failed to send a thank you note, or which has been received but left unused.  We have been offered the free grace of salvation, and an apathetic response is not appropriate.


         In Ephesians, the very book that reminds us that we are not saved through good works tells us at the end of this morning’s reading, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

         Yes – we are created FOR good works, and good works is the response to our gift of grace and salvation.  So let us not be apathetic, but let us show gratitude for salvation by showing good works.

         We are not saved by works, but good works follow our gratitude for salvation.

Copyright 2015. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

I Can Worship God on the Golf Course - Psalm 19, Hebrews 10:19-25

Old Testament Lesson                                                                  Psalm 19:1-14

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
    and the firmament[a] proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
    and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
    their voice is not heard;
yet their voice[b] goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens[c] he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
    and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
    and its circuit to the end of them;
    and nothing is hid from its heat.
The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
    and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
    and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover by them is your servant warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can detect their errors?
    Clear me from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent;[d]
    do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
    and innocent of great transgression.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
    be acceptable to you,
    O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

New Testament Lesson                                                          Hebrews 10:19-25

19 Therefore, my friends,[a] since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

         Not long ago, I was talking with someone who told me that he could worship God on the Golf Course. 

         "Preacher," he said, "I go out on that course and it so quiet and peaceful.  The grass is so green.  The sky is so blue.  The birds are singing and flying about.  And whenever I go out there I can feel the presence of God."

         Actually, he has a point.

         I feel the same way sometimes.

         I feel that way when I see the sun rise in the morning. 

I feel that way when I’m walking on the beach watching the sun set.  The sky can be filled with so many different colors, and the colors change constantly as the sun rises or sets.

         I feel the presence of God.

         Some of you may know that I am an amateur astronomer and I enjoy going outside and spending the night with my telescope.  It is beautiful out there. In my back yard I might see 40 or 50 stars in the sky, because there are so many street lights that block out the night sky.  But when I drive a little distance from Orlando, I can see thousands of stars and it is so beautiful. 

         I can feel the presence of God.

         I read a book about the astronauts of the Apollo program.  One of the interesting bits of history about the Manned Moon Missions is that when the first men landed on the moon, and while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were waiting for the green light from NASA's Mission Control to step out of the Lunar Lander and walk on the Moon's surface, Buzz Aldrin – who by the way is an ordained Presbyterian elder - took a moment to take out a tiny communion kit, given him by his church, that had a silver chalice and wine container about the size of the tip of his finger.  During the morning he radioed, "Houston, this is Eagle.  This is the LM pilot speaking.  I would like to request a few moments of silence.  I would like to invite each person listening in, whoever or wherever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the last few hours, and to give thanks in his own individual way."

     He wrote later that as he was saying those very words he opened little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine.  I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me.  In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup."   Then I read the Scripture, 'I am the vine, you are the branches.  Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.'  ... 

He prayed, “I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquillity.”

He made the observation that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements."

         Many of the astronauts who have been into space have been moved by the presence of God.  As one astronaut observed after a flight on the Space Shuttle, "You cannot look down at earth without realizing how small our world is, and how big our God is."

         "I can worship God on the Golf Course..."

         Or the hiking trail,
or at a camp site in the Everglades,
or on the boat at the beach,
or in the  mountains,
or in Space itself...

         Fill in the blank.  You go out and communion with nature, and you feel intensely the presence of God.

         And that is something the Psalmist in our Old Testament Lesson believed very much in.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

         There is not a single time I've ever been out with my telescope that I have not thought about Psalm 19:  "The heavens declare the glory of God..."

         But, it's not good enough. 

It is never enough to simply feel the presence of God. 

         There will always be something missing if we worship God only on the Golf Course, or on the boat at sea, or in the hiking trails.

         We can sense the presence of God, but that is not enough.

         Psalm 19 makes a dramatic shift in the middle of the passage.  It is such a dramatic shift that some scholars think that maybe there are really two different psalms here and that someone down through history accidently put these two psalms together.  But I don't think so.  I think that what we have here is one very united psalm.

         In the first part, verses 1 through 6, the psalmist is outside, watching a beautiful sunset. 

1       The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2       Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.
3       There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.
4       Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,
5       which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6       It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat.

         Then in verse 7 there is a dramatic shift.

         All of a sudden the psalmist is not outside on a hillside looking at a sunset, he is in the Temple, inside the sanctuary.
7       The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
8       The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
9       The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous.
10     They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.

         The person on the Golf Course looks around and sees, "There's a God out there.  But what God?"

         The astronaut looks out into space and says, "There's a God out there.  But who is this God?"

         The poet sees the sunset and says, "There's a God out there.  But when can I get to know this God?"

         You can feel the presence of God anywhere, but you have to come inside the sanctuary to hear and understand, the word of God.

         It is never enough to know that there is a God.

         You have to learn about God.

         Out there, on the golf course, or the everglades or on the beach, you can feel something of the presence of God, but you have to come in here to understand that presence.

         This was made dramatically clear to me some years ago when I did two funerals in the space of one week.

         The first funeral was a young woman who had died suddenly and tragically.  She was in her car, sitting, waiting for a traffic light to change from red to green so she could move forward.  The light changed and she began to drive forward, when suddenly a car, trying to make the yellow light, ran the red light and slammed into her car at a high speed.  She died instantly.  She was 29 years old, and left behind a husband and two children -- a 4 year old and a 2 month old. 

         The other funeral was just as tragic.
         A family went on a picnic.  While the adults sat at the picnic tables and talked, the children played at the lakeside.  By the time the adults realized one of the children was missing, it was too late to do anything about it.  A five year old child had died, he had drowned in the water.

         Both families experienced not only a death, but a tragic death.

         Both families believed in God.

         Both families had the same questions, "How could God let this happen?"

         Both families felt pain and sorrow and even anger.

         But there was at least one major difference.

         One family attended church regularly.  The other attended at Christmas or Easter only (CEO), and that was about it.

         Both families understood the presence of God, but only one family had the Word of God.

         That made all the difference.

         For one family, there was healing.

         For the other, bitterness.

         You can go out on the golf course and know the presence of God, but you don't get the Word of God.   

         For the tired soul, watching a sunset is nice, but it's not enough.  It takes the Word of God to revive the soul.

         For the confused mind, playing a round of golf and feeling the presence of God in nature doesn't give guidance.  It takes the Word of God to make wise the simple.

         For the grieving spirit, it is not looking at the ocean or the stars that gives comfort, it is the Word of God that gives joy to the heart.

         I'm glad that those of you who go out on the golf course can feel the presence of God.

         I'm glad that when I go out in the Everglades for a night and see the stars, I can feel the presence of God.

         But to experience the presence of God without experiencing the Word of God is like watching television without the sound, or listening to a song without understanding the lyrics.  What you experience might be nice, but it is incomplete.

         But it is never enough to simply know that there is a God.

         You have to let your life be guided by the Word of God.

         And that is why we're not all on the golf course today.

         And that is why we aren't all camping in the Everglades tonight.

         That is why we come in here to listen to the sermon, and why we attend out Sunday School classes and why we attend out Bible Studies.

         It will never be enough to know there is a God.

         We need to also know the Word of God.

Copyright 2015. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.